My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Skip Ewing

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Wide Open’

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Advertisements

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

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Southern Family’

southern familyMixed artist compilations can often be hit and miss. This concept album based on life in the American South, produced by Dave Cobb, is no exception. The concept itself hangs together a little vaguely, and the artists come from country and Americana with a side of (white) soul and rock. However, if it is intended to represent the South as a whole, it is rather lacking in the ethnic diversity of participants.

Jason Isbell is normally more Americana than country, but ‘God Is A Working Man’ is definitely a country song, and an excellent one to boot. The lyric pays tribute to a working class family with lots of colourful details about a Pentecostal preacher and his son. The melody and rustic vibe remind me of ‘Grandpa Was A Carpenter’, as recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and John Prine on Will the Circle Be Unbroken Part II. I like it better than any of Isbell’s past recordings.

Brent Cobb is producer Dave’s cousin (actually, first cousin twice removed). His track, ‘Down Home’, is quite pleasant without being very memorable. I also quite enjoyed Holly Williams’ ‘Settle Down’, about starting a new family.

I tend to prefer Miranda Lambert when she isn’t rocking it up, so I enjoyed her song, ‘Sweet By And By’ – not the gospel classic but a reflective depiction of rural life and family philosophy which sounds as though it was written for the prompt of the album concept. The old fashioned folky lyric and vocal are charming, although a more stripped down arrangement would have been even better.

‘Learning’, by Miranda’s new boyfriend, Anderson East, an Americana/R&B artist based in Nashville, is not my style of music, but is pretty good of its kind. Shooter Jennings’ ‘Can You Come Over’ is in similar vein, but more listenable. Rich Robinson of the rock band the Black Crowes offers a loud and boring number.

John Paul White’s former duo the Civil Wars were much admired by many critics, but they were never quite my thing, and I’m afraid I strongly disliked White’s whispery tune here, ‘Simple Song’.

Not all the songs here are new. Zac Brown (who appears to have lost the plot on his last album) is back on form here with a nice cover of Skip Ewing’s ‘Grandma’s Garden’. Lee Ann Womack adds a sweet harmony. Jamey Johnson wrote the tender ‘Mama’s Table’ for the Oak Ridge Boys a few years ago, and revives it here himself. The song remembers childhood happiness. Brandy Clark has recorded the affecting ‘I Cried’, about a family funeral, before, but it fits neatly in the theme for this collection, and she sings it beautifully.

Morgane Stapleton, wife of Chris, once had her own record deal, although nothing was ever released. She has a very pretty voice in the vein of Lee Ann Womack or Dolly Parton, so I was disappointed that her contribution (backed by Chris) was not really to my taste. It is a dramatically slowed down blues/rock take on the oldie ‘You Are My Sunshine’ which sounds suicidally depressed.

This is a bit too varied for me as a whole, but there are several worthwhile tracks.

Grade: B

Album Review: Diamond Rio – ‘I Made It’

i made itIt has been several years since Diamond Rio were last in the studio, and more since they made a country record (their last effort was a Christian Contemporary effort which lacked the band’s signature harmonies). Their self-released return was an unexpected surprise.

Unfortunately, a couple of songs in, I was wondering if they had lost the plot completely. The opening ‘I Love This Song’ is a piece of mid-tempo fluff which would be bearable if forgettable, but is marred by bizarre vocal interjections; it was previously an unsuccessful single for its co-writer Marcel. ‘Ride The Range’ is a weird self-indulgent experimental melange; it has country instrumentation, but does not sound country structurally or melodically , with semi-spoken vocals and a rudimentary lyric. I strongly disliked it, and scheduling the record’s worst songs at the start unbalances it as a whole. Luckily, things improve.

The pop-country ‘Crazy Life’ is not very interesting, despite a perky arrangement, with oddly syncopated vocals. ‘Lay Your Lovin’ On Me’ has a similar bouncy feel but is much catchier and more entertaining, and I rather enjoyed it.

The title track is much better. Co-written by band member and album producer Jimmy Olander with Josh Shilling and Michael Dulaney, it is a charming ballad reminiscing about Olander’s arrival in Nashville as an aspiring musician, which turns half way through into an AC-leaning love song to his wife. The romantic ‘I Can’t Think Of Anything But You’ (a Skip Ewing co-write) is a cover of a song formerly recorded as a duet by Sammy Kershaw and Lorrie Morgan, and is quite nicely done.

The album’s outstanding song does see the group back at their best. ‘Beckett’s Back Forty Acres’ is a delightful story song with an acoustic arrangement, about a local farmer who makes it big by a secret (and illegal) crop – but eventually gets hauled away by the police. Ashley Gorley, Michael Rossi and Hugh Bryan Simpson wrote the song, and this track is well worth downloading.

The love song ‘If You’re Willing’ is typical Diamond Rio mid-tempo fare, an enjoyable track written by Jason Sellers and Stewart Harris. ‘I’ll Wait For You’ is also quite attractive.

‘Findin’ My Way Back Home’ was the single released from Lee Ann Womack’s ‘lost’ unreleased album in 2006. LAW’s version of the Craig Wiseman/Chris Stapleton song had something of an Americana-meets-pop feel to it which didn’t really work. The Diamond Rio version is a bit more more organic, and more successful.

The beautiful ‘Walking By Beauty’, written by Patrick Jason Matthews and Jason White, was inspired by an experiment undertaken in 2007 by acclaimed classical violinist Joshua Bell, when he busked in a Washington DC Metro station to see who would pay attention. Bell guests on the track, whose profits are devoted to the doTerra Healing Hands Foundation.

This is definitely a mixed bag, but on the whole the good outweighs the bad.

Grade: B

Album Review: Shelby Lynne – ‘Soft Talk’

SoftTalkJames Stroud sat at the helm of Shelby Lynne’s third Epic album, Soft Talk. Released in 1991, the project performed anemically both at radio and retail. The album peaked at #55, while the two singles failed to chart any higher then the record.

A duet with Les Taylor, “The Very First Lasting Love” peaked at #50. The second and final single, “Don’t Cross Your Heart,” did slightly worse peaking at #54.

“I’ve Learned To Live” is an excellent mid-tempo contemporary styled number written by Dean Dillon and Frank Dycus. Lynne powerfully expresses the tale of a woman coming back from unimaginable loss, vowing to continue living.

Max D. Barnes, Skip Ewing, and Troy Seals co-wrote “A Lighter Shade of Blue,” a dobro soaked ballad. A story about lost love, she’s having trouble moving on yet is not as affected by the turn of events as she thought she would be.

“You Can’t Break A Broken Heart” is an excellent uptempo bluesy number accentuated with harmonica and a prominent drumbeat. Chuck Jones and Chris Waters’ biting lyric coupled with Stroud’s understated production gives Lynne the ideal space from which to vocally soar.

The title track is another affecting ballad, one that starts off slow before Lynne takes it to the next level. While not the most memorable lyric, she brilliantly tackles what she has to work with.

Jim Lauderdale and John Leventhal co-wrote, “Stop Me,” another contemporary styled ballad in which Lynne delivers vocally. Her throaty voice saves what would otherwise be a bland affair, which is unmistakably pop-country, down to the twangy guitars and ribbons of steel guitar. It also just might be her best vocal on the whole project.

“It Might Be Me” is a piano and guitar based ballad that gives way to a meatier production as the track progresses. Since it’s another ballad it easily gets lost in the shuffle and offers only more of the same found on the other tracks.

In the twenty-four years since being released, Soft Talk has gone out of print and only a handful of its ten tracks have resurfaced on her Epic Recordings compilation project released at the turn of the century. It’s a shame because the album is very good even if it isn’t very radio friendly. I was taken aback that the production contained a lot of contemporary 80s country spillovers, but it was pleasant to listen to none the same.

Lynne, like Kelly Willis, may’ve been on a major label, but their music just wasn’t that appealing to the masses and thus they never caught on in that way. That doesn’t mean they aren’t extremely talented and should be overlooked. Soft Talk may be heavy on ballads but it finds Lynne saving the day with her powerful voice. It’s worth tracking down a cheap used copy if you’ve never heard it.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Shelby Lynne – ‘Tough All Over’

51T5LRAmzsLI first became aware of Shelby Lynne when Reba McEntire predicted that she would be country music’s next big female superstar, during a 1990 appearance on Larry King Live. After hearing Shelby’s music for the first time shortly thereafter, my impression was that she definitely had promise but her material fell considerably short of her talent. Twenty-five years later my musical tastes have evolved so that I can appreciate her material a little more, but my overall assessment remains the same.

1990’s Tough All Over, Shelby’s sophomore release, was meant to be more mainstream than the previous year’s debut album. While it may have been a tiny step in the right direction from a commercial standpoint, it was still significantly out of step with the mainstream country music of its day, which was dominated by New Traditionalism. Produced by Bob Montgomery, the album is built around three singles, none of which reached the Top 20: “I’ll Lie Myself To Sleep” (#26), “Things Are Tough All Over” (#23), and “What About The Love We Made” (#45). It seems odd that three ballads were chosen as singles when an uptempo number might have received a warmer reception from radio. “I’ll Lie Myself To Sleep” is more AC than country, which was at odds with the commercial demands of the day, and “What About The Love We Made” is a power ballad that is marred by Shelby’s over-singing. While it allows her to show off her vocal prowess, the record would have benefited from some restraint.

Among the album cuts, the best are “Baby’s Gone Blues”, which had previously been recorded by Patty Loveless and was later covered by Reba McEntire. Shelby’s version is better than either of them. She also does a nice version of “Don’t Mind If I Do”, a Skip Ewing number which had been recorded by George Strait a few years ago. “Till A Better Memory Comes Along” is the album’s best and most country-sounding track. The rest of the album is an eclectic array of songs ranging from the rockabilly of Charlie Rich’s “Lonely Weekends” and an ill-advised cover of Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line”, to the jazzy “Dog Day Afternoon” and a cover of Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” which closes out the set.

With the exception of “I Walk The Line”, these songs are all very good but they underscore that Lynne had not yet discovered her musical direction (it could be argued that she still hasn’t) and that Epic had no idea whatsoever how to market her. It’s the sort of album that I wasn’t particularly interested in back in 1990 but it would be a huge improvement if Nashville were to release more in this vein today.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Ricky Van Shelton – ‘Loving Proof’

loving proofRicky’s second album was released in September 1988. It was another collection of neotraditional country music including an unusually high proportion of covers, and an overwhelming theme of undying love.

There were four top 5 singles, three of which hit the top spot. The first of these, ‘I’ll Leave This World Loving You’ is a beautifully sung slow ballad about a man resigned to forever love the woman who has broken his heart. It was written by Wayne Kemp, who had a minor hit with it himself in 1980, and is the kind of thing George Jones excelled at. It was also Ricky Van Shelton’s forte. Another Kemp song swearing eternal devotion ‘Don’t Send Me No Angels’ (which Jones covered a few years later) is happier in mood, although Ricky delivers it with a solemn intensity.

Also hitting #1 was another cover, Ned Miller’s international hit ‘From A Jack To A King’. The bright paced love song was followed by a slightly less successful cover in the shape of the retro-rockabilly ‘Hole In My Pocket’. The Boudleaux and Felice Bryant song (previously recorded by Little Jimmy Dickens in his youth) peaked at #4. While Ricky clearly enjoyed performing in this style, and did it convincingly enough, he was much more effective as a balladeer. The up-tempo semi-rockabilly ‘Swimming Upstream’, which opens the set, is pleasant but forgettable.

It was back to the ballads, and back to the top with the album’s final single, ‘Living Proof’. This emotion-laden song tells of a woman whose life is dominated by a love enduring through heartbreak, and her eventual reunion with the protagonist.

There are several more fine ballads on offer. ‘Let Me Live With Love And Die With You’ is a romantic declaration written by Skip Ewing and Red Lane. Ricky got a rare co-writing credit on ‘The Picture’ (with his producer Steve Buckingham and Troy Seals). The song has the protagonist looking at a photograph of his lost love with her new man and child, and wishing he was still in her life. He wistfully imagines what the baby would look like if he were the father:

His hair would have been blonder
And his eyes would have been blue
If it was me in the picture with you

Ricky delved back into country music history for another cover, the Wilburn Brothers’ plaintive ‘Somebody’s Back in Town’, which I like a great deal. He also delivers the country standard ‘He’s Got You’ beautifully, with real passion and commitment, paced a little quicker than the Patsy Cline or Jim Reeves classic versions.

This second album was an excellent one, and I like it better than its predecessor. It’s well worth catching up with now. Like the latter, it sold very well and was certified platinum, positioning Ricky as one of the biggest stars of the era.

Grade: A

Album Review: Lorrie Morgan – ‘Watch Me’

watchmeLorrie Morgan’s third release teamed her up once again with Something In Red producer Richard Landis, but 1992’s Watch Me is a less pop-oriented collection that sounds like a less ballad-heavy continuation of 1989’s Leave The Light On. The uptempo title track “Watch Me” was the first single sent to radio. More radio-friendly than “Something In Red”, the single that had preceded it, “Watch Me” delivered a “Five Minutes”-style ultimatum to an errant lover and stopped just short of becoming Morgan’s second chart-topper, peaking #2. She closed the deal, however, with another uptempo number, “What Part of No”, which found her giving the brush-off to an unwanted suitor. Spending three weeks at #1, it became the most successful single of her career and is one of her best remembered hits today.

The album’s third single and one of my all-time favorites was the ballad “I Guess You Had To Be There”, which had Lorrie once again confronting a cheating spouse, albeit less assertively than the album’s title track. As the song opens, she greets her husband upon his return from work and proceeds to tell him about her day — how on her travels she’d seen a happy couple in love and the impression it had made upon her. Her spouse’s lack of response prompts her to say, “I guess you had to be there”. The listener learns in the final verse that he was indeed there, and was one half of the happy couple spotted in a cafe. Kris Kristofferson portrayed the philandering husband in the song’s video. Surprisingly, it only reached #14. Lorrie returned to the Top 10 with her next single, the more lightweight and catchy midtempo “Half Enough”, which rose to #8.

