We need to learn more from Canada than we do from Music City. As I mentioned when writing about Sykamore last week, it’s all well and good trying to compete with Nashville and ‘level up’ British country music, but some acts just want to play their songs for a willing audience. One audience member at the Sykamore show, who is also playing Country2Country this year, was critical of the UK movement trying (and I’m paraphrasing) to craft the Shires’ Nashville Grey Skies to the letter.
I think one way to improve is to tap into music schools like LIPA in Liverpool and the ICMP in London, whose students could shape their sound for any audience be it pop or rock, rough or smooth. Alyssa Bonagura, who graduated from LIPA and is now a professional musician, should give advice to young performers about how to do it properly. Having headlined a London show in September 2022, Alyssa is playing C2C for the first time where she ought to attract more fans of her mature, very contemporary country-inflected pop songwriting.
Her long-awaited third album is due soon and her support slot included a song called On It, an incredibly catchy number. Heartbreak song Paper Airplanes was terrific, as was Other Side of the World where Alyssa brought out her loop pedal. For the first time I realised her voice was a dead ringer for that of Sheryl Crow and I’d love to hear Alyssa tackle some of Sheryl’s rootsy tunes that were described as rock back in 1996 but would now be considered country.
Tenille Arts hit headlines for having a number one hit on country radio, Somebody Like That, which was created (ie produced and sung) solely by woman. This is like seeing a unicorn and a pig bouncing over a blue moon, but it also proves there is an audience for what she’s doing. After popping over for C2C in March, Tenille was due to play a big festival in Essex last summer, which sadly had to be pulled, but she did play a gig in Glasgow.
After a return to Scotland, Tenille came down to play a solo gig put on by Country2Country at the sleek Omeara. There was a famous face in town: Grady Smith, the American critic, tried not to spill three drinks in two hands to his place near the front of the crowd. Since we only ever see him sitting down, it’s odd to see how small he is in real life but he’s a massive screen presence. One fan of his rocked a t-shirt. Why is there no British country critic on Youtube? Just a thought.
To Tenille Arts, whose show was packed with songs from her 2021 release Girl To Girl: the title track, That’s My Friend You’re Talkin’ About, Heartbreak Regulars, Give It To Me Straight, Over You Is You plus the effervescent Back Then Right Now. The test of a good song is whether it sounds good as a solo acoustic number, and they all did. I’m sure she’ll bring the band over next time.
Without them she couldn’t do a 90s medley but she did introduce a Dixie Chicks cover with the line: ‘My dream was more important than Wide Open Spaces.’ She also debuted a piano-led cover of Easy On Me by Adele, which was received well by the London crowd.
Even if you’ve sung these songs hundreds of times, a performer is always boosted by a new set of fans roaring it back at you. Tenille seemed to grow in stature during some numbers in a 90-minute show. It was a shame that some of the crowd had to head home before the chart-topper closed the set. Before it, she switched from acoustic guitar to electric then to piano. Some songs had the same familiar I-V-VI-IV chord progression, which only served to put the focus on the lyrics and the voice.
‘All I ever wanted to be was on the radio,’ she said knowingly, and plenty of songs had poppy hooks and relatable lyrics which pulled in a varied audience which went beyond the same 36 fans who go to every country show. This may be because of her appearance on both The Bachelor and poppy playlists: Tenille hit and sustained an amazing high note on I Hate This, preceded Growing Old Young with a request to focus on men’s mental health and put a new spin on Girl Crush with the Emily Weisband-written Jealous of Myself.
There was, of course, A Woman whooping and chattering and calling out for Tenille’s deep cut Cold Feet. Wildfire and Whiskey, which segued into a singalong of Taylor Swift’s Love Story, pleased The Woman, while I was more impressed with new song Motel On The Moon, about giving an ex space, and the perky Right Guy Wrong Time.
With Lady A and Thomas Rhett headlining the O2 for C2C, there’s a slipstream of acts like Tenille Arts who can also appeal to similar demographics in the UK, one which the CMA is now supplying all year round. I wonder if Grady Smith will make one of his deep-dive videos about the country crowds here.
As in any city, there’s the touristy bit and the ‘real’ bit. If Lower Broadway is where the glamour of Nashville lies, then the Eastern bit of the city is where the cool kids hang out.
Margo Price told her local magazine The East Nashvillian in 2018 that one winter she and her husband and musical soulmate Jeremy Ivey ‘didn’t have money to pay the gas deposit, so we didn’t have heat all winter’. Now she’s mates with Willie Nelson and has just released her fourth album, whose opening track Been To The Mountain includes a reference to ‘food stamps’.
It had taken 15 years for Margo, the ‘Midwest Farmer’s Daughter’ from Illinois, to achieve any success in town, by which time she was in her mid-thirties while mothering twins. One, Ezra, passed away shortly after being born, which sent Margo into depression, alcoholism and a DUI which took her to a weekend in jail, about which she has also written.
Just as Yola’s career has benefitted by Dan Auerbach’s patronage, so Margo got a lift from her association with Jack White, who signed her to Third Man Records. Her best-loved songs have a political tinge, such as Pay Gap and the infamous This Town Gets Around, on which she sings ‘it’s not who you know, it’s who you blow’. With Loretta Lynn no longer with us, Margo is taking on Issues and earning plaudits, fans and useful fees for college funds, especially as she had her first daughter in 2019.
Awards, Rolling Stone interviews, sell-out dates at the Ryman Auditorium and Saturday Night Live beckoned, as did a book deal to write her 2022 memoir Maybe We’ll Make It. Willie Nelson invited her onto the board of Farm Aid, where she regularly plays, and she will celebrate her fortieth birthday in April. And Willie’s 90th at the Hollywood Bowl.
Before that pair of hootenannies, Margo is on the promotional circuit for Strays, which she produced with country-rocker Jonathan Wilson and which features some famous friends who aren’t called Willie. Sharon Van Etten co-wrote and adds harmonies to the suitably poppy Radio, while Mike Campbell brings his guitar expertise to the multifarious Light Me Up, which has the line ‘paranoid by cryptic dreams that left me so uptight’.
Lucius, who might well win a Grammy or two for their work with Margo’s fellow independent spirit Brandi Carlile, join her on Anytime You Call, which was a solo write from Jeremy. One presumes he wrote it about himself, and how he is still willing to be a friend even though the two subjects of the song are ‘not as stable as we seem’.
The five Ivey-Price compositions (one of which is Light Me Up) include the two impact tracks which are both bluesy chuggers: the aforementioned Been To The Mountain, which begins with the declaration ‘I got nothing to prove’; and Change of Heart, which has a candy-flavoured chorus to match the stabs of organ throughout. The other two are County Road, a six-minute track whose narrative and arrangement unfurl to close the album’s first side, and Landfill, which closes the album proper with delayed guitars to mimic the ‘Sahara winds’ of the second verse; ‘only love,’ she concludes, ‘can tear you apart’.
Elsewhere Margo mixes Issues with Grooves. The former are described on Lydia, which was written in the shadow of the overturning of the Roe v Wade statute: ‘Just make a decision, it’s yours’ positions Margo as a friend whom Lydia can use while she waits tables at a bar. The music complements the lyric perfectly, circling back round on itself, and the sung-spoken delivery makes the song come off like one by Guy Clark, the patron saint of country songwriting. There’s a huge amount of pathos for the song’s subject and I am sure it will be picked up as a sort of protest song.
The sugar comes from Time Machine, a delicious arrangement with sombre lyrics (‘Nothing is ever going to change’). Non-binary singer/songwriter Lawrence Rothman, who was all over the credits to Amanda Shires’ recent album, brings their pen to Hell in the Heartland, more blues in a minor key sung with believability. The final minute, which speeds up into the sunset, is excellent.
To promote the album Margo is playing rock venues like the 9.30 Club in Washington DC and Webster Hall in New York, but is booked into the Ryman for her home show. It was Tom Petty, the man who enlisted Mike Campbell as a Heartbreaker, who called country music ‘bad rock with a fiddle’. Helen M Jerome was right to call the album ‘non-judgemental and beautiful’ in her Holler Country review; for balance, Duncan Warwick’s one-star Country Music People write-up called it ‘absolutely nothing to do with country music’.
Rob Schneider’s daughter Tanner records as Elle King, using her own middle name and her mum London’s maiden name. She had a massive rock number one with the poorly punctuated Ex’s and Oh’s, which persuaded me to buy her debut album Love, Stuff. It sounded like a mishmash as Elle tried to do what she wanted to do, mainly banjo-led hollers, and also what her label wanted her to do, which was to sing ‘I’m not America’s sweetheart but you love me anyway.’
A second album stiffed and she got divorced from the Scottish man she had wed in secret after meeting days before: ‘I was partying so hard to numb emotions that I couldn’t handle at the time,’ she told one interviewer. Now, Elle is a proud mum who rubbed her bump during a TV performance of Drunk and I Don’t Wanna Go Home.
That song, which came out at the start of 2021 before Elle took maternity leave, is here, of course, and will be her career song that soundtracks millions of hen parties in Nashville and beyond. How does Elle make the case that she can do music that isn’t calculated to make money in the bars of Lower Broadway? How can she be the capital-A Artist that she wants to be?
Teaming up with Ross Copperman to co-produce the album has helped. Ross is himself a former artist who has moved into songwriting as Brett Eldredge’s key collaborator, and is very able to walk the pop/rock/country lines. Elle only has writing credits on half the tracks, which reminds me of the presence of big-name writers on rock albums by Maneskin and Liam Gallagher. Backroom boys are necessary when the talent is hitting big stages.
In fact Elle had junked an album recorded with the Foo Fighters producer Greg Kurstin; she said that in country, after all, ‘you have to be a lifer…I don’t want anyone to kick me out’ so it made sense to abandon any shot at pop stardom, where motherhood is almost frowned upon, to go country.
Those outside writes include Before You Met Me, where three writers sum up a carefree spirit like Elle, and Worth A Shot, where Elle wants to have ‘a last hurrah’ with her beau. The latter was written by Copperman, Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, who know what a hit sounds like and have written this type of song hundreds of times before. Playing the part of the ‘guy that used to make you laugh’ is Dierks Bentley, who returns the favour Elle had shown when she popped up on his number one Different For Girls, which was written by McAnally.
Tyler Childers, a bluegrass/rock act who is touring with Elle this year, has allowed her to record an official cover of his beloved and much covered Jersey Giant, a reminiscin’ song made up of four chords. The narrator wants the company of an old friend with whom she used to drink, sing and enjoy ‘nights of reckless glory’. The harmonies are terrific and I am sure she will get the banjo out for this one.
Crawlin’ Mood is a contribution from Jesse Frasure and Charlie Worsham with a nagging chorus and a narrator who can best be described using the hugely overused term unapologetic in spite of losing her man. I imagine that’s Charlie’s superb guitar in the middle of the song. Ashley Gorley – who really is on every album these days – was in the room for Try Jesus, which is placed just before Drunk… on the album. The song is part of the trend that sees modern country pivot back to the Lord and his son, and there’s the inevitable organ and choir on top. ‘Every other man let me down’ is the reason she gives, which is funny.
The trio of Bobby Hamrick, young Alabaman songwriter Ella Langley (Opry debut February 17!) and Matt McKinney contribute to five tracks on the album. Three of the five are: Ohio, a grand, scene-setting opening track where Elle wants to sit down with some beer and music while also admitting ‘I was eight years old when I learned not to cry’; Lucky, an introspective slowie where our protagonist has been ‘the fuse’ and ‘the lighter’ but above all very fortunate (and, as the final seconds show, a happy mummy); and Tulsa, a brilliant chugger with some lovely chromatic guitar lines which opens the album’s second side.
The other two tracks from the trio are Bonafide, another tune where Elle sings of her own kind of crazy but this time with fiddle and pedal steel, and Out Yonder, whose huge chorus and gossipy verses in the form of questions would make this an ideal set opener.
Blacked Out is the most musically interesting song on the album, which plays with tonality by having a major-key melody over a minor-key groove. The banjo and guitar match the mood of the lyric: mountains, rivers, punches, ‘I just don’t have the heart to love you’. Closing track Love Go By uses Elle’s throaty rasp and matches it with a Muscle Shoals-y, Rolling Stones circa 1971 lightly gospel number.
The album is fine, even a bit safe, but it positions Elle as a voice who can pull people into country. If anyone ‘can do it!’, to quote Elle’s father, she can.
In conversation with the great Leah Sherlock on the most recent Behind The Sounds podcast, Sykamore mentioned that she is the daughter of rodeo performers and would save up her pocket money to buy country albums. She was looking forward to her first ever gig in London, following her first English gig in Liverpool at the start of a week which coincided with the Americana-UK Awards.
I had to let my grandma down to attend this gig, which fell on the same day as a popular annual quiz that she always gets a family table for. I mention this because ‘family’ is on my mind this year, as I work on a big essay on country music in the UK. There were plenty of familiar faces in the crowd who were ahead of the curve on the expertise of Sykamore in the homely Camden Club.
The title track of her album Pinto was written in 2018 and came out in 2022 after a delay because of the pandemic. Sykamore introduced it by comparing a bumpy, careering relationship to a ride in a very old car (the Ford Pinto). It was a perfect closer to a set which had seven fat-free country tunes which reminded me of both Tenille Townes and Ron Sexsmith, two Canadian wizards of melody.
New song Emotional, which she rhymed with ‘protocol’, was both hooky and folky, and Wallflower had a smart chorus which emphasised the narrator’s stomped-on heart. We Were Alright was a lament for faded love. Highway Towns was another metaphor, as Sykamore used the small town as a jump-off for a song about relationships, while California King pricked the hubristic pomposity of a guy.
Record High, meanwhile, was a sort of drinking game where the artist suggested we take a sip of alcohol every time we recognised a famous title: ‘Highway to hell…stairway to heaven’ was a smart antonym, in a song which benefitted from being written with the evening’s headliner.
Jeff Cohen is part of the UK movement, even though he was born in Brooklyn (the clue is in the name). Jeff became a music licensing executive in the last days of the record industry in the 1990s but took the plunge at 34 to become a songwriter. ‘I just turned 37!’ he joked.
He moved into writing songs for TV shows, was in a band and started working with US acts like The Band Perry, Kristian Bush and Evan and Jaron. Crazy For This Girl, which I recently discovered and which Katie Holmes once sang on Saturday Night Live, is one of his as well. Jeff segued into the theme tune for Paw Patrol, another of his compositions, which an audience member had requested.
Tony Moore, who runs the Camden Club, is an old friend and gave Jeff a lovely introduction. Our intrepid writer, whose voice is similar to many Nashville songwriters in that it sounds untrained and raw, opened his set with the Big & Rich song Holy Water. Kristian Bush’s song Walk Tall was a three-chord jam performed in Jeff’s thrashy style, while In Her Eyes was in the other, mellower style. He dedicated that song to a victim of dementia and told a quite incredible story about the power of music and the brilliance of Josh Groban, who recorded the studio version of the song.
Jeff has worked with British and Irish artists, including Megan O’Neill and Ward Thomas. Among his credits with The Shires are two career songs: A Thousand Hallelujahs and Daddy’s Little Girl, both of which he played with Ben Earle watching on. The pair had a writing date on Monday, which would be rather hazy because Jeff’s beloved Philadelphia Eagles had booked their Superbowl place the night before. He also ran a verse of I See Stars into a Jake Bugg song he’d also written, and told any songwriters in the audience that a song may be 75% done and sound fine, but if you keep working on the other 25% it can be great.
Amazingly, he threw in the factoid that he dated Jennifer Aniston in his introduction to One and Only, a song by Teitur that the producers of Friends wanted for the Chandler and Monica wedding. Jeff cajoled the audience to join in on the final chorus, a moment he and we enjoyed.
‘Seeing people sing my songs will never get old,’ Jeff said. He has an album out shortly which will include a dedication to his partner, The Way You Look At Me.
Six of the songs on the debut album by the ‘Georgia’ bloke from the platinum-selling duo Florida Georgia Line appeared last year on an EP called Dancin’ In The Country. Rather than repeat myself, here’s the link to it.
There’s one addendum: because my ears had switched off for the outro, I missed Tyler rattling off names of bars on Lower Broadway on Everybody Needs A Bar (‘Blake’s got Ol’ Red!’ he mentions), as well as the line ‘Carrie-oke Underwood’.
I described Tyler’s new direction using the term the McGraw Pivot, since he was trying to stay successful in his second decade as an A-Lister. In 2023 as in 2003, the sound of contemporary country has moved on and the star has to get with the times or risk irrelevance. Remember how Tim McGraw had a UK number one singing the hook on Over and Over by Nelly, then brought out his career song Live Like You Were Dying? That sort of thing.
Tyler Hubbard hit paydirt by following this to the letter. FGL had a 55-week Billboard Country number one Meant To Be, a duet with Bebe Rexha whose durability was due to a stupid rule that any country song that crossed over to the pop charts would have their streams linked to its country performance (which was why Despacito was a number one Latin hit for over a year too). As a thank you, Bebe is in the credits to Tough, a song about holding on and being strong, especially with ‘my faith to pull me through’. I am near certain there will be a second version or a live performance where Bebe shows up. I am just as certain it won’t make as much money as Meant To Be.
I really liked Me For Me when it emerged a few weeks before the album. Written with both Russell Dickerson and Thomas Rhett, it’s a certain single and has a brilliant chorus that contains a gorgeous diminished chord. The message of the song is the same as ‘love your perfect imperfections’, which made John Legend richer even than Tyler. It also reminds me that FGL, though a duo, were the closest thing to a country boyband in the 2010s, dancing around and rocking jeans with holes in them, which is funnily enough a reference on Me For Me.
To his credit, Tyler is credited as a writer on all 18 tracks as well as co-producing the album which is brought out via Hubbard House Records, an imprint of Universal Music. As you would expect for the solo album of a big-ticket performer, big Music Row names were in the room to write the songs. Ashley Gorley and Ben Johnson joined Tyler for Leave Me Alone (‘I love the way your love won’t leave me alone’), the sort of song Luke Bryan has made (or rather Gorley has given Luke) for a decade and which also processes Tyler’s vocals much as Tim McGraw’s had been on Southern Girl.
Rodney Clawson was there for Paradise, a piano ballad which paints a utopian picture. It sounds like a McGraw song on purpose, right down to the melody lines; it might as well be called Meanwhile Back at the Beach. 35’s, meanwhile, chugs along with our narrator singing of his desire to ‘slow down…make some time to kill’.
Canaan Smith co-wrote three tunes: as well as Baby Gets Her Lovin’, which first appeared last year as part of the EP that teased the album, Canaan contributes to the funky meet-cute By The Way – which has a pretty pedal steel solo but little besides that to elevate it beyond filler – and the album’s closing track Way Home, which is all about Tyler’s spiritual leaning which he hinted at on songs like Dirt. It’s his take on Amazing Grace, since he once was lost and now, with Jesus at the wheel, he is found.
Elsewhere on the album, there’s the typical Music Row interpretation of rural themes. Out This Way’s hymn to rural life is enlivened by a half-rapped delivery; it’s basically a rewrite of Up Down set to the chords of Ridin’ Roads by Dustin Lynch. It’s filler. Small Town Me sees millionaire, diamond-selling Tyler recall a time before all the excesses when he had a ‘beat-up pawn-shop guitars’ and ‘talked to Jesus, I believed John 3:16’.
Not for the first time when listening to Tyler’s music, Bo Burnham’s Pandering popped into my head. How Red (‘is your neck of the woods’) is a fun way of asking a listener how rural they are, again through the form of questions and signifiers: ‘If you say “hell yeah, hot damn!” I can see us getting along.’ The song shows two things: the influence of Hardy on contemporary songwriting in Nashville, and that pandering can be charming too.
She Can, which more than anything else reminds me of The Candy Man from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is one of those songs which could work as Christian music with a different protagonist. Instead, it’s a familiar love song which is perfect for wedding video montages.
Miss My Daddy is a 100%-er. I could imagine McGraw going on about his dad, who died in 2007 before Cruise made Tyler a millionaire (did I already mention that he’s rich?) teaching him ‘how to work a clutch’ and how if the pair could talk now ‘his grandkids talk about the man they never knew’. As long as Nashville is making money, its big acts will put songs about their late parents as the penultimate track of an 18-track album.
I’d say that preferred Brian Kelley’s Florida beach album from last year, but it’s not a competition between FGL members. I would put money on Tyler Hubbard playing C2C 2024, on an undercard which features Tim McGraw as headliner. That’d be a good show full of hits, even though most people will be waiting for Tyler’s old favourites rather than his new, McGraw-influenced pop music.
I’m working on a big piece about UK country music this year, taking the reader from the 1930s to the present day. One of the challenges of country music in this country, according to people who run a successful festival, is to ‘level up’ the genre and make it better known and thus more profitable as a business. For guidance, perhaps we should look to Canada.
Tenille Townes, Lindsay Ell and Shania Twain have all travelled to the UK after first driving down to Nashville and getting in front of the right people. All three are respected in their home nation, as is a chap who is going to have a busy year. Brett Kissel is the Canadian version of The Shires, a huge indigenous country star with a worldwide following too. In the last decade he’s had three big albums and plenty of hits from them, which got him in front of fans of Garth Brooks when he came to Canada in 2019.
Brett also covers songs by Steve Earle and John Denver in his live shows and there’s a live album due at the end of 2023. Before then, he’s putting out three studio albums and grouping the 2023 quartet as the Compass Project. Unlike Zach Bryan and Morgan Wallen, who have both dumped 30 tracks or more on listeners in one go, Brett is being sensible and staggering the new material over the three albums.
The South album is the first. There are ten originals alongside a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s three-chord marvel Cadillac Ranch. Just because he’s from Jersey doesn’t mean Bruce isn’t a country singer.
There were four impact tracks to preview the album, including a perfunctory ‘A goes with B’ duet with 98˚ called Ain’t The Same, ie ‘making love feels better when it’s all night’. Never Have I Ever – alas not a Gasoline & Matches cover! – was the most recent of those previews. The song opens with Brett spitting a verse about meeting his wife, making him perhaps the Canadian Thomas Rhett, who could also have written this hooky tune which opens the album. The chorus nicks the ‘one more time’ motif from the chorus of the Rascal Flatts song Rewind, and I like the line ‘double-dare you to stay the night’, which picks up on the idea of the title.
First Place is one of those happy-sad breakup songs, this one hanging on the lyrical hook ‘should have never put her second in the first place’. In some places on the album Brett almost raps the lyrics, sticking on a single note to hammer home the lyric, as on All I Ever Wanted and That’s Just You. On the latter, Brett complains about her capriciousness: ‘you’re fire then you’re ice, all wrong but so right’ is simple but elegant.
Starts And Ends was written with Karen Kosowski, who has worked a lot with Mickey Guyton. It’s another TR-type dedication to a woman with a melodic chorus and a little bit of dobro. It reminds me a lot of Wrapped Up In You, and if you’re going to be inspired by anyone in country music, choose Garth.
Watch It is a carpe-diem ballad about being a dad on which Brett reminds himself to ‘take life one day at a time’ and how ‘there’s no way to bottle lightning’. The key to this song is the change in perspective, making it fun to follow who is watching what or whom and when they’re doing it. It’s gorgeous and should win some awards. Both that song and Standing In The Dark, which could be a showstopper in a musical in another guise, are both outside writes which fit the Brett Kissel sound.
Two songs are 100%-ers written entirely by Brett. Our Home sounds anthemic from the long opening passage of drums which makes me think this was intended as an album opener. Brett comes in to sing of the glory of home, which can imply a house or a country, with a series of adjectives including ‘wonderful’ and ‘magical’. It achieves its goal in stirring the soul.
Line In The Sand opens with images of closed businesses and irritating bosses. Our narrator refuses to have his spirit beaten out of him, with patriotic pride and a desire to ‘see the good in everyone’ in spite of all those politicians – like the Canadian leader who was once photographed in blackface, perhaps – making it tough. I would have been disappointed if there wasn’t a squealing guitar solo in the middle of it and a massive wigout, as that would be my line in the sand.
Brett’s impressive vocals and delivery make this a fine start to his 2023 tetralogy. That’s one more than a trilogy but nobody ever uses the term apart from Classics graduates.
Here’s something that wouldn’t have been released ten years ago: the debut EP from a former country boyband member who grew up in Edinburgh. Amazingly, I think I saw Jordan Harvey at a Battle of the Bands back in 2011 as the drummer for indie-rock band OK Social Club. Their song Everybody’s At It would impress fans of The Fratellis.
Jordan is signed to Broken Bow, home of Aldean, Lainey Wilson and Jelly Roll. King Calaway are still a going concern but Jordan decided to break away and go solo. In 2022, we heard his entry to market with two songs: Alabama Girl, which skips along with an off-beat guitar line and an instantly catchy melody line which emphasises the lyric (‘she likes my accent, I love her drawl’); and I Will, a catchy appeal to a potential belle (‘be the late-night lips you’re kissin’).
Three new songs that complete the EP. Along For The Ride is another one of those songs about driving with music playing and the wind in your hair. The melody bobs along and the chorus is radio-friendly with a great lyric about the driver’s ‘paparazzi Hollywood smile’. Break-up song Overnight sounds enormous, even if its theme is essentially ‘one last booty call’. The song is elevated by Jordan’s smooth half-rapped delivery and hooky tag to the chorus (‘so come over tonight’).
Think About Change begins ‘Never liked white-picket fences’ and is set to the sort of piano chords and drum loop that have anchored radio ballads by Jordan Davis and Dan + Shay. Fans of Parmalee will also enjoy this country-inflected pop, which will surely make its way back to the UK this year.
Colton James – America
Colton James, meanwhile, is an American performer who has opened for Toby Keith and Jason Aldean, which is one of the most sensible bookings you can imagine given this seven-track EP, which has patriotism running through it like whatever the American equivalent of seaside rock candy is.
Toby and Aldean have made squillions with their brand of chest-thumping country music; without being too reductive about this EP, Colton is a few chevrons behind them in their lane. I Miss America opens the set with a crash from the snare and a squeal from a guitar. Colton sings of small towns filled with working men who eat chicken on Sunday at grandma’s with ‘Old Glory waving tall, waving proud’. We are definitely in the Land of the Free, perhaps when it used to be great or at least ‘so much simpler’.
It sounds like that new ChatGPT algorithm has been fed Toby Keith’s catalogue and told to write a new tune based on that data, right down to the vocal tone and vibrato. Ditto Take This Country Back, which complements the opener but also mentions Jesus and Colton’s grandpa (‘he lived hard…back when a man and a woman fell in love for life’). I don’t know why Colton included both of these on the EP as each does the job of the other; he even sings of the American flag and ‘simple days’, so even the vocabulary is the same across both songs.
