My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: Earl Thomas Conley – ‘The Heart Of It All’

Released at the heart of the New Traditional era in 1988, The Heart Of It All did not stray too far from ETC’s accustomed wheelpath, although producers Emory Gordy Jr and Randy Scruggs made sure the arrangements were a bit less AC than previously. He was still a reliable hitmaker beloved by country radio, with singles destined to reach #1, and the first four singles from this album followed the pattern.

The lead single is a nice ballad written by Bob McDill and Paul Harrison about a woman tied to an unworthy husband, who she loves regardless. ETC’s hushed vocals are lovely, and the production fairly restrained.

Harmonies from Emmylou Harris make any song better, and the next single was the lovely duet ‘We Believe In Happy Endings’, another McDill song about keeping a marriage going, but a more positive one. It had been a top 10 solo hit for Johnny Rodriguez a decade earlier. This is one of my favorite ETC recordings.

‘What I’d Say’, written by Robert Byrne and Will Robinson, is another excellent ballad. This one faces up to the immediate afterbreak of a breakup, with the protagonist uncertain how he would react if he met her unexpectedly.

What would prove to be Earl’s very last #1 hit was Thom Schuyler’s ‘Love Out Loud’. A more upbeat tempo enlivens a sincerely sung song about an inarticulate man who nevertheless loves his lady. It is my least favorite of the singles from this album, but not a bad song.

The long run of #1 and 2 hits, dating back to 1982’s ‘Somewhere Between Right And Wrong’ was to come to a juddering halt with this album’s fifth single, which peaked at a very disappointing #26. It was the first time ETC had attempted more than four from one album, but the main problem may have been the underlying shifts in country radio. He would experience only two more top 10s, one of which was a posthumous duet with Keith Whitley. ‘You Must Not Be Drinking Enough’ is actually a fine song which deserved better, and more traditional sounding than much of ETC’s oeuvre (despite being a Don Henley cover). A soulful vocal is backed up with steel guitar as ETC offers advice to a lovelorn friend, or perhaps himself:

You keep telling yourself she means nothing
Maybe you should call her bluff
You don’t really believe it
You must not be drinking enough …

You keep telling yourself you can take it
Telling yourself that you’re tough
But you still want to hold her
Must not be drinking enough

You’re not drinking enough to wash away old memories
And there ain’t enough whiskey in Texas
To keep you from begging “please, please, please”
She passed on your passion, stepped on your pride,
Turns out you ain’t quite so tough
Cause you still want to hold her
You must not be drinking enough

The rambunctious ‘Finally Friday’ would be a single for George Jones a few years later. ETC’s version is more restrained, but the accordion-led production lends it a happy Cajun feel which works pretty well.

ETC co-wrote three songs, two of them with producer Randy Scruggs. The title track, ‘Too Far From The Heart Of It All’, is quite a pretty ballad on a religious theme although the meaning is not very clear. ‘Carol’ is a tender, thoughtful ballad about a man who regrets having left his wife years ago:

If I could turn back time to yesterday
I’d be coming home this time to stay …
I guess I never felt this way before
Feeling like a stranger at my own door
I wouldn’t have to ask you how you’ve been
And I wouldn’t have to fall in love again

Carol
No one has replaced you
I’ve never looked a day beyond goodbye
And Carol
Time could not erase you
It’s only made me wish I’d never tried

Guess some of us just don’t know when to stop
Reaching out for something we ain’t got

‘No Chance, No Dance’, written with Robert Byrne, is a brassy uptempo tune about not playing things safe.

Byrne teamed up with Tom Brasfield to write ‘I Love he Way he Left You’, an AC leaning ballad hoping a woman who has been hurt by a previous relationship will end up with him.

This is one of ETC’s best albums and it is definitely worth checking out.

Grade: A-

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Album Review: Wynonna – ‘The Other Side’

the other sideWhile mother Naomi Judd always had strong country sensibilities, daughter Wynonna was always an awkward fit in country music. The Other Side, Wynonna’s fourth solo studio album, finds Wynonna attempting to reposition herself as a bluesy rocker along the lines of Bonnie Raitt, Marcia Ball or Lou Ann Barton.

Wynonna has a very strong voice, more than suitable for the material but somehow this album isn’t all that convincing. I’m not sure if Wynonna was simply finding her footing with this album, or if the somewhat lackluster material is to blame.

