My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Mike Reid

Album Review: Don Williams – ‘One Good Well’

Don Williams released his first album on RCA Records, One Good Well, in April 1989. The album, produced as per usual by Garth Fundis, prolonged his career with a series of very successful radio offerings.

The title track, a mid-tempo love song composed by Mike Reid and Kent Robbins, was issued as the lead single. It was followed by Bob McDill’s “I’ve Been Loved By The Best,” a gently rolling ballad about a love for the ages. Both songs, of superior quality, peaked at #4.

The third single, “Just As Long as I Have You,” which covered similar ground both thematically and sonically, also peaked at #4. The song, written by Dave Loggins and J.D. Martin, had originally peaked at #72 when Loggins released his own version with Gus Hardin in 1985.

The fourth and final single, “Maybe That’s What It Takes,” was slightly slower and a bit more lush than its predecessors. It stalled at #22 despite a well-written lyric by Beth Nielsen Chapman.

“Learn To Let It Go” is a jaunty pace changer, written by Reid with Rory Bourke. The arrangement, accented with dobro and fiddle, feels so tailor made to Keith Whitley I had to double check he wasn’t one of the track’s co-writers. Williams, unsurprisingly, wears the style well.

He goes uptempo again on “Why Get Up,” co-written by Bill Carter and Ruth Ellsworth. The track, complete with honky-tonk piano and an ear-catching lyric, is reminiscent of “It Must Be Love.”

Williams himself contributed “Cryin’ Eyes,” a gorgeous ballad concerning the reasons couples drift apart. Another of his solely-written numbers, “We’re All The Way” is more optimistic, tackling the well-worn theme of commitment. “Broken Heartland,” by Gene Nelson, keeps the pace slow on a ballad about feeling deflated when love doesn’t work out.

McDill and Bucky Jones are responsible for the album’s final song, “Flowers Won’t Grow (In Gardens Of Stone).” The somber ballad is an excellent steel drenched number, one of the album’s best.

One Good Well is, like all of Williams’ albums, a masterful recording. There isn’t a flaw I can find among these ten songs. I don’t think I’ve encountered another artist who is truly this timeless. You can listen to a Williams recording of any era and feel like it was just recorded today. He is easily one of the most remarkable country singers I have ever heard.

But if I was going to nitpick, I would call out One Good Well for not being memorable enough to stand out. While every song is indeed excellent, there’s nothing truly transcendent among these ten tracks. It’s a slight criticism, which I won’t hold against him, that is worth noting. Only Williams could get away with not taking any chances.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘God’s Problem Child’

Although he has had to cancel a few shows lately because of illness, 83 year old Willie Nelson is still touring and releasing records at a pace which puts to shame artists a quarter of his age. His latest album is his 62st studio album, and although it is his first of brand new songs for some time, he has written a good proportion of the songs here.

Opener ‘Little House On The Hill’, written by producer Buddy Cannon’s 90-something mother Lyndel Rhodes, has a charmingly old fashioned feel. The delicate piano/harmonica ballad ‘Old Timer;, written by Donnie Fritts and Lenny Le Blanc, Is a pensive reflection on growing old and outliving friends. Understated and beautiful, this is excellent.

‘True Love’, one of a number of songs Willie wrote with Buddy Cannon, is sweetly optimistic. ‘Your Memory Has A Mind Of Its Own’ is a lovely, very traditional country tune about battling with heartbreak. Another favorite is the irony-tinged, ‘I Made A Mistake’:

I told a big lie, Lord
And then I forgot
I thought I was Jesus
And believe me I’m not
I thought I was right
And I was wrong by a lot

‘It Gets Easier’ is a plaintive ballad about love and loss. ‘Lady Luck is about compulsive gamblers.

The wrily amusing ‘Still Not Dead’ was inspired by an erroneous report of Willie’s death:

I woke up still not dead again today
The internet said I had passed away…

I run up and down the road makin’ music as I go
They say my pace would kill a normal man
But I’ve never been accused of bein’ normal anyway

More cynical, ‘Delete And Fast Forward’ is a rare venture by Willie into political commentary.

‘A Woman’s Love’ is a loungy jazz ballad written by Sam Hunter and Mike Reid:

A woman’s love is stronger than a man’s
But it can hold your heart in the palm of his hands.
It’ll keep the faith through the long dark night
It takes a woman’s love, a woman’s love
To see the light.

It’ll make you fly
Sink you like a stone,
It’ll leave you high
Or leave you all alone.
You’ll believe her word
No matter what you’ve heard
Anybody say about it
There’s no life for you without it now

Sonny Throckmorton and Mark Sherrill wrote the gentle, pretty ‘Butterfly’. Tony Joe White and Jamey Johnson wrote the title track, a gloomy blues gospel tune about failure and the enduring love of God. The pair, plus the late Leon Russell, also guest on the song.

The album closes with a touching tribute to Merle Haggard. Gary Nicholson actually wrote ‘He Won’t Ever Be Gone’, but it sounds as if Willie did, with its fond memories of both the musician and the man.

Willie is in surprisingly strong voice given his age and hectic schedule. Combined with the excellent songs included, this is a really good album by a living legend who is still at (or at least not far off) the height of his powers.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Wynonna – ‘New Day Dawning’

17b866fff09f6964b58b058adcbefa861429d7fde0f7d12d9aefacb45755f8ea_500x500It’s a scenario that’s familiar to every country music fan: an up-and-coming artist breaks through with a traditional record and is heralded as a “savior” that will return the genre to its roots. In interviews, he/she pays homage to Haggard and Jones, etc., etc. Then a few albums down the road, the same artist moves to a more mainstream pop (or at least less country) sound in order to expand his/her commercial appeal. The artist denies doing so, even though it’s blatantly obvious to everyone what’s going on.

Wynonna Judd began distancing herself from country music as soon as The Judds disbanded. It can be argued that The Judds themselves were becoming less traditional with their last two studio albums, but the the process got underway in full when Wynonna launched her solo career. 1997’s The Other Side was a completely non-country album and the same can be said of its follow-up New Day Dawning, which was released in 2000. In Wynonna’s defense, the change in musical styles seems to be less of a crass grab for pop airplay and more of a reflection of her true musical tastes. Unfortunately, her tastes are at odds with mine, which makes New Day Dawning difficult to review fairly. I’ll admit to feeling irritated while listening to it, not so much because it isn’t country, but because it was marketed as country. While artists have every right to experiment with other styles, it would be nice if they would occasionally throw a bone to the country fans who supported them from the beginning by including one or two more traditional songs on their albums. It rarely happens, though, and it certainly does not happen here.

New Day Dawning finds Wynonna working with a new production team — James Stroud and Gary Nicholson — and sharing production duties for the first time. This is not a country album, nor is it an Americana or roots album. It’s mid tempo soft rock similar to what is played on the radio stations playing in the background in any dentist’s office. If you like synthesizers, saxophones and horns, this is the album for you. While there are some country elements on the opening track and the album’s second single “Going Nowhere”, but they are drowned out by the “nah-nah” background vocals. Still, it is catchy and the logical choice for a single. Country radio wasn’t impressed; the single stalled at #43.

