Jamie O’Neal’s time in the mainstream country spotlight was short, but memorable. She kicked off her career with back-to-back number one hits “There Is No Arizona” and “When I Think About Angels,” which powered her 2000 debut album Shiver to gold certification. However, subsequent single releases stalled at radio and her planned follow-up album was shelved, eventually leading to the end of her deal with Mercury Records. A tenure at Capitol produced the 2005 album Brave and another pair of hits with “Trying to Find Atlantis” and “Somebody’s Hero,” but history eventually repeated itself with further unsuccessful singles and never-released albums.
Now Jamie O’Neal is embarking on a new chapter as the head of her own Momentum record label, free of major label constraints and of the need to depend on radio play. Her fans’ wait for new music is finally over as she preps to release her first new album in nearly a decade with Eternal, due out May 27, on which she covers a selection of classic tunes that helped shape her into the artist she eventually became. I recently had the chance to sit down with Jamie O’Neal to talk about these exciting new career developments.
You’re about to release your first new album in a few years. You must be very excited.
I am, definitely. I’m excited to have something new out there, but it’s actually old because the songs are traditional. But I think for a lot of people who haven’t heard them before, it’s going to kind of bring those songs to new ears and new fans hopefully.
What made you feel this was the right time for your first covers project?
You know, I’d never done one before, and I’d always sung a couple of these songs in my show. And my mom used to sing “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” which is kind of what started the whole thing – the old Sammi Smith song written by Kris Kristofferson, one of my favorites. It started out just with my husband and I talking about the songs that we loved, and he said “You know, you’ve been singing these and the fans love them. You should record an album.” These kinds of classics, some of them went to number one and Top 5, they’ll hopefully live on forever. Like “The Sweetest Thing,” Juice Newton, is one of those songs that was a pop hit, number one, and a country hit a few years apart, which is really unique. So I thought that was really cool. One of the first songs I wanted to do was “The Sweetest Thing.”
That was one thing that really stood out to me, that you have some less-expected cover choices. It’s not just songs culled from Classic Country for Dummies, if you know what I mean. There’s some good variety.
[Laughs] Exactly! Like “Born to Run,” Emmylou Harris, might not be a very well-known song, but for me that’s how I felt when I first got to Nashville. I’m hungry. No one’s going to stop me. I’ve got someplace to be. I’m going to make it. I was born to run. I just love what the song says and the message and everything.
There’s definitely no shortage of great songs to choose from in the Emmylou Harris songbook.
Oh, I know. I could have done a thirty song CD really.
It seems that for a lot of people a covers album is the kind of thing that can go very right or very wrong. What qualities do you think are essential for a really great covers album?
That’s a good question. I think staying true to the songs and not changing the tracks too much is important. It was important to me. And I think adding your own element to it is really important so it doesn’t just sound like you’re a karaoke singer. I call myself a soulful country singer, so I wanted to keep that soul in there and sing songs that I love to belt out because I do love big ballads. For me, I’d recorded and written so many mid-tempos, so it was cool to be able to put quite a few ballads on there.
What are your favorite covers albums, country or otherwise?
Well, I love Martina’s album. She did some really cool different choices on there, I thought, and I’ve always loved her voice. I love Seal’s album, and I love Micheal McDonald’s Motown album. That would probably be my favorite.
Can you give me some insight into how you went about choosing songs for this project?
Well, I really picked my favorites, and my husband brought in a couple and said ‘What about this one? What about that one?’ One song that I love is the Bruce Coburn song, my favorite on the album, called “One Day I Walk.” It’s kind of got that bluegrassy feel to it – something different for me. And I did a bunch of backgrounds on there. It’s one of my favorites.
And you have Andy Griggs playing the George to your Tammy on “Golden Ring.”
Well, he came last night and sang with me, and he’s just as great as ever. We’ve been touring together for the past couple years, doing gigs. We just did a country cruise together, and we just really enjoy doing show and singing together. I love his voice.
What the story behind the album’s only non-cover, your original “Wide Awake”?
My husband keeping me wide awake every night with his snoring. I’ve got it figured out now. I have a sound machine on in between us on the rain and thunder and beach sound and another sound machine with the white noise, and I pretty much drown him out. I’ve had a couple people, actually a couple PDs, said “Send that to me and I’ll start playing it.” So I feel really fortunate about that, because I think a lot of people can relate – a lot of women.
