My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Tony Martin

Album Review: John Michael Montgomery – ‘What I Do The Best’

JMM’s career started to take a downturn in the mid 1990s. ‘Ain’t Got Nothin’ On Us’, the lead single from his fourth album, was a sad disappointment, peaking at #15, his lowest charting single ever. It’s a shame, because it is a rather charming jazzy western swing number with some very nice fiddle. It was written by Jim Robinson and Wendell Mobley.

My favorite song on the album was rather more successful. ‘Friends’, written by Jerry Holland, reached #2. It is a beautiful sounding ballad with a pained Montgomery facing the loss of love and an ex who wants to keep him around in a non-romantic way:

You say you want to be friends
That’s a newly sharpened blade
That’s a dagger to the heart
Of the promises we made
That’s a chapter full of pain
A season full of rain
A dark and stormy night
Spent all alone

Friends get scattered by the wind
Tossed upon the waves
Lost for years on end
Friends slowly drift apart
They give away their hearts
Maybe call you now and then
But you wanna be “just friends”

You say you love me very much
And you’ll always hold me dear
Those are the sweetest words
I never wanna hear
What’s a love without desire
A flame without a fire
Can’t warm me late at night
When I need you most

A subdued opening builds in emotion and power through the song.

‘I Miss You A Little’, a rare JMM co-write, was the third single, and was anther top 10 hit. It is a downbeat song about loss which is very good. The final single from the album was ‘How Was I To Know’, which just missed the top spot but is a rather bland adult contemporary tune.

He also wrote ‘A Few Cents Short’, a very nice midpaced song about someone too hardpressed financially to contact his loved one:

Lookin’ for spare change to put gas in my car
But what I’ve found won’t get me very far
Seems lately the low times have hit me pretty hard
‘Cause I’m a few cents short from gettin’ to where you are

I’m a few cents short of holding you in my arms
And a few cents short of keepin’ us from falling apart
Ain’t it funny how the money can change our lives
‘Cause I’m a few cents short from losing you tonight

So I walked to a pay phone down the road
But a few dimes and a nickel is all I hold
The operator wants more money to place my call
But I’m a few cents short

Some lovely fiddle ornaments the song.

My favorite of the remaining tracks is the vibrant and very retro shuffle ‘Lucky Arms’, envying his ex’s new love. The title track is a very nice mid paced love song. ‘I Can Prove You Wrong’ is a tender ballad offering true love to a woman who has been hurt in the past.

In the quirky ‘Cloud 8’, written by Byron Hill and Tony Martin, the protagonist has lost in love and compares himself to those still happily on Cloud 9. ‘Paint The Town Redneck’ is quite an entertaining song about letting loose on a Friday night after a hard week’s work.

The album was certified platinum, which was a significant reduction from his previous efforts. However, it is a solid effort which I enjyed a lot.

Grade: A

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Album Review: Ty England – ‘Two Ways To Fall’

Ty turned to Byron Gallimore and James Stroud to produce his second RCA album in 1996. It was filled with positive, mainly up-tempo material, without a broken heart in sight.

The lead single, the energetic up-tempo blue-collar love song ‘Irresistible You’ is, if not quite irresistible, quite enjoyable, although the production is a bit too busy. Written by Billy Lawson, it peaked at #22. The second and final single ‘All Of The Above’, written by Chris Waters and Jon Robbin, failed to crack the top 40, but I actually prefer it. It’s a little fluffy lyrically, with its multiple choice test with no wrong answers, but Ty’s earnest vocal sells it as a sweet love song.

Ty was generally more at home on the upbeat material. The frantic opener ‘It Starts With L’, written by Sandy Ramos, is very catchy and could have been a single. ‘Never Say Never’ (by Al Anderson and Craig Wiseman) has a similar vibe.

The title track, written by husband and wife team Barry and Holly Tashian with Mark D Sanders, is a nice mid paced song about the ups and downs of love, although the arrangement does sound a little dated now.

‘I’ll Take Today’ is a nice ballad about an encounter with an ex he no longer regrets losing, and affirming his love for his present partner. ‘Sure’ is another pleasant love song.

‘The Last Dance’, written by Tony Martin, Reece Wilson and Roger Springer, is a lovely midpaced story song on the lines of Rhett Akins’s 1995 hit ‘She Said Yes’, with a shy boy finding love at a high school dance, and then marrying the girl:

Nervous and scared I asked you for a dance
All of my buddies said “Yeah, right, fat chance
She’ll never go for a good ol’ boy like you”
But somewhere between my stutter and stammer
Before I could ask you had already answered
And to my surprise you said that you’d love to

And they all laughed when I stepped on your toes
But they got quiet when you moved in close
They lost their smiles when they knew they’d lost their chance
My two left feet couldn’t do a right thing
I looked like a fool but I felt like a king
Oh, they got a laugh
But look who got the last dance

Nervous and scared after saying “I do”
All of my buddies made fun of the new groom
As they stood in line waiting to kiss the bride
They kept us apart dancing with you all night long
But when the band started into their last song
I was the one standing by your side

I really like this song. The same writing trio provided ‘Kick Back’, a bright western swing tune about accepting life.

The highlight of the record, though, is ‘Backslider’s Prayer’, a touching story song about a man struggling with life and faith who ends up praying out loud in a crowded diner:

He said “I know this ain’t the time or place
But Lord, I need to talk”
In a business suit in a corner booth
In a crowded little restaurant

We all tried not to listen
We all tried not to look
But a whole room full of customers
And the waitress and the cook
All stopped what we were doing
When he bowed his head
In that silence we heard every word he said

“I’ve been trying to do things my way
Down here on life’s highway
Slippin’, slidin’ sideways
Between no way and nowhere
If I could only gain a foothold
Up there on your high road
Lord, if you hear me help me
I’ll do anything you tell me to
All I’ve got to offer you is this
Backslider’s prayer

Well, the waitress made the first move
When she filled his coffee cup
She said “You ain’t alone here, mister
You’re speaking for the rest of us”
I heard some scattered Amens
And a couple of “I’ve been theres”
Then things got back to normal
The dishes and the silverware
Were clanging in the kitchen
Like an angels’ band
As I took my place in line
To shake his hand

While a perfectly capable singer, Ty was not at all distinctive as a vocalist, and the lack of emotional depth and variety on this album is another drawback. It’s not a major surprise that radio lost interest, and RCA pulled the plug on his record deal after this album. It remains pleasant listening, but not essential.

Grade: B

Single Review: Josh Turner – ‘Lay Low’

lay lowEvery year there seem to be fewer and fewer traditionally rooted country singers on mainstream labels still making a play for radio attention. Josh Turner is one of the holdouts, so it’s always good to hear from him, even if his material is sometimes less ambitious than one would ideally like. The precipitous recent decline in lyrical themes makes his conservative approach all the more welcome. Even in better times for country music Josh’s richly burnished bass-baritone voice would stand out.

His newest single, ‘Lay Low’ paints a comforting picture of the tranquillity to be found in a rural retreat with a loved one, a million miles away from the dispiriting partying songs we hear too much. Although Josh didn’t write the song (reliable songwriting team Tony Martin, Mark Nesler and Ross Copperman are responsible), it was apparently written especially for him and was inspired by a cabin owned by Josh and his wife. A pretty melody and sincere vocal make this a breath of fresh air on the airwaves, and raise hopes for Josh’s new album.

The production is given a little radio friendly gloss which will hopefully make it palatable for DJs while retaining the song’s country roots, and allowing Josh’s great vocals to shine (although I regret to say that I hear traces of vocal processing in some places – completely unnecessary. It isn’t the best thing he’s ever recorded, but it is a decent song and has a welcome maturity in its approach to

Grade: A-

Album Review: Tracy Byrd – ‘Different Things’

different thingsAfter leaving RCA, Tracy struck out on his own. His last album to date was released on his own label in 2006). Freedom from commercial concerns led him to his most mature work, and the best album of his career. He produced the set alongside Mike Geiger, and they did a fine job showcasing the songs tastefully.

My very favourite track is the incisive and gloriously judgmental cheating song, ‘Cheapest Motel’ in which a man loses everything after a fling:

They used the Bible for a coaster
And it never crossed their mind
Maybe they should have opened it
Instead of that high dollar wine

But he ends up exchanging his happy marriage and family for a lonely existence:
The cheapest motel in town cost him everything

It was written by Cole Deggs, Mike Geiger and Trey Matthews. It was the lead single, and got a little airplay, but really deserved to do much better.

Almost as good, the sober realisation of the title track shows a man who has come to understand his failings. He looks back on a lifetime’s rash choices, now that his marriage is collapsing.

What I want is to give up
Just let go and walk out on us
What I need is to see this through
Oh, and find a way back to you

The last thing that I reach for every evening
Is a woman who I can’t reach any more
Time has worn the new off of the feeling
And right now I wanna just walk out the door
But what I want and what I need
Have always been different things

This excellent song was written by John Ramey, Brice Long and Bobby Taylor, and is interpreted with the just the right amount of resignation by Tracy. A stripped down production gives it the perfect support.

A similarly rueful attitude dominates ‘She Was Smart’, in which a rich man finds out money isn’t enough to make up for his lack of commitment to his girlfriend.

Sweet but not overly sentimental, ‘Just One Woman’ is a ballad with a spoken introduction about an old man’s lifelong love for his wife. Also rather sweet, ‘A Cowboy And A Dancer’ is a story song in which a cowboy down on his luck meets a girl whose dreams of musical theatre stardom have sputtered out by working as a stripper to put herself through college. A shared ride out of Texas turns into romance.

‘Saltwater Cowboy’ is a lighthearted and likeable beach song. ‘The Biggest Thing In Texas’ is a fun little slice of western swing which allows Tracy to affectionately dig at his fellow Texans’ pride in their home state:
Pride is the biggest thing in Texas

‘Better Places Than This’ the second and last single sadly failed to chart, but it is an entertaining honky tonker with sadness at its heart. In response to being thrown out of a second-rate bar where he’s been drowning his sorrows a little too long, the protagonist declares:

Keep your old cold shoulder and your lukewarm beer

I haven’t lost anything here I can’t live without
Can’t you see everything’s already gone that I ever cared about?

I’ve been thrown out of better places than this
I know where to go and I know what to kiss
I’ve heard it all before from my sweet angel’s lips

‘Before I Die’ offers up a bucket list with a wistfully delivered lyric and lovely melody. Not outstanding, but nicely done.

The closing ‘Hot Night In The Country’ is a rare Tracy Byrd co-writing credit (alongside Mark Nesler and Tony Martin) but is a bit dull. ‘The More I Feel Rockin’’ is a cheerful mid-tempo celebration of refusing to slow down despite growing older – pleasant filler but enjoyable enough.

Overall, though, this is the best album Tracy has ever recorded, and is an essential purchase. That makes it all the more disappointing that he has gone silent since its release.

Grade: A

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 – Aaron Tippin – ‘What This Country Needs’

CountryneedsChange was afoot for Aaron Tippin in 1998. His tenure at RCA Nashville ended in 1997 and Lyric Street Records quickly signed him in early 1998. He went to work on a new album, and released What This Country Needs in October. Tippin co-produced the project along with Pat McMakin, marking their first time working together.

He previewed the album with Mark Nesler and Tony Martin’s “For You, I Will,” which peaked at #6. A love song, it succeeds on a pleasant mid-tempo production featuring a nice dose of fiddle and steel. It’s a fairly middle of the road song at best, and Tippin’s somewhat disengaged vocal is partly to blame. But I do really enjoy the production.

Subsequent singles didn’t fair as well. The neo-traditional “I’m Leaving” hit #17 and is quite good, although his vocal is too gruff and out of place. Piano and steel ballad “Her” peaked at #33 and overall is much better than its predecessors, especially vocally, although the track isn’t anything overly special. The in your face title track, a Tippin co-write with Donny Kees, hit #47. Somewhat clever play on words the track isn’t talking about America (like the opening lines suggest), but the country genre’s move in a poppier direction:

‘Cause what this country needs

Is a little more steel guitar

And put a little fiddle right in the middle

Straight out of a Texas bar

And give us a song, we can all sing along

From sea to shining sea

Be proud of it and always love it

That’s what this country needs

Tippin may get his point across, but the track is no “Murder On Music Row.” The rock production is too jarring for a song about reconnecting with traditional sounds. He mostly sticks with those traditional sounds on the remaining tracks, with “Don’t Stop (We’re Just Getting Started)” leading the pack. By 1998 this line dance ready barroom romper was a bit dated, but the drenching of steel helps it rise above the pack.  The same classic elements bring the excellent “Somewhere Under The Rainbow” to life.

“I Didn’t Come This Far (Just to Walk Away)” is a favorite track of mine because I really enjoy both the melody and overall country feel. Same goes for “Back When I Knew Everything” and “Sweetwater,” two barroom anthems. The honky-tonk production and twang-y guitars are excellent additions to the songs. The remaining tracks, “Nothing Compares to Loving You” and “You’re The Only Reason For Me” are the only clunkers suffering from being too loud and far too adult contemporary, respectively, for my tastes.

Overall, What This Country Needs is just an okay album – nothing terrible yet nothing outstanding (none of the songs are particularly memorable in any significant way). My main issue with the project is Tippin himself – he sounds neither comfortable nor confident and gives spotty vocals throughout. He’s proven he can be strong enough on somewhat traditional material, but he hardly brings any of those goods here.

Grade: C

Album Review: Collin Raye -‘Never Going Back’

never going backIn 2006 Collin released a Europe-only release to coincide with a tour; the US didn’t miss anything because Fearless is frankly pretty awful. Three years later, he teamed up with Saguaro Road, a Time Life imprint, and produced his most recent secular effort to date. Never Going Back is better than Fearless, but overall proved to be another disappointment with a few bright spots.

The screamed out rock of the title track, written by Collin with the album’s producer Michael A Curtis, is an over-produced, too-loud error of judgment, entirely unsuited to Collin’s strength as an artist. At five minutes, it is also far too long.

There are a couple of outright pop covers, neither successful. Pop classic ‘Without You’, performed as a duet with Christian music artist Susan Ashton has nicely understated verses but gets completely overblown on the chorus, both vocally and instrumentally. Collin’s version of ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’ is just boring karaoke which seems pointless.

Collin’s voice is a bit strained at times on the over-produced mid-tempo ‘Mid Life Chrysler’, a barbed portrait of a middle aged man trying to hold on to his youth with the aid of hair dye and a hot car while jettisoning a longstanding marriage. It is the most interesting of four songs written by Neil Thrasher, this one with Wendell Mobley and Tony Martin. Thrasher and Mobley’s ‘You Get Me’ and ‘Take Care of You’ (written by Thrasher and Mobley with Aimee Mayo) are bland pop-leaning love songs. The sugary piano ballad ‘I Love You This Much’, written by Thrasher with Austin Cunningham, is not the Jimmy Wayne hit but uses the same “open arms” imagery and shift to Jesus in the last verse, to significantly less effect.

Things improve with Curtis’s beautiful ‘The Cross’, a touching story song about a widow celebrating her love at a roadside cross she visits to remember him, I presume at the site of his death:

I don’t come to mourn his dying
But to celebrate his life
Death can never stop love
Between a husband and a wife
There’s something about coming here
When I’m feeling lost
When I need to find my peace of mind
I just come to the cross

‘The Only Jesus’, written by Raye with Curtis, is also pretty good, with its inspiring story of behaving in a Christlike manner towards a drunk, because

I might be the only Jesus he will ever see

Oh, and who am I to judge him?
Don’t know what he’s been through
If I read the Bible right there’s only something God can do
If I can help him out of darkness
Let him see the light in me
I might be the only Jesus he will ever see

The heartfelt ‘She’s With Me’ was written by Collin about other people’s reactions to his disabled granddaughter.

‘Where It Leads’ is quite catchy Southern rock with bouncy piano, which works much better than most of Raye’s forays into rockier material, because there is both an actual melody and a lyric that tells a story. The soothingly melodic ‘Don’t Tell Me You’re Not In Love’ (also recorded by George Strait on The Road Less Travelled) is prettily done and one of the few tracks I thoroughly enjoyed, although I prefer Strait’s cut.

While not Collin’s best work, the good tracks are worth hearing. This is definitely a case of selective downloading.

Grade: C

Album Review: Gary Allan – ‘Set You Free’

set you freeGary Allan’s career seemed to be on a bit of slowdown, with his last top 10 single coming in 2007. Gary has responded by turning to a variety of producers, often a ploy of the artist in decline and desperate to get another hit, but on the whole it seems to have worked. The result is probably the artist’s most sonically adventurous album to date, which is a mixed blessing, but after an initial sense of disappointment on my first hearing, I’ve warmed to the record more than I was expecting.

His biggest hit single in years, the resigned ‘Every Storm Runs Out Of Rain’, is a good song in a contemporary vein. The production (overseen by Gary with Greg Droman) is adventurous and a long way from Gary’s earliest traditional leanings, but not unattractive (apart from an echo which I could do without but is only used a couple of times). It places Gary’s best plaintive vocal at the heart of the track, supported by an effective harmony from co-writer Hillary Lindsey. This is the song which give the album its title.

Gary and Droman also produced ‘You Without Me’, a weary reflection on dealing with having split from someone the protagonist still loves, which Gary wrote with John Lancaster and Rachel Proctor, with another fine vocal. ‘Sand In My Soul’, their third collaboration, on the other hand, is a boring Warren Brothers song about depression on the beach, with a weird echoey sound. The bluesy rocker ‘Bones’, written by Keith Gattis, has an interesting lyric but it sounds like a loud tuneless mess. Disappointingly it is one of the songs flagged on the CD packaging as a likely single.

Gary turned to Mark Wright to help with a further three tracks. The best of these is ‘Hungover Heart’ which is a solid number despite a sometimes heavy hand with the electric guitars. Gary’s vulnerable vocal is perfect for the song, written by Matt Warren and James Leblanc. Gary’s own ‘No Worries’ is bland and boring reggae-lite which sounds like a Kenny Chesney reject, with irritatingly whispery, echoey production. ‘Good As New’ closes the album with an air of philosophical resignation, and is okay but a little over-produced.

The producer with the biggest role is Jay Joyce, best known for his work with Eric Church, and although I was concerned that I wouldn’t care for his work with Gary, it turns out to be better then expected. The best track on the album is one of his production efforts, is the downbeat ‘It Ain’t The Whiskey’, which showcases Gary’s grainy voice and is reminiscent of his best work, and where the production choices are inventive in a mostly good way (although the last instrumental break is pointlessly loud). An unusual opening with the faint sound of an organ leads into the body of the song, in which Gary declares to an AA meeting “in the church of the broken people” that depression is the root of his addiction, and

It ain’t the whiskey that’s killing me

The song was written by Greg Barnhill, Jim Daddario and Cole Degges.

Joyce also does a good job with the chugging ‘Tough Goodbye’, about a commitment-phobe with some qualms about breaking up with his latest victim. Penned by Josh Thompson and Tony Martin, the song is pretty good and gets a committed delivery from Gary, with an interesting ending where he suddenly sounds more vulnerable and even regretful. It might make a good single.

‘Drop’, another likely single does have a compelling, sexy vocal, but the song is just okay and the instrumental arrangement and production don’t really appeal to me, although it might work on radio. The mid-tempo ‘Pieces’ (written by Gary with Odie Blackmon and Sarah Burton) isn’t bad but is a bit loud, while ‘One More Time’, written by Gary with Hillary Lindsey and Matt Warren, is inoffensive but boring.

Overall, I think this album is a distinct improvement over his last couple of albums, although the quality of the material is not up to his classic work.

Grade: B

Album Review – Sammy Kershaw – ‘Politics, Religion, and Her’

When Sammy Kershaw convened in the studio to follow up Feelin’ Good Train he stuck with his trusty production team of Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson. In addition to his secular work, they’d teamed up for a holiday release, Christmas Time’s A-Comin’ (the title track being my favorite version of that fabulous song) in the winter of 1994, and Greatest Hits, Chapter 1 in 1995.  As a result, when Politics, Religion and Her was released in May 1996, it stuck true to the formula Kershaw had honed since his debut five years earlier.

Lead single “Meant To Be,” an uptempo ode to finding love in unexpected places, was the most successful at radio peaking at #5. He followed with the novelty song “Vidalia” which reached a #10 peak that summer. Both are very good although “Vidalia,” a song I remember distinctly from watching the video on CMT as a kid, isn’t the greatest lyric in Kershaw’s catalog.

Radio didn’t respond as kindly to the album’s title track and it only managed to squeak into the top the top 30. Thanks to a killer lyric by Bryon Hill and Tony Martin plus underpinnings of mournful steel, it’s my favorite of the four singles. Deflecting pain has rarely sounded so good as it does here:

Let’s talk about baseball

Talk a little small talk

There’s gotta be a good joke

That you’ve heard

Let’s talk about NASCARs

Old Hollywood movie stars

Let’s talk about anything

Anything in this world

But politics, religion and her

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Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Feelin’ Good Train’

Sammy’s third album for Mercury/Polygram was released in 1994, and was produced as before by the team of Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson.  The first single, ‘National Working Woman’s Holiday  proved to be Sammy’s biggest hit since She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful, just missing the top spot with a #2 peak.  It was co-written from the usually estimable Roger Murrah, but while it is catchy, this well-meaning tribute to a man’s hard working wife comes across as pandering.

A cover of the Amazing Rhythm Aces’ 1970s hit ‘Third Rate Romance’, which is much better, also reached #2.  The closely observed lyric is on the surface unjudgmental, but sharply honest and precise about the sleazy nature of the situation.  The original singer and the song’s writer, Russell Smith, contributes backing vocals.

Mac McAnally’s gently atmospheric but slightly overproduced ‘Southbound’) with McAnally on backing vocals) was perhaps too subtle for country radio, and showed the first signs of a commercial slowdown for the artist, not getting far into the top 30.  ‘If You’re Gonna Walk, I’m Gonna Crawl’ did a little better, and was a top 20 hit.  It’s actually my favourite of the album’s singles, an entertaining upbeat number about a honky tonker seeing the error of his ways only when his wife is set to walk away.  It was written by co-producer Cannon with Larry Bastian.

There is a rare writing credit for Sammy on the joyous Cajun rocker ‘Better Call A Preacher’, which features Jo-El Sonnier’s accordion. I’m surprised this irresistible track wasn’t a single.  Another joy is ‘Never Bit A Bullet Like This’, a playfully performed duet with George Jones.  Also quite entertaining is ‘Paradise From Nine To One’, a cheerful if rather generic up-tempo number about a couple painting the town red.  The title track, however, is just pointless

Breakup song ‘If You Ever Come This Way Again’ is a Dean Dillon co-write (with Donny Kees).  The phrasing and melody bear all the hallmarks of a Dillon composition, while the production utilizes adelicate string arrangement to add sweetness to the melancholy mood. This is an excellent, subtle song about the complicated emotions felt by the protagonist facing separation from someone for whom we feel he has stronger feelings than he actually admits.

Also excellent is the delicately mournful ballad ‘The Heart That Time Forgot’, written by Tony Martin and Sterling Whipple, about failing to get past the memory of a lost love.  The soulful ‘Too Far Gone To Leave’ is an emotional ballad which isn’t bad, but has an obtrusive string arrangement which drowns the vocal at times.

It did not sell quite as well as its predecessors, but was certified gold.  While not Sammy Kershaw’s best work, it is a pretty solid effort, and used copies are available so cheaply it’s worth picking up.

Grade: B+

Album Review – Tim McGraw – ‘Everywhere’

By the time Everywhere saw the light of day in June 1997, Tim McGraw was an established hit maker but not a superstar. His music was mostly cast aside as nothing more than novelty and he had yet to prove he was more than just another 90s hat act. That all would change here as Everywhere would go on to sell four million copies and win McGraw the respect of the industry. He was finally a force to be reckoned with at both country radio and on the road.

Lead single “It’s Your Love,” a massively successful duet with his wife Faith Hill, would take on a life of its own spending six weeks at #1 and winning boatloads of awards from the ACMs and CMAs. It would also be named Billboard Magazine’s #1 country single of 1997.

The romantic ballad, pinned by Stephony Smith, worked because the chemistry between McGraw and Hill was enough to sell the song. The nicely restrained arrangement, complete with the light acoustic guitar and organ flourishes, is also a stunning moment for commercial country in those days.

The title track would follow also peaking at #1. While not as massive a hit, “Everywhere” was even more important – it proved McGraw could sell subtlety and emotional depth through further developing the promise he showed with “Can’t Be Really Gone.” Written by Mike Reid and Craig Wiseman, “Everywhere” is easily my favorite song on the whole album and sounds as fresh today as it did back then.

I love the story here – a man’s regretting the end of a relationship and sees his ex wherever he goes – and the brilliance of the songwriting. Reid and Wiseman spend much of the song focused on the man’s travels, but smartly take a second to ground his journey with the line:

Cause you and I made our choices

All those years ago

Still I know I’ll hear your voice

And see you down the road

I can’t even begin to imagine how poorly “Everywhere” would be written by today’s standards (especially by the Peach Pickers). In conjunction with the lyrics, the soaring arrangement complete with fiddle, steel guitar, and gorgeous acoustic guitars nicely compliment the vastness of the many places this man has been.

The third single, the irresistibly catchy “Just To See You Smile” would match the success of “It’s Your Love” by spending six weeks at #1 and becoming Billboard Magazine’s #1 country single of 1998. The banjo driven arrangement complete with pedal steel and acoustic guitar make it one of those sunny songs you have to turn up when it comes on the radio. I love this one as well and can’t believe how good it sounds all these years later.

Fourth Single “One Of These Days” may be the best ballad of McGraw’s career. Written by Marcus Hummond, Monty Powell, and Kip Raines, it would peak at #2 in the spring of 1998. I always regarded it as a love song until writing this review – I never saw the whole picture (a man’s journey towards self-forgiveness for bullying a boy who “was different/he wasn’t cool like me”) until listening to it again this week. It’s a stunning lyric and just may be the best thing McGraw has ever recorded, let alone his best ballad.

Following the “One of These Days” juggernaut was another McGraw standard and multi-week #1 “Where The Green Grass Grows.” Written by Jess Leary and Craig Wiseman, it may be the most lyrically dumb of any of the singles from Everywhere but the fiddle and drum heavy melody are so infectious, you cannot help but sing along.

But “Where The Green Grass Grows” is actually more insightful than meets the eye. A entry into the “couturier than thou” linage, it succeeds by taking the protagonist back to small town living without hitting us over the head with grass is better than concrete imagery. His move out of city life finds him naturally following his heart.

The sixth and final single, “For A Little While” would peak at #2 in spring 1999. Composed by Steve Mandie and Jerry Vandiver along with country singer Phil Vassar, it was a simple love song about a romance not able to last more than a few months:

And I laugh every time I start to think about us

We sent that summer out in style

And she’s gone but she let me with a smile

‘Cause she was mine for a little while

She wasn’t one to be tied down – which he wasn’t looking for anyway – but he’ll always have the memories of their times together. The execution is flawless here; the fiddle, drum, and piano laced production work perfectly to frame the love story contained within.

Of the non-singles on the album, the majority are typical album filler you would’ve expected to populate a country album in the late-90s. There isn’t much there to grasp onto except for “I Do But I Don’t” written by Mark Nesler and Tony Martin, the team behind “Just To See You Smile.” The fiddle and steel guitar laced ballad is quite strong and wouldn’t have been out of place on Mark Wills’ Wish You Were Here album.

Taking another listen, it’s easy to see why Everywhere won the 1998 CMA Album of the Year award and put McGraw’s career into overdrive. The singles are some of the strongest of his career to date with not a bad one in the bunch.

I have very found memories of this project as well. Each of these songs displays a little piece of my third and fourth grade childhood. So listening to them again brings back fond memories of those years. And it’s also nice to see how well the songs have held up after fifteen years time, even if they display how sharply commercial country music has declined since.

If you don’t have a copy they can be easily found on both iTunes and Amazon.

Grade: A

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘All I Want’

Once Tim had made his commercial breakthrough, he was able to be a little more adventurous with his third album in 1995. This marks the point at which one can call Tim McGraw an artist rather than just a singer. The song quality was good, but the production (orchstrated as before by James Stroud and Byron Gallimore) lacks subtlety and leans a little too heavily to electric guitars front and center. Although sales were less than for its predecessor, Tim had found a firm place on country radio, as evidenced by five top 5 singles, two of them #1s.

Lead single, the silly but somehow irresistibly catchy ditty ‘I Like It, I Love It’ (complete with a nod to the Big Bopper), was Tim’s third #1. It also had some pop airplay. The singalong nature of the song for once makes crowd noise acceptable. This song should probably fall in the guilty pleasure category, but I don’t even feel guilty about it.

The rather good emotional string-laden ballad ‘Can’t Be Really Gone’, written by Gary Burr, fell just short, peaking at #2. Tim is not one of the best vocalists around, but this is one of his better efforts, with a real emotional commitment to this song about a man in denial about the permanence of his wife’s leaving. Title track ‘All I Want Is A Life’ is an up-tempo rocker without much melody and with too-loud and now dated sounding production, but a relatable lyric about struggling with poverty and aspirations for something more. It was the least successful of the album’s singles, but still peaked at #5.

Also a bit heavily produced but less obtrusively so, ‘She Never Lets It Go To Her Heart’ was another chart-topper, written by the hitmaking team of Tom Shapiro and Chris Waters. The mid-tempo ‘Maybe We Should Just Sleep On It’ (written by Jerry Laseter and Kerry Kurt Phillips) also did well, peaking at #4. These two are okay but not outstanding, and there was better material on the album, such as the relatively understated ballad ‘The Great Divide’, written by Brett Beavers. This is a very good depiction of a couple trapped in a tired marriage, who would rather pay attention to their respective book and TV show than one another. There is still hope their love can be rekindled.

‘I Didn’t Ask And She Didn’t Say’ is a nicely observed song, written by Reese Wilson, Van Stephenson and Tony Martin. Flight delays lead to an awkward encounter with a long-past ex, where the real questions remain unanswered. Tim’s voice has an urgency in it betraying the protagonist’s suppressed passion as he recalls past happiness, before they part with everything unresolved:

We said our goodbyes
Swore we’d stay in touch
Then we went our separate ways
Knowing no one ever does

‘When She Wakes Up (And Finds Me Gone)’ is another mature song with complex emotions which is well sung by Tim, but would have worked better for me with more stripped down production. The extended electric guitar solo at the end is excessive and adds nothing worthwhile. ‘Don’t Mention Memphis’ is another good song about a breakup, written by Bill LaBounty and Rand Bishop, but the rhythm is abit jerky and the track is over-produced. The impassioned ‘You Got The Wrong Man’ is also quite entertaining if rather processed sounding, as Tim tries to persuade a woman burnt by love before that he isn’t like the man who broke her heart.

Then there are a couple of real missteps. ‘Renegade’ is a boring rocker with Tim unconvincing as a rebel. ‘That’s Just Me’ is a southern/country boy pride number written by Deryl Dodd which sounds musically a little like a slightly slower ‘Indian Outlaw’. Dodd recorded it himself a couple of years later when making his Columbia Records debut.

Overall, the material selected here was a major advance for Tim McGraw, but the production choices are less palatable. Tim had found his musical direction, and if it was a long way from the traditionalism of his first album, it held a lot of appeal for country radio and cemented his fanbase. Triple platinum sales meant this was not quite as successful as its predecessor, but it is a better, more mature work. Better still, from Tim’s point of view, while topuring in support of the album, he fell in love with opening act Faith Hill, and by the time his next album came out he would be a husband and father.

Used copies are available very cheaply.

Grade: B+

Single Review – Josh Turner – ‘Time Is Love’

After a year in which Turner saw his last single, “I Wouldn’t Be A Man” painfully climb to a #18 chart peak, you’d assume he’d return with a much stronger song able to push momentum in his direction again. Unfortunately, he’s returned with another example of subpar material far below his obvious talent.

Written by Tom Shapiro, Tony Martin and Mark Nesler, “Time Is Love” is the type of filler used by artists who need songs to fill out their albums. The generic melody, weak lyrical content, and sub-par vocal performance will likely keep this song from making a big impact at country radio.

“Time Is Love” is constructed as a spin on the phrase time is money with the opening lines setting up the protagonist’s fixation of being with his woman:

 I know I gotta put in the hours,

Make the money while the sunlight shines

But anything I gotta get done,

It can get done some other time

Much like need for people to leave concrete for dirt in southern pride anthems, there’s a sense of unhealthy obsession where priorities are out of whack. He only becomes more delusional in the second verse:

I only get so many minutes,

Don’t wanna spend ’em all on the clock

In the time that we spent talkin’,

How many kisses have I lost?

The chorus doesn’t add much to the overall story except to continue building up the urgency of the man’s need to be with his woman. But like any poorly constructed song, the story goes nowhere very fast.  There’s all this build up but no culminating moment when he finally meets up with this woman. And by the time the bridge finally comes around, you’ve lost interest anyway.

I only wish we could be celebrating Turner’s return to form after two less than stellar singles. He has all the goods and he’s proven just how good he can be on songs like “Long Back Train” and “Your Man.” I just hope the rest of the album isn’t summed up in this single and there’s still some reason to be excited for his music.

Grade: C- 

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘Some Things I Know’

Like her contemporary Sara Evans, Lee Ann Womack followed up a neotraditional debut with a sophomore effort which was a little more in tune with contemporary tastes, but still recognizably country. The song quality is high, mainly down-tempo and focussing on failed relationships. Mark Wright produced again, but his work is less sympathetic this time around, leaning a little more contemporary than the neotraditionalism of her debut and too often smothered with string arrangements to sweeten the pill for radio.

‘A Little Past Little Rock’ is a great song about a woman who has left a desperate relationship in Dallas. Struggling to cope as she gets “A little past Little Rock, but a long way from over you”, Lee Ann delivers a fine vocal, but the track is somewhat weighed down by the swelling strings. Lee Ann’s ex-husband Jason Sellers is among the backing singers. Written by Tony Lane, Jess Brown and Brett Jones, it was the album’s first single and peaked at #2.

This performance was matched by a rare venture by the artist into comedy material which is one of my favourite LAW singles, written by Tony Martin and Tim Nichols. With tongue-in-cheek malice the protagonist vents her hatred of her successful romantic rival with the words ‘I’ll Think Of A Reason Later’ as

It may be my family’s redneck nature
Bringing out unladylike behavior
It sure ain’t Christian to judge a stranger
But I don’t like her

She maybe an angel who spends all winter
Bringing the homeless blankets and dinner
A regular Nobel Peace Prize winner
But I really hate her
I’ll think of a reason later

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Album Review: Diamond Rio – ‘IV’

While riding high on the success of three gold and platinum albums, a consistent run of hit singles and shelves of industry awards, Diamond Rio issued their fourth Arista album, appropriately titled IV in 1996. It would continue their run at the top with 3 more top 5 hits and another hitting the top 20, and would quickly be certified gold.

Lead single ‘Walkin’ Away’ features an easy melody and implores lovers to hold it together, “baby don’t go there, love don’t get nowhere, walkin’ away“. Steel guitar flourishes propel the melody and Marty Roe’s vocal, and helped send it to #2 on the Country Singles chart. ‘That’s What I Get For Loving You’ follows closely to the first single, so much that they mirror one another when played back to back. This track doesn’t follow a disagreement between lovers, but celebrates the pair’s union, and became Diamond Rio’s 11th top 10 hit when it peaked at #4.

The stand-out single was the cheeky ‘It’s All In Your Head’, penned by the great Reese Wilson with Tony Martin and Van Stephenson. With its swampy beat and masterful grasp on the idiosyncracies of the devoutly religious, it is my favorite song from Diamond Rio. It tells the story of a “sidewalk, soapbox preacher lookin’ forward to the end of the world” who marries a “messed up, dressed up waitress with a slightly tarnished heart of gold” from the point of view of the preacher’s caustic son. The preacher is finally felled by snake venom “stronger than his faith“, and he goes out of the world repeating his conspiracy-theory mantra. It was also the album’s least successful single, stopping at #15 on the charts in the Summer of 1996.

IV is characterized by the group’s tight harmonies as they wrap them around their trademark breezy melodies, which elevate even the lesser tracks like “She Sure Did Like To Run” and “Love Takes You There”. The album is not without a few clunkers either. “Is That Too Much To Ask” glides along smoothly with the electric guitar jamming throughout, but its repetitive chorus and mundane lyrics about “wanting it all” leave the entire effort a bore to listen to.

The best tracks come from a pair of ballads. Released as a single in Germany, “She Misses Him On Sunday The Most” tells the story of a widow and the grief she feels most on Sunday mornings, sitting alone in the church pew as a tinkling piano is complimented by an acoustic guitar. “Just Another Heart” makes good use of its card-playing analogies and is a well-written song all around, from the writing team of Skip Ewing and Tim Johnson.

While IV was less successful than its predecessor – it didn’t go platinum – and while it had some definite soft spots, it is still an essential addition to their discography, and a solid effort from the group.

Grade: B

Buy it from amazon.

Single Review: Gwyneth Paltrow – ‘Country Strong’

“Country Strong” is a very conventionally-produced power anthem, with fluffy lyrics performed by a beautiful blonde singer. In other words, it has all the trappings of a potential smash hit. Having grown weary of the steady onslaught of outside-the-genre celebrities trying to crack the country music market in recent years, I was initially more than a bit skeptical upon learning that Gwyneth Paltrow was releasing a single to country radio. Therefore, I was a pleasantly surprised after listening to the song to discover that Paltrow proves herself to be a competent, if non-distinctive, vocalist, though admittedly the excellent harmony vocals provided by Vince Gill and Patty Griffin help to camouflage Paltrow’s vocal shortcomings. I may revise my opinion of Gwyneth’s singing depending on how her live performance on the upcoming CMA Awards show goes, but in the studio, at least, she is definitely up to the task.

Written by Jennifer Hanson, Tony Martin and Mark Nesler, and produced by Byron Gallimore, “Country Strong” is the title track of a new soundtrack album being released by RCA this week, to promote the upcoming motion picture of the same title. In the film, Paltrow portrays a fallen country star, struggling to recover from alcoholism and rebuild her career. Tim McGraw co-stars as her manager and husband.

There is nothing particularly memorable or interesting about this record, and in fact, a strong case can be made that the last thing country radio needs right now is another generic, relentlessly positive female empowerment anthem. However, since the track’s purpose is solely to act as a promotional tool for a movie, and since Gwyneth Paltrow is not normally known as a singer, I’m prepared to cut her and the record a little slack. And since, presumably, Paltrow’s character triumphs over her adversities by the end of the film, the positive message is entirely appropriate.

A music video of “Country Strong” can be viewed on YouTube. The single can be downloaded from iTunes and Amazon. The soundtrack album, which also contains contributions from Chris Young and Patty Loveless, Ronnie Dunn, Sara Evans, Trace Adkins, Lee Ann Womack, and others is also available from Amazon.

Grade: B

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Taken’

It was a surprise when Rhonda Vincent, probably the leading female bluegrass singer of this millennium, announced earlier this year that she had left Rounder after ten years, in favour of releasing her latest album on her own label. She has now released her first independent release.

It opens brightly with the sprightly and unforgiving ‘The Court Of Love’, written by Mike O’Reilly. Rhonda firmly tells her erring man he should go:

“To a prison full of broken hearts
That’s where you’ll do your time”

Lying and cheating earns him a life sentence without her, too, as she refuses to believe his professions of love and penitence.

As predominantly a country fan, it is perhaps unsurprising that my favorite tracks (other than the aforementioned The Court Of Love’) are the country songs given a bluegrass treatment. ‘Back On My Mind’, about struggling with an old love despite trying to move on with the protagonist’s life, was a big hit for Ronnie Milsap back in 1979, it is well suited to Rhonda’s voice with its almost piercing clarity.

I also enjoyed a revival of Barbara Mandrell’s 1971 top 10 hit about a trucker’s fiancee anxiously awaiting her man’s return armed with a ring: ‘Tonight My Baby’s Coming Home’ (written by Billy Sherrill and Glenn Sutton). The bluegrass makeover works surprisingly well.

Things take a more sophisticated turn with ‘A Little At A Time’, a downbeat contemporary country ballad about a relationship which the protagonist senses is about to come to an end, co-written by former Curb artist Amy Dalley with Tony Martin and Tom Shapiro. It’s very well executed, but takes a little longer for its qualities to emerge than some of the other tracks. The title track is a beautifully sung and played but rather boring AC love ballad, featuring a harmony vocal from 80s pop star Richard Marx.

In contrast, ‘God Is Watching’ is a delightful traditional slice of handclapping bluegrass gospel sung with the band. Rhonda teams up with her talented daughters Sally Berry and Tensel Sandker to sing a close harmony trio (with swapped leads) on a charming Roger Brown song which sounds like a traditional Appalachian folk number, ‘When The Bloom Is Off The Rose’. The girls’ band Next Best Thing also gets a maternal plug in the liner notes, and they sound as though they’re worth looking out for in the future.

The low-key murder ballad ‘In The Garden By The Fountain’ (also written by Brown) is also lovely sounding with a heavenly harmony line from Dolly Parton which really lifts it, belying the grim theme. Rhonda herself co-wrote ‘Song Of A Whippoorwill’, about the bird, and again the melody is attractive but the song is of limited interest.

The Rage, Rhonda’s band, co-produced the record with her as well as providing the core of the backing, and although there are no instrumental tracks this time, they get their own showcase on ‘Ragin’ Live For You Tonight’, a celebration of their musicianship and live show written by three of the band members. The song served as the title track on Rhonda’s 2005 live album http://www.amazon.com/Ragin-Live-Rhonda-Vincent/dp/B0007GAEO4 and I imagine it goes down a storm live. It also allows Rhonda to put in a plug for her longtime sponsor Martha White. The company appears to be contributing to the costs of the album, a model which other artists planning on following the same route might be tempted to adopt. In return, the CD includes a recipe leaflet complete with Rhonda’s seal of approval. They also get a product placement in the charmingly nostalgic ‘Sweet Summertime’.

Rhonda also had one really bad idea when making this record, and it materialises at the end of the record. Listening through this album for the first time, as the final track opened I thought ‘You Must Have A Dream’ was a pretty, if Disneyesque and slightly anodyne, inspirational song with a lovely vocal from Rhonda, but then the children started singing. Not only is there a child chorus (never something I am enthusiastic about), but two of the verses feature solo and duet vocals by child singers (who are frankly not very good). There may well be a story behind this inclusion, but the end result is really awful.

The first time I listened to this I was a little disappointed overall with the material, but listening in-depth allows the subtle qualities to shine through. The vocals are spot-on throughout, apart from the children, and the backing is superb. This one is definitely worth checking out.

Grade: B

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘In Another World’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘Third Rock From The Sun’

Released in 1994, this was the album where Joe really cemented his reputation for silly novelty songs, with a good half of the tracks falling into that category. The title track is actually a decently written song (if lacking in melody), and recounts an entertaining if implausible series of events all dependent on one another which Joe rattles off. It was Joe’s third #1 hit (and his first since his debut album). You can watch the video here.

The same writing team of John Greenebaum, Sterling Whipple and Tony Martin wrote the equally cheery uptempo ‘I’d Like To Have A Problem Like That’, which (while filler material) also manages to be amusing enough as Joe expresses Everyman’s envy of the problems of wealth and celebrity.

More obviously a novelty number, ‘Pickup Man’ was a four-week #1 for Joe, making this ode to pickup trucks (unaccountably) technically the biggest hit of his career. I admit the line about
I met all my wives in traffic jams
has a certain quirky appeal, but this throwaway ditty is not the song Joe deserves to be remembered for. Sadly, it is not the worst thing on offer here.

The raucously sung ‘I’m In Love In A Capital U’ is deliberately stupid and actually kind of fun, as Joe plays an uneducated “product of the public school”. It didn’t quite catch on at radio, missing the top 20:

You got me feelin’ so G-U-D
It’s more better than I thought it would be
Girl you taught me things that I never learned in school
I’m in love with a capital U

The album closes with the two silliest songs on it (possibly two of the silliest songs ever written), which really have to be heard at least once to be believed. ‘Good Brown Gravy’ is a shouted and nonsensical song about, well, marketing the protagonist’s family recipe for gravy, including yells about attempts to recruit him into the Army and Navy purely to secure it. Oddly enough this was co-written by Billy Dean (noted as an artist for his sentimental numbers). The final track, Joe’s only co-write this time around, is the even sillier ‘The Cows Came Home’, complete with mooing noises:

She told me that she’d love me ’til the cows came home

The cows came home
The cows came home
I heard somethin’ mooin’
Turned around and she was gone
Lord have mercy, the cows came home

The whole herd showed up when they heard she’d gone
But I guess it’s better than bein’ alone
Well the slammin’ of the door is like a pie in the face
But I got enough milk for the human race

These songs are so hilariously bad they are, occasionally, a guilty pleasure for me. ‘Junior’s In Love’ (written by Dennis Linde) does not even succeed on those terms and ends up just sounding pointless and slightly condescending with its tale of the hapless hillbilly of the title and his frustrated love for Wanda.

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