My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Vern Gosdin

Album Review: Kenny Rogers – ‘Kenny Rogers’

Kenny Rogers’ self-titled album of 1976, his second official country release, was his breakthrough in country music. Rogers’ voice, mixing the gruff and tender, is strong, and his penchant for story songs is effectively realised on this collection. Larry Butler’s production is sometimes a bit heavy on the strings, but on the whole Rogers’ voice is allowed to shine.

The first single, ‘Laura (What’s He Got That I Ain’t Got)’, a cover of a 1967 chart topper for Leon Ashley (who wrote the song with his wife, singer Margie Singleton), was a top 20 hit. Kenny’s vocals work well on this song, an appeal to a straying wife which mixes sex and financial support, ending with a threat to kill her. It also features what was to become a Rogers trademark, the spoken final phrase.

Kenny’s career in country music was sealed with the next single, ‘Lucille’, now a classic. The lyrically intense story song and simple, singalong melody (written by Roger Bowling and Hal Bynum) is surely familiar to all country fans and many from other genres. It crossed over to become an enormous international pop hit (it is probably still the best known country song by a male singer in the UK, where it reached #1 in 1977).

My favorite song after ‘Lucille’ is the very country ‘While I Play The Fiddle’, written by Ronnie Sessions and Ray Willis. It is about a country fiddle player whose marriage is falling apart, and the arrangement is appropriately fiddle-heavy.

Other story songs include an emotional cover of the Death Row themed classic ‘Green Green Grass Of Home’, and (probably less well known to a country audience at that time) ‘The Son Of Hickory Holler’s Tramp’, the tale of a loving mother who turns to prostitution to support her large family.

A cover of the Tammy Wynette hit ‘Till I Get It Right’ is also very good, understated vocally although the backing vocals and strings date it a bit. Kenny is also good on Don Williams’ tender ‘Lay Down Beside Me’. I was less convinced by ‘Mother Country Music’, where Vern Gosdin’s contemporary cut (a minor hit single) is much better. ‘Puttin’ In Overtime At Home’, written by Ben Peters, is a very nice song about calling in sick to work to stay home with one’s sweetheart. A rival take was a hit for Charlie Rich in 1978, but in this case I prefer Kenny’s version.

Of the lesser known material, the downbeat ‘I Wasn’t Man Enough’, written by Larry Butler and Roger Bowling, is a heavily orchestrated ballad which is well sung but not very country sounding. ‘Why Don’t We Go Somewhere And Love’, written by Kenny O’Dell and Larry Henley, suffers from a dated arrangement, but is a very good song about seeking an escape from everyday life.

‘Lucille’ was a career making hit for Kenny, although perhaps not a career defining one. That particular song is an essential download if you don’t already have it. The remainder of the album is pretty good too, and it’s worth checking it out.

Grade: B+

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Album Review: Nathan Carter – ‘The Way That You Love Me’

Nathan Carter, born in Liverpool to Northern Irish parents in 1990, followed a similar path to that of Lisa McHugh. He moved to Ireland on his own at just 18 with the aim of making a career in country music. His very pleasing smooth tenor voice is ideally suited to both country ballads and Irish songs, with its lovely tone and timbre.

The Way You Love Me, his second album (the first, Starting Out, was released when he was just 17), is a very assured and mature record from such a young artist. The title track is a likeable mid-tempo shuffle of a love song with a Bakersfield feel. This theme is revisited a little less successfully with a Buck Owens medley, which unfortunately ends up feeling rather karaoke; I feel tackling a single song would have worked better. Nor does he quite convince on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s ‘story song ‘Face On The Cutting Room Floor’, although there is a lovely fiddle solo.

‘After All These Years’ is a lovely ballad, a cover of a song popularised by veteran Irish country duo Foster & Allen. The song really suits Nathan’s voice. The Patty Loveless hit ‘Mr Man In The Moon’ also works very well, allowing him to soar vocally. His take on Vince Gill’s ‘I Still Believe In You’ is just gorgeous and, perhaps surprisingly, rivals the original, although the orchestral arrangement is a bit too much in the later stages.

Another nice cover is of ‘Break My Mind’, which was originally written by John D Loudermilk and had been recorded by dozens of country singers over the years, with Vern Gosdin’s version being the one I am most familiar with. Nathan’s version of the Gene Watson hit ‘Got No Reason Now for Going Home’ is also very good. ‘How Could I Love Her So Much’, a Johnny Rodriguez hit from the early 1980s, is another great song, in which the narrator has a little chat with his old flame’s new love. I also quite enjoyed a catchy version of Joe South’s ‘Games People Play’.

‘My Dear Ireland’ is a pretty Irish folk style paean to the country. Also in the same style is an enjoyably sprightly medley of ‘The Leaving Of Liverpool’, ‘Star Of The County Down’ and ‘Donegal Danny’, which is very entertaining and probably a live favorite.

I was really impressed by this album. I like Nathan’s voice a lot, and if I had not known he was only 20 when this album was released I wouldn’t have believed it. Although the selected songs are all covers (with the possible exception of the title track), they are a well chosen group, and the arrangements are excellent.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Vern Gosdin – ‘Jesus Hold My Hand’

Album Review: Alison Krauss – ‘Windy City’

51paza96cml-_ss500I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first heard that Alison Krauss was about to release a new album.  Although I have always greatly admired her talent, her choices have not always aligned with my tastes. Her penchant for extremely slow tempo songs can grow a bit dull after a while, and more often than not I have not liked her artistic stretches – her 2007 collaboration with Robert Plant, for example.  Adding to my skepticism is the fact that Windy City was to be an album covering ten classic songs; I’ve lost track of the number of artists who have released similar projects over the last decade or so.  The concept no longer holds the inherent appeal it once did.

