My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Paul Nelson

Album Review: Wade Hayes – ‘When The Wrong One Loves You Right’

After Wade’s cover of ‘Wichita Lineman’ failed to catch fire, the recording was swiftly removed from his upcoming album. The next single, which became the true lead single for 1998’s When The Wrong One Loves You Right, was much more successful, reaching #5. It is a great story song written by Mark D Sanders and Steve Diamond, about a young Oklahoma couple, told with subtlety. Led in with a wistful fiddle, the narrator is blindsided by his girlfriend’s pregnancy and her subsequent shame-filled choices:

No, she wasn’t showing yet
But she’d be by Christmas time
Up there like a fool
I took for granted it was mine
She never came out and told me I was wrong
But all of a sudden the light came on
The day that she left Tulsa
In a Chevy in a hurry in the pouring down rain
With the caution lights flashing in the passing lane
From a bridge I watched our dreams going down the drain

I guess she thought the truth would end up driving me away
Well, she was wrong
But I never had the chance to say

This is an outstanding song and performance. Unfortunately the title track did not repeat its predecessor’s chart performance, failing to make the top 40. It’s an up-tempo Leslie Satcher song which is actually pretty good.

The mournful undertones in Wade’s voice are perfect for the next single, ‘How Do You Sleep At Night’, written by Jim McBride and Jerry Salley, as he reproaches his ex:

Do you see me when you close your eyes?
How do you sleep at night?

Now your side of the bed’s as cold
As the lies that I believed
I’m at the point when I can’t even trust you in my dreams
Did the way you left me leave you feeling proud?

This time he was rewarded with a #13 peak for what proved to be his last hit single.

Wade’s last single for Columbia was the song originally intended as the album’s title track. ‘Tore Up from the Floor Up’ is an up-tempo honky tonker which is quite good but not very memorable.

Wade co-wrote two of the songs. ‘Are We Having Fun Yet’ (written with Chick Rains and Lonnie Wilson) is a good honky tonk number about a married man who discovers the grass isn’t greener on the party side of life. ‘One More Night With You’, written with Rains and producer Don Cook, is a decent mid-tempo tune about the dreariness of a working life contrasted with a happy love life.

‘Summer Was A Bummer’ is a charming song penned by Dean Dillon and Hank Cochran which Dillon had recorded himself a decade or so earlier and Ty Herndon also cut. It is a closely observed conversational number about a college girl’s coming home to her hometown (and her farm-based sweetheart) after a year away. Wade’s vocal is exquisite, and there is some lovely fiddle.

‘If I Wanted To Forget’ is a beautiful sad ballad written by Tom Shapiro and Chris Waters about not fully letting go of an old love. ‘Mine To Lose’, written by Paul Nelson, Larry Boone and Matt King, is addressed to the protagonist’s ex’s new love, regretting his own past failures, and is another fine song. Lewis Anderson and Jason Sellers wrote the delicate ballad ‘This Is My Heart Talking Now’, a last ditch plea to a loved one not to give up on their relationship.

This record was not as successful commercially as it deserved to be, but it is well worth rediscovering.

Grade: A

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Album Review: Wade Hayes – ‘On A Good Night’

Released in June 1996, On A Good Night was Wade’s second album on Columbia. Produced by Don Cook, who also sings background on the album, the album climbed to #11 on the country albums chart and reached gold (500,000 sales) status. The album features a Who’s Who of Nashville session musician with Bruce Bouton on steel guitar, Mark Casstevens on acoustic guitar, Rob Hajacos on fiddle, Dennis Burnside on piano and organ, Brent Mason on electric guitar, Glenn Worf on bass guitar and Lonnie Wilson on drums. This is nothing if not a country album.

The album opens up with the title track, written by Larry Boone, Don Cook and Paul Nelson. The first single released from the album, it topped out at #2 on Billboard’s Country chart. The song is a rocking up-tempo romp:

On a good night I could hop in my truck
Round up my friends and with any kind of luck
We could end up howling at a harvest moon
On a good night I could put on my hat
Head down to the honky tonk and dance
But on a real good night I meet a women like you

Brown hair blue eyes once in a life time countrified kind of girl
Heart-breaking chance-taking wild little love making
Shaking up my world
Hey on a good night I can picture the day
All my dreams come true
But on a real good night I meet a women like you

Next up is a nice cover of the Willie Nelson- Hank Cochran collaboration, “Undo The Right”. The original was a top ten hit in 1968 by the ‘Country Caruso’ Johnny Bush. Bush’s recording is one of my top ten all-time favorite recordings. Hayes is no Johnny Bush, but he acquits himself well.

“The Room” was written by Chris Waters and Tom Shapiro. Chris is the brother of the late Holly Dunn and produced many of her records. The song is a slow ballad, rather introspective song of getting over the loss of love. It makes a nice change of pace but would not have made a good single.

Wade collaborated with Chick Rains and the redoubtable Bill Anderson on the up-tempo “It’s Over My Head” . The song was released as the third single from the album and topped out at #46. It’s a good song, well sung and I do not understand why it failed to do better:

That just goes to show how crazy love can be
Look at us now baby who would have thought it
I don’t know why you chose me

It’s over my head and I’m six feet tall
This beats anything I ever saw
Well I don’t see what you see in me at all
It’s over my head and I’m six feet tall

Marty Stuart and Chick Rains wrote “ I Still Do”. The song is a medium-slow ballad that I think could have made an effective single. This is not the same song that was a top twenty country hit for Bill Medley in 1984.

Don Cook and Chick Rains teamed up for “My Side of Town”, an up-tempo rocker that serves well to keep tempos appropriately varied on the album.

Wade Hayes and Chick Rains wrote “Where Do I Go To Start All Over”. Released as the second single from the album, the song stiffed, only reaching #42. It’s a nice ballad but and I’m not sure why it didn’t do better, especially since the previous five singles all went top ten or better.

I drove around last night, and tried with all my might
To leave the past behind, cause you stayed on my mind
So I stopped for a drink, I never stopped to think
That it wouldn’t work, It just made it worse
So I came on back home, I hadn’t changed a thing
And sat here all alone, missing you and wondering

Where do I go to start all over
From your memory
Where do I go to start all over
When in your arms is where I won’t be

“Our Time Is Coming was written by Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn and appeared on their Hard Workin’ Man album. The song is a dramatic ballad that Wade does masterfully – in fact it is my favorite song on the album, and I much prefer Wade’s recording to that of Brooks & Dunn.

Times are hard and the money’s tight
Day to day we fight that fight
Nothing new, it’s the same old grind
Uphill all the way

Boss man says forget the raise
Preacher says to keep the faith
Good things come to those who wait
Tomorrow’s another day

Our time is coming
When or where the good Lord only knows
Our time is coming
When this road we’re on will turn to a street of gold

Long as we keep love alive
Something tells me we’ll survive
It’s the little things that’ll get us by
And hold us together

I feel it when you hold me close
Baby we got more than most
Steady through the highs and lows
We’ll go on forever

The album closes with “Hurts Don’t It”, a ballad from the pens of Sam Hogin, Jim McBride & Greg Holland, and the mid-tempo semi-autobiographical “This Is the Life for Me” that Hayes penned with Chick Rains & Gary Nicholson. Dennis Burnside’s piano is well featured on this track.

I really liked this album and would give it an A-.

I am sure that Wade and producer Don Cook was greatly disappointed by the poor chart performance of the last two singles from the album. Accordingly they tried something different.

Unfortunately, that effort failed miserably. As I sit here writing this article I am listening to the single release that effectively killed Wade Hayes’ career at country radio. Intended as the initial single for the next album When The Wrong One Loves You Right, radio reaction to Wade’s cover of the old Glen Campbell hit “Wichita Lineman” single was so negative that the single was withdrawn (it peaked at #55) and ultimately did not appear on that album.

