My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Patsy Cline

Album Review: Barbara Mandrell – ‘This Time I Almost Made It: The Lost Columbia Masters’

81U+RipV8TL._SX522_More than any other performer, Barbara Mandrell is the artist responsible for sparking my interest in country music. Even before there were any local country music radio stations in my area, her weekly TV series was my main source of keeping abreast of what was going on in the world of country music. This was in the early 80s, when she’d just become the first artist to win the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year award a second time. Her contributions to country music were significant, but her catalog has been criminally neglected. Fortunately, that grievance is starting to be addressed. With the reissue of This Time I Almost Made It, courtesy of Real Gone Music, all of Barbara’s solo albums for Columbia are now available on CD.

Barbara was signed to Columbia in 1969 by Billy Sherrill and remained with the label until 1975. During that time, she only released three solo albums, plus a duets album with David Houston. Most major country acts released three albums a year in those days, but like we often see today, the label was waiting for some radio hits before committing to album releases. Her debut album Treat Him Right, was released in 1971 and was a lackluster seller. 1973’s The Midnight Oil reached #8 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, buoyed by the success of the title track which reached #7 in Billboard and #1 in Cashbox, and “Tonight My Baby’s Coming Home”, which was Barbara’s first Top 10 hit. By the time This Time I Almost Made It was released in 1974, the momentum she had gained seemed to have been lost again; it only reached #41 on the albums chart. By that time, Barbara might have already initiated talks to negotiate her release from her Columbia contract. If so, the label obviously would have had little interest in promoting her records. At any rate, the quality of the material does not seem to have been the issue.

The title track was written by Sherrill when he realized that they didn’t have enough songs for an album. Though in some respects it may have been an afterthought, it is my favorite track on the album. It’s a beautiful ballad, not particularly country in arrangement but the production is tastefully restrained. It was released as a single in advance of the album, as a follow-up to “The Midnight Oil”, but it charted outside the Top 10 at #12. The second single was “Wonder When My Baby’s Coming Home”, another easy-listening style ballad, although it is a little more country thanks to the inclusion of some steel guitar. I wasn’t previously familiar with this one, but I like it a lot. The background vocals give it a slightly dated feel, though they are a lot less intrusive than many records of the era. This one stalled at #39 and was Barbara’s final single for Columbia.

Barbara is well known for making country versions of R&B songs, occasionally delving too far into R&B territory for my taste in later years but her take on “You’re All I Need to Get By”, which has been a 1968 R&B hit for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, is quite good. She also turned in good performances on some pop songs of the day: “Keep On Singing”, which had been a hit for Helen Reddy, The Bee Gees’ “Words”, and The Beatles’ “Something”, which closes out the original album. She also covered her country colleagues Merle Haggard (“Today I Started Loving You Again”) and Charlie Rich (“A Very Special Love Song”).

This CD would be worth buying for the original album alone, but Real Gone Music has included almost another album’s worth of bonus tracks. There are nine in total, seven of which have never been released before. First up is the very country “I Hope You Love Me”, which was recorded during Barbara’s first session with Columbia in 1969. Written by George Jones and Tammy Wynette, it was included on Tammy’s 1970 album The Ways To Love a Man under the title “I Know”. “You Can Always Come Back”, also recorded in 1969 is a cover of a Curly Putman hit. “Coming Home Solider” had been a 1966 pop hit for Bobby Vinton.

Though the album’s liner notes refer to Barbara’s version as “dramatic”, I found it a bit plodding and it’s my least favorite track on the disc. Although a bit tame, her reading of “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud, Loud Music)” is much better. It was written by Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, who had hired Barbara for a two-week stint in Las Vegas when she was only eleven years old. It’s proof positive that despite her reputation for interpreting pop and R&B material, she was just as adept at tackling traditional country. Ditto for “You Took Him Off My Hands”, a Wynn Stewart/Harlan Howard/Skeets McDonald song that had previously been recorded by Patsy Cline.

Though not one a landmark album in the Mandrell discography, This Time I Almost Made It provides an interesting opportunity to trace Barbara’s development as an artist, and the bonus material is a real treat for her fans. After leaving Columbia, Barbara signed with ABC/Dot, which was later absorbed by MCA. That era of her career, despite being the years of her greatest commercial success, is still largely unavailable on CD aside from a few hits compilations. Hopefully the sales of This Time I Almost Made It will be good enough to entice Universal to finally allowing some of Barbara’s most commercially important recordings a chance to once again see the light of day.

Grade: A

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Album Review: Lorrie Morgan – ‘Letting Go … Slow’

51bUlVvWr7LI’ve been a fan of Lorrie Morgan ever since I first saw her video of “Trainwreck of Emotion” on TNN back in 1988. I’ve followed her career ever since, though admittedly not quite as closely since her days as a major label artist ended about 15 years ago. I’ve always felt that the true artists are the ones who continue to make music after they’ve peaked commercially. Morgan certainly falls into that category; she released three solo albums and one collaboration with Pam Tillis in the years since her tenure with BNA Records ended. But post- commercial peak projects are often a mixed bag, particularly for artists who don’t write a lot of their own material. Finding good songs is frequently a challenge – and then there is the added problem of declining vocal power, which often plagues aging artists.

Fortunately, Morgan has overcome both of those obstacles on her latest collection Letting Go … Slow, which was released by Shanachie Entertainment last week. In an interview with Country Universe she said that she spent a considerable amount of time working to get her voice back in shape. The effort has paid off in spades; she sounds better on Letting Go … Slow than she has in years. And although she relies heavily on cover material to compile an album’s worth of songs, she’s managed to dig a little deeper and come up with some gems that are deserving of another listen but have been largely overlooked by the plethora of artists releasing covers albums in recent years. Read more of this post

Album Review: Hank Williams Jr. – ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack’

51rF-K-UoXL1985’s Sweet Dreams is somewhat of an anomaly when it comes to biographical films about musicians, in that the real Patsy Cline’s vocals are used for the soundtrack. Usually the actor attempts to do a reasonable impersonation of the subject: Sissy Spacek did it in Coal Miner’s Daughter and and Joaquin Phoenix did it in Walk the Line. 1964’s Hank Williams biopic Your Cheatin’ Heart starring George Hamilton, took a third approach by hiring a third party to do the singing. The producers went with the logical choice, Hank Williams Jr., who does a reasonable impression of his late father. It’s an impressive effort, considering that Hank Jr. was only 15 years old at the time.

I generally dislike musical impersonations, but soundtrack albums do need to be considered in their context and in a more forgiving manner. Your Cheatin’ Heart was Hank Jr.’s second album for MGM; the first had been released earlier the same year and also consisted of his father’s material. At that point in time, MGM was mainly interested in making him into a clone of his father.

There is no questioning that the material itself is top-notch. It’s also apparent, even at this early stage in his career, that the son had a stronger voice than the father. While I’d rather listen to Hank Jr. singing these songs as Hank Jr and not pretending to be his father, it’s impossible not to enjoy this album. The arrangements were all updated make them more contemporary — and in 1964 that meant Nashville Sound choruses and string sections, which certainly were not true to Hank Sr.’s era, but thankfully the producers were admirably restrained in using them. The only thing I really found objectionable was the saxophone on “Jambalaya (on the Bayou)” and “Hey Good Lookin'”, which would be more appropriate on a Bill Haley and the Comets recording. Fortunately, there are alternate versions of both songs without the saxophone.

Rhino Records reissued the album on CD in 1997 and included previously unreleased acoustic versions of most of the album’s songs. I have a soft spot for stripped-down versions of pretty much any song, so I particularly enjoyed listening to these, even though it makes the listening experience a bit repetitious. “There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight” does not appear on the original soundtrack album so its inclusion on the CD is a bonafide bonus.

As well done as these songs are, they are mainly interesting because they show the origins of an artist who would entirely reinvent himself over the course of his career. In 1964 Hank Jr. had not yet found his own voice, but I still prefer these early efforts to his 80s Southern rock party anthems.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Lee Ann Womack covers ‘Faded Love’

Reissues wish list part 2: MCA and Decca

webb pierceFor most of the Classic Country era, the big four of country record labels were Decca /MCA, RCA, Columbia and Capitol. Of these labels, MCA/Decca has done the poorest job of keeping their artists’ catalogues alive in the form of reissues.

When speaking of the big four labels we will need to define terms.
MCA/Decca refers to recordings released on MCA, Decca, Brunswick and for some periods, Vocalion.

During the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Decca (later MCA) can be argued as having the strongest roster of artists. Such titans as Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, Webb Pierce, Conway Twitty, Jack Greene, Bill Anderson, Jimmy Martin, The Osborne Brothers, Bill Monroe, Patsy Cline, Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn frequently dominated the charts with many strong second tier acts such as The Wilburn Brothers, Jimmie Davis, Roy Drusky, Jimmie C. Newman, Johnny Wright, Cal Smith, Bill Phillips, Crystal Gayle, Jeanie Seely, Jan Howard and Red Sovine passing through the ranks at various times. Crystal Gayle, of course, became a major star in the late 1970s and 1980s

In the early digital days MCA had virtually nothing of their classic artists available aside from some Loretta Lynn, Bill Monroe and Conway Twitty discs. Then in 1991 they started their County Music Hall of Fame Series, showcasing artists elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, because of industry politics, their biggest stars, Webb Pierce and Conway Twitty, had not yet been elected.

Each of the discs contained fifteen or sixteen tracks or about 38 minutes of music. Many of the CDs featured artists who had not been on Decca for many years, and many featured artists who just passed through on their way to bigger and better things or had been bigger stars in the past. Among the CDS in the series were The Carter Family (on Decca 1937-1938), Jimmie Davis, Red Foley, Grandpa Jones (with Decca in the late 1950s – several remakes of King label hits), Loretta Lynn, Uncle Dave Macon (a real old-timer), Tex Ritter (1930s recordings), Roy Rogers, Sons of The Pioneers (with Decca during the 1930s and again in 1954), Hank Thompson (ABC/Dot recordings of the late 1960s and 1970s – MCA purchased the ABC & Dot labels – Hank never actually recorded for MCA/Decca). Floyd Tillman (1939-1944), Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells, Bill Monroe and Bob Wills (Bob’s best years were on Columbia and MGM). The Bob Wills recordings were 1955-1967 recordings on the Decca & Kapp labels – the Kapp recordings usually featured Nashville session players with no real feel for swing and are the least essential recordings Wills ever made.

Each of the CDs mentioned above are undeniably worthy, but are either inadequate or not representative of the artists’ peaks.

Some MCA/Decca artists have been covered by Bear Family, most notably Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells, Bill Monroe, Bill Anderson, Jimmy Martin and The Osborne Brothers. One could wish for more on some of these artists, but what is available generally is enough; however, it is expensive. Good two-disc sets would be desirable.

During the 1960s, Decca had their artists re-record their hits in order to take advantage of modern stereo technology, since for artists who peaked before 1957, such as Kitty Wells, Ernest Tubb, Webb Pierce and Red Foley, their biggest hits were recorded in monaural sound. An additional consideration for Ernest Tubb was that his then-current band was larger and better with musicians such as Billy Byrd and Buddy Emmons (to name just two) being members of the band. In the case of Ernest Tubb, the re-recordings were superior to the original string band recordings.

In the case of most other artists, I think the originals were better BUT for many years the original recordings were not available and listeners of my generation grew up hearing the stereo remakes whether on records or on the radio. Since the digital era began the stereo remakes have been unavailable except on Bear Family sets. It would be nice if the stereo remakes were available, and it would be nice if MCA/Decca artists were available on decent domestic collections.

Webb Pierce – several domestic releases of Webb Pierce’s hits are available but they generally contain about a dozen songs, all from the 1950s. There is a Bear Family set that covers up to 1958 – it’s great but it misses all of Webb’s lesser later hits. Webb was the #1 country artist of the 1950s according to Billboard, and while he slipped thereafter, he was still the sixth ranked artist of the 1960s with many hits, including a couple of Record World #1s. None of this has been released on CD. What is needed is a good three CD set gathering up Webb’s 1960s (and early 1970s) chart hits plus key album tracks and the stereo remakes of the fifties hits.

For as widely popular as she was. you would expect much of Barbara Mandrell‘s output to be available. Barbara moved from Epic to ABC/Dot and when ABC/Dot was absorbed by MCA, her music was issued on that label. Barbara had 30+ hits for ABC/Dot/MCA with many #1 and top five recordings. Currently, not much is available and she warrants a boxed set.

Jack Greene and Cal Smith both had fairly late starts to their solo careers. While there exist a few hit collections for each artist (on foreign labels), neither is very complete, leaving off key songs. For Cal Smith, since Kapp and MCA are both owned by the same company, a two disc set collecting Cal’s Kapp & MCA/Decca singles should suffice (possibly a single disc with about thirty tracks would be okay).

For Jack Greene, more is needed since Jack had over thirty chart singles for Decca and issued at least fourteen albums plus a hits collection while on MCA/Decca. Jack was a superior vocalist and his albums contain recordings of others’ hits that often were better than the original hits. While not a hit for Jack, his version of “The Last Letter” is the definitive recording of the song.

The Osborne Brothers were bluegrass innovators, developing an almost unique (Jim & Jesse were doing something similar) bluegrass and country hybrid with bluegrass instruments augmented by electric guitar, steel guitar and sometimes other amplified instruments. After leaving MCA/Decca for CMH and other labels, the Osborne Brothers went back to a more traditional bluegrass approach. Almost none of that classic hybrid material is available except for a gospel CD and an excellent but short (ten songs) collection titled Country Bluegrass which seems randomly put together. No bluegrass group ever has huge numbers of hit records on the country charts, but the Osborne Brothers did chart quite a few and they should be available domestically. I would think a single disc set of thirty tracks would be acceptable, although more would be better, of course.

Johnny Wright is better know as part of the duo Johnny & Jack (with Jack Anglin), but after Anglin’s death in 1963, Wright embarked on a successful solo career which saw the release of at least six albums on MCA/Decca plus twelve chart singles including the #1 “Hello Vietnam” , the first chart topper for a Tom T. Hall song. Johnny’s wife was Kitty Wells, and while he never reached her level of success as a solo artist, apparently it never bothered Wright as he and Kitty were married from 1937 until his death in 2011 at the age of 97. A good single disc collection would suffice here.

The bulk of Little Jimmy Dickens’ career occurred for another label, but his time on MCA/Decca saw the release of two albums of new material plus an album featuring remakes of his earlier hits. The Decca albums featured a staple of Jimmy’s live shows “I Love Lucy Brown” and an amusing novelty “How To Catch An African Skeeter Alive”. I think most of this would fit on a single CD.

Wilma Burgess was an excellent singer who came along about four decades too soon. While Wilma did not flaunt being lesbian, neither did she particularly hide it. Consequently, she never got much of a commercial push from her label. Many have recorded “Misty Blue” but none did it as well as Wilma Burgess. She recorded at least five albums for MCA/Decca plus some duets with Bud Logan, former band leader for Jim Reeves. A decent two disc set of this outstanding singer should be easy to compile.

I would like to see a collection on Loretta Lynn’s siblings, Peggy Sue and Jay Lee Webb. Since Loretta’s other well known sibling started on MCA/Decca as well, it should be possible to do a good two CD set of Loretta’s kinfolks. Jay Lee Webb’s “She’s Looking Better By The Minute” is an all-time honky-tonk classic.

Classic Rewind: Patsy Cline – ‘She’s Got You’

Spotlight Artist: Jo Dee Messina

JDMMost country artists are proud of their Southern heritage but our August spotlight artist hails from a part of the country that is not particularly known for producing country music stars. Jo Dee Messina was born in Holliston, Massachusetts on August 25, 1970. Influenced by acts such as Patsy Cilne, Reba McEntire and The Judds, she performed in local clubs as part of a family band during her high school years, and moved to Nashville at age 19. While waiting for her big break, she came to the attention of producer Byron Gallimore and became friendly with another up-and-coming artist named Tim McGraw.

Gallimore and McGraw co-produced Messina’s eponymous debut album for Curb, which was released in 1996. The first single, “Heads Carolina, Tails California” was an instant success that shot to #2 on the Billboard country singles chart. The follow-up single “You’re Not In Kansas Anymore” reached #7, though it is not one of her better remembered hits today. After that, two subsequent singles failed to reach the Top 40 and many critics began to write off Messina as a flash in the pan. Jo Dee proved them wrong when she released her sophomore set in 1998. That album, I’m Alright, produced five hits, including three #1s and a remake of Dottie West’s “A Lesson In Leavin’”, which landed at #2. I’m Alright attained double-platinum sales in the United States and it remains her best-selling album.

Although Jo Dee’s impact in the late 90s and early 2000s was great, her reign at the top of the charts was relatively brief, in part due to personal problems such as bankruptcy and a stint in rehab for alcoholism. Her discography is small – only five studio albums (excluding a Christmas collection) to date, but she managed to rack up nine #1 hits between 1998 and 2005. Today she is a mother of two and continues to perform, although she is no longer on the roster of Curb Records. Her latest collection, Me, was released last year on her own label with the aid of a Kickstarter campaign. We hope you’ll enjoy our look back at her career highlights during the month of July.

Album Review: Faron Young – ‘You Don’t Know Me’

you don't know meThe friendly folks at Cracker Barrel have released something I thought I would never see – a new album of Faron Young recordings.

This album is somewhat similar to CONNIE SMITH – THE LOST TAPES in that it is taken from live takes, old radio shows and some studio recordings that never were released. Unlike the Connie Smith recordings, these were one track recordings, not in a finished state.

Producer Scott Oliver of Country Rewind Records, took the incomplete tracks and added additional instrumentation, vocal backings and some orchestration to create recordings that would fit comfortably on country radio during the last wave of neo-traditionalism (roughly 1986-2001). Many of the tracks were cut on acetate pressings that were intended for a single play on the radio. As such, some of the tracks required painstaking repair efforts. If I had to guess. most of the vocals were originally recorded in one take resulting in vocals that sound spontaneous and alive.

The basic sound is crisp and clean and modern. Faron’s vocal performances are very good. There is no information as to the additional musicians used on the collection, but Faron’s son Robyn Young wrote the liner notes. I would guess the original radio tracks and demos came from the mid-to-late 1960s as none of the songs feature hits from the 1970s. Because the tracks were meant for radio shows, a few of the tracks run under two minutes (“Alone With You” runs only ninety seconds) so the total playing time of the disc is just over 35 minutes.

The songs are as follows:

“I’ve Got Five Dollars (and It’s Saturday Night)” – this song was #4 hit for Faron in 1956 (the duo of George Jones & Gene Pitney also had a hit with it in 1965) and is taken at a very brisk tempo.

“Hello Walls” – this Willie Nelson-penned song was Faron’s biggest seller spending nine weeks at #1 in 1961 and selling over a million records. The 1961 hit recording was not very country, having been aimed squarely at the pop charts (it reached #12). This recording turns it back into a country song with country fiddles and steel guitar being featured prominently in the mix.

“A Place For Girls Like You” – this song was Faron’s third chart single, reaching #8 in 1954. This version picks up the tempo a bit from the original version.

“She Went A Little Bit Farther” – Faron recorded for Capitol; Records until 1962, switching over to Mercury in 1963. This song reached #14 for Faron in 1968. Faron’s chart success was very up and down during his first five years with Mercury as he sought to repeat the pop success of “Hello Walls”. In 1969 Faron went back to being a traditional country singer. This version is a little faster than the recorded single version and a little more country.

“You Don’t Know Me” was written by the legendary Cindy Walker from an idea supplied by Eddy Arnold. Eddy had a top ten hit with the song in 1956 and Ray Charles had a #2 pop hit with it in 1962. This recording would have made a great single for Faron had it existed and been released during Faron’s lifetime.

“I Guess I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night” – I love the steel guitar work on this recording. Faron’s 1967 single only reached #48. This is a much better recording, a likely top five record had this been the released version.

“Goin’ Steady” was Faron’s first charted single in 1953, probably written by Hank Williams (1). The single reached #2 in its first trip to the charts. Apparently Faron wasn’t completely satisfied with the original hit version as he re-recorded the song numerous times during the next decade, gradually picking up the tempo until he issued a new single of the song for Mercury in 1970. The Mercury version reached #5 and features aggressive use of fiddles and steel guitar. On the version featured here, Faron’s vocals have just about reached the tempo of the Mercury recording, Although I like the Mercury version better than this recording, this is a very good recording

“Unmitigated Gall” reached #7 in 1966 for Faron. This is a good version although not a revelation and not terribly different in its net effect from the released single version

“I Miss You Already” went top five for Faron in 1957. This version was taken from a radio show and is quite good, again nothing revelatory but quite interesting. Nice steel and fiddle work

To younger minds, it must be impossible to conceive of this song being a hit single. Be that as it may, “I Just Came To Get My Baby (Out of Here)” went to #8 for Faron Young in 1968. The arrangement here is a little more country sounding that the hit single.

Faron Young had the first hit single on “Sweet Dreams” back in 1956, charting about six weeks before writer Don Gibson’s version hit the charts. Faron’s version reached #2 on the charts. This is a solid country version. For my money Faron Young was the best interpreter of this song, better than Don Gibson, Patsy Cline or anyone else that followed.

“If You Ain’t Lovin (You Ain’t Livin’)” was Faron’s fourth chart single back in 1954 reaching #2 in early 1955. This Tommy Collins tune was recorded by many artists during the 1950s and 1960s. I like this version very much.

“Alone With You” – according to Billboard, this was Faron’s biggest hit spending thirteen weeks at #1 in 1958. This version is taken at a very fast tempo, finishing up in ninety breath-taking seconds. Very solid fiddle and steel guitar on this track. I love this track, I just wish it lasted a little longer.

I don’t remember “You Had A Call” – it wasn’t a single and if I heard it before, it passed by unnoticed. Not so this version, which caught my attention the within the first few notes. Unlike most of the songs on this collection, this is a slow ballad with a mostly understated arrangement that lets Faron’s voice take center stage.

“Live Fast Love Hard Die Young” was Faron’s first #1 single back in 1955, spending three weeks atop the charts. This version, from a radio show, is slightly faster than the original recording. The instrumental breaks on the recording are very good and very country. The song is a perfect ending to a very entertaining album. I just wish they had found a few more songs to lengthen the album a bit.

(1) The legend says Hank gave Faron the rights to “Goin’ Steady” in exchange for which Faron would give up dating Billie Jean Eschelman, a young lady both had been dating. Billie Jean would become the second Mrs. Hank Williams and in a bizarre twist of fate, would also be the widow of Johnny Horton.

Album Review: Shelby Lynne – ‘Temptation’

temptationAfter three albums had failed to break Shelby Lynne, she parted ways with Epic. Her music had always been a little more eclectic than most of her peers, but now she began to experiment more. Although it was still marketed as country music and recorded in Nashville with seasoned session musicians, her work with producer Brent Maher for her new label Morgan Creek (in association with Mercury Records) drew more deeply from the wells of jazz and big band than even the countrypolitan end of country music.

She was still marketed as a country artist, but unsurprisingly the country radio which had been unreceptive to her more conventional material was even less so to her new direction. Lead single ‘Feeling Kind Of Lonely Tonight’ got minimal airplay, peaking at a dismal #69 on the Billboard country chart, although it has a catchy tune and arrangement and is quite enjoyable. Interestingly, Brent Maher wrote or co-wrote all but two of the songs, most of them with Jamie O’Hara.

‘Tell Me I’m Crazy’, one of the two outside songs, didn’t chart at all, although it is a very nice Patsy Cline style ballad written by Mike Reid and Rory Michael Bourke, and is beautifully sung.

Even better is my favourite song on the album (not coincidentally, the only other song Brent Maher had no hand in). ‘I Need A Heart To Come Home To’ is a lovely sad ballad written by John Barlow Jarvis and Russell Smith about loneliness and the temptation of reconnecting with an old flame:

Something happened the night you kissed me
My will to love was born again
Your tenderness has convinced me
What a lonely fool I’ve been

I need a heart to come home to
Give me all the love I never knew
I need a heart to hold on to
I need a sweet sweetheart like you

Both song and performance are excellent, and the track featured on the soundtrack of hit movie True Romance.

Shelby co-wrote the title track with Maher and Jamie O’Hara, and this bold, brassy tune is a bit lacking in melody or real emotional impact, with an assertive attitude which doesn’t quite fit the self-searching lyric. The trio also wrote the similarly styled ‘Some Of That True Love’, where the swing arrangement fits the song better.

The understated mid-tempo ‘Little Unlucky At Love’, written by Maher and O’Hara, is quite good, but the pair’s ‘Come A Little Closer’ and ‘Don’t Cry For Me’, written by Maher alone, are forgettable big band.

I disliked the bluesy, soul-influenced ‘The Rain Might Wash Your Love Away’ (written by Maher with Don Potter and Don Schlitz, mainly for its annoying spoken segments. However the sophisticated minor-keyed jazz ballad ‘Where Do We Go From Here’ is very well done.

This is one of those records which is tough to assign a letter grade to. It is well sung and played, and Shelby sounds thoroughly engaged with her material, but most of it is not really to my personal tastes. As a jazz-inflected record for a general audience, it is very good; but it has little to do with country music other than the personnel.

Grade: B

Favorite Country Songs Of The 80s: Part 7

It seems to me that I never did finish off this series, the last installment being posted on February 11, 2014 (and the installment before that appeared April 9,2013). Here are some more songs from the 1980s that I liked. This is an expanded and revised version of the February 11, 2014 article which was a rush job :

Shame On The Moon” – Bob Seger
Bob’s 1982 recording of a Rodney Crowell song charted on the country charts in early 1983, reaching #15 in the process. The song was a bigger hit on the pop charts, reaching #2 for four weeks.

Finally” – T. G. Sheppard
He worked for Elvis, sang background for Travis Wammack, and eventually emerged with a solo career worth noting, racking up 42 chart singles from 1974-1991. This 1982 single was one of fourteen #1 record racked up by Sheppard, eleven of them reaching #1 during the 1980s.

Doesn’t Anybody Get High On Love Anymore” – The Shoppe
The Shoppe was a Dallas based band that hung around for years after their 1968 formation. In the early 1980s they had eight chart records, but this was the only one to crack the top forty, reaching #33. They had a record deal with MTM Records in 1985, but that label vanished, taking the Shoppe with them.

Crying My Heart Out Over You” – Ricky Skaggs
Ricky Skaggs was one of the dominant artists of the first half of the 1980s with his bluegrass/country hybrid. Starting with 1981’s “You May See Me Walking” and ending with 1986’s “Love’s Gonna Get You Some Day“, Skaggs ran off sixteen consecutive top ten singles with ten of them reaching number one, This 1982 classic was the first chart topper. Eventually Ricky returned to straight bluegrass, but I like the hybrid recordings better. In my original article I spotlighted “Honey (Open That Door)“, a straight forward country Mel Tillis song recorded by Webb Pierce.

Don’t Stay If You Don’t Love Me” – Patsy Sledd
Stardom never really happened for Patsy, who was a good singer marooned early in her career on a bad label. She was part of the George Jones-Tammy Wynette show in the early 1970s. This song reached #79 in 1987.

“Nice To Be With You” – Slewfoot
This band replaced Alabama as the feature band at the Bowery Club in Myrtle Beach. This was their only chart single, a cover of Gallery’s #4 pop hit from 1972 that reached #85 in 1986.

King Lear” – Cal Smith
The last chart hit for the former Texas Troubadour. This song reached #75 in 1986.

“A Far Cry From You” – Connie Smith
After a six year recording hiatus, the greatest female country recording artist of all time returned with this one-shot single on the Epic label. It’s a great song but received no promotional push at all from the label landing at #71 in 1985. Unfortunately, this single has never appeared on an album.

“The Shuffle Song” – Margo Smith
Exactly as described – a shuffle song that reached #13 for Margo in early 1980. Margo had a brief run of top ten hits in the middle and late 1970s but the string was about over. In my prior article I featured “He Gives Me Diamonds, You Give Me Chills” but The Shuffle song is actually my favorite 80s hit from Margo. She lives in The Villages in Florida and still performs occasionally.

Cheatin’s A Two Way Street” – Sammi Smith
Her last top twenty song from 1981. Sammi only had three top ten hits but made many fine records. This was one of them.

Hasn’t It Been good Together” – Hank Snow and Kelly Foxton
The last chart record for the ‘Singing Ranger’. The record only got to #78 for the 65 year old Snow in 1980 but I couldn’t let pass the opportunity to acknowledge the great career of the most successful Canadian country artist. By any legitimate means of chart tracking, his 1950 hit “I’m Moving On” is still the number one country hit of all time. Hank had perfect diction and was a great guitar player.

Tear-Stained Letter” – Jo-El Sonnier
A late bloomer, this was the forty-two year old Jo-El’s second of two top ten records and my favorite. It reached #8 in 1988. There were brief periods in the past when Cajun music could break through for a hit or two. Eddy Raven was the most successful Cajun artist but most of his material was straight-ahead country.

Sometimes You Just Can’t Win” – J.D. Souther and Linda Ronstadt
George Jones charted this record twice, but it’s such a good song it was worth covering. This version went to #27 in 1982. J.D had a big pop hit in 1980 with “You’re Only Lonely” which reached #7.

Honey I Dare You” – Southern Pacific
Southern Pacific was a bunch of guys who previously played with other bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Doobie Brothers and Pablo Cruise, making some real good country music in the process. This was one of their four top ten hits of the 1980s. “A Girl Like Emmylou” from 1986 only reached #17 but the song tells you where this band’s heart was located.

Lonely But Only For You” – Sissy Spacek
Loretta Lynn wanted to Spacek to portray her in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter, and it turns out that Sissy can really can sing. This song reached #15 in 1983.

Standing Tall” – Billie Jo Spears
Billie Jo Spears, from Beaumont, Texas, was incredibly popular in England and Ireland, where “Blanket On The Ground” and “What I’ve Got In Mind” were top five pop hits in the mid 1970s and she had many more lesser successes. Many of her later albums were not released in the US but she had a substantial US career with thirty-four charted records, including two #1 hits. “Standing Tall” reached #15 in 1980.

Chain Gang” – Bobby Lee Springfield
More successful as a songwriter than as a performer, Springfield had two chart sings in 1987 with “Hank Drank” (#75) and “Chain Gang” (#66) which was NOT the Sam Cooke hit. Bobby Lee was both too country and too rockabilly for what was charting at the time. I really liked All Fired Up, the one album Epic released on him.

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Classic Rewind: Patsy Cline – ‘Leavin’ On Your Mind’

Album Review: Ricky Van Shelton – ‘Loving Proof’

loving proofRicky’s second album was released in September 1988. It was another collection of neotraditional country music including an unusually high proportion of covers, and an overwhelming theme of undying love.

There were four top 5 singles, three of which hit the top spot. The first of these, ‘I’ll Leave This World Loving You’ is a beautifully sung slow ballad about a man resigned to forever love the woman who has broken his heart. It was written by Wayne Kemp, who had a minor hit with it himself in 1980, and is the kind of thing George Jones excelled at. It was also Ricky Van Shelton’s forte. Another Kemp song swearing eternal devotion ‘Don’t Send Me No Angels’ (which Jones covered a few years later) is happier in mood, although Ricky delivers it with a solemn intensity.

Also hitting #1 was another cover, Ned Miller’s international hit ‘From A Jack To A King’. The bright paced love song was followed by a slightly less successful cover in the shape of the retro-rockabilly ‘Hole In My Pocket’. The Boudleaux and Felice Bryant song (previously recorded by Little Jimmy Dickens in his youth) peaked at #4. While Ricky clearly enjoyed performing in this style, and did it convincingly enough, he was much more effective as a balladeer. The up-tempo semi-rockabilly ‘Swimming Upstream’, which opens the set, is pleasant but forgettable.

It was back to the ballads, and back to the top with the album’s final single, ‘Living Proof’. This emotion-laden song tells of a woman whose life is dominated by a love enduring through heartbreak, and her eventual reunion with the protagonist.

There are several more fine ballads on offer. ‘Let Me Live With Love And Die With You’ is a romantic declaration written by Skip Ewing and Red Lane. Ricky got a rare co-writing credit on ‘The Picture’ (with his producer Steve Buckingham and Troy Seals). The song has the protagonist looking at a photograph of his lost love with her new man and child, and wishing he was still in her life. He wistfully imagines what the baby would look like if he were the father:

His hair would have been blonder
And his eyes would have been blue
If it was me in the picture with you

Ricky delved back into country music history for another cover, the Wilburn Brothers’ plaintive ‘Somebody’s Back in Town’, which I like a great deal. He also delivers the country standard ‘He’s Got You’ beautifully, with real passion and commitment, paced a little quicker than the Patsy Cline or Jim Reeves classic versions.

This second album was an excellent one, and I like it better than its predecessor. It’s well worth catching up with now. Like the latter, it sold very well and was certified platinum, positioning Ricky as one of the biggest stars of the era.

Grade: A

A look back at 1989: Part 1 – George Jones

one woman manThe year 1989 saw the debuts and/or emergence of a fine crop of new artists that would continue the neo-traditionalist movement that flickered in the early 1980s with the arrival of Ricky Skaggs and started building up steam in 1986 when Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam arrived. Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Alan Jackson and Travis Tritt were the biggest names to emerge in 1989, but there were others as well.

This is not to say that the old guard didn’t produce some excellent records that year, even if they were having difficulty getting playing time. I will look at three of the old guard whose records particularly appealed to me in 1989 starting with the acknowledged master of the genre, the one and only “King George” – Jones, that is.

GEORGE JONES – ONE WOMAN MAN (1989)

The decade of the 1980s was a good one for George Jones as he finally got himself clean and remained in good voice; however, Father Time waits for no one and as the 1990s approached George’s chart success was beginning to wane.

By 1989 when ONE WOMAN MAN was issued, George was 58 years old and beginning to struggle for airplay as he was crowded out by the vaunted “Class of 89”.

George Jones albums during the 1980s tended to follow the formula of three or four singles (some of which were covers of old country classics) plus some other songs – often some more covers of old country classics – and some top grade new material. Even though the hot young songwriters weren’t necessarily pitching their good stuff at him, he was still finding enough good material to make some great albums.

My favorite George Jones album of the 1980s was ONE WOMAN MAN. More so than any of his earlier albums in the decade, this album relied on older material.

“One Woman Man”, the first single off the album would prove to be George’s last top twenty single as a solo artist, peaking at #5, this after a run of five consecutive singles that had missed the top twenty. The song, written by Johnny Horton and Tillman Franks had reached #7 for Horton in 1956. I liked Horton’s version but there is a decided difference between a pretty good singer like Horton and a great singer like George Jones.

Track 2 on the album was a Louvin Brothers classic, “My Baby’s Gone. You really can’t beat the Louvins at their own material (although this song was written by Hazel Houser), but George does quite well with the song. The Louvins had that brotherly harmony going for them but the vocal harmony singers here are put to good use and the steel and fiddle are used effectively. My one criticism of the song is that it is taken at a slightly too fast tempo.

Track 3 is the old Hank Cochran classic “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me”, recorded previously by, among others, Ray Price, Ronnie Milsap, Jack Greene. The Greene version remains my favorite version, but Jones never did wrong by a good song.

Track 4 is “Burning Bridges” another old-timer, but this one originally by rock/pop star Jack Scott. Jack Scott’s version was excellent, as was that of Ray Price, but George takes a back seat to no one in being able to wring the pathos and emotion out of a song.

Track 5 is a novelty song, originally titled “Yabba-Dabba-Do” but changed to “The King Is Gone (and So Are You)” in order to avoid threatened copyright litigation (which the songwriter & publisher would likely have won, but at great expense). In the song, a man whose girl has left him, laments the fact by pulling the head of Elvis off a Jim Beam decanter, pouring it into a Flintstones jelly bean jar and drinking up, imagining conversations with Elvis Presley and Fred Flintstone in the process. He eventually comes to the realization that his girl was never coming back. The song wasn’t a big hit but in the hands of almost anyone else, it would have been a total flop – it seems that only George Jones and Hank Thompson could get away with recording novelties (some of them really ludicrous) and scoring hits with them. This was the second single off the album and it reached #31 on the charts. The track features some nice dobro or slide guitar.

George gets back to serious songs on Track 6 with “Radio Lover”. Thematically this song is very similar to Porter Wagoner’s “Cold Hard Facts of Life”, except that the protagonist is a radio disk jockey rather than a truck driver and the song has a less ominous set up than Porter’s classic. Our hero pre-tapes his show so he can spend his first wedding anniversary with his wife, walks in on her with her lover in bed with her and he dispatches with both of them – meanwhile his radio show is playing on her radio. This was the fourth single and it topped out at #62. Here in Central Florida the song seemed to get the radio airplay one would expect of a top ten single.

I know I heard someone else perform Track 7, “A Place In The Country” before George Jones wrap his vocal cords around it. This song is about a man who worked in the city for thirty years but whose dream was to retire to the country.

Track 8 was a Patsy Cline song, “Just Out of Reach”. It was not released as a single but was taken as the title track for Patsy’s third Decca album and became well known in the years following her death. While I prefer Patsy’s version, George has nothing for which to apologize here.

The album closes with some original material in “Writing On The Wall” (track 9) and “Pretty Little Lady from Beaumont, Texas” (track 10). In the hands of most other performers, these songs would be filler, but in the hands of George Jones they are decent songs . They also point out why George was turning to so much older material – he simply wasn’t being pitched the best new material.

“Writing On The Wall” was the third single taken from the album and it reached #31. The year before the song had reached #96 for Kenny Carr.

For his next album, 1990’s YOU OUGHTA HERE WITH ME, George reversed course and obtained a batch of new songs. None of them would become hits (and the two singles released from the album would not chart at all) but one of the songs, “Ol’ Red” would reach #14 for Blake Shelton in 2002.

YOU OUGHTA BE WITH ME marked the end of the line for George Jones with Epic. From here Jones would go to MCA for a few albums and then to MCA and various other labels, eventually settling into elder statesman status. George’s solo albums from here would be spottier affairs, but there would be a number of special projects involving guest artists that would keep his face in front of the public.

Still, his penultimate album for Epic was a fine effort well worth digging out to play, and I do, periodically. It would be in my top ten albums for 1989.

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: Gene Watson – ‘Honky Tonk Crazy’

honky tonk crazyOne of the ironies of the rise of the neotraditional movement in the late 1980s was that it swept away some of the old guard who had been keeping more traditional sounds alive on country radio. Gene Watson was one of the casualties. His last album for Epic, produced by Billy Sherrill, was an excellent effort which deserved to do much better than it did.

The title track is a smooth confessional from a man who warns off a woman who is getting a little too close:

I’ve always been honky tonk crazy
I’m someone that’s best left alone
Cause when I get honky tonk crazy
I only feel right doing wrong

I’ll take you and make you love smokey old bars
Cheap whiskey and a sad country song
Till there’s nothing left of the lady you are
And then like your pride I’ll be gone

Lovely steel guitar and fiddle, and Gene’s seductive vocal makes the prospect seem more inviting than it should. The song, written by the legendary Harlan Howard with Ron Peterson, was also recorded by Keith Whitley (and is available on the posthumous Sad Songs & Waltzes). Gene’s version disappointingly failed to creep into the top 40 on the Billboard country chart.

The second and last single did a little better, reaching #28. The funky ‘Everybody Needs A Hero’ (written by Max D. Barnes and Troy Seals) is a Georgia boy’s reminiscence of a somewhat disreputable childhood hero. The implication is that he is actually the kid’s father or grandfather:

My mama says I turned out just like him
She worries and prays that I’ll change
I didn’t know until a few days ago
Why he sent me his gold watch and chain

‘I Didn’t Think Of You At All’ is a classic Gene Watson heartbreak ballad, with perfect phrasing conveying the emotional devastation of a man desperately trying not to let it show. Gene squeezes out every drop of emotion while never oversinging it. Equally broken is the protagonist of ‘Ashes To Ashes’:

I tried everything, even drowning your memory in booze
So I finally decided to lie down and die with the pain
Oh, but my heart kept on beating and softly repeating your name

When they lay me away the last words they’ll speak
Here lies a man that don’t rest in peace

God gave me your love and God knows I threw it away
What I put you through is the same hell I’m living today
Now praying don’t help so dying’s the best I can do

In similar heartbreak vein is a revival of a country classic, ‘You took Her Off My Hands’, one of Harlan Howard’s earliest compositions (with Wynn Stewart and Skeets McDonald) whose best known recording is that by Ray Price; Patsy Cline also recorded a version under the title ‘You Took Him Off My Hands’. Gene’s interpretation is superlative.

‘Getting Used To Being Loved Again’ is a gently vulnerable ballad expressing the wonder of finding new love at last. ‘I Always Get It Right With You is a warm, tender love song.

‘When She Touches Me’ features a former Casanova who has been felled by falling in love with one of his conquests.

‘Nobody’s Baby Tonight’ is a sympathetic song about a fragile woman whose man has recently left her and is so lonely she resorts to picking up a man in a bar.

The pacey ‘Her Heart Or Mine’ tackles a relationship which has run out of steam, but there is no way of avoiding hurting one or the other:

There’s no way I can make both of us happy
I don’t know if I should break her heart or mine

After this album failed to maintain Gene’s commercial status, he left the label for a period in the wilderness. He enjoyed a brief resurgence when he signed to Warner Bros, recording two excellent albums for that label, Back In The Fire which I included in our retrospective look at he Class of ’89, and At Last. But linking up with new labelmate Randy Travis’s manager (and later wife) Lib Hatcher turned out to be a bad move, and legal wrangles coincided with the end of his major label career. The 90s saw Gene recording for a succession of minor labels, many of which have gone out of business, making the music he made there hard to come by.

This is a wonderful, underrated album from an artist at the peak of his vocal prowess, which deserve to be better known. Unfortunately it has not yet been re-released, and only rather expensive used copies seem to be out there at present. If you do come across a copy, it’s well worth it.

Grade: A

Album Review: Mary Sarah & Friends – ‘Bridges: Great American Country Duets’

bridges18 year old Mary Sarah Gross (who has, like many very young performers, dropped her surname for professional purposes) has been performing country music since her childhood. Discovered on Youtube by veterans the Oak Ridge Boys, her debut album, produced by songwriter Freddy Powers, features a number of very starry guests. The style harks back, sometimes to traditional country, but more often to the Nashville Sound and the pop music of that era. Mary Sarah’s voice has quite a light timbre at present, perhaps because of her youth, but she clearly has a lot of potential.

A real highlight is ‘Crazy’, which really suits Mary Sarah vocally, and is performed as a duet with the song’s writer Willie Nelson (offering his usual idiosyncratic vocal), with an arrangement similar to the Cline version. Very impressive.

She tackles Merle Haggard’s ‘Fighting Side Of Me’ with a perky confidence, and is joined by Haggard. A great traditional country arrangement make this very enjoyable although I’m not sure the defiance of the original quite survived. ‘Heartaches By The Number’, sung as a duet with the late Ray Price, is also great, with a wonderful traditional arrangement.

’Go Rest High On That Mountain’, which Vince Gill recorded in memory of Keith Whitley, seems like a curious choice of cover due to the personal and specific nature of the lyrics, but it is beautifully and tenderly sung by Mary Sarah, with Gill’s heavenly harmony the perfect counterpoint.

I took a while to warm up to Mary Sarah’s vocal on ‘Jolene’, despite a nice arrangement and Dolly herself harmonising prettily. I think she just sounds a little too forceful and not quite vulnerable enough, but the version has grown on me over repeated listens.

‘Rose Garden’ works well for Mary Sarah, on which she duets with Lynn Anderson. Tanya Tucker helps out on an energetic take on ‘Texas (When I Die)’. I can’t normally stand Big & Rich, so I was surprised to quite enjoy their contribution to a pretty but rather old fashioned love song. The ballad ‘My Great Escape’. ‘All I Wanna Do Is Sing My Song’, sung with her producer Freddy Powers, is also nicely done.

‘What A Difference You’ve Made In My Life’ is in 70s/early 80s pop-country style, with new Hall of Fame inductee Ronnie Milsap harmonising and offering the odd solo line. It sounds a bit dated by today’s standards, and the production is a bit cluttered with strings and belted out vocals without room for much subtlety, but it has a certain guilty pleasure quality about it. ‘Dream On’ featuring the Oak Ridge Boys is more of a disappointment – cluttered sounding and not very interesting, although Mary Sarah sings it well.

I really disliked the retro-pop ‘I’m Sorry’ and ‘Where The Boys Are’, a duet with Neil Sedaka, which has no country influences at all.

The sequencing of the album groups the stronger, and more country, tracks at the start, with the effect that after halfway through it feels like a downhill ride. I’m not sure I quite know who Mary Sarah is an artist, but I enjoyed quite a lot of the album, and she definitely has talent.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Mandy Barnett – ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You: The Songs of Don Gibson’

mandybarnettThe late Don Gibson is not as well remembered as he ought to be. A successful recording artist who racked up 22 Top 10 hits between 1956 and 1974, he is primarily remembered for his songwriting. “Oh Lonesome Me”, “Sea of Heartbreak”, “Sweet Dreams” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” are just a few of the timeless classics that he penned. Mandy Barnett’s new album, featuring twelve classic Gibson songs, is a worthy tribute that every fan of classic country music should enjoy.

With I Can’t Stop Loving You, which was jointly released by Rounder Records and Cracker Barrel, Barnett breathes new life into these timeless classics. The obvious crowd pleasers are all represented, along with a handful of of Gibson’s lesser known tunes that will be unfamiliar enough to seem new to many fans — myself included. The opening track “(Yes) I’m Hurting” is one such example. I wasn’t previously familiar with this one and although the string arrangement seems a bit heavy-handed, it is appropriate for a song originally released during the Nashville Sound era. “Too Soon To Know” is another new one for me. Originally included on Gibson’s 1972 album Woman, Sensuous Woman, it was never released as a single, but one can imagine Patsy Cline having a huge hit with this one.

Most of the other titles will be familiar most listeners. My favorite is “Sweet Dreams”, a song that will forever be associated with Patsy Cline, and one that I expected would sound like something from the soundtrack of Always … Patsy Cline, in which Barnett played the lead role in the mid-90s. Instead, she puts her own stamp on the song and proves that she’s more than a Cline sound-alike. The lush string arrangement is eschewed in favor of the steel guitar and Mandy’s version is more reminiscent of the version that Emmylou Harris took to #1 in 1977. “Just One Time” peaked at #2 for Connie Smith in 1971. Barnett’s version is more polished, but I prefer the more raw and uptempo original. Mandy likewise slows down the tempo on “Blue Blue Day”, but it is surprisingly effective on this track, which features harmony vocals by Alison Krauss. The title track is a fairly faithful interpretation of the 1962 Ray Charles version, considered by most to be the definitive recording of the song. I was never much of a Ray Charles fan, and as such this is my least favorite song on the album.

There have been no shortage of tribute albums in recent years, but this one really puts a fresh spin on a somewhat cliched concept by allowing one singer to concentrate on the work of a sole songwriter. Barnett proves that she is more than up the challenge of tackling the classic material. Somehow I missed this album when it was released back in November. Had I been aware of it, it would most certainly have earned a spot on my best albums of the year list.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Patsy Cline – ‘I’ve Loved And Lost Again’

Album Review – Heather Myles – ‘Untamed’

HeatherMylesUntamedHeather Myles continued with producer Bruce Bromberg for her sophomore album released on HighTone records in early 1995. Like its predecessor Untamed didn’t yield any hit singles and marked the end of Myles’ tenure on the label. The change led her to Rounder where she would release her next couple of albums.

In the same fashion as Just Like Old Times, Myles had a hand in writing the majority of the album, penning seven songs solely and co-writing another. “When You Walked Out on Me” is a classic mid-tempo honky-tonker and a perfect showcase for Myles’ voice. “Until I Couldn’t Have You” is more modern, with an acoustic guitar and drum led arrangement that gives the track a more polished feel, although it was still retro by 1995 standards. “Indigo Moon,” a southwestern flavored track, is a love letter to New Mexico and features a wonderful twangy guitar and drum accompaniment that gives the track a nice groove. “It Ain’t Over” features another wonderfully upbeat production perfect for Myles’ voice, but the repetitive chorus feels lazy and underdeveloped.

Western swing rocker “Cadillac Cowboy” may be the most traditional of the self-penned numbers, complete with a nice dose of fiddle and steel guitar. “Come Back To Me” is a fabulously sparse ballad that allows the ache in Myles’ vocal to shine through perfectly. The neo-traditional leaning number is one of my favorite tracks on the album. Also excellent is the title track, a mid-tempo ballad serving as a call to action for conservation (“We have ourselves to blame. If you want it to remain, then let it go untamed.”)

Myles co-wrote the breakneck honky-tonker “Gone Too Long” with Dickey Lee of “9,999,999 Tears” fame. It’s an excellent number for its rapid-fire pace alone, with the gorgeous twangy guitar serving as an added bonus to the proceedings. On the opposite end of the spectrum is a cover of Marty Robbins’ “Begging You,” which has Myles channeling Patsy Cline. The country shuffle serves her quite well and allows Myles room to showcase the power of her voice.

Jack Rymes wrote “And It Hurts,” another of the more modern sounding tracks on Untamed. I love the beat and Myles’ vocal on this one as well. Another of the more traditional sounding songs is “Just Leave Me Alone,” which Eddy Raven co-wrote with legendary country songwriter Sanger D. Shafer. The track is good, but doesn’t stand out from other similar tracks on the album.

I must admit that Untamed marks my formal introduction to Myles’ music and I quite liked it. She covers a lot of ground here from traditional to honky tonk and modern country with an ease most singers couldn’t pull off. Untamed isn’t a revelatory album by any means, but it’s a nice pleasant listen just the same.

Grade: A

Album Review – Heidi Feek – ‘The Only’

Heidi-Feek-The-OnlyI became a fan of Heidi Feek after her profile during a season one episode of The Joey + Rory Show. During the segment, she introduced the world to her then fiancé and spoke about her love of listening to vinyl records. She’s since become a regular fixture on her parents’ television show, providing background vocals during performances and singing Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” and Hank Williams’ “Kaw-Lija” during Crosley Radio Vinyl Rewind pieces.

Like her parents Feek is a throwback to a simpler era making it easy to forget she’s in her mid-twenties, around my age. She’s a great vocalist, with a distinctively bluesy twang not far removed from Cline or torch singer Mandy Barnett. I’ve been anticipating a full-length album since that initial appearance, and while I didn’t buy her 2010 EP Eden I was quick to acquire a copy of The Only when the release was announced in late August.

Needless to say, I’m not disappointed. Feek’s first full-length album is a wonderful showcase for her distinct stylings and a fine introduction to who she is as an artist. The album blasts off with the rockin’ “I Like The Way,” an excellent electric guitar drenched number reminiscent of Dwight Yoakam, and the first of four tracks she penned solely with her father Rory. Reverb heavy “I Didn’t Know About You” (co-written by Feek, her father, and James Slater) continues in a similar uptempo vein, transporting Feek back to the Sun Records era of the 1950s while also updating that sound to keep the track modern and fresh. Similarly to “I Like The Way,” “I Don’t Know About You” succeeds on its electric guitar centric sound, giving Feek some muscle behind her energetic vocal.

“57 Bel Air,” another father daughter co-write, is not only the best of the uptempo numbers, and the strongest track on the whole project and the one song I can’t wait to hear each time I listen to the album. It picks up on the electric guitar heavy sound that threads together the uptempo numbers, but adds a distinctive drum beat that elevates the track above the rest. “57 Bel Air,” in which Feek compares her current relationship to the classic car, does the best job of maintaining the rock sound Feek loves while also keeping the track firmly within the realms of her country roots.

As a fan of Feek I was excited to hear her trademark ballads, the side of her musical personality I was most familiar with going in. Feek’s style is best summed up when she’s inspired by Cline, as she shows on “One Night With You,” a co-write with her dad, Austin Manual, and Aaron Carnahan and “There Lives A Fool,” which her dad co-wrote with Sara Evans about sixteen years ago. Both numbers are ripe with bluesy elements that allow Feek to shine vocally, although a chaotic guitar solo suffocates the end of “One Night With You.” The gorgeously understated opening of “There Lives A Fool,” featuring Feek’s vocal backed solely by an upright bass, showcases her impressive range and is one of album’s standout moments.

I also really enjoy “Someday Somebody,” the album’s first single and a co-write between Feek and her dad. The song takes a modern approach to her bluesy side with distinctive electric guitar riffs infused with a steady drumbeat framing her straightforward vocal. Even more contemporary is the title track (which Feek penned solo), a 90s country inspired ballad about a woman telling her man he isn’t the end of the line in terms of relationships. I love how the drums and guitars work together to create a gentle ease that helps guide the song along. “Berlin,” co-written by Feek, her dad, and Slater, follows the same path although it’s far more addicting with the wonderful ‘we hold on/we let go/body and soul/still I love you’ refrain keeping it memorable.

By all accounts, The Only is a solid album, although it didn’t provide the listening experience I was hoping for despite some truly outstanding numbers. There aren’t any clunkers on the project (not even a very atypical cover of “Heartbreak Hotel” that shows off Feek’s interpretation skills) but the production is too heavy handed at times, giving the album a sense of sameness that grows tiring after hearing just a few tracks. But The Only isn’t a bad album by any means, and well worth checking out.

Grade: B+