My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Rob Crosby

Album Review: Lee Greenwood – ‘Stronger Than Time’

Lee Greenwood’s most recent studio album was released in 2003 on Curb Records.

Three singles were issued, none of which charted. The first, ‘Rocks That You Can’t Move’, is a nice song about a Wise Old Man sharing his hard-earned wisdom with the protagonist as a child, a popular trope given a slight, and pointed, twist by making the old man a hard working African American farmer:

He’d seen the Great Depression
When a dollar’s all a hard day’s work would bring
He watched the crosses burnin’
In a time when freedom didn’t ring
He’d seen a world where minds were closed
And so many hearts were made of stone
But I never heard a bitter word
When I asked him ’bout the pain that he had known

He’d say, “life is full of fertile ground
But it takes a little rain to make things grow
And when it comes to harvest time
We’re all bound to reap just what we sow
So the best that I can tell you, boy,
Is always do the best that you can do
Move the rocks and plow your fields
And plow between the rocks that you can’t move”

Greenwood makes the story (written by Rob Crosby and Will Rambeaux) believable, and a nicely understated production works really well.

A remake of ‘God Bless The USA’ also failed to make any headway, despite being released at the time of the US invasion of Iraq. Lee’s performance is heartfelt, and he is backed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a storied black gospel choir who add a sense of universality without overwhelming the song. I think I prefer this arrangement to the original.

The third and last single was ‘When A Woman’s In Love’, a pleasant sounding if not very memorable ballad.

The best song is ‘Beautiful Lies’, a sweetly sung ballad written by Gary Burr about denial. Another highlight is ‘Cornfield Cadillac’, written by Terri Argot, with a pretty melody and tender recollection of teenage love. ‘Round Here’ is quite good, a pleasant song about a cozy small-town community.

The title track, ‘Love Is Stronger Than Time’, a romantic AC big ballad written by Chris Lindsey, Bill Luther and Bob Regan, is emotionally sung but a bit bland. Similar but more more effective is the Greg Barnhill-penned ‘It Almost Makes Me Glad’, in which the protagonist sees his ex happier in her new relationship.

‘Love Me Like You’ve Never Been Hurt’ is an emotional ballad written by Pat Bunch. ‘Invisibly Shaken’ is a downbeat AC ballad written by Rodney Atkins, who later had a hit with his own version.

‘One Life To Love’ and ‘I Will Not Go Quietly’ are dull ballads.

This is an album which will appeal to Greenwood’s established fanbase.

Grade: B+

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Album Review: Adam Harvey – ‘I’m Doing Alright’

In 2007 Adam signed to Sony Australia, and released an excellent debut for the label. The style was a little more contemporary country than his most recent albums, but very well performed and produced.

He wrote the majority of the tracks, mostly with Rod McCormack, including my favorite, ‘Someone Else’s Dream’. This is an excellent ballad, set to a strong melody ideally suited to Adam’s deep voice, with a tasteful string arrangement, and an inspiring lyric about fulfilling your own path in life:

I’ve known hurt and pain
Seen things I hope we never see again
I’ve been bought and sold
I’ve learned not to believe most of what I’m told
We’re all busy making plans
But there’s just a few who can
Have a vision and the will to see it through

Truth knows when things aren’t what they seem
And words fall flat if you d- on’t feel what they mean
You can’t move forward
Till you know where you’ve been
The ones who stand alone see
It’s no life
Living someone else’s dream

‘Walls’ is an excellent song, referring to the Aboriginal population of Australia, the Berlin Wall and other artificial barriers:

When different people find a common ground
There’s no way to stop
Walls from tumbling down

Walls
We all build ‘em
When we need something to hide behind
But if we learn from those that came before us
We let ‘em fall
Walls

Every day we make ‘em like we need ‘em to survive
But what’s the use of feelings if they’re locked up inside?

The solemn ‘A Bigger Plan’ relates grandparental advice to a child, while the sultry jazzy ballad of ‘Will You Be Mine’ is the album’s sole love song. ‘Saturday Night’ is another likeable song about childhood memories of good times at family parties every week:

There ain’t nothing like a party at the Harveys on a Saturday night

The soundtrack include smashing bottles and police sirens.

The title track is a mid paced song with a contemporary feel about satisfaction with one’s life despite lacking material goods. Not bad. ‘Way Too Fast’ is a nice song advising taking time out from a busy life, warmly sung.

‘You’d Do The Same For Me’ is a thoughtful ballad about friendship with an attractive melody and some nice fiddle:

We all need a shoulder when life lets you down
One thing you can count on
I’ll always be around
Nothing’s too much trouble for a friend in need
You’d do the same for me

Most of his usual co-writers refused to work on him with ‘Genie In The Bottle’, which they thought was a stupid idea for a song, but while admittedly a bit silly it’s rather fun, about a lovelorn man who takes to the bottle:

The genie in the bottom of the Jim Bean bottle made me do what I didn’t wanna do
I made a wish with the genie but the genie was a meanie and he didn’t make my wish come true
I was hoping he would make your memory go away but I’m still thinkin’ of you

Of the outside material, ‘The Older I Get’ is a pleasant mid-paced tune about learning how to live well. It was written by Danny Gree, Rob Crosby and Liz Hengber.

‘Flowers’ was a very minor hit for its writer Billy Yates, with its perfectly constructed and emotionally devastating lyric about a man who (spoiler alert!) causes the death of his partner by drunk driving. It has also been cut by Chris Young. Adam’s version is decent but not my favorite, lacking a bit of the combined delicacy and intensity needed to carry it off. I don’t quite *believe* this version.

The best known cover is the Guy Clark song ‘Heartbroke’. Adam’s version is highly enjoyable but not as exciting as Ricky Skaggs’ bluegrass infused hit. Adam also takes on bluesman Keb Mo’’s ‘A Better Man’; the original actually has a jug band feel which might have worked better but Adam’s version is a bit dull.

There are “bonus” acoustic re-recordings of several of the songs on this album, and a few older songs, on my version of the album.

The album won an Australian CMA award, and is well worth finding.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Bill Anderson – ‘Life!’

lifeVeteran songwriter Bill Anderson’s most recent venture into the recording studio showcases some of his newest songs. Whispering Bill was never known for the quality of his voice, but that means he is not apppreciably worse than in his youth, while his songwriting prowess is still great. He also recruits a few famous friends to help out with vocals on some tracks, which helps with the overall sound.

‘Rhinestone Grindstone’ is a brilliantly and sympathetically observed portrait of a struggling middle aged musician afraid he’s going to die “unfamous and broke” after all, but still doggedly carrying on for his handful of fans. Now,

He can’t write the songs and he can’t hold the notes and he can’t get the girls like before,

a duetting John Anderson (who certainly can still hold the notes and will hopefully be recording again himself soon) sings.

The most entertaining track on the record is probably his humorous collaboration with Joey + Rory, ‘Whisper’, which plays on both their real-life relationship and Bill’s famous nickname. Bill plays marriage counsellor to a squabbling couple, advising them to copy him instead of yelling at one another:

If you wanna make your point and really get through
Don’t raise your voice, just do what I do
Whisper

They all sound as thought they had a great time in the studio, and this would work well live too.

The ubiquitous Willie Nelson duets on the fun tongue in cheek ‘Bubba Garcia’s’, a co-write with Buddy Cannon and Jamey Johnson about a bar and restaurant which combines the Mexican and redneck influences of its owner’s heritage.

‘A Song Like This’ is a slightly quirky song Bill wrote with Brad Paisley, about an uptown woman who finds herself in a honky tonk bar due to a broken heart. Vince Gill inserts a soulful jazzstyle vocal cameo in the middle of the honky tonk tune to represent the woman’s sophisticated background; this is not my favorite side of Gill but he is certainly accomplished at it. Disappointingly, Dailey & Vincent are wasted and barely noticeable harmonising in the background of ‘Dreams Are Easy To Come By’, a pretty love song.

The best of Bill’s solo vocals is ‘Old Army Hat’, a very touching story song about a grandfather who embarrasses his grandson by insisting on constantly wearing his “funny looking worn out army hat” in honor of the comrades who didn’t make it back from WWII. The grandson finds his views change when they visit a war memorial at Washington DC, and he finds serving soldiers respect the old man/ Grandpa then gives his hat away to a little boy, the orphaned son of the victim of a more recent war, saying,

Son just keep it…
You’re a brave little soldier, son
And every soldier needs his very own authentic army hat
For your Daddy who gave everything the least that I can do
Is pass on this old worn out army hat

The song segues into part of ‘America The Beautiful’, with a small choir joining in, which works surprisingly well.

The other songs, good though they are, would undoubtedly sound better with someone else singing. ‘Blackberry Winter’ (written by Bill with Rob Crosby) is a very good if downbeat song comparing a thwarted romance to a cold spell in spring. ‘She Could Ruin My Life’ is quite a sweet song about falling in love, written with Jon Randall and Vicky McGehee. ‘In Another Life’, written with Walt Aldridge is a catchy and melodic but slightly silly little song about meeting someone it feels like he has known before; while the tender ‘When You Love Me’ is a straightforward love song.

Grade: B

Album Review – Martina McBride – ‘Greatest Hits’

220px-MartinaMcBrideGreatestHitsOne of the longest raging debates in the career of Martina McBride is the point in which her music took that pivotal turn from excellent to uninspired dreck. To an extent, it happened with Emotion, but I would argue the last truly great original music McBride has recorded came in the form of the four new tracks included on her Greatest Hits album.

In 2001 RCA saw fit to take stock of McBride’s career to date, releasing her first comprehensive career retrospective. The release came one week following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and in an eerie parallel, McBride is seen wearing an American Flag tank top on the cover. McBride has stated that the cover wasn’t in response to the attacks (which would’ve been impossible given the CD and cover art were planned long before the release) but rather homage to her signature tune “Independence Day”.

For longtime fans the most intriguing aspect of the project wasn’t the music itself but the CD booklet, which featured ample liner notes from McBride and her producer Paul Worley discussing each track. It was great to read the stories behind the songs and gain insight into their thought processes. It’s kind of a shame most artists don’t take the time to do this, as the deeper level of appreciation I gained for McBride is invaluable.

Although the project itself is fairly typical, it only includes her top ten hits; the generous 18 tracks covering 69 minutes make it my favorite Greatest Hits album of all-time. And although it omits The Time Has Come and singles like “Cry On The Shoulder Of The Road,” it’s an excellent comprehensive overview of McBride’s career to date.

The new tracks show an artist experiencing an artistic uptick. All four, vastly different from one another, perfectly illustrate the different sides of McBride’s musical personality while concurrently displaying her measured growth as an artist.

“When God-Fearin’ Women Get The Blues,” penned by Leslie Satcher, was the lead single peaking at #8 in late summer 2001. A rocking story song, the track proved a departure for McBride both thematically and musically – with a mix of dobro and fiddles (as well as The Soggy Bottom Boys from O Brother, Where Art Thou? providing backing vocals), it was the most traditional-leaning track she’d recorded in more than four years.

“Blessed,” a somewhat self-indulgent optimistic prophecy came next, topping the charts in early 2002. Her last #1 to date, the Brett James, Hillary Lindsey, and Troy Vergas penned tune is far more pop than its predecessor, but she sings it well and I really like the vibe of contentment, a mirror of her personal life. Unfortunately the track sounded better back then. The addition of the drum machine feels very dated more than ten years later.

Far more consistent was the excellent third single, Rick Ferrell and Rachel Proctor’s “Where Would You Be.” By far the strongest of her relationship-turned-sour songs, McBride has never sounded better on record, turning the chorus into a rousing tour-de-force. The track peaked at a respectable #3, but fully deserved to follow “Blessed” to the top of the charts.

McBride hit another high note with Stephanie Bentley and Rob Crosby’s heartbreaking child-negligent tale “Concrete Angel.” Even with the grim subject matter, I’ve always loved the song – it was easily one of the strongest story songs at country radio in the fall of 2002. Bentley and Crosby execute every detail perfectly, from the teacher who ignores the signs to the night she’s killed at the hands of her mother. You feel for the little girl who slipped through the cracks, and it kind of makes you look at your life differently. Next to “Where Would You Be” this is my favorite of the four singles.

Sadly, I had very high expectations that McBride was destined to follow in Kenny Chesney’s footsteps and become huge with her albums to come. I thought this would mark the beginning of a McBride routinely nominated for Album of the Year trophies and selling out large concert tours. I wasn’t prepared for the reality of what did transpire, album after album of dreck (the next one had singles that were far lesser retreads of “Where Would You Be” (“How Far”) and “Concrete Angel” (“God’s Will”) that just didn’t measure up, but at least we have moments like these to remember when she was one of the best contemporary songstresses around.

Grade: A 

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘X’

By 2008 I had lost a lot of faith in Trace Adkins as an artist. But then he released the mistitled X (it is the Roman number 10, and was supposedly to mark this as his 10th release – but they only reached that number if you count greatest hits compilations).

The first single, the gospel-inflected ‘Muddy Water’ presents a troubled sinner seeking renewal in baptism. It’s a bit more heavily produced than necessary, but largely enjoyable although it peaked just outside the top 20. There is room for some sheer frivolity when a jaundiced Trace, just divorced, decides next time he might as well ‘Marry For Money’, in a humorous song written by Dave Turnbull and Jimmy Melton. This did a little better on the charts, reaching #14, the same peak as the rather more serious ‘All I Ask For Anymore’. ‘All I Ask For Anymore’ (written by Casey Beathard and Tim James) is a mature reflection on the changing desires that come with growing up, from shallow youthful selfishness to a grown man’s concerns for his wife and children. Trace delivers perhaps the finest pure vocal performance of his career supported by a swelling string arrangement. The similarly themed ‘Happy To Be Here’ (written by Jason Matthews, Jim McCormick and Mike Mobley) is a bit too heavily produced but not bad.

Two of the songs are outright modern classics. ‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired’ was not a single, but gained some attention when Trace sang it live at the ACM award show. A superb song by Rob Crosby and Doug Johnson, this explores the sacrifice of soldiers who have died, mostly in vain, starting with a Confederate soldier falling outside Nashville in the Civil War, and taking us through Omaha Beach on D-Day, Vietnam and Afghanistan:

Say a prayer for peace
For every fallen son
Set my spirit free
Let me lay down my gun
Sweet mother Mary, I’m so tired
But I can’t come home
Til the last shot’s fired

Trace’s vocal is perfectly understated and conveys the sense of defeat which imbues the song’s longing for an end to conflict. The West Point choir joins the chorus at the end, embodying the unresting souls of their predecessors, but they sound perhaps just a little too rehearsed and polite for the part they are playing.

If anything, the bleak look at alcoholism and denial penned by Larry Cordle and Amanda Martin, ‘Sometimes A Man Takes A Drink’, is even better as it remorselessly catalogs a man’s battle with alcohol, with the alcohol winning:

Sometimes a man takes a drink
So he can just throw his head back and laugh
At the things he can’t change
Like the bills he can’t pay
And all of those ghosts from the past
It’s the crutch he leans on
When things have gone wrong
Life didn’t turn out like he planned
Sometimes a man takes a drink
Oh but sometimes a drink takes the man

This is a masterpiece, with a superb vocal from Trace (who has had his own issues with drinking in the past).

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Album Review: Brooks & Dunn – ‘Hillbilly Deluxe’

Hillbilly DeluxeAfter the success of Red Dirt Road, the duo had issued a second volume of Greatest Hits, and unusually the new singles released from that (‘That’s What It’s All About’ and ‘It’s Getting Better All The Time’) had done very well. Their next studio album, 2005’s Hillbilly Deluxe, shares its title with a Dwight Yoakam album from the 1980s. Brooks & Dunn’s take focuses rather more on the second part of the title than Dwight’s, with a very glossy feel. The tracks featuring Ronnie Dunn on lead were co-produced with industry veteran Tony Brown, but the overwhelming impression of this album is that Brooks & Dunn had got into something of a rut, and this album offers yet more of the same.

The leadoff single, the rocked up and (unintentionally?) ironically titled ‘Play Something Country’ was certified gold in its own right, and was what now appears to be their last ever #1 single. The song was written by Ronnie with his favored writing partner Terry McBride, and was allegedly inspired by Gretchen Wilson. The pair also wrote the ballad ‘She’s About As Lonely As I’m Going To Let Her Get’, a pretty good song about resolving to be the new love of a woman encountered in a bar, which features a fine Ronnie Dunn vocal with slightly (and unnecessarily) amped up production. ‘Just Another Neon Night’ has a similar feel and another barroom theme. Less successful is the part-spoken and also heavily produced ‘Whiskey Do My Talking’, which is just not very interesting.

There was one departure from formula, in the shape of ‘Believe’, which Ronnie wrote with Craig Wiseman, and which was the album’s second single. Surprisingly, ‘Believe’ only reached #8 but had much more impact than that suggests. It sold in high numbers, also being certified gold, and was widely acclaimed as the duo’s best single in years, also winning the CMA Single of the Year award in 2006. The Academy of Country Music rewarded Ronnie and Craig by naming it Song of the year in 2005. It opens as a story song with a conversational low key vocal on the verses and a big chorus, with a churchy organ backing and gospel backing vocals at appropriate moments which support Ronnie rather than taking over as is sometimes the case when gospel choirs are used in country records.

The follow-up single, ‘Building Bridges’, featuring harmonies from Sheryl Crow and Vince Gill, was an attractive song with a pretty tune. It was a Hank DeVito /Larry Willoughby song, versions of which had been unsuccessful singles for both Willoughby and DeVito’s ex-wife Nicolette Larson in the 80s. Brooks & Dunn’s version did much better, and reached #4, and it was named the ACM’s Vocal Event of the Year in 2007.

The title track was the last single, and performed more disappointingly, topping out at 16. The chorus talks about “slick pick up trucks”, and this frankly boring and formulaic Southern rock style track feels altogether too slick for comfort. Ronnie Dunn is a great singer, but he needs better material than this to let him shine. He got it with my favorite track, the sensitive lost-love ballad ‘I May Never Get Over You’. Almost as good is the tender Darrell Brown/Radney Foster song ‘Again’, about falling in love, which closes the album on a positive note. It’s a shame neither of these was released to radio.

Kix was largely sidelined here; he only got four lead vocals to Ronnie’s nine, none of them on particularly memorable songs, and three of his tracks were the original songwriter demo recordings. Most of the money invested in this album must have gone on some of the big production numbers on Ronnie’s tracks. The harmonica-led ‘My Heart’s Not A Hotel’, written by Rob Crosby and Allen Shamblin, and co-produced by Mark Wright, is quite a nice song with the kind of vulnerable lyric suited to Kix’s voice, about a man in love with a woman who is basically using him as a convenient option, but disappointingly he sounds rather uninvested vocally. Kix sounds better on the original demo of his own mid-tempo ‘One More Roll Of The Dice’, which he produced with co-writer Tom Shapiro, but the song is filler and once again the production is too heavy for my tastes. ‘She Likes To Get Out of Town’, written and produced with Bob DiPiero, is both generic Brooks & Dunn and over-produced.

The story song ‘Her West Was Wilder’ from the same team is more interesting, but would have been better still with more low key production. It tells of a woman who is just a little too much for the narrator to hold:

Every time I looked in those faraway eyes
I could see me getting left behind…
Where the wild wind blows and anything goes
As long as it’s over the line
I gave her my best
But her west was wilder than mine

While this was one of the duo’s less inspired efforts, there was enough here to appeal to their entrenched fanbase. The album reached #1 on the country charts and sold platinum.

Grade: C+

War and Religion: Some Thoughts on Trace Adkins’ ‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired’

traceadkins1Ever since Trace Adkins released his most recent album, X, last November, I’ve been intrigued by the song ‘Til the Last Shot’s Fired’, and I wanted to explore a few aspects of the song.  Most of the debate I’ve seen so far over at The 9513 has centered on the appropriateness of the West Point Cadet Glee Club’s choral singing at the close of the song, but I want to look at a couple of aspects of the substance of the song itself.

The song is written by Rob Crosby, a one-time recording artist who had some modest chart success in the 90s before settling down as a professional songwriter, and songwriter/producer Doug Johnson.  Crosby has recorded ‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired’ himself, on his 2007 independent release Catfish Day; you can hear a clip of his version here. While I always like to hear a songwriter’s original version, I must admit I much prefer Trace Adkins’ vocal on this track.  Trace’s deep baritone voice is capable of bringing real gravitas to a song, when he finds one worthy of it.  He certainly does that here.

‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired’ may not be the very best song on X (I would give that honor to ‘Sometimes A Man Takes A Drink’), but it is the most interesting.  Often in country music, the subject matter of war and soldiers is limited to an expression of patriotic pride.  I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with that per se, but it is only part of the story, and this song treads less familiar ground. 

One of the things that particularly strikes me about this song is the fact that of the four wars it references, at least two of the protagonists are fighting on the losing side, and another is questionable.  The Civil War soldier we ‘meet’ first is quite definitely on the Southern side.  Both songwriters are from the south, Carolina and Georgia respectively, so perhaps that was the natural emotional choice for them.  The death of the young man killed in the D-Day invasion, who is the second person Trace voices, is less complicated – the U.S. was clearly on the right side, morally speaking, as well as the victorious one, in World War II.  Finally, two further wars are referenced more briefly: Vietnam, which was one of America’s less successful military excursions, and Afghanistan, which is a conflict still to be fully resolved.  Only one of these young men could truthfully be said not to have died in vain.

If this was a deliberate choice by the writers, and the phrase, “I’m still hoping, waiting, praying, I did not die in vain,” suggests it might be the very heart of the song’s meaning, then why did they include WWII as one of their examples?  This soldier’s death is a personal tragedy for his family, but one which would normally be presented as being worth the sacrifice.  Are the writers really suggesting here that no death in war is worthwhile?  This makes the use of the army cadets’ choir all the more puzzling.  I’m still not sure quite what the writers intended to convey here.

The other unusual thing about this song is its use of religious imagery.  Most country songs about religious belief and life seem pretty firmly grounded in Protestantism, with a particular focus on Baptist beliefs.  I was very surprised, the first time I heard this song, to hear the chorus callling on “sweet mother Mary”.  I’m not sure if this was a deliberate personal choice by the writers, or what it signifies to them, but it certainly struck me as unusual to hear something I would associate with Catholicism.  It also strikes a bit of a dischord with the final track on X (and its leadoff single), ‘Muddy Water’, where the protagonist seeks baptism in the river.  I wonder if this factor might affect the song’s chances on radio if it is released as a single?

What do you think of this song in particular?  And do you have any other war songs worth listening to?

Listen to Trace Adkins – ‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired.