My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Trey Bruce

Album Review: John Michael Montgomery – ‘Life’s A Dance’

John Michael Montgomery’s debut album was released in October 1992. It sold 3 million copies, launching him as a bona fide star, although it does not sound particularly distinctive. At the time I personally was not blown away, and to be perfectly honest it still sounds rather generic to me, but since that era of country music was a strong one, Montgomery has a decent voice and there are some good songs, it sounds much better set against today’s music.

The title track and lead single, ‘Life’s A Dance’ was a promising start for the newcomer, launching him to a #4 hit. Written by Allen Shamblin and Steve Seskin, it is a simple mid paced tune about finding your path In life by accepting whatever comes. It is agreeable listening but not all that memorable.

The follow up, ‘I Love The Way you Love Me’, written by Victoria Shaw and Chuck Cannon, was JMM’s first chart topper. It played to his greatest strengths vocally as a smoothly crooned romantic ballad, leaning in the AC direction, with instrumentation which sounds a bit dated now. A pop cover of the song by Irish boyband Boyzone was a big hit in Europe in 1998.

Finally, ‘Beer And Bones’ was less successful, peaking just outside the top 20. Written by country songwriting legend Sanger D Shafer and Lonnie Williams, it is the most hardcore honky tonk song on the album, with raw vocals.

The singles, and three other tracks, were produced by Doug Johnson. ‘When Your Baby Ain’t Around’ is pleasant mid-tempo filler. ‘Line On Love’ is quite a nice if rather generic song about life lessons learnt from growing up in the country. ‘Dream On Texas Ladies’ is a very pretty waltz which is a cover of a minor hit for Rex Allen Jr in 1984.

The remaining four tracks were produced by Wyatt Easterling. ‘A Great Memory’ is an excellent Dean Dillon/Trey Bruce song on which JMM sounds like fellow-Kentuckian Keith Whitley. Whitley’s influence is also evident on ‘Nickels And Dimes And Love’, a tender memoir of love in poverty which was later cut by Vern Gosdin. It was written by Johnny MacRae and Steve Clark, who also contributed ‘Every Time I Fall (It Breaks Her Heart)’, a tribute to a woman standing by a flawed man.

Finally, ‘Taking Off The Edge’, written by Larry Cordle and Larry Shell, is an enjoyable and rather sexy up-tempo number.

John Michael Montgomery had not quite found his own voice on this album, but it is a generally enjoyable record.

Grade: B+

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Album Review: Lee Roy Parnell – ‘We All Get Lucky Sometimes’

we all get lucky sometimesLee Roy Parnell’s fourth album saw him repeating the pattern of the records which had seen him enjoy commercial success. There was one backroom change, though: a sideways move from Arista proper to the subsidiary imprint Career Records.

The lead single ‘A Little Bit Of You’ is a mid-tempo love song with a radio-friendly tune, written by hitmakers Trey Bruce and Craig Wiseman. It just missed the top spot on the charts, peaking at #2. ‘When A Woman Loves A Man peaked ten spots lower, at #12, but I think it’s a better song. A classy soulful ballad, it features Trisha Yearwood’s backing vocals, although they’re quite low in the mix.

‘Heart’s Desire’ was another big hit, reaching #3. It’s an excellent example of one of Parnell’s slower numbers, rhythmic and blusey but not overwhelmingly so, with a mellow feel. ‘Givin’ Water To A Drownin’ Man’ proved to be Parnell’s last top 20 hit. It’s another strong track in Parnell’s wheelhouse, although the Merle Haggard namedrop seems rather random. The title track also got some airplay but didn’t make the top 40. It’s a mid-to-up-tempo chugger, stronger on groove than substance, but enjoyable enough.

‘Saved By The Grace Of Your Love’ is a gentle ballad written by Parnell with Mike Reid, which is very pretty. ‘I Had To Let It Go’ is a pretty good story song involving losing a loved one and giving up booze.

The Delbert McClinton/Gary Nicholson song ‘Squeeze Me In’ is best known to country fans from Trisha Yearwood’s version. Parnell’s take is okay (and there’s some great piano), but I like Trisha’s better.

‘Knock Yourself Out’ has a blues groove which is quite catchy with call-and-response vocals and is quite enjoyable without being very memorable. It would have worked well live. ‘If The House Is Rockin’ is a straightforward slice of rock ‘n roll with exuberant honky tonk piano.

The album closes out with an instrumental; featuring accordion great Flaco Jiminez. Not my thing, but impressive playing.

Overall, a solid album which should appeal to anyone who likes the singles.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Doug Stone – ‘Faith In Me, Faith In You’

faithinmeDoug Stone enjoyed a string of continuous Top 10 hits from 1990 through 1994 beginning with his debut single “I’d Be Better Off (In A Pine Box)” and ending with “Little Houses”, a new single included on his Greatest Hits album released in the autumn of 1994. Shortly thereafter, Sony Music Entertainment transferred Doug from Epic Records to sister label Columbia, supposedly to allow Doug the opportunity to work with a new promotional team. The strategy did not have the intended effect, however. Faith In Me, Faith In You, his only album for Columbia, failed to produce any major hits and was his least successful album to date. The album’s commercial failure could be partially blamed on Stone’s health problems — he suffered a heart attack in December 1995 and a mild stroke in 1996, which severely curtailed his ability to promote the album. But it certainly did not help matters that the album’s material is less interesting than his previous work.

