My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Tim Mensy

Album Review: Linda Davis – ‘Linda Davis’

In 1992, Linda released her second album. Like the first it was produced by label boss Jimmy Bowen, with Linda getting a co-production credit, but it was uninspiringly self-titled. Where her earlier singles had failed to make much impact, the singles from this record were resoundingly ignored by country radio.

The reason why is clear when you listen to ‘There’s Something ‘Bout Loving You’, an upbeat but thoroughly forgettable pop-country song which now sounds very dated. It was written by hitmakers Chris Waters and Tom Shapiro, but was one of their poorest efforts, and a really bad choice for a single for an artist hoping to make her breakthrough. The follow-up, Dewayne Blackwell’s ‘He Isn’t My Affair Anymore’ is a much better song, an emotional ballad which Linda delivers with conviction, although it has a bit of a musical theater vibe.

The best song on the album is a cover of John Conlee’s 1982 hit, ‘Years After You’, which Linda manages to make her own with a lovely, emotionally invested vocal, although the production has not aged well, and the backing vocals are curiously old-fashioned for an album made in 1992. But the song itself is a great Thom Schuyler song about an enduring love which long survives a breakup:

I knew that it wouldn’t be easy
For my heart to find somebody new
But I never thought
It still would be broken in two
These years after you

They tell me time is a natural healer
It kinda smooths the pain away
But this hurtin’ within hasn’t yet given in
And it’s been over 2000 days
I still remember the taste of your kisses
And your eyes that were beautifully blue
I can still hear the sound of your voice
When you said we were through

There’ve been mornings when I couldn’t wake up
There’ve been evenings when I couldn’t sleep
My life will be fine for months at a time
Then I’ll break down and cry for a week
‘Cause when I told you I’d love you forever
I know you didn’t think it was true
But forever is nothing compared to some nights I’ve been through
These years after you

‘LA To The Moon’, another emotional ballad, is a fine song written by Susan Longacre and Lonnie Wilson about a country star and the hometown sweetheart left behind:

You were always different
Had a big dream in your heart
This old cowtown couldn’t hold you down
Once you caught your spark
I stood out on the runway
And watched you taxi past
I would’ve gone anywhere with you
But you never asked

You went from Beaumont to LA
And LA to the moon
An overnight success
You put a lot of years into
You tell me nothing’s different
I’m just a call away from you
But it feels more like the distance
from LA to the moon

‘Isn’t That What You Told Her’ is another excellent song, written by Karen Staley and Karen Harrison, with a barbed lyric addressed to a man with a questionable past record in love by his new love interest, who is understandably dubious. It is very well sung, but once more with dated backings.

‘Tonight She’s Climbing The Walls’ is a story song about a neglected wife ready to make a break, written by Craig Bickhardt and very well sung by Linda. ‘The Boy Back Home’, written by Gary Harrison and Tim Mensy, is another ballad, about nostalgia for a first love, and is quite nice in a more contemporary style.

Of the up-tempo material, ‘Just Enough Rope’ (later cut by Rick Trevino) is fun. ‘Love Happens’ and ‘Do I Do It To You To Too’ are both forgettable pieces of filler.

As a whole, this album is hampered by some of the production choices, but it did show Linda was a great singer given the right material, and some tracks are definitely worth downloading.

The commercial failure of this record was to lead to an unexpected second chapter in Linda’s career. Released by her label, she signed up as Reba McEntire’s backing vocalist, and the result would make country music history.

Grade: B

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Album Review: Clay Walker – ‘Rumor Has It’

Clay_Walker_-_Rumor_Has_ItWalker released his fourth album in the spring of 1997. It was his first project since revealing his diagnosis with Multiple Sclerosis. For Rumor Has It, Walker’s mission was to be loyal to the fans by recording the best songs he could and putting out hit records.

To that end the title track, a co-write with M. Jason Greene was issued as the lead single. It follows in the footsteps of his brilliant uptempo numbers, but is more slick than raw. His sixth and final number one, it’s among my favorite of his singles.

He followed with what has become his most critically panned single to date, the cloying “One, Two, I Love You.” I always enjoyed the fiddle-laced production but agree that consensus has been reached regarding Ed Hill and Bucky Jones’ lyric. The song peaked at #18.

Walker rebounded into the top 5 with “Watch This,” a slightly cheesy love song that hasn’t aged well in nineteen years. He followed with his most left-of-center single to date, “Then What,” a loose dose of Caribbean Country that rocketed to #2 (I was shocked it didn’t top the charts). Likely his signature song, “Then What” has enjoyed a long life as a recurrent and is probably his best-remembered hit today.

The album features just two more songs Walker had a hand in composing. He solely wrote “Country Boy and City Girl,” a pleasant love song about an opposites attract romance. “That’s Us,” another love song, was co-written with Tim Mensy.

“I’d Say That’s Right” is a brisk fiddle-soaked love song. “Heart Over Head Over Heels” plays up the charm factor yet feels like it’s a leftover from his previous album and not styled with distinct 1997 production (which is far from a bad thing). “You’ll Never Hear The End of It” is yet another uptempo love song. I do love the overall vibe of “I Need A Margarita,” but the lyric is cheesy as hell.

Walker’s comments regarding finding the best songs he could confirmed what I unfortunately know for sure. Those sentiments usually mean we’re going to a generic album dosed with a radio-friendly sheen, which is certainly true in this case.

Walker has opted to go with an album loaded with similar sounding love songs, which comes off as too pleasing. Beyond the title track and “Then What” there just isn’t anything here to set him apart or show any real attempts at artistry. He never truly broke through and its easy to see why – his albums just weren’t at an a-list level.

But he’s still one of my favorite country singers. Rumor Has It isn’t the worst country album I’ve ever heard, far from it, but it does suffer from an overtly commercial sheen that drags it down a few notches.

(By the way, you HAVE TO, check out or reacquaint yourself with the videos for “Rumor Has It” and “Watch This.” If anything, Walker gave us brilliant documents of the late 1990s while trying to be George Strait’s little brother. At least he loosen up with “Then What”).