One big thing that you’ve had happen recently is that you’ve added “label owner” to your resumé. How would you describe the challenges and rewards of recording on your own label as opposed to a major label?
Definitely less of a budget – I’ll tell you that! You know the days when you used to get a stylist out in Los Angeles or New York and they would fly you there and you’d pick clothes and spend $10,000 on outfits and a $1,000 on a stylist to do your hair and makeup. It’s really difficult these days because even the majors have had to really tighten the budget, and the independents really do as well. So you have to figure out a way to do things for yourself a lot of the time. In the past, everyone was doing everything for me, from my website to everything, marketing and all that stuff. So now I’ve really had to learn, which I feel like I have from some of the best in the business. Capitol Records and Mercury, some of the staff that I’ve worked with, I’ve learned so much from that I feel like, hey, this is cool. I can kind of look at things from a different angle.
You have Rachele Lynae as the Momentum flagship artist. How did you come to work with her?
Her family was friends with my dad back in Bellingham, Washington, because that was where my dad lived, and they lived in Linden, Washington. They kind of met in the recording studio, and she was like a teenager at that point. And then she moved to Nashville to go to Belmont, kept in contact with my dad, and when she made an EP, she met with him and played it for him, and he brought it to me. And it’s funny because my daughter was one of the first people to hear it because my dad was putting it in his CD player, and so my daughter was coming up singing these songs and saying ‘You need to hear Rachele. She’s really good, Mom!’ I was like ‘Really?’ Because I listen to her. She has good taste in music. And I figure kids are the ones that, if they don’t like something, you know it’s probably not trending.
Do you feel like you have a signature song?
Probably “Arizona” because it’s so unique and different. It seems to me that I’ve been mistaken for Deana Carter or Carolyn Dawn Johnson a lot, and Carolyn said that she used to get Deana Carter as well. That’s the thing – getting your face out there and not just your name and your songs, but usually when you say “Arizona,” that song is pretty well known.
What’s next for you? Do you have anything coming up that you would like to let people know about?
Well, I’m going to be doing a video for “Wide Awake.” The album is coming out May 27. I’m gonna be touring doing different dates here and there out of town on the road, so be looking for me out there, and the music will be on iTunes!
To recognize the impact that Alabama has had on modern country music, you could consider their millions of albums sold, their hundreds of awards, their many #1 songs or their induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005. You could also look at how the boys from Fort Payne, Ala. have the distinction of bringing something entirely new into country music.
Prior to Alabama, country music was predominantly a land of solo acts, with the occasional superstar duos (Conway & Loretta, George & Tammy) or backing bands (The Strangers, The Buckaroos) thrown in for good measure. Sure, there were plenty of vocal groups (Statler Brothers, Oak Ridge Boys), but actual bands, who played their own instruments, were few and far between in country music. It took Alabama to break down that particular barrier, and they paved the way for groups like Zac Brown Band, Diamond Rio, Eli Young Band and others.
Alabama is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a reunion tour and a couple of well-deserved tribute albums. The tributes are quite different, with one being done under the direction of the band, and the other a completely independent effort.
Alabama & Friends, featuring many of today’s leading country stars, comes off as less of a tribute album and more of an Alabama-themed celebrity karaoke night. Many of the songs have very similar arrangements to the originals, and even include Randy Owen, Jeff Cook and Teddy Gentry on lead and harmony vocals.
Many of the memorable elements from the original songs are still present. The fiddle breakdown in “Tennessee River” (with Jason Aldean), the tempo changes in “My Home’s in Alabama” (with Jamey Johnson) – they’re all present and accounted for. The songs that stick close to the originals aren’t necessarily bad. Luke Bryan, for instance, has plenty of flaws as a country singer, but his vocal abilities are not in question, so his version of “Love in the First Degree” is solid. The same could be said of Jason Aldean’s take on “Tennessee River” and Toby Keith’s “She and I.” There’s nothing wrong with them, but fans who love the Alabama originals might think the new ones are a bit too by-the-book.
There are a few instances where the guest singers step outside the box and add more of their own personality to the recording. Trisha Yearwood, the only female voice on the project, does a lovely job on “Forever’s as Far as I’ll Go,” and “Lady Down on Love” by Kenny Chesney stands among his best vocal performances. The same can’t be said of Florida Georgia Line, who takes “I’m in a Hurry (and Don’t Know Why),” adds their usual amount of noise and clutter to the mix, and makes it sound like every other Florida Georgia Line song ever recorded. While it’s a rare opportunity to hear both Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley sing lead vocals, it raises the issue of whether or not they’ve already run out of original ideas.
Alabama recorded two songs for the first time in 11 years, but they’re the weakest songs on the album. For a band that was one of the first to successfully blend country music with amped-up Southern rock, “That’s How I Was Raised” and “All American” are low-energy, generic rah-rah country disappointments.
Various Artists High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama
High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama, is available from Lightning Rod Records and has a collection of Americana/Red Dirt/indie all-stars doing their takes on Alabama hits. There is some overlap with the Alabama & Friends, but these versions have a bit more of an original feel. “Why Lady Why” gets transformed into a smoldering soul tune by JD McPherson, while Jason Isbell and John Paul White of The Civil Wars completely reinvent “Old Flame.” The Turnpike Troubadours and Shonna Tucker provide a spark with “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)” and “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler),” respectively. While neither version is light years from the original, they add energy to a project that leans heavily toward slow and reflective songs.
Two of Alabama’s love songs are recast as duets. While it’s startling to hear Todd Snider as a romantic balladeer instead of a smart-ass hippie folk singer, his voice never quite meshes with Elizabeth Cook on “Feels So Right.” Wade Bowen and Brandy Clark’s duet on “Love in the First Degree” is excellent, however, and raises the anticipation level for Clark’s debut album.
Not every experiment is a success. Once again, “I’m in a Hurry” gets short shrift, as Jessica Lea Mayfield turns it into a funereal dirge. “Lady Down on Love” just does not work as a bluegrass/spoken word ballad, as evidenced by Bob Schneider & The Texas Bluegrass Massacre with Ray Benson. Jason Boland & The Stragglers’ take on “Mountain Music” is fine, but the insistence of aping the original, from the spoken-word intro to the guest vocals from a couple of the Stragglers à la Cook and Gentry is a little cheesy.
It’s a testament to Alabama’s far-reaching appeal that artists as different as Jason Isbell and Jason Aldean would want to sing their songs. Whether it’s a note-for-note recreation or a completely new interpretation of their hit songs, there is something in these two albums to please any Alabama fan.
The legendary First Lady of Country Music is the subject of a generous new forty-track double-disc career retrospective in Legacy Recordings’ Essential series.
The Essential Tammy Wynette opens with her 1966 debut single “Apartment No. 9,” which set the tone for the many heartbreak-themed hits that would follow it, going on to enter the annals of country music classics despite charting at only #44. From there, the album checks off Wynette’s biggest and best-loved hits in chronological order. All 29 of her Billboard Top 10 solo hits are included, with essential classics such as her signature “Stand by Your Man,” heart breakers such as “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “‘Til I Can Make it On My Own,” and toe tappers such as “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” and “He Loves Me All the Way” all present and accounted for.
Of Wynette’s ten Top 10 duet hits, only four are included – her chart-topping 1967 David Houston duet “My Elusive Dreams,” two of her duets with George Jones (“Take Me” and “Golden Ring”), and her 1985 Mark Gray duet version of “Sometimes When We Touch” -Wynette’s final Top 10 hit, previously a pop hit for songwriter Dan Hill. “Two Story House” is a particularly puzzling exclusion – a classic hit which ranks among Wynette’s best work. The Essential Tammy Wynette might have benefited to some degree by including a few more of her most essential duets at the expense of some of the lesser hits included on the album.
Still, the album remains a remarkably thorough overview of Wynette’s outstanding career, and one which, in addition to the big hits, includes a few less-expected cuts such as her final pair of Top 20 hits, 1987′s “Your Love” and “Talkin’ to Myself Again.” An especially pleasant surprise is album closer “That’s the Way it Could Have Been,” a beautiful self-written cut which Wynette recorded with Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton for their stunning 1993 collaborative effort Honky Tonk Angels. It offers an enticing hint at all the great songs that Wynette might still have written had her voice not been silenced by untimely death at the age of 55.
The Essential Tammy Wynette is a thoroughly enjoyable collection which impresses both in content and in effectively summing up the career of one of country music’s most important women. It will likely be more than enough to satisfy the casual fan, and it’s an ideal starting point for listeners who are just beginning to delve into the rich musical legacy of Tammy Wynette.
