My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Monty Powell

Album Review – Shenandoah – ‘Under The Kudzu’

220px-Shenandoah_-_Under_The_KudzuShenandoah released their second album for RCA Records (and fifth overall) in the summer of 1993. Don Cook, known at the time for producing Brooks & Dunn, helmed Under The Kudzu. The hope was a little of the Brooks & Dunn magic would rub off on Marty Raybon and the boys, and while the album wasn’t successful at a superstar level, it did keep them in favor with country radio.

Legendary songwriter Dennis Linde penned the album’s first single, the decidedly upbeat “Janie Baker’s Love Slave.” While the drum heavy production was right in line with the trends twenty years ago, the song is an awful mess, and one of Shenandoah’s weaker single offerings. Radio somewhat agreed, and the track peaked at #15.

Sentimental piano ballad “I Want to Be Loved Like That,” a story song about a guy’s longing to enjoy a lengthy marriage to his true love, returned the band to the top 5, when the song peaked at #3 in late 1993. While the song is a marked improvement over “Janie Baker’s Love Slave,” and boasts nicely understated production behind Raybon’s sincere vocal, it’s a little too schmaltzy.

They return to form with “If Bubba Can Dance (I Can To),” my favorite of the album’s singles, and one of their strongest radio offerings (it was the band’s final #1, too). Raybon co-wrote the tune with Mike McGuire and Bob McDill after seeing line dance instructional videos advertized on TV, and while the concept is clearly dated, the whole things works because Cook backs Raybon’s vocal with twangy guitars that are as ear catching as the song’s hook.

“I’ll Go Down Loving You,” a contemporary piano balled composed by Chapin Hartford, Sam Hogin, and Monty Powell, was the album’s finale single and the first song of the band’s career to miss the top 40 since their debut. This track would’ve been a bigger hit apparently, and it was good enough that it deserved to be so, if the band hadn’t partied ways with RCA shortly after the single’s release.

Linde wrote the title track as well. “Under The Kudzu” references the kudzu plant, which is a vine-like weed from Asia that’s become invasive in the Southeastern United States. The mid-tempo drum driven number is actually much stronger then I expected, although the melody is very reminiscent to Sammy Kershaw’s “Queen of my Double Wide Trailer.”

“Nickel In The Well” is another similar sounding uptempo number but Cook smartly helps it stand out thanks to the heavy dose of dobro heard throughout. “Say The Word,” a contemporary mid-tempo number is also good, even if it lacks the extra magic to help it stand out.

“The Blues Are Comin’ Over To Your House” is an excellent more traditionally styled number that Cook wrote with Kix Brooks. It’s one of the album’s stronger songs, and while it hasn’t held up perfectly with time, it should’ve been released to radio, where it would’ve likely been a big hit. “That’s The Kind of Woman I Like,” another up-tempo number co-written by Cook, packs on the charm but lacks a little in the lyric department. It’s darn catchy, though, which is more than enough to help it stand out. Raybon co-wrote “It Takes Every Rib I’ve Got,” and it’s just plain uptempo filler, nothing great, and kind of dumb lyrically.

Under the Kudzu is nothing more than a contemporary country album designed to attract maximum airplay thanks to abundance of uptempo numbers heavy on the drums and somewhat catchy hooks. Cook’s production was very ‘of the moment’ and thus lacked the universal appeal that would help this project age gracefully. There are still some wonderful songs in the mix that keeps the album listenable, but Under The Kudzu is little more than a product of its time.

Grade: B+

Album Review – Tim McGraw – ‘Everywhere’

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

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

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

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

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

Cause you and I made our choices

All those years ago

Still I know I’ll hear your voice

And see you down the road

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I laugh every time I start to think about us

We sent that summer out in style

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

‘Cause she was mine for a little while

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Album Review: Diamond Rio – ‘Close To The Edge’

Diamond Rio’s second album was rush-released in October 1992. It was produced as before by Monty Powell and Tim Dubois along broadly similar lines to its predecessor. Although not quite as consitently high quality as the songs on their debut, the chosen material showcases the band’s trademark harmonies and sparkling playing well. Although, apparently they had only a month to pick the songs, and felt they had fallen short of their debut, everything is presented with verve and I think it stands up well today.

