My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Roger Murrah

Album Review: Clay Walker – ‘If I Could Make A Living’

if i could make a livingClay’s second album was released in September 1994. The engagingly bouncy title track was written by Alan Jackson, Keith Stegall and Roger Murrah, and charged to #1 on the country charts. It has a copyright date of 1989, so I assume it was a reject from Alan’s first album, but it has genuine charm if not much depth.

Passionately sung ballad ‘This Woman And This Man’ about a couple on the cusp of breaking up was another chart topper. The run of hits was halted with ‘My Heart Will Never Know’, the final single, which peaked at #16. The sad lost love song was another ballad, with a pretty melody.

‘You Make It Look So Easy’ is another sad love song, written by Chris Waters and Tom Shapiro, with the protagonist failing to cope with a breakup.

However, the record was dominated by up-tempo numbers. One of my favourites is the insistent kiss-off ‘What Do You Want For Nothin’, written by Keith Follese and Michael Woody. Clay demands scathingly,

All I wanted was your love
But it was more than you would pay
Now you want a second chance
To give me more of the same

What do you want for nothin’, baby,
A solid gold guarantee
That you get everything you need?
But there was no love in it for me
You wanna deal on the way I feel
But I’m not buyin’ that
What do you want for nothin’, baby?
Your money back???

‘The Melrose Avenue Cinema Two’ is an effervescent reminiscence of childhood friendship and teenage romance which is quite enjoyable. ‘Boogie Till The Cows Come Home’ is ramped up western swing with honky tonk piano.

Clay wrote four songs, three of them with Kim Williams and Kent Blazy. ‘Heartache Highway’ is a wistful song about failing to patch things up:
It’s a hell of a road
When you’re leavin’ heaven behind

‘Down By The Riverside’ is another remembrance of first love. ‘Money Ain’t Everything’ is a dramatic swampy story song full of atmosphere. Finally Clay wrote the solid honky tonk song ‘Lose Your Memory’ solo.
James Stroud’s production isn’t bad, a little dated in places now, but sufficiently recognisable as country music with some nice fiddle, and Clay’s vocals are good throughout. The album sold very well, and was certified platinum.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Wynonna – ‘Tell Me Why’

tell me whyWynonna’s second solo album was released in May 1993,produced as before by Tony Brown. It did not sell as well as its predecessor, but was still certified platinum, and produced five top 10 hits.

The first single, the title track, was a mid-tempo Karla Bonoff song with a glossy contemporary country-rock feel, and reached #3 on Billboard. This performance was matched by its successor, the more delicate and sophisticated ‘Only Love. Written by Roger Murrah and Marcus Hummon, it doesn’t sound particularly country now, but it featured a strong vocal performance.

My favorite track by far, ‘Is It Over Yet’, is a solemn piano-led ballad with a sensitive string arrangement which allows Wynonna’s emotion-filled voice to shine on a song about the pain of a breakup. It peaked at #7.

The most successful single, ‘Rock Bottom’, only just missed the top of the charts. It was written by the songwriters behind Southern Rockers the Atlanta Rhythm Section, and has a bluesy rock groove which suits Wynonna’s confident growl, although it’s not really my favorite style. The final single, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s ‘Girls With Guitars’, is a strong country rock number celebrating female musicians by telling the story of one young woman’s progress from high school to adult success, defeating the expectations of sexist listeners along the way. Naomi Judd and Lyle Lovett contribute backing vocals on the song.

Jesse Winchester’s ‘Let’s Make A Baby King’ is a Christmas song which New Grass Revival had recorded a few years earlier in more bluegrassy style, and which Wynonna gave a black gospel makeover. While Wynonna’s version was not formally released as a single, it gained some airplay at Christmas. ‘Just Like New’ is another memorable Winchester song, a bluesy story about a car once owned by Elvis. Naomi Judd’s ‘That Was Yesterday’ is performed as a slowed down blues number.

‘Father Sun’ was written by Sheryl Crow, about to make her own breakthrough as a rock singer-songwriter, and has a rather elusive lyric. The production funnels Wynonna’s vocal through an echoey effect which wastes her greatest asset, her powerful voice, and more gospel style backing vocals swamp her at the end.

She does show her more subtle interpretative side with a cover of ‘I Just Drove By’, written and originally recorded by Kimmie Rhodes. This charming song is about sweet memories of childhood innocence, and Wynonna sings it beautifully.

While it is a long way from traditional, and a purist might challenge its country credentials on any level, Wynonna was able to take her place in the diverse sounds of 1990s country music. It’s an accomplished record in its own right, genre considerations aside, but that does make it tough to assign a grade to on a country blog.