Track listing: (Disc 1) 1. Apartment #9 2. Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad 3. My Elusive Dreams (with David Houston) 4. I Don’t Wanna Play House 5. Take Me to Your World 6. D-I-V-O-R-C-E 7. Stand by Your Man 8. Singing My Song 9. Too Far Gone 10. The Ways to Love a Man 11. I’ll See Him Through 12. He Loves Me All the Way 13. Run, Woman, Run 14. The Wonders You Perform 15. We Sure Can Love Each Other 16. Good Lovin’ (Makes it Right) 17. Take Me (with George Jones) 18. Bedtime Story 19. Reach Out Your Hand 20. My Man (Understands)
(Disc 2) 1. ‘Til I Get it Right 2. Kids Say the Darndest Things 3. Another Lonely Song 4. Woman to Woman 5. (You Make Me Want to Be) A Mother 6. I Still Believe in Fairy Tales 7. ‘Til I Can Make it On My Own 8. Golden Ring (with George Jones) 9. You and Me 10. Let’s Get Together (One Last Time) 11. One of a Kind 12. Womanhood 13. They Call it Making Love 14. No One Else in the World 15. Crying in the Rain 16. Another Chance 17. Sometimes When We Touch (with Mark Gray) 18. Your Love 19. Talkin’ to Myself Again 20. That’s the Way it Could Have Been (with Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton)
This review of George Strait’s final Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo concert was originally published on CultureMap Houston.
It was 30 years ago that the Texas rancher and country music newcomer received a last-minute call to make his Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo debut, replacing the ill Eddie Rabbitt. Since then, George Strait has become part of the RodeoHouson fabric: He’s played a total of 21 shows, including the Astrodome’s closing concert in 2002 — its highest-attended event — and the Reliant Stadium’s debut concert in 2003.
And Sunday night, he made one last piece of history with a terrific RodeoHouston appearance, a stop on his “The Cowboy Rides Away Tour.” Along with Martina McBride and the Randy Rogers Band, Strait’s concert-only performance amassed a record-breaking crowd of 80,020.
History aside, it’s fitting that Strait chose RodeoHouston for his final Houston tour stop. The annual event, in its 81st year, embodies the same blend of rugged charm and modern energy that’s kept the 60-year-old singer relevant well into the 21st century. Strait’s sold-out concert appeared almost mystical in its generation-bridging force — its ability to elicit the same level of awestruck respect from young and old.
Strait was preceded by two opening acts, the Texas-bred Randy Rogers Band and tour mate Martina McBride. The former’s material was uneven (thumbs down for “Fuzzy,” a honky tonk spin on Jason Aldean’s party anthems), but its newer offerings, like the raucous “Trouble Knows My Name,” were on-point.
McBride proved a force per usual, her crystalline voice searing through her bread and butter of inspirational ballads with precision and poise. Hits like “A Broken Wing” and “Independence Day” carried as much weight as they did 10 years ago, and the under-appreciated “Love’s The Only House” rang with renewed urgency.
But make no mistake: this was Strait’s house, and McBride knew it. “I’m the luckiest girl in the world. You know why? Cause I get to tour with George freaking Strait,” she yelled.
If McBride’s set was a polished collection of career highlights, Strait’s felt more like a laidback jam session that just happened to be peppered with No. 1 hits. Wearing
his signature Wranglers and a simple black cowboy hat, Strait burned through a deep, career-spanning set of 31 songs, never once losing the crowd’s attention.
“I can’t tell you how happy we are to be here tonight,” he said while taking in the packed stadium, and that earnest joy quickly became the theme of the night.
He had the crowd on its feet with opener “Here for a Good Time,” a beer-raising ode to living like you’re dying, and he followed it with familiar hits “Ocean Front Property” and “Check Yes or No.” Even when he slowed the pace with a one-two punch of the saccharine “I Saw God Today” and somber “Drinkin’ Man,” the energy in the stadium didn’t seem to waver.
Perhaps because Strait promised upfront that he had a few tricks up his sleeve — and indeed he did. Eight songs in, he brought McBride back out for a pair of classic duets, Johnny and June Cash’s “Jackson” and George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s “Golden Ring,” which the duo shuffled through with fresh chemistry. It was a moment, among many in the concert, that transcended the confines of time.
Strait then dove into the meat of his show, a career-tracing journey through story and song. He laughed as he recounted his first trip to Nashville in 1981, cutting his first handful of songs and nabbing his breakthrough record deal. He paid tribute to old friends and writers Darryl Staedtler and Dean Dillon while performing early hits “Blame it on Mexico” and “Her Goodbye Hit Me in the Heart” from his debut album Strait Country.
“Are y’all still liking the old stuff?” he asked, before continuing through the 80s with songs like “Honky Tonk Crazy” and the jaunty “80 Proof Bottle of Tear Stopper,” which had the audience clapping along.
The first emotional jolt of the night came from Strait’s 1982 hit “Marina del Rey,” a song that, over the years, he’s learned to inject with the melancholy weariness it deserves. The crowd sang along audibly while brave couples took to the floor to dance.
The 90s followed with songs from a “little ole movie called ‘Pure Country,’” including “The King of Broken Hearts” and the fast-paced toe-tapper “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” But just like the decade before, it was the slow two-step of “The Chair” that mesmerized the audience, bringing it to a standing ovation that lasted for a good 20 seconds.
When he barreled through to recent years, “Give it Away” punched things up with country-style angst, and “How ‘Bout Them Cowgirls” turned into an endearing sing-along. He brought his catalogue full circle with 1983’s “Amarillo by Morning,” a song he re-recorded on his 2003 album For the Last Time: Live from the Astrodome, capping it off with a gorgeous fiddle solo.
Throughout the show, Strait gave longtime friends Ace in the Hole plenty of room to shine. The band’s craftsmanship was so sharp that it was able to pump much-needed energy into recent sleeper “Rolling on the River of Love” and tepid chart-climber “Give it All We Got Tonight.” In the context of Strait’s superb catalogue, the latter fell undeniably flat – but again, the crowd couldn’t be bothered.
And what a crowd. One scan of the 80,000 plus-filled stadium was overwhelming, a visual reminder of the kind of scale most artists only dream of reaching.
Strait understood that. “I’m really going to miss this,” he said, as he launched into a sentimental performance of “I’ll Always Remember You” off of his past album, Here for a Good Time. His plain-speak ‘thank you’ to fans was achingly sincere –“But you kept calling me back to the stage / And I finally found my place in each and every face,” he sang — but not particularly unique. The better send-off came with Strait’s honest confession, “Troubadour,” which paints a more telling portrait of his career.
Strait appeared to close the show with his very first hit “Unwound,” but was cheered back in for a four-song encore. He hopped from “Same Kind of Crazy” to the crowd-favorite “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” to a solid, foot-stomping cover of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” Finally, he rode out with “The Cowboy Rides Away,” a potentially cheesy retirement song, but not in his hands.
In an era where singing straight from the heart (pun intended) is heavily sacrificed for bravado and wit, Strait’s presence as a live entertainer — as a cowboy in the least superficial sense of the word —will be simply irreplaceable.
George Strait’s set list:
“Here for a Good Time”
“Ocean Front Property”
“Check Yes or No”
“I Saw God Today”
“Love’s Gonna Make it Alright”
“Blame it on Mexico”
“Her Goodbye Hit Me in the Heart”
“80 Proof Bottle of Tear Stopper”
“Honky Tonk Crazy”
“Marina del Rey”
“A Fire I Can’t Put Out”
“The King of Broken Hearts”
“Where the Sidewalk Ends”
“Rolling on the River of Love”
“How ‘Bout Them Cowgirls”
“Give it Away”
“Middle Age Crazy”
“Amarillo by Morning”
“Give it All We Got Tonight”
“I’ll Always Remember You”
“Same Kind of Crazy”
“All My Ex’s Live in Texas”
“Folsom Prison Blues”
“The Cowboy Rides Away”
While Sara Evans is reportedly in the studio hard at work on her forthcoming seventh studio album, Sony Legacy has released a new fourteen track retrospective of her sixteen-year career – the latest installment in the label’s Playlist series. Coming nearly five and a half years after Evans’ 2007 Greatest Hits package, Playlist: The Very Best of Sara Evans intersperses several of her biggest hits with a few less expected inclusions. While there is some great material to be heard, there are a few missed opportunities as well.
The most glaring omission is Evans’ 2011 smash “A Little Bit Stronger,” which returned her to the top of the charts after a six-year dry spell, and became the first platinum-certified single of her career. Its absence is made particularly disheartening by the fact that the song post-dated Evan’s original Greatest Hits album. Her other four number one hits – “No Place That Far,” “Born to Fly,” “Suds In the Bucket,” and “A Real Fine Place to Start” – are all present and accounted for, as are Top 10 hits “I Could Not Ask for More,” “I Keep Looking,” and “Cheatin’.” Her 2003 #2 hit “Perfect” is curiously omitted, while “Backseat of a Greyhound Bus” gets the short shaft for the second time.
