My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Randy Houser

Album Review: John Michael Montgomery – ‘Time Flies’

After he was dropped by Warner Brothers. JMM released one further album, 2008’s Time Flies, on independent label Stringtown Records. Recorded in his brother Eddie’s home studio, it was produced by Byron Gallimore with, for the most part, his trademark sheen and lack of subtlety.

The lead single (or at least the first song released, as it did not chart), ‘Mad Cowboy Disease’, is a tongue in cheek country rocker written by Jamey Johnson, Jon Maddox and Jeremy Popoff. JMM sings it with a commitment which carries off a sometimes silly lyric, and there’s even a fun nod to Mel Tillis in the song. Next up was ‘If You Ever Went Away’, an emotional ballad written by Randy Houser and Daryl Burgess. It is a nice song which JMM sings well, but a bit over-produced. ‘Forever’, which was an actual radio single and made it into the top 30, is a very boring AC song.

Jamey Johnson contributed another pair of songs. ‘What Did I Do?’ (written with George Teren) is a rocking love song – not bad but over-produced. ‘Let’s Get Lost’ is quite a pleasant ballad which Johnson wrote with Arlis Albritton and Jeremy Popoff.

‘Loving And Letting Go’, written by Greg Barnhill and Gary Hannan, is a rather dull AC ballad. ‘Fly On’ is better, a wistful ballad about loss.

Luke Bryan’s own career has led to considerable (and often justified) disdain from more traditional country fans, but his cowrite with Kelley Lovelace and Lee Thomas Miller included here, ‘With My Shirt On’ is actually rather good, with a wryly amusing lyric about noticing the ravages of middle age:

Remember Key West spring break
We were 21, in perfect shape
We stayed oiled up and half naked all week long
But that was 10 years and 20 pounds ago
Girl, you’re still a 10 but I’m somewhere below
So tonight can I make love with my shirt on?

Now you say our love has grown beyond the physical
And you tell me that you think I’m irresistible
Today I had a salad but I gave in and ate a roll
So tonight can I make love with my shirt on

The best tracks all cluster at the end of the set, with Gallimore reining it back a bit. The best is ‘Drunkard’s Prayer’, a powerful Chris Stapleton song which Stapleton himself finally recorded in 2017. JMM’s vocal is much less intense but it is a pretty good performance of a great song which feels believable, and there is a tasteful steel-laced arrangement.

‘All In A Day’ is a warmly sung song about the passage of time as a beloved grandfather comes to the end of his life, set to a soothing melody. Written by Daryl Burgess and Dan Denny, it provides he album’s title.

JMM co-wrote the charming autobiographical ‘Brothers Til The End’, about growing up playing country music in a family band with his parents and brother Eddie, and thein their rival country music careers, “chasing each other up and down the charts”.

Grade: B

Advertisements

Album Rewind: Kendell Marvel – Lowdown & Lonesome’

Successful songwriter Kendell Marvel’s debut album proves he is a strong singer as well with a booming baritone. The record is in a mainly Outlaw vein with honky tonk and Southern rock elements combining in a way which should appeal to fans of Chris Stapleton. Marvel co-wrote nine of the ten tracks, all with either the aforementioned Stapleton or with his producer Keith Gattis. The songs all focus on heartbreak and drinking.

The title track, written with Gattis and Randy Houser, sets the stage with its passionate and southern rock infused vocal and lyrical nods to Johnny Cash as the narrator treats a broken heart with booze and barroom life. I believe Houser is on backing vocals on the track. ‘Heartache Off My Back’ is another energetic tune about battling heartbreak, set to a train rhythm assisted by Mickey Raphael’s harmonica.

The tender ballad ‘Gypsy Woman’ (officially a single) paints a sympathetic portrait of a restless drifter, but appealing for her return home. In the misleadingly seductive sounding ‘Watch Your Heart’ the protagonist cautions a potential love interest against getting too emotionally involved with him.

There are three co-writes with Stapleton. The best of them is ‘Closer To Hell’ which Gattis also helped write. This is a traditional country drinking song about a man slowly destroying himself after his loved one moves on:

Well, my sweet little baby lit out of here like a bat out of you know where
So I’ve been drinkin’ every day and night til the dog aint got no hair…

Well, my Godfearin mama, bless her heart,
Sent the preacher out to talk to me
Sat on the couch, said “Let it all out,
Son, the truth is gonna set you free”
So I started confessin’
And he started sweating
Til he had to get up and leave
I guess the preacher agrees that

I’m just one more day closer to hell
No, it won’t be long til I’m walking with the Devil himself
I got one foot in the fire
And the other one’s on the way…

Well, they say the road is paved with good intentions
But I don’t intend on doin’ nothin’ good

‘Untangle My Mind’, which the pair wrote with Jaron Boyer, is a mid-paced tune about hard living which is quite enjoyable, loaded with honky tonk piano. ‘Tryin’ Not To Love You’, which they wrote with Casey Beathard, lacks melody, and leans a little more in the southern rock direction. However, this is the only track I didn’t much enjoy.

My favorites on this album are two sad ballads written with Gattis. ‘Hurtin’ Gets Hard’ (also written with Audley Freed) is about missing an ex whenever he is home alone and can’t distract himself any more:

You’d think that I couldn’t care
Til I walk in the front door and you’re still not there
And that’s when it stops being easy
And that’s when it all falls apart
When I’m here and you’re out wherever you are
And that’s when the hurtin’ gets hard

The steel-led ‘That Seat’s Saved’ is about a man in a bar hoping against hope that his love interest will come back.

The album closes on a high with the sole cover, Charlie Daniels’ ‘Drinkin’ My Baby Goodbye’, on which Kendell is joined by Jamey Johnson.

This is a really good album which has a lot to offer.

