My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Troy Jones

Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘Angels and Alcohol’

81S0JZvN9pL._SX522_After a pair of non-commercial albums that found him venturing into gospel and bluegrass, Angels and Alcohol, which was released last week, is both a return to form for Alan Jackson and his strongest collection since he parted ways with Arista Records five years ago.

Like the vast majority of Jackson’s catalog, Angels and Alcohol was produced by Keith Stegall. In many ways it is reminiscent of their best work from the 90s; there are no concessions to current trends and no attempts to chase radio hits. The current single, “Jim and Jack and Hank”, which I reviewed earlier this month, currently resides at #47 on the charts. Despite being a fun and catchy uptempo number, it’s unlikely to rise much higher in the current commercial environment.

Although I stand by the B+ rating I gave the single, I would not include it among one of my favorites from the album, because there are other more substantive songs which which a fluffy lightweight song simply cannot compete. With all due respect to Alan Jackson the songwriter, who penned seven of the album’s songs, my favorites are the three he didn’t write. Troy Jones’ and Greg Becker’s “When God Paints” is a beautiful ballad, with lyrics that are rich with imagery about life’s simple pleasures. Even better is “The One You’re Waiting On” by Adam Wright and Shannon Wright, which finds the protagonist sitting in a bar, admiring his love interest from afar, knowing that he doesn’t stand much of a chance but wondering exactly what she is holding out for. “Gone Before You Met Me”, an uptempo number by Michael White and Michael P. Heeney is about a free spirit who has long since settled down, and when he finds he is still rambling, is relieved to discover that it was only a dream. Country music needs more songs like this.

Jackson’s own compositions are nothing to sneeze at, either. The opening track “You Can Always Come Home” finds him reassuring a child who is about to leave the nest, and the title track is a beautiful ballad that is vintage Alan Jackson. It would have been a huge hit 20 years ago, and even ten years ago it might have been given a fair shot by radio. The closing track “Mexico, Tequila and Me” finds Jackson switching back to Jimmy Buffett mode, and is reminiscent of “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”.

I can’t find anything to complain about with this album. The current crop of singers who are doing their best to ruin country music (and largely succeeding), could learn a lot from Alan Jackson. There are no stretches or surprises here, just good old country music that will not leave Jackson’s fans disappointed. Sometimes that’s enough.

Grade: A

Album Review: Ashton Shepherd – ‘Where Country Grows’

Ashton Shepherd was the youngest of the artists we spotlighted last year as the “new New Traditionalists”. At last, three years after she emerged on the scene, she has released her second album, which marks a serious bid for mainstream success by a talented young singer-songwriter. It is produced, like her first record, by Buddy Cannon, who does a fine job balancing contemporary and traditional elements of Ashton’s sound and emphasizing her unique voice.

The insistent lead single ‘Look It Up’ (written by Angaleena Presley and Robert Ellis Orrall), which I reviewed at the end of last year, has Ashton coming on scornfully like a modern Loretta Lynn. This works tremendously well, and it is a shame it was not a monster hit for Ashton rather than peaking just inside the top 20 – although that made it her biggest hit to date.

It is one of only two tracks not written by Ashton. She is developing well as a songwriter, and I am pleased to see her working with other writers to hone her own gifts, building on the untutored natural talent she showed on her debut three years ago.  Former artist and recent Sugarland collaborator Bobby Pinson helps writing a couple of country-living themed numbers. The title track and current single is a bit predictable as Ashton pays tribute to her rural roots, but the up-tempo ‘More Cows Than People’ on the same theme is quite entertaining, with colorful details rooting the song in a specific reality. This one isn’t a generic southern small town. I also like the relaxed but catchy ‘Beer On A Boat’. Written by Marv Green, Ben Hayslip and Rhett Akins, some of the lyrics might sound leering sung by a man, but Ashton makes it wholesome and charming. These four originally appeared on an EP earlier this year, which Razor X reviewed in anticipation of the album.

The best of the new songs is the sultry ‘That All Leads To One Thing’, one of Ashton’s solo compositions. It has a southern gothic Bobbie Gentry feel. A tormented married woman addresses the husband who is obviously cheating. With a vibe too dark for today’s country radio, it is one of the highlights on the record.  The upbeat ‘Tryin’ To Go To Church’ (written with Shane MacAnally and Brandy Clark) is lively and entertaining tune about struggling to live right in the face of various temptations (like the “husband-stealing heifer” she has to “set right”), and is reminiscent of ’70s Linda Ronstadt.