The album opens with “When Love Starts Talkin'”, written by Brent Maher, Gary Nicholson and Jamie O’Hara. Released as a single (it reached #13), this up-tempo rocker works fairly well and is probably my second favorite song on the album.

I thought I had my life worked out
I thought I knew what it was all about
Then love started talkin’
Your love started talkin’

I had my mind on the open road
I thought I knew where I wanted to go
Then love started talkin’
Your love started talkin’

Kevin Welch wrote “The Other Side”, a rather bland ballad. It’s not bad just nothing special. I think I would like the track better without the vocal background singers.

So, you’re at the end of your wits
The end of your rope
You just can’t fix
Everything that’s broke
Got to turn it loose, babe
Hey, just let it ride

“Love Like That” (Gary Nicholson, Al Anderson, Benmont Tench) is much better, a mid-tempo rocker that failed to chart when released as a single, which mystifies me since it my favorite track on the album. The song features some nice slide guitar work by Steuart Smith.

You might tell me to mind my business
But I’ve been watchin’ and I’ve been a witness
To the things you do and say and the games you play
You better start cutting the man some slack
Or he’s gonna leave and he won’t be back
One day you’re gonna chase him away
If you keep on yankin’ that chain
Honey, if I was in your shoes
I tell you what I would do

CHORUS
If I had a love like that
A real fine love like that
I’d be treatin’ him right
And never do him any wrong
If you’re gonna do like that
With a good love like that
Sister, just like that you’re gonna wake up
And find him gone

“The Kind of Fool Love Makes” (Brenda Lee, Michael McDonald, Dave Powelson) is a dull ballad, pleasant but nothing more.

“Troubled Heart And A Troubled Mind” (Wynonna Judd, Brent Maher, O’Hara) is a nice up-tempo blues that would have made a good single. Again Steuart Smith shines on guitar

A troubled heart and a troubled mind
Is all I’m gonna leave behind
I’m movin’ on down the line
Don’t shout me down I’m doin’ fine
You’ve been hard and heavy on my soul
Gotta lighten the load and let you go
Life’s too short, ain’t got the time
For a troubled heart and a troubled mind

“Don’t You Throw That Mojo on Me” (Mark Selby, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Tia Sillers) features Kenny Wayne Shepherd on electric guitar and has Wynonna harmonizing with herself. I think this song would have made a good single.

“Come Some Rainy Day” (Billy Kirsch, Bat McGrath) was released as a single and reached #14. A gentle ballad, this may be Wynonna’s most effective vocal on a slower song. For my money, Wynonna’s better songs tend to be the faster songs. While I am not a big fan of the Nashville String Machine, the use of the NSM is subdued and greatly augments Wynonna’s vocal on this song.

“Love’s Funny That Way” (Tina Arena, Dean McTaggart, David Tyson) finds Wynonna over-singing the song slightly. At 4:46, the song is about a minute too long, since the dragging ending adds nothing to the song.

“The Wyld Unknown” (Cliff Downs, David Pack) is a mid-tempo rocker is that Wynonna sings effectively. I can’t say that the lyrics say anything important but it makes for a good album track.

Next up is “Why Now” (Downs, Pack, James Newton Howard) is another slow ballad dragging in at a flatulent four minutes and forty-nine seconds. A trimmed down version of this song would probably be better. The lyrics are actually pretty decent:

Somewhere off
In a distant dream
You were long ago
Like a memory

Now you’re back
Standing here
Sayin’ all the words
You think I want to hear

Did you finally realize
What I knew all along
That you never needed me
Until I was gone

“We Can’t Unmake Love” (Will Robinson, Aaron Saine) finds Wynonna singing a duet with John Berry, an artist with an excellent voice but somewhat addicted to tediously slow ballads. Having said that, I must admit that this is a pretty nice effort.

“Always Will” (Harry Stinson, John Hadley) was released as a single, reaching #45. The song has a very Celtic feel to it with Tammy Rogers on fiddle and Hunter Lee on Uillean pipes. At nearly five minutes, the song was a bit too long for radio to have had much interest in the song.

For me this album was a very mixed bag. The one word I would not use to describe it is “country”. I would give it a C+ but it is a very up and down C+. Some songs I like a lot, others I found boring. There was nothing on the album I loved, and nothing I hated.