Grade: B-

Album Review: Craig Morgan – ‘This Ole Boy’

91fn7FvtfDL._SX522_Craig Morgan took a four-year hiatus from recording after leaving BNA Records. He re-emerged in 2012 via Black River Entertainment with This Ole Boy. In theory, signing with an indie label would give him more independence to record the kind of music he wanted. In practice, however, there is nothing to really distinguish the album from what the major labels were putting out.

As with his last few releases, Morgan shared production duties with Phil O’Donnell. Morgan co-wrote half of the album’s songs. This Ole Boy spawned three singles, the most successful of which was the title track which peaked at # 13. “Corn Star” reached #50, which is far more than it deserved, and “More Trucks Than Cars” topped out at #38. The album itself reached #5 on the albums chart.

In a nutshell, with one or two exceptions, This Ole Boy is a collection of songs that range from bad to mediocre. There is only two tracks that I truly enjoyed: the Monty Criswell/Tim Mensy composition “Country Boys Like Me” and the closing number “Summer Moon”, a Morgan co-write with Chris Wallin. The rest of the album falls into the trap of trying to offer something for everyone, a type of approach that usually leaves all unsatisfied. “This Ole Boy” is a not bad, faced paced number that had previously been recorded by Joe Nichols. “More Trucks Than Cars” is a cliche-ridden laundry list of buzzwords that are typically associated with southern living — lazy songwriting at it worst. I can’t decide which of the two bro-country numbers is worse: “Corn Star” or “Show Me Your Tattoo”, but currently I am leaning towards the former. Morgan is a decent vocalist whose talent is wasted on garbage songs like those, and it’s particularly difficult to forgive these kinds of transgressions from more mature artists who surely ought to know better.

“The Whole World Needs a Kitchen” is not a bad song, but it lacks originality. The theme reminds me of Tracy Lawrence’s “If the World Had a Front Porch”, which was a much better song. “I Didn’t Drink” is an interesting number and one of the few moments of originality on the album: a man walks into a bar to drown his sorrows following a bad break-up but doesn’t know what to order because he is a teetotaler. It’s an interesting concept, but it doesn’t quite work — mainly because it’s performed as a pop-tinged power ballad. This kind of theme needs a more traditional treatment.

With only two really good songs, I can’t really recommend this album. It’s available for streaming on Amazon Music, and presumably other streaming services as well for those who want to give it a listen before buying.

Grade: C

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘In a Perfect World’

perfectworldI’m not sure whether I’d call Shanachie a major label or not – it certainly is one of the big three when it comes to Irish/Celtic music, but however you chose to characterize the label, this album, produced by Brent Rowan, found itself issued on Shanachie, one of two Watson albums released on this particular label.

By the time this album was released in 2007, Gene had been bouncing from label to label for a decade since leaving Step One Records. In fact much of the output of the period (1998-2007) consisted of Gusto reissues of material taken from Step One albums and other material released on independent labels such as Broadlands.

Unlike previous albums, which never saw Watson other than as a solo vocalist, Watson entered new territory, recording six songs featuring guest artists (mostly as harmony vocalists rather than true duets) out of the eleven songs on the album. Also unlike recent albums, this album does not contain remakes of earlier Gene Watson hits, focusing instead on some old classic country songs, with some newer material mixed in.

While this album could never be described as innovative (a value-neutral term as innovation can be bad) or cutting edge, it is yet another example of a master craftsman applying his talents to a terrific set of songs.

The album opens with the old Hank Cochran classic “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me”. Released during the 1960s this recording would have been a major hit. This song is followed by Vince Gill harmonizing with Gene on the Harlan Howard’s “Let Me Be The First To Go”, a song initially recorded by the great Wynn Stewart. This song is a tearjerker in which Watson asks God to call him home first as he couldn’t handle life without his wife. Aubrey Haynie’s fiddle and Sonny Garrish’s steel guitar really standout on this track

“What Was I Thinking” follows next – this was not the Dierks Bentley hit of a few years earlier but a Skip Ewing ballad lamenting the breakup of a relationship.

“Today I Started Loving You Again” is one of Merle Haggard’s most famous songs, even though it was never a hit for the Hag (it was the B-side of “The Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde”) although Sammi Smith had a minor hit with it. The song has been recorded many times, but never better than this version which features Lee Ann Womack’s harmony vocals, especially noteworthy on the repeat chorus.

Harley Allen and Tim Mensy penned the title track “In A Perfect World” , a song of a man who has reached bottom and is imagining life as it could be, not as it really turned out to be. Joe Nichols harmony vocals provide the proper shading for this very desolate song:

In A Perfect World It Never Rains on Saturday
In A Perfect World I Wouldn’t Hate The Holidays
I’d Sleep Just Like A Baby and Have One Down The Hall
You’d Still Be My Girl, In A Perfect World

Tim Mensy also contributed “She’s Already Gone” and “This Side of he Door” (co-written with Shawn Camp). “She’s Already Gone” is just another good song about a relationship that is already dead except for someone actually leaving, but “This Side of The Door is really good. Guest vocalist Mark Chesnutt has some solo lines on this song, which Chesnutt originally recorded on his What a Way to Live album released in 2004. This songs rocks a little harder than is customary for Gene.

It is hard to image that “Together Again” was the B-Side of “My Heart Skips A Beat” for Buck Owens never wrote a better song. Buck’s A-side spent seven weeks at #1 but so many DJs flipped the record that the B-side also spent two weeks at #1. Rhonda Vincent guest on this song, the only true duet on the album, an a harbinger of more collaborations to come. In my opinion, this is the standout track on the album.

Another Tim Mensy song “I Buried Our Love” was released as a single although I never heard it played on the radio. It has a strong lyric and should have received at least some airplay.

Connie Smith is one of the few country singers on a par with Watson in terms of being a master vocalist. I think this song was first recorded by Point of Grace but I doubt that many would consider this rendition in any way inferior to the original. I would like for Connie’s voice to have been more prominently featured.

The album closes with yet another Tim Mensy song, “Like I Wasn’t Even There”. This song sounds more like the stuff currently played on the radio (only sung better) than like classic country. The storyline of this ballad is one of a man encountering his ex and seeing her behave as if he didn’t exist.

Reaction to this album at the time of its release varied although all reviewers considered it a good collection of songs sung by an excellent singer, while docking it stars for not pushing the boundaries of the genre. In my humble opinion when an album is this good, I don’t care whether or not it breaks new ground.

From this point forward Gene would feature more duets – his next Shanachie album would feature actual duets with Trace Adkins and Rhonda Vincent and Alison Krauss providing harmony vocals on a track.

Grade: A

Album Review: Doug Stone -‘I Thought It Was You’

i thought it was youDoug Stone’s debut album was a hard act to follow, and his second album (released in August 1991) was not quite as good as his debut but it was still a fine collection of songs, dominated by the ballads at which he excelled as a vocalist.

The title track was the lead single, and peaked at #4. A subtle ballad about a man struggling to cope with a breakup, written by Tim Mensy and Gary Harrison, it is beautifully interpreted by Doug.

‘A Jukebox With A Country Song’, Doug’s second #1 hit (written by Gene Nelson and Ronnie Samoset), picks up the tempo and adds an ironic touch. A couple have their first big bust up, and the husband plans to take refuge in his favorite old “rundown one-room tavern”, only to find that since his marriage it has had a makeover and is now a high class restaurant – definitely not what he had in mind. After expressing his outrage, he gets asked to leave.

He belts out the big ballad ‘Come In Out Of The Pain, in which he wastes no time offering his devotion to a newly-single woman he’s had feelings for; it is possibly a little overblown but I can’t help liking it:

I’m happy that you’re sad
I know that sounds so wrong
But darling you must know
The pain’s gone on too long

Come in out of the pain
Let me dry your tears
He’s been gone for days
And I’ve loved you for years
Lay down in my arms
There ain’t no shame
So don’t just stand there, girl
Come in out of the pain

This was the third and last single from the record, and it reached #3.

Doug got a rare co-writing credit for ‘The Feeling Never Goes Away’ with the help of Kim Williams and Phyllis Bennett, a pleasant but bland love song. Williams also wrote two additional songs for the album. The fast-paced ‘The Right To Remain Silent’ (written with Angie Thompson) is an entertaining tale of a man getting caught out by his wife after a night’s carousing. The police questioning theme is neatly carried through the song, with the outraged wife declaring, as she packs her bags,

You have the right to remain silent
Your alibis don’t cut no ice with me
You have the right to remain silent
When you know you’re as guilty as can be
What you say can and will be held against you
A lawyer is the only thing you need
You have the right to remain silent
And I have the right to leave

Right at the end he yelps out an amusingly pathetic little, “But darlin’, I was only havin’ a good time”.

Williams’ final contribution (with Michael Harrell), ‘Remember The Ride’ is a story song in which an older man compares his love life to his experiences as a rodeo rider. The simile may not be very flattering, but the soothing melody is very pretty and the impassioned vocal sells the song.

‘(For Every Inch I’ve Laughed) I’ve Cried A Mile’ is a cover of a Harlan Howard/Tompall Glaser penned song which was a minor hit for the great Canadian country singer Hank Snow in the 1960s. Doug’s version of this sad ballad about losing a loved one is extremely good; the lyric is downbeat but the soaring vocal is lovely. Also good is his warm reading of Freddy Weller’s nostalgic ‘They Don’t Make Years Like They Used To’, about a couple maturing into middle age together.

‘If It Was Up To Me’ is an outstanding heartbreak ballad which is beautifully sung and one of my favorite tracks. The twangy mid-tempo ‘Burning Down The Town’ is an excellent Joe Diffie co-write about a wronged woman turning the tables on her ex and heading out on the town leaving him alone at home.

Although not quite as strong as Doug’s debut this is still an excellent album which showcases the artist’s beautiful voice.

Grade: A

Album Review – Martina McBride – ‘The Way That I Am’

220px-Martina_McBride_-_The_Way_That_I_AmFollowing the commercial disappointment of The Time Has Come, RCA Records and producer Paul Worley led Martina McBride in a slightly slicker direction for her sophomore album The Way That I Am, released in the fall of 1993. With the neo-traditional movement in a decline, the record echoed the sounds of the time, increasing the prominence of drums and electric guitars without sacrificing the distinction of pedal steel heard throughout.

Gretchen Peters’ amped “My Baby Loves Me” was chosen as the lead single, and became McBride’s first top five hit. She followed with the equally upbeat and charming “Life #9,” which peaked at #6. Both are excellent and equally showcase McBride’s powerful voice in a contemporary enough setting to work within the confines of country radio at the time.

But just as she was taking off, McBride took a risk with Peters’ spousal abuse anthem “Independence Day,” which peaked at #12. The story of a girl orphaned when her sadistic father killed his wife and himself by setting their house on fire, was too controversial in a world dominated by the daily headlines of O.J. Simpson’s murder trial. But nonetheless, McBride’s powerful performance and an equally memorable music video elevated the track into her signature tune, and to this day its one of her most popular recurrent songs heard on country radio.

RCA released two other singles from the project, the mid-tempo but rather fluffy “Heart Trouble” (which peaked at #21) and the decidedly slow ballad “Where I Used To Have A Heart” (which peaked at #49). Neither is particularly memorable, nor strong enough to score big at radio.

McBride herself stated in the liner notes of her Greatest Hits album that the label should’ve gone with Bobby Braddock’s masterful “Strangers” in the wake of “Independence Day,” a fact I wholeheartedly agree with. My personal favorite of all her recordings, “Strangers” takes a powerful full-circle look at a couple’s courtship, marriage, and divorce flanked by them beginning and ending as strangers. It’s easily the strongest non-“issue” relationship song McBride has ever tackled, and the most well written power ballad of her career.

Pam Tillis and Bill Lloyd co-wrote the intriguing “Goin’ To Work,” a feminist anthem celebrating strong women who are proud to be in the workforce. I love the track, although it does beat the concept half to death by repeating the “going to work/I’m good at my work/thank god for my work” refrain into the ground. But McBride sings it well and I quite enjoy the melody.

She does her best with Gary Harrison and Tim Mensy’s “That Wasn’t Me,” a popish piano ballad, but the track lacks anything to elevate it beyond its simple yet elegant confines. Far better is the stunning “She Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” a neo-traditional ballad concerning a wife in denial about her husband’s affair. She falters, though, on the gimmicky “Ashes,” a drives-home-its-point-too-hard relationship song comparing a couple’s love affair to fireplace embers.

Overall, The Way That I Am is a very strong collection of songs tackling somewhat surprisingly heavy themes for an artist looking to gain traction at radio and retail. I’ll never understand what RCA was thinking with the latter two singles – I would’ve released “Strangers” and “Goin’ To Work” instead – but she thankfully survived it. Copies are available very cheaply and it’s well worth adding to any music collection.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Shawn Camp – ‘1994’

Singer-songwriter Shawn Camp originally recorded this album back in the year of its title as the follow-up to his self-titled debut for Reprise Records (which I must confess I never heard, although I enjoyed his independent 2001 release Lucky Silver Dollar). Produced impeccably by Emory Gordy Jr and loaded with fiddle and steel, it proved too traditional in its stylings for the label, who reportedly dropped Shawn after he declined to remake it with more pop-country trappings. It has re-emerged after the boss of parent label Warner Bros Nashville ran into Shawn, now a successful songwriter, at an industry event, discovered he had this unreleased record sitting in the company vaults, and decided to give it a rather belated release. The original debut, Shawn Camp, is also getting a re-release.

To be brutally frank, enjoyable though I’m finding this record, I can see why Shawn’s career didn’t take off. His songs are good, and the production pleasing, but his voice, while pleasantly quirky and distinctive, does not compare well with some of the fine male vocalists signed to Nashville labels in the early 90s, particularly on ballads.

Shawn co-wrote almost all the material, with the exceptions all well-chosen. The sparkling opening track ‘Near Mrs’, for instance, penned by Steve Hood and Karl Hasten (both unfamiliar names to me) is a charmingly playful set of romantic misadventures explaining why the protagonist never quite got to the altar with any of the ladies in his life, which is highly entertaining and one can imagine this as a lost hit single. Even better is ‘In Harm’s Way’ which is one of the highlights here, a plaintive fiddle-and-steel-laced lament with Patty Loveless on harmonies, about being blindsided by heartbreak. This song was recorded by Jim Lauderdale (who wrote it with Frank Dycus) on his excellent 1998 release Whisper (possibly my favorite of his very varied catalog), and I do prefer the vocals on that version.

Also lovely, and perhaps better suited to Shawn’s voice, is the rueful admission of ‘Clear as A Bell’ (written by Shawn with Will Smith), as the protagonist gets a reminder that his childhood sweetheart’s wedding to another is underway:

In that far off chapel, church bells ring for someone else
And though I hate to say it I can only blame myself

Sometimes things happen way too fast
When you try to reach for love
It’s out of your grasp
Oh, sometimes it’s over and you can’t even tell
But sometimes it’s clear as a bell

This has a very pretty melody and is my favorite track.

The dejected ‘My Frame Of Mind’, written with John Scott Sherrill, also has a pretty tune and some haunting fiddle which underlines the melancholy feel, with the protagonist in even more despairing mood:

And I don’t know or care
Just what tomorrow brings
Cause if she’s not here
Tell me what good is anything?

John Scott Sherrill also cowrote the plaintive and catchy mid-tempo ‘Worn Through Stone’, another of the highlights, as Shawn broods over what went wrong in his relationship with his ex, with none other than Bill Monroe (in what may have been his last ever recording session) among the call-and-response backing vocals, although his contribution is not very prominent.

The quirky ‘Stop, Look And Listen (Cow Catcher Blues)’ is co-written with Guy Clark, and features train rhythms and Shawn on both fiddle and mandolin, as he plays the drifter who can’t outrun heartache. This is uncommercial but highly entertaining, and would be great live.

‘Since You Ain’t Home’ is a lovely traditional George Jones-styled heartbreak ballad about living in a house without the loved one who made it home, which Shawn wrote with Dale Dodson and Ken Mellons, and which would have been ideal for Mellons himself who was just embarking on his own major label career at the time. Patty Loveless guests on harmony.

The joyfully ironic uptempo ‘Movin’ On Up To A Double Wide’ is written with Gary Harrison. The protagonist has apparently been fired but is making his own silver lining:

Honey all our dreams are finally coming true
We’re gonna start living like the rich folks do
We’re movin’ on up to a double wide
Parkin our pickup every day with pride
Think we’ve got it made for the rest of our lives

Some of Shawn’s compositions included here did eventually find an audience. The best of these, ‘The Grandpa That I Know’, written with Tim Mensy (who had already recorded it himself), was subsequently recorded by both Joe Diffie and Patty Loveless. Shawn’s version has a hushed personal quality to it which lends an authenticity which makes up for the more limited vocal prowess compared to the rival versions. There is one interesting lyrical variation, with Shawn singing “my fiddle” rather than “a fiddle” as the music his grandfather would have liked, although he does not in fact play on this track. Shawn does play fiddle on ‘Little Bitty Crack In Her Heart’, which he wrote with Jim Rushing. This song suffers more from its delayed emergence, as it has been cut by both Sammy Kershaw and Randy Travis, both of whom are better singers than Shawn, but this version is still fun.

I strongly commend Warner Brothers for finally getting round to releasing this – and not only digitally. I hope it sells well enough for the experiment to be repeated and encourages other good music to be made available.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Hearts In Armor’

Trisha’s second album, released in 1992, is still my favorite. Garth Fundis’s production is sympathetic, with a number of special guests who support the record without overwhelming it. Trisha, who I regard as one of the most naturally gifted vocalists in country music and a subtle and tasteful interpreter of emotion, was at the peak of her vocal powers and interpretative ability, and the song selection was excellent.

The hypnotically bluesy lead single ‘The Wrong Side of Memphis’ (written by Gary Harrison and Matraca Berg) was a big hit, peaking at #5, with a semi-autobiographical tale of a young singer on her way to Nashville. The instrumentation is punchy without being over-produced, with harmony vocalists including Raul Malo, whose Mavericks’ bandmate Robert Reynolds was shortly to become Trisha’s second husband. It is atypical of the album as a whole, which is focussed on failed and failing relationships, a theme perhaps resulting from Trisha’s own recent divorce from her first husband.

Harrison also co-wrote (with Tim Mensy) ‘Nearest Distant Shore’, a beautiful ballad addressed empathetically to a friend (or perhaps to the protagonist’s inner self) trapped in a destructive relationship, and advising:

You vowed you would not fail
But this ain’t success
It’s a living hell
There’s nothing left to lose
You’re already alone

Swim to the nearest distant shore
There’s only so much a heart can endure
You gave it your best
Forgive yourself
You can’t hold on anymore
It’s not as far as it might seem
Now it’s time to let go of old dreams
Every heart for itself
Swim to the nearest distant shore

Trisha perfectly conveys the intensity of the emotions here without ever seeming melodramatic, supported by Garth Brooks’ harmony.

The second single, and the album’s biggest hit, adhered to the general mood, while being less obviously personal. The exquisitely sung ‘Walkaway Joe’, featuring a harmony vocal from former Eagle Don Henley, tells the cautionary tale of a young girl who makes a catastrophic choice of boyfriend (“the wrong kind of paradise”). Ignoring her mother’s words of warning, she finds out the hard way when he robs a gas station and then abandons her. It peaked at #2 on Billboard, making it the album’s biggest hit, and was nominated for a Grammy.

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Album Review: Josh Turner – ‘Long Black Train’

Josh Turner came to the attentions of country fans with a bang in 2003, when his second single ‘Long Black Train’ was released, shortly before the album of the same title, which was produced by Mark Wright and Frank Rogers.

The dark gospel warning against sin of the title track made a massive and well-deserved impact for Josh, who also wrote the song, inspired by a vision. It was quite different from anything else on radio with its metaphorical lyrics and brooding feeling, and is probably still Josh’s signature song. It peaked at an unlucky #13, but its impact was far greater than that suggests, winning a nomination for the CMA Song of the Year. It also sold well, being certified gold at a time when country digital single sales hadn’t quite taken off. Josh’s deep tones are ideally suited to bring gravitas required of a song like this, perhaps more so than anyone since Johnny Cash, and it seems rather a waste that much of his subsequent material has been fluffily positive in comparison.

An earlier single, ‘She’ll Go On You’, which had not made the top 40, was also included on the album. It is a sweetly delivered if sentimental warning (written by Mark Narmore) to take care of the females in a man’s life: a daughter in the first verse, a wife in the second, and an aged mother in the third:

Better cherish her every second of your life
Better take her in your arms and do her right

While it is a little cliche’d, with a little too much going on in the heavily strung arangement, it is the kind of song which country radio usually eats up, and would probably have been a hit had it followed ‘Long Black Train’ rather than preceding it. Instead, the follow-up single was the bitter up tempo look at love – or rather, ‘What It Ain’t’, written by Tim Mensy and Monty Criswell. Perhaps it seemed lightweight after ‘Long Black Train’, and it didn’t make the top 30, although I like it quite a bit.

My other favorite is the Jamie O’Hara song ‘Unburn All Our Bridges’, a mature plea for forgiveness on both sides, with a beautiful tune, as he affirms,

Love is much stronger than anger or pride

The melodic but mournful ‘I Had One One Time’, written by Harley Allen and Don Sampson, is a lovely song with a homeless man wistfully recalling past possessions: a car, a job, friends, a loving wife, all now gone. There is a tasteful string section on the understated arrangement. Also pretty good is Bobby Braddock’s ‘The Difference Between A Woman And A Man’, a tenderly delivered love song.

Josh shows a more playful side with his cover of Jim Croce’s 70s pop hit ‘You Don’t Mess Around With Jim’, a story song about a pool hustler/tough guy and the country boy who challenges him. Josh’s version is entertaining and a rare venture for him away from the moral and family friendly, the message here being one of physical force.

Also fun is the up-tempo ‘Good Woman Bad’ written by Pat McLaughlin and Roger Younger, in which the protagonist complains about the bad girl he is involved with, and is starting to wonder if he needs someone different. The rhymes are a bit obvious, but the overall effect is entertaining:

Now when I asked her to go to Sunday school
She went and called me a damned old fool

A few of the songs are less essential listening, but even these sound good – a trademark of Josh’s records. His own ‘Backwoods Boy’ (about the joys of hunting) has a nice banjo-led arrangement but is of limited interest to me. The tune of ‘Jacksonville’, written by McLaughlin with Josh, has a downbeat feel, but it actually has a positive message about unexpectedly falling in love on vacation and maybe staying. It is pleasant listening but not particularly memorable.

‘In My Dreams’ is a bit dull, almost heavy sounding, although Josh’s vocal sounds convincing.

This was a bright start for Josh, revealing him as one of the finest male vocalists out there, with an unusually keen ear for melody and a voice which can lift mediocre material. The album has been certified platinum, and its success won him nominations for the ACM Top New Vocalist and the CMA Horizon Award in 2004. He lost both to Gretchen Wilson, hot off the success of ‘Redneck Woman’, but in the event, Josh’s career has proved to be deeper rooted.

Ther album is easy to find, both digitally and in CD format.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Better Than I Used To Be’

It really is tempting fate for any artist, particularly one who is past his or her commercial peak, to entitle an album Better Than I Used To Be, because (almost always) it begs a negative answer. Rich-voiced 90s star Sammy Kershaw has been away from the charts for a while, most recently concentrating on a venture into Louisiana state politics. His new album is on an independent (possibly self released) label, Big Hit Records. However, while I don’t think Sammy’s music is “better than it used to be”, the new album stands up pretty well against his back catalog. There are no obvious hit singles here, but Sammy is still in fine voice, and Buddy Cannon’s supportive production is excellent, and undoubtedly country.

The album is bookended by songs Sammy himself had a share in writing. The unremarkable but energetic ‘That Train’, which he wrote alone, opens the album. In an interview with the 9513 earlier this year, Sammy admitted:

“I’m not much of a songwriter but every once in a while I get lucky and write one in 10 or 15 minutes. If it goes any longer than that, I get rid of them. I never work on them again”

Frankly, this song does indeed sound as though it only took a few minutes to write, although it clearly inspired the cover art. Much better is the co-write with John Scott Sherrill and Scotty Emerick which closes the set. ‘Takin’ The Long Way Home’ places the protagonist in a bar, because he has too little to go home for, with a woman who’s obviously on her way out. The sweet sadness of the fiddle line underscores the delicately understated emotion of a man who has no remedy for his sense of abandonment, as he concludes at the end of the evening,

And it’ll be time for me to go
Where I’m going I don’t know
I just know I’m takin’ the long way home

However rash it may be as the title track, ‘Better Than I Used To Be’, written by Brian Simpson and Ashley Gorley, is a highlight of the record. It is a tender, even inspiring, promise from a man who has made mistakes in the past and is in the process of turning his life around:

I can’t count the people I’ve let down
Or the hearts I’ve broke
You aint gotta dig too deep
If you want to find some dirt on me
I’m learning who you’ve been
Ain’t who you’ve gotta be…

Standin’ in the rain so long
Has left me with a little rust
But put some faith in me
Someday you’ll see
There’s a diamond under all this dust

But he acknowledges this is a work in progress in this lovely, mature song. A video was made to support this song as a single earlier this year, and it is a shame it failed to make many waves.

