My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Mark Wills

Album Review: Michael White – ‘Familiar Ground’

4187bvloazlAs the composer of such songs as Blake Shelton’s “The Baby”, Mark Wills’ “Loving Every Minute” and Michael Ray’s “Kiss You in the Morning”, Michael White has been more successful as a songwriter than as a performer, but he did record briefly for Reprise Records in the early 1990s. Familiar Ground, his sole album for Reprise (or anyone else as far as I can determine) was released in 1992. It produced three chart singles, one of which reached the Top 40, but failed to establish him as recording artist.

Timing is everything. If Familiar Ground were being released today, we’d all be talking about Michael White as a new standard bearer for traditional country music, much in the way that Mo Pitney and William Michael Morgan are. But 25 years ago when the music still usually sounded country and there was no shortage of talent, Michael White simply did not stand out from the pack. It’s regrettable because he has a very fine voice, that is reminiscent of Tracy Lawrence, with occasional touches of Aaron Tippin and Keith Whitley.

The lead single “Professional Fool” was the album’s biggest hit and one of the best songs on the album. It peaked at a very respectable-for-a-first-release #32. A more uptempo number may have been a better choice to introduce a new act to radio. Reprise tried that strategy with the next two singles: the title track which was penned by White and “She Likes to Dance”, which peaked at #43 and #63 respectively. “Familiar Ground” is a decent small-town homage, but it’s barely distinguishable from dozens of other similar songs. “She Likes to Dance” is a bit of lightweight fluff.

All of the songs are good, but my favorites are the ballads: “Back to Texarkana”, “If I Had a Mind To”, and “The Boy Next Door” who is overlooked by the object of his affections. I also enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek swing number “One of My Near Mrs.” I can imagine Tracy Lawrence singing this one.

I’d never heard of Michael White prior to preparing for this month’s spotlight feature. I’m very pleased and pleasantly surprised to have come across this overlooked gem. Used cheap copies are readily available.

Grade: A

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Week ending 2/16/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

crystal1953 (Sales): Eddy’s Song — Eddy Arnold (RCA)

1953 (Jukebox): I Let The Stars Get In My Eyes — Goldie Hill (Decca)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): No Help Wanted — The Carlisles (Mercury)

1963: Don’t Let Me Cross Me Over — Carl Butler & Pearl (Columbia)

1973: She Needs Someone To Hold Her (When She Cries) — Conway Twitty (Decca)

1983: ‘Til I Gain Control Again — Crystal Gayle (Elektra)

1993: Can I Trust You With My Heart — Travis Tritt (Warner Bros.)

2003: 19 Somethin’ – Mark Wills (Mercury)

2013: Better Dig Two — The Band Perry (Republic Nashville)

2013 (Airplay): The Only Way I Know — Jason Aldean with Luke Bryan and Eric Church (Broken Bow)

Week ending 2/9/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

dougstone1953 (Sales): Eddy’s Song — Eddy Arnold (RCA)

1953 (Jukebox): I Let The Stars Get In My Eyes — Goldie Hill (Decca)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): I’ll Go On Alone — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1963: The Ballad of Jed Clampett — Flatt & Scruggs (Columbia)

1973: She Needs Someone To Hold Her (When She Cries) — Conway Twitty (Decca)

1983: Inside — Ronnie Milsap (RCA)

1993: Too Busy Being In Love — Doug Stone (Epic)

2003: 19 Somethin’ – Mark Wills (Mercury)

2013: Every Storm (Runs Out Of Rain) — Gary Allan (MCA)

2013 (Airplay): Every Storm (Runs Out Of Rain) — Gary Allan (MCA)

Week ending 2/2/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

Tom T Hall 4bio1953 (Sales): Eddy’s Song — Eddy Arnold (RCA)

1953 (Jukebox): Back Street Affair — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): No Help Wanted — The Carlisles (Mercury)

1963: The Ballad of Jed Clampett — Flatt & Scruggs (Columbia)

1973: (Old Dogs, Children and) Watermelon Wine — Tom T. Hall (Mercury)

1983: Talk To Me — Mickey Gilley (Epic)

1993: Look Heart, No Hands — Randy Travis (Warner Bros.)

