My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Verlon Thompson

Album Review: John Conlee – ‘Fellow Travelers/Country Heart’

John Conlee’s career was one of the casualties of the wave of young stars emerging in the late 80s swept away the old guard. Columbia having dispensed with his services, he signed a deal with prominent independent label Sixteenth Avenue, which had also recently picked up superstar Charley Pride.

He decided to ‘Hit The Ground Runnin’’, a nice upbeat tune about moving on with some cheerful accordion. Next up was the reflective ‘River Of Time’, written by Larry Cordle and Jim Rushing (although iTunes miscredits it having confused it with the Judds’ song of the same name). This song looks at the changes in attitude brought as one grows up and older:

I was 16 and strong as a horse
I didn’t know nothin’ ‘bout nothin’
But I knew everything of course
I turned 21 totin’ a gun
And losing some good friends of mine
I was crossing my first dreams of sorrow
On the way down the river of time

This river rolls like a rocket
It don’t meander and wind
Ain’t a power on earth that can stop it
We’re all swept up in the grind
So find your companion
The one that will love you
All the way till the end of the line
It’s the dearest of dreams
In the great scheme of things
Goin’ down the river of time

I woke up at 30 and started to worry
About the glaring mistakes of my past
I still had high aspirations
But I knew that I’d better move fast
Now I’m starin’ at 40 and oh Lordy Lordy
I’m still a long way from the top
I’ve still got the heart but I’m fallin’ apart
Reachin’ the hands of the clock

Both tracks received enough airplay to chart in the 40s.

The third single was ‘Hopelessly Yours’ written by Keith Whitley, Don Cook and Curly Putman. It had been cut a few years earlier by George Jones, and was a bona fide hit a few years later for Lee Greenwood and Suzy Bogguss. Conlee’s version is melancholy and very effective, but despite its quality it got little attention from country radio. The final, non-charting, single was even better. ‘Don’t Get Me Started’ is an emotional ballad written by Hugh Prestwood which portrays the lasting sadness of lost love:

Well, thank you for askin’
I know you mean well
But friend, that’s a story I’d rather not tell
To even begin it would take all night long
And I’d still be right here and she’d still be gone

So don’t get me started
I might never stop
She’s just not a subject that’s easy to drop
There’s dozens of other stories I’ll swap
But don’t get me started on Her
I might never stop

You see, deep in my heart is a dam I have built
For a river of tears over love I have spilled
And the way I make certain that dam will not break
Is to never look back when I’ve made a mistake

Prestwood contributed a number of other tunes to the set. ‘Almost Free’ is about a relationship on the brink:

Last night you pushed me a little too far
I was not coming back when I left in the car
There was a time, an hour or two
I was feeling so free – from you
I picked up a bottle and drove to the Heights
Parked on the ridge and I looked at the lights
The engine was off and the radio on
And the singer sang and I sang along

And I was almost free
There almost wasn’t any you-and-me
I was almost free
Whole new life ahead of me
Almost free

Sunrise rising over the wheel
Bottle’s empty and so is the feel
This car knows it’s the wrong thing to do
But it’s driving me home – to you
Maybe I’m too much in love to be strong
Maybe you knew I’d be back all along
If I could be who you wanted, I would
If I could forget I’d be gone for good

It’s just too hard to walk your line
Maybe baby I’ll cross it next time

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Album Review: Bobbie Cryner – ‘Bobbie Cryner’

The early 1990s saw all the major country labels scrambling to find new talent, and a number of fine artists got lost in the mix. Among them was Bobbie Cryner, a singer songwriter in her early 30s with a velvety voice and a bluesy edge, who was signed to Epic Records in 1993. Sadly, none of her three singles for the label peaked higher than the 60s on Billboard.

Her debut single, the self-written ‘Daddy Laid The Blues On Me’, was perhaps a little too bluesy for the neotraditional sounds in vogue, but it is a great record. The pacy tune, possibly autobiographical, relates the tale of a teenage lover turned walkaway father and the effects on his child:

Way back in their younger days, when they were running wild,
My Daddy had a dream, and Mama had a child
He said: “Girl you can’t be tying me down, I’m only
seventeen
And a man’s gotta get around, if you know what I
mean.”
Then my Mama said: “Go on” as she stood and cried
And my Daddy said:”I’m gone, I gotta live my life”

And I was born one summer night,
When the world loved Patsy Cline.
I was raised by the tracks
In a tar-paper shack
On the Georgia Alabama line
Mama taught me how to play and sing
And we headed up to Tennessee
Mama sold my soul on country, rock and roll
But Daddy laid the blues on me.

Well I signed that dotted line
I climbed my way to being a star
When I ran across my Daddy in a downtown Tallahassee bar
He said “Girl there ain’t no life on the road
You’d better come with me.”
I said “Dad, I gotta get around if you know what I
mean”
Well my Daddy said “Come on” with a tear in his eye
I said: “Sorry Daddy, I’m gone
I gotta live my life”

Some great piano and harmonica backs Bobbie’s strong vocals.

The follow up, ‘He Feels Guilty’ is a sultry mid-paced ballad written by Verlon Thompson and Tommy Polk about a relationship growing cold, and foundering under suspicion of infidelity.
The last single, my favorite of the three, is ‘You Could Steal Me’, an exquisitely beautiful ballad which Bobbie wrote with Jesse Hunter. A subtle cello backs Bobbie’s unhappy trophy wife longing for love.