‘I’m Just A Woman’ is a ballad about being a woman, and specifically a wife and mother; the lyrics are not particularly deep or insightful, but the extraordinarily intense vocal makes it sound better than it is. The ballad ‘While It Ain’t Raining’ is equally intense to the point of verging on the over-dramatic, and although the song itself is well written (by Ashton with Troy Jones) a slightly more understated approach might have been more effective. Both tracks have backing vocals from Melonie Cannon (Buddy’s daughter and an exceptional talent in her own right).

‘I’m Good’ is a fine song which Ashton wrote with Dale Dodson and Dean Dillon. Like ‘Look It Up’, it is presented from the point of view of a woman refusing to forgive the man who has hurt her, but with a mellower feel musically as she concentrates on affirming her own strength and moving on. Her enunciation is oddly over emphasized – a feature of her vocals some criticized on her first album, which seems to have been intensified on this track in particular. ‘Rory’s Radio’ fondly recalls teenage memories of listening to the radio while driving with her older brothers, and has some slightly awkward phrasing.

I thought Ashton’s debut was enormously promising, the voice of a fresh new talent while still unmistakably country. This is more commercial, and will hopefully gain her some radio play, but although this is an encouraging step forwards, I feel she is still a work in progress, with her best yet to come.

Grade: B+

Buy it at amazon.

Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘Anniversary Celebration’

Marking the quarter of a century since the release of Randy’s landmark debut album, Storms Of Life, in June 1986, his latest release harks back to his last duets album, 1990’s Heroes And Friends, in many ways. The packaging, like its predecessor, includes pictures from the recording sessions, plus some older pictures from the early days of his career. Randy’s own vocals have noticeably deteriorated from his peak, but he sounds thoroughly invested in the songs here, and his voice still has immense character. The songs include a mixture of Travis classics and new or newish material. Kyle Lehning takes his accustomed place as producer (and, incidentally, pays tribute in the liner notes to Randy’s manager and ex-wife for her contribution to his career as a whole and this particular project).

It opens with a rather underwhelming collaboration with Brad Paisley on the rather boring and tuneless (and too loud) ‘Everything And All’, about seizing the moment, with Paisley also playing electric guitar. Troy Jones’s song has a 2006 copyright date, and frankly I can see why no one picked it up. The tune also sounds distinctly similar to ‘Everything’s A Thing’, an obscure Joe Nichols album cut. For some reason the album also closes with a solo version, which the song really doesn’t warrant. Fortunately matters improve from there on.

The best song from Heroes & Friends, ‘A Few Ole Country Boys’, gets a reprise, and is also one of my favorite tracks this time around. Randy takes the part George Jones sang on the original, and Jamey Johnson plays the young pretender inspired by him, very effectively. Jamey is no Travis, vocally, but he is an excellent emotional interpreter, and this version feels very genuine, if not quite in the class of the shiver-inducingly good original. There is a slight rewrite to suit the new casting (“We heard you were a fast train coming out of Caroline” becomes “Comin’ down I-65”). Larry Franklin’s lovely fiddle and Paul Franklin’s steel add to the traditional feel.

Even better is a gorgeous version of ‘Promises’ with Shelby Lynne, a great singer who has too rarely found equally great material, and has for the most part moved out of country music. Here she is emotional but restrained on one of Randy’s bleakest songs, while Randy’s voice, grainier than in his youth, sounds wearied by the string of broken promises which has led only to mutual heartbreak. The song works unexpectedly well as a duet, with the pair united in their self-imposed misery, and combined with a delicate string arrangement, this sets it apart from the stripped down original and creates it anew. I would love to hear Shelby on a full album’s worth of solo material like this.

The velvety bass-voiced Josh Turner gets the best of the new songs, the cheery Tim Menzies/Roger Springer song ‘T.I.M.E.’. This is a buddyish uptempo reminder to keep a marriage healthy by remembering that “women spell love, T.I.M.E.” The pair sound very good together on an enjoyable song, and this would be good to see recreated live. John Anderson is also great as the guest on ‘Diggin’ Up Bones’, complete with a newish verse omitted from the original (songwriter Paul Overstreet has previously recorded this version).

Zac Brown is very warm and likeable on a breezy version of Randy’s monster hit ‘Forever And Ever Amen’, and the rest of the Zac Brown Band adds pleasant backing vocals. Randy has recorded with Kenny Chesney before (‘Baptism’, on Kenny’s Everywhere We Go); this time, they try out Randy’s hit ‘He Walked On Water’, which is quite nicely done.

Randy is reunited with old tour partner Alan Jackson on a medley of a brace of songs they wrote together in the early 90s: ‘Better Class Of Losers’ and ‘She’s Got The Rhythm (And I Got The Blues)’. Alan seems to be singing in an unaccustomedly low key, and is almost unrecognizable at the start of the first song, but the pair seems to be having fun in the studio.

Less successfully, Tim McGraw duets on ‘You Can’t Hurt A Man’, written by Lance Miller with Brad and Brett Warren. This is a good song about a man who has reached the point where no new hurt can take him any lower, but one of the poorer performances, with Tim sounding AutoTuned and both of them shouting. James Otto is even shoutier on the bluesy ‘Too Much’. ‘Is It Still Over?’ is lively and Randy sounds at his best, but Carrie Underwood oversings her part, and lacks the playful sense of irony essential on this particular song, taking it all at face value.

Of the more unexpected duet partners, Kristin Chenoweth isn’t bad (and Randy sounds great) on ‘Love Looks Good On You’ a well-written contemporary ballad (by Gordie Sampson and Hilary Lindsey) about meeting an ex and finding she (or he, depending on which of them is singing lead) has moved on. Admittedly the lyric is another which doesn’t quite make sense as a duet. Kristin is reportedly readying a country album of her own. Her first single for country radio is terrible, but this is much more listenable, although her voice is not nearly as impressive as I would have expected from a Broadway star. Randy’s vocals are at their current best on this track. Irish singer Eamonn McCrystal lends his pleasant tenor to ‘Someone You Never Knew’, a Kyle Jacobs/Fred Wilhem song given a light Celtic flavor.

The Eagles’ Don Henley sings harmony on the downbeat hospital-set ‘More Life’, which sounds very familiar. This reflection on the end of life and what comprises “true happiness” is very touching. Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson both duetted separately with Randy on Heroes & Friends. This time they share ‘Road To Surrender’. The three ageing but distinctive voices are individually very effective on this weary sinner’s defeated appeal to God, written by Gary Duffey, Buffy Lawson and Angela Russell, although they do not meld very well when singing together.

Finally a group of mainly older stars (Lorrie Morgan, George Jones, Ray Price, Connie Smith, Joe Stampley and Gene Watson) combine on ‘Didn’t We Shine’. Gene Watson, who is still sounding great, really deserved a full duet, although the others featured are showing signs of age.

While not his best work, this is a nice way of recognising Randy’s 25 year career, and there are some definite bright spots.

Grade: A-

The album is streaming at Randy’s website. Buy it at amazon.

Album Review: ‘Country Strong’ soundtrack

The newest country-themed film, Country Strong is due out next January, with an early release just before Christmas in Nashville and LA. The music is much more mainstream than it was in Crazy Heart, the last such movie, and indeed two singles are currently in the lower reaches of the country charts. The tracks are all new recordings, some from actors in the film, others from a selection of country artists. A variety of producers have been used, and the music ranges from traditional to pop country.

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays a successful country singer in the movie, sings four of the songs. Her singing is perfectly competent, if a little colorless; it’s hard to say without seeing the film whether this is in character with the part she’s playing. The theme tune is one of the two radio singles. It’s a pleasant enough generic contemporary song, produced by Byron Gallimore, which makes it perfectly convincing as a hit single. Vince Gill and Patty Loveless sing backing vocals but are too far back in the mix to be heard. ‘Coming Home’ is a rather boring and awkwardly phrased pop-country ballad written by Bob DiPiero, Tom Douglas, Hillary Lindsey and Troy Verges, and drowned in strings. Gwyneth rocks out Gretchen Wilson-style in ‘Shake That Thing’ (written by Mark Irwin, Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins), and while this is yelled and tuneless, it should be pretty convincing in the context of the movie. She duets with Tim McGraw (who also has a role in the film) on the breakup-themed rock ballad ‘Me And Tennessee’, written by Paltrow’s real-life rock star husband Chris Martin, who also plays acoustic guitar on the track.

