My Kind of Country

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Album Review: Don Williams – ‘Especially For You’

Don’s eleventh album, released in June 1981, continued Don’s string of successful albums, reaching #5, his ninth (of eleven) albums to reach the top ten. Three singles were released from the album, all of which made the top ten: “Miracles” (#4 Billboard/ #1 Cashbox ), the exquisite duet with Emmylou Harris “If I Needed You” (#3 Billboard/ #1 Record World) and “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good” (#1 across the board).

The instrumentation on this album is a bit unusual for a country album of this vintage as a variety of odd instruments appear including such things as bongos, congas, ukulele, shaker and tambourine. Fortunately only the second and ninth tracks feature synthesizer, and Lloyd Green is present on steel guitar to restore order on five of the tracks. Unlike Don’s earlier albums, dobro (or resonator guitar) does not show up in the mix at all, and I definitely miss its presence.

The album opens up with a tune from “The Man In Black” (Johnny Cash) in “Fair-weather Friends”. This is a religiously oriented track, but a nice song

Fair-weather friends, fair-weather sailors
Will leave you stranded on life’s shore
One good friend who truly loves you
Is worth the pain your heart endures

We never know which way the wind will blow
Nor when or where the next turmoil will be
But He’s a solid rock when troubles grow
And He’s holding out a saving hand for me

“I Don’t Want to Love You” comes from the pen of Bob McDill. Bob never did anyone wrong with a song and this song about the human dilemma is no exception

I think about you every minute
And I miss you when you’re not around
And every day, I’m gettin’ deeper in it
I’m scared to go on, but the feelin’s so strong
I can’t turn away from you now

No, no, no, I don’t want to love you
And oh, oh, oh, I’m tryin’ not to
No, no, no, I don’t want to love you
But oh, oh, oh, I think I do

“Years from Now” by Roger Cook and Charles Cochran is a tender ballad with no potential as a single

Still love has kept us together
For the flame never dies
When I look in your eyes
The future I see

Holding you years from now
Wanting you years from now
Loving you years from now
As I love you tonight

Dave Hanner was a familiar figure in the country music as a writer and performer (Corbin/Hanner). His songs have been recorded by the Oak Ridge Boys, Glen Campbell, Mel Tillis and the Cates Sisters but the capstone of his writing career is the classic “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good”, a chart topper for Don and recorded many times since then including nice versions by Lee Ann Womack and Anne Murray. Don had Corbin/Hanner for his opening act on one tour. Taken at mid-tempo, this is one of the songs that come to mind when Don’s name is mentioned.

Lord, I hope this day is good
I’m feelin’ empty and misunderstood
I should be thankful Lord, I know I should
But Lord, I hope this day is good

Lord, have you forgotten me
I’ve been prayin’ to you faithfully
I’m not sayin’ I’m a righteous man
But Lord, I hope you understand

I don’t need fortune and I don’t need fame
Send down the thunder Lord, send down the rain
But when you’re planning just how it will be
Plan a good day for me

“Especially You”, written by Rick Beresford has an artsy feel to it and has that “Nashville Sound” combination of strings and steel. I think that this song would have made a decent single

I see the rainbow in your eyes,
I see all the colors pass me by
I sure like the things my eyes can do,
Especially when they see you.

I hear the music of this day,
I sure like the songs this world can play
But most of all I like your tune,
When you whisper I love you.

My senses don’t like, I get a definite high
When you’re near I feel clear off the ground
Reach for my arms, and I will give you the stars
There is nothing that is holding us down.

Townes Van Zandt was the source of “If I Needed You”, Don’s successful duet with Emmylou Harris. I am not that much of a fan of Emmylou’s solo endeavors, but she can seemingly blend with anyone. Pair her with a good singer like Don Williams, and the end result is outstanding. I think that this is my favorite Townes Van Zandt composition:

If I needed you, would you come to me?
Would you come to me, for to ease my pain?
If you needed me, I would come to you
I would swim the sea for to ease your pain

Well the night’s forlorn and the mornin’s warm
And the mornin’s warm with the lights of love
And you’ll miss sunrise if you close your eyes
And that would break my heart in two

“Now and Then” (Wayland Holyfield) and “Smooth Talking Baby” (David Kirby, Red Lane) are acceptable album filler, but nothing more.