Grade: A

Album Review: Erin Enderlin – ‘Whiskeytown Crier’

“Ain’t It Just Like A Cowboy,” is a “stop me if you’ve heard this one” tale of a woman jilted by a man who repeatedly abandons her. But Erin Enderlin and her co-writer Heather Little turn the concept on its head. The song isn’t about rodeos, but rather another more universal pain:

He’s holdin’ her like he held me

God I should know better than to cry

The steel-adorned ballad serves as the lead single from Whiskeytown Crier, which finds Enderlin teaming with Jamey Johnson and Jim “Moose” Brown on a collection of songs culled from the female perspective, of the women who inhabit a fictional residential area known as Whiskeytown. Enderlin imagines the album as a newspaper, with the songs serving as the articles.

Whiskeytown Crier consists of many songs where the woman is in various states of dealing with the man who’s left her. He’s a cowboy one minute, the next he’s the self-absorbed litterer at the heart of “Jesse Joe’s Cigarettes,” which she smokes since she has nothing better to do. The feelings are so complex that to deal with them requires a “Whole Nuther Bottle of Wine.” “Till It’s Gone” finds her maxing out on all these pleasures, accented with a stunning twenty-nine-second steel guitar solo.

Her solely-penned “Broken” is a stunner of self-awareness that acts as a prequel of sorts, detailing the woman’s marriage at eighteen to the man who saw in her what she saw in him:

A broken limb

From a crooked family tree

“The Coldest In Town” is a spellbinding duet with Randy Houser that details a disintegrating marriage from both perspectives. It could be the woman from “Broken” when her life falls apart, but it also works as a standalone composition.

The album also contains two muscular southern gothic murder ballads. “Caroline” is the sadistic tale of a teenage pregnancy and a father’s revenge on the man who made her a mother. “Baby Sister” shows blood is thicker than love, with a shocked sibling proclaiming:

I knew you were a pistol

But I never knew you owned a gun

“The Blues Are Alive and Well” purposely evokes Merle Haggard. “Home Sweet Home” finds a woman enjoying the pleasures of the United States – a game at Wrigley Field, Broadway Shows – but finding comfort in her southern roots, where she prefers to live. “His Memory Walks on Water” is a tale of innocence – a little girl remembering her dad, a degenerate, in death as the man he never was on Earth. To his youngest daughter, though, he was everything.

Enderlin also included two covers to round out the set. She turns in a competent reading of “Till I Can Make It On My Own,” which is very good but could’ve been more subtle. Her take on Gram Parsons’ “Hickory Wind” is excellent.

Whiskeytown Crier is a very fine album that could’ve stood less intrusive production on occasion, namely eliminating the intrusive electric guitar that permeates “Jesse Joe’s Cigarettes.” But the music shines through, putting the focus on Enderlin’s apt storytelling, right where it should be.

Grade: A

Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Sing It Now: Songs of Faith and Hope’

rebaReligious albums, like Christmas albums, are sometimes a hard sell to fans because there is inevitably much overlap in song selection with other artists’ Gospel collections. Reba McEntire avoids falling into that trap with Sing It Now: Songs of Faith and Hope, which was released last week. The generous two-disc collection is evenly divided between traditional hymns and more contemporary inspirational songs. As long as thirty years ago, I can remember Reba saying she wanted to a Gospel album; finally, she has reached a point in her career where commercial pressures have eased enough to allow that dream to become a reality.

Reba produced the collection with Rascal Flatts member Jay DeMarcus. The first disc contains most of the old familiar favorites beginning with “Jesus Loves Me” – the first song Reba sang in public at age four, and progressing on to other standards such as “Oh, How I Love Jesus”, “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder”, “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art”. She is joined by family and friends on a few tracks: her mother and sisters provide the harmonies on “I’ll Fly Away”. The Isaacs appear on a mash-up of “In The Garden” and “Wonderful Peace” and Kelly Clarkson and Trisha Yearwood lend their voices to “Softly and Tenderly”, which closes out the first disc. This track was released as a single in December. It didn’t make the country charts but did reach #43 on the Christian chart. All of these songs are tastefully arranged; the production is appropriately sparse and traditional. Reba and DeMarcus push the envelope slightly on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, which features some nice steel guitar work (an instrument we rarely hear on Gospel albums). The only tune on the first disc that I didn’t particularly care for was “Oh Happy Day”, on which the production is a cluttered mess of too-loud horns, saxophones and a Gospel choir. Clocking in at more than five and a half minutes, it goes on way too long.

Disc Two contains more modern religious-themed songs, mostly performed in the pop-country style for which Reba is well known. I particularly liked the title track and the current single “Back to God”, which first appeared on Randy Houser’s 2008 debut album. A Houser co-write with Dallas Davidson, Reba’s version of “Back to God” currently resides at #25 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, although it has yet to appear on the airplay chart. “There Is a God” — also quite good — is a remake of the 2009 Lee Ann Womack single. “God and My Girlfriends” sounds as though it could have appeared on any Reba album released during the past twenty years. Not as overtly religious as the title suggests, it probably would have stood a chance of being a hit a few years ago, but probably not now. The upbeat “I Got The Lord on My Side” sounds like an old-time revival song; it was written by Reba and her mother Jackie McEntire.

“Angel on My Shoulder”, which features a banjo and drum machine suffers from the clichéd production that we’ve heard too much of in mainstream country in recent years. The song itself is not bad, but it is probably the weakest in the collection. “From the Inside Out” is a pretty but somewhat lifeless ballad.

Reba is one of the best female vocalists that country music has ever known and she’s always been one of my favorites. I’ve been critical of many of her musical choices over the past decade or so as she seemed more concerned with chasing trends and maintaining a presence on the radio than just singing good songs. Sing It Now shows that when she puts aside commercial considerations and works with good material, she is still second to none. Despite one or two minor missteps, Sing It Now is a great collection and hopefully a sign of the direction that this talented lady will be going in the future.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Randy Houser – ‘Back To God’

Album Review: Mark Chesnutt – ‘Tradition Lives’

81s3+w6kLmL._SX522_It’s been more than six years since Mark Chesnutt’s last full-length album and more than eight since his last collection of original material. His latest effort, Tradition Lives, which became available last week, reportedly took about three years to record. The long drawn-out process of producing new music has apparently paid off, resulting in the strongest album of Chesnutt’s post-major label career.