With Doug acting as co-producer along with James Stroud, Faith In Me, Faith In You has a more contemporary edge than Doug’s earlier and better work, but the music retains enough country elements to keep traditionalists satisfied. The title track, which served as the album’s first single, is a forgettable Trey Bruce and Dave Loggins composition, given a slight gospel feel by a choir singing in the background. It was Doug’s first single to peak outside the Top 10, landing at #13.

Ballads were always Doug’s strong point, but the best songs on this album are the uptempo ones. The ballad “Sometimes I Forget”, which was released as the second single is too saccharine and AC leaning for my taste. Radio wasn’t impressed, either, as it topped out at #41. The uptempo “Born In The Dark” , a slickly produced number reminiscent of Collin Raye’s “That’s My Story”, is much better. It’s the best of the album’s three singles and it became the collection’s biggest hit, peaking at #12. “Enough About Me (Let’s Talk About You)”, another uptempo tune, is also quite good and should have been released as a single. The midtempo “I Do All My Crying (On The Inside)”, the album’s most traditional song, is also quite good.

The remainder of the album, including three tunes that were either written or co-written by Doug, are not particularly memorable. Faith In Me, Faith In You while not a bad album by any means, is not up to par compared to Stone’s earlier albums for Epic. It was his first album to fail to achieve gold status, marking the beginning of his commercial decline. It was also his last album for Sony. It is not available digitally. It is not essential listening, but deeply discounted copies are readily available and it is certainly worth the modest cost.

Grade: B

Album Review – Suzy Bogguss – ‘Give Me Some Wheels’

220px-SuzyBoggussGiveMeSomeWheelsWith all artists there comes a point in time when their music isn’t in step with current commercial trends and therefore banished from country radio. Following a string of successful projects, that fate met Suzy Bogguss. After teaming up with Chet Atkins for the artistically strong but commercially disappointing Simpatico, she took a year off to start a family. In that time, her unique styling was pushed out in favor of more pop leaning acts like Shania Twain, Faith Hill, and Martina McBride. Bogguss changed producers to Trey Bruce and Scott Hendricks for Give Me Some Wheels, released in summer 1996, but that didn’t reverse her sharp commercial decline.

The production on Give Me Some Wheels was far poppier and more decidedly upbeat than anything Bogguss had released to date, and the change in tempo added immensely to the listening experience. The #60 peaking title track, which reteamed Bogguss with her “Hey Cinderella” co-writers Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison, is an excellent uptempo number not too different from “Believe Me (Baby I Lied)” or “Wild Angles” and nice change of pace for Bogguss. Marcus Hummond and Darrell Scott’s “No Way Out” (also covered by Julie Roberts on her 2004 debut) stalled at #53 despite a wonderful uptempo arrangement and confident vocal from Bogguss. Final single “She Said, I Heard,” a Bogguss co-write with Don Schlitz, is another excellent mid-tempo rockin’ number that nicely recalls of that era Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Bogguss keeps the same pace on Tom Shapiro and George Teren’s “Traveling Light,” which I really, really like although the production leans a bit too generic. She steps far out of her musical comfort zone on Trey Bruce and Craig Wiseman’s “Fall,” framing her energetic vocal behind a decidedly popish drum track. The results are pure filler but Bogguss overcomes the track’s lightness with a charisma that’s hard not to be drawn into.

I thoroughly appreciate Bogguss’ efforts in changing up the proceedings on Give Me Some Wheels and not riding on the quiet angelic ballads that won her so much industry attention a few years earlier. Sure it was a calculated attempt at keeping up with current trends but it worked because Bogguss can pull of these kinds of songs very well.

She didn’t abandon her love of ballads completely, however. Bogguss and her husband Doug Crider co-wrote “Far and Away,” possibly the strongest song that wasn’t on her heyday albums, and if it had been a single back then would’ve likely topped the charts. Her conviction is incredible and I love the riffs of steel guitar heard throughout. “Feelin’ Bout You” is another home run as it beautifully blends the simplicity of a ballad with just enough tempo to keep it interesting. I also love “Let’s Get Real,” which is an example of country/rock done right. It leads as a country ballad complete with fiddle and steel but brings in some crashing drums on the chorus to give it oomph. Bogguss doesn’t sound as committed vocally on this track as I would’ve liked, but it’s very good nonetheless. “Live To Love Another Day” is a further example of Bogguss’ ballad sweet spot and a wonderful addition to the album. “Saying Goodbye To A Friend” is quiet and subtle, but it works thanks to Bogguss’ direct poignancy.

It may seem kind of odd to hear Bogguss positioned as a pop/country singer and not the eloquent balladeer we all came to know (and love) on her early to mid 90s recordings. But she pulls it off just like I knew she could. The issue with her early work was the albums got bogged down in a sea of sameness, a factor Bruce and Hendricks nicely rectified on Give Me Some Wheels. I hadn’t heard the album prior to writing this review, but it’s a very pleasant surprise in all accounts and might just be my favorite of all her recordings. If only every singer (I’m looking at you current Hendricks devotee Blake Shelton) could make trend pandering music sound this good.

Grade: A

Album Review: Marty Stuart – ‘Country Music’

Marty’s departure from MCA was not his final attempt at mainstream stardom.  He soon signed to Columbia, and in 2003 released his sole album for the label, the boldly titled Country Music.  Despite the title it was not as unabashedly traditional as Marty’s most recent work, combining some nods to tradition with more adventurous musical fare, and was his final record made for a mainstream audience.  It saw the debut of his new backing band, the Fabulous Superlatives.  Their musicianship is excellent, but the eclectic nature of the record feels it feel unfocussed.

The playful fantasies of the part-narrated ‘If There Ain’t There Oughta Be’, written by Bobby Pinson and Trey Bruce, were the first offering to radio, but just failed to crack the top 40.  It was a brave attempt at trying something a bit different, but the lack of tune and not particularly memorable lyrics fall flat.

The much more likeable ‘Too Much Month At the End Of The Money’ was a minor hit in 1989 for the shortlived  group Billy Hill (who comprised the successful songwriters Bob DiPiero, John Scott Sherrill and Dennis Robbins), but Marty’s version flopped even though it sounds like a return to his “hillbilly rock” big hits.

The last single, although a truly stellar song, did not chart at all.  This outstanding track, the thoughtful ‘Farmer’s Blues’ setting out the financial difficulties faced by farmers was written by Marty with wife Connie Smith.  Marty’s sensitive vocal is perfectly judged, and Merle Haggard’s duet vocal balances it beautifully as they swap verses and harmonise on the chorus.

Another highlight is Marty’s first recording of ‘Sundown In Nashville’ with its insider’s view of the dark side of the city, where “they sweep broken dreams off the street”, a great song he has chosen to revive on his excellent latest album.   The song dates from the 1960s, but its insight into the “dark side of fame” is timeless.

An introspective cover of the classic ‘Satisfied Mind’ verges on the depressing, and it took me a few listens to really appreciate, but the decision to interpret the song from the point of view of the unsatisfied seeker of peace is actually very effective.  ‘Walls Of A Prison’ is a Cash cover, with Marty trying out his best bass growl against a simple acoustic arrangement, and this is another fine track with effectively unhurried phrasing.

The part-narrated Tip Your Hat acknowledges the legends and great songs of the genre, but is musically closer to blues than country with minimal melody and shouty vocals on the chorus, although Earl Scruggs and Josh Graves on banjo and dobro lend it some musical interest.

‘Here I Am’ is a gloomily soulful ballad offering love, with Marty wrote with Rivers Rutherford.  On a broadly similar theme, ‘If You Wanted Me Around’, written with Paul Kennerley, is a better song, with the protagonist willing to offer anything if only she cared.  ‘Fool For Love’, written by Marty with Tom Douglas, has a jazzy feel with call and response backing vocals  not unreminiscent of some of the Mavericks’ ballads, but it’s the kind of thing that really needs a more intrinsically compelling vocalist to pull off successfully.

The rocking novelty ‘By George’ is rather weird lyrically.  A superior version of the energetic ‘Wishful Thinkin’’ was previously recorded by Joy Lynn White, who invested it with a wild abandon and intensity making Marty’s version sound pedestrian and emotionless in comparison.

This was an attempt to get back on terms with country radio after the commercial failure of The Pilgrim.  It was not a success, and Marty left Columbia to undertakes some even less commercial projects in the next few years –  the gospel Souls’ Chapel, another concept album, the Native American tribute Badlands: Ballads Of The Lakota, and a live bluegrass album recorded at the Ryman.  It is a bit of a mixed bag musically, but there are some tracks worth hearing, especially ‘Farmer’s Blues’.

Grade: B

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Comin’ On Strong’

2001’s Chrome helped Trace Adkins out of a commercial slump, somewhat at the expense of his artistic integrity. His fifth release, 2003’s Comin’ On Strong, follows in a similar vein, moving him further away from his traditional roots and towards more lightweight, less serious fare. Although the strategy had the desired effect of getting Trace back on the radio, it eventually did considerable harm to his credibility as an artist. That’s not to say that there’s nothing to like here; much like its predecessor, Comin’ On Strong is very much a mixed bag.

The first single release was “Hot Mama”, which like “Chrome”, is a beat-driven, lyrically shallow number that does little to challenge the listener. To be fair, “Hot Mama” is a much better song than “Chrome”, but it’s far from Trace’s best and it’s easy to see that he had already started down that slippery slope that reached its nadir with the excerable “Honkytonk Badonkadonk” two years later. “Hot Mama” did quite well at radio, returning Trace to the Top 5 for the first time since 1997’s “The Rest of Mine”. The second single was the good ol’ boy attitude song “Rough and Ready”, which is somewhat catchy, particularly coming at the tail end of an album comprised mostly of mid-tempo ballads. However, it loses its appeal after repeated listenings. It failed to crack the Top 10, petering out at #13. Despite its failure to reach the Top 10, “Rough and Ready” sold enough downloads to become Trace’s first gold-certified single.

After “Rough and Ready” finished it run on the charts, no further singles were released, despite the presence of some worthy candidates. “I’d Sure Hate To Break Down Here” was surely a missed opportunity; a few months later newcomer Julie Roberts released it as her debut single and took it to #18. Although arguably the song is more effective when sung from the female point of view, I prefer Trace’s version and believe that as a more established artist, he could have taken this one into the Top 10. It’s by far the best song on the album. The title track is also one of the better songs on the album. Though not very deep lyrically, it’s one of the more country sounding tracks in the collection, which was a bit surprising because the title implies a more rock-oriented tune. Instead, the rock is provided by the overproduced “One of Those Nights”, which along with the equally overproduced “Missin’ You”, is among the weakest songs on the album.

The rest of the album is mostly forgettable, middle-of-the-road filler that is sometimes marred by the heavy-handed production of Trey Bruce and Scott Hendricks. I’ll give points to “One Nightstand” for trying to be a little creative. In this tune, written by Patrick Jason Matthews and Trey Bruce, Adkins is a husband who has strayed and got caught. At the song’s climax, he is on the bed with a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other — “One of them was gonna save me,” he sings, “the only question was which one.” On the surface, it has all the makings of the perfect country song, but the melody is not very interesting, and the use of the “One Nightstand”, which refers to both his illicit affair, and a table in his seedy rented room, seems very forced and just does not work. Ultimately deciding against taking his own life, he sings, “Funny how a man’s life can all come down to one nightstand.” It seems odd to give credit for the decision to the piece of furniture and not its contents — his wedding ring and a photograph of his family.

Despite having produced only one Top 10 hit, Comin’ On Strong was certified platinum, exceeding the sales of its gold-certified predecessor. With the exception of “I’d Sure Hate To Break Down Here”, there’s nothing here that’s really essential listening, but cheap new and used copies are readily available from third party sellers at Amazon. At a reduced price, it’s worth adding to your collection.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Chrome’

Trace Adkins’ first album of the new millennium, released October 2001, was the first to showcase his pivot from ’90s crooner to the eventual second stage of a career now filled with forgettable anthemic singles. To his credit, Adkins had seen little chart success following the neo-traditional format, and while Chrome features flashes of the singer’s past sounds, it is mostly a stepping stone to later testosterone-filled ditties. Trace enlisted the production of Dan Huff and Trey Bruce to separately produce the album’s tracks, and all the single releases come from Huff’s half.  This time out the singles would fare much better than those from his previous album with 2 top 10 hits here and another top 20, and the album would also add to his collection of precious metal with a gold-sales certification.

Lead single “I’m Tryin'”, a first-person account of a man with many problems, a demanding job and more demanding ex-wife not the least of them, is recounted to a soaring 70s rock production, complete with Guitar Hero-worthy licks and layers of percussion. Adkins authoritative voice finds its way through the production and effectively delivers Anthony Smith and Jeffrey Steele’s well-written lyric.  “Help Me Understand” is one of Adkins’ best releases in his career, even if it is marred a bit by Huff’s heavy-handed production. Akin to Tanya Tucker’s gorgeous ballad “(Without You) What Do I With Me”, it clearly captures the hurt, but also the confusion, that comes with the abrupt end of a relationship, and was the only one of the album’s three singles not to reach the top 10, stalling out at #17.

The title track impacted radio as the third and final single, and just 10 seconds in, when the electric guitar begins to moan softly and Adkins’ throaty scatting begins, it becomes apparent this is a song with more groove than goods. And it is. The Chevelle-driving girl whose “favorite color is chrome”, and who will appear repeatedly in future Adkins singles, makes her first one-dimensional appearance here, and provided the singer with another top 10 radio hit.

It’s interesting that two producers independently helmed these tracks since nearly all of them fall into the same medium tempo pace and nearly every one outside the singles have an interchangeable melody.  Some songs break through the shuffle, buoyed by the songwriting or the singer’s commanding performance. “Come Home”, written by Ed Hill, Bob DiPiero and Mark D. Sanders, is a mid-tempo delight in the neo-traditional mold. Trace plays the part of a man full of “I’m sorry’s” trying to put back together a broken relationship. The hackneyed subject matter is elevated by verses full of the narrator’s broken thoughts and a tinkling piano track throughout.  “I’m Paying It For It Now” is another mid-tempo, but with fiddles and a prominent steel guitar built around a fairly weak hook and plotline.

Others are just forgettable. The mid-tempo quasi-rock “Thankful Man” serves as a written thank-you to the narrator’s father for his blue-collar ways, and more thank-you’s to the Lord above that he followed the same path. “Scream” sounds much like the title track and finds the singer longing to “scream at the top of his lungs” in sheer love-fueled delight.  The obligatory country boy out-of-place in the big city tale comes in “I’m Going Back”, wherein our narrator is leaving a world full of “lunatics” (a lady with unconventional hair color and a cross dresser) for one of “windmills and dirt roads and bean fields“.  And so the album goes for the remaining tracks.

I’d be remiss to say these new lecherous-party boy attitudes, the slick guitar work, pounding drums and all aren’t directly responsible for his climb to country music A-lister.  He’d eventually hit much lower lows than this, and there are a handful of great songs to be plucked here, but Chrome was when Trace Adkins jumped completely over the shark and into the deep, dark water of musical nothingness.

Grade: C-

Buy it at amazon.

Album Review: Trace Adkins: ‘More…’

Trace Adkins’s third album was released in 1999. Trace’s vocals are great throughout, and the selection of material is good, but the record is hampered occasionally by slightly heavy-handed production.

Lead single ‘Don’t Lie’ crept into the top 30, a poor performance by most standards. It is actually a very good song, written by Chet Biggers and Frank Rogers, with a piercing fiddle line underlining his bitter demand that the woman leaving not says she’s going to miss the past, when he knows she’s moving on to a future with another man. It was produced by Paul Worley, although the remainder of the album was helmed by Trey Bruce (with one further exception).

The title track is a well-sung but unremarkable mid tempo love song, which was the record’s biggest hit single, peaking at #10. The final single, ‘I’m Gonna Love You Anyway’ is a better love song, written by Roger Miller’s son Dean and Stacy Dean Campbell. I like the warm and tender delivery, and the lyric promising constancy to defy a threatened breakup, but it only just made its way into the top 40.

‘Everything Takes Me Back’ offers a more downcast take on splitting up, with a dejected Trace unable to get over it, complaining “everything takes me back but you”. It is well written and sung, but the production is a bit cluttered.

But the album boasts several outstanding moments. The heartbreakingly sad ‘She’s Still There’ (written by Tim Johnson and Mark D Sanders) has a perfectly understated vocal which roots the story in reality rather than miring it in sentiment, although a more stripped down production would have made it better still. The protagonist looks at a picture of his high school sweetheart. It becomes clear that Emma Lou died tragically young, although we never learn the circumstances. The emotional force of the song is only strengthened by not knowing exactly what happened to Emma Lou, as we hear about the fates of their other classmates, and feel for the lost dreams a young girl never got to follow:

Emma would be happy if she could only see us now
Cause we’re livin’ out the lives that she only dreamed about

She’s still there in Oklahoma
She’s still seventeen
She’s livin’ with her Mama
Workin’ at the Dairy Queen
And she’s still standin’ on the front porch
With a red ribbon in her hair
The rest of us have scattered everywhere
But she’s still there

Similarly effectively, the very intense ‘The Night He Can’t Remember’ tells the bleak tale of a man whose battle with alcohol culminate on one terrible night, when a lost job leads to a broken promise and some unforgiveable actions, once more left to the audience’s imagination:

Now he’s been clean and sober since twenty-three October ’95
His drinking days are over but there’s that one she can’t get off her mind
And he tries to apologize but can’t recall and don’t realize
She won’t forgive whatever he said
That night he can’t remember
Oh, the night he can’t remember – the one she can’t forget

This excellent song is a rare Trace Adkins writing credit (alongside Kenny Beard).

A more hopeful note is struck with ‘Someday’, a great and typically poetic Darrell Scott song which portrays a man who is “grounded, but I have wings to fly“.

It’s back to the real world with the poignant ‘Every Other Friday At Five’, the story of a divorced father holding on to his love for his children. The orchestration is a bit stifling, but the vocal is excellent, with a delicately melancholy tinge as he promises to put the children first and begs other separated parents to do the same. ‘A Working Man’s Wage’, written by Wynn Varble and Leslie Satcher, pays tribute to the protagonist’s blue-collar father, with a modest hope that he can follow in his footsteps. There is a similar cheerful can-do spirit in the more metaphorical ‘I Can Dig It’, written by Monty Criswell and Jim Rushing, with vibrant fiddle and honky tonk piano.

Trace went down to Austin, Texas, to record the wry western swing ‘All Hat, No Cattle’ with Ray Benson (who also produced the track) and Asleep At the Wheel, with legendary fiddler Johnny Gimble also featured. This is a fun song which mocks the wannabe cowboy who looks and talks the part but hasn’t got the goods to back it up:

The only stampede that he’s ever seen is the clearance at the western store

‘Can I Want Your Love’ is the only really poor track, with a jerky pop rhythm and uninteresting lyric.

More… was one of Trace’s less successful records commercially, no doubt due to the under performing singles, but this is overall my favorite Trace Adkins album. It is well worth finding a copy, especially as it is widely and cheaply available in both CD and digital format.

Grade: A

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Big Time’

Released in October 1997, Trace’s sophomore effort follows the same template of the first, offering up an 11-track selection of contemporary songs, while remaining more rooted in traditional country than most of his contemporaries at that time. Though he’s not particularly well known as a songwriter, Trace’s name appears among the songwriting credits on two tracks — the lead single “The Rest of Mine”, which is one of the finest singles of his career — and the album cut “Snowball in El Paso”. The former, co-written with Kenny Beard, is a beautiful wedding ballad that Trace performed at his own wedding. It peaked at #4. The album’s subsequent singles both faltered at radio, however, peaking outside the Top 10. “Lonely Won’t Leave Me Alone” made it as far as #11. Trace might have recovered from this setback had the label made a better choice for the third single. They went with the lyrically light title track, which they probably thought would make a fun spring/early summer release. However, it is one of the weaker tracks on the album. Radio programmers apparently agreed as it stalled at #27.

The whimsical “Took Her To The Moon” seems like it would have been a much better choice to send to radio. In this tale, Trace is the victim of his own success when he tries to impress his new love interest, only to have her move in with him and start running his life. He laments, “I took her to the moon and I can’t take her back.” It’s a shame that this one remained buried as an album cut.

The aformentioned “Snowball In El Paso”, which Trace co-wrote with Trey Bruce is another good tune, in which the narrator, having been left by his wife or girlfriend, remains in denial, listing the possessions she’s left behind as reasons why she can’t have actually left. This one was also strong enough to have been considered for a single release, but it was probably passed over because it is lyrically very similar to Tim McGraw’s “Can’t Really Be Gone” from a few years earlier. “Out Of My Dreams” shows is a very well done, understated ballad that serves as a reminder that Trace does have a vulnerable side — something we tend to forget at times thanks to monstrosities like “Honkytonk Badonkadonk”, “Ala-Freakin-Bama” and “Brown Chicken, Brown Cow”.

The album does have its share of filler tracks, namely the title track, the fiddle-led “See Jane Run” and the more rock-tinged “Twenty-four, Seven”; however, none of these tracks is unlistenable. In fact, all of them are quite good compared to some of the records Trace has released in more recent years.

The album closes on high note with a terrific version of the traditional spiritual/folk tune “Wayfaring Stranger”, which is probably my favorite version of the song after Emmylou Harris’ rendition.

Although Big Time’s singles may have underperformed on the charts, the album managed to earn platinum certification, matching the sales level of its predecessor Dreamin’ Out Loud. Because of his spotty track record in choosing quality material, I’ve learned to proceed with extreme caution before buying Trace’s albums. More often than not, I’ll download individual tracks instead of buying the complete album. Big Time, however, is one of his more solid efforts and is worth buying in its entirety. It is widely available at very reasonable prices, in both CD and digital form from vendors such as Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘You And You Alone’

Partly due to the disappointing performance of 1996’s Full Circle, Randy Travis departed from Warner Bros. to become the flagship artist of the newly-formed DreamWorks Nashville in 1998. You And You Alone was his first collection for the fledgling label. Hoping to rejuvenate his flagging career, he put together a new production team consisting of himself, Byron Gallimore and James Stroud, marking only the second time in his career that he worked without Kyle Lehning. The result was a slightly more contemporary, definitely more radio-friendly but still true to the traditions of country music, collection of songs. The uptempo “Out Of My Bones” was released as the advance single in March 1998. It found Travis sounding more energetic than he had in quite some time, and it quickly re-established him at country radio. Returning to the Top 10 for the first time since 1995’s “The Box”, “Out Of My Bones” told the tale of a man’s vain attempts to rid himself of the memory of his ex. It peaked at #2.

DreamWorks decided to follow up this success with another uptempo number, the album’s opening track “The Hole”, which didn’t fare quite as well, but still managed to crack the Top 10, landing at #9. Next, they sent to radio the beautiful midtempo “Spirit Of A Boy, Wisdom Of A Man”, written by Trey Bruce and Glen Burtnik and previously recorded by Mark Collie. More contemporary than most of Randy’s singles, it may have been an acknowledgement of the changing tides at country radio, which had shifted back towards pop. Like “Out Of My Bones”, “Spirit of A Boy” just missed topping the chart, leveling out at #2.

The album’s fourth single was the decidedly more country — and possibly too country for country radio — “Stranger In My Mirror”, written by Kim Williams and the great Skip Ewing. The sound was a throwback to Randy’s Storms of Life days, but despite being the best track on the album, it stalled at #16 and unfortunately marked the beginning of Randy’s declining chart performance.

There is only one throwaway track in this collection — the Billy Livsey and Don Schlitz-penned “I Did My Part”, but the rest of the collection is first rate and holds its own with Randy’s better known earlier work. Particularly good are the bluegrass-tinged “I’m Still Here, You’re Still Gone” which features background vocals from Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski, and the superb title track, which features harmony vocals from two of its co-writers, Leslie Satcher and Melba Montgomery, along with Vince Gill. Melba, of course, is best known for her duet work with George Jones before he began recording with Tammy Wynette.

You And You Alone reversed Randy’s declining fortunes at country radio, albeit temporarily, but it failed to garner the impressive sales he’d enjoyed at the beginning of his major label career. Travis teamed up with Gallimore and Stroud one more time for 1999’s A Man Ain’t Made Of Stone, which was a critical and commercial failure. Shortly thereafter, he was dropped from the DreamWorks Nashville roster and spent most of the next decade recording religious music, which resulted in one final #1 hit, 2000’s “Three Wooden Crosses.” He later rejoined Warner Bros. and returned to secular music with 2008’s Around The Bend.

