My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Sanger D Shafer

Album Review: Moe Bandy – ‘It’s A Cheating Situation’

It’s a Cheating Situation is the 10th studio album by Moe Bandy and his seventh album of new material. Released in 1979, the album reached #19 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, his best showing in a few years. The album generated two top ten hits and featured the solid country sound that made Moe such a favorite among fans of traditional country music.

The album opened with the title track a fine track featuring Janie Fricke on harmony. Written by Curly Putman and Sonny Throckmorton, the song sailed to #1 on Record World (#2 Billboard, #1 Canadian Country), one of only two solo Bandy singles to reach #1. The song was a bit unusual for Bandy, but effective.

It’s a cheating situation, a stealing invitation
To take what’s not really ours, to make it through the midnight hours
It’s a cheating situation, just a cheap imitation
Doing what we have to do when there’s no love at home

There’s no use in pretending, there’ll be a happy ending
Where our love’s concerned, sweetheart, we both know
We’ll take love where we find it, love and try to hide it
It’s all we got, for we know they’re not gonna let us go

Next up is a more typical Moe Bandy number in “Barstool Mountain”, written by Donn Tankersley and Wayne Carson. The song was the second single released from the album and reached #9. The song had been recorded, as an album track, by Johnny Paycheck a few years earlier on his Take This Job And Shove It album. I like Paycheck but Bandy’s version is far superior

I’ve finally found a place where I can take it
All this loneliness you left behind.
On a mountain that’s no hill for a climber.
Just one step up, sit back and pour the wine.

I climb up on barstool mountain.
High above your world where there’s no pain.
And I’m the king of barstool mountain.
Pretending I don’t love you once again.

“Cheaters Never Win” by Sanger Shafer and Doodle Owens sounds like something Hank Williams might have written, and the comparison is driven home by the arrangement put together for Bandy. Released a decade before, the song would have made a good single for someone.

I don’t know how long you left me here alone
But I sure was a lonesome someone
And I learned from a friend how cheaters never win
Oh, but we sure have more fun.

When empty arms need someone soft to fill them
They’ll start reaching out for almost anyone
My stood to couldn’t stand and cheaters never win
Oh, but we sure have more fun.

“Conscience Where Were You (When I Needed You Last Night)” is a medium slow ballad from the pens of Sanger Shafer and Warren Robb.

I’m not that familiar with songwriter Herb McCollough but his “Try My Love On for Size” is a nice song with steel and fiddle driving the ong along. This song is taken at a moderately up-tempo pace. I really like the song, but I don’t think it would have made for a successful single.

Yeah slip into my arms I think you’ll find a perfect fit
They’ll keep you warm throughout the coldest nights
And these lips will cool the fires that burn you deep inside
My love will hold you close but not too tight.

So try my love on for size
It’ll never shrink or run or fade away
Yes, try my love on for size
Never return it if you’re fully satisfied.

Yes, try my love on for size
Never return it if you’re fully satisfied…

Bobby Barker’s “To Cheat Or Not To Cheat” is a mid-tempo song that asks what I suppose to be the eternal question (my suggestion is ‘Not To Cheat’). It’s an okay song as an album track but nothing more.

While she makes another midnight pot of coffee
We’re mixin’ up just one last glass of gin
And before I even cheat I’m feelin’ guilty
And gin can’t dim these butterflies within.

To cheat or not to cheat, that’s the question
That’s been runnin’ through my mind all evenin’ long
To cheat or not to cheat, what’s the answer
Now I’m pullin’ in my driveway here at home…

Max D. Barnes was a fine songwriter, and “She Stays In The Name of Love” is a good song that I think could have been a good single for someone. Johnny Gimble and Weldon Myrick shine on this track.

I’ve been everything that a man shouldn’t be
I’ve done things a man won’t do
And it’s hard to believe what she sees in me
After all that I put her through.

But I guess that she knows when the bars finally close
She’s the one that I’m thinkin’ of
Well she could leave in the name of a heart full of pain
But she stays in the name of love.

“It Just Helps To Keep The Hurt From Hurtin'” is a fine and wistful Cindy Walker ballad that Moe tackles successfully with just the right amount of trepidation in his voice.

Carl Belew was one of my favorite songwriters, and while his success as a performer was limited, some of his songs became great pop and country classics (“Stop The World and Let Me Off”, “Lonely Street”, “What’s He Doing In My World”, “Am I That Easy To Forget”, “Don’t Squeeze My Sharmon”). “When My Working Girl Comes Home (And Works on Me)” is the sort of album material that Moe excels at singing.

The album closes with “They Haven’t Made The Drink (That Can Get Me Over You)”, another mid-tempo Sanger Shafer – Doodle Owens honky-tonk classic, featuring Johnny Gimble on fiddle and “Pig” Robbins on piano . For the life of me, I do not understand why this track wasn’t released as a single by Moe or perhaps someone else.

The face on my watch stares up through a scratched up crystal
As if to say I’m sorry it’s too early for the booze
Sometimes my mind wonders from the bottle to the pistol
‘Cause they haven’t made the drink that can get me over you.

The bartenders’ local called a special meeting
They came up with a drink called ‘What’s The Use’
I must have drank a dozen before I broke down cryin’
‘Cause they haven’t made the drink that can get me over you.

There are signs on several tracks of the Moe Bandy sound beginning to soften a little. There’s still plenty of ‘Drifting Cowboy’ steel guitar and Texas-style fiddle but on a few tracks the Jordanaires are a little more prominent than I would like, and the title track is far less honky-tonk that Moe’s usual fare.

Among the musicians helping keep this country are the following: Bob Moore (bass), Johnny Gimble (fiddle, mandolin), Hargus “Pig” Robbins (piano), Bobby Thompson (banjo), Weldon Myrick (steel guitar), and Charlie McCoy (harmonica).

I very much like this album and would rate it an “A”.

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Album Review: Moe Bandy – ‘Soft Lights and Hard Country Music’

Moe Bandy released his eighth album, Soft Lights, and Hard Country Music, via Columbia Records in 1978. It was produced, as per usual, by Ray Baker. Both of the album’s singles were excellent honky-tonk numbers. The title track hit #13, while “That’s What Makes The Jukebox Play” stalled at #11.

Divorce plays a central role in the second and third songs on the album. “Darling Won’t You Marry Me Again” has Bandy playing a dad who recently sobered up, and after three years is face-to-face with his kids and the ex who asks him to take her back. The engaging “Paper Chains” is an uptempo number, about a marriage at the point where it falls apart and the couple is on the brink of divorce. “This Haunted House” is a clever take on the well-worn theme of the man dealing with the memory of his ex. Bandy knows his ex is gone and even has a woman to take her place on “If She Keeps Loving Me,” but he’s still in love with her and can’t let her go.

“There’s Nobody Home on the Range Anymore” is a classic western with an impeccable lyric crafted by Ed Penney and Robert Shaw-Parsons. It’s the tale of an old farmhand dreaming of days gone by:

The old man used to dream of the fortune he’d seek

Now he lives in the room where you pay by the week

His hands are all bothered and his pony’s gone lame

And his bones always ache when the sky looks like rain

 

Well he dreams of the old days with bronc bustin’ tails

And the wide open spaces where buffalo plays

Deep in his mem’ry wild horses ride on

But he knows the good times have all come and gone

There’s nobody home on the range anymore

 

They closed down the bunkhouse and had locked the door

Now there’s oil wells and motels and folks by the score

But there’s nobody home on the range anymore

 

Now the eagle stop flyin’ the night wind is still

And the last cayou’s hawlin’ on some lonely hill

The old man is longin’ to lay all down

In his final box canyon the poor side of town

 

‘Cause he knows his last mantel is two flights two stairs

And his saddle’s turned into an old rocking chair

Mornings he wakes up and wonders what for

‘Cause there’s nobody home on the range anymore

I don’t care much for the arrangement on the song, which hasn’t withstood the test of time. “Are We Making Love or Just Making Friends” finds Bandy portraying a man who cannot get affection from the woman he’s dating. “A Wound Time Can’t Erase” is an excellent weeper, but the heavy production and intrusive background vocalists don’t do the track any justice.

