Posts Tagged ‘Alan Jackson’

Album Review – Don Williams – ‘Reflections’

March 11, 2014

Don Williams

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Reflections

* * * * 1/2

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve loved and lost and loved again

Been down that less traveled road

Just to see how far it goes

Spoke my mind to defend myself

Tried not to hurt nobody else

But if I did, I hope they’ll forgive

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Country Albums of 2013

December 31, 2013

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

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10. Alan Jackson - The Bluegrass Album

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

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9. Jason Isbell - Southeastern 

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

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8. Patty Griffin - American Kid

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

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7. Pistol Annies - Annie Up

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

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

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

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

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5. Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell - Old Yellow Moon

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

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4. Ashley Monroe - Like A Rose

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

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

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3. Vince Gill & Paul Franklin - Bakersfield

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

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

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2. Kacey Musgraves - Same Trailer Different Park

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

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

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1. Brandy Clark - 12 Stories

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

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

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

Favorite Country Singles of 2013: 10-1

December 5, 2013

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

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10. Bruises – Train Feat. Ashley Monroe 

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

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

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9. Sober – Little Big Town 

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

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8. All Kinds of Kinds – Miranda Lambert

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

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

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7. Blue Ridge Mountain Song – Alan Jackson 

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

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6. Over When It’s Over – Eric Church 

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

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

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5. Stripes – Brandy Clark

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

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

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4. Blacktop – Alan Jackson

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

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3. Elephant – Jason Isbell 

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

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

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

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

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1. Follow Your Arrow – Kacey Musgraves

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

Country Music’s Next Great Renaissance: The unthinkable success of Florida Georgia Line’s ‘Cruise’

August 2, 2013

Florida-Georgia-Line-Cruise-Remix-2013-1200x12002013 in country music:

  • Vince Gill and Paul Franklin release the sublime Bakersfield
  • Alan Jackson treats his fans to his long-awaited bluegrass record
  • Florida Georgia Line’s single “Cruise” surpasses Hank Snow’s “I’m Moving On” to become the longest #1 in the history of Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart, breaking a 63 year record

Wait, what? You read that right, folks. 2013 will forever be known as the year mainstream country music officially went to the dogs. I don’t even know how to begin expressing my anger, hiding my palpable sadness, or getting over a turn of events that marks the most significant failure in the history of country music.

So, why is this so bad? A popular song, that the public is responding to with open arms (5 million + downloads), has reaped the ultimate reward for its mammoth success – tenure at the top so rock solid, not even Taylor Swift can dislodge it. But isn’t that what it’s all about, being rewarded for your success? I mean, aren’t records meant to be broken at some point anyways?

Yes, all that is true. But it isn’t about breaking the record; it’s how the record was broken. In this case it came last October when Billboard significantly changed the way song ranks were calculated on the Hot Country Songs Chart. Instead of only factoring in radio airplay from country stations, data from streaming services downloads of songs, and airplay for country singles on pop stations were now in the running to determine where a song would place on the chart. A separate Country Airplay chart was created to stand in addition to the old chart with new rules.

Factoring in streaming data and song downloads is fine. It is 2013 after all. Music doesn’t come solely from the radio anymore. But they went a step further – when a country single crosses over to ‘the pop world’ and charts, that data is factored in, too. And thanks to a pop/rap remix featuring rapper Nelly, you now have the phenomenon that’s going on with “Cruise.” In other words, a song can log multiple weeks at #1 on the Hot Country Song chart without any significant airplay within the format.

So, Hank Snow was dislodged from the top by a song featuring a guest rapper that took full advantage of a chart that recently changed its rules. That’s my first issue with this “accomplishment.” On Engine 145 the other day, I commented that this record (which wasn’t broken at the time) meant nothing simply because of the chart tweak. If it had happened this time last year, obviously under the old rules, then I would have no problem at all. At least then it would’ve been fair game.

Garth Brooks accomplished something similar six years ago when his “More Than A Memory” single became the first country song ever to debut on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart at #1. Did I cry fowl? No, I didn’t. At the time, it didn’t feel like country music was selling out, even if, (allegedly) Clear Channel had a hand in getting the song played each hour for a week. It was just Brooks breaking yet another record on a chart that was equal opportunity for everyone.

This new Billboard Hot Country Songs Chart is so easy to manipulate it’s scary. Scott Borchetta, the mastermind at Big Machine Label Group, is currently the only one greedy enough to see this, the only label exec who’s conscience is suppressed deep enough to change the course of country music and not give a crap about how he is impacting the greater good of the genre. If we’ve learned anything from Hollywood celebrities and politicians, its money is the route of all evil, and people will stop at nothing to pocket big.

