Kathy Mattea has rarely sounded more open and warm than on this set of innovative folk-tinged songs. Topics of peace, love, resignation and heartache are sensitively explored in songs both written by Mattea and other well-known names, including captivating interpretations of The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Me Shelter” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Down on the Corner.” It’s a rich album with a decisively vibrant feel. – Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Gimme Shelter”, “Down on the Corner”, “Give It Away”
Johnny Cash, American IV: The Man Comes Around
American IV: The Man Comes Around was the last Cash album released in his lifetime; the bulk of its tracks are covers performed by the then ailing singer. Amazingly enough, the album seems almost biographical despite the limited material written by Cash. Still, American IV is not limited to “Hurt” (written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails), as other well-interpreted covers and Cash’s own “The Man Comes Around” help cement the depth of the album. – William Ward
Recommended Tracks: “The Man Comes Around”, “Hurt”, “Sam Hall”
Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song
The media hype machine had a field day with Johnson’s breakthrough sophomore album, showering it with the kind of superlatives usually reserved for miracle cures and immaculate conceptions (see also: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). Most of the attention went to the album’s counterculturism within the increasingly safe and watered-down Music Row, with numerous nods to its Outlaw aesthetic and “cocaine and a whore” business. But That Lonesome Song‘s greatness was always more than contextual, and certainly more than attitudinal; this is an album with a genuine story to tell, filled with a slow-burning sorrow that pervades every track and doesn’t rest until the wife finally walks away and the husband resigns himself to playing seedy bars and trying to convince you he’s worthy of comparison to the greats. – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “High Cost Of Living”, “Angel”, “Dreaming My Dreams With You”
For all of the attention given to her power ballads and catchy pop numbers, Faith Hill has always included more offbeat material from lesser known songwriters. This album had some great power ballads and catchy pop numbers, but its heart and soul comes from the trio of Lori McKenna songs that make up its core. “Stealing Kisses” just might be Hill’s finest moment to date, and the other two McKenna songs – “If You Ask” and the title track – are nearly as good. – Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Dearly Beloved”, “Stealing Kisses”, “Wish For You”
Vince Gill, Next Big Thing
Gill dips into a wider range of styles and subjects on his first self-produced album, but it all seems to thoughtfully tie back to his classically sweet sound – a tricky thing to do in country music. Next Big Thing is mature, clever and vocally spot-on, and features some killer guest vocals from Emmylou Harris, Lee Ann Womack and others. – TS
Easily one of the most versatile artists in country music, Underwood is capable of tackling almost any musical style, and she makes a solid case for this on her third album. The kicker, though, is that rather than signaling a lack of identity, each style feels like a natural extension of herself as an artist. She’s mournful on a haunting country standard in one breath, and commanding on a rock-charged up-tempo in the next – all without compromising her authenticity. Most significantly, Underwood finally digs a little deeper on Play On, marrying her extraordinary vocal proficiency with a higher level of tangible, sincere conviction than ever before. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “Someday When I Stop Loving You”, “Songs Like This”, “What Can I Say”
Rodney Crowell, The Outsider
Crowell’s take on mid-decade politics avoids heavy-handedness, perhaps because what he’s appealing to is not so much partisanship as patriotism in its purest form: “Democracy won’t work if we’re asleep. That kind of freedom is a vigil you must keep.” Bonus points for not one, but two guest turns from Emmylou Harris, the highlight being their stunning duet of Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm.” – KC
Recommended Tracks: “Dancin’ Circles ‘Round the Sun (Epictetus Speaks)”, “Don’t Get Me Started”, “Shelter From the Storm”
The Little Willies, The Little Willies
Norah Jones pet country side project with four of her New York City friends, including former boyfriend bassist Lee Alexander, results inn an inextricably fun album named after Willie Nelson who is covered twice on the project (“Gotta Get Drunk” and “Night Life”). The productions, including jaunty piano and prominent bass, along with Jones’ atypically loose vocals, make this disc a thrilling listening experience. While The Little Willie’s self titled album is not tight in technical terms, the album is all the better for it. – LW
Recommended Tracks: “Roll On”, “Gotta Get Drunk”, “Tennessee Stud”
Trisha Yearwood, Real Live Woman
Upon its release, the artist declared that she’d finally made her dream album. It’s easy to understand why, as Real Live Woman is Trisha Yearwood’s most cohesive album to date. It has a warmth and depth that makes it more than just reminiscent of Linda Ronstadt’s classic L.A. country albums from the mid-seventies. It’s actually on par with them. – KC
Recommended Tracks: “Where Are You Now”, “Try Me Again”, “When a Love Song Sings the Blues”
Kris Kristofferson, Broken Freedom Song: Live From San Francisco
For each unequivocal success like At Folsom Prison and Nirvana Unplugged, there are a dozen uninspired live albums that simply exist to capitalize on old material. Kris Kristofferson’s Broken Freedom Songs, with his extended introductions and banter, is an unequivocal success. Along with its friendly and almost conversational tone, Broken Freedom Songs focuses on unexpected compositions and makes a nice addition to other historically strong live albums. – WW
Recommended Tracks: “The Circle”, “Here Comes that Rainbow Again”, “Moment of Forever”
When Rodney Crowell had his gold-selling commercial breakthrough with the album Diamonds & Dirt, his previous label was quick to capitalize on his success. Usually, pre-hit cash-in CDs are little more than a curiosity, but Crowell’s is the exception.
There is a smorgasbord of great material here, including early versions of songs that Crowell would see other artists have success with the same songs.
Some of Crowell’s strongest compositions are here, such as:
“‘Til I Gain Control Again”, a #1 hit for Crystal Gayle that was recorded earlier by Emmylou Harris
“I Ain’t Living Long Like This”, a #1 hit for Waylon Jennings that was recorded earlier by Emmylou Harris
“Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight”, a #1 hit for the Oak Ridge Boys that was recorded earlier by Emmylou Harris
“Ashes By Now”, a top five hit for Lee Ann Womack that was recorded earlier by Emmylou Harris
“I Don’t Have to Crawl”, a minor hit for Emmylou Harris that was later recorded by Rosanne Cash
“Shame on the Moon”, a top fifteen country hit for Bob Seeger
“Victim or a Fool”, a top forty hit for Crowell that was also recorded by Crystal Gayle
“Stars on the Water”, later covered by George Strait and Jimmy Buffett
How good was this guy’s ear? Even the songs he didn’t write went on to become hits, with Ricky Skaggs taking “Heartbroke” to #1 and Juice Newton scoring a massive pop hit with “Queen of Hearts.” The only thing missing here is “Elvira”, which Crowell also recorded first.
This has always been a budget collection, but now it’s incredibly affordable – twelve tracks for $5.49. Given that Warner is asking for $9.90 for the far inferior Pam Tillis Collection, which includes only ten tracks, this one’s a steal.
Country Universe contributor and reader Cory DeStein flagged this rundown from Billboard regarding women on the charts this decade:
PERFECT 10: On Country Songs, Carrie Underwood ropes her 10th top 10, as “Cowboy Casanova” climbs 11-8. With the advance, Underwood now stands alone in first-place for most top 10s on the chart among solo women this decade.
Here are the solo females with the most top 10s on Country Songs since 2000:
10, Carrie Underwood
9, Faith Hill
9, Martina McBride
8, Taylor Swift
7, Sara Evans
7, Reba McEntire
6, Jo Dee Messina
5, LeAnn Rimes
5, Gretchen Wilson
4, Shania Twain
Notably, the artist who led the category among women last decade did so with almost three times as many top 10s. Reba McEntire ranked first among solo women in the ’90s with 27 top 10s on Country Songs. Trisha Yearwood placed second with 18 between 1990 and 1999, and Faith Hill, Patty Loveless and Tanya Tucker each posted 14 in that span.