Despite having produced three substantial hit singles, You And You Alone tends to be another overlooked gem in the Travis discography, and as a very small part of his catalog not controlled by Warner Bros., its singles rarely appear on hits compiliations. The album itself is still available at reasonable prices from third-party sellers at Amazon, and is highly recommended.

Grade: A

Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘Full Circle’

This Is Me, the follow-up to Wind In the Wire, revived Randy’s career after that side-project, with four top 10 hits including the chart-topping ‘Whisper My Name’. Surprisingly, though, his next album was a commercial disappointment, with none of the singles doing at all well. Released in August 1996, Full Circle was produced as usual by Kyle Lehning, but the sound is a little fuller than on their previous work together. Randy’s resonant baritone is at its best, and the material is generally high quality.

The first two singles, ‘Are We In Trouble Now’ and ‘Would I’ both faltered in the 20s. The former is a well-written ballad about falling in love which was rather surprisingly written by British rock guitarist Mark Knopfler. (Knofler has had a longstanding interest in country music, and has recorded albums with Emmylou Harris and Chet Atkins.) Randy gives it a sensitive, tender delivery worthy of a much bigger hit. The up-tempo ‘Would I’, on the other hand, is pleasant but forgettable, and frankly makes me think of the songs criticised in Alan Jackson’s ‘Three Minute Positive Not Too Country Uptempo Love Song’ from a few years later.

‘If It Ain’t One Thing, It’s Another’ is a much more entertaining, personality-infused up-tempo number, co-written by Joe Stampley (best known for his Moe & Joe duets with Moe Bandy), and not picking this as a single feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. It could have made the basis of an amusing video too.

The excellent ‘Price To Pay’ (written by Trey Bruce and Craig Wiseman) was perhaps just a little too downbeat to succeed in a period when pop influences were once more gaining ground on country radio. A cheating song, the remorseful protagonist regrets having ever let it start, when it would have been so much easier to call a halt:

Your heart wasn’t mine to take
Mine wasn’t mine to give
And love wasn’t ours to say
I shoulda let you go when I could
When the memories weren’t so many or so good
And one night was such a small price to pay

It barely charted despite being the best of the three singles, and that signalled the end of Randy’s time with Warner Brothers, at least for a while.

The atmospheric opener ‘Highway Junkie’, written by blue-collar singer-songwriter Chris Knight with Sam and Annie Tate, sets the portrait of a trucker using his focus on life on the road to get over heartbreak against a muscular beat. The song namechecks Roger Miller and his classic ‘King Of The Road’, and quite fittingly later in the record there is a loping cover of that very song, which also appeared on the soundtrack of the movie Traveller.

Another very good song is ‘Long On Lonely (Short On Pride)’, written by venerable songwriting team of Bob McDill, Dickey Lee, and Bucky Jones. The weary protagonist appeals to his former lover:

I won’t say I love you, don’t know if it’s true
I will say I need you, God knows I do

Randy revived an old song he had written (with John Lindley) and recorded back in the Randy Ray days, ‘The Future Mister Me’. This mournful response to a failed relationship was well worth revisiting, and is quite beautifully sung by a defeated sounding narrator, who has obviously caused his share of problems for his ex wife but is now wishing her luck with her new man. He also wrote two more songs for the album. ‘I Wish It Would Rain’ (written with Ron Avis, the driver of Randy’s tour bus) is excellent. In this intense ballad, the protagonist is desperate for his chance-met ex not to see him crying at the sight of her with her new love. The tender love song ‘I Can Almost Hear Her Wings’ was written with Buck Moore and Eddie Lee, and is lovely.

The beaty ‘Don’t Take Your Love Away From Me’ is enjoyable enough, but lacks much of a melody and is one of the weaker moments. The album closes with the philosophical and relaxed sounding ‘Ants On A Log’, written by Skip Ewing and Donny Kees.

Full Circle is easy to find cheap. Although it was not a commercial success for Randy, it is underrated and worth seeking out.

Grade: A

Single Review: Randy Travis – ‘Look Heart, No Hands’

Released as a single from Greatest Hits Volume 2 in 1992, “Look Heart, No Hands” continued Travis’s reign at the top of the country charts. The ballad about jumping in to a relationship without reservations is a straightforward love song where vocals, lyrics, and production values work together to create a memorable moment in his career.

What always strikes me is the whimsical vibe of this record. It still sounds fresh almost 20 years later, and has an easy-going flow extenuated by Travis’s relaxed vocal performance. He seems very comfortable here, displaying the confidence of a seasoned hit maker who isn’t about to rest on his laurels.

The understated production also suits the song well. The hints of dobro and steel guitar keep the song traditional yet modern, and keep the focus on the story, not the music, which acts as a complement opposed to a driving force.

And because of that, the lyrics have to be well written to stand as the focus of the track. And the words, written by Trey Bruce and Russell Smith, hold up. The chorus, which can easily stand on its own, begins to make an imprint on your brain after just a few listens and you can’t help but remember it. This is the kind of song that makes a good impression on the listener.