Overall, I liked the album’s ballads better than the mid- and up-tempo numbers. “Can’t Nobody Love You (Like I Do)” is a pretty, AC-leaning number that served as the album’s lead single. It seems like an odd choice for a lead single, though, and it only peaked at #31. “Learning to Live With Love Again”, written by Gary Nicholson and Mike Reid is also quite good, and so is “Who Am I Trying To Fool”, although I would have greatly preferred it without the intrusive synthesizer.

The title track is one of the album’s better uptempo cuts — more Memphis than Nashville — but the background vocals sometimes border on bombastic. I disliked the funky “Chain Reaction”, another Nicholson co-write, even though it actually has some fiddle on it. Before I even heard “Tuff Snuff”, I was annoyed by the spelling. It’s a remake of a 1986 song by the blues rock band The Fabulous Thunderbirds. Wynonna’s voice is too husky on this one; she seems to be singing at the very bottom of her register, the complete opposite of her syrupy vocals on her remake of Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me”. I would not have been able to identify the singer of this song if I hadn’t already known. I intensely disliked the closing track “I Can’t Wait To Meet You”, a spiritual number co-written by R&B singer Macy Gray.

Overall, I did not enjoy this album and I do not recommend it. To be fair, though, it isn’t a bad album, just not my cup of tea. It was Wynonna’s first album not to earn gold or platinum certification and marks the acceleration of the commercial decline that began with The Other Side. The original pressing of the album included a four-song EP of The Judds, which I have not heard but I assume is much better than the main album.

Grade: C

Album Review: Wynonna – ‘Revelations’

Wynonna_Judd_-_RevelationsIn the three years between Tell Me Why and Revelations, Wynonna took a much-deserved break in which she scandalously had a child out of wedlock and was four months pregnant with another when she finally married their father. She was absent from radio for the entirety of 1995, a first since she debuted twelve years earlier.

In January 1996, Wynonna put the focus back on her music. She launched her return with the Gary Burr and Mike Reid penned “To Be Loved By You,” a lush yet masterful ballad. The song quickly topped the charts and put her back in the good graces of the country music mainstream.

The only problem was Revelations was unlike anything Wynonna had recorded to date. Gone was the straightforward country she brought to her other solo albums. She instead gifted us with an ambitious album that embraced not only a spiritual longing, but also the bluesy rock she’d hinted at with “No One Else on Earth.”

Country radio didn’t have a place for the record and the subsequent singles began her downward trend. I’ve always adored “Heaven Help My Heart,” and despite its length, thought it deserved to peak higher than #14. She covered similar territory on the R&B tinged “My Angel Is Here,” which peaked at #44 despite having zero country bonafides. She turned up the electric guitars on the fiery “Somebody To Love You” and had even less success. The single peaked at #55.

Wynonna fully surrendered to her gospel tendencies on her revelatory cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” which came from a tribute album released two years earlier. She also succeeds brilliantly with her version of “Change The World.” The pop classic would have its due via Eric Clapton that summer although Wynonna recorded and released her version first.

“Love By Grace” is a sparse ballad that puts her voice front and center. “Don’t Look Back” follows the same trajectory, but with flourishes of steel guitar throughout, is the album’s biggest missed opportunity. If it had been released as a single, it likely would’ve faired much better with country radio than “My Angel Is Here” ever could have.

“Old Enough To Know Better” is straight bluesy rock with an arrangement better suited for the stage than the recording studio. “Dance, Shout” is in the same vein and lets Wynonna take her voice to places it hadn’t yet been.

If you listen to Wynonna’s vocal performances from her earliest Judd recordings until now (1996 in this case), you’d hear an artist coming into her own by discovering the booming grit deep down in her soul. Revelations was the first time she gave into it fully on a record and the results were spectacular. This isn’t a country album by any stretch of imagination, which is a good thing because it allows her to grow into her own as an artist. This is the style that separates the music of Wynonna from that of The Judds. She’ll always be the singer of simple country songs. That will never go away. But Revelations proves she can also be so much more.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Wynonna – ‘Wynonna’

51xTAFnKBVLWynonna Judd’s solo debut was one of the most eagerly anticipated releases of 1992, as the music world waited to see what direction her post-Judds career would take. Released in March 1992 and produced by Tony Brown, Wynonna found the songstress straddling the fence between pop and country. Most of the uptempo numbers allowed her to show off her rockin’ side, but others weren’t too different from her work with The Judds. Production-wise, though, the album is more middle-of-the-road than anything she’d done prior, with very little country instrumentation. The steel guitar is noticeably absent, and nearly a quarter century after its release, it’s a little easier now to see this album for what it was: the initial step in Wynonna’s efforts to distance herself from country music.

That’s not to suggest that Wynonna is a bad album; quite the contrary. I’d have been very happy had she continued in this vein, and I expect she would have enjoyed a longer run at the top of the singles charts if she had. Nevertheless, this is a very enjoyable album and I still consider it to be the best in Wynonna’s solo discography. Wynonna’s solo career had been officially kicked off a few months earlier when she debuted the album’s lead single on the American Music Awards telecast. “She Is His Only Need” is an AC-leaning ballad penned by Dave Loggins. Sonically it’s not very country, but it does keep with country music’s tradition of telling a story. I often thought it could be construed as the further adventures of the couple from The Judds’ hit “Young Love (Strong Love)” from a few years earlier. I’m afraid I found the song rather bland and it’s my least favorite on the album. Pretty much everyone else disagreed with me, though, as it quickly became Wynonna’s first #1 solo hit.

“She Is His Only Need” was followed by two more #1s: the uptempo “I Saw The Light”, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and the rock-tinged “No One Else On Earth”, which is probably Wynonna’s most successful solo single and the one that got the most radio airplay as a recurrent. The fourth single is a beautiful ballad, “My Strongest Weakness”, which was written by Naomi Judd and Mike Reid. Had The Judds remained active, I could easily imagine this one on one of their albums, perhaps with some steel guitar to give it a more country feel. The song reached #4. I had totally forgotten that it had ever been a single; surprisingly, it didn’t have a very long shelf life once it fell off the charts.

By far, the best song on the album is “When I Reach The Place I’m Goin'”, written by Emory Gordy, Jr. and Joe Henry. This one features background vocals by Naomi, and is the most country-sounding song on the album. It’s slightly reminiscent of “Wayfaring Stranger” and is beautifully written and sung. It has a Gospel theme, as does Paul Kennerley’s “Live With Jesus”, which closes the album. The lyrics of It’s Never Easy to Say Goodbye” aren’t overtly religious, but it has a definite Gospel feel.

There aren’t any bad songs on the album, though the opening track “What It Takes” and the Kostas-Marty Stuart number “A Little Bit of Love (Goes a Long, Long Way)” are pure album filler.

Wynonna accomplished its goals of establishing Wynonna Judd as a solo artist, distinct from her prior work with her mother, and it managed to do so without alienating any existing fans. Wynonna would make some unfortunate musical choices in the future, but on her first solo project, she knocked it out of the park.