The first two singles had downbeat lyrics about failed relationships. The ballad ‘In A Week Or Two’ (one of my favorite tracks) was received well at radio and hit #2. The rueful protagonist has been blindsided when he kept on putting off those romantic gestures, only to find his lover loses patience and leaves him. Equally regretful in the face of a vanished lover, the bouncily catchy ‘Oh Me, Oh My Sweet Baby’ was another top 5 hit, with particularly strong harmonies and picking. The perky ‘This Romeo Ain’t Got Julie Yet’ about a thwarted teenage couple (co-written by the lead guitarist Jimmy Olander), the slightest of the album’s singles, did less well, peaking at an unlucky 13.

My favorite of the singles then disappointingly failed to crack the top 20. Set to an understated but pretty tune, it offers a pensive reflection on the lost innocence of childhood:

When we knew Jesus was the answer
And Elvis was the King
‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and ‘Rock Of Ages’
Were the songs we learned/loved to sing
Innocence went out of style
We just watched it go
Yesterday got left beneath
The dust of Sawmill Road

We learn the protagonist’s brother was mentally destroyed by service in Vietnam, and he keeps minimal contact with the sister, who now has three failed marriages behind her. Only the narrator remains living in the eponymous ‘Sawmill Road’, where the three siblings “were raised up on the path of righteousness” so long ago. The song was written by the band’s keyboard player Dan Truman with Sam Hogin and Jim McBride.

It leads appropriately into an appeal to the lonely and lost in life, ‘Calling All Hearts (Come Back Home)’, an idealistic number written by Monty Powell, Kent Blazy and Wade Kimes, which I also like a lot.

My absolute favorite track, though, is the high lonesome ‘Demons And Angels’. Written by former singer Judy Rodman and Ronnie Samoset, the song portrays the intense struggle of a man(and his wife) fighting his addiction to alcohol,

He swore it was over and all in his past
A few hours later his hand’s round a glass
A voice on the left says,
“There’s peace in the wine”
From the right a voice whispers,
“Don’t do it this time”
When he looks for the answer
Down in his heart
Demons and angels tear him apart

There’s not much that’s sweeter
Than a new life begun
Ain’t much that’s sadder
Than a promise undone
He stares at the bottle,
Longs for her arms
While demons and angels tear him apart

‘Old Weakness (Coming On Strong)’ is not the song of that title recorded by both Tanya Tucker and Patty Loveless, but an intensely sung ballad about struggling with the thought of encountering an old flame he’s not really over, written by Powell with Chapin Hartford. A cheery riposte to old friends comparing the fun of bachelor life to the protagonist’s newlywed happiness, ‘It Does Get Better Than This’ is unremarkable lyrically, but is lifted by the charming vocal and instrumental performance, and could be a hit today.

The love songs ‘I Was Meant To Be With You’ (co-written by Dubois and Powell with Debi Cochran and Diamond Rio’s lead singer Marty Roe) and Jimmy Olander’s ‘Nothing In This World’ (co-written with Eric Silver) are pleasant filler, performed exceptionally well. The upbeat title track (written by the band’s mandolin and occasional fiddle player Gene Johnson with Carl Jackson) is also fairly forgettable lyrically, but it has a great groove and lets the band show off their chops , closing the album on a high.

