Texas Songbook is the latest album from country/blues singer/songwriter Gary Nicholson, a recent inductee into the Texas Songwriters Hall of Fame. Nicholson is best known for writing familiar radio hits such as”The Trouble With the Truth” (Patty Loveless), “One More Last Chance” (Vince Gill), “Squeeze Me In” (Garth Brooks/Trisha Yearwood), and “She Couldn’t Change Me” (Montgomery Gentry), among many others.
Although he left Texas for Nashville over 30 years ago, Nicholson remains a Texan at heart, and all 13 songs on Texas Songbook have a Texas connection.
Produced by Gary and recorded in Austin at Asleep at the Wheel’s Bismeaux Records, the album features Texas musicians and co-writers, the latter group including the likes of Lee Roy Parnell, Delbert McClinton, Guy Clark and Allen Shamblin among others. There’s plenty of fiddle and steel guitar as well as effective use of the harmonica and accordion in this collection of swinging and two-stepping, dance hall and honky-tonk style music.
Many country music fans may already be familiar with some of the songs on this album: “Fallin’ & Flyin’ “, written with the late Stephen Bruton and performed by Jeff Bridges, was featured in the movie “Crazy Heart.” The island flavored “Live, Laugh, Love” was written with Allen Shamblin and previously recorded by Clay Walker on his 1999 album of the same title. It’s a “seize the moment” song.
Previously recorded by George Strait, Delbert McClinton and Del McCoury, “Same Kind of Crazy” written with Delbert McClinton, gets things rocking. McClinton plays harmonica with backing vocals by Randy Rogers. The man is smitten because his new girl is the same kind of crazy as he is. The third verse begins, “It’s getting hard to use a ladder ’cause I keep climbing down just to kiss her” and concludes with the best line of the song, “she talks in her sleep but she always gets my name right.”
My favorite track on the album is “Talkin’ Texan”, which was written with Jon Randall Stewart. I especially love the chorus: “there’s nothin’ he ain’t seen or done,/ he’s always got the biggest one/ he ain’t lyin’, he’s just talkin’ Texan”
Another co-write with Jon Randall, along with Guy Clark, is “Some Days You Write the Song”, which was the title song of Clark’s 2009 Grammy nominated record, Some Days the Song Writes You. Musing on the mystery of the song writing process, Nicholson sings, “Somedays you write the song, some days the song writes you.”
The cool sounding “Messin’ with My Woman”, written with John Hadley and Seth Walker, is a swinging tune with attitude. “Don’t be messin’ with my woman, when I’m out on the road, let my song be your warning, you can’t say you ain’t been told.” If the guy does mess with his woman, he’s “gonna take a whole lot of doctors to put you back the way you were”, with background singers Ray Benson and Jason Roberts of Asleep at the Wheel chiming in “they’d never get it right, they’d never get it right”.
The well executed fiddle and steel guitar filled “Texas Weather”, written with Lee Roy Parnell, opens the album by comparing the singer’s relationship with his woman to the volatile weather of his home state. He contrasts “angry voices, bitter cold and tender words that warm the soul”. “We know if we only wait a while we’ll see that rainbow smile”. The theme is a bit predictable. It reminds me of the saying, “If you don’t like the weather in (fill in the blank), wait 5 minutes.”
With a swinging melody that I love, “She Feels Like Texas” was written with Kimmie Rhodes. The girl’s “in a lone star state of mind, everywhere she goes.” Whenever she sees a foreign tourist attraction, she compares it to something from Texas, including calling the Eiffel Tower “the biggest oil rig I believe I’ve ever seen”.
“A Woman in Texas, A Woman in Tennessee” is a solo writing effort by Gary that he calls “a true story I made up”. Both women wondered where he was half the time. The situation gets more complicated as the song progresses: children with both, an accidental meeting of the families and the revelation of another family in Louisiana.
“Listen to Willie” is a tribute to the Redheaded Stranger written with Kevin Welch. Except for the chorus, the lyrics consist essentially of Willie Nelson song titles: “You’ve always been a ‘good hearted woman’, and I’d hate to see your ‘blue eyes cryin’ in the rain’. Other titles cleverly connected to compose the verses include “funny how time slips away”, “you were always on my mind”, “night life”, “on the road again”, “crazy” and about a half dozen others. Add a star if you’re a Willie fan. It is clever but after a few listens, I got tired of it
“Bless ‘em All”, written solely by Gary, bless him, features the gospel singing McCrary Sisters. Bless them too. The song mentions about a dozen religions, bless ‘em all, and concludes that “we got to all come together and find a better way to live”.
“Texas Ruby”, written with Jim Croce’s son AJ, features Marcia Ball on piano and Jim Hoke on saxophone. It tells of a stripper who gets on a street car in New Orleans on a real hot and sticky day and starts doing her thing. It’s a mildly amusing tune that AJ previously recorded in ’06 on his “Early On” cd.
“Lone Star Blues” was written with Delbert McClinton and has been previously covered by Delbert & George Strait. In the first scenario, he signs up for the rodeo. “I drew a bull called original sin, heard he’d killed a couple of men”, … but “he got disqualified when the bull up and died”. The chorus and last two scenarios gave me the blues and should have died too. The chorus speaks of north, south, east and west Texas blues, together the Lone Star Blues.
Although the songs included in “Texas Songbook” do not, for the most part, match some of Gary’s very best songs, the album as a whole is thoroughly enjoyable. The production is light throughout, the music is great and Gary knows how to deliver a song. If you’re into dancing, you’ll double your pleasure with this album.
About a man spending one last night with his lover, frozen in the “good times” instead of thinking about the pain that will inevitably ensue. There are plenty of versions of this song that I enjoy, but Johnson’s hits on the exact swirl of genres that just gets to me.
Kevin Coyne: “Pushing Up Daisies” – Garth Brooks
My favorite metaphor about time and the importance of making it count is captured in the chorus of this song.
When I looked through my iTunes to find a song about time, as you might imagine, many of them were reflective and conveyed some sort of sentimentality. But I love this breakneck version of Gillian Welch and David Rawling’s “Wayside (Back in Time)” the best.
I’m not sure if this song really constitutes as a “story”song, but its metaphor is so beautifully written that it feels as rich as the best country songs in this category. Regret is a funny thing; sometimes it’s easier to succumb to it than it is to own and embrace your memories – fleeting though they may be. Brooks takes this somewhat tried and true theme and spins it into a poignant, lovely tribute.
This may be more “progressive scenario” than “story,” but either way I can’t get enough of the theme. It’s about seeing someone you love suffer and realizing that, despite your best intentions, there’s nothing you can do to fix or even understand their particular pain. No man is an island, the saying goes, but on a certain level we’re fundamentally disconnected from each other’s experiences, limited as we are to our own. You can tell this couple communicate as authentically as they can, but he can’t fully inhabit her hurt, and she can’t fully know the depth of his caring. The best they can do – tonight, at least – is spend their respective alonenesses together.
He was one of the first country artists I got into, but I’ve developed a sourness for Paisley over the years. With each successive album, his songwriting voice has tended to sound a little more self-impressed and a little less self-aware. “Ticks” is a nice exception to my ears, though. For once, Paisley seems to get that he’s playing the machismo creep, so a listener can take perverse pleasure in listening to him be creepy rather than balk at the fact that they’re expected to sympathize with him. It helps that it’s one of his cooler-sounding singles, too.
Maybe it’s because the Garth Brooks songs that annoy me the most are the ones where he tries to sing like Joel, or maybe it’s just that too many of his hits made the family mix tapes that made car rides a living hell. Either way, the man’s music has not worn well on my ears over the years. I love “My Life,’ though. It’s a philosophy I can really get behind, and it has that perfect balance of emotional detachment and simmering contempt.
There hasn’t been a great song in this vein for a good long while. The last one might have been “The River and the Highway.” It’s the classic lover’s triangle: the man, the woman, and the impossible dream.
In this case, it’s the man who is chasing his dreams and cannot settle down, and it’s the woman who won’t wait around while he’s left her behind. It’s structured well enough that you can’t anticipate if they will reconcile by the end of the song, if the man will give up the dream or the woman will chase it with him.
The storytelling is strong, with believable characters speaking in a believable voice. But it’s the arrangement that makes it a truly great record. Like those old Garth Brooks ballads like “Learning to Live Again”, “Colder Weather’ takes the essence of a classic rock power ballad and strips it down until it’s nearly bare. Journey could have sung this one, but they never would have sung it this way.
Written by Coy Bowles, Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette, and Levi Lowrey.
And so we come to the end. The top of our list includes a wide range of artists singing a wide range of country music styles. Thematically, these entries are diverse, but what they all have in common is what has always made for great country music. They are all perfectly-written songs delivered with sincerity by the artists who brought them to life.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #25-#1
Smoke Rings in the Dark Gary Allan
1999 | Peak: #12
Being deeply enamored of someone can make it easy – even appealing – to forfeit your own well-being. This single’s sunny tone reflects the persistent affection running through its protagonist, but its story demonstrates the heartbreak to which such unmeasured selflessness leads. – DM (more…)
The new country music stars of the nineties grew up with the pop/rock of the seventies. It’s no wonder that many of them revisited songs from that era.
Some of these covers became big hits, like Billy Dean’s “We Just Disagree” and Brooks & Dunn’s “My Maria.” Various album cuts and tribute projects demonstrated Lorrie Morgan’s fondness for Bonnie Tyler (“It’s a Heartache”), Garth Brooks’ love for Kiss (“Hard Luck Woman”), and more than a dozen artists’ affinity for the Eagles.
It’s just a matter of time before today’s country stars start remaking pop and rock hits from the nineties. Here’s a few that I think would work well:
Rascal Flatts, “One More Try”
This Timmy T. hit topped the charts in 1991. It would be a perfect fit for the Flatts boys. They could elevate it into something great.
Carrie Underwood, “Nothing Compares 2 U”
You need a powerful set of pipes to pull this one off. Who could do it better than Carrie Underwood? Okay, yes. Wynonna. But among the artists on the radio dial today, no one could tackle this with better results than Underwood.
SHeDaisy, “You’re in Love”
This band could cover just about any Wilson Phillips track, but this one’s dying to be a hit all over again.
What nineties non-country songs do you think today’s country stars should cover?
A perfect time capsule of the boom times, as Jackson wryly notes all of those genre-hoppers who saw dollar signs in the growing country music scene. Funny how they didn’t arrive on radio until a decade later. – Kevin Coyne
I Want to Be Loved Like That Shenandoah
1993 | Peak: #3
Sometimes the deepest understanding of love comes from what you see around you. The narrator in this song won’t settle for anything less than the unwavering love he’s witnessed in his life, and his examples are stunning in the way they slice straight to the core of love, to the bond that can’t be broken by the physical world. This is one of the purest tributes to love I’ve ever heard. – Tara Seetharam (more…)
The hits come from all over the place here. Breakthrough hits from Trace Adkins and Carlene Carter join one-hit wonders Brother Phelps and George Ducas. And alongside crafty covers of songs by sixties rock band The Searchers and nineties country artist Joy Lynn White, you can also find tracks from three diamond-selling country albums.
400 Greatest Singles of the Nineties: #200-#176
Carrying Your Love With Me George Strait
1997 | Peak: #1
A traveler gets through his lonely nights on the sheer strength of love. It’s perhaps a little too saccharine for some, but the sweet melody and Strait’s understated vocals make the record work. – Tara Seetharam
A man sits around in a bar “talking ’bout the good old times, bragging on how it used to be.” Standard premise, but Black’s melancholy performance lifts the record to Haggardly heights. – Dan Milliken (more…)
At least the third song on this list about a guy mulling over romantic gestures he wishes he’d made to his former love, and the most traditional among those songs. You could easily imagine this one being a minor classic by a 60′s or 70′s legend, so close is its replication of that style. – Dan Milliken
I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying Toby Keith with Sting
1997 | Peak: #2
My hard-and-fast rule for Toby Keith: The sadder he is, the happier the listening experience tends to be. He’s all kinds of sad in this snapshot of post-divorce melancholia, reflecting on everything from unfair custody protocol to the greater motions of the universe. Even a gratuitous Sting cameo can’t detract from the single’s gloomy grandeur. – DM
You Ain’t Much Fun Toby Keith
1995 | Peak: #2
Toby Keith is also funny, though. What’s a man to do? Sobering up ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be from is perspective. Ever since he’s done so, his wife has been taking advantage of his increased functionality by giving him honey-do lists that he wasn’t ably tackling pre-sobriety. It’s enough to drive a man to drink. – Leeann Ward
Tender Moment Lee Roy Parnell
1993 | Peak: #2
Every once and awhile an artist delivers a song so powerful that it seems to shatter all divides in its genre. A tribute to both the late Keith Whitley and Gill’s late brother, “Go Rest High On That Mountain” pairs deeply spiritual lyrics with a tender, emotion-soaked performance. The combination is magic. – TS
A good power ballad shot to greatness by its artists’ striking chemistry – palpable, fiery and so very genuine. More than just a hit single, “It’s Your Love” represents the moment in country music history at which we were introduced to one of its definitive couples. – TS
Grandpa Told Me So Kenny Chesney
1995 | Peak: #23
An earnest, soulful confession of love. It’s hard to ignore the fact that it leans more in the adult-contemporary direction than that of anything else, but when a song is this moving, it’s also hard to care. – TS
What She’s Doing Now Garth Brooks
1992 | Peak: #1
In an unusual tact for Mr. Brooks, he forgoes melodrama in order to allow the natural drama of pining for a lost love to speak for itself. The dialed down performance works in the service of the song, as the sadness appropriately penetrates through. – LW
Find My Way Back to My Heart Alison Krauss & Union Station
1997 | Peak: #73
Some of the best songs from AKUS play on the home life that’s sacrificed by following the musical dream. Krauss remembers how she used to laugh at songs about the lonely traveling life, but she’s not laughing now. – KC
A man makes a soaring yet understated plea for his lover to let go of her past love. The song is made sadder by the touch of resignation in Wariner’s performance, which suggests the man knows he’s making his plea in vain. – TS
A whole song about deciding whether or not to go all the way with one’s movie date. McCready gives a fantastically entertaining performance, speak-singing her lines with a a bold campiness that most other gals wouldn’t dare. – DM
Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow Alan Jackson
1990 | Peak: #2
Ten years before “You Belong With Me” made its splash, McCann set her sights on the same demographic with a song just as relatable, vibrant and passionate. That the song lacks Taylor Swift’s sharp perspective is perhaps what makes it such a great record: there’s something so pure about McCann’s fully unapologetic, headfirst fall into love. – TS
Chesnutt makes a phone call to an old love that could be construed as creepy, pathetic or terribly sad – take your pick. I’m going with a mixture of all three, with a pinch of selfishness thrown in. Either way, “I Just Wanted You to Know” is a memorable slice of the-one-that-got-away reality.- TS
In the twenty years that passed since the release of this song, the path to success in the music industry has morphed into something that looks very different than it used to. Unlike that of Bobby in the song, these days an artist’s journey can come in all shapes and forms, sometimes abrupt and sometimes completely unprecedented.
Think what you want about this paradigm shift, but here’s what I believe: regardless of how you shoot to the top, the only way you’ll achieve longevity and, most importantly, respect in country music is if you share the fire in Bobby’s eyes. This soul-stirring hunger and unshakable passion is the heart of “I’m Gonna Be Somebody” and the reason it remains a timeless classic. Here’s to hoping – and I’m optimistic – our modern artists are made of the same stuff. – TS