My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Sammy Kershaw

Album Review – Sammy Kershaw – ‘I Want My Money Back’

By the mid-2000s Sammy Kershaw had severed ties his with Mercury Nashville, a partnership that concluded with the release of Greatest Hits, Chapter 2 in 2001. Now recording for Audium/Koch, Kershaw released I Want My Money Back in 2003 under the direction of Richard Landis.

The two singles begin a problem that penetrates the album. I Want My Money Back attempts to position Kershaw as a pop-country singer, thus stripping him of any resemblance to the man who recorded “Yard Sale” and “Matches.” The title track, which reached #33, is an atrocious tale of a man wanting to return the memories of a horrible date laid out with clichéd lyrics and a generic melody. Not much better was the second single, “I’ve Never Been Anywhere,” something similar to a country-rap that’s suffers from being too progressive.

Elsewhere Kershaw misses the mark completely adding a drum machine and echoing effect to the horrible “Miss What’s Her Name.” I will admit I enjoy the beat of the song, but I can’t wrap my head around the idea that this is Sammy Kershaw singing this. Same goes for both “Sunday on Bourbon Street” and “Are You Having Fun Yet.” The former, complete with its upbeat piano is too cheeky to be taken seriously, while the latter is too loud and comes off kind of desperate.

Kershaw tries to rebound towards the middle of the album, showcasing attempts at recreating his former glory. Unfortunately, I can’t help but feel the results are below his best efforts. “Stitches” is an okay neo-traditional story song but nothing close to the caliber of material from his heyday, “Beer, Bait, and Ammo” lays the steel and fiddles on so thick it almost feels like parody, and “28/83 (She Ain’t In It For The Love)” starts out like classic Alan Jackson but only manages to muster up an unintelligent and rather idiotic tale about a gold digger framed with more cheese then Brad Paisley at his least inspired.

There’s no point dancing around the fact that I Want My Money Back is a very appropriately named and terribly constructed mess. There isn’t an outstanding let alone good or great song to be found here, but worse, Kershaw sounds like he’s in the throws of an identity crisis. Listening to this, Kershaw’s Emotional Traffic and Incredible Machine, you’d never know he could ever be compared to George Jones let alone rip your heart out with a killer honky-tonk heartbreaker.

I’ll recommend listening to it (the album is on Spotify) simply on the fact you should form your own opinion. But I’ll guarantee you you’ll wish you had the time back you spent listening to it.

Grade: D 

Classic Rewind: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Fire And Rain’

Album Review: Lorrie Morgan & Sammy Kershaw – ‘I Finally Found Someone’

Sammy Kershaw and fellow country star Lorrie Morgan joined forces both personally and professionally in 2001. The pair married that year and also collaborated on a one-off project for RCA that was released shortly after the major label phase of both artists’ careers had ended. It wasn’t the first time they’d worked together; both had been members of George Jones’ road band in the early 80s, and they’d made occasional guest appearances on each other’s albums. One of those efforts, “Maybe Not Tonight” was a minor hit in 1999.

On the surface, a joint album from two of the most underrated stars of the 1990s seemed like a good idea; however, they were under-served by mostly second-rate material and the overall result is a rather dull and lackluster affair. The album consists of 12 tracks overall, six duets and three solo performances from each, and yielded only one charting single — the Jimmy Buffet-esque “He Drinks Tequila”, one of the few uptempo numbers in a very ballad-heavy and surprisingly AC-leaning album. It peaked at #39. The interminably dull title track, a remake of a Barbra Streisand and Bryan Adams duet, was released as the second single, followed by “Sad City”, a Kershaw solo effort.

Among the duet numbers, “I Can’t Think of Anything But You”, a very nice ballad co-written by Skip Ewing, David Feritta and Alan Rich, is a highlight, as is “That’s Where I’ll Be”, an original number penned by Kershaw and Morgan. As far as the solo efforts are concerned, Lorrie’s selections are far better than Sammy’s. Particularly good are two introspective numbers in which she reflects on her fading youth — “29 Again” and her own composition, the excellent “I Must Be Gettin’ Older.” Kerhsaw’s solo performances are mostly disappointing; the non-charting single “Sad City”, which is by no means a great song, is the best of the bunch. He does a decent job on the pop standard “What A Wonderful World”, but one wonders why he chose to cover this song that really didn’t need to be remade again, particularly when there were only three solo numbers allotted to him on the album. The self-penned “Sugar” is truly terrible and makes one grateful that most of Kershaw’s catalog was supplied by outside songwriters.

One of the big surprises is how middle-of-the-road the song selections are. Morgan had occasionally ventured into AC-territory and the country music had definitely moved in a more pop direction by 2001, but both artists were known for their traditional leanings. Morgan had recently ended her association with BNA Records, citing her frustration with label pushing her in a more pop direction as a primary reason.

