My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Rivers Rutherford

Album Review: John Michael Montgomery — ‘Pictures’

The promotional cycle for John Michael Montgomery’s Brand New Me had come to an end when Atlantic Records closed their Nashville division in 2001. They weren’t ready to give up on him just yet, so Montgomery moved to their parent label Warner Bros. Nashville, where he reunited with Scott Hendricks for 2002’s Pictures.

The album charted three singles. “‘Till Nothin’ Comes Between Us” is a slick mid-tempo pop ballad, which features a smoothed over vocal from Montgomery. “Country Thang” is typical country-rock, beaming with southern pride. “Four-Wheel Drive” is the best of the bunch, with a nice steel and fiddle based melody, reminiscent of Brad Paisley’s work from the time period. The tracks peaked at #19, #45, and #52, respectively.

Harley Allen, who revived Montgomery’s career with “The Little Girl” appears here, as co-writer, along with Paul Overstreet, of “I Wanna Be There,” a contemporary ballad about a father’s prayer for his child as he or she goes through the phases of life — first words, first date, first heartbreak, etc. John Rich co-wrote “Believe In Me,” a mid-tempo promise of loyalty from a man to his woman.

Rivers Rutherford, a prominent songwriter during this era, was a co-writer of “Love and Alcohol,”  an uptempo cautionary tale where a man is warning a woman he’s been drinking so he’s not quite himself. “Love Changes Everything” is a charming but clichéd story of young love during the summer months on a farm. Montgomery is in a grateful mood on the upbeat “Got You To Thank For That,” which has a nice energy.

There’s nothing particularly interesting about the title track, which traces the love story of a couple through photographs and the memories they conjure up, all the while looking ahead to the memories yet to be made. “It Goes Like This,” which features Sixwire, a group that at the time had released their debut album, is an early sign of bro-country with the way it objectives the woman as nothing more than an object of desire.

I wouldn’t characterize Pictures as a bad album, but it is very generic and lacks even one song I could pull out as essential listening. It’s very typical of early-21st century commercial country music and I could hear shades of what Lonestar was cooking up during this time period. Pictures came on the back end of Montgomery’s career, where he was fighting to remain relevant ten years out from Life’s A Dance.

Radio had mostly moved on, actually to his brother and Troy Gentry, who were hitting their stride with “My Town” and “Hell Yeah.” No one was missing anything with Pictures, so this album’s lack of success was only a loss to his record label.

Grade: C

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Album Review: Clay Walker – ‘A Few Questions’

41TBJpIpiKLBy 2003, Clay Walker’s popularity with country radio was on the wane. A Few Questions, his first and only album for RCA was somewhat successful in helping him reversing the trend, with the first two of the album’s three singles reaching the #9 — his first entries in the Top 10 since 2000’s The Chain of Love.

Produced by Walker with Jimmy Ritchey, A Few Questions has a slicker sound than Clay’s earlier work, reflecting country music’s overall trend towards more pop-oriented material. The title track was the album’s first single and despite its rather uninspired-sounding title, it is a very nice ballad in which the narrator struggles with questions the world’s injustices. I was less impressed by the R&B-tinged “I Can’t Sleep”, which Clay co-wrote with Chely Wright. I preferred the more traditional third release “Jesus Was a Country Boy”, a Walker co-write with Rivers Rutherford. Radio disagreed, as it only reached #31 on the charts.

The album cuts are, for the most part, disappointing. The fiddle-led “This Is What Matters” is hands down the album’s best song, but most of the others are too slick for my liking — the funky, horn-laden “When She’s Good She’s Good”, the rock-tinged “Countrified” and “I’m In The Mood For You”, and the poppy “Sweet Sun Angel”, just to name a few examples. “I Don’t Want To Know” isn’t bad, but it strays too far into pop power ballad territory.

All in all, this is a rather forgettable album that really isn’t worth bothering with, aside from three or four tracks. It is, however, available at budget prices, which may make it worth investigating for some fans.

Grade: C

Album Review: Alabama – ‘Southern Drawl’

southern drawlI was concerned that Alabama’s long-awaited comeback album would pander too much to the current state of country radio, and the first single did nothing to change that. Fortunately there are some bright spots and one outstanding song.

The title track and lead single sounds like a straight rock song. It’s actually not bad for what it is, apart from the woeful rap section and the very, very cliche’d picture of the South it paints. Somehow it took four writers to create it. The song at least has an insistent groove and the band sound as if they are enjoying themselves. It is not the worst track on the album; that dubious honor goes to the resolutely uncatchy ‘Foot Stompin’ Music’, whose title alone probably tells you all you need to know. The only good thing about it is the fiddle break at the end.

I was intrigued by the quirky title, ‘Hillbilly Wins The Lotto Money’, written by Randy Owen’s son Heath. It is an interesting story song with a bluesy arrangement which grew on me with repeated listens. The perky ‘Back To The Country’ features the obligatory token banjo to accompany a lyric about feeling out of place in the city and longing for a rural home. The clichés are saved by Randy Owen’s believable delivery. The mid-tempo country-rock ‘American Farmer’ pays tribute to its subjects’ hard work.

‘No Bad Days’ took six writers including James Otto, Jerry Jeff Walker’s son Django, and Jeff Cook, but is a pretty good song in folk-rock vein sung by Cook. Teddy Gentry leads on the more urgent ‘It’s About Time’ .

The ballads tend to lean AC rather than country. ‘Wasn’t Through Lovin’ You Yet’ just feels a little uninspired. ‘This Ain’t Just A Song’, written by Tim James, Rivers Rutherford and George Teren, is quite pleasant; and the Randy Owen-penned ‘As Long As There’s Love’ has a pretty melody and idealistic lyric.

‘One On One’ has Randy Owen doing his familiar laughably over-the top Conway Twitty impersonation, but the parts which are actually sung rather than spoken in an attempt to sound sexy, are pretty good.

The gentle ‘Come Find Me’ is very pretty indeed, and features Alison Krauss on fiddle and harmony vocals, although the latter are rather low in the mix. It was written by Tony Lane and David Lee. By far the best song here, though, is left to the end of the set. The beautiful ‘I Wanna Be There’ is addressed to a newborn baby girl, with the besotted new father expressing his hopes that he will experience all the joys of fatherhood in the years to come. It was written by Paul Overstreet and Harley Allen, and is genuinely moving. This alone makes a distinctly patchy album worthwhile, and I recommend both it and ‘Come Find Me’ to be downloaded even if you pass on the rest.

Grade: C+

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Sundown Heaven Town’

Sundown_heaven_townTim McGraw got off to as bad a start as any could ever dream of when introducing his thirteenth album to the world this past winter. The first single, Mark Irwin, James T. Slater, and Chris Tompkins’ “Lookin’ For That Girl” was a smooth hip/hop meets R&B ballad with McGraw desperately pleading for relevance by pandering to trends in order to score airplay. Then came the album’s title, Sundown Heaven Town, which carries with it racial connotations so horrid, everyone in McGraw’s camp should’ve known better and avoided completely unnecessary controversy.

By the time “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s” dropped this spring, McGraw needed the course correction the single ultimately gave him. The elegantly sparse ballad, co-written by Tom Douglas, Jaren Johnson, and Jeffery Steele, is McGraw’s finest single in seven years thanks to an assist from Faith Hill and a charming tale about home. McGraw and Hill are deservedly vying for both Single and Musical Event of the Year at the upcoming CMA Awards.

Just this month Big Machine released the third single from the album, a Marv Green, Hillary Lindsey, and Troy Verges penned tune entitled “Shotgun Rider.” The track, while it sounds good with a shuffle beat, is middle of the road at best and hardly memorable. The problem is keen McGraw fans will remember a different tune with the same name appearing on his Let It Go album in 2007. That “Shotgun Rider,” a duet with Hill, was far more country and less wordy than this tune.