The title is self-explanatory. The biggest hit of Chesnutt’s career was his cover of Aerosmith’s pop ballad “I Don’t Want To Miss a Thing”, but that song was not typical of his music and it ultimately resulted in his departure from MCA Records. He had been reluctant to record the song and flat out refused to comply when the label wanted more of the same. After leaving MCA, he recorded one album for Columbia and has been releasing music on a variety of independent labels since 2004.

Although Mark has remained true to his roots, he hasn’t always had access to great material as an indie artist. That is decidedly not the case with this album. The current single “Oughta Miss Me By Now” is a bit of a dud but the remaining twelve tracks are all top notch. None of them sound like anything that is currently on country radio today; they sound very much like the songs Mark sang in his commercial heyday. They are traditional but not dated and the material sounds fresh.

Fiddle and steel are plentiful throughout the album. There are quite a few uptempo honky-tonkers from the opening track “I’ve Got a Quarter In My Pocket”, “Neither Did I” and “Never Been To Texas”, but the ballads are the tracks that really shine. I particularly liked “Is It Still Cheating”, a Randy Houser/Jamey Johnson/Jerrod Niemann song in which the protagonist knows his wife is cheating on him but doesn’t care because it gives him time to pursue his own extramarital affair. I can’t decide if I like this one or “So You Can’t Hurt Me Anymore” better. The latter was written by newcomer William Michael Morgan and Chesnutt’s producer Jimmy Ritchey. In the aftermath of a broken marriage, the protagonist confronts the cause of the breakup — which at first appears to be another woman, but is later revealed to be the bottle:

It’s time to go our separate ways
Been goin’ through hell from all the hell we’ve raised
There comes a day to turn the page
So tonight I’m pourin’ you out on the floor
So you can’t hurt me anymore

Both of these songs are examples of the substance that used to be a hallmark of country music, but has been sadly lacking in recent years. “What I Heard” also falls into that category. It’s another break-up tale, but in this one Chesnutt refuses to accept that it’s really over and is convinced that his soon-to-be-ex will come crawling back.

Chesnutt steps out of his comfort zone for one number: “Hot”, a jazzy number written by Don Poythress and Wynn Varble. It’s not the strongest song on the album, but it’s not bad and Mark deserves credit for the creative stretch.

The album closes with an quiet number featuring only Mark’s vocal and Jimmy Ritchey on acoustic guitar. “There Won’t Be Another Now” was written by Red Lane and originally recorded by Merle Haggard. Mark’s rendition is meant to be a tribute to both recently departed legends, ending the album on a poignant note.

Tradition Lives is one the best albums I’ve heard this year; I highly recommend it.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Randy Houser – ‘In God’s Time’

Week ending 3/19/16: #1 singles this week in country music history

220px-Louvin_Brothers1956 (Sales): Heartbreak Hotel/I Was The One — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1956 (Jukebox): I Forgot to Remember to Forget/Mystery Train — Elvis Presley (Sun)

1956 (Disc Jockeys): I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby — The Louvin Brothers (Capitol)

1966: Waitin’ in Your Welfare Line — Buck Owens & The Buckaroos (Capitol)

1976: The Roots of My Raising — Merle Haggard (Capitol)

1986: I Could Get Used To You — Exile (Epic)

1996: The Beaches of Cheyenne — Garth Brooks (Capitol)

2006: Living In Fast Forward — Kenny Chesney (BNA)

2016: Die a Happy Man — Thomas Rhett (Valory)

2016 (Airplay): We Went — Randy Houser (Stoney Creek)

Top 20 Albums of 2014: A Hidebound Traditionalist’s View

Rosanne CashWe didn’t get a chance to run this before the end of the year, but we figured our readers wouldn’t mind reading Paul’s year in review a little late. — Razor X

1. Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread

This album came out fairly early in the year, and yet I was fairly sure it would be the best new album I would hear in 2014. Elegant and insightful would be the terms I would think best describe this album.

2. Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard

So timeless are the songs are the songs of Merle Haggard that even marginal talents such as Jason Aldean and Jake Owen couldn’t mess up the songs. If fact I would regard Aldean’s take on “Going Where The Lonely Go” as he best recording he’s ever made. This tribute album is largely composed of modern country artists (Toby Keith, Parmalee, Dustin Lynch, Kristy Lee Cook, Randy Houser, Joe Nichols, Jake Owen, Jason Aldean and James Wesley) with Merle’s son Ben thrown in for good measure and Garth Brooks on the physical CD available at Walmart. The two tracks by Thompson Square (“You Take Me For Granted”, “Let’s Chase Each Other Around The Room”) are given a playful reading and are my favorite tracks, but every artist keeps the spirit of the Hag alive with these songs.

3. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Our Year

The follow-up to Cheater’s Game dishes up another nice serving of real country music with more focus on newer material but with some covers including a nice take on the Statler Brothers classic “I’ll Go To My Grave Loving You” .

4. Jerry Douglas – Earls of Leicester

An instant classic, this album is almost a theatre piece with various stellar musicians cast in the roles of the members of the classic Flatt & Scruggs lineup of the 1950s and 1960s, doing a program of classic Flatt & Scruggs material. Starring Jerry Douglas on dobro, Barry Bales on bass, Shawn Camp on acoustic guitar and vocals, Johnny Warren – fiddle, Tim O’Brien – mandolin, & Charlie Cushman – banjo and guitar. Johnny Warren is the song of longtime F&S fiddler Paul Warren.

