My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Ron Hellard

Single Review: T. Graham Brown – ‘I Tell It Like It Used To Be’

tgb“I Tell It Like It Used To Be” was T. Graham Brown’s breakthrough single and the title track of his debut album, which is out of print and therefore, was unavailable for us to review. Written by Ron Hellard, Michael Garvin and Bucky Jones, it was the follow-up single to “Drowning In Memories”, which barely cracked the Top 40 in early 1985. “I Tell It Like It Used To Be” outperformed its predecessor by a mile, peaking at #7 and establishing T. Graham Brown as a new artist to watch.

The record’s intro is reminiscent of a Billy Sherrill countrypolitan record of the 1970s, but once the song gets underway, there is very little about it that is country. The verses are a mixture of rockabilly and 50’s doo-wap and Brown’s soulful vocal performance accompanied by a saxophone, adds a touch of R&B as well. This is particularly true on the chorus, during which the narrator admits that when asked, he doesn’t tell people that he and his ex have broken up and instead leads them to believe that things still are as they once were. It’s a very catchy tune that sticks in the listener’s head. It’s that earworm quality that allowed the record to buck the trend and land in the Top 10 at a time when country music was obsessed with rediscovering its roots. It’s also evidence that country radio programmers of the day had some appreciation for diversity — something that is sorely missing today.

T. Graham Brown’s reign at the top of the charts was very brief, but “I Tell It LIke It Used To Be” was the first of a string of Top 10 hits, including three #1s, that continued until 1988. It is available for download as a single and also as part of hits compilations, but be sure that you are getting the original version and not a re-recording.

Grade: A

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Album Review: Holly Dunn – ‘Heart Full Of Love’

Holly’s 1990 follow up to The Blue Rose of Texas, which she produced with brother Chris Waters, was not quite as good as the latter, but is a fine effort nonetheless, with a lot of variety in tempo, style and subject matter, while Holly is in great voice.

Holly’s solo composition, ‘My Anniversary For Being A Fool’ is a lovely sad waltz as the protagonist remembers just how she threw away a true love.  Beautifully and delicately sung, with a prominent steel guitar behind her, it was the first single, but performed surprisingly,and undeservingly, poorly.  She regained traction with ‘You Really Had Me Going’, an up-tempo Dunn/Waters/Tom Shapiro song which became Holly’s first chart topper.  The rock n roll electric guitar solo from Brent Mason is unexpected, but doesn’t overwhelm the song.

The title track was the final single, but only just crept into the top 20.  A mid-tempo love song written by hitmaker Kostas, it is quite pleasant without being at all memorable.

‘The Light In The Window Went Out’ is an excellent song, in which the once-faithful protagonist gives up at last on her complacent ex who thinks he can pick up where he left off:

You thought I’d just keep hanging on

Love like a candle burns down to nothing

When it’s left untended too long

It was written by Holly and Chris with Ron Hellard.  The ironic ‘Temporary Loss Of Memory’ (penned by Holly and Chris with Lonnie Wilson) about a brief pause in a heartbreak is in a more contemporary vein, and isn’t bad.

The usual Waters/Dunn/Shapiro team exercised their social conscience with an emotional look at a homeless family for whom ‘No Place Is Home’.  Some may feel it tries a little too hard to make the hearer feel guilty, but it is clearly heartfelt and beautifully sung.

Waters and Shapiro teamed up with Charlie Black to write ‘My Old Love In New Mexico’, a wistful ballad about missing someone, with pretty Spanish guitar backing Holly.

There are many songs called ‘Home’ out there’; Karla Bonoff’s song of that name, which Holly recorded here, is one of the prettiest with a lovely melody and sweetly yearning vocal.  Just beautiful.

There is a sultry cover of the Marty Robbins classic ‘Don’t Worry’ with backing vocals from the Jordanaires recalling the original era.

The closing ‘Broken Heartland’ has a more contemporary vibe and lacks the emotion implied by the lyrics, but it is the only real misstep.

This was followed by a Greatest Hits album (Milestones), which brought a slowdown as her career suffered from the controversy over that album’s single ‘Maybe I Mean Yes’, which some thought inadvertently made light of the very serious date rape issue.

Cheap copies of Heart Full Of Love are easy to find and well worth acquiring.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Keith Whitley – ‘I’m No Stranger to the Rain’

This was the third of five straight #1’s for Keith Whitley between 1988-89.  It was written by Sonny Curtis and Ron Hellard, and issued as the fifth single from Whitley’s landmark Don’t Close Your Eyes album.