2003: 19 Somethin’ – Mark Wills (Mercury)

2013: Better Dig Two — The Band Perry (Republic Nashville)

2013 (Airplay): How Country Feels — Randy Houser (Stoney Creek)

Week ending 1/26/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

stampley_joe158011953 (Sales): I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive — Hank Williams (MGM)

1953 (Jukebox): Back Street Affair — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): I’ll Go On Alone — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1963: Don’t Let Me Cross Me Over — Carl Butler & Pearl (Columbia)

1973: Soul Song — Joe Stampley (Dot)

1983: (Lost His Love) On Our Last Date — Emmylou Harris (Warner Bros.)

1993: Look Heart, No Hands — Randy Travis (Warner Bros.)

2003: 19 Somethin’ – Mark Wills (Mercury)

2013: Cruise — Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

2013 (Airplay): Goodbye In Her Eyes — Zac Brown Band (Southern Ground/Atlantic)

Week ending 1/19/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

flattscruggs1953 (Sales): Jambalaya (On The Bayou) — Hank Williams (MGM)

1953 (Jukebox): Back Street Affair — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): Back Street Affair — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1963: The Ballad of Jed Clampett — Flatt & Scruggs (Columbia)

1973: She’s Got To Be A Saint — Ray Price (Columbia)

1983: Going Where The Lonely Go — Merle Haggard (Epic)

1993Somewhere Other Than The Night — Garth Brooks (Liberty)

2003: 19 Somethin’ – Mark Wills (Mercury)

2013: Cruise — Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

2013 (Airplay): Goodbye In Her Eyes — Zac Brown Band (Southern Ground/Atlantic)

Week ending 1/12/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

rebamcentire1953 (Sales): Midnight — Red Foley (Decca)

1953 (Jukebox): Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes — Skeets McDonald (Capitol)

1953 (Disc Jockeys):
Back Street Affair — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1963: Don’t Let Me Cross Me Over — Carl Butler & Pearl (Columbia)

1973: She’s Got To Be A Saint — Ray Price (Columbia)

1983: Can’t Even Get The Blues — Reba McEntire (Mercury)

1993: Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away — Vince Gill (MCA)

2003: 19 Somethin’ – Mark Wills (Mercury)

2013: We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together — Taylor Swift (Big Machine)

2013 (Airplay): Goodbye In Her Eyes — Zac Brown Band (Southern Ground/Atlantic)

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

Head to head: rival versions of the same song

LeAnn Rimes has elected to premier her upcoming covers album Lady And Gentlemen by releasing a ramped-up version of John Anderson’s 1983 smash hit ‘Swingin’’ as the lead single. Self-evidently, covering another artist’s signature song means you have to bear comparison with the original. Unfortunately for LeAnn, she also has to compete with a much better cover getting attention at the moment in the form of Chris Young’s fresh acoustic take on the same song on his excellent new EP Voices (reviewed here recently by Razor X). Admittedly Chris’s version is not being promoted as a single, but it’s certainly the version I would prefer to hear on the radio.

LeAnn has of course been in a similar position before. As a teenager she was at the center of a public rivalry, when her recording of ‘How Do I Live’, intended for the soundtrack of the 1997 action movie Con Air, was rejected by the producers in favor of a version by Trisha Yearwood. As well as its appearance in the film, Trisha’s version was a big country hit single, reaching #2 on Billboard, and won a Grammy. LeAnn arguably got the last laugh that time, as her rival cut was a massive international pop hit and sold three million copies.

In fact, rival versions of the same song competing for sales and airplay, are something of a tradition. In the singles-dominated 1950s and 60s it was commonplace for artists to cover current hits, either as direct competition or as easy choices of popular songs to fill out an album. In an era when country fans had less disposable income, it made sense for an artist to record the most popular songs out there, so that if someone liked a particular song they might choose to buy the version by their favorite singer. Successful artists who sold well were almost unbelievably prolific, typically releasing several 12-track albums a year – George Jones, for instance, recorded over 150 songs when he was signed to United Artists, over the period 1962-1964. There was thus great demand for good material, even by singer-songwriters who simply couldn’t write enough on their own.

Merrle Haggard, for instance, wrote much of his material, but also included covers of contemporary hits. His 1968 album Mama Tried supplemented his own classic title song with covers of recent hits ‘The Green, Green Grass Of Home’, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, Dolly Parton’s ‘In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)’ , and the now-forgotten ‘Little Old Wine Drinker Me’. In turn, ‘Mama Tried’ and the previous year’s hit ‘Sing Me Back Home’ were covered by the Everly Brothers on their own 1968 release Roots.

It was also often common for singers in other genres to cover country hits, and vice versa. An early example is Hank Williams’ Cajun-styled ‘Jambalaya (On the Bayou)’. Hank’s original was a 14-week #1 in 1952; a cover by singer Jo Stafford saw top 10 success on the pop charts the same year. Stafford had quite an eye for country hits which could be brought to a new audience – she also covered Hank Snow’s 1952 country hit ‘A Fool Such As I’ in 1953, and had duetted with Frankie Laine on Hank Williams’ ‘Hey Good Lookin’. Laine also covered ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’, but the biggest pop version was by Joni James, who recorded it the day Hank died. Patti Page’s 1950 country-pop crossover smash ‘Tennessee Waltz’ was another to see off several rival versions.

A decade later, nothing had changed. John Hartford’s ‘Gentle On My Mind’ won him a folk Grammy in 1968; Glen Campbell’s cover of the same song won the country Grammy the same year. Patti Page charted a pop version that year, and Aretha Franklin gave it an R&B twist the following year, while Rat Packer Dean Martin had an easy listening international hit, and Elvis Presley also covered the tune on an album. The Kris Kristofferson classic ‘Me And Bobby McGee’ was a top 20 country hit for Roger Miller in 1969, who recorded it before the Statler Brothers (who had been offered the song) could get into the studio. The same year a rival version by Canadian Gordon Lightfoot was a pop hit, and it was also an album track for Kenny Rogers. A year later it was a rock smash for Janis Joplin. ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town’ was a top 10 country hit for Johnny Darrell, and covered the same year by Waylon Jennings, Roger Miller and the Statler Brothers, before Kenny Rogers’ #1 a few years later displaced all previous versions.

Even as late as the 1990s, genre reinventions were bringing songs to new audiences. 90s country star Mark Wills saw his 1998 country hit ‘I Do (Cherish You)’ (written by Keith Stegall and Dan Hill) covered the following year by pop group 98 Degrees. He then covered R&B artist Brian McKnight’s 1999 pop hit ‘Back At One’, getting a country hit for himself in 2000. Weirdly, both versions of the latter got to #2 on their respective charts.

In more recent years, competing cuts tended to mean that one artist got the hit, and the other was forced to release another song instead. In some cases that changed the course of country music history.

1983 saw rival versions of the inspirational ‘The Wind Beneath My Wings’. The earliest cut was actually by English MOR singer Roger Whittaker in 1982, but in 1983 two pop-country stars went head to head. Actor-singer Gary Morris enjoyed a top 10 hit but it might easily have been Lee Greenwood, who included the song on his album Somebody’s Gonna Love You released the same year. In 1985 the fast-rising Reba McEntire’s recording of the lively ‘She’s Single Again’ was not released as a single – because Janie Fricke got there first, and enjoyed a #2 hit.

Keith Whitley saw his big breakthrough delayed when he was unable to release the two best tracks on his 1986 album LA To Miami as singles, due to rival versions getting to radio first. He might have had a big hit with Dean Dillon’s ‘Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her’, but George Strait‘s cut went to #1 instead, and is one of Strait’s most fondly remembered singles. ‘On The Other Hand’ was to become the signature hit for Randy Travis in 1986 – but it might so easily have served that function for Keith instead. Incidentally, a third recording of the song was also made by veteran Charley Pride on After All This Time, his 1987 album for independent label 16th Avenue. All three versions are good enough to have been hits.

George Strait also potentially stymied the chances of his favorite songwriter when his choice of Dean Dillon’s ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’ as a single in 1993 – a song Dillon had earmarked for his own next shot at the charts. Even our current Spotlight Artist Mark Chesnutt has drawn the short straw a couple of times. As Razor X mentioned in yesterday’s review of Too Cold At Home, that album featured a version of ‘Friends In Low Places’ – only to be forestalled when Garth Brooks had a smash hit with his version of the song. More recently, Joe Nichols recorded ‘Don’t Ruin It For The Rest Of Us’ on his Revelation album in 2004, the same year Mark recorded the song on his first independent release Savin’ the Honky Tonk, although in this case neither artist selected the song as a single.

I’ve only scratched the surface here – what rival versions can you think of? Did the best cut always win the chart battle?

Album Review: Easton Corbin – ‘Easton Corbin’

I’ve become somewhat jaded in the past few years and no longer expect to like new artists trying to break into mainstream country music. Country radio has gotten so bad, I haven’t listened to it in over two years. As a result, I’m not always up to date on the latest crop of new artists. I’d read a little bit about Easton Corbin on some of the other country blogs, but after hearing about his traditionalist leanings, I avoided reading too much about him until I could hear his music for myself and form my own opinion.

I initially cringed upon learning that Corbin’s debut single was titled “A Little More Country Than That”, expecting it to have come directly out of Jason Aldean’s playbook. It was a relief to learn that this wasn’t another redneck anthem. Instead of a defiant declaration of Southern pride and boasting about his tractor and pickup truck, Corbin makes use of the imagery of rural living while making a declaration of love (and possibly a proposal) to his sweetheart. In some respects, it is reminiscent of the Charley Pride classic “All I Have To Offer You Is Me”. Clearly tailor-made for radio, it’s a pleasant if somewhat fluffy song with slightly cliched lyrics. Written by Rory Lee Feek, Don Poythress, and Wynn Varble, it’s not a song that makes the listener stop in his or her tracks and listen, but it’s better than what is typically offered on country radio these days.

The album was produced by Carson Chamberlain, who has also produced Mark Wills and Billy Currington, but I won’t hold that against him since he has written some of my favorite Alan Jackson songs. Chamberlain had a hand in writing six of the album’s eleven songs, while Easton himself co-wrote four. The production choices are stellar; I can’t remember the last time I heard the pedal steel featured so prominently on a mainstream artist’s debut release. Corbin and Chamberlain don’t pander to radio’s current pop leanings and wisely avoids the production excesses that have marred so many contemporary country releases.

Corbin has been criticized for sounding too much like George Strait, and the similarities in their vocal styles is undeniable. Many of the songs, such as “Someday When I’m Old” and “Don’t Ask Me About A Woman” sound as if they came from the Strait catalog. “Someday When I’m Old”, written by Nashville tunesmiths Chris Lindsey, Aimee Mayo and Troy Verges is my favorite song on the album and “A Lot To Learn About Livin'” written by Liz Hengber, Sonny LeMaire and Clay Mills, is an example of a beach song done properly. Kenny Chesney, please take note. On the other hand “I Can’t Love You Back” doesn’t quite work. The lyrics are somewhat problematic and a bit confusing:

Girl, I love you crazy
It comes so easy, after all we had
I could love you with all my heart
But the hardest part is
I just can’t love you back

The first time I heard the chorus, it didn’t make sense to me. I thought why can’t he love her back, thinking that “love you back” meant “love you in return.” It wasn’t until the second verse that I finally realized that the protagonist’s love interest is gone, and Easton is lamenting that he can’t bring her back, which might have been a better way to phrase the sentiment.