She cowrote ‘I’m Through Waitin’ On You’ with Tim Nichols and Zack Turner, in which her character displays more agency and attitude telling an unsatisfactory spouse he needs to do his share:

We both work hard bringin’ home the bacon
You want me to cook it whileyou sit there waitin’
Well, those days are over
Round here things are gonna change
I still love you but I didn’t take you to raise

I’ve waited tables till I ain’t able
I’ve taken orders till I’ve turned blue
From now on baby
You can make your own gravy
Cause I’m through waitin’ on you

Give you an inch and you think you’re a ruler
My feet are hurtin’ and I won’t stand for what you’re doing

The other songs written by Bobbie are solo compositions. My favorite is the devastating ballad ‘I Think It’s Over Now’, in which she gently but firmly calls the bluff of the man who is juggling two loves:

You don’t have you say you love me
If you think there’s any doubt
But if you have to think it over
Well, I think it’s over now

Also excellent is the downbeat ‘Leavin’ Houston Blues’, a closely observed about a woman packing up her things and planning on leaving town post-divorce, with some lovely fiddle. A simple acoustic guitar leads into ‘This Heart Speaks For Itself’, a gently delivered ballad about heartbreak which betrays itself.

‘Too Many Tears Too Late’, written by Carl Jackson and Jim Weatherly, is a lovely sad country ballad in which the man who broke her heart is back again, but

There’s no way we can turn back time
I don’t want to hear you say how much you love me
Now that I’ve cried all my love for you away

Here is some gorgeous fiddle and steel on this.

Another outstanding traditional country ballad is ‘The One I Love The Most’, an agonised cheating song written by Gene Dobbins, Michael Huffman and Bob Morrison. The protagonist is torn between loyalty and passion, and we are left to wonder what her final choice will be:

There’s a letter in my pocket I don’t know where to send
Telling someone that I love I won’t be back again
But who will I address it to
Who’ll read these lines I wrote?
The one I’ve loved the longest
Or the one I love the most?

One has stood beside me in the good times and the bad
One has brought out feelings I never knew I had

One’s a burning ember, the other’s fire and smoke
One I’ve loved the longest and the one I love the most

You can’t stand at a crossroads
You’ve got to move along
I know either way I turn I’ll do someone wrong
So who do I hold on to and who do I let go?
The one I’ve loved the longest or the one I love the most?

Dwight Yoakam duets with Bobbie on a wonderfully authentic Bakersfield style cover of the Buck Owens classic ‘I Don’t Care’.

Beautiful vocals, excellent songwriting and tasteful production combine to make this a favorite album of mine, which I have loved for years. It is available on iTunes, and I highly recommend it.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Linda Davis – ‘In A Different Light’

Released on Capitol-Nashville in February 1991, In A Different Light was Linda’s first major label album. Released nearly a decade after her moderately successful duets with Skip Eaton as “Skip & Linda”, this album was Linda’s first opportunity to shine as a solo act.

As it happened, the album itself failed to chart and none of the three singles released from the album make much of an impact on the country charts.

By my lights, this is not at all a country album. I think it should have been marketed to the easy listening/middle of the road. Don’t get me wrong, Linda Davis is a fine singer but the singles from this album received virtually no airplay on county stations around Central Florida.

The album opens with “In A Different Light,” an overwrought ballad from the pens of Ed Hill and Jonathan Yudkin. This song was released as the first single and died at #61.

Next up is “Some Kind of Woman” by Annette Cotter and David Leonard. This song was released as the second single from the album, and died only reached #68. I think this gritty up-tempo ballad was the best track on the album – similar to something Brooks & Dunn might have released, but I suspect that country radio was so disgusted with the previous single, that they simply did not give this song a chance

 Well, I guess you’re showing me a thing or two

Loving with a vengeance every night with someone new

And I got this funny feeling, it’s for my benefit

So I’m gonna take it as a kind of compliment

 

Oh, I must be some kinda woman

Look how many women you seem to need

To take the place of one good one

And give you what you had when you had me

Oh, I sure must be some kinda woman

 

Since you need a different girl each night

There must not be a one of them, knows how to do you right

So add them little numbers, try and equal me

Meanwhile I’ll just take it as a form of flattery

Next up is “Three Way Tie” (written by Mary Beth Anderson, Lisa Silver, and Carol Grace Anderson) was the third single released. Another overwrought ballad, this song failed to chart, and frankly, it sounds like something any cocktail lounge singer might tackle.

None of the remaining tracks were released as singles:

“From Him to Here” (Mark D. Sanders, Verlon Thompson) is a pretty good mid-tempo song, that actually sounds like a country song. I think this would have made a decent single

“If Your Greener Grass Turns Blue” (Cindy Greene, Marsha Spears) has a bit of that country cocktail lounge feel to the mid-tempo instrumentation but it is a decent song, that Linda sings well. This would have made a decent single.I had never even been outside the county line

Unless you count the million times I left inside my mind

In my day dreams, I could see

The way the luck would shine on me

When I finally found the wings to fly

As my mama helped me pack my suitcase

She said you know I love you and I’ll say it once more anyway

 

So you’ll know what to do if your greener grass turns blue

If your sunny sky turns gray

Sometimes you gotta run

To see just what you’re running from

Here at home there’ll always be place for you

If your greener grass turns blue

“There’s a Problem at the Office” (Annette Cotter, Kim Tribble) is a bland ballad …