Among the lesser-known cuts, the most worthwhile inclusion is Evans’ 1997 single “Three Chords and the Truth,” from her critically acclaimed, commercially unheralded debut album of the same name – a project which Greatest Hits pretends never existed. Another pleasant surprise is Evans’ rendition of the Barbara Mandrell hit “Crackers,” from the 2006 Mandell tribute She Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool. Two unreleased album tracks (“You Don’t” from Born to Fly and “Niagara Falls” from Restless), one hymn (“The Sweet By and By,” after which Evans’ first novel was titled), and the pretty but forgettable Jim Brickman collaboration “Never Alone” round out the set. The collection closes on an unnecessary sour note, tacking on the mediocre non-hit “Feels Just Like a Love Song,” from a 2009 album project that never materialized.
In theory, Sara Evans should be well served by a compilation that mixes hits with hidden treasures – especially considering that many of her finest moments never made it to heavy radio rotation. Unfortunately, Playlist all too often includes questionable choices at the expense of superior material. In some cases the songs included are decent, but pale in comparison to what might have been included instead. If you’re going to include an unreleased track from Born to Fly, why “You Don’t” instead of “I Learned That from You”? If you’re going to include a track from Restless, why “Niagara Falls” instead of “Rockin’ Horse”? If you’re going to include one of her cover songs, why “Crackers” instead of “I Don’t Wanna Play House”? Why not include excellent underrated singles like “Coalmine,” “Tonight,” or “Fool, I’m a Woman”?
Evaluated purely on the merits of its content, Playlist: The Very Best of Sara Evans is an enjoyable listen with many fine tracks. It’s a decent introduction to Sara Evans’ music, but it neither adequately summarizes her hit-making career, nor offers an effective representation of her best work. Her 2007 Greatest Hits remains an overall better value.
Track listing: 1. Born to Fly/ 2. I Could Not Ask for More/ 3. I Keep Looking/ 4. No Place That Far/ 5. You Don’t/ 6. A Real Fine Place to Start/ 7. Sweet By and By/ 8. Three Chords and the Truth/ 9. Suds In the Bucket/ 10. Niagara Falls/ 11. Crackers/ 12. Cheatin’/ 13. Never Alone (with Jim Brickman)/ 14. Feels Just Like a Love Song
A great covers record, no matter how sincere the artist’s intentions, must provide a satisfactory answer to one question: Why should we listen to this artist’s versions of these songs when the originals are still there for us to enjoy?
There are moments when Terri Clark’s Classic answers that question effectively, as well as some when the answer is murky at best. Produced by Clark with Jeff Jones, the project fares best when Clark brings thoughtful vocal interpretations and creative production touches to her renderings of these classic songs. Her take on Glen Campbell’s “Gentle On My Mind” marries a pleasantly subtle vocal reading to a warm and inviting bluegrass-tinged arrangement. Another highlight is a reworking of Tanya Tucker’s 1972 debut hit “Delta Dawn,” on which Tucker herself contributes duet vocals. Tucker proves to be in fine voice, while an acoustic guitar and fiddle-based arrangement accentuates the song’s Southern Gothic charms. The album also includes some less-expected cover choices such as Linda Ronstadt’s “Love Is a Rose” and Emmylou Harris’ “Two More Bottles of Wine” – not necessary the usual go-to selections for a classic country covers project, but Clark’s searing fiddle-laced reworkings are a real treat.
The album’s most polarizing aspect would likely be its recurring tendency to place the songs in contemporary country-rock settings (which may make some country purists wince) similar to the style that became Clark’s calling card during her days as a mainstream country star. One could commend Clark for adapting the songs to her own style (as opposed to causing the same musical whiplash as Martina McBride’s by-the-book re-creations from her Timeless project), but the strategy does suffer from the occasional overhaul. She amps up Kittle Wells’ landmark hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” into a honky-tonk shuffle that could have worked if not for her overwrought vocal delivery, but an over-produced take on Loretta Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” all but buries the infectious sass of Lynn’s 1967 original. By the time Clark’s rocked-up versions of Merle Haggard’s “Swingin’ Doors” and Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” roll around, the style begins to feel somewhat tired.