My other issue is the quality of the song. Is it really too much to ask for the song breaking the record to feature even a hint of artistic merit? J.R. Journey said it best last December:

“The only thing worse than this pair of deebags hitting a major breakthrough in their career with a piece of drivel like this will be the countless deebags-in-training that will be inspired to emulate Florida Georgia Line’s success. From the butchered grammar lyrics to the singers’ affected twang and dog tags around their necks, these guys are a legit training manual on how to be scuzzy deebag losers.”

I shudder to think about the doors being opened by the success of “Cruise.” Like “On The Other Hand” and “Any Man of Mine” before it, we’re likely in the middle of the next great renaissance in country music. But instead of eliciting excitement, I only feel dirty. “Cruise” marks the first time a cult song was met with such success and that’s most dangerous of all. Trailer Choir’s “Rockin’ The Beer Gut” was arguably just as big a fan hit, but country radio knew enough to spit it out before it got even half this big. Now there’s no telling what kinds of songs will be heard from radio speakers in the years to come.

Any historian with half a brain will look back at this and wonder – how do you go from “I’m Moving On” to “Cruise?” In those sixty-three years country music stopped evolving and outright changed. The closet pre-cursor to a track like “Cruise” is “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” but even the Charlie Daniels Band classic was loaded with equal parts sincerity and shredded fiddle. Country Universe’s Dan Milliken can believe, “love it, hate it, or tolerate it, the one thing “Cruise” undeniably had going for it was a mighty hook,” all he wants. But good or bad hooks aside; it doesn’t alter the fact that “Cruise” is the new benchmark for success in mainstream country. Lord help and save us all.

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!

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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.

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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…”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 – Easton Corbin “All Over The Road”

September 27, 2012

Easton Corbin

All Over The Road

* * * 1/2 

Upon the release of his self-titled debut in 2010, Easton Corbin was branded as the savior of country music thanks to his neo-traditional sound and George Strait-like vocal approach. Corbin showed promise, and scored back-to-back #1s, but his debut felt too safe, like he was aiming to please by recording songs that were middle of the road and took few risks.

Unfortunately that trend continues with All Over The Road and I can fully understand why. In our post “Neon” and “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore” society, it’s clear that neo-traditionalism is being pushed out in an effort to “Kick It In The Sticks” with “The One That Got Away” while we “Tip It On Back” and “Take A Little Ride.”

But thankfully Corbin and producer Carson Chamberlin didn’t completely sacrifice quality at the price of commercial viability. There actually are some excellent songs thrown into the mix, and if country radio will play them, they might turn into big hits.

I’ve been a big fan of the lead single, Jim Beavers and Bob DiPiero’s “Lovin’ You Is Fun,” the catchy two-step number currently sitting at #8 and climbing. The easygoing nature of Corbin’s vocal coupled with the beautiful stands of steel guitar laced through the arrangement more than sell the song while the upbeat nature means its perfect fodder for heavy rotation at radio.

I also love the romantic “A Thing For You,” which Corbin co-wrote with Chamberlin and Tony Lane. Sounding like a long-lost mid-90s shuffle, the track succeeds because its light as air and turns the mournful steel guitar into an optimistic delight.

“Only A Girl” co-written by Chamberlin with Will Nance and Wade Kirby exists in much the same fashion, and is very ear catching. The hook of “It’s Only a Girl/There’s A Million of them in this Town” is kind of basic, but Corbin makes up for it by injecting the track with his personality.

Another standout is album highlight “Tulsa, Texas,” which Tony Lane co-wrote with Mike Lane and David Lee. Another upbeat steel infused honky-tonker, it didn’t make the cut for Corbin’s debut, but he liked it so much he put on here.

It’s easy to see why, as it boasts the best lyric on the album with the story of a guy telling his ex where she can find him:

I’ll be down in Tulsa, Texas, Tallahassee, Tennessee

Memphis, Mississippi, it’s probably where I’m gonna be

Albuquerque, Alabama, St. Lou, Louisiana

If you wanna find me, you can find me in Tulsa, Texas

Another favorite is the closer, Tom Shepherd and Jeff Silvey’s “I Think Of You,” which sounds like the best Zac Brown Band song they didn’t record. A perfect country tune, Chamberlin did a wonderful job of opening the track as a piano ballad before bringing in the steel, fiddle, drums, and guitars. That beginning allows Corbin to display his venerability and showcase how he’s grown since his debut.