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Out Goin’ Cattin”

Sawyer Brown was often excoriated for the frivolous and superficial lyrical content of the songs they recorded, at least in the days before they associated with ace Nashville songwriter Mac McAnally. While it is true that most of their early songs were not that sophisticated or relevant, the fact remains that none of Sawyer Brown’s early albums were b-o-r-i-n-g, being filled with good cheer and frequently danceable music.

Out Goin’ Cattin’ was Sawyer Brown’s third album and also their third top ten country album. While the album was not full of top ten singles, the album, produced by Randy Scruggs is a well produced and organized album, with varying tempos and varying styles of music encompassed within its ten songs.

The album opens with “Lady of the Evening”, a Mark Miller composition. The song is a nice mid-tempo ballad. I don’t like the production much – it reeks of 1980s – but the song is interesting:

She’s got my picture in her locket
I got my hand in her back pocket
Walkin” through the night, in our home town
We take our time as we go strollin’
We might go to a movie, might go bowling
She just says we’ll take on what the night will bring

[Chorus]
‘Cause she’s a lady of the evening
But only just for me man
I’m a wonderin’ why she set her likes on me
She’s got me overflowing
‘Cause she keeps me knowin’
I’ll be doin’ my leavin’
With a lady of the evening tonight

“Better Be Some Tears” is next. Written by Kerry Chater, Bill LaBounty and Beckie Foster, this up-tempo ballad might have been a reasonable choice for release as a single. As relationship songs go, this one is a bit flinty:

Some other fool with his head in the clouds
Might let you get away with what you done
But not me, Baby, not me
You fall out of love and now you’re comin’ around
Any time you want to get back on
We’ll see, Baby, we’ll see
I won’t be waitin’ here forever
Right now I’m tellin’ you

[Chorus:]
There better be some tears
I wanna see some cryin’
Now you do a little dying
To show me you’re sincere
There better be some tears
After the way you left me
Baby if you wanna get me
To let you come back here
There better be some tears

“Not Ready to Let You Go” by Steve Dorff and Mark Miller is a slow, tender ballad that has an easy listening/adult contemporary feel to it, again with typical 80s production.

“Out Goin’ Cattin'” by Randy Scruggs and Mark Miller was the first single released from the album, reaching #11 (it went to #4 in Canada). Frankly, it should have been a bigger hit as it is a fine song with a definite R&B vibe to it. Joe Bonsall, the fine tenor of the Oak Ridge Boys, is featured on the song and the addition of his voice to Mark Miller’s really makes this song work.

We still bop and our cars run hot
We’re out cuttin’ the fool
We’re tearin’ the town got the top laid down
Like we’re back in school
I got a white sport coat and blue suede shoes
We’re gonna find us a Betty and a Bobby Sue

[Chorus]
Well don’t go tellin’ don’t go rattin’
Hey baby baby we’re out goin’ cattin’
Juke joint jammin’ tit for tat
And mama don’t wait up, wait up
We’re out goin’ cattin’
Oh yeah, out goin’ cattin’
Oh yeah, out goin’ cattin’

“The House Won’t Rock” a Frank J. Myers – Mark Miller collaboration rocks but gently. The lyrics are not to be taken too seriously, harkening back to the sort of lyrics that permeated early rock and roll.

Next up is “New Shoes” (Bill LaBounty, Beckie Foster and Susan Longacre). Again the song doesn’t feature especially deep lyrics but it is a celebratory and a decent dance number:

She put me down and left me flat
Like a penny on a railroad track
The dust ain’t even settled yet
Now look at me take my first step
Gonna kick this heartache in the butt
Tonight I’m gonna strut

[Chorus:]
Puttin’ on some new shoes
Gettin’ rid of these old blues
All is takes is one quick change
And I’ll just dance away
In my new shoes

“Graveyard Shift” by Gene Nelson and Paul Nelson is the most meaningful song on the album, proof that even before connecting with McAnally that Miller and company were capable of handling more serious fare. As one who worked graveyard shifts for four years, I can identify with the sentiments expressed in this song.

The only way to make a livin’ round here
Is down there on the loading dock
My daddy done it for 35 years
And old is all he ever got

Guess I was meant to follow in his footsteps
Just like an assembly line
But it’s amazing how long the nights get
When I’m working on the graveyard shift
Yes I’m working on the graveyard shift

Wishin’ I could give someone a piece of my mind
There must be somethin’ better than this
Bein’ buried alive where the sun never shines
Workin’ on the graveyard shift

“Night Rockin’ “, another Scruggs-Miller collaboration, really doesn’t rock at all, being but another mid-tempo ballad. It serves its purpose in that it keeps the tempos varied within the album.
“Savin’ the Honey for the Honeymoon” by J. Barry and Rick Vito is kind of a silly song that was the third single released from the album, dying at #58. The song, which has an early Buck Owens tempo, is another one of those songs about the girl not giving it up until receipt of the wedding band. It makes for a great album cut and was probably a little unlucky not to do better as a single.

Mark Miller’s “Gypsies On Parade” is the closing track. Released as the second single, it just cracked the top thirty. The song, a slow ballad, tells the story of a band’s life on the road. The song is well constructed but not necessarily singles material:

We pulled out of Charlotte
The snow is fallin’ down
We make our way in a one eagle sleigh
‘Til we reach another town
Our name is in lights on the billboard sign
In every town we play
But if you may, all it really need say
Are gypsies, gypsies on parade

This is a pretty entertaining album, with good use of varying tempos, although I would have liked for the album to include at least one really fast song, such as “Step That Step”. The album is marred somewhat by the production, with saxophone passages (mercifully few) played by a Kenny G imitator. As a lead singer Mark Miller continued to show improvement and the band remains cohesive. I can’t quite give this album an A, but it is a solid B+ and one I listened to frequently in the first few years after it was released.

Album Review: Lonestar – ‘Mountains’

51thjpiwx8l-_ss500By 2006, the cracks in Lonestar’s commercial armor were beginning to appear. They were scoring Top 10 hits less consistently, their contract with BNA Records was nearing an end, and lead singer Richie McDonald was getting ready to leave the band and embark on a solo career. As a result, 2006’s Mountains feels as though it were phoned in by everyone involved, and there doesn’t seem to have been much effort expended to promote the album.

Mountains did find the band teaming up with a new producer, Mark Bright, and the album’s title track, which became the lead single, was an actually an improvement over Lonestar’s previous few efforts. The mandolin-led number, written by Richie McDonald, Larry Boone and Paul Nelson has a positive thinking theme, a trend during country’s “soccer mom” era, which was much bemoaned at the time, but in retrospect it seems rather benign compared to the trends that succeeded it. The song is catchy, but the lyrics are a bit trite – a problem that plagues many of the album’s tracks. It peaked at #10.

The piano led “Nothing to Prove” was the next single, and it was aimed squarely at the soccer moms, name dropping Van Morrison and detailing the drudgeries of the modern working woman. It was the worst performing single of Lonestar’s career, peaking at #51. BNA seemed to have little interest in promoting the album further, and as a result no further singles were issued.

Artistically, Mountains was a progression down the path the band embarked on with Lonely Grill, towards more pop and AC-leaning material with a little steel guitar thrown into the mix occasionally as an appeasement to country radio and fans. The formula was getting old by this point and the material was generally weak.

There are a couple of bright spots. “Hey God”, written by McDonald and Tommy Lee James, appealed to the contemporary Christian crowd. Though one of the album’s better tracks, it’s not terribly original, and the bombastic production gets in the way. Like most of the slower songs on the album, this one is turned into a power ballad, and it would have been more effective with a quieter and more stripped-down approach. To a lesser extent they fall into this trap again on the closing track “Always in the Band”, written by McDonald, Ron Harbin and Jerry Vandiver. It seems to be a semi-autobiographical number, perhaps inspired by McDonald’s impending departure from the band. It looks back at a number of significant life events, which always had to take a back seat to the narrator’s obligations to his band mates and fans. The production is restrained and tasteful until the last minute or so, when the swelling strings and power vocals start to become more prominent. Nevertheless, it’s a very good song and an appropriate capstone to the band’s first Richie McDonald era.

Nothing else is of much interest or worthy of commentary, so as a whole this album falls short of expectations.

Grade: C

Album Review: Lonestar – ‘Lonestar’

lonestarLonestar kicked off their recording career with the eponymous album Lonestar. Released in October 1995, the album hit the streets on the strength of the successful single “Tequila Talkin’” which was released in August 1995 and reached #8. There would be four more singles issued after the album was released. The album received mixed reviews upon its release, more than a few critics viewing the band as a lightweight version of Shenandoah, a comparison I did not feel to be very valid.

The album was definitely decent honky-tonk country music, with the band augmented by a solid corps of Nashville session men such as Bruce Bouton (pedal steel ), Mark Casstevens (acoustic guitar), Brent Mason (electric guitar) and Rob Hajacos (fiddle) and such distinguished vocal harmonists as Curtis Young and John Wesley Ryles. Unless otherwise stated, Richie McDonald handles the vocals on the singles.

The album opens up with the up-tempo ballad “Heartbroke Every Day” from the pens of Bill LaBounty, Cam King and Rick Vincent. This album track featured John Rich on lead vocals, and would be the fifth single released, reaching #18. I like Rich’s vocal, which has a bit of a bluegrass feel to it.

Why do I do this to myself
Why do I want the one that wants somebody else
Don’t you know
I’d get my heart broke every day if I could

Why do I always take the fall
I’d rather have you hurtin’ me than not have you at all
Don’t you know
I’d get my heart broke every day if I could
If I could
Don’t you know
I’d get my heart broke every day if I could

Track two was the first single released, “Tequila Talkin’” penned by Bill LaBounty and Chris Waters (the brother of Holly Dunn). This single reached #8, the first top ten recording for the group:

I don’t know what they put in Cuervo that got me to say those things
Usually I wouldn’t care so much or make such a scene
But seeing you there in that dress you were wearing just drove me right out of my head
So don’t hold me responsible for anything I might’ve said

It was just the tequila talkin’
When I told you I’m still not over you
I get a little sentimental when I’ve had one or two
And that tear in my eye was the salt and the lime
Not the memory of you walkin’
If I said I’m still in love with you
It was just the tequila talkin’

John Rich, Don Cook and Wally Wilson wrote “I Love The Way You Do That’ – a good song but the intro sounds too much like the intro to track two.

“Running Away With My Heart” was penned by Michael Britt, Sam Hogin and Mark D Sanders. This would be the third single released from the album and would reach #8. This song is a mid-tempo ballad, which features some nice steel guitar work by Bruce Bouton.

Hey Buddy can you get me some faster wheels
I got a heartache nippin’ at my heels
I’ll be hurtin’ if she gets a big head start
First that girl stole my attention
Not to mention all my affection
Now she’s running away with my heart

“What Would It Take” was written by Billy Lawson, Larry Boone and Paul Nelson, and is a slow ballad with heavy Nashville Sound string accompaniment of the kind that Billy Sherrill used with George Jones and David Houston. I think that this song, issued 15-20 years earlier, could have been a big single, but by 1995 it was very much an anachronism.

I held the world in my arms
I threw away the moon for the stars
Couldn’t see the forest for the trees
Couldn’t see the love in front of me

What would it take to take me back
Rebuild that bridge, retrace my tracks
I would give all I own
For one little stepping stone
What would it take to take me back

The redoubtable trio of John Rich, Larry Boone and Paul Nelson contributed “Does Your Daddy Know About Me”, an up-tempo honky-tonk song with solid steel and fiddle accompaniment that would have made a good single:

Well you say your daddy is a real cool dude and you keep no secrets from him
Well he knows you got a wild hair, knows your kinda out there and knows about your crazy friends
And he done found out about the night you snuck out with the Cadillac keys
But darlin’ does your daddy know about me

Well he knows you been skippin’ them Sunday School meetings
He’s heard how fast you drive
Knows you got an attitude, seen your little tattoo, but he lets all that slide
And I bet my boots that he think he knows you from A to Z
But darlin’ does your daddy know about me

Billy Lawson’s “Ragtop Cadillac” probably was very popular with line dancers. The lyrics are nothing special but it has a rhythm and feel very similar to “Boot Scootin’ Boogie”.

“No News” was the second single and the first #1 record for the group reaching #1 in both the US and Canada. The song was written by Phil Barnhart, Sam Hogin, and Mark D. Sanders, and tells the story about a man whose woman has left him without telling him.

She said “It’s just a woman thing” and pulled out of the drive
I said not to worry I’m an understanding guy
I’ve heard that when you love someone you gotta let ’em go
She hollered “When I find myself you’ll be the first to know”
Ooh no news

I learned to do the laundry, feed the cat, and clean the house
I promised to be patient while she worked her problems out
When she packed her bags, her destination wasn’t clear
But I sensed that her intentions were honest and sincere
Ooh no news

Chick Rains has written a number of fine songs, but “Paradise Knife and Gun Club” is nothing special, a dance number that makes for a decent album track.

Richie McDonald and Kyle Green co-wrote “When Cowboys Didn’t Dance”, the only song McDonald had a part in writing. The song was the fourth single from the album reaching only #45 (but #18 in Canada). I don’t think I would have released this song as a single, although it makes a decent enough album track.

This would be one of two albums issued by the original lineup of Richie McDonald (lead vocals, acoustic guitar), John Rich (bass, vocals), Michael Britt (lead guitar, background vocals), Keech Rainwater (drums), and Dean Sams (keyboards). Other than John Rich’s contributions, the band relied on outside writers for material. Richie McDonald would emerge as a co-writer on subsequent albums, but I have doubts as to how essential were his contributions to the process.

I would give this album a B+. Of five Lonestar studio albums in my collection, this one is the one I listen to with the greatest frequency as it is the most consistently good album of the bunch.

Album Review: Clay Walker – ‘Live, Laugh, Love’

live laugh loveAs the 90s drew to an end, Clay stopped working with former producer James Stroud. His blandly titled 1999 album was co-produced by the artist with Doug Johnson, and saw the artist moving in a more R&B direction.

Lead single ‘She’s Always Right’ (written by Lonestar’s Richie McDonald with Ed Hill and Phil Barnhart) is a rather bland contemporary ballad about a happy marriage. Clay sings it soulfully, but the song isn’t at all memorable. It reached #16 on the Billboard country chart. The theme is repeated later on the album with the very similar ‘Woman Thing’, written by Larry Boone, Tracy Lawrence and Paul Nelson.

The beachy title track was a little more successful, peaking just outside the top 10. Written by Gary Nicholson and Allen Shamblin, it has Caribbean instrumentation and a syncopated vocal which haven’t worn well.

The album’s biggest hit at #3, ‘The Chain Of Love’, written by Rory Lee Feek and Jonnie Barnett, marked returned to more conventional country territory. The warm hearted story song offers a sweet tale of kindness from strangers.

The self penned big ballad ‘Once In A Lifetime Love’ wasn’t really a country song, and although Clay sings it well, at the turn of the millennium that was still enough to deny it any chart action when it was the album’s last single. Clay and his co-writer Jason Greene also contributed the pleasant but dull ‘Lose Some Sleep Tonight’ and the disastrously ill-judged ‘Cold Hearted’, a feeble attempt at an R&B song which falls completely flat.