Album Review: Alabama – ‘Pass It On Down’

pass it on downAs Alabama celebrated a decade of almost uninterrupted number one hits, the world of country music was changing. The New Traditionalists had prompted a retreat from more pop-tinged sounds, while the Garth Brooks phenomenon was about to explode. Southern Star had seen them holding their own, but its 1990 follow-up had a lot riding on its shoulders. Produced by the band with Josh Leo and Larry Michael Lee, there were five successful singles, but signs of a slight slowdown in their reception by country radio.

The apocalyptic green vision of the title track was only the band’s second single in 10 years not to reach the top of the charts, peaking at a still more than respectable #3. Written by Randy Owen and Teddy Gentry with Will Robinson and Ronnie Rogers, and given a fairly beefy country-rock production, it shares the earnestness of John Anderson’s songs on the same theme.

The regretful lost love ‘Jukebox In My Mind’ took them back to the top. Opening with the sound of a, it is one of my favourite Alabama singles, with a prominent fiddle in the arrangement.

The ballad ‘Forever’s As Far As I’ll Go, written by Mike Reid, was a top 15 Billboard Adult Contemporary hit as well as a country #1. The last chart topper, ‘Down Home’, an ode to rural hometowns (“where they know you by name and treat you like family”), written by Rick Bowles and Josh Leo, is quite agreeable.

The final single from the record was ‘Here WeAre’, written by Beth Nielsen Chapman and Vince Gill, and stylistically more characteristic of some of Chapman’s work than Gill’s. It is quite catchy and radio-friendly, but lacks emotional depth. While the performance of ‘Pass It On Down’ might have been passed off as a blip, ‘Here We Are’s #2 peak was a more significant indicator marking the group’s beginning to falter with radio. Although they continued to score hits, they would only get two more #1s.

Randy Owen’s ‘Goodbye (Kelly’s Song)’ was obviously inspired by his wife and childhood sweetheart, Kelly, and the sadness of constant separation while the band was on tour. While very personal and genuinely moving it goes on rather too long. (Note: I am pleased to report that 25 years on the couple is still happily married.)

The story song ‘Fire On Fire’, written by Teddy Gentry with Ronnie Rogers and Greg Fowler, has a potentially interesting lyric about a woman hooking up with a stranger in town, but the melody, arrangement and Cook’s weedy lead vocal are all more AC/rock ballad than country, and not particularly suited to the song’s tale of intense but temporary passion. The country-rock ‘Until It Happens To You’, written by Cook, Gentry, Rogers and Fowler, and sung by Gentry, is better.

The mid-tempo celebration of partying in the open air, ‘Moonlight Lounge’ (another Rogers tune), is okay in itself, but the now overdone theme makes it less welcome. The Caribbean-tinged beach tune ‘Gulf Of Mexico’ with its steel drums and la-la-las isn’t quite to my taste, but is inoffensive with a pleasant melody.

This was one of three tracks omitted from the original cassette release and only available on CD (then the more expensive version). Of the others, ‘Starting Tonight’ is a romantic ballad which is okay. A more interesting choice was the bluesy ‘I Ain’t Got No Business Doin’ Business Today’, a cover of a top 10 hit for Razzy Bailey in 1979 (and previously recorded by the great George Jones on his 1978 album Bartender’s Blues).

This was fairly standard fare from Alabama, with plenty to appeal to fans of the band.

Grade: B

Album Review: Alabama – ’40 Hour Week’

40 hour weekIf I’m not mistaken, 40 Hour Week was the first album to be released as a CD on initial release, rather than only on vinyl and/or cassette, a strong indicator of just how popular the band had become. In 1985 relatively few country acts were being released on CD.

40 Hour Week was the band’s sixth RCA album and also represents a creative turn for the band in that earlier albums had focused on love songs and songs of the idyllic rural South, whereas 40 Hour Week is somewhat grittier and opens with two anthems celebrating the working person, before reverting to the usual pattern.

The album opens with the title track, written by the redoubtable trio of Dave Loggins, Lisa Silver & Don Schlitz. An excellent song that soared to #1 on August 3, 1985, giving Alabama its 17th consecutive #1 single (breaking the previous Billboard record held by Sonny James. The song is definitely a salute to working people:

There are people in this country
Who work hard every day
Not for fame or fortune do they strive
But the fruits of their labor
Are worth more than their pay
And it’s time a few of them were recognized.

Hello Detroit auto workers,
Let me thank you for your time
You work a forty hour week for a livin’,
Just to send it on down the line

Hello Pittsburgh steel mill workers,
Let me thank you for your time
You work a forty hour week for a livin’,
Just to send it on down the line.

Track two is “Can’t Keep A Good Man Down”, written by Bob Corbin, whose Corbin-Hanner band had some marginal success during the early 1980s.The song was the third single released from the album and reached #1.

Track three, “There’s No Way”, written by Lisa Palas, Will Robinson and John Jarrard, was the first single released from the album and reached #1 , becoming Alabama’s 16th consecutive #1, tying Sonny James; record for consecutive #1s.

As I lay by your side and hold you tonight
I want you to understand,
This love that I feel is so right and so real,
I realize how lucky I am.
And should you ever wonder if my love is true,
There’s something that I want to make clear to you.

There’s no way I can make it without you,
There’s no way that I’d even try.
If I had to survive without you in my life,
I know I wouldn’t last a day.
Oh babe, there’s no way.

Next up is “Down On Longboat Key”, a pleasant piece of album filler written by Dennis Morgan and Steve Davis. The song is a jog-along ballad about where a guy promised to take his girl.

She sits and stares out the window at the water
Every night down at Longy’s Cafe
All alone she sips her Pina Colada
Talking to herself dreaming time away
The story is that a dark haired sailor
Stole her heart many years ago
He promised her he’d come back and take her
Around the world, bring her hills of gold

“Louisiana Moon”, a Larry Shell – Dan Mitchell composition is more album filler. It is pleasant enough, mildly reminiscent of Jerry Reed’s “Amos Moses” in both subject matter and sound, but not nearly as funky.

The sixth track, “I Want To Know You Before We Make Love”, was written by Becky Hobbs and Candy Parton and would have made a good single for Alabama. The song is a romantic ballad that, for whatever reason, remained an album cut. Hearing its hit potential, the great Conway Twitty took it to #2 in 1987.

Sometimes all you need is someone to hold you
Sometimes that’s all you’re looking for
But I’d like to take the time to get to know you
‘Cause I don’t want this time to be like all the times before.

I want to know you before I make love to you
I want to show you all of my heart
And when I look into those eyes
I want to feel the love inside, you
I want to know you before we make love.

I’ve learned from all those lonely nights with strangers
It takes time for real love to be found
I feel the invitation of your body
But I’d like to look inside your soul before I lay you down.

I didn’t sense any fireworks in Alabama’s recording of “Fireworks” . I regard this as the weakest song on the album.

Jeff Cook delivers the lead vocals on “(She Won’t Have A Thing To Do With) Nobody But Me”, a good mid-tempo ballad written by Dean Dillon, Buzz Rabin & “Flash” Gordon. Jeff’s vocals seem a bit off from his usual standard on this particular performance. It is still worth hearing, as is the slow ballad “As Right Now” on which co-writer Teddy Gentry takes the lead vocals.

The album closes out with the John Jarrard – Kent Robbins penned “If It Ain’t Dixie (It Won’t Do)” an ode the South that closes with an extended jam at the end. It’s a good song but the excessive length guaranteed that it would not be released as a single. I think shortening the song and increasing the tempo would have greatly improved the song. As a lifelong Southerner, I identify with the lyrics but the execution was off a bit as far as I’m concerned

O

h, I love those Colorado Rockies
And that big starry Montana sky
And the lights of San Francisco
On a California night
Enjoyed those ballgames in Chicago
On those windy afternoons
It’s a big beautiful country
But I’m never home too soon
If it ain’t Dixie, it won’t do

If it ain’t Dixie, it don’t feel quite like home
My southern blood runs deep and true
I’ve had good times
North of the line
I’ve got a lot of good friends, too
But if it ain’t Dixie, it won’t do
It won’t do

My memory may be failing me, but I seem to recall that all of the singles released had accompanying music videos. I don’t think that was true of any of their other albums

I would give this album an A-. While I regard the three singles released to all be A+ material, the rest of the album would rate a B+ in my estimation. My opinion notwithstanding, this was the top selling country album of 1985.

