Author Archives: Leeann Ward

Retro Single Review: Alan Jackson, “She’s Got the Rhythm (and I’ve Got the Blues)”

If there ever was a song where traditional country perfectly mixes with honky tonk blues, here it is.

This mid-tempo gem, written by Jackson and Randy Travis, showcases production that still sounds vibrant almost twenty years later. With steel guitar and honky tonk piano aplenty, “She’s Got the Rhythm (and I’ve Got the Blues)” is simply a two-and-a-half minute sonic delight.

Furthermore, the song’s concept is accentuated by its clever title and Jackson’s amusingly mournful delivery, including a pitiful “Yee haw” that ends up sounding more funny than sad, which ultimately describes the song as a whole, despite the theme of lost love.

Written by Alan Jackson and Randy Travis

Grade: A

Next: Tonight I Climbed the Wall

Previous: Love’s Got a Hold on You

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Retro Single Review: Alan Jackson, “Midnight in Montgomery”

If you’re looking for a genuinely spooky song for the Halloween season, look no further than Alan Jackson’s chilling “Midnight in Montgomery.”

From the very first strains of the downbeat acoustic guitar followed by the eerie steel intro, it’s evident that this is no typical country love song or drinking ditty. Instead, it’s set at Hank Williams’ grave at midnight whereupon the narrator, presumably Alan Jackson, sees Hank’s ghost.

The song’s story is fascinating in and of itself, but equally impressive is the recording as a whole package. Along with the ominous production and chilling story, Jackson’s performance strays from its usual smooth reliability and picks up its own haunting quality, which perfectly adds to the overall darkness of the song.

What’s more, much like a Hitchcock thriller, the parts of the song that capture this compositional masterpiece is not violence and blood, but rather, masterful storytelling that is thanks to the lyrics, production and performance that forms a psychologically thrilling listening experience rarely captured in country music.

Written by Alan Jackson and Don Sampson

Grade: A

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Retro Single Review: Shania Twain, “No One Needs to Know”

1996 | #1

Over jaunty acoustic guitar strums, Shania Twain reflectively sings, “Am I dreamin’ or stupid? I think I’ve been hit by Cupid, but no one needs to know right now.”

While that first stanza reasonably acknowledges that something might be amiss, Twain matter-of-factly plows ahead to reveal all the plans that she’s been making regarding the future with the special someone that she’s found, which includes the intimate details of wedding plans, kids and even pets.

The only hitch is that she’s the only one who needs to know right now; the man whose compliance is necessary in order for the plans to materialize doesn’t even need to know now. And if such a presumptuous situation isn’t amusing enough to ponder already, the added layer of the secret fantasies being real enough to keep her from being lonely at night is surely enough to seal the deal.

Written by Twain and her former producer/husband, “Mutt” Lange, this is not a song manufactured by committee, but rather, an example of a pair of songwriters who created a delightfully quirky song that, incidentally, still sounds both refreshing and even organic today thanks to a compelling scenario and a crisp acoustic production.

Written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange and Shania Twain

Grade:  A

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Retro Single Review: Tim McGraw, “Can’t Be Really Gone”

Despite the dated keys, light swells of synthesizers and layered background vocals, “Can’t Be Really Gone” manages to be McGraw’s most compelling single to that point in his career both in content and performance.

Unlike “Don’t Take the Girl”, “Can’t Be Really Gone” doesn’t have to pull out any stops of overwrought heartstring pulls to pack a good punch. In fact, it straightforwardly captures the feeling of disbelief that accompanies a surreal event like having somebody in your life one minute and then the next minute trying to comprehend the knowledge that he or she is gone.  In this case, little details of everything still in their places, including a book that is almost completely read, only heighten the disbelief and denial of this man’s situation.

Until this single, McGraw sang with an exaggerated twang that often threatened to sound more silly than serious. His quiet, melancholy vocal performance on this record, however, demonstrates that he is capable of properly interpreting a song when it is necessary, which is something that he gets even better at proving as his career progresses.

Written by Gary Burr

Grade: B+

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CU Roundtable Review: The Band Perry, “All Your Life”

Listen:

All My Life

Leeann Ward:

As wrong as it may be, the consistently gorgeous arrangements and Kimberly Perry’s compelling vocals almost make up for the lyrical deficiencies found on The Band Perry’s debut album. As it has been with all their singles so far, The Band Perry’s story of style being greater than substance continues with this promising group’s latest single as well.

With its acoustic based instrumentation, Kimberly’s pretty vocals and a sing-able melody, “All My Life” sounds like a typical love song on the surface. The girl isn’t asking for everything, just that the object of her obsession (check out the song’s bridge) loves her all his life. As it was with “If I Die Young”, however, the sentiment of the song makes perfect sense, but the nitty gritty of the lyrics are somewhat distorted or, perhaps, too fanciful. While there’s nothing wrong with asking if someone will love you all your life, it’s baffling how jars of sand or fireflies in a lamp delivered by someone in a tux proves anything.    Grade: B

Tara Seetharam:

Not unlike the band’s previous three singles, “All Your Life” has an earthy sparkle that makes it hard to easily dismiss: it feels as earnest as a Taylor Swift song and sounds as charmingly simple as a Dixie Chicks song circa 1999. But the lyrics teeter between sleepy and trite, with Kimberly’s sprightly vocal nuances –at once natural, textured and emotive– serving as the most interesting part of the “love” story.

That is, until the vanilla turns to rocky road two and a half minutes in. Just as the piano-driven breakdown of “You Lie” is enough to keep me from switching the station, “All Your Life” delivers a sucker punch with an eerie, twisted bridge, sonically and lyrically: “You could be the centerpiece of my obsession if you would notice me at all.” In retrospect, the confession gives the rest of the song an intriguing and slightly psychotic undertone – you get the feeling Kimberly wants to follow up benign lyrics like “Would you walk to the end of the ocean just to fill my jar with sand?” with “Well, would you? WOULD YOU?”

And just like that, with a little injection of campiness, the song comes to life.  Grade: B

Jonathan Keefe:

Their singles have really been all over the place, haven’t they? “Hip to My Heart” was just wretched, but “If I Die Young” was a once-in-a-career kind of hit. “You Lie” fell on the wrong side of just all right, and now “All Your Life” is a bit better than average.

The melody, especially in the refrain, is the real selling point here, and the light-handed arrangement and solid vocal harmonies help to make this one a pleasant listen. Still, a couple of nicely turned phrases in each verse aren’t enough to overcome the song’s fundamental cliches, and Kimberly Perry wanders off pitch more than a couple of times.

The bigger issue for me is that the single lacks a strong hook: “All Your Life” needed one standout line or distinctive production flourish to make it something more than just kind-of pretty. Grade: B-

Kevin John Coyne:

There are a lot of things that work about the Band Perry.  I’m not hearing much of them on this particular track.

I love the bridge breakdown that recalls Nickel Creek at their trippiest, and I genuinely appreciate a country single actually sounding country.

But the lyrics and the vocal performances?  Pure amateur hour.    Grade: C-

Dan Milliken:

As others are noting, two things click: 1) The organic arrangement; 2) The cool bridge, which uses minor tonality better than any country single in recent memory.

Otherwise, though, it sounds like something Colbie Caillat would have written as a teenager. The case of Kimberly is a weird matter, too – certainly she’s got range, but you get a lot of ungainly pronunciations like “o-SHUH–hun.” Eh.   Grade: C+

Ben Foster:

I love The Band Perry’s sound and style, as well as Kimberly’s voice, so I would definitely like to be pulling for them.  The lyrics are where they tend to lose me.  In this case, the deficiencies don’t come in the form of the wonky, off-beat “I oughta kill you right now and do the whole wide world a service” Band Perry kind of way.  It’s just kind of blah, and a bit on the cheesy side.  The bridge is more interesting, but I still don’t like how the song lets me sit through two boring verses before it makes any real attempt to engage me in the lyrics.

And yet, I still find the restrained country-bluegrassy arrangement so absorbing.  While Kimberly’s vocal performance is not technically perfect, I still find it compelling and believable in its own way (and preferable to the buzzy, processed auto-tune effects that I hear on other artists’ records).  Overall, the single is good enough that I’ll probably come back to listen periodically, but I would still like to see the band making greater artistic strides with their lyrics on future releases.  Without a solid lyric that’s strong from start to finish, they’re still one base shy of a home run.  Grade:  B-

Written by Brian Henningsen and Clara Henningsen

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Single Review: Vince Gill, “Threaten Me With Heaven”

From his upcoming fall album release, Guitar Slinger, Vince Gill releases a quiet song that gorgeously portrays a man who is at peace with his impending death. While his loved ones are distraught from the thought of losing him, he assures them that he is not afraid of the prospect and, in fact, welcomes it:

“What’s the worst thing that can happen / What’s the worst that they can do?/ Threaten me with Heaven / It’s all they can do / Threaten me with Heaven / if they want to / Threaten me with Heaven, I believe that it’s true / Threaten me with Heaven, I’ll be waiting on you.”

His wife, Amy Grant, may be the official Christian/gospel singer in the family, but Brother Vince could easily stand right alongside her in such a capacity of he so chose, as his rousing “Nothing but the Blood of Jesus” and “Rock of Ages” performances with Grant, from her hymns albums, can legitimately testify. While “Threaten Me with Heaven” is much more understated than those gospel favorites, it’s a powerful testament of faith to which people can either possibly relate or envy.

Similar in sound to his inspiring “What You Give Away”, “Threaten Me with Heaven” hosts a heartfelt vocal, tasteful guitar support and a gospel choir that enriches the tone of the song. As a result, the single is more adult contemporary than pure country, but it is beautifully sung and arranged nonetheless.

Written by Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Dillon O’Brien & Will Owsley

Grade: A

Listen:  Threaten Me With Heaven


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Retro Single Review: Tim McGraw, “Don’t Take the Girl”

1994 | Peak: #1

After the loud, thumping, controversial nature of “Indian Outlaw”, it’s a good thing that Tim McGraw had another trick in his bag to be found on that second album, which needed to be successful after his debut album, as he has stated, “went wood.” There’s little doubt that the sappy, three act single is what catapulted McGraw’s status to the superstar level that he’s enjoyed since.

The story goes from an eight-year-old Johnny begging his father not to include “the Girl” in their fishing outing to the same boy, now a young man, willing to do anything to protect the, presumably, same girl. the simplistic pull-at-the-heartstrings story song was not the type of single that was dominating country music at the time of its early mid-nineties release. What’s more, McGraw’s early exaggerated twang and an amped up production to match helped to make the sing-able song even more attractive to country music listeners whose emotions had been easily stirred by the touching story of Johnny and “the girl” with no name.

Patriarchal implications aside, “Don’t Take the Girl” was a perfect recipe for a quick heart melting experience. And while it is likely considered one of McGraw’s signature songs that must be sung at every concert to this day, it is too simplistic and, ultimately, predictable to have a lasting effect beyond the first few experiences of hearing it. Instead, it’s become more of a cringe inducer than a tear jerker.

Written by Craig Martin & Larry Johnson

Grade: B

Listen: Don’t Take the Girl

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Album Review: Blake Shelton, Red River Blue

Blake Shelton

Red River Blue

It’s hard to dispute that Blake Shelton possesses one of the strongest and distinctive male voices in country music today. Likewise, he has proven to be a more than capable interpreter of the songs that he writes and chooses to record. He knows when to sing with soft sensitivity and he knows when to sing loud and hard.

However, his interpretive abilities and vocal prowess does not always translate into the highest quality songs, as has been the major weakness of his last few projects, particularly Startin’ Fires and his two “six-paks.” The trend continues with Red River Blue, even though this album is a solid improvement.

The album wisely kicks things off with the popular lead single, the mid-tempo “Honey Bee.” The positive tune sets the tone for the remainder of the album, which reflects where Shelton is in his life thanks to a finally-exploding career and newly-married status to Miranda Lambert.

Among the other mid-tempos, the bluesy “Ready to Roll” is the most straight arrow. Its rolling baseline is pleasant, infectious and completely inoffensive. “Drink on It” is also a bit bluesy, but carries the line “He sounds like such a prick,” which turns out to be the song’s only memorable aspect. Continuing on the status quo scale, “Good Ole Boys” is pretty much summed up by its title: “Where did all the good ole boys go?” Apparently, good ole boys are synonymous with country boys who are the only people who are polite and hold doors for women and say “Yes, Ma’am.” Shelton’s infamous offbeat humor shows up at the end of the track when he banters, “I’ll even go pick up some of those feminine products for you. That’s what a good ole boy would do.” While the lyrics are inane, the Jennings-influenced arrangement is one of the most sonically satisfying on the album.

As he’s proven on previous albums, some of Shelton’s most memorable and brightest moments are when he fully embraces the ridiculous, which shows up in the form of “Hey” and “Get Some” this time around. Both songs have delightfully funky lyrics and interesting productions. “Hey” more successfully illustrates country living than many other songs of its ilk, the random “baby Jesus” reference notwithstanding. The premise of the charming “Get Some” is reminiscent of Toby Keith’s “Getcha Some”, but with a toned down, tasteful production that showcases engaging honky tonk piano and acoustic guitar solos.

While Shelton has proven capable of elevating substandard songs to higher levels in the past, he is not able to work his magic on most of the ballads on this album. Despite reliably stellar vocals on songs like the quality “Over,” decent comeuppance ballad “I’m Sorry” and the schmaltzy “God Gave Me You,” the tracks are all but ruined by tasteless eighties guitar solos and drum machines that turn them into power ballads rather than good country songs.

Not all of the ballads are mired in bombastic productions, however. In fact, not only does “Red River Blue” make a cool album title, the song with its name happens to be the standout track as well. Because it’s the quietest song on the album, tucked away at the end (not counting the two bonus tracks that include the island-flavored “Chill” and a cover of Dan Seals’ “Addicted), it’s easy to overlook its strength. Along with a subtle production, Miranda Lambert’s quiet background support helps to solidify the song’s mournful tone.

The songs on this album are more than well performed, but the album as a whole is weighed down by some blandness and far too many overwrought productions. While this album is a definite step back in the right direction from Shelton’s last three projects, it still has a long way to go to equal the quality of his first four.

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iPod Playlist: Originals And Covers

As I’m sure the rest of you do, I make playlists all the time. Many of them are lists of individual artists, but some of them have a concept.

My latest playlist is of covers. First, I have the original version (or the one that’s famous for being the original) followed by my favorite cover of it. My only rule is that I have to like both versions. So, songs where I like the cover but not the original won’t make the list.

I’ll share a sampling of what I have so far, as long as you share your latest or greatest concept playlist in the comments:

1. Buddy Miller, “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go” (Miranda Lambert)
2. Hank Williams, “Hey, Good Lookin’” (The Mavericks)
3. Elvis Presley, “Suspicious Minds (Dwight Yoakam)
4. Dolly Parton, “Coat of Many Colors (Shania Twain/Alison Krauss)
5. Waylon Jennings, “Dreaming My Dreams with You” (Alison Krauss and Union Station)
6. Johnny Cash, “Understand Your Man” (Dwight Yoakam)
7. Merle Haggard, “The Way I Am” (Alan Jackson)
8. John Prine, “That’s the Way the World Goes ‘Round” (Miranda Lambert)
9. John Anderson, “Swingin’” (LeAnn Rimes)
10. Buddy Miller, “Don’t Tell Me” (Alicia Nugent)
11. Kasey Chambers, “Pony” (Ashley Monroe)
12. Tammy Wynette, “Stand by Your Man” (Dixie Chicks)
13. Bill Monroe, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” (John Fogerty)
14. Conway Twitty, “Goodbye Time” (Blake Shelton)
15. Hank Williams, “I Saw the Light” (Blind Boys of Alabama/ Hank Williams Jr.)
16. Bob Dylan, “Shelter from the Storm” (Rodney Crowell/Emmylou Harris)
17. Merle Haggard, “Today I Started Loving You Again” (Buddy Jewell/Miranda Lambert)
18. Nitty Gritty Dirtband, “Fishing in the Dark” (Garth Brooks)
19. The White Stripes, “Dead Leaves in the Dirty Ground” (Chris Thile)
20. Al Green, “Lets Stay Together” (John Berry)
21. David Allan Coe, “You Never Even Called Me by My Name” (Doug Supernaw)
22. The Decemberists, “Shankill Butchers” (Sarah Jarosz
23. Steve Earle, “My Old Friend the Blues” (Patty Loveless)
24. Eric Clapton, “Lay Down Sally” (Delbert McClinton)
25. Fred Eaglesmith, “Time to Get a Gun” (Miranda Lambert)
26. Dolly Parton, “Jolene” (The White Stripes)
27. Johnny Cash, “I Still Miss Someone” (Suzy Bogguss)
28. Pearl Jam, “Better Man” (Sugarland)
29. Kris Kristofferson, “From the Bottle to the Bottom” (Dierks Bentley/Kris Kristofferson)
30. Don Williams, “Lord, I hope this Day is Good” (Lee Ann Womack)
31. Bob Dylan, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s all right” (Randy Travis)

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Retro Single Review: George Strait, “Fool Hearted Memory”

1982 | Peak: #1

Thirty years ago, “Fool Hearted Memory”, the first single from his second album, was George Strait’s first number one single. And for very good reason. Up to that point, Strait demonstrated great potential, but this is the first time that he fires on all cylinders with overwhelming success.

With “Fool Hearted Memory”, Strait finds his literal voice. It is stronger and more confident than it had been on his first album. While the song calls for a certain amount of restraint and sadness, Strait is able to fully capture those emotions without sounding at all timid.

A song about a pesky memory that won’t let a man admit to himself that his woman has left him for good is the stuff of a killer country classic. What’s more, one cannot hear the song without reveling in the delightfully country fiddle riff that dominates the track. Likewise, the infectious, sing-able melody will be in my head for the rest of the day just from listening to it twice for the purpose of this review. I’m guessing it’ll now be stuck in your head as well.

Written by Byron Hill & Alan R. Mevis

Grade: A

Listen: Fool Hearted Memory

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