My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Sawyer Brown

Our Country Heritage: The Statler Brothers

It is hard to believe that it has been over 16 years since the Statler Brothers announced their retirement; however when they retired they really meant it. Since 2003 Don Reid has written some books, co-authoring one book with older brother Harold Reid but little else has been heard from Harold and virtually nothing from Phil Balsley. The fourth Statler, Jimmy Fortune was ten years younger than Don Reid and fifteen years younger than Harold Reid and Phil Balsley, so he chose to pursue a solo career. Fortune still performs today, sometimes in conjunction with Dailey & Vincent or other bluegrass acts.

We take country music groups for granted as there have been many successful such acts over the years, with the Oak Ridge Boys, Exile, Restless Heart, Shenandoah, Alabama, Sawyer Brown, Old Dominion and other acts following in the Statler Brothers’ footsteps. While there had been vocal groups before the Statler Brothers, those groups had either been cowboy groups such as The Sons of The Pioneers, The Oklahoma Wranglers (a/k/a The Willis Brothers) and Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage, or else gospel groups such as the Chuck Wagon Gang, The Blackwood Brothers or The Oak Ridge Quartet (from which sprang the Oak Ridge Boys).

Indeed, even the Statler Brothers started out as a gospel group using the name the Kingsmen, changing their name when a west coast group had a hit with a song titled “Louie, Louie”. During this period the group consisted of the Don Reid(lead vocals), Harold Reid (bass vocals), Phil Balsley (harmony vocals) and Lew DeWitt (high tenor vocals). Although the Don usually sang lead vocals, on many songs each member would sing lead on a verse. Because of his unique soaring high tenor, sometimes Lew DeWitt would be the lead on a song.

By that time, the Statler Brothers had already become associated with Johnny Cash and were no longer performing strictly as a gospel group, experimenting with secular music, often novelties. They would remain on the road with Cash from 1963 to 1971 and were signed to Cash’s label Columbia Records from 1964-1969. In 1965 the group scored its biggest ever hit with DeWitt’s “Flowers on the Wall,” which went #2 country / #4 pop was a huge seller internationally and won a Grammy. Subsequent singles for Columbia did not reach that level of success although novelties “Ruthless” and “You Can’t Have Your Kate and Edith, Too” both reached the top ten.

The Statlers signed to Mercury in 1970, find their sound and milieu almost immediately, aided by expert production by Jerry Kennedy, who had helped resurrect the career of Jerry Lee Lewis. Tapping into America’s longing for more peaceable times, the Statler Brothers embarked on a series of albums, dealing with nostalgia in its many forms, while also embracing more modern themes and occasionally some gospel music. Although the group wrote much of its own material, they also used outside material, both new and old, both country and pop in their quest for quality material. From 1970 through 1982 the group charted 36 singles, 17 of which made the top ten (8 into the top five) and another 10 of which reached the top twenty.

In 1983 Lew DeWitt dropped out of the group after battling Crohn’s disease for many years. DeWitt had been missed a number of dates in 1982 and had spotted Jimmy Fortune as a worthy replacement. When DeWitt dropped out, Fortune slid easily into the group. DeWitt had a brief remission from Crohn’s and pursued a solo career but the remission was brief and by 1990 DeWitt had passed away from complications of the disease.

The substitution of Fortune into the lineup added an additional quality songwriter and provided a brief upsurge in the group’s fortunes. While the group had consistently been near the top of the charts only “Do You Know You Are My Sunshine” had reached #1 for the Statlers while DeWitt was in the group. The group would have three more #1 singles, all on songs penned by Fortune (“Elizabeth”, “My Only Love”, and “Too Much On My Heart” but after 1985, radio increasingly turned to younger acts – the last top ten record would be “More Than A Name On The Wall” (about a mother visiting the Vietnam War Memorial to see her son’s name).

Although radio lost interest, The Nashville Network (TNN) did not, and the group hosted a television series for 1991-1998. Although the show’s ratings remained high throughout, new ownership really had no interest in country music and discarded most of TNN’s programming.

The Statler Brothers were the first vocal group to have sustained success in country music (I should note that the Oak Ridge Boys pre-date the Statler Brothers, but they remained a gospel group until 1977). While modern-day country acts seem unaware of the Statler Brothers, their influence on bluegrass has been strong, with Dailey & Vincent being strong proponents of their music and always including several Statler songs in live performance. The Statler Brothers were probably the first country music act to transfer the genre’s tendency toward nostalgia from a rural to a suburban setting. Kurt Vonnegut referred to them as “America’s Poets”. Moreover, the group stayed together unlike many groups which seemed to have a revolving door of group members.