The always reliable Skip Ewing had provided “Autumn’s Not That Cold”, one of the best cuts from Something In Red, and he made another contribution this time around, the excellent “You Leave Me Like This”. Likewise, “Something In Red” writer Angela Kaset contributed “From Our House To Yours”, a ballad about a lifelong friendship, that is just a little too sing-songy to truly work well. Much better is Lorrie’s surprisingly good cover of “It’s A Heartache”, a song that had first been introduced by Juice Newton in 1977 and covered by Bonnie Tyler who had a huge international pop hit with it that same year. Morgan’s version is better than both of them, and it probably would have had hit single potential had it not already been so well known and closely associated with Tyler.

Watch Me didn’t chart as high as Lorrie’s previous albums, reaching only #15 but it sold well enough to earn platinum certification. It re-established her country credentials after some of the pop experimentation of Something In Red. It was also her first album for BNA Records, a former indie label that had been acquired by BMG Music earlier that year to be a sister label to RCA. Lorrie was at that time the imprint’s biggest and best-selling star, though she would eventually be eclipsed by labelmates Kenny Chesney, Lonestar, and John Anderson.

Twenty years after its release, “What Part Of No” is possibly the only song from Watch Me that is familiar to many younger listeners, but if those fans are inclined to delve a little deeper into Lorrie’s catalog will find much to like in this collection.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Clint Black and Skip Ewing – ‘Something That We Do’

This was a #2 hit for Clint in 1999:

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘Nobody Love, Nobody Gets Hurt’

nobody love nobody gets hurtSuzy’s swansong for Capitol was released in 1998. She produced the record with her husband, and unfortunately it was a bit of a damp squib commercially, with no real hits.

She and husband Doug Crider wrote the mid-tempo AC ‘Somebody To Love’, her last top 40 single, with Matraca Berg. It opens with an arresting picture of a woman weeping in her kitchen all dolled up after a disastrous date, but the remainder of the lyric is bland and the melody is rather limited.

The title track performed less well, peaking in the 60s. Written by singer-songwriter Bobbie Cryner, it is a memorable and slightly quirky story about a dyslexic and emotionally damaged bank robber which is a little heavy handed in pressing home its point, but a stripped down arrangement and sensitive vocal sell it.

The final single, the Kim Richey/Tia Sillers-penned ‘From Where I Stand’ was another flop. Although (like ‘Somebody To Love’) it has quite a commercial late 90s sound reminiscent of Trisha Yearwood’s more AC material, it’s not very interesting.

The insistently bluesy pop-country ‘Just Enough Rope’ sounds like an attempt to compete with the likes of Shania Twain. It is a departure from Suzy’s strengths as an artist but is quite catchy, although someone like Yearwood would probably have been more suited to it. It is one of only two tracks to feature fiddle.

A more traditional country fiddle leads into Julie Miller’s ‘Take Me Back’. This is the most traditional country track on the record (with the only steel guitar to make an appearance as well as the fiddle) and a real highlight; an excellent song with a close harmony from Garth Brooks on the chorus.

‘When I Run’ is a nice Skip Ewing ballad with a pretty tune and insightful lyric about someone finding love scary. Suzy’s subtle vocal is beautiful, and makes this commitmentphobe sympathetic and convincing, when she says,

It’s not you
It’s not fun
I know tryin’ to hide is crazy
Walking out won’t save me
My demons only chase me when I run

Kathy Mattea sings backing vocals but is so low in the mix she is inaudible.

The delicate ballad ‘Moonlight And Roses’, written by Cheryl Wheeler, is an understated gem about not missing an opportunuity to find love, with another excellent, subtle vocal. Alison Krauss plays viola.

Tony Arata’s ‘I Wish Hearts Would Break’ is a moving tribute to a dying mineworker whose spirit has been broken by the death of his beloved wife, which again Suzy sings beautifully, supported by Darrell Scott’s backing vocals. Childhood memories are fondly recalled in the gently folky ‘Family Tree’, written by Doug Crider and Matt Rollings.

Suzy and Doug’s ‘I Surrender’ is a pleasant love song, with Patty Loveless providing a gentle harmony. I preferred the closing ‘Train Of Thought’, written by Cathy Majeski, Sunny Russ and Stephony Smith, an attractively laid back number with backing vocals from Trisha Yearwood and Alison Krauss.

Overall while this is not one of Suzy’s best albums, it is a pleasant listening experience, but the attempts at maintaining commercial viability are the least successful tracks. It marked the end of her time on a major label, but is worth picking up if you like Suzy’s music.

Grade: B-

Classic Rewind: Clint Black ft Skip Ewing – ‘Something That We Do’

Album Review: Clint Black – ‘D’lectrified’

clintblackClint Black’s swan song for RCA was the first album he produced by himself and arguably his most ambitious. As the title suggests, D’lectrified was recorded entirely with acoustic instruments, but rest assured, it is no quiet, stripped-down unplugged affair. By implementing a variety of instruments not usually used in country music — such as the clarinet, various saxophones and percussion, as well as a string section — he achieves a rich, full sound which causes the listener to sometimes forget that no electric instruments were used.

The album is also a departure from Clint’s usual practice of writing or co-writing every song. There is a great deal of cover material here and his choices are quite eclectic — from The Marshall Tucker Band’s “Bob Away My Blues” which opens the album, to Leon Russell’s “Dixie Lullaby” (done as a duet with Bruce Hornsby) and the novelty tune “Ode To the Galaxy”, which is quite likely the first time a major country music star covered Monty Python. A slightly re-worked version of “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” appears as a tribute to Waylon Jennings, whose name is substituted for Hank’s in the title and lyrics. None of these tunes are in the vein of what fans had come to expect from Black, but all of them were quite well done.

The rest of the album is more conventional. Clint’s wife Lisa Hartman Black joined him on the sentimental and AC-leaning “When I Said I Do”, which was the album’s first single. I remember cringing upon learning that Clint’s wife would be his duet partner. I was unaware that she had released four unsuccessful pop albums between 1976 and 1987. Though she was no Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton, she was a better vocalist than I’d expected. Radio loved the record, and it quickly rose to #1. It was Lisa’s first chart-topper and Clint’s last. It also reached #31 on the Billboard Hot 100. The album’s second single was “Been There”, on which Clint is joined by his co-writer Steve Wariner. Released in January 2000, it reached #5, becoming the last Top 10 hit of Clint’s career.

The album’s best track by far is “Love She Can’t Live Without”, a Black co-write with Skip Ewing. It should have been a monster hit, but it stalled at #30. I suspect that with Clint’s contract with RCA about to expire, the label did little to promote the record. The album’s weakest cut is “Harmony”, a duet with co-writer Kenny Loggins. A sappy and syrupy affair that plods along for nearly five and a half minutes, it is the album’s sole dud and quite possibly the worst thing Black ever recorded.

The remainder of D’lectrified consists primarily of re-worked versions of some of Clint’s earlier hits, such as “Burn One Down” and “No Time To Kill”. Both were done in a bluesy, jam-session style, which ironically are quite loud for acoustic recordings and Clint seems to be struggling at times to be heard over the arrangements. Neither holds its own against its original hit version; however, an acoustic guitar-led instrumental version of “Something That We Do”, which appears as a hidden track at the end of the album is quite nice.

Unlike all of Clint’s previous albums, D’lectrified failed to attain platinum status, though it did earn gold certification (his last studio album to do so). After the album was released, Black left RCA to found his own label, Equity Music Group, which was meant to introduce a new business model to the music industry by allowing artists to keep a greater share of the profits they generated. The experiment did not succeed, and neither did any of Clint’s recordings for the fledgling label. D’lectrified, his last truly successful album, was an adventurous project and is worth seeking out.

Grade: A

Album Review – Clint Black – ‘Nothin’ But The Taillights’

Clint_Black,_Nothin'_But_the_TaillightsAfter the somewhat lackluster One Emotion Clint Black regrouped by issuing his first Greatest Hits album, an effort surprising for its poor representation of his debut album (only “Killin’ Time” and “A Better Man” are included) among other noticeable absences. It still managed to go double platinum and included two big hits – the guitar ballad “Like The Rain” (a favorite of mine) and somewhat aggressive “Half Way Up.” The former would be another #1 hit for Black in the fall of 1996.

He returned with a new album in 1997, previewing it with “Still Holding On,” a duet with Martina McBride. Co-written with Matraca Berg and Marty Stuart, the track served as the lead single for both Black and McBride’s new releases that year. It peaked at #11 and became Black’s first single not to chart top 10. I’ve always loved the song and consider it a nice slice of pop-country, even if it is a tad generic from two label mates looking to cash in on each other’s success.

The next three singles from Nothin’ But The Taillights helped to greatly reverse Black’s fortunes and became three of his most impactful hits since his debut album. Black and Skip Ewing co-wrote “Something That We Do,” a love song inspired by Black’s marriage to actress Lisa Hartman Black. It’s a beautiful song, albeit a tad long, and one of the most endearing professions of love since Alan Jackson’s “I’ll Love You All Over Again.”

“Something That We Do” may’ve peaked at #2, but his next two singles were chart toppers. The Steve Wariner co-written title track is an upbeat guitar heavy (and comical) wife-pissed-off song that was played to death in early 1998 to the point where I can’t even listen to it today. I don’t hate it, but the novelty has worn off. I have the opposite reaction to “The Shoes Your Wearin,’” which finds Black writing with Hayden Nicholas again. I love everything about this track, from the drums and electric guitars to Black’s vocal.

Black and Nicholas also teamed up for the next single, “Loosen Up My Strings,” which peaked at #12. Another thickly produced number; Black’s popularity likely benefited its chart run, as it should’ve been left as an album track. The neo-traditional-leaning “You Don’t Need Me Know” charted lower, peaking at #29. I don’t even remember it being a single, but it’s an excellent song with a refreshingly understated melody and vocal.

Of the album tracks, “Our Kind of Love” is a country/bluegrass tune with Alison Krauss and Union Station and “Ode To Chet” is a classic Black type song in tribute to Chet Atkins, which features fancy guitar work from Atkins himself, Dann Huff, Wariner, and Mark Knopler. Both are fabulous, although Black could’ve benefited from giving a more restrained vocal on the collaboration with Krauss. It’s beautiful melody but he comes on a bit too strong for it all to be fully appreciated. “That Something In My Life” is also very strong while “You Know It All” and “Bitter Side of Sweet” are the album’s two weakest offerings.

Nothin’ But The Taillights really is the project that put Black back on top. Not since his debut had he experienced such impactful signature hits has he does here. I really enjoy this period of Black’s career as this is when I started following and enjoying his music as a kid. If Killin’ Time was Black’s neo-traditional masterpiece, Nothin’ But The Taillights marked his highest artistic achievement in pop and even somewhat rock country.

Grade: A-

Spotlight Artist: Collin Raye

Collin+RayeOur March spotlight artist is well known to anyone who was listening to country radio during the 1990s. Between 1991 and 1998 Collin Raye released five albums — four platinum and one gold — and scored 21 Top 10 hits, four of which reached #1. He was born Floyd Elliott Wray in De Queen, Arkansas on August 22, 1960. In the early 1980s he formed a duo with his brother Scott. Known as The Wray Brothers, they released a pair of singles on an independent label, which led to a brief stint with Mercury Records. When their singles failed to gain any traction with country radio, The Wrays were cut loose by Mercury and disbanded shortly thereafter. Floyd, also known as Bubba Wray, began a solo career shortly thereafer. Rechristened Collin Raye, he signed with Epic Records in 1990 and entered the charts with a cover version of an old Conway Twitty album cut called “All I Can Be (Is A Sweet Memory)”, which reached #29.

Following the success of “All I Can Be”, Raye released a ballad written by Skip Ewing and Max T. Barnes which would become his signature hit and the first of his four chart-toppers. “Love, Me” told the story of a young boy who visits a church and learns about his grandparents’ courtship on the day of his grandmother’s death. Most of Raye’s subsequent work was less rooted in traditional country; he became known primarily for his ballads, which often addressed social issues such as alcoholism, interracial relationships and child abuse.

Raye remained a staple at country radio throughout the decade, scoring his final Top 10 hit with 2000’s “Couldn’t Last A Moment”. His stint with Epic ended in 2001, and he took a four-year break from the recording studio before releasing Twenty Years And Change on an independent label. His most recent efforts include Never Going Back, a 2009 release for Saguaro Road Records, and the inspirational album His Love Remains, which was released in 2011.

Unlike many of his 90s contemporaries, Collin Raye was never a traditional artist, but his style of country-pop ballads are remembered fondly and among the things that many listeners of today’s country radio miss. We hope you’ll enjoy our look back at the career of this five-time Male Vocalist of the Year nominee.

Album Review: Lorrie Morgan & Sammy Kershaw – ‘I Finally Found Someone’

Sammy Kershaw and fellow country star Lorrie Morgan joined forces both personally and professionally in 2001. The pair married that year and also collaborated on a one-off project for RCA that was released shortly after the major label phase of both artists’ careers had ended. It wasn’t the first time they’d worked together; both had been members of George Jones’ road band in the early 80s, and they’d made occasional guest appearances on each other’s albums. One of those efforts, “Maybe Not Tonight” was a minor hit in 1999.

On the surface, a joint album from two of the most underrated stars of the 1990s seemed like a good idea; however, they were under-served by mostly second-rate material and the overall result is a rather dull and lackluster affair. The album consists of 12 tracks overall, six duets and three solo performances from each, and yielded only one charting single — the Jimmy Buffet-esque “He Drinks Tequila”, one of the few uptempo numbers in a very ballad-heavy and surprisingly AC-leaning album. It peaked at #39. The interminably dull title track, a remake of a Barbra Streisand and Bryan Adams duet, was released as the second single, followed by “Sad City”, a Kershaw solo effort.

Among the duet numbers, “I Can’t Think of Anything But You”, a very nice ballad co-written by Skip Ewing, David Feritta and Alan Rich, is a highlight, as is “That’s Where I’ll Be”, an original number penned by Kershaw and Morgan. As far as the solo efforts are concerned, Lorrie’s selections are far better than Sammy’s. Particularly good are two introspective numbers in which she reflects on her fading youth — “29 Again” and her own composition, the excellent “I Must Be Gettin’ Older.” Kerhsaw’s solo performances are mostly disappointing; the non-charting single “Sad City”, which is by no means a great song, is the best of the bunch. He does a decent job on the pop standard “What A Wonderful World”, but one wonders why he chose to cover this song that really didn’t need to be remade again, particularly when there were only three solo numbers allotted to him on the album. The self-penned “Sugar” is truly terrible and makes one grateful that most of Kershaw’s catalog was supplied by outside songwriters.

One of the big surprises is how middle-of-the-road the song selections are. Morgan had occasionally ventured into AC-territory and the country music had definitely moved in a more pop direction by 2001, but both artists were known for their traditional leanings. Morgan had recently ended her association with BNA Records, citing her frustration with label pushing her in a more pop direction as a primary reason.

I Finally Found Someone did manage to reach #13 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, despite a lack of interest from radio and the fading popularity of both Morgan and Kershaw, but it is largely forgotten today and is an album that only diehard fans will bother to seek out.

Grade: C+

Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Labor Of Love’

Sammy’s 1997 album Labor Of Love was produced by Keith Stegall, and has a slightly less neotraditional and more commercial feel than his earliest work. The material is a bit of a mixed bag, with some excellent songs and some less successful efforts.

One of the best was the choice of lead single. ‘Love Of My Life’ is a beautiful, tender love song written by Stegall with Dan Hill, with a tasteful, sensitive reading by Sammy. The classy contemporary piano-led ballad was to be one of Sammy’s biggest hits, peaking at #2. It was, however, his last ever top 10, and the only real hit from the record.

It was a particular shame that the brilliant ‘Matches’ (my favourite track here, written by Skip Ewing and Roger Springer) failed to creep into the top 20. An outstanding story song, ‘Matches’ compellingly relates the tale of a love affair that starts in a bar-room encounter and ends with loneliness and arson. The disillusioned protagonist sounds almost resigned despite the dramatic situation, and the conversational recounting of the tales helps to make it believable:

Today when I came home
My key was hollow in the door
There was nothing but a worn-out book of matches on the floor…

Until tonight they’d only lit a single cigarette
Now one by one I’m striking them to help me to forget
And everybody at the Broken Spoke
They all thought my crazy story was a joke
Now they’re all out in the parking lot staring at the smoke…

Baby, all that’s left of our love now is ashes
Thank God you left the matches

Peaking just outside the top 30, ‘Honky Tonk America’ is a decent mid-tempo Bob McDill song which paints a convincing picture of a working class crowd escaping from their daily life.

The final single, another top 40, was the quietly reflective ‘One Day Left To Live’, written by Dean Dillon, John Northrup and Randy Boudreaux. It is about the scare of facing potential mortality inspiring the protagonist promising to devote himself to loving the wife he has been taking for granted. The appealing lyric and understated vocal are very attractive, and this should have done better.

The beaty title track, written by Larry Boone and Billy Lawson, urges the need to work at love. It’s a bit generic sounding not too bad, with plenty of energy and commitment.

In recent years we’ve been overwhelmed with highly generic songs lauding the joys of being young in the country. ‘Cotton County Queen’, an earlyish example of the type with a linedancers’ beat, has nothing to recommend it and is the weakest song here by far. On the same theme of affectionate teenage memories of small town life, but more interesting and attractive, ‘Shootin’ The Bull (In An Old Cowtown)’ was written by Monty Criswell and Michael White.

Criswell and White were also responsible (with Lee Miller) for a pretty good ballad, where unrequited love is revealed for the first time, ‘Arms Length Away’.

The Cajun flavored ‘Little Did I Know’ is a catchy but lyrically slight story song about Jolina, a cheating woman whose beauty and lying promises of fidelity have the lovesick protagonist wrapped around her finger, right up to the point she leaves him standing at the altar. The up-tempo ‘Roamin’ Love’, a solo composition from the point of view of a man complaining about the wayward ex who has been running around with all her husband’s friends, is quite enjoyable with some nice fiddle and honky tonk piano in the arrangement. It is a rare solo Sammy Kershaw composition. He also co-wrote the forlorn ‘Thank God You’re Gone’, a rather good lost love ballad, as he is happy only his ex won’t see him collapse.

Despite only boasting one big hit, this was Sammy’s third platinum album and his highest charting position. Overall this is a reasonably solid album with some real highlights (especially ‘Matches’). As used copies can be found very cheaply, it’s worth picking up acopy.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Right Out Of Nowhere’

By the middle of the 2000s, it was clear Kathy’s time in the limelight was over. One last album for MCA (The Innocent Years) failed to score any hit singles, and she moved to independent label Narada, where she was able to concentrate on artistry with little thought for commercial viability.  The second of her albums for this label came out in 2005.  This is not a very country sounding record, but it bears the hallmarks of evident thought and attention throughout, and is clearly a serious artistic endeavour.