“A Baby and a Sewing Machine” has a gorgeous melody, but the lyric seems backward to me. She dreams of being a mother and a homemaker as though that’s all she can aspire to be in life. I’m thrilled the guy definitely wants more for her, but she seems limited in her perspective.

Soft Lights and Hard Country Music is a very strong album from Bandy. I thoroughly enjoyed most of the album’s tracks. The album isn’t widely available but all the tracks are on YouTube if you search for them.

Grade: A- 

Album Review: Moe Bandy – ”I’m Sorry For You, My Friend’

1977 saw the release of another solidly traditional honky tonk album for Moe. The title track, the album’s sole single, was a faithful Hank Williams cover with a very authentic steel-laced arrangement, which was a top 10 hit for Moe. The song offers sympathy and fellow-feeling to a friend with marital woes.

A notable inclusion is what I believe is the first recorded version of ‘Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind’, later one of George Strait’s biggest hits. It was written by Sanger D Shafer, a regular writer for Moe, and his wife Darlene Shafer. Moe’s version is fine in its own terms – a great traditional honky tonk ballad, and one is left wondering if it might have been a major hit single for him, but Strait fans are likely to prefer that more familiar version.

Sanger Shafer also co-wrote one song with Moe, the closing ‘She’s Everybody’s Woman, I’m Nobody’s Man’, which could easily have been a hit. It is about a former cheater obsessing after the tables have been turned:

As I watch her at the bar with all those men around
I know before closing time one or two won’t be turned down

Once she thought I was the only man
But when I cheated every night
It made her understand
That she don’t have to live a life
Of staying home alone

I’m starving for her love
But she’s got more than she can stand
I’m watching my world melt like castles in the sand
She’s everybody’s woman and I’m nobody’s man

‘She’s An Angel’ is on much the same theme, with an added side of self-delusion, written by Harlan Howard and Lola Jean Dillon. Here Moe insists “she’s a good girl, overacting”.

‘A Four Letter Fool’ is another fine song, with some pretty Spanish guitar, and a regretful lyric about a man who has thrown away domestic happiness in favour of “a few forbidden pleasures”.

‘So Much For You, So Much For Me’, an anguished look at the division of spoils following a divorce, is a cover of a Liz Anderson single from the 60s. Bill Anderson and Mary Lou Turner write ‘All The Beer And All My Friends Are Gone’, in which the protagonist finally has to face the cold hard truth about his broken heart. ‘Someone That I Can Forget’ is a sad ballad previously recorded by Jim Ed Brown, loaded with steel guitar.

‘The Lady From The Country Of Eleven Hundred Springs’ is a bouncy up-tempo number about a woman who can outdrink the protagonist and his purse. Moe turns his attention to the rampant hyper-inflation which plagued the 70s in ‘High Inflation Blues’, in a Jimmie Rodgers style country blues, complete with yodel:

It could drive a man to drinkin’
But I can’t afford the booze
I got those heart breakin’, escalatin’, high inflation blues

The cost of livin’ keeps goin’ up
And taxes ain’t goin’ down
I’m just treadin’ water and trying not to drown
Mr Carter I know you’re up there
And I sure could use a hand
So won’t you please have mercy on
The common working man

This is an excellent album. It is not readily available as such, but the tracks can be found on iTunes (in the relatively poorer quality reproduction noted previously).

Grade: A+

Album Review: Moe Bandy – ‘Here I Am Drunk Again’

Moe Bandy released his fifth album, Here I am Drunk Again, on Columbia Nashville in 1976. The album, produced by Ray Baker, had two charting singles, both of which peaked at #11. The title track, a classic country shuffle, peaked first.

Sanger D. Shafer solely wrote the album’s second single, “She Took More Than Her Share,” as well as two other songs on the record. His three solo contributions are brilliant, and range from the delightful Texas fiddle tune “She’s Got That Oklahoma Look” to the excellent (and stone cold) “The Bottle’s Holding Me.” His final contribution, the steel-drenched “What Happened To Our Love” was a co-write with Bandy.

Eddy Raven is responsible for “Please Take Her Home,” a cautionary tale from our protagonist to the lover of the woman he finds too tempting to resist. “The Man You Once Knew,” a tale regarding a guy falling on hard times, was from Dallas Frazier. J.R. Cochran contributed “If I Had Someone To Cheat On,” a reverse barroom anthem where the guy wishes he had someone’s memory to drink away, the excuse to actually be in the joint in the first place.

“Mind Your Own Business” is the Hank Williams classic. The production is a bit slicker than the rest of the album, and slightly cluttered in places, but Bandy executes it was ease. “Then You Can Let Me Go (Out of Your Mind)” is far more sparse, with steel guitar to accentuate the melody.

Here I Am Drunk Again is an incredible album from start to finish, a collection of ten perfectly chosen tunes and not a clunker in the bunch. I have a love/hate relationship with country music from this era, I find a lot of what we’ve spotlighted through the years to be dated and not my kind of country, but this I love. If you missed this album the first time around, or need to revisit it after all these years, I implore you to check it out. You most certainly won’t be disappointed.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Moe Bandy – ‘Hank Williams You Wrote My Life’

In 1976 Moe’s contract was transferred to Columbia, but there were no immediate changes to his mursic, which remained uncompromisingly traditional honky-tonk, with prominent fiddle and steel, softened only by the Jordanaires’ backing vocals.

His first release on the new label, the title track of his new album, was his biggest hit to date, peaking at #2. Written by Paul Craft, the song is a wonderful tribute to the music of the great Hank Williams, with some of Hank’s song titles serving as the soundtrack to the protagonist’s own disastrous love life –

You wrote ‘My Cheating Heart’ about
A gal like my first ex-wife

The second single was less successful, only just creeping into the top 30, but is actually a very good Sanger D Shafer song in which the self-deluding protagonist has been stood up in ‘The Biggest Airport In The World’ (which at the time was Dallas-Fort Worth) by a fiancée he met only a week earlier – in a bar of course.

A couple of other Shafer songs also made the cut. ‘I’m The Honky Tonk On Loser’s Avenue’ anthropomorphises the barroom location of so many country songs and real life heartbreaks. ‘The Lady’s Got Pride’ is a strong song about the cheating protagonist’s unhappy stand-by-her-man wife.

‘You’ve Got A Lovin’ Comin’’, written by Roger Bowling, is a sincerely delivered love song to just such a long suffering wife from a man who has decided to change his ways.

In Bobby Bond’s ‘Hello Mary’ the protagonist calls home from the bar claiming he is engrossed in a ‘business deal’ (while actually gambling with friends). This is exactly the kind of tongue-in-cheek song Moe would later do with Joe Stampley, and it is very entertaining.

The up-tempo ‘Ring Around Rosie’s Finger’ was co-written by Connie Smith, and is about a player who has decided to settle down with his true love. ‘The Hard Times’, written by Edward Penney, Tom Benjamin and Hugh Moffatt, is a ballad about a couple dealing with financial difficulties but sustained by their love. ‘I Think I’ve Got A Love On For You’, written by Dallas Frazier and Larry Lee, is a pleasant but filler love song.

‘I’m Not As Strong As I Used To Be’ is about a heartbreak which has got only worse with time, and is another fine song.

Overall, this is a good and solidly country album. It has not been re-released digitally as such, but the tracks are all available on iTunes in rather poor quality.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Moe Bandy – ‘I Just Started Hatin’ Cheatin’ Songs Today’

Moe’s debut album in 1974, on the GMC label, based in Atlanta, was a moderate success in its time, but a classic today.

The title track, and Moe’s first hit single, peaking at #17, is a classic honky tonk lament, written by legendary writers A L “Doodle” Owens and Sanger D Shafer. The narrator is a country fan whose love for songs about the wild side of life hits a juddering halt when they turn out to be reflections of reality in his own life and his wife turns out to be cheating on him. Drinking his troubles away is no good when the jukebox is loaded with songs which are all too close to home. Loaded with steel guitar and honky tonk piano, it is a great song, with many lyrical nods to other classic songs.

The second single, which reached #24, was the same writers’ ‘Honky Tonk Amnesia’. Another solid honky tonker, with a bit of tongue in cheek in the lyrics, this one has the protagonist the one on the cheating side, fuelled by his heavy drinking:

She’d be hurt if she knew I was drinking
Cause one’s too much and twelve just ain’t enough
She knows how it messes up my thinking
How it makes me look for someone else to love

I get honky tonk amnesia
I forget where all my love belongs
I get honky tonk amnesia
And sometimes it lasts all night long

His poor unsuspecting wife, meanwhile, sits trustingly at home.

Sanger D Shafer composed ‘Cowboys And Playboys’, an amusing song from the point of view of a wealthy northerner who finds a new perspective on life when he moves to Texas and the girls are unimpressed by his Cadillac style. Shafer co-wrote ‘How Long Does It Take (To Be A Stranger)?’ with Dallas Frazier, a short steel laced ballad lamenting a breakup.

Frazier and Doodle Owens wrote ‘This Time I Won’t Cheat On Her Again’, with Moe rebuffing former illicit flame who might be in the market again. Owens teamed up with Dave Burgess for ‘Home Is Where The Hurt Is’, a great steel dominated ballad about a man delaying his return to an empty home:

My glass is empty
And so are my arms
The lights are down low
And so am I

I drink not to think
And I hate to go home
Home’s where the hurt is
My sweet love is gone

Owens also wrote a couple of tunes with Gene Vowell. In ‘How Far Do You Think We Would Go; he dances around the idea of breaking up another couple’s marriage:

Are you sure that loving me would be worth losing him?
Would his memory ever leave us alone?

‘Get All Your Love Together (And Come On Home)’ (co-written by the pair with Glenn Sutton) appeals to his estranged spouse to make a new start. ‘I Wouldn’t Cheat On Her If She Was Mine’ is another fine song, in which Moe wants to offer a new love to a women who has been hurt by the past. It was written by Bucky Jones, Joane Kelle and Paul Huffman.

‘Smoke Filled Bar’ (written by Ginger Boatwright) is a honky tonk wailer about missing a deceased wife

Some other bar
Another round and I’ll get drunk again
If the party girls sing about what might have been
Do angels miss the ones they love in heaven where you are
And I’m so lonely as I play my sad guitar

And tonight I’ll sing my songs again about you
And try to face another night without you
I’ve tried to find someone and learn to love once more
But then I stopped ’cause you knock at my memory’s door

The album is available on iTunes, and is an essential part of any traditional country fan’s music collection.

Grade: A

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Chill Factor’

chill factorMerle Haggard turned fifty shortly before Chill Factor was released in October 1987. To those of us who remember when the blues and jazz were still influences on country music (rather than the hip-hop and rock that seem to be today’s influences) this album is an overlooked treasure out of the Merle Haggard catalogue. The album is compromised of eleven songs of which Merle wrote six by himself, with three co-writes and two songs from outside sources.

I’m not sure, but I think this was the first complete Merle Haggard album recorded without longtime Stranger Roy Nichols (1932-2001) on lead guitar. Roy, who was a truly great guitar player, and a quintessential part of the Merle Haggard sound, retired in early 1987 due to health issues.

The album opens with the title track, a solo Haggard composition. “Chill Factor” is a very melancholy song about a down period in the singer’s life. Taken at a slow tempo the song features horns and winds during the last third of the song and comes to a fade ending. “Chill Factor” was the first single from the album and reached #9 on the Billboard country chart:

The long nights get longer
And I wish a friend would come by
The forecast is zero
And the chill factor is high

“Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star”, another Haggard composition, was the second single released from the album. It would prove to be Merle’s final #1 single. A mid-tempo song, the song finds the narrator wishing upon a star.

Like two ships on the ocean
We drifted apart …

Twinkle twinkle lucky star
Can you send me luck from where you are
Can you make a rainbow shine that far
Twinkle twinkle lucky star

“Man From Another Town” is yet another melancholy song, this time from the pens of Haggard and his most frequent co-writer at the time, Freddy Powers, This song reflects on relationship that should not be in that the man is thirty years older than the woman.

The great Hank Cochran wrote “We Never Touch At All”, a song that would have been a #1 record if it had been released twenty years earlier. The song features a 1960s style country accompaniment with excellent steel guitar by longtime Stranger Norm Hamlet. The song was released as the third single from the album and reached #22. The song is about a relationship that is slowly unraveling. I think it is the best song on the album:

Are we afraid we’ll wind up alone
Is this the tie that keeps us hanging on
Why don’t we just stay out
While we can still climb the wall
We hardly ever talk
And we never touch at all

“You Babe” was the fourth and final single pulled from this album, reaching #23. The song is a mid-tempo ballad, full of hope, by a man who has found what was truly important. The comes from the pen of Sanger D “Whitey” Shafer who was a friend and co-writer with Lefty Frizzell:

And if there’s nothin’ else I do
To spend my whole life through
Lovin’ you, babe, you babe
I’ll always be in command
Just as long as I’m the man
Lovin’ you, babe, you babe

“Thanking The Good Lord” is an upbeat and up-tempo written ny Merle and T.A. Lane:

The pieces are all falling together
The picture is coming in view
When I thought the end was upon me
I found my purpose in you

And let the power that made
Help me to prosper and be fair in all things that I do
The love I’ve been needin’ I just found in your heart
And I’m thanking the good Lord for you

I could easily see Leon Redbone recording “After DarK”, a very jazzy and reflective mid-tempo song with some instrumental breaks that give sax and trumpet player Don Markham a chance to stretch out.

Merle’s solo composition “1929” opens up with some nice dobro playing by Norm Hamlet, and the general feel of the instrumental accompaniment sounds like something that the legendary “Blue Yodeler” Jimmie Rodgers (aka “the father of country music” or the “Singing Brakeman”) would have felt perfectly comfortable singing. This song looks to possible bad times ahead. Like many of Jimmie’s songs, some Memphis style horns kick in during the latter part of the song:

All my life I’ve heard about hard depression days
They so resemble times we’re living now
And old news of yesteryear sounds like yesterday
And hunger lines always look the same somehow

Are we living now or is it 1929
A dollar bill ain’t worth one thin dime
And tricks are sometimes played upon the mind
Are we living now or 1929

I can really relate to “Thirty Again”, a slow introspective ballad with a hint of a chuckle in the vocal. Like several of the songs on this album, this song straddles the border between country and jazz.

Similar to the narrator of the song I don’t think I’d care to be a teenager again but thirty sounds like a good age to be.

Youth should be saved for the last
But it’s wasted on the young and fast…

Wish I could be thirty again
Wish time didn’t wrinkle my skin
They say life begins at fifty
We’ve been lied to my friend
And I just wish I could be
Thirty again

The album closes up with a pair of fairly traditional country ballads.

“I Don’t Have Any Love Around” opens with a fiddle and steel guitar introduction and generally keeps the feel of slow traditional country music ballad. I could see this song as a single during the 1950-1975 heyday of the genre.

“More Than This Old Heart Can Take” is a typical barroom crying-in-your-beer song, a solid mid-tempo country ballad with plenty of fiddle and dobro and an ageless story:

You walk into his arms before my very eyes
You can’t even wait to be somewhere alone
The ties that bind have broken loose and I’m about to break
Loving you is more than this old heart can take

There was a place in time when I was always on your mind
And now I’m nothing more than just a fool
I thought that I was strong enough to live with my mistake
But loving you is more than this old heart can take

I mentioned that this was the first full Haggard album to be missing Roy Nichols. In his place we have the great Grady Martin handling much of the lead guitar work. I think Martin’s presence lends itself to the jazzy feel Haggard seemed to be seeking with this album.