I Finally Found Someone did manage to reach #13 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, despite a lack of interest from radio and the fading popularity of both Morgan and Kershaw, but it is largely forgotten today and is an album that only diehard fans will bother to seek out.

Grade: C+

Album Review – Sammy Kershaw – ‘Covers The Hits’

Compilation albums have long been the ploy of record companies looking to squeeze that last dollar out of artists who’ve moved on to other pursuits. In 2000 Mercury Nashville wasn’t any different, releasing Covers The Hits a collection of cover tunes Sammy Kershaw recorded throughout his tenure on the label.

Not surprisingly, the album came and went with little notice and there weren’t any singles to push its existence at radio and retail. It also didn’t help matters much that most of these covers weren’t that inspired to begin with and often rank among the worst music in Kershaw’s catalog (namely “Chevy Van” and “Memphis, Tennessee” from Politics, Religion, and Her, although the latter is listenable).

Kershaw’s cover of the Leo Sayer pop hit “More Than I Can Say,” taken from his Maybe Not Tonight is adequate, but really nothing more than a note for note sound-alike performance to the original. He pulls off his Beatles cover (from the 1995 tribute album Come Together: America Salutes The Beatles) vocally, but the muffled arrangement dampens my overall enjoyment of the song.

There are tracks here I actually really like, however. Kershaw is surprisingly in top form on his cover of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” (from Red Hot + Country) and he turns in a version as good as the original. I also adore his fabulously restrained version of The Rolling Stones’ “Angie,” which comes from the equally magnificent Stone Country: Country Artists Perform the Songs of the Rolling Stones from 1998. Kershaw’s contribution is a standout cut from that project, one of my all-time favorite tribute albums. The other favorite cut of mine is the opener, and only radio hit amongst these tracks, his 1994 #2 “Third Rate Romance.”

Kershaw also pulls off a strong version of Dr. Hook’s “Little Bit More,” the only previously unreleased track on the project. I love the traditional production and his strong vocal on the track. Overall, Covers The Hits scores more than it fails, although its slightly below any of Kershaw’s strongest original work. Extremely cheap used copies are available online and individual tracks can be found on YouTube.

Grade: C+

Classic Rewind: Sammy Kershaw – ‘You’re Still On My Mind’

Here’s a classic cover from Sammy, paying tribute to George Jones:

Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Labor Of Love’

Sammy’s 1997 album Labor Of Love was produced by Keith Stegall, and has a slightly less neotraditional and more commercial feel than his earliest work. The material is a bit of a mixed bag, with some excellent songs and some less successful efforts.

One of the best was the choice of lead single. ‘Love Of My Life’ is a beautiful, tender love song written by Stegall with Dan Hill, with a tasteful, sensitive reading by Sammy. The classy contemporary piano-led ballad was to be one of Sammy’s biggest hits, peaking at #2. It was, however, his last ever top 10, and the only real hit from the record.

It was a particular shame that the brilliant ‘Matches’ (my favourite track here, written by Skip Ewing and Roger Springer) failed to creep into the top 20. An outstanding story song, ‘Matches’ compellingly relates the tale of a love affair that starts in a bar-room encounter and ends with loneliness and arson. The disillusioned protagonist sounds almost resigned despite the dramatic situation, and the conversational recounting of the tales helps to make it believable:

Today when I came home
My key was hollow in the door
There was nothing but a worn-out book of matches on the floor…

Until tonight they’d only lit a single cigarette
Now one by one I’m striking them to help me to forget
And everybody at the Broken Spoke
They all thought my crazy story was a joke
Now they’re all out in the parking lot staring at the smoke…

Baby, all that’s left of our love now is ashes
Thank God you left the matches

Peaking just outside the top 30, ‘Honky Tonk America’ is a decent mid-tempo Bob McDill song which paints a convincing picture of a working class crowd escaping from their daily life.

The final single, another top 40, was the quietly reflective ‘One Day Left To Live’, written by Dean Dillon, John Northrup and Randy Boudreaux. It is about the scare of facing potential mortality inspiring the protagonist promising to devote himself to loving the wife he has been taking for granted. The appealing lyric and understated vocal are very attractive, and this should have done better.

The beaty title track, written by Larry Boone and Billy Lawson, urges the need to work at love. It’s a bit generic sounding not too bad, with plenty of energy and commitment.

In recent years we’ve been overwhelmed with highly generic songs lauding the joys of being young in the country. ‘Cotton County Queen’, an earlyish example of the type with a linedancers’ beat, has nothing to recommend it and is the weakest song here by far. On the same theme of affectionate teenage memories of small town life, but more interesting and attractive, ‘Shootin’ The Bull (In An Old Cowtown)’ was written by Monty Criswell and Michael White.

Criswell and White were also responsible (with Lee Miller) for a pretty good ballad, where unrequited love is revealed for the first time, ‘Arms Length Away’.

The Cajun flavored ‘Little Did I Know’ is a catchy but lyrically slight story song about Jolina, a cheating woman whose beauty and lying promises of fidelity have the lovesick protagonist wrapped around her finger, right up to the point she leaves him standing at the altar. The up-tempo ‘Roamin’ Love’, a solo composition from the point of view of a man complaining about the wayward ex who has been running around with all her husband’s friends, is quite enjoyable with some nice fiddle and honky tonk piano in the arrangement. It is a rare solo Sammy Kershaw composition. He also co-wrote the forlorn ‘Thank God You’re Gone’, a rather good lost love ballad, as he is happy only his ex won’t see him collapse.

Despite only boasting one big hit, this was Sammy’s third platinum album and his highest charting position. Overall this is a reasonably solid album with some real highlights (especially ‘Matches’). As used copies can be found very cheaply, it’s worth picking up acopy.

Grade: B+

Album Review – Sammy Kershaw – ‘Politics, Religion, and Her’

When Sammy Kershaw convened in the studio to follow up Feelin’ Good Train he stuck with his trusty production team of Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson. In addition to his secular work, they’d teamed up for a holiday release, Christmas Time’s A-Comin’ (the title track being my favorite version of that fabulous song) in the winter of 1994, and Greatest Hits, Chapter 1 in 1995.  As a result, when Politics, Religion and Her was released in May 1996, it stuck true to the formula Kershaw had honed since his debut five years earlier.

Lead single “Meant To Be,” an uptempo ode to finding love in unexpected places, was the most successful at radio peaking at #5. He followed with the novelty song “Vidalia” which reached a #10 peak that summer. Both are very good although “Vidalia,” a song I remember distinctly from watching the video on CMT as a kid, isn’t the greatest lyric in Kershaw’s catalog.

Radio didn’t respond as kindly to the album’s title track and it only managed to squeak into the top the top 30. Thanks to a killer lyric by Bryon Hill and Tony Martin plus underpinnings of mournful steel, it’s my favorite of the four singles. Deflecting pain has rarely sounded so good as it does here:

Let’s talk about baseball

Talk a little small talk

There’s gotta be a good joke

That you’ve heard

Let’s talk about NASCARs

Old Hollywood movie stars

Let’s talk about anything

Anything in this world

But politics, religion and her

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Classic Rewind: The Amazing Rhythm Aces – ‘Third Rate Romance’

The original version of one of Sammy Kershaw’s 90s hits:

Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Feelin’ Good Train’

Sammy’s third album for Mercury/Polygram was released in 1994, and was produced as before by the team of Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson.  The first single, ‘National Working Woman’s Holiday  proved to be Sammy’s biggest hit since She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful, just missing the top spot with a #2 peak.  It was co-written from the usually estimable Roger Murrah, but while it is catchy, this well-meaning tribute to a man’s hard working wife comes across as pandering.

A cover of the Amazing Rhythm Aces’ 1970s hit ‘Third Rate Romance’, which is much better, also reached #2.  The closely observed lyric is on the surface unjudgmental, but sharply honest and precise about the sleazy nature of the situation.  The original singer and the song’s writer, Russell Smith, contributes backing vocals.

Mac McAnally’s gently atmospheric but slightly overproduced ‘Southbound’) with McAnally on backing vocals) was perhaps too subtle for country radio, and showed the first signs of a commercial slowdown for the artist, not getting far into the top 30.  ‘If You’re Gonna Walk, I’m Gonna Crawl’ did a little better, and was a top 20 hit.  It’s actually my favourite of the album’s singles, an entertaining upbeat number about a honky tonker seeing the error of his ways only when his wife is set to walk away.  It was written by co-producer Cannon with Larry Bastian.

There is a rare writing credit for Sammy on the joyous Cajun rocker ‘Better Call A Preacher’, which features Jo-El Sonnier’s accordion. I’m surprised this irresistible track wasn’t a single.  Another joy is ‘Never Bit A Bullet Like This’, a playfully performed duet with George Jones.  Also quite entertaining is ‘Paradise From Nine To One’, a cheerful if rather generic up-tempo number about a couple painting the town red.  The title track, however, is just pointless

Breakup song ‘If You Ever Come This Way Again’ is a Dean Dillon co-write (with Donny Kees).  The phrasing and melody bear all the hallmarks of a Dillon composition, while the production utilizes adelicate string arrangement to add sweetness to the melancholy mood. This is an excellent, subtle song about the complicated emotions felt by the protagonist facing separation from someone for whom we feel he has stronger feelings than he actually admits.

Also excellent is the delicately mournful ballad ‘The Heart That Time Forgot’, written by Tony Martin and Sterling Whipple, about failing to get past the memory of a lost love.  The soulful ‘Too Far Gone To Leave’ is an emotional ballad which isn’t bad, but has an obtrusive string arrangement which drowns the vocal at times.

It did not sell quite as well as its predecessors, but was certified gold.  While not Sammy Kershaw’s best work, it is a pretty solid effort, and used copies are available so cheaply it’s worth picking up.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind – Sammy Kershaw – ‘Haunted Heart’

Written by Buddy Brock and Kim Williams, “Haunted Heart” was the second single and title track from Kershaw’s sophomore album. Released in May 1993, it peaked at #9 on Billboard’s Country Chart.

Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Haunted Heart’

Sammy Kershaw’s sophomore effort reunited him with producers Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson, whose collaboration had helped Don’t Go Near The Water achieve platinum-level sales. 1993’s Haunted Heart continues in a similar vein. It too achieved platinum status, but it also improved upon its predecessor’s inconsistent success with country radio; all of Haunted Heart’s four singles landed in the Top 10, unlike Sammy’s previous effort which had produced only two Top 10 hits.

Straight out of the box, the catchy lead single “She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful”, written by Bob McDill and Paul Harrison, rose all the way to #1, becoming the first and only chart-topper of Kershaw’s career. The upbeat title track was the album’s worst performing single, peaking at #9, while the similar sounding “Queen Of My Double Wide Trailer” performed slightly better, reaching #7. The latter song, written by Dennis Linde, is marred by somewhat cliched and silly lyrics, but its catchy beat makes it enjoyable nonetheless. The fourth and final single, “I Can’t Reach Her Anymore” is the best of the group and ranks right up there with “Yard Sale” as one of Kershaw’s best singles.

Aside from the hit singles, Haunted Heart is noteworthy for some of its supporting personnel. The legendary Weldon Myrick, famous for his work with Connie Smith, plays steel guitar on that album, and one of the background vocalists is Sammy’s labelmate, the then largely unknown Shania Twain. She can be heard most prominently on the excellent Dean Dillon and Danny Kees composition “What Might Have Been”. It’s too bad that Shania’s own discography doesn’t contain material like this. Another standout track is the beautiful ballad “Still Lovin’ You”, which despite its inclusion on Sammy’s 1995 The Hits: Chapter 1 compilation, was never released as a single. The steel guitar track and Melonie Cannon’s harmony vocals are beautiful.

However, not all of the album’s material is stellar; there are two duds in particular — the novelty tune “Neon Leon” which really wears thin with repeated listenings, and “You’ve Got A Lock On My Heart”, which was written by producer Buddy Cannon with Larry Bastian. Heavy on electric guitar, it’s the least traditional song on the album. Another artist might have made it work, but it’s a stretch for Sammy and it really doesn’t fit well with the rest of the album. All is forgiven however, with the closing track, a contemporary take on the Bill Monroe classic “Cry, Cry Darlin'”. Unlike the original, this version does not have a bluegrass arrangement; the electric guitar is a bit intrusive at times, but the pedal steel and harmony vocals are superb.

Casual Sammy Kershaw fans may be content to own just his hits compilations, but there are enough gems among this collection’s album cuts to make it worth purchasing. It can be easily obtained at bargain prices.

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-

Classic Rewind: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Anywhere But Here’

Spotlight Artist: Sammy Kershaw

Sammy Kershaw, third cousin of legendary Cajun fiddler Doug Kershaw, was born Samuel Paul Kershaw on Feb. 24, 1958 in Kaplan, Lousania, the heart of Cajun country.  He lost his father when he was eleven; the same year his grandfather gifted him with his first guitar. The death of his father forced the beginnings of his professional career, as his family desperately needed supplemental income. By age 12 Kershaw was working with local bandleader J.P. Perry, and he toured the southern club and honky-tonk circuit with Perry throughout his teenage years.

By 1985 Kershaw had moved to Oklahoma to sing in local bands, and was already on his second marriage. A stint with the touring club band Blackwater lead to a dependency on alcohol and drugs. By 1988 he quit the business to save his marriage and took a job working full-time as the supervisor of store remodeling at a local Wal-Mart.

His songwriter friend Barry Jackson convinced Kershaw to submit a demo tape to Mercury Records in 1990, and he landed a record deal after one showcase performance. He released his platinum selling debut Don’t Go Near The Water in 1991, and had a #3 hit with his debut single “Cadillac Style.” The critics highly praised his 1993 sophomore album Haunted Heart and radio rewarded him by making lead single “She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful” his first and only number one hit. Kershaw was also winning praise vocally, often being compared to George Jones.

Even though his honky-tonk style was enduring to fans Kershaw took more liberties going forward, releasing material more geared toward radio airplay. The results paid off and his next effort, Feelin’ Good Train yielded two smash hits – “National Woman’s Working Holiday” and a cover of “Third Rate Romance,” originally recorded by The Amazing Rhythm Aces. His star had started to fade by 1996, although his Politics, Religion, and Her album garnered two top ten hits (“Meant To Be” and “Vidalia”). Kershaw would have his final hit single the following summer when “Love Of My Life” hit #2.

By the late 90s, Kershaw’s second marriage was falling apart as he began a romantic relationship with fellow 90s hit maker Lorrie Morgan. The couple dueted on the top 20 “Maybe Not Tonight” and eventually married in 2001. That same year they released I Finally Found Someone a duets album that spun the minor hit “She Drinks Tequila.” The dismal record sales led to his release from Mercury Records.

Kershaw released I Want My Money Back in 2003 via Audium Entertainment, Honky Tonk Boots via Category 5 records in 2006, and Better Than I Used To Be via Big Hit Records in 2010. While none of these records brought him any hit singles, the title track to his 2010 album was a #6 hit for Tim McGraw earlier this year. He was also inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Louisiana Songwriters Association Hall of Fame in 2010.

In addition to his musical career, Kershaw has been heavily focused on politics over the past six years, announcing his run for lieutenant governor of Louisiana in 2007. He would end up gaining only 30% of the vote. He ran for a second time in 2010, but fell to a distant third in the race despite carrying 31 of the 64 parishes – more than any other candidate.

Kershaw was also the spokesperson for protectourcoastline.org, a non-profit dedicated to providing relief to the shrimpers and fisherman affected by 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He’s also become quite the savvy Facebook user, regularly posting pictures and status updates to his fan page.

He returned his focus to his music career late last month with the release of A Sammy Klaus Christmas, his second holiday collection (following 1994’s Christmas Time’s A-Comin’) and first release on the MRI label.

We’ll be taking a look back at his discography for the next month.

Single Review: Easton Corbin – ‘Lovin’ You Is Fun’

It seems like a long time since we’ve heard anything new from Easton Corbin. After arriving on the scene in a big way with two consecutive #1 hits two and a half years ago, he faltered with his third single “I Can’t Love You Back”, which stalled at #14. Since then he’s been relatively quiet, but he is finally back with a new single, with a new album slated for release later this year.

From the very beginning, Corbin’s vocal style was compared to that of a young George Strait, and though the similarities are still there, the first thing I thought of upon hearing the opening notes of “Lovin’ You Is Fun” was that it sounded very much like the kind of song that Clint Black used to do early in his career — fast paced, high energy and not taking itself too seriously, a throwback to the good old days in the 90s. It’s an upbeat, positive song that should appeal to country radio, if they can overlook the prominent pedal steel and lack of pop pretensions. It was written by Bob DiPiero and Jim Beavers. DiPiero has penned countless hits for the likes of The Oak Ridge Boys, Charly McClain, Reba McEntire, Pam Tillis, Brooks & Dunn, Sammy Kershaw and Sunny Sweeney, while Beavers co-wrote “Felt Good On My Lips” for Tim McGraw, “Red Solo Cup” for Toby Keith and a few of Dierks Bentley’s poorer efforts.

February seems like an odd time to release a light-hearted, beat-driven record like this one, but records take so long to climb the charts these days, summer will be just around the corner by the time this one peaks. I hope that does well for two reasons: (1) because Corbin needs a hit; in today’s climate he can’t afford to miss the Top 10 with two consecutive singles, and (2) because country music desperately needs more artists like Easton Corbin.

“Lovin’ You Is Fun” is not yet available for purchase, but it has been released to country radio and can be heard here.

Grade: A

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Emotional Traffic’

Were I unaware of the longstanding feud between Tim McGraw and Curb Records, and the resulting lawsuit surrounding the release of Emotional Traffic, I would likely be asking myself what on earth Tim was thinking when he recorded this collection. It’s difficult to imagine that he thought his fans were clamoring for an album of overproduced junk that, with only a few exceptions, is far removed from the realm of country music. One possible explanation is that it is an act of deliberate sabotage on Tim’s part, a parting shot at an unscrupulous company that went to great lengths to extend his contract term. It seems like a stretch at first, but the more I listened to the album, the more plausible the theory seems. While I do think that Curb treated McGraw shabbily, I’m slightly more sympathetic towards them after giving Emotional Traffic several spins. While Curb’s legal objections to Emotional Traffic were concerned with the timeframe in which the album was recorded, a more meritorious argument would have been that it doesn’t meet the standards of McGraw’s earlier work and that it provides them with very little usable material to promote to country radio. Make no mistake, this is one hot mess of a record.

Emotional Traffic was co-produced by Tim and Byron Gallimore, who has had a hand in producing Tim’s records since the very beginning of his career. Originally recorded in 2010, the album was shelved in favor of a redundant hits compilation and was then further delayed by the court case. One track, “Felt Good on My Lips” was released as a single in September 2010 and made it to #1. Though I’m not overly fond of the song, it does have a catchy melody, and despite its throwaway, fluffy lyrics, it’s one of three songs on the album that is at least tolerable. It was written by the Warren Brothers — who contributed four songs to the album — along with Brett Beavers and Jim Beavers. This foursome also collaborated on the rather annoying and sing-songy “Hey Now.” Tim himself shares songwriting credits along with Brett and Brad Warren and Martina McBride on “I Will Not Fall Down”, an introspective song about getting older that aims to be inspirational (“I will not fall down without getting up”), which ultimately falls flat due to the constant repetition of the title line, over-processed vocals and too-busy production.

“Touchdown Jesus”, written by Rhett Akins, Dallas Davidson, and Ben Hayslip is not a great song but it’s infinitely superior to most of the other offerings here. It has the potential to be a hit single, and I think I could get to like it more with repeated listenings, although it does degenerate into a bombastic gospel-like song towards the end.

Of the twelve tracks on this album, only one — the current single “Better Than I Used To Be” — is truly good — although, as Occasional Hope recently pointed out, it cannot compete with Sammy Kershaw’s far superior version. Nevertheless, I’m glad that someone who is still getting radio airplay decided to give it a chance. The only truly country-sounding song on the album, it is currently on the verge of cracking the Top 20 and will likely reach the higher rungs of the chart.

With the exceptions of “Better Than I Used To Be”, “Touchdown Jesus” and the mediocre “Felt Good On My Lips”, I’m afraid that I found Emotional Traffic to be quite unlistenable, and I imagine that all but the most dedicated McGraw fans will be disappointed in it. While Tim has never been one of my favorite artists, he has had a knack for picking some very good material in the past. Hopefully he has some better songs on hold for his next project once the remaining legal issues play out.

Grade: D

Single Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Better Than I Used To Be’

Even if you’re not a Tim McGraw fan you’ll probably feel happy that a Nashville court has just set him free from his contract with Curb Records, at least pending a further hearing next summer. Feelings may be more mixed about the fact that, quite shamelessly, Curb has immediately released a new McGraw single, apparently in an attempt to wring the last possible drop of profit from their almost-20-year involvement with his career. It remains to be seen whether they will actually try to push this seriously at radio – or indeed release McGraw’s shelved Emotional Traffic album from which this presumably comes.

The song is a very good one, written by Brian Simpson and Ashley Gorley, and I was impressed by it when I first heard it last year, as the title track of Sammy Kershaw’s most recent album. The comparison is unfortunate, as Sammy Kershaw is far superior as a vocalist. Tim’s interpretation is broadly similar, with a thoughtful, subdued opening which works extremely well, although later on he lacks the tenderness and subtlety of the original.

The production is more effective than the rock-influenced sound of much of Tim’s last album, particularly the piano-led beginning but it compares even more unfavorably than the vocal does with Kershaw’s more scaled back version. The opening is very similar, but like the vocal it gets a little bombastic, with too much going on. Lyrically, the song’s message of regret for past behavior and determination to change is an interesting choice given the ongoing dispute between Tim and Curb.

If you missed Sammy Kershaw’s version, check that out first. But this is still a decent performance of an excellent song which deserved to be a hit last time around, and it’s a shame its reception is likely to be overshadowed by comment on the ethical behavior of Curb Records.

Grade: B

Listen here.

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Album Review: Rosanne Cash – ‘Somewhere In The Stars’

Rosanne’s follow-up to her breakthrough with Seven Year Ache was released in 1982, when she was expecting her second child. Produced as before by Rodney Crowell, she continued her incorporation of elements from other genres, although less successfully than before.

The first and most successful single, Crowell’s ‘Ain’t No Money’, peaked at #4 on Billboard. It is a midpaced song which doesn’t sound very country but is one of the better songs on the record, sung confidently. The loungy, jazzy ‘I Wonder’, written by Asleep At the Wheel’s Leroy Preston, was another top 10 hit (#8), and is well done if, once more, with little country influence.

The last single, 1983’s ‘It Hasn’t Happened Yet’, reached only #14, and is a bit dull despite a committed vocal. It is one of two John Hiatt songs, the second being ‘I Look For Love’. The latter is not very good, very repetitive with an unattractive and now very dated 80s synth-pop production. ‘Down On Love’ is a surprising AC-style, although very good, ballad written by Gordon Payne (a former sideman for Waylon Jennings) and Don White, which is very sweetly sung belying the disdain of the lyric. The mid-tempo ‘Oh Yes I Can’ written by Susanna Clark and John Reid is even closer to 80s pop, and I don’t like it much.

The highlight of the album is the gentle ‘Lookin’ For A Corner’, which Rosanne and Rodney wrote together, a resigned-sounding ballad with quite pretty instrumentation. I also quite like the dreamy title track, Rosanne’s only solo composition this time around.

A cover of Tom T Hall’s classic ‘That’s How I Got To Memphis’ is also good, with Johnny Cash making a gravelly cameo appearance. The Amazing Rhythm Aces’ cynical ‘Third Rate Romance’ is also pretty well done with a slightly Caribbean feel to the production and an understated, sultry vocal. Country fans may know the song better from Sammy Kershaw’s hit 90s version.

Sandwiched in between two of Rosanne’s most commercially successful records, this saw a slowdown in her career, but it was to prove only a temporary blip. It is readily available in CD format, both on its own and as a 2 for 1 with the follow-up, Rhythm And Romance. It is not her best work on Columbia (and certainly not to my personal taste), but if you want to track it down, it’s fairly easy to find.

Grade: C

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Songs About Me’

By 2005, the quality of Trace Adkins’s music had dwindled to new lows. He had finally reached instant-add status with country radio, but like Blake Shelton today, had compromised his music, especially his radio singles, to reach the top. That trend continued with Songs About Me. It may have earned double platinum certification, but it’s easily the most controversial album of his career.

At the time the second single, “Arlington” was climbing the charts (it peaked at #16), Adkins’s record label decided to pull the plug on the military ballad and rush-release “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” to country radio. There was much talk that “Arlington,” a first person story of a soldier buried in the national cemetery, offended military families due to the first person account. But on the flip side, the country music world considered the song a surefire #1 hit. While I understand where the controversy stems from, I personally don’t think it was warranted. It’s easily one of Adkins’s best performances and deserved its due.

Of course, when “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” came into the picture, all was forgotten about the debacle with “Arlington.” It stirred up an even bigger ruckus and caused even greater debate about sexism and the boundaries of country music. It didn’t help that the almost R-rated music video made Shania baring her midriff, Reba wearing her red dress, or Lorrie Morgan strutting around her bedroom in “Something In Red” all seem like a non-issue. That he scored a monster hit with this song (it peaked at #2) only proves that country music (and its fan base) has veered away from its ideals.

There is nothing about this song I care for whether it be the subject matter or the disastrous production values. That a dance version was created only sank this one lower in my book. In his defense of the song, Adkins said he would’ve recorded it for his debut Dreamin’ Out Loud had it been available at the time. I would’ve liked to see him get away with that in 1996.

But the most alarming thing of all was who wrote “Badonkadonk” – Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser, and Dallas Davidson. I can see where the Davidson influence comes in, he did co-write “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” with Luke Bryan, but the Johnson and Houser connection always throws me. Why would two of the best traditional voices recording country music today write something so offensive to the traditions of country music? It just doesn’t seem characteristic of them to me. To be fair, I understand “Badonkadonk” is all in good fun, but I take the ideals of country music very seriously, and in no way does this song fit with someone who’s a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Even Dixie Chick Natalie Maines saw the writing on the wall at the time – she openly wondered where the Chicks music would fit on country radio between “Badonkadonk” and Joe Nichols “Tequlia Makes Her Clothes Fall Off.”

Apart from the disastrous third single, which actually doesn’t fit in context with the rest of the album, Songs About Me gets more right than wrong. While there are a couple of filler power ballads, most of the tunes are understated and showcase the path I want Adkins to travel down with his music.

The title track, a song about singing about who you are, is the only “power” song he actually got right. The rock like production of heavy guitars and drums suits the passion he exudes in his vocal performance. The aforementioned “Arlighton” is a masterpiece and a lesson in using your voice to execute a powerful vocal track.

I also enjoyed “My Heaven” a song in which Adkins lists out what his idea of heaven is – a wood framed house with a porch swing with the kids playing in the yard eating watermelon and spending time with his wife. While the title might suggest more religious undertones, it’s actually a sweet tale made even stronger by the soft mandolin and understated production. I love that he sounds like he’s trying here to create a special moment and not just mailing it in for the sake of filling out an album. While not as memorable as other tunes on the subject, it’s a sweet tale that actually works. I enjoy the marriage here of his voice and the production – instead of reacting like oil and water, they work to compliment themselves nicely. He should record in this vein more often, or at least release these kinds of moments as singles.

