The Statler Brothers 'The Definitive Collection - MCA Years' / Tracy Byrd 'The Definitive Collection ' / Gary Allan 'Set You Free ' Humphead

Humphead is a UK based label that releases country albums originally released in the U.S. The albums are either a range of two for ones, compilations or recently released albums. Below are three such releases that span a time period from 1970 to 2013. 

The Statler Brothers are a vocal harmony quartet perhaps best know to some for their first hit Flowers on the Wall and it's use in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. TheStatlers were hugely popular in the U.S. and this collection draws together some 50 songs from 1970 to 1989 when they were with MCA Records. The songs are presented in a chronological order. Though long associated with country the Statlers always were closer to  mainstream crossover than honky-tonk. Yet a number of these songs take a down-home country theme that was integral to what was then considered country music. Their vocal prowess was always a distinctive well honed sound. 

Lead singer Don Reid was also a prolific songwriter who, along with other band members and co-writers, wrote the bulk of the material that The Statler Brothers recorded. There is a fair amount of humour involved as well as autobiographical songs including the story of working with Johnny Cash in the song We Got Paid by Cash. Other titles included How to be A Country Star and Let's Get Started If We're Gonna Break My Heart. This generous 50 track round-up includes four number ones and practically all of the featured songs made the top thirty with the bulk hitting the top ten. The sound is of another era but is not without a nostalgic charm that will appeal to those who know the band. They retired after a 2001 album and farewell tour so this collection serves as a handy reminder of their talents even if it doesn’t include Flowers on the Wall.  

Picking from where the previous collection ends is the music of Tracy Byrd. Byrd comes from Texas and is a deep voiced singer who obviously loved traditional country music and played it at a time when the music was making ruled by the likes of Garth Brooks and Clint Black. Tracy’s first single was released in 1992. That's The Thing About a Memory was a co-write by Byrd with Keith Stegal, producer of Alan Jackson. At the time, Byrd was considered fairly mainstream,  but by today's standards he is deep country. The twenty tracks here run from that first single to When Mama ain't Happy released in 1998. Funnily enough, after that first co-write his name is not attached to any of the other tracks, so he is largely known as a singer. He’s a good one too, his deep voice a lesson in old-school attitude and approach, a smooth, warm voice that could handle a ballad with ease. Witness Why Don't The Telephone Ring or I Wanna Feel That Way Again. Against that there is the dance floor movers of Lifestyles Of The Not So Rich And FamousThe First Step or 4 to 1 in Atlanta

Throughout there is an abundance of piano, pedal steel and twangy guitars that probably wouldn’t  stand a chance at country radio these days,  but serves as reminder of what mainstream country radio once was and what a good country song and singer is. Byrd could also be more soulful,  as on the Gary U.S. Bonds co-write Don't Take Her She's All I Got. In fact he could be summed up by the song I'm From The Country, which was co-written by singer Marty Brown, a song which sounds like a forerunner for the list songs that proliferate these daysThis collection is a fitting tribute to a solid singer who knows how to handle a song and knows how he wanted it tosound. Tracy Byrd's website shows no dates and his last album was released in 2006 on an independent label. One can only hope that he will return at some point with the music he so obviously loves, even if Music Row no longer does.

We come right up to date with the new release from Gary Allan. Set You Free is his 9th studio album following his debut Used Heart For Sale. It shows his path from the traditional styled country singer of 1996 to the hard edge rocker of 2013. This may be the direction he wants to take with his music or it may be accounting for the direction that country music has moved in the last few years towards a mix of either pop or more rock focused music. I have always liked Gary Allan and this is an album that may well find favour with his newer fans.

The last few albums Allan has released have been increasingly contemporary and have moved away from a traditional setting. The guitars are upfront and central to this album with Allen himself taking on the lead guitar role for several tracks. Set You Free would seem to be his ongoing perusal of his creative freedom. But then his music over recent times has tended to be a reflection of where his life is. His 2004 album Tough All Over was written following the suicide of his third wife, an event that he tried to work out in his music through recording and touring. 

Allan co-produces here with both Greg Droman and Mark Wright on different tracks and Jay Joyce also produces four songs. The sound is full with a strident rhythm section, swirling keyboards and no less than eight electric guitar players credited throughout. So while this won't excite the Dale Watson fans out there, it will fit right in with those who picked up on Allan’s more recent albums and those who like Brad Paisley or Dierks Bentley live. The songs are heartfelt and recognise that life is hard for many. There is though, a sense of hope in songs like One More Time, Every Storm (Runs Out Of Rain) or You Without Me. On the other side Hungover HeartTough Goodbye and It Ain't the Whiskey (the most obviously 'country' sounding song here) talks of pain, loss and drowning ones sorrows. 

