My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Matraca Berg

2013 CMA Awards predictions – Who should and will win

Here are my predictions for the 47th annual show, airing next Wednesday on ABC. Do you agree/disagree? As always you can check out the nominations, here.

UnknownENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR

A solid list of well deserving nominees, minus Carrie Underwood, whose lack of a nomination has already incurred my wrath. Taylor Swift may be the biggest star here, but the Country Music Association deserve credit for keeping their traditional edge alive and including George Strait, whose in the middle of his final tour.

Should Win: George Strait – he won back-to-back in 1989 and 1990 and deserves his third win this year, while he’s half way through his two year goodbye to the road

Will Win: Luke Bryan – he’s the biggest male artist in country music right now, selling huge amounts of albums and ranking up hit after hit. He’s on top and here to stay, which a win in this category is going to prove.

Cruise - Single CoverSINGLE OF THE YEAR

A surprising yet diverse list of nominees with Florida Georgia Line’s behemoth squaring off with Darius Rucker’s mainstream reading of an underground smash going up against Kacey Musgraves’ critical favorite, and Miranda Lambert’s best dose of angst since “Gunpowder & Lead.” I only wish The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” was here in place of “Highway Don’t Care.”

Should Win: “Mama’s Broken Heart” – the fourth single from Four The Record was album’s best and proof that artists who get complacent should put down their own pen and let the professionals take over.

Will Win: “Cruise” – It’s the #1 song in country music history with a rap remix that also made it relevant in pop, and more than five million digital downloads. Is there any other single of the year?

imagesALBUM OF THE YEAR

Taylor Swift’s first (but likely not last) foray into pop is up against Kacey Musgraves’ critical smash and Little Big Town’s coming out. Underwood’s album is just okay and Shelton’s should’ve been replaced with Ashley Monroe’s Like A Rose.

Should Win: Same Trailer Different Park – the best album of the bunch comes from a 24-year-old who pours more life experience into her twelve songs than all the other nominees combined. One of the strongest major label debuts in years.

Will Win: Red – name recognition alone will endear her to voters, who’ve been handing this award to the biggest star for the past several years. Not even the fact it’s a pop album will hurt her.

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Album Review – Brandy Clark – ’12 Stories’

1052311_591462260874890_775508162_oIf you’ve been paying attention to country music in 2013, there’s likely one name on the tip of your tongue: Brandy Clark. The buzz about the songwriter behind such hits as “Mama’s Broken Heart” and “Better Dig Two” has been at fever pitch, and it’s easy to understand why with just one listen to her debut record.

Clark has stolen the Linda Ronstadt rulebook that Trisha Yearwood and company made famous in the 1990s, rewritten it, and crafted an album that borrows from, yet improves on, the past, all while introducing an artist who is completely and uniquely herself. With 12 Stories Clark has re-drafted the textbook on how to evolve, and not change, the country genre.

At its core 12 Stories is an exercise in immaculate songwriting. Clark has an innate ability to take hefty subjects and morph them into delicious slices of black comedy, skewing the stories to forgo the ache in an effort to focus on creating little vignettes that play like some of the best episodes of television.

My favorite of these is “Hungover,” a Sara Evans-like co-write with Shane McAnally and Jessie Jo Dillon about a woman’s realization that her drunken man isn’t going to change. Also stunning is “The Day She Got Divorced,” a wonderfully addicting day-in-the-life about a woman’s itinerary the day her marriage officially ends. Reba had it on All The Women I Am and it was my favorite track on that project three years ago.

“Stripes”, the album’s lead single, is the new standard-bearer for cheating songs, with the woman declaring ‘there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion” as she ponders killing her husband, stopping only because “I don’t look good in orange and I hate stripes”. Clark (along with McAnally and Matt Jenkins) has co-written one hell of a clever song, and while the premise is laid on a little thick it works surprisingly well.

“Crazy Women” was an excellent yet low-charting single for LeAnn Rimes (from Lady & Gentlemen), and Clark’s version is good, but lacks the punch of personality Rimes brought to her recording. In addition, “Get High,” the only song Clark wrote solo (and the oldest composition on the album) suffers from a weak hook (‘sometimes the only way to get by is to get high’) that leaves the chorus feeling underdeveloped.

What elevates 12 Stories into an echelon of masterworks is the emotional depth Clark brings to the project. She elegantly weaves a series of ballads between the vignettes that rank among the finest moments on a country album this decade.

Weeds-inspired “Pray To Jesus” is a timeless anthem for the working poor that doesn’t stereotype or judge. It acts an affirmation that we’re all just trying to better ourselves from within, because the fix doesn’t come from the outside world. It’s the lone socially conscious track on 12 Stories and currently the best song of its kind from this somewhat forgotten sub-genre.

“What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” is a reflection on the pull between right and wrong framed around two married individuals who are about to cheat on their spouses. Clark is able to get inside the woman’s psyche – “I don’t know what scares me most, the ride up, or the ride down” – in way that’s both ordinary and extraordinary; exercising both arguments while letting the listener make their own conclusions. The simple beauty recalls Matraca Berg’s “Lying To The Moon.”

Clark and “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” co-writer Mark Stephen Jones teamed up again on “Hold My Hand,” the story of a couple running into his alluring ex-lover, only to have his current love plead for definition in their relationship. Meanwhile “In Some Corner” spins another side of the “Last Call”/”Keep It To Yourself” drunken dialing saga that amazingly hasn’t been played out yet. It’s Clark’s turn to show her moment of weakness and she’s praying he doesn’t call, as she can’t refuse his advances.

The strongest track on 12 Stories comes at the end, with an all too common narrative about a woman who marries the mirror image of her always-absent father. “Just Like Him” (co-written with Dillon and McAnally) beautifully hits upon the unspoken truth that people marry at the level of their self-esteem, thinking they’re only worth the same-gender role models (or lack thereof) they grew up around. The conviction Clark brings to this song is remarkable, showcasing her incredible knack at crafting tales purely from observation – her dad is the antithesis of this character.

In truth Clark brings that conviction to the entire project. As a child of the 90s, I came of age in the era when music such as this was the rule and not the exception, when artists were allowed to have real problems that were bigger than which truck was going to transport some beer keg to lake whatever down some dirt road littered with bikini-clad country girls.

It makes me sick that every record label in Nashville (even two that confessed to loving it) passed on releasing 12 Stories but I’m glad an independent label in Texas picked it up. This is music that needs to be heard. I urge you to pick up a copy, as it’s well worth the money, and time spent listening. Clark is the most important singer/songwriter to come around in a long, long time and 12 Stories is the best album of its kind I’ve heard in many, many years.

Grade: A

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Single Review – Danielle Bradbery – ‘The Heart of Dixie’

Danielle-Bradbery-The-Heart-Of-Dixie-Cover-ArtOne of the biggest mysteries in contemporary country music has been the ongoing stagnation at the top for female artists. Not since Taylor Swift debuted with “Tim McGraw” in June 2006, has a woman been able to have consistent airplay for their singles. Some (Jana Kramer and Kacey Musgraves) have launched big but seemingly fizzled out while others (Kellie Pickler and Ashton Shepherd) have been dropped by major labels after multiple albums worth of singles couldn’t peak better than top 20. You have to look at duos and groups to find any other females (Jennifer Nettles, Hillary Scott, Kimberly Perry, Shawna Thompson, Joey Martin Feek) who are having success and even they have enough male energy to keep them commercially viable.

Let’s not forget that two summers ago, fourteen days went by without a single song by a solo female in the top 30 on the Billboard Country Singles Chart. With the demographics in country music skewing younger and the music-seeking public increasingly more and more female, is there any hope this pattern will change? Can anyone break through the muck and join the ranks of Swift, Miranda Lambert, and Carrie Underwood?

If anyone can, it’s Danielle Bradbery. She has three strikes in her favor already – at 17 she’s young enough to appeal to the genre’s core demographic audience, she’s signed to the Big Machine label Group run by master monopolizer Scott Borchetta, and as winner of The Voice, she has Blake Shelton firmly in her corner. Plus, she’s an adorable bumpkin from Texas who has enough charisma and girl next door appeal to last for days.

They also nailed it with her debut single. “The Heart of Dixie” isn’t a great song lyrically speaking. Bradbery is singing about a girl named Dixie who flees her dead-end life (job and husband) for a better existence down south. But that’s it. There’s nothing else in Troy Verges, Brett James, and Caitlyn Smith’s lyric except a woman who gets up and goes – no finishing the story. How Matraca Berg or Gretchen Peters would’ve written the life out of this song 20 years ago. Also, could they have found an even bigger cliché than to name her Dixie?

But the weak lyric isn’t as important here as the melody. It has been far too long since a debut single by a fresh talent has come drenched in this much charming fiddle since probably Dixie Chicks. The production is a throwback to the early 2000s – think Sara Evans’ “Backseat of a Greyhound Bus” – and I couldn’t be happier. So what if the arrangement is a tad too cluttered? Who cares if Bradbery needs a little polish in her phrasing? There isn’t a rock drum or hick-hop line to be found here, and in 2013 country music that’s a very refreshing change of pace.

Bradbery isn’t the savior for female artists in country music. Expect for her Voice audition of “Mean” and a performance of “A Little Bit Stronger,” we’ve yet to hear Bradbery the artist, although Bradbery the puppet has been compelling thus far. Her lack of a booming vocal range like Underwood’s may also hurt her, but isn’t it time someone understated turned everything down a notch?

With everything she has going in her favor, Bradbery may be our genre’s best hope for fresh estrogen. I don’t see her injecting anything new into country music, but redirecting the focus back to a time when “Born To Fly”-type songs were topping the charts, isn’t a bad thing in my book. Hers mostly likely won’t be that lyrically strong, but if she can keep the fiddle and mandolin front and center – I won’t be complaining.

Grade: B 

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Album Review: Pam Tillis – ‘Rhinestoned’

rhinestonedAfter parting ways with Sony following the release of her 2002 tribute album to her father, Pam Tillis took a five-year hiatus from the recording studio. The time off did her some good from an artistic standpoint; Rhinestoned, which was released in the spring of 2007 on her own Stellar Cat imprint, easily trumps her last couple of uneven releases for Arista.

Surpisingly, Tillis only has songwriter credits on two of the album’s eleven tracks, though she did share production duties with Gary Nicholson and Matt Spicher. Many artists have difficulty getting access to first-rate material by the time the major label phases of their careers have ended, but this is decidedly not the case here. Rhinestoned boasts an impressive roster of songwriters, including Leslie Satcher, Lisa Brokop, Jon Randall, Matraca Berg, Gary Harrison and Bruce Robison. Pam’s brother Mel Jr. co-wrote one track with her.

My favorite track is the lovely opening number “Something Burning Out”, penned by Leslie Satcher, which finds Tillis lamenting a lost love and avoiding anything to do with fire — namely candles, the fireplace, and cigarettes — which remind her of happier times. I like to contrast this song to “Don’t Tell Me What To Do”; the earlier song finds Tillis defiant and determined to party away her troubles, whereas “Something Burning Out” finds her more weary and resigned to her situation. Also quite good is “Band In The Window”, the first of the album’s two non-charting singles, which takes a humorous look at the bar scene, the patrons who hang out there, and the aspiring musicians who perform there.

“That Was A Heartache”, a Bruce Robison co-write with Leslie Satcher, is another favorite. Pam performs it well, but it deserved a wider audience than she was able to reach at this point of her career. I’d like to see a mainstream artist cover this tune, though I can’t think of anyone from the current crop of artists who could do it justice, and country radio would probably not be interested in it anyway. Kellie Pickler did recently cover “Someone Somewhere Tonight”, a pretty but unmemorable and slightly dull ballad.

Pam co-wrote “Life Sure Has Changed Us Around” with Gary Nicholson, a track on which she duets with fellow performer John Anderson. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to pair these two up but they sound very good together and I wouldn’t mind hearing more collaborations from them. The Matraca Berg – Gary Harrison tune “Crazy By Myself” is given a Dixeland jazz arrangement, which provides a nice change of pace, though the production on the track is a little heavy-handed.

“Bettin’ Money On Love” is the album’s most unusual track. It is mostly spoken and not sung. I’m not a huge fan of spoken word songs, but this one has a really good fiddle track and I have to admit it is well done. Tillis portrays a bar owner — perhaps the same bar depicted in “Band In The Window” — who has banned football viewing from her establishment and goes on to recount the tale of her ex-lover who gambled away Tillis’ beloved Mustang on a football game.

Rhinestoned was apparently intended to be a 1970s-style “hippie country” record, and though I’m not sure it really succeeds on that level, it is a very entertaining and well-performed collection of songs that proved that while her hitmaking days may be behind her, the world hasn’t heard the last of Pam Tillis. And for that we are most grateful.

Grade: A-

Album Review – Pam Tillis – ‘Sweetheart’s Dance’

Pam-Tillis-Sweethearts-DanceWhen the time came for Pam Tillis to record her third album for Arista Nashville, she knew she wanted more say over the project. Tillis lobbied with her label and got their permission to co-produce the project with Steve Fishell instead of using Paul Worley and Ed Seay, who had helmed her previous work. As a result, Sweetheart’s Dance became the most successful of her studio projects to date.

The main element that threaded the songs on Sweetheart’s Dance is the thematic diversity among the ten tracks. Unlike her previous work, and that of her contemporaries, Sweetheart’s Dance is a joyously upbeat affair that relies on a remarkably sunny disposition for most of its thirty-four minutes.

For most, relying on a singular emotion would be a downfall but Tillis is an astute enough songsmith to understand the delicate art of balance. The lead single is one of only three ballads, and relays a biting conversation between two female friends – one is in desperate search for true love while the other acts as moral support, having been there herself. “Spilled Perfume,” which Tillis co-wrote with Dean Dillon, is masterful in its simplicity but its Tillis’ vocal, tender and without underlying judgment that brings the song to elevated heights.

The lead single would peak at #5, but Tillis would have greater success with the next two releases. A cover of Jackie DeShannon’s “When You Walk In The Room” would peak at #2. Covering 60s pop hits is always a risk, but Tillis presents the track in a new light, turning it into a slice of country-pop that aptly shows everyone else how it’s done. She’d finally score her only Billboard #1 with the next single, Tex-Mex rocker “Mi Via Loca (My Crazy Life).”

Tillis’ abruptly chose to end her winning streak when she pulled Layng Martine Jr’s “I Was Blown Away” in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombings. If circumstances had been different, this could’ve been her second #1. The fiddle drenched number peaked at #16.

The highlight of the project is “In Between Dances,” a gorgeous waltz by Craig Brickhardt and Barry Alfonso and the best song (next to “Maybe It Was Memphis”) Tillis has ever recorded. A tale of a woman between relationships, the writers brilliantly place her in a dancehall between partners, waiting for the right time to rejoin the action – “The partners are chosen, look at them waltzing away/
The tempo gets slower, closer and closer they sway
/I’ve had my moments when I could get lost in the sound
/But when the song ended the one in my arms let me down.”

Matraca Berg and Mike Noble co-wrote the excellent “Calico Plains,” a track Berg herself recorded on Lyin’ To The Moon four years earlier. It tells the story of a young girl who worships her older sister, whose dreams of a grander life are cut short by an unexpected pregnancy. The urgency by which Tillis brings the song to life only heightens the track’s beauty; accentuated by beautiful dobro riffs.

The detours into pain and longing are few, but those three ballads help ground the album. The title track is a fabulous country shuffle and one of the best fiddle tunes of the modern era. She revs up again on the delightful bluegrass inspired “Till All The Lonely’s Gone,” a joyous song about death that references Hank Williams, Sr in the opening verse – Well Hank made a living out of lonely/he sang liek a freight train whistle moan/Said “You’ll never get our of this world alive”/as if he’d always known.

Sweetheart’s Dance is flawless from start to finish, a classic in every sense of the term. Even the tracks that somewhat pander to trends – “They Don’t Break ‘Em Like They Used To” and “Better Off Blue” are exceptional examples of modern country done right in that era. This is an artist truly on top of her game at a time when such material was getting massive airplay on country radio. If you don’t own this album, I suggest you rectify that immediately – it’s easily one of the best country albums I’ve ever heard.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: Suzy Bogguss, Matraca Berg and Gretchen Peters – ‘Farther Along’

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘Nobody Love, Nobody Gets Hurt’

nobody love nobody gets hurtSuzy’s swansong for Capitol was released in 1998. She produced the record with her husband, and unfortunately it was a bit of a damp squib commercially, with no real hits.

She and husband Doug Crider wrote the mid-tempo AC ‘Somebody To Love’, her last top 40 single, with Matraca Berg. It opens with an arresting picture of a woman weeping in her kitchen all dolled up after a disastrous date, but the remainder of the lyric is bland and the melody is rather limited.

The title track performed less well, peaking in the 60s. Written by singer-songwriter Bobbie Cryner, it is a memorable and slightly quirky story about a dyslexic and emotionally damaged bank robber which is a little heavy handed in pressing home its point, but a stripped down arrangement and sensitive vocal sell it.

The final single, the Kim Richey/Tia Sillers-penned ‘From Where I Stand’ was another flop. Although (like ‘Somebody To Love’) it has quite a commercial late 90s sound reminiscent of Trisha Yearwood’s more AC material, it’s not very interesting.

The insistently bluesy pop-country ‘Just Enough Rope’ sounds like an attempt to compete with the likes of Shania Twain. It is a departure from Suzy’s strengths as an artist but is quite catchy, although someone like Yearwood would probably have been more suited to it. It is one of only two tracks to feature fiddle.

A more traditional country fiddle leads into Julie Miller’s ‘Take Me Back’. This is the most traditional country track on the record (with the only steel guitar to make an appearance as well as the fiddle) and a real highlight; an excellent song with a close harmony from Garth Brooks on the chorus.

‘When I Run’ is a nice Skip Ewing ballad with a pretty tune and insightful lyric about someone finding love scary. Suzy’s subtle vocal is beautiful, and makes this commitmentphobe sympathetic and convincing, when she says,

It’s not you
It’s not fun
I know tryin’ to hide is crazy
Walking out won’t save me
My demons only chase me when I run

Kathy Mattea sings backing vocals but is so low in the mix she is inaudible.

The delicate ballad ‘Moonlight And Roses’, written by Cheryl Wheeler, is an understated gem about not missing an opportunuity to find love, with another excellent, subtle vocal. Alison Krauss plays viola.

Tony Arata’s ‘I Wish Hearts Would Break’ is a moving tribute to a dying mineworker whose spirit has been broken by the death of his beloved wife, which again Suzy sings beautifully, supported by Darrell Scott’s backing vocals. Childhood memories are fondly recalled in the gently folky ‘Family Tree’, written by Doug Crider and Matt Rollings.

Suzy and Doug’s ‘I Surrender’ is a pleasant love song, with Patty Loveless providing a gentle harmony. I preferred the closing ‘Train Of Thought’, written by Cathy Majeski, Sunny Russ and Stephony Smith, an attractively laid back number with backing vocals from Trisha Yearwood and Alison Krauss.

Overall while this is not one of Suzy’s best albums, it is a pleasant listening experience, but the attempts at maintaining commercial viability are the least successful tracks. It marked the end of her time on a major label, but is worth picking up if you like Suzy’s music.

Grade: B-

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

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘Something Up My Sleeve’

something up my sleeveSuzy’s fifth album was released in 1993. Produced once more by Suzy with Jimmy Bowen, it is a mellow, classy album rather than an overtly commercial one, with AC leanings musically and mature lyrics. Suzy’s crystalline voice sounds beautiful throughout.

The first two singles were top five hits, and both were co-written by the artist. Suzy and husband Doug Crider wrote the philosophical ‘Just Like The Weather’, which has a pretty melody. She wrote the vicacious ‘Hey Cinderella’ with Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison, a questioning of real life happy-ever-after which is probably the album’s best remembered song

The remaining singles were less well received. ‘You Wouldn’t Say That To A Stranger’ missed the top 50 but is a thoughtful song written by Doug Crider with Pat Bunch about the harsh words that can be exchanged between lovers. It is a very good song, with a lovely melody.

‘Souvenirs’, an early Gretchen Peters song about drifting through the US, is a very singer-songwritery kind of song about the disillusionment of travelling aimlessly through the US and finding you’re not actually Jack Kerouac. It was probably a bit too downbeat and folky to have a wide appeal; not surprisingly it faltered in the 60s.

Similar in feel, ‘Diamonds And Tears’ is another mature, poetic song about learning from experience, this one written by Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison.

Suzy and Doug Crider teamed up with Steve Dorff for the melancholic unrequited love song ‘You Never Will’, which sounds very pretty with a tasteful string arrangement, and is probably my favourite track. Pat Bunch co-wrote the pleasant but slightly dull ‘You’d Be The One’ and the okay ‘No Green Eyes’ with Suzy and her husband.

‘I Keep Comin’ Back To You’ is yet another mellow sounding ballad, written by Beth Nielsen Chapman and Bill Lloyd. The title track was a duet with labelmate Billy Dean, a rather wimpy tenor who was never a big favourite of mine. It sounds pleasant but unexciting.

It was her last gold-selling studio set. Overall, it is very nice sounding although a long way removed from the traditional sounds of her debut, but few of the songs really stand out.

Grade: B

Album Review – Suzy Bogguss – ‘Voices In The Wind’

220px-SuzyBoggussVoicesintheWindSuzy Bogguss had a lot riding on her Voices of the Wind album. She was following up the platinum selling Aces, which contained her first string of top ten singles, and justifying her Horizon Award victory over genre heavyweights Brooks & Dunn, Trisha Yearwood, and Pam Tillis. While the record didn’t contain as many singles as Aces it was still a big success as her second consecutive gold record. Jimmy Bowen also returned as producer.

Bogguss was still riding the wave of her single “Letting Go” when time came to release the follow-up CD. Liberty/Capitol decided to tack that single on to the end of Voices in an effort to capitalize on the song’s success. It worked, and the track hit #6. The follow-up, a cover of John Hiatt’s “Drive South” fared even better, hitting #2. The high energy number, one of my favorite singles from her, was her biggest hit to date. The only other single, “Heartache” would break Bogguss’ hot streak, managing to stall at #23. The neo-traditional number was good, but probably a bit too slow for heavy rotation status on the radio.

Also included on the album is her version of Richard Leigh’s “Cold Day In July,” which Dixie Chicks took into the top 10 from their Fly album in Spring 2000. Bogguss turns in a wonderful version of the song but it’s a bit too adult contemporary. It works better with the electric guitars and Natalie Maines’ biting vocal on the Chicks’ version. Bogguss’ is a little too sweet. “Eat At Joes,” co-written by Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison, is a fabulous bluesy number about life at an all night diner, and one of the highlights. Trisha Yearwood’s voice may’ve been better suited for the song, her bluesy side is unmatched, but Bogguss turns in a very competent performance.

“Aces” writer Cheryl Wheeler contributes “Don’t Wanna,” an emotionally stunning ballad that Bogguss takes to new heights with her angelic voice. Bogguss has a subtle way of conveying a lyric and this is one example of where the production works in her favor in helping her tell the story. “Lovin’ A Hurricane” is the second track written by Hiatt and while it’s very good, her vocal almost seems too bland for the upbeat production. It tries but fails to repeat the magic of “Drive South.”

Bogguss had a hand in co-writing two of the album’s tracks, including one with husband Doug Crider (who co-wrote “Letting Go”). “How Come You Go To Her” (co-written with Michael Garvin and Anthony Smith) is an excellent mid-tempo ballad about a woman wondering why her man just isn’t into her. The Crider co-write is “In The Day,” another contemporary sounding ballad that succeeds on Bogguss’ ability to sell a story, this time of a burgeoning romance.

Crider also co-wrote “Love Goes Without Saying,” another similar sounding ballad, but another lyrically strong number. Chuck Pyle wrote “Other Side of the Hill,” a honky-tonk highlight. I love the rousing steel guitar and western themes, as well as Bogguss’ perfectly energetic vocal. If this track were a single, it would’ve likely been a huge hit.

Voices In The Wind is the perfect example of a catch 22. Lyrically, there isn’t a dud in the bunch. But Bogguss and Bowen spend a bit too much real estate on similar sounding ballads that bog the album down in a sea of slowness. She needs more songs like “Other Side of the Hill” to breakup the monotony, and showcase more diversity in what she can do as a singer and artist. That being said, it’s still a very strong album and although the 1992 era production is dated by today’s standards, Voices In The Wind is a worthy addition to any music collection.

Grade: B+ 

Spotlight Artist: Suzy Bogguss

Suzy BogusAledo, Illinois native Susan Kay “Suzy” Bogguss was born on December 30, 1956. She was performing in a hometown church choir by age five and playing piano, drums, and guitar by the time she was a teenager. In high school Bogguss was active in the theater program and was crowned homecoming queen in her senior year. She would go on to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in metalsmithing from Illinois State University.

Bogguss played guitar and drums in Quad City area coffeehouses during her college years and began touring the United States after graduation in support of Suzy, a now rare LP she sold at her shows. She moved to Nashville in 1985 where her work as a demo singer landed her a job as feature female performer at Dollywood. The high profile gig encouraged Bogguss to record a demo cassette of her own that she sold at the theme park. The cassette caught the attention of famed record exec Jim Foglesong, who quickly signed Bogguss to a recording contract with Capitol Nashville.

Three singles were released in the late 80s, although none managed to make a mark on the charts. Somewhere Between, Bogguss’ first album for the label, came in the winter of 1989 and included the top 20 single “Cross My Heart” as well as a cover of Patsy Montana’s anthem, “I Wanna Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart.”

Now under the direction of Jimmy Bowen, a more refined sound followed. Her second album yielded no hits, but a guest appearance on labelmate Lee Greenwood’s album resulted in a top fifteen duet. By her third release she was finally making major headway. Aces, released in 1991, had four hit singles including the mesmerizing tile track and career hits “Someday Soon,” “Outbound Plane,” and “Letting Go.”

At the 1992 CMA Awards Bogguss was given the Horizon Award, an honor she no doubt richly deserved. At the time it was viewed as a shocking upset because she was nominated against Trisha Yearwood, whom the industry deemed the frontrunner and only winner. It got so bad that Yearwood went into the ceremony thinking there was no way she could lose. Then Naomi Judd called Bogguss as the winner and that was that (She and Yearwood were nominated against Brooks & Dunn, Pam Tillis, and Billy Dean).

Two more highly successful albums followed. Voices in the Wind brought Bogguss her highest charting single with the #2 “Drive South.” Something Up My Sleeve brought her two more big hits with “Just Like The Weather” and her signature tune “Hey Cinderella,” which began a friendship with her co-writer Matraca Berg that continues to this day.

Bogguss changed directions in 1994 opting to release a subtle album of duets with Chet Atkins entitled Simpatico. None of the singles charted nor did the record become the commercial success all involved were hoping for. This could’ve been due to a management shift at Capitol or the lingering effects of an ongoing feud with her labelmate Garth Brooks (between him and the label). I’ve also heard that Capitol was accused of spending too much of their promotional muscle on Brooks, thus leaving their ‘quieter’ artists (i.e. not global superstars) in the dust.

In the wake of her declining commercial fortunes, Bogguss retreated from the spotlight in 1995 to begin a family with husband (and songwriter) Doug Crider. Her next release Give Me Some Wheels came during a changing landscape for females in country music and proved her undoing. Her next album, Nobody Love, Nobody Gets Hurt would be her last for Capitol. An eponymous album was released on Platinum Records in 1999, but it didn’t fare any better.

For the better part of the last decade, Bogguss has been recording passion projects. A dream about Asleep At The Wheel vocalist Ray Benson producing a western swing/Jazz album led to their collaborative effort Swing. The more contemporary Jazz infused Sweet Danger followed shortly thereafter. The latter included “In Heaven,” one of the best singles of her career and a stunning return to form. Her latest project, American Folk Songbook was born out of inspiration Bogguss gleamed while on tour with Garrison Keillor. It’s her way of exposing new generations to that catalog of music, including such classics as “Shenandoah,” “Wayfaring Stranger,” “Red River Valley,” and “Ol Dan Tucker.” The album was met with glowing reviews upon release in 2011.

While she doesn’t have any new music on the horizon, Bogguss continues to keep a heavy touring schedule, opting for small intimate venues and even performing at some restaurants off the beaten path. She’s been one of my favorite vocalists since I was a kid and I’m over the moon to join my colleagues in spotlighting her music for the next month.

“Remember country music?” – An Evening with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell at Birmingham Symphony Hall, Friday 10 May 2013

promo for emmylou harris rodney crowell birminghamHaving relished their new album together, Old Yellow Moon, I couldn’t pass up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Emmylou Harris reunited live with Rodney Crowell when their tour to promote the record came over to Europe. I was joined at Birmingham Symphony Hall by an enthusiastic audience; it was almost, but not quite a sell-out, and the crowd clearly enjoyed every second.

It was a generous set; two hours and twenty minutes revisiting highlights of the pair’s past careers (mainly the 70s when they first worked together with a sprinkling of songs from the new millennium), as well as songs from Old Yellow Moon. There was no opening act, and no time for one. The focus was on music rather than chat, with the first four songs completed before anyone spoke a word.

The evening opened with a reminder of Emmylou’s time with Gram Parsons as the band walked on stage and launched straight into ‘Return Of The Grievous Angel’, followed by his song ‘Wheels’ which Emmylou included on Elite Hotel and which was magical here.

A change of pace led to a beautifully understated version of ‘Pancho And Lefty’, opening with Emmylou and her acoustic guitar, with the band later coming in and finally Rodney adding his vocal – a stylistic template for many of the evening’s best songs.

Rodney then sang his own ‘Earthbound’ (from 2003’s Fate’s Right Hand), which I enjoyed much more live than on record. Emmylou then introduced the wonderful ‘Til I Gain Control Again’ as the first song Rodney ever sang for her. He sang a tender lead on the song, with a lovely harmony from Emmylou. The pair then sang ‘Tragedy’, a song they wrote together for her Red Dirt Girl album; while okay, it was not my favorite moment of the evening.

Emmylou paid tribute to the late Susanna Clark by singing Clark’s song ‘I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose’, which Emmylou recorded on 1978’s Luxury Liner. This was just delightful, with honky tonk piano. It was followed by a stripped down ‘Red Dirt Girl’, which was very good.

Rodney then spoke for the first time, unexpectedly sounding a little nervous, before singing his autobiographical ‘Rock Of My Soul’.

The couple then duetted on ‘Heaven Only Knows’, a song written by Emmylou’s ex-husband Paul Kennerley. It was perhaps the most unexpected song choice as it came from Emmylou’s largely overlooked 1989 record Bluebird, and the only song in the set to date from that decade. It sounded very good, though, and was a welcome inclusion.

The swooping melody of ‘Love Hurts’ was a highlight, with emotional vocals from both Emmylou and Rodney (who is a much better singer than the late Gram Parsons). I was less impressed by the martial beat of ‘Luxury Liner’, although I was probably alone in that reaction – it seemed to get a particularly enthusiastic amount of applause, perhaps to reward the band’s virtuoso performances. The sound was a bit muddy for me on this song, although generally the acoustics were superb, and I wasn’t surprised when Emmylou asked for the sound to be turned down for the next song.

The band took a much needed break while Emmylou sat down for a simple acoustic number, ‘Darlin’ Kate’, her lament for her late friend Kate McGarrigle. Friendship was perhaps the overarching theme of the night. Rodney returned on stage to join Emmylou on a lovely traditional version of the Louvin Brothers’ ‘The Angels Rejoiced’. Emmylou then sang ‘Longtime Girl Gone By’, the song she sang on Rodney Crowell’s Kin album of songs written with poet Mary Karr. She didn’t know the song well, and had to use a lyric sheet, while Rodney accompanied her on guitar (he confessed he didn’t know the songs from that album all that well either).

By now the rest of the band was back, and Rodney sang ‘I Know Love Is All I Need’, which he introduced as something he had dreamed.

The Old Yellow Moon portion of the evening then arrived, with a joyful version of the album’s opener ‘Hanging Up My Heart’, followed by a excellent (if slightly too loud) ‘Invitation To The Blues’. Emmylou asked pointedly,

“Remember country music? It’s hard to find sometimes back in the States. But it’s in our hearts, and it’s on our record.”

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Album Review – Clint Black – ‘Nothin’ But The Taillights’

Clint_Black,_Nothin'_But_the_TaillightsAfter the somewhat lackluster One Emotion Clint Black regrouped by issuing his first Greatest Hits album, an effort surprising for its poor representation of his debut album (only “Killin’ Time” and “A Better Man” are included) among other noticeable absences. It still managed to go double platinum and included two big hits – the guitar ballad “Like The Rain” (a favorite of mine) and somewhat aggressive “Half Way Up.” The former would be another #1 hit for Black in the fall of 1996.

He returned with a new album in 1997, previewing it with “Still Holding On,” a duet with Martina McBride. Co-written with Matraca Berg and Marty Stuart, the track served as the lead single for both Black and McBride’s new releases that year. It peaked at #11 and became Black’s first single not to chart top 10. I’ve always loved the song and consider it a nice slice of pop-country, even if it is a tad generic from two label mates looking to cash in on each other’s success.

The next three singles from Nothin’ But The Taillights helped to greatly reverse Black’s fortunes and became three of his most impactful hits since his debut album. Black and Skip Ewing co-wrote “Something That We Do,” a love song inspired by Black’s marriage to actress Lisa Hartman Black. It’s a beautiful song, albeit a tad long, and one of the most endearing professions of love since Alan Jackson’s “I’ll Love You All Over Again.”

