Country Music Week Digital 2020 – Part Three

October 26, 2020

The headline act for Friday night was a superlative trio of ladies who have all done well on country radio. Ashley McBryde, Carly Pearce (another act to take over Country Hits Radio on Saturday) and Lindsay Ell beamed in from the Bluebird Café. All three ladies were beaming, chatting effortlessly and sharing the love they genuinely seem to have for one another.

Ashley opened with One Night Standards, following it with the quirky Styrofoam (‘A drinking song and also an educational song’) and Shut Up Sheila, helped by solos from Lindsay. Martha Divine sounded just as terrific solo as it does on record: ‘It’s just like Jolene, except “You took him and I’m gonna break your face!”’ Ashley is an MC par excellence.

Then came A Moment. I was perturbed when Ashley ‘sprung a leak’(!) during new song Trust Yourself. She wrote it with Connie Harrington and Jessi Alexander, the power duo behind I Drive Your Truck. ‘I can’t think of a time when there was not a light on in the kitchen,’ Ashley said when introducing the song. Perhaps it was the Bluebird Café’s atmosphere that made her think of the family members who passed on pearls of wisdom. The 600-odd people watching the stream would have made streams of their own. It’s a magical song which falls about halfway through the 15-song concert available on the Bluebird Café’s Youtube channel.

Lindsay went with three chirpy love songs during her set: Want Me Back, Ready To Love and Hits Me. On the latter, she played rhythm and lead at the same time in the solo! In between them, she blindsided the audience with Make You, a song about surviving sexual assault, and the sombre I Don’t Love You with its winding verses.

Carly played her song about ‘guys who suck’ called Next Girl and another which turned the death of her friend busbee into the lyric Show Me Around. It’ll help a lot of people and Carly has the backing of Big Machine to hopefully do as she wishes. Busbee helped her write the smash hit Every Little Thing: ‘Butterflies like I’ve seen puppies!’ said Ashley, who compares her voice to that of Lee Ann Womack. She also played a new song, Heart First, whose demo was released this week: ‘When you fall, you fall heart first’ might well refer to her divorce from sleazy Michael Ray, and again it promises good things for her next project which she goes into with a number one at radio, I Hope You’re Happy Now which, in Lee Brice’s absence, was turned into a trio.

Saturday evening was equally packed and gave country fans a night-in to remember. The whole thing felt like a variety show, with chat, trivia, acoustic and amplified numbers from new and old friends.

At 6pm Haley & Michaels promoted their debut album Hail Mary, and the news of the birth of their daughter Keira, with the latest in their Drinking About YoUK series. These online gigs unite them with UK artists via their Facebook channel. Over Country Music Week, it was the turn of the mighty UK artist Kezia Gill, who sang Whiskey Drinkin Woman, I’m Here and House of Cards.

2020 has been a year of ups and downs for Kezia, who shortly after the death of her dad met Bob Harris when she appeared as part of the Radio 2 Country Festival along with Haley & Michaels. Kezia’s new single will come out at the end of November and it was a delight to see her chatting openly about music and life with two interested parties, who themselves performed Drinking About You and their wedding song Giving It All To You.

Until the computer crashed during the Country in the 2010s round, I was doing pretty well in the Destination Country Quiz, which tested a wide array of country music knowledge. Lauren Jenkins was an adept quiz MC and also performed a new song from her upcoming independent release. Dance in the Kitchen was a lot of fun, as was her interaction with over 50 quizzers from around the UK. Destination Country encourages fans to sign up to their Patreon page, giving them access to Happy Hour zoom chats. November will see Sunday night gigs by Darlingside, Steel Blossoms and Ward Thomas.

Following the conclusion of the quiz, I tuned in to watch a big event put on by Broken Bow Records and BMG, co-hosted by Lainey Wilson and her wonderful accent.

Elvie Shane, from Kentucky, sported a bushy beard and a voice which verged on the Kip Moore. I am sure he will find many fans over here, especially with a fun band behind him who pulled faces and played air guitar! My Mississippi was driven by a groove that got my foot tapping, which County Roads was a rocking song about the lessons learned as a kid: swearing on the schoolbus, for instance. He also played his radio smash My Boy, about being a stepdad, which since it was written five years ago has led him to many glorious events, including this showcase.

Granger Smith performed out in the open with a full band, giving a mini-greatest hits set: new single That’s Why I Love Dirt Roads, number one Back Road Song and the excellent pair of love songs Happens Like That and If The Boot Fits. Yee YEE! as the man himself says.

LOCASH sat around a campfire singing some of their big hits, also with a full band. They told a great story about eating Deer Jerky (with extra deer hair!!) as a gift from a fan. The camaraderie between Preston and Chris, who have been playing together for a long time, is evident in their stories, while the harmonies on I Love This Life (‘three minutes of feelgood’), It’s Only Midnight and new single Beers To Catch Up On are all delicious.

Track45 are so named because Highway 45 runs through Meridien, Mississippi, a town that houses a museum to its most famous son, Jimmie Rodgers. An introductory video shows how the Johnson siblings grew up as string players entertaining old folks who also sang around the table. KK was 14 when the three of them moved to Nashville and they finally have music out there.

If we’re calling them the new Hanson, then KK is Taylor, Ben is Zac and Jenna is a banjo-playing Isaac. Their voices came together on a fantastic two-verse version of Heartbreak Hotel, a hit for a fellow Mississippian. There’s star wattage here, especially in KK’s dynamic Swift-adjacent vocals and Ben’s musicality. One Life, which is not found on their three-track EP, is about enjoying the journey and seizing the moment, while they go heavier on the Little Big Townish Little Bit More. I want a lot more of Track45.

The showcase closed with UK duo The Shires, who sat in a living room (Ben has removed his dreadlocks, perhaps because his kids keep yanking them) and plugged their fourth album Good Years. Opening with their effortlessly melodic new single Lightning Strikes, they also played Day That I Die, About Last Night and New Year. There was a brief argument over popcorn choices but there is nothing to argue about in their sound and their place as market leader. In a few years when indigenous country music has grown still further, the pair will be viewed as trailblazers and elder statesmen in much the same way as Lady Antebellum and Taylor Swift have the same status in the USA.

Matt Spracklen had The Shires on his Country Hits Brits show on Sunday night talking about the new version of their song Lightning Strikes with Lauren Alaina. They teased another special guest (my guess is James Blunt) who will be popping up on another of their songs soon, as well as the ‘therapeutic’ performance they had recorded. Ben, however, felt ‘detached’ as no applause followed. After all, music is about the listener as well as the performer.

On Sunday, Country Hits Radio had a packed schedule while Chris Country hosted a familiar voice at noon. Charles Esten was due to play Country2Country this spring and, during a Sunday Lunch hour, fans heard his lovely song Sweet Summer Saturday Night, an acoustic version of A Road and a Radio and Eric Paslay’s song Nice Guy, whose video starred Charles going against type by playing a meshuggah. He also found room for music by his sometime tourmates The Adelaides and a duet he had recorded with Jillian Cardarelli called Strong, about the power of faith and overcoming obstacles.

Charles, whom Whose Line Is It Anyway fans will know as Chip, is one of the nicest men in music, the Dave Grohl figure perhaps. He is best known as Deacon from Nashville but he also played Buddy Holly on the West End stage in the early 1990s and lived in Kentish Town. He must be itching to get back to the UK.

Country Music Week Digital 2020 was a huge success. Radio programmers, fan-run sites, record labels and the artists themselves all came together to remind the audience of the variety, excellence and passion of country musicians and fans. Whether or not Country2Country goes ahead as planned – I think this was a pilot for a C2C Digital festival in 2021 – will surely be answered soon. It’s not the same thing as breathing the same air but it’ll do while that air is infected with a killer virus.


Country Music Week Digital 2020 – Part Two

October 26, 2020

Saturday night offered Kip Moore, a rockstar in country clothing, who was joined by his band the Slow Hearts in Grimey’s record store in Nashville. On his own Kip tends to ramble, as he did in his CMA Songwriters set a few years ago, but his voice is electric and he has thousands of fans in the UK.

In a shirt which showed off his biceps – he knows his audience – Kip played with his band surrounding him close, just in front of a rack of vinyl. Janie Blu, Sweet Virginia, Wild World and Fire and Flame sounded excellent with three acoustic guitars, a double bass and a muted snare drum. It will make me return to his excellent album Wild World. I was one of 1000 people to watch the set as it was premiered.

If you are after more rock, you should catch the video of The Cadillac Three‘s contribution to CMW Digital. The band are Big Machine’s ‘big rock band’ and are led by super songwriter Jaren Johnston. They sat down with the lady who produces their own Big Machine Radio show for a chat which was aimed at a UK crowd.

TC3 opened with a giggle at their English accents, dislike of black pudding and love of a full English breakfast. The trio recalled their gigs at the Camden Barfly and in Manchester, and how Jaren got a tattoo of a Saltire, a Scottish flag, in Glasgow!

There was then a live performance played from the Country2Country show of three songs including their chantalong anthem The South, Slide and Peace Love & Dixie which was more rock than country and very energetic and loud. The trio were due to play on the Friday of C2C at the O2 in Greenwich, opening up for Eric Church, but the lockdown was announced on the Thursday. Next year, perhaps?

We love TC3 over here, and I particularly love the new album Tabasco & Sweet Tea, which is 11 slabs of Southern Funk. British fans apparently call them ‘MENTAL!’ and ‘LEGEND’. Go watch the video to see them tackle British slang – oh those hilarious Brits with their ‘palaver’ and ‘aubergines’ and ‘spotted dick’!!! TC3 are inviting fans to watch a concert which launches their new album this Tuesday (27th) at 6pm GMT, with access to a stream costing £15 for UK fans. (US fans get one on the same evening.)

Tyler Rich, Payton Smith and Danielle Bradbery are all signed to Big Machine too and all appeal to a young demographic (ie under 30s). Tyler talked about watching footie in a British pub and the atmosphere – ‘it felt so much like home’ – and wrote the song Feels Like Home about it. He also played his big lovey-dovey hit The Difference.

Danielle played her new single Never Have I Ever, one which ‘manifested’ her new relationship, as well as the lovely Sway and recent reminiscin’ song Girls In My Hometown. Her voice, which won her The Voice, sounds great and she has a fine set of songs and a great set of fans in the UK.

I can tell why Big Machine are trying to push Payton and why he is due his first UK visit very soon. He has a boyband-fresh voice, long flowing locks and a love of John Mayer that comes through in his guitar playing. Sat in a recording studio beside a mixing desk, he played three tunes including What It Meant To Lose You and the hyperkinetic streaming hit Like I Knew You Would.

He slowed it down with Daddy’s Boots when he made his debut at the Grand Ole Opry in February this year, aged 20; it’s his life in a song which namechecks his birthplace of Louisiana. There’s a lot of Eric Church and Keith Urban in him and, if his career is managed carefully, he could be the biggest star in country music in five years’ time, certainly as big as Chris Young, with whom he would have toured in 2020.

As well as looking at Song and Album of the Year before 2020 is out, I’ll put together a UK Country Top 40 of the year. I am aided in my task by Tim Prottey-Jones. He put together a two-hour A to Z of British country on his Homegrown show which went out on Wednesday evening. Usually he gets an hour so this is a welcome and chunky look at UK country that rounds up some of the top acts he has been rotating in recent months. Expect many of the following to feature in my Top 40 in December.

C is for Robbie Cavanagh, D is full-time busker Simeon Hammond Dallas, E is for Emma & Jolie, G for Gasoline & Matches, J for Tim’s pal Jake Morrell, K for Kezia Gill, M for Joe Martin, N for Nathan Carter with an Oirish cover of the folk song Games People Play, O is for both O&O and Laura Oakes (who have duetted together), Q for Gary Quinn, R for Remember Monday, S for The Shires and Tim’s musical theatre pal Steve Balsamo, U for Tim’s UK Country Collective, V for Vicki Manser, X was for Deeanne Dexeter (well done!), Y for Yola and Z for Zoee.

If we’re looking at UK country Blockbusters, I’d like to pick A, T and W please, Bob. A is for The Adelaides, who posted a little documentary onto their Facebook page on Wednesday. The Adelaides Bounce Back centres on their performance two weeks ago at Nash Nights UK in front of a paying crowd at Under The Bridge in West London. It’s their first gig in front of people since March. Since then they have had a tour and a Nashville trip cancelled and put out a fun video to their smash Seven Billion. To earn money they have worked in care homes or fish’n’chip shops, doing some relaxed livestreams when they could meet up in person.

We start in the dressing room as they discuss the harmonies of Head & Heart. The girls soundcheck and talk about being ‘excited but nervous’ in case the gig had to be pulled under government orders. There’s a very Spinal Tappy line from the drummer about being ‘further away but also closer’ to the girls. The barrier is set a long way back to be extra safe and the girls stride onto stage in personalised masks.

The band are unguarded, opening up to the camera and showcasing a side of themselves which fans might not see when they are performing. There’s a little bit of politics at the end: music is not a hobby for The Adelaides, who have been promising an album for years now. The footage of them performing Reckless and a boisterous Good Love, as well as their covers of Miss Me More and Nothing Breaks Like a Heart, is marvellous and very well edited together, with the trademarked three-part vocals silencing the room. Kudos to the camera team as well as the performers and venue.

The Bounce Back documentary can be viewed through the band’s Facebook account.

W is for Ward Thomas. After Tim’s show, I tuned into the twins’ 20-minute session on Facebook in association with Chris Country. Having heard them a fortnight ago play three gorgeous tunes for Bob Harris’ Radio 2 show, I knew what to expect. After some faff setting up the phone, they played Cartwheels, new tunes Someday and Don’t Be A Stranger and their cover of Landslide. Their voices were in fine fettle and I am sure they drove people to stream their new album; by the way, Invitation landed at an impressive 29 on the album charts, though that may rise as the band continue to promote the album into 2021.

T is for Twinnie who has been very active this week on Instagram. You can still catch the Tea With Twinnie videos, which were broadcast live at 3pm every day: she had Lainey Wilson on Monday, a proselytising Jimmie Allen and the irrepressible Lauren Alaina on Tuesday, Andrew Farriss on Wednesday, Lindsay Ell on Thursday, the great Lucie Silvas on Friday and Willie Jones on Saturday.

On Sunday she was spotted on terrestrial TV, guesting on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch in the morning. As a former Hollyoaks actress, I expect she talked about the Chester soap’s Silver Jubilee – did you know it started in 1995?? – as well as the release of the acoustic version of her debut album Hollywood Gypsy.

On Thursday, before Bob Harris’ Country Show, I tuned in to watch Brent Cobb who had sent over a five-song set for Destination Country which promoted his brand new album Keep Em On They Toes. Anyone professing ignorance to Brent’s talent will have been blown away and will head straight to the album after hearing new tunes played solo on an acoustic in front of an organ with plants upon it.