Album Review: Curly Putman – ‘Write ‘Em Sad – Sing ‘Em Lonesome’

Curly Putman, now 80 years old, is one of the great country songwriters. This record (apparently released via Curly’s publishing company Sony/ATV), allows him to offer his own interpretations of some of his classic songs. While his aging voice is not up to much technically, I always enjoy hearing songwriters deliver their own material, and he can still hold a tune better than some of today’s big names. His phrasing is perfect (as one might expect given that these are his own songs), and he is able to convey the emotions effectively. The album is well produced by Curly himself with percussionist Adam Engelhardt in traditional country style, with some fine musicians backing him and plenty of fiddle and steel. And the quality of the material is absolutely exceptional, with a focus, as the album title suggests, on the sad songs that form the heartblood of country music.

There are three duets with female vocalists, which are among the highlights. 80s star turned successful Music Row songwriter Deborah Allen joins Curly on a downbeat and tuneful version of ‘Only Oklahoma Away’, where the male protagonist’s longing is palpable. Dolly Parton sounds lovely on the tender love song ‘Made For Loving You’, one of the few positive-themed numbers. Sarah Johns is a revelation as the duet partner on ‘My Elusive Dreams’, a semi-autobiographical song which Curly released as a single back in 1967, just before Tammy Wynette and David Houston’s classic version. This is one of my favourite tracks, with Curly’s abraded voice (redolent of failed ambition) contrasting with Sarah’s pure, sweet voice (much better here than on her 2008 solo album Big Love In A Small Town, where she sometimes sounded shrill). It makes me hopeful for new music from Sarah in the future.

The tragic drama of ‘Radio Lover’ with its spoken verses and sung chorus, and the heartbreaking ‘Wino The Clown’ (also partly-spoken) were both written with Bucky Jones and Ron Hellard and recorded by George Jones in the mid-80s. Curly’s versions work well and are extremely convincing (although I think he was probably wise to avoid tackling his very best known George Jones cut, ‘He Stopped Loving her Today’).

My favorite track is the tragic prisoner’s dream ‘Green, Green Grass Of Home’, one of Curly’s most recorded, and greatest, compositions. There is a long and delicate instrumental intro leading into a low-key mournful vocal which sounds doomed right from the start, with every word sounding as though it comes straight from the heart. Technically speaking, I have heard better versions of the gorgeous sad ballad ‘Couldn’t Love Have Picked A Better Place To Die’, but once more, Curly’s version does effectively convey the intensity of the protagonist’s despair.

Opening track ‘Older The Violin’ (a late hit for Hank Thompson in 1974) is a sprightly lightly swinging defiance of middle age (the protagonist is 45) along the lyrical lines of the Johnny Paycheck 80s classic ‘Old Violin’, with the protagonist telling the woman who seems to be putting him out to grass in favour of a younger rival:

The older the violin, the sweeter the music
These specks of gray that’s in my hair
Just make me look distinguished
That don’t mean I’m over the hill
Baby I’m not extinguished

There are a few songs I hadn’t heard before, including the last-mentioned. Of the others, ‘That Runaway Woman’ is a Caribbean-flavored tale of a man chasing through various beach destinations after the woman who has left him, and fetching up in a bar somewhere to drink away the pain, which Curly wrote with Don Cook. ‘Magnolia In The Snow’ is a slow and rather depressing song about leaving Colorado for the sun, and regretting what has been left behind, which seems to include a dead child.

Ending the album on a more positive note, there is a moving expression of absolute faith in the face of a troubled life, in the emotionally sung religious closing track ‘Foot Prints’, a co-write with Don Cook and bluegrass singer Ronnie Bowman (who, with his wife Garnet, sings harmonies throughout):

I sail my ship in deep and troubled waters
I drift so far I cannot see the shore
Sometimes my soul feels lost at sea
And all my hope is gone
He left His footprints on the water
So I can find my way home

Before I knew, my heart believed
He loved the broken heart of me
He sacrificed His precious life
So He could give me mine

The proceeds of the sales of the album are partly devoted to the Sean Putman Memorial Fund at Cumberland University, Lebanon, TN, in memory of Curly’s grandson who died of cancer as a child, and to whom the record is dedicated.

This is a fascinating example of one of the greatest living country songwriters singing some of his best songs, and given his age, perhaps the last opportunity to do so.

Grade: A-

It is available on iTunes, or as a hard copy CD from CDBaby or Amazon.