Grade: B

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘Real. Country. Music.’

real country musicWhile his commercial success never equalled his prowess, Gene Watson is one of the great country singers. Furthermore, of all the veterans still performing, his voice has held out the best, and almost unbelievably, he still sounds glorious at over 70. Gene’s producer for the last few projects, Dirk Johnson, does his usual sterling job – few album titles are as accurate about the contents as this one. The songs are all older ones, making this album something of a companion piece to its immediate predecessor, My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys, and are almost all emotional ballads about lost love, which play to Gene’s strengths as a vocalist.

One does not normally expect to hear a Gene Watson album opening with swelling strings, but his voice soon takes over, and the remainder of the album comprises familiar country arrangements featuring fiddles and steel guitars. ‘Enough For You’ is an excellent Kris Kristofferson tune which first appeared on the latter’s Jesus Was A Capricorn album in 1972. Gene says he first heard it in 1980 in the form of Billie Jo Spears’s cover (from her 1975 album Billie Jo), and has wanted to record it ever since. The suicidal cuckold’s lament is perfectly suited to Watson’s perfectly judged vocal, and is the first single.

‘She Never Got Me Over You’ is the last song Keith Whitley wrote before his untimely death (with the help of Dean Dillon and Hank Cochran). A powerful song about love and obsession, it was recorded a few years ago by Mark Chesnutt, but Gene makes it sound as if it was written just for him. If you want to check out Keith’s original demo, it’s on youtube.

There are two covers of Larry Gatlin songs, both of which were recorded by Elvis in the 70s. The gospel ballad ‘Help Me’ is delicately understated (and may serve as a taster for a new religious album Gene plans to release later this year). ‘Bitter They Are, Harder To Fall’ is a classic heartbreak ballad which Gene actually recorded many years ago on his early album Because You Believed In Me.

Gene revisits a number of other songs he has previously recorded on this album. ‘Old Loves Never Die’ was never a single, but as the title track of one of his most successful albums is perhaps the most familiar to fans. The melancholic ‘Ashes To Ashes’ was on his excellent but often overlooked 1987 alDbum Honky Tonk Crazy (his final Epic release). He covered the superb ‘Couldn’t Love Have Picked A Better Place To Die’ (previously cut by George Jones) on his now hard to find 1997 album A Way To Survive; this new steel-led recording is beautiful. He cut Bill Anderson’s ‘When A Man Can’t Get A Woman Off His Mind’ on his Sings set in 2003; another jealous man’s pain-filled take on love lost but still deeply felt, this is magnificently sung.

A little less familiar is ‘A Girl I Used To Know’ – not the classic song of that name, but a David Ball song from the latter’s underrated 2004 album Freewheeler. A subtly sad, slow song about poignant memories of lost love with the steel guitar to the fore, it fits nicely with the other material. ‘A Bridge That Just Won’t Burn’ is a wonderful song written by Jim McBride and Roger Murrah which was one of Conway Twitty’s last few singles. Nat Stuckey’s emotional All My Tomorrows’ is another fine song and recording.

The one song not fitting the pattern of slow sad songs is a honky tonker previously recorded by Waylon Jennings and Jerry Lee Lewis, ‘I’ll Find It Where I Can’. One venture away from country territory is a cover of the Nat King Cole hit ‘Ramblin’ Rose’. Although there have been country covers of the song before, none was a big hit. Gene’s version is nice, and he certainly mnages to make it sound like a country song, but insofar as this album has a weak spot, this is it.

This is a superb album of excellent songs by one of the genre’s all time great singers, who is, thankfully, still in possession of his golden voice.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Ricky Van Shelton – ‘Backroads’

backroadsRicky’s fourth studio album was released in 1991, and certified platinum before the end of the year. As usual, it was dominated by beautifully sung ballads and a pure country production.

The first three singles continued his admirable chart record by hitting #1. First came ‘Rockin’ Years’, a melodic duet with Dolly Parton (also included on her then-current album Eagle When She Flies). It is a gently melodic ballad about growing old with the one one loves – pretty and delicate with a lovely steel intro. However, I find the rocking ‘I Am A Simple Man’ rather dull. The third chart topper was the gentle tearjerking tribute to a father-son relationship, ‘Keep It Between The Lines’.

A nice, steel-dominated cover of Warner Mack’s downbeat ballad ‘After The Lights Go Out’ only reached an unlucky 13, but deserved better. The pleasant but not that memorable uptempo title track then made it back to #2.

My favorite of the non-singles is ‘Some Things Are Better Left Alone’, a fabulous ballad written by Roger Murrah and Larry Shell about the enduring power of an old flame endangering present happiness:

Every time I stir the ashes
That old fire begins to burn
When I wake those sleepin’ memories
Those old feelings still return

Oh, I shouldn’t think about you
But my heart keeps hangin’ on…

All the smoke from burnin’ bridges
Makes it hard to catch my breath
But the precious love I’m missin’
Is chokin’ me to death

Oh you’re still my strongest weakness
And I’ll love you ’til I’m gone
But I’ll have to remember
Some things are better left alone

Almost as good is the lesser-known classic ‘Who’ll Turn Out The Lights’, a solid country Wayne Kemp/Mack Vickery song previously recorded by George Jones, Conway Twitty, Ronnie Milsap and Mel Street among others. Ricky’s version is great. ‘If You’re Ever In My Arms Again’ is a nice wistful ballad written by Bobby Braddock.

