My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Mark Wright

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘Three Good Reasons’

51qlwdksrjl1992’s Three Good Reasons was Crystal Gayle’s final major label album, released during the time that Capitol Nashville was known as Liberty Records. It was a last-ditch effort to get back on the radio. It appeared two years after her last album and six years after her last Top 10 record. Despite exceptionally strong material that was tailor made to appeal to the then-current trends at radio, it was a case of too little, too late. Radio had moved on to younger artists, and Liberty Records at that time neglected everyone on its roster who was not Garth Brooks. As a result, the album received only half-hearted promotion from the label. Only one single — the title track — was released and it did not chart.

The album was produced by Buzz Stone, who had previously produced an album for Riders In The Sky as well as Nanci Griffith’s live album a few years earlier. Whereas Ain’t Gonna Worry had largely been a throwback to Crystal’s early 70s sound, Three Good Reasons was an attempt to modernize her sound. With the possible exception of I’ve Cried The Blue Right Out of My Eyes, which was a compilation of her early work for Decca, it is her most country-sounding album. The fiddle and pedal steel can be heard prominently throughout the album and unlike its ballad-heavy predecessor, it contains plenty of upbeat material.

The title track did receive a fair amount of airplay on my local country radio station. It is an uptempo number about a young mother escaping from a bad marriage, citing “three good reasons to survive” — namely, her two children and herself. It was written by Don Schlitz and David Wingo and probably would have been a big hit if it had been released by a younger artist — or by Crystal herself a few years earlier. The album’s other divorce song, “A Rose Between Two Thorns” is a heartbreaking ballad about a child that feels caught between her feuding parents. “Living In Tears” is another very nice ballad.

Most of the other songs are uptempo numbers from Jackson Leap’s “Why Cry” and Mark Wright and B James Lowry’s “Love To, Can’t Do” to “The Trouble With Me (Is You)” a swing number written by L. Davis Lewis and Kim Williams. Despite the album’s traditional feel, Crystal had not totally abandoned her pop leanings: the mid-tempo “If The Phone Doesn’t Ring, It’s Me” had been a minor country and AC hit for Jimmy Buffett in 1985, and “One Less Set of Footsteps” had been a pop hit for its author Jim Croce in 1973. Crystal’s versions of both songs are well within the bounds of what was considered country in the early 90s.

Three Good Reasons is a perfect example of why commercial success should never be used to evaluate the quality of music. From an artistic standpoint, it is one of her strongest albums and as was pointed out in one of our prior discussions, if she’d changed musical direction a little earlier, she might have extended her chart tenure by a few more years. It’s a shame that this album didn’t succeed because I would have liked to have heard more in this vein from her.

Although Three Good Reasons marked the end of Crystal’s major label career, she did continue to record after she exited Liberty. She recorded a few religious albums, a few albums of traditional pop standards (one of which wa a very worthwhile tribute to Hoagy Carmichael), and a children’s album. An album of classic country covers is reportedly supposed to be released later this year.

Three Good Reasons probably escaped the notice of many fans. It is well worth seeking out. The tracks can be streamed on YouTube, and used copies are available for purchase.

Grade: A

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Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Love Will’

lovewillI never know what to expect from Trace Adkins these days. I’m hard pressed to think of another example of such a talented vocalist whose musical output is so wildly inconsistent. Love Will, his latest effort, while not quite a return to his traditional roots, at least avoids obnoxious songs in the vein of “Chrome”, “Hillbilly Bone” and the infamous “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”.

He teams up with a variety of producers this time around: Frank Rogers, Mark Wright, Tony Brown, Mickey Jack Cones and Kenny Beard, most of whom he has worked with in the past, and for the most part the results are quite good. The opening track “When I Stop Loving You”, is a catchy number that would be a good choice for a late summer single. It was written by Even Stevens and Marty Brown, who had a brief recording stint with MCA in the early 90s.

Things move in a decidedly more pop direction beginning with the second track “So What If I Do”, which may very well be the first Trace Adkins recording to ever feature a saxophone. “Come See Me”, written by Kenny Beard and Exile members J.P. Pennington and Sonny LaMaire. This song sets the stage for a cover of an Exile song, on which some of the band members appear as guest artists (more on this a little later). I actually didn’t mind the pop leaning songs up to this point, but by the time we get to the overproduced “Altar of Your Love”, the only Adkins co-write on the album, it begins to wear a little thin. And then there’s the cover of “Kiss You All Over”, which was a #1 pop hit for Exile in 1978, which sounds very much like a product of the era in which it originated. Its inclusion on the album seems pointless: Exile spends as much (or perhaps more) time singing as Adkins, and if he had to cover an Exile song, there are much better ones to choose from than this.

Fortunately, things improve dramatically after this. “If The Sun Comes Up” is an excellent number that sounds like vintage Adkins. “Say No To A Woman” is a more respectful look at the fairer sex than some other songs in Trace’s catalog. The current single “Watch The World End”, a duet with pop-singer Colbie Caillat is enjoyable, although the string section is somewhat intrusive. Likewise, I could have done without the strings and choir on the Chris Stapleton and Tim James-penned title track, which closes out the album.

Love Will is more pop-leaning than most of Trace’s other albums, which may be an attempt to remain relevant at country radio. It is however, a more mature sound for him, and the absence of tasteless and sexist redneck anthems is a most welcome change.

Grade: B

Album Review: JT Hodges – ‘JT Hodges’

A Texan in his early 30s, JT Hodges has been trying to break through on Show Dog Universal Records for a year or two with a couple of singles skirting the top 40 cutoff line. Now his debut album gives us a better idea of him as an artist.

The answer is a decidedly contemporary country-rock one with roots more obviously on the rock side than the country one (notwithstanding a mother who once had ambitions of her own to be a country star, and apparently had the first cut on Highway 101’s big hit ‘The Bed You Made For Me’ before rejecting a major label deal to concentrate on family). However, this is definitely an artist with something to say. The singer-songwriter co-wrote most of the material here, generally with his producers, the experienced Don Cook and Mark Wright and minor 90s star Mark Collie, whose own rocking style is not far removed from what Hodges is doing. The sometimes growly voice is nothing special and would be hard to pick out from a number of his contemporaries, but he attacks the songs with energy and commitment and puts them across convincingly. Production is punchy but not so loud as to overwhelm the actual songs as is so often the case with today’s artists.

His debut single ‘Hunt You Down’, written by Hodges with Collie and Rivers Rutherford, just squeezed into the top 40 last year. It is a richly detailed but rather implausible story song about a fling with a rich girl which the protagonist wants to extend, with inventive production, nonchalant whistling and sometimes annoying backing vocals. The follow-up, ‘Goodbyes Made You Mine’, did slightly less well. Almost spoken in the verses, it doesn’t have much of a melody in the verses and gets a bit yelly at times, but a catchy chorus hook and decent lyric with a man presenting himself as a woman’s last and true love give it some interest. These two singles so far rather underwhelmed me, but they are probably the poorest tracks on the album.

I like opener ‘I’d Rather Be Wrong Than Lonely’, a punchy country rock number about a potential hookup with a girl who might be “a little bit dangerous” for him. Hodges wrote the song with Collie and Cook, and together they provide a competently constructed song with a relentless beat, which is one of the best tracks.