You can sample some of the songs via Curly’s Facebook page.

Album Review: Keith Whitley — ‘Don’t Close Your Eyes’

dontcloseyoureyes1985’s L.A. to Miami provided Keith Whitley with some badly needed radio hits, but the slick pop-oriented production didn’t sit well with him. Wanting to return to his traditional country roots, he asked RCA executive Joe Galante to shelve the follow-up album that was nearly ready to release and to allow him to start working on a new album that was more in line with his musical tastes. Galante agreed, and Keith chose Garth Fundis to be his co-producer. The result was 1988’s Don’t Close Your Eyes, which was Whitley’s most critically acclaimed and commercially successful album up to that time.

Two tracks from the scrapped album were salvaged and released as singles to maintain Whitley’s presence on the radio while he and Fundis were working on the new album. “Would These Arms Be In Your Way”, which featured harmony vocals by Vern Gosdin (one of the song’s co-writers) and Emmylou Harris peaked at #36 on the Billboard country singles chart in 1987. It was followed by “Some Old Side Road” which reached #16. Both of these tracks were eventually included on the new album, though “Would These Arms Be In Your Way” appeared only on the CD version.

The album opens with the mid-tempo “Flying Colors”, which is a decent song, but not quite up to the standards of the rest of the album. The second track “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now”  is one of my favorites.  Co-written by Keith with Curly Putman and Don Cook, it’s one of the few instances in which Keith recorded a song he’d written himself. In this interview with TNN’s Shelly Mangrum, he mentioned that it was being considered for release as a single, but that never happened.

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Album Review: Keith Whitley — ‘L.A. to Miami’

latomiamiAfter the commercial failure of his RCA debut mini-album, Keith Whitley changed directions somewhat, moving away from traditional country and more towards a more contemporary (i.e., commercial) sound. The result was 1985’s L.A. to Miami, produced by Blake Mevis, who had produced some of George Strait’s early work. At that time, country radio was still more receptive to more pop-oriented music; the neotraditionalist movement was not yet quite in full swing. That would change about a year later when Randy Travis burst onto the scene. Ironically, one of the songs that propelled Travis to stardom — “On The Other Hand” — had been previously recorded by Whitley, and is included in this collection. At first it seems like the perfect match between singer and song, but Whitley’s version pales in comparison to Travis’. This is one of the very few examples in which Whitley seemed to be phoning in his performance.

Another song to file under “Ones That Got Away” is the Dean Dillon composition “Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her”, which would go on to become a #1 hit for George Strait the following year. Whitley’s version was never released as a single. His vocal performance is stellar, and this version could have been a hit had RCA released to radio before MCA beat them to the punch with Strait’s recording.

It must have been extremely frustrating for the struggling artist to watch two songs from his album become #1 hits for other artists, particularly when the first single from the album, “I’ve Got The Heart For You” performed about as well as Whitley’s previous singles, peaking at #57. Whitley’s fortune would change, however, with the next single release “Miami, My Amy”, which was written by Dean Dillon, the legendary Hank Cochran, and Royce Porter. With this typical mid-80s country-pop record, Whitley cracked the top 20 for the first time. “Miami, My Amy” climbed to #14. The remaining singles, “Ten Feet Away”, “Homecoming ’63” and the somewhat autobiographical (though not penned by Whitley himself) “Hard Livin'” all reached the top 10.

My favorite track on the album is “That Stuff”, written by Sonny Curtis and Ron Hellard. This track is less pop-oriented and is a bit closer to the type of music Whitley would go on to record in the future.

The change in musical direction paid off from a commercial standpoint; L.A. to Miami reached #26 on the Billboard Country Albums chart. But artistically it is a mixed bag. Too many of the songs are marred by slick, heavy-handed 80’s production, complete with saxophone and electronic keyboards, and there is no escaping the fact that Whitley’s voice was better suited for more traditional material. Keith himself had mixed feelings about this album; he and Mevis teamed up to record another album in the same vein, but upon its completion, Keith asked RCA to shelve the album and allow him to do more traditional material.

Twenty-four years after its release, L.A. to Miami is not a bad album — there is no such thing as a bad Keith Whitley album — but it sounds very dated to twenty-first century ears. It is interesting primarily because it shows Whitley’s progression as an artist; it’s definitely not his best work and not the place to start a collection of Keith’s music. In fact, if there’s one album in the Whitley catalog to be skipped over, this is it.

Grade: B-

Watch a live performance of “Miami, My Amy”: