My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Mary Chapin Carpenter

Album Review: Jennifer McCarter and the McCarters – ‘Better Be Home Soon’

Although the McCarters’ debut album had brought them some success, with top 10 hits, Warner Brothers thought they would do better if they modernised their sound a bit. They also decided that since Jennifer was very clearly the star of the group, she should get higher billing, and renamed the group Jennifer McCarter and the McCarters.

The first single from their second album Better Be Home Soon, produced by Paul Worley and Ed Seay, was ‘Up And Gone’, a sprightly up-tempo tune which was their third and last top 10 hit, peaking at #9. It was written by Verlon Thompson and Bill Caswell. The same writing team provided the next single, ‘Quit While I’m Behind’, which reached #26. It is another entertaining song, about deciding to dump a rubbish boyfriend who is cheating on her. ‘Betcha Gonna Love Me’, written by Caswell with Don Singleton, is in similar vein musically.

The title track is a ballad which, oddly, is a cover of a song by Australian rock band Crowded House. Jennifer’s vocal is lovely, but radio was not receptive when it was released as the third single.

Also a flop was the last single, ‘Shot Full Of Love’. This song, written by Bob McDill, was recorded numerous times by artists including Don Williams, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Juice Newton, Nicolette Larson, Chris LeDoux and Billy Ray Cyrus, but has never been a hit. It is about a player with a past who is transformed by discovering true love, and perhaps worked a bit better for a male artist, but is beautifully sung here:

Once I had a heart cold as ice
Love to me was only for fun
I made the mark for each broken heart
Like notches on the butt of a gun

Once I had a trick up my sleeve
And a reputation all over town
I was heartless and cold wherever I go
And I shut down every young boy I found

Yes, I used to be a moonlight bandit
I used to be a heartbreak kid
Then I met you and the next thing I knew
There I was
Oh, shot full of love

Who’d have thought that someone like you
Could take a desperado like me
But oh, here I am
I’m as meek as a lamb
With my bleeding heart there at your feet

Sandy Emory’s song ‘I Haven’t Got A Prayer’ is a beautiful ballad with some pretty mandolin. ‘Mountain Memories’ is a charming throwback to the sounds of their first album.

‘Papa Sita’ is a sweet Mexican-flavored song written by Hugh Moffatt.

‘Slow Country Dance’ is a gorgeous waltz written by Mary Chapin Carpenter, who also recorded it:

Down at the bar a woman tells stories
Batting her eyes to someone not there
Her glass is half full (or maybe half empty)
Like the jokes told about her
When they think she don’t hear
Now the perfume is cheap and the makeup is careless
And the dress out of fashion for a woman her age
But she don’t give a damn for those who would cherish
A much lighter step or a much younger face

And love’s never easy or ever as true
When the changing of partners is no longer new
You lead with your heart, closing your eyes
And dance just to dance in three quarter time

The closing ‘I Don’t Wanna Cry Anymore’ is a great upbeat song written by Nancy Montgomery offering hope for the future.

This is not as good an album as the sisters’ debt, but it is still very good, and I would recommend it.

Grade: A

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Album Review: Caroline Spence — ‘Mint Condition’

I was first introduced to Caroline Spence when I reviewed her and Robby Hecht’s sublime collaborative album, Two People, last summer. I was immediately hooked on her voice and couldn’t wait to hear more. That “more” has arrived in the form of Mint Condition, her third full-length solo album, produced by Dan Knobler, which is her debut for Rounder Records.

The narratives of personal relationships, which Spence says she’s always been drawn to from a writing perspective, dominate the album thematically. She opens strong with “What You Don’t Know,” in which she hasn’t yet told her man how she truly feels about him. Spence is in a bar with an empty glass in her hand wondering “Who’s Gonna Make My Mistakes,” which she answers by saying ‘it might as well be me.’

She shows a beautiful venerably on “Sit Here and Love Me,” in which she confesses to her boyfriend what she needs from him. The sparse ballad, her real-life story, is stunning:

Like the moon in the sky

In the afternoon in July

A little darkness hangs there above me

I know you hate to see me cry

Don’t wanna look you in the eye

I just need you to sit here and love me

 

I’m alright, my dear

I’ve been this way as long as I’ve been here

I don’t need you to solve any problem at all

I just need you to sit here and love me

 

At the bottom of this well

Sometimes it’s hard to tell

If you’re up there or if you can see me

I’m still someone you know

Please recognize my shadow

This is the same place from where I love you deeply

 

I’m alright, my dear

I’ve been this way as long as I’ve been here

I don’t need you to solve any problem at all

I just need you to sit here and love me

Spence, who admits to suffering from anxiety, continues down the same path on “Who Are You,” in which she feels perplexed by her man, who always seems to find her when she’s enduring her darkest moments:

I take comfort in my silence

In an empty house

In leaving town

I take comfort in knowing

It’s not my time yet

But then you show up

 

Have I been betting on the wrong cards my whole life?

Trying to make a fire with the rain outside?

Hiding behind the line between black and white?

You got me asking questions

 

Asking who are you?

Who could know me

But my only one?

Oh, who are you?

 

I don’t take kindly

When you remind me

That I should lighten up

Show myself a little love

I don’t take kindly

To the way you can find me

When I’m trying to hide

And give up the fight

Spence finds herself exploring love on “Till You Find One,” an intriguing waltz, in which she attempts to convince herself she can’t stop fate. The title track came out of a writing exercise, in which she strived to write something good enough for Emmylou Harris to sing. She drew inspiration from her grandmother to craft the gorgeous acoustic ballad, which details a love too good to see fade away. In a twist of fate, Harris joins Spence on the track with her captivating harmonies.

My favorite song on Mint Condition is the album’s emotional centerpiece, “Wait On The Wine,” a soaring ballad where Spence uses the titular beverage to gain enough courage to tell her man how much she loves him. Another favorite, “Song About A City” is a Mary Chapin Carpenter-esque mid-paced number she co-wrote with Ashley Ray. It details her struggle with immortalizing places in her songwriting:

I used to take the train

Upstate to see the colors change

Nothing’s falling quite the same

No matter where I land

This New York City rooftop bar

Just looks up at the same old stars

Thought that I had come so far

But it doesn’t matter where I am

 

I took two steps in Austin

One back in Boston

Tried to love something new

I found a lonesome highway

Brand new skyline

But nothing could change my tune

Wish I could write a song about a city

Instead of songs about you

 

I thought I’d find a brand new leaf

Drive on out to Joshua Tree

Dry those tears in desert heat

But the silence was too loud

I wish that I could make the most

Of the magic on this coast

Can’t see the beauty through the ghost

That I’m still dragging around

Spence managed to do just that on “Angels to Los Angeles,” a sweet ballad detailing a classic runaway narrative about a girl with a dream who’s on her way to do something big to make it a reality. She realizes the reality of that dream on the uptempo “Long Haul,” where she puts her own spin on the life of a musician:

Town after town and it’s all the same

They say expecting something different’s the definition of insane

But here I go, I follow those highway stripes leading the way

Down that fine line between making a living and digging your grave

 

But I just shut up and drive

What else am I gonna do tonight?

