My Kind of Country

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Album Review: Earl Thomas Conley – ‘The Heart Of It All’

Released at the heart of the New Traditional era in 1988, The Heart Of It All did not stray too far from ETC’s accustomed wheelpath, although producers Emory Gordy Jr and Randy Scruggs made sure the arrangements were a bit less AC than previously. He was still a reliable hitmaker beloved by country radio, with singles destined to reach #1, and the first four singles from this album followed the pattern.

The lead single is a nice ballad written by Bob McDill and Paul Harrison about a woman tied to an unworthy husband, who she loves regardless. ETC’s hushed vocals are lovely, and the production fairly restrained.

Harmonies from Emmylou Harris make any song better, and the next single was the lovely duet ‘We Believe In Happy Endings’, another McDill song about keeping a marriage going, but a more positive one. It had been a top 10 solo hit for Johnny Rodriguez a decade earlier. This is one of my favorite ETC recordings.

‘What I’d Say’, written by Robert Byrne and Will Robinson, is another excellent ballad. This one faces up to the immediate afterbreak of a breakup, with the protagonist uncertain how he would react if he met her unexpectedly.

What would prove to be Earl’s very last #1 hit was Thom Schuyler’s ‘Love Out Loud’. A more upbeat tempo enlivens a sincerely sung song about an inarticulate man who nevertheless loves his lady. It is my least favorite of the singles from this album, but not a bad song.

The long run of #1 and 2 hits, dating back to 1982’s ‘Somewhere Between Right And Wrong’ was to come to a juddering halt with this album’s fifth single, which peaked at a very disappointing #26. It was the first time ETC had attempted more than four from one album, but the main problem may have been the underlying shifts in country radio. He would experience only two more top 10s, one of which was a posthumous duet with Keith Whitley. ‘You Must Not Be Drinking Enough’ is actually a fine song which deserved better, and more traditional sounding than much of ETC’s oeuvre (despite being a Don Henley cover). A soulful vocal is backed up with steel guitar as ETC offers advice to a lovelorn friend, or perhaps himself:

You keep telling yourself she means nothing
Maybe you should call her bluff
You don’t really believe it
You must not be drinking enough …

You keep telling yourself you can take it
Telling yourself that you’re tough
But you still want to hold her
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, stepped on your pride,
Turns out you ain’t quite so tough
Cause you still want to hold her
You must not be drinking enough

The rambunctious ‘Finally Friday’ would be a single for George Jones a few years later. ETC’s version is more restrained, but the accordion-led production lends it a happy Cajun feel which works pretty well.

ETC co-wrote three songs, two of them with producer Randy Scruggs. The title track, ‘Too Far From The Heart Of It All’, is quite a pretty ballad on a religious theme although the meaning is not very clear. ‘Carol’ is a tender, thoughtful ballad about a man who regrets having left his wife years ago:

If I could turn back time to yesterday
I’d be coming home this time to stay …
I guess I never felt this way before
Feeling like a stranger at my own door
I wouldn’t have to ask you how you’ve been
And I wouldn’t have to fall in love again

Carol
No one has replaced you
I’ve never looked a day beyond goodbye
And Carol
Time could not erase you
It’s only made me wish I’d never tried

Guess some of us just don’t know when to stop
Reaching out for something we ain’t got

‘No Chance, No Dance’, written with Robert Byrne, is a brassy uptempo tune about not playing things safe.

Byrne teamed up with Tom Brasfield to write ‘I Love he Way he Left You’, an AC leaning ballad hoping a woman who has been hurt by a previous relationship will end up with him.

This is one of ETC’s best albums and it is definitely worth checking out.

Grade: A-

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Single Reviews: Earl Thomas Conley – ‘Nobody Falls Like A Fool’ and ‘Once In A Blue Moon’

By 1985 Earl Thomas Conley was one of the most consistent hitmakers in country music, with every single topping the charts. It was time for a Greatest Hits compilation. As well as eight of ETC’s hits, the set included two new songs, which were released as singles. The new songs were well chosen, as both reached #1.

