My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Phil O’Donnell

Album Review: David Lee Murphy – ‘No Zip Code’

Mid-1990s hitmaker David Lee Murphy has finally shifted his attention back to his own music after a decade and a half focused on writing major hits for the likes of Kenny Chesney and Thompson Square. He produced No Zip Code, his first album since 2004, alongside Chesney and Buddy Cannon.

To ensure his comeback at radio, “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” a duet with Chesney, was issued as the album’s lead single. The track’s breezy escapism was cotton candy to radio programmers, who helped push the song to #1. I quite like it, although it is light, and a bit too processed. It won the pair Musical Event of the Year at the recent CMA Awards, giving Murphy his first nomination and win. They were also due to perform the song on the telecast, but a death in the family caused Chesney to have to miss the ceremony.

The album’s second single “I Won’t Be Sorry” is classic Murphy, recalling hits like “Every Time I Get Around You.” Unsurprisingly, the song is dressed for the modern era, with a blaze of electric guitars blending together to create a wall of noise that distracts from the defiant lyric.

“Way Gone” is a step in the right direction, taking the listener back to the days when the female protagonist in a song was more than an object of desire. In this case, she’s on the run, leaving her no-good man in a cloud of dust. The driving arrangement, while hideous, does give the track an adrenaline rush in keeping with the overall theme.

The title track is a pleasant ode to life so far out in the country the spot isn’t detectable on a map. The story has its appeal, but the overall mix leaves much to be desired. The cranked up loudness, do to compression of natural dynamics, gives the track an overall loudness that is unforgivable and unnecessary. But I do like the story and feel the song would benefit greatly from a softer arrangement.

When I was looking over the tracklist in preparation for writing this review, “As The Crow Flies” jumped out at me. Murphy co-wrote the song with Dean Dillon, Jamey Johnson, and Phil O’Donnell, and with that pedigree, it had better rise above the rest of the album. I’m sad to say, it doesn’t. The lyric, about a guy determined to follow his woman wherever she goes, is pedestrian and the overall mixing ensures the only thing the listener will focus on is the noise level of the song.

“Winnebago,” which Murphy wrote solo, is a left-over bro-country relic with all the usual tropes. “Haywire,” “Get Go,” and “That’s Alright” are just more heavily compressed uptempo rockers. “Voice of Reason” is much better, with a pleasing melody, that could’ve benefited greatly from a softer more acoustic arrangement. “Waylon and Willie (and a Bottle of Jack)” isn’t as good as its title suggests, unfortunately.

I’ve been a fan of Murphy’s since the beginning, so I was expecting great things from No Zip Code. Sure, I figured a number of the tracks would make concessions for modern commercial country, but I wasn’t expecting the whole album to have been ruined by cranked up loudness and compressed dynamics. There are some listenable songs throughout, but mostly this album is a throw-away missed opportunity. Murphy, and his longtime fans, deserve better than what’s presented here.

Grade: C-

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Album Review: Chalee Tennison – ‘Parading In The Rain’

Chalee’s tenure with Asylum having come to an end, another label decided to give her a chance, and she moved to James Stroud’s Dreamworks. Artistically, it resulted in her finest work, largely inspired by her own most recent divorce; but commercially it was a disaster.

The lead single, ‘Lonesome Road’, was the only single to chart, and t peaked at #54. Written by Bryan Simpson, Ashley Gorley and Melissa Peirce, it has a Celtic country-rock feel, and is an energetically delivered song about surviving against the odds.

Chalee didn’t write her next single, Phillip and Amber Leigh White did, but it feels like a very personal one. ‘Easy Lovin’ You’ is a tender ballad addressed to her daughter, recalling the difficulties and sacrifices of teenage motherhood, and the rewards:

The best thing that I ever did
At the time was my worst mistake
17 and just a kid
I was 17 when I threw my childhood away
For a hazel eyed quarterback

Senior year and 8 months pregnant
I never felt so fat
Wishin’ I could go to prom
But they don’t make dresses for girls like that…

Looking back it was hard lovin’ me
But it’s easy lovin’ you

Chalee’s eldest daughter Tiffany provides harmony vocals on this deeply moving track, which regrettably failed to chart.

The last attempt at a single was the album’s title track, written by Kris Bergsnes and Bobby Pinson. It is an upbeat tune with an optimistic lyric about positivity and making the most of a situation. The lyric is a bit bland, but Chalee’s delivery is infectious on a song I could imagine as a hit for an artist like Jo Dee Messina.

Chalee co-wrote three songs on the record. ‘I Am Love’ (written with Kendall Marvel and Phil O’Donnell) is quite good. ‘Believe’, written with Kelly Garrett, is pleasant and optimistic, if a little clichéd and rather poppy. By far the best of Chalee’s songs is ‘The Mind Of This Woman’, a co-write with Dean Dillon. This is an excellent closely observed depiction of a woman stuck in an unsatisfactory life.

‘I Am Pretty’, written by Buffy Lawson and Eric Pittarelli, is a sensitive story song about a woman rediscovering her dignity and making the decision to leave an abusive husband. It is one of the strongest tracks on the record.