McGraw treated fans to another of the album’s tracks, Canadian country singer/songwriter Deric Ruttan’s “City Lights” when he performed on The Voice this spring. The track is excellent, and while louder, recalls the best of his 90s/00s work. Also classic McGraw is “Overrated,” a sonically progressive muscular ballad penned by Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, and Rivers Rutherford. The chorus is strong and memorable and he gives a nicely commanding performance reminiscent of “Unbroken” from 2001. Big Machine would be smart to release this as a single.

Newcomer Catherine Dunn, who also happens to be McGraw’s cousin, joins him on “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools,” a pure country album highlight that has a bit too much electric guitar, but adds a nice helping of steel about halfway through. While she’s regulated to singing harmony, Dunn adds a nice texture to the track that helps balance McGraw’s gruffness. It’s just weird to me he isn’t singing with Hill, who also would’ve been perfect here.

I also like “Words are Medicine,” a good pop-country number that I might’ve loved had someone like Jennifer Nettles sang it. As it is McGraw does well with it, but his vocal lacks a subtly a better song interpreter would’ve brought to it. “Last Turn Home” is just too loud and McGraw gives an annoying vocal performance on it, which is unfortunate.

“Portland, Maine” finds McGraw with a smoothed processed vocal that does little to give him any credibility. The lyric, by Abe Stoklasa and Donovan Woods, is idiotic, with the laughable hook of “Portland, Maine I don’t know where that is.” The track is ripe for parody and completely beneath McGraw’s talents. “Still On The Line” isn’t any better, with an arrangement that leans far too pop for my tastes.

Also terrible is “Dust,” an embarrassing slice of bro-country dreck unsurprisingly co-written by two-thirds of the Peach Pickers. McGraw co-wrote “Keep On Truckin’” with The Warren Brothers and Bill Daly. Like most of the dreck in mainstream country music, it’s another laundry list number that spends a lot of time saying next to nothing. Andrew Dorff’s “Sick of Me” isn’t awful, but McGraw’s vocal is grating and the song’s structure is annoying.

A deluxe edition of Sundown Heaven Town gives the listener an additional five tracks. McGraw gives a tender vocal on the piano ballad turned overproduced social conscious track “Kids Today,” he turns the volume up to eleven on “I’m Feeling You,” mixes organic country with too much rock on “The View” and ventures into Lady Antebellum territory with “Black Jacket.” I wanted to love the Kid Rock assisted “Lincoln Continentals and Cadillacs,” but the lyric was embarrassingly juvenile and the production far too progressive for my tastes.

As a whole, Sundown Heaven Town is a mixed bag, with McGraw getting a few things right, but still taking a lot of wrong turns along the way. I was a rabid fan of his from 1996-2007, but as the trends in mainstream country have changed, and he along with them, I’ve lost interest. He’s nicely evened out with Sundown Heaven Town, though, with the McGraw of “Truck Yeah” thankfully not showing up here. While he does need a new, far less rockified sound, this is his best album since Let It Go, which is saying a lot these days.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Tracy Byrd – ‘Ten Rounds’

TenroundsTracy Byrd’s second album for RCA Nashville, Ten Rounds, saw a reversal of commercial fortunes that got Byrd back in the game at a time when he needed the support of country radio to remain relevant. Released in 2001, the album was once again co-produced by Billy Joe Walker, Jr.

A Rivers Rutherford co-written slice of terrible country rock entitled “Good Way To Get On My Bad Side,” a duet with Mark Chesnutt, was issued as the lead single. Hardly memorable and wholly generic, the track peaked at #21. While the track could be seen as an early indication of the genre’s future, Walker and Byrd get one thing right – the loudness, despite heavy electric guitars, is kept to a minimum.

The Spanish flavored “Just Let Me Be In Love” returned Byrd to the top ten for the first time in three years when it peaked at #9. Byrd returns to form here with a triple punch – memorable lyric, forceful vocal, and wonderfully listenable production.

The third and final single, “Ten Rounds With Jose Cuevro,” a lively honky-tonker, topped the charts giving Byrd his first number one single in eight years and his second chart topper to date. The ruckus nature of the track coupled with Byrd’s immersion into the character helped propel the single’s success at radio. While the novelty wears off after repeated listenings, the track isn’t without modest commercial charms.

The remainder of Ten Rounds balances tenderly produced ballads with rowdy up-tempo numbers. The latter group leaves much to be desired, especially “Summertime Fever” and “Somebody’s Dream,” which are pure dreck. Thankfully the other uptempo numbers are far more listenable and delicately produced.

The former provide moments where Ten Rounds shines as bright as it’s going to with tracks that are great, but nothing revelatory. Surprisingly, three of them are covers – “Wildfire” is the Michal Martin Murphy song from the 70s, “How Much Does The World Weigh” was previously recorded by Sammy Kershaw, and “Keeper of the Stars” is an updated version of his signature song. The covers are good, but he brings nothing new to them except for “Keeper of the Stars,” which comes off more country than the original. “Needed,” as close to neo-traditional as the record gets is good, too.

All and all Ten Rounds is a squarely commercial country album aimed at positioning Byrd as a major player for continued airplay on country radio. While that objective was achieved, Byrd and Walker could’ve amassed a far more memorable collection of songs that were stronger both sonically and lyrically. As it stands, Ten Rounds is nothing more than a mixed bag that gets more wrong than right.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Joe Nichols – ‘Crickets’

crickets joe nicholsJoe Nichols’s career never quite recovered from his break to tackle his substance abuse problem in 2007, notwithstanding 2010’s chart topping single ‘Gimmie That Girl’. He has since lost his deal with Show Dog Universal, and his new album is released on the independent Red Bow. Independent labels tend to have fewer resources available for promotion, making radio hits harder to come by, and as if to compensate, Joe has followed the example of Chris Young by including a large proportion of lyrically unambitious commercial material. Luckily, a total of 16 tracks leaves enough room for good songs as well as bad, including three essential downloads.

The very best track on the album is a heartfelt, beautifully sung cover of Haggard’s ‘Footlights’. Joe is also at his neotraditional best with the Josh Turner-styled ‘Billy Graham’s Bible’, a lovely ballad which dresses up a love song into a discussion of destiny, with the protagonist comparing himself transformed by his love to the titular Bible, and to Willie Nelson’s guitar:

The good Lord had a plan for them
The moment they were made
In the right hands they come alive
You understand the reason why

Some things wind up where they’re meant to be
Like Billy Graham’s Bible
Willie’s old guitar
And me

It was written by Chris Dubois, Jimmy Melton and Neal Coty, and is outstanding.

Also excellent is ‘Old School Country Song’, written by Rivers Rutherford and Jim Collins, which pays tribute to the lasting power of real country music even in a changing world:

In a chat room out in cyberspace
They might not be face to face
They both know they’re up to something wrong
They say we’ve come a long, long way
Talkin’ bout the world today
Still sounds like an old school country song

Folks still love and folks still leave
Drunks get drunk and cheaters cheat
And there’s just something lonesome ‘bout a midnight train
Someone done somebody wrong
We’ll miss Mama when she’s gone
And trust me
That ain’t never gonna change

Breakin’ up is still a mess
It don’t make a heart hurt less
‘Cause you text it from a mobile phone
All you’ve really done, you see
Is modernize the melody
This still feels like an old school country song

You can take it off that ol’ jukebox
Burn it on your new Ipod
The three chords and the truth are just as strong
You can say we’ve come a long long way
Play what you want to play
But there’s nothing like an old school country song

‘Better Than Beautiful’ is a pretty love song delivered with palpable sincerity, which is the best of the rest. Opener ‘Just Let Me Fall In Love With You’ is quite an attractive mid-tempo tune, although the lyric is filled with clichés. ‘Love Has A Way’ is another pretty ballad spoiled in its second half by an insensitive and echoey production. ‘Baby You’re In Love With Me’ opens attractively, but has a cliche’d lyric about driving around in the country with a girlfriend. ‘Gotta Love It’ is nicely sung but the production is too loud and the song not very interesting.

‘Smile On Mine’ is, amazingly, a Peach Pickers’ song I actually like (despite the obligatory truck reference, it has a pleasant melody and decent lyric trying to get a girl interested). Dallas Davidson also co-wrote ‘Open Up A Can’ with Ashley Gorley and Kelley Lovelace, a relaxed number about taking a break from the stresses of life which isn’t bad but doesn’t need the party crowd sound effects.

The cliché-ridden ‘Yeah’, written by Gorley with his regular writing partner Bryan Simpson, adds nothing new or interesting. ‘Hard To Be Cool’ is boring but could be worse. The title track is also pleasant-sounding but not very interesting. The lead single ‘Sunny And 75’ is rather forgettable, but less objectionable than 95% of current hits, and has rewarded Joe for his compromises by rising up the charts and is now on the brink of the top 10.

But while the majority of the tracklisting is mediocre rather than terrible, there are a pair of really awful songs tucked in the middle of the album: ‘Y’ant To’ and ‘Hee Haw’. The latter is not a tribute to the TV show, but a tacky, crude double entendre which is heavily over-produced.

Overall, a real mixed bag, with some genuine highlights.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Collin Raye – ‘Twenty Years And Change’

twenty years and changeAfter exiting Epic, Collin Raye signed to independent label Aspirion, and four years after the release of his last Epic album, he went back into the studio. Unfortunately, the result was his most pop-AC styled records to date, and also his worst.

The album opens with the bland moral advice of ‘I Know That’s Right’, written by Bob DiPiero, Rivers Rutherford and Tom Shapiro. It was released as a single but failed to chart, as did the up-tempo ‘Hurricane Jane’, which is frankly pretty bad.

Band member and co-producer Gene Lesage (whose tragic death was reported a couple of weeks ago) contributed several songs, the best of which is the melodic piano ballad ‘We’ll Be Alright’, which has a sweet, sincere delivery. ‘Heart’ is quite pleasant, while ‘Forgotten’ sounds nice enough but is a little dull.

Collin himself wrote a couple of songs. The drippy ballad ‘All I Can Do Is Love You’ is a co-write with pop/AC singer-songwriter Melissa Manchester; the title track, written by Collin on his own, is a story song with a melody reminiscent of a Beatles song.

Rory Feek’s Civil War story song ‘Josephine’ is dramatic, but perhaps a little over-emoted; Feek’s own more understated recent version ends up being much more effective and memorable.

There is one absolutely outstanding and unmistakably country track, ‘You’re Not Drinking Enough’. In this gem, the protagonist offers cynical advice to a lovelorn friend:

You keep telling yourself you can take it
You keep telling yourself that you’re tough
But you still want to hold her
So you must not be drinking enough

You’re not drinking enough
To wash away old memories
And there ain’t enough whiskey in Texas
To keep you from begging
“Please, please, please”

She passed on your passion
She stepped on your pride
It turns out you ain’t quite so tough
Cause you still want to hold her
You must not be drinking enough

It is a cover of a song originally recorded in 1984 by the Eagles’ Don Henley and a minor hit for Earl Thomas Conley in 1989 under the title ‘You Must Not Be Drinking Enough’; surprisingly it broke Conley’s hot streak of chart toppers but it is a great song which deserved better success. Colin’s version is very good, and by far the best track on this otherwise disappointing effort.

There are some better-known covers, including two pop hits for artists with country careers. The Bellamy Brothers’ ‘Let Your Love Flow’ works quite well but is even less country than the original, Conway Twitty’s pop hit ‘It’s Only Make Believe’ is a bit overwrought. AC ballad ‘The Search Is Over’ has nothing to do with country music (it is a cover of a hit for 80s rock band Survivor), but is one of the better tracks, thanks to a smooth vocal.

Although it is available cheaply, this is really not a worthwhile purchase. Download ‘Youre Not Drinking Enough’, and leave it at that.

Grade: D+

Album Review: Blake Shelton – ‘The Dreamer’

Blake’s second album, produced as before by Bobby Braddock and released in 2003, featured a state of the art commercial country sound which mirrored the state of country music of the period.

One of my favorite ever Blake Shelton recordings is his second #1 hit, which was the lead single from this album. ‘The Baby’, penned by Harley Allen and Michael White, is a story song with a tear-jerking emotional payoff. It is the frank confession of a spoilt youngest son, whose doting mother excuses all his failings, “because I was her baby”. He ends up missing his mother’s deathbed, even though she has been calling for her favorite:

She looked like she was sleepin’
And my family had been weepin’
By the time that I got to her side
And I knew that she’d been taken
And my heart it was breaking
I never got to say goodbye
I softly kissed that lady
And cried just like a baby

The ill-chosen second single ‘Heavy Liftin’’ is a not very interesting song in itself but its main flaw is the production. There is just too much going on in the arrangement with banjos fighting against the blaring electric guitars – it ends up sounding as it would if two separate tracks were recorded, they couldn’t decide which to go with and stuck them together. It didn’t make into the top 30, but would probably do rather better if released to today’s radio.

Much better is memorably quirky top 30 single ‘Playboys Of The Southwestern World’, written by Neal Coty and Randy Van Warmer. It tells the amusing story of two wild boys who get themselves into trouble, ending up in jail in Mexico.

There is a great cover of Johnny Paycheck’s 1978 hit ‘Georgia In A Jug’, written by Blake’s producer Braddock. A jilted fiancé drinks away the money he had saved up for the exotic honeymoon:

I’m going down to Mexico in a glass of tequila
Going down to Puerto Rico in a bottle of rum
Goin’ out to Honolulu in a mai tai mug
Then I’m coming back home to Georgia in a jug

The arrangement copies the original fairly closely (with some delicious added fiddle), but that’s no bad thing, and the result is entertaining.

Braddock also wrote ‘Someday’, which questions what may happen beyond death. Delivered dramatically with a gospel choir, it is quite effective. The idiosyncratic ‘In My Heaven’ was written by Rivers Rutherford and Bobby Pinson and offers a picture of a perfect world from their point of view. The message is a bit mixed – on the one hand “we hurt no one”, on the other they’re feeding lawyers to the lions; and there’s a strong emphasis on having fun and playing sports missed in with the idealistic inclusiveness.

Blake wrote the title track, which is quite good, with the protagonist realising the costs of achieving his dreams of material success, and finding it has not made him truly happy when the one he loved is not with him. The production is a little louder than necessary, but overall this is a decent track  ‘My Neck Of The Woods’ which he co-wrote with Billy Montana and Don Ellis celebrates both the natural beauties and the neighborliness of the countryside. It was partially inspired by Blake’s then Tennessee farm home, and acknowledges the very real difficulties of rural poverty more than the glut of rural pride songs we hear today. ‘Asphalt Cowboy’ is a modern trucking anthem, which is well sung and interpreted by Blake. John Rich co-write ‘Underneath The Same Moon’ is a somewhat overblown big ballad.

There are some great tracks here, but overall it isn’t as strong a set as Blake’s debut, with the production ramped up a bit too much at times. Cheap used copies are, however, easy to find. It was a reasonable success for him.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘Hope On The Rocks’

The most prolific of today’s mainstream acts, and the only person around who seems able to release full length albums, with generally all self-written material, on an annual schedule, Toby Keith is back with his latest. The excellent title track is about the secret sorrows of a bar room crowd as imagined by the bartender who concludes, “I’m all they’ve got – hope on the rocks”. The melody is a bit limited, but the lyric is thoughtful and sympathetic. Although Toby wrote every song on the record, it is interesting that this, the only one he composed solo, is by far the best.

The catchy top 20 hit ‘I Like Girls That Drink Beer’ is surprisingly likeable, with its preference for ordinary girls over the wealthy country club lady he is leaving. Like the bulk of the album’s selections, it is a co-write by Toby with Bobby Pinson.

The best of these is ‘Haven’t Seen The Last Of You’, a reflective depiction of the aftermath of a failed relationship which also benefits from pretty harmonies from Mica Roberts. Set a bit further down the line, ‘Missed You Just Right’ is also pretty good, with the protagonist having finally moved on from an unsatisfactory ex, and found the real love of his life as a result.