The decline in fortune for women at radio this decade is even more pronounced when you compare the above top ten to the previous decade:
Most Top Ten Singles by a Female Artist – 1990-1999:
Reba McEntire (27)
Trisha Yearwood (18)
Faith Hill (14)
Patty Loveless (14)
Tanya Tucker (14)
Pam Tillis (13)
Lorrie Morgan (12)
Shania Twain (12)
Martina McBride (10)
That’s ten women who matched Underwood’s total for this decade. That Underwood didn’t even hit the top ten for the first time until late 2005 shows how bleak it was at radio for female artists this year.
But this comparison doesn’t even tell the whole story. Take a look at the list of women with the most top ten singles two decades ago:
Most Top Ten Singles by a Female Artist – 1980-1989:
Reba McEntire (23)
Crystal Gayle (22)
Dolly Parton (21)
Janie Fricke (17)
Barbara Mandrell (17)
Rosanne Cash (16)
Emmylou Harris (16)
Anne Murray (14)
Tanya Tucker (12)
Kathy Mattea (10)
Notice the trend? This decade, the top ten women combined for a total of 70 top ten hits. In the 90′s, the top ten women enjoyed a total of 145 top ten hits. In the eighties, a total of 168 top ten hits. Even the nineties list is dominated by women who were played heavily in the earlier part of the decade.
What’s strange is that it was in the mid-nineties that female artists became the dominant commercial force in country music. Janie Fricke never had a gold album. Shania Twain has sold 48 million albums. Yet Fricke had more top ten hits in just the eighties than Shania Twain has earned in her entire career. Record buyers have wholeheartedly embraced Alison Krauss and Miranda Lambert, but despite their strong sales, they’ve each enjoyed only one solo top ten hit.
So what to make of all of this? Is the recent success of Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood an indication that things are improving for women on the radio dial? Is it worth noting that Sugarland and Jennifer Nettles (11 top ten hits) and the Dixie Chicks (14 top ten hits) have done their part to compensate for this lack of gender parity? Does it even matter that radio is playing women less often each decade, especially if record buyers are finding their music anyway?
Inhabiting the highest pinnacle of artistic integrity must be a lonely place to dwell. Patty Loveless remains a commercial exile, of sorts for the crime of being “too country” for country radio and TV. But Loveless is undistracted by the trendy and continues to adhere to her artistic vision, making music that matters, music of enduring merit, music that would make her Appalachian ancestors very proud. Music like her current offering, Mountain Soul II.
Back in 2001, her acclaimed Mountain Soul set a very high standard for artistic achievement. This shining original is a unique blend of Country, Bluegrass and Mountain music. It is a heartfelt tribute to her parents, especially her coal-miner father, and the Appalachian music that nurtured and sustained their family through many tribulations.
Mountain Soul II is yet another labor of love from Patty Loveless and husband/producer Emory Gordy Jr. and a long awaited continuation of the splendid original. The same recipe was followed here with similar ingredients and equally spectacular results. Like the original, Mountain Soul II is a veritable feast of soul nourishing material, brilliantly served up by the finest pure-Country vocalist of our time, and a distinguished array of acoustic players and vocalists including Del McCoury, Vince Gill and Emmylou Harris.
Sandwiched between the stunningly innovative remake of Harlan Howard’s classic, “Busted”, and the exquisite Diamond in My Crown are generous servings of drumless acoustic music, a deeply moving, grassy mountain tapestry that delights and seldom disappoints.
“Busted”, the opener, is an empathetic song of solidarity for the economically downtrodden. Loveless restores Harlan Howard’s original coal mining lyrics with great effect. Raw and richly textured, the song is saturated with Appalachian acoustics that perfectly complement Patty’s twangy and nuanced Kentucky drawl. The melody is bouncy, almost in contradiction to the dire tale, but this is perhaps the perfect mountain irony; the power of music to help bring about the joy needed to cope.
The Bluegrass/Gospel classic, “Working on A Building” is an energetic tour-de-force with the perfectly blended high lonesome vocals of Loveless and Bluegrass master Del McCoury. The song is metaphorical, the work is God’s work, the hands are human, and the building is the Lord’s own. But the imperative is very down-to-earth, especially when interpreted as pertaining to the efforts to alleviate Appalachian poverty, a cause near and dear to Patty’s heart.
Other highlights include the pure Bluegrass Big Chance (transplanted from Dreamin’ My Dreams), a brilliant number by Loveless/Gordy which continues the Pretty Little Miss story from the first Mountain Soul. The song has an iconic Mountain sound that harkens to the hills, and is full of down home humor. It is perfectly crafted in every musical and lyrical detail.
“Bramble and the Rose” is pure passion and poetry, intertwined with the brilliant rustic tones of Loveless’ versatile voice. Few can inhabit the heart of a song like Patty Loveless.
“When the Last Curtain Falls” is a song that Emory co-wrote. The verses are all calm before the storming chorus, and then Loveless unleashes with her husband’s lyrics delivering a chilling cautionary tale of final accountability. It is an attitude adjustment that puts all things into perspective.
Mountain Soul II is inspired and very well crafted, but it does contain some apparent missed opportunities. Conspicuously absent are two up-tempo Bluegrass numbers from Loveless’ repertoire, Pretty Polly and Close By. Their inclusion would have enhanced the clear Mountain identity of the project even more, and would have created a more balanced mix of tempos.
Also the “less is more” philosophy is overdone in places, the sparse instrumentation works very well on songs like Diamond In My Crown, and the two a-cappella Gospel numbers, but some of the ballads might have benefited from some richer, rawer musical textures.
At first glance, there seems to be an over reliance on recut songs from her own catalog. But Patty Loveless brings forth the inherent Mountain Soul hidden in any given Country song, remaking them according to her natural Mountain sensibilities, and connecting more deeply with her own heritage in the process. She lovingly returns the songs to their essence and roots, back to the very origins of Country music deep in the heart of the hills.
Vocally, Mountain Soul II is Loveless at her best. Her crystal pure Appalachian alto deftly and fluidly shapes each note with rich and resonant tones and an uncanny sense of nuance that comes only with inherent talent and hard gained artistic maturity.
“Diamond in My Crown”, is the crown jewel of this remarkable album. It is hymn-like in its majesty, accompanied by an antique family pump organ, and some beautiful backing by composer Emmylou Harris. Loveless glows with unleashed vocalizations that are positively chill inducing. Transcendent, sublime, superlatives would be understatements when describing the Loveless interpretation of this gem.
Patty Loveless has once again transmuted the coal of hardship an heartache into pure golden tones. This Appalachian alchemy has yielded yet another diamond for her hard won crown. Mountain Soul II is nothing less than another 21st century Patty Loveless masterpiece.
I’ve been working my way through the Beatles Remasters that were released earlier this week, thoroughly enjoying myself in the process. As I listened to Help!, I heard Ringo Starr doing his best Buck Owens imitation as they covered “Act Naturally.”
It’s pretty darn cool that the Beatles covered Buck Owens, and plenty of country artists have returned the favor ever since. With the Beatles all over the media these days, it seems as good a time as any to look back on some of country music’s biggest and best takes on the Beatles catalog:
Rosanne Cash, “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” and “I’m Only Sleeping”
Cash is the only country artist to score a #1 hit with a cover of a Beatles song, as her take on the Beatles For Sale track “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” became her eleventh and final #1 hit in 1989. An even better listen is her take on “I’m Only Sleeping” from her Retrospective release. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a much better song than “Party”, pulled from Revolver, arguably the best album the Beatles ever made.
Nickel Creek, “Taxman”
This progressive bluegrass band sounds great on record, but you don’t really get the full experience of their talent until you’ve seen their live show. Perhaps all of those royalties from their platinum-selling debut album pushed them into a higher tax bracket, as “Taxman” - another Revolver highlight – soon became a staple of their live shows.
