Archive for the ‘Country Music’ Category

Album Review: Rodney Crowell: ‘Tarpaper Sky’

April 15, 2014

Rodney Crowell

TarpaperSky

Tarpaper Sky

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After a decade spent making legacy albums, churning out two long anticipated collaborative projects, and writing his memoir, Rodney Crowell has reunited with his late 80s / early 90s brethren (Stuart Smith, Michael Rhodes, John Hobbs, and Eddy Bayers) for his new album.Tarpaper Sky is stunning as a result, consisting solely of original compositions that return Crowell to the straightforward sound that gained him fame in his heyday.

At 63 Crowell’s vocal tone has weathered with age, creating richness that ads reverence to everything he sings. He uses it to his full advantage, along with his genius as a wordsmith, to reflect on life through universal truths.  

“The simple life tastes sweeter now, we have no need to roam,” he sings on “Long Journey Home,” the strum-centric album opener. He’s lamenting on the quieter life he seeks now after a life of living out the self-proclaimed freedom he sought in his younger days. The excellent track is as much an inward expression as a mission statement, drawing the listener into Crowell’s mindset for the whole of the record.

He echoes the virtues of that simpler life on “Grandma Loved That Old Man,” his beautiful commentary on true love. Through vivid imagery, and his brilliance as a storyteller, Crowell brings the couple to life – warts and all – linking their story with the mutual affection that bonds their lives together. The melody, lush with acoustic guitar and organ, has a fabulous bootleg quality to it that takes the song to new heights, making you feel like you’ve stumbled upon something special.

Its clear Crowell is in the midst of a creative resurgence, which, for a man who’s been steadily crafting genre-defining work for more than forty years, is remarkable. “Oh, What A Beautiful World,” a Dylan-era inspired folk tune laced with harmonica, is a biting take on the circle of life that could only come from someone with a lot of life in their years. Crowell certainly fits the bill as he sings, “It’s the truth and the lie, is to live and to die.

Nowhere is Crowell’s wide-eyed soul on fuller display than his magical “The Flyboy and the Kid,” a brilliant hymn about one man’s adoration for his best friend. Crowell lays out his wishes (days filled with honest work, easy answers to all life’s questions, etc) with gorgeous sincerity resonated by the mid-tempo mandolin and upright bass filled melody, which ranks as my favorite on Tarpaper Sky.

The standout number on Tarpaper Sky, and the instance where the album title was born, is “God I’m Missing You,” the Mary Karr Kin co-write done on that project by Lucinda Williams. The wordy ballad, stylistically reminiscent of “Open Season On My Heart,” is a tender masterpiece about the impressions people leave on us in this life, and how they never really go away in death. The mournful ache Crowell brings to the number is pitch-perfect, exceeded only by the lyric, which never falters in fully developing the emotional undertones. “There’s a sanded down moon, in a tarpaper sky” may be my favorite line on the whole album.

Crowell may be in a contemplative mood for much of Tarpaper Sky, but he detours into other territories, too. Lead single “Frankie Please” is a rapid-fire pistol-whip about a man’s blink-and-you-missed-it courtship and subsequent marriage “that happened so fast, they said it wouldn’t last” to a woman named Frankie. Crowell, along with Smith and Dan Knobler, give the tune a 50s shuffle feel complete with Memphis inspired electric guitars. It’s a great song with Crowell deserving credit for keeping up with the vibrant energy of the track.

“Fever On The Bayou,” a co-write with frequent collaborator Will Jennings, has been twenty-years in the making, finally finished when the last verse was born out of an airport run in with songwriter Byron House. The tune is excellent, painting a picture of the Bayou life and the women who live there.

Tarpaper Sky only missteps occasionally, either by general pedestrian-ess or melodies that just weren’t to my taste. “Famous Last Words of a Fool In Love” and “I Wouldn’t Be Me Without You” are fine songs, but the ballads seem too generic for an album with this much thematic heaviness. “Somebody’s Shadow” (a co-write with Quinten Collier) and the self-penned “Jesus Talked To Mama” are too heavy with electric guitars for me to fully enjoy them. But they’re not bad songs at all, just weak spots on an otherwise masterful album.

When I read that Crowell began recording Tarpaper Sky in 2010, I was taken aback since this album feels born as much from the recent resurgence in Americana as his creative rebirth in the wake of Kin and Old Yellow Moon. Crowell’s insistence on going back to basics works in his favor, too, although Tarpaper Sky is a fully modern album and not a retread of Diamonds & Dirt. He’s still a songwriter at the peak of his abilities and after more than forty years, that’s wonderful to see. At it’s best Tarpaper Sky is brilliant in its songcraft and one of the strongest songwriting projects to emerge in quite a long time.

Album Review: Nickel Creek “A Dotted Line”

April 10, 2014

Nickel Creek

A_Dotted_Line_(Album_Cover)

A Dotted Line

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One of the most welcomed surprises late last year was the news that Nickel Creek, easily my favorite acoustic band, were reuniting to record their first album of all-new material in nine years. Produced by Eric Valentine, the mastermind behind Why Should The Fire Die, the project marks their twenty-fifth anniversary as a band.

Whenever an act disbands, especially in the prime of their abilities, there’s always a sadness marked by countless ‘what could’ve been’ thoughts had they stayed together. But more now than ever, it’s easy to see that the members of Nickel Creek (Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins) were more than just members of a group, but rather vibrant solo artists who needed to explore life apart from the musical force that had guided their lives since they were teenagers. Their personal growth away from Nickel Creek has been extraordinary; with solo projects and other unique ventures serving to further hone their creative geniuses and better inform them as a band now that they’ve reunited.

Our first taste of their reinvigoration came from “Destination,” the fiery Sara Watkins-led first single. The track is an outstanding addition to their legacy and perfectly matches Thile’s rip-roaring mandolin with Watkins’ smoky yet biting vocal. Two more songs were released in advance of the album – “Love Of Mine,” a gorgeous ballad led by Thile’s mandolin and Watkins’ fiddle and “21 of May,” a crisp traditional bluegrass number showcasing Sean’s glorious talents with acoustic guitar. The latter is my favorite of three, and one of their greatest performances as a band. Rarely have they ever sounded this tightly engaged.

As far as Nickel Creek albums go, A Dotted Line is a fairly conventional set, with relatively few stylistic surprises. That’s a good thing, though, as the music is allowed to stand for itself without too much experimentation getting the best of them. As far as progressive bluegrass bands go, they show why they’re the best of the bunch on “Rest of My Life,” a soaring ballad showcasing the high lonesome side of Thile’s voice in marriage with his signature crashing mandolin picking. He takes the lead again on the excellent rapid-fire “You Don’t Know What’s Going On,” a stunningly aggressive number with a punkish attitude and enduring angry rock sensibility. If only all such songs would sound like this.

“Where Is Love Now,” a Sam Phillips cover, finds Sara singing lead once again, with a delicate ballad that gives her room to breathe. As a vocalist, Watkins is a curious case in that her voice is often obstructed by production (especially on Sun Midnight Sun) that drowns her out. She has the ability to keep up with muscular production, “Destination” is a good example of this, but on lush ballads Thile’s mandolin and Sean’s acoustic guitar is the right amount of production to let her shine. What I love the most here is how the song rolls along conventionally until the chorus, when the three-part harmony kicks in beautifully, allowing the track to soar to new heights.

“Christmas Eve” is the rare moment Sean sings lead, and he more than holds his own with the story of a guy pleading with his girl not end their relationship. The track distinguishes itself in lyric alone, as it’s the most story-centric number on A Dotted Line. There’s a tinge of sadness in Watkins’ vocal that mares his conviction, but it works in allowing him to lay open his broken heart. “Christmas Eve” is skillfully subtle in all the right ways.

In contrast to the rest of the album, the band gives us one track brazenly unafraid to reimagine the definition of what a Nickel Creek song can sound like. “Hayloft” is a duet between Sara and Thile where they assume the rolls of a couple being chased by her disapproving father (“My daddy’s got a gun,” wails Watkins in the refrain). The track, originally done by Mother Mother, an indie rock band from British Columbia, is wacky, nonsensical, and the album’s standout number simply for daring to be different. I wanted to hate it, but Watkins infuses it with the personality she brought to her solo albums and its so endearing that the proceedings are nothing less than charming. If Watkins hadn’t made those two solo albums, I doubt “Hayloft” would even exist – her growth and newfound confidence as a musical being is astounding.

As if eight lyrical numbers weren’t enough, we’re also gifted two instrumentals that are as excellent as anything on A Dotted Line. “Elsie” is a strong mandolin and fiddle ballad that rolls along quite nicely while “Elephant In The Corn” picks up the tempo a bit and features a wonderful acoustic guitar breakdown from Sean. I’m not usually one to go crazy for instrumentals, preferring songs with lyrics, but these are excellent.

So, after nine years, was A Dotted Line worth the wait? More than anyone involved in its creation will ever know. With the rise in popularity of Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers, I’m come to appreciate Nickel Creek (and Thile’s other band The Punch Brothers) even more because they approach their music from a bluegrass and not rock perspective.

With purely acoustic instruments and lush not aggressive vocals, they make this acoustic progressive bluegrass the way it’s supposed to sound. That they do it with exceptional lyrical compositions is just an added bonus. Their asaterical lyrics have always been their downfall, but they’ve grown by leaps and bounds as writers on A Dotted Lineas well as singers and musicians. Lets hope it’s not another nine years before we’re gifted with their next set of new music.

Album Review: Sara Evans “Slow Me Down”

March 28, 2014

Sara Evans

SaraEvansSlowDownAlbum

Slow Me Down

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When Sara Evans appeared on Opry Backstage with Bill Anderson in the late 90s, she commented on her voice, saying no matter what she sings it’ll always come out country. That logic may’ve been true at the time, but with producer Mark Bright at the helm and a 2014 mentality to uphold, Evans is as far from her country roots as one can be and still associate with country music.

If you’ve studied the careers of the 80s and 90s country women as closely as I have over the years, you know they show their true colors when their commercial prospects begin to fade. Do they go the Reba or Faith Hill route and squeeze out every last hit, with little regard for quality? Or do they take the Kathy Mattea and Patty Loveless route and seamlessly transition into a legacy career marked by adventurous and risk taking records that display the innate artistry that made them too smart for country radio in the first place?

