My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: Don Williams – ‘Currents’

Before we get underway with our Johnny Paycheck spotlight, we have some unfinished business concerning last month’s spotlight artist Don Williams.  Through an oversight, this review was not published on Monday, May 29th as originally intended, so we are bringing it to you now — a little late but worth the wait.

The year 1992 was an interesting year in country music as the ‘New Traditionalist’ movement reached its zenith following the first flowering in 1986 (Randy Travis, Travis Tritt,  Dwight Yoakam) and the vaunted class of 1989 led by Alan Jackson, Clint Black and Garth Brooks. By 1992 so-called hat acts proliferated and even when the music was not strictly traditionalist, fiddle and steel guitar were prominently featured in the music.

In 1987 Hank Williams Jr.  and a cadre of younger artists presaged the 1992 music scene with the video “Young Country”, but with one exception: while the listeners may have been listening to both the new acts and the older acts in concert (and through their cassette and CD collections), radio had completely discarded Haggard and Jones and almost discarded the 48 year old Hank Williams Jr.

Currents, which was released in April 1992, was the third (and final) Don Williams album to be released on the RCA label.  Don had enjoyed three top ten hits off the previous album True Love, but those would prove to be the last top forty chart hits of Don’s career.  Make no mistake about it, Currents, like every album Don released before it (or even after it, for that matter) is a very good album. The problem with the album was the ‘Young Country’ movement was in full swing and the fifty-three year old Williams looked like ‘Old Country’ even if his music was not exactly of the Ernest Tubb/Hank Sr. old school vintage. In fact with his rapidly graying beard, Don looked even a bit older than his age. Radio simply quit playing him.

The album opens up with a Hugh Prestwood song, “Only Water (Shining In The Air)”, mid-tempo ballad with a little different sound than previous efforts:

Not that long ago, I was on the run
People telling me I should be someone
And the things I’d learnt were forgotten in my haste
Till I reached the end of the rainbow I had chased
It was only water shining in thin air
I put out my hand and there was nothing there
After all the promise, after all the prayer
It was only water shining in the air
Now I’ve got a wife and she sees me through
And I’ve got a friend I can talk straight to
And I’ve got some dreams just a bit more down to earth
And I don’t forget what a rainbow’s really worth

“Too Much Love” has a sing-a-long quality to it and, again, a little more of a contemporary sound to it. Written by Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway, the song has rather bouncy lyrics of not much substance. The song was released as the second single; it deserved a better fate than dying at #72.

Too much coffee, too much tea, too much sugar isn’t good for me.
Too much money and too much fame, too much liqueur drives a man insane.
But too much love, too much love, there’s no such thing as too much love.
Too much fighting and misery, there’s too much trouble in this world for me.
There’s too much of this and too much of that and too much of anything will make you fat.
But too much love, too much love, there’s no such thing as too much love.

I really liked “That Song About The Water”, in fact it is my favorite song on the album. I think it would have made a good single but I doubt radio would have played it either. Penned by Charles John Quarto and Steve Gillette, the song is a slow ballad that sounds like a typical late 60s – early 70s production with steel guitar and (to a lesser degree) harmonica very prominent in the arrangement. I can hear this as a track on a Charley Pride album from that period.

I have seen the paddle wheelers
Rolling south on a summers day
I’ve seen the lovers at the guardrails
With stars in their lemonade
And I’ve heard the hobos gather
Heard their banjos brace the blade
Heard them sing about the river
Called it the lazy mans parade
Sing me that song about the river
Green going away
You know I always did feel like a drifter
At this time of day

Alex Harvey wrote “Catfish Bates” the third single from the album and the first Don Williams single not to chart after fifty-three consecutive solo chart singles. This mid-tempo ballad also features mid-70s country production. If released as a single 15-18 years earlier, I think it would have been a substantial hit. Of course, I may be prejudiced since fried catfish is my favorite form of seafood:

They call me Catfish Bates
‘Cause I can catch a catfish anytime I want to
Even when the moon man tells me they won’t bite
They call me Catfish Bates
‘Cause I know where that big ole flathead’s a hidin’.
I’m a gonna take him home with me tonight
I am the king of the Loosahatchie
My home is on the river
And them catfish they all know me by my sigh

I keep my nose on the westwind
My eye on the water
And my mind on my business all the time

Don turns to Dobie Gray for the next two songs. Gray was essentially an R&B singer who had two huge pop hits, “The In Crowd” (1965) and “Drift Away” (1972). Country fans may remember “Drift Away from Narvel Felts top ten record in 1973.

