My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Mike McGuire

Album Review: Shenandoah – ‘Good News Travels Fast’

61ZTbWBogJL._SS280Good News Travels Fast is the first new Shenandoah album in a decade and the first since Marty Raybon rejoined the band as lead singer. Billed as a Gospel album, it is more accurately described as a religious or Christian album. There are no traditional hymns or old Gospel favorites; the album is collection of eleven new, mostly solid tunes, a few of which have a traditional Gospel sound, a few more are more pop and rock flavored, but most are country-sounding (or what country used to sound like) songs with religious or inspirational themes, in the vein of “Sunday in the South” and “Mama Knows”.

The excellent bluegrass-tinged title track is the album’s first single. I’m not sure if it’s being marketed to country radio, where it is unlikely to garner much attention, but it may bet some airplay on Christian radio stations. The first verse, about a former hellraiser who finds salvation is reminiscent of Dallas Frazier’s classic “The Baptism of Jesse Taylor”, while the second and third verses deal with the birth and resurrection of Christ. “Didn’t It Rain” and “Sunday Morning Sermon” are in a traditional Gospel style. Both sound like something that might be sung at an old-style revival meeting and both are excellent.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the album’s two weakest tracks – “Hallelujah for the Cross” which is a little more contemporary Christian in style, and “If I’m Right”, which takes issue with those who look down on believers, is a little too rock-leaning for my tastes.

The remaining tracks sound like what we’ve come to expect from Shenandoah. “I Know He Knows” is a nice acoustic number about a father and son relationship, which also serves as a metaphor for the relationship between God and man. “Just Wait, Be Still” is another excellent acoustic tune. Marty Raybon wrote this one with Jerry Smalley and bandmate Mike McGuire. Raybon and McGuire also wrote, along with Mark Narmore, “A Cross Between a Sinner and a Saint”, the album’s opening track. The first verse deals with the protagonist’s struggles to walk the straight and narrow. Midway through the song, however it switches course and talks about the two criminals who were crucified alongside Christ. In this verse the “saint” is the criminal who repents and the “sinner” is the one who still does not believe, and Jesus is on the cross between a sinner and a saint. The analogy doesn’t quite work, however, because clearly among that trio, it is Jesus, not the repentant criminal, who is the saint. But that is probably nitpicking at what is an otherwise good song.

There aren’t any huge surprises here; Shenandoah fans are bound to enjoy this album unless they dislike religious themed music. I wasn’t in the best of moods when I started listening to it but found I was feeling better by the time it finished playing. In that respect, at least, the album accomplishes its goal.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Shenandoah – ‘Christmas Comes Alive’

christmascomesaliveThe new six-track EP Christmas Comes Alive marks the first time in 18 years that Marty Raybon and Shenandoah have recorded together. Coincidentally, their last album together was also a Christmas collection. Christmas Comes Alive consists of mostly new material — some of which they wanted to include on their 1996 album, but Capitol insisted on an album of Christmas classics. After a lengthy delay, the original material has finally seen the light of day.

The EP’s opening track is “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, which was written by drummer Mike McGuire, who produced the EP with Marty Raybon. It starts out as the familiar children’s nursery rhyme, but it quickly establishes that the little lamb’s name was Jesus. It’s followed by the title track, written by Marty Raybon, Bud McGuire, and Kim Williams. An upbeat number about Santa’s elves preparing for the big day, it is one of the songs that the group had wanted to include on their Christmas album for Capitol.

“Good Ole Fashioned Christmas” and “Family Tree” both revisit familiar themes of family, tradition and traveling home for Christmas. Both are good, if not particularly memorable. The album’s standout track is the closing number “Lullabies In Bethelehem”, a Mike McGuire co-write with Mark Narmore that tells the story of Nativity from the point of view of another traveler to Bethlehem, who took the last room at the inn and would have gladly given it up had he known how desperately it was needed by Mary and Joseph.

The collections sole traditional tune is a very nice rendition of “The First Noel” which fits in very nicely with the newer tunes. There are no Johnny Mathis or Nat King Cole style songs here. No strings or orchestras, just plenty of fiddle, dobro and banjo, the kind of country sound one expects from Shenandoah.

In addition to Christmas Comes Alive, Marty Raybon and Shenandoah are reportedly working on more new music, which is expected to be released next year. If it is as good as this collection, then 2015 is already starting to look like a good year for country music.

Grade: A

Album Review: Shenandoah – ‘In the Vicinity of the Heart’

sheanndoahBy 1994 Shenandoah was once again looking for a new label. This time they landed at Liberty. At the time they were nearing completion on a new album which RCA allowedthe band to take with them. At Liberty they recorded one new track with guest vocalist Alison Krauss. “Somewhere in the Vicinity of the Heart” was a much bigger hit than its peak chart position (#7) suggested. It won the CMA’s Vocal Event of the Year in 1995 and also won a Grammy for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals. In addition, it provided Krauss with her first Top 40 hit and her first major exposure outside of the bluegrass world.

Like its predecessor Under the Kudzu, In the Vicinity of the Heart was produced by Don Cook. On the strength of its title track, it became Shenandoah’s fastest-selling album, though it ultimately failed to earn any certifications. The second single “Darned If I Don’t (Danged If I Do)” is an upbeat, radio friendly tune that was penned by Ronnie Dunn and Dean Dillon. Peaking at #4, it gave Shenandoah their last Top 10 hit.

A few of the album’s tracks have been recorded by other artists. Dennis Linde’s “Heaven Bound (I’m Ready)” had previously been recorded by The Oak Ridge Boys, and “I Wouldn’t Know”, which was co-written by Shenandoah member Mike McGuire was later covered by Reba McEntire. Though not a religious song, “Heaven Bound (I’m Ready) has got a gospel flavor that is well suited to the Oaks’ four part harmonies, and ultimately the Shenandoah version, which reached #24, cannot compete. I prefer Shenandoah’s version of “I Wouldn’t Know” to Reba’s more crossover-oriented take. “She Could Care Less” was also later covered by Joe Nichols on his debut album, but neither version of this somewhat pedestrian number is particularly memorable. Ditto for “Every Fire” which was later covered by Jason Sellers and Restless Heart.

“Always Have, Always Will” was the album’s fourth and final single. By this time Shendanoah’s chart decline was apparent; the song stalled at #40 and all of their subsequent releases charted even lower. I would have liked for “Cabin Fever”, a Marty Raybon co-write with Bud McGuire and Lonnie Wilson, to have been released as a single. The upbeat number allows the band to showcase their harmonies and it is reminiscent of their earlier work on Columbia.

In the Vicinity of the Heart was Shenandoah’s only album for Liberty Records. By the time of the band’s next release Now and Then, the label had reverted back to its former name Capitol Nashville. Now and Then contained some new songs and some re-recordings of some of their Columbia hits. A Christmas album was released by Capitol in 1996, shortly before Marty Raybon’s departure from the band.

At the time of its release, In the Vicinity of the Heart was criticized in some quarters for playing it too safe, and while it’s true that it doesn’t contain any artistic stretches or surprises, it is a solid piece of work and a grim reminder how even an album that was only considered average 20 years ago knocks the socks off most the today’s top sellers. It isn’t available for download, but cheap used copies are easy to find. Fans of 90s country may want to pick up a copy.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Shenandoah – ‘Long Time Comin”

long time cominThe early 90s saw changes for Shenandoah. They had left Columbia after their legal troubles, and signed to RCA. They recruited Keith Stegall to produce their debut effort for the new label alongside longterm collaborator Robert Byrne. It continued the style familiar from earlier work, but the songs were not quite as strong.

The lead single was a pleasantly radio-friendly mid-tempo song about a man going home to ‘Rock My Baby’ after a hard day’s work and a night out with the boys. Although not particularly memorable, It has an airy feel with some attractive fiddle, and it returned the group close to the top of the charts, with a #2 peak.

Unfortunately the other singles from the album were not as successful. The follow-up ‘Hey Mister (I Need That Job)’ offered a change of pace, portraying the voice of a young expectant father facing unemployment and desperate for a chance to prove himself and provide for his family. Perhaps it was a little too serious to play well on radio, more accustomed to Shenandoah’s lighter material, as it barely scraped into the top 30, but it is an excellent song (written by Kerry Chater and Renee Armand) with a moving vocal from Marty.

‘Leavin’s Been A Long Time Comin’, the up-tempo title track, was a return to a brighter feel (despite a downbeat lyric), and this one peaked at #15. ‘Give Me Five Minutes’ (written by Robert Ellis Orrall) is a charmingly optimistic number typical of Shenandoah’s up-tempo material. It would have made a fine radio-friendly single had they tried one more.

‘Same Old Heart’ is a tender Mac McAnally ballad acknowledging that a relationship is faltering, in which Marty’s phrasing is very reminiscent of McAnally’s version (on his excellent 1989 Simple Life album). I really liked this one.

Nostalgia for times past has a strong thematic role on this album. ‘Right Where I Belong’ (written by Rick Bowles and Josh Leo) is also good, a sweet look at the simple joys of small-town country life which a young man’s ambitions for something more exciting led him to pass up. Now, he’s back home to settle down, since in his quest for success,

I lost myself and that’s a high price to pay.

The tender ballad story song ‘There Ain’t No Beverly Hills In Tennessee, written by Marty Raybon and Mike McGuire, was the CD bonus track (omitted from the cassette). It is one of the best songs here, telling the story of a girl who marries young but leaves her husband with dreams of greener pastures:

There ain’t no California gold in a smoky mountain stream
There ain’t no silver linin’ to lace a poor boy’s dream
As she walked away I was thinking someday she’d come on back to me
But there ain’t no Beverly Hills in Tennessee

The gentle ballad ‘I Was Young Once Too’, written by the co-producer Robert Byrne with Richard Leigh, also looks back, with its tender portrait of the relationship between the protagonist and his father. ‘Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting’ is a little too similar melodically and thematically to their big hit ‘Sunday In The South’, but is beautifully sung.

The lively rockabilly ‘Rattle The Windows’ is a feelgood celebration of being in a smalltime country band.

This isn’t a bad album by any means, but it lacked obvious hits. With only one real hit single (in the shape of one of the record’s more lackluster songs), it did not sell as well as their last couple of Columbia releases. However, used copies are easy to find cheap, and it’s worth picking up.

Grade: B+

Spotlight Artist: Marty Raybon and Shenandoah

marty raybonMarty Raybon was born in Greenville, Alabama, on 8 December 1959. He grew up playing bluegrass in a family band. In his 20s he moved to Muscle Shoals in the north of the state, where he founded a band with Ralph Ezell on bass guitar, Stan Thorn on keyboards, Jim Seales on lead guitar, and Mike McGuire on drums. The group, known originally as the MGM Band after the club where they had a regular gig, recorded a demo which attracted the interest of CBS Records, who picked them up and also gave them the name Shenandoah. They had also briefly used the name Diamond Rio, although they had no connection with the successful country group of that name.

Their self-titled debut album was released in 1987, but was only modestly successful, and is now very hard to obtain. However, it did provide their first top 30 country hit, ‘Stop The Rain’. The label had faith in the band, and their second album The Road Not Taken realised those hopes, taking them to the top of the charts. Less traditional than some of their peers, their music balanced radio friendly gloss with Mary Raybon’s soulful voice and allied to high quality material helped them to become among the brightest stars of the late 80s/early 90s.

Shenandoah never won as many awards as their talent may have dictated. The band was named the Academy of Country Music Vocal Group of the Year in 1990, and they won CMA and Grammy awards for their collaboration with Alison Krauss, ‘Somewhere In The Vicinity Of The Heart’.

Soon afterwards, however, they ran into trouble when several unknown bands sued them for use of the name Shenandoah. The costs of fighting these claims led the band into bankruptcy and forced them to leave Columbia in 1992.

They had a new start on RCA, and enjoyed further commercial success, before a further move to Capitol imprint Liberty Records in 1994. However, Marty Raybon appears to have been getting restless, and in 1995 recorded his first solo album (a self-titled gospel one) as a side project. Original band members Ezell and Thorn also left around this time. The band’s final album featuring Marty Raybon was a Christmas one.

Soon after this, Marty left Shenandoah for good. He teamed up with his brother Tim to form the duo the Raybon Brothers, and they had a hit single with the sentimental ‘Butterfly Kisses’ in 1997. It sold well but received mediocre airplay, and the brothers disbanded.

Meanwhile, Marty returned to his first musical love, bluegrass, and from 2000 onwards has recorded a succession of fine bluegrass albums. These days he is signed to Rural Rhythm Records.

It was always Marty Raybon’s voice which made Shenandoah. Indeed, they continue to tour without him, with a succession of new lead singers, but it was never the same without his smoky-voiced lead.

Through February we will be exploring Marty’s work with Shenandoah and solo.