My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Max D Barnes

Album Review: Conway Twitty – ‘House On Old Lonesome Road’

House On Old Lonesome Road was Conway Twitty’s third album since returning to MCA Nashville after six albums with Warner Bros. The record was released in 1989 and spawned three singles.

The lead radio offering, “She’s Got A Single Thing In Mind.” was a forceful Walt Aidridge-penned ballad that peaked at #2. The title track, a ballad reminiscent of “That’s My Job,” hit #19. “Who’s Gonna Know,” another bland ballad, stalled at #51.

Clinton Gregory had a #25 hit with “Play, Ruby, Play,” an excellent mid-paced number co-written by Tony Brown and Troy Seals when he released it in 1992. Twitty’s version provides the album with a much-desired change of pace. “Private Part of My Heart,” another Seals co-write (this time with Max D. Barnes), returns the album to the sounds of mid-1980s country somewhat successfully. “Pieces of You,” which Barnes co-wrote with Skip Ewing, is far and away the record’s most traditional number, with lovely doses of fiddle throughout.

“Too White To Sing The Blues,” co-written by Lacy J. Dalton, is reminiscent of Waylon Jennings. Karen Staley and Gary Harrison co-wrote the jaunty and ear-catching “Take Me Home to Mama,” a nice slice of modern honky-tonk. “Child With Child” is another of the sappy ballads for which Twitty had come to be known for during this period of his career. “Nobody Can Fill Your Shoes” feels a step out of touch and sounds just a couple years out of date.

I’m going to go out on a limb and reveal how truly out of touch I am. Given that House On Old Lonesome Road was released in 1989, at the height of the new-traditionalist movement, I had fully expected an album not unlike what Keith Whitley and Don Williams were turning out at the time. What I got instead was a kaleidoscope of sounds and textures attempting to showcase Twitty in the many different lights for which he found success that decade. There isn’t any truly outstanding number among these 10 tracks, although Gregory had the good sense to revive “Play, Ruby, Play.”

Grade: B

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Album Review: Conway Twitty – ‘Borderline’

Released in March 1987, Borderline marked Conway’s return to MCA after five year interlude with Elektra/Warner Bros. Frankly, other than the Lost In The Feeling album, I really had consistently disliked his recent output.

I received this album as a birthday present in April 1987. While I had high hopes for a return to the earlier Twitty sound my hopes were dashed when I read the back of the album and saw the following:

Musicians:

James Stroud – Drums
Emory Gordy, Jr. – Bass
John Jarvis – Piano
David Innis, Mike Lawler – Keyboards
Richard Bennett – Acoustic Guitar
Reggie Young, Fred Newll – Electric Guitar
Background Harmonies – Vince Gill and Conway Twitty

That’s right – no John Hughey, or any other steel guitar player for that matter.

My expectations suitably lowered I put the album on the turntable and played it. The album opened up with the first single release, John Jarvis-Don Cook song “Julia” which topped out at #2. This song is bland 80s ballad with cocktail lounge production. The song itself is not bad, but the production ruins it for me.

Brent Mason and Jim McBride collaborated on “Lonely Town”, a mid-tempo song about a one night stand. I would have picked this song as for single release. By the standards of this album, this was a country song

She gave into him last night
She thought he was Mr. Right
But he left like all the others
Before the morning came around

Same old story in lonely town
The sun comes up, the heart goes down
She’s tried everything she knows

Come so far and yet so close
She keeps searching for the magic
But it’s nowhere to be found
But that’s how it is in lonely town

The sun comes up, the heart goes down
There’s got to be a way out
Someday she’ll find it, she won’t always be alone

The one she’s been waitin’ for
Will turn her life around and take her away
From this lonely town

The sun comes up, the heart goes down
There’s got to be a way out
Someday she’ll find it, she won’t always be alone
The one she’s been waitin’ for
Will turn her life around and take her away
From this lonely town

Track three was “I Want To Know Before We Make Love” by Candy Parton and Becky Hobbs. Good advice no doubt – no point getting involved with a sociopath – but I think this song works better from the femine perspective. This song also reached #2.

Track four is the title track “Borderline” a decent song marred by cheesy 80s production. Walt Aldridge wrote this song. He wrote several #1 records for the likes of Earl Thomas Conley, Ronnie Milsap, Alabama and Travis Tritt.

Track five (the last track on side one of the vinyl album) concludes with “Not Enough Love To Go Around”  a slow R&B ballad that is nice but ultimately uninteresting.

Track six is “Snake Books”, written by Troy Seals. Troy wrote many great songs, but this wasn’t one of them. This is followed by “I’m For A While” by Kent Robbins, a generic song about a man who swears that he is not looking for a one night stand.

Most songs written by committees stink, but “Fifteen To Forty-Three” by Don Goodman, Frank Dycus, Mark Sherrill and John Wesley Ryles is a terrific ballad about a fellow sorting through a box of memories and regrets. This has a very country feel to it and would have made a great single.

<blockquote>I just cut the string
On a dusty old shoe box
And opened a door to the past
Now I’m sittin’ here with my souvenirs
And these faded old photographs.

Fightin’ back tears
Lookin’ back through the years
And wonderin’ why dreams fade so fast
Now the young boy I see
Don’t look like the me
Reflected in this old looking glass.

The man in the mirror
Sees things so much clearer
Than the boy in the pictures
With his eyes full of dreams
Oh, the men that I’ve tried to be
From fifteen to forty-three
Never believed that they’d end up like me.

The ninth track “Everybody Needs A Hero” was written by Troy Seals and Max D Barnes. It’s a great song that Gene Watson released as a single. Although Conway does a nice job with the song, it is not quite as nice as Gene’s version (I like the production on Gene’s record better).

The album closes with Gary Burr’s “That’s My Job”, the last single released from this album. The single reached #6 but deserved a better fate. It is one of the best songs Conway ever recorded

I woke up crying late at night
When I was very young.
I had dreamed my father
Had passed away and gone.
My world revolved around him
I couldn’t lay there anymore.
So I made my way down the mirrored hall
And tapped upon his door.

And I said “Daddy, I’m so afraid
How will I go on with you gone that way?
Don’t want to cry anymore
So may I stay with you?”

And he said “That’s my job,
That’s what I do.
Everything I do is because of you,
To keep you safe with me.
That’s my job you see.”

Borderline was one of Conway Twitty’s last big hit albums, reaching #25, higher than any subsequent Conway Twitty studio album would reach. There are some good songs on this album, but the filler truly is filler and the production sounds as phony as most late 1980s country production. This album is somewhere between a C and a C+.

Album Review: Johnny Paycheck – ‘Take This Job And Shove It’

1977 was the peak of Johnny Paycheck’s career, seeing the success of his signature song, the only chart topping single of his career. The album from which it came was also his most successful, his only platinum record, and was arguably his best. By now Billy Sherrill knew what kind of production suited Paycheck, and he gives him the right backings for this excellent selection of songs.

‘Take This Job And Shove It’, written by fellow Outlaw David Allan Coe, is a true country classic which is still instantly recognisable – and relatable – today. More casual country fans may think of it solely as an assertive blue collar walkout from an underpaid, boring factory job with bosses he despises, but at heart it is a heartbreak song. The narrator’s motivation is the woman he loves. He has been enduring the job he loathes in order to try and make a home for her – but now she has left, he plans on making is true feelings known. Paycheck’s growling delivery is completely convincing. The song had such a popular impact it even loosely inspired a movie a few years later, in which both Paycheck and Coe had cameo roles.

The spoken ‘Colorado Kool-Aid’ is a rather bizarre intended-to-be-funny tale of a bar fight in which the narrator’s Mexican friend cuts off a drunken aggressor’s ear as payback for the latter spitting beer at him:

If you’re ever ridin’ down in south Texas
And decide to stop and drink some Colorado Kool-Aid
And maybe talk to some Mexicans
And you get the urge to get a little tough
You better make damn sure you got your knife-proof ear-muff

Hey, ain’t that right, big man?
I said, ain’t that right, big man?
Ah, hell he can’t hear
Nnot on this side anyway, he ain’t got no ear

It was the B side to the physical single of ‘Take This Job And Shove It’, and it got some airplay in its own right.

The album’s other single, the booze-drenched Bobby Braddock’s ‘Georgia In A Jug’, was less successful, peaking at #17, even though it is an excellent song. Younger fans may know it better from Blake Shelton’s cover. Like ‘Take This Job’, it appears to be one kind of song, in this case a drinking song, with an underlying narrative of heartbreak over the woman who has left. Mexican horns, Caribbean steel drums, and Hawaiian steel are used sparingly, and tastefully, to illustrate the exotic destinations the happy couple will never now visit in real life. A similar alcoholic tour, this time of the US, to try and get over a woman, take space in ‘The Spirits Of St Louis’.

Another superb song, ‘From Cotton To Satin (From Birmingham To Manhattan)’ (covered by Gene Watson a few years later) is about a marriage which founders due to financial pressures. The poor farmer hero scrapes together just enough to take his wife on a vacation to New York City, where she dumps him for a rich man. Ironically, just after she has done so, his Alabama farm turns out to be the site of an oilwell.

‘Barstool Mountain’ was written by Donn Tankersley and Wayne Carson (who recorded it first), and also recorded by Moe Bandy. A classic honky tonk ballad about “drinking away I love you”, it’s another great tune.