‘Get Got’ offers some highly cliche’d life advice (although the warning not to “mix whiskey with decision” is certainly a good tip for anyone who hasn’t already figured that out), and the arrangement and production are too loud. The hard living trucker’s confession, ‘Haven’t Had A Drink All Day’ is also too loud although it isn’t a bad song with plenty of energy.

‘Cold Beer Country’, written by Keith, Pinson and Marc Fortney of Trailer Choir, is a cheerful paean to hot summer days drinking beer, with a Dixieland jazz opening reminiscent of some of Haggard’s work in that style. This might work as a summer single.

Scotty Emerick co-wrote the downbeat ‘You Ain’t Alone’, depicting a lonely man brooding over the departure of his loved one, which is not bad. ‘The Size I Wear’ (written with Rivers Rutherford) is one of Keith’s rather clumsy, sexist, barely post-adolescent attempts at humor, which probably works better for a male audience than it does for me. He and Rutherford also wrote the rather better ‘Scat Cat’. This is a fairly interesting tale of a family moonshine operation and escaping the law, with a bluesy groove which I enjoyed.

Grade: B

Album Review: JT Hodges – ‘JT Hodges’

A Texan in his early 30s, JT Hodges has been trying to break through on Show Dog Universal Records for a year or two with a couple of singles skirting the top 40 cutoff line. Now his debut album gives us a better idea of him as an artist.

The answer is a decidedly contemporary country-rock one with roots more obviously on the rock side than the country one (notwithstanding a mother who once had ambitions of her own to be a country star, and apparently had the first cut on Highway 101’s big hit ‘The Bed You Made For Me’ before rejecting a major label deal to concentrate on family). However, this is definitely an artist with something to say. The singer-songwriter co-wrote most of the material here, generally with his producers, the experienced Don Cook and Mark Wright and minor 90s star Mark Collie, whose own rocking style is not far removed from what Hodges is doing. The sometimes growly voice is nothing special and would be hard to pick out from a number of his contemporaries, but he attacks the songs with energy and commitment and puts them across convincingly. Production is punchy but not so loud as to overwhelm the actual songs as is so often the case with today’s artists.

His debut single ‘Hunt You Down’, written by Hodges with Collie and Rivers Rutherford, just squeezed into the top 40 last year. It is a richly detailed but rather implausible story song about a fling with a rich girl which the protagonist wants to extend, with inventive production, nonchalant whistling and sometimes annoying backing vocals. The follow-up, ‘Goodbyes Made You Mine’, did slightly less well. Almost spoken in the verses, it doesn’t have much of a melody in the verses and gets a bit yelly at times, but a catchy chorus hook and decent lyric with a man presenting himself as a woman’s last and true love give it some interest. These two singles so far rather underwhelmed me, but they are probably the poorest tracks on the album.

I like opener ‘I’d Rather Be Wrong Than Lonely’, a punchy country rock number about a potential hookup with a girl who might be “a little bit dangerous” for him. Hodges wrote the song with Collie and Cook, and together they provide a competently constructed song with a relentless beat, which is one of the best tracks.

This trio also wrote ‘When I Stop Crying’, a very good pained guilt-ridden ballad about redemption and recovery which allows Hodges to venture into the upper reaches of his vocal range. Vince Gill’s backing vocals on this track are proudly vaunted in the liner notes, but are not particularly prominent; Gill also plays a wailing electric guitar solo.

Joined by Mark Wright, they wrote the mid-tempo ‘Leaving Me Later, which is pretty good. Like a calmer sequel to ‘I’d Rather Be Wrong Than Lonely’, it deals with a relationship with a woman not planning to stay around. “Loving me now” is good enough for the protagonist, even if it he knows she is lying and will hurt him when she goes. ‘Give It One More Night’, written with all three producers, is not bad, but too repetitive.

‘Green Eyes, Red Sunglasses’ is a collaboration of Hodges, Collie and Chris Stapleton, and is typical of the latter’s blues-edged material. Cook and Hodges wrote ‘Right About Now’ with Lynn Hutton, a ballad brooding about a two-timing woman’s infidelity with a nice little double meaning in the lyrics.

There are a couple of outside cuts. ‘Sleepy Little Town’ is a compelling if dark semi-story song written by Chris Stapleton and Lee Thomas Miller. It is about the secrets and crimes coming to light in a small town, ranging from an FBI takedown of the local high school coach to a preacher’s wife who finally cracks and fights her husband’s domestic violence. It’s been selected as the latest single, and seems made for a video treatment to help flesh out the stories a bit. ‘Rhythm Of The Radio’ was written by Eric Paslay (another up-and-coming artist) and Dylan Altman, and is a pleasant but slight love song with attractive instrumentation; the Irish flute in particular gives it a fresh summery feel – a single for summer 2013 perhaps?

Overall, J T Hodges comes across as a kind of amalgam of Eric Church, Eric Heatherly and Mark Collie. He has had limited success so far, even with the support of label Show Dog Universal, but it sounds commercial enough while possessing real substance and ambition. He’s a long way from traditional, but definitely one of the better contemporary artists, and this is a very promising start.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Marty Stuart – ‘Country Music’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Album Review: Neal McCoy – ‘XII’

One way for a minor 90s star to get some attention for his independent comeback is to recruit two of today’s biggest names to assist with production. Neal McCoy called on Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert to produce his twelfth album, helped by the experienced Brent Rowan. Together they do a good and unexpectedly restrained job on the sound of the album, and although some of the material is pleasant but forgettable, there is a good humored mood which makes the record thoroughly engaging.

The relaxed lead single ‘A-OK’ is quite catchy with its whistled opening and would be radio friendly if cut by a current star. Blake and Miranda sing recognisable backing vocals, contributing to the feelgood mood. On similar lines is the slightly jerky and bluesy ‘Real Good Feel Good’.

Much better is the soul-laced ‘Judge A Man By The Woman’, which is very well done with excellent phrasing and emotional interpretation. It was previously done by Heartland, best known for their one and only hit ‘I Loved Her First’ a few years back, and has also been cut by actor John Corbett, but Neal’s version, dedicated to his wife of over 30 years, is the best.

The most entertaining track is the frivolous but amusing western swing ‘Mouth’, written by Jamey Johnson and Barry Tolliver. It is about putting one’s foot in it. There is more wry humor in ‘That’s Just How She Gets’, a plaintive complaint from a drinking man, previously cut by Australian Adam Harvey:

All that liquor made her different
And I knew I couldn’t win
She wasn’t the girl that I knew when I met her
She was makin’ a fool of herself and I let her
Kept cussin’ and a-screaming ’till I couldn’t even think
That’s just how she gets when I drink

The bright up-tempo ‘Shotgun Rider’ is one of the Peach Pickers’ standard efforts lyrically (but better than most of their work), but some nice production choices and Neal’s warm vocal make it an attractive listening experience. ‘Borderline Crazy’ is a Mexican styled tale of dreams of Mexican vacations, “countin’ Margaritas instead of sheep”. ‘Crazy Women’, written by George Teren and Rivers Rutherford, is mellow and frankly a bit unexciting for a song with that title.

Neal co-wrote a couple of the songs. ‘That’s You’ (written with Clint Daniels and Jeff Hyde, is quite a nice love song with a sincere vocal bringing it to life. ‘Lucky Enough’ is more generic and over- produced, and is a co-write with Hyde and Ryan Tyndell.

The melodic ‘Every Fire’ was written by John Scott Sherrill and Cathy Majeski, and although I don’t think it’s ever been a single, it has been recorded by a number of artists in the past, starting with Shenandoah on their 1994 effort In The Vicinity Of The Heart. It’s a pretty tune with a faintly melancholic undertow, which is well worthy of a revival, with Miranda Lambert’s harmony adding sweetness to Neal’s convincing lead.

