My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Wynonna Judd

Album Review: Craig Morgan – ‘A Whole Lot More To Me’

CraigMorgan-AWholeLotMoretoMeFor his seventh album, A Whole Lot More To Me, Craig Morgan wanted to craft a record that broke down genre stereotypes and cast him in a new light. It’s his first album of original material in four years as well as his second album for Black River.

The first single, “When I’m Gone” was released back in September and peaked at #48. Written by Justin Ebach and Steven Dale Jones is an optimistic banjo-driven uptempo about wanting to be remembered as someone who lived life to the fullest.

The second single, released in May and yet to chart, is the power ballad “I’ll Be Home Soon” written by Ebach, Jones and John King. The lyric is typical of modern country love songs, but Morgan brings an emotional gravitas that elevates the song to just above generic.

Morgan had a hand in co-writing five of the album’s twelve tracks. “Living On The Memories” is a bombastic power ballad he collaborated on with Scott Stepakoff and Josh Osborne. Mike Rogers joined him for the title track, where he goes out of his way to debunk his country boy image with an interesting laundry list of illustrations emoted by a vocal that could’ve been toned down a few notches. “I’m That Country” walks everything back by devolving into Morgan’s typical style. “Remind Me Why I’m Crazy” is an excellent ballad about lost love with a cluttered treatment that intrudes on my overall enjoyment. Morgan’s final co-write, “I Can’t Wait to Stay,” is nothing more than a song about remaining in the town where your family has generational roots.

It feels as if a prerequisite of any modern day country album is having a song co-written by Shane McAnally. His contribution, a co-write with Eric Paslay and Dylan Altman is “Country Side of Heaven,” which is actually a great song. The overall track would’ve been better served with an acoustic arrangement, which would’ve brought fourth the interesting lyric a lot more.

“All Cried Out” is a bombastic power ballad ruined by atrocious wall-of-sound production that causes Morgan to over sing. “Nowhere Without You,” co-written by Michal McDonald and John Goodwin, is much better although I found the piano based production rather bland. Will Hoge and Gordie Sampson teamed with Altman on “Who Would It Be,” a name-check song about the legends you would spend time with if you could.

The final cut, “Hearts I Leave Behind,” features Christian Rock singer Mac Powell. The song was originally recorded by Pete Scobell Band Featuring Wynonna Judd, which I reviewed last year. It’s far and away the crowning achievement of A Whole Lot More To Me and a perfect song for Morgan.

The marketing materials for A Whole Lot More To Me describe the album as ‘sexy,’ which I most certainly would not. There is hardly anything here in that vein, unlike Dierks Bentley’s Black, which makes it an odd descriptor. Morgan does sing at full power, which showcases his range but unintentionally sound like Blake Shelton circa 2008. The album is bombastic and unremarkable on the whole, but I give Morgan credit for giving into mainstream pressures without selling his soul. A Whole Lot More To Me is nowhere near the upper echelon of albums for 2016, but it is far from the scrap heap. He could’ve done better, but it’s clear he is giving his all.

Grade: B

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Album Review: Highway 101 – ‘Highway 101’

albuma37Highway 101 debuted in January 1987 as the newest artist signed to Warner Brothers Records Nashville. Their spectacular eponymous debut introduced the world to Paulette Carlson, a honky-tonk wonder who has always reminded me of a country Stevie Nicks. The record had four major hit singles and was produced by Paul Worley.

The band launched with the impressive honky-tonk rocker “The Bed You Made For Me,” which deservedly hit #4. Carlson, who solely penned the track, is a woman taking the upper hand while confronting her cheating man (it’s not clear if she’s the mistress or the spouse). She brilliantly uses the bed he cheated in to drive home her argument when laying him out in lavender:

And did you tell her she was sleeping in the bed you made for me?

Did she like my satin sheets and did you sing her to sleep?

And my pillow that she slept on did it bring her sweet dreams?

Did you tell her she was sleeping in the bed you made for me?

***

The pillow that you made for me it was soft with feather down

And the headboard, it came from an old house

That was about to be torn down

And the songs you always sang to me oh as I fall asleep

Did they sound the same to her in the bed you made for me?

***

Now you can take my old pillow and throw it out the door

You can buy another bed you can find another headboard

‘Cause I ain’t gonna lie beneath those satin sheets you tore

The bed you made for me it isn’t mine anymore

Their second single, which peaked at #2, was the incredible steel guitar drenched “Whiskey, If You Were A Woman,” a slice of songwriting gold penned by Mary W. Francis, Johnny MacRae and Bob Morrison. The clever lyric finds Carlson coping uniquely with her man’s grip on the bottle:

Oh, oh, whiskey, if you were a woman

I’d fight you and I’d win, Lord knows I would

Oh, oh, whiskey, if you were a woman

I’d drive you from his tangled mind for good

***

No matter what you do, I do it better

You’ll never be the woman I could be

But you don’t have a heart or any feelings

So I can’t even ask for sympathy

They clinched their first chart topper with the luminescent “Somewhere Tonight,” penned by Harlan Howard and Rodney Crowell, who was a rising star at the time. The track, about a lonesome woman whose man took off for brighter horizons, is surprisingly jaunty for the subject matter. (A bit of trivia: “Somewhere Tonight” was #1 the week I was born).

Final single “Cry, Cry, Cry” was the band’s first consecutive #1. It’s another excellent jaunty honky-tonk rocker, this time with Carlson having quite a difficult time getting over the relationship that just ended:

It’s just a little creek now

But when the rain comes down it’s gonna be a raging river

I just heard my baby say goodbye

He left me here holding back my tears, now he’s gone forever

The dam’s gonna break and I’ma gonna cry, cry, cry

***

I’ma gonna cry and I don’t care who sees

I wonder if he knows what he’s done to me

Gonna love that boy till the day I die

Till the day I do I’m gonna cry, cry, cry

The singles from the band’s debut album were sonically and lyrically cohesive, which helped endear them to radio programmers. The rest of the album somewhat breaks the mold. The band’s drummer Cactus Moser, now married to Wynonna Judd, co-penned the twangy “One Step Closer” with Curtis Stone. The track finds Carlson in a bar with her eye on a guy across the room. She’s hesitant to make a move because ‘One step closer and Mama always told me, don’t go fallin’ till you see the whites of his eyes.’

Carlson solely penned one other track, the equally uptempo “Are You Still Mine,” which could’ve easily been another hit single. She also co-wrote (with Bob DiPiero and Pat McManus) the breakneck paced “Good Goodbye,” about a woman who’s happy to see her current relationship has ended. Matraca Berg lends her pen to “Bridge Across Forever,” a co-write with Ronnie Samoset. It isn’t Berg’s most distinctive lyric and the track unfortunately falls short in comparison to the rest of the album.

The album’s most famous ballad is “Woman Walk The Line,” written by Emmylou Harris and Paul Kennerley. Harris and Trisha Yearwood have both recorded their own versions, which bring out the palpable hurt within the lyric. Highway 101 gives the track pep, which is a bit jarring, but it works as another way of presenting the story.

The final ballad, “Someone Believed” is the most distinctly different from any other track on the album. The song tells a two-act story about a girl who wishes to leave her life on the farm and a city boy who cannot imagine any other life than the girl’s. The cohesiveness is found in the idea that anything is possible in life if you just believe.

Highway 101 is a near perfect debut album. The majority of the tracks are stunning and the production is nicely within the neo-traditional meets contemporary style that was popular at the time. My only slight complaint is that the album is almost too cohesive. I wish Worley had given the album tracks a bit more sonic variety and thus presented the album with a few more surprises. It’s still an essential album 28 years later, with all of the band’s biggest hits in one place. If you were going to check out Highway 101 this is absolutely where you would begin.

Grade: A

Album Review: Shelby Lynne – ‘Restless’

51aMwLjN8yLShelby Lynne parted ways with Epic after three albums, all of which underperformed commercially, citing a lack of creative control as one of the reasons for her departure. She’d decided that if country radio wasn’t going to embrace her, she at least wanted critical acclaim and the freedom to go in different musical directions if she so chose. Temptation, her first post-Epic release had little to do with country music, but the follow-up Restless, is a different story. It is widely regarded as a western swing album, but it also has some elements of blues, as well as some more mainstream fare which suggested that Shelby hadn’t completely given up on the idea of having some radio hits.

Restless was issued by a different label than Temptation — originally issued by Magnatone and later re-released by Curb, but retained most of the personnel that had worked on the previous album. Brent Maher was back on board as producer and, along with Jamie O’Hara, as a co-writer on several of the album’s tracks. Shelby herself had a hand in writing six of the album’s ten tracks. I was slightly underwhelmed by the opening track and lead single “Slow Me Down”, which was the album’s only charting single, peaking at #59. It was followed up by the non-charting and more mainstream “I’m Not The One”, which really deserved more attention and likely could have been a hit for a more established artist. “Another Chance at Love”, the final single, is a pure western swing number which is excellent but probably not the most commercially viable choice in a radio environment which at the time was preoccupied with the crossover music of Shania Twain. “Hey Now, Little Darling” might have been a better choice, but by this time it was quite obvious that radio wasn’t much interested in anything Shelby had to offer.

I’m a big western swing fan, so there is much here for me to like: the title track, “Reach For The Rhythm” and “Swingtown” are all excellent. The blues-laced “Just For The Touch of Your Hand” is not quite as good but still enjoyable. It sounds tailor-made for Wynonna Judd, which is not surprising given Maher’s and O’Hara’s long association with Wynonna and The Judds. The pop-tinged ballad “Wish I Knew” is well performed but seems out of place on this album. The album’s best track is the underrated Jamie O’Hara gem “Talkin’ To Myself Again”, which had become the final Top 20 hit for Tammy Wynette almost a decade earlier.

Like its predecessors, Restless was a commercial disappointment and resulted in the end of the country phase of Shelby’s career and the beginning of a series of albums that explored various styles of pop. It is however, my favorite Shelby Lynne album. If you are only going to own one of her albums, make it this one.

Grade: A

Album Review: Ricky Van Shelton – ‘RVS III’

RVS IIIRVS III appeared in January 1990, a little more than a year after Loving Proof. Like its predecessors, it was produced by Steve Buckingham and was a mixture of both new material and some carefully selected covers of older songs that were suddenly back in vogue during the New Traditionalist era. This time around, however, there was slightly less emphasis on rockabilly-style numbers on more on ballads which were proving to be Ricky’s strong point.

Preceding the release of RVS III was a maginificent cover of “Statue of a Fool”, which had been a #1 hit for Jack Greene in 1969. Ricky’s version just missed the top spot, peaking at #2, but it remains one of the standout singles of his career and is his greatest moment of this album. The uptempo “I’ve Cried My Last Tear For You”, written by Tony King (who was engaged to Wynonna Judd at the time) and Chris Waters was the next single. This one did reach #1, but it’s not one of my favorites, which is a not a criticism of the song, but a testament to the strength of the rest of the album. Another great ballad “I Meant Every Word He Said”, in which the protagonist is forced to watch the woman he loves marry another man, also topped out at #2. The album’s fourth and final single was a cover of “Life’s Little Ups and Downs”. The blues-tinged track was an underperforming single for Charlie Rich in 1969. Ricky’s version reached #4, and although it provides a change of pace, it’s my least favorite track on the album.

There are only two rocking numbers on RVS III – “Love Is Burnin'”, which is in the same vein as “Crime of Passion” and a cover of Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman”. The rest of the album was comprised of ballads, most of which could have been hit singles, but Columbia was likely reluctant to release too many ballads in a row to radio. Among these choice tracks are “You Would Do The Same For Me”, a Rory Bourke-Mike Reid composition that I would have preferred to see as a single in lieu of “Life’s Little Ups and Downs”, “I’m Starting Over” written by Kix Brooks with John Wesley Ryles and Mark Sherrill, and a fantastic version of Cindy Walker’s “Not That I Care”. This beautiful waltz had been a minor hit for Jerry Wallace in 1966 (peaking at #44) and had also been recorded by The Wilburn Brothers.

Another standout is album’s closing track “Sweet Memories”, which had been an adult contemporary hit for Andy Williams in 1968 and covered by Willie Nelson in 1979. Ricky is joined by Brenda Lee, who was long past her commercial peak, but her voice was still strong and lovely and complemented his nicely. The track features a tasteful string arrangement which gives it a little more countrypolitan feel than the rest of the album.

Despite a couple of weak spots, namely “Life’s Little Ups and Downs” and the self-penned and forgettable “I Still Love You”, RVS III is packed with top-drawer material and it quickly attained platinum status as its two predecessors have. However, by this time the formula of a few rockabilly numbers and a lot of ballads, a few old songs and a few new was starting to become predictable and may partially account for Shelton’s relatively brief reign at the top of the charts. Nevertheless, it is an album well worth listening to and I enthusastically recommend it.

Grade: A

Single Review – Miranda Lambert – ‘Automatic’

Miranda-Lambert-GotCountryOnlineIn the monologue preceding “Young Love” on Her Story: Scenes From A Lifetime, Wynonna articulated that Judd music “Reflected a much sweeter and simpler time” where the pace was slower and face-to-face human connection was the lay of the land. Twenty-five years after that seminal classic, Miranda Lambert is yearning to return there, pondering a life “before everything became automatic.”

Unlike Paul Kennerley and Kent Robbins sweeping epic, Lambert relies on a laundry list of nostalgic signifiers (The United States Postal Service, Rand McNally Atlases, pay phones, pocket watches, etc) to tell her story. Instead of helping make her case, though, they weigh down the track with sentiment and lack her distinctive personality.

Thankfully the chorus is fantastic, with a message that proves all too true:

Hey whatever happened to, waitin’ your turn

Doing it all by hand, cause when everything is handed to you

It’s only worth as much as the time you put in

It all just seems so good the way we had it

Back before everything became, automatic

Lambert’s vocal is also sincere so the listener does invest in what she’s signing, which is kind of rare these days. The production is a bit muffled and should’ve been littered in steel and fiddle, which would’ve helped the track immensely. But from the end result, it’s clear “Automatic” has good bones.

The track could’ve been shockingly great, if Lambert stripped away the generalities and wrote solely from personal experience, like Rosanne Cash did on The River & The Thread. But it’s a step above most of mainstream country and that counts for a lot in the current climate.

Grade: B 

Songwriters: Miranda Lambert, Natalie Hemby, Nicolle Galyon 

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Album Review – Clint Black – ‘No Time To Kill’

220px-No_Time_To_Kill_coverBy the time Clint Black released his fourth album No Time To Kill, he had finally gotten his career on track after his multiple court appearances and delayed third album The Hard Way. He once again turned to producer James Stroud and watched his career elevate to an even higher level.

A duet with then red-hot Wynonna Judd entitled “A Bad Goodbye” was the album’s first single, peaking at #2 in summer 1993. A string-laced piano ballad, it marked Black’s first foray into a slicker sound but didn’t compromise his artistic integrity. I quite like this one, mostly due to the track’s understated nature and the pair’s equally strong vocal performances.

As if to prove Black hadn’t gone pop, RCA Nashville followed up with the title track, another top 5 hit. “No Time to Kill” was a play on words with the title of his debut record, although the similarities between the two songs end there. “No Time to Kill” introduced Black’s jam band tendencies and brought the energy of his electric stage show to an album for the first time. The liveliness of the track is infectious, and I love the mix of drums, fiddle, and dobro throughout.

Possibly my favorite single from No Time to Kill is “State of Mind,” which rightfully went to #2 in the fall of 1993. I love everything about this song from the use of harmonica on the intro to the fiddle that welcomes you about a minute in. It’s just an all around feel good song, which is surprising given the subject matter (a man on the mend from a bad relationship).

The album’s sole number one hit (and another favorite of mine) came from “A Good Run of Bad Luck,” a gambling themed number also featured on the soundtrack to the movie Maverick starring Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster. Like “No Time To Kill,” “A Good Run of Bad Luck” perfectly echoes Black’s energy on stage, which made the number perfect for playing live.

The only odd single choice from No Time To Kill is “Half The Man,” which peaked at #4 in 1994. There’s nothing wrong with the song, although the neo-traditional arrangement is a crutch for Black to regress a little. He doesn’t bring anything fresh to this type of song and it probably only received airplay thanks to Black’s popularity at the time. Much better is the Western Swing meets Bluegrass influenced “Tuckered Out,” which peaked at #74 due to unsolicited airplay. The high-energy number shows another side to Black’s musical persona, and it’s far more sonically interesting than “Half The Man,” which is more forgettable than anything else.

Of the remaining songs, “I’ll Take Texas” plays up Black’s Merle Haggard influence both sonically and vocally while “Back To Back” is an excellent mid-tempo number driven by dobro. I can’t say the same for the remaining two as “Thinkin’ Again” and “Happiness Alone” are boring neo-traditional numbers that lack the spark Black brought to his earlier work in that vein. But No Time To Kill is a fantastic album overall and a true standout from a singer/songwriter unwilling to forgo taking risks. It’s worthwhile addition to the collection of any true country fan.

Grade: A 

Spotlight Artist: Clint Black

clint_blackClinton Patrick “Clint” Black was born February 4, 1962 in Long Beach, NJ as the youngest of G.A. and Ann Black’s four children. Black was raised in Houston, moving from NJ to Texas before turning a year old. By age fifteen, Black was playing harmonica and guitar and had joined his brothers in a band. He would drop out of high school (and end his formal schooling) to play with the band full-time.

Black soon became a solo act and in the early 1980s he held gigs playing lounges by night and working construction (among other jobs) during the day. His interest in country music came through Reba McEntire and George Strait, who were bringing the traditional sounds he loved back to the genre. Black had a chance meeting with guitarist Hayden Nicholas in 1987, and was soon sending demos to promoter Sammy Alfano and meeting with ZZ Top’s manager Bill Ham, who quickly signed him as a client.

Not long after RCA Records came calling and signed Black to a record deal. His debut album Killin’ Time was released in May 1989 and success came instantaneously. Black’s first four singles (“A Better Man,” “Killin’ Time,” “Nobody’s Home” and “Walkin’ Away) topped the charts and the album reached multi-platinum status. In addition, he was the first male artist to have his debut single hit #1 in fourteen years and the breakout star in the famed ‘class if ‘89’ which saw debuts from future genre heavyweights including Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, and Travis Tritt among others. The success lead to bountiful recognition from the industry, with the CMA giving him the Horizon Award in 1989 and the ACM showering him with four awards including New Male and Top Male Vocalist and Album of the Year for Killin’ Time in 1990.

His sophomore effort Put Yourself In My Shoes came at the end of that year and he married actress Lisa Hartman in 1991. His second album wasn’t as revered as his debut despite selling more than three million units and containing two #1 hits. He also took part in a Roy Rogers tribute album, collaborating with Rogers on the duet “Hold On Partner.”

Black’s career took a hit in 1992 when he sued Ham for breach of contract, claiming he was being stiffed in royalties for his songs, all of which he had a hand in writing. Black was also hit with a paternity suit from a supposed former girlfriend who claimed Black had fathered her child. Being in and out of court put a strain on Black’s career and caused a one-year delay in the release of his third album, The Hard Way. In that time the country music industry had changed dramatically (Brooks and Tritt were now superstars while Billy Ray Cyrus was a cult favorite), causing RCA to wonder if he’d regain his footing. They need not worry as “When My Ship Comes In” would go #1 in early 1993.

