My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Steve Seskin

Album Review: John Michael Montgomery – ‘Life’s A Dance’

John Michael Montgomery’s debut album was released in October 1992. It sold 3 million copies, launching him as a bona fide star, although it does not sound particularly distinctive. At the time I personally was not blown away, and to be perfectly honest it still sounds rather generic to me, but since that era of country music was a strong one, Montgomery has a decent voice and there are some good songs, it sounds much better set against today’s music.

The title track and lead single, ‘Life’s A Dance’ was a promising start for the newcomer, launching him to a #4 hit. Written by Allen Shamblin and Steve Seskin, it is a simple mid paced tune about finding your path In life by accepting whatever comes. It is agreeable listening but not all that memorable.

The follow up, ‘I Love The Way you Love Me’, written by Victoria Shaw and Chuck Cannon, was JMM’s first chart topper. It played to his greatest strengths vocally as a smoothly crooned romantic ballad, leaning in the AC direction, with instrumentation which sounds a bit dated now. A pop cover of the song by Irish boyband Boyzone was a big hit in Europe in 1998.

Finally, ‘Beer And Bones’ was less successful, peaking just outside the top 20. Written by country songwriting legend Sanger D Shafer and Lonnie Williams, it is the most hardcore honky tonk song on the album, with raw vocals.

The singles, and three other tracks, were produced by Doug Johnson. ‘When Your Baby Ain’t Around’ is pleasant mid-tempo filler. ‘Line On Love’ is quite a nice if rather generic song about life lessons learnt from growing up in the country. ‘Dream On Texas Ladies’ is a very pretty waltz which is a cover of a minor hit for Rex Allen Jr in 1984.

The remaining four tracks were produced by Wyatt Easterling. ‘A Great Memory’ is an excellent Dean Dillon/Trey Bruce song on which JMM sounds like fellow-Kentuckian Keith Whitley. Whitley’s influence is also evident on ‘Nickels And Dimes And Love’, a tender memoir of love in poverty which was later cut by Vern Gosdin. It was written by Johnny MacRae and Steve Clark, who also contributed ‘Every Time I Fall (It Breaks Her Heart)’, a tribute to a woman standing by a flawed man.

Finally, ‘Taking Off The Edge’, written by Larry Cordle and Larry Shell, is an enjoyable and rather sexy up-tempo number.

John Michael Montgomery had not quite found his own voice on this album, but it is a generally enjoyable record.

Grade: B+

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Album Review: Highway 101 – ‘Bing Bang Boom’

bing bang boomAlthough one tends to think of Paulette Carlson as the female voice of Highway 101, the fact is that Nikki Nelson has been the face of Highway 101 for far longer than Paulette Carlson. In fact Nelson has been with the group for as a long as Paulette Carlson and Chrislyn Lee combined.

Bing Bang Boom marked the debut of Nikki Nelson as the lead singer of Highway 101. While her predecessor had a more distinctive (and at times quite annoying) voice, I think Nikki’s voice is better and that she had more potential to make it as a solo act than did Carlson. Unfortunately the material on this album is not quite as strong as on the first three albums so this album did not have the impact of the first three albums

The first single for Nikki Nelson was Hugh Prestwood’s “Bing Bang Boom” an up-tempo romp that charted at #14, exactly the same spot that Carlson’s last single had attained. I think that under different circumstances that this single would have done better, but I think that the market had already turned away from Highway 101’s sound as the last two Carlson singles both failed to reach the top ten

Gather around me and lend an ear
‘Cause I got somethin’ you ought to hear
I’m tellin’ you that you ought to fear
A certain kind of love
Now it can strike in the day or night
And just as quick as a rattler’s bite
You’ve got a case of love at first sight
And it’s what you’re dyin’ of

It’s just bing bang boom, one two three
You’re feelin’ normal as you can be
And then bing bang boom, lickety split
It doesn’t come on bit by bit
It gets instantly in full swing
And it’s bing bang boom

Unfortunately, “Bing Bang Boom” would prove to be the last to twenty single for Highway 101.

The next track comes from the pen of Michael Henderson, “Wherever You Are”, a bluesy ballad of a love gone astray. Nikki really nails the vocals – the song might have made a good single. Then again, the third track, “The Blame” (from Cactus Moser, Paul Nelson, and Gene Nelson) was the second single selected, it was an excellent ballad and it died at #31. This is actually my favorite Highway 101 song, one on which Nikki proves to be the absolute master of the slow ballad

Guess I could say you never held me close,
Those certain nights I needed you the most.
But you could say that I gave up before the love was gone,
and whose to say who was right or wrong.
You’ve got your side and I’ve got mine –
the truth lies in between,
No matter how the story’s told the end is still the same.
It’s a game that’s played by fools,
and it only has one rule.
It’s not whether you win or lose,
It’s how you lay the blame.

The next track is from the pens of Cactus Moser, Gary Chapman and Michael James, anther up-tempo romp titled “Storm of Live”. I think this would have made a good single.

This is followed up by a cover of a Tammy Wynette classic, “Til I Get It Right”. Nikki gives the song a nice reading, but she doesn’t have the essential tear in the voice that unique to Tammy Wynette.

Michael Henderson wrote the next two numbers “Restless Kind” and “Honky Tonk Baby”, both decent album tracks but nothing more. “Honky Tonk Baby” has a bit of a retro or rockabilly feel to it and was actually issued as the fourth single, dying at #54.

“River of Tears” , written by Cactus Moser and Eric Silver, would have been a hit if released during the late 1960s or early 1970s. In my mind, I can hear Rhonda Vincent doing this song as a bluegrass ballad.

“Baby, I’m Missing You” was the third single off the album, reaching #22. The song was written by Steve Seskin and Nancy Montgomery. It is a nice song that would have gone top ten a few years earlier.

The album closes with “Desperate” (co-written by Cactus Moser), and Joy White’s “Big City Bound”, both good album tracks. “Big City Bound” has an arrangement that reminds me strongly of John Anderson’s 1981 hit “I’m Just An Old Chunk of Coal”.

I would rate this album as a B+. I don’t really think the band lost anything with the change of female vocalist. If anything, Nikki Nelson’s presence probably enabled the band to tackle a greater variety of material in live performance. I think the real issue here is shelf life. Highway 101 had a four year shelf life as hitmakers, and had already experienced significant falloff even before Carlson left the band, with each album charting a little lower than the previous album (#7, #8, #22 and then #29 for the Greatest Hits album. This pattern is eerily similar to the pattern for acts such as SKO/SKB, Desert Rose, Exile and Restless Heart.

Highway 101 still tours occasionally – look for them if they hit your town.

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘How Do You Like Me Now?!’

how do you like me nowAs the millennium drew to a close, Toby Keith released the best album of his career on new label Dreamworks.

The lead single, ‘When Love Fades’ is a powerfully sung ballad written by Keith with Chuck Cannon. It’s not a bad song, but it failed to catch fire at radio and didn’t enter the top 40. Keith was understandably concerned by the poor start for his new deal, and asked for the single’s promotion to be pulled in favour of the title track. It was with this song (another Keith/Cannon effort) that Toby really found his voice. The vengeful ‘How Do You Like Me Now?!’ was perfect for Keith’s personality as he gleefully shows off his wealth and fame to the object of his unrequited affections in high school, who is now unhappily married. It was a career-making five-week chart topper, and while the protagonist’s motivation is immature, Toby Keith sells it completely.

Keith kept the tempo up with the horn-driven ‘Country Comes To Town’, which peaked at #4. I much prefer the final single, the tender ballad ‘You Shouldn’t Kiss Me Like This’, which captures the moment when a pair of “just friends” tentatively become something more:

You shouldn’t kiss me like this
Unless you mean it like that…

They’re all watching us now
They think we’re falling in love
They’ll never believe we’re just friends
When you kiss me like this
I think you mean it like that
If you do, baby, kiss me again

It reached #1 in March 2001, and it stands up well today.

Equally tender a performance, though not as memorable a song, is the sweet ‘Do I Know You (Bottom Of My Heart)’. ‘Heart To Heart (Stelen’s Song)’ is Keith’s real-life observation of his young son Stelen and his relationship with his wife Tricia, Stelen’s mother. (As a footnote the couple are still happily married and Stelen is in college.) ‘She Only Gets That Way With Me’, also probably about Tricia, was written by Toby with Scotty Emerick.

The breakup song ‘Blue Bedroom) was a co-write with Chuck Cannon, and is pretty good. More abstract is the macho philosophy of ‘Die With Your Boots On’, as voiced by a hard working truckdriving protagonist and his gambler father.

Toby wrote all but three of the songs. One of those outside numbers, ‘New Orleans’, is not only my favorite on the album, but probably my favorite Toby Keith cut ever. A compelling story song written by Mark D Sanders, Bob DiPiero and Steve Seskin, it relates the tale of a young woman fleeing something (or someone) in New Orleans, who finds a new life for herself in a random small town:

He was 25, she was 28
He was home grown country,
She just pulled off the interstate
She bought a Dr. Pepper, ten dollars worth of gas
She was obviously lost but too afraid to ask directions

So he offered her a smile and a stick of beechnut gum
Said “where you headed to girl, where you coming from?”
She said, “New Orleans
That’s another story
New Orleans
That’s another time
That’s another town
That’s another life”

First she stayed a day
Then she stayed a week
A couple of months later they were living on his parents’ street

Wednesday night supper at the First Baptist Church
Stranger standin’ in the doorway
As they’re passin’ out dessert
He said “Go and pack your bags
Cause I’m here to take you home
Goin’ back to Louisiana
Woman, I ain’t gonna go without you”

There’s a few defining moments in every person’s life
When you know what you’ve done wrong
And you know what you done right
Before the congregation
Her husband and her kids
She said, “How dare you even speak to me
After everything you did in New Orleans”

It’s effective partly because of what it doesn’t spell out; we never hear exactly what her ex did to her, or what happens next, although we can guess. Toby sings it with unusual restraint.

Not as intense, but still very good is the mid-tempo ‘I Know A Wall When I See One’, written by Jerry Salley and J B Rudd, about an encounter with an ex which brings back painful memories. The other outside song, ‘Hold You, Kiss You, Love You’ is a bit flat.

The production, courtesy of Toby and his new label boss James Stroud, is glossy and often hard driving contemporary fare which has dated a little but is effective enough. The material is generally strong, and overall this is my favorite Toby Keith album.

Grade: A

Album Review: Tracy Lawrence – ‘The Rock’

the rockMany country artists recording a religious album tend to include a fair percentage of hymns and other wellworn gospel tunes. Tracy took the more adventurous path of picking all-new material. The range and quality of the songs, unfortunately, is less ambitious. He produced with Julian Lord, and released the record on his own label, Rocky Comfort Records.

Tracy wrote one song with longtime collaborator Flip Anderson, the opening confessional ‘Dear Lord’, which is okay but comes across more than a little cozily self-satisfied. Tracy’s own past well-publicized misdemeanours would seem to provide him with the real-life experiences to make a convincing job of much meatier material touching on sinners’ salvation.

‘I’m Done’ (written by Steve Seskin and Mike Shamblin) is the closest the album comes to that kind of song, and is much more interesting as a result. Here a troubled narrator decides to change his life around by forgiving his enemies:

Life hit me when I wasn’t looking
It dealt me a hard hand to play
I felt betrayed and forsaken
But I’ve been making the wrong people pay
And I’m done
I’m done

I’ve spent my last night in that prison
Where anger and pride were the bars
Hey, I’m here to tell you
I’m making peace with the past
And I’m not ashamed of my scars
But I’m done

I’m done harbouring grudges and nursing old wounds
Not clinging to grudges and singing the blues
I’m done pointing fingers at everyone else
I’m taking a long hard look at myself
A new day has begun
And I’m done

The production is a bit busier than necessary, but this song has a weight and depth too often lacking elsewhere.

Even better is ‘Up To Him’, a somber song rooted in real life written by David Kent and Tim Johnson, about dealing with hard times and the fear of worse, which is my favourite track. The narrator hedges his bets a little by combining prayer with his own efforts to get a leg up.

Who knows what’s going to happen in the end?
I just work like it’s all up to me
And pray like it’s all up to Him

The song was released as a single, and although it didn’t crack the top 40 did fairly well for a religious song on an independent label, peaking at #47.

The less successful follow-up single, ‘Somebody Who Would Die For You’ briefly narrates the stories of a homeless veteran, a neglected old father, and the victim of a school shooting. It is movingly sung, although the stories are a little disjointed and the strings swamp the arrangement.

‘The Book You Never Read’ slows things down quite nicely, as Tracy takes the voice of the Bible addressing a troubled soul. The similarly anthropomorphic title track is the story of a Savannah church, set to an attractive tune, led into by the churchy strains of an organ; a choir comes in effectively and appropriately on the last chorus and this is nicely done. These are both pretty decent songs.

Of the less memorable material, ‘Jesus Come Talk To Your Children’ also has gospel backing vocals, but is a bit shouty and demanding. ‘Say A Prayer’ is about prayer in difficult situations (alcoholism, cancer) and is clearly sincere, but heavy-handed and sentimental rather than having a clear message. ‘I Know Where Heaven Is’ and ‘Every Prayer’ are pleasant but forgettable.

This isn’t the best religious album I’ve ever heard, but it’s not bad. Used copies are available quite cheaply, so it’s worth picking up if you like Tracy Lawrence and religious material.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Pam Tillis – ‘Homeward Looking Angel’

homeward looking angelPam’s second Arista album, released in 1992, was tastefully produced like its predecessor by Paul Worley and Ed Seay. Although the material was not quite as strong, there was enough to keep her momentum going, and in fact it was more successful commercially than its predecessor.

The first single ‘Shake The Sugar Tree’, written by Chapin Hartford reached #3. A pretty melody, tasteful arrangement, Pam’s confident lead vocal and banked harmonies from Stephanie Bentley (who later had a duet hit with Ty Herndon) apparently lifted from her demo of the song all contribute to making this a very attractive recording of a good song with an assertive attitude as the protagonist gives her neglectful man a warning.

The wistful story song ‘Let That Pony Run’ (about a suburban housewife who finds a new life after her husband leaves her), written by Gretchen Peters, is one of the standout tracks. It is the kind of mature, thoughtful lyric which would get no traction on today’s radio but in 1993 it reached #4. An exquisite vocal is backed up by backing vocals from Pam Rose and Mary Ann Kennedy.

The playful irony of ‘Cleopatra Queen Of Denial’, written by Pam, her then-husband Bob DiPiero, and Jan Buckingham, peaked just outside the top 10 (at #11).

By far my favourite track is the very traditional ‘Do You Know Where Your Man Is’ (written by Dave Gibson, Russell Smith and Carol Chase), which was another top 20 single. The pensive ballad asks a married woman about the state of her marriage

Did you kiss him when he left this morning
And does he know that he’s needed at home?
Well, if you don’t feel that old thrill
Then somebody else will
And there’s some mighty good women all alone

It’s ten o’clock
Do you know where your man is
And are you sure that he’s doing you right?
Are you still in his heart
When he’s out of your sight?
Do you know where your man is tonight?

It was previously recorded by Barbara Mandrell, whose version is also very fine, but Pam’s just edges it for me. Her beautifully judged vocal is backed by a lovely traditional arrangement with prominent steel guitar.

Opening track ‘How Gone Is Goodbye’ is one of a brace of songs written by Pam with Bob DiPiero. It is a very good song which could easily have been another hit single, with a ballsy (and surprisingly upbeat) delivery and mature lyric with a woman regretting walking out and wondering if she can backtrack.

The excellent ballad ‘We’ve Tried Everything Else’ (written by Pam and Bob with Steve Seskin)might be the same couple a little further down the line, as the protagonist suggests to her ex that getting back together would be the best solution, since new lovers have failed to help them move on:

Neither one of us is feeling any better
All we’ve been doing is fooling ourselves
Baby, you and me were meant to be together
Let’s try love again
We’ve tried everything else

The title track offers a portrait of a young woman who is returning home as the prodigal daughter but who hasn’t given up on her dreams:

Her party dress is tattered but her vision is inspired…

There’s a road ahead and the road behind
All roads lead to home this time

A couple of tracks are less interesting. ‘Love Is Only Human’ is an AC-leaning duet with Diamond Rio’s Marty Roe which is a bit bland, although it is beautifully sung; I would have loved to hear this pairing on a more dynamic song. ‘Rough And Tumble Heart’ was previously recorded in a very similar arrangement by female-led 80s group Highway 101, so Pam’s version, while perfectly listenable, seems redundant, even though she wrote it (with DiPiero and Sam Hogin). ‘Fine, Fine, Very Fine Love’ is just plain boring and Pam’s vocal verges on the screechy.

Although I don’t like this album quite as much as Put Yourself In My Place, it actually sold better, becoming Pam’s first platinum certification. It is a solid and very varied collection with some excellent songs. Used copies can be obtained cheaply, and it’s well worth picking up.

Grade: A-

Album Review – Collin Raye – ‘I Think About You’

Rayethink1995 was a good year for Collin Raye. Coming off the success of Extremes, he released I Think About You in late August. Like its three predecessors, it received a platinum certification and retained John Hobbs as producer (Ed Seay and Paul Worley co-produced).

I Think About You was instrumental in shaping my country music identity as it was one of the first country projects I was exposed to as a kid, and remains my third favorite country album to this day (behind Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Come On, Come On and Dixie Chicks Home). The hits from this project have a special quality I’ve never been able to duplicate with any other artists’ work.

Mark Alan Springer and Shane Smith co-wrote the #2 peaking lead single, “One Boy, One Girl,” a fantastically touching ballad centered around the full-circle love affair between a couple. The ending of the story is a bit predicable, but Raye gives the type of touching performance only he could bring to a ballad, and both Dan Digmore and Paul Franklin drench the number in gorgeous pedal steel.

Even better is “Not That Different,” Karen Taylor-Good and Joie Scott’s song about indifference that climbed to #3. I love how the song builds, starting out as a simple piano ballad and building to its drum-infused conclusion with the bridge. The lyric, both simple and brilliant, is fine testament to the powers of fate, and probably my favorite on the whole album:

She could hardly argue

With his pure and simple logic

But logic never could convince a heart

She had always dreamed of loving someone more exotic

And he just didn’t seem to fit the part

So she searched for greener pastures

But never could forget

What he whispered when she left

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Album Review – Tim McGraw – ‘Set This Circus Down’

Our first taste of Tim McGraw’s Set This Circus Down album came when he sang “Things Change” at the CMA Awards in 2000. A poignant tale, the song dealt with changing attitudes over time within the music industry. While it wasn’t an official single, the song ended up charting via unsolicited airplay peaking at #31.

“Things Change” resonated with fans and spoke candidly about the growing frustration between traditional country and pop country:

Now some say it’s too country

Some say it’s too rock ‘n’ roll

But it’s just good music

If you can feel it in your soul

And it doesn’t really matter

It’s always been the same

Life goes on, Things Change

I always thought McGraw was singing that verse about the controversy surrounding his wife Faith Hill’s more pop-heavy Breathe album. There was a growing dissatisfaction with her attempts to reach a wider audience and many who felt she was leaving country music.  Nonetheless I love the song and the pop/rock heavy production for being a little slice of commentary without coming off too bitter or preachy.

The first official single, “Grown Men Don’t Cry” was released in March 2001 and topped the chart in June.  A moody piano ballad, it stuck me the first time I heard it as it marked a distinct departure for McGraw – his first real foray into pop ballad territory. It took a while for me to warm up to since I wasn’t used to this kind of song from him, but Tom Douglas and Steve Seskin pinned one of the finest singles of McGraw’s career. I also thought the twist in the title (grown men really do cry) was very clever.

A cover of Bruce Robinson’s “Angry All The Time,” a song he originally recorded with his wife Kelly Willis on his Wrapped album in 1998, followed. This tale of a crumbling marriage marked another step in McGraw’s evolution as an artist and the background vocals from Hill only add more nuance to the track. The song works on every level – Robinson has crafted a brilliant lyric that allows listeners to feel the pain of a strained union and Bryon Gallimore brought it over the top with the tasteful acoustic production. Another number one, it topped the charts in November 2001.

Third single, “The Cowboy In Me” would continue McGraw’s hot streak on the charts, hitting number one in March 2002. The song opened the album with soft acoustic guitar riffs over steel guitar and fiddle before morphing into a rock ballad on the chorus. The change in production did cause McGraw to shout on the chorus, but it was the opening verses that resonated with me most clearly. I’ve always felt like Al Anderson, Craig Wiseman, and Jeffery Steele were writing my story:

I don’t know why I act the way I do

Like I ain’t got a single thing to lose

Sometimes I’m my own worst enemy

I guess that’s just the cowboy in me

I got a life that most would love to have

But sometimes I still wake up fightin’ mad

At where this road I’m heading down might lead

I guess that’s just the cowboy in me

McGraw would see the top of the charts again when fourth and final single “Unbroken” hit number one in September 2002. Easily the most forgotten single from this album, it paled in comparison both lyrically and sonically to the ones that proceeded it. But that wasn’t for lack of trying, as “Unbroken” was perfect radio fodder and catchy enough to stick in your head, at least during its chart run.

Set This Circus Down is widely considered the strongest album of McGraw’s career and it’s easy to see why. In a rare feat, all of the singles topped the charts. But what sets it apart from his previous work is the stellar album cuts. Continuing the trend from A Place In The Sun, he left out disposable filler and found some truly stellar songs.

The rock heavy “Angel Boy,” written by Danny Orton, was given the music video treatment although it wasn’t a single. A story about a man who had dealings with the devil, it was always a favorite track of mine, despite the heavy production and somewhat muddy vocal. It was something cool and different and stuck out to me because of that.

My other favorite songs are the Spanish influenced “Let Me Love You,” which McGraw sang with Hill during the Soul 2 Soul tour in 2000, and the journeyman’s anthem “Telluride.” Both are lyrically strong and could’ve easily been radio singles. The latter was indeed a single, for Josh Gracin, and peaked at #34 in 2008. Another highlight is the steel guitar heavy “When You Get Used To Somebody” which shows off a more traditional country sounding McGraw and the title track, a fiddle-laced country rocker.

Overall, Set This Circus Down is another highpoint from McGraw and my second favorite album of his career. It was nice to see, in 2001, he was finally making albums and not just singles. This is another strong set and if you don’t have it, it’s easily found on Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: A

Songs about adoption

Lisa as babyI was adopted as a baby, and because of that the subject has always drawn me in fiction. In fact I’ve read some really bad books and watched some bad TV purely because of the topic. One of the things I appreciate most in country music is the range of topics it covers, and I feel inspired to bring together some of the best songs I’ve heard over the years on the subject of adoption.

Actually, one area that seems a bit lacking is songs about the experience of the adopted child. One of the few that does start from that point is Jeff Bates’ autobiographical ‘Rainbow Man’, title track of his 2003 debut album. Although the song goes on to talk about race and the American melting pot, I definitely identify with Jeff’s questioning of his identity.

Moving on to adulthood, I love the story song ‘Cactus In A Coffee Can’, a delicately realized third-person tale of a plane encounter with a young woman who has been reunited with a drug-addict birth mother just before the mother’s death. I first heard it ten years ago from Jerry Kilgore on his Love Trip album on the short-lived Virgin country imprint, and it was beautifully revived by the excellent Melonie Cannon on her most recent album, And The Wheels Turn. You can check both versions out on last.fm. There’s also a version available by Steve Seskin, who co-wrote the song with Allen Shamblin, where his more fragile vocals add a certain vulnerability.

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