Posts Tagged ‘Lori McKenna’

Top Ten Singles of 2017

December 6, 2017

While it does become harder and harder to assemble this list each year, it always amazes me that quality country music does exist, even if the upper echelon of the airplay chart screams otherwise.  Sit back and enjoy what I consider the ten best singles released this year:



10. Tanya Tucker – Forever Loving You

Go online and you’ll find countless videos of Tucker where she details the volatility of her relationship with Glen Campbell. She freely admits to the drug and physical abuse that defined their union, which became a cornerstone of her early 20s. Even after they split, and she went onto some of her greatest success, she clearly never truly got over him.

More than a tribute to Campbell, “Forever Loving You” is an exquisite love song. Tucker is in fine voice, which makes the longing for new music all the more aching. Why does this have to be a standalone one-off and not the lead track to a new album?

9. Alan Jackson – The Older I Get

Easily Jackson’s greatest achievement since “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore.” He’s in a contemplative mood, looking back in the year he received induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. If this is any indication, I look forward to whatever he chooses to do next.

8. Jon Pardi – She Ain’t In It

The best mainstream single of 2017 comes from the newly crowned CMA New Artist of the Year. The lyric isn’t earth-shattering, but the drenching of fiddle and steel more than makes up the difference. With his solid foundation in traditional country and his willingness to stay true to himself no matter the cost, Pardi’s future is bright. As of now, he’s one of the good guys.

7. Lee Ann Womack – Hollywood

A housewife is begging her husband to engage with her. He won’t bite except to dismiss her feelings or downright ignore their partnership. She’s exhausted from their loveless marriage, and the part he’s playing in it, so much so she wonders, “either I’m a fool for asking or you belong in Hollywood.” The first of two songs in this vein comes with that killer hook and Womack’s equally effective performance.

6. Alison Krauss – Losing You

Krauss revives a somewhat obscure Brenda Lee hit from 1965 and knocks it out of the park. The covers album that followed is just as rich and deeply satisfying.

5. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – If We Were Vampires

If life didn’t come with an expiration date, would we love as hard? Isbell asks that central question on the stunning centerpiece from That Nashville Sound. He proves mortality is actually a good thing, not something to be feared. For my ears, “If We Were Vampires” is the love song of the year.

 4. Chris Stapleton – Either Way

In my more than twenty years of seriously consuming country music, no song has stuck with me as long or had as great an impact on my psyche as “Either Way.” Lee Ann Womack brought it to life eight years ago in what still remains the song’s definitive version. Stapleton sings the fire out of it, too, but his greatest achievement is being the man who wrote it. He’s easily among the upper tier of the greatest country songwriters of his generation.

3. Brandy Clark – Three Kids No Husband

Clark teamed with Lori McKenna on an anthem for the women who assume all titles without a man to even the score. Both have recorded it, but it’s Clark who found the subtly within the lyric and ultimately drove it home.

2. Sunny Sweeney – Bottle By My Bed

Many songs have been written about the struggle for a woman to conceive, but none are as achingly beautiful as Sweeney’s tale of heartbreak in the wake of a miscarriage. A powerful and universal tale for anyone who has suffered the same fate.

1. Erin Enderlin – Ain’t It Just Like A Cowboy

I didn’t have a clear favorite single this year until I played these ten songs back-to-back when considering the rankings. Enderlin blows away the competition with her story of a wife realizing how foolish she is for staying with the cheating bastard who probably never loved her in the first place. A true country ballad for the ages.

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Album Review: Sunny Sweeney – ‘Trophy’

March 21, 2017

Sunny Sweeney

Trophy

* * * * *

After falling in love with Brandy Clark’s Twelve Stories, Sunny Sweeney tapped Dave Brainard to produce Trophy, which grapples with misery and longing, tackling the well-worn themes with exciting twists and turns. Brainard works to nicely compliment Sweeney’s firecracker personality, giving us a sound far meatier than Clark’s, but in no way less sublime.

Our first taste, which Occasional Hope lovingly reviewed, is the astonishing “Bottle By My Bed,” a heartbreaking tale about Sweeney’s struggles with infertility co-written with Lori McKenna. I, too, have a very personal connection to the track, which details the anguish felt when “you never never wanted something so bad that it hurts.”

Sweeney begs the bartender to reserve judgment and just “Pass The Pain” on the album’s brilliant steel-drenched opener, a decade-old neotraditional ballad she felt was potentially too country for a modern audience. She recorded the song, which features an assist from Trisha Yearwood, at the insistence of her rock-leaning father.

She bookends with the stunning “Unsaid,” a heavily orchestrated ballad written with Caitlyn Smith following the suicide of a friend who was a father of two young children. While the track doesn’t chronicle his story, it lays bare her feelings towards the circumstances:

There’s so much left unsaid

Cuts to the bone to see your name written in stone

Wish I could get it off my chest

Shoulda let go of my pride when I still had the time

Dammit it hurts these words I left unsaid

Sweeney has said Chris Wall’s “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight” is her favorite country song ever. The track, a fiddle-drenched waltz popularized by Jerry Jeff Walker, boasts an engaging melody and killer hook:

And I play classical music when it rains,

I play country when I am in pain

But I won’t play Beethoven, the mood’s just not right

Oh, I feel like Hank Williams tonight

I also love “Nothing Wrong With Texas,” another of the four tracks she and McKenna co-wrote for Trophy. The song, an ode to Sweeney’s home state, is an effortless fiddle and steel adorned mid-tempo ballad.

The pair also wrote two distinctly different numbers about Sweeney’s marriage to her second husband Jeff Hellmer, a police sergeant in Austin, Texas. “Grow Old With Me” is a breathtaking love song, in which Sweeney promises, “grow old with me and I’ll keep you young forever.”

The other song is the feisty title track, written in response to Hellmer’s ex calling Sweeney a ‘trophy wife.’ She proves her worth in the situation with a clever, albeit cunning, retort:

I know what you called me

That word fits me to a T

You just think I’m pretty

And you’re just full of jealousy

I don’t make him play the fool

Put him on a pedestal

Something you would never do

Yah, he’s got a trophy now

For putting up with you

Like “Trophy,” the rest of the album trends uptempo, with in-your-face barn burning honky-tonkers. “Better Bad Idea” is a moment of levity, which finds Sweeney on the prowl to be naughty, hoping her man can top the mischief she’s thinking up on her own.

“Why People Change” is an excellent take on failed relationships, with Sweeney questioning why couples can drift apart. The lyric is well-written, and the engaging melody is nothing short of glorious.

I haven’t been this richly satisfied with an album probably since Twelve Stories. With Trophy, Sweeney has crafted a whip-smart and mature record nodding to tradition while correctly pushing the genre forward. Trophy is what happens when everyone steps aside and puts the focus deservedly on the music, where it belongs.

_____________

Sunny Sweeny was also interviewed on Rolling Stone Country

Album Review: Little Big Town – ‘The Breaker’

February 27, 2017

Little Big Town

the-breaker

The Breaker

* * * 1/2

I sit here in amazement that five years have come and gone since Little Big Town scrapped Wayne Kirkpatrick for Jay Joyce and ensured they wouldn’t face the commercial disappointment that greeted 2010’s The Reasons Why ever again. They’ve since proven themselves to be a shameless mainstream act out for success at the expense of creative credibility.

You cannot deny they’ve achieved their greatest success in these years, winning every Vocal Group of the Year award for which they’ve been nominated. “Girl Crush” was another triumph, but disastrously overblown. I do like the song, but I’m more than glad to see its reign has come to an end at long last.

I last reviewed Pain Killer, which was easily among the worst mainstream country albums this decade. Their pop detour last spring, Wanderlust, was even worse. But I’ve been a fan of theirs for eleven years since I first heard “Boondocks” in 2005. I don’t know what keeps me coming back, especially in this era of their career, but here I am again.