‘Call Me Up’ was the obligatory rockabilly number. More to my taste, ‘Oh Heart of Mine’ is a likeable uptempo tune with a bluegrass feel, which was written by Allen Shamblin and Bernie Nelson.

The cute little terrier shown on the album cover was the Sheltons’ own pet, Lucky, who they found starving and abandoned while househunting on first moving to Nashville. She also appeared in the video for ‘Keep It between The Lines’.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Travis Tritt – ‘The Restless Kind’

the restless kindAfter the Greatest Hits album, 1996’s The Restless Kind denotes a new start of sorts, with long term producer Gregg Brown dropped for veteran rock producer Don Was, with Tritt also getting a co-production credit. The pairing does a pretty good job, and the general feel of the album is not that far removed from Tritt’s usual style, except that the harmonica is more prominent than the steel guitar. Travis wrote or co-wrote seven of the songs, and friend and tour partner Marty Stuart also contributed.

The first single, ‘More Than You’ll Ever Know’ is a very well sung but not particularly interesting ballad of devotion to a wife. The album’s biggest hit, it peaked at #3.

It was followed by ‘Where Corn Don’t Grow’, which made it to #6. Written by Roger Murrah and Mark Alan Springer, it had originally been recorded by Waylon Jennings in 1990, and is an excellent story song about a country boy who has to find out the hard way how hard city life is.

‘She’s Going Home With Me’ and ‘Still In Love With You’ both peaked in the 20s, and are equally forgettable mid-tempo numbers.

Sent to radio in between those two, the much better ‘Helping Me Get Over You’ did creep into the top 20 but should have done better. It is a sensitive ballad Tritt wrote and sings with Lari White about a couple both struggling to move on with new partners. An excellent vocal from Tritt is matched by White’s distinctive voice.

My favorite non-single (and a clear missed opportunity) is the ballad ‘Did You Fall Far Enough’, written by Tritt with Troy Seals. The protagonist is wracked with doubt for no clear reason:

You’ve given me no cause to doubt you
And I know passion burns in your heart
But does that same fire keep on burning
In the hours that we spend apart?

If you knew the question that burns in my mind
Then you know why I worry so much
I can’t help but wonder when we fell in love
Sweetheart, did you fall far enough?
]

Mark O’Connor’s beautiful fiddle winds through the song, and with Travis’s excellent vocal, helps to make this a real highlight.

‘Sack Full Of Stones’ is the best of the three songs here co-written by Marty Stuart, a somber breakup song with a fine vocal. ‘Draggin’ My Heart Around’ is a pretty good chugging Marty Stuart/Paul Kennerley song typical of what Stuart was doing at that period, with a strong groove and the Desert Rose Band’s Herb Pedersen on high harmony. The less successful ‘Double Trouble’ is a self-indulgent buddy duet with Stuart with a silly story of two friends accidentally dating the same girl, which the pair wrote with Kennerley. Stuart also plays electric guitar throughout the album.

‘Back Up Against The Wall’ is pure Southern rock/outlaw, and while it is catchy and enthusiastically performed, I was entirely unconvinced by the hardboiled jailbreak story. A meaty version of the title track, an uptempo number penned by Michael Henderson which has been recorded by a number of other artists, including Highway 101 and Trisha Yearwood, is pretty good. The romantic commitment of ‘More Than You’ll Ever Know’ is quite a nice ballad benefitting from a sincerely delivered vocal and attractive folky harmonica-led arrangement.

Overall, this is a fairly solid album with a couple of high spots. It’s worth picking up especially at cheap used copy prices.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Blake Shelton – ‘Blake Shelton’s Barn & Grill’

barnandgrillAlthough 2003’s The Dreamer achieved gold-level sales, its singles performed inconsistently at radio. After producing the #1 hit “The Baby”, the album’s subsequent singles all failed to crack the Top 20. This trend began to reverse itself with the release of Blake Shelton’s third album, Blake Shelton’s Barn & Grill, which was released in the autumn of 2004. The Bobby Braddock-produced effort got off to an initial rocky start when the album’s first single, a very nice ballad called “When Somebody Knows You That Well” died at #37. Blake’s chart decline bottomed out with that release, however, and all of the album’s subsequent singles reached the Top 10.