“So Far, So Good” is a slow ballad about a breakup that the narrator thinks is about to happen, but which hasn’t happened yet. “In The Family” features a Caribbean rhythm verging on reggae. It’s different but it works

 

Well I was raised up by the golden rule
In an old house with a patched up roof
We had a hard home but it pulled us close
We were family
Oh that summer, when the crops all died
Was the first time I saw Daddy cry
An’ I heard Momma say what goes on here stays
In the family

[Chorus]

Well our clothes weren’t new, that old car was used
We held our own
Whoa you just can’t buy, that sense of pride
We grew up on, In the family

I was stunned that “Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying of Thirst)”, written by the crack team of Bob McDill and Dickey Lee, was not released as a Don Williams single. Instead Kathy Mattea took it to the top twenty in 1993. I like Kathy Mattea but Don’s version is better.

Friends I could count on I could count on one hand with a left over finger or two.
I took them for granted, let them all slip away, now where they are I wish I knew.
They roll by just like water & I guess we never learn,
Go through life parched and empty standing knee deep in a river, dying of thirst.

Pat Alger contributed “Lone Star State of Mind” a song which barely cracked the top forty for Nanci Griffith in 1987. Charles John  Quarto and Steve Gillette contributed “The Old Trail”, a jog-along ballad that isn’t as cowboy as the title suggests. Both songs are good album tracks.

The album closes up with “It’s Who You Love” a top twenty hit for writer Kieran Kane back in 1982. This song was released as the first single from the album. It died at # 73, the first indication that Don’s career as a chart singles act was through. I really like Don’s version – he is a more distinctive vocalist than Kieran Kane – but the song did not do great things in 1982, either.

Lying here beside her I’ve come to understand
If you want to be happy you can
It don’t take living like a king, it doesn’t cost you anything
All it takes is a woman and a man
Because its who you love and who loves you
It’s not where you are if she’s there too
It’s not who you know or what you do
It’s who you love and who loves you
This modern world we live in is a sad state of affairs
Everybody wants what isn’t theirs
While the race for money and success in search of happiness
We turn out the light and go upstairs

Kathy Mattea contributes backing vocals on “The Old Trail”, Dobie Gray does likewise on the two songs he wrote. Kieran Kane plays mandolin and Russ Pahl plays steel guitar. Something called the Bhundu Boys plays on “In The Family” providing guitars, handclaps and cowbells.

I doubt that there was a great conspiracy on radio to not play Don Williams records in 1992 (but I could be convinced otherwise). This is a fine album, with subtle and appropriate instrumentation and featuring a bunch of good songs. This album fits comfortably in the B+ to A- range where most of Don’s albums reside.

No further chart singles would occur for Don Williams, although his subsequent albums would occasionally reach the lower reaches of the Country Albums charts.

I guess Jerry Reed Hubbard was correct when he said “When You’re Hot You’re Hot, When You’re Not,You’re Not”.

 

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Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘Ain’t Gonna Worry’

aint-gonna-worryThe rise of the New Traditionalists changed the face of commercial country music, with crossover artists like Crystal sidelined. Her final #1 hits came in 1986, and her last top 40 country song a couple of years later. Warner Brothers dropped her, but rival Capitol Records (just starting to benefit from the breakout of Garth Brooks, with whom Crystal shared a producer in Allen Reynolds) still saw commercial potential in her. Crystal’s brief tenure on Capitol resulted in this one album in 1990, which saw her drawing back a little from the overly sentimental and sometimes lifeless MOR material she had been recording through most of the 1980s.

‘Everybody’s Reaching Out For Someone’ is a very nice song, written by Allen Reynolds and Dickey Lee, with a pretty melody, a lovely vocal from Crystal and a tasteful arrangement. Despite its merits it was ignored by radio when released as Crystal’s first single for her new label. In other circumstances, it could easily have been a big hit.

An enjoyable upbeat remake of the pop/country oldie ‘Neverending Song Of Love’ with a bouncy accordion backing got marginally more attention, but she would never chart again. Also promoted as singles were ‘Just An Old Love’, a classy lost-love ballad with a string arrangement; and the semi-title track, ‘It Ain’t Gonna Worry My Mind’. Written by Crystal’s favourite writer Richard Leigh, it is a bluesy gospel-sounding tune set to a piano and string backing.