“I’ve Got You to Thank for That” by Blake Mevis and Don Pfrimmer is an upbeat mid-tempo love song song that grows on you over time. Blake Mevis had considerable success as a songwriter but may be best remembered as the producer of George Strait’s early albums.

I’ve got Sunday school to thank for Jesus
Got educated thanks to mom and dad
I can borrow money thanks to banker Johnson
Thanks to me I’ve spent all that I have.

I quit smoking thanks to coach Kowalsky
Thanks to lefty Thomson I can fight
It took a while learning all life’s lessons,
But I learnt about love just one night.

Honey I’ve got you to thank for that
It’s good from time to time to look back
It always reminds me that I love it where I am at
Honey I’ve got you to thank for that

The album closes with the first single released from the album “Miracles”. Written by Roger Cook, the song is yet another slow ballad. In the hands of anyone other than Don Williams, the song would seem turgid, but Don sells the song effectively. The use of strings with steel enhances the dramatic presentation

Miracles, miracles, that’s what life’s about
Most of you must agree if you’ve thought it out

I can see and I can hear, I can tell you why
I can think and I can feel, I can even cry
I can walk, I can run, I can swim the sea
We had made a baby son and he looks like me

I don’t think Don Williams is capable of issuing a bad album. It appears that Especially For You was only briefly available on CD (I’ve been reviewing from a vinyl copy), but is currently unavailable.

I prefer the more acoustic sound of Don’s earlier albums, but this is a good album that I would give a B+. Did I mention that I really missed that dobro?

Week ending 3/11/17: #1 singles this week in country music history

1957 (Sales):Young Love — Sonny James (Capitol)

1957 (Jukebox): There You Go/Train of Love — Johnny Cash (Sun)

1957 (Disc Jockeys): Young Love — Sonny James (Capitol)

1967: Where Does The Good Times Go — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1977: Heart Healer — Mel Tillis (MCA)

1987: Mornin’ Ride — Lee Greenwood (MCA)

1997: Me Too — Toby Keith (A&M)

2007: Ladies Love Country Boys — Trace Adkins (Capitol)

2017: Body Like a Back Road — Sam Hunt (MCA)

2017 (Airplay): Better Man — Little Big Town (Capitol)

Week ending 12/10/16: #1 singles this week in country music history

alan_jackson1956 (Sales):Singing the Blues — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1956 (Jukebox): Singing the Blues — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1956 (Disc Jockeys): Singing the Blues — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1966: Somebody Like Me — Eddy Arnold (RCA)

1976: Good Woman Blues — Mel Tillis (MCA)

1986: It Ain’t Cool To Be Crazy About You — George Strait (MCA)

1996: Little Bitty — Alan Jackson (Arista)

2006: Before He Cheats — Carrie Underwood (Arista)

2016: Blue Ain’t Your Color — Keith Urban (Capitol)

2016 (Airplay): May We All — Florida Georgia Line featuring Tim McGraw (Republic Nashville)

Week ending 12/3/16: #1 singles this week in country music history

life_tillisjump121615_16350281_8col1956 (Sales):Singing the Blues — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1956 (Jukebox): Singing the Blues — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1956 (Disc Jockeys): Singing the Blues — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1966: Somebody Like Me — Eddy Arnold (RCA)

1976: Good Woman Blues — Mel Tillis (MCA)

1986: Touch Me When We’re Dancing — Alabama (RCA)

1996: Strawberry Wine — Deana Carter (Capitol)

2006: Before He Cheats — Carrie Underwood (Arista)

2016: Blue Ain’t Your Color — Keith Urban (Capitol)

2016 (Airplay): A Little More Summertime — Jason Aldean (Broken Bow)

Classic Rewind: Mel Tillis – ‘I Could Have Gone Right’

Album Review: Lorrie Morgan – ‘Letting Go … Slow’

51bUlVvWr7LI’ve been a fan of Lorrie Morgan ever since I first saw her video of “Trainwreck of Emotion” on TNN back in 1988. I’ve followed her career ever since, though admittedly not quite as closely since her days as a major label artist ended about 15 years ago. I’ve always felt that the true artists are the ones who continue to make music after they’ve peaked commercially. Morgan certainly falls into that category; she released three solo albums and one collaboration with Pam Tillis in the years since her tenure with BNA Records ended. But post- commercial peak projects are often a mixed bag, particularly for artists who don’t write a lot of their own material. Finding good songs is frequently a challenge – and then there is the added problem of declining vocal power, which often plagues aging artists.