‘The Fool Strikes Again’ (written by Steve Davis, Mark Sherrill and Gary Cobb) is a delicate ballad about a loyal wife whose man continually lets her down:

Lady Luck never smiles on those who cheat to win
Every time I get her back
The devil tempts me into sin
And with a smile on his face
The fool strikes again

It was subsequently a single for Charlie Rich, although not a particularly successful one.

‘When I Had A Home To Go’, penned by Billy Sherrill and Glenn Sutton, might depict the same relationship a little later. The wealthy protagonist admits to the bartender,

She loved me more than life itself
But the liquid diet I was on starved our love to death
So it’s not hard to figure out why my baby’s gone
‘Cause when I had a home to go to
I never did go home

Luckily for him, she actually seeks him out in the bar where he has taken refuge, and offers him a second chance, and he has suffered enough to take it up:

So forget the double
Keep the change
And you can call me gone
Cause while I’ve got a home to go to
This time I’m going home

‘The Four F Blues’ is more light hearted, with Paycheck cheerfully playing the field:

I ain’t never seen a woman that didn’t like the 4-F blues

Ooh I like to find ’em, fool ’em, free ’em and forget ’em
And love ’em till they’re satisfied
Then look around for something new

‘The Man From Bowling Green’ is a nice, rather sad story song written by Max D Barnes and Troy Seals., about a naïve young girl seduced by an older man, a musician who moves swiftly on once he has got what he wanted.

This is a great album, which I strongly recommend. If you have nothing else by Johnny Paycheck nin your collection, this is the album to go for. You can find it on a joint CD with Armed And Crazy, and half the tracks from Mr Hag Told My Story, reviews for both which will follow later this week.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Joey Feek – ‘If Not For You’

The solo album recorded by the late Joey Feek for Sony in the 1990s was briefly available from the retailer Overstock back in 2009, under the title Strong Enough To Cry, and I reviewed it then. It has now been repackaged with a new title, and made more widely available. Here is that original review:

Joey + Rory were my favorite duo on 2008’s Can You Duet, but I felt a little guilty about hoping they would win, because I couldn’t help feeling Joey was really a solo singer, with Rory just there to support her. I would have been perfectly happy if she had built on the exposure of the TV show to release a solo record, but of course the pair went on to record one of the best albums of 2008 in The Life Of A Song.

Before Can You Duet, though, Joey was indeed a solo singer. Before she married Rory, she was signed for a while to Sony Records, who dropped her without releasing any material, and in 2005 she recorded a solo album. It was originally released on the couple’s own Giantslayer Records; available as a digital download after Can You Duet was aired; and when Joey + Rory were signed to promote retailer Overstock, they cannily managed to persuade the store to stock the album in CD format.

I have just managed to get hold of a copy, and I’m not disappointed. The songs are not as good as those on the exceptional The Life Of A Song, but there is a pretty good selection, and overall this is a good album by one of the best female country singers to emerge in the last decade. Joey has one of those voices that could really only be country, with a distinctive timbre.

The album kicks off with a few bars from the classic ‘Have I Told You Lately That I Love You’, sung by Joey’s mother June Martin (who has a pretty good, slightly old-fashioned voice) accompanied by her father Jack. Further snippets from this recording are inserted between a few of the other tracks. Technically, the album starts with Joey inviting her parents to play the song, and ends with them all chatting and giggling in the studio. This was probably intended to underscore the charming home-made feel of the project, but comes across as a little self-indulgent, and by the second listen I was distinctly irritated. This aside, there is a strong family element to the record. Although Rory does not sing on it, the harmony singers include June Martin and Rory’s daughter Heidi, and even Rufus, the family dog, gets in on the act. Rory produces (with one Bill McDermott), and of course contributes his songwriting talent.

The best songs are the title track and ‘See You There’, which are the first (real) track and the penultimate one. ‘Strong Enough To Cry’ is an excellent song co-written by Rory with veteran songwriter Max D. Barnes, and showcases Joey’s excellent voice; this cut could easily be a hit single. ‘See You There’ is almost too personal, and may be too much for some, as it tells the story of the early death of Joey’s brother; some of the detail feels rather like trespassing on someone else’s private grief, and some of the rhymes feel a little too obvious, but the song has a real emotional impact. Joey and Rory wrote this song together, as they did ‘Nothing To Remember’, a charming song with a pretty tune and a good hook (“I’d rather have something to forget than nothing to remember”).

Joey’s voice is capable of lifting lesser material so that it sounds better than it actually is. Examples here are the slightly repetitive and rather mundane ‘That’s Important To Me’, where Joey’s obvious commitment to the song, which she co-wrote with Rory and Tim Johnson, does just that. Similarly, ‘Like A Rodeo’ offers an unremarkable metaphor for life with a gentle melody, but is really beautifully sung. Oddly, co-writer Paul Overstreet is prominently credited for harmony vocals on this (to the extent that I was expecting a full-scale duet before I heard the track), but is barely audible. Joey’s soaring vocal over an acoustic guitar backing also lifts ‘Southern Girl’, written by Rory with Tim Johnson, obviously for Indiana-born Joey as she declares herself the titular southern girl by adoption.

‘Red’ is a bit of a mixed bag of a song. Lyrically, it’s one of those songs about being country, but at least it’s not first-person, and it has a reasonable amount of specific detail. Musically it is urgent and uptempo, with barks from Rufus in the chorus (just few enough to be cute), and some rather dubious echo effects and whoo-ing I could have done without. It would probably go down well live, and I quite enjoyed it, though perhaps in a slightly guilty-pleasure way.

There are only a handful of songs not written by Rory on this release. The best of these is the engaging ‘The Cowboy’s Mine’ (from the pens of Tim Johnson and Jim McCormick). Lyrically, imagine a meld of ‘You Ain’t Woman Enough To Take My Man’, the opposite of ‘Cheater, Cheater’, and a postive prequel to ‘Last Call’, as the protagonist shows up at the bar to collect her man and pay off his bill. It has a delightfully old-fashioned feel. ‘When The Needle Hit The Vinyl’ offers a nice change of pace, but is more memorable for the crackling vinyl sound effect at the end than for the song itself. I liked the intense ballad ‘If Not For You’ (as close as Joey gets to AC rather than country) more the first time I heard it than I did on repeated listens.

Overall, if you like Joey + Rory’s The Life Of A Song, you’ll like this – but not as much.

Grade: B+ (2017 note: I think I would now call this an A-)

Thanks to Brody for helping me get hold of it.

joeymartin1

Album Review: Tammy Wynette – ‘Next To You’

next-to-youThe singles from Higher Ground were to prove to be Tammy’s final top 40 country hits as radio moved on to a new generation of singers. She turned to veteran Norro Wilson to produce her next album, 1989’s Next To You.

There were two singles from the album. The title track peaked just outside the top 50; it is a subdued, rather downbeat ballad about finding love again, with some rather pretty fiddle. The nostalgic midtempo ‘Thank The Cowboy For The Ride’ (about childhood playmates turning to lifelong love) did even less well, and may be a little too sweet for some despite a little humor.

‘The Note’ is a passionate ballad about heartbreak previously recorded by Gene Watson (and later covered by Daryle Singletary). It is a great song, but the production on Tammy’s version somewhat cloaks it with excessive backing vocals. ‘You Left Memories Layin’ (All Over The Place)’ is in much the same style as the wife left behind.

Even better known was ‘I’m So Afraid Of Losing You Again’, a Dallas Frazier/Doodle Owens song which was one of Charley Pride’s biggest hits. Tammy’s version is delightful, and the song itself is so perfectly constructed it cannot fail.

‘If You Let Him Drive You Crazy (He Will)’is an excellent song written by Curly Putnam, Don Cook, and Max D Barnes. The jaundiced lyric about the failings of men, as seen through the eyes of a mother giving advice to her daughter just embarking on life, tells volumes about her own married life:

The man always gets what he’s after
Then leaves you just over the hill
You oughta understand why it’s over
If you let him drive you crazy, he will

There isn’t a real resolution, just the suggestion that the daughter’s trust in her own boyfriend might be plagued by doubt. Rather more positively, ‘We Called it Everything But Quits’ is a good-humored reflection on surviving hard times and an enduring marriage.

‘I Almost Forgot’, written by Karen Staley, is a very nice song about an encounter with an ex briniging up painful memories. ‘Liar’s Roses’ is a delicate ballad written by Bill and Sharon Rice about a woman who is not fooled for an instant by her cheating husband:

The doorbell rings
It’s flowers for me
Roses again
It’s the third time this week
What kind of fool
Must he picture me to be
To be blinded by a dozen liar’s roses?

Guilt-stained words on beautiful cards
But not a single one that comes from the heart
He’s seein’ her again
‘Cause that’s when he starts
Sendin’ me these lovely liar’s roses

Oh, I’m sleepin’ in a bed of liar’s roses
While he dreams of somebody else
He lies to me and thinks that I don’t know it

‘When A Girl Becomes A Wife’ written by Tammy and husband George Richey is deliberately old fashioned in its lyric, but it feels odd even in the 1989 context, let alone 2016.

Tammy’s voice was showing signs of strain, but this is generally a solid album with the odd misstep.