Discography 

Vinyl records were the format in which recordings for the Lew Dewitt years were issue. The material on Columbia is pleasant, but the group was still finding its way. I have all of the Mercury albums featuring Lew DeWitt and I regard all of them as priceless treasures. Unfortunately, most of the CDs featuring DeWitt are anthologies that also include the Jimmy Fortune years. The Statler Brothers website does have a four-CD set featuring the group’s first eight albums on Mercury – it sells for $49.95. It is a little pricey but if all you have heard is the radio hits, this is a great place to examine the depth and breadth of the group’s talent.

Actually, I could make the same comment about the Jimmy Fortune years – mostly it is anthologies that are available, but because Jimmy’s entire tenure with the group falls into the digital era, used CDs can be found with a little effort. I will say that the albums of the Jimmy Fortune period tend to be less interesting as albums, although the singles remained strong. I would stay away from the Farewell Concert album which sounds very rushed as if the boys couldn’t wait for the show to be over.

The Statlers continued to issue some recordings after their tenure with Mercury (later Polygram) was over. Some of these recordings can be found on their website.                                                         

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Tanya Tucker dazzles at Lancaster Fair

The Lancaster Fair, located on a flat grassy fairground in rural New Hampshire, has been carrying on a Labor Day weekend tradition since 1870. In recent years, the featured entertainment has been legacy country acts including Jo Dee Messina, Sawyer Brown and Pam Tillis & Lorrie Morgan. In fact, it was through Tillis herself I found out the fair even existed at all.

The act this year, who plays a free concert at the bandstand with admission to the fair, was Tanya Tucker. Having never seen her live before, I jumped at the opportunity to add her name to my ever-growing concert resume. As I suspected she dazzled the crowd and didn’t skip a beat as she ran through a nice cross-selection of her vast catalog.

What struck me the most, was her vitality. I had very wrongfully conjured up the perception in my mind that Tucker was on her last legs as a performer without much of a singing voice anymore. I’m thrilled to report she couldn’t have looked or sounded more like herself.

Her band opened the performance with a faithful rendition of Vince Gill’s “One More Last Chance” before Tucker graced the stage in a black western button-down, black pants, and a rhinestone-studded belt. She began with “Some Kind of Trouble” and kept the setlist tied to her work from the 1980s and 1990s, running through most of the hits from her well-deserved and celebrated comeback.

The majority of her set was accentuated by her up-tempo material with the gorgeous twangy guitars that always set her apart from the pack. She flubbed, and quickly recovered from forgetting the opening line of “Hangin’ In,” and turned in stellar renditions of “If Your Heart Ain’t Busy Tonight” and “Walking Shoes.”

She referenced 1997’s Complicated, the final album of her commercial peak, to introduce a surprise performance of “Little Things,” her most recent top ten single. It comes off a bit slicker and more pop-leaning than her earlier hits, especially mixed in the company of the earlier hits she performed, but it’s still classic Tucker and remains one of my favorites of hers.

Another favorite of mine, and one of hers too thankfully, is “Strong Enough To Bend,” which was dosed with gorgeous mandolin licks throughout. “Love Me Like You Used To” was equally as wonderful. The biggest surprise was the non-single “Can’t Run From Yourself,” the title track from her 1992 album, and a song she said she’s always liked. Her passion for the track was on fully display and her performance was feisty and incredible.

Mid-way through, she dipped her toes back into the 1970s, beginning with the creepy “What’s Your Mama’s Name” and continuing through “Lizzie and the Rainman” and “San Antonio Stroll.” “Texas (When I Die)” was another highlight, and the perfect excuse for a sing-a-long by the end.

Another detour found Tucker covering a few hits from her favorite artists. She began with a joyous and faithful reading of the Eagles “Peaceful Easy Feeling” before jumping into a unique medley of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” mixed with Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” Despite the obvious differences between the two songs, Tucker and the band found a way to blend them together perfectly and with ease. She concluded with Merle Haggard’s “Ramblin’ Fever,” which she recorded on her most recent album, the country standards covers record My Turn in 2009. Tucker’s performance was a revelation, and for me, one of the top highlights of the whole night.

Returning to her hits, Tucker somewhat stumbled through “It’s A Little Too Late,” inadvertently switching the first and second verses. Her performance was excellent though, and even included a nice bit of line dancing during the instrumental breakdown. She dedicated “Two Sparrows In A Hurricane” to her parents.

While Tucker doesn’t move on stage like she used to thirty years ago, she did inject her signature personality into the performance. I would say she did a lot of folding her arms and posing at the ends and between songs, but she never once stood still. At one point she even said she’d like to do a Harley trip in the area sometime during the autumn months some year, this after seeing the biggest cow she had ever seen, in the area that day, or possibly even at the fair itself.

If I could find any fault with the show at all, it came as Tucker began an impromptu and long intermission where she signed autographs from the stage for what felt like an eternity. Concertgoers were rushing to the front of the stage in droves for autographs and selfies, much to the disdain of everyone else, like myself, who would’ve rather seen the time filled with more music (such as “If It Don’t Come Easy,” “(Without You) What Do I Do with Me” and “Soon”).

One concertgoer had her sign their copy of her autobiography Nickel Dreams, which had her proclaim the book might’ve been billed as a tell-all but “a lot of people would have to die” before she could really “tell all.” Tucker joked she’ll have to write a sequel (none is currently in the works) and at this point, call it “Quarter Dreams.” She was sharp as a tack, even as people began filling out to get to their cars before a mad rush. Tucker did redeem herself, closing the show with a beautiful medley of “Amazing Grace” and “Delta Dawn,” the latter of which had the audience singing the final chorus back to her.

The crowd was mixed with people ranging from both young to older, with many young boys (5-7 years old) who were moving, grooving, and clearly had music in their souls. It was heartwarming to see young people exposed to authentic and traditional honky-tonk country music, which the seemed to be enjoying.

I also sincerely appreciated the lack of alcohol at the show. People may have had their share of soda, and other drinks, but there wasn’t any beer and the ruckus it causes. It truly was a refreshing thing not to have that added aggravation to potentially put a damper on the night.

I had never been to the Lancaster Fair before, despite having a ski condo in the area for the past 24+ years. I only went for Tucker and she was incredible. I’ve been to many unique and special concerts through the years, and this one was right up there with the best I’ve seen.

I hope this goes without saying, but if Tucker comes to your area, make it your duty as a country music fan to attend the show. She’s still got every bit the swagger she had all those years ago. You will most certainly not be disappointed.

Album Review: Robert Mizzell – ‘Travelling Shoes’

Produced by Wayne Thorose, Robert Mizzell’s latest offering was released late last year. As usual, there is a heavy reliance on cover material, although he largely avoided covering song that have been overdone already. That complaint aside, there is little to gripe about here; this is a solid collection of the kind of country music that rarely gets made anymore on this side of the Atlantic.

The title track is Sawyer Brown tune dating back to the band’s 1992 Cafe on the Corner album. Mizzell also covers Lefty Frizzell (“Gone, Gone, Gone” written by Harlan Howard), Johnny Cash (“Greystone Chapel” from 1968’s Live at Folsom Prison), Mel Street (“Borrowed Angel”) and Kris Kristofferson (“Why Me Lord”), as well as more contemporary artists such as Josh Turner (“Firecracker”) and Phil Vassar (“Like I Never Loved Before”). He acquits himself nicely on all of these, although “Firecracker” is not one of my favorite Josh Turner songs. “Like I Never Loved Before” is a pop-tinged power ballad, and though well done, seems out of place on this otherwise very traditional album. However, the best cover on this album is “Her Carried Her Memory”, an obscure Bradley Walker number dating back to 2006. This is a great song that deserves to be better known than it is.

“Day Job” was written and originally recorded by Gord Bamford, an Australian country singer who was raised in Canada and has enjoyed some success there. Mizzell’s version enjoyed some success on the Irish charts. It’s a fun song, whose central theme is one to which most of us can relate:

This crazy day job, it ain’t no thrill
But it makes those ends meet and pays my bills
I ain’t complainin’, but it ain’t right
‘Cause my old day job, is ruining my night life.

This is a song that could have bit a big hit in the US for someone if it had come along 20 years earlier.

There is also a decent amount of original material on the album, the best of which is “She’s On The Way” an upbeat number that Mizzell wrote himself about his new wife and daughter. This was the first time he recorded one of his own compositions and I look forward to hearing more in the future. “John Deere Beer” is a fun and somewhat lyrically light summer song that was hit for Robert in Ireland in 2015. On a more serious note, “City of Shreveport” is a nice tribute to Robert’s hometown, and “Two Rooms and a Kitchen” is a typical Irish country song about spending time at Grandma’s house. It might pass for an American country song if its references to digging spuds and drying turf (to fuel the fire) didn’t betray its origins.