Soapbox remains my favourite though I also like Shut Up and Sing and This Side of the River (more songs should mention catfish). Brent also told the story about a gig in Manchester which was cancelled due to a power cut: ‘We drank a bunch of beer and got to know each other.’ He finished with the song Digging Holes.

On Sunday, Kyle Daniel did much the same thing, introducing himself to curious fans over here. He was due to pop over to the UK for Country2Country this March but his plans were scuppered. He had, however, come over last year for Country Music Week, opening for Brandy Clark and playing a showcase. A year on, Kyle posted a 25-minute set from his home in East Nashville which you can watch on his Facebook page ‘kyledaniel.music’.

That Somebody Ain’t Me is a brutal leavin’ song sung expertly, while Hollerin Hills cranked up the pace with a slide guitar that gave the song a Stapleton feel. As he would have done had he been over in the UK, Kyle previewed some tunes he was about to record in Muscle Shoals, Alabama: Running From Me was a typically rootsy tune about not drinking away your problems, which sounds like a Stapleton lyric; Wild, Free & Easy was a smooth reminiscin’ song about how ‘you can’t rewind the moment’; and Following The Rain makes the most of the ‘dark cloud’ over Kyle’s head as he tries to swerve the ‘hurricane’. I loved the swampy feel of Everybody’s Talking (‘Words ain’t worth a dime’) which worked well with the trio of guitars and voices.

Kyle’s set was one of the highlights of Country Music Week Digital 2020. Above all he shows the depth of the talent pool in town; if he were British he would be selling millions of records, while in Nashville he’s just another future superstar wondering when his day will come. He’ll be supporting The Cadillac Three for the American show to launch the trio’s album on Tuesday 27 October.

Willie Jones, who also took over Country Hits Radio on Saturday afternoon, played a short set for UK fans via his Facebook account. He had been due to play some big aftershow parties at C2C 2020 before he had to fly home. UK fans have heard sessions on Bob Harris Country, though, and in July he played for 20 fun-packed minutes for a Destination Country show. He reprised the set, live from Shreveport, Louisiana, with four soulful country songs with familiar chord progressions.

Windows Down is a I-V-VI-IV tune with a singalong post-chorus, while Back Porch is a VI-IV-I-V tune about chilling out (Willie shook an egg shaker). His vocals have the smoothness of Aloe Blacc or John Legend, but he has the hiphop cadences and ad-libs of a Drake. Despite being poor he has a Whole Lotta Love – ‘Look at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself you gotta whole lotta love!’ he encouraged his audience – while the groovy Down For It is a IV-I-V-VI tune whose vocals were partly lost because the guitar was very loud.

UK fans will lap this up and Willie’s slow climb will be rewarded in 2021, for sure.


Country Music Week Digital 2020 – Part One

October 26, 2020

As always in October, it’s Country Music Week in the UK, a showcase for plenty of US acts where they usually grip and grin and talk to the radio people. In 2020, it has gone digital!

On Thursday came the events with the widest reach, thanks to BBC Radio 2. Lady A and Morgan Wallen performed at opposite ends of the day and you can catch the sets via BBC Sounds and watch it on Youtube via the BBC Music channel. Ken Bruce told us they filmed ‘under the correct restrictions’ by sitting next to one another, and Lady A were a mid-morning treat at 11am on a station which has supported them since Need You Now crash-landed into the world a decade ago. Their acoustic version would have made many people in the 55+ demographic (ie Radio 2’s daytime audience) happy.

They also played one of my songs of the year, Champagne Night. They told the story of their Songland appearance and namechecking Madeline Merlo, whose song I’ll Drink To That was the foundation for a song about being broke but still getting ‘rhinestoned’. ‘The fans want new content’ and, despite it not being on their album they were promoting in 2020, it became a summer smash on country radio, where it’s at 15 and climbing.

Dave, who with his wife recorded the fun parody song Another Day In Quarantine, revealed that he has a home studio where he can work on the next Lady A record, which reminds him of the days before Need You Now. Hilary and Charles appreciate the UK fans, who love the album cuts as well as the singles. Now on Big Machine alongside Tim McGraw, Lady A will be the cash cows of the label.

Morgan Wallen has spent 2020 becoming a dad and having his dreams of performing on Saturday Night Live destroyed by his own petard (he was pictured without a mask at a social event). He is nonetheless readying his second album which features the woozy new single 7 Summers, which is finding its way to pop fans via canny playlist placements.

Initially, said Morgan, he had posted a demo of 7 Summers on Instagram then the song made the rounds on TikTok. Morgan will always be a country kid, especially with his mullet-and-drawl combo, and Bob Harris has been playing Chasing You and 7 Summers in recent months. Those songs and More Than My Hometown sounded super performed without studio trickery. He really does have a great voice and it looks like he’ll play the game on his terms – he famously walked out of The Voice after he saw through the format as a TV show. However, he could do with wearing a mask when he’s promoting a single that has got to number 6 on the Hot 100.

The final event of the week involved Bob himself. It was a Zoom event on Sunday with Destination Country to officially launch Stand By Me, the single with proceeds to charity which features a cast of important musicians. You can stream the song or, better still, buy it. After a great deal of illness in the past decade, including cancer treatment and heart trouble which forced him off air in 2019 – Bob sounds fitter than ever. That’s him on the triangle!

Aside from Radio 2, the three indigenous radio stations – Smooth Country, Country Hits Radio and Chris Country – have all welcomed the US acts, with Chris Young, Matt Stell and Dustin Lynch among those popping up for interviews.

On Monday, early afternoon Nashville time, the fabled Song Suffragettes team put on a show with plenty of panache and style. Lainey Wilson, Tenille Townes and Caylee Hammack played their well-known tunes, including Somebody’s Daughter (Tenille) and Family Tree (Caylee). Kalie Shorr MCed in a Nirvana t-shirt. She’s super cool and was in control of her material and the small crowd. I like her song Pity Party in particular.

Throughout the gig, Kalie threw over to the UK, where Twinnie sang her excellent Lie To Me, while Vic Allen and Emma & Jolie sang songs that matched the high standards of these major-label US acts. We also heard young Mia Morris try out her loop pedal, to varying degrees of success, but the magic of writers’ rounds is that nobody quite knows what’ll happen. The closing number was a phenomenal group cover of Wide Open Spaces so everyone left with a song in their hearts. A 90-minute argument for the Girl Singer.

Every Monday Niko Moon pops up on Facebook to hang out with his fans. This week he made an effort to connect with his UK and European fans, posting a 30-minute show on his Facebook page as his contribution to the Week. ‘Peter’s coming in from Belgium. I LOVE IT!’ he purred at one point. Niko and his wife got married in Pitlochry in Scotland, so there is an affinity with over here. He recently made his debut at the Opry, where he played Homegrown, a hit for his friends Zac Brown Band, and his single Good Time, which I have loved from the first time I heard it even though I can do without the digital drum pattern.

Niko played both of those songs here, as well as the funky Paradise To Me, which points to Niko’s USP: singing about the glory of small town life in a soulful manner. Way Back is impossible to keep quiet to, with its staccato riff and reminiscin’ lyric. Good At Loving You turns Niko’s lack of academic qualifications and inability to save money or learn Spanish into a positive. I hope his soulful voice gets an airing on his forthcoming album – there’s an EP which came out this year – and that he made some new fans in the UK with his special hangout this week.

On Tuesday Matt Stell performed his new EP Better Than That in full with a live band. There is a strong musicality to all eight songs, as my review made clear, and I especially love the mood of Everywhere But On and the stuttering Sadie. The major-label investment in him is justified and UK fans will love him much like they loved Brett Young and Thomas Rhett.

On a bluegrassier plain, Billy Strings picked four songs on a steel-string guitar on a Youtube show. Sitting on a high stool, Billy showcased his tremendous ability as a rootsy singer live from Nashville’s Station Inn. He reminds me of Charlie Worsham with his charming voice and pickin’ abilities and I would love to hear Billy and Charlie duel with guitars or banjos. His latest album, from which he played a couple of tunes, is called Home, released on the great Rounder Records. It came out in 2019 but is still flying in the Bluegrass Album chart, where it was knocked off the top by Nickel Creek the other week.

Billy also popped up on Baylen Leonard’s The Front Porch show at 1pm on Sunday on Country Hits Radio, which you can listen to on demand. It turns out Billy initially set bluegrass aside for Jimi Hendrix. ‘That screaming and stuff…This is terrible!!’ he recalled of his time as a heavy metal guitar player. Billy also namedropped Luke Combs, with whom he wrote two songs (Luke boasted of writing ten songs in 11 days before the two met!), and we heard Billy pick out a ditty before Baylen played the studio recording of Away From The Mire, the best representation of Billy’s cosmic Americana sound.

While we’re dealing in bluegrass-loving artists, Ashley Campbell was the next to be interviewed. I reckon she would be a tremendous radio host herself – she’s a great MC of her own gigs, as she proved in a UK set a few years ago in East London – and her album Something Lovely is just that. After a too brief chat, Baylen played If I Wasn’t, a duet which imagines what happens if Vince Gill adds guitar and harmonies to a Beautiful South lament.

As part of the salute to black country acts, having spoken to Jimmie Allen and Mickey Guyton already in Black History Month, Baylen spoke to Darius Rucker. ‘It was three guys that were Program Directors’ who told Darius that he couldn’t make it as a black artist in country music because the audience wouldn’t be accepting. They were all proved wrong. ‘Being a real player is my protest. Success is the best protest.’ Good black musicians won’t make it; ‘You have to be great.’

The busy afternoon also included artist takeovers from Runaway June (in advance of their new Christmas EP) and Cam, who is plugging her new album The Otherside. We heard Jolene and Diane side by side, and she mentioned the ‘humanity’ of the unnamed woman whom Cam calls Diane asking ‘please’ not to take her man.

The 8pm weeknight slot was also given over to US acts playing DJ. Old Dominion picked some music, including Alan Jackson, Scotty McCreery and their own hit One Man Band, on Tuesday evening. Scotty himself was DJ on Wednesday night, with Caylee Hammack following on Thursday and Jameson Rodgers on Friday. The shows took the form of three or four pre-recorded inserts but were otherwise a normal hour, but it’s still good to hear American voices (other than the mighty Baylen Leonard and the afternoon zoo show) on the network.

Originally scheduled for 7pm on Friday but going live after 10pm, Jameson Rodgers gave us a Facebook show of sorts. A touring buddy of Luke Combs, Jameson included mighty Luke on his song Cold Beer Calling My Name. His first single Some Girls, which he gave UK audiences a rendition of, has successfully been pushed to number one on radio this very week – MAX SPINS NOW screamed the ads in the trade press. The version above is from two years ago, so he must have played this song thousands of times.

Although I think Jameson is more Cole Swindell level than Luke Combs, I like what he does and he has that Mississippi Delta charm that country radio programmers will love. Some Girls is in heavy rotation on Chris Country. It’s written by Hardy, who is so hot right now.

Monday’s Country Hits Radio selector was Tenille Townes, whose introduction to the UK market was helped by radio pushes by the BBC, especially. In the same way, Tenille made some headway after she moved from Canada to Nashville. Although her high alto can be an acquired taste, her songwriting is high in quality, as she showed in the Song Suffragettes show.

Tenille popped up on Ricky Ross’s BBC Radio Scotland show Another Country, which goes out live on Tuesday evenings and is available all week on BBC Sounds. She talked about growing up listening to Dolly and Shania, and how the aim of her debut album The Lemonade Stand was to ‘help people feel less alone’. Go check out the album, which I adore. It’s in the running for Album of the Year, which I’ll look at in December as part of three shows recapping these odd 12 months. I wonder if the late runner, Hey World by Lee Brice, will make it onto the list.

On Wednesday Lee Brice appeared on Baylen’s mid-morning show to premiere Do Not Disturb. What a great chap to give a world premiere to fans in the UK. He’s great mates with American Young, who are arguably bigger in the UK than in the US, and I met his brother Lewis who wowed me at Buckle and Boots 2019.

Lee was the star attraction for the Curb Records Showcase on the Curb Records Youtube channel at 6pm on Sunday evening. He performed his chart-topping tune One of Them Girls and Rumor, another song which has been rotated on the UK radio stations. More people need to hear a voice with heft and a man who told us that he’s ‘always having fun’ when he’s holding a guitar.

American Young are guitarist Jon and violinist Kristi, who have already made many pilgrimages to the UK and convinced the Brice brothers to make the trip too. They played their recent single Some Girl, a very contemporary sounding breakup song which would fit neatly onto Magic FM, as well as Whiskey Don’t Work. The pair are happily married so are in character as people trying to drown their sorrow in drink. I really connected with both songs.

Tim Dugger opened with a song laying his country credentials on the table and how any potential lady is ‘gonna love me’, with the lyric ‘the Hag, the Flag, In God We Trust’. I also liked a gentle song about cold beer nights – ‘we kick the dirt and we go to work and we go to church’ – which is satisfyingly traditional. Tim is a country artist in the vein of Rodney Atkins who, helpfully, is also on Curb and was part of the showcase.

Joined by Rose Falcon who helped him fight off midges, Rodney sang the love song Figure Out You (‘you keep me beautifully confused’) which is full of contradictions. Love is a crazy thing. Caught Up in the Country, a song which has been rotated on Chris Country in the last few years, was aired as well, showing off Rodney’s deep voice that could only be country.

Jackson Michaelson wore a bandana around his neck and crooned a couple of songs. One Day was a future-reminiscin song where Jackson projects a future day when babies grow up to ‘want my keys’ or ‘have a diamond ring’, no longer sleeping next to mum and dad. ‘We can’t waste a single day’ is proper Tim McGraw-esque philosophy. I like the line ‘One day they walk…the next they run’. His other song was a peppy track about ‘tossing a 20 in the tipjar’ so the band in the bar can set the mood for a romantic liaison as he gets over a breakup. Bon Jovi and Tom Petty are potential requests which will ‘replace the memories’ they shared. The song was so good I had to play it again. It sounds like a hit.

Mo Pitney was joined by his brother and sister to sing two songs from the Bluebird Café. The title track of his recent album Ain’t Looking Back and Mattress on the Floor, about ‘how you got it all when you got nothin’.

Ruthie Collins showed off a gorgeous vocal tone which has impressed Bob Harris. Joshua Tree is a reminiscin song full of mystery, perhaps about a friend who has died, inspired by the mystical nature of the Californian desert. Also from her album Cold Comfort, closing track Beg Steal Borrow sees her ask a man to hold her hand and ‘be satisfied with the faded disguise of your heart’. Her lonely narrator won’t give up hope of love from a man who might not want the same from her.

I am sure she made some fans in the UK, and not just me, with her short set.

Keep reading for parts 2 and 3.


Country Jukebox Jury – Sturgill Simpson and Jeremy Ivey

October 23, 2020

Sturgill Simpson – Cuttin Grass: Volume 1

Sturgill Simpson’s 2019 album Sound & Fury was full of rock music which was accompanied by an animated movie. Born in Kentucky, Sturgill has gone back to his roots and picked up some acoustic instruments. I’ve never found my way into his catalogue properly, though I do love what I’ve heard. He has also gone independent, making him a sort of Radiohead figure of country music.

He composed a mailing-list essay to coincide with the release of Cuttin Grass – Volume 1, whose songs are arranged in alphabetical order as if it’s a file dump rather than a carefully considered album. Bluegrass music, to Sturgill, ‘sounded like home…healing…It is made from ancient, organic tones’. Indeed, if songs don’t work with just a voice and guitar, ‘it’s probably not a very good song’.

He initially moved to Nashville to play bluegrass but could not make a living from it. I agree with Trigger at Saving Country Music: Sturgill has had to hide his true status as a bluegrass act in order to make a living as a country singer. All you do is change the production, getting some Dave Cobb dust sprinkled over your tunes, and you’re no longer a bluegrass struggler but a country outlaw.

With the Sound & Fury tour cancelled, and Sturgill’s body crying out for a rest (‘I was in the ER with pre-stroke blood pressure levels’) he slowed down in 2020, treating his fans to a livestream and this album which ‘might make some people forget about their pain and troubles for 55 minutes’. He’s right.

I Don’t Mind was written in the mid-2000s, and Sturgill wrote it is his wife’s favourite song. He leaves his woman and carries a ‘lonely feeling’, thinking of all the things left unsaid. ‘All I find is a world without light’ is his sad, suicidal conclusion. Why, then, does he ask to be loved again? Maybe it’s a deity, not a woman, he walked out on.

Sierra Hull is one of the many talented musicians who appear on the album, adding her echoed harmonies to songs like the new version of Breakers Roar. Turtles All The Way Down was my introduction to the ‘meta-modern sounds’ of Sturgill; the bluegrass version removes the orchestra and adds traditional fiddle to reshape the song. That fiddle, by Stuart Duncan, is brilliant throughout; he played with Marty Stuart at the Grand Ole Orpy the other week and was called the best in town. I trust Marty’s judgement.

This is a good way for me to look back on Sturgill’s catalogue. I like the gentle Time After All and the peppy tenor of Life Ain’t Fair and The World is Mean, which in its rewritten form namechecks the time Sturgill busked outside the venue for the CMAs: ‘You ain’t gotta read between the lines, you just gotta turn the page’. The original, from an album of 2014, is more of a Waylon Jennings-type tune while this new version is pure bluegrass.

The quick tunes like Railroad of Sin find a place alongside ballads like Old King Coal, both from his 2014 album High Top Mountain. The latter is a waltz that swaps pedal steel for human voices, describing the demise of the raw material that funds much of the livelihoods in Kentucky, but now ‘the rivers run muddy and the mountains are bare’.

As a gift for his supporters this is superb. As a catch-up service-cum-greatest hits it is invaluable. Everyone needs to slow down and, in the great pandemic, Sturgill slows everyone down from the panic and pain. 4/5

Jeremy Ivey – Waiting Out The Storm

As Morgan Evans said of Kelsea Ballerini, Jeremy Ivey may not even be the best songwriter in his kitchen. Along with his band the Extraterrestrials, Jeremy’s new album Waiting Out The Storm opens with Jeremy’s Dylanesque nasal whine asking ‘How’s your nuclear threat? How good is the virtual sex? Do your dreams have commercials?’ on a song called Tomorrow People. It’s co-written with Margo Price, the lady he eats his toast with in that kitchen.

This is another album steeped in classic singer/songwriter sounds like Gram Parsons, Dylan and The Band. Movies (‘They don’t make those stories anymore’) calls back to those days in a very meta song which features a harmonica solo while Loser Town is 100% Neil Young heartland rock, sung in a less whiny voice which, like the Canadian’s, won’t be to everyone’s taste.

Someone Else’s Problem is a sadly timely song about homelessness (‘the city should clean up all this trash’), slave labour, war and charity, even the original sin, set to a loping rhythm. It’s like a tribute to John Lennon’s political era but it still seems genuine. Hands Down In Your Pockets stays in the pocket of a groove as Jeremy talks though a similarly apocalyptic message. There are some cute backing vocals from Margo on Things Could Get Much Worse, which follows the gloomy White Shadow.

How It Has To Be is similarly pessimistic, even with a killer guitar solo in the middle of it and some Hammond organ throughout. The first line mentions Neil Armstrong and Tinder, while Oprah and Susan B Anthony appear in the third verse. The song bookends the album after the time-shifting opening track. Fun fact: two tracks mention rust. Go and listen to the album to see which ones! 4/5


Country Jukebox Jury – Everette and The Cadillac Three

October 23, 2020

Everette – Kings of the Dairy Queen Parking Lot Side A

Everette are two guys from Kentucky (one of them has the most amazing beard) whose album Kings of the Dairy Queen Parking Lot is coming out in two parts. Produced by Luke Laird, there are seven tracks on Side A which introduce the band to market. Is there space for them? Well it helps them that there aren’t many duos around, and it helps that the music is top quality.

Can’t Say No is a funky opener driven by a twanging riff. ‘Quitting you ain’t easy’ introduces a chorus full of pleasures – dancing, drinking, and you – which made me sway and sing. It’s as if someone has told Florida Georgia Line to stop posturing and grow up. It sounds authentically southern but very poppy and I can see Everette winning over many Luke Combs fanatics. Check out the brief key change and the wigout solo too! Note to the band: segue into Harry Nilsson’s Coconut when you perform it live.

Two more songs go long on the rock. Break It To Me is a song about waiting for a ‘big FU’, anticipating the very moment of a breakup but wondering how the woman will do it. It’s so hooky and effervescent. Dang The Whiskey is a tempo tune where the guys are getting ‘loose’ at the bar. It has hints of both Eric Church and The Cadillac 3 – it’s loud and contains the lyric ‘SOB’ – and it’ll sound great at a tailgate party, or when covered by Backwoods Creek, who would be a perfect support act should Everette be able to play huge venues in the UK next year.

The title track includes the line ‘being young ain’t never getting old’ – come on!! – and it makes me think how teenagers today can’t fumble around or muck about in a parking lot because of the virus. Way Back is a middle of the dirt road love song in the modern style: guy meets girl and have a ‘hands in pocket conversation’ but it seems like they’ve known each other since they were swapping mixtapes back in the day. Love Me Like I Am, about accepting a partner’s perfect imperfections, begins with a catchy wordless hook and a Church-like strum and vocal. ‘My straight and narrow’s crooked’ is a great line – they can sing, write and ensure good production from maestro Luke Laird – and it’s got a lovely melody.

Momma I’ll Be OK is a down home country song in which the vocalists tell their mum that they ought to call more and read books. Momma songs are coming back – Luke Combs has released Without You – and thank goodness for that. Some lovely whistling too. If Side B is as good as Side A, this band will be enormous. 5/5 and I trust Luke Laird’s taste (and the money from Broken Bow Records) on Everette. Remember the name.

The Cadillac Three – Tabasco & Sweet Tea

TC3, as they are known to all, were due to play Country2Country this spring before events intervened, while promoting their Country Fuzz album. I felt that record would have benefitted from being a little shorter and more varied tonally. The 11 tracks here, surprising fans in October, are a funky bunch. The fuzz pedals have stayed in the box and TC3 are experimenting a little. 

Tabasco & Sweet Tea kicks off with the title track, which compares a lady to things that are hot yet gorgeous. I love the chorus about ‘that bartender upstairs making a concoction’ that led to this woman. The riff is slinky and the melody is, as ever, excellent. Road Soda is even better, even if it’s 99% Uptown Funk.

It’s an album about girls and vehicles. Case in point: Stop That Girl, Head Over Wheels (‘that vroom vroom vroom gives me a heart attack’) and Sweet Southern Spirit, which namechecks Lynyrd Skynyrd. It makes a change from the dirty blues of previous albums and reminds me of Red Hot Chili Peppers more than anyone else. I hope some of these songs make it to their live set as it will give them the tonal variety that I wanted from their last album.

Bridges (‘we learn which ones to cross, which ones to burn’) is a two-chord tune which could also work as blues rock but it’s more gentle in this arrangement. It’s co-written with Frank Rogers, who has worked extensively with Brad Paisley. Money Ain’t Shit (‘if you ain’t got love’) has some nifty production while Turn The Radio On is potty-mouthed southern funk. Stoner jam Devil’s Lettuce is spoke-sung by Jaren and the lyric namechecks Dazed & Confused and ‘the munchies’. It reminds me of Beck.

The album ends with Sabbath On Cornbread, a piece of braggadocio which also looks at the gentrification of Nashville. ‘Three long-hairs gonna keep on changing the game’ is the takehome point and I think TC3 have earned the right to brag a bit. Well done to Big Machine for putting out something that looks like a very skilled passion project. Tabasco & Sweet Tea is a fully realised album and I look forward to seeing where TC3 go next, even if they may have to wait to come to London. 4/5


Country Jukebox Jury – Nickel Creek and Billy Strings

October 22, 2020

Nickel Creek – Live from the Fox Theatre

Crashing in at number one on the Billboard Bluegrass Album chart, this is Nickel Creek with a show from 2014 at Oakland’s Fox Theatre, their first show ever in the Californian city documented on their first ever live album. It’s available via Bandcamp for $10 or as a double vinyl set. This means I get to talk about the pride of Carlsbad, California, where I’ve been lucky to spend some weeks with family in the last 20 years. Guitarist Sean and fiddler Sara Watkins met gangly mandolin prodigy Chris Thile in the 1990s and as children the trio played folk clubs and festivals while building an original set of songs.

After the success of O Brother Where Art Thou’s folksy bluegrass soundtrack, Nickel Creek slid into the slipstream. I first heard of them in the 2000s when their song When In Rome was played on UK radio; their third album Why Should The Fire Die was produced by a guy who had worked with Good Charlotte, topping the Bluegrass Album chart and made number 17 on the overall album chart in the US.

This Side, produced by my other favourite Bluegrass artist Alison Krauss, included songs written by Stephen Malkmus of Pavement (Spit on a Stranger) and the mighty duo Gordon Kennedy and Wayne Kirkpatrick (Hanging by a Thread), as well as some Chris Thile instrumentals like Smoothie Song and Sean Watkins’ fine tune This Side, which has a majestic middle section.

The band then went off to pursue other projects – The Watkins Family Hour and The Punch Brothers notably, as well as Chris’ mandolin transcriptions of Bach pieces – before reuniting for 2014’s A Dotted Line, which is the album they were promoting at the Fox Theatre. It made the album top 10, topped the folk and bluegrass charts and spawned the magnificent song Destination and the apocalyptic anthem 21st of May. I fondly remember hearing their set from the Newport Folk Festival.

Their live show includes 22 tracks including wedding song Rest of My Life, farewell song Somebody More Like You, eerie Lighthouse’s Tale and, of course, When In Rome, Reasons Why, This Side, the pulsating You Don’t Know What’s Going On and the wonderful arrangement of the trad. arr. banger The Fox. Non-vocal instrumentals Elephant in the Corn, Scotch & Chocolate and Ode to a Butterfly are also present and correct here.

The set ends with a gorgeous cover of a song called Where Is Love Now, which the trio also performed as part of Live From Here, the now extinct show on US public radio which Chris hosted for a few years. Check out the Youtube video to be spellbound.

I like that the band are a sort of supergroup, who all sing, take solos and harmonise. Their original songs are rich in melody and vocal variation. I am a Creek Freak and I hope you will be too. 4/5

Billy Strings – Home

The album which Nickel Creek displaced at number one on the Bluegrass Chart is by a Michigan-born virtuoso who has been critically and commercially successful. Willian Apostol aka Billy Strings introduced himself to UK audiences over Country Music Week with a four-song performance live from the Station Inn in Nashville. Sitting on a high stool, Billy showcased his tremendous ability as a rootsy performer steeped in American music. He reminded me of Charlie Worsham with his charming voice and pickin’ abilities and I would love to hear Billy and Charlie duel with guitars or banjos.

Billy, who was nominated for Emerging Act of the Year at the postponed Americana Music Awards 2020, released his second full-length album Home in September 2019, on which he wrote and produced all 14 tracks. Hours before the release, the International Bluegrass Music Association named him New Artist and Guitar Player of the year, on the strength of his debut album Turmoil & Tinfoil.  It was his third solo release after an EP and an album. He must be irked that the festival season has been wiped out, meaning he wouldn’t play the folk and bluegrass crowds who would love this new slant on a genre as old as the Appalachian hills.

The album opens with an atmospheric thirty seconds before banjo and guitar come in with something that, as always to my ears, sounds like Nickel Creek. Taking Water has all the elements of a bluegrass song: stomping 4/4 beat, fiddle and harmonies on the chorus which has the lyric ‘this ole boy’s taking water’.

Running (‘as fast as I can go…from all the things I know’) is aptly titled, whizzing by a breakneck pace and making me think how much prep goes into making the fingers dextrous enough to play semiquavers on a mandolin. Hollow Heart is another toe-tapper with some double-stopped mandolin solos, and you will be amazed by the solo near the end of Everything’s The Same.

Rather than any genre, Billy Strings sounds like Billy Strings. At the album’s centre are two seven-minute songs which give rise to the label ‘psychedelic bluegrass’. Away From the Mire’s first part is traditionally acoustic, but the instrumental second half includes an electric guitar solo slathered in production, which marry well with the acoustic banjo, mandolin, fiddle and acoustic guitar. I hope rock fans give this track a try. It is followed by the title track, which is a meditation on how ‘home is a heartache’ set to tabla drums and chromatic harmonies.

Long Forgotten Dream puts echo on Billy’s vocal, while Highway Hypnosis gets very Sgt Pepper-era Beatles in the mid-section before recapping with some fine harmonies with Ronnie McCoury, son of the mighty bluegrass legend Del.

Enough To Leave slows the pace and even a simple tune is laden with backing vocal harmonies from the band. This would be an arms-around-shoulders festival moment, and it’s a good way into Billy’s album if the tablas have put you off. Ditto Love Like Me, a bluegrass love song with ringing guitars in dropped tunings, and Guitar Peace, which is pure atmosphere and should be picked up by a movie soundtrack supervisor.

The album ends with Freedom, where male backing vocals accompany Billy’s high tenor. ‘I want the road, I want the crown,’ Billy sings. Critics have given him a crown and it’s up to audiences to remember their love of bluegrass around 2000 to include Billy in their musical diet. 4/5 for Home.


Country Jukebox Jury EPs – Parker McCollum, Matt Stell and Trace Adkins

October 17, 2020

Parker McCollum – Hollywood Gold

Parker McCollum has put out two albums independently but his Hollywood Gold EP is his first project on a major label. It’s produced by Jon Randall, still best known for writing Whiskey Lullaby and for having married two songwriters, Lonnie Morgan and Jessi Alexander.

Parker is doing well at country radio with his debut single Pretty Heart and on Texas radio with Like a Cowboy. What a great two-pronged strategy, following Cody Johnson and indeed Aaron Watson, helping Parker to cross over from Texas to Nashville and make money from two markets. His voice is typically Texan, with soul and grit in equal measure, and I am sold on Pretty Heart with its lyrical and melodic hooks including holding the word heart for five beats which mirror the act of heartbreak Parker has inflicted on a poor lady.

Like A Cowboy is the best track on the EP, a sad piano-driven waltz which Parker sings brilliantly. The lyrics are thoroughly Texan, full of fenceposts and sunsets and ‘God made me this way’. It sounds timeless and a cut above a lot of pop pap that makes money in Nashville. Expect to hear more of this sort of thing as the market turns to very good songs in the next few years (would that it were so simple…).

Aside from the two singles, there are four other tracks which introduce Parker to an audience beyond Texas. It will not surprise you to learn that it sounds like Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen, since that’s where the money is. Since he is Texan, there is plenty of self-reflection, as on the opening track Young Man’s Blues. This takes the Texan ennui and marries it to a huge Nashville chorus. Hallie Ray Light, meanwhile, is equally punchy though the lyric is full of ‘raining’ and ‘leaving’ and ‘rear view’ and ‘goodnight Hallie Ray’. It’ll sound great live, especially with the slide guitar that runs through the song.

Hold Me Back is the weepie ballad where Parker wants someone to prevent him from ‘spinning these wheels’ and sinking to the bottom of a pit of despair. I love the production from Jon Randall, and it runs nicely into the understated Love You Like That. ‘I’ll be trying like hell…but I don’t know if I can love you like that’ once again proves that Texas does it differently from Nashville. However much Parker wants to be faithful and true, his inner nature means it’ll make it tough.

4/5 for a set of songs which do not let the listener down. Let’s have the album soon.

Matt Stell – Better Than That

Matt Stell had a big hit called Prayed For You, the latest song to bring God back into God-honest country. He kept his faith in that old King James Bible, as the chorus goes, using the familiar four-chord progression IV-I-VI-V and had a number one hit. I am sure he has many pious fans in the American south.

Rather than release an album Matt has put out an eight-track EP which includes his number one smash and opens with his recent single Everywhere But On, which is a gorgeous tune about trying to shake off an ex from his mind. Both songs, by the way, were on his 2019 collection Everywhere But On.

We have also heard the more secular and punchy If I Was a Bar: ‘I’d have a little buzz in my neon light’ and there would be a cover band too, plus he ‘wouldn’t be falling this apart’. Better Than That is actually set in a bar. I like the groove of both songs, sung well in Matt’s tenor. 

I Love You Too is a middle of the dirt road song which sees Matt feel sorry for a girl who wants to hear ‘I love you’ more than when she demands it. Matt is going for the Brett Young market, the sensitive and handsome soul with a smooth voice. Sadie is another song about a lonely girl who has been ‘hurt lately’ but Matt, the sensitive guy, is there for her. The best part of the song is the hook ‘s-s-s-Sadie!!’

Chase It Down encourages her to leave her momma’s house and get going on the open road with Matt. The production is aggressively middle of the dirt road, suiting the subject matter and it’ll appeal to 20somethings looking to chase freedom down. The EP closes with a wedding song – can a bloke be a country newcomer without a wedding song?! – called Look At Me Now. It’s basically I Don’t Dance by Lee Brice crossed with In Case You Didn’t Know by Brett Young, so if you like the sound of that, flock to sensitive soul Matt Stell. 3/5

Trace Adkins – Ain’t That Kind of Cowboy

Trace Adkins has been in country music for 25 years, helping his fellow TV star Blake Shelton have hits, but he is best known culturally for winning the All Star Celebrity Apprentice (I forget who crowned him but he was last seen campaigning for a second term as President). Trace’s memoir offered opinions ‘from a free-thinking roughneck’ who survived being shot by his ex-wife before he became a country star, where being a redneck sold records in the era of Garth.

I still love the smooth Better Off, written by two of the Love Junkies and produced by Jon Pardi’s chum Bart Butler. Trace has his Mind on Fishin’ while sitting in church listening to the preacher, which is about as country as you can get in a sentence. Just The Way We Do It is a two-chord, rifftastic old-fashioned song which has the same preacher eating pie at a Sunday gathering. One guest, Jenny, is having a lot of fun letting her hair down. ‘Ain’t nobody getting hurt!’ Trace assures the listener.

Ain’t That Kind of Cowboy has Trace differentiating himself from John Wayne’s portrait of frontiersmen. The Brothers Osborne have given Trace the song Big which is smart given that TJ and Trace have very similar voices. I chuckled when he sang ‘all this abbreviation is a bunch of BS’ and Dolly Parton’s…’WIG!’, while he also laments the passing of phone cords and how you can’t have sex in small cars.

The EP’s best line is on the piano ballad Running Into You: ‘I can’t walk down memory lane without running into you’. It’s the sort of song Blake Shelton can turn into a number one but doesn’t fit with Blake’s new happy-with-Gwen persona. The writer James T Slater also wrote Guys Named Captain which Kenny Chesney put on his album this year; more people should know James.

I like this EP a lot and will investigate Trace’s catalogue. 5/5 for Ain’t That Kind of Cowboy, which I hope is part of a full album.


Country Jukebox Jury – Ashley Campbell and Shannon Hynes

October 17, 2020

Ashley Campbell – Something Lovely

Something Lovely is the follow-up to the album Remembering. Missing from that album was the track of the same name, which finds a home in an acoustic form on this album. Ashley’s dad Glen passed away from Alzheimer’s and in the song she sings: ‘Daddy don’t you worry, I’ll do the remembering.’ Bring tissues. 

She pays homage to dad with a cover of Good Vibrations – I expect she asked for Brian Wilson’s blessing – on which Glen played as a member of the Wrecking Crew studio and live band.

The opening track Good to Let Go, written by brother Shannon, uses some spiky guitar, rolling drums and an upwardly mobile melody to accompany Ashley’s voyage outta here with ‘your picture in the wind’. Yet on Diggin’ Deep (which has a terrific key change), she sings of ‘the hole you left behind’ and on Moonlight she ‘can’t sleep you off of my mind’.

Throughout the album, the string arrangements and acoustics are glorious, particularly on Moonlight and Suitcase Heart, where she sings in a majestic chorus of being ‘always gone before it even starts’.

Like her fellow regal daughter Rosanne Cash, Ashley knows her country music. Forever’s Not That Long could have come out in 1961 thanks to its rich fiddles, pedal steel and Steinway piano, while her instrumental Moustache Man could have emerged in the 1920s as it’s her and her godfather Carl Jackson pickin’ on banjos. If I Wasn’t sounds like The Beautiful South going noir, with Ashley’s voice floating on top of a delicious arrangement.

There’s a great pair of tracks, one on each side of the album. On the elegant title track, Ashley is a single woman in a bar asking a ‘lonely guy’ for mutual companionship set to some mellifluous nylon-stringed acoustic guitar. It is stunning and is worth the price of admission. By contrast, Walk On By has her ignoring the catcalls with a ukulele and steel guitar thrumming away as she sings ‘nothing to see here’. The rhyme of ‘victim/ symptoms’ is inspired.

Alice, meanwhile, sees her picking up the banjo again and finding her ‘Wonderland’ and not wanting ‘this dream to end’. Aww. 4/5 for a fine album which is as lovely as the title suggests.

Shannon Hynes – Country Words EP

With a similar high alto voice and tone, Shannon do a good job with many songs on Something Lovely.

From Welsh Wales, she is a regular at events for UK country fans so has plenty of friends and contacts. She has been played on Country Hits Radio by Matt Spracklen, who DJs or MCs at these events, and has been steadily building her recorded output since she released I’m Not Pretty in 2018.

Shannon has collected her singles on the Country Words EP which is only available in physical form at ShannonHynes.com, priced £7. I’ve always liked I’m Not Pretty, especially the mention of how ‘blusher keeps the cheeks pink’, while Country Words impressed me from the first time I heard it when Shannon and I were writing and jamming together.

The variety of the seven tracks are impressive. Comfort uses some pedal steel to underscore that mood. Off Guard is a shiny pop song and Someone To Drink With is a sombre tune about wanting to ‘drown the silence out’. Shannon has included the unplugged version of Mother on the EP, on which she plays piano and sings of how important maternal love is to a daughter and vice versa. There is an additional track, Fear Blinds Me, a plea to a loved one.

4/5 for the EP, which shows immense potential and also the depth of talent in the UK’s country movement.


Country Jukebox Jury – Ward Thomas and Ferris & Sylvester

October 9, 2020

Ward Thomas – Invitation

It took me a while to appreciate Ward Thomas’ third album Restless Minds, which was all about social media anxiety and being young, but once I did I learned what excellent songwriters the twins are. In advance of Invitation’s release Ward Thomas fans heard Meant To Be Me, a reminiscin’ song with fingersnaps and past relationships; chirpy Hold Space, which picks up on themes from the third album and sounds like some tracks off the Taylor Swift album Lover; and Painted Legacy, one of those break-up ballads that Ward Thomas do so well.

Don’t Be A Stranger has contemporary production, handclaps on the offbeat and a sweet melody in a minor key. A similar mood is struck on My Favourite Poison, which the girls worked on with Ed Harcourt, a supremely underrated songwriter. The swoop of the arrangement, with piano and orchestra, is the winning ingredient here.

Someday, a waltz about the fear of commitment with some fine chords, has been getting some radio airplay on Chris Country and Radio 2, the latter station slapping it on the B List. It will be on their Greatest Hits whenever it emerges. Talking of Radio 2, Ward Thomas played a session for Bob Harris’ Country Show. They played a stunning acoustic version of Sweet Time, which opens the album mellifluously and in a well-produced manner.

Open Your Mind’s opening line is ‘closed like a coffee shop no one likes’ and continues to list doors, theme parks and worlds which are closed before the girls invite the audience to open their mind to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. It’s very middle of the dirt road and charming, with a great chorus and a proper middle eight. Little Mix would do a good job with this too. Wait Up gallops along with purpose, as the girls ask the guy to hold off from sleeping. The banjo loops in the background give it a country flavour.

Dear Me is a You Go Girl a cappella song in the form of a letter, set to some sweet oohs and aahs with a suitably hortatory lyric. ‘You don’t need to carry this alone,’ the girls sing. If There Were Words is another pretty love song which recalls their song This Too Will Pass. It’s a song about dealing with grief that will comfort many listeners, especially in this pandemic era.

They were due to play acoustic shows in the spring; when I saw them in Blackpool last autumn they shone when their voices took centre stage. As with album three, my complaint here is that sometimes the production gets in the way of the voices, but the production will ensure they are played on Radio 2 and drive listeners to their albums. I still think the twins are ‘Radio 2 pop’, which Americans call Adult Contemporary, rather than country.

If you need to know where the twins’ market is, look at the last three tracks: a duet with James Blunt called Halfway, which was rotated on Radio 2; a live version of Human by The Killers with their tourmate Jack Savoretti, himself a darling of Radio 2; and a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide, which became a country music standard through the Dixie Chicks’ version.

UK country music, at the elite level where The Shires dwell, is pop music with a bit of emotion and plays-on-words. In the US, Kelsea Ballerini, Carrie Underwood and Maren Morris are doing the same thing, and you can see why Ward Thomas are being sold as country in the way James Blunt and Jack Savoretti can’t be. I think it’s their most fully realised album and you can tell they are in control of their career. I think this’ll crash in at 1 or 2; if it’s 1, it’ll be well deserved. 4/5 for Invitation. I accept!

Ferris & Sylvester – I Should Be On A Train EP

Bob Harris likes Ferris & Sylvester so much that he named them his Emerging Artist at the 2020 UK Americana Music Awards. I caught the duo live in Norwich 18 months ago and chatted to them about future writing plans. They have followed up their Made In Streatham EP from 2018 – some of whose tracks have over a million Spotify streams – with a five-track EP titled after recent single I Should Be On a Train.

I heard that song, which mixes rock, blues and roots, on their session for Ricky Ross’ Another Country show on BBC Scotland. Ricky is a fan too, as is Baylen Leonard from Country Hits Radio. As well as talking about their time as a regular performing act at Camden Town’s Spiritual Bar (Jade Bird is a good friend), the pair played Knock You Down, the poppiest track on an EP which includes a lockdown cover the pair did of Joe Cocker’s version of With A Little Help from my Friends.

Everyone Is Home sets lockdown blues to an egg shaker and some mellow organ chords. Birds chirp to accompany the pair on the outro which quotes the Queen (via Vera Lynn) telling us ‘we’ll meet again’. Good Man is menacing, weird and demands repeated listens to lock into the rhythm and mood of the song, which is full of chromatic progressions and bolshy riffs. There are even a few bars of sitar. It’s about the lessons imparted to kids but the sound overwhelms the lyrics.

Ferris & Sylvester have received funding from PRS for Music to travel to Austin, Texas for South by South West and I think this decade will see millions more falling for two talented musicians with a grasp on several styles of music. A full album beckons and, with any luck, it’ll be in association with a major label who can promote their talent. 5/5


Country Jukebox Jury LPs – Brothers Osborne and Brent Cobb

October 9, 2020

Brothers Osborne – Skeletons

Jon Caramanica of the New York Times has coined the term ‘power country’ to refer to beefy rockin’ country music. Brothers Osborne, John and TJ, are just behind Luke Combs in the power country peloton. The pair have spent 2020 trailing Skeletons while being unable to play live. With a vaccine and some luck, they will win thousand more fans over 2021, especially thanks to the new album.

The album’s co-writers also include the crack pair of Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, who sprinkle some magic onto opening track Lighten Up, which is soaked in reverb and has TJ sing of guitars cranked up, drinks and lighters in the air. Casey Beathard writes Hatin Somebody and Side B opener High Note, which sounds like a radio single thanks to the production and a lyric which emphasises leaving a relationship on good terms.

That segues into a guitar boogie composed by John Osborne called Muskrat Greene and it would be remiss of me and every other reviewer not to note the passing of Eddie Van Halen this week, though John is far too humble to accept comparisons to the greatest guitar player of his era. This in turn segues into Dead Man’s Curve, which takes 99% of its inspiration from Charlie Daniels Band and the other 1% from Ace of Spades and rollicks along at some speed. I can’t wait to hear this one live.  

I suppose I don’t need to tell you how the production brings out the songs, courtesy of the almighty Jay Joyce who seems to be a third member of the band by now. All Night is the correct choice of single: punchy, full of harmonies and lyrics like ‘I got the back if you got the beat’. Skeletons (‘I’ve got bones to pick with them’) is also a lot of fun, while other pre-released songs Hatin Somebody and I’m Not For Everybody make the personal political, which I think is the USP of Brothers Osborne.

The pair come from Maryland and after a decade of patience are emerging as one of country music’s top acts. Their parents must be overjoyed, and the tribute is returned thanks to John’s solo write. Old Man’s Boots is an ode to papa Osborne whose boots ‘weren’t built for speed or comfort but you can bet they were building something’. Musicians are working men too, learning their craft and the art of performance. No wonder Britain has taken John and TJ to heart, helped by John marrying Lucie Silvas, a singer who was based in Britain before decamping to Nashville.

The smart All The Good Ones Are is written by TJ with Craig Wiseman and Lee Thomas Miller, who are both experts in humour and character. The song is anchored by the phrase ‘not every…but all the good ones are!’ and the chorus is an elegy to a lady punctuated by trademark huge guitars.

The great Hayes Carll writes the third of the band’s drinking songs trilogy: we’ve had Rum and Tequila Again and now TJ is Back on the Bottle, where drinking is a substitute for loving and is a good way to close the first side. I like the tempo shift in the chorus. After While You Still Can on their second album, here we’ve the tremendous Make It A Good One (‘give all your heart to someone, leave nothing unsaid or undone’) as the brothers tell the listener how to live a country way of life.

This is country music for fans of classic rock. 5/5 and their best album so far.

Brent Cobb – Keep Em On They Toes

On the Thursday of Country Music Week, 22 October, there is a Destination Country live event with Brent Cobb. He’s a songwriting supremo in Nashville who has written songs for Miranda Lambert, Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney and Little Big Town. His first album on Elektra came out in 2016, with the second following in 2018. Well done to producer Brad Cook who has spent 20 years working wonders with the likes of Bon Iver, Waxahatchee and the War on Drugs and has a website with the excellent domain name BradleyTime.com. All ten tracks are glorious in sound and Brent is mic’ed very well indeed. It’s so clear and I can hear every syllable.

If the credits are correct, then the lovely Good Times and Good Love was co-written with Luke Bryan. Brent turns it into a piano-and-fiddle tune of which Willie Nelson would be proud. It has that classic, homely feel of a Laurel Canyon masterpiece from 1969, with a winding melody that matches the sentiment. I think Brent has swallowed the discography of The Band, as it’s very rootsy and American.

This Side of the River mentions mud, overflowing streams, catfish and how you gotta ‘watch your step cos the current is swift’; Brent shows his fine songwriting skills by running with an idea and putting a decent song to the lyric. The World Is Ending, given its title, is suitably portentous with lots of minor chords and menace. Shut Up and Sing talks of ‘poison in our rhetoric and bullets in our schools’ while the music is aurally pleasant with some Scotty Moore slapback guitar. Dust Under My Rug has a fiendish solo and a rockabilly feel.

I really can’t place this album in an era – it takes every classic songwriter and blends them all together. Soapbox is definitely a modern take on Harry Nilsson, as Brent uses his record to put his voice on vinyl: ‘You might wear out my nerves but you ain’t changing my mind,’ Brent sings.

You’ll have a different favourite track when you listen to this, released via Thirty Tigers, one of the great indie labels of today. This is a delightful record by a craftsman who has done his homework and has delivered the equivalent of a Master’s thesis in song. 5/5.


Country Jukebox Jury LPs – Granger Smith and Justin Moore

September 25, 2020

Granger Smith – Country Things Vol 1

This is the first part of his tenth LP and the first project since the death of his son at the start of 2019. As with several other acts such as Chase Rice and Maddie and Tae, we’re getting an album in instalments.

There are eight tracks on part one. Set opener Country Things checks off fireflies, polite phrases and the act of dying and going up to heaven. That’s Why I Love Dirt Roads is a catchy hymn to rural life with rivers and painted skies. There are many ways to get by on dirt roads such as Chevys and Hemis and Yotas and Fords: this is music to listen to while cruising around on your truck and it definitely sounds like it, with crunchy guitars and processed drums. Granger’s friend (and comic alter ego) Earl Dibbles Jr is relegated to rapping on the final track Country & Ya Know It, which made me laugh out loud: instead of clapping your hands, the listener raises his beer if he really wants to show it. Tyler Hubbard from Florida Georgia Line is one of five writers on this fun ditty.

Being a Texan, Granger is aware of the proximity to Mexico, where he has never been but ‘laying with you is so damn close’. We’ve got tequila, sunlight and ‘places I’ve never been’. It’s a love song in the way that Hate You Like I Love You is a break-up song by numbers. I Kill Spiders, meanwhile, is in praise of Granger’s role as a dad guiding the way and getting rid of arachnids and Heroes is one of those ‘here’s to the unsung heroes’ songs that every artist will release in the next few years. Eight varied songs which are all sung and produced well that put me right in Texas in country country. 4/5

Justin Moore – Live At The Ryman

Did you know a live album isn’t really live? A lot of parts are re-recorded in a studio. I don’t know if anyone will remember Justin Moore when the dust settles but he can certainly sing songs pleasantly. He is the latest star to release a Live at the Ryman album, after Brothers Osborne. It’s one way of putting together a lot of hits and perhaps sell tickets to a live show in future (hmm). I’ve never fallen in love with Justin but I like the songs he is given to sing in his rich and wonderful voice.

My own favourite is set closer Point At You, from his third album Off The Beaten Path. By his fourth album Kinda Don’t Care he was a singer rather than a songwriter, gifted smash hits like the pairing early in his set: You Look Like I Need A Drink and Somebody Else Will were both big radio smashes thanks to Big Machine putting money marketing a guy with a fine voice and a cowboy hat. He is their ‘country guy’, their Aldean or Luke Bryan.

Happily his recent Late Nights and Longnecks album from last year reverses the trend and gives him writing credits on every track. Because the show was recorded in 2018 no tracks from this album feature, which gives it the air of a contract filler. The crowd gets to sing some of the choruses to give a simulacrum of a live show but they sound muted otherwise.

Then there are the covers and cameos. Chris Janson shouts his way through Country State of Mind, which proves that Justin has listened to Hank Williams II, who is given a namecheck on both the Aldeanish set opener Hank It and wistful driving ballad Flyin Down a Back Road, whose chorus includes drinking, fishing and hayfields. David Lee Murphy helps out on a cover of Waylon Jennings’ I Ain’t Living Long Like This and Nashville legend Ricky Skaggs lets Justin join him (or perhaps was invited to give Justin’s set some kudos) on his own Honey Open That Door.

There is no doubt that Justin is definitely country, judging by his setlist. I Could Kick Your Ass, Hank It, Backwoods and Small Town USA all came from Justin’s debut LP of 2009, while Flyin’ Down a Back Road, Bait A Hook – which ticks off Merle Haggard, Jack Daniels and trucks – and soppy ballad If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away are found on his second album Outlaws Like Me. He’s not an outlaw, he’s a guy who makes money for Big Machine because Taylor Swift couldn’t reach that demographic.

On two occasions he shouts out to country radio, which allows him to play the Ryman by playing his tunes. Business. 3/5


Country Jukebox Jury LPs – Luke Laird and Tyler Childers

September 25, 2020

Luke Laird – Music Row

Luke Laird has an enviable CV of writing, production and publishing. As well as being sober, a father, husband and Christian, the chap who grew up on Laird Road in Pennsylvania is one of the most respected writers in Music City. Check out his achievements: Last Name, Undo It, Temporary Home and So Small for Carrie Underwood, Hillbilly Bone and Gonna for Blake Shelton, Take a Back Road for Rodney Atkins, Pontoon with Little Big Town, 1994 for Jason Aldean, I See You and Fast for Luke Bryan, One of These Nights and Diamond Rings & Old Barstools for Tim McGraw, Radio for Darius Rucker, American Kids for Kenny Chesney, Head Over Boots for Jon Pardi, Hide The Wine for Carly Pearce, the terrific Suitcase by Steve Moakler, Talladega and others for Eric Church and assorted songs for Miranda Lambert, Old Dominion, Devin Dawson, Cam, Tenille Townes, Hunter Hayes, Brett Eldredge, Lee Brice and Florida Georgia Line. His closest collaborator has been Kacey Musgraves, with whom she has co-written six tracks on her first two albums.

That’s who Luke Laird is. He also hosts a show on Apple Music Country and launched his record Music Row at an empty Bluebird Café last week. The album is bookended by songs about songwriting, my favourite genre. Music Row namechecks Tony Arata and is in the tradition of 16th Avenue, the bleak song from the 70s about writing, while Country Music Will Never Die goes through Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle and Dolly and ‘the ones who knew the way…and put it all in a song so we had a way of dealing with life’. These include the man who coined the phrase ‘three chords and the truth’, Harlan Howard, a hero to songwriters like Luke. The chord pattern is gorgeous here, as is the line ‘prom night regret’ to rhyme with cigarette.

That one is, like the eight others, a Laird solo composition. The album is Luke’s attempt to put his life in a set of songs, so to that end we have tunes about his beloved wife Beth (Hanging Out), his beloved kids (Jake and Mack, with uncredited vocals from the kids themselves) and his good friends (Good Friends). We also have songs about his sobriety (That’s Why I Don’t Drink Any More, with a spoken word intro which sounds like a confession) and why he is who he is (the terrific and melodic Why I Am Who I Am, which is driven by a Laird Loop).

Equally excellent is a tribute to his late friend Corey, Leaves On The Ground which begins the second side of the album. One More Divorce, which Luke says was recorded by his friend Kacey Musgraves, is about small-town life and is sung at the bottom of Luke’s range with double-tracked vocals (a trick also employed elsewhere on the album). Branch on the Tree was written with Lori McKenna and Barry Dean, who are the kind of company Luke keeps in the writers rooms of Nashville. I love the line about living ‘on a rock that ain’t rolling around’ and the song itself is a page from a gratitude journal. I am thankful for Luke Laird and Music Row. 4/5

Tyler Childers – Long Violent History

This album came out to no fanfare except for a six-minute video in which Tyler talked about how he has a platform to talk about social issues, especially to his ‘white rural listeners’. I hope some of his more bigoted fans listen to his appeal to be aware of problems of black people. Proceeds from this album of instrumentals go to his own relief fund, Hickman Holler. ‘Love each other, no exceptions’ was his sign-off.

The album itself is released on Tyler’s indie label of the same name, with a push from Sony RCA. This is the same arrangement as many acts including Jack White and Cody Johnson; for Tyler, this album follows last year’s well received Country Squire album, which was up for Album of the Year at the Americana Music Awards.

Long Violent History opens with a waltz version of the great Stephen Sondheim number Send In The Clowns set to twin fiddles, one of which is played by Tyler himself, and banjo by John Haywood. There follow seven instrumentals, many in the public domain and thus out of copyright, which incorporate jauntiness (Squirrel Hunter and the effervescent Camp Chase) and mournfulness (Zollie’s Retreat and the beautiful melody of Midnight on the Water).

Whenever I talk about folky bluegrass mountain music I just say it sounds like Nickel Creek but this is music that sounds like and is as old as the hills, brought to the States by Scots and Irishmen who entertained themselves with fiddles and guitars and tunes to get them through the long afternoons on the porch. It is appropriate that the lurching, lumbering Sludge River Stomp sounds just like that, evoking Appalachia.

Tyler is from Kentucky and, like Chris Stapleton, is steeped in country music. He has previously said that Americana is a bogus genre and, though only 29, he has cultivated an enormous audience who respond to his deeply American music. Folk music sometimes gets pigeonholed as a museum piece but there are so many musicians keeping it alive. If you heard this played live, unamplified, you would be knocked over by the expertise; on record it’s no less stunning.

The final track is Long Violent History itself, where we hear Tyler’s voice emerge from a gorgeous fiddle-and-banjo intro. ‘It’s the worst thing it’s been…updated footage…hearsay and absolute lies!’ Tyler spits in the opening stanza. It goes on to become a Steve Earle-type State of the Union address which ends with the line ‘tucking our tails as we try to abide’. Worth a listen, and if it’s too folky for you, just go for two or three of the instrumentals and the title track. All proceeds to charity. 4/5


Country Jukebox Jury – Tyler Rich and Mickey Guyton

September 18, 2020

Tyler Rich – Two Thousand Miles

Tyler Rich has been building his fanbase steadily. The Difference is his best-known song, a gift to him from Devin Dawson, Devin’s twin Jacob and Rhett Akins.

He has co-written eight of the tracks on his debut album Two Thousand Miles, enlisting some fine writers who have given him some tips. On album highlight Leave Her Wild it’s the superstar pairing of Chris DeStefano and Jon Nite; Lindsay Rimes was in the room for Still Love You (‘When I don’t even like you’), while Lindsay worked with Nite and the late Andrew Dorff on the minor hit 11:11. Brad Tursi of Old Dominion helped Tyler and Lindsay on Rather Be Us.

There are some excellent lines: ‘You’d kill to be the train she wrecks’ on Leave Her Wild, a song about not taming a crazy lady or ‘dull the shine’; if you don’t like the idea of hearing someone sing about a ‘hottie riding shottie’, this isn’t for you. Like Hardy or, more pertinently, Morgan Evans or Chris Lane or Russell Dickerson or Dustin Lynch, the music is aimed at the 18-35 demographic who watch The Bachelor and post pictures on Instagram. The production on the album, especially on The Difference and Real Love, has a hazy sheen on it. The first line of Rather Be Us has Tyler looking at a couple on Instagram. So there.

Adrenaline opens with Tyler downcast, ‘throwin rocks at the Starbucks where she and I met’ but by the chorus is able to kiss lips ‘stronger than medicine’. Tyler wants his new angel to ‘run through my veins’ like adrenaline. It sounds a lot, A LOT like Get Me Some of That by Thomas Rhett. Opening track Feel Like Home namechecks 90s country star David Lee Murphy over some enormous guitars in 12/8 time. A lot of the tracks are driven by the production, much like his Big Machine mate Thomas Rhett. There is a little bit of a Keith Urban twang in his voice (especially on an acoustic version of 11:11 I heard).

It’s a corporate country album and I don’t think Tyler minds about it. Instagram couples need something to dance to and I don’t begrudge Big Machine a need to get profits through selling this music to them. Thomas Rhett does it better and more country, but at least the songs on Two Thousand Miles are palatable, in the way that salad is palatable. I admit I left some of the salad on the plate, ie I skipped a few songs at the second chorus mark.

Take It or Leave It gives the girl an ultimatum: ‘If you want that high we’ll light it/ If you want that slow we’ll ride it’.  I can take or leave this album, which is 3/5 because there is no point criticising it for being marketed at a young audience rather than being full of Ring of Fire. The cover of Billie Jean, should you be interested, is fine but Keith Urban does this sort of thing better. I’ll talk about Keith’s album in two weeks’ time but next week it’ll be the UK Country Top 40!

