My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Phil Spector

Album Review: Kenny Rogers and Dottie West – ‘Classics’

Male-female duets still exist today, although usually in the form of acts that always (or nearly always) perform as duets. Acts that normally perform as solo acts may combine for a song or two (“Special Events”), but rarely do they issue albums of duets

The album Classics, released in 1979, was the second (and final) album of duets released by the unlikely pairing of Kenny Rogers and Dottie West. Kenny, of course was a country & pop superstar but Dottie West was a veteran second-tier country artist, whose 1978 album with Kenny (Every Time Two Fools Collide) would trigger a brief renaissance on the United Artists/Liberty label.

I am not sure why this particular pairing came about, although I have some suspicions. United Artists was not a major player in country music and did not have a deep roster of female artists. Billie Jo Spears, arguably the leading female country singer on the label, did not have a voice that would blend well with Kenny’s voice.

The recently signed Dottie West, on the other hand, had a track record of being able to blend and harmonize with male singers. Her track record at RCA had included successful recordings with such diverse singers as Jim Reeves, Don Gibson and Jimmy Dean. Dottie’s first album and the second album, released on the heels of the first duet album, did not produce any top fifteen hits but the first duet album did produce a #1 and a #2 single.

That brings us to this album, a collection of some county songs, some borderline pop-country-easy listening songs and some pop songs. Produced by Larry Butler, the album was not quite as successful as its predecessor duet album, but still sold over two million copies.

The album opens up with “All I Ever Need Is You”, a top ten pop hit and #1 Adult Contemporary hit for Sonny & Cher and a top twenty county hit for Ray Sanders, both versions in 1971. This version would rise to #1 on the country chart. While not as country as the Sanders version (still my favorite), it is not as pop as the Sonny & Cher versions. Both steel guitar (by Pete Drake) and string arrangements are featured in the arrangement. The song works well as a duet.

Sometimes when I’m down and all alone
Just like a child without a home
The love you give me keeps me hangin’ on
Oh honey, all I ever need is you

You’re my first love, you’re my last
You’re my future, you’re my past
And loving you is all I ask, honey
All I ever need is you

The Wynette, Richey, Sherrill composition “ ‘Til I Can Make It On My Own” is up next. The song was a #1 country hit for Tammy Wynette in 1976. The song works as a duet but is in a key where Kenny seems to be struggling to hit some of the notes.

“Just The Way You Are” was a #3 Billboard / #2 Cashbox top ten pop hit for writer Billy Joel in 1977. The arrangement of this song reeks of cocktail lounge balladry. I’d rather hear Billy Joel perform this song and I am no fan of his music.

Randy Goodrum penned “You Needed Me”. Goodrum would co-produce Dottie’s 1979 album Special Delivery and write six of the songs on that album. I think that this song, as recorded by Anne Murray (#1 pop / #4 country), , was his biggest hit as a songwriter. The arrangement on this one is definitely easy listening.

“(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” was made famous by B.J. Thomas, winning the 1976 Grammy Award for Best Country Song. The song’s writers, Larry Butler and Chips Moman definitely cleared the bases with this song as it went to #1 on the country, pop and A/C charts in the US, nearly duplicating that success in Canada. Kenny & Dottie do a nice job with the song although the arrangement can be best described as ‘countrypolitan’. Steve Glassmeyer is featured on soprano sax.

It’s lonely out tonight
And the feelin’ just got right for a brand new love song
Somebody done somebody wrong song

Hey, wontcha play another somebody done somebody wrong song
And make me feel at home while I miss my baby, while I miss my baby
So please play for me a sad melody
So sad that it makes everybody cry-why-why-why
A real hurtin’ song about a love that’s gone wrong
Cause I don’t want to cry all alone

There is no questioning the country credentials of the next song, “Together Again” written by the great Buck Owens. Although initially released as the B side of Buck’s 1964 single “My Heart Skips A Beat”, most disc jockeys played both sides of the record resulting in both songs reaching #1, although in different weeks.

Unfortunately, the song is given an easy listening arrangement with strings and keyboards and not a trace of a steel guitar in the arrangement. There is a key shift whenever Kenny takes over from Dottie in singing a verse. I liked Dottie’s vocal on the song, Kenny’s not so much. The net effect is really disappointing.

Paul Craft was a successful songwriter who penned “Midnight Flyer”. The song is probably best remembered for Eagles recording of the song, although the song entered the realm of bluegrass music
through the Osborne Brothers terrific single recording of the song in 1973. Producer Butler gives the song the (fairly) acoustic arrangement the song demands. Kenny & Dottie acquit themselves well on this song.

Oo, Midnight Flyer
Engineer, won’t you let your whistle moan?
Oo, Midnight Flyer
I paid my dues and I feel like trav’lin’ on

A runaway team of horses ain’t enough to make me stay
So throw your rope on another man
And pull him down your way
Make him into someone who can take the place of me
Make him every kind of fool you wanted me to be

Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil were a highly successful songwriting team and Phil Spector was a successful producer and occasional songwriter best known for his ‘wall of sound’ production style. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” was certainly the biggest hit that the Righteous Brothers would ever have, and possibly the most successful song from the Mann-Weil songwriting team. After hearing the Righteous Brother’s version it is difficult to accept any of the cover versions, of which there have been many. Kenny & Dottie do a decent job with the song, which is given a somewhat subdued ‘wall of sound’ production, but it pales in comparison to the original.

“Let It Be Me” is a popular song originally published in French in 1955 as “Je t’appartiens”. Written by Gilbert Becaud & Pierre Delanoe, the song became a worldwide hit when Manny Curtis appended English lyrics to the song. The Everly Brothers (#7 pop – 1960) and a duet by Betty Everett and Jerry Butler (#5 pop – 1964) cemented the song’s popularity in the English speaking world. In 1969 Glen Campbell and Bobbie Gentry had a pop and country hit with the song. Kenny and Dottie sing the song quite well – I think Kenny’s best vocals on this album are to be found on this song. The song is not country, the arrangement is very orchestral, but the net effect is very nice.

Like most of Kenny’s albums, this is essentially a pop album with a nod toward country music. There would be no more duet albums by this pair and after a brief resurgence in 1979 through early 1981, Dottie’s solo career would fade away (not surprisingly as Dottie would turn 50 in 1982). The younger Rogers (b. 1938) would continue to have varying degrees through the end of the 1980s, followed by a long coda.

I like parts of this album, but there are tracks I tend to skip over – I give it a C+

Advertisements

Christmas Album Review: Chris Young – ‘It Must Be Christmas’

it-must-be-christmasChris Young has arguably the best voice of any male country singer currently signed to a major label. It’s a shame that of late years his musical choices have been disappointing as he chases commercial success at the expense of artistry. Happily, while his new Christmas album isn’t particularly country, it leans in the direction of, well, traditional Christmas music, rather than the bro-country he has been led astray by before.

Chris’s warm baritone voice is perfectly showcased tenderly crooning ‘The Christmas Song’ and ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’. ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ shoots for the same territory, but I found it just a little dull.

The Phil Spector-penned (i.e. 60s pop) ‘Christmas Baby (Please Come Home)’ is cheery and Christmassy with an arrangement dominated by bells, and surprisingly enjoyable. Chris’s vocal commitment also lifts the lightweight ‘Holy Jolly Christmas’; this gets a brassy arrangement.

The outstanding moment comes with a gorgeous duet with Alan Jackson on the Keith Whitley Christmas classic ‘There’s A New Kid In Town’, which is just lovely. Brad Paisley guests on a nice sincere take on ‘The First Noel’. ‘Silent Night’ has one of the most beautiful melodies of any carol/Christmas tune, and is almost impossible to mess up. Chris sings it beautifully, with 90s R&B boyband Boyz II Men used sparingly to provide ethereal harmonies on the chorus. The end result is extremely effective.

There are two new songs, both co-written by Chris, but frankly neither is particularly memorable. ‘Under The Weather’ is quite a pleasant love song set at Christmas time, but the title track is chock full of clichés.

Production is mostly nicely understated, supporting Young’s excellent vocals. This is an excellent choice to play while entertaining your non-country loving family members this Christmas.

Grade: A

Christmas Album Review: Kacey Musgraves – ‘A Very Kacey Christmas’

a-very-kacey-christmasKacey Musgraves is not the first artist I would have expected to come out with a Christmas album, but here it is. She leans to the jazzy side of Christmas music, with a strong Hawaiian influence and her own quirky take on things – to the point of eccentricity at times. It is also entirely secular.

She opens with ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’, which is quite pleasant but not essential.

The Quebe Sisters provide backing vocals on a playful ‘Let it Snow’ and the Hawaiian ‘Mele Kalimaka’. The bilingual ‘Feliz Navidad’ is prettily sung by Kacey and a male chorus. Much of the album comprises pleasant but easy-to-overlook background music like this, but Kacey pushes the boundaries on other tracks.

She draws on her inner child with the playful, bouncy ‘I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas’ and the standard ‘Rudolph The Reindeer’, which is one of the few recordings where a child chorus is endearing rather than irritating (maybe because the kids don’t seem to have much enthusiasm). Both are great fun. The strangest choice, ‘Christmas Don’t Be Late’ , is better known as ‘The Chipmunk Song’, as recorded by Alvin and the Chipmunks. Kacey sings it apparently quite straight with a childlike quality, and I’m really not sure how far her tongue is in her cheek here.

It leads into the rather less family-friendly ‘A Willie Nice Christmas’, which as you may guess from the title is a holiday-themed tribute to Willie Nelson and his favorite product, featuring guest vocals from the man himself. It is rather charming in its way. Kacey wrote the song with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne.

She, McAnally and Brandy Clark wrote the melancholy ‘Christmas Makes Me Cry’. ‘Present Without A Bow’, a duet with neo-soul singer Leon Bridges about being alone at Christmas, is quite effective vocally, although the song itself isn’t that interesting. The hand-clapping, brassy ‘Ribbons And Bows’ is quite good though not country.

She closes with a languid jazz version of ‘What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve’, which I found rather boring.

I applaud Kacey’s willingness to try something a bit different, but the result isn’t entirely to my taste.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Dwight Yoakam – ‘Second Hand Heart’

61TTBEi0Q3LI was singularly unimpressed with Dwight Yoakam’s last album 3 Pears, which I reviewed when it was released in September 2012. The B- rating I gave it seems generous in retrospect. The project was so lackluster that I greeted the release of Yoakam’s new album with some trepidation and didn’t even bother to listen to it until well after a week after I downloaded it.

I’m pleased to report that my fears were totally unfounded, as Second Hand Heart, Dwight’s second album since returning to the Warner Bros. Nashville roster, is infinitely superior to its predecessor. While not as traditional as his 80s and early 90s work, it is more in line with the type of music he was making in the early 2000s, a la Tomorrow’s Sounds Today. Produced by Dwight with Chris Lord-Alge, it is best described as Buck Owens and Johnny Cash meet the Beatles and Phil Spector. The trademark Bakersfield sound is still there — particularly on tracks like “Off Your Mind” and “The Big Time”, but others are more reminiscent of 1960s rock with their emphasis on electric guitars, Wall of Sound-like production, and a little more reverb than I would have liked.

Despite his reputation as a New Traditionalist, Dwight has always pushed the boundaries of country music, so it’s no surprise that there are a variety of musical influences heard on this album. The guitar work on “Dreams of Clay”, a remake of a cut on his 2000 album Tomorrow’s Sounds Today is slightly reminiscent of Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” (which Yoakam covered in the early 90s), and as one of the few songs on the album without excess reverb, it’s one of my favorites, along with “Off Your Mind” and the title track. The Beatles influence is most apparent on “She” and “Liar”.

There are only two songs on the album that Dwight did not write — a cover of the traditional “Man of Constant Sorrow” and the beautiful closing track “V’s of Birds”. The former is done as a rockabilly number and doesn’t quite work; I prefer a more traditional “high lonesome” interpretation. The latter, with its piano intro is a pure pop number without the rock influences that pervade the rest of the album. It is very well done and might have been a hit for Dwight earlier in his career. Predictably, the title track and lead single has so far been ignored by radio; however, the album itself is doing quite well, selling 21,000 in its first week and debuting at #2 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. It’s Yoakam’s highest charting album since 1988’s Buenos Noches From A Lonely Room and deservedly so. While I would have preferred something a little closer to that 1980s classic, Second Hand Heart is a welcome return to form for one of country music’s most talented and enduring artists.

Grade: A-

Country Heritage: Gail Davies

Gail DaviesDuring the late winter & early spring of 1979, listeners of country radio were treated to the unusual strains of “Someone Is Looking For Someone Like You”. Amidst the clutter of the last vestiges of the Outlaw Movement, the dying gasps of the Nashville Sound and the nascent Urban Cowboy movement, this lilting and beautiful melody was unlike anything else being played. Released on the independent Lifesong label, the song suffered from spotty distribution (which turned into no distribution at all when Lifesong’s distribution deal fell apart) yet made it to #11 on Billboard’s Country Chart. For Gail Davies, this song turned out to be her career breakthrough, leading to a record deal with Warner Brothers.

Gail Davies (originally Patricia Gail Dickerson) was born into a musical family in Broken Bow, Oklahoma, on June 5, 1948. Her father, Tex Dickerson, was a country singer who occasionally appeared on the Louisiana Hayride. When Davies was five, her parents divorced and her mother took her and her two brothers to the Seattle area. At some point, her mother remarried and she and her brothers were adopted by their stepfather, Darby Davies, and took his surname. One of her brothers was Ron Davies, a renown songwriter and performer, who wrote songs that were recorded by such luminaries as David Bowie, Three Dog Night, Joe Cocker, Dave Edmunds, Jerry Jeff Walker and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

After graduating from high school in 1966, Davies moved to Los Angeles where she was briefly married to a jazz musician. After her divorce, she found work as a session singer at A&M studios. While at A&M she was befriended by songwriter Joni Mitchell and A&M recording engineer Henry Lewy who introduced her to the production end of the business, where she was able to sit in on a number of noteworthy recording sessions, including a John Lennon session that was being produced by Phil Spector.

Things moved rapidly for Davies, and by 1974 she was touring with the legendary Roger Miller and made her national television debut as his duet partner in 1974 singing on the Merv Griffin Show. During this period, she began writing songs and signed with EMI Publishing in 1975. Her first major success as a songwriter came when Ava Barber, a regular cast member of television’s Lawrence Welk Show, had a hit single with “Bucket to the South,” which reached #14 in 1978 on the Billboard Country Chart. This led to a contract with CBS/Lifesong Records in 1978 and the release of her first album simply entitled Gail Davies. Read more of this post

Album Review: Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris – ‘Trio’

The 80s saw Emmylou branching out in various ways, but perhaps struggling to find a new direction after Ricky Skaggs left the Hot Band to launch his own solo career. After the tour de force that was Roses In The Snow, she released a couple of albums of out-takes from previous sessions and an album of live recordings (Last Date). After her final album with Brian Ahern, the rock influenced White Shoes (one of her poorer efforts), their marriage broke up. Emmylou found a new path when she married British born songwriter Paul Kennerley, and worked with him on the semi-autobiographical concept album, The Ballad Of Sally Rose, which saw Emmylou co-writing all the songs with her new husband. Neither this album nor its more conventional but equally underrated successor (Thirteen, also produced by Kennerley) was commercially successful.

But if Emmylou’s career had been on a downturn, 1987 saw her greatest achievement commercially, and arguably artistically, with the long awaited Trio project. She had half-formed plans for many years for a trio album with friends Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, but label conflicts meant there was never the impetus to proceed. Odd tracks appeared on some of their solo albums, others were left to languish in the vaults, but the project as a whole foundered. The mid 80s saw all three ladies at a crossroads of sorts in their acreers, and this record, while conceived as a labor of love, revitalized them all.

It wasn’t quite all acoustic, and some tracks also had string arrangements, but the choice of material and the overall feel is rooted deep in the roots of country music, particularly the side formed in the Appalachians – Dolly’s home territory, and one adopted by Emmylou on Blue Kentucky Girl. It was the strangest territory for Linda, but she was the kind of singer who can sing almost any genre and sound convincing. Producer George Massenberg was an experienced recording enginer without a track record as a producer, but he did a great job.

Emmylou opens proceedings with a crystalline lead vocal on a lovely version of ‘The Pain Of Loving You’, an old Dolly Parton/Porter Wagoner classic which opens the set. She also takes the lead on the one song not taken from the country or folk genres, the Phil Spector song ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’, given a prettily understated reading which completely transforms the original into a rootsy country song, but retains the core emotion. It was a #1 hit single. She also sings lead on a tasteful setting of the slow sad ‘My Dear Companion’, which sounds as though it could have been written in the Appalachians in the 19th or even 18th century.

Dolly was the biggest star at the time of the album’s release, but through the first two thirds of the 1980s her music had been drifting ever more popwards. She had achieved massive crossover success, but was beginning to alienate country radio and fans. She had left RCA, her longterm label, freeing her to record Trio. She was to make one more attempt at balancing her pop and country careers with the release later in 1987 the very pop and widely derided Rainbow flopping. In 1989 she was to make a definitive return to country with the Ricky Skaggs produced White Limozeen, but I believe the commercial success of Trio paved the way for her comeback.

She wrote one new song for the project, the charming ‘Wildflowers’, a possibly autobiographical song about a free spirit which recalls her music of the early 70s. It reached #6 on the Billboard country singles chart as the final single from the album, proving country radio still loved Dolly when she sang country songs. Her vocals on the classic ‘Making Plans’, a mournful song anticipating the loved one’s departure, work perfectly, and she also sings the sweet traditional ‘Rosewood Casket’ (aranged by her mother). ‘Those Memories Of You’, written by Alan O’Bryant and previously recorded by a pre-fame Pam Tillis, has a high lonesome bluegrass feel, and was a #5 single.

Although never a strictly country singer, Linda Ronstadt had had a number of country hits in the 70s with her country-rock sound, but in the 80s had been branching out into other kinds of music. 1987 was a bumper year for her; beside her country success with Trio she was enjoying some of her biggest pop hits by duetting with R&B singer Aaron Neville. Linda’s beautiful voice soars on the Jimmie Rodgers’ song ‘Hobo’s Meditation’ (will there be any freight trains in heaven?). Nitpicking, one might complain that this is just too pretty and clean sounding for a song voicing the train-hopping tramp of the lyric, but it sounds so lovely I don’t care. Perhaps it shows the true soul inside the hobo’s rough appearance, with its wistful questioning,

Will the hobo chum with the rich man?

This is my favorite of Linda’s tracks, and possibly my favorite on the album. Linda’s other leads come on more modern folk songs. Her vocals are impeccable on the plaintive ‘Telling Me Lies’, co-written by Ronstadt’s friend Linda Thompson, which has something of an AC feel and was a top 10 single. Canadian Kate McGarrigle (who died recently) contributed the haunting ‘I’ve Had Enough’.

They finish up with the spiritual ‘Farther Along’, arranged simply by Emmylou with John Starling. Dolly takes the first verse, Linda the second, with Emmylou the last to be showcased.

Everything about this album works. Critical acclaim was accompanied by significant radio support with four hit singles, one of them reaching the top of the chart. It probably also regained Dolly some much needed country credibility. It has sold over four million copies, and is an essential purchase for any country fan (or anyone who loves harmonies). Luckily, it’s still easy to find. The 1999 follow-up Trio II was good, but failed to recapture the magic of the original.

Grade: A+