This trio also wrote ‘When I Stop Crying’, a very good pained guilt-ridden ballad about redemption and recovery which allows Hodges to venture into the upper reaches of his vocal range. Vince Gill’s backing vocals on this track are proudly vaunted in the liner notes, but are not particularly prominent; Gill also plays a wailing electric guitar solo.

Joined by Mark Wright, they wrote the mid-tempo ‘Leaving Me Later, which is pretty good. Like a calmer sequel to ‘I’d Rather Be Wrong Than Lonely’, it deals with a relationship with a woman not planning to stay around. “Loving me now” is good enough for the protagonist, even if it he knows she is lying and will hurt him when she goes. ‘Give It One More Night’, written with all three producers, is not bad, but too repetitive.

‘Green Eyes, Red Sunglasses’ is a collaboration of Hodges, Collie and Chris Stapleton, and is typical of the latter’s blues-edged material. Cook and Hodges wrote ‘Right About Now’ with Lynn Hutton, a ballad brooding about a two-timing woman’s infidelity with a nice little double meaning in the lyrics.

There are a couple of outside cuts. ‘Sleepy Little Town’ is a compelling if dark semi-story song written by Chris Stapleton and Lee Thomas Miller. It is about the secrets and crimes coming to light in a small town, ranging from an FBI takedown of the local high school coach to a preacher’s wife who finally cracks and fights her husband’s domestic violence. It’s been selected as the latest single, and seems made for a video treatment to help flesh out the stories a bit. ‘Rhythm Of The Radio’ was written by Eric Paslay (another up-and-coming artist) and Dylan Altman, and is a pleasant but slight love song with attractive instrumentation; the Irish flute in particular gives it a fresh summery feel – a single for summer 2013 perhaps?

Overall, J T Hodges comes across as a kind of amalgam of Eric Church, Eric Heatherly and Mark Collie. He has had limited success so far, even with the support of label Show Dog Universal, but it sounds commercial enough while possessing real substance and ambition. He’s a long way from traditional, but definitely one of the better contemporary artists, and this is a very promising start.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Dan Seals – ‘Walking The Wire’

The 1990s were a period in which Dan Seals saw a rapid decline in his commercial appeal. He began the decade strongly enough with two # hits: “Love On Arrival” and “Good Times”, but none of his subsequent releases managed to crack the Top 40. A change in record labels did not help to reverse the trend; he signed with Warner Bros. in 1991 and released his first album for the label the following year. Walking The Wire became his first album not to chart since Harbinger, which had been released a decade earlier, prior to his commercial breakthrough. But despite its lack of commercial success, Walking The Wire is a solid set of songs and one of the better albums in the Seals discography.

Things got off to a rocky start with his first single for his new label, a Jesse Winchester tune called “Sweet Little Shoe”, which was released in 1991, in advance of the album. An overproduced number designed to cash in on the then-popular line dancing craze, it died a quick and well deserved death on the charts. Peaking at a meager #62, it is easily the worst song on the album. The follow-up single “Good Goodbye” did not chart and was not included on the album when Walking The Wire was released the following year. The self-penned “Mason Dixon Line”, which examines a relationship between two very different people, fared a little better. It reached #43, but deserved to chart higher, as it is a decent song. Andrea Zonn, who played in Vince Gill’s road band at the time, plays fiddle on the track. The catchy “When Love Comes Around The Bend” was released next. Written by Josh Leo, Pam Tillis, and Mark Wright, the tune had been a minor success for Juice Newton a few years earlier. While her version managed to crack the Top 40 (just barely), Seals’ version only climbed to #51. This one might have enjoyed more success if it had been released a few years earlier before his career lost its momentum. The final single was another Seals composition, the well-meaning but somewhat preachy “We Are One”, which appeals to mankind to put aside religious, ethnic and racial differences. It did not chart.

The remaining songs on the album tend to be rather low-key, tastefully produced affairs. I particularly like “A Good Rain”, which is about a farmer struggling to make ends meet, and “Slower”, a tune written by Tony Arata about young love. The Parker McGee-penned “Someone Else’s Dance” is also quite good. “Sneaky Moon” is enjoyable, but I prefer the Tanya Tucker version that appeared a year later.

I wasn’t familiar with any of the songs on this album prior to preparing for this review, and as a hitless collection that appeared as Dan’s major label career was beginning to wind down, I expected it to be a dull and lifeless affair. I was, however, quite pleasantly surprised and I’m at a loss to explain why it was such a commercial disaster. Perhaps Seals didn’t get the proper level of promotion from his new label, or perhaps at age 44 he was considered to be past his peak in an era that saw a lot of new and younger talent emerge. Regardless of the reason, it’s unfortunate that it didn’t receive more love from radio and retail. It is available very inexpensively from Amazon and despite a few missteps, is well worth the modest investment.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Vern Gosdin – ‘Today My World Slipped Away’

After his third and final Elektra release, 1979’s You’ve Got Somebody, Vern Gosdin’s career entered a phase that saw him recording for a variety of independent labels, which lasted until 1988 when he returned to the majors after signing with Columbia. During the interim, he released five studio albums and several singles which performed reasonably well on the charts considering that he didn’t have a powerhouse label to promote him.

Today My World Slipped Away was released by AMI Records in 1982. The three year gap since his prior album was an eternity by early 80s standards. However, it should be noted that he had two singles on the charts in 1981, both of which appear on this album. “Too Long Gone”, which peaked at #28 and “Dream of Me”, which reached #7 had both been released by Ovation Records, which ceased operations in late 1981. Vern then moved to AMI, which seems to have acquired the rights to his Ovation recordings. In total, Today My World Slipped Away contains five singles, which was highly unusual for a 1980s country album. His first two AMI releases “Don’t Ever Leave Me Again” and “Your Bedroom Eyes” failed to crack the Top 20, but the fifth and final single, the magnificent title track, performed much better, landing at #10. “Today My World Slipped Away”, which Vern wrote with Mark Wright, is my all-time favorite Vern Gosdin song. It deserved to chart much higher, and I believe it would have reached at least the Top 5 if it had been released by a major label. Fifteen years later, George Strait would take the song all the way to #3.

In addition to the five singles, the album contains Vern’s recording of “Just Give Me What You Think Is Fair”, which was a Top 10 hit for Leon Everette that same year.

The Urban Cowboy movement still had country music in a headlock in 1982, but Today My World Slipped Away is very much an exception. Though still highly polished, it’s a lot less slickly produced and less “Nashville Sound” than Vern’s earlier work for Elektra. Though not as organic as the music Ricky Skaggs was releasing at the time, it is similar in style to George Strait’s work from that era, and as such, it foreshadows the New Traditionalist era which would be ushered in a few years later.

Aside from the title track, it’s difficult to pick out favorite songs from this album because they are all excellent. The production is a bit dated in spots, but not to extent as Vern’s Elektra albums. It is a stronger effort than any of his previous releases, and overall it has aged well. It was Vern’s only album for AMI, and unfortunately it is out of print today, although most of the tracks are available on other compilations. If you do manage to find it, grab it because it is well worth having.

