My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Troy Seals

Album Review: The Bellamy Brothers – ‘Restless’

Although the New Traditionalist movement would not get fully underway until 1986, there were some signs of the changes that to come as early as 1984. That was the year that The Judds enjoyed their first #1 hit with “Mama He’s Crazy” and Reba McEntire received both critical accolades and commercial success with My Kind of Country, while George Strait and Ricky Skaggs continued to keep traditional country on the radio.

1984 also saw some changes for The Bellamy Brothers, although they moved in the opposite direction, with more layered production and pop elements than had previously been the case with their music. The change was likely precipitated by a change of co-producers, with Steve Klein taking over for Jimmy Bowen, a switch that was probably brought about by a change in label affiliations. In the 1970s and 1980s Curb Records was not a standalone label; they typically partnered up with a larger label to distribute and promote their artists. Up to now, the Bellamys’ albums were released jointly by Curb and either Warner Bros. or Elektra, but beginning in 1984, their music was released by MCA/Curb.

Restless, their first release under this new arrangement, was warmly received by radio, with all three of its singles reaching the Top 10 or better. “Forget About Me” (which I actually had forgotten about) reached #5. The very mellow “The World’s Greatest Lover”, complete with its Kenny G-esque saxophone, reached #6 and “I Need More of You” — the best of the three — climbed all the way to #1, becoming the duo’s seventh country chart-topper. “Forget About Me” was written by Frankie Miller, Troy Seals and Eddie Setser, while the other two singles came from the pen of David Bellamy.

Overall this is a very mellow album with mostly mid-tempo numbers, with “Rock-A-Billy” — which is exactly the kind of song its title suggests — and the title track being notable exceptions. The poppy and lyrically-light “I Love It” is a very catchy toe-tapper. “Diesel Cafe”, about a run-down greasy spoon truck stop has a melody that reminds me of Alabama’s “Christmas In Dixie.” I did not care for the reggae-flavored “We’re Having Some Fun Now.”

While there is nothing truly objectionable on Restless, it seems to be somewhat of an opportunity for the duo to explore other musical styles, which unfortunately results in them straying a bit too far at times from their country roots. I wouldn’t necessarily go out and buy this one, but it is worth streaming.

Grade: B

Album Review: Conway Twitty – ‘House On Old Lonesome Road’

House On Old Lonesome Road was Conway Twitty’s third album since returning to MCA Nashville after six albums with Warner Bros. The record was released in 1989 and spawned three singles.

The lead radio offering, “She’s Got A Single Thing In Mind.” was a forceful Walt Aidridge-penned ballad that peaked at #2. The title track, a ballad reminiscent of “That’s My Job,” hit #19. “Who’s Gonna Know,” another bland ballad, stalled at #51.

Clinton Gregory had a #25 hit with “Play, Ruby, Play,” an excellent mid-paced number co-written by Tony Brown and Troy Seals when he released it in 1992. Twitty’s version provides the album with a much-desired change of pace. “Private Part of My Heart,” another Seals co-write (this time with Max D. Barnes), returns the album to the sounds of mid-1980s country somewhat successfully. “Pieces of You,” which Barnes co-wrote with Skip Ewing, is far and away the record’s most traditional number, with lovely doses of fiddle throughout.

“Too White To Sing The Blues,” co-written by Lacy J. Dalton, is reminiscent of Waylon Jennings. Karen Staley and Gary Harrison co-wrote the jaunty and ear-catching “Take Me Home to Mama,” a nice slice of modern honky-tonk. “Child With Child” is another of the sappy ballads for which Twitty had come to be known for during this period of his career. “Nobody Can Fill Your Shoes” feels a step out of touch and sounds just a couple years out of date.

I’m going to go out on a limb and reveal how truly out of touch I am. Given that House On Old Lonesome Road was released in 1989, at the height of the new-traditionalist movement, I had fully expected an album not unlike what Keith Whitley and Don Williams were turning out at the time. What I got instead was a kaleidoscope of sounds and textures attempting to showcase Twitty in the many different lights for which he found success that decade. There isn’t any truly outstanding number among these 10 tracks, although Gregory had the good sense to revive “Play, Ruby, Play.”

Grade: B

Album Review: Conway Twitty – ‘Borderline’

Released in March 1987, Borderline marked Conway’s return to MCA after five year interlude with Elektra/Warner Bros. Frankly, other than the Lost In The Feeling album, I really had consistently disliked his recent output.

I received this album as a birthday present in April 1987. While I had high hopes for a return to the earlier Twitty sound my hopes were dashed when I read the back of the album and saw the following:

Musicians:

James Stroud – Drums
Emory Gordy, Jr. – Bass
John Jarvis – Piano
David Innis, Mike Lawler – Keyboards
Richard Bennett – Acoustic Guitar
Reggie Young, Fred Newll – Electric Guitar
Background Harmonies – Vince Gill and Conway Twitty

That’s right – no John Hughey, or any other steel guitar player for that matter.

My expectations suitably lowered I put the album on the turntable and played it. The album opened up with the first single release, John Jarvis-Don Cook song “Julia” which topped out at #2. This song is bland 80s ballad with cocktail lounge production. The song itself is not bad, but the production ruins it for me.

Brent Mason and Jim McBride collaborated on “Lonely Town”, a mid-tempo song about a one night stand. I would have picked this song as for single release. By the standards of this album, this was a country song

She gave into him last night
She thought he was Mr. Right
But he left like all the others
Before the morning came around

Same old story in lonely town
The sun comes up, the heart goes down
She’s tried everything she knows

Come so far and yet so close
She keeps searching for the magic
But it’s nowhere to be found
But that’s how it is in lonely town

The sun comes up, the heart goes down
There’s got to be a way out
Someday she’ll find it, she won’t always be alone

The one she’s been waitin’ for
Will turn her life around and take her away
From this lonely town

The sun comes up, the heart goes down
There’s got to be a way out
Someday she’ll find it, she won’t always be alone
The one she’s been waitin’ for
Will turn her life around and take her away
From this lonely town

Track three was “I Want To Know Before We Make Love” by Candy Parton and Becky Hobbs. Good advice no doubt – no point getting involved with a sociopath – but I think this song works better from the femine perspective. This song also reached #2.

Track four is the title track “Borderline” a decent song marred by cheesy 80s production. Walt Aldridge wrote this song. He wrote several #1 records for the likes of Earl Thomas Conley, Ronnie Milsap, Alabama and Travis Tritt.

Track five (the last track on side one of the vinyl album) concludes with “Not Enough Love To Go Around”  a slow R&B ballad that is nice but ultimately uninteresting.

Track six is “Snake Books”, written by Troy Seals. Troy wrote many great songs, but this wasn’t one of them. This is followed by “I’m For A While” by Kent Robbins, a generic song about a man who swears that he is not looking for a one night stand.

Most songs written by committees stink, but “Fifteen To Forty-Three” by Don Goodman, Frank Dycus, Mark Sherrill and John Wesley Ryles is a terrific ballad about a fellow sorting through a box of memories and regrets. This has a very country feel to it and would have made a great single.

<blockquote>I just cut the string
On a dusty old shoe box
And opened a door to the past
Now I’m sittin’ here with my souvenirs
And these faded old photographs.

Fightin’ back tears
Lookin’ back through the years
And wonderin’ why dreams fade so fast
Now the young boy I see
Don’t look like the me
Reflected in this old looking glass.

The man in the mirror
Sees things so much clearer
Than the boy in the pictures
With his eyes full of dreams
Oh, the men that I’ve tried to be
From fifteen to forty-three
Never believed that they’d end up like me.

The ninth track “Everybody Needs A Hero” was written by Troy Seals and Max D Barnes. It’s a great song that Gene Watson released as a single. Although Conway does a nice job with the song, it is not quite as nice as Gene’s version (I like the production on Gene’s record better).

The album closes with Gary Burr’s “That’s My Job”, the last single released from this album. The single reached #6 but deserved a better fate. It is one of the best songs Conway ever recorded

I woke up crying late at night
When I was very young.
I had dreamed my father
Had passed away and gone.
My world revolved around him
I couldn’t lay there anymore.
So I made my way down the mirrored hall
And tapped upon his door.

And I said “Daddy, I’m so afraid
How will I go on with you gone that way?
Don’t want to cry anymore
So may I stay with you?”

And he said “That’s my job,
That’s what I do.
Everything I do is because of you,
To keep you safe with me.
That’s my job you see.”

Borderline was one of Conway Twitty’s last big hit albums, reaching #25, higher than any subsequent Conway Twitty studio album would reach. There are some good songs on this album, but the filler truly is filler and the production sounds as phony as most late 1980s country production. This album is somewhere between a C and a C+.

Album Review: Janie Fricke – ‘Love Lies’

I always regarded Janie Fricke as primarily a singles artist, and the market apparently agreed as Love Lies, Janie’s eighth album (ninth album if you include the Greatest Hits album released in October 1982) was the first of her albums to reach the top ten of Billboards Country Albums chart, punching in at #10. This would prove to be rarefied air for Janie as only one more album, Black and White, in 1986, would reach the top ten.

Released in late 1983 and produced by Bob Montgomery, Love Lies was the second album he produced for Janie. Love Lies would see three singles released, “Tell Me A Lie” (#1), “Let’s Stop Talking About It” (#1) and “If The Fall Don’t Get You” (#8). “If The Fall Don’t Get You” was the first single to not go top four after eight consecutive such successes.

In the past I had described Janie’s earlier singles as ‘lovey-dovey drivel’ but perhaps I was a bit harsh. Today I would describe her previous singles as ‘confections’. I would not describe any of the singles on this album using such terms. These are more mature songs.

The album opens with “If The Fall Don’t Get You”, a biting commentary on love, co-written by Van Stephenson, who later was a member of BlackHawk.

So you say you’re thinking of falling in love
Going way out on a limb
And it seems like push is coming to shove
Just look at the shape that I’m in

I have paid the price for love
And it ain’t cheap
Better take a long hard look
Before you leap

If the fall don’t get you, baby
And your fading heart is beating still
If the fall don’t get you
Baby, the heartache will

Next up is “Have I Got A Heart For You”, a mid-tempo song which sells the virtues of a heart on the rebound. Written by Keith Stegall, the song is a decent album track.

I would also describe track three “How Do You Fall Out of Love”, a slow ballad of heartbreak as a decent album track. The Nashville String Machine is a little obtrusive but Janie’s voice cuts through the clutter.

“Love Lies” was an early single for Mel McDaniel, reaching #33 in 1979. It would be a few more years before Mel’s career caught fire, but I though his performance of the song was excellent. For whatever reason, the song never made it to one of Mel’s albums, so I am glad that Janie covered the song; however, she should have released it as a single.

Side one of the original vinyl album closed with “Tell Me A Lie”, a song carried over from the previous album It Ain’t Easy. Columbia during the 1970s and 1980s had this annoying habit of pulling songs from an existing album, releasing it as a single, then adding it to the next album. Since albums during this period only had ten songs, this meant that if you purchased both albums, you would get only nineteen different songs at rough two and a half minutes per song. This cover of a Lynn Anderson album track (and later a top 20 pop hit for Sami Jo) reached #1 for Janie.

Tell me a lie
Say I look familiar
Even though I know
That you don’t even know my name

Tell me a lie
Say you just got into town
Even though I’ve seen you here before
Just hangin’ around

Umm, tell me a lie, say you’re not a married man
Cause you don’t know I saw you slip off your wedding band

Side two of the vinyl album opens up with “Let’s Stop Talking About It”, an up-tempo that reached #1. The song was written by the dynamic trio of Rory Bourke, Rafe Van Hoy & Deborah Allen, who collectively authored many hit singles. You can give your own interpretation to what the lyrics mean:

We’ve had a lot of conversations
We’ve analyzed our situation
There’s only so much that words can say
After awhile they just get in the way

So let’s stop talking about it
And start getting down to love
Let’s stop talking about it
We’ve already said enough

This is followed the Troy Seal-Mike Reid collaboration “Lonely People”, a quiet ballad that makes for a decent album track.

Written by Dennis Linde and Alan Rush, “Walkin’ A Broken Heart” would be released as a single by Don Williams in 1985, reaching #2. Janie does a really nice job with the song and I think the song could have been a big hit for her. I slightly prefer Don’s version but it’s a thin margin of preference.

Walkin’ down this midnight street
Just the sound of two lonely feet
Walkin’ a broken heart
Walkin’ a broken heart

Empty city, not a soul in sight
And a misty rain falls on a perfect night
To walk a broken heart
To walk a broken heart

And I know that you’re thinkin’
This couldn’t happen to you
But you’re a fool for believing
Dreams don’t fly away, cause they do.

Another slow ballad follows in “I’ve Had All The Love I Can Stand”. Janie sings it well, but the song to me is a bit overwrought and not of much interest. The Nashville String Machine is prominent in the arrangement.

The album closes with “Where’s The Fire”, a nice upbeat melody camouflaging a song of angst as the narrator asks her love why he’s in such a hurry to leave.

For me this album is a bit of a mixed bag. Janie is in good voice throughout, and I appreciated the more mature lyrics but I’d like to hear more fiddle and steel. That said, this album is quite worthwhile.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Johnny Paycheck – ‘Take This Job And Shove It’

1977 was the peak of Johnny Paycheck’s career, seeing the success of his signature song, the only chart topping single of his career. The album from which it came was also his most successful, his only platinum record, and was arguably his best. By now Billy Sherrill knew what kind of production suited Paycheck, and he gives him the right backings for this excellent selection of songs.

‘Take This Job And Shove It’, written by fellow Outlaw David Allan Coe, is a true country classic which is still instantly recognisable – and relatable – today. More casual country fans may think of it solely as an assertive blue collar walkout from an underpaid, boring factory job with bosses he despises, but at heart it is a heartbreak song. The narrator’s motivation is the woman he loves. He has been enduring the job he loathes in order to try and make a home for her – but now she has left, he plans on making is true feelings known. Paycheck’s growling delivery is completely convincing. The song had such a popular impact it even loosely inspired a movie a few years later, in which both Paycheck and Coe had cameo roles.

The spoken ‘Colorado Kool-Aid’ is a rather bizarre intended-to-be-funny tale of a bar fight in which the narrator’s Mexican friend cuts off a drunken aggressor’s ear as payback for the latter spitting beer at him:

If you’re ever ridin’ down in south Texas
And decide to stop and drink some Colorado Kool-Aid
And maybe talk to some Mexicans
And you get the urge to get a little tough
You better make damn sure you got your knife-proof ear-muff

Hey, ain’t that right, big man?
I said, ain’t that right, big man?
Ah, hell he can’t hear
Nnot on this side anyway, he ain’t got no ear

It was the B side to the physical single of ‘Take This Job And Shove It’, and it got some airplay in its own right.

The album’s other single, the booze-drenched Bobby Braddock’s ‘Georgia In A Jug’, was less successful, peaking at #17, even though it is an excellent song. Younger fans may know it better from Blake Shelton’s cover. Like ‘Take This Job’, it appears to be one kind of song, in this case a drinking song, with an underlying narrative of heartbreak over the woman who has left. Mexican horns, Caribbean steel drums, and Hawaiian steel are used sparingly, and tastefully, to illustrate the exotic destinations the happy couple will never now visit in real life. A similar alcoholic tour, this time of the US, to try and get over a woman, take space in ‘The Spirits Of St Louis’.

Another superb song, ‘From Cotton To Satin (From Birmingham To Manhattan)’ (covered by Gene Watson a few years later) is about a marriage which founders due to financial pressures. The poor farmer hero scrapes together just enough to take his wife on a vacation to New York City, where she dumps him for a rich man. Ironically, just after she has done so, his Alabama farm turns out to be the site of an oilwell.

‘Barstool Mountain’ was written by Donn Tankersley and Wayne Carson (who recorded it first), and also recorded by Moe Bandy. A classic honky tonk ballad about “drinking away I love you”, it’s another great tune.

‘The Fool Strikes Again’ (written by Steve Davis, Mark Sherrill and Gary Cobb) is a delicate ballad about a loyal wife whose man continually lets her down:

Lady Luck never smiles on those who cheat to win
Every time I get her back
The devil tempts me into sin
And with a smile on his face
The fool strikes again

It was subsequently a single for Charlie Rich, although not a particularly successful one.

‘When I Had A Home To Go’, penned by Billy Sherrill and Glenn Sutton, might depict the same relationship a little later. The wealthy protagonist admits to the bartender,

She loved me more than life itself
But the liquid diet I was on starved our love to death
So it’s not hard to figure out why my baby’s gone
‘Cause when I had a home to go to
I never did go home

Luckily for him, she actually seeks him out in the bar where he has taken refuge, and offers him a second chance, and he has suffered enough to take it up:

So forget the double
Keep the change
And you can call me gone
Cause while I’ve got a home to go to
This time I’m going home

‘The Four F Blues’ is more light hearted, with Paycheck cheerfully playing the field:

I ain’t never seen a woman that didn’t like the 4-F blues

Ooh I like to find ’em, fool ’em, free ’em and forget ’em
And love ’em till they’re satisfied
Then look around for something new

‘The Man From Bowling Green’ is a nice, rather sad story song written by Max D Barnes and Troy Seals., about a naïve young girl seduced by an older man, a musician who moves swiftly on once he has got what he wanted.

This is a great album, which I strongly recommend. If you have nothing else by Johnny Paycheck nin your collection, this is the album to go for. You can find it on a joint CD with Armed And Crazy, and half the tracks from Mr Hag Told My Story, reviews for both which will follow later this week.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Little Texas – ‘Big Time’

51tuggiwfdl-_ss500Little Texas’ most successful album was their sophomore disc , Big Time, released in 1993.  It produced four hit singles, three of which reached the Top 10, including their only #1 “My Love”.  The album was produced by Doug Grau, Christy DiNapoli, and James Stroud.

Based on the feedback we received, some of our readers have been less than enthusiastic about our choice to spotlight Little Texas.  I’m by no means a Little  Texas super fan; I remember most of their radio hits from the 90s but prior to this review I’d never listened to one of their albums all the way through.  So I come to this with a fresh set of ears.   Was Little Texas really the Rascal Flatts of their day?  After listening to Big Time a few times, I can only answer with a resounding no.    I expected to enjoy the singles that I remembered from the radio but I wasn’t sure what to expect from the album cuts.   I must say that I’m pleasantly surprised.  The band members had a hand in writing eight of the album’s ten tracks.  Admittedly, they aren’t all particularly memorable, but there is certainly nothing cringe-worthy in a Rascal Flatts sort of way.

The album’s best track by far is the lead single “What Might Have Been”, which rose to #2 on the country chart and enjoyed some success in the adult contemporary format as well, reaching #16 on that chart.   It was followed by the uptempo Texas pride anthem “God Blessed Texas”, which topped out at #4 and is probably their best remembered hit today.  It’s a good song but one I’ve grown slightly tired of over the years, perhaps due to overplaying by radio.   As such, it’s my least favorite of the album’s singles.   The mid-tempo “My Love” seemed like a no-brainer to replicate the AC success of “What Might Have Been”, but oddly it did not appear on the adult contemporary charts.  It is not as good a song as “What Might Have Been”, but that, along with its lack of crossover success did not prevent it from becoming a #1 country hit.   “Stop on a Dime” had originally been the B-side of “What Might Have Been”.  When released as a single in its own right, it fell short of the Top 10, landing at #14.  As the album’s final single, Warner Bros. had perhaps lost interest in promoting it.  It’s a lot countrier than much of what was played on the radio in the mid-90s; it reminds me of something that Diamond Rio might have done.

“My Town” is the only tracks that doesn’t include one of the band members in its songwriting credits.  Written by Michael Stanley, isn’t particularly country but it is catchy and allows the band to showcase its harmonizing capabilities.   “Cutoff Jeans”, written by Troy Seals, Brady Seals and Ronnie Samoset is more traditional but equally infectious.

Little Texas is one of those bands that I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to when they first arrived on the scene.  They debuted at a time when there was plenty of strong competition within the genre, and that may have contributed to them falling through the cracks to a certain extent.  If they were just getting started today, they’d be head in shoulders above most of their contemporaries on country radio, at least in my book. Big Time isn’t likely to be included on anyone’s list of best country albums, but it exceeded my expectations and is worth giving a spin.

Grade:  B+

Album Review: Asleep at the Wheel – ‘Keepin’ Me Up Nights’

0001597610Released in 1990 as their only studio album for Arista Records, Keepin’ Me Up Nights will do just that as it is a interesting effort throughout.

Asleep At The Wheel (“AATW”) can often feature an astounding number of musicians on stage but this album finds the band being comprised of Ray Benson on lead vocals and guitar; Larry Franklin on fiddle, guitar, and harmony vocals; Tim Alexander on piano, accordion and harmony vocals; John Ely on pedal and lap steel; Michael Francis on saxophone, Joe Mitchell on acoustic and electric bass; and David Sanger on drums. The band is augmented by Greg Jennings playing guitars and six string bass.

The album opens with “Keepin’ Me Up Nights”, a bluesy/jazzy number written by James Dean Hicks and Byron Hill.  In the albums notes Benson says the intent was to do a ‘Ray Charles sings western swing’ arrangement. I would say there were successful.

“Boot Scootin’ Boogie” was written by Ronnie Dunn and would prove to be a major hit for Brooks & Dunn two years later. Since I heard AATW’s version jazzy version first, I found myself surprised at the Brooks & Dunn arrangement and frankly I think AATW did it better, albeit quite differently and definitely not suitable for line dancing.

“Dance With Who Brung You” is a Ray Benson original inspired by a phrase used by former Texas football coach Darrell Royal. This song is done as a mid-tempo ballad.

You got to dance with who brung you, swing with who swung you,
Don’t be a fickle fool,You came here with a gal, who’s always been your pal
Don’t leave her for the first unattached girl, it just ain’t cool
You got to dance with who brung you, swing with who swung you,
Life ain’t no forty-yard dash, be in it for the long run,
’cause in the long run you’ll have more fun, if you dance with who brung You to the bash

Ray collaborated with co-producer Tim Dubois on “Quittin’ Time”, a boogie with real nice sax solos by Michael Francis.

Lisa Silver (who played fiddle on AATW’s second album), Judy Rodman and Carol Chase join the band to provide background vocals on Bobby Braddock’s lovely “Eyes”, an exquisite slow ballad.

Troy Seals and John Schneider wrote “Goin’ Home” is a ballad about the joys of going home after being away too long. This song has a rhythmic arrangement suitable for line dancing.

Well I’ve got a lot of friends on the West Coast,
Got a lot of memories
Well I want you to know that I won’t forget
Everything you’ve done for me
But it’s been too long, just too long
T-T-T-T-T-Too long, I’m a-goin’ home
New York, Detroit, Chicago
You were really somethin’ else
You treated me just like kinfolk y’all,
And I swear I can’t help myself
But it’s been too long, way too long
T-T-T-T-T-Too long, I’m a-goin’ home

I’m gonna write a letter,
I’m gonna send a telegram
Gonna tell everybody this wanderin’ boy is packing his bags right now
And I’m’a goin’ home

“That’s The Way Love Is” was written by former (and founding) AATW member Leroy Preston in 1989. The song, a mid-tempo ballad with a strong Cajun feel to the arrangement (fiddle and accordion), tells of the ups and downs of life. John Wesley Ryles, briefly a star in his own right, chips in background vocals

“Gone But Not Forgotten” was penned by Fred Knobloch and Scott Miller is an up-tempo western swing song about where money goes. We’ve all lived this story …

The great Harlan Howard wrote “You Don’t Have To Go To Memphis”. The premise of the song is that you don’t have to go to Memphis to get the blues, just fall for the wrong woman. The song features nice piano and fiddle solos

You don’t have to go to Memphis to get the Blues
You just fall in love with the kind of women I do
Well, I’ve had me a dozen but I never had me one that
Did not fall through
You don’t have to go to Memphis to get the Blues
There she goes, here I stand
Watching good love slip away
Once again, I’m all alone
Love has come and gone

“Beat Me Daddy (Eight To The Bar)” is a classic boogie from 1940, originally recorded by Will Bradley’s Orchestra (with Ray McKinley on lead vocals). The song was a huge hit for Bradley and has been recorded many times since Bradley’s recording including Commander Cody, Ella Fitzgerald and The Andrews Sisters. The song was completely written by Don Raye although some other names also show up on the writer’s credits

In a little honky-tonky village in Texas
There’s a guy who plays the best piano by far
He can play piano any way that you like it
But the way he likes to play is eight to the bar
When he plays, it’s a ball
He’s the daddy of them all
The people gather around when he gets on the stand
Then when he plays, he gets a hand
The rhythm he beats puts the cats in a trance
Nobody there bothers to dance
But when he plays with the bass and guitar
They holler out, “Beat me Daddy, eight to the bar”

“Texas Fiddle Man” was written by fiddler Larry Franklin and he takes the lead vocals on this song, which features some extended fiddle solos. The folks at Alabama (the band) contributed the idea for the closing riffs.

The album concludes with “Pedernales Stroll” a gentle instrumental tribute to finger pickers such as Chet Atkins, Merle Travis. The song is the only instrumental on the album and as such, the perfect ending to an exciting album

Grade: A+

Album Review: The Time Jumpers – ‘Kid Sister’

kid-sisterThe Time Jumpers’ third album is in many ways a tribute to the late Dawn Sears, who died of cancer in December 2014.

Dawn makes her last appearance on record on ‘My San Antonio Rose’, a Freddy Powers song which is quintessential western swing, and performed as a duet with Dawn’s husband Kenny Sears – an unexpected bonus. (Powers also died this year.) Dawn also sang harmony on ‘I Miss You’, a Vince Gill/Ashley Monroe song which was recorded for Gill’s solo Guitar Slinger album but didn’t make the final cut. It is an affecting ballad about enduring love for one who has gone, the verses of which Gill has rewritten to fit Kenny’s grieving for Dawn. ‘This Heartache’ is a very moving song written and sung by Kenny, inspired by his feelings about Dawn’s loss. The title track, written by Gill, was also inspired by Dawn, and the band members’ collective feelings about her.

Vince has written a charming introduction for the band, ‘We’re The Time Jumpers’. ‘Honky Tonkin’ is not the Hank Williams classic, but an entertaining love song written by Gill with Troy Seals, about adopting a simple domestic life and abandoning the protagonist’s old ‘favorite thing to do’. Some fabulous fiddle is particularly notable.

The band revive the effervescent ‘I Hear You Talkin’’, written by Cindy Walker with country legend Faron Young in the 50s. Joe Spivey sings lead on the Time Jumpers’ delightful version.

Moving away from western swing, ‘Table For Two’ is a gorgeous sad country ballad originally written by Gill with Max D. Barnes for Loretta Lynn. The Time Jumpers’ performance has weeping steel and a lovely vocal from Gill, and would have fitted in perfectly on one of his classic solo albums. Beautiful. The delicate ballad ‘The True Love Meant For Me’, which has an exquisite Gill vocal, is also outstanding.

“Ranger Doug” Green sings his own ‘Empty Rooms’, a stately mid-tempo tune about living with a broken heart. The quirky ‘Bloodshot Eyes’ is a cover of an old Hank Penny tune, which is an amusing takedown of a drunken partner:

Your eyes look like two cherries
In a glass of buttermilk

Don’t roll those bloodshot eyes at me
I can tell you’ve been out on the spree
It’s plain that you’re lying
When you say you’ve been crying
Don’t roll those bloodshot eyes at me

Looks like our little romance has kinda quietened down
You oughta to join a circus
You’d make a real good clown

‘Blue Highway Blue’ is a smooth jazzy ballad sung by band member Billy Thomas; a bit less to my personal taste than other racks, but very well done. The Gill-fronted blues ‘Sweet Rowena’ was also not quite my cup of tea.

Wonderful steel guitar player Paul Franklin is nominated for the umpteenth time this year as CMA Musician of the Year – isn’t it time he won? As a key member of the Time Jumpers, he contributes throughout the album, but gets a special chance to shine on his self-composed instrumental ‘All Aboard’.

I was very much looking forward to the release of this album, and I am pleased to report that I am not disappointed. Brilliantly played throughout, this is an excellent and thoroughly enjoyable album.

Grade: A

Edited to add: the Time Jumpers are currently running a contest on facebook to win a copy: https://www.facebook.com/TheTimeJumpers/?hc_ref=NEWSFEED&fref=nf

Album Review: Waylon Jennings – ‘Honky Tonk Heroes’

honky tonk heroesWaylon’s 1973 album Honky Tonk Heroes was his tribute to the songs of hellraising singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, who was new to Nashville and wrote every song but one. The songs proved ideally suited to Waylon’s increasingly rebellious persona.

The one non-Shaver tune, ‘We Had It All’, perhaps included as a more commercial option for a single, was only a modest hit, sneaking into the top 30. A fairly heavily strung emotional ballad penned by Troy Seals and Donnie Fritts, it is well sung by Waylon, but the arrangement makes it feel out of place on this particular album.

The mid-tempo ‘You Ask Me To’, a Jennings/Shaver co-write, was more successful, peaking at #8. It is a charming declaration of unconditional love, which was also picked up by Elvis Presley.

The rollicking harmonica-led title track pays cheerful tribute to those

“Lovable losers, no account boozers
And honky tonk heroes like me”

The more subdued and regretful steel-laced ballad ‘Old Five And Dimers (Like Me)’ is perhaps the best song on the album. It also served as the title track for Shaver’s own debut album the same year, which included the writer’s take on a number of the songs chosen here.

‘Willy The Wandering Gypsy And Me’ paints the portrait of a pair of wild-living ramblers, following the mantra,

“Movin’ is the closest thing to bein’ free”.

The same theme is visited in ‘Low Down Freedom’, with the narrator ready to run out on his latest girl, despite realising his quest for “freedom” has actually cost him “everything I’ll ever lose”.

Shaver wrote ‘Omaha’ with Hillman Hall (brother of the more famous Tom T.). The roamer in this song has started to feel homesick for Nebraska after a spell in California, part of it in jail, and is going back home. Another jailbird, the protagonist of ‘Ain’t No God In Mexico’ finds himself in trouble south of the border.

‘Ride Me Down Easy’ is yet another song about the hardships of a good hearted rambling man’s life:

It’s been a good month of Sundays and a guitar to go
Had a tall drink of yesterday’s wine
Left a lot of good friends some sheeps in the wind
And satisfied women behind.

Ride me down easy Lord, ride me on down
Leave word in the dust where I lay
Say I’m easy, come easy go
And easy to love when I stay

’Black Rose’ is a dramatic story song about temptation and sin:

When the Devil made that woman
Lord, he threw the pattern away
She were built for speed
With the tools You need
To make a new fool every day.

Way down deep and dirty
On the darker side of shame
I caught a cane cuttin’ man and a bottle of gin
With a rose of a different name.

The Devil made me do it the first time
The second time I done it on my own
Lord, put a handle on a simple headed man
Help me leave that black rose alone.

This classic album is the real dawn of Waylon the “Outlaw”. It is also a genuinely great record which deserves to be heard.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Shelby Lynne – ‘Soft Talk’

SoftTalkJames Stroud sat at the helm of Shelby Lynne’s third Epic album, Soft Talk. Released in 1991, the project performed anemically both at radio and retail. The album peaked at #55, while the two singles failed to chart any higher then the record.

A duet with Les Taylor, “The Very First Lasting Love” peaked at #50. The second and final single, “Don’t Cross Your Heart,” did slightly worse peaking at #54.

“I’ve Learned To Live” is an excellent mid-tempo contemporary styled number written by Dean Dillon and Frank Dycus. Lynne powerfully expresses the tale of a woman coming back from unimaginable loss, vowing to continue living.

Max D. Barnes, Skip Ewing, and Troy Seals co-wrote “A Lighter Shade of Blue,” a dobro soaked ballad. A story about lost love, she’s having trouble moving on yet is not as affected by the turn of events as she thought she would be.

“You Can’t Break A Broken Heart” is an excellent uptempo bluesy number accentuated with harmonica and a prominent drumbeat. Chuck Jones and Chris Waters’ biting lyric coupled with Stroud’s understated production gives Lynne the ideal space from which to vocally soar.

The title track is another affecting ballad, one that starts off slow before Lynne takes it to the next level. While not the most memorable lyric, she brilliantly tackles what she has to work with.

Jim Lauderdale and John Leventhal co-wrote, “Stop Me,” another contemporary styled ballad in which Lynne delivers vocally. Her throaty voice saves what would otherwise be a bland affair, which is unmistakably pop-country, down to the twangy guitars and ribbons of steel guitar. It also just might be her best vocal on the whole project.

“It Might Be Me” is a piano and guitar based ballad that gives way to a meatier production as the track progresses. Since it’s another ballad it easily gets lost in the shuffle and offers only more of the same found on the other tracks.

In the twenty-four years since being released, Soft Talk has gone out of print and only a handful of its ten tracks have resurfaced on her Epic Recordings compilation project released at the turn of the century. It’s a shame because the album is very good even if it isn’t very radio friendly. I was taken aback that the production contained a lot of contemporary 80s country spillovers, but it was pleasant to listen to none the same.

Lynne, like Kelly Willis, may’ve been on a major label, but their music just wasn’t that appealing to the masses and thus they never caught on in that way. That doesn’t mean they aren’t extremely talented and should be overlooked. Soft Talk may be heavy on ballads but it finds Lynne saving the day with her powerful voice. It’s worth tracking down a cheap used copy if you’ve never heard it.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Ricky Van Shelton – ‘Loving Proof’

loving proofRicky’s second album was released in September 1988. It was another collection of neotraditional country music including an unusually high proportion of covers, and an overwhelming theme of undying love.

There were four top 5 singles, three of which hit the top spot. The first of these, ‘I’ll Leave This World Loving You’ is a beautifully sung slow ballad about a man resigned to forever love the woman who has broken his heart. It was written by Wayne Kemp, who had a minor hit with it himself in 1980, and is the kind of thing George Jones excelled at. It was also Ricky Van Shelton’s forte. Another Kemp song swearing eternal devotion ‘Don’t Send Me No Angels’ (which Jones covered a few years later) is happier in mood, although Ricky delivers it with a solemn intensity.

Also hitting #1 was another cover, Ned Miller’s international hit ‘From A Jack To A King’. The bright paced love song was followed by a slightly less successful cover in the shape of the retro-rockabilly ‘Hole In My Pocket’. The Boudleaux and Felice Bryant song (previously recorded by Little Jimmy Dickens in his youth) peaked at #4. While Ricky clearly enjoyed performing in this style, and did it convincingly enough, he was much more effective as a balladeer. The up-tempo semi-rockabilly ‘Swimming Upstream’, which opens the set, is pleasant but forgettable.

It was back to the ballads, and back to the top with the album’s final single, ‘Living Proof’. This emotion-laden song tells of a woman whose life is dominated by a love enduring through heartbreak, and her eventual reunion with the protagonist.

There are several more fine ballads on offer. ‘Let Me Live With Love And Die With You’ is a romantic declaration written by Skip Ewing and Red Lane. Ricky got a rare co-writing credit on ‘The Picture’ (with his producer Steve Buckingham and Troy Seals). The song has the protagonist looking at a photograph of his lost love with her new man and child, and wishing he was still in her life. He wistfully imagines what the baby would look like if he were the father:

His hair would have been blonder
And his eyes would have been blue
If it was me in the picture with you

Ricky delved back into country music history for another cover, the Wilburn Brothers’ plaintive ‘Somebody’s Back in Town’, which I like a great deal. He also delivers the country standard ‘He’s Got You’ beautifully, with real passion and commitment, paced a little quicker than the Patsy Cline or Jim Reeves classic versions.

This second album was an excellent one, and I like it better than its predecessor. It’s well worth catching up with now. Like the latter, it sold very well and was certified platinum, positioning Ricky as one of the biggest stars of the era.

Grade: A

Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Hold On’

220px-Nitty_Gritty_Hold_OnBy the late 80s, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was routinely peaking in the upper regions of the country charts and had even scored two number one hits along the way. But they’d yet to release their signature song, which would change when Hold On hit stores in July of 1987.

The album saw three singles released. Non-descript rocker “Baby’s Got A Hold On Me” came first, peaking at #2. The album’s third single “Oh What A Love” was much better, with a pleasant acoustic-based shuffle arrangement featuring prominent mandolin. The mid-tempo ballad comes off a tad cheesy today, but the arrangement and tight harmonies from the band keep it listenable.

Between those two singles, which are forgettable at best, came the aforementioned signature song. Written by Wendy Waldman and Jim Photoglo, “Fishin’ In The Dark” is an iconic single from the period, a modern masterpiece that sounds as timeless today as it did twenty-seven years ago. The combination of Jeff Hanna’s commanding vocal and Josh Leo’s flawless production is irresistible. Not since Alabama’s “Mountain Music” a full five years earlier had an opening sequence (Gentle acoustic guitar plucking building to include twangy electric guitar, ribbons of harmonica, and attention-grabbing drum beats) been so identifiable.

Eddy Raven took his version of “Joe Knows How To Live,” written by Max D. Barnes, Lyle Graham, and Troy Seals to number one in 1988. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s version is just as good as Ravens, albeit identical except for Hanna’s smoother vocal tone and the band’s inclusion of harmonica.

Bruce Springsteen solely wrote “Angelyne,” a slick slice of synth drenched country rock that contains a good lyric but is packaged too neatly for my taste. Richard Leigh co-wrote “Blue Ridge Mountain Girl,” a brilliantly excused ballad that would’ve been even stronger had Hanna sang lead. Karen Staley wrote the album’s closing number, “Tennessee.” I love the fiddle, steel, and band harmonies on the track, but the overtones of synth drown out any real enjoyment of the neo-traditional leaning track. Wayne Holyfield co-wrote “Dancing To The Beat of a Broken Heart,” which still leans on the synth, but is better with Hanna in the lead.

Various members of the band contributed songs to the project as well. Hanna co-wrote, “Keepin’ The Road Hot,” a generic number similar to Restless Heart’s style at the time. Jimmie Fadden, meanwhile, solely wrote “Oleanna.” The production on the ballad is too synth driven, and Fadden’s vocal is bland.

Hold On is a mixed bag of an album, heavy on synth, and lacking any real identity beyond “Fishin’ In The Dark.” The harmonies are fantastic, though, but to today’s ears the album is a bit too 80s.

Grade: B

Album Review: Lee Roy Parnell – ‘Lee Roy Parnell’

Lee Roy Parnell’s debut album on Arista Records in 1990 was very different from the neotraditional style which was then at its peak, although not really unique (T Graham Brown was making quite similar music at the time, and doing well). The album was produced by Barry Beckett, a Nashville session man and producer whose roots lay in Muscle Shoals soul, and the combination of producer and artist was a good fit.

Lee Roy’s rise coincided with the fall from favour with country radio of T Graham Brown, who had similar influences and musical stylings. Perhaps there was only room for one, and the newer guy would win out soon, but at the time of this release, Brown was still at his peak.

Lee Roy’s first single, ‘Crocodile Tears, crept into the top 60. It’s a pretty good mid-tempo tune which he wrote himself, in which the protagonist rebuffs his wife’s insincere protestations of love, and at another time might have done better on country radio.

Only marginally more successful, the second single. ‘Oughta Be A Law’ is a chugging mid-tempo country-blues-rock number written by Gary Nicholson with Dan Penn, with a prominent brass section. It is quite catchy, but not very country, and I can see why it didn’t catch on.

Final single ‘Family Tree’ was even less of a success, which is a shame because it is my favourite of the singles. It is a cheerful uptempo song about a family’s prodigal son, who:
Went out on a limb and fell off the family tree.

I quite like ‘Fifty Fifty Love’, a solid tune written by Parnell and Nicholson, with a rhythmic groove which moves along nicely, although the horns are out in force again.

‘Mexican Money’ is an entertaining song about a blue-collar Texan planning to abandon the US, where he can’t make ends meet, to live with his Mexican sweetheart.

The solemn ballad ‘Where Is My Baby Tonight’, written by Troy Seals and Graham Lyle, slows the pace, as does the bluesy love song ‘Down Deep’. ‘Let’s Pretend’ is a soul ballad. ‘You’re Taking Too Long’ picks up the tempo again, but isn’t very interesting. The closing ‘Red Hot’ is old fashioned rock n’ roll.

Overall, this album is well done in its way, but it has quite a loose connection to country music and isn’t really my cup of tea with far too much brass rather than steel guitar. Fans of Lee Roy Parnell may be interested in exploring his earliest recorded work, but it probably isn’t the place to start.

Grade: B

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘Honky Tonk Crazy’

honky tonk crazyOne of the ironies of the rise of the neotraditional movement in the late 1980s was that it swept away some of the old guard who had been keeping more traditional sounds alive on country radio. Gene Watson was one of the casualties. His last album for Epic, produced by Billy Sherrill, was an excellent effort which deserved to do much better than it did.

The title track is a smooth confessional from a man who warns off a woman who is getting a little too close:

I’ve always been honky tonk crazy
I’m someone that’s best left alone
Cause when I get honky tonk crazy
I only feel right doing wrong

I’ll take you and make you love smokey old bars
Cheap whiskey and a sad country song
Till there’s nothing left of the lady you are
And then like your pride I’ll be gone

Lovely steel guitar and fiddle, and Gene’s seductive vocal makes the prospect seem more inviting than it should. The song, written by the legendary Harlan Howard with Ron Peterson, was also recorded by Keith Whitley (and is available on the posthumous Sad Songs & Waltzes). Gene’s version disappointingly failed to creep into the top 40 on the Billboard country chart.

The second and last single did a little better, reaching #28. The funky ‘Everybody Needs A Hero’ (written by Max D. Barnes and Troy Seals) is a Georgia boy’s reminiscence of a somewhat disreputable childhood hero. The implication is that he is actually the kid’s father or grandfather:

My mama says I turned out just like him
She worries and prays that I’ll change
I didn’t know until a few days ago
Why he sent me his gold watch and chain

‘I Didn’t Think Of You At All’ is a classic Gene Watson heartbreak ballad, with perfect phrasing conveying the emotional devastation of a man desperately trying not to let it show. Gene squeezes out every drop of emotion while never oversinging it. Equally broken is the protagonist of ‘Ashes To Ashes’:

I tried everything, even drowning your memory in booze
So I finally decided to lie down and die with the pain
Oh, but my heart kept on beating and softly repeating your name

When they lay me away the last words they’ll speak
Here lies a man that don’t rest in peace

God gave me your love and God knows I threw it away
What I put you through is the same hell I’m living today
Now praying don’t help so dying’s the best I can do

In similar heartbreak vein is a revival of a country classic, ‘You took Her Off My Hands’, one of Harlan Howard’s earliest compositions (with Wynn Stewart and Skeets McDonald) whose best known recording is that by Ray Price; Patsy Cline also recorded a version under the title ‘You Took Him Off My Hands’. Gene’s interpretation is superlative.

‘Getting Used To Being Loved Again’ is a gently vulnerable ballad expressing the wonder of finding new love at last. ‘I Always Get It Right With You is a warm, tender love song.

‘When She Touches Me’ features a former Casanova who has been felled by falling in love with one of his conquests.

‘Nobody’s Baby Tonight’ is a sympathetic song about a fragile woman whose man has recently left her and is so lonely she resorts to picking up a man in a bar.

The pacey ‘Her Heart Or Mine’ tackles a relationship which has run out of steam, but there is no way of avoiding hurting one or the other:

There’s no way I can make both of us happy
I don’t know if I should break her heart or mine

After this album failed to maintain Gene’s commercial status, he left the label for a period in the wilderness. He enjoyed a brief resurgence when he signed to Warner Bros, recording two excellent albums for that label, Back In The Fire which I included in our retrospective look at he Class of ’89, and At Last. But linking up with new labelmate Randy Travis’s manager (and later wife) Lib Hatcher turned out to be a bad move, and legal wrangles coincided with the end of his major label career. The 90s saw Gene recording for a succession of minor labels, many of which have gone out of business, making the music he made there hard to come by.

This is a wonderful, underrated album from an artist at the peak of his vocal prowess, which deserve to be better known. Unfortunately it has not yet been re-released, and only rather expensive used copies seem to be out there at present. If you do come across a copy, it’s well worth it.

Grade: A

Album Review: Travis Tritt – ‘Strong Enough’

strong enoughAfter the comeback marked by Down The Road I Go, Tritt’s second Columbia album, released in 2002, was a reversion to the mixed bag of previous years in terms of material (although sound-wise there is more of a straight contemporary country sound and less of either the Southern rock or traditional elements), and it was generally less well received.

The title track and lead single ‘Strong Enough To Be Your Man’ is a love ballad written by Travis addressing the concerns of a lover (‘a complicated lady’) who has doubts about the durability of the relationship. The song is solid but unexciting, but it is lifted to a higher level by the convincingly tender vocal which is generally excellent; surprisingly it peaked at an unlucky #13.

There was only one more single for this album, ‘Country Ain’t Country No More’, which made it into the top 30, but deserved better. The song, written by Casey Beathard, Teresa Boaz and Carson Chamberlain, is an ironic, mostly regretful look at modern changes to farming and rural life. A farmer’s son has gone to law school as well as college, and on one of his rare visits home urges his dad to “Catch up with the times, nowadays people trade heifers online”. The song’s sympathies clearly lie with the father who has had to sell off his land to a housing developer to cope with economic problems, and is sad to see the loss of traditional values which have followed.

Opener ‘You Can’t Count Me Out Yet’ is an assertive mid-tempo rocker with Tritt defying doubters in his career by trumpeting about the success of his comeback. It’s not awful, but the tone of the lyric is too vainglorious for my taste. ‘You Really Wouldn’t Want Me That Way’, written by Tritt with Walt Aldridge and Casey Beathard, is another song about a man who has no intention of changing, and is okay but unremarkable. ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothin’’ is more nuanced, and hence much more interesting. Written by Steve Bogard and Rick Giles, it is the half-rueful confession of a man who has to learn his life lessons the hard way.

I also liked the vibrant up-tempo ‘If You’re Gonna Straighten Up (Brother Now’s The Time)’, written by Tritt with Dennis Robbins and Bob DiPiero. Travis offers words of advice for a neglectful husband about to run out of time to change.

The introspective downbeat Dean Dillon/Tritt co-write ‘I Don’t Ever Want Her To Feel That Way Again’ is rather good, with a man brooding over the way he has hurt his loved one (and damaged their love) with harsh words he wishes he could take back.

‘Doesn’t Anyone Hurt Anymore’ is a pretty good ballad written by Tritt with Troy Seals and Dennis Robbins, with the narrator complaining about all the happy love songs on country radio. ‘Now I’ve Seen It All’ is a pleasant love song.

‘Time To Get Crazy’ (written with Gary Nicholson) is the obligatory fast paced rocker and is nothing special. Closer ‘Can’t Seem To Get Over You’ is the equally obligatory Marty Stuart co-write, and is an okay but forgettable mid-tempo number.

Travis Tritt has rarely recorded anything with a religious element. ‘God Must Be A Woman’, written by Vernon Rust, is a rare example, although it is really more of a love song, comparing God’s unconditional love to that of the protagonist’s wife. The melody is pretty but the lyric will put off some, and I find it slightly awkward myself.

This is a fair album but one lacking any real standouts, and came as a real disappointment after Down The Road I Go. Used copies are available cheaply enough to be worth checking out.

Grade: B

Album Review: Travis Tritt – ‘The Restless Kind’

the restless kindAfter the Greatest Hits album, 1996’s The Restless Kind denotes a new start of sorts, with long term producer Gregg Brown dropped for veteran rock producer Don Was, with Tritt also getting a co-production credit. The pairing does a pretty good job, and the general feel of the album is not that far removed from Tritt’s usual style, except that the harmonica is more prominent than the steel guitar. Travis wrote or co-wrote seven of the songs, and friend and tour partner Marty Stuart also contributed.

The first single, ‘More Than You’ll Ever Know’ is a very well sung but not particularly interesting ballad of devotion to a wife. The album’s biggest hit, it peaked at #3.

It was followed by ‘Where Corn Don’t Grow’, which made it to #6. Written by Roger Murrah and Mark Alan Springer, it had originally been recorded by Waylon Jennings in 1990, and is an excellent story song about a country boy who has to find out the hard way how hard city life is.

‘She’s Going Home With Me’ and ‘Still In Love With You’ both peaked in the 20s, and are equally forgettable mid-tempo numbers.

Sent to radio in between those two, the much better ‘Helping Me Get Over You’ did creep into the top 20 but should have done better. It is a sensitive ballad Tritt wrote and sings with Lari White about a couple both struggling to move on with new partners. An excellent vocal from Tritt is matched by White’s distinctive voice.

My favorite non-single (and a clear missed opportunity) is the ballad ‘Did You Fall Far Enough’, written by Tritt with Troy Seals. The protagonist is wracked with doubt for no clear reason:

You’ve given me no cause to doubt you
And I know passion burns in your heart
But does that same fire keep on burning
In the hours that we spend apart?

If you knew the question that burns in my mind
Then you know why I worry so much
I can’t help but wonder when we fell in love
Sweetheart, did you fall far enough?
]

Mark O’Connor’s beautiful fiddle winds through the song, and with Travis’s excellent vocal, helps to make this a real highlight.

‘Sack Full Of Stones’ is the best of the three songs here co-written by Marty Stuart, a somber breakup song with a fine vocal. ‘Draggin’ My Heart Around’ is a pretty good chugging Marty Stuart/Paul Kennerley song typical of what Stuart was doing at that period, with a strong groove and the Desert Rose Band’s Herb Pedersen on high harmony. The less successful ‘Double Trouble’ is a self-indulgent buddy duet with Stuart with a silly story of two friends accidentally dating the same girl, which the pair wrote with Kennerley. Stuart also plays electric guitar throughout the album.

‘Back Up Against The Wall’ is pure Southern rock/outlaw, and while it is catchy and enthusiastically performed, I was entirely unconvinced by the hardboiled jailbreak story. A meaty version of the title track, an uptempo number penned by Michael Henderson which has been recorded by a number of other artists, including Highway 101 and Trisha Yearwood, is pretty good. The romantic commitment of ‘More Than You’ll Ever Know’ is quite a nice ballad benefitting from a sincerely delivered vocal and attractive folky harmonica-led arrangement.

Overall, this is a fairly solid album with a couple of high spots. It’s worth picking up especially at cheap used copy prices.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Travis Tritt – ‘T-R-O-U-B-L-E’

Travis TrittIn the early 1990s, the major Nashville labels signed a seemingly endless string of cookie-cutter male artists that became known as “hat acts.” Travis Tritt was a notable exception. Not only did he not look like his contemporaries, he was less restricted by the musical boundaries of the era, offering up a healthy dose of Southern rock with more traditional country fare.

T-R-O-U-B-L-E was his third album for Warner Bros., released in the summer of 1992. Like his two previous albums, it was produced by Gregg Brown. It produced five singles, beginning with the blue collar anthem “Lord Have Mercy On The Working Man”, which featured a chorus of guest artists including Brooks & Dunn, T. Graham Brown, George Jones, Little Texas, Dana McVicker, Tanya Tucker, and Porter Wagoner. The Kostas-penned tune, unlike the cliched “I’m country” songs that plague the airwaves today, paints a sympathetic picture of the protagonist and makes him someone to which the listener can relate. It reached #5 on the Billboard country singles chart, and was followed by the #1 hit “Can I Trust You With My Heart”, a song he co-wrote with Stewart Harris. Tritt has always been a strong, if somewhat underrated ballad singer and nowhere is that more evident than on this song, which shows his more vulnerable side.

The pace changes dramatically with the uptempo title track, which was a cover of a 1975 Elvis Presley single. Travis does the song justice, but it has never been one of my favorites. It was somewhat surprising to learn that it only peaked at #13, since it seemed to me that it was overplayed on the radio. “Looking Out For Number One”, a kiss-off number in the vein of “Here’s A Quarter, Find Someone Who Cares”, is much better. In no uncertain terms, Travis announces that no longer will he be anyone’s doormat. This is another one of his own compositions, co-written with Troy Seals. Surprisingly, it only reached #11. The final single, “Worth Every Mile”, which he also wrote, only reached #30, possibly due to a lack of promotional push by the label. It deserved to chart higher.