Little Big Town has reunited with Joyce for The Breaker, their bid to regain their country momentum, which has proven successful thus far. Lead single “Better Man” is their fastest rising, zipping up the airplay chart at a breakneck speed unusual for them. It doesn’t hurt that the ballad, penned by Taylor Swift, is the best they’ve ever recorded. “Better Man” doesn’t break any new ground for Swift, she’s actually retreading much of what she’s already written, but I’m thrilled to see her finally return to form, if even for a one off. “Better Man” has the substance missing from her pop catalog.

The Breaker finds Little Big Town in the post-”Girl Crush” era, one in which they double down on Lori McKenna, in hopes of lightening striking twice. The album features no less than five of her writing credits. In anticipation of the album, they previewed “Happy People,” which she wrote with Hailey Waters. The track, mid-tempo pop, generalizes the characteristics of happy people, with a laundry list of signifiers:

Happy people don’t cheat

Happy people don’t lie

They don’t judge or hold a grudge, don’t criticize

Happy people don’t hate

Happy people don’t steal

Cause all the hurt sure ain’t worth all the guilt they feel

 

Happy people don’t fail

Happy people just learn

Don’t think that we’re above the push and shove

We just wait their turn

They always got a hand

Or a dollar to spare

Know the golden rule what you’re goin’ through

Even if it never been there

“We Went to the Beach” was the album’s second preview, is a refreshing change of pace with Philip Sweet on lead vocals. The track may seem like it has much in common with “Pontoon,” “Day Drinking” and “Pain Killer,” but it’s nowhere near as vapid. The ballad has a wonderfully engaging melody that perfectly frames Sweet’s buttery voice.

The third and final preview, “When Someone Stops Loving You,” is another of McKenna’s co-written offerings. The tastefully produced ethereal ballad is a showcase for Jimi Westbrook, who elevates the 1970s soft rock undertones with his smooth yet pleasing vocal turn.

McKenna is one of four writers on “Free,” a sonically adventurous ballad celebrating the not-so-novel idea that the best aspects of life don’t cost anything. “Lost In California,” is the only contribution solely by the Love Junkies, who co-wrote “Girl Crush.” The song, which should definitely be a single, is an excellent sultry ballad and one of the album’s strongest tracks outside of “Better Man.”

Karen and Kimberly join the Love Junkies on “Don’t Die Young, Don’t Get Old,” is a pleasant ballad with interesting finger snaps and their gorgeous harmonies. They continue to slow the pace on “Beat Up Bible,” an acoustic guitar-led ballad showcasing Schlapman singing lead. The track is very good albeit a bit bland. The title track, another one with Sweet singing lead, has a nice lyric but could’ve used a bit more life in the production.

The main difference between The Breaker and previous Little Big Town albums is the suppression of uptempo material, which is surprising given the current climate of mainstream country. The album isn’t devoid of such songs and numbers like “Night On Our Side,” aren’t not only terrible, they’re out of place. “Driving Around” isn’t much better and harkens back to a Little Big Town this album works so hard to leave behind. “Rollin,’” in which Westbrook sings lead, doesn’t even sound like them.

The Breaker is the beginning of a new chapter for Little Big Town, one that finds the band slowing the pace to highlight the substance they’ve brought back to their music. The Breaker is far from a perfect album, but it is a step in the right direction, even if that step has more in common with 1970s soft rock than country music.

Favorite Singles of 2016

December 26, 2016

My favorite singles of the year run the gamut from commercial to obscure and everything in between. Keep reading for career moments from Tim McGraw and Reba McEntire to shining examples of why Lori McKenna and Brandy Clark are more than expert songwriters.

unknown10. Chris Young Feat Cassadee Pope – ‘Think Of You’

Young deserves credit for searching within his own genre for a female collaborator. He deserves praise for co-writing a song that doesn’t use Pope as
window dressing, but rather as a means of furthering the story. This tale of a once-great couple isn’t revelatory, but it’s catchy as hell.

 9. William Michael Morgan – ‘Missing’

The influence George Strait said was absent from country radio came roaring back to life with William Michael Morgan’s follow-up to “I Met A Girl.” “Missing” is an astonishing single in that it makes little compromise to the modern landscape. Warner Bros deserves credit for releasing something this country to radio. Time will tell if they respond favorably.

 500x5008. Kelsey Waldon – ‘All By Myself’

Among its many achievements, a few of which you’ll see highlighted further down, 2016 introduced Kelsey Waldon, a killer traditionalist, to the masses. “All By Myself” is a stern warning to fakers, a biting assessment of authenticity and a woman’s empowerment anthem for the current generation. 

7. Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘Something Tamed, Something Wild’

The most common criticism I’ve heard about Mary Chapin Carpenter’s more recent works is she ‘lacks a pulse.’ It may be true to an extent, but I’m not hearing it here. This introspective examination of existential curiosity is one of her finest in recent memory. The parent album it comes from is her best in more than a decade.

6. Time Jumpers – ‘Kid Sister’

Vince Gill’s tribute to Dawn Sears is both personal and touching.

record-year-cover5. Eric Church – ‘Record Year’

Not since “The Song Remembers When” has a song about songs been this clever or powerful. Church proves he’s a master once again, name checking legends at every turn and laying out a jovial tale of heartbreak both ear catching and believable. “Record Year” is undoubtedly the best mainstream single of the year.

 4. Lori McKenna – ‘Wreck You’

The lead single from The Bird and the Rifle is this masterful look at sabotage in which the woman is admitting fault, with brutal candor – “Something between us changed, I’m not sure if its you or me But lately all I do seems to wreck you.”

unspecified-13. Tim McGraw – ‘How I’ll Always Be’

2016 found Tim McGraw in an artistic renaissance, with his strongest back-to-back singles in twenty years. He succeeded in a climate unfavorable to substance without conceding to modern pressures. “Humble & Kind” is the better lyric. But “How I’ll Always Be” shines melodically. Not since “Just To See You Smile” has McGraw sounded this good on record. 

2. Brandy Clark – ‘Love Can Go To Hell’

The genius is in the delivery. Brandy Clark sings this so deadpan, it’s easy to miss the dark humor underneath the surface. I totally missed it, but when it hit me, I never heard this the same way again.

reba-1024x10241. Reba McEntire – ‘Just Like Them Horses’

Tim McGraw wasn’t the only one in the throws of an artistic reawaking in 2016. This tale of a dying man giving positive reassurance to the loved one he’s leaving behind may’ve been too much for radio to bare, the unique take on ‘if you love me, let me go’ too smart for the masses.

Reba eulogized her father with this tune before committing it to record, which only solidified the emotional undertones she brought forth in her performance, her strongest vocal since “If I Had Only Known” twenty-five years ago. “Just Like Them Horses” is just that good, a bone-chilling highlight from a career with far too many to count.

Album Review: Faith Hill – The previously unreleased material on ‘Deep Tracks’

November 24, 2016

Faith Hill

faith-hill-deep-tracks-cover-art

Deep Tracks

* 1/2


When Faith Hill emerged after an eight-year hiatus to celebrate her twentieth wedding anniversary, announce a Soul2Soul revival tour and mentor contestants on The Voice, I figured she was banking on nostalgia to propel this new era of her career. Hill has smartly been riding on Tim McGraw’s coattails since 2006, knowing she can’t fill arenas, or Vegas casinos, to (near) capacity without him.

She also couldn’t launch a comeback with Illusion, a record Warner Bros. likely shelved after two embarrassing singles – “Come Home” and “American Heart” bombed at country radio when she desperately needed a hit to regain momentum within the industry. That was never going to happen anyways, as age and changing trends saw Carrie Underwood filling the space she once occupied.