‘Cheater’s Road’, written by Jason Sellers and Sharon Rice, is another story song, about a rich man’s neglected wife finding passion in an extra-marital affair:

She’d rather have him than an empty bed and her self-respect

‘Me And Mexico’, written by Mark Narmore and Liz Rose, is an up-tempo song about adapting well to a breakup by going on vacation. ‘More To This Than That’, written by Gary Burr and Carolyn Dawn Johnson, is a fine ballad about the a couple dividing up their possessions as they split. The record closes with Leslie Satcher’s ‘Peace’, a thoughtful song about people in desperate need of God.

This album is definitely on the contemporary side of modern country, but it is very well performed. It’s a shame it did not do better, as it seems to have had commercial potential.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Something’s Going On’

It looks as if Trace Adkins’ mainstream career is over, with his recent move from Show Dog Universal to Wheelhouse Records (a Broken Bow imprint). One never knows quite what to expect from Trace, and the music here covers the spectrum.

The first couple of singles for the label flopped, and deservedly so, as they are not very good. The first of these, ‘Jesus And Jones’, was almost a hit, peaking at #41. The song itself is actually solid, with its acceptance of maturity as a hellraiser torn between drinking and church realizes he needs to find a balance, but the production throws in too many bells and whistles aimed at contemporary “country” radio, and ends up muffling the song’s strengths.

‘Lit’, which failed to chart, is plain terrible, with cliché’d lyrics typical of Trace’s worst work, non-existent melody and loud, loud production with intrusive elements. It was cowritten by the album’s producer Mickey Jack Cones, perhaps no coincidence. ‘Country Boy Problems’ is awful in all the same ways lyrically and melodically, with a bit of cynical banjo thrown in. Opener ‘Ain’t Just The Whiskey Talkin’’ isn’t quite as bad, but is still cliché’d and too loud/cluttered.

Thankfully, his latest single (reviewed here by Razor X) is infinitely better. The song, written by Matt Jenkins, Trevor Rosen and Shane McAnally, is set to a gentle, attractive melody. Trace’s deep, warm voice is perfect for the song’s quiet reflection, and is well served by the understated production – the only song on the album for which this holds true. This is Trace Adkins at his best.

There are some other good songs here, despite the bombastic production. ‘Still A Soldier’, written by Phil O’Donnell and Wade Kirby, is a sympathetic portrait of a veteran who still bleeds red, white and blue despite his retirement to suburban civilian life; this is only a little over-produced. ‘Whippoorwills And Freight Trains’, another O’Donnell co-write, is a good mid-paced song about getting past a spell of loneliness. Trace gets to exercise the very lowest parts of his deep bass-baritone voice at the end of the song; but the production is too busy, and the song would be more effective with a more stripped down or traditional country production.

Two themes dominate the album, both adult in different ways. One is that of maturity; the other is a leaning to rather sexy songs. The best of the latter is the title track, which has a seductive melody and vocal, although it isn’t all that country. ‘I’m Gone’, written by Craig Campbell and Max T Barnes , isn’t too bad. ‘If Only You Were Lonely’ is muffled by the production. ‘Gonna Make You Miss Me’ is far too busy with irritating electronic intrusions. Both would be much better with different production choices.

The album closes with ‘Hang’, a pleasant if not ground-breaking tune about quiet downtime in the countryside which Trace’s vocal renders likeable despite busy production.

Next time around, Trace needs to ditch this producer and play to his strengths. This project is disappointing, especially given the long wait.

Grade: C+

Album Review: Mo Pitney – ‘Behind This Guitar’

behind-this-guitar23 year old Mo Pitney from Illinois is chasing on the heels of William Michael Morgan as the latest neotraditional country singer to make a mainstream bid for success. (In a bizarre coincidence, they share a name – Mo is short for Morgan). Mo’s singles haven’t achieved the same level of success as that of his contemporary, but he has been building up some grassroots support as he issues his debut album, produced by veteran Tony Brown. Mo is a talented songwriter as well as a fine singer, and cowrote most of the songs here.

I was pleasantly surprised by the lead single ‘Country’ over 18 months ago, and still enjoy its relaxed feel. The second single ‘Boy And A Girl Thing’ is also very pleasant sounding, augmented by harmonies from Lee Ann Womack; as Razor X noted in his review, it has strong echoes of late George Strait to it. Sadly, neither single (both Pitney co-writes) reached the top 40 on the Billboard country chart. Both follow fairly well travelled ground lyrically, and although unambitious, Mo’s vocals and the gentle country arrangements make them worth hearing. Current single ‘Everywhere’ has a fuller, more contemporary sound, but isn’t terribly interesting, even though it is a cowrite with the great Dean Dillon.

Dillon also co-wrote ‘Take The Chance’, which has a very pretty melody and arrangement, and grows on repeated listens.

One of the album’s highlights is the deeply affecting ‘Just A Dog’ (written with Jimmy Melton And Dave Turnbull). It is the story of a stray dog who becomes the protagonist’s best friend. Another favorite is ‘I Met Merle Haggard Today’. Unlike some Haggard tributes, this one makes a (successful) effort to sound like the man himself, with the song structured like some of Haggard’s conversational style numbers, and Mo’s vocal echoing Hag’s stylings. It relates a real life meeting with Mo’s hero in 2013.