Finally, Allen Shamblin and Tom Douglas wrote the introspective ‘Van Gogh’ a rare down tempo moment, offering reflective thoughts on the nature of artistry:

You pour your heart out on the page
You bare your soul up on stage
You’ve got the power to make us feel
You’ve got the power to help us heal

You’re not crazy when it hurts and makes you cry
You draw the beauty from your pain
Life is just too beautiful to put it in a frame
Maybe that’s the reason why
Van Gogh went insane

You offer up your best and it don’t sell
It cuts you to the bone and hurts like hell
Promise me you’ll still give your fragile heart
Cause you and I both know, baby
That it’s still a work of art

This is definitely not the kind of song I expected from Neal, and is the best song included.

Overall, this is a surprisingly attractive record with even the lesser material sounding good. The worst thing about it is the dreadfully unimaginative cover art, but if it was a budget issue I’d rather they spent the money on the music.

Grade: B+

Randy finds religion: the Christian albums of Randy Travis

Randy’s second and last effort for DreamWorks, the uninspired and over-produced A Man Ain’t Made Of Stone, fell pretty flat both artistically and commercially. Perhaps in response to that, the new millennium saw a major change. He returned to the Warner group for his first religious album (released on Word/Warner Brothers/Curb), Inspirational Journey, in 2000. Surprisingly what appeared at the time to be a one-off detour turned into a whole new career for him.

Kyle Lehning returned to the producer’s chair, and this is basically Christian country music of a very high quality. Randy sounds very sincere and is in great voice throughout, and this is a fine collection which most country fans would enjoy if they can live with the subject matter.

‘Baptism’ (written by Mickey Cates is an atmospheric and affectionate picture of an east Texas river baptism, and is a highlight. Randy had previously guested on a duet version with Kenny Chesney on the latter’s Everywhere We Go; that version served principally to show how infinitely superior Randy’s voice was to Kenny’s. The solo version is better, with a gospel choir some way down in the mix. It was released as the album’s sole single, but barely charted.

My favorite is the traditional country plea to ‘Doctor Jesus’, laced with fiddle and steel, and previously recorded by the underrated Ken Mellons. Randy’s emotional vocal convincingly portrays a man at the bottom and in need of help from “the best healer around”.

Randy’s personal commitment to the project is reflected in the fact that he wrote three of the songs. The best of these is ‘The Carpenter’ (about Jesus) which he wrote with Chip Taylor and Ron Avis; the song features guest vocals from Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter and is very likeable. His other two compositions (the slow, churchy ‘I Am Going’ and ‘Walk With Me’ work less well for me. But even the lesser material like these songs, the opening ‘Shallow Water’ and the subdued ‘See Myself In You’ sound good. ‘Feet On The Rock’ is up-tempo churchy gospel which is quite enjoyable.

The insistent Ron Block song ‘Which Way Will You Choose’ is very catchy with dancing fiddle and a very strong vocal. ‘Drive Another Nail’ is an effective story song about a retired carpenter who sees the light. ‘Don’t Ever Sell Your Saddle’ (from the pens of Kim Tribble and Brian Whiteside) has a warm, nuanced vocal, and could easily have fitted on one of Randy’s secular albums, with its comforting collection of life advice from a father – advice the man didn’t always take himself. The album closes with a very slow take on the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, recorded in memory of Randy’s late mother and his father in law, but I feel the arrangement drags a bit.

While not a best-seller, the album did sufficiently well for Randy to decide to follow it up with another, which was to do rather better. 2002’s gold-certified Rise And Shine is notable for the inclusion of Randy’s last solo hit, the outstanding story song ‘Three Wooden Crosses’. Written by Doug Johnson and Kim Williams and masterfully interpreted, it was Randy’s first #1 in nine years, and was named CMA Song of the Year. It was not the start of a career resurgence, though, as the follow-up single, ‘Pray For the Fish’, a lively but rather slight tale of a river baptism, failed to crack the top 40.

Also excellent is the tender ‘Raise Her Up’, written by Robb Royer and Rivers Rutherford, which might perhaps have built on the success of ‘Three Wooden Crosses’ if it had been sent to radio. This is the voice of a fatherless boy who grows up to become loving stepfather to a similar child, comparing their story to that of Joseph and Jesus.

The Rory Lee/Paul Overstreet song ‘When Mama Prayed’ is a tenderly sung tribute to the power of prayer; the heroine’s prayers bring her irreligious husband and drunk son to see the light. It’s a nice take on an oft-told tale, and one which resonated with Randy given his past. Similarly, the deathbed-set ‘If You Only Knew’ is an unexceptional lyric lifted to a new level by Randy’s vocal although the string arrangement and choir-like backing vocals are a bit stifling. ‘Valley Of Pain’, written by Rob Mathes and Allen Shamblin, is a good depiction of someone holding on to their faith through a bad patch. ‘The Gift’, written by Phillip Moore and Ray Scott, is rather a nice Christmas song:

“On our Savior’s birthday
We got the gift”

Randy co-wrote six of the 13 songs. They are all perfectly listenable and clearly heartfelt, but not that memorable out of context. The best is the dark envisioning of the Second Coming in ‘Jerusalem’s Cry’, with Randy’s vocals at their most gravelly, although it is probably the least “country” track on the album.

There was also an accompanying DVD with a short (20 minute) documentary about Randy, who talks about horses, his wild youth and his religion, with Kyle Lehning also contributing. There are clips of Randy performing, in the studio, and a lot of him riding horses.

Worship & Faith in 2003 was a reverently sung collection of hymns, traditional spiritual songs and one or two modern worship songs, given an all-acoustic country production. I enjoy listening to it a great deal, but there isn’t anything here for the non-religious listener. One song which particularly stands out is ‘I’ll Fly Away’ thanks to Joy Lynn White’s distinctive harmonies, while John Anderson duets on a serious version of ‘Just A Closer Walk with Thee’. It did well, selling gold again.

Passing Through, released a year later, is actually not a religious record, and was billed as a return to secular music. However, it was still on Christian label Word in association with Curb and Warners, and had nothing on it likely to offend Christian music fans, and in fact won a Dove Award. Lead single ‘Four Walls’ is, unfortunately, not the country classic but an affectionate story of a rural family united in love. It is pleasant and well sung, but rather dull, and I can see why it didn’t spark at radio. It had been recorded back in 2001, together with several other songs included on the new album. ‘That Was Us’ (also recorded by Tracy Lawrence) fondly recalls a bunch of rural teenage delinquents who grow up to prove their hearts are in the right place, and might have gone down better at radio. ‘Pick Up The Oars And Row’, written by Jamie O’Hara, is a sympathetic song addressed to a woman let down by a lying man, which is very good. The subdued ‘My Daddy Never Was’ is an excellent slice of life written by Tony Lane, about a divorced man working hard to be “the daddy my daddy never was” and reflecting on his own failings; Randy’s voice cracks in places but this only suits the defeated mood of the song. Dennis Linde’s ‘Train Long Gone’ stands out with wailing harmonica and train sounds, but doesn’t quite work for me.

Of the newly recorded material, the overly sentimental and part-spoken ‘Angels’ (a tribute to mothers) was the second attempt at a single, and another mis-step. I much prefer ‘Running Blind’, written by Roger Ferris. At a truck stop in New Mexico, a cashier gives the narrator some salutary advice about heading back home to the girl left crying at home, set to a punchy rhythm and Charlie McCoy’s harmonica. The swingy ‘My Poor Old Heart’ (written by Shawn Camp and Gary Harrison) and the gently philosophical ‘Right On Time (from Al Anderson and Sharon Vaughn) are also pretty good. The album title comes from the fiddle-led ‘A Place To Hang My Hat’, written by Shawn Camp, Byron Hill and Brice Long, the only religious song. Randy wrote a couple of tender love ballads, ‘I’m Your Man’ with piano and steel in the foreground, and ‘I Can See It In Your Eyes’(a co-write with Matthew Hague), with heavenly harmony on the chorus from Liana Manis.

Sales of Passing Through were disappointing, and Randy turned to hardcore religious music with Glory Train. This is mainly religious numbers from a variety of American musical traditions, with a handful of contemporary church worship songs, and has the least country feel of any of Randy’s albums, although the fiddle is prominent on a number of tracks. His vocals still compel attention on the mainly up-tempo material (apart from a pointless version of ‘He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands’ which has nothing to interest the listener). Highlights include the title track, a black gospel classic from the 1930s given a country makeover with swirling fiddle and harmonica; a warm version of ‘Precious Memories’, a slowed-down take on ‘Were You There’, the insistent gospel of ‘Jesus On The Mainline’, ‘Oh Death’, and ‘Are You Washed In The Blood’. The Blind Boys of Alabama guest on two gospel tracks, and contemporary Christian group the Crabb Family on another. The least effective track is a pointless sing along of ‘He’s Go the Whole World In His Hands’.

Randy’s religious detour produced some fine music, even if it was a little frustrating for fans of his secular music. All these albums are easy to get hold of.

Grades:

Inspirational Journey: A
Rise And Shine: B+
Worship And Faith: A-
Passing Through: B+
Glory Train: B

Album Review: Brad Paisley – ‘This Is Country Music’

Brad Paisley was our Spotlight Artist last November, and he has produced some outstanding material in the past. His last few releases, however, have been on a downward spiral, and sadly his latest release accelerates the trend. He cowrote almost all the material with a variety of partners, most often including Kelley Lovelace and/or Chris Dubois. To be frank, he would have been well advised to look elsewhere, because so much of this is just plain uninspired.

Thhe three outside songs provide the most worthwhile tracks. The spiritual ‘Life’s Railway to Heaven’ former is the record’s sole nod to the traditionalism which marked Brad’s early career, and features guest vocals from Marty Stuart, Sheryl Crow and Carl Jackson. ‘A Man Don’t Have To Die’, written by Rivers Rutherford, George Teren and Josh Thompson, is the album’s highlight for me, although the story’s set-up is not as well set up as it might be. The song is largely addressed to a preacher, “new around here”, but it isn’t clear what he’s been saying to his flock to prompt this response:

It don’t really scare us when you yell and shake your fist
You see we already know that Hell exists

The body of the song is much more effective, with its depiction of the hell on earth of being laid off by a ungrateful employer, “six months short of 30 years“, struggling to repay a mortgage, or a broken marriage. The chorus has effective harmonies, but the track is marred by out of place and very irritating wordless backing vocals in the second half possibly intended to be the voices of angels.

The charmingly playful ‘Toothbrush’ (written by Joel Shewmake, Jon Henderson and Danny Simpson) details the growth of romance, and this track boasts an imaginative arrangement which makes it the best sounding track on the record. Brad’s composition ‘Eastwood’ is a rather good atmospheric Western style instrumental with Clint Eastwood adding a few words at the beginning and end. Brad’s little boys gurgle a few words as well, and are less irritating than most intrusions of child voices.

None of Brad’s songs here is up to the standard of his earlier work, but I still quite like the title track’s tribute to the inclusiveness of country music, which I reviewed last autumn – at least until it collapses into an uninspired litany of (much better) song titles. The current hit, ‘Old Alabama’ is a fair tribute to the band of that name, but far less effective as a song in its own right, even when Randy Owen joins in, and it is over-produced to boot.

Also acceptable is the rueful ‘I Do Now’ which has the protagonist looking back at his wedding and regretting breaking the promises he made then. It starts out very well indeed, with an understated regret imbuing the first verse, but the chorus is predictable and the later verses don’t take us anywhere unexpected. ‘New Favorite Memory’ is a pleasant but slightly dull evocation of domestic bliss. The affectionate wedding-set ‘Love Her Like She’s Leavin’’, complete with advice (from the bride’s Uncle Bill) of how to keep the relationship going, has a very pop-influenced melody and a pleasant but cliche’d lyric. The Eagles’ Don Henley sings harmony.

On a similar theme, the new single ‘Remind Me’, the duet with Carrie Underwood (reviewed recently by J.R. Journey) is actually a pretty good song about a couple longing for the sweetness of the early days of a love affair which has become a stale marriage, but Carrie oversings her parts, sounding too intense where the lyric seems to call for wistfulness, and overwhelms Brad when they are singing together, while the track is too heavily produced. It will probably be a monster hit.

‘One Of Those Lives’ is a well-meaning and earnestly sung pieces comparing the protagonist’s petty problems with more serious ones faced by others, but it is awkwardly phrased and generally feels a bit forced, and I don’t care for Brad’s ventures into a falsetto.

Brad includes his usual brace of songs intended to be funny but which don’t raise a smile. Of these, the silly novelty ‘Camouflage’ with yelled call-and response backing vocals reminiscent of Joe Diffie’s worst moments at least makes an impact, if not a positive one. The Mexican vacation-set ‘Don’t Drink The Water’, a duet with Blake Shelton, falls completely flat and is a waste of both men’s talent. ‘Working On A Tan’ is a boring beach song which sounds very poppy with Beach Boys style harmonies. ‘Be The Lake’ is equally dull, as Brad leches over his love interest.

This is a disappointing offering from an artist who seems to have run out of steam creatively. Unless he manages to recharge his batteries, I suspect this will be the last Brad Paisley album I’ll buy.

Grade: C-

Single Review: David Bradley featuring Rodney Crowell – ‘Hard Time Movin’ On’

In David Bradley’s debut single, the protagonist makes one of those late night calls -the kind that usually take the form of a sophisticated, modern mating call in country music.  Recent hits along these lines – ‘I May Hate Myself In The Morning’, ‘Need You Now’ – have proved the subject is still a meaty one.  But in Bradley’s case, it is neither fueled by alcohol, nor bred by sexual desire. His reasons for calling are even more unfortunate. Awakened by a dream, he dials up his former lover to ask the devastating question ‘Is there something you can say, to make your memory go away?’

Amid a light production, led mostly by a plucking dobro that adds to the melancholy mood, and a desolate melody, we follow the man’s ‘blistering’ heartbreak through his broken conversation.  Bradley’s urgent, edgy vocal is balanced nicely by Rodney Crowell’s high harmonies, which sound a bit in the distance.

An English-born former engineer for global oil companies, Bradley’s music has taken him from London to Siberia, before he finally settled in Nashville, where he’s been keeping heady company – Crowell certainly not the least among them.  This song comes from the pens of Music Row heavyweights Rivers Rutherford and Gordie Sampson.  If ‘Hard Time Movin’ On’ is any indication, like the company he’s keeping, Bradley seems poised to crank out many a great song himself.

Grade: A

Listen here.

Some hidden treasures of 2010

I restricted my top 10 singles list for the year to tracks which were formally released as singles, but a lot of the best music of the year was hidden away on albums. So to finish up our review of the year in country music, here are my favorite tracks from albums released this year. I’ve restricted the selection to one per artist (not counting duets), and I’ve excluded the albums which made it to my top 10 albums list to avoid too much duplication and to prevent the list being too long.

20. Trace Adkins – ‘Still Love You’ (Cowboy’s Back In Town)
Moving to Toby Keith’s label seems to have encouraged the talented but often artistically misguided Trace Adkins to give in to his worst instincts, but there is still some decent material on his latest album. This ballad swearing enduring love (written by love song specialist Jeff Bates with Robert Arthur and Kirk Roth) is a little heavily orchestrated, but has a great, understated vocal from one of the best voices around. It’s a shame the rest of the album wasn’t up to the same standard.

19. Gretchen Wilson – ‘I’m Only Human’ (I Got Your Country Right Here)
Gretchen has just scored an unexpected Grammy nomination for ‘I’d Love To Be Your Last’ from her self-released I Got Your Country Right Here, prompting general bewilderment from country fans online. But while that track isn’t bad, this song is rather better, a plaintive bar-room tale of a woman trying to resist the temptation of dalliance with a married man, which Gretchen wrote with Vicky McGehee, Dave Berg and Rivers Rutherford.

18. Jon Wolfe – ‘Play Me Something I Can Drink To’ (It All Happened In A Honky Tonk)
If you think Easton Corbin sounds like George Strait, you need to check out the Strait stylings of Jon Wolfe on his strong independent debut album. I particularly liked this classic country style bar room song (written by Kevin Brandt and Bobby Terry) about a guy seeking to get his broken heart temporarily cured by whiskey and a jukebox stocked with Hank and Jones.

