My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Terry McBride

Album Review: Jim Lauderdale – ‘This Changes Everything’

It was back to traditional country for Jim’s 2016 release This Changes Everything, recorded in Texas with a strongly Texas flavour to the music. Steel guitarist Tommy Detamore produced, and a number of Texas mainstays formed the backing band. Most of the record was produced in a single all-day session.

The opening track, written with Texan singer-songwriter Bruce Robison, is a very nice conversational, steel laden song about falling in love. It would be ideal for George Strait (who did record this record’s ‘We Really Shouldn’t Be Doing This’). Robison also co-wrote the gentle ‘There Is A Horizon’. A singer-songwriter of a more recent vintage, Hayes Carll, is the co-writer on ‘Drive’, a rather laid back sounding song about being on the road written very much in Carll’s voice.

Sunny Sweeney adds her distinctive harmony on the engaging ‘All The Rage In Paris’, about being a superstar local act – in Paris, Texas, and environs. ‘You Turn Me Around’, written with Terry McBride, is a charming Western Swing number. Buddy Cannon and Kendell Marvel joined Jim to write ‘Nobody’s Fault’, a laidback song about falling in and out of love.

‘Lost In The Shuffle’, written with Odie Blackmon, is the most delightful of several traditional country shuffles with glorious fiddle from Bobby Flores. ‘It All Started And Ended With you’, written with Frank Dycus, has a mournful feel, helped by the gorgeous steel and Jim’s plaintive wail. Dycus also co-wrote the romantic love song ‘I’ll Still Be Around’ and the sober cheating song ‘The Weakness Of Two Hearts’.

This is an excellent album which has become one of my favorites of Jim’s work.

Grade: A

Album Review: Josh Ward – ‘More Than I Deserve’

Josh Ward is one of those Texan country traditionalists who are still out there, performing and recording real country music, and enjoying significant regional success which has started to reach other parts of the country. His latest album, his fourth, hopes to continue his success.

The lead single, ‘’All About Lovin’’, is a cheerful up-tempo tune written by Brice Long, Terry McBride and Chris Stapleton. A potentially radio-friendly toe-tapping groove means this could have been a hit if national country radio hadn’t lost the plot; it did hit the top of the Texas country charts.

Josh co-wrote three of the songs. He is a former rodeo rider himself, and the thoughtful ‘A Cowboy Can’ pays tribute to tough lives and those who don’t give up:

The nights get cold
And the highway never ends
Not many folks can live this life
But a cowboy can

I wouldn’t wish this on the faint of heart
‘Cause I know it ain’t for everyone
Some folks might try to look the part
We don’t do this just for fun
It’s every part of who I am
I’ve got no-quit runnin’ through my veins
It ain’t an easy way to make a buck

‘One More Shot Of Whiskey’ is an excellent song, a downbeat depiction of heartbreak:

I’ve been hangin’ with the devil
I’ve been right down on his level
And I drink his wine night after night
I’ve tried Jones and I’ve tried Haggard
Tried to find somethin’ sadder
It helped a little bit but it took too much time
I’ve only found one thing that comes close

If it takes a month of Sundays
I’ll get over you someday
Say the hell with you and I’ll find someone too
But tonight I’m in trouble and I might start shootin’ doubles
Catch a quick-fix buzz and call you up
So as long as Tennessee makes 90 proof
I need one more shot of whiskey

‘Cause I know that’s all it takes for me
To drown out your damn memory
And help my heart not hurt this way
But I won’t know it did the trick until it hits me

The almost-title track, ‘More Than I Deserved’, the last of Josh’s own songs, is a wistfully regretful song about a lost love.

‘Say Hello To Goodbye’ is a lovely ballad with the protagonist offering some sympathy to a friend who, one assumes like himself, has lost in love through his own fault.

Another highlight is ‘The Devil Don’ t Scare Me’, in which losing a loved one is the worst thing he can possibly imagine happening, including death and hell:

Preacher used to preach about fire and brimstone
I was shakin’ in the shoes in the pew I sat on
12 years old
Afraid of where I’d go
Ten years later wonderin’ how I got here
Where neon burns and they sell cold beer
Heaven seems so far away

‘Cause ever since the night she left me
Ain’t a damn thing that can help me
I’ve tried praying
I’ve tried whiskey
It’s livin’ hell wishing she’d missed me
No I ain’t afraid of dying
‘Cause I lost the one thing I was livin’ for
Now the devil don’t scare me anymore

‘Ain’t It Baby’ is a mellow ballad about staying in love, and ‘Loving Right’ is quite pleasant.

In the midpaced honky tonker ‘Another Heartache’, the narrator wants to enjoy himself and a one night stand, and not fall in love to risk the pain of the inevitable pain.

A rapid paced paean to the bar which is the protagonist’s ‘Home Away From Home’ lacks melody. ‘God Made A Woman’ is a bit generic.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable album.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Wade Hayes – ‘Highways and Heartaches’

Wade Hayes’ fourth album, 2001’s Highways and Heartaches, was the final major label album of his career. He switched from Columbia to Monument for this release, which retained Don Cook as a producer but brought along Ronnie Dunn, Terry McBride, and Chick Rains to join him.

Three singles were sent to radio. The weak and generic “Up North (Down South, Back East, Out West)” peaked at #48. The ballad “Goodbye Is The Wrong Way To Go” performed slightly better but stalled at #45. The final single “What’s It Gonna Take,” which was co-written by John Rich, tried to recapture Hayes’ classic sound but didn’t rekindle any of the magic. It was his final single for a major label and it failed to chart.

The album got its title from a line in “Life After Lovin’ You,” which is about the only significant thing about the uptempo rocker. He continues in this territory on “Up and Down” and has equally unremarkable results. “That’s What Honky Tonks Are For” has Cook’s stamp all over it, which could’ve been a good thing, but it feels dated and uninspired.

Highways and Heartaches is strongest when Hayes is allowed to be himself. “She Used To Say That To Me,” co-written by Jim Lauderdale, is the bridge between the muddled garbage that populates the majority of the album and the more restrained tracks. “You Just Keep On” is an album highlight, with a modern lyric that fit with the romanticism of the era. “I’m Lonesome Too” has audible steel and a pleasant uptempo melody.

This record isn’t actually garbage, but it is a commercial effort that takes zero changes and waters down everything that made Hayes distinctive. It’s clear the label knew exactly what they wanted and they got it. Highways and Heartaches should remain the forgettable album that it truly is.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Easton Corbin -‘About To Get Real’

about to get realRather optimistically heralded as a new George Strait on his debut in 2009, my enthusaism for Easto Corbin has somewhat waned since his run of gold-selling singles. I always felt that while he had potential, his material was not quite good enough for that smooth voice and Carson Chamberlain’s steel-laden production. I am sorry to say that his long-delayed third album was not worth waiting for. Chamberlain has modernised the sound a little, but that’s not the main problem. The real disappointment of this album is that the songs are all so lackluster and forgettable, with just a few exceptions.

The pleasant sounding but forgettable lead single ‘Clockwork’ performed unimpressively last year, not quite reaching the top30. The song isn’t bad apart from the unnecessary and irritating repetition of the word ‘girl’, but Corbin’s vocal lacks force or emotion. He just doesn’t sound as if he really cares about the emotional trap of a repeat pattern his character has fallen into.

It is one of five songs co-written by producer Chamberlain. ‘Kiss Me One More Time’ (by Chamberlain, Wade Kirby and Phil O’Donnell) is just okay. The remaining three Chamberlain songs include Corbin as a co-writer. I enjoyed the bouncy ‘Diggin’ On You’ even though it is pure fluff. ‘Damn, Girl’ suffers from rather too facile rhymes but isn’t too bad. The best of these collaborations, however, is the best song on the album. ‘Like A Song’, written by the pair with Stephen Allen Davis, is a beautiful ballad which shows just how good Corbin could be given worthwhile material.

Current single ‘Baby Be My Love Song, written by Brett James and Jim Collins, is a poorly written boring love song relying on bro-country clichés and a busy production, but it seems to be more palatable to country radio than its predecessor, and made it into the top 10.

‘Are You With Me’ from his last album was subjected to an unspeakably horrible dance remix last year and the result was a hit single in France and Belgium, and perhaps because of that he has recut the song straight here. The reclaimed version is quite a pretty sounding mellow ballad which Easton sings with a genuine warmth, and which is one of the few songs I like on this album. It was written by Shane MacAnally, Tommy Lee James and Terry McBride.

The enjoyable ‘Wild Women and Whiskey’ written by McBride with Ronnie Dunn is a pretty good song which sounds like a Brooks & Dunn offcut, while sunny beach tune ‘Just Add Water’ would fit perfectly on a Kenny Chesney record.

The title track, written by Jeremy Stover, Ben Hayslip and Rhett Akins is, while mellow and melodic, bland and forgettable, while ‘Guys And Girls’ lacks both melody and lyrical depth and ‘Yup’ is both boring and cliche’d.

This record is not offensive to listen to – it’s just rather bland and wanting lyrically, with just a few bright spots.

Grade: C+

Single Review: Kix Brooks – ‘New To This Town’

After the breakup of hitmaking duo Brooks & Dunn, Ronnie Dunn’s solo career was greeted with considerable interest. It is fair to say that there was less anticipation for partner Kix Brooks’ solo endeavours. Kix Brooks was definitely the member of Brooks & Dunn held in less regard even by fans of the duo. He rarely sang lead on one of the duo’s singles, but he sang his share of album tracks, and often provided the more interesting moments.

Conversationally drawling his way through the song, Kix presents a man stuck in the same small town his ex lives and wistfully wondering what it would be like not to be surrounded by memories, or the fear of running into her around every corner. The picture painted is full enough to be convincing.

Production is reasonably contemporary without completely overwhelming the song’s essential sadness in a complete wall of sound, and although there is an extended guitar solo (courtesy of the Eagles’ Joe Walsh, who gets a special credit), it doesn’t take over the song. The melody is simple, allowing the lyrics center stage.

Kix wrote the song with frequent collaborator Terry McBride and Marv Green. It sounds very like a good B&D album cut, which makes its substantially more interesting than most radio playlists. It would probably be a more memorable record sung by a better singer, but Kix’s vocals, while limited, work on this song. He imbues it with a resigned regret which is very efefctive.

