Posts Tagged ‘Ashley Monroe’

“Every Little Thing” and Carly Pearce’s fabricated fairy tale

September 5, 2017

The deeper I lean into the marketing of mainstream country music, The more I’m seeing the blatant manipulation. It’s no secret that Keith Hill’s comment that women are the tomatoes on the salad was offensive and misogynistic, but it was also, unfortunately, spot on. Women, unless they are members of a group, duo or collaboration also featuring men, have been shut out of even marginal airplay. Miranda Lambert is justifiably pissed at her diminishing returns, even as her music veers more and more towards Americana.

Media outlets that cover mainstream country have been celebrating the success of Carly Pearce’s “Every Little Thing” with Rolling Stone Country saying she “defied the odds with risky song” in a recent headline. I’ll admit, it’s against the norm, in this current climate, to release a ballad and have it succeed. The slower a song is the less likely it will fall under what is deemed “radio friendly.” That logic is nothing new.

But what’s baffling is the suppression of the truth. Carly Pearce is succeeding on her own merit about as much as Thomas Rhett. This grand success story? It’s all courtesy of iHeart Media and their “On The Verge” program. “On The Verge” exists to help struggling artists succeed and pretty much guarantees them a #1 hit. It’s the only reason former American Idol runner-up Lauren Alaina scored a chart topper with “The Road Less Traveled” seven years after her debut album bombed into oblivion. There’s absolutely no fairy tale here, no reason to cheer or even get excited. These feats are political manipulations swept under the rug disguised as major success stories.

We’re at a crisis point right now with female artists. Not only are none getting airplay, there really aren’t any in the mainstream sector for radio to embrace. Brandy Clark and Sunny Sweeney would never get airplay for the latest music, in any era, since they’re 40 years or older. Ashton Shepherd didn’t connect, with her heavy twang, so MCA dropped her. Ashely Monroe was told, on her last radio tour, that “On To Something Good,” was dead on arrival. Kacey Musgraves has done next to nothing to endear herself to the mainstream audience beyond wearing crazy outfits and adorning her sets with neon cacti. She will join Harry Styles on tour next year. Will Maren Morris connect? Possibly, as she’s already building a following. But I would think she’d have to prove herself as more than the “80s Mercedes” singer. “I Could Use A Love Song” has done that for me, but it’s only a step in the right direction for her to take as she contemplates her follow-up to Hero.

About the only person, we can count on is Carrie Underwood, who is currently in between albums. Time will tell if her newly minted deal with Capitol Nashville, the label that refused to sign her as a pre-teen back in 1996, will yield further success. I can’t imagine her being blackballed but I never thought Dixie Chicks would fall from grace like that either. In this market, anything is possible.

Is there a solution or silver lining in all of this? I honestly have no idea. I never imagined mainstream country music would ever be in this bad a shape in my life. It took until I got to college to see why Luke Bryan has been able to succeed like he has. He’s tapped into an audience previously ignored by country music, those who love to socialize and party and be high on life. He’s like the male Taylor Swift in that sense. He’s found his audience and he’s running with it all the way to the bank.

This era is the building block for whatever comes next. Has anyone else noticed the glaring oddity of Sam Hunt’s “Body Like A Backroad?” The song has succeeded without a music video, parent album or physical release of any kind. I can’t remember any other massive song that lacked even one of those three elements. These are uncharted waters and they’re reaping big rewards.

Maybe you know where we’re going from here. I know I probably shouldn’t care, and I have spent the majority of this year focused on independent releases, but I do. I can’t help it. It’s in my nature as female artists have always been my favorite, the ones I listen to most frequently. I guess Angaleena Presley and her fellow Pistol Annies said it best:

Dreams don’t come true

They’ll make a mess out of you

They’ll hang around the darkest corners of your mind

They’ll beat your heart black and blue

Don’t let anyone tell you they do

Dreams don’t come true

 

I hate to put a damper

On the fairy tale you pictured

I shoulda known all along that

Glass slippers give you blisters

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Predictions for the 58th Annual Grammy Awards

February 11, 2016

logoCountry music fans have much to look forward to come Grammy Night, which is coming up on Monday this year. Carrie Underwood and Sam Hunt will croon their duet “Heartbreat.” Chris Stapleton is slated to join Bonnie Raitt and others in a tribute to B.B. King. Luke Bryan is joining a slew of pop artists in honoring Lionel Richie, who is the Grammys MusiCares Person of the Year. Little Big Town will take the stage as well.

Best of all is the last minute announcement is that Eagles will honor Glenn Frey along with their good friend Jackson Browne. The rest of the show promises to be equally as jammed packed, with just about every major artist under the sun slated to take the stage.

Here are my predictions for the country nominees, plus categories that feature artists marketed within the country or American Roots genres. Please leave a comment and let me know who you think/hope will walk away with Grammy Gold.

Best Country Solo Performance

Little-Toy-GunsThis is a very solid group of nominees. Perennial favorite Carrie Underwood has lost this category only once – when Taylor Swift’s “White Horse” bested “Just A Dream.” Cam, surprisingly, is the weak link. Her hit version of “Burning House” is nowhere near as good as Emily Ann Roberts’ from The Voice last season. Who would’ve imagined a contestant on a reality singing competition would find the hidden nuance in a song its own singer couldn’t?

Should Win: “Chances Are” – Lee Ann Womack has yet to win a single award for her seventh album, a transitional record that showcased the artistic sensibilities she’s only hinted at until now. This is the album’s finest track, possibly the greatest performance she’s given to date. Real country music deserves to slay the competition.

Will Win: “Little Toy Guns” – It’s a fool’s game to bet against Carrie Underwood. Not only does she stand the strongest chance of winning, she’s the only one powerful enough to stop Chris Stapleton in his tracks. He will walk away a Grammy winner before the night it through, it just won’t be for the title track of his debut album.

Best Country Duo/Group Performance

81T8Z9H91mL._SL1500_This is a hodgepodge of nominees, with some forgettable performances along side some treasures.

Should Win: “If I Needed You” – Joey + Rory have the sentimental vote and a serge in name recognition since Joey’s cancer turned terminal last fall. They deserve to walk away the winner on what is their first and will likely be their only Grammy nomination.

Will Win: “Girl Crush” – There’s no stopping the Little Big Town behemoth, which is also in the running for the overall Song of the Year award. No one else is going to win this award.

Best Country Song

lovejunkies-660x400This is a heavyweight category, with a few extremely worthy nominees. I would love to see an upset here, but like the category above, there’s a very clear winner.

Should Win: “Hold My Hand” – Brandy Clark stole the show with her simple performance of this tune on last year’s telecast. The story of a woman determined to hold on to her man in the face of his ex is an instant classic. Clark deserves the prize for a tune she wrote and smartly kept for herself.

Will Win: “Girl Crush” – Should they lose Song of the Year, this will be their consolation prize. Should they win both, this will serve as icing on the cake.

travellerBest Country Album

Of all the country categories, this is easily the weakest. Little Big Town’s album was a dud, Kacey Musgraves’ was charming yet very uneven and Sam Hunt is…Same Hunt. The Grammys do deserve credit though – this is the first time in her career that Ashley Monroe has been nominated for an award for her own music.

Should Win: Traveller – I’m not fully on the Chris Stapleton bandwagon, but he does have the strongest album in this bunch. 

Will Win: Traveller – This is one, if not the only place, the Chris Stapleton bandwagon won’t be stopped.

A few more Predictions:

Jason-Isbell-24-frames-single-500x500Best American Roots Performance: I’d like to see Punch Brothers take this and finally win a Grammy of their own.

Best American Roots Song: Jason Isbell and “24 Frames.” The genius in the lyric is criminally underrated.

Best American Roots Album: I liked the upbeat nature of Punch Brothers Who’s Feeling Young Now better than the somber tone of The Phosphorescent Blues. They still deserve it, but I’d love to see Jason Isbell take this one. He hasn’t been recognized enough for his brilliant work.

Best Bluegrass Album: I haven’t a clue, but it would be interesting if the Steeldrivers take home an award the same night as their former lead singer Chris Stapleton does the same. If not, I’d go with Dale Ann Bradley.

Album of the Year: A strong category from which I’ve heard cases for each nominee to win. Stapleton could take it, as couldUnknown Alabama Shakes. But I’m going to go with Taylor Swift’s 1989, easily the most important pop album of the eligibility period.

Song of the Year: Taylor Swift has never won an award for her pop work with Max Martin. I expect that to change this year, when “Blank Space” deservedly takes this category. “Girl Crush” has a shot, but “Blank Space” is far more developed and clever.

Best New Artist: I’ll take a shot in the dark and choose Courtney Barnett. I just don’t see how this award could go to Sam Hunt. But stranger things have happened.

Predictions for the 49th Annual CMA Awards

October 28, 2015

CMA Awards 2015 graphicThe leaves are changing colors, the days are shorter and the weather is getting progressively colder by the day. When autumn rolls around, so do the annual Country Music Association Awards. The telecast, airing next Wednesday (November 4) on ABC, is the 49th in the show’s history.

The blending of ‘country’ with outside influences continues with scheduled duets between John Mellencamp & Keith Urban as well as Thomas Rhett & Fall Out Boy. Sam Hunt, Kelsea Ballerini and Maddie & Tae will take the stage for the first time. In an exciting twist, Hank Williams Jr will open the show with his brand new single “Are You Ready For The Country.” His cover of the Waylon Jennings tune will be presented as a duet with Eric Church.

Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley will return to host. You can check out the nominees, here.

ec_0184crop_300cmyk_webEntertainer of the Year

Garth Brooks has had more embarrassing gaffs in the last year than any artist should have in their whole career. His tour has been massive, but he’s more than botched his comeback. By falling short, he’s made a win here feel a bit disingenuous.

Should Win: Eric Church – In his first headlining tour he struck out on his own and invited a slew of Americana based acts to open for him. He doesn’t give a damn about the establishment and refuses to be anyone other than himself. 

Will Win: Luke Bryan – There isn’t a single artist in mainstream country who’s bigger than him right now. He’s got his second consecutive win in the bag.

Male Vocalist of the Year

Dierks_Bentley-514x336The endless debate rages on. How many times does one person have to win a single award? Blake Shelton hasn’t done anything in 2015 extraordinarily special. He’s been on tour, had a few chart toppers, and continued as a coach on The Voice. Yawn. This is a battle between Dierks Bentley and Eric Church. Both equally deserve it, but sonority should win in the end.

Should Win: Dierks Bentley – He’s been topping the charts and going to battle for authentic country music going on thirteen years now. It’s time the CMA take his career to the next level.

Will Win: Eric Church  – Bentley is on his second consecutive nomination for the first time, but Church has more nominations overall in a year he didn’t even release an album. That kind of recognition should mean he’s the favorite to win his first trophy in this category.

Female Vocalist of the Year

hc-lee-ann-womack-performs-at-ridgefield-playhouse-0416-20150416Miranda Lambert’s reception at country radio has significantly cooled since this time last year and Kelsea Ballerini  is so new her debut album hasn’t even been released. This is Carrie Underwood’s award to loose, with two massive hits under her belt all the while laying low after giving birth.

Should Win: Lee Ann Womack – no other nominee has shown as much nuance in his or her vocal delivery over the past year than Womack. Her gifts are astonishing and shockingly undervalued. She should win on principle, collecting her second trophy in fifteen years.

Will Win: Kacey Musgraves – Underwood’s overall lack of nominations is a strong indicator that Musgraves will finally be the one to dethrone Lambert.

littlebigtown30-1423681046Vocal Group of the Year

 Both The Band Perry and Zac Brown Band spent 2015 selling their souls to the devil. Rascal Flatts and Lady Antebellum are just more category filler.

Should Win: Little Big Town – None of the other nominees combined had a song as impactful as “Girl Crush” this year. They deserve this.

Will Win: Little Big Town – Songs like “Girl Crush” only happens once in a career. They won on the strength of far weaker material in the past few years. They’ll win in a landslide.

0515-maddie-new-1Vocal Duo of the Year

Competition in the CMA’s dullest category doesn’t happen very often. Florida Georgia Line find themselves in the commercial verses artistic battle once again, a contest they lost to Musgraves in round one two years ago.

Should Win: Maddie & Tae – They’re a fresh force on the scene, calling out clichés and stereotypes with gusto. They could be ballsier still, but they’re on the right track.

Will Win: Florida Georgia Line – Maddie & Tae are very new, which could hurt them. That’ll leave the category open for the establishment to swoop in for a third consecutive win. (Since M&T and FGL are both on Scott Borchetta’s label group, it’ll be interesting to see whom he puts his influence behind).

New Artist of the Year

0115weberiverbendhunt1798024130_t755_he05f79007e18b2a270e2a6ff224d41a8e296151bThomas Rhett’s appeal has only grown since his first nomination last year. He isn’t quite a superstar yet, but he’s well on his hip-hop, Bruno Mars influenced way. Also on his way is Drake influenced Sam Hunt, who has risen twice as fast as Rhett. Then there’s Maddie & Tae, the duo who openly admires Dixie Chicks and has taken down Bro-Country.

Should Win: Chris Stapleton – I’m not jumping up and down, but I do recognize quality when I hear it. He’s easily the most articulate artist of this bunch.

Will Win: Sam Hunt  – There’s talk Montavello could score an Album of the Year Grammy Nomination. The industry has been bending over backwards to give him one of the flashiest launches in country music history. A win here is likely part of that plan.

815sIYbfiAL._SL1500_Album of the Year

Jason Aldean is the most overrated artist in commercial country right now, with one empty single after another. Broken Bow deserves a lot of credit for manipulating the CMA to give him a nomination. Pain Killer is Little Big Town’s weakest album to date. Traveller is the strongest overall album, by a wide margin.

Should Win: Pageant Material – Musgraves’ uneven sophomore set isn’t a tour-de-force, but it is the most interesting album of this bunch. 

Will Win: Pageant Material – Consider it an apology trophy for being the only organization that didn’t give this honor to Same Trailer Different Park. The CMA rarely acknowledges debut albums, but they see fit to celebrate their follow-up sets.

little-big-town-single-art-girl-crush-2015-03Single of the Year and Song of the Year

The battle here is between “Girl Crush” and “Take Your Time,” the two biggest singles of the past year. The only distinction between the two is that “Girl Crush” made waves for its content. Is it about lesbians? Are Little Big Town pushing a gay agenda? In that context, I see a very real and significant split.

(As an aside: overlooking “Something In The Water” is a major snub. Had Underwood’s single been nominated, I doubt we’d even be discussing even a remote chance of Hunt walking away a winner).

Will Win (Single): “Take Your Time” – The CMA have a history of awarding one-off singles such as “Cruise,” “Hurt,” “Man of Constant Sorrow,” “Achy Breaky Heart” and “Elvira,” which are flavors of the moment. The flavor right now is Hunt.

Will Win (Song): “Girl Crush”  – Ten years after Faith Hill brought her national attention, Lori McKenna will walk away with her first CMA Award for co-writing a song she thought no one would ever record.

Musical Event of the Year

Willie_Nelson_&_Merle_Haggard_-_Django_and_JimmieA full-length album goes up against four typical mainstream duets. It’s the second straight year the CMA has opted to nominate an LP, and like Bakersfieldlast year, the project deserves to compete in the Album of the Year category instead.

Should Win: Django and Jimmie – It’s been thirty-two years since Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard have come together for a collaborative effort. I wish Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell had been nominated instead, but it’s Nelson and Haggard.

Will Win: “Lonely Tonight” – Blake Shelton will win as a consolation prize when he hopefully looses his sixth straight Male Vocalist of the Year trophy. Then again, this is a duet with Ashley Monroe. Much like the country music community as a whole, the CMA have been criminally cool towards her. Hopefully Shelton can pull the pair over the top.

Music Video of the Year

carrie-underwood-something-in-the-waterIt should be a celebration that all five nominees are videos by female artists. But the CMA has regulated this as an off camera award, which dampens the progressiveness of the category this year. It’s always interesting to see who wins since this is often used as a consolation prize when the CMA overlooks artists in other categories.

Should Win: Something In The Water – Underwood is often overlooked, especially since her Female Vocalist run ended in 2009. She deserves this.

Will Win: “Something In The Water” was criminally overlooked for both Single and Song of the Year. It’s exclusion in those races only helps Underwood here. This is a consolation prize if there ever was one.

1885141596Musician Event of the Year

Mac McAnally has been nominated in this category for the past eight years. He’s won for the past seven years straight. He’s all but a lock to take it again.

Should Win: Dann Huff – It won’t count until next year, but he did a bang up job producing Maddie & Tae’s Start Here. I’d like to see him take this home.

Will Win: Mac McAnally – Betting against the status quo? Not this year.

Soundtrack Review: “Glen Campbell: “I’ll Be Me”

February 27, 2015

Various Artists

GC_ART_COVER_IllBeMe_Soundtrack_2015.01.15_FNL-2

Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me

* * * 1/2

After going public with his Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2011, Glen Campbell embarked on a final tour in support of his then recently released Ghost On The Canvas album. Director James Keach followed Campbell, capturing the journey for his film Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me.

The documentary, released last August, centers on Campbell’s struggles with the disease and goes behind the scenes of the tour. An EP co-produced by Dann Huff, consisting of five tracks, including three by Campbell himself, accompanied the film. A full-length soundtrack was released earlier this month.

The album includes “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” which Campbell wrote with the soundtrack’s co-producer Julian Raymond. His final studio recording, the track took home the Best Country Song Grammy and was nominated for an Oscar while its music video will compete for an ACM Award in April.

An aching piano ballad “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” is the haunting reflection of a man with a fading memory, singing to the wife he’ll leave behind. With that premise the hook is rather unapologetic, which matches his bluntly authoritative vocal performance.

Campbell also has four other songs on the soundtrack. “All I Need Is You” is an AC leaning string-soaked ballad while “The Long Walk Home” harkens back to his classic work with beautiful flourishes of gently strummed acoustic guitar.

The other two songs come from an historic concert Campbell gave at The Ryman Auditorium. “A Better Place” is a beautiful mid-tempo number while the other is a soaring rendition of “Wichita Lineman.” Campbell gives a deeply effecting vocal performance on his classic tune, even ending with a haunting wail of “and I’m doing fine,” which has the audience erupting in cheers.

Apart from the man himself, the soundtrack features a revelatory turn by The Band Perry on a cover of his 1967 hit “Gentle On My Mind.” The band shines with the banjo drenched backwoods arrangement that nicely modernizes the tune without sacrificing the unique qualities that endeared it to audiences more than forty-five years ago. The track appears in two versions, which are both excellent. I prefer the ‘single version,’ though, because it leads off with the banjo (opposed to a solo vocal opening by Kimberly) and gets to the goods much faster.

Campbell’s daughter Ashley takes the lead on the soundtrack’s remaining two songs. “Remembering” is beautiful autobiographical ballad, accentuated with ribbons of dobro and acoustic guitar, about her promise to keep her father’s fading memories alive. “Home Again” picks up the pace, with gently rolling banjo, and tells the tale of a daughter that has seen the world and now desires to go back to where she came from.

The highlight of Ashley’s tracks is how the production perfectly frames her voice, which has a sweet quality not unlike that of another Ashley (Monroe). The rest of the record is excellent, too, because it serves as the perfect snapshot of a man’s poignant reflections as he’s robbed of the life he’s always known.

Album Review: Angaleena Presley – ‘American Middle Class’

October 23, 2014

Angaleena Presley

angaleena-presley-album-american-middle-class-2014-08-1000px

American Middle Class

* * * * *

For her solo debut, Pistol Annie Angaleena Presley took the unconventional approach of self-producing the album along with her Husband Jordan Powell. Released earlier this month on Slate Creek Records, American Middle Class is one of the most authentic creations of self-expression you’ll likely hear all year.

Presley, who hails from Beauty, Kentucky, faced an uphill battle in Nashville where she couldn’t get signed to a major label. Then she landed her big break as ‘Holler Annie’ in the trio also consisting of Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe. As a songwriter, her “Fastest Girl In Town” was a top 5 hit for Lambert and Ashton Shepherd took her co-write “Look It Up” into the top 20.

I’ve always been a fan of Presley’s direct approach to songwriting, where she refuses to mince words in effort to make a point. Her Pistol Annies cuts have been some of my favorites from the trio, and while she doesn’t have the flashiest vocal tone, it works in her favor here.

Presley, who co-wrote the whole album, composed five of the album’s songs solo. “Ain’t No Man” is a brilliantly biting ballad with stunning turns of phrase while “All I Ever Wanted” sets a religiously confrontational lyric to an ear catching shuffle beat. The mix of Presley’s strong vocal with her prominent background vocalist renders “Pain Pills” too cluttered, distracting the listener from the tale of Jimmy, who’s drowning his sorrows in booze and narcotics in an effort to cope with his life.

Presley is at her best when her storytelling prowess remains the focus of a song, and American Middle Class abounds with prime examples. Her self-penned “Better off Red” is a masterpiece of perception, a beautiful reflection on one’s place in our world. Equally powerful is Lori McKenna co-write “Grocery Store,” three minutes of observations culled from a checkout line. The deceptively simple track is filled with gorgeous articulations of our mundane everyday lives and comes together as a dazzling work of art almost too good to be true.

“Life of the Party” teams Presley with her hero Matraca Berg for another mouth-watering creation, this time the pedal steel soaked story of a woman facing the light of day after a night spent with another man. The pair is an irresistible songwriting force, with Berg turning in a co-write on par with the myriad of classics she churned out in the 1980s and 1990s, a feat in of itself.

On “Drunk” Presley and co-writer Sara Siskind cover identical ground as Presley’s labelmate Brandy Clark did on “Hungover,” and they turn out equally as delicious a tune about unappreciative men and their selfish ways. “Knocked Up,” co-written with Mark D. Sanders, is the prequel to “Drunk,” a banjo driven number about an unplanned pregnancy and shotgun wedding that plays like a delightful dark comedy.

“Dry Country Blues,” which Presley also co-wrote with Sanders, paints the gritty glory of small town life down to the drunk boys out to get laid and their female counterparts trying not to turn into meth whores. The self-penned title track, which covers the same ground, boarders on preachy and falls dangerously close into a pandering flag-waving anthem, but she makes it work by bringing in Patty Loveless for a harmony vocal that gives the track an added texture that works well with the formidable arrangement.

“Blessing and a Curse,” co-written with Bob DiPiero, is one of the more mainstream-leaning lyrics on American Middle Class with a bluesy arrangement that works beautifully with Presley’s voice. Even the electric guitar, which dominates, isn’t a hinder but rather an assist to the track’s overall splendor. Another such track is “Surrender,” the record’s closing number and a co-write with Luke Laird and Barry Dean. The ballad is as lush and exciting as it is assessable, and Presley turns in an elegant vocal.

American Middle Class is easily a highlight of 2014 with Presley’s fine tuned prospective on the world expressed through sharp songwriting and immaculate choices in instrumentation. Her decision to co-produce with her husband has given the album an added authenticity that gives the record an artists’ touch, an obvious missing link in the majority of mainstream music today. Presley, who’s the real deal, has filled my heart with a joy I haven’t felt in a long, long time.

I cannot recommend this nearly flawless album enough.

Album Review: Miranda Lambert: “Platinum”

June 12, 2014

Miranda Lambert

MirandaLambertPlatinum

Platinum

* * * * 1/2

Midway through Miranda Lambert’s new album Platinum comes a jarring exception to the rule as daring as the twin fiddles that opened Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Came Fromnine years ago. The one-two punch of a Tom T and Dixie Hall composition coupled with a glorious arrangement by The Time Jumpers has yielding “All That’s Left,” a rare nugget of traditional western swing with Lambert channeling high lonesome Patty Loveless. Besides producing one of the years’ standout recorded moments, “All That’s Left” is a crucial nod to our genre’s heritage, and the fulfillment of the promise Lambert showed while competing on Nashville Star.

Suffice it to say, there’s nothing else on Platinum that equals the brilliance of “All That’s Left,” since Lambert never turns that traditional or naturally twangy again. Instead she opts for a fifteen-slot smorgasbord, mixing country, pop, and rock in an effort to appeal to anyone who may find his or her way to the new music. In lesser hands the record would be an uneven mess, but Lambert is such an expert at crafting albums she can easily pair western swing and arena rock and have it all fit together as smaller parts of a cohesive whole.

The main theme threading through Platinum is one of getting older, whether for purposes of nostalgia, or literally aging. She continues the nostalgia trip she began with fantastic lead single “Automatic” on “Another Sunday In The South” as she recruits Jessi Alexander and fellow Pistol Annie Ashley Monroe to reminisce about the good ‘ol days of 90s country music, among southern signifiers like lazy afternoons and times spent on the front porch. The only worthwhile name check song in recent memory, “Another Sunday” cleverly weaves Restless Heart, Trace Adkins, Pam Tillis, Clint Black, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and song namesake Shenandoah through the lyrics without pandering or sounding cutesy. I only wish she had referenced Diamond Rio and had producer Frank Liddell pepper the track with more of a 90s throwback production, which would’ve fit slightly better than the soft rockish vibe the track was given.

Lambert actually does recapture the Patty Loveless-like twang on “Old Shit,” Brent Cobb and Neil Mason’s love letter to the appealing nature of antiques. The framing technique of using the grandfather and granddaughter relationship coupled with the organic harmonica laced organic arrangement is charming, and while I usually don’t advocate for swearing in country songs, it actually works in this case and seems more appropriate than any of the cleaner words they could’ve used instead.

The aging side of getting older, which Lambert and company began tackling with “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty” on Annie Up last year, is far more prevalent a force on Platinum. As has become customary for Lambert, she wrote thumping rocker “Bathroom Sink” solo. The lyric is scathing, detailing scary self-loathing that builds in intensity along with the electric guitars. Lambert’s phrasing is annoying, though; punctuating the rimes so much they begin to sound rudimentary. While true, “Gravity’s a Bitch,” which Lambert co-wrote with Scotty Wray, just doesn’t feel necessary to me. I think being outside the track’s demographic target aids in my assessment, but I do enjoy the decidedly country meets bluesy arrangement.

When the press release for the album said the title track was ‘Taylor Swift pop’ I was admittedly worried, no matter how many times I got down with the dubstep of “I Knew You Were Trouble” or the bubblegum of “22.” Since Max Martin isn’t anywhere near this album, “Platinum” is more “Red” than anything else, and the infamous ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you blonder’ lyric is catchy as hell. Similarly themed and produced “Girls” is just as good, and like “Gravity’s a Bitch,” it’ll appeal quite nicely to the fairer sex.

The rest of Platinum truly defines the smorgasbord aspects of the album, with some conventional and extremely experimental tracks. Lambert co-wrote “Hard Staying Sober” with Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird and it ranks among her finest moments, with the decidedly country production and fabulously honest lyric about a woman who’s no good when her man isn’t present. “Holding On To You,” the closet Lambert comes to crooning a love song, is sonically reminiscent of Vince Gill’s 90s sound but with touches that makes it all her own. While good it’s a little too bland, as is “Babies Making Babies,” which boats a strong opening verse but eventually comes off less clever than it should’ve and not surprising enough for me.

Ever since Revolution, production on Lambert’s albums has to be taken with a grain of salt, which is unfortunately still the case here. I’m betting, more than anything since Brandy Clark and Lambert co-wrote it together with Heather Little, that “Too Rings Shy” has a strong lyric underneath the unlistenable production that found Lambert asking her production team to go out and lyrically record circus noises. It’s a shame they couldn’t make this work, since they pulled it off with Randy Scruggs reading the Oklahoma Farm Report in the background of “Easy Living” on Four The Record. There’s just no excuse why the track had to be mixed this intrusively.

Polarizing more than anything else is Lambert’s cover of Audra Mae’s “Little Red Wagon,” which I only understood after listening to Mae’s original version. Given that it’s a duet with Little Big Town, I know most everyone expected more from “Smokin’ and Drinkin,’ and I understand why (the approach isn’t traditional), but I really like the lyric and production, making the overall vibe work really well for me. The same is true about “Something Bad,” which isn’t a great song, but works because of the beat, and interplay between Lambert and Carrie Underwood. The two, even on a marginalized number like this one by Chris DeStefano, Brett James, and Priscilla Renea, sound extremely good together.

Nicolle Galyon and Jimmy Robbins teamed up with Hemby to write the album’s most important track, a love letter Lambert sings to Priscilla Presley. While the concept is questionable on paper, the results are a revelation and give Lambert a chance to directly address what she’s been going through since her husband’s career skyrocketed on The Voice. At a time when most artists of Lambert’s caliber are shying away from singing what they’re going through, Lambert is attacking her rise in celebrity head on with a clever lyric, interesting beat, and an all around engaging execution that makes “Priscilla” this album’s “Mama’s Broken Heart.”

Even without the added punch of co-writes with her fellow Nashville Star contestant Travis Howard or the inclusion of a bunch of artistic covers from the pens of Gillan Welch, Allison Moorer, Carline Carter, and others – Platinum ranks high in Lambert’s catalog. She’s gotten more introspective as she’s aged but instead of coasting on past success or suppressing her voice in favor of fitting in or pleasing people, she remains as sharp as ever tackling topics her closest contemporaries wouldn’t even touch. I didn’t care for this project on first listen, but now that I completely understand where she’s coming from, I’m fully on board. All that’s left is my desire she go even more country in her sound, butPlatinum wouldn’t be a Miranda Lambert record without the added touch of Rock & Roll.

The Best Country Albums of 2013

December 31, 2013

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

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10. Alan Jackson – The Bluegrass Album

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

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9. Jason Isbell – Southeastern 

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

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8. Patty Griffin – American Kid

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

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7. Pistol Annies – Annie Up

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

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

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

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

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5. Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – Old Yellow Moon

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

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4. Ashley Monroe – Like A Rose

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

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

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3. Vince Gill & Paul Franklin – Bakersfield

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

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

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2. Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer Different Park

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

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

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1. Brandy Clark – 12 Stories

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

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

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

Favorite Country Singles of 2013: 10-1

December 5, 2013

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

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10. Bruises – Train Feat. Ashley Monroe 

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

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

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9. Sober – Little Big Town 

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

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8. All Kinds of Kinds – Miranda Lambert

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

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

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7. Blue Ridge Mountain Song – Alan Jackson 

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

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6. Over When It’s Over – Eric Church 

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

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

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5. Stripes – Brandy Clark

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

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

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4. Blacktop – Alan Jackson

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

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3. Elephant – Jason Isbell 

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

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

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

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

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1. Follow Your Arrow – Kacey Musgraves

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

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

September 20, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check out all the nominations here.     

Album Review – Vince Gill & Paul Franklin – ‘Bakersfield’

July 27, 2013

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Bakersfield

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With Bakersfield, Vince Gill and Paul Franklin have created the first perfect country album of 2013. The ten-track collection, a tribute to Buck Owens and Merle Haggard with five songs apiece by each artist, is a masterwork thanks to the flawless combination of song selection, astute musicianship, and vocal prowess. 

Initially, I was furious at the prospect of another covers project as they’ve suffocated the genre of late and left little room for talented artists to help push pure country ideals into the twenty-first century. Lee Ann Womack gets it – instead of covering songs, why can’t these artists evoke the signature style on newly written material? The experience would be far richer than another dip in the lukewarm waters of the country music songbook.

Knowing that song selection is key, Gill and Franklin thankfully leave the most iconic Owens and Haggard hits on the table, making room for some lesser known songs, and three choice album tracks that were never singles. By dipping deeper into the pool they display a keen sense of imagination and effort towards the project that’s both honest and refreshing. 

Of big hits they do have a few. “Branded Man,” A #1 Haggard single from 1967, is nicely updated with a memorable guitar lick from Franklin, that Gill doubled in time during the recording process. They honor the original by still making it a classic Gill record. Also excellent is their rendition of “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” a lyric that remains timeless, even after forty-three years. Gill had a deep emotional connection to the song in the studio that comes out in his straightforward vocal. I also love how they tweaked the opening to make it their own, adding Franklin’s bright steel behind Gill’s always-masterful guitar licks. 

As if I couldn’t love Emmylou Harris any more, her presence in country music helped inspire two of the album’s most sublime moments. In her glory days, she recorded Owens’ “Together Again” and Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down,” and Gill does the same here, making good on his promise to her that he would honor this important music. Gill and Franklin turn “Together Again” into a honky-tonk wonder, anchored by Gill’s otherwordly vocal (that channels Owens in all the best ways), and Franklin’s stunning backdrop of pedal steel. Their lively take on “The Bottle Let Me Down” is pure genius, and a wonderful compliment to “Together Again.”

In honoring the Bakersfield sound this record inspires, Gill and Franklin cover the gateway Owens tracks that helped Gill appreciate how the West Coast was influencing country music back in the early 1960s. You can also hear Owens in Gill’s vocal on “Foolin’ Around,” so much so you may wonder who that guy is singing. It opens the record in stunning fashion, showcasing Gill’s fine interpretation skills on guitar – Owens record was centered around steel, so it gave Gill room to create. “Nobody’s Fool” is just as wonderful a country shuffle, nicely complementing “Foolin’ Around.” Gill says he drew from George Jones for his beautiful electric guitar work here, and that cross genre influence helps the song stand out on its own. 

What’s great about Bakersfield is the lesser known tracks, moments that allow Gill and Franklin to show off their stunning prowess without fear of tampering with an iconic standard. “He Don’t Deserve You Anymore” is a perfect weeper, with damn near brilliant guitar and steel work to offset Gill’s awe-inducing vocal. Owens co-wrote the track with Arty Lange and it’s a shame it wasn’t picked up by anyone before now, as songs in this style, no matter how old, need to be heard by younger ears. Tommy Collins’ “But I Do,” an unreleased song of Owens’ from 1963, has a spectacular twin-fiddle opening courtesy of The Time Jumpers’ Tommy Franklin and Joe Spivey before morphing into a moment of pure honky-tonk bliss.   

A go-to song for Gill in his club days, “Holding Things Together” is the lone unreleased Haggard track and a stunning ballad about a family on the brink of collapse. The ending gives way to a gorgeous jam session with Gill bringing out his Stratocaster, which is a nod to Reggie Young who introduced the guitar to Haggard and helped define his sound in the 1970s.

As if it’s even possible, the CD has one major highlight – a spot shining so bright, it overtakes the other tracks, flawless as they are. I was first introduced to Haggard’s 1970 #3, on LeAnn Rimes’ Gill co-produced Lady & Gentleman and since then I’ve been obsessed with “I Can’t Be Myself.” Gill’s been playing the song since he heard it on a Steve Young album as a late teen, and gives the track an “El Paso” type feel to honor iconic country music sessions guitarist Grady Martin, who played on Marty Robbins’ hit as well as Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and Sammi Smith’s hit recording of “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” among others. Those facts don’t change, but only enhance the fact that, Gill has turned in an iconic recording here that’s as important and significant as any of his biggest hit records.

I love this album so much, I just jumped online and bought the project on vinyl. I can’t help but long to hear Gill’s exceptional guitar work and Franklin’s flourishes of steel and guitar coming through those speakers courtesy of a needle. Call me old fashioned at 25, but I don’t care – Bakersfield is a project that begs for such treatment. I’ve come to hold Gill in the highest regard among living country singers since he stopped courting the masses and made projects that help build his legacy, and he only succeeds in adding to my admiration with each of these ten songs.  

I don’t praise a project lightly, and have found my ability to be impressed harder and harder to fully satisfy with each passing year. But I mean it when I throw around phrases like “stunning,” “brilliant,” and “flawless.” Gill (and now Franklin, whom I’ve never paid close attention to) is a national treasure. Between his solo work, affiliation with The Time Jumpers, and time in the studio with newer artists like Ashley Monroe, he’s elevated himself into a national treasure as important to country music The Carter Family and Hank Williams, Sr.    

I cannot wait to hear what projects he has cookin’ (I believe a bluegrass album is up next) as he looks to be giving his fans little musical treats that show he’s just getting better and better with each passing year. I applaud you MCA Nashville for not letting him get away.

Go pick up Bakersfield. It is impossible to feel even the slightest bit disappointed. Maybe it is, but only if you don’t have a pulse.   

Album Review – Pistol Annies – ‘Annie Up’

May 29, 2013

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Annie Up

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One of the most satisfying surprises of 2011 was Miranda Lambert’s come-from-nowhere trio Pistol Annies. Their airtight harmonies and brutally honest lyrics took a unique spin on mainstream country music. Hell On Heels was an incredible album – ten expertly crafted slices of the hillbilly lifestyle.

The time they’ve spent together over the past two years has made Lambert, Angaleena Presley, and Ashley Monroe more of a cohesive unit than three solo singers thrown together in collaboration. And the songs cover a wider array of topics than no good men, thus making Annie Up far more well rounded than its predecessor, a fact that couldn’t make me happier.

Like Hell On Heels they wrote the entire record themselves, and as three of the best singer-songwriters in the business, they deliver the goods. There’s no country shuffle of “Bad Example” or seething angst of “Takin’ Pills,” but they make up for it with a surprising amount of subtly and grace that elevates the band to the next dimension.

The quieter moments are the album’s strongest, and Monroe takes the lead on two that take equally compelling but albeit vastly different looks at relationships. “Dear Sobriety” (easily the best track here) is a stunning look at the limits of willpower in face of genetic addiction while “I Hope you’re the End of My Story” finds the band in perfect harmony, hoping a current love is meant to last for life. They continue in this mode, taking on the beauty industry with pitch-perfect candor on “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” while “Blues, You’re A Buzz Kill” finds Monroe doing all she can (with no avail) to ward off emotional pain.

“Damn Thing,” their somewhat modernized approach to Ricky Skaggs’ classic 80s country/bluegrass fusion is the opposite of “Blues,” finding the Annies brushing off the things they can’t worry about. They’re also effective on “Don’t Talk About Him, Tina,” a mid-tempo honky-tonker about a woman who needs to let go of an ex once and for all. I also liked “Loved, By A Workin’ Man,” a Presley solo composition where she spills her guts about her kind of guy, and the slower burner “I Feel A Sin Comin’ On” is the perfect showcase for how well they play off each other.

This is where my praise hits the proverbial brick wall. Pure and simple – Annie Up showcases everything that’s hazardous about mainstream country music. The more I listen the more pissed off I get at the producers (Frank Liddell, Chuck Ainley, Glen Wolf) and their dim-witted production values.

I totally understand the need to appeal to a younger audience (i.e. where the money is) that is eating up the amped up rock of Jason Aldean and company, but to BLATANTLY erase any hint of fiddle and steel guitar is simply unforgiveable. How the hell do you not drench a number like “Dear Sobriety” in mournful steel? Those idiotic chimes don’t cut it at all. “Loved, By A Workin’ Man” practically begs for some fiddle in place of that annoying electric guitar heard throughout. And I quite enjoyed “I Feel A Sin Comin’ On” until that wall of sound comes in at the end engulfing the track in nothing more than noise.

When a band is going to this great a length to actually be country (you can hear it in the vocal performances and in the only use of audible steel on “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty”) than they should be rewarded with the hallmark instruments of country music backing them up. I know the times have changed but this is inexcusable. Have we actually “evolved” to the point where the elements that differentiate country from other genres of music doesn’t matter let alone need to be present to call a record country? (I know, I know – this has been happening forever. But Annie Up is a real country record or at least as close to one lacking in down home instrumentation can be).

All involved have royally screwed up. And sadly, each and every one knows better. The songs, vocals, and originality are here in spades. It’s a “damn shame” the production didn’t follow suit.

Concert Review – CMA Songwriters Series at the Royale Boston (Featuring Carrie Underwood)

August 26, 2012

Luke Laird is one of the coolest dudes on earth.

At least that’s the perspective I gleaned from his participation in the CMA Songwriters Series, back for its sophomore outing in Boston, July 31. Laird lacked the I-aim-to-please convention of the other participants, and thus gave the deepest insight into the songs that came from his pen.

Laird peeled his material back to its original form, often exposing the forged purity of country radio. He restored “Hillbilly Bone” to its country-rap beginnings, turning in a far more interesting song than Blake Shelton and Trace Adkins took up the charts in 2009/2010. He also sang the real lyrics to “Pontoon – ” it’s “back this bitch up into the water” not “back this hitch up into the water.”

To an outsider those amendments can seem insignificant; even pointless. But they reveal an authenticity about his writing process; a glimpse into his psyche. Laird is a very provocative writer, an outlander in a world of convention. By night’s end I was longing for the opportunity to jet down to Nashville and spend an afternoon with him.

The whole night was indicative of that feeling, turning songwriters into  stars, and Carrie Underwood into their equal, not a celebrity amongst peons. The round robin style contributed to that, lessening any opportunity to upstage anyone else.

The remarkable fact of the evening, far more noteworthy than a sold-out crowd, was the crop of songs sung, some of the blandest in recent memory, ones often filling up “worst songs of the year” lists on country blogs. But for two hours on a Tuesday evening that hardly mattered, as personality far out shined quality.

The affable Bob DiPiero hosted the evening, keeping the proceedings moving along, scolding a group of talking fans, and giving a shout out to the countless others watching via live stream. As a still relevant member of the 90s guard (and one time husband of Pam Tillis), DiPiero should’ve been the avenue for a trip down memory lane, but instead he chose to focus on his more recent, post millennium compositions (“If You Ever Stop Loving Me,” “Gone”).

DiPiero did turn the clock back once, however, singing a song he wrote about the daughter of his friend who showed up at his house in a red convertible. I was thinking he was going to sing the 1997 Collin Raye smash “Little Red Rodeo,” but instead DiPiero took on “Daddy’s Money” his #1 hit for Ricochet from 1996. I was nervous it wouldn’t go down well (who would know that song?), but it was one of the night’s most well-recieved moments.

The showcase, more panel than fluid concert, went down the line, letting each songwriter take turns on something they wrote. The evening had a wonderfully intimate feel in part because everyone was sitting down and also because of the acoustic guitar backing. DiPiero sat on the far left followed by Laird, Underwood, Hillary Lindsey, and Brett James.

The focus on post-2000 material pandered to the largely newer-country-fan crowd, and it showed in their marked excitement for what was being sung. DiPiero revved the crowd with opener “Southern Voice” (his excuse to write a song with the line “Appalachia Cola”), while Laird had everyone singing along to “Take A Back Road,” the gravel-in-my-travel ode to the cultural differences in upbringings between him and his co-writer Rhett Akins.

After the requisite jokes regarding his longer-than-usual hair moved the spotlight off his music, James, a 90s recording star, got the crowd going with a fine version of his Ashley Monroe co-write “The Truth,”  Jason Aldean’s career highpoint, as well as fine versions of “Mr. Know It All” and the sing-a-long “When The Sun Goes Down.” James was easily the night’s most annoying participant, whither it was the deep gravel of his vocals (blamed on a cold) or his cocky attitude.

As much as the focus shifted to other well-known compositions, the night belonged to Underwood. This meeting of the CMA Songwriters was meant as a showcase for her material, as much as for everyone else’s.

Underwood opened with “So Small,” her first linkage with Laird, and his first #1 as a songwriter. Throughout the night she also rolled through past hits  “Undo It” and “Temporary Home,” all while dressed more causally in pants and a white top, accented with her little-past-shoulder length hair in tight blond curls. She appeared as relaxed as any on stage, an everywoman among her peers.

This ego-less attitude extended to Lindsey who used her spotlight to showcase her connections with Underwood. She spoke lovingly of hoping the recently signed Idol winner would even consider recording one of her songs before launching into “Jesus, Take The Wheel,” the inaugural collaboration between songwriter and singer.

The songs she wrote for, and with Underwood, stole the show. They teamed up twice on Blown Away album cuts – “Do You Think About Me” and “Two Black Cadillacs.” Both proved excellent, and succeeded as pitches to get them released as singles (and in that order). The performance of “Cadillacs,” was a spoiler though, as the stripped down atmosphere is a much better setting for the, as Underwood put it, “sinister” lyrics.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, James took his turn and apologized in advance for, a comical reading of “Cowboy Casanova” that came off like a drunk guy doing grating bar karaoke. It marked the night’s most annoying moment, almost frat like in nature. I’m just not as big a fan of that particular composition as I thought, and after only three years, its proving not to age well.

Of all, Lindsey appeared the most carefree, whimsically seducing the audience with her charisma. Her need to pee turned into a running gag she kept comical, an accentuation of her southern charm and ability to develop a rapport with the audience.

This palpable charm extended to her detours from her connections with Underwood, most notably “American Honey,” her co-write that became a hit for Lady Antebellum. Better than any, the song fits Lindsey’s overall persona like a glove, as she exudes the same innocence projected by the lyrics. Lindsey also sang a new song, one not yet recorded, entitled “Concrete Heart.” If country radio can put aside the frivolous material currently hawking spins, it should be a hit for someone. I look forward to seeing who records it (Underwood, perhaps?).

The night’s musical highlight came with the ridiculously fun “Pontoon,” as Underwood shared an e-mail she wrote to Laird congratulating him  on his next #1. Even better were Underwood’s attempts at helping Laird sing it, blanking on half the bridge before turning out the final “motorboatin'” solo, in her soft girly voice. (Excerpts of it can be heard in the viral video “Pontoon Party.”)

But what I greatly appreciated from the whole evening was the atmosphere. I came away wanting to be friends with all on stage, and I couldn’t believe songwriters (non, apart from James, have released albums) could be so entertaining. But more than that, the acoustic setting reeled in Underwood’s wild abandon, and she was able to sing without dancing around distractedly.

That’s a feat in and of itself and it put the focus back on the music, not Underwood the stage performer (which could use major polishing). Without the loud production everyone could be heard and thus the music could be appreciated. It makes such a difference in a concert when everyone on stage can be heard. And kind of surprisingly, the multiple acoustic guitars sounded so full, you didn’t miss the band. 

 I knew buying tickets, the night had the potential to be a very special gathering, a once in a lifetime opportunity to witness a performer at the peak of their abilities in a very rare setting. I didn’t really know what to expect going in, and I came away having my expectations exceeded.

If you ever have the chance to catch one of these gatherings, seize the opportunity with gusto. They happen country wide during the whole year and offer more satisfaction for country fans, than any major Kenny Chesney or Taylor Swift styled tour. At least they did for me anyway.

The CMA Songwriters Series is just another in a long list of genre only happenings, that make me proud to be a country music fan and reinforce my stance, that I’m musically right where I belong.

Concert Review – Miranda Lambert & Pistol Annies at the Bank of America Pavilion

July 29, 2012

Miranda Lambert does whatever she wants.

That much is evident from this second leg of her On Fire tour, which rolled into Boston Friday night (July 27) during a week that saw Lambert perform on Good Morning America and co-host The View.

I’ve been following Lambert’s career for nine years now, ever since she first stepped on the Nashville Star stage in 2003. Her “Greyhound Bound For Nowhere” original song night performance solidified my adoration and I knew, if given the chance, she could be the top female singer in country music.

It was a slow climb, but she made it, even when I had doubts country radio would ever stop giving her a cold shoulder. And judging by the enthusiastic crowd at the show, it seems I’m not the only one to ride on the Miranda train.

The show kicked off with Loretta Lynn speaking via tape, telling the crowd her stance that country music will always be okay as long as Lambert’s around, followed by a fabulous montage of strong women set to Beyonce’s “Run The World (Girls).”

Lambert then came out with guns blazing on “Fastest Girl In Town,” which set the tone for the night. Rockers of all shapes and sizes followed as she rolled through “Kerosene” and her charging cover of John Prine’s “That’s The Way The World Goes ‘Round.” She then slowed down long enough to perfectly execute “Over You,” which came sans any backstory before revving up again on “Heart Like Mine.”

A fascination for Lady Gaga drove her first interaction with the crowd, and led into a countryfied cover of Gaga’s hit “You and I.” Lambert did an incredible job with the song, as country as any hit last year, and she had enough spunk in her delivery to pull it off.

Probably the most palpable display of Lambert’s angst came with “Baggage Claim,” which she sang in tribute to the end of a long work week. The song came complete with rolling flight tickers on the video wall and roused the audience, who dug into the Beyonce-like groove of the tune.

One of the night’s more bizarre moments came when launching into her all but forgotten “Dead Flowers,” a treat for me (I love the song) but a let down for the audience as the artsy metaphors never really connected with mainstream country fans. Choosing to include it within the set further exemplifies Lambert’s rebel spirit, as most singers would never again touch a single that failed to reach the top 30. But the energy of the song works really well, even if the lyrical content doesn’t quite connect.

Lambert took her first of two breaks half way through the set as stage handlers brought three microphone stands (complete with oval shaped named tags and retro microphones) on the stage. The audience was then greeted to a short video piece on the Pistol Annies, before the trio emerged with “Hell On Heels.”

I was surprised to see the crowd go bonkers for them as their lack of airplay and indie spirit should’ve been a deterrent. The short set was followed by the fabulous “Bad Example” and a cover of Lynn’s “Fist City.” The Lynn cover was obvious, but proved a let down as Angaleena Presley’s thin vocals kept the song from translating to this overtly mainstream crowd. But they came back strong, finishing with the fan favorite, “Takin’ Pills.”

There’s a sense with the Pistol Annies that even fourteen months after their formal debut, they still have to explain themselves and defend their coupling. The gimmicky “Holler, Lone Star, and Hippie Annie” schtick is getting a little old. If they just let the music lead the way, they’d be fine.

But with that aside, they put on a great show. Given their backgrounds and passion for traditional country music, they almost beg to play club shows of their own – something I’d die to see. Presley didn’t shine as bright on the big stage with her voice, but she made up for it with an adorable country charm and square dancing bits that had Lambert declaring “now that’s country!” all the while warming her way into my heart. Ashley Monroe is fabulous in much the same way, but as an adept vocal stylist, she shines brightest for the three of them.

The Pistol Annies set was followed by a detour into straight-up rock and roll, which didn’t sound much different from Lambert’s own material. That may prove a problem for those who want Lambert to stay in her “country lane,” but the energy works well backed with her twangy vocals, and she benefits from avoiding the country hick status made famous by her male counterparts.

That energy drives her cover of Kacey Musgraves’ “Mama’s Broken Heart,” a song begging for release as a single. Lambert followed up with “Famous In A Small Town,” “White Liar,” and “Gunpowder and Lead.”

Lambert referenced her stint co-hosting The View one just one occasion, talking about being in New York City among all the models (and View guest Jessica Alba). This short diversion about diversity transitioned nicely into her song “All Kinds of Kinds.”

The emotional highlight of the evening came through “The House That Built Me,” her signature song. She backed it with personal family photos and images from her childhood that brought new meaning to the lyrics. But it also proved how adapt she is at taking a complete 360 and turning out a vulnerable ballad. Like her fabulous ACM performance from 2009, she just stood there, sang, and delivered.

Lambert closed the set with one encore song, a back-to-my-roots cover of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” Backed solely by an acoustic guitar, she turned in the night’s standout vocal and brought a perfect amount of class to the song. But it also felt a bit contrived. Of all the Patsy Cline songs, you cover “Crazy?” Talk about going with the only song of Cline’s the audience would know. It’s too bad as she should’ve shown imagination by going with “Faded Love” or “Leavin’ On Your Mind.”

Of course it doesn’t excuse the fact covering Cline is a crucifixion to the trailblazers of the genre, following the recent death of Kitty Wells. When the woman who made it possible for you to even stand on the Pavilion stage and call yourself a country singer dies, you pay respects with 1) a mention of her name and 2) a performance of “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”

But through and through, Lambert does whatever she pleases, no matter who it may piss off. She’s built her career on bucking convention and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. If this performance is any indication, she’ll be a female country leader for many years to come.

The same may also be true for her opening act J.T. Hodges (country’s version of Matt Nathanson), who warmed up the crowd with a gumption rarely seen from newer performers. During his set he rolled through many songs from his self-titled debut, due out Aug 21, including highlights “Leaving Me Later” and “Green Eyes Red Sunglasses.”

He threw in a cover of Garth Brooks’ “Rodeo” for good measure and got the crowd pumping on his infectious debut single “Hunt You Down,” my second favorite single of last year. And even though most of his set was loud, he kept it memorable solely with his attitude.

Hodges knew his mission to wake up the crowd and stopped at nothing to do so. Not only did he mention his admiration for  our “title town” (sports), he also ran through the audience to make sure he got everyone’s attention. He won me over as a fan, I can tell you that.

Album Review – Miranda Lambert “Four The Record”

November 10, 2011

Miranda Lambert

Four The Record

* * * * 1/2

Miranda Lambert is by and large my favorite contemporary female artist because of her intrinsic ability to blend both the artistic and commercial sensibilities of country music on her records. She appeals to country radio with singles ready for heavy rotation yet restrains from populating her albums with gutless filler like her fellow artists.

Four The Record was recorded in six days, the week following her wedding to Blake Shelton.  Sessions began at 10am and lasted until midnight each day. Lambert has said she likes getting into a vibe and hunkering down to complete a record. This technique works in her favor, making the album every bit as cohesive as diverse. Plus, she’s using it to further her individuality. It sounds like nothing else coming out of Nashville right now and the uniqueness sets her apart from her peers.

Lambert is also a prime example of the quintessential songwriter. She knows how to write a killer song yet has a knack for selecting outside material from some of the most unique and interesting songwriters. Its one reason why listening to a Lambert album is such a joy. Four The Record features many such moments from Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings gorgeous “Look at Miss Ohio” to Brandi Carlile’s folksy “Same Out You.”

I love the Welch/Rawlings ballad for it’s captivating story. Lambert has a way of making everything she sings sound interesting and she succeeds here. The air of mystery holds together the brilliant lyric – she’s running around with her ragtop down to escape the pressures of getting married. She’s fleeing her obligations to do the right thing, yet we never really know why she’s bolting to Atlanta. She’s reclaiming her independence but not without the guilt of what she’s leaving behind. It’s a story song for the ages, made even more appealing by the understated production and backing vocals by Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman of Little Big Town.

“Same Old You,” another understated winner, fell into Lambert’s lap after Carlile felt she couldn’t sell it like Lambert. I love the folksy vibe of the production here – the gentle strum of the lead guitar sets it apart from the rest of the album. But what brings the song to new heights is the Loretta Lynn-like quality of Carlile’s lyric. (Lynn is the common dominator the bonds Lambert’s friendship with Carlile). It’s refreshing when the narrator finally sees what’s in front of her – that no matter what day of the week, he’s just the same old person and he’s never going to change. When Lambert sings about how hurt his mama’s going to be when she finds out there won’t be any wedding to cap off this relationship, it shows her maturity. I like how she’s drawn to songs that bring new depths to her feistiness. She’s every bit the same woman, but doesn’t have to resort to killing off her man to prove it.

Another track to display this growth is Don Henry and Phillip Coleman’s “All Kinds of Kinds.” A sweeping ballad about diversity, it not only defines the link binding all the songs together, but spins a unique angle on acceptance. The beautiful flourishes of Dobro give the song a soft quality I find appealing and the metaphor of circus acts as a means of driving home the main point showcases the songwriters’ cleverness in crafting their story.

Her overall growth continues in Kacey Musgraves, Shane McAnally, and Brandy Clark’s gritty “Mama’s Broken Heart” as well as in the six songs she wrote or co-wrote herself for the project. I love the driving production on this song, especially on the chorus. The loud thumping drums and guitars help it become a standout moment on the album. I also adore how the songwriters spun the old adage of it’s not you’re parents (fill in the blank) into the hook line, “it’s not your mama’s broken heart.” I’ve heard rumblings this might be in contention for release to country radio and I’m all for it. What a joy it would be to hear this song coming through my radio speakers.

As for the six she wrote or co-wrote herself, Lambert never fails to disappoint. My favorite of these is “Easy Living,” which Lambert co-wrote with Scotty Wray. She was going for the vibe of sitting on the back porch, strumming a guitar, while listening to an AM radio. I love “am radio” effect cut underneath the song which is actually Randy Scruggs reading the Oklahoma Farm Report. I wish I could hear what he’s saying but for this distinctive effect to work, it couldn’t be too distracting from the overall song. I also admire the acoustic production, which brings to mind Shania Twain’s “No One Needs To Know.”

Another Lambert co-write is the emotional “Over You” written with Shelton about the death of his brother Richie when he was 24 and Shelton only 14 (he died in a car accident). They wrote the track in his honor as to say you may be in heaven but you’re still a part of our lives. They took the approach of crafting the song more as a break-up ballad than a song of death, which aids in its universal appeal but makes it easy to forget the overall message they are trying to convey. I also would’ve liked a more traditional production but the emotion in Lambert’s vocal saves the song from being slightly below what it could’ve been. Not surprisingly, it’s being downloaded like crazy on iTunes and is likely the second single from the project.

Her other moment of collaboration with Shelton is their duet “Better In The Long Run.” Pinned by Ashley Monroe, Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley, and Gordie Sampson, it features Shelton’s most committed vocal in years. While not up to the iconic nature of country’s legendary duet-pairings, it’s still above average, and works as their first serious duet together.

Lambert takes the liberty of pinning two of the album’s ballads solo, her way of making sure she can still write a great song on her own. I love the sweeping nature of “Safe,” a song she wrote about her feelings towards Shelton, but was taken aback by “Dear Diamond.” It’s a great lyric and all, and I love Patty Loveless’s harmony vocal, but I wasn’t expecting the song to be a ballad. With its biting lyrics, I thought it would have a bit more drive.

One song with plenty of drive is “Fine Tune,” a prime example of a song that probably won’t be a single but adds to the depth of the record. I thought my CD was broken when I first heard it, as I wasn’t expecting the vocal treatment. Writers Luke Laird and Natalie Hemby recorded the demo with a filter on the microphone, inspiring Lambert’s treatment of the song. I love the overall vibe here, especially after understanding Lambert’s reasons for the offbeat recording method. And while it works for this one song, I wouldn’t want to hear a whole album recorded like this.

In the end, Four The Record is essentially an album of all kinds of songs linked together by their overall diversity. I love that Lambert is taking more risks here by delivering an album that isn’t coasting on her success but using it as a springboard to bring outstanding material to the masses. She’s using her newfound clout to hopefully introduce some very talented singers and songwriters to people who would otherwise not have heard of them. In a world of singles, Lambert is the rare albums artist with the richest discography of any country singer since the turn of the millennium. Four The Record not only adds to her growing legacy, but also pushes her career forward in a big way.

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.