Fortunately, Morgan has overcome both of those obstacles on her latest collection Letting Go … Slow, which was released by Shanachie Entertainment last week. In an interview with Country Universe she said that she spent a considerable amount of time working to get her voice back in shape. The effort has paid off in spades; she sounds better on Letting Go … Slow than she has in years. And although she relies heavily on cover material to compile an album’s worth of songs, she’s managed to dig a little deeper and come up with some gems that are deserving of another listen but have been largely overlooked by the plethora of artists releasing covers albums in recent years. Read more of this post

Album Review: Buddy & Julie Miller – ‘Written In Chalk’

71NDevMXJnL._SX522_The first time I heard of Buddy Miller was when this 2009 collaboration with Julie was released. It wasn’t the best introduction; I didn’t particularly enjoy it and spent the next few years avoiding any more of Buddy’s music. Listening to it again for the first time in several years, I can report that I do appreciate it better now than I did back then, although I still consider it to be flawed in some respects.

Like the first Buddy & Julie collaboration, Written In Chalk is not a country album. It is eclectic in style, which probably appeals to Americana fans, but leaves a lot of gaps for those of us who want something more country-sounding. That being said, the more country-leaning songs are, for the most part, very well done.

Julie wrote eight of the album’s twelve songs, including the wonderful album opener “Ellis County”, which finds Buddy looking back nostalgically at a simpler, by-gone era. Julie provides harmony vocals. She also wrote the rockabilly “Gasoline and Matches”, which is catchy but light on lyrics.

“Don’t Say Goodbye” is a pretty, piano-led ballad on which Julie takes over the lead vocals – and herein lies the problem with this album: while Julie’s wonderful harmony does much to enhance Buddy’s performances, she is not my idea of a good lead singer. She fails to enunciate her words clearly and I find her voice grating at times. Though a bit dull, this is a song I might enjoy more if it were sung by someone else. The same problem plagues “LongTime” and “Everytime We Say Goodbye”.

“What You Gonna Do, Leroy” is one of four songs provided by outside songwriters. This is a Mel Tillis song, which was previously unfamiliar to me, performed as a duet with guest artist Robert Plant. It’s been given a bluesy treatment, along with plenty of fiddle. The percussion is a bit heavy-handed; this is a problem on several of the album’s tracks.

Not surprisingly, the album’s best moments are when the production is scaled back. Among the highlights are “Hush, Sorrow”, written by Julie and “One Part, Two Part” written by Dee Ervin. My absolute favorite is the closing cut “The Selfishness In Man”, featuring harmony vocals from Emmylou Harris. “Memphis Jane” is the album’s most annoying track.

Mixed bag though it might be, the good on Written In Chalk generally outweighs the bad – and the good moments are definitely worth listening to.

Grade: B –

Album Review: Hank Williams Jr – ‘Live At Cobo Hall Detroit’

live at cobo hallAfter fifteen assorted albums in roughly a five year period, MGM finally got around to releasing a live album on Hank Jr. Released in July 1969, MGM SE-4644 was the third of five albums MGM would release in 1969. To my knowledge the album has never been released in any digital format, although Polygram did reissue it on vinyl a few years later.

Cobo Hall (now the Cobo Center) in Detroit might seem a strange venue in which to record a country album, but judging from the album that emerged from the concert it was just fine. Built in 1960 and named for Albert E Cobo (Detroit Mayor 1950-1957), Cobo Hall was one of the nation’s first really large convention centers and I believe that Hank Williams Jr. – Live At Cobo Hall was the first time a major recording label had recorded an album at such a venue.

This 1969 album catches Hank Jr. at a time when he was beginning to be his own man, and not merely a clone of his famous father. While the album has the obligatory Hank Sr. songs, it also features his own hit “Standing In The Shadows” and some covers of more recent material
Side One of the album opens with “Jambalaya”, one of Hank Sr.’s hits. Written by Hank Sr. (possibly with Moon Mullican as co-writer although not so credited) Hank Jr. tackles the song with the proper tempo and enthusiasm.