Grade: A

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘I Hope You Dance’

Lee Ann Womack’s most commercially successful album features crystalline vocals, an ambitious selection of material ranging from the traditional sounds closest to her heart to Americana to adult contemporary influences which barely escape being bland.

The title track was a massive crossover hit, thanks to the combination of the song’s message, very AC sounding, sophisticated production, and the lovely and obviously heartfelt vocal which Lee Ann directed to her two young daughters. The counterpoint of the Sons of the Desert (singing a different set of lyrics) is unusually set against the sweetness of Lee Ann’s optimistic vocal. The song’s ubiquity has led to some backlash, but I think it still stands up for what it is: a genuinely inspiring wish for a child to live life to the full and not regret any missed opportunities. And its message is worth hearing:

Loving might be a mistake but it’s worth making

Lee Ann’s only #1 hit, ‘I Hope You Dance’ registered platinum, won a stack of awards for both Lee Ann and its writers Mark D Sanders and Tia Sillers, crossed over to hit the top of the AC chart, and even got some pop and international airplay. It may not be her best record, but it is undoubtedly her best-known, particularly among non-country listeners.

The next single was a contrast in style and mood, a gutsy version of Rodney Crowell’s onetime minor pop hit ‘Ashes By Now’, which peaked for Lee Ann at #14. It’s one of her less country recordings, but undoubtedly technically an impressive achievement with Lee Ann successfully navigating the song’s awkward jerky rhythms, jaded mood and shifting intensity.

It was back to the ballads with ‘Why They Call It Falling’, another excellent song, written by Don Schlitz and Roxie Dean. It contrasts the thrill of falling in love with the devastation of subsequent heartbreak, and Lee Ann’s vocal is masterly, although the strings are a bit overwhelming in places. It peformed similarly to its immediate predecessor, and reached #13.

The last and best single, however, failed to make it into the top 20. The intense ‘Does My Ring Burn Your Finger?’ is a superb Buddy and Julie Miller song with a stinging lyric. Production on this track (one of three from the hands of Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell) is edgy but organic, with Lee Ann’s high lonesome wail just right for the starkness of the lyric addressed to the faithless spouse, with the Millers on harmony vocals.

Liddell’s other tracks are another Julie Miller song, the ponderous ‘I Know Why The River Runs’, which I could live without, and the infinitely better ‘Lonely Too’, written by Texas singer-songwriter Bruce Robison. This is my favorite on the record, a beautiful downbeat song, given a quietly impassioned delivery. The melody is quite lovely, with some strong fiddle from Aubrey Haynie and Larry Franklin and harmony vocals from Jon Randall making this a great sounding track. Lee Ann gently rebukes the careless lover who cannot understand why she is coping so badly:

You tell me you wondered if I was okay
Well, that’s a damn fool thing to say…

And you seem so surprised that I’m feeling this way
How am I so lonely today?
If you’d ever loved me the way I loved you
You would be lonely too

There are several other gems here.

The gorgeous ‘The Healing Kind’ opens the album with a subtle portrayal of disconsolate heartbreak which just won’t go away. This is a great song written by bluegrass singer/songwriter Ronnie Bowman and Greg Luck. Lee Ann’s exquisite vocal is backed by tasteful acoustic instrumentation and Ricky Skaggs’ harmonies, as she reveals a broken heart that hurts more every day, concluding bleakly as she meets yet another cold December alone,

Guess I’m just not the healing kind

Equally fine is the delicate Tammy Wynette styled ‘Stronger than I Am’ written by former singer Bobbie Cryner. A beautiful melody and tasteful strings sweeten a heartbreakingly incisive lyric about an abandoned wife who contrasts her failure to cope with live without her man, to her little girl’s innocence,

She finally learned to say goodbye
She’s sleeping through the night
She don’t wake up crying
And she’s walking on her own
She don’t need no one holding to her hand
And I hate to admit she’s stronger than I am

She’s just like her old man
Stronger than I am

Perhaps the most traditional country number included, the vivacious ‘I Feel Like I’m Forgetting Something’ is a co-write by Lee Ann with Wynn Varble and Jason Sellers. The copyright date is 1997, so one suspects it was left over from one of her previous albums. A chirpy mid-tempo number with a lot of personality about getting over an ex, it isn’t the best song here, but it was well worth reviving. Less successful is ‘After I Fall’, written by producer Mark Wright with Ronnie Rogers and Bill Kenner, which is the blander side of adult contemporary and falls completely flat.

‘Thinkin’ With My Heart Again’ is a pretty but melancholy sounding song written by Dean Dillon, Donny Kees and Sanger D Shafer with another delicate vocal conveying the complex emotions brought out when encountering a former love. An airy acoustic cover of ‘Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good’ (a chart topper for Don Williams back in 1982) ends the album on a high, with Ronnie Bowman and Dan Tyminski singing harmony.

Thanks to the juggernaut of the title song, this remains Lee Ann’s best selling album, earning triple platinum status. The singing is outstanding throughout, and although the material is mixed, there is a lot of good stuff here, making it worth finding a cheap copy.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘Some Things I Know’

Like her contemporary Sara Evans, Lee Ann Womack followed up a neotraditional debut with a sophomore effort which was a little more in tune with contemporary tastes, but still recognizably country. The song quality is high, mainly down-tempo and focussing on failed relationships. Mark Wright produced again, but his work is less sympathetic this time around, leaning a little more contemporary than the neotraditionalism of her debut and too often smothered with string arrangements to sweeten the pill for radio.

‘A Little Past Little Rock’ is a great song about a woman who has left a desperate relationship in Dallas. Struggling to cope as she gets “A little past Little Rock, but a long way from over you”, Lee Ann delivers a fine vocal, but the track is somewhat weighed down by the swelling strings. Lee Ann’s ex-husband Jason Sellers is among the backing singers. Written by Tony Lane, Jess Brown and Brett Jones, it was the album’s first single and peaked at #2.

This performance was matched by a rare venture by the artist into comedy material which is one of my favourite LAW singles, written by Tony Martin and Tim Nichols. With tongue-in-cheek malice the protagonist vents her hatred of her successful romantic rival with the words ‘I’ll Think Of A Reason Later’ as

It may be my family’s redneck nature
Bringing out unladylike behavior
It sure ain’t Christian to judge a stranger
But I don’t like her

She maybe an angel who spends all winter
Bringing the homeless blankets and dinner
A regular Nobel Peace Prize winner
But I really hate her
I’ll think of a reason later

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Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘Lee Ann Womack’

For a brief time in 1997 it appeared that country music was finally about to re-embrace its roots. Two female artists made their major label debuts that year and appeared to be leading the trend back towards traditionalism: Lee Ann Womack with her self-titled debut in May, and Sara Evans with Three Chords and the Truth in July. As we now know, these albums were something of an anomaly; country music continued its drift popward and both both Evans and Womack would go on to experiment with more polished, pop-oriented sounds. Nevertheless, Lee Ann has earned a reputation as a primarily traditional artist, thanks in no small part to her platinum-selling debut.

Lee Ann’s vocal style has been compared to that of a young Dolly Parton, and late 60s-style sound of the album highlights the similarities. The fiddle and steel guitar are featured prominently throughout the album, and most of the ballads also feature tasteful and restrained string arrangements performed by The Nashville String Machine. The first single, “Never Again, Again” was released two months in advance of the album itself. Lee Ann had great hopes for the record and was reportedly disappointed when it peaked at #23, even though this is a perfectly respectable showing for a debut record. Another ballad, “The Fool”, was selected as the album’s next single. Lee Ann had been reluctant to record it, saying that it was “a good song, but it’s not ‘Never Again, Again'”. But ironically, “The Fool” surpassed “Never Again, Again” on the charts, just missing the top spot and earning Lee Ann her first bonafide hit. The uptempo “You’ve Got To Talk To Me”, written by Jamie O’Hara, was released as the third single, and like “The Fool”, it peaked at #2. Another uptempo number, “Buckaroo” peaked at #27.

Overall, the album highlights Lee Ann’s strength as a ballad singer. There are some truly beautiful moments on the album with songs such as “Am I The Only Thing You’ve Done Wrong”, which Lee Ann wrote with her ex-husband Jason Sellers and Billy Joe Foster, “Do You Feel For Me”, and “Make Memories With Me”, a gorgeous number performed as a duet with her Decca labelmate and fellow Mark Wright-produced act Mark Chesnutt. “Make Memories With Me” should have been released as a single, but Decca was most likely reluctant to send too many ballads to radio. It’s a shame that there haven’t been any subsequent Womack-Chesnutt duets because their voices work very well together.

The album’s weak spots tend to be the uptempo numbers. Though well performed, “Buckaroo” borders on hokey and it’s not difficult to see why it only reached #27 on the charts. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of the album cut “A Man With 18 Wheels”, although “Trouble’s Here” stands in stark contrast with these two numbers. It actually works quite well, as does the Gospel number “Get Up In Jesus’ Name”, the album’s closing track which features background vocals from Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White.

In retrospect, it’s a pity that Lee Ann didn’t debut four or five years earlier; if she had, she’d have likely enjoyed more consistent success at radio. By the late 90s, listeners appeared to be tiring of Faith Hill and Shania Twain, and Lee Ann seemed to be the perfect antidote, but her success was short-circuited by both her own pop ambitions and the emergence of other, younger country-pop divas such as Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift. Nevertheless, Lee Ann Womack remains my favorite album in the singer’s discography. Cheap copies are readily available from Amazon. Buy one if you don’t already own a copy.

Grade: A

Album Review: Joe Nichols – ‘It’s All Good’

Joe Nichols is one of Music Row’s underrated journeymen performers. His sixth studio album, released last week is a mostly quiet affair, more rooted in tradition than the music of most his contemporaries, with a few concessions to contemporary tastes that should give him a shot at some radio airplay. As with his last few albums, he’s opted not to put all his eggs in one basket by using just one producer. This time around Mark Wright shares the honors with Buddy Cannon, with each contributing five tracks.

Things get off to a rocky start with the lead single, “Take It Off” a mediocre number that attempts but does not succeed in recreating the winning formula of 2005’s “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off”. Written by Dallas Davidson, Ashley Gorey, and Kelly Lovelace, the song is ultimately done in by the lack of subtlety in the lyrics, namely the part that goes:

You’re a pretty little country thing
But giddy under them cut-off jeans
Take ’em off, come on mama, take ’em off

Presumably these words of poetry are the handiwork of Kelly Lovelace, since they sound like something we’d normally hear from Brad Paisley. Released in August and reviewed by J.R. Journey shortly thereafter, “Take It Off” is currently at #25 on the charts.

The second track, “The More I Look” is a little better. It doesn’t contain any tasteless lyrics, but the production is a little cluttered and loud for my liking. Thankfully, this is the only production misstep on the album. I imagine that this track is earmarked for release as a single at some point, since it seems more radio friendly than most of the other songs on the album. Another likely single is “Somebody’s Mama”, a tune written by David Lee Murphy and Kim Tribble that finds Joe in the midst of covering up a tattoo that reminds him of an old flame. The couple apparently split up because Joe wasn’t ready to settle down:

She used to say all she wanted was babies
And I was too young to slow down
But I figure she’s probably somebody’s mama by now.

He goes on to speculate that she’s also dripping in diamonds and driving an expensive car, which seems odd because nothing else in the lyrics suggests that she was particularly materialistic. On the contrary, the fact that “she used to say all she wanted was babies” suggests quite the opposite. Still, it’s a pleasant song that stands a reasonable chance of success on the charts.

Things improve considerably from the fourth track on, with Joe sounding a lot at times like a younger George Strait, in both his vocal style and choice of material. The Strait influence is particularly evident with the title track written by Gary Burr and Georgia Middleman. “It’s All Good” is the most traditional and the best song on the album and probably not what radio wants, so it will likely linger in obscurity as an album cut. “No Truck, No Boat, No Girl” is also quite good and slightly more radio-friendly. The mood continues to get more mellow as the album progresses, with inoffensive filler like “Never Gonna Get Enough” and “She’s Just Like That.” The closing track “How I Wanna Go”, is a particularly laid-back tune that finds Joe contemplating an easy life on a sailboat with his guitar and lady, and again sounding very much like King George.

Nichols has had inconsistent success on the singles charts and there’s probably not anything here that is going to change that. It’s All Good is not an outstanding album, but it is very good above-average effort that deserves a listen. It is currently on sale for $5.99 at Amazon MP3.

Grade: B

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Proud To Be Here’

Trace Adkins’s artistic identity may be the most fractured in country music, raging from the depths of ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’ to the artistic heights of songs like ‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired’. This album, Trace’s second for Show Dog Universal, has its share of the raucous and insubstantial, but mainly it focuses on Trace the family man, satisfied with his life. Unlike the similarly themed recent work of Brad Paisley, Josh Turner and Darius Rucker, however, the songs on this theme are all solid and worth hearing. I have already written about the heartwarming ‘Just Fishin’, the album’s first hit single and one of the best things to hit country radio this year. This track alone was produced by Michael Knox, with the remainder of the album in the hands of Kenny Beard.

The title track (written by Chris Wallin, Aaron Barker and Ira Dean, apparently specifically for Trace) is also very good, with a reflective look at the protagonist’s life, with memories of an early career playing “for tips and compliments”, while driving a truck worth substantially less than the radio. The equilibrium of the present day is convincingly portrayed, as Trace declares:

I’m just proud to be on the right side of the dirt
I’ve been loved and I’ve been lost and I’ve been hurt
I leave the hard stuff up to God
Try not to worry about a whole lot
And I have no regrets for what it’s worth
I’ve been living on borrowed time for years
And I’m just proud to be here

The production gets a bit heavier than I would like in the second half, but this is a heartfelt vocal on an excellent song which seems to reflect Trace’s true feelings about his life.

‘Million Dollar View’, written by David Lee Murphy and George Teren is a cheerful country-rocker about satisfaction with a happy domestic life which sounds tailor-made for country radio. Much better, but potentially also commercial, is the mellow take on chilling out and escaping from the world’s pressures on ‘Days Like This’, which is one of Trace’s rare writing credits, alongside producer Kenny Beard and Casey Beathard.

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Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Inside Out’

In 2001, Trisha took another break from working with Garth Fundis, choosing to co-produce Inside Out with Mark Wright. It is one of her most pop sounding productions, with heavy use of string sections and a punchy sound, but the material is strong and Trisha’s vocals cannot be criticized. On the whole I think it is a vast improvement over Real Live Woman, my least favorite of Trisha’s albums. Lyrically the tone of the record leans towards survival in the face of adversity, and refusal to regret past choices.

After the disappointing chart performance of the singles from Real Live Woman, it must have been a relief when the debut single from the new project stormed to the top 5. That was ‘I Would’ve Loved You Anyway’, a strongly sung ballad where Trisha defiantly declares in the painful aftermath of a failed relationship that yes, she would do it all again if she had the choice. The production is a bit heavier than necessary, but Trisha’s interpretation is effective at subtly conveying the emotion.

The title track stalled outside the top 30. It is one of Trisha’s more pop-leaning records, a love song written by the unusual combination of rocker Bryan Adams and Gretchen Peters, with jerky rhythms and features a guest vocal from Don Henley. It is a far cry from the magic of Trisha’s previous collaboration with Henley, the classic ‘Walkaway Joe’.

The third and last single was one of my favourite tracks, but sadly did not perform as well on radio as it deserved to do. The intense ‘I Don’t Paint Myself Into Corners’, written by the talented Rebecca Lynn Howard with Trey Bruce, is an excellent big ballad with a metaphorical lyric about discovering self-sufficiency and survival, with an intense vocal from Trisha with Vince Gill supporting on harmony:

I never knew just how far a soul could fall
Like a rock, couldn’t stop, didn’t try
I locked myself behind shades of misery, yeah,
But when I let you go I set myself free

And I don’t paint myself into corners anymore
In a brittle heart of clay
I threw my brushes away
The tools of the trade that chained your memory to me are out the door
I don’t paint myself into corners anymore

Howard had recorded this song herself on her debut album the previous year, and Trisha picked up another great song from that record, the weeper ‘Melancholy Blue’, written by Tom Douglas and the legendary Harlan Howard. This portrays woman who has lost her lover and is lost herself as a result. She wanders around the country trying to find a path for herself, and we learn in the hushed last verse:

Now and then I go back to Biloxi
Whenever I feel brave
Visit that little country church down there
Lay some flowers on your grave
You sure got a hold on me
I don’t know what to do
I ain’t got no future
I can’t see my future without you

This is the highlight of the album, with Trisha’s delicately understated vocal supported by a tasteful string arrangement, and both these tracks stand amongst Trisha’s finest moments.

I also very much like Jude Johnstone’s wistful piano-led ‘When We Were Still In Love’ about lost hopes, which closes the album on an emotional low but a musical high. Another very fine track, but one with the opposite message, is the optimistic ‘Second Chance’, written by Irene Kelley, Clay Mills and Tony Ramey. Trisha’s vocal is superb on a song which tempts the listener to think it might have been addressed to Garth Brooks, with whom she was just embarking on a relationship following their respective divorces:

Here is your second chance
Take it and fly

Another highlight is a faithful cover of Rosanne Cash’s sophisticated and melodic ‘Seven Year Ache’ (a #1 from 1981), with Rosanne herself on harmony and the odd solo line.

‘Harmless Heart’ is another fine AC sounding ballad, written by Kim Patton Johnston and Liz Rose with a fine and subtle vocal perfectly interpreting the lyric, and tasteful strings. Trisha’s character has been rebuffed in love by a man afraid of commitment, and is hurt but not vindictive, as she gently tells him:

I meant every word I said
But what’s the use?
You believe whatever you want to…

You set me up to fail the test
And prove that you were right
“Everyone lets you down”

Matraca Berg and Ronnie Samoset’s ‘For A While’ is a mid-tempo number about the process of gradually getting over someone, which is uncompromisingly turn-of-the-millennium contemporary both in its lyrical details and in its musical setting; not really to my personal taste but very professionally done.

There are some tracks where the heavy production is too much, particularly the very pop/rock opening track ‘Love Alone’ (although it has an interesting lyric about self-reliance and the expected strong vocal) and the echoey ‘Love Me Or Leave Me Alone’. Hugh Prestwood’s lonesome bluesy wailing ‘Love Let Go’ gets a heavy production which totally overwhelms Prestwood’s typically poetic lyrics; I think I would have liked this if it had a more stripped down or acoustic treatment but as it is it stands as one of my least liked of Trisha’s recordings.

The album hit #1 on the country album charts, and has been certified gold. However, after the failure of the last single, Trisha took a break from making music for the next few years and concentrated on her personal life.

Grade: B

Album Review: Josh Turner – ‘Your Man’

The title track and lead single to Josh Turner’s sophomore effort Your Man was released in August 2005 and saw him reaching the Top 10, as well as the #1 spot on the charts, which was no mean feat for a traditionally-based artist in the early part of the 21st century. The album that followed shortly thereafter in January 2006, was also a commercial success. Frank Rogers was once again on board as producer, without Mark Wright this time. Turner had a hand in writing five of the album’s eleven tracks.

The album opens with “Would You Go With Me”, which was the second single released from the set. Like its predecessor, the Shawn Camp and John Scott Sherrill composition reached #1. it is followed by another Camp song, with Herb McCollough as co-writer, the surprisingly upbeat-sounding “Baby’s Gone Home To Mama.” The lyrics read like a three-hanky tale about a broken marriage, but this is no crying in your beer song. Turner sounds anything but devastated and even winds up the song by commenting that he is glad that his ex took her Chihuahua with her. Both “Would You Go With Me” and “Baby’s Gone Home To Mama” prominently feature the dobro, by Mike Johnson on the former and Steve Hinson on the latter track.

“No Rush” is a more lushly-arranged, bluesy style song that initially seems like an odd choice for Turner, but it works surprisingly well. Stylistically, it reminds me of Willie Nelson’s “Night Life” and sounds like something that Ray Price would have sunk his teeth into in the early 70s.

Some marquee guest artists are on hand for a couple of tracks: members of Diamond Rio supply the background vocals to “Me and God” a religious number written by Turner, in the same vein as his earlier hit “Long Black Train.” The legendary Ralph Stanley also makes a cameo duet appearance, sounding a lot like Roy Acuff in his later years. The track became the album’s third and final single. Peaking at #16, it did not fare as well as the album’s previous two singles, but it performed respectably for a religious-themed record. More star power is on display with “White Noise”, written and performed with John Anderson. Surprisingly it is one of the weaker tracks on the album, and as its title implies, it is merely filler that name-checks Charley Pride, Johnny Cash and the Grand Ole Opry.

The most fun track on the album, and one on which Josh sounds as though he is thoroughly enjoying himself is Shawn Camp and Mark D. Sanders’ “Loretta Lynn’s Lincoln”, which finds Turner fantasizing about buying a car once owned by the Coal Miner’s Daughter and cruising around Nashville in it with her and Dolly Parton. It’s just not possible to dislike this song.

