My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Shania Twain

Single Review: Shania Twain – ‘Life’s About To Get Good’

Twenty years ago, the ongoing and never-ending “is it country or is it pop” debate focused primarily on Shania Twain, who was the polarizing crossover artist of the day. My assessment was — and still is – that some of her earlier hits were country but most of her music starting with Come On Over was definitely pop. Even before she began crossing over to the pop charts, Shania was controversial for not living in Nashville, not relying on Nashville producers and songwriters, and for not touring to support her breakthrough album The Woman In Me. There is no question that Shania owed a great deal of her success to clever marketing and the savvy of her husband, producer and co-writer Robert John “Mutt” Lange. It is also true that much of the music they made together, regardless of the genre one categorized it under, wasn’t particularly substantive.

That being said, I always felt that Shania was more talented than many of her detractors gave her credit for. After an extended absence from the charts, she has a lot riding on her first full-length album since her divorce from Lange. Aside from the underwhelming 2011 single “Today is Your Day”, it’s been twelve years since she had a record on country radio and fifteen years since she released a full-length studio album. She needed to prove not only that she could still deliver the goods, but also to establish for once and for all that not all of the credit for her prior success was attributable to Lange. Unfortunately, “Life’s About to Get Good”, the advance single from her upcoming new album Now, fails on both counts.

Although the song directly tackles the subject of the adversities Shania has faced since she was a staple on country radio, “Life’s About to Get Good” doesn’t address those issues in a substantive manner. Instead, they are a springboard to the repetitive, Pollyanna-ish platitude that life will be all rainbows and unicorns from this day forward. In so many ways, the song is typical of what we’ve come to expect from Shania: a catchy earworm that doesn’t say a whole lot but provides three minutes or so of distraction from the banalities of day to day life.

It is not a great song, but I have heard far worse. Had Shania released this record during her commercial hey-day it probably would have been just another bit of inconsequential fluff. The real problems with this recording, however lie in the production, beginning with the annoying EDM in the intro, and continuing on with the extreme uses of autotune and the general over-processing of her vocals, which sap the song of any life or emotion that may have been there to begin with. It’s not terribly surprising since neither of the producers (Matthew Koma and Ron Aniello) has a background in country music. It’s not as though I was expecting anything particularly country or rootsy, but it is a bit disappointing that Twain is apparently OK with such heavy-handed and sloppy production that only reinforce the perception that she was just a pretty face that catapulted to stardom due to her ex-husband’s studio wizardry.

Grade: D

Album Review: Bryan White – ‘Between Now and Forever’

between-now-and-foreverBryan White was an established newcomer when Between Now and Forever dropped in March 1996. The final two singles from his self-titled debut had topped the charts and he was on his way to winning the ACM for Top Male Vocalist and the CMA Horizon Award.

White teamed once again with Kyle Lehning and Billy Joe Walker, Jr for his sophomore set. They led with “I’m Not Supposed to Love You Anymore,” an excellent power ballad written by Skip Ewing and Donny Kees. The song tells of a man conflicted by thoughts of his former flame:

We agreed that it was over

Now the lines have all been drawn

The vows we made began to fade

But now they’re gone

Put your pictures in the shoebox

And my gold ring in the drawer

I’m not supposed to love you anymore

 

Now Sherri says she’s jealous

Of this freedom that I’ve found

If she were me, she would be out on the town

And she says she can’t imagine

What on earth I’m waiting for

I’m not supposed to love you anymore

 

Oh, I shouldn’t care or wonder where and how you are

But I can’t hide this hurt inside my broken heart

I’m fighting back emotions that I’ve never fought before

‘Cause I’m not supposed to love you anymore

Also admirable was the second single “So Much For Pretending,” a break-neck uptempo that became White’s third number one hit. The catchy guitar and drum driven arrangement coupled with the charming lyric make this one of my favorites of his.

White was back in ballad territory for the lowest charting single, the #15 peaking “That’s Another Song.” The ballad of lost love is lovely, with a beautiful steel-led instrumental break framing White’s passionate performance. I wanted to say this was my least favorite of the album’s singles, but I love it as much as anything he released from his first two albums.

The album’s fourth single, the uptempo “Sittin’ On Go” impacted country radio twenty years ago this week. It’s yet another worthy turn from White and a perfect slice of uptempo radio fodder. The song deservedly hit #1 and retained its impact for years, at least on my local country station here in Boston.

I’ve owned this album since its release; I was nine at the time, a point in my musical journey in which I primarily listened to the radio hits a record had to offer. But I distinctly remember being enamored with the title track, a mid-tempo ballad co-written by White. I still find the track appealing although it is a bit more thickly produced and less subtle than the ballads released as singles.

The remaining uptempo numbers – “Nickel in the Well” and “A Hundred and One” are typical mid-1990s album filler. White also co-wrote “Blindhearted,” a ballad with nice flourishes of steel and “On Any Given Night,” just more of the same steel-fueled pop balladry.

I hold anything Mac McAnally writes in the highest of regard, as he composed “Café On The Corner,” one of the strongest down-on-your-luck working man tunes of the 1990s, and the best of the sub-genre I’ve ever heard. To Between Now and Forever he contributes “Still Life,” a ballad I wouldn’t have given a second look but for he wrote it. The track begins shaky, and is not McAnally even close to his best lyrically, but hits its stride in the second verse when the story, about a man stuck without his woman, takes a memorable turn:

The chances were given to get on with livin’

The truth is that he never tried

And no one ever sees him most folks don’t even

Remember which one of ’em died

But he still denies it, he closes his eyes and

 

It’s still life without you and I still hold on

What it feels like you can’t go by that

It’s still life, still life without you

Oh, still life, still life without you

Between Now and Forever is above average as far as squarely mainstream releases go. The set is very solid and the singles were worthy of release. White would have success as a writer when Diamond Rio took his co-penned “Imagine That” into the Top 5 in 1997. He would score just two more notable hits, both coming the following year. He would hit #4 with his own “Love Is The Right Place” and #6 as Shania Twain’s duet partner on “From This Moment On,” which later abandoned his contributions in favor of a solo pop-focused rendition of the now-classic love song. He would fade away at dawn of the new millennium.

Between Now and Forever captures an artist at their artistic peak, a time when everything worked for hits and platinum level sales. White was never truly a hot comity in country music although those from this era will remember his music, especially “Sittin’ On Go.”

Grade: A

Spotlight Artist: The Whites

After featuring more than 100 artists over the past eight years of writing for this blog, it’s becoming more challenging to find interesting artists to spotlight. This month we decided to do something a little different. When discussing possibilities, it occurred to us that there have been quite a few country music acts that have shared the surname White. Since none of them really has a discography large enough to write about for an entire month, we’ve decided to do a group spotlight and feature the best work of each:

the-whites1. The Whites are a family act consisting of Buck White and his daughters Sharon and Cheryl. Buck played piano for Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow in the 1950s. He and his wife Pat performed in Texas and Arkansas with another couple and were known as The Down Home Folks. Their daughters joined the family act in the 1960s. The family relocated to Nashville in 1971 and Pat retired from the group shortly thereafter. Buck White and the Down Home Folks released a few independent albums in the 70s and in 1978 Sharon and Cheryl were invited by Emmylou Harris to sing harmony vocals on her Blue Kentucky Girl album. Sharon married Ricky Skaggs in 1982 and the following year the group, now known as The Whites, released their first major label album on Curb Records in partnership with Warner Bros. The album yielded four Top 10 hits, including “You Put The Blue In Me”, “Hangin’ Around”, “I Wonder Who’s Holding My Baby Tonight”, and “Give Me Back That Old Familiar Feeling”. The following year they moved to Curb/MCA and enjoyed another handful of hits, which tapered off by the end of the decade. They joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1984 and have been one of its flagship acts ever since.

larigreengrillecu2. Lari White, a native of Dunedin, Florida, grew up singing gospel with her family, and in 1988 she was a winning contestant on The Nashville Network’s You Can Be a Star. She was awarded a recording contract with Capitol, but was dropped from the label when her debut single failed to chart. She joined Rodney Crowell’s band in 1991 and he produced her first album when she landed a deal with RCA the following year. She released three albums for RCA, and scored three Top 10 hits in the process: “That’s My Baby”, “Now I Know”, and “That’s How You Know (When You’re In Love)”. She released one album for Lyric Street in 1998 and has released a pair of independent albums after leaving that label.

mwhite23. Michael White is the son of songwriter L.E. White, who wrote some of Conway Twitty’s hits. Michael’s composition “You Make It Hard To Take The Easy Way Out” was released as the B-side of Twitty’s 1973 hit “You’ve Never Been This Far Before”. Michael’s brief stint with Reprise Records in the early 90s produced one album and a few singles, one of which (“Professional Fool”) reached the Top 40.

p_tqj4. Joy Lynn White, also known as simply Joy White, is a critically acclaimed singer who released two albums for Columbia and one for Mercury in the 1990s, before moving to indie labels in the early 2000s. Her 1993 single “Cold Day In July” reached the lower rungs of the Billboard country singles chart and was later a hit for The Dixie Chicks.

bryan-white5. Bryan White enjoyed a string of hits in the 90s as an Asylum Records recording artist, beginning with “Eugene You Genius” which was released when he was just 20 years old. In 1995 he enjoyed his first #1 hit with “Someone Else’s Star”. In 1998 he teamed up with Shania Twain for the duet “From This Moment On”. By the time his fourth album was released, his commercial momentum had slowed, so he took a five-year sabbatical from the music business. He returned in 2009 with the independently released Dustbowl Dreams and is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to finance the release of a new album.

We hope that you will enjoy revisiting — or discovering for the first time — the work of this group of artists during the month of February.

Week ending 7/16/16 – #1 singles this week in country music history

hqdefault-71956 (Sales): Heartbreak Hotel/I Was The One — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1956 (Jukebox): Heartbreak Hotel/I Was The One — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1956 (Disc Jockeys): Crazy Arms — Ray Price (Columbia)

1966: Think of Me — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1976: The Door Is Always Open — Dave & Sugar (RCA)

1986: Hearts Aren’t Made to Break (They’re Made to Love) — Lee Greenwood (MCA)

1996: No One Needs to Know — Shania Twain (Mercury)

2006: Summertime — Kenny Chesney (BNA)

2016: H.O.L.Y. — Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

2016 (Airplay): Wasted Time — Keith Urban (Capitol)

Album Review: Clay Walker – ‘Hypnotize the Moon’

41GiVi-n6VLIn 1995, while promoting his then-new release Hypnotize the Moon, Clay Walker told Country Song Roundup, “I try to record music that is going to be played on the radio twenty years from now. It’s hard to make songs stand out with so many artists and songs out there.” So now that more than twenty years have passed, let’s see if his goals were met.

In terms of still playing on the radio, one would have to conclude that the goal was not met. While no one could have foreseen that country radio would take such a seismic shift away from its roots, the truth is that none of the four singles from Hypnotize the Moon are among Walker’s best-remembered hits today, despite the fact that three of them were Top 5 hits. I didn’t remember any of them from reading their titles, although they all came back to me once I heard them again. “Who Needs You Baby” a radio-friendly uptempo number that Walker co-wrote with Kim Williams and Randy Boudreaux is the best of the four. It just missed topping the chart, peaking at #2, as did the title track — another Walker co-write (with Kim Williams and Ken Blazy this time) which has a few more pop flourishes than its predecessor. Richard Fagan’s “Only on Days That End in ‘Y'” is a very good uptempo barn-burner that landed at #5. I probably wouldn’t have chosen “Bury the Shovel” for release a as single. Radio was also less than impressed; it topped out at #18.

In an era that knew no shortage of mainstream talent, Clay Walker never really stood out from the pack as far as I was concerned. I enjoyed listening to his singles on the radio but never felt compelled to buy any of his music. That being said, I wish that mainstream artists were still releasing albums like this today. Walker and producer James Stroud made a conscious decision to make a very traditional album, at a time when the genre was starting to swing back towards pop — remember that Shania Twain’s The Woman In Me was released the same year. There are some real gems among the album tracks, particularly the gorgeous waltz “Let Me Take That Heartache (Off Your Hands)” — another Walker/Williams/Blazy composition, “Loving You Comes Naturally to Me”, and “A Cowboy’s Toughest Ride”, a Walker/Williams/Boudreaux number that showcases Clay’s strength as a ballad singer. The album closes with a nice version of the Steve Wariner/Bill LaBounty song “Love Me Like You Love Me”, which Wariner later covered on his 1998 album Burnin’ the Roadhouse Down.

Getting back to Walker’s long-term hopes for the album: it may not be his best-remembered but it has definitely stood the test of time. There are no moments of greatness, but no serious missteps, either. Hypnotize the Moon is not a great album, but it is a very good one and these days, very good is more than good enough.

Grade: B+

Week ending 5/14/16: #1 singles this week in country music history

Charley-Pride_1981-21956 (Sales): Heartbreak Hotel/I Was The One — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1956 (Jukebox): Heartbreak Hotel/I Was The One — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1956 (Disc Jockeys): Heartbreak Hotel — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1966: I Want To Go With You — Eddy Arnold (RCA)

1976: My Eyes Can Only See as Far as You — Charley Pride (RCA)

1986: Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days) — The Judds (RCA/Curb)

1996: You Win My Love — Shania Twain (Mercury)

2006: Who Says You Can’t Go Home — Bon Jovi with Jennifer Nettles (Island)

2016: Somewhere on a Beach — Dierks Bentley (Capitol)

2016 (Airplay): Think of You — Chris Young featuring Cassadee Pope (RCA)

Week ending 5/7/16: #1 singles this week in country music history

mickey-gilley-041956 (Sales): Heartbreak Hotel/I Was The One — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1956 (Jukebox): Heartbreak Hotel/I Was The One — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1956 (Disc Jockeys): Heartbreak Hotel — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1966: I Want To Go With You — Eddy Arnold (RCA)

1976: Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time — Mickey Gilley (Playboy)

1986: Once in a Blue Moon — Earl Thomas Conley (RCA)

1996: You Win My Love — Shania Twain (Mercury)

2006: Who Says You Can’t Go Home — Bon Jovi with Jennifer Nettles (Island)

2016: Somewhere on a Beach — Dierks Bentley (Capitol)

2016 (Airplay): Confession — Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

Album Review: Lorrie Morgan – ‘Letting Go … Slow’

51bUlVvWr7LI’ve been a fan of Lorrie Morgan ever since I first saw her video of “Trainwreck of Emotion” on TNN back in 1988. I’ve followed her career ever since, though admittedly not quite as closely since her days as a major label artist ended about 15 years ago. I’ve always felt that the true artists are the ones who continue to make music after they’ve peaked commercially. Morgan certainly falls into that category; she released three solo albums and one collaboration with Pam Tillis in the years since her tenure with BNA Records ended. But post- commercial peak projects are often a mixed bag, particularly for artists who don’t write a lot of their own material. Finding good songs is frequently a challenge – and then there is the added problem of declining vocal power, which often plagues aging artists.

Fortunately, Morgan has overcome both of those obstacles on her latest collection Letting Go … Slow, which was released by Shanachie Entertainment last week. In an interview with Country Universe she said that she spent a considerable amount of time working to get her voice back in shape. The effort has paid off in spades; she sounds better on Letting Go … Slow than she has in years. And although she relies heavily on cover material to compile an album’s worth of songs, she’s managed to dig a little deeper and come up with some gems that are deserving of another listen but have been largely overlooked by the plethora of artists releasing covers albums in recent years. Read more of this post

Week ending 2/13/16: #1 singles this week in country music history

maxresdefault-31956 (Sales): Sixteen Tons — Tennessee Ernie Ford (Capitol)

1956 (Jukebox): Sixteen Tons — Tennessee Ernie Ford (Capitol)

1956 (Disc Jockeys): Why Baby Why — Red Sovine & Webb Pierce (Decca)

1966: Giddyup Go — Red Sovine (Starday)

1976: Sometimes — Bill Anderson & Mary Lou Turner (MCA)

1986: Hurt — Juice Newton (RCA)

1996: (If You’re Not In It For Love) I’m Outta Here — Shania Twain (Mercury)

2006: Jesus, Take The Wheel — Carrie Underwood (Arista)

2016: Die a Happy Man — Thomas Rhett (Valory)

2016 (Airplay): Home Alone Tonight — Luke Bryan feat. Karen Fairchild (Capitol)

Week ending 2/6/16: #1 singles this week in country music history

maxresdefault-21956 (Sales): Sixteen Tons — Tennessee Ernie Ford (Capitol)

1956 (Jukebox): Sixteen Tons — Tennessee Ernie Ford (Capitol)

1956 (Disc Jockeys): Love, Love, Love — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1966: Giddyup Go — Red Sovine (Starday)

1976: Convoy — C.W. McCall (MGM)

1986: Just In Case — The Forester Sisters (Warner Bros)

1996: (If You’re Not In It For Love) I’m Outta Here — Shania Twain (Mercury)

2006: Jesus, Take The Wheel — Carrie Underwood (Arista)

2016: Die a Happy Man — Thomas Rhett (Valory)

2016 (Airplay): Die a Happy Man — Thomas Rhett (Valory)

Album Review: Highway 101 & Paulette Carlson – ‘Reunited’

51HKJyMSbOLSix years after she left for an abortive attempt at a solo career, Paulette Carlson rejoined briefly with bassist Curtis Stone and guitarist Jack Daniels, who had left in 1993.

Gone was drummer Cactus Moser. Also gone was the musical environment that had spawned Highway 101, and any sort of major label record deal as the new album was released on Intersound, a label primarily know for releases by obscure artists, and albums of remakes by over-the-hill first and second tier artists of the not too distant past. Carlson and Daniels would soon depart again and neither has been part of Highway 101 since 1997.

Reunited was released in 1996 and was comprised of twelve tracks. Four of the tracks were reprises of earlier Highway 101 singles (“The Bed You Made for Me”, “Setting Me Up”, “All the Reason Why” and “Walkin’, Talkin’, Cryin’, Barely Beatin’ Broken Heart”). Two new singles (“Where’d You Get Your Cheatin’ From” and “It Must Be Love”) were released, neither of which charted, and there were six other songs on the album.

While I looked forward to getting the album, I found that I was somewhat disappointed in the sound of the album as the overall sound was much louder than previous albums. I also found the album’s use of percussion somewhat jarring. There are points in which the drums are the predominant sound.

The album opens with “Where’d You Get Your Cheatin’ From”, written by Paulette Carlson, Tom Shapiro, and Chris Waters. Had the song been released in 1988 rather than 1996, and with slightly different production, the song would have been a hit single. Unfortunately radio in 1996 was not really friendly to honky-tonk music

“The Bed You Made for Me” was one of Highway 101’s biggest hits, reaching #4 in 1987. This version sticks pretty close to the original arrangement

“Holdin’ On”, written by Christy Seamans and Curtis Stone is a sad song about lost love and abandonment, taken at a slower tempo. It’s a nice album track, nothing more.

Much the same can be said of “Hearts on the Run”, a Larry Butler, Jeff Sauls & Susan Sauls composition. The percussion of is much more subdued on this track, and frankly it sounds more like a Paulette Carlson single than a Highway 101 track.

Mark Knopfler’s “Setting Me Up” is next, a cover that reached #7 in 1989. The arrangement is fairly faithful to the original version, but the track runs about thirty seconds longer than the original version.

Paulette Carlson wrote “She Don’t Have the Heart to Love You” a nice ballad and better than average album track.

In my opinion “Texas Girl” penned by Paulette Carlson, Gene Nelson and Jeff Pennig is the best song on the album, a song that would have been a hit if released anytime between 1950 and 1990. The song is a excellent two-step with one of Paulette’s better vocals. Even in 1996 it might have made a successful single

Another of Highway 101’s hits follows in “All the Reasons Why” by Paulette Carlson and Beth Nielsen Chapman. The song reached #5 in 1988.

“Walkin’, Talkin’, Cryin’, Barely Beatin’ Broken Heart” from the tandem of Roger Miller and Justin Tubb was a surprise hit in 1989, a cover of a Johnnie Wright hit from 1964. This version is true to their #4 hit from a few years earlier. I think Roger Miller had the best version of the song on one of his albums, but this version is very close. In my opinion (humble or otherwise) this is classic country songwriting

If you see me in some corner looking like all hope is gone
If you see me sit for hours and you wonder what is wrong
Well, it hurts to talk about it but my world just fell apart
I’m a walkin’, talkin’, cryin’, barely beatin’ broken heart

Did you see the teardrops fallin’ and the tremble in my hands
Then you’ll know that there’s a story and nobody understands
It’s a sad and lonely story but I’ll try to make it short
I’m a walkin’, talkin’, cryin’, barely beatin’ broken heart

Tony Haselden and Harold Shedd were responsible for “I’ve Got Your Number”, a rather sardonic song that might have made a decent single in another time and place (and perhaps in another genre)

Now word’s around you’re back in town and headed for my heart
I’m not the same I’m one old flame that you ain’t gonna start
There ain’t no doubt the fire went out when you broke this heart in two
So honey, don’t call me til I call you You know
I’ve got your number But your phone ain’t gonna ring off the wall
Because I’ve got your number and honey, that’s the reason I won’t call.

Another decent album track as is the Curtis Stone – Debi Cochran composition “It Must Be Love”.

The final track “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman” comes from the pens of Bryan Adams, Michael Kamen and Robert John “Mutt” Lange). At the time this album was released, Lange was a few years prior to the mega-success he would experience with his then wife Shania Twain. This song is essentially a Paulette Carlson solo effort. It’s not a bad song but at 5:43 the song is just too long.

This isn’t a bad album, initial reservations notwithstanding. I will say that I was surprised at how integral a part of the Highway 101 sound was Cactus Moser. While John Wesley Ryles is an outstanding background singer (and probably should have been a star in his own right), the vocal blend of Curtis Stone, Jack Daniels and John Wesley Ryles is not the same as that of Curtis Stone, Jack Daniels and Cactus Moser, and the album suffers for it. The CD is an enhanced CD which contains some extra videos and text when played on a CD-ROM drive

I’d give this album a solid B .

Week ending 8/1/15: #1 singles this week in country music history

65d4876d6c6750a7cc2bf6e0f47728951955 (Sales): I Don’t Care/Your Good For Nothing Heart — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Jukebox): In The Jailhouse Now — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Disc Jockeys): A Satisfied Mind — Porter Wagoner (RCA)

1965: Before You Go — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1975: Touch the Hand — Conway Twitty (MCA)

1985: Love Don’t Care (Whose Heart It Breaks) — Earl Thomas Conley (RCA)

1995: Any Man of Mine — Shania Twain (Mercury)

2005: As Good as I Once Was — Toby Keith (DreamWorks)

2015: Girl Crush — Little Big Town (Capitol)

2015 (Airplay): Tonight Looks Good On You — Jason Aldean (Broken Bow)

Week ending 7/25/15: #1 singles this week in country music history

images-41955 (Sales): I Don’t Care/Your Good For Nothing Heart — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Jukebox): In The Jailhouse Now — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Disc Jockeys): A Satisfied Mind — Porter Wagoner (RCA)

1965: Before You Go — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1975: Touch the Hand — Conway Twitty (MCA)

1985: Dixie Road — Lee Greenwood (MCA)

1995: Any Man of Mine — Shania Twain (Mercury)

2005: As Good as I Once Was — Toby Keith (DreamWorks)

2015: Girl Crush — Little Big Town (Capitol)

2015 (Airplay): Love You Like That — Canaan Smith (Mercury)

Classic Rewind: Shania Twain – ‘Dance With The One That Brought You’

Released in July 1993, this Sam Hogin and Gretchen Peters co-write was the second single from Twain’s eponymous album. On the charts for eleven weeks, the track peaked at #55. Sean Penn directed the music video.

Album Review: Allison Moorer – ‘The Hardest Part’

412ARG3SR7LOne could easily be forgiven for confusing Allison Moorer for Shelby Lynne because their voices are remarkably similar. However, Moorer’s early music is a lot more rootsy than her older sister’s work at the same stage in her career. And while Lynne has mostly avoided discussing the violent murder-suicide that claimed the lives of their parents, Moorer tackled the issue head-on with her sophomore album.

Released in 2000 by MCA, The Hardest Part is an album of all original material written by Moorer and her then-husband Doyle Lee Primm, who co–produced the project with Kenny Greenberg. According to Moorer, it is not a factual recounting of her parents’ tragic story, rather it is a concept album about a disintegrating relationship and was inspired by what she saw her mother endure after she left Moorer’s alcoholic father. Surprisingly, this is not the downer of an album one might be expecting. While the songs are not lighthearted fare, they are, for the most part, typical break-up songs that have long been a staple of country music. Listeners who aren’t familiar with Moorer’s backstory won’t consider the album anything out of the ordinary.

Not surprisingly, the album’s more traditional tracks are my favorites, from the title track that opens the album, to “Is It Worth It” and “Feeling That Feeling Again”, which is the best song on the album. The more contemporary tracks, while enjoyable and still containing plenty of fiddle and steel, are a bit heavy on the strings and electric guitar for my liking.

The most moving song on the album is the one that directly addresses the night Moorer’s parents died. “Cold, Cold Earth”, a hidden track at the end of the album, is an acoustic murder ballad that is surprisingly sympathetic to her father. At times it comes close to excusing his actions. Attempting to reconcile with his family, Moorer’s father becomes despondent and “drunk with grief and loneliness, he wasn’t thinking straight”, and shoots his ex-wife and then himself when it becomes clear she isn’t interested in reconciling. Even as a work of fiction, it would be a sad story, but it’s absolutely tragic to think that the singer is recounting a personal experience.

The Hardest Part produced two radio singles, “Send Down An Angel” and “Think It Over” which charted at #66 and #57, respectively, but despite its lack of hits the album itself reached #26 on the albums chart. It’s a very good album that might have fared better if it had been released a few years earlier. In 2000 when Shania Twain and Faith Hill were having huge crossover hits, it wasn’t what country radio wanted. It is, however, well worth checking out.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Shelby Lynne – ‘Restless’

51aMwLjN8yLShelby Lynne parted ways with Epic after three albums, all of which underperformed commercially, citing a lack of creative control as one of the reasons for her departure. She’d decided that if country radio wasn’t going to embrace her, she at least wanted critical acclaim and the freedom to go in different musical directions if she so chose. Temptation, her first post-Epic release had little to do with country music, but the follow-up Restless, is a different story. It is widely regarded as a western swing album, but it also has some elements of blues, as well as some more mainstream fare which suggested that Shelby hadn’t completely given up on the idea of having some radio hits.

Restless was issued by a different label than Temptation — originally issued by Magnatone and later re-released by Curb, but retained most of the personnel that had worked on the previous album. Brent Maher was back on board as producer and, along with Jamie O’Hara, as a co-writer on several of the album’s tracks. Shelby herself had a hand in writing six of the album’s ten tracks. I was slightly underwhelmed by the opening track and lead single “Slow Me Down”, which was the album’s only charting single, peaking at #59. It was followed up by the non-charting and more mainstream “I’m Not The One”, which really deserved more attention and likely could have been a hit for a more established artist. “Another Chance at Love”, the final single, is a pure western swing number which is excellent but probably not the most commercially viable choice in a radio environment which at the time was preoccupied with the crossover music of Shania Twain. “Hey Now, Little Darling” might have been a better choice, but by this time it was quite obvious that radio wasn’t much interested in anything Shelby had to offer.

I’m a big western swing fan, so there is much here for me to like: the title track, “Reach For The Rhythm” and “Swingtown” are all excellent. The blues-laced “Just For The Touch of Your Hand” is not quite as good but still enjoyable. It sounds tailor-made for Wynonna Judd, which is not surprising given Maher’s and O’Hara’s long association with Wynonna and The Judds. The pop-tinged ballad “Wish I Knew” is well performed but seems out of place on this album. The album’s best track is the underrated Jamie O’Hara gem “Talkin’ To Myself Again”, which had become the final Top 20 hit for Tammy Wynette almost a decade earlier.

Like its predecessors, Restless was a commercial disappointment and resulted in the end of the country phase of Shelby’s career and the beginning of a series of albums that explored various styles of pop. It is however, my favorite Shelby Lynne album. If you are only going to own one of her albums, make it this one.

Grade: A

Album Review: Aaron Watson – ‘A Texas Cafe’

2001’s A Texas Cafe was released two years after Aaron Watson’s eponymous debut. A collection of Texas honky-tonk tunes, it is a stark contrast to the mainstream country music of the day, which was dominated by crossover artists such as Shania Twain and Faith Hill. While firmly entrenched in tradition, it is not a retro or throwback record; it is simply a collection of uncomplicated and unpretentious songs that ought to be a staple of country music in any era.

51GN5QJTwPL._SS500_In many ways, Watson is reminiscent of a young George Strait, and though it’s tempting to speculate that he might have been a superstar had he emerged a decade earlier, the songs on A Texas Cafe are probably not quite commercial enough even for Nashville’s New Traditionalist era. Watson writes most of his own material, and I believe the songs on this album are all originals, and though they are all very good, he album probably could have benefitted from some contributions by outside songwriters. With a few exceptions, the songs are not particularly memorable; their main appeal lies in their simple production, with plenty of prominent fiddle and steel, and Watson’s straightforward delivery.

The album did not chart, nor did it produce any radio hits, but there are a handful of standout tracks, mostly in the second half of the album. My favorite is the uptempo “Charlene Gene”, about unrequited love. Though it takes place in a trailer park among self-professed rednecks, it avoids most of the cliches of today’s redneck anthems. In fact, though the trailer park locale provides some humor and charm, the story could just as easily have been set elsewhere. “When All Those Aggies Move To Austin” is a variation on the well-worn “I’ll take you back when hell freezes over” theme, with plenty of references to the Lonestar state. It is also the one song on the album that has a slight Southern Rock feel, with plenty of electric guitar along with the fiddle and steel.

The Western-swing flavored “Amarillo Fair” is also quite good. The title track is a bit reminiscent of Alan Jackson’s “Little Man”, with its references to mom-and-pop businesses that could not compete with big box chain stores. It differs from Jackson’s song, though, in that the heart of the town — its local cafe — remains resistant to change. But as far as the ballads go, “Every Time I Hear Those Songs” is by far the best. It pays tribute to the late Conway Twitty; the protagonist reminisces about enjoying Twitty’s music with a loved one that is now gone. I assumed throughout most of the song that it was about a lost love, but in the song’s closing lines it is revealed that the loved one is the narrator’s late mother.

A Texas Cafe is a fine listen for anyone who is looking for an alternative to bro-country or any of the other dreck currently on county radio.

Grade: A

Week ending 12/20/14: #1 albums this week in country music history

garth brooks - garth brooks and the magic of christmas1964: Buck Owens- Together Again (Capitol)

1969: Charley Pride – The Best of Charley Pride (RCA Victor)

1974: John Denver – Back Home Again (RCA)

1979: Kenny Rogers – Kenny (United Artists)

1984: Willie Nelson –  City of New Orleans (Columbia)

1989: Randy Travis – No Holdin’ Back (Warner Brothers)

1994: Tim McGraw – Not a Moment Too Soon (Curb)

1999: Garth Brooks – Garth Brooks and the Magic of Christmas (Capitol)

2004: Shania Twain – Greatest Hits (Mercury)

2009: Taylor Swift – Fearless (Big Machine)

2014: Garth Brooks – Man Against Machine (RCA/Pearl)

Week ending 12/13/14: #1 albums this week in country music history

buck owens - together again1964: Buck Owens- Together Again (Capitol)

1969: Johnny Cash – At San Quentin (Columbia)

1974: Merle Haggard – Merle Haggard Presents His 30th Album (Capitol)

1979: Kenny Rogers – Kenny (United Artists)

1984: Willie Nelson –  City of New Orleans (Columbia)

1989: Randy Travis – No Holdin’ Back (Warner Brothers)

1994: Tim McGraw – Not a Moment Too Soon (Curb)

1999: Shania Twain – Come On Over (Mercury)

2004: Shania Twain – Greatest Hits (Mercury)

2009: Taylor Swift – Fearless (Big Machine)

2014: Garth Brooks – Man Against Machine (RCA/Pearl)

Week ending 12/6/14: #1 albums this week in country music history

george strait - lead on1964: Buck Owens- Together Again (Capitol)

1969: Johnny Cash – At San Quentin (Columbia)

1974: Merle Haggard – Merle Haggard Presents His 30th Album (Capitol)

1979: Kenny Rogers – Kenny (United Artists)

1984: Willie Nelson –  City of New Orleans (Columbia)

1989: Randy Travis – No Holdin’ Back (Warner Brothers)

1994: George Strait – Lead On (MCA)

1999: Faith Hill – Breathe (Warner Brothers)

2004: Shania Twain – Greatest Hits (Mercury)

2009: Carrie Underwood – Play On (Arista/19)

2014: Garth Brooks – Man Against Machine (RCA/Pearl)