My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Pat Bunch

Album Review: John Michael Montgomery – ‘Brand New Me’

The last couple of singles from Home To You had not got the new millennium off to a good start for John Michael Montgomery, but later in 2000 he came up with his biggest hit for years.

‘The Little Girl’, written by Harley Allen, is a story song allegedly based on a true story about a neglected child who witnesses the fatal culmination of her father’s domestic violence, and later tells her loving foster parents she recognises a picture of Jesus as the one who protected her on the night her father killed her mother and herself. A gently soothing melody and harmonies from Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski make this a very pretty sounding song. It topped the Billboard country charts for three weeks.

The two other singles from JMM’s gold-selling 2000 album Brand New Me fell short in comparison. The up-tempo and rather rowdy country-pop ‘That’s What I Like About You’ was probably too much of a contrast in tone to do well while ‘The Little Girl’ was still getting a lot of radio play, and it isn’t a strong enough song to stand on its own. ‘Even Then’ (written by Pat Bunch and Shane Teeters) is better, a smooth AC-leaning love song which plays to JMM’s vocal strengths. However, neither song cracked the top 40.

‘That’s Not Her Picture’ is a beautiful pure country ballad written by Bill Anderson and Gary Burr, which was also recorded in 2000 by Jason Sellers, ex-husband of Lee Ann Womack, who was an aspiring artist at the time. A tasteful steel-led arrangement is perfect for the song and JMM sounds great on the poignant song abot a man who has torn up his ex’s real photos (presumably in anger or grief) and kept a standard shot sold with his wallet purely because it looks a little like her.

Another highlight is ‘Thanks For The G Chord’, written by Byron Hill and Mark Narmore, a tribute to a loving father who taught him music with other life advice.

Also very good is ‘Bus To Birmingham’, an emotional song written by Jess Brown and Tony Lane about a man watching his loved one leaving, thinking he has done the right thing driving her away:

I know she missed her mama
‘Cause that’s the kinda life she comes from
Ain’t no kinda life I’m ever gonna have
She said she’d call me from the station
But I’ll be gone before she gets there
And I’ll see her every time I’m lookin’ back

Heaven knows I ain’t no angel
And I don’t always do the right thing
And right now I know that she don’t understand
But I’ll sleep better knowin’
The only thing I ever loved
Is on that bus to Birmingham

Tonight I’ll slip back in the shadows
And I’ll sip a glass of whiskey
And I’ll try to keep from whispering her name
But there’s some highways I ain’t driven
And there’s some towns that I ain’t lived in
And there’s some times that I can’t get out of the rain

And Lord I can’t bear to break another promise that I made her
So I made out like I wanted her to go
And I’m better off believin’ that she’s better off without me
‘Cause I don’t want her to see me do her wrong

‘Weekend Superstar’ is a fun honky tonker with some nice fiddle about letting loose as a release from a hard week’s work.

The title track, which opens proceedings, is an upbeat song about survival, written by Kris Bergnes and Lee Thomas Miller. ‘Real Love’ (from the pens of Kent Blazy and Neil Thrasher) is a mid-paced country pop love song which is fairly forgettable.

The closing ‘I Love It All’, co-written by JMM himself with Blair Daly is a tribute =e to his love of his career as a musician, and is pretty good.

Overall, a pretty strong album which is worth finding, esecially if you like JMM.

Grade: A-

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Album Review: Highway 101 – ‘The New Frontier’

317WDCAR5NLPaulette Carlson’s departure was only the first of many changes that Highway 101 underwent in the early 90s. Guitarist Jack Daniels left in 1992 and the following year the remaining band members found themselves on a new label. They’d also parted ways with Paul Worley and Ed Seay, who had produced all of the band’s albums at to that point. Curtis Stone and Cactus Moser took over production duties along with Chuck Howard.