Mickey Guyton – Bridges EP

At the 2020 Country Radio Seminar Mickey Guyton received a huge ovation for singing a song called What Are You Gonna Tell Her, which is a good indication of which acts will do well this year. She also performed it at the ACMs, which was televised to the public. The song is found on her EP Bridges which positions her as the ‘see, we DO give black women a chance’ artist of 2020. I’m afraid Nashville has sat on their hands about Mickey for too long.

Yet to release an album, Mickey is in her mid-thirties and is yet to break through to mass consciousness in the same way that, I dunno, non-black acts have done. (Gabby Barrett, by the way is still at number one on Airplay with I Hope, and she is half Mickey’s age. Gabby got her start on TV.)

Mickey is expecting her first child early next year which will irritatingly play havoc with the promotion schedules for her next project but she is a keen Instagrammer, where she has 58,000 followers. To that child she will sing the likes of Black Like Me, Heaven Down Here and What Are You Gonna Tell Her, which she debuted in public at the Ryman and also sang at the ACM Awards, with Keith Urban on piano.

‘She thinks life is fair’ draws you in, ‘skin’s just skin’ makes it clear that race in an issue, then the next line is about sexual abuse. The chorus, which Mickey sang with a quavering voice on the verge of tears in the emotional performance, underlines the helplessness of a parent in the face of a world that will ‘let her down’. Informed by Mickey’s struggles in her job, this is surely her career song.

Following Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen, Mickey is the latest star to address race in her music. Black Like Me was a song she was scared to put out but I am glad she did. Over piano accompaniment, and with my favourite chord (a diminished fifth) in the middle eight, Mickey remembers how she ‘did her best to fit in’ when she was a kid in the playground. As an adult it’s the same nonsense, making a mockery of the slogan Land of the Free. ‘It shouldn’t be twice as hard’ for a black person to live their life.

Kudos to her label for putting a political song out into a country landscape which, as I will keep saying, must change or die. Yes we can have Thomases and Lukes, and Kane Brown is in the top three with Cool Again. Indeed, as I mentioned at the top of the show, Wendy Moten is playing the Opry this weekend and she is black.

Heaven Down Here is a plea to God, a character who has all but disappeared from country radio. In a year with thousands of deaths from a pandemic, this is a timely song which will resonate, even if it’s a little vague and general rather than specific. The EP’s title track, which adds a click track to a groovy piano riff and an electrifying chorus, talks about the ‘great divide’ where people are ‘on their knees holding Bibles’. Why can’t we all just get along, Mickey asks, 30 years after Michael Jackson wanted to heal the world. Stop making peace happen.

The EP also includes the charming Rose, where instead of moonshine, sangria, tequila and strawberry wine, Mickey chooses to sing about Rose-e-e-e-e. It’s catchy and perfect for TikTok should anyone be interested. Salt, meanwhile, is another song for the compilation Now That’s What I Call Ladykiller: ‘You think you’re getting sugar but you’re getting salt’. I like the line about being as fake as her extensions. It’s a fun pop song which feels a lot like a lost Carrie Underwood classic. We know why Carrie has sold so many records and Mickey hasn’t. Clue: use your eyes, not your ears.

Notable in this project is that four tracks were produced by Karen Kosowski, who is also from Canada! 5/5 with very little to criticise.


Country Jukebox Jury – Riley Green and Keith Urban

September 18, 2020

Riley Green – If It Wasn’t For Trucks

Riley Green is another country star who looks pretty, with Big Machine’s money behind him. He previewed some songs from his new EP on the Opry stage the day after it came out. He may have been a little intimidated by the space but he’s a very contemporary singer: trucker hat, denim jacket over a white vest, gentle strumming of a guitar.

We have so many of these that it’s hard to distinguish between them but I loved Riley’s debut hit There Was This Girl. I’m less keen on his smash I Wish Grandpas Never Died and so I went into his follow-up album with intrigue. Who is Riley Green and why should I subscribe to his world view so that Big Machine can earn some money to funnel into his career?

If It Wasn’t For Trucks is a five-track EP and we know where we are by the titles alone. I love the punchy Jesus and Wranglers, co-written with Randy Montana who helped Luke Combs have a smash with Beer Never Broke My Heart. I think the riff that runs through the song is terrific. The people behind Riley’s career have definitely looked at Luke Combs and Jon Pardi and sought to create a similar product. Riley is some way behind them both, but well done for trying.

If I Didn’t Wear Boots and If It Wasn’t For Trucks are essentially the same song: ‘I am only with you because I grew up in the country and have experience with farming and small towns.’ It’s a bit silly to put two identical songs on a product, even though they have both have suitably country instrumentation rather than processed beats.

Better Than Me is better. It includes Randy Owen from Alabama, in which Riley sings how ‘the good Lord’ knows where his life is heading. I like the line about the grass looking like Augusta, the pro golf course. Riley himself is from Alabama so this is a lovely collaboration full of heart and a lovely fiddle solo.

Behind The Times is basically Waiting on a Woman by Brad Paisley or People Are Crazy by Billy Currington, as Riley is the youngster being spoken to by a chap with the wisdom of an old timer. The man sits reading a paper and wants ‘another Reagan’. The chap tells Riley to ‘trust the Lord, buy a Ford’ and find a girl to love, just like he did. It’s sentimental and gooey and very country, and it’s good product. Three out of the five tracks are ace, which is why this EP gets 3/5.

Keith Urban – The Speed of Now Pt 1

The Sunday Times reviewer loved the country vibes of We Were and God Whispered Your Name, less so everything else. I agree with this professional opinion.

We heard much of the album before it came out: Polaroid and Superman were both heard on Radio 2 where Keith presented four hour-long Playlist shows where he showed off his love of all kinds of music, including country, rock and r’n’b. He also popped up on Radio 2 on the day of release, in his role as mum’s favourite country star. His brand is Keith Urban: experienced musician who can play good guitar solos and write fine country songs, but who has excelled as what Bo Burnham calls a Stadium Country star.

Keith Urban is not country. He’s Keith Urban. You know how Prince is Prince and Stevie Wonder is Stevie Wonder? Columbia music bet the house on making Keith Urban a star, and a star he duly became. Keith has given up on genre, having started out in the 2000s as ‘that country guy from Australia’ and the 2010s being ‘Mr Nicole Kidman’. In 2020, in his fifties, he has a huge fanbase of fans of what the late Tom Petty called ‘bad rock with a fiddle’. As shown on his patchy last two projects – Ripcord and Graffiti U – the Keith Urban brand is a bit pop, a bit rock, a bit dance and a lot of stadium-sized anthems. It means he can afford more guitars and more school fees for the kids.

Credits on those last two albums include Nile Rodgers, Pitbull, Ed Sheeran, Shy Carter, Jeff Bhasker, Benny Blanco, One Direction co-pilot Jamie Scott, JR Rotem (producer of Jason Derulo’s best stuff), MoZella (who wrote Wrecking Ball), Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels. And yet he remains country enough not to be called a pop star, working with the A List writers in Nashville where he has his own studio.

The Speed of Now opens with a hiphop beat and a funky bit of banjo-guitar. Out The Cage may make people spit out the CD but we know what Keith Urban does by now. It’s pop music with Nashville approval; here, Breland adds to his growing reputation and Nile Rodgers pops up with his patented guitar line. I had to listen to it twice to catch all the nuances (‘white men’?? No, ‘wild animals’!) but this will be an astonishing set opener if he dares open with it. The chorus is syncopated as hell and Keith really wants to be let out of the cage.

Soul Food, which I reckon kicks off the album’s second side, is another song co-written with Breland and it harks back to the Keith Urban of the 2000s. It’s got a lovely melody and gentle production, as well as mentioning ‘Friday night’, ‘little slice of paradise’ and how ‘nothin sparks my appetite’. It’s very light and fluffy and it perked me up after a quite awful first side, where songs are pleasant but unmemorable.

One Too Many, a dull song with a fun chorus featuring Pink, was previewed at the ACMs. I have no idea why Keith is drinking in the bar and wants his designated girl to pick him up. Live With is wretched while Superman (track four) is all production and is ‘country’ because Keith is Johnny in the Ring of Fire.

Say Something – with the lines ‘intimacy’s so hard for me’ and the awful ‘I wanna live my truths wide open’ – rhymes mama with karma and there’s another processed beat with those annoying digital hi-hats and some fun harmonies on the chorus but it’s all very blah, showing off vocal and production rather than song. Who wants a fiftysomething father-of-two wanting to sound like a cool, hip star? Answer: Keith’s fans. I won’t begrudge them.

There are rock songs here, like the Cadillac Three gift Tumbleweed, which is all action and no talk. Forever, also written by Jaren from TC3 along with songwriter Brent Cobb, is a rootsy track set over a looped beat that reminisces about tattoos, cigarettes, sunshine, cars and ‘this Podunk town’. The production is a bit muddy, as you would expect when you put Keith Urban guitar solos over a processed beat. The message is to remember the days when life was easy and free…and that Keith is country music’s guitar hero.

There are ballads here, as there always are. Change Your Mind sees Keith in Brooklyn wanting to speak to the girl who dumped him. Better Than I Am is a plea to ‘fall at your feet and let you in to where you can so damage me’. Keith likes to be Vulnerable Man, even if it’s ‘more a truce, less a surrender’. Interestingly Keith wrote this with Eg White, still best known to me as the writer of Leave Right Now for Will Young, a wonderful pop song that Keith should cover, as well as You Give Me Something for James Morrison and Chasing Pavements for Adele. This one, even with some OTT production, ranks up there too, with a proper middle eight.

Ain’t It Like A Woman sounds a lot like a John Mayer song and it’s another song from Now That’s What I Call I Love Nicole Kidman: Keith’s woman has stopped a ‘runaway train’, taken the reins and tamed ‘a wild horse’ with ‘her strong and her sexy’. I like the line in the chorus about how she has her hands on the wheel at ‘ten and two when I would’ve wrecked me’. Grady Smith, my favourite country commentator, won’t like the vagueness of how ‘she do the thing oh so well’. It’s just a very blah song and he’s done this before.

With You does the same thing: ‘If I was more like water I’d surround you like the tide’ is a good lyric but it is wrapped in tedious production that makes it scream ALBUM FILLER. Far, far better, in spite of its unnecessarily long outro, is God Whispered Your Name, which is a fine showcase of Keith’s vocal skills. It is one of many tracks given to Keith, whose pitch sheet for The Speed Of Now must have detailed specific requirements for songs which will fill out an album, like With You and Live With.

I don’t know why we need both the Eric Church duet and the solo versions of We Were but I think it’s because this is an album to be cherrypicked and made into playlists. There is no narrative cohesion to this album, which ticks off the elements of a Keith Urban release and will provide him with some tunes to stick into his hit-packed set. None of these songs, except perhaps We Were, Better Than I Am and God Whispered Your Name, will be played in 2030, when Keith will be over 60 but still out on the road because that’s what he does. He’s better on stage than on record, but at least he enjoys his job.

2/5 for The Speed of Now, Part 1, but it’ll be a 4/5 if it lost five tracks.  


The UK Country Top 40 Chart – September 2020

September 11, 2020

Find all the songs in full in this Spotify playlist.

40 Danny McMahon – My Kinda City

39 Emily Faye – Fearless

38 is Hannah Paris – What The Hell

37 Katee Kross – Diamonds in the Dust

36 Bailey Tomkinson – Silent Suffering

35 Shannon Hynes – Country Words

34 Kelsey Bovey – Magnetic

33 Anna Krantz – We Could Be High

32 Harleymoon Kemp – Space

31 Jess Thristan – Angel

30 Laura Evans – Mess of Me

29 Ags Connolly – Wrong Again

28 Kevin McGuire – On Time

27 Megan O’Neill – Fire With Fire

26 Hannah White – My Father

25 The Fatherline – This Work is a Drug.

24 The Wandering Hearts – Over Your Body

23 Katy Hurt – Unfinished Business

22 Joe Martin – Heartbreak Cult

21 Deeanne Dexeter – 4AM

20 Jade Helliwell – The Moment

19 The Rising – Better Off Now

18 Two Ways Home – She’s Electric

17 Jake Morrell – Taking Our Time

16 Gary Quinn – Tip Of My Tongue

15 Laura Oakes – Better In Blue Jeans

14 Holloway Road – About Town

13 Robert Vincent – Conundrum

12 Emma and Jolie – I Don’t Need A Man

11 O&O – When It Comes To Love

10 Morganway – My Love Ain’t Gonna Save You

9 Backwoods Creek – Better Days

8 Essex County – So Good

7 Kezia Gill – Another You

6 Ferris and Sylvester – I Should Be On A Train

5 Twinnie – Type of Girl

4 The Adelaides – Seven Billion

3 Yola – I Don’t Wanna Lie

2 Ward Thomas – Sweet Time

1 The Shires – Crazy Days

Watch Jonny count down the Top 40 here: facebook.com/jonny.brick


Country Jukebox Jury LPs – Lauren Alaina and Hardy

September 4, 2020

Lauren Alaina – Getting Over Him EP

This EP follow the Getting Good EP in a common release pattern for country acts like Maddie & Tae who prefer five-song drops to satiate their fanbase. Notably, Lauren has popped up as a guest vocalist on hits by Kane Brown (What Ifs) and Hardy (One Beer), as well as album cuts by Dustin Lynch (Thinkin Bout You) and Chris Young (Town Ain’t Big Enough).

The EP’s lead single is Run, which takes the word ‘run’ and runs with it, in the way Nashville songwriters love to focus in on all possible angles on a particular word or phrase. As the clock is running, we run like hell.

Getting Over Him is excellent, a thrusting rebound song with enormous guitars, the polar opposite of Run. Lauren’s vocal is as sleeky as Maren Morris’ except Lauren can hit every note spot on. The role of the man is played by Jon Pardi, whose delivery is awesome too. Never has a one-night stand sounded so fun.

A Bar Back is someone who puts drinks together, rather than the bartender who takes the orders. It is a wonderful title and the song is about giving things back after breaking up with someone, except Lauren wants her bar back. I am sure this has some personal slant for Lauren, who broke off an engagement last year.

Lauren wrote that with Jon Nite, David Garcia and Hillary Lindsey, who is incapable of writing a bad song. It’s interesting that Lauren, whose voice is very close in pitch to Carrie’s, is writing with them, but since Lauren also releases music through Simon Cowell’s 19 label. I don’t think autotune is necessary on any of Lauren’s terrific vocals, much as Carrie and Dolly do.

If I Was a Beer is co-written by Lauren with Garcia, who is Carrie Underwood’s producer and, of all people, Hardy. You can tell it is because of the silky riff running underneath Lauren’s vocal about ’11 good friends by my side waiting their turn’. Girl as beer is a fun image.