Oddly, McGraw does not get any solo cuts here; maybe Curb wouldn’t allow it. Starlet Leighton Meester (best known for her TV role in Gossip Girl) covers a Rascal Flatts song, ‘Words I Couldn’t Say’, which is less histrionic than the original, but not particularly interesting, and Leighton’s vocals sound rather processed and like a slightly more tuneful Taylor Swift. The best of the actors’ songs is the gruff-voiced Garrett Hedlund who is very effective on ‘Chances Are’, a very good song written by Nathan Chapman, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose, and produced by Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten. I understand Hedlund’s role is as a singer-songwriter, and he certainly sounds the part here on this drawled, half-rueful confession of a man’s inadequacies:

I used to give a damn
I used to try real hard but I’ll give in tonight, chances are
One foot on the narrow way and one foot on the ledge
Sifting through the devil’s lies for what the Good Book says
If I’m going anywhere
I’ll probably go too far
Probably away from you, chances are

This track was the real surprise package on this record.

Country fans will be most interested in the new tracks from established artists. We’ve already heard Sara Evans’ latest single, ‘A Little Bit Stronger’, a pleasant but rather bland positive ballad about coping with adversity, which has grown on me since it was first released as the lead single for both this album and Sara’s long-awaited next solo album (said to be entitled Stronger and possibly now due early next year). Her voice at least sounds lovely on this Tony Brown-produced and Luke Laird/Hillary Lindsey/Hillary Scott-penned number. Like Sara, Faith Hill has been silent for some time, and returns here with a forgettable AC-leaning ballad, ‘Give In To Me’, produced by Jay Joyce, which is soothing and sounds as though it will be background music for a love scene, and goes on a bit too long.

Chris Young and Patty Loveless team up on a duet written by Marv Green and Troy Olsen, and was produced by James Stroud, which must have been the original theme song. ‘Love Don’t Let Me Down’ was the original title for the movie, and it is a decent song, but not a particularly memorable one. It feels like a waste of this pairing of two of the best voices in country music. Trace Adkins reminds us he really can sing well on the reflective Natalie Hemby/Troy Jones song ‘Timing Is Everything’. Nicely produced by Kenny Beard with some lovely fiddle from Larry Franklin, this fine song about the role of chance in our lives is sensitively interpreted by Trace, and rather better than most of the material on his current album.

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Album Review: Joe Nichols – ‘Revelation’

Joe’s second album, Revelation, was not quite as successful as its predecessor, but it has some great songs on it. Produced once more with taste and subtlety by guitarist Brent Rowan, the songs are mainly understated and a little downbeat, and those who like a lot of changes of pace may find this record disappointing. Personally, I think it rewards the time spent listening, and it is one of my favourite Joe Nichols albums.

The lead single, the earnest Harley Allen song ‘If Nobody Believed In You’, made the top 10. It ventures into both socio-political and religious territory as he moves from criticizing over-critical fathers stifling a child’s efforts and an adult son belittling his elderly father to raising the question of prayer in schools. Although it is a heavy handed lyrically, it is beautifully if a little languidly sung.

‘Things Like That (These Days)’, written by Byron Hill and Mike Dekle, tackles similar subject matter to rather gloomy effect. It tells of a boy with supportive parents who bring him up properly, and grow up to coach a children’s sport team, but the melody, while pretty, has a mournful feel, as Joe broods about those from less fortunate backgrounds:

Have mercy on all the kids (parents) out there
Who haven’t been raised to even care
About things like that these days

Iris DeMent’s ‘No Time To Cry’, which also refers to the problems of modern society (murdered babies and bombs exploding), is outright depressing. The protagonist confesses wearily the sorrow brought to his life by bereavement, tears which he cannot afford to shed. It is beautifully sung and written, but undoubtedly ends the album on a downer.

In contrast, the second and last single was the cheery (and very short – not much more than two minutes) ‘What’s A Guy Gotta Do’, co-written by Joe himself with Kelley Lovelace and Don Sampson, which peaked at #4 early in 2005. The dateless protagonist wonders why he’s not getting any interest, when
Ask anybody, I’m a pretty good guy
And the looks-decent wagon didn’t pass me by

It may be fluff, but it has a self-deprecating charm which makes it endearing, and more importantly it is one of two bright up-tempo fun songs which lighten the mood , foreshadowing the way for Joe’s next big hit, ‘Tequila Makes her Clothes Fall Off’. The other is ‘Don’t Ruin It For The Rest Of Us’, recorded the same year a little more rowdily by June’s Spotlight Artist Mark Chesnutt.

The humble ‘Singer In A Band’ is written by Gary Harrison and Tim Mensy, as the protagonist gently chides his fans for idolizing him, comparing his life to the everyday struggles of others:

You see me up there on center stage
In the spotlight for a while
But in the things that really matter
I’m just sittin’ on the aisle

When you look for heroes know that I’m just a singer in a band

It verges on sentimentality, but the palpable sincerity, almost sadness, of the delivery makes it work.