Next up is the Mel Tillis – Danny Dill classic “Detroit City” which was a hit twice in 1963 by Billy Grammer (under the title “I Wanna Go Home”) and by Bobby Bare. Hank does a nice job with the song.
Hank shows his total comfort with rock songs on his fast take on the Joe South composition “Games People Play”. This would have made a good single but Freddy Weller, a member of the rock group Paul Revere & The Raiders who was attempting to forge a career in country music, beat Hank to the punch taking the song to #1 on the Cashbox and Record World country charts a few months earlier.

That Hank chose to record the song at all was a harbinger of things to come in country music. Until 1968 what some would describe as songs of social consciousness had been rare in country music, in fact aside from Johnny Cash’s songs, they been virtually non-existent. In 1968 three songs, Roy Clark’s “Do You Believe This Town”, Henson Cargill’s “Skip A Rope” and Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA”, had cracked the door open further for this kind of material:

Oh the games people play now
Every night and every day now
Never meaning what they say now
Never saying what they mean

While they wile away the hours
In their ivory towers
Till they’re covered up with flowers
In the back of a black limousine

Chorus
La-da da da da da da da
La-da da da da da de
Talking ’bout you and me
And the games people play

Oh we make one another cry
Break a heart then we say goodbye
Cross our hearts and we hope to die
That the other was to blame

But neither one ever will give in
So we gaze at an eight by ten
Thinking ’bout the things that might have been
And it’s a dirty rotten shame

It would be unthinkable for Hank to have done a live album without showcasing one of this own hits, so “Standing In The Shadows” is up next. The song got a rousing ovation from the audience.

I know that I’m not great
And some say I imitate
Anymore I don’t know
I’m just doing the best I can

After all I’m standing in the shadows
Of a very famous man

The band is feature on an instrumental, the recent Flatt & Scruggs hit (from the movie Bonnie and Clyde)”Foggy Mountain Breakdown”. It is a good rendition although the banjo player is definitely not in Earl Scrugg’s league. Snippets of several other songs are performed within this track (in jazz they call these ‘signatures’).

Side One closes out with an effective version of another Hank Sr. classic “You Win Again”.

Side Two opens with a classic George Jones song penned by Dickey Lee Lipscomb & Steve Duffy, “She Thinks I Still Care”. Hank Jr. isn’t George Jones (who is?) but he handles the song quite well.

Conway Twitty had a many #1 records in his illustrious career but “Darling You Know I Wouldn’t Lie” (#1 Cashbox / #1 Record World / #2 Billboard) is barely remembered today. Hank’s version opens with a nice steel guitar intro – in fact, the steel dominates the whole arrangement. This Wayne Kemp-Red Lane classic is the kind of song Conway Twitty really excelled at, and I really like Hank’s take on the song:

Here I am late again for the last time
And like I promised I just told her goodbye
Please believe me for this time it’s really over
And darling you know I wouldn’t lie

Didn’t I come and tell you about her
How temptation lured she and I
Now I know it was only fascination
And darling you know I wouldn’t lie

I had to let her down easy as slow as I could
After all she’s got feelings too
But it took a little longer than I thought it would
But this time she knows we’re really through

She wanted to hold me forever
And this lipstick shows her final try
And these tears on my shoulders are proof that she failed
And darling you know I wouldn’t lie
And darling you know I wouldn’t lie

The album closes with three Hank Sr. songs. In his earliest recordings Hank Jr. tried to be a clone of his father, but by now he was putting his stamp on the material.

There are many who consider “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” as the greatest country song ever written (personally I’m torn between this song, “El Paso”, and “The Last Letter”), but it is a great song, even if Hank Jr.’s version does not live up to his father’s version (no one else’s version does either). It’s a great song and should be appreciated for what it is.

This is followed by “Your Cheatin’ Heart”; again Hank Jr. cannot quite get that lonesome sound in his voice that his father does, but he does a fine job. For whatever reason, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” is not listed on the album cover, which caused me to think this was a shorter album than is actually the case.

The album closes with “I Saw The Light”. Country albums and live country shows frequently closed with gospel songs during this period of time. Unfortunately that tradition faded away in the 1970s
Unfortunately I was unable to find definitive information on the musicians playing on this album. Even PragueFrank’s website did not provide any information. Suffice it to say, it’s a very good band with a proficient steel player, a competent banjo and an excellent honky-tonk style pianist. I hope someday this gets released in a digital format with the missing tracks restored as bonus tracks. By the time this album was issued Hank Jr. had already scored a few more hits on non-Hank Sr. material, so I presume he might performed a few of them.

A few years ago I did an article on the twenty-five greatest live country albums. At that time, I placed this album sixteenth on my list, docking it a bit for the short playing time (based on the album’s back cover). The actual playing time is actually around thirty-two minute, which still seems too short – the album ended with me wanting more.

Obviously I give this album a solid A.

Classic Rewind: Mel Tillis – ‘Send Me Down To Tucson’

Album Review: Waylon Jennings – ‘Love of the Common People’

51wqa0MBekL._SS280In the 1960s, sales of single records were far more important to the music industry than album sales. Albums consisted of one or two hit singles, and 8 to 10 “filler” songs, which were often cover versions of the current hits of other artists or less commercially viable songs written by the artist and/or producer. Country artists typically released an average of three albums a year. Waylon Jennings’ 1967 collection Love of the Common People was his fifth album for RCA, released a year after his debut collection for the label.

Produced by Chet Atkins, Love of the Common People is a little unusual in that none of its tracks were released as singles. It consists of the usual cover songs and original artist/producer compositions as well as a few contributions from well known songwriters of the day, such as Sonny James and Harlan Howard. Despite its lack of radio hits, the album’s material is stronger and less uneven than many albums of the day, and it sold reasonably well, peaking at #3 on the Billboard country albums chart. And although this is a slightly more polished Waylon than we would hear a few years later, the album largely avoids some of the excesses of the Nashville Sound era.

My favorite track is “Young Widow Brown”, a light-hearted tune written by Waylon and Sky Corbin, concerning a fun-loving young woman who drives her husband to an early grave and doing her best to send her many suitors to a similar fate. While not as edgy as Waylon’s later work, it’s not as far removed from his Outlaw music as one might expect.

The title track is a folk-rock tune that had been a pop hit earlier in the year for The Four Preps. It sounds like something that might have fit on Waylon’s earlier effort Folk-Country. “Taos, New Mexico”, written by RCA in-house producer Bob Ferguson, is a very nice Tex-Mex tune that’s a little ahead of its time. It sounds like something that Freddy Fender or Marty Robbins would have success with a few years later. “I Tremble For You” is a little known Johnny Cash song written by the man in black and Lew DeWitt, who was part of the original Statler Brothers lineup. It’s not the usual boom-chicka-boom style usually associated with Cash, and it shows Waylon’s strength as a ballad singer. Shoulda been a single. “If The Shoe Fits” by Harlan Howard and Freddie Hart, “Destiny’s Child” by Sonny James, and “The Road” by Ted Harris are all worth a listen.

The album does contain a couple of missteps: a cover of the John Lennon/Paul McCartney tune “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”, and Mel Tillis’ “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”. The latter about a wounded warrior suffering from physical injuries and PTSD, long before those terms were coined. His wife callously prepares to leave him on his own while she seeks her pleasures elsewhere, making no attempts to hide her intentions. The song had been a Top 10 hit earlier in the year for Johnny Darrell and two years later would become a huge pop smash for Kenny Rogers and The First Edition. It’s a good song, but Jennings’ delivery is surprisingly stiff and devoid of emotion.

Waylon Jennings, of course, had a long and distinguished career in country music and left behind a catalog so huge that it’s easy to overlook some of the entries that weren’t big hits. Love of the Common People is a gem well worth exploring.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Mel Tillis – ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town’

Favorite Country Songs Of The 80s: Part 7

It seems to me that I never did finish off this series, the last installment being posted on February 11, 2014 (and the installment before that appeared April 9,2013). Here are some more songs from the 1980s that I liked. This is an expanded and revised version of the February 11, 2014 article which was a rush job :

Shame On The Moon” – Bob Seger
Bob’s 1982 recording of a Rodney Crowell song charted on the country charts in early 1983, reaching #15 in the process. The song was a bigger hit on the pop charts, reaching #2 for four weeks.

Finally” – T. G. Sheppard
He worked for Elvis, sang background for Travis Wammack, and eventually emerged with a solo career worth noting, racking up 42 chart singles from 1974-1991. This 1982 single was one of fourteen #1 record racked up by Sheppard, eleven of them reaching #1 during the 1980s.

Doesn’t Anybody Get High On Love Anymore” – The Shoppe
The Shoppe was a Dallas based band that hung around for years after their 1968 formation. In the early 1980s they had eight chart records, but this was the only one to crack the top forty, reaching #33. They had a record deal with MTM Records in 1985, but that label vanished, taking the Shoppe with them.

Crying My Heart Out Over You” – Ricky Skaggs
Ricky Skaggs was one of the dominant artists of the first half of the 1980s with his bluegrass/country hybrid. Starting with 1981’s “You May See Me Walking” and ending with 1986’s “Love’s Gonna Get You Some Day“, Skaggs ran off sixteen consecutive top ten singles with ten of them reaching number one, This 1982 classic was the first chart topper. Eventually Ricky returned to straight bluegrass, but I like the hybrid recordings better. In my original article I spotlighted “Honey (Open That Door)“, a straight forward country Mel Tillis song recorded by Webb Pierce.

Don’t Stay If You Don’t Love Me” – Patsy Sledd
Stardom never really happened for Patsy, who was a good singer marooned early in her career on a bad label. She was part of the George Jones-Tammy Wynette show in the early 1970s. This song reached #79 in 1987.

“Nice To Be With You” – Slewfoot
This band replaced Alabama as the feature band at the Bowery Club in Myrtle Beach. This was their only chart single, a cover of Gallery’s #4 pop hit from 1972 that reached #85 in 1986.

King Lear” – Cal Smith
The last chart hit for the former Texas Troubadour. This song reached #75 in 1986.

“A Far Cry From You” – Connie Smith
After a six year recording hiatus, the greatest female country recording artist of all time returned with this one-shot single on the Epic label. It’s a great song but received no promotional push at all from the label landing at #71 in 1985. Unfortunately, this single has never appeared on an album.

“The Shuffle Song” – Margo Smith
Exactly as described – a shuffle song that reached #13 for Margo in early 1980. Margo had a brief run of top ten hits in the middle and late 1970s but the string was about over. In my prior article I featured “He Gives Me Diamonds, You Give Me Chills” but The Shuffle song is actually my favorite 80s hit from Margo. She lives in The Villages in Florida and still performs occasionally.

Cheatin’s A Two Way Street” – Sammi Smith
Her last top twenty song from 1981. Sammi only had three top ten hits but made many fine records. This was one of them.

Hasn’t It Been good Together” – Hank Snow and Kelly Foxton
The last chart record for the ‘Singing Ranger’. The record only got to #78 for the 65 year old Snow in 1980 but I couldn’t let pass the opportunity to acknowledge the great career of the most successful Canadian country artist. By any legitimate means of chart tracking, his 1950 hit “I’m Moving On” is still the number one country hit of all time. Hank had perfect diction and was a great guitar player.

Tear-Stained Letter” – Jo-El Sonnier
A late bloomer, this was the forty-two year old Jo-El’s second of two top ten records and my favorite. It reached #8 in 1988. There were brief periods in the past when Cajun music could break through for a hit or two. Eddy Raven was the most successful Cajun artist but most of his material was straight-ahead country.

Sometimes You Just Can’t Win” – J.D. Souther and Linda Ronstadt
George Jones charted this record twice, but it’s such a good song it was worth covering. This version went to #27 in 1982. J.D had a big pop hit in 1980 with “You’re Only Lonely” which reached #7.

Honey I Dare You” – Southern Pacific
Southern Pacific was a bunch of guys who previously played with other bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Doobie Brothers and Pablo Cruise, making some real good country music in the process. This was one of their four top ten hits of the 1980s. “A Girl Like Emmylou” from 1986 only reached #17 but the song tells you where this band’s heart was located.

Lonely But Only For You” – Sissy Spacek
Loretta Lynn wanted to Spacek to portray her in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter, and it turns out that Sissy can really can sing. This song reached #15 in 1983.

Standing Tall” – Billie Jo Spears
Billie Jo Spears, from Beaumont, Texas, was incredibly popular in England and Ireland, where “Blanket On The Ground” and “What I’ve Got In Mind” were top five pop hits in the mid 1970s and she had many more lesser successes. Many of her later albums were not released in the US but she had a substantial US career with thirty-four charted records, including two #1 hits. “Standing Tall” reached #15 in 1980.

Chain Gang” – Bobby Lee Springfield
More successful as a songwriter than as a performer, Springfield had two chart sings in 1987 with “Hank Drank” (#75) and “Chain Gang” (#66) which was NOT the Sam Cooke hit. Bobby Lee was both too country and too rockabilly for what was charting at the time. I really liked All Fired Up, the one album Epic released on him.

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Album Review: Ricky Van Shelton – ‘Fried Green Tomatoes’

friedgreentomatoes2000’s Fried Green Tomatoes has nothing to do with the 1991 film of the same title. It was Ricky Van Shelton’s ninth studio album — and his last, aside from a Christmas album released later that year. It was his only entirely self-produced album. It was released on the Audium label, which gave it the potential to reach a wider audience than 1998’s WalMart exclusive Making Plans. Unfortunately, it didn’t perform any better commercially than its predecessor.

Like his earlier albums, Fried Green Tomatoes is a combination of contemporary songs and covers of old country classics. On the newer material, Shelton seems to have made a conscious decision to update his sound just a little; many of the uptempo numbers such as “Call Me Crazy”, “I’m The One”, and “From The Fryin’ Pan” all have more of a rock edge to them. For the most part, he is able to perform these contemporary songs credibly, without sounding like he is out of his league. However, as always, it is on the more traditonal numbers that he truly excels. The Dallas Frazier-A.L. “Doodle” Owens tune “All I Have To Offer You Is Me” had been Charley Pride’s first #1 hit in 1969. Ricky’s version doesn’t match the original, but it is quite good and it’s a shame that it hadn’t appeared on one of his Columbia albums where more people might have heard it. It’s my favorite song on the album, followed closely by “Foolish Pride” written by Ernie Rowell and Mel Tillis. This song doesn’t appear to have been recorded before, but it certainly sounds like an older song with its rich melody and generous helpings of fiddle and steel.

Another beautiful traditional ballad, “You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Crazy)” is a forgotten gem whose first appearance seems to have been on a 1966 Jan Howard album. It was later covered by Alan Jackson. “Who’s Laughin’ Now”, written by Tom Littlefield, Rick Rowell and Mel Tillis Jr. also sounds like it may be an older song given a second lease on life.

“The Decision”, co-written by Ricky with Jerry Thompson, was the album’s sole single and its biggest misstep. With a more pop-oriented sound than typically heard from Ricky, it tells the story of an unwed 17-year-old expectant mother who is wrestling with whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. The saccharine arrangement and Ricky’s easy-going delivery are all wrong for a song about a life and death decision. I suppose Shelton and Thompson should be given credit for attempting to tackle such a serious and emotionally difficult topic, but it is done in a very superficial manner and seems like a missed opportunity. Incidentally, we are never told what the girl ultimately decides.

Aside from this one clunker, Fried Green Tomatoes is a solid album that allowed Ricky Van Shelton to wrap up his recording career on a high note. He released a Christmas album later in 2000. He continued to tour for a few more years before announcing his retirement from the music business in 2006. It’s a shame that he didn’t enjoy as much post-major label success as many of his contemporaries. His retirement was a loss for country music. We can only hope that he will one day decide to treat his fans to another album. Until then, pick up a cheap used copy of Fried Green Tomatoes if you haven’t already heard it.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Mel Tillis – ‘Crying Over You’

Album Review: Ricky Van Shelton – ‘Wild-Eyed Dream’

220px-Wild-Eyed_Dream_album_cover_by_Ricky_Van_SheltonRicky Van Shelton released his debut album, Wild-Eyed Dream in May 1987. Produced by Steve Buckingham on Columbia Nashville the record went platinum and spawned three number one hits.

The title track, written by Alan Rhody, served as the first single. The mid-tempo traditional yet contemporary number, which is generic as far as Shelton singles go, peaked at #24. Second single “Crimes of Passion,” an uptempo number, was much better and marked his first appearance in the top 10.

Starting with his third single, Shelton would score five consecutive number one hits between Wild-Eyed Dream and his sophomore effort Loving Proof. The first of those was the stone cold “Somebody Lied,” which Conway Twitty also recorded the same year. It’s an excellent number that perfectly showcases Shelton’s unique vocal phrasing backed by a glorious helping of steel and piano.