With those statistics in mind, I was surprised when she quietly announced a new album to end the record contract she signed in 1993. But I was disheartened to learn it would exist as Deep Tracks, a project comprised of previously released album cuts the label probably wisely never saw fit to release as singles. The project is nothing more than a cash grab and an insult to Hill’s tenure with the label. I’m glad to see Hill on board, though, which is more than I can say for the umpteenth Greatest Hits projects Curb released to extend McGraw’s contract. If the marketing is to be believed, it seems she actually selected these songs herself.

Tagged onto the end of the album are three previously unreleased songs, of which I was anxious to hear. I’ve been a big fan of Hill’s since I began listening to country music in the mid-90s and always welcome anything new she chooses to give her fans. And with the infrequency of her releases, I haven’t cast Hill aside as I’ve done to Martina McBride.

The new material begins with the recently recorded “Boy,” written by Lee Brice, Rob Hatch and Lance Miller. The track is classic Hill, a love song, she freely admits reminds her of her man. While it doesn’t break any new ground, the plucky ballad deviates from her typical sonic playbook just enough to keep the feel of the song fresh.

Rob Mathes and Allen Shamblin’s “Why” follows. Hill recorded the track in 2004 for Fireflies and when it failed to make the cut, Dann Huff brought the song to Rascal Flatts, who brought it to #18 in 2009. The song explores a woman’s anguish in the wake of an unimaginable tragedy:

Oh why, that’s what I keep askin’

Was there anything I could have said or done

Oh I, had no clue you were masking a troubled soul, God only knows

What went wrong, and why you’d leave the stage in the middle of a song

 

Oh why there’s no comprehending

And who am I to try to judge or explain

Oh, but I do have one burning question

Who told you life wasn’t worth the fight

They were wrong

They lied

And now you’re gone

And we cried

‘Cause It’s not like you, to walk away in the middle of a song

The execution is extremely heavy-handed with Huff’s production and Hill’s vocal leaning far too piano-ballad pop for my tastes. The lyric itself is somewhat powerful, but it lacks the subtlety that made “Can’t Be Really Gone” and “On A Bus To St. Cloud” so magical.

In context, the final cut is arguably the saddest. Hill’s mother had long wished her daughter would record a gospel album, the only type of music she wanted to hear her sing. Such a project never came to fruition, so “Come to Jesus” is the closest Hill’s come to carrying out her mother’s wishes. Hill’s mom passed away just three weeks ago, right before the CMA Awards, but was able to hear this song in time.

Hill could obviously still make a gospel album, which could be a treat, if it sounds nothing like she does on this Mindy Smith tune. I appreciate and wholeheartedly welcome the use of fiddle throughout, but there’s just nothing delicate or interesting to hold my attention. This is not the soaring moment (think “There Will Come A Day”) I was hoping for.

With this new material Hill deserves full credit for covering her bases. “Boy” fits perfectly within her penchant for love songs while “Why” displays her knack for age-appropriate material tackling emotional subjects. “Come to Jesus” is the type of song she was teasing when gearing up for the ill-fated Illusion that supposedly nixed her country sound for ‘southern soul.’

While I didn’t find much here to be excited about (“Boy” is the best of the new stuff and worth checking out), I don’t want to suggest the ‘deep tracks’ themselves are of poor quality. If you’ve never heard her take on Lori McKenna’s stunning “If You Ask,” do yourself a favor and check it out.

I’m just upset that after twenty-three years of enormous success, Hill and her fans aren’t being treated to a more heartfelt sendoff than Deep Tracks. Everyone involved deserves so much more than this.

Grades: 

Deep Tracks: D 

Boy:’ B+ 

Why:’ C 

Come To Jesus:’ C 

Album Review: Lori McKenna – ‘The Bird & The Rifle’

July 22, 2016

Lori McKenna

lori_mckenna_cover_sq-8bf01c93fab9c51c99c2845e5912678475452f65-s300-c85

The Bid & The Rifle

* * * *

The Bird & The Rifle comes on the heels of Lori McKenna finally achieving the level of songwriting success she’s so richly deserved since Faith Hill plucked her from obscurity in 2005. This record, her tenth, positions her at the next level – the masterful Dave Cobb produced it.

She’ll likely always be known more for songwriting cuts by other artists, which is a shame, since she’s a powerful artist in her own right. I’ll always be a bit biased, as McKenna is a local in my neck of the woods here in Massachusetts.

McKenna smartly included her own version of “Humble & Kind” among these ten tracks, which will hopefully draw some attention to the album. Given her local status I first heard the song when Little Big Town invited her on stage at the South Shore Music Circus in 2014. She also sang on Almost Famous, the local music show on my radio station 95.9 WATD-FM, long before Tim McGraw released it on Damn Country Music. Her version of “Humble & Kind,” which she wrote to impart wisdom to her children, is gorgeous and far more homespun than the one McGraw brought to #1.

The album, as one would expect, does go beyond that song. While she doesn’t treat us to “Girl Crush,” thank goodness, she does give us nine more original numbers. The album kicks of with the self-aware “Wreck You,” which Heidi Newfield recorded on What Am I Waiting For in 2008. The song, co-written with Felix McTeigue, details a shift in McKenna’s most important relationship:

I don’t know how to pull you back

I don’t know how to pull you close

All I know is how to wreck you

****

Somethin between us changed

I’m not sure if it’s you or me

But lately all I do seems to wreck you

McKenna also solely wrote a number of the album’s tracks. “We Were Cool” is nostalgia at its finest, reliving in brilliant detail, carefree times with great friends. Pessimism grips “Giving Up On Your Hometown,” a critical view of change in the place you grew up. “If Whiskey Were A Woman” is the perfect bookend to “Wreck You,” a darker take on a concept conceived by Highway 101 twenty-nine years ago. McKenna imagines, through a killer vocal, how much more sinister the bottle would be as a relationship partner than her, for her husband.

The Love Junkies, masterminds behind “Girl Crush,” reunite for a couple of tracks on The Bird & The Rifle. “Always Want You,” a lush waltz, deals with sameness and the idea that no matter what happens in this world, she’ll always want her man. Mid-tempo rocker “All These Things” was co-written by two-thirds of the trio (McKenna & Liz Rose) and while I love the melody, it offers little lyrically beyond a laundry list of different signifiers.

The morning after never sounded so beautifully regretful as it does on “Halfway Home,” a co-write with Barry Dean and easily one of the album’s strongest tracks. “Old Men Young Women” is brilliant commentary on the phenomenon of third wives that are often years their husband’s junior. A Modern Family rerun, in which Claire and Hailey in which the pair consider companion tattoos, inspired the title track. McKenna co-wrote the lovely ballad with Caitlyn Smith and Troy Verges.

The most apparent takeaway from The Bird & The Rifle is how little McKenna has changed in the face of momentous success. She clearly has a solid sense of self, which undoubtedly continues to serve her well. While the album does feature songs stronger than others, it’s still one of the year’s top releases and not to be missed. McKenna’s pen and Cobb’s production make for a fruitful marriage I hope continues in the years to come.

Album Review: Brandy Clark – ‘Big Day In A Small Town’

June 9, 2016

Brandy Clark

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Big Day In A Small Town

* * * 1/2

In recording 12 Stories Brandy Clark said she made a concept record about a small-town woman and her journey through our world. The finished product didn’t completely fulfill that vision (the song sequence was changed), but it did introduce us to a compelling and complex heroine framed with sonic touches that made 12 Stories an album that respected the past in order to create the future.

Big Day In A Small Town ultimately builds upon its predecessor by giving our heroine a backbone formed on the foundation of experience woven by Clark’s eye for detailing the emotional complexities of everyday life with razor-sharp precision. Our main character reached this authoritative state (elevated with an eclectic sonic backdrop spearheaded by Jay Joyce) by having lived and come out the other side with a clear picture of how she wants to move forward with her life. Her circumstances will never be without turmoil, but for her to live as her authentic self means she has to embrace who she is at her messiest while attempting to establish some type of order to her state of affairs.

