My Kind of Country

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

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Single Review: William Michael Morgan – ‘Missing’

Last year, I threw the William Michael Morgan’s single “Missing” into my year-end Top Ten. It had just been released as a single and had caught my year for its unapologetic nod to traditionalism. “Missing” is the kind of song that even seven years ago would’ve been a massive hit.

George Strait likely would’ve been the one to propel it up the charts, and it probably would’ve been a “B” single in his hands, against his catalog. But it’s a winner for Morgan, who turns in a performance that measures up to Strait and rightfully stands on its own.

To my ear there isn’t a negative thing I can say about this record. It’s currently my favorite song at country radio and one of the only bright spots going into this summer season.

Grade: A+

Top 10 hidden gems of 2016

drinking-with-dollyIn previous years, I’ve compiled a top 10 singles list, but although there have been some encouraging signs on country radio, I didn’t feel inspired by this year’s releases. Instead I want to highlight some of the best individual songs which appeared on albums which didn’t make my top 10 albums list, together with the odd single not yet featured on a full length release.

10. ‘What I’d Say’ – Lorrie Morgan
Realising her voice was in decline, Lorrie took steps to get it back to something approaching its best. This gorgeous reading of the classic was the highlight of her new album.

9. ‘I Never Will Marry’ – Loretta Lynn
Loretta goes old-time country folk on this track from Full Circle. A delight.


8. ‘Pawn Shop’ – Shelley Skidmore

A great Brandy Clark story song about hard lives and broken dreams reminiscent of the best country songs.

7. ‘Can’t Be That Wrong’ – Dolly Parton
A ballad about cheating, guilt and refusal to repent.

6. ‘Drinking With Dolly’ – Stephanie Quayle
A truly delightful wistful reimagining of the lives of country stars of the past.

5. – ‘It’s Just A Dog’ – Mo Pitney
A heartbreaker about the love of a rescue dog.

4. ‘Had A Thing’ – Curtis Grimes
The best song from Curtis’s excellent eight-track EP/album which, with a few more songs would have had a shot at making my top 10 list.

3. ‘Lonesomeville’ – William Michael Morgan
A lovely neotraditional lost love ballad from a young man who is starting to make real headway in the mainstream. Very reminiscent of early Joe Nichols.

2. ‘Still A Child’ – Dori Freeman
25 year old Dori Freman from Virginia is a folk-country singer-songwriter whose self-titled debut album was produced by British folk musician Teddy Thompson. Not all of it is perfect, but her pretty, fragile voice shines, and the best song by far is this graceful waltz. A gentle melody belies a hard hitting lyric rejecting a man who just can’t grow up. Excellent.

1. ‘Sad One Coming On’ – Vince Gill
Vince’s latest solo album was a sad disappointment, but it was almost redeemed by this superb, heartfelt tribute to George Jones, which is an instant classic.

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2016

real-country-musicThere has been some excellent country music released this year, admittedly mostly away from the major labels. Just missing my cut were strong comebacks from Loretta Lynn and Lorrie Morgan; glorious Western Swing from the Time Jumpers; sizzling bluegrass from Rhonda Vincent and her band; and a pair of very promising debuts from Mo Pitney and William Michael Morgan.

10 – Bradley Walker – Call Me Old Fashioned
Traditional country meets gospel from an underrated singer.

Best tracks: ‘His Memory Walks On Water’; ‘Why Me’; ‘Sinners Only’; ‘In The Time That You Gave Me’.

big-day-in-a-small-toen9 – Brandy Clark – Big Day In A Small Town

Like Miranda Lambert’s latest, this album married outstanding storytelling and songwriting, good vocals and overbearing production. But the songs here are so strong that the end result still made it into my top 10.

Best tracks: ‘Since You’ve Gone To Heaven’; ‘Three Kids, No Husband’; ‘Homecoming Queen’.

8 – Cody Jinks – I’m Not The Devil

His deep voices tackles themes of darkness versus light, on some very strong songs.

Best tracks: ‘The Same’; ‘I’m Not The Devil’; ‘Grey’.

