My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Shania Twain

Album Review: John Michael Montgomery — ‘Leave A Mark’

By the late 1990s, John Michael Montgomery was still plugging away with solid radio singles. Atlantic followed What I Do Best with his first Greatest Hits package, which featured the single “Angel In My Eyes.” The ballad, which is in line with the sound of his most previous work, hit #4 in 1997.

Like most artists at the time, Montgomery had to adjust his sound to fit within the pop invasion that had overtaken the genre. He released his fifth album, Leave The Mark, in 1998, just as Shania Twain was beginning her dominance with Come On Over. To my ears, at least as far as the singles were concerned, the changes resulted in some of his most paired down work to date.

The album’s first single “Love Workin’ On You,” which stalled at #14, is a lightweight uptempo ditty. He would hit the artistic jackpot, at least as far as mainstream songs are concerned, with the album’s other two singles, both of which featured ample steel guitar and peaked inside the top 5. The mid-tempo “Cover You In Kisses” and the romantic “Hold On To Me” have aged beautifully, with the latter being among the strongest love songs of his career, easily eclipsing his signature hits.

As for the album tracks, “Little Cowboy Cries” details a broken home through the eyes of a boy who believes his daddy’s leaving is his fault. “I Don’t Want This Song to End” is Hallmark schmaltz, but tender and sincere. “I Couldn’t Dream” and “It Gets Me Every Time” are sexualized love songs on both ends of the spectrum. The former is a ac-leaning ballad, while the latter is horrid up-tempo pop.

The uptempo “You’re The Ticket” isn’t horrible, the arrangement has the redeeming qualities of ample fiddle and steel guitar, but the lyric leaves much to be desired.  A chance meeting between exes is at the heart of “I Never Stopped Loving You,” an above average ballad co-written by Mark Willis. Montgomery handles it was ease, committing a strong vocal to the track.

The album concludes with the title track, a reflective ballad doused in dobro. I was quite expecting a horrible uptempo rocker, but this one is actually very good. It would’ve worked well as a single.

Leave A Mark is a mixed bag of an album that misses more than it hits. I do like most of Csaba Petocz production choices throughout, he co-produced the album with Montgomery, although the lyrical content is lazy and weak at best on most of the songs. But Leave A Mark gave Montgomery two more top 5 hits, one of which is among his finest singles, and went gold, so all wasn’t a total loss.

Grade: B

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Spotlight Artist: John Michael Montgomery

Thank you for sticking with us these past few months, as we’ve done our best to bring you fresh content each week. The content will be more regular this month since our Spotlight Artist series is back.

Although it seems we’ve covered just about every major country singer on the planet, at least as it relates to country music from 1980-present, there’s always someone who has escaped our clutches, flying just under the radar. This month it’s John Michael Montgomery, the Kentuckian who made his mark during the boom years with romantic ballads that remain wedding staples more than 25 years since they first climbed the charts.

Montgomery was born, January 20, 1965, in Danville, Kentucky to musician parents. His father was a regional country singer and his mother played drums in his band. He learned to play guitar from his dad, who had him performing on stage by age 5. By the time he was in his teens, Montgomery was performing regularly in the local area, forming a band with his dad and brother while still in high school.

After graduation, he was a regular on the local honky-tonk circuit, where he was discovered. Montgomery signed his record deal with Atlantic Records in 1991 and released his debut album Life’s A Dance in October 1992. His songs were a commercial success out of the gate, with the title track peaking at #4 and “I Love The Way You Love Me” hitting #1.

The success of the ac-leaning romantic ballad, which was co-written by Victoria Shaw and Chuck Cannon, became the blueprint for his career. When it was time to pick a lead single for his sophomore album in late 1993, Atlantic went with “I Swear,” which became a wedding staple upon release. The song would go on to top the country charts for four consecutive weeks in early 1994. Montgomery took home Single of the Year honors from both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association, while the ACM awarded the song’s writers, Gary Baker and Frank J. Meyers, their Song of the Year trophy.

The success of “I Swear” cannot be overstated. In 1995, Pop/R&B group All-4-One covered the song, where it topped the Billboard Hot 100 and hit #1 in nine other countries worldwide. As for Montgomery, the song’s parent album, Kickin’ It Up, hit #1 and sold 4 million copies.

Although he stalled at #4 with the excellent follow-up single “Rope The Moon,” Montgomery didn’t lose any momentum in the wake of “I Swear.” Four consecutive #1s followed “Rope The Moon” including another romantic ballad, “I Can Love You Like That,” which also went mainstream with a cover version by All-4-One. His other big hit during this period was the charming “Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident),” a decidedly uptempo love song that still endears today. His eponymous third album, which featured those hits, also went multi-platinum.

Montgomery’s career had shifted by 1996 when he went decidedly more country on his fourth album, What I Do The Best. Lead single “Ain’t Got Nothin’ On Us” stalled at #15, breaking his winning streak. The album is anchored by the #2 hits “Friends” and “How Was I To Know” and the #6 “I Miss You A Little.”

By the late 1990s, Montgomery’s albums were no longer essential blockbusters, but he remained a presence on radio, despite the pop invasion by Faith Hill, Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes and Dixie Chicks. A Greatest Hits album would bring the top 5 ballad “Angel In My Eyes” and he would enjoy more radio success with “Cover You in Kisses,” “Hold On To Me” and “Home To You.”

By 2000 his brother Eddie was enjoying success with Montgomery Gentry, scoring big radio hits with “Hillbilly Shoes,” “Lonely and Gone,” and “She Couldn’t Change Me.” Brooks & Dunn were coming off of the commercial failure Tight Rope, which allowed the duo to send shockwaves through the industry when the CMA crowned them Duo of the Year, breaking Brooks & Dunn’s eight-year winning streak.

Montgomery was still on the charts himself in 2000, enjoying his seventh and final #1 to date, “The Little Girl,” Harley Allen’s controversial and polarizing tale of a child who witnesses the murder-suicide of her parents. He would have one final #2, the military-themed “Letters From Home” in 2004. Montgomery released his most recent album, Time Flies, in 2008.

Please enjoy our coverage throughout the month.

Classic Rewind: Shania Twain — ‘Still Under The Weather’

Rare performance of a song from her debut album:

Week ending 5/5/18: #1 singles this week in country music history

1958 (Sales):  Oh Lonesome Me / I Can’t Stop Loving You — Don Gibson (RCA Victor)

1958 (Disk Jockeys): Oh Lonesome Me — Don Gibson (RCA Victor)

1968: The Legend of Bonnie & Clyde — Merle Haggard (Capitol)

1978: It’s All Wrong, But it’s Alright — Dolly Parton (RCA Victor)

1988: It’s Such A Small World — Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash (Columbia Nashville)

1998: You’re Still The One — Shania Twain (Mercury Nashville)

2008: I Saw God Today — George Strait (MCA Nashville)

2018: Meant To Be — Bebe Rexha featuring Florida Georgia Line (Big Machine)

2018 (Airplay): You Make It Easy — Jason Aldean (Broken Bow)

Week ending 12/9/17: #1 singles this week in country music history

1957 (Sales): My Special Angel — Bobby Helms (Decca)

1957 (Disc Jockeys): Wake Up Little Susie — The Everly Brothers (Cadence)

1967: It’s the Little Things — Sonny James (Capitol)

1977Here You Come Again — Dolly Parton (RCA)

1987: Somebody Lied — Ricky Van Shelton (Columbia)

1997: Love Gets Me Every Time — Shania Twain (Mercury)

2007: So Small — Carrie Underwood (Arista)

2017: Greatest Love Story — LANco (Arista)

2017 (Airplay): Greatest Love Story — LANco (Arista)

Album Review: Tracy Lawrence – ‘Good Old Days’

If popular culture is to be believed, it seems the 1990s is the hottest decade right now. Most of the ‘new’ television shows are reboots of classics from the era, including Full House and Will & Grace, with the originals casts reprising their roles. In popular music, if you were a major player 20-25 years ago, then its suddenly fashionable to return with new music and slews of concert dates.

In country music, this trend extends to the return of Faith Hill and Shania Twain with their first new music in more than a decade while Garth Brooks is wrapping up his massive three-year tour this month in Nashville. Even Dixie Chicks came home to the United States with their first tour in ten years. What’s old is new again or rather the music that defined my childhood is suddenly hip again.

It would be a stretch to place Tracy Lawrence at the same level since he was never a global superstar or wheeled much influence on an international stage. But he was one of the most consistent and traditional artists in his day, with a catalog that more than stands up to anything released by the artists who may have eclipsed him in status.

To celebrate this resurgence, Lawrence has released Good Ole Days, which recognizes what he refers to as a ‘hunger for the music from my era.’ The album pairs him with modern day country artists singing his hits. The whole concept does seem like a gimmick, a cash grab for the gullible fan unaware they are likely only lining the pockets of the executive who dreamt up this project. But really it’s a chance to finally hear country’s current class sing real well-written songs for the first time in their careers. I jumped at the chance to review this album simply so I could hear how these artists sound when forced to interrupt the actual country music. I’ve always had a theory that there is talent there if these artists had the proper vehicle to show it off.

This is the proper vehicle because instead of the artists making these songs their own, with their typical non-country producers and such, they have to stick within the confines of the original arrangements, including the steel, fiddle, and twang. Without the ability to hide, every weakness would be on the table.

Luke Bryan tackles Lawrence’s 1991 debut “Sticks and Stones” and handles it well. I wasn’t impressed with Jason Aldean’s take on “Just Can’t Break It to My Heart,” his voice was a bit too dirty, but the energy was good.

I remember reading in Quotable Country, on the dearly-departed Country California, Justin Moore says if he had a say he would make an album in the vein of I See It Now. He goes back a bit further here with “Alibis” and knocks it out of the park. Moore is a great country singer and it’s a shame he has to reside in this current climate.

Dustin Lynch sounds exactly like a young Lawrence on “Texas Tornado,” which is kind of scary. His performance isn’t excellent, but it’s damn close. I was surprised Miranda Lambert, who has been known to belt this out in concert, wasn’t singing it but that could’ve been label politics.

Probably the newest artist featured here is Luke Combs, who just hit number one with “When It Rains It Pours.” There’s no mistaking he’s a country singer and he easily pulls this off. The same is true for Chris Young, but he sounds like he’s just going through the paces on “If The Good Die Young.” If he had just let go the results could’ve been incredible.

The legend of Tim McGraw is he moved to Nashville on May 9, 1989, and has always said he’s more of a storyteller while Keith Whitley is a singer. I agree wholeheartedly, but his performance of “Time Marches On” is bland. In contrast, Easton Corbin shines on “Paint Me A Birmingham.”

Kellie Pickler’s talent is wasted on “Stars Over Texas,” which finds her regulated to singing the chorus. As the sole female voice on the whole album, you would’ve thought she’d be allowed more of a presence. I didn’t care for her vocal either, which makes her sound like a little girl.

There are two new songs in the mix. Brad Arnold, the lead singer of Alternative Rock band Three Doors Down (think ‘Here Without You’) joins Lawrence on the title track, which is being billed as his “country music debut.” The song, which also features Big & Rich, is a faux-rock disaster. The military-themed fiddle drenched ballad “Finally Home,” which features Craig Morgan, is better but not really for my tastes.

Good Ole Days is a great concept with lousy execution. These tracks are collaborations between the singer and Tracy Lawrence which doesn’t work on any level. Get rid of Lawrence entirely and turn this into the proper tribute album it’s screaming to be. His nasally twang is insufferable and pointlessly distracting. The lack of female artists in the mix is also troubling, as you don’t need just men to sing these songs.

Grade: B-

Week ending 12/2/17: #1 singles this week in country music history

1957 (Sales): Jailhouse Rock/Treat Me Nice — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1957 (Disc Jockeys): Wake Up Little Susie — The Everly Brothers (Cadence)

1967: It’s the Little Things — Sonny James (Capitol)

1977The Wurlitzer Prize (I Don’t Want to Get Over You) — Waylon Jennings (RCA)

1987: Lynda — Steve Wariner (MCA)

1997: Love Gets Me Every Time — Shania Twain (Mercury)

2007: So Small — Carrie Underwood (Arista)

2017: When It Rains It Pours — Luke Combs (River House/Columbia)

2017 (Airplay): Greatest Love Story — LANco (Arista)

Week ending 11/25/17: #1 singles this week in country music history

1957 (Disc Jockeys): Wake Up Little Susie — The Everly Brothers (Cadence)

1967: It’s the Little Things — Sonny James (Capitol)

1977The Wurlitzer Prize (I Don’t Want to Get Over You) — Waylon Jennings (RCA)

1987: I Won’t Need You Anymore (Always and Forever) — Randy Travis (Warner Bros.)

1997: Love Gets Me Every Time — Shania Twain (Mercury)

2007: Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go) – Dierks Bentley (Capitol)

2017: When It Rains It Pours — Luke Combs (River House/Columbia)

2017 (Airplay): Every Little Thing — Carly Pearce (Big Machine)

Week ending 11/18/17: #1 singles this week in country music history

1957 (Sales): Wake Up Little Susie — The Everly Brothers (Cadence)

1957 (Disc Jockeys): Wake Up Little Susie — The Everly Brothers (Cadence)

1967: It’s the Little Things — Sonny James (Capitol)

1977More to Me — Charley Pride (RCA)

1987: Maybe Your Baby’s Got the Blues — The Judds (RCA/Curb)

1997: Love Gets Me Every Time — Shania Twain (Mercury)

2007: Don’t Blink — Kenny Chesney (BNA)

2017: What Ifs — Kane Brown ft Lauren Alaina (RCA)

2017 (Airplay): Unforgettable — Thomas Rhett (Valory)

Week ending 11/11/17: #1 singles this week in country music history

1957 (Sales): Wake Up Little Susie — The Everly Brothers (Cadence)

1957 (Disc Jockeys): Wake Up Little Susie — The Everly Brothers (Cadence)

1967: You Mean the World to Me — David Houston (Epic)

1977I’m Just a Country Boy — Don Williams (ABC/Dot)

1987: Am I Blue — George Strait (MCA)

1997: Love Gets Me Every Time — Shania Twain (Mercury)

2007: Don’t Blink — Kenny Chesney (BNA)

2017: What Ifs — Kane Brown ft Lauren Alaina (RCA)

2017 (Airplay): When It Rains It Pours — Luke Combs (River House/Columbia)

Album Review: Lisa McHugh – ‘Wildfire’

Unlike Robert Mizzell, with whom I had some familiarity, Lisa McHugh was totally unknown to me. Wildfire is her third studio album, released in September 2015 on the Sharpe label. Because my purchase was via digital download, the album came with no information beyond the song titles and timings.

Like most country albums from outside the USA, there are a large number of covers of US hits, but why not? Many of the songs are new to their target audiences and those that aren’t new are crowd favorites.

I am surprised that neither of the two earlier reviews mentioned how similar in tone and timbre Ms. McHugh’s voice is to Dolly Parton, especially on certain songs. Obviously, Lisa does not have Dolly’s East Tennessee accent.

The album opens with “Mean”, a Taylor Swift composition. McHugh’s version has a very bluegrass feel to it with banjo and fiddle dominating the mix with some mandolin thrown in. McHugh is very much a superior vocalist to Swift, so I actually enjoyed the song.

Someday I’ll be living in a big old city
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean
Someday I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean
Why you gotta be so mean?

“Bring On the Good Times” is an upbeat, uptempo song with a sing-along quality to it. I’m not entirely sure about the instrumentation but there are portions with either a subdued brass section, or else synthesizers mimicking brass. This song has a 1990s country feel to it, and appears to have become a line dancing favorite.

Next up is “Never Alone”, a piano oriented slow ballad that is a cover of a 2007 Jim Brickman single that featured Lady Antebellum:

May your tears come from laughing
You find friends worth having
With every year passing
They mean more than gold
May you win but stay humble
Smile more than grumble
And know when you stumble
You’re never alone

“57′ Chevrolet” is one of the better known songs of the late great Billie Jo Spears, an artist who was underappreciated in her native USA but was venerated in the UK and Ireland. This is a very nice update of Billie Jo’s 1978 classic, a song numerous Irish artists have covered.

Come and look at this old faded photograph.
Honey, tell me what it brings to mind.
It’s a picture of that ’57 Chevrolet.
I wish that we could ride it one more time.

I still get excited when I think about,
The drive-in picture shows you took me to.
But I don’t recall a lot about the movie stars:
Mostly that old Chevrolet and you

[chorus]
They don’t make cars like they used to.
I wish we still had it today.
The love we first tasted,
The good love we’re still living:

We owe it to that old ’57 Chevrolet.
Remember when we used to park it in the lane,
And listen to the country radio?
We’d hold on to each other while the singer sang,
And we’d stay like that ’til it was time to go

“Wrong Night” was written by Josh Leo and Rick Bowles and was a 1999 single for Reba McEntire. The song reached #6 for Reba:

Suddenly I heard love songs.
Playing real soft on the jukebox.
Somebody ordered up moonlight.
And painted stars all across the sky.
Is it gravity or destiny.
Either way there’s nothing I can do.
Looks like I picked the wrong night.
Not to fall in love with you.

Lisa’s vocal resemblance to Dolly is very pronounced on both “Wrong Night” and the next song “Blue Smoke”, a Dolly Parton song from 2012. This song is given the full bluegrass treatment. I very much like this track.

Blue smoke climbin’ up the mountain
Blue smoke windin’ round the bend
Blue smoke is the name of the heartbreak train
That I am ridin’ in

“Dance With the One” was written by Sam Hogin and Gretchen Peters and featured on Shania Twain’s first major label release for Mercury back in 1993 (before Mutt Lange). When I first heard the song, I thought it would be Shania’s breakthrough song – it wasn’t topping out at #55. Lisa does a nice job with the song.

Well he shines like a penny in a little kid’s hand
When he’s out on a Saturday night
He’s a real go-getter and the best two-stepper you’ll see
But when I’m sittin’ alone at a table for two
Cause he’s already out on the floor
I think about somethin’ that my mama used to say to me

You got to dance with the one that brought you
Stay with the one that want’s you
The one who’s gonna love you when all of the others go home
Don’t let the green grass fool you
Don’t let the moon get to you
Dance with the one that brought you and you can’t go wrong

“Favourite Boyfriend of the Year” comes from the song-bag of the McClymonts, a very attractive Australian sister trio. The McClymont version was a little sassier than McHugh’s version, but she does a fine job with this up-tempo romp. I would have liked Lisa’s voice to be a little more up front in the mix. Again, this sounds like 1990s country to my ears.

I’m a little fussy
But I got a little lucky
When the boss from the corner store
He took me out to dinner
And the waiter was a winner
And the boss he was out the door
You’re the one who’s caught my eye
This could be something worth your while

Hey it’s not a waste of time
You’re maybe one of many but you will never
Be the last in line
Hey I’m really glad you’re here cuz you’re one
Of my favourite boyfriends of the year

Nathan Carter (the next artist up in our spotlight) is featured on “You Can’t Make Old Friends”, a quiet ballad that was a Kenny Rogers-Dolly Parton duet back in 2013. While Lisa sounds a lot like Dolly, Nathan does not remind me of Kenny Rogers, although he is a fine singer. Anyway the voices blend nicely.

What will I do when you are gone?
Who’s gonna tell me the truth?
Who’s gonna finish the stories I start
The way you always do?

When somebody knocks at the door
Someone new walks in
I will smile and shake their hands,
But you can’t make old friends

You can’t make old friends
Can’t make old friends
It was me and you, since way back when
But you can’t make old friends

Carly Pearce currently has a song on the radio titled “Every Little Thing” but this is NOT that song. The song Lisa McHugh tackles here is the up-tempo #3 Carlene Carter hit from 1993. Lisa’s voice does not have the power of Carlene’s voice (the daughter of country legends June Carter and Carl Smith should have very substantial pipes) but she does an effective job with the song:

I hear songs on the radio
They might be fast or they might be slow
But every song they play’s got me thinkin’ ’bout you
I see a fella walkin’ down the street
He looks at me and he smiles real sweet
But he don’t matter to me
‘Cause I’m thinkin’ ’bout you

Every little dream I dream about you
Every little thought I think about you
Drives me crazy when you go away
I oughta keep you locked up at home
And like a wild horse I want to break you
I love you so much I hate you
Every little thing reminds me of you
Honey when you leave me here all alone

“The Banks of the Ohio” is an old warhorse, a murder ballad that has been covered by everyone from Ernest Stoneman, The Monroe Brothers and Charley Pride to Olivia Newton-John. Lisa gives this song a very slow folk-Celtic treatment after a spoken narrative. It is very nice and does not sound very similar to any other version I recall hearing.

Lisa gives “Livin’ In These Troubled Times” a Celtic/bluegrass touch with accordion, mandolin taking it at a somewhat faster clip than Crystal Gayle did in her 1983 top ten recording of this song, written by Sam Hogin, Roger Cook and Philip Donnelly. It’s probably heresy to say I like Lisa’s version better than the original, but in fact I do.

It takes all the faith that’s in you
Takes your heart and it takes mine
It takes love to be forgiven
Living in these troubled times

When it rains on the range
And it snows in the Spring
You’re reminded again
It’s just a march of the dying
Living in these troubled times

When I saw the song list for the album, I wondered whether this was the Michael Martin Murphey classic about a horse or the Mac Wiseman bluegrass romp or even possibly the Demi Lovato song from a few years back. As it turns out this “Wildfire” is an entirely different song, by someone named John Mayer. It’s taken at a very fast tempo and given a quasi-bluegrass arrangement.

Don’t get up just to get another
You can drink from mine
We can’t leave each other
We can dance with the dead
You can rest your head
On my shoulder if you want to
Get older with me
‘Cause a little bit of summer makes a lot of history

And you look fine, fine, fine
Put your feet up next to mine
We can watch that water line
Get higher and higher
Say, say, say
Ain’t it been some kind of day
You and me been catchin’ on
Like a wildfire

I got a rock from the river in my medicine bag
Magpie feather in his medicine bag

Say, say, say
Ain’t it been some kind of day
You and me been catchin’ on
Like a wildfire

“Thinking Out Loud” comes from the pen of Ed Sheeran. I don’t know anything about Sheeran (or John Mayer, for that matter) except that my stepson says both are good singers. This is a nice song, a slow ballad nicely sung but I don’t like the instrumentation which strikes me as smooth jazz or cocktail lounge R&B

When your legs don’t work like they used to before
And I can’t sweep you off of your feet
Will your mouth still remember the taste of my love
Will your eyes still smile from your cheeks
And darling I will be loving you ’til we’re 70
And baby my heart could still fall as hard at 23
And I’m thinking ’bout how people fall in love in mysterious ways
Maybe just the touch of a hand
Oh me I fall in love with you every single day
And I just wanna tell you I am

So honey now
Take me into your loving arms
Kiss me under the light of a thousand stars
Place your head on my beating heart
I’m thinking out loud
Maybe we found love right where we are

I’m not a huge Dolly Parton fan so I thought that I would find Lisa’s vocal resemblance to Dolly Parton off putting. I should note that the Parton resemblance only shows up on some songs – on other songs she reminds me of Liz Anderson (mother of Lynn Anderson and a fine songwriter). I’ve listened to this album constantly for the last two days and find that I really like it. With the exception of the last song, the instrumentation is solidly country and while the focus is on faster songs, Lisa varies the tempos sufficiently to keep it interesting and sticks within her vocal range.

With the possible exception of “Bring On the Good Times” for which I could not find any information, all of the songs are covers of earlier recordings. That does not bother me in the least as I’ve always preferred a cover of a great song, than a recording of an unworthy new song.

I’d give this album an “A” – with a better arrangement on the the last song, I’d be tempted to give it an “A+”

Album Review: Lisa McHugh – ‘A Life That’s Good’

Lisa McHugh released her sophomore album, A Life That’s Good, in October 2014. The title track, co-written by Sara Siskind and Ashley Monore, is a sweet ballad about personal fulfillment that first appeared early on in the second season of Nashville.

The album is ripe with covers. McHugh opens with “Applejack,” in which she more than adequately channels Dolly Parton. She turns to Trisha Yearwood with “She’s In Love With The Boy,” wrapping her innocent twang around the timeless tale of Katy and Tommy’s burgeoning love. As if to cover all ends of the spectrum, McHugh turns in a fine rendition of “Any Man of Mine,” which typically sounds like cheesy karaoke outside of Shania Twain’s hands.

A Life That’s Good proves McHugh to favor bright and uptempo material, which makes Vince Gill’s “Feels Like Love” the perfect addition to this set. Also excellent is Red-era Taylor Swift’s “Stay Stay Stay.” McHugh improves on Swift’s album track with a far more organic arrangement and mature performance vocally. Kacey Musgraves’ “My House” is also a delight, although I wish McHugh had settled for a bit less mimicry in her inflections.

On an album of curious covers, closing track “On The Road Again,” which has always been one of my favorite songs, stands above the rest. Her version of the Willie Nelson classic is excellent, infusing her own personality while keeping the essence of the song alive.

“Ireland” continues the album’s bright vibe, with an uptempo love song brimming with gorgeously ear catching fiddle. The cautionary “Hey I’m A Woman” finds McHugh delivering a stern warning to her man that she’s not just one of the guys. “What You Get Is What You See” might just be my favorite vocal of McHugh’s on the whole album. “Night Train to Memphis” is bluegrass in mainstream 1990s country style and every bit as wonderful as you might expect. “Hillbilly Girl” is cheesy but not without its charms.

McHugh does slow the pace on occasion, although those moments are rare. “Home to Donegal,” a power ballad, has good intentions but is way too loud and feels a bit staged. “All of Me” is a misplaced cover of John Legend’s song, far too pop, for placement on such a solidly country album. Steel Guitar-laced ballad “Left to Love,” which perfectly displays her sweet voice, is much better.

McHugh is a delight and I quite enjoyed listening to A Life That’s Good. It’s impossible to listen to her and not fall under her spell. There’s truly nothing not to like about what she’s given us here. I only wish she wasn’t so reliant on covering such well-known songs and was putting the focus, instead, on developing her own artistry. But I really can’t complain when an album sounds this good and this country.

Grade: A

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