My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Nanci Griffith

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Walk The Way The Wind Blows’

1986’s Walk The Way The Wind Blows marked a turning point in Kathy Mattea’s recording career. Following two moderately successful albums for Mercury Records, it marked a major change in direction, both creatively and commercially. She cast aside the pop-country arrangements that had characterized her previous two albums and the stripped-down folk-flavored sound proved to be a good fit with radio during the then-fledgling New Traditionalist movement.

Mattea’s commercial fortunes began to change with the release of the album’s first single, “Love at the Five and Dime”, which included harmony vocals by Don Williams. It is notable both for being her first Top 10 hit, peaking at #3, and for gaining recognition for its songwriter Nanci Griffith. Griffith’s own recording of the song appeared that same year. The song’s success stands as a testimony to the remarkable era in which it was released; nothing about the well written story tune is, on the surface, particularly radio friendly, and it is unlikely that would ever have been a hit during any other era in country music. It most certainly would not be given much attention in today’s environment.

The upbeat title track, written by Tim O’Brien was selected to be “Love at the Five and Dime’s” follow-up hit. This one seems to be more in line with what radio is typically looking for, but it did not perform quite as well as its predecessor, peaking at a still respectable #10. Mercury chose another ballad as the album’s third single, the lovely “You’re The Power” written by Craig Bickhardt and F.C. Collins. Though it reached #5, this one doesn’t seem to be as well-remembered today as some of Kathy’s other hits, but it is beautifully performed and is my favorite song on the album. The album’s final single was “Train of Memories”, which peaked at #6, but was ultimately overshadowed by the bigger hits that followed it from Kathy’s next album.

The introspective “Leaving West Virginia” gives us a rare glimpse at Kathy Mattea the songwriter. The protagonist is heading for California rather than Nashville, but it seems quite possible that the tune is semi-autobiographical. “You Plant Your Fields” and “Up Grinnin’ Again” are the album’s two weak spots. They are not bad songs, and if included on any number of other albums, they might not stand out as the weakest tracks, but they don’t quite rise to the level of most of the other songs on the album. The album does close on a high note, with a cover of Rodney Crowell’s “Song For The Life”, which would become a hit for Alan Jackson eight years later.

Like its predecessor From My Heart, Walk The Way The Wind Blows was produced Allen Reynolds, who was probably most famous up to that point for his work with Crystal Gayle. He would continue to be Kathy’s producer for the rest of the decade before going on to even greater fame producing hits for Garth Brooks.

Though it was released over 25 years ago, Walk The Way The Wind Blows has held up exceptionally well. The production does not sound dated and the only clue to the album’s age is the fact that this type of music would not be considered commercially viable today. It is available for download and used CD copies can be purchased at bargain prices. It’s worth checking out if you missed it the first time around.

Grade: A-

Spotlight Artist: Kathy Mattea

Born in the heart of Appalachia in West Virginia on June 21, 1959, Kathy Mattea started singing bluegrass as a teenager and in 1978 dropped out of college to move to Nashville to pursue her country music dream. She found work singing songwriters’ demos, and the songwriter Byron Hill was sufficiently impressed by her voice to bring her to the attention of Mercury Records, who signed her to a recording deal.

Her early career gave no real indication of what kind of artist she really was. Her first two albums, 1984’s self-titled debut (co-produced by her mentor Hill), were solidly pop-country efforts with mainly up-tempo material which seemed radio friendly enough but which failed to make an impact at country radio. Moving to Allen Reynolds for 1985’s From My Heart was a step in the right direction, but the album was still mired in the pop-country sound then popular at radio in the years after the Urban Cowboy movement. Mercury kept faith with Kathy, and tried a third album, allowing a fundamental change of focus.

Adopting a more rootsy sound just as the neotraditional movement swept in proved to be a great move. Kathy’s folky sound was just distinctive enough to set her apart from her rivals, while her pure, clear voice shone through the less cluttered backing she preferred. Although she wrote relatively infrequently in her career, she has been a great picker of songs, frequently popularizing songs from left field songwriters like Nanci Griffith. It was a cover of Griffith’s ‘Love at the Five And Dime’ that catapulted Kathy into country stardom, as the song became her first big hit.

It was the first of a string of 15 straight top 10 hits over the next six years, including four chart-toppers. She won Grammies for her performance on the single ‘Where’ve You Been’ (written by husband Jon Vezner) and for her Christmas album Good News, which premiered modern Christmas classic ‘Mary, Did You Know’. She was also named CMA Female Vocalist of the Year twice, in 1989 and 1990.

In the early 90s she started branching out more artistically, including more folk, bluegrass and Celtic elements, and while her song selection remained top-notch, she drifted away from the mainstream. When the hits dried up and she left Mercury in 1997, she was soon picked up by another major label, MCA, but her sole album for that label, 2000’s The Innocent Years was disappointing.

A couple of independent releases followed before she really found a new impetus and direction for her career. In 2008 she released the critically acclaimed bluegrass concept album Coal, which paid tribute to the coal mining community she grew up in. Originally intended as a one-off project, it has in fact changed her approach to music, and she builds on that with her new album. Calling Me Home draws on folk and the Appalachian mountain music which fed the roots of early country music, and is out on acoustic specialists Sugar Hill Records on September 11.

We will be taking a look back at her career over the month.

Favorite country songs of the 1980s, part 4

The 1980s got off to a poor start with the early 1980s producing some of the lamest country music ever recorded, as the Urban Cowboy movie wrecked havoc on the genre. Fortunately, there was still good country music being released. The first flowering of the late 1980s “New Traditionalist” movement arrived in 1981 with the first hits of Ricky Skaggs and George Strait, but they remained outliers until 1986 as far as good new artists were concerned. The latter part of the decade, however, produced some truly excellent country music with the 1986 arrival of Randy Travis and company.

Here are some more songs that I liked and remember. See if you recall any of these records:

“Everybody Needs Love On A Saturday Night”– The Maines Brothers Band
This 1985 song was the biggest hit (#24) for a bunch of talented musicians, some of whom went on to bigger and better things. Lloyd Maines is a leading steel guitar whiz and record producer – his daughter is Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks. Three other brothers of Lloyd’s were in this band, as well.

I Wish That I Could Fall In Love Today” – Barbara Mandrell
This 1988 slightly re-titled cover of Warren Smith’s big hit  from 1960 was to be Barbara’s last top ten recording. It is one of my favorite Barbara Mandrell recordings.

Save Me” – Louise Mandrell
Louise never quite emerged from her big sister’s shadow but this #6 single from 1983 shows that a lack of talent wasn’t the problem.

My First Country Song” – Dean Martin with Conway Twitty
Not really – Dean had recorded many country songs to great effect, although never with country accompaniment. The album from which this 1983 song was taken, was actually the last album the 66-year-old Dean would record after a hugely successful career as a pop singer, movie star , television star and stage performer. In his time very few performers were bigger stars than Dean Martin. Conway Twitty wrote this song and performed it with Dean. It wasn’t a huge hit (#35) but it was an interesting ending to one of the greatest careers in American entertainment history.

You Are My Music, You Are My Song”– Wayne Massey with Charly McClain
Wayne Massey was a soap opera heartthrob and his wife Charly was stunningly attractive. This 1986 hit was one of two top tens the duo would have, although Charly had a very successful career as a solo act.

