Category Archives: Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists

Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: Carlene Carter

Carlene CarterIt’s easy to forget just how talented Carlene Carter is.  In the last eighteen years, she’s only given us two albums to remind us.  But with a career that stretches back to her 1978 eponymous debut album, all the way through her excellent new release, Carter Girl, she has been a consistently excellent entertainer and songwriter.

In addition to her latest release, her albums Musical Shapes (1980), I Fell in Love (1990), and Little Love Letters (1993) are all among the best country albums of their time.  Those three sets factor heavily into this list, but there are plenty of great moments on most of her other studio albums, too.  Her first four sets tend to fade in and out of print, but they’re worth snapping up when available.

It’s been more than five years since I’ve done a Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists post.  For the uninitiated, my rubric is simple: I just ranked my favorite twenty-five tracks and then counted them down with commentary.  No big stab at objective truth here.  This is just what I like the most from one of ‘em that I like the most.   Share your own favorites in the comments, and hopefully discover one or two new ones along the way.

Carlene Carter Little Love Letters

#25
Little Love Letter #1 and Little Love Letter #2
Little Love Letters (1993)
Written by Carlene Carter, Howie Epstein, and Benmont Tench

The first Carlene Carter album I ever bought was Little Love Letters.  I was instantly hooked by the clever framing of  “Side 1″ and “Side 2″ with these quick vignettes.  They’re funny, they’re heartfelt, and I could listen to a whole album full of them.

Carlene Carter Musical Shapes

#24
Too Bad About Sandy
Musical Shapes (1980)
Written by Carlene Carter

When I was younger, I just got a kick out of how dark and seedy this track seemed, with its celebration of the sweet low life and cold hard cash.  But now, I keep going back to the wisdom in the advice she gives her love-struck younger sister: “Honey, can’t be love if you’ve gotta ask twice.”

Carlene Carter Two Sides to Every Woman

#23
Swap-Meat Rag
Two Sides to Every Woman (1979)
Written by Carlene Carter

On the surface, it’s a bawdy number about free love.  Underneath the surface, it’s a wicked satire of the artifice that is American suburbia.  Plus she growls a lot, and it sounds cool.

Continue reading

13 Comments

Filed under Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists: Shania Twain

It’s about time somebody did a Favorite Songs feature on Shania, isn’t it?  I was going to save this article for after we finished covering Shania in our Retro Single Review series, but I decided I just couldn’t wait that long.

Her astounding commercial success speaks for itself, as does her heavy impact on popular music, but I remain of the opinion that Shania Twain doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the artist she was – as a songwriter, or as a vocalist.  Her songs were clever, sassy, fun, and often tapped into deep wells of substance underneath all the catchiness.  Her distinct perspective was revolutionary for her time.  As an interpretive singer, she had a strong knack for finishing off her lyrical creations through her nuanced, dynamically layered performances.  Twain's remarkable talent combined with Mutt Lange's musical vision made her one of the biggest record sellers in history.  Ever since her heyday, countless young female stars have attempted to emulate her, but the magic Twain herself created with her delicious pop-country confections remains unreplicated.

I tend to become obsessed with one favorite Shania Twain song, and then move rapidly to another, so it’s not easy to assess which songs are my all-time favorites.  I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’ll be doing a lot of second-guessing after this article runs (though I’m fairly confident that my top three selections are set in stone).  At any rate, it will still be a fun look back on all the memorable tunes Shania gave us over the years, while also shining a spotlight on a few lesser-known tracks that we might have forgotten about.  As always, feel free to share your own favorites in the comments section.

#25

“Party for Two” (with Billy Currington)

Greatest Hits – 2004

I have at times referred to this song as a “guilty pleasure,” but then I realized that it’s such a great fun record that I don’t really feel guilty at all about loving it.  Silly “sexy in your socks” line aside, “Party for Two” is fun flirty tune that Twain and Currington sell with charm and enthusiasm.  Though more of a pop song than a country song, “Party for Two” is best heard in its country mix, as the pop version with Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath tries a little too hard to sound pop, demonstrating that Shania often sounded best when still keeping a toe in country territory.  “Party for Two” served as Twain’s last Top 10 country hit to date.

#24

“Blues Eyes Crying In the Rain” (with Willie Nelson)

Willie Nelson & Friends – Live and Kickin’ – 2003

Twain’s pop sensibilities certainly have no ill effect on her ability to tackle a traditional country classic with grace and ease, as evidenced by her beautiful cover of this beloved Willie Nelson hit, accompanied by the man himself.

 

#23

“Ka-Ching!”

Up! – 2002

Though largely known for her lighthearted frivolous side, “Ka-Ching!” – a deft takedown of commercial materialism – shows that Twain was still perfectly capable of addressing relevant social themes.

#22

“It Only Hurts When I’m Breathing”

Up! – 2002

Though known for her positivity, Twain could still be surprisingly effective at conveying heartbreak.  Such is demonstrated by this Top 20 hit in which the protagonist strives to maintain optimism as she moves on after a breakup.  Still, the title hook shows that her heavy emotional pain remains constant.

#21

“Love Gets Me Every Time”

Come On Over – 1997

Hey, if you’re going to write a silly, cheesy song, you might as well do it thoroughly and shamelessly.  “Love Gets Me Every Time” combines a hillbilly catchphrase with an unshakable two-step-friendly musical hook to make a delightful ditty that just never seems to get old.

 

#20

“Coat of Many Colors” (with Alison Krauss & Union Station)

Just Because I’m a Woman:  Songs of Dolly Parton – 2003

It’s easy to see how Twain’s own impoverished upbringing might give her a special connection to this classic song, and to its timeless theme of love and family being worth far more than material possessions.  Indeed, “One is only poor only if they choose to be.”  Twain delivers the revered Dolly Parton lyric with authenticity and deep sincerity, while the unique touch of Alison Krauss’s backing vocal elevates the record further.

#19

“You Win My Love”

The Woman In Me – 1995

Written by Twain’s then-husband/producer Mutt Lange, this is the only song on Twain’s last three studio albums that she didn’t have a hand in writing.  The lyric is full of clever automobile-related metaphors, while the driving arrangement and the “Rev it up, rev it up ‘til your engine blows” hook practically beg to be blasted out one’s car windows.

#18

“That Don’t Impress Me Much”

Come On Over – 1997

The sentiment is clear:  Shania Twain is not impressed by guys who are overly impressed with themselves.  One part sing-along, one part spoken word, with some steel guitar and cowbell hooks thrown in, it all adds up to one heck of a fun record.

#17

“Shoes”

Desperate Housewives soundtrack – 2005

It may have been recorded for a soundtrack, but make no mistake about it:  A song that compares finding the right man to finding the ideal footwear, noting that “Some you can’t afford, some are real cheap, some are good for bummin’ around on the beach” is classic Shania.  A clever song loaded with humorous double entendres, “Shoes” is good for a chuckle any day.

#16

“(If You’re Not In It for Love) I’m Outta Here!”

The Woman In Me 1995

The dance-friendly beat is hooky and infectious, but the content runs deeper.  At the heart of the song is a confident female protagonist who refuses to be taken advantage of.  If the guy’s not in it for love… she’s outta here.  This chart-topping hit established Twain’s distinct songwriting point of view, while helping to power her The Woman In Me album to 12x platinum sales.

#15

“I’m Gonna Getcha Good!”

Up! – 2002

Not really much to say about this one except that, as far as great pop-country hooks go, they don’t come much catchier than this.

#14

“Nah!”

Up! – 2002

A kiss-off tune that’s not nearly as bitter as such songs usually are, but that doesn’t make it any less delicious.  Twain almost seems to casually enjoy the moment of letting her no-good ex know that she’s done being mistreated by him.  She admits “I miss you now and then, but would I do it all again?”  The band abruptly stops playing as if to await her answer:  “Nah!”  Ouch.

#13

“Home Ain’t Where His Heart Is (Anymore)”

The Woman In Me – 1995

It’s a shame this song didn’t make a bigger dent in history.  I’ve always considered it one of Twain’s most subtly moving performance as the female narrator mourns the deteriorating state of her marriage; while the song offers no full resolution of the story, save for Twain hoping “If we could only find that feeling once again… If we could only change the way the story ends.”

#12

“Don’t Be Stupid (You Know I Love You)”

Come On Over – 1997

Because it makes me happy.  So there.

#11

“Leaving Is the Only Way Out”

The Woman In Me – 1995

The only song on any of Twain’s albums on which she takes sole writer’s credit, this is one of her best songs, as well as one of her countriest.  The refrain “If cryin’ is the only way into your arms, then leavin’ is the only way out” is nothing short of heartbreaking.

#10

“You’ve Got a Way”

Come On Over – 1997

Though I would recommend steering clear of the hokey Notting Hill pop remix, “You’ve Got a Way” remains one of Twain’s most beautifully understated, sincere performances on record, with the acoustic arrangement allowing her to positively shine.

#9

“Forever and For Always”

Up! – 2002

A gem of a love song with an effortlessly endearing melody and a deeply heartfelt performance on Twain’s part.  Though the song was remixed into an international pop smash, it remains best heard in its country form, in which Twain’s sentiments are driven home by subtle, beautiful strains of banjo and steel.

#8

“Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under”

The Woman In Me – 1995

Right out of the starting gate, Shania’s first major hit, and first Lange-produced single release, delivers a powerful punch of her priceless personality.  With a bouncy fiddle-driven production, silly rhyme schemes involving the names of the cheating lover’s mistresses, and the delightfully cheesy bridge (“So next time you’re lonely/ Don’t call on me/ Try the operator/ Maybe she’ll be free”), “Whose Bed” is both shamelessly campy and tons of fun as a result.

#7

“Is There Life After Love”

The Woman In Me – 1995

A rare thematic venture on Twain’s part to the wrong side of cheating.  She regrets her tryst, but regrets coming forward and confessing it even more, bemoaning “You gave me forgiveness, but you could not forget/ I should never have told you what I’ll live to regret.”

#6

“Man! I Feel Like a Woman!”

Come On Over – 1997

Well of course!  Who could leave out one of Shania’s most energetic, free-spirited, entertaining performances of her career?

#5

“Dance with the One That Brought You”

Shania Twain – 1993

An early Twain record from the days before she was singing her own self-written material, “Dance with the One That Brought You” marries twain’s beautifully nuanced vocal performance to a charming Gretchen Peters lyric and a gorgeous piano and steel-driven waltz of an arrangement.  It just might be one of Twain’s best moments on record, and yet Mutt Lange had absolutely nothing to do with it.  Who’da guessed?

#4

“You’re Still the One”

Come On Over – 1997

I love this song so, so much.  An unabashedly sincere vocal, shimmering production, and a lyric that encapsulates the firm commitment, pride in having overcome obstacles, and deep, genuine love of a couple that has remained together against all odds and expectations.  While I’ve long believed that commercial success does not equate to quality, I still say that this song was a massive hit because it deserved to be a massive hit.  A timeless, universal sentiment that touched pop fans and country fans alike, “You're Still the One” is pure pop-country perfection.