No Worries adds a reggae-ish lilt and a sensuous backing vocal to the song’s positive title. Drop takes a different mid-paced direction with swirling keyboards. By using different players and producers, Gary Allan seems to want to ring the changes. This album, in context, is one of the best he has done in recent times and he has made the choice to bring his music to a place he seems more than happy to occupy. 


Easton Corbin 'Self-titled' Humphead

The second track here may sum up the album's overall direction, A Little More Country Than That, that likely being his pop and rock sounding contemporaries who currently trade as country artists. Much of this is, doubtless, due to the production values of producer and former Keith Whitley sideman Carson Chamberlin. The steel is mostly exuberent and well to the fore, the guitars are twangy rather than in overdrive. That said it is still an album that promises more than it actually delivers. Rather it represents a good start to the career of an artist with a solid dependable voice that overall, and this is also true of the album, sounds like a close relation to the body of work of George Strait. And Strait's one work has it's high and low points. There are several lyrical themes that are full of cliches of what country music is today. These include A Little More Country Than That and That'll Make You Want To Drink both fun songs but somewhat generic. But that may sound a little overly critical of what is an solid and definably country album that when the songs are bolstered by a catchy riff are memorable. Songs like The Way Love Looks On You, Don't Ask Me About A Woman and A Lot To Learn About Livin'. The latter is one of those Buffett-esque songs that are in favour these days in country circles. Easton Corbin is off to a good enough start but let's hope that some of the songs can get a little more depth and grit the next time out.

Gary Allen 'Get Off On The Pain' Humphead

Quite where Gary Allen is going with this album I'm not sure. It sounds big and bold and continues the direction of his last album that had a strong mainstream rock emphasis. There are still some country elements at play here, both in the lyrical themes and in the sound on some of the tracks. Steel guitar is included but it is largely subsumed into the guitar, bass and drum sound. It is good to see the name of Jamie O'Hara among the writer credits and his co-writes are some of the best things here. We Fly By Night has a strong melody and Allen, who wrote it with Odie Blackmon and the aforementioned O'Hara, delivers a strong believable performance. Blackmon and Allen also co-wrote several other songs but it is the closing track which Allen co-wrote with Jeff Hanna and Jon Randall that packs the most emotive performance on the album. No Regrets is about deep,dividing loss and will resonate with many who have experienced that lasting pain. There seems to be less bombast here and that this is a direction that really works for him. That he has moved from the more traditional elements of his earlier albums is also evident in the styling, gone are the cowboy hat and western-styled outfits to be replaced by a look that might sit better with what Music Row perceives as a big crossover audience. But then Allen is a co-producer here so maybe he's happy with the direction his music is going. This edition is the deluxe version with 4 additional tracks, 3 of which are live but don't really add a lot to the album other than to show that live he gets a lot of screams and the songs have become singalongs.  A Gary Allen album is always worth listening to and there are some very good songs here but, for this listener, the sound has moved to a place that is a cause for some concern in the long term, but as the current single, Today, is hitting the top twenty maybe not for others.

Joe Nichols 'Old Things New' Humphead

There may be some things about Joe Nichols that may remind long term country fans of Randy Travis, this is best evidenced by the title track here, a song written by three men who have been around the block a time or two and understand the reality of a country song. That trio is Bill Anderson, Paul Overstreet and Buddy Cannon. Anderson and Cannon contribute another good song, this time written with neo-traditionalist Jamey Johnson. Cheaper Than A Shrink may have been written with the tongues firmly in cheeks. But given that Nichols had substance abuse problems himself may be somewhat an ironic choice but it works. With A Team players and a Music Row production it is country music with mainstream radio play firmly in mind which means there's a lot of polish and perfection at play here. Nichols has a strong voice and with the right songs delivers a credible performance that finds him on of the more traditional artists currently on a major label and Old Things New is a showcase for where that side of the mainstream is right now. 

Josh Turner 'Haywire' Humphead

The man with the deep, deep voice is back with his latest album. A solid collection of up beat songs that fits the radio formatting criteria in that Frank Rogers production is robust and rounded with mandolin, banjo and country guitar well placed in the mix of these mainly uptempo songs. The ballads like, Lovin' You On My Mind are big productions, with strings and backing vocals giving the whole song an added layer of gloss. The problem here, for this listener, is that few of the songs have any bite or grit. Many of them could be equally recorded, with a slightly different sound by the likes of Westlife. Turner's co-writes As Fast As I Could and Eye Candy (which is a very catchy song, co-written with tongue firmly in cheek by Shawn Camp and Pat McLaughlin) are marginally better as one suspects that Turner would like to get his vocal chords around something more substantial. The song Long Black Train is an example of that, and is here in a watered down version as a bonus track on this deluxe edition, but there is nothing here that has the same resonance. Haywire is well produced, played and sung and is an easy listen from one of Music Row's more traditional artists but the whole thing feels like sugar sweet piece of candy rather something more fulfilling.