Grade: B+

Album Review: The Time Jumpers – ‘Kid Sister’

kid-sisterThe Time Jumpers’ third album is in many ways a tribute to the late Dawn Sears, who died of cancer in December 2014.

Dawn makes her last appearance on record on ‘My San Antonio Rose’, a Freddy Powers song which is quintessential western swing, and performed as a duet with Dawn’s husband Kenny Sears – an unexpected bonus. (Powers also died this year.) Dawn also sang harmony on ‘I Miss You’, a Vince Gill/Ashley Monroe song which was recorded for Gill’s solo Guitar Slinger album but didn’t make the final cut. It is an affecting ballad about enduring love for one who has gone, the verses of which Gill has rewritten to fit Kenny’s grieving for Dawn. ‘This Heartache’ is a very moving song written and sung by Kenny, inspired by his feelings about Dawn’s loss. The title track, written by Gill, was also inspired by Dawn, and the band members’ collective feelings about her.

Vince has written a charming introduction for the band, ‘We’re The Time Jumpers’. ‘Honky Tonkin’ is not the Hank Williams classic, but an entertaining love song written by Gill with Troy Seals, about adopting a simple domestic life and abandoning the protagonist’s old ‘favorite thing to do’. Some fabulous fiddle is particularly notable.

The band revive the effervescent ‘I Hear You Talkin’’, written by Cindy Walker with country legend Faron Young in the 50s. Joe Spivey sings lead on the Time Jumpers’ delightful version.

Moving away from western swing, ‘Table For Two’ is a gorgeous sad country ballad originally written by Gill with Max D. Barnes for Loretta Lynn. The Time Jumpers’ performance has weeping steel and a lovely vocal from Gill, and would have fitted in perfectly on one of his classic solo albums. Beautiful. The delicate ballad ‘The True Love Meant For Me’, which has an exquisite Gill vocal, is also outstanding.

“Ranger Doug” Green sings his own ‘Empty Rooms’, a stately mid-tempo tune about living with a broken heart. The quirky ‘Bloodshot Eyes’ is a cover of an old Hank Penny tune, which is an amusing takedown of a drunken partner:

Your eyes look like two cherries
In a glass of buttermilk

Don’t roll those bloodshot eyes at me
I can tell you’ve been out on the spree
It’s plain that you’re lying
When you say you’ve been crying
Don’t roll those bloodshot eyes at me

Looks like our little romance has kinda quietened down
You oughta to join a circus
You’d make a real good clown

‘Blue Highway Blue’ is a smooth jazzy ballad sung by band member Billy Thomas; a bit less to my personal taste than other racks, but very well done. The Gill-fronted blues ‘Sweet Rowena’ was also not quite my cup of tea.

Wonderful steel guitar player Paul Franklin is nominated for the umpteenth time this year as CMA Musician of the Year – isn’t it time he won? As a key member of the Time Jumpers, he contributes throughout the album, but gets a special chance to shine on his self-composed instrumental ‘All Aboard’.

I was very much looking forward to the release of this album, and I am pleased to report that I am not disappointed. Brilliantly played throughout, this is an excellent and thoroughly enjoyable album.

Grade: A

Edited to add: the Time Jumpers are currently running a contest on facebook to win a copy: https://www.facebook.com/TheTimeJumpers/?hc_ref=NEWSFEED&fref=nf

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘1994’

merle-haggard-album-19941994 was the second of Merle Haggard’s three albums for Curb Records. It was released four years after Blue Jungle, the biggest gap between projects of Haggard’s career. James Stroud was brought in to produce the album, in an attempt to reverse Haggard’s declining commercial fortunes. At the time, Stroud was one of Nashville’s hottest producers and he seemed to be trying to modernize Merle’s sound for 90s audiences, many of whom were new country fans, introduced to the genre by Garth Brooks. Gone for the most part were the jazz influences that characterized his later releases for Epic, replaced by more mainstream and radio-friendly arrangements. The result was a very solid album, but it was unfortunately not enough to revitalize Merle’s chart career. He had two big strikes against him: his advancing age in an era when more emphasis as being placed on youth and good looks, and his record label, which put little effort into promoting the album. Curb didn’t even want to foot the bill for decent cover art. Many have commented that the album’s cover resembled a tombstone.

Only one single was released from the album, “In My Next Life”, the story of a farmer and his wife looking back on a lifetime of disappointments, written by Max D. Barnes. This is my favorite song on the album, and it probably would have been a Top 10 hit had it been released a few years earlier before veteran artists were swept off the charts. It topped out at #58 and was the second and final Merle Haggard single released by Curb.

Also written by Max D. Barnes is the album’s opening cut “I Am an Island”, which is given a Jimmy Buffett style treatment. It’s a decent song, despite being a bit light on the lyrics, but it’s not really a good fit for Merle, who seems a little out of place singing it. Barnes teamed up with Merle to write the excellent “Way Back In the Mountains” and the filler track “Solid As a Rock”, which would be covered a year later by George Jones and Tammy Wynette for their reunion album.

Merle indulged his penchant for Dixeland jazz on two numbers: the self-penned and very enjoyable “What’s New In New York City” and “Set My Chickens Free”, a good but not great co-write with Richard Smith.

The album closes with an ill-advised remake of Merle’s 1977 hit “Ramblin’ Fever”. This version, with its heavy-handed production, sounds as though it were made to appeal to line-dancing fans. It’s just not impossible to improve on the original recording and Haggard and Stroud really shouldn’t have tried. I probably would have enjoyed it if I’d never heard the original.

In the end 1994 was, like its predecessor Blue Jungle, a commercial disappointment that underscored the sad reality that Haggard’s hitmaking days were behind him. While it does not quite reach the very high standards set by Merle’s earlier work, it is a very good album. The production seems a bit dated here and there but for the most part it has aged well. This is another one of those albums that fans may have overlooked, and as such it is another good opportunity to hear something “new” from Merle while he was still in good voice.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Jo Dee Messina – ‘Jo Dee Messina’

jo dee messinaThis album is one of those that has stuck with me over the years, even thou the herself artist didn’t. That’s not usual in that many artists have one great album or perhaps a few great songs in them or have managed to accumulate a few great songs from other sources. After that they struggle to find material.

For instance I always regarded the debut albums of Clint Black, Randy Travis and Charley Pride as being their best albums (of course these three went on to much further success). Others have been but a flash in the pan.

Jo Dee falls somewhere between long term super star and flash in the pan. Thus was not her most successful album (subsequent albums received more promotional push from Curb), but song for song, I think it is her strongest album.

The album opens with Jo Dee’s second single, “You’re Not In Kansas Anymore”, a Zack Turner – Tim Nichols composition which reached #7. A mid-tempo ballad and a bit of a cautionary tale, well sung.

He said “I grew up in Wichita
In a Mayberry kind of town”
He never liked overalls
Or haulin’ hay ’til sundown
He said he dreamed about L.A.
As he plowed away the day on an old John Deere
I said “Boy let me warn you
In southern California there’s some fast trains here”

You’re not in Kansas anymore
Can’t be too careful that’s for sure
City lights will led you on
Morning comes and they’ll be gone
So write my number on your wall
You can call me anytime at all
I’m so happy now boy
You’re not in Kansas anymore

Next up is “On A Wing and A Prayer”, written by Walt Aldridge and Jo Dee about a relationship that is unraveling. This tune is another mid-tempo ballad.

“He’d Never Seen Julie Cry’ comes from redoubtable songsmiths Leslie Satcher and Max T Barnes. THis song is about a relationship untended too long, a slow ballad that was the fourth single from the album, reaching #64.

His heart was tougher than a piece of leather
Had a will carved out of stone
He was stallion who had thrown every rider
No woman could seem to hang on
He didn’t know that it was over
He thought, he could make it right
But then again, he’d never seen Julie cry

He never thought that love would hit him
Like a train comin’ out of the dark
He never thought a friend would hand him back
The keys to his own heart

“Do You Wanna Make Something of It” comes from the pens of Terry Anderson and Bob DiPiero. This is both the first track on the album in which the steel guitar prominently figures into the mix and the first up-tempo song on the album. This song was released as the third single on the album and only reached #53, which at the time stunned me as I thought it had top ten written all over it. It did reach #29 on the Canadian country charts. This may be Jo Dee’s best vocal performance on the album.

There’s a little bitty flame burnin’ deep in my heart
You wanna make something of it?
Oh, do you feel the same, maybe just a little spark?
You wanna make something of it?
Do you wanna turn it into somethin’
That’s a burnin’ like a ragin’ fire out of control?
Well, I’m waitin’ for you tell me what you wanna do
You wanna make something of it?

“Let It Go” by Jamie Kyle, Ron Bloom, and Will Rambeaux, is a mid-tempo philosophical ballad ballad about moving on after the end of a relationship. Not bad but nothing special.

“Heads Carolina, Tails California”, a Tim Nichols – Mark D. Sanders was Jo Dee’s debut single and for my money, her best song. The song went to #1 at radio stations throughout the mid-Atlantic area and reached #2 on Billboard’s national country chart, #3 on the Canadian country chart and also hit Billboard’s all-genre Hot 200 at #111. The song is an up-tempo semi-rocker in which the narrator just wants to get out of town and head somewhere else – anywhere will do as long as her lover comes with her.

