My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Tommy Lee James

Album Review: Ronnie Dunn – ‘Tattooed Heart’

61haqvae9cl-_ss500The Nash Icon movement, as I understood it, was meant to provide a platform for veteran artists where they wouldn’t have to compete with the younger generation for radio airplay. Why then, has nearly every Nash Icon artist released an album that still seems to be an attempt to rack up radio hits? Ronnie Dunn’s latest effort follows down the same trail that Hank Williams Jr, Martina McBride and Reba McEntire blazed ahead of him.

Tattooed Heart is Dunn’s inaugural release for the label. He co-produced the set with Jay DeMarcus. It consists of twelve songs written by some of Nashville’s finest, ranging from Liz Hengber, Steve Bogard and Bob DiPiero to Jim Beavers, Jon Randall and Tommy Lee James. Dunn had a hand in writing two of the songs, including the album’s best track “She Don’t Honky Tonk No More”, co-written with Nikki Hernandez and Andrew Rollins.

Dunn is joined by a couple of old friends on a pair of songs. His current single “Damn Drunk” features his former partner Kix Brooks, whose presence would go unnoticed if he weren’t credited on the label. Reba McEntire makes a more audible contribution on “Still Feels Like Mexico”, which I’m guessing will be the next single. The song itself isn’t particularly interesting, however. The album’s first single was “Ain’t No Trucks In Texas”, which peaked at #42 on the airplay chart last year.

The quality of the material itself is not in question and Ronnie Dunn’s voice remains one of the best in country music. What makes Tattooed Heart such a mixed bag is the production which is too heavy-handed on almost every track. “Ain’t No Trucks In Texas” is too loud, the strings are too intrusive on the otherwise very good “I Worship The Woman You Walked On” and ditto for the background vocalists on the 1950s-sounding title track. The self-penned “I Wanna Love Like That Again” is more restrained, although the song itself isn’t very country-sounding. The aforementioned “She Don’t Honky Tonk No More”, the album’s sole traditional song, is flawlessly executed. I wish the rest of the album were more in that vein; it’s more in line with what the target audience — those of us who have been Brooks & Dunn fans for nearly 25 years — really want to hear.

Grade: B-

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Album Review: Lonestar – ‘Mountains’

51thjpiwx8l-_ss500By 2006, the cracks in Lonestar’s commercial armor were beginning to appear. They were scoring Top 10 hits less consistently, their contract with BNA Records was nearing an end, and lead singer Richie McDonald was getting ready to leave the band and embark on a solo career. As a result, 2006’s Mountains feels as though it were phoned in by everyone involved, and there doesn’t seem to have been much effort expended to promote the album.

Mountains did find the band teaming up with a new producer, Mark Bright, and the album’s title track, which became the lead single, was an actually an improvement over Lonestar’s previous few efforts. The mandolin-led number, written by Richie McDonald, Larry Boone and Paul Nelson has a positive thinking theme, a trend during country’s “soccer mom” era, which was much bemoaned at the time, but in retrospect it seems rather benign compared to the trends that succeeded it. The song is catchy, but the lyrics are a bit trite – a problem that plagues many of the album’s tracks. It peaked at #10.

The piano led “Nothing to Prove” was the next single, and it was aimed squarely at the soccer moms, name dropping Van Morrison and detailing the drudgeries of the modern working woman. It was the worst performing single of Lonestar’s career, peaking at #51. BNA seemed to have little interest in promoting the album further, and as a result no further singles were issued.

Artistically, Mountains was a progression down the path the band embarked on with Lonely Grill, towards more pop and AC-leaning material with a little steel guitar thrown into the mix occasionally as an appeasement to country radio and fans. The formula was getting old by this point and the material was generally weak.

There are a couple of bright spots. “Hey God”, written by McDonald and Tommy Lee James, appealed to the contemporary Christian crowd. Though one of the album’s better tracks, it’s not terribly original, and the bombastic production gets in the way. Like most of the slower songs on the album, this one is turned into a power ballad, and it would have been more effective with a quieter and more stripped-down approach. To a lesser extent they fall into this trap again on the closing track “Always in the Band”, written by McDonald, Ron Harbin and Jerry Vandiver. It seems to be a semi-autobiographical number, perhaps inspired by McDonald’s impending departure from the band. It looks back at a number of significant life events, which always had to take a back seat to the narrator’s obligations to his band mates and fans. The production is restrained and tasteful until the last minute or so, when the swelling strings and power vocals start to become more prominent. Nevertheless, it’s a very good song and an appropriate capstone to the band’s first Richie McDonald era.

Nothing else is of much interest or worthy of commentary, so as a whole this album falls short of expectations.

Grade: C

Single Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Just Like Them Horses’

MTE1ODA0OTcxODM2MTQ3MjEzThere is no question that Reba McEntire is one of country music’s all-time greatest talents, but for at least the last decade and a half, she’s made musical choices that have ranged from questionable to downright terrible. Her latest album album Love Somebody falls into the latter category, although it does contain two decent tracks, one of which has just been released as her latest single.

“Just Like Them Horses” finds Reba revisiting her musical roots — sort of. No, it’s not a return to the traditional honky-tonk and Western swing that earned her the respect of critics, peers and fans back in the 80s, but it is in the vein of the pop-tinged ballads that worked so well for her in the early 90s, before she set her sights on mainstream pop superstardom. It was written by Liz Hengber and Tommy Lee James, the pair that wrote her 1995 hit “And Still”. Separately the pair wrote or co-wrote many more McEntire hits, including “It Don’t Matter”, “If You See Him, If You See Her”, “For My Broken Heart”, “It’s Your Call” and “Forever Love”. The piano-led ballad was produced by Reba and Tony Brown, and tells the poignant story of someone saying goodbye to a dying loved one — perhaps a husband or father. Twenty years ago some might have complained that it was too pop, but in the current radio environment it is a shining example of what country music (and Reba McEntire) needs to get back to — audible fiddle and steel, and substantive lyrics that are beautifully sung.

Radio has been cool towards Reba lately, perhaps due to ageism or a lack of interest in female artists in general. Or perhaps because what she’s sent to them lately hasn’t been anything to get excited about. If radio gives this record a fair chance, I believe it will do well because I feel there is still an audience for this type of song. And if it does succeed, perhaps Reba will help turn the tide at country radio, similar to the way she did 30 years ago.

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C+

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: Pam Tillis – ‘Every Time’

every timePam’s last 1990s release (in 1998) was co-produced by the arist with Billy Joe Walker Jr. It was her first Arista album not to be certified gold, marking a commercial downturn for her. It may also mark a period of personal turmoil following her divorce from songwriter Bob DiPiero, it is also noticeable that she did not contribute to the songwriting on this album. Her vocals are (as usual) excellent throughout.

There were only two modestly performing singles. ‘I Said A Prayer’, an upbeat Leslie Satcher song given rather poppy production which was Pam’s last top 20 hit, peaked at #12. I personally prefer the prettily melodic title track (penned by Tommy Lee James and Jennifer Kimball), but this one only just squeezed into the top 40.

Leslie Satcher got two more cuts on this album. ‘You Put The Lonely On Me’ is another up-tempo number with an assertive approach and some nice honky tonk piano, which isn’t bad. The best of Satcher’s songs (and one of the two best tracks on the album) is ‘Whiskey On The Wound’, a sad story song about a man whose tangled love life leads him into the deep waters of alcoholism.

The other standout is the magnificent pain-filled steel-led ballad ‘Hurt Myself’, written by Savannah Snow. The protagonist compares her relationship with a toxic ex with other forms of self-destructiveness. ‘A Great Disguise’ is another very good song about hiding the pain of a breakup, which had previously been recorded by Martina McBride. Pam’s interpretation is more subtle than Martina’s powerful belting, but both versions are good.

‘A Whisper And A Scream’, written by Verlon Thompson and Austin Cunningham, is a fine song about striking the right balance in life, which is much better than the title sounds. The insistent mid-tempo ‘Lay The Heartache Down’ written by Jamie O’Hara is also pretty good, with harmonica fills.

‘We Must Be Thinking Alike’ is quite pleasant but ultimately forgettable, while ‘Not Me’ is boring pop filler. ‘After Hours’ is also rather dull.

There are a couple of great tracks and several good ones, but this album as a whole fails to reach the heights of Pam’s best work, and it’s not entirely surprising that it failed to make much of a mark. It’s certainly worth cherrypicking the best tracks on iTunes, but used copies of the CD can be obtained very cheaply.

Grade: B

Single Review: Ronnie Dunn – ‘Bleed Red’

In his first solo outing since Brooks & Dunn disbanded, Ronnie Dunn has gone the play-it-safe route with a radio-friendly, if somewhat bland, power ballad. This is probably a wise choice from a marketing standpoint, given the historical difficulty that has plagued artists who sought solo careers after long associations with with successful bands. Dunn’s age is also working against him, since at 57, he is well past the point where artists are typically put out to pasture by country radio. It was crucial for “Bleed Red” to strike a chord with radio programmers, and in that respect Dunn and his team have apparently succeeded, since “Bleed Red” debuted at #30 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.

From an artistic standpoint, “Bleed Red” is more of a mixed bag. The Tommy Lee James and Andrew Dorff-penned composition is more AC-leaning than most of Dunn’s work with Brooks & Dunn. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Martina McBride’s “Anyway”, with its positive theme and dramatic string arrangements. Hopefully, “Bleed Red” does not mark the beginning of a long artistic decline for Dunn, as “Anyway” did for McBride. No fault can be found with Dunn’s vocal performance; he is still one of the best male vocalists in mainstream country. And while the song’s message is worthwhile — and well-timed given the current rancorous political climate — the lyrics are generic. They seek to inspire, but never quite live up to the drama of the production, which gradually builds in intensity as the record reaches its climax. In short, the entire effort is utterly forgettable and will likely fade from people’s memories as soon as it has fallen off the charts.

A stellar vocal performance combined with positive lyrics and generic, middle-of-the road production are probably enough in the current radio environment to propel “Bleed Red” to the upper realms of the charts, but I’m hoping that when Dunn’s forthcoming solo album is eventually released, it will contain some material with a little more edge and substance than this.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love’

Following 2001’s Inside Out, Trisha Yearwood took a four-year break from recording, before reuniting with longtime producer Garth Fundis for 2005’s somewhat lackluster Jasper County. Two singles were released from that collection; both failed to crack the Top 10, though the album did sell enough copies to earn gold certification. Shortly thereafter Yearwood signed with the newly-formed Big Machine Records, ending a sixteen-year stint with MCA Nashville. When an artist leaves the label where he or she scored his or her greatest achievements, it can mark the beginning of a period of renewed vigor or the beginning of declining commercial fortunes. In Trisha’s case, both are true; 2007’s Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love is the finest album of her career, but unfortunately, it is also her least commercially successful.

The album opens with the title track and lead single, an uptempo rockabilly number with a dash of blues and gospel, reminiscent of the type of song The Judds had become known for two decades earlier. It seemed like the perfect vehicle to reestablish Yearwood at country radio, and with the heavy promotion expected for a debut single on a new label, it seemed assured to become a smash hit, but surprisingly it stalled at #19.
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Album Review: – Gary Allan ‘Tough All Over’

Written by Jordan Stacey.  – J.R.

Album number six for Gary Allan should’ve been a much happier proceeding than what it turned out to be. He was coming off of two platinum albums, and three number one hits. For most artists this would be a cause for celebration. While recording his sixth studio album Gary was dealt a really bad hand in life. His wife of 3 years took her life. Reports said he had no idea what led her to make that decision and throughout this album Gary is still questioning what happened.

The album opens up with the title track, a rocking little number called ‘Tough All Over’. Written by Odie Blackmon and Jim Lauderdale, this is the happiest we’ll see Gary for the remainder of the album. It’s one of the weaker tracks, but serves its purpose of getting you ready for a really heavy and hard to listen to album.

For the lead single and second track Gary chose to cover frat-rock band Vertical Horizon’s ‘Best I Ever Had’. It’s a testament to his vocal talent that he’s able to turn such a song into a heartbreaking ballad. The lyrics to this one always struck me as a perfect fit for his situation. There’s been a lot of rock songs covered by country singers but this is one of the few that actually merits some listening. The song continued his streak of hits making it into the top 10 peaking at #7.

As we move deeper into the album the pain Gary was in while recording starts to become clearer. ‘I Just Got Back From Hell’, written by Gary with Harley Allen, has a stripped down feel without actually being stripped down. This is the song that most obviously deals with his wife’s death. With lines like “Well, I’ve been mad at everyone, including God and You / When You Can’t Find no one to blame you just blame yourself” and Forgive me if I had any part / if I ever broke your heart in two / forgive me for what I didn’t know / for what I didn’t say or do” we find Gary still doesn’t know what he did wrong.  A missed opportunity for a great single here, but it was probably too personal to Gary to be released.

The next two tracks speak of the end of marriages. The first, ‘Ring’, sounds bleaker than if it had been recorded by any other artist. It’s not meant to be a happy song really, but due to the circumstances it was recorded in, it sounds almost haunted. The way Gary sings the lyrics it almost sounds like he’s going crazy.  The second song, ‘Promise Broken’, is referencing marriage vows and other broken promises. It’s a good song but on this album it gets caught between two of the stand out tracks and seems to get lost.

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Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘What If It’s You’

whatifitsyouAfter experiencing a dip in sales with 1995’s Starting Over, Reba McEntire again changed musical directions, abandoning the glossy production of that covers album, in favor of a more stripped-down, organic sound.  She also teamed up with a new co-producer, John Guess,  and used her road band instead of studio musicians for the first time.   These changes paid off on both an artistic and commercial level.   Reba sounds more relaxed and relies less on vocal acrobatics than she did on her several preceding albums, and whereas radio had been lukewarm to the single releases from Starting Over, What If It’s You produced four hit singles, two of which reached #2 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks Chart, one that reached #15,  and one that made it all the way to #1.   Her sales also picked up; What If It’s You was certified double-platinum by the RIAA for sales in excess of 2 million units.

The opening track, “How Was I To Know”, while not my favorite from the album, was the biggest  hit from this collection, reaching #1 in Billboard in March 1997.   It begins with some electric guitar licks that set the tone for the entire album, serving notice that this collection would not be marred by the pop excesses of her two previous albums.   It is followed by “The Fear of Being Alone”, the album’s lead single which was composed by Walt Aldridge and Bruce Miller.  This is a catchy tune which seems specifically designed to get Reba back in the good graces of country radio.   And it did just that — barely missing the top spot in Billboard when it peaked at #2 in December 1996.  The next single, “I’d Rather Ride Around With You”, also peaked at #2.   A light-hearted song about a bridesmaid who goes AWOL from her cousin’s wedding to go riding around town with a male friend.   The song was linked to the rather lackluster title track when the same set of actors was used for the music videos of both songs, creating a story arc.   Whereas in the first video, McEntire delcares, “I’d rather ride around with you”, in the second one she laments that she may have failed to recognize her soulmate and allowed him to slip through her fingers.  “What If It’s You” was the only single from the album that failed to make the Top 10,  stalling at #15.

My favorite track from the album is the excellent “It Don’t Matter”. Written by Tommy Lee James, it examines a theme familiar to country music — the insignificance of material possessions in marriage in which passion has been lost.  In some ways, it is an updated version of the George Jones and Tammy Wynette classic “Two Story House”:

We’ve got a nice little house on a quiet little street, but it don’t matter.
A two-car garage with new a Cherokee, but it don’t matter.
‘Cause we don’t ever seem to talk anymore,
And you don’t hold me like you did before,
We’ve got everything we wanted and more,
And now I know, and now I see,
That nothing matters if you don’t love me.

Another highlight of the album is the Jerry Salley and Melba Montgomery-penned “Close To Crazy”, in which the singer questions her sanity while trying to get over a lost love.   Reba provides an excellent understated vocal performance, and she and co-producer Guess wisely avoid a bombastic arrangement, on a track that would have tempted many other artists and producers to oversing and overproduce.

Sandwiched in between these two gems is “State of Grace”, the one true clunker on the album.  It tells the story of a Walmart employee who one day gets fed up with the monotony of her existence and hits the road in search of a better life.   It reminds me somewhat of one of my least favorite McEntire singles, “My Sister”, which would appear on the Room to Breathe album several years later.  Though on the surface the songs are quite different, both are examples of the Female Empowerment Anthem, which would become a dominant theme at country radio in the early 21st century.

The remaining tracks never rise above the status of filler, though they are all pleasant to listen to and none of them reaches the low point of “State of Grace”.

What If It’s You has occasionally been criticized as an album that pandered to country radio in order to get more airplay.   While there is some truth to the charge,  one has to bear in mind that back in 1996 the quality of music played on country radio was generally much higher than is the case today.  After two consecutive albums (Read My Mind and Starting Over) that moved progressively closer to mainstream pop, Reba needed to re-establish herself as a country artist rather than a pop diva.  In that sense, What If It’s You succeeds in spades.  Although the sound was contemporary, it was her most country album of the decade.  Unfortunately, the change in musical direction was short-lived, as Reba’s follow-up album found her drifting back towards slick production and power ballads.

What If It’s You can be purchased at iTunes (digital) or Amazon (CD or digital).

Grade: B+