“Something That We Do” may’ve peaked at #2, but his next two singles were chart toppers. The Steve Wariner co-written title track is an upbeat guitar heavy (and comical) wife-pissed-off song that was played to death in early 1998 to the point where I can’t even listen to it today. I don’t hate it, but the novelty has worn off. I have the opposite reaction to “The Shoes Your Wearin,’” which finds Black writing with Hayden Nicholas again. I love everything about this track, from the drums and electric guitars to Black’s vocal.

Black and Nicholas also teamed up for the next single, “Loosen Up My Strings,” which peaked at #12. Another thickly produced number; Black’s popularity likely benefited its chart run, as it should’ve been left as an album track. The neo-traditional-leaning “You Don’t Need Me Know” charted lower, peaking at #29. I don’t even remember it being a single, but it’s an excellent song with a refreshingly understated melody and vocal.

Of the album tracks, “Our Kind of Love” is a country/bluegrass tune with Alison Krauss and Union Station and “Ode To Chet” is a classic Black type song in tribute to Chet Atkins, which features fancy guitar work from Atkins himself, Dann Huff, Wariner, and Mark Knopler. Both are fabulous, although Black could’ve benefited from giving a more restrained vocal on the collaboration with Krauss. It’s beautiful melody but he comes on a bit too strong for it all to be fully appreciated. “That Something In My Life” is also very strong while “You Know It All” and “Bitter Side of Sweet” are the album’s two weakest offerings.

Nothin’ But The Taillights really is the project that put Black back on top. Not since his debut had he experienced such impactful signature hits has he does here. I really enjoy this period of Black’s career as this is when I started following and enjoying his music as a kid. If Killin’ Time was Black’s neo-traditional masterpiece, Nothin’ But The Taillights marked his highest artistic achievement in pop and even somewhat rock country.

Grade: A-

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: Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – ‘Old Yellow Moon’

harriscrowellAlthough the prospect of an Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell duets album seemed like an idea that was long overdue, I initially kept my hopes in check, having been disappointed, more often than not, by the recent output of both artists. However, Old Yellow Moon, which was released last week has more than exceeded my admittedly guarded expectations, and is in fact the best collection that either artist has released in quite a long time.

The album was produced by Emmylou’s ex-husband Brian Ahern, who produced her best work from the 1970s and early 1980s, and the songwriting credits read like a Who’s Who in country music featuring names such as Hank DeVito, Roger Miller, Allen Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson, and of course, Rodney Crowell himself. The first two tracks, DeVito’s “Hanging Up My Heart” and an excellent cover of Miller’s “Invitation To The Blues” sound as though they could have been left over from some of those 1970s recording sessions and recently discovered in the Warner Bros. vaults. Kristofferson’s “Chase The Feeling” sounds like an old Everly Brothers tune, and I also quite like “Here We Are”, which Emmylou had previously recorded with George Jones.

I was initially less impressed with “Black Caffeine” a bluesy tribute to the dark bean; it has grown on me with repeated listenings, though I still would not rank it as one of my favorites. I found “Spanish Dancer” to be rather dull. It is closer in style to Emmylou’s post-mainstream music than anything else on the album and is my least favorite here. “Dreaming My Dreams”, the oft-covered Allen Reynolds song made famous by Waylon Jennings, is reworked as a duet. The wear and tear on both artists’ voices is quite apparent on this track, but the seasoned vocals somehow enhance the song rather than detract from it.

“Bluebird Wine” is a Crowell composition that Emmylou recorded for her debut album, 1975’s Pieces of the Sky. This time around it is given an acoustic treatment with Crowell singing lead. The album’s most polished track is Matraca Berg’s “Back When We Were Beautiful”, which is given a simple piano arrangement. The occasional cracks in Harris’ voice add credibility to the tale of an old woman reminiscing about her youth.

Only a little more than two months in, it’s a little premature to be making predictions about the best albums of the year, but it’s difficult to foresee any circumstances under which Old Yellow Moon would not be on my list of year-end picks. I hope that both Harris and Crowell will do more of this style of music in the future.

Grade: A

Album Review: Holly Williams – ‘The Highway’

the highwayBeing the grand-daughter of Hank Williams (and to a rather lesser extent the daughter of Hank Jr) is a lot for a young singer-songwriter to live up to. Holly’s first two major label albums had some fine songs, but I was not quite convinced she was a fully formed artist. Now in her 30s, she has made the leap and produced a truly excellent collection of songs, released on her own label. Holly’s sultry alto voice is compelling as she portrays a variety of characters or bares her own soul. In a vague modern Americana singer-songwriter style with frequent use of a cello giving a richer, less sweet sound than the more familiar fiddle, it is tastefully produced by the artist with Charlie Peacock, best known for his work with critical favourites The Civil Wars.

Among the best songs is the bleak ‘Giving Up’, which she announces as “the saddest damn story you’ve ever seen”. It is a weary plea addressed to an alcoholic friend who keeps on claiming to be tackling her problem, a wife and mother so far gone, “the doctor said you’d die if you had another drink”. But that doesn’t seem to get her beyond platitudes, and Holly notes, incisively:

Well, I wonder if it scares you
I wonder if you think about
The daughter that you’re leaving
The man you used to love
And the son that cries for you
..
Well I guess this is it
Oh yeah, you must be giving up

You put us all through a living hell
A thousand excuses for your liquor trail
But my compassion is fading fast
Another rehab, and you break another glass

Bottles in driers
Bottles in shoes
There are even bottles in the baby’s room
You’re losing everything that you ever had
Your life is one thing all that money can’t buy back

This hits very hard, and sounds as if it was inspired by a specific person.

The powerful, pained ‘Drinkin’ tackles a drinking, cheating, abusive husband to ask him why, and is another of the strongest songs, with Holly’s compelling vocal grabbing attention.

Another highlight is ‘Waiting On June’ a tender reimagining of Holly’s maternal grandparents’ love story, which is very touching, with added poignancy from the death of the grandfather’s WWII comrade. The acoustic arrangement and actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s backing vocals give it a homespun feel.

Also based on her family, the quietly mournful ‘Gone Away From Me’ is a beautifully observed recollection of a small town childhood blighted by the loss of family members, and is another highlight. Jackson Browne sings backing vocals, but it is Holly’s emotional vocal which really bring this alive.

‘Railroads’ picks up the tempo with a disconcertingly upbeat tone musically belying the dark first-person story of a sinful preacher’s wild son.