17. Jamie Richards – ‘Half Drunk’ (Sideways)
A great song from a Texas-based artist about trying to get over an ex by drinking, but running out of money halfway through.

16. Miss Leslie – ‘Turn Around’ (Wrong Is What I Do Best)
A lovely steel-led heartbreak ballad written by honky tonker Miss Leslie herself, but sounding as though it could be a forgotten classic from the 60s.

15. Shawn Camp – ‘Clear As A Bell’ (1994)
This lovely song was my favorite from Shawn’s “lost” album which was resurrected from the Warner Bros vaults this year.

14. Zac Brown Band – ‘Martin’ (You Get What You Give)
Jamey Johnson personified a guitar in the title track of The Guitar Song, but Zac Brown sang a love song about one on their latest release. Charming and unusual.

13. Gary Allan – ‘No Regrets’ (Get Off On The Pain)
I’ve been disappointed by Gary’s musical direction over the past couple of albums, but the heartbreaking honesty of this touching song expressing his feelings about his late wife (which he wrote with the help of Jon Randall and Jaime Hanna) was a reminder of his excellent early work.

12. Jolie Holliday – ‘I’ll Try Anything’ (Lucky Enough)
A gorgeous cover of a sad song previously recorded by its co-writer Amber Dotson about struggling to cope with lost love. I can’t find a link for you to listen to the studio version, but here she is singing it live (after a nice version of ‘San Antonio Rose’. And as a bonus, here she is singing ‘Golden Ring’ live with Randy Travis.

11. Curly Putman – ‘Green Green Grass Of Home’ (Write ‘Em Sad – Sing ‘Em Lonesome)
The songwriter’s own version of his classic prisoner’s dream is as convincing as any version I’ve herd of this celebrated song.

10. Toby Keith – ‘Sundown‘ (Bullets In The Gun, deluxe version)
Toby is always a bit hit and miss for me, but this surprisingly restrained live version of the sultry folk-country classic is a definite hit.

9. Darin & Brooke Aldridge – ‘The Last Thing On His Mind’ (Darin & Brooke Aldridge)
I loved this husband and wife team’s sweet bluegrass album and this somber Easter song (written by Dennis K Duff) was the highlight for me.

8. Teea Goans – ‘I Don’t Do Bridges Anymore’ (The Way I Remember It)
Teea Goans’ retro independent release featured this lovely classic-styled ballad, written by Jim McBride, Don Poythress and Jerry Salley. Her voice is sweet but not that distinctive, but this breakup song is definitely worth hearing.

7. Catherine Britt – ‘Sweet Emmylou’ (Catherine Britt)
The Australian singer’s latest album was a bit hit and miss for me, but there were some very strong moments, including Catherine’s lovely version of her tribute to the healing power of the music of Emmylou Harris, which she wrote some years ago with Rory Feek. It has been released as a single in Australia.

6. Bill Anderson – ‘The Songwriters’ (Songwriter)
My favorite comic song of the year is the legendary Bill Anderson’s celebration (more or less) of songwriters’ lives, complete with the protagonist’s mother’s preference for a career as drug dealer for her son. Bill isn’t much of a singer, but this song (co-written with Gordie Sampson)is irresistible.

5. Randy Kohrs – ‘Die On The Vine’ (Quicksand)
One of the first songs to grab my attention this year was this lovely song warning a son against taking refuges from trouble in alcohol, written by famed dobro player and songwriter Randy Kohrs with Dennis Goodwin.

4. James Dupre – ‘Ring On The Bar’ (It’s All Happening)
I loved this sensitively sung low-key mid-tempo Byron Hill/Brent Baxter song about a man trying to figure out what happened to his marriage from youtube discovery James’s independent debut album, produced by Kyle Lehning.

3. Lee Ann Womack – ‘Liars Lie’ (Country Strong soundtrack)
I’m beginning to get impatient for a new album from Lee Ann, and this soundtrack cut has really whetted my appetite. This excellent song, written by Sally Barris, Morgane Hayes and Liz Rose, and the combination of Lee Ann’s beautiful vocals and the harmony from Charlie Pate, a pure country production (thanks to Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell and Chuck Ainlay), and a fine song make this a sheer delight.

2. Chris Young – ‘Chiseled In Stone’ (Voices EP)
Song for song, this young neotraditionalist’s three song EP of covers was the most impressive release of the year, allowing Chris to exercise his outstanding baritone voice on really top quality material – something sadly missing on his two full length albums. This Vern Gosdin song was my favorite of the three, but his takes on Keith Whitley’s ‘I’m Over You’ and John Anderson’s ‘Swingin’ were also great.

1. Alan Jackson ft Lee Ann Womack – ‘Til The End’ (Freight Train)
This particular treasure is not very well hidden, as although it hasn’t been released as a single it gained sufficient attention to get a well-deserved nomination as Musical Event of the Year at the recent CMA awards. This exquisite reading of another Vern Gosdin classic was by far the best thing on Alan’s latest (and possibly last) album for Arista.

Do you have any special favorite album tracks from this year which haven’t gained the attention they deserve?

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘Bullets In The Gun’

Toby Keith is one of the most prolific major label artists these days, consistently releasing an album a year, and writing most if not all of the material himself. He also produces his work, and now co-owns the label, so if anything is not quite up to par there is absolutely no one to blame but Toby himself. Bullets In The Gun is, on the whole, his strongest release for some time, but with no really outstanding moments and one major weak spot. Toby deserves credit for his production work, as the sound of the album is generally restrained with some variation in textures which keeps the interest even where the songs are not that interesting.

The title track, Toby’s latest single, is a gripping if somewhat derivative story song (written with Rivers Rutherford) with a drawled delivery about a drifter who hooks up with a bar dancer who leads him into a career of crime and bloody end. It is one of my favorite tracks here. Former single ‘Trailerhood’ is a nicely detailed and good-humored ode to a working class backwoods neighbourhood which paints a convincing picture, and has an engagingly bouncy tune and production, although it did less well on radio than usual, just scraping into the top 20.

‘Think About You All Of The Time’ is catchy but rather fluffily written about being hung up over an ex. I could see this as a future single. Toby teamed up with old friend Scotty Emerick and the great Dean Dillon to write the rather good ‘Is That All You Got’, a stoic demand of the woman who has left him, with just a hint of a wistful subtext.

The similarly themed ‘Ain’t Breakin’ Nothing’ paints an interesting picture of a man who readily confesses to being his “own worst enemy”. He combines defiance in the face of the inevitable breakup with proffering a kind of consolation to the woman leaving him:

You ain’t breakin’ nothin’ that ain’t already broke

This is one of no less than six songs here which Toby co-wrote with Bobby Pinson, who had a short-lived attempt at a solo career in the middle of the last decade. I loved Bobby’s debut album, and it would be good to see his work with Toby leading to another shot for him as an artist with Show Dog Universal, although his songs here are not his best work. The best of these collaborations (and one of the highlights of the album) is ‘In A Couple Of Days’, a plaintive and somewhat wry response to the woman who has just left him reeling from the shock of her departure and uncertain as to his feelings and now wants to know how he feels. I really like this one.

On the same theme is ‘Somewhere Else’, an pleasant if unexceptional mid-paced number about killing time in bars after an ex has walked out. ‘Drive It On Home’ is a fast paced and cheery trucking song with almost no tune. ‘Kissin’ In The Rain’ is an atmospheric slice of nostalgia about thwarted teenage romance between a rebellious daughter and a working class boy, but lacks much melody.

Pinson also co-wrote the worst song here, the banjo-led ‘Get Out Of My Car’, a crude demand for (immediate) sex from a date which is astonishingly crass even from Toby Keith. The only redeeming feature of this (apart from the playful banjo high in the mix) is that he gets turned down, which leads me to believe that the writers did not actually intend this to be quite as offensive as it is to a female listener (at least to me), and were merely monumentally clueless. Indeed, I’m pretty sure it was intended to be funny. It isn’t.