He calls to tell me he’ll be late again

There’s a problem at the office

So don’t wait up for him

And I guess I shouldn’t worry but I do

Cause a woman senses changes

Her man is going through

 

He’s changed the way he’s worn his hair for years

And bought some shirts in colors

I’ve never seen him wear

And when we touch that old time feeling’s gone

There’s a problem at the office

And it’s hitting close to home

… whereas “Knowin’ We’ll Never Know” (Jim Rushing, James Dean Hicks) is a nice ballad of what might have been

What if we’d stayed together
What if we’d really tried
Would we still be in Tennessee
Would I have been your bride
Would we be blessed with children
Lovingly watching them grow
Oh the hardest part of seeing you now
Is knowing we’ll never know

We’ll never know
How much we missed
By not taking love all the way
If we held on just a little bit longer
Where would we be today

“White Collar Man” (Vernon Rust) is a slow semi-acoustic ballad, nicely sung about a husband who places all of his priorities on work and none on family.

“The Crash of 29” (Ron Moore, Billy Henderson) has a very folksy sound to it. The crash of 29 has nothing to do with the great Wall Street Crash of 1929, but rather the self-realization that time is marching on and she is getting bored. This a pretty good album track

“If I Could Only Be Like You” (Kendall Franceschi, Quentin Powers, Reba McEntire) is a slow piano ballad, nicely sung, but ultimately not very interesting.

Linda’s vocals on this album are very reminiscent of Reba McEntire, only not quite as powerful as Reba’s vocals – sort of a Reba-lite. I know Linda Davis can actually sing country music and do it well as I have heard her do it. I don’t dislike this album, but I am not very charged up about it. I regard two of the three singles released as mistakes, with several of the album tracks being more single-worthy.

This album has keyboards, synthesizers and, cello, but no fiddle, steel guitar, mandolin, banjo or anything else to lead you to think of this as a country album.

Grade: C+         

Album Review: Ty England – ‘Ty England’

Born in 1963, Ty England met Garth Brooks while attending Oklahoma State University and roomed with Garth while in college. Thereafter, he was a member of Garth’s band for a few years until signing with RCA in 1995.

Far more traditionalist than Garth, Ty’s eponymous debut album, released in August 1995, would prove to be his most successful album, reaching #13 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart. The album would generate Ty’s only top twenty hit and two more charting singles, neither of which cracked the top forty.

First up is “Red Neck Son”. Released as the third single from the album, the song died at #55. It’s not a bad song but I doubt that I would have released it as a single.

“Smoke In Her Eyes” was the second single released on the album. Written by Hugh Prestwood, this tender ballad really should have done better than #44.

Her heart could tell at a glance
She would be falling for him
She knows she’s taking a chance
But still goes out on a limb

She knows he could be for real
Or he could be in disguise
Although she may have a heart on fire
She don’t have smoke in her eyes

“Should Have Asked Her Faster”, an Al Anderson-Bob DiPiero composition was the first and most successful single released from the album, reaching #3. The song is a mid-tempo tale about a guy whose courage is too slow:

In a little dance hall just outside of Dallas
I dropped my drink when she came walking by
By the time I got a grip she slipped through my fingertips
And left me with my big mouth open wide

I should’ve asked her faster but I waited too long
In a red hot minute like a flash she was gone
I didn’t get her number, I never got her name
A natural disaster, I should’ve asked her faster

“Her Only Bad Habit Is Me” (Don Cook, Harlan Howard) and “You’ll Find Somebody New” (Aaron Barker, Dean Dillon) are both slow ballads, competently sung.

“A Swing Like That” by Billy Lavelle and David L. Lewis is an up- tempo romp that I would have released as a single. The track features some neat fiddle by Aubrey Haynie and steel by Paul Franklin, and has a strong western swing feel to it.

The remaining songs (“New Faces in the Fields” written by Harley Allen, Denise Draper and Steve Hood; “The Blues Ain’t News to Me” from the pens of Wayland Holyfield and Verlon Thompson; “It’s Lonesome Everywhere” by Verlon Thompson, Reese Wilson and Billy Spencer; and Hugh Prestwood’s “Is That You”) are all slow ballads, competently sung by England.

In fact, I would have released “Is That You” as a single. The song is an outstanding ballad, and while I do not know how it would have done as a Ty England single, I’m dead certain that either Garth Brooks or George Strait would have had a monster hit with the song:

They had been together way too long
For him to start again
So he does most of his living in the past
Round the house he never says a word
Til something makes him ask
Is that you

Tappin’ my window pane
Is that you
Or just a draft movin’ that candle flame
Something round here keeps my heart
From breakin’ right in two
Is that you

In the dark he rises from a dream
And takes a look around
Makin’ sure there really isn’t someone there
He could swear he heard her call his name
Quiet as a prayer
Is that you

Therein lies the problem – Ty England is a very good and pleasant singer, but there is nothing distinctive about his voice. Produced by Garth Fundis, Ty England is a solid country album featuring songs by the cream of Nashville’s songwriting talent and the cream of Nashville’s session men:

Bobby All — acoustic guitar (tracks 2,3,5,6,7,9,10) / Eddie Bayers — drums (tracks 1,2,9)
Richard Bennett — acoustic guitar (tracks 4,8) / J. T. Corenflos — electric guitar (track 10)
Stuart Duncan — fiddle (track 3)/ Paul Franklin — steel guitar (all tracks except 4)
John Gardner — drums (tracks 4,8) / Aubrey Haynie — fiddle (track 2,5,6,7,9,10)
John Hobbs — piano (tracks 5,6,7,10), organ (track 10) / Paul Leim — drums (tracks 3,5,6,7,10)
Mark Luna — background vocals (tracks 2,10) / Brent Mason — electric guitar (all tracks except 10)
Weldon Myrick — steel guitar (track 4) / Dave Pomeroy — bass guitar (all tracks)
Steve Nathan — Wurlitzer electric piano (track 1), piano (tracks 2,4,8,9), keyboards
Hargus “Pig” Robbins — piano (track 3) John Wesley Ryles — background vocals (track 3)
Billy Joe Walker, Jr. — acoustic guitar (track 1) Dennis Wilson — background vocals (tracks 2,4,5,9)
Curtis “Mr. Harmony” Young — background vocals (track 1,6)

Good songs and competent singing – I like this album and would give it a B+, but Ty is only as good as his material, and this was his best album.

Album Review: Lari White – ‘Lead Me Not’

lari-whiteLead Me Not was Lari White’s debut album, released in 1993 on the RCA label. This was Lari’s second stab at major label stardom as her prize for winning the television talent show Star Search in 1988 was a recording contract with Capitol Records.

Unfortunately the single released on Capitol (“Flying Above the Rain”) went nowhere and she was released by Capital . A person of many talents, including songwriting, Lari marked time by joining Ronnie Milsap’s publishing house, took acting lessons and performed in local theatre productions. In 1991 after attending an ASCAP showcase Rodney Crowell invited her to perform in his band. White signed to RCA, which brings us to this album, which Rodney Crowell produced.

Lead Me Not spotlights Lari’s vocal prowess and her talents as a songwriter as Lari wrote or co-wrote eight of the ten tracks on the album. The album only reached #36 on Billboard’s Heat Chart and missed charting on the Country Albums chart; however, all three of the singles released charted country (none cracked the top forty).

The album opens up with “Itty Bitty Single Solitary Piece of My Heart’, a co-write with John Rotch. The title sounds as if it would be a novelty number, but the song is actually a bluesy ballad warning off a would-be suitor. Jerry Douglas on dobro is featured prominently in the arrangement.

Chorus:

So you won’t get a taste of this, not even a kiss
The fact that your middle name is heartache is no coincidence
You made a livin’ out of lovin’ and leavin’ ‘em to fall apart
So now you better understand youi’ll never lay one hand on one
Itty bitty little single solitary piece o’ my heart

Next up is “Just Thinking” a romantic piece of cocktail jazz, written by Lari, and one that perhaps would have made a good single is pushed to another genre such as Lite Jazz or Adult Contemporary. Bergan White (no relation) arranged the string accompaniment as provided by the Nashville String Machine.

“Lay Around and Love On You” was written by Bobby David and David Gillon. Released as the third single, the song reached #68 on the country charts. The song isn’t remotely country having a strong New Orleans R&B vibe. It’s a great song, and if released during the mid 1970s or early 1980s, likely would have been a hit.

Time for me to go to work again
But all I want to do is
Lay around and love on you
Seven thirty, but I don’t care
What you’re doing is gonna keep me here
‘Cause all I want to do is
Lay around and love on you

Lay around and love
Lay around and love on you
You’ve got me so turned on
Honey, I can’t turn you loose
Hope nobody calls
Got the phone off the hook
We’re gonna try everything in the book
All I want to do is
Lay around and love on you

“Lead Me Not” was the second single from the album. Written by Lari, the song has a strong gospel feel to the arrangement, not surprisingly since the title is a play on a familiar religious theme. Nice saxophone work by the appropriately named Jim Horn is the highlight of the arrangement.

Well, I should have been home hours ago
I always lose track of the time
I’ll just hold up this wall while I try to recall
A thought from the back of my mind
Oh yeah I remember, it began with a wink
When you caught me looking at you

So don’t ask me if you can buy me a drink
I know what you’re trying to do
Lead me not into temptation
I already know the road all too well
Lead me not into temptation
I can find it all by myself

This is followed by another Lari White solo composition “Made To Be Broken” a lovely, well performed easy-listening ballad.

“What A Woman Wants” was the first single and biggest hit on the album reaching #44. Lari co-wrote this with soon-to-be husband Chuck Cannon (they married in 1994 and are still married, with two daughters). This song deals with the changing roles in society and the effort to try to explain to men what women today want. The song is taken at a quick tempo, and frankly I am surprised that the song wasn’t a bigger hit.

Come here darlin’, let me whisper in your ear
A precious little secret that I think you need to hear
With the way the women’s movement’s always making the news
I can see how a man might get confused
Now a woman doesn’t mind a man holding the door
But slaving in some kitchen ain’t what God made a woman for
We’ve come a long way baby, but way down deep we’re still the same
What a woman wants will never change

What a woman wants is to be treated like a queen
By a man who deserves to be treated like a king
What a woman wants, what keeps her holding on
Is a loving man who understands what a woman wants

The seventh track features a Suzi Ragsdale and Verlon Thompson composition “Anything Goes”. The song has a definite Mexican flair. Verlon’s career as a recording artist never took off, but he remains a prominent songwriter and instrumentalist.