I crossed my t’s, I dotted my i’s

And sold my soul to the 1-4-5

Never was looking for the glamour

Know I won’t find it here in Texarkana

Just trying not to lose my mind

‘Cause I’m in it for the long haul

Just feels like a long haul tonight

 

Same thing that keeps you up at night, gets you out of bed

Same thing that keeps you stuck, gets stuck in your head

It’s a funny little addiction with no cure in sight

So I keep breaking everything I’m fixing so I can be fixing to do it tomorrow night

Her long haul has led her to Mint Condition, a captivating collection of personal narratives articulated beautifully. She could’ve varied the tempo a bit throughout and thrown the listener some variety sonically, but what she’s given us is nothing to complain about. Spence is a female singer-songwriter in the truest form, and a woman with a perspective worth celebrating.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Dixie Chicks — ‘Little Ol’ Cowgirl’

The Dixie Chicks’ second album was Little Ol’ Cowgirl. Released in 1992, the album found the original lineup of Robin Lynn Macy, Laura Lynch, Martie & Emily Erwin working through an assortment of original material and covers.

The album opens up with the title track, a spritely western swing number penned by John Ims. Laura Lynch sings the lead with really nice trio harmonizing by Macy and Emily Erwin. We should note that Martie Lynch mostly plays fiddle on this album but whenever the harmony is a trio, she is not singing.

She’s a little ol’ cowgirl from out Texas way

Countin’ the nights ’til the fiddler plays

Workin’ all week just doin’ her thing

 

She likes punchin’ doggies but she loves to swing

And when she hears that backbeat rhythm driftin’ through the door

She can’t talk, she can’t sit still, she can’t stay off of that floor

Kickin’ her heels up lordy look at her twirl

Everybody wants to boogie on down

With the little ol’ cowgirl

Robin Lynn Macy takes the lead on “A Road Is Just A Road”, a cover of a song written by Mary Chapin Carpenter & John Jennings. The song is a med-tempo with ballad, with trio harmony.

“She’ll Find Better Things To Do” comes from the pen of Bob Millard. Macy takes the lead vocal on this mid-tempo modern country ballad about a relationship that has come unraveled. The songs has quartet harmony.

She don’t see no way around it It

He shows every sign of leavin’ her behind

After three days stayin’ out late

It don’t look like he’ll be comin’ home tonight

She wants to cry but pride won’t let her

She’ll find better things to do

 

Leaves her key inside the mailbox

With a note that tells that cowboy where to go …

This is followed by “An Irish Medley” (comprised of “Handsome Molly”, “Little Beggerman” and “Mist On The Moor”). Macy sings the lead with Lynch on harmony on the first two parts with the last tune being an instrumental . Bruce Singleton guests on penny whistle and bagpipes, with J.D. Brown also on bagpipes and Olga Arseniev on accordion.

“You Send Me” was a #1 Pop & #1 R&B hit in 1957 for its writer the legendary Sam Cooke. The song is a dreamy ballad with Laura Lynch handling the lead vocals with the rest joining in on harmonies. Lloyd Maines plays steel guitar on this number.

Darling, you send me

I know you send me

Darling, you send me

Honest you do, honest you do

Honest you do, whoa

 

You thrill me

I know you, you, you thrill me

Darling, you, you, you, you thrill me

Honest you do

 

At first I thought it was infatuation

But, woo, it’s lasted so long

Now I find myself wanting

To marry you and take you home, whoa

“Just A Bit Like Me” is treated as straight-ahead bluegrass. Written by Robin Lynn Macy, this is a really nice song that deserves to be more widely covered. Robin sings the lead with the others joining in on harmony, Dave Peters plays mandolin on this track.

It’s six o’clock in the morning

The sun was ready to rise

And as she closes his lunchbox

She spies the sun in his eyes

She stays at home with the baby

She’s got a dream in her heart

Somewhere her sister is singing

A night is ready to start

 

One’s choosing, one’s cruising

Down the highway of their dreams

While songs are sung her dream’s begun

And she thinks of what it means

To live through her voice, she made a choice

But neither one is free

Am I a lot like her or is she just a bit like me?

“A Heart That Can” was written by Patti Dixon with Laura Lynch singing lead and the rest on harmony vocals. Lloyd Maines plays steel guitar on this track. This track is performed as contemporary Nashville pop-country. Had the song been released on a major label, it likely would have received considerable airplay.

You say I’ve done a lot of good

You’re glad I found you when I did

But I wonder why you keep

Those questions in your head

Oh I think you’re afraid to fall

Someone went and blew the call

 

All I can say is my heart tries hard

Try as hard as I can

You’ll never find that my love falls short

One day you’ll understand

That I’ve got a heart that can

The next track is a cover of Hal Ketcham’s recent hit “Past The Point of Rescue”. Robin sings the lead with trio harmonies. Olga Arseniev plays the accordion. The song is taken at the same tempo as Ketcham’s hit but with different instrumentation, resulting in a very nice recording.

Martie Erwin and Matthew Benjamin composed the mid-tempo swing instrumental “Beatin’ Around The Bush”. David Peters joins in on mandolin and Matthew Benjamin plays guitar.

“Two Of A Kind” was written by John Ims. Laura Lynch sings the vocal (no vocal harmonies) on this lovely medium -slow ballad. Dave Peters and Lloyd Maines appear on this track.

On the road without a friend

Can make you feel life’s loneliness

In a voice that rides the wind

Streaming ‘cross the airwaves

In a simple country song

The one that you don’t hear

Until the moon is full

It was Texas once again

The one about the good old boy

Who’s caught remembering

Images of childhood

And the places that he’d been

Caught up in his questions

Wondering where it would end

 

Another midnight on the highway

Dallas in the distance

Seems I’m always leaving love behind

Singing along with someone

Who’s soul is on the radio

Sounds like me and the good old boy

Are two of a kind

“Standing By The Bedside was written by I. Tucker with Laura Lynch on lead vocals and the rest doing harmonies. Jeff Hellmer guests on piano. The song is a medium temp western swing number. The lyric is religious in nature about a sister who is at death’s door.