While not a classic Randy Travis hit, “Look Heart, No Hands” is worthy of standing proud next to the likes of “On The Other Hand” and “Forever, and Ever, Amen.” It’s just as good, but never had the lasting power of his two signature tunes, which is a shame. This was released in a time when country music still held onto a sense of tradition and hadn’t yet exploded into an over-commercialized breeding ground for pseudo-rockers.

Grade: A –

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Inside Out’

In 2001, Trisha took another break from working with Garth Fundis, choosing to co-produce Inside Out with Mark Wright. It is one of her most pop sounding productions, with heavy use of string sections and a punchy sound, but the material is strong and Trisha’s vocals cannot be criticized. On the whole I think it is a vast improvement over Real Live Woman, my least favorite of Trisha’s albums. Lyrically the tone of the record leans towards survival in the face of adversity, and refusal to regret past choices.

After the disappointing chart performance of the singles from Real Live Woman, it must have been a relief when the debut single from the new project stormed to the top 5. That was ‘I Would’ve Loved You Anyway’, a strongly sung ballad where Trisha defiantly declares in the painful aftermath of a failed relationship that yes, she would do it all again if she had the choice. The production is a bit heavier than necessary, but Trisha’s interpretation is effective at subtly conveying the emotion.

The title track stalled outside the top 30. It is one of Trisha’s more pop-leaning records, a love song written by the unusual combination of rocker Bryan Adams and Gretchen Peters, with jerky rhythms and features a guest vocal from Don Henley. It is a far cry from the magic of Trisha’s previous collaboration with Henley, the classic ‘Walkaway Joe’.

The third and last single was one of my favourite tracks, but sadly did not perform as well on radio as it deserved to do. The intense ‘I Don’t Paint Myself Into Corners’, written by the talented Rebecca Lynn Howard with Trey Bruce, is an excellent big ballad with a metaphorical lyric about discovering self-sufficiency and survival, with an intense vocal from Trisha with Vince Gill supporting on harmony:

I never knew just how far a soul could fall
Like a rock, couldn’t stop, didn’t try
I locked myself behind shades of misery, yeah,
But when I let you go I set myself free

And I don’t paint myself into corners anymore
In a brittle heart of clay
I threw my brushes away
The tools of the trade that chained your memory to me are out the door
I don’t paint myself into corners anymore

Howard had recorded this song herself on her debut album the previous year, and Trisha picked up another great song from that record, the weeper ‘Melancholy Blue’, written by Tom Douglas and the legendary Harlan Howard. This portrays woman who has lost her lover and is lost herself as a result. She wanders around the country trying to find a path for herself, and we learn in the hushed last verse:

Now and then I go back to Biloxi
Whenever I feel brave
Visit that little country church down there
Lay some flowers on your grave
You sure got a hold on me
I don’t know what to do
I ain’t got no future
I can’t see my future without you

This is the highlight of the album, with Trisha’s delicately understated vocal supported by a tasteful string arrangement, and both these tracks stand amongst Trisha’s finest moments.

I also very much like Jude Johnstone’s wistful piano-led ‘When We Were Still In Love’ about lost hopes, which closes the album on an emotional low but a musical high. Another very fine track, but one with the opposite message, is the optimistic ‘Second Chance’, written by Irene Kelley, Clay Mills and Tony Ramey. Trisha’s vocal is superb on a song which tempts the listener to think it might have been addressed to Garth Brooks, with whom she was just embarking on a relationship following their respective divorces:

Here is your second chance
Take it and fly

Another highlight is a faithful cover of Rosanne Cash’s sophisticated and melodic ‘Seven Year Ache’ (a #1 from 1981), with Rosanne herself on harmony and the odd solo line.

‘Harmless Heart’ is another fine AC sounding ballad, written by Kim Patton Johnston and Liz Rose with a fine and subtle vocal perfectly interpreting the lyric, and tasteful strings. Trisha’s character has been rebuffed in love by a man afraid of commitment, and is hurt but not vindictive, as she gently tells him:

I meant every word I said
But what’s the use?
You believe whatever you want to…

You set me up to fail the test
And prove that you were right
“Everyone lets you down”

Matraca Berg and Ronnie Samoset’s ‘For A While’ is a mid-tempo number about the process of gradually getting over someone, which is uncompromisingly turn-of-the-millennium contemporary both in its lyrical details and in its musical setting; not really to my personal taste but very professionally done.

There are some tracks where the heavy production is too much, particularly the very pop/rock opening track ‘Love Alone’ (although it has an interesting lyric about self-reliance and the expected strong vocal) and the echoey ‘Love Me Or Leave Me Alone’. Hugh Prestwood’s lonesome bluesy wailing ‘Love Let Go’ gets a heavy production which totally overwhelms Prestwood’s typically poetic lyrics; I think I would have liked this if it had a more stripped down or acoustic treatment but as it is it stands as one of my least liked of Trisha’s recordings.

The album hit #1 on the country album charts, and has been certified gold. However, after the failure of the last single, Trisha took a break from making music for the next few years and concentrated on her personal life.

Grade: B