Three other songs are familiar from other versions. J D Souther’s ‘Faithless Love’ suits Crystal perfectly, as does ‘Once In A Very Blue Moon’, written by Pat Alger and Gene Levine, which had been Nanci Griffith’s first single and had also been cut by Dolly Parton. Alger also co-wrote ‘What He’s Doing Now’, this time with Garth Brooks. Brooks would have an enormous hit with this a few years later, as ‘What She’s Doing Now’. Crystal’s version is excellent.

‘Just Like The Blues’, written by Roger Brown, is in a more contemporary style, but very well done. ‘More Than Love’, written by Roger Cook and Bobby Wood, is also pretty good, while ‘Whenever It Comes To You’, written by Richard Leigh and Susanna Clark, is a lovely ballad.

I overlooked this album when it first came out but I enjoyed much more than I anticipated. Released at a different time I think it would have produced several big hits, and it’s well worth a listen.

Grade: A

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘The Chase’

220px-GarthchaseGarth Brooks released his fourth album, The Chase, in September 1992. Produced as usual by Allen Reynolds, Brooks felt it was his most personal album to date. To date The Chase has been certified for sales of nine million units by the RIAA.

“We Shall Be Free” was the album’s lead single. Brooks was inspired to compose the track in the wake of the L.A. Riots, which were fueled by the beating of   African-American construction worker Rodney King. Brooks and co-writer Stephanie Davis covered many topics including freedom of speech, racism, and homophobia. Country radio resisted playing the highly controversial track, which peaked at #12. I’ve always loved the song, which is set to an engaging bluesy piano-heavy beat, and felt it topical without being preachy.

For the second single, Brooks and his label went with “Somewhere Other Than The Night,” a piano and lush string country-rock ballad that was the antithesis of “We Shall Be Free” and Brooks’ tenth number one. The lyric, co-written with Kent Blazy, details a woman desperate (‘She’s standing in the kitchen with nothing but her apron on’) for love and affection from her husband in the hours they’re not in bed together. The ballad is another excellent song; with Brooks turning in a master class vocal that expertly brings the woman’s despair to life with palpable emotion.

The third single follows the same pattern as the second, although the topics are completely different. “Learning To Live Again” is Brooks’ only single from The Chase he didn’t have a hand in writing. It details a man’s journey after a breakup, where feelings of isolation and alienation are slowly killing him. The #2 hit, co-written by Davis and Don Schlitz, is the closet single to traditional country, with ample steel guitar in the production. The track is a masterpiece of feeling, with Brooks once again allowing the listener to feel every ounce of the guy’s pain. It’s also one of my all-time favorite singles he’s ever released.

The final single returns Brooks to uptempo material, with a song inspired by the sweeping heartland rock of Bob Seeger. “That Summer” tells the story of a teenage boy, far from home, who’s working on the wheat-field of a ‘lonely widowed woman.’ She takes a liking to the boy, has sex with him, and he looses his virginity in the process. The track is another masterpiece, this time of delicate subtly, where the content is expertly handled in a way that gets the point across without explicitly saying anything raunchy or crude. Brooks co-wrote the song with his then-wife Sandy Mahl and frequent co-writer Pat Alger.

Each single from The Chase offered the listener something different yet showed Brooks skillfully tackling despair from both a man and a woman’s point of view. The album tracks proved more eclectic, with Brooks offering his own take on two classic songs. He turns the Patsy Cline standard “Walking After Midnight” into twang-filled bluesy traditional country while Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken” morphs into honky-tonk rock. Neither are essential inclusions on The Chase and somewhat puzzling. “Mr. Right” is classic western swing and a rare instance where Brooks solely penned a track.

Lush ballad “Every Now and Then,” a Brooks co-write with Buddy Mondlock, is more in keeping with the overall musical direction of The Chase and features one of Brooks’ more tender vocal performances. The track would’ve worked well as a single, but it’s a bit too quiet. Michael Burton wrote “Night Rider’s Lament,” a steel guitar soaked classic cowboy song previously recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker and Chris LeDoux. Trisha Yearwood adds stunning harmonies to the track.

“Face to Face” finds Brooks singing another Tony Arata tune and while the sinister vibe compliments his commanding vocal, the track really isn’t that memorable. A final tune, “Something With A Ring To It,” comes courtesy of Brooks’ The Limited Series box set from 1998. The mid-tempo western swing ballad was co-written by Aaron Tippin  and Mark Collie first appeared on Collie’s Hardin’ County Line in 1990.

The Chase came at a time when industry insiders feared Brooks’ career had peaked although the listener couldn’t sense that from the music. The singles that emerged from this set have remained some of his finest singles and while the album cuts range from uneven to questionable, he manages to give us at least one worthwhile moment (“Every Now and Then”).

Grade: B

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘No Fences’

image1989 was a watershed year for country music when an unusually high number of artists enjoyed their commercial breakthroughs. Garth Brooks initially emerged as a member of the Class of 1989 and although from the beginning he was a solid performer, few would have guessed that he would soon emerge as the biggest star in music, regardless of genre. He began to break away from the pack with “The Dance”, which was the final single released from his debut album. By the time his 1990 sophomore disc No Fences was released, it was obvious that he was on his way to superstardom.

“Friends In Low Places”, written by DeWayne Blackwell and Earl Bud Lee, was the album’s first single. It took only eight weeks to reach #1, where it remained for four weeks. The delightfully rowdy drinking song went on to become Garth’s best known recording. It won the 1990 Single of the Year award from both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music. It may have been the album’s biggest hit, but it is not my favorite, perhaps partially due to the fact that it was overplayed by radio.

On several of its tracks, No Fences marked a subtle shift towards a softer, more middle-of-the-road sound, as opposed to Garth’s very traditional debut album. The album’s second single, the ballad “Unanswered Prayers” included a string arrangement which, though subtle and tastefully restrained, marked the beginning of a shift away from the ultra-traditional sound that had dominated country music during the last half of the 1980s. “Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House”, on the other hand, was very traditional. The more contemporary and controversial “The Thunder Rolls” was the album’s final single. Written by Garth and Pat Alger, it tells the tale of a worried wife waiting during a thunder storm for her cheating husband to come home. It was originally recorded by Tanya Tucker but her version went unreleased until it was included on her 1994 boxed set. Garth’s version omits the final verse, in which the wife takes a gun and plans to kill her philandering spouse, leaving many who only knew Garth’s version to wonder what the controversy was about. Indeed, there really was no controversy at first, until the accompanying video with its graphic scenes of domestic violence, was released. It was the first but certainly not the last controversy of Garth’s career. TNN refused to play the video unless a disclaimer was included. CMT, which had initially played the clip, also pulled it. It nevertheless was awarded the Video of the Year Award by the CMA in 1991.

All of the aforementioned singles were #1 hits. A fifth single was eventually released more than a decade later, when “Wild Horses”, with a re-recorded vocal track was inexplicably sent to radio in between singles from Garth’s then-current Scarecrow album. It only reached #7 and isn’t one of Garth’s best remembered hits today, but it has always been one of my favorites.

Notable among the album cuts is “Victim of the Game”, a Garth co-write with Mark D. Sanders. Garth’s future wife Trisha Yearwood covered the song a year later on her debut album. The album’s most unusual track is Garth’s cover of the 1959 Fleetwoods hit “Mr. Blue”, which had been written by “Friends In Low Places” co-writer DeWayne Blackwell. The twang added to appeal to country fans is overdone and this track has to be considered a misstep on an otherwise very solid album.

While I don’t like No Fences as much as Garth’s first album, it sold more than 17 million copies and established him as an international superstar well beyond the usual confines of country music and for that reason alone it was a landmark album and a game changer. Garth’s rising tide lifted the boat of many other country stars and for a while country music, at least in North America, was outselling every other genre of music. Unfortunately, it set the bar high and none of Garth’s subsequent albums were ever able to match it. Most country fans, if they don’t already own a copy, have probably at least heard the album, but those who somehow managed to miss it won’t have any trouble tracking down a copy.

Grade: A

Album Review – Kathy Mattea – ‘Willow In The Wind’

By 1989, Kathy Mattea was at the top of her commercial game. She was nominated three times at the CMA Awards in 1988, winning Single of the Year for “18 Wheels And A Dozen Roses” and scoring an album nomination for Untasted Honey but losing to then red-hot K.T. Oslin in her first foray in the Female Vocalist category.