Baby, what do you say, we just get lost
Leave this one horse town like two rebels without a cause
I’ve got people in Boston, ain’t your daddy still in Des Moines ?
We can pack up tomorrow, tonight, let’s flip a coin

Heads Carolina, tails California
Somewhere greener, somewhere warmer
Up in the mountains, down by the ocean
Where it don’t matter, as long as we’re goin’
Somewhere together, I’ve got a quarter
Heads Carolina, tails California

“Walk To The Light” written by Walt Aldridge is not a religious song but it has something of a religious feel to it. The song is a medium fast ballad about moving forward after a breakup

I’ve never been one to believe much in ghosts
But to tell you the truth now, my mind is not closed
I’ve heard there are souls that are lost in between
Somewhere they’re goin’ and the places they’ve been
That sounds a lot like a woman I know
Her love is long gone but she will not let go
Somebody oughtta take her by the hand and tell her
Don’t be afraid, just walk to the light
Let go of the past and get on with your life
Someone is waiting out in the night
Ashes to ashes, walk to the light

“I Didn’t Have to Leave You” is a slow ballad written by Jill Wood about a woman trying to fight off the efforts of her lover’s ex to try to win him back. The song is very strong and would have made a good single.

Remember me
The one who picked up all the pieces, me
The one whose love for you increases everyday
And it won’t go away like she did
Remember her

The one who left your heart abandoned, her
Well she’s back again and I can’t stand it
It hurts ’cause with her tears all glistening
She’s got you listening to her promises
Well remember this

I didn’t have to leave you to love you
I didn’t have to lose you first to want you more than ever
I didn’t have to leave you to love you
I didn’t have to see if I could tear your world apart
And still win back your heart
I didn’t have to leave you to love you
I loved you from the start

“Every Little Girl’s Dream”, written by Dave Loggins and Kenny Mims is a nice medium-fast song, a little too superficial but a nice album track.

The album closes with “Another Shoulder At The Wheel” an upbeat song from Gary Burr and John Jarrard. Nice country production with tasteful steel guitar and a truly meaningful lyric about the way life should be

In my path, there are stones
I could never roll away alone
There are times when I wake
And my knees will tremble and shake
But there’s someone who cares
And when I need you, you’ll be there
Another shoulder at the wheel to see me through
When the road is long and the tears are real
When I’m past the point of giving up
There’s nothing like the feel, of another shoulder at the wheel

At the time I purchased this album in February 1996, I found myself hoping against hope that she would not give in to pressures to make her sound less country. The electric guitars on this album are more rock than country guitars but they are subdued. The steel guitar and dobro of Sonny Garrish and fiddle of Glen Duncan are appropriately spotlighted.

Jo Dee would go on to have some #1 singles and more successful chart albums but this remains my favorite. I have heard all of Jo Dee’s albums, but other than her Greatest Hits album released in 2003, this would be the last Jo Dee Messina album I would purchase (someone gave me Delicious Surprise for Christmas in 2005 because they remembered I had like Joe Diffie’s “My Give A Damn’s Busted” on his 2001 album In Another World).

The songs, vocal performance and production combine to make this album a very solid A.

Album Review: Shelby Lynne – ‘Soft Talk’

SoftTalkJames Stroud sat at the helm of Shelby Lynne’s third Epic album, Soft Talk. Released in 1991, the project performed anemically both at radio and retail. The album peaked at #55, while the two singles failed to chart any higher then the record.

A duet with Les Taylor, “The Very First Lasting Love” peaked at #50. The second and final single, “Don’t Cross Your Heart,” did slightly worse peaking at #54.

“I’ve Learned To Live” is an excellent mid-tempo contemporary styled number written by Dean Dillon and Frank Dycus. Lynne powerfully expresses the tale of a woman coming back from unimaginable loss, vowing to continue living.

Max D. Barnes, Skip Ewing, and Troy Seals co-wrote “A Lighter Shade of Blue,” a dobro soaked ballad. A story about lost love, she’s having trouble moving on yet is not as affected by the turn of events as she thought she would be.

“You Can’t Break A Broken Heart” is an excellent uptempo bluesy number accentuated with harmonica and a prominent drumbeat. Chuck Jones and Chris Waters’ biting lyric coupled with Stroud’s understated production gives Lynne the ideal space from which to vocally soar.

The title track is another affecting ballad, one that starts off slow before Lynne takes it to the next level. While not the most memorable lyric, she brilliantly tackles what she has to work with.

Jim Lauderdale and John Leventhal co-wrote, “Stop Me,” another contemporary styled ballad in which Lynne delivers vocally. Her throaty voice saves what would otherwise be a bland affair, which is unmistakably pop-country, down to the twangy guitars and ribbons of steel guitar. It also just might be her best vocal on the whole project.

“It Might Be Me” is a piano and guitar based ballad that gives way to a meatier production as the track progresses. Since it’s another ballad it easily gets lost in the shuffle and offers only more of the same found on the other tracks.

In the twenty-four years since being released, Soft Talk has gone out of print and only a handful of its ten tracks have resurfaced on her Epic Recordings compilation project released at the turn of the century. It’s a shame because the album is very good even if it isn’t very radio friendly. I was taken aback that the production contained a lot of contemporary 80s country spillovers, but it was pleasant to listen to none the same.

Lynne, like Kelly Willis, may’ve been on a major label, but their music just wasn’t that appealing to the masses and thus they never caught on in that way. That doesn’t mean they aren’t extremely talented and should be overlooked. Soft Talk may be heavy on ballads but it finds Lynne saving the day with her powerful voice. It’s worth tracking down a cheap used copy if you’ve never heard it.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Hold On’

220px-Nitty_Gritty_Hold_OnBy the late 80s, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was routinely peaking in the upper regions of the country charts and had even scored two number one hits along the way. But they’d yet to release their signature song, which would change when Hold On hit stores in July of 1987.

The album saw three singles released. Non-descript rocker “Baby’s Got A Hold On Me” came first, peaking at #2. The album’s third single “Oh What A Love” was much better, with a pleasant acoustic-based shuffle arrangement featuring prominent mandolin. The mid-tempo ballad comes off a tad cheesy today, but the arrangement and tight harmonies from the band keep it listenable.

Between those two singles, which are forgettable at best, came the aforementioned signature song. Written by Wendy Waldman and Jim Photoglo, “Fishin’ In The Dark” is an iconic single from the period, a modern masterpiece that sounds as timeless today as it did twenty-seven years ago. The combination of Jeff Hanna’s commanding vocal and Josh Leo’s flawless production is irresistible. Not since Alabama’s “Mountain Music” a full five years earlier had an opening sequence (Gentle acoustic guitar plucking building to include twangy electric guitar, ribbons of harmonica, and attention-grabbing drum beats) been so identifiable.

Eddy Raven took his version of “Joe Knows How To Live,” written by Max D. Barnes, Lyle Graham, and Troy Seals to number one in 1988. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s version is just as good as Ravens, albeit identical except for Hanna’s smoother vocal tone and the band’s inclusion of harmonica.

Bruce Springsteen solely wrote “Angelyne,” a slick slice of synth drenched country rock that contains a good lyric but is packaged too neatly for my taste. Richard Leigh co-wrote “Blue Ridge Mountain Girl,” a brilliantly excused ballad that would’ve been even stronger had Hanna sang lead. Karen Staley wrote the album’s closing number, “Tennessee.” I love the fiddle, steel, and band harmonies on the track, but the overtones of synth drown out any real enjoyment of the neo-traditional leaning track. Wayne Holyfield co-wrote “Dancing To The Beat of a Broken Heart,” which still leans on the synth, but is better with Hanna in the lead.

Various members of the band contributed songs to the project as well. Hanna co-wrote, “Keepin’ The Road Hot,” a generic number similar to Restless Heart’s style at the time. Jimmie Fadden, meanwhile, solely wrote “Oleanna.” The production on the ballad is too synth driven, and Fadden’s vocal is bland.

Hold On is a mixed bag of an album, heavy on synth, and lacking any real identity beyond “Fishin’ In The Dark.” The harmonies are fantastic, though, but to today’s ears the album is a bit too 80s.

Grade: B

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘Honky Tonk Crazy’

honky tonk crazyOne of the ironies of the rise of the neotraditional movement in the late 1980s was that it swept away some of the old guard who had been keeping more traditional sounds alive on country radio. Gene Watson was one of the casualties. His last album for Epic, produced by Billy Sherrill, was an excellent effort which deserved to do much better than it did.

The title track is a smooth confessional from a man who warns off a woman who is getting a little too close:

I’ve always been honky tonk crazy
I’m someone that’s best left alone
Cause when I get honky tonk crazy
I only feel right doing wrong

I’ll take you and make you love smokey old bars
Cheap whiskey and a sad country song
Till there’s nothing left of the lady you are
And then like your pride I’ll be gone

Lovely steel guitar and fiddle, and Gene’s seductive vocal makes the prospect seem more inviting than it should. The song, written by the legendary Harlan Howard with Ron Peterson, was also recorded by Keith Whitley (and is available on the posthumous Sad Songs & Waltzes). Gene’s version disappointingly failed to creep into the top 40 on the Billboard country chart.