Grade: B+

Listen here.

Favorite country songs of the 1970s: Part 4

For part four of this series, I’ll be using the same criteria as before – just some songs I liked, one song per artist (although I will feel free to comment on other songs by the artist). This part stops in the middle of the letter M.

“Joy To The World” – Murray Kellum (1971)

A nice country cover of a #1 pop hit for Three Dog Night, this reached #26 and was Murray’s biggest hit. He died in a plane crash in 1990 at the too-young age of 47. Hoyt Axton wrote this song.

Honky Tonk Wine” – Wayne Kemp (1973)

Wayne Kemp was better known as a songwriter who penned major hits for the likes of George Jones (“Love Bug”), Conway Twitty (“The Image of Me”) and countless others. This song reached #17, and was Wayne’s biggest hit.

Sweet Desire” – The Kendalls (1978)

A father and daughter duo, Jeannie took on most of the lead vocals while father Royce sang harmony. The Kendalls kept the radio airwaves safe for real country music during the middle and late 1970s. I liked everything the Kendalls ever sang, and have no idea why the new traditionalist movement of 1986 failed to re-ignite their career.

Mama’s Got The Know-How” – Doug Kershaw (1974)

For someone as famous as he is, Doug Kershaw had only seven chart hits as a solo act, to go with his five hits as part of Rusty & Doug. This one got to #77, a fairly normal placing for his solo efforts. Although I liked this song, his Warner Brothers albums of the 1970s were mostly laconic efforts. Read more of this post

Album Review – Ronnie Dunn – ‘Ronnie Dunn’

Ronnie Dunn’s long-awaited solo debut finds the singer staying close to the signature Brooks & Dunn sound, although with slightly more emphasis on the contemporary end of the country music spectrum. There are no fiddles and very little steel guitar to be found, but there is a healthy helping of Southern rock and even a dash of Tex-Mex, which make for a much more interesting album than I was expecting after the somewhat bland lead single “Bleed Red”, Dunn’s first solo Top 10 hit, which I reviewed back in February. Dunn produced the album himself and had a hand in writing nine of the album’s twelve tracks.

The album opens with the (presumably) autobiographical “Singer In A Cowboy Band”, one of the rock-leaning songs, which, though well written and well performed, contains some heavy-handed electric guitar work, which I found somewhat distracting. More effective is “I Don’t Dance”, which is also rock-flavored but with less intrusive electric guitars. Better yet is the quieter “Your Kind of Love”, one of only three tracks that Dunn didn’t write or co-write. Composed by Maile Misajon and Jeremy Stover, it’s a little closer to the familiar Brooks & Dunn sound and seems to be a good prospect for a future hit single. “How Far To Waco”, co-written with Terry McBride, opens with the sound of trumpets blaring and is reminiscent of the type of record The Mavericks used to make back in the 90s and would be another good choice for a single release. And finally, we get to hear some steel guitar on “Once”.

Overall, the tracks that work best are the quieter ones: “Last Love I’m Trying”, “I Can’t Help Myself”, and “Love Owes Me One”. But hands down, the best song on the album is the current single “Cost of Livin'”, a stripped-down track that is a testament to the current economic hard times. It tells the tale of an out-of-work war veteran who is struggling to make ends meet while he searches for new employment opportunities. Unfortunately, far too many people will be able to relate to this one. But despite the bleak circumstances he finds himself in, the protagonist is still hopeful that things will improve. This track is a masterpiece, which I can’t praise enough and it makes me wish that Dunn would release an all-acoustic album in the vein of Dwight Yoakam’s

iTunes offers a deluxe version of the album with two bonus tracks: “Boots and Diamonds”, and “King of All Things Lonesome”, both of would have been worthy of space on the main part of the album.

Although not every track on the album was to my taste — I could have done without “Singer In A Cowboy Band” and “Let The Cowboy Rock” — I found myself liking it more with repeated listenings. Dunn has succeeded in widening his repertoire a bit while still retaining the vintage Brooks & Dunn sound that should keep long-time fans feeling satisfied.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Lonesome River Band – ‘Still Learning’

The Lonesome River Band is one of those bluegrass bands which has been going for a long time with a changing cast of members. Their new Rural Rhythm release features some excellent playing (something which almost goes without saying) and a varied selection of songs. Lead vocals are split between high tenor and mandolin player Andy Ball and the distinctive and emotionally expressive voice of guitarist Brandon Rickman. Both are accomplished singers, but my personal preference is for Brandon’s voice with its interesting textures and his sensitive phrasing. Banjoist and band leader Sammy Shelor and bass player Mike Anglin lend harmony vocals, and the non-singing Mike Hartgrove plays fiddle. The instrumental work is impeccable throughout, and showed off to best effect on the sparkling ‘Pretty Little Girl’, a traditional instrumental arranged by Sammy Shelor, which closes the set.

Brandon takes the lead on the excellent opening track ‘Record Time Machine’, one of two songs written by Marvin E Clark. The song recalls being inspired by a Chet Atkins record to a life of music,

That old RCA phonograph record time machine
It took me to the places that were only in my dreams…
I could somehow see the future as I listened to the past

Clark also wrote the wistful ‘Telling Me You Love Me Again’, in which the protagonist spends his time fantasizing about his ex’s return,

Somewhere over every rainbow
Just around every bend
You’re standing there with open arms
Telling me you love me again

There is an excellent cover (with the protagonist age adjusted) of Merle Haggard’s ‘Red Bandana’, a country hit in 1979 about a teenage sweetheart manfully trying to support her musician husband,

You look like you ought to be somebody’s wife somewhere
You ain’t never going to be no Bobbie McGee but you’re trying to…

Every time you leave the stage I know you’ve had your fill
And I wonder why you grew up and I never will

The slight but enjoyable up-tempo ‘Any Old Time’ (written by one-time Lyric Street artist Kevin Denney with Tom Botkin and Mike Rogers) has the strongest harmonies, and Brandon singing in the higher part of his range as he offers to wait for the girl he loves,

Any old time you get lonely

Brandon himself teamed up with Denney and Carson Chamberlain to write ‘As Wild As I Get’, a mature expression of growing up and settling down, a theme which was at the heart of his solo album (which I recommended last year). It’s often hard to make domestic happiness interesting in a song, but this seems to be a gift of Brandon’s, both as a singer and a writer, and this song has a real charm and is beautifully phrased. He also wrote the equally pleasing and sincerely delivered mid-tempo title track, about maturity, settling down and working at being the man his loved one deserves, with the humility to admit he still has something to learn.

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Album Review: Gretchen Wilson – ‘I Got Your Country Right Here’

Gretchen’s first independent release following her departure from Sony sees her taking the producer’s chair herself alongside Blake Chancey (and old friend John Rich on a handful of tracks). The end result is not that far removed from her Sony records, and fans of Gretchen’s rocking side will be happy. Admirers of her way with a ballad (Wilson’s most underrated talent) will be more disappointed.

Current single ‘Work Hard, Play Harder, is set to a relentless rock beat which led to a copyright infringement claim from the rock band the Black Crowes; the case was settled out of court and led to the writers of the latter’s song being given co-writing credit here, alongside the originally credited Wilson, John Rich and Vicky McGehee. This lyrically predictable and musically dull piece about a hardworking “redneck, blue-collar” bartender/waitress is already Gretchen’s biggest hit since 2006’s ‘California Girls’, perhaps because it fits into the pigeonhole Gretchen created for herself with her signature tune ‘Redneck Woman’.

It is one of only two tracks co-written by Gretchen. Dallas Davidson helped her with the other, the rocking sociopolitical statement ‘Blue Collar Done Turn Red’ which mixes a declaration of patriotism with some social criticism of modern changes:

We used to judge a man by the shake of his hand
And his honor and his honesty
Never knocked him down when he stood his ground
Cause it wouldn’t fit the policy now
There’s bailout bills and fat cat deals

Ex-SteelDriver Chris Stapleton and Terry McBride offer a trenchant criticism of modern country radio in ‘Outlaws & Renegades’:

Well, just the other day I was driving down the road
Listening to the stuff coming out of Music Row
I didn’t recognise a single song or none of the names
But it didn’t really matter cause they all seem to sound the same

Where’s all the outlaws and renegades?
Lord knows I miss those days
When they said what they thought
And what they thought was what was on your mind

It seems to veer off course in the last verse when it moves into another political complaint (about politicians and gas prices), and then back to music with a spoken outro namechecking Cash, Jennings and Nelson.

Their era is also recalled in the rather generic Southern Rock-country of the title track, written by consummate hit maker Jeffrey Steele and Tom Hambridge. This pays cursory tribute to various 70s Outlaw and Southern Rock acts – Waylon again, of course, plus the Charlie Daniels Band, Hank Williams Jr, and on the rock side of the border, the Allman Brothers, Z.Z. Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd. It is one of those tracks that strikes one as being more fun for the musicians to make than for the listener; it isn’t that interesting on record either musically or lyrically; it’s all about the groove and feel, which probably works better live.

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Moving backstage

Former Wrecker Jessica Harp surprised many by her recent announcement that she was leaving her record label and abandoning hopes of a solo career in favour of becoming a full time songwriter. While retaining rather more dignity than Jason Michael Carroll’s unforgettable but rather sad “Arista and I are going our seperate [sic] ways! They called and said they would be moving forward without me!” this may be a case of jumping before she was pushed, as Jessica’s solo singles had failed to set the charts alight, although her now ex-label has chosen to release her album digitally as a parting gift for her fans.

Time will tell whether she will be successful in her new course. She would hardly be the first Nashville songwriter to start out wanting to be an artist in her own right, or indeed the first to enjoy a short chart career.

Dean Dillon’s distinctive turn of phrase has made him one of the most sought-after writers in the past 20 years. With a voice as quirky and distinctive as his writing, he started out as a singer. A string of singles on RCA were minor hits in the late 70s and early 80s, including the first versions of his own songs ‘Nobody in His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her’ and ‘Famous Last Words Of A Fool’. The former was a top 30 hit, the latter failed to make the top 50, but neither had the chart impact they deserved – or that they had when George Strait covered them. The label also teamed Dean up with honky tonker Gary Stewart as a duo, releasing one full length album and a six track EP. Those early RCA recordings (both solo and duet) are virtually all now available on one CD. A successful run as a songwriter followed, but he had not given up his dreams of solo stardom, and in 1988 he signed to Capitol. Two albums for that label, and two more for Atlantic, failed to quite take off. The critical moment arrived when he planned to release ‘Easy Come Easy Go’ as a single – and found Strait wanted to record the song. He relinquished the song, and settled down to life as a writer for others.

I’ve never really understood why Larry Boone’s solo career never took off. He was signed to Mercury in the late 80s, and later Columbia; he was good looking, had a great voice, and was an excellent songwriter. But only a few of his singles charted, the most successful being his #10 ‘Don’t Give Candy To A Stranger’ which was our Classic Rewind a week ago. Luckily, he had that songwriting talent to fall back on.

Skip Ewing was another recording artist to enjoy a handful of hit singles in the late 80s, then turn to writing them for others when his own chart career wound down. He had much more success in the latter capacity, writing multiple #1s. He made a return to the airwaves in his own right as Reba’s duet partner on the radio version of ‘Every Other Weekend’.

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Single Review: Reba McEntire – ‘I Keep On Lovin’ You’

The title track and third single from Reba’s comeback album has a lot to live up to, as the follow-up to her latest #1 hit. I admit I never expected radio to be as receptive to Reba after such a long layoff as it has proved to be, but it looks as if the concessions Reba and her producer made to contemporary tastes have paid off handsomely in commercial terms. Two uptempo numbers have given her airplay, and now she changes the pace by showing off her interpretative ability to a new radio generation on a ballad. To say this song provided one of the better moments on Keep On Loving You may come close to damning it with faint praise because I was disappointed by that album as a whole. The release of this as a single gives me a chance to reassess it on its own merits.

Written by Ronnie Dunn with his regular songwriting partner Terry McBride, the song bears many of the hallmarks of a Brooks & Dunn ballad and I can imagine Ronnie singing it himself. The tune is very pretty, and help to lift a first verse which offers a few platitudes about having faith. The lyrics of the central part of the song, however, are genuinely interesting, offering an unusually mature attitude about a longterm relationship which has endured its share of ups and downs. The protagonist is almost obstinate in the way she is holding on to love through fights, repeated (probably broken) promises, and pleas for forgiveness:

Sometimes I swear it might be easier to throw in the towel
Someday we’re gonna look back and say look at us now
That’s why I keep on lovin’ you

It is not a romantic picture, but it does feel very real. I do wonder how younger listeners with a more idealistic image of love may respond to it. On the whole, then, this is a very good song.

Reba’s version opens very nicely indeed, with some subdued steel and an effectively restrained, reflective vocal in the first two verses and first run-though of the chorus. I really enjoy listening to the first half of the song. Unfortunately the production builds into a big ballad with heavy production as the song progresses, and some totally unnecessary electric guitar rises way too high in the mix from the second chorus (exactly halfway through the song) onward. I think perhaps this may be intended to indicate triumphing against the odds, but that is not really borne out in the lyric. Reba’s voice (still one of the best in country music) is strong enough not to be completely overpowered, but in order to do this comes close to oversinging at times, particularly in some of the repeats of the title line. Furthermore, the build from the first half of the song to the second does not really sound organic, making this feel somewhat disjointed – as though Reba is trying to appeal to two bases simultaneously.

While the lyric is mature and definitely grown up, the production of the second half is clearly aimed at the mainstream sound on today’s country radio. It should follow ‘Consider Me Gone’ to the upper echelons of the chart. The coincidence of almost sharing a title with a song currently on the charts, labelmates Steel Magnolia’s top 30 hit ‘Keep On Lovin’ You’, is unlikely to harm the chances of Reba’s offering. The songs are dissimilar enough that there is no risk of confusion between them, and not only is Reba a much bigger name and on a hot streak at the moment, but this is a better song. While the production is flawed, this will not hurt it at radio.

Grade: B

Album Review: Brooks & Dunn – ‘Hillbilly Deluxe’

Hillbilly DeluxeAfter the success of Red Dirt Road, the duo had issued a second volume of Greatest Hits, and unusually the new singles released from that (‘That’s What It’s All About’ and ‘It’s Getting Better All The Time’) had done very well. Their next studio album, 2005’s Hillbilly Deluxe, shares its title with a Dwight Yoakam album from the 1980s. Brooks & Dunn’s take focuses rather more on the second part of the title than Dwight’s, with a very glossy feel. The tracks featuring Ronnie Dunn on lead were co-produced with industry veteran Tony Brown, but the overwhelming impression of this album is that Brooks & Dunn had got into something of a rut, and this album offers yet more of the same.

The leadoff single, the rocked up and (unintentionally?) ironically titled ‘Play Something Country’ was certified gold in its own right, and was what now appears to be their last ever #1 single. The song was written by Ronnie with his favored writing partner Terry McBride, and was allegedly inspired by Gretchen Wilson. The pair also wrote the ballad ‘She’s About As Lonely As I’m Going To Let Her Get’, a pretty good song about resolving to be the new love of a woman encountered in a bar, which features a fine Ronnie Dunn vocal with slightly (and unnecessarily) amped up production. ‘Just Another Neon Night’ has a similar feel and another barroom theme. Less successful is the part-spoken and also heavily produced ‘Whiskey Do My Talking’, which is just not very interesting.

There was one departure from formula, in the shape of ‘Believe’, which Ronnie wrote with Craig Wiseman, and which was the album’s second single. Surprisingly, ‘Believe’ only reached #8 but had much more impact than that suggests. It sold in high numbers, also being certified gold, and was widely acclaimed as the duo’s best single in years, also winning the CMA Single of the Year award in 2006. The Academy of Country Music rewarded Ronnie and Craig by naming it Song of the year in 2005. It opens as a story song with a conversational low key vocal on the verses and a big chorus, with a churchy organ backing and gospel backing vocals at appropriate moments which support Ronnie rather than taking over as is sometimes the case when gospel choirs are used in country records.

The follow-up single, ‘Building Bridges’, featuring harmonies from Sheryl Crow and Vince Gill, was an attractive song with a pretty tune. It was a Hank DeVito /Larry Willoughby song, versions of which had been unsuccessful singles for both Willoughby and DeVito’s ex-wife Nicolette Larson in the 80s. Brooks & Dunn’s version did much better, and reached #4, and it was named the ACM’s Vocal Event of the Year in 2007.

The title track was the last single, and performed more disappointingly, topping out at 16. The chorus talks about “slick pick up trucks”, and this frankly boring and formulaic Southern rock style track feels altogether too slick for comfort. Ronnie Dunn is a great singer, but he needs better material than this to let him shine. He got it with my favorite track, the sensitive lost-love ballad ‘I May Never Get Over You’. Almost as good is the tender Darrell Brown/Radney Foster song ‘Again’, about falling in love, which closes the album on a positive note. It’s a shame neither of these was released to radio.

Kix was largely sidelined here; he only got four lead vocals to Ronnie’s nine, none of them on particularly memorable songs, and three of his tracks were the original songwriter demo recordings. Most of the money invested in this album must have gone on some of the big production numbers on Ronnie’s tracks. The harmonica-led ‘My Heart’s Not A Hotel’, written by Rob Crosby and Allen Shamblin, and co-produced by Mark Wright, is quite a nice song with the kind of vulnerable lyric suited to Kix’s voice, about a man in love with a woman who is basically using him as a convenient option, but disappointingly he sounds rather uninvested vocally. Kix sounds better on the original demo of his own mid-tempo ‘One More Roll Of The Dice’, which he produced with co-writer Tom Shapiro, but the song is filler and once again the production is too heavy for my tastes. ‘She Likes To Get Out of Town’, written and produced with Bob DiPiero, is both generic Brooks & Dunn and over-produced.

The story song ‘Her West Was Wilder’ from the same team is more interesting, but would have been better still with more low key production. It tells of a woman who is just a little too much for the narrator to hold:

Every time I looked in those faraway eyes
I could see me getting left behind…
Where the wild wind blows and anything goes
As long as it’s over the line
I gave her my best
But her west was wilder than mine

While this was one of the duo’s less inspired efforts, there was enough here to appeal to their entrenched fanbase. The album reached #1 on the country charts and sold platinum.

Grade: C+

Album Review: Brooks & Dunn – ‘Red Dirt Road’

Following the momentum-reviving Steers & Stripes album, Brooks & Dunn released Red Dirt Road in 2003.  This album would continue the evolution of the sound of the duo, with more pop-leaning tracks and fewer of the high-octane honky tonk that defined their 1990s work.

Another generous helping of music from the duo – the 15 tracks total just under an hour’s worth of music – it would also continue in the success of its predecessor, hitting #1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart, and housing three top 10 singles.

The title track was the lead single, and quickly shot to the top.  With a basic concept that could easily become cringe-worthy, writers Kix and Ronnie keep the lyrics simple enough for everyman, yet original enough to please the tough-sell critics.  And lines like ‘I learned the path to heaven, Is full of sinners and believers’ aren’t really ground-breaking, they’re definitely worth repeating.  The catchy melody didn’t hurt it any with radio either.

Backsliding a little into old habits, ‘You Can’t Take The Honky Tonk Out of The Girl’ tells the story of Connie, a jet-setting honky tonk lady who shows up barefoot at her cousin’s wedding reception before eventually running off with the groom to Mexico. This classy gem went to #3 on the charts.

The final single – which peaked at #6 – is the romantic ‘That’s What She Gets For Loving Me’, not to be confused with Diamond Rio’s ‘That’s What I Get For Loving You’. The swaying number, complete with fiddle and steel, is a great listen, and Ronnie turns in a stellar vocal performance.

Other memorable moments include the bluesy plea for mercy ‘Caroline’, which finds Ronnie reaching for falsetto a little more often than is really necessary.  ‘Feels Good Don’t It’, written by Ronnie Dunn with Terry McBride, is a classic rock inspired ode to true love.

‘I Used To Know This Song By Heart’ is one of my favorites from the album.  My favorite Brooks & Dunn songs are the great ballads Ronnie Dunn’s blistering tenor bring to life, and this is great example of that.  The Jerry Lynn Williams-penned tune features nearly 2 minutes work of electric guitar solos in between Ronnie’s vocal, and the choir in the background gives the song a vintage vibe.

Again stepping outside their comfort zone, the calypso-inspired ‘Till My Dying Day’ is a fun listen.  A swampy guitar kicks off the swinging ‘My Baby’s Everything I Love’, which sounds like something that would feat neatly on a George Strait album.

Meandering through every topic and emotion imaginable, this album seems like it has more of Kix and Ronnie’s personal stamp on it than any other album of their career, and for that, it’s also the most varied, yet cohesive set in their catalog.  Listening to the songs in order, you get a sense the two were trying to tell their stories, one by one, and succeeded on almost every level.  Co-produced with Mark Bright, Red Dirt Road would be another platinum-selling album to add to the duo’s collection, and further cemented their place as the reigning duo in country music for the next few years.

Grade: A-

Red Dirt Road is in print, and is widely available at all retailers, including Amazon.

Album Review: Brooks and Dunn – ‘Tight Rope’

Tight RopeThe duo’s sixth studio album, 1999’s Tight Rope, saw them in bit of a rut. After a string of multi-platinum sellers, this album remains their only studio effort to date (apart from their latest, Cowboy Town) not to be classified platinum, and none of the three singles was a really big hit. Each of the previous albums had elicited five singles, with all but two making the top ten, with a good proportion hitting the top of the charts, until ‘South of Santa Fe’ had faltered outside the top 40 just before the release of Tight Rope. Poor Kix never got another single released after this catastrophic failure.

This really is an album of two halves. Not only did Kix and Ronnie divide the vocal leads fairly evenly, they contributed six songs each as writers, each singing lead on his own songs, with Ronnie also getting a bonus cover. Furthermore, although the duo are credited as co-producers throughout, one suspects this was a matter of courtesy. Kix’s tracks were co-produced by old friend Don Cook, but Ronnie’s were co-produced by Byron Gallimore at another studio. All the singles came from Ronnie’s half. As a whole the album sounds their most pop-influenced to date.

Only three singles came from Tight Rope, and the first two failed to crack the top 10. ‘Missing You’, a 1980s pop cover, reached #15. The arrangement may have been a little too pop for country radio, with its whispery call-and-response background vocals, but Ronnie’s lead vocal is excellent. The cheerful rocked-up honky tonker ‘Beer Thirty’ barely squeaked into the top 20, despite being in the same vein as many of their past successes, and the chart failure of this must have been a shock. The big declaration of love ballad ‘You’ll Always Be Loved By Me’, their only single released in the year 2000, deservedly did better, reaching #5. This was the song which provided the album title, from the line “trust is a tightrope we all have to walk”.

Ronnie is in great voice on this album. The brooding ballad ‘Hurt Train’ and the sad ‘All Out Of Love’ have a slightly pop feel, but are very well sung. ‘Goin’ Under Gettin’ Over You’, which opens the set is a fairly brisk number about getting resigned to heartbreak, which might have been better with a more subdued vocal. It did actually get a small amount of unsolicited radio airplay.

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Album Review: Brooks & Dunn – ‘Borderline’

BorderlineBrooks & Dunn’s fourth studio album for Arista Records was released in April 1996. The title — Borderline — is an unusually though probably unintentionally descriptive one, as it sums up perfectly the quality of this uneven and somewhat disappointing collection.

A month before the album’s release, things got off to a good start with the advance single, an excellent cover of the 1973 B.W. Stevenson hit, “My Maria”. It was somewhat of a departure for the duo, as it marked only the second time they released a cover song as a single. The first was 1992’s “Boot Scootin’ Boogie”, which although it was an original Ronnie Dunn composition, had previously been recorded by Asleep at the Wheel. Despite its pop origins, “My Maria” quickly soared to #1 on Billboard’s country singles chart, where it spent three weeks. It was also the publication’s top country song of the year for 1996.

The follow-up single and second track on the album, “I Am That Man”, was written by Terry McBride and Monty Powell. Despite being a bland and somewhat forgettable song, it managed to climb all the way to #2. Things continued on a downward trend with the third single release, “Mama Don’t Get Dressed Up For Nothing”, on which Kix Brooks takes over the lead vocals. Written by Brooks and Dunn along with producer Don Cook, “Mama” is a line dance number in the same vein as “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” that fails to recapture the magic of that earlier hit. The lyrics require an attitude and sassy delivery that Brooks fails to provide. He sounds like he is phoning in his performance; the song could possibly have been saved if Dunn had sung the lead, though it is questionable whether his stronger voice would have been enough to overcome the banality of the lyrics. Radio was apparently in agreement with me on this one, since “Mama” stalled at #13, becoming the first single the duo released that failed to reach the Top 10.

Things picked up considerably with the fourth single, “A Man This Lonely”, which returned the pair to the top of the singles chart when it became their eleventh #1 hit in February 1997. This was followed up by another lackluster single, “Why Would I Say Goodbye”, which, like “Mama Don’t Get Dressed Up For Nothing” featured Kix on lead vocals. It seems an odd choice for a single release; it was possibly chosen in an attempt to give Brooks some more radio exposure as a lead vocalist. Though it peaked at #8, I had totally forgotten that this song had even been a single until I started doing research for this review. I can’t remember ever hearing it on the radio. I would have by-passed it in favor of “One Heartache At A Time”, a Ronnie Dunn-led effort. Written by Brooks with one-time Vince Gill band member and former Wynonna Judd fiance Tony King, “One Heartache At A Time” is my favorite song on the album. Another gem is uptempo fiddle-and-steel driven album closer “White Line Casanova”, which was probably not sufficiently commercial to release to radio. Nonetheless, it’s a standout track on this frustratingly inconsistent album.

The remainder of the songs on the album are generic filler and not worthy of any lengthy discussion. The production is solid throughout the album; it is somewhat baffling to come up with an explanation for why Brooks and Dunn weren’t able to come up with stronger material as they had on their previous releases. Borderline relies a little more on outside songwriters than the previous albums, but this actually one of the collection’s strengths, particularly in the case of “My Maria”.

Despite its flaws, Borderline became the second Brooks & Dunn album to reach #1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. Certified double-platinum (about 1 million units fewer than its predecessor Waitin’ On Sundown), it marked the beginning of a leveling-off of the duo’s album sales. It is still in print, available at Amazon and iTunes, but is not essential listening as the singles are available on various hits compilations.

Grade: C

Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Keep On Loving You’

reba keep on loving you cover
She revisits many of the same themes and ideas she has sung to us about before, at times saying it better than before.  But more
often than not, these recycled themes fall short of the songs of their predecessors.  Reba is in fine voice throughout the entire
album.  Her vocal is the one thing I can’t find any complaints about, it’s sassy when it needs to be, tender when the music calls
for it, and it aches and burns at just the right moment.  Reba has long been a master at interpreting a lyric, and her years of
experience are certainly on display here, even when the songs fail her.
Nothing to Lose – Trisha Yearwood’s GH … changed ‘my last cigarette’ to ‘this old paperback’ and Reba gives a more
ferocious vocal, attacking the lyric with a spitfire in her voice.
I’ll Have What She’s Having – western swing, another smoking vocal …
A remixed ‘I Want a Cowboy’ dance mix sent to clubs all over America, busy music, young lyrics it should suit that crowd just
fine, even if it’s not really my style.
Consider Me Gone – second single, 90s pop-country feel, classic Reba ‘strong-woman’ theme.
Ballads: – ‘But Why’ … more of the classic Reba sound –
‘Over You’ is the sort of tried and true heartbreak ballad Reba fans eat up, but these
The album’s stand-out track is the swampy ‘Maggie Creek Road’.  In this tale of a mother’s love and how she avenges her own
situation and saves her daugher at the same time, Reba rolls out the lines like a folklore missionary.  This is the kind story song
Reba excels best at – stories of sex and violence and revenge and family love in the vein of southern Gothic classics like ‘Fancy’
and ‘The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia’, this Karyn Rochelle and James Slater fits neatly into that category.

For her Valory Music Co. debut, Reba revisits many of the same themes she has sung to us about in the past, at times saying it better than before.  But more often than not, these recycled themes fall short of the songs of their predecessors.  Reba is in fine voice for the entire album.  Her vocal is the one thing I can’t find any complaints about. It’s sassy when it needs to be, tender when the music calls for it, and it aches and burns at just the right moments.  Reba has long been a master at interpreting a lyric, and her years of experience are certainly on display here, even when the songs fail her.

You don’t get to be country music’s biggest female hit-maker without following some sort of formula, and this album showcases Reba’s formula of a couple show-stopping ballads, some up-tempo numbers, and the occasional achingly sad number. Splitting production credits with long-time collaborator Tony Brown and Mark Bright gives the album a fresh sound for sure, but it also tends to create a lack of focus.  The one core element running through nearly every song on Keep On Loving You is that of the strong woman, which Reba has been singing the praises of for the better part of two decades now.  But these strong women are all over the place, from being allegedly heartbroken in the lead single, the rocking ‘Strange’, to being genuinely blue in ‘Over You’ and then on a manhunt in ‘I’ll Have What She’s Having’.  There’s certainly no consistency to the instrumentation either, as Reba goes from pop-country to western swing – all ably I might add.

Reba really steps out of the box with the up-tempo numbers on the album more than anything, and these are also the most traditional of the cuts.  Trisha Yearwood recorded ‘Nothing to Lose’ for her Greatest Hits album.  There’s not much difference to the backing tracks each lady used, but here Reba has changed ‘my last cigarette’ to ‘this old paperback’ and she gives a more ferocious vocal, attacking the lyric with a spitfire in her voice.  ‘I’ll Have What She’s Having’ is a fun western swing number and another smoking vocal that finds the narrator admiring the man out on the dance floor and inquiring where she can find one of her own.

A remixed ‘I Want a Cowboy’ was sent to dance clubs all over America, and with the original’s busy music and young lyrics it should suit that crowd just fine, even if it’s not really my style.  Katrina Elam co-wrote the song, and first recorded it on her 2004 debut.  She also provides harmony vocals here.  A couple of other throw-away tracks pop up with the rousing ‘Pink Guitar’ and its prerequisite Johnny Cash reference. Likewise, ‘Over You’ is the sort of tried and true heartbreak ballad Reba fans eat up, but these are lyrics from the recycling bin again, and the performance is a bit much as she overstates the lyrics as if she had something new to say.

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