My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Tony Brown

Album Review: Mo Pitney – ‘Behind This Guitar’

behind-this-guitar23 year old Mo Pitney from Illinois is chasing on the heels of William Michael Morgan as the latest neotraditional country singer to make a mainstream bid for success. (In a bizarre coincidence, they share a name – Mo is short for Morgan). Mo’s singles haven’t achieved the same level of success as that of his contemporary, but he has been building up some grassroots support as he issues his debut album, produced by veteran Tony Brown. Mo is a talented songwriter as well as a fine singer, and cowrote most of the songs here.

I was pleasantly surprised by the lead single ‘Country’ over 18 months ago, and still enjoy its relaxed feel. The second single ‘Boy And A Girl Thing’ is also very pleasant sounding, augmented by harmonies from Lee Ann Womack; as Razor X noted in his review, it has strong echoes of late George Strait to it. Sadly, neither single (both Pitney co-writes) reached the top 40 on the Billboard country chart. Both follow fairly well travelled ground lyrically, and although unambitious, Mo’s vocals and the gentle country arrangements make them worth hearing. Current single ‘Everywhere’ has a fuller, more contemporary sound, but isn’t terribly interesting, even though it is a cowrite with the great Dean Dillon.

Dillon also co-wrote ‘Take The Chance’, which has a very pretty melody and arrangement, and grows on repeated listens.

One of the album’s highlights is the deeply affecting ‘Just A Dog’ (written with Jimmy Melton And Dave Turnbull). It is the story of a stray dog who becomes the protagonist’s best friend. Another favorite is ‘I Met Merle Haggard Today’. Unlike some Haggard tributes, this one makes a (successful) effort to sound like the man himself, with the song structured like some of Haggard’s conversational style numbers, and Mo’s vocal echoing Hag’s stylings. It relates a real life meeting with Mo’s hero in 2013.

The excellent ‘Cleanup On Aisle Five’ (written by Mo with Wil Nance) has a nicely detailed story of a chance encounter with an ex in the supermarket leading to a man’s emotional breakdown:

If I wasn’t standing in that store I might have laid right on that floor and cried

‘Come Do A Little Life’ is a nice mid-tempo everyday love song (written with Nance and Byron Hill); ‘When I’m With You’, written with David Lee Murphy, is along the same lines. ‘Love Her Like I Lost Her’ is a strong song about realising the fragility of life and importance of love, which Mo wrote with bluegrass songwriter Dennis Duff.

Mo has a very strong religious faith, and includes the understated contemporary Christian ‘Give Me Jesus, set to a very stripped down acoustic arrangement. This (written by Fernando Ortega) is one of only two songs Mo did not help to write. The other, oddly enough, is the title track, which was written by Casey Beathard, Don Sampson and Phil O’Donnell, despite sounding as if it must be autobiographical. It’s a charming folky song about being a musician:

Behind this guitar is just a boy who had a dream in his heart
Behind this guitar is just a guy who can’t believe he got this far

Well, I’ve always said that I’ve been blessed
Why me is anybody’s guess
Well, I don’t know
But I’m well aware the man upstairs could have answered any other’s prayers
And let mine go
But thanks to Him, my family, friends, and those that got me where I am
(You know who you are)
And with that in mind the truth is I’m not the only one
Behind this guitar

This is a very promising debut, perhaps a little more traditional and less commercial than that of William Michael Morgan. I do hope that both young men do well in their careers.

Grade: A-

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Album Review: Wynonna – ‘Tell Me Why’

tell me whyWynonna’s second solo album was released in May 1993,produced as before by Tony Brown. It did not sell as well as its predecessor, but was still certified platinum, and produced five top 10 hits.

The first single, the title track, was a mid-tempo Karla Bonoff song with a glossy contemporary country-rock feel, and reached #3 on Billboard. This performance was matched by its successor, the more delicate and sophisticated ‘Only Love. Written by Roger Murrah and Marcus Hummon, it doesn’t sound particularly country now, but it featured a strong vocal performance.

My favorite track by far, ‘Is It Over Yet’, is a solemn piano-led ballad with a sensitive string arrangement which allows Wynonna’s emotion-filled voice to shine on a song about the pain of a breakup. It peaked at #7.

The most successful single, ‘Rock Bottom’, only just missed the top of the charts. It was written by the songwriters behind Southern Rockers the Atlanta Rhythm Section, and has a bluesy rock groove which suits Wynonna’s confident growl, although it’s not really my favorite style. The final single, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s ‘Girls With Guitars’, is a strong country rock number celebrating female musicians by telling the story of one young woman’s progress from high school to adult success, defeating the expectations of sexist listeners along the way. Naomi Judd and Lyle Lovett contribute backing vocals on the song.

Jesse Winchester’s ‘Let’s Make A Baby King’ is a Christmas song which New Grass Revival had recorded a few years earlier in more bluegrassy style, and which Wynonna gave a black gospel makeover. While Wynonna’s version was not formally released as a single, it gained some airplay at Christmas. ‘Just Like New’ is another memorable Winchester song, a bluesy story about a car once owned by Elvis. Naomi Judd’s ‘That Was Yesterday’ is performed as a slowed down blues number.

‘Father Sun’ was written by Sheryl Crow, about to make her own breakthrough as a rock singer-songwriter, and has a rather elusive lyric. The production funnels Wynonna’s vocal through an echoey effect which wastes her greatest asset, her powerful voice, and more gospel style backing vocals swamp her at the end.

She does show her more subtle interpretative side with a cover of ‘I Just Drove By’, written and originally recorded by Kimmie Rhodes. This charming song is about sweet memories of childhood innocence, and Wynonna sings it beautifully.

While it is a long way from traditional, and a purist might challenge its country credentials on any level, Wynonna was able to take her place in the diverse sounds of 1990s country music. It’s an accomplished record in its own right, genre considerations aside, but that does make it tough to assign a grade to on a country blog.

Grade: B

Album Review: Wynonna – ‘Wynonna’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

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

Single Review: Mo Pitney – ‘Boy and a Girl Thing’

Mo-PitneyEarlier this month when I reviewed William Michael Morgan’s “I Met a Girl”, I called it a small step in the right direction, but felt it fell short of greatness and that it wouldn’t have been particularly memorable had it been released in an era when the quality of mainstream country was somewhat higher. My initial reaction to Mo Pitney’s “Boy and a Girl Thing” was somewhat similar. It’s a lot better than most of the current fare on the radio but nothing to get terribly excited about. Although it is a pleasant listen, the production is somewhat generic. It’s reminiscent of some of George Strait’s later work; the fact that it was produced by Tony Brown might have something to do with that. There are some vocal similarities to Strait, and a few years ago I might have been excited about that. But a few years ago I was excited about Corbin Easton and Chris Young and look how they turned out.

“Boy and a Girl Thing” is a pleasant change from the usual fare, though — there are no obnoxious electric guitar riffs and the lyrics actually tell a story and don’t insult the listener’s intelligence. The production has a bluesy feel to it, which doesn’t feel quite right. I stumbled upon an acoustic version on YouTube that I liked a lot better.

In the end, Pitney is an artist that deserves to be supported, so I hope this record does well. Unfortunately he is signed to Curb so getting new music released on a regular basis may prove to be a problem.

Grade: B

Single Review: George Strait – ‘Let It Go’

Let-It-GoFor the vast majority of his long major-label career, George Strait has relied on outside songwriters for his material. In fact, the 1982 album cut “I Can’t See Texas From Here” held the distinction of being his only self-penned recording until 2009 when he co-wrote “Living For The Night” with his son Bubba and Dean Dillon. He has been making up for lost time ever since; the trio has collaborated on a number of songs, including “Here For a Good Time” (2011), “Drinkin’ Man” (2012), and “I Believe” (2013). Strait’s newest single “Let It Go” finds him and Bubba teaming up with Keith Gattis.

“Let It Go” is also noteworthy because it finds Strait teaming up with a new co-producer Chuck Ainlay, marking the first time since 1992 that he has shared production duties with anyone other than Tony Brown. While the song’s commercial impact remains to be seen, the change in co-producers has paid off from a creative standpoint. “Let It Go” is my favorite George Strait single in quite some time. It is a light-hearted, carefree tune that should be peaking on the charts by early summer. It is contemporary enough to be radio-friendly, without making any embarrassing attempts to chase current commercial attempts, like a few of the tracks on the new Reba McEntire album. The inclusion of steel drums towards the end of the song give it a breezy, summertime Caribbean feel without beating the listener over the head (Kenny Chesney, please take note).

Strait, who will be 63 next month, hasn’t had a single on the charts since 2013’s “I Got a Car”, which was one of the lowest charting singles of his career, peaking at #37. Only its predecessor “I Believe”, which did not chart at all, has performed worse. Changes in Billboard’s charting methodolgies and the fact that he isn’t touring anymore don’t help. His reign on the charts may be winding down, but I’m hoping that this deserving late-career entry will buck the trend and enjoy some success.

Listen to it here.

Grade: A

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+

Single Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Going Out Like That’

reba-going-out-like-that-coverWhen the announcement was made that Reba McEntire had signed with Scott Borchetta’s Nash Icon label, I ran across an article where she said she thought she’d already made her final album (2010’s The Woman I Am). Brochetta, who’s Valory Music Co. label released that project, had apparently been courting McEntire for years, trying to convince her to return to the studio. The results of that begging should be out this spring.

My hopes are high for the project. Ever since she made her comeback in 2009 I’ve longed for McEntire to revisit the magic of What If  It’s You, her 1996 return to form after years of dabbling in a brand of theatrical country that turned her into a cartoon character. Save a song here and there, that obviously hasn’t happened. If this first taste of the new music is any indication, the long wait continues.

“Going Out Like That” is nothing more than a product aimed at gaining maximum airplay, a business decision where quality is the last thing on everyone’s minds. McEntire and Borchetta have forgone the grand artistic statement in favor of positioning the 60 year old for history making success by playing the mainstream game.

That being said, “Going Out Like That” isn’t without its charms. McEntire has never been one to show her age and with her trademark voice still in top form, that isn’t happening now. And while the indistinctive arrangement, produced by Tony Brown, relies too heavily on layers of electric guitars and sounds as though it was created by a computer, it does have a brightness to it that I kind of enjoy. It also doesn’t hurt that the song feels far more structured than “Turn on the Radio.”

In addition, it’s far from the worst country radio has to offer. Rhett Akins, Ben Hayslip, and Jason Sellers have crafted a lyric that steers clear of positioning McEntire as a ‘female bro’ obsessed with trucks, dirt roads, and drinking. And I still have hope for the album, which will probably have some good songs, as her weakest recordings usually do.

That doesn’t excuse the fact McEntire and Borchetta are banking on emotion manipulation by taking advantage of the fans hoping for the return of substance on their radio. Even worse, the track continues McEntire’s trend of tarnishing her groundbreaking legacy by her refusal to act her age at a time when she should be showing the younger generations how it’s done.

“Going Out Like That” also doesn’t bode well for the Nash Icon brand, which has Martina McBride and Ronnie Dunn on board as well, because it positions the label as a shameless mainstream entity and not the platform for genuine artistic expression everyone hoped it would be.

No matter how you look it, McEntire’s long awaited comeback single is a colossal waste of everyone’s time and energy. I’m so done giving artists a pass when they’ve released a product in place of a song. We’ve been taken advantage of for far too long by an industry’s mainstream sector being more concerned with numbers and profits than artistic integrity. There is a way to meet both objectives simultaneously, but “Going Out Like That” obviously isn’t it.

Grade: C-

Spotlight Artist: T. Graham Brown

t graham brownAnthony (Tony) Graham Brown was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on 30 October 1954, and grew up in the small town of Arabi. Unlike many of our favourites at MKOC, he wasn’t a natural country singer, with influences ranging from classic country to soul and rock. His first musical performances were as a college student, when he was one half of a duo called Dirk & Tony, who played beach music, before then discovering 70s Outlaw country (as lead singer of a band called Reo Diamond) and then moving to an R& B group oddly called Rack Of Spam.

He moved to Nashville in 1982 with his veterinarian student wife Sheila, and his gravelly voice proved a selling point when he got work singing advertising jingles and songwriters’ demos. One of those demos was for a song called ‘1962’, written by an old high school friend of Brown’s, which was cut by an aspiring young artist called Randy Travis as ‘1982’, and became his first hit single. Meanwhile, Brown was honing his own songwriting skills. He signed a record deal with Capitol Records in 1984, initially for singles only. Since there was already a very prominent Nashville record executive named Tony Brown, the artist picked his first initial and middle name to use as his stage name. While his debut single, ‘Drowning In Memories’, was only modestly successful, just creeping into the top 40 on Billboard, he soon made a big breakthrough with the top 10 hit ‘I Tell It Like It Used To Be’ in 1986.

His distinctive soulful vocals and melding of country and R& B influences stood out on country radio, particularly as the tide turned and the neotraditionalists dominated. T’s success showed that there was still room for diversity alongside traditional sounds. A particlaulryl notable moment in his career was his duet with Tanya Tucker on the Radney Foster-penned ‘Don’t Go Out With Him’. His time at the top was relatively short lived, with his last top 40 single charting in 1991, but his best music is still memorable.

He has battled both an alcohol problem which started in his teens and a bipolar diagnosis. Neither helped his career. As Garthmania took over, Brown began to feel out of place on Capitol, and he moved to Warner Brothers, but neither they nor the next label, Sony, released any new music.

Towards the end of the 1990s he took the independent route, and he has recorded sporadically since. His latest album, a gospel one, is due out at the end of this month, which made him an ideal choice for the first MKOC Spotlight Artist of 2015.

Album Review: Kelly Willis – ‘Kelly Willis’

kelly willisKelly’s third and final album for MCA was released in 1993. Tony Brown produced as before, but was joined by rock producer Don Was, and the overall sound is just a little rockier, but the record served up much the same recipe of brightly delivered country-rock as its predecessors, and met a similar fate commercially.

The singles were the breezy ‘Whatever Way The Wind Blows’ and a bouncy cover of the Kendalls’ ‘Heaven’s Just A Sin Away’. They should both have done better, as they have an infectious charm which one would think was very radio friendly.

The rueful Jim Lauderdale song ‘I Know Better Now’, about learning from bitter experience, is an excellent song, sung very well. ‘Up All Night’, written by Libby Dwyer is also pretty good, about a failing relationship which is as good as over.

My favourite track, however, is one of the few slower moments, the lovely ballad ‘That’ll Be Me’, a tender duet with singer-songwriter Kevin Welch, who wrote the song. The downbeat ‘World Without You’ (written by Kelly with Paul Kennerley) is also very good

‘Take It All Out On You’ is a cheerful mid-tempo love song which was somewhat ironically written by Kelly’s ex Mas Palermo and her new love interest (and now her husband) Bruce Robison. It’s fairly typical of her style at this period, with a chugging groove and a bright vocal. But you can’t help wondering about how the conversation went in the writing room.

‘One More Night’ is a chugging rocker written by Palermo with Bruce’s brother Charlie; it’s not bad but the production is a little heavy for my taste. ‘Get Real’ and ‘Shadows Of Love’ were written by Kelly with John Leventhal, but unfortunately neither is very interesting.

You can get used copies fairly cheaply, so if you enjoy a little rockier edge to your country, this is a good bet.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Kelly Willis – ‘Bang Bang’

KellyWillisBangBangThe early 1990s were an interesting time for Kelly Willis. Razor X, in his review of her debut, motioned that Willis was signed to MCA in 1989 in an effort to expand the definition of country music. In accordance with her musical output at the time, MCA also went all out with a marketing campaign that saw Willis gaining national exposure both on news magazines and in movies, where she scored bit parts.

While the efforts at maximizing her exposure were well received, Willis never really caught on with the mainstream nor was she able to sell many records. That being said, MCA continued to try and her sophomore album Bang Bang was released just a year after Well Traveled Love. Produced once again by Tony Brown, the album contained a variety of songs from a mix of both left of center and mainstream songwriters.

For the album’s lead single, MCA went with “Baby Take A Piece of My Heart,” an excellent uptempo tune Willis co-wrote with Kostas, a male songwriter who was in high demand at the time. The tune, which peaked at #58, is Willis’ only charting song from her tenure with MCA and easily her best known single from this period of her career.

The second and third singles failed to chart. Kostas and Willis’ husband Mas Palermo co-wrote “The Heart That Love Forgot,” a mid-tempo guitar and drum centric number that is more Texas than Nashville country. Texas country singer/songwriter Joe Ely self-penned “Settle For Love,” an upbeat rocker that perfectly showcases Willis’ biting twang. While both are excellent songs, neither was in line with the radio trends of the era making it unsurprising they didn’t catch on.

The remainder of Bang Bang features mostly uptempo rockers that are heavy on drums, and while light on commercial country, are excellent just the same. “I’ll Try Again” is a honky-tonk rocker while “Too Much To Ask” and “Standing By The River” borrow from Gram Parsons’ signature style. The title track rocks just as hard although Brown smartly adds steel and electric guitars to give it needed spice.

My main complaint with Bang Bang lies with Brown’s production. His slick arrangements drown Willis’ distinctive voice when they should’ve been highlighting it instead. Problem is, as evidenced by “Sincerely (Too Late to Turn Back Now),” Willis hadn’t yet found voice as an artist. As good as the Steve Earle and Robert Earl Keen ballad is, her vocal isn’t nearly as confident as it would be if she recorded it today. The same is true for the sinister “Not Afraid of the Dark,” which seems out of place in comparison to the rest of the album.

Those concerns are elevated on “Hidden Things,” which proves she was already a gifted vocalist in 1991, and while she might not have completely understood how to best use her talents, she could turn in a stellar performance if given the right vehicle. Unlike the majority of the Bang Bang Brown’s production actually aids the track and frames her quite nicely.

It’s always a pleasure to go back and listen to early music from gifted artists, especially recordings made before they found their authentic voice within the industry. In the twenty-three years since Bang Bang it’s remarkable how much Willis has grown which is even more astonishing given that she was a knockout vocalist back then, too. This might not be the most essential album in her collection but it provides a fine listening experience and comes recommended for those looking to fully understand Willis as an artist.

Grade: A-

Spotlight Artist: Kelly Willis

Kelly WillisOur August spotlight artist isn’t someone you’ve heard a lot of on the radio, but she has long been a favorite of critics and the MKOC staff writers.

Kelly Willis was born on October 2, 1968, in Lawton, Oklahoma and spent her high school years in Annandale, Virginia. During that time she became the lead singer of a rockabilly band. Shortly after graduating from high school, she married the band’s drummer and moved to Austin, Texas. The band didn’t survive very long, but Willis quickly caught the attention of two famous Texas musicians — Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett, who were both signed to MCA Records at the time. Griffith and Lovett convinced Tony Brown to offer Willis a contract, and she joined the label’s roster in 1989. Her first album, Well Traveled Love, produced by Brown and John Guess, was well received by critics and well promoted by MCA, but it was not commercially successful. Her two subsequent albums for MCA didn’t fare much better. Without any hit records and uncomfortable with the sexy image that MCA was trying to create for her, Willis departed the label in 1994.

During her tenure with MCA, Willis’ marriage to her high school sweetheart ended. She began dating Texas songwriter Bruce Robison in 1992. The pair married in 1996 and eventually became the parents of four children. Also, in 1996, Willis released an EP called Fading Fast for A&M, which performed about as well as her MCA albums. It was her only project for the label. After leaving A&M, she began recording for independent labels, and although none of them produced any hit singles, all of them charted higher than her major label efforts on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. 2002’s Easy, released by Rykodisc, is her highest charting solo effort, peaking at #29.

In 2008, the demands of family life caused Willis to put her career on hold and she has performed and recorded only sporadically since then. Her two most recent efforts, last year’s Cheater’s Game and Our Year, which was released this past May, are both collaborations with Bruce Robison and both were reviewed here at time of their release. We hope that you’ll enjoy our look back at an artist who, despite a lack of mainstream recognition, is a talented vocalist and songwriter who desrves to be heard.

Album Review: Tracy Byrd – ‘I’m From The Country’

imfromthecountryI’m From The Country was Tracy Byrd’s fifth and final album for MCA. Like its predecessor, it was produced by Tony Brown. The album attempted to regain Byrd’s stalled commercial momentum. It succeeded in getting him back into the Top 10 at country radio, but it was his first album not to earn at least gold certification. Although he’d enjoyed a fair amount of success during his tenure at MCA, he hadn’t really broken out from the pack, and the label doesn’t seem to have put a lot of effort into promoting this end-of-contract collection from which only two singles were released.

That being said, the #3-peaking title track is one of Byrd’s best remembered hits. The radio-friendly “I’m From The Country”, written by Marty Brown, Stan Webb and Richard Young of The Kentucky Headhunters is a typical 90s line-dancing style tune but it has aged well. The follow-up single “I Wanna Feel That Way Again” is nice ballad, though more pop-leaning than most of Byrd’s material. It reached #9.

As is often the case, there were some album cuts that hit single potential but were overlooked. The best of them is the up-tempo “Walkin’ the Line”, while “I Still Love the Night Life” — about a man who has settled down to the dismay of his rowdy friends — is a close runner-up. It was written by Kelley Lovelace and Brad Paisley, who was still a year away from making his major label debut. The somewhat pedestrian ballad “On Again, Off Again” is the album’s weakest link, but the remainder of the tracks, while not particularly memorable, are at least solid efforts.

I’ve always thought that Tracy Byrd was a talented vocalist whose material was somewhat inconsistent. I’m From The Country is no exception, but it does have enough very good (though not necessarily great) moments to recommend it.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Tracy Byrd – ‘Big Love’

Tracy_bigloveMy first Tracy Byrd album was his fourth, Big Love. Released in the fall of 1996, the project was once again produced by Tony Brown.

The major radio hits came courtesy of the first and second singles, both of which were recorded previously by other artists. The title track, written by Michael Clark and Jeff Stevens, came first and peaked at #3. An excellent uptempo declaration of man’s feelings, it was recorded by Chris LeDoux on his Haywire album two years prior.

Gary U.S. Bonds and Jerry Williams’ “Don’t Take Her She’s All I Got” peaked at #4. Under the title “She’s All I Got,” the song was first recorded by R&B vocalist Freddy North in 1971, and Tanya Tucker would release a “He’s All I Got” version in 1972. The song had its highest chart peak in 1971 by Johnny Paycheck, who took it to #2 on the country charts. Byrd does an excellent job with his cover, turning the tune into a blistering honky-tonker complete with glorious drum and steel guitar work.

Two more singles were released from Big Love although neither reached the top ten let alone the top five. “Don’t Love Make A Diamond Shine,” a honky-tonker written by Craig Wiseman and Mike Dekle, peaked at #17. The track is such a bland and generic example of the period that it’s hardly surprising it was met with such a cool reception at radio. “Good ‘Ol Fashioned Love,” a pleasant neo-traditional number, peaked at #47. Written by Mark Nesler and Tony Martin, it has the makings of a good song, but it marred in overwrought sentimentality.

Nesler and Byrd teamed up to write “Tucson Too Soon,” a neo-traditional number interesting only for the fact the guy is regretting leaving, not merely packing up to move on. Nesler wrote “Driving Me Out of Your Mind,” an ear-catching honk-tonker, solo.

Harlan Howard teamed with Kostas for “I Don’t Believe That’s How You Feel,” an excellent number Byrd copes with brilliantly. The mariachi horns took me by surprise as does Byrd’s choice in recording this, a number that seems primed for Dwight Yoakam. Harley Allen and Shawn Camp co-wrote “Cowgirl,” a beautifully produced western swing number with arguably the dumbest lyric on the whole album.

“If I Stay” comes from the combined pens of Dean Dillon and Larry Bastian. The mid-tempo number could’ve been a little more country, but it’s excellent nonetheless. Chris Crawford and Tom Kimmel’s “I Love You, That’s All” is the traditionalists dream, and a great song at that.

Big Love is a solid album from Byrd, showcasing his willingness to grow with the times and adapt his sound for the changing definition of what it took to have hit singles in 1996. There’s nothing revelatory about Big Love in any way but it is a rather enjoyable listening experience.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Tracy Byrd – ‘Love Lessons’

lovelessonsTAfter enjoying tremendous commercial success with 1994’s No Ordinary Man, Tracy Byrd stumbled a bit with the following year’s Love Lessons, which failed to produce any major hits. Of its four singles, only the title track reached the Top 10, peaking at #9.

The album found him working once again with Tony Brown, who had produced some of his early hits from his debut album. First out of the box was the catchy line-dance number “Walking To Jersusalem”, which peaked at #15, a far cry from the #2-peaking “Keeper of the Stars” that had preceded it. The title track was the album’s biggest hit, but it is a bit dull and far from memorable. Much better is “Heaven In My Woman’s Eyes”, which sounds like something out of Merle Haggard’s catalog, but was actually written by Mark Nesler. I also liked “4 to 1 in Atlanta” which finds the protagonist preparing to visit Georgia in search of Ms. Right.

Love Lessons is one of those albums which is neither great nor terrible, and thus not very memorable. It lacks the compelling material of its predecessor. Tracy still sounds a lot like George Strait on a lot of the tracks. All of the songs are at least good, and today they might be considered great, but they did not stand out in era in which country music routinely turned out much higher quality material than it does today. There is no “Keeper of the Stars” or “Lifestyles of the Not So Rich and Famous” on this collection with the exception of two numbers written by two of country music’s greatest songwriters: “You Lied To Me” by the great Bill Anderson and “Don’t Need That Heartache” by Kostas and Melba Montgomery. Both of these songs are head and shoulders above anything else the album has to offer.

Love Lessons is not essential listening but is worth the small cash outlay required to obtain a used copy.

Grade: B

Album Review: Tracy Byrd – ‘Tracy Byrd’

Tracy byrd debut

Most of Tracy’s self-titled debut album, released in 1993, was produced by Keith Stegall in solidly neotraditional vein. However when the pleasant but somewhat anonymous initial single, ‘That’s The Thing About A Memory’ failed to make much traction, and he went back into the studio with label head Tony Brown to add three further tracks, which included the next two singles.

A cover of Johnny Paycheck’s hit ’Someone To Give My Love To’ (like the previous effort) showed off his deep voice and underlined his traditionalist credentials, but didn’t quite crack the top 40, and like its predecessor it didn’t really stand out. The big break came with single number three, ‘Holdin’ Heaven’ becoming the artist’s first charte topper. A very commercial rhythmic number with line dance potential it is not particularly memorable now

A fourths ingle, ‘Why Don’t That Telephone Ring’ then flopped just inside the top 40. That’s a shame because it’s an excellent mature ballad about man clinging on to a forlorn hope that his relationship is not over, which is the best of the three singles to my ears.

‘An Out Of Control Raging Fire’ (the third track produced by Tony Brown) is a duet with Dawn Sears, who was another rising star at the time. Both vocalists sing beautifully on the tune (which was later recorded by Patty Loveless with Travis Tritt).

My favorite trick, however, is the fabulous shuffle ‘Hat Trick’, written by Jim Weatherly and Glenn Sutton. The protagonist responds with wry resignation as he gets thrown out by his ex:

Now I ain’t no magician
Can’t change the way things are
I can’t make you love me if its not in the cards
I can’t wave a magic wand and make you want me near
But I can do a hat trick
I’ll put it on and disappear

I quite liked his cover of the western swing ‘Talk To Me Texas’, although it lacks the character of Keith Whitley’s version. Much the same goes for ‘Back In The Swing Of Things’, which was written by Vern Gosdin, Dean Dillon and Buddy cannon, and which Gosdin later cut himself.

At this stage of his career Tracy had not quite found his own voice as an artist. In particular the regret-filled ‘Why’ and ‘Edge Of A Memory’ are both excellent songs which sound as though Tracy is trying a little too hard to sound like George Strait (one of his big influences).

While this is not an essential purchase, it was a promising debut, and you can find used copies very cheaply. Or just download ‘Hat Trick’.

Grade: B

Album Review: The Desert Rose Band – ‘True Love’

true loveAfter just three albums, the band released a Greatest Hits compilations (A Dozen Roses). Alongside the hits were a couple of new songs, minor hit ‘Will This Be The Day’ and the less successful ‘Come A Little Closer’. Changes were on the way. Steel guitarist Jay Dee Maness left in 1990, replaced by former Buckaroo Tom Brumley, while Tony Brown took up the producer’s role for the groups’s fourth studio album. The result was a mellower, more low key album than their first three, but although its pleasures are more subtle than the joyful country rock of their commercial heyday, this is a fine album.

Neither of the two singles selected did well. The first of them ‘You Can Go Home’ (written by Hillman with Jack Tempchin, best known for writing the Eagles’ ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling’), is actually an excellent song about the impossibility of going back again to a former life. ‘Twilight Is Gone’ (one of four songs written with Steve Hill) is also good, a reflective mid-tempo song about loneliness and regret over a failed relationship. It may have been too low key for radio play.

The title track (another of Hill’s co-writes) is a warmhearted celebration of love. The urgent ‘Glory And Power’ is about the central importance of love in one’s life, in the context of a man who finds it hard to communicate his feelings. ‘Shades Of Blue’ is a tasteful ballad.

The best of the other songs is the pretty ‘Undying Love’, the only non-Hillman tune (it was written by Peter Rowan), which is a duet with Alison Krauss. Krauss’s angelic tones work well responding to, and harmonising with Chris. She was not yet well known in country music circles, or perhaps this would have been a single.

The philosophical and optimistic ‘It Takes A Believer’, co-written with Michael Woody, is pleasantly melodic. Woody also co-wrote the more downbeat ‘Behind These Walls’.

Herb Pedersen sang lead on the brisk ‘No One Else’, which he wrote with Chris, and which is perhaps the most reminiscent of the band’s earlier work. ‘A Matter Of Time’ has a solid country rock groove although it isn’t that memorable lyrically.

The album lacked the bright tone and sparkle of the group’ s first three albums, and I can see why it slowed down their career. Tony Brown had a reputation as a hitmaking producer, but it may have been a mistake to call on him this time. But the album has a lot to offer the more thoughtful listener.

Grade: B+

Single Review: Chris Stapleton – ‘What Are You Listening To?’

what are you listening toChris Stapleton has been one of Nashville’s premier songwriters for some years. He has also been known to discriminating music listeners as the lead singer on the SteelDrivers’ first two albums, each of which were recognised by Grammy nominations. Now he takes center stage with a mainstream major label deal as a solo vocalist on Mercury Records. His debut single is available for download now, and a full length album is expected later this year, both produced by veteran Tony Brown. Brown is an inspired choice for Stapleton, whose eclectic tastes have led him in the past to make music spanning country, rock, blues and bluegrass genres.

The gently paced mid-tempo ballad is not really traditional country, with blues and soul influences evident. However, its mellow feel and attractive melody make it more than listenable, helped along by a sympathetic production, the artist’s distinctively smoky, bluesy voice, and the sweet harmonies of his wife Morgane Hayes. The protagonist wonders a little wistfully what the music his ex is listening to implies about her emotional state – is she still not over him, and listening to sad songs, or a love song for a new love interest. He himself is clearly fixated on a record which reminds him of her.

Stapleton has a big powerful voice he is capable of letting rip as he did with former band the SteelDrivers, but here he shows all the understated restraint this downbeat number needs. There is still passion and feeling here, but it is channeled in a more subtle way.

I hope this is not too tasteful for country radio to deal with, because not only is this a fine record in its own right, but Stapleton is a major talent who deserves to be heard.

Listen here.

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: Trace Adkins – ‘Love Will’

lovewillI never know what to expect from Trace Adkins these days. I’m hard pressed to think of another example of such a talented vocalist whose musical output is so wildly inconsistent. Love Will, his latest effort, while not quite a return to his traditional roots, at least avoids obnoxious songs in the vein of “Chrome”, “Hillbilly Bone” and the infamous “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”.

He teams up with a variety of producers this time around: Frank Rogers, Mark Wright, Tony Brown, Mickey Jack Cones and Kenny Beard, most of whom he has worked with in the past, and for the most part the results are quite good. The opening track “When I Stop Loving You”, is a catchy number that would be a good choice for a late summer single. It was written by Even Stevens and Marty Brown, who had a brief recording stint with MCA in the early 90s.

Things move in a decidedly more pop direction beginning with the second track “So What If I Do”, which may very well be the first Trace Adkins recording to ever feature a saxophone. “Come See Me”, written by Kenny Beard and Exile members J.P. Pennington and Sonny LaMaire. This song sets the stage for a cover of an Exile song, on which some of the band members appear as guest artists (more on this a little later). I actually didn’t mind the pop leaning songs up to this point, but by the time we get to the overproduced “Altar of Your Love”, the only Adkins co-write on the album, it begins to wear a little thin. And then there’s the cover of “Kiss You All Over”, which was a #1 pop hit for Exile in 1978, which sounds very much like a product of the era in which it originated. Its inclusion on the album seems pointless: Exile spends as much (or perhaps more) time singing as Adkins, and if he had to cover an Exile song, there are much better ones to choose from than this.

Fortunately, things improve dramatically after this. “If The Sun Comes Up” is an excellent number that sounds like vintage Adkins. “Say No To A Woman” is a more respectful look at the fairer sex than some other songs in Trace’s catalog. The current single “Watch The World End”, a duet with pop-singer Colbie Caillat is enjoyable, although the string section is somewhat intrusive. Likewise, I could have done without the strings and choir on the Chris Stapleton and Tim James-penned title track, which closes out the album.

Love Will is more pop-leaning than most of Trace’s other albums, which may be an attempt to remain relevant at country radio. It is however, a more mature sound for him, and the absence of tasteless and sexist redneck anthems is a most welcome change.

Grade: B