The unpleasant aftertaste is cleansed by the deluxe version of the album’s selection of four live covers as bonus tracks, although none of them is really essential listening. A shouted bluesy version of Johnny Paycheck’s ’29 Months and 29 Days’ lacks the intensity and conviction of the original. Waylon’s ‘Waynore’s Blues’ (given the wrong title on the cover) and Roger Miller’s ‘Chug A Lug’ work better for Toby, but the highlight is his version of the gorgeous ‘Sundown’, a top 20 country hit for Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot in the 70s, which would be hard to sing badly.

Grade: B-

Our friends at Country Universe are giving away an autographed copy this week.

Album Review: Bill Anderson – ‘Songwriter’

Even at the height of his stardom, it was widely acknowledged that “Whispering” Bill Anderson wasn’t much of a singer. But he was, and remains, an excellent country songwriter, who continues to get cuts by some of today’s biggest stars. He has just recorded a dozen of his latest songs on an independently released record, co-produced with multi-instrumentalist Rex Paul Schnelle, who plays electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin, banjo, piano, and keyboards and sings backing vocals – basically every instrument but drums, bass and steel.

The songs are all co-writes, and I was struck by the generosity with which Bill puts his own name last in the credits each time. His vocals are no stronger than one might expect, but on most of these songs it doesn’t matter. Half the songs are comedic, and do not demand great singing; in some of the others the limitations of his voice is put to good use.

The stall is set out with the opening track ‘It Ain’t My Job To Tote Your Monkey’, co written with the album’s producer Rex Schnelle and Rivers Rutherford. It’s a very witty riposte to someone who’s never satisfied whether it’s because:

So the government’s crazy and the weather’s all wrong
The radio ain’t playing country songs
Grits won’t cook in the microwave
And you’re mad about the price of gas these days
You can’t get a signal on your mobile phone
Your dog ran off and your wife came home

Also laugh-out-loud funny is the episodic ‘That’s When The Fight Broke Out’ which recounts a hapless husband’s many ill-judged remarks in a series of one-liners. A sense of humor is not necessarily conducive to a happy marriage.

‘Good Time Gettin’ Here’ is a good-natured recital from the kind of guy who wastes most of his time having fun, declaring from high school graduation to his arrival at the gates of heaven:

I’m not sure where I’ve been or where I am or where I’m going
But I sure had a good time gettin’ here

Written with Jamey Johnson and Buddy Cannon, this entertaining song could easily be a hit single for someone like Brad Paisley.

Speaking of Brad, he co-wrote and plays electric guitar on the rather vulgar ‘If You Can’t Make Money’ with Jon Randall also co-writing. The advice for economic hard times is to make love instead of money:
We can’t get a break, can’t get a job
We need to get the opposite of laid off

This is one of the songs where the vocal limitations are a problem, making the song sound sleazy.

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Album Review: Gretchen Wilson – ‘I Got Your Country Right Here’

Gretchen’s first independent release following her departure from Sony sees her taking the producer’s chair herself alongside Blake Chancey (and old friend John Rich on a handful of tracks). The end result is not that far removed from her Sony records, and fans of Gretchen’s rocking side will be happy. Admirers of her way with a ballad (Wilson’s most underrated talent) will be more disappointed.

Current single ‘Work Hard, Play Harder, is set to a relentless rock beat which led to a copyright infringement claim from the rock band the Black Crowes; the case was settled out of court and led to the writers of the latter’s song being given co-writing credit here, alongside the originally credited Wilson, John Rich and Vicky McGehee. This lyrically predictable and musically dull piece about a hardworking “redneck, blue-collar” bartender/waitress is already Gretchen’s biggest hit since 2006’s ‘California Girls’, perhaps because it fits into the pigeonhole Gretchen created for herself with her signature tune ‘Redneck Woman’.

It is one of only two tracks co-written by Gretchen. Dallas Davidson helped her with the other, the rocking sociopolitical statement ‘Blue Collar Done Turn Red’ which mixes a declaration of patriotism with some social criticism of modern changes:

We used to judge a man by the shake of his hand
And his honor and his honesty
Never knocked him down when he stood his ground
Cause it wouldn’t fit the policy now
There’s bailout bills and fat cat deals

Ex-SteelDriver Chris Stapleton and Terry McBride offer a trenchant criticism of modern country radio in ‘Outlaws & Renegades’:

Well, just the other day I was driving down the road
Listening to the stuff coming out of Music Row
I didn’t recognise a single song or none of the names
But it didn’t really matter cause they all seem to sound the same

Where’s all the outlaws and renegades?
Lord knows I miss those days
When they said what they thought
And what they thought was what was on your mind

It seems to veer off course in the last verse when it moves into another political complaint (about politicians and gas prices), and then back to music with a spoken outro namechecking Cash, Jennings and Nelson.

Their era is also recalled in the rather generic Southern Rock-country of the title track, written by consummate hit maker Jeffrey Steele and Tom Hambridge. This pays cursory tribute to various 70s Outlaw and Southern Rock acts – Waylon again, of course, plus the Charlie Daniels Band, Hank Williams Jr, and on the rock side of the border, the Allman Brothers, Z.Z. Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd. It is one of those tracks that strikes one as being more fun for the musicians to make than for the listener; it isn’t that interesting on record either musically or lyrically; it’s all about the groove and feel, which probably works better live.

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Album Review: Gary Allan – ‘Alright Guy’

Alright Guy, Gary Allan’s second album at MCA, is more than alright in many ways. It debuted at #4 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart on its release in October 2001, and brought Gary his first No. 1 with the album opener ‘Man to Man’. Produced by Tony Brown & Mark Wright, it’s one of several of Allan’s albums to be certified platinum as well. I think the success of the album is reflected in the quality of the album’s unreleased tracks rather than the singles that charted.

The driving beat and rhythmic lyrics of the lead-off single ‘Man of Me’ (a George Teren and Rivers Rutherford song) weren’t enough to drive it beyond #18 on the charts. That seems fair given that though the lyrics describe how ‘lovin’ you made a man of me’, the music doesn’t get beyond a teen rock number, complete with a screaming ‘wow’ on the very paragraph proclaiming ‘goodbye to my blind immature days’.

‘The One’ came close to being the one that hit the top of the charts first for Allan. Coming in at #3, it’s a kind and loving gentleman’s ballad written by Karen Manno and Billy Lee. Allan isn’t going to rush his girl who has been hurt before, but instead promises,

I’ll fill those canyons in your soul
Like a river lead you home
And I’ll walk a step behind
In the shadows so you shine
Just ask it will be done
And I will prove my love
Until you’re sure that I’m the one

It is a beautiful song, but the production is too heavy on the dreamy echo effects and background vocals for my taste. The interplay between Gary’s vocals and the melodic acoustic guitar line would have been enough.

Third time’s the charm, apparently. ‘Man to Man’, the third single off the album, was Allan’s first #1 on Billboard. Written by Jamie O’Hara, it’s sung by “the guy who got the girl” to “the guy who lost her”. It makes me think of a pool hall kind of scene in which the “loser” confronts the singer who turns and points out who’s really at fault and who’s really the better man. With lines like Were you ever there when she needed you, and Who cheated who/You’re the one to blame, he takes on the bully point for point.

The line that has always stood out to me, partly because of Allan’s great vocal on it, is She’s a real woman, not a doormat for you.

Again, the production is what gets in the way for me – the pop drums and background vocals don’t add to the character’s strength at all. And Allan’s cry-ee-eye-ee sends me back to 50s pop. However, it’s very sing-able and relatable with a catchy chorus and a recognizable intro – the stuff that often does well at radio.

The best songs on the album weren’t released to radio though. ‘Devil’s Candy’, one of 5 Harley Allen songs Gary has recorded, has a great hook and some great fiddle: I’ve always had a sweet tooth for the devil’s candy. Fiddles seem to exemplify that fiery battle with temptation, and this song’s no exception.

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