My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Tony Martin

Album Review: Mark Chesnutt – ‘Savin’ The Honky Tonk’

After the relative commercial failure of Thank God For Believers, Mark’s label forced him to record the Aerosmith song ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’. While this was a big hit, it undoubtedly alienated much of his core fan base, and his career never really recovered. One more album for MCA (the underrated Lost In The Feeling), and a sole release for Columbia (the lackluster Mark Chesnutt), failed to recapture his commercial glories, and Mark was relegated to the minor leagues of independent labels.

Yet the loss of his last major label deal turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Mark as he was enabled to produce some of the best music of his career. His first venture into independent territory (on Vivaton Records) marked a deliberate reclamation of traditional country now that he was free of major label constraints and the need to produce radio fodder. Savin’ The Honky Tonk, released in 2004, is formally dedicated to “all the Honky Tonks and all the bands playing the hard core country music”, and it is almost a concept album with only a handful of the generous 15 tracks not on the theme. Jimmy Ritchey’s production is solid, and Mark’s vocals are great throughout.

The record reached #23 on Billboard – the same peak as Mark Chesnutt, which had benefitted from more radio play thanks to the #11 hit ‘She Was’ – and the first two singles at least did better than his last two for Columbia. While these were only modest successes by his own standards, it’s always been harder for artists on small labels to get played on radio at all, let alone charting inside the top 40.

The lead single, a tongue-in-cheek ode to alcohol, ‘The Lord Loves The Drinkin’ Man’, was one of two songs from the pen of Texas artist Kevin Fowler. The protagonist defies his mother and preacher, both saying he’ll never get to Heaven if he keeps on drinking, by saying,

I hear that He can turn the water into wine
Any man can do that is a good friend of mine
I’ve been baptised in beer, I’m here to testify
I was speaking in tongues when I came home last night
Some folks say I’m living in sin
But I know the Lord loves the drinkin’ man

The single charted well for an independent release, making the country top 40.

Fowler’s other cut here, the resolutely secular ‘Beer, Bait & Ammo’, has also been recorded by Sammy Kershaw and George Jones, and is an ode to a useful country store with “everything any old beer-drinkin’ hell-raisin’ bona fide redneck needs”.

Read more of this post

Some hidden treasures of the decade

At the end of last year, I shared a list of my favorite 50 singles of the decade. Some of them were big hits, others more obscure, but at least in theory they got some attention at the time. Now that the decade is well and truly over, I thought I would mention some hidden treasures – album tracks that you probably only heard if you’re a fan of the artist, and purchased the full album. Some of them are from albums and artists that were more successful than others. I’ve omitted anything that made it to radio (even if it wasn’t a hit) as I considered those for my last list, and I have also left out anything from an album which made our collective Albums of The Decade list, although I have included tracks from other albums by artists who appeared on both of those lists. I have restricted my list to one track per artist named.

40. ‘Cold All The Time’ – Irene Kelley (from Thunderbird, 2004)
Songwriter Irene Kelley has released a couple of very good independent albums, showcasing her own very beautiful voice as well as her songs. This is a gently resolute song about a woman stuck in a bad relationship, summoning up the courage to make a move.

39. ‘All I Want’ – Darius Rucker (from Learn To Live, 2008)
There is still a chance that this might make it to the airwaves, as Darius’s platinum country debut is his current release. As a whole, the material was a little disappointing, but this great song is definitely worth hearing, and not only because it’s the mos country song on the album. It’s a jaundiced kiss-off to an ex, offering her everything as “all I want you to leave me is alone”.

38. ‘I Met Jesus In A Bar’ – Jim Lauderdale (from Country Super Hits Volume 1, 2006)
Songwriter Jim Lauderdale has released a number of albums of his own, in more than one country sub-genre, and in 2006 he issued two CDs on one day: one country, the other bluegrass. This great co-write with Leslie Satcher, a melancholy-tinged song about God and booze, also recorded by Aaron Watson, comes from the country one.

37. ‘A Train Not Running’ – Chris Knight (from The Jealous Kind, 2003)
Singer-songwriter Chris Knight co-wrote this downbeat first-person tale of love and a mining town’s economic failure with Stacy Dean Campbell, who also recorded a version of the song.

36. ‘Same Old Song’ – Blake Shelton (from Blake Shelton, 2001)
These days, Blake seems to attract more attention for his girlfriend Miranda Lambert and his Tweeting than for his own music. This song, written by Blake’s producer Bobby Braddock back in 1989, is an appeal for country songs to cover new ground and real stories.

35. ‘If I Hadn’t Reached For The Stars’ – Bradley Walker (from Highway Of Dreams, 2006)
It’s probably a sign of the times that Bradley Walker, who I would classify as a classic traditional country singer in the Haggard/Travis style, had to release his excellent debut album on a bluegrass label. This love song (written by Carl Jackson and previously recorded by Jon Randall) is all about finding happiness through not achieving stardom.

34. ‘Between The River And Me’ – Tim McGraw (from Let It Go, 2007)
Tim McGraw is not one of my favorite singers, but he does often have a knack for picking interesting material. It was a travesty that the best track on his 2007 album was never released as a single, especially when far less deserving material took its place. It’s a brooding story song narrated by the teenage son of a woman whose knack seems to be picking the wrong kind of man, in this case one who beats her. The son turns to murder, down by the river.

33. ‘Three Sheets In The Wind’ – Randy Archer (from Shots In The Dark, 2005)
In the early 9s, Randy Archer was one half of the duo Archer Park,who tried and failed to challenge Brooks & Dunn. His partner in that enterprise is now part of The Parks. Meanwhile, Randy released a very good independent album which has been overlooked. My favorite track is this sad tale of a wife tearing up a husband’s penitent note of apology and leaving regardless.

32. ‘It Looked Good On Paper’ – Randy Kohrs featuring Dolly Paton (from I’m Torn, 2007)
A forlorn lost-love ballad from dobro player Kohrs featuring exquisite high harmonies from Dolly. the ret o the record is very good, too – and you can listen to it all on last.fm.

31. ‘Mental Revenge’ – Pam Tillis (from It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis, 2002)
After her mainstream stardom wound down, 90s star Pam Tillis took the opportunity to record a real labor of love: a tribute album to her father Mel. This bitter diatribe to an ex is my favorite track.

30. ‘You Don’t Love God If You Don’t Love Your Neighbour’ – Rhonda Vincent (from The Storm Still Rages, 2001)
A traditional country-bluegrass-gospel quartet take on a classic rebuke to religious hypocrites, written by Carl Story. The track isn’t the best showcase of Rhonda’s lovely voice, but it’s a great recording of a fine song with a pointed message.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Sara Evans – ‘Restless’

The success of Sara Evans’ Born To Fly, with its contemporary pop-country sound, allowed the singer to further experiment with the formula, and the result was an album of pop-country at near perfection at times.  With Restless, she finally delivered a set of songs worthy of her vocal talent, while still viable candidates for radio airplay.  Unlike its predecessors, there’s not much on the traditional side on this disc, but that doesn’t keep it from being a quality set, full of nuance and emotion.  Upon its release in April 2003, the disc debuted at #3 on the Country Albums chart – which would be its peak.  Over the course of the next eighteen months, it would sell a million copies to be certified platinum.

There are very few flashes of anything traditional on Restless, aside from a light bluegrass undertone to ‘Feel It Comin’ On’ and the fiddles sprinkled throughout on a few tracks, though they’re deep in the mix.  Sara Evans was reaching for crossover success with all her might on this release, and overall, the album lends itself to a niche in country music somewhere between Shania Twain and Trisha Yearwood.

Evans has always had a somewhat spotty relationship with country radio, with a single or two from each album missing the top 10, even during the hottest period of her career.  The first single is a syrupy tale of a young lady, leaving town on a greyhound bus to hide the ‘shame’ of her unwed pregnancy.  Verse two finds the young lady delivering the baby on the interstate, and to my ears this gives the entire song an unrealistic slant.  It’s puzzling to that it took four writers to create this story, especially since there’s essentially no happing ending.  Maybe that’s what kept it from being a major hit – that all-important act three.  The track still managed to climb to #16 on the Country Singles chart.

The next single would fare much better at radio, just barely missing the top spot at #2.  ‘Perfect’ is a clever lyric, written by Sara with Tom Shapiro and Tony Martin.  A groovy guitar lick opens the song, before it becomes a fun sing-along about the joys of a regular everyday existence.  The sound, and even the melody, is akin to Evans’ own ‘I Keep Looking’, and it was clearly meant to revisit that sound.  While there’s nothing revolutionary about the production or the lyric, it’s one of my favorite Sara Evans songs, and just a bit of ear candy.

Earning her first gold-single, and her third #1 at country radio, ‘Suds In The Bucket’ is as close as Restless gets to anything traditional.  The sound is very much post-Shania neo-traditional, with the drums mixed as loud as the fiddle.  It’s undeniably country I guess, but also undeniably 21st century country.  The most charming thing about this song, with its rather bland story, is Sara’s vocal, where she finally lets loose a little of the twang we heard on her first couple albums, but is largely absent this time around.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Sara Evans – ‘No Place That Far’

After the traditional sound of Three Chords And The Truth had failed to break Sara at radio, there was some modification and a slightly smoother, glossier sound for her second album in 1998, but without breaking away completely from her traditional roots by any means. The production chair passed from Pete Anderson to Norro Wilson and Buddy Cannon, a partnership with experience on both pure country and pop-country sides of the fence and a track record creating hits.

Leadoff single, the insistent mid-tempo Jamie O’Hara song ‘Cryin’ Game’, did no better than its predecessors, but it is a good pop-country song with a fine vocal as Sara tells a lover he’d better treat her right or she’ll be gone. I think Jamie (formerly half of the O’Kanes duo in the late 80s) sings backing vocals here. The long-awaited breakthrough came for Sara when the title track, an impressive ballad co-written by Sara herself with Tom Shapiro and Tony Martin, was selected as the next single. It was a #1 smash hit. A delicately subdued opening leads to a big chorus, with Vince Gill prominent on harmony.

Disappointingly, the third and last single, Sara’s last release of the 90s, ‘Fool, I’m A Woman’, which she wrote with Matraca Berg, was less successful, failing to reach the top 30.  It is another contemporary-sounding song, but an engagingly peppy one about a woman’s prerogative to change her mind about love, addressed to a boyfriend treating her badly.  I think this is the track featuring Martina McBride on backing vocals, although Martina is very low in the mix and is basically indistinguishable.

Altogether, Sara co-wrote almost half the material on this album, including the very traditional country gospel ‘There’s Only One’, which she wrote with the brilliant Leslie Satcher.  Closely banked female harmonies (possibly from Sara’s sisters) help this track close the set on a high as she declares God’s love is the only thing that matters.  Although the song itself is not as memorable, I also love the traditional sound of the lost-love ‘These Days’, which Sara wrote with Billy Yates, and on which Alison Krauss sings prominent harmony.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Joe Nichols – ‘Old Things New’

Old Things NewA few years ago, Joe Nichols looked to be one of the brightest young country stars, with an interestingly textured voice and a sound with genuinely country roots which still worked on country radio, thanks to some very good songs. His career seems to have gone off track since them – no doubt not helped by a spell in rehab just after the release of his last album, Real Things, two years ago. That album produced a couple of top 20 singles, but no major hits. In some ways, then, this album is something of a comeback attempt. It is mainly produced by Joe’s longterm producer Brent Rowan, with three tracks courtesy of Mark Wright.

Leadoff single ‘Believers’ performed relatively poorly, peaking at #26 on Billboard, despite an obviously sincere vocal praising those with faith in something, whether that’s a matter of politics, love or religion, with some gospel-style backing vocals on the last chorus which fortunately do not overwhelm it, and are at least in keeping with the subject matter. The song might have more impact if it concentrated on one of the three stories it touches on. The current single, the oddly spelt ‘Gimmie That Girl’ (co-written by 90s chart artist Rhett Akins with Dallas Davidson and Ben Hayslip) is a warmhearted but over-produced love song lauding the narrator’s girlfriend au naturel. It is one of three tracks produced by Mark Wright, and is as close as the album gets to pop-country (with one glaring exception, of which more later).

‘The Shape I’m In’ is another Akins/Davidson/Hayslip song produced by Wright, but is much better than the single. The protagonist is suffering both a literal hangover and a metaphorical one, the after-effects of a failed relationship, but is starting to feel better, commenting:

I’m doing alright
For the shape I’m in

The third Wright-produced track is ‘Man, Woman’, written by Shawn Camp and Marv Green, a midtempo song about a guy who realizes his heartbreak is worse than he had thought it would be, with some nice fiddle from Aubrey Haynie. Joe does have a engagingly warm and fairly distinctive voice with inflected edges which can make average material sound better than it is, and he does that on songs like this pleasant if undistinguished song. Similarly, ‘We All Go Home’, written by Jimmy Melton, Neal Coty and Michael Mobley, is quite a nice song about being reminded of one’s childhood home. It doesn’t break new ground, but is very well sung, which also features Mac McAnally on acoustic guitar,and is another possible single. Its main flaw is unnecessary and slightly overpowering gospelly backing vocals at the end.

‘This Bed’s Too Big’, written by Gary Burr and Victoria Shaw, is a tenderly sung love song about needing to stay really close to the protagonist’s loved one, but it sounds a little dull.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Zona Jones – ‘Prove Me Right’

Prove Me RightThere must be something in the water in Beaumont, Texas. Not only was it the hometown of George Jones, Mark Chesnutt was born there, and the city was once also home to Tracy Byrd. Another Beaumont resident, Zona Jones, put his career as a lawyer on hold a few years ago when he released his excellent first album Harleys & Horses on indie label D Records. I enjoyed that record enough to keep a eye out for his follow-up, which has at last appeared on his friend Tracy Lawrence’s Rocky Comfort Records. Zona is not quite in the same league as the aforementioned sons of Beaumont, but he does have a good voice very much in the George Strait style, which is particularly effective on mellow ballads like the majority of the material on this album. Half the songs were produced by no less than James Stroud, the remainder by Zona himself with Mike Jones, but the overall feel of the album is fairly consistent, and it is solidly country from start to finish.

He opens with a cover of Aaron Tippin’s ‘Could Not Stop Myself From Loving You’, which he delivers nicely enough, but his phrasing is too reminiscent of the original while lacking Tippin’s hypnotic quality. Tippin’s co-writers on that track, Mark Nesler and Tony Martin, also wrote my favorite song on the album, ‘Go Away’. This excellent song feels like a sequel to Steve Earle’s modern classic ‘My Old Friend The Blues’, a link I think is made explicit in the salutation, “my old foul-weather friend”. The protagonist is tired of feeling bad about his loss, and begs:

“Go away, blues don’t hang around
Let me love again somehow
I tried but I could not make her stay
So be like her and go away”

Another really enjoyable number is ‘Drinkin”, a drinking song (obviously) from the pens of John [Scott?] Sherrill and Neal Coty, which sounds cheerful even as the protagonist tries to drown his miseries:

Damn it, I think I drank myself sober
And I still can’t drink myself over you

At least I’m a couple sheets to the wind
With any luck, honey, I’ll forget again
That I don’t know where you are or where I am”

The title track (a Radney Foster/Stephanie Delray composition) is a hopeful look at the prospects for love. Also good is ‘She Showed Me’, written by Troy Olsen and Kerry Kurt Phillips, neatly set around a conversation with an ex. The narrator smugly thinks she’ll be begging for another chance, but as it turns out he could not be more wrong – she is happily married with two children (underlining the guy’s cluelessness given the time that must have elapsed since they were together).

One of the songs which stands out the most is the uptempo jerky rhythm of ‘Never Took My Eyes Off You’, written by Dave Frasier, Ed Hill and Josh Kear, and although this track (alone on the album) feels a little over-produced and the lyric is rather slight, it is still fun with definite singalong potential as the protagonist can’t pay attention to the football game or great view on his dates with his love interest.

Similar but better is ‘Day Off’, a lively paean to relaxation time written by Al Anderson, Bob DiPiero and Leslie Satcher. For such a heavyweight writing team, the lyric verges on the absurd at times – while it is indeed true that we all welcome a check in the mail, few of us are in the need to break out of a Mexican jail. But as fluff goes, this is entertaining fluff, as Zona tells us with a little growl in his voice:

“Everybody needs a little too much fun
Everybody needs a little coming undone
Take a brain vacation, I’m telling you, hoss
Everybody needs a day off”

The love ballad ‘You Should’ve Seen Her This Morning’ is nice enough if not very memorable, as the protagonist boasts the joys of domestic bliss to his bar friends whose heads are turned when his woman walks in, claiming sweetly, “If you’re thinking ‘Wow, she looks beautiful now’, you should’ve seen her this morning.” ‘Two Hearts’, another pleasant love song, is repeated from Harleys & Horses.

The album is rounded out by three more covers, Strait’s ‘Blame it On Mexico’ and ‘When You Love ‘Em Like Crazy’ (recorded as ‘When You Love Her Like Crazy’ by Mark Chesnutt are both sung well but not as ood as the originals. I am not as familiar with the sweetly delivered ‘Bluer Than Blue’, written by Randy Goodrum, which was a big pop and AC hit in 1978 for Michael Johnson, who was to go country in the 80s. This last song (for which there is a video) has a very pretty tune and has grown on me over repeated listens.

I think the songs were a little stronger on Zona’s first album, but nonetheless this is an enjoyable record. It is available on iTunes or from Zona’s website.

Grade: B