My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Rob Hatch

Album Review: Faith Hill – The previously unreleased material on ‘Deep Tracks’

faith-hill-deep-tracks-cover-artWhen Faith Hill emerged after an eight-year hiatus to celebrate her twentieth wedding anniversary, announce a Soul2Soul revival tour and mentor contestants on The Voice, I figured she was banking on nostalgia to propel this new era of her career. Hill has smartly been riding on Tim McGraw’s coattails since 2006, knowing she can’t fill arenas, or Vegas casinos, to (near) capacity without him.

She also couldn’t launch a comeback with Illusion, a record Warner Bros. likely shelved after two embarrassing singles – “Come Home” and “American Heart” bombed at country radio when she desperately needed a hit to regain momentum within the industry. That was never going to happen anyways, as age and changing trends saw Carrie Underwood filling the space she once occupied.

With those statistics in mind, I was surprised when she quietly announced a new album to end the record contract she signed in 1993. But I was disheartened to learn it would exist as Deep Tracks, a project comprised of previously released album cuts the label probably wisely never saw fit to release as singles. The project is nothing more than a cash grab and an insult to Hill’s tenure with the label. I’m glad to see Hill on board, though, which is more than I can say for the umpteenth Greatest Hits projects Curb released to extend McGraw’s contract. If the marketing is to be believed, it seems she actually selected these songs herself.

Tagged onto the end of the album are three previously unreleased songs, of which I was anxious to hear. I’ve been a big fan of Hill’s since I began listening to country music in the mid-90s and always welcome anything new she chooses to give her fans. And with the infrequency of her releases, I haven’t cast Hill aside as I’ve done to Martina McBride.

The new material begins with the recently recorded “Boy,” written by Lee Brice, Rob Hatch and Lance Miller. The track is classic Hill, a love song, she freely admits reminds her of her man. While it doesn’t break any new ground, the plucky ballad deviates from her typical sonic playbook just enough to keep the feel of the song fresh.

Rob Mathes and Allen Shamblin’s “Why” follows. Hill recorded the track in 2004 for Fireflies and when it failed to make the cut, Dann Huff brought the song to Rascal Flatts, who brought it to #18 in 2009. The song explores a woman’s anguish in the wake of an unimaginable tragedy:

Oh why, that’s what I keep askin’

Was there anything I could have said or done

Oh I, had no clue you were masking a troubled soul, God only knows

What went wrong, and why you’d leave the stage in the middle of a song

 

Oh why there’s no comprehending

And who am I to try to judge or explain

Oh, but I do have one burning question

Who told you life wasn’t worth the fight

They were wrong

They lied

And now you’re gone

And we cried

‘Cause It’s not like you, to walk away in the middle of a song

The execution is extremely heavy-handed with Huff’s production and Hill’s vocal leaning far too piano-ballad pop for my tastes. The lyric itself is somewhat powerful, but it lacks the subtlety that made “Can’t Be Really Gone” and “On A Bus To St. Cloud” so magical.

In context, the final cut is arguably the saddest. Hill’s mother had long wished her daughter would record a gospel album, the only type of music she wanted to hear her sing. Such a project never came to fruition, so “Come to Jesus” is the closest Hill’s come to carrying out her mother’s wishes. Hill’s mom passed away just three weeks ago, right before the CMA Awards, but was able to hear this song in time.

Hill could obviously still make a gospel album, which could be a treat, if it sounds nothing like she does on this Mindy Smith tune. I appreciate and wholeheartedly welcome the use of fiddle throughout, but there’s just nothing delicate or interesting to hold my attention. This is not the soaring moment (think “There Will Come A Day”) I was hoping for.

With this new material Hill deserves full credit for covering her bases. “Boy” fits perfectly within her penchant for love songs while “Why” displays her knack for age-appropriate material tackling emotional subjects. “Come to Jesus” is the type of song she was teasing when gearing up for the ill-fated Illusion that supposedly nixed her country sound for ‘southern soul.’

While I didn’t find much here to be excited about (“Boy” is the best of the new stuff and worth checking out), I don’t want to suggest the ‘deep tracks’ themselves are of poor quality. If you’ve never heard her take on Lori McKenna’s stunning “If You Ask,” do yourself a favor and check it out.

I’m just upset that after twenty-three years of enormous success, Hill and her fans aren’t being treated to a more heartfelt sendoff than Deep Tracks. Everyone involved deserves so much more than this.

Grades: 

Deep Tracks: D 

Boy:’ B+ 

Why:’ C 

Come To Jesus:’ C 

Album Review: Randy Houser – ‘How Country Feels’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Album Review: Craig Campbell – ‘Craig Campbell’

Craig Campbell is a relatively new artist on the successful independent label Bigger Picture, helmed by famed producer Keith Stegall. He has a single rising up the country charts, but had managed to fly under my radar until a week or so ago, when C M Wilcox pointed out Craig’s song ‘You Probably Ain’t in a recent edition of Quotable Country over at Country California, his witty weekly take on the more notable or bizarre comments made relating to country music. That song appears on Craig’s self-titled debut album, which has just been released.

A lot of country fans seem to be getting tired of the seemingly unending assembly line of songs telling us how very country the singer is, often set to a notably un-country melody or production. Country radio, however, A lot of country fans seem to be getting tired of the seemingly unending assembly line of songs telling us how very country the singer is, often set to a notably un-country melody or production. Country radio is as keen on such fare as ever, but it looks as if Craig Campbell, Keith Stegall, and Michael White. writers of this song, share our frustration:

You can talk to me about tractors
Cowboy boots and pickup trucks
Old canepoles and dirt roads
And spit and skoal and a dixie cup
You can tell me (all a)bout your grandpa
And how he turned you on to Hank
If you gotta tell me how country you are
You probably ain’t

But if this initially seems to be a well-deserved sharp and well deserved little jab at the popular “I’m country” songs, in some ways, it is what it appears to disparage, when the old man in the bar who has voiced the comment adds:

He said, country is a way of life that’s almost gone
It’s about being honest and working hard
Looking someone in the eye and
Being who you say you are

I’m afraid I’m not convinced that everyone in rural areas is (or used to be) honest and hardworking, so although I still like the complete song, and love the chorus, it doesn’t really hold up lyrically for me as a whole. On the positive side, Craig has a fine voice, and at least this is a well written and genuinely country song.

And if Craig is critical of those posturing about country lifestyles, he does not eschew the subject himself. The likeable ‘Chillaxin’’ is not very ambitious, but has an attractive tune, and a lovely and appropriately relaxed feel, which could make it a summer hit. The next single, however, is reportedly, the rather dull ‘Fish’, which is rather like one of Brad Paisley’s lesser songs, trying to be amusing but falling short, and not even successful at the double entendre it tries for. Carson Chamberlain and Tim Nichols helped Craig write ‘That’s Music To Me’, with nods to Keith Whitley and Merle Haggard as well as the usual litany of high school football, family life, church on Sunday mornings and the Georgia scenery. It’s quite a good example of its kind, with another pleasing melody, and Craig sells the genuineness of the emotion underlying it, but it’s hardly groundbreaking lyrically:

Soaked in the whiskey and washed in the blood
That’s who I am and what I love
A hoe down fiddle, a little off key
An old hound dog howling
That’s music to me

The very perky ‘Makes You Wanna Sing’ (written by Craig with Rob Hatch and Lance Miller) glorifies the simple pleasures in life (and yes, rural ones), and the humming on the chorus gets irritating with repeat listens.

Others will have been introduced to Craig by way of his charming current single ‘Family Man’. This paints a realistic picture of a hard-pressed married man desperate to keep his temporary factory job to support his wife and kids, and is filled with genuine warmth and sincerity as he relates the various responsibilities of a father and shows how important his kids are to him. ‘My Little Cowboy’ (about striving to live up to his father’s belief in him, first as a child and then as struggling musician trying to support a wife and child of his own) is a little more heavy handed lyrically and offers a heavier vibe musically, which is less suited to Craig’s voice.

Trying to make ends meet in hard times also inspires the cheerful and very catchy mid-tempo response to a debt collector, ‘When I Get It’, which he wrote with Jason Matthews and Jim McCormick, although I found the na-na-nas in the chorus annoying.

One of the highlights is the interesting and nicely paced ‘I Bought It’, written by Craig with Philip Douglas and Dan Murphy. It starts out sweetly with a young couple just starting out in life together, with him buying a ring, the the mood sours with her infidelity and lies (which he also buys), and finally there is a little twist in the tale when he lies to her that he is willing to take her back.