That being said, I was very pleasantly surprised when I finally sat down to listen to Windy City.  Krauss and producer Buddy Cannon managed to avoid falling into the trap of selecting well-known songs that have been over-recorded by others, instead opting for mostly more obscure deep cuts.    Only two of the songs were familiar to me.   Also surprising was the fact that none of these songs – including the Osborne Brothers and Bill Monroe covers — is performed in a bluegrass style.  There is however, a lot of prominent pedal steel and more uptempo material than we typically hear from Alison.  It’s a very different sound for her and it is very effective.

The opening track and lead single is “Losing You”, a richly melodic ballad that is perfectly suited to Alison’s voice.  There is a subtle and tasteful string arrangement along with the pedal steel.  Originally a pop hit for Brenda Lee in 1963, at times it sounds like another more famous song that was also released that year:  Skeeter Davis’ “End of the World”.   Another Brenda Lee cover “All Alone Am I” appears later in the album.

“It’s Goodbye and So Long to You” is an uptempo number that was a hit for both The Osborne Brothers and Mac Wiseman.   The harmonies hint at its bluegrass origins, but it is performed here a straight country with just a hint of Dixieland jazz.   My favorite tune is the title track, which is also taken from The Osborne Brothers’ catalog.  I don’t know what year this song was originally released, but Alison’s version sounds like something out of the Nashville Sound era, although the strings are more restrained than what we typically heard from that period.   “Dream of Me”,  originally a hit for Vern Gosdin in 1981,  is my second favorite.

“I Never Cared For You” was written and originally recorded by Willie Nelson in 1964.  His only single for Monument Records, it was popular in Texas but not well known elsewhere.  Alison’s version has a slight Spanish flavor to it.   She also pays tribute to the great Roger Miller, overlooking some more obvious choices in favor of the ballad “River in the Rain”, which Miller wrote for the 1985 Broadway musical Big River.

The two best known songs on the album:  “Gentle on My Mind” and “You Don’t Know Me” are tailor-made for Alison.  One can imagine her singing both of these songs without even having heard her versions.    The former was made famous by Glen Campbell in 1967 (although it was not a huge chart hit for him).  The latter, written by Cindy Walker, has been recorded many times, most famously by Eddy Arnold in 1956.

The deluxe version of the album contains four extra tunes, all “live” versions of songs from the standard release.  By “live” they mean live in the studio, not live in concert.  They are all well done but not sufficiently different to really be interesting.  That is the album’s only misstep, and it’s a minor one.   There is also a Target exclusive version of the album with two more cuts:  “Til I Gain Control Again” and “Angel Flying Too Close To the Ground”.   Windy City,is an outstanding album and it deserves the support of all of us who have complained about the direction of country music in recent years.  It won’t generate any big radio hits but I do hope it sells well. I would like to hear more music in this vein from Alison in the future.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: Jake Owen covers ‘Is It Raining At Your House?’

Jake Owen pays tribute to the great Vern Gosdin.

Album Review: Dallas Wayne – ‘Songs The Jukebox Taught Me’

songs the jukebox taught meCountry DJ-singer-songwriter Dallas Wayne has a big booming voice which has not been heard on record for a while; his last album was released back in 2009. Now signed to traditionalist label Heart Of Texas Records, his fantastic new album shares some less familiar cover tunes which offer a solid honky tonk reminder of what country used to be.

Willie Nelson duets with Dallas on the lively shuffle ‘Your Time’s Comin’’, which was a #4 hit for Faron Young in 1969, and was written by Kris Kristofferson and Shel Silverstein. The cynical lyric relates a hookup with a woman who claims to be a neglected wife, but turns out to be an unrepentant serial cheater:

Just as I got up to leave
He walked through the door
And I guess that I thought he’d be surprised
But he looked at me as if to say
He’d been there before
And he offered me this word to the wise

He said, “you know she’s a cheater, son
But you believe that you’re the one
Who’s got a lot of what it takes to change her
And I’ve no doubt that you can get her
You ain’t much but that don’t matter
Nothing suits her better than a stranger
And the stranger man, the better
The chances are she’ll set her eyes on you
The next time she goes slummin’
So just sit back and wait your turn, boy
You got lots of time to learn, boy
Cool it while you can,
‘Cause your time’s comin’

Well, it happens that in time
It happened just like he said
And soon enough her shoes
Were sittin’ under my bed
And I’ll confess I did my best
To prove that man had lied
But nothing short of suicide
Could keep her satisfied

He ends up passing on the same advice to his successor.

Another Faron Young hit, ‘Three Days’ was written by Young with Willie Nelson. This has a loungier feel to the vocal.

Another enjoyable shuffle, ‘A Dime At A Time’, is about someone who is both broke and broken hearted, killing time one jukebox tune after another. It was a #12 hit for Del Reeves in 1967.

The mournful ballad ‘Who’ll Turn Out The Lights In Your World Tonight’ (a top 40 hit for Mel Street in 1980 and recorded by many other artists including George Jones and neotraditionalist Ricky Van Shelton) is loaded with steel and an emotional vocal does it justice.

The Nashville sound gets represented as well as the hardcore honky tonkers, with a string-laden version of Vern Gosdin’s 1977 top 10 hit ‘Yesterday’s Gone’. Willie Nelson’s daughter Paula guests on this, taking the part Emmylou Harris did on the original. It can’t match the exquisite original, but is still a nice recording with a strongly emotional reading.

‘No Relief In Sight’ is a stellar lost-love ballad which has been recorded a number of times, and is done well here. The sentimental Hank Jr ballad ‘Eleven Roses’ is also beautifully sung, with the song’s co-writer Darrell McCall’s wife Mona providing a harmony vocal.

‘It Just Doesn’t Seem To Matter’ was written by Jeannie Seely for herself and duet partner Jack Greene. She lends a hand on Dallas’s version, and while her voice is not what it was in her youth, the song itself is a fine one. ‘She Always Got What She Wanted’, another Seely composition, is a deeply sad ballad:

In more ways than one way I was her clown

She always got what she wanted
She got what she wanted for free
She always got what she wanted
Lord I wish that she wanted me

‘Sun Comin’ Up’ is a Nat Stuckey song I hadn’t heard before, but I was struck by the tune’s strong similarity to that of Randy Travis’s ‘Diggin’ Up Bones’. The upbeat feel of the melody is belied by a remorselessly dark lyric depicting a homeless alcoholic:

It’s that time of the mornin’ when the sun starts comin’ up
And I’m standin’ on the corner with my guitar and my cup
And I’m waitin’ for some people to come by and fill it up
But the sun ain’t come up yet this morning
I spend nights in the barrooms for the small change I can make
But the money don’t repay me for the things I have to take
Somebody buys me liquor, then they laugh at how I shake
But it makes my sun come up each morning
See that man with the spit-shine on his shoes, I know him well
He’ll slip me half a dollar, walk on by me, turn and yell
“Hey, that five spot ain’t for liquor!”
Well, he can go to hell
‘Cause he just made my sun come up this morning

Lord, I wish I could remember how it feels to be a man
To get knocked down and have the guts to get back up again
And know that I don’t really need this bottle in my hand
To make my sun come up each morning
I guess the devil knows he’s got me when the bottle does me in
Hell can’t be no worse than places I’ve already been
And I don’t wanna go to heaven
‘Cause I hear there ain’t no gin
To make my sun come up each morning

Dallas is very believable on this, and also on another powerful anti-alcohol anthem, ‘Devil In The Bottle’, a 1974 chart topper for T G Sheppard. The social commentary of ‘Skip A Rope’ still hits home, too.

‘Sea Of Heartbreak’ is delivered briskly and is pleasant but inessential listening, at least in comparison to the rest of the album. ‘Stop The World And Let me Off’ balances pace and emotion more effectively and is rather enjoyable.

Overall, this is an excellent reminder of what real country music sounds like. I thoroughly recommend it.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Lorrie Morgan – ‘Letting Go … Slow’

51bUlVvWr7LI’ve been a fan of Lorrie Morgan ever since I first saw her video of “Trainwreck of Emotion” on TNN back in 1988. I’ve followed her career ever since, though admittedly not quite as closely since her days as a major label artist ended about 15 years ago. I’ve always felt that the true artists are the ones who continue to make music after they’ve peaked commercially. Morgan certainly falls into that category; she released three solo albums and one collaboration with Pam Tillis in the years since her tenure with BNA Records ended. But post- commercial peak projects are often a mixed bag, particularly for artists who don’t write a lot of their own material. Finding good songs is frequently a challenge – and then there is the added problem of declining vocal power, which often plagues aging artists.

Fortunately, Morgan has overcome both of those obstacles on her latest collection Letting Go … Slow, which was released by Shanachie Entertainment last week. In an interview with Country Universe she said that she spent a considerable amount of time working to get her voice back in shape. The effort has paid off in spades; she sounds better on Letting Go … Slow than she has in years. And although she relies heavily on cover material to compile an album’s worth of songs, she’s managed to dig a little deeper and come up with some gems that are deserving of another listen but have been largely overlooked by the plethora of artists releasing covers albums in recent years. Read more of this post

Album Review: Kevin Moon – ‘Throwback’

throwbackWhen reviewing the year’s releases for my end of year lists, I realised that I never reviewed this album properly. As the album’s title hints, Alabaman Kevin Moon is a thorough going traditionalist who could have been a big star if he had been around in the late 80s or early 90s – the era of most of the songs on this album. He has a fabulous country voice with rich tones and characterful inflections, and he stands up well against the stars who guest on this album.

He teamed up with Ken Mellons (who he sounds very like) to rework the latter’s ‘Honky Tonk Teachers’. It’s an appropriate choice with its loving tribute to the great country singers of the past, and this version is great.

Kevin pays tribute to the late Keith Whitley a number of times, starting with a nice version of ‘Til A Tear Becomes A Rose’, with Rhonda Vincent taking Lorrie Morgan’s duet part. This is one track where the original is better, but it is a beautiful song with a lovely melody. Whitley wrote ‘Hopelessly Yours’, recorded by John Conlee, George Jones, and Lee Greenwood/Suzy Bogguss. Moon’s cover is an emotional duet with young singer Mary Sarah. The heartbreaking ‘Tennessee Courage’ serves as tribute to both Whitley and to Vern Gosdin, and is performed with two artists who should have been stars, Wesley Dennis and Kevin Denney, and a younger singer I hadn’t previously come across but who bears further investigation, Billy Droze.

Another star not currently available to help out is Randy Travis, so Travis’s one-time protégé Daryle Singletary helps out on an excellent version of ‘The Storms Of Life’. Conway Twitty’s son Michael assists on the sentimental ‘That’s My Job’.

John Anderson guests on his early 90s comeback hit. ‘Straight Tequila Night’ – again, I prefer the original, but this is still good. Marty Raybon’s voice blends beautifully with Moon’s on a lovely version of Shenandoah’s ‘Moon Over Georgia’. Doug Stone still sounds good on a version of his ‘I’d Be Better Off (In A Pine Box)’. ‘You’ve Got To Stand For Something’ features Aaron Tippin, but is less forceful than the original.