5. Carlene Carter – Carter Girl

Carlene Carter pays tribute to her musical heritage with a classic collection of Carter Family tunes plus a pair of original compositions. These recording have a modern sound that differs from, but is true to, the spirit of the originals.

6. Ray Price – Beauty Is

I wanted to call this the best album of 2014 and if Ray had been in top vocal form I would have, but this is the swan song of a dying man who knows the end is but months away. The album is elegant and heartfelt, in many respects a valentine to his wife of many years.

7. Jeff Bates – Me and Conway

For as popular as Conway Twitty was during his heyday (think George Strait), he has been almost entirely forgotten. A tribute to Conway Twitty is long overdue and while I think a multi-artist album would be nice, if it has to be a single artist tribute album, there is no one better to do it than Jeff Bates, whose voice can sound eerily similar to that of Conway Twitty. The album is about half Conway Twitty songs and half new material including the title track. My favorite tracks are the title track, “Lost In The Feeling” and Jeff’s duet with Loretta Lynn on “After The fire Is Gone” .

8. Mandy Barnett – I Can’t Stop Loving You: The Songs of Don Gibson

Mandy is a masterful singer, if somewhat addicted to slow songs. Don Gibson was a top-drawer song writer, as well as a soulful performer. This album, initially available as a Cracker Barrel exclusive is proof that when you pair great songs with a great singer that very good things can happen. Don’s been gone for over a decade so it’s nice to see someone keep his songs in front of the American public.

9. Ray Price – A New Place To Begin

I am mystified that the tracks on this album went unreleased on an album for so long. During the mid 1980s Ray Price and Snuff Garrett collaborated on a number of successful singles (some of which were used in movie soundtracks) plus some other songs. True, producer Snuff Garrett fell ill somewhere along the line and retired, but Garrett was a big name producer and you would think these would have escaped somehow. This CD features seven chart singles that were never collected on an album, and seven other songs that were never released on an album. Sixteen tracks from one of the masters most featuring more steel guitar than was common for Ray during this period .

10. George Strait – The Cowboy Rides Away (Deluxe Edition)

This album has some flaws including what sounds like auto-tune on some tracks and the standard issue of the album doesn’t warrant a top twenty listing since it has only twenty songs on it. The Deluxe Edition, however, plants you into the middle of a George Strait concert – twenty-eight songs on the two CD set plus the entire 40 song set on the concert DVD with some bonus features. George never did tour extensively and when he hit town, the tickets were expensive and sold out quickly so I never did get to see him live in concert. This set is the next best thing. While the studio recordings are better, this is still worth having.

11. Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer – Bass & Mandolin

This album is a little hard to characterize – it’s not exactly bluegrass, folk, jazz or classical music, but it is all of them and more on the ten featured tunes, all of them co-writes. Meyer plays piano on a few tunes but mostly plays bass. Thile shines on the mandolin. The listener exults in the magic.

12. Sammy Kershaw – Do You Know Me: A Tribute To George Jones

True, Sammy is a distant cousin to Cajun pioneers Rusty and Doug Kershaw, but Sammy’s musical muses were Mel Street and George Jones. Here Sammy pays tribute to George Jones and does it well. My favorite among the dozen Jones hits (plus two new songs) covered is “When The Grass Grows Over Me”.

13. Joe Mullins – Another Day From Life

Joe Mullins has been around the bluegrass scene for a while, but this album was the first of his albums I happened to pick up. It’s very good and I’ll be picking up more of his albums when I hit the bluegrass festival in Palatka, Florida on February 20.

14. Rhonda Vincent – Only Me

Half country/half grass but 100% excellent. I wish that Rhonda would do an entire album of western swing and honky-tonk classics. It was silly to split this up into two six song discs, but I guess that the ears of the bluegrass purists needed protection from the country classics. My favorite track is “When The Grass Grows Over Me” which was also my favorite George Jones song. Rhonda’s takes on “Once A Day” and “Bright Lights and Country Music” are also highlights.

15. Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’

It is good to see new music from Lee Ann. I don’t regard this as highly as I did her first few albums, but it is a welcome return to form.

16. Willie Nelson – Band of Brothers

Death, taxes and a new Willie Nelson album are the only things you can really count on seeing every year. This one is up to the usual standards, with Willie having written nine of the fourteen songs on the album.

17. Secret Sisters – Put your Needle Down

I actually liked their debut album better, but this one will appeal more to younger listeners. At this rate they won’t be a secret much longer. Buy it at Cracker Barrel as their version has two extra songs.

18. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

A lot has been written about this album, but the truth is that words really don’t adequately describe it. This album requires repeated listening.

19. Dierks Bentley – Riser

I like this album, but I keep expecting more of DIerks Bentley. “Drunk On A Plane” and “I Hold On” were the big radio/ video singles but I don’t think they were the best songs on the album.

20. Cornell Hurd Band – Twentieth Album

In some ways the Cornell Hurd Band is like Asleep At The Wheel, a very versatile band that can handle anything. Both are terrific swing bands but AATW leans more to the jazzy side while the CHB is more honky-tonk and more prone to novelty lyrics. All of their albums are filled with many and varied treasures.

Razor X’s Top 10 singles of 2014

law way im livinIt seems that every year it becomes more and more difficult to compile a list of the year’s ten best singles. I don’t listen to country radio very much (OK – at all) anymore, so when one of my favorite artists releases a new album, I’m not always aware of which tracks have become singles. In fact, many veterans on independent labels no longer bother releasing product to radio. That being said, there were some worthwhile single releases this year and the following were my favorites:

10. All Alright — Zac Brown Band

The Zac Brown Band had been one of the few consistent bright spots at country radio in recent years. This tune has a great melody and a strong vocal performance, and I would have rated it higher had it not been for the over-the-top guitar solo that mars an otherwise very good record.