It took until track eight to reach a song that I would regard as truly being country music, that song being “When The Lights Are Low”, a song Lari co-wrote with Chris Waters (bother of Holly Dunn). This song features classic steel guitar work by Tommy Spurlock, fiddle by Jonathan Yudkin and a great vocal by Lari. The song is a prototypical country ballad with lyrics any fans of traditional country music could enjoy and should have been released as the first single. While I don’t know whether or not this would have been a big hit at radio, at least it would have pegged Lari as a legitimate country artist. As it was, if I were a DJ dealing with Lari’s first three RCA singles, I would not known how to classify her (Con Hunley had the much same problem fifteen years earlier).

In the dark I’m just part of the crowd
It’s hard to tell who it is I’m there without
In some tall stranger’s arms
Your memory’s not so clear
I can cry all night long
‘Cause no one sees the tears
Where the lights are low

Where the jukebox plays
The saddest song it knows
Through a smoky haze
Since you’ve been gone
That’s where I go
‘Cause everything looks better
Where the lights are low

Lari collaborated with her future husband again on “Don’t Leave Me Lonely”, another easy listening/adult contemporary ballad. It’s a nice song, well sung but again not especially country. As on track two, Bergan White arranged the string accompaniment as provided by the Nashville String Machine.

The album closes as it began, with a Lari White – John Rotch collaboration in “Good Good Love”. As with the opening number with is a bluesy R&B tinged ballad, with gospel overtones in the production.

If you want a good good love
Hold on when the times are bad
‘Cause if you jump ship when trouble hits
Good for nothin’ is all you’ll have
You gotta anchor down in the winds of doubt
You can’t give in and you can’t bail out
If the water’s high hold your head above
And hang on for that good good love

When love sets sail it’s always a sunny day
And when the skies are blue it’s so easy to make love stay
But when the clouds roll in and the ship begins to strain
You gotta try a little harder
Go on, test the water
‘Cause the air is so much sweeter
After a real good rain

This album features a bewildering array of instruments: bells, bongos, cowbells, dobro, fiddle – you name it, it is probably on here somewhere.

I purchased the album on the recommendation of a friend. I really liked the album but I wasn’t sure where to place it in my collection, finally settling on filing it with my pop/rock/ R&B records. Lead Me Not is a very good album that I would not hesitate to recommend as fans of varying forms of music can find things to like about this album. On this album Lari White reveals herself as a very talented songwriter and vocalist, albeit one not easily pigeonholed. Her breakthrough would occur on her next album, and wouldn’t last long but her music is worth the search.

I would give this album an A-

She still performs and maintains a website where you can purchase most of her music.

Album Review: T. Graham Brown – ‘Bumper To Bumper’

bumper to bumperT. Graham Brown took on production duties for his fourth album, released in 1990, alongside Barry Beckett. The production is mellow with strong blues/soul influences, but quite tastefully done.

The lead single, ‘If You Could Only See Me Now’, written by Susan Longacre and Rick Giles, peaked at #6. It was a ballad with a strong vocal about a man who has changed his life around too late to save his marriage. The second single, a more mellow ballad ‘Moonshadow Road’ looks back fondly at teenage romance. It was a top 20 hit, and although heavily loaded with saxophone it is a very nice song.

The third and last single, ‘I’m Sending One Up For You’, written by Brown with Gary Nicholson and Ray Kennedy, unfortunately flopped. It is a sincerely delivered love song about praying for a former lover’s happiness.

The mid tempo ‘You Can’t Make Her Love You’ is a great song about an elusive woman, written by Jerry G. Ward and effectively sung. ‘I’m Expecting Miracles’ is a prettily melodic romantic ballad written by Brown with Verlon Thompson and Gary Nicholson.

The second half of the album is pretty much entirely blues/soul rather than country. A cover of soul classic ‘I’ve Been Loving You Long’ is quite well done. Brown’s idealistic ‘Bring A Change’ is in similar vein musically, with a very long sax solo.

I like ‘Blues Of the Month Club’, which is atmospheric and cleverly written but goes on a bit too long. ‘Eyes Wide Open’ and ‘For Real’ are boring all the way through. The closing ‘We Tote The Note’ is about touring as a musician but is definitely too blues for me.

This is a difficult record to grade because it is objectively very good. It just isn’t all that country,

Grade: B-

Album Review – Holly Dunn – ‘Getting It Dunn’

HollyDunnGettingItDunnA year after releasing her first retrospective, Holly Dunn returned with the album that would serve as closure to the commercial phase of her career. Getting It Dunn was released in June 1992 and spawned four singles, none of which cracked the top 40 on the charts.

Mel Tillis’ mid-tempo honky-tonker “No Love Have I,” served as the first single, peaking at #67. Despite a generous helping of steel, and Dunn’s impeccable vocal, the track didn’t chart higher although it deserved to. The Dunn/Chris Waters/Tom Shapiro penned “As Long As You Belong To Me” charted next, peaking at #68. The mid-tempo rocker had a confident vocal from Dunn, although it just wasn’t commercial enough to pop in the current radio climate. “Golden Years,” the third and final single, did slightly better, peaking at #51. A co-write by Gretchen Peters and Sam Hogin, the track is wonderful despite the somewhat sappy string section heard throughout.

The album’s other notable track is “You Say You Will,” composed by Verlon Thompson and Beth Nielsen Chapman. Dunn’s version of the bluesy Dobro infused number appeared just two months before Trisha Yearwood’s take on her own Hearts in Armor album. Both versions are remarkably similar and equally as good, although Yearwood turned in a slightly more polished take, which helped the pensive tune reach #12 in early 1993. Warner Brothers didn’t release Dunn’s version as a single.

Dunn’s usual co-writers Waters and Shapiro helped her write a few other tunes for the project. “Let Go” is somewhat light, with an engaging drumbeat and muscular electric guitar heard throughout. Steel and synth ballad “I’ve Heard It All” is a revelation, with Dunn playing the part of a jilted lover done with excuses. “You Can Have Him,” marks similar territory and is the best of three, with an engaging beat, and polish that had it ripe to be a single.

Shapiro teamed up with Michael Garvin and Bucky Jones to write “I Laughed Until I Cried,” a fabulous break-up power ballad with one of Dunn’s most emotion filled vocals on the whole album. Craig Wiseman co-wrote “If Your Heart Can’t Do The Talking” with Lynn Langham. The steel and dobro infused mid-tempo number is excellent and wouldn’t have been out of place on one of Yearwood’s early albums. Wally Wilson and Mike Henderson composed “Half A Million Teardrops,” another mid-tempo number and one more example of the excellent recordings found on Getting It Dunn. Karen Brooks and Randy Sharp’s “A Simple I Love You” rounds out the album, and Dunn provides the project’s standout vocal. I love the steel on this, too, although the rest of the production is a touch heavy-handed.

Holly Dunn will always be a quandary to me. Her vocal and songwriting abilities are outstanding, but the production on her records was always lacking in that little bit of extra polish that would’ve sent her over the top to the leagues of say a Trisha Yearwood or a Kathy Mattea. But that isn’t to suggest her music was lacking in any particular way to be less than excellent, it just wasn’t always embraceable by country radio and their standards at the time. But, thankfully, commercial prospects aren’t everything, and Getting It Dunn is another glorious addition to her already wonderful discography.

Grade: A

Album Review: Holly Dunn – ‘Cornerstone’

cornerstoneHolly’s second album for MTM, released in 1987, built on the success of ‘Daddy’s Hands’ and a hit duet with Michael Martin Murphey (the charming ‘A Face In The Crowd’), and saw her cementing her status as a rising star for the fledgeling label.  Her high soprano voice is well suited to the songs selected.

The mid-tempo ‘Love Someone Like Me’, which Holly wrote with Radney Foster, was the lead single, and it only just missed the top spot on the country chart.  It had previously been recorded bluegrass style by the group New Grass Revival; Holly’s version is a little more on the pop-country side and the production has dated a bit, but it isn’t bad, thanks mainly to her vocal.

Better is ‘Only When I Love’, a post-breakup number in which the protagonist is mostly okay – until she falls for someone else.  It was one of a brace of songs written by Holly with her most frequent writing partners, Tom Shapiro and her brother Chris Waters, and reached #4.

Holly and Chris wrote the third and last single ‘Strangers Again, a rueful ballad about the pain of a breakup, in which they are left

not even friends.

Wistful fiddle backs up Holly’s emotional vocal, making this by far my favorite of the singles.

The Dunn/Waters/Shapiro team also wrote one of my favorite tracks, ‘Why Wyoming’, in which a cowboy’s jilted sweetheart bemoans the competition of the wide open spaces:

He’s the only cowboy that I’ve got

And you’ve got all you need

He could never love a woman

Like he loves being free

Tell me, why, Wyoming

Do you take him from me?

 

The beautiful ballad ‘Fewer Threads Than These’ (also recorded by Dan Seals) is another highlight, with Holly supported by a sympathetic harmony vocal.

Jim Croce’s ‘Lover’s Cross’ is a pretty sounding but angsty ballad about breaking away from a difficult relationship:

It seems that you wanted a martyr

Just a regular girl wouldn’t do

But I can’t hang upon no lover’s cross for you

The small town lifestyle is often idealised in country songs, and the big city seen as a poor alternative.  Holly offers a more jaundiced view with her vibrant reading of ‘Small Towns (Are Smaller For Girls)’.  This winsome depiction of the limitations of small town life for a restless teenager was written by Mark D Sanders, Alice Randall and Verlon Thompson.  The protagonist feels stifled and restricted by a life where:

Everybody that she knew knew every move she made

So she stood behind the backstop playing sweet 16

While the boys were stealing bases and pitching for their dreams

She knows that there’s gotta be more

Small towns are smaller for girls

She learned to dance around desire

And act like the nice girls act

So the boys found out about love with the girls across the tracks

While their souls burned holes through the heat of the southern night

She was reading about New York City with her daddy’s flashlight

Holly hedges her bets a little though, with her fond tribute to a ‘Little Frame House’, with the Whites singing harmony vocals.  The title track is an idealistic eulogy to the central importance of love, written by Dave Loggins and Don Schlitz.

The production on the up-tempo ‘Wrap Me Up’ (a Radney Foster co-write) sounds a bit tinny now, and this is the only track I really don’t like.

This is not easy to find at a reasonable price these days (partly because it was on a label which lasted only a few years), but it is a fine album which is well worth checking out if you can find it.

Grade: A

Album Review: Pam Tillis – ‘Every Time’

every timePam’s last 1990s release (in 1998) was co-produced by the arist with Billy Joe Walker Jr. It was her first Arista album not to be certified gold, marking a commercial downturn for her. It may also mark a period of personal turmoil following her divorce from songwriter Bob DiPiero, it is also noticeable that she did not contribute to the songwriting on this album. Her vocals are (as usual) excellent throughout.

There were only two modestly performing singles. ‘I Said A Prayer’, an upbeat Leslie Satcher song given rather poppy production which was Pam’s last top 20 hit, peaked at #12. I personally prefer the prettily melodic title track (penned by Tommy Lee James and Jennifer Kimball), but this one only just squeezed into the top 40.

Leslie Satcher got two more cuts on this album. ‘You Put The Lonely On Me’ is another up-tempo number with an assertive approach and some nice honky tonk piano, which isn’t bad. The best of Satcher’s songs (and one of the two best tracks on the album) is ‘Whiskey On The Wound’, a sad story song about a man whose tangled love life leads him into the deep waters of alcoholism.

The other standout is the magnificent pain-filled steel-led ballad ‘Hurt Myself’, written by Savannah Snow. The protagonist compares her relationship with a toxic ex with other forms of self-destructiveness. ‘A Great Disguise’ is another very good song about hiding the pain of a breakup, which had previously been recorded by Martina McBride. Pam’s interpretation is more subtle than Martina’s powerful belting, but both versions are good.

‘A Whisper And A Scream’, written by Verlon Thompson and Austin Cunningham, is a fine song about striking the right balance in life, which is much better than the title sounds. The insistent mid-tempo ‘Lay The Heartache Down’ written by Jamie O’Hara is also pretty good, with harmonica fills.

‘We Must Be Thinking Alike’ is quite pleasant but ultimately forgettable, while ‘Not Me’ is boring pop filler. ‘After Hours’ is also rather dull.

There are a couple of great tracks and several good ones, but this album as a whole fails to reach the heights of Pam’s best work, and it’s not entirely surprising that it failed to make much of a mark. It’s certainly worth cherrypicking the best tracks on iTunes, but used copies of the CD can be obtained very cheaply.

Grade: B

Album Rewind: Randy Travis – ‘No Holdin’ Back’

In 1989, Randy Travis was at the peak of his career. But his superstardom had led to a tidal wave of competitors as rival record labels rushed to sign young traditional country singers. Randy’s fourth album, released in September 1989, was another big seller for him, but his star was beginning to wane just a little.

The lead single was something of a departure for Randy – a non-country cover. ‘It’s Just A Matter Of Time’ had originally been an R & B hit for Brook Benton in 1959, although a country cover by Sonny James had been a country hit in 1970, and more recently, Randy was probably aware of Glen Campbell’s cover which had been a top 10 country hit as recently as 1986. Randy’s version was actually recorded for Rock, Rhythm and Blues, a multi-artist, cross-genre compilation of 50s covers, on which Randy was the sole country representative. I have a vague recollection this was released in aid of HIV research, but I can’t find any confirmation of this. Produced by celebrated rock/pop producer, Richard Perry, it features synthesiser and strings, plus booming doo-wop style backing vocals courtesy of Perry himself, and is one of my personal least favorite Randy Travis records despite a fine performance which allows Randy to explore the lower reaches of his vocal range. However, it saw him back at the top of the charts after the failure of ‘Promises’.

Apparently Perry suggested Randy should cover another 50s song with both pop and country heritage, ‘Singing The Blues’. It is pleasant and quite enjoyable but forgettable apart from the bass backing vocals similar to those on ‘It’s Just A Matter Of Time’.

Much better was Randy’s next #1 hit, Hugh Prestwood’s melodic ‘Hard Rock Bottom Of Your Heart’ . This finds the artist in more familiar territory, playing the part of a penitent cheater:

I keep waiting for you to forgive me
And you keep saying you can’t even start
And I feel like a stone you have picked up and thrown
To the hard rock bottom of your heart

The third and last single, ‘He Walked On Water’, peaked at #2. It is a tender tribute to a great-grandfather and childhood hero, written by Allen Shamblin with great attention to detail, and is a highlight.

Opening track ‘Mining For Coal’ is a rather good and beautifully sung ballad about unexpectedly finding love (like finding diamonds when looking for coal), written by Ronnie Samoset and Matraca Berg (who also sings harmony). Also good is the pretty but subdued ‘Somewhere In My Broken Heart’ (later a hit for its co-writer, Billy Dean).

My favorite track, however, is ‘When Your World Was Turning For Me’, written by the great Dallas Frazier and A L “Doodle Owens. It has a beautiful melody and wistful lyric about a man’s regrets for a failed relationship, whose lyrics seem to nod back to Randy’s blockbuster 1987 album:

I know that it’s over
I know that you’re leaving
I know that you’ve prayed to be free…

What happened to “always and forever I’ll love you”
And the future that was so plain to see?

Mark O’Connor’s plaintive fiddle adds to the poignant mood.

The vivacious ‘Card Carrying Fool’ is a fun up-tempo song written by Byron Hill and Tim Bays with vibrant fiddle which had also made an appearance on the soundtrack of Clint Eastwood’s movie Pink Cadillac earlier in 1989. The ironic breakup song ‘Have A Nice Rest Of Your Life’ (written by Verlon Thompson and Mark D Sanders) has a jazzy feel. Randy’s own ‘No Stoppin’ Us Now’ is filler, although his voice sounds good; this track provides the album’s title, which is perhaps a little misleading, because the overall feel is really rather restrained and mature.

Certified double platinum, the album doesn’t include any of Randy’s best remembered songs, but it is a good collection which stands up well which is worth adding to your collection. The overall feel is mellow and low-key, with Kyle Lehning’s light touch on production complementing Randy’s vocals. The resolute unflashiness has helped it stand the test of time, and I think I like it better now than I did when it first came out.

Cheap copies are easy to find.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Hearts In Armor’

Trisha’s second album, released in 1992, is still my favorite. Garth Fundis’s production is sympathetic, with a number of special guests who support the record without overwhelming it. Trisha, who I regard as one of the most naturally gifted vocalists in country music and a subtle and tasteful interpreter of emotion, was at the peak of her vocal powers and interpretative ability, and the song selection was excellent.

The hypnotically bluesy lead single ‘The Wrong Side of Memphis’ (written by Gary Harrison and Matraca Berg) was a big hit, peaking at #5, with a semi-autobiographical tale of a young singer on her way to Nashville. The instrumentation is punchy without being over-produced, with harmony vocalists including Raul Malo, whose Mavericks’ bandmate Robert Reynolds was shortly to become Trisha’s second husband. It is atypical of the album as a whole, which is focussed on failed and failing relationships, a theme perhaps resulting from Trisha’s own recent divorce from her first husband.

Harrison also co-wrote (with Tim Mensy) ‘Nearest Distant Shore’, a beautiful ballad addressed empathetically to a friend (or perhaps to the protagonist’s inner self) trapped in a destructive relationship, and advising:

You vowed you would not fail
But this ain’t success
It’s a living hell
There’s nothing left to lose
You’re already alone

Swim to the nearest distant shore
There’s only so much a heart can endure
You gave it your best
Forgive yourself
You can’t hold on anymore
It’s not as far as it might seem
Now it’s time to let go of old dreams
Every heart for itself
Swim to the nearest distant shore

Trisha perfectly conveys the intensity of the emotions here without ever seeming melodramatic, supported by Garth Brooks’ harmony.

The second single, and the album’s biggest hit, adhered to the general mood, while being less obviously personal. The exquisitely sung ‘Walkaway Joe’, featuring a harmony vocal from former Eagle Don Henley, tells the cautionary tale of a young girl who makes a catastrophic choice of boyfriend (“the wrong kind of paradise”). Ignoring her mother’s words of warning, she finds out the hard way when he robs a gas station and then abandons her. It peaked at #2 on Billboard, making it the album’s biggest hit, and was nominated for a Grammy.

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Album Review: Dierks Bentley – ‘Up On The Ridge’

I’ll confess that I’ve had my reservations about this long-awaited fifth studio album from Dierks Bentley. Originally Dierks and Capitol had planned to release two albums this year — a bluegrass album and a “regular” country album. When it was announced that the plans had been changed, that only one album would be released and that it would be bluegrass-influenced but not exactly “pure” bluegrass, I feared that the label was back-pedaling due to a lack of confidence that bluegrass would sell in today’s market. My fears were not allayed with the single release of the somewhat disappointing title track. My main gripe was the overly-processed harmony vocals. I’m not a bluegrass purist; I’m not bothered at all by the inclusion of electric and percussion instruments, but Alison Krauss’ usually distinctive voice was unrecognizable and it just sounded out of place on a bluegrass(ish) recording.

It was, therefore, a tremendous relief to hear the remainder of the album, which is a lot closer to what I’d had in mind all along. Dierks is joined by an impressive guest roster of musicians from both the bluegrass and mainstream country communities; Alison Krauss, Ronnie and Del McCoury, The Punch Brothers, Sam Bush, Jamey Johnson, Miranda Lambert, and Kris Kristofferson are among the artists lending their talents to the project, which was produced by Jon Randall Stewart, an accomplished musician in his own right.

The album is an interesting mixture of of traditional songs such as “Fiddlin’ Around” and “You’re Dead To Me” and more progressive fare such as “Fallin’ For You” and “Pride (In The Name Of Love)”. There are also touches of folk and rock on a reworked version of Bob Dylan’s “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” on which Dierks is joined by progressive bluegrass band The Punch Brothers. The Punch Brothers also contributed to the more traditional “Rovin’ Gambler” as well as the aforementioned “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” which also features Del McCoury and sounds like something from a SteelDrivers album. There are even some modern classical elements, a Punch Brothers trademark, included on “Pride”. The Punch Brothers are a band that I’m going to have to check out more thoroughly in the future.

Bentley shares co-writing credit on five of the album’s twelve tracks, four of them with producer Stewart. The remaining songs come mainly from the catalogs of some of Nashville’s finest songwriters: Shawn Kemp, Paul Kennerley, Verlon Thompson, Tim O’Brien, Kris Kristofferson and Buddy and Julie Miller. Thompson wrote “Bad Angel” along with Suzi Ragsdale. On this track, Dierks is joined by Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson, who both provide fine vocal performances on one of the best tracks on the album. Kristofferson contributes a characteristically rough duet vocal on his 1969 composition “Bottle To The Bottom”. Closing out the album is “Down In The Mine”, one of the songs Bentley and Stewart wrote together. It’s reminsicent of the often-recorded Merle Travis classic “Dark As A Dungeon.” Stewart and Sonya Isaacs provide beautiful harmony vocals. As the song and the album wind down, it just left me wanting more.

The title track is currently at #25 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart. Whether it will gain enough momentum to reach the Top 10 remains to be seen, as does whether or not subsequent singles will chart well. It would be nice to hear some of these songs on the radio; they provide a much-needed antidote to the ubiquitous pop-country currently rulilng the airwaves. In the end, though, I suspect that this may be one of those albums that manages to sell well without a lot of radio support. But regardless of its fate at radio and retail, Up On The Ridge is an excellent example of artistry and an essential purchase for any serious country music fan.

Up On The Ridge is available at retail stores, as well as at Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: A