The next single, my favorite track on the album, is sonically similar yet even stronger than “Somebody Lied.” “Life Turned Her That Way” is a brilliant Harlan Howard number previously recorded by a slew of artists including Little Jimmy Dickens, Mel Tillis, George Jones, Willie Nelson, and Ernest Tubb. Shelton’s version is the most recognizable, the perfect marriage of singer, arrangement, and lyric.

Roger Miller’s similarly structured ballad “Don’t We All Have The Right” served as the final single. The track is given a slightly more contemporary arrangement with less steel guitar, but works just the same.

For a debut album, it’s surprising how many cover songs Shelton was able to record. More than half of Wild-Eyed Dream is peppered with tracks nodding to country music’s heritage, which seems appropriate given Shelton’s vintage vocal stylings and throwback image.

Shelton resurrects the Buck Owens’ classic “I Don’t Care,” giving it a similar arrangement to the original. He makes the track his own, though, by singing it in his own style opposed to imitating Owens. It’s a smart move that pays off in spades. Shelton closes out the album with his version of Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues,” once again nodding to Haggard through the production while vocally making the song his own. Like “I Don’t Care,” it’s excellent and worthy of inclusion on the project.

“Crazy Over You” wasn’t a cover when Shelton recorded it, just another version of the song that would introduce Foster & Lloyd the following year. Both versions are nearly identical; marking one place Shelton doesn’t bring uniqueness to a track. The remaining tracks on Wild-Eyed Dream consisted of original material. “Baby, I’m Ready” is a bluesy honky-tonk number while “Ultimately Fine” is an ear-catching slice of rockabilly.

As a whole, Wild-Eyed Dream is an excellent introduction to Shelton as an artist who kept one foot in the genre’s past while staying on top of the neo-traditional trends that were dominating at the time. He also didn’t sound like anyone else on the radio, which helped him standout even more. As far as debut albums go, this is one of the better ones, and comes highly recommended.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Mel Tillis – ‘Who’s Julie?’

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘Uncharted Mind’

unchartedmind1990’s At Last was Gene Watson’s major label swan song but it was by no means the end of his recording career. After leaving the Warner Bros. roster, he continued to release music on a variety of independent labels, beginning with 1992’s In Other Words on the Broadland label. The following year’s Uncharted Mind was the first of four albums released on the Step One label.

Produced by Ray Pennington, Uncharted Mind finds Gene including some more contemporary-soundings songs with the usual traditional fare, with varying degrees of success. The opening track “Glass Hearts” is a pleasant number that was in the realm of what was considered mainstream at the time. Released by a younger artist on a bigger label, it might have been a hit. “Snake In The House”, however, doesn’t work quite as well. It is somewhat of a stylistic departure for Watson and sounds like something that might have been released a decade earlier during the Urban Cowboy era — ironically, a period in which Watson was one of the few holdouts still recording tradtional country. It is arguably the album’s biggest dud. The other contender for that dubious honor is “Simple Minded Heart”, a sickeningly sweet pop-country number that sounds like something Doug Stone turned down and has little to recommend it, despite being co-written by Mel Tillis. It is certainly one of his — and Watson’s — poorer efforts.

Fortunately the rest of the album is much better. Among the highlights is a majestic cover of the Marty Robbins classic “You Gave Me A Mountain”, whch Watson had previously recorded for 1975’s Paper Rosie. His vocal peformance on the 1993 re-recording is every bit as impressive as it had been almost two decades earlier, but I slightly prefer the production on the 1975 version. The meat and potatoes of the album, however, are the more traditional numbers, which were always Watson’s strong point. The toe-tapper “Back In Texas” is a particular favorite of mine, as is Sanger D. Shaffer’s “Cool Ole Fool”, a light-hearted number about someone who is arguably going through midlife crisis. Curt Ryle, Mel Tillis’ co-writer on “Simple Minded Heart” redeems himself with the more traditional and much better “Mirrors Don’t Lie”, on which Gene turns in another stellar vocal performance.

Independent releases weren’t always easy to find in record stores (remember those?) in 1993, so many fans may have missed out on Uncharted Mind when it was first released. If you are one of those people, pick up a cheap used copy. The album is a little more uneven than some of Watson’s earlier efforts, but it still has much to recommend it.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Mel Tillis – ‘Good Woman Blues’

Classic Rewind: Mel Tillis – ‘Stateside’

Classic Rewind: Mel Tillis -‘Burning Memories/Send Me Down To Tucson’