9. Like A Cowboy — Randy Houser

In another era, Randy Houser might have been a superstar. He’s one of the genre’s best vocalists but like many of his contemporaries he has struggled to consistently select strong material. This pop/rock-with-steel-guitar power ballad is not a timeless classic, but it’s one of the relatively few songs that didn’t either bore or annoy me. Yes, the bar has been lowered that much. That’s not to suggest that I didn’t enjoy this song, just an admission that it probably wouldn’t have made my Top 10 list in a stronger year.

8. Lay Low — Josh Turner

Turner is another artist whose talent often far exceeds the quality of the songs he sings. The lyrics don’t have a whole lot of depth but Turner’s vocal performance is enough to make this an enjoyable listen.

Sunny-Sweeney-Bad-Girl-Phase7. Bad Girl Phase — Sunny Sweeney

After a three-year hiatus, Sunny Sweeney returned this year, feeling feisty and letting everyone know that she’s not just the girl next door in this unfortunately non-charting effort.

6. PrizeFighter – Trisha Yearwood ft. Kelly Clarkson

Trisha Yearwood is another one of my long-time favorites who made a comeback this year. While not the strongest entry in her discography, “PrizeFighter” is a good, though not great, record.

A Million Ways To Die Single Cover5. A Million Ways To Die — Alan Jackson

Radio totally ignored this song from the film A Million Ways To Die In The West. This retro-sounding effort totally different from anything Jackson has ever done and is reminsicent of something Johnny Cash would have enjoyed sinking his teeth into. A fun listen if you don’t take it too seriously.

4. Who I Am With You — Chris Young

His latest album found Chris Young moving in a more pop direction. While I prefer his more traditional efforts, he is such a strong vocalist, it’s difficult not to like his music. On this track, he often sounds like a young Randy Travis, though the song itself is a far cry from Randy’s brand of country.

3. That’s What Dreamers Do — Travis Tritt

This is a very nicely crafted ballad, from a film about the life of Walt Disney. Tritts’ voice sounds a little more worn than it did back when he was a staple on country radio, but this song holds its own with the best of his 90s ballads.

dolly bluesmoke2. Blue Smoke — Dolly Parton

This bluegrass-flavored single and the album from which it came marks Dolly Parton’s strongest effort since her bluegrass albums for Sugar Hill. At nearly 69 years of age, Dolly sound fresh and energetic and is showing no signs of slowing down any time soon.

1. The Way I’m Livin’— Lee Ann Womack

A lot of big names returned from long hiatuses this year, but Lee Ann Womack’s was the one I was most excited about. This non-charting record is an example of what country music used to be all about. It’s the first release of the post-major label phase of her career. I hope that her association with Sugar Hill is a long one and that she’ll begin releasing music more frequently than she has in the past. Country music needs more Lee Ann Womacks.

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard’

working man's poetI have to admit to receiving the news of another Merle Haggard tribute album with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. It seemed unnecessary coming on the heels of Suzy Bogguss’ excellent Lucky and the artist line-up seemed uninspired, especially when compared to that of 1994’s Haggard tribute Mama’s Hungry Eyes, which featured like Randy Travis, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Radney Foster and Emmylou Harris, to name a few. I had serious doubts if half the artists on the just-released Working Man’s Poet had more than a vague awareness of who Haggard is before participating in this project. Some of them seem to have been selected primarily because they are on the roster of Broken Bow Records, which released the album. Others, like Joe Nichols and Randy Houser actually seemed to belong on such an album.

Reservations about the artist line-up aside, there is much to enjoy about this album and it even serves to illustrate that even relatively unexciting artists can rise to the occasion when given decent material to perform. I never expected to particularly enjoy anything by Thompson Square, for example, but their two contributions “You Take Me For Granted” (one of my favorite Haggard tunes) and “Let’s Chase Each Other Around The Room” are among the best on the album. Former American Idol contestant Kristy Lee Cook also turned in a solid performance on “Today I Started Loving You Again”, as did Dustin Lynch on “That’s The Way Love Goes”.

It was no surprise that Randy Houser’s versions of “Misery and Gin” and “Ramblin’ Fever” and Joe Nichols’ performances of “Footlights’ and “My Favorite Memory” were all excellent, but I was a little disappointed by Toby Keith’s rendition of “Carolyn”, which is marred by an intrusive string arrangement. “Pancho and Lefty” was always more of a Willie Nelson vehicle rather than a Haggard one, so I thought it was a little strange that it was included here. It’s performed by Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley with Bryan doing all the heavy lifting — singing Willie’s part. I don’t care much for the arena-rock style production but I was impressed with Bryan’s vocal performance. He is an artist I could actually enjoy if he chose his own material more carefully. It would have been nice if Dierks had been given another song to perform in addition to this one.

Another curious choice was the obscure 1980 track “Make Up and Faded Blue Jeans” — my least favorite on the album, performed by Jake Owens who sounds as though he is in way over his head. I tried very hard to set aside my intense dislike of Jason Aldean and fairly evaluate his two contributions, “Going Where The Lonely Go” and “Are The Good Times Really Over.” The results are a mixed bag; he rises to the occasion on the former, but falls flat on the latter. Haggard’s son Ben also makes two appearances with “Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home”. His voice is pleasant to listen to but he lacks his father’s vocal chops.

The CD version of the album includes “The Bottle Let Me Down”, but since it is performed by Garth Brooks, it was omitted from the iTunes version. I didn’t realize that when I downloaded the album, but I can live without it.

Although I still prefer the Mama’s Hungry Eyes album, I enjoyed Working Man’s Poet much more than I thought I would. It was worth purchasing, even if it did mean giving Jason Aldean space in my iTunes library.

Grade: B+

Week ending 8/17/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

Janie Fricke1953 (Sales): It’s Been So Long — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1953 (Jukebox): Mexican Joe — Jim Reeves (Abbott)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): It’s Been So Long — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1963: Ring of Fire — Johnny Cash (Columbia)

1973: Trip To Heaven — Freddie Hart & The Heartbeats (Capitol)

1983: He’s a Heartache (Looking For a Place to Happen) — Janie Fricke (Columbia)

1993: It Sure Is Monday — Mark Chesnutt (MCA)

2003: It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere — Alan Jackson with Jimmy Buffett (Arista)

2013: Cruise — Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

2013 (Airplay): Runnin’ Outta Moonlight — Randy Houser (Stoney Creek)

Week ending 8/10/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

etc1953 (Sales): It’s Been So Long — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1953 (Jukebox): Rub-A-Dub-Dub — Hank Thompson (Capitol)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): It’s Been So Long — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1963: Ring of Fire — Johnny Cash (Columbia)

1973: Lord, Mr. Ford — Jerry Reed (RCA)

1983: Your Love’s On The Line — Earl Thomas Conley (RCA)

1993: Chattahoochie — Alan Jackson (Arista)

2003: It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere — Alan Jackson with Jimmy Buffett (Arista)

2013: Cruise — Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

2013 (Airplay): Runnin’ Outta Moonlight — Randy Houser (Stoney Creek)

Week ending 2/2/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

Tom T Hall 4bio1953 (Sales): Eddy’s Song — Eddy Arnold (RCA)

1953 (Jukebox): Back Street Affair — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): No Help Wanted — The Carlisles (Mercury)

1963: The Ballad of Jed Clampett — Flatt & Scruggs (Columbia)

1973: (Old Dogs, Children and) Watermelon Wine — Tom T. Hall (Mercury)

1983: Talk To Me — Mickey Gilley (Epic)

1993: Look Heart, No Hands — Randy Travis (Warner Bros.)

2003: 19 Somethin’ – Mark Wills (Mercury)

2013: Better Dig Two — The Band Perry (Republic Nashville)

2013 (Airplay): How Country Feels — Randy Houser (Stoney Creek)

Album Review: Randy Houser – ‘How Country Feels’

how country feelsRandy Houser’s third album, while his most consistent to date, is still a very mixed bag. Derek George’s production is generally unsubtle and loud, and acceptable but uninspired on the quieter tracks. Houser’s career seemed to have hit the roadblocks, when he left Show Dog-Universal for independent label Stoney Creek. However, ‘How Country Feels’ his first single for the new label proved to be a hit, and became only his second top 10 single to date. It isn’t a very interesting song, but regrettably that seems to be what it takes for commercial success these days.

New single ‘Running Outta Moonlight’, written by Dallas Davidson, Kelly Lovelace and Ashley Gorley, is quite catchy but too loud, and while not dislikeable, rather bland lyrically with its generic picture of outdoor romance in the South. However, its very flaws make it a good bet to repeat the performance of ‘What Country Feels’. Much the same goes for the equally loud ‘Growin’ Younger’, written by Randy with Justin Weaver and Brett James, with its positive but unoriginal message about living life to the full, and I could see this as a successful single later this year.

The nadir of the album is reached with ‘Absolutely Nothing’, a half-spoken, largely tuneless, incredibly bland and completely pointless song about doing nothing. It’s the kind of thing that was probably fun at an uninspired writing session, but has no interest for anyone else (the guilty parties are Lee Brice, Joe Leathers and Vicky McGehee). Luckily, it is the only track (of 15) which has absolutely no merit.

There is a handful of genuinely outstanding songs which make this project worthwhile (or are at least worth downloading separately). Perhaps the best of all is ‘The Singer’, written by Trent Willmon and Drew Smith. It is a tender portrait of the (ex?) wife of a successful but troubled musician:

She loved the singer
She just couldn’t live the song

Almost as good is Randy’s own ‘Power Of A Song’, written with Kent Blazy and Cory Batten. This gentle but powerful ballad sounds as though it was inspired by ‘Three Chords and the Truth’, telling the story first of a man planning on leaving his wife and kids and turned around by hearing a song on the radio:

That’s the miracle of music
Loves’s the only thing as strong

The second verse is a contrasting, and even more powerful, story of a woman who never thought she would have the courage to leave a violent relationship – and this time the song gives her the strength not to turn round, 40 miles out. Oddly, this great song has a copyright date of 2004, but somehow has never been cut before. I’m garteful Randy revived it for this album.

The third great song is ‘Along For The Ride’, a pensive philosophical number with gospel-style paino and a bluesy feel to the vocals which Randy wrote with Zac Brown and Levi Lowrey. The last standout is the closer, ‘Route 3 Box 250D’, even though it is a co-write about rural life with Rhett Akins and Dallas Davidson. What makes it work is that it is an emotionally invested, detailed story about a specific family situation which feels very real, which does not shy away from the dark side. The story of growing up in a trailer in Mississippi with a violent stepfather with the only refuge fishing on a neighbour’s pond until the child’s prayers are answered when rescue comes from an uncle is deeply moving, as the protagonist reflects,

That’s where I became a man
Long before my time

The lyrics note bleakly, “Hollywood don’t make no movies” about the kind of life he led, but actually there is the kernel of a film, or perhaps a novel, in this song.

I liked ‘Shine’, written by Neil Thrasher, Trent Summar, Wendell Mobley. Set to an engaging banjo-led arrangement (but still a bit too loud), it tells the story of a rural moonshiner giving some hope to the residents of a town badly affected by the economic downturn of the past few years.

‘Top Of The World’, written by Jason Sellers, Rob Hatch, Lance Miller and Vicky McGehee, is a pretty good mid-tempo love song with a catchy tune, and I also quite liked ‘Goodnight Kiss’, written by Hatch and Sellers with Randy. ‘Wherever Love Goes’ is a pleasant contemporary country duet with labelmate Kristy Lee Cook, written by Sellers with Neil Thrasher and Paul Jenkins.

‘Like A Cowboy’ and ‘Let’s Not Let It’ are decent songs both co written by Randy, hampered by heavy handed production. ‘Sunshine On The Line’, written with Dallas Davidson, has a fairly generic lyric about good times with a pretty girl in the summer, but is saved by the energetic Southern rock performance.

This is an uneven record, which always makes giving a grade somewhat notional. The best songs deserve A status, and I recommend cherrypicking those to download. I suspect these are the ones that won’t get played on radio, but it is good to see that artists with one eye on the charts are stil able to include songs of substance on their albums.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Randy Houser – ‘Anything Goes’

Occasional Hope’s Top Ten Singles of 2011

While it wasn’t a great year for country music, there were some definite signs of life, and some very good songs made their way across the airwaves. A few were even hits. Here are my favorite singles this year:

10. ‘Look It Up – Ashton Shepherd’
Ashton comes across like a modern Loretta Lynn in this scornful rejoinder to a cheating spouse. Forgiveness is not an option. Although it was a top 20 hit and just about her biggest to date, I expected more commercial success from this sassy number, written by Pistol Annie Angaleena Presley with Robert Ellis Orrall.

9. ‘Colder Weather’ – Zac Brown Band
The Georgia band is one of the most artistically adventurous acts in country music, and this is one of their finest records. A complex lyric depicts a couple separated by the man’s driving job; she seems keener than he does on their being together. It was inspired by co-writer Wyatt Durrette’s own thwarted romance with a girl who struggled with the travel demanded by a music career. The production neatly marries an understated piano-led first verse with rock elements as the protagonist’s emotions rise. It was another #1 hit for the band.

8. ‘In God’s Time’ – Randy Houser
Rich-voiced singer-songwriter Randy Houser released his finest effort to date this year with this gently understated expression of faith in God, whatever may happen. A gentle piano-led accompaniment provides effective support. This was intended to be the lead single for Houser’s third album for Show Dog Universal, but it did not do as well as hoped, and Houser has now left the label. He has since signed to indie label Broken Bow, so hopefully he will be able to continue releasing mauic of this caliber.

Read more of this post

Razor X’s Top Ten Singles of 2011

It seems like every year it gets more and more difficult to find new single releases that I actually like. There were a few — but only a few — gems this year. Here are some of my favorites:

10. Northern Girl — Terri Clark. Clark’s homage to her homeland, co-written with former Sugarland member Kristen Hall, is her first single that I’ve truly liked in quite some time. Sadly, it failed to gain any traction on either side of the border.

9. Drink Myself Single — Sunny Sweeney. Currently at #36 on the charts, the third offering from Sunny’s Concrete collection has already out-performed its predecessor and hopefully will become her second Top 10 hit. It reminds me of the type of song radio regularly played back in the 90s during the line-dancing craze.

8. Home — Dierks Bentley. Finally, a song about love of country that manages to avoid jingoism and combativeness. It was written in response to the shooting incident that critically injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed six other people in January of this year.

7. Cumberland Rose — Sylvia. The former 80s star returned in January with her first single release in 24 years. Often unfairly dismissed as a minor talent, Sylvia delivers a lovely vocal performance on this folk ballad written by Craig Bickhardt and Jeff Pennig. I couldn’t find anyplace online to listen to it in its entirety, but it’s well worth the 99 cents to download it from iTunes or Amazon.

6. Tomorrow — Chris Young. The latest in a long tradition of country songs about clinging to one more night before finally ending a relationship that’s run out of steam. Chris Young is one of Nashville’s finest young talents and is destined for great things if he can keep finding material as good as this.

5. In God’s Time — Randy Houser. This introspective number provides a much better showcase for Houser’s vocal ability than his more popular Southern rock-tinged work. It’s the best thing he’s released so far.

4. Here For A Good Time — George Strait. After a couple of rocky years, George Strait finally got his mojo back with this fun number that he wrote with Dean Dillon and his son Bubba Strait.

3. Look It Up — Ashton Shepherd. This blistering confrontation of two-timing spouse deserved more airplay than it got. It may not have been a tremendous commercial success, but I’ll bet Loretta Lynn is proud.

2. Colder Weather — Zac Brown Band. Reminiscent of Dave Loggins’ classic “Please Come To Boston”, the Zac Brown Band continues to push the boundaries of country music without diluting it beyond recognition.

1. Cost of Livin’ — Ronnie Dunn. This tale of a down-on-his-luck veteran is a sad testament to the current economic difficulties in much of the world and a plight to which too many people can relate. Beautifully written and performed, it’s by far the best thing played on country radio this year. It failed to garner any Grammy nominations, but hopefully it will get some recognition by the CMA and ACM next time around.

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Top Ten Singles of 2011

While 2011 was a bland and boring year for mainstream country music where anthems to dirt roads, tales about being someone’s honey bee, and odes to plastic party accessories were all over the radio, it did feature some bright spots. There was even one artist I thought was so constantly strong, two of their singles made my top ten for the year. I would’ve added this person’s latest as a third, but two in one top ten is more than enough.

So in addition to complaining about those songs that seem to have taken country music off track, let’s take a moment and celebrate what was good about country music in 2011. And judging by my list, you have to remember that just because a song spent four or five weeks at #1, doesn’t mean it’s of good quality. So here’s my list of favorite songs, all released as singles in 2011.

I’ll have the rest of my list, numbers 11-45, on my own blog later this month.

10. Randy Houser – “In God’s Time”

The balance between religion and spirituality in American popular culture is often shaky – there are those who believe in the teachings derived from texts and others who choose to let a higher power guide them, but don’t necessarily tie it to a particular faith. As there are those who happily merge the two.

Houser’s tale of letting life work itself out by surrendering to a greater force is the ultimate definition of spirituality, the study of the soul. In realty, “Time” is a fundamental lesson in how to live your life – “But no one knows, not you or me, it might be tomorrow or it might never be. Oh, but don’t lose faith. Put it in His hands. ‘Cause it might be that He might have a bigger plan. Than you had in mind. Miracles happen, in God’s time.”

Very rarely does a singer emerge from the shadows to clearly leave their mark by just a song, but Houser has here. Not only is he among the greatest living of all country singers, but also he may be the best trying to have chart success today.

“Time” is nothing short of a masterpiece, a classic and iconic statement from a living profit. Problem is, Houser occupies his time with distracting southern rock – a decision marking his downfall. If he only understood that he was put here to create songs like this, he would sour into the heavens, and fill the shoes of the ilk in his wake.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Songs About Me’

By 2005, the quality of Trace Adkins’s music had dwindled to new lows. He had finally reached instant-add status with country radio, but like Blake Shelton today, had compromised his music, especially his radio singles, to reach the top. That trend continued with Songs About Me. It may have earned double platinum certification, but it’s easily the most controversial album of his career.

At the time the second single, “Arlington” was climbing the charts (it peaked at #16), Adkins’s record label decided to pull the plug on the military ballad and rush-release “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” to country radio. There was much talk that “Arlington,” a first person story of a soldier buried in the national cemetery, offended military families due to the first person account. But on the flip side, the country music world considered the song a surefire #1 hit. While I understand where the controversy stems from, I personally don’t think it was warranted. It’s easily one of Adkins’s best performances and deserved its due.

Of course, when “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” came into the picture, all was forgotten about the debacle with “Arlington.” It stirred up an even bigger ruckus and caused even greater debate about sexism and the boundaries of country music. It didn’t help that the almost R-rated music video made Shania baring her midriff, Reba wearing her red dress, or Lorrie Morgan strutting around her bedroom in “Something In Red” all seem like a non-issue. That he scored a monster hit with this song (it peaked at #2) only proves that country music (and its fan base) has veered away from its ideals.

There is nothing about this song I care for whether it be the subject matter or the disastrous production values. That a dance version was created only sank this one lower in my book. In his defense of the song, Adkins said he would’ve recorded it for his debut Dreamin’ Out Loud had it been available at the time. I would’ve liked to see him get away with that in 1996.

But the most alarming thing of all was who wrote “Badonkadonk” – Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser, and Dallas Davidson. I can see where the Davidson influence comes in, he did co-write “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” with Luke Bryan, but the Johnson and Houser connection always throws me. Why would two of the best traditional voices recording country music today write something so offensive to the traditions of country music? It just doesn’t seem characteristic of them to me. To be fair, I understand “Badonkadonk” is all in good fun, but I take the ideals of country music very seriously, and in no way does this song fit with someone who’s a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Even Dixie Chick Natalie Maines saw the writing on the wall at the time – she openly wondered where the Chicks music would fit on country radio between “Badonkadonk” and Joe Nichols “Tequlia Makes Her Clothes Fall Off.”

Apart from the disastrous third single, which actually doesn’t fit in context with the rest of the album, Songs About Me gets more right than wrong. While there are a couple of filler power ballads, most of the tunes are understated and showcase the path I want Adkins to travel down with his music.

The title track, a song about singing about who you are, is the only “power” song he actually got right. The rock like production of heavy guitars and drums suits the passion he exudes in his vocal performance. The aforementioned “Arlighton” is a masterpiece and a lesson in using your voice to execute a powerful vocal track.

I also enjoyed “My Heaven” a song in which Adkins lists out what his idea of heaven is – a wood framed house with a porch swing with the kids playing in the yard eating watermelon and spending time with his wife. While the title might suggest more religious undertones, it’s actually a sweet tale made even stronger by the soft mandolin and understated production. I love that he sounds like he’s trying here to create a special moment and not just mailing it in for the sake of filling out an album. While not as memorable as other tunes on the subject, it’s a sweet tale that actually works. I enjoy the marriage here of his voice and the production – instead of reacting like oil and water, they work to compliment themselves nicely. He should record in this vein more often, or at least release these kinds of moments as singles.

“Metropolis,” another highlight (also recorded by its songwriter Anthony Smith in 2003 and Sammy Kershaw in 2008), finds Adkins playing the role of a man trying to make a living and juggle his career and his family. On songs like this, the way he manipulates his voice makes you believe the story he’s trying to convey. A prequal of sorts to “My Heaven,” “Metropolis” should’ve been a single and reminds me a lot of his future monster smash “You’re Gonna Miss This” but without the flash. I love the gorgeous guitar-laced production that helps opposed to hinder his vocal.

In contrast, “I Learned How To Love From You,” hits some but not all of the right notes. A good showcase of his voice, the strings and paino create a mix that overbears the lyrical content and Adkins’s emotional delivery of the song. I might’ve enjoyed it more had it been more starkly produced and a bit toned down. But it is going in the right direction of where Adkins should be as an artist.

As for the duds, “Baby I’m Home” is exactly the kind of immature song you’d expect from Adkins, especially in this period of his career. As he proves on “Arlington” and “My Heaven,” he’s above such trite lyrics as “She’s got 100 candles burning/she’s got next to nothing on,” or at least I want him to be. It’s songs like “Baby I’m Home” (and “Badonkadonk” of course) that keep my appreciation for Adkins quite low. Why is it that all men of a certain age can sing about is hot women?

“Find Me A Preacher,” recorded as “Somebody Find Me A Preacher” by Chad Hudson in 2008, is overwrought and the in your face mix of loud guitars and drums distract from Adkins’s performace. It isn’t too bad, considering how little feeling he puts into the song. As far as album cuts go, this is second-rate filler. I liked how Hudson makes his tale believable, Adkins just seems like he’s trying to fill out an album.

In the end, Songs About Me is a pretty consistent project split down the middle between questionable choices, and moments of growth. Given that this project gave the world “Badonkadonk,” I wasn’t expecting a whole lot of artristy, but was proven wrong by most of what Adkins has to offer this time around. Songs About Me still didn’t convert me into a diehard fan, but a few of the better moments came awfully close.

Grade: B