Grade: A

Album Review: The Judds – ‘River Of Time’

river of timeRiver Of Time, released in 1989, was the fifth of six studio albums issued by the Judds. By this time the act was becoming more centered on daughter Wynonna and material more suited to her vocal stylings.

The Judds’ first four full-length albums all went to #1 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, although River Of Time would stall out at #2 (it reached #1 in Canada). Consequently the Judds had Nashville’s A-Team of songwriters pitching material to them.

I do not regard this album as being especially country as the “Soap Sisters” (as Ralph Emery referred to the Judds on his early morning WSMV-TV show in the days before they hit it big) drifted more toward material suitable to Wynonna’s voice. This is an interesting album, with a wide array of material.

Track by Track

“One Man Woman” (Paul Kennerley) – this is a bluesy number about what the narrator is, and what she is looking for (a one woman man). This song was released as a single and reached #8.

“Young Love (Strong Love)” (Kennerley, Kent Robbins) – often simply called “Young Love” is not to be confused with the Sonny James mega-hit of thirty-two years earlier. This song is more of a story song than was Sonny’s classic. This song reached #1 as a single:

She was sitting crossed legged on a hood of a ford
Filing down her nails with a emory board
Talking to her friends about people they knew
And all of the things that young girls do
When she said you see that guy in the baseball cap
I’d like to spend some time with a boy like that

Betty said I seen him at the hardware store
I think his name is Billy, but I’m not sure
And as they talked a little while and he passed by
She smiled at him he just said “hi”
He was thinking to himself as he walked away
Man I’d like to find a girl like her someday

Chorus:
Young love, strong love, true love
It’s a new love
Their gonna make it through the hard times
Walk those lines
Yeah these ties that bind
Young love

“Not My Baby” (Brent Maher, Mike Reid, Mack David) – this is a mid-tempo number that strides the border between jazz and blues. Quitman Dennis takes a nice turn on the clarinet and Sonny Garrish’s tasteful work on the dobro accentuates the effect nicely.

“Let Me Tell You About Love” (Carl Perkins, Kennerley, Maher) – yes, that Carl Perkins. Fittingly, this up-tempo song reached #1:

Well ever since the day that time began
There’s been this thing ‘tween a woman and a manv We’ll, I don’t know but I do believe
It started in the garden with Adam and Eve
Sampson and Delilah had their fling
‘Til she cut his hair and clipped his wing
It don’t matter how the story’s told
Love stays young it can’t grow old

Chorus:
Let me tell you about love
About the moon and stars above
It’s what we’ve all been dreamin’ of
Let me tell you about love

“Sleepless Nights” (Felice Bryant, Boudleaux Bryant) – the husband and wife team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant were legendary songwriters writing many huge hits for the Everly Brothers as well as such country stalwarts as Carl Smith, Jimmie Dickens, Buddy Holly and The Osborne Brothers (“Rocky Top”)River of Time, released in 1989, was the fifth of six studio albums issued by the Judds. By this time the act was becoming more centered on daughter Wynonna and material more suited to her vocal stylings.
The Judds first four full-length albums all went to #1 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, although River of Time would stall out at #2 (it reached #1 in Canada). Consequently the Judds had Nashville’s A-Team of songwriter’s pitching material to them .

I do not regard this album as being especially country as the “Soap Sisters” (as Ralph Emery referred to the Judds on his early morning WSMV-TV show in the days before they hit it big) drifted more toward material suitable to Wynonna’s voice. This is an interesting album, with a wide array of material

Track by Track

“One Man Woman” (Paul Kennerley) – this is a bluesy number about what the narrator is, and what she is looking for (a one woman man). This song was released as a single and reached #8.

“Young Love (Strong Love)” (Kennerley, Kent Robbins) – often simply called “Young Love” is not to be confused with the Sonny James mega-hit of thirty-two years earlier. This song is more of a story song than was Sonny’s classic. This song reached #1 as a single:

She was sitting crossed legged on a hood of a ford
Filing down her nails with a emory board
Talking to her friends about people they knew
And all of the things that young girls do
When she said you see that guy in the baseball cap
I’d like to spend some time with a boy like that

Betty said I seen him at the hardware store
I think his name is Billy, but I’m not sure
And as they talked a little while and he passed by
She smiled at him he just said “hi”
He was thinking to himself as he walked away
Man I’d like to find a girl like her someday
Chorus:
Young love, strong love, true love
It’s a new love
Their gonna make it through the hard times
Walk those lines
Yeah these ties that bind
Young love

“Not My Baby” (Brent Maher, Mike Reid, Mack David) – this is a mid-tempo number that strides the border between jazz and blues. Quitman Dennis takes a nice turn on the clarinet and Sonny Garrish’s tasteful work on the dobro accentuates the effect nicely.

“Let Me Tell You About Love” (Carl Perkins, Kennerley, Maher) – yes, that Carl Perkins. Fittingly, this up-tempo song reached #1:

Well ever since the day that time began
There’s been this thing ‘tween a woman and a manv We’ll, I don’t know but I do believe
It started in the garden with Adam and Eve
Sampson and Delilah had their fling
‘Til she cut his hair and clipped his wing
It don’t matter how the story’s told
Love stays young it can’t grow old
Chorus:
Let me tell you about love
About the moon and stars above
It’s what we’ve all been dreamin’ of
Let me tell you about love

“Sleepless Nights” (Felice Bryant, Boudleaux Bryant) – the husband and wife team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant were legendary songwriters writing many huge hits for the Everly Brothers as well as such country stalwarts as Carl Smith, Jimmie Dickens, Buddy Holly and The Osborne Brothers (“Rocky Top”). This song apparently was written for the Everly Brothers and I remember the Everlys’ recording well (I am a huge Everly Brothers fan). The Judds acquit themselves well, achieving very nice harmonies on this song. I guess it is true that there is nothing like family harmony – I very much like this recording:

Somehow through the days
I don’t give in
I hide the tears
That wait within
Oh, but, then through sleepless nights
I cry again

“Water of Love” (Mark Knopfler) – I know Knopfler mostly from a duet album he cut with Chet Atkins but I understand that his band Dire Straits was hugely successful. This song definitely is not country, it is rather bluesy with a calypso beat:

High and dry in the long hot day
Lost and lonely in every way
Got the flats all around me, sky up above
Yes, I need a little water of love

I’ve been too long lonely and my heart feels pain
Cryin’ out for some soothing rain
I believe I’ve taken enough
Yes, I need a little water of love

“River of Time” (John Jarvis, Naomi Judd) – the title track is a Naomi Judd co-write. The song is a slow ballad with a cocktail lounge jazz piano accompaniment to open the song and more instruments coming in thereafter. The song is nice but at four plus minutes it is too long:

Flow on, river of time
Wash away the pain and heal my mind
Flow on, river of time
Carry me away
And leave it all far behind
Flow on river of time

“Cadillac Red” (Craig Bickhardt, Jarvis, Judd) – this song could be described neo-rockabilly. This kind of song makes for enjoyable listening but is nothing especially memorable. As an album track it serves the purpose of mixing things up after a pair of slow songs:

Well she’s washed and polished
And full of high octane
Ridin’ with the top down
Cruisin’ in the fast land
Her red hairs blowin’ bright as a flame
Cadillac Red’s her name

“Do I Dare” (Don Schlitz, Bickhardt, Maher) – this song addresses the dilemma faced by many a young woman (and perhaps older women as well):

Do I dare show him lovin’?
Do I go for double or nothin’?
Do I act like I don’t care?
Or, do I dare?

