My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Paul Kennerley

Album Review: Ronna Reeves – ‘The More I Learn’

Ronna’s second album for Mercury was released in 1992. It was slightly more successful in gaining radio play, although there were still no bona fide hits.

The mid-paced title track, ‘The More I Learn (The Less I Understand About Love)’, was written by one of the most successful female songwriters of the era, Karen Staley, with Steve Dean, and it is radio friendly enough to have been a potential hit. Its #49 peak would make it the closest ever Ronna ever got to the charts.

Follow-up ‘What If You’re Wrong’, written by Austin Cunningham and Denise Davis, is a big ballad in which Ronna offers to set her a restless husband free:

If you think the magic is gone
I agree, maybe you should move on
If you’re sure that your love for me has really died
If there’s something still missing for you
Then there’s nothing more I’ll know to do
So I’ll have to go along with whatever you decide

But what if you’re wrong?

Some nice steel augments the song effectively. It peaked at a dismal #70, one place higher than the third and last single, the pacy ‘We Can Hold Our Own’, which is pleasant if unremarkable.

My favorite track is ‘Nobody Here To Love’, an excellent Bob Mc Dill ballad about the loss of love. There is a gentle Celtic feel to the fiddle arrangement on the verses behind Ronna’s vulnerable vocals, which then soar on the chorus:

I was living all alone
And though I had a heart of stone
You touched my hand and melted me
And I believed

It was you that made me see
What love could be
But I walked in today and no one was there
Now nothing matters after all

Funny how things work out
Can’t believe somehow
You could leave me now
Tell me, what were you thinkin’ of
‘Cause now that you taught me how
There’s nobody here to love

Another solid McDill tune, ‘Honky Tonk Hearts’, had been a minor hit for Dickey Lee in 1980, and was also recorded by John Anderson. Ronna’s version is pretty good. ‘I’ll Be Faithful To You’ is a sweet love song (written by Paul Kennerley) offering a second chance to someone who has been hurt by another. It was previously recorded by Don Williams. I also quite enjoyed the up-tempo ‘Heartbreak Shoes’.

‘Frontier Justice’, written by Bobby Fischer, Charlie Black and Austin Roberts, is a dramatic number in which Ronna seethes about being done wrong and lied to:

‘Cause you can’t hang ’em high
You can’t lay ’em low
The way you could a hundred years ago
When love and honor were the law of the land
If frontier justice prevailed today
My daddy and brothers would make you pay
That’s the kind of justice you’d understand

Ronna’s attitude is directed triumphantly at her lover’s ex in the upbeat ‘Bless Your Cheatin’ Heart’, an entertaining song written by Buddy Cannon and Jessica Boucher:

You know, it’s almost funny to see you standing there in tears
I just wanna thank you dear, because he no longer cares about you

You had everything you didn’t want but then somehow
He started looking good to you the minute he fell in my arms
And I’m obliged to you
And bless your cheatin’ heart

Sammy Kershaw duets with Ronna on ‘There’s Love On The Line’. Their voices work well together on this song (written by Jerry Fuller) about a separated couple laying phone tag as they try to make a connection again.

There was a lot of strong material on this album, and it’s one I enjoyed listening to.

Grade: B+

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Album Review: Jann Browne – ‘It Only Hurts When I Laugh’

The modest success achieved by the singles from Jann’s debut album was sadly not to be repeated, with neither of the two singles from its successor charting at all. ‘Better Love Next Time’, written by Gail Davies and Paul Kennerley, is a mid-paced song addressed to a departing lover, with pain filled vocals belying the generous lyrics. It’s a pretty decent song, but wasn’t really memorable enough to have an impact. It was followed by the title track, written by hitmaker Kostas and Marty Stuart, which on paper was made for radio and combines an upbeat tune with a heartbreak theme. Coincidentally it would be covered a couple of years later by another of our current spotlight artists. This really ought to have been a hit.

Jann cowrote a pair of songs with Pat Gallagher. ‘Blue Heart In Memphis’ is a country-blues-rocker with a solid groove. The ironic ‘Who’s Gonna Be Your Next Love’ is another up-tempo tune but with a bluegrass feel.

One of my favorite tracks is ‘I Don’t Do Floors’, written by Don Cook and Chick Rains. This is a classic style country shuffle about being over someone and telling him so. The nights of walking the floor are over. The album closes with another outstanding track, ‘Where Nobody Knows My Name’, a ballad written by John Hiatt and Jimmy Tittle about moving on, which has a beautiful melody led by a simple acoustic guitar and a soothing vocal:

Even when the past comes calling
Looking for somebody to blame
I’ll be easing on down the road
Where nobody knows my name

When the burning sun surrenders
Will he still remember me?
I never told him I was going
Out where the wind is blowing free

If he thinks about me tonight
I know he won’t miss the pain
I’ll be taking it down the road
Where nobody knows my name

Almost as good is a lovely version of Nanci Griffith’s wistful ‘I Wish It Would Rain’, which acts as a lyrical counterpoint to the message of the Hiatt song:

Once I had a love from the Georgia pines who only cared for me
I wanna find that love at 22 here at 33
I’ve got a heart on my right and one on my left
And neither suits my needs
Oh, the one I love is a way out west and he never will need me

So I wish it would rain and wash my face clean
I wanna find some dark cloud to hide in here
Oh, love and a memory sparkle like diamonds
When the diamonds fall, they burn like tears …

I’m gonna pack up my two-step shoes and head for the Gulf Coast plains
I wanna walk the streets of my own home town where everybody knows my name
I want to ride the waves down in Galveston when the hurricanes blow in
Cause that Gulf Coast water tastes sweet as wine
When your heart’s rolling home in the wind

A folk-bluegrass arrangement with harmonies from Iris DeMent makes this a delight. Also great is ‘I Knew Enough To Fall In Love With You’, a lovely ballad written by Gary Nicholson and Hank DeVito about finding true love after a hard life, with a very pretty tune – a really sweet love song.

‘My Shoes Keep Walking Back To You’ is an old Bob Wills tune which became a country standard. Jann’s version is excellent and very traditional country, with some very nice fiddle and steel. ‘Where The Sidewalk Ends’ (later cut by George Strait) is a Jim Lauderdale/John Leventhal song on which Lauderdale provides backing vocals.

It is a shame this album did not perform better for Jann, as it is excellent. You can download it from iTunes.

Grade: A

Album Review: Jann Browne – ‘Tell Me Why’

Released in February 1990, Tell Me Why was Jann’s first album as a solo artist after a decade of paying her dues working the taverns and serving a stint with Asleep At The Wheel. As it happens, Tell Me Why would prove to be Jann’s moist successful album, reaching #46 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, and producing her two most successful singles.

The title track was the second single released on the album reaching #18. The song was written by Gail Davies and “Handsome Harry” Stinson and is a song of doubt with sparkling guitar by some fellow named James Burton.

The next track “Ain’t No Train” was co-written by Jann along with Pat Gallagher. I guess you could call it an up-tempo rocker. Albert Lee plays the lead guitar on this track.

“Til A Tear Becomes A Rose” was written by the husband and wife team of Bill & Sharon Foster. I like Jann’s version, but it would become better known as a duet by Keith Whitley and Lorrie Morgan. James Burton and Byron Berlin are featured in the arrangement. This song could be described as a slight twist on the theme of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man”

“Louisville” is a mid-tempo shuffle written by Jann along with Pat Gallagher. My understanding is that it was featured in the film Pow Wow Highway, but I’ve not seen the film. This song was the forth single released from the album, but it only reached #75.

“Mexican Wind” was the third album single released from the album. The song is yet another Browne-Gallagher collaboration. The song failed to chart, although it is a very nice ballad about heartache and unrequited love. Emmylou Harris provides some lovely harmonies on this song.

Paul Kennerley wrote the harshly pragmatic “Losing You”, a song about a woman coming to terms with a man soon to be gone.

“You Ain’t Down Home” was the first single from the album, reaching #19. Written by Jamie O’Hara, it was one of the first of his songs (perhaps even the first of his songs) to chart. Although not Jann’s biggest hit, it is the best remembered as country cover bands featured the song for over a decade after its release.

You know all the right people
You wear all the right clothes
You got a snappy little sports car all your own
You got the cool conversation on your high tech telephone
But you got one little problem, baby
You ain’t down him

You ain’t down home where the people got their feet on the ground
Down home where there’s plenty of love to go ’round
You got the cool conversation on your high tech telephone
But you got one little problem, baby
You ain’t down home
You got a brand new Jacuzzi
All your credit cards are gold
There ain’t a high class place in town where you ain’t known
You make it all look impressive, yeah you put on quite a show
But you got one little problem, baby
You ain’t down home
You make it all look so impressive, yeah when you’re showin’ all your dough
But you got one little problem, baby
You ain’t down home

Jann reaches deep into the Harlan Howard song bag for “The One You Slip Around With”, a song that Harlan wrote with his then-wife Jan Howard. This song would prove to be Jan Howard’s first major hit in 1959. Jann gives the song the western swing treatment.

The “Queen of Rockabilly”, Wanda Jackson, joins Jann on “I Forgot More (Than You’ll Ever Know) . Written by Cecil Null, the song was a #1 hit for the ill-fated Davis Sisters (a car crash took the life of Betty Jack Davis while the song was still on the charts; Skeeter Davis eventually resumed her career after recovering from her injuries.

Members of “New Grass Revival” join Jann on “Lovebird”, a gentle mid-tempo ballad in which Jann pines for the love of a man who has left her. Iris DeMent provided the high harmonies on this song.

I like Jann Browne a lot, although she is not possessed of the best voice. Her musical tastes and sensitivities make up for much of the missing power in her voice, that plus her ability to select accompanying musicians make all of her recording worthwhile.

This is not her best album (her later Buck Owens tribute deserves that honor), but it is a good album – B+

Album Review: The Judds – ‘River Of Time’

river of timeRiver Of Time, released in 1989, was the fifth of six studio albums issued by the Judds. By this time the act was becoming more centered on daughter Wynonna and material more suited to her vocal stylings.

The Judds’ first four full-length albums all went to #1 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, although River Of Time would stall out at #2 (it reached #1 in Canada). Consequently the Judds had Nashville’s A-Team of songwriters pitching material to them.

I do not regard this album as being especially country as the “Soap Sisters” (as Ralph Emery referred to the Judds on his early morning WSMV-TV show in the days before they hit it big) drifted more toward material suitable to Wynonna’s voice. This is an interesting album, with a wide array of material.

Track by Track

“One Man Woman” (Paul Kennerley) – this is a bluesy number about what the narrator is, and what she is looking for (a one woman man). This song was released as a single and reached #8.

“Young Love (Strong Love)” (Kennerley, Kent Robbins) – often simply called “Young Love” is not to be confused with the Sonny James mega-hit of thirty-two years earlier. This song is more of a story song than was Sonny’s classic. This song reached #1 as a single:

She was sitting crossed legged on a hood of a ford
Filing down her nails with a emory board
Talking to her friends about people they knew
And all of the things that young girls do
When she said you see that guy in the baseball cap
I’d like to spend some time with a boy like that

Betty said I seen him at the hardware store
I think his name is Billy, but I’m not sure
And as they talked a little while and he passed by
She smiled at him he just said “hi”
He was thinking to himself as he walked away
Man I’d like to find a girl like her someday

Chorus:
Young love, strong love, true love
It’s a new love
Their gonna make it through the hard times
Walk those lines
Yeah these ties that bind
Young love

“Not My Baby” (Brent Maher, Mike Reid, Mack David) – this is a mid-tempo number that strides the border between jazz and blues. Quitman Dennis takes a nice turn on the clarinet and Sonny Garrish’s tasteful work on the dobro accentuates the effect nicely.

“Let Me Tell You About Love” (Carl Perkins, Kennerley, Maher) – yes, that Carl Perkins. Fittingly, this up-tempo song reached #1:

Well ever since the day that time began
There’s been this thing ‘tween a woman and a manv We’ll, I don’t know but I do believe
It started in the garden with Adam and Eve
Sampson and Delilah had their fling
‘Til she cut his hair and clipped his wing
It don’t matter how the story’s told
Love stays young it can’t grow old

Chorus:
Let me tell you about love
About the moon and stars above
It’s what we’ve all been dreamin’ of
Let me tell you about love

“Sleepless Nights” (Felice Bryant, Boudleaux Bryant) – the husband and wife team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant were legendary songwriters writing many huge hits for the Everly Brothers as well as such country stalwarts as Carl Smith, Jimmie Dickens, Buddy Holly and The Osborne Brothers (“Rocky Top”)River of Time, released in 1989, was the fifth of six studio albums issued by the Judds. By this time the act was becoming more centered on daughter Wynonna and material more suited to her vocal stylings.
The Judds first four full-length albums all went to #1 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, although River of Time would stall out at #2 (it reached #1 in Canada). Consequently the Judds had Nashville’s A-Team of songwriter’s pitching material to them .

I do not regard this album as being especially country as the “Soap Sisters” (as Ralph Emery referred to the Judds on his early morning WSMV-TV show in the days before they hit it big) drifted more toward material suitable to Wynonna’s voice. This is an interesting album, with a wide array of material

Track by Track

“One Man Woman” (Paul Kennerley) – this is a bluesy number about what the narrator is, and what she is looking for (a one woman man). This song was released as a single and reached #8.

“Young Love (Strong Love)” (Kennerley, Kent Robbins) – often simply called “Young Love” is not to be confused with the Sonny James mega-hit of thirty-two years earlier. This song is more of a story song than was Sonny’s classic. This song reached #1 as a single:

She was sitting crossed legged on a hood of a ford
Filing down her nails with a emory board
Talking to her friends about people they knew
And all of the things that young girls do
When she said you see that guy in the baseball cap
I’d like to spend some time with a boy like that

Betty said I seen him at the hardware store
I think his name is Billy, but I’m not sure
And as they talked a little while and he passed by
She smiled at him he just said “hi”
He was thinking to himself as he walked away
Man I’d like to find a girl like her someday
Chorus:
Young love, strong love, true love
It’s a new love
Their gonna make it through the hard times
Walk those lines
Yeah these ties that bind
Young love

“Not My Baby” (Brent Maher, Mike Reid, Mack David) – this is a mid-tempo number that strides the border between jazz and blues. Quitman Dennis takes a nice turn on the clarinet and Sonny Garrish’s tasteful work on the dobro accentuates the effect nicely.

“Let Me Tell You About Love” (Carl Perkins, Kennerley, Maher) – yes, that Carl Perkins. Fittingly, this up-tempo song reached #1:

Well ever since the day that time began
There’s been this thing ‘tween a woman and a manv We’ll, I don’t know but I do believe
It started in the garden with Adam and Eve
Sampson and Delilah had their fling
‘Til she cut his hair and clipped his wing
It don’t matter how the story’s told
Love stays young it can’t grow old
Chorus:
Let me tell you about love
About the moon and stars above
It’s what we’ve all been dreamin’ of
Let me tell you about love

“Sleepless Nights” (Felice Bryant, Boudleaux Bryant) – the husband and wife team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant were legendary songwriters writing many huge hits for the Everly Brothers as well as such country stalwarts as Carl Smith, Jimmie Dickens, Buddy Holly and The Osborne Brothers (“Rocky Top”). This song apparently was written for the Everly Brothers and I remember the Everlys’ recording well (I am a huge Everly Brothers fan). The Judds acquit themselves well, achieving very nice harmonies on this song. I guess it is true that there is nothing like family harmony – I very much like this recording:

Somehow through the days
I don’t give in
I hide the tears
That wait within
Oh, but, then through sleepless nights
I cry again

“Water of Love” (Mark Knopfler) – I know Knopfler mostly from a duet album he cut with Chet Atkins but I understand that his band Dire Straits was hugely successful. This song definitely is not country, it is rather bluesy with a calypso beat:

High and dry in the long hot day
Lost and lonely in every way
Got the flats all around me, sky up above
Yes, I need a little water of love

I’ve been too long lonely and my heart feels pain
Cryin’ out for some soothing rain
I believe I’ve taken enough
Yes, I need a little water of love

“River of Time” (John Jarvis, Naomi Judd) – the title track is a Naomi Judd co-write. The song is a slow ballad with a cocktail lounge jazz piano accompaniment to open the song and more instruments coming in thereafter. The song is nice but at four plus minutes it is too long:

Flow on, river of time
Wash away the pain and heal my mind
Flow on, river of time
Carry me away
And leave it all far behind
Flow on river of time

“Cadillac Red” (Craig Bickhardt, Jarvis, Judd) – this song could be described neo-rockabilly. This kind of song makes for enjoyable listening but is nothing especially memorable. As an album track it serves the purpose of mixing things up after a pair of slow songs:

Well she’s washed and polished
And full of high octane
Ridin’ with the top down
Cruisin’ in the fast land
Her red hairs blowin’ bright as a flame
Cadillac Red’s her name

“Do I Dare” (Don Schlitz, Bickhardt, Maher) – this song addresses the dilemma faced by many a young woman (and perhaps older women as well):

Do I dare show him lovin’?
Do I go for double or nothin’?
Do I act like I don’t care?
Or, do I dare?

Do I do what my heart’s sayin’?
Do I hide my love awaitin’?
Make believe that he’s not there?
Or, do I dare?

This girl’s got a problem
She don’t know what to do
If there’s some way of tellin’
When a man is true

“Guardian Angels” (Schlitz, Jarvis, Judd) – 3:37 – this was the first Judds’ single in six years not to reach the top ten, peaking at #16. This is a nice story song that probably wasn’t a good choice for release as a single, but it is my nominee (along with “Sleepless Nights”) for the best song on the album:

A hundred year old photograph stares out from a frame
And if you look real close you’ll see, our eyes are just the same
I never met them face to face but I still know them well
From the stories my dear grandma would tell

Elijah was a farmer he knew how to make things grow
And Fanny vowed she’d follow him wherever he would go
As things turned out they never left their small Kentucky farm
But he kept her fed, and she kept him warm

Chorus:
They’re my guardian angels and I know they can see
Every step I take, they are watching over me
I might not know where I’m going but I’m sure where I come from
They’re my guardian angels and I’m their special one

I had heard the four singles from this album, plus my local radio station had played “Cadillac Red” a few times, so I had only heard half the album until a few weeks ago. The songs not previously heard provide a rich cornucopia of musical styles and point to Wynonna’s soon to follow solo career.

I would give this album a B+, mostly because I wasn’t that fond of “Water of Love” and “River of Time”. The album is worth seeking out and is available digitally.

Album Review: Highway 101 – ‘Highway 101’

albuma37Highway 101 debuted in January 1987 as the newest artist signed to Warner Brothers Records Nashville. Their spectacular eponymous debut introduced the world to Paulette Carlson, a honky-tonk wonder who has always reminded me of a country Stevie Nicks. The record had four major hit singles and was produced by Paul Worley.

The band launched with the impressive honky-tonk rocker “The Bed You Made For Me,” which deservedly hit #4. Carlson, who solely penned the track, is a woman taking the upper hand while confronting her cheating man (it’s not clear if she’s the mistress or the spouse). She brilliantly uses the bed he cheated in to drive home her argument when laying him out in lavender:

And did you tell her she was sleeping in the bed you made for me?

Did she like my satin sheets and did you sing her to sleep?

And my pillow that she slept on did it bring her sweet dreams?

Did you tell her she was sleeping in the bed you made for me?

***

The pillow that you made for me it was soft with feather down

And the headboard, it came from an old house

That was about to be torn down

And the songs you always sang to me oh as I fall asleep

Did they sound the same to her in the bed you made for me?

***

Now you can take my old pillow and throw it out the door

You can buy another bed you can find another headboard

‘Cause I ain’t gonna lie beneath those satin sheets you tore

The bed you made for me it isn’t mine anymore

Their second single, which peaked at #2, was the incredible steel guitar drenched “Whiskey, If You Were A Woman,” a slice of songwriting gold penned by Mary W. Francis, Johnny MacRae and Bob Morrison. The clever lyric finds Carlson coping uniquely with her man’s grip on the bottle:

Oh, oh, whiskey, if you were a woman

I’d fight you and I’d win, Lord knows I would

Oh, oh, whiskey, if you were a woman

I’d drive you from his tangled mind for good

***

No matter what you do, I do it better

You’ll never be the woman I could be

But you don’t have a heart or any feelings

So I can’t even ask for sympathy

They clinched their first chart topper with the luminescent “Somewhere Tonight,” penned by Harlan Howard and Rodney Crowell, who was a rising star at the time. The track, about a lonesome woman whose man took off for brighter horizons, is surprisingly jaunty for the subject matter. (A bit of trivia: “Somewhere Tonight” was #1 the week I was born).

Final single “Cry, Cry, Cry” was the band’s first consecutive #1. It’s another excellent jaunty honky-tonk rocker, this time with Carlson having quite a difficult time getting over the relationship that just ended:

It’s just a little creek now

But when the rain comes down it’s gonna be a raging river

I just heard my baby say goodbye

He left me here holding back my tears, now he’s gone forever

The dam’s gonna break and I’ma gonna cry, cry, cry

***

I’ma gonna cry and I don’t care who sees

I wonder if he knows what he’s done to me

Gonna love that boy till the day I die

Till the day I do I’m gonna cry, cry, cry

The singles from the band’s debut album were sonically and lyrically cohesive, which helped endear them to radio programmers. The rest of the album somewhat breaks the mold. The band’s drummer Cactus Moser, now married to Wynonna Judd, co-penned the twangy “One Step Closer” with Curtis Stone. The track finds Carlson in a bar with her eye on a guy across the room. She’s hesitant to make a move because ‘One step closer and Mama always told me, don’t go fallin’ till you see the whites of his eyes.’

Carlson solely penned one other track, the equally uptempo “Are You Still Mine,” which could’ve easily been another hit single. She also co-wrote (with Bob DiPiero and Pat McManus) the breakneck paced “Good Goodbye,” about a woman who’s happy to see her current relationship has ended. Matraca Berg lends her pen to “Bridge Across Forever,” a co-write with Ronnie Samoset. It isn’t Berg’s most distinctive lyric and the track unfortunately falls short in comparison to the rest of the album.

The album’s most famous ballad is “Woman Walk The Line,” written by Emmylou Harris and Paul Kennerley. Harris and Trisha Yearwood have both recorded their own versions, which bring out the palpable hurt within the lyric. Highway 101 gives the track pep, which is a bit jarring, but it works as another way of presenting the story.

The final ballad, “Someone Believed” is the most distinctly different from any other track on the album. The song tells a two-act story about a girl who wishes to leave her life on the farm and a city boy who cannot imagine any other life than the girl’s. The cohesiveness is found in the idea that anything is possible in life if you just believe.

Highway 101 is a near perfect debut album. The majority of the tracks are stunning and the production is nicely within the neo-traditional meets contemporary style that was popular at the time. My only slight complaint is that the album is almost too cohesive. I wish Worley had given the album tracks a bit more sonic variety and thus presented the album with a few more surprises. It’s still an essential album 28 years later, with all of the band’s biggest hits in one place. If you were going to check out Highway 101 this is absolutely where you would begin.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Glen Campbell – ‘Letter To Home’

letter to homeFor his second Atlantic album, 1984’s Letter To Home, Glen turned to a new producer, Harold Shedd, and something of a new approach, deliberately aiming the album at mainstream country radio.

The concerted effort to appeal to country radio paid off. The first single, a nicely performed and tastefully arranged cover of J. D. Souther’s ‘Faithless Love’, was a top 10 country hit – Glen’s first since the theme song from movie ‘Any Which Way You Can’ in 1980. it was also the first time the song had been a hit single for anyone, although it was a decade old, having been cut by Linda Ronstadt on her classic Heart Like A Wheel album.

It was followed by Glen’s biggest country hit since 1977 – the #4 peak of ‘A Lady Like You’. This song, written by Jim Weatherly and Keith Stegall, is a solemn AC leaning ballad with a pretty tune. The somewhat tinny keyboard backing has dated a bit, but the vocal is impeccable. Disappointingly ‘(Love Always) Letter To Home’, a charming Carl Jackson song which lent its title to the album and which was released as the album’s last single, only made it to #14.

The beautiful Paul Kennerley ballad ‘I’ll Be Faithful To You’ has been recorded by others, including Don Williams and Marie Osmond, and even making an appearance on the third volume of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ (featuring Kennerley’s former wife Emmylou Harris), but I don’t believe anyone ever released it as a single, which definitely seems like a missed opportunity, because it’s a lovely song. Glen’s version may just be the best of all of them, sincerely sweet and tender, and deeply romantic.

He reflects on the vicissitudes of stardom in a brace of tunes. The wistful lullaby ‘Goodnight Lady’ (written by Buddy Cannon and Steve Nobels) is pretty, as it voices a touring musician’s wistful longing for the loved one back home. ‘After The Glitter Fades’, about the loneliness lying behind stardom, is a cover of a minor pop hit for Stevie Nicks, one of the members of rock band Fleetwood Mac. It suits Glen pretty well. ‘Tennessee’, a Micheal Smotherman-penned tribute to the state, is a bit repetitive melodically but has an attractive feel to it

The mid-tempo ‘Leavin’ Eyes’ is very dated mid-80s country pop, although Glen does invest it with some energy. It was the first cut for its writer, Ted Hewitt. The beaty ‘Scene Of The Crime’, written by Carl Jackson and T Kuenster, also has a dated arrangement, but is quite catchy.

The set ends with an ethereal version of ‘An American Trilogy’, Mickey Newbury’s medley of three historic tunes reflecting American history and the long shadow cast by the Civil War: the now controversial ‘Dixie’, the spiritual-turned 1960s Civil Rights anthem, ‘All My Trials’, and the Battle Hymn Of The Republic.

This is a pretty good album, but one which does not stand with the very best of Glen’s work – apart from the gorgeous ‘I’ll be Faithful To You’, which I would recommend to anyone.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘Scarecrow’

scarecrow2001’s Scarecrow was the last full-length studio album that Garth released before his long sabbatical from music, and like most of his albums, it is an eclectic collection encompassing a variety of styles, although there seems to have been more of an effort to appeal to country fans than on past projects.

The lead single, “When You Come Back To Me Again” was originally included on the soundtrack to the film Frequency. Written by Garth and Jenny Yates, it is an AC-leaning ballad, and despite the overwrought string arrangement, it’s one of Garth’s better non-country efforts. It was apparently a little too-AC for country radio. It peaked at #21, becoming one of a very few number of Garth Brooks singles to miss the Top 20.

Before the album was released, Capitol dug back into its archives and went back to Garth’s 1990 collection No Fences, and released “Wild Horses”, with a newly recorded vocal track, as his next single. Then it was back to Scarecrow for the catchy and sparsely produced “Wrapped Up In You”, which became the album’s biggest hit, peaking at #5. It was the only single from Scarecrow to reach the Top 10. It was followed by a shouty duet with future wife Trisha Yearwood, the Delbert McClinton-Gary Nicholson tune “Squeeze Me In”, which reached #16. Garth makes his best attempt at a Delbert McClinton impersonation, but sounds out of his element here. Trisha sounds slightly more at home. “Thicker Than Blood”, a nice midtempo number again penned by Garth and Jenny Yates, deserved more attention than it received. It peaked at #18.

Like much of Garth’s work, Scarecrow is a mixed bag. It’s a very incohesive album as Garth attempts to appeal to every niche of his vast fanbase, and in doing so often comes across as insincere. There is the exaggerated twang on the more country numbers like “Beer Run”, a novelty duet with George Jones that wears thin after the first listen, the complete lack of a twang on the overblown power ballads like “Mr. Midnight” and “The Storm” and the awkward attempt to be a bluesman on “Squeeze Me In”. It all leaves the listener wondering just who the real Garth Brooks really is and what kind of music would he really have made had he not been so obssessed with breaking sales records.

That being said, Scarecrow has more than its fair share of enjoyable moments. “Pushing Up Daisies” is a nice cover of a Kevin Welch tune from 1995 and should have been released as a single. “Don’t Cross The River” is a countrified version of a song originally recorded in 1972 by the pop group America. The arrangement features a lot of banjo, dobro and fiddle and it works surprisingly well, and “Rodeo or Mexico” is a very enjoyable number written by Garth with Paul Kennerley and Bryan Kennedy.

Scarecrow is probably one of Garth’s more forgettable albums but on average the plusses outweigh the minuses. Garth fans will like it and even more casual listeners will find plenty to enjoy.

Grade: B

Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume III’

will the circle 317 years passed between the original Will The Circle Be Unbroken and Volume II. 13 years after that, in 2002, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band decided it was time for a third instalment, which they released on Capitol. It did not make as much of a stir as either of the previous instalments, but is still a pretty solid collection of bluegrass and oldtime music with some guests old and new.

The opening ‘Take Me In Your Lifeboat’ is beaty bluegrass gospel performed with Del McCoury and his sons. The McCourys are back on the secular ‘Love Please Come Home’, which is well done but not memorable.

I preferred the contributions from bluegrass great Jimmy Martin (1927-2005), who had taken part in both previous versions, and who belies his age with confident upbeat performances here. He sings his own ‘Hold Whatcha Got’ (which Ricky Skaggs had made into a hit in the late 80s), and also the lively ‘Save It, Save It’.

In contrast, June Carter Cash (1929-2003) takes the lead vocal on the Carter Family’s ‘Diamonds In The Rough’, with Earl Scruggs on banjo. She does not sound at all well, and indeed died the following year. Although Johnny Cash (1932-2003) was also in poor health, he sounds much better than his wife on a self-penned tribute to the late Maybelle and Sara Carter, ‘Tears In The Holston River.

Willie Nelson, not involved in previous versions, gets two cuts here. Willie sounds good on ‘Goodnight Irene’, but the tracks is irredeemably ruined by the presence of duet partner Tom Petty. Petty is out of tune and the harmony is embarrassingly dissonant. A cheery Nelson version of ‘Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms’ is better although it does feel a bit perfunctory.

Dwight Yoakam (another newcomer to the series) is great on his two tracks. He shows his Kentucky roots on the mournful and authentic ‘Some Dark Holler’. He is outstanding on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ ‘Wheels’, which he makes sound like. Vince Gill’s ‘All Prayed Up’ is an excellent piece of up-tempo bluegrass gospel.

Emmylou Harris sings her ex-husband Paul Kennerley’s ‘I’ll Be Faithful To You’, a sweet declaration of eternal love, exquisitely. She also duets with Matraca Berg (Mrs Jeff Hanna) on Berg’s folk-styleode to the river running through Nashville, ‘Oh Cumberland’. Alison Krauss exercises her angelic tones on ‘Catfish John’.

Iris Dement sings beautifully on her own nostalgic ‘Mama’s Opry’. Ricky Skaggs and Rodney Dillard team up for the pacy folk of ‘There Is A Time’. Band members’sons Jaime Hanna and Jonathan McEuen (who were the duo Hanna-McEuen at the time) are a bit limp for me on ‘The Lowlands’, a folky Gary Scruggs song.

Sam Bush takes it high mountain lonesome on Carter Stanley’s ‘Lonesome River’. ‘Milk Cow Blues’ is taken back to its blues roots and features Josh Graves and Doc Watson. Watson also sings the traditional ‘I Am A Pilgrim’. More contemporary is ‘I Find Jesus’, penned by Jimmy Ibbotson. ‘Roll The Stone Away’ (written by Jeff Hanna with Marcus Hummon) uses religious imagery but it is a bit dull. The Nashville Bluegrass Band take on A. P. Carter’s ‘I Know What It Means To Be Lonesome which is OK.

Gravel-voiced bluesman Taj Mahal and legendary fiddler Vassar Clements guest on the good-humored ‘Fishin’ Blues, which is mildly amusing. Taj Mahal and Alison Krauss guest on this album’s take on the title song which falls rather flat with Alison sounding a bit squeaky and therest of them dull and lifeless.

This album lacks the groundbreaking nature of Volume I, and the cosy atmosphere of either previous set, making more of a standard collection of older material. There are definitely some tracks well worth hearing, and I’d still be interested if there was a Volume 4.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Kelly Willis – ‘Kelly Willis’

kelly willisKelly’s third and final album for MCA was released in 1993. Tony Brown produced as before, but was joined by rock producer Don Was, and the overall sound is just a little rockier, but the record served up much the same recipe of brightly delivered country-rock as its predecessors, and met a similar fate commercially.

The singles were the breezy ‘Whatever Way The Wind Blows’ and a bouncy cover of the Kendalls’ ‘Heaven’s Just A Sin Away’. They should both have done better, as they have an infectious charm which one would think was very radio friendly.

The rueful Jim Lauderdale song ‘I Know Better Now’, about learning from bitter experience, is an excellent song, sung very well. ‘Up All Night’, written by Libby Dwyer is also pretty good, about a failing relationship which is as good as over.

My favourite track, however, is one of the few slower moments, the lovely ballad ‘That’ll Be Me’, a tender duet with singer-songwriter Kevin Welch, who wrote the song. The downbeat ‘World Without You’ (written by Kelly with Paul Kennerley) is also very good

‘Take It All Out On You’ is a cheerful mid-tempo love song which was somewhat ironically written by Kelly’s ex Mas Palermo and her new love interest (and now her husband) Bruce Robison. It’s fairly typical of her style at this period, with a chugging groove and a bright vocal. But you can’t help wondering about how the conversation went in the writing room.

‘One More Night’ is a chugging rocker written by Palermo with Bruce’s brother Charlie; it’s not bad but the production is a little heavy for my taste. ‘Get Real’ and ‘Shadows Of Love’ were written by Kelly with John Leventhal, but unfortunately neither is very interesting.

You can get used copies fairly cheaply, so if you enjoy a little rockier edge to your country, this is a good bet.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Kelly Willis – ‘Well Travelled Love’

welltravelledloveDuring the second half of the 1980s, MCA Records signed a handful of roots-based artists that were considered to be outside of the mainstream, in the hopes of expanding the definition of country music. Artists such as Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, and Nanci Griffith were all signed to the label during that time. Kelly Willis, who joined the label in 1989 with the aid of Lovett and Griffith, somewhat falls into this fringe category, although her music was always much closer to the mainstream than the others mentioned. To further put things into context: Hat Acts were the popular trend in country music at the time, and most of the female artists who came to dominate the era — Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Martina McBride, and Trisha Yearwood — had not yet been signed to record deals. Reba McEntire, who was the marquee name female artist at MCA had yet to enjoy her first million-seller.

Willis’ debut disc, Well Travelled Love, if released today, would be relegated to the Americana category, but in 1990 it was considered a somewhat left-of-center country effort, perhaps in part due to Kelly’s slightly quirky vocal style, but also due to songs written by the likes of John Hiatt, Steve Earle and Kevin Welch, although more mainstream songwriters such as Paul Kennerley and Emory Gordy, Jr. are also represented. Willis’ then-husband Mas Palermo wrote about half the album’s songs. Paul Kennerley’s excellent and retro-sounding “I Don’t Want To Love You (But I Do)” was the album’s first single, that sadly failed to chart. A similar fate befell “River of Love”, which may have been too rockabilly for country radio’s taste at the time and “Looking For Someone Like You” likewise failed to gain any traction at radio.

Although I like all of these songs, I believe that some of the album’s other songs would have been better choices for singles. First and foremost is the Monte Warden and Emory Gordy, Jr. tune “One More Time”, a beautiful and steel-guitar drenched ballad that should have been considered very radio friendly at the time. Not releasing John Hiatt’s “Drive South” as a single seems like a missed opportunity; Suzy Bogguss took it all the way to #2 just two years later.
The title track, another Mas Palermo number, reminds me of “I’m In Love All Over”, the opening track to Reba McEntire’s Have I Got A Deal For You album. It’s an upbeat number with some excellent guitar picking and a strong vocal peformance from Kelly — the type of song that would perhaps work better in concert than on radio. “I’m Just Lonely”, Willis’ only songwriting contribution to the album (a co-write with Palermo) is also one of my favorites.

That an unsuccessful album by a largely unknown artist is available at all nearly a quarter century after its release is something of a minor miracle. Don’t expect to find any cheap used copies; Well Travelled Love can still be purchased on CD but at prices that will put a dent in your wallet. It is, however, available for download at much more reasonable prices and it is well worth seeking out.

Grade: A

Album Review: Johnny Cash – ‘Out Among The Stars’

johnnycashThere hasn’t been any shortage of “new” Johnny Cash music in the decade since the Man In Black’s death. But unlike most of those releases, this week’s Out Among The Stars isn’t a reissue, an alternate take, a demo or a recording made during the singer’s declining years when he was long past his vocal peak. Rather, Out Among The Stars is a full-fledged studio album that was mostly recorded in the 1980s and produced by Billy Sherrill. The nearly completed album was discovered two years ago by John Carter Cash, who was in the process of mining the Sony archives while trying to catalog his parents’ extensive discographies. He brought in some additional musicians, including Marty Stuart, Buddy Miller and Carlene Carter, to bring the project to completion. The final product was released last week.

Normally, news of this sort would be cause for great celebration but any excitement about the album had to be tempered with the knowledge that the 1980s were, as even the most die-hard Cash fans will admit , a period in which the singer released mostly less than stellar work. Add to that the fact that Billy Sherrill had been the producer behind “The Chicken In Black”, widely regarded to be one of the worst singles of Cash’s career, and no one was quite sure what to expect.

Considering that Out Among The Stars was mostly recorded in 1984, while Cash’s career was in the middle of a long dry spell and just two years before Columbia dropped him from its roster, it isn’t surprising that the album was forgotten. But those who were braced for the worst will be pleasantly surprised because it is far superior to most of his output from that era. So far the album has produced one non-charting single, “She Used To Love Me a Lot”, which David Allan Coe took to #11 in 1984. It was written by Charles Quillen with Dennis W. Morgan and Kye Fleming. Morgan and Fleming were one of Nashville’s top songwriting teams of the day, having written many hits for Ronnie Milsap, Barbara Mandrell and Sylvia.

Many other top 80s songwriters teams are also represented. Ed and Patsy Bruce contributed “After All”, a pop-tinged ballad that was a departure from Johnny’s usual fare and Paul Kennerley and Graham Lyle wrote “Rock and Roll Shoes”. Johnny himself contributed the sentimental “Call Your Mother” and the inspirational “I Came To Believe”, which was written while Johnny was struggling with addiction and completing a stint at the Betty Ford Center. Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman wrote the tongue-in-cheek “If I Told You Who It Was” about a country music fan who has a fling with a female Opry star after changing her flat tire. No names are named, but the lady’s identity is revealed (for those old enough to recognize it) by an uncredited vocal appearance near the end of the song. It’s not Dolly Parton; that’s all I’m going to say.

Although traditionalists like to claim Cash as one of their own, The Man In Black was no purist and frequently pushed the boundaries of the genre. In this collection he sticks close to his country roots, and unlike many of his records, there is plenty of steel guitar on this album. Among the most traditional tunes are two excellent duets with June Carter Cash — “Baby, Ride Easy” and a cover of Tommy Collins’ “Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time”. Johnny sounds relaxed and refreshed on these tracks, and June is also in fine vocal form. “Baby, Come Easy” features harmony vocals by Carlene Carter and “Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time” features some excellent picking by Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Bryan Sutton. Waylon Jennings joins Johnny for a faithful-to-the-original cover of the Hank Snow classic “I’m Movin’ On”. Jennings’ presence elevates a performance that otherwise wouldn’t be particularly memorable.

The album closes with a remixed version of “She Used To Love Me A Lot” that was produced by Elvis Costello. Not surprisingly, this version isn’t country but it is in keeping with some of Cash’s genre-pushing efforts. It doesn’t really add anything to the album, however, and I could have done without it. “I Came To Believe” would have been a more appropriate closing track, but that is the only negative thing I can say about an otherwise exceptional album.

It is unlikely that Out Among The Stars would have fared well commercially had it been released thirty years ago. It was not then and is not now what mainstream Nashville wanted. It won’t produce any big radio hits, but now there is a greater appreciation of Johnny Cash than there was in 1984. Sony is giving the release the promotional effort it deserves and I imagine it will sell quite well.

Grade: A+

Single Review – Miranda Lambert – ‘Automatic’

Miranda-Lambert-GotCountryOnlineIn the monologue preceding “Young Love” on Her Story: Scenes From A Lifetime, Wynonna articulated that Judd music “Reflected a much sweeter and simpler time” where the pace was slower and face-to-face human connection was the lay of the land. Twenty-five years after that seminal classic, Miranda Lambert is yearning to return there, pondering a life “before everything became automatic.”

Unlike Paul Kennerley and Kent Robbins sweeping epic, Lambert relies on a laundry list of nostalgic signifiers (The United States Postal Service, Rand McNally Atlases, pay phones, pocket watches, etc) to tell her story. Instead of helping make her case, though, they weigh down the track with sentiment and lack her distinctive personality.

Thankfully the chorus is fantastic, with a message that proves all too true:

Hey whatever happened to, waitin’ your turn

Doing it all by hand, cause when everything is handed to you

It’s only worth as much as the time you put in

It all just seems so good the way we had it

Back before everything became, automatic

Lambert’s vocal is also sincere so the listener does invest in what she’s signing, which is kind of rare these days. The production is a bit muffled and should’ve been littered in steel and fiddle, which would’ve helped the track immensely. But from the end result, it’s clear “Automatic” has good bones.

The track could’ve been shockingly great, if Lambert stripped away the generalities and wrote solely from personal experience, like Rosanne Cash did on The River & The Thread. But it’s a step above most of mainstream country and that counts for a lot in the current climate.

Grade: B 

Songwriters: Miranda Lambert, Natalie Hemby, Nicolle Galyon 

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“Remember country music?” – An Evening with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell at Birmingham Symphony Hall, Friday 10 May 2013

promo for emmylou harris rodney crowell birminghamHaving relished their new album together, Old Yellow Moon, I couldn’t pass up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Emmylou Harris reunited live with Rodney Crowell when their tour to promote the record came over to Europe. I was joined at Birmingham Symphony Hall by an enthusiastic audience; it was almost, but not quite a sell-out, and the crowd clearly enjoyed every second.

It was a generous set; two hours and twenty minutes revisiting highlights of the pair’s past careers (mainly the 70s when they first worked together with a sprinkling of songs from the new millennium), as well as songs from Old Yellow Moon. There was no opening act, and no time for one. The focus was on music rather than chat, with the first four songs completed before anyone spoke a word.

The evening opened with a reminder of Emmylou’s time with Gram Parsons as the band walked on stage and launched straight into ‘Return Of The Grievous Angel’, followed by his song ‘Wheels’ which Emmylou included on Elite Hotel and which was magical here.

A change of pace led to a beautifully understated version of ‘Pancho And Lefty’, opening with Emmylou and her acoustic guitar, with the band later coming in and finally Rodney adding his vocal – a stylistic template for many of the evening’s best songs.

Rodney then sang his own ‘Earthbound’ (from 2003’s Fate’s Right Hand), which I enjoyed much more live than on record. Emmylou then introduced the wonderful ‘Til I Gain Control Again’ as the first song Rodney ever sang for her. He sang a tender lead on the song, with a lovely harmony from Emmylou. The pair then sang ‘Tragedy’, a song they wrote together for her Red Dirt Girl album; while okay, it was not my favorite moment of the evening.

Emmylou paid tribute to the late Susanna Clark by singing Clark’s song ‘I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose’, which Emmylou recorded on 1978’s Luxury Liner. This was just delightful, with honky tonk piano. It was followed by a stripped down ‘Red Dirt Girl’, which was very good.

Rodney then spoke for the first time, unexpectedly sounding a little nervous, before singing his autobiographical ‘Rock Of My Soul’.

The couple then duetted on ‘Heaven Only Knows’, a song written by Emmylou’s ex-husband Paul Kennerley. It was perhaps the most unexpected song choice as it came from Emmylou’s largely overlooked 1989 record Bluebird, and the only song in the set to date from that decade. It sounded very good, though, and was a welcome inclusion.

The swooping melody of ‘Love Hurts’ was a highlight, with emotional vocals from both Emmylou and Rodney (who is a much better singer than the late Gram Parsons). I was less impressed by the martial beat of ‘Luxury Liner’, although I was probably alone in that reaction – it seemed to get a particularly enthusiastic amount of applause, perhaps to reward the band’s virtuoso performances. The sound was a bit muddy for me on this song, although generally the acoustics were superb, and I wasn’t surprised when Emmylou asked for the sound to be turned down for the next song.

The band took a much needed break while Emmylou sat down for a simple acoustic number, ‘Darlin’ Kate’, her lament for her late friend Kate McGarrigle. Friendship was perhaps the overarching theme of the night. Rodney returned on stage to join Emmylou on a lovely traditional version of the Louvin Brothers’ ‘The Angels Rejoiced’. Emmylou then sang ‘Longtime Girl Gone By’, the song she sang on Rodney Crowell’s Kin album of songs written with poet Mary Karr. She didn’t know the song well, and had to use a lyric sheet, while Rodney accompanied her on guitar (he confessed he didn’t know the songs from that album all that well either).

By now the rest of the band was back, and Rodney sang ‘I Know Love Is All I Need’, which he introduced as something he had dreamed.

The Old Yellow Moon portion of the evening then arrived, with a joyful version of the album’s opener ‘Hanging Up My Heart’, followed by a excellent (if slightly too loud) ‘Invitation To The Blues’. Emmylou asked pointedly,

“Remember country music? It’s hard to find sometimes back in the States. But it’s in our hearts, and it’s on our record.”

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Album Review: Travis Tritt – ‘The Restless Kind’

the restless kindAfter the Greatest Hits album, 1996’s The Restless Kind denotes a new start of sorts, with long term producer Gregg Brown dropped for veteran rock producer Don Was, with Tritt also getting a co-production credit. The pairing does a pretty good job, and the general feel of the album is not that far removed from Tritt’s usual style, except that the harmonica is more prominent than the steel guitar. Travis wrote or co-wrote seven of the songs, and friend and tour partner Marty Stuart also contributed.

The first single, ‘More Than You’ll Ever Know’ is a very well sung but not particularly interesting ballad of devotion to a wife. The album’s biggest hit, it peaked at #3.

It was followed by ‘Where Corn Don’t Grow’, which made it to #6. Written by Roger Murrah and Mark Alan Springer, it had originally been recorded by Waylon Jennings in 1990, and is an excellent story song about a country boy who has to find out the hard way how hard city life is.

‘She’s Going Home With Me’ and ‘Still In Love With You’ both peaked in the 20s, and are equally forgettable mid-tempo numbers.

Sent to radio in between those two, the much better ‘Helping Me Get Over You’ did creep into the top 20 but should have done better. It is a sensitive ballad Tritt wrote and sings with Lari White about a couple both struggling to move on with new partners. An excellent vocal from Tritt is matched by White’s distinctive voice.

My favorite non-single (and a clear missed opportunity) is the ballad ‘Did You Fall Far Enough’, written by Tritt with Troy Seals. The protagonist is wracked with doubt for no clear reason:

You’ve given me no cause to doubt you
And I know passion burns in your heart
But does that same fire keep on burning
In the hours that we spend apart?

If you knew the question that burns in my mind
Then you know why I worry so much
I can’t help but wonder when we fell in love
Sweetheart, did you fall far enough?
]

Mark O’Connor’s beautiful fiddle winds through the song, and with Travis’s excellent vocal, helps to make this a real highlight.

‘Sack Full Of Stones’ is the best of the three songs here co-written by Marty Stuart, a somber breakup song with a fine vocal. ‘Draggin’ My Heart Around’ is a pretty good chugging Marty Stuart/Paul Kennerley song typical of what Stuart was doing at that period, with a strong groove and the Desert Rose Band’s Herb Pedersen on high harmony. The less successful ‘Double Trouble’ is a self-indulgent buddy duet with Stuart with a silly story of two friends accidentally dating the same girl, which the pair wrote with Kennerley. Stuart also plays electric guitar throughout the album.

‘Back Up Against The Wall’ is pure Southern rock/outlaw, and while it is catchy and enthusiastically performed, I was entirely unconvinced by the hardboiled jailbreak story. A meaty version of the title track, an uptempo number penned by Michael Henderson which has been recorded by a number of other artists, including Highway 101 and Trisha Yearwood, is pretty good. The romantic commitment of ‘More Than You’ll Ever Know’ is quite a nice ballad benefitting from a sincerely delivered vocal and attractive folky harmonica-led arrangement.

Overall, this is a fairly solid album with a couple of high spots. It’s worth picking up especially at cheap used copy prices.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Marty Stuart – ‘Country Music’

Marty’s departure from MCA was not his final attempt at mainstream stardom.  He soon signed to Columbia, and in 2003 released his sole album for the label, the boldly titled Country Music.  Despite the title it was not as unabashedly traditional as Marty’s most recent work, combining some nods to tradition with more adventurous musical fare, and was his final record made for a mainstream audience.  It saw the debut of his new backing band, the Fabulous Superlatives.  Their musicianship is excellent, but the eclectic nature of the record feels it feel unfocussed.

The playful fantasies of the part-narrated ‘If There Ain’t There Oughta Be’, written by Bobby Pinson and Trey Bruce, were the first offering to radio, but just failed to crack the top 40.  It was a brave attempt at trying something a bit different, but the lack of tune and not particularly memorable lyrics fall flat.

The much more likeable ‘Too Much Month At the End Of The Money’ was a minor hit in 1989 for the shortlived  group Billy Hill (who comprised the successful songwriters Bob DiPiero, John Scott Sherrill and Dennis Robbins), but Marty’s version flopped even though it sounds like a return to his “hillbilly rock” big hits.

The last single, although a truly stellar song, did not chart at all.  This outstanding track, the thoughtful ‘Farmer’s Blues’ setting out the financial difficulties faced by farmers was written by Marty with wife Connie Smith.  Marty’s sensitive vocal is perfectly judged, and Merle Haggard’s duet vocal balances it beautifully as they swap verses and harmonise on the chorus.

Another highlight is Marty’s first recording of ‘Sundown In Nashville’ with its insider’s view of the dark side of the city, where “they sweep broken dreams off the street”, a great song he has chosen to revive on his excellent latest album.   The song dates from the 1960s, but its insight into the “dark side of fame” is timeless.

An introspective cover of the classic ‘Satisfied Mind’ verges on the depressing, and it took me a few listens to really appreciate, but the decision to interpret the song from the point of view of the unsatisfied seeker of peace is actually very effective.  ‘Walls Of A Prison’ is a Cash cover, with Marty trying out his best bass growl against a simple acoustic arrangement, and this is another fine track with effectively unhurried phrasing.

The part-narrated Tip Your Hat acknowledges the legends and great songs of the genre, but is musically closer to blues than country with minimal melody and shouty vocals on the chorus, although Earl Scruggs and Josh Graves on banjo and dobro lend it some musical interest.

‘Here I Am’ is a gloomily soulful ballad offering love, with Marty wrote with Rivers Rutherford.  On a broadly similar theme, ‘If You Wanted Me Around’, written with Paul Kennerley, is a better song, with the protagonist willing to offer anything if only she cared.  ‘Fool For Love’, written by Marty with Tom Douglas, has a jazzy feel with call and response backing vocals  not unreminiscent of some of the Mavericks’ ballads, but it’s the kind of thing that really needs a more intrinsically compelling vocalist to pull off successfully.

The rocking novelty ‘By George’ is rather weird lyrically.  A superior version of the energetic ‘Wishful Thinkin’’ was previously recorded by Joy Lynn White, who invested it with a wild abandon and intensity making Marty’s version sound pedestrian and emotionless in comparison.

This was an attempt to get back on terms with country radio after the commercial failure of The Pilgrim.  It was not a success, and Marty left Columbia to undertakes some even less commercial projects in the next few years –  the gospel Souls’ Chapel, another concept album, the Native American tribute Badlands: Ballads Of The Lakota, and a live bluegrass album recorded at the Ryman.  It is a bit of a mixed bag musically, but there are some tracks worth hearing, especially ‘Farmer’s Blues’.

Grade: B

Album Review – Marty Stuart – ‘Honky Tonkin’s What I Do Best’

Released in June 1996, Honky Tonkin’s What I Do Best marks the final album of the hit-making portion of Stuart’s career. His sixth release for MCA Records, and produced as usual by Tony Brown, the album had four singles and peaked at #27 on the charts.

The lead single and title track reunited Stuart with Travis Tritt for their first duet in four years. Released in April of 1996, “Honky Tonkin’s What I Do Best” wouldn’t be nearly as successful as their previous collaborations, missing the top twenty completely, and peaking at #23. It didn’t help that the song rocked harder than their previous work and Stuart’s growly vocal may’ve been a slight turn-off for radio programmers. To make matters worse, the mix of loud guitars and screaming steel hasn’t aged well. But the lyric, about a misunderstood boy who’s born to honky tonk, is still relevant today.

Second single “Thanks To You” wouldn’t faire much better on the charts, peaking at #50 that same year. But Stuart and Gary Nicholson wrote an outstanding lyric that holds up extremely well today. A love song, it’s a thank you note to the woman who saved the man’s life:

I searched for love my whole life through

Then it came like a blinding flash from the blue

Thanks to you

Empty nights and long lost days

Roving eyes and rambling ways are through

Thanks to you

“You Can’t Stop Love,” a guitar-heavy mid-tempo number co-written by Stuart and Kostas, peaked at #26 in 1997. Not as commercial as the previous two singles, it amazes me this garnered more airplay than “Thanks To You,” a much better single choice for the late 90s. But it’s still a good song, although the moody and somewhat dark arrangement is a better fit for Gary Allan than for Stuart.

A final single, “Sweet Love” came in the spring of 1997 but failed to chart. Written by rock and roll singer Del Shannon, “Sweet Love” was far too out of step with the times upon its release. Stuart, meanwhile, seems overproduced a bit and the loud guitar-heavy accompaniment drowns out his vocal.

As “Sweet Love” aptly illustrates, at his core Stuart is an individualist. By not bucking to trends or trying to sound like his contemporaries, his albums come off unique to the man creating them. That downside is that uniqueness doesn’t have a home on country radio. But commercial aspirations aside, it makes for a very interesting listening experience.

The most unique of all the songs on the album is “The Mississippi Mudcat and Sister Sheryl Crow,” which features Bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin along with his country music coon dog and beagle hounds. The track opens with Martin giving a recitation as though he and Stuart are relaxing on a porch in the country. The barking dogs give way to bluesy number heavy on guitar and originality but low on appeal. This is an acquired taste kind of song, and out of place on a commercial country record.

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Album Review – Marty Stuart – ‘This One’s Gonna Hurt You’

By the summer of 1992, Stuart was finally in favor with mainstream country music. Released in late 1991, “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin,” the inaugural duet between him and Travis Tritt, peaked at #2, the highest peak Stuart would ever see. The duo would also go on to win a Grammy for Best Country Collaboration that same year, marking Stuart’s first such win.

Capitalizing on his recent success, Stuart released “This One’s Gonna Hurt You (For A Long, Long Time),” another duet with Tritt in June. The title track for his third album with MCA Records, it would prove successful as well peaking at #7. Written by Stuart, it’s just as good, if not better, than their previous collaboration. The tale of love gone wrong is framed in a stone cold arrangement complete with steel and piano that helps accentuate the mournful and clever lyrics.  I love how she’s the one who’s going to hurt, not him.

Released next, the bluesy “Now That’s Country,” written solely by Stuart, would peak at #18. A honky-tonker complete with electric guitar and steel flourishes, it depicts the ways in which Stuart was raised:

Well, that’s country,

I was born, yes, a country child

Now that’s country, but baby that’s my style

The almost dirty production is very good and helps elevate the song. But with very little to hold onto lyrically, the tune isn’t particularly memorable.

“High On A Mountain Top” came next, peaking at #24. Written by Alex Campbell and Ola Belle Reed, it isn’t to be confused with the Loretta Lynn song of the same name. This “High On A Mountain Top” is a rocker complete with accents of mandolin that details the story of a man reflecting on the journey that led to the current moment:

High on a mountaintop, standing all alone

Wondering where the years of my life have flown

High on a mountaintop, wind-blowing free

Thinking about the days that used to be

It’s too bad producer Tony Brown saw fit to create such a cluttered arrangement, as this could’ve been a wonderful song. The screaming guitars hinder Stuart’s vocal and nearly drown it out.

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Album Review: Marty Stuart – ‘Tempted’

Marty Stuart’s second release for MCA was released in January 1991. Like its predecessor, Tempted was produced by Richard Bennett and Tony Brown, and contained a balance of some of Marty’s original compositions and some well-chosen covers that paid homage to country music’s past. It is a little less rockabilly-oriented than Hillbilly Rock, with more emphasis on harmonies and more prominent use of the steel guitar.

The first single “Little Things” was written by Marty and Paul Kennerley. It follows the same template as “Hillbilly Rock” and matched that song’s chart performance, peaking at #8. It was, in fact, Marty’s first Top 10 since “Hillbilly Rock” and his second Top 10 overall. He stumbled slightly with the next release, the ballad “Till I Found You”, which was written by Paul Kennerley and Hank DeVito. It just missed the Top 10, peaking at #12. I’ve always found the song a bit lacking in energy and it’s my least favorite track on the album. Much better is the title track, another Stuart-Kennerley composition, which reached #5, becoming Marty’s highest charting single as a solo artist. It is my favorite of all of Marty’s mainstream singles. “Burn Me Down”, a rockabilly number written by Eddie Miller was the album’s fourth and final single. It too reached the Top 10, topping out at #7.

With the exception of the title track, the real meat of this collection is in the album cuts. Most Stuart albums include a Johnny Cash tune, and Tempted is no exception. This time he chose to cover “Blue Train”. It is a decent performance but even those unfamiliar with the original will instantly recognize it as a Johnny Cash song. It just underscores how difficult it can be to put one’s own mark on an iconic figure’s song, though the intent seems to be to pay tribute to Cash, rather than to reinterpret his work. “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome” which opens the album was written by Bill Monroe and Hank Williams and serves as notice to the listener that Marty Stuart was more than just a mere hillbilly rocker, with a deep respect for country music’s heritage. “Paint The Town Tonight” with its heavy emphasis on the Telecaster and steel guitar is a Stuart original composition that is reminiscent of Buck Owens. It really should have been released as a single. “Half a Heart” is a straightforward country number that is one of two tunes on which Marty collaborated with the then very popular songwriter Kostas. It too should have been released as a single. The album closes with the fiddle-led hoedown number “Get Back To The Country”, which surprisingly was written by Neil Young, a name not normally associated with traditional country music.

Tempted is the best of Marty’s major label efforts, with nine excellent tracks (“Till I Found You” is the only one that falls a bit short) and marks the peak of commercial success. It was his second gold album and the most well received by country radio. It is his only album to contain more than one Top 10 hit. Unfortunately, after “Burn Me Down” he would never again reach the Top 10 as a solo artist, although two collaborations with Travis Tritt did chart inside the Top 10. Tempted is easy to find and worthy of inclusion in any country music fan’s collection.

Grade: A

Album Review: Marty Stuart – ‘Hillbilly Rock’

The major label phase of Marty Stuart’s career is considered to have begun in earnest with the release of 1989’s Hillbilly Rock, following a brief and somewhat inauspicious stint with Columbia. Now signed to MCA, Marty finally began to enjoy some commercial success, primarily thanks to the album’s catchy but lyrically light Paul Kennerley-penned title track, which would become his first Top 10 hit.

Produced by Richard Bennett and Tony Brown, Hillbilly Rock, as its title suggests, has got a distinct rockabilly flavor and the influence of Marty’s mentor Johnny Cash is readily apparent. In fact, Marty’s first single release for MCA was a cover of Cash’s 1955 hit “Cry! Cry! Cry!” It was an odd choice to launch the career of a relatively unknown artist, especially since it occurred during a period when Johnny Cash was decidedly out of vogue in Nashville. Not surprisingly, Marty’s faithful-to-the-original version was not a huge hit, though it did crack the Top 40, making it his highest charting single (at #32) since 1985’s “Arlene”, which was his only Top 20 hit up to that time. The next single, “Don’t Leave Her Lonely Too Long”, is my favorite track on the album. It was written by Marty and Kostas and sounds a lot like the music The Mavericks were doing around that time. Unfortunately, it was met by a big yawn at country radio and it stalled at #42. The tune was revived by Gary Allan almost a decade later when he included it on his It Would Be You album.

Marty’s commercial fortunes began to change with the release of the album’s title track as the third single. Fueled by a video that was in heavy rotation on TNN and CMT, “Hillbilly Rock” allowed Marty to crack the Top 10 for the first time. Peaking at #8, it was not a smash hit, but it was a significant and hard fought milestone for an artist who had enjoyed a fair share of critical acclaim but seemed to be in danger of failing to catch on in the marketplace.

Mainstream country music in the early 1990s was obsessed with “hat acts”. Marty didn’t fit the mold and that may have made his music more difficult to market, though he eventually turned this to his advantage a few years later when he teamed up with Travis Tritt for the highly successful “No Hats” tour. It became apparent that he still faced an uphill climb at country radio when Hillbilly Rock’s fourth and final single, “Western Girls” disappointingly peaked at #20, though it deserved to chart much higher.

I was somewhat surprised at the time to learn of Marty’s bluegrass background and his vast knowledge and devotion to traditional country music because his music that was getting radio airplay at the time was anything but traditional. But after looking past the radio hits and delving more deeply into the album cuts, another side of his musical personality can be heard. “When The Sun Goes Down” is the album’s most traditional cut, sounding a lot like the Merle Haggard classic “The Bottle Let Me Down”, and the beautiful and understated closing track “Since I Don’t Have You” would be right at home on Ghost Train or Marty’s most recent album. Both tunes were written by Marty and Mark Collie.

Although Hillbilly Rock was only moderately successful, it earned a lot of critical acclaim and introduced Marty Stuart to mainstream audiences. It also stands as an example of how much more diversity was on country radio twenty years ago, before things became too homogenized, as it is quite different from most of the music on the charts at the time. It was a particular favorite of then-President George H.W. Bush, who requested and received a copy of Hillbilly Rock to listen to on Air Force One. It is still easy to find and is worth seeking out.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Sweethearts Of The Rodeo – ‘Sweethearts Of The Rodeo’

The stagename adopted by the Oliver sisters was a nod to the seminal Byrds album, and fittingly the music the duo produced in their hitmaking days was energetically sunny country rock rooted in their California background.  The distinctive booming alto of Kristine Arnold takes the lead on all their work, supported by her older sister Janis Gill (then married to Vince).  Their debut record on Columbia, halfway between an EP and a full length album with just eight tracks, was produced by Hank DeVito (who also plays steel guitar) and Steve Buckingham, and they produced a sound which was very radio friendly.  The truncated length may have short-changed purchasers, but no less than five of the eight tracks were reasonably successful singles, getting their career off to a great start.

Their effervescent and beaty debut single ‘Hey Doll Baby’ was a cover of an old R&B number previously recorded by the Everly Brothers, given a rockabilly style makeover.  It just missed the top 20, but was a sign of better things to come, with an irresistibly catchy beat making up for unremarkable lyrics.  Equally catchy, but a much better song, ‘Since I Found You’ was written by the not-yet-famous Foster & Lloyd.  A bright mid-tempo love song about a one-time partier wanting to settle down for the first time now that the protagonist has met the right person, it gave them their first top 10 hit, reaching #7 on Billboard.

The next single, ‘Midnight Girl/Sunset Town’, did a little better, peaking at #4.  It was a very good Don Schlitz song about a restless young woman who feels trapped in her small town and dreams of late nights.  Its chart run was matched by Paul Kennerley’s ‘Chains of Gold’, an excellent song about the true value of love which is my favourite track:

Chains of gold
Ruby rings
Without love
Don’t mean a thing

All I want is someone to hold
True love means more than chains of gold

In fact these two #4 hits were to prove their highest ever charting hits.

Janis wrote ‘Gotta Get Away’, a pacy number about a woman afraid to let go and fall in love in case it works out badly.  This is less memorable than their other singles, but is quite enjoyable and was another top 10 hit.  The heartbroken ‘Everywhere I Turn’, which she wrote with Michael G Joyce, has a strong vocal from Kristine and is a pretty good song, but its rushed tempo detracts from the emotions and makes it feel like filler.

‘Chosen Few’, written by John Jarvis and Don Schlitz has a syncopated jerky rhythm which doesn’t really work for me.  They finish up with the stark and stripped down ballad ‘I Can’t Resist’, written by DeVito with Rodney Crowell.  This shows they had more to offer than country-rock, and also showcases Janis’s harmonies.

This was a very promising debut by a duo with a distinctive sound, a little harder edged and less sentimental than their more successful rivals the Judds could be.  Used copies of this are available very cheaply, and it’s worth checking out.

Grade: B+