Emmylou Harris, “For No One” and “Here, There and Everywhere”
Her first two solo albums included one Revolver cover each. She turns “For No One” into a pensive ballad on her debut set Pieces of the Sky and gives a gorgeous rendering of “Here, There and Everywhere” on her sophomore effort Elite Hotel.
Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, “Yesterday”
It really does sound like a Haggard and Nelson song when Haggard and Nelson do it.
Anne Murray, “You Won’t See Me”
Amazingly, John Lennon said this was the best Beatles cover he’d ever heard.
Those are some of the most notable country Beatles covers I could think of. What are your favorites? Least favorites?
Amidst her generation of successful female country artists, Lorrie Morgan was the only one who was clearly from the tradition of heartbreak queen Tammy Wynette, with a healthy dose of Jeannie Seely in the mix. With her contemporaries far more shaped by the work of Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, Morgan was instrumental in keeping the sound of female country from the sixties still relevant in the nineties.
While Morgan never earned the critical acclaim or industry accolades of peers like Patty Loveless and Pam Tillis, she was immensely popular with country fans, able to sell gold with albums that radio largely ignored. She was the first female country artist to have her first three studio albums go platinum, with three additional albums going gold and a hits collection selling double platinum.
Many of Morgan’s best recordings were never sent to radio, and those interested in discovering her in depth should seek out her finest studio albums, Greater Need and Show Me How.
But her singles were pretty good too, with these being the most essential.
Ten Essential Tracks:
from the 1989 album Leave the Light On
This song broke through just as news of the death of Keith Whitley, Morgan’s husband, became known. She was unfairly accused of capitalizing on his death with this release, as people both misinterpreted the song’s meaning and apparently ignored the fact that it had gone to radio weeks before his death.
“We Both Walk”
from the 1991 album Something in Red
One of her more cutting performances. She refuses to let her roving man come back home, because when he leaves, he walks away and she walks the floor.
“Something in Red”
from the 1991 album Something in Red
Her signature hit is the tale of a woman’s life through conversations while shopping for clothes. Amazingly poignant, especially given the conceit of the song.
“What Part of No”
from the 1992 album Watch Me
“Back off, buddy,” is the message of Morgan’s biggest chart hit, which topped the charts for three weeks.
“I Guess You Had to Be There”
from the 1992 album Watch Me
In my opinion, Morgan’s finest performance from her platinum years. When this was on the radio at the same time as Pam Tillis’ “Do You Know Where Your Man Is”, it was the next best thing to having Tammy Wynette back in heavy rotation.
“If You Came Back From Heaven”
from the 1994 album War Paint
I’ve never been a fan of Contemporary Christian music, mostly because of the bombastic arrangements. I like my religious songs Emmylou or Willie style, with organic production and, if I’m really lucky, a bit of struggle before the redemption.
So it was with great enthusiasm that I dove in to Diamond Rio’s “God is There.” I’ve always loved the sound of this band’s records, even when the material was slight. When the material was solid, like the back-porch bliss of “Meet in the Middle” or tongue-twisting charm of “How Your Love Makes Me Feel”, nothing sounded better.
“God is There” opens promisingly, with a sparse piano accompanying Marty Roe’s voice. It sounds so similar to their best single ever, “You’re Gone”, that it got my hopes up. The opening verse tells of a young girl struggling with an unplanned pregnancy, feeling abandoned and alone.
The message in response, “God is there”, is a poignant reminder that she’s not alone. God is there. Unfortunately, so is a frighteningly loud wall of sound that destroys all of the intimacy that had been so delicately crafted.
The cluttered and overwrought production drowns out the band’s distinctive harmonies during the chorus, but what’s worse it that it also drowns out the song’s message. The lesson that the lyrics teach is that God’s presence is always there, even when it can’t be seen or heard. The song is far more effective when the production reinforces that message instead of undermining it.
In 1985, four country music rebels/icons came together to form a larger-than-life group that people wouldn’t have even dared dream about before their actual union. Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson formed the country super group, The Highwaymen. The four highly revered friends recorded three albums worth of material, much to the delight of the astonished public. While all of the members were extremely successful in their own rights, their potential egos were set aside to make music as a cohesive unit. They sounded like a polished group, not just some people thrown together as a marketing gimmick.
Then, in 1988, the rock world hit the jackpot when superstars George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and Jeff Lynne formed The Traveling Wilburys. Again, these immensely famous, talented and respected people formed a super group that still seems too good to be true to this day. Their unbelievable union created two albums that were repackaged in 2007 with bonus material, which sold surprisingly well for a reissue. Like The Highwaymen, their voices blended amazingly well together as if they were meant to be a group.
Dolly Parton has been a part of two dynamic trios: one with Linda Rhonstadt and Emmylou Harris and the other with Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. Both trios consisted of women equally as talented as the super groups previously discussed, which also provided us with excellent albums as a result.
And of course, anyone who has read anything that I’ve written in the past year or so should instinctively know that my pet super group is The Notorious Cherry Bombs, which was comprised of Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, Tony Brown, Hank Devito, Richard Bennett, Michael Rhodes, John Hobbs and Eddie Bayers.
As I think of the competitive climate of the music industry today, I’m discouraged to think that such super groups would be next to impossible to unite anymore. Record label disputes prevented Tracy Lawrence’s collaboration with Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw to be officially released to radio. Likewise, Reba McEntire had to replace Kenny Chesney’s vocals with lesser known artist, Skip Ewing, in order to release “Every Other Weekend” to radio. And these were only disputes over single songs, not even an entire album.
In true essay style form: Without considering record company politics, if you were able to create your own super group who could make at least one album, who would be the members? What would you name the group? Explain.
I blame Adam Lambert for what I am about to reveal to you all: I’m headed to a Taylor Swift concert tonight. That’s right, Taylor Swift. Insidious curiosity got the better of me.
But why do I blame Lambert, you ask? Because I haven’t been listening to a whole lot of country music recently. Instead, thanks to my new, bizarre obsession with Lambert, in the past month I’ve pulled out old Queen, Bowie, Michael Jackson and Led Zeppelin. And I’ve listened to more My Chemical Romance, Pink and even Def Leppard than anything resembling country. So, of course I thought of Swift. Because, when you think of hard rock, isn’t Swift the first person who comes to mind?
(Save your ears, don’t listen)
I’ve also been tuning into rock radio, a rarity for me, to see what’s popular these days. Lo and behold, wouldn’t you know, Taylor Swift is also a rock artist (in addition to being a country, pop and heavy metal artist). She’s regularly squeezed in between All American Rejects and Green Day on my local station. And let me tell you, nothing sounds more rock than a re-mix of Love Story. Don’t you agree?
But you have to give credit where credit is due. This girl has everyone fooled. Re-mix, re-package, throw in a few guest appearances with John Mayer and Def Leppard, form a friendship with Miley Cyrus, and suddenly, wow, you appeal to every demographic (under the age of 20). I gotta admit, I’m impressed. I’m also curious how a tall, gangly misfit, with a precocious attitude, who can’t sing, has made it work. So, I’m headed to a concert tonight and will report back here because I actually know that many of you consider Swift a guilty pleasure. Wish me luck.
But no worries. I also have a number of saner concerts scheduled later this summer. I’ve already got tickets to see Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith and Buddy Miller; as well as tickets to see Gary Allan and LeAnn Rimes (if she doesn’t cancel, which she’s done on me twice). I’m also still holding out for Bob Dylan/Willie Nelson tickets, but I’m sure that one is going to work out.
Summer concert season is around the corner.
Who are you planning on seeing in concert this summer?
The 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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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?
“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.
“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.”
“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.
“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).
“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.
“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.
“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).
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.