The excellent ‘Cleanup On Aisle Five’ (written by Mo with Wil Nance) has a nicely detailed story of a chance encounter with an ex in the supermarket leading to a man’s emotional breakdown:

If I wasn’t standing in that store I might have laid right on that floor and cried

‘Come Do A Little Life’ is a nice mid-tempo everyday love song (written with Nance and Byron Hill); ‘When I’m With You’, written with David Lee Murphy, is along the same lines. ‘Love Her Like I Lost Her’ is a strong song about realising the fragility of life and importance of love, which Mo wrote with bluegrass songwriter Dennis Duff.

Mo has a very strong religious faith, and includes the understated contemporary Christian ‘Give Me Jesus, set to a very stripped down acoustic arrangement. This (written by Fernando Ortega) is one of only two songs Mo did not help to write. The other, oddly enough, is the title track, which was written by Casey Beathard, Don Sampson and Phil O’Donnell, despite sounding as if it must be autobiographical. It’s a charming folky song about being a musician:

Behind this guitar is just a boy who had a dream in his heart
Behind this guitar is just a guy who can’t believe he got this far

Well, I’ve always said that I’ve been blessed
Why me is anybody’s guess
Well, I don’t know
But I’m well aware the man upstairs could have answered any other’s prayers
And let mine go
But thanks to Him, my family, friends, and those that got me where I am
(You know who you are)
And with that in mind the truth is I’m not the only one
Behind this guitar

This is a very promising debut, perhaps a little more traditional and less commercial than that of William Michael Morgan. I do hope that both young men do well in their careers.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Craig Morgan – ‘This Ole Boy’

91fn7FvtfDL._SX522_Craig Morgan took a four-year hiatus from recording after leaving BNA Records. He re-emerged in 2012 via Black River Entertainment with This Ole Boy. In theory, signing with an indie label would give him more independence to record the kind of music he wanted. In practice, however, there is nothing to really distinguish the album from what the major labels were putting out.

As with his last few releases, Morgan shared production duties with Phil O’Donnell. Morgan co-wrote half of the album’s songs. This Ole Boy spawned three singles, the most successful of which was the title track which peaked at # 13. “Corn Star” reached #50, which is far more than it deserved, and “More Trucks Than Cars” topped out at #38. The album itself reached #5 on the albums chart.

In a nutshell, with one or two exceptions, This Ole Boy is a collection of songs that range from bad to mediocre. There is only two tracks that I truly enjoyed: the Monty Criswell/Tim Mensy composition “Country Boys Like Me” and the closing number “Summer Moon”, a Morgan co-write with Chris Wallin. The rest of the album falls into the trap of trying to offer something for everyone, a type of approach that usually leaves all unsatisfied. “This Ole Boy” is a not bad, faced paced number that had previously been recorded by Joe Nichols. “More Trucks Than Cars” is a cliche-ridden laundry list of buzzwords that are typically associated with southern living — lazy songwriting at it worst. I can’t decide which of the two bro-country numbers is worse: “Corn Star” or “Show Me Your Tattoo”, but currently I am leaning towards the former. Morgan is a decent vocalist whose talent is wasted on garbage songs like those, and it’s particularly difficult to forgive these kinds of transgressions from more mature artists who surely ought to know better.

“The Whole World Needs a Kitchen” is not a bad song, but it lacks originality. The theme reminds me of Tracy Lawrence’s “If the World Had a Front Porch”, which was a much better song. “I Didn’t Drink” is an interesting number and one of the few moments of originality on the album: a man walks into a bar to drown his sorrows following a bad break-up but doesn’t know what to order because he is a teetotaler. It’s an interesting concept, but it doesn’t quite work — mainly because it’s performed as a pop-tinged power ballad. This kind of theme needs a more traditional treatment.

With only two really good songs, I can’t really recommend this album. It’s available for streaming on Amazon Music, and presumably other streaming services as well for those who want to give it a listen before buying.

Grade: C

Album Review: Craig Morgan – ‘That’s Why’

thats whyReleased in October 2008, That’s Why continued Craig Morgan’s recent run of success, reaching #8 on Billboard’s country albums chart. Released on BNA, Craig’s first and only album for the label, That’s Why would see four singles released with varying success.

Morgan co-produced the album with Phil O’Donnell and together they wrote the lead-off single (and first track on the album), “Love Remembers”, which became Morgan’s sixth top ten hit in November 2008. The song is a ballad but with somewhat noisy guitars but with the requisite steel and fiddle to qualify this as a country song. Morgan gives a strong but somewhat overwrought reading to the song.

You can forget what love was wearing
When it walked out your front door
Where you fell down to your knees
And you can forget the kind of suitcase
That was packed out on the sidewalk
While you cried there beggin’ please
But love remembers

You can lie and tell yourself
You’re over it and someone else will take love’s place
And this is for the best
You can lie in that bed
In a stranger’s arms reachin’ for comfort
Close your eyes and still get no rest

Cause love remembers
The smell of a summer day
Lying in a hammock over fresh cut grass
And the promise of forever
Yeah love remembers
The sound of the pouring rain
Beatin’ down on the top of a car
On the side of the road
Where it couldn’t wait
Yeah love remembers

Craig Morgan would have a hand in writing six of the tracks on this album, five of them in conjunction with Phil O’ Donnell.

The next song up is “Bonfire”, a very noisy up-tempo with rock guitar accompaniment. The song describes a summer party around a bonfire. The first verse is about the partiers and the second verse tells of an incident in which a police officer arrives to break up the gathering, but decides instead to participate. This was the third single from the album and reached #4. Morgan wrote the song with Kevin Denney, Tom Botkin and Mike Rogers.

At this point I should mention that this album went through several different releases. “Bonfire” was NOT on the first release of the album, replaced by “Summer Sundown”. Listeners who picked up the album upon its initial release will also notice that the songs are sequenced somewhat differently than I am describing. Cracker Barrel Restaurants released a version of the album with three bonus tracks including “Summer Sundown” and the previously unreleased “You” and “Evel Knievel”.

Kerry Kurt Phillips, Chris DuBois wrote the stoic “This Ain’t Nothing”, in which a newspaper reporter interviews an old man about a tornado that destroyed his house. The old man tells of the real losses in his life – his father, his brother, a good friend and his left hand during a battle in Vietnam, and his wife of fifty years – and explains that losing the house is nothing because unlike the other losses in his life, the house can be replaced. This song was released as the fourth single in 2010 and reached #13 country airplay / #83 pop. I think it is the best song on the album. I should note that this song was not on the CD release of the album, which featured a much juvenile song in “Every Red Light”.

“And last year, I watched my lovin’ wife
` Of fifty years waste away and die
And I held her hand ’til her heart of gold stopped pumpin’
So, this ain’t nothin'”

He said, “I learned at an early age
There’s things that matter, and there’s things that don’t
So if you’re waitin’ here for me to cry
I hate to disappoint you boy, but I won’t”

Then he reached down in the rubble and picked up a photograph
Wiped the dirt off of it with the hand that he still had
He put it to his lips and he said, “Man she was somethin’
But, this ain’t nothin'”

Dave Turnbull joins Morgan & O’Donnell as co-writers of the title track “That’s Why” an uplifting mid-tempo ballad that should have been released as a single.

My alarm goes off early,
Can’t afford to be late.
If I don’t get a move on then I won’t get paid.
So I throw back those covers and get my butt out of bed.
It’s still dark when im leavin’ so I let my lady sleep.
I know her and them babies are countin on me
To put food on the table and keep this roof over our head.

Prior to this album, most of Craig’s hits had been up-tempo numbers (such as “Redneck Yacht Club” and “I Got You”) but most of this album is taken at slower tempos. The last track on my copy of album is the gospel-tinged “Ordinary Angels”, complete with a choir. It is a very nice song, one that could easily be true to life for military veteran Craig Morgan.

It could be a waitress at coffee shop you never saw before
A soldier that’s just coming home from fighting in the war
We all got a little superman ready to take a fly
And save a life, oh save a life
Take a look around and you’ll see ordinary angels

It could be someone walking down the street
A stranger on a bus
A little kid on his way to school or any one of us
We all got a little superman ready to take a fly
And save a life, oh save a life
Take a look around and you’ll see ordinary angels

Unfortunately everything else on the album strikes me as filler, although someone at the label thought that track five, “God Must Really Love Me”, would make a good second single. It reached #26 breaking Craig’s string of seven consecutive top twelve hits.

“Sticks”, for example, reminds me of Craig’s 2007 top ten hit “International Harvester”, but it is not as good. The rest is just nondescript filler, neither terrible nor terribly interesting.

That’s Why is a decent album, particularly in the reissued versions. Still, this would be the last Craig Morgan album I would purchase, since it seemed that the promise of the first album was being wasted with pop-country production slathered upon it. I feel that Craig would make a really good traditional country artist. As a modern pop-country artist, Craig Morgan is just another good artist. Perhaps when he has given up on chart success, an album worthy of his debut album will emerge.

C+

Below is the track listing of the version of the album I reviewed:

01. Love Remembers – writers: Craig Morgan, Phil O’Donnell
02. Bonfire – writers; Morgan, Kevin Denney, Mike Rogers, Tom Botkin
03. This Ain’t Nothin’ – writers; Kerry Kurt Phillips, Chris DuBois
04. That’s Why – writers: Morgan, O’Donnell, David Turnbull
05. God Must Really Love Me: -writers Jim Collins, Troy Verges
06. Lookin’ Back with You – writers: James, Morgan, O’Donnell
07. Sticks – writers: Galen Griffin, Gary Hannan, Morgan, O’Donnell
08. It Took a Woman – writers: Jimmy Melton, Turnbull
09. Planet Her – writers: Kirby, Morgan, O’Donnell
10. Ordinary Angels – writers: Angelo Petraglia, S. Olsen, R. Supa

Album Review: Craig Morgan – ‘Little Bit Of Life’

little bit of lifeCraig’s third and final album for Broken Bow was released in 2006. He co-produced the record with the always reliable Keith Stegall, and it sounds solid throughout, but suffers from relatively weak material.

