For more than two decades, country music fans have saved a spot for Steve Wariner and Alabama . Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, these artists contributed memorable tunes that will be their legacy to country music. They’re still fighting the good fight in a glitzier world, and new albums remind listeners that talent — not image — is the reason for their success in the first place.
Formerly signed to RCA, MCA, Arista and Capitol, Wariner skipped the major label route entirely for Steal Another Day (Selectone). The first track dips into tropical rhythms, but the most of the album stays the course — crisp vocals and slow melodies. Wariner honors Chet Atkins — a fellow guitar-slinger who signed Wariner to RCA in 1973 — on “In My Heart Forever” and his stepdaughter Holly on “There Will Come a Day.”
Wariner also revisits the 1980s by re-recording five of his No. 1 hits: “Where Did I Go Wrong,” “The Weekend,” “You Can Dream of Me,” “Some Fools Never Learn” and “Small Town Girl.” Careful not to mess up a good thing, Wariner invited the same musicians who played on the original versions and used the same amps and guitars during the recording sessions in his home studio. “This Christmas Prayer” closes the album.
Like Wariner, Alabama released its breakthrough hit in 1980 on RCA, “Tennessee River.” Now, they close their stellar career with In the Mood: The Love Songs (RCA), a two-CD set showcasing the quartet’s romantic side. The band covers Mike + the Mechanics’ 1988 hit “The Living Years” and generously toss in 20 hits from the last two decades — “Feels So Right,” “Lady Down on Love,” “There’s No Way” and so on. An album cut from their 1995 album In Pictures, “Nothing Comes Close,” resurfaces as well. Following a New Year’s Eve concert celebration in Las Vegas in 2002, Alabama embark on their extensive American Farewell tour later this year.
Already a breakout hit, “The Baby” ensures that Blake Shelton ’s second album, The Dreamer (Warner Bros. Nashville), will find its mainstream audience, who will quickly find themselves singing along to these 10 catchy tunes. Shelton also remakes Johnny Paycheck ’s “Georgia in a Jug” (written in 1978 by Shelton’s producer Bobby Braddock) and includes an urgent truck-driving anthem, “Asphalt Cowboy.” Beyond that, it’s mostly heavy-handed power ballads and a few raucous and rowdy numbers. One exception: In the title track, which he wrote alone, Shelton wonders if his sudden fame was worth the disruption of his private life. Uh-oh, somebody’s been talking to Cyndi Thomson again.
Fiddle master Mark O’Connor won six consecutive CMA awards (1991-96) for musician of the year. After making the transition from Nashville studio musician to classical composer and performer, O’Connor branches out once again with In Full Swing (Sony Classical) which also features trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and vocalist Jane Monheit. Officially credited to Mark O’Connor’s Hot Swing Trio, the all-acoustic album was recorded in New York City with guitarist Frank Vignola and bassist Jon Burr.
Nashville has produced yet another incredible songwriter in Mack Starks. His revealing solo debut, Elsewhere (Nitrolian/mackstarks.com), may be the most surprising singer-songwriter album since David Gray’s White Ladder. The music may not be country-influenced, but the emotion is plentiful, and the shimmering guitars and shining melodies remind you why we refer to ourselves as Music City. If you’ve got Dwight Yoakam CDs filed next to Pete Yorn, or Vince Gill next to Patty Griffin, or Steve Earle next to Everything but the Girl, then Elsewhere might be right up your alley.