Archive for the ‘Music Criticism’ Category

Album Review: Sara Watkins – ‘Young In All The Wrong Ways’

July 14, 2016

Sara Watkins


Young In All The Wrong Ways

* * * * *

Since the release of her eponymous solo debut in 2009, Sara Watkins has been embarking on an artistic journey towards finding her own voice as a singer and songwriter. She populated her first two albums with outstanding cuts by others, all the while honing her personal craft. Her output has been as rich as it is interesting, but it’s child’s play compared to Young In All The Wrong Ways, where she finally shed her inhibitions, picked up her pen and wrote the entirety of the album herself.

The difference is clear, from the strums of the blazing electric guitar on the opening title track. We’re hearing Watkins emerge as a woman for the first time, one who isn’t scared to embrace the messy and lay it all on the line. There’s a newfound defiance as she sings desperately about needing to turn the page. The aggressive backdrop provides the perfect emotional balance as she bleeds the frustration she’s kept bottled up inside.

She’s equally as punchy on “Move Me,” which I lovingly reviewed back in April. The bite in her vocal, paired brilliantly with the barn-thumping arrangement, reveals an urgency that drives the restlessness in her soul. Watkins’ agitation turns to regret on “Without A Word,” in which she gorgeously displays her stirring unease with lush precision.

Confrontation with an ex sets the stage for bluegrass romp “One Last Time,” in which she reveals he’s merely in love with the idea of her. “Say So” is introspection at its finest, a moment where Watkins looks inward to reveal the only one holding her back is herself.

The exploration continues on “The Truth Won’t Set Us Free,” a delicious slice of classic country with a modern twist, which finds Watkins fully aware that we take ourselves with us wherever we go. She takes a step back on “Invisible,” a prequel of sorts, in which she is searching for the very truth she’ll not be able to escape.

“The Love That Got Away,” one of Watkins’ finest vocals ever on record, is a spellbinding delicate mediation on voyeurism of examining life from the prospective of others. Her innate restlessness, once again, takes center stage:

All the people passing by

I wonder how they live their lives

And think of one outside of mine

I imagine and I envy all of their discoveries

Their simple, plain complexities

I’ve often taken issue with her songwriting – her songs often rely too heavily on repetition – but that gives way here to beautiful bouts of poetry, especially on “Like New Years Day” and “Tenderhearted,” two more highlights. Young In All The Wrong Ways is Watkins’ masterpiece, a searing self-exploration in which she emerges as the fully formed artist (thanks in part to friend and producer Gabe Wicher, who is also a member of Punch Brothers) her previous solo releases only hinted at.

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.

Album Review: Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison – “Cheater’s Game”

February 21, 2013

Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison 


Cheater’s Game

* * * * *

If there exists a constant within country music in 2013, it’s the collaborative album. Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell are teaming up for a long-awaited record, tour partners Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan recently completed work on an album, Vince Gill and Paul Franklin have a record of their own in the works, and Steve Martin is branching out from The Steep Canyon Rangers to release a CD with Edie Brickell.

Yet another project, and first of these to see release, is Cheater’s Game, the inaugural duets album from Kelly Willis and her husband Bruce Robison. Produced by singer/songwriter Brad Jones, it’s the first album from either artist in more than five years, and well worth the wait.

The majority of the project strikes a mournful tone, allowing Willis to showcase her fine interpretive skills as a honky-tonk balladeer. She does it best on the stunning title track, a couple’s lament on their marriage in the wake of unfaithful behavior. But she’s equally superb on “Ordinary Fool,” the story of a woman who understands a friend’s predicament following the end of a relationship. Both boast excellent lyrics (Robison co-wrote the title track with Liz Foster and The Trishas’ Savannah Welch and penned “Ordinary Fool” solo) and fine production work by Jones who uses wistful steel and lush acoustic guitars to effectively set the mood.

“Waterfall,” also written solely by Robison, showcases Willis’ gifts a singer better than any track on the album, opening with her gorgeous twang backed by a mandolin so light and weightless, it need not exist. The track, about a woman begging a bartender to pour her a waterfall of drinks to drown her sorrows, is one of the best and most delicately handled drinking songs I’ve ever heard.

Robison is a criminally underrated songwriter, on par with the likes of Bobby Braddock, Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard. His innate ability to take well-worn themes and vigorously bring them back to life with dynamic hooks elevates Cheater’s Game from ordinary to extraordinary. Even better is the pair’s ability to weave in outside material that blends with, opposed to distract from, the originals.

My favorite of the covers is Dave Alvin’s “Border Radio,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on a George Strait album. It took me a minute to warm up to the Tex-Mex vibe, but the duo brings it to life wonderfully. Also excellent is Robison’s laid-back reading of Don Williams’ “We’re All The Way,” which brings out the sensual side of his voice and showcases a tender moment for the pair as a duo.

I much prefer Willis and Robison’s take on “Long Way Home” to Hayes Carll’s original, as they exude a warmth missing from the gruffness of his version. Only Razzy Bailey’s “9,999,999 Tears” (a #3 hit for Dickey Lee in 1976) doesn’t fit the vibe of project, and while Willis sings it wonderfully, the catchy sing-a-long aspects of the track take away from the album as a whole.

Robison takes the lead on many of the project’s uptempo moments and adds a pleasing contrast to the seriousness of the songs sung by his wife. A fabulous mixture of acoustic guitar and fiddle prove the perfect backdrop for his take on Lawrence Shoberg’s “Born To Roll,” and he brings a calming easiness to his solely penned “Leavin,” a road song with an appealing singer-songwriter vibe and Spanish-y acoustic guitar.

“But I Do,” a co-write with Jedd Hughes, has an attractively plucky acoustic aura and playful vocals from the duo that match the vibrancy of the backing track. It’s a sharp contrast from “Dreamin,” a delicate acoustic ballad about budding love. I especially love the banjo on “Lifeline,” and the way the fiddle and steel gently guide his somewhat sleepy vocal on Robert Earl Keen Jr’s, “No Kinda Dancer,” which would otherwise have been too slow for me to fully appreciate.

Before Cheater’s Game I had begun to think that the heart and soul of country music had been lost, replaced by sound-a-like party anthems extenuated by an 80s rock mentality. Thank goodness Willis and Robison remain unaffected by the glitz of mainstream Nashville and put authentically raw and uncomplicated gems like this out into the world. Music in this vein isn’t made much anymore, which makes albums like this such a treat. I highly recommend it to anyone who appreciates and loves traditional country music. 

Album Review: Blake Shelton – “Cheers, It’s Christmas”

December 24, 2012

Blake Shelton


Cheers, It’s Christmas

* * * 1/2

On Cheers, It’s Christmas, his foray into holiday music, Blake Shelton is offering up fourteen tracks that mix traditional fare with newly-penned tracks and collaborations with everyone from Kelly Clarkson to Reba McEntire. And like Red River Blue, Scott Hendricks produces the set along with Brett Rowan.

The traditional songs are pretty standard, and Shelton turns in gorgeous readings of “White Christmas,” “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” “The Christmas Song,” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” Each are framed in a lush string heavy melody that doesn’t bring anything new to the tracks, but keeps them simple and classy. Shelton supercharges his rendition of “Winter Wonderland” with a heavy electric guitar, and instead of working against the song, it helps to showcase the much-recorded song in a new light.

The heart of Cheers, It’s Christmas, though, are the duets. “Jingle Bell Rock,” complete with loud guitars and crashing horns, features Miranda Lambert on backing vocals and their voices blend together nicely. Unfortunately the cheesy “Blue Christmas,” which features Pistol Annies pointlessly doo-wooping throughout, is a mess. The production is too loud and all meaning feels stripped from the song.

Shelton keeps the proceedings nice and simple on “Silver Bells,” one of my favorite Christmas songs. He’s joined by Xenia, a contestant from his team on season 1 of The Voice. Surprisingly, their voices blend well despite having two completely different vocal styles. The same is true for the holiday re-working of “Home” which features the tune’s original singer (and season 3 Voice mentor) Michael Bublé, although it’s kind of odd to hear the tune with the new, slightly awkward lyrics.

Shelton turns surprisingly traditional on “Oklahoma Christmas,” a duet with fellow Okie McEntire. While very good the exaggerated twang and somewhat predictable lyrics (written by Rob Byus, Jenee Fleenor, and Trent Willmon) put a slight damper on the proceedings. He revives Keith Whitley’s “There’s A New Kid In Town,” easily the album’s strongest track lyrically, as a duet with Clarkson. A astonishingly understated and tasteful rendition, their voices gel together wonderfully.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I heard Shelton co-wrote a duet with his mom Dorothy Shackleford, but it turned out really well despite her somewhat shaky vocal. “Time For Me To Come,” in which a mother calls up his son to come home for the holidays, has a lot of old-fashioned charm and works well coming from someone who’s so busy with both his music and television careers. Shelton also co-wrote “Santa’s Got A Choo Choo Train,” a somewhat bluegrass-y number that’s a bit cheesy, nicely understated, and sounds like something Brad Paisley would’ve done about eight years ago. Shelton’s third co-write “The Very Best Time of Year” is the album’s weakest track, spilling out a mess of yuletide clichés.

Cheers, It’s Christmas is an uneven effort at best, with Shelton’s classy and rowdy sides fighting for dominance. But it’s also his best album in years, showcasing a bonafide superstar who isn’t afraid to keep it country when it counts the most. Since he’s so big right now, I have a hard time feeling the intimacy he strives for on the majority of the tracks, but he’s never sounded better and exuded so much personal confidence.

Album Review – Kathy Mattea – “Calling Me Home”

September 10, 2012

Kathy Mattea

Calling Me Home

* * * * * 

Coming off the supposed one-off side project Coal, Kathy Mattea found her purpose as a recording artist transformed from a commercial country singer to an Appalachian folk singer. The four-year journey has led to a full exploration of her West Virginian roots and the land surrounding the mountains where she’s from.

Calling Me Home finds Kathy exploring the austere realities of man’s desire for growth at the expense of preserving our natural world. The album richly chronicles the death of nature from many perspectives, and features the works of notable folk and bluegrass singer/songwriters Jean Ritchie, Laurie Lewis, Alice Garrard, and Hazel Dickens among others.

“The Woodthrush’s Song,” written by Lewis, leads the charge with an effective thesis on the drawbacks of advancement within the human race:

Man is the inventor, the builder, the sage

The writer and seeker of truth by the page

But all of his knowledge can never explain

The deep mystery of the Wood Thrush refrain 

The thesis makes a bold yet true statement, and I connected with the way Lewis used the plight of the Wood Thrush to hone in her main point about man’s relentlessness to grow, seemingly without consequence.

Kathy explores that sentiment on a more human level with Ritchie’s masterfully heartbreaking “Black Waters,” a crying out over the state of Kentucky’s decision to allow the building of a strip mine in her backyard. I was taken aback by the brilliance in Ritchie’s storytelling; how she layered the vivid imagery to devastating effect. The climax of the track comes towards the end, when Kathy sings about Richie’s lack of sympathy from those causing the destruction:

In the summer come a nice man, says everything’s fine

My employer just requires a way to his mine

Then they blew down the timber and covered my corn

And the grave on the hillside’s a mile deeper down

And the man stands and talks with his hat in his hand

As the poison black waters rise over my land

“Black Waters” comes off a bit too sing-song-y, a bit too commercial in feel. But the lyrical content speaks for itself as does the haunting combination of Patty Loveless and Emmylou Harris on backing vocals, which adds an additional texture to the proceedings.

Kathy continues her main theme on Lewis’s “The Maple’s Lament,” which is told from the prospective of a maple tree dying so the fiddle can live (Lewis is a master fiddle player, hence the elegant fiddle that opens the track). The concept sounds strange on the onset, but it’s a beautiful number about an element of nature (trees) we all take for granted.

A part from man’s destruction of nature, these songs explore the broader theme of home, whither it’s the structure where we live or the land we were birthed from. Kathy further explores the coal mining lifestyle on Ritchie’s disturbing “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” which chronicles the death of miner from the often overlooked prospective of the wife and children he leaves behind. Kathy brings it to life unlike any other track on the album simply from her authoritative vocal, which places the listener directly into the small town from which the song arises.

The title track quite literally rests on Kathy’s vocal, and marks one of two a cappella tracks on the project. Another angle on the idea of home, Kathy sings Garrard’s tale of a man’s final moments on earth and the friend there with him. It’s a beautifully touching story, and the lack of production furthers the emotional resonance of the track. The other a cappella track, Ritchie’s “Now Is The Cool of the Day” works a bit less well as it becomes a bit repetitive, but Kathy manages to save it with her compelling vocal.

Thankfully, not all the songs are bleak. Possibly my favorite track (that distinction changes almost daily) is Dickens’ “West Virginia, My Home,” a love letter to Kathy’s home state. I love everything about it, from the folk/Celtic arrangement to Kathy’s gorgeous phrasing of the lyrics. Mollie O’Brien makes the execution of the track even better with the lightness of her harmony vocal perfectly offsetting the richer tones of Kathy’s voice. This track is nothing short of magic.

“Hello, My Name Is Coal” is the closest the album comes to black comedy, as Kathy takes on the titular object in Larry Cordle and Jeneé Fleenor’s tale. The track also boasts the album’s sunniest accompaniment, and is the one most likely to get stuck in your head. What sold the song for me was Oliver Wood’s harmony vocal, raw grit that feels abstracted from the earth, mirroring the coal itself.

“Gone, Gonna Rise Again,” written by Western Pennsylvanian Si Kan, may not be the happiest track on the album, but it boasts my other favorite production. The plucky banjo opening is so ear catching you can’t help but be drawn in to the tale of a grandfather leaving life (corn stalks and apple trees) behind on his land for his grandchildren to enjoy as the grow up.

I also admire Mike and Janet Dowling’s tale of homesickness, “A Far Cry.” No matter where you’re from, when you leave your home for another land, you leave behind that sense of belonging engrained in you from birth. They capture these universal feelings perfectly.

What’s surprising to me is how much I love and adore this album. Calling Me Home took me many listens to fully embrace, as I found myself unable to grasp the density of Gary Paczosa’s production values, especially the slowness of the ballads and the choice to record “Calling Me Home” and “Now Is The Cool Of The Day” a cappella. But the more I listen, the more I connect with Kathy’s ability to bring each song to life in its own way solely with her voice, and that was my ticket to appreciating the record as a whole. I’m also an avid nature lover and connected with Calling Me Home on that level as well.

I’ve since come to understand Calling Me Home as a declaration of Kathy’s authentic self, her Mountain Soul, the portrait of a woman operating from an authoritative space deep within. These aren’t merely emotionally driven vocal performances but glimpses into her core. There’s a palpable urgency to her singing that drives the record from start to finish, a need to spread these messages to anyone who’ll listen. She’s never sounded so grounded, so pure as she does here.

This is the music Kathy was put on earth to sing, and I cannot wait to witness the journey she takes with this record, and what will follow in the years to come. I feel like I’m discovering the breadth of her talent for the first time, in the same way she’s discovering her purpose as a recording artist.

I cannot recommend this album enough.

Album Review – Pistol Annies – ‘Hell On Heels’

August 31, 2011

Pistol Annies

Hell On Heels

* * * * *

Much has been made lately about the lack of solo female artists charting top 30 singles. An alarm was sounded bringing attention to just how few genuine female superstars are working in the genre today. But instead of focusing on the lack of female artists charting big singles, we should be talking about and putting the spotlight on those female artists (solo or not) who are making music that matters whether they receive airplay or are left in the dust.

One of those artists commanding attention is Miranda Lambert’s new trio The Pistol Annies. Their debut album Hell on Heels is without a doubt one of the best country albums of 2011 because the attention to detail in the lyrical content rivals anything being released on a major label in Nashville today. Throughout the ten-song project, intricate phrases abound elevating simple stories into pieces of art. Hell On Heels is a listening experience like none other you’ll have all year.

They debuted with the title track earlier this year, an introduction as good as any. I have a little trouble with its three artist structure, but the verse sung solo by Ashley Monroe always brings fourth a smile. She’s just delightful and one of the best-kept secrets in Nashville today. But the rest of the album is as good but much better than that song.

Not since Mary Chapin Carpenter released “House of Cards” as the third single from Stones in the Road in 1995, has anyone spoken so honestly and introspectively about life behind closed doors. They’ve stood up and given voice to the women who can’t take it anymore from the men who haven’t got a clue.

No song exemplifies this better than “Housewives Prayer,” which employs a simple yet dark lyric to convey the pain of quiet desperation. One of the best songs of the year, it’s a cautionary tale from a woman fed up with the status of her life – she’s been thinking about going off the deep end because she’s “burning up with all the words she ain’t been saying,” and at her boiling point, she washes pills down with beer and contemplates setting her house on fire.

Inspired by “Holler Annie” Angaleena Presley’s divorce, “Prayer” proves the point that you don’t need much to pack a wallop. Presley’s lead vocal acts as a portal for the audience to feel her pain and the moody musical accompaniment, complete with haunting steel guitar front and center, adds another dimension to her sadness.

“Lemon Drop,” another down on your life song, uses a clever metaphor to sell its central message – you have to endure the bad to get to the good. Using examples of curtains purchased on credit and owning a TV that will take ten years to pay off, it serves as a reminder to anyone going through tough times to remember “they’ll be better days ahead.”

The light mix of acoustic guitars and gentle procession coupled with the blending of their voices, gives the song a rather sweet quality, which contrasts with the placement of a lemon in the title, but suggests the optimism the protagonist is holding onto. You come away feeling her situation isn’t a reflection on her because no matter how dire the circumstances may be, she isn’t letting them define her.

When listening to the song, I had to actually stop and think what “life is like a lemon drop” meant. When was the last time that happened? It’s so rewarding not to be able to take lyrics at face value, where you already know what the song’s about because the lyrics are so predictable. This is one of those times I actually like having to work at fully understanding my country music.

“Beige,” another track that made me think, is by and large my favorite song on the whole album. The movie-like nature of the story won me over first, but it was the presentation of that story that blew me away. The song finds a woman on her wedding day, with child, “marrying some boy” in a wrinkled shirt. She’s praying no one will notice her weight gain since a “bride shouldn’t be
4 months and 3 weeks.” She’s wearing beige because “everyone in this place knows I didn’t wait.” The situation is unfortunate and the song contains some of my favorite lines on the whole album, from her being daddy’s pride and joy to no one “having a ball at the reception hall.”

“Hippie Annie” Monroe takes the lead and displays how much she’s grown as a vocalist since Satisfied, her solo debut from 2006. But the song suffers only slightly from a lack of polish. There is a few times where Monroe could’ve enunciated more clearly. But other than that, the track dabbles with perfection. The drumbeat and steel guitar add a layer to the song conveying the sadness felt by everyone on what should’ve been a happy occasion.

But with all the heaviness of the ballads, the Annies add a few lighter moments to lesson the load. “Bad Example” is a pure country shuffle that recalls something from the 1920s, “Takin’ Pills” recalls the depression-era production T-Bone Burnett used on his Robert Plant and Alison Krauss collaboration Raising Sand, and “Family Feud” is pure Americana bliss. But being lighter doesn’t cancel out their substantive qualities. “Feud” is takes on a serious topic that often tears families apart, while “Pills” uses drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes as coping mechanisms. But for all their seriousness, they are the best examples of dark humor I’ve heard in country songs since I can remember.

Another light moment, “The Hunter’s Wife,” reminds me a lot of Rodney Crowell’s “She’s Crazy For Leavin’” in terms of production. I love the wordiness of the chorus and the fact that this man doesn’t even realize he’s chosen hunting (and fishing) over his wife. The way she complains about the meals she’s sick of eating in the second verse is so instantly relatable. It’s hard to find a woman who isn’t tired of the redundant behaviors of their husband or boyfriend. If this were a Brad Paisley song, she’d know exactly what to do – give him an ultimatum and if she doesn’t care for his answer, get the heck out. Overall, it’s one of the coolest songs on the whole album and another highlight among highlights.

“Lone Star Annie” Lambert takes the lead on both “Trailer for Rent” and “Boys From The South.” Both represent classic Lambert, on “Rent” she’s selling the trailer she shared with her now ex and it bares the marks of where she grew tired of his abusive behavior. I only wish “Rent” hadn’t gone into expletive territory. It didn’t need a swear word to emphasize anything, but it is indicative of how most people talk and adds an authenticity to the song in that respect. I also like the easygoing nature of the production track.

“Boys From The South” on the other hand, is the lone oddball out on the project. It’s so straightforward and has so much commercial potential; it would’ve been better on Lambert’s upcoming Four The Record or even Revolution. But if any song on this album has the ability to break through at radio and give Hell On Heels an extra push, it’s this one. These are the types of songs Lambert does exceptionally well and she excels on that here.

In the end, Hell on Heels is everything a country album should be: original in its angles on well-worn themes and a challenge to the listener to think and pay attention to what’s being said. This brand of country isn’t going to appeal to everyone, but there’s an audience out there starving for this kind of music. I know because I’m a vocal member of that crowd, retaliating against the usual fare coming out of mainstream Nashville. Thank goodness for artists like Pistol Annies who transcend trend and make music that will matter as much thirty years from now as it does today.

My Kind of Country

July 2, 2011

My lack in recent updates is partly do to an exciting opportunity I accepted over a month ago. I’m now a staff writer for My Kind of Country, a popular country music blog.

That doesn’t mean this blog is going anywhere, it’s just an extension of my love for country music.

My duties are to write single reviews for new country songs and album reviews for their spotlight artist series. Here’s what I’ve written so far:

I can’t believe how much I’ve already written. Six already?! I have many more in the pipe line, and as I write them, I’ll link them to my blog so they’ll be easy to find in one place.
Thanks again to J.R. Journey for inviting me to blog about my favorite subject to a much wider audience. In the coming months, I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes me.
Now I just have to find the balance to write my own blog along with all the MKoC work I do. That shouldn’t be too hard.

Modern country classics

February 23, 2011

There is no disputing that throughout its history, country music has had its fair share of classic songs – instances when the combination of vocal, lyric, and melody mix to create a sense of magic. Get anyone in the know in a room and they’ll likely agree that “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” “Stand By Your Man,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “El Paso,” and “Crazy” are among songs considered quintessential to the genre. Moments in country history worth preserving so that everyone for as long as time will get a chance to enjoy them. As the decades go on, we see countless singers come and go as single climb and fall off the charts. Most are mediocre at best – drivel that fall prey to exploiting every last cliche in the book. But every now and then a song comes along worthy of joining the revered list of classics. The following are 11 songs, since the turn of the century, that I would put in the company of every great country song ever recorded.

2000 – “I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow” – The Soggy Bottom Boys

A novelty in its purest form, “Sorrow” was a marvel – it helped sell 8 million copies of the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack without the support of country radio. Led by Dan Tymenski, the Soggy Bottom Boys were a fictitious band created by producer T Bone Burnett for use in the movie. No one expected the CMA to crown the song its single of the year or the Grammys to choose the soundtrack over a very popular U2 LP for album of the year but they did. A word of mouth success story, “Sorrow” is an example of why country radio rarely tells the whole country music story.

2001 – “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” – Alan Jackson

Written in response to the 9-11 terror attacks, “Where Were You” is a snapshot of emotion; a quantifier of our feelings. Jackson was able to capture the mood of the nation so poignantly  you forgot the best country songs come from real world experience. When he sings “I’m Just A Singer of Simple Songs” he captures not only his own truth, but the goal of every country singer who’s ever had the music in their soul. A moment in time that never felt so raw or was so heartbreakingly real.

2002 – “I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin’ Song)” – Brad Paisley

The story of a man who must choose between his woman and love of fishing, marks the moment Paisley came into his own as a songwriter, artist, and videographer. He would go on to make his mark by using humor to tell many a story, but “Miss Her” was the first and arguably the best novelty song he’s ever recorded.

2003 – “Traveling Soldier” – Dixie Chicks

At #1 when Natalie Maines famously denouced then President George W. Bush on British soil, you never saw a song fall so hard, so fast. It’s a shame because “Soldier” is the hit that deserved to be yet never should have been – a nearly five minute acoustic love song about a waitress with a bow in her hair and the three days passed 18 years old soldier who needed someone back home to care about. Neither pro nor anti military, songwriter Bruce Robinson uses the heartbreak of war to tell a greater story about eternal love. The highlight of their masterful Home album, “Solider” is a reminder of all that perished when the world turned a deaf ear to the greatest band country music ever produced.

2004 – “Live Like You Were Dying” – Tim McGraw

Nothing elicits emotion like the loss of a parent, and Tim McGraw knows that well. Although penned by Craig Wiseman and Tim Nichols, its as if McGraw had written the words himself. He asks us all to live as though we’ve reached our final days and gives us a laundry list of what he’d do (sky dive, climb the Rocky Mountains, ride a bull for 2.7 seconds) if given the chance. Introspection at its finest, “Dying” is a battle cry to live for today in case tomorrow never comes.

2005 – “Somebody’s Hero” – Jamie O’Neal

A fleeting moment in country music history, “Hero” is the anthem for all women who had to grow up perfect daughters and then, with children of their own to raise, care for their ailing parents. It’s the story of a vicious cycle every family must endure on a path to wholeness. When O’Neal sings, “The envy of the nursing home/she drops by every afternoon/feeds her mother with a spoon,” you can hear women everywhere shedding a tear for when they were in the character’s shoes themselves. It’s a gentler and kinder relationship women of that generation had with their mothers, and O’Neal captures it perfectly with her sweet yet powerful vocal that enhances – not hinders – the message of the song.

2006 – Little Big Town – “Boondocks”

By late 2005 Little Big Town had been cast off in the bargain bin. Their self-titled debut album proved they were nothing special – yet another generic act with nothing revelatory about their makeup, sound, or look. To turn opinions around would be a major undertaking and they did it as only Little Big Town can. With “Boondocks” they had modified their sound just slightly, and were given the second chance only the rare few are allowed to make. The only spectacular addition in a long line of dismal “where you come from” songs to hit country radio in the decade, “Boondocks” stands out not because its an outstandingly well written, sung, and produced record, but because it injected life into the genre at a time when country music was begging for a new force to be reckoned with.

2007 – “Our Song” – Taylor Swift

Back in high school, Swift debuted this song at a talent show. She only sang it once, yet by the next morning, the whole school was singing it too. When the world got ahold of it, “Song” shot to #1 and stayed their six weeks. The story of a couple who don’t, but are always on the lookout for, a tune to define their relationship, “Song” is a perfect confection of country/pop and easily the best thing Swift has ever sent to country radio. She’ll be chasing the flawlessness of this record for the rest of her career, mark my words. “Song” isn’t just a snapshot of an artist on the rise, it’s the career record only the fortunate few are blessed to have. It’s here the world fell in love with Swift and made her the star everyone who watched that assembly knew she would become.

2008 – “Stay” – Sugarland

Inspired by Reba McEntire’s “Who’s Ever In New England,” and written from the mistress’s point of view, “Stay” proves Jennifer Nettles is a double threat- singer and writer. The sparse arraignment and aching vocal only add to the intensity building in the lyrics. Nettles has never shined brighter than she does here, and like Swift before her, will be chasing this little piece of magic for the rest of her career. She may have also solely written “Shine The Light” as well, but nothing will ever compare to the heights she reached on this instant classic.

2009 – “In Color” – Jamey Johnson

A picture may be worth 1,000 words but according to Johnson and co-writers Tommy Lee Miller and James Otto, “You can’t see what those shades of grey keep covered/you should’ve seen it in color.” A brilliant ode to a simple pleasure we all take for granted, “Color” brings our modern world into perspective and gives new meaning to those old 8x10s sitting in our attics. Songs about pictures are nothing new, but “Color” revives the theme with an intensity lacking from most of modern country. Heartfelt and sincere yet commanding and attentive, “Color” is the epitome of country music and a foundation towards a (hopefully) promising future.

2010 – Miranda Lambert – “The House That Built Me”

“I know they say, you can’t go home again,” sings Lambert in an ode to finding yourself through the walls of your childhood home. A quiet gem that made a huge statement, “House” is the hit no one saw coming from the artist radio could no longer ignore. Songs like “House” rarely come along and when they do, you’d be a fool not to grab them. The video only enhances the quality of the lyric with the home movies woven throughout. Lambert was a fine country singer before she snag this song, but after, she just may be the best female country star having hits today.

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?


Progress report: the year that was in country music

December 30, 2010

I’ve been a dedicated country music fan since 1996, and a casual fan for a few years prior. I cannot explain what draws me to the genre, it may be the twang, the honesty in the lyrics, or the authenticity of the performers. Actually, it’s all three. I always credit country music for shaping my childhood and being a positive influence on my growing up. It’s funny, where I live people don’t usually talk about country music. I know most people don’t like it and a comment I often hear people say is “don’t overdose on it”. Well, I have overdosed on it and I turned out just fine.

I’ve noticed a shift in people’s listening tastes of late. There are people I know who would never have given country music a chance in the past that now love it. Normally, I’d be in an “I told you so” position and be happy that others are now enjoying what I’ve loved for years. But sadly, I can’t. I cannot sit contently with their newfound love of country music because the genre had to change in order to welcome them in. The country music I grew up on in the 90s is nearly dead (I’m listening to Lorrie Morgan’s classic “Something In Red” right now) and a broadened pop-influenced watered down version has taken its place.

The genre has gradually gotten worse over the years and far too big for its britches. The simplicity that made country music great is all but gone in favor of creating a sound made to appeal to all listeners and fill football stadiums. Listeners from the pop/rock world love modern country because it has a rock edge to it.  The music is very muscular and guitar heavy thanks to the rise of Keith Urban and Brad Paisley. They have created a sound that puts the electric guitar front and center – an instrument that overpowers any traditional elements in their recordings. On the other hand, Jason Aldean seems hell bent on making rock and roll songs about tractors and cowboys. The more amped up the better for him – he’s often screaming to be heard over the way-to-loud production.

If you think about it, the growing necessity of performing in stadiums has all but killed traditional country music. That’s why the broader sound is becoming more and more commonplace. The intimate, simplistic country we all grew up on doesn’t work when playing to a crowd of 30,000. To reach everyone, you need to be bigger, louder, and more bombastic.

Now, I shouldn’t be complaining. I have the luxury of living near the godsend of all country music stadiums – Gillette, in Foxboro Massachusetts. I just hate what it represents. It’s the country music money pit – if you haven’t headlined a sold out show at Gillette, you haven’t made it. Kenny Chesney is to thank for the shift and he has the awards to prove it.

Along with getting too big, the quality of the songs has suffered. Most lack a simple, real connection between the singer and the audience. Songs that speak to the continuousness of America have been pushed aside for gutless filler.

I never thought I’d say this, but country music has become too nice – too clean and polished for it’s own good. Everyone seems too afraid to be anything more than generic. A big culprit in all this is the “radio friendly” umbrella that has taken over country radio. To be played, songs have to be quick, bubbly, fun, and listenable to all audiences. What passes as a hit nowadays is nothing short of ear candy.

Today’s Country music is also very easily digestible. You sing along because the song is infectious and catchy, but there isn’t any substance to back it up. There isn’t much truly classic being made. Next time you turn on country radio, think about this – will this song still be remembered five months from now let alone five years? I’ve come to understand that everything comes back – the rise of channels like Sirius/XM’s “Prime Country” makes that possible. But seriously, is that song you love right now a classic? And better yet, would you know a classic when you hear it? The dumbing down of country music reached completion in 2010.

The saddest reality is the ever-disappearing line between country music and pop music. Obviously, the money and sales lay in the pop side of country, but I’ve noticed something else. Country Music has expanded so much that pop/rock songs like Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister” and Adam Lambert’s “Whatya You Want From Me” aren’t a far cry from what’s being played on country radio right now.

Along the same lines, country artists are embracing their pop influences over their country ones. As a result, they’re leaving any resemblance of country in their music in the dust. Where are the fiddle, steel guitar, banjo and mandolin?

Sugarland seemed proud that they didn’t use any mandolin on their The Incredible Machine album. That blatant dismissal of all things country makes me look at them as outsiders opposed to members of the country music community.

Their new direction may be hard to take but their next album will be the real test because they haven’t completely gone off the deep end. Lets hope they pull back and realize their new sound isn’t the right direction for their music.

I’m all for experimentation but they’ve failed where Shania Twain and Taylor Swift have succeed. Now, I liked their album enough to count it among my top nine of the year, but it has some very abysmal moments that leave me wondering – where do their loyalties lay? If it isn’t with country music, the sooner they break ties the better. They’ll have to learn about the limits of growth at some point – you can only expand so far before everyone stops showing up at the party. To quote an Eagles song, “The joke is on you.”

Something hit me earlier this year and caught me dead in my tracks – when was the last time I truly loved a country song? Loved it so much, that I couldn’t get enough? When did a song make me stop what I was doing and listen? Sadly, that hasn’t happened in quite a long time. And even if I do like a song, country radio plays it to death so I loose all love for it anyways.

The only two examples that come to mind are Sugarland’s “Keep You” and Joey + Rory’s “My ‘Ol Man.” You can rarely explain why a song hits you just the right way and both those songs accomplish that for me.

Now, I have no qualms with pop/country. It is a very viable subset of country music and has been for a long time. Most of the core artists that have shaped country music fall under pop/country.

Also, every era has its artists that create generic music. For example, the 90s had their share of cooke cutter “hat acts.” Trends are nothing new and aren’t ever going away. Who will soon forget the Urban Cowboy era? But what’s missing today is the balance. The balance between those looking to expand and those who still play traditional country music. For every Tracy Byrd there was a Patty Loveless to create the music of substance. That isn’t there anymore.

Going pop isn’t the problem for me – quality is outweighing production value at this point. A new genre of country has been coming to the forefront in recent years and that’s “trash country.” Trash country are those songs that discard everything country artists have spent the last 110 years building. Songs that aren’t just horrific, they should never have seen the light of day in the first place. I have a big problem when a singer comes in without any regard for the history of country music and think they can get away with recording anything that comes across their plate. They have taken us for fools and fortunately those who actually care about the future of country music can see right through them.

That’s why I hate these pop/rock fans coming in and messing with the genre. They don’t care about the history and they embrace the trash country. It’s they who demand country acts play stadiums and dumb down the music to their level. We’re loosing all integrity so teenagers and college students can have music they can party to. Country music was never about being a genre you could party to – it was truth put to music. Where has the truth gone?

Another trend I’ve noticed is veteran artists loosing themselves and recording subpar material unworthy of their legacy. I’m not sure why this is happening, but it’s becoming ever more commonplace. I don’t understand what possesses artists to coast in their comfort zones and not doing anything to push the genre forward. Artists like Brad Paisley and Keith Urban has fallen into the trap of recording the same song over and over again. Where is the experimentation? Sticking to a formula is a guaranteed career killer.

One such downgrade I can explain – Reba’s. She’s trying (and succeeding) to be a viable entity in the current marketplace. Of course, she’s never done anything that wasn’t hugely successful, so that may have something to do with it. She’s one of the lucky ones, most artists at her age (mid 50s) are thrown out to pasture.

But the most baffling of all is Tim McGraw. Where has the singer gone who gave us all those big hits? The guy recording dog dung like “Southern Voice” and “Felt Good On My Lips” is someone I don’t recognize. I want the old Tim McGraw back; he at least put some quality in his music.

In light of all this, I wish country radio would develop a standard – they are the problem here. When will it be okay to say they won’t play a song for lack of quality? It is subjective, but there comes a point when a bad song is just a bad song. And I’m sick of all these bad, bad, pieces of trash cluttering up my airwaves. Enough is enough. Someone in Nashville needs to be woken up big time.

Luckily, country radio doesn’t tell the whole story. Country music is still a viable and thriving genre. There is plenty of great music being made that isn’t reaching the mainstream. Look at my top nine favorite country albums of the year. I’ve placed some real gems on there. Marty Stuart’s Ghost Train showcases everything great about country music and Jamey Johnson’s The Guitar Song is everything and more.

But I really meant every word I said about Speak Now. Taylor Swift isn’t the most country (see, I don’t like everything traditional) but she is writing some of the best country songs around. No matter how you look at it, “Back To December” is a country song – it’s her truth. She’s lived everything she’s singing about – she really did get roses and leave them to die. When a singer (like Taylor and Jamey) sings their truth, an authenticity is reached. Just because Jamey’s truth is grittier than Taylor’s doesn’t mean anything – both are they’re truths.

Which is why, and I have to point this out, I have such a problem with Darius Rucker. He is a great singer but he lacks any authenticity. On his Backstory special for GAC, he says something about only recording great songs because it’s only fair to country radio. Well, show me a great song! If anyone epitomizes the dumbing down of country music it’s him.

A lot has been said about his throwing away of the country shuffles he was going to record in favor of “Come Back Song” and “This.” I understand his desire for success and his need to create revenue for Capitol Records, but he’s completely lost himself. If anyone is a puppet to modern country it’s him. His music is the worst of the worst because I know he can be so much better. Or at least, I want to believe he can.

The bottom line here is country music needs an artist to come in and clean house – someone who can turn the genre around. Randy Travis was that guy in 1986, so who will it be today? We need someone not afraid to speak their mind and tell their reality (no matter how gritty) in song. But, this artist has to break through at radio as well. If they cannot sustain a radio career, the place that needs the most shaking up, than there isn’t any hope. I miss the likes of Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. Thank goodness we have Miranda Lambert, she’s that flicker of hope. Her “The House That Built Me” is the most important country song of recent memory. It speaks to everything great about the history of the genre.

Let’s all pray there’s hope on the horizon in 2011. I honestly don’t see country music going anywhere but downhill, but I’m not giving up on the music I’ve loved for over fifteen years. I may not enjoy the path it’s currently taking but giving up isn’t an option. It’s like the stock market – what goes down must eventually go back up – if you think about it, how much lower can it go?

The 18 Worst Country Singles of 2010

December 17, 2010

Here it is. My list of the worst country songs for 2010. I am fully aware that “Hillbilly Bone” was released to radio back in October 2009 but it impacted this year more than it did last year. All these songs aren’t just marginally bad, they represent some of the worst country music ever created. Most of the acts are artists who have stopped caring about finding quality material to record and have settled for mediocre trash riddled with clichés.

Each song below helped to make 2010 live in country music infamy. Sit back and enjoy the best of the worst, the truly abominable crap that stunk up the airwaves over the last twelve months.

18. Trace Adkins – “This Ain’t No Love Song”

Adkins has one of country music’s most powerful voices yet he never uses it to any effect. His last good song, “Till The Last Shot’s Fired,” wasn’t even released as a single. “Love Song” proves Adkins doesn’t care anymore and will record just about anything. What a waste of a good talent.

17. Billy Currington – “Pretty Good At Drinkin’ Beer”

Billy Currington is pretty good at many things besides drinking beer. He knows how country boys roll and how to give good directions. He enjoys parties for two (and with Shania Twain who wouldn’t?) and he’s got a feeling that he and his girl must be doing somethin’ right.

Problem is, who really cares? He sure knows the hit-making formula (he’s had three straight number one hits) but he wouldn’t know a truly great song if it nipped him in the behind. Plus, he’s far from an outstanding vocalist. He showed the world promise with the outstanding “People Are Crazy” but has nose-dived ever since. In the case of Billy Currington, quantity far exceeds quality.

16. Steel Magnolia – “Just By Being You (Halos and Wings)”

Honestly, I don’t get it. Halos and Wings are two of the oddest objects to sing about in a song. I cannot take this song seriously nor do I understand its meaning.

While “Keep On Lovin’ You” was the start of something promising, “Just By Being You” proves their inconsistency. To make it big at radio and to connect with fans, each song has to be great. This one is a bombastic mess.

15. Brad Paisley – “Water”

The country music world needs another novelty song from Paisley as much as the Gulf Coast need more oil. It’s as if Paisley isn’t even trying anymore; he’s sucked the freshness, and originality, right out of his act. With its nod to wet tee-shirt contests and spring break shenanigans, “Water” is the worst of  Paisley’s not-so-serious ditties.

14. Joey + Rory featuring the Zac Brown Band – “This Song’s For You”

Why would a duo born to sing classic country music waste their time on a song like this? It’s great they want to salute everyone and their mother and I applaud the sentiment, but there really is no point.

“This Song’s For You” only underscores the problem with Joey + Rory and country radio – this is not hit material and if they release any more songs in this vain, they will quickly fade into obviation.  Songs about songs rarely ever work, anyways. Get your act together, guys.

13. Darius Rucker – “This”

A sound-alike to his previous drivel “Come Back Song,” Rucker is quickly becoming indistinguishable and he’s lost all artistic credibility as far as I’m concerned. Every song sounds the same and covers the same tired ground we’ve heard forever and far better. I still think he belongs in country music, but not by singing songs like “This.”

12. Darius Rucker – “Come Back Song”

There isn’t any doubt that Rucker belongs in country music. Problem is, he’s pandering to the mainstream country audience and radio. To call “Come Back Song” bad is an understatement. It’s a piece of fluff where something of substance was needed. He’s shown before he’s capable of great songs, so why would he waste his time with something like this?

11. Lady Antebellum – “Hello World”

I’ve called this song many things – bombastic, a Charles Kelley solo number gone wrong – but it really is worse than the sum of its parts. It grates on you the more you hear it and never fully explains itself. What does this song really mean? Thank goodness they didn’t write this one.

10. Kenny Chesney – “Ain’t Back Yet”

“Yet” is what happens when an artist records any song that comes their way just to have a single at radio. His time would’ve been better spent extending his absence from the road to the radio airwaves and relaunching his career with the far superior “Boys of Fall.” In a career filled with many terrible singles, this is the worst yet, even if it’s the most aptly titled.

9. Tim McGraw – “Felt Good On My Lips”

By the time an artist begins releasing singles like “Lips,” they either have lost all motivation for greatness in their career or they are being very badly advised. A forgettable mess, this is the worst single of McGraw’s long career. Let’s hope he can turn things around mighty quickly.

8. George Strait – “I Gotta Get To You”

I don’t care if you’re considered “The King” or if you’re in the Country Music Hall of Fame. There is no excuse for Strait to record or release such a bland and vanilla song. He does justice to no one when he mails it in, and instead of being a teacher to all the newcomers about the power of great country music; he succumbs to the pressure to stay relevant.

Thankfully it’s just one misstep in a sea of great recent singles, a world in which George Strait stops trying is a very sad day for country music.

7. The Band Perry – “Hip To My Heart”

With the line, “I like your lips like I like my Coca-Cola yah,” “Heart” takes its place in country music infamy. Neither original nor clever, it’s the worst debut single this year. And this from the same band responsible for  “If I Die Young.” Consistency is not their strong suit.

6. Toby Keith – “Every Dog Has It’s Day”

When an artist of Keith’s stature progresses to horse manure like this forgettable flop, the chances of a career revival are slim to none. A clichéd mess, “Dog” represents the worst of country music in 2010, lazy songwriting and an awful hook. The record exec or execs responsible for letting this see the light of day should be out of a job.

5. Rodney Atkins – “Farmer’s Daughter”

Packaged around a semi-traditional arraignment, “Daughter” is yet another ode to life on a farm. This time it’s the romantic entanglements between a hired hand and his boss’s little girl. With a feeling of been-there-done-that, Atkins isn’t charting any new ground here, and surprise, radio is eating it up. It’s time to grow up and move on.

4. Jewel – “Stay Here Forever”

How on earth could one of the best singer/songwriters write a song this bad? More importantly, how could her label (Valory Music Co) allow its release? Whoever is advising Jewel on her career needs to be fired. Of course it is fitting that her worst song would be associated with one of the worst romantic comedies (Valentine’s Day) ever made.

Her magic lays with songs like “The Shape Of You,” the gorgeous ballad she debuted on the Primetime Emmy telecast in August (Video is below). That song should’ve been the single. Get your act together, Jewel.

3. Blake Shelton with Trace Adkins – “Hillbilly Bone”

Any song rhyming “city” with “Twitty,” in the first half of the first verse, needs serious help. A waste of two very formidable talents, Shelton and Adkins are worthy of so much more. To think that this is the song that finally gave Shelton the artistic credibility he deserves isn’t just shameful; it’s downright cringe worthy.

2. Gretchen Wilson – “I Got Your Country Right Here”

Easily the most grotesquely despicable piece of drivel in Wilson’s singles catalog to date, “Here” marks an artist screaming for an identity and failing miserably. With all hope of artistic integrity lost, Wilson deserves her place in the scrap heap of desperate has bins.

1. Jason Aldean – “Crazy Town”

Another in a long line of amped up travesties for Aldean, “Town” is nothing more than an abysmal attempt at rock, an overproduced arena thumper gone haywire. He may actually have something worthwhile to say, but the message is lost in a sea of noise. This is bad, even for Aldean, but it’s a new low for country music.

The 14 Best Country Songs of 2010

December 15, 2010

2010 saw the release of many truly wonderful additions to the country music songbook. Below are fourteen I’m selecting as my favorites for the year. Each has a little something hat helped it to stand out and even garner some radio airplay along the way.

Of course, and we all should remember, radio only tells a tiny piece of the story. In my upcoming post regarding the worst songs of the year, you’ll see some of the year’s biggest hits. While most of my selections do trend toward the mainstream culture, its not to say there weren’t some fantastic independent releases worthy of attention. There are my fourteen favorite country songs for 2010 ranked in descending order.

I’m starting with the praise first this year. Its counterpart (the worst country songs of 2010) is scathing and leaves no stone unturned. Enjoy the best of the good and consider yourself forewarned about what’s to come.

14. Sugarland – “Stuck Like Glue”

Easily the most infectious single of the year, Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush have created the best non-country, country single ever. Unmistakable in it’s charms, and controversial in its bridge, you’ll be singing along well after this tune finishes its run at radio.

13. Laura Bell Bundy – “Drop On By”

If nothing else, Bundy’s second single showcases her true potential. A tale about a woman waiting for her man to show up at her house, Bundy infuses her performance with true classic country charm. A modern day Dolly Parton, Bundy proves she goes far deeper than “Giddy On Up”

12. George Strait – “The Breath You Take”

Strait has always scored when singing about the relationship between fathers and sons (“Love Without End, Amen,” “The Best Day”), and this gem from Twang is no exception. One of his best vocals in recent memory, Strait gives what a lesser singer could only pull off as preachy. He’s back in the male vocalist race with this one.

11. Taylor Swift – “Back To December”

An elegant apology to a mishandled love affair, “December” is Swift’s shining moment, her fully developed artistic statement, and a sign of her developing maturity. A step in the right direction, Swift proves she is far more than a teenybopper.

10. Dierks Bentley Feat. Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson – “Bad Angel”

Hands down, the best duet of the year finds Bentley singing about temptation in the same tradition as “Long Black Train.” Brining Lambert and Johnson along for the ride was a smart move – they add the richness that takes this song to the next level. If only it were released a single and radio would play it.

9. Zac Brown Band Feat. Alan Jackson “As She’s Walkin’ Away”

The first chapter in Brown’s guide of how to pick up women, “Away” finds him warning men against falling for women as they walk out of their lives in a bar. A song about taking chances and seizing opportunities, it accomplishes the impossible task of making Alan Jackson cool again.

8. Dierks Bentley – “Draw Me A Map”

“Map” is the sad truth about country radio – it’s the best single released this year they didn’t play. An acoustic gem, Bentley is finally coming into his own and the results are gorgeous. This is the kind of song Bentley was born to sing and almost puts the memory of “Sideways” out of sight and mind.

7. Court Yard Hounds – “Ain’t No Son”

One of the harshest songs released this year; “Son” chronicles a father’s bigotry toward his gay child. It’s also the best Dixie Chicks song that doesn’t feature Natalie Maines. “Don’t expect to get my love for free,” the father tells his little boy with all the hurt and anger he can muster. At least he warns the ladies (“Forget it girls, there ain’t no use in trying”) they have no chance.

6. Easton Corbin – “Roll With It”

A cool, laid-back, ode to the simple joys of summertime, Corbin scored his second consecutive chart topper while reminding everyone how to sing country music. It may be forgotten in the years to come, but it shined through loud and clear amidst a sea of slick pop.

5. Craig Morgan – “This Ain’t Nothin’”

No matter how bad your current situation may be, it isn’t anything compared to events of your past. Loosing your wife after fifty years of marriage and your father when you were eight is far worse than loosing your home to a tornado.

Great country songs strike a nerve and hit you where it hurts. The best country songs hit that nerve but also stop you dead in your tracks and make you think about your life. “This Ain’t Nothin’” ranks among the best.

4. Zac Brown Band – “Colder Weather”

He’s begging for another chance but she’s done with his unchanging ways. Country music at its emotional best, “Weather” is the rare delight that knocks you upside the head and throws you for a loop. It’s also the best song Zac Brown has ever written and their career record.

3. Miranda Lambert – “The House That Built Me”

An ode to finding yourself within the walls of your childhood home, Lambert’s walk down memory lane is an instant classic. I just wish she had written it herself.

2. Sunny Sweeney – “From A Table Away”

Lying only works until you get caught red-handed. When you have to make a choice between your wife and your mistress, don’t bring the wife out dinner as the mistress may see it all (the dancing, the ring still on her hand, and your confessions of love) from a table away. When the jig is up…

1. The Band Perry – “If I Die Young”

In 2010, “Young” cements itself as the best country song regarding mortality since “Whiskey Lullaby” seven years ago. An instruction manual of sorts; lead singer Kimberly Perry tells of how she’d wish to be sent off to the next life if she should have to leave the world a young woman – buried wearing satin in a bed of roses to the words of a love song.  After all, it’s when you’re dead that people start listening. Magic.

Sugarland: The Incredible Machine

October 19, 2010


The Incredible Machine


When Sugarland released Love On The Inside in July 2008, they unleashed upon the world the best contemporary country album of the latter half of the last decade. That set’s second single, “Already Gone” was their masterpiece, a gorgeous 4:36 waltz chronicling a woman leaving home for the first time and as the song progressed, the end of her marriage (“Pictures, dishes, and socks/it’s our whole life down to one box”). A fully-formed tour-de-force, Love On The Inside captured all of Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush’s strengths and showcased an act well on their way to superstardom. With the bar set impossibly high, and after releasing a live of album pop/rock covers and a collection of Christmas tunes, they went back in the studio and created their new release The Incredible Machine.

Led by “Stuck Like Glue,” a song now famous for a extremely controversial reggae breakdown at the bridge, Nettles and Bush appear to distant themselves from everything that made Love On The Inside great; the intimacy of the arrangements and souring twang. Of course, that isn’t such a bad thing, Nettles and Bush never want to make the same album twice. This time around they add another layer to the Sugarland brand and oh what a layer it is. This album takes everything conventional about country music and turns it on it’s head.

Ever the experimenters, Nettles and Bush rely heavy on their non-country influences making a record more akin to the likes of U2 than George Jones. The opening track “All We Are” leads with a progressive drum beat that build upon the foundation set by “Love” from Inside and the title song, their ode to the human heart, adds a romantic sheen not present in Sugarland’s early work.

They also prove they aren’t scared to enter full-on rock mode with the terrific “Wide Open,” their contribution to the Winter Olympics Soundtrack from earlier this year. Sure it’s loud and a tad head banging, but it can get a crowd going like nothing else; the first real extension of the energy from their live show on record.

Nettles’ voice is in it’s finest form throughout, bringing with it new textures never before explored. Sadly, the added presence of Bush’s gravel takes a bit of time to warm up to and seems somewhat out of place when isolated from Nettles. He gave a fine vocal four years ago on “These Are The Days” (From Enjoy The Ride) but it seems too roughed up in this current form and almost dirty, but I give them props for trying something new.

As a strict purist, I should be scolding Sugarland for moving away from tradition, but I love this album for daring to be different and injecting a somewhat sterile genre with a healthy dose of imagination. Change can be unsettling and Nettles and Bush know it’s often the only way to move forward. By creating Machine they enter a new league; taking their steadfast loyalty to writing and recording smart songs of utmost quality to the pop/rock world while still playing for the country team.

On Machine Sugarland is an artist not afraid to push boundaries and open a conversation about the limits of music. I cannot wait to see where they go from here.

CMA nominations 2010: ushering in much needed new blood

September 1, 2010

Wow. My head is spinning this morning with the release of the nominations for the 44th annual Country Music Association (CMA) awards. It’s spinning because, for the first time in years, new blood has prevailed. I didn’t think it was possible that the folks at the CMA would recognize the shift in the genre but after last November’s love fest to Taylor Swift, the flood gates were pushed wide open.

I was predicting many a nomination for Miranda Lambert but the nine she ended up with was more than I could’ve bet money on. Seeing the double nods in the single, song, and video categories for both “White Liar” and “The House That Built Me” was close to a shock. She was always a lock to secure a nod for those three awards but I never thought it would be twice over. If I had to choose between the two, “White Liar” for single and and “The House That Built Me” for song and video. I just wish Miranda had written that song. Kudos to Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin, but the success would’ve been that much sweeter if she had.

(FYI…the last time an artist had two nominations in the single, song, and video categories was Alan Jackson back in 2002. He ended up with a record night scoring five trophies. The two songs were “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” and “Drive (For Daddy Gene)).

While Miranda is the big news, and rightfully so, other acts made out equally as well. Lady Antebellum has always been the second coming in the eyes of critics and media and it was proven once again this morning. Their massive single, “Need You Now” rightfully scored single and song nods as did their album of the same name. They also scored for video, vocal group, and entertainer.

I didn’t like the Need You Now album when I first listened to it, feeling like they came up far short of their potential. The songs felt second rate and lacked the promise set by the title track. But after many listenings, my opinion changed…if only sightly. They could do much better. If I was running their career, I would make “Stars Tonight” their next single.

It was Kevin John Coyne of Country Universe that first brought up the possibility of new blood in the entertainer category. I didn’t think it was possible, but he was right. When I saw Lady A’s nod in there I wasn’t really that surprised. That they haven’t had a headlining tour yet and still got a nomination is remarkable. It’ll make their concert in October all the more special.

The other big surprise was the recognition of Easton Corbin and his single, “A Little More Country Than That.” He was a shoo-in for the New Artist award (and deserves to be there), but the single of the year nomination came out of nowhere. There is no denying how big a record it was for him, but it almost seems like the CMA are too quick to judge his long-term appeal. The follow-up single, “Roll With It” just sauntered into the top ten and doesn’t look to have the legs of his previous song. Sure he’s traditional and can easily be mistaken for George Strait, but that isn’t enough to garner nominations. Plus, “Roll With It,” is a much better song than the one he’s nominated for. Corbin shows promise, but he’s yet to fulfill it.

A better choice would’ve been “Up On The Ridge,” the lead single and title track of Dierks Bentley’s latest release. I fully expected to see the CMA recognize his bluegrass effort and they did with nominations for both album and male vocalist. It did take me some time to warm up to the song, but it was as good if not better than most single charting country this year. The fact that country radio played it at all proved the power of a great song. I’m very happy to see the love for his acoustic and artistic masterpiece.

I’m also thrilled to see Blake Shelton score a male vocalist nomination. That was a long time coming. It is sad that it comes off the heels of “Hillbilly Bone,” the most unintelligent country single of 2010. To see that song also got a single of the year nomination proves a lack of depth by the CMA. A better choice to fill out the category would’ve been “Consider Me Gone,” Reba McEntire’s four week number one from December/January. I’m glad it didn’t get a song of the year nomination. Any song that rhymes New York City and Conway Twitty, does a major disservice not only to country music but Twitty’s legacy. He deserves much better than that.

I’m glad to see the continued love for Zac Brown Band. It’s a shame, that come awards season, they have to play second fiddle to Lady A but it seems like the CMA plan to give them new artist at least. They lost the ACM new artist award (which is fan voted) to Julianne Hough two years ago, so a victory here would be their first major country music award. I’m also thrilled at their Entertainer nomination, they are exceptional live and their release of Pass The Jar in May only solidified this. They very well could take home the big award if they can pry it out of Miranda Lambert and Brad Paisley’s hands first.

The only beef I have with the awards is Female Vocalist of the Year. Based on airplay and chart success all five deserve to be there but the inclusion of Martina McBride for the 13th straight year is puzzling. Her recent music tarnishes her legacy and shows an artist who is quickly loosing herself. I would’ve replaced her with Rosanne Cash (as others have pointed out; this is not my original thought) who came back to form last fall with The List. While the album owes as much to pop as country, it showcases one of the finest singers around in a very elegant light. Its too bad how far into left field she is as she should’ve been a lock.

45th ACM Awards: Where’s the country?

April 21, 2010

I am not ashamed to admit my status as a country music purist. I may be 22 years old, but I’ve grown to love all facets of country music. It’s a wonderful genre filled with truth and songs depicting real life. Above all else, the artists are the most genuine people anywhere. The country music community is a giant family, afterall. I credit the Grand Ole Opry for helping to create that sense of community. It gave (and still gives) everyone the chance to come together in celebration for the music. You’ll be hard pressed to find the likes of Kayne West in country music.

While watching the 45th annual Academy of Country Music Awards Sunday (April 18, 2010) I felt a giant shift in the genre. Gone are the days of singers walking on stage, singing songs about real life, and putting heart and emotion into performances.  Country Music has officially lost touch with its roots and I fear there isn’t any turning back. Traditionalists stand little chance of making an impact in the genre in the future.

To categorise the award show as terrible would be putting it mildly. The opening number, a rocking rendition of “Traveling Band” featuring Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley, and Charlie Daniels singing with John Fogerty (the original singer of the song) was a mess. The performance was pointless, I cannot recall the last time John Fogerty scored a major country hit or how he is relevant to country music in 2010. The sound was far too loud and drowned out the vocals.

The performances that followed didn’t help matters much, every bad country song from the last year got rolled out one after another. To think that the disastrous “Hillbilly Bone” and beyond mediocre “That’s How Country Boys Roll” even rolled off of some dimwitted Nashville songwriter’s pen let alone topped the Billboard Country charts, gives insight into the intelligence level of the listening audience.

Nashville journalist Chet Flippo  asserted a few weeks ago, that music row is turning out records exces in Nashville don’t care to buy. When are we going to wake up and notice the identity crisis country music finds itself in?

The only link to the past throughout the night came a mere hour and forty some-odd minutes into the show. When Miranda Lambert sang “The House That Built Me,” she gave the kind of performance no one else was capable of giving that night. There wasn’t an electric guitar in sight, nor did Lambert rely on gimmicks  (i.e. gliding above the audience or jumping backwards into a pool of water). She just stood there and sang her song with more sincere conviction than anyone else in the room that night could muster on a dare. Is there even any question as to why she won Top Female Vocalist? Thank you Miranda, for taking three minutes to remind us all why we fell in love with country music all those years (or decades) ago.

The only other performer who justified their worth was Carrie Underwood. Her performance of “Temporary Home” felt awakward; like she rushed the melody a bit but she showcased every reason to rally behind her as the newest top female in country. I take serious issue when recapers refer to her as the newest “queen of country,” seeing as she isn’t in a position to earn that title yet.

The most polarizing moment during the show was Laura Bell Bundy performing “Giddy On Up.” This defines the notion of you either like it or you hate it. While I didn’t outright hate it, it lacked authenticity. Bundy’s theatre background (she was lead on Broadway in Legally Blond) gives her the edge in working an audience and taking control of the stage but the whole performance was contrived and fake. Something was missing in the connection between Bundy and the viewers. I don’t feel like I know her as a person and thus couldn’t find a way of relating to what she was doing. At least it was something different to shake up the night.

Country’s Renegade Casanova

March 26, 2010

 When Carrie Underwood stood under the bright lights of the Kodak Theatre and heard Ryan Seacrest announce that she had proven victorious in season four of American Idol, Underwood became the Kelly Clarkson of the country world. Judge Simon Cowell even predicted, after a career defining performance of Heart’s Alone,  Underwood would be the best-selling artist in Idol history.

Those who have followed Underwood’s career since her Idol win remember Underwood’s debut album Some Hearts spawned her two biggest hits, “Jesus, Take The Wheel” and her signature  “Before He Cheats.” Both songs spent six plus weeks atop the Billboard Country chart and won Grammys for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.

Since her career high in 2007, Underwood has coasted along trying to duplicate her “Before He Cheats” success through subsequent hits “Last Name” and the lead single for her third album Play On, “Cowboy Casanova.” Both songs paint the lead male as vindictive and sly; needing the woman in their life to worn others about their existence. With each release she steers futher and further away from her country music roots.

I’ve always believed Underwood oversings her ballads; adding far too much power to tender moments. She goes for the big notes the same way a narcissist  has a giant photograph of themselves on their wall — trying to show off in a flamboyant way. She hits the big notes with ease; but bombastic vocals aren’t the mark of a technical singer; knowing how best to craft the instrument at hand is the true mark.

It took until Play On, Underwood’s not-as-highly anticipated third release for her to finally move in the direction of toning down the egotistical vocals and give songs their justice. The addition of fiance Mike Fisher is mellowing Ms. Underwood but less isn’t necessarily more.

The opening track and first single, “Cowboy Casanova,” takes Underwood the furthest away from country she has ever gone. This slickly produced piece of pop/rock proves that the addition of banjo to a song is no longer a guarantee of country credentials. While sticking to her formula for portraying men as creatures that must be avoided no matter the cost, Underwood scored another radio hit and number one single. Problem is, the song created zero impact and will be forgotten long before the cheated girlfriend puts down her Louisville Slugger. All style over substance, the song has Underwood playing a character — issue is, she doesn’t play the part convincingly. Unfortunately, the embarrassing performance at the CMA Awards had people talking more about the wildly inappropriate hot pants than the vocal performance. I must have been mistaken – I always believed the CMA Awards to be a family show. Underwood must have forgotten that somewhere along the way. 

Luckily, the rest of the album steps in the right direction – less production coupled with tone downed vocals. The problem is, Underwood has created good pop; but where is the country? For someone who has been awarded multiple Female Vocalist trophies from both the CMA and ACM it seems odd that Underwood would choose to walk a path that has her competing with the likes of Beyonce and Pink over Miranda Lambert and Reba McEntire. 

The closest Underwood comes to exercising her country muscle comes just moments after the closing of “Cowboy Casanova,” a song aptly titled “Quitter.” Easily the strongest track on the album, it flows with a gentle ease and proves that when Underwood sings a good song, the results are close to the kind of magic excused by the likes of McEntire or even Trisha Yearwood in their heyday. 

With the exception of “Mama’s Song,” Underwood’s beautiful ode to her mom as she embarks on married life, and the catchy but clichéd “Undo It,” Underwood’s Play On  is an unexciting and fatigued grouping of songs that wear out their welcome after multiple listenings.

Wost though is the tepid, “Songs Like This” which has drawn comparisons to the Dixie Chicks. Those comparisons are unfounded, even the Dixie Chicks are smarter than to record this mess. If “Quitter” is three steps forward for Underwood, “This” is ten steps back. Why Underwood feels the need to record yet another song painting the male gender as pigs, is a decision I will never understand.

Being male does not give me a bias here, a song is a song. This one just happens to be Underwood’s lowest recorded moment yet. The blame lays with Mark Bright, the producer of this album (and recent releases for Lonestar and Rascal Flatts), as much as with Underwood. He’s supposed guide her in the studio; leading her on the journey to a final recorded product, but the partnership is hard to be taken seriously when dribble like this marks their result. If she really feels it’s all about the song, than why not practice what she pretends to preach?

Underwood has proven in the past that with the right material, she makes magic. Recently, though, she’s been chasing the success “Before He Cheats” with sub par sequels to the Chris Tompkins/Josh Kear penned smash. Her recent hits don’t add up to anything and will be largely forgotten when history writes her legacy.  

Just because a song hits #1 on the charts isn’t an indication of quality anymore which is sad. The problems with Underwood’s Play On actually exposes a larger problem with mainstream country music — tired clichés and overused themes that make country the most unoriginal genre currently viable in the market.

Carrie Underwood – and Country Music as a whole – need a facelift now more than ever