My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Steve Gibson

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Somewhere In The Night’

When discussing country music released in the late 1980s, it’s almost customary to frame it within the context of the new traditionalist movement. But it’s easy to overlook the fact that not every artist releasing albums at that time adhered to the sound ushered in by Randy Travis on Storms of Life. Acts like Alabama, K.T. Oslin, Rosanne Cash and others were sticking with the pop-country sound that had dominated the better part of the decade. These artists were not only going against the trend, they were dominating at radio alongside everyone else.

You can easily add Sawyer Brown to this category, as well. Their fourth album, Somewhere In The Night, arrived in May 1987 under the direction of Ron Chancey. He had taken over for Randy Scruggs who wouldn’t produce a Sawyer Brown album until The Boys Are Back, two years later. Many know Chancey’s son Blake from his notable production work with David Ball, Dixie Chicks, Montgomery Gentry and Gretchen Wilson in the 1990s-2000s.

Sawyer Brown wasn’t exactly dominating at this point in their career. When Somewhere In The Night was released, the band was on a streak of six consecutive singles missing the top 10. Their most recent, “Savin’ The Honey for the Honeymoon” has petered out at #58. They needed a reverse in fortunes, and while this wasn’t the album to get them there, it did give them a slight reprieve with radio.

The title track, co-written by Don Cook and Rafe VanHoy, had originally appeared on the Oak Ridge Boys classic Fancy Free six years earlier. Sawyer Brown’s version retains a 1980s sheen, complete with dated harmonies and synth piano, but is otherwise an excellent and restrained ballad. The track peaked at #29.

The album’s biggest success came when second single “This Missin’ You Heart of Mine” peaked at #2. The ballad, co-written by Mike Geiger and Woody Mullis, is a wonderful example of the other side of late 1980s country music. While it might sound a bit dated today, the production is nicely restrained with Chancey framing their harmonies beautifully.

Kix Brooks, Kenneth Beal, and Bill McClelland are responsible for the album’s final single, “Old Photographs,” which stalled at #27. The lush ballad isn’t a strong one, a bit of filler that never would’ve made it as a single in any other era.

“In This Town,” co-written by Tom Shapiro and Michael Garvin, would’ve made a fantastic choice for a single, and probably would’ve sailed up the charts behind “This Missin’ You Heart of Mine.” Everything about the ballad is on point, from the melody to the harmonies.

Somewhere In The Night contains its share of uptempo material, so it’s curious why the label didn’t see fit to break the ballad fatigue with one of these tracks. Two such songs were solely penned by Dennis Linde. “Dr. Rock N. Roll” is a slice of catchy slick pop while “Lola’s Love” is a nice dose of country-rock. The latter is the better song, and as a single for Ricky Van Shelton from his 1994 album Love and Honor, it peaked at #62. Linde also wrote “Still Life In Blue,” a mid-tempo ballad with dated accents of synth-pop.

The percussion-heavy “Little Red Caboose” was written by Steve Gibson and Dave Loggins and recorded by Lee Greenwood on his 1985 release, Love Will Find Its Way To You. The results are catchy and brimming with personality.

“Still Hold On” was originally released by its co-writer Kim Carnes in 1981 and Kenny Rogers in 1985. The ballad soars, thanks to Mark Miller’s vocal, which is an outstanding example of pathos that hints at the gravitas he would bring to the band’s 1990s hits “All These Years” and “Treat Her Right.”

The final track, “A Mighty Big Broom” was written solely by Miller. It’s the album’s most adventurous track, with a rock-leaning arrangement and a silly lyric.

When approaching Somewhere In The Night, I fully expected not to be able to pick out the Sawyer Brown I know from this set of songs. I came to the band like all my country music, in 1996, long after “The Walk” had revolutionized their sound and grounded them with depth and substance. So I was surprised I could hear subtle hints of what the band would eventually become, on this album. It’s a stellar project through and through, with a nice batch of above average material.

Grade: A

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Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Plain Dirt Fashion’

plaindirtfashionIn 1982, The Dirt Band, as they were then known, reverted back to their former name and moved toward a more mainstream country sound. They scored their first Top 10 country hit in 1983 with “Dance Little Jean”. A year and a label change later, they solidfied their reputation as a mainstream country band with all of their singles through the end of the decade reaching the Top 10.

Plain Dirt Fashion was the band’s first album for Warner Bros., and in the summer of 1984, the song from which the album’s title was derived became the first of their three number one country hits. Written by Rodney Crowell, “Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper’s Dream)” is a nostalgic look back at an impovershed but happy childhood and my favorite Nitty Gritty Dirt Band single. With tight harmonies and plenty of fiddle, it is one of their most traditional efforts, foreshadowing the upcoming New Traditionalist movement which would take off in earnest about a year later. It was followed by the upbeat “I Love Only You”, written by Dave Loggins and Don Schlitz, which reached #3. “High Horse”, penned by Dirt Band member Jimmy Ibbotson, became the album’s third single. It peaked at #2 in early 1985. All three singles were tailor-made for country radio without any of the rock elements that had been the hallmark of much of the band’s earlier work. Two album cuts, however, are covers of old rock-and-roll hits — Bruce Springsteen’s “Cadillac Ranch and Meat Loaf’s “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad”, neither of which is particularly memorable.

In general, while the singles are timeless and have managed to avoid sounding dated, the album cuts haven’t aged as well, mainly due to the somewhat heavy-handed — and typical of the era — use of the drum machine, which mars “Cadillac Ranch”, “Run With Me” and “‘Til The Fire’s Burned Out”. “Video Tape”, the album’s closing track, gives away the album’s age by its reference to a now-obsolete medium. It asks, “wouldn’t you be in good shape if your life was on video tape?” a question that would never be asked in the era of iPhones and social media when so many have regretted having their actions recorded. The one truly great non-single cut is “The Face On The Cutting Room Floor”, about a has-been (or more accurately, never-was) actress who fails to make it in Hollywood after refusing to sleep her way to the top. The tune was written by Steve Goodman with band members Jeff Hanna and Jimmy Ibbotson.

In addition to the band members themselves, the album credits list some marquee names as additonal musicians, with Steve Gibson, Mark O’Connor, and Ricky Skaggs all lending their talents to the project.

Although it occasionally shows its age, Plain Dirt Fashion is still an enjoyable album and worth a listen if you haven’t already heard it. It is available for download or on a 2-for-1 CD with the band’s next project Partners, Brothers and Friends.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Aaron Tippin – ‘Tool Box’

toolboxAaron Tippin’s 1994 album Lookin’ Back At Myself showed some signs that Tippin the songwriter’s well of ideas was beginning to run dry. Though it earned gold certification, it failed to produce any Top 10 hits, so for his next effort, 1995’s Tool Box, Tippin finally relented and recorded some songs from some outside songwriters. This time around he only had a hand in writing two of the album’s songs, not including “Country Boy’s Tool Box”, which originally appeared on his previous album. The less said about that song, the better. Steve Gibson was back on board as producer.

Opening the door to other songwriters had little commercial impact — Tool Box reached gold status, matching the sales level of Lookin’ Back At Myself — but it did provide a fresh perspective that had been lacking from the prior year’s album.

The album opens with a catchy Dennis Linde number, “Ten Pound Hammer”, which would have been an excellent choice for a single. It was covered two years later by Barbara Mandrell for her final album. It is followed by the album’s first single “That’s As Close As I’ll Get To Loving You”, a slightly slicker-sounding number than what we had usually heard from Aaron up to this point. The record managed to reverse Aaron’s chart decline; it reached the #1 spot, becoming his first record to crack the Top 10 in two years. The album’s subsequent singles did not fare as well, however. “Without Your Love” only reached #22, while “Everything I Own” peaked at #51 and “How’s The Radio Know” a Tippin co-write with Michael P. Heeney stalled at #69. “How’s The Radio Know” is the album’s most traditional-sounding single; that and perhaps declining promotional support from the label may account for its poor chart performance.

There are some pleasant surprises among the album cuts. One of my favorites is “A Real Nice Problem To Have”, a Rick Bowles co-write with Tom Shapiro. Tippin also dusts off Billy Swan’s 1973 hit “I Can Help”. It’s not the type of song I’d expect Aaron Tippin to cover, but he pulls it off reasonably well. “You Gotta Start Somewhere”, another Tom Shapiro effort co-written by Bob Regan, is also quite good.

The album’s sole dud is the psuedo-title track, which, as noted earlier, was carried over from Tippin’s previous album. It is included here as an eleventh song. Had it been omitted, the album would not have suffered. Why it was resurrected is a mystery; I suspect that it was included because someone took a liking to “Tool Box” as an album title.

Tool Box
was Tippin’s final album for RCA. As such, the label probably had little interest in promoting it too heavily with radio programmers. Nevertheless, it sold well and Aaron proved that he had a few more hits left in him when he moved to Lyric Street Records for his next release. Tool Box is a definite improvement over Tippin’s previous few albums; inexpensive copies are easy to find and worth picking up.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Aaron Tippin – ‘Lookin’ Back At Myself’

tippinLike his labelmate Clint Black, Aaron Tippin had a hand in writing most of the songs he recorded, and also like Black, after a few albums it became apparent that he was starting to run out of good ideas. Even a new producer, Steve Gibson couldn’t keep Lookin’ Back At Myself, Tippin’s fifth release for RCA, from sounding like a rehash of his earlier work. The lead single “I Got It Honest” is another ode to the blue collar work ethic, while the title track revisits the theme of standing by one’s convictions no matter what the consequences and “Lovin’ Me Into An Early Grave” sounds way too much like “There Ain’t Nothin’ Wrong With The Radio” to be truly enjoyable.

