My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Monty Criswell

Album Review: Craig Morgan – ‘This Ole Boy’

91fn7FvtfDL._SX522_Craig Morgan took a four-year hiatus from recording after leaving BNA Records. He re-emerged in 2012 via Black River Entertainment with This Ole Boy. In theory, signing with an indie label would give him more independence to record the kind of music he wanted. In practice, however, there is nothing to really distinguish the album from what the major labels were putting out.

As with his last few releases, Morgan shared production duties with Phil O’Donnell. Morgan co-wrote half of the album’s songs. This Ole Boy spawned three singles, the most successful of which was the title track which peaked at # 13. “Corn Star” reached #50, which is far more than it deserved, and “More Trucks Than Cars” topped out at #38. The album itself reached #5 on the albums chart.

In a nutshell, with one or two exceptions, This Ole Boy is a collection of songs that range from bad to mediocre. There is only two tracks that I truly enjoyed: the Monty Criswell/Tim Mensy composition “Country Boys Like Me” and the closing number “Summer Moon”, a Morgan co-write with Chris Wallin. The rest of the album falls into the trap of trying to offer something for everyone, a type of approach that usually leaves all unsatisfied. “This Ole Boy” is a not bad, faced paced number that had previously been recorded by Joe Nichols. “More Trucks Than Cars” is a cliche-ridden laundry list of buzzwords that are typically associated with southern living — lazy songwriting at it worst. I can’t decide which of the two bro-country numbers is worse: “Corn Star” or “Show Me Your Tattoo”, but currently I am leaning towards the former. Morgan is a decent vocalist whose talent is wasted on garbage songs like those, and it’s particularly difficult to forgive these kinds of transgressions from more mature artists who surely ought to know better.

“The Whole World Needs a Kitchen” is not a bad song, but it lacks originality. The theme reminds me of Tracy Lawrence’s “If the World Had a Front Porch”, which was a much better song. “I Didn’t Drink” is an interesting number and one of the few moments of originality on the album: a man walks into a bar to drown his sorrows following a bad break-up but doesn’t know what to order because he is a teetotaler. It’s an interesting concept, but it doesn’t quite work — mainly because it’s performed as a pop-tinged power ballad. This kind of theme needs a more traditional treatment.

With only two really good songs, I can’t really recommend this album. It’s available for streaming on Amazon Music, and presumably other streaming services as well for those who want to give it a listen before buying.

Grade: C

Advertisements

Album Review: Eric Church – ‘Mr. Misunderstood’

MisunderstoodThere’s a quote from Marty Stuart that says the most rebellious thing you can do in Nashville is play actual country music. I’d go on to add that the second most rebellious thing you can do in Nashville is to record and release an album of your own volition on a major label without any executives getting in your way.

For his fifth album, the spellbinding Mr. Misunderstood, Eric Church was able to accomplish that second feat. In a handwritten letter published upon the album’s surprise release last November, he relayed a touching story about finding inspiration through a guitar his son had named late last summer and the music that poured out of it as a result. In a brisk 30 days, Church had recorded the ten tracks that would comprise the strongest mainstream country album of the decade thus far.

Mr. Misunderstood triumphs on the strength of Church’s willingness to mature as an artist and songwriter. He’s letting the music speak for itself, forgoing egotistical pretense, and highlighting Jay Joyce’s strength at elevating lyrical compositions without bombarding the audience with needless noise.

Nowhere is the pair more masterful then on “Knives of New Orleans,” the album’s blistering centerpiece. Written by Church, Travis Meadows and Jeremy Spillman, the song tells the tale of a fugitive wanted for a brutal murder he mercilessly committed without remorse:

Yeah, tonight, every man with a TV

Is seeing a man with my clothes and my face

In the last thirty minutes

I’ve gone from a person of interest

To a full-blown manhunt underway

 

I did what I did

I have no regrets

When you cross the line

You get what you get

 

Tonight, a bleeding memory

Is tomorrow’s guilty vein

Your auburn hair on a faraway sea wall

Screams across the Pontchartrain

I’m haunted by headlights

And a crescent city breeze

One wrong turn on Bourbon

Cuts like the knives of New Orleans

It’s far and away my favorite song on the project. I also equally adore Church’s solo-penned “Holdin’ My Own,” an unapologetic acoustic masterclass in introspection. In just under four minutes, he brilliantly traces his career trajectory and stands firm against anyone who wants a piece of him:

Always been a fighter scrapper and a clawer

Used up some luck in lawyers

Like Huck from Tom Sawyer jumped on my raft

And shoved off chasing my dreams

Reeling in big fishes

I had some hits a few big misses

I gave em hell and got a few stitches

And these days I show off my scars

 

With one arm around my baby

And one arm around my boys

A heart that’s still pretty crazy

And a head that hates the noise

If the world comes knockin

Tell em I’m not home

I’m finally holdin my own

 

I’ve burned up the fast lane

Dodging drugs and divorce

If I’m proof of anything

God sure loves troubadours

Sometimes late at night

I miss the smoke and neon

Sneak out of bed grab a six string

Play what’s still turnin me on

Like that tight old time rock n roll

Or that right down home country gold

I miss blues and soul

But not more than I miss being home

Also outstanding is “Three Year Old,” a tender ballad Church wrote about his son Boone with Casey Beathard and Monty Criswell. It follows “Holdin’ My Own” in showing a more mellow side of Church, the man behind the sunglasses and electric guitars. The trio relies on personal observances to frame the story:

Use every crayon color that you’ve got

A fishing pole sinks faster than a tackle box

Nothing turns a day around like licking a mixing bowl

I learned that from a three year old

 

A garbage can is a damn good spot to hide truck keys

Why go inside when you can go behind a tree?

Walking barefoot through the mud will knock the rust right off your soul

I learned that from a three year old

 

You can be a cowboy on the moon

Dig to China with a spoon

Talk to Jesus on the phone

Say “I love you” all day long

And when you’re wrong, you should just say so

I learned that from a three year old

Church balances the self-examination with some primed-for-radio hits. “Round Here Buzz” is about the self-destruction after she’s left the hometown he’s hell-bent on staying in. He’s also without his woman on “Record Year,” but instead of turning to alcohol he’s drowned his sorrows in a ‘three-foot stack of vinyl.’

On his last tour, Church won raves for including artistic-driven Roots and Americana artists as his opening acts. The mutual admiration continues with Rhiannon Giddens joining Church for powerful background vocals on “Kill A Word,” a slice of social commentary about destroying words that aren’t good for our society. “Mixed Drinks About Feelings” is a full-fledged duet with Susan Tedeschi that mixes blues and rock. It’s not my favorite track on the album, but it is very good.

I also have mixed emotions about “Mistress Named Music,” which Church also wrote with Beathard. The vibe of the track is very good, Church gives a powerful vocal performance and the use of organ wonderfully sets the tone for the moody ballad. I just don’t seem to go back to it that often. The same goes for “Chattanooga Lucy,” which I flat out don’t get. It’s easily the most esoteric track on the whole album. I don’t hate the title track, either, but it has grown repetitive on repeated listenings. That said, I fully stand behind the song’s message.