‘This Time Love’ is a soul-drenched ballad which is okay on its own terms, but has nothing to do with country music.

‘If A Man Ain’t Thinking (‘Bout His Woman)’, written by Buddy Brock, Debi Cochran and Jerry Kilgore, on the other hand, is a country song, and very good. The mid-paced ‘It Ain’t Called Heartland (For Nothin’)’ is also quite enjoyable.

The best song is a cover of Earl Thomas Conley’s ‘Holding Her And Loving You’. Clay doesn’t bring anything new, but he sings it with emotion.

Clay sings with great commitment and enthusiasm on this album, but not much of it can really be classified as country. Listeners with more eclectic tastes may like this better than I did.

Grade: C-

Album Review: Highway 101 – ‘Bing Bang Boom’

bing bang boomAlthough one tends to think of Paulette Carlson as the female voice of Highway 101, the fact is that Nikki Nelson has been the face of Highway 101 for far longer than Paulette Carlson. In fact Nelson has been with the group for as a long as Paulette Carlson and Chrislyn Lee combined.

Bing Bang Boom marked the debut of Nikki Nelson as the lead singer of Highway 101. While her predecessor had a more distinctive (and at times quite annoying) voice, I think Nikki’s voice is better and that she had more potential to make it as a solo act than did Carlson. Unfortunately the material on this album is not quite as strong as on the first three albums so this album did not have the impact of the first three albums

The first single for Nikki Nelson was Hugh Prestwood’s “Bing Bang Boom” an up-tempo romp that charted at #14, exactly the same spot that Carlson’s last single had attained. I think that under different circumstances that this single would have done better, but I think that the market had already turned away from Highway 101’s sound as the last two Carlson singles both failed to reach the top ten

Gather around me and lend an ear
‘Cause I got somethin’ you ought to hear
I’m tellin’ you that you ought to fear
A certain kind of love
Now it can strike in the day or night
And just as quick as a rattler’s bite
You’ve got a case of love at first sight
And it’s what you’re dyin’ of

It’s just bing bang boom, one two three
You’re feelin’ normal as you can be
And then bing bang boom, lickety split
It doesn’t come on bit by bit
It gets instantly in full swing
And it’s bing bang boom

Unfortunately, “Bing Bang Boom” would prove to be the last to twenty single for Highway 101.

The next track comes from the pen of Michael Henderson, “Wherever You Are”, a bluesy ballad of a love gone astray. Nikki really nails the vocals – the song might have made a good single. Then again, the third track, “The Blame” (from Cactus Moser, Paul Nelson, and Gene Nelson) was the second single selected, it was an excellent ballad and it died at #31. This is actually my favorite Highway 101 song, one on which Nikki proves to be the absolute master of the slow ballad

Guess I could say you never held me close,
Those certain nights I needed you the most.
But you could say that I gave up before the love was gone,
and whose to say who was right or wrong.
You’ve got your side and I’ve got mine –
the truth lies in between,
No matter how the story’s told the end is still the same.
It’s a game that’s played by fools,
and it only has one rule.
It’s not whether you win or lose,
It’s how you lay the blame.

The next track is from the pens of Cactus Moser, Gary Chapman and Michael James, anther up-tempo romp titled “Storm of Live”. I think this would have made a good single.

This is followed up by a cover of a Tammy Wynette classic, “Til I Get It Right”. Nikki gives the song a nice reading, but she doesn’t have the essential tear in the voice that unique to Tammy Wynette.

Michael Henderson wrote the next two numbers “Restless Kind” and “Honky Tonk Baby”, both decent album tracks but nothing more. “Honky Tonk Baby” has a bit of a retro or rockabilly feel to it and was actually issued as the fourth single, dying at #54.

“River of Tears” , written by Cactus Moser and Eric Silver, would have been a hit if released during the late 1960s or early 1970s. In my mind, I can hear Rhonda Vincent doing this song as a bluegrass ballad.

“Baby, I’m Missing You” was the third single off the album, reaching #22. The song was written by Steve Seskin and Nancy Montgomery. It is a nice song that would have gone top ten a few years earlier.

The album closes with “Desperate” (co-written by Cactus Moser), and Joy White’s “Big City Bound”, both good album tracks. “Big City Bound” has an arrangement that reminds me strongly of John Anderson’s 1981 hit “I’m Just An Old Chunk of Coal”.

I would rate this album as a B+. I don’t really think the band lost anything with the change of female vocalist. If anything, Nikki Nelson’s presence probably enabled the band to tackle a greater variety of material in live performance. I think the real issue here is shelf life. Highway 101 had a four year shelf life as hitmakers, and had already experienced significant falloff even before Carlson left the band, with each album charting a little lower than the previous album (#7, #8, #22 and then #29 for the Greatest Hits album. This pattern is eerily similar to the pattern for acts such as SKO/SKB, Desert Rose, Exile and Restless Heart.

Highway 101 still tours occasionally – look for them if they hit your town.

Album Review: Ricky Van Shelton – ‘Making Plans’

making plansAfter the underperformance of Love And Honor, Ricky left Columbia, but a move to independent label Vanguard in 1997 saw him making some of his best music. He was reunited with his old producer Steve Buckingham, assisted on this occasion by Marshall Morgan. The sensitive arrangements are laden with fiddle and steel, and put Ricky’s pure voice with its delicate vibrato at the center.

It opens with the lively fiddle-led kissoff ‘Just Say Goodbye’, written by Byron Hill and Joe Chambers. It’s one of my favorite of Ricky’s up-tempo recordings. Chambers also contributed the impassioned ballad ‘I Wish You Were More Like Your Memory’, in which the protagonist can’t get over his ex.

The mid-tempo ‘When The Feeling Goes Away’ is a cover of a rather obscure (but very good) Merle Haggard tune (it was the B-side of the hit single ‘Carolyn’) about surviving a breakup:

Wine is just a shadow that clouds my memory
And a bar is just a hiding place for fools like me
And drunk is just a feeling that keeps my pain away
But I’ll be alright when the feeling goes away

A cover of Mel Street’s classic cheating song ‘Borrowed Angel’ is also great. The title track is a lovely old Johnny Russell song about a relationship about to collapse, which was also recorded by a number of other artists, most recently the Trio of Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris.

‘He’s Not The Man I Used To Be’ is an excellent song in which the protagonist finds his ex has moved on, and realises the error of his ways. He gets the picture in time to avert such a fate in ‘It Wouldn’t Kill Me’, written by Larry Boone, Paul Nelson and Paul Shapiro, and previously cut by Boone and later covered by Jeff Carson. It’s a great song which deserves to have become a hit on one of its outings, in which the protagonist realises working at keeping the romance alive is worthwhile:

It wouldn’t kill me to tell her that I love her
It wouldn’t kill me to make her feel alive…
It wouldn’t kill me like it would if she ever said goodbye

‘She Needs Me’ is a romantic ballad about an independent woman. ‘Tic Toc’ is a brightly delivered medium-paced number about a relationship about to wind down, with a protagonist who doesn’t sound too upset about it.

The album loses steam as it tails off with the last three tracks. ‘Our Love’ and the optimistic ‘The Best Is Yet To Come’ (the album’s sole, non-charting, single) are pleasant but forgettable. Sandwiching the pair, the regretful ‘The Best Thing I Had Goin’’ is actually pretty good, but not as memorable as the bulk of the album.

This album has been overlooked because it was released towards the end of Ricky’s career and as an exclusive Walmart offering, but it’s well worth tracking down used copies.

Grade: A

Album Review: Tracy Lawrence – ‘Strong’

strongHaving left his label after the latest downturn in his fortunes, Tracy signed to Dreamworks where he was reunited with old producer James Stroud (and new label head) for 2004’s Strong. He didn’t write any of the material himself, but the result was a much better record than his last couple of efforts, and rather more successful commercially, at least to start with.

The wistfully beautiful ‘Paint Me A Birmingham’, previously recorded by the underrated Ken Mellons, was a comeback hit for Tracy, reaching #4. The cheerfully philosophical ‘It’s All How You Look At It’ was less successful, although it did sneak into the top 40; it is pleasant enough but a bit bland. The fun honky tonker ‘Sawdust On Her Halo’ is pretty good, but was sadly not a big hit with radio.

The title track is a paean to a single mother’s hard work, and comes across as a bit pandering because the woman in it is a cipher; she doesn’t really live as an individual character rather than a stereotype. The more downbeat and much more interesting (at least in its first half) ‘Bobby Darwin’s Daughter’ is a sensitive story song about a woman trapped in an unsatisfactory life, and longing for the innocence of her own childhood, when

She’d ask where God came from
Instead of wondering where He’s been

The second half of the song is a little more predictable, when she regains her faith when she is nearly killed in an accident and her remorseful and formerly neglectful husband remembers he loves her after all. It was written by Larry Boone, Paul Nelson, and Rick Huckaby. The nostalgic ‘When Daddy Was A Strong Man’ also tenderly recalls childhood.

The thoughtful ‘Stones’ has a pretty, delicate melody and sensitive vocal interpretation of its lyric about the passing of time. ‘Everywhere But Hollywood’ is quite a good song contrasting reality with fantasy, written by Bobby Pinson, Jimmy Ritchey and Jason Sellers.

The leaving song ‘A Far Cry From You’ is one of the album’s few heartbreak numbers, and is very good. Also sad, but in more dramatic fashion, the protagonist of ‘The Questionnaire’ discovers the true state of his marriage when he finds an old women’s magazine where his wife has filled in a questionnaire on the subject remorselessly ranging over his various failings and her unhappiness, and ending with the devastating answer to “Do you still love him?”. We can guess the answer isn’t yes by his petulant “damn that questionnaire”. It is slightly over-produced but is a neatly crafted song.

‘What The Flames Feel Like’ brings more of a Southern rock edge, and is convincingly performed, while the mid-tempo ‘Think Of Me’ reminds the listener of the role of those who keep them safe by willingly going into danger themselves.

As Tracy was not able to sustain the success of the initial single, sales faltered, and Dreamworks dropped him after the record had run its course. However this was definitely a return to form, and is worth picking up. Subsequently, Tracy moved to Mercury (his last major-label deal), but they released only a hits package with the two new songs not doing well enough as singles to keep him on the label.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Tracy Lawrence – ‘Tracy Lawrence’

tracy lawrenceAs the new millennium dawned, Tracy’s career hit another roadblock, this time one which was not self-inflicted: his label, Atlantic, closed its doors. He was transferred to sister label Warner Brothers for 2001’s self-titled release, but the move was not a longterm success. Tracy produced the album with longtime collaborator Flip Anderson, and there are no real surprises on offer.

I really like the single ‘Life Don’t Have To Be So Hard’, an encomium to a more relaxed way of life, set to a catchy melody. Unfortunately country radio was less enamored, and the song barely crept into the top 40. ‘What A Memory’, the only other single before Tracy departed Warner Bros, did even more poorly, although it is another fine song. A tearjerking ballad about a loving mother who dies far too young, it was written by Jeff Bates and Kenny Beard, and I found it moving.

The overriding theme on the album is one of maturity, learning from one’s mistakes and looking back with varying degrees of amusement and regret on the follies of youth.

‘I Won All The Battles’ is an excellent song, which Tracy wrote with Larry Boone and Paul Nelson. The protagonist realises too late that insisting to his wife he was right all the time was ultimately the cause of losing her love. It is by far the best of Tracy’s co-writes on this record. ‘Whole Lot Of Lettin’ Go’, from the same partnership, is quite a nice ballad about the lasting effects of an old flame, while love song ‘Meant To Be’ is lyrically rather bland, although it is nicely sung and played and has quite an attractive melody. ‘She Loved The Devil Out Of Me’, the last of Tracy’s co-writes, is a pleasant mid-tempo on a well-worn theme, which I enjoyed well enough despite its lack of originality. Alison Brown’s banjo works well on this and also backs up ‘God’s Green Earth’, written by Monty Criswell and Billy Yates. The latter sounds cheerful and perky, belying a heartbreak lyric.

‘It’s Hard To Be An Outlaw’ (written by Bobby Pinson, Larry Boone and Paul Nelson) takes a more jaundiced approach to the theme of a wild young man whose woman tries to “get the devil out of” him. In this case she has failed and walked away, and the protagonist has to face reality on his own:

I wouldn’t change
And now she’s gone I’m just not the same
It’s hard to be an outlaw
Outrun or outdraw
The laws of life that you once could ignore
It’s a desperate desperado
Who can’t see through his sorrow
What he was runnin’ from or runnin’ for
Oh, it’s hard to be an outlaw
When you’re not wanted anymore
There was nowhere left to turn to
But back to my old self
“I’m living like there’s no tomorrow”
Now meant somethin’ else
The trails I used to live to blaze
Are winding up dead ends
With a voice inside my head
Reminding me what could have been
I was wild as the wind
As cold as they come,
Thinkin’ I was cool
Now looking back,
Lookin’ at a fool

The up-tempo ‘Crawlin’ Again’ (written by Kenny Beard and Michael White) is a semi-ironic mumber comparing a man’s helplessness in the face of a woman’s power to reverting to infancy:

I’m back on the bottle, cryin’ out loud
I need holding and I need it now
Someone to rock me and then tug me in
It takes a mama 20 years to make a boy a man
Another woman 20 seconds to have him crawling again

It’s quite an entertaining song, which might have been a good choice for a single.

‘Getting Back Up’(written by Pinson with Marla Cannon-Goodman) is a downbeat ballad about coping with the failure of a relationship with a somewhat traditional feel. Some nice fiddle opens the otherwise rather uninteresting jazz-inflected ‘It’s Got You All Over It’.

The slightly-too sweet ‘That Was Us’ (written by Tony Lane and Craig Wiseman) looks back fondly on the narrator’s time as one of a group of wild teenagers who make mischief in their small town but whose good hearts are revealed in the final verse, when they make real amends. It was later recorded by Randy Travis on one of his religious records.

This is a serviceable and perfectly listenable record. It is currently out of print, but available digitally and as a CD-R from Amazon, and cheap used copies are also around. It’s worth picking up if you can get it at a moderate price.

Grade: B

Album Review: Tracy Lawrence – ‘Lessons Learned’

lessons learnedTracy Lawrence’s career suffered a setback in late 1997 when his wife of nine months filed domestic abuse charges against him. Around the same time his singles “The Coast Is Clear” and “While You Sleep” tanked at country radio. Tracy took some time off to sort out his personal problems and did not release another album until 2000. It was not an ideal time to be off the charts; the late 90s saw a dramatic shift away from traditional country music and the careers of many artists who had enjoyed their breakthroughs in the late 80s and early 90s began to cool. Like many others, Tracy had begun to embrace a more pop-oriented sound, beginning with 1997’s The Coast Is Clear, a trend that would continue with 2000’s Lessons Learned. It’s possible that Tracy’s personal problems and absence from the radio airwaves made him and his co-producers Flip Anderson and Butch Carr reluctant to take too many creative risks. The play-it-safe strategy temporarily reversed his chart decline, but unfortunately Lessons Learned is one of his less interesting efforts. The steel guitar, though still present, often takes a back seat to rock-and-roll guitar riffs, and on several tracks Tracy seems to be deliberately toning down the twang in his voice.

The title track, which Tracy co-wrote with Larry Boone and Paul Nelson peaked at #3, returning him to the Top 10 for the the first time in nearly three years and taking him to the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 for the first and only time. The record is a solid effort and one of the better tracks on the album, but not as memorable as some of Tracy’s earlier hits. “Lessons Learned” was followed by the pedestrian “Lonely”, on which Tracy’s voice sounds rather rough, as if he’d spent too many hours in the studio when the track was cut. I’m not sure I’d even recognize his voice if I hadn’t already known who the singer was. It failed to achieve the same level of success as “Lessons Learned”, topping out at #18. The third and final single “Unforgiven”, which finds Tracy engaging in some navel-gazing in the aftermath of a failed relationship, acknowledging his shortcomings but unable to comprehend why his ex can’t forgive him. It’s a good song, marred by some slightly heavy handed production near the end. Its success on the charts was likely undermined by behind-the-scenes drama at the label; Atlantic was in the process of shutting down its Nashville division at the time. “Unforgiven”, which stalled at #35,and Tracy’s contract was transferred to Atlantic’s sister label Warner Bros.

The rest of the album is rather hit-or-miss. “Steps” and the two Lawrence co-writes “The Holes That He Dug” and “Long Wet Kiss” are throwaways, and “Just You And Me” is an over the top synthesizer-laden ballad that sounds out of place with the rest of the album. On the other hand, the more traditional “From The Inside Out” and “The Man I Was” are both excellent. The remaining tracks fall somewhere in between — not terrible but not particularly memorable either. Although Lessons Learned is not his best work, it is worth the small expenditure to obtain a used copy.

Grade: B-

Album Review – Tracy Lawrence – ‘Time Marches On’

51ikhsAYYjL._SY300_It was business as usual when Tracy Lawrence brought Don Cook and Flip Anderson into the studio with him to record his fourth album Time Marches On. A mix of traditional ballads and uptempo shuffles, the album fit squarely within the popular trends of 1996 and thus scored four huge top five hits.

Lawrence followed the excellent “If The World Had A Front Porch,” with another equally wonderful tune “If You Love Me.” Written by Paul Nelson and Tom Shapiro, the piano-led ballad represents everything I love about country music from that era (“If You Love Me” hit radio in December 1995) – clean tasteful production and nice twangy vocals. Given that ballads are a tough sell I’m surprised the track peaked at #4, which is more than deserved.

Bobby Braddock’s classic “Time Marches On,” a multi-generational story of a family living through the 1960s and beyond, was the second single and Lawrence’s biggest hit yet, peaking at #1 for three weeks. It’s one of my favorite country singles of all-time, and a good representation of what country music means to me.

Lawrence was on fire, deservedly so, and could seemingly get anything up the charts. “Stars Over Texas,” a ballad he co-wrote with Nelson and Larry Boone, came next and soared to #2. He clearly knew what he was doing because “Stars Over Texas” is a fabulous song with a nice traditional arrangement. I’m not surprised radio would play it, just that it would catch on enough to hit #2. Like “If You Love Me” the track warranted all the airplay it received.

Fourth and final single was the upbeat “Is That A Tear,” which featured a wonderful dose of fiddle throughout. The track was perfect for country radio and peaked at #2. The music video was also a trip, featuring Lawrence in a caper complete with car chases (he in a stolen taxi cab) and a prominent role by his then wife who would later accuse him of, among other allegations, domestic battery.

If Atlantic Records wanted to stretch the project to five singles, which was unheard of in those days, “Speed of a Fool,” co-written by Boone and Nelson, was a good candidate. The upbeat rocker boasts a wonderful mid-90s arrangement complete with a good helping of fiddle and steel guitar. The track is a favorite, and fits right in my sweet spot.

“Excitable Boy” is a throwaway rocker reminiscent of Joe Diffie’s music at the time, but suffers from a spastic arrangement and weird half singing/half-whispering vocal from Lawrence. He’s clearly going for an effect here, but he doesn’t reach it. Boone, Nelson, and Lawrence teamed up for “What We Give” and like their other collaborations on the album, it’s excellent. The song’s another upbeat rocker, but I love the ribbons of steel thrown in to add some sunny touches to the arrangement.

The can-do-no-wrong team of Boone and Nelson teamed up with Anderson for “A Different Man,” another upbeat tune that makes for a wonderful album track. The production is far too loud, and could stand a lot more breathing room, but other than that, it’s a very good song. Lawrence joined Boone and Nelson again to write (can you see a pattern here?) yet another winning track, “Somewhere Between The Moon and You.” It’s excellent but lacks the commercial sheen of “Stars Over Texas” so I can easily see why the latter was the ballad chosen instead. “I Know That Hurt By Heart” is just okay.

Time Marches On is very similar to Pam Tillis’ 1994 release Sweetheart’s Dance in that it’s a very radio friendly effort that’s also an artistic powerhouse. Except for two songs (“Excitable Boy” and “I Know That Hurt By Heart”) the project is near flawless, and a fine representation of the mid-90s sound in country music. Although the album is out of print (I bought mine around it’s original release), cheap copies are available, and well worth seeking out.

Grade: A+ 

Album Review: Tracy Lawrence – ‘I See It Now’

i see it nowIn 1994 Tracy enjoyed some success with a single from the soundtrack to the movie Maverick. ‘Renegades, Rebels And Rogues’, which was a top 10 hit for Tracy. That track gave him his first opportunity to produce (alongside band member Flip Anderson). This partnership was to prove a durable one, and was continued on Tracy’s third album, alongside tracks produced by James Stroud. The set is dominated by ballads, and contains some fine songs. None of the four singles peaked any lower on the Billboard country chart than #2.

The lead single and title track is a pretty song with a graceful melody and a resigned lyric about a man understanding too late just why his relationship has failed. The prominent fiddle in the arrangement is particularly pleasing. Written by Paul Nelson, Larry Boone and Woody Lee, it peaked at # 2. Coincidentally, this was the same position achieved by its successor, ‘As Any Fool Can See‘, written by Nelson with Kenny Beard. The pace of this was a bit peppier, but it is on very similar theme to ‘I See It Now’, reading rather like a prequel to it.

The album’s sole chart-topper, and probably its best-remembered song,‘Texas Tornado’ was another ballad with a lovely tune. The Bobby Braddock tune is lovely to listen to, but the lyric seems to demand a more forceful pace than it gets. The nostalgic and idealistic ‘If The World Had A Front Porch’ is rather charming, and was another #2 hit.

Ireally liked the wistful ‘I’d Give Anything To Be Your Everything Again’, a sad ballad in which the protagonist revisits the home he once shared with his ex. ‘The Cards’ is also good, with a regretful Tracy rifling through a set of old birthday, anniversary and Valentine’s cards, poignant reminders of times past, while his ex has moved on. The mid-paced ‘I Got A Feelin’’ is pleasant but not very memorable.

The lively and colourful story song about a ‘Hillbilly With A Heartache’ is a duet with John Anderson. It is by far the best of the few up-tempo numbers. The title character, Hershel, sounds like a close relative of Mark Chesnutt’s hit from a couple of years earlier, ‘Bubba Shot The Jukebox’ (the melodies are pretty similar too). Of the other two, ‘Guilt Trip’ is rather forgettable lyrically and has the heaviest production on the album; it sounds like something designed with an eye on the linedancing market – bouncy and quite catchy but with no connection with the downbeat lyric. ‘God Made Woman On A Good Day’ is a rather lecherous bluesy number about hot women, which would fit right in on today’s radio.