The record has been certified gold, so it did not sell quite as well as their debut. However, despite the band’s own misgivings about the quality of the material, I think it compares pretty well, and there are some outstanding moments. Cheap used copies are easy to find, and it is also available digitally.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Diamond Rio – ‘Diamond Rio’

Diamond Rio’s eponymous debut album was released 20 years ago this month.  The disc catapulted the band to country stardom when their first single, the infectious “Meet In The Middle” became the first chart-topping debut by a group in the history of Country Singles chart.  Four more singles hit the top 10 and the album went on to sell more than a million copies.  It also introduced the melodic energetic sound of Diamond Rio, and showcased the band’s tight musicianship on record.

“Meet In The Middle” features Tim DuBois’ bouncy production in a lyric that simply celebrates compromise, and uses the sweet story of a boy and girl meeting halfway between their homes as the analogy of meeting halfway once again as a means to end their future squabbles.  Marty Roe’s solid vocal hits as hard as the snappy drums and Gene Johnson’s mandolin make for a great track, which sailed to #1 for 2 weeks.

Also making waves at radio was the bluesy “Mirror Mirror”, with its clever wicked queen hook it became the band’s second top 5.  Also hitting the top 5 is the blistering “Norma Jean Riley”, with its dry humor and talking instruments, it recalls the best of Alan Jackson’s similar witty tunes.  Sandwiched in between that pair at radio is the elegant “Mama Don’t Forget to Pray For Me”, which recounts a traveling musician calling home to talk to his folks.  It’s memorable melody and heartstring subject matter pushed it to #9 on the charts.

The final single – and my favorite track – is the smart and direct second person narrative “Nowhere Bound”.  This mid-tempo gem sounds like it would be at home in Mary Chapin Carpenter’s songbook, right down to its wry lyrics:

Where to now, do you know?
One thing’s for certain, gonna reap just what you sow
And all you planted was heartache and pain
Don’t look now, but it looks like rain

“Nowhere Bound” was written by co-producer Monty Powell and Jule Edders, and went to #7 on the singles chart in 1992.

Also notable are the tale of two top-notch musicians dueling for the title of “best around” in the fast-paced “Ballad of Billy and Conley (The Proof’s in the Pickin’)”, which allows the boys to show off their dexterity with their respective instruments, much like the closing instrumental track “Poultry Promenade”.  The driving “Pick Me Up” tells of a man who feels lower than bottom – “pick me up so I can fall again” – and is set to another infectious melody.

Produced by Tim DuBois and Monty Powell, Diamond Rio’s debut album served to not only kickstart the band’s hit-making career, it also served as the template that would come to characterize the band’s sound, with their own crack musicianship in the studio, tight harmonies, and breezy melodies.  Diamond Rio is a great showcase of ’90s country at its best.

Grade: A

Buy it from amazon.

Single Review: Keith Urban – ‘Til Summer Comes Around’

For the fourth single from his very successful Defying Gravity album, Keith and his label have chosen the introspective ‘Til Summer Comes Around’.  It’s a sign of the changing seasons when more and more artists begin sending ballads to radio.  Slow songs always work better in the colder months.  It was deep in the winter of 2004 when the last Urban single I liked this much was released.  This song reminds me of ‘You’ll Think Of Me’ for several reasons, and it’s mostly the melody that jogs my memory. Mostly. Much has been said about Urban’s music being ultra-positive, and his releases lately clearly reflect someone who’s satisfied with their current situation, and who doesn’t want to change things up much.

I’ve heard the summer’s over and my new love is gone theme before, many times actually. But it’s the sort of tried and true theme that almost always works, and this is no exception. The brooding narrative tells of two young lovers and the singer’s memories all revolve around their time spent at the carnival, and his eventual employment there after the romance is over. Later in the song, we find him on the boardwalk in the wintertime, longing for the warm days and his sweetheart to return. Writers Keith Urban and Monty Powell managed to create images of a small-town boy working at the local carnival, as Keith sings of ‘greasing the gears’ and ‘fixing the lights’ and indeed, the song captures the experience and the feeling the summertime fair circuit gives you. Still, it maintains the melancholy feel of the best of Urban’s excellent ballads.