The changes were not for the better. While Worley and Seay had surprisingly managed to keep much of Highway 101’s signature sound intact, despite the change in lead singers, the Highway 101 heard on 1993’s The New Frontier sounds like a completely different band. The band members took over more of the songwriting responsibilities — Moser and/or Stone had a hand in writing six of the album’s ten songs. The New Frontier is less traditional than the band’s previous work; the more contemporary stylewas more beat-driven (as opposed to lyrically driven). This style was often marketed as “New Country”, “Young Country” or “Hot Country” in the early 90s. While not a terrible album, the material is noticeably weaker than their earlier efforts. Not that it mattered very much; by this time that band had slipped into commercial irrelevancy. The final nail in the coffin was the new label to which the band was signed. Liberty Records had made Garth Brooks its one and only priority — to the detriment of every artist on the label, including Paulette Carlson, whose lack of success as a solo artist was partially blamed on Capitol/Liberty’s lack of promotion.

“You Baby You” was the album’s lead single and the band’s last single to chart, landing at #67. The second single, “Who’s Gonna Love You”, a Curtis Stone song, is surprisingly unmemorable despite having been co-written by Matraca Berg. I prefer “Fastest Healin’ Broken Heart”, a Stone co-write with Pat Bunch, which comes the closest to the band’s previous musical style. It’s one of a handful of songs on the album that I truly liked, along with “Home on the Range” and “I Wonder Where The Love Goes”, a very nice ballad that closes out the album. This one must have been a particular favor, because it was later re-recorded during Chrislyn Lee’s stint as lead singer.

I intensely disliked the rock-tinged “Love Walks”, “You Are What You Do” and “No Chance To Dance”, the latter two being attempts to capitalize on the popularity of line dancing. The rest of the album’s songs are strictly forgettable.

As noted earlier, the writing was already on the wall, so it came as no surprise that The New Frontier was Highway 101’s one and only release for Liberty. It was also the band’s last recording for a major label. It is not essential listening and not particularly worth seeking out unless you are a completist music collector, in which case used copies can be obtained cheaply.

Grade: C

Album Review: Pam Tillis – ‘Collection’ (the Warner Brothers recordings)

pam tillis collectionDuring the 1980s, Pam Tillis was signed to Warner Brothers Records, who released a number of singles to country radio. None enjoyed much success, and by the end of the decade Pam had moved on. After Pam’s rise to fame with Arista the following decade, Warner Bros capitalized by releasing an album containing a selection of the sides she had cut for them, including early versions of songs she had since taken to the top with Arista. Her only album for Warner Bros, Above And Beyond The Doll Of Cutey, was an unapologetically pop (and not very good) record, but these country recordings are all pretty good.

It is hard to see why these early versions of the atmospheric ‘Maybe It Was Memphis’ (a bit more understated than the hit) and the beautifully resigned melancholy of Pam’s own ‘One Of Those Things’ (which was to become one of my favorite Pam Tillis singles – and I think I like this version even more) were not successful at the time.

An excellent and respectful cover of Buck Owens’s ‘There Goes My Love’ shows Pam’s traditional country roots. ‘Those Memories Of You’ may be familiar from the Dolly Parton-Emmylou Harris-Linda Ronstadt Trio album of 1987; Pam’s version (from 1986) does not quite have the charm of that version but is a nice enough recording. Another possible missed opportunity was the fine version of a song which was to become Lorrie Morgan’s breakthrough hit – ‘Five Minutes’ (a Beth Nielsen Chapman song), which Warner Brothers left on the shelf. The production is a little dated with a faintly tinny sound, but the vocal is good.

The other songs are less familiar, but make for a pretty good collection. The joyful up-tempo ‘I Thought I’d About Had It With Love’, written by Beth Nielsen Chapman with Milton Brown about finally finding true love, has a great charm. The catchy ‘I Wish She Wouldn’t Treat You That Way’ is a tongue-in-cheek complaint at the loving way her rival is treating the mutual object of their affections. Both of these songs should have had commercial potential.

Pam wrote ‘Sometimes A Stranger Will Do’ with Pat Bunch and Mary Ann Kennedy, a ballad with a melancholic undertone about resorting to the odd one-night-stand while traversing the dating scene in search of a forever love. The trio also wrote ‘Goodbye Highway’, which is a bit fillerish but adds a bit of tempo. ‘Tennessee Nights’ is a pleasant but fairly bland love ballad.

