My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Mike Noble

Album Review: Highway 101 – ‘Big Sky’

big skyFor the last full length album by Highway 101, original members Cactus Moser and Curtis Stone were joined by new lead guitarist Justin Weaver and singer Chrislynn Lee. Chrislynn’s voice has echoes of both Paulette Carlson and Nikki Nelson, but is not as good as either. Released in 2000 on independent label Free Falls Records, the album largely disappeared without trace.

Much of the material was written by Moser and Stone with various co-writers. ‘Rhythm Of Livin’, a co-write by the pair with Gary Harrison, is a pretty good mid-tempo tune which makes a pleasant toetapping opener.

Love song ‘Bigger Than The Both Of Us’, written by Moser with Jeff Penig and Mike Noble, is quite enjoyable, but the title track, produced by the same trio, is completely forgettable. The team’s ‘Long List Of Obvious Reasons’ is much better, a very pretty song which suits Chrislynn’s vulnerable vocal. The bouncy ‘Easier Done That Said’, written by Moser with Wilson and Henderson, is also fun, although Chrislynn’s vocal limitations are in evidence.

‘True Hard Love’, written by Stone with Sam Hogin and Phil Barnhardt, plods and lacks the requisite attitude which would have been better supplied by either of the previous lead singers. ‘Best Of All Possible Worlds’ also falls very flat. Stone’s ‘Thicker Than Blood’ is a duet, not terrible but not very country either.

The album also included pedestrian covers of ‘There Goes My Love’, the Buck Owens classic the band had done previously (and better) with Paulette Carlson, and the lovely Moser-penned ballad ‘I Wonder Where the Love Goes’, previously recorded by the band with Nikki Nelson.

‘Ain’t That Just Like Love’, written by Phil Jones, Kerry Kurt Phillips, and Jerry Lassiter, is a very pretty song. The beaty ‘Only Thinking Of You’ is well performed although stylistically very reminiscent of some of the band’s work with Nikki Nelson.

This album feels like the band was trying to coast on the success they had enjoyed in earlier years, but sounding like a poor quality karaoke version. While it’s generally inoffensive, I can’t really recommend it unless you have money to burn.

After leaving the band, Chrislynn Lee became a backing singer for Tanya Tucker, and later hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons when she was arrested with Tanya’s boyfriend for allegedly absconding with some of Tanya’s property. Highway 101 has not recorded again (with the exception of a Christmas single a few years ago), but is now performing regularly with Nikki Nelson.

Grade: C-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A+

Album Review: Matraca Berg – ‘Lying to the Moon’

Matraca Berg’s first success in country music came in 1983 when she was 19 years old and co-wrote “Faking Love” with Bobby Braddock, which became a #1 for T.G. Sheppard and Karen Brooks. Her next big success came four years later when Reba McEntire scored a #1 hit with “The Last One to Know”, which Berg had co-written with Jane Mariash. Matraca became a recording artist when she landed a deal with RCA in 1990. Lying to the Moon, her first project for the label, was produced by Josh Leo and Wendy Waldman, and consisted of ten top-notch songs, all of which Matraca had a hand in writing.

It isn’t clear to me why the album didn’t enjoy more commercial success. While not quite in the same league as Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood, Matraca was an above-average vocalist and was reasonably attractive — and therefore, marketable. The material, which was first-rate and designed to appeal to mainstream listeners, was certainly not at fault. Nevertheless, Lying to the Moon was only moderately successful. “Baby, Walk On”, the first single, is not the strongest or most original song on the disc, but it was an uptempo number that was well within the constraints of what country radio was playing at the time. The follow-up, “The Things You Left Undone”, which I like much better, is another uptempo number about an independent-minded woman who is picking up the pieces and getting on with her life after the end of a relationship. At the time, I really thought this one would be a huge hit, but like its predecessor, it peaked at #36. The two songs, which were co-written with frequent collaborator Ronnie Samoset, are Berg’s highest charting singles as a recording artist. The jazzy “I Got It Bad”, which finds her waiting for the phone to ring and obsessing over a new love interest only reached #43, and the excellent “I Must Have Been Crazy”, which which she’s fighting off madness — without much success — after another bad break-up, died at #55.

My favorite track and perhaps the best known is the beautiful title track, which features a haunting cello solo. Berg re-recorded the song for her second album, The Speed of Grace, a pop effort that was released in 1994. In between those two versions, Trisha Yearwood covered it for her The Song Remembers When album, which was released in 1993. The original version resurfaced on a compilation album in 1999. RCA released it as a single and had a video produced, but by that time Berg’s career momentum had been lost and the record failed to chart.

A handful of the other tracks showcase Matraca’s considerable talent as a songwriter and a storyteller. “Calico Plains”, written with Mike Noble, tells the story of two young girls growing up in the midwest. Abilena has big dreams and is planning to leave her hometown to pursue them, while her friend, who acts as the song’s narrator makes her promise to write. Then Abilena falls pregnant and is forced to marry the baby’s father. Several years and a few children later, it is the narrator who is leaving to pursue bigger and better things and promising to write to Abilena. “Appalachian Rain”, which features harmony vocals from Emmylou Harris, tells of a young unwed mother who is forced to leave her Appalachian home to spare her family’s honor, and “Alice in the Looking Glass” tells the story of a lonely middle-aged hairdresser who was once a homecoming queen, who puts on a brave face for her customers.

My least favorite track is the album closer “Dancin’ on the Wire”, which Berg co-wrote with producers Leo and Waldman. The lyrics are on the shallow side and this is the one instance on the entire album where the production is a bit heavy-handed.

It’s a shame that this album didn’t fare better at radio and retail, though Matraca’s subsequent career decisions suggest that even if it had, her commercial success would not have been long-lived. RCA refused to release her next album because they felt it didn’t have enough mainstream appeal, and her next effort The Speed of Grace, was released by the label’s pop division, and Matraca’s subsequent albums appeared infrequently on smaller, now-defunct labels. Lying to the Moon is out of print in CD form but used copies can be found very cheaply. It is not to be confused with the 1999 compilation album Lying to the Moon & Other Stories, which contains eight of the orginal album’s ten tracks. It too can be purchased very inexpensively used and might be a slightly better value.

Album Review: Diamond Rio – ‘Love A Little Stronger’

The success of Diamond Rio’s first album caused the band to return to the studio to record the follow-up a little sooner than they would have liked. By their own admission, Close To The Edge was a somewhat rushed affair, though I thought it was an enjoyable album. It achieved gold status, but that was considered somewhat of a failure in the early 90s, especially after following a platinum debut. As a result, the band took more time in recording their third album, Love A Little Stronger, which was released in July 1994, nearly two years after Close To The Edge’s release.

Love A Little Stronger was produced by Tim DuBois and Monty Powell, as Diamond Rio’s first two albums had been. This time, however, they were joined by another co-producer, Mike Clute. The title track was the first single released, and it was also the album’s biggest hit, peaking at #2. It was the band’s first trip into the Top 10 since the previous year’s “Oh Me, Oh My Sweet Baby” topped out at #5. Written by Chuck Jones, Billy Crittenden and Gregory Swint, “Love A Little Stronger” has a slightly more polished sound than the band’s previous work. The second single, a cover of Dennis Linde’s “Night Is Falling In My Heart” — one of my favorite Diamond Rio songs — also has some glossy production but it also allows the band to show off their impressive harmony skills. It reached #9 on the Billboard country singles chart.

Love A Little Stronger followed Close To The Edge’s pattern of producing two top ten hits followed by two lower-charting singles. “Bubba Hyde”, a somewhat hokey semi-novelty song about a straight-laced guy who undergoes a personality transformation on Friday nights, only made it to #16, while the excellent “Finish What We Started”, written by producer Monty Powell with Mike Noble, stalled out at #19. This one definitely deserved to chart higher.

The collection also includes some very good album cuts, such as “Into The Wild Blue Yonder”, which I would have released as a single in lieu of “Bubba Hyde”. “Into The Wild Blue Yonder” seems tailor-made for radio, but was perhaps overlooked because it was felt that radio would be more receptive to a more uptempo tune. “Gone Out Of My Mind” is one of those songs that has been recorded a number of times without ever becoming a big hit. It had previously been included as an album cut on Steve Wariner’s 1989 album I Am Ready. I still consider Doug Stone’s 1998 rendition to be the definitive version, but Diamond Rio’s take is quite good as well. “Appalachian Dream” follows the precedent established by Diamond Rio’s previous two albums, of including one instrumental track to allow the band to show off their picking skills. The album closes with the somewhat somber but quite enjoyable “Kentucky Mine”.

I’ve always been a casual Diamond Rio fan, and didn’t pay much attention to the band in the 90s, aside from what I heard from them on the radio. But as is often the case, the radio hits don’t tell the whole story. Love A Little Stronger is a solid collection, with no weak tracks aside from “Bubba Hyde”. Like the band’s eponymous debut album, it reached #13 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and earned platinum certification. It is still easy to find from vendors such as Amazon at reasonable prices.

Grade: A-