The duets included on the album are something of a mixed bag. Dierks Bentley turns in one of his better performances as he fills George Jones’ shoes on the classic Jones-Wynette duet “Golden Ring.” Dean Brody joins Clark on “I’m Movin’ On,” thus shifting the song to a two-person (ostensibly an ex-couple) perspective. The third-person narrative of “Delta Dawn” is likewise well-suited to the duet treatment. On the other hand, sonically pleasant duet versions of “How Blue” (with original artist Reba McEntire) and Patsy Cline’s “Leavin’ On Your Mind” (with fellow Canadian singer-songwriter Jann
Arden) suffer from the simple common flaw that the songs don’t work well as two-woman duets.
Terri Clark is to be commended for the sense of risk-taking evident on Classic, but unfortunately it sometimes comes at the expense of consistency. Sleepless Nights it isn’t, but the best moments on Terri Clark’s Classic make it an enjoyable and worthwhile listen as a whole, even if the project falls a degree short of fulfilling its lofty potential.
Top Tracks: “Love Is a Rose,” “Gentle On My Mind,” “Delta Dawn”
Not many teenage stars get a second shot at stardom, but David Houston was a remarkable exception.
Born and raised in Louisiana, his high tenor voice put him on the map in the fifties, when he was just a teenager. He appeared regularly on Louisiana Hayride, but as he grew older, he had trouble finding opportunities in the music industry.
Houston left the business for a time, but was coaxed back into it by producer Billy Sherrill, who signed him to Epic Records in 1963. He helped put the upstart label on the map with his debut hit, “Mountain of Love”, which reached #2 in 1963.
A few more hits followed, leading up to Houston’s major breakthrough: “Almost Persuaded.” The classic almost cheated anthem spent nine weeks at #1, and pushed Houston to the front of the pack, earning him two Grammys in 1967.
Over the next few years, Houston dominated radio, scoring twenty-four top ten hits through 1974. He recorded a few duet albums with Barbara Mandrell, and his chart-topping “My Elusive Dreams” paired him with a young Tammy Wynette.
In 1972, he joined the Grand Ole Opry, and he continued to record for Epic until 1977. Stints with Gusto and Elektra records followed, the latter label association ending when new label president Jimmy Bowen purged the roster.
Houston played the Opry and toured while recording for independent labels in the eighties. Weeks shy of his 58th birthday, Houston suffered a brain aneurysm, and he passed away in 1993.
From early on, it was announced that Pickler’s third album would more closely reflect the sound of the traditional country music that is closest to her heart, with Pickler claiming to have made the album “as country as I was allowed to make it.” The bouncy steel guitars chords of opening track “Where’s Tammy Wynette,” and opening lyrics “While I’m torn between killin’ him and lovin’ him/ He stays torn between neon lights and home” quickly announce that Pickler is not kidding.
Does that mean that the album is a retro effort? Not necessarily. Rather, Pickler and her producers Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten effectively craft a sound that gives a respectful nod to country music’s past while simultaneously making tasteful use of modern sounds. Thus, the album carries a strong traditionalist bent, but sounds vintage without sounding dated, demonstrating that it is indeed possible to create a fresh and modern contemporary country album while still maintaining a strong connection to the traditions of the past.
Ultimately, what really makes the album work is the fact that Pickler sounds at home and in her element throughout. Though her technical vocal abilities are rather limited, the song selections and stylings of this album serve her well, highlighting her strengths as an interpretive singer. Pickler herself takes writing credits on six tracks, collaborating with songwriting talents such as Dean Dillon and Leslie Satcher. While she opts for softly wistful vocal takes on ballads such as “Long As I Never See You Again” and “Turn On the Radio and Dance,” she throws herself into the groove of “Unlock That Honky Tonk” with a loose, infectious energy. “Rockaway (The Rockin’ Chair Song)” is just a simple charming delight of a song, with a lightly catchy melody that lingers in the head long after the song has ended. Pickler longlingly sings “Don’t stop rockin’ with me, baby” while soft, airy fiddles lend the song a pleasant breezy feel.
While “Where’s Tammy Wynette” is unfortunately tainted by association with the ill-advised name-dropping craze, it’s actually a surprisingly decent song in which a wronged housewife looks to the honky tonk heartbreak queens of the past for advice and inspiration. Like the 2008 Heidi Newfield hit “Johnny and June,” Pickler’s “Tammy Wynette” manages to reference a legend in a way that feels genuinly reverent and fleshed-out instead of superficial. Even better is the straight-to-the-point “Stop Cheatin’ On Me” which has lyrics that sound thematically reminiscient of Loretta Lynn’s “You’ve Just Stepped In (From Stepping Out On Me)” The female narrator counteracts her man’s philandering ways by threatening to repay in kind, while the song is backed by a steel-laden arrangement steeped in country tradition, the likes of which are rarely heard on country radio these days.
There are moments when the formula hits weak points. Lead single “Tough” was written by Leslie Satcher, and was written for and about Pickler, supposedly inspired by her troubled childhood – an approach that is reflected in the song’s accompanying music video. Unfortunately, it’s a bit too obvious that the song was written, not by Pickler herself, but by a co-writer (Leslie Satcher) who did not have Pickler’s firsthand experience, as the lyrics ring hollow for want of detail. To her credit, Pickler sings it with gusto, and her producers dress it up with plenty of fiddle and banjo, making for a song that is sonically engaging but lyrically uninspiring. Similarly, the production and vocal elevate the not-particularly-interesting road song “Little House On the Highway” to a degree, though it still ranks as one of the album’s more forgettable cuts. The only instance in which production becomes an issue is in the overdramatic bridge on the title track, which culminates in an intrusive guitar solo.
Pickler shines brightest when she gets personal. Drawing on her troubled childhood, she addresses both of her parents in songs with the tracks “Mother’s Day” and “The Letter (To Daddy).” The former, written by Pickler with husband Kyle Jacobs, connects solidly by isolating a specific childhood experience that many listeners can relate to – buying a Mother’s Day card, having a photo taken with one’s mother – with Pickler expressing how she wishes she could have experienced such things for herself. Though both songs mourn the heartaches of the past, they also cast a hopeful eye toward the future. “Mother’s Day” finds Pickler vowing to be the mother she never had, should she ever have a child of her own, while “The Letter” concludes with Pickler determining to “make up for lost time” with her estranged father. Best of all, both tracks utilize sparse acoustic production, allowing Pickler to connect deeply with some of her most beatifully restrained and compelling vocal performances to date.
All in all, there is much that 100 Proof gets right. By placing Pickler in the musical environment that suits her best, and giving her a strong batch of song material, 100 Proof demonstrates that Pickler’s potential is significantly greater than her previous efforts suggested. Without a doubt, 100 Proof is Pickler’s strongest album to date, and likely one of the better mainstream releases we’ll hear this year.
I’ve always been something of a chart junkie. While I don’t pay as close attention as I used to, I still have a pretty good handle on historical trends. One artist I’ve been keeping an eye on is Carrie Underwood. When each official country single from her first two albums peaked at #1 or #2, it caught my attention.
But I never expected the trend to continue, with three more #1 hits from the new album. The source of that belief was the history of women on country radio, especially in the twenty most recent years that were based on actual monitored airplay instead of radio playlists. Since that change, far less records have gone #1 or #2.
When “Undo It” reached #2 last week, Underwood became the only female artist in country music history to have eleven consecutive top two singles. Until then, she was tied with Tammy Wynette, who scored ten consecutive top two singles from 1967-1970. All but one of Wynette’s singles were #1 hits, with the only #2 being “I’ll See Him Through.” With “Undo It” moving to #1 this week, Underwood has only two singles in her streak that didn’t top the charts: “Don’t Forget to Remember Me” and “I Told You So.”
“Undo It” is Underwood’s tenth #1 single. How rare is it for a female to reach that milestone? The last woman to reach it was Rosanne Cash, her tenth #1 being “Runaway Train” in the fall of 1988. Earlier that same year, Reba McEntire scored her tenth #1 with “Love Will Find Its Way To You.”
Underwood’s support at radio is unprecedented for a female artist in the modern chart era. In less than five years, she’s already tied for the most #1′s since 1990, and she’s moving quickly up the all-time list as well:
Most #1 Hits by a Female Artist – Monitored Era (1990-present):
Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood – 10
Faith Hill – 9
Shania Twain – 7
Jo Dee Messina – 6
Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood – 5
Sara Evans, Patty Loveless, Taylor Swift, Wynonna – 4
Most #1 Hits by a Female Artist – All-Time:
Dolly Parton – 25
Reba McEntire – 23
Tammy Wynette – 20
Crystal Gayle – 18
Loretta Lynn – 16
Rosanne Cash – 11
Anne Murray, Tanya Tucker, Carrie Underwood – 10
Why do you think that Underwood has been the one to push up against country radio’s glass ceiling so much? Can she keep this up? Will she eventually get to the top of each list, or is there somebody below her that might jump ahead?