To fully understand her newly enlightened state, we need to fill the gaps in her back-story. Those details come courtesy of the brilliant “Homecoming Queen,” in which she finds herself at twenty-eight realizing she’s holding onto a superficial falsity that is as empty as the dead-end town she calls home:

Too bad love ain’t a local parade

In your uncle’s Corvette on a Saturday

With all the little girls waiting on you to wave

When you’re 17

You don’t know

That you won’t always be

Homecoming queen

It’s worth reiterating that our heroine isn’t a single construct but a composite sketch of women everywhere. She’s the one-time “Homecoming Queen” as much as she’s the mother with “Three Kids No Husband.” Both scenarios find her living out the reality of her situation including the latter, a co-write with Lori McKenna that beautifully details the laundry list of different people our heroine has become to keep her family running smoothly.

Her backbone manifests as a take-no-prisoners frankness that unapologetically stings any man who crosses her path. This change in her attitude is best exemplified by the subtle twist in “You Can Come Over,” a lush slice of piano pop that finds the man able to visit but not allowed inside. Cyclone-wrapped “Girl Next Door” shoves the man to the curb, instructing him to look to the neighbor for his idea of the perfect woman.

That feistiness is even more fully formed on “Daughter,” an outstanding takedown in which the woman wants karma to bite him in the ass by his own offspring. The track is modern day Loretta Lynn at her finest, down to a 1960s inspired arrangement and bold lyric that pushes even Lynn’s stretchiest envelope.

Through it all she still has weaknesses, and they take the form of the deliciously banjo-drenched “Love Can Go To Hell.” Once she realizes what it’s like to be alone, that life might not be all she imagined when she kicked him to the curb. The up-tempo number (my favorite amongst the eleven tracks) is the album’s most commercial, but its infectiousness is more Dixie Chicks than Bon Jovi.

Clark travels even further into classic country on the wonderful “Drinkin’ Smokin’ Cheatin,’” the proof that through it all morality still wins. As much as playing the good girl makes her miserable, our heroine can’t help but draw a line she won’t cross.

By the end of Big Day In A Small Town, our heroine isn’t any better or worse off than she was three years ago. Clark closes the album on a sober note, with the slow-burning ballad “Since You’ve Gone To Heaven,” a striking look at life in the wake of a father’s death. It’s the album’s sole break in the story and one of its most vivid tracks.

It would be easy to compare Big Day In A Small Town to 12 Stories, but to do so would be unfair to the distinctive characteristics that make each album uniquely their own. If Clark set out to prove anything it’s that she didn’t have to sacrifice her unique individuality while working with a producer very much the antithesis of Dave Brainard. Joyce’s choices do overwhelm a couple of songs, but he mostly stays out of Clark’s way, letting her narratives take center stage and command our complete and undivided attention.

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Damn Country Music’

November 12, 2015

Tim McGraw

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Damn Country Music

**

Tim McGraw’s fourteenth album, Damn Country Music, is his third release for Big Machine Records in as many years. Like the majority of his work, McGraw co-produced the album with Byron Gallimore.

Lead single “Top of the World” currently sits just inside the top ten. The sweeping ballad is a pop confection, complete with beats surrounding McGraw’s smooth voice. He’s done better, but he’s also given us far worse.

McGraw previewed the title track in lead up to the album’s release. “Damn Country Music” is a chase your dreams in the music industry song, set to a somewhat cluttered unmistakably country arrangement. I really like the message that no matter what, life always circles back to the same thing:

It’s the hum of wheels on a blacktop

The strum of strings on a flat top

It’ll take you, break you

Damn sure, make you

Do things; you never thought you’d be doing

Damn country music

Rodney Clawson scored three co-writes on the album. “Losin’ You” is a progressive laundry list pop ballad about all the places he keeps losing the woman who already broke up with him. “Want You Back” is more of the same, but this time he’s begging his girl to come back home. “California” is the most ‘country’ of the three, but the arrangement is so progressive, you’d never know it. The track features Big & Rich, but their ‘contributions’ are basically inaudible.

“Here Tonight,” the other duet, features his eldest daughter eighteen-year-old Gracie, the front woman of alt-rock band Tingo. It’s very good, although McGraw and Gallimore should’ve stripped away the wailing guitars to reveal the organic charm underneath.

I first heard “Humble and Kind” when Little Big Town brought Lori McKenna on stage to sing it at a local concert last year (McKenna lives in my area and has even appeared on the radio station where I assist with the morning news show). The song is excellent and I like what McGraw has done with it. I only wish the key could’ve been moved up so McGraw could sing in a more pleasing place in his voice. As it stands, he doesn’t have the vocal to carry the song.

“How I’ll Always Be” is one of the more charming songs, with a shuffle arrangement echoing “Just To See You Smile.” The latter blows the former out of the water, but at least McGraw gives us one track that tries to retain some hint of country music.

I can hear how “Love Does” would’ve easily fit into an early 2000s context, but the proceedings are ruined by a clubby arrangement and processed vocal that renders McGraw almost unrecognizable. “What You’re Looking For” is just more of the same.

What isn’t more of the same is “Don’t Make Me Feel At Home,” the only track on the album that is unmistakably country music through and through. The arrangement is crap, but the obvious country elements shine through loud and clear. In the late 1990s, this tune about a guy begging to be loved would’ve been clean, sharp and a multi-week chart topper. As it stands right now, the track is just too cluttered.

Damn Country Music, despite its title, is country music by association only. Tim McGraw has made a progressive pop record, and a bad one at that. I’m sick of him showing his gravelly side dressed up with gritty gruff guitars. I’m sick of the processed vocals and watered down vibe he continues to go for. McGraw should’ve been at the CMAs to watch Chris Stapleton execute this style correctly. Let the new guy teach the old guy how its done.

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.

Album Review: Reba McEntire – “Love Somebody”

April 14, 2015

Reba McEntire

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Love Somebody

* * * 1/2

In the five years since All The Women I Am, Reba McEntire thought the changing tides of mainstream country music had swung too far in the opposite direction and thus she had recorded her final album. With playlists catering almost exclusively to men, she felt there wasn’t room for her anymore. That didn’t stop Scott Borchetta from begging, and after four years, he finally got her back in the studio.

Love Somebody is McEntire’s twenty-seventh album and first as the flagship artist of Nash Icon, Borchetta’s newest venture in which he signs legacy acts with hopes of returning them to prominence. The album, co-produced between McEntire, Tony Brown, and James Stroud, is an eclectic slice of modern country that proves the 60-year-old hall of famer can still keep up with the young guns. She hasn’t lost any of the distinctive color in her voice nor has she forsaken the themes that have kept her career afloat for more than forty years.

McEntire’s distinctive ear for songs brimming with attitude is evident in “Going Out Like That,” the lead single that’s beating the odds and becoming a sizeable hit. She continues in that vein on “Until They Don’t Love You,” a Shane McAnally co-write with Lori McKenna and Josh Osborne. Brash and theatrical, the track has prominent backing vocals and nods to her mid-90s anthems although it lacks their distinctiveness. The electric guitar soaked “This Living Ain’t Killed Me Yet” has an engaging lyric courtesy of Tommy Lee James and Laura Veltz and is far more structured melodically.

Pedal Steel leads the way on “She Got Drunk Last Night,” which finds a woman drunk-dialing an old flame. McEntire conveys Brandy Clark and McAnally’s lyric with ease, but I would’ve liked the song to go a bit deeper into the woman’s desperation. She finds herself haunted by the memory of an ex on “That’s When I Knew,” about the moment a woman realizes she’s finally moved on. Jim Collins and Ashley Gorley’s lyric is very good and finds McEntire coping splendidly with a powerful yet thick arrangement.

Throughout Love Somebody, McEntire grapples with intriguing thematic and sonic choices that display her ability to reach beyond her usual material. “I’ll Go On” finds her singing from the prospective of a woman who actually forgives the man who doesn’t love her. She tries and ultimately fails to adequately execute a Sam Hunt co-written hip-hop groove on the title track, one of two love songs. The other, “Promise Me Love,” is a much better song, although Brown’s busy production hinders any chance of the listener truly engaging with the lyric.

She also takes a stab at recreating the magic of “Does He Love You” through a duet with Jennifer Nettles. Written by Kelly Archer, Aaron Scherz, and Emily Shackelton, “Enough” boasts a strong lyric about two women who’ll never be sufficient for this one guy. The premise is stellar and McEntire and Nettles deliver vocally. I just wish the production were softer so we could get the full effect of their anger and despair.

While not particularly unusual, McEntire turns in another story song with “Love Land,” Tom Douglas and Rachael Thibodeau’s composition first recorded by Martina McBride on her 2007 album Waking Up Laughing. It’s never been one of my favorite songs, as I find it very heavy-handed, but McEntire handles it well.

The centerpiece of Love Somebody is Liz Hengber’s “Just Like Them Horses,” a delicate ballad about a recently departed loved one journeying to the other side. The recording is a masterpiece of emotion from Hengber’s perfect lyric to Brown’s elegant production. McEntire’s vocal, channeling the pain she felt when she first sang it at her father’s funeral last fall, is in hallowed company – it’s on par with her delivery of “If I’d Only Known” from twenty-four years ago.

The album closes with her charity single “Pray For Peace” the first self-written song McEntire has recorded since “Only In My Mind” thirty years ago. Like the majority of Love Somebody it shows her taking chances while also staying true to authentic self. While there are few truly knockout punches, this is a very good album. It might not be the strongest set she’s ever released, but it’s a solid reminder that she should stay in the game and take shorter gaps between projects.

Album Review: Lori McKenna – ‘Numbered Doors’

November 21, 2014

Lori McKenna

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Numbered Doors

* * * *

Ever since Faith Hill plucked her from obscurity in 2005, Lori McKenna has been one of Nashville’s go-to songwriters and a delightful artist in her own right. She’s scored major radio cuts by the likes of Hunter Hayes and Little Big Town and even secured a major label deal that resulted in a single collection far more upbeat than her usual fare.

Most songwriters in her enviable position would focus on the big time, but McKenna has maintained her small-town Massachusetts roots all the while continuing to keep one foot in music city. Her music, as a result, has maintained its uniqueness; no one is as astute in crafting such simple lyrics about the eccentricities of small town life. Her “Grocery Store,” an Angaleena Presley co-write from her American Middle Class focuses on the act of standing in a checkout line, but reveals its brilliance in the quiet pondering of both fellow customers and the checkout clerk’s life story.

In September, McKenna returned the focus to herself with her eighth LP, the experimental Numbered Doors. This time around she wrote with an outsider’s perspective, crafting songs from other people’s stories instead of self-absorbed personal narratives. It doesn’t mean she detours from her comfort zone too much sonically. The tracks are still clothed in the trademark lush instrumentation she’s famous for leading to few surprises but still providing a delightfully ear catching experience for the listener.

The extraordinary title track, a mandolin soaked manifesto on quite desperation, served as the promotional single. Few paint extreme hopelessness as vividly as McKenna who gives voice to women paralyzed by the rabbit hole they can’t dig themselves out of. These women are often the byproduct of long marriages where, as the lady in “All A Woman Wants” can attest, longs to take away the breath of the husband who renders her sexually and emotionally starved. They’re also painfully self-aware, able to recognize the lack of life in their years, lamenting over “All The Time I’ve Wasted” on a relationship that couldn’t be saved. Their inwardly reflective pity-party only serves to make the situation worse, and without an exit, makes their prognosis seem pretty grim.

McKenna sings from the other side, too, turning “Livin’ On Love” on its side with “Good Marriage,” a tune about life’s daily struggles dissolving into a fight where the couple “take back every word that’s said” before heading to bed. Hope continues with “God Never Made One of Us To Be Alone,” a track about how the daily struggles will always be there but we’re not meant to face them without companionship and love. Said company isn’t always a significant other, as the woman with “Three Kids No Husband” can confirm with a ‘broken home [that] ain’t no fairytale.’

The ever present brokenness seeps back in with “Starlight,” which uses the old rhyme “starlight star bright” to convey a woman’s inner desire to wish for a life consisting of more than ‘kitchen tiles [that] used to be white.’ McKenna has long danced around the subject of extramarital affairs from “Stealing Kisses” to “If You Ask,” but she’s never tackled the subject head on like she does while playing a woman confronting the best friend who’s “The Stranger In His Kiss.” Erin Enderlin passively sat next to the forthright woman screwing her man, saying nothing, but McKenna drives said mistress to tears during a late-night rendezvous. When she reveals ‘you were standing right there beside me when he said, “till the day he dies,”’ the listener feels the true intensity of the woman’s pain. “The Stranger In His Kiss” is the crown jewel of an album beaming with specifically crafted studies of emotional depth.

If I can fault McKenna for anything, it’s her ability to craft albums basking in lyrical and sonic repetition. There’s no denying her masterful ability to craft material from the perspective of a woman living a small-town life. But a whole album worth of these type songs, typically immaculately produced ballads, is too weighted down and begins to get old very quickly. As individual compositions each of the ten tracks are truly incredible. I just wish she’d give a little thought to diversifying each project to ramp up the overall listening experience. That doesn’t mean I don’t highly recommend Numbered Doors because I do. There’s hardly a stronger collection from a prominent female singer-songwriter released this year. It just doesn’t come without a one slight flaw, an issue with a very easy fix.

Album Review: Angaleena Presley – ‘American Middle Class’

October 23, 2014

Angaleena Presley

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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.

Concert Review: Little Big Town at the South Shore Music Circus

August 22, 2014

IMG_3747They may be from the Boondocks, But Little Big Town have sailed their Pontoon into a rock and roll Tornado.

If their recent show at the South Shore Music Circus proves anything, it’s that the quartet known for simple backwoods arrangements complimenting their airtight harmonies have morphed into a band solely focused on succeeding in the current “country music” landscape.

They made their way to the rounded stage like rock stars filing into a stadium, Kimberly Schlapman’s head of tight blond curls visible a mile away. Karen Fairchild, modeling denim short-shorts, knee high leather boots, and a gold sparkle jacket launched into pulsating set opener “Leave The Light On,” a track from the band’s upcoming Pain Killer due Oct 21. The band and crowd embraced a little “Day Drinking” shortly thereafter, which worked in the environment despite missing the snare drums utilized in award show performances of the track.

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Album Review – Kiley Evans – ‘2 Pieces of 3 Hearts’

August 18, 2013

Kiley Evans

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2 Pieces of 3 Hearts

* * * *

Marshfield, Massachusetts native Kiley Evans has come a long way from her days studying engineering at Wentworth Institute of Technology. Since forgoing her college degree for the lure of a guitar, she’s participated in Bluebird Café in-the-round performances with Luke Laird and written with Stoughton, MA native Lori McKenna. Evans and McKenna recently shared a stage in Martha’s Vineyard, and she’s performed multiple dates with fellow rising country star and American Idol finalist Ayla Brown.

Evans recently released her debut album, three years in the making. 2 Pieces of 3 Hearts is a hybrid project comprised of her 2011 Kiley Evans EP and five newer songs (i.e. “2 Pieces”) she’s debuted at various concert dates. Evans had made waves here on the South Shore but also in Rhode Island – local country station Cat Country 98.1 WCTK plays her music on a regular basis, as does 95.9 WATD, where I intern. Evans has been a frequent guest of their Almost Famous local music show, where she’s graced their Tiny Stage and showed up on their playlists.

I’ve long been looking forward to this release since Almost Famous co-DJ John Shea brought her music to my attention a few years ago. I attended a show last fall, and caught her again this past spring. Evans has an every girl personality that endears her to fans and simple songs that offer a peak inside her world.

I’ve been most excited to get my hands on the CD for “Free Fallin,’” a solo composition that’s among my favorite songs she’s ever done. She sings about a phenomenon we’ve all experienced – that moment when we finally hear a song for the first time, fully understanding a lyric we’d known forever but never really listened to (the track in question here is, of course, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers classic):

I never really understood

I never really listened right

I’m singing ‘Free Fallin’ all the way home tonight

I never really heard the music

I never really saw the light

I’m singing ‘Free Fallin’ all the way home tonight

Also excellent is “One More Spin Around,” written about a woman who falls for a guy at a party who ends up giving her a ride home. She pretends she can’t find her keys in an effort to stall their inevitable goodbye, and they take multiple spins around the neighborhood. I love the sunny vibe and electric guitar riffs that frame Evans’ high-energy vocal. “Devil On Your Soldier” is sonically similar and just as good, although there’s more going on in the production.

She displays her vocal prowess again on 2 Pieces of 3 Hearts lead single “Easy,” which adds an element of blues into her country repertoire. The production track is a tad busy, but Evans pushes through with a stunningly confident vocal reminiscent of Christina Aguilera that adds another dimension to her artistic wheelhouse. She continues in this vein with “Tuck & Roll,” a perfectly composed tale about being played in a relationship.

Evans continues to stretch and grow on “We’d Be Lying,” a sexy love song that could’ve easily been a force attempt at creating a moment, but works surprisingly well. The gorgeous ribbons of piano nicely frame her delicate vocal, and Boston-based singer-guitarist Joe Merrick is a delight as Evans’ duet partner.

The most exciting aspect of the album is the melding of old and new, allowing the listener to fully grasp Evans’ maturity as an artist over the past few years. “Easy” and “We’d Be Lying” show just how far she’s come since the days of “Johnny Depp” and “Not Today,” which are both included here. Both of those now vintage songs hold up well against the newer material. The chorus of “Johnny Depp” is what hooked me in the beginning and its still one of Evans’ most memorable compositions. Mid-tempo ballad “Not Today” is even better, showcasing Evans’ ability to craft songs that are instantly relatable. Her ability to write relationship songs that appeal to everyone is one of her greatest assets.

Evans thankfully also understands that life is more than romance and adds depth to the project with “Papa’s Song,” a tribute to her grandfather that’s a bare bones moment of reflection and the record’s emotional centerpiece. If there’s any doubt as to Evans’ country credibility, “Papa’s Song” puts it all to rest. There’s brilliance in her emotional intimacy that’s breathtaking – she bares her soul in the way only the best singer/songwriters are able. It’s worth the price of the album to hear her share this moment with us.

Evans announced this week she’s moving to Nashville to make her dream a reality, which makes 2 Pieces of 3 Hearts even more special. She’s definitely going to be missed around the South Shore, but she leaves us with a wonderful collection of songs that stand as an argument for her bright future. I cannot wait to see what she does next.

_______________________

For more information on Kiley Evans, and to buy a physical copy of 2 Pieces of 3 Hearts, check out her website

The album is also available on iTunes.

Top 19 Favorite Country Albums of 2012: 19-11

December 5, 2012

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

Wreck and Ruin

19. Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson

Wreck and Ruin

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

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18. The Little Willies

For The Good Times

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

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17. Carrie Underwood

Blown Away

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

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16. Don Williams

And So It Goes

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

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

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15. Jason Eady

A.M. Country Heaven

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

Joey + Rory

14. Joey + Rory

His and Hers

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

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

Free The Music

13. Jerrod Niemann

Free The Music

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

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

tornado

12. Little Big Town

Tornado

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

Heart+Shaped+Bullet+Hole++EP

11. Lori McKenna

Heart Shaped Bullet Hole – EP

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

EP Reviews: Lori McKenna – “Heart Shaped Bullet Hole” and Punch Brothers – “Ahoy!”

November 29, 2012

A commanding drum beat and cheeky 1980s style electric guitars greet the listener on “Heart Shaped Bullet Hole,” a Disney jam session meets “Down At The Twist and Shout” confection that anchors Lorrie McKenna’s EP of the same name, her six-song follow up to last year’s highly emotional Lorraine. It’s by far the most experimental thing she’s ever done, and the results are phenomenal. In this instance, taking creative risks pays off in spades.

McKenna then goes on to incorporate these creative instincts in the other tracks, showcasing a willingness to step beyond the familiarity of the lush acoustic sound she’s honed for the better part of her career. These differences, sometimes far subtler than others, make most of the EP an enjoyable listen.

An electric guitar penetrates the musical bed of “Whiskey and Chewing Gum,” a Troy Verges co-write, while the acoustic guitar underpinnings of “All It Takes” (co-written with her ‘sixth child’ Andrew Dorff) gives the track a fun, folksy vibe. Both songs are also standouts lyrically, with more than an abundance of memorable lines.

With three such strong forward thinking songs, the rest of the EP sounds a bit like a retreat back to the comfortable with McKenna sticking firm to her coffee-house roots. That isn’t necessarily a bad choice on her part, but I wanted more, especially since she’s surrounded herself with such ear-catching songs. The lush arrangements actually get in the way of two tracks – “Sometimes He Does” and “This and the Next Life,” which are both excellent songs in their own right, but feel predictable, with the latter a bit too slow for me to fully engage with.

I had similar thoughts with her Ashley Ray co-write “No Hard Feelings,” but the hook is strong, and their twist on the classic break-up ballad (“Once it’s gone – it’s gone/So no hard feelings”) is stunning – they leave the listener hanging – how is she able to break off their love so cleanly? Did she ever really love him at all? That simple mystery gives the track its allure.

Punch Brothers, one of the coolest – and criminally underrated – bands making music today take similar strides, serving up Ahoy! their companion EP to February’s masterwork Who’s Feeling Young Now?, one of my favorite albums of 2012. Consisting of five tracks, the project brilliantly displays Chris Thile’s continued growth since Nickel Creek, proving why he so richly deserves his MacArthur Grant.

Thile is seemingly unmatched as both a mandolin virtuoso and effective vocalist, but Ahoy! proves he and his band mates are also equally skilled as musical interpreters, turning the set’s three cover songs into completely reimagined takes on the originals. The vastly different tunes, singer/songwriter Josh Ritter’s “Another New World,” Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings’ “Down Along The Dixie Line” and Noise Rock group Mclusky’s “Icarus Smicarus” all feel right at home in the progressive folk settings Punch Brothers frame them in.

Ritter’s ethereal “Another New World,” a slightly ambiguous epic, is the least transformed, staying true to the original. But the addition of Thile’s mandolin and the accents of fiddle give the track grounding, adding dimension to the somewhat tragic story. “Down Along the Dixie Line,” from Welch’s 2011 The Harrow and the Harvest is the complete antithesis, morphing from a southern gothic ballad into a fiery romp. Both are effective readings, although Punch Brothers barely give the lyric room to breath, nearly suffocating the story by speeding it up a little too fast.

The real delight is “Icarus Smicarus,” a noise rock disaster turned progressive bluegrass delight. One of Punch Brothers’ core appeals is their left of center oddity, which is fully explored in this song’s brilliant eccentricity. The lack of any significant narrative structure, let alone the usual verse/chorus/verse/bridge pattern of country songwriting will alienate anyone in search of tangible meaning, but the connectedness of the group cannot be denied.

