My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Wynn Varble

Album Review: Jon Pardi – ‘California Sunrise’

71aFoU3QlUL._SX522_When reviewing new music, I always try to follow two basic rules: (1) not to expect too much and (2) not to read any other reviews until I’ve had a chance to listen to it myself, so as not to be influenced by anyone else’s opinion. I didn’t initially expect to review Jon Pardi’s California Sunrise, so I’d already inadvertently broken Rule #2 by the time I decided to do it. The generally favorable reviews I read caused me to break Rule #1 and raise my expectations — which set me up for a huge disappointment.

Hailed as an album that tries to steer country music back towards it roots, California Sunrise is the most uninspired collection of songs that I’ve heard so far this year. I do give Pardi and producer Bart Butler for avoiding the EDM elements that have infested country music in recent years and for mostly avoiding bro-country cliches. They also make more use of country instrumentation – i.e., fiddle and steel – than is usually the case these days and that is appreciated, but ultimately the country elements are drowned out by too-loud electric guitars and hick-hop rhythms. Pardi’s vocals, which remind me of a blend of Brad Paisley and early Gary Allan, are also drowned out by the too-loud production.

Pardi is credited as a co-writer on eight of the album’s twelve songs, which partially explains why listening to the album seems like playing the same song over and over. One exception is the lead single “Head Over Boots”, which he wrote with Luke Laird, which really isn’t bad but it’s not great either. Pardi did not the album’s two most noteworthy songs: “She Ain’t In It” and “Dirt On My Boots”, which are the album’s best and worst cuts respectively. The former, written by Clint Daniels and Wynn Varble is the only song on the album that I truly liked — the one bonafide country number about a protagonist trying to resume his social life after a bad break-up. The bro-countryish “Dirt On My Boots” comes to us courtesy of Rhett Akins, Jesse Frassure and Ashley Gorley is downright terrible (I’m guessing it will be the next single), but to be fair “All Time High” written by Pardi, Bart Butler and Brice Long isn’t a whole lot better.

The remaining songs are bland, lyrically light and tend to all bleed together and aren’t worthy of individual commentary.

Jon Pardi is a talented but not exceptional vocalist, who has a lot of potential if he can only find better material. California Sunrise is not a traditional album, though it certainly comes closer than most of today’s other mainstream releases. If Pardi can tone down the rock elements and volume, and lean a little more on those country roots, he may release a great album one day, but he’s not there yet. Download “She Ain’t In It” and skip the rest.

Grade: C-

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-

Christmas Rewind: Joey + Rory ft Wynn Varble – ‘What The Hell (It’s The Holidays’

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘Man Against Machine’

Man_Against_Machine_coverExcluding boxed sets and compilations, Man Against Machine marks Garth Brooks’ first set of entirely new music in fourteen years. His highly publicized return, as his youngest child heads off to college as promised, comes at a time when the country music genre has strayed further from its roots than any other period in its history. Would Brooks pick up where he left off, with an album reminiscent of his classic work? Or would he instead follow the latest trends and make an eighties rock styled album, country in name only?

His first response to everyone’s probing questions comes in the form of “People Loving People,” a Busbee, Lee Thomas Miller, and Chris Wallin #19 peaking mid-tempo rocker that tries to drive an all-inclusive message, but does a poor job of getting it across. He returns to form on second single “Mom,” a classically styled Brooks tune about an unborn baby’s conversation with God before being born. Don Sampson and Wynn Varble have crafted a fantastic lyric that Mark Miller produced immaculately.

Miller, it’s worth noting, took over production duties from Brooks’ right hand man Allen Reynolds, who Brooks revealed has retired from the music business. His touch gives the album a fresher feel, but doesn’t hide the fact that Man Against Machine contains tracks far more country than anything released on a major label this year.

It’s no secret that western-themed songs are Brooks’ favorite as he includes at least one on every album. Man Against Machine has two that differ greatly on quality. “Rodeo and Juliet,” which Brooks co-wrote, has an underwritten lyric about a cowgirl on the racing circuit that comes off cutesy despite a pleasing western swing styled production. “Cowboys Forever” falls on the opposite end, standing up against anything he’s ever recorded on the subject. Dean Dillon’s co-written lyric is excellent, using a cowboy theme to relay a greater message about camaraderie.

The idea of a euphemism manifesting a larger message is also tackled in “Fish,” a conversation between a fisherman and a workaholic. The former teaches the latter about the importance of life; all while continuing to live the easy life he’s carved for himself. It also doesn’t hurt that “Fish” is the most sonically country song on whole album. “Wrong About You” follows close behind, with a jaunty banjo/dobro beat that roots the mid-paced number in an organic backbeat. “Midnight Train” comes off as the pop version of a country shuffle.

The majority of Man Against Machine is made up of songs that bring a bit of muscle into the conversation. A prime example is “Cold Like That,” a song that begins quietly but turns bombastic by the chorus. Brooks has the voice for it, but the production doesn’t offer any interesting flourishes to hook the listener. “Tired of Boys” is much better, with Trisha Yearwood’s harmony vocal coming in loud and clear. I do wish Miller had given it more of a 90s throwback vibe, which would’ve elevated the overall track just that much more. “Send ‘Em On Down The Road” is more of the same, a ballad with light steel guitar that sill manages to use power to sell its story.

“All-American Kid,” a tune about a college-bound football star, is a very different song for Brooks both in subject matter and lyrical structure. I’m still debating whether I feel this kind of song is right for him or I’m just taken aback at him trying something new. Either way it isn’t a bad song and I like the ample use of fiddle.

“Tacoma” is Brooks’ bluesy moment, which he executes really well. I don’t usually go for this type of song, so that hinders my enjoyment of it, but people who enjoy these sorts of things will probably love it. The only truly puzzling song is the title track, which puts Brooks back in his faux-rock persona. It’s just too much power and muscle for me, no matter the quality of the lyrics.

Man Against Machine is a bizarre album. Brooks’ classic persona is undeniably present, but nothing here feels like essential listening. With the exception of “Mom” this whole album feels like filler to me, with too much eighties rock, not enough organic sounds, and very little passion on Brooks’ part. I expected more after thirteen years, from both Man Against Machine and his whole comeback extravaganza.

I also never dreamt mainstream country music would erode like it has, so I guess the joke may be on me. While the formula is here (cowboy songs, Yearwood on backing vocals, fiddles and steel) it just wasn’t executed with a timeless feel. Brooks, in his heyday, proved he is much, much better than this.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Wynn Varble – ‘Freak Show’

wynnvarbleWynn Varble had been a successful songwriter for years without evident ambition of making it as an artist until he agreed to take party in CMT’s Next Superstar show a few years ago. He didn’t win, and was clearly cast as comic relief, but that made him the most entertaining aspect of that show. The title of new album Freak Show sounds as though it is a comedy record, but in fact is mixes up serious and funny songs. The production is competent but not inspired or subtle. Wynn is frankly a limited vocalist, without much range, so it is not surprising that it is the comedic material that works best for him, with a couple of genuinely funny numbers.