7 – Jamie Richards – Latest And Greatest

Warm, inviting vocals and excellent songs with a real gift for melody.
Best tracks: ‘I’ll Have Another’; ‘I’m Not Drinkin’; ‘Last Call’; ‘Easier By Now’.

for-the-good-times

6 –Willie Nelson – For The Good Times: A Tribute To Ray Price

As the veterans of country music continue to pass away, it’s a comfort to see that at 83, Willie Nelson is still going strong. His tribute to the late Ray Price, with the help on several tracks of The Time Jumpers, was a delightful reminder of some of the best country songs ever written.

Best tracks: ‘Heartaches By The Number’; ‘Crazy Arms’; ‘Invitation To The Blues’.

5 – Dallas Wayne – Songs The Jukebox Taught Me

The deep voiced singer’s Heart of Texas debut is a honky tonk joy.
Best tracks: ‘No Relief In Sight’; ‘Eleven Roses’; ‘She Always Got What She Wanted’.

4 – Mark Chesnutt – Tradition Lives

A solid return from the 90s star with some excellent songs. It feels as if the last 20 years never happened.

Best tracks: ‘Is It Still Cheating’; ‘So You Can’t Hurt Me Anymore’; ‘Neither Did I’.

hymns3 – Joey + Rory – Hymns That Are Important To Us

A final heartbreaking labor of love for the duo recorded during the last stages of Joey’s illness. Joey’s beautiful voice and inspirational spirit are showcased for the last time.
Best tracks: ‘Softly And Tenderly’; ‘When I’m Gone’; ‘I Surrender All’.

2 – John Prine – For Better, Or Worse

I adored John Prine’s collection of classic country duets on the topic of marriage, and said when I reviewed it that it was set to be my favourite of the year. I was almost right. It really is a delightful record – great songs, lovely arrangements, and outstanding vocals from the ladies counterpointing Prine’s gruff emotion.

Best tracks: ‘Fifteen Years Ago’ (with Lee Ann Womack); ‘Look At Us’ (with Morgane Stapleton); ‘Color Of The Blues’ (with Susan Tedeschi); ‘Cold Cold Heart’ (with Miranda Lambert); ‘Dreaming My Dreams With You’ (with Kathy Mattea); ‘Mr And Mrs Used To Be’ (with Iris De Ment).

1 – Gene Watson – ‘Real. Country. Music

While Willie Nelson is still great, his voice is showing signs of age. The wonderful Gene Watson is still at the peak of his powers in his 70s, and his skill at picking excellent material hasn’t faltered either. His latest album reminds younger performers what real country music is all about.

Best tracks: ‘Couldn’t Love Have Picked A Better Place To Die’; ‘Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall’; ‘When A Man Can’t Get A Woman Off His Mind’; ‘A Bridge That Just Won’t Burn’; ‘Ashes To Ashes’; ‘She Never Got Me Over You’.

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Favorite Singles of 2016

My favorite singles of the year run the gamut from commercial to obscure and everything in between. Keep reading for career moments from Tim McGraw and Reba McEntire to shining examples of why Lori McKenna and Brandy Clark are more than expert songwriters.

unknown10. Chris Young Feat Cassadee Pope – ‘Think Of You’

Young deserves credit for searching within his own genre for a female collaborator. He deserves praise for co-writing a song that doesn’t use Pope as
window dressing, but rather as a means of furthering the story. This tale of a once-great couple isn’t revelatory, but it’s catchy as hell.

 9. William Michael Morgan – ‘Missing’

The influence George Strait said was absent from country radio came roaring back to life with William Michael Morgan’s follow-up to “I Met A Girl.” “Missing” is an astonishing single in that it makes little compromise to the modern landscape. Warner Bros deserves credit for releasing something this country to radio. Time will tell if they respond favorably.

 500x5008. Kelsey Waldon – ‘All By Myself’

Among its many achievements, a few of which you’ll see highlighted further down, 2016 introduced Kelsey Waldon, a killer traditionalist, to the masses. “All By Myself” is a stern warning to fakers, a biting assessment of authenticity and a woman’s empowerment anthem for the current generation. 

7. Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘Something Tamed, Something Wild’

The most common criticism I’ve heard about Mary Chapin Carpenter’s more recent works is she ‘lacks a pulse.’ It may be true to an extent, but I’m not hearing it here. This introspective examination of existential curiosity is one of her finest in recent memory. The parent album it comes from is her best in more than a decade.

6. Time Jumpers – ‘Kid Sister’

Vince Gill’s tribute to Dawn Sears is both personal and touching.

record-year-cover5. Eric Church – ‘Record Year’

Not since “The Song Remembers When” has a song about songs been this clever or powerful. Church proves he’s a master once again, name checking legends at every turn and laying out a jovial tale of heartbreak both ear catching and believable. “Record Year” is undoubtedly the best mainstream single of the year.

 4. Lori McKenna – ‘Wreck You’

The lead single from The Bird and the Rifle is this masterful look at sabotage in which the woman is admitting fault, with brutal candor – “Something between us changed, I’m not sure if its you or me But lately all I do seems to wreck you.”

unspecified-13. Tim McGraw – ‘How I’ll Always Be’

2016 found Tim McGraw in an artistic renaissance, with his strongest back-to-back singles in twenty years. He succeeded in a climate unfavorable to substance without conceding to modern pressures. “Humble & Kind” is the better lyric. But “How I’ll Always Be” shines melodically. Not since “Just To See You Smile” has McGraw sounded this good on record. 

2. Brandy Clark – ‘Love Can Go To Hell’

The genius is in the delivery. Brandy Clark sings this so deadpan, it’s easy to miss the dark humor underneath the surface. I totally missed it, but when it hit me, I never heard this the same way again.

reba-1024x10241. Reba McEntire – ‘Just Like Them Horses’

Tim McGraw wasn’t the only one in the throws of an artistic reawaking in 2016. This tale of a dying man giving positive reassurance to the loved one he’s leaving behind may’ve been too much for radio to bare, the unique take on ‘if you love me, let me go’ too smart for the masses.

Reba eulogized her father with this tune before committing it to record, which only solidified the emotional undertones she brought forth in her performance, her strongest vocal since “If I Had Only Known” twenty-five years ago. “Just Like Them Horses” is just that good, a bone-chilling highlight from a career with far too many to count.

Album Review: Mo Pitney – ‘Behind This Guitar’

behind-this-guitar23 year old Mo Pitney from Illinois is chasing on the heels of William Michael Morgan as the latest neotraditional country singer to make a mainstream bid for success. (In a bizarre coincidence, they share a name – Mo is short for Morgan). Mo’s singles haven’t achieved the same level of success as that of his contemporary, but he has been building up some grassroots support as he issues his debut album, produced by veteran Tony Brown. Mo is a talented songwriter as well as a fine singer, and cowrote most of the songs here.

I was pleasantly surprised by the lead single ‘Country’ over 18 months ago, and still enjoy its relaxed feel. The second single ‘Boy And A Girl Thing’ is also very pleasant sounding, augmented by harmonies from Lee Ann Womack; as Razor X noted in his review, it has strong echoes of late George Strait to it. Sadly, neither single (both Pitney co-writes) reached the top 40 on the Billboard country chart. Both follow fairly well travelled ground lyrically, and although unambitious, Mo’s vocals and the gentle country arrangements make them worth hearing. Current single ‘Everywhere’ has a fuller, more contemporary sound, but isn’t terribly interesting, even though it is a cowrite with the great Dean Dillon.

Dillon also co-wrote ‘Take The Chance’, which has a very pretty melody and arrangement, and grows on repeated listens.

One of the album’s highlights is the deeply affecting ‘Just A Dog’ (written with Jimmy Melton And Dave Turnbull). It is the story of a stray dog who becomes the protagonist’s best friend. Another favorite is ‘I Met Merle Haggard Today’. Unlike some Haggard tributes, this one makes a (successful) effort to sound like the man himself, with the song structured like some of Haggard’s conversational style numbers, and Mo’s vocal echoing Hag’s stylings. It relates a real life meeting with Mo’s hero in 2013.

The excellent ‘Cleanup On Aisle Five’ (written by Mo with Wil Nance) has a nicely detailed story of a chance encounter with an ex in the supermarket leading to a man’s emotional breakdown:

If I wasn’t standing in that store I might have laid right on that floor and cried

‘Come Do A Little Life’ is a nice mid-tempo everyday love song (written with Nance and Byron Hill); ‘When I’m With You’, written with David Lee Murphy, is along the same lines. ‘Love Her Like I Lost Her’ is a strong song about realising the fragility of life and importance of love, which Mo wrote with bluegrass songwriter Dennis Duff.

Mo has a very strong religious faith, and includes the understated contemporary Christian ‘Give Me Jesus, set to a very stripped down acoustic arrangement. This (written by Fernando Ortega) is one of only two songs Mo did not help to write. The other, oddly enough, is the title track, which was written by Casey Beathard, Don Sampson and Phil O’Donnell, despite sounding as if it must be autobiographical. It’s a charming folky song about being a musician:

Behind this guitar is just a boy who had a dream in his heart
Behind this guitar is just a guy who can’t believe he got this far

Well, I’ve always said that I’ve been blessed
Why me is anybody’s guess
Well, I don’t know
But I’m well aware the man upstairs could have answered any other’s prayers
And let mine go
But thanks to Him, my family, friends, and those that got me where I am
(You know who you are)
And with that in mind the truth is I’m not the only one
Behind this guitar

This is a very promising debut, perhaps a little more traditional and less commercial than that of William Michael Morgan. I do hope that both young men do well in their careers.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Mark Chesnutt – ‘Tradition Lives’

81s3+w6kLmL._SX522_It’s been more than six years since Mark Chesnutt’s last full-length album and more than eight since his last collection of original material. His latest effort, Tradition Lives, which became available last week, reportedly took about three years to record. The long drawn-out process of producing new music has apparently paid off, resulting in the strongest album of Chesnutt’s post-major label career.

The title is self-explanatory. The biggest hit of Chesnutt’s career was his cover of Aerosmith’s pop ballad “I Don’t Want To Miss a Thing”, but that song was not typical of his music and it ultimately resulted in his departure from MCA Records. He had been reluctant to record the song and flat out refused to comply when the label wanted more of the same. After leaving MCA, he recorded one album for Columbia and has been releasing music on a variety of independent labels since 2004.

Although Mark has remained true to his roots, he hasn’t always had access to great material as an indie artist. That is decidedly not the case with this album. The current single “Oughta Miss Me By Now” is a bit of a dud but the remaining twelve tracks are all top notch. None of them sound like anything that is currently on country radio today; they sound very much like the songs Mark sang in his commercial heyday. They are traditional but not dated and the material sounds fresh.

Fiddle and steel are plentiful throughout the album. There are quite a few uptempo honky-tonkers from the opening track “I’ve Got a Quarter In My Pocket”, “Neither Did I” and “Never Been To Texas”, but the ballads are the tracks that really shine. I particularly liked “Is It Still Cheating”, a Randy Houser/Jamey Johnson/Jerrod Niemann song in which the protagonist knows his wife is cheating on him but doesn’t care because it gives him time to pursue his own extramarital affair. I can’t decide if I like this one or “So You Can’t Hurt Me Anymore” better. The latter was written by newcomer William Michael Morgan and Chesnutt’s producer Jimmy Ritchey. In the aftermath of a broken marriage, the protagonist confronts the cause of the breakup — which at first appears to be another woman, but is later revealed to be the bottle:

It’s time to go our separate ways
Been goin’ through hell from all the hell we’ve raised
There comes a day to turn the page
So tonight I’m pourin’ you out on the floor
So you can’t hurt me anymore

Both of these songs are examples of the substance that used to be a hallmark of country music, but has been sadly lacking in recent years. “What I Heard” also falls into that category. It’s another break-up tale, but in this one Chesnutt refuses to accept that it’s really over and is convinced that his soon-to-be-ex will come crawling back.

Chesnutt steps out of his comfort zone for one number: “Hot”, a jazzy number written by Don Poythress and Wynn Varble. It’s not the strongest song on the album, but it’s not bad and Mark deserves credit for the creative stretch.

The album closes with an quiet number featuring only Mark’s vocal and Jimmy Ritchey on acoustic guitar. “There Won’t Be Another Now” was written by Red Lane and originally recorded by Merle Haggard. Mark’s rendition is meant to be a tribute to both recently departed legends, ending the album on a poignant note.

Tradition Lives is one the best albums I’ve heard this year; I highly recommend it.

Grade: A

EP Review: William Michael Morgan – ‘William Michael Morgan’

william michael morganOccasionally my faith in the future of mainstream country music is revived. That’s when an artist like William Michael Morgan emerges, signed to a major label (in this case Warner Brothers). When Razor X reviewed his debut single ‘I Met A Girl’ last year he praised Morgan’s song and country credentials, while noting, correctly, that the song was ‘generic and unmemorable’. It is saved by Morgan’s voice, which has tonal echoes of Keith Whitley, and his tender commitment to the song which makes it quite convincing. The single is slowly making its way up the chart, and has sold over 30,000 downleads, prompting Warner Brothers to issue this six-track EP, which gives us the chance to hear how he stands as an artist beyond that one song.

I was concerned when the record opened with the love song ‘Vinyl, which is similarly pleasant but underwhelming, and suffers from too many repeats of the word ‘girl’. It was written by Wade Kirby, Ashley Gorley, and Carson Chamberlain. ‘Beer Drinker’ (written by Wynn Varble, David Lee and Don Poythress ) raises the tempo a little, and is bearable potential radio fodder but a little dittyish and over-produced, at least by the standards of this record. None of these songs is bad, just not likely to set the world on fire.

But the second half of the set is much more like it. ‘Lonesomeville’ is an excellent sad song written by Morgan with Mark Sherrill, Ash Underwood, and former Lyric Street artist Trent Tomlinson, A steel guitar dominates the arrangement, complementing Morgan’s classic country vocal.

Just as good, the plaintive ‘Cheap Cologne’ has the protagonist sleeplessly fretting over the too-obvious signs of his wife’s infidelity:

She’ll get in from God knows where
I’ll smell that honky tonk in her hair
I don’t know if there someone she’s holdin’
But my suspicion keeps on growing
And a shower won’t cover it up when she gets home
She don’t smoke cigarettes and I don’t wear cheap cologne

But tonight she’s in for a surprise as he plans to be gone before she gets home. This song was written by Jimmy Ritchey, Odie Blackmon and another ex-Lyric Street performer who sadly never quite made it, Kevin Denney. (Incidentally I understand Denney is planning on releasing new music himself in the near future.)

Finally, the valedictory ‘Back Street Driver’ (written by Robert Counts, Nicolette Hayford, and Matt Willis) is a father’s good luck message for a departing son starting out on his new life:

There’s a Bible on the dash and a map tucked in the door
I can’t be your back seat driver any more

The only disturbing note is that he feels the need to pack a baseball bat in the back.

This is a very promising debut from an artist I very much hope to hear more from.

Grade: A-

Single Review: William Michael Morgan – ‘I Met a Girl’

For those of us who long for country music to return to a more traditional sound, the debut single from Vicksburg, Mississippi and Warner Bros. recording artist William Michael Morgan seems to be, on the surface, at least, just what the doctor ordered. The understated, pedal steel-laced mid tempo number was written — surprisingly — by Sam Hunt with Trevor Rosen and Shane McAnally. The 21-year-old Morgan reportedly grew up listening to Merle Haggard and Keith Whitley and their influence on his singing is apparent.

But context is everything. In a genre that has seen a complete collapse of any type of defining boundaries, “I Met a Girl” seems like a breath of fresh air, a throwback to the 90s when traditional sounding “hat acts” ruled the country radio airwaves. But those of us who are old enough to remember that era will inevitably compare the record to those of Clint Black, Alan Jackson, and George Strait, and that is where the record fails to measure up. Had this record been released 20 years ago, I probably would not have deemed it worthy of much attention. It’s a very generic song and not particularly memorable. That being said, it doesn’t have an annoying hip-hop with banjo arrangement, or lyrics about tailgating in a corn field. It’s a step, albeit a tiny one, in the right direction, and in 2015 the bar has been lowered sufficiently that a small positive step is enough. Morgan is a promising vocalist and I hope ‘I Met a Girl’ garners enough attention from radio that he will be allowed to continue exploring the more traditional side of country music.

Grade: B