The second and last single did a little better, reaching #28. The funky ‘Everybody Needs A Hero’ (written by Max D. Barnes and Troy Seals) is a Georgia boy’s reminiscence of a somewhat disreputable childhood hero. The implication is that he is actually the kid’s father or grandfather:

My mama says I turned out just like him
She worries and prays that I’ll change
I didn’t know until a few days ago
Why he sent me his gold watch and chain

‘I Didn’t Think Of You At All’ is a classic Gene Watson heartbreak ballad, with perfect phrasing conveying the emotional devastation of a man desperately trying not to let it show. Gene squeezes out every drop of emotion while never oversinging it. Equally broken is the protagonist of ‘Ashes To Ashes’:

I tried everything, even drowning your memory in booze
So I finally decided to lie down and die with the pain
Oh, but my heart kept on beating and softly repeating your name

When they lay me away the last words they’ll speak
Here lies a man that don’t rest in peace

God gave me your love and God knows I threw it away
What I put you through is the same hell I’m living today
Now praying don’t help so dying’s the best I can do

In similar heartbreak vein is a revival of a country classic, ‘You took Her Off My Hands’, one of Harlan Howard’s earliest compositions (with Wynn Stewart and Skeets McDonald) whose best known recording is that by Ray Price; Patsy Cline also recorded a version under the title ‘You Took Him Off My Hands’. Gene’s interpretation is superlative.

‘Getting Used To Being Loved Again’ is a gently vulnerable ballad expressing the wonder of finding new love at last. ‘I Always Get It Right With You is a warm, tender love song.

‘When She Touches Me’ features a former Casanova who has been felled by falling in love with one of his conquests.

‘Nobody’s Baby Tonight’ is a sympathetic song about a fragile woman whose man has recently left her and is so lonely she resorts to picking up a man in a bar.

The pacey ‘Her Heart Or Mine’ tackles a relationship which has run out of steam, but there is no way of avoiding hurting one or the other:

There’s no way I can make both of us happy
I don’t know if I should break her heart or mine

After this album failed to maintain Gene’s commercial status, he left the label for a period in the wilderness. He enjoyed a brief resurgence when he signed to Warner Bros, recording two excellent albums for that label, Back In The Fire which I included in our retrospective look at he Class of ’89, and At Last. But linking up with new labelmate Randy Travis’s manager (and later wife) Lib Hatcher turned out to be a bad move, and legal wrangles coincided with the end of his major label career. The 90s saw Gene recording for a succession of minor labels, many of which have gone out of business, making the music he made there hard to come by.

This is a wonderful, underrated album from an artist at the peak of his vocal prowess, which deserve to be better known. Unfortunately it has not yet been re-released, and only rather expensive used copies seem to be out there at present. If you do come across a copy, it’s well worth it.

Grade: A

Album Review: Lorrie Morgan – ‘My Heart’

MyHeartLorrie Morgan’s 1997 release Shakin’ Things Up did not live up to its title, producing only one bona fide hit. She followed it up with a non-country vanity project, 1998’s Secret Love, a collection of covers of pre-rock-and-roll pop songs from the 1940s and 1950s. By the time she was ready to get back to business, she found herself struggling — like many other veteran artists — to remain commercially relevant in a drastically changed country music landscape that had embraced more crossover-minded artists such as Shania Twain and Faith Hill.

1999’s My Heart, which teamed Lorrie up with a new producer, Csaba Petocz, was an attempt to update her sound, with mixed results. The album only produced two singles, one of which was “Maybe Not Tonight”, her duet with Sammy Kershaw, which had already appeared on his album of the same title. The other was “Here I Go Again”, which was written by Kim Richey. These are two of the best songs on the album. The AC-leaning “Maybe Not Tonight” reached #17 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, but “Here I Go Again” was a commercial flop that only made it to #72. Leslie Satcher’s “Between Midnight and Tomorrow” would have been a good choice for a third single, but BNA seemed to lose interest in further promoting the album.

The album contains two very nice ballads “Strong Enough To Cry”, written by Max D. Barnes and Rory Lee Feek, and “On This Bed” written by Lorrie’s then-husband Jon Randall. The album’s opening track “The Things That We Do”, which finds Lorrie and guest vocalist Jo Dee Messina, lamenting the monotony of life’s day to day tasks, is pleasant but about as interesting as the mundane chores it enumerates.

The album is less successful when Petocz and Morgan attempt to court the crossover audience. “Where Does That Leave Me?” is a tedious and overwrought AC ballad and “I Did” is a dull acoustic middle-of-the-road number. When I first heard “The Only Thing That Looks Good On Me Is You”, my initial thought was that Lorrie was trying to channel Shania. I was unaware at the time that the song had been written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange and Bryan Adams.

My Heart contains a handful of decent songs, but overall it is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. It would have benefited from a little more variety and tempo and less of a tendency on the part of Petocz and Morgan to play it safe. My Heart sold poorly and was Morgan’s last full-length album for BNA, marking the beginning of the end of the major label phase of her career. She released one more Greatest Hits collection for the label that included a few new tracks, and then collaborated with Sammy Kershaw for a one-off project for RCA, before moving on to the independent labels.

My Heart is not essential listening, but it can be obtained very cheaply and is worth getting for the handful of good songs it contains.

Grade: B-

Concert Review – ‘An Evening with Vince Gill’ – August 10, 2013

1373942682001-VG-PF-0487-GPub-300rgb-1307152246_4_3I was witness to a major bucket list moment for the second time in four years Aug 10 – an in the round performance by Vince Gill at one of my favorite venues, The 2,250 seat South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset, MA. With his full band in toe (including Paul Franklin and Dawn Sears, who sang, but held back on many songs, likely due to her ongoing cancer battle), he ran through a two and a half hour set that mixed his legendary recordings with the iconic numbers he and Franklin made their own on Bakersfield.

I knew the night would be special when I bought the tickets last June, before I’d heard the album, or knew Franklin would join him. Gill is easily one of my favorite people in country music, a constant professional who can write, sing, play, and host with an ease that hasn’t been duplicated by any superstar that’s risen in his wake. He’s also the rare exception who’s only gotten better with age. Gill is as good (if not better) now at 57 then he was in his commercial prime more than twenty years ago.

He opened with the weary “One More Last Chance” before launching into “Take Your Memory With You.” Gill then preceded “High Lonesome Sound” with the joke that if you want to win a Grammy Alison Krauss should play on your song, a bit of irony seeing as he’s as much a Grammy magnet as Krauss. “Pocket Full of Gold” came in tribute to the cheaters as Gill wanted to know who he should look at while he sings.

His set, billed as an “Evening With Vince Gill,” was broken into two segments, bookending a 25-minute intermission to sell merchandise and beer. He spent a lot of time in the first act on his admiration for songwriter Max D. Barnes, complementing his talent on “Chiseled In Stone” and “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes.” A detour into sad songs led to a childhood memory of his dad singing “Old Shep” to him, before he told of the writing session behind “Look At Us,” a would be weeper that Barnes had Gill flip around to extenuate the positive. One of my favorite of his recordings, he sang it with beautiful precision while Franklin made the steel solo come alive. Another favorite was “Old Lucky Diamond Motel,” a Guitar Slinger album cut that I was glad he brought out.

What surprised me the most about the whole show was how little emphasis was placed on Bakersfield. They closed the first half with the requisite five songs an artist usually plays from their newest release, but they almost felt like an afterthought, when they should’ve been the main attraction. They opened this portion with Owens’ “Foolin’ Around” before gracing us with their timely cover of Haggard’s “The Fighting Side of Me,” which was a little loud, but excellent. His odes to Emmylou Harris – “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Together Again” were stellar, but I got the most joy from “I Can’t Be Myself,” which is as perfect a lyric as I’ve ever heard. “Together Again” had the right amount of steel, but “I Can’t Be Myself” was the winner of the Bakersfield songs.

Gill opened the second half with “What The Cowgirls Do,” another of my least favorites, but won redemption with “Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away.” He was more musically focused and thus didn’t interact as much this time around, but with his catalog front and center, that didn’t matter. I was surprised when he went way back into that catalog and pulled out “Never Alone” and the breakneck “Oklahoma Borderline,” which he flubbed a little lyrically (it was funny to watch him reading the lyrics from a monitor). Both were good, but I wasn’t as familiar with the latter as I would’ve liked to have been.

The highlights were a mix of both expected and somewhat surprising. Gill brought out his usual greatness on “Go Rest High On That Mountain,” but it was an out of nowhere “What You Give Away” that threw me. I had forgotten about that single, a top 30 hit from 2006, and was pleased when an audience member had requested it. He was also great on “Pretty Little Adriana,” “Trying to Get Over You,” and show closer “Whenever You Come Around.”

As intricately specialized as Gill is, the show wasn’t without a couple of minor cracks. Frankly, I would’ve killed for a little more experimentation. Gill and the band was almost too tight a unit, too perfect. The show would’ve been even stronger had they reworked some of Gill’s classics in the Bakersfield Sound, like he did with “Go Rest High On That Mountain” in the wake of Kitty Wells’ passing last year. Franklin, meanwhile, was regulated as the onstage steel player, thus he didn’t talk at all – the album was as much his project as Gill’s, so it wouldn’t have hurt to hear him talk about the music from his perspective. I didn’t expect his presence to feel like just another member of the band, and it was jarring seeing as Bakersfield was a collaborative album.