‘Live It’, the solo single failed to chart.  Not one of Harley Allen’s better songs, it’s a cluttered and unoriginal exhortation to live life to the full and concentrate on love.  ‘Hurt Some’ is a jazzy AC ballad with a gospel feel (particularly in the vocals).  The rather obvious lyrics attempt to be insightful, advising a woman to expect a range of emotional ups and downs, written by Tia Sillers and Mark D Sanders.

‘Only Heaven Knows’ is quite a pretty ballad about acceptance of one’s lot, which is much better.  ‘Give It Away’ is an artfully constructed, melodic and beautifully sung song written by Kathy with husband Jon Vezner and Bob Halligan.  The three-story structure narrates encounters with individuals (a veteran star backstage, a woman in a doctor’s waiting room, and finally the protagonist saving herself from breaking off a love affair in a fit of pique following an argument), giving the sage advice that with music and love,

The only way to keep is to give it away

The best of the more philosophical songs here is Darrell Scott’s ‘Love’s Not Through With Me Yet’, given a plaintive Celtic sound and with Suzy Bogguss on harmony.

The title track is an okay but unexciting story song about a woman moving on, with an attractive melody.  The breakup song ‘Loving You, Letting You Go’ is lyrically forgettable but the wheezy harmonica gives it some sonic character.

The best song is ‘I Hope You’re Happy Now’, a subtly cutting piano ballad written by Skip Ewing and Angela Kaset, which sounds tailor-made for Trisha Yearwood, although Kathy does a fine job.  It narrates a meeting with the woman the protagonist’s ex left her for, finding he has moved on again:

I thought the only thing wrong with her was you

Cause you don’t find joy within
You’re always wanting out
That’s not what love is all about
You’ll never find happiness
Til you let your heart invest
Baby you don’t know how
I hope you’re happy now

This is an excellent song which is well worth downloading even if nothing else here appeals.

Kathy extended her artistic range with a couple of unexpected rock covers.  The Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ is performed confidently, and is the biggest departure from preconceived ideas of what a Kathy Mattea record sounds like.  It’s not to my taste, but is interestingly done with inventive acoustic production, and Kathy deserves credit for trying something so different.  Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Down On The Corner’ is an enjoyable singalong.  ‘Wade In The Water’, meanwhile, is a traditional gospel song which is played around with a little too much.

This record was an interesting experiment.  Not everything works, but a period in the commercial doldrums is the obvious time to try branching out. Used copies can be found very cheaply

Grade: B-

Classic Rewind: Skip Ewing – ‘I Don’t Have Far To Fall’

Classic Rewind: Skip Ewing – ‘It’s You Again’

Favorite country songs of the 1980s, Part 1

The 1980s were a mixed bag, with the early 1980s producing some of the lamest country music ever recorded, as the Urban Cowboy movie wrecked havoc on the genre. Fortunately, there was still good country music being released. The first flowering of the late 1980s “New Traditionalist” movement arrived in 1981 with the first hits of Ricky Skaggs and George Strait, but they remained outliers until 1986 as far as good new artists were concerned. The latter part of the decade, however, produced some truly excellent country music with the 1986 arrival of Randy Travis and company.

This list is meant neither to be a comprehensive list of great country songs from the 1980s, nor any sort of ranking of records. It’s just a list of some songs that I liked and remember. See if you recall any of these records.

If You’re Gonna Play In Texas (You Gotta Have A Fiddle In The Band)“ – Alabama
Alabama made excellent music during the 1980s, although the country content of some of it was suspect. Not this song, which is dominated by fiddle. One of the few up-tempo Alabama records that swings rather than rocks.

I’ve Been Wrong Before” – Deborah Allen
An accomplished songwriter who wrote many hits for others, particularly with Rafe VanHoy, this was one of three top ten tunes for Ms. Allen, reaching #2 in 1984. This is much more country sounding than her other big hit “Baby I Lied”.

Last of The Silver Screen Cowboys” – Rex Allen Jr.
After some success as a pop-country balladeer, Rex Jr. turned increasing to western-themed material as the 1980s rolled along. This was not a big hit, reaching #43 in 1982, but it featured legendary music/film stars Roy Rogers and Rex Allen Sr. on backing vocals.

“Southern Fried” – Bill Anderson
This was Whispering Bill’s first release for Southern Tracks after spending over twenty years recording for Decca/MCA. Bill was no longer a chart force and this song only reached #42 in 1982, but as the chorus notes: “We like Richard Petty, Conway Twitty and the Charlie Daniels Band”.

Indeed we do. Read more of this post