As for the album itself, I think that the album accurately reflects the roller coaster ride that Merle was experiencing at the time. He had one marriage (to Leona Williams) break rather acrimoniously, but at the point this album was released, Hag was a relative newlywed having married Debbie Parret in 1985, a marriage that would last until 1991. Like many veteran artists, he was having a hard time getting radio play as the singles from this album would prove. In all, Merle is revealed as being clear-minded and perceptive, with some nostalgic longings, but still firmly rooted in the present . When initially released this album received mixed reviews, (but remember that jazz has always been an anathema to rock audiences – there was even a band calling itself Johnny Hates Jazz) and most music critics had no feel for jazz in any form.

I liked this album when it was initially issued and I like it even more today – I regard it as a solid A.

Merle Haggard – vocals, guitar, background vocals
Biff Adam – drums / Jim Belken – fiddle
Gary Church – trombone / Steve Gibson – guitar
Norm Hamlet – dobro, pedal steel guitar
Jim Haas – background vocals / Jon Joice – background vocals
Bonnie Owens – background vocals
Red Lane – guitar Mike Leech – bass
Don Markham – saxophone, trumpet
Grady Martin – guitar / Clint Strong – guitar
Bobby Wayne – guitar / Mark Yeary – keyboards

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘That’s the Way Love Goes’

51f3QpNJP2L._SS280The early 1980s were a prolific time for Merle Haggard. The beginning of the new decade saw him releasing two new albums for MCA and then fulfilling his contract for the label with a live album and a Gospel collection before signing with Epic in 1981. Then over the next two years he released two regular solo albums, a Christmas album and duet albums with both George Jones and Willie Nelson. 1983’s That’s the Way Love Goes was his third (excluding the Christmas collection) solo album for Epic and his sixth album overall for the label.

Hag co-produced the album with Ray Baker. Never one to follow trends, Haggard had avoided the era’s propensity towards overproduction. That’s the Way Love Goes is a collection of ten laid-back ballads, the type of album that would not gain any traction at radio today, if it even managed to get made at all. It wasn’t exactly in sync with the commercial tastes of its time, either; the production is tastefully understated throughout. It did however, perform quite well commercially, spawning three hit singles, two of which were chart-toppers. The album also marked the beginning a mellowing of Merle’s sound and he began experimenting with adding horns and saxophones to the mix, something that would characterize his music for the remainder of the decade.

Commercially Haggard was riding high, but he was entering an era that would be very dark for him personally, involving both marital and substance abuse problems. His rocky marriage to Leona Williams finally ended that year, and it seems to have been foreshadowed in a few of the album’s songs, particularly the bleak and introspective lead single “What Am I Gonna Do (With the Rest of My Life)”, a self-penned number that landed at #3. He also penned “Someday When Things Are Good” with his soon-to-be ex-wife Leona. The #1 hit finds him contemplating walking out on his marriage, but unable to find the right time to do it.

Sandwiched in between these two hits is a remake of “That’s the Way Love Goes”, a Lefty Frizzell and Sanger D. Shafer composition that had been a #1hit for Johnny Rodriguez in 1973. Hag also took the tune to the top of the charts and it remains one of my favorites of his recordings from this era.

There are no uptempo songs on this album and for that reason some may find it a bit difficult to listen to all the way through. However, they are all well done and for the most part they have aged well with the possible exception of Red Lane’s “Carryin’ Fire”, which has a dated-sounding keyboard intro. “The Last Boat of the Day”, also penned by Lane with Hank Cochran has a subtle Calypso feel to it and is a bit of an artistic stretch for Merle. Beach songs were not yet a staple of mainstream country and this one stands head and shoulders over almost ever contemporary example I can think of.

Merle had a hand in writing all of the remaining songs on the album. I particularly liked “(I’m Gonna Paint Me) A Bed of Roses”, which finds him trying to make the best of things after a break-up. It has a radio-friendly feel and might have been a hit, but it was highly unusual to release more than three singles from an album in those days. “Don’t Seem Like We’ve Been Together All Our Lives” is about a long-term relationship that is still going well — decidedly at odds with Merle’s real-life situation at the time. “If You Hated Me” is possibly semi-autobiographical, a song in which he questions how bad things would have been if his wife had hated him, considering how badly she treated him when she supposedly loved him. I like this one a lot. Red Lane and Dean Holloway were the co-writers. The album closer “I Think I’ll Stay” is a bluesy number that close with an extended jam session.

Overall, That’s the Way Love Goes is very good, but it does not quite rise to the level of Big City and Going Where the Lonely Go. It is not great but it is very good and worth investigating.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘Love in the Hot Afternoon’

hotafternoonGene Watson’s major label debut appeared in 1975. Produced by Russ Reeder, it gave him his first taste of commercial success when two of its singles, the title track and “Where Love Begins” reached the Top 5. Preceding these two hits was “Bad Water” a remake of a song he had previously recorded during his days as an indie artist. The re-recording for Capitol reached the lowe rungs of the chart, peaking at #87. It’s one of my least favorite tracks on the album, in no small part due to the instrusive vocal chorus that was typical of the era. This is a problem that is pervasive throughout the album, although not nearly to the extent as “Bad Water”.

Despite the choruses, Love in the Hot Afternoon is alot more rootsy than most country music at the time. There is plenty of fiddle and steel throughout, although some of the tracks sound like they were produced by Billy Sherrill; “Through The Eyes of Love” is a ballad that sounds like something David Houston might have recorded and the decidedly more country-sounding “Harvest Time” has a melody that is at times similar to Tanya Tucker’s “Old Dan Tucker’s Daughter.” Meanwhile, the excellent “Where Love Begins” sounds like something out of Conway Twitty’s catalog.

The album’s highlight is the title track, a steamy waltz about an illicit love affair on a hot New Orleans afternoon. I also particularly enjoyed “This Just Ain’t No Good Day For Leaving”, a Dallas Frazier and Sanger D. Shafer composition that deserved to be a single, and “This Is My Year For Mexico”, a tune about a couple that has grown apart but has stayed together out of habit.

Nearly forty years after its release, these songs hold up well for the most part. The production is admittedly a bit dated, and I’d like to hear these songs stripped of the choruses, a la Naked Willie. However, every album is a product of its time and that is something that needs to be kept in mind when listening to vintage recordings.

Love in the Hot Afternoon is available on a 2-for-1 CD along with Paper Rosie, courtesy of the British label Hux. Both albums are worth picking up.

Grade: A

Album Review – Heather Myles – ‘Untamed’

HeatherMylesUntamedHeather Myles continued with producer Bruce Bromberg for her sophomore album released on HighTone records in early 1995. Like its predecessor Untamed didn’t yield any hit singles and marked the end of Myles’ tenure on the label. The change led her to Rounder where she would release her next couple of albums.

In the same fashion as Just Like Old Times, Myles had a hand in writing the majority of the album, penning seven songs solely and co-writing another. “When You Walked Out on Me” is a classic mid-tempo honky-tonker and a perfect showcase for Myles’ voice. “Until I Couldn’t Have You” is more modern, with an acoustic guitar and drum led arrangement that gives the track a more polished feel, although it was still retro by 1995 standards. “Indigo Moon,” a southwestern flavored track, is a love letter to New Mexico and features a wonderful twangy guitar and drum accompaniment that gives the track a nice groove. “It Ain’t Over” features another wonderfully upbeat production perfect for Myles’ voice, but the repetitive chorus feels lazy and underdeveloped.

Western swing rocker “Cadillac Cowboy” may be the most traditional of the self-penned numbers, complete with a nice dose of fiddle and steel guitar. “Come Back To Me” is a fabulously sparse ballad that allows the ache in Myles’ vocal to shine through perfectly. The neo-traditional leaning number is one of my favorite tracks on the album. Also excellent is the title track, a mid-tempo ballad serving as a call to action for conservation (“We have ourselves to blame. If you want it to remain, then let it go untamed.”)

Myles co-wrote the breakneck honky-tonker “Gone Too Long” with Dickey Lee of “9,999,999 Tears” fame. It’s an excellent number for its rapid-fire pace alone, with the gorgeous twangy guitar serving as an added bonus to the proceedings. On the opposite end of the spectrum is a cover of Marty Robbins’ “Begging You,” which has Myles channeling Patsy Cline. The country shuffle serves her quite well and allows Myles room to showcase the power of her voice.

Jack Rymes wrote “And It Hurts,” another of the more modern sounding tracks on Untamed. I love the beat and Myles’ vocal on this one as well. Another of the more traditional sounding songs is “Just Leave Me Alone,” which Eddy Raven co-wrote with legendary country songwriter Sanger D. Shafer. The track is good, but doesn’t stand out from other similar tracks on the album.

I must admit that Untamed marks my formal introduction to Myles’ music and I quite liked it. She covers a lot of ground here from traditional to honky tonk and modern country with an ease most singers couldn’t pull off. Untamed isn’t a revelatory album by any means, but it’s a nice pleasant listen just the same.

Grade: A

Album Review: Lorrie Morgan – ‘Classics’

classicsJust like her current tourmate and last month’s Spotlight Artist, Pam Tillis, Lorrie Morgan had recorded a number of sides for Hickory Records before her rise to fame, and saw those early recordings cynically re-released in an attempt to capitalize. Licenced to Curb and packaged as the optimistically titled Classics in 1991, the music shows Lorrie could definitely sing beautifully (perhaps a little too sugar-sweet at times on the ballads), but shows little artistic individuality, with the music typical of the pop-country of the latest 70s and early 80s.

‘The First Few Days Of Love’ is a mellow ballad written by Sanger D Shafer and Eddy Raven and smothered in strings. It’s a little sleepy, and now sounds very dated, but Lorrie sings it well. Along similar lines is ‘In For Rain’, although that one works a little better than the rather boring ‘Let It Be Yesterday’.

The best tracks are all up-tempo. ‘Say The Part About I Love You’ is a beaty up-tempo number with a cynical lyric about a one night stand with a sexy but obviously shady man. The production does sound dated, as is often the case with material with a pop-country influence, but Lorrie’s committed, energetic vocal makes it quite enjoyable.

I also liked the assertive demand to a spouse, ‘Who Do You Know In California’, which like ‘Say The Part About I Love You’, was written by Eddy Raven. The catchy ‘Ain’t Got Time To Rock No Baby’, a withering putdown of a needy and juvenile lover is another winner:

I only meant to love you, not to raise you
I thought you were already grown

Liz Anderson’s ‘Tell Me I’m Only Dreaming’ is not bad, although the dated production hampers it a bit, It charted in the lower reaches of the country charts in 1979.

Only the first seven tracks are on the iTunes version (no doubt a copyright issue). The CD version adds another three fairly forgettable cuts, which I think come from 1984. ‘Don’t Go Changing’ is a bland ballad with strings and choir-style backing vocals which was a flop single; ‘Easy Love’ is equally bland mid-tempo pop-country song; and ‘Someday We’ll Be Together’ is a boring cover of a pop hit for R&B group the Supremes (which Lorrie may have known from the Bill Anderson/Jan Howard country hit version). None is worth tracking down separately.

At this point in her career, Lorrie was showing few signs of star quality, and this compilation is of historical interest only.

Grade: C-

Album Review: Aaron Tippin – ‘Call Of The Wild’

call of the wildAaron’s third album, released in 1993, saw a change of producer with a move to Scott Hendricks. Hendricks is a heavier handed producer than Emory Gordy Jr, so the change was not for the better, and the album did not sell as well as Read Between The Lines, but was still certified gold. As before, Tippin wrote every song with a variety of collaborators, mostly on themes relating to working class pride.

The lead single ‘Workin’ Man’s PhD’ is archetypal Aaron Tippin; if you type his name into a search engine, “aaron tippin working mans phd” is the suggested completion. Paying tribute to blue-collar workers’ hard work and contribution to society, it was the album’s biggest hit, peaking at #7. It’s a bit shouty and lacking in melody, but the honesty of the message exemplifies part of what makes country music great.

On a less serious note, the fairly forgettable title track (about a woman who likes to let her hair down in a honky tonk every now and then) faltered ten spots lower on the chart. The tongue-in-cheek ode to being a beer-fueled ‘Honky Tonk Superman’ failed to crack the top 40 despite a comic video featuring Reba McEntire as the bar owner. Both song and video are fun, although the latter exaggerates the comedy to cartoonish effect.

The final single ‘Whole Lotta Love On The Line’ reached #30 and is a good song about desperately trying to save a relationship, with a sincere vocal. Unfortunately it is smothered by a cluttered production with far too much going on.

‘My Kind Of Town’ is a rocking number about finding a small town to settle down in which would fit in on today’s country radio. It is a bit of a disappointment considering it was a co-write with the legendary Sanger D Shafer, but is not unlikable. The fast-paced ‘When Country Took The Throne’ celebrates the commercial rise of country music in the 90s and traces it back to the pioneering music of Jimmie Rodgers.

‘Trim Yourself To Fit The World’ is an attempt to recapture the magic of ‘You’ve Got To Stand For Something’, and while it offers nothing really new, it is catchy with a memorable chorus:

If you trim yourself to fit the world there won’t be nothing left
Just a little here and a little there till you won’t know yourself
You’ll be a pile of shavings when they put you in your grave
If you trim yourself to fit the world you’ll whittle yourself away

There is also a prescient dig at the self-styled outlaw types, when Aaron notes,

Each time the good Lord makes a man He always breaks the mold
So it sure does raise the flag for that rebel in my soul
When some phony carbon copy says “I’m the black sheep of the fold”

‘Let’s Talk About You’ is a cheery mid-tempo love song which is quite enjoyable, but ‘Nothing In The World’ is completely forgettable fluff.

In the midst of the honky tonking and positive expressions of working class pride, the best song here by far comes from a bleaker angle. Along the same lines as the classic ‘My Elusive Dreams’, the protagonist of ‘I Promised You the World’ admits defeat in life, but is sustained by the love of the woman he feels he has let down:

I had dreams that were bigger than the Montana sky
We were gonna do great in Great Falls
I just knew we were, this time
But when winter finally broke, so were we
You’ll never know how bad that hurt
‘Cause this ain’t what I meant
When I promised you the world

I lost the farm in Kansas
Along with a lot of pride
And I almost lost my life
Down in that West Virginia mine
And that motel room in Memphis
Was a long ways from diamonds and pearls
And that sure ain’t what I meant
When I promised you the world

I swear your love is stronger
Than any dream of mine I’ve ever drug you through
And I swear I wasn’t lying
They just never did come true
You’ve always bet on this old gambler
Every time I gave the wheel a whirl
But this ain’t what I meant
When I promised you the world

Now this Shreveport sun is settin’
On another broken dream of mine
And I guess that mansion on the hill
Is pretty hard to see tonight
But as long as there’s a breath of life in me
I’m gonna get it for you, girl
‘Cause this ain’t what I meant
When I promised you the world

Set to a slow, reflective pace which sets it apart on a mainly up-tempo record, this is a real hidden gem which deserves to be better known, with a touching delivery from Aaron.

Overall, this is a solid album, which is mostly typical Tippin fare, with one hidden classic everyone should hear.

Grade: B

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Timeless And True Love’

Rhonda’s fourth and last album for Rebel (another 1991 release) heralded the move she was about to make into straight country music. Produced by Rhonda with brother and band member Darrin and Ronny Light, it was her best effort to date with a nice collection of material, although many of the songs were covers, some of them surprisingly recent country songs given a tasteful bluegrass or semi-bluegrass treatment. A ballad-dominated set, whose songs were picked out with the assistance of the great songwriter Jim Rushing (although he did not write any of them himself), this is basically a bluegrass influenced country album rather than a pure bluegrass one, with piano, drums, steel and electric guitar added to the basic bluegrass band, although the instrumentation is mainly acoustic and bluegrass-sounding with Rhonda’s mandolin much in evidence. Guests include banjo stars Allison Brown and Bela Fleck.

The beautiful title track was previously recorded by The McCarters, a sister trio who had a top 5 country hit with it in 1987. A sunny version of ‘Birmingham Turnaround’, a song written by Sanger D Shafer and Warren Robb which had been cut on Keith Whitley’s 1988 classic Don’t Close Your Eyes, opens the set in straight bluegrass style. Neither of these quite matches the originals, but they are agreeable listening nonetheless.

The best of the covers is a charming version of another Sanger D Shafer co-write, ‘I Do My Cryin’ At Night’, an old Lefty Frizzell song, which works well for Rhonda. Another favorite track is ‘I’m Not That Lonely Yet’, a lovely traditional country song written by Bill and Sharon Rice about the hard process of getting over an ex, and resisting the temptation of getting back together with him. It was a #3 hit single for Reba McEntire in 1982.

‘Midnight Angel’ is not the country song recorded by both Barbara Mandrell and Highway 101, but an excellent plaintive number written by two of the finest bluegrass songwriters, Pete Goble and Bobby Osborne, but given a classic country arrangement. Steel guitar dominates as Rhonda addresses the title character, her errant spouse who spends the nights preying on other women while she waits unloved at home.

‘Let’s Put Love Back To Work’, written by Larry Cordle and Mark Collie, is an attractive love duet sung with bluegrass singer David Parmley (credited only as a harmony vocalist), The lovely sounding ‘Artificial Tears’ features prominent harmonies from Alison Krauss. Despite the sweetness of the music, Rhonda gives an ultimatum to a partner unwilling to show his true feelings and pretending to be upset about her leaving.

‘Lucinda’ is a story song painting a picture of a kindly truck stop waitress who, having her own lover taken from her, lives vicariously through the truckers’ tales. Another story song, ‘Bobby And Sarah’ relates a love story from teenage romance to marriage and babies.

‘Homecoming’ is a pretty Carl Jackson gospel song about the promise of heaven. ‘Moving On’ is an early Irene Kelley song, written with Nancy Montgomery, pleasant but not that memorable.

Rhonda plays both mandolin and fiddle on the record, and showcases her skills on a self-composed instrumental, ‘Cherry Jubilee’.

This is a fine record which reveals Rhonda at a time when she was planning to spread her wings beyond bluegrass. The vocals are not quite as golden as on her later records, but the overall package is very good indeed.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘I Hope You Dance’

Lee Ann Womack’s most commercially successful album features crystalline vocals, an ambitious selection of material ranging from the traditional sounds closest to her heart to Americana to adult contemporary influences which barely escape being bland.

The title track was a massive crossover hit, thanks to the combination of the song’s message, very AC sounding, sophisticated production, and the lovely and obviously heartfelt vocal which Lee Ann directed to her two young daughters. The counterpoint of the Sons of the Desert (singing a different set of lyrics) is unusually set against the sweetness of Lee Ann’s optimistic vocal. The song’s ubiquity has led to some backlash, but I think it still stands up for what it is: a genuinely inspiring wish for a child to live life to the full and not regret any missed opportunities. And its message is worth hearing:

Loving might be a mistake but it’s worth making

Lee Ann’s only #1 hit, ‘I Hope You Dance’ registered platinum, won a stack of awards for both Lee Ann and its writers Mark D Sanders and Tia Sillers, crossed over to hit the top of the AC chart, and even got some pop and international airplay. It may not be her best record, but it is undoubtedly her best-known, particularly among non-country listeners.

The next single was a contrast in style and mood, a gutsy version of Rodney Crowell’s onetime minor pop hit ‘Ashes By Now’, which peaked for Lee Ann at #14. It’s one of her less country recordings, but undoubtedly technically an impressive achievement with Lee Ann successfully navigating the song’s awkward jerky rhythms, jaded mood and shifting intensity.

It was back to the ballads with ‘Why They Call It Falling’, another excellent song, written by Don Schlitz and Roxie Dean. It contrasts the thrill of falling in love with the devastation of subsequent heartbreak, and Lee Ann’s vocal is masterly, although the strings are a bit overwhelming in places. It peformed similarly to its immediate predecessor, and reached #13.

The last and best single, however, failed to make it into the top 20. The intense ‘Does My Ring Burn Your Finger?’ is a superb Buddy and Julie Miller song with a stinging lyric. Production on this track (one of three from the hands of Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell) is edgy but organic, with Lee Ann’s high lonesome wail just right for the starkness of the lyric addressed to the faithless spouse, with the Millers on harmony vocals.

Liddell’s other tracks are another Julie Miller song, the ponderous ‘I Know Why The River Runs’, which I could live without, and the infinitely better ‘Lonely Too’, written by Texas singer-songwriter Bruce Robison. This is my favorite on the record, a beautiful downbeat song, given a quietly impassioned delivery. The melody is quite lovely, with some strong fiddle from Aubrey Haynie and Larry Franklin and harmony vocals from Jon Randall making this a great sounding track. Lee Ann gently rebukes the careless lover who cannot understand why she is coping so badly:

You tell me you wondered if I was okay
Well, that’s a damn fool thing to say…

And you seem so surprised that I’m feeling this way
How am I so lonely today?
If you’d ever loved me the way I loved you
You would be lonely too

There are several other gems here.

The gorgeous ‘The Healing Kind’ opens the album with a subtle portrayal of disconsolate heartbreak which just won’t go away. This is a great song written by bluegrass singer/songwriter Ronnie Bowman and Greg Luck. Lee Ann’s exquisite vocal is backed by tasteful acoustic instrumentation and Ricky Skaggs’ harmonies, as she reveals a broken heart that hurts more every day, concluding bleakly as she meets yet another cold December alone,

Guess I’m just not the healing kind

Equally fine is the delicate Tammy Wynette styled ‘Stronger than I Am’ written by former singer Bobbie Cryner. A beautiful melody and tasteful strings sweeten a heartbreakingly incisive lyric about an abandoned wife who contrasts her failure to cope with live without her man, to her little girl’s innocence,

She finally learned to say goodbye
She’s sleeping through the night
She don’t wake up crying
And she’s walking on her own
She don’t need no one holding to her hand
And I hate to admit she’s stronger than I am

She’s just like her old man
Stronger than I am

Perhaps the most traditional country number included, the vivacious ‘I Feel Like I’m Forgetting Something’ is a co-write by Lee Ann with Wynn Varble and Jason Sellers. The copyright date is 1997, so one suspects it was left over from one of her previous albums. A chirpy mid-tempo number with a lot of personality about getting over an ex, it isn’t the best song here, but it was well worth reviving. Less successful is ‘After I Fall’, written by producer Mark Wright with Ronnie Rogers and Bill Kenner, which is the blander side of adult contemporary and falls completely flat.

‘Thinkin’ With My Heart Again’ is a pretty but melancholy sounding song written by Dean Dillon, Donny Kees and Sanger D Shafer with another delicate vocal conveying the complex emotions brought out when encountering a former love. An airy acoustic cover of ‘Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good’ (a chart topper for Don Williams back in 1982) ends the album on a high, with Ronnie Bowman and Dan Tyminski singing harmony.

Thanks to the juggernaut of the title song, this remains Lee Ann’s best selling album, earning triple platinum status. The singing is outstanding throughout, and although the material is mixed, there is a lot of good stuff here, making it worth finding a cheap copy.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Serving 190 Proof’

One would be hard pressed to find any duds within Merle Haggard’s Capitol catalog; during his dozen or so years with the label he and Ken Nelson created an impressive body of work. While Haggard continued to produce worthwhile music in his post-Capitol career, it’s generally acknowledged that his output was more hit or miss after he departed the label. Serving 190 Proof, produced by Fuzzy Owen and released in 1979 on MCA, is one of his less interesting efforts, despite producing two Top 5 hits.

Haggard wrote or co-wrote nine of the album’s eleven tracks, including the two singles “Red Bandana” and “My Own Kind Of Hat”, both of which peaked at #4. “Red Bandana” is about a pair of free spirits, 30 years into their relationship, and now she apparently wants to settle down, but Merle states emphatically that “I can’t change and live the way you want me to.” “My Own Kind Of Hat” is a whimsical ditty about marching to the beat of a different drummer. The catchy lyrics have fun with some words that contain double meanings, as well as a few double entendres:

There’s two kinds of brothers and two kinds of lovers
And two kinds of babies to hold
There’s two kinds of cherries and two kinds of fairies
And two kinds of mothers, I’m told, and told …

The rest of the album takes a more serious tone. The opening track “Footlights” is one of the most introspective songs Haggard ever recorded. It talks about the loneliness and isolation of life on the road, having to put on a brave face and smile for the sake of the fans, and — despite tremendous professional success — having to little to celebrate in his personal life. “Got Lonely Too Early (This Morning)” is a little more upbeat, despite the serious lyrics. The melody is somewhat similar to “C.C. Waterback”, which Merle would record a few years later with George Jones, but “Got Lonely” lacks the energy of that later track. It plods along and somehow doesn’t quite work.

The album’s best track is one that Haggard didn’t write. “Heaven Was A Drink Of Wine”, penned by the always reliable Sanger D. Shafer, finds Merle in therapy to overcome a drinking problem. Had the song been written a few years later, one could easily imagine Keith Whitley singing it.

As the album progresses, it becomes more and more apparent that Haggard was in the midst of a midlife crisis of sorts. He talks about loneliness and advancing age in “Footlights”, a drinking problem in “Heaven Was A Drink Of Wine”, and in “Driftwood” he is drifting through life without purpose. He finds that he can’t run away from his problems in “I Can’t Get Away” and in Red Lane’s “I Must Have Done Something Bad”, he’s been betrayed by a wife or girlfriend and thinks that it must be retribution for something he did in the past. He turns nostalgic with “Sing A Family Song” and holds out some hope that things will get better in the album’s closing track “Roses In The Winter”, which despite, being a very pretty song, doesn’t seem to be a good fit for Merle.

Whether it was his state of mind or the absence of Ken Nelson, Serving 190 Proof is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. Most of the songs are good, but as a collection it seems a bit lifeless. By most other artists’ standard, Serving 190 Proof would be considered stellar work, but while it is by no means a bad album, it fails to reach the high bar set by Haggard’s earlier work on Capitol. While it is not his best work, it is still worth a listen, and is easy to find on CD and as a digital download.

Grade: B

Album Review: Merle Haggard & The Strangers – ‘It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)’ and ‘If We Make It Through December’

1972’s It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad) was Merle Haggard’s 15th studio album for Capitol Records. Like his previous efforts, it was produced by Ken Nelson and Fuzzy Owen. It was recorded entirely at California — part of it as early as 1970 — at Capitol Records Studio and United Recording Studio in Hollywood, and Buck Owens Studio in Bakersfield. He wrote five of the album’s eleven tracks, relying on writers such as Hank Cochran, Glenn Martin, Tommy Collins, and Red Lane to supply the rest of the album’s songs. Cochran and Glenn supplied the title track, which became Merle’s 13th #1 hit. It’s one of my favorite Merle Haggard tunes that he didn’t write himself. Emmylou Harris revived it a decade later when she included a version on her live Last Date album.

The title track was the only single released from the collection, so most of the tunes here will be unfamiliar to many fans; however, this is an excellent collection without a single dud among its eleven tracks. Haggard’s own “My Woman Keeps Lovin’ Her Man” and “New York City Blues” which finds him homesick in Yankee territory, are both excellent, with the latter showing a strong Jimmie Rodgers influence. Another Haggard original, “A Shoulder To Cry On” would become a #1 hit for Charley Pride a few months later. Pride had expressed an interest in the song upon hearing Haggard perform it shortly after it was written. Merle generously allowed Charley to record the song and release it as a single. Had he kept it for himself, it’s a safe assumption to say that his own version would have reached the top of the charts.

“Dad’s Old Fiddle” sounds like a Haggard-penned tune, but it was actually written by Glenn Martin, most likely with Merle in mind. It tells the story of a man who inherits his father’s fiddle and learns to play it. Merle’s own father had played the fiddle in Oklahoma, but gave it up before Merle was born, and Merle later taught himself how to play the instrument when he was preparing to record his Bob Wills tribute album.
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Album Review: George Jones – ‘Step Right Up 1970-1979: A Critical Anthology’

George had become disillusioned with Pappy Daily’s business practices. His marriage to Tammy Wynette in 1969 encouraged him to make the momentous decision to move to her label Epic, and to co-opt her producer Billy Sherrill. George was forced to buy himself out of his Musicor contract, but it was money well spent, even though his chart record remained somewhat inconsistent. George’s move to Epic saw him at the peak of his vocal prowess, married to Billy Sherrill’s smooth, Nashville Sound production.

This superb compilation contains six of George’s last tracks for Musicor, and over 20 of the finest tracks he recorded in his first eight years on Epic. These were the years of his troubled marriage to and divorce from Tammy Wynette, and the years his intensifying battles with drugs and alcohol earned him the inglorious nickname ‘No Show Jones’ and saw his health break down, but in the studio George Jones was creating magic and leading up to what many will call his finest moment on record. Step Right Up mixes classic hits with some well-chosen lesser known album cuts. The material is almost uniformly great here, concentrating on the sad songs at which George Jones has always excelled. Vocally George does not put a foot wrong, although some aspects of the production, mainly the backing vocals, now sound a little dated. The only reason to debate whether this album is worth buying is whether you might not try to get hold of the constituent albums, at least some of which are available on CD reissues.

George’s first single of the 70s, as he approached the end of his time with Musicor, was ‘Where Grass Won’t Grow’, a bleak, echoey tale of rural poverty in Tennessee,

Trying to grow corn and cotton on ground so poor that grass won’t grow

culminating in the death of the protagonist’s wife, buried in that same soil. The song, written by George’s old friend and drinking partner Earl Montgomery, was perhaps too downbeat to chart higher than the lower reaches of the top 30, but its quality led it to become regarded as a classic Jones record.

The exquisite expression of emotional devastation in ‘A Good Year For The Roses’ (written by Jerry Chestnut) is one of George’s most masterly vocal performances, reaching #2 on Billboard.

A handful of less well-known late Musicor cuts are also included. The tender steel-laced ballad of love for the protagonist’s motherless child, ‘She’s Mine’, co-written by George with Jack Ripley, was a top 10 hit. Slightly less successful, peaking at #13, was a great Dallas Frazier/Sanger D Shafer composition ‘Tell Me My Lying Eyes Are Wrong’, in which George manfully tries to pretend everything’s alright and his wife isn’t cheating on him, unusually featuring the Jones Boys’ backing. Another Dallas Frazier song (this time with A L Owens), ‘She’s As Close As I Can Get To Loving You’, has another great lead vocal, but is marred by excessive Nashville Sound backing vocals. Wayne Kemp’s ballad ‘Image Of Me’ has the protagonist confessing his shame that he has “dragged down” a simple old-fashioned country girl and made her into a honky-tonk angel, with another very fine vocal performance. Earl Montgomery’s ‘Right Won’t Touch A Hand’, a passionate confession of regret for jealousy which destroyed a relationship, was yet another top 10 hit in 1971.

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Album Review: George Strait – ‘Ocean Front Property’

Ocean Front PropertyStrait was on a serious hot streak in 1987 when he released Ocean Front Property, his seventh studio album, co-produced with Jimmy Bowen again. Each of the three singles from the album went to #1, starting with the title track, and the album itself was the first album ever to debut at the top of the Billboard Country Album charts. At present, it is the only one of his 80s releases to have achieved double platinum status.