Overall, the album is pleasant, but not particularly memorable. The material is mostly lightweight and the album would have benefited from the inclusion of one or two more substantial songs, as well as a little more variety in tempo. Corbin will also have to develop a more distinctive vocal style in order to avoid being dismissed as a George Strait wannabe. I have no doubt that he can do this; after all, Clint Black was mistaken for Merle Haggard when his first single hit the airwaves, and Owen Bradley was reluctant to sign Loretta Lynn because she sounded too much like Kitty Wells. That didn’t stop Black or Lynn from successfully developing their own styles. If Corbin can do the same, and can find some weightier material the next time around to build upon this solid debut, he has the potential to become a huge star in his own right.

Grade: B

Week ending 5/9/09: #1 this week in country music history

hankwilliams1949: Lovesick Blues — Hank Williams (MGM)

1959: White Lightning — George Jones (Mercury)

1969: Hungry Eyes — Merle Haggard & The Strangers (Capitol)

1979: Don’t Take It Away — Conway Twitty (MCA)

1989: Is It Still Over? — Randy Travis (Warner Bros.)

1999: Wish You Were Here — Mark Wills (Mercury)

Emotional truth: sentiment and sentimentality in country music

Maschera Tragica (Mask of Tragedy)

Maschera Tragica (Mask of Tragedy)

Emotional truth is at the heart of almost all truly great country songs.  There is a very fine line in country music between the true tearjerkers, for which the genre is justly known, and the cloying sentimentality which outsiders sometimes ascribe to the music. Not, I have to admit, always completely unfairly – if the strings are too obvious, the emotion feels forced, and the song just doesn’t work.  But as I said, the line is a fine one, and a song’s impact depends on a number of factors.

Country music does not consist solely of confessional singer-songwriters, and we do not expect every song recorded to be a personal slice of the author’s life – certainly not when it comes to a love song or cheating song. However, when we are aware a song draws on its writer’s experiences, I think we are more disposed to respond to them as “real”.  If a love song is said to be for its writer’s spouse, and the marriage subsequently breaks up (as, for instance, with Vince Gill’s ‘I Still Believe In You’, written for first wife Janis Gill before he left her for another woman), the song may suddenly seem emotionally dishonest in retrospect, purely because the listener has bought into the story behind the song.  In the case of a song specifically designed to elicit an emotional response, this authenticity is all the more important.

There is a line in the Mavericks’ song ‘Children’ which refers to “a life where everything’s real and nothing is true”.  I do not believe a song has to be factually real to convey emotional truth, but it does help to dispel accusations of sentimentality.  An example of this would be Tammy Cochran’s ‘Angels In Waiting’.  This tribute to Tammy’s two brothers, who both died young as a result of cystic fibrosis, would be cloying if the song were an invented one.  It probably wouldn’t even work if it were sung by an unconnected singer, even though it was written from the heart and is a well-constructed song. Here it is almost completely the fact that it is the true story of the person singing it which carries the emotional force of the song.

Another instance is Jimmy Wayne, whose first self-titled album was filled with intensely emotional songs inspired by his childhood. These songs — the hits ‘I Love You This Much’ and ‘Paper Angels’, and other less-known numbers on similar themes — would undoubtedly fall in the emotionally manipulative category if they were not genuinely based on Jimmy’s appalling childhood in foster-care. That lends an emotional truth which is not found in the same singer’s love songs which are forgettable.  American Idol finalist Kellie Pickler is frankly not a very good singer, but her song ‘I Wonder’, about the mother who abandoned her in childhood, has an emotional resonance, which is lacking in her other material, and is genuinely moving — as long as you know the story behind it is true.  I don’t think it stands on its own merits.

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