“Metropolis,” another highlight (also recorded by its songwriter Anthony Smith in 2003 and Sammy Kershaw in 2008), finds Adkins playing the role of a man trying to make a living and juggle his career and his family. On songs like this, the way he manipulates his voice makes you believe the story he’s trying to convey. A prequal of sorts to “My Heaven,” “Metropolis” should’ve been a single and reminds me a lot of his future monster smash “You’re Gonna Miss This” but without the flash. I love the gorgeous guitar-laced production that helps opposed to hinder his vocal.

In contrast, “I Learned How To Love From You,” hits some but not all of the right notes. A good showcase of his voice, the strings and paino create a mix that overbears the lyrical content and Adkins’s emotional delivery of the song. I might’ve enjoyed it more had it been more starkly produced and a bit toned down. But it is going in the right direction of where Adkins should be as an artist.

As for the duds, “Baby I’m Home” is exactly the kind of immature song you’d expect from Adkins, especially in this period of his career. As he proves on “Arlington” and “My Heaven,” he’s above such trite lyrics as “She’s got 100 candles burning/she’s got next to nothing on,” or at least I want him to be. It’s songs like “Baby I’m Home” (and “Badonkadonk” of course) that keep my appreciation for Adkins quite low. Why is it that all men of a certain age can sing about is hot women?

“Find Me A Preacher,” recorded as “Somebody Find Me A Preacher” by Chad Hudson in 2008, is overwrought and the in your face mix of loud guitars and drums distract from Adkins’s performace. It isn’t too bad, considering how little feeling he puts into the song. As far as album cuts go, this is second-rate filler. I liked how Hudson makes his tale believable, Adkins just seems like he’s trying to fill out an album.

In the end, Songs About Me is a pretty consistent project split down the middle between questionable choices, and moments of growth. Given that this project gave the world “Badonkadonk,” I wasn’t expecting a whole lot of artristy, but was proven wrong by most of what Adkins has to offer this time around. Songs About Me still didn’t convert me into a diehard fan, but a few of the better moments came awfully close.

Grade: B 

Sounds just like…

The music distribution website CDBaby, where I sometimes go to get hold of more obscure independent artists, has a “sounds like” search function, where you can enter the name of a famous artist you already like, and find music by someone who supposedly sounds similar (at least according to that artist’s publicity). While this more often applies to general style than to real “soundalikes”, I’ve been thinking lately about the latter – when a new artist is more than just reminiscent of an established act.

Virtually every review to date of newcomer Easton Corbin has commented on his obvious debt to George Strait, although personally I would say he owes almost as much to Alan Jackson, and isn’t really a copycat of either. General awareness of this similarity does not seem to be hampering his career momentum – if anything it gives him some instant credibility in setting him apart from the pop-inspired hordes on country radio.

Many successful artists in the past have been compared to stars of the past – when Sammy Kershaw emerged in the early 90s his vocal similarity to George Jones was noted, and part of the significance of country music’s respect for its roots is that the influence of stars of the past has always been acknowledged. Listen to Randy Travis, and you can hear the effect of years listening to Merle Haggard, Merle owed much to Lefty Frizzell and Jimmie Rodgers, and so on, but each of these artists was also able to develop their own spin on a common base. There is a fine line between being part of a tradition, and influenced by your predecessors’ vocal stylings, and coming across as a mere carbon copy. George Jones started out his career copying his childhood idol Roy Acuff, to the extent that his first producer Pappy Daily once asked him,

‘George, I’ve heard you sing like Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell. I just want to know one thing: Can you sing like George Jones?’

As it turned out, he certainly could, but had he not been able to develop his own distinctive voice, he would not now be regarded as the greatest country singer of all time. But with the rapid pace of country music careers today, and the industry’s fascination with very young performers, there is not always time for a young singer to develop his or her own style before being judged and found wanting.

This year’s country contender on American Ido is a 17-year-old who sounds quite remarkably like Josh Turner – not only that, young North Carolinian Scotty McCreery auditioned with Turner’s hit ‘Your Man’, repeated it during the lengthy televised selection process, and also sang Josh’s classic ‘Long Black Train’. Turner himself used his website to admit to being flattered by the choice. I understand that he branched out and sang a John Michael Montgomery song last night – I haven’t heard it yet, so I don’t know whether he achieved triumph or disaster or something in between. If he survives this week’s first vote, I think he has a voice which will be worth tuning in for, although perhaps not a fully polished style – unsurprising given his youth. But as a potential star in the real world, I wonder if he’s not a bit too similar to Turner for his own good. Would he be able to make his own music distinctive enough to get played in its own right, should he make it far enough on the show to guarantee a major label record deal? That seems all the more of an issue as the Idol franchise has now cut its longstanding ties with Sony, and first dibs on any stars created by this season will go to the Universal Music Group – parent of Josh Turner’s label MCA.

Do you think a new artist is harmed or helped by sounding like an old favorite?