I loved ‘AA Meeting Gone Bad’, the simile for a disastrous family reunion. The comedy is broad but effective, with the protagonist correctly predicting the brawl that develops. Drunken criticisms lead to

Bunch of cousins cryin’
Blamin’ and denyin’
Like an AA meeting gone bad

The wife of the jailbird ex-preacher cousin declares,

“Your daddy was a Jones and you ain’t even really kin”
And the skeletons all started pilin’ out
Of the closets they were hidin’ in

It all ends with
A bunch of drunk men and women
Huggin’ and forgivin
Like an AA meeting gone bad

Keeping the song short and succinct at under three minutes helps the joke not to get overblown.

Varble co-wrote Easton Corbin’s ‘A Little More Country Than That’, but here he pokes a little fun at the country pride genre with the wry ‘A Little Too Country’. The self-proclaimed country boy narrator admits his hillbilly date(found online on downhomegirls.com) is hot but just a little too much of a stereotype with unsophisticated tastes, missing teeth, and inbred family that put paid to this romance:

I thought I’d never say these words
But she’s a little too country for me

It is funny, but some will be offended by the very broad humor.

‘John Deere Letter’ is a mildly amusing story song about a farmer whose wife says goodbye in a note stuck to his tractor dashboard. The poor cuckolded husband mows his response in his field of wheat so his ex’s lover (a cropduster) can see it when flying overhead.

‘Freak Show’ critiques the ever –increasing excesses of modern TV reality shows. It’s loud and obnoxious, rather like its subject, which may be appropriate but makes it unappealing to listen to.

‘Right’ is a less successful attempt at humor, with a rambling and not very interesting story of a bar encounter. ‘Ever Been Down To Mexico’ seems to be intended to be a funny take on the downside of a vacation which becomes a gambling trip, but it too falls flat, while ‘The Hot Sign’s On’ is pretty dull.

Wynn’s limited vocals do rather let down the serious material, like the affecting ‘The You I Never Knew’. This has Wynn hearing stories he could never have imagined about his straitlaced father’s wild early life at the old man’s funeral. This is quite good and could have been great with a more emotive vocalist. Another good song with a serious message, ‘Out Bailing Hay’, contrasts industry bailouts with the American farmer just getting on with life, whatever disasters befall. The production on this is a bit heavy handed, but the song works well.

The wistful ‘Even The River Don’t Know’ is quite pretty, and deserves a better singer. Wynn’s wearied everyman vocal is more successful on ‘Like Old Cowboys Do’, a nicely observed portrait of a soldier dreaming of a future life on the range. The jazzy minor keyed ‘Youth Is Wasted On The Young’ is about wasted opportunities and spurned chances, and has some insight, while ‘World Goes Round’ is a rather pedestrian slice of philosophy of the cycle of life.

It’s always interesting to hear a songwriter interpreting his (or her) own material, and this is no exception, even when the vocals are not as good. There are some worthwhile tracks here – and Wynn has a real gift for comedy.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Joe Diffie, Sammy Kershaw and Aaron Tippin – ‘All In The Same Boat’

all in the same boatAaron Tippin, our current Spotlight Artist and two fellow 90s stars we have highlighted in the past, Joe Diffie and Sammy Kershaw, have been touring together recently, and this inspired them to team up for a new album together.

It isn’t really a trio record, with most tracks featuring a single lead singer, with the others relegated to backing vocals. Each man also produces his own tracks, with Diffie assisted by regular collaborator, drummer Lonnie Wilson, and Kershaw taking over production duties on the three tracks on which vocals are shared. The album features a fairly eclectic mix of revivals of each of the guys’ hits, new songs, and a couple of unexpected covers.

The three share the lead vocals only occasionally, with the tracks which bookend the setsetting a buddyish mood. The first is the title track, penned by Wynn Varble, Jamey Johnson and Don Poythress. The humorous song, about a group of friends escaping their wives for a fishing trip, is being promoted as a single, complete with comedic video which nicely undercuts the masculine posturing, and is one of those clips which does add something to the song it illustrates. The closing track is a tribute to ‘Old Friends’ through thick and thin, written by Ben Hayslip and Jim Beavers. Both are decent songs if not particularly memorable ones, and they work well presenting the men as friends. The three also collaborate on a new Sammy Kershaw composition, ‘The Route That I Took’. This is a serious song about experiences and life’s choices.

Of the revivals, Aaron picks ‘Kiss This’ (one of his less subtle numbers but tackled here with undeniable enthusiasm which makes it palatable) and the inspirational tribute to his dad, ‘He Believed’. Sammy’s ‘She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful’ is pleasant enough but seems redundant. Honestly, though, all three of the revivals could have been omitted as none adds anything to the original.

More adventurously, Joe Diffie chooses to cover country rocker Neil Young’s ‘Heart Of Gold’; the arrangement is nice with a prominent harmonica but Joe’s voice sounds a bit rough. Aaron Tippin is not really suited vocally to a standard like ‘The Way You look Tonight’, but it was an interesting idea if ultimately unsuccessful, and it’s nice to see artists taking the occasional risk.

Sammy Kershaw sings ‘On And On’ well but it’s rather a boring song. His best vocal of the album comes on the sincere ‘I Love To Work’, avowing his dedication to family and job, which he wrote with Bradley Gaskin and Billy Lawson.

Joe Diffie delivers a great vocal on his own ‘I’m Hangin’ On’, which is a pretty good song about a relationship falling apart, which he wrote with Steve Pippin. I also enjoyed his vocal on the playful up-tempo ‘Misery Loves Country’, written by Josh Kerr, David Fraiser and Edward Hill. These two cuts, and the three trio songs, are the pick of the bunch, and the most individually download-worthy, followed by ‘I Love To Work’.

This is not a bad album by any means, and there are quite a few tracks I like, but it’s not going to rank high on the discographies of any of its participants or to be an essential purchase for most fans.

Grade: B-

Television Review – ‘The Joey + Rory Show’

For those old enough to remember, Country Music has a long history with the variety show. Everyone from Porter Wagoner to the Wilburn Brothers, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, The Statler Brothers and even Barbara Mandrell (along with her sisters Louise and Irlene) graced America’s TV sets at one point or another.

This tradition has long since ended as the format died out over the past thirty years. The downfall in this type of programming meant generations of country fans wouldn’t have the opportunity to see their favorite performers on TV each week and get a chance to pull back the curtain to see the person behind the celebrity.

But thanks to RFD-TV, the format is coming back strong. The traditionally structured Marty Stuart Show has been showing his, and Connie Smith’s, brand of country music for a couple of years now, and The Joey + Rory Show debuted two weeks ago.

Mixing homespun wisdom and old-fashioned charm, The Joey + Rory Show is the perfect showcase for the husband and wife duo residing in Pottsville, Tennessee. Filmed on their farm and in their restaurant Marcy Jo’s Mealhouse, they make you feel like you’ve gone back to the simpler ideals of the 1950s/1960s when America’s beating heart resided in Mayberry.