‘Nobody Falls Like A Fool’, written by Peter McCann and Mark Wright. Slightly tinny keyboards typical of the period have dated, but ETC’s smoky vocal, at once vulnerable and optimistic, really sells the song. The protagonist and his new love interest have both been burned by love before, but the former at least is an undying romantic who believes this time it will work out:

After so many dreams have fallen through
It’s time that one came true

Nobody falls like a fool
Nobody loves like a believer

And I’m fallin’
‘Cause I believe in you

I know you’re afraid
Of the words that we’ve spoken
There’s been so many promises made
And so many broken
Oh but please don’t hold back
I’ve already opened the door
And this time I’m hoping for more
You’re making it easy

‘Once In A Blue Moon’ was written by Robert Byrne and Tom Brasfield. The beautiful melody and hushed vocal are allied to a tender lyric about a woman’s love for an unworthy but grateful man:

She’s starving for affection
So hungry for love’s touch
But she only hears “I love you”
When we’re making love
Lord, I’ll always wonder
Why she loves me so much
And the best I’ll ever do won’t be enough
So I’ll just thank my lucky stars above

But once in a blue moon
I’ll do something right
And once in a blue moon
I’ll make her feel so fine
‘Cause I can make her laugh
Oh, and make her cry
She hates the way she loves me sometimes

Again, the production is dated but it doesn’t intrude too badly, and the song and vocals are great.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Alabama – ‘Roll On’

51HP6DKBDSLAlabama released their eighth album in 1984. Produced as per usual by Harold Shedd, Roll On was certified quintuple platinum and charted four number one hits.

The title track, an uptempo trucker’s anthem written by Dave Loggins, was issued as the lead single. Instead of focuses on the plight of the trucker, “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler)” centers on the man’s wife and her immense worry when she fears he may be dead. Randy Owen gives an inspired performance on what’s become one of the band’s most iconic singles.

The heavily AC-leaning “When We Make Love” came next. Owen led with his tender vocal, which added sincerity to the ballad. Shedd also give the number plenty of breathing room, which makes up for the country signifiers it was lacking. To this day it remains one of my favorite Alabama ballads.

They followed with another iconic single, “If You’re Gonna Play In Texas (You Gotta Have A Fiddle In The Band).” The Dan Mitchell and Murry Kellum penned number has grown thin on me from over exposure, but it’s a great song and a bright spot from the barren landscape of 1980s commercial country music.

I also quite enjoy the album’s finale single, “(There’s A) Fire In The Night.” It’s a tale of lust, with the man far from the watchful eyes of his wife. Until writing this review I never knew RCA issued two videos for the song. The first featured a scandalous interpretation of the lyric, partial nudity, and bizarre tattoos. That was pulled in favor of the famous one featuring the band around the campfire. I like elements of the first one best, as it actually fit Bob Corbin’s campy lyric.

Robert Byrne and Alan Schulman co-wrote “The End of the Lyin,’” while Maurice R. Hirsch wrote “Country Side of Life.” The former is an Eagles influenced mid-tempo number while the former has an unappealing R&B influence.

Teddy Gentry takes a rare lead vocal on “The Boy,” a father-son relationship ballad he co-wrote with Owen and Greg Fowler. The track is written from the father’s prospective as he watches his son grow up. Gentry’s smooth vocal lessens the country elements of the song while the lyric suffocates the track with schmaltz. It’s not one of the album’s better numbers.

Owen also had writing credits on three other tracks, including the spectacular “I’m Not That Way Anymore.” A co-write with Gentry, Fowler and Mark Herndon, the song was recorded live at the now defunct Reunion Arena in Dallas. A giant missed opportunity; it should’ve been a single and another of their massive hits. I hadn’t heard it until now, but it might be one of my favorite things they’ve ever done.

The remaining two songs were credited solely to Owen. “Carolina Mountain Dewe” is a listless ballad about a lonely couple kept apart geographically. Thankfully he rebounds with “Food On The Table,” a homespun tribute to the loving home from which was raised.

Roll On is a quite enjoyable and consistently strong Alabama record. Shedd’s production doesn’t lean particularly country but it works more often then it fails. Roll On finds Alabama hitting their artistic stride.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Shenandoah – ‘Long Time Comin”

long time cominThe early 90s saw changes for Shenandoah. They had left Columbia after their legal troubles, and signed to RCA. They recruited Keith Stegall to produce their debut effort for the new label alongside longterm collaborator Robert Byrne. It continued the style familiar from earlier work, but the songs were not quite as strong.

The lead single was a pleasantly radio-friendly mid-tempo song about a man going home to ‘Rock My Baby’ after a hard day’s work and a night out with the boys. Although not particularly memorable, It has an airy feel with some attractive fiddle, and it returned the group close to the top of the charts, with a #2 peak.

Unfortunately the other singles from the album were not as successful. The follow-up ‘Hey Mister (I Need That Job)’ offered a change of pace, portraying the voice of a young expectant father facing unemployment and desperate for a chance to prove himself and provide for his family. Perhaps it was a little too serious to play well on radio, more accustomed to Shenandoah’s lighter material, as it barely scraped into the top 30, but it is an excellent song (written by Kerry Chater and Renee Armand) with a moving vocal from Marty.