Mattea followed the success with Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh’s “Come From The Heart” in early 1989. Set to an infectious mandolin centric beat; the tune quickly rose to #1 during its fourteen-week chart run. The song, previously recorded by Don Williams in 1987 and Clark’s husband Guy in 1988, features a well-known refrain:

You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money,

Love like you’ll never get hurt.

You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watchin’

Unlike most songs from its era, let alone most music nearing 25 years old, the song is remarkable in that it doesn’t sound the least bit dated. That’s partly why it ranks high among my favorite of Mattea’s singles.

“Come From The Heart” was the lead single to Willow In The Wind, which saw Mattea once again teaming up with Allen Reynolds. This was a smart move as he kept the production clean and let Mattea’s voice shine throughout.

“Burnin’ Old Memories” came next and like its processor, peaked at #1 during a fourteen-week chart run. The song itself is excellent, but unlike “Come From The Heart,” it has aged considerably and the production, while ear catching, is indicative of its era and other sound-alike songs including Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “How Do” and Patty Loveless’ “A Little Bit of Love.” That isn’t necessarily bad, but it keeps the song from being memorable all these years later.

The third single turned the tide, however, and elevated Willow In The Wind to classic status. Although it only peaked at #10, “Where’ve You Been,” the love story of a couple (Claire and Edwin) culminating in the wife dying from Alzheimer’s, quickly became Mattea’s signature song. Written by Mattea’s husband Jon Vezner and Don Henry, the simple elegance of the tune made it a masterpiece, and the combination of Mattea’s touching vocal with the acoustic guitar backing elevated the track to one of the greatest (and one of my personal favorite) expressions of love ever recorded in the country genre (also, a must read article on the importance of the song can be found, here).

“Where’ve You Been,” one of my top two favorite of Mattea’s songs, was also her most rewarded. On the strength of the single she won her second CMA Female Vocalist trophy in 1990, as well as a richly deserved Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. Vezner and Henry took home CMA Song of the Year and Grammy Best Country Song honors as well.

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Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Untasted Honey’

The confidence engendered by the success of Walk The Way The Wind Blows enabled Kathy to follow the same path with its successor released in 1987. Allen Reynolds’s clean, crisp production marries tasteful rootsiness with radio appeal, and the songs are all high quality and well suited to Kathy’s voice.

Poetic lead single ‘Goin’ Gone’ headed straight to #1, becoming Kathy’s first chart topper. Reflecting Kathy’s folkier side, it was written by Pat Alger, Fred Koller and Bill Dale, and like her earlier hit ‘Love At The Five And Dime’, it had been recorded by Nanci Griffith on her The Last Of The True Believers. Kathy is a significantly better singer than Nanci, and her version of the song is quite lovely.

The second #1 from the album was ‘Eighteen Wheels And A Dozen Roses’, probably Kathy’s best remembered song and certainly one of her biggest hits. The warmhearted story song (written by Paul and Gene Nelson) has a strong mid-tempo tune and a heartwarming lyric about a trucker headed for a happy retirement travelling America with his beloved wife.

Singer-songwriters Craig Bickhardt and Beth Nielsen Chapman provide vocal harmony on both these singles, as they do on the title track, which Bickhardt wrote with Barry Alfonso. Here, a restless self-styled “free spirit” yearns for the wide open spaces,

Where a soul feels alive
And the untasted honey waits in the hive

It sounds beautiful, although the faithful lover left behind gets short shrift.

Tim O’Brien’s ‘Untold Stories’ made it to #4. An insistent beat backs up a positive lyric about looking past all the hidden hurts of the past in favour of reconciliation with an old love. O’Brien, a fellow West Virginian who was at that time the lead singer of bluegrass band Hot Rize, sings harmony and plays mandolin and acoustic guitar on the track, while The Whites’s Buck White plays piano. O’Brien also wrote ‘Late In The Day’, a highlight of the record with a downbeat lyric about late night loneliness, an acoustic arrangement and perfectly judged vocal. It’s the kind of song Trisha Yearwood would have done well with a few years later, and Kathy’s version shows just how good a singer she is, both technically and as a master of interpretation.

His contribution to the album did not end with these two songs, as he also duets with Kathy on Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet’s beautiful ‘The Battle Hymn Of Love’, a wedding song based on the vows of a marriage ceremony. It was belatedly released as a single in 1990, to promote Kathy’s A Collection Of Hits compilation, and reached the top 10. A slight folk feel is lent by both Tim’s vocal stylings and the use of hammered dulcimer in the pretty arrangement.

The album’s last official single (another to peak at #4) was the melancholy ballad ‘Life As We Knew It’. It is almost a prequel to ‘Untold Stories’ with its story of a woman packing up her things, filled with regret for the life she is leaving behind. It was written by Walter Carter and Fred Koller, and has a particularly beautiful, soaring melody. Jerry Douglas guests on dobro, and Tim O’Brien harmonizes again.

One of Kathy’s favorite writers, Pat Alger, teamed up with Mark D Sanders to write ‘Like A Hurricane’, which picks up the pace a bit. West Virginia references ad lovely instrumentation lift a well-performed but otherwise unremarkable song. The tender love song ‘As Long As I Have A Heart’, written by Dennis Wilson and Don Henry, has a pretty tune and acoustic arangement, and is very good. The delicately sung ‘Every Love’, co-written by folkie Janis Ian with country songwriter Rhonda Kye Fleming, offers an introspective overview of the nature of love, and has a stripped down acoustic backing featuring the harp.

Untasted Honey was Kathy’s best selling album to date, and her first to be certified gold. It is also a very fine record which stands up well after quarter of a century, and contains some of Kathy’s best work. It is available digitally, and can be found cheaply on CD.

Grade: A

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘A Dream Come True’

A Dream Come True was Rhonda Vincent’s second solo album, and also her second album for Rebel Records, a Roanoke Virginia label that already had a long and distinguished history of preserving and presenting bluegrass music.

Rebel certainly put their best foot forward with this album, assembling a fine cast of musicians to augment Rhonda’s usual supporting cast, with such great musicians as Jerry Douglas (dobro) and Roy Huskey (bass) plus some other guests appearing on selected tracks. Carl Jackson, Kathy Chiavola , Wayland Patton and Tensel Davidson provide vocal harmonies throughout the album.

The album opens up with “Kentucky Sweetheart”, an uptempo romp by bluegrass stalwarts Carl Jackson and Tony King. Blaine Sprouse plays fiddle on this track. The vocal harmonies on this track are somewhat reminiscent of those of the Osborne Brothers during the 1960s. “We Were Almost Like A Dream Come True” is slow ballad co-written by Larry Cordle, a very pretty and wistful song.

One doesn’t think of Pat Alger as a bluegrass songwriter and he isn’t. That said, “Lone Star State of Mind” definitely works as a bluegrass song. This song is performed at a medium fast tempo.

What would a bluegrass album be without a religious song ? The song chosen for this album is a pretty tune titled “Mama’s Angels” from the recently departed Charlie Louvin. Rhonda does a really nice job with this song. David Parmley provides the harmony vocal.

“Wishing Well Blues” is a wistful medium slow ballad which gives Rhonda some opportunity to show off her mandolin playing. “Just For Old Time’s Sake” is a vocal duet with one of Nashville’s finest voices in Jim Ed Brown. I really love this song – Jim Ed and Rhonda harmonize beautifully – and having the great John Hartford playing banjo doesn’t hurt either.

“Break My Heart” is a somewhat generic uptempo number, in that the song itself is nothing special. Rhonda and her cast sound just fine on this number.

Steve Earle and Jimbeau Hinson penned “A Far Cry From You”, a song which was a minor hit for Connie Smith. Today, Rhonda is one of the few vocalists I would compare to Connie Smith, but when this album was recorded in 1989, she was still developing her style. This is not a criticism as Rhonda does an excellent job with this song, but I think if she recorded it today it would be better still.

Jennifer McCarter and Carl Jackson penned “Love Without A Trace”. Jennifer McCarter was the lead singer of the McCarters, a sister act whose music harkened back to a much earlier style of music. This track is a bit more modern sounding than the music of the McCarters, but it has a lovely and intricate harmony arrangement reminiscent of some older musical styles. Blaine Sprouse plays fiddle on this track.

“Goin’ Gone” is another Pat Alger tune that Kathy Mattea took to #1 in early 1988. I love the arrangement on this tune with Blaine Sprouse and John Hartford doing their thing in a very tasteful manner. It’s a tossup as to whether I like this version better than Mattea’s version.

Allen Reynolds is better known as a producer for such artists as Crystal Gayle, Emmylou Harris and Garth Brooks, but he is also a talented songwriter and “Till I’m Fool Enough To Give It One More Try” is a nice medium fast tempo ballad that Rhonda handles to perfection.

Closing out the set is “Sundown”, an instrumental written by Ms Vincent herself. In recent years Rhonda has developed into quite an accomplished songwriter but at this stage of her career she was relying on others for material. This song provides a nice closing to the album and gives Rhonda a chance to let her pickers shine a little.

A Dream Come True is not Rhonda’s best album, but it is a very entertaining album and shows Rhonda as a recording artist of considerable promise. The powerful rafter-rattling vocals would come later as would her development as a songwriter and development of a sense of humor in her music, only hinted at here and there on this album. This was the first Rhonda Vincent album I purchased, the one that served to get me hooked on Ms. Vincent’s remarkable talents.

This album is somewhere in the range of B+/A-.

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

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Trisha Yearwood’

To kick off our run-down of Trisha Yearwood’s albums, here’s a guest contribution from long-time friend of My Kind of Country, Michael Allan. Stay tuned for more on Trisha Yearwood this month. – J.R. Journey

Produced by Garth Fundis and released on the premier country label of the 90s, MCA, Trisha Yearwood’s eponymous debut album is also her most commercially successful studio release. It peaked at #2 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, #31 on the all-genre Billboard 200 and is certified double platinum. It also served as an excellent predictor of what was to come over the next couple of decades and remains one of the strongest debut albums ever released by a masterful song interpreter.

The album kicks off with her debut single, “She’s in Love with the Boy” which rocketed to the top of the charts, making Yearwood only the second female to ever score a #1 hit with her debut single. Driven by an instantly memorable chorus, “She’s in Love with the Boy” is an up-tempo story song about the small town love of Katie and Tommy. Rejected by Kenny Rogers before finding its way to Yearwood, I can’t think of a better example of the right song finding the right artist. An immediate classic, it unfortunately also seems to be the only memory many radio stations seem to have of her catalogue today. Too bad; they’re missing out on the more than 100 great songs that followed this track over the next 20 years and will be reviewed as Trisha Yearwood month continues at MKoC.

Fourth single and second track on the album, “The Woman Before Me”, covers the effect the titular character has had on our vocalist’s man. With a slight AC feel to it, Yearwood’s voice is in fine form and “The Woman Before Me” is fairly representative of what many of her ballad hits sound like.  The third track was also the album’s third single. “That’s What I Like About You” is a fun number, sort of like the lyrics of Shania Twain’s “Any Man of Mine” meeting the sound of Yearwood’s own “Wrong Side of Memphis”.

The second single released from the album is up next. Written by Pat Alger and Garth Brooks, with the latter also singing background vocals, “Like We Never Had a Broken Heart” is a tender, piano laden love song. As a listener, one might even feel like they’re intruding on something sexy. Perhaps a sign of what lay ahead for the future couple?

Co-written by Hal Ketchum and one of the most commercially successful songwriters of the decade (and whose well she would revisit later), Kostas, “Fools Like Me” is a bluesy, smoldering piece that I can almost envision Yearwood singing in a smoky lounge somewhere. The song has the vibe of a torch song from another era.

Written by Brooks and Mark D. Sanders, “Victim of the Game” rivals Brooks’ own version from his No Fences album. The aspects of heartbreak are universal and there’s a twist at the end a la Tanya Tucker’s “It Won’t Be Me”. The themes are classic, but Yearwood sells them as new.  “When Goodbye Was a Word” is a ballad with a dreamlike, fantastical essence to it and the clarity of Yearwood’s voice is impressive.

In “The Whisper of Your Heart” Yearwood’s powerhouse vocals again sell some rather unremarkable lyrics. They’re good, but in lesser hands, the song’s common “Daddy/Grandpa/Bartender/Wise Old Man Told Me So” theme might fall flat.

After the feisty “You Done Me Wong (And That Ain’t Right)”, “Lonesome Dove” closes the album. The track is a final display of Yearwood’s ability to sing with conviction, perfect tone and pitch and to go from whisper to full throttled wail in a matter of seconds.

Recorded in 1990 and released in the summer of 1991, it’s hard to believe that Trisha Yearwood was only in her mid twenties at the time of her debut. The astounding control of her instrument on some well-chosen songs is a pretty good description of Trisha Yearwood’s career. This was only the beginning.

Grade: B+

The album is still widely available at amazon.