This simplicity gives the show its pulse and encases each episode in a sincere authenticity that feels genuine opposed to concocted from a network executive.  Each thirty-minute episode (13 comprise the first season) is broken into segments from musical performances, comedy sketches, and cooking demonstrations, to an inside look at their life and marriage.

The music-centric portions of the program are the show’s strongest, with the “Story Behind The Song” feature standing as the highlight of the half-hour. By combining the couple’s instinctive storytelling abilities with acoustic versions of songs they’ve written, you glean a much-appreciated insight into the lives of the duo. I loved hearing Rory talk openly about the seven-year journey it took to get “A Little More Country Than That” recorded, and how the royalty checks from Easton Corbin’s #1 hit afforded them a new tin roof on their 1890s farmhouse. I also enjoyed hearing Joey tell the story of how the couple met and hearing her sing “A Night To Remember,” the yet-to-be recorded song written about that experience.

Also outstanding are the opening numbers, live performances of tracks from their excellent His and Hers album due July 31. They showcased the Kent Blazy and Leslie Satcher co-write “Let’s Pretend We’ve Never Met” in the premiere and Rory’s “The Bible and a Belt” last week, opposite ends of the His and Hers spectrum that highlight Joey’s comedic strengths and Rory’s rich family oriented storytelling.

Each week the duo also showcases guest performers, personal favorites of their choosing. By highlighting lesser-known performers, they spotlight a more refreshing crop of talents like Bradley Walker, the wheelchair bound traditional country and Bluegrass singer and 2007 IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year. The inclusion of these such performers, opposed to drawing from a pool of more established acts, exposes the viewer to artists they may not have known before and I welcome, as well as appreciate, any and all opportunities to be exposed to fresh talent not connected to mainstream Nashville.

As a whole The Joey + Rory Show is unapologetically Joey  and Rory and if you’re not a fan of the couple’s aw shucks persona and simple lifestyle, then the broader moments of the program may not be for you. The weakest moment on the program remains an Andy Rooney style comedy commentary by their neighbor and friend Wynn Varble, an established country songwriter (“Waitin’ On A Woman,” “Have You Forgotten,” “Sounds Like Life To Me”). His southern sense of humor comes off a tad Hicky for my tastes. And while I love the charm of their cooking segments, like the Coca Cola Cake demonstrated in the first episode, they aren’t broad enough recipes to appeal to everyone. That isn’t a big issue, though, since I really enjoy these aspects into Joey’s other job as a restaurateur with Rory’s sister Marcy.

Overall, The Joey + Rory Show is a wonderful yet unconventional variety show bubbling with the personality both Joey Martin and Rory Lee Feek bring to the table each week. They wanted to create great family programming and they certainly achieve that objective tenfold, giving fans a very enjoyable look at what they’re about in all aspects of their life, proving they’re a natural at everything they do.

The Joey + Rory Show airs Friday nights at 9 EST on RFD-TV, Rural America’s Most Important Network

Grade: A- 

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘I Hope You Dance’

Lee Ann Womack’s most commercially successful album features crystalline vocals, an ambitious selection of material ranging from the traditional sounds closest to her heart to Americana to adult contemporary influences which barely escape being bland.

The title track was a massive crossover hit, thanks to the combination of the song’s message, very AC sounding, sophisticated production, and the lovely and obviously heartfelt vocal which Lee Ann directed to her two young daughters. The counterpoint of the Sons of the Desert (singing a different set of lyrics) is unusually set against the sweetness of Lee Ann’s optimistic vocal. The song’s ubiquity has led to some backlash, but I think it still stands up for what it is: a genuinely inspiring wish for a child to live life to the full and not regret any missed opportunities. And its message is worth hearing:

Loving might be a mistake but it’s worth making

Lee Ann’s only #1 hit, ‘I Hope You Dance’ registered platinum, won a stack of awards for both Lee Ann and its writers Mark D Sanders and Tia Sillers, crossed over to hit the top of the AC chart, and even got some pop and international airplay. It may not be her best record, but it is undoubtedly her best-known, particularly among non-country listeners.

The next single was a contrast in style and mood, a gutsy version of Rodney Crowell’s onetime minor pop hit ‘Ashes By Now’, which peaked for Lee Ann at #14. It’s one of her less country recordings, but undoubtedly technically an impressive achievement with Lee Ann successfully navigating the song’s awkward jerky rhythms, jaded mood and shifting intensity.

It was back to the ballads with ‘Why They Call It Falling’, another excellent song, written by Don Schlitz and Roxie Dean. It contrasts the thrill of falling in love with the devastation of subsequent heartbreak, and Lee Ann’s vocal is masterly, although the strings are a bit overwhelming in places. It peformed similarly to its immediate predecessor, and reached #13.

The last and best single, however, failed to make it into the top 20. The intense ‘Does My Ring Burn Your Finger?’ is a superb Buddy and Julie Miller song with a stinging lyric. Production on this track (one of three from the hands of Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell) is edgy but organic, with Lee Ann’s high lonesome wail just right for the starkness of the lyric addressed to the faithless spouse, with the Millers on harmony vocals.

Liddell’s other tracks are another Julie Miller song, the ponderous ‘I Know Why The River Runs’, which I could live without, and the infinitely better ‘Lonely Too’, written by Texas singer-songwriter Bruce Robison. This is my favorite on the record, a beautiful downbeat song, given a quietly impassioned delivery. The melody is quite lovely, with some strong fiddle from Aubrey Haynie and Larry Franklin and harmony vocals from Jon Randall making this a great sounding track. Lee Ann gently rebukes the careless lover who cannot understand why she is coping so badly:

You tell me you wondered if I was okay
Well, that’s a damn fool thing to say…

And you seem so surprised that I’m feeling this way
How am I so lonely today?
If you’d ever loved me the way I loved you
You would be lonely too

There are several other gems here.

The gorgeous ‘The Healing Kind’ opens the album with a subtle portrayal of disconsolate heartbreak which just won’t go away. This is a great song written by bluegrass singer/songwriter Ronnie Bowman and Greg Luck. Lee Ann’s exquisite vocal is backed by tasteful acoustic instrumentation and Ricky Skaggs’ harmonies, as she reveals a broken heart that hurts more every day, concluding bleakly as she meets yet another cold December alone,

Guess I’m just not the healing kind

Equally fine is the delicate Tammy Wynette styled ‘Stronger than I Am’ written by former singer Bobbie Cryner. A beautiful melody and tasteful strings sweeten a heartbreakingly incisive lyric about an abandoned wife who contrasts her failure to cope with live without her man, to her little girl’s innocence,

She finally learned to say goodbye
She’s sleeping through the night
She don’t wake up crying
And she’s walking on her own
She don’t need no one holding to her hand
And I hate to admit she’s stronger than I am

She’s just like her old man
Stronger than I am

Perhaps the most traditional country number included, the vivacious ‘I Feel Like I’m Forgetting Something’ is a co-write by Lee Ann with Wynn Varble and Jason Sellers. The copyright date is 1997, so one suspects it was left over from one of her previous albums. A chirpy mid-tempo number with a lot of personality about getting over an ex, it isn’t the best song here, but it was well worth reviving. Less successful is ‘After I Fall’, written by producer Mark Wright with Ronnie Rogers and Bill Kenner, which is the blander side of adult contemporary and falls completely flat.

‘Thinkin’ With My Heart Again’ is a pretty but melancholy sounding song written by Dean Dillon, Donny Kees and Sanger D Shafer with another delicate vocal conveying the complex emotions brought out when encountering a former love. An airy acoustic cover of ‘Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good’ (a chart topper for Don Williams back in 1982) ends the album on a high, with Ronnie Bowman and Dan Tyminski singing harmony.

Thanks to the juggernaut of the title song, this remains Lee Ann’s best selling album, earning triple platinum status. The singing is outstanding throughout, and although the material is mixed, there is a lot of good stuff here, making it worth finding a cheap copy.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘Some Things I Know’

Like her contemporary Sara Evans, Lee Ann Womack followed up a neotraditional debut with a sophomore effort which was a little more in tune with contemporary tastes, but still recognizably country. The song quality is high, mainly down-tempo and focussing on failed relationships. Mark Wright produced again, but his work is less sympathetic this time around, leaning a little more contemporary than the neotraditionalism of her debut and too often smothered with string arrangements to sweeten the pill for radio.

‘A Little Past Little Rock’ is a great song about a woman who has left a desperate relationship in Dallas. Struggling to cope as she gets “A little past Little Rock, but a long way from over you”, Lee Ann delivers a fine vocal, but the track is somewhat weighed down by the swelling strings. Lee Ann’s ex-husband Jason Sellers is among the backing singers. Written by Tony Lane, Jess Brown and Brett Jones, it was the album’s first single and peaked at #2.

This performance was matched by a rare venture by the artist into comedy material which is one of my favourite LAW singles, written by Tony Martin and Tim Nichols. With tongue-in-cheek malice the protagonist vents her hatred of her successful romantic rival with the words ‘I’ll Think Of A Reason Later’ as

It may be my family’s redneck nature
Bringing out unladylike behavior
It sure ain’t Christian to judge a stranger
But I don’t like her

She maybe an angel who spends all winter
Bringing the homeless blankets and dinner
A regular Nobel Peace Prize winner
But I really hate her
I’ll think of a reason later

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Album Review: Joey + Rory – ‘A Farmhouse Christmas’

Everybody’s favourite country music couple are the perfect pair to share their Christmas festivities with us. This album, their third on Sugar Hill, is designed to accompany their special seasonal live show, which sounds like the perfect evening to get you in the holiday spirit.

‘It’s Christmas Time’, last year’s charming holiday single from the duo, is a sweetly sung and neatly observed expression of the stress and joy of preparing for a family Christmas. It was written by Rory, and has typically lovely sounding production from Carl Jackson, who was responsible for their two previous albums. He was obviously busy this year, as the newly recorded material has been placed in the hands of Gary Paczosa, who has done the engineering on recent albums by the likes of Dolly Parton and Alison Krauss. His production work is excellent, and if not quite as sparkling as that provided by Carl Jackson, it is lovely and clean and focuses attention on Joey’s lovely voice. Musicians are sadly uncredited, but I was particularly struck by some nice fiddle work. The excellent Rounder artist Bradley Walker sings backing vocals on most of the album, and it would be good to hear news of a new album from him in the near future. (Incidentally, he has a track on the Mark Twain project recently produced by Carl Jackson.)

There is less self-composed material than usual for the pair, but more original songs than is customary on Christmas albums, which have a tendency to rehash the same old songs year after year. Here there are just three well known numbers, all worth revisiting. The warmth of Joey’s vocal lends a hopeful undertone to Haggard’s desperate and still-topical ‘If We Make It Through December’. For once the sweetness verges on too much, compared to the bleak original, but is counterbalanced by a gruff cameo appearance from Hag himself. Joey sings a plaintive version of the classic ‘Blue Christmas’, and she and Rory swap verses on a sincere version of ‘Away In A Manger’. The remainder of the material is either new or not very well known.

The saucy western swing ‘I Know What Santa’s Getting For Christmas’ was written by Garth Brooks and Kent Blazy but does not appear to have been previously recorded. Garth did however record ‘The Gift’, a Stephanie Davis story song on his multiple platinum Beyond The Season Christmas album almost 20 years ago. The sweet story of a little Mexican girl who nurses an injured bird back to health and sets it free as her gift to Jesus is well revived here with an attractive retro western feel, and ends with what sounds like the genuine recorded singing of a nightingale. ‘The Diamond O’ is another good Stephanie Davis song, this one about a cowboy Christmas, which allows Joey to try out her yodel.

Rory takes the lead on more songs than usual. By far the best of these is the understated ‘Remember Me, which he wrote with Tim Johnson. Rory takes the role of Jesus reminding us what the celebrations are really about, and this is one of my favourite tracks on the album. In complete contrast, I also enjoyed the bouncy and very secular ‘Come Sit On Santa Claus’ Lap’, written by Shawn Camp and Brice Long with a few lyric changes personalizing it for the couple. This is just fun.

He also sings the piano-led ‘What The Hell (It’s The Holidays)’, an amusing bluesy number written by Wynn Varble and Frank Rogers about the temptations of the Christmas table to a dieter, but one which really demands a more charismatic lead vocal. (Having been entertained by natural comedian Varble’s run on CMT’s Next Superstar this year, I’d rather like to hear his version.) Rory shows more personality on ‘Let It Snow (Somewhere Else)’, a slight but pleasant and cheery tale of a Christmas in the Caribbean, which seems to be this year’s Christmas single (at least, there’s a video). It was written by Rory with Tom Johnson and James Slater and sounds as though it was intended for a Kenny Chesney Christmas album, complete with Jimmy Buffett reference. Rory sounds a little like Garth Brooks on this, the album’s most disposable track (although it is quite cleverly constructed).

Joey is back on lead on the optimistic ‘Another Wonderful Christmas’ which ends the record on the same theme as it opened with ‘It’s Christmas Time’. With its many references to the foibles of their own family and friends, this is perhaps just a little too personal to work more widely.

Overall, this is the kind of Christmas project one would expect from Joey + Rory, sweet but not saccharine, with a helping of humor, and there is a pretty good and un-hackneyed selection of material. It may not get much play in my home eleven months out of twelve, but I can see this as a standby for Christmases to come.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Trace Adkins: ‘More…’

Trace Adkins’s third album was released in 1999. Trace’s vocals are great throughout, and the selection of material is good, but the record is hampered occasionally by slightly heavy-handed production.

Lead single ‘Don’t Lie’ crept into the top 30, a poor performance by most standards. It is actually a very good song, written by Chet Biggers and Frank Rogers, with a piercing fiddle line underlining his bitter demand that the woman leaving not says she’s going to miss the past, when he knows she’s moving on to a future with another man. It was produced by Paul Worley, although the remainder of the album was helmed by Trey Bruce (with one further exception).

The title track is a well-sung but unremarkable mid tempo love song, which was the record’s biggest hit single, peaking at #10. The final single, ‘I’m Gonna Love You Anyway’ is a better love song, written by Roger Miller’s son Dean and Stacy Dean Campbell. I like the warm and tender delivery, and the lyric promising constancy to defy a threatened breakup, but it only just made its way into the top 40.

‘Everything Takes Me Back’ offers a more downcast take on splitting up, with a dejected Trace unable to get over it, complaining “everything takes me back but you”. It is well written and sung, but the production is a bit cluttered.

But the album boasts several outstanding moments. The heartbreakingly sad ‘She’s Still There’ (written by Tim Johnson and Mark D Sanders) has a perfectly understated vocal which roots the story in reality rather than miring it in sentiment, although a more stripped down production would have made it better still. The protagonist looks at a picture of his high school sweetheart. It becomes clear that Emma Lou died tragically young, although we never learn the circumstances. The emotional force of the song is only strengthened by not knowing exactly what happened to Emma Lou, as we hear about the fates of their other classmates, and feel for the lost dreams a young girl never got to follow:

Emma would be happy if she could only see us now
Cause we’re livin’ out the lives that she only dreamed about

She’s still there in Oklahoma
She’s still seventeen
She’s livin’ with her Mama
Workin’ at the Dairy Queen
And she’s still standin’ on the front porch
With a red ribbon in her hair
The rest of us have scattered everywhere
But she’s still there

Similarly effectively, the very intense ‘The Night He Can’t Remember’ tells the bleak tale of a man whose battle with alcohol culminate on one terrible night, when a lost job leads to a broken promise and some unforgiveable actions, once more left to the audience’s imagination:

Now he’s been clean and sober since twenty-three October ’95
His drinking days are over but there’s that one she can’t get off her mind
And he tries to apologize but can’t recall and don’t realize
She won’t forgive whatever he said
That night he can’t remember
Oh, the night he can’t remember – the one she can’t forget

This excellent song is a rare Trace Adkins writing credit (alongside Kenny Beard).

A more hopeful note is struck with ‘Someday’, a great and typically poetic Darrell Scott song which portrays a man who is “grounded, but I have wings to fly“.

It’s back to the real world with the poignant ‘Every Other Friday At Five’, the story of a divorced father holding on to his love for his children. The orchestration is a bit stifling, but the vocal is excellent, with a delicately melancholy tinge as he promises to put the children first and begs other separated parents to do the same. ‘A Working Man’s Wage’, written by Wynn Varble and Leslie Satcher, pays tribute to the protagonist’s blue-collar father, with a modest hope that he can follow in his footsteps. There is a similar cheerful can-do spirit in the more metaphorical ‘I Can Dig It’, written by Monty Criswell and Jim Rushing, with vibrant fiddle and honky tonk piano.

Trace went down to Austin, Texas, to record the wry western swing ‘All Hat, No Cattle’ with Ray Benson (who also produced the track) and Asleep At the Wheel, with legendary fiddler Johnny Gimble also featured. This is a fun song which mocks the wannabe cowboy who looks and talks the part but hasn’t got the goods to back it up:

The only stampede that he’s ever seen is the clearance at the western store

‘Can I Want Your Love’ is the only really poor track, with a jerky pop rhythm and uninteresting lyric.

More… was one of Trace’s less successful records commercially, no doubt due to the under performing singles, but this is overall my favorite Trace Adkins album. It is well worth finding a copy, especially as it is widely and cheaply available in both CD and digital format.

Grade: A

All about the image?

The latest episode of CMT’s current reality competition, CMT’s Next Superstar, which you can catch up with on the CMT website if you havent been watching the show live, focussed on image. Viewers saw the five surviving competitors each getting a makeover and doing a photo shoot for an album, as well as recording a classic song, before selling themselves to staff at Warner Music, whose votes counted towards that week’s elimination. Image seems to be increasingly important in marketing country music today, and has been ever since music videos became a major way of selling artists.

While an artist’s looks and fashion choices have nothing to do with the quality of their music, they do help to form the general public’s expectations, particularly for a new artist. If New Singer X is pictured wearing jeans and a cowboy hat, I do expect to hear something different from what I expect to hear from New Singer Y, whose outfit is indistinguishable from his/her pop star counterparts.

Modern traditionalists like Alan Jackson and George Strait may seem to pay little attention to image matters, but their style is as (or more) effective in it its way by signalling to the audience that here is an unquestionably country singer. The neo-traditional wave of the early 90s fizzled out in a sea of “Hat Acts”, many of them fine artists in their own right, but they tended to merge into one to many listeners when they shared a similar look and musical style. Chris Young, one of the brightest young traditionalists, often wears that cowboy hat, although Strait-style Easton Corbin does not. Compare him to, say, Jimmy Wayne or the men in Lady Antebellum, who have a much more “fashionable” appearance – and a much less country sound. Of course, it can be misleading; other cowboy hat wearers include rocker Jason Aldean. Sometimes the cowboy hat is a visual equivalent of singing lyrics about how country you are, without necessarily being supported by the music. In the 90s, Marty Stuart was making energetic country rock, but was keenly carrying on country traditions by wearing Nudie style outfits reminiscent of veterans like Porter Wagoner. It was only later that he returned to more traditional musical styles.

Nudie’s elaborate bejewelled and embroidered outfits were almost a uniform for the biggest country stars of the 1950s and 60s, even though they were a world removed from their poverty-stricken rural roots. Porter Wagoner is perhaps the most famous wearer, but even Hank Williams, whose heart wrenching music might seem far removed from image considerations, famously wore a Nudie suit adorned with musical notations. When Gram Parsons encouraged the Byrds to venture into country music with the seminal country-rock album Sweetheart Of the Rodeo, he wore a custom-made Nudie suit with designs of marijuana leaves – combining an appeal to rebellious 60s teenagers with the “country star” outfit. But for most of their wearers, the outfits symbolized showmanship and stardom, just as Loretta Lynn always wore evening gowns on stage and most of her album covers. Using an identifiable image as shorthand to signal an artist as country is thus nothing new. The young Patsy Cline wore western-style dresses, and had to be persuaded to dress in a more sophisticated way when her music began to adopt more pop influences. Dolly Parton’s highly artificial image helped to make her an international superstar in the 70s and 80s, and is still instantly recognised today across the world, even among those who have heard little of her music. In contrast, when last month’s Spotlight Artist Emmylou Harris started her solo career after Gram Parsons’ death, she looked more like the folk singer she had been as a girl, with her long hair hanging down unadorned, whereas most of her contemporaries had big hair – often wigs.

Record labels invest money in artwork for CDs, in order to attract attention on store shelves. It’s never made much of a difference to me, and I would assume not to most passionate fans who spend a lot of time listening to the music, but it may help bring in more casual purchasers. I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but my own brother once asked for a record for Christmas, purely because he liked the picture on the cover and was intrigued to see how the music reflected it. Going back to CMT’s Next Superstar, one young female contestant was quite rightly criticized for picking a picture of herself smiling for the title ‘Cold Cold Heart’, just because she thought it made her look prettier than other pictures from the photo-shoot. Songwriter Wynn Varble, who is 50 years old and not exactly competing for heart-throb of the year, went for a simple honest look which would tell any potential purchaser that this was a country record.