The only thing truly misunderstood about Church is the whole point of his musical journey over the past ten years. He hasn’t won any favors with country purists nor has he gone out of his way to please those put off by his egotism. But he has built a career on real music that bucks every trend. He stands out because he knows exactly what he’s doing.

Church isn’t dumb nor is he a maniac. At the end of the day he’s an authentic artist releasing his own music. He’s getting massive airplay for songs that shouldn’t even be breaking through at all. He’s the last real country singer standing in mainstream Nashville. He may have an edge, but he can stand tall with the best of them. Mr. Misunderstood proves that in spades.

Grade: A

Album Review: George Strait – ‘Cold Beer Conversation’

cold beer conversationAlbums these days are usually announced well in advance, with much anxious testing of the waters and delays if singles under-perform. So it was a big shock when George Strait suddenly released his new album on iTunes with just a few days’ notice. It is his first album since retiring from the road, although he simultaneously announced a short Vegas residency.

‘Let It Go’, the first single, sadly showed that country radio has moved on [from real country music] and there is no longer a place for the most consistent hitmaker of the past 35 years. A relaxed tune about taking life as it comes, it was written by Strait with son Bubba and Keith Gattis.

The same trio teamed up with old friend Dean Dillon to write one of the standout songs. ‘Everything I See’, a touching tribute to Strait’s late father John Byron Strait, who died in 2013. The tasteful production support the thoughtful lyrics. Dillon also wrote the gently philosophical defence of faith and optimism, ‘Even When I Can’t Feel It’, with Ben Hayslip and Lee Miller.

The title track, and new single, was written by Hayslip with Jimmy Yeary and Al Anderson, and is a nicely observed conversational number expressing more homespun philosophy. There is a delightful Western Swing confection (written by George and Bubba with Wil Nance and Bob Regan), ‘It Takes All Kinds’, on the theme of mutual tolerance.

Jamey Johnson contributed a couple of songs. The tongue-in-cheek jazzy ode to booze which is ‘Cheaper Than A Shrink’, written with Bill Anderson and Buddy Cannon, was previously recorded by Joe Nichols and is pretty good. Johnson’s other song here, written with Tom Shapiro, ‘Something Going Down’, is a gorgeously seductive and tender love song.

The gently regretful ‘Wish You Well’ is set on a Mexican island resort, with the protagonist set on drinking away his regrets over lost love.

The one real mis-step, ‘Rock Paper Scissors’, written by Bubba with Casey Beathard and Monty Criswell, has a loud rock arrangement which completely overwhelms George’s vocals on what might be a decent breakup song underneath the noise. The Keith Gattis song. ‘It Was Love’ is also over produced in terms of my personal taste, but that fact rather fits the lyrics, which deal with the overpowering nature of young love.

I really liked the mid-tempo ‘Goin’ Goin’ Gone’, a Gattis co-write with Wyatt Earp. It deals with partying over the weekend as a way to forget the protagonist can barely make ends meet on his weekly wage. A likeable bar room chorus adds to the everyman atmosphere:

I put in my forty and they take out way too much
The same old story, same old brown-bag homemade lunch
Might not be the big dream but I guess I can’t complain
It pays the rent but that’s about all that it pays…
Ain’t got no 401
Ain’t got no benefits
They don’t hand out stock options
Not down here in the pits
But I got Ol’ Glory hanging by my front porch light
Might not be the perfect world
But then again, it might

..
I’m overdue so throw it on the card
Bartender, keep it open
I’m just gettin’ started
Come Monday mornin’ I just might be overdrawn
But it’s Friday night so I’m goin’, goin’… gone

The mid-tempo ‘Stop And Drink’ is another celebration of drinking as a way of coping with the annoyances of everyday life.

‘Take Me To Texas’, written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, was originally recorded for the soundtrack to Texas Rising, a TV miniseries dramatising the Texan Revolution against Mexico in the 1830s. It works okay as a standalone song, expressing pride in the
protagonists’ Texas family roots.

Grade: A

Album Review: Billy Yates – ‘These Old Walls’

these old wallsSinger-songwriter Billy Yates has released his latest independent album. As usual, it consist entirely of his own songs.

Five of the songs involve veteran and onetime George Jones duet partner Melba Montgomery as co-writer. The steel-drenched title track sadly reminisces about a childhood home.

‘No Fool Like An Old Fool’ (written with Melba and Tommy Polk) is great , with a sardonic lyric about a cheating wife who thinks she’s getting away with it – but:

Late last night in your sleep
You whispered soft and low
You told me that you loved me –
I just wish my name was Joe

This trio also wrote ‘She’s Got A Heart’, a nice love song.

Billy and Melba were joined by Monty Criswell to write the semi-up-tempo ‘Fallin’ Over Myself’ which is pleasant but not all that memorable. I preferred their ‘It’s Just A Scratch’, in which he soothes the wounded pride of a lady who has been hurt in love.

Billy and Criswell teamed up with Lee Thomas Miller for a pair of songs. The relaxed ‘You Must Be Out Of Your Mind’ is a charming love song about love triumphing over poverty. The entertaining western swing ‘Zeros’ has the poor man rejected by the object of his affections, because:

You never will amount to much nohow

Miller and Billy wrote another couple together. He is torn about taking back an ex revisiting ‘Her Old Stompin’ Grounds’. The resigned ‘Carry On’ is about pretending to be over someone as a way of working towards really getting over her. Both are good songs.

‘Waiting For The World To Turn My Way’ was written with John Northrup. The perky tune about an optimistic attitude to a really bad day and a tough life, with sprightly honky tonk piano prominent in the mix, makes this thoroughly enjoyable.

The closing ‘That’s All She Wrote’, written with Bill Able, is a breakup song in which the departing lady writes goodbye in lipstick on the wall. It’s a clever idea but the key is a bit too low for Billy in places, taking him down into a less attractive timbre.

The only solo composition is the quietly religious ‘Potter’s Hands’.

This is another excellent collection of songs from an underrated singer-songwriter whose music is always reliably genuine country.

Grade: A

Album Review: Tracy Lawrence – ‘Tracy Lawrence’

tracy lawrenceAs the new millennium dawned, Tracy’s career hit another roadblock, this time one which was not self-inflicted: his label, Atlantic, closed its doors. He was transferred to sister label Warner Brothers for 2001’s self-titled release, but the move was not a longterm success. Tracy produced the album with longtime collaborator Flip Anderson, and there are no real surprises on offer.

I really like the single ‘Life Don’t Have To Be So Hard’, an encomium to a more relaxed way of life, set to a catchy melody. Unfortunately country radio was less enamored, and the song barely crept into the top 40. ‘What A Memory’, the only other single before Tracy departed Warner Bros, did even more poorly, although it is another fine song. A tearjerking ballad about a loving mother who dies far too young, it was written by Jeff Bates and Kenny Beard, and I found it moving.

The overriding theme on the album is one of maturity, learning from one’s mistakes and looking back with varying degrees of amusement and regret on the follies of youth.