He followed with a sexier image and No Time To Kill in 1994. A duet with Wynonna Judd, “A Bad Goodbye,” was a huge hit at radio and even prompted the ‘Black and Wy’ tour in 1994, the same year he would join Vince Gill as co-host for the CMA Awards. Black took part in winning Album of the Year that evening thanks to his recording of “Desperado” on the multi-artist Eagles tribute, Common Thread: The Songs of The Eagles.

Success continued with One Emotion, and in 1995 he topped the charts with “Summer’s Comin.’” His first Greatest Hits album followed in 1996, and Nothin’ But The Tailights was released in 1997. Black was on top once again, thanks in part to major hits in the title track, “Something That We Do” and “The Shoes You’re Wearin.’” A duet with Martina McBride, “Still Holdin’ On” would be his first single to miss the top 10.

Black was able to keep the momentum going with the all-acoustic D’lectrified in 1999 and had major hits in “When I Said I Do” (a duet with his wife) and the harmonica-laced “Been There” with Steve Wariner. He and Hartman-Black had their only child, Lily Pearl, in May 2001. Black took a three-year hiatus from his career to focus on being a father.

He left RCA during this period to open his own label, Equity Records, and returned with Spend My Time in 2004, producing a top 20 hit with the title track. Another full-length project, Drinkin’ Songs and Other Logic, followed in 2005 and The Long Cool EP was released in 2008. The EP contains Black’s last hit to date, “The Strong One,” which is the first solo single of Black’s career for which he doesn’t have a writing credit.

Equity closed that December amid economic difficulties and the departure of Little Big Town, the label’s only hit-making act. Black’s been very quiet in the years since (although he has been touring quite a bit around New England lately), but I’ve heard he’s working on new music he’s calling the best of his career. The new album is expected sometime this year and from what I understand there’s a push to get him back on the radio again. We shall see how it all turns out, but in the meantime, I hope you enjoy our look back at his career throughout the month.

Album Review: Terri Clark – ‘Classic’

The past few years has seen many a covers album by the female country stars of the 1980’s and ’90s. One by one, Lorrie Morgan, Wynonna Judd, Rosanne Cash, Patty Loveless and others have delivered varying sets of their takes on yesterday’s hits. On her latest album for her own Baretrack Records, Terri Clark is singing classic country made famous by greats like Kitty Wells, Hank Snow, Loretta Lynn and Merle Haggard, and throwing in more contemporary material from Linda Ronstadt, Glen Campbell and Reba McEntire.

With the same five-piece country band, she gives fairly routine renditions on several songs. For the most part Clark swaggers and swings, cries and carries on at just the right moments like the seasoned performer and lifetime country music fan she is. The biggest flaw to be found on this album is the production on some tracks. “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin'” is given the boot-scootin’ treatment, amped up to a breakneck shuffle which saps the spunky, soap-in-your-mouth ultimatum out of Loretta Lynn’s lyrics. While “Delta Dawn” benefits from a breezier production that allows the original Southern gospel sound to remain intact and Tanya Tucker proves to still be at the top of her game and Reba’s bent-note delivery of “How Blue” proves to be as good as ever too, there’s a redundancy to these recordings. Fans of either song will likely stick with the originals.

At her commercial peak, Clark shone brightest because of her confident country-is-cool charisma, and the best tracks here benefit from that. Fiddles cry as she tears into Merle Haggard’s “Swingin’ Doors” with her best back of the throat ache and she likewise summons just the right amount of young naiveté in her voice to sell Emmylou Harris’ “Two More Bottles of Wine” convincingly. Again, Clark’s vocal chops prove to be her greatest strength on “Gentle On My Mind”, which is given a simple acoustic and three-part harmony reading. On it, the singer reveals a storytelling ability yet to be heard on her original material.

The lesser half of Classic comes off as above average karaoke and works more as an homage to their original interpreters. The better half comes when Terri Clark is interpreting the songs herself instead of paying tribute to the her favorite singers. She’s got the goods to sell.  I only wish she had brought the other half.

Grade: B-

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