A couple of new songs are included. ‘Low Key’ dreams about a much-needed beach vacation, mixing a steel guitar dominated arrangement with Spanish-influenced guitar, and is nicely done. The title track strings together quotes from a selection of great country classics and calls for some throwback country, “with some drinkin’, cheatin’ lyin’, leavin’”, and is quite clever.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable album from a young man with a lot of talent. The lack of originality in making most of the material cover songs is ameliorated by making them duets with, in most cases the original stars.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Vern Gosdin – ‘Is It Raining At Your House’

A Dean Dillon song:

Classic Rewind: Vern Gosdin – ‘Set Em Up Joe’

Dean Dillon was one of the writers of this classic:

Album Review: Dean Dillon – ‘Out Of Your Ever Lovin’ Mind’

31zL+wHAa1LIt isn’t terribly difficult to understand why Dean Dillon never became a major recording star; as it has been noted by others several times already, at times he sounds like George Strait and, at other times, Keith Whitley, but he is a decidedly less distinctive vocalist than either of them. He’d also discovered that it was more lucrative to pitch his best material to country music’s heavy hitters, rather than saving them for himself. The combination of a lesser vocalist and less than first-rate material is hardly a formula for success.

Nevertheless, none of this means that Dillon’s recordings are not worthwhile; on the contrary, most his albums contain at least a handful of enjoyable tracks. 1991’s Out Of Your Ever Lovin’ Mind is a prime example. Co-produced with Blake Mevis, it was Dillon’s first release for Atlantic Records and his highest-charting solo album, peaking at #58. Because of his close ties with George Strait, Dean Dillon’s name is associated with traditional country music. It is, therefore, somewhat surprising to hear the pop influences that permeate many of the album’s tracks. Synthesized keyboards – which I thought were pretty much out of vogue by 1991 – are quite prominent on many songs, including the opening track “Friday Night’s Woman”, a somewhat dull number that was the collection’s only single to crack the Top 40 (landing at #39), as well as the schmaltzy “Best Love Friends”, which is a Dillon co-write with Buddy Cannon and Vern Gosdin. The saxophone-laced “She Knows What She Wants” sounds like something Dan Seals might have recorded during his “Bop” era. The more traditional “Holed Up In Some Honky Tonk”, which preceded “Friday Night’s Woman” as the album’s first single, draws more comparisons to Keith Whitley but unfortunately every time I listen to it I can’t help thinking that Whitley would have done a much better job with the song.

Fortunately, despite getting off to a rocky start, the album does pick up by the fifth track. “Holding My Own”, arguably the album’s best track, preceded the better-known George Strait version by a year. It’s a decent effort, but again, the keyboards make the track sound instantly dated. “Don’t You Even (Think About Leaving’)” is a pleasant, though not terribly memorable song that at least doesn’t cause the listener to think about other singers. It was the album’s third and final single, peaking at #62. “Her Thinkin’ I’m Doing Her Wrong (Ain’t Doing Me Right)” is another Keith Whitley type number but unlike “Holed Up In Some Honky Tonk”, it is a great song and it’s a bit surprising that someone else didn’t come along and have a hit with it.

“A Country Boy (Who Rolled The Rock Away)” is a surprisingly effective Buddy Holly tribute; “You Must Be Out Of Your Ever Lovin’ Mind” is superior to any of the album’s singles.

Out Of Your Ever Lovin’ Mind is not a great album, but it is an above-average effort that recovers nicely after the first three tracks, with a few moments (“Holding My Own”, “Her Thinkin’ I’m Doin’ Her Wrong” and the title track) that approach greatness. There is nothing ground-breaking or earth-shattering here, but it’s worth picking up a cheap copy.

Grade: B

Album Review: Dean Dillon – ‘I’ve Learned To Live’

i've learned to liveMost fans will know Dean Dillon as a fine songwriter, who cranks out hits for other artists. Unfortunately, this album will do nothing to dispel that notion. By the time this album came along in 1989, Dillon had already largely figured out his fate in life (although he still harbored some delusions of grandeur as a singer) and mostly had quit trying to save his best material for himself. I’ve Learned To Live consists largely of material he had not been able to pitch elsewhere. That is not to say that there aren’t some good songs here, just that the material with real hit potential had already been channeled to George Strait, Vern Gosdin and other top-shelf artists. That said, I really enjoyed this album, which I regard as his best solo effort.

The album opens up with “Just In Time” an up-tempo song co-written with Frank Dycus. There is some nice mandolin playing on the track by Randy Scruggs.

“Changes Comin’ On” is a slow ballad that probably is the best song on the album. Co-written with Jimmy Darrell and Buddy Cannon. Alabama and Gene Watson recorded this song on albums.

Well, I’m still hooked on Haggard
But the Beatles can’t come back like we hoped they would
In Memphis, Tennessee, King is gone
As I put my kids to bed, oh, I wonder what lies ahead for them to see
‘Cause I can feel the change comin’ on

I can feel changes comin’ on
People still are singin’ different songs
They’re searchin’ for the place where they belong
I can feel changes comin’ on

“Who Do You Think You Are”, co-written with Frank Dycus, is a nice ballad that would have made a good single for someone.

“Don’t You Even Think About Leaving” features the great Tanya Tucker duetting with Dean. The song is quick, sassy and well suited for a duet. Johnny Gimble plays fiddle as only he can.

“I’ve Learned To Live”, co-written with Frank Dycus, is a nice ballad that Shelby Lynne also recorded. Dean does a nice job with the song

Like a child lost in the wilderness I knew not where to go
Surrounded by the emptiness of a love that left me cold
I stumbled through the darkness of nights that have no stars
And days that have no sunshine to warm my naked heart

Like a bird in flight brought down by stones from an unknown assailant’s sling
A stranger took you from my arms and I lost everything
In days to come I nearly ran out of ways to stay alive
But through it all I never lost the will to survive

But I’m not over you and I doubt that I’ll ever be
So I’ve learned to live and you won’t be the death of me oh no
Yes I’ve learned to live and I’m doing well but I’m not over you

“It’s Love That Makes You Sexy” was one of two singles issued from the album. It’s not a bad song (actually the Dean Dillon / Frank Dycus pairing didn’t write any bad songs) but Dean just wasn’t a marketable singer. Despite Sonny Garrish’s nice steel guitar work, this one died at #61 in 1989.