‘I Won All The Battles’ is an excellent song, which Tracy wrote with Larry Boone and Paul Nelson. The protagonist realises too late that insisting to his wife he was right all the time was ultimately the cause of losing her love. It is by far the best of Tracy’s co-writes on this record. ‘Whole Lot Of Lettin’ Go’, from the same partnership, is quite a nice ballad about the lasting effects of an old flame, while love song ‘Meant To Be’ is lyrically rather bland, although it is nicely sung and played and has quite an attractive melody. ‘She Loved The Devil Out Of Me’, the last of Tracy’s co-writes, is a pleasant mid-tempo on a well-worn theme, which I enjoyed well enough despite its lack of originality. Alison Brown’s banjo works well on this and also backs up ‘God’s Green Earth’, written by Monty Criswell and Billy Yates. The latter sounds cheerful and perky, belying a heartbreak lyric.

‘It’s Hard To Be An Outlaw’ (written by Bobby Pinson, Larry Boone and Paul Nelson) takes a more jaundiced approach to the theme of a wild young man whose woman tries to “get the devil out of” him. In this case she has failed and walked away, and the protagonist has to face reality on his own:

I wouldn’t change
And now she’s gone I’m just not the same
It’s hard to be an outlaw
Outrun or outdraw
The laws of life that you once could ignore
It’s a desperate desperado
Who can’t see through his sorrow
What he was runnin’ from or runnin’ for
Oh, it’s hard to be an outlaw
When you’re not wanted anymore
There was nowhere left to turn to
But back to my old self
“I’m living like there’s no tomorrow”
Now meant somethin’ else
The trails I used to live to blaze
Are winding up dead ends
With a voice inside my head
Reminding me what could have been
I was wild as the wind
As cold as they come,
Thinkin’ I was cool
Now looking back,
Lookin’ at a fool

The up-tempo ‘Crawlin’ Again’ (written by Kenny Beard and Michael White) is a semi-ironic mumber comparing a man’s helplessness in the face of a woman’s power to reverting to infancy:

I’m back on the bottle, cryin’ out loud
I need holding and I need it now
Someone to rock me and then tug me in
It takes a mama 20 years to make a boy a man
Another woman 20 seconds to have him crawling again

It’s quite an entertaining song, which might have been a good choice for a single.

‘Getting Back Up’(written by Pinson with Marla Cannon-Goodman) is a downbeat ballad about coping with the failure of a relationship with a somewhat traditional feel. Some nice fiddle opens the otherwise rather uninteresting jazz-inflected ‘It’s Got You All Over It’.

The slightly-too sweet ‘That Was Us’ (written by Tony Lane and Craig Wiseman) looks back fondly on the narrator’s time as one of a group of wild teenagers who make mischief in their small town but whose good hearts are revealed in the final verse, when they make real amends. It was later recorded by Randy Travis on one of his religious records.

This is a serviceable and perfectly listenable record. It is currently out of print, but available digitally and as a CD-R from Amazon, and cheap used copies are also around. It’s worth picking up if you can get it at a moderate price.

Grade: B

Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Labor Of Love’

Sammy’s 1997 album Labor Of Love was produced by Keith Stegall, and has a slightly less neotraditional and more commercial feel than his earliest work. The material is a bit of a mixed bag, with some excellent songs and some less successful efforts.

One of the best was the choice of lead single. ‘Love Of My Life’ is a beautiful, tender love song written by Stegall with Dan Hill, with a tasteful, sensitive reading by Sammy. The classy contemporary piano-led ballad was to be one of Sammy’s biggest hits, peaking at #2. It was, however, his last ever top 10, and the only real hit from the record.

It was a particular shame that the brilliant ‘Matches’ (my favourite track here, written by Skip Ewing and Roger Springer) failed to creep into the top 20. An outstanding story song, ‘Matches’ compellingly relates the tale of a love affair that starts in a bar-room encounter and ends with loneliness and arson. The disillusioned protagonist sounds almost resigned despite the dramatic situation, and the conversational recounting of the tales helps to make it believable:

Today when I came home
My key was hollow in the door
There was nothing but a worn-out book of matches on the floor…

Until tonight they’d only lit a single cigarette
Now one by one I’m striking them to help me to forget
And everybody at the Broken Spoke
They all thought my crazy story was a joke
Now they’re all out in the parking lot staring at the smoke…

Baby, all that’s left of our love now is ashes
Thank God you left the matches

Peaking just outside the top 30, ‘Honky Tonk America’ is a decent mid-tempo Bob McDill song which paints a convincing picture of a working class crowd escaping from their daily life.

The final single, another top 40, was the quietly reflective ‘One Day Left To Live’, written by Dean Dillon, John Northrup and Randy Boudreaux. It is about the scare of facing potential mortality inspiring the protagonist promising to devote himself to loving the wife he has been taking for granted. The appealing lyric and understated vocal are very attractive, and this should have done better.

The beaty title track, written by Larry Boone and Billy Lawson, urges the need to work at love. It’s a bit generic sounding not too bad, with plenty of energy and commitment.

In recent years we’ve been overwhelmed with highly generic songs lauding the joys of being young in the country. ‘Cotton County Queen’, an earlyish example of the type with a linedancers’ beat, has nothing to recommend it and is the weakest song here by far. On the same theme of affectionate teenage memories of small town life, but more interesting and attractive, ‘Shootin’ The Bull (In An Old Cowtown)’ was written by Monty Criswell and Michael White.

Criswell and White were also responsible (with Lee Miller) for a pretty good ballad, where unrequited love is revealed for the first time, ‘Arms Length Away’.

The Cajun flavored ‘Little Did I Know’ is a catchy but lyrically slight story song about Jolina, a cheating woman whose beauty and lying promises of fidelity have the lovesick protagonist wrapped around her finger, right up to the point she leaves him standing at the altar. The up-tempo ‘Roamin’ Love’, a solo composition from the point of view of a man complaining about the wayward ex who has been running around with all her husband’s friends, is quite enjoyable with some nice fiddle and honky tonk piano in the arrangement. It is a rare solo Sammy Kershaw composition. He also co-wrote the forlorn ‘Thank God You’re Gone’, a rather good lost love ballad, as he is happy only his ex won’t see him collapse.

Despite only boasting one big hit, this was Sammy’s third platinum album and his highest charting position. Overall this is a reasonably solid album with some real highlights (especially ‘Matches’). As used copies can be found very cheaply, it’s worth picking up acopy.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Josh Turner – ‘Punching Bag’

Josh Turner’s deep burnished baritone is one of the most distinctive on today’s country radio, but his choice of songs has sometimes let him down.  Happily, this time he has found a better selection of material than on his last effort, the disappointingly pedestrian Haywire, much of it written or co-written by the artist.  Frank Rogers’ attractive production puts the vocals at the heart of the record, in a restrained but firmly country setting.