The five and a half minute album version begins with faint yells and sound effects from a crowded carnival. I assume the radio version will edit this out, and shorten the somewhat indulgent length a bit. Keith’s effective vocal is framed by some blistering electric guitar work between verses, a staple of his sound at this point. With ‘Til Summer Comes Around’, Keith Urban has given us one of the finest singles of his career, in my opinion, and a gentle reminder of his impressive talents.

Grade: A

Listen to ‘Til Summer Comes Around’ at Last FM.

Album Review: Brooks & Dunn – ‘Borderline’

BorderlineBrooks & Dunn’s fourth studio album for Arista Records was released in April 1996. The title — Borderline — is an unusually though probably unintentionally descriptive one, as it sums up perfectly the quality of this uneven and somewhat disappointing collection.

A month before the album’s release, things got off to a good start with the advance single, an excellent cover of the 1973 B.W. Stevenson hit, “My Maria”. It was somewhat of a departure for the duo, as it marked only the second time they released a cover song as a single. The first was 1992’s “Boot Scootin’ Boogie”, which although it was an original Ronnie Dunn composition, had previously been recorded by Asleep at the Wheel. Despite its pop origins, “My Maria” quickly soared to #1 on Billboard’s country singles chart, where it spent three weeks. It was also the publication’s top country song of the year for 1996.

The follow-up single and second track on the album, “I Am That Man”, was written by Terry McBride and Monty Powell. Despite being a bland and somewhat forgettable song, it managed to climb all the way to #2. Things continued on a downward trend with the third single release, “Mama Don’t Get Dressed Up For Nothing”, on which Kix Brooks takes over the lead vocals. Written by Brooks and Dunn along with producer Don Cook, “Mama” is a line dance number in the same vein as “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” that fails to recapture the magic of that earlier hit. The lyrics require an attitude and sassy delivery that Brooks fails to provide. He sounds like he is phoning in his performance; the song could possibly have been saved if Dunn had sung the lead, though it is questionable whether his stronger voice would have been enough to overcome the banality of the lyrics. Radio was apparently in agreement with me on this one, since “Mama” stalled at #13, becoming the first single the duo released that failed to reach the Top 10.

Things picked up considerably with the fourth single, “A Man This Lonely”, which returned the pair to the top of the singles chart when it became their eleventh #1 hit in February 1997. This was followed up by another lackluster single, “Why Would I Say Goodbye”, which, like “Mama Don’t Get Dressed Up For Nothing” featured Kix on lead vocals. It seems an odd choice for a single release; it was possibly chosen in an attempt to give Brooks some more radio exposure as a lead vocalist. Though it peaked at #8, I had totally forgotten that this song had even been a single until I started doing research for this review. I can’t remember ever hearing it on the radio. I would have by-passed it in favor of “One Heartache At A Time”, a Ronnie Dunn-led effort. Written by Brooks with one-time Vince Gill band member and former Wynonna Judd fiance Tony King, “One Heartache At A Time” is my favorite song on the album. Another gem is uptempo fiddle-and-steel driven album closer “White Line Casanova”, which was probably not sufficiently commercial to release to radio. Nonetheless, it’s a standout track on this frustratingly inconsistent album.

The remainder of the songs on the album are generic filler and not worthy of any lengthy discussion. The production is solid throughout the album; it is somewhat baffling to come up with an explanation for why Brooks and Dunn weren’t able to come up with stronger material as they had on their previous releases. Borderline relies a little more on outside songwriters than the previous albums, but this actually one of the collection’s strengths, particularly in the case of “My Maria”.

Despite its flaws, Borderline became the second Brooks & Dunn album to reach #1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. Certified double-platinum (about 1 million units fewer than its predecessor Waitin’ On Sundown), it marked the beginning of a leveling-off of the duo’s album sales. It is still in print, available at Amazon and iTunes, but is not essential listening as the singles are available on various hits compilations.

Grade: C