The familiar themes were beginning to wear thin at radio; “I Got It Honest” failed to reach the Top 10, peaking at #15. The album’s second single “She Feels Like A Brand New Man Tonight” is a less traditional number that at least attempts to venture into new territory. However, it is one of Tippin’s poorer efforts and it only reached #39. The fact that RCA didn’t release any further singles may have been a sign that Tippin was beginning to lose the support of his label. That is a shame, because even though the rest of the album is a mixed bag, it contains a handful of decent songs that might have been better choices for singles. “She’s Got A Way (Of Makin’ Me Forget)” is a fiddle-led traditional number in the vein that Aaron Tippin was born to sing. The same goes for “Standin’ On The Promises”. “Lookin’ Back At Myself” is likewise a very enjoyable song, despite being a bit unoriginal. “Bayou Baby” is a bit fluffy, but might have had a successful chart run as a summmertime release.

On the other hand, “Country Boy’s Tool Box” is an unmitigated disaster that was presumably inspired by the then-popular line dancing craze. The beat is annoying, the lyrics are shallow and it is lacking in melody. Unfortunately the song made another appearance on Tippin’s subsequent album. “Mission From Hank” is a forgettable number, notable only for being the only song on the album that Tippin didn’t co-write.

Overall, Lookin’ Back At Myself is a good, but slightly uneven effort. The album cuts are better than the tracks that were released as singles. RCA seems to have been marketing Tippin as salt-of-the-earth, hardworking and God-fearing and the single choices definitely reflect that but by this time, it was beginning to become a cliche. It’s too bad they didn’t try harder to market some of Aaron’s other singles; if they had he might have enjoyed a few more years in the spotlight. Despite its missteps, the album is certainly good enough to justify the small expenditure required to pick up a cheap copy.

Grade: B

Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘Wind In The Wire’

1993’s Wind In The Wire is probably the most overlooked album in Randy Travis’ discography. By the early 90s, Randy had begun to dabble in acting, somewhat to the detriment of his singing career. Wind In The Wire was something of a side project, intended to accompany a made-for-TV film of the same title, in which Travis appeared. It is, for the most part, a collection of cowboy and western-themed songs, totally non-commercial in its approach and as such, it was mostly shunned by country radio.

Wind In The Wire was the first Randy Travis album since his major label debut not to earn platinum or gold certification, and the first that failed to produce any Top 40 hits. It was also his first release without longtime producer Kyle Lehning. Instead, production duties were handled by Steve Gibson. The album is in large part, a tribute to the singing cowboys and one can easily imagine Gene Autry or Roy Rogers singing many of the songs. Most of the tunes have a traditional Western sound, though only one — “The Old Chisolm Trail” is actually a vintage song. Others such as the opening track “Down At The Old Corral”, “Blue Mesa” and “Roamin’ Wyoming” were written by the contemporary songwriting team of Roger Brown and Luke Reed, but all three songs sound as though they are much older. “Memories of Old Santa Fe” written by Roger Brown and Rick Peoples is in a similar vein, while Mark Shutte Jr’s “Paniolo Country” is a little more contemporary. “Hula Hands”, as the title implies, has a Hawaiian them, and though it is a very good song, it really doesn’t belong in this collection.

“Cowboy Boogie”, the album’s first single, is not a traditional cowboy song per se. It is more of a Western swing tune, but the lyrics deal with cowboys and the Old West. It was greeted at country radio with a big yawn and stalled at #46 on the charts. It fared much better in Canada, however, reaching #10 on the RPM Country Tracks chart there. The title track, which is the most contemporary song on the album, only reached #65 and no further singles were released.

Clearly, the album’s release was timed to coincide with the broadcast of the film, but the timing was not fortuitous for Randy’s music career. It followed two volumes of greatest hits, which were released simultaneously the preceding year. Those two volumes had produced the #1 hits “If I Didn’t Have You” and “Look Heart, No Hands”, but a third single, “An Old Pair Of Shoes” had peaked outside the Top 20. By the time Wind In The Wire was released, Travis had been absent from the radio airwaves for a while, and with Garthmania at its peak, a collection of cowboy tunes wasn’t what radio programmers wanted. Although Randy rebounded commercially with his next album, 1994’s This Is Me, he never again achieved the level of success that he’d enjoyed up to this point.

The commercial failure of Wind In The Wire notwithstanding, it is a solid album that was a nice antidote to the increasingly pop-oriented fare dominating the charts both now and at the time of its release. It holds up surprisingly well. Travis is in good voice and seems comfortable and at ease with the material. Though it’s not essential listening, it is worth seeking out, particularly since a lot of people may have missed out on this one at the time of its release. It is still in print, though it is a little expensive for a nearly 20-year-old commercial flop, but it is worth downloading, at least. It can be purchased from Amazon or iTunes, with the latter having the better price.

Grade: A-