With Slow Me Down Evans fits squarely into the former category with an album that exposes a hidden truth of her career – that she was never that artistic at all, just a trend follower who happened to come of age at a time when good quality songs were still the mainstay of mainstream Nashville. With that era firmly in the rearview mirror, we’re left with a singer resorting to whatever she can to find a platform, and the results are more than a little desperate.

When the title track was released late September, the press behind it made “Slow Me Down” out to be the best thing Evans had ever recorded, a record akin to the 80s crossover hits that came between the Urban Cowboy era and the new traditionalist movement. In reality it’s a terrible song, shoddily written by Merv Green, Heather Morgan, and Jimmy Robbins. The verses are stunted and repetitive and the chorus, while strong, becomes too breathy when Evans morphs into a pop diva by the end.

The rest of the album follows suit, with Evans turning out one generic ‘bright pop’ moment after another with little regard to singing anything that actually has something to say. Bright’s use of drums and electric guitars is far too generic for Evans, and any uniqueness in her voice is suppressed in favor of exploiting the lowest common denominator. Even her trademark covers of mainstream hits have taken a beating, with her take on Gavin DeGraw’s “Not Over You” maintaining far too much of his original, down to inviting him in for a guest vocal.

When I reviewed Stronger three years ago, I said one of that project’s shortcomings was the lack of Evans’ trademark sweeping story songs (‘I Learned That From You’ and ‘You’ll Always Be My Baby’) and her distinctive honky-tonkers (‘Born To Fly’ and ‘Suds In The Bucket’). Those problems exist here, too, but after three years of such songs going the way of VCRs and Landline telephones, it’s hardly a surprise. Evans does try and maintain the last ounce of her country credibility with “Better Off,” a fiddle-heavy tune featuring Vince Gill, but the production is still far too loud, with drums and noise marring the purer elements.

If it’s any consolation, there’s a lyrical consistency on Slow Me Down that elevates the album above Stronger, which had too may juvenile lyrical couplets. But that’s hardly a cause for celebration, as the music here is far too weak, generic, and bland for a singer of Evans’ caliber. I’m not overly disappointed, though, as I kind of expected this, and in the context of mainstream country, this is one of the less irritating releases to come so far this year.

Album Review – Don Williams – ‘Reflections’

March 11, 2014

Don Williams

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Reflections

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On his second Sugar Hill Release, and his third album in a decade, 74-year-old Don Williams spends a lot of time reflecting, just as the album’s title suggests. In the forty-plus years he’s been in the music industry he’s certainly earned the right, and with ten expertly chosen songs, he also gets right to the point.

As per usual Garth Fundis is along for the introspective journey and he succeeds masterfully in placing Williams’ distinctive baritone front and center, allowing the conversational way in which he sings to anchor the album extraordinarily.

This is no more apparent than on the one-two punch that opens the project. Townes Van Zant’s folksy “I’ll Be There In The Morning” is as honest a love song as it was forty-six years ago, with Williams breathing new life into the number with a combination of acoustic and steel guitars accentuated with ribbons of glorious harmonica. “Talk Is Cheap,” a Guy Clark co-write (with Chris Stapleton & Morgane Hayes) that previously found a home on Alan Jackson’s Thirty Miles West, lays bare our tendency to dream hypothetically and brings out the song’s urgency (‘wine’s for tasting, roads for taking’) in a way Jackson’s version didn’t. Both are two of the finest moments on record all year thus far.

Jennifer Hanson, Marty Dodson, and Mark Nesler’s “Back To The Simple Things” furthers the urgency felt in “Talk Is Cheap” by lamenting on modern technology and the stronghold is has on society. On one hand Williams is calling on us to live, on the other he’s making sure we remember what’s most important along that journey – human connection. The chugging beat, which backs the song, is fabulous, too, as is the uncomplicated way Williams is gets the message across.

“Working Man’s Son” finds Williams ruminating on a life lived while perfectly capturing the male psyche. Where most singers desire to run in the opposite direction from their elderliness, Williams stairs it squarely in the face with a stunningly age-appropriate lyric by Bob Regan and Jim Collins:

 I’ve had my fun, I’ve made some friends

I’ve loved and lost and loved again

Been down that less traveled road

Just to see how far it goes

Spoke my mind to defend myself

Tried not to hurt nobody else

But if I did, I hope they’ll forgive

Williams turns negative on Doug Gill’s “Stronger Back,” an antidote to the man taking the good with the bad on “Working Man’s Son.” He may be wishing for ‘a stronger back, a bigger heart, the will to keep on walking when the way is dark” but instead of letting his problems go, he just wants to embrace them and thus take responsibility. The flourishes of steel help to extenuate the track’s beautifully steady beat, and keeps the proceedings from getting too dark and moody.

“Healing Hands” is another life-well-lived moment, this time from a grandchild lamenting on the calluses as a benchmark of life in one’s years and the relationship between healing hands and a kind heart. The sentiment is there in Steve Gillette & Rex Benson lyric, but the execution is too schmaltzy. Fundis nicely makes up for it and saves the song with a striking mandolin and guitar heavy arraignment that’s slightly addictive.

In life, you know you ‘get it’ when you realize our days on earth are a journey full of lessons that never cease to reveal themselves to us. Steve Wariner and Tony Arata wrote “The Answer” about this phenomenon and framed the tale as a boy with countless questions for his all-knowing father. Williams does an impeccable job of bringing the ballad to life as does Fundis with his gorgeous production.

Much like he did with “I’ll Be There In The Morning,” Williams breathes new light into Jesse Winchester’s “If I Were Free” not by removing the song’s simplicity, but by adding to it. He turns the folk song into a country ballad backed solely by an acoustic guitar. The track takes on new meaning, too, with Williams at the helm.

With reflections on a life-well-lived, laments against modern technology, and disgust for people who dream without execution, a song like Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home,” about a man watching a prison execution, is the odd one out. But the tale does work, seeing as Reflections is an album, in part, about looking back on one’s life. The album’s real weak link is “I Won’t Give Up On You.” There’s nothing wrong with the beautiful love song at all, it just isn’t as spectacular a moment for Williams when compared to the rest of the record.

Often when singers make a record they talk about the idea of ‘having something to say’ with the songs they’re releasing. It’s especially true of songwriters, which makes Reflections all the more remarkable – Williams didn’t write a single word (he did co-produce) yet he has more to say in these ten tracks than most anyone over the course of their whole careers. His gifts as a singer and song interrupter are unmatched and help to elevate Reflections above the usual faire. If you’ve been waiting for a substantive collection full of meaning, with tasteful country production and class – than this is it. I can’t recommend Reflections enough.

Album Review – Eric Church – “The Outsiders”

March 6, 2014

Eric Church

eric-church-the-outsiders

The Outsiders

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When it comes to reviewing new releases, my philosophy is to tackle albums by artists for which I’m a fan opposed to critiquing records by artists that aren’t my taste. That way the review isn’t a one-sided analysis based solely on an already established dislike for the artist or the music. I don’t usually like to waste my time on releases that are more of the usual mainstream drivel and don’t have the slightest chance of being anything other than trend-following fodder designed for maximum airplay on the ever shrinking playlists of country radio.

That being said, I’ve been an Eric Church fan since “How ‘Bout You” in 2006. While that might not have been my favorite song, I loved “Two Pink Lines” and “Guys Like Me.” From then on, I’ve loved the majority of his singles and count Chief among the best mainstream releases this decade. Church has always been an original who follows the beat of his own drum and I wholeheartedly respect him for being his own man in a sea of interchangeable sameness.

But now it seems the biggest side effect of his success is overblown ego. Instead of using Chief as the platform from which build a follow-up record, he’s disregarded it completely and crafted what’ll likely be one of the most polarizing albums to come out of Nashville this year from a genre heavyweight. The Outsiders defies logic with a decidedly noncommercial sound that alienates the masses in favor of playing to whomever you would call the group that shares in his odd vision.

When listening to the album, which the majority of critics have referred to as “groundbreaking,” I kept searching for those more normal moments, songs like “Springsteen” or even “Love Your Love The Most” that I could easily enjoy (or see on country radio as potential singles). While they were hard to find, thankfully they are there in some form or another.

“Talladega,” co-written by Church and Luke Laird, is the most conventional and thus the album’s strongest moment overall. A story of friendship, the tune centers around five friends and their unforgettable times together at the famed racetrack. It’s a near perfect slice of rock-country and a song that wouldn’t have been out of place on Tim McGraw’sSet This Circus Down.

Church teams up with his “Springsteen” co-writers Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tendell for “Roller Coaster Ride,” a more progressive experience sonically, but a darn catchy tune with a nice hook (“Since you had to go, I’ve been on a roller coaster ride”). Also appealing is drinking song “Cold One” in which a man is lamenting the sudden end of a relationship when his girl leaves him ‘one beer short of a twelve pack.’ The track would’ve been a home run had Church and producer Jay Joyce kept the ear-catching backwoods arraignment that opens the track. When it morphs into the progressive hip/hop meets EDM mess towards the second verse, I’m all but lost. But the writers (Church, Hyde, and Luke Hutton) have written a fantastic lyric, and that about saves the whole thing.

As a general rule, Church is often better lyrically than sonically. Often, his best songs (think “Creepin’”) are as loud and obnoxious as they are lyrically inventive and original. That’s why I was kind of upset when the title track dropped last fall and left me cold. “The Outsiders” has since grown on me lyrically, but I still hate the heavy metal breakdown towards the end. Thankfully I do love second single “Give Me Back My Hometown” warts and all. It’s a far cry better than almost everything currently on country radio and one of the most exciting songs released so far this year even though it doesn’t have much to do with country music beyond Church’s audible twang.

The only other song on the project I can confess to liking even a little is “Broke Record,” since it is catchy although it wears thin on repeated listenings. The rest of the project, unfortunately, is a mess. Church mumbles his way through “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young” and thus renders the lyric impossible to understand. “Like A Wrecking Ball” features Church’s voice marred in an annoying echo effect, “That’s Damn Rock and Roll” is the dictionary definition of dreck, “Dark Side” is too moody, “Devil, Devil” is just awful, and “The Joint” is too hip/hop inspired (if that’s even what you call it) for my taste.

Given my admiration for Church has an artist, I wanted to love this album. But too many of the songs left me wishing for the formula he perfected with Chief and rightfully won the CMA Album of the Year trophy for. The Outsiders is an uneven album at best, heavy on experimentation and light on good quality music. But thankfully Church manages to keep his head out of the gutter for at least some of the tracks, and if his label is smart, those are the ones that’ll be sent to radio for a shot at heavy rotation airplay.

Album Review – Rosanne Cash – ‘The River & The Thread’

January 15, 2014

Rosanne Cash

river-thread-cd-cover

The River & The Thread

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In the decade since Rosanne Cash returned to music following a two-and-a-half year silence caused by a vocal chord polyp, she’s gone inward, looking to her musical and personal legacy for creative inspiration. As a result, Cash has made works that display her spectacular grace and dignity in the face of crippling loss.

This inward exploration reaches a new zenith on The River & The Thread, her first self-penned record since 2006, and a love letter to the southern United States. When Arkansas State University contacted Cash about acquiring her father’s boyhood home in Dyess, she and her husband John Leventhal (who co-wrote, produced, and arranged the record) took many extended trips to the region, visiting historical landmarks, and overseeing the purchase and renovation of her dad’s childhood home.

To raise the funds needed to purchase the property, Cash held a series of concerts in which everyone from George Jones, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson performed. Marshall Grant, her father’s bass player in the Tennessee Two and her ‘surrogate dad’, was also scheduled to perform but died of a brain aneurysm following show rehearsals. His death led Cash to write the first song for the project, “Etta’s Tune.” Written for Grant’s widow Etta, the song brings Grant’s voice to life as he pays tribute to the wife he’s leaving behind – “When the phone rang in the dead of night you’d always throw my bail. No you never touched the whisky, you never took the pills. I traveled for a million miles while you were standing still.” The song is extraordinary because Cash is depicting the beautiful tale of true love though Grant’s own eyes, as a second-generation source, bringing his voice to life with stunning clarity.

Mandolin driven “The Sunken Lands” uses similar techniques to paint the difficult life of her grandmother Carrie, on the terrain where Johnny grew up. The detail Cash provides is heartbreaking – from the endless work in the cotton fields (“the mud and tears melt the cotton balls”), verbal abuse from her husband (“His words are cruel, they sting like fire”), to her crying children. More than a song “The Sunken Lands” plays like a novelette from a legendary American writer. Cash has been known for her prose in recent years, and Black Cadillac played like a musical memoir, so it’s not surprising she brings those sensibilities to The River & The Thread as well.

The album’s title comes from the opening track, “A Feather’s Not A Bird.” When Cash sings, “You have to learn to love the thread,” she referencing a remark by a dear friend who’s a master seamstress in Florence, Alabama. It’s the most austere of the album’s songs, with a chorus that relies so heavily on metaphor it comes off a tad kooky. A fascination with the famous Tallahatchie Bridge (yes, the one highlighted in Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe”) inspired the album’s closing track “Money Road,” an eerie ballad about the nearby street where Emmett Till flirted with a white woman and was murdered. “Money Road” boasts a great lyric, but the production is too slow and prodding for me to make a full investment in the song.

“The Long Way Home” details Cash’s personal journey, but rests in the spiritual realm on the idea of taking the long way home to ourselves, not necessarily a particular place. At 58 Cash has the life experience for such a sentiment, which only adds to the track’s deeper meaning. Even better is “Tell Heaven,” a meditation on longing and loneliness that frames Cash’s delicate whisper with a gorgeously folksy acoustic guitar. I love the gentle ease Leventhal brings to the arrangement coupled with the overall message – everything in life will be okay if you surrender your burdens to your higher power.

Cash gives a vocal master class on “Night School,” a striking ballad brought to life with the perfect sprinkling of fiddle and acoustic guitar. “50,000 Watts” uses the reach of radio wires to dispense a common prayer of love and devotion set to an upright bass, acoustic guitar, and drum heavy arrangement. “Modern Blue” has the album’s most modern sound, with electric guitars and drums creating a loudish sound that wakes up the listener. The chorus feels a little underdeveloped, but the whole song comes together by the end.

The centerpiece of The River & The Thread started as a composition Leventhal and Rodney Crowell were writing for Emmylou Harris, who never ended up recording it. As the story goes, Cash’s song Jake was researching The Civil War for school when she reminded him he had ancestors on both sides of the conflict. Inspired, Cash asked Crowell if she could rework the song (she always loved it) as a Civil War ballad about her relative William Cash, who fought for the North. After much obsession, and loss of sleep, the re-worked “When The Master Calls The Roll” was born.

“When The Master Calls The Roll” is a sweeping epic about William Lee, the love who would wait for him, and his eventual death in battle. Cash, Leventhal, and Crowell infuse the tune with so much detail and phrase each section with such precision the song quickly elevates to the echelon of masterworks. This track is so good the rest of the album, which meets just as high a standard, pales greatly in comparison.

Cash has said if she never cuts another record she’ll be fine, now that she’s made The River & The Thread. It’s easy to see why, as this is an album of a different breed, sown from a rare cloth. It’s atypical, even from singer-songwriters, to see an album this full-formed, possessing so much of the artist who created it. As tired as I am of seeing Cash mine her legacy, she continues to bring new and exciting colors to her exploration of what it means to be Johnny’s daughter. And with those colors, she may have created her best album yet.

The Best Country Albums of 2013

December 31, 2013

The statistic is getting old, fast. If your name isn’t Miranda, Carrie, or Taylor and you’re a solo female artist, then you’re probably not going to have many hit singles. It’s too bad because the strongest country music released this year comes from female artists who aren’t scared to go against the grain and say what needs sayin.’ I’m always amazed at the good quality music that’s released each year – and these are ten such releases, all of which should be apart of your musical catalog.

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10. Alan Jackson - The Bluegrass Album

Now a legacy artist, Jackson proves he isn’t done doing what he does best – crafting simple songs framed in equally uncomplicated melodies. But he nicely updates his formula this time around by making a bluegrass record, proving he isn’t done with experimentation. May he never go to the lows of Thirty Miles West ever again.

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9. Jason Isbell - Southeastern 

The best modern album by a male country singer released this year. Southeastern is a tour-de-force of emotion and strength – a modern masterwork from a man who’s just getting started reaching his potential.

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8. Patty Griffin - American Kid

In an effort to pay tribute to her father Patty Griffin has given us one of the best discs to tackle the many facets of death in recent memory. One listen to her spiritual anthem “Go Where Ever You Wanna Go” and you’ll be hooked into taking this journey right along with her. Be sure to catch, “Please Don’t Let My Die In Florida.” It’s the best song against retirement in the Sunshine State I’ve ever heard.

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7. Pistol Annies - Annie Up

When most people criticize modern country they take aim at the songwriting, which has been modified to appeal to a younger demographic. The other complaint is the addition of rock and hip-hop sounds into the music. Even worse, then all of that is the diminishing of traditional country instruments in modern sound.

Annie Up is a fantastic country album both vocally and lyrically. Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley defied the sophomore slump by recording another killer record. Tracks like “Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” “Dear Sobriety,” and “I Hope you’re The End of My Story” are among the best of the year. I just wish the CD didn’t so blatantly throw its lack of steel guitar and fiddle in our faces. If these country songs retained the hallmarks of classic country, I’d have this ranked much higher.

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6. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison - Cheater’s Game

One of the year’s most refreshing albums came from this husband and wife duo, who’ve never recorded a LP together until now. Both give us fantastic numbers; Willis shines on a cover of Hayes Carll’s “Long Way Home” while Robinson is perfect on Robert Earl Keen’s “No Kinda Dancer.” But it’s Robison’s self-penned material that shines brightest, making me long for the days when his no-fuss songwriting was a regular fixture on country radio.

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5. Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell - Old Yellow Moon

Ever since a glimpse at the track listing a year ago, I can’t help but shake the feeling this decades-in-the-making collaboration is merely an above average album, not the transcendent masterwork it could’ve been. Covers of “Invitation to the Blues” and “Dreaming My Dreams” are very good, but feel like doorstops. Surely Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell could’ve dug a little deeper into their combined musical legacies instead of spending their time covering country classics. In any event, it’s still among my most played CDs this year which means they did something right.

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4. Ashley Monroe - Like A Rose

Like A Rose redefines the sophomore record by building on the tremendous potential set by the artist’s debut. Monroe brings a sharper pen and keener ear to these 9 songs that are standards, more than mere pieces of music. Observances on out-of-wedlock pregnancy (“Two Weeks Late”), drunken flings (“The Morning After”), and adulteresses (“She’s Driving Me Out of His Mind”) are rarely this fully formed, from someone so young. At its best Like A Rose is a modern masterpiece from a woman who’s just getting started forming her artistic identity.

As far as female vocalists go, Monroe holds her own with all the genre greats from Loretta Lynn and Connie Smith to Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton. Her buttery soprano is a modern wonder, shifting from honky-tonk twang to contemporary pop with ease far beyond her 26 years. God only knows where she’ll go from here.

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3. Vince Gill & Paul Franklin - Bakersfield

Twenty years ago when Vince Gill was accepting the ACM Song of the Year trophy for “I Still Believe In You” he quipped about the state of modern country saying, “I’ve been watching this show tonight and I’ve marveled at how country music has grown. And I want you to know that in my heart country music hasn’t changed, it has just grown. And that’s the healthiest thing we got goin’” He went on to share a lesson he learned from his parents, that a person’s greatest strengths are embedded in their roots.

For Gill that optimistic view of commercial country doesn’t hold up today, but as a legacy artist he’s clearly taking his parents’ innate wisdom to heart. Teaming up with Steel Guitarist Paul Franklin to cover a set of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens tunes is no easy undertaking, but the pairing has resulted in one of the only perfect country albums of 2013. Instead of merely covering the hits, the duo dug deep into the artists’ catalog and unearthed gems even they weren’t familiar with going in. The added effort gave the album unexpected depth but a flawless reading of “I Can’t Be Myself,” a favorite of Gill’s since his late teens, gave the album it’s heart and soul.

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2. Kacey Musgraves - Same Trailer Different Park

If you view Kacey Musgraves as yet another castoff from a reality singing competition, she placed seventh on Nashville Star in 2007, then you’re missing out on the most promising newcomer signed to a major Nashville label in years.

Musgraves didn’t win the Best New Artist CMA Award (beating Florida-Georgia Line) by accident. She won on the sheer strength of her debut album, an exceptional collection of songs bursting with a depth of clarity well beyond her 24 years. “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Follow Your Arrow” are just the beginning, introductions to the deeper material found within. She’s only just scratched the surface, which makes the prospect of future recordings all the more exciting.