My favorite track on the album is Josh’s cover version of the Don Williams classic “Lord Have Mercy On A Country Boy”. It easily rivals the original version and deserved to be released as a single. You just can’t go wrong with a Bob McDill song.

The album closes with Turner’s “Way Down South”, a satisfying if slightly self-indulgent tribute to home. Clocking in at nearly five minutes, it turns into a jam session towards the end. While not one of the stronger songs on the album, it is an enjoyable listen that would have been better had it been pared down by a minute or so.

Overall, Your Man is a very satisfying collection of songs from one of today’s better artists, albeit one that is still struggling to break away from the rest of Nashville’s current pack of male singers. It is Turner’s most successful album to date, earning double-platinum certification for sales in excess of two million units. Two of the album’s singles, “Your Man” and “Would You Go With Me” were certified gold for sales exceeding 500,000 units each.

Grade: A-

Your Man is readily available from retailers such as Amazon and iTunes and is well worth adding to your collection.

Album Review: Josh Turner – ‘Long Black Train’

Josh Turner came to the attentions of country fans with a bang in 2003, when his second single ‘Long Black Train’ was released, shortly before the album of the same title, which was produced by Mark Wright and Frank Rogers.

The dark gospel warning against sin of the title track made a massive and well-deserved impact for Josh, who also wrote the song, inspired by a vision. It was quite different from anything else on radio with its metaphorical lyrics and brooding feeling, and is probably still Josh’s signature song. It peaked at an unlucky #13, but its impact was far greater than that suggests, winning a nomination for the CMA Song of the Year. It also sold well, being certified gold at a time when country digital single sales hadn’t quite taken off. Josh’s deep tones are ideally suited to bring gravitas required of a song like this, perhaps more so than anyone since Johnny Cash, and it seems rather a waste that much of his subsequent material has been fluffily positive in comparison.

An earlier single, ‘She’ll Go On You’, which had not made the top 40, was also included on the album. It is a sweetly delivered if sentimental warning (written by Mark Narmore) to take care of the females in a man’s life: a daughter in the first verse, a wife in the second, and an aged mother in the third:

Better cherish her every second of your life
Better take her in your arms and do her right

While it is a little cliche’d, with a little too much going on in the heavily strung arangement, it is the kind of song which country radio usually eats up, and would probably have been a hit had it followed ‘Long Black Train’ rather than preceding it. Instead, the follow-up single was the bitter up tempo look at love – or rather, ‘What It Ain’t’, written by Tim Mensy and Monty Criswell. Perhaps it seemed lightweight after ‘Long Black Train’, and it didn’t make the top 30, although I like it quite a bit.

My other favorite is the Jamie O’Hara song ‘Unburn All Our Bridges’, a mature plea for forgiveness on both sides, with a beautiful tune, as he affirms,

Love is much stronger than anger or pride

The melodic but mournful ‘I Had One One Time’, written by Harley Allen and Don Sampson, is a lovely song with a homeless man wistfully recalling past possessions: a car, a job, friends, a loving wife, all now gone. There is a tasteful string section on the understated arrangement. Also pretty good is Bobby Braddock’s ‘The Difference Between A Woman And A Man’, a tenderly delivered love song.

Josh shows a more playful side with his cover of Jim Croce’s 70s pop hit ‘You Don’t Mess Around With Jim’, a story song about a pool hustler/tough guy and the country boy who challenges him. Josh’s version is entertaining and a rare venture for him away from the moral and family friendly, the message here being one of physical force.

Also fun is the up-tempo ‘Good Woman Bad’ written by Pat McLaughlin and Roger Younger, in which the protagonist complains about the bad girl he is involved with, and is starting to wonder if he needs someone different. The rhymes are a bit obvious, but the overall effect is entertaining:

Now when I asked her to go to Sunday school
She went and called me a damned old fool

A few of the songs are less essential listening, but even these sound good – a trademark of Josh’s records. His own ‘Backwoods Boy’ (about the joys of hunting) has a nice banjo-led arrangement but is of limited interest to me. The tune of ‘Jacksonville’, written by McLaughlin with Josh, has a downbeat feel, but it actually has a positive message about unexpectedly falling in love on vacation and maybe staying. It is pleasant listening but not particularly memorable.

‘In My Dreams’ is a bit dull, almost heavy sounding, although Josh’s vocal sounds convincing.

This was a bright start for Josh, revealing him as one of the finest male vocalists out there, with an unusually keen ear for melody and a voice which can lift mediocre material. The album has been certified platinum, and its success won him nominations for the ACM Top New Vocalist and the CMA Horizon Award in 2004. He lost both to Gretchen Wilson, hot off the success of ‘Redneck Woman’, but in the event, Josh’s career has proved to be deeper rooted.

Ther album is easy to find, both digitally and in CD format.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Mark Chesnutt – ‘Wings’

Around the middle of the 1990s Mark Chesnutt’s career began to wind down commercially. Wings, released in 1995, was his first album not to be certified at least gold, but it marks a return to form after the disappointing What A Way To Live, his first for MCA’s sister label Decca. There was a new producer at the helm, Mark Wright being replaced by label boss Tony Brown, and he did a good job with a sympathetic production.

Sadly, however, Mark was beginning to outwear his welcome at radio. It probably didn’t help that some of the less memorable tracks on this album were selected as singles. ‘Trouble’, with its bluesy and apparently radio-friendly groove, performed extremely disappointingly (especially as the lead single for a new release), barely cracking the top 20. The song lacks much melody, and it’s not one of my favourite Chesnutt recordings; but it is mildly notable as an early country cut for its writer, Americana singer-songwriter Todd Snider.

There must have been a sigh of relief all around when ‘It Wouldn’t Hurt To Have Wings’, a sprightly take on the difficulty of getting over someone, which lends the album its title, reached #7 on Billboard. I like this song although it is relatively lightweight. The third and last single, though, the semi-comic tale of an ill-fated night out in the ‘Wrong Place, Wrong Time’, penned by Jimmy Alan Stewart and Scott Miller, was Mark’s biggest flop to date, only just squeezing into the top 40. It changes the pace both in terms of tempo and mood, and is enjoyable enough, but is not really funny enough to work as a comic song.

It was lucky for Mark that ‘It’s a Little Too Late’ (from a hasty Greatest Hits release) brought him back to the top of the charts in 1997 – but he would never again enjoy the consistent streak he had had at the beginning of the 90s. No career lasts forever, but I think the label may have made the wrong choices for singles to promote this album, as there are far stronger songs on the set.

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Album Review: Mark Chesnutt – ‘Longnecks & Short Stories’

Mark’s second album for MCA was released in 1992, and continued the commercial and artistic success of his debut. Mark and his producer Mark Wright found a great set of songs from some of the best writers around, and recruited backing singers including Vince Gill, Jim Lauderdale and Alison Krauss, although none of them is very prominent in the mix. The production is firmly in the neo-traditional style, but with plenty of commercial appeal.