The rapid paced rather generic title track about country living was the first, and most successful, single, reaching #7. ‘Tough’ just missed the top 10, peaking at #11. A tender ballad paying tribute to a hard working wife and mother, it was written by Monty Criswell and Joe Leathers, and is nicely sung. The effervescent ‘International Harvester’ (about a tractor driving farmer happy to block the roads for other motorists) got Craig back into the top 10. It got some critical attention online at the time, but I always liked it. There is a genuine charm about Craig’s delivery.

Craig co-wrote four songs this time around. ‘I Am’ and ‘My Kind Of Woman’ are rather bland filler. The rapid paced and not very melodic ‘I Guess You Had To Be There’ is a bit silly, with Craig sounding like Joe Diffie at his novelty worst. ‘The Song’ is a pleasant sounding but not terribly interesting semi-story song about the power of a record to touch people’s lives.

Morgan’s friend and frequent cowriter, Phil O’Donnell, also wrote ‘Nothin’ Goin’ Wrong Around Here’ with Buddy Owens and Gary Hannan; once more this sounds decent but is lyrically dull. Much the same goes for ‘Sweet Old Fashioned Goodness’, written by Michael White, Carson Chamberlain, and Lee Thomas Miller.

Much better than any of these is ‘The Ballad Of Mr Jenkins’ a tearjerker of a story song written by D Vincent Williams and Steve Mandile. Williams also co-wrote the album closer, ‘Look At ‘Em Fly’, with Jim Femino; this is a nice little song about noticing the little things.

The songs are limited lyrically, but this is a recognisably country sounding record, which is always a plus.

Grade: C+

Album Review: Craig Morgan – ‘My Kind of Livin”

unnamed2005’s My Kind of Livin’ stands as Craig Morgan’s most successful album to date. His second release for Broken Bow, it remains his only album to be certified gold and features his biggest charting singles.

Morgan’s previous album established him as a syrupy balladeer of emotional story songs. He gained moderate traction with hits like “Almost Home” and “Every Friday Afternoon,” but he still hadn’t found his footing. That changed when “That’s What I Love About Sunday” hit radio in November 2004. The warm ballad, with ribbons of dobro and a pure bright melody, skyrocketed to #1. The track held the top spot for four consecutive weeks, went on to become Billboard’s number-one song on the year-end country chart and gave Broken Bow their first multi-week chart topper. I quite like the song, which manages to maintain a spiritual bent while celebrating the Sabbath without overwrought clichés.

I adore the album’s second single, the infectious banjo, fiddle and steel guitar-heavy “Redneck Yacht Club.” The song foreshadows bro-country with themes of summertime, partying and scantly glad women but it mostly focuses on the fun (and innocence) of being out on the lake with your friends and doesn’t even hint at hookups, sex or gender objectification. Listening in to it again for the first time in many years, I’d almost forgotten that a song this country was able to score major radio airplay just a few short years ago. I’m not suggesting “Redneck Yacht Club” is even close to the greatest song ever written, but it illustrates what summertime country music should aspire to sound like. It makes me sick how far we we’ve devolved in the decade since and even more perplexed as to why we even had to change so much in the first place (I’d add Blake Shelton’s “Some Beach,” co-written by Rory Feek, to this conversation, as well).

Morgan co-wrote the album’s third and final single while on tour with Keith Urban with the hopes he would put it on his next project. After cutting the demo, he felt “I Got You” fit his own style and decided to keep it for himself. The song is a somewhat unremarkable uptempo love song that Morgan saves with his sincere vocal and arrangement that borderlines muscular, but saves enough breathing room for the steel guitar to nicely shine through. Those benefits weren’t enough for the song to gain traction, though, and it stalled at #12.

Morgan also had a hand in co-writing six more of the album’s tracks. The album’s title comes from “I’m Country,” a mid-tempo laundry list of southern clichés that has traditional elements but little else by way of appeal. “Ain’t The Way I Wanna Go Out” explores cheating, a scorned husband and murder with cluttered production values that grate on the listener.

“Rain For The Roses” is a workingman’s anthem about The Roses, a farming couple in a southern town. I would’ve enjoyed it more without the title’s cutesy play-on-words and Morgan’s insistence of turning the chorus into a power ballad. “That’s When I’ll Believe That You’re Gone,” returns Morgan to the syrupy emotional ballads from his previous set, with mixed results. The production is good, but the lyric is too middle-of-the-road to reach maximum emotional complexity.

“If You Like That” is reminiscent of turn-of-the-century Mark Chesnutt and is one of the better songs amongst his co-writes. I love the simple arrangement and heartfelt lyric. Morgan’s final co-write “Blame Me” is a terrible duet with John Conlee and Brad Paisley that joins “I’m Country” in wasting space with uninspired southern signifiers.