But that doesn’t excuse the fact that Gill put on an incredible show from start to finish that’s a must see for any country music fan. In thinking about his place in music, I would put Gill up there with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney as an icon who may not be as transcendent as those rock pioneers, be he’s arguably just as important to the genre he’s helped shape for the better part of the last thirty-five years.

Album Review: Pam Tillis – ‘Put Yourself In My Place’

putyourselfinmyplaceWhen she cracked the Top 10 for the very first time with the Harlan Howard and Max D. Barnes penned “Don’t Tell Me What To Do”, Pam Tillis may have appeared to be an overnight success to many country fans who were unaware that she already had one pop album and several unsuccessful country singles under her belt. As far as those fans were concerned, her career began with her signing to Arista Records, which was then one of several labels that rushed to open a division in Nashville to cash in on country music’s resurgence in popularity. Pam’s first album for the label was Put Yourself In My Place, which appeared shortly after “Don’t Tell Me What To Do” had peaked at #5 on the Billboard country singles chart.

In many ways, Put Yourself In My Place, which was produced by Paul Worley and Ed Seay, was an album of second chances. It was a second chance for Pam after years of languishing in obscurity at Warner Bros., as well as for three of the album’s hit singles which had been previously recorded and had either been unsuccessful or had gone unreleased. “Don’t Tell Me What To Do” had originally been recorded by Marty Stuart under the title “I’ll Love You Forever (If I Want To)”, but the album for which it had been recorded had been shelved by Columbia and did not see the light of day until after Marty had found success on MCA, and the retitled song had become Pam’s breakthrough hit. Pam’s second single for Arista was a tune she co-wrote with Paul Overstreet. “One Of Those Things” had been released as a single by Warner Bros. in 1985 but had failed to chart. This time around it performed substantially better, landing at #6. It’s always been one of my favorite Pam Tillis songs, but it was excluded from her Greatest Hits album, which was released a few years later and doesn’t seem to be one of her better remembered songs today. “Maybe It Was Memphis”, which is probably Pam’s biggest and best-remembered hit, had also been previously recorded for Warner Bros., who had opted not to release it. The Arista version of the story of a steamy summer romantic encounter, soared to #3. It is one of the more progressive numbers on a largely traditional album.

In between “One Of Those Things” and “Maybe It Was Memphis”, the album’s title track was released as a single. The uptempo and energetic “Put Yourself In My Place” was written by Pam and Carl Jackson. Surprisingly it just missed the Top 10, peaking at #11. The album’s fifth and final single, the ultra-traditional and steel-guitar drenched “Blue Rose Is” was also a near miss, peaking at #21. It’s an excellent song, written by Pam with her then-husband Bob DiPiero and Jan Buckingham. I was, however, a little surprised when it became a single because it did seem a bit retro for country radio’s tastes, which were starting to drift back towards pop by 1992.

Among the album cuts, my favorites are the presumably semi-autobiographical “Melancholy Child”, which hints at a difficult childhood, “Draggin’ My Chains”, and the more contempoary “I’ve Seen Enough To Know”, a Tillis co-write with Radney Foster.

Put Yourself In My Place
reached #10 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and was certified gold for sales in excess of 500,000 units. Its importance to Pam’s career can not be overstated, for it allowed her to step out of the shadow of her famous father and to put to rest any lingering doubts about her commercial viability. It is her most consistent, most traditional and best album. Inexpensive copies are easy to find.

Grade: A

Album Review: Vern Gosdin – ‘Chiseled In Stone’

The New Traditionalist movement of the late 1980s returned traditional sounds to the country music radio airwaves and launched the careers of many new artists, but for the most part it did little to revive the flagging careers of veteran artists. Vern Gosdin was a notable exception; in 1987 he got a second shot at a major label deal when he inked a deal with Columbia — something that would never happen today to a 54-year-old singer with inconsistent chart success.

Vern’s first release for Columbia was 1988’s Chiseled In Stone, which was produced by Bob Montgomery. It contained ten tracks, nine of which were co-written by Vern, along with of some of Nashville’s finest songsmiths, including Hank Cochran, Max D. Barnes, and Dean Dillon. Up to this time, Vern had garnered a lot of critical acclaim and the respect of his peers, but now he finally began to enjoy a level of commercial success as well. His first Columbia single “Do You Believe Me Now”, released in late 1987, reached #4, becoming his first Top 10 record since 1984’s “Slow Burning Memory”. The protagonist in this dark tune has split with his ex. He’s told her in the past that he can’t live without her, and when he runs into her again by chance after hitting rock bottom, asks her, “Do you believe me now?” Imagine a story like that being told on country radio today. It was followed by what is perhaps his best-known hit, “Set ‘Em Up, Joe”, a tune he wrote with Cochran, Dillon, and Buddy Cannon. This one went all the way to #1, becoming the second chart-topper of his career (the first was 1984’s “I Can Tell By The Way You Dance”). The album’s third single was the album’s magnificent title track, which Gosdin wrote with Max D. Barnes. It tells the story of a quarreling couple; the husband storms out in anger and heads for the nearest bar to drown his sorrows. While there, he encounters a wiser and older man whose wife has died, and who helps the protagonist put things into perspective. Kenny Chesney would later revisit this theme, much less effectively, with 2002’s “The Good Stuff.” “Chiseled In Stone” only reached #6, but it should have gone all the way to #1.

Columbia released one more single in early 1989, “Who You Gonna Blame It On This Time”, which peaked at #2. In addition, there is a treasure trove among the album tracks, including “Is It Raining At Your House”, which was recently covered by Brad Paisley, a Western swing number called “Tight As Twin Fiddles”, “Nobody Calls From Vegas Just To Say Hello”, and “It’s Not Over, Yet” which isn’t my favorite track on the album, but is a close second behind “Chiseled In Stone”.

Chiseled In Stone was certified gold, proving that Vern could deliver the commercial, as well as the critical goods. It also served as testimony in an increasingly youth-obsessed industry, that an older artist could still make relevant, commercially viable music. It is this phase of Vern’s career with which I am most familiar, and it is his music from this era that I listen to most often. This is a beautifully crafted album without a single weak track. It deserves a place in every country fan’s collection. it is available digitally at a uncharacteristically ridiculous price from Amazon MP3 or at a much more reasonable price from iTunes. However, inexpensive new or used CD copies are the most economical choice for acquiring this fine album.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Vern Gosdin – ‘Time Stood Still’

Vern’s final studio album for Compleat was released in 1985. Produced by Vern with Robert John Jones, a songwriter probably best known for the Kendalls’ big hit ‘Thank God For The Radio’, the sound is more subtle and less dated than his previous albums. There are still some string arrangements, but far less prominent than before, while Vince Gill and Beverly Gosdin (who was, I believe, Vern’s wife at the time) provide backing vocals.

Sadly, Time Stood Still was not nearly as successful as its predecessors. The lead single, an emotive and completely convincing cover of the heartbreak honky tonk classic ‘Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music)’ with great harmonies and piercing fiddle, peaked at a disappointing #20. Country radio was just beginning to be more receptive to traditional sounds than it had been in the past few years, but this record may have come just a little too soon.

The mid-tempo ‘I Know The Way To You By Heart’ was the record’s only other top 40 hit. It is a drifter’s wistful reminiscence and decision to go home (possibly addressed to mother rather than lover), and is a good song if not in Vern’s trademark style:

I’ve slept in some cars and I’ve slept in some bars
And I’ve slept in the arms of some fast falling stars
But there ain’t been one dream that’s come true
Since I left home, since I left you

In the cold just one memory is warm
And in the dark just one light comes on
Though I’m lost there’s one thing I’ve found
I know the way to you
I know the way to you by heart

I know what I’m feeling for you is real
Like the palm of my hand on this old steering wheel
And I’m still on the road I’ve come down
But thanks to you I’m homeward bound

While it wasn’t a big hit, the single did make Billboard writer Edward Morris’s list of the ten best of that year.

The three last singles all performed dismally and well below their deserts, perhaps because Vern was about to jump ship and the label to fold. The simple but beautifully interpreted ballad ‘It’s Only Love Again’ is something of a hidden gem, written by Tim Krekel. ‘Was It Just The Wine’ has Vern anxiously questioning whether his new love was just a drunken fling or rebound, and is another superb vocal on an excellent song, written by Vern with Buddy Cannon.

Was it just a memory of someone before you telling me we’re through?
Did I hold your body close to mine?
Did we make promises till the end of time?
Did we fall in love?
Or was it just the wine?

Finally, the absolutely lovely title track (penned by co-producer Jones) has an understated vocal and perfectly judged phrasing about the complete devastation of true love turned to heartbreak:

You made my heart complete
Then broke it at my feet
Time stood still
When you said goodbye

And now the seasons don’t change
The days have no names
Today’s like yesterday
I lean on the wine
But your memory, like time,
Baby, won’t slip away

To get you off my mind
Just takes a little time
Baby, time stood still
When you said goodbye

Beverly comes in effectively echoing Vern in the last chorus in the same style as Janie Fricke’s work with him. This is a stunning performance which stands up well against Vern’s classics and really didn’t deserve to be ignored by country radio.