The first single, ‘Old Flames Have New Names’, was deservedly a top 5 hit. It is a witty slice of wry western swing written by Bobby Braddock and Rafe VanHoy, with our hero returning to his old stomping grounds to find his hopes of rekindling some old romances are all in vain:

I got back in town tonight
Anticipating much delight
I pulled out my black book and called up my old lovers
I got five newlyweds and two expectant mothers

It was followed to radio by a complete change of tone, with a fine revival of the downbeat ‘I’ll Think Of Something’, a Foster & Rice ballad about someone struggling to cope with the end of a relationship. Mark’s beautifully understated vocal conveys the desperation underlying the surface hopefulness of the lyric:

I can’t say today that I’m all right
But by tonight
I’ll think of something
I’ll find so many things to do
That I won’t have the time to think of her
And then if she’s still on my mind
I’ll try to drink enough to drown the hurt
And if that don’t work
I’ll think of something

It had been a Hank Williams Jr top 10 hit from 1974 and Mark’s version did even better, giving the young artist his second #1 hit:

There were two further hit singles from the album, a pair of story songs with contrasting styles, both peaking at #4 on Billboard. Dennis Linde’s ‘Bubba Shot the Jukebox’ was back to the fun side of Mark, with a lively semi-novelty tale of a heartbroken trucker who takes the drastic step of the title when “it played a sad song [and] it made him cry”. The narrator claims the incident was “justifiable homicide”, although:

Now reckless discharge of a gun
That’s what the officers are claiming
Bubba hollered out, “Reckless, Hell!
I hit just where I was aiming.”

The production on this track strikes a rare forced note with the use of a slightly artificial-sounding arrangement from the Nashville String Machine.

The fourth and last single was ‘Old Country’, the one optimistic lyric on the album, and a rather sweet tale (penned by Bobby Harden) about a city girl who finds love only “when ‘Old Country” came to town”, given a pure country treatment with prominent fiddle and soulful vocal:

From Birmingham to Ohio
How they met nobody knows
Every now and then they get together
She used to want to climb the walls
She’d never really been loved at all
Not until Old Country came to town

Harden also wrote Talking To Hank’, a whimsical story of an encounter with what appears to be the ghost of Hank Williams, and the great George Jones (also on MCA at the time) was recruited to add a duet vocal.

‘I’m Not Getting Any Better At Goodbyes’ is a rueful and classic-sounding ballad about a regular loser in love, perhaps surprisingly written by Steve Earle, which I really like. My favorite track on the album, ‘It’s Not Over (If I’m Not Over You)’, is a classic country ballad about clinging to a lost love, written by the album’s producer Mark Wright with Larry Kingston and previously recorded by Reba McEntire on her classic My Kind Of Country in 1984. The protagonist is resigned to his lover leaving – but reminds her that just because it’s over for her, it’s not the case for him.

Wright also contributed the Cajun-style ‘Postpone The Pain’ (co-written with Gary Scruggs). Harlan Howard and Ron Peterson wrote the up-tempo ‘Uptown Downtown’, another entertaining number which could have been a hit. In this one, the protagonist eschews the honky tonks and goes uptown in an attempt to get over his misery, but finds out:

I’m just hangin’ round a better class of losers
It don’t matter if you drink beer or champagne
I’ve only found a better class of losers
Uptown, downtown – misery’s all the same

Yeah the blues are still the blues
Just as hard to lose
Uptown, downtown – misery’s just the same

The album closes with a classic cover, Charlie Rich’s sultry ‘Who Will The Next Fool Be’ which sounds good vocally but is the only track not to really hold my attention.

Grade: A

Like its predecessor, this album sold over a million copies and confirmed Mark as one of the biggest stars of the early 90s. It’s easy to find digitally or as a used CD, and is well worth it.

Album Review: Mark Chesnutt – ‘Too Cold At Home’

Following a 1988 independent release that garnered little attention, Mark Chesnutt signed with MCA Records the following year and made his major label debut in 1990. Producer Mark Wright took a play-it-safe approach, putting together a track listing of original and cover songs that were solidly within the neotraditionalist movement, which was still the dominant influence in mainstream country music at the time.

The title track had been released as Mark’s debut single two months prior to the album’s appearance at retail. “Too Cold At Home”, written by Bobby Harden, had been turned down by another Beaumont, Texas native, George Jones, who nevertheless gave Mark his stamp of approval in the album’s liner notes. Set to a simple, traditional country melody, it is an instant classic that tells the tale of an unhappily married man who is passing time in a bar because it was “too hot to fish, too hot for golf, and too cold at home.” The record quickly climbed the charts, peaking at #3 and established Mark Chesnutt as a major new star. MCA quickly followed up this success with the release of “Brother Jukebox”, a song that was already familiar to Keith Whitley fans, having appeared on an album released shortly after Whitley’s untimely death the prior year. Chesnutt was not and is not as expressive a vocalist as Whitley, but Mark’s version of “Brother Jukebox” became his first chart-topper. It remained in the #1 position on the Billboard country singles chart for two weeks in February 1991.

Three more singles were released from the collection, all of which reached the Top 10: the western-swing flavored “Blame It On Texas”, which peaked at #5, “Your Love Is A Miracle” (the weakest song on the album) which reached #3, and “Broken Promise Land”, a Waylon Jennings cover that climbed to #10 but deserved to chart much higher.

MCA had reportedly planned to release “Friends In Low Places” as a single, but rival label Capitol beat them to the punch with the release of Garth Brooks’ version in July 1990. It may have been a missed opportunity for Mark and MCA, but it was just as well, since Chesnutt’s version lacks the passion and intensity of Brooks’ definitive recording. Had Chesnutt’s version come out first, it’s unlikely that the song would be remembered as a classic today.

Twenty years after its release, two things strike me as I listen to this album: (1) its brevity; it clocks in at just over 30 minutes and (2) how much better the labels were at picking singles in those days. Though I personally would not have chosen “Your Love Is A Miracle” as a single, there isn’t much to argue about regarding the label’s other choices: the remaining singles were the strongest songs on the album — unlike today when the opposite is often true — and there aren’t any standouts among the album cuts that should have been released to radio.

Though Chesnutt doesn’t show a great deal of stylistic diversity on this album, it’s a solid debut nonetheless, with only two weak songs — “Your Love Is A Miracle” and “Too Good A Memory” among the set. Fans apparently agreed; the album reached #12 on the Billboard Country Albums chart, and earned platinum certification for sales exceeding a million units. The title track remains the song for which Chesnutt is best known.

Too Cold At Home is still in print and available on CD and digitally from Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Gary Allan – ‘See If I Care’

Seven years after his debut single hit the charts, Gary Allan’s career was showing serious signs of heating up.  His previous two studio albums had gone platinum and he had the year before scored his first #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart. Consequently, he was nominated for the CMA’s Horizon Award just before his fifth album, See If I Care, hit stores in September 2003.  Like its predecessor, See If I Care would give Gary another platinum frame for his wall, and would spawn 2 chart-toppers and another top 15 hit.  The album debuted at its peak on the Billboard Country Albums chart at a respectable #2 slot, meanwhile scratching the top 20 in the all-genre chart.

‘Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey’, the rocking album opener finds the singer drowning his sorrows with black label whiskey while telling all his friends and fellow barflies white lies about how happy he is.  The Steeldrivers would later record a bluegrass version of the tune.

‘I Can’t Do It Today’ is a John Rich co-write with fellow Muzik Mafia members Vicky McGehee (a member of the Gretchen Wilson posse) and Rodney Clawson.  Gary slips into falsetto vocals perhaps a little too often in the bluesy kiss-off number, and the melody is a little clunky.  It’s placement at the beginning of the set is awkward as it is definite filler.

Gary would earn his second consecutive #1 with the album’s lead single, the poignant ‘Tough Little Boys’.  The almost-saccharine lyric is a bit of a departure from the material we’re used to hearing from Allan.  It’s a neat, three-act story song revolving around the story of a little boy who grows up and hurts and cries again when he becomes a dad.  The message of just how much macho men love their families, but can’t put their feelings into words, has always resonated well with the country audience and this is certainly one of the better attempts at tugging at country fans’ heartstrings.

The disc’s title track is more akin to the sound Allan had crafted for himself in previous albums.  ‘See If I Care’ finds the singer hiding his heartache with mock sarcasm.  The burning delivery from Gary gives real character to the brilliant Jamie O’Hara lyric.

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Album Review: Gary Allan – ‘Alright Guy’

Alright Guy, Gary Allan’s second album at MCA, is more than alright in many ways. It debuted at #4 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart on its release in October 2001, and brought Gary his first No. 1 with the album opener ‘Man to Man’. Produced by Tony Brown & Mark Wright, it’s one of several of Allan’s albums to be certified platinum as well. I think the success of the album is reflected in the quality of the album’s unreleased tracks rather than the singles that charted.

The driving beat and rhythmic lyrics of the lead-off single ‘Man of Me’ (a George Teren and Rivers Rutherford song) weren’t enough to drive it beyond #18 on the charts. That seems fair given that though the lyrics describe how ‘lovin’ you made a man of me’, the music doesn’t get beyond a teen rock number, complete with a screaming ‘wow’ on the very paragraph proclaiming ‘goodbye to my blind immature days’.

‘The One’ came close to being the one that hit the top of the charts first for Allan. Coming in at #3, it’s a kind and loving gentleman’s ballad written by Karen Manno and Billy Lee. Allan isn’t going to rush his girl who has been hurt before, but instead promises,

I’ll fill those canyons in your soul
Like a river lead you home
And I’ll walk a step behind
In the shadows so you shine
Just ask it will be done
And I will prove my love
Until you’re sure that I’m the one

It is a beautiful song, but the production is too heavy on the dreamy echo effects and background vocals for my taste. The interplay between Gary’s vocals and the melodic acoustic guitar line would have been enough.

Third time’s the charm, apparently. ‘Man to Man’, the third single off the album, was Allan’s first #1 on Billboard. Written by Jamie O’Hara, it’s sung by “the guy who got the girl” to “the guy who lost her”. It makes me think of a pool hall kind of scene in which the “loser” confronts the singer who turns and points out who’s really at fault and who’s really the better man. With lines like Were you ever there when she needed you, and Who cheated who/You’re the one to blame, he takes on the bully point for point.

The line that has always stood out to me, partly because of Allan’s great vocal on it, is She’s a real woman, not a doormat for you.

Again, the production is what gets in the way for me – the pop drums and background vocals don’t add to the character’s strength at all. And Allan’s cry-ee-eye-ee sends me back to 50s pop. However, it’s very sing-able and relatable with a catchy chorus and a recognizable intro – the stuff that often does well at radio.

The best songs on the album weren’t released to radio though. ‘Devil’s Candy’, one of 5 Harley Allen songs Gary has recorded, has a great hook and some great fiddle: I’ve always had a sweet tooth for the devil’s candy. Fiddles seem to exemplify that fiery battle with temptation, and this song’s no exception.

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Album Review: Gary Alan – ‘Smoke Rings In The Dark’

Gary’s label, Decca, folded in 1998, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise for his career. Gary, together with the majority of his labelmates (which included Lee Ann Womack and Mark Chesnutt), were transferred to sister label MCA. That meant a change in producer. Mark Wright remained on board, but Byron Hill was relegated to associate producer, with the experienced Tony Brown taking charge. He helped bring a smoother, more commercial sound, with a more layered production and the use of strings. Radio success continued to be mixed, but sales were good, and Smoke Rings In The Dark, released in October 1998, became Gary’s first platinum album.

The outstanding title track, released as the first single, only reached #12 on Billboard, but is one of Gary’s best-remembered hits. Written by Rivers Rutherford and Houston Robert, it marked a stylistic development for Gary heralded by the previous album’s ‘Baby I Will’. It sounds dreamy and sexy, belying a pain-filled lyric about the dying embers of a relationship:

I’ve tried to make you love me
You’ve tried to find a spark
Of the flame that burned
But somehow turned to
Smoke rings in the dark

The loneliness within me
Takes a heavy toll
Cause it burns as slow as whiskey
Through an empty aching soul
And the night is like a dagger
Long and cold and sharp
As I sit here on the front steps
Blowing smoke rings in the dark

I’m not gonna wake you
I’ll go easy on your heart
I’ll just touch your face and drift away
Like smoke rings in the dark

This is one of Gary’s finest moments on record and by far the best track on the album.

His inconsistent streak with radio persisted, as the follow-up, the intense Jamie O’Hara-penned ‘Lovin’ You Against My Will’ stagnated in the 30s. While it is a good song with a slow burning appeal, it lacks melodic interest and the vocals sound a little processed.

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Album Review: Gary Allan – ‘It Would Be You’

Gary’s second album for Decca was released in May 1998, and was in many ways a continuation of the approach taken on Used Heart For Sale, but with generally better material. Like that record, it was produced by Mark Wright and the songwriter Byron Hill who had helped Gary get his deal.

The title track and leadoff single was another top 10 hit for Gary, a brooding song about a woman who epitomises the worst kind of heartache:

If it was a full moon it would be a total eclipse.
….
But if we’re talking ‘bout a heartache, it would be you

Following the pattern of his debut, the ensuing singles performed disappointingly, failing to make the top 40. ‘No Man In His Wrong Heart’ is a fine song (written by Ronnie Rogers and Trey Bruce) which deserved to do much better, a tenderly delivered tale of resisting temptation one night while affirming the protagonist’s love for the woman at home. The third and final single, ‘I’ll Take Today’ (previously recorded by Tanya Tucker) is based on a similar situation, in this case with the protagonist running to an old flame, and telling his loved one that his ex is no threat to their relationship:

Old times, next to you, can never come close
I’ll take today over yesterday, any day

Gary Allan’s love songs are never saccharine – there is usually some kind of pained undercurrent of a troubled past which, together with the grainy tone of his voice adds a real sense of authenticity to the romantic sentiments. In similar vein is the mellow-sounding Jamie O’Hara/Gary Nicholson song ‘I Ain’t Runnin’ Yet’, which has a man used to shying away from anything approaching commitment and now taken unawares by his feelings. If Decca had not closed down, perhaps this would have been a fourth single.

‘Don’t Leave Her Lonely Too Long’ (a single for co-writer Marty Stuart in 1989) picks up the tempo. It is one of two cuts from Kostas, the other being ‘Red Lips, Blue Eyes, Little White Lies’. Both songs are pretty good, and bring some variety to the record, but individually neither is particularly distinctive.

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