My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Marty Roe

Album Review: Pam Tillis – ‘Homeward Looking Angel’

homeward looking angelPam’s second Arista album, released in 1992, was tastefully produced like its predecessor by Paul Worley and Ed Seay. Although the material was not quite as strong, there was enough to keep her momentum going, and in fact it was more successful commercially than its predecessor.

The first single ‘Shake The Sugar Tree’, written by Chapin Hartford reached #3. A pretty melody, tasteful arrangement, Pam’s confident lead vocal and banked harmonies from Stephanie Bentley (who later had a duet hit with Ty Herndon) apparently lifted from her demo of the song all contribute to making this a very attractive recording of a good song with an assertive attitude as the protagonist gives her neglectful man a warning.

The wistful story song ‘Let That Pony Run’ (about a suburban housewife who finds a new life after her husband leaves her), written by Gretchen Peters, is one of the standout tracks. It is the kind of mature, thoughtful lyric which would get no traction on today’s radio but in 1993 it reached #4. An exquisite vocal is backed up by backing vocals from Pam Rose and Mary Ann Kennedy.

The playful irony of ‘Cleopatra Queen Of Denial’, written by Pam, her then-husband Bob DiPiero, and Jan Buckingham, peaked just outside the top 10 (at #11).

By far my favourite track is the very traditional ‘Do You Know Where Your Man Is’ (written by Dave Gibson, Russell Smith and Carol Chase), which was another top 20 single. The pensive ballad asks a married woman about the state of her marriage

Did you kiss him when he left this morning
And does he know that he’s needed at home?
Well, if you don’t feel that old thrill
Then somebody else will
And there’s some mighty good women all alone

It’s ten o’clock
Do you know where your man is
And are you sure that he’s doing you right?
Are you still in his heart
When he’s out of your sight?
Do you know where your man is tonight?

It was previously recorded by Barbara Mandrell, whose version is also very fine, but Pam’s just edges it for me. Her beautifully judged vocal is backed by a lovely traditional arrangement with prominent steel guitar.

Opening track ‘How Gone Is Goodbye’ is one of a brace of songs written by Pam with Bob DiPiero. It is a very good song which could easily have been another hit single, with a ballsy (and surprisingly upbeat) delivery and mature lyric with a woman regretting walking out and wondering if she can backtrack.

The excellent ballad ‘We’ve Tried Everything Else’ (written by Pam and Bob with Steve Seskin)might be the same couple a little further down the line, as the protagonist suggests to her ex that getting back together would be the best solution, since new lovers have failed to help them move on:

Neither one of us is feeling any better
All we’ve been doing is fooling ourselves
Baby, you and me were meant to be together
Let’s try love again
We’ve tried everything else

The title track offers a portrait of a young woman who is returning home as the prodigal daughter but who hasn’t given up on her dreams:

Her party dress is tattered but her vision is inspired…

There’s a road ahead and the road behind
All roads lead to home this time

A couple of tracks are less interesting. ‘Love Is Only Human’ is an AC-leaning duet with Diamond Rio’s Marty Roe which is a bit bland, although it is beautifully sung; I would have loved to hear this pairing on a more dynamic song. ‘Rough And Tumble Heart’ was previously recorded in a very similar arrangement by female-led 80s group Highway 101, so Pam’s version, while perfectly listenable, seems redundant, even though she wrote it (with DiPiero and Sam Hogin). ‘Fine, Fine, Very Fine Love’ is just plain boring and Pam’s vocal verges on the screechy.

Although I don’t like this album quite as much as Put Yourself In My Place, it actually sold better, becoming Pam’s first platinum certification. It is a solid and very varied collection with some excellent songs. Used copies can be obtained cheaply, and it’s well worth picking up.

Grade: A-

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Album Review: Diamond Rio – ‘The Reason’

Country music has always happily mixed the sacred with the secular, and country musicians have often included religious songs on their records, or released fully fledged Christian albums. With their secular country career floundering in the new millennium and having lost their deal with Arista, Diamond Rio moved to Christian label Word. Although they had previously recorded some religious material in their own style, rather than making a Christian country record for Word, they chose instead to follow the template of Christian radio with 2009’s The Reason. The end result is far from satisfactory, and deeply disappointing.

It is, in fact, extremely disappointing musically, with the band’s trademark harmonies replaced by anonymous praise and worship band unison singing buried some way back in the mix, although lead singer Marty Roe is in good voice and sounds invested in the material. The band’s sparkling instrumental playing is also absent, sounding flat and generic, while the songs themselves are all rather the same.

Band members did at least contribute to the album by co-writing most of the material assisted by some names which are unfamiliar to me but who are, I presume, Contemporary Christian songwriters. Marty Roe and Jimmy Olander co-wrote six of the songs with their new friends. The single ‘God Is There’ is a little over-dramatic, and the production is heavy-handed and has too much echo. When I originally heard this I was very disappointed with their new direction; but it is, sadly, actually one of the better tracks, as Marty tells us God is present even in the hardest moments of life.

The title track has a nice low-key piano intro, passionate lyric about a penitent sinner who has turned to God, and a heartfelt lead vocal from Roe, but by the chorus it develops into something more like a church modern praise song. The very pop-oriented and over-produced ‘This Is My Life’ (the second single) is almost unlistenable thanks to the technological production tricks. ‘Wherever I Am’ and ‘Into Your Hands’ are decent songs of their kind with likeable vocal performances from Roe, but, once more, the overall mix is far too heavily processed, especially on the latter. ‘Just Love’ is even less listenable.

‘Moments Of Heaven On Earth’ (written by the band’s piano/keyboard player Dan Truman with Don Pfrimmer) is a pleasant pop song about marital love with a bit of religion tacked on in the second verse. Bassist Dana Williams co-wrote the idealistic ‘What Are We Gonna Do Now’, which is not bad.

Worship song ‘Reaching For Me’ is boring, but the other outside songs are better. ‘My God Does’, written by Sarah Buxton, Craig Wiseman and Bob DiPiero, is the only track to sound anything the band’s earlier work, and, while not their best work, is pretty good, and the most listenable track here. ‘In God We Still Trust’ (written by Bud Lee and Bill and Kim Nash) adds a little patriotism by affirming the US to be a Christian nation at heart. They had previously recorded this on their Greatest Hits Vol 2.

Bizarrely, this fundamentally misjudged project, won the band their first ever Grammy (for Best Southern Country or Bluegrass Gospel Album, although I certainly can’t detect much country or bluegrass). If you love the quintessential sound of Diamond Rio, you’ll barely recognize them here, with everything that made the group’s music distinctive missing.

Grade: D

If you’re still interested, used copies are available exceptionally cheaply for such a recent release.

Album Review: Diamond Rio – ‘Unbelievable’

The band’s last release of the 1990s was 1998’s Unbelievable. They were a well-established act by now, and had released their first Greatest Hits set. The new album was slick but played on the group’s strengths to create a radio-friendly yet organic blend. The songs (none of which were written by band members) range from great to mediocre. But even when the material falls short, as it does at times, the record always sounds good, thanks to the band’s harmonies, playing, and the slick but not overdone production (courtesy of the band with Michael D Clute).

The first two singles were both big hits. The one truly great song on the album, the devastating bereavement ballad ‘You’re Gone’, opened the album’s campaign on the singles chart, where it peaked at #4. The disconsolate narrator opens strikingly,

I said “Hello, I think I’m broken”

That facetious initial pickup line draws us into the soaring chorus, set in the present day, when he really is partly broken by the loss of his loved one:

Now I know God has His reasons
But sometimes it’s hard to see them
When I awake and find that you’re not there…

I bless the day I met you
And I thank God that He let you
Lay beside me for a moment that lives on
And the good news is I’m better
For the time we spent together
And the bad news is you’re gone

The song was written by Jon Vezner (husband of Kathy Mattea) and pop songwriter Paul Williams, and remains one of my favorite Diamond Rio recordings, with a beautiful, understated emotion expressed in Marty Roe’s vocal.

The lyrically slight but energetic, charming, and very catchy title track (penned by reliable hit makers Al Anderson and Jeffrey Steele) did even better, just missing the top spot. Disappointingly, the third and last single was then a flop. The understated ‘I Know How The River Feels’ (previously cut by Ty Herndon) failed to make the top 30, making it the band’s worst performing single to date. While its languid pace was admittedly not very radio-friendly, it has a sensitive vocal, pretty tune and tasteful string arrangement, which make it worth listening to.

The frustrated plea to Love, ‘What More Do You Want From Me?’, written by Bob Regan and Mark D Sanders, is very catchy and another favorite of mine. It had been the sole (and non-charting) single from Rhonda Vincent’s very underrated Trouble Free album a year or two earlier. Both versions are great, but Diamond Rio’s harmonies give this version an added force. Also good is the tuneful Bill and Sharon Rice ballad ‘Long Way Back’, in which the protagonist regrets his past choices a little too late to save his relationship, and is stuck brooding in a cafe.

‘Two Pump Texaco’ (written by Michael Dulaney and Neil Thrasher) is a nicely detailed and affectionate laid-back portrait of a country boy who is the third generation in his family to work at the titular gas station. The young man in this song is much more fleshed out as a character, and hence much more realistic, than those on most of today’s radio offerings playing on rural life.

Unfortunately, there is more than a little filler. ‘Miss That Girl’, ‘Hold Me Now’, and the closing ‘(I Will) Start all Over Again’ are all nicely sung, well-played and prettily harmonized, but completely forgettable. ‘I Thought I’d Seen Everything’ is a dull love ballad, written by Shania Twain’s husband Mutt Lange and 80s rocker Huey Lewis, lifted only by the harmonies.

Overall, then, this is certainly not the band’s best work, but it is pleasant listening, with some shining moments, particularly ‘You’re Gone’. It sold well enough, and has been certified gold. It is easy to get hold of cheap copies, but it may be an example of a record best digitally cherry-picked.

Grade: B

Album Review: Diamond Rio – ‘IV’

While riding high on the success of three gold and platinum albums, a consistent run of hit singles and shelves of industry awards, Diamond Rio issued their fourth Arista album, appropriately titled IV in 1996. It would continue their run at the top with 3 more top 5 hits and another hitting the top 20, and would quickly be certified gold.

Lead single ‘Walkin’ Away’ features an easy melody and implores lovers to hold it together, “baby don’t go there, love don’t get nowhere, walkin’ away“. Steel guitar flourishes propel the melody and Marty Roe’s vocal, and helped send it to #2 on the Country Singles chart. ‘That’s What I Get For Loving You’ follows closely to the first single, so much that they mirror one another when played back to back. This track doesn’t follow a disagreement between lovers, but celebrates the pair’s union, and became Diamond Rio’s 11th top 10 hit when it peaked at #4.

The stand-out single was the cheeky ‘It’s All In Your Head’, penned by the great Reese Wilson with Tony Martin and Van Stephenson. With its swampy beat and masterful grasp on the idiosyncracies of the devoutly religious, it is my favorite song from Diamond Rio. It tells the story of a “sidewalk, soapbox preacher lookin’ forward to the end of the world” who marries a “messed up, dressed up waitress with a slightly tarnished heart of gold” from the point of view of the preacher’s caustic son. The preacher is finally felled by snake venom “stronger than his faith“, and he goes out of the world repeating his conspiracy-theory mantra. It was also the album’s least successful single, stopping at #15 on the charts in the Summer of 1996.

IV is characterized by the group’s tight harmonies as they wrap them around their trademark breezy melodies, which elevate even the lesser tracks like “She Sure Did Like To Run” and “Love Takes You There”. The album is not without a few clunkers either. “Is That Too Much To Ask” glides along smoothly with the electric guitar jamming throughout, but its repetitive chorus and mundane lyrics about “wanting it all” leave the entire effort a bore to listen to.

The best tracks come from a pair of ballads. Released as a single in Germany, “She Misses Him On Sunday The Most” tells the story of a widow and the grief she feels most on Sunday mornings, sitting alone in the church pew as a tinkling piano is complimented by an acoustic guitar. “Just Another Heart” makes good use of its card-playing analogies and is a well-written song all around, from the writing team of Skip Ewing and Tim Johnson.

While IV was less successful than its predecessor – it didn’t go platinum – and while it had some definite soft spots, it is still an essential addition to their discography, and a solid effort from the group.

Grade: B

Buy it from amazon.

Album Review: Diamond Rio – ‘Close To The Edge’

Diamond Rio’s second album was rush-released in October 1992. It was produced as before by Monty Powell and Tim Dubois along broadly similar lines to its predecessor. Although not quite as consitently high quality as the songs on their debut, the chosen material showcases the band’s trademark harmonies and sparkling playing well. Although, apparently they had only a month to pick the songs, and felt they had fallen short of their debut, everything is presented with verve and I think it stands up well today.

The first two singles had downbeat lyrics about failed relationships. The ballad ‘In A Week Or Two’ (one of my favorite tracks) was received well at radio and hit #2. The rueful protagonist has been blindsided when he kept on putting off those romantic gestures, only to find his lover loses patience and leaves him. Equally regretful in the face of a vanished lover, the bouncily catchy ‘Oh Me, Oh My Sweet Baby’ was another top 5 hit, with particularly strong harmonies and picking. The perky ‘This Romeo Ain’t Got Julie Yet’ about a thwarted teenage couple (co-written by the lead guitarist Jimmy Olander), the slightest of the album’s singles, did less well, peaking at an unlucky 13.

My favorite of the singles then disappointingly failed to crack the top 20. Set to an understated but pretty tune, it offers a pensive reflection on the lost innocence of childhood:

When we knew Jesus was the answer
And Elvis was the King
‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and ‘Rock Of Ages’
Were the songs we learned/loved to sing
Innocence went out of style
We just watched it go
Yesterday got left beneath
The dust of Sawmill Road

We learn the protagonist’s brother was mentally destroyed by service in Vietnam, and he keeps minimal contact with the sister, who now has three failed marriages behind her. Only the narrator remains living in the eponymous ‘Sawmill Road’, where the three siblings “were raised up on the path of righteousness” so long ago. The song was written by the band’s keyboard player Dan Truman with Sam Hogin and Jim McBride.

It leads appropriately into an appeal to the lonely and lost in life, ‘Calling All Hearts (Come Back Home)’, an idealistic number written by Monty Powell, Kent Blazy and Wade Kimes, which I also like a lot.

My absolute favorite track, though, is the high lonesome ‘Demons And Angels’. Written by former singer Judy Rodman and Ronnie Samoset, the song portrays the intense struggle of a man(and his wife) fighting his addiction to alcohol,

He swore it was over and all in his past
A few hours later his hand’s round a glass
A voice on the left says,
“There’s peace in the wine”
From the right a voice whispers,
“Don’t do it this time”
When he looks for the answer
Down in his heart
Demons and angels tear him apart

There’s not much that’s sweeter
Than a new life begun
Ain’t much that’s sadder
Than a promise undone
He stares at the bottle,
Longs for her arms
While demons and angels tear him apart

‘Old Weakness (Coming On Strong)’ is not the song of that title recorded by both Tanya Tucker and Patty Loveless, but an intensely sung ballad about struggling with the thought of encountering an old flame he’s not really over, written by Powell with Chapin Hartford. A cheery riposte to old friends comparing the fun of bachelor life to the protagonist’s newlywed happiness, ‘It Does Get Better Than This’ is unremarkable lyrically, but is lifted by the charming vocal and instrumental performance, and could be a hit today.

The love songs ‘I Was Meant To Be With You’ (co-written by Dubois and Powell with Debi Cochran and Diamond Rio’s lead singer Marty Roe) and Jimmy Olander’s ‘Nothing In This World’ (co-written with Eric Silver) are pleasant filler, performed exceptionally well. The upbeat title track (written by the band’s mandolin and occasional fiddle player Gene Johnson with Carl Jackson) is also fairly forgettable lyrically, but it has a great groove and lets the band show off their chops , closing the album on a high.

The record has been certified gold, so it did not sell quite as well as their debut. However, despite the band’s own misgivings about the quality of the material, I think it compares pretty well, and there are some outstanding moments. Cheap used copies are easy to find, and it is also available digitally.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Diamond Rio – ‘Diamond Rio’

Diamond Rio’s eponymous debut album was released 20 years ago this month.  The disc catapulted the band to country stardom when their first single, the infectious “Meet In The Middle” became the first chart-topping debut by a group in the history of Country Singles chart.  Four more singles hit the top 10 and the album went on to sell more than a million copies.  It also introduced the melodic energetic sound of Diamond Rio, and showcased the band’s tight musicianship on record.

“Meet In The Middle” features Tim DuBois’ bouncy production in a lyric that simply celebrates compromise, and uses the sweet story of a boy and girl meeting halfway between their homes as the analogy of meeting halfway once again as a means to end their future squabbles.  Marty Roe’s solid vocal hits as hard as the snappy drums and Gene Johnson’s mandolin make for a great track, which sailed to #1 for 2 weeks.

Also making waves at radio was the bluesy “Mirror Mirror”, with its clever wicked queen hook it became the band’s second top 5.  Also hitting the top 5 is the blistering “Norma Jean Riley”, with its dry humor and talking instruments, it recalls the best of Alan Jackson’s similar witty tunes.  Sandwiched in between that pair at radio is the elegant “Mama Don’t Forget to Pray For Me”, which recounts a traveling musician calling home to talk to his folks.  It’s memorable melody and heartstring subject matter pushed it to #9 on the charts.

The final single – and my favorite track – is the smart and direct second person narrative “Nowhere Bound”.  This mid-tempo gem sounds like it would be at home in Mary Chapin Carpenter’s songbook, right down to its wry lyrics:

Where to now, do you know?
One thing’s for certain, gonna reap just what you sow
And all you planted was heartache and pain
Don’t look now, but it looks like rain

“Nowhere Bound” was written by co-producer Monty Powell and Jule Edders, and went to #7 on the singles chart in 1992.

Also notable are the tale of two top-notch musicians dueling for the title of “best around” in the fast-paced “Ballad of Billy and Conley (The Proof’s in the Pickin’)”, which allows the boys to show off their dexterity with their respective instruments, much like the closing instrumental track “Poultry Promenade”.  The driving “Pick Me Up” tells of a man who feels lower than bottom – “pick me up so I can fall again” – and is set to another infectious melody.

Produced by Tim DuBois and Monty Powell, Diamond Rio’s debut album served to not only kickstart the band’s hit-making career, it also served as the template that would come to characterize the band’s sound, with their own crack musicianship in the studio, tight harmonies, and breezy melodies.  Diamond Rio is a great showcase of ’90s country at its best.

Grade: A

Buy it from amazon.

Spotlight Artist: Diamond Rio

Diamond Rio’s run of platinum albums and chart-topping singles was a success story that almost ended before it started.  Tim DuBois acquired the group for the new Nashville division of Clive Davis’ Arista imprint in 1989, but various and serious accidents and health problems kept 3 of the band’s members out of the recording studio for nearly a year.  Then, in 1991, their first single made history by becoming the first ever debut single by a group to hit #1, and started the rise of one of the most successful groups in country music history.

The group’s traces its roots back to Opryland’s now-defunct theme park, following a meeting of lead singer Marty Roe and keyboard player Dan Truman.  The pair formed a bluegrass band, and as the lineup increased from 2 to 4 to 6, the name was shuffled from The Grizzly River Boys to Tennessee River Boys, and finally to the one that stuck, a misspelling of the Diamond-Reo truck manufacturer.

Bouncy rhythms and three-part harmonies characterized the band’s singles, but their generous use of mandolin and inclusion of bluegrass instrumentals on their albums reveal their more traditional leanings.  Between 1991 and 2002, they earned 16 top 10 country hits, including 5 #1’s, and notched 3 U.S. Top 40 hits.  More impressive is that every one of the band’s country albums has earned a gold or platinum certification, as did their 1997 Greatest Hits, for combined sales of over 12 million.  Diamond Rio was also named the CMA’s Vocal Group of the Year 4 times, and won the same prize from the Academy of Country Music

After parting with Arista in 2006, the guys signed with Nashville-based contemporary Christian label Word Records, and released their first gospel album in 2009.  The Reason went on to win 2 Dove Awards, and the band’s first Grammy.

Throughout the month of May, we’ll be revisiting the songs that made Diamond Rio the most popular group during country’s booming 90s, so be sure to stop back and reminisce with us.