The album closes with a remake of Mizzell’s 2010 hit “Mama Courtney”, his tribute to the foster parents who raised him in Louisiana. The tempo is slowed down considerably and it’s done as a piano ballad but the new arrangement is quite effective.

Although Travelling Shoes contains a fair amount of remakes, they are all well done, and thanks to its generous 15 tracks, there is also a decent amount of new material. The album comes across as a bit incohesive — at times it seems like a hits compilation since the songs don’t always share a common theme; however, I enjoyed listening to this more than anything else that I’ve heard lately, with the possible exception of Zephaniah OHora’s album. I’m very glad to have discovered Robert Mizzell and I will make it a point to continue following his career.

Grade: A

Album Review: Don Williams: ‘Traces’

Traces was the second of a pair of albums that Don recorded for Capitol during the mid-to-late 1980s.   He co-produced the set with Garth Fundis.  Never one to follow trends, Don began his solo career singing songs with simple, stripped down production in an era when countrypolitan, with its lush string sections and vocal choruses, ruled the day.   By the mid-80s Randy Travis had brought country music back to its roots, with most other mainstream artists following suit.    Don Williams chose this time, however, to release an album that delved a little further into the pop realm.  The difference in sound is sometimes subtle, as is the case on “I Wouldn’t Be a Man”, the sultry lead single that reached a #9 peak.   At other times, it is more pronounced; a prime example is his cover of “Till I Can’t Take It Anymore”.   Originally an R&B hit for Ben E. King in 1968, it was introduced to country audiences by Dottie West and Don Gibson in 1970. In 1990, Billy Joe Royal would take it to #2 on the country charts.  While it works well for a genre-straddling artist like Royal, it is a bit of a stretch for the usually traditional Don Williams. Even more of a stretch is the trainwreck that is “Running  Out of Reasons to Run”, a filler song written by Jim Rushing and Martin Gerald Derstine with a jarring horn section.   It was better suited for Sawyer Brown, who recorded their own version a year later, but it is not a good vehicle for Williams.   “Looking Back”, a 1950s-style pop song is better.

Fortunately there are also plenty of country songs on the album.  The detour into pop occurs about halfway through and is preceded by three solid country numbers and followed by three more.   One of the best is “Another Place, Another Time”, a Bob McDill-Paul  Harrison tune that was released as the album’s second single, peaking at #5.   It was followed by the excellent upbeat “Desperately”, written by Kevin Welch and Jamie O’Hara, which reached #7.  The poignant (and extremely well-written) piano and string ballad “Old Coyote Town”, about a small town that has fallen on hard economic times, was the fourth and final single, which also reached #5.   One minor quibble:  I would have made this the closing track instead of giving that designation to the pleasant but pedestrian “You Love Me Through It All”.   A rather sedate rendition of “Come From the Heart”, preceding Kathy Mattea’s hit version by two years, is a pleasant surprise.

With the benefit of hindsight, one could possibly point to Traces as the beginning of Don’s chart decline; it was his first album since 1974’s Volume Two not to produce at least one #1 hit, although the four singles all performed respectably.  According to Wikipedia, the album did not chart, which I find hard to believe considering that it produced four Top 10 hits.  It is a solid album that I enjoyed but due to a few missteps, I have to rank it a little lower than his earlier work.  It is available on a 2-for-1 CD along New Moves, Don’s other album for Capitol.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Sawyer Brown – ‘Drive Me Wild’

Classic Rewind: Sawyer Brown – ‘Six Days On The Road’

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Six Days on the Road’

Sawyer Brown was nearing the end of their hitmaking days when Six Days on the Road dropped twenty years ago this month. The album was their second to last to be produced by Mac McAnally, who had significant influence over the project.

The lead single was the title track, a cover of the 1963 Dave Dudley classic. Their version, which I would regard as very good, peaked at #13. They rose to #6 with another cover, “This Night Won’t Last Forever,” previously a hit for both Bill LaBounty and Michael Johnson. I also really liked their version of this song, as well.

The final two singles weren’t as successful. The wonderful “Another Side,” a ballad solely penned by Miller petered out at #55. A fourth and final single, “Small Talk,” a Miller and McAnally co-written dud, hit #60.

McAnally had two solely written songs on the album. “With This Ring” is a tender love song while “Night and Day” is uptempo with generic rockish production. Neither song quite measures up to McAnally’s high standard with the group, which if we’re being honest is an impossible bar to reach.

Five more tracks were either written or co-written by Miller. “Transistor Rodeo,” “Half A Heart,” “A Love Like This” and “Every Twist and Turn” are unmistakable of their era and very catchy. “The Nebraska Song,” which Miller wrote alone, is a tribute to Bill Berringer, quarterback for the Nebraska Cornhuskers who was killed in a 1996 plane crash. The track is a nice and tender acoustic ballad.

“Talkin’ ‘Bout You,” by Mark Alan Springer, is a wonderfully infectious mid-tempo ballad laced with nice flourishes of steel. “Between You and Paradise, which Springer co-wrote with Neal Coty, is a very strong traditional-leaning ballad.

Six Days on the Road is a nice, above average mid-1990s country album. The music is in no way traditional, yet it isn’t overwhelming poppy or rock either. There’s nothing to jump out of your skin over, though, with brings the album down a notch. But Six Days On The Road is a bit better than good.

Grade: B

Side Note: If you haven’t checked out Drive Me Wild, which hit in 1999, do so if only for “I’m In Love With Her.” The ballad, written by Chuck and Cannon and Allen Shamblin, is one of the band’s finest moments on record. As a single it peaked at #47. I have no doubt if it had come out at the height of the band’s popularity it would’ve been ranked among their most iconic singles (with different, less busy, production values). It’s just that strong.

Classic Rewind: Sawyer Brown – ‘Treat Her Right’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Outskirts Of Town’

1993 saw the release of the band’s third and final Gold certified album. The material was all in-house, and Mark Miller and Mac McAnally provided solid production.

Things got off to a great start with the chart-topping lead single ‘Thank God For You’, a warm and likeable mid-tempo number written by Miller and McAnally, which still stands up well. ‘The Boys And Me’ (about enduring friendship groups) from the same writing team peaked at #4, and is enjoyable. There is also a ‘dance re-mix’, aimed at the then-popular line dance market. Tis feels regrettably self-indulgent now, if less offensive than much of what passes for everyday radio fare today.

In contrast the title track, written by band members Gregg “Hobie” Hubbard and Duncan Cameron, barely squeezed into the top 40. That’s a shame, because it’s a very nice song, a harmonica-led story song about a farmer who stays in his dying small town. I liked it better than the fourth and final single, the Miller-penned ‘Hard To Say’, even though the latter revived the band’s hitmaking ways, with a #5 peak. It’s perfectly pleasant, just not very memorable.

Dana McVicker had had a short and not very successful career attempting to make it as a star, with one album and a few low charting singles on Capitol in the late 80s. Her husband Michael Thomas was one of the musicians in Reba McEntire’s road band who was tragically killed in the 1991 plane crash. Sawyer Brown recruited her to duet on ‘Drive Away’, a somewhat rock/AC leaning ballad Miller wrote with Bill La Bounty, which is a highlight. Her gravelly alto is distinctive and powerful, and like Sawyer Brown she had got her Start on Star Search.

‘Farmer Tan’ (a Hubbard-Miller co-write) is a sympathetic, gritty look at the tough life of a famer about to be evicted, while the pair’s ‘Listenin’ For You’ is quite attractive. They were joined by Cameron to write ‘Eyes Of Love’, a nice love song about making it through the hard times.

Hubbard’s ‘Hold On’ is a beautiful ballad tenderly addressing an aged mother or grandmother. Also very good is the brisk ‘Heartbreak Highway’, which has an electrified bluegrass feel, thanks in part to Cameron’s mandolin and dobro.

Other than the aforementioned dance mix, the only song I could do without is the poppy ‘Love To Be Wanted’.

The album was followed by a second Greatest Hits collection, which spawned two more top 5 hits, ‘This Time’ and ‘I Don’t Believe In Goodbye’.

This is a very good album which is Sawyer Brown at their best.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Sawyer Brown – ‘Round Here’

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Cafe on the Corner’

1992’s Cafe on the Corner was Sawyer Brown’s first album after they ended their nearly decade-long association with Capitol Records. Released on the Curb label, it continues along the same path as their previous effort The Dirt Road. Like that collection, it was produced by Mark Miller and Randy Scruggs.

Eight of the album’s ten tracks were co-written by at least one of the band members (mostly Mark Miller), with the other two coming from the pen of Mac McAnally. The first of the McAnally tunes is the title track, which was the lead single. It tells the story of a displaced farmer who is now forced to support himself by busing tables in a corner cafe and serving coffee to customers who were similarly affected by the recession that America was facing at that time. It peaked at #5 but deserved to go all the way to the top and I’m not sure why it didn’t. Also peaking at #5 was the follow-up single “Trouble on the Line” written by Mark Miller and Bill Shore. The third single, “All These Years” charted slightly higher at #3. Sawyer Brown is not well known for their ballads, but this Mac McAnally composition is a beautiful ballad about a husband confronting his cheating wife and the brutally honest conversation that takes place in the aftermath of his discovery. Featuring a nice cello arrangement, it was also a minor Adult Contemporary hit where it became Sawyer Brown’s only entry on that chart, peaking at #42. McAnally had released his own version of the song earlier that year.

The rest of the album’s songs generally lack the substance of the title track and “All These Years” but they are well performed — particularly “Travelin’ Shoes”, “A Different Tune” and “Chain of Love” (not the Clay Walker song of the same name from a few years later). “A Different Tune” in particular includes some wonderful guitar picking and steel guitar playing. The album is one of Sawyer Brown’s more traditional efforts, without the poppiness of their early work — at least until we reach the last two tracks. Gospel artist and Nashville session singer Donna McElroy lends her voice to “I Kept My Motor Running”, an R&B-inflenced number written by Miller, Greg Hubbard and Randy Scruggs, that I did not care for at all. I was also rather unimpressed with the closing track “Sister’s Got a New Tattoo” about a young woman who shocks her family by joining the military. It’s not a terrible song but not up to the standards set by the album’s first eight tracks.

Cafe on the Corner is a solid effort that I was ready to grade an A until it suddenly detoured with the last two tracks. It is still a worthwhile effort, however, and is available for streaming.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Sawyer Brown – ‘Wantin’ And Havin’ It All’

The song starts two and a half minutes in.

Classic Rewind: Sawyer Brown – ‘Hard To Say’

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘The Dirt Road’

Sawyer Brown was still riding the wave of “The Walk” when The Dirt Road hit in January 1992. The song is reprised here, as cut #11, partly to draw needed attention to the album and to increase album sales. This album would see two singles of its own and the start of the period when Sawyer Brown would see their most consistent success at radio.

The proper first single was the title track, co-written by Mark Miller and Gregg Hubbard. The song is a meditation on the choices by which we approach our lives:

Daddy worked hard for his dollar

He said some folks don’t

But that’s ok

They won’t know which road to follow

Because an easy street might lead you astray

 

I’ll take the dirt road

It’s all I know

I’ve been walking it for years

Its gone where I need to go

Oh it ain’t easy-it ain’t supposed to be

So I’ll take my time

And life won’t pass me by

Cause it’s right there to find, On the dirt road

 

I have lived life in the fast lane

You gotta watch your back and look both ways

When it’s said and done the time we have is borrowed

You better make real sure you’re headed the right way

The track, which is one of my favorites from them, peaked at #3. Miller solely composed the album’s second and final single, the excellent uptempo “Some Girls Do.” The #1 hit (their first in six years and second overall) finds Miller playing the bad boy, a guy attractive to just a select few women:

She turned up her nose as she walked by my Cadillac

From the corner of my eye I saw you and you laughed

You were sittin’ on the swing on your front porch

Paintn’ your nails like you were bored

And you yelled she was sure impressed with you

 

Well I ain’t first class

But I ain’t white trash

I’m wild and a little crazy too

Some girls don’t like boys like me

Aw but some girls do

 

I yelled and asked if you would like a ride

When we pulled out of your yard I bald a tire

You was laughing at me, I was doing James Dean

You was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen

When you rolled your eyes and twirled my pink fur dice

“Some Girls Do” is a prime example of the effortless cool of early 1990s country music, infectious without being obnoxious or pretentious. This song was actually my first exposure to the band, from the compilation album #1 Country Hit Mix. I really only knew Sawyer Brown as an uptempo act (add “Thank God For You” to this conversation as well) and kind of found it strange to hear Miller croon a ballad when videos for songs like “Treat Her Right” would come on CMT. I learned as I went as a kid and dealt with perceptions in my own way as I developed a taste for country music in that era.