Likely second single “Are You With Me” is a little slicker than we’ve come to expect from Corbin, but it never becomes bombastic thanks to the healthy dose of steel in the not-to-distant background. The romantic ballad also succeeds because of Corbin’s tender vocal, but the track would’ve been even better had it been a duet with someone like Carrie Underwood or Miranda Lambert or maybe even Kellie Pickler or Lee Ann Womack.

A duet would’ve given the album some added spice, which wouldn’t have hurt the proceedings, which were brought down by the addition of a few throwaway tracks. “That’s Gonna Leave A Memory,” “This Feels A Lot Like Love” and the title track are all okay in their own right, but feel like light weight filler. They’re the kind of songs Alan Jackson has been getting away with for more than a decade – indistinguishable honky-tonkers where you swap lyrics out of the same basic melody over and over again. I’ve been over this practice since before it began and don’t want to see Corbin brought down by it.

“Hearts Drawn In The Sand” has a solid story, but kind of feels like the type of song given to a new artist when they’re trying to establish themselves. I wasn’t impressed by its inclusion here, although Corbin does his best with what he’s given to work with.

But I really like “Dance Real Slow,” even if it has the same fiddle licks as Strait’s “Amarillo By Morning.” I love the accents of fiddle throughout and the whole vibe of the song just works.

Overall I really like All Over The World. When I was listening to it, I kind of felt like I was back in 1995 listening to Daryle Singletary, but the more I dig in the more solid the album feels. He definitely could’ve stood to take more risk and stretch himself (does every song have to be about a girl?) but he proves here he’s one of the good guys, even if he should rough himself up a bit more.

The 2012 CMA Nominations: The year that, well, just couldn’t

September 5, 2012

Such as they are, here’s the CMA nominees list for 2012 with my comments and Will Win / Should Win picks:

Entertainer of the Year

Jason Aldean
Kenny Chesney
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton
Taylor Swift

The usual solid, yet unspectacular group. The lack of Carrie Underwood will have all her fans fuming as usual and everyone else will bark at the inclusion of Swift, a two time winner and the incumbent, for her increasing lack of country credibility.

Will Win: Taylor Swift – I’m betting on the safest choice this time around. She’s the most likely to pull off a win, her third. Chesney may’ve had the biggest tour, and Aldean is on fire right now, but Swift has the lock on this category.

Should Win: Luke Bryan, but he wasn’t nominated. As an all around entertainer, he’s so much better than Aldean, the only one who stands to keep the award out of Swift’s hands.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Kelly Clarkson
Miranda Lambert
Martina McBride
Taylor Swift
Carrie Underwood

Kelly Clarkson, really? I adore her but she hasn’t fully embraced a career in country music…yet. But she did score a #21 hit with the country version of “Mr. Know It All” so her nomination is somewhat, albeit very marginally justified. McBride is a snoozer scoring her 14 consecutive nomination and 15th overall as her career takes a downward spiral.

See, this is what happens when all the great female artists of late (Kimberly Perry, Jennifer Nettles, Shawna Thompson) are members of duos and groups.

Will Win: Lambert – she’s at the top of the heap and the countriest of the big 3

Should Win: While I’d love to see this award go to Clarkson, she’s a pop singer who’s done a bang up job covering country songs in concert. That’s it. I’ll say Lambert because of her intuition with Pistol Annies

Male Vocalist of the Year

Jason Aldean
Luke Bryan
Eric Church
Blake Shelton
Keith Urban

Another somewhat standard list until you take into account Urban is here in place of the red hot Dierks Bentley. His exclusion, which comes on the heels of three back-to-back #1 hits is shocking. Urban should’ve joined Brad Paisley and been made to sit this one out this year.

Will Win: Shelton – there’s seemingly no stopping him right now despite one mediocre single after another.

Should Win: Bryan. While I love Church, Bryan is the most exciting male vocalist to come along in years and a personal favorite of mine.

Vocal Group of the Year

The Band Perry
Eli Young Band
Lady Antebellum
Little Big Town
Zac Brown Band

On chart hits alone, all five deserve to be here this time around. It’s nice to see the exclusion of Rascal Flatts as their already bland material has only gotten worse in recent years.

Will Win: Lady Antebellum – is there any reason to bet against them?

Should Win: Little Big Town – Their latest single “Pontoon” isn’t just their biggest single, but its country music’s song of the summer. Zac Brown Band has also yet to score a deserving win, but LBT has been waiting for their time in the spotlight for far too long.