Equally good is the subdued sadness of ‘Like I Wasn’t Even There’, written by Wes Hightower, Monty Criswell and Tim Mensy. The protagonist runs into his ex for the first time since the breakup, and is ignored as though their relationship never existed.

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Album Review: Joe Nichols – ‘Revelation’

Joe’s second album, Revelation, was not quite as successful as its predecessor, but it has some great songs on it. Produced once more with taste and subtlety by guitarist Brent Rowan, the songs are mainly understated and a little downbeat, and those who like a lot of changes of pace may find this record disappointing. Personally, I think it rewards the time spent listening, and it is one of my favourite Joe Nichols albums.

The lead single, the earnest Harley Allen song ‘If Nobody Believed In You’, made the top 10. It ventures into both socio-political and religious territory as he moves from criticizing over-critical fathers stifling a child’s efforts and an adult son belittling his elderly father to raising the question of prayer in schools. Although it is a heavy handed lyrically, it is beautifully if a little languidly sung.

‘Things Like That (These Days)’, written by Byron Hill and Mike Dekle, tackles similar subject matter to rather gloomy effect. It tells of a boy with supportive parents who bring him up properly, and grow up to coach a children’s sport team, but the melody, while pretty, has a mournful feel, as Joe broods about those from less fortunate backgrounds:

Have mercy on all the kids (parents) out there
Who haven’t been raised to even care
About things like that these days

Iris DeMent’s ‘No Time To Cry’, which also refers to the problems of modern society (murdered babies and bombs exploding), is outright depressing. The protagonist confesses wearily the sorrow brought to his life by bereavement, tears which he cannot afford to shed. It is beautifully sung and written, but undoubtedly ends the album on a downer.

In contrast, the second and last single was the cheery (and very short – not much more than two minutes) ‘What’s A Guy Gotta Do’, co-written by Joe himself with Kelley Lovelace and Don Sampson, which peaked at #4 early in 2005. The dateless protagonist wonders why he’s not getting any interest, when
Ask anybody, I’m a pretty good guy
And the looks-decent wagon didn’t pass me by

It may be fluff, but it has a self-deprecating charm which makes it endearing, and more importantly it is one of two bright up-tempo fun songs which lighten the mood , foreshadowing the way for Joe’s next big hit, ‘Tequila Makes her Clothes Fall Off’. The other is ‘Don’t Ruin It For The Rest Of Us’, recorded the same year a little more rowdily by June’s Spotlight Artist Mark Chesnutt.

The humble ‘Singer In A Band’ is written by Gary Harrison and Tim Mensy, as the protagonist gently chides his fans for idolizing him, comparing his life to the everyday struggles of others:

You see me up there on center stage
In the spotlight for a while
But in the things that really matter
I’m just sittin’ on the aisle

When you look for heroes know that I’m just a singer in a band

It verges on sentimentality, but the palpable sincerity, almost sadness, of the delivery makes it work.

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Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘In Another World’

In Another World would be the final album Joe Diffie recorded for Epic, his label home all through his heady hit-making days of the 1990s.   It was again produced by Music Row veteran Don Cook and Lonnie Wilson.  The pair take a mostly neo-traditional approach to the music, and allow the lyrics and Joe’s vocal performances to shine through and be the central instrument on the album.  As a whole, this is one of Joe’s most solid efforts – almost all of these songs are good ones – but it does lack any real knockout moments.  In Another World didn’t restore Joe Diffie to a gold-selling record maker, though the title track did find a lot of favor with country radio.

‘In Another World’, the very pop-leaning title track, revisits a similar theme from Joe’s own ‘A Night To Remember’ with a man visualizing a love gone by.  The chorus sweeps you away, but the overall wall of production, and the use of echo and autotune make the song itself sound more than a bit out of place among the rest of Joe’s hits.

Jo Dee Messina took ‘My Give A Damn’s Busted’ to the top of the charts in 2005, but the Tony Martin, Tom Shapiro, and Joe Diffie co-write makes its first appearance to the country audience here.  It’s no surprise not many remembered it – considering it’s status as an album cut on an obscure Joe Diffie album – and given that this version just sounds so tame, and dare I say, phoned in, while memories of Messina’s punchy performance are still fresh in my ears.  Where Messina giggles and sashays her way through the lyric, Diffie appears to be aiming for a more deadpan approach – one that doesn’t serve the song well.

‘If I Lost Her’ finds a man in a bar after a fight with his wife, and tells of the advances of another, albeit adequate, woman on the make.  The attention from this new lady only sends his mind to the one at home, and rekindles the fire between them.  It takes a somewhat plodding pace, but is a good song, if not a recurrent favorite.

From the minds of John Scott Sherrill and Shawn Camp is ‘Hollow Deep As Mine’, a modern-day country/blues hybrid story of a Kentucky man, bemoaning the cold and isolated mountain backroads he calls home.  ‘Hollow’ also features the production style, and mid-tempo pace, that I’ve always preferred in Joe Diffie’s music, with plenty of steel and fiddle set to a driving melody.  An added bonus this time are that the lyrics are smart, vivid, and to the point.

Following the mid-tempo neo-traditional sound is the album’s second single, ‘This Pretender’.  The oft-told tale of someone wearing a smile to mask their heartache and the half a dozen cliché’ images and emotions in lines like ‘Got a smile painted on my face, got my heartache locked away prayin’ you won’t see’ helped it to stall at #49 on the country singles chart.