‘Leavin’s Been A Long Time Comin’, the up-tempo title track, was a return to a brighter feel (despite a downbeat lyric), and this one peaked at #15. ‘Give Me Five Minutes’ (written by Robert Ellis Orrall) is a charmingly optimistic number typical of Shenandoah’s up-tempo material. It would have made a fine radio-friendly single had they tried one more.

‘Same Old Heart’ is a tender Mac McAnally ballad acknowledging that a relationship is faltering, in which Marty’s phrasing is very reminiscent of McAnally’s version (on his excellent 1989 Simple Life album). I really liked this one.

Nostalgia for times past has a strong thematic role on this album. ‘Right Where I Belong’ (written by Rick Bowles and Josh Leo) is also good, a sweet look at the simple joys of small-town country life which a young man’s ambitions for something more exciting led him to pass up. Now, he’s back home to settle down, since in his quest for success,

I lost myself and that’s a high price to pay.

The tender ballad story song ‘There Ain’t No Beverly Hills In Tennessee, written by Marty Raybon and Mike McGuire, was the CD bonus track (omitted from the cassette). It is one of the best songs here, telling the story of a girl who marries young but leaves her husband with dreams of greener pastures:

There ain’t no California gold in a smoky mountain stream
There ain’t no silver linin’ to lace a poor boy’s dream
As she walked away I was thinking someday she’d come on back to me
But there ain’t no Beverly Hills in Tennessee

The gentle ballad ‘I Was Young Once Too’, written by the co-producer Robert Byrne with Richard Leigh, also looks back, with its tender portrait of the relationship between the protagonist and his father. ‘Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting’ is a little too similar melodically and thematically to their big hit ‘Sunday In The South’, but is beautifully sung.

The lively rockabilly ‘Rattle The Windows’ is a feelgood celebration of being in a smalltime country band.

This isn’t a bad album by any means, but it lacked obvious hits. With only one real hit single (in the shape of one of the record’s more lackluster songs), it did not sell as well as their last couple of Columbia releases. However, used copies are easy to find cheap, and it’s worth picking up.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Shenandoah – ‘Extra Mile’

extramile1990’s Extra Mile was the first Shenandoah album I ever bought. The band was on a hot streak after racking up three #1 hits the year before, followed by the #6 hit “See If I Care.” Extra Mile’s lead single, the Robert Ellis Orall and Curtis Wright two-stepper “Next To You, Next To Me” quickly became the band’s fourth chart topper. It is my favorite Shenandoah recording and it sounds as good as today as it did when it was first released nearly a quarter century ago.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album , for the most part,hasn’t aged as well. Every recording is a product of the era in which it was made and that is part of the charm of listening to vintage music. I don’t mind soaring string sections or Nashville Sound choruses, and even some of the heavy-handed Urban Cowboy records of the early 1980s. I have, however, developed a profound dislike of keyboard synthesizers, which were considered very cutting edge in 1990 but sound horribly dated today. In listening to Extra Mile for the first time in a very long time, I found the synthesizers to be a distraction that mar an otherwise very solid album. It’s first apparent on Hugh Prestwood’s “Ghost In This House” — a beautiful ballad that peaked at #5 when it was released as the album’s second single — and continues to mar ballads such as “When You Were Mine” and it is particularly intrusive on “The Moon Over Georgia”, an otherwise excellent record that reached #9. The aforementioned “When You Were Mine” stalled #38, becoming the album’s only single not to reach the Top 10. “I Got You”, written by Robert Byrne, Teddy Gentry and Greg Fowler, was also released as a single between “Ghost In This House” and “Moon Over Georgia.” It’s another one of my favorite Shenandoah recordings. It peaked at #7.

Production missteps aside, the material on Extra Mile is quite good, and Marty Raybon’s vocals are stellar throughout. The songwriting credits alone are impressive with names such as Lionel Cartwright (“She’s A Natural”), Larry Cordle and Larry Shell (“Puttin’ New Roots Down”) and Rory Michael Burke and Mike Reid (“She Makes The Coming Home Worth The Being Gone”) all appearing alongside the aforementioned Robert Ellis Orrall, Curtis Wright and Hugh Prestwood. The album closes with the sentimental “Daddy’s Little Man” in which a father fears that he cannot live up to the hero image that his young son has of him.

Like The Road Not Taken, Extra Mile earned gold certification. Unfortunately, shortly after the album’s release the band was sued by several other bands that claimed to have rights to the Shenandoah name. Although Shenandoah prevailed in court, it was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and one of the consequences of that action was the termination of the band’s contract with Columbia Records. Although the band later resurfaced on RCA, the legal turmoils did affect their commercial momentum. Shenandoah’s albums are not always easy to come by nowadays, but as one of their better selling efforts, Extra Mile is the exception. Cheap used copies are available as well as a reasonably priced import version which contains The Road Not Taken and Extra Mile on the same disc.

Grade: B+

Album Review – Shenandoah – ‘The Road Not Taken’

Shenandoah_road_not_takenAfter their eponymous album produced two top-twenty singles, Shenandoah saw a reversal of fortunes when they gathered at Fame Recording Studios in Muscle Sholes, Alabama to record their sophomore record, The Road Not Taken. A major success, the album spawned three #1 hits, was certified gold, for shipments of 500,000 copies, and turned 25 upon the anniversary of its Jan 31, 1989 release just one week ago.

Columbia Records noticed the band’s upward swing when their third single, “She Doesn’t Cry Anymore” cracked the top ten, peaking at #9. Written by Robert Byrne (their co-producer) and Will Robinson, the track is a forlorn synth heavy ballad that shows the band’s promise but isn’t indicative of their strongest work. To capitalize on the song’s success the label carried it over to The Road Not Taken, releasing it as the third single from the band’s debut and first from their second album.

This album’s first official single, “Mama Knows,” gave the band their inaugural top five hit. An excellent mandolin and string centric ballad, “Mama Knows” began their tradition of singing simple tales about small-town life. This one’s about a mother who always knows whatever her son is trying to hide:

Mama knows, Mama knows

Somehow I think she’s got a window to my soul

Mama knows, Mama knows

Even when I think it doesn’t show

Mama knows, mama knows

“The Church on Cumberland Road,” Their first of three consecutive #1 hits came next, impacting the country charts in early 1989. A two-week #1, the track marked the first time a band had their first chart-topper spend multiple weeks atop the charts. A catchy rocker about a groom late for his wedding, the song uses electric guitars in its production, and is heavy on the charm. A piece of nostalgia from my childhood, it remains one of my favorites of their singles to date.

Their second number one came courtesy of Jay Booker’s masterpiece “Sunday In The South,” which is my favorite thing Shenandoah has ever committed to record. The song is a day—in the life of the southern US on a sacred Sunday, bringing alive the traditions of going to church, enjoying family dinners, and getting one’s haircut. While the track retains a bit of laundry-list tactics, it succeeds on its sincerity, Marty Raybon’s impeccable lead vocal, and the flawless traditional production that weaves gorgeous ribbons of harmonica throughout.

The more contemporary “Two Dozen Roses,” co-written by Byrne with Mac McAnally, finished off the band’s banner 1989, becoming their third #1 hit. Another excellent song, “Two Dozen Roses” contains everything I love about country music – twang (both vocally and from guitars), a killer chorus, and an effortless vibe that seems easy to pull off, but really isn’t. “Two Dozen Roses” is just a great, great song all around.

The album’s final single, “See If I Care,” bookends the album with a track similar in nature to “She Doesn’t Cry Anymore.” That isn’t a complement, though, as the song retains the former’s somewhat listless production and vocal stylings and feels almost like a regression from the excellence of the band’s three previous singles. The track justifiably peaked at #6.

Like the blander singles, the title track has an adult cotemporary vibe that’s somewhat unbecoming. Raybon doesn’t do that great a job singing it either, which is a shame. An on-point vocal from him could’ve elevated this tale of regret, but instead we’re left with a song that’s just bland. “Changes” is more interesting thanks to its cadence, which allows entry into the song, but Raybon’s delivery could once again use a little zap of energy.

McAnally, who’s one of my favorite songwriters of all-time, wrote “She’s All I Got Goin’” solo. Raybon gives an exquisite vocal performance and the production is a pure delight, no matter how retro it sounds to today’s ears. The track should’ve been the finale single, instead of “See If I Care.” Also good is “Hard Country” although the harmonies from the other band members on the chorus just sound strange.

It’s easy to see why The Road Not Taken was Shenandoah’s breakthrough album. A strong collection of songs and Raybon’s indelible voice help raise the record above the average radio faire. It’s also a testament to all involved that two of the projects biggest hits, “The Church on Cumberland Road” and “Two Dozen Roses” have go on to become classics, with Rascal Flatts covering the former on occasion. Gary LeVox is nowhere near the astute vocalist that Raybon is, but they do a surprisingly decent job.

It’s hard to believe the CD is 25 years old, but it sounds nearly as good today as it did when it was released all those years ago.

Grade: A 

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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