In May 2021, Alexander released a self-titled EP which featured songs which reminded me of ‘Kenny Chesney singing Jason Aldean songs’, all the more pertinent because producers Kurt and Tully both play in Aldean’s band.
The album begins with Sunset Town, an Aldeanish tune about love and stuff that was also on that EP. Other songs making it over from EP to LP include: Summer Crazy, basically a rewrite of Summertime; carpe diem song Love Today, which has a nice line about ‘a fresh coat of paint’; How It Rolls, which describes true love as ‘honey off of your tongue’; and Malibu Blue, which compares a girl to ‘the brightest star on the boulevard’. This reminds us that Alexander’s day job is as an actor in, among other shows, Vikings.
Let Me Be Your Whiskey, which closes the album, was a standalone single from 2020 and sums up the musical sound of the album. Over a smouldering guitar part, Alexander sings about ‘something strong to forget about someone gone’. It sounds like he’d go down as smoothly as old Jim Beam.
The 10 new songs build on themes from the EP. Faded On Me, written by the A-List trio of Jon Nite, Ross Copperman and Josh Osborne, made its way to Alexander from the big shelf of songs. It hits all the commercial country beats: nagging riff, a narrator whose ‘true north is Tennessee’ and a melodic chorus that includes nouns like ‘town’, ‘heart’, ‘shots’, ‘girls’ and ‘heartache’.
That’s The Life I Want actually uses the line ‘Couldn’t dream it up in Hollywood’ to describe the sort of idyll that country folk live, while Rough Around The Edges sounds like a TV theme tune for a show about small-town folk. Like She Wanted To is an innocent love song set at a riverbank where the heroine of the song has both alcohol and agency.
201 Melrose Avenue is a midtempo thinkin’ song where our narrator deliberates calling an old flame but never goes through with it. Can’t Outrun You is another moving-on song with a rockier feel which reminds the listener that ‘there’s nothing faster than a memory’. Ditto Back, a song which has been written hundreds of times, not least I Go Back by Kenny Chesney; there’s a nice line about Alexander not getting his jean jacket back, but it’s a songwriting exercise with an Adult Contemporary Country arrangement.
If You Don’t I Do has a nagging melody and a lyric about having a good time, and That Kinda Love is a horny chugger. It is one of a number of songs that mentions dust, roads and having the ‘windows down’. After You is a beautiful tune which deserves a wide audience, as Alexander sighs that every woman will not come close to her.
The album sounds country and will please those fans who live in either Aldean Nation or No Shoes Nation. This is like a turnpike album, one which is adjacent to the main thoroughfare where Chesney and Aldean live: Turnpike Country.
Daniel Breland from New Jersey, the son of two ministers who turned down a place at music school to study business, released his debut album on Atlantic Records at the start of September 2022. The label surely signed him on account of his way with melody and harmony. Keith Urban wrote a couple of tracks with him including Out The Cage, and the UK took to him when he came over for Country2Country 2022. It matters a great deal that he is non-white, but this album should be judged on its own merit.
Boldly, it does not include either the earworm My Truck, which was one of six tracks on an impressive debut EP released in 2020, or his number one Beers On Me, a collaboration with Hardy and Dierks Bentley.
It does have appearances from Ingrid Andress, Lady A, Thomas Rhett, Keith Urban and Mickey Guyton (who is on the title track), who should all push their fanbases on to Breland’s work. One can also include Shania Twain as a collaborator, given the way Breland’s song Natural rewrites (and credits) Man I Feel Like A Woman to essentially become ‘Man! Look at that woman!’ There is more than one key change.
The Ingrid collaboration Here For It opens the album. It reminds me, with its clapping and major-key melody, of the theme from TV cartoon Arthur, especially with the pair singing of telling each other about their problems because ‘misery loves company’. Praise The Lord, a nice ditty written with TR, is one of the most optimistic songs released this year, and the Lady A duet Told You I Could Drink (‘cos you pushed me to the brink’) proves that Breland can appeal to a country radio crowd too.
Keith Urban appeared on Radio 2 around the time My Truck was zooming up the charts and bigged up the young writer. Throw It Back has fiftysomething Keith cutting loose alongside Breland on a pop-trap tune that will sound great in one of those Lower Broadway clubs to get hen parties to buy drinks. ‘If you sexy and you know it make it clap!’ only has one kind of audience.
Six writers including LA pop chap Sean Douglas were there for the hooky-as-hell Thick, a song with a heavy beat targeted at folk with ample posteriors (‘Shout out to Lizzo!!’). The bouncy party song County Line, full of alcohol and Lynryd Skynyrd, has eight credits including Ernest and Sam Hunt as well as Breland’s sibilant pair of producers (get ready): Sam Sumser and Sean Small! The mix of processed beats, hiphop cadences and Sam Hunt-type melodies is attractive and very contemporary.
Ryan Hurd drops by to co-write Happy Song, a reminiscin’ song full of regret, while For What It’s Worth is a rewrite of Someone Like You. Growing Pains is a song of self-examination where our narrator learns to overcome life’s troubles; it also uses one of my favourite lyrical motifs, the ‘mama told me’ motif. Good For You, meanwhile, is a showstopper full of autobiography.
Don’t Look At Me – which is completely genre agnostic as per the reference to Prince and The Rolling Stones in the same couplet – has a fine melody and the album’s best chorus, which I hope doesn’t get lost in its place as Track 13 of 14. Final track Alone At The Ranch summarises the album’s mission statement, with Breland’s voice swooping to the top of his range and a syncopated melody drawing the listener in. It helps that it’s a slow jam full of wordplay.
The future is bright for Daniel Breland.
Kelsea Ballerini – Subject To Change
How quickly things can turn. Our Kelsea was ‘unapologetically in love’ two albums ago, but the rollout of album four is dominated by the surprise news of the breakdown of her marriage to Morgan Evans, who came to London this summer and sung all those songs he had written about her. He’s going to have to get some new songs, as Kelsea has.
She is in a tough position: she’s not an activist singer or mummy like Maren Morris, nor a twangin’ newcomer like Lainey Wilson or a traditionalist like Carly Pearce. She is in danger of being yesterday’s news, which makes Subject To Change an interesting listen. She launches it at Radio City Music Hall in New York, where she played to fans already familiar with her story via social media and such.
As if to perfectly hit the middle of the Pop/Country Venn Diagram, which was a theme of her self-titled third album, Subject To Change is co-produced by Shane McAnally (Mr Nashville) and Julian Bunetta, Mr Los Angeles who shaped the sound of first One Direction then of Thomas Rhett.
‘I was like oh my God!’ introduces I Guess Thay Call It Fallin’, a breakup song set to the same sort of poppy production that marked her debut album. Jimmy Robbins was in the room for Walk in the Park, which mentions both LA and Colorado in the first verse and has a fluttering chorus that reminds me of Shane’s work with Kacey Musgraves, who is also not a ‘walk in the park’.
I Can’t Help Myself moves from A to B to D, perhaps to indicate Kelsea’s flibbertigibbety nature, while If You Go Down (I’m Goin’ Down Too) is 100% Dixie Chicks thanks to its mandolin and fiddle arrangement. Love Is A Cowboy reminds us that Kelsea is from Tennessee, with ‘El Dorado and John Wayne’ present in the verse, while she throws her voice so it has that Hank Williams catch just before the final chorus.
It’s the clearest indication of what Kelsea is trying to do, thanks to working with both McAnally and Bunetta. Muscle Memory does much the same, with a singalong chorus full of ‘uh-huhs’ and a catch-up with an old friend in the verse, which reminds me of Thinkin’ About You, one of the biggest hits on country radio in the last year.
The single sent to radio to prepare fans for the album was the fluffy filler Heartfirst. That track and the title track were co-written by a woman fast becoming a sort of mother figure of Nashville, Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild. It opens with a Britney-like ‘yeah yeah’ vocal hook and a processed beat; the chorus is pure pop, while Kelsea thanks God and takes it ‘day by day’.
I wonder if You’re Drunk, Go Home, which features Carly Pearce and Kelly Clarkson, will get a push, especially given how Kelly has just taken over Ellen’s slot on mid-afternoon TV. Think of the synergy!! It’s a fine addition to Now That’s What I Call Bachelorette Party and is perfect to follow a Shania tune on Lower Broadway. There’s a nice reference to George Dickel whiskey which they perhaps paid for, much as a Silverado appears in another tune.
Eight of the 15 tracks were written with Alysa Vanderheym, a graduate of Nashville’s Belmont University whose big copyright is Talk You Out Of It, a slow jam by Florida Georgia Line. Weather reminds me of Lindsay Ell’s rapid-fire, hooky pop; Ashley Gorley helps the pair on The Little Things, which sounds like a pop/rock smash from 1997 and might be a future single, while pop writer Sasha Sloan joined them for Universe, a thinker of a song which will get fans illuminating the arenas with their phones.
Doin’ My Best sounds like an Instagram post in song (the second verse even mentions an iPhone!), with some clapping percussion and steel guitar underscoring mentions of therapy and how ‘showing up is good enough for me’. I expect every review will mention Halsey, whom Kelsea does not mention by name (‘I put ‘em on track four’). I really thought it a strange move for The Other Girl to be such a big single to push her third album, which was rather buried by the pandemic.
Marilyn is a 100%-er with music and lyrics by Kelsea, always a sign that this is An Important Song. Kelsea has realised Ms Monroe was a victim of the male gaze and a patriarchal society. It’s actually quite banal but I hope she gets to talk about celebrity while promoting album four.
The album concludes with What I Have, as country as the day is long. I wish she had plumped for one or the other, because she just seems as indecisive as ever, but such is the goal for Black River Entertainment to appeal to as wide an audience as possible who will pick and choose according to their tastes.
The village of Radlett is home to a large Jewish community, many of who are descended from Polish and German immigrants. There’s a phrase in Yiddish, which is a mishmash of those languages and Hebrew, which immediately came to mind as the music began in this tour de force of country music: ‘Mach Schau!‘
The Beatles were yelled to ‘mach schau’ when in Hamburg, and plenty of performers know that they’ve got to ‘put on a show!’ when a crowd demands it. The ten musicians onstage, many of whom double as the band for One Night in Dublin, each showcased fine showmanship and musicianship over the course of two hour-long sets that ticked every box. They also remembered to smile with their eyes and teeth, lest anyone forget that they were taking us out of our troubles and over to Texas.
In country music, you get laughed out of town if you can’t play. The band members all have their moment in the spotlight to prove their chops, with impressive solos from Matt Carr on guitar, Trevor Brewis on drums and the multipurpose Tim Howard, who brought out banjo and dobro in various spots during the evening. In a nice touch, the male members of the band were dressed in a uniform of checked shirts and cowboy hats.
Middi Murphy was our bandleader for the evening and, despite a very poor joke about a drunkard and a preacher, was on form. A fine vocalist who led the audience by the hand, Middi took lead on Friends in Low Places, where he sang the alternate version of the second verse, got his tongue around Chattahoochee, and was note-perfect on the Don Williams ballad She’s In Love with a Rodeo Man. Middi also brought out the mandolin for Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road – like Ziggy Stardust, he played it left hand – then chucked the instrument to their stage manager and ‘Pot Noodle purchaser’ Phil.
There were also two ‘girl singers’, to use a term that died in about 1985. Deeanne Dexeter, whose own music is worth a listen, sang crowd pleasers like 9 to 5, Suds in the Bucket and She’s In Love With The Boy. Best of all was a brilliant contribution to Past The Point of Rescue, a duet with Middi that was one of the standout songs of the night and which I listened to on repeat as I wrote up this piece.
There was also a mighty arrangement of the Alison Krauss song The Lucky One with Tim on the dobro and Sophy Ball on violin. Sophy’s playing was extraordinary all night, and she put on a costume for her showstopper about a devil down in Georgia. Props also go to clarinet and sax player Fay Donaldson, who brought Ring of Fire and sundry other tunes to life. There was even a (toy) train whistle for Folsom Prison Blues.
Biddy Ronelle, whose energy could be bottled and sold as a tonic, was just as tremendous, especially on the surprisingly jaunty Golden Ring, which country fans will know is about the breakdown of a marriage symbolised in the title object. There was unbridled panache on Man! I Feel Like A Woman!, with Biddy’s performance taking in those two exclamation marks, and fine harmonies all night from the ladies especially on Country Roads.
The pair flapped their arms during Chicken Fried, the night’s most recent song from way back in 2008, and joined voices and forces on the band numbers Mountain Music, The Gambler, Achy Breaky Heart and The Cowboy Rides Away. The medley of tunes by outlaws – Merle, Waylon, Willie and JR Cash – was expertly done early in the first half, with Middi on lead vocals and the ladies chiming in with harmonies and accoutrements. They were sat stage left at an upturned beer keg, part of a smart set design which set the mood excellently.
The event website onenightintexas.com lists plenty of dates all around the UK right up to next November so if you see One Night in Texas listed in your area rush to it and be impressed at the breadth and depth of material offered up by Middi and the band. I expect a show over Valentine’s Weekend in Blackpool would be a good choice.
I don’t know if you look at the Hot 100 a lot, but something odd has happened recently and it involved country music. There were, for the chart dated September 17 2022, an absurd quotient of tunes made in Nashville dominating the US charts.
Unsurprisingly, Harry Styles was enjoying a thirteenth week at number one (three behind One Sweet Day, six behind Old Town Road). Morgan Wallen has two songs in the Top 20, while Luke Combs’ The Kind of Love We Make is a place ahead of Beyonce. Cole Swindell’s She Had Me At Heads Carolina is ahead of Doja Cat, and Tyler Hubbard, Jon Pardi, Zach Bryan, Bailey Zimmerman and Jelly Roll mix with Bad Bunny and Ed Sheeran.
In at 54 is Truth About You, the lead single from Mitchell Tenpenny’s new album in which our narrator threatens to tell people what really happened in response to his ex telling lies about him. The song has just hit number one on country radio which, yep, still exists in an era of streams and TikTok. So do albums, as Morgan Wallen has proved in the last 18 months by gaming the system with a 30-track album and a leaked video which proves all publicity is good publicity in Nashville (he’s CMA nominated).
Mitchell, who has been in Music City for years, has a rasping voice that matches the moment. In the last year alone he put out an eight-track mini-album and a Christmas record, so he’s been allowed to be prolific after the pandemic shutdown. This accounts for the 20 tracks (19 plus an intro, really) on this album, all written with Mitch in the room along with the typical A-List names and produced by Jordan Schmidt, who has been studying the sound of country music in 2022. Fun fact: Jordan is from Duluth, the Minnesota town which will forever be known as the home of Bob Dylan.
Ashley Gorley does add his stardust to the rapid-fire love song Always Something With You, while Jesse Frasure turns up in the room for the happy-sad Miss You Cause I’m Drinking (‘I ain’t drinkin’ cos I miss you…’). The father-and-son team of Rodney and Brad Clawson joined him for Sleeping Alone, which provides a novel way of asking if someone is still single (with their ‘sweatpants on’). The Warren Brothers Brad and Brett helped him on the closing track That’s How She Goes, which has the album’s most interesting bridge.
Devin Dawson, Seth Ennis, Chris DeStefano and Laura Veltz are there too, as are the sibilant producers of the new Breland album Sean Small and Sam Sumser, who help out on Elephant In The Room. The track features pop vocalist Teddy Swims and sounds completely inorganic and ‘in the box’, which is what happens when Nashville tries to be like Los Angeles.
Bucket List first appeared on the 2021 mini-album Midtown Diaries. It’s a carpe diem song in which Mitchell promises to ‘cross one off, put two more on it’ and make life better without thinking of the ‘what ifs’. Good Place has our narrator singing of being ‘a midtown mess’ while a dull, MOR track buzzes behind him. There’s a swear word in the chorus of More Than Whiskey Does which is completely at odds with the safe production, while Mitchell offers his shoulder on Cry Baby, which is almost offensive in its dullness.
As you’d expect from an album targeted at young adults between 18 and 34, there’s plenty here about matters of the heart. We Got History (‘I know we don’t have a future any more’) is a fun spin on a mournful track about an ex, who elsewhere is Happy and I Hate It, says Mitchell. Do You is a triple-time tune where our narrator namechecks The Lumineers while bemoaning the nature of love.
Lululemon gets a plug (and hopefully Mitchell’s wife got some stock) on the snaptracky Still Thinking ‘Bout You. There’s a song of fidelity called Long As You Let Me which drowns any sentiment in production gloop. Obsession has some massive guitars to underline how Mitchell has fallen in love with a new lady, while Now We’re Talking is a smooth meet-cute with a strong melody that hints at ‘doing more than talking tonight’.
There is even a song about a dive bar called Losers which ‘made a winner’ out of our protagonist. Perhaps this album will be heard in Lower Broadway’s bachelorette party places. I understand that the production is there to appeal to pop audiences, but I would suggest Mitchell records these songs with just guitar and voice, as there is plenty of decent songwriting here buried under mounds of studio wizardry.
I doubt any listener will put the whole album on in one sitting, which explains its sonic homogeneity: tracks merge into one another, with lyrical tropes (drinking, heartbreak) popping up on most songs. It is Functional Country, the sort that Jason Aldean pioneered. It sounds like commercial country made in Music Row.
Nashville loves to mimic what New York and Los Angeles are doing. When casting around town a few years ago for someone who could play piano and sing ballads like Julia Michaels or Billie Eilish, they alit upon Michigan-born Berklee School of Music graduate Ingrid Andress. Lady Like was a fine song, as was her number one smash More Hearts Than Mine, which has led to a follow-up album which she has co-produced with her key collaborator Sam Ellis.
Sam has worked with Thomas Rhett, Kane Brown and Lady A so he knows how to tread the line between pop and country. Ingrid has found a place on country radio with her Sam Hunt collaboration Wishful Drinking, which is basically a rewrite of Meant To Be. That song is tacked on to the end of the album, which is made up of 12 pop songs which Nashville is selling as country music.
Priscilla Block’s main collaborator Steph Jones co-wrote the title track, which opens the album. We hear Ingrid harmonising with herself in a manner that has been all over LA and NYC pop for the last few years. ‘I pray for the ones that I love every night’ lays bare a narrator who is struggling with morality, much the same as Cody Johnson was on the title track of his album Human. Lose the harmoniser and add some pedal steel and this is country music.
Other songs can soundtrack people in love, as pop music has done for decades. ‘I love that we forgive but hate that we forget’ is a good lyric on Talk, where the harmoniser returns. How Honest Do You Want Me To Be (yep, the harmoniser is here too) begins with Ingrid singing about ‘drinking too much’ and threatening to say how she really feels. Falling For You looks to the future, hoping that love doesn’t fade like colours on a t-shirt, while All The Love is anchored by a pretty melody and another acoustic guitar loop.
Shane McAnally was in the room for two songs, one of which may well be the song of the year. Yearbook, which I’m led to believe is about Ingrid’s parents, flips the familiar motif outlined in songs like Luke Combs’ Refrigerator Door or Pictures by Lady A to tell the tale of a couple who are still together despite only being ‘on the same page’ back when they were teenagers. It’s a proper country song that only Nashville writers’ rooms (and, indeed, the superlative Shane McAnally) can tell.
Blue is the other McAnally co-write, packed full of imagery that riff on the titular colour. Ingrid adds some light keyboard to the track, which she will surely dedicate to blue-eyed crowd members. Shane’s fellow A-Lister Jesse Frasure was there for the smart Seeing Someone Else (‘you’re seeing who I used to be’), one of those pop-country tunes driven by an acoustic guitar part and a snarling narrator who unfurls her story in a hurry. In fact, it sounds like a Julia Michaels song, which is handy as the pop writer was with Ingrid and Sam for Feel Like This, a pure, unabashed love song with a lyric that skips in part. It would work on pop radio.
Liz Rose helped Ingrid tell the story of No Choice, a grown-up torch song about falling out of love. ‘A ship without an anchor’s gonna float away’ is another great lyric, and the narrator is full of self-doubt. The twist in the chorus – ‘I left you because you left me no choice’ – is pure Nashville, while the dusting of staccato strings is very LA. As for the character in the vocal and her sigh before the final chorus, it’s Broadway.
Is it country music? It is if Ingrid says it is. Lady A tread the same line and it makes sense that Laura Veltz, who wrote the pair of Lady A tunes What I’m Leaving For and What If I Never Get Over You with Sam, was drafted in for the triple-time tune Pain, which includes some keening pedal steel to underscore a great lyric and vocal, as Ingrid drags some syllables out for multiple beats.
On Things That Haven’t Happened Yet, Ingrid mentions her age. It’s 29, the same age Carly Pearce was on her recent album. It’s boring to compare female acts but it is an obvious comparison to note that Carly is going down the country-pop path while Ingrid is doing pop-country, if you see what I mean. There is room for both kinds of music in Nashville, and Keith Urban fans will be warmed up with a set from Ingrid before their guitar hero wanders on to play his rocking country music.
Country-adjacent, we should call it.
Hollie Rogers – Criminal Heart
So is Hollie Rogers, one of the smart bookings at the recent British Country Music Festival, which I reviewed here.
During one of her two performances, she caught her hand and drew blood, such was her enthusiasm. She was previewing songs from this album, which is an example of British country thanks to its storytelling.
Hollie has Kezia Gill’s gift for pop melodies and a voice like that of Elles Bailey or, in places, of Tracy Chapman. British country will receive her warmly, as it welcomes more folk from Cornwall (Bailey Tomkinson is a key figure down there). Indeed The Coast Road is a gorgeous song in honour of her home county, ‘not a care, not a thought, just the view’. There’s also a version where she sings the chorus in Cornish which is worth tracking down.
The title track is a brilliant way to begin the album, with its immaculate pop chorus and a fine vocal. At TBCMF, Hollie also performed the funky blues number Strange, which eventually made the point that her husband loves her a lot. She played the tracks Love and Sinner as well, the former counselling that ‘love ain’t always ribbons and gold’ and the latter a lightly jazzy tune of a femme fatale.
Bring Me Some Peace and Girl on a Mission are the type of Adult Contemporary country song that Gary Quinn writes: on the former, therapy and reminiscin’ are high on Hollie’s agenda but ‘still I’m incomplete’; the latter has a string section to underscore a lyric full of determination and heart (‘I believe in us’). One Last Time can also be bracketed in the AC Country genre, with the arrangement matching a lyric which mentions ‘putting out the fire’ and a plaintive plea: ‘Don’t turn me down or fade me out’.
Youth is the album’s seven-minute centrepiece, full of open-throated vocals and a message to seize the day. The final two minutes are full of vocalisations and guitar wigouts, and it ends the album’s first side in a very anthemic manner. Guest vocalist Jamie Lawson appears on the melancholic track Love and Distance, which kicks off the second side.
The Man You Had To Be, assisted by a resonant cello part, and her tribute to London called City of Colour both show Hollie to be a fine songwriter who is respected within the music industry. She needs commercial success as well, whether as a UK country act or as a singer/songwriter whose music crosses any boundary.
Andrew Combs played the main stage at C2C back in 2016 and was in the UK for a week of UK dates including The Long Road and The Grace in Islington. He was promoting his fifth album and cherrypicking songs from his other four, two of which came out in 2019. He announced Sundays with a frank message on his Facebook page which began: ‘Chaos is the norm these days. But what comes from chaos?’
Now signed to Loose Music but essentially an independent musician, every review of Sundays is thus clouded by a revelation that he had a nervous breakdown, brought on by anxiety and depression, last year. The opening track is called (God)less, which sets the downbeat mood of the album.
Andrew has chosen to have a snare hit running through every track on the album, with no cymbal crashes or frills, so that people can focus on the melodies and words. That’s not to say the arrangements aren’t without merit. A saxophone parps halfway through the gentle Mark of the Man, one of the tracks on which Andrew’s voice soars into the upper register. The brass comes back on Down Among The Dead and there is a cathartic guitar solo on Drivel to a Dream.
Still Water (‘you see what you want to see’) has a triangle or cymbal twinkling in harmony with a lo-fi arrangement of bass and snare drum. If Andrew turned up the guitar this could be a power-pop number, but he has been deliberate in setting the lyric to a quiet piece of music.
Adeline, with its sweet yet forlorn chorus, is gorgeous. Truth and Love sounds like a mid-period Radiohead track, with a liquid guitar line and Andrew’s lyric mentioning shady places and being ‘tarred and feathered’. Closing track Shall We Go is a cappella besides a droned harmonium sound.
This is an album that will grow in stature every time you listen, and it demands active rather than passive listening. It is completely out of time with the current moment, which makes it all the more stark. Good on Loose Music for backing Andrew to do his own thing in his own way. From chaos comes order, it seems, or a semblance of it.
Steve Moakler – Make A Little Room
On the other hand, Steve Moakler has no such qualms. A staff writer for Creative Nation, which was set up his fellow songwriter Luke Laird, Steve wrote Riser for Dierks Bentley and Angel Singin’ for Reba. He knows the system and wants no part of it when it comes to putting his own music out there. Thomas Rhett gifted him the song Suitcase, which was the first thing I heard of Steve’s way back in the mid-2010s and which came from an impressive album Steel Town.
Since then he has released three more albums, the most recent coming in August 2022. Make A Little Room is full of songs written during the past two years where he enjoyed more time than he had planned with his newborn son (and there’s a second on the way). Steve takes his music directly to fans when he goes on road trips, getting to know the people who connect with his tunes.
Dan Wharton has already called it ‘the best album by some distance’ which he has heard this year, so who am I to doubt Dan’s excellent opinion? For a start it’s 33 minutes long so it can’t outstay its welcome. As with many staff songwriters, especially Ryan Hurd whose voice hits the same timbre as Steve’s, the voice serves the song and doesn’t burden it with curlicues or melisma.
The title track opens the album, with a computerised track underscoring a carpe diem lyric full of imagery and character. ‘Turn the TV off!’ Steve suggests, ‘put a little more space between livin’ and dyin’. You Being You is a sweet song to his son: ‘Life’s a wild ride…Chase all of your dreams’ is his advice, and dad’s voice threatens to crack in the final chorus.
Pack It Up takes the theme of moving house (well done to Steve for getting ‘dust bunnies’ into the lyric) and extends it to kids running around the yard. Tennessee Girl is a fine love song with plenty of cities and songtitles namechecked, while Steve puts his life in a song on Northerner (‘chasing Southern song’). The title is a very good word to sing because Steve can hold the first syllable over several notes of the bar.
Steve is helped by some A-List buddies. Barry Dean and the aforementioned Luke Laird were in the (zoom) room for Let’s Go to the Lake, which begins with the line ‘everybody’s got their poison’. Steve’s is to get in touch with nature and ‘drift away’. Autumn Came Back, a song about the end of a summer love, features vocals and piano from its co-writer Lucie Silvas. The melody is tremendous and I hope the song finds an audience. Drummer Neil Mason from The Cadillac Three co-wrote Start A Band, an ode to the road; you can tell Neil is a drummer because there’s a stomp on every crotchet.
Better Days is a lovely tune with a deceptively bleak lyric that taps into the current era: ‘Been losing ground but we can’t lose faith’ is almost a protest lyric. Closing track Numbered has an end credits feel and lists things you can count: candles, beer, the time it takes between seeing lightning and hearing thunder. As with Andrew Combs’ record, this is an album to dip yourself into, which comes from the pen of a seasoned writer/performer.
Still principally known for hits on the country charts 20 years ago like the GRAMMY-nominated Wave on Wave, Pat Green is now a staunchly independent Texan act who can afford, as here, to take seven years between albums while selling out shows across the state. He turned 50 earlier this year, which puts him in the same age bracket as Keith Urban and Kenny Chesney. His voice comes off more as Lee Brice or Randy Houser, or even Cody Johnson to make it more Texas-specific.
I actually leaned back in my chair in comfort when the opening guitar chords of I’m Going Home emerged. In a thick Texan accent and with some magical diminished chords, Pat sings of trainwrecks, horizons and ‘the day that saves me’. The arrangement is euphoric with a thonking great backbeat anchoring the song.
The title track is more reflective, with ‘endless fields of green’ and rivers setting the scene as Pat drives. It might well be a song in memoriam to somebody close to Pat, or a hometown, but it’s vague enough to stand for anything. Glen Campbell sets Pat reminiscin’ on the album’s closing track Echo, a track which also mixes nature and human contact.
Pat celebrated his half-century this spring and April 5th (his birthday) is full of reminiscences and honky-tonk piano. The gang vocals are great too. Bad Bones (‘hurricane is coming’) is a confident love song led by a swampy guitar part which goes heavy on the wah-wah to match the organ part. I can imagine this running to several minutes in the live sphere and the song fades out tantalisingly! Pat would not have been allowed to do this in 2004, and is all the better for doing so today.
Some of this album has the feel of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, thanks to major-key arrangements and pensive lyrics. If I Don’t Have a Honky Tonk (‘my soul’s been saved!!’) is the current single at Texas radio. It will go down well live when Pat plays such establishments. Build You A Bar sounds like a hit, with a brilliant melody and a lyric that fills in the bar as the verses go along. Abby Anderson, another act who has had her brush with Music City, joins Pat on the singalong All In This Together, where Pat sings of the ‘ecstasy of agony…when the pain is more you can take, that’s when you know you’re alive’. It’ll help plenty of listeners get through trouble in their lives.
This Old Hat takes the familiar motif of describing an object (ekphrasis is the term) to spark off memories and wisdom about life. Steady, a love song which begins ‘her daddy never liked me much’, is another proper songwriter’s tune that would suit any guitar pull. There is fiddle running through the song too.
The risk is that an album like this, which is magnificent, will not find an audience because it lacks a push from the sort of marketing team who helped Pat’s label make money off him in the post-Garth era. As country music remembers that period of history, it should make room for Pat Green. Not that Pat cares if people remember him or not, because he’s got his loyal audience who will go wild for one of the best Red Dirt records of the decade so far.
Bri Bagwell – Corazon y Cabeza
Some radio shows, such as the one on Arc Radio at 4pm on Sundays (repeated 9pm Tuesdays), try to serve up a mix of acts from Texas and Oklahoma. Bri Bagwell is one of those names which always pops up on radio playlists; her new song Trenches kicks off an album with a Spanish title meaning ‘Heart and Head’. It should be noted that a woman called Rachel Loy is the producer of this album.
Hello Highway (‘I wonder why I wander’) is one of those troubadour songs that is natural for someone growing up in Texas to write. Cowboy Cold sounds lush thanks to a fine pedal steel running through the song. Free Man chugs along prettily and Bri adds some verses that a poorer critic than I would call sassy or confident. Texan is a better word, and Bri works in the tradition of her forebears, particularly the peerless Miranda Lambert.
Josefina, about a barmaid and her helicoptering husband, begins with a few bars of Mexican guitar to set the mood. Songs like this are definitely written on Music Row but they’re relegated to album tracks. The Dust (‘wherever we go, vaya conmigo’) is a marvellous waltz that they can only really do in Texas where Latin and American go hand in hand through the sort of windstorms mentioned in the chorus and mimicked by the pedal steel.
Til I Can Let You Go is sung to a wine glass (‘I need you to help me not to think’) and reminds me of Mickey Guyton, whose voice Bri matches here. Mickey could also have written Sarah, a song which hooks the listener from the first line (‘he puts you through hell’). It turns out Bri has experienced the same sort of mistreatment from a guy and tells Sarah that she (and indeed every woman listening) deserves a man who treats her well.
Table Manners, with bass and drums dominant, has the album’s most triumphant chorus, while Happy New Year has a request for rent buried in the second verse. The pedal steel solo smartly interpolates Auld Lang Syne but is at odds with the self-critical lyric.
The album ends with a ballad. Old Together sounds like a stream of consciousness, as if Bri is spilling her soul to her beloved ‘in case we don’t grow old together’. Again the pedal steel works its magic and Bri’s Texas Regional Radio Music Award-winning voice, which I don’t think I’ve praised enough, is clear and high in the mix.
Bri had the 2020 TRRMA Single of the Year and may well win it next year with any of these 11 superlative tunes. A sixth Vocalist of the Year award is more or less guaranteed. Let’s hope more people outside Texas can hear her fifth album and she becomes an international star as well as a star of the Red Dirt firmament.
There is a certain class of country music critic that looks to be appalled, who hunts for offence. When the CMA Award nominations came out this week, it was a surprise to many that Kane Brown was not among the nominees. This was obviously, beyond any doubt, evidence of how the CMA was, in the words of one activist, ‘founded on white supremacy’. Apparently you are a ‘sealion’ if you ask for evidence of this, though I have been told that the CMA are not anti-racist enough.
Those critics, many of whom have come across from other fields of cultural journalism, have an agenda: they want country music to adapt to the new puritanical era, and they feel terribly smug when the CMA, say, give a bauble to a black man or a woman or a gay woman or a trans disabled non-binary person. That is how progress is made: through award shows.
Kane Brown would, I am sure, love to add some awards to his mantelpiece, but he’d much rather sell out stadia, write great songs and fulfil his early promise when he was uploading cover videos of neo-traditional songs onto Youtube. He has navigated commercial country music expertly: indeed, side one track one of his debut album was written by Florida Georgia Line and had him boast of wanting to ‘make my hometown proud’ while shouting out ‘North-West Georgia’.
This is a country boy who has made radio-friendly pop songs like Good As You, Heaven and the Lauren Alaina duet What Ifs (the pair were at school together). His song Short Skirt Weather was an attempt to update Achy Breaky Heart that deserved to be a bigger smash.
As with Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini, Kane has been pushed to a pop audience thanks to his vocal on One Thing Right, one of those streaming-friendly tracks by Marshmello that blends into the background. He’s also become a father and a record label owner, guiding the career of trio Restless Road on his 1021 Entertainment imprint. He is booked to play Hammersmith Apollo in January, which is a big show of support from his label but which may run into the cost of living fiasco and sell fewer tickets than planned.
Kane’s third album emerges a few weeks after Luke Combs, who has announced a pair of gigs at the O2 Arena for next year, put out his third. They are both Sony recording artists whose success impacts the bottom line, which means an album like Different Man is a product as much of the boardroom as the studio. Over 17 tracks, Kane builds on his existing catalogue and ticks various boxes to appeal to folk in Louisiana and Los Angeles, as per the modern country superstar like Combs, Morgan Wallen or Thomas Rhett.
The three tracks which warmed fans up for Different Man are typical. Actually it’s four, as Kane sung on 2021’s biggest radio song Famous Friends, a Chris Young tune about hometown heroes which is absent from this album just as Mitchell Tenpenny’s Chris young duet is missing from his album.
One Mississippi is a drinking song co-written by Ernest, while Like I Love Country Music is a marketing tool. Over a four-note riff, Kane namechecks Alan Jackson, Brand New Man (Ronnie Dunn actually pops up and takes the money), Johnny and June (boring, it’s been done), being ‘high as Willie’ and ‘the radio’. Plus eight bars of fiddle in the middle, plus a pedal steel outro. Don’t tell me this wasn’t cooked up in a boardroom.
Georgia frames the album, in a manner which was probably drawn up by a man in a suit saying: ‘When people think Kane Brown they think…GEORGIA!!!’ Track one is called Bury Me In Georgia, which begins with a tolling bell, fiddle and chain gang percussion: ‘When it’s my day, put me in that clay’ is the lyric in the chorus that leaps out. Track 17 is Dear Georgia, co-written with Josh Hoge and Ernest among others and sees Kane remember where he came from over an achingly contemporary pop-country track of the sort Thomas Rhett has been singing over for a decade.
The 15 tracks in between, all commendably co-written by Kane, deal with the usual rural affairs. Ernest continues his hot streak by writing the ploddy, fiddle-featuring Go Around – which mentions ‘a what if song’ in a very meta moment – as well as the chirpy love song Nothin’ I’d Change and Drunk or Dreamin’. That song gives its title to that world tour and has a soft shuffle and acoustic guitar line to evoke a somnolent state.
Mike Posner was in the room for Grand, which is a pop song produced by LA-based Andrew Goldstein on which Kane raps about how his life is pretty good. It’s the age-old trope of Nashville acts copying what happens in LA, but don’t worry because he’s going to be buried in Georgia and he put fiddle on the track immediately before it!! The track after Grand is See You Like I Do, co-written by Devin Dawson. ‘Beverly or Sunset…with Gigi and Giselle’ reminds his audience that he is trying to get people in LA (Beverly Hills, Sunset Boulevard) to appreciate his wife Katelyn, who is part of Brand Kane Brown in the ever durable country power couple manner.
Romance is a big part of Kane’s life and that of his intended audience, who have already lapped up tunes like Homesick and Worship You. There are three more here: Thank God, which features Katelyn’s fluttering pop vocals, is perfect for a TikTok clip or Instagram feed; Losing You and Leave You Alone are sung excellently with a commercial sheen provided by Dann Huff’s production, and very on-brand. Like a ‘red wine stain’, Kane won’t vanish.
Blake Shelton pops up on the title track, where Kane’s vocal is excellent as he considers and denies alternative things to do than sing and perform (and help those Sony suits make a lot of money). The great Adam Craig gets a nice paycheck for co-writing the breakup ballad Whiskey Sour, which begins with ten seconds of fiddle, while Kane’s voice dips low for the fun tune about a femme fatale, Devil Don’t Even Bother. Pop’s Last Name is your typical ‘I miss daddy’ song that was probably brainstormed in that meeting room.
I know I’ve wasted 1000 words here to convince readers that this is a typical Nashville record. Like Thomas Rhett and Luke Bryan before him, Kane Brown will succeed because he’s a good old country boy who can also do pop music. There’s money behind him, the brand is strong and it’s the right time for Nashville to push through a new non-white star who isn’t called Darius (with apologies to Jimmie Allen).
There’s a formula in Music City. It works. Just ask those Sony boardroom members lounging in their beach houses.
JT’s day job is as a key part of Midland’s live band but he is a songwriter of some repute. I caught him performing to an inattentive room in South London a few years ago where he played rich, warm acoustic tunes with a Red Dirt feel, and I saw him at The Long Road doing much the same but with added covers versions and cowboy poetry. The audience was much more appreciative.
This six-song EP opens with the chugging story of Samantha, a simple country lady getting by selling things on the roadside. It’s one of two songs written with Jess from Midland, the other being Texas, which has a suitably Red Dirt feel where you can hear the neon signs on the highway crackle and hiss. There’s a lot of Willie Nelson in his vocal too.
JT sings the rocking I Know with gusto from the back of his throat, much like Will Hoge or BJ Barham from American Aquarium. He continues the heartland rock feel on Paint By Lightning, which is really warm and tender thanks to an arrangement flecked with pedal steel and a harmonica solo in the middle of it.
Place Out Back lopes hither and yon, with some cowbell grounding a tune, while Better For You contains some lush minor chords and the same rhythm that drives Gentle On My Mind. This is skilful songwriting from a man who deserves more commercial success.
Drake Milligan – Dallas/Fort Worth
In an ideal world, a singer as talented as Drake Milligan shouldn’t have to go on to a Simon Cowell talent show to get his face out there, but such is the music industry in the current era and he duly reached the Top 11. He was thus in with a chance of winning $1m in prize money and a slot in Las Vegas, which is the American version of the Royal Variety Performance.
If Drake had won, would the money just have gone to the label so he could pay back his advance? Two hours after the final was aired, Dallas/Fort Worth came out, which makes it seem like Stoney Creek planned this to happen. Nonetheless it emerges with plaudits from America’s Got Talent judges Sofia Vergara and Heidi Klum, which means Drake will be asked about them rather than, say, George Strait as he tries to promote this album.
Those who have heard his debut EP from last year will know Drake is operating in the Red Dirt tradition of fine songs that can soundtrack merriment in honkytonks across Texas. His producer Tony Brown also sculpted the sounds of King George and Queen Reba – incidentally, why does Reba not get the sort of royal moniker that George Strait does? – and knows how to do the same with Drake. Smartly, to take account of DFW’s twin city attitude, Drake has split the album into two sides: a more contemporary Dallas side and a Western swing style Fort Worth side.
The Dallas septet includes Kiss Goodbye All Night, where Drake matches Randy Rogers or Josh Abbott, and the love song She. There’s also a Liz Rose co-write called Hearts Don’t Break Even (‘one’s moved on and one’s left alone’), which has a truly magnificent arrangement that reminds me of The Mavericks, and a Terry McBride co-write Sounds Like Something I Do, which Drake performed on the AGT final. The Youtube video used the caption ‘the new Elvis of country music’, a name bestowed on him by judge Howie Mandel, which is apt because Drake played him on a CMT show a few years ago.
Hating Everything She Tries On is silky and seductive, as you can tell by the smooth arrangement and a lyric seemingly about Drake wanting his beloved to be naked. Bad Day To Be A Beer is a fine example of Seinfeld Country on which Drake sings of having ‘a bunch of nothing planned’, just as the TV sitcom (which aired on NBC, the same network that broadcasts AGT) is famously about nothing.
The waltz Dance of a Lifetime begins: ‘If love was a melody, I’d want you to sing to me’ and continues in a wedding dance fashion. There will always be a market for love songs crooned by Texans, which is why George Strait is spending his retirement on the riverbank and not the retirement village performance circuit.
The Fort Worth tracks include two more carried over from the EP: the fiddle-tastic Over Drinkin’ Under Thinkin’ and Don’t Look Down, a slow dance which includes the lyric, Just keep your eyes on me…We’re getting one two-step closer’. Save It For A Sunny Day is a song about making the most of the rain, which is perfect reminiscin’ weather, and it’s a neat twist on a very old formula.
There are two more songs written with McBride: Tipping Point (which is a brilliant title and should have been the name of the album) is a two-minute honky-tonker, while the album’s closing track Cowboy Kind of Way is so romantic and widescreen that you can hear the dust being kicked up. There is also a sort of ‘end credits’ instrumental passage for the final minute and the band deserves equal billing for their contributions. This is as much a band album as a vehicle for Drake Milligan.
Long Haul, written with the legendary Bob DiPiero, will get boots a-scootin’ and mouths racing to catch up with some rapid-fire lyrics, and Goin’ Down Swingin’ is a faithful Western Swing track which namechecks Bob Wills and George Strait’s Ace in the Hole band. There’s plenty of fiddle and the Bob Wills-type ‘ahhh’ holler, but it never sounds like a period piece because this sort of thing never goes out of style, as Asleep at the Wheel can attest.
If Drake can parlay his TV success into the sort that helped the careers of Carrie, Scotty, Lauren, Cassadee, Danielle, Sundance Head and so many more, then he can certainly have a few hits. He’s guaranteed a good year of publicity but he’ll hope to be more than just a cherub who made Simon Cowell some money. It has certainly fast-tracked him to Billy Bob’s, where he can pop his handprints in the wall besides those of his Western Swing heroes.
When musicians half your age are releasing music, you start to realise the time of life you are in. In every review of this EP, brother and sister Juna and Joey will have their ages (17 and 19) mentioned, much as Zac from Hanson was ten (TEN!!) when Mmmbop came out. Country music is about truth, so this is teenage truth from the pair of them.
In 2021 I caught them when they toured the UK. They played short sets at the British Country Music Festival (BCMF) and at Omeara supporting Twinnie, where they threw in a cover of Watermelon Sugar. They also played their then-current single Something Good To Miss, which kicks off this EP. ‘Goodbyes get in the way,’ they sing, harmonising wonderfully over a poppy track.
There are two versions of the torch ballad Til Your Heart Breaks. ‘Suddenly every memory is burned in my mind’ is Joey’s opening line, as he and Juna mourn the passing of love. More Than A Maybe is a lovely meet-cute where Joey asks his belle-to-be if she’ll be ‘at the party tonight’. Conversely, I’m So Over You sees Juna flutter her way through a kiss-off, ‘not playing these games with ya’. How innocent young love is, and Juna N Joey are fine narrators.
Celine Ellis – Unravelled EP
A North Walian who makes ‘country music with attitude’, Celine Ellis played early on Saturday afternoon in Blackpool as part of the aforementioned BCMF.
The two singles from the EP, which came out in March, are both excellent and show both sides of Celine’s musical personality. Without Me is a ruminative ballad where Celine’s narrator ‘can still hear’ her former partner as she grabs her things and moves on with her life. Getaway Car is one of those driving songs with big guitar chords and lyrics about forks in the road.
‘Set fire to my heart!’ she cries on the gutsy opening track Gasoline & Matches, which is driven by a two-chord loop. Where Do You Go possesses a fine chorus with some open-throated vowel sounds that suit its uptempo instrumentation, while the softer Shadow of the Moon is full of imagery and sense impressions, as befits its title.
Valerie June – Under Cover
We know the Tennessee-born Valerie – whose father promoted acts including Bobby Womack – by her keening high voice and recognisable silhouette, but mostly because she writes fine songs. This project brings eight cover versions of some quite excellent singer/songwriters from days gone by.
Bob Dylan recorded Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You for his Nashville Skyline album on which Charlie Daniels (yep, that one) was a session musician. As often happens with Dylan, a great vocalist elevates the lyric beyond the initial version. Valerie also interprets Pink Moon by Nick Drake and Into My Arms by Nick Cave, the one which begins with a refusal to believe ‘in an interventionist God’.
Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings’ Look At Miss Ohio, which has also been covered by Miranda Lambert, is given a fine reading, as is the little-known John Lennon song where he imagines people living in peace. She turns that song into a band arrangement driven by a drum shuffle and plenty of echo on her double-tracked vocal, not dissimilar to the Mazzy Star anthem Fade Into You which she also covers.
Godspeed is a love song originally written by Frank Ocean and reinterpreted by James Blake, making Valerie’s understated version a cover of a cover (cover-squared). Joe South won Song of the Year at the GRAMMYs for Games People Play, beating two Bacharach & David compositions. His gospel-tinged tune Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home (‘we’re all God’s children’) was never a UK hit but deserves to be discovered as part of this fine set of cover versions produced by Valerie and released via her own June Tunes imprint.
It does look likely that Jon Pardi will tour his fourth album around Europe. He has spent a decade hoicking himself across America with his good-time country music, playing songs about boots written by A-Listers like Rhett Akins. His last album Heartache Medication contained plenty of fiddle from Jenee Fleenor and a voice that would fit well in a playlist alongside both Nashville acts like Luke Combs and Texan acts like Parker McCollum and Cody Johnson.
Pardi, from California, has played it perfectly. While various boys from Florida, Georgia and Tennessee were hopping on the hiphop trend, Pardi kept things traditional from the cowboy hat to the Mariachi horns on the lost classic Tequila Little Time. There is of course space for everything in the church of country music, but Pardi respects what his forebears have done. He also knows his rock, as he showed with an extraordinary cover of the Tom Petty song The Waiting which was one of eight tracks on a covers EP which also featured tunes by George Strait, Merle Haggard and Prince (Nothing Compares 2 U).
Mr Saturday Night emerges in the Combs/Wallen Era and Capitol Nashville are putting money behind their guy. The title track, which also begins the album, shows how confident Jon is in his writing, punning on ‘mister/missed her’ and putting tears in his beer from the first minute. He then asks for some beer on Fill Er Up, so he can ‘cut loose’. He is joined by what must be Paul Franklin’s pedal steel on a honky-tonker of the sort Travis Tritt and Ronnie Dunn sung in 1995.
The two radio hits have been expertly chosen. Last Night Lonely had three chords and a feelgood lyric, just like his song Night Shift, while the Midland collaboration Longneck Way To Go (co-written with Rhett Akins!) fulfilled the promise of its title and is a perfect way to kick off the album’s second side. It also begins with the chorus.
Pardi has a habit of doing this. He does it on both Fill Er Up and New Place To Drink too. The latter tune was one of four on the album written with the great Luke Laird. The others are: Workin’ on a New One, a song about hangovers which is built on one of Luke’s famous loops; reminiscin’ song Santa Cruz, which was written in 2018 and has finally seen the light of day; and the carefree Smokin’ A Doobie, co-written with Rhett Akins, who must have been responsible for introducing cypress trees into the second verse and ‘some Hill Country healing’. This will sound lovely alongside Tequila Little Time when Pardi comes over to the UK, perhaps as soon as March if he can make the calendar work.
As is typical on a major-label release, Pardi has picked plenty of tunes written by the best in town off the shelf, such as Last Night Lonely. Paul DiGiovanni, who produces the music of Dan + Shay and Jordan Davis, wrote Neon Light Speed which sounds just like the slow dances it will surely soundtrack. Naturally, ‘Brooks & Dunn are on the ‘box’ and there are ‘disco ball stars’ lighting up the juke joint. It’s a winner. The funky next single Your Heart or Mine and The Day I Stop Dancin’, a forever love song with the line ‘when Texas runs outta Strait’, were co-written by his producer Bart Butler, who deserves credit for getting the Pardi Sound right. He is the Dean Dillon to Pardi’s King George, the Buddy Cannon to Pardi’s Willie.
Jameson Rodgers was in the room for Hung The Moon, on which the ‘long lost desperado’ sings of how he’s an outlaw who met an angel who has no idea of his redneck ‘reckless’ past. Morgan Wallen could have sold this one too, but Pardi adds some Fleenor fiddle. Michael Tyler is one of three writers behind Raincheck, another ‘tear in beer’ tune on which the protagonist wants a ‘raincheck on moving on’, which is a Nashville writers’ room way of saying ‘can we still be friends?’
The final track on the album is, rather brilliantly, called Reverse Cowgirl. It’s obviously not about that, because it’s a song on a mainstream country release. Listen out for backing vocals from one of the town’s secret weapons, Sarah Buxton. I can just imagine Pardi’s face when he saw that title in his inbox, then his delight at hearing the heartbreak narrative where the narrator wants his former beloved to ‘put that thing in reverse, cowgirl’. Again, Nashville is a city where you say familiar things in novel ways with guys in cowboy hats selling the sizzle.
There’s plenty of sizzle in this album. We’ll go wild for him if – or, rather, when – he finally makes it over to London.
Johnny Vegas was indisposed on Friday night so the famous Illuminations (how much would it cost this year to keep them lit?!) were turned on by the mighty Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. At the Winter Gardens, Amy Wadge performed two massive copyrights, Thinking Out Loud and Space Man, for the amusement of country music fans.
Amy, a long-term resident of Nashville, was a superlative booking for the third iteration of the British Country Music Festival, which this year put a premium on that first word. If country music is about storytelling, regardless of whether you slap a banjo, fiddle, processed beat or lap steel underneath the story, then all are welcome.
The festival takes place in three areas of the Winter Gardens complex. There’s the Empress Ballroom, lit up with candles and happy faces. There’s the room next door, or the Arena, and thirdly there’s the Horseshoe Pavilion, just past the merchandise stalls. There are plenty of new discoveries to be made among the big acts on the bill, which on Saturday included Tom Odell and Lucy Spraggan, and Wayne Hadlow was there as always to sell you a pair of fine boots.
The line-up was terrifically eclectic, which would make a good strapline for the festival. (Hi to M&M if you’re reading this! I hope you slept well on the Monday!!). Hollie Rogers, from down in Cornwall, was previewing her crowdfunded album Criminal Heart, out on September 9. It will include a song written with Jamie Lawson called Love & Distance. Hollie’s trained voice served the songs excellently, and she was so lost in the moment that she clipped her hand, drew blood and left a mark on the guitar. She bled for us, though we were impressed enough with her voice and songs.
Another fine discovery were Motel Sundown, three songwriters from Liverpool who have a great grasp of the popular song, as can be heard on their marvellous debut album If You Were Listening. There’s a lot of First Aid Kit in the harmonies and arrangements, especially the singles One More for the Road and Perfect Eyes, as I am sure they are told after every performance. Their Facebook page has a track-by-track guide to the album and lays bare their influences, which include The La’s, Fleetwood Mac, The Band and, yep, First Aid Kit. Their cover of Peaceful Easy Feeling by Eagles was a fine way to end their set in the Arena, where they hopped to after playing two original compositions in a Songwriters Carousel which took a while to set up.
Poppy Fardell, in big knee-high white boots, led a chorus of Country Roads, Take Me Home to alleviate the technical hitches. She told MC Laura Oakes to play that ‘Blue Jeans and a Suit’ song and delivered her own fun pair of tunes, Double Denim and Beer Budget. Happily Poppy remembered the words to the former in her own set; her new single Good Girl comes out on September 16.
It is a mark of a fine programme that you can go from Poppy’s folky-pop to the blues-rock of True Strays, who were promoting their recent album Heart of the Matter, which follows their superb 2019 EP Homeward Bound. They’ve recently been to Norway and Sweden, so Blackpool is a perfect next stop. They also head to Nash Nights on September 16.
The Bristolian duo prove beyond doubt that there is something in the River Avon, what with Elles Bailey, Yola and Lady Nade high up the UK Country Top 40 Chart this season. Much as acts like Eddy Smith and the 507 and their fellow duo Foreign Affairs mix rock, blues and gospel, so True Strays are the complete package. Their chemistry comes from their lifelong friendship and they have a whale of a time onstage (and off – I caught the bemulleted James singing Wherever You Will Go by The Calling in an unguarded moment).
Singalongs like God Damn My Soul and Let Your Heart Lead The Way are properly arranged, and both James and Joe can sing and play. They were assisted by a fine organ player who added depth to the sound, which filled the Arena. ‘Blame the immigrant, not the CEO,’ they sing bitterly on Golden Age, unafraid to take the political view, while the character described on Rosalea keeps a bottle by his side. Both Baylen at Long Road and Gary at Buckle & Boots would be fools not to book True Strays next year, though perhaps they would warn James off crowdsurfing with a double bass, as he did in a previous festival appearance.
Siblings and Partnerships
We already have Ward Thomas and Wildwood Kin proving sisters can do it for themselves, and Robinson-Stone also fit in that nook. Made up of three siblings (Danny, Leyna and Dean), they play Celtic-tinged folk which would fall under UK Country. I am sure they are fed up of comparisons to The Carpenters, but on record their arrangements are pretty, especially Runaway Overload (good title, even better harmonies). I also heard hints of Sting’s more folky stuff on Heaven and Hell.
Likewise, partnerships like Gasoline & Matches, Two Ways Home, O&O, Ferris & Sylvester and Tennessee Twin make music together and there are two married pairs at TBCMF. Our Atlantic Roots have set up their marital home in Cornwall, although neither Laura nor Mac are from there, instead travelling from South Yorkshire and North Carolina respectively. ‘This is the furthest North we’ve been in two years!’ Laura admitted, while Mac talked about panic attacks during the pandemic which inspired a hymn to nature called Take Time.
They were plugging their forthcoming EP, which will contain the tender song Golden Hour. There is a reason their song Carry On, about keeping on and being strong, is approaching a million Spotify streams, a nice little earner which will help them, ironically, carry on when they feel glum about the whole music thing. Their vocal blend reminded me of Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott, while the crowd became a choir on Wildflower in one of the weekend’s most glorious moments.
Another married pair followed immediately after OAR. Beth and Sam Goudie play as The Goudies, and each plucks a guitar as they sing folk songs with their voices in fine harmonic intervals. They played Nashville Meets London in April and took themselves up to Blackpool to charm the afternoon crowd. They eschewed their version of It’s Not Unusual and instead took inspiration from Carlton in their cover of the theme from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Their own pandemic song When This Is Over (‘let’s carry so much less’) was gorgeous, and they have made the right decision to amalgamate their material.
Kez, Tom and Lucy
After her Ballroom full band set last year, brochure cover star Kezia Gill packed out the Pavilion, delighted that she didn’t have to pitch a tent or play outdoors. She is gearing up for her first headline tour and finished festival season with aplomb. With The Shires on an enforced break while Crissie has twins – in fact, Ben is sensibly going it alone and has a gig during Country Music Week in October – Kezia should become the face of UK Country music, which means she and husband Lloyd will become Lord and Lady of the genre.
Kez’s pseudo opening acts deserve plaudits for warming the crowd up. Celine Ellis debuted a song imagining an unhappy event with the motif ‘rolling the window down’. Otherwise she kept the mood happy with tunes like Leave The Light On, Getaway Car and Fallen Angel, as befits her MO to play country music with attitude. Louise Parker followed and proved herself an adept performer, acting out the lyrics as she played new single Bring It On (Set Me Free) and ran her own Tequila Sunset into an old tune about Human Nature. Operating a harmoniser pedal with her feet, she had command of her material and the audience, even letting slip the name of a future single.
The Wandering Hearts started the main stage party with the same set they played at Nashville Meets London, complete with the fiery concluding pair of Devil and Fire & Water. Laura Evans, previously very good at Buckle & Boots, headlined with songs from her album State of Mind. In between came Tom Odell (more on whom shortly) and Lucy Spraggan, who may well have been booked because her last album Choices is all about getting sober and dealing with divorce. These are topics are as country as the day is long. Lucy also has plenty of tales to go alongside her tunes, such as Blues Song, which is about a guy who told her she didn’t sing blues when Lucy played a gig in a blues bar, and Tea & Toast, about an elderly couple she met while busking.
It has been a decade since she popped up on The X Factor as a teenager with a ditty about alcohol called Last Night (Beer Fear), which made an appearance during the set. After opening with recent tune Run, Lucy was keen to get the crowd’s voices going and to reward them with old favourites like Lighthouse. Incredibly, she gave a reading of I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) as an X Factor-type song, but she did well to work out that the Proclaimers have written one of UK Country’s finest songs. (Are the Reids a potential booking for 2023? I’ll leave the programme to the Blores.)
Lucy worked with The Dunwells on the record, a secret weapon who brought out her poppier side and who have already been confirmed as performers in 2023, along with Shea Rafferty and Sam Turner. The former puts out his album Making History on Friday, and Tim Prottey-Jones has a hand in it.
Playing a grand piano and with a chap accompanying him on various types of guitar including pedal steel, Tom Odell played a set which in recent months has graced Webster Hall in New York and Lincoln Hall in DC. To be stood 20 feet away from him for his hour-long set of ballads and singalongs was breathtaking, even though most people were waiting to hear Another Love. A cover of Piano Man was well received but it was annoying to hear one punter call him ‘pretentious’. If that’s what wearing your heart over your sleeve is, those punters can leave it.
These interlopers from pop were examples of how ‘more music styles merge’, according to festival honchos Martin and Marina Blore, who knew the audience would have fun ‘embracing this blurring of borders’. It reminded me of the year when Zac Brown Band did a version of Bohemian Rhapsody, simply because they could, and lots of people walked out muttering ‘that ain’t country’. Genre is a marketing tool anyway, and Blackpool is one place, alongside Whitebottom Farm which hosts Buckle & Boots, that welcomes all genres so long as there’s a story to tell.
Sunday in the Ballroom
As in past years, Sunday was held entirely in the ballroom, starting with another Carousel of songwriters. Steve Marks of Gasoline & Matches said the Empress Ballroom was, in his three decades of guitar-playing, ‘the most beautiful room I’ve ever played in’. He and Sally Rae boldly played their drinking game in song Never Have I Ever at noon, along with the ballad Tequila’s A Healer and a new song called Glory Hunter about bandwagon-jumping. Laura Oakes rose to the occasion with her Beth Nielsen Chapman co-write Learning To Be Lonely Again, telling the story of her grandpa always locking the door of his home. She also, sensibly, requested tea rather than beer.
Due to timing issues, Henry Priestman only played two songs during the round, including the witty Old, based on the realisation that he has reached the age his dad thought wasn’t young any more. A songwriter of some repute, Henry was born in Hull and was part of the Christians. Laura referred to him as an ‘honorary Scouser’ and he also, handily for the organisers of the BCMF, went to Nashville with Amy Wadge (the biography on his website is worth reading). His album The Chronicles of Modern Life is a good way into his catalogue. I love the ‘Indians/ minions/ opinions’ rhyme on Don’t You Love Me No More, as well as the ‘dreamer/arena’ couplet on an acerbic love song What You Doin’ With Me, which sounds like a Leonard Cohen song set to a country beat. Henry has recorded three albums as a performer and advised the crowd to follow their dreams and to ‘stick with it even though you’re crap!’
The unannounced guest was Kylie Price, a Kiwi who is now based in London. Kylie has already recorded at Abbey Road Studios and shot a video in town too. Obviously you have to be very good to get all the way from New Zealand to London, but if Kylie doesn’t break through by the end of 2023, it’s our fault. Her voice hit soprano notes, her fingers hit semiquavers on the guitar (I wonder if she brought her Gold Guitar awards with her) and her songs were fragile and arresting. She’s headlining Camden Chapel on October 6. Bigger venues await.
Robert J Hunter reminded me of Ocean Colour Scene in parts, although there was plenty of gospel, blues and rock’n’roll in there. He needn’t have apologised for the lack of the band’s organ player, as there was plenty of oomph on songs like Rushing. Sunbirds is the new project of former Beautiful South singer Dave Hemingway, which also includes songwriter and former NHS computer technician Phil Barton. Props also go to fiddle player and vocalist Laura. The band are touring their 2020 album Cool To Be Kind and Sunday afternoon provided a perfect setting for a set full of melodies and harmonies that will appeal to fans of The Magic Numbers and, obviously, Dave’s former band.
They jokingly dedicated one song to Liz Truss, noted the pedigree of the ballroom before playing the song Gene Kelly and closed their set with the Nick Lowe song Peace, Love and Understanding. There was certainly harmony in their set, and I noticed that Dave, like his old mate Paul Heaton, needs to read the lyrics off a stand. Age cannot wither him…
Having already played Country2Country and The Long Road this year, Jess Moskaluke completed a hat-trick of UK festivals with her 4pm slot. ‘After ten days I still feel jetlagged!’ Jess complained, more than once saying she missed her dogs and that she didn’t want to miss her train (which felt a bit disingenuous to a crowd who also had trains to catch).
Jess began with three rocking tunes before slowing things down with an acoustic medley of unexpected covers. These included No Scrubs, You’re Still The One, Wide Open Spaces and Teenage Dirtbag. The set highlight was her own song Take Me Home, which she wrote, and the anthemic pair of Style by Taylor Swift and Kelly Clarkson’s Since U Been Gone, where the band botched the ending and hoped nobody noticed!
Throughout the weekend, the crowd were impressed – ‘she’s good in’t she?’ said one punter of Kezia Gill – and proudly wore t-shirts boasting their support of Louise Parker, Gasoline & Matches and The Wandering Hearts. After three iterations, there are familiar faces returning year after year who are interested in discovering the thrills of country music in the UK which is (to repeat a phrase) terrifically eclectic.
Pip Ellwood-Hughes has penned an interesting essay on his site Entertainment Focus. In the form of their country editor James Daykin, the site was represented at the third iteration of this festival, back after two years of pandemic-enforced fallowness and incredibly fortunate to get blue skies and light breezes (though spare a thought for hayfever sufferers, the sniffling minority).
In his essay, Pip asked whether the country bubble in the UK was bursting. There are, he says correctly, several acts who are making money in the USA without crossing the Atlantic, even though UK fans are screaming for Blake Shelton, Jon Pardi and Jake Owen. It seems incredible that Pardi won’t tour his new album in the UK next year. The fanbase knows what it likes and it likes what it knows, to paraphrase both Pip and Genesis, although it has taken Midland, Ashley McBryde and Drake White to heart. Has the genre ‘gone as far as it can here for the moment’?
Not if you ask the promoters of The Long Road, where a nattily dressed Baylen Leonard was holding fort at the festival he programmed. Without headliner Chris Young, whom Pip said had been having trouble shifting tickets for his gigs before illness denied him the chance to tour the UK, Baylen simply moved Brandy Clark over to the Rhinestone Arena and asked Marty Stuart, in what would have been a very short conversation, to play for two hours instead of one. More on him later. It was fun to hear Baylen’s voice boom from the main stage to tell people to pack away their chairs to allow as many people to listen to Marty as possible.
You could tell the type of person at the festival by the caravan park vexillary, aka the flags. It was a mix of British caravanning and US culture, with more than one flag proclaiming “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”. Amid smatterings of Texan and American flags, there were flags in honour of the armed services. I spotted a ‘Kiss My Country Ass’ car sticker and a van printed with the words ‘Bad Ass Cowboy’.
The festival was amenable for both kids and dogs. For the former, a play area offered paddleball and swingball and advertised dodgeball and tug-of-war. Pugs, terriers, German Shepherds and Bassett Hounds were all spotted on blankets enjoying the tunes. There was also a chance for grown-ups to play a little: I failed with all three of my horseshoe throws and both of my beanbag throws as I tried cornhole for the first time since kids camps.
Vendors hawked jewellery, boots and t-shirts. The choice of food was between halloumi wraps (courtesy of Say Cheese), burgers, Thai, Greek and pizza, with a 20-metre bar to wash it down with. In a matter of hours, the beer would end up in one of the portaloos, which had their own village, or in a nicer outhouse for VIPs, who had their own area to the right of the main stage.
Among the women in summer dresses and men in checked shirts, there was a chap with a small birthday rosette and a girl with a big badge proclaiming her 30th birthday who had met her now fiancé at this very field three years ago. A Long Road romance had come to fruition, and I hope Guy enjoyed The Cadillac Three on Sunday evening as much as his fiancée Nathalie loved seeing Sunny Sweeney.
The best tattoo award went to a man with a shin-covering bear with everything showing. I also did a double take when I spotted ‘man, myth, legend’ and documentarian DC Brown without his trusty bandana. On the main stage, every time the strobe lights flashed, how many people wondered, as I did, how much the energy cost was.
A host of UK musicians were milling around the site: Ben Earle, Tim Prottey-Jones (who would play drums for Kyle Daniel on Sunday on the main stage), Poppy Fardell, Kezia Gill, Gasoline & Matches, Two Ways Home and, with both a dog and Eric & Jensen in tow, Twinnie.
There will be tons of media coverage of the festival, judging by the activity in the media bit behind the VIP Area. Marty Stuart looked effortlessly cool although Brandy’s glittery stage get-up put him in the shade. Everette, Seaforth, Jess Moskaluke and Shy Carter did the rounds for sites as varied as Brits In Boots, Country In The UK and Entertainment Focus. Holler Country journalists wore branded tees, and Absolute Radio Country had a little alcove for interviews. Tim Prottey-Jones and Sophia Franklin recorded some bits for CountryLine Radio’s Country Line Up show.
There was a Choose Your Own Adventure feel to the festival. In Buddy’s Juke Joint, you could catch folkier acts like Margo Cilker and Joana Serrat. Morganway had asked the crowd to clap, dance and sing at lunchtime to get them warmed up for the day ahead; in mid-afternoon, Jonathan Terrell rescued a broken string by bringing on a steel guitar player to accompany him on some cowboy poetry, then launched into a funky blues version of Eddie Rabbitt’s Driving My Life Away.
On the Interstate stage, Sarah Shook’s set measured at 105 decibels as she turned the amps up to 11. Irish band Hudson Taylor inspired a shirtless guy to prance around to their delightful and amiable folk singalongs. Their drummer was drenched in dry ice for most of the set. Allison Russell praised Brandi Carlile for her role in her career, which led to time in the quartet Our Native Daughters and a well-received solo album on which Allison played soprano saxophone. After a difficult childhood, she had found a ‘chosen family’ of musicians who backed her impressively on songs like Persephone, a ballad full of hope which put the singer’s life in a song.
Next door at the Front Porch, which inevitably suffered from the sound bleeding from the two heavily amplified stages, Everette boasted of jetlag from being bumped up to first class, forgetting which part of their Kings of the Dairy Queen Parking Lot their songs came from. They did remember where they got their name, singing Man of Constant Sorrow from the movie where George Clooney starred as a wayfaring stranger. Sam Williams followed the pair, covering his grandpa’s song about the lonesome whippoorwill and showcasing his own fine voice with a posse of photographers snapping away.
Over on the Rhinestone stage, Shy Carter, wearing a warm jumper and a gold chain, dispensing with Stuck Like Glue and It Don’t Hurt Like It Used To early in the set. He then made up a fun song about hats, having been thrown one of them to sign, while preparing to pour whiskey into fans’ cups at 2pm. Priscilla Block continued the party she had brought to Glasgow and London already that week, and Seaforth plugged their just released EP, which would get plenty of listeners in the coming days, and slipped in a cover of Seventeen Going Under to prove they had done their homework.
Brandy Clark ended her set with Stripes and Hold My Hand, having signed various items in the tent where the line was kept moving by the request ‘do not take photos please’. Drake White, Cassadee Pope and Priscilla Block also hobnobbed throughout the weekend, and Cassadee was smart enough to enlist her partner Sam Palladio to take Chris Young’s part on her number one smash Think of You.
Marty Stuart brought up Kezia Gill, Andrew Combs and the aforementioned Sunny Sweeney during his hootenanny headline set. He dropped Tempted in early before declaring the Long Road the ‘capital of surf music’. He paced his set brilliantly, allowed the Fabulous Superlatives to be just that. Any early leavers with a train from Rugby to catch were sad to miss out on the rest of the show, but the impromptu version of Ring of Fire was compensation enough.
Color Me Country
Before she finished MCing an afternoon of music by country stars who don’t look or sound like traditional country stars, Rissi Palmer became emotional. She told the familiar story of teenage Rissi moving to Nashville and being the only black face in town. Nobody looked like her and, after eight years plugging away, released an album in 2007 which featured three singles. One of them was a cover of the pop song No Air by Jordin Sparks. She lost her record deal and started a family.
On August 27 2022, Rissi stood at the side of the stage, a proud auntie watching the next generation of talent. Stood next to her friend Miko Marks, Rissi fanned herself in time with the backbeat from the house band who pulled a hell of a shift accompanying all six acts. Color Me Country, which takes its name first from a Linda Martell song and thus Rissi’s Apple Music radio show, is a community within a community. Country music will be obsolete if it doesn’t reflect the full spectrum of American voices, one which put the brakes on the country career of both Rissi and Miko.
Those fans who saw Seaforth, Priscilla Block and Cassadee Pope were totally unaware what they were missing, following Pip Ellwood-Hughes’ conclusion that they just don’t want to seek things out for themselves. Their loss!
Camille Parker, with an impossibly small waist and a megawatt smile, offered her single The Flame, which foreshadowed her debut EP which is out soon. She has already filled in for Rissi on her show, with Charly Lowery following suit. Charly beat a drum in tribute to her persecuted ancestors and her mother. While talking to ‘queens, divas and boss babes’ who ‘each have a light to shine’, she sang: ‘I’ve had enough…Some things never change’. She also delivered a brilliant version of Jason Isbell’s modern standard Cover Me Up, wringing emotion out of the lyric.
Valeria Ponzio offered a tribute to Selena, the Latina Madonna, with a tender version of I Could Fall In Love. Her own material included a hooky tune called Hologram and a song about her guitarist, who was also her husband. I loved her hooky tune called Hologram too, which was on a 2018 EP which she is following up with another one which is out at the end of September. It will include the lush song Just a Bordertown.
‘I went through a lot of hardship to get a good year,’ revealed Madeline Edwards during her superlative set. If we don’t make Madeline a star, it’s on us, not her. Wearing cool shades in what might have been her first ever gig in the UK, Madeline promoted her self-titled EP and forward-sold her November album release with panache and vim, in absolute control of her material and her voice, which has an admirer in Chris Stapleton.
She proved herself an omnivore, with versions of Redbone by Childish Gambino and Holding Back The Years by Simply Red. During Hearts Don’t Break, a funky little number, Rissi Palmer and Miko Marks led a dance, with Rissi grabbing Shy Carter like an auntie and pulling him into the party. Even the Musical Director on the keyboard was filming proceedings. Later, Miko would call herself ‘the OG of the bunch’ and would perform a set of songs calling out to the angels. Peace of Mind, from her forthcoming album, is a career song which she almost got through without breaking down in tears. We’ll see Miko over in the UK again soon, perhaps in a double-bill with Rissi herself.
Credit goes to Baylen for giving over the Front Porch to Rissi. The ladies are already making noises about returning to the UK in 2023, perhaps with a regular takeover of a Long Road stage. I’m all for it.
The new home of Peter Conway’s country extravaganza is perfect for country fanatics. Situated in the old East India Docks which drove the industry of Empire, there’s a stunning view across the Thames to the Millennium Dome and, if you want a complete American experience, a diner whose staff were delightful and made some delicious sweet potato fries.
After a first evening headlined by Shy Carter, who was preceded by Sarah Darling, Arbor North, Manny Blu, Matt Hodges and Ruthie Collins, a similar eclecticism was on show for the second. Early attendees enjoyed a spectacular opening set from Essex County, who previewed not one but two forthcoming singles: Fire Up was given a brilliant wigout at the end, while power ballad You In Tennessee offered impressive variety to their amped-up set.
Notable was the presence of singer Nate behind the drumkit, playing solos with one hand and using his legs to propel the backbeat. There was even a ‘viral moment’ when guitar wizard Mark fell onto the floor and literally hit the Dust during the song of that name. It was a fabulous start to what would be probably the best night in the whole of London that evening.
Candi Carpenter, who possessed a new engagement ring and a haircut which exactly matched that of her fiancé, opened with a singalong called Serial Killer. As heard in Blackpool as part of the 2021 British Country Music Festival, Candi’s voice is a magnificent instrument and she deployed it on her cover of Radiohead’s Creep. The fact that she preceded it by a blast of yodelling only made her more assured of her performance: who else would mix country hollerin’ and angsty British rock?
The topics which Candi covered in her songs included vampire stories, exorcists, issues with food (‘literally trying to disappear’ on the song Skinny) and, on Go Ahead and Sue Me, blackmail and non-disclosure agreements. We can sense why Candi hasn’t been as successful as she ought to be and it’s nothing she herself has done. Alongside her duo project The Church of Roswell, she has pivoted to roots music and what sounds like Broadway torch confessional. She could turn her forthcoming album, whose title she was forbidden to announce, into either a one-woman show or a musical.
‘We’re not playing any ballads!’ said Tebey, who instead brought out the bangers. Happened on a Saturday Night, What Was I Drinking and his platinum smash Denim on Denim (‘about to go double platinum!’) all sounded tremendous, aided by the drummer smashing a cymbal which had been manipulated to sound like a computerised cymbal. New song Sink With The Sun was inspired by heading to Mexico to write the forthcoming album Tulum.
He also played Justin Moore’s number one Somebody Else Will, which he co-wrote, and his first Canadian number one Who’s Gonna Love You (‘if I don’t). He’s working ‘this territory’, as he called the UK, where he has some ancestry; after hitting Buckle and Boots in 2021, he has a big footprint over here. He would take the party to The Long Road over Bank Holiday Weekend, which was also the destination for DJ Hish, who played music in between the sets in Trinity Buoy Wharf and who had kickstarted Nashville Meets London Week with a DJ set on a boat down the Thames.
Sam Palladio (Gunnar from off of Nashville) was in the crowd to support his friends The Wandering Hearts, who were introduced by the leather-jacketed compere Matt Spracklen, a huge fan of their debut album Wild Silence. The trio have enjoyed weddings and babies in the past few years after a difficult journey to their second album, from which they played opening track Hammer Falls, fabulously atmospheric Build A Fire and Dreams, co-written with their friends Connie Smith and Marty Stuart. Marty was bumped up to the Saturday night headliner at The Long Road, which allows more time for bluegrass jams and stories from his 50-year career.
With AJ sporting shoulder-length hair and impressive facial whiskers, the trio looked the part, although there was perhaps too much crowd chatter throughout their acoustic set. Wish I Could was aided by some funky percussion shakes from Tara, who took lead on If I Were, while Chess plonked a mandolin when she wasn’t getting tied in knots telling anecdotes about their past few years of relative social media silence. The music, when it’s as good as their set closers Devil and Fire & Water, says all they need to say.
It is very rare to see the former fourth member of the band in the same room as them, but Tim Prottey-Jones was playing drums for Kyle Daniel that evening. He was muttering the count and gurning impressively while Kyle played songs that would sit alongside those of Chris Stapleton or Brothers Osborne. Accordingly, there was a faithful cover of the latter’s song Stay A Little Longer, complete with a pulsating breakdown.
A Friend With Weed (‘is a friend indeed’) was well received, as were tracks from his recent EP Following The Rain, released on his Groovin’ Buddha imprint. Everybody’s Talkin’ and Runnin’ From Me both sounded fine, with plenty of guitar riffing and spotlights for keyboard player Chris, who came across as the next Jools Holland. Kyle, who married and had a kid during the pandemic, will be welcome back over in the UK whenever he fancies it, even if by his own admission it’s harder to smoke cannabis over here than over in Nashville.
There were two unannounced guests who were able to be squeezed into the evening. Seaforth, whose support slot with Chris Young had been kyboshed by Covid, introduced themselves to some new listeners with three songs. Anything She Says and Good Beer were both very fun, the former running into I Want You Back impressively, but they have struck gold with Breakups, one of the finest songs from Music Row in recent years. They were heading on to the main stage at The Long Road too, picking up even more new fans. (Read the review of their EP which came out this weekend here.)
Drake White, who has survived a stroke which paralysed the left side of his body, is more or less an adopted Briton today. Having headlined Millport Festival, he made a two-song cameo before the main headliner. Hurts The Healing distils Drake’s mission statement to provide good times through music, and would certainly be a highlight his own Long Road set. Music Row chewed him up and spat him out, and he’s all the better for it.
Priscilla Block was elevated to headline status to close out the festival. What she lacks in vocal range she more than makes up for in performance. Over an hour, she and her raucous band fulfilled her remit of starting a Block Party. Priscilla stuck her hand and her drink in the air, praised Busch Light beer and proved she was more than a TikTok flash in the pan. A new song about ‘THE breakup’ was very writer’s round-friendly and sat well with her torch ballad Like A Boy and her breakthrough song Just About Over You, co-written with Sarah Jones, who was part of the band.
She left out her song about PMS but included a medley of songs which all came out in 1995: Check Yes or No, I Like It I Love It and Any Man of Mine. I hope it’s not too much of a denigration to say they would get hefty tips if they played it on Lower Broadway, because Priscilla’s music takes the bar experience to the masses. Hence her new song Off The Deep End, whose chorus boasts that ‘you can find me at the bar…batshit crazy!’
With Ashley McBryde doing this sort of thing, Priscilla is a more PG-rated version of that. I’d compare her to Lizzo in her unapologeticness, and what Priscilla shares with both Ashley and Lizzo is that mix of confidence and vulnerability. Peaked In High School apes Ashley’s Fat and Famous, but Ashley would never put out a song about thick thighs saving lives. Ashley McBryde goes to a hen party: that’s Priscilla Block’s shtick.
Peter Conway said some thanks just before Priscilla. He has moved the outdoor version of the Nashville Meets London nights at Pizza Express Holborn from Canary Wharf to this new venue, which suits the music and the crowd. ‘See you in 2023!!’ he yelled, as if ordering us back next summer.
The next indoor event is on September 27 with Alan Fletcher, recently retired as Dr Karl from Neighbours, returns to London to promote his latest EP. Tickets are here.
Everyone who presents a radio show which plays music from Texas and Oklahoma (oh, just me?) knows about Wade Bowen. He’s one of the guys who can sell out venues in Texas and be invited to promote a new album at the Grand Ole Opry. He teamed up with fellow Red Dirt bloke Randy Rogers for two recent sets, winning the Best Duo/Group at the Texas Regional Radio Music Awards this year. Wade follows Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jerry Jeff Walker and Guy Clark as a North star for other musicians from Texas.
It seems a gross oversight that the lay country fan doesn’t know Wade or his music, given that he’s been going for two decades and released his eleventh studio album this summer on his Bowen Sounds imprint, with distribution from the great indie Thirty Tigers. He is an automatic regular on Texas radio, with his pleasant new single Everything Has Your Memory rising fast. It was written with Heather Morgan and Eric Paslay and kicks off this album with aplomb, and will appeal to people outside the Red Dirt scene much as the music of Randall King, Parker McCollum and Cody Johnson does.
Plenty of writers linked to Luke Combs are between the brackets in the credits Randy Montana, who is hot right now, co-writes the lightly smouldering Burnin’ Both Ends of the Bar, which is a heartbreak song about spotting an ex, and Hony Tonk Roll, which actually uses the line ‘burning both ends of the bar’ to refer to the way Wade’s narrator is out on the town. Ray Fulcher had a hand in If You Don’t Miss Me (‘when you’re gone’), a breakup song where Wade tells his beloved to find out what she wants in her life. It’s a very grown-up song and would have fitted into Ray’s recent album.
Away from the bars, Wade tells us The Secret to This Town, with all its characters contributing to the ‘amazing grace’ of a small town. It’s very country and very American, with all the sport that goes on, and Wade’s production is equally warm. There’s a lot of Travis Tritt or Brad Paisley (especially his song Wrapped Around) on the fab She’s Driving Me Crazy.
Knowing Me Like I Do, which sounds like a smash, is full of self-examination to match the meditative chord progressions and will chime with many listeners. That song’s co-writer Clint Ingersoll has also written with Chris Stapleton, whose voice hits the same notes as Wade’s but with more rasp and hollering. Say Goodbye (with uncredited backing vocals from Heather Morgan) and It’s Gonna Hurt are two more ‘tear in the beer’ tune about the effects of a breakup, with the latter adopting the old country trick of adding pedal steel and a snare rim backbeat.
Talking of country music, Vince Gill appears on A Guitar, A Singer and A Song, one of three tracks written by Lori McKenna, who knows a great songwriter when she writes with one. Songs about songs are one of my favourite genres, and I like the line ‘the song’s singing you’ which precedes the entry of Vince on buttery harmonies.
Lori appears on A Beautiful World. You can tell that she wrote it from its soft acoustic backing and rich imagery: rain on a sunny day, ‘being young in summertime’, handwritten letters and, brilliantly, saying ‘I love you’ for both the first and last time. It’s another Humble and Kind from the kind, humble Lori. She also co-wrote the album’s title track, a love song with a fine structure which rounds off the album. ‘There’s a choice you make that you just can’t undo’ is sage advice to a listener to know the one they really love. It made me go ‘ooh’ at the end because I appreciate the songcraft.
I like everything about this album, one of the best released in 2022, and I hope that you will find something you like too.
One of the acts who is set to convert hundreds of people to her church at The Long Road this weekend (August 26-28) is Madeline Edwards. She’s part of Rissi Palmer’s guest curation of a stage full of artists she plays on her Color Me Country show on Apple Music.
A recent five-track self-titled EP offers a soupcon of what Madeline does. Hold My Horses will make a stunning set opener, with bluesy riffs and an excellent vocal style. Heart You Can’t Break is driven by a shuffle beat and the sort of instrumentation Yola has employed on her last album, or indeed Kacey Musgraves on High Horse. Its excellence is helped by the presence of Wyatt Durette, one of the secret weapons of country music from Zac Brown to Luke Combs, in the writer’s room.
Why I’m Calling rather undercuts the strength of that previous track, as Madeline’s narrator sings that the dishwasher ‘ain’t the only thing that’s broken’. There are wind chimes and whippoorwills in the chorus and wicker chairs in the second verse. Port City is a wistful number where Madeline heads somewhere new, feeling lost and hoping she finds what she’s looking for. ‘Fifteen dollar drinks’ and a ‘burned-out cover band’ must put her in Nashville, but this isn’t the city of dreams.
The Road, which has been streamed a phenomenal number of times, closes the set. It’s a love song where Madeline is saved from ‘drowning in the depths of my misery’ by a companion. The Long Road audience will go berserk for this and Madeline will return to the UK again soon.
Seaforth – What I Get For Loving You
You don’t get signed to Sony Music without being good. Mitch and Tom, aka Seaforth after the Sydney suburb they grew up in, came over to the UK for Country2Country to introduce themselves to a European market before the launch of this eight-track debut. They were due to support label mate Chris Young for four dates plus a mainstage set at The Long Road, but Chris couldn’t travel which threw their plans into chaos.
Sony need to make a return on their investment, so Seaforth probably went to sit in a marketing meeting with Sony and work out how to make money from their talent. This brings to mind their Long Road headliner Marty Stuart’s words about Nashville being a guy with a briefcase in one hand and a guitar case in the other. So how have Seaforth set out their stall?
By bringing in Sean ‘Beautiful Girls’ Kingston for a facsimile of a facsimile. Queen of Daytona Beach is certainly fun, with its bright Dann Huff production and beach-friendly lyrics (‘Jack Dan on the ‘Gram’). It made people sit up and take note about the guys, who sound like they have swallowed a Keith Urban concert DVD, but listeners were perhaps more likely to go and hear the Sean Kingston song from 15 years ago.
Queen of Daytona Beach is nowhere near as great as their breakout hit Breakups, which finds its rightful place on the album with its mandolin riffs and heartache all over the melody. Oddly it never charted, but that’s not the point any more when kids are more likely to stream the song than wait for it to come on between beer commercials and request the song on their favourite station. The instant comfort offered by the song which outlines how ‘breakups don’t work like that’ will chime with many listeners who aren’t served by country radio.
Dr Phil is another breakup song. Its great title feels rather shoehorned into a pop song, complete with a na-na hook, about throwing out the ex’s shampoo and getting ‘drunk as hell’. The title track is a proper song with an arresting first line: ‘When we first met I know that you were gonna break my heart’. I can imagine it, as could probably the Sony suits looking at their quarterly projections, being sung by Shawn Mendes, who can also transfer emotional vulnerability.
Palm of Your Hand has that Hunter Hayes or Shay Mooney trick of talk-singing the verses and opening up for a massive chorus, here about the guys being ‘the ice in your glass…ain’t just whiskey in the palm of your hand’, which is a great and vivid lyric. The pop-friendly production mirrors the type heard on Jordan Davis’ tunes, and it’s handy that the guys have drafted Jordan in on the perky drinking song Good Beer.
Yep, those songs make money every summer, so it’s the equivalent of printing money. So do wedding songs, and Seaforth offer Used To It (‘every touch still drives me wild’) and Magic (‘even when it’s raining it’s still Paris’), both of which will make couples hold each other tighter in the gigs.
So close is the product to what Dan + Shay offer that the boys could sue, but because both chaps sing lead it is actually more Shay + Shay. I bet that lazy joke will be made often as Seaforth tour to make back their advance. Such are the perils of being locked into a major-label deal.
We know T-Hub will release his debut solo album in January next year. To whet fan appetites, here are six tracks which will end up on that project, which is released via his Hubbard House imprint on EMI Nashville.
They include the first single 5 Foot 9, a hymn to Tyler’s wife and the things the Lord makes for man to use. This is the type of woman that, a decade ago, T-Hub would be winding the windows down to say hello to, but nowadays he is a father and needs to make the McGraw Pivot.
The McGraw Pivot is when a young buck grows into a legacy artist. He might not command the same interest from new country fans, especially with hotter and younger acts on the market, but the millions of fans he (or she, but 95% of the time it’s a he) already has will buy his records and show up to see his shows. Garth Brooks, Brad Paisley and Kenny Chesney are also in this category, as is Keith Urban, who has been a star for 20 years and doesn’t need to prove himself any more.
In 2022, Tyler finds himself at the same place and it’s interesting to note that Keith Urban was in the room for the EP’s jittery, anthemic title track, which is as great a song as you would expect from a session which also had Jon Nite and Ross Copperman in it. There are references to Alabama and Alan Jackson and it’s very on brand, especially with Lucchese boots stomping on the floor.
It’s even more interesting to note that Keith’s fans will be entertained by T-Hub on his fall tour of arenas, including a couple of dates in Georgia and Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. Those Urban fanatics will enjoy being warmed up by a mix of FGL hits and T-Hub solo cuts, coming to a country radio station near you soon.
Baby Gets Her Lovin’, which has Canaan Smith in the writing credits, is a meet-cute with all the contemporary country sonic touchstones and themes: fiddle, enormous drums, lyrics about snakeskin boots and getting free drinks from guys like T-Hub. Alabama, strangely, get another namecheck, which reminds the listener that the first line of Anything Goes is ‘Alabama on the boombox’.
FGL House on Broadway in Nashville now has its anthem in Everybody Needs A Bar, where our narrator talk-sings some lines about ‘Friday at 5.01’ in a way that is very Morgan Wallenish. Ronnie Dunn has just put out a whole album of this sort of thing, and it is in every way more interesting than T-Hub’s list of things you can do at FGL House or any other bar you choose (but please consider FGL House to host a bacherlorette celebration).
The ubiquitous Rhett Akins, who has given some songs to McGraw but is best known for some Blake Shelton tunes, is on the catchy I’m The Only One, where three chords underscore Tyler’s love for his beloved whom he can ‘love in the middle of the night’ (hmmm). Inside and Out is an Old Dominion co-write, as Brad and Trevor from the band bring the mood down. It’s T-Hub instead of Matt Ramsay talk-singing his way through a love song (‘I can’t believe I get to hold ya’). It’s a wedding video montage song that Tim McGraw has been doing for 20 years, so it’s no surprise Tyler is following the McGraw Pivot to the letter.
Michael and AC, the duo known as Arbor North, head over to the UK on a working holiday
The UK remains a place where Nashville-based musicians can go on a busman’s holiday: they may look around the sights and taste the tea, but they can squeeze in a gig or three to try and impress themselves upon a market which usually only gets Nashville stars in small windows in March, May and October.
Arbor North are the latest tourists, with three big gigs in Birmingham, Scotland and London, the last of these as part of Nashville Meets London. Their Scotland trip is for Millport, a festival well known to Michael because he was up with his Lockeland trio, who have since disbanded.
‘We had a really good three and a half years. It kind of needed to end,’ Michael says, although perhaps the band was just a placeholder before Arbor North. You can catch them on Saturday afternoon at 4pm in the Acoustic tent, which will also house performances by Emma Moore, Kezia Gill, Kevin McGuire and Gary Quinn.
The meet-cute was very industry. AC and Michael met in 2020 at CRS, the big radio seminar where labels meet industry people and conflab about the big priorities for the year ahead. It happened in February, so the meeting was just before lockdown and the pair were married by the end of 2021. ‘We didn’t technically have a honeymoon,’ AC says, revealing that the couple will spend a few days in York before their London engagement.
Who could have known that Michael was sitting beside his future father-in-law at that dinner?
‘People ask us if there was a spark,’ AC says. ‘Well, not in the way you think. We were so in business mode it didn’t even cross our mind. Our first conversation was about production. We were both there to work! We didn’t realise the spark until months later.
‘I remember walking away thinking he was really easy to talk to. I could tell I was getting lost in the conversation. I found myself putting my elbows on the table and leaning into him as I was talking, and I caught myself.’
‘I saw her name pop up on my comments and I slid into the DMs as the young kids say! It was a divine meeting,’ Michael says, as he reconnected with AC after she responded to an Instagram comment and he suggested a coffee. ‘Does he mean professionally?’ she wondered.
Safe in the knowledge that they have missed the worst of the summer heat, they will have plenty to do in the UK on their visit, so long as the trains don’t wreck their transport. ‘We’re taking a bus up from Birmingham. Our good friend and promoter Gavin told us about the rail strike!’ they say.
The Birmingham gig was part of Nashville Sounds in the Round on August 17, where they played alongside Kenny Foster and Alyssa Bonagura, two acts very familiar with the UK. The hosts, Sally & Steve from Gasoline & Matches, are a couple as well.
At Millport they are looking forward to seeing Drake White, while Shy Carter headlines the first day of Nashville Meets London, where Arbor North join Matt Hodges, Ruthie Collins, Manny Blu and Sarah Darling on a packed bill. ‘We’re doing a full band slot so it’ll be the whole nine yards!’ Michael says, excitedly.
Michael, from New York state, moved to Nashville to study at Belmont. He graduated into the industry and became a session and tour drummer, as well as Musical Director. His collaboration with the Nashville Celts meant he had been inducted into the UK movement as well as playing the Opry with them.
The drummer is now upfront – ‘same industry but a different angle’ – sharing vocals with AC (Amanda Cosette) Jones. She is from Ohio and has a BSc in Biochemistry which she says gave her the ability to ‘trust myself, believe in myself, stay confident, work hard for what you wanted and that determination of getting through that degree. It’s okay to take a chance.
‘When I got into the music industry it made me so hungry to ask questions and not be afraid to ask them, learning as I went.’ AC’s solo material has come out over the last few years and there’s a lot of Bonnie Raitt in her vocal tone. There’s a Grand Ole Opry tribute called Stand In The Circle, as well as a meditative song called Castle.
Michael is familiar with how to market an independent act even when he was a hired hand. ‘I did a lot of the booking for Lockeland,’ he says. The division of labour in Arbor North gives AC responsibility for social media and marketing, while Michael took on the task of finding a pick-up band for Nashville Meets London.
‘We aren’t going to have a rehearsal,’ he says. ‘I sent out the information and made it as detailed as I could. It’s very mapped out so they can learn it ahead of time and we can play a great show.’
The three Arbor North releases so far are all of a kind, given that the pair have fallen in love with one another. All The Right Mistakes was the first offering in February, followed by the divine You Me & Jesus. Would’ve Met You Anyway is the third track, a country toe-tapper with some rapid-fire lyrics. That must have been enormous fun to write, and a listener can hear the smiles from the singers coming through the recording booth. Michael’s friend Kyle Pudenz is terrific on the fiddle.
On the duo’s website, which is run by AC, they both boast of being fans of Star Wars. ‘If I may,’ Michael starts when asked about the new Mandalorian series, ‘I recommend you watch all the movies, One through Nine. That’s the main story arc…’
‘It’ll enrich the Mandalorian so much more for you. You’ll notice nods,’ AC says.
‘The team of directors really are knocking it out the park,’ Michael adds. ‘You can tell they are very passionate and know the weight that they carry.’
At this point there should be some kind of Star Wars quotation to end the piece, but the force is strong with Arbor North.
Arbor North play Nashville Meets London at Trinity Wharf on August 24. Tickets cost £34 and are available here.
This sixth album opens with a full minute of Mariachi trumpets, lest we forget that the band are from Texas. With the live horns and what sounds like few overdubs, it puts me in mind of a Later…With Jools Holland performance. It’s less rootsy than their recent albums but it will sound extraordinary live. The band have a packed schedule for the rest of 2022 but will surely be eyeing up a European jaunt next year.
John Wayne is a proper band number which, impressively, kicks off the album with panache. Ditto Bad Medicine and Antioch, where horns stab, backing vocalists chime in and, on the latter, lead singer Cody Cannon purrs about there being ‘hell to pay’ and daddy going somewhere. The lyrics are definitely secondary to the sound of the band.
The fun rocker Mission To Mars was co-written by Cannon and Aaron Raitiere, who is hot right now; Cody sings of acid rain falling onto his bean fields and wants to join the ‘rich folks’ going to live in space like Han Solo in a Stetson.
The oddly punctuated Feet’s returns us to earth. It’s a driving rock song where Cody keeps his ‘eyes on the horizon’ (Clarkson would adore this album, naturally). There’s a bluesy ‘shoop’-filled breakdown halfway through. Other Side chugs like a Tom Petty tune and opens with ‘my daddy was a ramblin’ man’. Heart of Stone starts like a Guns N’ Roses ballad with Cody muttering about reflections and dark sides. The guys have a great record collection.
John Jeffers, who offers a great slide guitar solo during Antioch, contributes Heavy On Me and Whole World Gone Crazy. The former gets stuck in a groove via some acoustic pickin’, while the latter laments the state of the world in a familiar but welcome manner.
After twenty minutes of riffs and horns on the first side of the album, For The Kids offers some more traditional country-rock where the melody takes precedence as well as a chant of ‘We don’t have to be happy!’ Side B opens with The Wolf, where Cody is ‘howlin’ at the moonlight’ and puts me in mind of Dave Grohl and his band Foo Fighters.
It’s no surprise that Whiskey Myers albums end up near the top of the charts in the US. When done well, rock’n’roll is still a fine way to get the blood pumping.
Vandoliers – The Vandoliers
This lot are loud, nasal and good fun, and will hype up the crowd for Mike and the Moonpies this autumn, having done the same for Turnpike Troubadours and Flogging Molly already this year. That is a great way to describe their sound: rootsy punk with a spirited Texan feel. It’s another band record, with Travis Curry’s fiddle prominent and Cory Graves plonking a keyboard in between work by the brothers Fleming, Joshua (vocals) and Dustin (guitar).
The songs are singalongs full of chantable choruses that mimic those of Turnpike and Molly. Bless Your Drunken Heart is pure Molly, with Joshua’s vocal coming from the back of his throat a la Jaret Ray Reddick from Bowling For Soup. Down And Out is pure Turnpike with a narrator ‘shattered into pieces…rock bottom’ and smoking the night away remorsefully. Dustin adds a particularly good solo on the latter.
Too Drunk To Drink also has a Texmex, Mavericks-y shuffle, but Raul Malo would never sing a lyric of this sort: ‘Where you from, girl, can I get a ride home?’ comes from a cheeky narrator who is borne on the trumpet riff that trades melodic ideas with Travis’s guitar.
Every Saturday Night (‘I took for granted every Saturday night’) starts with the hook and continues without letting the backbeat go, almost obscuring the narrator’s sorry tale (‘we should have danced when they turned out the lights). Howlin’, which is accompanied by a marvellous and funny video, grabs the listener instantly thanks to eight bars of fiddle and eight of harmonica. Joshua’s vocals are keening (‘as my heart breaks in two…lonesome and blue’) and he captures the mood of the song expertly.
Before the Fall, with its introductory horn riff, is what counts as a ballad by Vandoliers standards. I Hope Your Heartache’s A Hit is a fine kiss-off written by Cory, with a mighty piano solo in the middle of it. Steer Me Wrong is redeemed by a fine chorus, while Better Run has the vocal verging on the Kip Moore with talk of ‘the men in blue coming after you’. It’ll be a live favourite and would sound great segueing into their set closer, I’m Gonna Be by The Proclaimers(!)
Wise County Friday Night – the place is north-West of the conurbation of Dallas-Fort Worth where the band are from – ends the album in a party mood. By the creek at 4am, Joshua’s ‘hands drew constellations on her back and down her spine’ and fiddle, guitar and keyboards get to solo handsomely. It’s a fine album which, tantalisingly, fades into the distance. I didn’t want it to end.