Ron Pope is a New Yorker who moved to Nashville and puts out his music on his Brooklyn Basement imprint. He’s due in Europe in September to promote this self-produced album; London’s Union Chapel is a smart booking given the rich tenor voice, with a hint of vibrato, with which he delivers his melodic three-minute meditations.
Some of these tracks first appeared in 2022 on a five-track EP which also included covers of Good Riddance by Green Day and Fade Into You by Mazzy Star. The Good Old Days (‘are happening right now’) is a delightful piano-led ballad where The Mayries provide enchanting harmonies; Lie, Cheat & Steal, which mentions London Calling by The Clash, is a backwards sort of plea to a loved one to ‘lie right in my arms…cheat death here in the dark…steal my breath away’; and Make Me Stay is more direct plea to be touched and kissed (‘I’ve told you that I need you in a thousand different ways’).
The album has been trailed by two further songs with video promos performed live to camera. The Real Thing, like much of the album, reminds me of a Five For Fighting song, full of vulnerability (‘I keep my walls up’) and piano notes where the sustain pedal has been deployed. To Be Without You is a duet between Ron and Ira Wolf; the pair are ‘scared’ and Ron even tells her to ‘covet me’ and ‘control me’. It’s a song where the subject is not passion but its potential, and it will make audiences pull each other closer.
Elsewhere, Body Language has a chunky blues guitar underneath some muttering about ‘a choir of angels’, while Love Is A Thing You Do is a guidebook to adoration where Ron’s narrator tells his beloved: ‘I will kiss you in the morning and before you shut your eyes’. Three Days After Christmas is a mood piece, this time over acoustic guitar, where our narrator indulges in pathetic fallacy because he hasn’t been ‘warm inside’ for a while. You’re OK, meanwhile, is almost Christian music, such is its lyric of self-empowerment where Ron tells his listener that rainfall will pass and ‘all we can do is try until we’re gone’.
Closing track You Are That Someone (‘that I can’t forget’) ends with a flourish and a bit of falsetto. The middle eight is almost goth, but that might be due to the arrangement with the strings chuntering away behind Ron’s desperate cry. It rounds off a mature set of songs that can sit alongside Lewis Capaldi, Ed Sheeran and any number of sensitive singer/songwriters.
Corey Kent – Blacktop
Here comes another Hot Sexy Guy, this one with a Ryan Gosling face, offering radio-ready commercial (or is it corporate?) country music. Corey Kent has been performing since he was a pre-teen and popped up on The Voice in 2015 as Corey Kent White. He sang Chicken Fried and had to wait until the final bar for Blake Shelton and Pharrell Williams to turn their chairs; he chose his fellow Okie Blake and reached the top eight.
After two independent albums he was picked up by RCA Nashville and was paired with their staff producer Jay Joyce (Brothers Osborne, Ashley McBryde and notably Eric Church). He also sheared off his surname. Better still, Morgan Wallen put Wild As Her on a shelf, Corey or his team picked it up and he now has a number one song on country radio, which kicks off these ten new songs.
As with many major releases, and indeed as with Ron Pope’s album, the tracks have been sprinkled onto streaming platforms across many months. Hood of That Car was released last August, a tale of ‘blue jean dreamers’ falling in love (and more besides) on a Chevrolet. It is one of many power ballads on the album that includes Man of the House (‘she won’t tell you but she needs you’), which arrived in February. Corey’s vocals have flecks of a boyband vocalist in it, which matches the narrator’s status as ‘a boy trying to be the man of the house’. How You Know You Made It came out last October, its enormous chorus matching the narrator’s boast of his small-town success.
The throwaway power ballad Call It a Night, written by Ryan Hurd, is set during a ‘small time summer’; after a couple of woahs, the hook is the tongue-twisting ‘we ain’t ever gonna ever gonna never gonna call it a night’. I prefer Long Story Short, which has a heartbreak-laden lyric about being young and dumb ‘but it sure as hell ain’t healed’; it opens with a blast of organ then settles into a rock groove.
The nostalgic BiC Flame (sic) looks back to Rolling Stones concerts on VHS and inevitably mentions vinyl and the King James Bible; less inevitably, Corey notes that ‘Levis fade’, which is a cracker of an image. Something’s Gonna Kill Me (‘might as well be what makes me feel alive’) seems to take inspiration from the myth of James Dean and offers a melodic tune full of forward motion. Gone As You also has an impressive thrust, a spindly guitar line and a narrator ‘turning that front porch into a bar’ much as Morgan Wallen would do.
The great Lee Thomas Miller helped Corey write the closing track Once or Twice (‘I’ve stared down the devil’). Over a tom-tom shuffle beat and an arrangement that lifts into the instrumental middle section, the narrator says that trouble has found him. It’s a character song that shows Corey fits into the country/rock vein of those other acts Produced by Jay Joyce, which is a genre in itself.
Once a country artist stops being an automatic on radio, there are two paths to take: obscurity or legacy. Lonestar, for instance, have just re-recorded ten of their hits, one of which was a Hot 100 number one. They have a packed summer season, playing Meskwaki Bingo Casino Hall in Tama, Iowa and Coos County Fair in Myrtle Point, Oregon. They are also part of the Country Legends Festival in West Liberty, Ohio alongside Trace Adkins, Sara Evans and Shenandoah. The four acts have 24 country chart-toppers between them. Obscurity or legacy.
Kenny Rogers is no longer with us. His legacy is secure. He was always going to be a big draw thanks to his many, many hits, not least his Hot 100 pop number one duet with Dolly Parton that the Bee Gees wrote for him. (Fun fact: Amazed by Lonstar was the first country song to top the pop charts since Islands in the Stream.) Kenny also took songs by Lionel Richie (Lady), Don Schlitz (The Gambler) and Bob Seger (We’ve Got Tonight) into the country charts and had the same kind of late-1990s revival that Tom Jones had.
His death in March 2020 came right at the point that people quarantined in their homes and, three years later, his estate have followed those of Tupac and Prince in preparing a posthumous collection. There are ten tracks here, plus two bonus tracks including the deathless At Last; eight have never been heard before and two were on a Time Life box set.
That prior pair are a version of the magnificent Lionel Richie song Goodbye and a perky, excellent duet with Dolly Parton called Tell Me That You Love Me. Unlike Islands In The Stream it doesn’t drop awkwardly two tones from C to A-flat; instead, and much more smoothly, it hops up a tone from C to D, the so-called Barry Manilow key change.
I Wish It Would Rain was written by Motown staffers Whitfield and Strong (the team who heard it through the grapevine) and has Kenny’s narrator sad that ‘my girl has found another…my life is filled with gloom’ over suitably ‘wet’ production. Kenny’s acoustic version of Wonderful Tonight adds lush strings and the singer sells to the listener both his own feelings and the vision of his lady. Eric Clapton’s legacy is and will be more patchy than Kenny’s.
There are a couple of other duets here. Am I Too Late, sung with Kim Keyes, has some delicious chords that undercut the narrator’s passion and add interest to a song that might otherwise have been by-numbers. Jamie O’Neal appears on the power ballad Straight Into Love (‘let’s dive in deep and get soaking wet’); Jamie is the country star who had two number ones at the start of the 2000s during the Kenn-aissance, and her version of All By Myself appears in Bridget Jones’s Diary. Obscurity or legacy?
Elsewhere, Love Is A Drug (‘that you can’t put down’) was written by Kim Carnes – another act with a Hot 100 chart-topper, hers about a pair of famous eyes – and has that swampy modal feel of Eric Church’s Stick That In Your Country Song. Catchin’ Grasshoppers (great title) has the sort of fiddle that pops up on Garth Brooks’ serious songs and a narrator helpless when greeted by the ‘silent tears’ of his kids. It’s hokey and country yet has an Adult Contemporary sheen, the USP which made Kenny a squillionaire in his era.
That’s Love To Me (‘my heart flies like a leaf in the fall’) is a country wedding song written by Gary Burr, one of the masters of the form who also has a Hot 100 number one as a writer of Clay Aiken’s blaharama This Is The Night – obscurity, in case you’re wondering, but Clay Aiken was obscure as soon as the TV show had made use of him. There’s a similar tone to I Will Wait For You, a chanson which was nominated for an Academy Award when sung by Catherine Deneuve. It opens with an expensive-sounding Hollywood-ish string section before Kenny comes in with his own velvet offering. You can practically hear the legacy.
Tanya Tucker – Sweet Western Sound
Obscurity or legacy also dominates Tanya Tucker’s latter career. She was a teenage country star who enjoyed a relationship with Glen Campbell and who had her own renaissance in the late 1980s. In the 2010s, however, she was mostly quiet.
Her legacy has been given a boost by a recent induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame and awards for her collaboration with producer Brandi Carlile on her 2019 set While I’m Livin’. Four years later, with Carlile now elevated to a modern-day Joni Mitchell, Tucker returns with a short set which she launched at the Ryman Auditorium.
The album cover strongly reminds me of Loretta Lynn thanks to its choice of font and the way Tanya stands confidently in front of a horse. Unlike her early work as a girl singer being handed tunes to take on to the charts and the stage, it is hard now to separate the singer and the song. On the outstanding City of Gold, Tanya or her narrator sings ‘I wear my sadness like a summer dress’, while The List matches its singer: ‘You heard stories about my past and they’re probably true’. It is actually a kiss-off because however long the list of her faults, she can think of more that the person making that list possesses!
Carlile and her cohorts Tim and Phil Hanseroth provide harmonies across the album and contribute the songs Kindness (‘the hand of fate drags us all behind’) and That Wasn’t Me (‘did I bring shame on my family?’). Bernie Taupin – who has a memoir out in September and has also written a fair few chart-toppers including We Built This City – wrote the toe-tapper Breakfast in Birmingham with Brandi. Sung over a rich arrangement, the lyrics includes ‘molasses’, ‘C-sharp harp’, ‘dixie thunder’ and ‘tie-dyed in gold’. Marconi isn’t playing the mamba any more.
The album’s other producer Shooter Jennings has credits on the piano ballad Waltz Across A Moment and Letter To Linda, which is addressed to Linda Ronstadt and which quotes a couple of her songs. Even though the pair only met once, she ‘left an unforgettable stamp’ on Tanya, where. tells her to ‘rest easy, you already stole the show’. Linda Ronstadt is still alive but her voice is too weak to perform onstage. She already sealed her legacy and there’s a marvellous documentary to prove it.
Elsewhere, the mysterious Ready As I’ll Never Be mentions that old standby ‘the whippoorwill’ and prays ‘May the circle be unbroken’, which is apt as Tanya she also played the Opry, whose anthem is that song, on the day of release. The album closes with When The Rodeo Is Over (Where Does The Cowboy Go?), a suitably atmospheric penpic of someone who is at the crossroads between obscurity and legacy. ‘His boots belong to memory and his spurs belong to rust’ is one of many lines where it’s helpful that the vocalist is in her sixties and can sympathise with the character in the song.
Does country music need its own Post Malone? Well it has its own Bruno Mars (Thomas Rhett), its Celine Dion (Carrie Underwood) and its Ed Sheeran (Luke Combs), so why not have a Music City equivalent to Postie too?
And while I’m asking the questions, here’s one that has been asked for a century and will be asked for another: what on earth is country music anyway? If it’s a story, then Stan by Eminem can be a country song, can’t it? Chet Atkins once took a load of coins out of his pocket and jingled them in his hand. If it makes money, it’s country, regardless of the arrangement, and Chet Atkins should know as he pioneered the Nashville Sound which brought the orchestra to the hillbilly sound. Thus, it follows that rappers can pivot to singing spiritually inclined songs of redemption.
Taking his name from what we call a Swiss roll, Jelly Roll is a Nashville-born felon whose second act is bewitching millions. Last year he sold out the Ryman Auditorium and this spring he took three CMT Awards, although oddly that hat-trick goes unmentioned in the PR bumpf surrounding his second country album. It cannot fail. This piece from Saving Country Music is one of many recent profiles, and it notes a connection between a shady chap who has since been accused of abusing his employees and from whom Jelly Roll has distanced himself.
Jelly Roll, a guy named Jason, has paid his dues as much as any bar band on Lower Broadway, hustling mixtapes and building an organic following. Today he can make money for his label because he stands out in the market, at least visually. Aurally he sits in the Hardy-Wallen-Zimmerman sweet spot which means the album’s anthemic lead single Need A Favor could sit next to Last Night and Fall In Love on country radio, where it’s currently in the top 20. Significantly, the song was also a top five US rock song, which means he’s being pitched to rock crowds too.
In this respect he follows the template set by Hardy, who is one of many big names to have written tunes on Whitsitt Chapel, in his case the song Church. There are digital drum loops and atmospheric patches along with an Aldeanish solo but Jelly Roll sells the hell out of the vocal where he forsakes ‘the wild things’ and cigarettes in favour of the Good Lord.
Jessie Jo Dillon was there for album opener Halfway To Hell, where we instantly learn our narrator is a ‘trailer park tornado, jagged edges on my halo’. His constituency must be fellow sinners who might, like their apostle, take ‘holy water with my bourbon’. Good and evil has been a topic for all writers for centuries, but it just makes me think of how Jelly Roll is similar to Meredith Brooks’ bitch. I wonder if he’d cover it.