The best song on the album is “Aunt Mattie’s Quilt, co-written by Robin Lynn Macy and Lisa Brandenburg. Robin sings the lead with trio harmonies. The song is more of a folksong story-ballad, but

it fits the album nicely. Larry Seyer guests on piano and Dave Peters is back on mandolin.

Aunt Mattie bent a thousand times down the long black rows

Then battled with the angry weeds so little seeds could grow

Come summer Mattie pulled the snow from cruel and cutting bolls

She was patient pale and slender and was only eight years old

Round and round the spinning wheel beneath Aunt Mattie’s boot

She recalled the soil and cotton seeds and summer’s hopeful shoots

Two winters spun out summer’s threads in rich and creamy folds

And she had a bolt of cotton cloth when she turned ten years old

Many acts, in many different genres, have covered the Ray Charles classic “Hallelejah I Love Him (Her) So”. The Chicks take on the song is novel with bass and drums basically carrying the song instrumentally.

Robin Lynn Macy sings lead with the rest joining in on subdued harmony.

The album closes with a Laura Lynch- Martie Erwin composition titled “Pink Toenails”. Laura Lynch lead vocals with the rest on vocal harmonies. Larry Spencer plays trumpet and Jeff Hellmer tinkles the ivories on the jazzy torch song.

Pink toenails, why don’t I have time to paint pink toenails?

I’ve got my pink foam curlers and my pony-tail

My girlfriends have time for their pink toenails

Come nightfall, you’ll be waltzing through my door

When you hear me call and I love the way you say

“I’m your baby doll” and you’ll find me sitting there

In my pink toenails

This is an outstanding album and I am torn as to whether or not I prefer this album or Thank Heavens For Dale Evans.

I originally purchased both albums on cassette and upgraded to CD after wearing out the cassettes. I would give both albums a solid A. On this album Laura Lynch occasionally plays bass but mostly just sings, Robin Lynn Macy is on guitar, Emily Erwin plays bass, guitjo, banjo and Martie Erwin plays fiddle and viola. The Erwin sisters are the stronger instrumentalists and Martie’s instrumental contributions are outstanding. Tom Van Schalk plays percussion/ drums.

 

Classic Rewind: Mary Chapin Carpenter with Vince Gill and Kathy Mattea — ‘Well ‘Round Your Heart’

EP Review: LeAnn Rimes – ‘Re-Imagined’

While the craze of mainstream country stars collaborating with mainstream pop acts has garnered major attention, and rightfully so, another trend has been making waves but leaving far too little a wake. In August 2016, Suzy Bogguss released Aces Redux, a complete re-recording of her classic album in the lush acoustic style she favored in recent years. Dixie Chicks completely overhauled the arrangements on their songs for their MMXVI tour and companion concert album. Mary Chapin Carpenter reexamined parts of her back catalog on Sometimes Just The Sky this past March. Rodney Crowell has Acoustic Classics coming out the middle of next month.

Artists re-recording their hits have been going on since the beginning of recorded music. A recent cause for this is a little-known fact that when artists switch record labels, they don’t get to take the masters and rights to their discography with them. In other words, the artists entire back catalog is the sole property of their former home, especially if it was a major label.

Those re-recorded songs are typically sung as facsimiles of the original hit recording with the hopes a gullible music buying public won’t be able to tell the difference. Very often it’s those re-recordings that make their way onto digital platforms, especially if the artist’s original music hasn’t been licensed by their record label for release in that format.

What’s going on here is entirely different and completely by choice. These albums aren’t merely gimmicky cash grabs but thoughtful reexaminations of songs, and in this case of Rodney Crowell different songs entirely. For his new album, he completely re-wrote “Shame On The Moon.” He felt his original composition, which was a massive hit for Bob Seger and The Silver Bullet Band in 1982, wasn’t composed with the depth and complexity he would bring to the song today.

In the case of LeAnn Rimes and her new five-track EP Re-Imagined, she reworked these songs for her Remnants tour last year and decided to commit them to record. Although I’ve been somewhat of a rabid fan of her music since the very beginning, I haven’t been paying too much attention to her lately. This release broke the short drought, which I’m also sure it was intended to do.  

She opens the collection with “How Do I Live.” Her original version, from 1997, is still one of the cleanest and most masterful pop records I’ve ever heard. She transforms Diane Warren’s lyric into a piano ballad, which might work for some people, but it didn’t work for me. I really don’t care for Rimes in this style, which always comes off heavy, slow and prodding.

I had actually forgotten what the original version of “Can’t Fight The Moonlight” sounded like, the one featured on the Coyote Ugly soundtrack in 2000. Listening to it again, it’s clearly influenced by Britney Spears’ debut from a year earlier. I’m more familiar with the dance remix, which worked on an international scale as I’m sure Curb intended at the time. This new version, taken live from a concert, has more in common with the remix but features actually instrumentation.

Rimes’ original version of “Blue,” from 1996, is arguably still the greatest record she’s ever made. She gave it new life, in collaboration with The Time Jumpers, on Lady & Gentlemen in 2011. For this version, also taken live from a concert, she goes full-on jazz but doesn’t sacrifice the trademark yodel or the song’s traditional country roots.

The revelation, as far as her hit records are concerned, is “One Way Ticket (Because I Can).” Rimes gives the song a gorgeously soft acoustic arrangement stripping the song of any smoke and mirrors. It’s truly impressive what she does with the song, alone, without backup singers to give her a lift. Rimes still has it more than 22 years later.

The final track is one of the two songs from Spitfire that elude to the cheating scandal that soured her reputation with the public and ended her first marriage. “Borrowed” was originally produced by Rimes’ long-time collaborator Darrell Brown, who also oversaw this EP. The track was already in this style so nothing about the arrangement really changed.

However, this version is a duet with Stevie Nicks. Rimes and Nicks harmonize throughout the song, which is a mistake given the lyrical content. I’m also a huge fan of Nicks and Fleetwood Mac, so I’m saying this with love, but Nicks’ voice isn’t what it used to be but either is Don Henley’s. The age on Nicks’ rasp, which is far too low now, is just unappealing.

The majority of this EP feels utterly unnecessary and in place of new music, not really worth much of anyone’s time. Rimes’ voice has changed, too, which she claimed in a 2013 lawsuit was the result of botched dental work. She still has incredible range, which I noted when I reviewed “How To Kiss A Boy” in November 2016, but the clarity is gone.

I still recommend checking it out, especially if you’re a fan of Rimes’ work, to hear this new addition to her musical legacy.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Kim Richey – ‘Kim Richey’

Kim Richey released her self-titled debut album this week in 1995 on Mercury Records. I remember this music well, from her association with Mary Chapin Carpenter. I even saw her open for Trisha Yearwood during an intimate ‘in the round’ performance during Trisha’s “Real Live Woman” tour in 2000.

To my ears, the song I most know her for is her debut single and biggest hit “Just My Luck,” which hit #47. The song is an excellent up-tempo number about a woman who is fine on her own until she falls in love:

I was livin’ the good life

None of that silly love stuff

Then I went and fell for you

Ain’t that just my luck?

“Just My Luck” feels like a Yearwood song through and through. Her second single, “Those Words We Said” subsequently appeared on Thinkin’ About You that very same year. The mid-tempo ballad, about a woman leaving home after an argument, is fabulous. It performed slightly worse for Richey, stalling at #59. Third single “From Where I Stand,” which peaked at #66, continues in the same vibe and is very good.

Another familiar tune, “You’ll Never Know” was the second single off of Mindy McCready’s sophomore album, If I Don’t Stay The Night in 1998. It’s always been one of my favorite singles from McCready and I didn’t realize until today that Richey had co-written it.

“Just Like The Moon” is equally excellent, with an engaging melody. “Let The Sun Fall Down” is a sparse ballad that nicely showcases Richey’s effective voice. “Sweet Mysteries” is a sweet ballad about a woman wondering why a man fell in love with her in the first place. “Can’t Find the Words” continues in the same vein, but finds a woman unable to properly tell her man she loves him. Richey is calling her man’s bluff on “That’s A Lie,” a very good song about confrontation.

“Echoes of Love” is an ear-catching rocker and a nice change of pace. “Here I Go Again” and “That’s Exactly What I Mean” are mid-tempo and fall in the same sonic makeup of “That’s My Luck.” Both are very strong and well executed. “Good,” which continues in that same vein, is a fine way to close out the album.

Richie reminds me a lot, at least on this record, as a country music answer to the pop females who dominated the Lilith Fair Circuit. In researching Richey for this review, I found out her song “Desire” was actually recorded by Dixie Chicks on Shouldn’t A Told You That in 1993.

Kim Richey is a great album that introduced a fine songwriter into the country music elite. I highly recommend seeking this one out.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘Houston’

Mary Chapin Carpenter responds to Hurricane Katrina with a track as timely today as it was in 2006:

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Favorite Singles of 2016

My favorite singles of the year run the gamut from commercial to obscure and everything in between. Keep reading for career moments from Tim McGraw and Reba McEntire to shining examples of why Lori McKenna and Brandy Clark are more than expert songwriters.

unknown10. Chris Young Feat Cassadee Pope – ‘Think Of You’

Young deserves credit for searching within his own genre for a female collaborator. He deserves praise for co-writing a song that doesn’t use Pope as
window dressing, but rather as a means of furthering the story. This tale of a once-great couple isn’t revelatory, but it’s catchy as hell.

 9. William Michael Morgan – ‘Missing’

The influence George Strait said was absent from country radio came roaring back to life with William Michael Morgan’s follow-up to “I Met A Girl.” “Missing” is an astonishing single in that it makes little compromise to the modern landscape. Warner Bros deserves credit for releasing something this country to radio. Time will tell if they respond favorably.

 500x5008. Kelsey Waldon – ‘All By Myself’

Among its many achievements, a few of which you’ll see highlighted further down, 2016 introduced Kelsey Waldon, a killer traditionalist, to the masses. “All By Myself” is a stern warning to fakers, a biting assessment of authenticity and a woman’s empowerment anthem for the current generation. 

7. Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘Something Tamed, Something Wild’

The most common criticism I’ve heard about Mary Chapin Carpenter’s more recent works is she ‘lacks a pulse.’ It may be true to an extent, but I’m not hearing it here. This introspective examination of existential curiosity is one of her finest in recent memory. The parent album it comes from is her best in more than a decade.

6. Time Jumpers – ‘Kid Sister’

Vince Gill’s tribute to Dawn Sears is both personal and touching.

record-year-cover5. Eric Church – ‘Record Year’

Not since “The Song Remembers When” has a song about songs been this clever or powerful. Church proves he’s a master once again, name checking legends at every turn and laying out a jovial tale of heartbreak both ear catching and believable. “Record Year” is undoubtedly the best mainstream single of the year.

 4. Lori McKenna – ‘Wreck You’

The lead single from The Bird and the Rifle is this masterful look at sabotage in which the woman is admitting fault, with brutal candor – “Something between us changed, I’m not sure if its you or me But lately all I do seems to wreck you.”

unspecified-13. Tim McGraw – ‘How I’ll Always Be’

2016 found Tim McGraw in an artistic renaissance, with his strongest back-to-back singles in twenty years. He succeeded in a climate unfavorable to substance without conceding to modern pressures. “Humble & Kind” is the better lyric. But “How I’ll Always Be” shines melodically. Not since “Just To See You Smile” has McGraw sounded this good on record. 

2. Brandy Clark – ‘Love Can Go To Hell’

The genius is in the delivery. Brandy Clark sings this so deadpan, it’s easy to miss the dark humor underneath the surface. I totally missed it, but when it hit me, I never heard this the same way again.

reba-1024x10241. Reba McEntire – ‘Just Like Them Horses’

Tim McGraw wasn’t the only one in the throws of an artistic reawaking in 2016. This tale of a dying man giving positive reassurance to the loved one he’s leaving behind may’ve been too much for radio to bare, the unique take on ‘if you love me, let me go’ too smart for the masses.

Reba eulogized her father with this tune before committing it to record, which only solidified the emotional undertones she brought forth in her performance, her strongest vocal since “If I Had Only Known” twenty-five years ago. “Just Like Them Horses” is just that good, a bone-chilling highlight from a career with far too many to count.

Classic Rewind: Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘Something Of A Dreamer’

Album Review: Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘The Things That We Are Made Of’

marychapincarpenter_cvr_sq-64e4729aa565e3a4b0d11d91ba98a2f2477f41a6-s300-c85Mary Chapin Carpenter wasn’t sure who would be interested in producing her fifteenth album, The Things That We Are Made Of, as she rarely keeps up with current trends. She met with Dave Cobb at the suggestion of her publicist and, although no musical ideas were exchanged, the pair agreed to work together. Cobb’s blind faith has resulted in Carpenter’s most interesting album in more than a decade.

The Things That We Are Made Of explores the universal truth of self, the good and bad ingredients that make us who we are as people. Carpenter begins by looking at the two sides of life and how they live congruently with one another on the gorgeous “Something Tamed Something Wild.” She follows with “The Middle Ages,” a brilliant manifesto on aging where she ponders the clarity of the past and the murkiness of the future.