Changing musical styles can also be flagged by a changing image. When Lee Ann Womack moved in a poppier direction in the early 200s, she took on a more overtly sexy look (left); then when she defiantly reverted to a retro style in 2005 with There’s More Where That Came From, she went for an equally retro 70s country album cover style (right). The music is, of course, what really matters, but the image helps signal the direction. Similarly, Reba progressed from traditional country and a semi-cowgirl look in the 1980s to a much more sophisticated style, both aurally and visually, in the 90s.

How much does an artist’s image affect what you expect to hear? Have you ever been surprised – pleasantly or otherwise – by a disconnect between the album cover and the music inside?

Album Review: Brad Paisley – ‘ Mud On the Tires’

Brad’s third album, released in 2003, saw him cementing his status as a star whose music combined comedy and serious songs, and one who genuinely appreciated country music tradition.

Lead single ‘Celebrity’ is a hilarious and sharp sideswipe at reality TV shows and those chasing fame for the sake of it (and the perks), with Brad playing the talentless wannabe with an irony entirely missed when one of the hapless contestants on the generally woeful final season of Nashville Star covered it on the show:

You can act just like a fool
And people think you’re cool
Just ‘cause you’re on TV

Brad also picked a Chris DuBois/Chris Wallin song which approaches a similar theme from a slightly different angle with the quirky ‘Famous People’, where he plays the part of an ingenuous countryman who brings a visiting movie star down to size a little.

The straight-faced ‘The Cigar Song’ is based on an old joke about a man who successfully claims on the insurance for “losing” some fine Cuban cigars in “a series of small fires”. The insurance company gets the last laugh, though, with a prosecution for various counts of arson. The broadest comedy is reserved for the return of Bill Anderson and George Jones (who featured on ‘Too Country’ on Part II), joined this time by Little Jimmy Dickens on the silly but funny deliberately muddled narration ‘Spaghetti Western Swing’, which also serves as a showcase for guest Redd Volkaert’s electric guitar. I enjoy this track but probably wouldn’t want to listen to it too often.

Second single ‘Little Moments’ was the first in what has become a tradition of Brad Paisley odes to domesticity, reportedly directly inspired by his new wife, actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley, who also starred in the video. Written by Brad with Chris DuBois, it has some charm with its loping phrasing and heartfelt delivery, and the theme had not yet outworn its welcome. Also in the happy family life vein is ‘Ain’t Nothin’ Like’, written by Wynn Varble and Don Sampson). The latter has an engagingly bouncy production and good humored feel, but is marred by an irritating small-child chorus. The pedestrian ‘That’s Life’ appears to be meant to be amusing, but falls flat (with comedians Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi unimpressive on unrecognisable backing “yeah yeah yeahs” and occasional yelled interjections). Only Frank Rogers’ inventive production saves these songs.

The exquisitely sad duet with Alison Krauss, ‘Whiskey Lullaby’, one of the few outside songs included here, was the third single. It was a wise decision to record this Bill Anderson/Jon Randall song, which has become a modern classic and may be the song for which Brad is best remembered a generation hence. The single itself has sold a million copies, and won various awards. It tells the story of a man whose failed marriage leads him into a life destroyed by alcohol and eventual death; then the woman who left him is overwhelmed by guilt and grief and also uses whiskey as her mode of self-destruction. The acoustic instrumentation is bolstered by Krauss on viola, Jerry Douglas’s dobro, and Union Station’s Dan Tyminski on backing vocals.

The first three songs were all big hits, but none reached the top of the Billboard singles chart, all peaking at # 2 or 3. The only chart-topper from the album was to be the title track (another Chris DuBois cowrite), to my ears the least interesting of the four, but a very popular single which was certified gold.

Much better is the restrained tenderness of the love song ‘Somebody Knows You Now’, which strains Brad’s voice to the limit, only adding to the authenticity of the emotion. I also like the traditional-meets contemporary feel of of ‘Hold Me In Your Arms (And Let Me Fall)’, addressed to a girl who is reluctant to date the protagonist. Vince Gill lends harmony support.

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CMA award nominees, 2010: setting the stage

It’s awards time again, with this year’s CMA awards being announced next week. We’ll share our predictions on Monday, but meanwhile here’s a reminder of who is nominated and why. The nominations this year have a few new faces showing up in unexpected places. The big questions of this year’s show will be whether Miranda Lambert will dominate the night as she has the nominations list. Whatever happens, outraged fans are likely to complain that their favorite has been “snubbed”, or someone else has won undeservedly.

Entertainer of the Year
Lady Antebellum
Miranda Lambert
Brad Paisley
Keith Urban
Zac Brown Band

Last year’s controversial winner Taylor Swift was snubbed altogether in this category this year – perhaps partly because of the backlash after her clean sweep last time, but also because she released little during the nomination period. Instead, the category sees no less than three first-time nominees: critical flavor of the month Miranda Lambert (who leads nominations overall), and the two hottest bands of recent years, Lady Antebellum and the Zac Brown Band, who are among the few current artists to be selling in the millions. They join Keith Urban (the only former winner to be in the running this time) and our own current Spotlight Artist Brad Paisley, who has been nominated every year since 2005 but is so far without the trophy.

Male Vocalist
Dierks Bentley
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton
George Strait
Keith Urban

Brad Paisley has won this award for the past three years, and Keith Urban took it home for the three years prior to that. Both men are still scoring regular #1 hit singles and selling well, but is it time for another change at the top? There are two first-time nominees, Dierks Bentley, rewarded by the CMA for his artistic ambition even though country radio has been reluctant to embrace the singles from his bluegrass-inspired Up On The Ridge, and Blake Shelton, who is becoming a regular fixture at the top of the charts. The evergreen George Strait, meanwhile, seems to be nominated virtually every year, but hasn’t won since 1998 (his third year in a row – he also has a couple of trophies from the 80s).

Female Vocalist
Miranda Lambert
Martina McBride
Reba McEntire
Taylor Swift
Carrie Underwood

Last year’s winner Taylor Swift gets another nod, recognizing her commercial preeminence despite a series of woeful live TV performances – including at last year’s CMA awards show. She faces pop-country queen Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert, who had a massive breakthrough this year, and is the only one of these ladies to be nominated in the Entertainer category. Reba McEntire, the oldest nominee, is still contending on the charts, but the fifth nominee, Martina McBride, seems to be merely filling out the category, as she has not had a good year commercially or critically.

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Album Review: Joey + Rory – ‘The Life Of A Song’

The husband and wife duo of Rory Feek and Joey Martin Feek first rose to national attention a mere two years ago when they became contestants on CMT’s Can You Duet. Following a third place finish, they landed a contract with Sugar Hill Records and released their first album in October 2008.

Prior to the competition, the two had never performed together. Joey was an aspiring singer who had briefly been signed to Sony, and Rory was an accomplished Nashville songwriter who had written hits for artists such as Clay Walker and Blake Shelton. Joining forces gave them synergy allowed them the opportunity to play off each others’ strengths.

The Life Of A Song was produced by Carl Jackson. Rory had a hand in writing seven of the album’s twelve tracks, five of which Joey also receives songwriting credit. The album was somewhat of a departure for the roots-oriented Sugar Hill, marking one of the label’s first attempts to market an artist to mainstream country radio. The Life Of A Song is not the typical bluegrass or alternative fare that music fans had come to expect from Sugar Hill; nor does it bear much resemblance to what usually gets played on country radio these days. The production is mostly quiet, acoustic and understated, avoiding obnoxious drum machines, soft-rock electric guitar riffs and bombastic arrangements. Nevertheless, the lead single “Cheater, Cheater” managed to get enough airplay to land at #30 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. Its success is in no small part due to the exposure Joey + Rory gained from the Can You Duet competition. The record was also buoyed by the minor controversy that ensued due to its lyrics referring to a “no good, white trash ho”, possibly the first time that phrase had been uttered in a country song. Written by Joey and Rory along with Kristy Osmunson and Wynn Varble, it is the duo’s only Top 40 hit to date.

Based on their first single, it might be tempting to dismiss Joey + Rory as a semi-novelty act, but the rest of the album is, for the most part, comprised of more serious material that is well written and beautifully performed. The second single, the non-charting “Play The Song” takes a mild swipe at the restrictions placed on artists by radio and/or label executives who continually complain that a given song is

…too fast, it’s too slow
It’s too country, too rock and roll
It’s too happy, too sad, too short, or it’s way too long

….It’s too Garth, too George Strait
Too right down the center, too left of the plate
The hook’s too weak or the subject matter’s way too strong whatever ….

My favorite track on the album is “Sweet Emmylou”, written by Rory with Catherine Britt, who has since included it on her recent self-titled release. Beautifully sung by Joey, it is a song about finding solace in old, preferably sad, country records — something most country fans can relate to. Almost as enjoyable are the happier “Tonight Cowboy You’re Mine” and the poignant “To Say Goodbye”, the album’s third and final single which deals with the pain of losing a loved one. The first verse alludes to the surviving spouse of a 9/11 victim, while the second verse deals with the loss of a spouse to Alzheimer’s disease. Like its predecessor, “To Say Goodbye” failed to chart.

The Life Of A Song was one of the most enjoyable albums of 2008, which admittedly was a year of slim pickings for good country music. Its sole misstep was the duo’s cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird”, which, while not great, is not sufficiently bad to detract from the overall enjoyment of the album.

Despite its modest success at radio, the album sold respectably, peaking at #10 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. Though they continue to seek a breakthrough at radio, it is probably a long shot fora traditionally-oriented act on an indie label to have any kind of sustained mainstream success. As such, Joey + Rory are likely to remain a niche act, which is just fine for those of us who like them just as they are.

Grade: A-

The Life Of A Song is widely available. Digital copies are currently on sale for $5 at Amazon.

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘Tougher Than Nails’

After the loss of his Monument deal, Joe signed to the indie label Broken Bow, for whom he released one album in 2004. He shared production duties with Lonnie Wilson and Buddy Cannon.

He was still a viable hit maker on country radio, even on a minor label, and the title track (a religious song) reached the top 20. Written by Phil O’Donnell, Max T Barnes and Kendell Marvel, it links a modern story (a little boy beaten up by bullies) to the example of Jesus. Perhaps not the most innovative of lyrics, but it is well done, as the father advises his boy against revenge:

Let me tell you a little story about the toughest man I know
Hit him and he just turned the other cheek
But don’t think for a minute he was weak
Cause in the end he showed them he was anything but frail
They hammered him to a cross
But He was tougher than nails

Later on the album, Joe takes the opposite message from a rather different role model in the tongue-in-cheek ‘What Would Waylon Do’, featuring a guest vocal from George Jones (doing his best Waylon impersonation). It was written by Leslie Satcher and Wynn Varble about the tribulations of being a touring musician, and was apparently initially inspired by an incident at a real Waylon Jennings concert when the promoter declined to pay him:

There’s blue cheese in the greenroom
What are we supposed to eat?
And the opening act’s a polka band
And they can’t keep a beat

Now the sheriff’s got the drug dogs
Tearing up our bus
We’re just hillbilly singers
I think he’s profiling us
And now he wants an autograph
And a free t-shirt or two
Well, what would Waylon do?

The second single, ‘If I Could Only Bring You Back’ (selected by the label owner and written by Frank Myers and Chip Davis) failed to make much of an impact. That was radio’s loss, as it was a beautifully interpreted, if rather sad and downbeat tale of bereavement, with understated string section. The protagonist declares he would be willing to give up all his worldly goods, if only the impossible could happen, but:

There’s no words I can say
Not a prayer I can pray
No road that you can take
Back to my arms

I would even take your place
If I could only bring you back

The December-set ‘This Time Last Year’, written by Giles Godard, Bobby Tomberlin and Robbie Wittkowski, has a similar feeling of loss. ‘Good News, Bad News’, written by Danny Wells and Chris Wallin, is even better, a sensitively delivered ballad about struggling with getting over lost love with nothing to look forward to but more of the same:

I’d unfeel the way I feel
If it would make you ungone
Gotta stop livin’ in the past
Look forward and not back
This getting used to go goin’ on without you
Is gonna take some time
The good news is tomorrow’s another day
But the bad news is tomorrow’s another day

Joe wrote five of the twelve tracks, including a rare solo composition, ‘Movin’ Train’, a song about an unsettling relationship which I can imagine bluegrass-style.

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Album Review: Jolie Holliday – ‘Lucky Enough’

Dallas-born Jolie Holliday is a new discovery for me, although this is apparently her second release. Her soprano voice has a clarity of tone which is really lovely, and her approach is solidly country with at times folk overtones. Co-produced by the artist herself with Rob Matson and Hank Singer (the latter playing fiddle and mandolin), this album is a delight. The material is all pretty good, mostly coming from established country songwriters.

Opening track ‘I’m Coming Home To You’ (written by Stephanie Smith and Jeff Stevens) has a pretty, folky feel about longing for reunion with a loved one after time away. This promising start is followed by one of my favorite tracks, Marla Cannon and Karyn Rochelle’s ‘Better Off’. This is a great ballad advising a friend (or herself?) not to beg her man not to leave, as his departure will leave her better off in the long run:

So go on and get his suitcase
And help him pack it up
Girl, you ain’t losin’ nothing
You don’t need his kind of love

My absolute favourite track is ‘I’ll Try Anything’, the candid confession of a woman desperate to kill the pain of a broken heart by any means possible:

I can’t stand the smell of smoke
But I bought myself a pack
Bummed a light from a stranger
Nearly choked on my first drag
I hate the taste of whiskey
And this bar room ain’t my style
But I’ll try anything
Not to hurt for a while

Jolie’s vocals are particularly impressive on this big ballad, belting out the big notes without oversinging, and holding back when necessary, The song was a single for its co-writer Amber Dotson a few years ago but I prefer the purity of Jolie’s voice on this song to Amber’s more jaded interpretation, which failed to reach the top 40, although both versions are worth hearing.

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Album Review: Easton Corbin – ‘Easton Corbin’

I’ve become somewhat jaded in the past few years and no longer expect to like new artists trying to break into mainstream country music. Country radio has gotten so bad, I haven’t listened to it in over two years. As a result, I’m not always up to date on the latest crop of new artists. I’d read a little bit about Easton Corbin on some of the other country blogs, but after hearing about his traditionalist leanings, I avoided reading too much about him until I could hear his music for myself and form my own opinion.

I initially cringed upon learning that Corbin’s debut single was titled “A Little More Country Than That”, expecting it to have come directly out of Jason Aldean’s playbook. It was a relief to learn that this wasn’t another redneck anthem. Instead of a defiant declaration of Southern pride and boasting about his tractor and pickup truck, Corbin makes use of the imagery of rural living while making a declaration of love (and possibly a proposal) to his sweetheart. In some respects, it is reminiscent of the Charley Pride classic “All I Have To Offer You Is Me”. Clearly tailor-made for radio, it’s a pleasant if somewhat fluffy song with slightly cliched lyrics. Written by Rory Lee Feek, Don Poythress, and Wynn Varble, it’s not a song that makes the listener stop in his or her tracks and listen, but it’s better than what is typically offered on country radio these days.

The album was produced by Carson Chamberlain, who has also produced Mark Wills and Billy Currington, but I won’t hold that against him since he has written some of my favorite Alan Jackson songs. Chamberlain had a hand in writing six of the album’s eleven songs, while Easton himself co-wrote four. The production choices are stellar; I can’t remember the last time I heard the pedal steel featured so prominently on a mainstream artist’s debut release. Corbin and Chamberlain don’t pander to radio’s current pop leanings and wisely avoids the production excesses that have marred so many contemporary country releases.

Corbin has been criticized for sounding too much like George Strait, and the similarities in their vocal styles is undeniable. Many of the songs, such as “Someday When I’m Old” and “Don’t Ask Me About A Woman” sound as if they came from the Strait catalog. “Someday When I’m Old”, written by Nashville tunesmiths Chris Lindsey, Aimee Mayo and Troy Verges is my favorite song on the album and “A Lot To Learn About Livin'” written by Liz Hengber, Sonny LeMaire and Clay Mills, is an example of a beach song done properly. Kenny Chesney, please take note. On the other hand “I Can’t Love You Back” doesn’t quite work. The lyrics are somewhat problematic and a bit confusing:

Girl, I love you crazy
It comes so easy, after all we had
I could love you with all my heart
But the hardest part is
I just can’t love you back

The first time I heard the chorus, it didn’t make sense to me. I thought why can’t he love her back, thinking that “love you back” meant “love you in return.” It wasn’t until the second verse that I finally realized that the protagonist’s love interest is gone, and Easton is lamenting that he can’t bring her back, which might have been a better way to phrase the sentiment.

Overall, the album is pleasant, but not particularly memorable. The material is mostly lightweight and the album would have benefited from the inclusion of one or two more substantial songs, as well as a little more variety in tempo. Corbin will also have to develop a more distinctive vocal style in order to avoid being dismissed as a George Strait wannabe. I have no doubt that he can do this; after all, Clint Black was mistaken for Merle Haggard when his first single hit the airwaves, and Owen Bradley was reluctant to sign Loretta Lynn because she sounded too much like Kitty Wells. That didn’t stop Black or Lynn from successfully developing their own styles. If Corbin can do the same, and can find some weightier material the next time around to build upon this solid debut, he has the potential to become a huge star in his own right.

Grade: B

Album Review: Gary Alan – ‘Smoke Rings In The Dark’

Gary’s label, Decca, folded in 1998, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise for his career. Gary, together with the majority of his labelmates (which included Lee Ann Womack and Mark Chesnutt), were transferred to sister label MCA. That meant a change in producer. Mark Wright remained on board, but Byron Hill was relegated to associate producer, with the experienced Tony Brown taking charge. He helped bring a smoother, more commercial sound, with a more layered production and the use of strings. Radio success continued to be mixed, but sales were good, and Smoke Rings In The Dark, released in October 1998, became Gary’s first platinum album.

The outstanding title track, released as the first single, only reached #12 on Billboard, but is one of Gary’s best-remembered hits. Written by Rivers Rutherford and Houston Robert, it marked a stylistic development for Gary heralded by the previous album’s ‘Baby I Will’. It sounds dreamy and sexy, belying a pain-filled lyric about the dying embers of a relationship:

I’ve tried to make you love me
You’ve tried to find a spark
Of the flame that burned
But somehow turned to
Smoke rings in the dark

The loneliness within me
Takes a heavy toll
Cause it burns as slow as whiskey
Through an empty aching soul
And the night is like a dagger
Long and cold and sharp
As I sit here on the front steps
Blowing smoke rings in the dark

I’m not gonna wake you
I’ll go easy on your heart
I’ll just touch your face and drift away
Like smoke rings in the dark

This is one of Gary’s finest moments on record and by far the best track on the album.

His inconsistent streak with radio persisted, as the follow-up, the intense Jamie O’Hara-penned ‘Lovin’ You Against My Will’ stagnated in the 30s. While it is a good song with a slow burning appeal, it lacks melodic interest and the vocals sound a little processed.

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Album Review: Darryl Worley – ‘Sounds Like Life’

Sounds Like LifeAfter almost ten years of varying degrees of success, Darryl Worley’s latest album came out recently on Stroudavarious Records. It is produced by Jim ‘Moose’ Brown and Kevin ‘Swine’ Grantt, and Darryl himself wrote or co-wrote almost all the material. One of the few exceptions, ‘Tequila On Ice’, written by Rivers Rutherford and Marty Dodson, served as the lead single, but faltered outside the top 40. The lyric is rather silly, but the tune is pretty and Darryl gives it a sexy, sultry delivery which is very pleasing.

Somewhat surprisingly, Darryl has scored a hit single with the title track, reviewed last week by Meg. It’s not a bad song, and certainly more listenable than most of today’s chart fodder, although there is something of a disconnect between the friend’s troubles, and the cheery message of the chorus. Darryl sounds more sympathetic in ‘Slow Dancing With A Memory,’ which is, deplorably, repeated from his last album, but sees a heartbroken man lost in memories of his beloved, and drinking as ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ plays on the jukebox (it’s obviously a very high class bar with such a well stocked jukebox). The protagonist here tells the bartender to leave the poor guy alone.

My favorite track is the beaty opener, ‘Honky Tonk Life’, written by Marty Dodson and Sean Patrick McGraw. This good-humored account of life as a traveling musician feels very authentic in its depiction of the positive and negative aspects: he doesn’t know where they are, they misspell his name on the publicity,
“If we hurry they’ll feed us before we go on and I’ll work it out with the man
Sometimes the beer’s free and sometimes it’s half-price and sometimes there’s no beer at all…

I could quit all this road stuff, go back to my real life and put in a straight 9 to 5
But I love the neon and I love the people and I love the honky tonk life”

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