47 Acre Farm opens with Colton’s father (‘blue collar sweat, red dirt ground’) and praises the wisdom of owning a piece of land and doing country stuff on it. There is an Aldeanish passage of guitar in the middle of it, and both the lyrics and the delivery are direct and impactful.
There is, of course, the anthemic song about going off to war to ‘bleed for the flag to make sure the stripes stay there’ (Brave Men) and the anthemic song about American farmers who ‘scrape to make their last payment’ (American Farmer). There’s one about Colton’s babe – Ring On Her Finger, a lovely vignette with dustings of pedal steel – and another on the things you can’t buy called Richest Man Alive: ‘peace of mind don’t cost a dime’ is a good line.
This EP is the country version of the Pledge of Allegiance, with some hearty vocals and rural themes.
Michael Hardy is a genius, if you define it correctly as a little bit of talent plus a lot of hard work.
As a staff songwriter he wrote Up Down and Talk You Out of It for Florida Georgia Line, God’s Country for Blake Shelton, I Don’t Know About You for Chris Lane and Some Girls for Jameson Rodgers. He is also a key part of the Morgan Wallen camp, writing seven songs on Dangerous including Still Goin Down, More Than My Hometown, Beer Don’t and the smash Sand In My Boots, which he wrote with Ashley Gorley.
When he won the BMI Songwriter of the Year Award in 2022, to add to awards from the ACM and AIMP organisations and marking his 12 career number ones, Hardy joked that the only way he could beat his friend Ashley at something was to be published by BMI! His style is similar to that of Rhett Akins, using as few chords as possible to tell his stories, on which he uses the poetic technique of assonance, finding similar vowel sounds (‘Big Dip spitting in a Big Gulp cup…Eatin’ meat and three fried green tomatoes’)
As an artist, Hardy arrived on the scene by claiming ‘I’m Rednecker than you’. He also hit number one as part of Beers On Me, the latest number one for Dierks Bentley (who also has new music imminent). In 2019, he took a cue from hiphop and put together the first of two Hixtapes, either writing or performing on tracks like Boy From The South (where the assonance in the previous paragraph comes from), Red Dirt Clouds and the smash hit song about teenage pregnancy One Beer. The second set was issued one song at a time across autumn 2021, with the final track Goin’ Nowhere the last out because it featured Morgan Wallen. Intriguingly, the Hixtape sets are classified under Hixtape, not under Hardy, on Spotify; he told Holler Country that he wanted them to be the country version of Now That’s What I Call Music, taking on a life of their own.
Hardy was due to go out on the road with Thomas Rhett and open for Morgan Wallen in the UK in 2020, but he had to stay at home and write some more songs. He also found time to get married in 2022, after which he announced this second solo album which follows 2020’s A Rock. The big song on that album was a funeral song written with Gorley called Give Heaven Some Hell, which went to radio and had an impressive run considering it wasn’t about beer, girls or heartache.
Wait in the Truck, the impact single from his second album, goes further away from the quotidian themes of country radio in 2023. It’s a murder ballad where Hardy helps a woman, played by Lainey Wilson, take vengeance on her abuser who left her ‘bruised and broke from head to toe’. It is so believable and the production is like Roger Deakins’ cinematography in how it creates a mood over which the narrative takes place. What boldness from Hardy to send a song to radio that includes pistols, policemen, the chorus ‘Have mercy on me, Lord’ and a jail term for the narrator which ‘was worth the price’ of what he did.
The most stark title on A Rock was Unapologetically Country As Hell, which sounds like a bumper sticker or t-shirt slogan. In fact, as we discovered on A Rock and more starkly when Hardy covered Blurry by Puddle of Mudd, he is also rock as hell. Sensibly, the folks at Big Loud Records have given him the creative freedom to make two records in one, although the lines blur in part thanks to the production. The Mockingbird represents country music, which marks the first half, and The Crow is the rockier second half.
When the album was announced, Hardy released three ‘instant grat’ tracks. The title track is the literal centrepiece of the album, with plenty of autobiography: he grew up in Philadelphia, Mississippi, ‘a little town named after another’ from where Marty Stuart also hails. There’s some satire too, as the power chords amp up and Hardy turns into the crow like a regenerating Doctor: ‘Do this, do that/ That shirt, this hat/ Don’t forget to smile, kiss the ring once in a while’.
Sold Out, one of the rock tracks on the collection, was released back in March 2022. It’s an odd lyric, given that Carrie Underwood’s producer David Garcia was in the room to write it which is as mainstream as country gets. ‘Keep your in crowd, I’ll be the outcast’ doesn’t work as a line given that Hardy has all those gold records and songwriting awards. The narrator is full of curse words and redneck pride. I know Hardy is playing the role of a rock’n’roller who growls the song’s key lyric (‘wall to wall and I still ain’t sold out’), but it reminds me of comedian Bo Burnham’s song Pandering, where the narrator looks like a farmer but wears $3000 boots.
Morgan Wallen could afford a whole closet of boots now. He hit paydirt by combining rock motifs and his southern drawl, and he appears on Hardy’s track Red, which was written with Rhett Akins and passes the baton from grandpa Rhett to kid Hardy. It’s another songwriting exercise where the pair hymn various red things: college football jerseys, stop signs, the American flag, a bank account in debit, necks which have toiled in the sun all day.
Hunter Phelps, another member of the Wallen crew who has had a very good last few years, was in the room for nine of the album’s 17 songs, including Wait in the Truck, Drink One For Me – which is effectively Give Earth Some Heaven, since the narrator tells his mates to celebrate his life when he goes because there’s no alcohol up there – and the Florida Georgia Line-ish Screen, which are all notionally part of the country set. The drums on the last of these are massive, built for the stadiums where Hardy will be supporting Wallen this summer. He’ll tour this album in smaller venues across America in the spring, as part of a double bill with Jameson Rodgers.
There were two other pre-released tracks from the rock set. Jack, written with Hillary Lindsey and David Garcia, is one of those songs about whiskey and its effects on folk, both positive (‘I can fix your problems, always got your back…rock bottom ain’t as bad when you’re rocking with me’) and negative (‘you’re broken and you’re soulless and it’s all my fault’). I expect a lot of reviews will mention Limp Bizkit and the genre ‘nu-metal’, especially when the title track turns emo, but this is rock music with a country tinge.
The song acts as a companion piece to the album opener Beer, which is credited to Gorley, Hardy, Phelps and fellow hitmaker Ben Johnson. Immediately we know where we are: ‘Hank and Blink 182’ both get namechecks as Hardy personifies his alcoholic friend to the backing of enormous drums and power chords courtesy of the great Joey Moi, the architect of the Nickelback sound who has brought big loud production to Big Loud Records. Sort of the Max Martin of country music, Moi produced Cruise and Wallen’s album Dangerous. He’s laughing all the way to his (one assumes) very big house.
Hardy says he ‘woke up on the wrong side of the truck bed this morning’ on Truck Bed, another catchy tune which had Ashley Gorley in the room for its composition. Our narrator was thrown out of the bedroom and forced to sleep with ‘a camo jacket for a blanket’. I appreciate that assonance and also the in-joke about how ‘at least I took my boots off this time’, which refers to his track Boots, where he was so sozzled that he didn’t even take his shoes off when he crashed.
The third song released back in October was Here Lies Country Music, a heck of a title which reminds me of Murder on Music Row, the famous Alan Jackson song about the state of Music City in 2001. Two decades on, ‘the cause of death was a lonely broken heart’; concerts, whiskey, beer, Ring of Fire, Family Tradition, ‘names that I won’t mention’ (coward: name them!!) who watered down the genre and ‘three chords and the truth six feet in the ground’. And then Hardy woke up and it was all a dream. It’s a similar tale to his Worst Country Song of All Time, which wraps a hymn to the genre in a negative (what I call the alpha-privative type of song, but that’s all Greek to most of you).
I almost stood up and applauded when I heard the lyrical reveal on I in Country, a power ballad which I won’t spoil except to say I can’t believe nobody had written it before Hardy. When you write hundreds of songs a year, you can afford to experiment for your own material and give away tunes with familiar topics. Happy, meanwhile, is a Hardy 100%-er, with music and lyrics from the performer as he once again gives characteristics to an abstract concept. It’s smart without being overly smart, and vaguely hippieish (‘hey Happy, why can’t everybody just be you?’). Rather brilliantly, as he revealed in this chat with Holler Country, the seed of the idea was a children’s book he wanted to write.
I think Hardy has used Jaren Johnston from The Cadillac Three as a model for this album. Like Hardy, Jaren is a respected staff songwriter with a band which provides an outlet for his hankering for live performance. I can imagine TC3 doing Radio Song, which features Jeremy McKinnon, frontman of Floridian rockers A Day To Remember: it purposefully sounds like pastiche, putting in a candy-covered chorus (‘kiss you in the moonlight…Everybody sing along’) before a bellowed swear word. You only need to hear it once. When you’ve written so many Wallen tracks, you get to stick a gag near the end of your album and Hardy makes a valid point about the commercial imperative of Music City.
The rock set makes me think a live Hardy show will similarly demarcate rock and country. Perhaps he’ll do the country set for Wallen gigs and the rock set in the sticky clubs. Both sets can include I Ain’t In The Country No More, a mood piece with an opening blast of staccato guitars where rural kid Hardy finds himself among the beggars, the ‘concrete’ and ‘choir of singing sirens’.
In the modern rock style where genre is dead, Kill Sh!t Till I Die is anchored by a riff which is overtaken by a drum loop and Hardy espousing his country boy philosophy. The song .30-06, which opens with some power chords straight out of an old Green Day album, has a title which represents the Springfield cartridge for a popular rifle. The narrator has a gun taken by an ex but, he suggests from the back of his throat straight out of an old Green Day album, there are plenty more where that came from.
The album ends with Redneck Song, a sort of pirate song transferred to country boys, which starts with a singalong chorus that is drenched in vinyl crackle. The middle eight is a hymn to mixing Mountain Dew and George Dickel whiskey. Fans of Hardy’s delivery here will love the work of Jaret Ray Reddick, a Texan best known for his rock band Bowling For Soup but who put out a country album in 2022. I wonder if Hardy and Jaret will connect this year.
The key to this album is believing the vocalist and realising Hardy is a bulky guy who, despite his Music Row A-List status, will always be the guy from Mississippi who does country stuff. I am sure he’ll talk to rock publications to establish his credibility; he’s already booked for a summer festival in Florida. It’s interesting that the big rock release in January 2023 is the first post-Eurovision set by Maneskin, the Italian quartet who have worked with Max Martin. Otherwise rock is a heritage genre with big stars like Jeff Beck and David Crosby already passing on in the first three weeks of the year.
On the country side, Wallen’s album has been number one for most of the last two years. Hardy’s set won’t surpass it but it does cement the Big Loud Sound as one of the sounds of contemporary country. I hope we’ll see Hardy and Wallen in the UK soon; for the moment, we’ve got the recordings.
I Didn’t Think About Rain by Jarrod Morris is one of my favourite songs of the last few years. Driven by blasts of harmonica and an unusual chord progression, it’s a man’s attempt to reckon with the end of a relationship via metaphor: houses in the valleys, a bad ending to a good movie, storms and cloudbursts. I stumbled into it while researching Red Dirt music, something I’ve spent two years doing for my Arc Radio show In The Red Dirt. A million people have streamed the song on Spotify, and I am sure all of them know that Jarrod Morris makes horseshoes for money and music for fun.
His Running on Change set, his second album, collects seven self-penned songs. An Acoustic Covers EP offers five interpretations. The covers first, which are a mixed bunch of melodies: The Middle by Jimmy Eat World, with some delicious double-stopped fiddle in the middle; Learn To Fly by Foo Fighters, with a reworked middle section; Another Day In Paradise, which stops abruptly to emphasise Phil Collins’ original point; and Forever and For Always, which cashes in on the return of Shania Twain and reminds the listener that great artists have great songs.
The most popular of the covers is the Rihanna song Desperado, which Jarrod transforms from a femme fatale-type pop song into a prairie folk acoustic number with light natural reverb on his vocal, which stays within a comfortable range and will appeal to fans of Kenny Foster.
Three songs feature as acoustic and studio versions are: album opener The One You Know, a breakup song which will provide comfort to people in similar positions; the fist-puncher Open Book (‘my stories always seem too perfect’); and When You’re Coming Down, which is driven by a three-chord loop and Jarrod’s wish to plough his own furrow and ‘ride my pony till the cows come home’. There is a long outro, which is nice to hear among tight streaming-friendly songs.
Western Tears is a literal interpretation of ‘there’s a tear in my beer’ told through a conversation between Jarrod and his wretched interlocutor. The chorus packs a punch too.
Truth Like A Lie has a memorable line in the chorus about ‘drinking like a fish, smoking like a train’ while Jarrod’s narrator tries to better himself so he can keep hold of his beloved, even if he doesn’t believe a word of what he says. The music is in a happy major key, which only serves to emphasise his message. Far less melancholy is the come-on If You Ever Wonder Why, which has a funky and alluring rhythm to soundtrack Jarrod’s invitation to ‘give me a try’. The saxophone solo may come across as pastiche, as does the slightly self-effacing lyric, but it does its job effectively.
Jarrod Morris seems to be making Red Dirt music on his own terms, which is actually an oxymoron. Every Red Dirt star makes music on their own terms.
A stellar review in the magazine Country Music People alerted me to Surprise Party, the debut album from Mallory Johnson. ‘I’m having trouble paying my rent’ begins the chorus of opening track Goin’ Broke, which is in the Brandy Clark wheelhouse and has a lovely reverb guitar part running through it. Brandy would approve of the line ‘call me the bargain connoisseur’.
Mallory is a Canadian from a town called Conception Bay in Newfoundland. She made the move to Nashville, much like compatriot Tenille Townes, and in 2021 put on a showcase of fellow Canucks like Victoria Banks and Madeline Merlo. Carolyn Dawn Johnson, who co-wrote Goin’ Broke, was also there, as was Tenille Arts, who was in the room for Drunk Mind Sober Heart, an acoustic ballad which chastises a booty caller. Tenille Arts, by the way, is due in the UK in February 2023 to entertain her UK fanbase.
Married is a fantastic tune which will chime with anyone who wants the power of ceremony without the responsibility of having a relationship with a loved one, to ‘change my name for just one night’. Hungover (‘I’m leaning on the bathroom sink’) is taken at a pace which will suit people with real hangovers, while the toe-tapper When I’m Blue is a songwriting exercise involving colours: white dresses, red wine, yellow roses, being green with jealousy.
Not Your Heart is a ballad where Mallory takes control of a romantic situation with the devastating kiss-off: ‘I’m your shoulder, not your heart’. Stick Around is a warm love song with that familiar country-soul feel, well-placed diminished chords and a slinky guitar line. Party Dress is tons of fun too, rhyming ‘fabric/magic’ in the chorus and embodying that line from Love is the Drug by Roxy Music: ‘Dim the lights, you can guess the rest…’
Where The Good Things Are begins the album’s second side with a dropped-tuned guitar and a series of images that ‘sound nice but…ain’t what I’m looking for’. It’s yet another song about being content with one’s lot in life, which seemingly every act has to sing whether they are Canadian, British or Nashvillian.
Sugarcoat It and the title track were written with the duo Twin Kennedy. The former is a vignette, a four-minute movie of a break-up (‘icing on the cake won’t cover up the taste’ is a smart line) and the latter a similarly downbeat take on Someone Like You. The album ends with a solo acoustic ‘worktape’ version of Wise Woman, a song which Mallory released alongside Twin Kennedy in 2021. It imparts advice from someone who knows that age brings perspective.
Mallory, a wise head on young shoulders, is a fine addition to the coterie of country Canucks.
‘We don’t have white Christmases in Houston!’ sang Jess Clemmons near the end of a magnificent 75 minutes of Sunday night entertainment. Outside the snow was falling in North London while Jess promoted her Christmas releases, including 2020’s My Country Christmas, with secular and religious songs plus a smattering of non-festive tunes.
This was the sixth of an eight-date trot around Britain. A crack rhythm section, Zoe on bass and Robert on drums, kept the beat while the frontline trio of Luke Thomas on acoustic guitar and Eddy Smith on keyboard matched Jess’s vocals. There were delightful solos from Luke and Eddy on, respectively, Love Like That and Smoke and Mirrors, which was particularly enlivened by the organ setting on Eddy’s keyboard. To use a Louis Walsh cliché, Jess made Wichita Lineman her own and is definitely through to the live finals(!)
With vestigial candles dotted around the front of the stage, Jess and the band(its) treated Christmas songs with a mix of reverence (three-part harmonies on O Holy Night, I’ll Be Home For Christmas and What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve) and irreverence: set opener Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, Sleigh Ride and a buoyant Let It Snow. Wrapped in Red by Jess’s fellow Texan Kelly Clarkson was a set highlight which makes one think that Underneath The Tree shouldn’t be the only Clarkson Christmas standard. Luke, contrary to what he said, did not murder his vocal parts.
His fiancée (and vocal coach?) Jade Helliwell and Tim Prottey-Jones (plus young son) watched on, while Poppy Fardell ‘floated’ onstage for a smart cameo on a cover of Thomas Rhett’s jaunty Christmas in the Country. Poppy had opened the evening with a smattering of songs from her just-released album Back on My Feet (reviewed here). The opening pair of Beer Budget and Double Denim were blessed with the presence of co-writer ‘Sue McMillan At The Back’, while Poppy namechecked Jess Thristan and Liv Austen who were in the room for Good Girl and All Over Again. Little Girl, a song that shows Poppy can do deep as well as frothy, followed Emilia Quinn’s Child in being addressed to an unborn progeny.
Jess was in her usual hostess mood, even dealing with a tipsy member of the audience by declaring him a ‘British Texan’ unafraid to be loud and unruly. She talked of the difficulties of potty training and sang her recent single which called her kids Emotional Baggage which she’d never want to give up. She also advised fellow mums to download an app which lets Santa call kids and ask if they have been naughty or nice, making it an educational show as well as an entertaining one.
The payment for such parenting tips? ‘Mama’s gotta buy some Christmas presents!’ Jess admitted, pushing fans to the merch table to buy one or more CDs but, alas, not Christmas tree ornaments which had sold out by the time she reached London. With luck she’ll replenish the stock for her UK tour next year: biannual visits in spring/summer and Christmas will be something to look forward to, as will a new album.
My Country Christmas is available to stream and download now.
Charting at number 12 in the recent UK Country Top 40 Bubbling Further Under Chart, Sarah Louise has collected five tracks written this year into an EP. The title track opens with ‘mistakes that we’ve made, the chances we take’, making it a philosophical song that can be hummed and chanted en masse. ‘Look to the future and let it go’ sings a woman who has a teenage daughter who has a fine maternal guide.
My Beating Heart has an anthemic quality to it, suitably given its title. ‘What do I do with all this emotion?’ cries the narrator, who can only manage some ‘woahs’ with words impossible. Purple Flowers is a piano ballad written for a couple’s wedding, with the title coming from a gift on the second date. I hope people pick up on this song up as it’s one of the year’s best.
Sarah Louise wrote the toe-tapper Rosa Parks Boulevard in Nashville on a recent trip over there. It is a troubadour’s song written in defiance of how ‘everyone I know has been telling me “no”’. The chuckle and whoop (and key change!) elevate the song beyond the many, many songs that have been written about Nashville by UK musicians.
My Grandparents and Me is the singer’s life in a song. Grab tissues, because the song is full of images and vignettes, with love in every syllable and pluck of guitar string. ‘Sandwiches and lemonade’ would make a good songtitle. Sarah Louise, who was nominated alongside Kezia Gill and Jade Helliwell for the BCMA Female Vocalist award, doesn’t need an amateur giving her any tips!
Poppy Fardell – Back on my Feet
Kezia Gill has stepped up to the UK country A List this year. Just below her are a peloton of acts poised to do big things in the current environment. They all write, sing and perform expertly and deserve more than just local attention. One of those performers is Poppy Fardell.
The title of Poppy’s debut album, which was surprise-released like she’s Beyonce, could refer to the long recovery from an operation earlier this year which postponed activity around her music. She was an excellent support act in the spring for Morganway in a London gig, and at the British Country Music she led a singalong of Country Roads while a songwriters round was having technical issues.
Poppy also opened for Jess and the Bandits at their London show in December, which you can read about here, so it was a sort of album launch. Half of the album’s songs have introduced themselves in a live setting and, as of the autumn, on record. Tim Prottey-Jones provides the instrumental tracks over which Poppy sings in a pure, trained voice (she’s also an actress). Tim also provides vocals on Drive, which came out back in 2020 and has a pleasing coat of mandolin and fiddle.
All Over Again, which has a fine structure, opens the album with a singalong bunch of doo-doos and a declaration that, in life and in love, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It also proves that autobiography can be catchy! Equally hooky is live favourite Double Denim where love ‘shouldn’t work but it does’ and Getaway Car, a pretty come-on with the line: ‘Let’s call it quits, make like The Chicks and take the long way!’
Elsewhere Poppy shouts ‘hell yeah!’ while living ‘champagne life on a Beer Budget’. She is more understated on Hometown Hero, a reminiscin’ song full of pathos which is also a small town ballad and thus hits two country tropes in one tune. There are also two songs with ‘girl’ in the title: Good Girl, written with the predictably solid Jess Thristan, is an air-puncher with the album’s best chorus, while Little Girl is a letter to Poppy’s imagined child with some more sumptuous fiddle.
Dear You is another letter, this time to a beloved. It sounds like a ballad Avril Lavigne would have sung near the start of her career, especially with the rhyme ‘congratulations/manipulation’. The hand of Beth Keeping, an excellent singer/songwriter, is audible. Background Picture ends the album on a high note, with a heavy bass drum stomp perfect for a clapalong that matches a lyric where Poppy moves on in a strong manner (‘Gotta get you out of my system’).
With albums expected from Kezia Gill and Jade Helliwell soon, Poppy has set the bar high for the talented starlets of the UK country movement.
I missed the first album by Alex Williams, which was out on Big Machine the same year (2017) that Taylor Swift put out Reputation on the same label. The record did nothing and Alex became an independent artist while working on his second album.
It’s certainly a voice more suitable to an indie rather than a radio environment, although technically Big Machine is an indie attached to Sony Music. Old Before My Time chugs along like a Midland song (who are on Big Machine themselves), with Alex walking the line and ‘singing songs from 1969’.
The opening seconds of the opening track put me in mind of Jason Isbell or classic country chuggers like Waylon Jennings (‘ain’t lookin’ for any trouble, ain’t turnin’ any trouble down’). Higher Road stomps along with a marvellous groove that Alex’s vocals more than match as he dispenses wisdom such as ‘I won’t sell my soul lookin’ for a higher road’ and ‘only time can tell’.
Then there are the songs praising a wild spirit. Fire smoulders with a minute of guitar-led sound painting before Alex sings of ‘blue light innocence’, describing the effects of a girl he has just spotted who will ‘take your breath away’. Confession opens ‘she’s a lady most of the time’, which instantly draws in the listener’; Alex doesn’t know if he’s lucky or ‘cursed’ to have this lady.
The Best Thing (‘that’s ever happened to you’) is a smart shuffle with a neat hook and a brief harmonica solo in the middle. Rock Bottom also slows things down, with the arrangement matching the lyric of despair where Alex’s narrator is ‘counting his misfortunes’. There’s another smart lyrical hook here: ‘the only thing that’s left is anything to lose’. Then the lyric drops out and we get two minutes of blues in D major which fades out as the pedal steel comes in. Always leave the listener wanting more.
The title track sums up the sound of the album: reverberating guitar lines, a solid opening line about ‘a tripped-out TV’ and a well-worn vocal telling us that pacificism would meet ‘the belly of the beast’ which ‘looks a lot like me’. Double Nickel, on the other hand, is a fun road song full of abandon to match Alex’s drive on Interstate 55.
The album ends with a pair of tracks: The Struggle is four minutes of wisdom about the journey being more important than the destination (‘I made more miles than money’); The Vice asks listeners to ‘pick your poison’ in order to escape daily life. It’s a sombre end to a great collection whose musicianship and variety make it worth your time. Not for the first time, Big Machine’s loss is our gain.
Hillbilly Vegas – The Great Southern Hustle
Radio 2 has several specialist music shows dedicated to blues, jazz, folk, country and rock. Each has its own template and style, although sometimes you can get acts who mix genres. Fairport Convention and The Band did folk-rock, while
‘Bad rock with a fiddle’ is how Tom Petty described commercial country music. Southern rock, which his band the Heartbreakers specialised in, is a genre which draws fans of rock and country. Plenty of Nashville acts call themselves ‘country’ but are really ‘rock’: Brothers Osborne, Chris Stapleton, even Garth Brooks.
This compilation introduces the band to a UK market, coinciding with a show at the famed Troubadour venue in West London. You can already tell what it’s going to sound like by the tracklist. High Time for a Good Time and Shake It Like A Hillbilly both have squealing guitar solos and impassioned vocal performances that remind country fans of The Cadillac Three.
Livin’ Loud is a three-minute clarion call that cannot be listened to without nodding one’s head and taking the band’s advice to ‘grab a cold one’. Can’t Go Home is a hymn to living wild and carefree while getting blotto (‘so much for being happy – I wouldn’t want to lose my edge!’), while Hell To Pay brings the devil to the party.
Then, naturally, there come the power ballads. Long Way Back (‘from where I’m standing now’) is well arranged and sounds like what Boston, Asia, Chicago and all those other acts named after places used to do in about 1984. Little Miss Rough and Tumble has some gentle organ to underscore a compassionate lyric sung to the protagonist.
There’s a rock’n’roll thrust to Just Say You Love Me (‘I don’t need pictures and melodies’). Losin’ To Win sounds like Jon Bon Jovi broken down and heartbroken. ‘The life of the party is dying inside’ sings the narrator, along with the words ‘selective memory’ and ‘raise a toast to this jester’.
The second side of the album starts with I-Tsu-La/ Let’s Get Together, which is led by a prog-rock organ part that recalls the music made in 1973 (Dark Side of the Moon, by the way, is approaching 50 years old), then breaks into a bluesy series of riffs, the right amount of cowbell and the line ‘ain’t nothing wrong with how the spirit moves you’. Rock’n’roll is homage only at this point.
Two Gun Town combines the best elements of the album: organ, riffing, a breakdown in the middle of the song, close vocal harmonies and a heavy, heart backbeat. ‘I am the law in this town!!’ is the main hook. For an encore, there’s the old stalwart Ring of Fire, where a twin guitar attack helps the album end with a flourish.
Billy Strings did the double at this year’s IBMA Awards for bluegrass music, retaining the Entertainer award from 2021 and winning Song of the Year too. It’s natural that he should walk away with it, after two dates in London in March 2022 and a return visit on December 7 either side of a packed festival schedule promoting his album Renewal, discussed here.
Astoundingly, Billy is playing three dates in Nashville in February: one at the Ryman for 2400 people, two at the Bridgestone Arena in front of 20,000. In May it’s two dates at the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado and a jaunt to California and Texas. That’s a lot of bluegrass fans!
The album title explains itself, with dad Terry helping his son on some old favourites. Dad takes lead on several tunes, including Life To Go, a George Jones song in the character in jail for 18 years so far ‘and still got life to go’ and Little Blossom, a bittersweet waltz about mum and dad written in 1959 by Hank Thompson.
The instrumental ditty Frosty Morn sounds effortless, although it takes a lot of effort to be so. Toes will tap to the delightful Little Cabin Home on the Hill. Stone Walls and Steel Bars (‘I’m a three-time loser!’) and I Haven’t Seen Mary In Years are familiar tunes which are brought to life by modern recording techniques, so each pluck of string vibrates in the listener’s ear.
Likewise, AP Carter’s Wandering Boy reaches across the decades to an audience who may have come to bluegrass and ‘old time music’ via Billy’s experimental style which has been compared to the great American jam bands like Phish and the Grateful Dead. (We call our jam bands ‘prog’ in the UK. Perhaps lots of prog acolytes will turn up to Billy’s UK sets.)
The set is well chosen. I Heard My Mother Weeping closes the album with a vocal from Billy’s own mum, who is upset at her son being sent to jail. John Deere Tractor, once interpreted by the Judds, is a letter written from son to mum (‘I guess my city days are done’), while Dig A Little Deeper (In The Well) includes a verse where the narrator recalls his dad’s old words. It impresses me that it was first performed by the Oak Ridge Boys in 1979, given that it has become a bluegrass standard.
Michael Cleveland’s fiddle joins the pair on the Doc Watson compositions Peartree and Way Downtown, which sound like the best kind of front porch jam. Emma John’s marvellous book on bluegrass, Wayfaring Stranger, shows that you don’t need to cram into an arena to see bluegrass done well, but it helps if you can make a bit of money doing it.
Granger Smith – Moonrise
When I started listening to country music properly in 2015, Granger Smith was always on the radio with songs like If The Boot Fits, Backroad Song and Happens Like That. His comic creation Earl Dibbles Jr amused me, and I have been impressed with how he and his family have bounced back from personal tragedy involving the death of a child. They have since had a boy named Maverick, born in August 2021.
Granger seems to alternate between big projects like his two-volume Country Things set from 2020 and his movie soundtrack They Were There, a tribute to veterans. He’s successful enough to open for Garth Brooks on one date of his massive tour, but lacks the awards to make him a household name. Indeed, his last single That’s Why I Love Dirt Roads missed the top 40 at radio and You’re In It, a delectable confection, stalled at 36.
Nonetheless, he is signed to Wheelhouse Records, a subsidiary of Broken Bow, and produces his music in a contemporary style which never detracts from his Texan roots. Listen to the fiddle and stomp that introduces Tailgate Church Pew, where he makes his truck his place of prayer.
Damn Guitar is 100-percenter, with words and music by Granger (rare enough in modern country music to still be notable). There’s a great but sombre line about how he has held his ‘six strings of therapy’ more than any girl, which will resonate with any songwriter and should find a big audience if given the right push.
The album’s impact track, which has a music video, is In This House, co-written by Mitchell Tenpenny and ticking off lots of rural cliches (‘watch football after Sunday service’) that are true to Granger’s life. Broke In is one of those songs where old things still hold up and ‘how it ain’t broken, it’s just broke in’ (smart), while Black Suit is an example of ekphrasis, a classical term meaning an extended description of an item (‘don’t fit like my blue jeans’). It reminds me of how Brad Paisley dared himself to write a song about water, or Natalie Hemby wrote one called Taxidermy.
Rodney Clawson, who has also written fine ekphrastic songs about dirt and one of those nights, was in the room for Something To Go On, another radio-friendly love song full of joy and levity. Ditto two passionate love songs, Still Find You and Never Been, while on Something Is Changing Granger likens himself, ‘a simple man’, to a ‘rock that needs something to lean on’. It seeks to change the conversation and is a very modern idea of how men should open up to someone as they grieve.
Granger puts the songs (many of which began life as sketches which he had lying around in notebooks) in the mouth of Will, his character in the forthcoming movie also called Moonrise, which will fight all those Christmas movies and Avatar 2 for viewers this holiday season. Forever Forward seems to wrap a bow on the story: ‘I don’t have to move on, I write it down in the words of a new song’ is a key lyric in a song about holding on, keeping on and being strong. I also like the rhyme of ‘brick and mortar’ with the song’s title. The album’s title track, where Granger flies so high he can see fireworks from above, is likely the end credits music.
I hope Granger and Earl come to the UK, perhaps on a family vacation, in 2023.
The reason that the Country Way of Life Twitter account has been locked and archived (with thanks for following!) is because country music criticism has ceased to be about music. There are Brantley Gilbert and Jason Aldean fanatics who would subscribe to their version of the ‘Never Kissed A Tory’ credo held by many left-leaning Britons. Politics has seized every aspect of American culture and that includes country music.
Rather cutely The Telegraph, the paper Tories kiss every morning, calls Jake Blount’s new album The New Faith ‘spiritually moving’ and ‘revelatory’, which rather suggests they are judging it on the music, as shall I. The above is a context of why music discussion should be about music, but nobody gets a like for saying ‘this is good on its own terms’.
Nashville became popular for music publishers because it printed Bibles too. It is no surprise that there has been a rush of folk from New York and Los Angeles to Nashville because follow the money remains law. With the businessmen come journalists who hold power to account: Marcus K Dowling, Charles L Hughes (an academic who wrote a book about a rapper with dwarfism, a condition from which he too suffers), Andrea Williams and Marissa Moss have all made a career out of reporting the modern conditions of Nashville.
To be clear, country music needs to adapt or die, especially after freezing out women from radio, a dying medium. The passion these critics feel for a wider array of voices is endearing but sometimes their anger becomes political and less about the music than about skin pigmentation or items of sexual equipment.
Jake Blount is a musician who intersects (buzz word!!) music and academia. Born in Washington DC as the son of TV anchors, his heritage comes from both Sweden and the African diaspora. Jake studied folk music much like Rhiannon Giddens, who is doing astonishing work correcting the biased history of folk and bluegrass in America and for whom Jake opened.
This second album The New Faith comes out on Smithsonian Folkways, the Blue Note or Deutsche Grammophon of folk music. Its creator was on the cover of Country Music People magazine to promote it. He has also been supported by Apple Music, NPR and Rolling Stone, the last of these giving him space (buzz word number two!!) to write an essay about how climate change is affecting live music.
‘I am a homosexual,’ he writes in the very first paragraph before going on to criticise streaming royalties and ‘the music industry’s climatological malfeasance’ that makes Jake and his fellow folkies ‘complicit’ in destroying nature and ‘systemic discrimination’ (buzz word bingo) against those who live in hotter countries which include ‘women, people of color and people with low incomes’.
Naturally, he thinks ‘regulating the current music industry out of existence’ is the way to go, promoting the folk ideal of community and art over profit, which is brave to write in Rolling Stone, which became a brand in defiance of its counter-cultural nature.
That’s 500 words before I even press play on the album. I know Jake from his Twitter account @forked_queer where I am advised to use the he/they pronoun. In response to news that two big publishers couldn’t merge, Jake wrote ‘break up the major labels’. He commented on the passing of gay performer Patrick Haggerty, who was ‘a relative of my family through marriage’, and told people to attack Saturday Night Live for giving ‘the famously bigoted and problematic’ Dave Chappelle 15 minutes to talk about Jewish prejudice. He also wanted to know if other folk were leaving Twitter and changed his handle to ‘email@example.com’.
It’s not new to mix country music and politics – Loretta Lynn, Alan Jackson, Toby Keith and on and on – but it’s now part of the appeal. An album by a performer who is both black and queer must be heard in that context, especially a folk artist in the long line of performers keeping songs alive and writing new twists on old tropes.
Jake’s voice reminds me of that of David Byrne, another man who sometimes looks to folk music for inspiration. The Downward Road, on which Jake tells the role of a bard asking his audience to ‘gather round’, is ‘crowded’. Both that track and the following one, the trad. arr. Didn’t It Rain, are accompanied by handclap percussion.
Take Me To The Water (‘to be baptised’) is sung a cappella over a babbling brook before a spoken prayer (‘we gather here to reject the greed of our forefathers’). There is another spoken-word parable moving the listener to the coast, as storms, lynchings and fever take the lives of ‘refugees’ heading north. ‘Only three of the original 30 remained’ is the last sentence of the parable, which falls into the traditional song Death Have Mercy, which features a rap from Demeanor. He also pops up on Give Up The World, where he seems to rhyme ‘Fibonacci/ malarkey’. Modern and ancient folk tales interweave magnificently.
The track Psalms continues the narrative: ‘spare me, O Death’ is the first prayer that influences those settlers. It’s a muddled poem where voices overlap with each other and Jake challenges the listener to do good and right. ‘Trouble not with worldly possessions!’ he orders, in the sort of tone that his news-reading parents would use.
Tangle Eye Blues was a track transcribed by Alan Lomax, which Jake arranges with double-stopped fiddle drone and vocalised oohs, with the vocals (‘daddy please don’t go’) particularly poignant across the decades. City Called Heaven has bluesy guitar and a sampled sound of what might be white noise anchoring a story of a poor wayfarer, while They Are Waiting For Me is a gospel tune transferred to a chirpy major-key acoustic guitar part. Just As Well Get Ready, You Got To Die is self-explanatory; the string section and close harmony singing elevate the song.
This arresting yet tough album finishes with Once There Was No Sun, which pulls the lyrical and musical strands together. I’ll certainly follow Jake’s career which, like Rhiannon Giddens, may involve as much documentary as performance. For a start, he should be booked at Black Deer and The Long Road in 2023 to preach his gospel to UK crowds.
In the course of the last two years, I have greatly enjoyed presenting an hour-long Sunday afternoon show on Arc Radio with a focus on music from Texas and Oklahoma. I have come to love acts like Mike and the Moonpies, Mike Ryan, Jesse Daniel and Casey Donahew, as well as mainstays of the Texas Regional Radio chart and the associated scene. Josh Abbott Band, Bri Bagwell, Kylie Frey, Randy Rogers Band and Wade Bowen are never off the radio.
Nor are Teague Brothers Band. This second album follows their 2019 debut Harvest Day, which had eight tracks including singles Coyote and Fingers and Thumbs, and a 2021 EP American Folk Songs. That collection included the monster hit Don’t Want To Go Home. The group leader and main songwriter is John Teague, who used to be a soldier and now runs a construction company. He and his wife operate a ranch with bees, chickens, pigs and cows.
The lead track I Found Trouble (‘I found you…I’m chasing you till my feet get sore!’) sets the tone for the album. A stomping backbeat and a jubilant fiddle part introduce John’s throaty, rough-edged vocal, with the band’s harmonies joining him a few bars later. Turnpike, Avett, Flatland and Josh Abbott all do this sort of rootsy Southern rock too, which ensure feet tap and hands clap and your face unconsciously breaks out in a smile.
The title track is a powerful rock’n’roller about a lady who wants something more than John, who was ‘king of the Dairy Queen’ when the pair fell in love but to whom she keeps giving second chances. These Days is a midtempo tune of advice full of ‘suffering’ and how you can’t ‘trust someone else’ to shoot a lame cow. The fiddle part follows the tenor of the song. Pipeliner’s chorus includes more close harmony that makes the metaphor come to life (‘she don’t mind me being married to work’). Pretty Ugly, meanwhile, is a proper Texan country tune with the hook ‘she’s not pretty, she’s not ugly’.
John’s lonely vocals echo around the studio on Blow, which has a swampy feel to match the swampy waters of the lyric. Moscato Wine is a waltz where John’s narrator bemoans his lady walking out on him. ‘Don’t feel sorry for me,’ he adds bitterly, ‘it’s amazing how resilient a man can be’. Last Thing You Heard (Jericho) is another triple-time chest-beater where the narrator enlists his brother Jericho to avenge a murder. ‘I’m the courier of truth’ is a good line, as is ‘I’m the cornerstone of truth’.
January (‘nice to meet you’) is another slowie that settles the pulse before the turbocharged Buckskin Gelding, which is my country star name. ‘Between you and I let’s settle this!’ sets up a fight that will convert anyone who says ‘ach I don’t listen to country!’ Ah, but do you know of Red Dirt music? It’s like country but proper.
Gabe Lee – The Hometown Kid
Gabe Lee is a barman in Nashville who knows that musicians are fifty-a-penny in Music City. Happily, Gabe got the support of Grady Smith and Kyle Coroneos (aka Trigger from Saving Country Music) and also A Country Way of Life for his entertaining second album Honky Tonk Hell, which came out in the middle of March 2020. Rats.
Album three comes out on his producer Alex Torrez’s label. It begins with Wide Open, a troubadour’s song with widescreen guitars and, in the lyric, a John Prine bumper sticker. Rusty is about growing old with ‘not enough gasoline’ and has Gabe’s narrator asking for ‘an angel on patrol’. On Kinda Man, he is full of defiance in spite of his regrets, such as injuring his ankle just before he could have gone on to play college football.
Gabe’s voice has the same high tenor range as Lukas Nelson’s, and he uses it well on songs like Over You and Lucky Stars, which hints at trips to therapy or AA groups. One of These Days is a pick-me-up song, with added fiddle, where the narrator despairs of his decisions; the line ‘I have to be honest to my own stubborn ways’ is set to a diminished chord.
Gabe must have an enormous record collection, judging by the influences on this album. Long Gone has the side-to-side sway of a Randy Newman song (‘I used to pray every morning’), while Buffalo Road, another heartache song, sounds like a Jackson Browne ballad from 1971, right down to the wailing guitar solo that anchors it. The album’s second side begins with the delicious acoustic ballad Lonely, which ‘ain’t what it used to be’ with ‘Willie Nelson and a box of wine’. Angel Band closes the album with a punchy drum part and some honky-tonk piano to match the kind of band Gabe wants to play in when he dies.
The album’s centrepiece is the eight-minute suite Longer I Run/ Hammer Down. The former (‘this living is far from just begun’) foregrounds Gabe’s voice with a bass accompaniment before a retro arrangement for verse two. There are even some horns and some sweet call-and-response backing vocals in the chorus, giving it a smooth quality that reminds me of Paul Simon.
Hammer Down is a waltz where Gabe tells his steel player to get playing. That sound, with added fiddle, continues on Never Rained Again, a magnificent love song about how every cloud has its silver lining. For that track alone, you should pay attention to Gabe Lee.
Joniana is a genre I invented to describe acts influences by Canadian maven Joni Mitchell. It is beyond obvious to point out the debt to Joni on the music of both Native Harrow, who are from London (though now based on the South Coast) and signed to Loose Music, and First Aid Kit, the Swedish sisters with fluttering harmonies. Both acts put out albums around Daylight Savings Time 2022.
Old Kind of Magic, the duo Native Harrow’s fifth album, contains plenty of ingredients that make up Joniana. There is strength in breaking up and going it alone on the title track (‘me, myself and I’). The six-minute Heart of Love is right in the Laurel Canyon mode, which continues on I Was Told, with some blue notes and diminished chords from singer Devin Tuel. A dropped-tune 12-string guitar thrums on I Remember, sounding like Joni’s autoharp, and closing track Find A Reason.
‘Time waits for no-one so darling take its hand’ is a lyric on Magic Eye. There are some social politics on Used To Be Free, as well as a meta commentary on Devin’s singing (‘I swallow notes’). The magisterial chorus of As It Goes has a Hammond organ part behind her vocals, which pass the baton to a string section for the final minute of the song. There’s a lush arrangement on Long Long Road which makes me think a set at next year’s Long Road festival would welcome the duo.
Johanna and Klara aka First Aid Kit did put out a tribute album to Leonard Cohen last year, a palate cleanser before their first original material since 2018’s Ruins. Out of My Head opens softly before rolling drums accompany the chorus and the harmonies intertwine on the second verse; the narrator is a beggar, prisoner and river, stacking up the metaphors while ‘running on love’. Angel (‘can’t you see you’re free?’) is even bigger and bolder. Both songs were apt choices of impact tracks to promote Palomino; it’s also odd that there are two albums (the other by Miranda Lambert) with the same title in the same year of release.
Turning Onto You has some horns parping behind a song of fidelity, as is Nobody Knows (‘me the way that you do’) and The Last One, where our narrator laments ‘wasting my time before you’. There’s a set of three notes that reminds me of The Tide Is High, which is probably accidental, as is the ‘take it slow’ hook of Ready To Run (where the narrator was ‘a nervous little kid’) that matches the one in John Legend’s Ordinary People.
There’s a lot of bass in the mix of Heavy Snow (‘I’m gonna love you till the moon don’t shine’ and I can imagine a mass humming session on Wild Horses II, a road trip with a magnificent arrangement. There are handclaps and electric guitar on the breakup song, and fellow impact track, A Feeling That Never Came, which provides some variety even though the lyrics would fit a ballad; this must be the ‘happy-sad’ that those Swedes do so well.
29 Palms Highway, which repeats the line ‘I hold my arms out to you’, ends with a high string part which increases the yearning. The title track jingles and jangles and, like many other tracks on the album, mentions the elements (‘wind in my hair’) and a drive on the highway. It’s not just about the harmonies here: the arrangements, structure and instrumentation are all excellent.
The Swedes can even do roots music better than the Americans.