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Year In Review: Megan Morrow’s Top 10 singles of 2009

Looking at my list it becomes very apparent that the best singles don’t always make it to country radio. There are songs on various albums that I like much more but that were never released. That said, here are some of the songs that I find myself humming and still enjoying at the end of 2009.

10. Welcome to the Future – Brad Paisley (June)
Musically, this one had to grow on me, even though it has some great licks between phrases. At the same time, the lyrics jumped out at me from the get-go. I’m probably going to be the only one with this one on my list for sure, but this is another one that spoke to me in the midst of the huge shifts in our country’s landscape. Watching the elections and the inauguration reminded me of watching the Berlin Wall come down – something I didn’t know I’d ever see in my lifetime. Welcome to the future.

9. A Little More Country Than That — Easton Corbin (July)
Our local station started playing this one right after its release last summer with the tag that it’s sung by Easton “I’m-Not-George-Strait” Corbin. If you weren’t paying attention though, you’d almost think it was George! And not only does Easton have a great laid-back easy country vocal, but it fits the song to a T with lyrics like:

Imagine a dirt road full of potholes
With a creek bank and some cane poles catchin’ channel cat
I’m a little more country than that
.

It’s a proposal that lets her know just who she’s getting “under this ol’ hat”. Just a great, simple, easy country song, that’s appropriately produced. Love it! Others must, too – it just rolled into the Top 20.

8. Big Green Tractor – Jason Aldean (May)
Yup. I’m going to admit I like this one. Not sure why, but it makes me smile. Not only does the tractor never break ground, but the song probably doesn’t either. Yet it’s a charming, catchy and sweet love song that paints a great picture that fits us Nebraska folks out here in corn country. It’s Jason’s second release from his 2009 album Wide Open and stayed at #1 for several weeks.

7. White Liar – Miranda Lambert (August)
Acoustic  and steel guitar on a cheating song with a burning lyric of a strong woman calling out the cheat himself and dropping her own bombshell. Doesn’t get much more country than that!

6. Cowgirls Don’t Cry – Brooks & Dunn f. Reba (Feb.)
The digital re-release of this one featuring Reba makes this a possibility for my 2009 list. With some great fiddle, a good story and Ronnie’s vocals, topped off by Reba’s heart-felt last verse, it just got to me. Granted the character in the song loses her dad, but having lost my mom in 2008 it struck a chord for me. That’s part of what I love about country music in general – its power to touch and heal.

5. Living For the Night – George Strait (May)
Love George’s interpretation of this one. He captures that absent, empty kind of feel that missing someone is all about. And then there’s the fact that he and his son wrote it together with Dean Dillon. The lyrics are straight forward yet speak volumes:

Everyday’s a lifetime without you
Hard to get through, since you’ve gone
So I do the only thing I know how to to get by
I’m living for the night.

4. People Are Crazy – Billy Currington (March)
Written by Bobby Braddock and Troy Jones, ‘People Are Crazy’ is Billy’s second single from his 2008 album, Little Bit Of Everything, and is nominated for a Grammy in two categories. It’s probably my favorite story song of the year due to its humorous way of making the point that we all share the most basic common denominators: God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy.

3. Consider Me Gone – Reba McEntire (July)
Though I loved ‘Strange’, her first single from her first album with Valory (April 09), Reba’s second single has become even more of a favorite. Reba calls it a “strong woman’s song” and that it is. Like Sugarland’s ‘Settlin’’, Reba’s character isn’t going to settle either. She lets her lover know in those powerful Reba vocals that

If I’m not the one thing you can’t stand to lose
If I’m not that arrow to the heart of you
If you don’t get drunk on my kiss
If you think you can do better than this
Then I guess we’re done
Let’s not drag this on
Consider me gone.

This one went number one on the Billboard chart this week, making Reba’s 24th trip to the top.

2. Solitary Thinkin’ — Lee Ann Womack (April)
The second single from her Grammy nominated album, Call Me Crazy, and more bluesy jazz than straight country, ‘Solitary Thinkin’ stood out on radio this year as an example of less is more. Lee Ann’s vocals are subtle and embody that smoothness that everything takes on when you’re doing some solitary drinkin’ and thinkin’.

1. High Cost of Living – Jamey Johnson (March)
This one actually got released, but was a bit too dark, rough and long for much radio play. Earthy and honest, pointed and powerful, it’s the best country song of the year in my book.