‘Happy’ is a mournful reverie about a past relationship the protagonist now regrets throwing away, with the cello sounding almost menacing as Holly bemoans:

The truth is I loved you all the same
That night I broke your heart
And the day you cursed my name
And the truth is I never really knew
You were everything to me
Until it was much too late
Cause you’re the only one who makes me
The only one who makes me happy

Like the stripped-down acoustic bluesy folk ‘Let You Go’, it is written by Holly with Chris Coleman, her rock drummer husband. With Cary Barlowe, the pair also wrote ‘Til It Runs Dry’, a cheerful-sounding mid-tempo number featuring Dierks Bentley’s backing vocals.

‘Without You’, written with Lori McKenna, looks back to past searching for love and life, from a position of fulfilment. Jakob Dylan sings backing vocals, and a stately cello gives a mature feel befitting the literary allusions in the lyric. Sarah Buxton co-wrote ‘A Good Man’, a sweet love song with a striking acappella first verse and stately melody.

The title track was the least compelling song, but the weakest song on an album this strong is still pretty good. here Holly fondly recalls the period she was on the road with her music.

This is an excellent set which should appeal to fans of literate female singer-songwriters with country and Americana connections, like Matraca Berg, Lori McKenna and Mary Chapin Carpenter, but for my money this is the most appealing record of its kind I’ve heard in a long time.

Grade: A

Album Review – Martina McBride – ‘Emotion’

220px-Martina_McBride_Emotion_album_coverFollowing the triple platinum success of Evolution, Martina McBride’s most consistent project to date singles-wise, didn’t prove an easy task. By the time “Whatever You Say” finished its chart run, the climate of mainstream country had changed. The traditional sounds of Patty Loveless and Vince Gill were gone, replaced by pop fare championed by Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, and Shania Twain. And to keep up with the times McBride followed suit, releasing her sixth album Emotion, easily her slickest to date, in September 1999.

The changes worked. Lead single “I Love You,” an uptempo rocker by Keith Follesé (who also co-wrote McGraw’s “Something Like That”), Adrienne Follesé, and Tammy Hyle, not only topped the country charts for five weeks, but became a top 20 pop and adult contemporary hit as well. The popularity of the song, one of my favorites of her uptempo numbers, was only helped by its inclusion on the Soundtrack to the Julia Roberts and Richard Gere film Runaway Bride.

Second single “Love’s The Only House” brought McBride back to the “issue” songs she’s made her trademark. A top 5 hit, the song (written by Tom Douglas and Buzz Cason) touches upon the common denominator of love in various situations. Drenched in harmonica and electric guitars, it’s good but weird enough to turn some people off. I’ve never really loved it, although I’ve let it grow on me over the years.

Third single “There You Are,” a piano-laced pop ballad, wasn’t much better in quality, taking zero chances both vocally and thematically. The track, a  #10 peaking hit, was featured on the Where The Heart Is Soundtrack in mid-2000. Much better is the now largely forgotten fourth single, “It’s My Time.” Composed by Tammy Hyler, Billy Crain, and Kim Tribble, the up-tempo number is a throwback to the Way That I Am and Wild Angles days. It’s catchy, has a well-constructed story, and deserved better than its #11 peak at country radio.

I can see where people strongly dislike this album. In one release McBride went from a strong intellectual songstress to a purveyor of two-bit candy coated pop. The majority of the album tracks simply have nothing substantial to say, and this effort feels like a calculated move to reach Hill’s adult contemporary heights. Tracks like “Do What You Do,” “Make Me Believe” and “Anything and Everything” are dreck, empty filler. Thankfully “I Ain’t Going Nowhere” is catchy so it rises above the pack, but her less than engaged vocal fails to draw the audience in.

Luckily for the audience McBride hadn’t completely lost her sensibilities, and broke up the pop monotony with some well-chosen covers. Matraca Berg co-wrote “Anything’s Better Than Feeling The Blues,” a very good ticked off revenge number. Gretchen Peters wrote the album’s highlight “This Uncivil War,” a stunning play-on-theme relationship song comparing a couple’s battle to that of an actual war. Also strong is Patty Griffin’s “Goodbye,” although the recording would’ve been a knockout had McBride recorded a country vocal on it, opposed to imitating the sweet and breathy high notes favored by female pop singers.

Emotion is a very mixed bag; an album that feels like it was designed for soccer mom types who prefer their music light, airy, and void of substance. It’s by no means McBride’s worst recording, that would still be coming down the line in the decade to come. A good majority of the tracks are very, very strong and she deservedly won the 1999 CMA Female Vocalist of the Year award based on the success of “I Love You.”

But I wish McBride had tried just a little harder to find stronger material that she could’ve sung with more energy. Even she sounds a little bored at times.

Grade: B 

Album Review: Martina McBride – ‘Evolution’

evolutionFollowing the release of “Cry on the Shoulder of the Road”, the final single from Wild Angels, Martina McBride made a couple of guest appearances on other artists’ records. The first was “Still Holdin’ On”, a duet with Clint Black (written by Black with Matraca Berg and Marty Stuart) that peaked at #11. The second was a guest vocal on “Valentine” by adult contemporary/New Age pianist Jim Brickman, which reached #3 on the adult contemporary chart. Both tracks were included on Martina’s next album, 1997’s Evolution, a project which saw her moving further away from traditional country sounds in favor of slicker, more heavily layered production. The album, which Martina co-produced with Paul Worley, was the most successful of her career, selling more than three million copies in the US. It opens with a clip of a home-recording of a seven-year-old Martina singing Little Jimmy Dickens’ “I’m Little But I’m Loud” before moving on to more contemporary fare.

Though her albums had sold quite well up to this point, Martina’s success at radio had been very hit or miss. Evolution was the turning point for her as far as singles success is concerned. Disregarding the Clint Black and Jim Brickman collaborations, the album’s first single was “A Broken Wing”, which became her second #1 hit in early 1998. The gospel-flavored mid-tempo number found her once again telling the story of an abuse victim, although this time around the abuse was psychological rather than physical. Whether the victim escaped or committed suicide at the end of the song is open to interpretation.

Meanwhile, “Valentine” has been enjoying some unsolicited airplay on country radio, prompting RCA to release a more countrified version to country stations. The single version, which contains a prominent pedal steel guitar track, is not the version that is found on the album. It reached #9 on the country singles chart. Though criticized by some for its Hallmark-esque sentiments, it is a pretty song that I quite like.

Up to this point, Martina had never had more than two Top 10 singles from the same album. She managed to break the cycle of two hits followed by a few misses when “Happy Girl”, a Beth Nielsen Chapman and Annie Roboff composition, landed at #2. It is actually one of the album’s weakest tracks and my least favorite. I greatly prefer the next release, “Wrong Again”, a beautifully performed ballad and one of the finest singles of Martina’s career, which made it all the way to #1. The album’s final single, “Whatever You Say” is more in the power-ballad vein. Though it is probably the album’s most heavily produced track, Martina knocks it out of the park. The tune finds her confronting an uncommunicative lover, and giving him an ultimatum. It just missed the chart’s top spot, peaking at #2. Sara Evans contributed to the backing vocals on this track.

As far as the album cuts go, there is much to like and not much filler, though “Keeping My Distance” and “Here In My Heart” are on the weak wide. My favorite among the non-singles is “One Day You Will”, a Richard Leigh co-write with Shane Teeters, that is spiritual without being overtly religious. Not commercial enough to release to country radio, I think this song could have found success on the Contemporary Christian charts.

Despite its pop leanings, I think that Evolution contains some of Martina McBride’s best work. Like most country artists who enjoy a degree of crossover success, she would eventually go too far into pop territory (with her next album as it so happens), but with Evolution she managed to find that delicate balance that allowed her to expand her horizons without alienating her country fans. With the exception of Timeless, it is her last truly great album. It is essential listening for Martina McBride fans, and easy to find if you’ve managed to miss hearing it up to this point.

Grade: A

Album Review: Martina McBride – ‘Wild Angels’

wild angelsMartina McBride is one of the most technically gifted vocalists in country music, and her style was ideally suited to the 90s with its mix of contemporary shine and more traditional elements (although the latter tended to reduce over time), good songs, and great vocals. Her third album, 1995’s Wild Angels, would seal her star status. Martina took a co-production credit this time alongside Paul Worley and Ed Seay, who had helmed her earlier work. Her vocals are superb throughout this album, and almost every song sounds as though it could have been a successful single. Bookending the set by opening with a baby’s cry and ending with studio chatter, however, is pretentious, self-indulgent and pointless.

The lead single, the charmingly hopeful ‘Safe In The Arms Of Love’, dreams about the prospects of true love some time in the future. A pretty arrangement with an almost Celtic feel and airy backing vocals from co-writers Mary Ann Kennedy and Pam Rose (the third writer was Pat Bunch) contrast nicely with Martina’s powerful lead vocal. It was a cover of a song which was originally recorded by Baillie & The Boys and had been a Canadian country hit for Michelle Wright, but Martina’s version is my favorite. Peaking at #4 on Billboard, it was her second biggest hit to date.

The sunny title track was the second single, and while the efficiently glossy surface of this well-written contemporary country song (written by Matraca Berg, Gary Harrison and Harry Stinson) somehow sounds a little soulless to me, it was very radio-friendly and became Martina’s first #1 hit.

Surprisingly, the last couple of singles failed to repeat this success, even though they are siginifiantly better songs. ‘Phones Are Ringing All Over Town’ is a dramatic ballad (written by Marc Beeson, Kim Vassy and David McKechnie) about a complacent cheating husband’s discovery that he has crossed one line too many and the marriage is over with “nothing to be said”. It was only just a top 30 hit despite the excellence of both song and vocal.

‘Swingin’ Doors’ only just crept into the top 40, but deserved much better. Written by Chapin Hartford, Bobby Boyd and Jim Foster, it is a ballsy, sardonic response to a man the protagonist realizes has been stringing her along with empty promises. The doors to her heart are about to be closed to him. Banked harmonies help to sell the song’s defiance.

The final single (and my favourite), ‘Cry On The Shoulder Of The Road’ peaked at 26. It is in fact one of my favorite Martina McBride recordings ever. It was written by Matraca Berg and Tim Krekel, and portrays a woman whose marriage has reached such a desperate state she just leaves with no destination in mind:

Rollin’ out of Bakersfield
My own private hell on wheels
But this time I’m gone for good…

It makes me feel a little low
Steel guitar on the radio
when its kind of scary teh way these truckers fly
So this is how leaving feels
Drinking coffee and making deals
With the One above to get me through the night

Cause there ain’t no telling what I’ll find
But I might as well move on down the line
There ain’t no comfort to be found in your zip code
I’d rather break down on the highway
With no one to share my load
Cry on the shoulder of the road

Levon Helm’s harmony lends a California country-rock feel to the chorus, while Martina’s full blooded vocal makes her sound vulnerable but determined to make her way, and a tasteful arrangement with steel guitar.

The contemporary sounding mid-tempo ‘A Great Disguise’ has Martina hiding her heartbreak behind “smoke and ice”, with a big emotional chorus. ‘Beyond The Blue’ is quite a pretty song about looking forward to getting past the sorrow of a breakup, and both are quite good.

‘All The Things We’ve Never Done’ (written by Craig Bickhardt and Jeff Pennig) is a gentle love song comparing possible missed opportunities in life with a supportive love. The similarly themed ‘You’ve Been Driving All The Time’ was overtly dedicated to Martina’s husband, whose support had been so instrumental in building her career; it is a sweet if slightly sentimental love song which affirms,

It takes a real man to take a back seat to a woman.

Another love song from the Bunch/Rose/Kennedy writing team, ‘Born To Give My Love To You’ is quite pretty with a string arrangement and multitrack harmonies from Rose and Martina herself.

An energetic cover of ‘Two More Bottles Of Wine’, the Delbert McClinton song best known by Emmylou Harris, is pretty good with a rocking vocal, some fabulous honky tonk piano from John Hobbs, and proves Martina wasn’t just a great balladeer.

This album exemplifies pop-country at its best – good, sometimes great songs, great vocals, and a production which while glossy, is not pretending to be a rock band. The overall mood is of female self-confidence and survival. Even the breakup songs focus on the woman moving on, and this positive image of being a strong woman may have been key to Martina’s success at a time when women in country music were doing better as a group than ever before.

Grade: A

ACM Award predictions

The Academy of Country Music is announcing its annual awards live on TV on Sunday. Here are our predictions and hopes for the ceremony:

Entertainer of the Year

Jason Aldean
Kenny Chesney
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton
Taylor Swift

Jonathan: First off, let the Carrie Underwood backlash begin. And end. I agree with the fans who love her, but she didn’t make enough of a splash in 2011 to be considered here. At least you need to release a solo single. I agree with this list as it features most of the big players in country music right now. I would’ve included Zac Brown Band here as musicianship should win out over star power. But I can’t say any of these artists don’t deserve it from a numbers perspective.
Will Win: Taylor Swift – it’s still a fan voted award and she has the largest fan base for these kinds of contests.
Should Win: Blake Shelton – not because of his radio hits but because he’s the only one here to ascend to the next level in 2011. He makes country music look cool on The Voice, too. He may not have a strong catalog of singles but we could do far worse in Hollywood’s ideal of country music.

OH: I think I would also lean to Blake Shelton here. Chesney, Aldean and Swift have all had bigger tours and more impressive sales, but Blake has been representing country music to a mass audience thanks to his TV exposure. However, this being a fan-voted category, I think Taylor Swift will be Sunday’s winner, with only the fast-rising rocker Jason Aldean likely to challenge.

Razor X: Taylor Swift has this one in the bag, as it’s fan voted again this year.

Note: Voting is still open for anyone who wants to make their contribution. Read more of this post