The album’s second single, the catchy “Some Beach”, written by Paul Overstreet and Rory Lee Feek, returned Blake to the #1 spot and also became the first gold-selling single of his career. It was followed by an excellent cover version of Conway Twitty’s 1988 hit, “Goodbye Time.” Blake’s version didn’t chart quite as high, peaking at #10. I prefer the Conway Twitty version but Blake’s rendition is my favorite song on this album. Both artists knock the Roger Murrah & James Dean Hicks tune out of the park and both versions deserved to be monster hits. A bit of trivia: the song was originally pitched to Reba McEntire, who turned it down because she was going through her divorce at the time and the lyrics apparently hit a little too close to home. The album’s fourth and final single, “Nobody But Me” was a substantial hit, reaching #4.

The album cuts in this collection are unusually strong and most of them had hit single potential. Two of them had been previously recorded; the uptempo “Cotton Pickin’ Time” (another Paul Overstreet co-write) had been released by The Marcy Brothers in 1989 and “What’s On My Mind” had appeared on a 2001 Gary Allan album. To my knowledge, “Good Old Boy, Bad Old Boyfriend”, which was written by Shelton’s producer and mentor Bobby Braddock had not been recorded before but it sounds very much like something Waylon Jennings might have done during his heyday. But perhaps the most interesting track is the Harley Allen tune “The Bartender”, in which Blake observes a tavern’s patrons and listens to their problems from across the bar.

There aren’t any weak tracks in this collection; they are well written and performed and without the production excesses that are the hallmark of most of today’s chart hits. Blake Shelton’s Barn & Grill serves as a model that demonstrates how much better the artist’s material — and indeed, country music in general — was, just slightly less than a decade ago. The album is easy to find and is worth seeking out.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Don’t Go Near The Water’

1991 was the height of the neotraditional movement, and the period saw a host of exciting new artists rooted in traditional country music breaking through. It was the ideal time for Sammy Kershaw, with his astonishingly George Jones soundalike voice, to make his debut. Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson produced his first album for Mercury, and did a fine job showcasing the artist’s voice.

His debut single ‘Cadillac Style’ was an immediate success, reaching #3. It sunnily celebrates the power of true love to overcome the limitations of poverty. The sultry title track (penned by Chapin Hartford and Jim Foster) relates the passions of first love somewhere in the South. Imbued with Southern atmosphere, the record peaked just outside the top 10.

The record’s finest song, ‘Yard Sale’ was Sammy’s third straight top 20 hit, and his finest single to date. Written by Dewayne Blackwell and Larry Bastian, it depicts in precise detail the sad aftermath of a failed marriage, with the couple’s goods being sold off cheap to all comers, leading to Sammy’s sardonic comment,

Ain’t it funny how a broken home can bring the prices down?

This excellent song would have been perfect for George Jones himself at his peak. While Kershaw isn’t quite the superlative interpreter Jones is, he still delivers the song very well.

The final single, ‘Anywhere But Here’, was Sammy’s second top 10. A vibrant up-tempo treatment belies the protagonist’s broken heart and desire just to get away from the scene of his broken heart.

Bob McDill’s regretful ‘Real Old Fashioned Broken Heart’ has a lovely fiddle/steel laden arrangement. The protagonist finds his sophisticated modern worldview collapses when his heart gets broken, and he reverts to an older style of dealing with heartbreak:

I play Hank Williams on the jukebox
Order up old whiskey at the bar
And through my tears I light another Lucky
I’ve got a real old fashioned broken heart

This is another gem, as is ‘Kickin’ In’, a heartbreak ballad written by Keith Stegall and Roger Murrah, with a pretty melody and fiddle underlining the sad mood.

Underlining the comparisons to George, Sammy picked an obscure George Jones song to record. ‘What Am I Worth’ has the protagonist plaintively questioning his value regardless of other achievements in life, because his loved one is rejecting him. A vivacious up-tempo mood belies the downbeat lyric.

My favorite track is the hardcore cheating song with a twist – both parties in the marriage are running around behind the other’s back, ‘Every Third Monday’. It was written by Larry Cordle, Larry Shell and Billy Henderson. Also with a twist, the ballad ‘I Buy Her Roses’ initially sounds like a sweet love song, but there is a sting in the tale. The protagonist’s loved one has actually left him, and he is buying the flowers he always forgot to do when they were together. A sincerely delivered vocal sells the song effectively.

Closing out the set, ‘Harbor For A Lonely Heart’ is a pleasant but not particularly memorable ballad written by Kostas and Jenny Yates.

While Kershaw’s vocal similarity to George Jones meant he perhaps lacked a degree of individuality, there are far worse singers to emulate. This was a pretty solid album with some very fine moments, and a promising debut. It sold well at the time, and was certified platinum. Used copies can now be found very cheaply, and it’s a worthwhile addition to any collection.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Steve Wariner – ‘I Got Dreams’

Steve came more to the fore as a writer on this album, released in 1989. He wrote or co-wrote nine of the ten songs on a pleasantly melodic record which showcases his sweet tenor and leans to the AC side of country. As with its predecessor, I Should Be With You, he produced the set with Jimmy Bowen. The record has a more consistent sound than its predecessor, but it lacks a real standout song.