Jelly Roll is also a man of romance, as we learn on Kill A Man (which has some gorgeous chords and a soft arrangement) and Hold On Me. The latter was written with Hillary Lindsey and is one of many tunes on the album to go to the Jelly Roll Mood Board and pluck heaven, hell and devils on the shoulder from the word cloud. Nail Me is a pleasant toe-tapper with a hugely mixed metaphor in the chorus (‘nail me to the cross outside your ivory tower’), while She seems to personify addiction.
Aside from Hardy, other radio favourites have hitched their wagon to Jelly Roll’s. The impact track surrounding release week is Save Me (‘from myself, I spent so long living in hell’), which Jelly Roll performed at the ACM Awards with Lainey Wilson. It’s that streaming-friendly duet which features on the album. Behind Bars is a gloomy chant which features Brantley Gilbert, another gruff-voiced big bloke, and Nashville rapper Struggle Jennings, whose grandma is Jessi Colter and whose uncle is Shooter Jennings. He and Jelly Roll have put out four EPs called Waylon & Willie, and both share a past which took them to prison, in Struggle’s case for drugs.
Miranda Lambert co-wrote The Lost, and I think I can hear her vocals in the mix and her melodic writing in every phrase. The production is arena-ready and Jesus gets a namecheck here too. Ashley McBryde was in the room for Unlive (‘you can’t unlive where you’re from’), which features a hyperkinetic rap from Yelawolf and is one of three tracks from the album to be sent to rock radio. We get some autobiography about the narrator’s mum who was ‘turning tricks for paper’ and, again, it’s believable and sellable, much as how Eminem talked about his white trash upbringing at the start of his career.
Zach Crowell, still best known for his work with Sam Hunt, was there for three songs including Unlive. The other two are Dancing With The Devil and album closer Hungover in a Church Pew. The former is another song where the Mood Board provides inspiration: losing control, change, drinking, tobacco, ‘the end of my road’ and Beelzebub too. The latter, which was also written with Wallen’s buddy Hunter Phelps, is a toe-tapper that rewrites Sunday Morning Coming Down and starts with the line: ‘She hit the road and I hit the bottle’. That style of two nouns with the same verb is the poetic device zeugma – from the Greek for the word ‘yoke’ as in ‘yoke the bulls together’ – and I have always liked that (see also She’s Gone where the narrator needs both ‘a drink and a quick decision).
Jelly Roll’s Backroad Baptism tour shows might well be more like a revival meeting, and I imagine the stage show will reprise the ranting preachers that connect the album’s tracks. He is touring arenas and will be joined, among others, by Ashley McBryde, Elle King and Three 6 Mafia(!). I reckon he’ll be over in the UK next year too, even though the brimstones he’s bringing will feel quaint rather than earth-shaking. He’ll get very rich in America and I hope he stays on course to change lives through his music and message.
Perhaps he’ll run for office too, which isn’t as stupid an idea as it sounds.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been listening to a playlist of hundreds of tracks that hit the Modern Rock charts on Billboard. The stars of the genre are Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam, REM, U2 and Coldplay, but in the genre’s 1990s heyday plenty of now-forgotten acts seemed to never be off the charts. Who in 2023 says that any of these are their favourite bands: Goo Goo Dolls, Everclear, Live, Silverchair, Third Eye Blind, Bush or Better Than Ezra?
It suddenly hit me that you could make the same case for the last few decades of country music. Who in 2023 says that their favourite act in the world is Jake Owen, or Randy Houser, or Brantley Gilbert, or Cole Swindell, or Dylan Scott? Just as rock and roll turned into a corporate exercise which united Vans trainers, big outdoor festivals like Lollapalooza and ‘rebellion’ in inverted quotation marks, so country music has served up boardroom-approved stars, some of whom you might not think are creatures of the marketing meeting.
I name this genre of music Corporate Country. There is no point complaining about it: it won’t go away. It exists to make money, sound pleasant and keep the industry ticking over. Bo Burnham called it ‘Stadium Country’ in reference to Keith Urban’s rock sound, noting the disconnect between the act’s music (‘I walk and talk like a fieldhand’) and their millionaire lifestyle with boots that ‘cost three grand’. The song Pandering made a serious point through a jokey song, and I didn’t read any criticism from Music Row of a kid who has since become a neurotic figure of contemporary comedy through a successful Netflix special (and where did Bo get his start? Youtube videos).
If there is one man who sums up Corporate Country, it’s Joey Moi, the staff producer at, and co-founder of, Big Loud Records. You might know him from such hits as Last Night by Morgan Wallen, Cruise by Florida Georgia Line and Up Down by Morgan Wallen featuring Florida Georgia Line. Plus How You Remind Me by Nickelback. Once you know that, you know why FGL succeeded: Joey Moi knows what money sounds like.
So does Scott Borchetta, whose dad was a big figure in radio promotion and whose Big Machine label (the clue is in the name!!) has brought country radio Taylor Swift, Justin Moore, Thomas Rhett and Brantley Gilbert in the last two decades. All of them are marketed heavily to country fans around the world; indeed, after Borchetta sold to the same company which runs Justin Bieber’s career, Big Machine was sold on to the South Korean company that runs BTS’s career. Borchetta remains CEO, even though Taylor Swift is no longer part of his empire.
Does the acknowledgement of the ‘business’ side of the music business make every act signed to a major label Corporate Country? I think it depends on the backstory and the development. Nirvana and Green Day both put out albums on small labels before major labels chucked money at them. REM’s huge success in the 1990s coincided with their multi-album deal with Warners. None of those three are held in a lesser light, but it might be because they all led the charge rather than followed in the slipstream.
On the country side, the biggest and most bankable star is Garth Brooks, who is bigger than the genre he helped make money for. Garth took rock aesthetics – your zipwires, your hollering to the back of the arena – to country music, but after arguing with his management in the mid-1990s he has been independent for 20 years, putting out music on his Pearl label. He did, however, sign an exclusivity deal with Amazon Music to stream his catalogue and repackaged his music smartly with The Limited Series. After he played Central Park, he had no worlds left to conquer so retired for a decade and is now country’s hottest legacy act with inevitable Las Vegas shows booked for 2024. Carrie Underwood, Reba and Brooks & Dunn have also done Vegas. Is Carrie – who won a TV talent show, was signed to Simon Cowell’s label for a long time and today produces her own music – Corporate Country? I don’t think so.
Alongside Garth came Tim McGraw, who started singing about being an Indian Outlaw despite actually being a minor league baseball player’s son who ended up marrying Faith Hill, country music’s equivalent of Celine Dion. McGraw played the O2 Arena as part of the first Country2Country festival in London, offering some uptempo tunes about love and the majestic key change of Live Like You Were Dying. His recent album Here On Earth sounded to me like someone in a boardroom said, ‘Let’s make an album that sounds exactly like Tim McGraw’s greatest hits!’
There are plenty of stars like McGraw who have dominated radio and headlined arenas. Luke Bryan was the Trojan Horse for putting loops and 808s onto country radio, yet he kept to his country roots by playing gigs on farms and bringing out Spring Break EPs. Luke’s winning smile helped sell songs that rhymed ‘catfish dinner’ and ‘winner winner’.
Jason Aldean has had over 30 number ones in his career, all of which sound eerily similar to each other because the formula works. This muscular, masculine country music was the sound of corporate country much as corporate rock became the domain of blokes with a ‘yarl’ in their voice. The ‘yarl’ is the vocal tone that made them sound like the multiplatinum-selling band Pearl Jam, who forsook corporate rock by taking on Ticketmaster. They lost the battle but won the war and are now the world’s leading independent rock band.
What about Jon Pardi, who is finally coming to the UK in 2023? It took him a long time to break through in country, where he was helped by songs written by Rhett Akins like Dirt on My Boots. Four albums in, the Californian has brought the ‘Western’ side back to country just as fiddles and steel guitars and other organic instruments are helping Music City make money.
In a time of brand synergy, where country acts bring out alcohol and appear as judges in TV talent shows, tourist traps are the ultimate corporate country move (short of opening a theme park like Dolly Parton has done. For some reason, I don’t think you can class Dolly as Corporate Country, by the way). The most corporate street Nashville is Broadway. As of June 2023, the following acts have bars on the street: Alan Jackson, Kid Rock, John Rich, Dierks Bentley, Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, Florida Georgia Line and Miranda Lambert. Eric Church and Garth Brooks will open theirs soon.
As I wrote that paragraph I started to hum Tennessee Whiskey, which made me wonder whether Chris Stapleton is Corporate Country. Consider this: he’s on Mercury Records and works out of RCA Records’ Studio A with Dave Cobb; he headlined Country2Country and just won the ACM Award for Entertainer of the Year; he started out as a staff songwriter who wrote hits for Luke Bryan (Drink A Beer), Thomas Rhett (Crash and Burn) and Kenny Chesney, whose song Never Wanted Nothing More, according to its writer, ‘bought me a house’. Tennessee Whiskey, by the way, is a diamond-certified song, matching the success of Cruise, which is perhaps the Corporate Country anthem.
Has Stapleton, the most unlikely superstar in the genre’s history, been disguised as an underdog while all the time being a Corporate Country unit shifter? What about Everybloke Luke Combs, whose brand includes trucker hats, whiskey and coke in a red solo cup and songs about beer? He’s in the O2 Arena in his own right this autumn, but his regular videos of him playing verses of unreleased songs remind long-time fans of what he did at the start of his career. Indeed, his version of Fast Car appeared on his recent album and has been sent to ‘Adult Contemporary’ radio in the UK.
That sounds quite calculated, but I don’t think Combs is Corporate Country much as his pop music equivalent Ed Sheeran is ‘Corporate Pop’. Ed grew up as a teenager gigging relentlessly and selling CDs from the back of a car. He has a genuine affection for both British rap music and Nashville country music, just as Luke Combs has invited 49 Winchester out to open his London shows for him. I don’t think a Corporate Country act can do that.
Corporate Country is everywhere, however, even though we might not notice it. Two successful backroom boys, Ashley Gorley and Shane McAnally, now run their own imprints as a reward for writing smashes for various acts, respectively Tape Room and SMACKsongs. They can thus nurture the next generation of songwriters to write smashes for the next generation of various acts. If a writer can work three sessions a day five times a week, then that’s 60 songs a month and over 700 a year. Per writer. Many of them are lists of rural items or good-time songs, which will help fill time in between car and beer commercials on country radio. As an example, listen to any Dustin Lynch song.
The genre is constantly looking outwards, which is why the Country Music Association was established in the first place, and C2C now has outposts in Europe and Australia. CMA Fest – the annual jamboree in Nashville which this year takes place over the weekend of June 8-11 – brings countless corporate acts to the Bridgestone Arena, with minor league stars and legacy acts also dotted around various venues in the city during the daytime. Some of these newer acts will be signed to development deals that do not guarantee even an EP release; others will hit the zeitgeist and end up following Morgan Wallen to number one on the Hot 100.
There is a reason why Wallen still has a career despite being The Man Who Said The Word. It’s because he’s Corporate Country’s Exocet missile, helping to land country music in the heads of non-country fans and perhaps convincing them to head to the Opry or Dollywood or Lower Broadway. Big Loud Records are using the Wallen money to send a Texan artist called Jake Worthington on tour around the clubs of the Red Dirt scene this year. They have sent Hardy’s music to rock radio because it sounds so much like Corporate Rock, while Jake Owen is about to release another album of music in the Jimmy Buffett/Kenny Chesney mould. Joey Moi, as ever, is the producer.
Of course country music needs to make money. The infrastructure of Nashville depends on its success and there needs to be fresh meat and fresh sounds every few years, with the market flooded with acts who float (Luke Bryan) or sink (David Nail). I think it’s quite a Corporate Country move for Kane Brown and Luke Combs to sing about Brooks & Dunn b-sides and debut albums, or for Scotty McCreery to sing an outside write that strings together a host of George Strait songs to make the point ‘Damn Strait! You’re killing me, man!’ This sends new listeners back to the old songs and perpetuates the brand of country music as a whole, which is bigger than any act, even Garth Brooks.
As I’ve been writing this, I’ve been wondering whether I am tying myself in knots. I hope I have delineated the leaders of the pack with the obvious Corporate Country dweebs. If you look at a list of number one songs through the ages, very few of them made it beyond their chart run to make an impression on future generations. I don’t think the likes of Alan Jackson, Alabama, The Dixie Chicks and Loretta Lynn can ever be called Corporate Country; Barbara Mandrell and Martina McBride can.
Shania Twain is effectively Corporate Rock in the body of a Canadian country singer. Eleven (11!!) songs from Come On Over were singles, which is an extreme example of milking the cash cow dry. The most corporate move of 2023 in country has been the announcement that Dolly Parton’s new album will be a rock album replete with guest stars. The release is inspired by her surprise induction into a building or idea which personifies Corporate Rock: the Cleveland-based Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
If the proliferation of country stars in the Rock Hall isn’t evidence of how country music is thought of in 2023 – Willie Nelson will be inducted this autumn – then I don’t know what is.
Well, they picked the right weekend for it. Bank Holiday sunshine greeted early risers on Saturday morning, some of whom were doing pilates in the brand-new sandpit in the middle of the concession area. There was pizza, burgers, curry, tacos and cookie pie, which would provide energy for axe throwing. The festival hoodies on sale would have been less popular than the t-shirts, although it did get chilly early in the mornings before the sun got his hat on.
Talking of hats (segue), I saw a line of four lasses in cowboy hats that they may well have got from Wayne Hadlow’s stall packed with country gear, as well as someone in the Bass Pro Hat which gave Thomas Rhett a recent songtitle. The uniform for festivals like this is still jeans for everyone, check shirts for men and floral print for women, and there was a good variety of band t-shirts. Robyn Red pointed to her mum who was modelling a white tee with her logo on it, and my favourite of all was a homemade tee which boasted of a pug called Merle’s appreciation for Emilia Quinn.
Perhaps encouraged by a day without rain, dogs were everywhere: terriers, greyhounds, spaniels, mixed breeds. They were all well behaved too, aside from two dogs which playfully (I think) joshed one another as I watched Megan Rose play. It was also nice to play Spot The Country Star: SJ and Kieran Morgan showed up on Saturday, Kezia Gill on Sunday. Connor Christian from Nashville-based band The Southern Gothic was looking on in a Dawes t-shirt, the first time I’ve seen one of my favourite groups represented in fabric in the UK.
I offer the caveat that I was only there for Saturday and until mid-afternoon Sunday, and had some interviews to carry out, so missed much of the music. I had seen Katy Hurt, Gasoline & Matches and Two Ways Home at past gatherings, and they all played on Friday night either to a hero’s welcome or to curious neophytes. The chap selling the merch had been corralled to the festival by his partner, who was related to a celebrated figure in the UK movement. It was thus his first time hearing Never Have I Ever, something which happened to me at B&B when I first saw Sally and Steve do their little ditty. The circle remains unbroken.
Eddy Smith & The 507 would reprise their 2022 set, which I watched from the converted bus, in the middle of Sunday’s entertainment. Eddy and co were busy across the weekend backing the visiting musicians, who included Jessie G whose husband and newborn baby were in the crowd. There were plenty of kids rushing around the site or playing in the sandpit while their parents savoured some top entertainment.
The Paddock Stage, run expertly and with stopwatch precision by Gavin Chittick and Rik Holmes, hosted a mix of quiet and heavy stuff across the weekend. The Reeves Brothers brought a taste of a Lower Broadway playing-for-tips honky-tonk and I will never forget the solo played by one of the brothers behind his head. The long-haired, sunglasses-wearing Adam Brucass led a quintet which included a mohawked guitarist in tracks which showed off his heavy voice, though he knew when to country it up as well.
Backwoods Creek headlined the tent on Saturday night, previewing songs from their forthcoming album, two of which were on a CD that was flung into the crowd. Though they are predominantly a rock band now with five extraordinary musicians which include Yan and Johnny’s twin guitar attack (and mazaltov to Johnny on his own new baby), they have history with the festival. Perhaps for that reason, they brought back to their set a tender ballad called When I Grow Up. It has been impressive to see how, musically and in terms of personnel, the band has done the same in the last five years.
It was all the more impressive because they had just come off stage as Austin Jenckes’ pick-up band, helping to flesh out Austin’s tunes including a song written by Lori McKenna about outsiderdom called Fat Kid. Austin’s leap from the drum riser was a nice bit of showmanship, but the music was top quality on its own merits. I didn’t even notice his name had been misspelled ‘Austen’ on the video screen which had been added to the main stage set-up. Hopefully there are photos which don’t contain this error, or which can be edited because I is just E without the three dashes.
There were three writer’s rounds which eased folk into Saturday. Nine songwriters played three tunes each between 11am and 2pm, some of which have been cut by top artists; Trick Savage previewed a song on Ashley McBryde’s next album and gave us a dog song, while Blue Foley brought out a new tune called Sugar Daddy Issues, getting his tongue around a tough middle section which listed ways to find love today.
Josh Setterfield’s three acoustic tunes were an appetiser for his own Sunday night set. Like his fellow Aussie Morgan Evans, he offered a winning smile and melodic tunes including a brand new release called Life Ain’t So Bad whose mood matched the sunshine. Deborah Parlor came across the sea from Holland and was an assured performer with great songs who introduced each number to provide context. Chastity Brown turned side on to play keys during her melodic mid-afternoon performance, while Brooke Law threatened to be upstaged by her electric guitar player, which may have explained her choice of a pastel-patterned outfit that matched her warm vocals and melodies.
Mixed in with the visiting performers on the main stage was Emilia Quinn, who used the festival to announce the late autumn release of her album Wanderlust and Breaking Rules, which will be supported by a five-date UK tour. At the end of her electrifying set, all the hours of rehearsal and excitement came out as tears of joy. The fact that she held her own amid Everette, Jessie G and Austin Jenckes was an enormous show of faith from Gary Quinn, who outdid himself with the 2023 line-up.
When I bumped into him on Sunday, I said he’d have it tough to make 2024 even better. After eight editions, the mix of homegrown and invited artists seems ideal, and it is testament to Gary’s networking skills that he can pull the quality of acts. We agreed that booking stars like Austin and Everette, as it had been with Brett Kissel and William Michael Morgan, was tactical; they would have good things to say about Buckle & Boots if any of their fellow artists asked them if they should come over to play some farm near Manchester. He couldn’t guarantee a sunny day but he could certainly ensure them an audience.
As ever, among the originals were familiar chestnuts. The Reeves Brothers did Eastbound and Down, The Songs & Stories Collective (Sarah Yeo, Donna Marie and the duo Tennessee Twin) united for Runaway by The Corrs and Backwoods Creek brought out Jeremy McComb for an outstanding take on Walking In Memphis. Megan Rose actually told the audience to get up and clap along to Ring of Fire, who obliged in fine voice.
Jessie G delivered a faithful take on her good friend Gretchen Wilson’s hit Here For The Party, where she broke the fourth wall and wandered through the crowd. Everette explained their name by singing Man of Constant Sorrow, which was ‘sung’ in O Brother Where Art Thou by George Clooney’s Everette character. The duo from Kentucky produced my Top Moment of the festival by leading a singalong of Rocket Man, one of those evergreen songs that will still be known when we actually raise kids on Mars.
This year, in a coup for the festival, Karl Hancock had brought together fiddles, bassoons, trumpets and backing vocalists to deliver the Saturday finale: 90 minutes of country music with orchestra. I heard them running through the set in the morning so I knew Eddy Smith would be matching Stapleton on Tennessee Whiskey and Jade Helliwell and Matt Hodges would lead the crowd in a strings-soaked Shallow. All the Big Country Songs – Devil Went Down To Georgia, Country Roads, 9 to 5 – were present, while surprising rock medleys provided drunken singalongs; isn’t Livin’ on a Prayer a country song at heart, just relocated to Jersey Shore?
Sunday night would see a headline set from another visitor, Aaron Goodvin, and the traditional country covers set with acts like Matt Hodges, Luke Flear and Em/Elle, by which time I was already in bed back in Watford. I woke the next morning with a hoarse voice, mostly gained from yelled conversations with PR guru Rachel Sellick and her producer partner Tyler. I also joined a few hundred others in beginning the countdown to the 2024 festival, which will also take place over the late May Bank Holiday weekend.
I’ve been thinking about UK country a lot this year. I’m trying to take the pulse of it on behalf of The British Country Music Festival, which happens in September and closes the summer festival season where its heart beats most loudly. It will take me and few thousand others up to Stockport this weekend to enjoy a line-up full of Brits who to their great credit are side by side with American acts. They include Two Ways Home, Matt Hodges, Backwoods Creek and Emilia Quinn, who are all extremely good live performers with great catalogues.
As I examine in the essay’s forthcoming second part, Nashville Meets London has brought US and UK acts together for a good few years. This week it hosted Robbie Cavanagh, Paris Adams and Connor Christian: Robbie’s from Manchester, Paris is from Birmingham while Connor, the frontman of The Southern Gothic, is based in Nashville but grew up in Ohio.
Robbie was launching his album Tough Love, his first since 2017, which has been beset by inevitable distribution issues that thankfully didn’t prevent it coming out in time for the late May bank holiday. Robbie comes with a Bob Harris Recommends sticker after he was awarded the UK Americana Award which is given by Bob to promising roots performers. Later this year he’ll be playing The British Country Music Festival and The Long Road, and ought to convert more acolytes to his cause.
There’s evidence of a master craftsman here: there’s an off-kilter bar near the end of Thinkin’ Of Leaving (‘get up and go!’ he advises), a spectacular middle eight on Another Dead End and the near seven-minute centrepiece Feels Good bathes the listener in brilliance. I think Robbie’s own description of ‘fine dining music’ is perfect, although I won’t compare the album to an expensive steak or a vintage claret.
It’s a trite and easy comparison but Fare Thee Well Letter (‘there ain’t nothin’ at all like losing you’) sounds like a lost James Taylor song from 1969, with a directness in the delivery. Helpless has the spiky guitars, massed harmonies and lapping organ of Nathaniel Rateliff’s work, as well as a main ascending hook which you will find it helpless to try to shake from your head.
As per its title, there is heartbreak etched over the album. Abby Gundersen voices the female figure on Hungover, where Robbie tells her to ‘look for something better’ and not to ‘waste your life being here by my side’. On Hung Up, which is one of plenty of toe-tappers on the album, he sings of ‘a million things to prove’ while he hears his beloved ‘screaming down the phone’. There are places where his voice matches the grit of Ed Sheeran’s, although I hear a lot of Ben Earle from The Shires too.
Driving is present as a motif running through the album, as on the first line of Hey It’s Alright (‘what if I drove far away from here?’) and the choruses of Another Dead End (used as a metaphor) and Drove. That song takes him to Paris but he ‘should have stayed home’, at which point the melody clambers up to the falsetto range in a fine musical moment.
The album ends with the showstopper Look Out Below, where Robbie realises he and his beloved have drifted apart. The strings and pedal steel guitar provide a melodic accompaniment to a lyric where Robbie is ‘standing in the garden ‘neath the ashes and bones’ which makes me think of Ben Folds or Ron Sexsmith, two other technicians of songwriting.
It’s hard to fault this album, with its variety, musicality and depth. Like his fellow North-Westerner Robert Vincent, Robbie flies the flag for contemporary British songwriting which should move beyond the country movement. I hope his music finds a wide and appreciative audience and I can’t wait to see him at the Empress Ballroom in September.
What a fab few years this Mississippi trio have had. Chapel Hart appeared on America’s Got Talent, with their golden buzzer audition helping to raise a profile which was already rising thanks to support from CMT. Their TV success meant they couldn’t come over to the UK last year, and their public profile was such that they got to play the Opry last September. They also finished in the top 5 of the TV show and performed in the Grand Final with Darius Rucker. Weeks after both this and their second Opry appearance, singer Danica had surgery on her vocal cords.
It is handy for them that country music, as I keep saying, needs to adapt to the current era or face irrelevance but, obviously, this is not mere tokenism. More interestingly, the day this album launches, Chapel Hart are playing a show in Los Angeles, although they have been on the road most of the year bedding in tracks from this third album, released independently.
The British equivalent of American Pride (‘hold hands and step aside!’) would get nowhere near Britain’s Got Talent. The trio sang their anthem on national television in their audition and will thus probably sing it at every show for the rest of their career. I hope they use their platform to change the country for the better, because there’s not a great deal of pride coming out of the States aside from Chapel Hart themselves.
With soft vocalised ‘oohs’ from Devynn and Treauna, the opening track Glory Days sounds an awful lot like country music in the 1990s. The first line of Fam Damily (‘we’re all a little messed up’) is about surviving family life in the 1990s. Perfect for Me was written with Leslie Satcher, who was an A-List writer back in the decade that ran between 1990 and 1999. Danica’s vocals blast out like Jo Dee Messina’s, who was a star in the 1990s, and there’s prominent fiddle on many tracks, like that decade’s finest tracks.
All your favourite country song motifs are here: drinking songs (the tremendously hooky Dear Tequila), heartbreak ballads (Love in Letting Go) and tunes about missing your old crew while out on the road (Home Is Where The Hart Is – yep, it’s a pun). And you can bet there’s a song about trucks too: This Girl Likes Fords has the chuggy feel of a Kenny Chesney stadium anthem and is sung with charm and elan.
There’s a reminiscin’ toe-tapper called If You Ain’t Wearin’ Boots that celebrates (‘that simple kind of life’) and is in the same key as Follow Your Arrow (it also uses that song’s ‘if you…’ format in the verses). Redneck Fairytale is the wedding song perfect for swaying to, and Danica’s twang is backed up by a delightful few bars of pedal steel and a retro-sounding guitar solo.
To close, having already spun a song off Jolene, Chapel Hart followed Loretta Lynn’s recommendation to update Fist City, which has the album’s finest arrangement and will be a highlight of their live set. They do it in a far better way than Cole Swindell merely rewrote Heads Carolina Tails California, except they don’t have a major label behind them so they had to rely on Simon Cowell to boost their career.
Nonetheless, the trio celebrated release by thanking people who continued ‘to inspire us to just be ourselves’. That sounds country to me.
Brandy Clark is the songwriter supremo whom it either seems people love or don’t yet love because they’ve not heard of her. After collaborating with Brandi Carlile on their song Same Devil, Brandy chose Brandi to produce her fourth album.
This is a winning formula akin to how Manchester City have brought in Erling Haaland and are about to win three trophies barring a catastrophe. Brandy Clark is a frequent visitor to the UK and has a musical called Shucked on Broadway; Brandi Carlile is the leading exponent of Joniana, which is North American folk music influenced by her hero Joni Mitchell. Together, it’s hard to see how this album can fail, or fail to move people.
There were three teasers released before the whole album was. Buried’s narrator seems to be waiting for the end of things but she promises never to stop loving that person, which makes the stabs of ‘if’ even more heartbreaking. Both Buried and Northwest were written with Jessie Jo Dillon, the latter being a tempo track that kicks off the album’s second side and reminds listeners that Brandy is a lady from Washington state, where the ‘compass in my heart still points’.
There’s a nice chunky string quartet running through several keys at the end of that song, which segues into She Smoked in the House, a song Lori McKenna could have written that is full of details about Brandy’s grandma – the Sears catalogue, Pepsi over Coke – and references to plenty of old country stars including Merle, Loretta and Buck Owens. Then there’s an eight-bar dobro solo.
Brandi Carlile’s buddies Lucius provide harmonies on Tell Her You Don’t Love Her (‘even if it’s a lie’), one of those songs of advice from a third party (and whose melody will remind you of That’s Amore). She turns her scorn on herself on All Over Again with its ‘hate you, hate you’ hook. You can hear Brandi on backing vocals there and elsewhere, and Brandi lends her voice out front to Dear Insecurity, a ballad which will chime with many of the pair’s fellow fortysomethings. The final verse, which is a hell of a punch, is proof that maturity is a key weapon in a songwriter’s armoury.
Bringing in guitar wizard Derek Trucks for the murder ballad Ain’t Enough Rocks is a good move, just as smart as putting it as the album’s opening track for maximum impact. Elsewhere, Brandy’s pals Trevor Rosen and Shane McAnally were in the room for Come Back To Me, a series of invitations to someone to do their thing because, as Brandy sings, ‘I don’t want to hold you back’. The influence of The Band, who founded what is now called Americana, is evident on Best Ones, a disguised wedding song with plenty of harmonica that sounds timeless.
Lucie Silvas co-writes closing track Take Mine, which I am sure many will point out could have fitted on the Shucked soundtrack thanks to its showstopping nature. With a musical on Broadway and a tour for this fantastic fourth album, I hope Brandy Clark remembers to savour the latest chapter of a brilliant career.
Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives – Altitude
Marty Stuart is one of the most significant custodians of country music. When he’s not preparing his Mississippi museum of country or popping up on Ken Burns’ TV series, he’s the MC of the quartet I caught in recent visits to both Country2Country and The Long Road. No British act would dare call themselves The Fabulous Superlatives, but in Marty’s case it actually seems like understatement.
This second album as a quartet – Cousin Kenny on guitar, Chris Scruggs on bass, Harry Stinson on drums – follows the 2017 collection Way Out West. There are 11 tracks and three interludes titled Lost Byrd Space Train, so it’s a concept album of sorts.
The musicality is excellent and summarises entire eras of commercial music in America. The title track is good old honky-tonky music full of twang; indeed, the very title sounds perfect for a Buck Owens vocal parody. Vegas could be a Glen Campbell shuffle, Tomahawk a Bob Dylan diatribe (‘there’s absolutely nothing new underneath the sun’), while there are some John Barry strings on The Sun Is Quietly Sleeping.
A lot of this album comes off as homage. Sitting Alone, a song about nothing at all, might intentionally sound like George Harrison, while there are some suitably sitar-sounding effects in the guitar line of Space to go with the Laurel Canyon harmonies. Rockabilly and surf music, art forms which came and went before Marty became a pro in the early 1970s, both arrive on A Friend of Mine, Time To Dance and Nightriding.
Country Star has a splendid descending chromatic chorus for added stickability, while The Angels Came Down (‘for me’) is a rich ballad with Marty close-mic’d for extra gravitas. I imagine he had his old friend and frontman JR Cash in mind when he was recording this. Marty’s life is spent making sure that JR and his contemporaries are never forgotten in this digital age. Carve out some time to listen to Altitude this summer.
I’ve written before about copycats, the acts that follow in the slipstream of a massive, bankable star. If you know nothing about the music business, it’s equal parts music and business, which is why Morgan Wallen’s success has allowed people with similar voices to succeed.
Wallen’s tour opener Bailey Zimmerman leapt off of TikTok with his long locks, good looks and fine voice to become a chart-topper in his own right, at the behest of his label Elektra. His two number ones Fall in Love and Rock and a Hard Place are both on his 16-track debut full-length release. Both songs first appeared on last year’s nine-song EP Leave The Light On, which also featured the humongous pop/rock tune Where It Ends. Bailey wrote that one with pop writer Joe London, who also produces the successful And The Writer Is podcast.
Four of the album’s songs have been previewed in recent months, one of which is the title track which opens the album. Bailey is ‘in this cold bright light…in the back of the church’ to prove that he’s a God-fearing fella who was loved by an angel of a lady. The song is a synecdoche of the album itself, which is a very unnecessary way for me to say that Religiously is equal parts Combs – there’s fiddle, banjo and acoustic guitar – and Wallen.
We’ve also already heard Fix’n To Break (no I or G!), where handyman Bailey can fix things around the house but not a dead relationship, and the hummable break-up song Get To Gettin’ Gone (with no G). Fellow Wallen tour buddy Ernest was in the room, or on the bus, for the album’s closing track Is This Really Over (‘cos I need some closure’), which is decorated with harmonies, vocalised oohs and a delicious diminished chord in the chorus.
I just wish there were more melodies like it amongst the sludge of love songs, which all blur into one when you listen to the full album (which few people will do anyway). Bailey is ‘a wreck’ and ‘a mess’ as he can ‘forgive’ but not get over his ex on Forget About You, which has some Aldeanish guitar work. Conversely he is ‘hung up on goodbye’ on the Other Side of Lettin’ Go and sings a similar song on Chase Her, whose chorus melody and lyrics (‘dust on a dirt road’) make me think that the song was written with an uncredited algorithm.
This is another album where the lack of thematic and sonic variation can get wearisome. Sometimes love can be ‘a fire that’ll burn you if you get too close’ (You Don’t Want That Smoke, an outside write from Tucker Beathard) and there are ‘shots you can’t outrun’ and ‘a heart full of bullet holes’ (Warzone), ‘Scars from your past’ can heal, however (Pain Won’t Last), and not even Bailey’s best is good enough to keep her (Fadeaway). Why put all four of these songs on an album when just the one would do? Money, that’s why.
More happily, on wedding song Found Your Love, Bailey’s status as ‘desperado’ and ‘long lost soul’ is improved by a woman. Even an amped-up version of the folk song God’s Gonna Cut You Down – which would work well next to Blake Shelton’s God’s Country – is no reprieve after 12 very similar tracks about losing love. In any case, it’s a redundant cover because Johnny Cash’s version is unbeatable.
So what’s the point in Bailey Zimmerman? Ask Elektra Records and their annual reports. Like Priscilla Block before him, I fear Bailey is another example of a major-label bidding war leading to a creatively blah product rolled out with a (paywalled) New York Times interview. He gets to play stadiums and has a Billboard top ten tune already, so good luck to him.
I admire Parker McCollum, the self-proclaimed ‘gold-chain cowboy’. He’s young and pretty enough to break into the country radio game outside his home state of Texas. He perfectly intersects the traditional sound of Texan radio and the image-centric style of Nashville. Guided by producer Jon Randall and his mentor Randy Rogers, Parker is to Texas what Morgan Wallen is to Nashville and beyond. I imagine Parker is less keen on the global attention that his music deserves.
The exceptional second album of his Nashville deal comes out a few weeks before CMA Fest and has been helped by the radio success of Handle on You, a magnificent drinker’s tune (‘Tennessee and Kentucky…after all this back and forth, a fifth won’t do’) which has cracked the Billboard top 30 across all genres and is sitting behind Last Night on the Country Airplay charts.
(Incidentally, in a depressing week at radio, only one-and-a-half songs in the Top 20 are sung by women: Megan Moroney and Priscilla Block, who sings some of Justin Moore’s You, Me and Whiskey. Like kids being shot in Texas, the paucity of women on country radio is no longer news. It just is. But don’t worry: after an ENTIRE YEAR, Hailey Whitters is about to break into the top 20.)
For Parker, who signed to MCA after spending a good few years building a strong fanbase as an independent act in Texas, he’s likely under less pressure to sell than other acts, although I remember him saying that he’s very hard on himself. So has he, with the equally brill Jon Randall, produced a great bit of art?
There’s a host of top writers in the credits. It isn’t a major-label album without an Ashley Gorley write, and Parker’s offering Have Your Heart Again is another winner. It’s odd to hear a piano-and-vocal Gorley track, but that’s one of his many tricks, as he showed on Crash My Party for Luke Bryan, You’re Gonna Miss This for Trace Adkins and Marry Me with Thomas Rhett. This one has a chorus whose falsetto note matches the emotion of the narrator who lies in bed missing how he’d ‘shiver when you say my name’.
The Love Junkies – whom by now you will know are Liz Rose, Hillary Lindsey and Lori McKenna – were all there for Burn It Down, which has a juddering hook, punishing guitar solo and a vocal full of heartbreak. I’m going to guess it’s Hillary who provides the female voice on the track – on this and other tracks, the female vocals are uncredited – though kudos to Parker for refusing to countenance an obvious guest vocal from someone like Lindsay Ell.
In addition, Lori and Liz were there for I Ain’t Going Nowhere, and Lori and Liz and the great Lee Thomas Miller helped him on Lessons From An Old Man. The former is a perfectly formed power ballad with a rhythmic groove underscoring Parker’s solid vocal where he sings of being ‘restless’ and a dreamer yet loyal to his beloved; the latter is another one of those evocative country songs about how ‘the years sure fly by’ sung from a wise old bloke.
Brett James is a experienced writer familiar with rocking country artists – indeed, he wrote Cody Johnson’s smash On My Way To You – and he’s a fine choice to drive much of the album. Best I Never Had (‘why was I itching to get out of Nashville so bad?’), Too Tight This Time (‘there must be something broken inside this lonely man’) and Don’t Blame Me (‘for lovin’ you’) are mid-tempo reminiscin’ songs full of regret, while Stoned is a tear-stained song in the Stapleton mould.
Among all this regret and sadness, love can conquer all. The album’s third track is Things I Never Told You (‘thank you’s at the top of my list’), a Texas-style wedding ballad that Parker sells well, assisted by pedal steel poking through the arrangement. ‘I wouldn’t be half the man I am if you hadn’t loved this boy’, Parker sings, perhaps articulating what a listener feels for his own beloved. Tough People Do (another Brett James co-write) is a song of solidarity and companionship that ends with a stadium-sized guitar solo: ‘tough times don’t last, tough people do’ is the hook, which sounds like the motto of a men’s group.
Talking of guitars, David Lee Murphy was in the room for Hurricane, the chugging opening track that describes a whirl of a girl who will ‘get her name on a hurricane’. It sounds like a Kenny Chesney track, which makes sense because David is a key part of the Chesney camp. It must have sounded great when Parker closed his Houston Rodeo set with it back in February.
The old timers Brett and Brad Warren helped Parker on two tracks: the acoustic ballad Tails I Lose, for which Wade Bowen showed up to the write and may have come up with the line ‘last dance jukebox quarter’; and the album’s jaunty closing track Wheel, where Parker has been rolling ’15 straight days and every mile you’re on my mind’.
There’s some autobiography, we’re led to believe, on Speed, a moral lesson given to the ‘kid outta Conroe’, Parker’s home town, from an unknown lady (‘wherever she is’). He’s been ‘fifteen years out on the highway pushing red’, but Parker always remembers how this woman came ‘like an old handwritten letter’. The final minute is Southern rock’n’roll and one of the best moments of an album which puts Parker right at the head of the pack.
With Randall King and Cody Johnson also converting people every week to their cause, it’s a wonder that more isn’t being made of this alliance between Nashville’s cream and the Red Dirt Scene.
I imagine Justin Moore is a very nice fella, but he’s not going to be remembered as a country music titan.
It’s interesting going back through time and seeing who hit the top of the country charts. Has the casual music fan ever heard of Earl Thomas Conley? He had 18 number ones and I have heard zero of them ever played on radio or in a country playlist. I know Janie Fricke by name but we hear none of her nine number one hits anywhere today; ditto Mickey Gilley (17), T.G. Sheppard (14) and Gary Morris, who had five. Razzy Bailey had five chart-toppers and I had to look up whether Razzy was male or female (he’s a he). Did you know Anne Murray had ten of them, after she shifted across from the pop charts?
The point I’m making is that so many acts are just there. They sing songs about rural life on record and on tour, and they make money for their label. Then they make another album about the same themes with slightly updated production and do it all again. In recent years, Justin Moore has filled that role.
He’s on Valory Music, the same imprint as Thomas Rhett, and has just released his seventh album. His sixth, 2021’s eight-track Straight Outta The Country, flopped, barely scraping into the Top 40; its only single was the down-home We Didn’t Have Much. Admittedly it became his seventh radio chart-topper and his biggest Hot 100 hit, charting at 41. The lead track from the eight-track Stray Dog, the soft-rock meet-cute With A Woman You Love, became his eighth. Scott Borchetta produced it and it sounds like money.
