Archive for the ‘Random Musings’ Category

Album Review: Jennifer Nettles: ‘That Girl’

February 5, 2014

Jennifer Nettles

Jennifer-Nettles

That Girl

* * *

In the four years since Sugarland graced us with The Incredible Machineit’s become abundantly clear that the project was the inaugural example of country music’s changing tide from a genre of integrity to one corrupted by an 80s rock mentality. As the first instance of the paradigm shift the results were shocking, but in context they make a little more sense.

There’s no secret fans have been clamoring for a redo from the duo, but the fallout from still-pending lawsuits relating to the collapse of their stage at the Indiana State Fair in August 2011, where seven people died, have prevented their collective return to music.

In the meantime, we have That Girl, the first solo offering from Jennifer Nettles; a project she says she’s been writing for the past three years. When the album was announced last summer I was excited, mostly because Rick Rubin was at the helm. Rubin, the man behind Johnny Cash’s American Recordings and Dixie Chicks’ spellbinding Taking The Long Way, knows how to craft complete albums better than almost anyone. So to say my expectations were unbelievably high would be an understatement.

By all accounts, That Girl is a solidly above average album. Nettles’ songwriting skills are sharper than ever and she delivers one stunning vocal after another. But the ingredients just don’t add up, leaving the bulk of That Girl feeling lost and cold.

More than nine years ago I fell in love with Nettles’ voice when “Just Might (Make Me Believe)” was climbing the charts and became obsessed with “Want To” when it led their second album two years later. There was a beautiful intimacy to those tracks that coupled with decidedly country production (fiddles, dobros, and mandolins) created an indelible magic that only got stronger with each passing album.

That Girl retains the intimacy but is completely void of the country production elements from Sugarland’s best work. Seeing that this is a solo project, it’s unfair for Nettles to be expected to carry over the Sugarland sound. But Rubin has presided over an album that can hardly be called country at all, even by today’s standards. That wouldn’t normally be a problem but it aids in helping That Girl loose focus, and without a big standout track, the CD (as a whole) falls into a sea of sameness the renders the proceedings kind of boring.

But I do like and appreciate some of the tracks on their own merits. I love the sentiment of “Thank You,” her co-write with Little Big Town’s Phillip Sweet. The acoustic guitar backdrop is sleepy, but the pair managed to craft a wonderful lyric about appreciation that’s both beautiful and endearing. “Good Time To Cry,” co-written with Mike Reid, is an outstanding R&B flavored number and one of Nettles’ best vocals ever committed to record. She also hits “Falling,” a number about loosing one’s virginity, out of the park. It’s also the closet vocally to the Nettles’ we’ve come to know and love.

The sea of sameness is broken up a few times by some uptempo tracks, although none are overwhelmingly exciting. There’s a Caribbean feel to Kevin Griffin co-write “Jealousy” and somewhat of a hook, but the song gets a tad annoying with repeated listenings. Richard Marx co-write “Know You Wanna Know” succeeds on wordplay, and “Moneyball” displays the most personality from Nettles. The problem with the upbeat material isn’t the lyrical content but rather Rubin’s decision to make them feel too serious. Nettles has shown in the past she does better when she can be more playful (think “Settlin’” or “Steve Earle”).

I really wanted to love That Girl a lot more than I do, as I’ve been unhealthily obsessed with Nettles’ voice over the years and have seen Sugarland live three times. This solo effort would’ve been a stronger listening experience if it had been more varied in tempo, with a few more hook-laden songs and less sameness balladry. If these songs were sprinkled over the course of a few albums, I bet we would’ve been able to appreciate them more. That Girl is by no means a bad album, but it’s not the transcendent project it could and should’ve been.

Top 19 Favorite Country Albums of 2012: 19-11

December 5, 2012

Adventurism. Turing convention on its head. Those are just two of the themes threading each of the 19 albums on my list. I’ve noticed my tastes venturing further and further from the mainstream, as radio playlists are marginalized and top 40 acts are less and less interesting. Here’s 19-11, enjoy!

Wreck and Ruin

19. Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson

Wreck and Ruin

Peculiarity only works when it doesn’t feel like a shot in the dark, but rather a driving force. Following Rattlin’ Bones proved no easy undertaking, but Chambers and Nicholson deliver another quirky set all their own – ripe with originality but most importantly, fun.

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18. The Little Willies

For The Good Times

Listening to this band, I’m always amazed at Norah Jones ability to finally let loose, breaking down the tight reins she holds on her solo work. Their second outing, another set of wonderfully executed cover tunes, is excellent – especially on the Jones fronted “Fist City,” a rousing three minutes of pure sassy exuberance.

220px-Blown_Away_album_cover

17. Carrie Underwood

Blown Away

The best compliment I can pay Carrie Underwood right now is to reward her efforts of ambition, now matter how bombastic they may be. Her “Blown Away” and “Two Black Cadillacs” were two of the year’s most daring singles – dark and twisted but also unnervingly smart. Of all her contemporaries, Underwood is trying hardest to be an excellent songstress and her results are paying off. Now if she’d only release “Do You Think About Me…”

Don-Williams-2012-300-01

16. Don Williams

And So It Goes

It’s a fine legacy if you’re known for fostering exciting new talent, but also resurrecting the careers of genre legends? That’s what elevates Sugar Hill Records into one of the finest entities around.

That’s thanks in large part to And So It Goes, which may cast Williams in the same mellow light he created more than forty years ago, but in 2012, that makes for a simple delight.

amcountrycover

15. Jason Eady

A.M. Country Heaven

What’s a guy to do who’s fed up with the general adolescence of Nashville’s country scene? Well, go write and record the smartest and most articulate slice of genre commentary  since “Murder On Music Row.” Oh, and following it up with a duet featuring Patty Loveless? That doesn’t hurt either.

Joey + Rory

14. Joey + Rory

His and Hers

Here’s a concept – build an album in two halves – he takes six songs, she takes six songs. But instead of seemingly mashing together two solo projects, make the result feel like a cohesive whole.

Joey + Rory’s appeal is their down home neighbors next door appeal and His and Hers furthers their homespun image wonderfully, but also elevates them to new and daring heights, proving that with the right song, they are outmatched. The title track is a fine ode to the trajectory of a couple’s love but they are simply devastating when tackling death, whether from the battlefield (“Josephine”) or old age (“When I’m Gone”). Palpable emotion hardly ever feels this real.

Free The Music

13. Jerrod Niemann

Free The Music

Often, newer acts are easily panned for staying on message by following the trends of the day, thus never really making a musical imprint of their own. Leave Jerrod Niemann to be the exception to that and every other rule.

Free The Music bucks convention so abrasively it’s difficult to find common ground, but underneath the smorgasbord of horns and beats is a man trying to be an artistic country singer, a title he pretty much has locked up. Never has an individual sound been this fully formed, or sound so good.

tornado

12. Little Big Town

Tornado

Coming out parties are never this exciting, are they? The latest in a long line of B acts elevating to A list status, LBT finally broke the mold and brought their expertly crafted harmonies and keen ear for song selection into the mainstream. It’s not a perfect album, but it blows almost all their competition out of the water.

Heart+Shaped+Bullet+Hole++EP

11. Lori McKenna

Heart Shaped Bullet Hole – EP

The title track may be the attention grabbing risk taker, but its how she changes up her sound – all while staying true to herself that makes this EP so exciting. Expertly crafted songs? That a bonus this time around.

Album Review – Jerrod Niemann – ‘Free The Music’

October 18, 2012

Jerrod Niemann

Free The Music

* * * 1/2 

Since debuting with Judge Jerrod and the Hung Jury in 2010, Jerrod Niemann has rightfully earned his reputation as one of the genre’s strongest mainstream assets, someone who resects tradition but is modern enough to exist in the current marketplace. I loved his 2010 top 5 “What Do You Want From Me” so much, I couldn’t wait to dig in and see what Free The Music had in store.

For someone who counts themselves among Lefty Frizzell’s biggest fans and opening admits to studying the history of country music back to the 1920s, I was taken aback at Niemann’s desire to push the limits with his new album Free The Music. The inclusion of R&B and Hip-Hop accents seems to go against his personal mantra and makes it difficult to believe his stance that he wants to be known as a country singer through and through.

At its best, Free The Music is somewhat of a feel good album, as shown with the fabulous lead single “Shinin’ On Me.” But even though Niemann wants to party and have a good time, it’s always with purpose, like mending a broken heart. He exemplifies this best on “I’ll Have To Kill The Pain,” a horn heavy standout highlighting his every guy persona. The same is true for “It Won’t Matter Anymore” a lyrically amusing ode to letting go of taxing jobs and bad relationships in favor of kicking back on the beach. Both are excellent earworms showcasing Niemann’s lighter side, one of his stronger qualities as an artist, while the former begs to be released as a single.

Niemann only gets trendy once on Free The Music and it comes courtesy of his co-write with Houston Phillips, “Real Women Drink Beer.” The market for beer centric tunes is overly saturated, while references to “denim on the rear” are a dime a dozen. But he manages to infuse the track with a Dwight Yoakam-like vocal sensibility and strict country arrangement that is actually endearing. In much the same way, it’s his vocal that rescues the jazzy “Honky Tonk Fever.” What could’ve been very cheesy is at least made interesting by his inflections and the way he uses his voice to play with the listener. Niemann and co-producer Dave Brainard do a wonderful job of utilizing the piano as well, using it to underscore the melodies and move each track along nicely.