Vocal Duo of the Year

Big & Rich
Love and Theft
Sugarland
The Civil Wars
Thompson Square

Another interesting list. Sugarland shot themselves in the foot with Incredible Machine and thus are the least likely to repeat in this category. Love and Theft just scored their first #1, and Thompson Square have the ACM momentum.

Will Win: Thompson Square – they’ve yet to repeat the monster success of “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not” in their last two tries, but they’re far from one hit wonders. Shawna may not be the most flashy female vocalist, but she’s the most akin to the genre’s traditions.

Should Win: The Civil Wars – there isn’t a more ear catching duo in country music right now

New Artist of the Year

Lee Brice
Brantley Gilbert
Hunter Hayes
Love and Theft
Thompson Square

If we ever needed proof country music is in a rut, this is it. No one on this list has proven truly outstanding in anything they’ve done to date, and none have displayed the integrity to correctly push the genre forward.

Will Win: Brice, Gilbert, and Hayes are so even I can’t predict between the three. That may give Thompson Square the edge.

Should Win: Thompson Square – of this group, they’re the best of the bunch

Album of the Year

Luke Bryan, Tailgates and Tanlines
Eric Church, Chief
Miranda Lambert, Four the Record
Dierks Bentley, Home
Lady Antebellum, Own the Night

The significance of this category is huge. For the first time since his MCA debut When I Call Your Name, Vince Gill isn’t nominated. Guitar Slinger was one of the best country records of 2011 and deserved to be on this list. Also missing are George Strait’s Here For A Good Time, despite the fact his last two albums won, and Pistol Annies for their excellent Hell on Heels.

But rest assured, we get Own The Night. The category wouldn’t be complete without it now would it?

Will Win: Own The Night - if its good enough to get a Best Country Album Grammy, than it can’t loose here, right?!

Should Win: Chief – The Church album is the best of this list and the most original commercial country album of 2011. Four The Record was good, but nowhere near the caliber of Chief.

Song of the Year (Award goes to songwriters)

“Even if It Breaks Your Heart” – written by Will Hoge and Eric Paslay
“God Gave Me You” – written by Dave Barnes
“Home” – written by Dierks Bentley and Jon Randall Stewart
“Over You” – written by Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton
“Springsteen” – written by Eric Church, Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tyndell

Another boring list. The exclusion of “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore” is a travesty, and George Strait should’ve been honored for his songwriting contributions to Here For A Good Time. But the inclusion of “Springsteen” is all that matters to me.

Will Win: “Over You” – I can already see Lambert and Shelton accepting this together and I’m very happy about it

Should Win: “Springsteen” – its the best song of this bunch hands down

Single of the Year (Award goes to artist and producer)

Jason Aldean, “Dirt Road Anthem”
Blake Shelton, “God Gave Me You”
Dierks Bentley, “Home”
Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
Eric Church, “Springsteen”

Aren’t the nominations for Aldean’s awful rap over? Shelton, meanwhile, has been nominated for one of his grossest productions ever. Bentley’s patriotic anthem is wonderful, and Church’s ode is his best single yet.

Will Win: I’m leading towards, “Home” but could also see “Springsteen” sneak in a win. But as far as singles of the year go, “Pontoon” is about as big as it gets

Should Win: “Pontoon” – sure its frivolous, but unlike the Aldean hit its harmless fun, and LBT deserve anything the CMA decide to throw their way

Musical Event of the Year

“Dixie Highway,” Alan Jackson and Zac Brown Band
“Feel Like a Rock Star,” Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw
“Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” Willie Nelson featuring Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson and Jamey Johnson
“Safe and Sound,” Taylor Swift featuring the Civil Wars
“Stuck on You,” Lionel Richie and Darius Rucker

The most thought out and interesting list, by a wide margin. The Jackson duet is his most exciting song from Thirty Miles West, the Swift duet is the most compelling single of her career, and the Nelson song is an hilarious classic in the making. The reworking of Richie’s classic suits him and Rucker well while the only clunker is the awful excuse for Chesney and McGraw to sing together on stage this past summer.

Will Win: “Feel Like A Rockstar” – the CMA can’t resist when two genre superstars team up

Should Win: “Safe and Sound” – putting Swift aside, its the most compelling track and another reason why The Civil Wars are currently the genre’s best duo.

Music Video of the Year

Eric Church, “Springsteen”
Kenny Chesney, “Come Over”
Miranda Lambert, “Over You”
Little Big Town, “Pontoon”
Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”

Of these, Church has the best video, followed by LBT. What’s so remarkable about the whole “Pontoon” thing is LBT haven’t caved into any pressure to act like 20 year olds. They’re being completely themselves all the while making millions.

Of the others, The Keith video is stupid fun, Chesney is all sex and no substance, and Lambert is as boring and depressing as the song.

Will Win: “Red Solo Cup” – as stupid as the song, but captures it perfectly

Should Win: “Pontoon” – lets have fun with this one, and this video is pure fun in the sun. But if Church only ones award, it’ll likely  be this one

Musician of the Year
Sam Bush
Paul Franklin
Dann Huff
Brent Mason
Mac McAnally

The award I know the least about, but all talented musicians. Can’t go wrong with any of them.

Will Win: Mac McAnally – too strong to bet against

Should Win: Sam Bush – for some variety

 

Album Review – Bradley Gaskin – “Bradley Gaskin EP”

April 18, 2012

Bradley Gaskin

Bradley Gaskin EP

* *

In this age of digital downloading, the extended play (EP) album is making a comeback as a way for artists bubbling under to receive a showcase before the release of a full-length record. Columbia Nashville artist Bradley Gaskin is the latest to receive this treatment.

Gaskin first became prominent in 2011 when the neotraditional “Mr. Bartender” established him, and his Travis Tritt-like vocal ability, as a promising new voice to hold up the traditions of country music.

Even though “Mr. Bartender” is stone cold country down to the fiddle and steel guitar, it stopped short of adding a fresh perspective to the lore of drinking songs. The story of a man drowning his sorrows in the stiffest drink at a bar has been done countless times before. But that only slightly dampened it from sounding fresh and almost revelatory. “Mr. Bartender” reached a chart peak of #32, a small miracle for traditional country music.

Decidedly more upbeat and radio friendly, second single “Diamonds Make Babies” seems like a better fit to launch Gaskin as a radio star. The slick production, somewhat mundane lyrical content, and writing credits from Jim Beavers, Lee Thomas Miller, and Chris Stapleton nicely position it for heavy rotation status.

Problem is, the song centers around the idea that becoming a parent starts with an engagement ring, a pleasing idea to religious traditionalists that becomes trite and unimaginative when turned into a piece of music. No amount of country instrumentation or twangy vocals can elevate this; either by Gaskin or Dierks Bentley who has a version on his latest album Home.

In addition to the singles, Bradley Gaskin EP offers two other glimpses into the artist. “I’m All About It” is a George Strait-like vanilla flavored ditty that manages to say nothing at all and take three minutes saying it. It fails on the account that it tries too hard to be country by employing a laundry list of overwrought cliches (beer, trucks, mud, buddies, lakes/rivers) that erase any authenticity and sincerity from the intent behind what he’s singing.

In a shocking turnaround moment of actual good taste, the album closes on a high note, with a song that delivers as interesting a lyric as its title.  “Satan Knew My Grandma Well” was originally done by The Grascals, (as “Satan and Grandma” on 2010′a The Famous Lefty Flynn’s) and both versions are very similar. Gaskins’s vocal brings a decidedly country element to the song and the story of a woman’s relationship with the patron saint of Hell, a metaphor for temptation, conjures up some great images despite a thin lyric sheet.

Overall Bradley Gaskin EP finds an artist with an obvious affinity for tractional country music making needless concessions in an effort to fit in with the current marketplace. The arraignments for “Diamonds Make Babies” and “I’m All About It” scream country, but they cheapen the overall listening experience with their obvious pandering.

And for someone with an above average to nearly remarkable voice, he shouldn’t be trying this hard to prove himself. His immense talent puts him in a class above most major label artists and this EP should’ve reflected that.

In essence he’s better than the chosen material. “Mr. Bartender” introduced an artist acting as a clear alternative to the country/pop and country/rock of late; someone not afraid to return the steel guitar to its rightful prominence. But until he finds stronger and more impactful material, he’s a long way from a 21st century Randy Travis.

Three more names cemented in bronze: the class of 2012

March 7, 2012

As winter slowly turns to spring and the chill begins to exit, a celebration is brought fourth where more than a century of tradition is whisked back into the spotlight, if only for a brief time.

The importance of this commemoration knows no bounds as the past and present collide to bestow an honor upon three worthy individuals whose contributions have been revolutionary.

This recognition, which concludes with a medallion ceremony later in the year, elevates greatness, yet sparks fierce debate among those who object to this honor coming too soon or far too late.

But one ideal will always rise victor – the highest professional honor in country music is induction into the Hall of Fame. And in 2012, that prestigious mark of upmost respect shines a light on Hargus, “Pig” Robbins, Connie Smith, and Garth Brooks.

In three unique and different ways, each inductee has left a stamp on country music not likely to be erased with time. Through his paino-playing on iconic songs such as “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” and “White Lightning,” Robbins has redefined the essence of the studio musician.

With “Once A Day,” a little tune pinned by Bill Anderson, Smith did the impossible – becoming the first female artist to log eight consecutive weeks at #1. That feat, accomplished more than forty years ago, has yet to be topped.

And Brooks took our notion of what a concert tour could be, turned it on its head, and ran with it.

Hargus “Pig” Robbins

I must admit that before this morning, my young age prevented me from knowing Robbins and his contributions to country music. But after listening to his introduction by Kix Brooks, I found familiarity with most of the songs he played on.

Especially this day and age, with digital sales rendering the dust jacket obsolete, the ideal of the studio musican has nearly gone out the window. No longer do we care who backs up our favorite singer as long as said artist releases new music.

But the studio musician is the backbone of all music. Without session players, as they’re also called, albums would never be released. We need these professional musicians who can learn a song on a dime (often without sheet music, thanks Kix) and execute them flawlessly.

Robbins was one of those such people and arguably one of the best the genre has ever seen.

Connie Smith

Unless you are far too close to mainstream country music, the release of Long Line of Heartaches last August brought fourth much joy. It was Smith’s first album since 1997 and an excellent reminder of country’s rich past.

At 70, Smith sounds better today than most female singers in the business. I was recently scanning the television channels when I came across The Marty Stuart Show on RFD-TV. A homage to all the great variety shows from the 60s and 70s, The Marty Stuart Show is a shining example for classic country music in a world in which country rock knows no bounds.

Marty’s guest that evening was none other than Smith, his wife. For half an hour she took to the stage and sang from Heartaches. She performed more than half of the album and even brought her three daughters on stage for “Take My Hand.”

The show can be “hicky” at times, but Smith’s voice shined loud and clear. It was so nice to have an outlet from which to see her perform and I knew I was witnessing something special.

My first vivid memory of Smith came in 1997 when I watched her perform on the Grand Ole Opry from my grandparent’s living room. I don’t remember what she sang, but I remember it airing after she married Stuart. Being young and naive, I didn’t understand what I was watching and thought she looked “tough.”

The next time I remember paying attention to her was during a duet of “Once A Day” live on the Opry with Martina McBride in 2005. That performance is on YouTube and very good, although Smith steals the show (as she should have).

Like Jean Shepard last year, Smith’s induction is long overdue. Her importance to country music may be quiet in comparison to the likes of Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, and Dolly Parton, but she belongs with them in a class of her own.

With a better understanding of her importance, and a deep love of Heartaches, I now can say I’m a bonafide fan.

Garth Brooks

Being a 90s kid, (oh how I loathe that term), I have the most vivid memories of Brooks. It’s funny, as a child, I first came to know him trough his famous stage show and always viewed him as larger than life; some unapproachable giant force. His image of flying over rafters and gliding on his back through rows and rows of fans only magnified it for me.

I remember, once, not “getting” him. This idea of his popularity being something overblown. I don’t know when I woke up and got a clue but it came pretty fast.

In 1997, when I was also first learning about Smith, my grandfather turned 75. So my mom had an idea – I would sing “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” at the party. I’m not a singer or guitar player, so I did my best to pull it off. I remember having to learn the song for weeks before hand and feeling pretty cool that I could use the word “damn.” It was a special moment and I can still see myself sitting on the stool in the middle of the dance floor.

That same year, like the rest of the world, I tuned into the famous Central Park concert. Being young, I really had no idea the magnitude of what that show really symbolized for country music. I remember how happy everyone was that Garth was sticking only to old material.

Watching from my grandfather’s basement, I can see clear as day, his inability to get the VCR to work so we could tape the show. I was mad but it was just so cool to be able to watch it. Funny thing, when he brought Billy Joel on to sing “New York State of Mind” I had never heard of him (or at least really knew who he was). I always thought he should’ve been wearing a cowboy hat.

Apart from his concerts, yes I also saw his 1998 show from Ireland, and a concert of my own in 1996, I have vivid memories of Brooks’ music. More than any other artist, he was a true marketing genius.

Getting a new Garth Brooks album was always a treat because there would be multiple covers and “first editions” to choose from. I have first edition copies of SevensDouble LiveThe Magic of Christmas, and Scarecrow.

I remember listening to a radio show, in 1998, when they played every cut off of The Limited Series with commentary from Brooks. It was so cool, at that time, to think he was releasing a boxed set of his material with one new cut on each album.

I also rushed out and bought everything he had for sale during his “Wal-Mart Only” years. Sure, you could say I’m a sad sap for buying into all this, but for some reason you had to – it’s Garth Brooks. (Along those same principles – I also own In The Life of Chris Ganes).

In his day, Brooks had it all. The mammoth concert tours, hit singles, and everything in between. And with Trisha Yearwood he had the tabloid love affair we all love to speculate about (did they hook up in the 90s or not?).

But the truly remarkable aspect of Brooks’ career are the songs. It isn’t very often that an artist can back up their success with such memorable and iconic records. There isn’t a single superstar today – from Kenny Chesney, Carrie Underwood, and Taylor Swift, to Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, or Tim McGraw who can match Brooks song for song. His is music of substance, class, and grace.

For instance, on 9/11, I remember singing “The Dance” to myself on the way home from school. When I got home, the first song I turned to was “The Change.”

There isn’t anyone who can match him. I remember people would take the day off from school or work to stand in line at their local CD store on Garth Brooks release day. His albums were events.

But Brooks’ induction came so soon, ahead of the more deserving Randy Travis and Ricky Skaggs (who he singled out in his speech), because of one aspect – touring. His concerts were revolutionary for elevating the stage show to heights previously unknown in country music. Like his albums, his shows were happenings.

Before Brooks, you didn’t have fans rushing online at 10:00am to secure their seats to a show. Country artists may have seen sellouts aplenty, but never in places like the Staples Center and Madison Square Garden. He brought country music to a whole new level; one not surpassed until Chesney’s stadium shows in the 21st century. Brooks drew the blueprint that made the mammoth country shows we all go to today, possible.

All and all, If Brooks is anything, he’s his own man. He was the first to announce a retirement (via a silver covered Country Weekly cover in 2000) at the height of his fame, and remains the staunch holdout for a presence digitally. He doesn’t even have any vintage clips on YouTube.

But like any great artist, the songs will always live on. I was listening to my local country station just last week and what came on? None other than “If Tomorrow Never Comes.” Singing along to his first #1, it felt comfortable, right. Just like his entrance into the Hall of Fame.

Looking Ahead

As we look back at the legacy Robbins, Smith, and Brooks bring to the Hall, the debate over future inductees rages on. Brooks may have gotten in ahead of his time, but no one exemplifies the “90s boom” better and as the forefather of the country spectacle, he made the stadium shows of today doable.

But here’s my list of who should welcome the exit of winter’s chill in some upcoming March and allow us to have a celebration in their honor:

Modern Era Category (In order of importance):

  • Randy Travis
  • Alan Jackson
  • Gene Watson
  • Brooks & Dunn
  • Hank Williams, JR
  • Ricky Skaggs
  • John Anderson
  • Dwight Yoakam
  • Clint Black
  • The Judds
  • Alison Krauss
  • Patty Loveless
  • Marty Stuart

Veteran Era Category (In order of importance):

  • Kenny Rogers
  • Ronnie Milsap
  • David Allan Coe
  • Johnny Paycheck
  • June Carter Cash
  • Tanya Tucker
  • Anne Murray
  • Rose Maddox
  • The Browns (and/or Jim Ed Brown)

Top 40 Worst Country Singles of 2011

December 21, 2011

Here you go. My least favorite country singles of 2011. You’ll see some huge hits here. But remember it isn’t about chart performance, but rather about quality:

40. Ronnie Dunn – “Bleed Red”

On his solo debut Dunn could’ve worn any hat. But he choose to go down the route of being over-produced and turned into a pop balladeer. And “We all bleed red” is such a statement of the obvious, it hardly bares drugging up in a song.

39. Jason Michael Carroll – “Numbers”

This is exactly why people hate country music. A laundry list of numerical symbols? Seriously, just how lazy can songwriting get?

38. Keith Urban – “You Gonna Fly”

On its own this isn’t a bad song. But I’m including it here for the simple fact it showcases an artist continuing to coast on their merits with yet another sound alike rocker that has become the norm. Urban will always be hailed for his guitar playing and entertaining abilities but not for his diversity in song selection. He just isn’t exciting anymore.

37. Luke Bryan – “I Don’t Want This Night To End”

A guy and a girl are rockin’ in a truck as if no other modes of transportation exist. Of course, she’s “so damn hot” he can’t stand it. He may not want this night to end, but this song surely can.

36. Jake Owen – “Barefoot Blue Jean Night”

A marriage of 80s rock with banjos coupled with a disposable tale of having fun with not only your buddies but the requisite hot babe, too. I Don’t Wanna Grow Up may be the smartest line in a country song all year.

(more…)

Album Review – George Strait “Here For A Good Time”

September 7, 2011

George Strait

Here For A Good Time

* * * *

On the title track to his new album, George Strait sings “I’m not here for a long time/but I’m here for a good time,” suggesting an attitude shift towards lightening up the mood and enjoying whatever remains of his time on earth. The contradiction is, he didn’t tell that to the rest of the album. He might not want to sit around and sing some old sad song, but that’s just what he’s doing, and doing it better than almost anyone half his age.

Here For A Good Time isn’t quite the feel-good party album the title suggests but rather an album born from reflection. More than 30 years into his career, Strait has assumed the role of the elder statesman looking back as much as looking forward. It’s easy to understand why, no less than seven tracks were co-written by Strait, his son Bubba, and Dean Dillon. Many were skeptical of Strait’s need to write his own material, a practice he put into full force on 2009’s Twang, complaining that he’d never be introspective.

With “I’ll Always Remember You” he proves all the naysayers wrong. The album’s closing number, it’s less a song than a recitation spoken directly to his fans on the subject of his looming retirement. While he says he still has much left to say and do, the day is growing closer when he’ll walk out of the spotlight. It’s kind of strange to hear an artist address his listeners on an album so clearly, but Strait pulls it off with ease.

And even though it closes the album, it’s “Remember” which sets the tone of reflection permeating the rest of the album. On “A Showman’s Life,” Jesse Winchester’s ballad featuring backing vocals from Faith Hill, he brings the pitfalls of life as a musician into full focus while he takes a cold hard look at his life choices on “Drinkin’ Man.”

He may not of closely lived either track, but he infuses his vocal performances with just enough conviction to pull them off and the easygoing production of fiddles and steel guitars only adds to the mix here. It’s nice to hear her again even if on someone else’s album, but Hill’s contributions to “Life” are pretty slight. And “Drinkin’ Man” succeeds on two distinct fronts – Strait’s storytelling abilities and the killer hook, “It’s a hell of a lot to ask of a drinkin’ man.” Quitting the bottle is nearly impossible to do, and Strait pulls off the regret perfectly. It’s also my favorite song on the album because it’s true – growing up with an alcoholic grandfather, I know all about the control alcohol can have over a person.

The most daring moment on the album comes from Chuck Cannon and Allen Shamblin’s “Poison.”  The finished track is unlike anything Strait has ever recorded – bleak in nature, it employs an echo in the final chorus that only adds to the spookiness. The idea that you have to pick your poison because “you can learn to love anything” no matter if it’s good for you or not, is chill-inducing. It’s also It’s hard to imagine a better use of steel guitar on a song in 2011. It always amazes me that one instrument can bring fourth joy and pain so convincingly that its mere placement can alter the mood of a song. Only in country music is that possible.

And only in country music can artists have such a breadth of work that newer songs recall classic hits. “House Across The Bay” recalls “Marina Del Ray” while “Shame On Me” is so timeless Strait, it could’ve worked on any of his past projects including his debut. Of the two, “Bay” is the better song, using the barrier of a body of water to display heartache. “Me” isn’t bad, though, just unremarkable compared to Strait’s past work since you feel like he’s done it before. But to hear him do it again is to hear a master at work. No one, except maybe Alan Jackson, can pull off the neo-traditionalist sound like Strait.

Also, no one sticks to his roots like him, either. Even on a somber collection like Time, there’s room to add a little Texas flare. While “Lone Star Blues” may appeal to some, it’s among my least favorite tracks on the album along with “Blue Marlin Blues.” It might be the upbeat honky-tonk nature of the tracks, but I’ve never really cared for Strait in this mode. I did enjoy the ever-present steel guitar on “Lone Star Blues,” but couldn’t get into the lyrics.

And like the honky-tonk romps. The other two tracks are a mixed bag as well. While both “Love’s Gonna Make It” and “Three Nails on a Cross” are solid, only “Cross” the album’s gospel number is a keeper. While not one I’ve gotten into much yet, I really like the message of forgiveness conveyed in “Cross.” “Love” on the other hand isn’t very memorable apart from the chorus, which blends voices together so well you almost forget Strait is the one singing.

In the end Here For A Good Time is one of the strongest mainstream country albums of 2011. He proves once again why he’s assumed his legendary status, and this is one of the most interesting recordings you’ll hear all year. I honestly wasn’t going to buy the album, and having listened to it through an advanced copy, I’m very glad I did. Time outshines every album he’s made for quite some time.

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.


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