Given the success of both “The Walk” and “Some Girls Do,” one would assume their label (a joint venture between Curb and Capitol Records) would’ve pushed for more songs written by Miller alone. While he co-wrote the majority of The Dirt Road only one other track was credited solely to him. “Burnin’ Bridges (On A Rocky Road)” is a mid-tempo ballad, loaded with steel, concerning a well-intended pearl of wisdom:

He said things have changed for the better

Things have changed in the weather

Well you got to go down easy when you go

So don’t go burnin’ bridges on a rocky road

While the message behind “Burnin’ Bridges (On A Rocky Road)” is good, the lyric leaves a lot to be desired. The core of The Dirt Road came from collaborations between Miller and Hubbard, which amount to five of the albums cuts (besides the title track). None of these offerings are very inspired, and if I was forced to pick a ‘best of the bunch’ I’d say “Another Trip To the Well,” although the song is unremarkable at best. The album’s remaining cuts, “Time and Love” and “Fire In The Rain” are album highlights and the strongest of the non-singles.

As I reflect upon Sawyer Brown from this period, I feel like they’re more a singles band than an albums artist. The two singles from The Dirt Road are easily some of the best music of the day, but the album tracks leave much to be desired. Plus, I have no idea why Cafe On The Corner would arrive just seven months later. If these two projects had been combined, I bet they’d be a stronger set as one unit since the singles from both records were killer.

Grade: B- 

Classic Rewind: Sawyer Brown – ‘The Boys And Me’

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Buick’

Buick was Sawyer Brown’s first album of the 1990s, and the first album to feature a song by Mac McAnally, although it would be another two albums before McAnally became a major presence in the totality of Sawyer Brown’s sound. For this album, McAnally did vocal arrangements, and Mark Miller and Randy Scruggs co-produced the album.

Unlike most of their prior albums, gone was the dreaded 80s production, with more reliance on traditional musical instruments (alas, no steel guitar). More importantly, the songwriting of band members Hubbard and Miller continued to improve.

Three singles were released from the album. The first two singles “One Less Pony” and “Mama’s Little Baby Loves Me” both stiffed at radio reaching #70 and #68 respectively. The third single “The Walk”, reached #2, their first top ten recording after five consecutive records failed to reach the top twenty. Moreover, “The Walk” would kick off a string of eight straight singles (and eleven out of twelve) that would reach the top five of the Country singles chart.

The album opens up with a Gregg Hubbard-Mark Miller composition “Mama’s Little Baby Loves Me”. The song was not a terrible choice for a single, but this mid-tempo ballad was a little too similar to several other singles that had been released to radio by various other artists.

Miller collaborated with Randy Scruggs on “My Baby Drives A Buick”, a somewhat funky slow ballad. I’m not sure you could get away with this lyric in today’s PC environment:

“You think that you’ve been through it, But you ain’t seen nothin’ till your baby drives a Buick.”

Mac McAnally makes his Sawyer Brown debut with “When You Run From Love”, a song co-written with Mark Miller. The song has a meaningful lyric that foreshadows future efforts. The instrumental accompaniment has a blues/rock feel to it.

Love up and beat a path to my back door
I could always walk away before
I thought, I could get away untouched
But you think to much when you run from love
When you run from love
When you run from love

The quickest way ain’t fast enough and the
Trains and the planes will let you down
If you hide your eyes
You make a chain of pain and lies
And you know that
You’re only losing ground
When you run from love

Mark Miller’s “The Walk” may be the best song that Miller ever wrote. Since the Buick album was not an overwhelming sales success, Curb carried the song over to the next album, using it as the title song. This song definitely signaled a directional shift by the band to more lyrically sophisticated songs.

Down our long dusty driveway
I didn’t want to go
But I set out with tears in my eyes wonderin`
Daddy took me by the hand
Looked down at the school bus and his little man and said,
“Don’t worry boy it will be all right”

[Chorus]
‘Cause I took this walk you’re walking now
Boy, I’ve been in your shoes
You can’t hold back the hands of time
It’s just something you’ve got to do
So dry eyes I understand just what you’re goin` through
‘Cause I took this same walk with my old man
Boy, I’ve been in your shoes

“Forty-Eight Hours Till Monday” is another Miller-Hubbard collaboration, this time a mid-tempo song celebrating the weekend. I think this would have made a very decent single.

It’s Friday night and I’ve been workin’ all week long
After the rent all I have left is this old song
My baby’s right beside me, we’re gonna have a ball
Ain’t gonna care about anything, anything at all
I’ve got 48 hours and 25 dollars in change ’til Monday

Got on my skin tight jeans
And my shirt with the ketchup stains
I’ve got a hole in my pocket and the world by the tail
And everything is going my way
I’ve got 48 hours and 25 dollars in change

I’m not sure why Mark Miller wrote “Superman’s Daughter”, as the song is rather gimmicky. As a mid-tempo rocker, the song does no harm as an album track.

She was the most unusual girl I’d met
She stole my heart and she took my breath
She had these certain ways I did not understand
And when I made my move to execute my plan
She was leading me like a lamb to a slaughter

You don’t mess around with Superman’s daughter
Superman’s daughter got looks that kill
She got X-ray eyes, she got a heart of steel
When she fell in love, I never would have caught her
If I’d only known she was Superman’s daughter

“One Less Pony”, another Miller composition, is an up-tempo ballad that functions well as an album track but was too derivative to make a good single.

Donna McElroy has had a long career as a background singer, although little success as a recording artist. Her contributions to the Hubbard-Miller composition “Still Water” add a gospel quality to a lovely
song .

“Stealing Home” is yet another Hubbard-Miller composition, this time a mid-tempo ballad that makes use of baseball analogies

No, I’m not just crazy, I’ve lost more than my mind
Since I looked into your blue eyes
I’m swingin’ for the bleachers with my heart
Thinking this time that I might win looking at you
Stealin’ home, stealin’ home
I’m rounding third and I’m heading on in
Look at me taking chances again
Maybe this time, I’ll beat out the throw stealing home

The album closes with “Thunder Bay”, a Scruggs-Miller collaboration.

I never thought that anyone could do me like you do me
I never thought that love would get in the way
But there was magic in the air and there were stars out on the water
On a moonlit night in Thunder Bay

As with other Sawyer Brown albums, there is a nice mix of styles and tempo to keep things interesting.

I think that “The Walk” was a bit unlucky to not reach #1, and in general, this album represents an upgrade over earlier albums in terms of songwriting and production values. I would rate this an A-

Classic Rewind: Sawyer Brown – ‘Thank God For You’

Classic Rewind: Sawyer Brown – ‘Some Girls Do’

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Wide Open’

1988’s Wide Open was Sawyer Brown’s fifth studio album and their least successful up to that time. Peaking at #33, it was their first album that failed to crack the Top 40 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. It also failed to produce any Top 10 hits. Like its predecessor Somewhere in the Night, it was produced by Ron Chancey, who was best known for his work with The Oak Ridge Boys.

From an artistic standpoint, Wide Open is a mixed bag. It is, for the most part slickly produced — bucking the commercial trends of the day which had begun to favor more traditional sounds. None of the album cuts are particularly noteworthy or memorable. The three single releases, however, are a different story. The first was a spirited version of Dennis Linde’s “My Baby’s Gone”, which had been recorded a few years earlier by The Judds. It seems tailor made for Sawyer Brown; the lyrics tell a sad story but the song’s fast tempo gives it a more upbeat feeling. It reached #11 and I can’t imagine why it didn’t manage to crack the Top 10. It certainly deserved to chart higher. “Old Pair of Shoes”, written by Mark Miller, is good but not great. The metaphor of a comfortable but worn old pair of shoes for a relationship is hardly original. Many other songs have done a better job getting the same point across, but the song is certainly better than its #50 chart peak suggests.

The album’s best song by far is the third single, Skip Ewing’s Christmas classic “It Wasn’t His Child”, which examines the relationship between Jesus and his foster father St. Joseph. It only reached #51, but that is understandable since Christmas singles typically don’t chart very high. It’s a beautiful song that has been recorded many times. Sawyer Brown’s version more than holds its own against the others. It is however, a little out of place on this album and might have been better suited for a multi-artist Christmas compilation.

As far as the album cuts go, “What Am I Going To Tell My Heart” written by Sawyer Brown members Bobby Randall and Gregg Hubbard is the best, the Mark Miller-penned “Blue Denim Soul” is the worst and the rest are all forgettable filler that fall somewhere in between.

Aside from its singles, Wide Open is not essential listening. I recommend downloading “My Baby’s Gone” and “It Wasn’t His Child” and perhaps “Old Pair of Shoes” and skipping the rest. Or if you want to hear it in its entirety, this one is a good candidate for streaming.

Grade: B