Another standout is the brilliant yet sonically progressive tour de force “Guessing Games,” a break up ballad where Niemann channels “Wicked Games” era Chris Isaak. The track is one of my favorites and easily the strongest lyric (Neimann co-wrote it with J.R. McCoy) on the album. I wish I could say the same for the soft rockish “Only God Could Love You More,” a fan favorite. The lyric and vocal are fine, but Niemann downplays the country elements of the track a bit too much for my taste. A better love song is “All About You” is duet with Colbie Caillat that gets the romanticism right despite falling into cliché territory with the coral line “It’s all about the way/You kiss me baby.” Like Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson’s duet, Niemann and Caillat’s voices blend well together on a much subtler song.

The title track, more hip-hop than anything else, falls victim to similar non-country trappings although I do really like the chorus. It’s a cool sounding song, and I sort of understand his message about freeing music from constrictions, but overall it just doesn’t come together for me. I do love the last line – “If you’re sitting alone with a bottle of jack/listening for traditions skip to the next track.” That he understands, and even addresses the lack of country music on the song proves he understands balance, which is more than can be said for many of his peers. He’s also outside the country realm with “Get On Up,” but the cool funky vibe saves it from obscurity.

The traditional song he references on the title track is the excellent “Whiskey Kinda Way,” the purest country song on the album. A 90s country throwback (but with horns in place of steel guitar), it’s one of the strongest mainstream lyrics released all year. I wish “Fraction of a Man” Niemann’s self penned introspective closing track was much the same, but I can’t get passed the song’s jarring structure and enjoy the lyric underneath.

But more than the songs themselves, it’s the inclusion of horns that’s going to make Free The Music polarizing to the listener hoping for more steel in the mix. They don’t bother me, as they help much more than hinder the overall sound of the album. At its best, Free The Music is a strong album ripe with interestingly crafted and complete songs. Niemann may push the boundaries of tradition, but he does it in a way that’s not only cool but also thoroughly enjoyable.

 

The brilliance of “Celebrity”

January 5, 2012

I was listening to the radio the other day when Brad Paisley’s 2003 #3 hit “Celebrity” came on. Listening to the lyrics discussing month long marriages, crying on Barbara Walter’s couch, and unlimited stents in rehab got me thinking.

In the 9 years since this song charted, not only hasn’t it aged, but it’s become even more culturally prominant than it was back then. And that has little to do with the mere fact The Bachelor just began cycle 16.

It boils down to the fact we’re even more celebrity obsessed than we were in 2003 and reality television has grown even more outragrous than Paisley could’ve ever imagined. He actually created a document ahead of it’s time written for a Kardashian obsessed world that didn’t yet exist. His forward thinking served him exceptionally well and this tome celebrating our desire to “hitch up the wagons and head out west, to a land of fun in the sun” has far surpassed the novelty Paisley was after and become a scarily honest look at our culture.

So, for everyone who shutters when “Camouflage” comes on the radio and changes the station at the opening licks of “Old Alabama,” let’s take a moment and celebrate when all was good with Paisley’s artistic credibility:

Life is a pretty fantastic journey

October 31, 2011

Between the many events going on in my life right now, I neglected an important milestone – the two-year anniversary of my blog! I can’t believe how much my writing has grown since I began this blog in October 2009.

As I sit here on Halloween night 2011, I think about the rewards I’ve reaped from a little writing experiment I began as an excuse to better my proofreading skills. I put myself out there but I want to thank the My Kind of Country team for liking my writing enough to allow me a chance to blog on their site as a main writer. I’ve learned so much already and can’t wait to see where that goes from here.

I also can’t believe I received a comment from one of country music’s greatest living songwritiers, Bobby Braddock. I’ve heard this before and know fully understand the magnitude of the Internet and how far my writing really goes. If I’ve learned any lesson it’s you never know whom you’re reaching with your writing.

Thank you to all my loyal subscribers and readers. It’ll be a sad day in heck before I give up my passion for writing. Now, please join with me as we try and take the blog to new and even bigger heights…if that’s even possible!

I can’t wait to continue growing, writing, and continuing down this journey to reaching my true potential through my writings here and on My Kind of Country. I have many loves in my life, but this ranks near the top.

I have many ideas for new posts and I’m excited to write them and have you read them. So lets continue down this journey together towards anniversary number three…

She went back to black and said no to rehab

July 24, 2011

I may be a country music fan at heart, but I’m still deeply saddened by the death of Amy Winehouse. I recognize quality music when I here it, and Back To Black was as solid any album as any to see release in 2006.

I was first exposed to her music in August of 2007 when my Godmother played me her song “Rehab,” while on a visit to her house. Being naive, I thought the song was a declaration of her not traveling down the path into destruction.  Obviously, I was dead wrong.

It would be the following winter before I’d hear Back to Black  in its entirety. I wouldn’t even think about her music again until she swept the Grammy Awards. After purchasing  the album, I was blown away. That voice mixed with those songs came together to create an irresistible combination. She may not be anything close to a country singer, but it didn’t matter. I felt her music.

Much has already, and will be, written about her inclusion into the famed “Forever 27″ club - rock legends (Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain) who all died at that young age. Much will also be made about her importance in the music industry. She’ll always be included in that legendary company, but does she deserve to rank among those great artists?

The short answer is really, only time will tell. Her legacy is just being mounted. It’s going to take a long time for the public to look at Winehouse solely for her music and not for the public spectacle she made of herself. Sure, her demons will always cast a shadow, but future generations will likely learn about Winehouse through her music, not her addictions. I know because that’s how I’ve grown to love Joplin, for her music.

I can’t really explain why, but Back To Black is a classic. It’s an album and not just a couple singles surrounded by filler. Back To Black is her Pearl, just released during her lifetime. In way, it’s criminal to think it won every major Grammy Award except Album of the Year. I’m glad for Herbie Handcock’s River – The Join Letters, but Winehouse had the best album that year.

In essence, Winehouse is the first member of this “forever 27″ club I will have known during her life. I remember watching her Grammy Awards performance blown away by what I was seeing. I had to it look up the  to refresh my memory, but it all came flooding back – she was denied a visa to leave the UK and had to perform in a British club. The sultry Winehouse in the smoky club had a real old-fashioned vibe to it. You kind of knew you were witnessing something special.

In the years since that night, she wouldn’t release any more music, but her influence was felt far and wide. Winehouse ushered in a British-soul invasion that has captivated America. In her wake, artists like Duffy, Adele, and Estelle have all made their marks. They all had a similar sound to Winehouse, but also their own individuality.

Arguably, the most successful in this post-Winehouse group is Adele, who’s sophomore album 21 and single “Rolling In The Deep” have been 2011′s biggest mainstream success stories not named Blake Shelton. I have her album as well and its fantastic. Pure talent doesn’t come along very often but Adele has it.

And so did Winehouse, which is why I find it sad that it takes death to bring appreciation to talent. The whole world is saddened, yet hardly surprised, that we’ve lost another raw talent so quickly, but we’re not above revisiting her albums and taking another look at her music.

When I heard about the now famous Belgrade concert last month, I kind of laughed it off as just another episode. I viewed her fumbling around on stage as just another train wreck moment and not another notch in her downfall. I’ll always think she was screwed up that night, but I never thought it was as bad as it was. In reality, I don’t think anyone did.

Thankfully, though, the addictions aren’t the only reason we know Winehouse’s name. The most important part of her legacy is her music and that will always be there to draw the attention of new fans.

I would like to see Winehouse remembered for her most valued asset – her voice. It was so unique and expressive.  The way a white girl could sound black was just incredible. There wasn’t anyone else who sounded like her.
Listening to her music was like going back in time to another era, which is why her Grammy performance worked so well. She found the perfect venue to capture the essence of her voice.

Which is why it’s such a shame she couldn’t have found a way to get herself together. If we learn any lesson in her death, it’s to make sure we tell those around us how much we value them. That little compliment may make all the difference because all we really want to know is that we matter.

In honor of Amy Winehouse, lets go Back To Black. 

 

Want to dig a little deeper?

May 8, 2011

Just a note to all my readers…

If scroll down the right hand column I’ve added a new section of links entitled “Further Reading.” These are links to other top notch country music websites, magazines, and blogs that I frequent quite regularly. If you have a site you’d like me to add, please leave a comment and let me know.

Happy reading!

An Appreciation: The 9513

May 3, 2011

The news that premier country music blog The 9513 is shutting down hit me in the gut. Online country music journalism lost a big voice and I lost the porthole that led me down the road I’m on today. I didn’t think the news would effect me this much, but it really has.

I’ve always held The 9513 in reverence because their writers revolutionized my thinking and understanding of country music. I have them to thank for opening my eyes to disintegrated state of mainstream country and for showing me why certain songs are fantastic while others are just overwrought cliches of the Nashville machine. The article that changed my perspective is Karlie Justus’s single review of Justin Moore’s “Small Town USA.” I don’t think I’ve disagreed more with a single review than that one. I couldn’t understand why anyone could rate that song a “thumbs down” because I happened to love everything about it, and still do. I got caught up in Moore’s delivery so much that I couldn’t see the song’s faults. But that review laid the groundwork for me to look at country music with fresh and new eyes.

Beyond their expertly crafted commentary on mainstream country music, the 9513, and a few other country music blogs, always knew that Nashville didn’t dictate the whole story of country music. The genre is much wider than what’s heard on the radio. By never losing sight of that they were able to paint a much clearer picture of the genre. They also never let the past remain as history. Whenever a new class of hall of fame inductees were announced you could always count on the site to begin the conversation of whether the acts were deserving, who was snubbed, and so fourth. The discussions about the genre were always first rate and displayed an intelligence rarely seen anywhere else.

My favorite discussions were those that weren’t recapping an event but predicating it. Like posts on what the nominees for the CMA or ACM awards should be before the nominations are announced. And my favorite, Paul W. Dennis’s post on who should be in the Hall of Fame. It was just such a post by Mr. Dennis that contained a comment I’ve never forgotten – that song for song, Tanya Tucker had a better musical catalog than Reba McEntire. (his full comment was “Tanya’s best songs blow the best songs of Reba or Barbara out of the water.”)

While both had the gift for choosing expertly crafted material, I’d never pitted their music up against each other in that way or even thought about comparing artists in that light. I’ve never given thought to the accuracy of that opinion, since I hold both artists in such high esteem. But it’s a very interesting thought-provoking comment I hadn’t read anywhere else.

In looking over the comments to their farewell post (linked in my opening paragraph), someone mentioned how much they’ve always loved the monthly mailbag features. I never really cared for them, only because the whole thing was made up, but they were a monthly dose of comic relief on the stupidity of country music. As random as they seemed, they were unique to the site. But the feature I would look forward to was the news updates. Everyday around noon I would excitedly log onto the site to get my daily round-up of the best in recent posts in the country music blogosphere as well as free downloads of some great music. They pulled it all together and had it in a neat little package for everyone on a daily basis.

The 9513 was also the place I engaged in my first real debate on country music. In the comment thread of Juli Thanki’s single review for Easton Corbin’s “Roll with It,” I made the comment ” In a way I wish Rory Feek would’ve kept the song (“A Little More Country Than That”) for himself…when you give away all your sure-fire radio smashes, you don’t stand a chance of having success yourself. That’s been the biggest mistake Joey + Rory have made.”

This lead to a back-and-fourth between me and Roughstock‘s Matt Bjorke where he got the final word:

Matt B: “Jonathan, There are some very strong songs on Joey+Rory’s Album #2.”

Me: “Thank you Matt. I look forward to checking it out. I just wish they wouldn’t give their songs away for others to record. Who knows where they would be today if they had kept “Some Beach” for themselves…”

Matt B: “Rory’s songwriting career has literally bought them a farm and more. They can afford things like a tourbus as well because of things like that. Giving away a few songs that wouldn’t work for them is just fine.”

It’s funny to look back because the “debate” as I call it was rather lame by my standard today. I didn’t hold up my end that well. Now I’m much more comfortable having a long back and forth with commenters. But it’s how I got my feet wet engaging others on the merit of country music. I don’t have these “debates” all that often, but I feel like I kind of know I’m talking about when I do. I think I defended my opinions well when Libby called me out about Tim McGraw and Gweynth Paltrow’s duet “Me and Tennessee” a few months ago (over at Country Universe).

And that’s the remarkable quality about The 9513 – it took me a second to figure out commenters weren’t just commenters or random country music fans, but actually connected to the country music industry in some fashion (i.e. fellow bloggers, radio DJs, etc). Of course there were others like me who are merely fans of this great music but a majority were heavy hitters. The community established within the comments sections of posts wasn’t duplicated anyplace else on the web, at least that I can find. I read many country music blogs on a regular basis and none were as community oriented or connected as The 9513.

But the rare and astonishing thing I found was The 9513 was slowly beginning the process of breaking down the barrier between artists and fans. Everyone, no matter if it were a big name in Nashville or a country music fan with a computer, would comment side by side. I remember just a few months ago, Sunny Sweeney commented on the single review of her song “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving.” And songwriter Robert Lee Castleman had  a comment to make in the single review of Alison Krauss and Union Station’s version of his song “Paper Airplane.” What this was doing for the future of country music was revolutionary. If we can get to a place where singers, songwriters, and fans can debate, interact, and coexist as one unit than we’ve changed open communication within the country music industry forever. With the rise of Facebook and Twitter has come another breaking down of the wall, and this was another step. Lets hope this wall can be further broken down in other places in the future.

I remember reading an article in Country Weekly, before I stopped reading it do to it’s demise in quality, that country music blogs had been taking over the job they were supposed to have by interviewing artists. I remember a time, in 2009, when The 9513 would conduct and transcribe what seemed like hundreds of interviews with some of country music’s biggest stars. And they always ended the interview with the same question – what is country music to you? It’s nice to see that Ben Foster has carried on this interesting tradition, because their answers were always fun to read. At the end of that year, The 9513 even compiled a list of the answers to that question from interviews over that given year – read it here. In looking back over that post, the answers are extremely thought-provoking. To hear these artists, from the likes of George Jones and Charlie Daniels, to Whitney Duncan and David Nail talk about the music in their blood is riveting. I haven’t really looked at this post in over a year and a half, but in looking at it with fresh eyes tonight, the George Jones comment that leads the responses really stands out to me. Not only did they get George Jones to talk to them but he really gave a substitutive response to the question.

Another reason The 9513 is held up to a high standard is their attack of all country music. They didn’t just comment on the singles, but took note of those extra special album cuts that should be catching our attention. In their year end best of lists, singles and album cuts stood side-by-side with album cuts winning out the majority of the time. They named “The House That Built Me” their song of the year a full year before the CMA and ACM did the same thing. They led the charge in championing Joey and Rory and their Life of a Song album and recognized the caliber of Sugarland’s “Very Last Country Song” even when no one else did. They dared to be different by standing out. I’ll always admire them for that.

The 9513 has met many things to many people. In reading the 1-to-10 Country Music Review tonight, it led Ben Foster to create the blog that’s given rise to his fine commentary on country music. It gave the fans a voice. And while it didn’t inspire me to write it did, like I said above, forever alter my thinking about the merits of country music. It also led me to Country Universe, my favorite of all the country music blogs because of the caliber of the writers and attention Kevin, Leeann, Dan, and Tara put into the details of making the site work. I will forever be indebted to The 9513 for that.

In looking back as I write this, I cannot believe how long I’d been reading The 9513 on a regular basis. It’s a testament to the excellence of all the writers whose work has been posted on the site over the years. They put in so much effort into making the site the shining example of what country music can and should be on the internet. The spirits of all the writers shown though and their passion for all things country music led the way. I want to personally give my gratitude to Brady and Brody Vercher for all their hard work in creating this exemplary community for fans of country music. I completely understand that when life gets in the way, passions that don’t dictate livelihoods must be put aside. And I also get the need to go out while everyone still holds you in such impossibly high esteem. I wish this wasn’t the end, and we would all go back tomorrow morning and watch another sideshow debate between Jon, Rick, Fizz, and Waynoe in the midst of insightful comments on another single or album review.

But as Alan Jackson sang “Too much of a good thing/is a good thing.” While this chapter may be closed, here’s to opening another one. The saga of country music blogs and the writers who made this site what it is, is far from over. And I’ll be there for every twist and turn ahead as we all move on to the next phase in this fabulous journey. Believe me, the best is yet to come.

Passion

March 21, 2011

Last Friday, while watching GAC’s Top 20 Countdown I caught an interview Susanne Alexander conducted with Sugarland at the South Carolina stop on their Incredible Machine Tour. During the conversation, Kristian and Jennifer said something that thew me for a loop:

Kristian Bush:

“What It feels like to have a passion in your life is like no other thing. I’ve had this conversation with multiple people in the last couple of months. When you feel a calling to do something, no matter what it is, to some people it’s a hobby…someone identified it to me as when you loose time, when you do something and, oh man, how much time has just passed? Did we really just kill an hour? The passion part of it, that’s where your brain bends time and space and says, this matters and your heart is alive.”

Jennifer Nettles:

“It doesn’t have to be music, it can be anything for anyone. But I wish that more people could experience what that is and what that feels like and many people do in different ways. Some people do it with a family, some people do it in their hobbies…whatever it may be that gives you that sense of where you loose time.”

In reality, it’s passion that underscores all we do, the drive pushing us forward. I had never heard someone define it so succinctly before. To hear Bush say, “That’s where your brain bends time and space and says this matters and your heart is alive,” hit me like a brick wall over my head. I went to bed mulling it all and couldn’t wait to blog about it. What I know for sure is finding that passion is one of life’s greatest challenges.

Ironically, Sugarland are discussing passion at a time when critics are responding negatively their latest album’s attempt at creating a rock arena sound. I’ve been coming to their defense for months now – I happen to love their latest music because it dares to be different. It has a texture and a grittiness that helps it stand out from the pack. Their intent was to make sure they didn’t sound like everyone else and they succeed. I understand I’m in the minority here, but this is one example of where I’m glad the critics don’t have the final say. It’s up to the fans and rightfully so.

I had become worried that Jennifer and Kristian had changed, that their hearts were in another place than country music. Their constant covering of non-country material at concerts only added to my concern. Not that singing Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable” or Matt Nathanson’s “Come On Get Higher” was a bad move, they pulled them off brilliantly. But after watching their interview, I could tell I had nothing to worry about. Not only hadn’t they changed, they were the same duo who wowed the world with “Baby Girl” seven years ago. It made me happy to see their hearts, and their passions, lay with the Nashville music community.

Anyway, their quotes on passion got me to thinking about passion in my own life and the common denominator that defines everything I do – country music. It’s what drives my energy and keeps me alive. It’s as intrinsically a part of me as putting on a seatbelt when I ride in a car or eating food when I’m hungry.

I don’t remember when country music overtook me and became more than just noise from the radio, but it’s been the one constant in my life. I love writing about it (here and on various other blogs), discussing it, and debating the merits of it. Country music is my true love. I don’t (really can’t) go through a single day without it crossing my mind. I’m smiling right now as I write this. Country music makes me happy. It doesn’t matter if it’s as old as the hills, or just recorded in Nashville this morning, I love everything about the genre. I might not always agree with every production choice, vocal hysteric, or song lyric, but that doesn’t mean I exude any less passion for the music that built me.

For most people, they’re drawn to a form of music for the lyrical content or the emotional delivery. I’ve always found country music to be a feeling. When I discovered it, through Lorrie Morgan’s “What Part of No,” it felt like home. I don’t remember first hearing that song, or her Watch Me album, but it forever changed my thinking. The twang, fiddle, and steel guitar just felt like me. I can’t explain it any better than that.

It wasn’t until I started writing this blog that I was able to love country music so openly. I’d kept as my closely guarded secret for years not because I was scared of what others would think, but because it gave me a tinge of anxiety to talk about it openly with anyone. Growing up it was never a popular form of music to be a fan of. I remember, once, someone asked me who my favorite band was. I had to cover and say Smashing Pumpkins, because I was too scared to say Alabama. Why? Who the heck knows. Looking back at that memory, the word coward comes to mind. I knew the kid had probably never heard of them and I just wanted to get the conversation over with as quickly as I could. Believe me when I say, I know how this sounds – like something’s wrong with me. There’s no shame in liking (or loving) country music as I do, not then or now. People may make fun of my intense love of country, but I’ve gotten to the point where it only shows their ignorance. I can’t apologize for who I am nor would I want to if I could. See, country music is such a part of me, I’m paraphrasing the message Dixie Chicks were trying to get across in “Not Ready To Make Nice.”

Of course, living in Massachusetts isn’t exactly like living in the mecca of this great music, so I never would bring it up. It’s funny, though, as the years progressed, Massachusetts has become the mecca for country music. I shouldn’t be complaining anymore with my geographical closeness to Gillette Stadium. But, as I’ve beaten to death in the recent past, concerts at that venue haven’t helped uphold the ideals that keep Hank Williams from rolling over in his grave. Plus, you cannot have an intimate concert experience at a venue so vast. It’s impossible.

I live with the notion that everything in life happens for a reason (a cliché, I know) and that there’s no such thing as accidents or coincidences. In every moment of life exists a lesson we’re supposed to learn and adhere to. What was a simple interview conducted to plug both an album and a concert tour became transformative for me. I’ve been on a journey, going on ten months now, of trying to figure out how the rest of my life is going to turn out. I’m not willing to settle just to get by because life is too short. I’ve been exploring many career paths including both radio and journalism. And while I’m very happy at WATD, where I’m volunteering, I haven’t found that drive to push towards researching full-time employment. Not that I’m lazy or anything, I just haven’t found the passion I need behind of the careers currently on the table. I haven’t found that unique or exciting opportunity that’ll get me out of bed at any hour of the day or night.

But it isn’t the journalism aspect that isn’t working. As evidenced by what I’m doing right now, I know I want to write. It’s my preferred way of communicating. I can get all my thoughts out without having to hear what others have to say.  And country music is the most effortless subject for me to write about. While I still have much to learn, I already have a vast knowledge of facts and opinions I know most people around me don’t have a vested interest in hearing. And that’s fine because there are people out there who do. They may not be commenting on my blog, but I’ve written enough comments on other sites (really only Country Universe and The 9513) to know people exist. Heck, you couldn’t conduct two full features on the 100 Greatest Women and 100 Greatest Men in country music without caring even just a little bit. Kevin even admitted how much writing that would entail, not to mention a level of detail beyond the average listener or fan’s want to care.

After surveying all these blogs, I’ve learned that I want to shape mine differently. First of all, I’ve never considered this a country music blog. I do have many interests beyond music – I love television, reading, and watching movies. Heck, I even have thoughts outside of the entertainment industry. I want to keep it open to write about whatever I’m inspired by. It’s funny, and I say this all the time about songwriting, the best material comes from inspiration, not writing simply because it’s, say, Tuesday afternoon. When something hits or strikes you in just the right way, like the segment in the Sugarland interview about passion, I can go to town and the ideas just flow.

It’s funny, this whole entry is stream of conscious. I really have no idea what I’m going to say next. I write thoughts as they come pouring out of me. I’m trying my damnedest to be as honest as I can about what my true passions are because, well, it’s been ten months since I got my college degree and it’s time to get a crack on what I really want to do.

Maybe I have to be like every singer following a dream and relocate to Nashville. As I write that line, a nervousness comes over me. Now, I’m certainly not chasing a career in the music industry. I can’t sing and don’t have an ear for music in that way. But being a music journalist might be fun. Reviewing albums and singles and creating (and leading) discussions about country music. Maybe write for a magazine and cover country music for them? I don’t see myself going the Almost Famous route though. Following acts on tour just to get an interview is an exciting prospect but not what I’m cut out for.

It is ironic what Jennifer Nettles said in her quote, “It doesn’t have to be music.” But for me, it really is music. It’s been my passion my whole life and it hasn’t dwindled. Not even for a second. Like with everything in life, I have wanted to turn off country music for awhile out of tiredness, but every passion isn’t sustainable around the clock, 24 hours of every day/365 days a year. But I love country music just as much at 23 years old as I did when I was five. That’s really saying something. I don’t want to be miserable for the rest of my life in a career that won’t make me happy. In fact, it’s more I won’t let that happen for myself. Everyone has a dream and the least we can do is try and chase it.

What’s weird is, writing posts for this blog is where I’ve gotten that sense of lost time. I can be writing, look at the clock, and see that hours have past when it only feels like mere minutes. It’s the strangest thing when time gets bent like that. It’s a feeling I cannot describe. Now I have the seemly difficult task of turning my greatest passions into a career. It isn’t going to be easy but it’s always worth a shot.

Thank you, Sugarland for unleashing a monster within me. You’ve given me some clarity on the rest of my life.

Country music’s cruel new dictator

February 18, 2011

I had an epiphany last week when I was filling out the latest “Highway Patrol” survey from Sirius/XM’s The Highway where you have to listen to a bunch of songs and offer comments on them. Much like the old Sesame Street song, “One of these things is not like the other,” one tune in particular stood out like a sore thumb (for the wrong reasons) against the rest: Miranda Lambert’s “Heart Like Mine.”

It wasn’t the lyrical content or Lambert’s vocal that caught me off guard but the production values of the track. Upon the release of her Revolution album in 2009, The 9513, did an eye-opening article on album entitled “Everything Louder Than Everything Else.” In the article author Chris Neal says, “This album is too damn loud. I knew immediately that what should have been one of the best albums of the year had been ruthlessly defaced, and that the Loudness War had well and truly come to Nashville at last.”

Neal goes on to say, “Here’s a difference between “volume” and “loudness.” The former you can control with the knob or button on your stereo/radio/computer/iPod/Victrola/whatever. The latter is decided upon before you ever buy the music. “Loudness” is the built-in volume of each element of each track, levels that are usually determined in the mixing or mastering stage of music production. The more “loudness” is applied to a track, the less it has in the way of dynamics—the quiet parts of a song become just as loud as the noisy parts. When “Maintain the Pain” slams into its chorus, for instance, the dramatic impact is lessened because the “quiet” intro isn’t really quiet at all.”

Hearing “Heart Like Mine” mixed in with other current singles and recent hits were to be bombarded by a wall of noise I wasn’t expecting. The intensity doesn’t ruin my enjoyment of the song, but it brings into question the need to add that extra element to the track and album.

Lambert doesn’t need extra volume to bring her music to life and thankfully, the whole album isn’t affected by noise. One listen to “The House That Built Me” and you’ll hear everything modern country should aspire to be.

The shock of “Heart Like Mine” got me thinking about the role production plays in modern country music. Why are some songs over produced while others are under produced and when do people strike the perfect balance and get it right?

A trend I’ve noticed is to make songs thicker and fuller sounding than they should be. Two good examples are Chris Young’s “Voices” and James Wesley’s “Real.” When I heard “Voices” for the first time after “Getting You Home” and “The Man I Want To Be,” I noticed it retained more of the Nashville machine then Young’s previous two singles. Where those were straight ahead country, “Voices” seemed to attack you, like the instruments were being potted in at full-throttle and thus making the song more produced than it should’ve been. Luckily, Young has a voice that can cut through tick production and he was able to rise above the obvious shortcomings. So much so, the song recently hit number one.

As for Wesley’s “Real,” the song is just too loud. I was listening to the song today and it has no innocence. The production is mashed together making the song seem inauthentic. Plus, Wesley has to struggle to be heard.

Another place I noticed production taking over was on Lady Antebellum’s Need You Now tour with David Nail. When I go to a concert, I want to be able to hear the artists and not have them drowned out blaring acoustics. Nail’s set was so piercing that I couldn’t understand a word he was singing nor could I distinguish between any of his songs. He made a very poor impression on me and I didn’t come away a fan. His set was a prime example of negative exposure.

During Lady A’s set, the back-to-back playing of “Stars Tonight” and “Love This Pain” was way too much noise to handle. I really enjoy both those songs on the album, but they were too amped up and bled into each other so much you couldn’t wait for Lady A to launch into one of their ballads.

Of course the exceeding loudness of concerts is nothing new, heck it’s been going on forever. But that doesn’t make it necessary. What’s new is the increasing thickness of country records and it needs to stop. The quietness of the music is something to treasure, not erase.

A debate I’ve seen recently is the production values of Shania Twain and Carrie Underwood. Reviewers have often stated that Underwood’s “Last Name,” “Cowboy Casanova,” and “Undo It” is direct descendants of Twain in her heyday. They go on to suggest Underwood could actually learn a thing or two from Twain – that less is more.

I have to agree. I was listening to both Underwood’s “Cowboy Casanova” and Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like A Woman” back-t0-back recently and noticed something – while both have a distinct driving drum beat, Twain’s song isn’t nearly as thick as Underwood’s. In other words, Underwood’s music is a fuller and more bombastic version of what Twain was pioneering over a decade ago.

But why has country music evolved into this new rock sound? I wrote about this two months ago in my progress report post – the rise of stadium concerts has led to an expansion of what it means to be called country. And to expand is to lose all of the intimacy that makes country music distinctive.

Luckily, there are still plenty of examples of where production doesn’t get hinder a great song.  A case in point is Joey + Rory’s latest single, “That’s Important To Me.” When I first heard the song it was so restrained that it took me aback. Where was the bombardment of reverberation? But then I remembered something – all great country records sounded like this, simple-minded lyrics and melodies that didn’t fight to be heard. Listen to any of the Judds big hits and you’ll see this in action. Production wise, Joey + Rory’s song brings to mind the Judds’ classic “Grandpa (Tell Me Bout The Good Ole Days).”

While you’re at it, listen to Joey + Rory’s song. “That’s Important To Me” is more than just country music done well – it’s a prime example of simplicity conveying heart and soul. Everyone can learn something here.

Another instance where quietness enhances beauty is Zac Brown Band’s “Colder Weather.” In between the couplet “At a truck stop diner just outside of Lincoln/The night’s as black as the coffee he was drinking,” you can hear the faint moan of an organ echoing the whipping winds of icy winter days. Keith Stegall was smart to give the production room to breathe because without those two very distinct moments of instrumentation, the song wouldn’t have been so chill inducing.

Those songs have me longing for the day when many of today’s superstars used to sing a straightforward country music. On “Two People Fell In Love” and “Wrapped Around,” Brad Paisley was able to kick butt while retaining simplicity. There wasn’t any of that muscular heaviness that has spoiled his recent work. While a dose of bulk is fine every now and then, to include it on every song is overload.

Another artist in need of minimalism is Blake Shelton. His career has evolved because he plays closely by the rules of Nashville. As a result, the quality of his music has paid dearly. Putting aside the atrociousness of “Kiss My Country Ass,” Shelton has lost all of what he does best – singing real country music.

I’m really enjoying his latest single, “Who Are You When I’m Not Looking,” because it represents the kind of tune Shelton excels with.  I’m not much into party music he’s been putting out lately and never really have been.  I also find his new beer drinking frat boy image very off-putting.

Now I know what everyone’s thinking – how on earth do you have a discussion of modern country without bringing in Jason Aldean? Honestly, you can’t. But unlike Paisley and Shelton, his music didn’t evolve to its current sound – he came out of the gate with “Hicktown” and hasn’t looked back.

My problem with Aldean is that he isn’t honoring the genre. His duet with Kelly Clarkson, “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” is arguably the hottest single at country radio right now, but it’s pop/rock power ballad and should be labeled as such. Also, Kelly is a fantastic vocalist, and I don’t want to take anything away from her, but she wasn’t born to sing country music. It’s no wonder top 40 radio can’t get enough – that’s where “Stay” has always belonged from the beginning.

Aldean seems to have a hold on the genre unlike many of his contemporaries. Thompson Square’s “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not” follows his trademark sound very closely, and surprise, is gaining airplay. With My Kinda Party recently hitting #1, it looks like Aldean’s rock inspired sound is the new normal. That wouldn’t be a bad thing but his sound isn’t worth embracing – by anyone, let alone him.

On the contrary, there is one country rocker I actually like – Eric Church. With two albums under his belt, he’s proven that you can amp up your sound while also keeping it country at its core. The production on his songs isn’t overly heavy and his music is just cool. I love “Smoke A Little Smoke” because it calls attention to itself for all the right reasons – it may be loud, but it’s also unlike anything on country radio right now. It commands your attention for all the right reasons. “Smoke” (and Church) is country rock done very well.

As Church and others make clear, country songs don’t need to be descendents of pysdo-rock to gain attention. The loudness of “Heart Like Mine” made it stand out from the others in the survey – for all the wrong reasons. The song, which is doing very well, doesn’t need an extra oomph to be heard – the lyrical content stands on its own. What it and most modern country need is to be toned down so listeners can hear the songs as intended. Wouldn’t that be nice for a change?

 

An intellectual push to write

January 18, 2011

I’m being pushed, harder than ever before, to grow in my liking of country music. Over the past year, I’ve found a couple of country music blogs that have helped to take my appreciation for the genre to another level. My  favorite of those blogs is Country Universe because their posts illicit intellectual and thought-provoking discussions. No longer do I find myself merely liking songs or albums. Instead, I’ve been forcing myself to quantify my reasons as to why I like or don’t like the latest hit single or album.

The writers there are passionate about country music and the discussions provoked by the latest single review or best of countdown prove that there are people out there like me – people who care to have discussions about country music. People who understand the genre well enough to provide truthful commentary. They’re the main reason I don’t have a strict country music blog – why would I want to try and emulate them? Plus, my passion for writing is far deeper than country music, I would never be fulfilled if my writing was only on one subject.

I took a class in college last spring dedicated to writing about the arts, and I learned how to effectively write different kinds of entertainment writing. The instructor had us thinking on a deeper level about the world of entertainment around us. He got me thinking about the quality of the art clogging up our airwaves and exploiting the real estate of primetime. He allowed me to look differently at films, and see when the need to have a hit outweighed the quality of the product.

I’ve learned that developing into a better writer means also becoming a more effective thinker. You cannot have one without the other. Thinking is the foundation of writing. Without proper thought, writing is just as collection of empty words.

When I read the posts at Country Universe, I see how much thinking has gone into their keen observations. With the simplest language they can covey a thought powerful enough to skew my thinking in one direction or another. Plus, they also have an ability to put into words what I may be thinking but don’t have the words to say.

I’ve always envisioned this blog as a place to put fourth my observations onto the world. That does tend to lean towards country music, but it isn’t exclusive to that. This blog has provided the outlet I need when I want to write. What began as editorials in my college newspaper has grown into something bigger.

I’m always thinking about what I want to write about next. The formation of topics is one of the best parts of this little project. When I go weeks without writing, I often get upset. But there are those times when nothing has been profound enough to hit me over the head and send me running to my computer. But when it does happen, there’s no stopping the flow of ideas. And the ideas are ever flowing…

Thank you, Country Universe staff, for being my current inspiration to bring my writing skills to another level. You are just the push I need. Here’s to a great 2011 0f blogging (even if you’re WAY ahead of me).

My Blog Health in 2010

January 3, 2011

Let’s start 2011 by looking back…I want to thank everyone who took time out of their busy lives to read what I had to write. I got an e-mail from WordPress with the stats about my blog in 2010. Here’s what they had to say during my year in review:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads: “This blog is doing awesome!.”

Crunchy numbers

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,300 times in 2010. That’s about 3 full 747s.

In 2010, there were 37 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 46 posts. There were 24 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 23mb. That’s about 2 pictures per month.

The busiest day of the year was December 17th with 31 views. The most popular post that day was The 14 Best Country Songs of 2010.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, countryuniverse.net, linkedin.com, mariaozawa2u.blogspot.com, and refinancing-home.student-loan-consilidation.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for jonathan pappalardo, “jonathan pappalardo”, olympic editorial, stephen huneck memorial service, and why doesn’t dave haywood sing solo.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

The 14 Best Country Songs of 2010 December 2010
4 comments

2

Who is Jonathan Pappalardo? October 2009

3

What Elizabeth Edwards means to me December 2010

4

Stephen Huneck: A man with a love of dogs (and other pets) May 2010
2 comments

5

Best Country Albums of the 2000s: December 2009
2 comments

What Elizabeth Edwards means to me

December 8, 2010

Like the rest of the world, I was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Elizabeth Edwards yesterday. I knew the day would come, but wasn’t prepared at all. The news hit me like a wave – another gifted soul lost to a horrible disease – A mother who won’t be able to see her children into adulthood and a women who had to deal with unimaginable sadness and loss yet never let pain dictate her life.

I first became aware of Mrs. Edwards when her husband John ran for the presidency in 2004. Life seemed simple back then, they were known as the couple who celebrated their wedding anniversaries at Wendy’s. I could tell they had a deep love for each other (or at least bought into the media’s idea of their marriage) and were a special couple.

I remember being in my dorm room at college glued to the television, March 22, 2007, watching the press conference announcing her cancer had returned. At the time I was caught up in the breaking news of it all but I couldn’t believe it was happening again. I never could have imagined the press conference marked the beginning of the end.

Later that year I had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Edwards when she came to Colby-Sawyer to stump for John. I remember it was a beautiful Saturday early in September. I made my mom come up because I knew this was an event not to be missed. We had been following her on TV for the past few years and I was excited to see her in person.

I vividly remember how sunny it was that day and thinking, wow, why isn’t she wearing sunglasses? I know I would never have been able to stand in the sun that long without them. But the truly remarkable thing was her kind spirit.

At the end of the event, we were waiting in line to have our picture taken with her and our camera died just before we could get the photo. Being the amazing person she will forever be, Mrs. Edwards made sure one of her field producers got the picture before she left. She cared about each and every person there and even though we didn’t know her personally, she made sure we got the photo. That’s what I will always remember when I think of her.

My mom and I with Elizabeth Edwards during her visit to Colby-Sawyer College September 22, 2007 (six months to day of announcing publicly her cancer had returned) 

I was looking at that photo this morning on my computer and thinking about how happy I am to have that moment as a memory in my life. Getting to meet her was a tiny moment in my college career but one that now shines equally as bright as everything else that defined my life those last four years.

When I look back on that visit to Colby-Sawyer, I think about what it must’ve taken for her to make all those public appearances after knowing the truth about John’s relationship with his videographer. To be able to put that all aside and support him in his bid for the presidency, took an unbelievable amount of courage and grace.

In fact, Mrs. Edwards deserves praise for how she handled herself amidst that whole mess. How a woman battling terminal cancer can add a stress of that magnitude to her life and still hold herself with dignity is truly remarkable. She faced so much sorrow in her life and never let it affect her negatively. I wish I could be half as strong when face battles in my own life as she was with hers.

What I’ve come to learn throughout my life is the cancer seems to effect some of the nicest most kind people ever put on the plant. I find those who deserve it least get hit the hardest. I know so many good people who were struck down in their prime from this awful disease.

But what I believe is that in every death there is a lesson to be learned for each of us fortunate enough to still have life. We are put on earth with the purpose of growing into ourselves and learning just what the limit is to what we can handle. In that regard, Mrs. Edwards was the ultimate warrior, fighting for her spot in life.

So, what does Mrs. Edwards, mean to me? When I reflect on these past six years of seeing her make countless television appearances promoting her books or talking about the end of her long marriage, I don’t see the hurt or the pain. When I look back, I see a woman, who until she took her last breath, held herself with the highest integrity. She had a strong will to live when others would’ve thrown in the towel. Mrs. Edwards, is a beacon, a symbol of not letting go or giving up until the bitter end. She, like so many others who succumbed to cancer, will be remembered for their battle to rid their bodies of the awful disease that would take their lives.

But I will remember the compassionate soul who wouldn’t let me go without getting that photograph; the woman who cared about everyone she came in contact with no matter for how long – the reluctant celebrity who wouldn’t be around that long yet we felt we knew forever.

My technology gap…

November 21, 2010

I have a confession to make. More and more I am noticing a personal technology gap. The world is moving at a faster pace than even I can keep up with anymore. I’m 22 and I still cling to my e-mail inbox sitting on the desktop of my computer. I feel like a whole world is passing me by because I don’t text or have my whole world directly on my phone. In fact, and this is the saddest part, at 22 I have never owned nor operated a smart phone. It’s crazy since I majored in communications in college.

I don’t have a resistance to the technology, I just don’t know anything about it. I always thought it was strange when people would have Blackberrys for personal use because I aways associated them with people who have important jobs. Why would someone need a Blackberry if they’re just a college student? It’s hitting me, that isn’t them…it really is me. What I’m trying to figure out is when the whole world zoomed by and left me in the gutter. Now I feel like my whole way of communicating has become obsolete.

I’ve even got to thinking a little about this blog. Is having a blog too old fashioned in this day and age? Are people really going to take the time to read what I’ve posted or is it another example of my backwards thinking? Don’t worry, I’m not going to stop blogging. I don’t care if it’s as antiquated as film cameras…I would never stop my creative outlet. Plus, everyone tells you, when you’re in my field, to blog, blog, blog. Thank goodness it’s something I really love to do.

But I just feel like technological advances are moving at warp speed. Why buy something today, if a better version is due out tomorrow? I’ve been wrestling with that for years. In an instant the DVD replaced the VHS and now the Blueray disc has replaced the DVD. High def used to be the cool in thing and now it’s 3-D. I cannot keep up anymore.

But, for my sanity, I have to. The world is changing and I have to roll with the punches so I’m not left out in the cold. I want to be hip and current. I want to feel like I’m with the in crowd and not back in 2004 with my dinky cell-phone where the only cool thing it does is either take a picture or make a call.

I need to get with the 21st century. This I am learning more and more. I’m done being that person who is so behind. I don’t know what is so scary about embracing modern technology. Is it really that bad to be one of those people addicted to their phone? Maybe, they’re the ones who are right.

So as I move closer to landing that first job and embracing what life is going to be like at 23 years old, I’m going to do my best to get hip. I can’t afford not to.

The Rise of the Laptop Library: Should schools go without stacks of books?

November 12, 2010

The next step in our ever growing and changing world has begun: school libraries going all digital. The prime example was the subject of the cover story in G Nov. 6 from The Boston Globe. The library at Cushing Academy in Ashburnham Mass has eliminated most of the books in it’s library and gone digital. The move turned the building into the most used on campus, where before it was the least, and revolutionized the way students study and interact with each other.

According to the article, the goal in creating the digital library is “to liberate students from stacks full of outdated reference material and mold them into online artistes adept at pursuing research through mastery of databases.” I fully support that goal. I know I would use (and often did in college) an online library over a physical one. I love books but doing online research was always my preference because of ease and I could do it from anywhere on campus. Having the skills of mastering databases is important when entering into the working world where everything is computer based. Just hearing the words “stacks of outdated references” sounds so unappealing.

Credit needs to be given to James Tracey, the headmaster of the school, for orchestrating the switch. He is thinking of not only the technology of the future but of his student’s needs. Since eliminating the stacks of books, the library building has brought the students closer together and given them a place to hang out and study. I am all for schools eliminating what isn’t working in favor of uniting the student body. In the case of Cushing Academy, the benefits seem to have outweighed the risks. Social interaction is most important and it’s proven that students who study together often perform better on exams.

Of course, the elimination of physical books only ignites a larger debate. There are, and seemingly always will be, educators who swear by physical books for completing research. The prospect of online only research send some into a tizzy who fear students are incapable of citing effective sources. For instance, articles have been written solely on the subject of why Wikipedia cannot be cited in papers.

Students today are much smarter than anyone gives them credit for. Most not only know the difference between effective and ineffective sources; they know where to go and find only the good ones. Eliminating libraries full of old books is a step in the right direction because students today are more equipped to find sources online than in books. I find reference books daunting myself; a quick Google search is so much easier and takes less time. The internet (and those online databases offered by libraries) are always changing and are more up to date than a book will ever be. Our world is constantly changing and the internet is the best way to keep up with it.

I know how hard it is for our parents to hear this; anyone who grew up with the Dewy Decimal System freak out over online based research since it’s a vast world unfamiliar to them. They are not wrong. That was a proven method for generations and worked quite well. Like all technology, it’s become outdated. I feel bad for those who have a hard time catching up to modern technology. Adapting isn’t easy for anyone; humans are creatures of habit and we like to complete tasks the way we’ve always known. It’s comfortable to us. But if we don’t change and adapt we won’t grow as a society and remaining stagnant isn’t an option.

I applaud Cushing Academy for recognizing the need to eliminate books. In doing so they’ve recognized the needs of their students and put them before their ideals. It remains to be seen how this change will effect admission going forward but it’s hard to argue with what is clearly working. It would be interesting to see a study of how the elimination of books effected grades. With the library now used as a student center, I wonder if grades have seen marked improvement? The article doesn’t get into where the students would study before but says the new use of the library helps do away with the isolation felt in the residence halls. I always found studying with other people made it fun and boosted my grades on exams.

Another secondary debate has been sparked by this article. While the Cushing Academy library references are being substituted with online databases; the concept of books is never going away; the physical is being replaced by the electronic equivalent. There will always be those who prefer physical books; the article cites English majors as an example. I for one love books and always have. Since graduating college last May I’ve read two complete books, finished a third, and I’m nearly done with a fourth. That being said, I’ve switched to reading electronic books which I not only find easier and more convenient; it just makes sense.  Not having to carry around physical books has been liberating. To be able to read whatever I want and not have to worry if the book is too thick or too heavy in my bag or suitcase is the best feeling. I don’t miss physical books in the least. As I’ve written about before, I’ve been a proud Kindle owner for over two years and love it. Being able to look up words I’m not sure the meaning of right on my Kindle has made me a smarter and more informed reader. From personal experience, having a Kindle is just better.

For schools, be it Middle School, High School, or College to switch to an all electronic format for all textbooks is a good idea in theory but the technology is only in the infant stages.

The main problem, and I’ve thought about this often, is the state of the technology. The Kindle needs improvements before it can be used for educational purposes. For starters, Kindle offers the ability to change print size which throws off page numbers (or “locations” as they’re called). This makes it hard to find a particular passage to either cite in a paper or find easily during class discussions; your location may differ from the location of the person sitting next you for the same passage.

The other, and more important issue, is cost. Textbooks are expensive enough without adding the price of a digital device on top of it. Schools either have to come up with a rental program or give them to their students for it to work. People just aren’t going to pay for a device and textbooks; especially if they are in charge of paying their own textbooks. Of course, e-readers more than pay for themselves over time but right now it just isn’t going to happen. Also, there is the time it would take to train everyone on how to use the devices effectively and with time strained as it is, who is going to take the time to learn how to use the Kindle, iPad, or Nook in their classroom? It just isn’t going to happen right now. Plus, too many teachers are so used to the system of physical books and making the switch would be very difficult for them.

A third point is devices like Kindle don’t have a nice way to read anything beyond novel type books. Textbooks would be hard since flipping back in fourth between sections of the text is difficult. Also, Kindle doesn’t display pictures very well with the grayscale e-ink it uses. Both of these would need marked improvement before it could ever make it in a classroom setting.

Another point to consider is there is still a large percentage of society that haven’t bought into electronic books yet. An (I’ll be it absurd) excuse I’ve heard is people don’t want to read on a book reader because they hate reading on a computer screen. Just try a Kindle before saying stuff like that. It isn’t anywhere near comparable to a computer screen. I’ve heard this from mostly older people who didn’t grow up using computers like my generation but it doesn’t matter. Before making sweeping statements like that; try it out. You may even grow to like it.

This was the first example I’d heard of, where a school fully eradicated their physical library collection in favor of an electronic one. What Cushing Academy has done, like I said before, has revolutionized the school and changed business as usual for the better. They took the most unpopular part of their campus and made it the place students cannot wait to go.I know it’s scary to most but Cushing Academy is forwardly thinking into the future. They have recognized the needs of their students and created a system that works for their most important asset. Let them be hated for it if that’s what it takes. Cushing Academy is bold enough to be among the first in a trend that very soon will be done nationwide. Whether you agree or not, electronic books and online databases are the future and the sooner people get on board the sooner everyone can change for the better.

It’s been a year already?!

October 11, 2010

Well, that was fast. October 8 marked one year to the day I launched this blog. I’m having a hard time believing that 365 days have passed since I made my first post. The passage of time is a quick one and a year of my life flew by within a blink of an eye. Since I began this blog I’ve graduated from college and began the process of finding my place within the real world. This blog saved me and gave me a place to write when I didn’t have The Courier anymore.

Looking back to that first post, I made a pact that I would use this blog to practice my proofreading skills. That is a lofty goal and one I plan to continue into year two. But this year I want to take the blog to the next level and really make my writing even stronger and maybe tackle subjects that require deeper thought.

What I know for sure is that there is always room to grow and get better. Even when you feel like you’ve written your best piece there is always something greater waiting in the wings to get published. I want to thank everyone for a wonderful first year of blogging and I look forward to seeing what the future holds in year two and beyond.

Twentysomethings and Matt Gill: What does the future hold?

September 27, 2010

Last week Chronicle devoted a program to The Millennial Generation, the children of the baby boomers. The program highlighted various young adults who are trying to make a life for themselves post-college. One began a start-up internet company focusing on selling sports stock while another enlisted with the Marines but is waiting to hear if he got accepted into their highly competitive training program. Another young adult is using her nursing degree to work at a nursing home while another works at her parent’s sign company while she looks for other work. The latter young adult is being pushed by her parents to develop a singing career since they feel she has the necessary talent.

The main tread tying all these stories together is the twentysomethings of today are not lazy. Each have found work or are doing whatever it takes to make it in this world. Of course, most are doing so under their Parent’s roof which I endorse only because it provides a safe environment with which to grow and prosper without the stresses associated with having your own place.

It’s fascinating to watch the shift from parent to child and how the thinking has changed. It used to be the norm that a woman would be married by the time she was 20 and a man 22. According to Chronicle, the average age today is 26 for a woman and 28 for a man. The pressure to get married is ridiculous anyways, people should be allowed to settle into their lives first before adding a spouse and children to the mix. I command those who can find themselves and support a family right out of college but that isn’t the path for everyone. I personally feel too young to enter into that phase of my life; I’m not there yet.

What I have learned since graduating from Colby-Sawyer back in May is the job market can be a very daunting place. I earned a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies and have found the job market pretty bleak. The biggest downfall is most jobs require on the job experience which is hard to come by when companies aren’t hiring.  But even though the cards haven’t been stacked in my favor, I approached the job market though the lens of gaining experience and adding to my resume.

So, what do I love to do? As evident by this blog, I love to write. I get a high from writing and putting my thoughts down on paper. I express myself best through my written word and the ideas just flow out of me. I may not be the world’s greatest proofreader, but those skills come with continued practice. I love to write because that’s how I think. When I see an article in a newspaper or a program on TV of interest, I love to add my two cents and flesh out my ideas on the subject. My mind is constantly going and I’m always thinking about where I fit in the marketplace.

On the subject of writing, I went, last Thursday (Sept. 23), to the Norwell Library to hear Matt Gill talk about writing and his experiences in the field. Gill is the editor of Norwell Mariner, a local newspaper a town over from where I live. He mostly took questions from the audience of about five to six people and he talked about how he’s moved up in the world of journalism starting when he wrote for his college newspaper and then on to when he was a reporter for a local newspaper and now an editor.

Having written for The Colby-Sawyer Courier for four years I could relate to his talk a lot. He said his favorite part of the job is writing headlines and composing photo captions. I always found that to be the hardest part of the job. I could be because I saved headlines for last, and didn’t get to them until 10:30pm on layout nights, or maybe I just haven’t had enough practice with them to develop a knack. Some people just have a gift, I guess.

I took a lot away from his talk. Mostly, he gave me the encouraging news that there are jobs out there. Matt took a much more optimistic view of the job market then I have. I’m glad someone out there is hopeful! The other big impression he made on me was he really only has one writer doing all the work at his paper. I don’t know what I expected, but I thought the work would be spread out to many people. I know our college newspaper wouldn’t have survived if only one person was writing the majority of the stories. In Matt’s case I believe it’s one writer for news and features. I’m not entirely sure about sports. It seems more people would rather write sports than cover a selectmen meeting. I know the feeling, but hard news always interested me more than sports.

The other point he made is, pictures are everything. He held up a copy of the Mariner showcasing a full front page picture of Robert Nyman’s funeral. It was a particularly striking photograph with an American Flag flanking the left side of the page and mourners on the bottom. The written copy was at the top. In a case like that, the picture really does tell the whole story and beautifully. Photos are always the first place the eye tends to travel and people judge an article based on the accompanying pictures.

Another comment he made is the vast difference between the printed page and the web. The Norwell Mariner only comes out weekly, so he compared their online operation to that of a daily. Our newspaper at school hadn’t gone the extra mile to putting their paper on the web yet, so that’s the area of operation I have the least experience with. I did redesign the website for our radio station my junior year, but that’s a whole other beast entirely.

The web is a presence that can’t be ignored anymore. People look to the web to get their news almost more than they look to the printed page. I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing the Millennial Generation would rather get their news online. Why not? It’s quicker then having to purchase a newspaper and it’s at our fingertips. The world today is all about convenience. But that need for convenience always comes with a price; a trade-off.

It isn’t called a generational gap for nothing…

Of course, the lingering question is, what about the printed page? There are those who grew up with printed newspapers who still want them in their hands. I can’t argue with that; the printed page is an essential part of our culture. Gill predicted the printed page will never disappear entirely; we just may have to pay a premium for it.

The reason the printed page is so essential is the interactive quality of it. When you have a newspaper you can easily cut out articles and send them to people or post them on a community bulletin board. Printing out the same article from a website is quite different; the layout isn’t the same and pictures may be smaller than they would appear in print. Trust me, it isn’t the same. Physical newspapers are invaluable to our culture.

One woman at the talk said that while online she’s always in search mode having to seek out the articles she wishes to read. There isn’t any seeking in physical newsprint, you go the section and find the article. It just makes life easier.

Coming away from Gill’s talk, I realized something. I really did learn a lot about the business while at Colby-Sawyer. I related to many of the points he made because I had been there myself over the past four years. I’ve written headlines and photo captions. He said he’s always had trouble writing leads to his articles and I’ve been there, too. I’ll always be indebted to donna berhorn, my journalism professor, for giving me the grounding I need to make it in this world. When I think of where I was when I first started…I can only cringe. Looking back at some of my first articles, it looks like a toddler wrote them. I can only imagine what my high school articles look like. I don’t even want to know.

The Chronicle episode ended with a startling statistic: only 30% of college students graduate in four years; this according to Craig Brandon, a former professor at Keene State who has written a book entitled The Five Year Party: How Colleges Have Given Up On Educating Your Child and What You Can Do About It.

He says a big reason for the extra year is the leniency by colleges to let their students drop classes even up to the final exam. This leads to, according to Brandon, students not having enough credits to graduate in four years. I agree, the issue is with colleges who make it far too easy for students to drop classes but the blame is more with the students than the institution. Students need to buckle down and get it done. Just because it’s easy to drop a class doesn’t mean students should be dropping classes.

I’m proud to say that I’m among that 30% who graduated in four years and that I’m a part of the Millennial Generation. I’m not the only one burdened by the economy nor am I the only one who has to take a creative approach to getting my life on track. I’m heading in the appropriate direction and I know everything is going to work out sooner or later.

The Summer of Flops and Missed Opportunities

August 13, 2010

With Labor Day around the corner and students getting back to hitting the books, it’s a good time to reflect on the summer at hand. From an entertainment perspective, the last four months have been pretty lackluster. There have been very few mainstream movies that haven’t been dead on arrival and the trend looks to continue.

In Country Music, there hasn’t been one major release of new music since Alan Jackson put out Freight Train March 30. A couple of new singles have gone up the charts of late, but all the most anticipated new music isn’t coming out until September and October which is creating more than a significant jam.

the Indie world has been on fire however. Two of the summer’s best reviewed movies The Kids Are Alright and Winter’s Bone have come from that world. I’ve seen the former and it’s the closest Hollywood has come to releasing something decent in ages.

So what’s going on?

The tried and true formulas Hollywood has relayed on ages are falling apart. It’s gotten so bad that when a friend of mine mentioned having seen Iron Man 2 I didn’t even know it had been released yet!

The real problem is the reality of our times. Moviegoers seem to be waking up and taking notice to the dumbing down of cinema. The only film to make us use our brains has been Christopher Nolan’s Inception. It’s even recommend the film be viewed twice in order to absorb all that is going on. And viewers are flocking to it.

For all of us romantic types out there, their hasn’t been one romantic comedy worth watching since It’s Complicated. The main problem lays not only with the increasingly more insane plots but with the actors themselves (if they can be called that). With Jennifer Aniston and Katherine Higel taking the lead female roles in almost each film, the genre is suffering from overload. It makes one long for the days of Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts.

I can’t believe I’m about to write this but Jennifer Aniston has proven in the past that she can act. You don’t win an Emmy forFriends without putting in some hard work. Give her more roles like her indie-hit The Good Girl. At least there she was flexing her acting muscle. On the same note, Katherine Higal can act, too. Just watch her play Izzy Stevens dying of cancer on Grey’s Anatomy. Some great stuff there.

The other main problem is the been-there-done-that mentality. So many films seem to either fall in the same genre or be the same film made over and over. How many comic book / superhero films does America need? How many times do we have to suffer through Angelina Jolie playing the part of a super spy? Even surefire hits of last year from the likes of Judd Apatow are failing. And if I have to suffer through one more film staring Michael Cera I think I might be done with. Sure, he was likable in Juno, but he’s taken the geek shtick a bit too far.

What Hollywood needs, and badly, are some new ideas. They cannot rely on what used to make money. It’s happened time and time again, too much of a good thing has the adverse effect. Just ask Michael Patrick King and the cast of Sex and the City 2. I bet another film in the franchise will only be a dream in the minds of whomever still likes the sexploits of Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte. The rest of the population has moved on.

The place where Hollywood needs to take notes is cable television. Whereas Hollywood has been struggling, television has been on fire as of late.

More to come…

The Simple Joys of Reading

August 13, 2010

One of the simple joys of being a college graduate is getting to reengage in my love of reading. I’ve always loved books for their ability to transport the reader to exciting worlds different from their own. Plus, their is no better feeling than being in the middle of a novel; waiting with bated breath to see what happens next.

Two years ago, I got the first generation Amazon Kindle and I absolutely love it. Reading with an electronic reader has transformed and enriched my reading experience. I’ve often tried to put into words my admiration for the Kindle and the seemingly revolutionary concept of e-books.

With e-books, the reading experience has become interactive. Not only does Kindle allow me to adjust the size of my text; it also has a built in dictionary that helps the reader understand words they may not be sure of. I especially enjoy the changing of text size because now I don’t have to settle for teeny-tiny print that’ll do no more than hurt my eyes. Also, I’m no longer carrying around the weight of a book; so now I can read whatever I want with the freedom to take it with me wherever I go. Before, it wasn’t much fun to lug around 500+ page books nor could they easily fit in a suitcase when traveling.

But this blog post is not an advertisement for Kindle. I just happen to really love their product. For all the critics out there, I’ve never used Barnes and Noble’s Nook or Apple’s Ipad. I got a Kindle before both those products hit the market and have a loyalty to the brand.

Anyway, it’s been so nice to get back to reading for pleasure. After years of reading for classes and because certain books were required, I can now read whatever books I choose. The freedom is liberating.

I admire schools for creating reading lists but reading books chosen for you drained all the love out of it for me. Whenever a book is chosen for you, it always became that much harder for me to enjoy it. Getting kids and teenagers to read is a wonderful goal of the public school system, but let them pick the books. They’ll enjoy it more.

The catch-22 is that the younger generations would more likely pick books from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga or J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. It’s books like these getting kids to read and I’m really happy that their is a product out there making younger generations excited about the written word. However, I do agree with school systems who’d rather see their students reading something more substantive.

But that’s besides the point. I already finished two books this summer and I’m on my third. I’ve read David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists: A Novel.

To be fair, I did begin the first book last summer and with finishing up college and starting life in the real world, I got around to finishing it in early June. I’ve referenced Edgar Sawtelle at least once on here, in the post about Steven Huneck’s memorial service. But the book made me think hard about life choices I made with regards to the dogs I’ve had in my life. A sweeping epic; it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.

The book tells the story of the Sawtelle Family, who raise dogs for a living on their Wisconsin farm. Their only child, Edgar, is born mute but develops a special relationship with their dog, Almondine.

WATD: cursive handwriting and counting change — a critique on young adults of today?

July 7, 2010

When I turned on WATD this morning, just following the midday news, I came in during a debate that will rage for years to come: Should the children of today learn cursive handwriting? Computers have become such a standard in our lives now, is it really that important a skill to have?

The debate back and forth settled in a suprising way. The majority of callers said, yes, today’s children should have to learn cursive handwriting because it is an important tool to have.

A caller against it said cursive handwriting is often illegible; especially in the medical profession. She worked on printing neatly which was often met with complimentary praise (this person worked at a medical office). Another caller said it isn’t necessary to learn beyond mastering your signature.

This led to a debate about the younger generations and our dependency on computers and, in general, technology. One caller, who’s husband served in the military, said something surprising. She wasn’t allowed to contact him by phone or e-mail so they had to write letters — often in cursive. She found it more personal than writing him an e-mail.

The debate went on and the announcer, Liz Raven, told a story about how she gave a cashier a $20 and while the cashier was in the process of making her change; she found a $10. Thinking she would make the person’s job easier with the lower bill, it only complicated matters. The cashier then had to start over.

The questions remain: are the younger generations only hindered by the technology that supposedly makes our lives easier? And what if the technology we depend on to live our lives crashes? Would we even be able to function as a society?

A follow-up comment came from the cashier at a Marshfield General Store who says he always counts change in his head. He says that kids today wouldn’t even know how to check the change they get back to even see if it’s right; just by looking at it.

The fault for these shortcomings lay not with the younger generations; but with their parents. Our parents, most likely the baby boomers, have “fond” memories of sitting at the kitchen table while their parents made them go over and over how to write in cursive and learn basic arithmetic. The memories are often far from fond. Often, they verge on painful. As a result, such practices have fallen by the way side as the years progressed.

I remember being taught how to write in cursive with very little success. I always had trouble with it and thus never picked up the skill with even a modicum of proficiency.  I can sign my name, but even that is a joke, at best. I remember being at Children’s Hospital and asked to complete a test where I had to write the letters of the alphabet in cursive. Instead of faking it, I spoke up and refused. I got the examiner to agree to let me print the letters instead. To this day, I don’t know what the test even was.

To go along with that, I have a learning disability in math; which makes it far from my strong suit. I would most likely be the kid that got all flustered when Liz Raven found that smaller bill.

Just because I would be that kid doesn’t make it right. Learning how to complete basic math without the aid of computers, calculators, or smart phones is a basic life skill all of us should know how to do. With a world so dependent on technology; it is imperative that we learn how check for human error.

We are dependent on technology and the shift it has caused in our thinking is downright dangerous. We’ve become a society accustom to an instantaneous response from all areas of our life. We can see pictures on digital cameras mere nanoseconds after being taken; get responses to texts and e-mails at the snap of a finger; and the examples just go on and on. A whole list of acronyms has cropped up on the internet making it easier to send messages with fewest letters possible. The world in 2010 is built on the foundation of bigger, faster, easier.

In reality, it’s all a lie. Just because we can text at lightening fast speeds or delete that unflattering picture and take another doesn’t mean we should. Young children today are growing up unable to string sentences of actual full-length words together.

Still more to come…


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