‘For A Minute There’ is another excellent song with a melancholic feel song along the same lines as his later ‘Alone’, if not quite as intense. Written by Max D Barnes with Beverly, it has the protagonist briefly imagining losing a lover, with a beautifully measured, precise vocal:

For a minute there I thought my world was ending
For a minute there I thought you said goodbye

‘What A Price I’ve Paid’ is even better, a mournful, steel-laced lost love ballad written by Vern and Max D Barnes which stands comparison with Vern’s best work. A lovelorn Vern just can’t take his friends’ advice to move on:

If time does the healing
It ain’t done a thing for me yet
They say that love is life
And I guess they’re right this time
I nearly lost my mind when I lost you
And I was so afraid I’d never find my way
God, what a price I’ve paid to love you

‘Rainbows And Roses’ is a pretty sounding but lyrically unremarkable and slightly old fashioned love song, written by Max D Barnes and Rayburn Anthony. The mid-tempo ‘Two Lonely Hearts (Out Of Hand)’, written by Vern with Buddy Cannon and producer Robert John Jones, is about a couple falling in love with a girl met in a bar room, dancing to the jukebox, and Vern has a bit of a growl adding bite.

The hymn ‘Jesus Hold My Hand was repeated from If Jesus Comes Tomorrow ( What Then)?, Vern’s Christian album released on Compleat in 1984. It’s not as good as the title track of the latter, and feels a bit out of place here, but is a pleasant enough listening experience with solid piano-led backing and churchy backing vocals.

Vern’s relative lack of commercial success at this time was countered by the respect of his peers and the industry. He may have been in his fifties and have enjoyed a relatively low-level career to date, but he was soon to get a new opportunity with Columbia. Time Stood Still has been overlooked as it produced no big hits, and is overshadowed by its successor, which was to bring Vern an unexpected late career boost and some of the finest country music ever recorded. However, on its own merits there is some great stuff here. It was re-released on American Harvest and later on Vern’s own VGM Records in 1998, so is easy to find.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Vern Gosdin – ‘There Is A Season’

Following the collapse of AMI Records in late 1982, Vern found himself recording for Compleat, another minor label. His first album for Compleat was If You’re Gonna Do Me Wrong, released in April 1983. This album contained a re-recording of Vern’s last hit for AMI, “Today My World Slipped Away”, plus the title track, Vern’s first hit for Compleat. The next album was There Is A Season released in April 1984. This is an odd album, with wide and varied production and a somewhat rushed feel to it.

The quasi-title track “Turn, Turn, Turn (To Everything There Is A Season)” was a song from the folk era. Created by Pete Seeger, the song is taken entirely from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible (with the notable exception of the last line) and set to music by Seeger around 1959. The song has been recorded many times, probably by every Hootenanny-era folk act and by many rock acts as well, most notably the Byrds who took it to #1 on the pop chart in 1965. Gosdin was friends with Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, and McGuinn appears on Vern’s recording of the song. This song was not released as a single, although it received some airplay on country radio. I think it unlikely that it would have made a successful single as it was somewhere between the Byrd’s version and what I think a real country recording of the song would sound like. As much as I love the music of Vern Gosdin, this is among my least favorite recordings of the song (my favorite version was by the Australian group the Seekers). That said, it is not a bad recording.

“Love Me Right To The End” is another of those medium slow ballads that Vern sings so well. I don’t think the song itself is anything special but Vern’s vocal, along with the sympathetic backing and fine fiddle playing by Rob Hajacos makes this a fine track.

“How Can I Believe In You (When You’re Leaving Me)” is another medium slow ballad. Here the Nashville String Machine is a little more in evidence than on the prior track, but Vern’s vocals dominate, which is as it should be.

Jim Rushing was a tunesmith whose songs were recorded by a lot of artists during the 1980s. “Slow Healing Heart” is given an effective treatment by Vern. This song features straight-forward county production, with minimal Nashville Sound trappings.

“I Can Tell By The Way You Dance (You’re Gonna Love Me Tonight)” would become Vern’s first #1 record in the spring of 1984. The version on this album is NOT the version released as the single. It’s taken at a slightly slower tempo than the hit single, and Vern’s vocal lacks the pizzazz of the single (I wonder if this was recorded at the end of a long session, because “The Voice” sounds tired on this recording). This track is pleasant enough, but if released as a single, I doubt it would have been a top ten record. Fortunately someone saw the potential in the song and had Vern give it another shot.

“What Would Your Memories Do” is a Hank Cochran-Dean Dillon collaboration which fits exactly into Vern’s preferred medium slow groove. This song would reach the top ten during the summer of 1984.

“Slow Burning Memory” is one of my favorite Vern Gosdin songs; however, the version on this album is NOT the version that reached the top ten in early 1985, but a slightly slower and more straight-forward country recording. Vern’s vocal on the single has a bit brighter vocal; moreover, the use of strings on the single greatly enhanced the dramatic effect of the lyrics. Vern and Max D. Barnes penned this number.

“Dead From The Heart On Down” compares death with a man who has lost love. Another Vern Gosdin-Max D Barnes collaboration, the song fits well within the context of this album. Vern and Max also penned “Stone Cold Heart” another medium-slow ballad.

“I’ve Got My Heart Full of You” is little more up-tempo than most of this album, and “You Never Cross My Mind” has a more prominent string arrangement to it than some of the tracks. I don’t think either of these tracks is anything special, but they are well sung and make for enjoyable listening.

I regard this as one of Vern’s weaker albums but I would rate it in the B to B+ range. If the album had contained single versions of “I Can Tell By The Way You Dance (You’re Gonna Love Me Tonight)” and “Slow Burning Memory”, I would have nudged up to an A-. Of course when you’re rating an artist and saying one of his weaker albums is worth a B+ you are saying a lot about the artist.

Album Review: Vern Gosdin – ‘If You’re Gonna Do Me Wrong (Do It Right)’

1983 saw a new label for Vern, Compleat, and a real comeback.  This was his first album for the label, and was produced by Blake Mevis.  The production shows some signs of its era with liberal but not overwhelming use of string sections and sometimes slightly dated sounding arrangements of the backing vocals, clearly patterned after Janie Fricke’s contribution to earlier Gosdin records, but it allows that voice to shine. 

The classic title track is a stunning song, with a beautifully understated vocal which is, like many of Vern’s recording, a masterclass in singing country music.  Bitter but weary of fighting it, Vern addresses a wife he knows is planning on cheating on him:

There’s a closet full of dresses that I bought you
And here’s the keys to the new car in the drive
And before you leave our room
Put on your best perfume
If you’re gonna do me wrong, do it right

Oh, the next time the phone rings
I won’t answer
I don’t wanna be the fool I was tonight
I don’t wanna know the truth
I don’t wanna see the proof
If you’re gonna do me wrong
Do it right

The pain is palpable. It was Vern’s biggest hit to date, and quite an achievement for an independent label, albeit one distributed and promoted by the major Mercury, and although a peak of #5 was still four spots lower than it deserved. It might have been known as one of George Jones’s classic hits, as Vern and co-writer Max D Barnes had pitched it to the Possum, but he had unaccountably failed to record it. That seems like a real missed opportunity, which Jones acknowledged when he finally got around to covering it on his 2005 set Hits I Missed – but then we would never had heard Vern Gosdin’s own superb version.

Matching its predecessor’s performance, second single ‘Way Down Deep’ picked up both tempo and mood with a positive love song Vern wrote with Max D Barnes and the latter’s son Max T Barnes. It’s very good with a happy feel as it celebrates falling in love, but lacks the emotional intensity which makes Vern’s best work his heartbreak ballads, and is one of my less favourite tracks here.

The wistful ‘I Wonder Where We’d Be Tonight’ was the third top 10 from the album, making it his most consistent and successful release to date. Vern ponders regretfully what might have been if he hadn’t broken up with an ex he still loves, delivering another perfectly executed vocal on an excellent song.

The record is packed full of now-classic recordings. ‘Tennessee Courage’, which Vern wrote with his brother Rex (who died in 1983 aged just 45 after recording backing vocals for this album) is beautiful but sad, portraying a man taking refuge from his loneliness in a bottle of whiskey:

Now my good friend Jack Daniels stands tall on the shelf
And he’ll go to war with my troubles
And he’ll never desert an old friend when I’m hurt
And needin’ some Tennessee courage

Straight 90 proof can alter the truth
Put hair on your chest in a hurry
I know I’ll survive
Raise hell for a while
With the help of some Tennessee courage

The song was later covered by Keith Whitley in his posthumously released I Wonder Do You Think Of Me, the latter’s alcohol-induced death giving an added poignancy to the choice. Vern also repeated his exquisite AMI top 10 hit ‘Today My World Slipped Away’, a song always worth hearing again. The lesser known ‘I’ll Try’ is almost as good, Vern offering a warm and supportive helping hand to someone in pain:

I’ll try to help you understand what love is all about
And why the things you want so bad
You seem to do without
And if your heart should start to cry
As you watch dreams inside you die
And you need someone to tell you why
I’ll try

‘Favorite Fool Of All’ has a devoted Vern all too aware he is fooling himself that his faithless lover will not break his heart like those of all her past conquests.

If the sad songs are the best, there is also some happy material worth hearing. ‘I Couldn’t Love You More’ is a touching love song with a pretty tune, and ‘My Heart Is In Good Hands’ is also nice. While there really isn’t a bad track, the closest we get to filler is with ‘I Feel Love Closin’ In’, a pleasant enough chugging ballad about falling in love, and even this is tenderly sung making it sound good.

