My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Sherrie Austin

Album Review: Jo Dee Messina – ‘Me’

meJo Dee’s latest album, released last year on her own label after she was released from her longstanding contract with Curb Records, was crowdfunded thanks to a Kickstarter campaign by her fans. It is broadly in keeping with Jo Dee’s work on Curb, contemporary pop-country which sounds positively understated compared to some of the current fare, but lacking even token nods to more traditional country instrumentation.

The lead single ‘Peace Sign’ is an assertive response to a breakup, with the protagonist cheerfully calling herself “dumb” for falling for the kind of man who dumps her by e-mail. While not the subtlest of songs, it should appeal to Jo Dee’s fans. It is one of two songs co-written by Jo Dee’s former Curb labelmate Amy Dalley, the other being ‘Breakin’ It Down’, another well-written (though unfortunately over-produced and sung) breakup song with an upbeat edge, although this time she is the one breaking away.

The assertive second single, ‘A Woman’s Rant’, is a self-penned plaint about the specific difficulty of modern life for women trying to juggle motherhood and career while getting paid less than male counterparts:

There’s so many things I can’t begin to understand
The differences that are between a woman and a man
You see, women they do twice the work and get half the pay
Men they climb the ladder while the women pave the way
They say that we’re the weaker sex
I’d have to disagree
I’d walk a mile in his shoes if he’d walk a half a mile in these

This is one of the best songs on the album, and it may be excessively self-deprecating to call it a rant, although it’s certainly unapologetically feminist.

In contrast, Jo Dee also wrote ‘Say Goodbye To Superman’, my favorite track on the album. This tearjerker is about a woman trying to explain to her young son why his idolised daddy isn’t coming home any more. It begins gently sad, building into a big ballad.

Jo Dee wrote two songs here with Alyssa Bonagura, daughter of Kathie Baillie and Michael Bonagura of 80s group Baillie & The Boys. The defiant country-rock opener ‘Not Dead Yet’ is about being a survivor, possibly addressed to her former label as she declares,

You’re the one who stopped believin’
While I’m still in the chase.
You shattered my feelings,
But you won’t shatter my faith

The other Bonagura co-wrote, ‘He’s Messed Up’, is more pop-rock than country of any variety, and it comes as no surprise to learn that it was written for rocker Pink. It is rather too loud and shouty for my taste, although I think there’s a decent lyric buried there, warning girls against a player (apparently based on a real life example).

Bonagura’s mother co-wrote the title track with Jo Dee. It is a pretty melodic tune about feeling inadequate. Jo Dee also co-wrote ‘Love On A Maybe’, a busily produced pop-rocker about a potential relationship with a guy paying hot and cold, and the rather boring ‘I’m Free’.

‘Strong Shot Of You’, written by Australian country singer-songwriter Sherrie Austin with Clay Mills and Weston Davis is energetic pop-rock-country with over-processed vocals. ‘Take It’, written by Hillary Lindsey, Brett James and Angelo Petraglia is even more horribly processed and more or less unlistenable. The wistful ‘Like A Kid Again’, written by Adrienne and Keith Follese and Tammy Hyler is better.

The arrangements and production aren’t the kind of country music I personally like, but it is very well done, with Jo Dee singing well on some strong material. I do applaud her for making the kind of music she wanted to, and fans of Jo Dee’s 90s/early 2000s peak should find much to like about this record.

Grade: B

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Let It Go’

Like most of Tim McGraw’s albums, 2007’s Let It Go is a combination of the good, the bad, and the mediocre on which Byron Gallimore and Darran Smith returned to share co-production duties. The lead single was the annoyingly fluffy “Last Dollar (Fly Away)” which was written by Big & Rich’s Big Kenny. It’s a mediocre song with a sing-songy chorus that grows tiresome with repeated listenings. The final chorus on which McGraw is joined by his three young daughters only adds to the irritation factor. Nevertheless, it reached the top spot on the charts, becoming McGraw’s first #1 hit since 2004’s “Back When”.

Much more to my liking is the album’s second cut, “I’m Workin'”, written by Darrell Scott and Lori McKenna. It’s a gritty number that in years past would have been a big hit on country radio. From the opening line, “Damn, I hope no one dies on this night shift tonight”, the listener is immediately pulled into the story. The narrator’s profession is never revealed. My first thought was that he was a policeman, but he could just as easily be a paramedic or even an ER doctor. Another song that should have been a single is the album’s best track “Whiskey and You”, a pure country number written by Lee Thomas Miller and then-Steeldrivers member Chris Stapleton. Likely deemed too traditional for country radio, “Whiskey and You” was left to languish in obscurity as an album cut, passed over in favor of schlock like the title track, a boring AC-leaning duet with Faith Hill, and a cover of an Eddie Rabbitt song — one of the songs in the late singer/songwriter’s catalog least worthy of a remake.

Faith Hill makes one of her two guest appearances on “I Need You”, a rather lackluster number written by David Lee and Tony Lane, that reached #8. It’s not nearly as good as “Shotgun Rider”, which is not a true duet but features a prominent harmony vocal from Hill. Written by Anthony Smith, Jeffrey Steele and Sherrie Austin, it’s the best McGraw/Hill song I’ve ever heard. It’s too bad Tim and Faith haven’t done more songs in this vein.

“Suspicions” was a #1 hit for Eddie Rabbitt in 1979, an era when a lot of barely-country sounding songs were big hits. It’s one of my least favorite Rabbitt songs. Tim’s version is very faithful to the original, but it only reached #12, making it one of the very few McGraw singles not to make the Top 10, in spite of Tim’s popularity and country radio’s increasing willingness to play non-country material. The follow-up single was the much more traditional “Kristofferson”, a tribute to one of country music’s greatest songwriters, written by Anthony Smith and Reed Nielsen. It fared even worse on the charts than “Suspicions”, stalling at #16. Tim bounced back, however, with the generic and overproduced title track, which climbed to #2.

The very best of the album’s seven singles was not included on the album when it was initially released. “If You’re Reading This”, on which Tim shares a rare songwriting credit with Brad and Brett Warren, was performed on the 2007 Academy of Country Music Awards telecast. It tells the heartbreaking story of a fallen soldier, in his own words, in a letter to his wife, to be sent to her in the event of his death. It was one of the best performances of Tim’s career and was so well received that the song entered the Billboard charts from unsolicited airplay of the audio from the telecast. This prompted Curb to release the live recording as a single, between “I Need You” and “Suspicions” and to include it on subsequent pressings of the album. “If You’re Reading This” peaked at #3; I was surprised that it didn’t go all the way to #1.

Mid-2008 was about the time when Curb Records began playing games to prolong Tim’s contract. Instead of releasing a new album, they opted to release a seventh single, “Nothin’ To Die For”, a preachy and overproduced “don’t drink and drive” number that reads like a public service announcement that somehow climbed to #5 on the charts.

The rest of the album is mostly generic filler, with the exception of “Between The River and Me”, which tells the story of a son’s revenge against an abusive father. It’s a southern Gothic number in the traditon of “Ode To Billy Joe”, “Fancy” and “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia”, but unlike those classics, “Between The River and Me” is ruined by over-the-top production that renders it almost unlistenable. To call it bombastic would be an understatement.

Though it has its share of duds, Let It Go is one of the stronger album’s in Tim’s discography and has enough good songs on it to make it worth recommending. It is easy to find at reasonable prices.

Grade: B

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Proud To Be Here’

Trace Adkins’s artistic identity may be the most fractured in country music, raging from the depths of ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’ to the artistic heights of songs like ‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired’. This album, Trace’s second for Show Dog Universal, has its share of the raucous and insubstantial, but mainly it focuses on Trace the family man, satisfied with his life. Unlike the similarly themed recent work of Brad Paisley, Josh Turner and Darius Rucker, however, the songs on this theme are all solid and worth hearing. I have already written about the heartwarming ‘Just Fishin’, the album’s first hit single and one of the best things to hit country radio this year. This track alone was produced by Michael Knox, with the remainder of the album in the hands of Kenny Beard.

The title track (written by Chris Wallin, Aaron Barker and Ira Dean, apparently specifically for Trace) is also very good, with a reflective look at the protagonist’s life, with memories of an early career playing “for tips and compliments”, while driving a truck worth substantially less than the radio. The equilibrium of the present day is convincingly portrayed, as Trace declares:

I’m just proud to be on the right side of the dirt
I’ve been loved and I’ve been lost and I’ve been hurt
I leave the hard stuff up to God
Try not to worry about a whole lot
And I have no regrets for what it’s worth
I’ve been living on borrowed time for years
And I’m just proud to be here

The production gets a bit heavier than I would like in the second half, but this is a heartfelt vocal on an excellent song which seems to reflect Trace’s true feelings about his life.

‘Million Dollar View’, written by David Lee Murphy and George Teren is a cheerful country-rocker about satisfaction with a happy domestic life which sounds tailor-made for country radio. Much better, but potentially also commercial, is the mellow take on chilling out and escaping from the world’s pressures on ‘Days Like This’, which is one of Trace’s rare writing credits, alongside producer Kenny Beard and Casey Beathard.

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Album Review: George Strait – ‘Twang’

twangThe title of George Strait’s 26th studio album for MCA suggests that it is a collection of hardcore honky-tonkers, so listeners may be a bit surprised to discover that Twang is one of the more eclectic offerings in his catalog, ranging from honky-tonk and Cajun to polished ballads and a Mexican folk song sung entirely in Spanish. With longtime co-producer Tony Brown once again on board, Strait attempts to step out of the box just a bit, with varying degrees of success. Strait seems to be walking a tightrope, making just enough concessions to fit in with radio’s demands, without sacrificing artistic integrity or alienating longtime fans.

The lead single, “Living For The Night”, which is currently rising up the charts, is noteworthy because it marks the first time iin his major-label career that Strait has had a hand in co-writing one of his singles. In fact, it marks the first time he’s recorded one of his own compositions since 1982’s “I Can’t See Texas From Here”, which appeared on his second album Strait From The Heart. The song was co-written with Srait’s son Bubba, and Dean Dillon, who has written countless George Strait hits over the past 28 years. The song is somewhat less traditional and a little more slickly produced than what we normally expect from Strait. It is not my favorite song on the album and probably would not have been my choice as the single to launch the album, but it has performed well on the charts. It is currently at #7 in Billboard and rising.

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Emotional truth: sentiment and sentimentality in country music

Maschera Tragica (Mask of Tragedy)

Maschera Tragica (Mask of Tragedy)

Emotional truth is at the heart of almost all truly great country songs.  There is a very fine line in country music between the true tearjerkers, for which the genre is justly known, and the cloying sentimentality which outsiders sometimes ascribe to the music. Not, I have to admit, always completely unfairly – if the strings are too obvious, the emotion feels forced, and the song just doesn’t work.  But as I said, the line is a fine one, and a song’s impact depends on a number of factors.

Country music does not consist solely of confessional singer-songwriters, and we do not expect every song recorded to be a personal slice of the author’s life – certainly not when it comes to a love song or cheating song. However, when we are aware a song draws on its writer’s experiences, I think we are more disposed to respond to them as “real”.  If a love song is said to be for its writer’s spouse, and the marriage subsequently breaks up (as, for instance, with Vince Gill’s ‘I Still Believe In You’, written for first wife Janis Gill before he left her for another woman), the song may suddenly seem emotionally dishonest in retrospect, purely because the listener has bought into the story behind the song.  In the case of a song specifically designed to elicit an emotional response, this authenticity is all the more important.

There is a line in the Mavericks’ song ‘Children’ which refers to “a life where everything’s real and nothing is true”.  I do not believe a song has to be factually real to convey emotional truth, but it does help to dispel accusations of sentimentality.  An example of this would be Tammy Cochran’s ‘Angels In Waiting’.  This tribute to Tammy’s two brothers, who both died young as a result of cystic fibrosis, would be cloying if the song were an invented one.  It probably wouldn’t even work if it were sung by an unconnected singer, even though it was written from the heart and is a well-constructed song. Here it is almost completely the fact that it is the true story of the person singing it which carries the emotional force of the song.

Another instance is Jimmy Wayne, whose first self-titled album was filled with intensely emotional songs inspired by his childhood. These songs — the hits ‘I Love You This Much’ and ‘Paper Angels’, and other less-known numbers on similar themes — would undoubtedly fall in the emotionally manipulative category if they were not genuinely based on Jimmy’s appalling childhood in foster-care. That lends an emotional truth which is not found in the same singer’s love songs which are forgettable.  American Idol finalist Kellie Pickler is frankly not a very good singer, but her song ‘I Wonder’, about the mother who abandoned her in childhood, has an emotional resonance, which is lacking in her other material, and is genuinely moving — as long as you know the story behind it is true.  I don’t think it stands on its own merits.

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