My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Montgomery Gentry

Album Review: Dillon Carmichael – ‘Hell On An Angel’

20-something newcomer Dillon Carmichael from Kentucky (a nephew of John Michael Montgomery and Montgomery Gentry’s Eddie Montgomery) has just released his much-anticipated debut album, produced by Dave Cobb for Riser House, an Sony-backed independent label. His family pedigree suggests a mixture of traditional, 90s country and a bit of southern rock, and that is exactly what you get. Dillon co-wrote 8 of the 10 tracks, but the real star here is his rich deep baritone voice.
Initially I was a bit disappointed that it omits last year’s fabulous ‘Old Songs Like That’, a wonderful steel-laced tribute to great country songs of the past which I strongly recommend downloading in its own right. Also jettisoned but available separately is ‘Made To Be A Country Boy’ from early this year, a nice relaxed reflection on the influence of his childhood on him.

The album opens rather unexpectedly with the sound of a tornado warning siren as Dillon then launches into ‘Natural Disaster’, a brooding lonesome ballad about life’s failures. Written by Anthony Smith and Chris Wallin, it is one of only two tracks not co-written by Dillon, but makes for a magisterial introduction. The other outside song, Jon Pardi co-write Country Women’ is a lyrically cliche’d country rock number.

The title track ventures further into southern rock territory on the theme of ‘Mama Tried’, and is really not my cup of tea. ‘Old Flame’, which Dillon did write and is in fact his only solo composition here, is a slow, bluesy number which builds into southern rock.

Much more to my taste, the lead single ‘It’s Simple’ is a pretty ballad about the simple pleasures of life. ‘Dancing Away With My Heart’ is a lovely love song which I liked a lot.

Dillon’s mother helped him write ‘Hard On A Hangover’. This is a very good song about a man’s sneaking round which is punished when his wife leaves him:

I woke to the sound of a door slam
She left her wedding ring on the nightstand
With a note that told me it was over
That girl sure is hard on a hangover

I then realized my new-found freedom
And I pawned the wedding rings ’cause I don’t need ’em
And I blew the cash down at the Whiskey Barrel
And then I headed to the house, my honky tonk special

And then I woke to the sound of a tow truck
She said, “That car’s in my name, so you’re out ofluck”
I thought when she left, it was over
That girl sure is hard on a hangover

Even better and more traditional is ‘That’s What Hank Would Do’, a presumably autobiographical song about the life of an aspiring country songwriter which becomes a tribute to Hank Williams, set to a deeply authentic arrangement. This is really wonderful:

I pulled into Nashville writin’ songs for the radio
But chasin’ a sound didn’t work
I had to stick to what I know
And then I asked myself
What would Hank do?
He’d say “In with the old and out with the new”

He’d shoot you straight like his whiskey
Put pedal steel on everything
Write a song with three chords and the truth
Make you believe it when he sings like he’s talkin’ straight to you
That’s what Hank would do

’Might Be A Cowboy’ is the reflective and convincingly sweet love song of a rodeo rider:

I might be a cowboy, but I’ll never ride away

The record closes with ‘Dixie Again’, a slow bluesy piano ballad about losing and finding oneself:

I lost my direction but I kept pushin’ on
Took a left at the right and a right at the wrong
I’ve shot for redemption and I missed every time
Got to get back to someplace south of the line

This is an impressive debut from an artist with a great voice and some strong country instincts.

Grade: A-

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Legends (and others) lost in 2017

For one who grew up on the country music of the period (1960-1975) the last few years have been tough as we have seen many legendary figures come to the end of the road. 2017 was no exception. Let’s take a look back with a few words about the various stars that were dimmed in 2017. I should note that I’ve included a few non-country personal favorites.

Junior Barber
, a fantastic dobro player died at the age of 73. He worked with the Gibson Brothers bluegrass for seven years and his son Mike has played bass for the Gibson Brothers for the last twenty-five years.

Chuck Berr
y, 90, was a pioneer of rock ‘n roll and while many would not regard him as country, Buck Owens thought that Berry wrote great country songs, and the bluegrass duo of Jim & Jesse McReynolds recorded an entire album of his songs (Chuck wrote the liner notes) so who am I to disagree with them?

Sonny Burgess, 88, rockabilly pioneer and early Sun Records artist. There is a younger country artist with the name Sonny Burgess, whom I don’t believe is related. This guy was a great on-stage performer.

Glen Campbell
, 81, singer and guitarist who first came to my attention as a session musician for Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys (with whom he sometimes toured). Glen, who died after a long bout with Alzheimer’s, could play anything with strings and could sing anything. My favorite tracks by him include “Galveston”, “Wichita Lineman”, “Wherefore and Why” and “I’m Gonna Love You”. Glen hosted a television show, appeared in movies and was simply one of the giants of the industry.

Antoine “Fats” Domino, 89, wasn’t a country singer but his music was infectious fun and enjoyed across the board. His hits were too numerous to list and many of them were covered by country singers.

Dave Evans, 65, had one of the best voices in bluegrass music being a great tenor singer, as well as being a good banjo player. It would be difficult to find another singer who sang with as much heart as Dave Evans.

Troy Gentry, 50, of Montgomery Gentry duo, died in a helicopter crash in Medford, New Jersey. I wasn’t a big Montgomery Gentry fan, but they had some good numbers and performed with enthusiasm.