Album Review – Shenandoah – ‘The Road Not Taken’

Shenandoah_road_not_takenAfter their eponymous album produced two top-twenty singles, Shenandoah saw a reversal of fortunes when they gathered at Fame Recording Studios in Muscle Sholes, Alabama to record their sophomore record, The Road Not Taken. A major success, the album spawned three #1 hits, was certified gold, for shipments of 500,000 copies, and turned 25 upon the anniversary of its Jan 31, 1989 release just one week ago.

Columbia Records noticed the band’s upward swing when their third single, “She Doesn’t Cry Anymore” cracked the top ten, peaking at #9. Written by Robert Byrne (their co-producer) and Will Robinson, the track is a forlorn synth heavy ballad that shows the band’s promise but isn’t indicative of their strongest work. To capitalize on the song’s success the label carried it over to The Road Not Taken, releasing it as the third single from the band’s debut and first from their second album.

This album’s first official single, “Mama Knows,” gave the band their inaugural top five hit. An excellent mandolin and string centric ballad, “Mama Knows” began their tradition of singing simple tales about small-town life. This one’s about a mother who always knows whatever her son is trying to hide:

Mama knows, Mama knows

Somehow I think she’s got a window to my soul

Mama knows, Mama knows

Even when I think it doesn’t show

Mama knows, mama knows

“The Church on Cumberland Road,” Their first of three consecutive #1 hits came next, impacting the country charts in early 1989. A two-week #1, the track marked the first time a band had their first chart-topper spend multiple weeks atop the charts. A catchy rocker about a groom late for his wedding, the song uses electric guitars in its production, and is heavy on the charm. A piece of nostalgia from my childhood, it remains one of my favorites of their singles to date.

Their second number one came courtesy of Jay Booker’s masterpiece “Sunday In The South,” which is my favorite thing Shenandoah has ever committed to record. The song is a day—in the life of the southern US on a sacred Sunday, bringing alive the traditions of going to church, enjoying family dinners, and getting one’s haircut. While the track retains a bit of laundry-list tactics, it succeeds on its sincerity, Marty Raybon’s impeccable lead vocal, and the flawless traditional production that weaves gorgeous ribbons of harmonica throughout.

The more contemporary “Two Dozen Roses,” co-written by Byrne with Mac McAnally, finished off the band’s banner 1989, becoming their third #1 hit. Another excellent song, “Two Dozen Roses” contains everything I love about country music – twang (both vocally and from guitars), a killer chorus, and an effortless vibe that seems easy to pull off, but really isn’t. “Two Dozen Roses” is just a great, great song all around.

The album’s final single, “See If I Care,” bookends the album with a track similar in nature to “She Doesn’t Cry Anymore.” That isn’t a complement, though, as the song retains the former’s somewhat listless production and vocal stylings and feels almost like a regression from the excellence of the band’s three previous singles. The track justifiably peaked at #6.

Like the blander singles, the title track has an adult cotemporary vibe that’s somewhat unbecoming. Raybon doesn’t do that great a job singing it either, which is a shame. An on-point vocal from him could’ve elevated this tale of regret, but instead we’re left with a song that’s just bland. “Changes” is more interesting thanks to its cadence, which allows entry into the song, but Raybon’s delivery could once again use a little zap of energy.

McAnally, who’s one of my favorite songwriters of all-time, wrote “She’s All I Got Goin’” solo. Raybon gives an exquisite vocal performance and the production is a pure delight, no matter how retro it sounds to today’s ears. The track should’ve been the finale single, instead of “See If I Care.” Also good is “Hard Country” although the harmonies from the other band members on the chorus just sound strange.

It’s easy to see why The Road Not Taken was Shenandoah’s breakthrough album. A strong collection of songs and Raybon’s indelible voice help raise the record above the average radio faire. It’s also a testament to all involved that two of the projects biggest hits, “The Church on Cumberland Road” and “Two Dozen Roses” have go on to become classics, with Rascal Flatts covering the former on occasion. Gary LeVox is nowhere near the astute vocalist that Raybon is, but they do a surprisingly decent job.

It’s hard to believe the CD is 25 years old, but it sounds nearly as good today as it did when it was released all those years ago.

Grade: A 

Album Review: Doug Stone – ‘More Love’

more love1993 saw Doug move to a new producer, commercial powerhouse James Stroud. The result was a competent album, but one which largely failed to reach the heights of Stone’s best work.

The lead single, ‘I Never Knew Love’, written by Larry Boone and Will Robinson, just missed the top of the charts, but with a #2 peak it was the album’s biggest hit. A gentle piano ballad, it reflects on the experience of real love for the first time.

The up-tempo ‘Addicted To A Dollar’, bemoaning an 80 hour work week for low pay, is quite good, although this style isn’t Doug’s real strength as an artist. It was however a successful single, peaking at #4.

The last single, the title track, peaked another couple of spots lower. Exploring a man’s regrets over a lost love, it is melodic and sweetly sung but may seem a bit drippy to some. Along with the bland ‘Dream High’ it appeared on the soundtrack of the children’s film Gordy (about a runaway pet pig), in which Stone made his acting debut playing a country singer. The connection which was proudly advertised on the album cover, but the movie was not well received, so this probably didn’t help Doug’s career momentum.

The best track is the sad ballad ‘That’s A Lie’, written by Doug with Randy Boudreaux and Sam Hogin about a man denying his own broken heart, which is beautifully sung.

The plaintive ‘She Used To Love Me A Lot’, co-written by Doug with Dean Dillon, is rather charming, as the protagonist broods in bewilderment over the unexpected and sudden end of a relationship. The tune is pretty and there is some lovely fiddle. I also liked ‘Small Steps’, written by Gary Burr and Henry Edwards, a tastefully understated ballad about working on getting over a relationship.

My least favorite tracks were the teenage memory of a girlfriend dressed in ‘Little Sister’s Blue Jeans’ (which is catchy but tacky) and the boring ‘Wishbone’ which sounds as though it was included to cater to the linedance craze which was one of the worst aspects of 90s country music. The mid-tempo ‘Love, You Took Me By Surprise’ is forgettable filler.

Overall, this isn’t a bad record, and one with some good tracks alongside the weaker ones. It isn’t available digitally, but if you can get a cheap used copy it’s worth picking up.

Grade: B-

Album Review – Collin Raye – ‘I Think About You’

Rayethink1995 was a good year for Collin Raye. Coming off the success of Extremes, he released I Think About You in late August. Like its three predecessors, it received a platinum certification and retained John Hobbs as producer (Ed Seay and Paul Worley co-produced).

I Think About You was instrumental in shaping my country music identity as it was one of the first country projects I was exposed to as a kid, and remains my third favorite country album to this day (behind Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Come On, Come On and Dixie Chicks Home). The hits from this project have a special quality I’ve never been able to duplicate with any other artists’ work.

Mark Alan Springer and Shane Smith co-wrote the #2 peaking lead single, “One Boy, One Girl,” a fantastically touching ballad centered around the full-circle love affair between a couple. The ending of the story is a bit predicable, but Raye gives the type of touching performance only he could bring to a ballad, and both Dan Digmore and Paul Franklin drench the number in gorgeous pedal steel.

Even better is “Not That Different,” Karen Taylor-Good and Joie Scott’s song about indifference that climbed to #3. I love how the song builds, starting out as a simple piano ballad and building to its drum-infused conclusion with the bridge. The lyric, both simple and brilliant, is fine testament to the powers of fate, and probably my favorite on the whole album:

She could hardly argue

With his pure and simple logic

But logic never could convince a heart

She had always dreamed of loving someone more exotic

And he just didn’t seem to fit the part

So she searched for greener pastures

But never could forget

What he whispered when she left

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New singles roundup: Reba, Jackson, McBride

Reba McEntire – “Somebody’s Chelsea”     Listen.

Romantic themes have never played a big part in Reba’s catalog probably because she simply doesn’t sing them well.  At the bottom of every great Reba single, there’s a hint of sadness or desperation, provided by the natural ache the singer accomplishes just by opening her mouth and bending a few seemingly irrelevant notes.  With that, she has the ability to bring most any song to life, save for her attempts at love songs. That damns her latest single right away, with its plucking mandolin and piano intro and a swaying chorus built for the slow dance portion of the next wedding reception you attend.  Her attempts to meander sweetly through the verses come off as more rehearsal run-throughs than finished product. The story revolves around the narrator’s encountering an elderly widower on a plane.  After hearing of that couple’s love story and seeing the man’s continuing love for his departed, she simply closes her eyes and daydreams of a love of her own. McEntire co-wrote the song with Liz Hengber and Will Robinson, and I have to wonder how three songwriters couldn’t find something more meaningful to say.  She’s one of the best honky-tonk, swing, and heartbreak singers in the business, who has no business squandering her talents on fluff like this.