The next single “Back In The Swing of Things” fared even worse, dying at #89 (it reached #70 on the Canadian Country charts). Dean’s version of the song really does swing – with Johnny Gimble on fiddle and Sonny Garrish on steel, how can it not swing? Co-writer Vern Gosdin also recorded the song on an album. The song really should have been a hit – I would rate it as the second best song on the album.

Hank Cochran collaborated with Dean on “Summer Was A Bummer”. It’s a nice song but nothing special.

“Her Thinkin’ I’m Doin’ Her Wrong” sounds like a country song from the 1965-1975 period with the steel guitar serving as the lead instrument with Johnny Gimble lending a few flourishes with his fiddle. Glenn Martin co-wrote this song and also wrote a bunch of hits for people like Charley Pride and Merle Haggard, either of whom would have had a hit on this song during their heydays.

Her thinkin’ I’m a doin’ her wrong
Ain’t a doin’ me right

The album closes with “Holdin’ Pattern, a nice ballad that Dean sings well.

Dean’s prior album Slick Nickel reeked of 1980s production values. In contrast, this album has more authentically country production with but slight traces of the sound that characterized the early 1980s. He has an ace fiddle player in Johnny Gimble, a superb steel player in Sonny Garrish, a multi-instrumental wizard in Randy Scruggs, and a solid second fiddler in Paul Anastasio. Unfortunately, if this album couldn’t produce any hits for Dean, it would seem unlikely that he could ever break through as an artist. I’d give this album a B+.

Spotlight Artist: Dean Dillon

dean dillonIn his classic 1973 album Bobby Bare Sings Lullabys, Legends and Lies, Bobby sings a song titled “Sure Hit Songwriter’s Pen”, a story of how the narrator wrote hit song after hit song, until he lost his pen. After that he could no longer write any hits. I’m not sure that is what happened to Bare, but after this album, which featured two #1 singles, Bobby Bare never again had a top ten record.

Rest assured that the pen, although lost, wasn’t destroyed. It eventually found its way into the hands of our April artist of the month Dean Dillon. Dean studied his craft and associated with the best songwriters going (Frank Dycus, Hank Cochran, Linda Hargrove and Vern Gosdin among them). He mastered the art of co-writing but remained capable of writing a song completely himself. Although he had aspirations of being a country music star with hit records and grand tours, at some point Dean realized that for him, fame and fortune would come in the form of writing hits for other artists.

Born in 1955 as Larry Dean Flynn, Dean Dillon first came to the consciousness of the American public through a pair of collaborative albums on RCA with fading honky-tonk renegade Gary Stewart. Brotherly Love, released in 1982, reached #23 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart and Those Were The Days, released in 1983, reached #54. A total of five singles were released from the two albums – all of them charted, but none of them cracked the top 40.

After leaving RCA, Dean would be a few years before he landed another record deal. Meanwhile, he paid the rent and the groceries through his successful songwriting. In the late seventies Dean did the unthinkable and pitched his best songs to an unknown artist making his first album for MCA. That unknown artist, George Strait, wound up recording six of Dean’s songs for his debut album, including his first hit “Unwound”, which reached #6. Over the course of time, Strait would record many of Dean’s songs. As of October 2013, the total was 54 songs, many of them huge hits for Strait.

Another of his early efforts was a co-written song (with Hank Williams Jr, Gary Stewart and Tanya Tucker) titled “Leave Them Boys Alone”. Released in 1983, the song reached #6 for the unlikely trio of Hank Williams, Jr., Waylon Jennings and Ernest Tubb. Another song, “Tennessee Whiskey”, was a hit twice, once for David Allen Coe and once for George Jones.

During his early years Dean still had aspirations of being a successful performer, but his first four solo albums didn’t sell, his singles only charted in the lower reaches of the chart and his live performances weren’t grossing the money he had hoped. In 1992, Dean had high hopes for the song “Easy Come, Easy Go”, a track on one of his Atlantic albums; however, up to this point in his career none of Dean’s singles had charted at higher than #25 (“Nobody in His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her” in 1980 – later a #1 hit for Strait in 1986) and nothing since 1980 had charted higher than #39.

Married with small children that he didn’t see nearly enough, Dillon found himself at a crossroads in his career. When George Strait asked for the rights to “Easy Come, Easy Go” for release as a single, Dean did the math and determined that a George Strait single that reached #1 was worth $100K+ whereas a Dean Dillon single charting in the mid-50s was worth almost nothing. Accordingly, Dean gave George the song, gave up his recording contract and settled into becoming a full time songwriter. It was a very wise decision. Dean Dillon is not a bad singer but I am certain that the many George Strait recordings of Dean Dillon songs are all better than Dean’s recordings of the same songs are or would have been. Dean would probably agree.

Below is a partial list of the songs Dean Dillon has had a hand in writing: Read more of this post

Album Review: Ricky Van Shelton – ‘Love and Honor’

Love_and_Honor_(Ricky_Van_Shelton_album_-_cover_art)Twenty years ago, Ricky Van Shelton was in a period of transition. His seventh album of original material, Love and Honor was his first without longtime producer Steve Buckingham. It also marked his final project for Columbia Nashville, his label home for seven years, and stands as his most recent album to place on Billboard’s Country Album’s Chart.

By now, Shelton’s mainstream popularity had begun to fade. He hadn’t scored a number one hit in three years, and while he scored big with a soundtrack single in 1992, he was a regular fixture just inside the top 30. As per usual mainstream trends had changed, moving away from the neo-traditional sounds that dominated in the early part of the decade and replacing them with a contemporary sound mixing numbers primed for line dancing along with lush balladry and pop-influenced compositions.

So Buckingham was swapped out for Blake Chancey and Paul Worley, who placed him squarely within that sound. “Wherever She Is,” the first single, was a slice of rock-influenced country not unlike the type of material Lee Roy Parnell was known for at the time. The efforts in modernization didn’t pay off and the James House/John Jarrard written tune stalled at #49.

Radio didn’t bite on the second and final single either. The Dennis Linde-penned “Lola’s Love” suffered because it wasn’t a commercial country recording at all with its Elvis-like rockabilly beat. The track itself is rather enjoyable and Shelton commits fully with his energetic vocal.

As is his trademark, Shelton includes a couple of nods to the genre’s past. “Thanks A Lot” is his version of the Ernest Tubb classic. Shelton speeds up the melody, and while the production doesn’t allow his vocal to truly shine, he gives the lyric a fine reading. “Love and Honor,” a cover of the early 1970s Merle Haggard song, doesn’t make a single concession and is therefore excellent. The traditional-minded arrangement is glorious, with ample steel and fiddle to frame Shelton’s pitch-perfect vocal. Originally recorded by George Jones and Vern Gosdin, “Where The Tall Grass Grows” is a simple story song with a slight list-like feel that doesn’t appeal to me lyrically but has a nice steel laced production.

Jarrard also contributed “Been There, Done That” a typical for the period honky-tonk number that served as filler. Larry Boone, who worked with the likes of Don Williams and Tracy Lawrence, wrote “Then for Them” a somewhat cheesy ballad that would’ve been better suited for an artist looking to launch their career, and likely would’ve been a big hit. Shelton handles the song very well although the generic production pulls him down quite a bit.

Deryl Dodd, who would release his debut album two years later, co-wrote “I Thought I’d Heard It All,” a traditional leaning ballad that would’ve been a standout album track on an Alan Jackson album, but comes off middle of the road in Shelton’s hands. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but Jackson would’ve given the lyric far more passion. Russell Smith, who penned Shelton’s “Keep It Between The Lines,” shows up here with “Baby, Take A Picture,” a fiddle-heavy line-dance number. The brisk tune is excellent even if Chancey and Worley didn’t account for the passing of time.

“Complicated” is a Bill LaBounty rocker in line with the type of track Shelton excels in selling wonderfully. The harmonica heavy production and Shelton’s vocal are perfect, but the lyric underwhelms and feels filler-y. “Love Without You” is a beautiful sentiment that Shelton, along with the heaping fiddle and steel, conveys excellently.

Love and Honor was an above average album for its time and sounds mostly pleasing today with the fiddle and steel that abound on almost every track. It’s surprising how Columbia Nashville chose the radio offerings, as there were far more radio-friendly numbers than the ones chosen. But with Shelton’s weaning popularity, he probably wouldn’t have been able to regain his footing anyways. On the whole, Love and Honor is a very good collection of songs and worth a listen even just for the nostalgia trip of reminding yourself how far country music has eroded in such a short amount of time.

Grade: B

Five songs and some recollections from 1968

Although I had been listening to country music all of my life, 1968 was the first time I ever really focused on the genre.

There were several reasons for this, including the fact that with part-time and summer jobs I had some spending money for the first time in my life. One of my jobs was in Virginia Beach where there was a record store next door that actually carried a decent selection of country 45s.

The summer of 1968 may have been “the Summer of Love” for many but in my opinion pop music had started getting a bit weird for my taste so I started keeping my radio on either WCMS in Norfolk (“Where Country Music Swings”) or WTID in Newport News (“Top Gun”). Both of these were AM stations as the FM bands were reserved for classical music.

Mostly I listened to WCMS which was the stronger station (50,000 watts) and had better disc jockeys, folks such as “Hopalong” Joe Hoppel and “Carolina” Charlie Wiggs. Disc jockeys had more latitude in what they played, and local listener requests figured heavily in airplay. While I won’t pretend that the radio stations were perfect (there were lots of dumb commercials and sometimes really silly contests),radio station DJs could play records by local artists and other non-charting records without running afoul of corporate mucky-mucks. Local DJ Carolina Charlie had two records in “Pound By Pound” and “Angel Wings” in 1968 that received frequent airplay on WCMS and also received airplay on other stations throughout the area in which Charlie played live shows.

Most of the larger country radio stations had their own top forty charts and many of them had a local countdown show on Saturday or Sunday afternoon. At one time I had several years worth of top forty charts for WCMS AM-1050. Mom, God rest her soul, threw them out long ago without telling me, so to some extent I am operating on memory but there were five songs that were huge hits in the Norfolk area in 1968 that have stuck in my memory, songs that were not necessarily big hits nationally, but that the local audiences, composed largely of US military personnel and families loved (there were three local Navy bases plus an army base).

Undo The Right”, sung by Johnny Bush and written by Johnny’s good buddy Willie Nelson, was a big hit nationally, reaching #10 on Billboard’s Country chart. In the Norfolk area, the song was huge staying at the #1 slot for five weeks. The song, with its heavy dose of fiddle and steel, was more country sounding than 95% of the songs (mostly countrypolitan or Nashville Sound productions) to chart that year. The single was issued on Pete Drake’s Stop label and led to Bush being signed to RCA, where a mysterious throat problem derailed his career for a number of years

The big hits basically had long since stopped by 1968 for George Morgan, although “Sounds of Goodbye”, released on the Starday label, might have become a big national hit for him had not two other artists recorded the song, thus splitting the hit. Although the song only reached #31 nationally, it did spark off a bit of a renaissance for Morgan. In the Norfolk area the song was a top five hit, reaching #2. The song, probably the first hit on an Eddie Rabbitt composition, also charted for Tommy Cash at #41 and was a top twenty hit for Cash on the Canadian Country charts. Vern & Rex Gosdin had a successful record with the song on the west coast of the US in late 1967. Cashbox had the song reach #15 but their methodology in 1968 was to combine all versions of the song into a single chart listing. I’ve heard the Gosdins’ version of the song, but Tommy Cash’s version for United Artists never made it to an album and I’ve never found a copy of the single, so I’ve not heard his recording.

“Got Leavin’ On Her Mind” was probably my favorite recording of 1968. Written by the legendary Jack Clement, the song was issued on the MGM label by newly minted Country Music Hall of Fame member Mac Wiseman. As far as I know, the song was a ‘one-off’ for MGM and Wiseman. Long known as “the voice with a heart” and a legendary bluegrass singer, this record had the feel of bluegrass without actually being a bluegrass record in that the instrumentation was standard country without Nashville Sound trappings. Bluegrass artists rarely have huge chart hits and this was no exception, reaching only #54 for Mac. In the Norfolk area, demand for the single was strong and while it only reached #5 on the WCMS charts, the record store I frequented had difficulty keeping the record in stock, reordering new supplies of the single on several occasions.

Carl and Pearl Butler were archaic even when their music was new, but “Punish Me Tomorrow” seemed to catch the ears of the servicemen in our area. It only reached #28 nationally, but it was top ten on WCMS and might have reached higher but the DJs on WCMS made the mistake of playing the flip side “Goodbye Tennessee” resulting in the station receiving a lot of requests for that song, too.

Drinking Champagne” went top ten on WCMS, anticipating by four years the huge success that Cal Smith would achieve starting in 1972. Written by legendary disc jockey Bill Mack, the song reached #35 on Billboard’s country chart but went to #1 for a week on WCMS. Years later George Strait would have a successful record with the song. Cal’s was the better version and this might have been a huge national hit if released a few years later after Smith hit the big time.

I realize that most of our readership wasn’t born in 1968 and if they think about country music in 1968 at all, it is for pop-country singles like “Honey“, “Harper Valley PTA” and the various Glen Campbell and Sonny James singles that received some pop airplay. There were good solid country records being made but aside from the aforementioned and some Johnny Cash recordings, they weren’t receiving pop airplay. In 1968 there were large sections of the country that had no country stations at all; moreover, many country stations went off the air at sundown or cut power significantly so that they reached only the most local of audiences.

Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘Influence Vol 2: The Man I Am’

influence 2The first volume of Randy Travis’s recordings of classic country covers came out last year, not long after his health issues came to a head. I was afraid this second volume would consists of lesser cuts left on the shelf when the first album was released, but if anything I think this instalment is even stronger. His vocals are better on both sets than they had been in years, and Randy delivers a masterclass in country music.

‘Vern Gosdin’s great ‘set Em Up Joe’ only came out in 1988 so could not really be described as a direct influence on Randy, who was at his commercial peak himself at the time. However, it fits perfectly thematically with its tribute to classic country records and their lasting impact as solace for a broken heart. It is also, of course, a wonderful song, and Randy’s version is great, matching the original. It is one of the standouts on a collection of consistently exceptionally high quality.

‘For The Good Times’ is also stunning, with a gently tender reading which is just exquisite. A delicate string arrangement is sweet without being overwhelming.

Haggard was the strongest influence on Vol. 1, and his shadow is strong here too. ‘Are The Good Times Really Over’ is masterfully done, with a thoughtful reading of Hag’s gloomy polemic about changing times. A resigned ‘That’s The Way Love Goes’ is almost as good.

‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ is also excellent, with a very distinctive interpretation.

Vibrant committed versions of ‘I’m Movin’ On’ and ‘The Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line’ pick up the tempo nicely. Ernest Tubb’s lesser-known ‘You Nearly Lose Your Mind’ is catchy and enjoyable.

Marty Robbins’s ‘Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me’ and Hank’s ‘Mind Your Own Business’ both have a playful almost jazzy feel; the latter is more successful for me with Randy sounding fully engaged. His own travails with press interest in his life may have fed into this.

Jimmie Rodgers’ ‘California Blues’ is the most bluesy side of Rodgers, and effectively done. ‘There I’ve Said It Again’ is a crooning pop ballad from the early 60s which is an unexpected choice but smoothly performed.

Volume 1 included a new song. ‘Tonight I’m Playing Possum’, recorded as a duet with Joe Nichols. The song makes a reappearance here, solo.

This is an excellent album from one of the greatest living country singers. Playing this through and then taking a look at any recent “country” chart is enough to make one cry with frustration and regret at what we appear to have lost. Perhaps it’s best just to take consolation in the great music we do have access to.

Grade: A+

Week ending 7/5/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

vern1954 (Sales): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Jukebox): Slowly — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): Even Tho — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1964: My Heart Skips A Beat — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1974: Room Full of Roses –Mickey Gilley (Playboy)

1984: I Can Tell By The Way You Dance (You’re Gonna Love Me Tonight) — Vern Gosdin (Compleat)

1994: Wink — Neal McCoy (Atlantic)

2004: If You Ever Stop Loving Me — Montgomery Gentry (Columbia)

2014: : Play It Again — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

2014 (Airplay): Lettin’ The Night Roll — Justin Moore (Valory)

Album Review: Tracy Byrd – ‘Tracy Byrd’

Tracy byrd debut

Most of Tracy’s self-titled debut album, released in 1993, was produced by Keith Stegall in solidly neotraditional vein. However when the pleasant but somewhat anonymous initial single, ‘That’s The Thing About A Memory’ failed to make much traction, and he went back into the studio with label head Tony Brown to add three further tracks, which included the next two singles.

