My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Tony Arata

Album Review: Ronna Reeves – ‘Only The Heart’

Big Spring, Texas native Ronna Reeves released her debut album on PolyGram/Mercury Records in 1991. Only The Heart was a commercial dud, with the album and all four of its singles failing to chart.

Reeves’ debut single, the excellent steel laced chugger “Sadly Mistaken” was co-written by Byron Gallimore. The would-be power ballad “The Letter,” which followed, wasn’t very good or well-written.

The third single, “That’s More About Love (Than I Wanted To Know)” came with pedigree — Dickey Lee and Bob McDill co-wrote the mid-tempo ballad, which was originally released as a low-charting single by Nicolette Larson in 1986. Reeves’ version is good but hasn’t aged well through the years.

“Ain’t No Future In The Past,” a nice up-tempo rocker, ending the label’s promotional run with this album. The title track, a wonderful ballad, was written solely by Karen Staley.

In addition to the Lee/McDill co-write, Only The Heart had one more notable moment. Reeves covered country legend Ernie Ashworth’s classic “Talk Back Trembling Lips.” Her version is spellbindingly good and easily one of the best songs on the albums.

“I Could Be Loving You” is a well-executed and engaging uptempo rocker. “Sayin’ You’re Wrong Don’t Make It Right” is a wonderful example of 1990s country at its best. “If I Were You” features an almost identical story to Terri Clark’s classic of the same name, which would appear four years later. Clark’s take on the theme is better and far more polished. “Same Old Story” is an excellent Tony Arata ballad.

Only The Heart is a mixed bag with some truly great songs, some that are just okay, and not enough to make me excited to see where Reeves will head as an artist. I can see why it failed. The album just isn’t distinctive enough to stand out from the pack. She’s a great singer in search of better material.

Grade B+

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Album Review: Don Williams – ‘I Turn The Page’

After leaving RCA, Don released a pair of albums on independent label American Harvest Records. He then moved to Giant, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers, and released this album for them in 1998. It was produced by label president Doug Johnson, a longterm fan who had taken the decision to sign the artist after being enthralled by his performance at the Nashville Songwriters Association International Banquet. While the sad reality was that Don was too old at 59 for country radio to be prepared to pay any attention, the album was well received by critics.

There was one, non-charting single, the sweet, upbeat story song ‘Cracker Jack Diamond’, written by Ronny Scaife and Neil Thrasher abut a true love which develops from a meeting at the age of 14. Recorded by, say George Strait, this would have been a surefire hit. At the other end of life, ‘Harry And Joe’ is a sympathetic portrait of two old men who are both widowed just after moving to Florida to retire, and become best friends.

David Hanner’s ‘Pancho’ is about impending mortality, but with characters inspired by the 1950s children’s TV western ‘The Cisco Kid’. Hanner and his partner in the Corbin/Hanner Band, Bob Corbin, wrote ‘How Did You Do It’, addressed to an ex who is coping better with the breakup than the protagonist.

Don revived Tony Arata’s ‘A Handful Of Dust’, which will be familiar to Patty Loveless fans. Don’s version is much lower key and less forceful, with a nice folky feel. The two versions are different enough that they don’t really compete with one another, but it certainly suits Don.

He co-wrote one song with Gary Burr and Doug Johnson, ‘I Sing For Joy’, a touching tribute to Joy, his wife of almost 40 years. A very pretty melody and tasteful string arrangement provide the right setting for the autobiographical lyrics and sincere vocals. The song provides the album title.

On a similar theme, Johnson’s song ‘Her Perfect Memory’ is a sweet and lightly amusing tribute to a wife of many years:

I remember how we struggled
When we first started out
She recalls we had it all
Not what we did without
I think back on those hard times
She remembers only love
Who am I to say that’s not
Exactly how it was?

That’s how she remembers it
She was the lucky one
Just take a look at both of us
And you tell me who won
If she thinks I hung the stars
If that’s what she believes
Then who am I to tamper with
Her perfect memory….

If I made all her dreams come true
As far as she can see
Who am I to tamper with
Her perfect memory?

He also wrote ‘Ride On’, an interesting song about childhood innocence challenged by parental failures:

Some people just lose control,
Some people hit overload
Some people act like some people
They never thought they’d be
So why can’t we all see
The only antidote
The only way to cope
The only true hope is love

Gary Burr and Don Schlitz wrote ‘From Now On’, a thoughtful ballad about baggage and finding love late in life. ‘Take It Easy On Yourself’, written by Bill La Bounty and Steve O’Brien, is my favorite track. A laid back tune combining a love song with advice about not making life too stressful, with a soothing melody and tasteful strings, it is rather lovely.

A cover of Scottish folk-pop-rock duo Gallagher & Lyle’s ‘Elise Elise’ Is okay in its way but not really classic Don Williams. Kevin Welch’s ‘Something ‘Bout You’ is more successful, catchy and charming.

This is definitely a mature album, and a very good one.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘Fresh Horses’

220px-FreshhorsesGarth Brooks’ sixth album Fresh Horses came in November of 1995, just as he was on the cusp of a three-year tour that would earn him multiple CMA Entertainer of the Year honors. The main criticism of Brooks at the time where rumors he was going pop after the massive success he’d had in the previous few years. That turned out false, as Brooks instead issued an album featuring more of his songwriting than anything up to this point and thus more of him and the topics he most enjoyed singing about. Seven Million copies have been sold to date.

The first single was an effortless love song entitled “She’s Every Woman.” His 14th number one, he co-wrote the tune with Victoria Shaw, who he teamed up with for “The River” three years earlier. “She’s Every Woman” is one of Brooks’ most delicate love songs, with a lush production, and tender vocal. It’s one of my favorite things he’s ever done.

The album’s second single is a prime example of how Brooks’ ego can get the best of him, leading to lapses in judgment. “The Fever” is a cover of the Aerosmith song and horrible country-rock. It worked in concert, with Brooks shaking open water bottles into the crowd, but didn’t translate to a studio recording. Country Radio gave it a deserved lukewarm reception resulting in a #23 chart peak.

Brooks rebounded with the third single, his 15th number one “The Beaches Of Cheyenne” a tune about a woman going crazy after too many years putting up with her rodeo cowboy husband. She would tear apart their home and eventually drown off the California coast, all while he ‘rode a bull no man should ride.’ It’s an excellent tune about tolerance, and with ample steel guitar, one of his more country leaning efforts.

The fourth single was another ‘statement’ song from Brooks, a ballad given a hard-to-watch video with heartbreaking footage of the Oklahoma City Bombings. C-written by Tony Arata and Wayne Tester and peaking at #19, “The Change” is another of his powerful singles, although I can see where some may find it heavy handed. On 9/11, when I got home from eighth grade, this was the first song I ran to my room to play. Brooks’ powerful vocal sells me on the track every time.

Easily one of Brooks’ most idiotic singles was released next. “It’s Midnight Cinderella,” co-written by Brooks with Kim Williams and Kent Blazy, is direct pandering to the line-dance craze that had reached its peak by 1996. I do love the honky-tonk production, but the lyrics are trepid at best. Country Radio, though, loved it as the song peaked at #5.

I love vivid story songs so the final single is right up my alley. The track is a co-write between Brooks and Leigh Reynolds, and reached a peak of #4. “That ‘Ol Wind” details the story of a young mother who reunites with an old musician fling when he’s ‘back in town for one last show.’ Not much is said between the pair, least of which the money he hid or the fact her song is actually his. The track is excellently crafted and a testament to Brooks’ power at country radio that it would even peak inside the top 10, when most songs of its ilk have a very difficult time of gaining serious traction.

The singles from Fresh Horses are wildly uneven at best, with attempts at trying different sonic textures at the hope of diversifying Brooks’ appeal. When bad they were horrible, but a few gems managed to sneak in there. As for the album tracks, they proved somewhat more enjoyable, although a couple of generic songs sneaked in. “Rollin’” is a generic slice of unmemorable bluesy country rock, while “Cowboys and Angels” is just another cowboy song to add to Brooks’ repertoire. He co-wrote “The Good Stuff,” which he used to open each date on his massive 1996-1999 World Tour.

“Ireland” is probably my favorite of the album cuts, an anthem to the emerald isle that may seem puzzling coming from Brooks’ pen, but just works really well as a song. The other excellent inclusion is his version of Bob Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love.” The track, which he recorded for the Hope Floats soundtrack in 1998, was added to Fresh Horses during The Limited Series re-release. The sparse piano ballad is an excellent showcase for Brooks’ tender voice and was a complete 180 from everything he was doing at the time. The track works really well, even if it’s more a slice of pop than anything resembling traditional-leaning country music.

As a whole, Fresh Horses is a solid Brooks album that features some fantastic songs mixed with a lot of filler. Even though “The Change” gained notoriety, “The Beaches of Cheyenne” is the album’s only essential track and the one Brooks includes in his concerts to this day. I’ve always enjoyed the tender side of Brooks’ persona, one that’s often overlooked, which tracks like “She’s Every Woman” and “That ‘Ol Wind” show off (as does Sevens’ “She’s Gonna Make It” and “You Move Me”) perfectly. As compared to some of Brooks’ earlier recordings, a lot of Fresh Horses has held up well overtime, too, which is saying something. This isn’t Brooks’ finest work by any means, but the aforementioned numbers are among his most underrated.

Grade: B

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘The Chase’

220px-GarthchaseGarth Brooks released his fourth album, The Chase, in September 1992. Produced as usual by Allen Reynolds, Brooks felt it was his most personal album to date. To date The Chase has been certified for sales of nine million units by the RIAA.

“We Shall Be Free” was the album’s lead single. Brooks was inspired to compose the track in the wake of the L.A. Riots, which were fueled by the beating of   African-American construction worker Rodney King. Brooks and co-writer Stephanie Davis covered many topics including freedom of speech, racism, and homophobia. Country radio resisted playing the highly controversial track, which peaked at #12. I’ve always loved the song, which is set to an engaging bluesy piano-heavy beat, and felt it topical without being preachy.

For the second single, Brooks and his label went with “Somewhere Other Than The Night,” a piano and lush string country-rock ballad that was the antithesis of “We Shall Be Free” and Brooks’ tenth number one. The lyric, co-written with Kent Blazy, details a woman desperate (‘She’s standing in the kitchen with nothing but her apron on’) for love and affection from her husband in the hours they’re not in bed together. The ballad is another excellent song; with Brooks turning in a master class vocal that expertly brings the woman’s despair to life with palpable emotion.

The third single follows the same pattern as the second, although the topics are completely different. “Learning To Live Again” is Brooks’ only single from The Chase he didn’t have a hand in writing. It details a man’s journey after a breakup, where feelings of isolation and alienation are slowly killing him. The #2 hit, co-written by Davis and Don Schlitz, is the closet single to traditional country, with ample steel guitar in the production. The track is a masterpiece of feeling, with Brooks once again allowing the listener to feel every ounce of the guy’s pain. It’s also one of my all-time favorite singles he’s ever released.

The final single returns Brooks to uptempo material, with a song inspired by the sweeping heartland rock of Bob Seeger. “That Summer” tells the story of a teenage boy, far from home, who’s working on the wheat-field of a ‘lonely widowed woman.’ She takes a liking to the boy, has sex with him, and he looses his virginity in the process. The track is another masterpiece, this time of delicate subtly, where the content is expertly handled in a way that gets the point across without explicitly saying anything raunchy or crude. Brooks co-wrote the song with his then-wife Sandy Mahl and frequent co-writer Pat Alger.

Each single from The Chase offered the listener something different yet showed Brooks skillfully tackling despair from both a man and a woman’s point of view. The album tracks proved more eclectic, with Brooks offering his own take on two classic songs. He turns the Patsy Cline standard “Walking After Midnight” into twang-filled bluesy traditional country while Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken” morphs into honky-tonk rock. Neither are essential inclusions on The Chase and somewhat puzzling. “Mr. Right” is classic western swing and a rare instance where Brooks solely penned a track.

Lush ballad “Every Now and Then,” a Brooks co-write with Buddy Mondlock, is more in keeping with the overall musical direction of The Chase and features one of Brooks’ more tender vocal performances. The track would’ve worked well as a single, but it’s a bit too quiet. Michael Burton wrote “Night Rider’s Lament,” a steel guitar soaked classic cowboy song previously recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker and Chris LeDoux. Trisha Yearwood adds stunning harmonies to the track.

“Face to Face” finds Brooks singing another Tony Arata tune and while the sinister vibe compliments his commanding vocal, the track really isn’t that memorable. A final tune, “Something With A Ring To It,” comes courtesy of Brooks’ The Limited Series box set from 1998. The mid-tempo western swing ballad was co-written by Aaron Tippin  and Mark Collie first appeared on Collie’s Hardin’ County Line in 1990.

The Chase came at a time when industry insiders feared Brooks’ career had peaked although the listener couldn’t sense that from the music. The singles that emerged from this set have remained some of his finest singles and while the album cuts range from uneven to questionable, he manages to give us at least one worthwhile moment (“Every Now and Then”).

Grade: B

Album Review: Lee Roy Parnell – ‘Back To The Well’

back to the wellFor his last record to date, released in 2006 on Universal South, Lee Roy Parnell followed the pattern set by its predecessor and indulged his blues/soul roots without even lip service to country music.

The pattern is established by the funky bluesy title track, which has a strong groove but is a bit busy for me. There are, however, four very worthwhile tracks.

‘Old Soul’, the best song on the album (written by Lee Roy with Tony Arata and also recordfed by Patty Loveless), is a laconic ballad with a tastefully understated arrangement, depicting a teenage mother forced to grow up too soon and leave behind the carefree dreams of youth. A tasteful arrangement supports the sensitive lyric.

I also quite liked ‘Don’t Water It Down’, which offers a brassy take on some homespun philosophy with some cool piano and gospel-style backing vocals. It’s not very deep, but there is a charming exuberance which sells it.

‘Daddies And Daughters’ (the only attempt at a radio single and another Arata co-write) is a tender and heartfelt tribute to a paternal relationship, which sounds very personal. Parnell’s own daughter adds backing vocals.

‘Saving Grace’ is a pretty love ballad with inspirational elements.

The rest all blurs boringly together for me. If you like this sort of thing, you’ll like this, as it’s well performed and good of its kind. It just doesn’t work for me.

Grade: C

Album Review: Lee Roy Parnell – ‘Tell The Truth’

tellthetruth2001’s Tell The Truth was Lee Roy Parnell’s first post-major label release, the one that obstensibly “freed” him to record whatever he wanted without regard to commercial concerns. It is no surprise that the album isn’t particularly country; even in his hit-making days Parnell was no traditionalist. Tell The Truth is a combination of delta blues, blues rock, boogie, and blue-eyed soul but has only the loosest connection to country music. Lee Roy co-wrote nine of the album’s ten tracks and produced the project along with John Kunz. He was joined by a number of guest artists, none of whom are connected to mainstream country, but all of whom are highly respected in their own genres.

Albums like this are always difficult to review. The credits of Tell The Truth contain the names of some of music’s most respected musicians and songwriters, but this type of music is really not my cup of tea and I found listening to it to be quite a chore. Overly long songs always annoy me, even when they are songs that I like. Many of the tracks on Tell The Truth clock in at more than five, six or even seven minutes. The album produced one single, “South By Southwest”, performed as a duet with Delbert McClinton, who seems to have been an inspiration for the entire project. The single failed to chart, not suprisingly since it doesn’t fit in comfortably with any major radio format.

Although I didn’t care for much of Tell The Truth, it does contain some songs that I did enjoy. In general, the ballads and the quieter numbers were the ones I enjoyed more: “Breaking Down Slow”, on which Parnell was joined by blues singer Bonnie Bramlett was nice, as were the title track (a co-write with Tony Arata), and the Gretchen Peters-penned “Love’s Been Rough On Me”. I also enjoyed the rollicking gospel number “Brand New Feeling”, performed with the Mississippi Mass Choir.

Although Tell The Truth doesn’t really coincide with my personal taste, the talent of Lee Roy Parnell, the supporting musicians and the songwriters is not in question. Parnell is in good voice and the songs are all well produced and well performed, if you like this sort of thing. It’s worth seeking out if you’re looking for a change of pace record, but fans like me who would just prefer to keep it country will probably want to pass on this one.

Grade: C

Album Review: Lee Roy Parnell – ‘Every Night’s A Saturday Night’

LeeroysaturdayLee Roy Parnell released his fifth album, Every Night’s A Saturday Night, in June 1997. Parnell co-produced the project, his second release for Arista imprint Career Records, along with his touring band The Hot Links.

The album produced three singles yet failed to generate any top ten hits. Parnell and Gary Nicholson co-wrote “Lucky Me, Lucky You,” which peaked at #35 and “All That Matters Anymore,” which stalled at #50. Sandwiched between them was “You Can’t Get There From Here,” written by Tony Arata, which reached #39. While I’m not crazy about the final single, the other two are excellent, and deserved to further Parnell’s radio career for at least another year.

George Strait covered Parnell and Cris Moore’s “One Foot In Front of the Other” on It Just Comes Natural in 2006. Parnell’s vocal on the original is far less energetic than Strait’s, but the overall track is quite good. Trisha Yearwood joins Parnell on “Better Word for Love,” a surprisingly tender ballad. Her background vocal contributions to the track are wasted as she’s barely audible, and the song wouldn’t demand a close listen if she wasn’t a part of it.

Parnell dives back into the Bob McDill songbook and pulls out “Tender Touch,” a steel and electric guitar soaked mid-tempo ballad that lacks the special touch McDill usually gives his compositions. He also revives Merle Haggard’s “Honky Tonk Night Time Man” from 1974. Parnell presents his version in Jam Band style, complete with electric guitar, but also stays true to Haggard’s original. It’s an excellent cover based on his mix alone.

Guy Clark co-wrote “Baton Rouge,” an excellent country shuffle that suffers from Parnell’s unexpectedly weak vocal. The title track is a typical workingman’s rocker and the album’s lone instrumental, the bluesy “Mama Screw Your Wig On Tight,” was nominated for a Grammy.

Judging from the co-producing credit from Parnell’s road band, I expected Every Night’s A Saturday Night to retain the live energy of a concert, thus being excessively rock in nature. That’s probably a fact of the changes within the genre in the past seventeen years. I was pleasantly taken aback by how clean this album sounds, crisp and comfortable. Not every lyrical composition is a memorable masterpiece, but the overall quality of Parnell’s fifth album is very high.

Grade: A

Album Review: Lee Roy Parnell – ‘On The Road’

ontheroad1993’s On The Road was Lee Roy Parnell’s third studio album and his last to be released on the main Arista label (subsequent releases would bear the Career imprint, an Arista subsidiary). Scott Hendricks, who had co-produced Parnell’s previous album, took over sole production duties, while Lee Roy shared songwriting credits on six of the album’s ten tracks. Unlike most of his 90s contemporaries, Parnell was neither a New Traditionalist nor a huge record seller. He did, however, score a handful of enduring radio hits, the most memorable of which is the Bob McDill-penned title track, which deals with three different instances of people who are ready to leave their unfulfilling lives behind in exchange for adventure into the unknown. Released in August of 1993, it was a perfect summertime single and it eventually peaked at #6. It’s one of my favorite Lee Roy Parnell songs.

“On The Road” was followed by another big hit, Tony Arata’s “I’m Holding My Own”, a midtempo number that was released in January 1994. It reached #3. He seemed to be on a roll as far as radio was concerned, but the album’s subsequent singles, both remakes of older country hits, didn’t fare as well. He beefed up his country credentials with a cover of the Hank Williams classic “Take These Chains From My Heart”, which is performed as a duet with Ronnie Dunn. I don’t ever remember hearing this on the radio and was surprised to learn that had been a single, and although not a huge hit it peaked at a very respectable #17. Even in the more traditional 90s, Hank Williams was a little too retro for country radio. His voice and Dunn’s blend together well and listeners who aren’t paying close attention might fail to notice that there are two people singing the song.

The album’s fourth and final single was a remake of “The Power of Love”, one of Charley Pride’s least country-sounding records, but a good choice for Parnell’s soulful voice. This one should have been a bigger hit, but it stalled at #51, far below the #9 peak of Pride’s original version from a decade earlier.

In another one of the album’s best songs, “Straight and Narrow”, Lee Roy and co-writer Tony Haselden rationalize — and make a compelling case for — occasionally skipping church in order to go fishing and other pursuits of life’s simple pleasures. The bluesy party anthem “Fresh Coat of Paint” is also quite good.

The album does contain two duds, both of which are Parnell co-writes with Gary Nicholson. “Straight Shooter” is a bit of bubble gum pop that sounds like a leftover from the Urban Cowboy days, while “Wasted Time”, in addition to being just plain dull, is based on the false premise that “there is no such thing as wasted time.” Well, yes, actually, there is. While neither of these are terrible songs, they both fall into the category of non-descript filler.

While not an oustanding album, On The Road is a good example of Lee Roy Parnell at his commercial peak. Cheap copies are readily available and it’s worth a listen.

Grade: B

Album Review – Don Williams – ‘Reflections’

4096_donwilliamsreflectionsOn his second Sugar Hill Release, and his third album in a decade, 74-year-old Don Williams spends a lot of time reflecting, just as the album’s title suggests. In the forty-plus years he’s been in the music industry he’s certainly earned the right, and with ten expertly chosen songs, he also gets right to the point.

As per usual Garth Fundis is along for the introspective journey and he succeeds masterfully in placing Williams’ distinctive baritone front and center, allowing the conversational way in which he sings to anchor the album extraordinarily.

This is no more apparent than on the one-two punch that opens the project. Townes Van Zant’s folksy “I’ll Be There In The Morning” is as honest a love song as it was forty-six years ago, with Williams breathing new life into the number with a combination of acoustic and steel guitars accentuated with ribbons of glorious harmonica. “Talk Is Cheap,” a Guy Clark co-write (with Chris Stapleton & Morgane Hayes) that previously found a home on Alan Jackson’s Thirty Miles West, lays bare our tendency to dream hypothetically and brings out the song’s urgency (‘wine’s for tasting, roads for taking’) in a way Jackson’s version didn’t. Both are two of the finest moments on record all year thus far.

Jennifer Hanson, Marty Dodson, and Mark Nesler’s “Back To The Simple Things” furthers the urgency felt in “Talk Is Cheap” by lamenting on modern technology and the stronghold is has on society. On one hand Williams is calling on us to live, on the other he’s making sure we remember what’s most important along that journey – human connection. The chugging beat, which backs the song, is fabulous, too, as is the uncomplicated way Williams is gets the message across.

“Working Man’s Son” finds Williams ruminating on a life lived while perfectly capturing the male psyche. Where most singers desire to run in the opposite direction from their elderliness, Williams stairs it squarely in the face with a stunningly age-appropriate lyric by Bob Regan and Jim Collins:

 I’ve had my fun, I’ve made some friends

I’ve loved and lost and loved again

Been down that less traveled road

Just to see how far it goes

Spoke my mind to defend myself

Tried not to hurt nobody else

But if I did, I hope they’ll forgive

Williams turns negative on Doug Gill’s “Stronger Back,” an antidote to the man taking the good with the bad on “Working Man’s Son.” He may be wishing for ‘a stronger back, a bigger heart, the will to keep on walking when the way is dark” but instead of letting his problems go, he just wants to embrace them and thus take responsibility. The flourishes of steel help to extenuate the track’s beautifully steady beat, and keeps the proceedings from getting too dark and moody.

“Healing Hands” is another life-well-lived moment, this time from a grandchild lamenting on the calluses as a benchmark of life in one’s years and the relationship between healing hands and a kind heart. The sentiment is there in Steve Gillette & Rex Benson lyric, but the execution is too schmaltzy. Fundis nicely makes up for it and saves the song with a striking mandolin and guitar heavy arraignment that’s slightly addictive.

In life, you know you ‘get it’ when you realize our days on earth are a journey full of lessons that never cease to reveal themselves to us. Steve Wariner and Tony Arata wrote “The Answer” about this phenomenon and framed the tale as a boy with countless questions for his all-knowing father. Williams does an impeccable job of bringing the ballad to life as does Fundis with his gorgeous production.

Much like he did with “I’ll Be There In The Morning,” Williams breathes new light into Jesse Winchester’s “If I Were Free” not by removing the song’s simplicity, but by adding to it. He turns the folk song into a country ballad backed solely by an acoustic guitar. The track takes on new meaning, too, with Williams at the helm.

With reflections on a life-well-lived, laments against modern technology, and disgust for people who dream without execution, a song like Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home,” about a man watching a prison execution, is the odd one out. But the tale does work, seeing as Reflections is an album, in part, about looking back on one’s life. The album’s real weak link is “I Won’t Give Up On You.” There’s nothing wrong with the beautiful love song at all, it just isn’t as spectacular a moment for Williams when compared to the rest of the record.

Often when singers make a record they talk about the idea of ‘having something to say’ with the songs they’re releasing. It’s especially true of songwriters, which makes Reflections all the more remarkable – Williams didn’t write a single word (he did co-produce) yet he has more to say in these ten tracks than most anyone over the course of their whole careers. His gifts as a singer and song interpreter are unmatched and help to elevate Reflections above the usual faire. If you’ve been waiting for a substantive collection full of meaning, with tasteful country production and class – than this is it. I can’t recommend Reflections enough.

Grade: A 

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘Nobody Love, Nobody Gets Hurt’

nobody love nobody gets hurtSuzy’s swansong for Capitol was released in 1998. She produced the record with her husband, and unfortunately it was a bit of a damp squib commercially, with no real hits.

She and husband Doug Crider wrote the mid-tempo AC ‘Somebody To Love’, her last top 40 single, with Matraca Berg. It opens with an arresting picture of a woman weeping in her kitchen all dolled up after a disastrous date, but the remainder of the lyric is bland and the melody is rather limited.

The title track performed less well, peaking in the 60s. Written by singer-songwriter Bobbie Cryner, it is a memorable and slightly quirky story about a dyslexic and emotionally damaged bank robber which is a little heavy handed in pressing home its point, but a stripped down arrangement and sensitive vocal sell it.

The final single, the Kim Richey/Tia Sillers-penned ‘From Where I Stand’ was another flop. Although (like ‘Somebody To Love’) it has quite a commercial late 90s sound reminiscent of Trisha Yearwood’s more AC material, it’s not very interesting.

The insistently bluesy pop-country ‘Just Enough Rope’ sounds like an attempt to compete with the likes of Shania Twain. It is a departure from Suzy’s strengths as an artist but is quite catchy, although someone like Yearwood would probably have been more suited to it. It is one of only two tracks to feature fiddle.

A more traditional country fiddle leads into Julie Miller’s ‘Take Me Back’. This is the most traditional country track on the record (with the only steel guitar to make an appearance as well as the fiddle) and a real highlight; an excellent song with a close harmony from Garth Brooks on the chorus.

‘When I Run’ is a nice Skip Ewing ballad with a pretty tune and insightful lyric about someone finding love scary. Suzy’s subtle vocal is beautiful, and makes this commitmentphobe sympathetic and convincing, when she says,

It’s not you
It’s not fun
I know tryin’ to hide is crazy
Walking out won’t save me
My demons only chase me when I run

Kathy Mattea sings backing vocals but is so low in the mix she is inaudible.

The delicate ballad ‘Moonlight And Roses’, written by Cheryl Wheeler, is an understated gem about not missing an opportunuity to find love, with another excellent, subtle vocal. Alison Krauss plays viola.

Tony Arata’s ‘I Wish Hearts Would Break’ is a moving tribute to a dying mineworker whose spirit has been broken by the death of his beloved wife, which again Suzy sings beautifully, supported by Darrell Scott’s backing vocals. Childhood memories are fondly recalled in the gently folky ‘Family Tree’, written by Doug Crider and Matt Rollings.

Suzy and Doug’s ‘I Surrender’ is a pleasant love song, with Patty Loveless providing a gentle harmony. I preferred the closing ‘Train Of Thought’, written by Cathy Majeski, Sunny Russ and Stephony Smith, an attractively laid back number with backing vocals from Trisha Yearwood and Alison Krauss.

Overall while this is not one of Suzy’s best albums, it is a pleasant listening experience, but the attempts at maintaining commercial viability are the least successful tracks. It marked the end of her time on a major label, but is worth picking up if you like Suzy’s music.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘Aces’

acesThe first time I heard Suzy Bogguss sing, I was sure that she was on the verge of becoming country music’s next big female superstar. It was, therefore, both surprising and disappointing when her first two albums and the singles released from them all performed poorly on the charts. Her commercial fortunes began to change in 1991 when she teamed up with her Capitol labelmate Lee Greenwood for a duet, the Keith Whitley, Curly Putman and Don Cook-penned “Hopelessly Yours”, which rose to #12, her best performance to date on the Billboard country singles chart. The record’s success proved to be the breakthrough she needed and paved the way for her subsequent solo recordings.

Suzy was always a bit of a folkie at heart, as opposed to a hardcore country traditionalist, and the song selections on Aces, her third album for Capitol Nashville, reflect that preference. The album’s advance single was a revival of Ian & Sylvia Tyson’s “Someday Soon”, which had been recorded numerous times by a number of artists, including Judy Collins and Moe Bandy. Suzy’s excellent version reached #12, matching the success of “Hopelessly Yours.” Suzy and co-producer Jimmy Bowen slowed down the tempo ever so slightly on Nanci Griffith’s “Outbound Plane”, giving the song more mainstream appeal than Griffith’s original and more quirky recording from a few years earlier. “Outbound Plane”, which peaked at #9, found Suzy cracking the Top 10 for the first time. Recognizing that the folk connection was proving successful, Capitol selected the album’s title track, written by folk singer/songwriter Cheryl Wheeler, as Suzy’s next single. Like “Outbound Plane”, it reached #9 and is one of the songs for which Suzy is best remembered today.

The album’s fourth single — and its most successful was the more conventional “Letting Go”, written by Suzy’s husband Doug Crider and Matt Rollings. A tale about leaving home and the adjustments required by both parent and child, it peaked at #6 in the fall of 1992 and made an appearance on Suzy’s next album Voices In The Wind.

More often than not, I find that there are always one or two songs on every album that should have been a single, but for one reason or another, was not. Tony Arata’s “Part of Me” falls into that category this time around, although for the most part, Capitol showed good judgement in its selection of singles. There’s nothing particularly memorable about “Yellow River Road”, which is noteworthy only because it is the album’s only song in which Suzy had a hand in writing. The bluesy numbers “Save Yourself” and “Let Goodbye Hurt” require more soulful performances than Suzy was able to provide, and her version of “Still Hold On”, though good, cannot compare with Tanya Tucker’s grittier performance from a few years earlier.

Aces was the best and most successful of Suzy’s major label albums, and the only one to earn platinum certification. Inexpensive copies are easy to obtain.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Dan Seals – ‘Walking The Wire’

The 1990s were a period in which Dan Seals saw a rapid decline in his commercial appeal. He began the decade strongly enough with two # hits: “Love On Arrival” and “Good Times”, but none of his subsequent releases managed to crack the Top 40. A change in record labels did not help to reverse the trend; he signed with Warner Bros. in 1991 and released his first album for the label the following year. Walking The Wire became his first album not to chart since Harbinger, which had been released a decade earlier, prior to his commercial breakthrough. But despite its lack of commercial success, Walking The Wire is a solid set of songs and one of the better albums in the Seals discography.

Things got off to a rocky start with his first single for his new label, a Jesse Winchester tune called “Sweet Little Shoe”, which was released in 1991, in advance of the album. An overproduced number designed to cash in on the then-popular line dancing craze, it died a quick and well deserved death on the charts. Peaking at a meager #62, it is easily the worst song on the album. The follow-up single “Good Goodbye” did not chart and was not included on the album when Walking The Wire was released the following year. The self-penned “Mason Dixon Line”, which examines a relationship between two very different people, fared a little better. It reached #43, but deserved to chart higher, as it is a decent song. Andrea Zonn, who played in Vince Gill’s road band at the time, plays fiddle on the track. The catchy “When Love Comes Around The Bend” was released next. Written by Josh Leo, Pam Tillis, and Mark Wright, the tune had been a minor success for Juice Newton a few years earlier. While her version managed to crack the Top 40 (just barely), Seals’ version only climbed to #51. This one might have enjoyed more success if it had been released a few years earlier before his career lost its momentum. The final single was another Seals composition, the well-meaning but somewhat preachy “We Are One”, which appeals to mankind to put aside religious, ethnic and racial differences. It did not chart.

The remaining songs on the album tend to be rather low-key, tastefully produced affairs. I particularly like “A Good Rain”, which is about a farmer struggling to make ends meet, and “Slower”, a tune written by Tony Arata about young love. The Parker McGee-penned “Someone Else’s Dance” is also quite good. “Sneaky Moon” is enjoyable, but I prefer the Tanya Tucker version that appeared a year later.

I wasn’t familiar with any of the songs on this album prior to preparing for this review, and as a hitless collection that appeared as Dan’s major label career was beginning to wind down, I expected it to be a dull and lifeless affair. I was, however, quite pleasantly surprised and I’m at a loss to explain why it was such a commercial disaster. Perhaps Seals didn’t get the proper level of promotion from his new label, or perhaps at age 44 he was considered to be past his peak in an era that saw a lot of new and younger talent emerge. Regardless of the reason, it’s unfortunate that it didn’t receive more love from radio and retail. It is available very inexpensively from Amazon and despite a few missteps, is well worth the modest investment.

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: Patty Loveless – ‘Dreamin’ My Dreams’

patty loveless - dreamin my dreamsDreamin’ My Dreams was the last album Patty Loveless recorded for the Epic Nashville label before they closed shop. Some of their artists went to the Columbia Records roster.  Patty instead took a two-year hiatus from touring and recording before going the indie route, signing with Suguaro Records in 2008.  She has since recorded two albums for the label.  While this would be her last album for Epic, Patty delivered nothing less than a first-class set of songs, with some contemporary flavor, well worthy of radio airplay, as well as her signature bluegrass and rootsy album staples.

Though the lead-single, ‘Keep Your Distance’ is as good a track that’s been shipped to radio this decade, it failed to chart, and Epic didn’t release any follow-up singles. The single, written by Richard Thompson is a snappy number with some great guitar licks and a sing-along melody.

She slows things down with Lee Roy Parnell and Tony Arata’s ‘Old Soul’, my favorite track on the set.  The tale of a young heart who, after being hurt and down-trodden by life, is wise beyond her years.  The haunting arrangement and the ache in the vocal combine to make for a punch to the listener.

Laugh too little and you cry too much
Way too long without that gentle touch
Weight of the world resting down in your bones
Pretty soon you’ve got an old soul

Likewise, ‘Nobody Here By That Name’ is reminiscent of her 90s hits.  Smart lyrics, flawless vocals, and a strong-woman spirit underscore the melancholy lyrics. Listening to the song, it’s evident that this is another Tony Arata cut; it’s very much in his style, and he co-wrote this with Pete Wasner.

The album gets back to the tempo with ‘Same Kinda Crazy’, a jazzy-rocking number, later recorded by George Strait.  The tale of two kindred spirits is told with a ferocious vocal from Patty.  ‘Dreamin’ My Dreams With You’, the almost-title track was written by producer-extraordinaire Allen Reynolds.  The song has also recorded by Alison Krauss and Waylon Jennings, among others.

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Album Review: Patty Loveless – ‘When Fallen Angels Fly’

fallenangelsHot on the heels of the success of 1993’s Only What I Feel,  Patty Loveless and Emory Gordy Jr.  headed back to the studio to record her sophomore album for Epic Records.    A lot was riding on this follow-up album; Patty’s album sales had been inconsistent throughout her career up to that point and she needed to prove that she could deliver the commercial goods on a regular basis.

I’ll admit to being slightly concerned when “I Try To Think About Elvis” was released to radio in July 1994 as the advance single to When Fallen Angels Fly. A semi-novelty tune, it was a departure for Patty and it was one of her least traditional singles to date. Loveless herself expressed some reservations when the song was initially pitched to her, but she agreed to record it after songwriter Gary Burr changed some of the lyrics to be more female-oriented; substituting high heels and hairdos for boxing and football. Though slightly hokey, it is a fun and infectious song that I grew to like more and more as it climbed the charts. It eventually peaked at #3. It occurred to me as I listened to it again recently, that it is an early example of the much-maligned “list song” which has become increasingly popular in mainstream country music in recent years. However, “Elvis” manages to get through its list of items in a much more clever manner than most contemporary list songs.

Though I got over my initial aversion to the lead single, it was still a relief when the album finally hit stores in August, and proved to have plenty of the traditional-type songs for which Loveless had become famous, in addition to some more contemporary numbers. After the silliness of “Elvis”, Loveless turned serious for her next single “Here I Am”. Led by an acoustic guitar and some subtle pedal steel, Loveless sings the image-rich lyrics beautifully, showing both restraint and power, where appropriate. Today’s female artists would be well advised to study this record and take note of how Loveless handles the soaring bridge, with power and emotion, but never oversinging:

Honey, I got over you passing me over a long time ago,
And my pride was stronger when I was younger
Now I’d rather have you to know,
That here I am …

“Here I Am” earned both critical acclaim and commercial success, reaching #4 on the charts. It is one of two songs on the album written by Tony Arata. His other contribution is the opening track, the inspirational “A Handful of Dust” which Loveless recently revisited for her Mountain Soul II project.

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