#3

“No One Needs to Know”

The Woman In Me – 1995

The best country songs are those that rely, not on words themselves, but on the feelings that the words and melodies tap into.  “No One Needs to Know” absolutely radiates with the giddiness and joy of a newfound love that only the narrator herself is to know of (which suggests that Taylor Swift is not kidding when she cites Twain as a major influence).  The infectious, stripped down acoustic arrangement, complete with dobro and steel chords, is a pure and simple delight.

#2

“Up!”

Up! – 2002

Twain has long been known for her incessant positivity – a consistent thread that ran throughout the Come On Over and Up! albums in particular, but was nowhere more concentrated than on the title track of Up!  It comes as a fist-pumping pop-anthem on the red disc; a sprightly banjo rocker on the green disc.  “Up!” is a hugely lovable ball of energy either way.  The production pulses with urgency as it underscores Twain’s spirited performance.  No matter what it is that’s got you down, Twain shouts “Up!  Up!  Up!  There’s no way but up from here!” until she has you believing it too.

#1

“Any Man of Mine”

The Woman In Me – 1995

Is there any other song in her catalog that so thoroughly sums up everything one could love about Shania Twain?  The energy of this performance leaps out your speakers, along with boot-stomping rhythm, the awesome fiddling, and all the signature Twain wit in the humorous lyrics.  I’m not the least bit ashamed to admit that the line dance breakdown just might be my favorite part.

It was a bold artistic move and a substantial risk at the time of its release, yet it helped blaze a trail that female country artists are still following today.  But even when bringing it down to a personal, individual level, there are simply few other Shania Twain songs, hits or not, that put a skip in my step like this one does.  Shania's cheeky delivery makes me smile.  The lyrics make me laugh.  The beat makes me want to dance.  Any way you look at it, this song hits me just right.

The critic in me respects it.  The fan in me adores it.  Now if you'll excuse me, I think it's time for some kicking, turning, and stomp-stomping…

zp8497586rq

7 Comments

Filed under Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists

Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: Faith Hill

Friday, May 5, 2006 – The Palace of Auburn Hills, Michigan.  For Faith Hill, it was just another stop on her Soul2Soul II tour with her superstar husband Tim McGraw.  For young 14-year-old Ben Foster, it was my very first live concert experience (or at least the first that did not entail bringing a picnic blanket), and it was one that I never forgot.  I still have the ticket stub.

I became a Faith Hill fan at a young age, and I became an even bigger fan as I grew older.  As I set about acquiring all six of her Warner Bros. studio albums, my admiration for this talented artist only grew.  To one who knows Faith Hill only for crossover pop hits like “Breathe,” “This Kiss,” and “The Way You Love Me,” it might come as a bit of a surprise what a strong album artist she was.  Besides that, she possessed genuine country sensibilities in addition to the pop diva persona that she became so well known for.

As I continue to eagerly await Faith Hill’s return with her seventh studio album, I’m thrilled to share my 25 personal favorites out of her eclectic catalog of tunes.  Many of these songs were substantial hits, but I’ve also left off a few well-known singles in favor of some lesser-known hidden treasures.  As always, please feel free to share your own favorites in the comments section.

#25

“The Way You Love Me”

Breathe, 1999

Now, don’t give me that look.  We’re all entitled to a little guilty pleasure time, aren’t we?  Look, I still don’t know what “If I could grant you one wish, I wish you could see the way you kiss” is supposed to mean, and I’m guessing you don’t either.  But what I do know is that Faith Hill somehow managed to craft a ridiculously catchy piece of pop-country nonsense that had me hopelessly hooked ever since I first heard it over a decade ago.  I couldn’t not love it if I tried.

#24

“Wild One”

Take Me As I Am, 1993

Faith’s 1993 debut single is an enjoyable and fitting introduction to a major talent.  The lyrics portray a free-spirited teenage girl who, in addition to having a rebellious streak a mile wide, is a proactive go-getter who takes life as it comes.  “Life is hard,” but she says “That’s all right.”  It’s an effortlessly charming record, and yet at the same time, it almost seems like an hors d’oeuvre in comparison to the deep and insightful material Faith would tackle in the future.

#23

“Sleeping with the Telephone” (with Reba McEntire)

Reba McEntire – Reba Duets, 2007

With this fantastic collaboration from Reba’s 2007 duets project, Faith and Reba play the parts of two neighbors, each of whom is married to a man who risks his life on a daily basis.  Their circumstances are different, with one husband being a soldier and the other being a police officer, but each wife copes with the same troubling feelings of deep worry and anxiety.  But honestly, this track is a shoo-in just for the pure pleasure of hearing Hill and McEntire, two of country’s most dynamic vocal powerhouses, paired together – trading verses and blending their voices in harmony on the soaring chorus.

#22

“Let Me Let Go”

Faith, 1998

A brokenhearted woman tries to move on in the wake of a break-up, but is unable due to the unshakable feeling that they really were meant to be together. (“If this is for the best, why are you still in my heart, are you still in my soul?”)

#21

“Someone Else’s Dream”

It Matters to Me, 1995

The story of a young woman gradually discovering her own distinct identity, and discovering that her parents’ hopes and dreams will never be hers.  When the song reaches its final bridge, the young woman has firmly made her decision:  “She’s got twenty-seven candles on her cake, and she means to make her life her own before there’s twenty-eight.”

#20

“Love Ain’t Like That”

Faith, 1998

In a clever composition with some classic Matraca Berg lines, Faith debunks a series of mistaken ideas about what love is really about, while also underscoring the importance of commitment in a lasting relationship.  Favorite lines:  “You can’t buy it at the store, try it on for size, bring it back if it don’t feel right.… You can’t trade it in like an automobile that’s got too many miles and rust on the wheels.”

#19

 “Let’s Go to Vegas”

It Matters to Me, 1995

The unshakable joyfulness of “Suds In the Bucket” meets the wide-eyed charm and innocence of “She’s In Love with the Boy.”  From the light airy arrangement to Faith’s enthusiastic performance, “Let’s Go to Vegas” embodies all of the youthful romantic excitement found in that one little moment of “Hey, I just had a crazy thought…”

#18                 

“Lost”

The Hits, 2007

This one might have come across as an attempt to re-visit the power ballad euphoria of “Breathe,” which it might have been, but it carries an extra air of mystery that gives it a distinct identity separate from its predecessor, while the melody and performance make the song captivating on its own merits alone.

#17

“What’s In It for Me”

Breathe, 1999

On the kickoff track of Faith’s runaway success of an album, her performance sounds like the release of an eternity’s worth of pent-up fury.  The aggressive country-rock production, combining awesome guitar work with some mighty fierce fiddling, added up to a record that sounded truly ferocious.

#16

“The Secret of Life”

Faith, 1998

In this philosophical number written by the ever-excellent Gretchen Peters, several men drinking in a bar ponder over the fabled “Secret of Life,” eventually concluding that “The Secret of Life is nothing at all.”  Faith’s half-sung, half-spoken performance brought the conversational tone to life, taking a song that was hardly radio-friendly, and turning it into a Top 5 hit.

#15

“Cry”

Cry, 2002

A full-on pop power ballad in which Faith strikes the delicate balance of exercising her powerful pipes in a fiery delivery, while still retaining the emotional connectivity of a great country record.  Her formidable vocal prowess is on full display, but even the biggest power notes are still colored with a deep emotional quiver.

#14

 “Breathe”

Breathe, 1999

Faith Hill took the pop-country power ballad to new heights with this cross-genre career-defining hit.
Regardless of how overexposed the song might have been, it’s a memorable record for the way it combines physical attraction with the warmth and comfort found in true love, while also displaying the increased power and fullness that Faith’s voice had acquired over the years.

#13

“I Can’t Do That Anymore”

It Matters to Me, 1995

This Alan Jackson-penned ballad puts into song the frustration, exhaustion, and hurt of a sunken housewife worn down from constantly striving to please her unappreciative husband

#12

“I Need You” (with Tim McGraw)

Tim McGraw – Let It Go, 2007

Of all Faith’s collaborations with her famous husband, this is one of the best.  This was only their second full-fledged duet single (with their first being “Let’s Make Love”).  The restrained arrangement lends a deeply intimate romantic feel to the record, while both vocalists give killer performances.  Tim McGraw digs deep into his lower register, while Faith’s soaring performance elevates the record to greatness.  Never before or since had their chemistry been captured as effectively as it is here.

#11

“Dearly Beloved”

Fireflies, 2005

This track served as one of the lighter moments on the mature and compelling collection of songs found on Faith’s Fireflies album.  The plucked-out, nearly-hillbillyish country-bluegrass arrangement sounds worlds removed from polished crossover number like “Breathe.”  In a song ripe with clever and silly lines, Faith steps into the minister’s shoes at a backwoods white trash wedding.  The flirt of a bride is three months late, and the groom is “checkin’ out the bridesmaids, thinkin’ that he might take the maid of honor’s honor.”  Fittingly, Faith ices the cake with a closing line of “Y’all come back now, ya hear?”

#10

 “A Man’s Home Is His Castle”

It Matters to Me, 1995

Listening to this song is like peeking in the windows of a home torn apart by domestic violence.  “Castle” takes on an added level of realism in that it gives a voice to the battered woman, and even gives the couple names (Linda and Jim).  The victimized woman is hurt, angry, and desperate, and every tortured emotion is conveyed in the lyrics, which make no attempt to tamper the song’s impact with a manufactured happy ending.

#9

“Take Me As I Am”

Take Me As I Am, 1993

Could it be?  A love song that brings maturity and self-realization to the table without sacrificing the joy and
giddiness of newfound romance?  Faith delivers exactly that with the title track to her debut album, which includes standout lines like “I’d trade a million pretty words for one touch that is real,” as well as romantic lines like “Baby, don’t turn out the light… I wanna see you look at me.”

#8

“Like We Never Loved At All”

Fireflies, 2005

A delicate piano intro with strains of steel set the tone for a beautiful ballad of a woman who struggles to move on after a breakup, while her pain in increased by the realization of how easily her former flame seems to have moved on.  The song is bolstered by Tim McGraw’s harmony vocal, while memorable visual images (“There… walking with your friend, laughing at the moon… I swear you looked right through me”) bring the narrator’s pain down to a strikingly relatable level.

#7

“It Matters to Me”

It Matters to Me, 1995

An expression of hurt feelings that is all the more effective for its simplicity and straightforwardness:  “When we don’t talk, when we don’t touch, when it doesn’t feel like we’re even in love… It matters to me.”  How much more direct can you get?

#6

“When the Lights Go Down”

Cry, 2002

Faith’s 2002 set Cry was criticized by some for going in a straight-up adult pop direction.  But the detractors often missed the fact that Cry is a fantastic pop album, which includes some of the best songs Faith Hill has ever recorded.  Exhibit A is “When the Lights Go Down” – a stunning musical testament to the clarity and inescapability of ultimate truth, elevated by Faith’s showstopping vocal performance.  The song takes on a tone of positivity as it highlights the fact that life’s most turbulent experiences afford us the opporunity to discover our own inner strength.  Easily one of the finest tracks on the Cry album, it’s a shame it wasn’t fully embraced by radio.

#5

“You’re Still Here”

Cry, 2002

It’s hard to go wrong with a Matraca Berg/ Aimee Mayo song.  In a similar vein to Trisha Yearwood’s “On a Bus to St. Cloud,” “You’re Still Here” is a tale of the love that’s long gone, most likely in death, but whom the narrator still sees in her dreams, in her baby’s eyes, and everywhere else.  At one point she even says “I heard you in a stranger’s laugh, and I hung around to hear him laugh again, just once again.”  It’s an achingly beautiful lyric, delivered in one of Faith’s finest and most emotionally-resonant performances on record, while the soft touches of oboe in the arrangement add layer of mystery to the track.

 

#4

“Wish for You”

Fireflies, 2005

A mother’s expression of all that she wishes for her child.  It’s made even more touching by the fact that she never once makes the wish that everything in life will go perfectly for her child.  Instead, she simply wishes that, when things do go wrong, her child will pick herself back up, move on, and be a better person because of it.  That keeps the song from coming across as cheesy, instead deepening its emotional impact, and keeping it firmly grounded in real life.

#3

“If My Heart Had Wings”

Breathe, 1999

Sometimes it irritates me when certain female artists constantly feel the need to belt out their songs at the top of their lungs.  In the case of “If My Heart Had Wings,” however, I can’t imagine the song being sung any other way.  Begging to be blared at high volume in one’s car with the windows rolled, “If My Heart Had Wings” is three and a half minutes of pure pop-country euphoria.

#2

“This Kiss”

Faith, 1998

Does this song even need a caption?  Probably not, but here it goes anyway.  “This Kiss” is a perfect sonic encapsulation of all the joy and romantic giddiness of a newfound love (and yet it came out when Taylor Swift was still in grade school).  There are few pop-country tunes that are able to achieve such high levels of catchiness, or to give the replay button a workout like this song does.

#1

“Stealing Kisses”

Fireflies, 2005

Mature, intelligent, and insightful – exactly the kind of material country radio is perpetually in need of, and yet all too often shies away from.  “Stealing Kisses” plays like a sequel to the innocent youthful “Love Story”-esque material of artists such as Taylor Swift.  As a young woman, the narrator is “stealing kisses from a boy” only to find herself a housewife “begging affection from a man” with the passage of time.

Lori McKenna writes a beautiful song, and Faith Hill beautifully sings it.  The song was released as the fifth and final single from Fireflies, and though it only scraped the bottom of the Top 40, it offered one of those rare and special moments when the voice of the adult woman was heard on country radio.  Faith Hill and her label are to be commended for having the guts to send it to radio in the first place.  A definite career highlight, “Stealing Kisses” aptly demonstrates that, at her best, Faith Hill is just as capable of delivering deep, substantial material as she is capable of serving up a tasty morsel of ear candy.

34 Comments

Filed under Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists

Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: Suzy Bogguss

Written by Bob Losche.

Suzy Bogguss has been my favorite female vocalist for about 20 years now. The first time I heard her was on some TV show with Jerry Reed in 1991. She sang “Aces” and “Night Riders Lament” and I was hooked. Since then, I’ve seen her in concert about a dozen times from New York to Nashville and in-between. She still tours on her own in addition to her “Wine, Women and Song” shows with great songwriter friends Matraca Berg and Gretchen Peters. Suzy has done some writing herself having co-written 56 songs, including hits “Hey Cinderella” and “Just Like the Weather”.

Besides attending her shows, I have all her albums. In reviewing her 2007 album “Sweet Danger”, the bossman here at CU, Kevin Coyne said “the arrangements of the songs are subtle and low-key, allowing for the vocals to shine and the songs to work on their own merit, not through the bells-and-whistles of clever production”. I believe that Kevin’s statement could be applied to all of Suzy’s albums.

Suzy never throws away a lyric. You never have to guess at the words she sings. Back to Kevin again – In his review of her last single “In Heaven”, he said that “her voice is still as pure and clear as a mountain stream, and she instinctively knows the great truth about singing that too many women these days never learned: it’s not about power, it’s about sincerity”.

Chet Atkins was a big admirer of Suzy, saying “I don’t like hot dogs and I don’t like anchovies. I don’t like people who say there are too many guitar players in the world, and I especially don’t like singers who sneak up on their notes. But I like Suzy Bogguss…she is always in the tone center, her voice sparkles like crystal water, and she ain’t all that bad looking boys and girls–she’s only one of the best.”

As other writers in this series have mentioned, I found it difficult to get down to 25 songs. Suzy’s highest charting single, “Drive South”, didn’t make my list. Here are some of my favorite songs by Suzy Bogguss:

#25

“Shenandoah”

From the 2011 album American Folk Songbook

A beautiful rendition of a traditional American folk song said to date back to the early 19th century.

#24

“Nobody Love, Nobody Gets Hurt”

from the 1998 album Nobody Love, Nobody Gets Hurt

A Bobbie Cryner song about a would be robber who hands the girl behind the counter in a convenience store a note that he meant to say “Nobody Move, Nobody Gets Hurt”; he wrote “Nobody Love …”

#23

“Outbound Plane”

from the 1991 album Aces

Her current love has flown but she knows she’ll fall in love again in this Nanci Griffith and Tom Russell penned song.

#22

“Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me”

from the 2003 album Swing

Duke Ellington composed the music and Bob Russell wrote the lyrics for this song from the 40’s about not paying attention to rumors. Ray Benson produced the album.

#21

“When She Smiled at Him”

from the 1994 album Simpatico

A father daughter song, written by Michael Johnson and Joanie Beeson, that begins “he wasn’t prepared for a daughter, he thought how nice a son would have been, but she had her way with her father, when she smiled at him”. OK, it’s a sweet and sentimental song. Add a star if you have a daughter. I do.

#20

“Somebody to Love”

from the 1998 album Nobody Love, Nobody Gets Hurt

Her last single to crack the country top 40 was written by Matraca Berg, Suzy & hubby Doug Crider. The girl is brokenhearted and wants somebody cause the night is long. But “she’s got to be tough and hold out honey cause, what you really want is somebody to love”.

#19

Diamonds and Tears

from the 1993 album Something Up My Sleeve

In an article Kevin wrote on Matraca Berg, he said the song was “Berg’s finest philosophical moment, a reflection on how the journey of life is its own destination. Even lost love is a form of “higher education”: “I have said and heard the word ‘goodbye’, felt the blade and turned the knife sideways. But I crossed bridges while they burned, to keep from losing what I’ve learned along the way.” The song was co-written by Gary Harrison.

#18

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

from the 2001 album Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

The song is based on the Longfellow poem, “Christmas Bells”, which was written on Christmas Day 1864, a few months before the end of the Civil War. Verse two expresses despair that there’s no peace on earth. In verse three, joy triumphs: “then pealed the bells more loud and deep, God is not dead, nor doth he sleep, the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.”

#17

“In Heaven”

from the 2007 album Sweet Danger

Solely written by Doug Crider, who has written 184 songs, this song always gets to me. Since I can’t think of a better way to say it (how’s that for sucking up?), I’ll quote Kevin again from his review noted above: “As Bogguss asks her deceased husband for his blessing on the new love she has found, all of the shades of emotion are there in her multi-layered performance: fear, apprehension, guilt, joy, sorrow. You can feel the conflict inside of her character as she sings every line.”

#16

“Goodnight”

from the 1999 album Suzy Bogguss

This Charlie Black and Dana Hunt song is a perfect fit for my playlists of songs mentioning a U.S. city or state. The woman is trying to get back with her lover, but keeps just missing him. The chorus goes “So goodnight Raleigh, goodnight Durham, goodnight Atlanta and Macon and Jacksonville, Live from high atop the hood of my car, I’m signing off, sweet dreams baby, wherever you are”.

#15

“She Said, He Heard”

from the 1996 album Give Me Some Wheels

A song Suzy wrote with Don Schlitz about the different planets men and women sometimes occupy. “She said ‘I’m mad’, he heard ‘I’m leaving’, she said ‘I’m sad’, he heard ‘It’s all your fault’.”

#14

“How Come You Go to Her”

from the 1992 album Voices in the Wind

A what’s she got that that I ain’t got song from Anthony Smith, Michael Garvin and Suzy. “You said it was heaven in my arms, so how come they ain’t holding you.”

#13

“Cold Day in July”

from the 1992 album Voices in the Wind

“You always said that the day you’d leave me, would be a cold day in July”. I love the Dixie Chicks but Suzy’s earlier recording of this Richard Leigh song from 1981 blows them out of the water.

#12

“Just Like the Weather”

from the 1993 album Something Up My Sleeve

Her man is thinking about leaving, so she uses the changeability of the weather as a metaphor to convince him to stay and tough it out. A Bogguss-Crider writing collaboration that resulted in a top ten hit.

#11

“I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart”

from the 1989 album Somewhere Between

Suzy’s cover of Country Music Hall of Famer Patsy Montana’s signature song first released in 1935. Love Suzy’s yodeling.

#10

“Saying Goodbye to a Friend”

from the 1996 album Give Me Some Wheels

A song from Angela Kaset and Doug Gill about trying to get over the loss of a loved one. Lines like “These little things that shouldn’t matter, make something inside me shatter” and “like a scene in a rearview mirror, I thought I’d got past it, now I’m looking at it again” reflect the singer’s state of mind.

#9

“Handyman’s Dream”

from the 1989 album Somewhere Between

A bouncy Gary Nicholson-Pam Tillis tune about potential as expressed by lines like: “I’m a little rundown from lack of attention, but my possibilities are too numerous to mention” and “I need a man who’s not afraid to roll up his sleeves, If you could only picture what the end result will be”. Hmm.

#8

“Someday Soon”

from the 1991 album Aces

An Ian Tyson classic, first recorded in 1964. The woman’s problem: “He loves his damned old rodeo as much as he loves me.” Today her problem would more likely be playing golf or watching football.

#7

“Letting Go”

from the 1991 album Aces

A song from hubby Doug and Matt Rollings that parents sending their kids off to college for the first time can appreciate. I speak from first hand experience.

#6

“Eat at Joe’s”

from the 1992 album Voices in the Wind

In this Berg-Harrison tune about a waitress in an all night diner, Suzy’s sounds a bit sassy as she sings “here’s a hot top on your coffee, honey you’re a mess, I ain’t your wife, I ain’t your momma, but I’ll do I guess”.

#5

“It’s Not Gonna Happen Today”

from the 2007 album Sweet Danger

Kevin’s comment: “Bogguss co-wrote one of the strongest tracks on the album, the dark and despondent “It’s Not Gonna Happen Today.” It finds the narrator hiding out in her house on an autumn afternoon, with the leaves piling up outside. “I don’t really want to face all the things I’ve left undone,” she confesses. “At least a thousand things…maybe only one.” Suzy’s co-writers were Greg Barnhill and Doug Crider.

#4

“Night Rider’s Lament”

from the 1989 album Somewhere Between

There’s low pay and no advancement so why does this cowboy ride and rope for his living in this Michael Burton song? The end of the chorus provides the answer to the suggestion that “he must have gone crazy out there”:

But he’s never seen the Northern Lights
Never seen a hawk on the wing
He’s never seen Spring hit the Great Divide
And never heard Ol’ Camp Cookie sing.

Suzy’s yodeling at the end is awesome.

#3

“Something Up My Sleeve”

from the 1993 album Something Up My Sleeve

A duet with Billy Dean penned by Suzi Ragsdale and Verlon Thompson. The relationship isn’t working out for either party but neither one wants to leave. Suzy sings the first verse and Billy the second. In the third verse they alternate lines, Suzy then Billy responding. In the fourth verse, they again alternate, Billy with Suzy answering. They end together singing “I wish I had the power to make us both believe, I wish I had something up my sleeve.” Both contribute equally, a true duet, and their voices, Suzy’s soprano and Billy’s baritone, go so well together.

#2

“Hey Cinderella”

from the 1993 album Something Up My Sleeve

The fantasy of the first two verses turns into “dreams that lost their way” by the end of the third verse. The chorus begins “Hey Cinderella” and ends with the question “Does the shoe fit you now?” In the song’s second half, reality has totally set in. There’s talk of compromising and coming to terms with our vanity. Suzy co-wrote the song with Berg and Harrison.

#1

“Aces”

from the 1991 album Aces

Writer Cheryl Wheeler once explained that the song is about 3 persons. A and the singer, B, are former lovers. A introduces B to C and the latter two get together. A and C were also former lovers. B is singing to A who complained about B and C getting together. Hence, she sings “you can’t deal me the Aces and think I wouldn’t play.”

Since the lyrics do not mention this third party, C, another interpretation could be that of mentor and protege. The former trains the latter and makes her a star but never wants to relinquish control. (Porter and Dolly?) Lines like “you feel undermined and hurt again” and “compromise and realize you can never really run every thing you start” could fit this second scenario. This has been how I always interpreted the lyrics. Cheryl’s explanation can be found on her website.

19 Comments

Filed under Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists

Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: Sara Evans

I was in my early teens when I first discovered Sara Evans… and I thought she was the greatest thing since sliced bread.  The rich, throaty texture of her distinct voice reeled me in, and her entertaining mixture of traditional and contemporary influences had me thoroughly hooked.  Now that I’ve also become familiar with the likes of Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis, Trisha Yearwood, and Emmylou Harris, my view of Sara is a little more in-perspective these days, but I do still consider myself a big fan, and she holds a special distinction as one of the first female country artists I really got into.

Radio passed on her when she first emerged as a neotraditionalist in the late nineties, but with future efforts, Sara went on to become a star, thanks to her ability to adapt to changing times while still staying true to herself.  She was one of the dominant female country voices on the radio dial in the early years of the twenty-first century, and after enduring a bit of a dry spell for a few years, she has recently experienced a commercial resurgence.

Though she maintained a fairly consistent quality standard for the better part of her career, recent years have seen that standard slipping thanks to subpar pop-country cuts in the vein of “Feels Just Like a Love Song.”  Nonetheless, Sara still deserves credit for having a solid body of work behind her that’s well worth remembering.  If we’re fortunate, perhaps we may one day see Sara make a return to form, or even delve back into her traditional country and bluegrass roots.

The following list includes many of the songs that best exemplify the qualities that drew me to the music of Sara Evans in the first place.  It’s not meant to be a strict listing of the songs that unquestionably rank as Sara’s “best;” (which would be pretty subjective anyway) It’s merely a list of my own personal favorites.  Let it be an enjoyable look back on some of Sara’s finest moments.  If you would like to share any of your own favorites in the comments section, please feel free to do so.

#25

“A Little Bit Stronger”

Stronger, 2011

Somehow, Sara’s comeback hit finds a way to hit my sweet spot for power ballads. (Yes, I actually do have a sweet spot for power ballads, though few have been able to hit it) What was it about this song that won me over?  Maybe it was the subtle strains of mandolin and steel.  Maybe it’s the build-up nature of the song – the way the progressive nature of the narrator’s healing is mirrored by the production and by Sara’s vocal delivery.  At any rate, the ingredients come together to form a record greater than the sum of its parts.

#24

“New Hometown”

Real Fine Place, 2005

It’s not just a song about how cool small-town life is.  Stylistically, the song even ranks as one of Sara’s most pop-friendly album tracks.  As Sara’s character expresses her desire to escape the hustle-and-bustle of city life, the song becomes a plea for a return to the simple things in life.  Though not all of us intend to make a big old move to a small town, no doubt many among us harbor a similar deep-down yearning just to “find a little earth to stand on.”

#23

“Perfect”

Restless, 2003

The catchy guitar hook is an instant attention-getter, but this number-two hit from Sara’s Restless album has a heart and a simple message at its core:  “Real love and real life doesn’t have to be perfect.”  Add in a few quirky and clever lines such as “If in every wedding picture my daddy looks annoyed, it’s all right,” as well as the fitting conclusion that “All the fairy tales tell a lie,” and you’ve got a real beauty.

#22

“Momma’s Night Out” 

Real Fine Place, 2005

I love this song mainly because it’s a side of Sara that we haven’t seen very often.  She’s rarely been one to record party songs.  But on this track, Sara takes on the role of an overworked mother who throws in the towel, leaves the kids with daddy, and hits the town with the girls.  Sara’s sassy vocal finds her as loose as she’s ever been, while the funky horn-infused production makes it an unforgettable track

#21

“Cupid”

No Place That Far, 1999

The distinct voice of George Jones, even when coming in the form of background vocals, has the ability to make a great song even greater (see Patty Loveless, “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me”).  In this shamelessly twangy steel-infused country rave-up from No Place That Far, the Possum joins Sara in delivering the unshakable hook of “Tell Cupid not to point that thing at me!”

#20

“Restless”

Restless, 2003

I have a bit of a weakness for country music that borrows from Irish and Celtic influences as this track does.  The gorgeous Celtic-harp-laced arrangement makes “Restless” a highlight of one of Sara’s most stylistically-diverse albums.  The lyrics are every bit as beautiful, poetically telling of a restless soul learning to make peace with the fact that she will be a wanderer until the day she dies.

#19

“Low”

Billy: The Early Years (soundtrack), 2008

Sara’s contribution to the Billy soundtrack is nothing short of a pure joy, replete with the sounds of pure country and bluegrass instrumentation.  Though the lyrics invoke religious elements, they don’t sound preachy at all.  It’s not a “You should live your life this way” kind of song;  It’s an “I’m going to live my life this way” kind of song.  It’s a proactive anthem of strength, resolve, and determination – more uplifting than a million Martina McBride power ballads combined.

#18

“I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

Fact:  Sara sounds best when singing traditional country music.  Going back and listening to Sara’s shamelessly neotraditional debut album is a joy for any fan of stone cold country.  Here she pays tribute to the vintage Bakersfield sound with a cover of a Buck Owens hit co-written by Harlan Howard.  Besides being a highlight of the Three Chords and the Truth album, this song was instrumental in helping Sara get the chance to snag a record deal and become a star.  It was when the legendary songwriter Harlan Howard himself heard Sara’s performance of his classic song that he threw all his efforts into helping the young talent get discovered.

#17

“Fool, I’m a Woman”

No Place That Far, 1999

This deliciously snarky tune has Matraca Berg’s fingerprints all over it.  In a composition by one of country’s finest songwriters, Sara plays off the age-old stereotype of a woman’s continual habit of changing her mind.  She scoffs at old romantic clichés as she pointedly tells off her soon-to-be-ex-lover – “You used to tell me so many nights/ You don’t deserve me/ Well maybe you were right.”  Ouch!

#16

“A Real Fine Place to Start”

Real Fine Place, 2005

I have a major affinity for songs that can effectively channel the excitement of a newfound romance, and this Radney Foster-penned number-one hit from 2005 squarely hits that target.  Thanks in large part to Sara’s soaring vocal performance, “A Real Fine Place to Start” is a fun, breezy record that bubbles over with energy and exuberance, and begs to be blasted out one’s car windows.  A shining example of pop-country done well.

#15

“Why Should I Care”

Born to Fly, 2000

A sparse pop-country ballad in which a woman struggles to make sense of the feelings of guilt and jealousy that suddenly surface when she finds out that her former lover has found someone new.

#14

“Imagine That”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

Sara’s take on this Patsy Cline torch ballad ranks as arguably one of the finest displays of Sara’s vocal talents that can be found on any of her studio albums.

#13

“Bible Song”

Real Fine Place, 2005

This melancholy Lori McKenna song was one of the best tracks on Real Fine Place.  While so many country stars have gleefully sang the praises of small-town living, “Bible Song” echoes the message that life in such idealistic small towns is not always what it’s cracked up to be.  The pace of life may be slower, but this tragic story of a young man’s drug-induced death shows that even small town residents at times fall prey to their own inner demons.

#12

“Rockin’ Horse”

Restless, 2003

A genuine nugget of wisdom is wrapped up in this blazing fiddle-shredder.  The narrator recounts a frightening childhood experience in which a tree falls near her family’s house after being struck by lightning.  Then her father carves the tree’s wood into a rocking horse that becomes one of her most treasured toys.   By showing how this experience shapes the narrator’s outlook on life, “Rockin’ Horse” becomes a colorful testament to the power of positive thinking, with its message summed up in the memorable hook “When it’s pouring down on me/ In my life I see the rockin’ horse inside the tree.”

#11

“As If”

Greatest Hits, 2007

Four new tracks were included on Sara’s 2007 Greatest Hits package, and this almost-Top 10 hit was by far the best.  With cheeky, humorous lyrics, Sara satirically poked fun at the human tendency toward infatuation that blinds one to all a person’s shortcomings.  The catchy melody and energetic performance made for an earworm of a record that was truly unforgettable.

#10

“What That Drink Cost Me”

Stronger, 2011

The new album could have benefited greatly from more songs like this.  This restrained steel guitar weeper is the stuff of a country classic – a heart-wrenching tale of the destructive power of alcohol.  Though the Stronger album as a whole found Sara saddled with an excess of disposable material, the fact that it also included one of the best songs she had written in years is an encouraging sign.  Besides that, “What That Drink Cost Me” is yet another example of one of the qualities that I’ve always appreciated about Sara’s music:  Even after she went in a more pop-flavored musical direction, her traditional country influences were never fully snuffed out.

#9

“If You Ever Want My Lovin’”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

This loose, flirty, upbeat little ditty was co-written by Sara along with Billy Yates and Melba Montgomery.  Though the cheeky lyrics can put an instant smile on one’s face, the record’s most endearing trait is Sara’s raw, expressive vocal delivery.  Though Sara’s Missouri twang is toned back on some of her more pop-oriented material, this record allows that twang to stand front and center.

#8

“Unopened”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

This was the only original song on Sara’s debut album on which she did not share writing credits, originating from the pen of Leslie Satcher.  As the song’s narrator discovers evidence of a secret love from her man’s past, she views his willingness to leave it behind as evidence of his genuine love for her.  She resolves to return that love by trusting in her man, and allowing his secret to remain a secret.

#7

“No Place That Far”

No Place That Far, 1999

Vince Gill is one of country music’s favorite harmony vocalists (besides being an A-list legend in his own right), and he adds something particularly special to the hauntingly beautiful love song that was Sara’s breakthrough chart-topper.  The song reaches a crescendo in the final chorus as Sara sings “If I had to run, if I had to crawl…” and is answered each time by that distinctive tenor.  It’s as if we’re listening to two lovers singing to one another from afar off, pledging their unwavering determination to be reunited.  Though it’s a great lyric in its own right, the chemistry of the two performers gives the story an extra layer that can’t be seen just by looking at the lyrics on paper.

#6

“I Learned That from You”

Born to Fly, 2000

Though found on one of Sara’s most pop-oriented albums, “I Learned from You” was one of the finest and most country tracks on Sara’s breakthrough album Born to Fly.  A heavy-hearted reflection on the difficult leassons learned from a first love that didn’t last, while also an appreciative recollection of all the happy memories that were made at the time.

#5

“Coalmine”

Real Fine Place, 2005

The timing was unfortunate for the release of this underplayed gem that offered a glimpse of Sara’s mountain bluegrass influences.  A flirty, playful lyric and performance added up to a song that was loads of fun as Sara fawned over her man “walking out of that coalmine, covered with dust, T-shirt tight, all muscled up.”  This is one Sara Evans single that is definitely deserving of a re-release.

#4

“Three Chords and the Truth”

Three Chords and the Truth, 1997

The title track of Sara’s debut is a testament to the power of country music in dredging up deeply held emotions in a listener – emotions that we might have ignored in the past.  It’s the kind of song that always reminds me why I love country music so much.  Sara’s character hears a country song on the radio for the first time, and it not only brings back the emotions, but it moves her to action.  It motivates her to turn the car around and reconcile with the lover she had intended to leave far behind.  “Three Chords” is a beautifully constructed story that effectively pays tribute to country music at its best, demonstrating that there’s so much more to this unique and special genre than what the ugly stereotypes would lead some to believe.

#3

“Suds In the Bucket”

Restless, 2003

Besides being an excellent singalong driving jam, this fiddle-and-steel-laden hit is a humorous glimpse at tongue-wagging small-town culture, sans the chest-pounding backwoods clichés that are common on country radio today.  Fun, playful, and full of personality, this country rave-up was the song that first got me into Sara Evans, and it’s remained a personal favorite of mine ever since.  It never fails to make me feel happy.

#2

“Cheatin’”

Real Fine Place, 2005

This Top Ten hit takes a classic country music theme – infidelity – and puts a distinct and memorable spin on it.  After having parted ways with an unfaithful spouse, Sara’s character gloats over the unpleasant living situation her ex has since found himself in.  But as the lyric progresses, she reveals that she has been genuinely hurt by his actions, and she unashamedly drops the bomb of “Yes, I’ll be glad to take you back just as soon as I stop breathing.”  Amusingly spiteful and achingly emotional at the same time, “Cheatin’” exemplifies the layered organic storytelling that makes for a killer country song, while the traditional-styled arrangement acts as the perfect sonic backdrop to Sara’s bitterly nuanced performance.

#1

“Born to Fly”

Born to Fly, 2000

Sara’s career record remains one of her most enduring and effortlessly charming hits, and with it’s distinctive drumbeat intro and bluegrass-tinged instrumentation, it’s definitely one of her most recognizeable.  “Born to Fly” is an endearing coming-of-age tale of a young woman exploring her potential in life, and seeking to find her place in the world.  It manages to perfect the magic formula of possessing a unique identity of its own, while still being universal such that a wide array of individuals can relate to the feelings it expresses.  Who among us has never gone through this period of life as a young person?  We’ve all been at that crossroads point in life, and felt what it’s like to be “starin’ down the road, just lookin’ for my one chance to run.”

In a way, the song could also be seen as symbolic of the point Sara was at in her career when she recorded it.  Would her third album improve on the moderate success of No Place That Far, or would it be ignored like the commercially-underappreciated Three Chords and the Truth?  It was with this album and single that Sara struck platinum with a style that was just slick enough to be commercially friendly without sacrificing the heart of her earlier work.  The result?  Her career ‘soared away like a blackbird.’

In a career that has included many memorable singles, “Born to Fly” is one of the very finest.

41 Comments

Filed under Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists

Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: Rodney Crowell

As most of my favorite artists tend to be, Rodney is talented in multiple ways. Not only does he have a charismatic voice, he’s an accomplished musician, songwriter and producer. He has used these talents for himself, but has also shared them with many other artists. In fact, high-profile artists like Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, Johnny Cash, Chely Wright, among many others, have benefited from his musicianship, compositions and producing abilities.

In this feature, we will focus on some of the best Rodney Crowell songs–whether they were big hits, minor hits or unreleased album tracks—but these twenty-five songs certainly do not do enough justice to this man’s contribution to country music. As a result, look for an accompanying Favorite Songs by Favorite Songwriters feature on Rodney Crowell to come soon.

#25
“You’ve Been on My Mind”

from the 1989 album Keys to the Highway

The lyrics are a little ambiguous, but it’s clear that this is a lonesome song about love lost. Crowell can do a lonesome song with the best of them and he does just that here.

#24
“Telephone Road”

from the 2001 album The Houston Kid

With an infectious, driving production, “Telephone Road” depicts Crowell’s childhood with fondness (an ice cream from the ice cream truck was only 5 cents), but without the irresponsible nostalgia that seems to afflict many such songs of today (I’m looking at you Bucky Covington). To be totally shallow, this is one to blast on some good speakers.

#23
“Adam’s Song”

from the 2003 album Fate’s Right Hand

Anyone who has experienced the passing of a loved one knows the reality that Crowell sings about. As he knowingly observes, “We’ll keep learning how to live with a lifelong broken heart.”

#22
“Many A Long and Lonesome Highway”

from the 1989 album Keys to the Highway

This is the first song I’d ever heard by Rodney Crowell. At the time, I had just gotten into country music and the song was already four or five years old, but I had no idea of his history. I simply thought it was a great, melodic song. I still do.

#21
“Song for the Life”

from the 1978 album Ain’t Living Long Like This

To me, this song sounds mature and reflective, from a man who has lived and learned. However, in a 2005 20 Questions interview with CMT, Rodney reveals that he wrote this song when he was a mere twenty-one years old. And, is that Willie Nelson I hear singing background vocals? Yes, it is.

#20
“Fate’s Right Hand”

from the 2003 album Fate’s Right Hand

The title track of the critically acclaimed Fate’s Right Hand explores changing times and injustices much better than Toby Keith’s “American Ride” does.

#19
“Topsy Turvy”

from the 2001 album The Houston Kid

This song vividly paints the picture of Crowell’s parents’ abusive relationship. It’s from his perspective as the fully aware child who witnesses the turbulence. He doesn’t mince words throughout the song, but especially when he admits, “I cross my heart and tell myself ‘I hope they die’”. He also details the lack of meaningful response from neighbors and police officers.

#18
“Beautiful Despair

from the 2005 album The Outsider

It’s not a feeling that one wants to embrace often, but there are times when leaning into that feeling of despair propels one to action or at least some needed introspection. From this song, it’s likely that despair has played a beautiful function in his life.

#17
“Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight”

from the 1978 album Ain’t Living Long Like This

Emmylou Harris was one of the first people to record a Rodney Crowell song and what a gem it is. While Harris’ recording of it is the strongest and most exuberant version, Crowell’s version is great too.

#16
“This Too Will Pass”

from the 2003 album Fate’s Right Hand

What I like about a Rodney Crowell penned inspirational song is that it’s not embarrassing to listen to. It’s inspiring without sounding like a page from Chicken Soup for the Soul.

#15
“My Baby’s Gone” (with Emmylou Harris)

from the 2003 album Livin’ Lovin’ Losin': Songs of the Louvin Brothers

From the excellent Louvin Brothers tribute album, one of the many shining moments is this duet from Rodney and Emmylou Harris. It just cements the fact that they need to do a duets album. Stat!

#14
“The Rock of My Soul”

from the 2001 album The Houston Kid

While this song is not strictly autobiographical, it is a chilling representation of Crowell’s tumultuous experiences with his father.

#13
“Dancin’ Circles Round the Sun (Epictetus Speaks)”

from the 2005 album The Outsider

Here’s another example of Rodney Crowell inspiring without sickening.

#12
“After All This Time”

from the 1988 album Diamonds & Dirt

If you’re not listening carefully, you might think this is a pretty love song. It, however, is a wistful love song to a relationship that no longer exists.

#11
“I Walk the Line Revisited” (With Johnny Cash)

from the 2001 album The Houston Kid

This is a joyful account of the first time Crowell heard Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” on the radio as a kid. It’s an obvious full circle moment when Cash sings an altered melody of the classic on Crowell’s song about it.

#10
“We Can’t Turn Back”

from the 2005 album The Outsider

In his gentle but no nonsense way, Crowell explores the notion that we can’t change the past, which means that we can only focus on the present and what we can do to make it better.

#9
“Artemis and Orion”

from the 2003 digital release Lost Tracks

Supported by a delightfully simple production and memorable tune, Rodney sings a version of the story of Artemis and Orion from Greek Mythology. I’m not sure of the origins of the song, since it seems to have been randomly recorded by Crowell, but it is fun to listen to.

#8
“’Til I Gain Control Again”

from the 1981 album Rodney Crowell

Crowell has written several songs that have become classics for him and for others. “’Til I Gain Control Again” was first recorded by Emmylou Harris in the mid-seventies, then made famous by Crystal Gayle in the early eighties and subsequently recorded by many artists over the years. Crowell’s own version is beautifully sung with just the right air of forlornness.

#7
“Things that Go Bump in the Day”

from the 2005 album The Outsider

I hardly even know what this song means, but I still love it for its bouncy production, unshakable melody and Crowell’s energy while singing it. I dare you not to get it stuck in your head.

#6
“The Outsider”

from the 2005 album The Outsider

The effective use of horns in this bluesy soul infused song is enough to hook me, but the theme of being okay with being different is something to embrace too.

#5
“Things I Wish I Said”

from the 1989 album Keys to the Highway

Much has been written and said about Rodney Crowell’s difficult relationship with his violent father, but the end of that story is that they found a way to heal their relationship and turn it into something healthy and tender. This song is personal to Crowell as it describes the relief that he feels that he has no regrets with the passing of his father. Likewise, it is a universal sentiment that most of us can relate to as well.

#4
“She’s Crazy for Leaving”

from the 1988 album Diamonds & Dirt

I love this song because both the melody and the song’s vividly painted story are equally funky. The scene that’s created for the song is fodder for a hilarious and ridiculous comedy sketch.

#3
“Riding Out the Storm”

from the 2003 album Fate’s Right Hand

A not so beautiful picture is underscored by a beautiful melody and poetic lyrics. That’s one of Rodney Crowell’s effortless songwriting talents.

#2
“Making Memories of Us”

from the 2004 album The Notorious Cherry Bombs

Keith Urban is who made this song famous and Crowell a little richer, but Rodney Crowell, backed by Vince Gill, is who makes it a fine treasure. Written for his wife as a last minute Valentine’s Day gift, it’s a tender love song that rivals most modern songs of its ilk. It’s one of those “action” songs that I especially love. He’s not just promising to love her, but also pledging to be an active part of their relationship in order to create meaningful memories.

#1
“Shelter from the Storm” (with Emmylou Harris)

from the 2005 album The Outsider

Again, there’s no reason that Emmylou and Rodney shouldn’t make a duets album together. With sublime vocal chemistry, they turn this Bob Dylan song into something entirely different than what it once was. Instead of having to dig for the gem, they put it out there front and center for us. It’s gorgeous and it’s their interpretation that makes it so.

In “Beautiful Despair”, Crowell acknowledges the depth of Bob Dylan’s songwriting and his feelings of inadequacy when compared to Dylan’s ability. He sings: “Beautiful despair is hearing Dylan/ When you’re drunk at 3 a.m. / Knowing that the chances are/ No matter what you’ll never write like him.”

As a Dylan fan, it may be heresy to think it, but methinks Rodney Crowell is being too hard on himself. It is not a knock on Rodney Crowell’s incredible songwriting that I chose a song that he did not write as my top Crowell song, but rather, a testament to his ability to interpret a legendary song well enough to make it his own.

27 Comments

Filed under Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists

Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: Reba McEntire

Reba McEntire

A guest contribution from Country Universe reader Zack Jodlowski.

When I first came across country music back in the eighth grade, I automatically gravitated towards the female artists of country music. When I heard the romp-stomping performance of “I’m Gonna Take That Mountain,” I thought “I have to hear more!”

Reba McEntire’s music has been such a lifesaver for me, that four years after my mom died, I found new found strength within me that allowed me to make peace with her death. It says a lot for a teenager to relate so strongly to the lyrics of Reba McEntire songs. Reba has been my favorite artist of all time, and she’ll most likely remain that for as long as I live.

Reba McEntire has been the heartbreak queen, an entertainer, and a superstar; at times she doesn’t make music choices that are spot-on, but her ability to deliver a song with an emotional tinge in her voice is all but rare in the music business, and with this ability she lifts a song up to another level. Reba also finds a way to relate to her audience with her music, whether it be helping someone through tragedies or inspiring people to continue to chase their dreams. Reba’s ability to adapt to the changing times and to continue to make herself relevant to the new country music generations is one that transcends the biases on radio that are established against females and the elder men and women of country music.

It was hard to narrow Reba’s extensive catalog down to twenty-five songs, and hard not to include some of her other great songs, but in the end I’ve managed to pick my twenty-five personal favorites.

#25

“Bobby”

For My Broken Heart, 1991

Truly heartbreaking. Bobby kills his spouse, causing hatred from his son to be thrust upon him, but in the chorus we find he does this out of love (he didn’t want his spouse to suffer any longer). His son later realizes his father’s intentions and realizes “He still missed his mama, but he’d missed his daddy too.” This is one of the rare Reba McEntire co-writes found in her catalog.

#24

“Fancy”

Rumor Has It, 1990

Reba captures the story of a woman thrust into prostitution at a young age by her mother in an iconic performance, but the woman is not ashamed or angry; she knows that her mother had to save her from a life of desperation and despair. Continue reading

23 Comments

Filed under Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists, Guest Commentary

Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: Wynonna

wynonnaA Guest Contribution
by Michael Allan

One of my earliest musical memories is singing along to the Judds’ Rockin’ With the Rhythm album as a child in the car. Unfortunately, the world’s most famous mother-daughter duo was forced to end their career early in 1991 when Naomi was diagnosed with hepatitis. To this day, however, their catchy songs still get plenty of “spins” on my iPod.

Even if Wynonna had never pursued a solo career after the Judds, her place in country music’s history would have been secure. However, I for one am so happy she did continue to sing and make music after her mother’s retirement. Her voice has a distinct personality, yet her catalog is eclectic. You never really know what to expect when Wy releases a new album – except that it will most likely be good.

However, beyond her music (which you will read about below), being the woman in a poster on my teenage bedroom wall and being my first autograph (scored by my grandmother when the CMA Music Festival was still called Fan Fair), I have a great deal of respect for Wynonna the person. She devotes countless hours of time to charities such as YouthAIDS and faces potential scandals and her personal struggles with remarkable candor and humor, all the while sharing the gift of her voice with us.

#25
“Why Now”
from The Other Side (1997)

We’ve all been there or know someone who has. You can’t help loving someone, even if you know they’re bad for you. Wynonna’s voice and singing style capture the emotions and feelings of pain that go along with it. One of the Judds’ later singles from Love Can Build a Bridge that is often overlooked, “One Hundred and Two”, is similar in spirit and comes highly recommended.

#24
“Father Sun”
from Tell Me Why (1993)

With cryptic lyrics co-written by Sheryl Crow, this pop nugget has an almost mystical quality to it.

#23
“Always Will”
from The Other Side (1997)

Wynonna’s voice is in fine form on the closing tune from her 1997 album. It glides comfortably over the lyrics and a strumming guitar. A love song filled with promises, it is a wish that, from time to time as love evolves, you will be surprised by how new, exciting and powerful it can still be. Maybe Wynonna even viewed this as a love song to her children.

#22
“Attitude”
from Her Story: Scenes from a Lifetime (2005)

The title says it all in this one. This rockin’, defiant anthem is her last Top 40 hit to date.

#21
“Woman to Woman”
from Tammy Wynette Remembered (1998)

Wy’s soulful, sultry take on a classic, from the First Lady of Country Music.

#20
“Sing”
from Sing Chapter 1 (2009)

To celebrate her 25th anniversary in the music business Wynonna released a stellar collection of covers (Her take on Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Dionne Warwick’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart”, in particular, are worth seeking out.). Here the master interpreter takes on the project’s title cut and lone new song, written by the great Rodney Crowell.

#19
“Girls With Guitars”
from Tell Me Why (1993)

Mary Chapin Carpenter penned this ode for all the women who’ve played their guitars instead of pursuing law school and medicine (even you, Taylor Swift). An empowering anthem like this makes me miss the 90s which was a much better decade for women in country music than the last ten years have been. Lyle Lovett sings background vocals.

#18
“Free Bird”
from Skynyrd Frynds (1994)

The Holy Grail of rock songs (Dolly Parton’s take on “Stairway to Heaven” notwithstanding.). Taking on this epic, iconic anthem is a daunting task, but Wynonna makes it work. It’s hard not to be entranced by the way her voices wraps around the guitar. For another fine example of Wy’s ability to effectively tackle rock songs, track down her version of Dire Strait’s “Water of Love” from the Judds’ River of Time album.

#17
“Heaven Help My Heart”
from Revelations (1996)

Co-written by Australian pop star Tina Arena, it’s no coincidence this is one of Wynonna’s most pop sounding songs. I’m betting the gusto of her strong voice almost blew the roof off the studio the day she recorded this earnest plea for love. My favorite part of this almost six minute song is when she hums her way into the third line of the second verse.

#16
“You Are”
from Someone Like You (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) (2001)

Wynonna had a hand in writing this mid-tempo, moving dedication to her sister Ashley. Here’s hoping we all find someone in life that we love and respect enough to sing this to.

#15
“No One Else On Earth (Club Mix)”
from Collection (1997)

Wy’s signature about love’s ability to crack even the toughest of nuts. This particular mix may sound a little dated, but I like it because you can definitely feel the 90s country (my favorite era)/line dance vibe.

#14
“That Was Yesterday”
from Tell Me Why (1993)

With her signature sly growls and purrs, this bluesy track (written by mother Naomi) is perhaps the best example of Wynonna’s range. It is a scathing done me wrong number that warns against crossing Wy. The nefarious cackle she gives when her man gets what he deserves lets us know that this is a new day and that… was yesterday.

#13
“A Bad Goodbye”
from No Time To Kill (1993)

Wynonna has had a number of great duet partners in her career since going solo (Kenny Rogers, John Berry, Michael English, Tammy Wynette), but none as commercially successful as her pairing with Clint Black. This classic, sad country duet came together as a result of the Black & Wy tour and their voices compliment each other well. A great song made perfect the second you hear Wynonna’s voice enter.

#12
“Rock Bottom”
from Tell Me Why (1993)

With lyrics like “When you hit rock bottom, you’ve got two ways to go: straight and sideways… Straight up is my way,” “When you get down to nothin’, you’ve got nothin’ to lose,” and “A dead end street is just a place to turn around,” this song is more inspiring than any motivational poster I’ve ever seen.

#11
“It’s Never Easy to Say Goodbye”
from Wynonna (1992)

The stories of Jimmy and his mom, Julie Rae and her dad and other lost friends morph into a gospel-esque final verse that would fit right in at church. It was later covered by Kenny Chesney on his 1996 album Me and You.

#10
“Burning Love”
from Disney’s Lilo and Stitch Soundtrack (2002)

I defy you not to shake your hips when listening to Wynonna’s excellent, fun take on the King’s classic. There’s nothing G Rated about this hot ditty.

#9
“Can’t Nobody Love You (Like I Do)”
from New Day Dawning (2000)

This beautiful, piano laden ballad is both soft and sexy and would fit in comfortably on AC radio stations.

#8
“All of That Love From Here”
from Wynonna (1992)

With a prominent mandolin and strong imagery provided by the details, this tune has an almost dreamlike quality. Lyrics about mama and chasing dreams probably took on a significant autobiographical aspect for Wynonna as she was striking out on her own for the first time in her career at this point. (“Sometimes I Feel Like Elvis” from What the World Needs Now Is Love is another example of a song that feels like it could have been written by her.)

#7
“What the World Needs Now”
from What the World Needs Now Is Love (2003)

Some may say the lyrics are clichéd but I find that this song just proves how a sincere, simple message can remain true. I remember this track coming on my iPod one day when I was running on a treadmill and watching a closed captioned CNN report about a school shooting. It put a lump in my throat and brought a tear to my eye.

#6
“She Is His Only Need”
from Wynonna (1992)

This three act story song (reminiscent of the Judds’ “Young Love (Strong Love)”) is the sweet tale of Billy and Bonnie. It served as Wy’s solo debut single and her first number one.

#5
“O Come O Come Emmanuel”
from A Classic Christmas (2006)

Like Celine Dion’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” and Martina McBride’s “O Holy Night” before it, Wynonna’s version of this Christmas standard has now become the definitive version in my book. Wy exercises restraint and bravado at appropriate levels in the right spots. Essential December listening. Also worth checking out during the holidays are “Let’s Make a Baby King” and “Ave Maria”.

#4
“Come Some Rainy Day”
from The Other Side (1997)

You can’t help but be taken back to your childhood and then high school years when listening to this song, even if your experiences aren’t exactly the same as those painted in the lyrics. A gorgeous reminder to remember our dreams. Simply stunning.

#3
“Is It Over Yet”
from Tell Me Why (1993)

Wynonna captures the pain and heartache of breaking up in this lush ballad. Piano, strings and her voice convey an illustration more powerful than even the lyrics suggest. If she’s not going to cry, I just might. A similar song also worth downloading is the smoldering “Don’t Look Back” from Revelations.

#2
“I Want to Know What Love Is”
from What the World Needs Now Is Love (2003)

Our vocal powerhouse’s tour de force. Wynonna really lets loose on this number and shows us what she’s capable of. She’s never sounded better and with Jeff Beck assisting on guitar, listening becomes a downright religious experience. This is no longer Foreigner’s song. It belongs to Wynonna now.

#1
“When I Reach the Place I’m Going”
from Wynonna (1992)

In a morbid sort of way, I’ve always known what song I want played at my funeral. (To be fair, I’m not the only one. My mom has long stated that she wants Willie Nelson’s “What a Wonderful World” played at hers.) Although brief (clocking in at less than three minutes), this song is in the vein of some of the Judds’ greatest spiritual hits (Think “I Know Where I’m Going”.) and in fact, features background vocals by Naomi. Written by Emory Gordy, Jr., it was later covered by his wife Patty Loveless on 2005’s Dreamin’ My Dreams.

16 Comments

Filed under Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists

Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: Dan Seals

dan-sealsThe following is a guest contribution by Country Universe reader Tad Baierlein.

When Dan Seals died of lymphoma last Wednesday, a great deal of the press coverage centered on his days as “England Dan” in the soft rock duo England Dan and John Ford Coley. Seals’ country career, though more successful for a longer period of time, seemed to be treated as an afterthought.

Many of the obituaries mentioned Seals’ biggest country hit, “Bop”; hardly an accurate representation of his years spent in country. Now, it’s perfectly justifiable to glance at a person’s career highlights for a newspaper obituary, but I think that a great deal more attention should’ve been paid to Seals’ death within the country music community. I would like to contribute this little appreciation to one of my favorite country artists.

rebel-heart#25
“The Banker”
Rebel Heart, 1983

For two years following the split of England Dan and John Ford Coley, nothing seemed to be going right for Seals. First off, he recorded two solo soft rock albums just as that sound was going out of favor. Aside from one single ekeing its way into the Adult Contemporary charts, the albums were considered huge failures. Secondly, Seals had accrued a massive amount of debt to the IRS; almost everything he owned was repossessed to pay it. Seals’ move to Nashville had been planned for quite a while but in 1982 it seemed almost a necessity.

This song that he wrote for Rebel Heart would seem to place his frustrations and hope in the story of a man trying to save his land from an evil, number-crunching banker. Sometimes when it seems like all hope is lost all you can do is work to get yourself out of trouble. Seals could only hope that the oil-rich resolution of “The Banker” came true in his life as well; he wouldn’t have to worry.

on-the-front-line#24
“Fewer Threads Than These”
On the Front Line, 1986

The Seals album On the Front Line was his first as a country superstar. Refreshingly, Seals decided to go in a more self-assuredly country direction. With only a few exceptions (“I Will Be There,” “You Still Move Me”) the album follows a more straightforward country path. The album not only points to the direction Seals would take with his Rage On album, but also to the direction producer Kyle Lehning was already pursuing with his most famous artist, Randy Travis. This song, one of only three on the album not written by Seals, is a lovely traditional-sounding tune about patience in a relationship, featuring great dobro work by Jerry Douglas.

rebel-heart#23
“Candle in the Rain”
Rebel Heart, 1983

Seals had worked with Kyle Lehning for six years prior to his first country album. Lehning produced the most successful albums for England Dan and John Ford Coley. Much like Seals, Lehning didn’t consider himself part of the rock ’n’ roll community. Not only was he already working in Nashville at the time he started producing England Dan, he was established as a country musician (working with artists
like Waylon Jennings and the Glaser Brothers).

If Seals hadn’t strongly indicated an interest in country music right off the bat, it’s more than likely that he would’ve drifted in that direction anyway with Lehning at the helm. “Candle in the Rain,” an album track from Rebel Heart, features a new wave/country mix that’s pretty revolutionary. Right off the bat there’s a combination of acoustic guitar and synthesizer that hadn’t been heard in country music previous to Lehning’s production. The clear, almost new wave, drum beat in the chorus, the mixture of steel guitar and synthesizer, the airy backing vocals; “Candle in the Rain” really does combine the best elements of country and rock. It was a sound that Lehning and Seals would return to on many occasions.

san-antone#22
“My Baby’s Got Good Timing”
San Antone, 1984

Bob McDill and Dan Seals had a mutually beneficial songwriting relationship during Seals peak years as a country artist. McDill helped Seals find his voice as a country artist and songwriter, and Seals allowed McDill to get back to the more challenging material he had written in the seventies for folks like Don Williams and Bobby Bare. “My Baby’s Got Good Timing” is a tenetive first step for both artists; both are still unsure of Seals viability as a country artist.This is mainly McDill’s patented breezy love song matched with Seals’ best pop vocals. It’s an excellent combination but one that doesn’t point to the brilliant compositions the two would write in the years to come.

rebel-heart#21
“God Must Be a Cowboy”
Rebel Heart, 1983

To me, Seals’ Bahai faith really colors “God Must Be a Cowboy,” his first top ten hit. From what I understand (and I probably don’t) Bahai is like a buffet table of spirituality (take a little of this from Christianity, a little of that from Hinduism, oh that part of Islam looks good…), with meditation on universal tolerance at its core. “God Must Be a Cowboy” travels on the well-worn path of songs about country beauty vs. city clog, but there’s a meditative quality to the lyrics that separates it from the pack.

Seals takes time to appreciate the friendship of an old guitar, whose sound “sure smooths the wrinkles of my soul.” “An eagle overhead” makes Seals want to fly away before his time. Whatever home means to you, thank God there’s a trail to take you back there. Seals doesn’t chastise the city (“it’s alright for awhile/Sure makes you feel good when you’re there”), but he understands that in order to appreciate it you must first appreciate the quiet moments in the country. As a country artist, Seals tended to share his faith more by recording songs about tolerance rather than preaching. “God Must Be a Cowboy” really embraces his faith to a point that it shouldn’t be ignored.

on-the-front-line#20
“Lullaby” (with Emmylou Harris)
On the Front Line, 1986

In many ways this song could be considered the opposite (or resolution of) Seals‘ huge 1985 duet “Meet Me In Montana.” Marie Osmond’s saccharine vocals are replaced by Emmylou Harris’ relaxed harmonies. A spare acoustic sound (highlighted by Mark O’Connor’s always welcome fiddle) replaces the rather bombastic orchestration of “Meet Me In Montana.” Poignancy and contentedness replaces fear and urgency. While “Meet Me in Montana” practically throttles you to get its attention (in a good way), “Lullaby” glides. The song doesn’t draw attention to itself, and if you notice how beautiful it is at the end of On the Front Line, well, good for you. A lovely song.

wont-be-blue-anymore#19
“Bop”
Won’t Be Blue Anymore, 1985

Undeniably catchy, and a monster crossover hit that rocketed Seals to the top of country play lists, “Bop” is also marred by some of the worst tendencies of eighties production. From the processed saxophone to the drum machine to the squiggly synth prominent in the mix, “Bop” was Public Enemy Number One for folks who wanted country music to get back to its traditional roots. The strange thing is, “Bop”was not only an anomaly as far as Seals’ country career was concerned, but it also doesn’t match anything Kyle Lehning has been known for before or since. “Bop” was a very fun gamble that worked extraordinarily well. The unfortunate side effect was that the song associated Seals with the pre-packaged country the hat acts tried to eradicate in the early nineties.

on-the-front-line#18
“I Will Be There”
On the Front Line, 1986

A bit of a bone thrown at the pop-country crowd that made “Bop” such a massive hit (co-written by Jennifer Kimball, the co-writer of “Bop”). That isn’t to say it’s not an impressive song, but aside from the mandolin that comes and goes in the verses it’s not very country. “I Will Be There” sticks out like a sore thumb on On the Front Line. Even so, the production is definitely more tasteful than “Bop”; it’s almost as if Seals and Lehning looked at what they had done and were like, “we need to step back a little from this for our own good.” Also very prominently featured on this song are Baillie and the Boys, a vocal group who had quite a few hits of their own in the late eighties, as well as providing excellent backup to the likes of Seals, Randy Travis and Clint Black, among others.

make-it-home#17
“Saw You in My Dreams”
Make it Home, 2002

After the failure of his last two singles from On Arrival, Seals decided to sign a deal with Warner Bros. The resulting albums, Walking the Wire and the Kyle Lehning-less Fired Up, were flops. After the inevitable drop from Warner Bros. Seals became a touring artist at modest venues. With one exception, Seals’ only albums from 1994 to his death were live recordings of old hits.

His last chance at regaining his country audience was 2002’s Make it Home, a very nice collection of new material (mainly written by Seals or Nashville pro Rand Bishop). There are no amazing moments on Make it Home, but it’s almost uniformly well done. The best song on the album, in my opinion, is this song about a chance encounter/pickup. For a subject that could’ve turned sleazy on a dime (“would you believe I saw you in my dreams” he casually mentions to his crush in the chorus) it’s a sincere and very sweet song. If Make it Home is indeed Seals’ last solo album, it’s a good way to finish things up.

rage-on#16
“Big Wheels in the Moonlight”
Rage On, 1988

Seals’ 1988 album Rage On is probably his definitive moment as an artist. All of a sudden the relaxed production of On the Front Line was matched with uniformly good songs. One of the recurring themes of Rage On is wanderlust, whether it’s from a relationship (“Addicted”) or the boredom of a small town (“They Rage On”).

Wanderlust is name-checked in “Big Wheels in the Moonlight,” and it’s probably the most deceptively downcast song on the album. The protagonist spends two verses talking about his dream of riding the big rigs, but in the third he’s stuck in the same town with “kids and a wife and a regular job.” That dream that drew him in as a kid now haunts him as an adult, but he‘s resigned to not living it. Seriously, without listening to the lyrics, who would guess how sad this song is?

on-the-front-line#15
“You Still Move Me”
On the Front Line, 1986

Country fans who can overlook the mid-eighties production painted a little thick on “You Still Move Me” will find a breathtakingly beautiful ballad. Not only is the melody lovely, but the song contains some of Seals’ greatest vocal moments. Particularly outstanding are his pained vocals in the bridge, and his “God, you move me” at the end. That moment perfectly sums up this song about a man who can’t believe he’s about to wreck a good relationship, but can’t control his emotions any longer.

wont-be-blue-anymore#14
“You Plant Your Fields”
Won’t Be Blue Anymore, 1985

Wendy Waldman’s route to Nashville mirrors Dan Seals in every way except scope. A moderately successful singer/songwriter in the 1970’s, Waldman moved to Nashville in the early eighties. Unlike Seals, Waldman found her niche in songwriting for artists like Crystal Gayle, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Don Johnson (I mean, I’m talking about Wendy Waldman here, how could I ignore the fact that she wrote “Heartbeat” for Don Johnson).

“You Plant Your Fields” is more introspective than most of Waldman’s country material, comparing the seasons of love to tending the farm: “You plant your fields when the spring is tender, when the summer beats down you pray for rain, you hope for the harvest, the long cold winter, then you plant your fields again.”

san-antone#13
“In San Antone”
San Antone, 1984

Broadway vs. home is a hoary old cliché, but it always seems to apply. For every artist who makes it big on the great white way there are at least a thousand who become disillusioned and homesick. The title track to Seals second country album is a story about a singer trying to make it on Broadway but missing the girl he left behind in San Antone. It’s unclear whether he’ll return to her, but it’s a pretty safe bet considering he “can’t take much more of Broadway,” namely his squalid seventh floor apartment. The rocking coda of the song, where he proclaims “She believes in me!,” would probably point the way of departure.

on-the-front-line#12
“Three Time Loser”
On the Front Line, 1986

It doesn’t get much more fun than this little ditty from On the Front Line.  This is one of Seals’ amazing run of nine number one singles, and eleven out of twelve. It’s interesting that Seals often gets mentioned as a pop star first and country star second, because as a kid I considered him to be the quintessential country artist. Every single he released struck some sort of chord, whether it was a lovely ballad about friends, a pure rock song about someone being there, or this country song about trying to figure out girls (surprisingly prescient to a seven year-old).

rage-on#11
“Five Generations of Rock County Wilsons”
Rage On, 1988

A bit like “The Banker” in context but much more successful and realistic as a composition. If the theme for most of Rage On was wanderlust, this song expresses the exact opposite emotion. The protagonist wants to stay put and is outraged that his heritage means nothing to the men driving him off his land. He finally resigns himself to the fact that he will have to make way for the “big diesel cats.” At the end he boards a “big ol’ gray dog” bound for wherever; the song makes him sound like he’s doing it at gunpoint.

on-arrival#10
“Bordertown”
On Arrival, 1990

After eight years of nothing but top ten hits, the streak finally broke with “Bordertown.” It wasn’t like the song hit number 12 either; it barely cracked the top 50. Possibly it was the transition to the early-nineties hat acts, but probably it was the controversial material: “Bordertown” is about illegal immigration, a touchy issue at the time that has only grown touchier since 9/11.

Seals and Bob McDill’s viewpoint, that everyone deserves a chance to become an American, is a stance that not many artists would take a chance on. The writers don’t waffle on “Bordertown”; they have a clear opinion that nobody should stand in the way of somebody who wants a better life. “The law’s the law,” except when the law applies to human decency. “It’s not his job to say what’s right or wrong,” and it’s not anybody’s job to stop people from improving their situation. It’s a shame that this was the single that drove Seals off of the charts, because it’s a song that deserved a wider audience to hear its message.

rebel-heart#9
“Up On the Hill”
Rebel Heart, 1983

Almost like a dry run for “They Rage On,” this song is about star-crossed lovers who find love and escape at night to their little makeout point. But unlike some other songs that share this same story the song takes a very pessimistic turn when the man from the wrong side of the tracks finds out “that money is what it’s all about.” But the man doesn‘t give up; every night he still climbs that hill, waiting. Good luck fella.

Another great example of the soon to be commonplace Kyle Lehning production style, with steel guitars standing side-by-side with electric guitar and a propulsive drum beat. This style almost seems more natural for those of us who grew up with 80’s and 90’s country music. To me, it’s hard to believe that there was a time when it didn’t exist (for better or worse).

rage-on#8
“Addicted”
Rage On, 1988

A brilliant song about a woman trapped in a destructive relationship, “Addicted” remains a very powerful piece of work. There’s a wonderful YouTube performance of “Addicted” from 1991 where Cheryl Wheeler joins Seals on stage to play guitar and sing a verse that wascut out of the single version. It’s interesting to see the writer and the singer’s different takes on the song: Whereas Seals sings the song like a concerned bystander dealing with a situation he has no control over, Wheeler sings her verse as an almost desperate wake-up call to a friend. It took a lot of guts for Seals to release “Addicted” as a single (and not only that, but as the first single from the album Rage On) and it’s a great performance.

wont-be-blue-anymore#7
“Meet Me in Montana” (with Marie Osmond)
Won’t Be Blue Anymore, 1985

As Seals and writer Paul Davis’ first country number one and duet partner Marie Osmond’s return to the top after a ten year absence, “Meet Me In Montana” is a bit of a watershed for the soft-rock-to-country transfer of the mid-eighties. Davis was a crony of Seals and Kyle Lehning, as well as being a successful soft rock performer in his own right in the late-seventies. Instead of pursuing country superstardom Davis decided to retire from performing and write songs (occasionally performing, most notably with Paul Overstreet and Tanya Tucker on “I Won’t Take Less Than Your Love”). Davis wrote two very important songs for Seals: “Bop” and this brilliant duet. Seals’ clear voice matches perfectly with Osmond’s sunniness. Their voices add some hopefulness to a subject matter that could’ve been a little harsh.

san-antone#6
“My Old Yellow Car”
San Antone, 1984

It’s a shame that Seals didn’t pair up more with Thom Schuyler, who was for a time considered the songwriter’s songwriter in Nashville (partly because he wrote the songwriter’s song, “16th Avenue”). As a country singer, Seals was at his best telling a story or getting inside a character, and Schuyler was one of the best in the early eighties. In “My Old Yellow Car,” the successful protagonist looks back with regret at the old rust-bucket, and the innocence, that he’s lost track of.

on-arrival#5
“Love On Arrival”
On Arrival, 1990

OMG it’s LOA. IMHO the song is LOL clever. I’ll quit that.

Seals’ final two number ones were great old rock ’n’ roll throwbacks: “Love On Arrival” and his cover of Sam Cooke’s “Good Times.” Those singles arrived at a time when country was trying to “get back to its roots;” instead of Sam Cooke and The Beatles (Seals’ idols growing up) the new traditionalists name-checked George Jones and Merle Haggard.

At the time it seemed like the gulf between new artists like Garth Brooks and Clint Black and late-eighties artists like Dan Seals couldn’t have been wider. Brooks and Black weren’t crossing over from pop, and they didn’t seem to have rock ‘n’ roll roots; they seemed authentic. This was before Brooks showed his Billy Joel fetish and Black started writing songs with Jimmy Buffett.

If anything, Garth Brooks can be seen nowadays as inheritor of Dan Seals’ throne: an immensely popular artist not afraid to be country or pop if the need be and not afraid to be controversial if the need be. As for the song itself, “Love On Arrival” is clever, fun and has a great hook: what more could you ask for.

on-the-front-line#4
“Gonna Be Easy Now”
On the Front Line, 1986

A song about the hopelessness and lack-of-control of day-to-day life. I love the question/answer chorus that just gets bleaker and bleaker as it goes: “What’re you gonna do if the well runs dry? I’ll wait for the rain to fall. What’re you gonna do if the crops all die? Well, I won’t have to work at all. What’re you gonna do if the creek gets high? I’m still making up my mind. What’re you gonna do if the sun don’t shine? I’ll lay right down and die, and then everything’ll be alright.”

The protagonist puts on a brave face, a sort of roll-with-the-punches mentality, but inside he knows that “problems ain’t goin’ away, they’re just gonna change their shape” (this pessimistic attitude about rolling-with-the-punches contrasts harshly with the lessons taught in “You Plant Your Fields“). Seals’ final scream, “Everything’s gonna be easy now,” is a real eye-opener.

rage-on#3
“They Rage On”
Rage On, 1988

“They Rage On” is the song that broke Seals’ streak of number one singles, and listening to it it’s easy to see why; this ain’t no drinking song depression, it’s full-blown hopelessness. I wouldn’t place a song this bleak at the top of any chart. “They Rage On” is a song about small-town people who have nothing better to do with their lives, so they sit around holding each other tight, “searching for the answers.”

If it sounds like I’m dismissing “They Rage On” I’m certainly not; I’ve never heard a song encapsulate small town frustration any better. I’m just amazed that it was released as a single. If “They Rage On” doesn’t prove that Seals took more risks than any other country artist of the late-eighties I don’t know what does. Whatever the case, “They Rage On” is a gorgeous, brooding number which deserved its place as Seals’ streak-breaker.

the-best#2
“One Friend”
The Best, 1987

As I said before, from reading the obituaries it would seem that Seals had two signature moments as an artist: one as a member of England Dan and John Ford Coley with Parker McGee’s “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” and the other as a solo crossover artist with “Bop.” Those two songs are all well and good, but to me “One Friend” and “Everything That Glitters” will always be Seals’ signatures.

Amazingly, “One Friend” had to be resurrected and re-recorded for his greatest hits to become a single. Seals recorded a spare two-minute long acoustic version for the end of San Antone. The original version was obviously supposed to be a pleasant little album ender, nothing more. Kyle Lehning thought the song had potential, so he had Seals repeat the bridge and the chorus, then added orchestration. The finished product is a song that is deceptively simple and universal, and one of the greatest songs about commitment I’ve ever heard.

wont-be-blue-anymore#1
“Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)”
Won’t Be Blue Anymore, 1985

“Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)” is a brilliant composition. It’s a song filled with great characters (apparently from stories that Seals‘ grandmother told him): the struggling rodeo rider living in a mobile home, his little girl who’s slowly turning into a woman, the old horse that should be put to pasture except the rider “just can’t bear to let him go” and, of course, the woman who let success go to her head and left the people who loved her behind. The song is basically crying for a movie to be made of it, except no movie could match Seals’ emotions here.

The first verse and chorus is sung with vulnerability and resignation. The anger starts to build in the second verse, culminating at the bridge where he tells her “Someday I’m sure you’re gonna know the cost, cause for everything you win there’s something lost.” Then, after a moment to gather himself, Seals wistfully sings the chorus, then whistles off into the sunset.

Goodbye, Dan.

16 Comments

Filed under Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists

Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists: George Strait

george-straitWrite this down: George Strait will be recorded in the annals of country music history as the greatest singles artist of all-time. He already ranks third among all artists in terms of chart success, trailing only Eddy Arnold and George Jones. By the dawn of the next decade, he’ll be on top.

Now, I don’t place inordinate value on what radio decides worthy of massive spins, but I do think that Strait’s hit singles are usually much better than the album cuts that aren’t sent to radio. Even though I have all of his albums, only two of the tracks on this list weren’t released as singles.

With more than thirty albums to his credit, I’m sure that there are many songs that readers love which I haven’t included here. Here are my favorite songs by George Strait.

#25
“Blue Clear Sky”
Blue Clear Sky, 1996

This is the type of song that Strait is perfect for. He can elevate a standard uptempo country love song into something special. When he wraps his voice around the hook – “Surprise! Your new love has arrived!” – it’s the sound of weathered experience with a shot of unrestrained joy.

#24
“It Ain’t Cool to Be Crazy About You”
#7, 1986

You can’t be smooth and sophisticated when you’re dealing with a heartbreak. “It ain’t suave or debonair to let you know I care.” In lesser hands, this would be delivered in a straightforward way. But Strait adopts the smooth styling of a pop balladeer throughout this record. If Frank Sinatra had ever made a country record, it would’ve sounded just like this.

#23
“Troubadour”
Troubadour, 2008

Perhaps the secret to Strait’s longevity is that his image of himself hasn’t changed, despite his legendary success. He still sees himself as just getting started. “I was a young troubadour when I rode in on a song, and I’ll be an old troubadour when I’m gone.”

Continue reading

32 Comments

Filed under Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists