On her first major-label album, Lambert reveals herself as a fiery, spirited artist with a lot to say, and a clever voice with which to speak. Her sharp songwriting skills, though a work in progress as we’d later learn, take her naturally from aggression to desolation and back again. But most notably, through Kerosene, Lambert got the traditionalists to pay a little more attention to mainstream country music and its more promising artists. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Kerosene”, “I Can’t Be Bothered”
Kris Kristofferson, This Old Road This Old Road has not have received as much mainstream attention as Kristofferson’s recent appearance in Ethan Hawke’s Rolling Stone article; an unfortunate fact, given it was the legendary writer’s first album of new material in 11 years. With This Old Road, Kristofferson shines a spotlight on the world much in the same his earlier writing shined a spotlight on himself. The result is an overtly political album with more depth than most modern attempts have been able to produce. – William Ward
Recommended Tracks: “The Last Thing to Go”, “Pilgrim’s Progress”
Guy Clark, Workbench Songs
The recordings of the songs that Guy Clark, one of country music’s most respected modern songwriters, has written for the most popular artists in country music are typically polished by the best Nashville musicians and slick producers. But Clark’s own albums tend to be more organic, with spare instrumentation that somehow manages to avoid sounding anemic as a result. His well worn voice sings these eleven melodically and lyrically strong songs with warmth and the kind of emotion that easily captures the listener. It’s one of the best albums of his deep catalog that spans over thirty years. – Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Walkin’ Man”, “Expose”
Wynonna, What the World Needs Now is Love
It’s hard to believe that it’s been six years since Wynonna’s last proper studio album. This collection is easily one of her best, with effective covers like “I Want to Know What Love Is” and “Flies On the Butter”, along with socially conscious material that provokes thought instead of pandering to already held beliefs (“It All Comes Down to Love”). – Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Sometimes I Feel Like Elvis”, “Rescue Me”
Lee Ann Womack, I Hope You Dance
The massively successful title track powered this album to triple platinum, but it also overshadowed the excellent songs surrounding it. For those who explored the album beyond track two, there were some of Womack’s finest moments on record, as she had the good taste to plunder the catalogs of Bruce Robison (“Lonely Too”), Bobbie Cryner (“Stronger Than I Am”), Julie Miller (“I Know Why the River Runs”), and Rodney Crowell (“Ashes By Now”). – KC
Recommended Tracks: “Lonely Too”, “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger”
Chris Thile, How to Grow a Woman From the Ground
This is the first album from the band that would eventually become Punch Brothers. Garnering a Grammy Award Nomination in 2006, How to Grow a Woman From the Ground is a solid bluegrass album with classical sensibilities and extraordinary instrumentation. – WW
Recommended Tracks: “Wayside (Back in Time)”, “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”
Ralph Stanley II, This One Is Two
Hyperbole alert, but it’s hard to think of a more beautiful-sounding traditional country album from this decade, or one which more comfortably merges old school aesthetics with modern production polish. Stanley corralled a number of meaty story songs here, but it’s the combination of his warm baritone and the lush instrumentation that gives this gem its quiet strength. – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “Cold Shoulder”, “They Say I’ll Never Go Home”
Various Artists, Livin’ Lovin’ Losin': Songs of the Louvin Brothers
Tribute albums too often feel redundant, as well-meaning artists deliver nice but forgettable imitations of classic records. Not so with the Louvins’, which sticks veteran and current artists alike on the Bros’ close harmonies and sees each intriguing combination (Pam Tillis and Johnny Cash? Why not!) triumph. I daresay it’s as good an introduction to the duo’s work as any compilation of their own recordings. – DM
Recommended Tracks: “How’s the World Treating You?”, “Are You Teasing Me”
Todd Snider, The Excitement Plan
Snider mostly avoids both political themes and complex arrangements on his latest record, emphasizing his greatest strength as a writer instead: his uncanny ability to make the most specifically personal have universal resonance. Listen out for a wonderful cameo from Loretta Lynn on “Don’t Tempt Me.” – KC
Recommended Tracks: “Barefoot Champagne”, “Money, Compliments, Publicity (Song Number 10)”
Mark O’Connor, Thirty-Year Retrospective (Live)
Mark O’Connor’s Thirty Year Retrospective is a double instrumental album of his live performance with Chris Thile, Bryan Sutton and Byron House. The album covers a wide range of Mark O’Connor’s career, presenting a range of instrumental country, bluegrass, new grass and jazz with the detail and care often only applied to classical music. – WW
Recommended Tracks: “Caprice No. 4 in D Major”, “Macedonia”
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.