A cover of Johnny Paycheck’s hit ’Someone To Give My Love To’ (like the previous effort) showed off his deep voice and underlined his traditionalist credentials, but didn’t quite crack the top 40, and like its predecessor it didn’t really stand out. The big break came with single number three, ‘Holdin’ Heaven’ becoming the artist’s first charte topper. A very commercial rhythmic number with line dance potential it is not particularly memorable now

A fourths ingle, ‘Why Don’t That Telephone Ring’ then flopped just inside the top 40. That’s a shame because it’s an excellent mature ballad about man clinging on to a forlorn hope that his relationship is not over, which is the best of the three singles to my ears.

‘An Out Of Control Raging Fire’ (the third track produced by Tony Brown) is a duet with Dawn Sears, who was another rising star at the time. Both vocalists sing beautifully on the tune (which was later recorded by Patty Loveless with Travis Tritt).

My favorite trick, however, is the fabulous shuffle ‘Hat Trick’, written by Jim Weatherly and Glenn Sutton. The protagonist responds with wry resignation as he gets thrown out by his ex:

Now I ain’t no magician
Can’t change the way things are
I can’t make you love me if its not in the cards
I can’t wave a magic wand and make you want me near
But I can do a hat trick
I’ll put it on and disappear

I quite liked his cover of the western swing ‘Talk To Me Texas’, although it lacks the character of Keith Whitley’s version. Much the same goes for ‘Back In The Swing Of Things’, which was written by Vern Gosdin, Dean Dillon and Buddy cannon, and which Gosdin later cut himself.

At this stage of his career Tracy had not quite found his own voice as an artist. In particular the regret-filled ‘Why’ and ‘Edge Of A Memory’ are both excellent songs which sound as though Tracy is trying a little too hard to sound like George Strait (one of his big influences).

While this is not an essential purchase, it was a promising debut, and you can find used copies very cheaply. Or just download ‘Hat Trick’.

Grade: B

Album Review – Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis – ‘Our Year’

51vcLhbUUYL._SY300_Over the Christmas holiday last year, a friend asked how Texas country was different from Nashville country. I had to stop for a moment and finally came up with an answer – to me Texas country often has more of a back to basics sound, more roots based than the commercial sheen coming out of Music City.

So it always surprises me when Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis record their collaborative projects there, not Austin, where they live, and spend most of their time. Like last year’s Cheater’s Game, Our Year maintains the Texas sound they’ve come to hone, down to the minimalist production and close harmonies.

Instead of a direct sequel, Our Year plays like a companion piece to Cheater’s Game – far shorter in length and less commercial in scope. The absence of production drives the record, giving the ten tracks a demo-like feel that leaves them sounding somewhat unfinished, but no less enjoyable or musically appealing.

No more is this apparent than on their cover of Tom T. Hall’s classic “Harper Valley PTA,” oft-covered in their live shows and the track that spearheaded this album. It opens with a lone acoustic guitar and doesn’t get much more rocklin’, save some dobro riffs, as it goes along. Willis’ strong vocal drives the song and works well to tell the story.

Robison and Willis bring a bluegrass flair to The Statler Brothers’ “I’ll Go to My Grave Loving You,” and while they don’t add anything new to Vern Gosdin and Emmylou Harris’ “(Just Enough To Keep Me) Hanging On,” their version works just as well. A cover of T Bone Burnett’s “Shake Yourself Loose” is pure honky-tonk bliss and a stunning showcase for Willis vocally.

Like Cheater’s Game, Our Year isn’t all country covers. The pair keeps it in the family on “Departing Lousania,” a mandolin driven ballad written by Robison’s youngest sister Robyn Ludwick. Robison appropriately takes the lead, sticking in his wheelhouse of journey songs, and does a bang-up job of bringing the story to life.

The harmonica is out in full force on delightful rocker “Motor City Man,” penned by late Austin singer/songwriter Walter Hyatt. The track breathes some much-needed attitude into the album and gives Willis a chance to deliver a strong and confident vocal.

The title track, a Zombies song written by Chris White, is a staple of their annual Christmas show and features a lovely banjo-driven arrangement and the pair’s signature harmonies.

Robison contributed two of the strongest compositions found on Our Year. “Carousel,” is a glorious steel-front waltz co-written with Darden Smith that concerns the end of a relationship, where a couple has to “step off of the carousel and say goodbye.” “Anywhere But Here” is an ode to youthful innocence and a perfectly articulated number about the restlessness of growing up.

“Lonely For You” is a Willis original, co-written with Paul Kennerley. Willis may be one of the best honky-tonk balladeers recording music today, but she also shines on uptempo material like this, about a woman who’s still holding on to a relationship that’s already come to an end.

Often when an iconic collaborative pairing (the Trio, Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss) tries to record a follow-up record the sessions are either marred with drama or the project takes years to see the light of day. It’s even harder, just ask Patty Loveless or Alan Jackson, to follow-up an iconic work with something even half as good as the original.

With Our Year, Robison and Willis have succeeded splendidly on both fronts with an album tighter and even more fully realized than Cheater’s Game. They could’ve done without the Statler Brothers or Gosdin/Harris covers and thrown in two more Robison originals, but there’s no other way this project could be more perfect. Our Year is easily yet another of 2014’s spectacular releases.

Grade: A+ 

Classic Rewind: Chris Hillman and Vern Gosdin – ‘I’m Gonna Be Movin”

Chris is reunited with an old friend:

 

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