This outstanding album was released on CD in 2001 on Vern’s own VGM label and this version is still fairly easy to find. One of the greatest singers country music has ever seen, and high quality material, make this a must-have.

Grade: A+

Spotlight Artist: Vern Gosdin

The April Spotlight Artist is one of the truly great vocalists in the history of the genre, Vern Gosdin. There are very few male recording artists who deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Geoge Jones, Ray Price and Gene Watson. It takes the ability to convey the depths of despair, the heights of jubilation and the serenity of an abiding faith – that’s all that is required to be known as “The Voice” and Vern was one of the few to fit the bill.

Born in Woodland, Alabama, Vern (1934-2009) and his brother Rex (1938-1983) first surfaced in the American conscious during the 1960s in various capacities in the Southern California music scene. Despite inclusion in the Byrds’ inner circle of musicians and friends, the Gosdin Brothers bluegrass/country/rock hybrid never achieved great success.

The Gosdin brothers grew up with their seven siblings on a farm. Since money was never in great supply, they, like many other poor rural children, turned to music to escape the drudgery of everyday life. Energized by their discovery of the Louvin Brothers, Rex and Vern (and a third brother) started singing together, mastering the art of vocal harmony, and performing regularly on local radio station WVOK as teenagers. In 1953 Vern moved to Atlanta and in 1956 he moved again to Chicago where he ran a country music nightclub. Meanwhile Rex had moved to California.

Vern moved to Los Angeles in 1961, where he joined up with Rex and they expanded their musical horizons as they found their way into a bluegrass group led by Chris Hillman called the Golden State Boys. The group later changed its name to the Hillmen. Their association with master musician Hillman led to their acceptance into the Los Angeles music scene from which the Byrds and such later stars as Poco, Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles emerged. During this period, the Gosdin Brothers picked up gigs when available, performed on recording sessions, and recorded a few songs as a duo. The duo expanded their musical repertoire, moving into an area somewhere between the folk-rock of the pre-Gram Parson Byrds and the Country-Rock that would emerge in the early 1970s.

In 1966 Vern and Rex contributed vocal harmonies to Gene Clark’s album Gene Clark and the Gosdin Brothers. In 1967 a single, “Hangin’ On,” cracked the charts, leading to the release of the duo’s only album, Sounds of Goodbye on Capitol in 1968. The title song, written by up and coming songwriter Eddie Rabbit was a hot commodity-so much so that three different acts recorded and released the song as a single, ensuring that no one would have a big hit with the record, although Opry veteran George Morgan came closest as his version was a big hit in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic areas. Tommy Cash’s record also made the national charts with the song. The Gosdin Brothers version did not chart nationally, but it did well on the left coast.

Since country music was a singles-driven genre, the failure of “The Sounds of Goodbye,” the most radio-friendly cut on the album, spelled finis to their recording career on Capitol. This was truly a pity as the album contains many great harmonies and otherwise worthwhile moments including original material in “For Us To Find” and “The Victim.” While the Gosdin Brothers sounded good collectively, Vern’s sparkling vocals were the highlight of the album. Discouraged, the Gosdin Brothers split up with Vern largely dropping out of the entertainment business for a while when he returned to Atlanta, where he ran a glass and mirror shop. Rex continued to perform.

Never Give Up – The Voice Returns

Vern Gosdin never entirely stopped performing. In 1976, he returned to recording for the Elektra label, charting his first solo chart hit, a solo version of “Hangin’ On” and enjoying Top 10 hits with “Yesterday’s Gone” (both featuring harmony vocals by Emmylou Harris, a friend from his California days) and “Till The End.” By this time he was forty-two years old. He left his sons to run the glass and mirror business and rejoined brother Rex for touring. Unfortunately, Rex died in May 1983 at the age of 45, some two weeks before his own solo recording of “That Old Time Feelin'” entered the charts.

Elektra’s country division folded in 1980 and Gosdin landed on smaller labels AMI (which folded) and Compleat where he enjoyed continued success. After landing with Compleat, Gosdin joined forces with songwriter Max D. Barnes (whose son Max T. Barnes also was a successful songwriter) to write some truly classic honky-tonk laments. In 1983 Gosdin had two top five hits (“If You’re Gonna Do Me Wrong” and “Way Down Deep”) and in 1984 he had his first #1 single with “I Can Tell by the Way You Dance (You’re Gonna Love Me Tonight)” and had two additional top 10 hits.

After 1984, his career hit a temporary lull, but the “New Traditionalist” movement lured Columbia into signing him in 1987 where he justified Columbia’s faith in signing him with a top 10 hit in the tormented “Do You Believe Me Now.” In 1988 Gosdin returned to the top of the charts with his Ernest Tubb tribute “Set ‘Em Up Joe.” The next year “Chiseled In Stone,” co-written with Barnes, won the Country Music Association’s Song of the Year and cemented his reputation as one of the all-time great song stylists. His 1989 album, Alone, chronicled the breakup of his own marriage.

As a solo artist, Vern Gosdin charted 41 country chart hits, with 19 top ten records and 3 chart toppers.

Vern was hospitalized in 1995 with a stroke and subsequently dropped by Columbia. He continued to record sporadically after that, most notably the 2004 album Back In The Swing of Things and the four CD set 40 Years of The Voice issued just months prior to his death in April 2009. In 2005, Gosdin was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Perhaps the Country Music Hall of Fame will see fit to do likewise.

“The Voice” is now silenced but he left behind an incredible legacy of recorded performances. Join us now as we explore the music of April’s Spotlight Artist, the incomparable Vern Gosdin.

Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘I Still Believe In You’

Released in 1992, this album transformed Vince from star to superstar, with four of the five singles hitting #1 on Billboard, and excellent sales figures and a string of awards for the album itself. It showcases Vince Gill at his very best, with lovely soaring vocals, supported by tasteful and subtle production overseen by Tony Brown. Vince wrote or co-wrote every song, and the quality is exceptionally high. Backing singers include Alison Krauss and Dawn Sears.

The title track was Vince’s very first #1 hit. It won Vince and co-writer John Barlow Jarvis Song of the Year awards from both the ACM and CMA. Reportedly written for Vince’s then-wife Janis about their sometimes troubled relationship, the message is one of the power of true love to surmount such difficulties, and even though the couple were eventually to divorce, the song’s message stands up in its own right.

The mid-tempo follow-up, ‘Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away’ is an appeal to a wife in a marriage which is beginning to fray at the seams, which Vince wrote with his keyboard player Pete Wasner. It is pleasant enough and quietly catchy, but pales in comparison to most of the other material. The fact that it still made it to #1 is an indication that Vince’s career was in overdrive.

Surprisingly, although it was still a big hit, the next single did not do quite as well, although I think it is abetter song. The gently mournful ballad ‘No Future In The Past’, co-written with Carl Jackson, forms a sequel of sorts to ‘When I Call Your Name’, where the protagonist accepts there is no point dwelling on his memories of the good times. Peaking at a still-respectable #3 it was the album’s poorest chart performer, possibly due to competition for airplay from ‘The Heart Won’t Lie’, his duet with Reba.

It was a change of pace and back to the top of the charts with the next single, the lively and amusing ‘One More Last Chance’, written with Gary Nicholson. Vince begs his woman for mercy after one too many nights out with the boys. Delbert McClinton guests on harmonica, and the video (but not the song) featured a cameo from George Jones, whose own life probably inspired the lines:

Well, she might’ve took my car keys
But she forgot about my old John Deere

There was enough juice left in the album for a fifth single, and yet another #1 with the lyrically bleak but beautiful sounding ‘Trying To Get Over You’ (written with Gary Nicholson), where he confesses that “it’ll take dying” to help him get over the woman who has broken his heart.

My favorite track is another gorgeous ballad, the absolutely beautiful ‘Love Never Broke Anyone’s Heart’, written with Jim Weatherly. This finds Vince offering wise words of consolation to a woman who has suffered a broken heart:

It’s not love that causes the pain
Whenever a heart has been shattered
It’s the losing of love that’s to blame

Love never broke anyone’s heart
It never left anyone scarred
It’s not really love
If it tears you apart
Love never broke anyone’s heart

Andrea Zonn’s solemn fiddle and John Hughey’s sympathetic steel add to the mood set by the perfectly judged vocal and lovely melody.

‘Under These Conditions’ is an agonized almost-cheating song, with two potential lovers held back from a good relationship from the fact that both are already married with children. It is another excellent song and performance, written by Vince with Max D Barnes. ‘Say Hello’ (another co-write with Pete Wasner) is a traditional shuffle on another heartbreak theme, with prominent harmonies.

Romantic ballad ‘Nothing Like A Woman’, written with Reed Nielsen, has a mellow, more AC feel than the bulk of the material and I don’t care for it as much, but it is very well done. I preferred the uptempo appeal to a woman being led astray by a persuasive liar’s ‘Pretty Words’, written with Don Schlitz.

The best selling album of Vince’s career, it has been certified quintuple platinum and was deservedly the CMA Album of the Year in 1993, and also helped him with his run of CMA Male Vocalist titles (1991-1995) and his wins as Entertainer of the Year in 1993 and 1994. It is excellent from start to finish, and warmly recommended. Used copies are available incredibly cheaply, making this a bargain not to be turned down.

Grade: A+