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Album Review: Musicians Against Childhood Cancer – ‘Life Goes On’

Musicians Against Childhood Cancer is the umbrella name for an annual charity concert by some of the best current bluegrass musicians. In 2006 a compilation of tracks recorded at the concert over the years was released in aid of St Jude’s Hospital, and this sequel contains performances from more recent years. The music was all recorded live but the excellent mixing would not be out of place in a studio set. The musicianship is without exception superb, as one might expect, and this is a fine bluegrass sampler in its own right, with a range of subject matter. The two CD-set includes a generous 39 tracks.

The outstanding track as far as I’m concerned is Bradley Walker’s cover of ‘Revelation’, a somber Bobby Braddock vision of the Second Coming which was originally recorded by Waylon Jennings and more recently served as the title track of an album by Joe Nichols. Walker’s superb 2006 debut album Highway Of Dreams has been far too long waiting for a follow up and it is good to hear him again. He is accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar backing allowing the bleakness of the song to take center stage.

I’m a fan of the compelling sibling harmony of the Gibson Brothers, and they contribute the fascinating ‘Ragged Man’, a tale of bitter sibling rivalry. The brother who is reduced to homeless poverty while the brother once preferred by their mother now rolls in riches, rails against “that golden boy” and warns him to “watch his back”. I’m also a big fan of Brandon Rickman’s soulful voice, and he teams up with bandmates from the Lonesome River band for a beautifully judged reading of the traditional ‘Rain And Snow’. Later the Lonesome River Band provide one of the best instrumentals on offer, the lively ‘Struttin’ To Ferrum’, which holds the attention all the way through.

Rhonda Vincent sings a simple but lovely, plaintive version of the traditional ‘The Water Is Wide’. She also sings harmony on Kenny and Amanda Smith’s take on gospel classic ‘Shouting Time In Heaven’. Marty Raybon is excellent on the gloomy Harlan Howard song ‘The Water So Cold’ (once recorded by country star Stonewall Jackson), which sounds made for bluegrass. Read more of this post

Favorite country songs of the 1980s, Part 2

The 1980s were a mixed bag, with the early 1980s producing some of the lamest country music ever recorded, as the Urban Cowboy movie wreaked havoc on the genre. Fortunately, there was still good country music being released. The first flowering of the late 1980s “New Traditionalist” movement arrived in 1981 with the first hits of Ricky Skaggs and George Strait, but they remained outliers until 1986 as far as good new artists were concerned. The latter part of the decade, however, produced some truly excellent country music with the 1986 arrival of Randy Travis and company.

This list is meant neither to be a comprehensive list of great country songs from the 1980s, nor any sort of ranking of records. It’s just a list of some songs that I liked and remember. See if you recall any of these records.


“Walk On By“– Donna Fargo
A nice cover of the 1961 Leroy Van Dyke hit, by the time this record was released Donna had already pulled back on her career due to being stricken with Multiple Sclerosis in 1979. Released in March 1980, the song reached #43. Donna is still alive and you can find out more about her at her website www.donnafargo.com


“Crying Over You” – Rosie Flores

Rosie’s never had much chart success but this self-proclaimed ‘Rockabilly Filly’ is a popular concert draw and a dynamic live performer. This song was her career chart highwater reaching #51 in 1987.

“Just In Case ” 
The Forester Sisters
Katie, Kim, June and Christie had a five year run of top ten hits from 1985 through 1989 with fourteen straight top ten records, including this song, their second of five number one records . Released in 1985, this topped the charts in early 1986.

“Crazy Over You”– Foster & Lloyd
Songwriters Radney Foster and Bill Lloyd joined forces as a duo in 1987. This was their first and biggest chart record reaching #4 in the summer of 1987.

“Always Have, Always Will” – Janie Frickie (or Janie Fricke)

This 1986 #1 was her ninth (and last) #1 record. This bluesy number was an excellent record coming after a long string of successful but insubstantial fluff. A former session singer, Janie’s career hit high gear during the 1980s, a decade which saw her tally 26 chart records with 17 top ten records and eight #1s.

“Beer Joint Fever” – Allen Frizzell

A younger brother of both Lefty and David Frizzell, Allen today writes and sings predominantly Christian music, although he will perform a Lefty Frizzell tribute (omitting Lefty’s rowdier songs). This song charted in 1981 – the follow up was titled “She’s Livin’ It Up (and I’m Drinkin’ ‘Em Down)”, neither of them songs Allen would dream of performing today.

“I’m Gonna Hire A Wino To Decorate Our Home” – David Frizzell
The early 1980s were David Frizzell’s commercial peak, both as a solo artist and as part of a duet with Shelly West. This unforgettable 1982 novelty was David’s sole #1 record, although my personal David Frizzell favorites were the follow up “Lost My Baby Blues” and his 1999 recording of “Murder On Music Row”.

“You’re The Reason God Made Oklahoma” – David Frizzell & Shelly West

A huge record, this song came from the Clint Eastwood film Any Which Way You Can and topped the charts in early 1981

“Houston (Means I’m One Day Closer To You)” – Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers

After a dominant streak from 1975 in which seven songs reached #1 on one or more of the major charts, Larry and his brothers hit a rough patch in which their singles charted, but few reached the top ten. Finally in late 1983 this song reached #1, and kicked off a brief resurgence fueled by a large infusion of western swing. The two records that followed this record (“Denver” and “The Lady Takes The Cowboy Every Time”) would have made Bob Wills proud.

“You and I” – Crystal Gayle & Eddie Rabbitt

Crytal Gayle had a run of thirty-four top ten records that ran from 1974 to 1987. I’m not that big a Crystal Gayle fan but I really liked her 1982 duet with Eddie Rabbitt which reached #1 country / #7 pop.

“Somebody’s Knocking” – Terri Gibbs

Released in 1980, this song peaked at #8 (#13 pop / #3 AC) in early 1989. Blind since birth, Terri really wasn’t a country singer and soon headed to gospel music . This was her biggest hit, one of four top twenty records.

“Sweet Sensuous Sensations” – Don Gibson
Not a big hit, this was Don’s next-to-last chart record, reaching a peak of #42 in April 1980. Don’s chart career ran from 1956-1981. His influence as a songwriter is still felt today.

“Oklahoma Borderline” – Vince Gill
It took Vince a while for his solo career to take off after leaving Pure Prairie League. This song reached #9 in early 1986 and was his second top ten recording. The really big hits would start in 1990 with “When I Call Your Name”.

“A Headache Tomorrow (Or A Heartache Tonight)” – Mickey Gilley
Mickey Gilley was a second cousin to Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart as his piano playing amply demonstrates. This song reached #1 in 1981. Mickey’s long string of hits consisted of some original material (such as this song and “Doo-Wah Days”) and some covers of pop hits such as his next record “You Don’t Know Me” (a cover of a Ray Charles hit covering an Eddy Arnold hit) and prior hits “True Love Ways” and “Stand By Me”.

“White Freight Liner Blues” – Jimmie Dale Gilmore

Jimmie Dale Gilmore looks like a renegade hippie from the sixties and sounds like one of my honky-tonk specialist from the fifties. He’s never had much chart success (this song reached # 72 in 1988) but his albums are terrific and his vocals solid country through and through. Probably the most underrated performer of my generation.

“If I Could Only Dance With You” – Jim Glaser

A part of the famous trio Tompall and The Glaser Brothers, Jim’s voice was midway in range between brothers Chuck and Tompall with significant overlap on both ends.  Also, Jim was part of the vocal trio on Marty Robbin’s classic hit “El Paso” and wrote the pop hit “Woman, Woman” (#4 pop hit for Gary Puckett and The Union Gap).  Jim released a number of chart records under his own name form 1968-1977, but his real success began after Tompall & The Glaser Brothers split up (again) in 1982 and Jim signed with Noble Vision Records. After the first three records for Noble Vision went top thirty, this 1984 single reached #10. The follow up “You’re Getting To Me Again” went to #1 but then Noble Vision started having financial problems. Jim would subsequently sign with MCA in 1985 but the momentum had been lost (not to mention that by then Jim was already 47 years old).

“Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)” – Tompall & The Glaser Brothers

Tompall and The Glaser Brothers were one of the most impressive live singing groups to ever take the stage. Unfortunately, their stage show did not translate into recording success. The group was together from 1959 until about 1974, recording many fine records but only one top ten hit in “Rings” which reached Record World’s #1 slot in 1971. The group briefly reunited in 1980 and had their career record with this Kris Kristofferson song which reached #2 Billboard / #1 Cashbox in 1980.

“Today My World Slipped Away” – Vern Gosdin

Recorded for the small AMI label, this gem reached #10 in early 1983, just as AMI was going down the toilet. It’s hard for me to pick out just one favorite Vern Gosdin song, but this one would be in my top three. From here Vern would go to another small label Compleat where he would have his biggest hit in 1987’s “I Can Tell By The Way You Dance (You’re Gonna Love Me Tonight”).

“Diamonds In The Dust”- Mark Gray

Mark Gray and Vince Gill were the two young male singers most highly touted to make it big in the early 1980s. Both were associated with bands that had some success (Mark was a member of Exile for a few years, Vince a member of Pure Prairie League). Then Nashville took a traditionalist turn leaving Gray, not as versatile a performer as Vince Gill, stranded. Still, Gray almost made it. This song was Gray’s third top ten record, reaching #9 in late 1984. The follow up “Sometimes When We Touch”, a nice duet with Tammy Wynette reached #6. Then came the Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam, et al floodwaters of 1986.

“When A Man Loves A Woman” – Jack Grayson

Nice 1981 cover of a #1 pop hit for Percy Sledge in 1966. This song peaked at #18 in early 1982. This was Grayson’s only top twenty recording out of thirteen charted records.

“The Jukebox Never Plays Home Sweet Home” – Jack Greene
This 1983 single barely cracked the top 100 for Jack but it was a pretty good recording that probably would have been a big hit had Jack recorded it a dozen years earlier. This was Jack’s thirty-third chart record. He would have three more before fading off the charts for good. His 1966 single was #1 for seven weeks in 1966-1967 and was the CMA Single of The Year in 1967. Jack also took home the Male Vocalist honors for 1967. Jack is now 82 years old and still performs, but mostly on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.

“I.O.U.”– Lee Greenwood

This single reached #6 in 1983, his fourth consecutive top ten single, and still my favorite Lee Greenwood song. Lee was the first artist to record “Wind Beneath My Wings” and had it planned as the second single from the I.O.U album. Gary Morris dashed into the studio and got his version recorded and released before “I.O.U.” finished its chart run. Lee’ version was better (and better than the pop version that came out in 1989).

“Lone Star State of Mind” – Nanci Griffith

Nanci is a fine songwriter/poet having written many fine songs. As a singer, she’s not much. This song reached #36 in 1987, her biggest chart hit of the 1980s. She did a nice recording of “Love At The Five & Dime”, but even that song was better in a cover version, as recorded by Kathy Mattea.

“Still The Same” – Bonnie Guitar

Nine years after her last chart entry and twenty years after her last top forty recording , country music’s ‘Renaissance Woman’ snuck onto the charts in 1989 with a nice version of a Bob Dylan song.

“Trains Make Me Lonesome”– Marty Haggard
Marty’s career almost ended before it started when he picked up a hitch hiker who shot him and left him for dead. A long recovery followed with an extended period of recovery. This song reached #57 in 1988 for the soon to be defunct MTM label. Written by Paul Overstreet and Thom Schuyler, this song was recorded by a number of artists including George Strait on his 1992 album Holding My Own. Marty’s version is better and would have been a big hit had it been released in 1958 rather than 1988.

“A Better Love Next Time – Merle Haggard

This was Merle’s 100th chart single reaching #4 in 1989. What else is there to say?

“Song of The South” – Tom T. Hall & Earl Scruggs

Tom T. Hall’s days as a hit maker were largely over by 1982 and Earl Scruggs never was a hit maker – he was of far greater importance than that. These two music masters combined for a wonderful album titled The Storyteller and The Banjo Man in 1982 from which emerged this single. Alabama would have a big hit with this song a few years later but the Alabama version lacks the personality and charm of this rendition.

“She Says” – George Hamilton V

The only chart record for the son of George Hamilton IV, this tune reached #75 in early 1988.

“There’s Still A Lot of Love In San Antone” – Connie Hanson with Darrell McCall

A cover of Darrell’s 1974 hit, this version peaked at # 64 in early 1983.

“After The Last Goodbye ” – Gus Hardin

This 1983 recording was the only solo top ten for the smoky voiced Ms. Hardin. A longtime favorite in Tulsa, Gus broke through with a major label contract (RCA) and charted eight solo singles and two duets. Released in 1984, her duet with Earl Thomas Conley “All Tangled Up In Love” peaked at #8 in early 1985. Her 1985 duet with David Loggins “Just As Long As I Have You” reached #72.

“I’m Moving On ” – Emmylou Harris
Emmylou had 26 top ten recordings between 1975 and 1988. This 1983 live cover of Hank Snow’s 1950 hit (in fact, the biggest chart hit in the history of country music) reached #5. During the 1980s, most of Emmylou’s best recordings were duets – “That Loving You Feelin’ Again” (with Roy Orbison) and “If I Needed You” (with Don Williams) come readily to mind, but there were more.

“Sure Thing” – Freddie Hart

After a hugely successful first half of the 1970s, Freddie hits got progressively smaller. By 1979 Freddie had been dropped by Capitol and signed by Sunbird, the same label that launched Earl Thomas Conley. The label failed to re-launch Freddie’s career but did provide a few good recordings, including this song, which reached #15 in 1980 and would prove to be Freddie’s last top twenty hit.

“Key Largo” – Bertie Higgins

Just when it seemed that the ‘Gulf & Western’ subgenre had been strip mined of hits by Jimmy Buffett, along comes this nostalgic hit which became a #8 pop hit in 1982 (topped out at #50 on the country chart).

“Whiskey, If You Were A Woman” – Highway 101

Highway 101 exploded onto the country music scene in January 1987 running off a string of ten consecutive top tens through early 1990. This one is my personal favorite with Paulette Carlson’s voice seemingly tailor made for the song, which reached #2 in 1987. Typical story – Carlson left the band in late 1990 seeking solo stardom and the band never recovered its momentum (plus Carlson did not succeed as a solo act). I was torn between this song and one of the group’s #1 hits “Somewhere Tonight”.

“Jones On The Jukebox” – Becky Hobbs
The inability of the Hobbs to break through at radio has always bugged me. Other than a duet with Moe Bandy (“Let’s Get Over Them Together” – #10 in 1983), Ms Hobbs was unable to break the top thirty. The closest she got was this song, which peaked at #31 in 1988.

“Texas Ida Red” – David Houston
David’s 60th (and next to last) chart record, this recording peaked at #69 on the small Excelsior label in 1981. This was a pretty good western swing record. Houston would have one more chart record in 1989. His 1966 hit “Almost Persuaded” was (according to Billboard) the biggest chart record of the last fifty years, spending nine weeks at #1.

“All American Redneck” – Randy Howard
#84 in 1983 – what more need I say.

“Til You And Your Lover Are Lovers Again” – Engelbert Humperdinck

Engelbert is one of the truly great vocalists of my generation. His greatest decade was the 1960s when he made international huge pop hits out of country classics such as “Release Me”, “There Goes My Everything” and “Am I That Easy To Forget” as well as covering other country songs on his albums. This song peaked at #39 in 1983.

“Oh Girl” – Con Hunley

This cover of a Chi-Lites hit from 1972 reached #12 in 1982 and featured the Oak Ridge Boys on backing vocals. Con’s voice was too smoky and too distinctive to have achieved much success during the early 1980s but this was a fine recording, even if not very country. Con’s biggest hit came the year before when “What’s New With You” peaked at #11.

“Talk To Me Loneliness” – Cindy Hurt

This song reached #35 in 1982. Her biggest hit was “Don’t Come Knocking” which topped out at #28 earlier in the year. Cindy charted seven records between 1981 and 1983, then disappeared.

Classic Rewind: Nanci Griffith – ‘Gulf Coast Highway’

Classic Rewind: Nanci Griffith – ‘I Wish It Would Rain’

Album Review: Nanci Griffith – ‘Intersection’

Much of Nanci Griffith’s work has tended to fall closer to the contemporary folk side of the border with country music, but regardless of genre, her music has been of consistently high quality.  Her 20th album is out now in the UK and Ireland where she is currently touring, and is set for release next month in the US on her own Hell No Records, distributed by Sony.  She has had a tough time in her personal life in the past few years, and the album is reportedly very personal.  Production was a joint effort by Nanci, Pete and Maura Kennedy, and Pat McInerney, with very few outside musicians being involved.

The catchy but abrasive ‘Hell No (I’m Not Alright)’ is angry handclapping protest-folk, and is the first single. Supposedly it is inspired by the Occupy protest movement, but while the official video portrays the latter, I cant detect any overt polical aspects at all in the lyrics. When the song stands on its own merits, it appears to be about a thoughtless man who has let the protagonist down in a personal relationship. Nanci’s personal views about the socio-political situation may have informed her sense of malaise, but standing on its own merits I don’t hear this as a political song at all. The seething anger she expresses at the man’s patronising response to her is universally relateable on a personal level:

Hell no, I’m not alright
You can talk all day and ask all night
Nothing’s gonna change, no end in sight
Hell no, I’m not alright

Did you really think it would be okay
To leave me stranded alone that day?
Did you really think you could wait so long
To call me up to see if you’re alright?

You’re on the bow and I’m alone
And when you’re alone you’re all alone
I’m still gone, it’s all the same
But I’m takin’ notes and I’m namin’ names

Am I the one to get you to forget
That the one is gone, is gone, is gone?
Am I supposed to say you’re okay?
Cause you’re not okay and you’re not okay

The insistently bluesy ‘Come On Up Mississippi’ is more political in the widest sense. It is very short, closking in just under twwo minutes and uses a small children’s choir with unusual restraint. Perhaps the most political song here, it’s an angry response to the poverty of the state of that name and a stirring call for solidarity from other Americans:

Come on up Mississippi
Come on up
I’m coming on up to you
And if only America knew
Of your poverty, your dirty streets, your children with their barefoot feet
They’d all be coming on up to you Missisippi…

Come on up Mississippi
America’s for you

The opening ‘Bethlehem Steel’ laments the closing of a Pennsylvania steelworks in the 1990s and its effect on the town that relied on the jobs it had provided.  She paints a detailed and atmospheric picture of “an American icon”, and a sympathetic portrait of a woman remembering childhood memories of the area’s past prosperity gives it a human face.  Ethereal backing vocals add to the elegaic mood.

The catchy but repetitive ‘Stranded In The High Ground’ was co-written by all four producers, and has a bright feel but doesn’t really go anywhere lyrically. Nanci also revives her own 20-year-old ‘Just Another Morning here’, with Eric Brace and Peter Cooper on harmony; it is on the folkier side of her repertoire and not one of her more interesting songs.

I enjoyed the surprisingly upbeat defiance of ‘Bad Seed’, written by Nanci and Maura about a deeply troubled father-daughter relationship. This is one of the overtly personal songs, with a scorching indictment of the man who has rejected her, with a twist of humor to leaven the soul searing honesty:

I look like him without the mustache
I’ll have that too if I live that long…

When I’m winning he knows me
When I lose I’m his bad seed
After all he told me
Nothing good would become of me
Now that I’ve gone crazy
With no love from my father
Am I the bad seed he always said I would be?

The title track’s mellow laidback sound underpins the resigned lyric about facing failure and having to move on:

It’s time to walk away though I’ll live to curse this day
Sometimes making the best is doing the worst to yourself
And I will not complain
It’s all still the same
I’ve had a hard life and I write it down
I’m at this intersection here between my hopes and dreams and fears
Traveling love boulevard on a green light

Hitting similar notes thematically, the pensive mid-tempo ‘Never Going Back’, written by Mark Seliger, reminisces gently about moving on from a restrictive neighbourhood. Nanci has always been willing to include other writers’ material alongside her own, and the songs selected from outside writers fit in well with her own material here. Blaze Foley’s mournfully beautiful ‘If I Could Only Fly’ is impeccably done. The gentle ‘Davey’s Last Picture’ (written by Robbin Bach and Betty Reeves) is a sensitive and touching tribute to a young firefighter killed on 9/11. Bach sings harmony on this track.

I particularly enjoyed an unexpected and very charming version of ‘Waiting On A Dark Eyed Gal’, written by Ron Davies (brother of Gail) and recorded some years ago by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Nanci’s wistful version changes the song to make it a third person narration, and gives it an attractive acoustic arrangement. There is also a delightful hillbilly cover of a lesser known Loretta Lynn song, the joyful ‘High On A Mountain Top’, with the Steel Drivers’ Richard Bailey contributing rhythmic jangling banjo. This ends the album on a high note.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Nanci Griffith – ‘Ford Econoline’

Album Review – Nanci Griffith – ‘Little Love Affairs’

Released in 1988, Little Love Affair was Nanci Griffith’s second album for MCA with Tony Brown at the helm. Like Lone Star State of Mind it proved a marginal success with three low-charting singles. The record itself would peak at #27.

The very slow “I Knew Love” charted first, peaking at #37. Written by Roger Brown, it tells the story of a woman who knew love back when it was good, and more than just a word. While the piano-laced arrangement is easy on the ears, I found the near-whisper of the vocal hard to listen to.

The much better “Never Mind” would be issued next, peaking in the low 50s. A classic honky-tonker, it opens with bouncy steel that remains steady throughout. I quite like this one, as Griffith turns in a sweet vocal and nicely brings the lyrics to life.

The more mainstream “Anyone Can Be Somebody’s Fool” would be the final charting single, peaking at #68. The song, written by Griffith, is excellent but her vocal is likely what kept this from breaking through as it wasn’t mainstream enough to have been in step with the times back then.

The rest of Little Love Affairs continues the dance of songs that were just a little bit out of touch with the neotraditionalist movement, mixed with some real gems.

My favorite tracks on the album are the livelier numbers. “Love Wore A Halo (Back Before The War)” chugs along with a wonderful dobro and acoustic guitar driven arrangement. “Outbound Plane” is excellent, too, although I’m partial to the Suzy Bogguss version. It’s neat to hear Griffith’s songwriter take on the song, but the rapid-fire lyrics make it hard to fully appreciate the story. But I do love the rawness she and Brown brought fourth here.

Another standout, and possibly the best song on the whole album, is “I Wish It Would Rain.” Written by Griffith, it details the story of a woman searching for love from Georgia to her gulf coast hometown. I love everything about this track from the effecting vocal to the tasteful dobro and guitar heavy production. It’s hard to see why this wasn’t a single, as it could’ve easily been the biggest hit on the whole project.

“So Long Ago,” the story of a daughter going off to school and her father off to war, is the best ballad on Little Love Affairs. Written solely by Griffith, it stands out due to the modern production and her perfectly executed vocal.

I also adore “Sweet Dreams Will Come,” the rocking bluegrass duet with John Stewart. It closes the album with a nice dose of energy and the dobro filled production is just delightful.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album falls short. The title track is the biggest mess, with bizarre production values and a weak vocal from Griffith. “I Would Change My Life,” is strong lyrically, but Griffith’s grating vocal hinders my enjoyment of the song. And “Gulf Coast Highway,” a tribute to where Griffith grew up, is weirdly pop leaning, while the guest vocal from Mac McAnally, doesn’t add much to the overall song.

Little Love Affairs, in execution, is a mixed bag. Griffith and Brown did a poor job of crafting an album primed for mainstream success. The low-charting singles are hardly a surprise, as there is little here country radio would put into heavy rotation. As Razor X touched on last week, Griffiths’ vocal ability was too unique (or acquired taste) to stand next to the likes of Reba McEntire and Patty Loveless at the time.

Grade: B 

Classic Rewind: Nanci Griffith – ‘Love At The Five And Dime’

This Nanci Griffith story song was the breakthrough hit for Kathy Mattea in 1986. Nanci also recorded it herself on her album Last Of The True Believers, and she talks about it here before singing it:

And it can’t be embedded, but visit youtube for Kathy’s version.

Album Review: Nanci Griffith – ‘Lone Star State of Mind’

Nanci Griffith made her major label debut as part of a marketing campaign that MCA Records labeled “country and eastern”, a moniker which also included Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle and the Desert Rose Band. All were on the fringes of the mainstream and hoped to find acceptance at country radio. None of them enjoyed any long-term success, however, and the genre is poorer off as a result. Griffith barely made a dent in the country charts as a recording artist, but she released a handful of very well crafted albums during her tenure with MCA, the first of which was 1987’s Lone Star State of Mind, which she co-produced with Tony Brown.

Up to this point Griffith had released several successful country-flavored folk albums which were released on the independent Philo label. To the extent that she was known to mainstream audiences it was for having written “Love at the Five and Dime”, which had been a Top Five hit for Kathy Mattea in 1986. Lone Star State of Mind consisted of six songs that she wrote or co-wrote, and five other songs penned by outside writers. A conscious effort was made to appeal to country fans by incorporating a generous amount of fiddle and pedal steel into the mix. Though it sold only modestly, the album was Griffith’s most successful during her tenure in Nashville.

The title track, written by Fred Koller, Pat Alger and Gene Levine was the album’s first single. Upbeat and featuring an energetic vocal performance, it rose to #36, becoming Nanci’s highest charting single on the Billboard country chart. It was followed by one of Nanci’s own compositions, “Trouble In The Fields”, which was co-written by Rick West. It tells the story of a farmer and his wife, on the brink of financial ruin due to a drought, and draws comparsions to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. But despite the hardships they face, the couple is determined to soldier on and save their farm from foreclosure:

All this trouble in our fields,
If this rain can fall, these wounds can heal,
They’ll never take our native soil.
And if we sell that new John Deere,
And we work these crops with sweat and tears,
You be the mule, I’ll be the plow,
Come harvest time we’ll work it out,
There’s still a lot of love, here in these troubled fields.

This is a beautiful song, my favorite of anything Nanci has ever done, but sadly it only reached #57. Irish singer Maura O’Connell later covered the song, bringing it to the attention of international audiences. The album’s third and final single, “Cold Hearts/Closed Minds”, another Griffith composition, is more folk than country. It too was more or less ignored by radio and topped out at #64.

Surprisingly, the song for which Nanci is best known was not released as single in the US. She was the first artist to record Julie Gold’s “From A Distance”, which four years later would become a major pop hit for Bette Midler. Nanci’s version is virtually unknown to American audiences, but it became a huge hit in Ireland where it topped the charts and established Nanci as a major star in that country.

“Ford Econoline”, another one of my favorites, is a light-hearted number about a controlling husband who makes the mistake of buying his wife a car, which she promptly uses to escape his clutches and start a singing career. The more contemplative “Nickel Dreams”, written by Mac McAnally and Don Lowery, had been recorded by Reba McEntire a few years earlier. Tanya Tucker would borrow the title for autobiography a few years later, despite never having recorded the song.

The album closes on a very personal and introspective note. “There’s A Light Beyond These Woods (Mary Margaret)” is a re-recording of the title track of Griffith’s 1978 debut album. She uses the occasion to address a childhood friend and to reminisce about key events of their lives, including meeting Nanci’s boyfriend John, and his subsequent death in a motorcycle accident shortly after their senior prom.

Nanci’s sometimes quirky vocal style may not be to everyone’s taste, and this may have been a factor in hampering her commercial success. She did, however, write and record many literate and substantive songs, some of which went on to become hits for other artists. Lone Star State of Mind reached #23, making it Nanci’s highest charting album on the Billboard Country Albums chart. Regrettably, commercial success continued to elude her and she eventually moved in a more pop direction and had her contract transferred to MCA’s L.A. division. Shortly thereafter she departed the label altogether and began to revisit her folk roots on Elektra Records.

Lone Star State of Mind
is easy to find on CD and in digital form. New copies tend to be expensive, but used copies are quite inexpensive.

Grade: A

Spotlight Artists: Female Singer-songwriters

For our March spotlight, we’re taking a look at four distinct country songwriters who all, at one point or another, found themselves on the cusp of stardom when they scored major label deals. None would be superstars in their own right, but their songs would be turned into some of the greatest country records of the last thirty years by some of the best female (and sometimes male) voices the genre has to offer.

In celebration of the release of Gretchen Peters Hello Cruel World and Matraca Berg’s The Dreaming Fields we’re taking a look at:


Nanci Griffith

Nanci Griffith’s life hasn’t been without its struggles. Born Nanci Caroline Griffith on July 6, 1953 in Seguin, Texas, she suffered a tragic loss when her boyfriend was killed in a motorcycle accident the night of their senior prom. His loss forever altered her life and became a big inspiration to her songwriting. Griffith has since survived both breast (1996) and Thyroid (1999) cancer.

As an artist, she released her debut album There’s A Light Beyond These Woods in 1978.  She would release four albums (none of which charted) before Kathy Mattea brought her fame after her version of Griffith’s “Love At The Five and Dime” peaked at #3 in 1986.

This success led to a deal with MCA Records. Lone Star State Of Mind was released in 1987. The title track would peak at #36 and the album would peak at #23. Tony Brown would also produce the follow-up, Little Love Affairs, released in 1988. It would also chart, although not as successfully. Griffith’s deal with MCA would span just three more albums, two (One Fair Summer Evening and Storms) of which charted quite low.

The 1990s would bring further success. Suzy Bogguss had a #9 peaking hit in 1992 with “Outbound Plane,” a song Griffith co-wrote with Tom Russell. In 1994, Griffith won her first (and only) Grammy award, Best Contemporary Folk Album for Other Voices, Other Rooms; a collection of songs that inspired her.

Griffiths has a new album, her first since 2009’s The Loving Kind. Although not yet released in the United States, Intersection is available in the UK.

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Classic Rewind: Nanci Griffith – ‘Lone Star State Of Mind’

Album Review: Rosanne Cash – ‘The Wheel’

The 1990s ushered in an era of change for Rosanne Cash, both professionally and personally. Her marriage to Rodney Crowell was beginning to unravel, and as a result her music became more introspective and detached from mainstream country. Her first project of the decade was the (almost) career-killing Interiors, an album of dark and deeply depressing songs that she wrote and produced herself. Aware that the album would be a hard sell to country radio, Columbia Records turned promotional responsibilities for it over to its pop division, and shortly thereafter Rosanne’s contract was transferred from Nashville to New York. Though critically acclaimed, Interiors was a commercial failure, after which Rosanne took a sabbatical from recording for nearly three years.

Her follow-up disc The Wheel examines a lot of the same territory as Interiors, but by this time her outlook is much less bleak. Now divorced from Crowell, Rosanne co-produced The Wheel with John Leventhal, whom she would eventually marry. She wrote all eleven songs on the album, with Leventhal serving as a co-writer on four. Throughout the album she continues to put her failed marriage to Crowell under the microscope, although many of the songs also deal with moving on to a new relationship. What little marketing the album received was handled by Columbia’s New York division. Two singles were released. Neither reached the country chart in the US, though the title track did reach #45 on the adult contemporary chart and the follow-up single “Seventh Avenue” reached #63 on the country chart in Canada. Like Interiors, The Wheel was a commercial disappointment and it marked the end of Rosanne’s tenure with Columbia Records.

Both albums appear to have been created more for the benefit of the artist’s need to examine the changes in her personal life, rather than for the pleasure of the listener. While music is a perfectly legitimate means of self-expression, releasing two such albums consecutively comes across as rather self-indulgent. The Wheel is a much easier album to listen to than its predecessor. It is a quiet album, similar in style to some released by Mary Chapin Carpenter and Nanci Griffith; in fact, Carpenter contributed background vocals to some tracks. The songs are all tastefully produced and well sung. Unfortunately, they are also for the most part, quite dull. While I enjoyed a few tracks — namely, the title track, “You Won’t Let Me In”, and the excellent “Roses In the Fire” in which Rosanne burns the peace-offering of a cheating spouse — the remainder of the songs suffer from a lack of variety in tempo. Many of them are also too long, clocking in at about five minutes in length. They have a tendency to bleed together and by the fourth track I found myself wondering if the album was almost over yet.

While clearly not to my personal taste, The Wheel did receive considerable critical acclaim. It is essential listening only for diehard Rosanne Cash fans, but since cheap copies are widely available, more casual fans may be willing to add it to their collections.

Grade: C

Album Review: Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers – ‘At The Ryman’

With her singles increasingly ignored by country radio as a new generation swept in, Emmylou decided to disband the Hot Band and make a new start. She launched the replacements by recording a live album, at the Ryman Auditorium, historic home of the Grand Ole Opry, which was at the time basically disused. One of the big tests of any artist who sounds good recorded is whether the voice holds up in a live setting. Emmylou Harris’s certainly does, and over her career she has released several live recordings. However, typically of Emmylou, she has never chosen the most trodden path and released a concert of her greatest hits, performed in close imitation of the records. Her 1981 album Last Date, which produced three hit singles including the #1 title track, had consisted of all new material (or at least covers she had not done before). It was not a true live album, though, as the tracks were taken from a series of live dates with her legendary Hot Band. This album, similarly, is not a single gig, but was recorded over three days, 30 April-2 May 1991, and released early the following year. Producers Allen Reynolds and Richard Bennett, and the engineers who worked on the project, deserve special credit for making the final result a seamless whole which sounds like an authentic representation of the experience of seeing Emmylou in concert with her new band.

The material is, once more, all covers of songs she had not previously recorded, mixing up country classics, bluegrass, folk and rock, given an acoustic makeover by Emmylou’s new lineup, the Nash Ramblers. The group, easily as talented as the Hot Band at their hottest and without the assistance of electricity, comprised progressive bluegrass virtuoso Sam Bush on mandolin and fiddle; Roy Huskey Jr on upright bass; West Coast veteran Al Perkins on dobro and banjo, Canadian Larry Atamaniuk on drums and percussion, and a talented young Texan named Jon Randall Stewart on acoustic guitar, mandolin and taking the high tenor harmony, although all four contribute vocals where necessary. Their playing and singing are impeccable throughout. The audience seems to enjoy the occasion rather politely.

For my money. the concert seems to take a while to get going, opening with an enjoyable but fairly sedate version of Steve Earle’s ‘Guitar Town’, followed by a plaintive ‘Half As Much’. ‘Cattle Call’ is prettily and tastefully performed, with delicate yodeling. The chugging ‘Guess Things Happen That Way’ (a Cowboy Jack Clement song made famous by Johnny Cash) is enjoyable, but sounds a little too cheery for the resigned stoicism of the lyric.

It really picks up with a subtly impassioned ‘Hard Times’, dating from the 1850s, which Emmylou opens with a crystalline accapella phrase, and which is one of my favourite tracks. There is more contemporary folk music on a socio-political theme with Nanci Griffith’s idealistic but frankly depressing ‘It’s A Hard Life Wherever You Go’, battling racism and sectarian hatred, segueing into the low key Civil Rights theme of ‘Abraham, Martin and John’, a 60s tribute to Messrs Lincoln, King and Kennedy, all of course victims of assassination. Emmylou also covers rock star Bruce Springsteen’s downbeat and down-tempo memories of a working class child remembering the ‘Mansion On The Hill’ overlooking the town and factories. I must admit would have rather have heard the Hank Williams gospel song of the title, as this is beautifully done, but feels a little lifeless. Southern rock gets a nod with an enjoyable take on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Lodi’, although perhaps it feels a little too good humored for the stagnated frustration expressed in the lyrics.

The bluegrass songs have a lot more life, with lovely, sparkling playing as Bill Monroe’s suitably Celtic sounding instrumental ‘Scotland’ allows the band to stretch out while Emmylou buck-danced with the Father of Bluegrass himself (this is where the video version, which I haven’t seen, would come in handy). The mood carries over into the charming western themed ‘Montana Cowgirl’. There is more Monroe with the driving ‘Walls Of Time’ which he wrote with onetime Bluegrass Boy Peter Rowan, which is okay. Better is a committed performance of ‘Get Up John’, with lyrics written by Marty Stuart and Jerry Sullivan for a Bill Monroe tune, with the Nash Ramblers singing call and response vocals.

Emmylou recalls her 70s peak with a really beautiful version of the wistful ‘Like Strangers’ (one of many Boudleaux Bryant songs made into classic Everly Brothers records, and my favorite track on the album). The spiritual ‘Calling My Children Home’ (co-written by another great bluegrass musician Doyle Lawson) is sung exquisitely acappella with the band members on harmony. I also love Emmylou’s version of the O’Kanes’ ‘If I Could Be There’, with Jon Randall Stewart’s ethereal high harmony; it sounds gentler and more wistful than the original (also great).

There is a nice finish with ‘Smoke Along The Track’ with effective train sounds and appropriate lyrics about moving on.

Sales of this fine record and the accompanying video were disappointing and airplay nonexistent, but the album won Emmylou a Grammy. It also helped to inspire interest in the neglected historic Ryman Auditorium itself, which was restored and reopened as a concert venue in 1994.The CD is easy to find inexpensively. The video was never released on DVD but unused copies of the VHS tape seem to be around.

Grade: B+

Emmylou & Friends: Sweet Harmonies

From the very beginning, collaborations with other artists have been an integral part of Emmylou Harris’ career. Over the span of nearly 40 years, she is perhaps as well known for supplying harmony vocals to other artists records and championing promising newcomers as for her own solo work. It would perhaps be easier to list the names of the artists with whom she has not worked; like Willie Nelson she has worked with a variety of performers from both within and outside the country genre. It isn’t possible to do justice to such a large body of work in a single article, but I’d like to touch on some of my favorites.

Emmylou was performing in small venues in the Washington, DC area when she was discovered by Chris Hillman, who was then the bandleader of The Flying Burrito Brothers. It was he who recommended her to Gram Parsons, who hired her to be his duet partner and introduced her to the world of country music. She sang prominent harmonies on Parsons’ 1973 solo debut album GP, as well as on the follow-up Grievous Angel, which was released in 1974 after Parsons’ death from a drug overdose. Both albums were re-released on a single disc by Reprise. They are also available digitally and are well worth a listen. Emmylou later covered many of the songs on these two volumes on her solo albums. One of the best is a rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Love Hurts”, which also appears on Emmylou’s Duets compilation, which was released by Reprise in 1990 and is an excellent sampler of her non-solo work.

Duets also includes such hits as “We Believe In Happy Endings” with Earl Thomas Conley, “If I Needed You” with Don Williams, and “That Lovin’ You Feeling Again” with Roy Orbison, which won a Grammy in 1980 for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. Two new tracks were recorded for the project: “The Price I Pay” with Chris Hillman’s Desert Rose Band and a beautiful rendition of Nanci Griffith’s “Gulf Coast Highway” with Willie Nelson.

After the death of Gram Parsons and before she secured her solo deal with Reprise, Emmylou had sung backup on some of Linda Ronstadt’s records, and formed what was to become a lifelong friendship. Ronstadt eventually returned the favor, singing backup on Emmylou’s solo records, as did Dolly Parton, whose “Coat of Many Colors” Emmylou had covered on her Pieces of the Sky album. The three women formed an alliance and recorded together sporadically over the next several years. For many years, legal issues and record label politics thwarted their attempts to release an album together, but their collaborations occasionally turned up on Emmylou’s albums, notably “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” from 1979’s Blue Kentucky Girl and “Mister Sandman” from 1981’s Evangeline. Parton and Ronstadt also both contributed to 1980’s Roses In The Snow. Eventually the three women released Trio and Trio II in 1987 and 1999, respectively. Emmylou and Linda teamed up again in 1999 for Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions. Dolly wasn’t available to participate this time around; let’s just say that her presence is sorely missed as this particular album is not one of my favorites.

In 2007 Rhino Records released the four-disc boxed set Songbird: Rare Tracks and Forgotten Gems, which includes a generous sampling of Emmylou’s lesser-known solo and non-solo efforts. Some of the highlights include “Spanish Johnny” with Waylon Jennings, “One Paper Kid” with Willie Nelson and “Here We Are” with George Jones. It also contains some of the outtakes from the Trio sessions with Ronstadt and Parton, as well as some of their earlier recordings that had not previously seen the light of day, including 1978’s “Palms of Victory” and an exquisite reading of “Softly and Tenderly” from the second Trio sessions. Also of note are some of Emmylou’s contributions to tribute albums, such as the title track to the 1994 Merle Haggard tribute Mama’s Hungry Eyes, which she sings with Rodney Crowell, and “Golden Ring” from 1998’s Tammy Wynette Remembered, on which she is joined by Linda Ronstadt and Kate and Anna McGarrigle. “Mary Danced With Soldiers” from The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Volume 2 also makes an appearance, as does “I Don’t Love You Much, Do I” with Guy Clark and “Sonny”, sung with Ireland’s Mary Black and Dolores Keane. The third and fourth discs of Songbird rely heavily on duet material, including collaborations with artists such as Sheryl Crow, Patty Griffin, Mark Knopfler, Carl Jackson, Randy Scruggs, Iris Dement, The Pretenders, and The Seldom Scene. Songbird is a somewhat pricy collection, but it is one of the best music purchases I ever made.

In addition to the artists previously mentioned, Emmylou has lent her voice to recordings by Terri Clark, The Judds, Vince Gill, Trisha Yearwood, and countless others. As someone who became interested in country music during the Urban Cowboy’s heyday in the early 80s, Emmylou’s music was something of an acquired taste for me. It took a few years for me to fully appreciate her artistry, and it was primarily through her work with others that I became a huge fan.

Album Review: Steve Wariner – ‘Burnin’ The Roadhouse Down’

By the mid-90s, Steve Wariner’s commercial success had begun to wane, causing him to take a hiatus from recording and touring, to concentrate instead on songwriting. He experienced a considerable amount of success during his “down time”, beginning when “Longneck Bottle”, a song he’d written with Rick Carnes, was recorded by Garth Brooks. Garth asked Steve to lend his voice and guitar-playing skills to the record and when it was released as a single, “Longneck Bottle” quickly shot to the top of the charts, spending three weeks in the number one spot. A few weeks later, Clint Black took “Nothin’ But The Taillights”, a song he’d written with Steve, to #1. A month after that, “What If I Said” , his duet with Anita Cochran also reached the top of the Billboard chart. By 1998, these successes caused record executives to take another look at Steve, resulting in a new contract with Capitol Records, and an unexpected late-career resurgence.

His first release for the label was “Holes In The Floor Of Heaven”, which Steve had written with Billy Kirsch. The sentimental ballad struck a chord with radio programmers and listeners, becoming Steve’s career record, some 20 years after he’d released his first record. It peaked at #2, his highest chart performance as a solo artist since “I Got Dreams” reached the top spot nine years earlier. It was also awarded the Single of the Year and Song of the Year awards by the Country Music Association in 1998, marking the first time Steve had won any awards from that organization.

Steve’s debut album for Capitol was Burnin’ The Roadhouse Down, which he produced himself. It consisted of 11 new tracks written by Steve with a variety of co-writers, along with “What If I Said”, which had been originally been included on Anita Cochran’s album. Although there were no huge radio hits to follow “Holes In The Floor Of Heaven”, the album is one of the stronger entries in the Wariner discography. For the title track, a lively Western swing number, Steve reunited with Garth Brooks, but even Garth’s tremendous star power couldn’t propel the record into the Top 20. Too retro for country radio, it stalled at #26 despite top-notch performances from both Steve and Garth. The more contemporary “Every Little Whisper” was chosen as the third single. Though it was more radio-friendly than “Burnin’ The Roadhouse Down”, it is not one of the stronger tracks on the album. It was possibly chosen because like “Holes”, it was written with Billy Kirsch, and the label may have thought they would strike gold a second time. It peaked at #36 and no more singles were released.

There are several excellent tracks — and a few mediocre ones — among the album cuts. My favorites are “I Don’t Know How To Fix It”, which was written with Bill Anderson, “A Six Pack Ago”, which was written with Jim Rushing, and “Big Ol’ Empty House”, which was written with Mac McAnally. “Road Trippin'”, written with Marcus Hummon is a lightweight tune with fluffy lyrics and catchy beat that seems like it would have been a good choice for a single release. “Big Tops”, a circus-themed number which was also written with Hummon, has a folk feel to it and sounds like something Nanci Griffith might have released a decade earlier. The two tracks that fail to deliver are “Love Me Like You Love Me” and “Smoke From An Old Flame”, which are pleasant but slightly dull.

The inclusion of “What If I Said” as a bonus track, under license from Warner Bros., was a pleasant surprise. Though thoroughly contemporary in style, the Anita Cochran-penned and produced track is beautifully written and beautifully sung by both performers. It was Cochran’s first record and only Top 40 country hit, and is on my short list of favorite Steve Wariner tracks.

Though Burnin’ The Roadhouse Down only spawned one big radio hit, it did quite well at retail. Peaking at #6, it was his highest-charting entry on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. It also went on to become his second gold album. I don’t like it quite as much as I Am Ready, but I would rank it a close second.

Grade: A

Burnin’ The Roadhouse Down is available from Amazon and other major retailers.

Album Review: Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘Hometown Girl’

Columbia Records’ strategy to market Mary Chapin Carpenter as a country artist is said to have begun with the release of her breakthrough sophomore album State of the Heart (reviewed by Meg last year as part of our Class of ’89 coverage). Prior to that her music was more heavily influenced by folk than country; her 1987 debut album Hometown Girl is a good example of the type of music she was making before she found her commercial niche.

I can’t help wondering who the intended audience was for this album. In its original, independent-release incarnation, I imagine that this was more of a straight folk album. It was re-recorded when Mary landed her deal with Columbia, and producer Steve Buckingham — known for his work with Dolly Parton, Ricky Van Shelton, and Tammy Wynette, among others — was brought in as a co-producer, in order to make the album more commercially appealing. It’s odd that a Nashville producer would be brought aboard before the decision was made to market Mary as a country artist, and stranger yet, that once his commercial flourishes were add to the album, Columbia declined to release any singles and seems to have made little or no attempt to promote Mary to country radio.

Since I’m not a huge Mary Chapin Carpenter fan, I didn’t buy this album when it was first released. Like most people, I didn’t even become aware of her until State of the Heart was released. As a result, I listened to the album for the first time when I was preparing to write this review, which gives me a different perspective than if I were looking back at an album that I’d been listening to for over twenty years. My first impression was that while Hometown Girl is not Mary’s very best work, it is vastly superior to the majority of the overproduced music coming out of Nashville today. Even at this early stage in her career, Mary’s talent as a songwriter is readily apparent. She was the sole writer on seven of the album’s ten songs, and was a co-writer with John Jennings (who co-produced the album with Buckingham) on an eighth song. Her skill in writing literate lyrics is reminiscent of fellow folkie Nanci Griffith, who was making her own attempt to find mainstream commercial success on a major Nashville label around the same time that Hometown Girl was released.
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Looking for the saviour of country music (again)

New Mercury artist Easton Corbin, whose single ‘A Little More Country Than That’ is heading up the charts and whose debut album was released earlier this week, has been touted by some as the latest great hope for a revival of more traditionally rooted music on country radio. He has a pleasant voice and I like his general approach, but I think he is going to need stronger material if he is to fulfil the hype; these are heavy expectations on any young artist in his circumstances in any case.

The last person to bear that mantle, Ashton Shepherd, has been pretty quiet lately, after her first (and so far only) two singles both stalled around #20 in 2008. I still hope to hear more, and better, from Ashton, who is reportedly currently working on a new record, although I felt that her debut album showed promise more than a full achievement of her potential. Earlier in the decade similar hopes were placed on singers like Joe Nichols and Josh Turner, neither of whom has quite fulfilled their potential, although both are maintaining a chart presence. Jamey Johnson, another figurehead for non-pop country (although in his case a little more on the ‘Outlaw’ line of descent) had a really big hit with ‘In Color’, and sales of the acclaimed That Lonesome Song were unexpectedly good, but subsequent singles were a little too much for country radio. His new album is one which I am eagerly awaiting, but it remains to be seen whether it will have another mainstream hit to keep his profile high.

In some ways, the state of commercial country music is not unlike that of the mid 1980s. 25 years ago, pop-influenced sounds had largely ousted more traditional country music from the airwaves, with a sprinkling of more traditional artists to leaven the dough. The big stars of the day were mainly pop-influenced artists like the smoky voiced Earl Thomas Conley, Lee Greenwood, Gary Morris, and former pop group Exile. When a new Warner Brothers artist named Randy Travis released a classic almost-cheating song, ‘On the Other Hand’, in 1985, it was deemed far too country for country radio.

It wasn’t all bad news, though, with a handful of older stars still active; George Jones and Merle Haggard were still having #1 hit singles. Their closest equivalents today would be George Strait and this month’s Spotlight Artist Alan Jackson. Other traditionally-rooted artists were still getting played too, alongside the pop-country, although some had compromised their sound to stay competitive, most notable Dolly Parton, whose music was at its most pop at this date. Even someone like John Anderson who had emerged in 1980 as a hard country act had moved to a poppier sound by 1983. A handful of younger artists including Strait (then at the start of his career), Ricky Skaggs, and Reba McEntire were signs of things to come. Because what few would have predicted in, say, 1984, was the emergence of the neotraditional movement and the way it briefly dominated country music.

The rise to stardom of Randy Travis in 1986 was the real catalyst for that movement. He was certainly not the first – Strait and Skaggs had been around since the start of the decade, and Reba, whose early records were more pop-country had defiantly recorded a selection of older songs on her breakthrough My Kind Of Country album in 1984, and they were all highly successful. But they were exceptions.

Once radio had accepted his single ‘1982’, the now-classic ‘On The Other Hand’ was re-released, and went to #1. Randy’s album Storms Of Life was one of the first country albums to go platinum, thanks to a combination of high quality material, a classic country voice, and strong marketing across genres, and that commercial success encouraged Warners and other labels to sign more young but definitely country artists. Other young singers who had previously recorded more pop-country material, like Steve Wariner and Kathy Mattea, began to sound more traditional or rootsy.

The sea change of the late 80s in fact was not restricted to reviving traditional honky tonk style music; Mattea, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Nanci Griffith all brought folk-rooted music to the major labels. Even Dolly – her finger always on the pulse – abandoned her flirtation with pop and returned to very traditional sounding music with her acclaimed Trio collaboration with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt in 1987 and then asking Ricky Skaggs to produce her White Limozeen album in 1989. Those who had struggled to break through because they were “too country” , like Randy himself, and Keith Whitley, were finally accepted. Even 50-something Vern Gosdin, who had had some hits earlier in the decade, enjoyed a late flowering boom and his greatest period of sustained success in the last few years of the decade.

It is probably unrealistic to expect a similar transformation today. What I think would make a difference would be if one of the younger traditional artists were to start selling well – as well or better than the pop-inspired artists. The music business is just that – a business, and the bottom line has often been more important than artistic merit in Nashville. It is dispiriting to realise that if the genre as a whole is not selling as well as it used to, traditional country is on the whole selling even less. We can’t blame Nashville’s woes solely on the poor quality of many major labels’ output, tempting though that is. If someone is to break through like Randy Travis did, it would almost certainly have to be someone good looking as well as talented. Today youth and beauty are even more important than they were in the 80s, when videos were in their infancy as a marketing tool.

There certainly seem to be few signs of hope for those disenchanted by country radio’s latest lurch popwards. Taylor Swift’s sweep of recent awards shows and domination of the country charts is showing no signs of having run its course yet. The latest country awards nominations (the ACMs) show a predominance of pop-country artists with the melodic but not-very-country Lady Antebellum leading the charge. But the mid 80s were little more promising either. Maybe all we need is that one extraordinary talent to lead the way back.

Returning to Easton Corbin, he is certainly showing signs of appealing to country radio, which is encouraging, as (at last) is Chris Young, who has a great voice and all the right musical instincts but mediocre material. But is either of them a new Randy Travis who can cross over while not compromising? I’m not so sure. Vocally, Easton is being compared most to George Strait, and emulating his career would certainly be no bad thing. Strait’s long career has been remarkably consistent, while Travis’s star burned more brightly for a while before fading in commercial terms. But without that star, the history of country music would have been very different.

Do you think the current direction of country music could be reversed if the right artist came along, or have the changes been too fundamental?