The success of the singles helped it to sell well, and this was another platinum-seller for Tracy. Overall, this is a nice-sounding album but the material isn’t quite as strong as on its predecessors, and it does feel a little one-paced. However, it’s worth adding to your collection, as used copies are available very cheaply.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Tracy Lawrence – ‘Alibis’

zalibisFollowing his platinum-selling debut that spawned four Top 10 singles, Tracy Lawrence released Alibis, which teamed him up once again with producer James Stroud. They sought to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump and build upon the success of Sticks and Stones. By any measurement, they succeeded in spades; Alibis sold more than two million copies and produced four #1 singles. Like its predecessor, Alibis is traditional country from start to finish, playing to the strengths of Tracy’s seasoned-beyond-its-years baritone.
The first single to be sent to radio was the title track “Alibis”, a country waltz written by Randy Boudreaux, which reached the top of the charts in March of 1993. It is my favorite of all of Lawrence’s singles and is a perfect example of the type of song I miss from today’s country radio playlists. Only three months later, Tracy was back at the top of the charts with “Can’t Break It To My Heart”, one of four songs from Alibis that he co-wrote. Like clockwork, he was in the #1 spot again in September with another of his co-writes, the honky-tonker “My Second Home”. “If The Good Die Young”, the album’s most contemporary track (and my least favorite), took a little longer to top the charts, reaching #1 in late January 1994.

It’s interesting to note that none of the four hit singles was a ballad. It certainly wasn’t due to a lack of strong ballads — “We Don’t Love Here Anymore”, “Don’t Talk To Me That Way” and the masterpiece “It Only Takes One Bar (To Make A Prison)” (another Lawrence co-write with Kenny Beard and Paul Nelson) – all had potential, but Atlantic seemed to be taking no chances and giving radio what it wanted. This play-it-safe approach is arguably the album’s biggest flaw. The album’s material is mostly top-notch, though there are a few weak cuts: “I Threw The Rest Away”, “Cryin’ Ain’t Dyin’” and the “If The Good Die Young” (its #1 status notwithstanding). However, there aren’t any artistic stretches that would have helped differentiate Alibis from Sticks and Stones, though it is difficult to fault Lawrence and Stroud too much for wanting to stick with a winning formula.

Although it outsold its predecessor, I don’t rate Alibis quite as highly as the stellar Sticks and Stones, but it is still a very fine album that holds up well twenty years after its release. It’s worth picking up a cheap copy if you are only familiar with the album’s singles; since there is a lot more to the album than the radio hits tend to suggest.

Grade: A

Album Review – Lorrie Morgan – ‘Greater Need’

LorrieMorganGreaterNeedIn light of the lukewarm response to War Paint, Lorrie Morgan took a year off to regroup. BNA Nashville released Reflections: Greatest Hits in June 1995, which spawned three singles. The upbeat “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” returned Morgan to #1, while “Back In Your Arms Again” peaked top 5, Morgan’s best showing in over two years. Both are excellent as is “Standing Tall,” a traditional ballad that criminally struck out at #32. All three are essential Morgan cuts and her best singles since the Watch Me era.

With newfound creative juices Morgan replaced Richard Landis with James Stroud as producer for her fifth album. Stroud’s clean contemporary production didn’t quite reverse Morgan’s fortunes at radio, but it helped Greater Need keep some of the momentum she gained from the Greatest Hits project, which went double platinum.

Constant Change wrote the album’s lead single “By My Side,” a duet with Morgan’s then fourth husband Jon Randall. The fiddle heavy ballad is excellent but Randall sounds like a prepubescent Vince Gill with his falsetto-drenched vocal. The track peaked at #18, a far cry better then second single “I Just Might Be,” which hit #45. The track itself is a wonderful bluegrass flavored number that ranks among Morgan’s best tracks. Like “Standing Tall,” it deserved to be a much bigger hit.

Pop-leaning ballad “Good As I Was To You” was the album’s biggest song, peaking at #4, and has since joined “Something In Red” as one of Morgan’s most iconic singles. It’s a dynamo of a song, a sequel of sorts to “Guess You Had To Be There,” with the woman confronting her cheating spouse at a restaurant they used to frequent. Her vocal could’ve displayed more bite, but she sings the hell out of the lyric as it is.

Travis Tritt and Vince Gill join Morgan on the honky-tonk rocker “Stepping Stones,” which is good, but feels like three solo performances thrown together (i.e. as though they all recorded their parts separately), not a cohesive whole. Their vocals are stellar, but the song is pure filler. Much better is a brilliant cover of Billy Walker’s “Don’t Stop The World (If You Don’t Mean To Stay),” written by country music legend Ray Pennington. Morgan and Stroud bring the track to life with a fabulous fiddle and steel drenched arrangement and Morgan’s perfectly nuanced vocal.

Paul Nelson, Gayla Borders, and Jeff Borders’ “Reading My Heart” is a fairly ordinary lyric but Stroud gives it a wonderfully fiddle and steel drenched mid-90s arrangement that elevates the somewhat mundane number. Nothing can save “She Walked Beside The Wagon,” not even its generous helping of steel. The lyric is prodding, especially in the second verse, when reference is made to JFK’s funeral. Morgan sings it well, but that’s about it.

In concept, “Back Among The Living” is great. Morgan is singing about finding the space within a broken heart to get back out there again, but the melody fails to elevate the somewhat lackluster lyric. Morgan has the experience to bring the song to life, but she’s failed by a piano heavy production that lacks enough noticeable steel guitar flourishes to make it stand out. Similarly “I Can Buy My Own Roses” has a wonderful concept, but the idea has been done so much stronger on countless other songs throughout the years. Morgan is let down again by a less then stellar lyric that never quite reaches it’s full potential. Thankfully “Soldier of Love” has a wonderful thumping production, confident vocal, and above average lyric to help it stand out.

I so wanted to give Greater Need an A, as the strongest tracks are among Morgan’s best. But there are too many instances where either the production or lyric hinder enjoyment enough to be problematic. That being said it’s still a good album overall and well worth cherry picking from.

Grade: B+ 

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Untasted Honey’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Album Review: George Jones – ‘Walls Can Fall’

George’s second MCA album was released in 1992, and showed he was still capable of competing with the younger artists musically, although he was getting squeezed out of radio playlists. Producer Emory Gordy Jr gives the up tempo tracks a muscular rhythmic backing adapted to contemporary radio trends, but the ballads get a more subtle treatment. Gordy’s wife Patty Loveless sings backing vocals, together with Vince Gill.

A select group of younger stars provided backing vocals on the age-defying ‘I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair’, with Vince and Patty joined by Garth Brooks, Joe Diffie, Pam Tillis, T. Graham Brown, Mark Chesnutt, Travis Tritt, Alan Jackson, and Clint Black. George and friends were rewarded with the CMA Award for Vocal Event of the Year, in 1993, although the single was only moderately successful, peaking at #34. Written by Billy Yates, Kerry Kurt Phillips and Frank Dycus, the song has never been a favorite of mine despite its accolades. Lyrically it is dangerously close to a novelty song, with slightly overbearing production.

I prefer the cheerfully rebellious ‘Wrong’s What I Do Best’ (written by Dickey Lee, Mike Campbell and Freddy Weller), the vibrant second single, although it flopped at radio, failing to rise above the 60s. It may have been a mistake not to release the closing track, ‘Finally Friday’ (previously recorded by Earl Thomas Conley). George roars and growls his way through this insistently rhythmic ode to the end of the working week in what is in many ways a more successful defiance of age than ‘I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair’.

A ballad was picked for the final (and sadly noncharting) single, but not one of George’s heartbreak specials. The title track is also an older man’s song but a more dignified one, expressing gratitude for a love breaking through the barriers the protagonist has erected over the years, for which Yates and Dycus were also responsible (together with Bruce Bouton). It is a nice but not outstanding song, and there is better fare of the album, including the album’s other love song, veteran Wayne Kemp’s beautiful ‘Don’t Send Me No Angels’.

In the ironic ‘Drive Me To Drink’, George tells his cheating wife to drop him off at the bar on her way to meet her lover:

You’ll be in his arms again
And I’ll be off the road
The highway will be safer
And they’ll have you to thank
If you’re gonna drive me crazy, baby
Drive me to drink

The storyline may be an implausible spin on the phrase which inspired it, but George sells it vocally, and this is probably my favorite of the up-tempo numbers.

One of the standout tracks is ‘What Am I Doing There’, written by Buddy Brock and Zack Turner, a classic sounding slow sad song as fantasies about a lost love imperil a new relationship, with lonesome fiddle backing up George’s sorrowful and guilt-ridden emoting which recalls his very best:

I no longer know what’s real anymore
In the back of my mind I have opened the door
That leads to the past & the love we once shared

How could I explain to the one lying here,
She’s loving me now
What am I doing there?

It is just beaten to the title of my personal favorite on this album by a perfectly structured Gene and Paul Nelson song, ‘There’s The Door’, also recorded by Stacy Dean Campbell, where a man faces a stark choice. Having tried his wife’s patience by staggering home past midnight once too often, he is faced with her ultimatum:

She took a sip of coffee and softly said to me,
“There’s the mantel where we keep our wedding picture
There’s the bedroom where we made both love and war
There’s the ring keeps on slipping off your finger
There’s no reason we should go on anymore
There’s the door”

So I’m back here on this barstool my whole world blown to hell
Behind the bottle there’s a mirror where a fool can see himself
If I were the man I should be and not the one I am
I would go back there this minute and beg for one more chance

There’s the jukebox where I wasted all those quarters
There’s a lady trying to get me out on the floor
And there’s a chance the one I love would still forgive me
It’s a step that I just never took before
There’s the door

I particularly like the fact that we don’t get told whether he makes the choice, and whether that door remains closed or not. My feeling is that he doesn’t, but there is that glimmer of hope.

Also fantastic is the regretful ‘You Must Have Walked Across My Mind Again’, written by Kemp with Warren Robb, which sounds like classic George, as the protagonist wakes up in prison after a drunken brawl which he blames on memories of his ex. George also covers the Haggard classic ‘The Bottle Let Me Down’.

Years of abusing his body with alcohol notwithstanding, George entered his sixties in pretty good shape vocally, and although perhaps his voice was starting to show slight signs of deterioration, his interpretative ability was still second to none. He may have been starting to struggle to compete with younger stars at radio, but this album showed he was still capable of making great music. And although I started out by saying I didn’t much like ‘I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair’, its chart success helped make this Goegre’s first gold-seller since Wine Colored Roses.

It’s still easy to find, and worth adding to your George Jones collection.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Brooks & Dunn – ‘Cowboy Town’

For what would be their final studio album, Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn, the duo turned in a near carbon copy of their previous releases from this decade.  And in what appears to be a split-down-the-middle approach, Ronnie Dunn dominates the first half of the disc with both his lead vocals taking on the first five songs as well as them coming from his own pen.  Kix Brooks gets his chance to shine on the second half.  And while both members turn in a few solid performances to winning lyrics, they seem to have either went out of their way to separate their contributions, or were just getting sloppy at this point, and stacked Ronnie’s studio performances next to Kix’s to make the disc’s eventual song order.  I’d think it was a bit of both, but more of the latter.

For his half, Ronnie Dunn would obviously account for the singles.  Kix had become a full-time sideman by this point, having not sang lead on a Brooks & Dunn single since 1999.  The title track kicks off the disc, written by Ronnie with Paul Nelson and Larry Boone.  It’s another declaration of affection for the small town life, only this time it’s a ‘cowboy town’ though sentiments like ‘sweat of our brow’ and wearing your boots to church have been used to describe more than the ranching lifestyle lately, so the lyric is a bit generalized.   The same writing team also gave us ‘Johnny Cash Junkie (Buck Owens Freak)’, which finds Dunn singing the praises of his heroes.  The lead single, ‘Proud of the House We Built’, a mid-tempo Marv Green and Ronnie Dunn composition.  This testament to the power of lasting love sailed to a #4 peak on the Country Singles chart.

Citing Reba McEntire as the inspiration behind ‘Cowgirls Don’t Cry’, the pair performed the song on the 2008 CMA Awards show with Reba, before adding her to the single version, and crediting the song on the charts to Brooks & Dunn with Reba McEntire. Peaking at #2 on the charts, it became the second top 10 pairing of the two acts.  The concept of a tough cowgirl, set to a three-act country story song, is akin to ‘Does The Wind Still Blow In Oklahoma’, which Ronnie Dunn wrote with Reba for her 2007 Duets project.  I’ve always said I don’t think McEntire added much to the single, but the more I listen to it (thanks, radio), the more I understand and appreciate her contribution.

The rocked up ‘Put A Girl In It’ was third to radio, and it’s a tribute to the duo’s hits of the past if nothing else.  One of few outside written songs, this one was penned by one time ’90s hit-maker Rhett Atkins with Ben Hayslip and Dallas Davidson. Complete with rodeo-style yells from Ronnie, it fits in neatly with their similar-sounding hits and works just as well in concert with their mega-size inflatable cowgirls.  It went to #3 on the charts.  So ends the Ronnie Dunn-styled half of Cowboy Town, though he still has a few more vocal performances to give before the disc ends.

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Album Review: Brooks & Dunn – ‘If You See Her’

Brooks & Dunn spent 1997 on tour together with Reba McEntire as co-headliners.  One night Reba would open for Brooks & Dunn and the next night they’d switch.  At the end of that tour, Reba and Ronnie Dunn would perform ‘You Don’t Know Me’ as a duet before being joined onstage by Kix Brooks for a song I think was called ‘Cotton Fields’.  But Reba and Ronnie’s take on the Cindy Walker classic was really the highlight of the evening. Between them, they possess two of the finest voices in modern country music.  But that 1997 tour was supposed to be a one time deal, and besides, Ronnie Dunn already had a duet partner at the time.

In early 1998, both acts were working on new albums.  Reba and Kix Brooks both heard a song called ‘If You See Him’ (or maybe it was called ‘If You See Her’ and Reba intended to change the lyric – that part I don’t know) and put it on hold, unbeknownst to each other.  When they found out what happened, they decided to do the song a duet between the two acts, becoming a sort of trio at the end.  Recording that duet set the wheels in motion for another national tour pairing between the redhead and the pair of cowpokes, plus it set the stage for a really innovative cross-label promotion of the albums that would contain the song, now titled ‘If You See Him, If You See Her’.  I’ve always been impressed with the album-counterpart idea, and given the success both acts had I’m surprised the idea hasn’t been repeated.

I’m not sure a duo had ever taken on another star pairing for a single release in country music’s history, but Brooks & Dunn did just that with the release of the single. Likewise, both albums were released on the same day.  Reba would call hers If You See Him and the duo’s would be billed If You See Her.  They both hit stores June 2, 1998.  The Brooks & Dunn disc would bow at a #4 peak on the Country Albums chart and eventually sell two million copies – on the strength of three chart-topping singles and a fourth top 5.  A fifth single release would fail to crack the top 40 – the first of their career – and so far the only release – to do so.

After the chart-topping title track, the mid-tempo ‘How Long Gone’ was sent to radio. Melodic and melancholy, it continued the style the pair had set for themselves, and sailed to the #1 spot as well.  A cover of Roger Miller’s country and pop hit from 1966, ‘Husbands and Wives’ was the third consecutive #1 from the set.  This tune finds the narrator observing the number of marriages breaking up, and finally concludes, ‘It’s my belief, pride if the chief cause/In the decline of husbands and wives‘.  The mournful waltz seemed tailor made for Dunn’s smooth tenor.

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