Also quite good are the Marty Stuart number “A Hundred Years From Now” and the self-penned “Blue Collar Man”, on which he revisits the working class theme again, this time with a more Southern rock arrangement. Less enjoyable is the bluesy “Leave My Girl Alone”, a cover of a Stevie Ray Vaughan hit that closes the album. Clocking in at just under nine minutes, it is self-indulgent and overly long. But even though it is not to my personal tastes, Tritt deserves credit for pushing the envelope. It’s hard to imagine any of the other top male acts from the era trying to tackle this number.

Though T-R-O-U-B-L-E contains many fine cuts, I’m not much of a Southern rock fan so it makes for a somewhat uneven listening experience. However, it is worth seeking out a cheap copy if you don’t already own a copy.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Dan Seals – ‘Rebel Heart’

Rebel Heart was not Dan Seals’ first solo album but it was his first to enjoy any level of commercial success. His two prior solo albums for Atlantic Records had produced five non-charting singles (actually two of them did reach the lower rungs of the pop charts), but the tide began to change when he made the move to Liberty Records in 1983. Like its two predecessors, Rebel Heart was produced by Kyle Lehning. Dan wrote or co-wrote seven of the album’s ten songs, including the first single “Everybody’s Dream Girl”, which became his first Top 20 country hit, peaking at #18.

For the most part, the songs on Rebel Heart are not that different from the music Seals had released as a pop artist; it would not be inaccurate to describe much of it as adult contemporary or soft rock with a dose of steel guitar, which is typical of the era. In fact, the production is quite restrained by 1983 standards, though with its synthesizers, drum machines and reverb it often sounds dated to modern ears. That is not to say, though, that it is not enjoyable. “After You” reminds me a lot of the music that Vince Gill was making at the time. The Paul Battle/Bucky Jones/Chris Waters tune was released as the album’s second single. It peaked at a disappointing #28, and the next single “You Really Go For The Heart” performed even worse, stalling at #37.

Just when it appeared that the project would be another commercial disappointment, Liberty released a fourth single — an unusual move in those days, particularly since none of the three previous releases had made a big impact at radio. But that all changed with the self-penned “God Must Be a Cowboy”, which jump-started Dan’s country career and landed him inside the Top 10 on Billboard’s country singles chart for the first time. A simple ode to the cowboy’s way of life, it is one of the few songs on the album with no pop overtones. It’s the best song on the album, and in fact, one of the best of Seals’ career. It was the breakthrough hit he had been waiting for; it was the first in a series of Top 10 singles that continued until 1990.

“On A Night Like This” is my second favorite song in the collection that seems like it would have been a better choice for a single release than some of the cuts that were actually sent to radio. “The Banker” is a very good but non-commercial ballad about a down-on-his-luck farmer whose property is about to enter foreclosure when he suddenly strikes oil. Dan wrote both of these songs as well as two rather bland numbers — “Up On A Hill” and “Candle In The Rain” — that sound like they might have been been written back during his England Dan and John Ford Coley days. “Down the Hall” is a decent pop-country number written by Dan’s cousin Troy Seals with Mike Reid. The song also appeared on The Oak Ridge Boys’ American Made album, which was also released in 1983.

Rebel Heart is a pleasant, though not essential, listen. It is currently only available as digital download , unless you’re willing to shell out nearly $200 for an imported CD copy. However, it is scheduled to be re-released in October on a 2-for-1 CD along with Dan’s 1988 album Rage On, and this appears to be the most economical way to purchase it.

Grade: B

Spotlight Artist: Dan Seals

Danny Wayland Seals was born in Texas in 1948 as a member of a very musical family. His father was not a professional musician, but had performed with Bob Wills and Ernest Tubb. Elder brother Jim was a member of successful soft rock duo Seals & Crofts, who were big stars in the 1970s. Cousins included country star Johnny Duncan and songwriter Troy Seals, and a generation later, another cousin, Brady Seals was to become lead singer of the successful group Little Texas. Young Dan grew up exposed to both the country music his father loved, but as a teenager was influenced strongly by the music of the Beatles, which led to the nickname (and later stage name) ‘England Dan’.

The young Dan followed in his brother’s footsteps by teaming up with a high school classmate to form the duo England Dan and John Ford Coley. They released a number of albums together, with their greatest success coming with the single ‘I’d Really Love To see You Tonight’, a mellow ballad which topped the Adult Contemporary chart and reached #2 pop. Reba McEntire covered the song in 1978, as a B-side to one of her early singles, an early indicator of Dan’s potential as a country artist (although he did not write the song).

Going solo in 1980 was not an immediate success, and Dan lost his home and most of the money he had made as a pop star in a battle with the IRS over unpaid back taxes. It was then that he moved sideways into country music, signing to Capitol Records in 1983, and working with producer Kyle Lehning. His style retained many elements of his pop past, with an emphasis on gentle ballads, but either his own inclinations or Lehning’s meant that his music was generally less heavily produced than his pop-country contemporaries, and he maintained his success well into the period when the neotraditional movement was sweeping away the worst excesses of the 80s. Dan released some excellent singles through the 1980s, and was rewarded with a run of 16 successive top 10 country hits, including a particularly hot streak with nine straight #1s.

His career slowed down markedly in the 1990s. A move to Warner Brothers failed to reignite it, but he reinvented himself artistically by recording acoustic takes on some of his big hits, and continued to work touring. He died prematurely of cancer on March 25, 2009. In his last years he had been making music with his brother Jim, but a planned album was never completed.

We plan to cover the highlights of the career of a man whose crossover from pop to country respected the genre, and who created some timeless music.

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Written In The Stars’

It is unfortunate that the fledgling Giant label was the label chosen to break Rhonda Vincent into mainstream country music. Giant was one of Nashville’s many “flatfish” labels (it starts up, flounders around for a while and then disappears) and didn’t have the marketing muscle to promote Rhonda’s music properly. That notwithstanding, Written In The Stars is a very good album, well recorded with Ms. Vincent’s vocals front and center in the mix and a cast of supporting musicians comprised from Nashville’s A-List.  Rhonda is in excellent voice and the album is well laid out in terms of tempo and style variations. The album was released in October 1993.

The album opens up with an up-tempo number, “What Else Could I Do”, which was released as the second single from the album. I am not sure why this song failed to chart as it has engaging lyrics and a memorable melody (supplied by Curtis Wright and Robert Ellis Orrall) and Rhonda nails the lyrics:

I wasn’t looking to jump into love

But I had no choice when your push came to shove

I guess I should not be surprised that I fell for you

Tell me, what clse could I do?

“Written In The Stars” follows. This song is a slow ballad, also from the pen of Robert Ellis Orrall. The lyric takes us to a place many of us have been:

I guess the love written ever so deep in my heart

Was not written in the stars

Another up-tempo romp, “Ain’t That Love” follows, this time from the pen of noted songwriter Kostas. This is one of my two favorite songs from this album. This song has more of a bluegrass sound and feel to it than most of the songs on this album.

Harley Allen penned “In Your Loneliness”,  treated here as a slow ballad. Harley was a gifted songwriter, but this is just another song.

“Mama Knows the Highway” was a #8 single released in June 1993 by Hal Ketchum. Written by Pete Wasner and Charles John Quarto, the song fits Rhonda’s style well. This might have made a good single for Rhonda if Hal hadn’t gotten to it first.  “When Love Arrives” is another slow ballad from the pen of Harley Allen. Again, in my opinion it’s just another song.

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