My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Ronnie Samoset

Abum Review: Forester Sisters – ‘Sincerely’

Sincerely was the Forester Sisters’ fifth studio album for Warner Brothers, although it should be noted that the fourth album was a Christmas album. Released in July 1988, Sincerely continued the downward trend of charting lower than each previous (non Christmas) album, reaching only #30 on the charts. Three singles were released from the album, each reaching the top ten but none getting any higher than #7.

The album opens up with “I’ve Just Seen A Face” which was written by Paul McCartney & John Lennon an album track for the British version of the Beatles Help! album. The song has been covered and performed by many country and bluegrass groups over the years and Calamity Jane released it as a low charting single (#44 in 1982). The Forester Sisters give the song a slow intro but then launch into the standard tempo for the song. It’s nice but nothing special.

Byron Gallimore and Don Pfrimmer wrote the next song, “I Will”, a slow ballad that was released as the third (and highest charting) single from the album, reaching #7. It’s a nice song:

Nothing grows in the driest places,
the bitter cold,
or children’s faces,
like love will,
love will…

Nothing can be everlasting
or send an iron curtain crashing
like love will,
love will…

“Letter Home” is up next and was the first single from the album. It only reached #9 but in my opinion this Wendy Waldman composition was the best song on the album

Dear mama, I hope that you’re alright
I can hear the thunder rollin’
Across the Southern sky tonight
The kids are asleep and the T.V.’s on
And I’m sittin’ here alone
So I thought I’d write this letter home

I was the one you were counting on
The family’s high school star
Jimmy and me ran off that summer
Must have broken your and daddy’s heart
We didn’t need nobody’s help
We were 18 years and grown
That’s why there was no letter home

Letters home I wrote them in my dreams
Askin’ if I know what I know now
Would it even have changed a thing
The hardest part of looking back
Is the mistakes are all your own
I just couldn’t tell you
So there was no letter home

Doug Stone would have a #5 hit in 1990 on Harlan Howard’s “These Lips Just Don’t Know How To Say Goodbye”. The Foresters do a pleasant enough job on the song, but it seems more effective from a male perspective. Stone’s version was deservedly a hit, this version is nothing more than album filler.

Next up is the title track “Sincerely”. This song, written by Harvey Fuqua and Alan Freed, was originally recorded by Moonglows, the group of which Fuqua was a member. The Moonglows’ version reached number 1 on the Billboard R&B chart and number 20 on the Billboard Juke Box chart in the early months of 1954. Later during the year the song was covered by the McGuire Sisters. The song reached #1 in 1955 and sold well over a million records. The Forester Sisters version of “Sincerely” is pretty, albeit over-orchestrated and a bit bland. The song reached #8 and was the second single released from the album.

The next track “Things Will Grow” is filler. “Some People”, written by Carol Chase and Dave Gibson, speaks a lot of truth and is perhaps more than simply filler – I can envision a string voiced singer making a hit out of the song.

Russell Smith and Susan Longacre combined to write “On The Other Side Of The Gate”, a song given a more hard country treatment than most of the songs on the album, with steel in evidence and fiddle breaks. I really liked this song.

“You Love Me” from the pens of Matraca Berg and Ronnie Samoset is a really interesting song with a different feel than anything else on the album. At points the arrangement reminds me of John Anderson’s “Seminole Wind” although the lyrics are entirely dissimilar

The last song on the album is Karen Staley’s “Matter Of Time”, a slow ballad about loss of love and the slow passage of time.

The Forester Sisters were bucking the emerging “New Traditionalist” movement with this album. While I like the album a lot, it has more of a 50s-60s easy listening vibe to it than a modern/traditional country vibe. As a easy listening album I would give it an “A” but as a country album I would downgrade it to a “B”.

Album Review: Kenny Rogers – ‘You Can’t Make Old Friends’

Kenny Rogers released his most recent album, You Can’t Make Old Friends, in October 2013. It was his inaugural release for Warner Bros. Nashville and first record of all new material in seven years.

The title track, co-written by Don Schlitz with Caitlyn Smith and Ryan Hanna King, reunited Rogers with Dolly Parton. The mostly acoustic ballad is a masterful look at two singers contemplating their advancing age, wondering how they’ll go on one day without each other. The song peaked at #57 as the album’s only single.

You Can’t Make Old Friends is peppered with contributions from some of the finest writers to emerge out of Nashville in the past thirty years. Schlitz appears again, alongside his longtime co-collaborator Paul Overstreet, on “Don’t Leave Me in the Nighttime,” which features accordionist Buckwheat Zydeco. The track is good but would’ve been a lot stronger had it been given a 1990s styled arrangement.

Allen Shamblin also has two cuts. He wrote the contented “All I Need Is One” with Marc Beeson and the reflective “Look At You” with Mike Reid. The latter is the stronger song by a mile, but pails in comparison to “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” which is the pair’s masterpiece.

The album closes with Dan Seals’ “It’s Gonna Be Easy Now,” which he recorded on On The Front Line in 1986. Rogers’ version is a terrible mix of raspy vocals and an overbearing arrangement that drowns the song in faux-rock.

“When You Love Someone” comes from the pen of Gretchen Peters and composer Michael Kaman. Peters originally recorded the tune as a duet with Bryan Adams for the animated film Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron in 2002. The track, a tasteful ballad, is very good although it does get list-oriented.

Dave Loggins co-wrote “Neon Horses” with Ronnie Samoset. The song has good bones but flies off the rails when Rogers begins cooing “la la la” throughout. “Dreams of the San Joaquin,” co-written by Randy Sharp and Jack Wesley Roth is one of the album’s most well-written and strongest offerings.

A pair of tunes come from the minds of more contemporary songwriters. Casey Beathard co-wrote “You Had To Be There,” a dark ballad relaying a phone call between an absentee father visiting his son in prison. Power rocker “Turn This World Around,” which comes from Eric Paslay, Andrew Dorff and Jason Reeves, casts Rogers in a modern light that renders him unrecognizable. “‘Merica” is a national pride anthem that I found unappealing.

You Can’t Make Old Friends is far from a terrible album, but it is Rogers’ usual mixed bag of styles and sonic textures. He doesn’t make any wide sweeps but he does choose material that runs the gamut from great to good to awful. In other words, this is a typical Kenny Rogers album.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘This Thing Called Wantin’ and Havin’ It All’

This Thing Called Wantin’ and Havin’ It All was the eleventh studio album released by the former Don King Road Band and their fourth studio album for Curb Records.

Released in 1995, the album was the first top ten country album for the band since 1989’s The Boys Are Back, although it actually sold fewer copies than two of the three most recent prior albums. Four charting singles were released from the album: the title track, “‘Round Here”, “Treat Her Right”, and “She’s Gettin’ There”. Although this album and the next two albums would all be top ten albums, the success of the single releases was beginning to slow down. Whereas eleven of the previous twelve singles reached the top five, only one of the four singles would crack the top ten (and there would be only two more top ten singles after this album).

The album opens with “Nothing Less Than Love”, one of four Mark Miller-Hobie Hubbard collaborations on the album. This song is a mid-tempo ballad. “Big Picture” by Mark Miller & Mac McAnally is another mid-tempo song that might have been considered for single release. “I Will Leave the Light On” by band member Duncan Cameron is a nice slow ballad.

The up-tempo “(This Thing Called) Wantin’ and Havin’ It All” comes from the pens of Dave Loggins and Ronnie Samoset, and reached #11 on the country charts. I was surprised that the song didn’t crack the top ten since here in Central Florida it seemed as if I could not escape from the song as it received a little bit of pop and Adult Contemporary airplay. It is a good song (Loggins was always capable of cranking out good material) and one of my favorite Sawyer Brown songs. This was the first single taken from this album:

Rich man grew old, owned a mansion on top of the hill
Now he’s sitting at the table with his lawyer
Goin’ over his will ’cause he’s ill
The kids don’t call, they’re waitin’ for the man to die
He’s gonna leave ’em all a little somethin’
But they’re gonna be real surprised

There’s a poor man livin’ on a budget at the bottom of that hill
With a wife and two kids and a worried mind
About how he’s gonna pay the bills
Well, only the rich man knows, see
That’s where a lot of his money goes
To the man that brought wood in the winter
To take a little weight off his shoulders

There’s this thing called wantin’ and havin’ it all
If you’re gonna get there, you’re gonna have to walk
But first, you’ll have to crawl
And you know you’ve gotta do it step by step
Miss one and you’ll fall into this well
Called wantin’ and havin’ it all

“Another Mile” written by Miller & Hubbard is a typical ‘we can make it’ ballad that fits well in the context of the album although I can’t imagine it being released as a single.

The second single, “Round Here” has Miller & Hubbard joined by Scotty Emerick as the songwriters. This single reached #19 is a mid-tempo ballad extolling small town virtues:

Sue and Jack fell in love ’round here
They been goin’ steady now for years
He couldn’t afford much of anything
But he worked and bought her a diamond ring
And that’s the way we do it ’round here

That’s the way it is and that’s the way it’s done ’round here
That’s the way we live and that’s the way we love ’round here
Strong hearts and folded hands
A workin’ woman and a workin’ man
That’s the way it is and that’s the way it’s done ’round here

There is an old saying that too many cooks spoil the broth, and “She’s Gettin’ There” (composed by the team of Mark Miller, Scotty Emerick, John Northrup, and M.C. Potts (remember her?) is the weakest song on the album, a generic endeavor. It was released as the fourth single and died at #46, the first single to miss the top forty after fifteen consecutive top forty singles.

The third single, the Lenny LeBlanc-Ava Aldridge composition “Treat Her Right” was the big hit off this album, a tender ballad that peaked at #3.

A good woman ain’t easy to find
The faithful and the loving kind
And if you don’t hold her tight
She’ll slip right through your hands
Love gives more than it takes

So be willing for her sake
Stand by her when the strong winds blow
Even when it hurts, don’t let go

The album closes with two songs that are pitched to rural and small town America. The first song, a lovely ballad written by Mark Miller and Bill Shore, “Like a John Deere”, laments that hearts should be as reliable as John Deere tractors:

Oh, if hearts were built like John Deere tractors
There’d be happy ever afters
Strong, true and tough, and made of steel
They pull through when times get hard
And never fall apart
If hearts were built like a John Deere

The final Miller – Hubbard composition closes out the album with “Small Town Hero”, a story of what might have been and what actually happened.

I just turned twenty-nine three years in a row
Too young to be the president
Too old to turn pro
But when the seventies came and Elvis died
I could not fill his shoes
But oh, how I tried

It was the life and time of a small town hero
But it’s another day
I’ve got my wife, my kids, a job and it’s ok
This letter of intent now, is just for show
They say it’s lonely at the top
So I did not go

As I noted earlier, the album sold well, but the rural/small town orientation of the songs was not likely to entice urban country disc jockeys and programmers to be totally sold on the singles, a trend hat carried through on the next two albums, each of which featured one top ten single and several singles that missed the top ten. That said, this is a decent country album, which features three different steel guitar players (Jay Dee Maness, Dan Dugmore, Paul Franklin) and to my ears sounds how I think a country album should sound. Producers Mac McAnally and Mark Miller again demonstrate the ability to make an appealing album by keeping the tempos sufficiently varied to retain the listeners interest.

Mark Miller and Hobie Hubbard continued to progress as songwriters and there really isn’t a dud on this album. I suppose that I should try to find it on CD, as my copy is a well-worn cassette. I would give this an A-

Album Review: Little Texas – ‘Big Time’

51tuggiwfdl-_ss500Little Texas’ most successful album was their sophomore disc , Big Time, released in 1993.  It produced four hit singles, three of which reached the Top 10, including their only #1 “My Love”.  The album was produced by Doug Grau, Christy DiNapoli, and James Stroud.

Based on the feedback we received, some of our readers have been less than enthusiastic about our choice to spotlight Little Texas.  I’m by no means a Little  Texas super fan; I remember most of their radio hits from the 90s but prior to this review I’d never listened to one of their albums all the way through.  So I come to this with a fresh set of ears.   Was Little Texas really the Rascal Flatts of their day?  After listening to Big Time a few times, I can only answer with a resounding no.    I expected to enjoy the singles that I remembered from the radio but I wasn’t sure what to expect from the album cuts.   I must say that I’m pleasantly surprised.  The band members had a hand in writing eight of the album’s ten tracks.  Admittedly, they aren’t all particularly memorable, but there is certainly nothing cringe-worthy in a Rascal Flatts sort of way.

The album’s best track by far is the lead single “What Might Have Been”, which rose to #2 on the country chart and enjoyed some success in the adult contemporary format as well, reaching #16 on that chart.   It was followed by the uptempo Texas pride anthem “God Blessed Texas”, which topped out at #4 and is probably their best remembered hit today.  It’s a good song but one I’ve grown slightly tired of over the years, perhaps due to overplaying by radio.   As such, it’s my least favorite of the album’s singles.   The mid-tempo “My Love” seemed like a no-brainer to replicate the AC success of “What Might Have Been”, but oddly it did not appear on the adult contemporary charts.  It is not as good a song as “What Might Have Been”, but that, along with its lack of crossover success did not prevent it from becoming a #1 country hit.   “Stop on a Dime” had originally been the B-side of “What Might Have Been”.  When released as a single in its own right, it fell short of the Top 10, landing at #14.  As the album’s final single, Warner Bros. had perhaps lost interest in promoting it.  It’s a lot countrier than much of what was played on the radio in the mid-90s; it reminds me of something that Diamond Rio might have done.

“My Town” is the only tracks that doesn’t include one of the band members in its songwriting credits.  Written by Michael Stanley, isn’t particularly country but it is catchy and allows the band to showcase its harmonizing capabilities.   “Cutoff Jeans”, written by Troy Seals, Brady Seals and Ronnie Samoset is more traditional but equally infectious.

Little Texas is one of those bands that I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to when they first arrived on the scene.  They debuted at a time when there was plenty of strong competition within the genre, and that may have contributed to them falling through the cracks to a certain extent.  If they were just getting started today, they’d be head in shoulders above most of their contemporaries on country radio, at least in my book. Big Time isn’t likely to be included on anyone’s list of best country albums, but it exceeded my expectations and is worth giving a spin.

Grade:  B+

Album Review: Highway 101 – ‘Highway 101 2’

highway 101 2The title of Highway 101’s sophomore album is not, as you might think, the number 2. Rather, it is the symbol for squared. Pretentious title aside, the material isn’t quite as consistently strong as on their debut album, but it is still a very rewarding record, and helped to maintain them as one of the top country groups of the late 80s.

The exuberant lead single, ‘(Do You Love Me) Just Say Yes’, was the band’s third #1 hit. It was written by Bob DiPiero, John Scott Sherrill and Dennis Robbins.

It was followed by my favourite track on the album, the sweetly sung, regretful ballad ‘All The Reasons Why’, which reached #5. Written by Paulette Carlson with Beth Nielsen Chapman, its guilty protagonist has just broken up with her unfortunate spouse, who can’t understand why:

You’ve asked what you’ve done wrong,
And if there’s someone new
What has changed my heart
And what else can you do
Oh darlin’ can’t you see
It’s not so cut and dried
And who knows where love goes
And all the reasons why

She wants to stay friends, but it’s hard to see that happening.

There was a change of pace for the third single, the urgent ‘Setting Me Up. This was a cover of an album cut by the British rock band Dire Straits, written by that band’s Mark Knopfler. Apparently he was unaware that his publisher had some country demos recorded of his songs, resulting in this and other cuts, but he did have some country influences – in 1989-90 his main project was a country-rock-blues band called the Notting Hillbillies, which also featured steel guitar legend Paul Franklin, and he later made an album and toured with Emmylou Harris. This song isn’t particularly country in its rhythmic structure, but was another to 10 hit, and allowed more of a band feel than usual, with some superb playing by the guys and a share of the vocals.

The last single, another top 10 tune, was the excellent ‘Honky Tonk Heart’, written by Jim Photoglo and Russell Smith. It is a rather upbeat breakup song in which the protagonist has grown up since meeting her ex in a bar, and now wants more to life:

The night life isn’t my life anymore
What matters most to me is a home and family
But you can’t find that behind those swingin’ doors…

I won’t play second fiddle to the beat of your honky tonk heart
Go on back to the bar where I found you
Go on back to your so-called second home
You’ll feel better with your good-time friends around you
And I’ll be here but I won’t be alone

Photoglo also co-wrote (with Wendy Waldman and Josh Leo) the solid mid-tempo ‘Road To Your Heart’.

‘Somewhere Between Gone And Goodbye’ is an excellent song written by Matraca Berg and Ronnie Samoset’, given a sparse production and great harmonies. An anxious woman lies awake wondering when her man is coming home:

How many nights must I lay me down and wonder
Will I wake up tomorrow without you by my side?
I’m feeling worn and thin as the sheets that I lay under
Lying somewhere between gone and goodbye

Late night headlights out in the driveway
Drivin’ me crazy again
No need to sneak in
I wasn’t really sleepin’
No need to tell me
I know where you’ve been

It feels like the prequel to ‘Honky Tonk Heart’, and would have made another good single.

A vibrant and authentic sounding cover of Buck Owens’ ‘There Goes My Heart’ reminds us of the band’s California roots. ‘Feed This Fire’ is an earnest love song written by Hugh Prestwood about the need to work at keeping the romance going; it was subsequently a hit single for Anne Murray. Paulette fights temptation she knows has no good ending in ‘Desperate Road’.

Finally, Beth Nielsen Chapman’s ‘Long Way Down’ is a strong story song about a young woman musician who has fought her way to stardom from tough beginnings, but can’t rest on her laurels.

While the album lacks the classics of their debut, this is a very strong follow up with no weak songs.

Grade: A

Album Review: Highway 101 – ‘Highway 101’

albuma37Highway 101 debuted in January 1987 as the newest artist signed to Warner Brothers Records Nashville. Their spectacular eponymous debut introduced the world to Paulette Carlson, a honky-tonk wonder who has always reminded me of a country Stevie Nicks. The record had four major hit singles and was produced by Paul Worley.

The band launched with the impressive honky-tonk rocker “The Bed You Made For Me,” which deservedly hit #4. Carlson, who solely penned the track, is a woman taking the upper hand while confronting her cheating man (it’s not clear if she’s the mistress or the spouse). She brilliantly uses the bed he cheated in to drive home her argument when laying him out in lavender:

And did you tell her she was sleeping in the bed you made for me?

Did she like my satin sheets and did you sing her to sleep?