Seen You in Your Hometown is a funky pop song over three chords in which Lauren extols the virtues of a boy who is different from the loud football-playing jock when he goes back to mama. A good premise and very country, even if the production is poppy thanks to Paul DiGiovanni, the man who has made Dan + Shay sound like the future of commercial country music, for good and ill.

What Do You Think Of is a fascinating reminiscin’ song full of details inspired by Lauren’s life, I reckon. Lauren came up as a teenager on American Idol so she has an audience in the pop sphere; because she has a twang and is from Georgia, it makes sense to market her to country radio but with Lukas Graham on this song popping up it’s clear where she is heading. The chords and chorus melody are gorgeous and if Lauren plays the long game (she’s still only 25) she can be a star of the era. She needs a few more radio hits, like Carrie, but she is an electric personality and the pride of Georgia. 4/5.

Hardy – A Rock

Hardy landed in my consciousness when I heard the demo to the song Up Down, where his voice was processed through a vocoder. I did not like it one bit. I preferred Rednecker, his anthemic tune which invented a word, rednecker as a comparative adjective for redneck. The song – which included the line ‘I piss where I want to and I fish where I swim’ – stalled at 26 on country radio.

Hardy is the redneckest in fact, and beloved by many artists for writing hits for them. Here is a snapshot of his success, all achieved before he turns 30 on September 13. After graduating with a degree in commercial songwriting, Hardy has written plenty of songs by Florida Georgia Line including four huge hits of theirs: Up Down, Y’All Boys, Simple and Talk You Out Of It. Blake Shelton had Hell Right (Hardy’s personal catchphrase) and God’s Country which, like Chris Lane’s I Don’t Know About You and Locash’s One Big Country Song, gave Hardy another number one record as a songwriter. Only Luke Combs and Thomas Rhett are in his class as a writer-performer.

And Morgan Wallen. Morgan used five Hardy co-writes on his number one debut album If I Know Me, including the title track, Happy Hour, Had Me By Halftime and Whatcha Know Bout That. New song More Than My Hometown is another Hardy co-write which is hurtling up the chart. The pair were due to come to the UK in May 2020 but the pandemic scuppered that. If Hardy comes to London in 2021, I will be there with bells on.

Hardy is a prolific writer whose songs have been picked by many of the artists who guested with him on the Hixtape collection from last year. Jameson Rodgers actually took Some Girls off the shelf, having bagsied it for a few years, and that single is all over radio now. A Rock emerges after that mixtape, which as well as Rodgers, Wallen and Thomas Rhett featured the likes of Keith Urban, Cole Swindell, Dustin Lynch and even Joe Diffie.

His two EPs have included songs called Throwback, Signed, Sober You, This Ole Boy and All She Left Was Me, piquing the interest of one listener at a time. Many of them are assisted by the type of programmed rock guitars you get on Morgan Wallen and Florida Georgia Line songs, and have a lyrical content that appeals to the lucrative 18-35 demographic. Hardy might be the Lewis Capaldi of country music, if Luke Combs is clearly the Ed Sheeran.

One Beer is climbing up the charts, thanks to a blockbuster video and a quirky topic for a song: one beer turns into an unplanned pregnancy and a shotgun marriage. He told The Boot website that he is an admirer of Brad Paisley’s knack of mixing humour and heaviness. I admire Paisley too and I think Hardy is the closest thing to a country act (Luke Combs aside) who can bring in non-country fans. Even Florida Georgia Line, who have duetted with Jason Derulo, cannot compete with Hardy, who is rednecker than them.

A Rock contains songs which we have heard before the album’s release. Breakup song Boots begins with Hardy realising he woke up without taking his boots off after a heavy night and that he is more into drinking than spending time with his lady, making his exit speedy. I loved Give Heaven Some Hell, which is an ‘I’ll miss you brother’ weepie’ that is placed as the third track on the album, just after Boyfriend, a song about a man wanting to turn his status from In A Relationship to Married.

Having already written a song called 4X4, Truck is next on his list of modes of transport to use as subject matter. This is definitely a country song by Hardy: over a three-chord loop and with a gorgeous melodic shape, he universalises the ‘red white and blue collar’ bloke in every town in America whom you can judge by the contents of his truck. What a great premise. The chorus is enormous and I am sure many listeners in trucks will find much to love about a man who wears a trucker’s hat onstage.

Hillary Lindsey never writes a bad song, and she has written four pearls with Hardy on A Rock: Hate Your Hometown, Boots, One Beer and the terrific So Close, which is influenced by Def Leppard and contains the voice of Ashland Craft, a singer also on the Big Loud label. It’s a finely structured breakup ballad with an explosive chorus that fellow Big Loud acts (Morgan Wallen and Florida Georgia Line, Jake Owen) would kill for. I wonder why Hardy chose to keep this one and the 11 others for himself.

Where Ya At is a lot of fun regardless of whether you have ‘hick in your blood’ or not and, in the way that Tim McGraw namechecked his label Big Machine, Hardy namechecks Big Loud. The pace is electric, though note that the drill sergeant middle section contains some swear words. This will be a live favourite wherever Hardy is at.

Ain’t A Bad Day is another interesting twist, as Hardy looks into his pit of despair after a breakup and realises today isn’t a bad time for Armageddon. It seems like a song that very lightly prompts people to seek advice for their demons and I hope the decade sees more of an awareness of this sort of thing in country music, which has spent a decade mostly saying that girls and trucks and beer are wonderful.

Like One Beer – which is about the perils or wonders of girls and trucks and beer – Broke Boy is a love song which begins at a party and leads to Hardy having a ‘Mississippi Queen’ in his bed. ‘I didn’t have a dime to my last name but she took mine’ is such a good lyric. Hate Your Hometown, is a kiss-off which uses the ‘I hope’ formula so beloved of songwriters. For a better kiss-off try He Went To Jared, a song from the Hixtape.

I was intrigued when I saw that track 11 is called Unapologetically Country As Hell. We’ve had these songs for decades and a keen listener can play Hick Bingo. The rules are simple: drink a shot of Florida Georgia Line’s own brand Campfire Whiskey when you hear ‘moonshine’, ‘truck’, ‘beer’, ‘Chevrolet’, ‘chicken’, ‘dogs’ and ‘George Jones’. Please don’t end up in hospital or play this game/ This is Rednecker part two, equally singalongable and targeted at the 18-35 demographic in Mississippi and other Southern states who may wish to purchase some merch with the phrase Unapologetically Country As Hell on it.

A Rock the song closes the album, on which Hardy thinks about life and stuff. The terrific song was brought into the world with an extraordinary music video. It’s country because it talks about skipping rocks on the water, being stuck between a rock and a hard place as a young adult, being alive on ‘a rock’ and eventually having your name written on a rock and placed on a tombstone. I wondered where the chorus would be and laughed when I heard him go la-la-la-la.

Hardy is doing all the right things and should be talked about in the same breath as Luke Combs. Above all, I believe Hardy’s music is a fair representation of himself. This isn’t a construct or a persona. Sometimes the songs can be sonically very similar, cranking up in the chorus and having Hardy shout-sing the lyrics rather than croon them, so perhaps 12 in a row is a bit too much without sonic variation. Lyrically there are love songs, break-up songs and those two Country Songs (Where Ya At and Unapologetically Country As Hell).

I have no hesitation giving this album 5/5 and hope you give it a go before he becomes famous like Luke Combs.


Country Jukebox Jury LPs – Tucker Beathard, Jonathan Terrell and Ruston Kelly

August 30, 2020

In this series, I will present the reviews of big albums reviewed weekly as part of Country Jukebox Jury. You can hear me talk about all types of country – poppy, bluegrass, rock, Texan, Canadian and British – every week at Facebook.com/acountrywayoflife

Tucker Beathard – King

Tucker’s dad Casey is a writers room legend who has written lots of songs by Eric Church as well as No Shoes No Shirt No Problem, which gives its name to Kenny Chesney’s fanbase, No Shoes Nation. Tucker’s grandpa was the GM of the NFL and his brother CJ is a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers.

Notable in the context of this album is Clayton Beathard, who was stabbed outside a Nashville bar four days before Christmas 2019. Tucker, who is only 25, has the potential to make art from this tragedy and has done so. As I mentioned the other week, the album ends with a father and son writing about the song I Ain’t Without You, one of many lighters-aloft anthems on an album that is in the lineage of Eric Church and other rocking country acts.

Indeed, One Upper, written with Eric Church’s guy Jeff Hyde, and You On, written with dad and Eric Church’s other guy Luke Dick, are evidence of this. The former is set in a bar, where Tucker meets a guy who lives a better life aside from Tucker’s baby who is ‘right on the money, top of the top’. It made me smile and want to book Tucker as a support act for The Chief.

You On, meanwhile, sees him want to ‘turn all this missing you to a smile on your face’. It ought to be called turn you on but I am sure this would offend somebody. I love the guitar line and you might too. The album begins with some pop-punky guitars and a rock drum pattern on Better Than Me whose chorus explodes into life.

It is followed by the rock ballad You Would Think, written with the great Canadian country act Donovan Woods and dad Casey. It’s a country song because the chorus goes ‘you would think you would think of me’ after all the things Tucker thinks of in the verses. A fun drinking game would be to drink on every think but please don’t: you will go to hospital.

The ballad Faithful and the almost college rock of Only are both written with another child of country royalty. Marla Cannon-Goodman is the daughter of Willy Nelson and Kenny Chesney’s producer Buddy Cannon.

Paper Town is another song driven by a massive riff that reminds me a little of Everybody Wants To Rule The World. The chorus is colossal and sounds like a song Bradley Cooper would sing in A Star Is Born, near the start. Find Me Here, Broke Down opens with Tucker full of regret, hungover in a hotel bed. He could have decorated this song with enormous guitars but, in a smart production move he goes all Dave Matthews and keeps it acoustic and ‘broke down’. I love the detail about using the Bible as a coaster. This sounds like a song Bradley Cooper would sing in A Star Is Born, near the end.

Other fine tracks include 20/10 TN, a series of phone calls to a lady who seems to have abandoned him, and kiss-off song Miss You Now. They respectively sound like Old Dominion and Jason Aldean, so fans of those acts will enjoy King. Too Drunk (‘too drunk to drive me crazy!’) is almost a Nirvana pastiche. Nirvana, let it be known, disbanded before Tucker was born.

Above all this is a record Tucker wanted to make; a record, not a group of songs flung together. He’s not a major label puppet (in fact that major label album is not on Spotify). I think there’s enough here to stand up to repeated listening and I hope Tucker gets to play live, either solo or with a band. 4/5

Jonathan Terrell – Westward

Jonathan Terrell, known as JT, is going Westward for a rocking country album that opens with the one-two punch of Never Makes A Sound and Good Again. He’s ditched the quiet acoustics of his older material and, possibly inspired by Ruston Kelly’s work, has turned up the amps. There’s a great chat with the Austin Chronicle where JT reveals he had scrapped an entire album, has a chest tattoo of the words Heartache Tycoon, lost his brother to suicide and decided to enter the ‘young man’s game’ of rock music.

The album contains Mark from the band Midland, as well as a string quartet and organ from Gregg Rolie, best known as the singer of Santana and Journey. Many of the songs are suitably cinematic: Star Child has an added spoken word section and JT sighing ‘Tell me what you want’; Something I Do opens with a few bars of harmonica; and on Raining In Dallas he JT moans in despair towards the end of the song.

Even the title of the song Lemon Cigarettes and Pink Champagne, a David Ramirez co-write which is happily backed up by a tune where the word ‘coattails’ leaps out, evokes a movie. I found I could happily listen to more than 10 tracks, many of which are tight and taut and are almost too short, such as uptempo kiss-off The Last Time where, in true Texan style, he calls himself an ‘old fool’, and These Days, which pulverises the listener with its opening riff and JT’s growling vocal delivery. Album closer Cowboy Band is a wonderful waltz which Bob Harris would play on his show.

If like Bob and I you love bands who rock in a rootsy way, like Dawes, The Band or Reckless Kelly, this is a great album for you which hits the sweet spot between melancholy and forward thrust. 4/5

Ruston Kelly – Shape & Destroy

Ruston Kelly inspired a GRAMMY Album of the Year. Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour was all about how happy she was in love. For reasons known to them, the pair announced a separation in early July, meaning this is no divorce album. Indeed, Ruston sent Kacey a birthday message (fun fact: the pair were born exactly one year apart).

I first heard him thanks to his breakthrough LP Dying Star, which contains Mockingbird, one of the great songs of recent years. Shape & Destroy, which runs at a crisp 41 minutes, was previewed by five songs in the modern manner. Rubber adds some digital drums to a song that includes the words ‘suitcase’, ‘cathedral’, ‘mansion’ and namechecks Agatha Christie and Voltaire. It’s a soft singalong with strong melodic heft and includes the line ‘Can I bounce back or just lay flat?’ Brave is another soft, acoustic number where Ruston meditates on how he will be remembered. Radio Cloud opens with the line ‘call me a misfit’ and has a bulletproof chorus that shows he can write pop songs if he wants to.

We’ve also heard Pressure (‘I hate to be dramatic but I think these days I might crack’). He is a vulnerable songwriter who doubts happiness when he sees it. The stadium-sized Under The Sun, meanwhile, looks at ‘brighter days still to come’ that takes the themes of Kacey’s song Rainbow.

Album opener In The Blue opens with some urgent acoustic guitar and a lyric about having ‘rainbows in my mouth’. Alive sees Ruston ‘looking through a telescope, not a cloud in the sky’ because he is in love. What an interesting decision to leave a love song on the album. Mid-Morning Lament, with its pedal steel, is a sublime meditation.

Closest Thing is a gorgeous two-minute wedding song that compares love to flying and falling. Clean and Jubilee are toe-tappers, the latter driven by an ascending melody in the verse that mimics Ruston climbing a mountain. The album ends with the vignette Hallelujah Anyway, where a choir of Rustons, as on Brave, look towards the end of his life. This is an excellent album with top production values and a mix of happy and sad, to quote a Kacey Musgraves songtitle. 4/5


Country Jukebox Jury LPs – Josh Turner and The Mavericks

August 24, 2020

In this series, I will present the reviews of big albums reviewed weekly as part of Country Jukebox Jury. You can hear me talk about all types of country – poppy, bluegrass, rock, Texan, Canadian and British – every week at Facebook.com/acountrywayoflife

Josh Turner – Country State of Mind

In 2019 Josh Turner headlined The Long Road then lost a valuable member of his crew in a road accident weeks later. He was promoting a spiritual record called I Serve A Savior, and Josh is a man of God whose piety is explicit rather than implied. He is also a fan of country music and knows his history, as evidenced by the tracks which have been released in the months leading up to the full project which is finally out now.

The big headline is his version of Forever And Ever Amen featuring Randy Travis adding the final amen. Josh is definitely in the ‘new trad’ tradition and displays it over the course of 12 tracks on Country State of Mind.

Aside from Randy, Josh ropes in the following stars: John Anderson on the rockin’ I’ve Got It Made; an octogenarian Kris Kristofferson on Why Me, where Josh hits some very low notes indeed; Allison Moorer on Hank Williams’ plea to the Lord, Alone and Forsaken; Runaway June on You Don’t Seem To Miss Me, written by the great Jim Lauderdale; Maddie & Tae on Desperately, where the harmonies are terrific; and Chris Janson on Country State of Mind, which was written and performed by Hank Williams Jr, the new Country Music Hall of Fame inductee.

I still love I Can Tell By The Way You Dance and I’m No Stranger To The Rain, from stars of the 1980s Vern Gosdin and Keith Whitley respectively. Like Randy Travis, Alan Jackson has now passed into the realm of classic country. His story song about ‘a drunk man in a cowboy hat’ (who could it be??) Midnight in Montgomery is placed in between Forever and Ever and the theme to Dukes of Hazzard, originally a huge hit for its writer Waylon Jennings in 1980.

The album ends with the Johnny Cash song The Caretaker. It’s as if he is channelling John’s spirit, changing the name to Josh in a song about what happens after he dies. This is a tremendous collection of covers which introduced me to at least three fine songs which I had never heard before. Long live country in the pre-Garth era! There’s gold in them vinyl records. 5/5

The Mavericks – En Español

The Mavericks are today on Mono, their own label, and tour the world with their Texmex grooves which mix country, Mariachi and the blues. Last year they put out their covers album, mixing songs by Waylon, Bruce and Elvis; before that was a Christmas album full of original compositions.

I caught them touring Brand New Day in 2017 at the Indigo2 which was packed with rich melodies sung by the wonderful Raul Malo. In 2020 their next trick is an album of Spanish-language songs written by the band. A useful tool was a dictionary from the 1940s!

The first brass note comes in just after the two-minute mark of the opening song La Sitiera, whose final minute is an excellent introduction to what the band are trying to do. No Vale la Pena and Cuando Me Enamoro add some accordion. This album has more horns than a Mark Ronson project, with some real echo in the studio, and Raul demonstrating that his should be considered one of the great voices of the last 50 years.

He told NPR that he used to speak in Spanish to his Cuban grandma. There is a cover of Me Olvide de Vivir (I Forgot to Live) originally by Julio Iglesias, which was Raul’s grandpa’s favourite song. It reminds me of On The Road Again or Gentle On My Mind and is a good starting point if you want to dip into the album.

My Spanish is atrocious but you get the general gist of what Raul is singing about from the titles alone: Recuerdos (Memories), the chirpy Poder Vivir (To Live), minor-key ballad Sombras Nada Mas (No More Than Shadows), infectious shuffle of Mujer (Lady), the sultry Sabor a Mi (Give Me a Taste) and Suspiro Azul (the mysterious Blue Sigh).

Cuande Me Enamoro translates as Timeless Love, which is a universal language. It is a beautiful, beautiful piece of music. Listen if you don’t believe me – it’s track 11 of En Espanol – and the best bit is when Raul sings in English over the fade!! Tantalisingly the final track fades too, as if the band are riding off into the sunset.

Just as In The Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda was a thankyou to his own grandparents, so En Español is the Mavericks attempting to do the same. If you liked the movie Coco or the Buena Vista Social Club guys, please take time to enjoy another fine record from an American treasure. Arriva! No need to travel with En Español. Cinco out of Cinco aka 5/5


Country Jukebox Jury LPs – Jason Isbell, Margo Price and Steve Earle

August 24, 2020

In this series, I will present the reviews of big albums reviewed weekly as part of Country Jukebox Jury. You can hear me talk about all types of country – poppy, bluegrass, rock, Texan, Canadian and British – every week at Facebook.com/acountrywayoflife

IV Jason Isbell  and the 400 Unit – Reunions

Jason Isbell is the much-loved singer-songwriter-guitarist from Alabama who is Mr Amanda Shires. Fun fact: his first name is Michael, like how Paul McCartney is really a James. I won’t tell you what a brilliant album this is, with immaculate production, song structure and melodic shape, or compare Jason to Neil Young, Jeff Tweedy, Bob Dylan (yep he’s another new Dylan) and Bruce Springsteen (he’s also another new Bruce); others have already done so.

I’m just going to quote some of Jason’s poetry so you can go discover Reunions for yourselves and see how he frames the lyrics with the 400 Unit, who are one of the best bands in America.

‘This used to be a ghost town but even the ghosts got out’ on Overseas, which mourns a lost love. On River, with Amanda’s fiddle prominent: ‘The river is my saviour cos she used to be a cloud…even when she dries up 100 years from now I’ll lay myself beside her and call my name out loud’.

On Only Children he is ‘walking around at night/ fighting my appetite/ Every kid in cut-offs could be you’, while the middle eight of Be Afraid is ‘We don’t take request, we won’t shut up and sing/ Tell the truth enough you’ll find it rhymes with everything’ (which shouldn’t rhyme given what he’s saying in that couplet!).

St Peter’s Autograph takes the form of advice to a grieving friend: ‘What can I do to help you sleep?…We’re all struggling with a world on fire’

It Gets Easier (‘but it never gets easy’) will be a t-shirt slogan: ‘Last night I dreamed I’d been drinking…woke up fine and that’s how I knew it was a dream’.

An extra point to note: once again Jason has his own label and releases the record on Thirty Tigers, an independent label who, as with XL and 4AD, prove that there is space in the indie sector to make records that are miles better than focus-grouped albums that come out on Sony or Warners. 5/5, but you knew that anyway.

Margo Price – That’s How Rumors Get Started

Margo Price’s third album That’s How Rumors Get Started follows two albums released on Third Man, Jack White’s label, and also a solo album from Margo’s husband Jeremy Ivey (who will release another in the fall). The couple enjoyed the birth of her third child, Ramona Lynn, in May so she is technically on maternity leave while doing promo for the album.

Sturgill Simpson has produced it in much the same way as Dave Cobb produces those of Jason Isbell and (indeed) those of Simpson. A lush organic sound gives the listener an opportunity hear each note and beat as it lands. Margo’s country voice is soft and pure but with a bit of grit, a little like Linda Ronstadt’s or SJ from Morganway.

Letting Me Down is a wonderful bit of cool rock which has a long fade(!!), Hey Child has tinges of Muscle Shoals r’n’b while Stone Me was the album’s first single, a song about glass houses set to a saloon-style piano. Gone To Stay, meanwhile, is a lost Fleetwood Mac song.

The album is very American and very comfortable, the sort of music Lukas Nelson is making at the moment. On What Happened To Our Love she writes ‘you were the music, I was the dancer’.

At ten tracks it isn’t long enough but then again Margo recorded it while pregnant so her new baby will inspire her fourth album. Along with Brandi Carlile and Yola, she is proving that sisters can do it for themselves. 4/5

Steve Earle – Ghosts of West Virginia

Steve Earle is never less than interesting. He’s now a full-time dad to a special needs son and is working on what is sure to be the best memoir since Bob Dylan’s Chronicles. Married several (six!) times, imprisoned, strung out on drugs and now in the creative run of his life, Steve’s 20th album is Ghosts of West Virginia, a deeply personal album which is naturally political. It packs a punch, coming and going inside 29 minutes.

The track It’s About Blood is folk music that sounds like the Earth itself. It was sung on the New York stage in the play Coal Country, to which this album is a companion piece. Six tracks on the album are here, performed with The Dukes.

Steve is a loud Democrat and this album hopes to reach across the divide to people who didn’t vote Democrat in 2016, changing the world ‘one heart and one mind at a time’.

On the album, as in the show, Steve tackles the story of John Henry – ‘my son Justin Townes had written one and I hadn’t!’ he told World Café – because the mythical steeldriver may have worked in West Virginia on the railroads, blasting tunnels through the Appalachian mountains. Time Is Never on Our Side sounds a bit like A Life That’s Good from the TV show Nashville.

Steve’s voice throughout, full of humming and deep breaths, sounds like that of Johnny Cash, who was in his early sixties when he made those records with Rick Rubin. Fastest Man Alive is a bit of rockabilly, Black Lung is bluesy and closing track The Mine is sung with despair in Steve’s vocal chords. It’s About Blood remains the centrepiece of the album.

Ray Kennedy, Steve’s production ally, gets the best out of the instrumentation. Expect GRAMMY awards for Ghosts of West Virginia, an urgent album from a songwriter who can teach you how to do it at a good price. 5/5 – please make time for it.

Justin Townes Earle died on August 23 2020 aged 38. Long life to his dad Steve and all the Earle family.


Country Jukebox Jury LPs – Hot Country Knights, The Texas Gentlemen and Joshua Ray Walker

August 24, 2020

In this series, I will present the reviews of big albums reviewed weekly as part of Country Jukebox Jury. You can hear me talk about all types of country – poppy, bluegrass, rock, Texan, Canadian and British – every week at Facebook.com/acountrywayoflife

Hot Country Knights – The K is Silent

Before Dierks Bentley plays his usual set, he comes out with his live band, all in wigs and facial hair, and sings a string of songs that pastiche 90s country music. With the recent death of Joe Diffie, and the irrelevance of Toby Keith, there is a gap for funny country music and there is nothing funnier than a major label giving Dierks Bentley a record deal for his side project.

The K is Silent comprises ten tracks over 36 minutes that try to give the listener a good time. Album opener Hot Country Knights begins by spelling out the band’s name and Dierks’ familiar voice prepares the listener for a ‘good time…everybody’s cutting loose with their jeans on tight’. There’s a passage full of key changes that goes nowhere, proving that the joke is musical as well as lyrical. It sounds like 1995 and it’s wonderful to see a major label support Dierks in bringing some joy to the country world.

If you don’t like the opener you will hate the enforced jollity of this album but it’s the perfect one that idiots will say ‘we all need right now’. Comedy is necessary all the time, not just in a pandemic.

We knew many of the songs before the album’s release: the energetic Pick Her Up with Travis Tritt, which has a false ending; the single entendre of You Make It Hard with the underrated Terri Clark, which has pedal steel, a key change and a proper middle eight; and weepie Asphalt, with the lyric ‘I woke up at the crack of dawn and left a note by her bed’ and layers of whistling for the final chorus.

Moose Knuckle Shuffle is a line-dance song that will surely do well on TikTok: ‘Put your hands in your pants and you hike ‘em up high’ is a fun lyric and the song is driven by cowbell. Expect the dance to feature in UK parties for a good while once normality resumes.

Of the new tracks, Mull It Over is a heartache song which Midland would be proud of. Check out the key change! Ditto the awesomely titled Kings of Neon, which is driven by the album’s best riff and chorus. Wrangler Danger is a cautionary tale set in Whiskey Row, which happens to be Dierks Bentley’s Nashville bar (product placement!!) and is about a ‘heartbreak kind’ of girl. There’s a joke in the middle eight about how to spell trouble; I won’t spoil the punchline in case you find it funny.

Then It Rained (‘It stopped for a little while’) is a story song about a man in a bar who hears George Strait. If it sounds a bit like The Thunder Rolls, it’s intentional; I expect Garth has waived his songwriting credits out of respect for the Knights, and I also expect it was a fun song to write. The song ends with a B major chord but it’s in B minor! Verse one recalls how the man’s wife was away and it rained; verse two is set in a honkytonk where he bought some wine and it rained; verse three has the man finding loose change in the sofa, which is stained; verse four features the man apologising to his wife for being late for dinner. The joke is that the rain is just the weather, in no way significant at all except to emphasise loneliness or disgust at the man’s situation.

Closing track The USA Begins With US is recorded live, with Dierks shouting ‘Let’s do this!’ before yelling like Kenny Chesney about playing ‘all 48 states’. It’s an anthem in the key of Toby Keith and Joe Diffie, with the ‘crowd’ cheering ‘USA! USA!’ and the chorus not allowed to come in until Dierks has finished proselytising. It actually sounds like a Jimmy Fallon skit where he impersonates Blake Shelton or someone. Over a recorder solo, we hear the great Presidential speeches, including Nixon’s ‘I am not a crook’, Clinton’s ‘I did not have sexual relations’ and George W Bush’s ‘Fool me once’. Again, this sounded like fun for Dierks and company. Like Midland’s repertoire, this is music to laugh at and then marvel at its composition. The joke is that it’s really not a joke! 4/5

The Texas Gentlemen – Floor It!!!

The Texas Gentlemen are beloved by those in the know including British-based duo O&O. The album is Floor It!!! and begins with a rich brass instrumental called Veal Cutlass that sounds like The Titanic crashing into an iceberg. Bare Maximum is another phenomenal track, full of riffs, funk and soul and the album continues in that vein.

We finally hear some lyrics on track three, Ain’t Nothin New, which has a classic West Coast feel. This is a band who have studied the greats – Elton John, The Band, Nilsson, Eagles – and I am all in for it. You can tell that the band have played with Kris Kristofferson, who probably has stories about all of those acts and more.

The track Easy Street is followed by one called Hard Road. There’s a song called Skyway Streetcar, which is as awesome as it sounds. She Won’t ends in a wigout jam that sounds like fun. Charlie’s House is almost a Steely Dan collaboration with Jackson Browne. The title track, Floor It, is eight minutes that summarises a great, great album. Please take an hour to discover your new favourite band. O&O were right. 5/5

Joshua Ray Walker – Glad You Made It

Rolling Stone Country called Joshua Ray Walker ‘a baby-faced 6XL guitar hero with a Dwight Yoakam voice’. Glad You Made It is a quick follow-up to his debut Wish You Were Here. It’s also a quick album: 10 tracks, 31 minutes.

Joshua Ray Walker is a Texan singer who throws in all the country vocal tics of the old singers like Hank Williams and Roger Miller. Opening track Voices, with a tambourine on the backbeat, adds pedal steel and a voice that you could find in a church. You’d be forgiven for missing that he’s singing about driving his truck into a lake while leaving a bottle of alcohol in his hand. True Love picks up the pace but is nonetheless sad since it’s ‘meant to fade’.

You know you’re in country music from the album’s first bar: Loving County begins with some yodelling; Play You A Song is a hoedown, with some quick picking; One Trick Pony is a honky-tonker that fans of UK troubadour Ags Connolly will love. (In fact I would love a JRW and Ags double bill.) Cupboard begins with him examining cans and turns into a meditation on time. The lyric is direct and the drums are pulsating. In Boat Show Girl he quotes the inscription on the Statue of Liberty while talking about the titular characters: ‘Take this beauty home…just like every boat show girl wishes that you would.’ Ooh.

As it stands Joshua is due in Europe in December. I’ll do my best to catch him and you should as well. 5/5 for the big-hearted guy.