My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Scott Hendricks

Album Review: John Michael Montgomery — ‘Pictures’

The promotional cycle for John Michael Montgomery’s Brand New Me had come to an end when Atlantic Records closed their Nashville division in 2001. They weren’t ready to give up on him just yet, so Montgomery moved to their parent label Warner Bros. Nashville, where he reunited with Scott Hendricks for 2002’s Pictures.

The album charted three singles. “‘Till Nothin’ Comes Between Us” is a slick mid-tempo pop ballad, which features a smoothed over vocal from Montgomery. “Country Thang” is typical country-rock, beaming with southern pride. “Four-Wheel Drive” is the best of the bunch, with a nice steel and fiddle based melody, reminiscent of Brad Paisley’s work from the time period. The tracks peaked at #19, #45, and #52, respectively.

Harley Allen, who revived Montgomery’s career with “The Little Girl” appears here, as co-writer, along with Paul Overstreet, of “I Wanna Be There,” a contemporary ballad about a father’s prayer for his child as he or she goes through the phases of life — first words, first date, first heartbreak, etc. John Rich co-wrote “Believe In Me,” a mid-tempo promise of loyalty from a man to his woman.

Rivers Rutherford, a prominent songwriter during this era, was a co-writer of “Love and Alcohol,”  an uptempo cautionary tale where a man is warning a woman he’s been drinking so he’s not quite himself. “Love Changes Everything” is a charming but clichéd story of young love during the summer months on a farm. Montgomery is in a grateful mood on the upbeat “Got You To Thank For That,” which has a nice energy.

There’s nothing particularly interesting about the title track, which traces the love story of a couple through photographs and the memories they conjure up, all the while looking ahead to the memories yet to be made. “It Goes Like This,” which features Sixwire, a group that at the time had released their debut album, is an early sign of bro-country with the way it objectives the woman as nothing more than an object of desire.

I wouldn’t characterize Pictures as a bad album, but it is very generic and lacks even one song I could pull out as essential listening. It’s very typical of early-21st century commercial country music and I could hear shades of what Lonestar was cooking up during this time period. Pictures came on the back end of Montgomery’s career, where he was fighting to remain relevant ten years out from Life’s A Dance.

Radio had mostly moved on, actually to his brother and Troy Gentry, who were hitting their stride with “My Town” and “Hell Yeah.” No one was missing anything with Pictures, so this album’s lack of success was only a loss to his record label.

Grade: C

Album Review: John Michael Montgomery — ‘John Michael Montgomery’

John Michael Montgomery was under pressure when he and Scott Hendricks entered the studio to record his third album in 1994. The monster success of “I Swear” was so impactful he not only won ACM and CMA honors, but he also performed the song at the Grammy Awards. It pushed sales of Kickin’ It Up past 4 million units and cemented his place in country love song history.

He was also coming off of two consecutive #1s when Atlantic released “I Can Love You Like That” to country radio in February 1995. The romantic ballad, a companion piece of sorts to “I Swear,” hit #1 and was also covered by the R&B group All-4-One. It’s one of my favorite contemporary country songs of the 1990s.

Montgomery switched gears completely in May, with the release of the breakneck-paced “Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident).” The song tells the story of a guy who attends an auction in Grundy County, Tennessee. While there he lays eyes on a woman named Heather, who consumes his thoughts, and becomes his big prize.

“Sold” is an excellent record with superb instrumentation that allowed Montgomery to diversify and showcase a playful charm he wasn’t able to display on his signature ballads. The audiences loved the song so much it also hit #1 and was named Billboard’s biggest country single of the year, a feat that wasn’t even bestowed upon “I Swear.”

The album’s first two singles were such memorable hits, it left little room for “No Man’s Land” to make a significant impact. The mid-tempo ballad, about a woman adjusting to a life ‘nothin’ like she had planned,’ is a competent yet unremarkable story song in the vein of Toby Keith’s superior “Upstairs Downtown.” It performed well at radio, hitting #3, but it was forgotten as soon as it fell from the charts.

“Cowboy Love,” which hit #4, is an attempt at rekindling the charm of “Be My Baby Tonight,” and while it was moderately successful at the time, it has aged horrendously. Both songs unfortunately represent the very worst of 1990s country, a time when honky-tonk had been brought to the dance floor by people in cutoff t-shirts with denim for days. The whole aesthetic is a parody of the genre’s best traditions.

The quality of the singles only got worse with “Long As I Live,” which is a feeble attempt at adding another romantic ballad to his repertoire. The ballad is embarrassingly awful, with a cliché Hallmark lyric. It hit #4, which is a testament to Montgomery’s power with country radio at the time.

The most notable album track, “Holdin’ Onto Something,” was recorded by Jeff Carson the same year and released as a single in 1996, where it peaked at #6. Carson’s record holds significant nostalgic value for me, which clouds my judgement on its quality. Montgomery does well with the song, but Hendricks fails him with a very generic arrangement. Listening now, I can easily hear Tim McGraw singing this song during this time period, possibly bringing it to #1.

“High School Heart” is typical of contemporary ballads from the time period. It’s cheesy, but the track does still have its merits. It tells the story of a man reminiscing on his romantic past, specifically his high school days, and all that’s changed in the years since then. The twist in the chorus is the girl he loved back then is his wife today, still loving him with a high school heart. Montgomery sells the story competently, but I would very much like to hear it with a far more dynamic vocalist and a more memorable arrangement.

“Just Like A Rodeo” is so bad, it’s hard to believe it even exists, especially during this time period, when the gatekeepers knew better. In the lyric, a man is in throws of sexual intercourse comparing riding his girl to a cowboy riding a bull. It’s even more horrid than “She Thinks My Tractors Sexy” but has only been matched or eclipsed by the bro-country era, where honestly, it would probably fit right in.

“Heaven Sent Me You” has the arrangement, filled with steel, and the committed vocal from Montgomery to be a sure-fire hit. It was likely buried because the lyric is second-rate, especially as his romantic ballads are concerned.

“It’s What I Am” never really saw the light of day, but it is a watershed moment for what was to come within the next ten to twelve years. The track has Montgomery wearing his southern pride on his sleeve, singing:

I got my first guitar when I was just a boy

I was playing the blues instead of playing with toys

Listening to the Opry and dreaming of the neon lights

So it was late to bed and early to rise

I worked the field all day and the crowd all night

My finger on the trigger and Nashville in my sights

I’m the real thing and I sing songs about real life


And I never heard a fiddle called a violin

Never really worried if I fit in

Country ain’t what I sing it’s what I am

This hat ain’t something I wear for style

These boots have been around a while

Country ain’t what I sing it’s what I am


I learned to drive on a dirt road

Cruised the strip on rock and roll

And drove around on “Miles and Miles of Texas”

And as I grew Daddy showed me now

To earn a living by the sweat of my brow

But he never made me follow in his steps

He said work hard and let the good Lord do the rest

Montgomery and Hendricks needn’t worry, as this album matched Kickin’ It Up and was also certified quadruple platinum. If I had to guess, it was “Sold” and not “I Can Love You Like That” that contributed more to the sales. The album itself is of very varying quality, with the two songs I just mentioned being the only real standouts.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Julie Reeves – ‘It’s About Time’

Julie Reeves moved to Nashville in 1994, where she got jobs doing studio work and singing demos. She then found herself the guest vocalist on Bill Engvall’s “Should’ve Shut Up” and a recording artist for Virgin Records, where she released her lone studio record, It’s About Time in 1999.

The album, produced by Scott Hendricks, was a commercial flop, petering out at #70. It opens with it’s second single, “Trouble Is A Woman,” which peaked at #39. The song is an excellent  and instantly memorable honky-tonk rocker with a killer hook, ‘trouble is a woman with a man on her mind.’

I remember well when Melinda Doolittle chose the song for her country week performance on American Idol in 2007. Martina McBride was serving as the onguest mentor and freely admitted she had never heard of the song before. It was a surprising omission, especially coming from someone quite active in the industry at end of the century. Doolittle, I’m happy to report, did “Trouble Is A Woman” justice.

The album rolls on with “Do You Think About Me,” an infectious fiddle-drenched rocker in which Reeves plays a woman wondering if her ex has held onto any memories from their relationship. The track is very good, although the gospel-y backing vocals on the chorus are out of character, distracting and completely unnecessary.

“Party Down” (whatever that phrase even means) somewhat continues the woman’s liberation theme that had been brewing in mainstream country for the better half of a decade. She’s done with her ex, even helping throw him to the curb, and describing all the activities she’ll partake in without him — celebrate, paint the town, stay up late, etc. The track is silly and immature, but yet I don’t take issue with the lyrical content since it comes off so inoffensive.

“What I Need,” is the album’s third and highest charting single, reaching #38. It’s the album’s first ballad, which Reeves handles sensationally. She’s waiting for her man to know without any doubt she’s the one for him, with a vibrato that recalls Faith Hill circa 1995-1997.

“All or Nothing” sounds great, recalling Brooks & Dunn’s work with Don Cook, but the song itself is forgettable lightweight filler. “You Were A Mountain,” a steel-soaked ballad, isn’t any better and is also best forgotten.

Reeves’ debut single, the title track, comes next. “It’s About Time” is very weak lyrically, with little substance to hold it together. The song peaked at #51, a bit higher than I feel it deserved to in all honesty.

“If I’d Never Loved You” finds the album getting back on track with a ballad about a woman whose memories of her time with her ex are getting in the way of her new relationship. She just wishes she wasn’t comparing him to the one who came before him.

She’s seeing the forest through the trees on “Whatever,” an uptempo fiddle drenched rocker. The lyric could’ve been much stronger, but the well-worn premise is executed pretty well.

“He Keeps Me In One Piece” is the Dave Loggins song originally recorded by Gary Morris. It’s easily the most well-written song on the album thus far and Reeves handles it well. “What You Get Is What You See” isn’t terrible, but it isn’t great either.

The album’s final track, “If Heartaches Had Wings” is probably best known from Rhonda Vincent’s recording from One Step Ahead in 2003. Reeves’ version is great and an example of how she handles songs with a bit more meat and thought to the lyric.

It’s About Time is clearly a commercial country album. Reeves feels almost like a puppet, being handed songs designed to turn her into a major recording star. The songs here are dressed and mixed beautifully, but there is a good share of clunkers throughout. It’s evident there wasn’t much care in finding truly great enduring songs, just ones that could potentially get her on the radio.

Although this is her only album to date, Reeves remains active within the industry. She married and had a daughter with Cledus T. Judd in 2004. They later divorced and she married bluegrass musician Chris Davis, with whom she has a son born in 2011.

Most interestingly, Reeves began a career in radio in 2013. She began with a stint hosting Julie Reeves Live, the morning show on 93.7 The DAWG in the Huntington, West Virginia / Ashland, Kentucky market. She currently handles the station’s overnights with her latest show, Up Late With Julie Reeves, which runs Monday-Saturday from Midnight-5am local time.

Grade: B

Album Review: William Michael Morgan – ‘Vinyl’

51yqdhejaxl-_ss500I don’t get excited about too many new country artists these days; I’ve long since given up hope that a modern day Randy Travis will come along and save a genre that is teetering on the edge of the abyss. Those hopes are occasionally revived when a new traditional-sounding artist emerges, usually only to be quickly dashed when the artist fails to gain any commercial traction and either fades into oblivion or sells out starts following the latest trends. Only time will tell if William Michael Morgan is the latest to follow that pattern or if he will be the exception to the rule.

I’ve been looking forward to Morgan’s debut album ever since his EP was released last spring and reviewed by Occasional Hope. The EP’s six tracks all appear again on here, along with five new tunes. These days, anything that isn’t bro-country is worthwhile, but even against such lowered standards, Vinyl is a solid effort. Storms of Life it is not; in too many instances Morgan and his producers (Jimmy Ritchey and Scott Hendricks) play it safe by making some artistic compromises, but it is still a big step forward for traditional country music and the people who love it.

To date, only one single — the somewhat bland “I Met a Girl” has been released. Released just over a year ago, it landed at #3 on the airplay chart and at #10 on the Billboard’s primary country singles chart, and it’s somewhat surprising that no follow-up singles were released prior the full album hitting the streets. There are a pair of good contenders: the catchy opening track “People Like Me”, which finds Morgan well aware, and in fact proud of, the class distinctions between himself and those who are economically better off. The equally catchy and steel-drenched “Missing”, which finds him looking forward to going off the grid for a bit, seems like it would also be well received by radio. Those are the two best of the previously unreleased tracks. The poignant “I Know Who He Is”, about a loved one — possibly a father or grandfather — who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, is a good song but unfortunately some EDM element managed to find their way into the production. “Something to Drink About” is an even more egregious example in its use of EDM, but it is a throwaway tune regardless of its questionable production choices. I did not care for the bluesy “Spend It All on You” at all.

As far as the previously released tracks are concerned, I wasn’t terribly impressed with the title track. I found its overuse of the word “girl” to be quite grating. This is one of those songs that features the pedal steel prominently, in the hope that the listener will not notice that it’s not a very country song. The coming of age tune “Backseat Driver” isn’t bad, but the electric guitar needs to be toned down a bit. On the other hand, “Lonesomeville” (a Morgan co-write) is excellent and reminiscent of Keith Whitley. “Cheap Cologne” in which Morgan is cast as a cuckolded husband is also very good.

Overall, Vinyl is a bit of a mixed bag but there is more here to like than to dislike. William Michael Morgan is an artist that traditionalists really ought to support; artists like him need to succeed if there is to be any hope at all for the future of our genre.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Jo Dee Messina – ‘The Unmistakable Trilogy’

539wJo Dee Messina’s commercial fortunes dwindled once Delicious Surprise fell from the charts. Curb Records stopped actively promoting her and Messina all but disappeared. Her final chart hit came courtesy of a non-album single entitled “I’m Done.” While not her strongest work the upbeat rocker was in keeping with her strong woman style and should’ve peaked higher then #36.

Messina was then to reemerge with a new album entitled Unmistakable. The full-length project was due in April 2010. At the last minute, Curb Records had other ideas and split the album into three EPs subtitled Love, Drive, and Inspiration. In addition to the newly recorded numbers, each project had a couple acoustic renderings of her hits thrown in where they best fit the given theme.

The EPs marked the first time Tim McGraw and Byron Gallimore weren’t at the helm as producers. Scott Hendricks, who oversaw Blake Shelton’s two six-pack releases that same year, took over production duties. The first of the three, Unmistakable: Love, came out two weeks after the original album was supposed to have hit stores.

MI0002915145Unmistakable: Love consisted of seven original tracks. The majority of them are filler, pleasant album cuts that are easily passed over in favor of getting to the good stuff on a project. The title track of the trilogy is found here and it’s very good, although a second rate knockoff of “Burn.”

The next two EPs were released on the same day that November. The second volume is Unmistakable: Drive. Appropriately titled for the harder edge found in the production, the second volume features “Biker Chick” a Messina single from 2007 that came just after the final single from Delicious Surprise.Unknown The track is atrocious, easily among the worst she’s ever released. The rest of the EP follows suit with lazier songwriting
and uninspired melodies. Messina can shine in this vein, but none of these numbers are anywhere near close to the heights she reached with “Bye-Bye.”

The final EP, Unmistakable: Inspiration has a more spiritual bent. These six original songs are anchored by “That’s God,” the only single officially from the trilogy. The piano ballad works splendidly, 5150681and although it didn’t chart, is a great latter day radio offering from Messina. The remainder of the tracks contain worthy sentiments we’ve all heard before and offer little that is interesting or noteworthy.

The six acoustic numbers, all recorded live, are the best tracks found on the trilogy. “Bring on the Rain,” “BecauseYou Love Me,” and “Stand Beside Me” are all pretty faithful to the studio versions. “I’m Alright” has a bit of a Latin feel that is quite ear catching and “Lesson In Leavin’” shows some imagination from the original. “Even God Must Get The Blues,” an I’m Alright album cut, is a revelation. Messina’s vocal soars in ways she’s hardly ever sung before.

Usually when a record label tries a gimmick like this, there’s a legitimate reason. In this case, there just isn’t much here for the fan to sink into. The majority of the 19 original tracks are mostly forgettable filler and hardly anything stands out as a bonafide hit. Releasing these recordings as a trilogy was likely a way for Curb Records to drum up whatever excitement and publicity was left for Messina by that point.

At the end of the day, the Unmistakable Trilogy finds Messina in flawless voice. She ventures far too pop for much of the songs opting to deemphasize the gorgeous twang that soaked her debut album. But she still sounds better than ever, and that should count for something. I just wish there were more standout moments among these 19 newly recorded songs.

Grade: B-

Single Review: Jana Kramer – ‘I Got The Boy’

i got the boyI was thoroughly underwhelmed by actress Jana Kramer’s first foray into country music. But her latest single is much more like it.

While she isn’t the greatest of vocalists, she is perfectly adequate on this understated song, which she delivers convincingly with a throaty almost bluesy quality which reminds me a little of Julie Roberts or the early work of Faith Hill. The emotion of the song rings true. The tasteful production (thanks to Scott Hendricks) is as understated as the song is simply yet perfectly constructed (with the exception of slightly awkward scansion in the first verse).

On the surface about memories and a past relationship, this is really all about the experience of growing up. The protagonist reflects on a long-past, perhaps long-forgotten teenage romance when she sees the man he has grown into. There are no regrets or sense of loss for what has passed, as she compares the affectionate memories she has with the other woman’s present day experiences.

I got the first kiss
She’ll get the last
She’s got the future and I got the past
I got the class ring
She’s got the diamond and a wedding band
I got the boy
She got the man

It may be stretching the songwriters’ intentions a bit far to lay too much stress on this aspect, but it is interesting as part of the possible backlash against bro-country with its extended male adolescence, to see the comparison here between the young man as a teenage boy in a baseball cap, as so often sported by today’s male country stars well into their 30s (including Jana’s former fiance the dreadful Brantley Gilbert), and driving the ubiquitous pickup truck. The man in this song has laid these things aside as he grows up and commits to marriage. Can this be a complete coincidence?

The song was written by established songwriters Connie Harrington and Tim Nichols with Jamie Lynn Spears, another aspiring artist with an acting background. I really like both song and performance, and would be thrilled to see it do well. Of course it has several strikes against it as far as country radio is concerned – it’s sung by a woman, and one who is talking as an adult; it’s not loud or a party anthem, but the kind of song about real life which used to be at the heart of the genre; and it’s good. I hope it can beat those odds.

Listen to it here.

Grade: A

Album Review: Lee Roy Parnell – ‘On The Road’

ontheroad1993’s On The Road was Lee Roy Parnell’s third studio album and his last to be released on the main Arista label (subsequent releases would bear the Career imprint, an Arista subsidiary). Scott Hendricks, who had co-produced Parnell’s previous album, took over sole production duties, while Lee Roy shared songwriting credits on six of the album’s ten tracks. Unlike most of his 90s contemporaries, Parnell was neither a New Traditionalist nor a huge record seller. He did, however, score a handful of enduring radio hits, the most memorable of which is the Bob McDill-penned title track, which deals with three different instances of people who are ready to leave their unfulfilling lives behind in exchange for adventure into the unknown. Released in August of 1993, it was a perfect summertime single and it eventually peaked at #6. It’s one of my favorite Lee Roy Parnell songs.

“On The Road” was followed by another big hit, Tony Arata’s “I’m Holding My Own”, a midtempo number that was released in January 1994. It reached #3. He seemed to be on a roll as far as radio was concerned, but the album’s subsequent singles, both remakes of older country hits, didn’t fare as well. He beefed up his country credentials with a cover of the Hank Williams classic “Take These Chains From My Heart”, which is performed as a duet with Ronnie Dunn. I don’t ever remember hearing this on the radio and was surprised to learn that had been a single, and although not a huge hit it peaked at a very respectable #17. Even in the more traditional 90s, Hank Williams was a little too retro for country radio. His voice and Dunn’s blend together well and listeners who aren’t paying close attention might fail to notice that there are two people singing the song.

The album’s fourth and final single was a remake of “The Power of Love”, one of Charley Pride’s least country-sounding records, but a good choice for Parnell’s soulful voice. This one should have been a bigger hit, but it stalled at #51, far below the #9 peak of Pride’s original version from a decade earlier.

In another one of the album’s best songs, “Straight and Narrow”, Lee Roy and co-writer Tony Haselden rationalize — and make a compelling case for — occasionally skipping church in order to go fishing and other pursuits of life’s simple pleasures. The bluesy party anthem “Fresh Coat of Paint” is also quite good.

The album does contain two duds, both of which are Parnell co-writes with Gary Nicholson. “Straight Shooter” is a bit of bubble gum pop that sounds like a leftover from the Urban Cowboy days, while “Wasted Time”, in addition to being just plain dull, is based on the false premise that “there is no such thing as wasted time.” Well, yes, actually, there is. While neither of these are terrible songs, they both fall into the category of non-descript filler.

While not an oustanding album, On The Road is a good example of Lee Roy Parnell at his commercial peak. Cheap copies are readily available and it’s worth a listen.

Grade: B

Album Review: Lee Roy Parnell – ‘Love Without Mercy’

220px-LoveWithoutMercyTo record his sophomore album Lee Parnell stuck with producer Barry Beckett although Scott Hendricks, who most recently has been producing Blake Shelton’s post-Bobby Braddock work, joined him. Love Without Mercy would be Parnell’s breakthrough release containing three top ten singles despite peaking at #66 on Billboard’s country albums chart.

Lead single “The Rock,” where Parnell sounds like a slightly less powerful Ronnie Dunn, failed to ignite (peaking at #50) despite no obvious shortcomings. The contemporary ballad was perfectly inline with commercial trends in 1992 and I quite like the lush tenderness Parnell brings to the proceedings.

He finally scored his breakthrough hit with “What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am,” an excellent rocker written by Al Carmichael and Gary Griffin. The #2 peaking song succeeds on Parnell’s rough vocal and slide guitar that doesn’t overwhelm the track at all. The infectious melody was all over the radio when I was a kid and I love it as much today as I did then.

Arista’s next single choice was the title track, a Don Pfrimmer and Mike Reid ballad originally recorded by Oak Ridge Boys in 1987. Reid, who topped the charts with “Walk On Faith” two years prior, released his own version the same year as Parnell. The bluesy ballad, which peaked at #8 for Parnell, is an excellent song perfectly suited for Parnell’s voice. Oak Ridge Boys version is great, too, but somewhat dated.

The album’s final single, the infectiously upbeat “Tender Moment” matched “What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am,” peaking at #2 in Mid-1993. It’s another fantastically commercial moment for Parnell, succeeding on the brilliant melody, and among my favorite of his singles.

The rest of Love Without Mercy skews towards uptempo rocks including the Parnell co-wrote “Road Scholar,” a semi-autobiographical tale about a man who got his education in honky-tonks, that features Delbert McClinton. The bluesy Texas Rock isn’t my favorite, but the predictable lyric does give the track some needed substance.

“Night After Night” finds Parnell as a man consumed by the memory of his ex and the whole thing is as predictable as it is muscular. “Roller Coaster” is slightly better although I wish it retained even more country elements beyond the audible steel guitar. “Ain’t No Short Way Home” is a pre-curser to the ‘Bro-Country’ of today with its mentioning of trucks and women, and while it’s light years better in quality than today’s dreck, its still too generic for me.

“Back In My Arms Again” retains more of the country elements Parnell brought to the singles, and is an improvement over the other album cuts as a result. “Done Deal” is the best non-single and follows the formula of “The Rock” and the title track.

Love Without Mercy is a typical boom years country album that focuses on some outstanding singles while populating the album with a fair share of filler. Nothing here is horrible, but the magic of “What Kind of Fool” and “Tender Moment” isn’t repeated beyond those two cuts. But the album as a whole is still listenable and worth seeking out.

Grade: B+

Single Review: Blake Shelton – ‘Neon Light’

Blake SheltonIn a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Blake Shelton said the following about his latest single “Neon Light”:

“The song, the melody, the chorus is so George Jones or George Strait. It really is. Of course, I’m always going to have the haters and critics out there that say it’s not. But then, kiss my ass! I know more about those records than a lot of people.”

Way to stay classy, Blake. I am no Blake Shelton hater, having liked quite a lot of his music, though admittedly not so much in recent years. And I’m no slouch when it comes to familiarity with the music of both Georges and all I can say is that I imagine that the Possum has probably put some wear and tear on the inside of his coffin after all the turning over he must have done at the comparison. I can’t imagine George Jones singing this song under any circumstances. I can imagine him speaking out against Blake’s remarks, had Shelton been imprudent enough to say something like this while Jones was still alive. The chorus does sound a little like some of George Strait’s poorer efforts, and now every time I hear the song I try to think of how his version would be different — and presumably much better.

I’m not sure that this song is salvagable, but I imagine that a Strait recording of this song would have a much different arrangement. Ditching the annoying hick-hop beat would be a good place to start. I took an instant dislike to it from the moment I heard the the first opening notes from the banjo. There was a time when the banjo was regarded as primarily a bluegrass instrument and was rarely used on mainstream country recordings. I used to think that was a shame, but has been so overdone in recent years — usually in an attempt to give a rootsy feel to otherwise non-country sounding songs like this one.

The sad part about this is that fans that grew up listening to country radio over the past decade — the ones too young to remember George Jones or the kind of music George Strait did back in the 80s — probably do think that this is rootsy, throwback record. But those of us old enough to know better are unlikely to be impressed. Lyrically the song doesn’t have a lot of substance, which is OK for a summertime release, but Scott Hendricks’ obnoxious production is a deal killer for me.

Grade: D

Album Review – Suzy Bogguss – ‘Give Me Some Wheels’

220px-SuzyBoggussGiveMeSomeWheelsWith all artists there comes a point in time when their music isn’t in step with current commercial trends and therefore banished from country radio. Following a string of successful projects, that fate met Suzy Bogguss. After teaming up with Chet Atkins for the artistically strong but commercially disappointing Simpatico, she took a year off to start a family. In that time, her unique styling was pushed out in favor of more pop leaning acts like Shania Twain, Faith Hill, and Martina McBride. Bogguss changed producers to Trey Bruce and Scott Hendricks for Give Me Some Wheels, released in summer 1996, but that didn’t reverse her sharp commercial decline.

The production on Give Me Some Wheels was far poppier and more decidedly upbeat than anything Bogguss had released to date, and the change in tempo added immensely to the listening experience. The #60 peaking title track, which reteamed Bogguss with her “Hey Cinderella” co-writers Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison, is an excellent uptempo number not too different from “Believe Me (Baby I Lied)” or “Wild Angles” and nice change of pace for Bogguss. Marcus Hummond and Darrell Scott’s “No Way Out” (also covered by Julie Roberts on her 2004 debut) stalled at #53 despite a wonderful uptempo arrangement and confident vocal from Bogguss. Final single “She Said, I Heard,” a Bogguss co-write with Don Schlitz, is another excellent mid-tempo rockin’ number that nicely recalls of that era Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Bogguss keeps the same pace on Tom Shapiro and George Teren’s “Traveling Light,” which I really, really like although the production leans a bit too generic. She steps far out of her musical comfort zone on Trey Bruce and Craig Wiseman’s “Fall,” framing her energetic vocal behind a decidedly popish drum track. The results are pure filler but Bogguss overcomes the track’s lightness with a charisma that’s hard not to be drawn into.

I thoroughly appreciate Bogguss’ efforts in changing up the proceedings on Give Me Some Wheels and not riding on the quiet angelic ballads that won her so much industry attention a few years earlier. Sure it was a calculated attempt at keeping up with current trends but it worked because Bogguss can pull of these kinds of songs very well.

She didn’t abandon her love of ballads completely, however. Bogguss and her husband Doug Crider co-wrote “Far and Away,” possibly the strongest song that wasn’t on her heyday albums, and if it had been a single back then would’ve likely topped the charts. Her conviction is incredible and I love the riffs of steel guitar heard throughout. “Feelin’ Bout You” is another home run as it beautifully blends the simplicity of a ballad with just enough tempo to keep it interesting. I also love “Let’s Get Real,” which is an example of country/rock done right. It leads as a country ballad complete with fiddle and steel but brings in some crashing drums on the chorus to give it oomph. Bogguss doesn’t sound as committed vocally on this track as I would’ve liked, but it’s very good nonetheless. “Live To Love Another Day” is a further example of Bogguss’ ballad sweet spot and a wonderful addition to the album. “Saying Goodbye To A Friend” is quiet and subtle, but it works thanks to Bogguss’ direct poignancy.

It may seem kind of odd to hear Bogguss positioned as a pop/country singer and not the eloquent balladeer we all came to know (and love) on her early to mid 90s recordings. But she pulls it off just like I knew she could. The issue with her early work was the albums got bogged down in a sea of sameness, a factor Bruce and Hendricks nicely rectified on Give Me Some Wheels. I hadn’t heard the album prior to writing this review, but it’s a very pleasant surprise in all accounts and might just be my favorite of all her recordings. If only every singer (I’m looking at you current Hendricks devotee Blake Shelton) could make trend pandering music sound this good.

Grade: A

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

Single Review – Jana Kramer – ‘Whiskey’

jana-kramer-whiskeyIt was surprising last year when actress turned country singer Jana Kramer broke through the three-woman world of country radio and managed to score the top 5 hit “Why Ya Wanna.” But it was almost shocking that the song was a fiddle, steel guitar, and twang soaked waltz. This almost revelatory move, she’s the first woman since Taylor Swift to see their debut single chart so high, has come with its share of perks – Kramer is one of 10 artists in CMT’s Next Women of Country Campaign and the ACM just nominated her for Top New Female Vocalist.

In similar fashion to “Why Ya Wanna,” a lament about an always-present ex, follow-up single “Whiskey” casts Kramer as a woman being played, this time by a man as addicting and tantalizing as the titular alcoholic drink. Writers Catt Gravitt and Sam Mizell get every detail right, allowing the listener to feel the protagonist’s catch 22; he’s pulling her in even as she sees all the signs to run in the opposite direction.

While it’s nowhere near the league of “Well the cold hard truth revealed what it had known/that boy was just a walkaway Joe” or “I know you don’t think I should go/there’s some things a mama don’t know,” “Whiskey” is a strong defiant woman song and Kramer sings the fire out of it. Her phrasing may be a tad girlish in places (not unlike Jewel at times), but she has a powerful voice and the twang to covey her character’s heartache.

The production is the track’s real achievement, though. Besides Zac Brown Band, there hasn’t been this much audible fiddle and acoustic guitar on a mainstream single in a long time, and she and producer Scott Hendricks deserve credit for not marring the track with any electric guitars or loud crashing drums. I do wish he’d gone further into neo-traditional territory, leaving out the poppish ‘ooohs’ in the intro and adding in steel guitar, but you can’t fault him for slicking it up just enough to get it airplay. In any event, “Whiskey” is allowed to properly breathe, and it’s a refreshing change of pace from the normal mainstream fare (especially that of her fiancé Brantley Gilbert)

I also can’t help feeling that the lyric is a tad lightweight, centering on the sparks felt during a kiss and leaving out any substantial Gretchen Peters-like details of the damage to her psyche as the disintegration of the relationship brings the song to an end. The writers may’ve gotten the push and pull down, but it would’ve been nice to have a few details (more significant than what we get in the bridge) of her condition in the wake of her intuition being proven right.

But the charming production more than makes up for any lyrical deficiencies, easily elevating “Whiskey” into one of the year’s more interesting singles (and my personal favorite from her debut album). It’s a nice slice of addictive ear candy and another winner from a very promising talent.

Grade: B+


Album Review: Blake Shelton – ‘Red River Blue’

redriverblue2011’s Red River Blue marked Blake Shelton’s return to the full-length album format, following a pair of “Six Pak” EPs that were released the year before. Like Hillbilly Bone and All About Tonight, Red River Blue was produced by Scott Hendricks. It is more pop-leaning than his earlier work under Bobby Braddock’s guidance, but it has also been far more successful commercially. Shelton’s record sales have likely enjoyed a boost due to the exposure he has enjoyed as a judge on NBC’s The Voice.

The album’s first single was “Honey Bee”, which was written by Rhett Akins and Ben Hayslip. It’s lyrically fluffy and not terribly country, despite name-checking Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, but nevertheless it’s a catchy, fun tune. It quickly shot to #1 and sold more than two million digital downloads. The second single is a cover version of “God Gave Me You”, which was written and originally recorded by contemporary Christian singer Dave Barnes. I like the song and Blake’s vocal performance, but Scott Hendricks’ production is borderline-bombastic, though one could argue it is restrained in comparison to some of the other songs on the album. It too reached the #1 spot, as did the two subsequent singles “Drink On It” and “Over.” “Drink On It” is a little closer in style to Blake’s earlier work, though the production is a bit too slick for my liking. “Over”, however, crosses the line with overwrought production on the chorus, which is a shame because the song itself is not bad and would have benefited from a more understated arrangement. Heavy-handed production similarly mars an otherwise very good cover of Dan Seals’ “Addicted”, which is one of two bonus tracks on the deluxe version of the album.

As one might glean from the title, “Good Ole Boys” is the most country-sounding track on the album, with a beat that is reminiscent of Waylon Jennings. It laments the disappearance of the good ol’ boy and is one of the best tracks on the album, though I could have lived without the gratuitous reference to feminine hygiene products in the song’s final twenty seconds. Also quite enjoyable is the ballad “I’m Sorry” which features a guest harmony vocal performance by Martina McBride. The title track, on which Blake is joined by Miranda Lambert is one of the quieter tunes on the album. It is one of the album’s highlights and it concludes the main setlist. The deluxe version of the album contains two bonus tracks, the disposable “Chill” and the aforementioned “Addicted”. There is only one track on the album that I dislike: the grating “Hey” with its dumbed-down lyrics and irritating beat.

Red River Blue
isn’t Blake Shelton’s very best work but it does have its good moments and it is a lot better than most of what is on the country charts these days. Admittedly, that is setting the bar low, but the album is worth seeking out.

Grade: B

EP Reviews: ‘Hillbilly Bone’ and ‘All About Tonight’

hillbilly bone2010 saw a departure in Blake’s career, as his label used him as the guinea pig to pioneer their new SixPak idea – EPs with six tracks. It was originally intended that Blake should release three over an 18 month period, but in the event there were just two. Unexpectedly, it was to mark a watershed in Blake’s carer, catapulting him to the very top. None of his singles since 2010 has peaked lower than #1. Generally loud and unsubtle production from Scott Hendricks proved to be exactly tailored for country radio success.

Hillbilly Bone, the first of the two SixPaks, had just one single, the chart topping title track. The duet with Trace Adkins is in many ways annoying with cliche’d lyrics but there is a good humor and charm in the delivery which makes it hard to hate as much as it deserves. It was a genuine smash, selling over half a million downloads, and won Blake CMA and ACM awards for Vocal Event of the Year as well as the coveted CMA Male Vocalist of the Year, the first major awards of his career.

‘Kiss My Country Ass’ is unredeemed crap with no mitigating factors, the epitome of the country pride song with an aggressive edge. A cover of a poorly performing Rhett Akins single written by Akins with regular partner in crime Dallas Davidson and Jon Stone), it is predictably dreadful.

‘You’ll Always Be Beautiful’ is an AC-leaning and sincerely sung romantic ballad about love for a woman even she doesn’t think she’s pretty. It was written by Lee Brice and Jerrod Niemann.

‘Can’t Afford To Love You’ is another Rhett Akins song about a working class guy in love with a high maintenance glamorous girl, which is an undistinguished but okay song buried under too much loud production.

The best track by far on this EP (and the only worthwhile download), Blake’s own song ‘Delilah’ is a rather sensitive song declaring love for a troubled woman who has been unlucky in love elsewhere; the girl’s name, incidentally, was taken from fiancee Miranda Lambert’s dog.

You can’t blame no one but you Delilah
For what you find when you never ever look around
Reach out for the one right here beside ya
And find the one that’s never gonna let you down

Clint Lagerberg and Craig Wiseman’s ‘Almost Alright’ is a well-written song about slowly getting over a relationship, spoiled by the inclusion of Caribbean steel drums which sound tinny.

all about tonightThe title track and lead single from Blake’s second SixPak, ‘All About Tonight’ is a party song written by the Peach Pickers, which, although it’s one of their better efforts, tells you all you need to know. The live ‘Got A Little Country’ which closes proceedings is just as bad and long much the same lines.

‘Who Are You When I’m Not Looking’, the second single, is much, much better, a rather charming love song written by Earl “Bud” Lee and John Wiggins, which had previously been recorded by Joe Nichols. It was another #1 hit for Blake.

‘Draggin’ The River’, written by Jim Beavers and Chris Stapleton, is a playfully performed duet with Miranda Lambert about a Southern rural romance opposed by the girl’s father, which is quite entertaining; the young lovers decide to fake their deaths while they elope. Miranda wrote ‘Suffocating’ with Lady A’s Hillary Scott (who also contributes harmonies), a ballad with rather a bland melody which does not effectively bring the downbeat lyric to life. Uninspired production doesn’t help. ‘That Thing We Do’, written by Jeff Bates and Jason Matthews, is okay but forgettable mid-tempo filler.

A bonus cover of the Dan Seals hit ‘Addicted’ was included for iTunes pre-orders; that track was later included as a bonus on Red River Blue and can be downloaded separately. It’s a shame this didn’t make the main setlist, as it’s a fine version which allows Blake’s incisive voice and sympathetic delivery to shine, and is one of his best recordings, although a stripped down production without the full orchestration which swamps the second half of the song would have made it better still.

Grade: Hillbilly Bone: D; All About Tonight C

Spotlight Artist: Tim McGraw

This month we’ve decided to take a look at the career of one of contemporary country’s biggest stars, Tim McGraw.

Born Tim D’Agostino to a teenage single mother in Louisiana in 1967, Tim believed until he was eleven years old that he was the son of Horace Smith, who had married his mother Betty when Tim was a baby. Smith’s drunken abusive behaviour had led Betty to leave the family home with Tim and her two younger children. Tim disocevered from his birth certificate that he was in fact the son of baseball player Tug McGraw. They met soon after the boy’s discovery, but McGraw senior refused to acknowledge his paternity until Tim was 17. A relationship was forged between the two in Tim’s adulthood, and Tim supported his father through the latter’s unsuccessful fight against cancer.

Music helped take Tim to college, winning him a scholarship. After dropping out in his third year he taught himself to play guitar, and moved to Nashville with a dream. His father had not been there for him during his formative years, but he did help Tim get his career started. One of Tug’s fans worked for Curb Records, and Tug gave him a copy of Tim’s demo tape in 1990. This was enough to get the label interested, and they signed him to a record deal. He then got a band together and began touring small clubs. Curb, always happy to let a young artist develop slowly, released Tim’s debut album in 1993.

Success was slow to come, but eventually he made a breakthrough with smash hit ‘Indian Outlaw’, and his second album Not A Moment Too Soon became the top selling country album of 1994. He was named the Academy of Country Music’s Top New Male Vocalist, and soon became a fixture at the top of the country charts with a string of big radio hits and best selling albums. While he is not the best vocalist out there, and rarely writes his own songs, he has chosen his material well.

In 1996, Tim embarked on the well-named Spontaneous Combustion tour with Faith Hill, during which the pair fell in love. Faith had been engaged to her producer Scott Hendricks, but he was soon history, and she and Tim were married by the end of the year, with the first of their three daughters arriving the following year. They have toured together ever since, recorded a number of duets, and their marriage has proved one of the strongest in modern country music.

A side interest in acting has led to several film roles, most notably 2009’s The Blind Side which won co-star Sandra Bullock an Oscar. He also appeared in the country music themed Country Strong.

Tim’s solo career has proved consistently successful, and he has sold over 40 million records. However, by the second half of the 2000s, his relationship with Curb Records was increasingly fractious – and increasingly public. The label picked odd choices for singles, released a number of hits compilations apparently in an attempt to stave off the fulfilment of the contract, and delayed the release of Tim’s latest album. The conflict eventually reached the courts, with Tim and Curb suing each other. A trial is due to start this summer, but an interim hearing late last year cleared Tim to seek new recording opportunities, and in response to this Curb immediately released his latest single ‘Better Than I Used To Be’, with Emotional Traffic following at the end of January. His future may be uncertain, making this a good time to look back at his career to date.

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Comin’ On Strong’

2001’s Chrome helped Trace Adkins out of a commercial slump, somewhat at the expense of his artistic integrity. His fifth release, 2003’s Comin’ On Strong, follows in a similar vein, moving him further away from his traditional roots and towards more lightweight, less serious fare. Although the strategy had the desired effect of getting Trace back on the radio, it eventually did considerable harm to his credibility as an artist. That’s not to say that there’s nothing to like here; much like its predecessor, Comin’ On Strong is very much a mixed bag.

The first single release was “Hot Mama”, which like “Chrome”, is a beat-driven, lyrically shallow number that does little to challenge the listener. To be fair, “Hot Mama” is a much better song than “Chrome”, but it’s far from Trace’s best and it’s easy to see that he had already started down that slippery slope that reached its nadir with the excerable “Honkytonk Badonkadonk” two years later. “Hot Mama” did quite well at radio, returning Trace to the Top 5 for the first time since 1997’s “The Rest of Mine”. The second single was the good ol’ boy attitude song “Rough and Ready”, which is somewhat catchy, particularly coming at the tail end of an album comprised mostly of mid-tempo ballads. However, it loses its appeal after repeated listenings. It failed to crack the Top 10, petering out at #13. Despite its failure to reach the Top 10, “Rough and Ready” sold enough downloads to become Trace’s first gold-certified single.

After “Rough and Ready” finished it run on the charts, no further singles were released, despite the presence of some worthy candidates. “I’d Sure Hate To Break Down Here” was surely a missed opportunity; a few months later newcomer Julie Roberts released it as her debut single and took it to #18. Although arguably the song is more effective when sung from the female point of view, I prefer Trace’s version and believe that as a more established artist, he could have taken this one into the Top 10. It’s by far the best song on the album. The title track is also one of the better songs on the album. Though not very deep lyrically, it’s one of the more country sounding tracks in the collection, which was a bit surprising because the title implies a more rock-oriented tune. Instead, the rock is provided by the overproduced “One of Those Nights”, which along with the equally overproduced “Missin’ You”, is among the weakest songs on the album.

The rest of the album is mostly forgettable, middle-of-the-road filler that is sometimes marred by the heavy-handed production of Trey Bruce and Scott Hendricks. I’ll give points to “One Nightstand” for trying to be a little creative. In this tune, written by Patrick Jason Matthews and Trey Bruce, Adkins is a husband who has strayed and got caught. At the song’s climax, he is on the bed with a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other — “One of them was gonna save me,” he sings, “the only question was which one.” On the surface, it has all the makings of the perfect country song, but the melody is not very interesting, and the use of the “One Nightstand”, which refers to both his illicit affair, and a table in his seedy rented room, seems very forced and just does not work. Ultimately deciding against taking his own life, he sings, “Funny how a man’s life can all come down to one nightstand.” It seems odd to give credit for the decision to the piece of furniture and not its contents — his wedding ring and a photograph of his family.

Despite having produced only one Top 10 hit, Comin’ On Strong was certified platinum, exceeding the sales of its gold-certified predecessor. With the exception of “I’d Sure Hate To Break Down Here”, there’s nothing here that’s really essential listening, but cheap new and used copies are readily available from third party sellers at Amazon. At a reduced price, it’s worth adding to your collection.

Grade: B-

Album Review – Trace Adkins – ‘Dreamin’ Out Loud’

Released in June 1996, Dreamin’ Out Loud began a career now going fifteen years strong. Debut albums are usually regarded as safe efforts meant to make a good first impression with radio programmers and at retail, but even at the start of his career Adkins was able to let his personality shine through in his music and prove he’s a formable talent. Dreamin’ Out Loud went platinum and scored three consecutive top ten singles including Adkins’s first number one hit “(This Ain’t No) Thinkin’ Thing.”

I chose to review this album because of my love for 90s country and my high regard for country music released in 1996, the year I began taking the genre seriously (at all of nine years old). The music videos for “Every Light In The House” and “(This Ain’t) No Thinkin’ Thing” will always hold fond memories for me as pieces of my childhood.

As for singles, Capitol Records led with “There’s A Girl In Texas,” arguably the least known of any of Adkins’s hits. It was a safe choice for the first single and peaked at number 20.  Like his latest single, “Just Fishin,” “Texas” is the kind of song Adkins excels at – a simple story told without any distracting frills. I’ve always enjoyed the gentle groove of the arrangement – light drums mixed with flourishes of steel guitar. Even though the song isn’t all that special lyrically, Adkins pulls it off quite well.

The second single, “Every Light In The House” not only put Adkins into the upper reaches of the singles chart for the first time, but used an interesting concept to sell the story of a man waiting for his woman to come back home. Instead of merely moping around the house, he turns on every light in hopes she’ll be guided back to him. A piece of nostalgia from my childhood, “Every Light In The House” remains one of my favorite singles Adkins has ever released. I’ve always enjoyed “ House’s” traditional arrangement, which complements the lyrics and Adkins’s voice quite well. But it’s Adkins’s conviction that sells the song for me – You can hear the ache in his voice as he longs for the woman he loves.

Adkins and the label followed it up with the most polarizing song from the album. “Thinkin’ Thing” helped to define country music when it was released in 1997. Sounding nothing like what was playing on country radio at the time, it’s the best indicator he’d travel down this lane frequently with hits like “I Got My Game On,” “Marry for Money,” and “Honky-Tonk Badonkadonk.” But in comparison, it’s his best single in this vein – a sexy contemporary country thumper that expertly uses steel guitar to ground it in the genre. Plus, the “Right Brain/Left Brain” lyric, which was always a tad idiotic, is among the most memorable of any he’s put on record to date.   And the sexy video showcased another side of Adkins as she showed off his dancing, more like grooving, for the first time.

The fourth and final single, “I Left Something Turned On At Home” is the only one of the singles not to age well over time. The kooky concept and double entendre title make this the kind of song you enjoy the first time you hear it but grow to hate as it gets played over and over at radio. A #2 peaking single in 1997, “Home” makes good use of the mid-90s formula to prominently feature fiddles in your songs. It’s nice to hear Adkins sounding country here and I have to give him and producer Scott Hendricks credit for not over doing the musical accompaniment. I like the use of piano and fiddle here – lyrically this track may be a mess, but it is catchy. Even today when I hear it on the radio, I stop and listen. Plus, seeing as I was ten at the time of its release, the song proved a good educational tool regarding its sexual subject matter. Leave it to good ‘ole country music to teach me about adult subjects at such a young age.

As for the rest of the album, Adkins and Hendricks filled the project with safe ballads and a couple throwaway pieces of filler that might have sounded good back then, but take on far too many of the characteristics of the era. Ballads like “A Bad Way of Saying Goodbye,” “I Can Only Love You Like A Man,” “It Was You” and the title track display Adkins’s fine chops at traditional country, a road he needs to travel down more often for me. He’s at his best when backed up by fiddle and steel guitar like he is here. I wouldn’t categorize these songs as remarkable, but they’re far better album tracks than most on country records today. The biggest problem is they all blend together and it’s hard to tell them apart after you’ve listened to the album. I’d like to have seen a bit more variation among the ballads.

But when he does change it up, the results are less than stellar. The foolish “634-5789” details the story of a man who gives out his phone number in hopes of giving a girl the love she’s been missing. I will say it easily becomes stuck in your head, but that’s about all it has going for it. The cheesy arrangement of drums and fiddles doesn’t work in this case because it only makes the song sound formulaic; an excuse to pander to what was popular at the time. Which means it lacks all originality and stands only to fill out a ten-track album.

The only exception is, “If I Fall (You’re Going With Me)” a song eerily similar to “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me,” a Matraca Berg co-write the Dixie Chicks took into the top 5 in 2001. When the Chicks song came out, I had remembered Adkins had this ditty and wondered if they were one in the same. Alas they weren’t, and of course, the Chicks’ song was better. There isn’t anything wrong with Adkins’s “If I Fall.” The more I listen to it, the more it stands out as the best of the “filler” songs. It has a nice honky-tonk groove and while it also toes the popular trends at the time, it does so in a way that doesn’t seem too dated today.

In the end, Dreamin’ Out Loud is a solid first impression by a country singer who’s among the last of his generation to still be going strong at radio. The four best and most memorable songs on the album were released as singles with “Every Light In The House” standing as a classic from its time period. While I wish the second half of the project featured more variation sonically, the ten tracks came together to showcase the arrival of a fine new country singer with a bright future.

The album is widely available from both Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: B

Spotlight Artist: Trace Adkins

Like many of his country music contemporaries, our August spotlight artist Trace Adkins was interested in music from an early age. Born on January 13, 1962 in Springhill, Louisiana, Tracy Darrell Adkins was taught to play the guitar by his father. His maternal grandfather had been a Christian musician, and young Trace followed in his footsteps when he joined the gospel quartet The New Commitments in high school. He studied music at Louisiana Tech University and later worked on an oil rig while continuing to hone his craft playing local clubs and honkytonks. In the early 1990s, he moved to Nashville and continued to play the club and honkytonk circuit there. He eventually garnered the attention of Scott Hendricks, who signed him to Capitol Records.

Success for Trace, though immediate, was inconsistent. His first release for Capitol, “There’s A Girl In Texas”, reached the Top 20. He reached the Top 5 with his next release “Every Light In The House”, and his debut album Dreamin’ Out Loud, released in 1996, achieved platinum status. His second album Big Time also achieved platinum status but only produced one Top 10 single. The next album also produced one Top 10 hit but failed to achieve gold status.

Throughout the first decade of the new millenium, Trace’s sales figures rebounded and in 2003 he became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. His singles didn’t always crack the Top 10 but usually made the Top 20. Lyrically light fare such as “Chrome” and “Hot Mama”, aided by music videos featuring scantily clad women, tended to perform better than more substantive offerings such as “Arlington.” In 2005 he scored his biggest hit with the polarizing “Honkytonk Badonkadonk”, which became his first –and to date, only — platinum single.

After the success of “Honkytonk Badonkadonk”, Trace’s hits began to taper off until he became a contestant on NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice in 2008. During his stint on the program, he released “You’re Gonna Miss This”, which reached #1 and was his first single to crack the Top 20 in nearly two years. During this time he also ventured into acting, appearing on the daytime soap The Young and the Restless, and appearing in the feature films An American Carol in 2008 and The Lincoln Lawyer, alongside Matthew McConaughey in 2011.

In 2009, “‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired”, Trace’s tribute to America’s military men and women, became the highlight of that year’s ACM Awards program, and was released as a charity single to benefit the Wounded Warrior Project.

In 2010, Trace ended a 15-year association with Capitol Nashville when he signed with Toby Keith’s Show Dog-Universal label. His second album for the label is being released today. While his records may not always be stellar, Trace is generally acknowledged as one of country music’s great talents. He suffered a setback in his personal life when a fire recently destroyed his Brentwood, Tennessee home, along with many of his awards and career mementos. We hope that you’ll enjoy our coverage of this sometimes controversial but always interesting performer.

Album Review: Steve Wariner – ‘I Am Ready’

During his six-year stint with MCA Records, Steve Wariner racked up an impressive eight #1 hits, and all of his single releases during that period made the Top 10, with the exception of “There For A While”, his final release for the label. But despite his success at radio, his album sales remained modest. By the time he signed with Arista in 1991, he was ready, as his debut album for the label boldly proclaimed, to finally take his career to the next level. He teamed up with Scott Hendricks and Tim DuBois, for I Am Ready, which sounds fresher and more energized than Steve’s last few albums for MCA.

Steve wrote or co-wrote half of the album’s ten songs, though the biggest hits were provided by outside songrwiters. First up was “Leave Him Out Of This”, a passionate plea to a lover to let go of the past. Written by Walt Aldridge and Susan Longacre, the steel guitar-drenched track with background vocals provided by Vince Gill, climbed to #6 in Billboard. It was succeeded by a cover of Bill Anderson’s 1960 hit “The Tips Of My Fingers”. The song had been recorded many times in the past. Anderson’s original version had peaked at #7. In 1963, Roy Clark resurrected it and took it to #10, and in 1975 Jean Shepherd took it to #16. Steve’s version, like Eddy Arnold’s 1966 rendition, reached #3. It’s my favorite track on the album and the best single of Wariner’s career. “A Woman Loves” didn’t score quite as high, peaking at #9, but it is probably the best remembered track from this collection, thanks to a lot of recurrent airplay.

Two more singles were released — the presumably autobiographical or at least semi-autobiographical “Crash Course In The Blues” and the beautiful but not radio-friendly ballad “Like A River To The Sea”. Both singles peaked in the 30s. Steve had a hand in writing both, and was in fact the sole writer of “Like A River To The Sea”. Both tracks also allowed him to show off his guitar-playing skills.

Over the years, Steve’s music has had a tendency to lean strongly towards adult contemporary at times. By and large this is not the case with I Am Ready, with the exception of “Everything’s Gonna Be All Right”, a very generic and nondescript number that is the weakest link in this collection. The others, such as the opening track “On My Heart Again” to “When Will I Let Go” are solid mainstream 90s country, though “My, How The Time Don’t Fly” is a bit on the bland side.

The underrated gem in this collection is “Gone Out Of My Mind”, a new-at-the-time number that sounds like it hails from a bygone era. Written by Bob Morrison, Gene Dobbins and Michael Huffman, it is the most traditional song on the album. It was covered by Doug Stone in 1998 for the multi-artist collection Tribute To Tradition, but sadly, it failed to crack the Top 40. I prefer Doug’s version to Steve’s, but this is a beautiful song no matter who is singing it, the type of song that made me fall in love with country music.

Country music in the early 90s was just beginning to flex its commercial muscle, and Steve like most other artists who were still getting radio airplay at the time, benefited from the rising tide. After 13 years as a major label recording artist, he finally scored a gold album. The fact that an album that only reached #28 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart could sell 500,000 units is a somewhat grim reminder of how much stronger country album sales were 20 years ago than they are now.

I Am Ready
is Steve Wariner at his very best. If there is only room for one of his studio albums in your collection, this is the one to get. It is still easy to obtain from Amazon and used copies are very inexpensive.

Grade: A

Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘A Lot About Livin’ (And A Little ‘Bout Love)’

Alan Jackson followed up — and eventually eclipsed — the quadruple-platinum success of Don’t Rock The Jukebox with his third studio release, A Lot About Livin’ (And A Little ‘Bout Love) in the autumn of 1992. Once again he teamed up with Keith Stegall and Scott Hendricks, with Stegall taking on the lion’s share of the production duties (Hendricks’ sole contribution to the album was co-producing the track “Tonight I Climbed The Wall”).

The first single, “She’s Got The Rhythm (And I Got The Blues)” was one of the products of a series of 1991 writing sessions between Jackson and Randy Travis. Among the other songs from those sessions are “From A Distance”, from Don’t Rock The Jukebox, and “Forever Together”, “A Better Class of Losers”, and “I’d Surrender All”, which were all included on Travis’ 1991 album High Lonesome. With its R&B flavored arrangement, “She’s Got the Rhythm” was originally written with B.B. King in mind, but Jackson ended up keeping the song for himself. This decision paid off when the tune easily soared up the charts, despite its stylistic departure from Alan’s earlier work. It became his sixth #1 hit in December 1992.

The next single, “Tonight I Climb The Wall”, is one of my favorite Alan Jackson songs. Unlike “She’s Got The Rhythm”, this one is pure, straight unadulterated country, and an instant, if somewhat underrated classic. Despite peaking at #4, it was excluded from his Greatest Hits Collection, though it did resurface on his second greatest hits volume a few years later.

It was the third single — “Chattahoochie” — that became the breakout hit from this collection. Not only did it provide the line that became the title of the album, it received the CMA Awards in 1993 for Single of the Year and Song of the Year. Its release in April 1993 was timed to allow it to become a huge summertime hit, which it did. It became the first Alan Jackson single to earn gold certification, as well as his seventh #1. It’s a pleasant enough light-hearted tune, but one that hasn’t aged as well as the rest of Jackson’s catalog. It would be a stretch to say that I actively dislike the song, but I have grown weary of it over the years and wouldn’t miss it if I never heard it again.

Alan followed up this blockbuster with another summertime smash, “Mercury Blues”, a remake of a song written in 1949 and recorded by K.C. Douglas, who co-wrote it with Robert Geddins. Before Alan Jackson got to the song, it was recorded by the Steve Miller Band in 1976, David Lindley in 1991 and Finn Pave Maijanen in 1987, and it was subsequently recorded by Meat Loaf in 2003 and Dwight Yoakam in 2004. Jackson’s version, which peaked at #2, is by far my favorite. A slightly retooled version of Jackson’s rendition was featured in commercials for Ford trucks,with “Ford truck” being substituted for “Mercury”.

“(Who Says) You Can’t Have It All” was the fifth and final single from this set. Written by Alan with Jim McBride, it is another straight-country, George Jones-influenced number in the vein of “Tonight I Climb The Wall”, and just like that tune, this one peaked at #4 in Billboard. This is the type of song at which Jackson excels; I hope that there is a song or two like this on his new album.

As far as the non-single tracks go, “I Don’t Need The Booze (To Get A Buzz On)” is the weakest song, which means it would probably be the lead single if this album were released today. “Up To My Ears In Tears”, written by Jackson with Don Sampson is a Texas dancehall number that would sound right at home on a George Strait album from the 80s. “Tropical Depression”, also written by Jackson and Sampson, along with Charlie Craig, is an early example of Alan Jackson in his Jimmy Buffett mode, not lyrically or melodically deep, but a pleasant light-hearted number that hasn’t worn out its welcome like “Chattahoochie” has.

Overall, I don’t like this album quite as much as Don’t Rock The Jukebox, but it’s a much stronger collection than some of Jackson’s more recent work. It peaked at #1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and was certified six-times platinum, making it Jackson’s best-selling studio album. It is available from Amazon and iTunes and is well worth adding to your collection, if you don’t own it already.

Grade: B+