My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Tom Douglas

Review: new tracks from Craig Morgan – ‘The Journey – Living Hits’

the journeyCraig’s second release for Black River Entertainment was a reworking of some of his past hits so the new label could cash in, together with four completely new tracks.

Two of the new songs were released as singles, but as is commonplace in such cases they were considerably less successful than the previous singles had been. Top 20 hit ‘Wake Up Lovin’ You’, written by Josh Osborne, Matt Ramsey and Trevor Rosen, is about love outlasting the presence of its object, and while lyrically strong is rather boring melodically, notable only for its opening sounds of an alarm clock. A full blooded vocal does its best to give the song some life, struggling against somewhat cluttered, uninspired production. It was Craig’s last real radio hit to date.

‘We’ll Come Back Around’ a better song, did not crack the top 40. Written by Rosen again, with Brandy Clark and Jessie Jo Dillon, it is a mid paced tune about a couple who fight but always make up again. I could do without the na-na-na-nas, which always sound as if the writer ran out of inspiration, and the production is a bit muddy, but otherwise this is a solid song which was too adult for contemporary radio:

Put your fist through the wall
Say you’re through with it all
Baby I’m through too
Let’s throw a log on the fire of the heat of the moment
Put your key in the car
Jerk it right outta park
Flip a big F-you

You say you won’t come back
I say amen to that then I lock that door
But I know you got a key
And I’m gonna leave a light on

‘If Not Me’ is a beautifully written and sympathetically sung song about a young man taking the step of joining the military, which must have struck a chord with veteran Morgan, although the song is written (by Tom Douglas and Lee Thomas Miller) from the point of view of the boy’s parents. I’m surprised this wasn’t a single.

‘Party Girl, on the other hand, is a dreadful throwaway bro-country number complete with electronic distortion.

Grade for the new tracks: B-

Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Love Somebody’

Reba_LoveSomebodyIn the five years since All The Women I Am, Reba McEntire thought the changing tides of mainstream country music had swung too far in the opposite direction and thus she had recorded her final album. With playlists catering almost exclusively to men, she felt there wasn’t room for her anymore. That didn’t stop Scott Borchetta from begging, and after four years, he finally got her back in the studio.

Love Somebody is McEntire’s twenty-seventh album and first as the flagship artist of Nash Icon, Borchetta’s newest venture in which he signs legacy acts with hopes of returning them to prominence. The album, co-produced between McEntire, Tony Brown, and James Stroud, is an eclectic slice of modern country that proves the 60-year-old hall of famer can still keep up with the young guns. She hasn’t lost any of the distinctive color in her voice nor has she forsaken the themes that have kept her career afloat for more than forty years.

McEntire’s distinctive ear for songs brimming with attitude is evident in “Going Out Like That,” the lead single that’s beating the odds and becoming a sizeable hit. She continues in that vein on “Until They Don’t Love You,” a Shane McAnally co-write with Lori McKenna and Josh Osborne. Brash and theatrical, the track has prominent backing vocals and nods to her mid-90s anthems although it lacks their distinctiveness. The electric guitar soaked “This Living Ain’t Killed Me Yet” has an engaging lyric courtesy of Tommy Lee James and Laura Veltz and is far more structured melodically.

Pedal Steel leads the way on “She Got Drunk Last Night,” which finds a woman drunk-dialing an old flame. McEntire conveys Brandy Clark and McAnally’s lyric with ease, but I would’ve liked the song to go a bit deeper into the woman’s desperation. She finds herself haunted by the memory of an ex on “That’s When I Knew,” about the moment a woman realizes she’s finally moved on. Jim Collins and Ashley Gorley’s lyric is very good and finds McEntire coping splendidly with a powerful yet thick arrangement.

Throughout Love Somebody, McEntire grapples with intriguing thematic and sonic choices that display her ability to reach beyond her usual material. “I’ll Go On” finds her singing from the prospective of a woman who actually forgives the man who doesn’t love her. She tries and ultimately fails to adequately execute a Sam Hunt co-written hip-hop groove on the title track, one of two love songs. The other, “Promise Me Love,” is a much better song, although Brown’s busy production hinders any chance of the listener truly engaging with the lyric.

She also takes a stab at recreating the magic of “Does He Love You” through a duet with Jennifer Nettles. Written by Kelly Archer, Aaron Scherz, and Emily Shackelton, “Enough” boasts a strong lyric about two women who’ll never be sufficient for this one guy. The premise is stellar and McEntire and Nettles deliver vocally. I just wish the production were softer so we could get the full effect of their anger and despair.

While not particularly unusual, McEntire turns in another story song with “Love Land,” Tom Douglas and Rachael Thibodeau’s composition first recorded by Martina McBride on her 2007 album Waking Up Laughing. It’s never been one of my favorite songs, as I find it very heavy-handed, but McEntire handles it well.

The centerpiece of Love Somebody is Liz Hengber’s “Just Like Them Horses,” a delicate ballad about a recently departed loved one journeying to the other side. The recording is a masterpiece of emotion from Hengber’s perfect lyric to Brown’s elegant production. McEntire’s vocal, channeling the pain she felt when she first sang it at her father’s funeral last fall, is in hallowed company – it’s on par with her delivery of “If I’d Only Known” from twenty-four years ago.

The album closes with her charity single “Pray For Peace” the first self-written song McEntire has recorded since “Only In My Mind” thirty years ago. Like the majority of Love Somebody it shows her taking chances while also staying true to authentic self. While there are few truly knockout punches, this is a very good album. It might not be the strongest set she’s ever released, but it’s a solid reminder that she should stay in the game and take shorter gaps between projects.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Sundown Heaven Town’

Sundown_heaven_townTim McGraw got off to as bad a start as any could ever dream of when introducing his thirteenth album to the world this past winter. The first single, Mark Irwin, James T. Slater, and Chris Tompkins’ “Lookin’ For That Girl” was a smooth hip/hop meets R&B ballad with McGraw desperately pleading for relevance by pandering to trends in order to score airplay. Then came the album’s title, Sundown Heaven Town, which carries with it racial connotations so horrid, everyone in McGraw’s camp should’ve known better and avoided completely unnecessary controversy.

By the time “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s” dropped this spring, McGraw needed the course correction the single ultimately gave him. The elegantly sparse ballad, co-written by Tom Douglas, Jaren Johnson, and Jeffery Steele, is McGraw’s finest single in seven years thanks to an assist from Faith Hill and a charming tale about home. McGraw and Hill are deservedly vying for both Single and Musical Event of the Year at the upcoming CMA Awards.

Just this month Big Machine released the third single from the album, a Marv Green, Hillary Lindsey, and Troy Verges penned tune entitled “Shotgun Rider.” The track, while it sounds good with a shuffle beat, is middle of the road at best and hardly memorable. The problem is keen McGraw fans will remember a different tune with the same name appearing on his Let It Go album in 2007. That “Shotgun Rider,” a duet with Hill, was far more country and less wordy than this tune.

McGraw treated fans to another of the album’s tracks, Canadian country singer/songwriter Deric Ruttan’s “City Lights” when he performed on The Voice this spring. The track is excellent, and while louder, recalls the best of his 90s/00s work. Also classic McGraw is “Overrated,” a sonically progressive muscular ballad penned by Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, and Rivers Rutherford. The chorus is strong and memorable and he gives a nicely commanding performance reminiscent of “Unbroken” from 2001. Big Machine would be smart to release this as a single.

Newcomer Catherine Dunn, who also happens to be McGraw’s cousin, joins him on “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools,” a pure country album highlight that has a bit too much electric guitar, but adds a nice helping of steel about halfway through. While she’s regulated to singing harmony, Dunn adds a nice texture to the track that helps balance McGraw’s gruffness. It’s just weird to me he isn’t singing with Hill, who also would’ve been perfect here.

I also like “Words are Medicine,” a good pop-country number that I might’ve loved had someone like Jennifer Nettles sang it. As it is McGraw does well with it, but his vocal lacks a subtly a better song interpreter would’ve brought to it. “Last Turn Home” is just too loud and McGraw gives an annoying vocal performance on it, which is unfortunate.

“Portland, Maine” finds McGraw with a smoothed processed vocal that does little to give him any credibility. The lyric, by Abe Stoklasa and Donovan Woods, is idiotic, with the laughable hook of “Portland, Maine I don’t know where that is.” The track is ripe for parody and completely beneath McGraw’s talents. “Still On The Line” isn’t any better, with an arrangement that leans far too pop for my tastes.

Also terrible is “Dust,” an embarrassing slice of bro-country dreck unsurprisingly co-written by two-thirds of the Peach Pickers. McGraw co-wrote “Keep On Truckin’” with The Warren Brothers and Bill Daly. Like most of the dreck in mainstream country music, it’s another laundry list number that spends a lot of time saying next to nothing. Andrew Dorff’s “Sick of Me” isn’t awful, but McGraw’s vocal is grating and the song’s structure is annoying.

A deluxe edition of Sundown Heaven Town gives the listener an additional five tracks. McGraw gives a tender vocal on the piano ballad turned overproduced social conscious track “Kids Today,” he turns the volume up to eleven on “I’m Feeling You,” mixes organic country with too much rock on “The View” and ventures into Lady Antebellum territory with “Black Jacket.” I wanted to love the Kid Rock assisted “Lincoln Continentals and Cadillacs,” but the lyric was embarrassingly juvenile and the production far too progressive for my tastes.

As a whole, Sundown Heaven Town is a mixed bag, with McGraw getting a few things right, but still taking a lot of wrong turns along the way. I was a rabid fan of his from 1996-2007, but as the trends in mainstream country have changed, and he along with them, I’ve lost interest. He’s nicely evened out with Sundown Heaven Town, though, with the McGraw of “Truck Yeah” thankfully not showing up here. While he does need a new, far less rockified sound, this is his best album since Let It Go, which is saying a lot these days.

Grade: B-

Album Review – Lucy Hale – ‘Road Between’

Lucy-Hale-Road-Between-2014-1200x1200As predicted by Bob McDill twenty years ago, it’s not that uncommon anymore for artists to go country, especially those known for other career aspirations. It’s particularly true for television actresses, with Pretty Little Liars star Lucy Hale adding her name to the growing list that includes Jana Kramer and Julianne Hough.

Hale is no different than her contemporaries, having to fight to earn her country credentials just like Kramer and Hough before her. With ample fiddle and a cool yet catchy drumbeat, she sets off on the right foot with “You Sound Good To Me,” a sunny uptempo number written by Ashley Gorley, Luke Laird, and Hillary Lindsey. Hale brings a natural effervescence to the track that works well.

Hale brings a sinister vibe to “Goodbye Gone,” a dusty banjo-infused rocker written by J.T. Harding, Melissa Peirce and Andy Dodd. She may be caught up in the all-to-familiar tale of a woman ending things with her man, but Hale brings ferocity to the proceedings that help sell the track beautifully.

While the electric guitars may come on a little thick on “Lie A Little Better,” Hale’s confident vocal cuts through the noise just enough that isn’t as intrusive as it could be. “Kiss Me” is a lot softer and allows Hale the room to breathe and give a tender vocal that’s quite endearing. With neither of the songs overwhelm lyrically, Hale saves the day by injecting the right amounts of personality into her vocal performances. “Love Tonight” is another similar song in nature, but the handclaps in the melody are a bit addicting and make up for any weaknesses in the lyric.

“From the Backseat” is a nice mid-tempo number sonically reminiscent of Sara Evans’ Restless album written by Mike Daly, Jimmy Robbins, and Nicolle Clawson. The track had me until it went flavorless on the chorus, which employs the wall-of-sound production technique so much that it intrudes on the uniqueness of the song and Hale’s vocal.

The truest test for any singer on a debut album is the moments where the production is left sparse, where any vocal limitations will stand out like a sore thumb. Hale’s moment comes on Tom Douglas, James Slater, and Lindsey’s “Nervous Girls” and she passes with flying colors. The production may still lean country-pop, but she proves quite nicely that she can hold her own against any of her contemporaries.

Joe Nichols, back in traditional country mode vocally, joins Hale for “Red Dress,” a somewhat awkward moment that finds the two playing out the male and female aspects of a relationship. Kacey Musgraves co-wrote “That’s What I Call Crazy” and proves she’s adept at writing both artistic and commercially viable numbers. Hale’s only co-write comes in album closer “Just Another Song” and it’s one of the strongest numbers on the album thanks to a co-writing credit by Catt Gravitt, who helped write some of the best numbers on Kramer’s debut two years ago.

Listening to “Just Another Song” makes one wish Gravitt had contributed more here, as she thrives in this type of setting, writing songs for young female artists who may be looking for a voice. While there’s little revelatory about Road Between, it does showcase a budding talent that has the goods to extend her television career into one involving music. Hopefully she’ll be allowed to record a bit more substantive material going forward (really, how many numbers about kissing does one need on an eleven song album?) and further develop the strong potential she showcases on Road Between.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind – Miranda Lambert – ‘The House That Built Me’

Today we officially sold my childhood home, which my parents bought in the late 1970s. I’ve been on an emotional roller coaster, especially this past weekend, when we cleaned the last of our belongings out of the garage.

Last week a close friend came over to help us say goodbye to the house, and I shared this song with her to mark the occasion. When she arrived she said she had been fine (she’s also in the process of selling her childhood home) until she pressed play. I had a feeling she hadn’t heard Allen Shamblin and Tom Douglas’s  masterful lyrics or Miranda Lambert’s perfect delivery.

There isn’t a better piece of music to sum up exactly what I’ve been feeling as we’ve led up to this day. This is also my favorite performance of the song, the singular highlight of the 2010 ACM telecast.

Occasional Hope’s favorite singles of 2013

i let her talkCountry radio may have gone from bad to worse this year, but as ever there were a few bright spots – and some great singles away from the mainstream offerings. Here are my favorite singles of 2013:

10. Wagon Wheel – Darius Rucker
A vibrant, charming cover with rootsy production. What a pity the rest of the album was so deadly dull.

9. It Ain’t The Whiskey – Gary Allan
A bit loud, and perhaps rather similar to past songs, but a great vocal makes this worthwhile.

8. Songs About Trucks – Wade Bowen
An emotion I think we can all get behind – no more songs about trucks, please. But this isn’t just a complaint, this song also has a genuine emotional storyline which lets it stand on its own merits.

overnight success7. Overnight Success – Zane Williams
The independent artist explains how to become a country star, overnight (well, after nine or ten years hard work, of course). A fine song, by turns ironic, self-deprecating and good humoured.

6. Stripes – Brandy Clark
The witty song isn’t the best on the singer-songwriter’s excellent album 12 Stories, but it’s highly entertaining nonetheless. It’s a pity it hasn’t got more mainstream attention.

what are you listening to5. What Are You Listening To – Chris Stapleton
A very tastefully arranged recording, a well written song, and intensely emotional vocal. It wasn’t as successful as I had hoped it would be, and the singer-songwriter and former SteelDriver still awaits release of his solo album for Mercury, but it’s a fine and memorable record.

4. I Got A Car – George Strait
The story song about a couple’s journey from first meeting to starting a family, written by Keith Gattis and Tom Douglas, was an obvious single choice from George’s current album. It is packed full of charm, and shows the veteran (unexpectedly named the CMA Entertainer of the year) still has commercial potential.

3. Could It Be – Charlie Worsham
A debut single from a young artist with a fresh, youthful sound. Utterly charming. I wasn’t as taken by the album, but the single (which reached #13 on the country airplay chart) stands up as one of the more refreshing moments on country radio this year.

borrowed2. Borrowed – LeAnn Rimes
A cheating song from LeAnn’s somewhat controversial Spitfire album. Her mature vocals are beautiful, and the self-penned song draws with an unsparing honesty on LeAnn’s own experiences with her early relationship with her current husband, when both were married to others. The song’s complicated emotions didn’t help LeAnn’s increasingly chequered image, but it’s a fine and deeply truthful song – what country music is all about. The production is delicately sensitive and allows the vocals to shine.

1. I Let Her Talk – Erin Enderlin
A fantastic story song from the singer-songwriter, this beautifully realised tale narrates a bar room encounter between two women drowing their troubles. In an unexpected twist the meeting turns out to be between a man’s wife (the narrator) and his clueless “careless drunk” lover. Erin wrote the song with the great Leslie Satcher, and it is perfectly constructed. This was the promotional single for Erin’s independent album of the same name, and although it received limited mainstream attention it was absolutely the best single of the year for me.

Album Review: Billy Yates – ‘Only One George Jones’

only one george jonesSinger-songwriter Billy Yates kickstarted his career by writing ‘I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair’ for his hero George Jones, and Jones later cover of Yates’ ‘Choices’ provided the great man’s last solo top 30 hit. Understandably, then, the shadow of the late George Jones looms large over Billy’s latest album, from the titular tribute to the “king of country soul” (which is heartfelt but not particularly insightful), to a closing version of ‘Choices’ featuring a cameo from Jones. Incidentally, the album was recorded, and dedicated to George, before his death.

The playfully vivacious semi-novelty story song ‘The House That Jack Built’ (written with Jerry Salley) is the kind of thing Jones would have cut in the 60s. It’s highly entertaining and a genuinely feelgood number, with Salley and Rebecca Lynn Howard adding harmony vocals. Another Salley co-write, the midtempo love song ‘Till The Old Wears Off’ features a Jones-style growl on the low notes, although the song itself is less memorable.

Elsewhere, the album is packed with classic sounding sad country songs, loaded with steel guitar. In ‘I Learned A Lot’, a chastened Billy claims that neglecting and losing his first love taught him how to treat a future love interest. Billy laments that his loved one still loves ‘The Man I Used To Be’, before he started cheating on her.

The appropriately titled ‘Sad Songs’ (written with Jamie Teachenor) is one of my favorites. Billy recalls listening to great country songs about broken hearts (another chance to namecheck Jones, along with Lefty Frizzell), before he understood heartbreak from personal experience. Now, though, his lover has left and:

I understand how it kills a man
When his world just walked out the door
Those lonesome refrains just add to the pain
No, I don’t buy the sad songs no more

I’m still not entirely sure (even after multiple listens) whether ‘As I Kiss My World Goodbye’ is positively suicidal about a breakup, or about actually dying. The least traditional country song on the record ‘That’s Your Memory On My Mind’ is a soulful acoustic ballad set to a piano backing; it is well done although less to my taste stylistically than the rest of the album.

The gentle retrospective ‘It Wasn’t That Funny’ looks back at the ups and downs of a relationship, as he and his spouse can laugh now at past arguments and near-breakups.

Another fine song is the piano-led ‘The Father And The Son’, written with Tom Douglas. The gripping story song shows us a young mother (revealed in the last verse to be the narrator’s mother), daughter of a preacher, struggling with her mental demons and the loss of faith for the survival of her teenage marriage:

The devil on one shoulder says “go back to your youth”
While the angel on the other is whispering the truth

There are four good reasons not to run
The father and a son
And the Father and the Son

The gently philosophical ‘The Shoulder’ written with Casey Beathard recounts a tale of a young man who inevitably falls by the wayside after growing up in a narrow small-town atmosphere, but eventually finds salvation:

I guess it goes to show God blesses even those
On the shoulder of the straight and narrow road

When enough is enough and you turn yourself around
And you pick yourself up just to fall back down
Can’t stay on top
Won’t stay in the ditch
And the best you can do is pray you’ll hitch
A ride on someone’s prayers to where you want to go

The cheerful ‘I’m A One Man Band’ picks up the tempo and sings the praises of monogamy. The driving ‘Chill My Beer’, written with Byron Hill, offers an ironic dig at a cold-hearted woman; the lyric isn’t bad, but the melody is confined to about four notes, which make it one of the record’s less successful moments.

A generous 16-strong tracklisting allows for some filler, which appears in the shape of ‘A Country Boy Just Don’t Care’, which is an okay song about being true to oneself, and ‘She Ain’t Got Nobody’ is a cliche’d song about an attractive single woman in a bar.

This is Billy’s strongest set of material for some time. production values are excellent, and this is a solidly country record worthy of being inspired by Jones.

Grade: A

Album Review: George Strait – ‘Love Is Everything’

love is everythingNow 61, George Strait may be giving up touring next year, but he still seems to be keen on continuing his recording career. As with everything he has done in the past decade, he has co-produced his latest album with Tony Brown, and there are no indications he is running out of steam. The pair know just what works for Strait and his fans, and while there are no real surprises here, it’s an accomplished record which will be well received by the fans.

Lead single ‘Give It All We Got Tonight’ is a rather dull and generic song with irritatingly tinny echoes in the production, written by Mark Bright, Phil O’Donnell and Tim James. It sounds exactly like an attempt at getting some radio attention. Luckily it’s done the job, giving George his 60th chart-topper; better still, it’s the only dud.

The outstanding song is ‘Blue Melodies’, a sad slow song written by Keith Gattis and one Wyatt Earp (yes, really). Loaded with steel guitar and fiddle, this is classic country heartbreak as a songwriter struggles to find the right words to convey his feelings. His sweetheart loves the sad songs, but he admits this will end up “a sad song, that’s too sad to sing” if she isn’t persuaded to return. His years of experience stand him in good stead here, as the phrasing is impeccable. This is absolutely lovely.

Gattis also contributed another pair of songs to the album. The engaging story song ‘I Got A Car’, written with Tom Douglas, narrates a romance from roadside pickup to starting a family together, and is quite charming, although the production gets a little busy towards the end. It would probably work as a single. ‘Sittin’ On The Fence’, a co-write with Roger Creager, is another good song. It is about a man undecided whether to make the move to save a relationship (even though he knows he’d be a “damn fool to let her go”).

Also very good, ‘You Don’t Know What You’re Missing’, written by Chris Stapleton and Al Anderson, reports a bar room conversation comparing one man’s complaints about mundane problems in his family life, to his drinking companion’s real heartaches. ‘I Thought I Heard My Heart Sing’ (by Bill Kenner and L Russell Brown) is an enjoyably bouncy number about the euphoria of falling in love which has a delightfully retro feel.

In the warmhearted ‘When Love Comes Around Again’, penned by Monty Holmes, Donny Kees and Jeff Silvey, Strait offers an older man’s hard-won experience of recovering from a broken heart to find new love, to counsel a younger friend going through it all for the first time. This might be another good single. The title track (written by Casey Beathard and Pat McLaughlin) is a little bland lyrically, but the laidback vocal and generous emotion work well.

‘I Just Can’t Go On Dying Like This’ is a rare solo composition by Strait, and is an impressive sad country ballad. It is an older song which was one of the artist’s first, pre-fame, singles back in 1976, and was also recorded as a bonus on the Strait Out Of The Box box set. The latest version is significantly different from its predecessors, completely reinventing it by slowed down from a honky tonker into a mature ballad which is very fine indeed. He was joined by son Bubba to write ‘That’s What Breaking Hearts Do’, which is a decent song but the vocal feels a bit perfunctory. Father and son teamed up with old friend Dean Dillon for two further songs. ‘The Night Is Young’, a cheerfully delivered invitation to a wife for a long night out (and in), and is quite good, featuring horns.

The more serious ‘I Believe’ is a sensitive, strings-swathed, response to the tragic events at Newtown, Connecticut, last year, capturing the sadness felt across the world at such a horrific incident.

The album closes with the valedictory ‘When The Credits Roll’, written by Randy Montana, Steve Bogard and Kyle Jacobs. I don’t know how much longer Strait plans to continue recording, but this feels intended to evoke images of his life and career as the latter comes to an end. However, it doesn’t quite convince, because George has never really come across as the rebel presented in the lyrics, and the production is a bit cluttered.

This isn’t Strait’s best ever record – that would be quite an achievement – but it’s solid fare with plenty of good songs and one outstanding one. It’s the best mainstream record I’ve heard in a while.

Grade: A-

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

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

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

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

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

She could hardly argue

With his pure and simple logic

But logic never could convince a heart

She had always dreamed of loving someone more exotic

And he just didn’t seem to fit the part

So she searched for greener pastures

But never could forget

What he whispered when she left

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Album Review: Collin Raye – ‘Extremes’

extremesMainstay John Hobbs was joined by Ed Seay and Paul Worley to produce Collin’s third album, extremes. There was a concerted effort to expand Collin’s range with more rocking material, an artistic mistake in my opinion, but it was rewarded with commercial success, with five top 10 hits and platinum sales.

Collin screams out the first single, Lee Roy Parnell’s ‘That’s My Story’, a husband’s attempts to brazen out blatant lies to his wife. The amusing tale would have worked well for Parnell (and the arrangement and production are very much in his style, but it really doesn’t suit Collin’s voice, even though it was a #6 hit for him. The album’s only chart-topper, the fourth single, ‘My Kind of Girl’ is also a screamer, but a lyrically boring one.

Happily, the album also contains some beautiful ballads more in Collin’s style. Although it peaked just short of the top slot on the charts, ‘Little Rock’ may be the most important song ever recorded by Collin Raye, with its abashed, clear sighted depiction of a recovering alcoholic doing his best to cope with the loss of his wife as well as maintaining his sobriety. Written by Tom Douglas, perhaps it could do without the swelling strings, although the song’s strength is undiminished.

My favorite track is the melancholy lost love ‘Man Of My Word’, which peaked at #8. Written by Allen Shamblin and Gary Burr, it is a beautiful song in which the protagonist’s fidelity outlasts her loss (perhaps her death), gently paced and set to a lovely melody, with a subtle interpretation by Raye.

I’ll go to my grave with this torch held high
But just once I wish I’d told you a lie

When I said my love would last for all time
And no one would take your place
Well, if that promise was the last sound you heard
Well, you know I kept it
I’m a man of my word

The final single, #4 hit ‘If I Were You’ is a big ballad written by Hobbs with Chris Farren with a heavily strung arrangement. It’s quite prettily done, but not very memorable.

The best of the up-tempos is the fast story song ‘To The Border And Beyond’, which Collin wrote. Some wildly sawing fiddle backs up a frenetic vocal as Collin spits out the story of the outlaw Dugan. ‘Nothin’ A Little Love Won’t Cure’ is another rocker, and is an okay song written by the curious partnership of Rick Bowles, Don Cook and Larry Boone.

Written by Craig Wiseman and James Dean Hicks, the warm-hearted tale of a mother’s farewell gift of ‘A Bible And A Bus Ticket Home’ to a teenager leaving home with Nashville dreams, is tenderly sung and a definite highlight.

A cover of the classic ‘Dreaming My Dreams With You’ sounds very pretty, while ‘Angel Of No Mercy’ is another love song with a lovely melody, both ideally suited to Collin’s voice.

Despite some missteps Extremes is still a worthwhile purchase, especially as it can be obtained cheaply.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Martina McBride – ‘Waking Up Laughing’

waking up laughingIf Timeless was an encouraging reminder that Martina McBride was a real country singer underneath all the pop gloss, her next studio project was a disappointing regression in form.

Lead single ‘Anyway’ was much vaunted as Martina’s first venture into writing her own material, with the help of the Warren Brothers. Unfortunately, the would-be inspirational lyrics don’t get beyond the Hallmark level, and while no doubt heartfelt, overall it sounds like something written with more of an ear for big notes Martina could excel belting out than real depth of thought or emotion. She certainly sings the hell out of it, to the extent of oversinging at some points; this is not a song or performance with any notion of subtlety. The big contemporary piano-and-strings ballad was however what radio programmers expected and wanted from Martina, and it did much better than the singles from Timeless, giving Martina her first top 5 hit since 2003’s ‘In My Daughter’s Eyes’.

Another McBride co-write with the Warrens (plus pop-country writers Chris Lindsey and Aimee Mayo), the exceptionally forgettable, bland and overproduced ‘How I Feel’ peaked ten spots lower, at #15. It makes its predecessor sound a lot better in contrast.

Martina and the Warren Brothers also wrote (with Nick Trevissick) ‘Beautiful Again’ a frankly depressing tale of an abused girl turned single mother, set to an inappropriately perky and poppy tune. I didn’t like it at all, or find the protagonist’s cheery optimism in the face of all evidence to the contrary remotely credible. ‘Cry Cry (Til The Sun Shines)’ is well meaning but lyrically vapid. Other songs fitting the bland and boring template are ‘I’ll Still Be Me’ and ‘Everybody Does’.

The last single, the socially conscious ‘For These Times’, is a well sung and thoughtfully written Leslie Satcher song but the inevitable gospel backing vocals seem unimaginative. It crept into the top 40, but failed to get higher than #35.

Of the better songs, ‘If I Had Your Name’ (written by Hillary Lindsey, Gordie Sampson and Steve McEwan) isn’t at all bad pop-country, with a vicious little stab at her soon-to-be-ex. ‘Tryin’ To Find A Reason’ has a pretty tune and touching lyric about a relationship on the rocks. Martina’s interpretation is subtle, and Keith Urban guests effectively on harmony. ‘House Of A Thousand Dreams’ is a beautifully delivered mature reflection on a dilapidated home and marriage. ‘Love Land’ is a delicate story song, written by Tom Douglas and Rachel Thibodeau, about a teenage marriage which survives the tragedy of losing a baby. These four are worth hearing.

Overall, though, this album’s principal failing is not that it is bad (she has produced worse, particularly Emotion), but rather too often it’s just plain boring. Martina seems to have been trying to playing things far too safe placating her contemporary fans after Timeless, but the end result doesn’t really deliver on either count. It looks as if fans agreed with my assessment of Martina’s downward trajectory. Timeless was her last platinum release, with this album topping out at gold, while more recent efforts have sold even more poorly.

Grade: C

Album Review – Martina McBride – ‘Emotion’

220px-Martina_McBride_Emotion_album_coverFollowing the triple platinum success of Evolution, Martina McBride’s most consistent project to date singles-wise, didn’t prove an easy task. By the time “Whatever You Say” finished its chart run, the climate of mainstream country had changed. The traditional sounds of Patty Loveless and Vince Gill were gone, replaced by pop fare championed by Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, and Shania Twain. And to keep up with the times McBride followed suit, releasing her sixth album Emotion, easily her slickest to date, in September 1999.

The changes worked. Lead single “I Love You,” an uptempo rocker by Keith Follesé (who also co-wrote McGraw’s “Something Like That”), Adrienne Follesé, and Tammy Hyle, not only topped the country charts for five weeks, but became a top 20 pop and adult contemporary hit as well. The popularity of the song, one of my favorites of her uptempo numbers, was only helped by its inclusion on the Soundtrack to the Julia Roberts and Richard Gere film Runaway Bride.

Second single “Love’s The Only House” brought McBride back to the “issue” songs she’s made her trademark. A top 5 hit, the song (written by Tom Douglas and Buzz Cason) touches upon the common denominator of love in various situations. Drenched in harmonica and electric guitars, it’s good but weird enough to turn some people off. I’ve never really loved it, although I’ve let it grow on me over the years.

Third single “There You Are,” a piano-laced pop ballad, wasn’t much better in quality, taking zero chances both vocally and thematically. The track, a  #10 peaking hit, was featured on the Where The Heart Is Soundtrack in mid-2000. Much better is the now largely forgotten fourth single, “It’s My Time.” Composed by Tammy Hyler, Billy Crain, and Kim Tribble, the up-tempo number is a throwback to the Way That I Am and Wild Angles days. It’s catchy, has a well-constructed story, and deserved better than its #11 peak at country radio.

I can see where people strongly dislike this album. In one release McBride went from a strong intellectual songstress to a purveyor of two-bit candy coated pop. The majority of the album tracks simply have nothing substantial to say, and this effort feels like a calculated move to reach Hill’s adult contemporary heights. Tracks like “Do What You Do,” “Make Me Believe” and “Anything and Everything” are dreck, empty filler. Thankfully “I Ain’t Going Nowhere” is catchy so it rises above the pack, but her less than engaged vocal fails to draw the audience in.

Luckily for the audience McBride hadn’t completely lost her sensibilities, and broke up the pop monotony with some well-chosen covers. Matraca Berg co-wrote “Anything’s Better Than Feeling The Blues,” a very good ticked off revenge number. Gretchen Peters wrote the album’s highlight “This Uncivil War,” a stunning play-on-theme relationship song comparing a couple’s battle to that of an actual war. Also strong is Patty Griffin’s “Goodbye,” although the recording would’ve been a knockout had McBride recorded a country vocal on it, opposed to imitating the sweet and breathy high notes favored by female pop singers.

Emotion is a very mixed bag; an album that feels like it was designed for soccer mom types who prefer their music light, airy, and void of substance. It’s by no means McBride’s worst recording, that would still be coming down the line in the decade to come. A good majority of the tracks are very, very strong and she deservedly won the 1999 CMA Female Vocalist of the Year award based on the success of “I Love You.”

But I wish McBride had tried just a little harder to find stronger material that she could’ve sung with more energy. Even she sounds a little bored at times.

Grade: B 

Album Review: Marty Stuart – ‘Country Music’

Marty’s departure from MCA was not his final attempt at mainstream stardom.  He soon signed to Columbia, and in 2003 released his sole album for the label, the boldly titled Country Music.  Despite the title it was not as unabashedly traditional as Marty’s most recent work, combining some nods to tradition with more adventurous musical fare, and was his final record made for a mainstream audience.  It saw the debut of his new backing band, the Fabulous Superlatives.  Their musicianship is excellent, but the eclectic nature of the record feels it feel unfocussed.

The playful fantasies of the part-narrated ‘If There Ain’t There Oughta Be’, written by Bobby Pinson and Trey Bruce, were the first offering to radio, but just failed to crack the top 40.  It was a brave attempt at trying something a bit different, but the lack of tune and not particularly memorable lyrics fall flat.

The much more likeable ‘Too Much Month At the End Of The Money’ was a minor hit in 1989 for the shortlived  group Billy Hill (who comprised the successful songwriters Bob DiPiero, John Scott Sherrill and Dennis Robbins), but Marty’s version flopped even though it sounds like a return to his “hillbilly rock” big hits.

The last single, although a truly stellar song, did not chart at all.  This outstanding track, the thoughtful ‘Farmer’s Blues’ setting out the financial difficulties faced by farmers was written by Marty with wife Connie Smith.  Marty’s sensitive vocal is perfectly judged, and Merle Haggard’s duet vocal balances it beautifully as they swap verses and harmonise on the chorus.

Another highlight is Marty’s first recording of ‘Sundown In Nashville’ with its insider’s view of the dark side of the city, where “they sweep broken dreams off the street”, a great song he has chosen to revive on his excellent latest album.   The song dates from the 1960s, but its insight into the “dark side of fame” is timeless.

An introspective cover of the classic ‘Satisfied Mind’ verges on the depressing, and it took me a few listens to really appreciate, but the decision to interpret the song from the point of view of the unsatisfied seeker of peace is actually very effective.  ‘Walls Of A Prison’ is a Cash cover, with Marty trying out his best bass growl against a simple acoustic arrangement, and this is another fine track with effectively unhurried phrasing.

The part-narrated Tip Your Hat acknowledges the legends and great songs of the genre, but is musically closer to blues than country with minimal melody and shouty vocals on the chorus, although Earl Scruggs and Josh Graves on banjo and dobro lend it some musical interest.

‘Here I Am’ is a gloomily soulful ballad offering love, with Marty wrote with Rivers Rutherford.  On a broadly similar theme, ‘If You Wanted Me Around’, written with Paul Kennerley, is a better song, with the protagonist willing to offer anything if only she cared.  ‘Fool For Love’, written by Marty with Tom Douglas, has a jazzy feel with call and response backing vocals  not unreminiscent of some of the Mavericks’ ballads, but it’s the kind of thing that really needs a more intrinsically compelling vocalist to pull off successfully.

The rocking novelty ‘By George’ is rather weird lyrically.  A superior version of the energetic ‘Wishful Thinkin’’ was previously recorded by Joy Lynn White, who invested it with a wild abandon and intensity making Marty’s version sound pedestrian and emotionless in comparison.

This was an attempt to get back on terms with country radio after the commercial failure of The Pilgrim.  It was not a success, and Marty left Columbia to undertakes some even less commercial projects in the next few years –  the gospel Souls’ Chapel, another concept album, the Native American tribute Badlands: Ballads Of The Lakota, and a live bluegrass album recorded at the Ryman.  It is a bit of a mixed bag musically, but there are some tracks worth hearing, especially ‘Farmer’s Blues’.

Grade: B

Single Review – George Strait – ‘Drinkin’ Man’

I remember reading someone criticize George Strait’s foray into songwriting, saying that he’ll likely never be introspective or pen anything substantive. That was back in 2009, three years before he’d release one of the finest story songs of his career with “Drinkin’ Man,” a tune co-written with his son Bubba and Dean Dillon.

“Drinkin’ Man” succeeds on two distinct fronts – Strait’s storytelling abilities and the raw honesty conveyed within the story, cumulating in the stunning hook, “It’s a hell of a lot to ask of a drinkin’ man.” With so many modern country songs romanticizing the partying lifestyle, down to the endless tailgate parties, scantily clad women, and overflowing Red Solo Cups, its refreshing to hear a drinking song that tackles the ravaging effects of alcoholism in such an honest manner.

The song begins with the male protagonist at the age of 14, drunk by 10am despite a pack with God to never again bring the bottle to his lips. He’s already in trouble – keeping his addiction from his parents and ignoring the advice from his friends to straighten up – but the tall order of sobriety is just too much to bear:

I just laughed, said, you don’t understand

That’s a hell of a lot to ask a drinkin’ man

The addiction escalates in the next verse, finding him at 16, on his own, with the whole world figured out. The wild child, he’s causing concern for his parents and has even added marijuana to his drug cocktail. At the end of the verse Strait brilliantly puts everything back into perspective, as another brush with sobriety comes up short:

 Stayed sober once for nine days in a row

I quit cold turkey and damn near almost made it to ten

But that’s a hell of a lot to ask of a drinkin’ man

“Drinkin’ Man” brings to mind that other brilliant tale of alcoholism, Collin Raye’s 1994 #2 “Little Rock” (written by Tom Douglas) but goes a step further by making the pain of alcohol the focus opposed to spending so much time focusing on what the man has lost as a result. It’s the better song because of that slight switch, which comes to light in the chorus, the most stunning display of self-reflection you’ll likely hear all year on a mainstream single:

I look into the mirror, bottle in my hand

I’d like to pour it out, I just don’t think I can

‘Cause that’s a hell of a lot to ask of a drinkin’ man

After that emotional zenith, he falls in love and almost gets his life together but like any great country song, the temptation of the bottle is too much to ignore. We never find out what became of the man but that hardly matters as Strait has crafted one of his greatest achievements with this song, the depths of which knows no bounds. It’s so nice to see the last of the elder statesmen able to score huge radio singles, using their platform to deliver age appropriate and thought-provoking material worthy of their legacy. It’s going to be tough to push this up the charts in the summer months, but if anyone can get this single to masses its Strait.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Neal McCoy – ‘XII’

One way for a minor 90s star to get some attention for his independent comeback is to recruit two of today’s biggest names to assist with production. Neal McCoy called on Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert to produce his twelfth album, helped by the experienced Brent Rowan. Together they do a good and unexpectedly restrained job on the sound of the album, and although some of the material is pleasant but forgettable, there is a good humored mood which makes the record thoroughly engaging.

The relaxed lead single ‘A-OK’ is quite catchy with its whistled opening and would be radio friendly if cut by a current star. Blake and Miranda sing recognisable backing vocals, contributing to the feelgood mood. On similar lines is the slightly jerky and bluesy ‘Real Good Feel Good’.

Much better is the soul-laced ‘Judge A Man By The Woman’, which is very well done with excellent phrasing and emotional interpretation. It was previously done by Heartland, best known for their one and only hit ‘I Loved Her First’ a few years back, and has also been cut by actor John Corbett, but Neal’s version, dedicated to his wife of over 30 years, is the best.

The most entertaining track is the frivolous but amusing western swing ‘Mouth’, written by Jamey Johnson and Barry Tolliver. It is about putting one’s foot in it. There is more wry humor in ‘That’s Just How She Gets’, a plaintive complaint from a drinking man, previously cut by Australian Adam Harvey:

All that liquor made her different
And I knew I couldn’t win
She wasn’t the girl that I knew when I met her
She was makin’ a fool of herself and I let her
Kept cussin’ and a-screaming ’till I couldn’t even think
That’s just how she gets when I drink

The bright up-tempo ‘Shotgun Rider’ is one of the Peach Pickers’ standard efforts lyrically (but better than most of their work), but some nice production choices and Neal’s warm vocal make it an attractive listening experience. ‘Borderline Crazy’ is a Mexican styled tale of dreams of Mexican vacations, “countin’ Margaritas instead of sheep”. ‘Crazy Women’, written by George Teren and Rivers Rutherford, is mellow and frankly a bit unexciting for a song with that title.

Neal co-wrote a couple of the songs. ‘That’s You’ (written with Clint Daniels and Jeff Hyde, is quite a nice love song with a sincere vocal bringing it to life. ‘Lucky Enough’ is more generic and over- produced, and is a co-write with Hyde and Ryan Tyndell.

The melodic ‘Every Fire’ was written by John Scott Sherrill and Cathy Majeski, and although I don’t think it’s ever been a single, it has been recorded by a number of artists in the past, starting with Shenandoah on their 1994 effort In The Vicinity Of The Heart. It’s a pretty tune with a faintly melancholic undertow, which is well worthy of a revival, with Miranda Lambert’s harmony adding sweetness to Neal’s convincing lead.

Finally, Allen Shamblin and Tom Douglas wrote the introspective ‘Van Gogh’ a rare down tempo moment, offering reflective thoughts on the nature of artistry:

You pour your heart out on the page
You bare your soul up on stage
You’ve got the power to make us feel
You’ve got the power to help us heal

You’re not crazy when it hurts and makes you cry
You draw the beauty from your pain
Life is just too beautiful to put it in a frame
Maybe that’s the reason why
Van Gogh went insane

You offer up your best and it don’t sell
It cuts you to the bone and hurts like hell
Promise me you’ll still give your fragile heart
Cause you and I both know, baby
That it’s still a work of art

This is definitely not the kind of song I expected from Neal, and is the best song included.

Overall, this is a surprisingly attractive record with even the lesser material sounding good. The worst thing about it is the dreadfully unimaginative cover art, but if it was a budget issue I’d rather they spent the money on the music.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Live Like You Were Dying’

2004 saw the release of Tim’s eighth studio album, Live Like You Were Dying.  It proved to be something of a return to form after the disappointing Dancehall Doctors album, thanks to much better material, although Tim kept that production team of himself, band leader Darran Smith and Byron Gallimore, with the Dancehall Doctors again providing backing.  The album’s making was overshadowed by the death of Tim’s father Tug at the beginning of the year, and it can be no coincidence that much of the material here is about contemplating loss and death and the sum of one’s life.  Although Tim did not contribute to any of the songwriting, the overall feel is of a very personal selection of material.

The title track served as the lead single, and it was exceptionally successful, hitting #1 and selling a million copies.  Written by Tim Nichols and Craig Wiseman, it tells the story of a 40something man who is spurred by a potentially terminal diagnosis to experience various things on his “bucket list” before it is too late.  The underlying Hallmark card message about living life to the full was obviously inspiring to many listeners, and touchingly it’s about being a good friend and husband as well as just having fun and engaging in dangerous sports (not something most people would actually be able to do if suffering a fatal illness).  The nostalgic but even more cliche’d ‘Back When’ was, surprisingly, the album’s second straight chart topper, although it is the album’s least imaginative song, and one that makes Tim sound like an old man grumbling about changing times and new uses of words.  It’s also rather disconcerting to hear the far-from-traditional McGraw complaining about “pop in my country”.

The much better ‘Drugs Or Jesus’ then faltered just inside the top 15.  It’s an interesting song about being trapped in a small town, where religion and illegal highs offer the only escape:

In my hometown

You’re either lost or found

It was probably too bleak and challenging an approach to be embraced by country radio, too often inclined to the comfortably self congratulatory when examining rural or small-town life.  The protagonist in this case has been fleeing from God, but seems to accept Him at the end.

The sour post-divorce tale of ‘Do You Want Fries With That?’ took him back to the top 5.  It’s an entertaining if slightly cartoonish tale (written by Casey Beathard and Kerry Kurt Philips) of a man financially ruined by the breakup of his marriage and reduced to a second job serving fast food, who encounters and rails against the man who has taken his place in the family home:

Your ketchup’s in the bag
And her check is in the mail
I hope your chicken’s raw inside
And I hope your bun is stale
I’m supposed to tell you
“Please come back!”
But how ‘bout this instead?
I hope you both choke on a pickle
Man, that would tickle me to death

The final single, the reflective ‘My Old Friend’, about an old friend who has died, is quite good, but would have been more appealing given a stripped down production.  It peaked at #6.

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

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

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

Now some say it’s too country

Some say it’s too rock ‘n’ roll

But it’s just good music

If you can feel it in your soul

And it doesn’t really matter

It’s always been the same

Life goes on, Things Change

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

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

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

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

I don’t know why I act the way I do

Like I ain’t got a single thing to lose

Sometimes I’m my own worst enemy

I guess that’s just the cowboy in me

I got a life that most would love to have

But sometimes I still wake up fightin’ mad

At where this road I’m heading down might lead

I guess that’s just the cowboy in me

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

My Kind Of Country’s 2011 Grammy predictions

Sunday evening sees the premier all-genre music awards ceremony at the Staple Center in LA, and broadcast on CBS. These awards relate to music released in the eligibility period from September 1, 2009 to September 31, 2010. A lot of the country music awards will be awarded in the non-televised portion of the show, but news of the winners will be keenly awaited nonetheless. Last year saw Taylor Swift winning three country categories and the all-genre Album of the Year; she is not nominated this time. Who will dominate the country honorees this time around? And will Lady Antebellum who, like Taylor last year, are nominated in several all-genre categories, match or outdo her? One general point I’ve noticed is how many bluegrass based recordings have been nominated across the country categories this year, and I wonder if this will be reflected in the results.

Country Album

Dierks Bentley, Up On The Ridge
Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give
Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song : Razor X
Lady Antebellum, Need You Now : Occasional Hope

Miranda Lambert, Revolution : J.R. Journey

Razor X: This is an unusually strong list of contenders. Bentley is the outlier in this group since his album had the least commercial success. I’m a bit torn as to whether I’d like to see him or Jamey Johnson take home this trophy. But if I’m forced to choose, I like the Johnson album a little better so that’s my pick for who should win. Since the Grammys have a tendency to recognize artistic merit a little more than either the CMAs or ACMs, I think Johnson will probably emerge as the winner.

J.R.: In a category full of top-of-their-game albums, Johnson and Lambert go into the Grammy show this year as the decided critics’ favorites, which usually spells win with NARAS voters. Both had broken through with their preceding albums, and with all eyes upon them, the leading man and woman of traditional country music turned in sets that not only built on their previous work, they both turned a couple more switches on in the process. With The Guitar Song Johnson embraced his southern rock and storytelling side, while still exploring even more and darker themes than we heard on That Lonesome Song. Revolution finds Lambert channeling the serious and introverted songwriter inside herself more than anything she’s done before, but she still retains the amped-up simplicity and accessibility we’ve come to love her for.

OH: Jamey Johnson’s double album is both the best and the most ambitious of these albums, but this is a more than respectable lineup . Dierks’s genre-blending mix of bluegrass, country and rock, the Zac Brown Band’s organic rootsy rock-country, and Miranda’s strong vocals and songs (notwithstanding the overbearing production/mixing), this is a group of albums all (with one jarring exception ) displaying real artistic ambition. I’d be happy with any of those four winning, but I’m going to be pessimistic here, and assume the Academy will be dazzled by commercial and crossover success, and pick Lady A’s high-selling but extremely bland Need You Now, which has also been nominated for the main Album of the Year category. I don’t think they’ll follow in Taylor Swift’s footsteps there, just because she is the only country winner of that category ever, but I think they should walk away with this one.

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Occasional Hope’s Top 10 Singles of 2010

I’ve been moderately encouraged by the singles released this year compared with 2009, which seemed to offer a particularly disappointing crop. While there was plenty of dross around this year, there was some good music as well. Some of my picks of the year were even hits, with my personal #1 single hitting the top of the Billboard charts.

10. Stealing Angels – ‘He Better Be Dead’

This up-tempo rant about the guy who doesn’t call back after that promising romantic evening features the lead vocals of Loretta Lynn’s granddaughter Tayla. She’s not in the same league as the legend, but this is a fun, sassy single which introduced us to a talented trio. It didn’t make the Billboard top 40, but gained some airplay.

9. Tammy Cochran – ‘He Really Thinks He’s Got It’
This entertaining single from Tammy’s excellent independent 2009 album 30 Something And Single was released this year. Sadly (if unsurprisingly), with no label support it failed to chart, but it is a wry look at dating hell.

8. Joey + Rory – ‘That’s Important To Me’

A revival of a song from Joey Martin’s independent solo album has become the latest single for the husband and wife duo who emerged on 2008’s Can You Duet. It is being ignored by radio, but has a lovely clean production with Joey’s earnest vocals shining. She is one of my favorite female vocalists at the moment.

7. Martin Ramey – ‘Twisted’

This Curb duo’s only single to date seems to have sunk without a trace, but it made an impact on me if no one else. Brad Martin (formerly signed to Epic as a solo artist) and singer-songwriter John Ramey have pleasant but individually unremarkable voices, but their harmonies blend together very attractively, and are very reminiscent of 80s predecessors the O’Kanes. Their label affiliation means we may be waiting some time for more music, but I’ll be keen to hear more.

6. Jerrod Niemann – ‘What Do You Want’

The follow-up to Jerrod’s catchy pop cover and breakthrough hit ‘Lover, Lover’ was one of the highlights on Jerrod’s rather mixed album Judge Jerrod and the Hung Jury – really good contemporary country. The plaintive lead vocal, Rachel Bradshaw’s pretty harmony, and organ melody seep into your consciousness as Jerrod tries to find out what his ex is trying to do by keeping on making contact. The single is still rising in the charts.

5. Sammy Kershaw – ‘Better than I Used To Be’

The title track of 90s hitmaker Sammy’s latest independent album (and its lead single) is a deeply honest song about a man who has let people down in the past, but is man enough to admit to his failings, and to turn his life around. Sadly his return to the recording studio was not met with commercial success, but this lovely, mature song (written by Brian Simpson and Ashley Gorley) stands up well with his past classics.

4. Jamey Johnson – ‘Playing The Part’

This downbeat look at the real cost of chasing fame in Hollywood only just squeezed into the top 40 of the Billboard country singles chart, but it is one of the most memorable singles of the year. It’s not quite as good as ‘High Cost Of Living’, which was my personal #1 single of 2009, but a very fine song nonetheless.

3. Miranda Lambert – ‘The House That Built Me’

Miranda’s star has risen steadily over the past five years, but 2009’s Revolution took her to a new level. I was less impressed than some by that album (mainly due to issues with the sound mixing), but this acoustic guitar-led smash is one of the best things on it. The sensitive ballad about returning to a childhood home to reminisce and regain the emotional wholeness of childhood was one of the biggest hits of the year, and the CMA Song (and Video) of the Year. It was written by Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin.

2. Dierks Bentley – ‘Draw Me A Map’

Dierks Bentley made a rare brave artistic choice for a major label artist this year when he released an album incorporating bluegrass and other roots influences and asked radio to play the singles. The singles have been only modest successes, with this second single struggling to get out of the 30s, but they have at least received some exposure – and Dierks was nominated for three CMA awards on the strength of the album. It remains one of the most beautiful singles of the year, with Alison Krauss’s heavenly harmony and the haunting fiddle adding special touches.

1. Zac Brown Band – ‘Highway 20 Ride’

The Atlanta band with one foot in the Caribbean has become one of the most interesting acts in country music over the last couple of years, and they were rewarded this year with Grammy and CMA awards for Best New Artist, and an array of other nominations. They have become a staple at country radio, and have defied the latter’s fondness for things to stay the same by having each successive single represent a different side of their music – with five of the six singles to have completed their run to date hitting #1 on Billboard, and the other only just failing to do so. This is my favorite of their singles to date, and was their third #1 hit, reaching its peak in April this year. Written by lead singer Zac Brown with his frequent songwriting partner Wyatt Durette and inspired by the latter’s regular journeys taking a son to visit his mother, the downbeat ballad is my favorite single of the year. It embodies the essential truth common to all the greatest country songs; in this case portraying family breakdown and the impact of the son’s relationship with his father.

I reviewed it just after its release at the end of last year, and said then that if it was a hit it would go some way to restoring my faith in country radio. It was indeed a success, and overall this has been a better year for singles than 2009. So perhaps the tide is turning.

Our CMA predictions revisited

This was definitely our most successful attempt at predictions yet.

All three of us correctly predicted that the top Entertainer of the Year award would go to our current Spotlight Artist, Brad Paisley, who defied the influx of new names in this category for a long overdue triumph. He also premiered his new single on the show, as well as playing guitar for co-host Carrie Underwood, who went home with nothing for the first time.

However, we all wrongly thought Brad would also walk home with a fourth straight Male Vocalist win. Blake Shelton’s success was the biggest surprise of the night, crowning a great evening for the Shelton-Lambert household, and confirming them as country music’s current First Couple. It will be interesting to see if he gets a sales boost for his hits collection, Loaded. Blake’s fiancee Miranda Lambert didn’t win all the categories in which she was nominated, and missed out on Entertainer, but was still the big winner of the night, including her first Female Vocalist trophy – as we all expected would be the case. Razor X was the only one to predict that Revolution would beat out the opposition in the Album category.

We correctly predicted that Lady Antebellum’s commerical domination of the early part of this year would give them the Group title, and that Sugarland were unbeatable in the Duo category this year. Their eccentric performance of their latest hit may not have won them any new fans, though.

New Artist was an easy prediction for the Zac Brown Band (also nominated in the Entertainer category). Their live performance of current hit ‘When She’s Walking Away’ with Alan Jackson was a highlight of the show, and I’m predicting now that the record will probably get at least a nomination for Vocal Event of the Year next time around. That award went this year to Blake Shelton and Trace Adkins, for ‘Hillbilly Bone’ – another one we all got right.

Razor X and I correctly predicted that Lady A’s ‘Need You Now’ would be named Single of the Year, and Razor X and J.R. Journey both pegged Miranda’s hit ‘The House that Built Me’ to take Song honors for its writers, Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin. (I didn’t think it would win, but wanted it to.) None of us expected the song also to win the Video category. J.R. correctly predicted that Mac McAnally would win the Musician title.

Razor X was the most successful at predicting winners (9), with J.R. in second (8). I trailed in last with 7.