Do I do what my heart’s sayin’?
Do I hide my love awaitin’?
Make believe that he’s not there?
Or, do I dare?

This girl’s got a problem
She don’t know what to do
If there’s some way of tellin’
When a man is true

“Guardian Angels” (Schlitz, Jarvis, Judd) – 3:37 – this was the first Judds’ single in six years not to reach the top ten, peaking at #16. This is a nice story song that probably wasn’t a good choice for release as a single, but it is my nominee (along with “Sleepless Nights”) for the best song on the album:

A hundred year old photograph stares out from a frame
And if you look real close you’ll see, our eyes are just the same
I never met them face to face but I still know them well
From the stories my dear grandma would tell

Elijah was a farmer he knew how to make things grow
And Fanny vowed she’d follow him wherever he would go
As things turned out they never left their small Kentucky farm
But he kept her fed, and she kept him warm

Chorus:
They’re my guardian angels and I know they can see
Every step I take, they are watching over me
I might not know where I’m going but I’m sure where I come from
They’re my guardian angels and I’m their special one

I had heard the four singles from this album, plus my local radio station had played “Cadillac Red” a few times, so I had only heard half the album until a few weeks ago. The songs not previously heard provide a rich cornucopia of musical styles and point to Wynonna’s soon to follow solo career.

I would give this album a B+, mostly because I wasn’t that fond of “Water of Love” and “River of Time”. The album is worth seeking out and is available digitally.

Album Review: Alabama – ‘Pass It On Down’

pass it on downAs Alabama celebrated a decade of almost uninterrupted number one hits, the world of country music was changing. The New Traditionalists had prompted a retreat from more pop-tinged sounds, while the Garth Brooks phenomenon was about to explode. Southern Star had seen them holding their own, but its 1990 follow-up had a lot riding on its shoulders. Produced by the band with Josh Leo and Larry Michael Lee, there were five successful singles, but signs of a slight slowdown in their reception by country radio.

The apocalyptic green vision of the title track was only the band’s second single in 10 years not to reach the top of the charts, peaking at a still more than respectable #3. Written by Randy Owen and Teddy Gentry with Will Robinson and Ronnie Rogers, and given a fairly beefy country-rock production, it shares the earnestness of John Anderson’s songs on the same theme.

The regretful lost love ‘Jukebox In My Mind’ took them back to the top. Opening with the sound of a, it is one of my favourite Alabama singles, with a prominent fiddle in the arrangement.

The ballad ‘Forever’s As Far As I’ll Go, written by Mike Reid, was a top 15 Billboard Adult Contemporary hit as well as a country #1. The last chart topper, ‘Down Home’, an ode to rural hometowns (“where they know you by name and treat you like family”), written by Rick Bowles and Josh Leo, is quite agreeable.

The final single from the record was ‘Here WeAre’, written by Beth Nielsen Chapman and Vince Gill, and stylistically more characteristic of some of Chapman’s work than Gill’s. It is quite catchy and radio-friendly, but lacks emotional depth. While the performance of ‘Pass It On Down’ might have been passed off as a blip, ‘Here We Are’s #2 peak was a more significant indicator marking the group’s beginning to falter with radio. Although they continued to score hits, they would only get two more #1s.

Randy Owen’s ‘Goodbye (Kelly’s Song)’ was obviously inspired by his wife and childhood sweetheart, Kelly, and the sadness of constant separation while the band was on tour. While very personal and genuinely moving it goes on rather too long. (Note: I am pleased to report that 25 years on the couple is still happily married.)

The story song ‘Fire On Fire’, written by Teddy Gentry with Ronnie Rogers and Greg Fowler, has a potentially interesting lyric about a woman hooking up with a stranger in town, but the melody, arrangement and Cook’s weedy lead vocal are all more AC/rock ballad than country, and not particularly suited to the song’s tale of intense but temporary passion. The country-rock ‘Until It Happens To You’, written by Cook, Gentry, Rogers and Fowler, and sung by Gentry, is better.

The mid-tempo celebration of partying in the open air, ‘Moonlight Lounge’ (another Rogers tune), is okay in itself, but the now overdone theme makes it less welcome. The Caribbean-tinged beach tune ‘Gulf Of Mexico’ with its steel drums and la-la-las isn’t quite to my taste, but is inoffensive with a pleasant melody.

This was one of three tracks omitted from the original cassette release and only available on CD (then the more expensive version). Of the others, ‘Starting Tonight’ is a romantic ballad which is okay. A more interesting choice was the bluesy ‘I Ain’t Got No Business Doin’ Business Today’, a cover of a top 10 hit for Razzy Bailey in 1979 (and previously recorded by the great George Jones on his 1978 album Bartender’s Blues).

This was fairly standard fare from Alabama, with plenty to appeal to fans of the band.

Grade: B

Album Review: Shelby Lynne – ‘Temptation’

temptationAfter three albums had failed to break Shelby Lynne, she parted ways with Epic. Her music had always been a little more eclectic than most of her peers, but now she began to experiment more. Although it was still marketed as country music and recorded in Nashville with seasoned session musicians, her work with producer Brent Maher for her new label Morgan Creek (in association with Mercury Records) drew more deeply from the wells of jazz and big band than even the countrypolitan end of country music.

She was still marketed as a country artist, but unsurprisingly the country radio which had been unreceptive to her more conventional material was even less so to her new direction. Lead single ‘Feeling Kind Of Lonely Tonight’ got minimal airplay, peaking at a dismal #69 on the Billboard country chart, although it has a catchy tune and arrangement and is quite enjoyable. Interestingly, Brent Maher wrote or co-wrote all but two of the songs, most of them with Jamie O’Hara.

‘Tell Me I’m Crazy’, one of the two outside songs, didn’t chart at all, although it is a very nice Patsy Cline style ballad written by Mike Reid and Rory Michael Bourke, and is beautifully sung.

Even better is my favourite song on the album (not coincidentally, the only other song Brent Maher had no hand in). ‘I Need A Heart To Come Home To’ is a lovely sad ballad written by John Barlow Jarvis and Russell Smith about loneliness and the temptation of reconnecting with an old flame:

Something happened the night you kissed me
My will to love was born again
Your tenderness has convinced me
What a lonely fool I’ve been

I need a heart to come home to
Give me all the love I never knew
I need a heart to hold on to
I need a sweet sweetheart like you

Both song and performance are excellent, and the track featured on the soundtrack of hit movie True Romance.

Shelby co-wrote the title track with Maher and Jamie O’Hara, and this bold, brassy tune is a bit lacking in melody or real emotional impact, with an assertive attitude which doesn’t quite fit the self-searching lyric. The trio also wrote the similarly styled ‘Some Of That True Love’, where the swing arrangement fits the song better.

The understated mid-tempo ‘Little Unlucky At Love’, written by Maher and O’Hara, is quite good, but the pair’s ‘Come A Little Closer’ and ‘Don’t Cry For Me’, written by Maher alone, are forgettable big band.

I disliked the bluesy, soul-influenced ‘The Rain Might Wash Your Love Away’ (written by Maher with Don Potter and Don Schlitz, mainly for its annoying spoken segments. However the sophisticated minor-keyed jazz ballad ‘Where Do We Go From Here’ is very well done.

This is one of those records which is tough to assign a letter grade to. It is well sung and played, and Shelby sounds thoroughly engaged with her material, but most of it is not really to my personal tastes. As a jazz-inflected record for a general audience, it is very good; but it has little to do with country music other than the personnel.

Grade: B

Album Review: Shelby Lynne – ‘Sunrise’

sunriseShelby Lynne was teamed up with veteran producer Billy Sherrill for her first album in 1989. Her duet with George Jones and a cover of Buck Owens’ ‘Under Your Spell Again’ which had been her solo single debut were left off the tracklisting, which leans a little less traditional than either of those tracks. Shelby was only 20 when the album was released, but sounds considerably older.

Her big booming voice was front and center in ‘The Hurtin’ Side’, the album’s lead single, which just cracked the country top 40. Written by Mike Reid and Rory Michael Bourke, it’s a solid song about facing heartbreak. Reid and Bourke wrote two additional songs on the album, one of which is my favourite: ‘Till You Were Gone’, also recorded by John Conlee, is an agonized expression of regret at love discovered too late:

Every night right about now
I grow uneasy
Kinda restless somehow
It starts out like thunder on a slow steady roll
And I hit the floor half out of control

Baby I wonder if you look the same
Do you have children?
What are their names?
Does the one that you’re with
Need you all night long?
Like I never did
Until you were gone

Their third song, ‘Your Love Stays With me’ is a big ballad, more AC than country, and although it is well performed it doesn’t have a big impact.

The album’s only other single, ‘Little Bits And Pieces’ is a fine ballad recalling a broken relationship, penned by Dean Dillon and Hank Cochran, but unfortunately it did not catch on at radio. It is quite heavily strung and Shelby emotes intensely, perhaps a little too much. ‘Thinking About You Again’ is a slightly more understated but still deeply emotional ballad with a despairing lyric abut failing to move on after a breakup, written by Stephony Smith and Mike Porter.

Sherrill contributed one song, ‘This Time I Almost Made It’, an older song previously recorded by Barbara Mandrell, cited by Shelby as one of her big influences. A yearning cheating song, it had also been recorded by Tammy Wynette with Billy Sherrill at the helm, so perhaps it was his choice for Shelby, whose version stands up well to her illustrious predecessors.

The assertive ‘What About This Girl’, written by Randy Boudreaux with Madeline Stone, picks up the tempo but is not particularly country. The same goes for the bluesy ‘That’s Where It Hurts’, which starts out slow and then turns bold and brassy as she belts out a tale of heartbreak wherever she goes.

A languid jazzy take on Floyd Tillman’s classic ‘I Love You So Much It Hurts’ is effective, but the similarly jazz-inflected version of standard ‘I’m Confessin’’ is a little dull and feels self-indulgent.

Shelby’s voice and emotional intensity belied her youth, and this was an interesting debut. Although she did draw on the heritage of country music, her eclectic tastes and the fact that her retro tastes leaned more to the Nashville Sound and other genres, I wonder if she would have done better if she had been five or ten years older rather than making her debut during the heyday of the neotraditional movement. If you have eclectic tastes this is worth picking up: the vocals are strong, the songs pretty good, and the production suits her. But it was a little out of place in 1989.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Ricky Van Shelton – ‘RVS III’

RVS IIIRVS III appeared in January 1990, a little more than a year after Loving Proof. Like its predecessors, it was produced by Steve Buckingham and was a mixture of both new material and some carefully selected covers of older songs that were suddenly back in vogue during the New Traditionalist era. This time around, however, there was slightly less emphasis on rockabilly-style numbers on more on ballads which were proving to be Ricky’s strong point.

Preceding the release of RVS III was a maginificent cover of “Statue of a Fool”, which had been a #1 hit for Jack Greene in 1969. Ricky’s version just missed the top spot, peaking at #2, but it remains one of the standout singles of his career and is his greatest moment of this album. The uptempo “I’ve Cried My Last Tear For You”, written by Tony King (who was engaged to Wynonna Judd at the time) and Chris Waters was the next single. This one did reach #1, but it’s not one of my favorites, which is a not a criticism of the song, but a testament to the strength of the rest of the album. Another great ballad “I Meant Every Word He Said”, in which the protagonist is forced to watch the woman he loves marry another man, also topped out at #2. The album’s fourth and final single was a cover of “Life’s Little Ups and Downs”. The blues-tinged track was an underperforming single for Charlie Rich in 1969. Ricky’s version reached #4, and although it provides a change of pace, it’s my least favorite track on the album.

There are only two rocking numbers on RVS III – “Love Is Burnin'”, which is in the same vein as “Crime of Passion” and a cover of Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman”. The rest of the album was comprised of ballads, most of which could have been hit singles, but Columbia was likely reluctant to release too many ballads in a row to radio. Among these choice tracks are “You Would Do The Same For Me”, a Rory Bourke-Mike Reid composition that I would have preferred to see as a single in lieu of “Life’s Little Ups and Downs”, “I’m Starting Over” written by Kix Brooks with John Wesley Ryles and Mark Sherrill, and a fantastic version of Cindy Walker’s “Not That I Care”. This beautiful waltz had been a minor hit for Jerry Wallace in 1966 (peaking at #44) and had also been recorded by The Wilburn Brothers.

Another standout is album’s closing track “Sweet Memories”, which had been an adult contemporary hit for Andy Williams in 1968 and covered by Willie Nelson in 1979. Ricky is joined by Brenda Lee, who was long past her commercial peak, but her voice was still strong and lovely and complemented his nicely. The track features a tasteful string arrangement which gives it a little more countrypolitan feel than the rest of the album.

Despite a couple of weak spots, namely “Life’s Little Ups and Downs” and the self-penned and forgettable “I Still Love You”, RVS III is packed with top-drawer material and it quickly attained platinum status as its two predecessors have. However, by this time the formula of a few rockabilly numbers and a lot of ballads, a few old songs and a few new was starting to become predictable and may partially account for Shelton’s relatively brief reign at the top of the charts. Nevertheless, it is an album well worth listening to and I enthusastically recommend it.

Grade: A

Album Review: Lee Roy Parnell – ‘We All Get Lucky Sometimes’

we all get lucky sometimesLee Roy Parnell’s fourth album saw him repeating the pattern of the records which had seen him enjoy commercial success. There was one backroom change, though: a sideways move from Arista proper to the subsidiary imprint Career Records.

The lead single ‘A Little Bit Of You’ is a mid-tempo love song with a radio-friendly tune, written by hitmakers Trey Bruce and Craig Wiseman. It just missed the top spot on the charts, peaking at #2. ‘When A Woman Loves A Man peaked ten spots lower, at #12, but I think it’s a better song. A classy soulful ballad, it features Trisha Yearwood’s backing vocals, although they’re quite low in the mix.

‘Heart’s Desire’ was another big hit, reaching #3. It’s an excellent example of one of Parnell’s slower numbers, rhythmic and blusey but not overwhelmingly so, with a mellow feel. ‘Givin’ Water To A Drownin’ Man’ proved to be Parnell’s last top 20 hit. It’s another strong track in Parnell’s wheelhouse, although the Merle Haggard namedrop seems rather random. The title track also got some airplay but didn’t make the top 40. It’s a mid-to-up-tempo chugger, stronger on groove than substance, but enjoyable enough.

‘Saved By The Grace Of Your Love’ is a gentle ballad written by Parnell with Mike Reid, which is very pretty. ‘I Had To Let It Go’ is a pretty good story song involving losing a loved one and giving up booze.

The Delbert McClinton/Gary Nicholson song ‘Squeeze Me In’ is best known to country fans from Trisha Yearwood’s version. Parnell’s take is okay (and there’s some great piano), but I like Trisha’s better.

‘Knock Yourself Out’ has a blues groove which is quite catchy with call-and-response vocals and is quite enjoyable without being very memorable. It would have worked well live. ‘If The House Is Rockin’ is a straightforward slice of rock ‘n roll with exuberant honky tonk piano.

The album closes out with an instrumental; featuring accordion great Flaco Jiminez. Not my thing, but impressive playing.

Overall, a solid album which should appeal to anyone who likes the singles.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Lee Roy Parnell – ‘Love Without Mercy’

220px-LoveWithoutMercyTo record his sophomore album Lee Parnell stuck with producer Barry Beckett although Scott Hendricks, who most recently has been producing Blake Shelton’s post-Bobby Braddock work, joined him. Love Without Mercy would be Parnell’s breakthrough release containing three top ten singles despite peaking at #66 on Billboard’s country albums chart.

Lead single “The Rock,” where Parnell sounds like a slightly less powerful Ronnie Dunn, failed to ignite (peaking at #50) despite no obvious shortcomings. The contemporary ballad was perfectly inline with commercial trends in 1992 and I quite like the lush tenderness Parnell brings to the proceedings.

He finally scored his breakthrough hit with “What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am,” an excellent rocker written by Al Carmichael and Gary Griffin. The #2 peaking song succeeds on Parnell’s rough vocal and slide guitar that doesn’t overwhelm the track at all. The infectious melody was all over the radio when I was a kid and I love it as much today as I did then.

Arista’s next single choice was the title track, a Don Pfrimmer and Mike Reid ballad originally recorded by Oak Ridge Boys in 1987. Reid, who topped the charts with “Walk On Faith” two years prior, released his own version the same year as Parnell. The bluesy ballad, which peaked at #8 for Parnell, is an excellent song perfectly suited for Parnell’s voice. Oak Ridge Boys version is great, too, but somewhat dated.

The album’s final single, the infectiously upbeat “Tender Moment” matched “What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am,” peaking at #2 in Mid-1993. It’s another fantastically commercial moment for Parnell, succeeding on the brilliant melody, and among my favorite of his singles.

The rest of Love Without Mercy skews towards uptempo rocks including the Parnell co-wrote “Road Scholar,” a semi-autobiographical tale about a man who got his education in honky-tonks, that features Delbert McClinton. The bluesy Texas Rock isn’t my favorite, but the predictable lyric does give the track some needed substance.

“Night After Night” finds Parnell as a man consumed by the memory of his ex and the whole thing is as predictable as it is muscular. “Roller Coaster” is slightly better although I wish it retained even more country elements beyond the audible steel guitar. “Ain’t No Short Way Home” is a pre-curser to the ‘Bro-Country’ of today with its mentioning of trucks and women, and while it’s light years better in quality than today’s dreck, its still too generic for me.

“Back In My Arms Again” retains more of the country elements Parnell brought to the singles, and is an improvement over the other album cuts as a result. “Done Deal” is the best non-single and follows the formula of “The Rock” and the title track.

Love Without Mercy is a typical boom years country album that focuses on some outstanding singles while populating the album with a fair share of filler. Nothing here is horrible, but the magic of “What Kind of Fool” and “Tender Moment” isn’t repeated beyond those two cuts. But the album as a whole is still listenable and worth seeking out.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Shenandoah – ‘Extra Mile’

extramile1990’s Extra Mile was the first Shenandoah album I ever bought. The band was on a hot streak after racking up three #1 hits the year before, followed by the #6 hit “See If I Care.” Extra Mile’s lead single, the Robert Ellis Orall and Curtis Wright two-stepper “Next To You, Next To Me” quickly became the band’s fourth chart topper. It is my favorite Shenandoah recording and it sounds as good as today as it did when it was first released nearly a quarter century ago.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album , for the most part,hasn’t aged as well. Every recording is a product of the era in which it was made and that is part of the charm of listening to vintage music. I don’t mind soaring string sections or Nashville Sound choruses, and even some of the heavy-handed Urban Cowboy records of the early 1980s. I have, however, developed a profound dislike of keyboard synthesizers, which were considered very cutting edge in 1990 but sound horribly dated today. In listening to Extra Mile for the first time in a very long time, I found the synthesizers to be a distraction that mar an otherwise very solid album. It’s first apparent on Hugh Prestwood’s “Ghost In This House” — a beautiful ballad that peaked at #5 when it was released as the album’s second single — and continues to mar ballads such as “When You Were Mine” and it is particularly intrusive on “The Moon Over Georgia”, an otherwise excellent record that reached #9. The aforementioned “When You Were Mine” stalled #38, becoming the album’s only single not to reach the Top 10. “I Got You”, written by Robert Byrne, Teddy Gentry and Greg Fowler, was also released as a single between “Ghost In This House” and “Moon Over Georgia.” It’s another one of my favorite Shenandoah recordings. It peaked at #7.

Production missteps aside, the material on Extra Mile is quite good, and Marty Raybon’s vocals are stellar throughout. The songwriting credits alone are impressive with names such as Lionel Cartwright (“She’s A Natural”), Larry Cordle and Larry Shell (“Puttin’ New Roots Down”) and Rory Michael Burke and Mike Reid (“She Makes The Coming Home Worth The Being Gone”) all appearing alongside the aforementioned Robert Ellis Orrall, Curtis Wright and Hugh Prestwood. The album closes with the sentimental “Daddy’s Little Man” in which a father fears that he cannot live up to the hero image that his young son has of him.

Like The Road Not Taken, Extra Mile earned gold certification. Unfortunately, shortly after the album’s release the band was sued by several other bands that claimed to have rights to the Shenandoah name. Although Shenandoah prevailed in court, it was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and one of the consequences of that action was the termination of the band’s contract with Columbia Records. Although the band later resurfaced on RCA, the legal turmoils did affect their commercial momentum. Shenandoah’s albums are not always easy to come by nowadays, but as one of their better selling efforts, Extra Mile is the exception. Cheap used copies are available as well as a reasonably priced import version which contains The Road Not Taken and Extra Mile on the same disc.

Grade: B+

Album Review – Jennifer Nettles – ‘That Girl’

ThatGirlCDIn the four years since Sugarland graced us with The Incredible Machine it’s become abundantly clear that the project was the inaugural example of country music’s changing tide from a genre of integrity to one corrupted by an 80s rock mentality. As the first instance of the paradigm shift the results were shocking, but in context they make a little more sense.

There’s no secret fans have been clamoring for a redo from the duo, but the fallout from still-pending lawsuits relating to the collapse of their stage at the Indiana State Fair in August 2011, where seven people died, have prevented their collective return to music.

In the meantime, we have That Girl, the first solo offering from Jennifer Nettles; a project she says she’s been writing for the past three years. When the album was announced last summer I was excited, mostly because Rick Rubin was at the helm. Rubin, the man behind Johnny Cash’s American Recordings and Dixie Chicks’ spellbinding Taking The Long Way, knows how to craft complete albums better than almost anyone. So to say my expectations were unbelievably high would be an understatement.

By all accounts, That Girl is a solidly above average album. Nettles’ songwriting skills are sharper than ever and she delivers one stunning vocal after another. But the ingredients just don’t add up, leaving the bulk of That Girl feeling lost and cold.

More than nine years ago I fell in love with Nettles’ voice when “Just Might (Make Me Believe)” was climbing the charts and became obsessed with “Want To” when it led their second album two years later. There was a beautiful intimacy to those tracks that coupled with decidedly country production (fiddles, dobros, and mandolins) created an indelible magic that only got stronger with each passing album.

That Girl retains the intimacy but is completely void of the country production elements from Sugarland’s best work. Seeing that this is a solo project, it’s unfair for Nettles to be expected to carry over the Sugarland sound. But Rubin has presided over an album that can hardly be called country at all, even by today’s standards. That wouldn’t normally be a problem but it aids in helping That Girl loose focus, and without a big standout track, the CD (as a whole) falls into a sea of sameness the renders the proceedings kind of boring.

But I do like and appreciate some of the tracks on their own merits. I love the sentiment of “Thank You,” her co-write with Little Big Town’s Phillip Sweet. The acoustic guitar backdrop is sleepy, but the pair managed to craft a wonderful lyric about appreciation that’s both beautiful and endearing. “Good Time To Cry,” co-written with Mike Reid, is an outstanding R&B flavored number and one of Nettles’ best vocals ever committed to record. She also hits “Falling,” a number about loosing one’s virginity, out of the park. It’s also the closet vocally to the Nettles’ we’ve come to know and love.

The sea of sameness is broken up a few times by some uptempo tracks, although none are overwhelmingly exciting. There’s a Caribbean feel to Kevin Griffin co-write “Jealousy” and somewhat of a hook, but the song gets a tad annoying with repeated listenings. Richard Marx co-write “Know You Wanna Know” succeeds on wordplay, and “Moneyball” displays the most personality from Nettles. The problem with the upbeat material isn’t the lyrical content but rather Rubin’s decision to make them feel too serious. Nettles has shown in the past she does better when she can be more playful (think “Settlin’” or “Steve Earle”).

I really wanted to love That Girl a lot more than I do, as I’ve been unhealthily obsessed with Nettles’ voice over the years and have seen Sugarland live three times. This solo effort would’ve been a stronger listening experience if it had been more varied in tempo, with a few more hook-laden songs and less sameness balladry. If these songs were sprinkled over the course of a few albums, I bet we would’ve been able to appreciate them more. That Girl is by no means a bad album, but it’s not the transcendent project it could and should’ve been.

Grade: B- 

Album Review: Collin Raye – ‘In This Life’

inthislifeCollin Raye’s sophomore disc is slightly more polished and less neotraditional than his debut effort. John Hobbs returned to co-produce the album, this time with Garth Fundis, who replaced All I Can Be’s co-producer Jerry Fuller. The title track and lead single was an obvious — and successful — attempt to capitalize on the success of “Love, Me” and cement Raye’s reputation as a ballad singer. “In This Life”, written by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin spent two weeks at #1 in the autumn of 1992. It also reached #21 on the Adult Contemporary chart and might have been considered Raye’s career record had he not already recorded “Love, Me”.

If “In This Life” helped solidify Collin’s credentials as a balladeer, the next single “I Want You Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” was meant to ensure that he didn’t get pigeonholed. The uptempo number has just a bit of a rock edge, but the vocal is a little shouty and it doesn’t quite work for me. It is my least favorite track on the album and possibly my least favorite of all of Raye’s singles. While it did not chart as high as the three records that preceded it, it managed to peak at a respectable #7. “Somebody Else’s Moon”, another ballad, saw him return to the Top 5, as did “That Was A River”, yet another ballad which is just a little too syrupy and one of the weakest tracks on the album.

It will come as no surprise to longtime readers that my favorite song on the disc is also its most traditional. “You Can’t Take It With You” is a suprisingly upbeat number about an unraveling relationship; Collin tells his soon-to-be ex:

When I gave you my heart, I gave it forever
But you can’t take it with you when you go.

The Texas two-step number was written by Kix Brooks, Don Cook and Chick Rains and features some excellent fiddling by Rob Hajacos. Stylistically, it would have been more at home on Collin’s first album. It should have been released as a single, and so should Hugh Prestwood’s “Latter Day Cowboy”, another one of my favorites from this collection.

The collection also includes a pair of remakes. Collin covers Johnny Cash’s “Big River”, which is a decent effort, but Raye is no Man In Black. His rendition of the pop standard “Let It Be Me”, which closes the album, is more suited to his voice.

Like its predecessor, In This Life earned platinum certification in the US and gold status in Canada. While not quite as good as his debut album, it is one of the stronger entries in his discography. Cheap copies are readily available and worth purchasing.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Dan Seals – ‘Rebel Heart’

Rebel Heart was not Dan Seals’ first solo album but it was his first to enjoy any level of commercial success. His two prior solo albums for Atlantic Records had produced five non-charting singles (actually two of them did reach the lower rungs of the pop charts), but the tide began to change when he made the move to Liberty Records in 1983. Like its two predecessors, Rebel Heart was produced by Kyle Lehning. Dan wrote or co-wrote seven of the album’s ten songs, including the first single “Everybody’s Dream Girl”, which became his first Top 20 country hit, peaking at #18.

For the most part, the songs on Rebel Heart are not that different from the music Seals had released as a pop artist; it would not be inaccurate to describe much of it as adult contemporary or soft rock with a dose of steel guitar, which is typical of the era. In fact, the production is quite restrained by 1983 standards, though with its synthesizers, drum machines and reverb it often sounds dated to modern ears. That is not to say, though, that it is not enjoyable. “After You” reminds me a lot of the music that Vince Gill was making at the time. The Paul Battle/Bucky Jones/Chris Waters tune was released as the album’s second single. It peaked at a disappointing #28, and the next single “You Really Go For The Heart” performed even worse, stalling at #37.

Just when it appeared that the project would be another commercial disappointment, Liberty released a fourth single — an unusual move in those days, particularly since none of the three previous releases had made a big impact at radio. But that all changed with the self-penned “God Must Be a Cowboy”, which jump-started Dan’s country career and landed him inside the Top 10 on Billboard’s country singles chart for the first time. A simple ode to the cowboy’s way of life, it is one of the few songs on the album with no pop overtones. It’s the best song on the album, and in fact, one of the best of Seals’ career. It was the breakthrough hit he had been waiting for; it was the first in a series of Top 10 singles that continued until 1990.

“On A Night Like This” is my second favorite song in the collection that seems like it would have been a better choice for a single release than some of the cuts that were actually sent to radio. “The Banker” is a very good but non-commercial ballad about a down-on-his-luck farmer whose property is about to enter foreclosure when he suddenly strikes oil. Dan wrote both of these songs as well as two rather bland numbers — “Up On A Hill” and “Candle In The Rain” — that sound like they might have been been written back during his England Dan and John Ford Coley days. “Down the Hall” is a decent pop-country number written by Dan’s cousin Troy Seals with Mike Reid. The song also appeared on The Oak Ridge Boys’ American Made album, which was also released in 1983.

Rebel Heart is a pleasant, though not essential, listen. It is currently only available as digital download , unless you’re willing to shell out nearly $200 for an imported CD copy. However, it is scheduled to be re-released in October on a 2-for-1 CD along with Dan’s 1988 album Rage On, and this appears to be the most economical way to purchase it.

Grade: B

Album Review – Tim McGraw – ‘Everywhere’

By the time Everywhere saw the light of day in June 1997, Tim McGraw was an established hit maker but not a superstar. His music was mostly cast aside as nothing more than novelty and he had yet to prove he was more than just another 90s hat act. That all would change here as Everywhere would go on to sell four million copies and win McGraw the respect of the industry. He was finally a force to be reckoned with at both country radio and on the road.

Lead single “It’s Your Love,” a massively successful duet with his wife Faith Hill, would take on a life of its own spending six weeks at #1 and winning boatloads of awards from the ACMs and CMAs. It would also be named Billboard Magazine’s #1 country single of 1997.

The romantic ballad, pinned by Stephony Smith, worked because the chemistry between McGraw and Hill was enough to sell the song. The nicely restrained arrangement, complete with the light acoustic guitar and organ flourishes, is also a stunning moment for commercial country in those days.

The title track would follow also peaking at #1. While not as massive a hit, “Everywhere” was even more important – it proved McGraw could sell subtlety and emotional depth through further developing the promise he showed with “Can’t Be Really Gone.” Written by Mike Reid and Craig Wiseman, “Everywhere” is easily my favorite song on the whole album and sounds as fresh today as it did back then.

I love the story here – a man’s regretting the end of a relationship and sees his ex wherever he goes – and the brilliance of the songwriting. Reid and Wiseman spend much of the song focused on the man’s travels, but smartly take a second to ground his journey with the line:

Cause you and I made our choices

All those years ago

Still I know I’ll hear your voice

And see you down the road

I can’t even begin to imagine how poorly “Everywhere” would be written by today’s standards (especially by the Peach Pickers). In conjunction with the lyrics, the soaring arrangement complete with fiddle, steel guitar, and gorgeous acoustic guitars nicely compliment the vastness of the many places this man has been.

The third single, the irresistibly catchy “Just To See You Smile” would match the success of “It’s Your Love” by spending six weeks at #1 and becoming Billboard Magazine’s #1 country single of 1998. The banjo driven arrangement complete with pedal steel and acoustic guitar make it one of those sunny songs you have to turn up when it comes on the radio. I love this one as well and can’t believe how good it sounds all these years later.

Fourth Single “One Of These Days” may be the best ballad of McGraw’s career. Written by Marcus Hummond, Monty Powell, and Kip Raines, it would peak at #2 in the spring of 1998. I always regarded it as a love song until writing this review – I never saw the whole picture (a man’s journey towards self-forgiveness for bullying a boy who “was different/he wasn’t cool like me”) until listening to it again this week. It’s a stunning lyric and just may be the best thing McGraw has ever recorded, let alone his best ballad.

Following the “One of These Days” juggernaut was another McGraw standard and multi-week #1 “Where The Green Grass Grows.” Written by Jess Leary and Craig Wiseman, it may be the most lyrically dumb of any of the singles from Everywhere but the fiddle and drum heavy melody are so infectious, you cannot help but sing along.

But “Where The Green Grass Grows” is actually more insightful than meets the eye. A entry into the “couturier than thou” linage, it succeeds by taking the protagonist back to small town living without hitting us over the head with grass is better than concrete imagery. His move out of city life finds him naturally following his heart.

The sixth and final single, “For A Little While” would peak at #2 in spring 1999. Composed by Steve Mandie and Jerry Vandiver along with country singer Phil Vassar, it was a simple love song about a romance not able to last more than a few months:

And I laugh every time I start to think about us

We sent that summer out in style

And she’s gone but she let me with a smile

‘Cause she was mine for a little while

She wasn’t one to be tied down – which he wasn’t looking for anyway – but he’ll always have the memories of their times together. The execution is flawless here; the fiddle, drum, and piano laced production work perfectly to frame the love story contained within.

Of the non-singles on the album, the majority are typical album filler you would’ve expected to populate a country album in the late-90s. There isn’t much there to grasp onto except for “I Do But I Don’t” written by Mark Nesler and Tony Martin, the team behind “Just To See You Smile.” The fiddle and steel guitar laced ballad is quite strong and wouldn’t have been out of place on Mark Wills’ Wish You Were Here album.

Taking another listen, it’s easy to see why Everywhere won the 1998 CMA Album of the Year award and put McGraw’s career into overdrive. The singles are some of the strongest of his career to date with not a bad one in the bunch.

I have very found memories of this project as well. Each of these songs displays a little piece of my third and fourth grade childhood. So listening to them again brings back fond memories of those years. And it’s also nice to see how well the songs have held up after fifteen years time, even if they display how sharply commercial country music has declined since.

If you don’t have a copy they can be easily found on both iTunes and Amazon.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Wynonna – ‘My Strongest Weakness’

Wynonna Judd’s fourth solo single was a top 5 hit in 1992, following 3 consecutive #1’s from her debut album.  The tune was written by Naomi Judd and Mike Reid.

Week ending 3/5/11: #1 singles this week in country music history

1951: There’s Been A Change In Me — Eddy Arnold (RCA)

1961: Don’t Worry — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1971: I’d Rather Love You — Charley Pride (RCA)

1981: Are You Happy Baby — Dottie West (Liberty)

1991: Walk On Faith — Mike Reid (Columbia)

2001: You Shouldn’t Kiss Me Like This — Toby Keith (DreamWorks Nashville)

2011: Who Are You When I’m Not Looking — Blake Shelton (Reprise)

Week ending 2/26/11: #1 singles this week in country music history

1951: There’s Been A Change In Me — Eddy Arnold (RCA)

1961: Don’t Worry — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1971: Help Me Make It Through The Night — Sammi Smith (Mega)

1981: Southern Rains — Mel Tillis (Elektra)

1991: Walk On Faith — Mike Reid (Columbia)

2001: But For The Grace Of God — Keith Urban (Capitol)

2011: Someone Else Calling You Baby — Luke Bryan (Capitol)