And my pillow that she slept on did it bring her sweet dreams?

Did you tell her she was sleeping in the bed you made for me?

***

The pillow that you made for me it was soft with feather down

And the headboard, it came from an old house

That was about to be torn down

And the songs you always sang to me oh as I fall asleep

Did they sound the same to her in the bed you made for me?

***

Now you can take my old pillow and throw it out the door

You can buy another bed you can find another headboard

‘Cause I ain’t gonna lie beneath those satin sheets you tore

The bed you made for me it isn’t mine anymore

Their second single, which peaked at #2, was the incredible steel guitar drenched “Whiskey, If You Were A Woman,” a slice of songwriting gold penned by Mary W. Francis, Johnny MacRae and Bob Morrison. The clever lyric finds Carlson coping uniquely with her man’s grip on the bottle:

Oh, oh, whiskey, if you were a woman

I’d fight you and I’d win, Lord knows I would

Oh, oh, whiskey, if you were a woman

I’d drive you from his tangled mind for good

***

No matter what you do, I do it better

You’ll never be the woman I could be

But you don’t have a heart or any feelings

So I can’t even ask for sympathy

They clinched their first chart topper with the luminescent “Somewhere Tonight,” penned by Harlan Howard and Rodney Crowell, who was a rising star at the time. The track, about a lonesome woman whose man took off for brighter horizons, is surprisingly jaunty for the subject matter. (A bit of trivia: “Somewhere Tonight” was #1 the week I was born).

Final single “Cry, Cry, Cry” was the band’s first consecutive #1. It’s another excellent jaunty honky-tonk rocker, this time with Carlson having quite a difficult time getting over the relationship that just ended:

It’s just a little creek now

But when the rain comes down it’s gonna be a raging river

I just heard my baby say goodbye

He left me here holding back my tears, now he’s gone forever

The dam’s gonna break and I’ma gonna cry, cry, cry

***

I’ma gonna cry and I don’t care who sees

I wonder if he knows what he’s done to me

Gonna love that boy till the day I die

Till the day I do I’m gonna cry, cry, cry

The singles from the band’s debut album were sonically and lyrically cohesive, which helped endear them to radio programmers. The rest of the album somewhat breaks the mold. The band’s drummer Cactus Moser, now married to Wynonna Judd, co-penned the twangy “One Step Closer” with Curtis Stone. The track finds Carlson in a bar with her eye on a guy across the room. She’s hesitant to make a move because ‘One step closer and Mama always told me, don’t go fallin’ till you see the whites of his eyes.’

Carlson solely penned one other track, the equally uptempo “Are You Still Mine,” which could’ve easily been another hit single. She also co-wrote (with Bob DiPiero and Pat McManus) the breakneck paced “Good Goodbye,” about a woman who’s happy to see her current relationship has ended. Matraca Berg lends her pen to “Bridge Across Forever,” a co-write with Ronnie Samoset. It isn’t Berg’s most distinctive lyric and the track unfortunately falls short in comparison to the rest of the album.

The album’s most famous ballad is “Woman Walk The Line,” written by Emmylou Harris and Paul Kennerley. Harris and Trisha Yearwood have both recorded their own versions, which bring out the palpable hurt within the lyric. Highway 101 gives the track pep, which is a bit jarring, but it works as another way of presenting the story.

The final ballad, “Someone Believed” is the most distinctly different from any other track on the album. The song tells a two-act story about a girl who wishes to leave her life on the farm and a city boy who cannot imagine any other life than the girl’s. The cohesiveness is found in the idea that anything is possible in life if you just believe.

Highway 101 is a near perfect debut album. The majority of the tracks are stunning and the production is nicely within the neo-traditional meets contemporary style that was popular at the time. My only slight complaint is that the album is almost too cohesive. I wish Worley had given the album tracks a bit more sonic variety and thus presented the album with a few more surprises. It’s still an essential album 28 years later, with all of the band’s biggest hits in one place. If you were going to check out Highway 101 this is absolutely where you would begin.

Grade: A

Album Review: Doug Stone -‘I Thought It Was You’

i thought it was youDoug Stone’s debut album was a hard act to follow, and his second album (released in August 1991) was not quite as good as his debut but it was still a fine collection of songs, dominated by the ballads at which he excelled as a vocalist.

The title track was the lead single, and peaked at #4. A subtle ballad about a man struggling to cope with a breakup, written by Tim Mensy and Gary Harrison, it is beautifully interpreted by Doug.

‘A Jukebox With A Country Song’, Doug’s second #1 hit (written by Gene Nelson and Ronnie Samoset), picks up the tempo and adds an ironic touch. A couple have their first big bust up, and the husband plans to take refuge in his favorite old “rundown one-room tavern”, only to find that since his marriage it has had a makeover and is now a high class restaurant – definitely not what he had in mind. After expressing his outrage, he gets asked to leave.

He belts out the big ballad ‘Come In Out Of The Pain, in which he wastes no time offering his devotion to a newly-single woman he’s had feelings for; it is possibly a little overblown but I can’t help liking it:

I’m happy that you’re sad
I know that sounds so wrong
But darling you must know
The pain’s gone on too long

Come in out of the pain
Let me dry your tears
He’s been gone for days
And I’ve loved you for years
Lay down in my arms
There ain’t no shame
So don’t just stand there, girl
Come in out of the pain

This was the third and last single from the record, and it reached #3.

Doug got a rare co-writing credit for ‘The Feeling Never Goes Away’ with the help of Kim Williams and Phyllis Bennett, a pleasant but bland love song. Williams also wrote two additional songs for the album. The fast-paced ‘The Right To Remain Silent’ (written with Angie Thompson) is an entertaining tale of a man getting caught out by his wife after a night’s carousing. The police questioning theme is neatly carried through the song, with the outraged wife declaring, as she packs her bags,

You have the right to remain silent
Your alibis don’t cut no ice with me
You have the right to remain silent
When you know you’re as guilty as can be
What you say can and will be held against you
A lawyer is the only thing you need
You have the right to remain silent
And I have the right to leave

Right at the end he yelps out an amusingly pathetic little, “But darlin’, I was only havin’ a good time”.

Williams’ final contribution (with Michael Harrell), ‘Remember The Ride’ is a story song in which an older man compares his love life to his experiences as a rodeo rider. The simile may not be very flattering, but the soothing melody is very pretty and the impassioned vocal sells the song.

‘(For Every Inch I’ve Laughed) I’ve Cried A Mile’ is a cover of a Harlan Howard/Tompall Glaser penned song which was a minor hit for the great Canadian country singer Hank Snow in the 1960s. Doug’s version of this sad ballad about losing a loved one is extremely good; the lyric is downbeat but the soaring vocal is lovely. Also good is his warm reading of Freddy Weller’s nostalgic ‘They Don’t Make Years Like They Used To’, about a couple maturing into middle age together.

‘If It Was Up To Me’ is an outstanding heartbreak ballad which is beautifully sung and one of my favorite tracks. The twangy mid-tempo ‘Burning Down The Town’ is an excellent Joe Diffie co-write about a wronged woman turning the tables on her ex and heading out on the town leaving him alone at home.

Although not quite as strong as Doug’s debut this is still an excellent album which showcases the artist’s beautiful voice.

Grade: A

Album Review: Matraca Berg – ‘Lying to the Moon’

Matraca Berg’s first success in country music came in 1983 when she was 19 years old and co-wrote “Faking Love” with Bobby Braddock, which became a #1 for T.G. Sheppard and Karen Brooks. Her next big success came four years later when Reba McEntire scored a #1 hit with “The Last One to Know”, which Berg had co-written with Jane Mariash. Matraca became a recording artist when she landed a deal with RCA in 1990. Lying to the Moon, her first project for the label, was produced by Josh Leo and Wendy Waldman, and consisted of ten top-notch songs, all of which Matraca had a hand in writing.

It isn’t clear to me why the album didn’t enjoy more commercial success. While not quite in the same league as Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood, Matraca was an above-average vocalist and was reasonably attractive — and therefore, marketable. The material, which was first-rate and designed to appeal to mainstream listeners, was certainly not at fault. Nevertheless, Lying to the Moon was only moderately successful. “Baby, Walk On”, the first single, is not the strongest or most original song on the disc, but it was an uptempo number that was well within the constraints of what country radio was playing at the time. The follow-up, “The Things You Left Undone”, which I like much better, is another uptempo number about an independent-minded woman who is picking up the pieces and getting on with her life after the end of a relationship. At the time, I really thought this one would be a huge hit, but like its predecessor, it peaked at #36. The two songs, which were co-written with frequent collaborator Ronnie Samoset, are Berg’s highest charting singles as a recording artist. The jazzy “I Got It Bad”, which finds her waiting for the phone to ring and obsessing over a new love interest only reached #43, and the excellent “I Must Have Been Crazy”, which which she’s fighting off madness — without much success — after another bad break-up, died at #55.

My favorite track and perhaps the best known is the beautiful title track, which features a haunting cello solo. Berg re-recorded the song for her second album, The Speed of Grace, a pop effort that was released in 1994. In between those two versions, Trisha Yearwood covered it for her The Song Remembers When album, which was released in 1993. The original version resurfaced on a compilation album in 1999. RCA released it as a single and had a video produced, but by that time Berg’s career momentum had been lost and the record failed to chart.

A handful of the other tracks showcase Matraca’s considerable talent as a songwriter and a storyteller. “Calico Plains”, written with Mike Noble, tells the story of two young girls growing up in the midwest. Abilena has big dreams and is planning to leave her hometown to pursue them, while her friend, who acts as the song’s narrator makes her promise to write. Then Abilena falls pregnant and is forced to marry the baby’s father. Several years and a few children later, it is the narrator who is leaving to pursue bigger and better things and promising to write to Abilena. “Appalachian Rain”, which features harmony vocals from Emmylou Harris, tells of a young unwed mother who is forced to leave her Appalachian home to spare her family’s honor, and “Alice in the Looking Glass” tells the story of a lonely middle-aged hairdresser who was once a homecoming queen, who puts on a brave face for her customers.

My least favorite track is the album closer “Dancin’ on the Wire”, which Berg co-wrote with producers Leo and Waldman. The lyrics are on the shallow side and this is the one instance on the entire album where the production is a bit heavy-handed.

It’s a shame that this album didn’t fare better at radio and retail, though Matraca’s subsequent career decisions suggest that even if it had, her commercial success would not have been long-lived. RCA refused to release her next album because they felt it didn’t have enough mainstream appeal, and her next effort The Speed of Grace, was released by the label’s pop division, and Matraca’s subsequent albums appeared infrequently on smaller, now-defunct labels. Lying to the Moon is out of print in CD form but used copies can be found very cheaply. It is not to be confused with the 1999 compilation album Lying to the Moon & Other Stories, which contains eight of the orginal album’s ten tracks. It too can be purchased very inexpensively used and might be a slightly better value.

Album Rewind: Randy Travis – ‘No Holdin’ Back’

In 1989, Randy Travis was at the peak of his career. But his superstardom had led to a tidal wave of competitors as rival record labels rushed to sign young traditional country singers. Randy’s fourth album, released in September 1989, was another big seller for him, but his star was beginning to wane just a little.

The lead single was something of a departure for Randy – a non-country cover. ‘It’s Just A Matter Of Time’ had originally been an R & B hit for Brook Benton in 1959, although a country cover by Sonny James had been a country hit in 1970, and more recently, Randy was probably aware of Glen Campbell’s cover which had been a top 10 country hit as recently as 1986. Randy’s version was actually recorded for Rock, Rhythm and Blues, a multi-artist, cross-genre compilation of 50s covers, on which Randy was the sole country representative. I have a vague recollection this was released in aid of HIV research, but I can’t find any confirmation of this. Produced by celebrated rock/pop producer, Richard Perry, it features synthesiser and strings, plus booming doo-wop style backing vocals courtesy of Perry himself, and is one of my personal least favorite Randy Travis records despite a fine performance which allows Randy to explore the lower reaches of his vocal range. However, it saw him back at the top of the charts after the failure of ‘Promises’.

Apparently Perry suggested Randy should cover another 50s song with both pop and country heritage, ‘Singing The Blues’. It is pleasant and quite enjoyable but forgettable apart from the bass backing vocals similar to those on ‘It’s Just A Matter Of Time’.

Much better was Randy’s next #1 hit, Hugh Prestwood’s melodic ‘Hard Rock Bottom Of Your Heart’ . This finds the artist in more familiar territory, playing the part of a penitent cheater:

I keep waiting for you to forgive me
And you keep saying you can’t even start
And I feel like a stone you have picked up and thrown
To the hard rock bottom of your heart

The third and last single, ‘He Walked On Water’, peaked at #2. It is a tender tribute to a great-grandfather and childhood hero, written by Allen Shamblin with great attention to detail, and is a highlight.

Opening track ‘Mining For Coal’ is a rather good and beautifully sung ballad about unexpectedly finding love (like finding diamonds when looking for coal), written by Ronnie Samoset and Matraca Berg (who also sings harmony). Also good is the pretty but subdued ‘Somewhere In My Broken Heart’ (later a hit for its co-writer, Billy Dean).

My favorite track, however, is ‘When Your World Was Turning For Me’, written by the great Dallas Frazier and A L “Doodle Owens. It has a beautiful melody and wistful lyric about a man’s regrets for a failed relationship, whose lyrics seem to nod back to Randy’s blockbuster 1987 album:

I know that it’s over
I know that you’re leaving
I know that you’ve prayed to be free…

What happened to “always and forever I’ll love you”
And the future that was so plain to see?

Mark O’Connor’s plaintive fiddle adds to the poignant mood.

The vivacious ‘Card Carrying Fool’ is a fun up-tempo song written by Byron Hill and Tim Bays with vibrant fiddle which had also made an appearance on the soundtrack of Clint Eastwood’s movie Pink Cadillac earlier in 1989. The ironic breakup song ‘Have A Nice Rest Of Your Life’ (written by Verlon Thompson and Mark D Sanders) has a jazzy feel. Randy’s own ‘No Stoppin’ Us Now’ is filler, although his voice sounds good; this track provides the album’s title, which is perhaps a little misleading, because the overall feel is really rather restrained and mature.

Certified double platinum, the album doesn’t include any of Randy’s best remembered songs, but it is a good collection which stands up well which is worth adding to your collection. The overall feel is mellow and low-key, with Kyle Lehning’s light touch on production complementing Randy’s vocals. The resolute unflashiness has helped it stand the test of time, and I think I like it better now than I did when it first came out.

Cheap copies are easy to find.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Diamond Rio – ‘Close To The Edge’

Diamond Rio’s second album was rush-released in October 1992. It was produced as before by Monty Powell and Tim Dubois along broadly similar lines to its predecessor. Although not quite as consitently high quality as the songs on their debut, the chosen material showcases the band’s trademark harmonies and sparkling playing well. Although, apparently they had only a month to pick the songs, and felt they had fallen short of their debut, everything is presented with verve and I think it stands up well today.

The first two singles had downbeat lyrics about failed relationships. The ballad ‘In A Week Or Two’ (one of my favorite tracks) was received well at radio and hit #2. The rueful protagonist has been blindsided when he kept on putting off those romantic gestures, only to find his lover loses patience and leaves him. Equally regretful in the face of a vanished lover, the bouncily catchy ‘Oh Me, Oh My Sweet Baby’ was another top 5 hit, with particularly strong harmonies and picking. The perky ‘This Romeo Ain’t Got Julie Yet’ about a thwarted teenage couple (co-written by the lead guitarist Jimmy Olander), the slightest of the album’s singles, did less well, peaking at an unlucky 13.

My favorite of the singles then disappointingly failed to crack the top 20. Set to an understated but pretty tune, it offers a pensive reflection on the lost innocence of childhood:

When we knew Jesus was the answer
And Elvis was the King
‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and ‘Rock Of Ages’
Were the songs we learned/loved to sing
Innocence went out of style
We just watched it go
Yesterday got left beneath
The dust of Sawmill Road

We learn the protagonist’s brother was mentally destroyed by service in Vietnam, and he keeps minimal contact with the sister, who now has three failed marriages behind her. Only the narrator remains living in the eponymous ‘Sawmill Road’, where the three siblings “were raised up on the path of righteousness” so long ago. The song was written by the band’s keyboard player Dan Truman with Sam Hogin and Jim McBride.

It leads appropriately into an appeal to the lonely and lost in life, ‘Calling All Hearts (Come Back Home)’, an idealistic number written by Monty Powell, Kent Blazy and Wade Kimes, which I also like a lot.

My absolute favorite track, though, is the high lonesome ‘Demons And Angels’. Written by former singer Judy Rodman and Ronnie Samoset, the song portrays the intense struggle of a man(and his wife) fighting his addiction to alcohol,

He swore it was over and all in his past
A few hours later his hand’s round a glass
A voice on the left says,
“There’s peace in the wine”
From the right a voice whispers,
“Don’t do it this time”
When he looks for the answer
Down in his heart
Demons and angels tear him apart

There’s not much that’s sweeter
Than a new life begun
Ain’t much that’s sadder
Than a promise undone
He stares at the bottle,
Longs for her arms
While demons and angels tear him apart

‘Old Weakness (Coming On Strong)’ is not the song of that title recorded by both Tanya Tucker and Patty Loveless, but an intensely sung ballad about struggling with the thought of encountering an old flame he’s not really over, written by Powell with Chapin Hartford. A cheery riposte to old friends comparing the fun of bachelor life to the protagonist’s newlywed happiness, ‘It Does Get Better Than This’ is unremarkable lyrically, but is lifted by the charming vocal and instrumental performance, and could be a hit today.

The love songs ‘I Was Meant To Be With You’ (co-written by Dubois and Powell with Debi Cochran and Diamond Rio’s lead singer Marty Roe) and Jimmy Olander’s ‘Nothing In This World’ (co-written with Eric Silver) are pleasant filler, performed exceptionally well. The upbeat title track (written by the band’s mandolin and occasional fiddle player Gene Johnson with Carl Jackson) is also fairly forgettable lyrically, but it has a great groove and lets the band show off their chops , closing the album on a high.

The record has been certified gold, so it did not sell quite as well as their debut. However, despite the band’s own misgivings about the quality of the material, I think it compares pretty well, and there are some outstanding moments. Cheap used copies are easy to find, and it is also available digitally.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Inside Out’

In 2001, Trisha took another break from working with Garth Fundis, choosing to co-produce Inside Out with Mark Wright. It is one of her most pop sounding productions, with heavy use of string sections and a punchy sound, but the material is strong and Trisha’s vocals cannot be criticized. On the whole I think it is a vast improvement over Real Live Woman, my least favorite of Trisha’s albums. Lyrically the tone of the record leans towards survival in the face of adversity, and refusal to regret past choices.