Craig and/or his writing partners have a good ear for melody which is more consistent that their lyric writing, which is occasionally a little cliche’d. He co-wrote most of the songs, with only a couple from outside writers, one of which is provided by his producer. Keith Stegall wrote the seductive fiddle-led ‘All Night To Get There’ with Craig’s friend Lee Brice and Vicky McGehee. The only completely outside song is ‘That Going Away Look (About Her)’, written by Carson Chamberlain, Wade Kirby and Michael White, a well-written third-person account of a couple on the brink of separation, with a lovely mellow sound, which sounds like an outtake from Chamberlain’s protégé Easton Corbin.

Keith Stegall produces with his usual reliable light touch, offering sympathetic support for the young Georgia-born singer, whose voice is the real star here. His warm vocals with a lovely smooth tone are a delight to listen to, even on the less stellar material – rather like the aforementioned Corbin. Overall it’s a very likeable project and one showing great promise for the future. I certainly hope his career goes well and we hear more from him.

I am, incidentally, less than impressed by the packaging of the physical product. The CD liner notes are unfortunately almost entirely illegible thanks to being squeezed into a minuscule space to make room for a lot of pictures.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Jamey Johnson – ‘That Lonesome Song’

The chequered career of Jamey Johnson has been recounted many times by now. He started out with the sentimental hit single ‘The Dollar’ on BNA in 2006. The solid album of the same title (produced by the estimable Buddy Cannon) was a fine and under-rated record (with some flaws), but the label made a catastrophic choice of follow-up single, the stupid ‘Rebelicious’ (along the same lines as the worst song Jamey has ever been involved in writing, Trace Adkins’s horrible hit ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’). When this failed to chart at all, Jamey was dropped by the label, coinciding with the failure of his marriage, and he descended into a spiral of despair. The artistic legacy of this time was the body of songs which make up the magisterial That Lonesome Song and provided an unlikely comeback for Jamey.

The bad times inspired Jamey’s songwriting to take a new, devastatingly honest, turn. He was getting a number of cuts by other artists, ranging from the aforementioned ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’ to George Strait’s hit ‘Give it Away’. He recorded the bulk of That Lonesome Song on his own, with his band, the Kent Hardly Playboys, credited as producers, and released it himself digitally in 2007. Mercury Records’ Luke Lewis knew a good thing when he heard it, and signed Jamey to a new deal the following year, re-releasing That Lonesome Song with a couple of track changes.

Jamey was responsible for writing a dozen of the fourteen songs, the quality of which is consistently high. Jamey’s voice does not have the greatest range, but his rough-edged voice is capable of conveying real emotional depth, as he does to devastating effect on most of the songs here. The overall effect is of a man baring his soul to the world.

The moving ‘In Color’ became Jamey’s most successful single, peaking at #9 in January 2009, and winning various nominations as Song or Single of the Year. Beautifully constructed by Jamey with his co-writers, James Otto and Lee Thomas Miller, it was originally pitched to Trace Adkins, who generously relinquished it when Jamey signed his new deal. The deeply affecting story frames an old man’s recollections by having him showing old black and white photographs to his grandson, showing his childhood struggles in the Depression, the terrors of war service, and finally the happy memories of a wedding day, telling the boy how much more intense each experience was in real life:

And if it looks like we were scared to death
Like a couple of kids trying to save each other
You should’ve seen it in color

The emotional force of the song is gradually built up through the three stories. Radio-only listeners may have got a somewhat misleading impression of Jamey as an artist, based on this and ‘The Dollar’.

If the album has a fault, it lies for me in the sometimes self-indulgent snippets of talk and laughter between some of the tracks. It opens with the least objectionable of these, a slightly contrived introduction which purports to reveal Jamey released from prison, leading both literally and thematically into the outstanding ‘High Cost Of Living’, which he wrote with James Slater. While it was not directly autobiographical, the emotional underpinning of the story recounted here was undoubtedly inspired by Jamey’s descent following the loss of his original record deal and the failure of his marriage. Dark and uncompromising, this frank confession of addiction, sin and loss, and the hard price the protagonist ends up paying as he comes to realize,

The high cost of living ain’t nothing like the cost of living high

is extraordinarily intense, and one of the finest songs written in the past decade. With its reference to exchanging his home and wife “for cocaine and a whore”, this was always a risky choice as a single given the increasingly family-friendly nature of country radio, and although it charted briefly, it peaked at #34.

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