She grounds those feelings in reality on the contemplative “What Does It Mean to Travel” by examining the concept of space and the transformative nature of place. Trekking often means passing through those in between places as she does with “Livingston,” a reflection on the loneliness of the journey, which she did while traversing a long stretch of highway between Montana and Denver.

Carpenter returns to the human condition on “Map of My Heart,” a jaunty exportation of resiliency. There are cracks in her façade on “Oh Rosetta,” a conversation drenched in the self-doubt that arises when we question everything, wondering what it’s all for. We learn on “Deep, Deep Down Heart” that those questions don’t have answers because at our core, human beings are flawed. I found it freeing when I realized we’ll never ‘know it all.’ Life is a constant learning process with mistakes put before us as our greatest teachable moments.

The haunting “Hand on my Back” arises from knowing human connection is the grounding force that gives us permission to stop searching. It’s the bonds with other people that help us solidify our sense of place, of belonging, the comfort in knowing we’re not alone. It’s never a permanent fix, though, as we need the restlessness (in some fashion) to keep growing.

These same themes creep up again on “The Blue Distance,” a song inspired by Icelandic writer Roni Horn. Carpenter says that Horn describes the universe as ‘blue at it’s edges and it’s depths … the color of that distance is the color of emotion, the color of solitude and desire … the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go …’ I couldn’t extract the way “The Blue Distance” builds upon “Hand on my Back” in terms of the vital need for human interaction in our lives, but I do understand where she’s coming from conceptually.

There’s venerability at the core of “Note On A Windshield” that gives the song a purpose. We’d like to believe we’re all that person brave enough to go out on a limb, fight the fear of exposure, and take the risk. The song is about choosing a life with even the smallest intent, making sure you still have that something to believe in, the thing giving your days meaning.

The final cut, the title track, is a classic Carpenter ballad – slow and steady with her voice barely quivering above a whisper. It’s her signature technique, an art she’s perfected for more than thirty years. “The Things That We Are Made Of,” in Carpenter’s eyes, is the themes of the record. She brings the album full circle, proving that life is ever changing. We may figure some things out, but they’re not meant to stay that way forever.

The Things That We Are Made Of is a fully formed perfectly sequenced whole being best enjoyed in one sitting. It’s a journey worth embarking on, as Carpenter dispenses universal truths from a place of wisdom, as a woman who’s lived a life rich with experience. This isn’t a return to her country form, nor is it without dense production values overwhelming the second half. But it is Carpenter’s most exquisite piece of original work in more than a decade. She has something to say and has found an articulate way of expressing it. I certainly cannot fault her for that.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Wynonna – ‘Tell Me Why’

tell me whyWynonna’s second solo album was released in May 1993,produced as before by Tony Brown. It did not sell as well as its predecessor, but was still certified platinum, and produced five top 10 hits.

The first single, the title track, was a mid-tempo Karla Bonoff song with a glossy contemporary country-rock feel, and reached #3 on Billboard. This performance was matched by its successor, the more delicate and sophisticated ‘Only Love. Written by Roger Murrah and Marcus Hummon, it doesn’t sound particularly country now, but it featured a strong vocal performance.

My favorite track by far, ‘Is It Over Yet’, is a solemn piano-led ballad with a sensitive string arrangement which allows Wynonna’s emotion-filled voice to shine on a song about the pain of a breakup. It peaked at #7.

The most successful single, ‘Rock Bottom’, only just missed the top of the charts. It was written by the songwriters behind Southern Rockers the Atlanta Rhythm Section, and has a bluesy rock groove which suits Wynonna’s confident growl, although it’s not really my favorite style. The final single, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s ‘Girls With Guitars’, is a strong country rock number celebrating female musicians by telling the story of one young woman’s progress from high school to adult success, defeating the expectations of sexist listeners along the way. Naomi Judd and Lyle Lovett contribute backing vocals on the song.

Jesse Winchester’s ‘Let’s Make A Baby King’ is a Christmas song which New Grass Revival had recorded a few years earlier in more bluegrassy style, and which Wynonna gave a black gospel makeover. While Wynonna’s version was not formally released as a single, it gained some airplay at Christmas. ‘Just Like New’ is another memorable Winchester song, a bluesy story about a car once owned by Elvis. Naomi Judd’s ‘That Was Yesterday’ is performed as a slowed down blues number.

‘Father Sun’ was written by Sheryl Crow, about to make her own breakthrough as a rock singer-songwriter, and has a rather elusive lyric. The production funnels Wynonna’s vocal through an echoey effect which wastes her greatest asset, her powerful voice, and more gospel style backing vocals swamp her at the end.

She does show her more subtle interpretative side with a cover of ‘I Just Drove By’, written and originally recorded by Kimmie Rhodes. This charming song is about sweet memories of childhood innocence, and Wynonna sings it beautifully.

While it is a long way from traditional, and a purist might challenge its country credentials on any level, Wynonna was able to take her place in the diverse sounds of 1990s country music. It’s an accomplished record in its own right, genre considerations aside, but that does make it tough to assign a grade to on a country blog.

Grade: B

Album Review: Nancy Beaudette – ‘South Branch Road’

CD400_outA virtue of the independent music scene is the joy in discovering artists for which the act of creating music is a deeply personal art. Nancy Beaudette, who hails from Cornwall, Ontario, but has made a name for herself in Central Massachusetts, is one such singer-songwriter. With South Branch Road, her eighth release, Beaudette’s homespun tales are the most fully realized of her nearly three-decade career.

The gorgeous title track, where the gentle strums of an acoustic guitar frame Beaudette’s elegant ode to her childhood, is a perfect example:

I fell in love with tar and stone

And a county lined with maple and oak

In sixty-one with three kids in tow

Mom and dad bought a place there and made it home

I spent my summers on a steel blue bike

Weaving shoulder to shoulder like wind in a kite

Dreaming big and reaching high

Riding further and further out on my own

The image of a girl and her bike surfaces again on “Ride On,” a wispy ballad chronicling a daughter’s relationship with her father. The track, co-written by Beaudette, Kerry Chater, and Lynn Gillespie Chater, succeeds on the fact it doesn’t end with the father’s death, like these songs almost always do. The journey of life surfaces again on “Can’t Hold Back,” a mid-tempo ballad co-written with Rick Lang. The track beautifully employs a nature metaphor that Beaudette and Lang keep fresh and exciting with their clever lyric.

Beaudette solely penned the masterfully constructed “Something Tells Me,” the devastating centerpiece of South Branch Road. An unpredictable twist follows a story that sits in an air of mystery until the final verse belts you square in the gut. I haven’t felt this much emotion towards a song in years, probably because the woman in the song and my mom are the same age.

Beaudette clearly isn’t a novice, as she smartly surrounds “Something Tells Me,” the most affecting number on South Branch Road, with joyous moments of levity. These moments are the heart and soul of the record, showcasing Beaudette’s everywoman nature and her ability to draw you in with her aptitude for turning narratives into conversations, as though you were just casually catching up over a cup of coffee.

“’Till The Tomatoes Ripen” takes me back to my childhood and my grandfather’s tradition of planting an insanely large garden of the titular vegetable. I fondly remember the pleasure of going through the rows and picking the red ones by the basketful. Beaudette’s lyric conveys the much simpler notion of planting the garden itself and the contented happiness that comes from watching it grow. The peaceful oceanfront setting in which she places said garden only increases the joy abounding from the proceedings.

The bonds of newly minted friendship take center ice on “Shoot to Score,” a hockey-themed uptempo number that values the importance of dream visualization. Cornwall is a hockey city, so Beaudette is right-at-home name-checking the likes of Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky. The lyric turns wonderfully personal when Beaudette recounts her own memories with the sport:

I loved to play but I wasn’t great

An’ I showed up with my figure skates

And my first step out onto the ice

And I fell flat on my face

“End of Line” is the purest country song on South Branch Road. Banjo and fiddle abound on a story about a couple, their love of watching trains, and the moment their relationship has to end. The rollicking tune feels almost like a prelude to “Between Your Heart and Mine,” a mournful ballad about a woman, a lost love, and a stroll across the Brooklyn Bridge. I can’t remember an instance when such a memorable walk was so delightfully clouded in ambiguity.

“Build It Up” teams Beaudette with Marc Rossi, a Nashville-based songwriter who graduated from high school with my parents. The lyric details a farmhouse fire in the early 20th century and the way lives were altered as a result. The slicker production, which recalls Forget About It era Alison Krauss, is perfectly in service to the downbeat but catchy lyric. Opener “Starlight” harkens back to early 1990s Mary Chapin Carpenter with a gloriously bright production and Beaudette’s high energy vocal.

South Branch Road is extraordinarily layered and nuanced. Channeling her inner Don Williams, Beaudette draws you in with her natural simplicity. Her songwriting gets to the heart of the matter by conveying emotion without bogging down the listener with unnecessarily clunky lyrics. She’s a master storyteller, which in turn has informed her ability to craft lyrical compositions that fully utilize this very rare gift.

Beaudette’s relatability, and the personal connections I’ve found within these songs, drew me in to fully appreciate the magic of South Branch Road; a window into her soul. She’s constructed an album from the inside out, using her own life to give the listener a deeply personal tour of her many winds and roads, reflecting on the lessons learned around each curve and bend. Beaudette is already a bright bulb on the independent music scene but the release of South Branch Road demands that light shine even brighter.

Grade: A+

Week ending 11/22/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

tomthall1_h1954 (Sales): More and More — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1954 (Jukebox): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): More and More — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1964: I Don’t Care (Just As Long As You Love Me) — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1974: Country Is — Tom T. Hall (Mercury)

1984: Give Me One More Chance — Exile (Epic)

1994: Shut Up And Kiss Me — Mary-Chapin Carpenter (Columbia)

2004: In A Real Love — Phil Vassar (Arista)

2014: Something In The Water — Carrie Underwood (Arista Nashville)

2014 (Airplay): Neon Light — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)

Spotlight Artist: Lee Roy Parnell

lee-roy-parnell_2011_13049617483975.pngHe made a name for himself with vocal stylings similar in tone to Ronnie Dunn. But it was the brief mainstream acceptance of his bluesy Texas country sound that cements the legacy of Lee Roy Parnell.

Parnell was born December 21, 1956 in Abilene, Texas but raised on his family’s ranch in Stephenville. His father toured as part of teenage Bob Willis’ traveling medicine shows. Parnell would have his first public performance on Wills’ radio show at six-years-old, and play both drums and guitar in a local band as a young adult. He joined the Austin music scene in 1974, while he was also a member of Kinky Freedman’s Texas Jewboys.

Parnell would work the Austin music scene for more than a decade, playing clubs, sharpening his skills on the slide guitar, and holding down a radio show. He relocated to Nashville in 1987 where he scored a publishing deal, regular gig at the Bluebird Café, and a record contract with Arista Nashville within a two-year span.

His eponymous album came in 1990, along with three singles that failed to crack the top 40. A fourth single, “The Rock,” that led his sophomore set Love Without Mercy, did slightly better peaking at #50. His breakthrough would finally come when upbeat rocker “What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am” peaked at #2 in 1992. His string of hits continued for the next four years, where he would peak at #2 twice more (with “Tender Moment” in 1993 and “A Little Bit of You” in 1995) and see four more singles hit the top 10.

In addition to his own hit singles, Parnell would come to be known for notable contributions as both a songwriter and musician. He wrote Pirates of the Mississippi’s 1992 top 40 hit “Too Much” as well as Collin Raye’s 1993 top 10 “That’s My Story.”

In 1994, Parnell played slide guitar and appeared in the music video for Mary Chapin Carpenter’s sole chart-topper “Shut Up And Kiss Me.” That same year he formed Jedd Zeppelin, a supergroup consisting of himself, Steve Wariner, and Diamond Rio. They collaborated on a cover of “Working Man Blues” for the multi-artist Mama’s Hungry Eyes tribute album to Merle Haggard.

He scored his final top 15 hit “Givin’ Water to a Drowning Man” in 1996, while recording for Arista imprint Career Records. A nomination for the Best Country Instrumental Grammy came in 1997, and his final Arista album, a greatest hits collection entitled Hits & Highways Ahead was released in 1999.

Two more albums would follow after the turn of the century – Tell The Truth on the Vanguard label in 2001 and Back To The Well on Universal South in 2006. Neither would produce any hit singles. He was also credited for contributing slide guitar to David Lee Murphy’s low charting single “Inspiration” in 2004.

While Parnell has since retired from the music industry, his legacy of hits live on thanks to the fans who remember his contributions to the country music landscape more than twenty years ago. Please enjoy our retrospective as we revisit his discography for the month of September.

Album Review: Beth Nielsen Chapman – ‘UnCovered’

UnCoveredBeth Nielsen Chapman was one of the finest songwriters in Nashville in the 1990s, getting a lot of high-profile cuts (and hits), particularly among female artists. More of a genreless singer-songwriter than a purely country one, she enjoyed several hits herself on Adult Contemporary radio in the 90s. Her writing style nonetheless fitted in well with the diversity of 1990s country radio, with her songs running the gamut from sensitive ballads to commercial pop-country. Here she revisits a number of her songs recorded by country artists, focussing on those she never recorded herself.

My favourite song here is the excellent ‘Five Minutes’, a one-last-chance ultimatum delivered by a wife about to leave. Back in the late 80s this was recorded separately by Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan, becoming a big hit for the latter, and in a nice touch, both women help out on backing vocals on Beth’s version. Her lead vocals are great and the intimate arrangement works perfectly.

I also really enjoyed her version of ‘Nothin’’ I Can Do About It Now’ (Willie Nelson’s last chart-topper). Beth’s version of the Tanya Tucker hit ‘Strong Enough To Bend’ is also attractively done, mixing vulnerability and strength.

She recruits occasional tour partners Gretchen Peters, Suzy Bogguss and Matraca Berg to provide call-and-response backing vocals on ‘Almost Home’ , which she wrote with and for Mary Chapin Carpenter. The sunnily positive mid-tempo ‘Here We Are’ was a #2 country hit for Alabama in 1991. I hadn’t realised Beth wrote this one with Vince Gill, but so it appears. Vince makes an appearance to sing the high harmony on this version. Beth wrote the moody ‘Sweet Love Shine’ with the late Waylon Jennings, and it was originally recorded as a duet between Jennings and Andy Griggs. Jessi Colter and Duane Eddy guest on Beth’s cover.

The pretty good piano led mid-tempo ‘Simple Things’ was an AC hit for pianist Jim Brickman with country artist Rebecca Lynn Howard on vocals, and it could have easily been covered in a mainstream country version. The sensitive Maybe That’s All It Takes’ (a late minor hit for Don Williams) is tastefully performed in an AC style with Darrell Scott on harmony. ‘Pray’ is a beautifully sung contemporary Christian song with an ethereal Celtic arrangement and backing vocals from co-writer Muriel Anderson and Amy Grant.

But while Chapman is a fine songwriter, she has some less stellar copyrights to her credit. I always hated Faith Hill’s monster hit version of ‘This Kiss’, and I don’t care for this one much more. The bluesy ‘Meet Me Halfway’ (written for Bonnie Raitt) is a bit bland. She wrote ‘One In A Million’ for the ill-fated Mindy McCready, and it too is poppy and lacking in depth.

I always enjoy hearing songwriters reveal their own take on songs they have written for other artists, and while this is not particularly country, the arrangements are generally tasteful while Chapman’s rich, warm vocals work well on most of the songs included.

Grade: A-

Album Review – Suzy Bogguss – ‘Give Me Some Wheels’

220px-SuzyBoggussGiveMeSomeWheelsWith all artists there comes a point in time when their music isn’t in step with current commercial trends and therefore banished from country radio. Following a string of successful projects, that fate met Suzy Bogguss. After teaming up with Chet Atkins for the artistically strong but commercially disappointing Simpatico, she took a year off to start a family. In that time, her unique styling was pushed out in favor of more pop leaning acts like Shania Twain, Faith Hill, and Martina McBride. Bogguss changed producers to Trey Bruce and Scott Hendricks for Give Me Some Wheels, released in summer 1996, but that didn’t reverse her sharp commercial decline.

The production on Give Me Some Wheels was far poppier and more decidedly upbeat than anything Bogguss had released to date, and the change in tempo added immensely to the listening experience. The #60 peaking title track, which reteamed Bogguss with her “Hey Cinderella” co-writers Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison, is an excellent uptempo number not too different from “Believe Me (Baby I Lied)” or “Wild Angles” and nice change of pace for Bogguss. Marcus Hummond and Darrell Scott’s “No Way Out” (also covered by Julie Roberts on her 2004 debut) stalled at #53 despite a wonderful uptempo arrangement and confident vocal from Bogguss. Final single “She Said, I Heard,” a Bogguss co-write with Don Schlitz, is another excellent mid-tempo rockin’ number that nicely recalls of that era Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Bogguss keeps the same pace on Tom Shapiro and George Teren’s “Traveling Light,” which I really, really like although the production leans a bit too generic. She steps far out of her musical comfort zone on Trey Bruce and Craig Wiseman’s “Fall,” framing her energetic vocal behind a decidedly popish drum track. The results are pure filler but Bogguss overcomes the track’s lightness with a charisma that’s hard not to be drawn into.

I thoroughly appreciate Bogguss’ efforts in changing up the proceedings on Give Me Some Wheels and not riding on the quiet angelic ballads that won her so much industry attention a few years earlier. Sure it was a calculated attempt at keeping up with current trends but it worked because Bogguss can pull of these kinds of songs very well.

She didn’t abandon her love of ballads completely, however. Bogguss and her husband Doug Crider co-wrote “Far and Away,” possibly the strongest song that wasn’t on her heyday albums, and if it had been a single back then would’ve likely topped the charts. Her conviction is incredible and I love the riffs of steel guitar heard throughout. “Feelin’ Bout You” is another home run as it beautifully blends the simplicity of a ballad with just enough tempo to keep it interesting. I also love “Let’s Get Real,” which is an example of country/rock done right. It leads as a country ballad complete with fiddle and steel but brings in some crashing drums on the chorus to give it oomph. Bogguss doesn’t sound as committed vocally on this track as I would’ve liked, but it’s very good nonetheless. “Live To Love Another Day” is a further example of Bogguss’ ballad sweet spot and a wonderful addition to the album. “Saying Goodbye To A Friend” is quiet and subtle, but it works thanks to Bogguss’ direct poignancy.

It may seem kind of odd to hear Bogguss positioned as a pop/country singer and not the eloquent balladeer we all came to know (and love) on her early to mid 90s recordings. But she pulls it off just like I knew she could. The issue with her early work was the albums got bogged down in a sea of sameness, a factor Bruce and Hendricks nicely rectified on Give Me Some Wheels. I hadn’t heard the album prior to writing this review, but it’s a very pleasant surprise in all accounts and might just be my favorite of all her recordings. If only every singer (I’m looking at you current Hendricks devotee Blake Shelton) could make trend pandering music sound this good.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘I Take My Chances’

Mary Chapin Carpenter performs at the 1994 ACM Awards. Introduction by Reba McEntire.

Album Review: Kacey Musgraves – ‘Same Trailer, Different Park’

imagesA major reason for my disillusionment with modern commercial country music is the lack of the mature adult female prospective that elevated the quality of radio playlists throughout the 1990s. The absence of Matraca Berg and Gretchen Peters songs on major label albums (and the decline in popularity of artists such as Pam Tillis, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, and Trisha Yearwood) has left a noticeable gap, one filled with unsatisfying party anthems and the occasional attempt at a throwback that just never quite quenches the thirst.

Thank goodness for Kacey Musgraves. The 24-year-old former Nashville Star contestant from Golden, TX is the take-no-prisoners rebel country music needs to get out of its funk. Same Trailer, Different Park is the strongest commercial country album I’ve heard in ages, filled with timely songs that say something relevant to the modern world. She has a way of crafting lyrics that touch a nerve without seeming offensive that goes well beyond her years.

Initially I will admit I wasn’t floored by “Merry Go ‘Round” the way that most everyone else was, because I managed to get it lost in the shuffle when it debuted late last year. I now fully see the genius in it – the striking way Musgraves (along with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne) paints a deeply honest portrait of small town life so simply. She also brings those same qualities to her new single “Blowin’ Smoke,” which includes a genius play on words (literally smoking/wasting time) for added effect.

I found that a main commonality in the records I’ve loved in past few years are lyrics containing interesting couplets, and Same Trailer Different Park is no different. The obvious example is scrapped second single “Follow Your Arrow,” which among other things, brings the equality debate firmly to the forefront:

Make lots of noise
And kiss lots of boys
Or kiss lots of girls
If that’s something you’re into
When the straight and narrow
Gets a little too straight
Roll up a joint, or don’t
Just follow your arrow
Wherever it points, yeah
Follow your arrow
Wherever it points

Say what you feel
Love who you love
‘Cause you just get
So many trips ’round the sun
Yeah, you only
Only live once

To me it’s a shame that the country music industry has evolved into a place where such a song can’t be given its due, especially since it’s not so different from such classics as “The Pill” or “The Rubber Room,” and is an anthem for our times. Personally I celebrate her boldness (which in actuality is pretty tame) and quite enjoy both the banjo driven musical arrangement and her uncomplicated twangy vocal. The track’s overall feel good attitude really works for me.

Another favorite line, ‘You sure look pretty in your glass house/You probably think you’re too good to take the trash out’ opens another confident statement piece, “Step Off,” which plays like the typical breakup ballad sans petty revenge. Also slightly atypical is the similar themed “I Miss You,” another love gone wrong song, but this time with the added vulnerability of actually missing the guy she’s broken up with. It’s nice, and a refreshing change of pace, to hear someone still grappling with feelings towards the ex instead of just writing them off in a typical Taylor Swift type scenario. The gently rocking “Back On The Map” goes even a step further and finds Musgraves pleading for a date, telling the men of the world “I’ll do anything that you ask.”

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Album Review – Collin Raye – ‘Can’t Back Down’

RayebackdownCan’t Back Down, Collin Raye’s seventh studio album, came just eight months after Tracks and did nothing to reverse his already declining fortunes. He took on co-producer James Stroud for the project, but that didn’t help matters, and he exited Epic shortly thereafter.

“Ain’t Nobody Gonna Take That From Me” peaked at #43 and it’s an excellent song, evidenced by Joe Nichols cover on 2007’s Real Things. Raye’s version, however, was a bit too poppy, but he gives a pleasant vocal and has some nice fiddle riffs throughout. The breathy religious-tinged ballad “What I Need” failed to chart.

The main problem with the album is the generic nature of the proceedings – Raye and Stroud fail to amass a collection of songs that rise above average, with the song selection failing to be anything terribly memorable let alone hit worthy. Raye spends the project trying to fit in with the early 2000s Nashville crowd, thus spending too much time pandering and not enough time finding great songs.

That being said this isn’t a terrible album, but it isn’t up to Raye’s usual standards. “Gypsy Honeymoon” does boast a nice up-beat production, but Raye’s raspy vocal is a bit off-putting. He charges up the production again on “Young As We’re Ever Gonna Be” (which he co-wrote), to much better results, pulling off what sounds like a long-lost Mary Chapin Carpenter anthem circa Stones In The Road.

Raye again looses his way on the majority of the ballads. “Dear Life” attempts to be inspirational but his breathy vocal and the AC-leaning piano hinder the enjoyment. “What I Did For Love” and “One Desire” are just odd and feature a sonically out of place drum machine that does little more but water down Raye’s usual tenderness into a pop-meets-R&B concoction that’s far more LA than Nashville.

Raye does attempt to regain his footing in the mainstream, though, and you have to credit a man for trying. “It Could Be That Easy” sounds like it could’ve come from any of his previous records, but it just isn’t nearly as strong. “Dancing With No Music Playing” and “End of the World” have the best production (with the latter best representing Raye’s glory days), but they fall up short thanks to weak lyrical content and somewhat scrawny vocal performances. “I Can’t Let Go Now” is just too slow, and the string section makes the track too sleepy for my tastes.

It’s easy to see why Can’t Back Down marked the end of Raye’s mainstream career – it just wasn’t a great album. I’m all for applauding artists when they grow stylistically, but Raye seems like he’s changed. Save the first single and “Young As We’re Ever Gonna Be,” this isn’t the same man who had a long string of hits just a few years earlier. The ballads don’t pack the same punch and his voice doesn’t sound like it’s aging gracefully, which is a shame. But it isn’t his worst album. It may be among his safest, but it isn’t dreck.

Grade: B-

Album Review – Collin Raye – ‘I Think About You’

Rayethink1995 was a good year for Collin Raye. Coming off the success of Extremes, he released I Think About You in late August. Like its three predecessors, it received a platinum certification and retained John Hobbs as producer (Ed Seay and Paul Worley co-produced).

I Think About You was instrumental in shaping my country music identity as it was one of the first country projects I was exposed to as a kid, and remains my third favorite country album to this day (behind Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Come On, Come On and Dixie Chicks Home). The hits from this project have a special quality I’ve never been able to duplicate with any other artists’ work.

Mark Alan Springer and Shane Smith co-wrote the #2 peaking lead single, “One Boy, One Girl,” a fantastically touching ballad centered around the full-circle love affair between a couple. The ending of the story is a bit predicable, but Raye gives the type of touching performance only he could bring to a ballad, and both Dan Digmore and Paul Franklin drench the number in gorgeous pedal steel.

Even better is “Not That Different,” Karen Taylor-Good and Joie Scott’s song about indifference that climbed to #3. I love how the song builds, starting out as a simple piano ballad and building to its drum-infused conclusion with the bridge. The lyric, both simple and brilliant, is fine testament to the powers of fate, and probably my favorite on the whole album:

She could hardly argue

With his pure and simple logic

But logic never could convince a heart

She had always dreamed of loving someone more exotic

And he just didn’t seem to fit the part

So she searched for greener pastures

But never could forget

What he whispered when she left

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