“Lotta Man (In That Little Boy)” gives a lot away by its title and offers little more as a song. The ballad just isn’t as compelling as it could be with a story that settles for predictable rather than surprising. “Cowboy and Clown” centers around friendship on the rodeo circuit and despite a stupid title is a slightly above average song. The album’s final number, “In My Neighborhood” is nothing more than a ‘where I’m from’ type of song.

My Kind of Livin’ mostly gets the sonic overtones right. I have to give Morgan and his co-producer Phil O’Donnell credit for sticking with production values that lean heavy on actual country instrumentation. That’s unfortunately all for not since they got the music wrong. Besides the three singles, there’s hardly anything here worth salvaging. My Kind of Livin’ isn’t an embarrassingly bad album, it’s just wrought with clichés and tries too hard to play up the southern themes it panders to. This is squarely mid-2000s country lacking in imagination and originality. Check it out if you want to, I always recommend people come to their own conclusions, but it did little for me.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Easton Corbin -‘About To Get Real’

about to get realRather optimistically heralded as a new George Strait on his debut in 2009, my enthusaism for Easto Corbin has somewhat waned since his run of gold-selling singles. I always felt that while he had potential, his material was not quite good enough for that smooth voice and Carson Chamberlain’s steel-laden production. I am sorry to say that his long-delayed third album was not worth waiting for. Chamberlain has modernised the sound a little, but that’s not the main problem. The real disappointment of this album is that the songs are all so lackluster and forgettable, with just a few exceptions.

The pleasant sounding but forgettable lead single ‘Clockwork’ performed unimpressively last year, not quite reaching the top30. The song isn’t bad apart from the unnecessary and irritating repetition of the word ‘girl’, but Corbin’s vocal lacks force or emotion. He just doesn’t sound as if he really cares about the emotional trap of a repeat pattern his character has fallen into.

It is one of five songs co-written by producer Chamberlain. ‘Kiss Me One More Time’ (by Chamberlain, Wade Kirby and Phil O’Donnell) is just okay. The remaining three Chamberlain songs include Corbin as a co-writer. I enjoyed the bouncy ‘Diggin’ On You’ even though it is pure fluff. ‘Damn, Girl’ suffers from rather too facile rhymes but isn’t too bad. The best of these collaborations, however, is the best song on the album. ‘Like A Song’, written by the pair with Stephen Allen Davis, is a beautiful ballad which shows just how good Corbin could be given worthwhile material.

Current single ‘Baby Be My Love Song, written by Brett James and Jim Collins, is a poorly written boring love song relying on bro-country clichés and a busy production, but it seems to be more palatable to country radio than its predecessor, and made it into the top 10.

‘Are You With Me’ from his last album was subjected to an unspeakably horrible dance remix last year and the result was a hit single in France and Belgium, and perhaps because of that he has recut the song straight here. The reclaimed version is quite a pretty sounding mellow ballad which Easton sings with a genuine warmth, and which is one of the few songs I like on this album. It was written by Shane MacAnally, Tommy Lee James and Terry McBride.

The enjoyable ‘Wild Women and Whiskey’ written by McBride with Ronnie Dunn is a pretty good song which sounds like a Brooks & Dunn offcut, while sunny beach tune ‘Just Add Water’ would fit perfectly on a Kenny Chesney record.

The title track, written by Jeremy Stover, Ben Hayslip and Rhett Akins is, while mellow and melodic, bland and forgettable, while ‘Guys And Girls’ lacks both melody and lyrical depth and ‘Yup’ is both boring and cliche’d.

This record is not offensive to listen to – it’s just rather bland and wanting lyrically, with just a few bright spots.

Grade: C+

Album Review: George Strait – ‘Love Is Everything’

love is everythingNow 61, George Strait may be giving up touring next year, but he still seems to be keen on continuing his recording career. As with everything he has done in the past decade, he has co-produced his latest album with Tony Brown, and there are no indications he is running out of steam. The pair know just what works for Strait and his fans, and while there are no real surprises here, it’s an accomplished record which will be well received by the fans.

Lead single ‘Give It All We Got Tonight’ is a rather dull and generic song with irritatingly tinny echoes in the production, written by Mark Bright, Phil O’Donnell and Tim James. It sounds exactly like an attempt at getting some radio attention. Luckily it’s done the job, giving George his 60th chart-topper; better still, it’s the only dud.

The outstanding song is ‘Blue Melodies’, a sad slow song written by Keith Gattis and one Wyatt Earp (yes, really). Loaded with steel guitar and fiddle, this is classic country heartbreak as a songwriter struggles to find the right words to convey his feelings. His sweetheart loves the sad songs, but he admits this will end up “a sad song, that’s too sad to sing” if she isn’t persuaded to return. His years of experience stand him in good stead here, as the phrasing is impeccable. This is absolutely lovely.

Gattis also contributed another pair of songs to the album. The engaging story song ‘I Got A Car’, written with Tom Douglas, narrates a romance from roadside pickup to starting a family together, and is quite charming, although the production gets a little busy towards the end. It would probably work as a single. ‘Sittin’ On The Fence’, a co-write with Roger Creager, is another good song. It is about a man undecided whether to make the move to save a relationship (even though he knows he’d be a “damn fool to let her go”).

Also very good, ‘You Don’t Know What You’re Missing’, written by Chris Stapleton and Al Anderson, reports a bar room conversation comparing one man’s complaints about mundane problems in his family life, to his drinking companion’s real heartaches. ‘I Thought I Heard My Heart Sing’ (by Bill Kenner and L Russell Brown) is an enjoyably bouncy number about the euphoria of falling in love which has a delightfully retro feel.

In the warmhearted ‘When Love Comes Around Again’, penned by Monty Holmes, Donny Kees and Jeff Silvey, Strait offers an older man’s hard-won experience of recovering from a broken heart to find new love, to counsel a younger friend going through it all for the first time. This might be another good single. The title track (written by Casey Beathard and Pat McLaughlin) is a little bland lyrically, but the laidback vocal and generous emotion work well.

‘I Just Can’t Go On Dying Like This’ is a rare solo composition by Strait, and is an impressive sad country ballad. It is an older song which was one of the artist’s first, pre-fame, singles back in 1976, and was also recorded as a bonus on the Strait Out Of The Box box set. The latest version is significantly different from its predecessors, completely reinventing it by slowed down from a honky tonker into a mature ballad which is very fine indeed. He was joined by son Bubba to write ‘That’s What Breaking Hearts Do’, which is a decent song but the vocal feels a bit perfunctory. Father and son teamed up with old friend Dean Dillon for two further songs. ‘The Night Is Young’, a cheerfully delivered invitation to a wife for a long night out (and in), and is quite good, featuring horns.

The more serious ‘I Believe’ is a sensitive, strings-swathed, response to the tragic events at Newtown, Connecticut, last year, capturing the sadness felt across the world at such a horrific incident.

The album closes with the valedictory ‘When The Credits Roll’, written by Randy Montana, Steve Bogard and Kyle Jacobs. I don’t know how much longer Strait plans to continue recording, but this feels intended to evoke images of his life and career as the latter comes to an end. However, it doesn’t quite convince, because George has never really come across as the rebel presented in the lyrics, and the production is a bit cluttered.

This isn’t Strait’s best ever record – that would be quite an achievement – but it’s solid fare with plenty of good songs and one outstanding one. It’s the best mainstream record I’ve heard in a while.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Joey + Rory – ‘His And Hers’

For Joey + Rory’s third studio album, they have stayed with producer Gary Paczosa, who helmed last year’s charming Christmas album. As with that Christmas record, Paczosa does a good job, but not quite as sparking a sound as that given to their first two albums by Carl Jackson. Joey’s voice is what sets this duo apart, and it was a little disappointing that this time around she and Rory have split the lead vocals equally (hence the choice of title). I can appreciate they want to underline the point that this is an equal partnership professionally as in life, but while Rory’s voice is perfectly listenable and he shows fine interpretative skills here, Joey is one of the best female vocalists around at the moment. Another slight disappointment was that the delightful ‘Headache’, released as a single last year, didn’t make the final cut.

I have already written about the somber lead single, the stunning ‘When I’m Gone’, and this impresses me more each time I hear it. There are two other really outstanding songs here, both written by Rory with the impressive Erin Enderlin.

The title track tells the story of a couple slowly growing apart, lyrically very similar to the song of the same title recorded some years ago by John Anderson, but the sweet melody and Joey’s subtle vocal set this apart:

All a husband and wife
Have left of a life
That had such a beautiful start
Are two kids torn apart
And two broken hearts
His and hers

Also excellent, ‘Waiting For Someone’ has a woman who meets the perfect man while waiting in a bar for a blind date (perhaps). It seems in fact to be a more subtle ‘The Chair’ situation, as she winds up telling the man she has been talking to,
I was waiting for someone like you”.

A perfectly constructed lyric and delicate tune are interpreted beautifully by Joey’s sultry but vulnerable vocal.

The other songs on which Joey sings lead are pretty good if not quite up to that standard. Kent Blazy and Leslie Satcher’s ‘Let’s Pretend We Never Met’ is a swinging flirtatious number with a wife trying to jazz up her tired marriage, which is quite fun. ‘Love Your Man’ is a pacy and quite enjoyable song encouraging another married woman to persevere with loving her husband, which Joey helped Rory and his daughter Heidi to write. ‘He’s A Cowboy’ is a tribute to the titular cowboy, which doesn’t bring anything new to a wellworn theme, but is beautifully sung with Jon Randall Stewart on backing vocals.

In the compelling story song ‘Josephine’ (on of Rory’s own compositions), he voices the letters of a Civil War Confederate soldier separated from his wife, wracked by guilt over killing a young enemy soldier and anticipating his own death. This is excellent.

‘A Bible And A Belt’ was written by Rory with Philip Coleman and sounds autobiographical. I’m not a big fan of correlating religion and corporal punishment, so this one’s positive, nostalgic feel doesn’t quite work for me, but it is nicely put together with Rory’s finest vocal.

I really like ‘Teaching Me How To Love You’, which rich-voiced teenager Blaine Larsen (who was discovered by Rory) recorded back in 2005. I was disappointed and a little surprised he never broke through, but while Blaine’s version sounds better than Rory’s on a purely aural level, I couldn’t be convinced by the delivery from an 18 year old talking about all the life lessons taught by past loves, and Rory’s maturity makes it infinitely more believable.

The jazzy ‘Someday When I Grow Up’, written by Rory with Tonya Lynette Stout and Dan Demay has a father refusing to mature, and is quite amusing with an interesting instrumental arrangement, but has Rory’s least impressive vocal performance. A similarly slightly flawed but lovable man is the protagonist of a charming relaxed cover of Tom T Hall’s love song ‘Your Man Loves You, Honey’ ( a #4 hit for the singer-songwriter in 1974), and this is highly enjoyable in a Don Williams/Alan Jackson style.

‘Cryin’ Smile’ is a bit of a list song (written by the team of Phil O’Donnell, Gary Hannan and Ken Johnson), but Rory’s invested vocal lifts this song about those emotional and sometimes bittersweet moments in life.

As expected, this sounds good, but although there are a number of standout tracks, overall the material falls just a little short of their first two albums. But at its best, there are some great songs, and the duo remains one of my favourite acts in country music.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘Tougher Than Nails’

After the loss of his Monument deal, Joe signed to the indie label Broken Bow, for whom he released one album in 2004. He shared production duties with Lonnie Wilson and Buddy Cannon.

He was still a viable hit maker on country radio, even on a minor label, and the title track (a religious song) reached the top 20. Written by Phil O’Donnell, Max T Barnes and Kendell Marvel, it links a modern story (a little boy beaten up by bullies) to the example of Jesus. Perhaps not the most innovative of lyrics, but it is well done, as the father advises his boy against revenge:

Let me tell you a little story about the toughest man I know
Hit him and he just turned the other cheek
But don’t think for a minute he was weak
Cause in the end he showed them he was anything but frail
They hammered him to a cross
But He was tougher than nails

Later on the album, Joe takes the opposite message from a rather different role model in the tongue-in-cheek ‘What Would Waylon Do’, featuring a guest vocal from George Jones (doing his best Waylon impersonation). It was written by Leslie Satcher and Wynn Varble about the tribulations of being a touring musician, and was apparently initially inspired by an incident at a real Waylon Jennings concert when the promoter declined to pay him:

There’s blue cheese in the greenroom
What are we supposed to eat?
And the opening act’s a polka band
And they can’t keep a beat

Now the sheriff’s got the drug dogs
Tearing up our bus
We’re just hillbilly singers
I think he’s profiling us
And now he wants an autograph
And a free t-shirt or two
Well, what would Waylon do?

The second single, ‘If I Could Only Bring You Back’ (selected by the label owner and written by Frank Myers and Chip Davis) failed to make much of an impact. That was radio’s loss, as it was a beautifully interpreted, if rather sad and downbeat tale of bereavement, with understated string section. The protagonist declares he would be willing to give up all his worldly goods, if only the impossible could happen, but:

There’s no words I can say
Not a prayer I can pray
No road that you can take
Back to my arms

I would even take your place
If I could only bring you back

The December-set ‘This Time Last Year’, written by Giles Godard, Bobby Tomberlin and Robbie Wittkowski, has a similar feeling of loss. ‘Good News, Bad News’, written by Danny Wells and Chris Wallin, is even better, a sensitively delivered ballad about struggling with getting over lost love with nothing to look forward to but more of the same:

I’d unfeel the way I feel
If it would make you ungone
Gotta stop livin’ in the past
Look forward and not back
This getting used to go goin’ on without you
Is gonna take some time
The good news is tomorrow’s another day
But the bad news is tomorrow’s another day

Joe wrote five of the twelve tracks, including a rare solo composition, ‘Movin’ Train’, a song about an unsettling relationship which I can imagine bluegrass-style.

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Single Review: Darryl Worley – ‘Sounds Like Life To Me’

Darryl WorleyThere are those songs that just stick with you and gnaw at you sometimes. This is one of those songs for me. To be honest, I didn’t like it very much in the beginning, not so much because of the music or Worley’s interpretation, but because it just seemed so insensitive.

You probably know the story by now since the song recently entered the top 20 . A guy’s friend’s wife calls him up to tell him that his friend has fallen off the wagon and she doesn’t know what to do. The singer heads down to the local bar where, sure enough, there sits his friend drowning his sorrows. And he’s got a long list of sorrows – some of which are pretty serious.

From bills to pay, three kids and a wife, and a baby on the way to putting Mama in the nursing home, this friend has a lot on his plate. Instead of just nodding with understanding, though, and allowing him to vent, Worley’s character responds

Sounds like life to me, plain old destiny
Yeah, the only thing for certain is uncertainty
You gotta hold on tight, just enjoy the ride
Get used to all this unpredictability
Sounds like life

Man, I know it’s tough but you’ve gotta suck it up
To hear you talk, you’re caught up in some tragedy
Sounds like life to me

My initial reaction to the song mirrored that of the reaction of the friend. His face gets red and he disagrees and says, “You don’t understand.” Many of the reviews I’ve read on the song seem to side with the friend and think the song isn’t worth listening to because it’s insensitive.

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