Posts Tagged ‘Juli Thanki’

My Kind of Country Turns 10

December 7, 2018

Most of you probably know this already, but for the past seven years, I’ve been a staff writer for My Kind of Country. In honor of the blog’s 10th anniversary, I wrote the following reflection editorial:

Do you remember where you were exactly ten years ago? Barack Obama has just defeated John McCain to win his first of two-terms as our 44th President. The United States was beginning to feel the effects of the Great Recession. On our radios, a hot new group out of Georgia was dominating the charts. This week in 2008, Zac Brown Band logged their first of two consecutive weeks at #1 with their debut single “Chicken Fried.” On the album’s chart, it was Taylor Swift’s just-released Fearless, logging its third consecutive week at #1, with no signs of slowing down.

In the country blogosphere, J.R. Journey launched My Kind of Country. Our little blog was born ten years ago tomorrow on Dec. 8, 2008. On that day, J.R. wrote:

Welcome to the My Kind Of Country blog.  Here, you will find reviews, editorials, and discussions about the country music we love – our kind of country.  The idea is simple:  rather than write lots of negative reviews about the new music that’s coming out – because let’s face it, much of what comes out of Nashville and your country radio dial is crap – we are going to write about the music we love.  The music that moves us, drives us, and makes us laugh and cry; the music that touches us.  Not that we will spend our time posting fangirl gushes about a select group of artists that are among our favorites.  To the contrary, we intend to post about the music we love and tell you why we love it, and of course, how we think it could be improved upon.

It’s been an ambitious mission from the start. Erik wrote our first album review, a glowing critique of LeAnn Rimes’ Family, on Dec. 10. Our first spotlight artist? Oh, that was Miss Leslie and her Juke-Jointers in January 2009. Through the years we’ve seen many writers retire their individual perspectives on country music, from our friends Erik, Rainbow, Chris Dean, Megan Morrow, and Razor X to our fearless leader himself, J.R.

I won’t begin to assert I’m an historian on all things MKoC. I joined the team in June 2011 after I had become enamored with their Spotlight Artist coverage of Emmylou Harris in April. After reading a few of their reviews, I digitally downloaded her solo albums from the 1970s and composed a post on my own blog, entitled “New Artist Obsession: Emmylou Harris.” I had included a link to their coverage, which garnered the attention of J.R. and Razor X. I had no idea how impressed J.R. would be with my work, nor was I gunning for anyone’s attention. Shortly thereafter he sent me an email and asked me to join the team, an honor I accepted happily and excitedly. My first post was a single review for Julie Roberts’ “NASCAR Party” that ruffled a few feathers with her publicity team. I then contributed two single reviews to their Randy Travis coverage that month, among other reviews, and was off to the races.

But this isn’t solely about me. My Kind of Country has and always will be about a passionate group of fans sharing their thoughts and perspectives on country music with a critical ear. Two of our longest contributing writers, Razor X, and Occasional Hope, became members of the team in Feb. 2009. Razor’s first post, “Rediscovering Forgotten Gems” found him taking a look back at albums, with a focus on Randy Travis, he had the urge to revisit. Occasional Hope introduced herself to readers through “Finding Country,” in which she shared how she came to love country music. Paul W. Dennis joined just before I did in 2011. The 9513 had just shuttered and J.R. asked him to continue his Country Heritage series with us. His first post was “Country Heritage: Gary Stewart – A Short Life Of Trouble (1944-2003).”

A while back, a friend had asked me if they could take a look at work on MKoC and even proceeded to print it out in order to read it (yes, I also thought that was strange). In doing so, he made a comment I’ve never forgotten. He said the blog had a really great title and I instantly knew what he meant. He didn’t say it, but he was referring to the idea that as a group of writers we’re each sharing the country music we love individually, writing pieces that reflect our love of the genre, not just getting assigned albums and singles we may or may not care enough about to compose a thoughtful post. I hadn’t looked at it that way, but he was correct in every sense of the word.

I also often think about how hard it is to keep a blog going and just how many have come and gone in the ten years we’ve been alive. It’s easy for readers to overlook the fact that our positions as staff writers aren’t our full or even part-time jobs. MKoC is a labor of love we create out of passion for country music. It takes a village to keep a blog vital, which is why The 9513 and Country California have ceased publication. Engine 145 only ended once Juli Thanki received a prestigious position with The Tennessan, which has led to exciting opportunities for her in 2019. Ken Morton, Jr’s That Nashville Sound is still going strong and  Country Universe is still around, after 14 years, albeit in an abbreviated form.

Little did J.R. realize in his inaugural post when he wrote: “much of what comes out of Nashville and your country radio dial is crap.” He never could’ve known the assault on the very ideals of commercial country music that was coming down the line with bro-country and whatever the heck you call what’s followed in its wake. It’s ironic, at least to me, that the peak years for country blogging have coincided with the continued release of literally the worst music our beloved genre has ever produced. At least we’ve learned there are alternatives and still some pretty awesome music being made if you know where to look.

I know this post is long, but heck, you only celebrate your tenth anniversary once. We would not be here if it wasn’t for our continued passion for country music, but even more importantly, our readers. Thank you for continuing to make us and our writing a part of your lives. Please continue to comment and engage with us on our posts. We always love reading and responding to whatever you have to say.

Onward.

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Album Review: Robby Hecht & Caroline Spence – ‘Two People’

June 8, 2018

Robby Hecht & Caroline Spence

Two People

* * * * *

Two People is the debut duo album of Nashville born singer/songwriters Robby Hecht & Caroline Spence. The pair met at the Rocky Mountain Folk Festival in 2013 and instantaneously hit it off musically. After two singles garnered eight million streams on Spotify, the duo decided to hunker down and record a full-length album.

While Two People is a duo album, Hecht & Spence are solo artists in their own right. If Robby’s name sounds familiar, it might be because I reviewed his solo record back in 2014, which I had almost forgotten about until Two People hit my radar screen last month courtesy of Juli Thanki from The Tennessean.

The album plays like an independent film centered around a charming and human love story worth rooting for and getting behind. The album traces that story through all of its facets, giving the listener eight perfect snapshots, each one capturing another moment in time.

Our story begins on “The Real Thing,” a warm ballad in which our couple meets at a crowded party. He knows she’s with someone else, a guy who wants nothing more than a fling. Our guy offers this girl an alternative — “We can ditch this crowd, we can ditch this scene, come on, take a ride with me.” He has money, and a car, but most importantly, he can offer her what her current guy cannot — a healthy relationship.

Spence takes the lead on “Trying,” in which our girl promises she’s doing everything she can to give our guy her heart. She’s having trouble giving in, letting go and trusting what’s right in front of her. “All On The Table” finds our couple laying everything bare in order to see if their relationship can go the distance. It’s Spence who takes the lead once again, using her sweet soprano to draw the listener in with her palpable venerability. This is the rare song that reenergizes my love for music, giving me the realization that real country music still exists in the world if you know where to look.

Hecht takes the lead on the romantic “Holding You,” in which our guy has found something to get him through the mundane day-to-day of life — her awaiting arms each night. When that proves not to be nearly enough he needs to spend “A Night Together” with her. He wants to go out but doesn’t care where — a country fair with a Ferris Wheel, a romantic dinner with an expensive bottle of wine that keeps them occupied until closing time — he doesn’t care as long as he can show her off and take her back home with him.

A time jump reveals the relationship began to crack and eventually fell apart. Spence leads the way on “I’ll Keep You,” a surprisingly sweet tale that finds her sorting through and boxing up the couple’s memories from their time together. It ends with a sign on the corner, pointing to their house, indicating a yard sale.

“Over You” finds Hecht embodying the guy’s gut-wrenching ache at the relationship meeting its end and finds him trying to convince himself he’s over her, as he continues to question everything he thought was right while they were together.

The album ends with an interesting thought. What if the couple had never been destined to meet in the first place? What if their paths had almost crossed but at the last second he exited the train, or he gave his seat to someone else just before she sat down? Those are the questions and thoughts raised by “Parallel Lines,” which was one of the two early singles that convinced the duo to make an album together.

I don’t want to suggest Two People is by any means autobiographical even though Hecht and Spence did write all the songs together. They are a magical pairing, bringing these songs to life with an effortlessness that cannot be fabricated. Spence is an otherworldly vocalist, with a similar tone to Ashley Monroe, while Hecht is a captivating conversationalist.

Two People is an independent release that likely won’t get the press coverage it deserves, especially in the crowed Americana/folk world it finds itself in. It may be a quieter album, but it’s powerful in its own unique way. I highly recommend everyone check it out.

All about the song: Brandy Clark and Angaleena Presley at City Winery in Boston

March 2, 2018

Brandy Clark (with L-R, Miles Aubrey and Vanessa McGowan) performs at City Winery in Boston on January 28, 2018

I had my inaugural City Winery experience on a cool, but surprisingly dry, Sunday evening in late January. The chain venue, which has successful outposts in New York, Chicago, and Nashville and just opened here in Boston in early December, mixes an urban winery with a full-service restaurant and tantalizing live music.

All 310 seats at their One Canal St location, just steps from the Government Center Garage with sweeping views of the Lenny Zakim Bridge, were adorned with the crisp cloth napkins and sparkling silverware of an establishment still in its infancy. The service, from the management to the wait staff, had the execution of a well-oiled machine fully prepared to report for duty.

In a venue of this size, with grouped seating that decreases in price the further away you sit from the stage, you’re all but guaranteed an exceptional viewing and listening experience. The owners pride themselves on the first-rate acoustics and strict policy that you remain quiet and respectful during the show.

I had no idea when selecting seats at a front row table, I would be so close to the stage you could rest your elbow on the edge. Such proximity to the action does lead to “concert neck,” a term coined by country music journalist Juli Thanki to describe the sourness from extended time with your head in an unnatural position. Thanki likes to say pain is totally worth it, and I have to agree, especially when the live entertainment is Brandy Clark and Angaleena Presley.

I always knew that City Winery had the potential to bring blockbuster shows to Boston, but I didn’t know they would strike gold this quickly. This was Clark’s first headlining show in the city, after multiple supporting gigs with Jennifer Nettles, and the first time I’d ever heard of Presley playing around these parts in any solo capacity.

Clark flawlessly executed a tightly focused set segmented thematically by her clever and blunt perspectives on substance abuse and revenge. Her richly drawn character sketches came alive with minimalist accompaniment that accentuated her wit and candor while highlighting her silky twang.

She began unassumingly with the one-two-punch of “Hold My Hand” and “Love Will Go To Hell” before undertaking the risky move of gifting the audience a new song, “Favorite Lie,” which I thoroughly enjoyed. Clark unveiled the origins of “The Day She Got Divorced,” which came to fruition during a phone call between Clark and Shane McAnally concerning a writing session with Mark D. Sanders and, of all people, Ms. Presley herself. The session ended by mid-afternoon when Sanders asked Presley how she planned to spend the remainder of her day. She quipped, “well, I got divorced this morning.”

The tight segments from which Clark split her set began with substance abuse, which lasted a healthy portion of the evening. She began with “Get High” and turned in excellent readings of “Drinkin,’ Smokin,’ Cheatin,’” “Take A Little Pill” and to my surprise, “Hungover.” She sprinkled in “When I Get to Drinkin’” and “You’re Drunk” to round it out.

The revenge portion of the evening was more slight but no more impactful. She followed “Daughter” with “Stripes” and promptly put every no-good man in his place. Clark gave a shoutout to our local wonder kid, Lori McKenna, and played their single-mom anthem “Three Kids No Husband.” “Big Day In A Small Town” and “Girl Next Door” were highlights earlier in the evening.

Clark purposefully surprised with the encore, beginning with a request by a group of female super fans who had followed her to attend each of the four Northeast stops she played in four days (Clark went from Connecticut to New York back to Connecticut and finally, Boston). They wanted to hear her sing a particular song by her idol, Patty Loveless she had obsessively tried learning on a newly-purchased electric guitar while it was climbing the charts. Her efforts in learning “Blame It On Your Heart” were as unsuccessful as her mastery in singing it were successful. Clark finished with another new song, that I instantly loved, entitled “Apologies” and concluded with “Pray to Jesus.”

Angaleena Presley performs at City Winery in Boston on January 28, 2018

Clark’s set was everything one would expect it to be and the accompaniment — Miles Aubrey on Guitar and Vanessa McGowan on Upright Bass — allowed the songs to shine without sacrificing flavor. I found Clark’s song selection, while perfectly executed, to be lacking in diversity, begging for a third course of “what else I can do” songs such as “You Can Come Over,” What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” and the one I kept waiting for all night — “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven.” Her ballads are a killer illustration of her artistry and I wish she had expanded her set to show them off.

Presley’s brisk opening set was a whirlwind tour of her four albums. Her candor, never mind her throwback hairstyle and leopard-print top, stole the evening while her southern charm had everyone in the palm of her hand. Her songs, though, spoke for themselves, with the audience in respective stitches with each turn-of-phrase.

She opened with “American Middle Class” and “Dreams Don’t Come True,” a shining example in a long list of songs about the dream of making it in music city. She also admitted to inviting the already-committed Lori McKenna to the show, in advance of playing “Bless Your Heart,” which she called the enthuses of a song McKenna would write.

Presley dedicated “Knocked Up” to her first husband, who she admitted did nothing more than make her a mother, and joked about her upbringing in Beauty, Kentucky. She intertwined her work with Pistol Annies so easily with her solo stuff, I all but forgot “Unhappily Married” and “Lemon Drop” weren’t on her solo releases.

An Appreciation: The 9513

May 3, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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