Packaging of this album was both cheap (no pictures) and deliberately misleading (referring to four songs as hits, when two were only hits when re-recorded for Arista, and the other two when recorded by different artists altogether). Dubious marketing aside, the actual music contained here is up to the standard of Tillis’s hit material. Used copies of the CD version are easy to find at cheap prices, and this is worth getting hold of if you’re a fan of Pam’s music. The same material was repackaged yet again in 2000 as Super Hits.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘Something Up My Sleeve’

something up my sleeveSuzy’s fifth album was released in 1993. Produced once more by Suzy with Jimmy Bowen, it is a mellow, classy album rather than an overtly commercial one, with AC leanings musically and mature lyrics. Suzy’s crystalline voice sounds beautiful throughout.

The first two singles were top five hits, and both were co-written by the artist. Suzy and husband Doug Crider wrote the philosophical ‘Just Like The Weather’, which has a pretty melody. She wrote the vicacious ‘Hey Cinderella’ with Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison, a questioning of real life happy-ever-after which is probably the album’s best remembered song

The remaining singles were less well received. ‘You Wouldn’t Say That To A Stranger’ missed the top 50 but is a thoughtful song written by Doug Crider with Pat Bunch about the harsh words that can be exchanged between lovers. It is a very good song, with a lovely melody.

‘Souvenirs’, an early Gretchen Peters song about drifting through the US, is a very singer-songwritery kind of song about the disillusionment of travelling aimlessly through the US and finding you’re not actually Jack Kerouac. It was probably a bit too downbeat and folky to have a wide appeal; not surprisingly it faltered in the 60s.

Similar in feel, ‘Diamonds And Tears’ is another mature, poetic song about learning from experience, this one written by Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison.

Suzy and Doug Crider teamed up with Steve Dorff for the melancholic unrequited love song ‘You Never Will’, which sounds very pretty with a tasteful string arrangement, and is probably my favourite track. Pat Bunch co-wrote the pleasant but slightly dull ‘You’d Be The One’ and the okay ‘No Green Eyes’ with Suzy and her husband.

‘I Keep Comin’ Back To You’ is yet another mellow sounding ballad, written by Beth Nielsen Chapman and Bill Lloyd. The title track was a duet with labelmate Billy Dean, a rather wimpy tenor who was never a big favourite of mine. It sounds pleasant but unexciting.

It was her last gold-selling studio set. Overall, it is very nice sounding although a long way removed from the traditional sounds of her debut, but few of the songs really stand out.

Grade: B

Album Review: Martina McBride – ‘Wild Angels’

wild angelsMartina McBride is one of the most technically gifted vocalists in country music, and her style was ideally suited to the 90s with its mix of contemporary shine and more traditional elements (although the latter tended to reduce over time), good songs, and great vocals. Her third album, 1995’s Wild Angels, would seal her star status. Martina took a co-production credit this time alongside Paul Worley and Ed Seay, who had helmed her earlier work. Her vocals are superb throughout this album, and almost every song sounds as though it could have been a successful single. Bookending the set by opening with a baby’s cry and ending with studio chatter, however, is pretentious, self-indulgent and pointless.

The lead single, the charmingly hopeful ‘Safe In The Arms Of Love’, dreams about the prospects of true love some time in the future. A pretty arrangement with an almost Celtic feel and airy backing vocals from co-writers Mary Ann Kennedy and Pam Rose (the third writer was Pat Bunch) contrast nicely with Martina’s powerful lead vocal. It was a cover of a song which was originally recorded by Baillie & The Boys and had been a Canadian country hit for Michelle Wright, but Martina’s version is my favorite. Peaking at #4 on Billboard, it was her second biggest hit to date.

The sunny title track was the second single, and while the efficiently glossy surface of this well-written contemporary country song (written by Matraca Berg, Gary Harrison and Harry Stinson) somehow sounds a little soulless to me, it was very radio-friendly and became Martina’s first #1 hit.

Surprisingly, the last couple of singles failed to repeat this success, even though they are siginifiantly better songs. ‘Phones Are Ringing All Over Town’ is a dramatic ballad (written by Marc Beeson, Kim Vassy and David McKechnie) about a complacent cheating husband’s discovery that he has crossed one line too many and the marriage is over with “nothing to be said”. It was only just a top 30 hit despite the excellence of both song and vocal.

‘Swingin’ Doors’ only just crept into the top 40, but deserved much better. Written by Chapin Hartford, Bobby Boyd and Jim Foster, it is a ballsy, sardonic response to a man the protagonist realizes has been stringing her along with empty promises. The doors to her heart are about to be closed to him. Banked harmonies help to sell the song’s defiance.

The final single (and my favourite), ‘Cry On The Shoulder Of The Road’ peaked at 26. It is in fact one of my favorite Martina McBride recordings ever. It was written by Matraca Berg and Tim Krekel, and portrays a woman whose marriage has reached such a desperate state she just leaves with no destination in mind:

Rollin’ out of Bakersfield
My own private hell on wheels
But this time I’m gone for good…

It makes me feel a little low
Steel guitar on the radio
when its kind of scary teh way these truckers fly
So this is how leaving feels
Drinking coffee and making deals
With the One above to get me through the night

Cause there ain’t no telling what I’ll find
But I might as well move on down the line
There ain’t no comfort to be found in your zip code
I’d rather break down on the highway
With no one to share my load
Cry on the shoulder of the road

Levon Helm’s harmony lends a California country-rock feel to the chorus, while Martina’s full blooded vocal makes her sound vulnerable but determined to make her way, and a tasteful arrangement with steel guitar.

The contemporary sounding mid-tempo ‘A Great Disguise’ has Martina hiding her heartbreak behind “smoke and ice”, with a big emotional chorus. ‘Beyond The Blue’ is quite a pretty song about looking forward to getting past the sorrow of a breakup, and both are quite good.

‘All The Things We’ve Never Done’ (written by Craig Bickhardt and Jeff Pennig) is a gentle love song comparing possible missed opportunities in life with a supportive love. The similarly themed ‘You’ve Been Driving All The Time’ was overtly dedicated to Martina’s husband, whose support had been so instrumental in building her career; it is a sweet if slightly sentimental love song which affirms,

It takes a real man to take a back seat to a woman.

Another love song from the Bunch/Rose/Kennedy writing team, ‘Born To Give My Love To You’ is quite pretty with a string arrangement and multitrack harmonies from Rose and Martina herself.

An energetic cover of ‘Two More Bottles Of Wine’, the Delbert McClinton song best known by Emmylou Harris, is pretty good with a rocking vocal, some fabulous honky tonk piano from John Hobbs, and proves Martina wasn’t just a great balladeer.

This album exemplifies pop-country at its best – good, sometimes great songs, great vocals, and a production which while glossy, is not pretending to be a rock band. The overall mood is of female self-confidence and survival. Even the breakup songs focus on the woman moving on, and this positive image of being a strong woman may have been key to Martina’s success at a time when women in country music were doing better as a group than ever before.

Grade: A

Album Review: Terri Clark – ‘Pain To Kill’

Released in 2003, after the relatively disappointing commercial performance of Fearless, Pain To Kill marked a change in producer for Terri, with the recruitment of Byron Gallimore, perhaps the leading commercial country producer of the day. It looks as though the label was hedging its bets with regards to the direction of the album, with Gallimore working on half the album, and old standby Keith Stegall being brought back in for the remainder of the material. Byron Gallimore applied a fairly sophisticated pop-country sound to mainly outside songs, and successfully balances Terri’s voice with a radio-friendly sheen.

Keith Stegall, meanwhile, tackled the bulk of Terri’s own songs, with a sound more in keeping with her past work. Gallimore’s tracks front load the set listing (and provided all three of the singles), with most of the Stegall tracks relegated to the second half of the set. Throughout the album, Terri’s vocals sound great and very committed to the material, and there is an overarching theme of relationship troubles and moving on which helps give a cohesive feel to the set as a whole.