If you want to know about Scott, the man who built Taylor Swift into a megastar then gave away her masters, have a look at my four-part essay on the guy. He’s the son of a radio guy and has ensured that TR and JM – I don’t think Justin has a cool nickname – are radio-friendly unit shifters. I liked the fluffy pair of Point At You (his regular set opener) and the recent Why We Drink, as well as the hooky Somebody Else Will.
Otherwise Justin’s music is throwaway and very pandering. His first hit, ferchrissakes, was Small Town USA, which is his entire pitch: he’s a man in a hat singing country songs. One of them is about heaven being far away, another about the ones who didn’t make it back home: spiritual and military matters make money in the South. So does rubbish rock music: Justin also sings Motley Crue, having had a hit with a cover of Home Sweet Home.
Eschewing Nashville as a place of residence, Justin has stayed in Arkansas and considers himself a ‘dark horse’. He’s had Arkansas governor and former Trump apologist Sarah Huckabee Sanders on his podcast, which is about to hit 100 episodes. Other interviewees have included Carly Pearce, Jon Pardi, Travis Tritt and Kip Moore, but not yet Dwight Yoakam, Justin’s favourite artist.
He has, however, welcomed label mate Riley Green to the pod, who pops up on album opener Everybody Get Along. Its retro sound recalls Waylon & Willie: the former gets a namecheck and so does Hank Williams Jr, and in the outro the pair quote a song called The Conversation which I hope they paid for. The song is a bit of hokum where the two vocalists blend in with each other. It’s not as bad as that McGraw/T-Hub song Undivided, but it’s just as dull. ‘I like this and I like that’? Come on, you’re better than that.
The current single is You, Me and Whiskey, which features Priscilla Block. Horribly overproduced and grafting the voices on top of the other with little chemistry, it dwells in the Valley of Blah. Elsewhere, Better Slow is a Country Bingo opportunity to mark your card with aspects of rural life. Justin realises that hugging mama and the sunrise ‘are worth soaking in’. This site is called A Country Way of Life and I dig this sort of thing.
There is zero surprise that Randy Montana was in the room, and he was also there for Stray Dogs, where our narrator prays to ‘the Good Lord’ and is a ‘wild and free’ character who sounds like most country singers from about 1991 to 1999. I can imagine a horse bolting across a prairie in the music video; indeed the chorus contains a comparison to ‘a dark horse’ so it would be an obvious pitch.
That Wasn’t Jack (‘that was all me’) is a typically Moore-ish bit of country-rock written with David Lee Murphy. The second verse is about three bars long so we can get back to the chorus extolling Justin’s pick-up skills. Casey Beathard is a veteran of the Music Row writer’s room and he brings some groove to Country On It, whose opening line is ‘my grampappy was a happy hillbilly’ and that’s all you really need to know about that. Justin sells a slight song well thanks to his twang, and the production surrounds the vocal with organic instruments like a pedal steel.
Album closer Get Rich Or Drunk Trying, which has a chunky outro, is another one of those songs where the narrator hates his boss and hasn’t got any money (unlike Scott Borchetta’s signing Justin Moore) but heads to the bar where songs like Get Rich Or Drunk Trying will be playing. I bet it’s gone down well on his tour. I don’t expect JM to follow TR to the UK but it’d be nice to have this down-home country fill our arenas some time.
Megan Moroney will be at The Long Road this year, buffeted by the success of her song Tennessee Orange. The love song has been the breakout smash from the girl from Georgia whose musical guru was Kristian Bush of Sugarland, although she also names Kacey Musgraves as a key influence.
Bush has produced this album, seeing kinship in Megan’s love of hooks and smart lyrics. The opening track I’m Not Pretty (‘I’m not cool, I’m just one of those girls that peaked in high school’) is brilliant in every respect, reminding me of Kacey’s songs thanks to its wry lyric and spacious production. I replayed it immediately.
Megan is certainly lucky to get radio play, given the long-known skew towards male voices in songs that get played in between ‘jock talk’ and Chrysler commercials on country radio. It’s tempting to say, with Carly Pearce and Lainey Wilson doing well at radio, that we’re due to get a third A-list female singer to rival/replace Carrie and free agent Miranda Lambert, who like Reba before them are at risk of ageing out of radio. This does not count for men, as Keith Urban’s career shows. So it goes.
Megan’s voice is a less boisterous Priscilla Block or more sarcastic Kelsea Ballerini, sometimes with the rasp of Sheryl Crow. More than anyone, the voice reminds me of Laci Kaye Booth, whose excellent album couldn’t stop her being dropped by Big Machine.
There’s a honky-tonk feel to Lucky, which needs a line-dance to go with its punchline: ‘tonight you’re lucky I’m drinkin’. A sweet song has Megan trotting around the states before declaring she’s a Georgia Girl who ‘don’t give a damn’ when guys say they’ll change their ways. Sleep On My Side namedrops John Prine, which is tremendously impressive for a mainstream country album. It has a kicker in the chorus that I’m not going to spoil, but it’s more than just an ‘I’m kinda this and you’re kinda that’ song. Despite its four cycled chords, there’s double bass, pedal steel and a piano glissando during the final chorus. Again, it was too good not to repeat at once.
Kansas Anymore was written with three heavyweights: Luke Laird, Rodney Clawson and mother hen of country songwriters Lori McKenna. Like Tennessee Orange it’s gentle and gorgeous, with some dobro high up in the mix, but tells the opposite tale: ‘Damn we were happy, somewhere we took a wrong right turn’. Mustang or Me picks up that song’s mood as Megan sobs at the end of a relationship. I actually went ‘Ooooh!’ when the kicker came: ‘Who’s gonna break down first?’ The song was written with the impressive Mackenzie Carpenter, who is signed to Valory Music and is definitely one to watch in the next few years.
Jessie Jo Dillon was in the room for Girl In The Mirror, the inevitable song for the target demographic that every act of Megan’s type seems to have, but it’ll bring them comfort all the same. Another On The Way orders the listener, or perhaps the narrator herself, to ‘keep your head up’ and move on while being strong. God Plays a Gibson is a song full of rural cliches wrapped around the Lord, who surely ‘spends his off-days up there fishin’…seems like my kinda guy’.
Traitor Joe (great title) is a toe-tapper which tells Joe that his current flame is ‘a player, a wolf in sheep’s clothes’. It’s odd to hear a country song from the perspective of a friend outside of a love triangle. Megan also imagines a conversation with June Carter on Why Johnny (‘What made you wanna make it work?’), which is at least a new spin on the clichéd references to the golden country couple. Sad Songs For Sad People is the closing track, whose title sounds like a Zach Bryan album title but it’s a misnomer because Megan ‘wrote this love song for you’.
This is a really good set of songs that Music City should get behind. Mega will gain hundreds of new fans when she comes to England, and I have a feeling it’s a trial run for a return visit in March 2024.
I don’t know what people love about Kip Moore. Perhaps it’s his filmstar good looks, or his whisky-soaked voice, or his arena rock guitar solos, or how he scrapped an entire album because he wasn’t happy with it.
Whatever it is, British fans of Kip will relish his return to these fair isles this month, which also takes in two German dates and a show in Amsterdam. His trick was to get in early and to come back often. In 2015 he was the opening act on a rockin’ Sunday in London, helping to rev up the crowd for Jason Aldean and Lady A at Country2Country. His nine-song included a cover of Don’t Look Back In Anger and plenty of crowd favourites: Wild Ones, Beer Money, Hey Pretty Girl and his country number one Somethin Bout A Truck.
After the evening finished, he gripped, grinned and signed autographs for hours in a Garth-like way. A year later, just before he headlined his own shows to promote his second album Wild Ones, he told Rolling Stone magazine about how fans chatted to him after that show. ‘They made a connection with passion and the lyrics,’ he said.
Kip’s 2016 gig at the Camden Koko, which ended with two encores, contained 23 tracks including Jimmy Eat World’s The Middle and his current radio smash Running For You. I’m To Blame, the first single from Wild Ones, hit number 100 exactly to become his fourth of six charting hits on the overall Hot 100. The sole single from Wild World was She’s Mine, which stalled in the twenties on radio. More Girls Like You went to number four, while Last Shot hung around for a year and hit number six on radio.
Brett James produced Kip’s first album. He joined Kip onstage at the 2018 edition of the CMA Songwriter evening as part of that year’s C2C, where he went on after Luke Combs and before Kacey Musgraves. In 2019 he came over twice: in May for some acoustic shows and in September to headline the first Long Road festival with his band. He also played the Camden Roundhouse in a two-hour set with 24 songs. His long, rambling Guitar Man is a cornerstone of his live set.
Pip Ellwood-Hughes’ review of the show began ‘no US country artist looks after their UK fans the way that Kip Moore does.’ He is ‘captivating, charismatic and magnetic’, which I think also means he’s attractive, and is the ‘best live performer on the country circuit’.
He might not have headlined C2C just yet, as Pip predicted of Kip, but he does get to headline the inaugural Highways Festival at the Royal Albert Hall on May 20 as the biggest of seven gigs that take him to Birmingham, Leeds, Gateshead, Manchester, Glasgow and Belfast. He comes bearing a new album, Damn Love, which James Daykin reviewed at EF Country; he called it ‘introspective’ and more akin to one of Bruce Springsteen’s softer albums. He co-produced it with Jaren Johnston of The Cadillac Three, another band who regularly come to Europe, and it shares the hooky commercialism of TC3’s work.
The lead single Damn Love is an outside write from Johnston among others. It has sprinklings of synth and heartland guitars, as well as a singalong chorus. Ditto Silver and Gold, a three-chord jam full of philosophy about love, hope and being a soldier. Kinda Bar is very much a Kip Moore composition, painting the picture of a typical ‘neon dive’ that is almost calculated to send people to buy another drink of overpriced alcohol at London prices. The album’s closing track Micky’s Bar is full of pathetic characters (as in deserving of sympathy) drowning their sorrows.
In spite of many tracks featuring some form of alcohol – well, this is the Beer Money guy so it’s on brand – It’s nice to hear an album where one song reflects its predecessor. Neon Blue sounds like what happens when the ‘kinda bar’ has closed to reveal sticky floors and puddles of spilt beer. Kip’s narrator is still believable, and a whole lot more in touch with his feelings than bombastic Aldean or Brantley Gilbert. It’s followed by The Guitar Slinger, another song of heartbreak where ‘last week runs into yesterday’, and two tracks after that he’s pouring out his heart on Another Night In Knoxville.
Some Things is filler, a radio-friendly list of stuff that any old chump can write when they’re starved of inspiration. One Heartbeat is much better: a duet with Ashley McBryde that sounds like an event as well as a wedding song thanks to its ‘you’re my X, you’re my Y’ structure.
Love is still a keen interest from the man who had a hit addressed to a pretty girl. Heart On Fire smoulders appropriately, while Peace & Love is a typical fist-puncher like More Girls Like You. Mr Simple has Kip saying he doesn’t like the sea but will willingly ‘put on a captain’s hat’ to spend time with his beloved. Sometimes She Stays (‘sometimes she goes, that’s when you know you want her to stay’) is another one of those songs that packs an entire relationship into a chorus, complete with ‘toothbrush at your place’ and ‘bedsheet negligee’.
So there’s rock’n’roll, romance and a vocal that rips into the soul. Maybe that’s why folk love Kip Moore after all.
Two big anniversaries ending in 0 happen this spring. Doc Watson would have turned 100 in March, while Willie Nelson celebrated his four-score and ten with a party at LA’s Hollywood Bowl. Later this year, an anthology of Willie’s lyrics will be published but before then there’s One Night in Texas, a recording of a concert made in April 2022 and released a year later.
The tribute was put together by Bruce Robison, the Texan who wrote Travelin’ Soldier for the Chicks, and mixes well-known Willie tracks with deep cuts. Robison himself takes two numbers: Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning and (How Will I Know) I’m Falling In Love Again. He has a songwriter’s voice, nervous and quavering but doing the job transferring the emotion of a narrator getting to grips with romance.
Margo Price is often spotted at Farm Aid, the festival put on by Willie for America’s farmers, and she covers Shotgun Willie. The old standard Night Life is sung by Sheryl Crow with ineffable elegance, while Steve Earle – who named his son Justin Townes and was a disciple of Townes van Zandt – delivers the durable Pancho and Lefty, a song written by Townes which Willie took to number one with Merle Haggard. The performer finishes with a ‘happy birthday Willie, see you when I get there, Townes!’
Vincent Neil Emerson’s faithful interpretation of Bloody Mary Morning kicks things off, with Robert Earl Keen covering Pick Up The Tempo and Ray Wylie Hubbard giving Whisky River (‘take my mind!!’) some welly. Nathaniel Rateliff wraps his pipes around Willie’s two evergreens, Crazy and Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain, the latter to enormous cheers and featuring many performers on backing vocals. Nashville-based singer/songwriter Phosphorescent pays homage with The Party’s Over (‘let’s call it a night’).
Emily Gimble is the grand-daughter of Willie’s old sideman Johnny, and she plays honky-tonk piano on the instrumental Down Yonder. The nine- or ten-piece Shinyribs, led by Kevin Russell, do both My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys and I Gotta Get Drunk, with crowd answering Kevin’s introductory ‘weeeeell’s. There’s so much bonhomie in the recording, which surely got plenty of listens in the aftermath of Willie’s birthday.
I Am A Pilgrim marks the centenary of Doc Watson’s birth and it also has plenty of star wattage. Doc wrote Shady Grove, here given the dobro treatment by Jerry Douglas, while Rosanne Cash takes the hugely spiritual title track. The song, which Willie has also interpreted, sounds like one that her dad included on his famous list of country songs.
Dolly Parton covers The Last Thing on My Mind, the Tom Paxton folk standard, and Ariel Posen leads a blues-guitar rendition of the Opry standard Will The Circle Be Unbroken, which Watson took into the country album charts and indeed the pop charts in 1972 – it was a number eight hit – alongside The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
I loved the other instrumental tracks: Alberta, a guitar duet played here by Matthew Stevens and Jeff Parker; Florida Blues, where Jack Lawrence’s picking is effortless; Reuben’s Train, where Lionel Loueke’s guitar reminds me of the desert blues of Tinariwen; and the aptly titled Doc’s Guitar, where it’s the turn of Yasmin Williams to dazzle with her gentle playing. I’m not sure if it’s sideways on or, as pictures show us, facing upwards on her lap. She is my new discovery and I can’t wait to dip into her 2021 album Urban Driftwood.
A lot of the collection is new to me. Corey Harris laments a How Long Blues and Chris Eldridge sings of Little Sadie on the murder ballad which has been interpreted by both Bob Dylan (on Self Portrait) and Johnny Cash (on the Folsom Prison Blues album as Cocaine Blues). The Lost Soul is a song of Judgment Day, sung as a pathos-laden duet by Marc Ribot and Eszter Balint.
Am I Born To Die is led by a drone that underscores Nora Brown’s fluttering vocal. Steve Earle appears here too, putting his grumble to good use on Make Me A Pallet, in which he seems typecast as a troubadour seeking a bed for the night. Handsome Molly is a spacious duet between Valerie June and jazz guitar wizard Bill Frisell; the latter’s take on Your Lone Journey closes the album.
As an interpreter and writer of American music, Doc Watson deserves to not be forgotten, even though he might lack the affiliation with marijuana or the popularity of Willie Nelson. As we move further into an era where the past is a few clicks away, we should remember the figures who worked in an analogue world.
We’ve been South with Brett Kissel, now we’re heading East on the second of his four albums in 2023. This one is mellow and meditative, as Brett leaves the bombast behind – for now, as one of the remaining two albums is a live set.
Spend A Little Time With You is both the opening track and the song chosen to promote the album as a whole. Sighs of ‘ooh darlin’ begin three blissful minutes of front-porch happiness. Having already sung a song named after her on a previous album, Brett brings in his wife Cecilia for the warm closing track Sanctuary. The pair ‘feel the energy’ and wrap their voices around each other in a gentle way.
On Meet Me In Vegas (‘got a handful of aces so let’s roll the dice’) our narrator wants his girl in LA to be his bride: ‘I hope your daddy’s cool with a sudden change of plans’ makes me want to hear the second part of this story. It actually sounds a bit like a Gary Quinn song.
Elsewhere, Drive is one of those songs about leaving a small town and heading over state lines, while Made It tells the story of Brett and his beloved ‘pulled together just like magnets’. Its defiant, rapid-fire lyric is at odds with the coffeehouse arrangement. Coastline is the same song as Drive but with a more melancholy theme of ‘moving on’.
Port Colborne in Ontario gives its name to a track where Brett describes it as a ‘sad and heartbreak harbour town’. Its protagonist is a girl who has ‘an eye for a bargain [and] keeps the other on him’. Nowhere begins with Brett’s narrator complaining about how the city lights ‘burn a little too bright’ and a life off grid appeals.
When I Get On A Memory is a reminiscin’ song where our narrator remembers conversations with grandpa looking at ‘the rear view in my soul’. Ten Years From Now looks forward to an unforeseeable future in a way that Jason Mraz and many other introspective songwriters have done. (Incidentally, how can you be closed for ‘the foreseeable future’ if the only think foreseeable is that there will be a future?)
Two down, two to go for Brett. He’s at CMA Fest in June and on April 14 played the Grand Ole Opry alongside Riders in the Sky, Ricky Scaggs and Gary LeVox.
Dave Hause – Drive It Like It’s Stolen
After marathon albums from Morgan Wallen and Nate Smith, it was a delight to listen to a tight 30-minute collection from Dave Hause which imagines life after the apocalypse. In early May he is putting on a festival in his home city of Philadelphia which brings together plenty of alt-country and rock acts like Drive-By Truckers and Craig Finn from the Hold Steady.
You can tell Will Hoge is involved in the production as his fingerprints are all over opening track Cheap Seats (New Years Day NYC 2042), which namechecks Gershwin and explodes for its final minute as if set alight by a match. There’s a string section on Chainsaw Eyes, while Low has some twinkling glockenspiels and reminds me of a bar-rock band like Gin Blossoms or indeed The Hold Steady, with the narrator asking ‘Would you love me when I’m low?’
There’s a similar drive to Hazard Lights, where Jane’s Addiction get a namecheck and the chorus is pure Tom Petty, or rather pure Will Hoge. So is Drive It Like It’s Stolen, which includes the image ‘moonstruck clowns’, and so is Damn Personal, which has some participatory woahs and some power chords which match a confident lyric.
There’s a crescendo on Pedal Down, a song which warns people not to ‘dare turn around’, while Lashing Out is a finger-picked suburban satire with whispered backing vocals and a quotation of the song Little Boxes. The last verse, almost as a joke, lays on banjo, honky-tonk piano and an off-key horn section.
Tarnish seems to come from the perspective of a failed songwriter, who keeps talking about ‘golden’ objects and asks to be treated kindly. Closing track The Vulture (‘row, row, row the leaky boat, boys, life is but a dream!’) goes big on rhythm, from both drums and acoustic guitar, and ends the too-short album of American rock’n’roll with a flourish.
Trapper Schoepp – Siren Songs
Trapper Schoepp is a friend and former opening act for The Wallflowers, Frank Turner and The Jayhawks, who are three acts I admire a lot. He also had the keys to Cash Cabin, where he recorded his fifth album with the help of John’s grandson Joseph. Johnny’s old guitar and June’s old Steinway piano were available for use, which must be thrilling for any musician, and a harmonium organ anchors plenty of tracks. His brother Tanner (hey, if you’ve got a trapper, you need a tanner!) provides bass and vocals.
Whereas Dave Hause goes for rock’n’roll, Trapper opts for folk-rock, but what use are genres anyway in a genreless world? The album has a strong influence of traditional Irish music, which Trapper used as a balm during the pandemic.
Good Graces is in a dropped-D tuning and the melody sounds pentatonic and very folky, with a delightful solo from what sounds like pipes or a penny whistle. The pipes are also found on Secrets of the Breeze, a cautionary tale of voyaging at sea in a 12/8 time signature. Eliza is a companion piece: it’s a waltz with another marine connection, as the protagonist loses her dad to the waves and the song’s narrator says goodbye to her too (‘fare thee well…adieu’).
There’s a dotted rhythm melody (tum-ti, tum-ti like the theme to The Arches) on the wistful Anna Lee, where Trapper’s narrator hopes his former beloved is still available. Perhaps he met her at the 7 Mile Fair, which is the title of a reminiscin’ meet-cute in song whose arrangement matches how ‘the band played on’. His own band are on good form on The Fool, where Trapper’s vocals are double-tracked as he warns his listener to ‘play it cool’.
The range of topics on the album is impressive. Cliffs of Dover chronicles a soldier’s PTSD – there’s a reference to the ‘Baghdad Blues’ – while Devil’s Kettle is about a rock formation through which a river flows and rhymes the title with, among other things, ‘Soviet vessels’. Diocese is another toe-tapper with mandolin and piano soundtracking how the song’s formerly chaste protagonist ‘fell for the city of Boston/ with all the barflies she up and flew’.
Silk and Satin takes the topical trope of cross-dressing men in New York with ‘eye shadow and silicone’ set to a gentle acoustic arrangement. In the seventies this sounded seedy, but now it’s perfectly natural. That’s progress. Queen of The Mist documents another kind of progress: a woman’s passage over Niagara Falls while ensconced in a barrel. In another setting this could be a broadside ballad – the woman was Annie Edson Taylor who did the deed to raise money but alas died penniless – but Trapper has set the words to a three-chord shuffle.
The album ends with the track In Returning, with a Ben Folds-type piano part and another seafaring lyric (‘I gave myself to the Northern sea’). It’s good to see a songwriter so in touch with the waves, which makes this collection worth a listen.
Here’s the disclosure: I’m in the middle of writing a four-part history of British country for the website of Blackpool’s British Country Music Festival (TBCMF). Having taken readers up to date by describing how country was sold back to Britain having been brought over with Scots-Irish settlers in the Appalachian bit of America, I’m preparing to take the pulse of country music in 2023. Read the first part of the essay right here. The second part is to be published imminently.
For Part Three, I’ve spoken to Deeanne Dexeter and Gary Quinn, who were both regulars on the so-called ‘originals’ circuit of the early 2010s. I praised Ward Thomas for a five-album career (so far) which included a UK all-genre number one LP, and I’ve pointed country fans towards plenty of other festivals across the country, from Portsmouth to Stockport.
As it stands, the 2023 bill includes not one act who has played any of the festival’s previous three iterations, which is testament to the size of Martin’s super spreadsheet which has (he told me) hundreds of names which all fall under his definition of country.
Graham Nash is the Saturday night headliner, which is a superlative booking which will ensure a packed ballroom. Having moved from Lancashire to Laurel Canyon, where he was very close to Joni Mitchell and was the N of CSNY, it’ll be a fine homecoming gig. The first two singles from his forthcoming album Now are Right Now and A Better Life, which are respectively about finding love late in life and passing the benefits of a good life down to one’s children and grandchildren.
It is odd that rock music is now senescent and many of its stars are still working in their eighties. Bearing in mind that Graham is 81, the tour to promote the album is astonishing in its scope: a week in Chicago, three nights in New York to coincide with the album’s release on May 19, a packed month on the West Coast in June and July. All of this is preparation for his first solo gig in Blackpool since he was a Hollie.
Judging by his 2022 setlist, we’ll hear Bus Stop, Simple Man, Our House, Chicago, Marrakesh Express and A Case of You, which Graham performed in honour of Joni Mitchell at her Gershwin Prize ceremony in March. To remind us that Nash is of the same vintage as Buddy Holly and The Beatles, he might well play songs by those contemporaries who first made music when rock’n’roll was a fad for teenagers.
Graham actually put out a live album last year which ran through his first two solo albums: Songs For Beginners (1971) and Wild Tales (1974). The opening track of the former is Military Madness, whose opening line is ‘In an upstairs room in Blackpool by the side of a Northern sea/ The army had my father – my mother was having me’. Perhaps he can persuade PP Arnold to reprise her backing vocals half a century on.
The name which is in the next biggest font size to Graham’s belongs to Donna Taggart, who will headline on Friday night. Donna is an Irish singer and mum of three who took Jenn Bostic’s song Jealous of the Angels to huge success in the middle of the 2010s. John Bramwell, who was the former frontman of I Am Kloot and used to be known as Johnny Dangerously, has a new band called The Full Harmonic Convergence which will also hit the Empress Ballroom. Fun fact: he was good friends with Bryan Glancy, the ‘seldom seen kid’ who gave Elbow the name of their garlanded album.
The Dunwells and Shea Rafferty were already announced last September as 2023 artists. The former are a Leeds duo who have worked with Megan O’Neill and first came on my radar with a fab folk song called Follow The Road. I caught them busking outside Wembley Stadium last year just after they had put out their fifth album Tell Me What You Want in 2022. The big songs on the album are Daydreamer, Summertime and This Is Love, all of which have hooky choruses or participatory ‘na-na’ and ‘doo-doo’ sections. Sometimes they have both of them, which will make for a spectacular show. Either side of the album, the duo put out two live recordings. Perhaps this was what sold Martin and Marina to book them way back in 2022.
Shea, meanwhile, will be headlining The Old Blue Last in London on June 1 with music that Morgan Wallen would call ‘dirt rock’, which is anything with rolling tom-toms and wide-open vowel sounds in the choruses. Making History is his latest release, which shows off his excellent tenor which is more than ready for Blackpool. There’ll be plenty of fists flying through the air if Shea plays When The Feeling’s Right or Everything I Can. On songs like Somewhere In Between and Nights Out he reminds me of Justin Currie from Del Amitri, which is handy as I’m a big Dels fan. Justin would approve of Shea’s showstopper, You’ll Be There, a song for a lost loved one which is made for a ballroom dance.
There are plenty of beloved UK acts heading to the coast in September: Jade Helliwell and Megan McKenna follow their performances at Country2Country with shows in the Ballroom; Mairead played in a fringe event at C2C and has a weepie called Crying on the Dancefloor; Robbie Cavanagh will offer his gentle folkish country; and Simeon Hammond Dallas will make it romantic (as per the title of her EP) and will be at The Long Road the week before TBCMF.
Four relatively new acts who will play TBCMF will be at Buckle & Boots at the end of May: Sarah Yeo, Preston D Barnes (aka David Barnes from Preston), Chloe Jones and Robyn Red, who was up at Country on the Clyde in her native Glasgow during Country2Country weekend. Isabella Coulstock has seals of approval from Ray Jones of Talentbanq, Bob Harris and Jools Holland. She’s previewing her debut album in May at the Green Note and will be in Blackpool. I think Martin and Marina have got in early; her voice is astonishing and I can see Isabella moving to the Ballroom quickly.
Elizabeth & Jameson have also opened for Jools before. The duo put out an EP last year with the fun title Dead Ends and Hand Me Downs, including the suitably chirpy Catching Crickets and the very mardy Tell The World To Go Away. Their sound made me think of a more strings-led Paul and Jacqui. Their 2020 album Northern Shores & Stories was all about Whitby; it includes Live by the Sea, which would suit Blackpool as well as it suits the Yorkshire coast, and the irrepressible Bottomless Beer.
After her soft launch at last year’s festival fresh off the plane from New Zealand, Kylie Price continues her busy year with a TBCMF set. Her latest single is called Perfect, a chirpy singalong with a lyric full of empathy which is very topical. The Westlands, meanwhile, will pop up from the West Midlands with riffs and charm. They’ve got plenty of songs available to stream, including the squealing Fallin’ and the punchy I Like Trouble. They’re also equal opportunity: they like grain (Whiskey Chaser) as well as hops (Beer on My Lips)!
Simon Howard will prepare his tongue to get around the rapid-fire lyrics of his most recent single Trojan Horse. His delivery reminds me of Niall Horan’s, while his arrangements mimic the Mumford sound (Youth’s Ground) and Devendra Banhart (Hairdresser’s Room, which has a trumpet solo). Both of those songs can be found on a four-track EP which came out in 2021. Sound of the Sirens will be promoting their recent album Damage Control, which is full of vim and confidence. I look forward to hearing their blistering vocals on the title track and, especially, Why Not Now?, where the pair challenge their audience to ‘shake it up’.
Scott Beckett, another fine singer/songwriter to come out of Liverpool, also has a host of songs on Spotify so that the crowd can learn them before September. With a voice that puts me in mind of Parker McCollum and Tim Burgess from The Charlatans, Scott will certainly play his three most popular songs: The Best I Can For You, a finger-picked folk song in the modern idiom where he offers companionship but ‘can only go so far’; and the direct, self-explanatory pair Hard To Say Goodbye and Days Will Get Better, both from his own four-track 2021 EP.
Lincoln Skins offer ‘three chords and a story’, the best of which is a love song called John Wayne (‘all the men want to be him, all the women want to track him down’), and the duo will be perfect for the small acoustic stage in the Arena beside the ballroom. Jennifer Juckes, who may well play the Horseshoe Pavilion, has just one song available on streaming services, Just for the Company. It possesses the same musical feel as Taylor Swift’s song Lover but with lyrics that show Jennifer offering herself as a shoulder and a friend. Sam Turner found country music when studying in Guildford (alma mater of Backwoods Creek), and his song My Grandpa Does Magic would fit snugly in a set by his beloved Brad Paisley.
Kirsten Adamson has gone into the family business following her dad Stuart, who was in The Skids and Big Country but was born in Manchester. He also spent a few years in Nashville where he formed a duo with Marcus ‘Bless The Broken Road’ Harmon before ending his life in 2001. Kirsten will be down from Scotland playing songs from her album Landing Place, which came out in February. Indeed, one track is called My Father’s Songs, which Kirsten sings in the same high alto as someone like Hannah Rose Platt.
As with much of the album, it has a gently MOR arrangement with spacious guitar lines. I can already hear her vibrato echoing up to the Ballroom ceiling on tracks like Up and Down and the gossamer thin Time With You. There’s also a comedic waltz called Useless At Being Alone, which sounds like a country title to me, and a couple of rockier tracks like Without Warning, on which Kirsten admits she doesn’t know the words to many ‘modern songs’, preferring ‘retro things’. It seems like she puts her life in a song.
Like The Dunwells, Chris Fox comes bearing folky-roots music from his second album In Plain Sight. Start with the break-up ballad One More for the Road and the hortatory Perfectly Normal, which reminds me of Bob Dylan’s Forever Young. Even if he doesn’t bring the double bass that runs through his album, Chris will be fine enough on his own with his excellent songs.
As well as solo acts, Martin and Marina have booked some bands who are perfect for the main Arena during the daytime. The Heartland Roots Band will be playing down in Portsmouth at Country on the Coast in April, where I hope to catch songs from their recent album Something Better. I like the perky Bad Times Good, the self-empowerment jam Yell! and All that Glitters, which has a neat extended guitar passage.
The Coaltown Daisies put out Listen in 2020, which includes the majestic 52 Reasons and some fine band arrangements, especially Hangman and the toe-tapper I Went Down. The Often Herd are a bluegrass quartet from Tyneside whose debut album Where The Big Lamp Shines came out last year. There will be mandolin, as well as impeccable musicianship.
Phil Hooley is based in Yorkshire and will make the short trip across the Pennine hills. After putting out his debut album Songs from the Back Room in 2021, he released the follow-up Provenance came out in April. Once again Phil offers acoustic roots music full of stories and soul. I would guess the comparison has been made before but Kris Kristofferson is an antecedent for Phil’s almost whispered vocal style.
Ian Dury’s speak-singing style can also be heard on tracks like If Only, which is anchored by a chunky double bass part and a regretful lyric about fixing broken hearts of ‘china or clay’. He swears off love on Matter of the Heart, which is driven by a magnificently bluesy piano part. There’s pedal steel and mandolin on the winsome Magdalena, while Words has some portamento (sliding) string lines and a namecheck for Hank Williams as Phil kicks himself for not taking the chance on a lady.
Happily, he is lovestruck on Trouble and unable to sleep, with a major-key arrangement matching his mood. The Key has Phil wanting to buy a boat, ‘live like some hobo’ on a train or fly in a plane, but for now he’ll settle on driving around with his new flame who, he says, holds ‘the key to my heart’.
Casualty uses the same dominant seventh chords as This Guy’s In Love With You but also employs some tremulous fiddle which underscores Phil’s narration of a lady who is a ‘casualty of love’. Oh Susannah, meanwhile, is a sad sarabande where our narrator reminisces on an old flame. Some Say is a tribute to a ‘sweet old guitar player’ who was a casualty of alcoholism, told through lines which begin with the song’s title. The album ends with The Veteran’s Song, where Phil’s narrator seeks to ‘fight for my dignity’ and wants to be ‘the last one to fall’.
Phil and the rest of the acts will play the fourth British Country Music Festival (TBCMF). It takes place across the weekend of Friday 1 to Sunday 3 September at Blackpool’s Winter Gardens. Tickets are available at the discounted price of £97.50 (£10 cheaper than usual) here.
It seems that Music Row has hit upon a new strategy, which I have referred to as a buffet. Just as nobody would have the fish, the chicken, the soup, the salad and the blancmange, so the major labels do not presume someone would listen (at least in one go) to 26 tracks and over 150 minutes of music.
This album was due to come out in February, with 20 tracks. It was pushed back to the end of April with six added tracks. Does anyone need 26 tracks by an act who is establishing himself in the country music crowd? It would appear that the delay in release is due to politics.
Arista Nashville, a Sony imprint which held Old Dominion, Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley on its roster, has been dissolved. Carrie has been on Capitol for a while now, but free agent Brad signed with Universal. Old Dominion moved to Columbia, as has Megan Moroney who puts out her debut album next week. Nate Smith is now stablemates with Kane Brown and Chris Young on RCA. I don’t mind if your eyes skipped over this paragraph, because nobody normal cares about record company machinations.
Have you seen posters advertising Luke Combs’ new album on the underground this month? They are a direct result of a huge international effort to capitalise on Luke Combs the brand, the artist and the man who helps export country music abroad. I wonder if there was a boardroom meeting where Luke was told: ‘In October 2023 you will play two dates at the O2 Arena in London.’
To end up with those gigs in front of over 30,000 people, he needed to have hits, get on TV, get onto big stages and win Entertainer of the Year twice at the CMA Awards. It’s all part of the plan. I am sure it’s helpful for Nate Smith that he enters the market at a time when a stocky bloke with a beard from North Carolina is the biggest non-Wallen star in the genre.
Universal Music, which ultimately supports Nate as a touring and recording artist (in that order), is taking a thought-out gamble on any act. A military kid, Nate grew up in Paradise, California, a town which was wiped out by forest fires just before Nate started to give music a go and ‘write songs that inspire hope’ as he told Pip from EF Country in 2022. One of them was One Of These Days, written on a guitar which replaced the one which was lost in the fire.
He’d already come to Nashville and beaten a retreat, but Americans love a tale with a good second act and Nate returned to Music City, touring with Brett Eldredge and Morgan Evans. This year he’s out with Thomas Rhett and Cole Swindell to try and get some of their fans. Many existing Smithites came to him via TikTok, where a big bloke with a big voice will keep eyeballs lingering and might convince people to go and stream the song or buy a gig ticket.
As with other mammoth releases at the moment, considering Nate Smith’s project as an album is futile. Ultimately and unfortunately, he reminds me of Brett Young or Dylan Scott: anonymous and malleable. As with Wallen’s album, I’ll suggest playlists where fans can slot all 26 tracks. You may recognise some of the playlists from that Wallen piece.
If I Could Stop Loving You: ‘Breakups Make Me Miserable’
Alright Alright Alright: ‘Movie Quote Country’
One Good Girl: ‘Small Town Checklist’
Back At It Again: ‘Breakups Make Me Miserable’
You Ain’t Been In Love: ‘Country Wedding Song’
Better Boy: ‘A Country Way of Life, by Hardy’
You Only Want Me When You’re Drunk: ‘Don’t Mess Me Around’
Bad Memory: ‘Breakups Make Me Miserable’ (although admittedly this one has the narrator complaining that he is miserable because his ex is unable to remember the truth)
Oil Spot: ‘Cruising Down The Freeway To Get Over a Break-Up’
Wreckage: ‘Country Wedding Song’ (a weird one where our narrator is almost trying to push his beloved away because he’s so ‘damaged but damn you saw the good’)
LFG: ‘Country Music and Alcohol’ (the title suggests a swear word, and I like the line ‘put the GPS on BFE’)
Whiskey On You: ‘vi-V-IV-I Chord Progression’ (it shares the same progression as Thomas Rhett’s Get Me Some of That and two songs by Dustin Lynch: Stars Like Confetti and Thinkin Bout You)
You Shouldn’t Have To: ‘My Lady is an Angel’
Sleeve: ‘Dirt Rock’ (like the title track to Wallen’s album, it sounds like a freeway drive and also fades out in a way 99.99% of songs released nowadays fail to do)
I Found You: ‘Country Wedding Song’
Backseat: ‘Reminiscin’ (a little too close to Lee Brice for comfort, though)
Name Storms After: ‘Meet-Cute’ (good title though)
Raised Up: ‘Hallelujah, Amen’
Under My Skin: ‘Country Sex Jam’ (a funky Chris Stapleton-type tune, which also references tattoos)
I Don’t Wanna Go To Heaven: ‘My Lady is an Angel’ (again, this time with a more Christian rock piano arrangement and the great line ‘the Pearly Gates are our front porch’)
The last six tracks are only available on the deluxe edition of the album, which seems completely redundant when the album and the deluxe album are both released on the same day. Perhaps the CD was manufactured before the last six could be added, so let’s treat these six tracks as a separate EP, like when Luke Combs tacked songs onto his first two albums.
World On Fire: ‘Country Sex Jam’ (this one has massive drums, massive guitars and massive wails from Nate’s narrator)
I Don’t Miss You: ‘Breakups Make Me Miserable’ (you see, Nate does miss the girl but he’s put it the whole thing in the negative, which I call ‘alpha-privative country’ after something I learned at school, like how you put ‘an’ in front of ‘aerobic’ for ‘anaerobic respiration’ which is without oxygen)
Good By Now: ‘Ashley Gorley Was In The Room (she said goodbye, so you’d think he’d be good by now)
What An Angel Ain’t: ‘Breakups Make Me Miserable’ (oh come on, change the record)
Dear Heart: I don’t even need to tell you which playlist this goes into, do I? Written with the great Emily Weisband, maybe it can go into the ‘I-V-vi-IV’ playlist because it uses that common chord progression
Love Is Blind: ‘Country Wedding Song’ (basically the same song as Wreckage)
There you go. Now it’s your choice if you want chips or beans, fish or chicken.
Australia, along with New Zealand, host the 2023 Women’s World Cup, and I think they’ll win it. They also love their country music down there and a steady slew of artists have headed to Nashville from Oz.
Recently I’ve written about Blake O’Connor and Tamara Stewart. Blake has outgrown Australia and is headed to Nashville with his partner Sinead Burgess (to whom I once chatted at the merch table after she supported Paul Young here in Watford!). I wish Blake all the best as he joins Tamara as a permanent Nashville resident.
He also joins Morgan Evans at the party, and perhaps Blake, as Morgan was, will be quickly snapped up by a major label. Kiss Somebody was the smash from Morgan’s debut album Things That We Drink To, which he has followed up with a series of standalone tracks including an EP. That 2021 collection included Love Is Real and the chirpy Country Outta My Girl, which was also released as a collaboration with Weezer.
Unfortunately, his well-documented divorce means that his girl is now out of his life. Break-up song Over For You deservingly went around the world and appears on his new five-track EP Life Upside Down in both the studio version and the one that was sung onstage in Melbourne.
On My Own Again is a toe-tapping driving song which puts a positive spin on breaking up, with ‘a suitcase and tequila’ riding shotgun instead of his lady and with no fixed destination. I wonder if he’s driving the American Dream Truck which he sang about on his 2021 EP.
Hey Little Mama is a summer jam that begins with a funky lick and has Morgan’s narrator dancing in the rain with a lady who helps him make ‘lemons…into lemonade’. Morgan played All Right Here at his London gig last July, reviewed here, mere days before his split was public knowledge. It’s a Kenny Chesney-type song full of positivity and a reference to ‘flip-cup sippers’ which, much like its singer, is impossible to dislike. Having played Country2Country2023, he’ll be back in Blighty soon enough.
Coming in June to the Field of Avalon Stage at Glastonbury is Fanny Lumsden, who is preparing to release her fourth album and is primed to break into the UK market after making some connections over her summer. Fans of chugging guitars and windows-down choruses will love Millionaire, which is a driving song about her first car.
Fanny grew up on a farm in Tallimba, a small village which made its own entertainment. Today, she is her own small trader, running her career alongside her husband. For the last decade she has hosted a Country Halls Tour across Australia with her band The Prawn Stars, raising money for various small communities who call Fanny and book her in for a totally free ‘all-in community night out’. For many people this show is their first experience of live music.
This year Fanny has already been to the Tamworth festival and the Adelaide Fringe, the latter with her Fanny Tales show, playing songs from her third album Fallow which came out in 2020. As well as putting out a complementary album of ‘variations’, she also put together a documentary about Fallow, linking its creation to the horrendous bushfires that hit the country.
Her catalogue includes the tremendously catchy and memorable Elastic Waistband, plus a song that seems to fit in with the Australian policy on men’s discussion groups called Real Men Don’t Cry (‘I declare a war on pride’). Both are on her 2017 release Real Class Act, which would fit well next to songs by KT Tunstall. The title of the song Peed In The Pool certainly draws the listener in, and it is placed in between two elegant melodies on Fallow: This Too Shall Pass and Grown Ups, on which she sings in the voice of a young child asking ‘Is it up to us now to carry on?’
This is a smart way of writing songs given that they are meant to be performed live in front of audiences of all ages. ‘Take up the space cos this time is yours’ is the key line in Fierce, while Dig (‘a little deeper’) is another song for an audience member to take away and sing to themselves. This is participatory music with sometimes veers into self-help.
The Wolfe Brothers, Nick and Tom, are from Hobart, Tasmania, making them one of the most Southern of rock bands. They’re in the family business, following their fiddler great-grandpa, saxophonist grandpa and drumming dad into music. Like Carrie Underwood and Drake Milligan, they came to attention via a TV talent show, in their case Australia’s Got Talent; their audition clip, where they performed their funky original song One Way State of Mind, is still online and shows that they already had star quality. Lee Kernaghan, the grandfather of Aussie Country, took them under his wing and they’ve been his opening act since then.
Their sixth album Livin’ the Dream (with no G!!) brings in some top Nashville writers. The hot-right-now Stephen Wilson Jr helped them write the understated More To It, which ticks items off the rural checklist but still says small towns aren’t just what you put ‘in a three-minute country song’. Lindsay Ell co-wrote Love Like That and The Shires appear on it: its nagging melody will be in your head for days as will the line ‘I will set the world on fire just to keep you warm’.
JT Hodges was in the room for the All In Good Time, which both namechecks and sounds like The Rolling Stones, and James T Slater brings his wisdom to She’s My Rock, She’s My Roll which unites Nashville and Australia, country and rock’n’roll: ‘Met her at a dive bar in Austin, I played her a Waylon song, she said play me some AC/DC’. There are some participatory woahs as well.
Power ballads Put The House On It (‘girl I ain’t a gamblin’ man but you can bet I do everything I can’) and Here’s To The Ones say nothing new but they do say it tunefully. New Dog Old Tricks is an addition to the Country Dog Song genre, as the narrator wants to ‘slow down time’ and is accompanied by harmonica and dobro. The fluffy Diamond in a Dive Bar is yet another one of those meet-cute songs, and Sundown Somewhere another lament for lost love, but you have to tick these songs off on a country album.
A lot of this album reminds me of the hooky warmth of Aaron Watson. Empty Pockets is one such track, where the duo consider the end of their lives and conclude that they should ‘spend every dollar and love with all I have because’ – and this we know – ‘you can’t take it with you when you go’. The bouncy title track is as rural as it comes, with John Deere trucks, deer ‘in your sights’ and how ‘it don’t take much to have everything’. Nothing Better To Me is a song of contentment with a pleasant rock arrangement that also sounds content in itself, confidently changing key for a few bars in the middle of it.
Country music down under has a lot going for it and we’d love to have more Aussies coming over here. I haven’t mentioned recent émigré Kylie Price, who has relocated here from New Zealand, but do catch her digital dexterity (she’s won awards for her guitar playing) and terrific songs if you see her name on a line-up.
Exactly a year after High, Caitlyn Smith releases Low, which she has not just coupled with that 2022 release but instead has interspersed the new tracks among the old ones. Rather than review the new songs and treat it as an EP, instead I’ll run the rule over the whole project which supplements six tracks to the initial seven.
Caitlyn is a songwriter’s songwriter and a mum of two whom I saw in the film It All Begins with a Song writing with Bob DePiero in a candlelit writer’s room. Ed Sheeran was a fan of her album Starfire. Garth Brooks recorded her song Tacoma. Meghan Trainor is a friend and collaborator.
So is Miley Cyrus, with whom Caitlyn wrote High which I saw her perform at Country2Country 2022, bouncing around and strumming an acoustic guitar on the Big Entrance Stage. She also played Nothing Against You (as in ‘hold nothing against you but me’) and Maybe In Another Life, the former a jazzy number with a fine chorus and blissful middle eight, the latter full of imagery including a ‘purple moon’.
Lately is a moving-on song led by a piano accompaniment and featuring a showstopping chorus and a namecheck for Beethoven. I Think Of You is another break-up song where the narrator is assailed by thoughts of a lost love, where a string section underlines the pathos of the lyric (‘you threw your shit across the room’). It was written with Ruston Kelly so it would be fair to assume that he has put some of his own life in a song. (His new album, recorded in LA, came out the week before Caitlyn’s and is dominated by double-tracked melancholic vocals.)
Those songs are the lows, and there are plenty of highs. I Don’t Like The World Without You, with its lush diminished chords, has a meditative, tenderly fingerpicked arrangement, while the sex jam Good As Us has a gorgeous groove over which Caitlyn sings of fidelity. I still love the irresistible pop song Downtown Baby, which crams Kristofferson, Dylan and John Wayne into the opening stanza and ‘K-pop karaoke’ in the second one before opening up with a fine chorus.
Caitlyn’s music comes out on the Monument Records imprint and the man in charge of the label, Shane McAnally, and songwriter’s songwriter Lori McKenna were in the room for Dreamin’s Free, which puts a new spin on not having much money. ‘I can be your muse if you wanna be van Gogh’ is a great line, as you would expect from three crafters of modern popular song. Catch the quadruple rhyme of bees/knees/weeds/trees and marvel.
Bob DePiero was in the room for The Great Pretender, which rounds off this 13-song set as a definite low, ‘crying in a bathroom stall’ and putting on a brave face. Writing Songs and Raising Babies was written with Aimee Mayo and Chris Lindsey, who never have to worry about money because they wrote Amazed, a US Hot 100 chart-topper and perennial wedding song. Caitlyn sings of the ‘beautiful chaos’ of her ‘beautiful life’, with some massed harmonies on the chorus and another melody that flutters and soars.
American states provide inspiration for, and the titles of, two tracks. On the warm song to her home state, Mississippi (‘do you ever miss me?’), she is joined by a male voice which may belong to co-writer Troy Verges. She uses the far-flung nature of Alaska as a metaphor for a lover whose ‘heart’s in another place’. The poetic imagery Caitlyn deploys – ‘leaky air mattress’, ‘shake you like an earthquake’ – is enough reason for her status as a master crafter of country songwriting.
If this were a thinkpiece it would discuss how country music isn’t particularly compatible with motherhood. Look at how Maren Morris seems to be pivoting to activism but also look at Carrie Underwood’s Vegas residency. It’s something I’d ask Caitlyn if I ever spoke to her, even as her music speaks for itself and has the support of Shane McAnally, himself a parent of two boys.
Tenille Townes – Train Track Worktapes
While we’re on the subject of terrific songwriter/performers, Tenille Townes put out a five-track set of songs which were written when she was part of the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train event. This has been going since the late 1990s: the train stops at various food banks across the South of Canada and performers put on a half-hour show for people who bring food for the needy. In 2022, over C$1m was raised and 121,000 lbs of food was collected.
Lindsay Ell, Mackenzie Porter and Tenille herself all performed, with Tenille doing two weeks of shows during December, forsaking Nashville’s quiet Christmas period to do some humanitarian work.
The buoyant Home To Me has an appealing shuffle and a narrator who apologises for being ‘a travelling soul’. Coming Together starts by praising ‘map dots…where everybody knows the neighbours’ and the big ‘blanket’ of a sky. Tenille philosophically wonders if the stars only fall so that ‘we’d open our eyes’ and look at them. Both songs are charming, warm and empathetic.
On Wheels, her voice hits the very top of her range as she despairs that she can’t stop what is inevitable: ‘I thought I’d want a place to land but I don’t think I’m made for that…so I gotta run.’ Pieces of My Heart is Tenille’s life in a song, as she says that being on the road is ‘in my veins, it’s in my bones’. The organic production makes it sound like a Norah Jones recording, with the double bass anchoring a great set of harmonies and a vocalised ‘woah’ passage in the middle.
She throws in a faithful cover of the modern standard Landslide for good measure, with the ambient noise of the train coming through on the recording. A must-listen!
Virtuosity will never get old. That was the main conclusion from a relaxed 90-minute set by Charlie Worsham the evening before he returned to Nashville after a week of shows supporting Ward Thomas.
With mandolin and acoustic guitar, he astonished a crowd no greater than 80 people in a listening room-type space in Farringdon which is perfect for visiting acts to hang loose and press the flesh with big fans. Always be on the lookout for this sort of event, which back in Music City makes a killing with tourists; in the UK, Charlie said, our applause filters through the room better than a one-shot whoop from an American audience member.
After a fine support slot from the Swindon-born acoustic singer Ann Liu Cannon, who played a song based on the Chinese proverb ‘clever rabbits burrow three holes’, Charlie bounded onstage but first had to deal with an inevitable technical issue. Once solved, he proved he could have held us spellbound even without amplification.
Both Hang On To That and the first verse of a new song called Poster Child make reference to rock’n’roll music which so enraptured a young Charlie, who ‘saw my first naked woman!’ at a Rolling Stones show. Fun fact: he used to be in a band called Kingbilly with John Osborne, which is like having Lennon and McCartney as the main songwriters in the same band.
We came for the melodies and stayed for the guitar solos. When Charlie wrote Fist Through This Town ‘seven years ago’, his own prestidigitation was not the zeitgeist. Despite an album and an EP, he has mostly worked as a sideman – for Dierks Bentley and Old Crow Medicine Show – to ensure money goes into the ‘Gabe Worsham College Fund’. Inevitably, his son has inspired songs like the majestic and classic-sounding Grow Old, while set opener Kiss Like You Dance is fantastic and warm, like most Charlie Worsham compositions.
As for Short Grass, may I be the first to say it’s a country music version of Stacy’s Mom but with better jokes. Both those last two tracks will be on a forthcoming set of collaborations, more about which we’ll know in autumn, but he did drop two hints when he alluded to two A-List stars who recognise Charlie’s talent.
Among old chestnuts – Cut Your Groove, Mississippi In July and the carpe-diem song Young To See – Charlie played us some more new tracks, at least one of which ‘may never be recorded’. That’d be a pity because his extended metaphor of a lady as a magician full of sleight of hand and tricks, set to an arrangement with a fistful of chords, deserves a wide audience. Southern By The Grace of God (‘you can’t out-country me!’) and Tools of the Trade were among five or six tunes played on the mandolin, as Charlie refreshed songs he’d been playing for a decade on the road. It was a thrill to see his fingers close up.
As well as faithfully plucking Vince Gill’s High Lonesome Sound, he played a tune from 40 years ago about a little red Corvette, even hitting the falsetto part near the end. During his own Take Me Drunk, he admitted nicking a solo from I Feel Fine by The Beatles, and in response to a keen heckler, he offered an off-script anecdote about Warren Zevon which managed to have a dig at Kid Rock for good measure. Rather than a recital or a concert, this should really have been billed An Evening With Charlie Worsham. Indeed, he had played that Prince song at his famous Every Damn Monday jam.
During an extended encore which felt like a second set, he brought out the gorgeous Believe In Love at the request of Laura Cooney from Entertainment Focus, as well as his ‘stoner gospel’ tune about rolling up ‘a J just in case today’s the day’. It was, as Charlie reminded us, ‘4/20 tomorrow’, the national day of marijuana consumption. If Charlie Worsham were grass, he’d make even the most expert joint-roller take a break.
And he didn’t even play Want Me Too. To misquote Prince, Charlie’s got too many never-hits. In a fair universe, this man would be an A-List star, but I think he’ll accept his role as the next in line after Marty Stuart and Vince Gill, a future Guardian of the Music City Galaxy.