A silly novelty spoken introduction on a boxing match theme by real-life ring announcer Michael Buffer leads into the title track, written by Josh with Pat McLaughlin.  The song itself is thankfully much better, a well-written driving up-tempo number which uses boxing effectively as a metaphor about dealing with difficulties in life, specifically heartbreak:

She broke her promise and now she’s gonna leave me
She floated like a butterfly, it stung me like a bee
She took off the gloves and took a cheap shot
And she left me hanging in a pretty tough spot
I’m a punching bag

This is great fun and it could be a good single choice with obvious video possibilities.  It is certainly more interesting than Josh’s current top 20 hit, the unexciting ‘Time Is Love’, which is pleasant listening but nothing more.

Josh teamed up with Mark Narmore to write two songs.  The better of these is the very good ‘Cold Shoulder’, the plaint of a bewildered man struggling to understand why his wife is freezing him out when he has done nothing wrong.  Some lovely steel guitar from Steve Hinson dominates the backing, while the vocal is excellent.  ‘Good Problem’ is less memorable but still a pretty good song about a man getting ready to settle down to married life and give up his freedom with no regret, with an interesting arrangement.

‘Find Me A Baby’, written by Josh with Frank Rogers, is another good-sounding take on finding true love, but this time clearly autobiographical drawing its details from Josh’s real life and featuring his wife Jennifer and their small children on faintly embarrassing “na-na-na”s, something I normally hate, but the good humor of the song as a whole just about carries it off.

Ben Hayslip is not a bad writer when separated from his Peach Picker friends, and he helped Josh with ‘Left Hand Man’ (yet another take on committing to getting married but one which benefits from a playfully charming arrangement) and the lyrically slight but catchily melodic ‘Whatcha Reckon’.

Josh alone wrote the album’s standout track, the mournful ‘Pallbearer’.  Iris DeMent adds a harmony vocal and Marty Stuart plays mandolin on this take on love lost for good:

She don’t call and she don’t try to
And my prayin’ can’t bring her back
My eyes are wide open watchin’ my future
My eyes are wide open watching my future fade to black
I’m like a lonesome pallbearer
Walkin’ down the aisle
Travelin’ to the graveyard counting down the miles
With every earth filled shovel they dig that eternal bed
I’m like a lonesome pallbearer carrying the dead

I’ve pondered trading places with the man layin’ in that hearse
I try to hold my head up but her leavin’ is like a curse

Josh’s deep bass-baritone has a natural gravitas showcased at its best on serious songs like this with emotional weight rather than the more frivolous fare radio prefers.

Ricky Skaggs guests on the religious ‘For The Love Of God’, contributing mandolin, an instrument described as a cello banjo and harmonies to the bright acoustic treatment of a heartfelt if slightly moralistic song about living the right way and for the right reasons.  This was another solo composition by Josh.

Also very well done is the album’s other religious song, ‘I Was There’, written by Tim Menzies and Monty Criswell, where Josh reverently portrays the voice of God.

‘Deeper Than My Love’ is a nice love song written by Chris Stapleton and Lee Thomas Miller with some great growly bass vocals from Josh and cool banked backing vocals which give the track a life and individuality perhaps missing in the relatively obvious lyrics.

The redundant deluxe version  just adds live versions of ‘Punching Bag’ and ‘Time Is Love’ and some of Josh’s bigger past hits, which add little to the recorded versions.

Overall this is an enjoyable album which is a definite step back in the right direction after Haywire.  Some of the material is still lacking in lyrical depth, with the melodies generally stronger, but the whole package is solid.

Grade: B+

2012 Grammy predictions

The Grammy awards are probably the world’s most prestigious cross-genre awards in the word of music, although within country music the CMA and ACM awards hold greater weight. The significance of the Grammies has been further affected this year with the contraction in the number of categories of interest to country fans. But awards shows offer a way of taking stock once every few months regarding the genre as a whole, particularly the more mainstream end. In a few days, we’ll learn who has won this year’s awards. In the meantime, here are our predictions:

Best Country Solo Performance

This new category combines the former nods to performances by male and female vocalists.

‘Dirt Road Anthem’ – Jason Aldean
‘I’m Gonna Love You Through It’ – Martina McBride
‘Honey Bee’ – Blake Shelton
‘Mean’ – Taylor Swift
‘Mama’s Song’ – Carrie Underwood

Razor X: I can’t remember the last time I came across a more underwhelming list of nominees. “Honey Bee” is the only one on the list that I can tolerate, but it doesn’t seem like the sort of song that usually wins Grammys. I think Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood are the two real contenders here; I’ll predict that Underwood will win.

Occasional Hope: A remarkably uninspiring lineup in this category. I suppose by default my vote (if I had one) would have gone to Blake Shelton. Carrie Underwood’s song is well-meaning but bland; Martina McBride’s is the epitome of emotional manipulation; Jason Aldean’s record is horrible; and Taylor Swift’s song has nice production for once, but the lyric collapses into juvenile namecalling (and I’m afraid I’m still unimpressed by her vocal ability). That leaves Blake Shelton with a slight but not unlistenable song, making it my lukewarm favorite by default. Who will actually win it? The Grammy voting pool is a bit different from the specialist country awards shows, so I’m going to predict Taylor Swift as although Aldean has had a big breakthrough over the past couple of years, I think his lack of cross-genre name recognition will limit his appeal to voters. He, Swift and Blake Shelton all have performance slots on the show (Blake as part of a Glen Campbell tribute and Jason Aldean revisitng his duet with Kelly Clarkson), which could be an indication that the battle is between these three.

Jonathan Pappalardo: It seems as though the Grammy organization can’t win. If they go by artistic merits they’re deemed out of touch with reality. If they go with what’s popular, they’re deemed too mainstream. For my tastes these nominees are awful. There isn’t a song here I can get excited about, apart from Taylor Swift’s “Mean.” If she has to win an award this year, let it be this one.

Read more of this post

Occasional Hope’s Top Ten Singles of 2011

While it wasn’t a great year for country music, there were some definite signs of life, and some very good songs made their way across the airwaves. A few were even hits. Here are my favorite singles this year:

10. ‘Look It Up – Ashton Shepherd’
Ashton comes across like a modern Loretta Lynn in this scornful rejoinder to a cheating spouse. Forgiveness is not an option. Although it was a top 20 hit and just about her biggest to date, I expected more commercial success from this sassy number, written by Pistol Annie Angaleena Presley with Robert Ellis Orrall.

9. ‘Colder Weather’ – Zac Brown Band
The Georgia band is one of the most artistically adventurous acts in country music, and this is one of their finest records. A complex lyric depicts a couple separated by the man’s driving job; she seems keener than he does on their being together. It was inspired by co-writer Wyatt Durrette’s own thwarted romance with a girl who struggled with the travel demanded by a music career. The production neatly marries an understated piano-led first verse with rock elements as the protagonist’s emotions rise. It was another #1 hit for the band.

8. ‘In God’s Time’ – Randy Houser
Rich-voiced singer-songwriter Randy Houser released his finest effort to date this year with this gently understated expression of faith in God, whatever may happen. A gentle piano-led accompaniment provides effective support. This was intended to be the lead single for Houser’s third album for Show Dog Universal, but it did not do as well as hoped, and Houser has now left the label. He has since signed to indie label Broken Bow, so hopefully he will be able to continue releasing mauic of this caliber.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Trace Adkins: ‘More…’

Trace Adkins’s third album was released in 1999. Trace’s vocals are great throughout, and the selection of material is good, but the record is hampered occasionally by slightly heavy-handed production.

Lead single ‘Don’t Lie’ crept into the top 30, a poor performance by most standards. It is actually a very good song, written by Chet Biggers and Frank Rogers, with a piercing fiddle line underlining his bitter demand that the woman leaving not says she’s going to miss the past, when he knows she’s moving on to a future with another man. It was produced by Paul Worley, although the remainder of the album was helmed by Trey Bruce (with one further exception).

The title track is a well-sung but unremarkable mid tempo love song, which was the record’s biggest hit single, peaking at #10. The final single, ‘I’m Gonna Love You Anyway’ is a better love song, written by Roger Miller’s son Dean and Stacy Dean Campbell. I like the warm and tender delivery, and the lyric promising constancy to defy a threatened breakup, but it only just made its way into the top 40.

‘Everything Takes Me Back’ offers a more downcast take on splitting up, with a dejected Trace unable to get over it, complaining “everything takes me back but you”. It is well written and sung, but the production is a bit cluttered.

But the album boasts several outstanding moments. The heartbreakingly sad ‘She’s Still There’ (written by Tim Johnson and Mark D Sanders) has a perfectly understated vocal which roots the story in reality rather than miring it in sentiment, although a more stripped down production would have made it better still. The protagonist looks at a picture of his high school sweetheart. It becomes clear that Emma Lou died tragically young, although we never learn the circumstances. The emotional force of the song is only strengthened by not knowing exactly what happened to Emma Lou, as we hear about the fates of their other classmates, and feel for the lost dreams a young girl never got to follow:

Emma would be happy if she could only see us now
Cause we’re livin’ out the lives that she only dreamed about

She’s still there in Oklahoma
She’s still seventeen
She’s livin’ with her Mama
Workin’ at the Dairy Queen
And she’s still standin’ on the front porch
With a red ribbon in her hair
The rest of us have scattered everywhere
But she’s still there

Similarly effectively, the very intense ‘The Night He Can’t Remember’ tells the bleak tale of a man whose battle with alcohol culminate on one terrible night, when a lost job leads to a broken promise and some unforgiveable actions, once more left to the audience’s imagination:

Now he’s been clean and sober since twenty-three October ’95
His drinking days are over but there’s that one she can’t get off her mind
And he tries to apologize but can’t recall and don’t realize
She won’t forgive whatever he said
That night he can’t remember
Oh, the night he can’t remember – the one she can’t forget

This excellent song is a rare Trace Adkins writing credit (alongside Kenny Beard).

A more hopeful note is struck with ‘Someday’, a great and typically poetic Darrell Scott song which portrays a man who is “grounded, but I have wings to fly“.

It’s back to the real world with the poignant ‘Every Other Friday At Five’, the story of a divorced father holding on to his love for his children. The orchestration is a bit stifling, but the vocal is excellent, with a delicately melancholy tinge as he promises to put the children first and begs other separated parents to do the same. ‘A Working Man’s Wage’, written by Wynn Varble and Leslie Satcher, pays tribute to the protagonist’s blue-collar father, with a modest hope that he can follow in his footsteps. There is a similar cheerful can-do spirit in the more metaphorical ‘I Can Dig It’, written by Monty Criswell and Jim Rushing, with vibrant fiddle and honky tonk piano.

Trace went down to Austin, Texas, to record the wry western swing ‘All Hat, No Cattle’ with Ray Benson (who also produced the track) and Asleep At the Wheel, with legendary fiddler Johnny Gimble also featured. This is a fun song which mocks the wannabe cowboy who looks and talks the part but hasn’t got the goods to back it up:

The only stampede that he’s ever seen is the clearance at the western store

‘Can I Want Your Love’ is the only really poor track, with a jerky pop rhythm and uninteresting lyric.

More… was one of Trace’s less successful records commercially, no doubt due to the under performing singles, but this is overall my favorite Trace Adkins album. It is well worth finding a copy, especially as it is widely and cheaply available in both CD and digital format.

Grade: A

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Proud To Be Here’

Trace Adkins’s artistic identity may be the most fractured in country music, raging from the depths of ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’ to the artistic heights of songs like ‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired’. This album, Trace’s second for Show Dog Universal, has its share of the raucous and insubstantial, but mainly it focuses on Trace the family man, satisfied with his life. Unlike the similarly themed recent work of Brad Paisley, Josh Turner and Darius Rucker, however, the songs on this theme are all solid and worth hearing. I have already written about the heartwarming ‘Just Fishin’, the album’s first hit single and one of the best things to hit country radio this year. This track alone was produced by Michael Knox, with the remainder of the album in the hands of Kenny Beard.

The title track (written by Chris Wallin, Aaron Barker and Ira Dean, apparently specifically for Trace) is also very good, with a reflective look at the protagonist’s life, with memories of an early career playing “for tips and compliments”, while driving a truck worth substantially less than the radio. The equilibrium of the present day is convincingly portrayed, as Trace declares:

I’m just proud to be on the right side of the dirt
I’ve been loved and I’ve been lost and I’ve been hurt
I leave the hard stuff up to God
Try not to worry about a whole lot
And I have no regrets for what it’s worth
I’ve been living on borrowed time for years
And I’m just proud to be here

The production gets a bit heavier than I would like in the second half, but this is a heartfelt vocal on an excellent song which seems to reflect Trace’s true feelings about his life.

‘Million Dollar View’, written by David Lee Murphy and George Teren is a cheerful country-rocker about satisfaction with a happy domestic life which sounds tailor-made for country radio. Much better, but potentially also commercial, is the mellow take on chilling out and escaping from the world’s pressures on ‘Days Like This’, which is one of Trace’s rare writing credits, alongside producer Kenny Beard and Casey Beathard.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Chris Young – ‘Neon’

Chris Young’s second album moved him from former Nashville Star winner to bona fide country star. His eagerly anticipated third, Neon, is a self-assured neotraditional record with just enough radio gloss to keep him at the top, produced by the experienced James Stroud.

He has one of the great classic country voices, a rich burnished baritone with phrasing and interpretative ability, which is improving with time. His material has up to now been patchy, with a few highlights rising out of a mediocre mass lifted only by Chris’s exceptional voice, and on the whole this album is a step in the right direction with his most consistent selection of material to date.

Chris co-wrote seven of the ten songs, including the excellent lead single and current big hit, ‘Tomorrow’ (with Frank Myers and Anthony Smith), which showcases his mastery of the classic heartbreak ballad. The vocals are better than the song itself, although that is very good, with the protagonist clinging on to the remnants of a relationship he knows is about to fall apart:

We’re like fire and gasoline
I’m no good for you
You’re no good for me
We only bring each other tears and sorrow
But tonight I’m gonna love you like there’s no tomorrow

The second best song is ‘Flashlight’, with its fond memories of a father’s love, shown by his teaching his son how to fix cars – but really, of course, lessons are in how to live and love rather than car maintenance. Just as well, because the son here never does quite grasp the latter, but has got the point of the former:

To this day I still can’t make ‘em run right
But I sure did learn a lot
Just holding the flashlight

In other words, it’s basically a teenage boy version of Trace Adkins’ current hit ‘Just Fishing’.