Michael Johnson, 72, singer and guitarist whose country hits included “Give Me Wings” and “The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder”. Michael was a terrific acoustic guitar player and had a major pop/adult contemporary hit with “Bluer Than Blue”.

Pete Kuykendall, 79, banjo champion and editor and publisher of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. I have subscribed to Bluegrass Unlimited for many years and think it is the finest magazine in the world of music.

Miggie Lewis
, 91 was a part of the first family of bluegrass gospel, the Lewis Family. The group disbanded years ago but youngest brother “Little” Roy Lewis a dynamic banjo player, comic and personality who still plays the bluegrass festival circuit.

Sam Lovullo, 88, was the producer and casting director of the long-running Hee Haw TV series (1969-1992). If he was only remembered for Hee Haw that would be sufficient legacy, but his son Torey Lovullo played major league baseball for eight years and then became a major league manager (he was the National League Manager of The Year for 2017). I am not ashamed to admit that I watched Hee Haw every chance I had, and that I know dozens of verses to “Pffffft, You Were Gone”.

Geoff Mack, 94, composer of the tongue-twisting and widely recorded “I’ve Been Everywhere,” in his native Australia. The lyrics familiar to American listeners were not the original lyrics, but a rewritten version to reflect North American place names.

Kevin Mahogany, 59 was a brilliant jazz baritone singer. He appeared and performed in Robert Altman’s 1996 movie, Kansas City.

Jo Walker Meador, 93, as executive director built the Country Music Association from a tiny, ragged startup into one of the nation’s most visible and successful trade organizations. Jo is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, and I can make a pretty good case for her being one of the two or three most important women in the history of country music.

D.L. Menard, 85, singer and songwriter widely known as the “Cajun Hank Williams” and most celebrated for his 1962 recording of “La Porte en Arriere,”. He died in his native Louisiana.

Tom Paley
died in England at the age of 89. Tom was a founding member (along with Mike Seeger and John Cohen) of the New Lost City Ramblers, a group that did much to further the acceptance of bluegrass among folk audiences. I saw them once in 1962 and they were terrific.

Leon Rhodes, 85, was the lead guitarist for Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours and later played in the Grand Ole Opry and Hee Haw staff bands. He was also a successful session musician.

Kayton Roberts
, 83, steel guitarist in Hank Snow’s Rainbow Ranch Boys band from 1968 to 1999. His son Louie Roberts also had a career in country music.

Curley Seckler who died in late December at the age of 98, was one of the last links to the first generation of bluegrass musicians, having performed with Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs. Curley was old enough to remember Jimmie Rodgers and the Original Carter family being played on the radio. He also appeared on several segments of the Marty Stuart Show on RFD.

There was nothing country about Keely Smith, 89, but she was a fine singer with a terrific comedic touch. Her act with ex-husband Louis Prima played to packed houses in Las Vegas for the better part of a decade.

Tammy Sullivan died at the much too young age of 52, of cancer. Tammy was a marvelous singer best known for her work with the Sullivan Family, a bluegrass gospel band.

Wendy Thatcher, 69, was a formidable singer who is best remembered for her years with Eddie Adcock’s various bands.

Mel Tillis, 85, songwriter, singer, actor, comedian and member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, died in Ocala, Florida. Mel first came to prominence as a songwriter, with early efforts becoming hits for the likes of Webb Pierce and Ray Price during the early 1960s. It would be a decade before his career as a performer went into overdrive, but when it did he racked up many hits and won the CMA Entertainer of the Year Award. I liked many of his songs but my favorite is “Would You Want The World To End (Not Loving Me)”. I saw Mel live on several occasions.

Don Warden, 87, was a former steel guitar player in Porter Wagoner’s band and subsequently Dolly Parton’s manager. You can sometimes catch Don in RFD’s reruns of the Porter Wagoner Show.

Don Williams, 78, was a singer and songwriter who regularly topped the country charts during the 1970s and ’80s. Starting out with the folk-country Pozo Seco Singers, Don’s solo career made him an international star and landed him in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Norro Wilson, 79, producer, songwriter and former recording artist, whose hit compositions included George Jones’ “The Grand Tour” and Charlie Rich’s “The Most Beautiful Girl,” died in Nashville.

Bob Wooton
, 75, Johnny Cash’s lead guitar player from 1968 until Cash’s retirement in 1997, died in Gallatin, Tennessee. Bob was the replacement for Luther Perkins.

Breaking News: RIP Troy Gentry (1967-2017)

It’s a sad day for country music. In addition to the passing of Don Williams, Troy Gentry, who was half of the duo Montgomery Gentry, was killed today in a helicopter accident. You can read about it here.

Montgomery Gentry made their chart debut in 1999 and were inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 2009.

Week ending 7/15/17: #1 singles this week in country music history

1957 (Sales): Bye Bye Love — The Everly Brothers (Cadence)

1957 (Disc Jockeys): Four Walls — Jim Reeves (RCA)

1967: All The Time — Jack Greene (Decca)

1977I’ll Be Leaving Alone — Charley Pride (RCA)

1987: All My Ex’s Live In Texas — George Strait (MCA)

1997: It’s Your Love — Tim McGraw with Faith Hill (Curb)

2007: Lucky Man — Montgomery Gentry (Columbia)

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

2017 (Airplay): Every Time I Hear That Song — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)

Week ending 7/8/17: #1 singles this week in country music history

1957 (Sales): A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation) — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1957 (Disc Jockeys): Four Walls — Jim Reeves (RCA)

1967: All The Time — Jack Greene (Decca)

1977That Was Yesterday — Donna Fargo (Warner Bros.)

1987: That Was a Close One — Earl Thomas Conley (RCA)

1997: It’s Your Love — Tim McGraw with Faith Hill (Curb)

2007: Lucky Man — Montgomery Gentry (Columbia)

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

2017 (Airplay): God, Your Mama, and Me — Florida Georgia Line ft. The Backstreet Boys (Republic Nashville)

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Somewhere In The Night’

When discussing country music released in the late 1980s, it’s almost customary to frame it within the context of the new traditionalist movement. But it’s easy to overlook the fact that not every artist releasing albums at that time adhered to the sound ushered in by Randy Travis on Storms of Life. Acts like Alabama, K.T. Oslin, Rosanne Cash and others were sticking with the pop-country sound that had dominated the better part of the decade. These artists were not only going against the trend, they were dominating at radio alongside everyone else.

You can easily add Sawyer Brown to this category, as well. Their fourth album, Somewhere In The Night, arrived in May 1987 under the direction of Ron Chancey. He had taken over for Randy Scruggs who wouldn’t produce a Sawyer Brown album until The Boys Are Back, two years later. Many know Chancey’s son Blake from his notable production work with David Ball, Dixie Chicks, Montgomery Gentry and Gretchen Wilson in the 1990s-2000s.

Sawyer Brown wasn’t exactly dominating at this point in their career. When Somewhere In The Night was released, the band was on a streak of six consecutive singles missing the top 10. Their most recent, “Savin’ The Honey for the Honeymoon” has petered out at #58. They needed a reverse in fortunes, and while this wasn’t the album to get them there, it did give them a slight reprieve with radio.

The title track, co-written by Don Cook and Rafe VanHoy, had originally appeared on the Oak Ridge Boys classic Fancy Free six years earlier. Sawyer Brown’s version retains a 1980s sheen, complete with dated harmonies and synth piano, but is otherwise an excellent and restrained ballad. The track peaked at #29.

The album’s biggest success came when second single “This Missin’ You Heart of Mine” peaked at #2. The ballad, co-written by Mike Geiger and Woody Mullis, is a wonderful example of the other side of late 1980s country music. While it might sound a bit dated today, the production is nicely restrained with Chancey framing their harmonies beautifully.

Kix Brooks, Kenneth Beal, and Bill McClelland are responsible for the album’s final single, “Old Photographs,” which stalled at #27. The lush ballad isn’t a strong one, a bit of filler that never would’ve made it as a single in any other era.

“In This Town,” co-written by Tom Shapiro and Michael Garvin, would’ve made a fantastic choice for a single, and probably would’ve sailed up the charts behind “This Missin’ You Heart of Mine.” Everything about the ballad is on point, from the melody to the harmonies.

Somewhere In The Night contains its share of uptempo material, so it’s curious why the label didn’t see fit to break the ballad fatigue with one of these tracks. Two such songs were solely penned by Dennis Linde. “Dr. Rock N. Roll” is a slice of catchy slick pop while “Lola’s Love” is a nice dose of country-rock. The latter is the better song, and as a single for Ricky Van Shelton from his 1994 album Love and Honor, it peaked at #62. Linde also wrote “Still Life In Blue,” a mid-tempo ballad with dated accents of synth-pop.

The percussion-heavy “Little Red Caboose” was written by Steve Gibson and Dave Loggins and recorded by Lee Greenwood on his 1985 release, Love Will Find Its Way To You. The results are catchy and brimming with personality.

“Still Hold On” was originally released by its co-writer Kim Carnes in 1981 and Kenny Rogers in 1985. The ballad soars, thanks to Mark Miller’s vocal, which is an outstanding example of pathos that hints at the gravitas he would bring to the band’s 1990s hits “All These Years” and “Treat Her Right.”

The final track, “A Mighty Big Broom” was written solely by Miller. It’s the album’s most adventurous track, with a rock-leaning arrangement and a silly lyric.

When approaching Somewhere In The Night, I fully expected not to be able to pick out the Sawyer Brown I know from this set of songs. I came to the band like all my country music, in 1996, long after “The Walk” had revolutionized their sound and grounded them with depth and substance. So I was surprised I could hear subtle hints of what the band would eventually become, on this album. It’s a stellar project through and through, with a nice batch of above average material.

Grade: A

Week ending 10/17/15: #1 singles this week in country music history

image1955 (Sales): The Cattle Call/The Kentuckian Song — Eddy Arnold (RCA)

1955 (Jukebox): I Don’t Care — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Disc Jockeys): I Don’t Care — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1965: Behind The Tear — Sonny James (Capitol)

1975: Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain — Willie Nelson (Columbia)

1985: Meet Me In Montana — Marie Osmond with Dan Seals (Capitol/Curb)

1995: I Like It, I Love It — Tim McGraw (Curb)

2005: Something To Be Proud Of — Montgomery Gentry (Columbia)

2015: Strip It Down — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

2015 (Airplay): Save It For a Rainy Day — Kenny Chesney (Blue Chair/Columbia)

Week ending 10/10/15: #1 singles this week in country music history

3083681a48b5595e5d698891a99a8c9f1955 (Sales): The Cattle Call/The Kentuckian Song — Eddy Arnold (RCA)

1955 (Jukebox): I Don’t Care — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Disc Jockeys): I Don’t Care — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1965: Behind The Tear — Sonny James (Capitol)

1975: Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain — Willie Nelson (Columbia)

1985: Lost in the Fifties Tonight (In The Still of the Night) — Ronnie Milsap (RCA)

1995: I Like It, I Love It — Tim McGraw (Curb)

2005: Something To Be Proud Of — Montgomery Gentry (Columbia)

2015: Strip It Down — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

2015 (Airplay): Save It For a Rainy Day — Kenny Chesney (Blue Chair/Columbia)

Album Review: Tracy Byrd – ‘The Truth About Men’

truthaboutmenBy 2003, Tracy Byrd was struggling to remain commercially viable so he and co-producer Billy Joe Walker, Jr. took a three-pronged approach for his RCA swan song,The Truth About Men, which combines the neotraditional sounds for which he had become well known with more contemporary material and a pair of novelty songs that they hoped would allow them to further capitalize on the success of the prior year’s #1 hit “Ten Rounds with Jose Cuervo”.

First out of the box was the tongue-in-cheek but blatantly honest title track that bravely declares how men (allegedy) really feel: “We ain’t wrong, we ain’t sorry, and it’s probably gonna happen again.” Written by Paul Overstreet with Rory Lee Feek and Tim Johnson, and with guest vocals provided by Andy Griggs, Blake Shelton and Montgomery Gentry, “The Truth About Men” didn’t reach the lofty heights of “Ten Rounds with Jose Cuervo”, peaking at #13. And no doubt everyone involved had some explaining to do to their wives. Novelty tunes tend to wear thin after repeated listenings, but this is a fun song that I’ve always enjoyed. The follow-up single, “Drinkin’ Bone”, which is one part novelty tune and one part party song, fared much better. It landed at #7, marking the last time that Byrd would chart inside the Top 10. Playing it safe and pandering to radio’s growing interest in less substantive songs, RCA released the Carribbean-flavored “How’d I Wind Up In Jamaica”. The production is a bit cluttered on this one and by the time of its release, Byrd was on his way out at RCA, so the single received little promotion and stalled at #53. A missed opportunity was the Rodney Crowell composition “Making Memories of Us”, which should have been released as a single. Byrd’s version is much better than the version Keith Urban took to #1 two years later.

The rest of the album is a mixed bag. The steamy “You Feel Good” is my least favorite song on the album. I admit to being put off by the reference to Byrd sleeping in the nude in the opening line, and that made me really not want to listen much to the rest of the song, but the real problem is that it requires a more soulful performance than Byrd delivers. Conway Twitty could probably have made this song work. “That’s What Keeps Her Getting By” and “When You Go” are attempts to move along with the musical times but both are forgettable filler, as is the power ballad “Somewhere I Wanna Go”. On the other hand, I quite enjoyed the Keith Stegall-penned “Tiny Town” and “Baby Put Your Clothes On”, which was written by Paul Overstreet, Bill Anderson, and Buddy Cannon. Not surprisingly, Byrd is at his best when he’s singing more traditional songs.

The album closes with a live version of “Ten Rounds with Jose Cuervo”, which not surprisingly works well in a concert setting.

The Truth About Men marks the end of the major-label phase of Tracy Byrd’s career. It was a modest success, peaking at #5 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart but it failed to earn gold certification. It isn’t his very best work, but it contains enough worthwhile songs to warrant purchasing a cheap used copy.

Grade: B

Week ending 7/5/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

vern1954 (Sales): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Jukebox): Slowly — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): Even Tho — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1964: My Heart Skips A Beat — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1974: Room Full of Roses –Mickey Gilley (Playboy)

1984: I Can Tell By The Way You Dance (You’re Gonna Love Me Tonight) — Vern Gosdin (Compleat)

1994: Wink — Neal McCoy (Atlantic)

2004: If You Ever Stop Loving Me — Montgomery Gentry (Columbia)

2014: : Play It Again — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

2014 (Airplay): Lettin’ The Night Roll — Justin Moore (Valory)

ACM Award predictions

The Academy of Country Music is announcing its annual awards live on TV on Sunday. Here are our predictions and hopes for the ceremony:

Entertainer of the Year

Jason Aldean
Kenny Chesney
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton
Taylor Swift

Jonathan: First off, let the Carrie Underwood backlash begin. And end. I agree with the fans who love her, but she didn’t make enough of a splash in 2011 to be considered here. At least you need to release a solo single. I agree with this list as it features most of the big players in country music right now. I would’ve included Zac Brown Band here as musicianship should win out over star power. But I can’t say any of these artists don’t deserve it from a numbers perspective.
Will Win: Taylor Swift – it’s still a fan voted award and she has the largest fan base for these kinds of contests.
Should Win: Blake Shelton – not because of his radio hits but because he’s the only one here to ascend to the next level in 2011. He makes country music look cool on The Voice, too. He may not have a strong catalog of singles but we could do far worse in Hollywood’s ideal of country music.

OH: I think I would also lean to Blake Shelton here. Chesney, Aldean and Swift have all had bigger tours and more impressive sales, but Blake has been representing country music to a mass audience thanks to his TV exposure. However, this being a fan-voted category, I think Taylor Swift will be Sunday’s winner, with only the fast-rising rocker Jason Aldean likely to challenge.

Razor X: Taylor Swift has this one in the bag, as it’s fan voted again this year.

Note: Voting is still open for anyone who wants to make their contribution. Read more of this post

Single Review: Terri Clark – ‘Girls Lie Too’

One of Terri’s biggest hit singles never appeared on a studio album, but was one of the new tracks included to persuade fans to purchase a Greatest Hits compilation in 2004. It can now also be downloaded individually. It was her second #1, but sadly her last really big hit single.

Answer songs have a long tradition in country music, but have fallen out of favor in the past 20 years. But at least thematically, this hit single was definitely an answer song to Tracy Byrd’s hilarious 2003 hit ‘The Truth About Men’ (written by Paul Overstreet, Rory Lee Feek and Tim Johnson), which revealed some of the white lies employed to keep gender relations on an even keel within a romantic relationship.

Written by Connie Harrington, Kelley Lovelace and Tim Nichols, this sardonic response putting the feminine point of view is a bit heavy-handed in comparison, and has a less interesting tune and rather loud production. Where the original didn’t take itself altogether seriously, but combined a self-deprecating sense of fun with a grain of truth which most men and women would recognise, this song feels as though it is trying a little too hard to prove a point. Terri’s energetic and committed vocal helps to sell the song, perhaps better than anyone else could have done, but despite being one of her biggest radio successes, it is not one of her best moments on record.

Byrd’s record recruited Blake Shelton, Andy Griggs and Montgomery Gentry to help out, and perhaps Terri’s song would have worked better with a similar playful chorus of female stars.

Grade: B

But the song at amazon.

CMA award nominees, 2010: setting the stage

It’s awards time again, with this year’s CMA awards being announced next week. We’ll share our predictions on Monday, but meanwhile here’s a reminder of who is nominated and why. The nominations this year have a few new faces showing up in unexpected places. The big questions of this year’s show will be whether Miranda Lambert will dominate the night as she has the nominations list. Whatever happens, outraged fans are likely to complain that their favorite has been “snubbed”, or someone else has won undeservedly.

Entertainer of the Year
Lady Antebellum
Miranda Lambert
Brad Paisley
Keith Urban
Zac Brown Band

Last year’s controversial winner Taylor Swift was snubbed altogether in this category this year – perhaps partly because of the backlash after her clean sweep last time, but also because she released little during the nomination period. Instead, the category sees no less than three first-time nominees: critical flavor of the month Miranda Lambert (who leads nominations overall), and the two hottest bands of recent years, Lady Antebellum and the Zac Brown Band, who are among the few current artists to be selling in the millions. They join Keith Urban (the only former winner to be in the running this time) and our own current Spotlight Artist Brad Paisley, who has been nominated every year since 2005 but is so far without the trophy.

Male Vocalist
Dierks Bentley
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton
George Strait
Keith Urban

Brad Paisley has won this award for the past three years, and Keith Urban took it home for the three years prior to that. Both men are still scoring regular #1 hit singles and selling well, but is it time for another change at the top? There are two first-time nominees, Dierks Bentley, rewarded by the CMA for his artistic ambition even though country radio has been reluctant to embrace the singles from his bluegrass-inspired Up On The Ridge, and Blake Shelton, who is becoming a regular fixture at the top of the charts. The evergreen George Strait, meanwhile, seems to be nominated virtually every year, but hasn’t won since 1998 (his third year in a row – he also has a couple of trophies from the 80s).

Female Vocalist
Miranda Lambert
Martina McBride
Reba McEntire
Taylor Swift
Carrie Underwood

Last year’s winner Taylor Swift gets another nod, recognizing her commercial preeminence despite a series of woeful live TV performances – including at last year’s CMA awards show. She faces pop-country queen Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert, who had a massive breakthrough this year, and is the only one of these ladies to be nominated in the Entertainer category. Reba McEntire, the oldest nominee, is still contending on the charts, but the fifth nominee, Martina McBride, seems to be merely filling out the category, as she has not had a good year commercially or critically.

Read more of this post

The truth behind the music

A few pieces of news struck me last week. Apparently the new biography of Buck Owens paints him as a sometime-unscrupulous businessman, and Sugarland lead singer Jennifer Nettles’ comments on former band member Kristen Hall’s contributions to the band make her sound more than a little arrogant. A little earlier in the week, John Berry admitted to having been “a rude and arrogant individual who wasn’t much of a team player, I’m afraid. It was my own fault that they dumped me off the label”. Much as I would like to believe all my favorite artists are nice people, I fear he is unlikely to have been unique.

So that conjunction led me to think about how our perception of an artist’s personality affects our appreciation of their music. My gut reaction was that art is not an aspect of morality, but thinking about it more seriously -and honestly – it is a more complex issue. For me, it depends in part on how much I liked the music to start with.

Both George Jones and Keith Whitley were destructive alcoholics who must have been very difficult to live with in real life. Knowing that does not affect my love of their often sublime music at all. George in particular actually used his alcoholism to create great music many times, in classic songs like ‘A Drunk Can’t Be A Man’, right up to ‘Ol’ George Stopped Drinking Today’. After he sobered up he even felt able to refer back jokingly to that period in songs like ‘No Show Jones’ and the video for ‘Honky Tonk Song’.

In contrast, I’ve never been able to think kindly of Troy Gentry since the tame bear-killing incident. But I was never a big fan of Montgomery Gentry to start with – I quite liked some of their singles but they never made it to my purchase list. Their chart success does not seem to have been much affected by the controversy – unlike the reaction of some Dixie Chicks fans to their political storm.

It has been suggested that Sara Evans’ messy divorce contributed to her slowing career in the last few years, and the breakdown of LeAnn Rimes’ marriage, and that of her new boyfriend, has attracted a lot of online opprobrium. Only a minority of country stars seem to find divorce hurts them professionally; perhaps it depends on the level of publicity, and who is perceived to be at fault, or perhaps it depends partly on their fans’ level of investment in their public persona?

Country music is so often rooted in real experience that sympathising with an artist’s real-life tribulations often feeds into our appreciation of their music – think of Loretta Lynn’s autobiographical songs about living with a philandering husband and Tammy Wynette’s many tales of marital breakdown which mirrored her own chequered marital career. There is an added frisson listening to Vern Gosdin’s deeply sad Alone album knowing it was largely inspired by the collapse of his marriage. Hearing that an artist wrote a particular love song for his or her spouse (for instance, when Trace Adkins wrote ‘The Rest Of Mine’ for his wedding) often makes it strike home with a little more emotional force. But then if the relationship fails, does the song stand on its own? I confess personally to finding Vince Gill’s ‘I Still Believe In You’ less resonant as a love song after he left his first wife (for whom it had been written) – but my own reaction is also colored by that song’s conection for me with a failed relationship of my own. Many years later, I can appreciate the song’s beauty again in its own right.

In parallel with these thougts about whether an artist’s bad behavior affects how their music is perceived, I have noticed that many younger fans appear to believe that their special favorite should be immune from criticism because of that artist’s sterling character. Personally, I think being either a nice person or a total jerk does not affect musical ability – although either may conceivably limit someone’s ability to convey a full range of emotions in a song. But what we know about the background does often affect us, sometimes subliminally.

What do you think? Have you ever soured on an artist because of their offstage actions?

ACM Awards: My Kind Of Country’s predictions

It’s award time again, with the Academy of Country Music due to hand out its trophies for achievements during 2009 on Sunday April 18. Here are our predictions of the likely winners:

ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR
This category is fan-voted this year (as it has been for the last couple of years). This year, though, the number of nominees has been substantially increased.

Kenny Chesney
Toby Keith
Brad Paisley
George Strait
Taylor Swift: our unanimous pick
Carrie Underwood
Keith Urban
Zac Brown Band

Occasional Hope: Fan-voted. No further comment required.
Razor X: Since this is a fan-voted award, the only two serious contenders are Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. Underwood won last year, and since Swift has had a more successful year, I’m going to predict that the momentum is in her favor.
J.R. Journey: I think she’s ahead of the pack in this race by a large enough margin to safely call her the early winner. With it being fan-voted yet again, Taylor’s younger, internet-savvy fan-base would give her the edge even if she didn’t already have it.
Meg: Taylor will get it due to fan voting, and it’s not as though she hasn’t worked equally hard as the other nominees, or harder.

TOP MALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR
Kenny Chesney
Brad Paisley: J.R., Meg
Darius Rucker: Occasional Hope
George Strait: Razor X

Keith Urban

Meg: Brad’s got this one. He’s come into his own as a performer, writer, and entertainer with great musicianship and great vocals.
J.R.: Major tours, a critically acclaimed album and an impressive run of chart-topping singles are just Brad’s commercial qualifications for his victory here. When he wants to be, he’s also a mighty fine statesman and torch-bearer for traditional country.
Razor: After three consecutive wins in this category for Brad Paisley, I’m guessing that the Academy will want to give this award to someone else this year. Urban is the only serious competition.
OH: If Darius wins it will be seen as a surprise victory, but I think he just could get it. He does have an interesting tone, has scored some big radio hits, and sold exceptionally well. And it all seems to be about commercial impact these days. Plus, you need at least one surprise at any award show.

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Decade in Review: Occasional Hope’s Top 50 Singles

Inevitably, anyone’s list of their favorite singles of the decade is going to be more mainstream-oriented than one of the best albums over the same period, just because independent artists are less likely to get their singles played on radio, and they tend to release fewer. My list doesn’t consist solely of hits, but a good proportion did get the success they deserved.

50. I Still Miss Someone – Martina McBride featuring Dolly Parton.
Martina recruited Dolly Parton to sing harmonies on her cover of this Johnny Cash classic on her Timeless album in 2006. It didn’t appeal to country radio, but it is a lovely recording.

49. How Do You Like Me Now?! – Toby Keith
The only song where Toby Keith managed to exercise his giant ego yet seem appealing at the same time. This #1 hit from 2000 is meanspirited but somehow irresistible. The video’s a bit heavy-handed, though.

48. I Hope You Dance – Lee Ann Womack
The enormous crossover success of Lee Ann’s signature song in 2000 set her on the wrong path musically for a while, but that doesn’t detract from the song itself, a lovely touching offering to LeeAnn’s daughter, featuring additional vocals from the Sons of the Desert.

47. You Shouldn’t Kiss Me Like This – Toby Keith
Toby is a very hit-and-miss artist for me, but he makes his second apearance in this list with my favorite of his singles, the tender realization on the dancefloor that a friend might be turning into a romantic interest. It was another #1 hit, this time in 2001. It has another terribly conceived video, though.

46. The Truth About Men – Tracy Byrd
Tracy Byrd recruited Blake Shelton, Andy Griggs and Montgomery Gentry to sing on this comic song about gender differences. Of course it’s not universally true – but it’s quite true enough to be funny. The single was a #13 hit in 2003, and is one of the few singles of recent years to inspire an answer song – Terri Clark’s ‘Girls Lie Too’, which was an even bigger hit the following year but has worn less well.

45. I Wish – Jo Dee Messina
Jo Dee Messina’s glossy pop-country was very accomplished but not always to my taste. But I did love this relatively subdued ballad which appeared only on her Greatest Hits album in 2003, and reached #15 on Billboard, with its neat twist as the protagonist bravely wishes her ex best, before admitting, “I wish you still loved me”.

44. Does My Ring Burn Your Finger – Lee Ann Womack
This biting reproach to a cheating spouse, written by Buddy and Julie Miller, was the best moment on Lee Ann’s bigselling I Hope You Dance. It was the least successful single from it, however, only reaching #23 in 2001.

43. Long Black Train – Josh Turner
Josh is one of the few traditionally oriented artists currently on a major label, although he has often recorded material which is not quite worthy of his resonant deep voice. His debut single was a heavily allusive religious song about sin which, although it only got to #13 in 2003, really established him as a star.

42. One More Day – Diamond Rio
A #1 hit from 2001 about bereavement and longing for more time with the loved one who has been lost, this touching song has heartfelt vocals and lovely harmonies from one of the best groups in country music over the past 20 years.

41. Another Try – Josh Turner and Trisha Yearwood
A classy ballad about hoping for better luck in love from two of the best mainstream singers around, this reached #15 in 2008, but should have been a #1.

40. I Still Sing This Way – Daryle Singletary
In 2002 Daryle had a single out called ‘That’s Why I Sing This Way’ (written by Max D Barnes) declaring himself a real country singer (“Mama whupped me with a George Jones record, that’s why I sing this way”). Five years later Daryle himself co-wrote this sequel, which I like even more, as he looks wryly at the music industry’s demands for glitz and glamor. He tells his manager he’s fine with a change of image – but he can’t change the way he sings.

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Album Review: Brooks and Dunn – ‘Tight Rope’

Tight RopeThe duo’s sixth studio album, 1999’s Tight Rope, saw them in bit of a rut. After a string of multi-platinum sellers, this album remains their only studio effort to date (apart from their latest, Cowboy Town) not to be classified platinum, and none of the three singles was a really big hit. Each of the previous albums had elicited five singles, with all but two making the top ten, with a good proportion hitting the top of the charts, until ‘South of Santa Fe’ had faltered outside the top 40 just before the release of Tight Rope. Poor Kix never got another single released after this catastrophic failure.

This really is an album of two halves. Not only did Kix and Ronnie divide the vocal leads fairly evenly, they contributed six songs each as writers, each singing lead on his own songs, with Ronnie also getting a bonus cover. Furthermore, although the duo are credited as co-producers throughout, one suspects this was a matter of courtesy. Kix’s tracks were co-produced by old friend Don Cook, but Ronnie’s were co-produced by Byron Gallimore at another studio. All the singles came from Ronnie’s half. As a whole the album sounds their most pop-influenced to date.

Only three singles came from Tight Rope, and the first two failed to crack the top 10. ‘Missing You’, a 1980s pop cover, reached #15. The arrangement may have been a little too pop for country radio, with its whispery call-and-response background vocals, but Ronnie’s lead vocal is excellent. The cheerful rocked-up honky tonker ‘Beer Thirty’ barely squeaked into the top 20, despite being in the same vein as many of their past successes, and the chart failure of this must have been a shock. The big declaration of love ballad ‘You’ll Always Be Loved By Me’, their only single released in the year 2000, deservedly did better, reaching #5. This was the song which provided the album title, from the line “trust is a tightrope we all have to walk”.

Ronnie is in great voice on this album. The brooding ballad ‘Hurt Train’ and the sad ‘All Out Of Love’ have a slightly pop feel, but are very well sung. ‘Goin’ Under Gettin’ Over You’, which opens the set is a fairly brisk number about getting resigned to heartbreak, which might have been better with a more subdued vocal. It did actually get a small amount of unsolicited radio airplay.

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Spotlight Artist: Brooks & Dunn

brooks & dunnIn addition to hosting the show in 2004-2006, Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn are also the two winningest artists in CMA Awards history. As a duo, they have collected 18 trophies, a tie with Vince Gill. But Ronnie Dunn’s solo win in 2006 for ‘Believe’ as Song of the Year tipped his total wins to a very impressive 19 total, making him the artist with the most CMA Awards. Brooks & Dunn have also won more accolades from the Academy of Country Music than any other artist in the organization’s history, as well as countless awards from Billboard, the American Music Awards, as well as two Grammy’s.  But all this came only after two unlikely partners were put together by one shrewd record executive.  Ronnie Dunn and Kix Brooks had been paying dues for years to reach that level of superstardom.

A teenager from a long line of church dignitaries, Ronnie Dunn first believed his true calling was in preaching the word of God around the West. He began attending Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas in 1974. It wasn’t long before his desire to play music took over and the psychology major soon found himself fronting a band playing clubs around the Abilene area. This wasn’t looked upon favorably by the University, who gave Dunn an ultimatum: stop appearing the clubs or leave the school. Ronnie Dunn soon moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he played for several years, honing his songwriting and singing in the smoky Oklahoma dives. It was after winning a singing competition sponsored by Marlboro that Dunn became serious about his music career and moved to Nashville.

Leon ‘Kix’ Brooks began his life in Shreveport, Louisiana, surrounded by the honky-tonk sounds of the Louisiana Hayride and the Cajun music scene. It was Kix’s neighbor, Johnny Horton – who died when Kix was just a boy – that he learned to appreciate country music and dream about what he could achieve. Seeing all the gold records and awards Horton has acquired set a fire inside the young man to do the same, and he was soon performing with Horton’s daughter, Nina. After brief stints in Alaska and Maine, working various trade jobs, Kix returned to Nashville in the early 1980s at the urging of his father. Kix would spend the rest of the 1980s as a staff songwriter for Tree Publishing before releasing a solo album on Capitol Records in 1989, which didn’t yield any success.

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Single Review: Montgomery Gentry – ‘Long Line of Losers’

montgomery_gentryDriving home late from work the other day, I heard a song on the radio and I was shocked — it sounded country! I heard some wonderful dobro work and what sounded like Montgomery Gentry, and I recognized it as their new single, “Long Line Of Losers”. Even further, I liked the song! Coming off their induction into the Opry, this single is one of their most country sounding singles yet.

Their last single, “One In Every Crowd,” was an annoying repeat song that I hated, so I was surprised to like this one. There have been a lot of singles about family misdeeds (“Family” by LeAnn Rimes, just to name one) and it can be difficult to make the idea sound fresh, but Montgomery Gentry pulls it off here. The anecdotes about their fictional family are amusing from the moonshining grandpa to the mom that was sleeping with the preacher. The narrator admits his family is messed up. Then he admits his family made him the way he is, and he sounds proud of it. It sounds good, with a good melody and lyrics that give a great sense of family pride.

Nobody’s family is perfect and while nobody has a family quite like this, it’s an easily relatable song that gives people pride in their own family’s imperfections. It’s also believable coming from Montgomery Gentry, even though the song was written and performed by Kevin Fowler for a while. This song is sure to be a hit, and for once it may deserve the success it gets.

Grade: B+

Written by: Kevin Fowler and Kim Tribble

Listen here at Last.fm.

Single Review: Sugarland – ‘Joey’

SUGARLAND1Sugarland seems to be easing into their role as country’s new “it duo”, slowly but surely edging out Brooks & Dunn and Montgomery Gentry via both album sales and radio success (Don’t believe me? Check out Country Universe’s Album Sales Update). They make random videos for non-singles (“Love”), don’t release any video for their latest chart-topper (“It Happens”) and they perform whatever song they want to on every awards show (“What I’d Give”). It’s like they don’t even have to promote their singles anymore, they just do whatever they want and are successful. Unlike fellow singers Kenny Chesney and Carrie Underwood, they really have the material that I feel deserves this success.

Now we know their upcoming single, “Joey” will be a success hot on the heels of three #1 hits, but is it any good? Well it’s a little bit of a mixed bag. The premise of the song is a good idea, of all the questions one asks when a loved one dies, wondering what could have happened differently:

What if I said yes?
What if I’d gone out that night?
What if you turned left, and everything would’ve turned out alright?
What if I spoke up?
What if I took the keys?
What if I had tried a little harder, instead of always trying to please?

The lyrics get a little repetitive but they get across the point, all the “what if”s that follow a tragedy. It’s an interesting concept and a cool way of not spelling out what happened. From what I can gather, Joey is the boyfriend of the narrator, and he dies in a car accident, possibly from being drunk and driving, but it’s not clear. One problem appears: it’s too vague. The writing of the song doesn’t tell us major details of what happened, we just get the grief of the narrator! We get little pieces of the story, but not all of it. Luckily this single should get a music video to illustrate more, but that really shouldn’t be necessary.

Unfortunately this song is a little repetitive with a chorus that gets the message across, but a little too simplistically. At the end of the song where it breaks down into “Joey/I’m sooooooo sooooorry…” over and over again, which is a little too much repetition for me. Luckily, the verses are meant to be the showcase of the song, not the chorus so it’s not a huge problem, but it’s still there.

Sonically, I love this song. Jennifer sings wonderfully with a less pronounced accent, and the pain of her performance really shines through. Unlike “Already Gone”, this song has a lot of harmony from Kristian, and it really works. The production is just right, with a great melody accentuated by the plucking guitar and medium drums in the background- just a great sounding song all together.

This song is different enough from Sugarland’s past 3 singles in theme and mood to really show off the sadder side of Love On The Inside, now they just need to release “Very Last Country Song” next… (If you haven’t heard “Very Last Country Song” yet, hear it now, here) Whatever they do, they can’t go wrong with their next single unless they choose “What I’d Give”- but this song is still great.

Grade: B+

Written by: Bill Anderson, Kristian Bush and Jennifer Nettles

Listen to “Joey” here.