The contemporary sounding lead single, ‘I Just Wanna Be Mad’, written by Kelley Lovelace and Lee Thomas Miller, made a good start with radio, peaking at #2 in 2002. It is my favorite of the single choices from this album with its convincing and mature lyric about a couple married for seven years (when “some days it feels like 21”) and squabbling over the little things, while affirming the underlying strength of their relationship:

I think I’m right
I think you’re wrong
I’ll probably give in before long
Please don’t make me smile
I just wanna be mad for a while

The woman-on-the-verge-of-leaving whose story is conveyed in ‘Three Mississippi is less successful. While well sung, it’s a rather pop-leaning song written by Hillary Lindsey, Troy Verges and Angelo, whose rather uninteresting tune and overdone production drains the emotion from the lyric. It was closer to a flop, only just making the top 30. The life-affirming ‘I Wanna Do It All’ is better, if not very memorable. It took Terri back to the upper reaches of the charts, peaking at #3.

The title track is a radio-friendly mid-tempo number written by Tom Shapiro and Steve Bogard, with a cheery approach to partying away the troubles of life. The very contemporary Matraca Berg/Randy Scruggs song ‘Working Girl’ (comparing an ordinary working woman’s life to glossy media images) was previously recorded by Loretta Lynn. It suits Terri better than it did Loretta, but is still one of my least favorite Terri Clark recordings.

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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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Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Reba’

reba mcentire - rebaThis album is not even in my top ten Reba albums, though there are individual songs I dearly love on it. However, Reba’s 14th studio album was significant for Reba and her career for a number of reasons.

Reba reflected a time of important transition in her personal life. Her divorce became final in November of 1987, and as she says in her autobiography, Reba: My Story,

Something was shifting inside of me. Maybe the reason was my new freedom as an unmarried woman – for the first time in my life, not having to answer to anyone but myself; or maybe it was the sense of confidence that came from restructuring my organization and putting some of my long-held pet ideas into practice. Whatever the reason, in 1988, I found myself drawn to the old Aretha Franklin hit “Respect.” It just seemed to connect with my mental outlook at the time.

Reba talked with her producer, Jimmy Bowen, about using it to open the new 1988 show. Though he was a bit surprised she liked that one, Bowen suggested she record it as one of the needed up-tempo numbers for her next album. She did, along with others that were more R & B, jazz or pop.

Reba was released in April of 1988 and received more negative criticism from traditional country circles than any of her previous albums, though it stayed at #1 on Billboard’s Country chart for 8 weeks that summer and she continued to receive awards such as Favorite Female Country Artist (AMA), Favorite Female Vocalist (TNN), etc. She had previously been so outspoken about loving her country roots and recording traditional country music that it came as somewhat of a surprise she recorded an album with no fiddles and no steel, more keyboard and more synthesizer.

Her previous career-making album, “Whoever’s In New England,” had also had some numbers that many considered more cross-over songs. But Reba said about that one (again in her autobiography),

I never set out to record a “crossover” record. As I’ve said, I’ve always considered myself a country artist and never wanted to abandon my roots. I had simply come to the conclusion that it would be better for me just to do good material, and if it happened to reach across the pop charts – well, fine – that would be an unexpected little extra.

She similarly defended “Respect” on this album. In a segment on “Respect” in CMT’s “Reba McEntire: Greatest Stories,” Reba talks about the reaction she got when she performed it as a dance number on the CMAs that year. People asked her afterwards if she’d thought about the fact that she was doing a pop number on a country awards show and she said no, she really hadn’t. It was up-tempo and she loved the song and was a big fan of Aretha Franklin. Plus, she was excited to show people she could move after years of standing behind a microphone.

And “Respect” is certainly a great song. Rolling Stones rated Aretha’s version #5 on their 2004 list of the Top 500 Songs of All Time.  However, many of the other cuts on the album aren’t great and seem more like filler and actually detract from the other good songs in the set.

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