“Moonshiner,” the traditional folk song made famous with versions by The Clancy Brothers and Bob Dylan is my personal favorite on the set, showcasing the band’s wicked instincts with a killer narrative. The lone original is the wonderfully titled “Squirrel of Possibility,” an elegant mandolin and fiddle driven instrumental.

As a whole, both McKenna and Punch Brothers have turned in some exquisite work, each exploring different facets of their creativity all the while staying true to themselves as visionaries. I still would like to see McKenna challenge herself even more, with further exploration of songs in the vein of “Heart Shaped Bullet Hole.” Her ballads are still effective but are too frequent and beginning to fade into sameness, thus stripping them of their potent emotion.

Luckily Punch Brothers seem nowhere near the peak of their artistry, and Ahoy! shows a band built on taking daring risks that more often than not feature big pay offs for the listener. I can only dream about where the coming decades will take them, and if they stay as crisp and in tune as they are now, it’s going to be one heck of a prosperous musical odyssey.

Heart Shaped Bullet Hole* * *

Ahoy!* * * *

Album Review – Little Big Town – “Tornado”

September 18, 2012

Little Big Town

Tornado

* * * *

You’d think the combination of irresistible four part harmonies and a keen sense of song would be the makings of country music royalty, but Little Big Town have had more starts and halts in the past ten years than just about any mainstream act. They more than won the respect of the industry, but never quite latched onto the fans and country radio.

Their fifth album, a deliberate attempt to reverse those fortunes, is the group’s first to utilize producer-of-the-moment Jay Joyce, a smart decision that presents the quartet in a new and exciting light. Thanks to a stellar collection of songs tastefully sung and framed, Tornado blows recent releases by Dierks Bentley, Carrie Underwood, and Zac Brown Band out of the water and is easily the best mainstream country album since Eric Church’s Chief (also helmed by Joyce) came out a year ago.

Tornado works because it tampers with their core formula without sacrificing the qualities that have endeared them to the country audience for the past ten years. Platinum selling lead single “Pontoon,” a Luke Laird, Natalie Hemby, Barry Dean co-write about summertime fun on the water got them off on the right foot, and recently became their first number one.

Anchored by Karen Fairchild’s commanding lead vocal and a slinky ear-catching beat, the song works because it isn’t a mid-life ploy at reclaiming adolescence, but rather three minutes of harmless fun aboard a boat. The second verse should’ve been developed more fully, but it works really well as a concept, and the arrangement is one of my favorites of any single this year.

Tornado matches the exuberance of “Pontoon”, but in most cases exceeds it. I’m really enjoying the album’s opening four tracks, each one a showcase for a different member of the group. Jimi Westbrook takes the lead on “Pavement Ends,” Fairchild on “Pontoon,” Kimberly Schlapman on “Sober” and Phillip Sweet on “Front Porch Thing.”

Westbrook, the thinnest vocally of the group, is adequate on “Pavement Ends,” Jason Saenz and Brent Cobb’s rollicking ode to dirt road partying, one of the more exciting songs on the subject matter. His male counterpart, Sweet (one of my favorite male vocalists in contemporary country), is excellent on “Front Porch Thing,” a wonderful banjo-led song about kicking back on a front porch with an old guitar and a song to sing.

But Schlapman is a revelation on the beautiful “Sober,” easily the album’s standout number. Written by Liz Rose, Hillary Lindsey, and Lori McKenna, the mandolin centric track is a sweet ballad about being drunk on love. I thoroughly enjoy how Joyce masterfully stands back and uses a less is more approach, allowing the gorgeous four part harmonies, and stunning chorus, to steal the show.

Other album highlights include the first-rate title song and second single, a sinister Bobbie Gentry-like ballad about a woman seeking vengeance on her cheating boyfriend. Written by Hemby and Delta Maid, and effectively sung by Fairchild, the track blows away Underwood’s latest (which tackles a similar theme) and works thanks to the tasteful spooky guitars and moody vibe.

I also love the Westbrook fronted “Leavin’ In Your Eyes,” which Joyce turns into a 1970s inspired soft rock opus, complete with a simple driving beat. The use of Fairchild and Schlapman on harmony vocals was a brilliant decision, as it helps to make the song more interesting than if the foursome sang together.

“Can’t Go Back,” written by Hemby with Kate York and Israeli-born Rosi Golan is another striking ballad and a fine showcase for the band’s signature harmonies, while album closer “Night Owl,” written by the band with Hemby, is a gorgeous reverse of “Leavin’ In Your Eyes” in which Fairchild and Schlapman take the lead while Westbrook and Sweet take the harmonies. “Night Owl” is another of my favorites sonically and nicely frames the group’s delicate vocals with lush acoustic guitars

Not all the tracks work, however. Sung as a duet by husband and wife Westbrook and Fairchild, “Your Side of the Bed” is a rip-off of Gretchen Wilson’s “The Bed,” down to the story of a failing marriage under the microscope in the bedroom. I’m having a difficult time believing the couple’s pain and the use of harmonies in the chorus. A better decision would’ve been to have Westbrook or Fairchild sing it solo, as the harmonies dilute the song’s emotional heft. I love the idea of the track as a duet, but it plain doesn’t work for a four-part group.

“On Fire Tonight” is an attempt at amped up rock that’s well presented and sung, and should work wonderfully in a live setting. But on record the Laird co-write with band comes off as underwhelming and a bit subpar for the group that has proven (even on Tornado) they can do a lot better.

I’m also having trouble getting into “Self Made,” which probably has a nice message, but is overtaken by a disastrously cluttered production that’s so bombastic, its hard to hear what the group is singing. Joyce, who should’ve kept with the rest of the album and continued with the less is more approach, failed Hemby and Jedd Hughes’s co-write with Westbrook and Fairchild.

All and all, Tornado is an excellent mainstream country album and the strongest so far this year, bar none. I’m finding it impossible to drum up excitement for mainstream country these days but Little Big Town has managed to do that for me. I was so afraid they were on the path to compromising themselves at the price of commercial viability, but thankfully I was wrong.

Tornado isn’t a masterwork like Kathy Mattea’s Calling Me Home, but I’m confident in saying it stands next to the likes of Sugarland’s Love On The Inside, Miranda Lambert’s Revolution, and Trisha Yearwood’s Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love as some of the best mainstream fare released in the past five years.

It’s a good day to be a Little Big Town fan

July 18, 2012

There aren’t many announcements in modern country worth even a modicum of excitement, but news of brand new music from Little Big Town (Tornado, their fifth album, hits Sept. 11) is worth shouting from the rooftops.

Why? Because their the most consistently good and highly underrated band in country music gunning for radio airplay.  Their brilliance as a tight unit has led to some of this century’s most interesting singles from “Boondocks” and “Bring It On Home” to “Fine Line” and “Little White Church.”

That keen ear for song selection looks to continue with Tornado as the crop of writers chosen to pen the songs are among Nashville’s strongest from Lori McKenna to Jedd Hughes to Luke Laird.

The overwhelmingly intoxicating “Pontoon” has exploded as the lead single, hitting the top 15 in eleven weeks while also sitting atop the iTunes country chart for most of the last two months.

So what accounts for the change of heart from radio and fans?

A modification in sound for one. Out is Wayne Kurkpatrick, the mastermind behind their Road to Here-Place To Land-Reasons Why albums and in is Jay Joyce, the man behind Eric Church’s style of country. This change has lit a fire within and created a hunger missing from their previous music. There’s a new determination now to force country radio to stop ignoring them, once and for all.

Only time will tell if subsequent singles match the buzz of “Pontoon.” I’m in love with the sound of this song for sure, but the very underwhelming second verse, which misses (as well as desperately needs) a second half, irks me to no end and displays the laziness penetrating most of the lyrics in modern country. But, I’ll be darned if there is a cooler sounding song currently vying for radio airplay.

Thankfully, though, to hear Jimi Westbrook talk about Tornado, there’s a lot to get worked up about:

“I am so excited for people to hear this new record. “Jay really pushed us to be in the moment. There was such an amazing energy between all of us in the studio and I think you can feel it.”

Here’s the album’s cover, complete with their rebranding campagin:

Here’s the track list:

1. “Pavement Ends”
Jason Saenz/Brent Cobb

2. “Pontoon”
Barry Dean/Natalie Hemby/Luke Laird

3. “Sober”
Liz Rose/Hillary Lindsey/Lori McKenna

4. “Front Porch Thing”
Chris Stapleton/Adam Hood

5. “On Your Side of the Bed”
Lori McKenna/Karen Fairchild/Jimi Westbrook/Kimberly Schlapman/Phillip Sweet

6. “Leavin’ in Your Eyes”
Brett Warren/Brad Warren/Jay Joyce/J.Westbrook/K.Fairchild/K.Schlapman

7. “Tornado”
Natalie Hemby/Delta Made

8. “On Fire Tonight”
Luke Laird/P.Sweet/J.Westbrook/K.Fairchild/K.Schlapman

9. “Can’t Go Back”
Natalie Hemby/Kate York/Rosi Golan

10. “Self Made”
Natalie Hemby/Jedd Hughes/J.Westbrook/K.Fairchild

11. “Night Owl”
Natalie Hemby/J.Westbrook/K.Fairchild/K.Schlapman/P.Sweet

Is it too much to ask for September 11 come just a bit faster, please?

Favorite Country Albums of 2011

December 21, 2011

Who says real country music is dead? Putting aside the commercial successes that forgot about quality, here is my take for music that mattered in 2011. These albums may not have sold a heck of a lot or even garnered the recognition they warranted, but they achived the mark of great music – the songs came first.

10. Concrete – Sunny Sweeney

Led by the top ten “From A Table Away,” Concrete found Sweeney modifying her sound slightly in order to complete with what’s current on country radio. Of course, her version of slightly is different than most as she’s crafted an outstanding traditional country album worthy of her talents. There are too many highlights here to pick a favorite but the honky-tonkin’ “Drink Myself Single” and the revengeful “Amy” are among the years best songs.

(more…)

Music Review: Lori McKenna at the River Club Music Hall

March 7, 2011

Saturday night, March 5, marked Lori McKenna’s inaugural performance at the River Club Music Hall, an intimate 300 seat theatre in Scituate Massachusetts.  The perfect venue to showcase her raw sensibilities, and with its ceiling fans and stone fireplace, the River Club is ski chalet meets country roadhouse (and in the old Golden Rooster location). It’s very rare to have such an accommodating venue on the South Shore and my first visit won’t be the last. Plus, It’s an uncommon delight when someone of Lori McKenna’s stature tours near where you live. While on her website in late January, I browsed her tour dates thinking the closet would be Harvard Square or a folksy Boston club. Imagine my surprise when I found the date in Scituate, just 25 minutes from my home in Hingham. After falling in love with Lorraine, I didn’t hesitate to purchase tickets.

McKenna has a natural ease about her suited to smaller venues. When she opened for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill at the TD Garden in 2007, the enormity of the experience swallowed her whole and poorly showcased her talent. That performance was marred by appalling acoustics that drowned out her vocals. I’m not exaggerating when I say you couldn’t understand a word she was singing. McKenna was loosing herself but smartly found her way back. Her concert Saturday night not only fixed all those problems, but brilliantly showcased one of the best singer/songwriters I’ve heard in quite a long time. When Hill said we were fortunate to have her as a native daughter, she wasn’t kidding.

McKenna often sings about the disillusion of marriage and frequently takes the stance of an unhappy woman. While her songs speak to human experience, the way she spoke of her husband Gene was to see a woman deeply in love with her man. The  stories from her small-town life, like when she admitted to visiting her local Roche Bros supermarket 5-6 times a week, because she can’t seem to remember that Tuesday follows Monday, brought a homegrown authenticity to her performance. She may be a recording artist, but she’s also a wife and mother living as normal a life as you or I.

That homespun wisdom threaded together the whole set. Whether she was singing newer material like “The Luxury of Knowing” and “All I Ever Do” or classics like “Your Next Lover” and “Fireflies,” the audience could feel the emotion pouring out of her. This was never truer than on the heartrending show stopper, “Still Down Here” which also closes her latest album. Backed by only a piano (the one instrument she admitted to not knowing how to play) and Mark Erelli on guitar, she stood at the microphone with clasped hands and gave the song her all, even letting her voice crack as it went up an octave. She prefaced the tune by dedicating it to everyone, making it clear that the most outstanding music really is universal.

The always dazzling “Stealing Kisses,” was the only time in the night McKenna faintly mentioned her connection to Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. (Hill herself took the song to #36 in 2006). She mentioned always loving when the audience applauds at the beginning of songs, and urged everyone to do it as she launched into “Kisses.” We were all happy to oblige. It’s funny, it wasn’t until she sang this song at the TD Garden four years ago that I fully grasped its meaning. For some reason, the line “I was stealing kisses from a boy/now I’m begging affection from a man” went over my head. Now that I get that both the boy and the man are the same person, quiet desperation never sounded so good.

Another highlight came when McKenna spoke of her foray into the belly of the beast. She mentioned how she’s tricked well-known songwriters to visit Stoughton and write with her by making them believe her hometown is just like Boston. To get anyone to travel to Massachusetts to write with you is a marvel in itself. She faced an uphill battle yet won everyone over in the process, singling out songwriter Natalie Hemby, who co-wrote “White Liar” and “Only Prettier” with Miranda Lambert and the aforementioned “All I Ever Do” which appears on Lorraine.

The way McKenna spoke of her fellow songwriters including Hemby but also Andrew Dorff, brought a grounding to the evening. She unknowingly transported the audience to Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe, and made everyone wish they knew Dorff personally. He came off as quite the character, a common visiter in McKenna’s world. She told the story of how he visits her local Panera Bread for a well endowed waitress, and tried to get McKenna to write a song about her entitled, “Cross in the Cleavage.” She said no but urged Dorff to write it himself and get Toby Keith to sing it. After “Get Out of My Car,” Keith will sing anything, so you don’t know how much truth is in that statement.

What I took away from the show wasn’t the authenticity or homespun wisdom, but her natural ease on stage. With her friends and family in the audience, McKenna came off Loretta Lynn-esque – a hard working country gal doing what she loves on a Saturday night. More than a gig, it was a showcase for her wit and charm. Her looseness was quite surprising. After listening to her music I expected McKenna to be serious and almost brooding, yet she was very funny; almost like a very toned down version of Wynonna and Naomi Judd in their early days. McKenna sings about being a witness to your life, yet I felt like I was a witness to a bygone era in music. Nothing about her performance felt rehearsed or forced. Even if she’s been telling the same stories on stage every night, they felt as fresh as if she’d never told them before. McKenna is a treasure and should be treated as such.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about her opening act, Matt Chase, a singer/songwriter based in Boston. While he put in a solid performance, he overstayed his welcome by four songs and let his set get overrun with sameness. Let it be a lesson, and McKenna struggles with this herself from time to time, but singing every song in the same tempo with identical mellow and ease, doesn’t help you form an identity. While he has a distinct tone to his voice, it was all too mellow to make much of an impression. He did have one memorable moment towards the end of his set, though, when he sang a song about divorce entitled “Back My Name.” A country/rocker, I could see Vince Gill recording the tune and working his magic on it.