Grade: C-

Alan Jackson – “Long Way To Go”     Listen.

Songs about drinking away your troubles, be they love or money-related, with the beach as your background has been fertile subject matter for country’s leading male artists even before Kenny Chesney made a career out of them. With his first single release for new-label home Capitol, Alan Jackson adds another to the long list. As with nearly everything Jackson does, he pulls this off so damn capably, it’s hard to fault him even for overused concepts.  “Long Way To Go” follows the same sound format as past Jackson hits “Chattahoochee” and “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”, with their blistering electric guitars mixed right beside a heaping helping of fiddle and peppered with the singer’s signature “yee haws”.  Even the unrelenting rain showers, bug in his margarita and encountering another poor soul in the same predicament doesn’t seem to damper the singer’s spirits as he pours on his best feel-good vocal here.  With this single, Jackson is not hitting the ground running with his new label release, nor does it sound like he’s altered his sound or style at all. And that’s okay by me.

Grade: B

Martina McBride – “I’m Gonna Love You Through It”     Listen.

Two singles into her personally-praised upcoming album for Republic Nashville, the singer with the big voice, all those orchestrations behind her, and a penchant for singing topical songs to tug at someone’s heartstrings is back. The story of a woman recently diagnosed with breast cancer is told.  She is personified by the added details of her life – she’s 38, has 3 kids. The track is led by plentiful strings and drums, and there’s even a short steel guitar solo in the bridge.  McBride hits all the right notes, and takes the listener as high as humanly possible with her blue-in-the-face belting (if he’s still paying attention by the end).  It was in a different package – usually domestic violence –  but we’ve heard all these notes before, and even with its gravely universal message, it’s nothing more than a new step to the same old dance. Fans hoping McBride would return to the hard-hitting neo-traditionalism of “A Broken Wing” or “Cry On The Shoulder Of The Road” will be disappointed.  Likewise, those who really dig the “Concrete Angel”, “God’s Will” side of the singer’s catalog should be very pleased.  Count me among the disappointed.

Grade: C


			

Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘All The Women I Am’

The moon controls the tides, your taxes are due April 15th, and Reba McEntire is having hits on the country charts.  These are some things we’ve become accustomed to.  For her 26th studio album – and 2nd for the Valory Music Co. – Reba has enlisted the help of current hit-making producer Dan Huff, whose production credits run as deep as McEntire’s own career, but is known in country circles for hits by Keith Urban, Faith Hill, and Carrie Underwood.  The ever-evolving redhead has kept it relevant for what is three decades now, and shows no real signs of wear and tear just yet.  She effortlessly glides through the 10 tracks on this set, hitting spine-tingling notes when the need arises, and more often than not, nailing every emotional aspect of the lyrics with precision.  The songs themselves are certainly a step above her current work, and reflect her maturity a little better.  All the women that make up these characters are seasoned at life, looking back with hard-won wisdom or jumping head-first, all the while knowing the risks.

The title track is a jaunty, twangy trip into the psyche of an everywoman.  Though it’s mostly sewn together from the kind of empowerment statements usually reserved for bumper stickers – “I burn brighter than a candle but I melt in the right hands” – and the fact that it comes from a songwriting team of three men, it’s hard to take it for more than a feel-good number without any real message.  A jazzy saxophone solo at the end and lines like “I can light up New York city with my red hair and rhinestones” increase the fun-factor by two however.  And in that regard, it can succeed.  ‘A Little Want To’ follows the same sound template as the title track, yet offers even less in the lyrics, leaving it little more than an up-tempo jam with the guitars mixed way too loud.

‘When Love Gets Ahold Of You’ features the kind of soaring chorus you can almost sing along to on the first listen.  But that’s probably because it sounds like a hybrid of the past 4 pacy Keith Urban hits.‘The Bridge You Burn’ is another earworm, wherein a woman is discovering her own self worth after a bad relationship. Reba makes it hard to dislike either of these songs with engaging performances, but these kind of melodies always make you feel a bit guilty for enjoying them too much.

Reba’s reading here of the Beyonce hit ‘If I Were A Boy’ seems timid compared to her CMT Unplugged performance that was a viral video hit over the Summer.  Pairing a voice like Reba’s with a marvelous lyric like the gender-gap realizations of ‘If I Were A Boy’ was a stroke of genius, and even without all the fancy vocal work of the live version, she does not disappoint.  Then it’s back to coasting through tracks like the album’s closer ‘When You Have A Child’ and ‘Somebody’s Chelsea’, written by Reba with Liz Hengber and Will Robinson, a sweet love song with the obligatory advice-from-a-wise-old-man. (Ever the jet-setter, Reba meets her wise old man on a plane.) Neither offers anything substantial besides a tug at the old heart-strings, and the singer’s performance sounds like she knows these are filler songs.

The real stand-outs come when the songstress gets ahold of a lyric worthy of her talents. She does this best with ‘Cry’ and ‘The Day She Got Divorced’. The first is vintage Reba, a strong woman weeper that quickly turns to power ballad mode, where it remains. ‘The Day She Got Divorced’ is wickedly awesome in its frank storytelling. The story revolves around the activities of a woman on the day she goes to court to dissolve her marriage. We follow her to a motel where she continues an ongoing affair with her boss and then on to a house that needs cleaned and is filled with “hungry-mouthed kids”. It’s full of great one-liners and features a funky guitar riff after reach repeat of the title line. Both songs come from the pens of Brandy Clark and Shane MacAnally, with Mark D. Sanders co-writing on ‘Divorced’.

An album full of gutsy, emotional songs like ‘Cry’ and ‘Divorced’ would have served the 55 year-old better than covers of recent pop hits side by side with fluffy radio-friendly fare, but Reba is obviously hell-bent on staying at the top of the hit-making heap.  Certainly, a handful of these cuts could find their way to the top of the page of the country singles chart.  As with the songs and themes found on All The Women I Am, the results are varied, but are more enjoyable than not.

Grade: B+

Buy it anywhere.

Album Review: Gary Allan – ‘Alright Guy’

Alright Guy, Gary Allan’s second album at MCA, is more than alright in many ways. It debuted at #4 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart on its release in October 2001, and brought Gary his first No. 1 with the album opener ‘Man to Man’. Produced by Tony Brown & Mark Wright, it’s one of several of Allan’s albums to be certified platinum as well. I think the success of the album is reflected in the quality of the album’s unreleased tracks rather than the singles that charted.

The driving beat and rhythmic lyrics of the lead-off single ‘Man of Me’ (a George Teren and Rivers Rutherford song) weren’t enough to drive it beyond #18 on the charts. That seems fair given that though the lyrics describe how ‘lovin’ you made a man of me’, the music doesn’t get beyond a teen rock number, complete with a screaming ‘wow’ on the very paragraph proclaiming ‘goodbye to my blind immature days’.

‘The One’ came close to being the one that hit the top of the charts first for Allan. Coming in at #3, it’s a kind and loving gentleman’s ballad written by Karen Manno and Billy Lee. Allan isn’t going to rush his girl who has been hurt before, but instead promises,

I’ll fill those canyons in your soul
Like a river lead you home
And I’ll walk a step behind
In the shadows so you shine
Just ask it will be done
And I will prove my love
Until you’re sure that I’m the one

It is a beautiful song, but the production is too heavy on the dreamy echo effects and background vocals for my taste. The interplay between Gary’s vocals and the melodic acoustic guitar line would have been enough.

Third time’s the charm, apparently. ‘Man to Man’, the third single off the album, was Allan’s first #1 on Billboard. Written by Jamie O’Hara, it’s sung by “the guy who got the girl” to “the guy who lost her”. It makes me think of a pool hall kind of scene in which the “loser” confronts the singer who turns and points out who’s really at fault and who’s really the better man. With lines like Were you ever there when she needed you, and Who cheated who/You’re the one to blame, he takes on the bully point for point.

The line that has always stood out to me, partly because of Allan’s great vocal on it, is She’s a real woman, not a doormat for you.

Again, the production is what gets in the way for me – the pop drums and background vocals don’t add to the character’s strength at all. And Allan’s cry-ee-eye-ee sends me back to 50s pop. However, it’s very sing-able and relatable with a catchy chorus and a recognizable intro – the stuff that often does well at radio.

The best songs on the album weren’t released to radio though. ‘Devil’s Candy’, one of 5 Harley Allen songs Gary has recorded, has a great hook and some great fiddle: I’ve always had a sweet tooth for the devil’s candy. Fiddles seem to exemplify that fiery battle with temptation, and this song’s no exception.

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