Great voice aside, Chris has gained success by capitalizing on the clean-cut sexiness on songs like his breakthrough hit ‘Gettin’ You Home’, and there is a focus on love songs here, but with a fairly varied feel. The good-humored opener ‘I Can Take It From There’ is a mid-tempo come-on written with Rhett Akins and Ben Hayslip, referencing Conway Twitty with rather more reason than most recent namechecks of country stars. ‘Lost’, written by Chris with Chris Dubois and Ashley Gorley, is a mellow (and potentially commercial) invitation to a girl to get ‘lost’ on purpose together, and while I prefer the former, I could see either of these do well on radio. The tender ‘Old Love Feels New’ (written with Tim Nichols and Brett James) is my favourite of the love songs, with its tribute to a long-lasting relationship. The tender ballad ‘She’s Got This Thing About Her’, which Chris wrote with Kent Blazy and Cory Batten has a string arrangement, and while it is well sung, it sounds a bit out-of-place aurally on this record.

The Luke Laird co-write ‘You’ and Monty Criswell and Shane Minor’s ‘When She’s On’ are the only dull moments. The rowdy ‘Save Water, Drink Beer’ is not as amusing as it seems to think it is, but successfully raises the energy levels, could well be a successful single and would probably go down well live with its obvious singalong possibilities. The traditional sounding title track, with a wistful-sounding vocal comparing the beauties of nature in the American southwest to the joys of the honky-tonk, with Chris declaring neon to be his favourite color.

iTunes has a couple of exclusive bonus tracks. ‘I’m Gonna Change That’ is a pretty solid but slightly too loud mid-tempo with muscular vocals. ‘Don’t Leave Her (If You Can’t Let Her Go’ is very good indeed, a melancholy tinged proffering of advice to a friend planning to break up with his sweetheart, which is all too obviously based on the protagonist’s biter experience. It’s a shame this one didn’t make the cut for the standard release, and even more so that the label didn’t consider adding as bonus tracks the three classic covers he released as an EP last year. Overall, though, this is a fine release from one of the brightest young stars in Nashville.

Grade: A-

Single Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Just Fishin”

Trace Adkins’s ‘Brown Chicken, Brown Cow’ (complete with tacky puppet video) was, it seems, a step too far for country radio (even though they happily played ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’ which I still think is much worse). The single crept onto the top 40, but some stations found the subject matter too risqué, and Trace and his label decided to pull it rather than wasting their energies promoting a song that just wasn’t catching on in more conservative markets. More surprisingly, they have decided to abandon last year’s disappointing Cowboy’s Back In Town altogether, and have picked a song originally recorded for that album, but rejected in favor of such tasteful gems as ‘Ala Freaking Bama’ and ‘Whoop A Man’s Ass’, not to mention the last single. This decision, incidentally, epitomizes my frustration with some of Trace’s artistic decisions. Hopefully reviving the song now is a promising sign for his next album, expected later this year.

With ‘Just Fishin’’, Trace is reverting to something much more family friendly, with an affectionate tale of a fishing trip with a little girl, who sounds about six or so. The picture is charming, as the child prattles about her pet kittens and new ballet shoes, and other such little-girl interests, and enjoys the fishing experience, taking Daddy’s “I love you” for granted. His little girl is just having fun; he knows it’s more significant than that.

It feels rather like a prequel to his last solo #1, ‘You’re Gonna Miss This’ – and perhaps an attempt to recapture the success of that song, but ‘Just Fishin’ is less wistfully conscious of missing out on the opportunities to spend time with a growing child. This time, he’s getting it right and storing up the good memories now. He knows the clock is ticking for times like this, and she’ll grow up, but the mood is relaxed and laid back. The video scenario is obvious.

The song is written by Casey Beathard, Ed Hill and Monty Criswell, but it clearly strikes a chord with the artist, the father of five daughters of his own. The production is a bit busier and louder than I would like, but that is really the only flaw in this single. Trace’s vocal is warm and heartfelt, and this is definitely a step back in the right direction.

Grade: A-

Listen for yourself.

Album Review: Josh Turner – ‘Long Black Train’

Josh Turner came to the attentions of country fans with a bang in 2003, when his second single ‘Long Black Train’ was released, shortly before the album of the same title, which was produced by Mark Wright and Frank Rogers.

The dark gospel warning against sin of the title track made a massive and well-deserved impact for Josh, who also wrote the song, inspired by a vision. It was quite different from anything else on radio with its metaphorical lyrics and brooding feeling, and is probably still Josh’s signature song. It peaked at an unlucky #13, but its impact was far greater than that suggests, winning a nomination for the CMA Song of the Year. It also sold well, being certified gold at a time when country digital single sales hadn’t quite taken off. Josh’s deep tones are ideally suited to bring gravitas required of a song like this, perhaps more so than anyone since Johnny Cash, and it seems rather a waste that much of his subsequent material has been fluffily positive in comparison.

An earlier single, ‘She’ll Go On You’, which had not made the top 40, was also included on the album. It is a sweetly delivered if sentimental warning (written by Mark Narmore) to take care of the females in a man’s life: a daughter in the first verse, a wife in the second, and an aged mother in the third:

Better cherish her every second of your life
Better take her in your arms and do her right

While it is a little cliche’d, with a little too much going on in the heavily strung arangement, it is the kind of song which country radio usually eats up, and would probably have been a hit had it followed ‘Long Black Train’ rather than preceding it. Instead, the follow-up single was the bitter up tempo look at love – or rather, ‘What It Ain’t’, written by Tim Mensy and Monty Criswell. Perhaps it seemed lightweight after ‘Long Black Train’, and it didn’t make the top 30, although I like it quite a bit.

My other favorite is the Jamie O’Hara song ‘Unburn All Our Bridges’, a mature plea for forgiveness on both sides, with a beautiful tune, as he affirms,

Love is much stronger than anger or pride

The melodic but mournful ‘I Had One One Time’, written by Harley Allen and Don Sampson, is a lovely song with a homeless man wistfully recalling past possessions: a car, a job, friends, a loving wife, all now gone. There is a tasteful string section on the understated arrangement. Also pretty good is Bobby Braddock’s ‘The Difference Between A Woman And A Man’, a tenderly delivered love song.

Josh shows a more playful side with his cover of Jim Croce’s 70s pop hit ‘You Don’t Mess Around With Jim’, a story song about a pool hustler/tough guy and the country boy who challenges him. Josh’s version is entertaining and a rare venture for him away from the moral and family friendly, the message here being one of physical force.

Also fun is the up-tempo ‘Good Woman Bad’ written by Pat McLaughlin and Roger Younger, in which the protagonist complains about the bad girl he is involved with, and is starting to wonder if he needs someone different. The rhymes are a bit obvious, but the overall effect is entertaining:

Now when I asked her to go to Sunday school
She went and called me a damned old fool

A few of the songs are less essential listening, but even these sound good – a trademark of Josh’s records. His own ‘Backwoods Boy’ (about the joys of hunting) has a nice banjo-led arrangement but is of limited interest to me. The tune of ‘Jacksonville’, written by McLaughlin with Josh, has a downbeat feel, but it actually has a positive message about unexpectedly falling in love on vacation and maybe staying. It is pleasant listening but not particularly memorable.

‘In My Dreams’ is a bit dull, almost heavy sounding, although Josh’s vocal sounds convincing.

This was a bright start for Josh, revealing him as one of the finest male vocalists out there, with an unusually keen ear for melody and a voice which can lift mediocre material. The album has been certified platinum, and its success won him nominations for the ACM Top New Vocalist and the CMA Horizon Award in 2004. He lost both to Gretchen Wilson, hot off the success of ‘Redneck Woman’, but in the event, Josh’s career has proved to be deeper rooted.

Ther album is easy to find, both digitally and in CD format.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Better Than I Used To Be’

It really is tempting fate for any artist, particularly one who is past his or her commercial peak, to entitle an album Better Than I Used To Be, because (almost always) it begs a negative answer. Rich-voiced 90s star Sammy Kershaw has been away from the charts for a while, most recently concentrating on a venture into Louisiana state politics. His new album is on an independent (possibly self released) label, Big Hit Records. However, while I don’t think Sammy’s music is “better than it used to be”, the new album stands up pretty well against his back catalog. There are no obvious hit singles here, but Sammy is still in fine voice, and Buddy Cannon’s supportive production is excellent, and undoubtedly country.

The album is bookended by songs Sammy himself had a share in writing. The unremarkable but energetic ‘That Train’, which he wrote alone, opens the album. In an interview with the 9513 earlier this year, Sammy admitted:

“I’m not much of a songwriter but every once in a while I get lucky and write one in 10 or 15 minutes. If it goes any longer than that, I get rid of them. I never work on them again”

Frankly, this song does indeed sound as though it only took a few minutes to write, although it clearly inspired the cover art. Much better is the co-write with John Scott Sherrill and Scotty Emerick which closes the set. ‘Takin’ The Long Way Home’ places the protagonist in a bar, because he has too little to go home for, with a woman who’s obviously on her way out. The sweet sadness of the fiddle line underscores the delicately understated emotion of a man who has no remedy for his sense of abandonment, as he concludes at the end of the evening,

And it’ll be time for me to go
Where I’m going I don’t know
I just know I’m takin’ the long way home

However rash it may be as the title track, ‘Better Than I Used To Be’, written by Brian Simpson and Ashley Gorley, is a highlight of the record. It is a tender, even inspiring, promise from a man who has made mistakes in the past and is in the process of turning his life around:

I can’t count the people I’ve let down
Or the hearts I’ve broke
You aint gotta dig too deep
If you want to find some dirt on me
I’m learning who you’ve been
Ain’t who you’ve gotta be…

Standin’ in the rain so long
Has left me with a little rust
But put some faith in me
Someday you’ll see
There’s a diamond under all this dust

But he acknowledges this is a work in progress in this lovely, mature song. A video was made to support this song as a single earlier this year, and it is a shame it failed to make many waves.

Equally good is the subdued sadness of ‘Like I Wasn’t Even There’, written by Wes Hightower, Monty Criswell and Tim Mensy. The protagonist runs into his ex for the first time since the breakup, and is ignored as though their relationship never existed.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Cowboy’s Back In Town’

Trace Adkins is one of the most frustrating artists in country music. He has a genuinely great voice, real interpretative ability and (when he chooses to exercise it), a sense of subtlety. When that natural talent is allied to great, or even good, songs, the result is close to sublime. Sadly, his musical taste is questionable, and he has recorded some of the worst songs released in the last ten years. His 2008 release, X, went a long way to restoring my faith in him as an artist, but regrettably, country radio was less enthused than it was for his worst efforts, like ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’, an execrable song which managed to top the charts.

Everything I heard in advance of this project’s release led me to expect Trace would be back to his worst. Radio’s lack of support for the singles from X, the move from Capitol to Toby Keith’s label. It says a lot for my admiration of Trace at his best that I was prepared to buy this, despite my concerns about the project. The first single, the truly horrible shoutfest ‘Ala-Freakin-Bama’, was a particularly disturbing sign. When Trace announced his departure from Capitol soon after the release of that single, I had hoped it would never re-surface. Unfortunately, Trace secured the rights to the last recordings he made for Capitol, and chose to include it on his debut for Show Dog Universal. Luckily, there is only one other song as bad, aggressively tuneless closing track ‘Whoop A Man’s Ass’, whose title says it all.

The grunt in the preamble to opening track ‘Brown Chicken, Brown Cow’, which is the first we hear from Trace, was not a good start either, although the song itself is not that bad – mediocre rather than awful, albeit too loud, one-note, and repetitive as it tells ths story of a farm couple who abandon their duties for a literal roll in the hay. Mostly, this record leans to the average rather than the overtly bad, with some pretty good songs.

Current single ‘This Ain’t No Love Song’ is quite a nice ballad (if a little repetitive) which was one of the few promising signs before the record’s release. Another alarm signal was raised when I originally saw the tracklisting and saw Trailer Choir were guesting on one song, ‘Don’t Mind If I Don’t’, but this was unfair as the end result is only mildly irritating, with Trailer Choir themselves barely noticeable. The song is boring, but inoffensive.

There are a couple of attempts at humor. Much of ‘Hold My Beer’ is shouted rather than sung but the lyrics (about a drunken wedding party, courtesy of Casey Beathard, Monty Criswell and Ed Hill) are mildly amusing, although I think they will pall with repetition. I can see this as a single complete with over-the-top video. The ironic backseat driver ode ‘Hell I Can Do That’ is rather better in the lighthearted vein, written by Jim Collins, Tony Martin and Lee Miller, with an engaging everyman feel and playful use of instrumentation.

The title track is quite a pleasant midpaced story song about a city woman whose life improves whenever her cowboy boyfriend comes to visit. It is one of Trace’s rare compositions, alongside Jeff Bates and Kenny Beard. Also pretty good is the love song ‘A Little Bit Of Missing You’, written by Mickey Jack Cones (who co-produces this track), Jim McCormick and Tim Johnson. Although it feels a bit over produced, it provides one of the few really melodic moments on the album, and one of the few times Trace’s gravelly bass notes are used to good effect. Most of the songs here could literally be sung by anyone, and Trace’s great voice is simply under utilised.

The highlight is the string laden ‘Still Love You’, a tender ballad co-written by Jeff Bates, where again Trace shows us he really is a fine vocalist with sensitive interpretative ability. The song itself is still only average compared to some of the outstanding ballads Trace has given us in the past.

I also liked ‘Break Her Fall’, a story of a teenage romance between a “long haired country boy” and a rich man’s daughter, written by Monty Criswell and Tim Mensy, with a little too much electric guitar for my taste. It’s a familiar, even clichéd, story, but nicely done with some specific color which makes it convincing and a few memorable lines:

She used me like a razor blade
To cut the ties that bind
Freed herself from Daddy’s world
Got tangled up in mine

This isn’t quite as bad as I was fearing, or Trace’s worst album (a title I would award to Dangerous Man), but it is still a real waste of his talent.

Grade: C

Album Review: Gretchen Wilson – ‘I Got Your Country Right Here’

Gretchen’s first independent release following her departure from Sony sees her taking the producer’s chair herself alongside Blake Chancey (and old friend John Rich on a handful of tracks). The end result is not that far removed from her Sony records, and fans of Gretchen’s rocking side will be happy. Admirers of her way with a ballad (Wilson’s most underrated talent) will be more disappointed.

Current single ‘Work Hard, Play Harder, is set to a relentless rock beat which led to a copyright infringement claim from the rock band the Black Crowes; the case was settled out of court and led to the writers of the latter’s song being given co-writing credit here, alongside the originally credited Wilson, John Rich and Vicky McGehee. This lyrically predictable and musically dull piece about a hardworking “redneck, blue-collar” bartender/waitress is already Gretchen’s biggest hit since 2006’s ‘California Girls’, perhaps because it fits into the pigeonhole Gretchen created for herself with her signature tune ‘Redneck Woman’.

It is one of only two tracks co-written by Gretchen. Dallas Davidson helped her with the other, the rocking sociopolitical statement ‘Blue Collar Done Turn Red’ which mixes a declaration of patriotism with some social criticism of modern changes:

We used to judge a man by the shake of his hand
And his honor and his honesty
Never knocked him down when he stood his ground
Cause it wouldn’t fit the policy now
There’s bailout bills and fat cat deals

Ex-SteelDriver Chris Stapleton and Terry McBride offer a trenchant criticism of modern country radio in ‘Outlaws & Renegades’:

Well, just the other day I was driving down the road
Listening to the stuff coming out of Music Row
I didn’t recognise a single song or none of the names
But it didn’t really matter cause they all seem to sound the same

Where’s all the outlaws and renegades?
Lord knows I miss those days
When they said what they thought
And what they thought was what was on your mind

It seems to veer off course in the last verse when it moves into another political complaint (about politicians and gas prices), and then back to music with a spoken outro namechecking Cash, Jennings and Nelson.

Their era is also recalled in the rather generic Southern Rock-country of the title track, written by consummate hit maker Jeffrey Steele and Tom Hambridge. This pays cursory tribute to various 70s Outlaw and Southern Rock acts – Waylon again, of course, plus the Charlie Daniels Band, Hank Williams Jr, and on the rock side of the border, the Allman Brothers, Z.Z. Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd. It is one of those tracks that strikes one as being more fun for the musicians to make than for the listener; it isn’t that interesting on record either musically or lyrically; it’s all about the groove and feel, which probably works better live.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘Taste Of The Truth’

Taste Of The TruthGene Watson is one of my all-time favorite singers, and it is good to report that he is still sounding great at the age of 65. Listening to his new album, his second for independent label Shanachie, is like listening to a masterclass in singing country music, a subtle rendering of understated emotion. Gene is not a songwriter, so the ultimate artistic success of his records always depend on finding great outside material, and fortunately he has found some fine songs here from some of the best writers currently in Nashville, which are ideally suited to his voice. The overall theme is one of lost love and regret.

It opens with ‘Speakin’ Of The Angel’, a great traditional sounding mid-tempo number written by Shawn Camp and Jim Rushing, which is a joy to listen to even though the protagonist is heartbroken dwelling on his beloved ex planning to marry another:

“If I swear that I don’t love her, God knows it’s a lie,
Speakin’ of the angel is enough to make me cry.”

The title track comes from the pen of Rebecca Lynn Howard, and is a fine ballad with a beautifully realized metaphor, delicately delivered in Gene’s best style, as he addresses another ex, this time one he now regrets having left, finding the freedo he had hungered for has a “lonely flavor”:

“I’d eat my words to have you back
If I thought I could
‘Cause the truth don’t satisfy me
Like I thought it would

In fact it leaves me hollow
With a bad taste in my mouth
It’s hard for me to swallow
Tears won’t wash it down
Knowing you don’t want me back
It’s all that I can do
To keep from chokin’ on
The taste of the truth”

Another gorgeous sad ballad perfect for Gene’s voice is ‘Til A Better Memory Come Along’, previously recorded by both Mark Chesnutt and Shelby Lynne. I like both previous versions, but this is quite lovely as Gene can’t get over the woman who has left and tells her memory so with perhaps the best vocal performance on the album:

“How long will it take before I leave you
In the past where you belong?
One day I might forget
But right now I’m not that strong
So I’ll hold on
Til a better memory comes along”

Just as good is another sad song about failing to get over someone (and obviously not trying very hard), Tim Mensy and Keith Stegall’s ‘Three Minutes At A Time’, as the narrator forgets his troubles for a while by listening to country songs on the jukebox: “it’s heartache in rhyme, but it helps me hang on”, he testifies.

Read more of this post

Something with a twist to it

Billy Yates

Billy Yates

Some of the most memorable country songs are the ones which surprise you, the story song with a twist in the tale, or the song which suddenly goes in a direction you really weren’t expecting. Sometimes the effect is desigend to make you laugh; sometimes it may bring you to tears; there are some songs which simply stop you in your tracks in shock the first time you hear them.

That happened to me the first time I heard the Billy Yates/Monty Criswell song ‘Flowers’, on Yates’ self-titled first album in 1997 (also notable for the first version of the song ‘Choices’, subsequently recorded by George Jones). ‘Flowers’ has also been covered by former Nashville Star winner Chris Young and (with a few lyrical changes) by Australian Adam Harvey, yet even knowing the twist to come, it has never lost its force for me. One of the reasons this song is so effective is that it breaks a lot of the conventions of country songwriting. Instead of the usual verse-chorus pattern, we have a series of hookless verses with the chorus sung through twice at the very end. The title does not appear until the very last word of the song.

Rather than spell out the story here, I suggest you listen to the song yourself if you haven’t heard it before (and try to avoid looking at the tags).

A surefire way to make the listener cry is to not reveal until late in the song that the subject has died. For instance, Rebecca Lynn Howard and Trisha Yearwood both recorded ‘Melancholy Blue’, written by Harlan Howard and Tom Douglas; in this song the protagonist is wandering restlessly unable to get over someone, but it is presumed that he has just left her until the last verse, when she visits his grave. The vocal is imbued with sadness before that, but the impact on the listener is doubled by being delayed.

Even in a song whose subject is as well known as ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ (written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman) it is only halfway through that it is truly obvious that the reason the protagonist has stopped loving the woman who has left is that he has finally proved himself right when “he said ‘I’ll love you til I die'”. Similarly, although there must always be a sense of looming doom in a Vietnam-era story featuring a soldier, it is only at the end of Bruce Robison’s ‘Traveling Soldier’ (most famously recorded by the Dixie Chicks) that the young man’s death is announced. It is perhaps almost as much of a shock to the listener as to his unfortunate sweetheart.

Read more of this post