That title track, written by Dean Dillon, Hank Cochran and Royce Porter, has become one of George’s classics, with its ironic lyric telling his ex that he’s over her, and barely concealed subtext that only an idiot could believe that:

“I don’t love you, and now if you’ll buy that
I’ve got some ocean front property in Arizona
From my front porch you can see the sea …
If you buy that, I’ll throw the Golden Gate in free”

Dean Dillon contributed two further songs, the solo composition ‘I’m All Behind You Now’, a resigned post-breakup number which closes the album in sightly downbeat mood, and the sweetly melancholic ‘Without You Here’, where he teamed up again with Royce Porter to produce the tale of a wife who can’t enjoy herself on a Caribbean cruise because her husband isn’t with her:

“There’s just no fun in the sun to be had
Without you here
It’s no place to be
This dream vacation is a bad situation
I’m in misery
In a sea of tears
Without you here”

It’s not altogether clear why they’re not vacationing together, but one assumes business kept him at home.  There is a happy ending, as he misses her too, and ends up flying out to join her. The song’s phrasing is very characteristic of Dillon’s work, and the song has faint but subtle Caribbean tinges to the production which do not stop it from sounding country.

The second single was another all-time Strait classic, the amusing western swing ‘All My Exes Live In Texas’, written by the great Sanger D Shafer. He had written ‘Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind’ with his third wife Darlene, and he wrote this one with his fourth wife Lyndia. On one level this might be dismissed as little more than a novelty song, as the narrator reels off a list of the exes after his blood resulting in him escaping to Tennessee, but George’s laidback ironic delivery carries the track.

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Album Review: George Strait – ‘Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind’

Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your MindGeorge Strait’s fourth album, released in 1984, marked yet another advance in his career. He started working with a new producer (his third), label head Jimmy Bowen, but for the first time George himself received a co-production credit, something he has done ever since. There was no obvious change in musical direction, as the album was once more a solidly country production, still flying in the face of country radio’s pop influences. The musicians are in great form throughout, especially fiddle great Johnny Gimble, who positively sparkles. George’s vocals are still a little rawer than his more recent fans will be accustomed to hearing him.

The album offers a fine set of songs which have a pretty cohesive feel, despite a range of tempos, thanks to the solid production, and the subject matter. The songs here cover two basic themes: honky tonking, and lost love/trying to find someone new, with the two merging at times. Indeed, a number of the songs could be interepreted as parts of the same story, and with different sequencing and a couple of changes (omitting ‘The Fireman’ and possibly ‘The Cowboy Rides Away’), this could almost have been presented as a concept album.

The decisions paid off. This was George’s second straight #1 album, eventually selling platinum, and it supported three top 5 singles. It also won both ACM and CMA Album of the Year awards in 1985, and contributed to his winning the Male Vocalist title from both organizations. A massive sea-change was about to roll over the country music industry with an influx of new traditonally-inspired artists, but of all the established artists, George Strait was perhaps in the best position.

Favored songwriter this time around was the legendary Sanger D Shafer, who contributed four of the songs, including the title track, which he wrote with his then-wife Darlene Shafer. ‘Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind’ was a #1 hit single and is still one of George Strait’s great classics. Instantly recognisable from the plaintive fiddle opening, George’s vocal is perfectly restrained with just an underlying hint of the pain beneath, as his jilted husband speaks to the ex-wife who has abandoned him for another man in Dallas.

George also picked Shafer’s much-recorded ‘Honky Tonk Saturday Night’, which had been on John Anderson’s Wild And Blue a couple of years earlier. Shafer also wrote the beautifully measured ‘What Did You Expect Me To Do’, which is one of my favorite tracks. Here, another cuckolded husband, this time one who has moved on, offers a gentle reproach to his cheating ex:

“Each time I forgave you, you grew bolder
And each time you hurt me, my heart grew colder
Sure, I loved you, but I’ve found someone new
What did you expect me to do?”

Shafer’s fourth cut was the mid-tempo ‘I Need Someone Like Me’, which feels like a sequel to ‘Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind’. The lonely protagonist dreams of finding a woman in the same boat so they can cry on one another’s shoulders:

“Someone lonesome, someone hurtin, someone blue –
That’ll be you
We’ll help each other start all over
A tear for a tear, a shoulder for a shoulder
You’ll be someone that’s born to lose
‘Cause I need someone like me to hold onto.”

It may not sound like the most promising basis for a relationship, but George sells it in the song, as he conveys a mixture of hope and unhappiness. What might be a third stage in the same story comes with the charming waltz, ‘You’re Dancing This Dance All Wrong’, written by John Porter McMeans and Ron Moore, as the protagonist thinks he may have found new love:

“The way that you touch me I want to give in
But it’s not so easy holding you when
You’re dancing this dance all wrong
New steps don’t come easy when old memories hang on
I’m finding I’m falling as the music plays on
Keep dancing this dance all wrong.”

The second single was the melodic ‘The Cowboy Rides Away’, written by Sonny Throckmorton and Casey Kelly which allowed George to exercise the smoother side of his voice as he tracks the end of yet another relationship. The final single was the frenetic double-entendre of ‘The Fireman’ (written by Mack Vickery and Wayne Kemp), not one of my personal favorites despite some smoking fiddle.

Kemp also wrote ‘I Should Have Watched That First Step’, which I much prefer, a rueful admission of regret from a cheating husband who can see his wife slipping away as a result of his own actions:

“Though she’s still lovin’ me
It’s not the way it used to be
That first step did something to her mind
I watched her slip away a little more every day
For my conscience couldn’t live with all that shame
And she’s growing colder since the day I told her
And the love we had will never be the same.”

An unrepentant cheater makes his appearance in Fred J Freiling’s sprightly and surprisingly cheerful ‘Love Comes From the Other Side of Town’, as love has staled at home:

“The feelings that we shared are just no longer there
And love comes from the other side of town
When love means an hour with your stand-in
And not an empty house where love just has been.”

Finally, there is a very authentic-sounding helping of western swing in the form of ‘Any Old Time’; it is insubstantial lyrically but very enjoyable thanks to the impeccable musicianship.

This was George’s finest album to date, and one which helped to consolidate his status as one of the major male country stars of the mid 80s. Its pure country sound has not dated in the manner of more pop contemporaries, and with the success of this album George Strait was in an ideal position to compete on the same stage as the new traditionalists who were about to burst on the scene and change the face of country music, and for whom he had helped to pave the way.

It is still readily available.

Grade: A

Album Review – John Anderson – ‘Wild And Blue’

Wild and BlueWild And Blue was John Anderson’s fourth album, released in 1982, and it provided the springboard for a major change in his career.

It was produced, like I Just Came Home To Count The Memories, by John with the Canadian Frank Jones who had worked with some of the all-time greats, including, at various times, Lefty Frizzell, Marty Robbins, Ray Price and Johnny Cash. The sessions which resulted in this album were the last ever recorded at the legendary Columbia Studio B, which was demolished immediately afterwards. Most of the album was in the solidly country style John had become known for in the past few years, but there were a couple of tracks where he took a new turn.

The title track is a carefully crafted song written by John Scott Sherrill, with a clever play on words (“They could just take you up to yonder, honey, you’re already wild and blue”), pained, wailing vocal, and fiddle-heavy arrangement. The complex lyric depicts a troubled woman yearning for a man she can’t have, with the narrator asking,
Way across town a phone rings off the wall
If you know he ain’t home why do you keep calling?”

She then seeks some kind of tawdry satisfaction with other men – and only in the last verse do we find that the narrator is this woman’s husband, when he pleads,
“It’s four in the morning and you’re all alone
With no place to go, you know you ought to come home”.

The lead-off single from the set, it was John’s first #1 hit, a major achievement but one soon to be overshadowed.

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