A couple of novelty songs pop up this time out, though both are clever and without an overabundance they begin to actually sound novel again.  The aforementioned ‘My Give A Damn’s Busted’ precedes ‘Stoned On Her Love’ as the only up-tempo ditties.  ‘Stoned’ features Sawyer Brown-style harmonies and similar guitar work that would get Mark Miller popping and bouncing.  ‘Live To Love Another Day’ falls close to the novelty song category, but a determined vocal from Joe on this Brooks & Dunn-inspired country rocker, with the guitars cranked up high in the mix, keep it serious enough.  Likewise, ‘What A Way To Go’ wryly tells of a man giving in to a woman he knows will break his heart, maybe even kill him, but dying in her arms, hey, ‘what a way to go’.

‘The Grandpa That I Know’ was written by Tim Mensy and Shawn Camp and was first recorded by Mensy for his own Giant Records release, and later by Patty Loveless on her sublime On Your Way Home album.  Diffie’s abilities as an interpreter of a sentimental country lyric are at their apex here, accompanied by a simple arrangement that’s perfectly suited for his memories of the earthy farmer in overalls that he calls Grandpa, while he tries not to commit to memory the image of him in a striped suit, going to meet his maker.  The mournful fiddle solo at the end is a fitting touch, and closes an overall solid collection of country music.

Grade: B

In Another World is still widely available, at amazon and everywhere else.

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Cowboy’s Back In Town’

Trace Adkins is one of the most frustrating artists in country music. He has a genuinely great voice, real interpretative ability and (when he chooses to exercise it), a sense of subtlety. When that natural talent is allied to great, or even good, songs, the result is close to sublime. Sadly, his musical taste is questionable, and he has recorded some of the worst songs released in the last ten years. His 2008 release, X, went a long way to restoring my faith in him as an artist, but regrettably, country radio was less enthused than it was for his worst efforts, like ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’, an execrable song which managed to top the charts.

Everything I heard in advance of this project’s release led me to expect Trace would be back to his worst. Radio’s lack of support for the singles from X, the move from Capitol to Toby Keith’s label. It says a lot for my admiration of Trace at his best that I was prepared to buy this, despite my concerns about the project. The first single, the truly horrible shoutfest ‘Ala-Freakin-Bama’, was a particularly disturbing sign. When Trace announced his departure from Capitol soon after the release of that single, I had hoped it would never re-surface. Unfortunately, Trace secured the rights to the last recordings he made for Capitol, and chose to include it on his debut for Show Dog Universal. Luckily, there is only one other song as bad, aggressively tuneless closing track ‘Whoop A Man’s Ass’, whose title says it all.

The grunt in the preamble to opening track ‘Brown Chicken, Brown Cow’, which is the first we hear from Trace, was not a good start either, although the song itself is not that bad – mediocre rather than awful, albeit too loud, one-note, and repetitive as it tells ths story of a farm couple who abandon their duties for a literal roll in the hay. Mostly, this record leans to the average rather than the overtly bad, with some pretty good songs.

Current single ‘This Ain’t No Love Song’ is quite a nice ballad (if a little repetitive) which was one of the few promising signs before the record’s release. Another alarm signal was raised when I originally saw the tracklisting and saw Trailer Choir were guesting on one song, ‘Don’t Mind If I Don’t’, but this was unfair as the end result is only mildly irritating, with Trailer Choir themselves barely noticeable. The song is boring, but inoffensive.

There are a couple of attempts at humor. Much of ‘Hold My Beer’ is shouted rather than sung but the lyrics (about a drunken wedding party, courtesy of Casey Beathard, Monty Criswell and Ed Hill) are mildly amusing, although I think they will pall with repetition. I can see this as a single complete with over-the-top video. The ironic backseat driver ode ‘Hell I Can Do That’ is rather better in the lighthearted vein, written by Jim Collins, Tony Martin and Lee Miller, with an engaging everyman feel and playful use of instrumentation.

The title track is quite a pleasant midpaced story song about a city woman whose life improves whenever her cowboy boyfriend comes to visit. It is one of Trace’s rare compositions, alongside Jeff Bates and Kenny Beard. Also pretty good is the love song ‘A Little Bit Of Missing You’, written by Mickey Jack Cones (who co-produces this track), Jim McCormick and Tim Johnson. Although it feels a bit over produced, it provides one of the few really melodic moments on the album, and one of the few times Trace’s gravelly bass notes are used to good effect. Most of the songs here could literally be sung by anyone, and Trace’s great voice is simply under utilised.

The highlight is the string laden ‘Still Love You’, a tender ballad co-written by Jeff Bates, where again Trace shows us he really is a fine vocalist with sensitive interpretative ability. The song itself is still only average compared to some of the outstanding ballads Trace has given us in the past.

I also liked ‘Break Her Fall’, a story of a teenage romance between a “long haired country boy” and a rich man’s daughter, written by Monty Criswell and Tim Mensy, with a little too much electric guitar for my taste. It’s a familiar, even clichéd, story, but nicely done with some specific color which makes it convincing and a few memorable lines:

She used me like a razor blade
To cut the ties that bind
Freed herself from Daddy’s world
Got tangled up in mine

This isn’t quite as bad as I was fearing, or Trace’s worst album (a title I would award to Dangerous Man), but it is still a real waste of his talent.

Grade: C

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘A Night To Remember’

Joe had followed up the disappointing sales of Twice Upon A Time with a Greatest Hits set, and in 1999 released what was to be his final effort for Epic. Produced by Don Cook with Joe’s old friend and collaborator Lonnie Wilson, it was a real return to form artistically, with not a novelty song in sight, and although it did not do as well commercially as it deserved to, he sustained his profile on radio.

The title track, written by Max D. Barnes and T. W. Hale, is a tenderly sung ballad focussing on a protagonist surrounding wallowing in tangible memories of a past relationship. It is a really good song, and was deservedly a sizeable hit, peaking at #6 on the country chart and even getting some crossover radio play. ‘The Quittin’ Kind’ is a solid enough mid-tempo love song with a slightly cluttered production. It was a poor choice as the follow-up single as it is perhaps the least interesting song here, and understandably it failed to crack the top 20. The efficiently poppy mid-tempo ‘It’s Always Somethin’’ (written by Aimee Mayo and Marv Green) isn’t much to my taste, but it appealed to country radio and gave Joe another top 5 hit.

Four of Joe’s own songs are included, three of them co-writes with Lonnie, including a couple of the highlights. One of these is ‘I’m The Only Thing I’ll Hold Against You’, written some years earlier by the pair with Kim Williams. It was originally recorded by Conway Twitty on his final album in 1993, but Joe’s version is even better. His voice really soars in the chorus as he swears unconditional love and forgiveness as he reconciles with his wife:

Sometimes things go wrong between a woman and a man
I know we’ll make it work
All we need’s a second chance
I’m the only thing I’ll hold against you

Let my lovin’ arms show you the truth
There’ll be no “I told you so”s
No matter how much heartache we go through
I love you (I’ll always love you)
I’m the only thing I’ll hold against you

Joe and Lonnie were joined by Zack Turner to express the opposing point of view in the anguished ‘Are We Even Yet’, another dramatic and beautifully sung ballad. This bitter-tinged look at a couple destroying themselves by keeping score of hurt is my overall favorite track:

My words hurt and cause you pain
Teardrops fall like pouring rain
You cry and cry
Love dies and dies some more
Revenge is sweet when you don’t talk
I’m afraid you’re gonna walk
What will it take to take back the things we’ve said?
Are we even yet?

Are we even yet?
Do we even know
If we’re holdin’ on or lettin’ go?
Nobody wins when we can’t forgive and forget
Are we even yet?

It is a shame this remained buried as an album track on one of Joe’s lower selling albums.

This trio also wrote the bittersweet midtempo ‘You Can’t Go Home’ as Joe returns to a former old marital home:

I came looking for a feeling but the feeling’s gone
You can go back but you can’t go home

Zack and Lonnie wrote the downbeat ‘Better Off Gone’ together, about a man struggling to come to terms with his decision to leave; it’s another fine song with an impassioned vocal as Joe admits he isn’t really happier sitting alone in the dark.

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Album Review: Patty Loveless – ‘On Your Way Home’

onyourwayhome2003’s On Your Way Home marked Patty Loveless’ return to mainstream country, following her critically acclaimed bluegrass album Mountain Soul. She and producer Emory Gordy, Jr. revisited the formula that had worked so well for them in the nineties, combining traditional country with the best contemporary songs they could find, drawing upon writers such as Paul Kennerley, Marty Stuart, Rodney Crowell, Ronnie Samoset, Matraca Berg and Jim Lauderdale.

Things got off to a strong start with the lead single, a cover of Rodney Crowell’s “Lovin’ All Night”. Her three previous singles had failed to chart, but radio initially seemed happy to have Patty back in the mainstream and added “Lovin’ All Night” to their playlists. Patty sounds more energized on this track than she had in a long time, and her version easily trumps Crowell’s own recording. Though it was her strongest showing on the charts in years, “Lovin’ All Night” stalled at #18, which seemed to indicate that Loveless was past her commercial peak.

The second single was the beautiful title track, written by Ronnie Samoset and Matraca Berg. Had it been released about a decade earlier, it would have been a huge hit. That it only climbed to #29 on the charts is nothing short of criminal. Similar in style to Loveless’ earlier hits “Here I Am” and “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am”, “On Your Way Home” manages to sound contemporary yet country, without being overproduced or drowning in pop overtones. Its failure to gain traction at country radio can be partially attributed to the format’s increasing tendency to embrace fluff and reject substantive songs. It might have gotten a warmer reception if it had been released by a younger artist, but it is hard to imagine any other vocalist who could have sung this song with the passion and emotion that Loveless does.

Epic released one more single from this set — “I Wanna Believe”, written by Al Anderson, Gary Nicholson, and Jessi Alexander. Peaking at #60, this was the last time Patty Loveless appeared on the Billboard country singles chart as a solo artist. I probably would have released the more radio-friendly Jim Lauderdale, Buddy Miller and Julie Miller composition “Looking For A Heartache Like You” instead of this one, though it likely would not have fared any better on the charts. “I Don’t Wanna Be That Strong” is the most contemporary song on the album and seems like another good candidate for a single release, but in all likelihood, Epic was unwilling to invest any more money promoting this album, given the lukewarm reception the previous singles had received.

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Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘Taste Of The Truth’

Taste Of The TruthGene Watson is one of my all-time favorite singers, and it is good to report that he is still sounding great at the age of 65. Listening to his new album, his second for independent label Shanachie, is like listening to a masterclass in singing country music, a subtle rendering of understated emotion. Gene is not a songwriter, so the ultimate artistic success of his records always depend on finding great outside material, and fortunately he has found some fine songs here from some of the best writers currently in Nashville, which are ideally suited to his voice. The overall theme is one of lost love and regret.

It opens with ‘Speakin’ Of The Angel’, a great traditional sounding mid-tempo number written by Shawn Camp and Jim Rushing, which is a joy to listen to even though the protagonist is heartbroken dwelling on his beloved ex planning to marry another:

“If I swear that I don’t love her, God knows it’s a lie,
Speakin’ of the angel is enough to make me cry.”

The title track comes from the pen of Rebecca Lynn Howard, and is a fine ballad with a beautifully realized metaphor, delicately delivered in Gene’s best style, as he addresses another ex, this time one he now regrets having left, finding the freedo he had hungered for has a “lonely flavor”:

“I’d eat my words to have you back
If I thought I could
‘Cause the truth don’t satisfy me
Like I thought it would

In fact it leaves me hollow
With a bad taste in my mouth
It’s hard for me to swallow
Tears won’t wash it down
Knowing you don’t want me back
It’s all that I can do
To keep from chokin’ on
The taste of the truth”

Another gorgeous sad ballad perfect for Gene’s voice is ‘Til A Better Memory Come Along’, previously recorded by both Mark Chesnutt and Shelby Lynne. I like both previous versions, but this is quite lovely as Gene can’t get over the woman who has left and tells her memory so with perhaps the best vocal performance on the album:

“How long will it take before I leave you
In the past where you belong?
One day I might forget
But right now I’m not that strong
So I’ll hold on
Til a better memory comes along”

Just as good is another sad song about failing to get over someone (and obviously not trying very hard), Tim Mensy and Keith Stegall’s ‘Three Minutes At A Time’, as the narrator forgets his troubles for a while by listening to country songs on the jukebox: “it’s heartache in rhyme, but it helps me hang on”, he testifies.

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