After the disappointing chart performance of the singles from Real Live Woman, it must have been a relief when the debut single from the new project stormed to the top 5. That was ‘I Would’ve Loved You Anyway’, a strongly sung ballad where Trisha defiantly declares in the painful aftermath of a failed relationship that yes, she would do it all again if she had the choice. The production is a bit heavier than necessary, but Trisha’s interpretation is effective at subtly conveying the emotion.

The title track stalled outside the top 30. It is one of Trisha’s more pop-leaning records, a love song written by the unusual combination of rocker Bryan Adams and Gretchen Peters, with jerky rhythms and features a guest vocal from Don Henley. It is a far cry from the magic of Trisha’s previous collaboration with Henley, the classic ‘Walkaway Joe’.

The third and last single was one of my favourite tracks, but sadly did not perform as well on radio as it deserved to do. The intense ‘I Don’t Paint Myself Into Corners’, written by the talented Rebecca Lynn Howard with Trey Bruce, is an excellent big ballad with a metaphorical lyric about discovering self-sufficiency and survival, with an intense vocal from Trisha with Vince Gill supporting on harmony:

I never knew just how far a soul could fall
Like a rock, couldn’t stop, didn’t try
I locked myself behind shades of misery, yeah,
But when I let you go I set myself free

And I don’t paint myself into corners anymore
In a brittle heart of clay
I threw my brushes away
The tools of the trade that chained your memory to me are out the door
I don’t paint myself into corners anymore

Howard had recorded this song herself on her debut album the previous year, and Trisha picked up another great song from that record, the weeper ‘Melancholy Blue’, written by Tom Douglas and the legendary Harlan Howard. This portrays woman who has lost her lover and is lost herself as a result. She wanders around the country trying to find a path for herself, and we learn in the hushed last verse:

Now and then I go back to Biloxi
Whenever I feel brave
Visit that little country church down there
Lay some flowers on your grave
You sure got a hold on me
I don’t know what to do
I ain’t got no future
I can’t see my future without you

This is the highlight of the album, with Trisha’s delicately understated vocal supported by a tasteful string arrangement, and both these tracks stand amongst Trisha’s finest moments.

I also very much like Jude Johnstone’s wistful piano-led ‘When We Were Still In Love’ about lost hopes, which closes the album on an emotional low but a musical high. Another very fine track, but one with the opposite message, is the optimistic ‘Second Chance’, written by Irene Kelley, Clay Mills and Tony Ramey. Trisha’s vocal is superb on a song which tempts the listener to think it might have been addressed to Garth Brooks, with whom she was just embarking on a relationship following their respective divorces:

Here is your second chance
Take it and fly

Another highlight is a faithful cover of Rosanne Cash’s sophisticated and melodic ‘Seven Year Ache’ (a #1 from 1981), with Rosanne herself on harmony and the odd solo line.

‘Harmless Heart’ is another fine AC sounding ballad, written by Kim Patton Johnston and Liz Rose with a fine and subtle vocal perfectly interpreting the lyric, and tasteful strings. Trisha’s character has been rebuffed in love by a man afraid of commitment, and is hurt but not vindictive, as she gently tells him:

I meant every word I said
But what’s the use?
You believe whatever you want to…

You set me up to fail the test
And prove that you were right
“Everyone lets you down”

Matraca Berg and Ronnie Samoset’s ‘For A While’ is a mid-tempo number about the process of gradually getting over someone, which is uncompromisingly turn-of-the-millennium contemporary both in its lyrical details and in its musical setting; not really to my personal taste but very professionally done.

There are some tracks where the heavy production is too much, particularly the very pop/rock opening track ‘Love Alone’ (although it has an interesting lyric about self-reliance and the expected strong vocal) and the echoey ‘Love Me Or Leave Me Alone’. Hugh Prestwood’s lonesome bluesy wailing ‘Love Let Go’ gets a heavy production which totally overwhelms Prestwood’s typically poetic lyrics; I think I would have liked this if it had a more stripped down or acoustic treatment but as it is it stands as one of my least liked of Trisha’s recordings.

The album hit #1 on the country album charts, and has been certified gold. However, after the failure of the last single, Trisha took a break from making music for the next few years and concentrated on her personal life.

Grade: B

Album Review: Patty Loveless – ‘On Your Way Home’

onyourwayhome2003’s On Your Way Home marked Patty Loveless’ return to mainstream country, following her critically acclaimed bluegrass album Mountain Soul. She and producer Emory Gordy, Jr. revisited the formula that had worked so well for them in the nineties, combining traditional country with the best contemporary songs they could find, drawing upon writers such as Paul Kennerley, Marty Stuart, Rodney Crowell, Ronnie Samoset, Matraca Berg and Jim Lauderdale.

Things got off to a strong start with the lead single, a cover of Rodney Crowell’s “Lovin’ All Night”. Her three previous singles had failed to chart, but radio initially seemed happy to have Patty back in the mainstream and added “Lovin’ All Night” to their playlists. Patty sounds more energized on this track than she had in a long time, and her version easily trumps Crowell’s own recording. Though it was her strongest showing on the charts in years, “Lovin’ All Night” stalled at #18, which seemed to indicate that Loveless was past her commercial peak.

The second single was the beautiful title track, written by Ronnie Samoset and Matraca Berg. Had it been released about a decade earlier, it would have been a huge hit. That it only climbed to #29 on the charts is nothing short of criminal. Similar in style to Loveless’ earlier hits “Here I Am” and “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am”, “On Your Way Home” manages to sound contemporary yet country, without being overproduced or drowning in pop overtones. Its failure to gain traction at country radio can be partially attributed to the format’s increasing tendency to embrace fluff and reject substantive songs. It might have gotten a warmer reception if it had been released by a younger artist, but it is hard to imagine any other vocalist who could have sung this song with the passion and emotion that Loveless does.

Epic released one more single from this set — “I Wanna Believe”, written by Al Anderson, Gary Nicholson, and Jessi Alexander. Peaking at #60, this was the last time Patty Loveless appeared on the Billboard country singles chart as a solo artist. I probably would have released the more radio-friendly Jim Lauderdale, Buddy Miller and Julie Miller composition “Looking For A Heartache Like You” instead of this one, though it likely would not have fared any better on the charts. “I Don’t Wanna Be That Strong” is the most contemporary song on the album and seems like another good candidate for a single release, but in all likelihood, Epic was unwilling to invest any more money promoting this album, given the lukewarm reception the previous singles had received.

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Album Review: Tanya Tucker – ‘Strong Enough To Bend’

TanyaTuckerStrongEnoughtoBendTanya’s third release for Capitol, in 1988, showed no signs of a creative or commercial slowdown, even though she finally admitted that year that she had alcohol and cocaine addictions, and went into rehab.

Strong Enough To Bend is one of my favorite Tanya Tucker albums. Produced as before by Jerry Crutchfield, it features some very good songs, and shows Tanya at her best vocally. She commits 100% even to the less stellar material. For some reason it was recorded in the Bahamas, but the usual top Nashville session musicians were imported to play on the record.

The title track and lead-off single, written by Beth Nielsen Chapman and Don Schlitz, was a charming piece comparing a lasting relationship to a tree which bends in the wind instead of breaking:
“Sway with the wind ’til the storm is gone
Like a tree out in the back yard
That never has been broken by the wind
Our love will last forever
If we’re strong enough to bend.”

It is the kind of song which might sound sappy performed by a more sentimental singer, but Tanya tackles it briskly enough to let the message sound rooted in experience. It was to be Tanya’s last #1 hit.

Tanya took a completely different approach in the track which was picked to follow it on the charts, the positively raunchy ‘Highway Robbery’. This semi-novelty song has Tanya stopped from speeding and claiming the (perfectly good) excuse that she was doing it only so she could hunt down the hot blue-eyed guy who “stole my heart from a moving car” when he passed her some miles back down the road. “He oughta do time in my arms for what he’s done”, she claims, evidently to no effect, as by the fadeout at the end of the song she’s abandoned him in favor of making eyes at the (lucky?) patrolman. The story is entertaining if silly, but too heavily produced for my taste, but was a big (#2) hit. Also successful despite being very over-produced was my least favorite track, the boring and pop-sounding ‘Call On Me’, which reached #4.

The final single released from the album, the touching ‘Daddy And Home’, was less successful, but is actually the highlight of the album. Altough it is not typical of Tanya’s best-known material, it is one of her finest moments artistically. It is a beautifully restrained and tender take on an old Jimmie Rodgers classic about homesickness and a child’s love for an aging father, which Tanya dedicated to her own father, a major influence on her career.

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Album Review: Tanya Tucker – ‘Girls Like Me’

girlslikemeIn 1982, Tanya Tucker left MCA Records and signed as the new flagship artist for Arista Records, which was trying to break into the country market. There were no other country artists on the label at the time, and Arista had no infrastructure in Nashville, so it was poorly equipped to market country music. The album, 1982’s Changes, was a commercial failure, producing only one top ten hit, “Feel Right”. Two subsequent singles failed to crack the top 20, and Tanya Tucker disappeared from the country charts.

After a three-year hiatus from recording, and now without a record deal, Tucker was ready to get back in the game, only to find that her partying lifestyle, and her highly publicized abusive relationship with Glen Campbell from a few years earlier, had taken their toll on her reputation. No one in Nashville wanted to have anything to do with her. Even Billy Sherrill, the man who had discovered her, refused to help.

Fortunately for Tanya, Jerry Crutchfield, who had produced some of her early albums for MCA, was willing to help her obtain a new recording contract. Mercury Records was willing to offer her a contract but was unwilling to provide a sufficient budget to make a first-rate album. Crutchfield fared better when he approached Capitol Records. After a lot of persuading and negotiating, Tanya was signed to a contract with Capitol, but it was only a one album deal. This was the album that would make or break her career.

Fate was on Tucker’s side, because the album that resulted from this contract was 1986’s Girls Like Me, which revived Tanya’s career and set the stage for her to become one of the top female acts in country music for the rest of the 1980s and 1990s.

Her first single for Capitol was “One Love At A Time”. It was radio friendly and her most solidly country single in years. Written by Paul Overstreet and Paul Davis, who would go on to write many more hits for her, it peaked at #3 on the Billboard country singles chart. The second single, “Just Another Love” written by Paul Davis, went all the way to #1. By now, everyone knew that Tanya Tucker was back. Two subsequent singles also made the top 10; “I’ll Come Back As Another Woman”, a tale of a woman who vows revenge on the man who jilted her, peaked at #2, while the beautiful ballad “It’s Only Over For You” reached #8.

This was one of those albums that contained a number of tracks that were strong enough to have been released to radio, and if the album had been released ten years later, it likely would have spawned more than four singles. “Fool, Fool Heart” is a ballad similar in style to “It’s Only Over For You” and “Somebody To Care” is similar in style to songs like “Love Me Like You Used To” and “Strong Enough To Bend”, which would become big hits for Tanya in the future.

For years, the title track was my least favorite song on the album, despite having been written by the extremely talented Matraca Berg and Ronnie Samoset. It tells the story of a woman who’s been disappointed in love more than a few times, and though she fears that “maybe love was never meant to be for girls like me”, she refuses to abandon hope altogether. It is the least country track on the album; the production is more contemporary and the song has a slightly bluesy feel to it. As a result, it always seemed to be a little out of place on this album. It wasn’t until I was listening to it again to prepare for this review that I began to appreciate what a well-written and beautifully crafted song this really is, even though it is not as catchy and radio-friendly as most of Tucker’s other work.

Though not traditional country, the album manages not to fall into the trap of heavy-handed production that marred so many other 80s releases, much to the credit of producer Jerry Crutchfield. Girls Like Me peaked at #20 on the Billboard country albums chart, and although it did not earn gold certification, it is one of the most important albums in Tucker’s catalog, because it reinvigorated her stagnant career. Without it, her career would have been over, and the country music landscape in the late 80s and the 90s would have been much different and not nearly as enjoyable.

Grade: A

Girls Like Me is out of print in CD form, but it can be purchased digitally at iTunes or Amazon.

Listen to Girls Like Me at Last FM.