While sales were not spectacular, the album’s singles continued Steve’s hot streak at radio, kicking off with two straight #1 hits. ‘Where Did I Go Wrong’ (the only solo Wariner composition included) is a sweetly sung ballad about losing love with an attractive melody, which is (though hardly groundbreaking) one of my favorite tracks. He wrote the optimistic mid-tempo ‘I Got Dreams’ with Bill LaBounty about hoping for his ex’s return. This was radio-friendly but while pleasant enough has not stood the test of time very well.

Another ballad, the gentle piano-led ‘When I Could Come Home To You’, written with Roger Murrah, was the third single, and this peaked at #5. It has a tender vocal as the protagonist reflects wistfully on the past with a former loved one, and this song is probably the best here.

These were probably the best choices as singles, because most of the remaining material falls into the category of listenable but ultimately forgettable. Perhaps more outside material would have been better advised, because one of my favorite tracks is the one song Steve did not contribute to writing. John Jarvis and Joe Henry’s solemn piano-led AC ballad ‘The Flower That Shattered The Stone’ (later recorded by John Denver) has a beautiful melody, subtle, pure vocal, and spiritual lyric about the power of the natural world:

As the river runs freely the mountain does rise
Let me touch with my fingers and see with my eyes
In the hearts of the children your love still grows
Like a bright star in heaven that lights our way home
Like the flower that shattered the stone

It took four writers including Steve to write ‘I Could Get Lucky Tonight’, a slightly dragging mid-tempo number without much lyrical substance. The love song ‘Do You Wanna Make Something Of It’ written with Wood Newton, sounds pretty enough but a bit boring. The same goes for ‘Plano Texas Girl’ (co-written with Steve’s brother Terry), notable only for its rather feeble play on words.

The beaty ‘Nothin’ In The World (Gonna Keep Me From You)’, a co-write with Mike Reid, reverts to the pop-country of Steve’s RCA work, and has the least impressive vocal on the record. A much better up-tempo effort is the engaging ‘Language Of Love’, written by Steve with John and Johanna Hall, and the best of his songs here apart from the singles. It has a metaphorical lyric comparing romance to international travel, and some nice mandolin from Carl Jackson.

The only other song to stand out is the slightly wimpy ‘The Loser Wins’. This starts out with a ruefully fond reminiscence of a high school football team who “won 5 and lost 17”, but is really about the comfort brought in failure by a loved one. The production feels a bit dated but the subject is temporarily quite topical with the Grammy ceremony this weekend.

The vocals are beautiful throughout, but this is the sort of record that sounds very nice in the background but where the songs lack individual interest.

Grade: C+

Cheap used copies are easy to find, and the album is avilable digitally.

Album Review: Steve Wariner – ‘Greatest Hits’ (MCA)

Steve’s move to MCA in 1985 helped him to become a mainstay of country radio, just as the same move worked for Reba McEntire and, a few years later, Vince Gill. None of his first three albums for the label is readily available on CD or digitally, but a good overview can be gained from his second Greatest Hits compilation, released in 1987. The sound was a little less poppy than his RCA work, but still definitely contemporary rather than traditional. Steve’s smooth vocals sound great even on the lesser material.

Steve’s MCA career kicked off with a bang, with ‘What I Didn’t Do’ reaching #3 on the Billboard country chart in 1985. Written by Wood Newton and Michael Noble, this remorseful look back at mistakes made by a workaholic husband who failed to pay attention to his wife (left “planning her nights by the TV Guide”) is a fine song, sensitively interpreted.

The up-tempo pop-country ‘Heart Trouble’ (written by Dave Gibson and Kent Robbins) also reached the top 10, but is not very memorable. The last single from One Good Night Deserves Another, Steve’s first MCA album, was a vast improvement, and was to become his second #1. A forlorn ballad about unrequited love, ‘Some Fools Never Learn’ was written by John Scott Sherrill, and Steve sings it beautifully, as the central character faces his loved one’s

Heart like a stone
And a wandering eye

He admits to himself, while he finds a second-best alternative relationship with a girl in the same boat,

It’s no good to pretend it won’t happen again
‘Cause it’ll happen again
Some fools never learn
Play with the fire and you’re gonna get burned
It’s only love when you’re loved in return

This is my favorite of the songs included here.

The lead single from Steve’s second MCA album (and his second album of 1985) was ‘You Can Dream Of Me’, which he wrote with John Hall. It was another #1 hit for him. A mellow sounding cheating song with an attractive melody, the soaring, pure vocal belies a less romantic message, about a married man telling his ex-lover he can’t offer her a full-time or “real” love and she will have to settle for the odd phone call, flowers and dreams.

Next up was that album’s title track, the piano-led mid-tempo ‘Life’s Highway’ written by Richard Leigh and Roger Murrah (and covered by Catherine Britt on her RCA album a few years ago). It was Steve’s fourth #1 hit, and had the most traditionally country instrumentation of his early singles. Carl Jackson and Mac McAnally sing backing vocals, and the track features Jerry Douglas on dobro and Mark O’Connor on mandolin.

The last single was the ballad ‘Starting Over Again’ (written by Don Goodman and John Wesley Ryles), with gospelly piano and soothingly sweet vocals about a constant loser who never loses faith that someday things will work out. It peaked at #4.

Life’s Highway was actually a solid modern country album (by far the best of his early work) which displayed discriminating song selection, including early versions of ‘Back Up Grinnin’ Again’ (soon afterwards cut by Kathy Mattea) and Rodney Crowell’s 1988 #1 hit ‘She’s Crazy For Leaving’. Steve’s somgwriting was also developing, and he wrote five of the ten tracks. It really deserves to be re-issued.

The third album, 1987’s It’s A Crazy World, was a bit of a step backward artistically, although each of the singles reached #1. The first of these was the pleasant but fairly forgettable New York-set ‘Small Town Girl’ (written by John Barlow Jarvis and Don Cook), singing the praises of domestic bliss with the protagonist’s wife, the small town girl of the title. Steve sounds very good on the vivaciously beaty ‘Lynda’, written by Bill LaBounty and Pat McLaughlin, and makes a throwaway ditty worth listening to.

The last single, ‘The Weekend’ was the first Steve Wariner record I ever heard. Written by Bill LaBounty again and Beckie Foster. The protagonist laments having fallen in love with his weekend fling, who is not interested in reciprocating:

You had some fun for the weekend
But I’ll be in love for the rest of my life

..and if I can’t have you tonight
At least I had the weekend

Some will find this ballad a little wimpy, but as a teenager who was new to country music, I loved it and thought it extremely romantic, and I still can’t help liking it and Steve’s sweet interpretation.

The nine solo hits (three from each of Steve’s first three albums on MCA) are rounded out with ‘That’s How You Know When Love’s Right’, a duet with Nicolette Larson which was a top 10 hit in 1986. Nicolette was a country-rock singer with a husky alto voice who had some pop success in the 70s. Her country connections included singing backup on Emmylou Harris’s version of the classic ‘Hello Stranger’, and in the mid 80s she made a concerted effort at a country career of her own. She released two pretty good albums, but this was to be her only hit single – making this the first time Steve’s talents lifted another artist to their greatest commercial success. The production sounds a bit dated now, but not overbearingly so, and the vocals work well enough to overcome this. The two singers’ voices work well together on a pleasantly tuneful if rather generic pop-leaning ballad about falling in love, swapping solo lines in the chorus, harmonising on the chorus, and both sound earnestly sincere. The song was written by Wendy Waldman and Craig Bickhardt. Oddly, the selection omitted another hit from this period, Steve’s duet with Glen Campbell on ‘The Hand That Rocks The Cradle’, a tribute to mothers everywhere.

Grade: B

Used copies of the CD are available very cheaply, and the individual tracks can be downloaded.

Album Review: Jolie Holliday – ‘Lucky Enough’

Dallas-born Jolie Holliday is a new discovery for me, although this is apparently her second release. Her soprano voice has a clarity of tone which is really lovely, and her approach is solidly country with at times folk overtones. Co-produced by the artist herself with Rob Matson and Hank Singer (the latter playing fiddle and mandolin), this album is a delight. The material is all pretty good, mostly coming from established country songwriters.

Opening track ‘I’m Coming Home To You’ (written by Stephanie Smith and Jeff Stevens) has a pretty, folky feel about longing for reunion with a loved one after time away. This promising start is followed by one of my favorite tracks, Marla Cannon and Karyn Rochelle’s ‘Better Off’. This is a great ballad advising a friend (or herself?) not to beg her man not to leave, as his departure will leave her better off in the long run:

So go on and get his suitcase
And help him pack it up
Girl, you ain’t losin’ nothing
You don’t need his kind of love

My absolute favourite track is ‘I’ll Try Anything’, the candid confession of a woman desperate to kill the pain of a broken heart by any means possible:

I can’t stand the smell of smoke
But I bought myself a pack
Bummed a light from a stranger
Nearly choked on my first drag
I hate the taste of whiskey
And this bar room ain’t my style
But I’ll try anything
Not to hurt for a while

Jolie’s vocals are particularly impressive on this big ballad, belting out the big notes without oversinging, and holding back when necessary, The song was a single for its co-writer Amber Dotson a few years ago but I prefer the purity of Jolie’s voice on this song to Amber’s more jaded interpretation, which failed to reach the top 40, although both versions are worth hearing.

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Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘Freight Train’

I was distinctly underwhelmed by Alan’s last album, Good Time, and as a result I was concerned about what to expect this time around, especially as I wasn’t impressed by the lead single. Thankfully the album is a considerable improvement. Alan has written most of the songs again, but he seems to have regained his muse, which was noticably lacking last time around. Keith Stegall is in the producer’s chair as usual; always reliable, he does one of his best jobs here, making every song sound good.

After that initial sense of apprehension, then, it was with a great sense of relief that I heard this album kicking off with some fiddle as ‘Hard Hat And A Hammer’ (one of the tracks which was pre-released on iTunes) opens the album with one of the best of Alan’s trademark tributes to the working man, described here as the “kind of glue that sticks this world together”. In the outro, he even remembers to include a nod to the working woman.

In contrast, there is a paean to the joys of escaping from it all for a life at sea in ‘That’s Where I Belong’.

That lead single and current top 20 hit ‘It’s Just That Way’ is one of the few songs not written by Alan himself; it comes from producer Keith Stegall, Vicky McGehee and Kylie Sackley, and is one of the record’s dullest moments. Alan sings it beautifully, but the song is just plain dull. I cannot imagine why it was thought a suitable first single. The only other song as lackluster on this set is Alan’s own ‘Big Green Eyes’.

A more enjoyable love song is the beauty and cheerful ‘I Could Get Used To This Lovin’ Thing’; it breaks no new ground lyrically but is enjoyable to listen to. The closing ‘The Best Keeps Getting Better’ is a more mature appreciation of a love which has grown stronger and deeper over time despite ups and downs, which is clearly addressed to Alan’s wife of 30 years – the perfect anniversary song:

We thought the best would be behind us
But the best keeps getting better all the time

We learned how to love
And how to make up
And found what it takes to be enough
Like a 30 year old wine
Hearts intertwined
The best keeps getting better all the time

I love you now more than ever

Alan draws more inspiration from his family with ‘After 17’, a tender portrait of his daughter as a young woman growing up, and “suddenly a child no more” as she tries to “find her place in this crazy world”.

The other love song here is the charming ‘True Love Is A Golden Ring’, which Alan wrote with Roger Murrah a few years ago and gave his nephew Adam and his wife and singing partner Shannon (the Wrights) to record on their excellent self-titled eight-track EP. Alan’s own version, which should bring this lovely song to a wider audience, features Rhonda Vincent on backing vocals, way back in the mix.

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Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘Don’t Rock The Jukebox’

Alan’s second album, released in May 1991, transformed him from a rising star to a fully fledged superstar, selling 4 million copies, with four of its five singles heading to the top of the charts and winning the title of the ACM Album of the Year. Alan co-wrote almost every song, the results ranging from good to great, although at times Alan seems to rely a little too strongly on the pun as inspiration. The production (from Keith Stegall and Scott Hendricks) is excellent, always serving the song and artist sympathetically. The music is solid country in every note, and the songs too draw strongly on the traditions and heritage of country music, with specific tribute paid to George Jones and Hank Williams.

The title track and first single (and ACM Single of the Year) was a ‘heartbroke hillbilly”s appeal for some hurting country music, George Jones rather than the Rolling Stones (picked for the rhyme), set to some tinkling honky tonk piano, steel and fiddle, whose rhythm makes it sound cheerful despite the downbeat lyrics, written by Alan with producer Keith Stegall and veteran writer Roger Murrah:

I ain’t got nothin’
Against rock and roll
But when your heart’s been broken
You need a song that’s slow
Ain’t nothin’ like a steel guitar
To drown a memory

‘Just Playin’ Possum’, written with Jim McBride and Alan’s future manager Gary Overton, is a similarly playful take on turning George Jones records to mend a broken heart. Jones himself offers a cameo at the end (and gets thanked in the liner notes for making ‘a dream come true’, but the theme was too similar to ‘Don’t Rock The Jukebox’ to allow it to be a single, although I like it a little better:

I could cry on my best friend’s shoulder
But there ain’t no use
I need an expert on
The pain I’m going through
So I’ll keep George on the old turntable
Til I’m over you

My personal favourite track is the second single, ‘Someday’, one of two lovely ballads Alan wrote with Jim McBride. It is an understated and gently regretful look at a failed marriage where the disillusioned wife has accepted that the “someday” he’s always promising is never going to come:

I said someday
I’ll get my life straight
She said it’s too late
What’s done is done
I told her someday
She said I can’t wait
Cause sometimes someday just never comes

The protagonist’s regret is never spelled out, but underscores every line in Alan’s perfectly nuanced vocal.

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Album Review: Patty Loveless – ‘Honky Tonk Angel’

Honky Tonk AngelPatty Loveless’ third album, released in 1988, marked her real commercial breakthrough. It was her first gold-seller (and eventually reached platinum status), and it also built on her growing success on country radio. No less than five of the ten tracks were released as singles – an unusually high number at the time. It is a testament to the strength in depth of the material that every single one was a top ten hit.

Whereas Patty’s first two albums had been co-produced by Tony Brown with Emory Gordy Jr, this time Brown took sole charge, and he delivered a commercial, radio-friendly record with enough traditional influences to fit perfectly with the tune of the times. The title alone was something of a statement of intent, as a phrase which does not appear on any of the lyrics of the songs, but one which called to mind Kitty Wells’ 50s classic ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’. A predominantly up-tempo set of material drew on Patty’s rock-singing past and her mountain background, intermixed with some soaring ballads which showed off her beautiful voice and emotive interpretative ability.

The opening track, and lead-off single, was the beaty country-rock ‘Blue Side Of Town’, written by Hank DeVito and Paul Kennerley. It was followed by the pleading ballad ‘Don’t Toss Us Away’, written by rock musician Bryan MacLean, and previously recorded by the country-rock group Lone Justice featuring MacLean’s sister, future pop star Maria McKee, on vocals. Brown’s production and Patty’s vocals transformed it into a pure country song, one which allowed Patty to stretch out vocally and show how she could emote, supported by Rodney Crowell on harmony vocals, as she begs:

Don’t toss us away so thoughtlessly
It just ain’t right
Oh can’t you see
I still love you
I want you to stay
Darlin’ please, don’t toss us away

Patty’s first #1 single was the engaging up-tempo ‘Timber I’m Falling In Love’, one of several tracks here to benefit from Vince Gill’s prominent harmonies. It was also the first #1 for its writer, Kostas. The same combination of Kostas as writer, Patty on lead, and Vince Gill on harmony (together with bluegrass vocalist Claire Lynch) was responsible for the fourth single, the full-blooded ballad ‘The Lonely Side Of Love’. Only reaching #6, it was the least successful of the singles from the album, and is one of Patty’s less well remembered songs today, but it is still a fine recording.

Kostas wrote a third track on the album, the loungy ‘If You Think’, which is beautifully interpreted by Patty as a love song with an underlying hint of sadness as the protagonist defends her love against her lover’s doubts. The final single was my favorite, as Vince Gill’s harmonies again helped ‘Chains’ to the top of the chart. The downbeat lyrics about a woman emotionally tied to a hopeless love are married to an effervescent sound which is utterly irresistible.

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Album Review: John Anderson – ‘Blue Skies Again’

Blue Skies AgainAfter the monster hit that was ‘Swinging’ the only way was down for John Anderson. He continued to incorporate pop and rock influences in his music for few years after All The People Are Talking, with diminishing returns both commercially and artistically. He was still hitting the top 10 sporadically, but in 1987 the time came to move on from Warner Brothers and try a new start, with a new label (MCA), new producer (Jimmy Bowen), and new sound (back to country, albeit less hardcore than his earliest work). The appropriately titled Blue Skies Again was the first of John’s comeback attempts.

The leadoff single, ‘When Your Yellow Brick Road Turns Blue’, failed to crack the top 40, although it is an excellent song with a beautiful melody with nods to ‘Over The Rainbow’, and has one of John’s finest vocal performances, as he portrays a husband offering unconditional love to a restless wife in the process of leaving him to pursue her dreams:
“You say that somewhere over the rainbow there’s a star that youve been wishing on
Well, is the grass really all that greener than here where you belong?
I hope that you find what you’re after and all of your dreams come true
But remember that I’ll always be here when your yellow brick road turns blue.”

John’s most successful single on MCA was ‘Somewhere Between Ragged And Right’, a duet with Waylon Jennings which Jennings wrote with Roger Murrah. The only song on the album to venture away from relationship themes, it sets out a series of interesting similes but offers no real resolution:
“We’re all polyester poets and pickers of a kind
With far too many questions for the answers in our minds…
Like a busload of taxi drivers learning how to fly
We’re on automatic pilot driftin’ through our lives.”
Sadly, the pairing of two of the most iconic and distinctive voices in country music doesn’t really work, as the two make no attempt to blend and seem to be fighting for precedence on the lines where they sing together.

The third and last single from the album was ‘It’s Hard To Keep This Ship Together’, which John wrote with Fred Carter Jr. It was the closest track to the more rock-influenced sound of recent years, but failed to make an impact at radio; not altogether surprising, as not only had the tide of commercial country music moved in the direction of the neotraditionalists, but the song itself is not very interesting. The metaphor of stormy weather addressed to a rocky relationship works better in the post-breakup title track, a mournful ballad written by Michael P Heeney with some sweet fiddle from Joe Spivey.

‘There’s Nothing Left For Me To Take For Granted’, written by John with Lionel A Delmore is another gloomy look at the aftermath of a broken relationship, and is a very good song as the protagonist finds all the couple’s old friends want nothing to do with him, and “the hardest part for me is stayin’ sober., and livin’ inthe past with broken dreams”. On a more positive note, John wrote a cheerful mid-tempo love song with his wife Jamie, ‘Just For You’. It is not particularly memorable, but pleasant filler.

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