My Kind of Country

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Album Review: Wynonna – ‘Revelations’

Wynonna_Judd_-_RevelationsIn the three years between Tell Me Why and Revelations, Wynonna took a much-deserved break in which she scandalously had a child out of wedlock and was four months pregnant with another when she finally married their father. She was absent from radio for the entirety of 1995, a first since she debuted twelve years earlier.

In January 1996, Wynonna put the focus back on her music. She launched her return with the Gary Burr and Mike Reid penned “To Be Loved By You,” a lush yet masterful ballad. The song quickly topped the charts and put her back in the good graces of the country music mainstream.

The only problem was Revelations was unlike anything Wynonna had recorded to date. Gone was the straightforward country she brought to her other solo albums. She instead gifted us with an ambitious album that embraced not only a spiritual longing, but also the bluesy rock she’d hinted at with “No One Else on Earth.”

Country radio didn’t have a place for the record and the subsequent singles began her downward trend. I’ve always adored “Heaven Help My Heart,” and despite its length, thought it deserved to peak higher than #14. She covered similar territory on the R&B tinged “My Angel Is Here,” which peaked at #44 despite having zero country bonafides. She turned up the electric guitars on the fiery “Somebody To Love You” and had even less success. The single peaked at #55.

Wynonna fully surrendered to her gospel tendencies on her revelatory cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” which came from a tribute album released two years earlier. She also succeeds brilliantly with her version of “Change The World.” The pop classic would have its due via Eric Clapton that summer although Wynonna recorded and released her version first.

“Love By Grace” is a sparse ballad that puts her voice front and center. “Don’t Look Back” follows the same trajectory, but with flourishes of steel guitar throughout, is the album’s biggest missed opportunity. If it had been released as a single, it likely would’ve faired much better with country radio than “My Angel Is Here” ever could have.

“Old Enough To Know Better” is straight bluesy rock with an arrangement better suited for the stage than the recording studio. “Dance, Shout” is in the same vein and lets Wynonna take her voice to places it hadn’t yet been.

If you listen to Wynonna’s vocal performances from her earliest Judd recordings until now (1996 in this case), you’d hear an artist coming into her own by discovering the booming grit deep down in her soul. Revelations was the first time she gave into it fully on a record and the results were spectacular. This isn’t a country album by any stretch of imagination, which is a good thing because it allows her to grow into her own as an artist. This is the style that separates the music of Wynonna from that of The Judds. She’ll always be the singer of simple country songs. That will never go away. But Revelations proves she can also be so much more.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Wynonna – ‘Wynonna’

51xTAFnKBVLWynonna Judd’s solo debut was one of the most eagerly anticipated releases of 1992, as the music world waited to see what direction her post-Judds career would take. Released in March 1992 and produced by Tony Brown, Wynonna found the songstress straddling the fence between pop and country. Most of the uptempo numbers allowed her to show off her rockin’ side, but others weren’t too different from her work with The Judds. Production-wise, though, the album is more middle-of-the-road than anything she’d done prior, with very little country instrumentation. The steel guitar is noticeably absent, and nearly a quarter century after its release, it’s a little easier now to see this album for what it was: the initial step in Wynonna’s efforts to distance herself from country music.

That’s not to suggest that Wynonna is a bad album; quite the contrary. I’d have been very happy had she continued in this vein, and I expect she would have enjoyed a longer run at the top of the singles charts if she had. Nevertheless, this is a very enjoyable album and I still consider it to be the best in Wynonna’s solo discography. Wynonna’s solo career had been officially kicked off a few months earlier when she debuted the album’s lead single on the American Music Awards telecast. “She Is His Only Need” is an AC-leaning ballad penned by Dave Loggins. Sonically it’s not very country, but it does keep with country music’s tradition of telling a story. I often thought it could be construed as the further adventures of the couple from The Judds’ hit “Young Love (Strong Love)” from a few years earlier. I’m afraid I found the song rather bland and it’s my least favorite on the album. Pretty much everyone else disagreed with me, though, as it quickly became Wynonna’s first #1 solo hit.

“She Is His Only Need” was followed by two more #1s: the uptempo “I Saw The Light”, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and the rock-tinged “No One Else On Earth”, which is probably Wynonna’s most successful solo single and the one that got the most radio airplay as a recurrent. The fourth single is a beautiful ballad, “My Strongest Weakness”, which was written by Naomi Judd and Mike Reid. Had The Judds remained active, I could easily imagine this one on one of their albums, perhaps with some steel guitar to give it a more country feel. The song reached #4. I had totally forgotten that it had ever been a single; surprisingly, it didn’t have a very long shelf life once it fell off the charts.

By far, the best song on the album is “When I Reach The Place I’m Goin'”, written by Emory Gordy, Jr. and Joe Henry. This one features background vocals by Naomi, and is the most country-sounding song on the album. It’s slightly reminiscent of “Wayfaring Stranger” and is beautifully written and sung. It has a Gospel theme, as does Paul Kennerley’s “Live With Jesus”, which closes the album. The lyrics of It’s Never Easy to Say Goodbye” aren’t overtly religious, but it has a definite Gospel feel.

There aren’t any bad songs on the album, though the opening track “What It Takes” and the Kostas-Marty Stuart number “A Little Bit of Love (Goes a Long, Long Way)” are pure album filler.

Wynonna accomplished its goals of establishing Wynonna Judd as a solo artist, distinct from her prior work with her mother, and it managed to do so without alienating any existing fans. Wynonna would make some unfortunate musical choices in the future, but on her first solo project, she knocked it out of the park.

Grade: A

Album Review: The Judds – ‘River Of Time’

river of timeRiver Of Time, released in 1989, was the fifth of six studio albums issued by the Judds. By this time the act was becoming more centered on daughter Wynonna and material more suited to her vocal stylings.

The Judds’ first four full-length albums all went to #1 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, although River Of Time would stall out at #2 (it reached #1 in Canada). Consequently the Judds had Nashville’s A-Team of songwriters pitching material to them.

I do not regard this album as being especially country as the “Soap Sisters” (as Ralph Emery referred to the Judds on his early morning WSMV-TV show in the days before they hit it big) drifted more toward material suitable to Wynonna’s voice. This is an interesting album, with a wide array of material.

Track by Track

“One Man Woman” (Paul Kennerley) – this is a bluesy number about what the narrator is, and what she is looking for (a one woman man). This song was released as a single and reached #8.

“Young Love (Strong Love)” (Kennerley, Kent Robbins) – often simply called “Young Love” is not to be confused with the Sonny James mega-hit of thirty-two years earlier. This song is more of a story song than was Sonny’s classic. This song reached #1 as a single:

She was sitting crossed legged on a hood of a ford
Filing down her nails with a emory board
Talking to her friends about people they knew
And all of the things that young girls do
When she said you see that guy in the baseball cap
I’d like to spend some time with a boy like that

Betty said I seen him at the hardware store
I think his name is Billy, but I’m not sure
And as they talked a little while and he passed by
She smiled at him he just said “hi”
He was thinking to himself as he walked away
Man I’d like to find a girl like her someday

Chorus:
Young love, strong love, true love
It’s a new love
Their gonna make it through the hard times
Walk those lines
Yeah these ties that bind
Young love

“Not My Baby” (Brent Maher, Mike Reid, Mack David) – this is a mid-tempo number that strides the border between jazz and blues. Quitman Dennis takes a nice turn on the clarinet and Sonny Garrish’s tasteful work on the dobro accentuates the effect nicely.

“Let Me Tell You About Love” (Carl Perkins, Kennerley, Maher) – yes, that Carl Perkins. Fittingly, this up-tempo song reached #1:

Well ever since the day that time began
There’s been this thing ‘tween a woman and a manv We’ll, I don’t know but I do believe
It started in the garden with Adam and Eve
Sampson and Delilah had their fling
‘Til she cut his hair and clipped his wing
It don’t matter how the story’s told
Love stays young it can’t grow old

Chorus:
Let me tell you about love
About the moon and stars above
It’s what we’ve all been dreamin’ of
Let me tell you about love

“Sleepless Nights” (Felice Bryant, Boudleaux Bryant) – the husband and wife team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant were legendary songwriters writing many huge hits for the Everly Brothers as well as such country stalwarts as Carl Smith, Jimmie Dickens, Buddy Holly and The Osborne Brothers (“Rocky Top”)River of Time, released in 1989, was the fifth of six studio albums issued by the Judds. By this time the act was becoming more centered on daughter Wynonna and material more suited to her vocal stylings.
The Judds first four full-length albums all went to #1 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, although River of Time would stall out at #2 (it reached #1 in Canada). Consequently the Judds had Nashville’s A-Team of songwriter’s pitching material to them .

I do not regard this album as being especially country as the “Soap Sisters” (as Ralph Emery referred to the Judds on his early morning WSMV-TV show in the days before they hit it big) drifted more toward material suitable to Wynonna’s voice. This is an interesting album, with a wide array of material

Track by Track

“One Man Woman” (Paul Kennerley) – this is a bluesy number about what the narrator is, and what she is looking for (a one woman man). This song was released as a single and reached #8.

“Young Love (Strong Love)” (Kennerley, Kent Robbins) – often simply called “Young Love” is not to be confused with the Sonny James mega-hit of thirty-two years earlier. This song is more of a story song than was Sonny’s classic. This song reached #1 as a single:

She was sitting crossed legged on a hood of a ford
Filing down her nails with a emory board
Talking to her friends about people they knew
And all of the things that young girls do
When she said you see that guy in the baseball cap
I’d like to spend some time with a boy like that

Betty said I seen him at the hardware store
I think his name is Billy, but I’m not sure
And as they talked a little while and he passed by
She smiled at him he just said “hi”
He was thinking to himself as he walked away
Man I’d like to find a girl like her someday
Chorus:
Young love, strong love, true love
It’s a new love
Their gonna make it through the hard times
Walk those lines
Yeah these ties that bind
Young love

“Not My Baby” (Brent Maher, Mike Reid, Mack David) – this is a mid-tempo number that strides the border between jazz and blues. Quitman Dennis takes a nice turn on the clarinet and Sonny Garrish’s tasteful work on the dobro accentuates the effect nicely.

“Let Me Tell You About Love” (Carl Perkins, Kennerley, Maher) – yes, that Carl Perkins. Fittingly, this up-tempo song reached #1:

Well ever since the day that time began
There’s been this thing ‘tween a woman and a manv We’ll, I don’t know but I do believe
It started in the garden with Adam and Eve
Sampson and Delilah had their fling
‘Til she cut his hair and clipped his wing
It don’t matter how the story’s told
Love stays young it can’t grow old
Chorus:
Let me tell you about love
About the moon and stars above
It’s what we’ve all been dreamin’ of
Let me tell you about love

“Sleepless Nights” (Felice Bryant, Boudleaux Bryant) – the husband and wife team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant were legendary songwriters writing many huge hits for the Everly Brothers as well as such country stalwarts as Carl Smith, Jimmie Dickens, Buddy Holly and The Osborne Brothers (“Rocky Top”). This song apparently was written for the Everly Brothers and I remember the Everlys’ recording well (I am a huge Everly Brothers fan). The Judds acquit themselves well, achieving very nice harmonies on this song. I guess it is true that there is nothing like family harmony – I very much like this recording:

Somehow through the days
I don’t give in
I hide the tears
That wait within
Oh, but, then through sleepless nights
I cry again

“Water of Love” (Mark Knopfler) – I know Knopfler mostly from a duet album he cut with Chet Atkins but I understand that his band Dire Straits was hugely successful. This song definitely is not country, it is rather bluesy with a calypso beat:

High and dry in the long hot day
Lost and lonely in every way
Got the flats all around me, sky up above
Yes, I need a little water of love

I’ve been too long lonely and my heart feels pain
Cryin’ out for some soothing rain
I believe I’ve taken enough
Yes, I need a little water of love

“River of Time” (John Jarvis, Naomi Judd) – the title track is a Naomi Judd co-write. The song is a slow ballad with a cocktail lounge jazz piano accompaniment to open the song and more instruments coming in thereafter. The song is nice but at four plus minutes it is too long:

Flow on, river of time
Wash away the pain and heal my mind
Flow on, river of time
Carry me away
And leave it all far behind
Flow on river of time

“Cadillac Red” (Craig Bickhardt, Jarvis, Judd) – this song could be described neo-rockabilly. This kind of song makes for enjoyable listening but is nothing especially memorable. As an album track it serves the purpose of mixing things up after a pair of slow songs:

Well she’s washed and polished
And full of high octane
Ridin’ with the top down
Cruisin’ in the fast land
Her red hairs blowin’ bright as a flame
Cadillac Red’s her name

“Do I Dare” (Don Schlitz, Bickhardt, Maher) – this song addresses the dilemma faced by many a young woman (and perhaps older women as well):

Do I dare show him lovin’?
Do I go for double or nothin’?
Do I act like I don’t care?
Or, do I dare?

Do I do what my heart’s sayin’?
Do I hide my love awaitin’?
Make believe that he’s not there?
Or, do I dare?

This girl’s got a problem
She don’t know what to do
If there’s some way of tellin’
When a man is true

“Guardian Angels” (Schlitz, Jarvis, Judd) – 3:37 – this was the first Judds’ single in six years not to reach the top ten, peaking at #16. This is a nice story song that probably wasn’t a good choice for release as a single, but it is my nominee (along with “Sleepless Nights”) for the best song on the album:

A hundred year old photograph stares out from a frame
And if you look real close you’ll see, our eyes are just the same
I never met them face to face but I still know them well
From the stories my dear grandma would tell

Elijah was a farmer he knew how to make things grow
And Fanny vowed she’d follow him wherever he would go
As things turned out they never left their small Kentucky farm
But he kept her fed, and she kept him warm

Chorus:
They’re my guardian angels and I know they can see
Every step I take, they are watching over me
I might not know where I’m going but I’m sure where I come from
They’re my guardian angels and I’m their special one

I had heard the four singles from this album, plus my local radio station had played “Cadillac Red” a few times, so I had only heard half the album until a few weeks ago. The songs not previously heard provide a rich cornucopia of musical styles and point to Wynonna’s soon to follow solo career.

I would give this album a B+, mostly because I wasn’t that fond of “Water of Love” and “River of Time”. The album is worth seeking out and is available digitally.

Spotlight Artist: Wynonna

111167610Fun Fact: In an interview with Dan Rather, Wynonna admitted it was her record label that decided on her one name moniker. The marketing strategy was meant to separate her solo music in record stores. Consumers would find Judds under ‘J’ and Wynonna under ‘W.’

Following the conclusion of The Judd’s farewell tour in December 1991, all eyes were on Wynonna as she prepared to launch a solo career. It was just over a month after the tour concluded that she took to the stage at the American Music Awards and unleashed “She His Only Need,” her first solo #1, upon the world for the first time. Three more chart toppers would follow including her signature hit, “No One Else On Earth,” a horn drenched bluesy rocker that went on to become Billboard’s Number One Country Song of 1992. Wynonna ended up with a quintuple platinum certification.

Tell Me Why was released the following year. The album was immediate success and spawned four major hits. Wynonna spent the year touring with Clint Black on the ‘Black and Wy’ tour and enjoyed success with their duet “A Bad Goodbye.” It would be three years before she released her next album, a period in which she contributed to a Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute album and was marred in scandal for having a child out of wedlock. She would marry her son’s father in 1996, when she was four months pregnant with her daughter.

Wynonna came back strong in 1996 launching her third album Revelations with the chart topping ballad “To Be Loved By You.” The rest of the album’s singles didn’t fare as well and her presence on country radio began to falter for the first time. Wynonna would only manage to score two Top 20 hits from her next album, 1997’s The Other Side. She got divorced in 1998.

During this time her mother, who had been cleared of the Hepatitis C that forced her retirement, decided to rejoin the spotlight. The Judds reunited and staged their reunion show on December 31, 1999 in Phoenix. A tour followed, as did Wynonna’s fifth album, New Day Dawning. She scored a Top 20 hit with the piano ballad “Can’t Nobody Love You (Like I Do).”

Wynonna’s sixth album brought a return to the spotlight in August 2003. What The World Needs Now Is Love was bolstered by a sizeable hit in the title song and two tracks previously featured on movie soundtracks. She married her former bodyguard that November, a marriage that would end when he was arrested for the assault of child under the age of 13.

Wynonna gained further notoriety with multiple appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show in which she talked openly about her struggles with weight and reignited the media’s obsession with her various personal dramas. A stunning rendition of Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is,” which she recorded for the 2003 album, was a highlight of those appearances.

A live album Her Story: Scenes From A Lifetime, followed in 2005 in conjunction with the release of her autobiography. Her first solo Christmas record was released in late 2006. Wynonna returned to the spotlight in 2009 with the release of a mostly-pop covers collection, Sing Chapter 1. She and her daughter survived a head-on car accident in the summer of 2010.

Wynonna reunited with her mother for “I Will Stand By You,” a promotional single for an Essential Hits collection. She added to her profile as an author with the release of her first novel, Restless Heart. She also had a solo single “Love It Out Loud.”

Her next big career change came when she played Nashville’s 3rd and Lindsley on November 27, 2011. Wynonna debuted her newly formed band ‘Wynonna & The Big Noise’ for the first time that night. The leader of the band is former Highway 101 drummer Cactus Moser, whom she married in June 2012. That August he lost his leg in a horrific motorcycle accident. She competed on Dancing With The Stars the following year.

The band came together for the single “Something You Can’t Live Without” in 2013. Their self-titled debut album was finally released last month to very positive reviews. I hope you enjoy our look back at Wynonna’s solo recordings.

Week ending 1/9/16: #1 singles this week in country music history

Red-Sovine1956 (Sales): Sixteen Tons — Tennessee Ernie Ford (Capitol)

1956 (Jukebox): Love, Love, Love — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1956 (Disc Jockeys): Sixteen Tons — Tennessee Ernie Ford (Capitol)

1966: Giddyup Go — Red Sovine (Starday)

1976: Convoy — C.W. McCall (MGM)

1986: Have Mercy — The Judds (RCA/Curb)

1996: Rebecca Lynn — Bryan White (Asylum)

2006: Must Be Doin’ Somethin’ Right — Billy Currington (Mercury)

2016: Die a Happy Man — Thomas Rhett (Valory)

2016 (Airplay): Die a Happy Man — Thomas Rhett (Valory)

Week ending 1/2/16: #1 singles this week in country music history

aarontippin1956 (Sales): Sixteen Tons — Tennessee Ernie Ford (Capitol)

1956 (Jukebox): Sixteen Tons — Tennessee Ernie Ford (Capitol)

1956 (Disc Jockeys): Love, Love, Love — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1966: Buckaroo — Buck Owens & The Buckaroos (Capitol)

1976: Convoy — C.W. McCall (MGM)

1986: Have Mercy — The Judds (RCA/Curb)

1996: That’s As Close As I’ll Get To Loving You — Aaron Tippin (RCA)

2006: Come a Little Closer — Dierks Bentley (Capitol)

2016: Die a Happy Man — Thomas Rhett (Valory)

2016 (Airplay): Die a Happy Man — Thomas Rhett (Valory)

Week ending 9/5/15: #1 singles this week in country music history

Warner_Mack1955 (Sales): I Don’t Care — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Jukebox): I Don’t Care — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Disc Jockeys): I Don’t Care — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1965: The Bridge Washed Out — Warner Mack (Decca)

1975: Rhinestone Cowboy — Glen Campbell (Capitol)

1985: Love Is Alive — The Judds (RCA/Curb)

1995: Not On Your Love — Jeff Carson (Curb)

2005: Mississippi Girl — Faith Hill (Warner Bros.)

2015: House Party — Sam Hunt (MCA)

2015 (Airplay): Young & Crazy — Frankie Ballard (Warner Bros.)

Spotlight Artist: Jo Dee Messina

JDMMost country artists are proud of their Southern heritage but our August spotlight artist hails from a part of the country that is not particularly known for producing country music stars. Jo Dee Messina was born in Holliston, Massachusetts on August 25, 1970. Influenced by acts such as Patsy Cilne, Reba McEntire and The Judds, she performed in local clubs as part of a family band during her high school years, and moved to Nashville at age 19. While waiting for her big break, she came to the attention of producer Byron Gallimore and became friendly with another up-and-coming artist named Tim McGraw.

Gallimore and McGraw co-produced Messina’s eponymous debut album for Curb, which was released in 1996. The first single, “Heads Carolina, Tails California” was an instant success that shot to #2 on the Billboard country singles chart. The follow-up single “You’re Not In Kansas Anymore” reached #7, though it is not one of her better remembered hits today. After that, two subsequent singles failed to reach the Top 40 and many critics began to write off Messina as a flash in the pan. Jo Dee proved them wrong when she released her sophomore set in 1998. That album, I’m Alright, produced five hits, including three #1s and a remake of Dottie West’s “A Lesson In Leavin’”, which landed at #2. I’m Alright attained double-platinum sales in the United States and it remains her best-selling album.

Although Jo Dee’s impact in the late 90s and early 2000s was great, her reign at the top of the charts was relatively brief, in part due to personal problems such as bankruptcy and a stint in rehab for alcoholism. Her discography is small – only five studio albums (excluding a Christmas collection) to date, but she managed to rack up nine #1 hits between 1998 and 2005. Today she is a mother of two and continues to perform, although she is no longer on the roster of Curb Records. Her latest collection, Me, was released last year on her own label with the aid of a Kickstarter campaign. We hope you’ll enjoy our look back at her career highlights during the month of July.

Album Review: Shelby Lynne – ‘Restless’

51aMwLjN8yLShelby Lynne parted ways with Epic after three albums, all of which underperformed commercially, citing a lack of creative control as one of the reasons for her departure. She’d decided that if country radio wasn’t going to embrace her, she at least wanted critical acclaim and the freedom to go in different musical directions if she so chose. Temptation, her first post-Epic release had little to do with country music, but the follow-up Restless, is a different story. It is widely regarded as a western swing album, but it also has some elements of blues, as well as some more mainstream fare which suggested that Shelby hadn’t completely given up on the idea of having some radio hits.

Restless was issued by a different label than Temptation — originally issued by Magnatone and later re-released by Curb, but retained most of the personnel that had worked on the previous album. Brent Maher was back on board as producer and, along with Jamie O’Hara, as a co-writer on several of the album’s tracks. Shelby herself had a hand in writing six of the album’s ten tracks. I was slightly underwhelmed by the opening track and lead single “Slow Me Down”, which was the album’s only charting single, peaking at #59. It was followed up by the non-charting and more mainstream “I’m Not The One”, which really deserved more attention and likely could have been a hit for a more established artist. “Another Chance at Love”, the final single, is a pure western swing number which is excellent but probably not the most commercially viable choice in a radio environment which at the time was preoccupied with the crossover music of Shania Twain. “Hey Now, Little Darling” might have been a better choice, but by this time it was quite obvious that radio wasn’t much interested in anything Shelby had to offer.

I’m a big western swing fan, so there is much here for me to like: the title track, “Reach For The Rhythm” and “Swingtown” are all excellent. The blues-laced “Just For The Touch of Your Hand” is not quite as good but still enjoyable. It sounds tailor-made for Wynonna Judd, which is not surprising given Maher’s and O’Hara’s long association with Wynonna and The Judds. The pop-tinged ballad “Wish I Knew” is well performed but seems out of place on this album. The album’s best track is the underrated Jamie O’Hara gem “Talkin’ To Myself Again”, which had become the final Top 20 hit for Tammy Wynette almost a decade earlier.

Like its predecessors, Restless was a commercial disappointment and resulted in the end of the country phase of Shelby’s career and the beginning of a series of albums that explored various styles of pop. It is however, my favorite Shelby Lynne album. If you are only going to own one of her albums, make it this one.

Grade: A

Week ending 5/2/15: #1 singles this week in country music history

images-21955 (Sales): In The Jailhouse Now — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Jukebox): In The Jailhouse Now — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Disc Jockeys): In The Jailhouse Now — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1965: This Is It — Jim Reeves (RCA)

1975: Blanket On The Ground — Billie Jo Spears (United Artists)

1985: Girls’ Night Out — The Judds (RCA/Curb)

1995: Little Miss Honky Tonk — Brooks & Dunn (Arista)

2005: Anything But Mine — Kenny Chesney (BNA)

2015: Take Your Time — Sam Hunt (MCA)

2015 (Airplay): Take Your Time — Sam Hunt (MCA)

Album Review: Gary Stewart and Dean Dillon – ‘Those Were The Days’

those were the daysRCA gave the duo of Gary Stewart and Dean Dillon another chance to break through, although they were relegated for their second release to a six-track EP known as a mini-LP, which the label was using in the mid 1980s as a marketing manoeuvre for new acts. Stewart and Dillon were actually one of the first acts to release one, and the series later launched the careers of the Judds, Vince Gill and Keith Whitley. Dillon wrote or co-wrote all six songs, many of them with Stewart.

The reflective title track was the album’s lead single, and it got some radio play but did not crack the top 40. It is a pair of hellraisers’ wistful look back at teenage memories of a time when “dreams could still come true”. It is a pretty decent song (written by the duo alongside Rex Huston), although the vocals are a bit messy. It seems oddly appropriate, given the pair’s reputation as heavy drinkers, that one of the fondest memories is of getting drunk for the first time.

The second single (the duo’s last), ‘Smokin’ In The Rockies’, is a fast paced celebration of the pair’s life as touring musicians. A live cut, it namechecks a number of the top country stars of the period. It is quite entertaining, although the lyrics are hard to make out at times. It was written by the duo with Frank Dycus and Buddy Cannon, and was later covered by Sawyer Brown.

The rebellious ‘Misfits’ is dominated by wailing (and not always comprehensible) vocals and equally wailing fiddle. The mid-tempo ‘Living On The Ragged Edge’ is a solo Dean Dillon composition about those straying from the strait and narrow path at risk to themselves. He takes the lead vocal.

The best song on the album, ‘Hard Time For Lovers’ is an excellent if very downbeat song (which Dean revived for his solo album debut at the end of the decade). A string arrangement is a little too sweet, but Dean Dillon’s delicate vocal is his best on the album as he compares the stories of various friends and family members whose love lives are in crisis, with his own happy relationship.

Gary Stewart leads on ‘Lovers And Losers’, which the pair wrote with Mack Vickery and Rex Huston. This is another depressed ballad with strings and a vulnerable vocal.

There were some good songs on this mini-album, but it wasn’t a very commercial one.

Grade: B-

Album Review: The Gibson Brothers – ‘Brotherhood’

brotherhoodThere’s something very special about the harmonies created by two brothers. One of the best duos in modern bluegrass or country music consists of the Gibson Brothers, Leigh and Eric. in their latest release, they pay tribute to some of the great fraternal partnerships of the past, and the result is sublime.

Their version of the Everly Brothers’ big pop hit ‘Bye Bye Love’ is darker and more melancholy than the perky original, drawing on the implicit sadness of the Felice/Boudleaux Bryant lyric. Another Everlys cut, ‘Crying In The Rain’ showcases the pair’s compelling vocals on a tune written by iconic pop singer-songwriter Carole King.

The haunting ‘Long Time Gone’ (also once recorded by the Everlys) is another standout. The similarly titled but pacier ‘Long Gone’ comes from the same writer, Leslie York of the York Brothers, a sibling duo active in the 1940s and 50s.

‘The Sweetest Gift’, a beautiful story about a mother visiting a prisoner son, has been recorded by everyone from the Blue Sky Boys in the 40s to the Judds. The Gibson Brothers’ version is wonderful, imbued with the tenderness and desperation of the mother’s love for her “erring, but precious son”, and stands up against any of the previous versions, with an interesting arrangement of their harmonies. ‘Eastbound Train’ also deals with a prisoner’s loved one, and is a traditionally styled ballad telling the sweetly sentimental story of a little girl taking the train to seek a pardon for her father, who is not only in prison but also blind. The conductor is moved by her sad story and lets her travel for free.

Also very much in traditional vein, the Louvin Brothers’ melancholy ‘Seven Year Blues’ is outstanding.

‘I’m Troubled, I’m Troubled’ picks up the pace with a jaundiced lyric, while the perky ‘Sweet Little Miss Blue Eyes’ brightens the mood. A tender ‘It’ll Be Her’ (a hit for Tompall and the Glaser Brothers) is gorgeous.

The Gibsons are joined by Ronnie Reno, a onetime member of the Osborne Brothers’ band, to sing ‘Each Season Changes You’, a pretty plaintive song popularised by the latter. Reno also helps out on the upbeat ‘How Mountain Girls Can Love’.

‘I Have Found The Way’ is traditional bluegrass gospel, written by Bill Monroe’s brother Charlie and recorded by the Monroes in 1937,before Bill invented bluegrass as a discrete genre. Ronnie and Rob McCoury join the Gibsons on a sincere ‘What A Wonderful Savior Is He’. The lesser known ‘An Angel With Blue Eyes’ anticipates reunion in heaven with a loved one, an dis sung with commitment.

The combination of compelling harmonies and great songs, backed by tasteful bluegrass arrangements make this an essential putrchase.

Grade: A+

Week ending 1/3/15: #1 singles this week in country music history

joe_diffie1955 (Sales): More and More — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Jukebox): More and More — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Disc Jockeys): More and More — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1965: Once A Day — Connie Smith (RCA)

1975: I Can Help — Billy Swan (Monument)

1985: Why Not Me — The Judds (RCA/Curb)

1995: Pickup Man — Joe Diffie (Epic)

2005: Some Beach — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)

2015: My Baby’s Got A Smile On Her Face — Craig Wayne Boyd (Dot)

2015 (Airplay): Shotgun Rider — Tim McGraw (Big Machine)

Week ending 12/27/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

thejudds1954 (Sales): More and More — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1954 (Jukebox): More and More — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): More and More — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1964: Once A Day — Connie Smith (RCA)

1974: I Can Help — Billy Swan (Monument)

1984: Why Not Me — The Judds (RCA/Curb)

1994: Pickup Man — Joe Diffie (Epic)

2004: Some Beach — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)

2014: Shotgun Rider — Tim McGraw (Big Machine)

2014 (Airplay): Shotgun Rider — Tim McGraw (Big Machine)

Album Review: Sunny Sweeney – ‘Provoked’

sunnysweeneyFollowing a three-year break from the recording studio, Sunny Sweeney is back, and as you may have deduced from the title of her new collection, she is in a feisty mood.  She’s been through a lot of changes both professionally and personally since the release of 2011’s Concrete:  divorce, remarriage and parting ways with Republic Nashville Records.  Those who, like me, were hoping that freedom from the shackles of a major-label contract would result in an album more like the excellent Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame, will find much to be happy about.  The Luke Wooten-produced Provoked is not as rootsy as her debut, but it is less polished than Concrete and has plenty of traditional moments.  There are more than a few concessions to contemporary tastes, with perhaps an eye still on the charts, but the prospects of a radio hit are unlikely without major label backing.

Provoked contains a generous 13 tracks, eleven of which were co-written by Sunny.  The album opens with the excellent “You Don’t Know Your Husband”, a collaboration with Angaleena Presley and Mark D. Sanders.  It’s a Loretta Lynn-style confrontation over a man, although Sunny is cast in the role of the other woman rather than the agrieved wife.  It’s followed by  “Bad Girl Phase”, which was written by Brandy Clark, Jesse Jo Dillon and Shannon Wright and released as a single a ilttle over a year ago.  It’s got more of a rock edge than we’re used to hearing from Sunny but to her credit she makes no attempt to tone down her twang on this number or anywhere else on the album.  It’s a catchy number that I like more each time I hear it, but the production is a bit cluttered and at times threatens to drown out her vocals.

Following “Bad Girl Phase”, the album enters a somewhat lengthy dull phase, through the more contemporary “Second Guessing”, “Carolina on the Line” and “Find Me”, none of which are particularly memorable.  But just when one might be about to give up on the album, things pick up nicely with the uptempo “Can’t Let Go”, a Randy Weeks number that reminds me of something The Judds might have recorded in their early days.

The album’s best moments are primarily in the second half, beginning with “My Bed”, a duet with Will Hoge that Sunny wrote with Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe.  “Sunday Dress” finds her jilted, presumably at the altar, and unwilling to face the prying eyes of her small-town neighbors.  “Used Cars” is a nice mid-tempo number about finding love even when one is a little past one’s prime.  Her feisty side emerges again on the album’s last two tracks; on “Backhanded Compliment” ,she takes issue with those who either knowingly or inadvertently make catty or thoughtless remarks and the confrontational “Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass” is a working class honky-tonker of the kind that Johnny Paycheck used to pull off with gusto.

Provoked is an intelligent, well-written collection of music that will probably be ignored by the mainstream but it has all the makings to be a cult hit. It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed an album by a current female artist this much.  I highly recommend it.

Grade:  A

Week ending 8/9/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

bcc1954 (Sales): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Jukebox): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1964: Dang Me — Roger Miller (Smash)

1974: Rub It In — Billy “Crash” Craddock (ABC)

1984: Mama He’s Crazy — The Judds (RCA/Curb)

1994: Summmertime Blues — Alan Jackson (Arista)

2004: Somebody — Reba McEntire (MCA)

2014: Burnin’ It Down — Jason Aldean (Broken Bow)

2014 (Airplay): Yeah — Joe Nichols (Red Bow)

Album Review: Holly Dunn – ‘Holly Dunn’

HollyDunnIn the mid 1980s country music was in a state of transition as the Urban Cowboy sound began to fall out of favor with radio and fans. Artists like George Strait, Ricky Skaggs, Reba McEntire and The Judds had begun to pull the music back to its traditional roots but it wasn’t until Randy Travis’ big breakthrough in 1986 that the last nail was finally driven into the Urban Cowboy coffin. Holly Dunn’s eponymous debut album was released during this transition, and although it has its traditional moments, the album is mostly in the fading but not yet dead pop-country vein of the day.

Produced by Tommy West, the album contains ten songs, half of which were either written or co-written by Holly. Interestingly, none of five tracks in which Holly had a hand in writing were collaborations with her brother Chris Waters and Tom Shairo, although Tom and Chris did write one song, “That’s A Real Good Way To Get Yourself Loved”, with Michael Garvin. The album opens with “Two Too Many”, one of Holly’s compositions which was also her first single to crack the Top 40, landing at #39. It’s a lightweight but catchy number, and though not particularly noteworthy, it is actually one of the album’s better tracks. It was of course, completely overshadowed by the album’s second single, “Daddy’s Hands”, Dunn’s first bonafide hit and the song for which she is best remembered today.

Unfortunately, aside from “Daddy’s Hands” there is nothing particularly memorable about this album at all, despite some impressive names among the songwriting credits. “Burnin’ Wheel”, a Radney Foster co-write with Billy Aerts and Mickey Cates is a piece of lightweight fluff, and “My Heart Holds On” is certainly one of Hugh Prestwood’s poorer efforts. I like Gary Burr’s “Someone Carried You” a little better, but it isn’t an example of his best work, either.

Although the material certainly could have been stronger, the album’s main flaw is the production. Already falling out of favor in 1986, the pop-country arrangements that permeate every track except “Daddy’s Hands” sound terribly dated today. The album does have its bright spots; I rather like “Your Memory (Won’t Let Go Of Me)” and “The Sweetest Love I Never Knew”, but I wish they had been recorded a few years later after Holly had begun to co-produce her albums and had moved away from the Urban Cowboy sound.

None of this is to say that Holly Dunn is a bad album; it certainly has its enjoyable moments but it pales in comparison to most of her later work, beginning with her next album, 1987’s Cornerstone. I quite liked Holly Dunn back in 1986 but it hasn’t aged well. The album is long out of print and virtually impossible to find, but only “Daddy’s Hands” is essential listening and it is available elsewhere. The rest of the album is interesting only as a footnote in the Dunn discography and as a snapshot of her career in its earlier stages.

Grade: B

Single Review – Miranda Lambert – ‘Automatic’

Miranda-Lambert-GotCountryOnlineIn the monologue preceding “Young Love” on Her Story: Scenes From A Lifetime, Wynonna articulated that Judd music “Reflected a much sweeter and simpler time” where the pace was slower and face-to-face human connection was the lay of the land. Twenty-five years after that seminal classic, Miranda Lambert is yearning to return there, pondering a life “before everything became automatic.”

Unlike Paul Kennerley and Kent Robbins sweeping epic, Lambert relies on a laundry list of nostalgic signifiers (The United States Postal Service, Rand McNally Atlases, pay phones, pocket watches, etc) to tell her story. Instead of helping make her case, though, they weigh down the track with sentiment and lack her distinctive personality.

Thankfully the chorus is fantastic, with a message that proves all too true:

Hey whatever happened to, waitin’ your turn

Doing it all by hand, cause when everything is handed to you

It’s only worth as much as the time you put in

It all just seems so good the way we had it

Back before everything became, automatic

Lambert’s vocal is also sincere so the listener does invest in what she’s signing, which is kind of rare these days. The production is a bit muffled and should’ve been littered in steel and fiddle, which would’ve helped the track immensely. But from the end result, it’s clear “Automatic” has good bones.

The track could’ve been shockingly great, if Lambert stripped away the generalities and wrote solely from personal experience, like Rosanne Cash did on The River & The Thread. But it’s a step above most of mainstream country and that counts for a lot in the current climate.

Grade: B 

Songwriters: Miranda Lambert, Natalie Hemby, Nicolle Galyon 

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Favorite Songs of the 1980s: Part 5

The 1980s got off to a poor start 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.

Here are some more songs that I liked and remember. See if you recall any of these records.

the okanes“When You Leave That Way You Can Never Go Back” – Sam Neely
This 1983 song reached #77 for a talented performer who spent many years playing the clubs and honky-tonks of Corpus Christi. The song, the reflection of a condemned inmate’s life, looks back at all the bridges he burned beyond repair. The song also was recorded by Bill Anderson and Confederate Railroad.

Dream Lover” – Rick Nelson
Epic reissued Rick’s 1979 cover of a Bobby Darin classic after Rick’s death in a New Years Eve 1985 air crash. It only reached #88 but it gives me a chance to mention one of the fine rock ‘n roll / country singers one last time.

Save Me” – Louise Mandrell
Louise never quite emerged from her big sister’s shadow but this #6 single from 1983 shows that a lack of talent wasn’t the problem.

Wabash Cannonball” – Willie Nelson with Hank (Leon Russell) Wilson
This song is at least as famous as any other song I’ve mentioned in any of my articles. Although the song is often attributed to A.P. Carter, it really is much older than that. Willie and Hank took this to #91 in 1984.

American Trilogy”– Mickey Newberry
Mickey issued a new version of his classic 1971 pop hit in 1988. While it only reached #93, it was good to hear it again on the radio. Glory, Glory Hallelujah forever.

The Sweetest Thing (I’ve Ever Known)“– Judy Kay ‘Juice’ Newton
This #1 hit from 1982 was Juice’s biggest hit. As great as this recording is, the song sounds even better when she performs it acoustically.

Dance Little Jean” – The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
Perhaps my favorite recording by NGDB, it only reached #9 in 1983 but I still hear the song performed today by various and sundry acts, not all of whom are country. The song was the group’s first top ten country hit there would be sixteen in all), although they had pop chart hits dating back to the 1960s.

“Let’s Go All The Way ” – Norma Jean and Claude Gray
A pair of veteran performers teamed up to release this 1982 hit which charted at #68. The song was Norma Jean’s first chart hit back in 1964. This was her last chart hit; in fact, she hadn’t charted since 1971 when this record was released on the Granny White label.

Elvira” – The Oak Ridge Boys
Although not their biggest chart hit, this cover of a Dallas Frazier-penned song from the 1960s , was easily their biggest selling song, reaching #1 in 1981 while hitting #5 on Billboard’s pop charts. Has anyone really forgotten the chorus?

So I’m singin’, Elvira, Elvira
My heart’s on fire, Elvira
Giddy up, oom poppa, omm poppa, mow mow
Giddy up, oom poppa, omm poppa, mow mow, heigh-ho Silver, away!

I didn’t think so …

Oh Darlin’” – The O’Kanes (Kieran Kane and Jamie O’Hara)
This coupling of a couple of singer-songwriters who had not had solo success, resulted in a half dozen top ten records that had a fairly acoustic sound and feel that sounded like nothing else currently being played on the radio. This song reached #10 in 1986. Their next single “Can’t Stop My Heart From Loving You” would reach #1.

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Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Lonesome Standard Time’

1992’s Lonesome Standard Time saw Kathy working with a new producer, Brent Maher, probably best known for his work with the Judds in the 80s. Happily, this didn’t change the overall style, and Kathy was able to maintain her usual standard of high-quality material with a strongly non-mainstream feel.

The punchy title track, written by Jim Rushing and Larry Cordle, draws on the high lonesome tradition of bluegrass to portray the sad emotions of a broken heart, when the sound of a “crying fiddle is the sweetest sound on earth”. The lead single, it just failed to break into the top 10 but is a great track with a committed, energized vocal which opens the album with a real bang.

The pensive ballad ‘Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying Of Thirst)’ contemplates losing touch with friends not treasured enough. A mature lyric and string laden production make this a bit more AC than most of her work, but the lovely tune, sensitive vocal, and wise lyrics (penned by Bucky Jones, Dickey Lee and Bob McDill) would stand out in any company. Its genre crossing capacity is shown by the fact that blues-rock musician Joe Cocker covered the song in 1994, followed by country veteran Don Williams in 1995. Kathy’s version was the album’s second single and just squeezed into the top 20.

Equally thoughtful, the spiritual ‘Seeds’ (which peaked at #50) takes a philosophical look at human potential, declaring,

We start the same
But where we land
Is sometimes fertile soil
And sometimes sand
We’re all just seeds
In God’s hands

The final single, Nanci Griffith’s uplifting ‘Listen To The Radio’, where country radio acts as the protagonist’s friend and companion while she drives away from her man, performed even more poorly despite being packed full of vocal character – not to mention the presence of Eagle Bernie Leadon on guitar.

The sardonic and catchy ‘Lonely At The Bottom’ had recently been recorded by former duet partner Tim O’Brien in his shortlived attempt at a solo country career. The protagonist is talking to an old friend who has found success has not brought happiness; unfortunately, Kathy informs him, poverty has brought nothing better either. A great acoustic arrangement, Kathy’s playful interpretation supported by call and response backing vocals make this highly enjoyable.

‘Forgive And Forget’ is a mid-tempo Kieran Kane song which sounds potentially radio friendly, and had previously appeared on Kane’s underrated 1993 solo Atlantic album Find My Way Home following the breakup of The O’Kanes. A lively, confident cover of ‘Amarillo’ is also highly entertaining.

The gentle ‘Last Night I Dreamed Of Loving You’ is a beautiful song by country-folk poet-songwriter Hugh Moffatt, given a delicately stripped down production, with the haunting harmonies of Tim O’Brien balancing the raw emotion of the lead vocal.

There are just a couple of tracks which fail to sparkle. ‘Slow Boat’, written by Kathy’s husband Jon Vezner with George Teren is pretty and laidback but a little forgettable. ‘33, 45, 78 (Record Time)’ takes a metaphorical look back at the passing of time.

Despite the relatively disappointing performance of teh singles, sales were good, and it was Kathy’s fourth successive gold record. The limited airplay may mean, however, that more casual fans may have missed out on an excellent album. Luckily, you can make up for that, as used copies are available very cheaply.

Grade: A