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1. Brandy Clark - 12 Stories

Not since Clint Black reinvigorated Merle Haggard’s legacy on his classic Killin’ Time has a debut album come so fully formed, from an artist with such a clear prospective. Clark’s brilliance isn’t an updated take on classic country but rather the next evolution of the 90s female renaissance – a group of individualists (Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, Patty Loveless, etc) who owe their genesis to Linda Ronstadt and the rulebook she crafted through Prisoner In Disguise and her definitive take on “Blue Bayou.”

Clark is the first newcomer to work with the formula in more than 20 years, and she often exceeds what her forbearers brought to the table. “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” and “Pray to Jesus” are two of the best songs Yearwood has yet to record, while “The Day She Got Divorced” is as perfect a story song as any I’ve ever heard.

Nashville, while admitting their admiration for the album, found 12 Stories too hot to touch. It’s shameful the adult female perspective has been silenced in Music City since without it country music has lost a major piece of its cultural identity. Where would we be as a genre today if the likes of Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, and Emmylou Harris had been regulated to offbeat labels and kept off of radio? Clark is fortunate she’s found success writing for other artists, but country music would be far better off if she found success as a singer, too.

Album Review – Garth Brooks – ‘Blame It All On My Roots: Five Decades of Influence’

December 17, 2013

Garth Brooks

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Blame It All On My Roots: Five Decades of Influence 

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When the message came down a few months ago that “the sevens have aligned” on Garth Brooks’ website, I was over the moon excited for his return to country music, in any form. He’s the precursor to the country-rock of today and the main reason country artists in his wake have been so lucrative on the road. But he’s also the only one who got it right. At his core, Brooks is a song man. If you stripped away his mesmerizing stage show, put aside his never-before-seen album sales, and listened to the music, you’ll find a legacy of incredible songs. I cannot say that about any genre superstar (Kenny Chesney, mostly) who’s risen to similar levels since he retired.

But even more then his ear for great songs, I was far more interested in seeing how the new generation (those born after 1997/1998) would respond to Brooks’ return. Without the ability to digitally download or stream his music and no memory of a live Brooks’ special on TV (let alone seeing him in person with his full band), would they care? Time will be the ultimate judge, but the ‘Garth Brooks magic’ remains as strong as ever. His Black Friday concert special was watched by an estimated 10 million people and the accompanying boxed set has just surpassed One Direction as the #1 album in the country, all-genre.

Blame It All On My Roots – Five Decades of Influence is more then just an 8-disc set; it’s a celebration of Brooks’ residency in Las Vegas. For the past four years, he’s been performing weekends in the Encore Theatre at Steve Wynn’s Hotel & Casino. But instead of bringing his legendary live act, Brooks performs a one-man show where he tells his life story though the music that built him – just his voice, a guitar, and a hooded sweatshirt. The boxed set extends that idea to four CDs, 11 songs each, with Brooks covering a handful of these songs in full broken down asCountry ClassicsClassic RockBlue-Eyed Soul, and Melting Pot.

The most obvious disc is Country Classics, where Brooks covers everyone from Conway & Loretta to George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Keith Whitley. He’s trying to fill some big shoes here and the results are far more underwhelming then they should be. Opener “Great Balls of Fire” and closer “Jambalaya” comes off as cheesy karaoke while he isn’t quite convincing as a hillbilly on “White Lightnin’.” I really wanted to love “After The Fire Is Gone,” his sole duet with Trisha Yearwood, but the pair didn’t bring any ache to their vocals, merely turning in gorgeous performances that fail to convey the sense they’re a couple on the outs. He’s better on the more traditional numbers like “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Act Naturally,” and I really enjoyed his take on “Unwound.” But my favorite track by a mile is “Good ‘Ol Boys Like Me.” I’ve always thought Brooks’ does a wonderful job on more tender songs (like “She’s Every Woman”) and this selection from Don Williams’ catalog fits him like a glove.

Classic Rock is a bit better, with Brooks turning in three of the set’s best tracks. It’s not surprising he does a fantastic job on “Against The Wind,” seeing that Bob Seger is one of his major influences and the inspiration behind “That Summer.” Brooks’ is equally wonderful on Elton John’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” on which he gives one of the most passionate vocals of any song on any disc. Listening to it, I felt like I was back in the Fresh Horses era. But the highlight is one I wasn’t familiar with going in, Billy Joel’s stunning rock opera “Goodnight Saigon.” The song is an ode to the Vietnam War that Brooks tares into with vengeance. The rest of the disc is mostly bad karaoke, with songs like  “Addicted To Love,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” and “Somebody To Love” that fail to translate when anyone but the original artist is singing them. But I do have to give Brooks credit for doing the Eagles justice and turning in an above average “Life In The Fast Lane.”

Blue-Eyed Soul is by far my least favorite disc, mostly because soul music just isn’t my taste. But he does cover songs I actually like. “Midnight Train to Georgia” is my favorite, as Brooks puts his own stamp on the song. Other favorites are “Lean On Me” and “Drift Away,” but they become disjointed in Brooks’ hands, loosing the flow of the original versions. He’s in top form on “Ain’t No Sunshine,” but even Brooks cannot get me to enjoy “Stand By Me,” no matter how great his vocal may be. The rest of the record is just ok, with “Shout” being the only real clunker.

Melting Pot is where Brooks covers a bunch of tracks that didn’t fit categorically on the other discs. It’s hands down the best of four, and the one I enjoy most, because of the song selection. He does a wonderful job on rock standards “Mrs. Robinson” and “Maggie May” while turning in another of the box sets’ best performances with “Amie,” one of Pure Prairie League’s best known hits. “Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels)” and “Wild World” are just as good, as is “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” although I would’ve chosen a different James Taylor song, like “Sweet Baby James” instead. I just happen to like some of Taylor’s other songs better.

In addition to the four discs of covers, Blame It All On My Roots also has The Ultimate Hits two disc set and DVD and a DVD of his Las Vegas show. Repackaging his 2007 collection is pointless, but Brooks’ has made a career out of repackaging his albums, so this is hardly a surprise. The four albums of covers are the real draw and while they’re good, they fail to be anything exceptional because Brooks stays too faithful to the originals (especially on “Don’t Close Your Eyes”). I would’ve liked to see him put his own stamp on the tracks, opposed to just covering them faithfully. That being said, Blame It All On My Roots is still worth checking out, especially for those like me who’ve been Garth fans since they can remember.

Favorite Country Singles of 2013: 10-1

December 5, 2013

It was just a few months ago, I was in panic mode. How the heck am I supposed to compile and rank a list of favorite singles when the majority of country music, especially mainstream terrestrial radio country, left me numb? Hell, I don’t even have a can’t-live-without favorite single from 2013. I don’t know when the tide turned, but I was once again able to rank a list I’m very happy with. None of these were big hits (although #8 did chart top 15), but they were the artistic statements that should’ve ruled the airwaves. The genre would’ve been better off if they had.

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10. Bruises – Train Feat. Ashley Monroe 

Two high school classmates run into each other for the first time since graduation ten years ago. He marvels at her ability to retain her beauty after having two kids, while she’s glad to hear he’s finally left their suffocating small-town. Lovers or not, they’ll always be linked by their bruises – those moments in life resulting in a stumble on the path to enlightenment.

Hailing from San Francisco and making his mark in pop music, Train’s Pat Monahan is forgiven for recycling Phil Vassar’s “Carlene” just about word-for-word. This take on the tale stands out, though, because he gives voice to the female perspective through Monroe who turns in a buttery vocal that’s one of her finest moments she’s ever committed to record.

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9. Sober – Little Big Town 

The centerpiece of Tornado, “Sober” proves there’s life beyond Karen Fairchild whose position as the band’s lead singer has left little diversity in their radio offerings of late. Whether or not this turns into the hit it deserves to be, it’s good to see the criminally underrated Kimberly Schlapman given her due. She’s more then just a pretty face, and is finally able to prove that here.

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8. All Kinds of Kinds – Miranda Lambert

Lambert’s best single since “The House That Built Me” is Don Henry’s timeless ode to diversity that makes a strong statement without seeming preachy or political. These are the types of quality records that helps Lambert stand above her competition, schooling them on how to challenge the listener with substance while honing the artistic image that’s made them famous.

She howls, ‘When I stood up in Geometry and everybody stared at me as I tossed my test into the trash’ with the same bite she brings to her revenge anthems, but you feel the weight of maturity from an artist who isn’t afraid to grow in a market that rewards stagnation around every corner. Lambert is a fully modern country singer, but “All Kinds of Kinds” proves she isn’t done pulling new tricks out of her sleeve.

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7. Blue Ridge Mountain Song – Alan Jackson 

Leave it to Alan Jackson, three years after being blackballed by country radio, to release one of his greatest singles – an old fashioned testament to true love sprinkled with trademarks of the bluegrass tradition. He may move the story a little too quickly, in order to get to the twist towards the end, but he does everything else right. May this mark the beginning of an exciting new chapter in his career.

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6. Over When It’s Over – Eric Church 

With Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean facing deserving near-constant criticism for their shallow lyrics and douche bag behavior, their “Only Way I Know” counterpart Eric Church has been givin the space to forge his own path. Instead of rapping about trucks and dirt roads, he has consistently crafted original compositions that possess a decidedly rock edge, but are cut from the cloth of classic country (“The Outsiders” notwithstanding).

“Over When It’s Over” is a sparse reflection on a relationship gone sour, with both parties going their separate ways through a seething fog of regret. What the track lacks in production is compensated for in Church’s tour-de-force vocal conveying the perfect amounts of anger and sadness. It’s the best track from Chief, and while it could’ve used accents of pedal steel in its execution (and how cool would’ve been if Natalie Maines could’ve provided the backing vocals?) what we have is just enough to make it stand out from the pack.

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5. Stripes – Brandy Clark

Shane McAnally had the idea to write a song called “Orange” about a woman who stops short of killing her cheating husband because she doesn’t look good in the titular prison color. He brought the idea to Clark, stuck on the fact nothing rhymes with his clever hook. She turned it around saying “but everything rhymes with stripes.”

Their meeting of the minds resulted in a wickedly smart cheating song littered with originality and quirky turns of phrase (“there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion”) that reveal the underlying humor underscoring the uptempo numbers on 12 Stories. Clark’s ability to find comedy in some of life’s most despairing moments is one of her greatest skills as a songwriter.

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4. Blacktop – Alan Jackson

I was glad to see the blacktop, no more dust in my eyes” and with that Jackson lays down the gauntlet in opposition to bro-country with an act of striking civil disobedience. How refreshing is it that twenty-four years into his storied career Jackson still has something meaningful to contribute to the country music landscape?

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3. Elephant – Jason Isbell 

The mark of a great songwriter is their ability to take well-worn themes and make the listener feel like they’re hearing them for the first time. In an era saturated with an “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” mentality, where hair is replaced with “Skin” and women are “Tough,” Isbell is just trying to ignore the elephant in the room and let his woman enjoy what little life she has left – letting her get drunk and high, joke about her harsh reality, and sing although her voice is nearly gone.

He’s the truest of friends, there for her but not a burden. He just wants one night where they both forget the bitter truth staring them squarely in the face, an impossible proposition seeing as he’s an emotional wreck bursting at the seams, a levee that miraculously hasn’t breached. Never has the word “somehow” been packed with so much meaning.

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2. Hangin’ Up My Heart – Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell

The best track from Old Yellow Moon is this ripped from the 1970s traditional number penned by Crowell for Sissy Spacek’s lone early 1980s country album. The pair sound invigorated here, with a renewed freshness that showcases what the resulted album could’ve and ultimately should’ve been.

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1. Follow Your Arrow – Kacey Musgraves

The most important country single of 2013 is a gay-rights battle cry openly embracing a love who you love mentality in a genre where anything ‘gay’ is almost non-existent. Musgraves is a new age Loretta Lynn not afraid to speak her mind and be open towards her beliefs. Her boldness is refreshing and hopefully the seed that gives her fellow contemporaries the guts to bring substance to their music again.

Favorite Country Singles of 2013 Part I: 20-11

December 4, 2013

It was just a few months ago, I was in panic mode. How the heck am I supposed to compile and rank a list of favorite singles when the majority of country music, especially mainstream terrestrial radio country, left me numb? Hell, I don’t even have a can’t-live-without favorite single from 2013. I don’t know when the tide turned, but I was once again able to rank a list I’m very happy with. Here’s part I, 20-11:

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20. That Girl – Jennifer Nettles

Back in “Stay” mode, Nettles is once again the other woman. Sequels often pale in comparison to the original, as “That Girl” does, but Nettles scores points for writing the first answer song to Dolly Parton’s classic “Jolene” and pulling it off with ease.

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19. Someone, Somewhere Tonight – Kellie Pickler

Treading hallowed ground, Kellie Pickler tackles one of Pam Tillis’ greatest vocal performances ever by covering one of the best songs she’s ever recorded. Finally stripped of her caricature image thanks to Dancing With The Stars, Picker plays it smart by making “Someone Somewhere Tonight” her own. While it pails in comparison to Tillis’ brilliant rendition, Pickler more than makes up for it with a mature performance that marks her growth as a singer and a person.

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18. Your Side of the Bed – Little Big Town 

So what if the third single from Tornado is a rip-off of a Gretchen Wilson album cut? Husband-and-wife Karen Fairchild and Jimi Westbrook bring stunning conviction to this tale of a relationship breaking down from both sides of a king sized bed.

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17. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely – The Band Perry

This must be a trend – when The Band Perry’s debut album came out, they placed one single apiece on both my best and worst lists. They’ve done the same again. Their best? This little ode to spreading your wings when you’re young. It’s a bit too loud towards the middle, but it works for me nonetheless.

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16. Enough – Joey + Rory

Originally written by Rory for a Kraft commercial, “Enough” is a sweet tale about family values and having “just enough to get by on.” There’s nothing revelatory about its sentiment (especially after “That’s Important To Me”) but it exudes charm nonetheless.

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15. Hush, Hush – Pistol Annies

How many of us have been there? You’re at the dreaded family reunion and just as you expected, no one is speaking to anyone. Brother is just out of rehab, daddy’s obsessed with the end of the world, and mom is sneaking vodka just to cope with it all. “Hush, Hush” is family dysfunction at it’s best with some vivid characters to boot.

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14. Travelin’ Alone – Jason Isbell

The best truckin’ song of the year is Isbell’s ode to loneliness on the road. He just wants someone to share it all with. Is that really too much to ask?

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13. Blowin’ Smoke – Kacey Musgraves

The shortsighted working poor come roaring back to life courtesy of Musgraves and her team of diner waitresses who are dreaming of a better life. Kelly may’ve gotten out, and hitched a ride to Vegas, but the others will forever be blowing smoke, and not just what comes from their cigarettes. It’s mystifying how fully formed Musgraves’ perspective on life is for a twenty-four year old.

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12. Mama’s Broken Heart – Miranda Lambert

Brandy Clark and Kacey Musgraves’ greatest success in 2013 came from writing this biting look at breakups from the standpoint of a generational gap between a mother and daughter. She’s cutting her bangs, screaming his name, and contemplating revenge while mom, who raised her better, wants her to “Cross [her] legs and dot [her] eyes and never let ‘em see [her] cry.” Lambert has never played this type of conflict so well.

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11. Like Jesus Does – Eric Church 

Another example of Church proving he’s an artist, not just a puppet of the country music industry. I will always reward those who show some effort and Church pulls out the effort in spades here. One of his finest singles.

The Worst Country Songs of 2013, Part II: 10-1

December 3, 2013

Last August, when Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” became the biggest country single of all-time by logging the most weeks at #1 by a song in the history of the Billboard Hot Country Singles Chart, Jody Rosen of Vulture defined the current strain of mainstream country trends as ‘bro-country’ or “music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude.” Bro-country is by and large one of the worst epidemics to ever strike mainstream country, far worse then the Urban Cowboy era, 90s Hat Acts, or The Nashville Sound. The roots of this ‘sub-genre’ are 80s arena rock and 90s hip-hop and are about as far away from the traditions of country music as Sidney, Australia is from New York City. This drivel is a surprising hit, and why not? It appeals to the adolescent and college set who buy songs and fill stadiums. It also, unequivocally, makes for the worst music in the history of the country genre.  Compiling this list was easy, with ten reasons why most people cannot even stomach mainstream country anymore:

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10. Parking Lot Party – Lee Brice

is there a chance Lee Brice may be the only male country singer to understand the concept of balance? I could knock him for recording this awful cliché-drenched ode to tailgating, but it comes on the heels of “I Drive Your Truck,” a surprisingly substantive moment in mainstream country this year. It’s just too bad he needs to offset a steel-heavy ballad with a desperate attempt at remaining a hero to the teen and college set.

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9. Days of Gold – Jake Owen

One of the benchmarks of a great country song is the ability to be drawn in by the story through production and vocals that help, not hinder, the listener’s ability to understand the lyrics. That simple logic has been thrown out the window here, which in part is smart given the vapid nature of this song. There’s nothing here but summertime cliché after summertime cliché sung in rapid-fire succession behind a wall of irritating sound. Owen wants more substance in his music, but if he keeps playing to radio, he’s not going to achieve that goal anytime soon.

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8. Southern Girl – Tim McGraw

Twenty years into his career, Tim McGraw proves he’s a master at curtailing his music to fit whatever trend will help him score huge radio hits. “Southern Girl” isn’t as nonsensical as “Truck Yeah” but with dumb rhyming schemes and irritating echoes, it’s just as annoying.

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7. Aw Naw – Chris Young

Like it or not, Chris Young’s traditional country career ended the second “Neon” stalled at radio. In the course of three singles songs like “The Man I Want To Be” and “Tomorrow” were out of fashion as the new wave of bro-country swept in like a tsunami. So what’s a twenty-something guy to do? Make like Dierks Bentley and suppress his artistic sensibilities in an effort to stay in the good graces of country radio. “Aw Naw” is the first, and certainly not the last, example of the theory working wonders for Young. Oh, how I miss the days when an artist could record quality songs and be rewarded with big hits.

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6. DONE. – The Band Perry

Imagine my immense disappointment when the group that gave us my favorite country song so far this decade (“If I Die Young”) churns out this mess as their new single. “Done” is an appeal-to-the-tweens breakup anthem that’s too loud and would’ve even been immature coming from Taylor Swift on her debut album seven years ago. This is just another example of a worthy talent being compromised by the commercial country machine in order to make their label (once again run by Borchetta) millions.

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5. 1994 – Jason Aldean

Like most of Jason Aldean’s singles of late, ‘1994’ has no narrative to speak of, no point to its existence, or any artistic credibility whatsoever. Aldean is singing about a man once nicknamed ‘Joe Ditty,’ in a song that makes “Pickup Man” and “John Deere Green” sound like the second coming of “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” When tribute songs are of a far lesser quality than the music of artist they’re honoring, is there even a point?

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4. Boys ‘Round Here – Blake Shelton

As evidenced by the massive success of Duck Dynasty there’s a redneck craze sweeping America that songs like this buy right into. Shelton is pandering like never before making him the most successful he’s ever been in his ten+ years as a recording artist.

Shelton’s embrace of the culture isn’t the problem here, it’s that he’s doing at the expense of country music. He’ll clearly do anything to stay popular including rap and chant cliché after cliché. Worst of all, though? He’s recruited a cast of fellow singers (Miranda Lambert Ashley Monroe, Josh Turner, etc) to join him in saluting his forbearers with a big ‘ol middle finger while he laughs all the way to the bank. Just thinking about it makes me sick.

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3. Cruise – Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly

The newly minted CMA Single of the Year is the worst novelty hit in decades. The rap remix is nothing more then ‘Anti-Christ’ Scott Borchetta cementing his stronghold over commercial country, and his dominance as dictator of Music Row. He’s becoming more of a problem then his artists at this point.

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2. That’s My Kind of Night – Luke Bryan 

Zac Brown dubbed it ‘the worst song he’d ever heard’ and it’s hard to disagree. An obvious attempt at pandering to trends in order to stay relevant, “That’s My Kind of Night” is one of the laziest pieces of drivel ever recorded by a superstar in their supposed commercial prime. With the eyes of the world on him, Bryan should be using his platform to record good quality country music – not this faux-rap garbage.

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1. Redneck Crazy – Tyler Farr

Who would’ve thought we’d see the day when an up and coming country singer would score their first major (i.e. top 5) hit with a song about a guy who stalks his ex-girlfriend after she’s moved on with another man? He’s also about to get violent declaring, “I didn’t come here to start a fight, but I’m up for anything tonight, you know you broke the wrong heart baby, and drove me redneck crazy.”

Farr has defended the track, saying every woman wants a man who loves them that much while Martina McBride has squashed comparisons to “Independence Day” saying the domestic abuse in her 1994 hit is in no way comparable to the unhinged man at the center of Farr’s hit. In any event this tasteless muck (co-written by Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins of “Before He Cheats” fame) is another low for country music, in an era in which everyone seems to be trying to out do themselves for the lowest levels of douchedom. Count me out.

The Worst Country Songs of 2013, Part I: 20-11

December 2, 2013

Last August, when Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” became the biggest country single of all-time by logging the most weeks at #1 by a song in the history of the Billboard Hot Country Singles Chart, Jody Rosen ofVulture defined the current strain of mainstream country trends as ‘bro-country’ or “music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude.” Bro-country is by and large one of the worst epidemics to ever strike mainstream country, far worse then the Urban Cowboy era, 90s Hat Acts, or The Nashville Sound. The roots of this ‘sub-genre’ are 80s arena rock and 90s hip-hop and are about as far away from the traditions of country music as Sidney, Australia is from New York City. This drivel is a surprising hit, and why not? It appeals to the adolescent and college set who buy songs and fill stadiums. It also, unequivocally, makes for the worst music in the history of the country genre.  Not all of these constitute bro-country, but they do help get the list started:

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20. He Loves to Make Me Cry – Kristen Kelly

An attempt at torch singing. I give Kelly credit for trying, but she holds the notes too long. Better luck next time.

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19. Everything I Shouldn’t Be Thinking About – Thompson Square

I hear the generic mid-90s single they’re going for here, I do. But as it stands, this is a mess. The production, generic, loud, and way too rock erases any enjoyment I could have of this song.

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18. I Hold On – Dierks Bentley 

I’ve always wondered why Bentley has yet to score big at country award shows. It’s because of songs like this – dark and gravelly rambles that have little redeeming value. I’m holding on for the day he finally gets his act together and his head out of the gutter.

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17. Chillin’ It – Cole Swindell 

How bro can one be?

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16. Power of a Love Song – Tate Stevens

Want an obvious reason why X Factor ratings are in the toilet? It’s because of winners like Tate Stevens, who are cardboard cutouts instead of promising talents. Stevens fills the role of country singer just fine, if this were 1992. Even then it was dated. Worse? He’s given bland and forgettable songs like this to croon. Biggest waste of $5 million I’ve ever seen with my own two eyes.

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15. Radio – Darius Rucker

“Wagon Wheel” > “Radio” and is that really saying much?

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14. When I See This Bar – Kenny Chesney

This is Reason #1 as to why this whole beach thing reached its climax years ago. Chesney needs a new shtick, pronto.

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13. Drunk Last Night – Eli Young Band

More generic bro-country, yuck.

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12. Pirate Flag – Kenny Chesney

This is Reason #2 as to why this whole beach thing reached its climax years ago. Chesney needs a new shtick, pronto.

JumpRightIn

11. Jump Right In – Zac Brown Band

An island wind sings again, a lonesome lullaby” has to be about the most grating refrains in music history. The line itself isn’t bad, but to hear Zac and the boys sing it, it’s downright annoying. So is everything about this song.

Album Review: Nancy Beaudette: “Fa La La”

November 23, 2013

Nancy Beaudette

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Fa La La

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Amidst the flurry of standards heard each December, it’s always a treat when an artist gifts us with a collection of original tunes celebrating the holidays.  Singer-Songwriter Nancy Beaudette, who hails from Cornwall, Ontario but also plays regularly in Massachusetts, has done just that with her self-penned Fa La La.

Beaudette brings her homespun charm to this nine-song collection weaving her folk, country, and singer-songwriter sensibilities around these tales, which are both personal and festive, and work beautifully with her smoky voice. It’s unlikely you’ll hear a more intimate set of holiday tunes released this year.

The album opens with the effervescent title track, where the gentle strum of an acoustic guitar pairs beautifully with vibrant ribbons of mandolin. “Fa La La” is an infectious sing-along accented with everyone’s favorite traditions – getting a tree, hanging stockings, baking cookies, wrapping gifts, wishing for snow, etc. “Most of All Baby (I Want You)” follows a similar theme both sonically and lyrically, with Beaudette singing a love song to her man, the only gift she wants this year.

“I Think I’ll buy A Christmas Tree” is a somewhat ambiguous tale of lost love, with Beaudette coping with loss (either of the relationship or the person) by maintaining the long held traditions she shared with this special someone. It’s an effecting tale either way, and thankfully a lot more substantive than it appears on first listen. Beaudette tackles those feelings again on “Merry Christmas To Me,” where she decides not to be sad and “offer a toast to your memory.”

The majority of Fa La La retains that substance and the record benefits greatly as a result. The holiday season brings with it a wide array of emotions and Beaudette captures them beautifully. “Silence Tonight” stunningly portrays war-torn families and the effect it has on mothers, always praying for their son’s protection. It’s a perspective I’ve found is often ignored in war themed material, so I’m glad to see Beaudette rectify that here with such wonderful results.

Even better are “In Our Home,” a reflection on family and “Silvertone Guitar,” which chronicles her musical journey with the guitar that started it all. “In Our Home” is wonderful, overflowing with personal details from the Christmases of Beaudette’s childhood framed with the hook, “the most perfect yuletide story that I know, was in our home.” She approaches the lovely “Silvertone Guitar” much the same way; only it’s her musical journey taking center stage. There’ve been myriads of guitar tribute songs over the years, but they’re rarely packed with this much insight into the singer’s life. They’re my two favorite songs on the album because of the amount of detail she brought to the lyrics.

Fa La La is a treasure to have this and every holiday season to come. Beaudette slyly starts the album on a lighter note, thinking your in for a much different collection then you get, a smart move, because it makes you appreciate the deeper moments that much more. While I love the production and lyrical content, I’m most enthralled with Beaudette’s voice, a treasure that sounds like it was born to sing Christmas music. If you’re a fan of holiday music (and lets face it, who isn’t?) then I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Fa La La. You won’t be disappointed.

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For more information on Nancy Beaudette, check out her website

You can purchase physical copies of Fa La La on her website and CD Baby or download the album on iTunes

Album Review: Heidi Feek – ‘The Only’

November 17, 2013

Heidi Feek

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The Only

* * * 1/2 

I became a fan of Heidi Feek after her profile during a season one episode of The Joey + Rory Show. During the segment, she introduced the world to her then fiancé and spoke about her love of listening to vinyl records. She’s since become a regular fixture on her parents’ television show, providing background vocals during performances and singing Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” and Hank Williams’ “Kaw-Lija” during Crosley Radio Vinyl Rewind pieces.

Like her parents Feek is a throwback to a simpler era making it easy to forget she’s in her mid-twenties, around my age. She’s a great vocalist, with a distinctively bluesy twang not far removed from Cline or torch singer Mandy Barnett. I’ve been anticipating a full-length album since that initial appearance, and while I didn’t buy her 2010 EP Eden I was quick to acquire a copy of The Only when the release was announced in late August.

Needless to say, I’m not disappointed. Feek’s first full-length album is a wonderful showcase for her distinct stylings and a fine introduction to who she is as an artist. The album blasts off with the rockin’ “I Like The Way,” an excellent electric guitar drenched number reminiscent of Dwight Yoakam, and the first of four tracks she penned solely with her father Rory. Reverb heavy “I Didn’t Know About You” (co-written by Feek, her father, and James Slater) continues in a similar uptempo vein, transporting Feek back to the Sun Records era of the 1950s while also updating that sound to keep the track modern and fresh. Similarly to “I Like The Way,” “I Don’t Know About You” succeeds on its electric guitar centric sound, giving Feek some muscle behind her energetic vocal.

“57 Bel Air,” another father daughter co-write, is not only the best of the uptempo numbers, and the strongest track on the whole project and the one song I can’t wait to hear each time I listen to the album. It picks up on the electric guitar heavy sound that threads together the uptempo numbers, but adds a distinctive drum beat that elevates the track above the rest. “57 Bel Air,” in which Feek compares her current relationship to the classic car, does the best job of maintaining the rock sound Feek loves while also keeping the track firmly within the realms of her country roots.

As a fan of Feek I was excited to hear her trademark ballads, the side of her musical personality I was most familiar with going in. Feek’s style is best summed up when she’s inspired by Cline, as she shows on “One Night With You,” a co-write with her dad, Austin Manual, and Aaron Carnahan and “There Lives A Fool,” which her dad co-wrote with Sara Evans about sixteen years ago. Both numbers are ripe with bluesy elements that allow Feek to shine vocally, although a chaotic guitar solo suffocates the end of “One Night With You.” The gorgeously understated opening of “There Lives A Fool,” featuring Feek’s vocal backed solely by an upright bass, showcases her impressive range and is one of album’s standout moments.

I also really enjoy “Someday Somebody,” the album’s first single and a co-write between Feek and her dad. The song takes a modern approach to her bluesy side with distinctive electric guitar riffs infused with a steady drumbeat framing her straightforward vocal. Even more contemporary is the title track (which Feek penned solo), a 90s country inspired ballad about a woman telling her man he isn’t the end of the line in terms of relationships. I love how the drums and guitars work together to create a gentle ease that helps guide the song along. “Berlin,” co-written by Feek, her dad, and Slater, follows the same path although it’s far more addicting with the wonderful ‘we hold on/we let go/body and soul/still I love you’ refrain keeping it memorable.

By all accounts, The Only is a solid album, although it didn’t provide the listening experience I was hoping for despite some truly outstanding numbers. There aren’t any clunkers on the project (not even a very atypical cover of “Heartbreak Hotel” that shows off Feek’s interpretation skills) but the production is too heavy handed at times, giving the album a sense of sameness that grows tiring after hearing just a few tracks. But The Only isn’t a bad album by any means, and well worth checking out.

2013 CMA Awards – who will and should win

October 31, 2013

Here’s the link to my CMA Awards prediction post, over at My Kind of Country:

http://mykindofcountry.wordpress.com/2013/10/31/2013-cma-awards-predictions-who-should-and-will-win/

Album Review – Brandy Clark – ’12 Stories’

October 21, 2013

Brandy Clark

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12 Stories

* * * * 1/2

If you’ve been paying attention to country music in 2013 there’s likely one name on the tip of your tongue – Brandy Clark. The buzz about the songwriter behind such hits as “Mama’s Broken Heart” and “Better Dig Two” has been at fever pitch, and it’s easy to understand why with just one listen to her debut record.

Clark has stolen the Linda Ronstadt rulebook that Trisha Yearwood and company made famous in the 1990s, rewritten it, and crafted an album that borrows yet improves upon the past, all the while introducing an artist who is completely and uniquely herself. With12 Stories Clark has redrafted the textbook on how to evolve, and not change, the country genre.

At its core 12 Stories is an exercise in immaculate songwriting. Clark has an innate ability to take hefty subjects and morph them into delicious slices of black comedy, skewing the stories to forgo the ache in an effort to focus on creating little vignettes that play like some of the best episodes of television.

My favorite of these is “Hungover,” a Sara Evans-like co-write with Shane McAnally and Jessie Jo Dillon about a woman’s realization that her drunken man isn’t going to change. Also stunning is “The Day She Got Divorced,” a wonderfully addicting day-in-the-life about a woman’s itinerary the day her marriage officially ends. Reba had it onAll The Women I Am and it was my favorite track on that project three years ago.

“Strips,” the album’s lead single, is the new standard-bearer for cheating songs, with the woman declaring there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion as she ponders killing her husband, stopping only because I don’t look good in orange and I hate stripes. Clark (along with McAnally and Matt Jenkins) has co-written one hell of a clever song, and while the premise is laid on a little thick it works surprisingly well.

“Crazy Women” was an excellent yet low-charting single for LeAnn Rimes (from Lady & Gentlemen), and Clark’s version is good, but lacks the punch of personality Rimes brought to her recording. In addition, “Get High,” the only song Clark wrote solo (and the oldest composition on the album) suffers from a weak hook (‘sometimes the only way to get by is to get high’) that leaves the chorus feeling underdeveloped.

What elevates 12 Stories into echelon of masterworks is the emotional depth Clark brings to the project. She elegantly weaves a series of ballads between the vignettes that rank among the finest moments on a country album this decade.

Weeds-inspired “Pray To Jesus” is a timeless anthem for the working poor that doesn’t stereotype or judge. It acts an affirmation that we’re just trying to better ourselves from within, because the fix doesn’t come from the outside world. It’s the lone socially conscious track on 12 Stories and currently the best song of its kind from this somewhat forgotten sub-genre.

“What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” is a reflection on the pull between right and wrong framed around two married individuals about to cheat on their spouses. Clark is able to get inside the woman’s psyche (I don’t know what scares me most, the ride up, or the ride down) in way that’s both ordinary and extraordinary; exercising both arguments while letting the listener make their own conclusions. The simple beauty recalls Matraca Berg’s “Lying To The Moon.”

Clark and “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” co-writer Mark Stephen Jones teamed up again on “Hold My Hand,” the story of a couple running into his alluring ex-lover, only to have his current love plead for definition in their relationship. Meanwhile “In Some Corner” spins another side of the “Last Call”/”Keep It To Yourself” drunken dialing saga that amazingly hasn’t been played out yet. It’s Clark’s turn to show her moment of weakness and she’s praying he doesn’t call, as she can’t refuse his advances.

The strongest track on 12 Stories comes at the end, with an all too common narrative about a woman who marries the mirror image of her always-absent father. “Just Like Him,” (co-written with Dillon and McAnally) beautifully hits upon the unspoken truth that people marry at the level of their self-esteem, thinking they’re only worth the same-gender role models (or lack thereof) they grew up around. The conviction Clark brings to this song is remarkable, showcasing her incredible knack at crafting tales purely from observances – her dad is the antithesis of this character.

In truth Clark brings that conviction to the entire project. As a child of the 90s, I came of age in the era when music such as this was the rule and not the exception, when artists were allowed to have real problems that were bigger then which truck was going to transport some beer keg to lake whatever down some dirt road littered with bikini-clad country girls.

It makes me sick that every record label in Nashville (even two that confessed to loving it) past on releasing 12 Stories but I’m glad an independent label in Texas picked it up. This is music that needs to be heard. I urge you to pick up a copy, as it’s well worth the money, and time spent listening. Clark is the most important singer/songwriter to come around in a long, long time and 12 Stories is the best album of its kind I’ve heard in many, many years.

Album Review – Shanna Jackman – ‘Shanna Jackman EP’

September 26, 2013

Shanna Jackman

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Shanna Jackman EP

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The first thing that struck me when I was listening to Central Massachusetts native and 2010 Cat Country 98.1 WCTK Country Idol Shanna Jackman’s eponymous debut EP was her affection for Martina McBride, a point driven home as much by her vocal delivery as the sonic direction of her music. I was transported back to the Martina era, and the guitar work from “This One’s For The Girls.”

Jackman, formally of the band Not In Kansas and 2011 New England Country Music Organization Most Promising Vocalist and Entertainer of the Year (she also won the NECMO Horizon Award this year), is a country singer stepping into the spotlight for the first time. She funded this project through Kickstarter last March, and recorded the album in Nashville just three months ago. Although Jackman’s music has echoes of McBride, one of her favorite singers whom she opened for this past summer, she’s still able to form her own identity. Rowdy break-up anthem “In My Truck,” the 2013 1490-AM WMRC Local Single of the Year, preceded the album with a rockish mix of electric guitars and drums that allow Jackman to perfectly display the attitude in the lyrics. Normally I would call out the production for being too loud but Jackman’s forceful twang cuts through the noise with ease, proving her skills as a vocalist.

She continues in up-tempo mode on the introspective “Never Gave Up,” a tune about perseverance in which she sings, ‘Guess it was always my luck, never gave up.’ With ribbons of pedal steel and twangy electric guitar, the song exudes a delightful sunny effervescence that Jackman matches with her effortless yet affecting vocal.

“He Does” is the track that brought McBride to mind, and as I was listening, Jackman had me longing for the way country music used to sound as recently as ten years ago. The track, about a woman in the honeymoon stage with her boyfriend, is one of my favorite types of country songs – joyful, upbeat, and perfect to crank up on one of those sunny days when you don’t have a care in the world. Jackman’s unforced twang is the perfect compliment for the subtle electric guitar and drum heavy arrangement.

The album turns more serious on the remaining tracks, and reaches it’s emotional core on “We’ve Got Your Back,” a song written specifically to thank the military and their families for their service. It’s an excellent song and easily the highlight of the EP. Behind a mix of piano and drums Jackman beautifully conveys a timeless message of hope:

We’ve got your back

When you stand on the front lines for us

We’re the ones you can always depend on

We’re the ones you can always trust

We’ve got your back

And for the ones you’ve left here at home

We’re gonna give them our shoulders to lean on

We’re gonna love them like one of our own

We’ve got your back

Jackman is begging for her man’s help in ending their relationship on “Go Ahead,” the record’s most overtly popish moment. Like all of McBride’s most popular relationship ballads (think – “Whatever You Say,” “Where Would You Be,” How Far”), Jackman sings with thrust, transmitting the woman’s emotional pain as she watches the relationship crumble before her eyes. You feel what she’s going through fully, which is a testament to Jackman’s gifts as a singer.

“Road To You,” the project’s strictest ballad, is more then I was expecting. Instead of the typical guy and girl relationship song, Jackman is singing about her bond with her mom, and the journey they’ve shared since she was born. As someone who’s very close to both my parents, I can easily relate to what she’s signing about here. Jackman croons with a gorgeous simplicity here, knowing that she doesn’t have to reach for any high notes to get her point across. The ballad is stunning as a result, and the string section that frames her vocal is the perfect backdrop to bring the emotional lyrics to life.

There isn’t a bad song to be found on Jackman’s EP, although “In My Truck” is the most obvious example of radio fodder and probably the album’s weakest link, despite it succeeding wonderfully on its own merit. I didn’t know what I’d find when I popped the CD into the player, but it was her voice that won me over. Jackman sings the way I wish all females in country music (yes you, Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson) sang – without pretense or the need to show off. Power is always a good thing, but only when you know how to properly use it. Jackman has complete control over her instrument and the perfect set of songs to properly show it off. This is her time, and she deserves this chance to step out into the spotlight.

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For more information on Shanna Jackman check out her website, where you can purchase a physical copy of her CD.

You can ‘Like’ her on Facebook and Follow her on Twitter, too.

The album is also for sale on iTunes and cdbaby.

A Separation of Church and State: How the Country Music Association mostly got their nominations right this year

September 20, 2013

as13-dateIn 2006, the Country Music Association sent Faith Hill a clear message when Carrie Underwood was awarded Female Vocalist of the Year, only two singles removed from winning American Idol. They were ushering in a changing of the guard that sent ripple effects through country’s core women, making way for new talent at the helm.

Underwood has received a similar message this year with Taylor Swift being nominated for Entertainer of the Year in her place. Swift may be a bigger celebrity with a broader reach, but Underwood’s no slouch – a sold out tour, four #1 singles, ambassadorship for country music, and she’s been hosting the ceremony going on five consecutive years. Heck she just took over Sunday Night Football theme song duties.

In recent history all the top solo female artists (Reba McEntire, Shania Twain, and Faith Hill) have been nominated and won (Hill lost to Dixie Chicks in 2000) while her contemporaries Swift has won twice and Miranda Lambert received her only nod to date in 2010. That Underwood is being snubbed yet again is one of the biggest injustices in the 47-year history of the award show. Underwood and Swift should be competing in the category together – they both have rightfully earned their place in the category.

Underwood aside, it’s nice to see the Country Music Association mostly get it right this year. The major theme of the nominations is artistic quality, as evidenced by Kacey Musgraves receiving six nominations, a move I didn’t see coming. She’s been building a lot of buzz this year but with little support from country radio, I hardly gave her a chance. Her nominations prove the CMA is still looking for quality contemporary music and actually care about maintaining at least one shred of dignity. They should’ve gone further and showered Ashley Monroe with praise, too, but her outsider-looking-in status likely left her a square peg in a round hole and she was deemed too Americana for this mostly mainstream affair.

There was once a time when you could count the number of females who’ve taken home Album of the Year on one hand. That list has grown in the past few years thanks to wins by Lee Ann Womack (2005), Taylor Swift (2008) and Miranda Lambert (2010). This year Blake Shelton stands alone as the only solo male artist in the category, proving that airplay on country radio isn’t the only factor in scoring a nomination.

I believe whole heartedly that you cannot deny an artist success once they’ve achieved it, no matter how much you may dislike the singer or their song. The world may cry foul over Florida Georgia Line and “Cruise,” but they clearly earned the Single of the Year, Musical Event of the Year, Duo Of The Year, and New Artist nods. The song is a behemoth and is clearly being rewarded as such. Swift’s showering of affection is more puzzling, since the success ofRed came in the pop market, but “Begin Again” and “Highway Don’t Care” did keep her relevant in her home genre this year.

Where the Country Music Association deserve the most credit is with the separation of church and state – if you notice, “Cruise” isn’t in the Song of the Year race nor is Here For The Good Times up for Album. In fact, none of the genre’s biggest names (Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, or Shelton) have a Single or Song of the year nod, something I never thought I’d see. Absence by ‘bro-country’ powerhouses leaves the likes of “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Mama’s Broken Heart” to battle it out for the win.

It’s nice to see Nashville songwriters back in the Song of The Year race, too. Even more impressive is the CMA’s distinction in excellence, seeing that the best of commercial Nashville scored big, while the laundry list lovers are left to voyage down dirt roads with beer kegs, country girls, and pickup trucks. Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally are two of the best writers around right now and combined with Musgraves, they’re killer. What other writing team can claim two nominations in the same year?

In sizing up the New Artist competition, I was about to show my denial of a mass extinction, until I looked at the Billboard Airplay Chart and noticed “Parking Lot Party” in the top 10, on it’s way to becoming Lee Brice’s fourth consecutive number one. Like fellow nominee Kip Moore, he’s becoming a force for the future, and with his single “I Drive Your Truck” up for Song of the Year (Brice doesn’t have a writing credit on it), he has a better chance of winning than I gave him credit for initially. This is a very strong category, although Musgraves is the only nominee with proven artistic potential, a necessary ingredient for longevity.

I’ll have my predictions closer to the November 9 telecast, with a breakdown per category, and thoughts on each individual race. But overall the Country Music Association deserves credit for getting more right than wrong this year, mostly opting for artistic integrity over commercial viability.

Check out all the nominations here.     

Album Review – Steve Wariner – ‘It Ain’t All Bad’

September 10, 2013

Steve Wariner

SW.Cover Hi res_sm

It Ain’t All Bad

* * * 1/2

In the modern age of country music, where genre blending is the new normal, it’s difficult to find artists exploring their love of different types of music for artistic and not commercial gain. Steve Wariner, who’s back with his first full-length country album in eight years, is an exception to the rule.

A bucket list record, as he calls it, It Ain’t All Bad gives Wariner the opportunity to explore his wide range of musical tastes without sacrificing the core sound he brought to such hits as (and some of my favorites) “Small Town Girl,” “Lonely Women Make Good Lovers,” “Kansas City Lights,” and “The Weekend.”

Wariner doesn’t succeed with every style choice, but the majority of tracks on It Ain’t All Bad are very good to excellent. He’s at his best on slower mid-tempo numbers where he’s able to show off the delicate nature of his voice. Steel and electric guitar backed “Arrows At Airplanes,” a co-write with Rocky Lynne and Mike Severs is a beautiful example about enjoying life, framed around the story of an old man “shooting arrows at airplanes, throwing pillows at freight trains” on the bank of a river. One of my favorite tracks on the album, it’s the type of tune Wariner excels at.

He’s equally in his artistic wheelhouse on “Spokes In A Wheel,” an environmentally conscious track about our place on ‘a little blue rock called mother earth.’ Co-written with Kent Blazy, “Spokes In A Wheel” works because it relays a timely message backed by gentle acoustic guitars without coming off as preachy. “’48 Ford,” a 70s singer/songwriter inspired folk song is a gorgeous reflection on the titular truck and the memories it holds throughout the life of a family. One of the album’s strongest tracks, it works summarily to “Spokes In A Wheel” by using simple imagery to frame the storytelling.

Western Swing ballad (and fan favorite) “Bluebonnet Memories” is the project’s most traditional track, blending steel guitar and fiddle with a bluesy guitar riff reminiscent of Vince Gill’s signature style. Wariner co-wrote the track with Rick Carnes as an ode to Texas, and while good, there are too much jazzy overtones for my taste.

“What More Do You Want” is a slicker more pop-leaning slow burner about a man wronged by his woman that recalls Wariner’s 80s sound, although he intended it to be Beatle-esque, in the style of George Harrison. He brought his son Ryan in on the slide guitar and it all works to create an ethereal feel. “Don’t Tell Her I’m Not,” possibly my favorite track on It Ain’t All Bad and the most current sounding song. Although it maintains the healthy dose of steel missing from country radio, I could see Blake Shelton scoring a big hit with this one.

Wariner is back in “I’m Already Taken” territory on “I Want To Be Like You,” a co-write with the always brilliant Bill Anderson and Tom Shapiro. It’s another relationship-between-a-family-song that starts off typical (a son emulating his dad) but twists into the dad emulating the son as their relationship evolves. The lyric is spectacular, but the string section makes the piano led production feel slow and heavy, giving the song more weight then it needs.

The up-tempo numbers are where It Ain’t All Bad looses its luster. The swampy “Voodoo” isn’t bad per se, just not to my personal taste and the chorus (“Must be the voodoo that you do, do”) sounds like it came from a rhyming generator. “It’s Called A Brand New Day” is too rock, with electric guitars that aren’t too loud, but not to my liking. The title track has grown on me, but the opening riffs are a little too progressive coming from Wariner.

I could also see Shelton scoring big with “Whenever I See You,” a modern day poppish number Wariner co-wrote with Carnes. The synth bass Wariner plays gives the track a neat groove that accomplishes the intention to help the song stand out. “A Thousand Winds” is Wariner’s response to how he wishes to be remembered in death, and an excellent lyric. I just wish the track wasn’t so slow and prodding, but at least it’s a good song.

I’ll admit that this was my first time listening to one of his recordings from beginning to end and it proved very satisfying. It Ain’t All Bad may drag a little as a listening experience, but it’s a solid above average album with some really wonderful tracks. It’s great to have Wariner back recording vocal tracks again, and the eight year gap was well worth the wait.

Album Review – Kiley Evans – ’2 Pieces of 3 Hearts’

August 18, 2013

Kiley Evans

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2 Pieces of 3 Hearts

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Marshfield, Massachusetts native Kiley Evans has come a long way from her days studying engineering at Wentworth Institute of Technology. Since forgoing her college degree for the lure of a guitar, she’s participated in Bluebird Café in-the-round performances with Luke Laird and written with Stoughton, MA native Lori McKenna. Evans and McKenna recently shared a stage in Martha’s Vineyard, and she’s performed multiple dates with fellow rising country star and American Idol finalist Ayla Brown.

Evans recently released her debut album, three years in the making. 2 Pieces of 3 Hearts is a hybrid project comprised of her 2011 Kiley Evans EP and five newer songs (i.e. “2 Pieces”) she’s debuted at various concert dates. Evans had made waves here on the South Shore but also in Rhode Island – local country station Cat Country 98.1 WCTK plays her music on a regular basis, as does 95.9 WATD, where I intern. Evans has been a frequent guest of their Almost Famous local music show, where she’s graced their Tiny Stage and showed up on their playlists.

I’ve long been looking forward to this release since Almost Famous co-DJ John Shea brought her music to my attention a few years ago. I attended a show last fall, and caught her again this past spring. Evans has an every girl personality that endears her to fans and simple songs that offer a peak inside her world.

I’ve been most excited to get my hands on the CD for “Free Fallin,’” a solo composition that’s among my favorite songs she’s ever done. She sings about a phenomenon we’ve all experienced – that moment when we finally hear a song for the first time, fully understanding a lyric we’d known forever but never really listened to (the track in question here is, of course, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers classic):

I never really understood

I never really listened right

I’m singing ‘Free Fallin’ all the way home tonight

I never really heard the music

I never really saw the light

I’m singing ‘Free Fallin’ all the way home tonight

Also excellent is “One More Spin Around,” written about a woman who falls for a guy at a party who ends up giving her a ride home. She pretends she can’t find her keys in an effort to stall their inevitable goodbye, and they take multiple spins around the neighborhood. I love the sunny vibe and electric guitar riffs that frame Evans’ high-energy vocal. “Devil On Your Soldier” is sonically similar and just as good, although there’s more going on in the production.

She displays her vocal prowess again on 2 Pieces of 3 Hearts lead single “Easy,” which adds an element of blues into her country repertoire. The production track is a tad busy, but Evans pushes through with a stunningly confident vocal reminiscent of Christina Aguilera that adds another dimension to her artistic wheelhouse. She continues in this vein with “Tuck & Roll,” a perfectly composed tale about being played in a relationship.

Evans continues to stretch and grow on “We’d Be Lying,” a sexy love song that could’ve easily been a force attempt at creating a moment, but works surprisingly well. The gorgeous ribbons of piano nicely frame her delicate vocal, and Boston-based singer-guitarist Joe Merrick is a delight as Evans’ duet partner.

The most exciting aspect of the album is the melding of old and new, allowing the listener to fully grasp Evans’ maturity as an artist over the past few years. “Easy” and “We’d Be Lying” show just how far she’s come since the days of “Johnny Depp” and “Not Today,” which are both included here. Both of those now vintage songs hold up well against the newer material. The chorus of “Johnny Depp” is what hooked me in the beginning and its still one of Evans’ most memorable compositions. Mid-tempo ballad “Not Today” is even better, showcasing Evans’ ability to craft songs that are instantly relatable. Her ability to write relationship songs that appeal to everyone is one of her greatest assets.

Evans thankfully also understands that life is more than romance and adds depth to the project with “Papa’s Song,” a tribute to her grandfather that’s a bare bones moment of reflection and the record’s emotional centerpiece. If there’s any doubt as to Evans’ country credibility, “Papa’s Song” puts it all to rest. There’s brilliance in her emotional intimacy that’s breathtaking – she bares her soul in the way only the best singer/songwriters are able. It’s worth the price of the album to hear her share this moment with us.

Evans announced this week she’s moving to Nashville to make her dream a reality, which makes 2 Pieces of 3 Hearts even more special. She’s definitely going to be missed around the South Shore, but she leaves us with a wonderful collection of songs that stand as an argument for her bright future. I cannot wait to see what she does next.

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For more information on Kiley Evans, and to buy a physical copy of 2 Pieces of 3 Hearts, check out her website

The album is also available on iTunes.


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