Kaching…with Twang: Maren In the Middle

August 26, 2019

This piece was originally published in the Summer 2019 edition of the Country Way of Life magazine. The Autumn 2019 edition is out in September

Did you know that women in country music used to be referred to as ‘girl-singers’? It was like they were a novelty act, the odd ones on The X Factor, a turn for five minutes before the men sung about trucks and beer again.

One of my favourite Simpsons episodes, and maybe one of yours too, is Colonel Homer, written by Matt Groening, the showrunner and bringer of joy to billions. Spurned by Marge for being a twit, Homer hears a singing waitress onstage at the Beer ‘n’ Brawl (‘Hey you, let’s fight!’ ‘Them’s fightin’ words’) named Lurleen Lumpkin. She is voiced by Beverly D’Angelo, who was Patsy Cline in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter (more later) singing about how ‘your wife don’t understand you but I do’. Homer affirms every line of the song; you see the plates fall out of his eyes in a brilliant bit of animation that fully gets to the nub of country music. Three chords and truth.

Lurleen records her song onto a CD, which gets sent to the local radio station. When it is played, we see Moe crying, prisoners stop rioting and Krusty the Clown being nice to Sideshow Mel. Jealous of Homer’s relationship with Lurleen – on picking up the phone to her, Homer says: ‘I think I can come over! Let me ask my wife’ – Marge doesn’t realise that initially Homer is helping Lurleen for the love of her music.

‘No man has ever been this nice to me without, you know…wanting something in return’ is an awesome line from Lurleen. More follow in the song Finally Bagged Me a Homer, with Marge looking on as Lurleen records a song about her love for Homer. Then in a trailer she sings a ‘song’ that is a come-on to Homer (‘will you bunk with me tonight?’). The episode finishes with a parody of one of those old-time variety shows with various hillbilly acts, and in the dressing room Lurleen kisses Homer on the lips. Lurleen is head over heels for Homer, but Homer is loyal to Marge and they all live happy ever after.

I like the episode because it may be kids’ first exposure to country music, and it is sung by a ‘girl-singer’. From the third season of the show, it had its premiere in 1991, when Garth Brooks, George Strait and Alabama were the top live draws. That year’s big number hits included She’s In Love with the Boy by Trisha Yearwood and Liza Jane by Vince Gill.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the names rolled off the tongues of the TV announcers: Emmylou Harris, Loretta Lynn and her sister Crystal Gayle, Barbara Mandrell, Reba McEntire, Anne Murray (whose song You Needed Me was a hit for Boyzone in 1999), Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, The Judds (mother Naomi and daughter Wynonna), Janie Fricke, Roseanne Cash and, the greatest of them all, Dolly Parton.

By the 1990s the Canadian Eileen Edwards, as Shania Twain, raised the hem lines and showed a bit of leg. Her precision-engineered country music appealed to music consumers the world over. 20 years after Come On Over hit big – released in 1997 it took until 1999 to explode – Shania is still the commercial high point in women in country not named Dolly; I Will Always Love You trumps You’re Still The One.

Let’s look at a typical chart which saw Shania omnipresent with one of 11 singles from Come On Over. Love Gets Me Every Time hit the top of the Airplay chart in November 1997. In the same top 20 were Trisha Yearwood duetting with Garth Brooks, Deana Carter, Chely Wright (who came out as lesbian in 2010 and married her wife in 2011), Reba McEntire, Pam Tillis, The Kinleys, Wynonna and Martina McBride. Waiting in the wings are the likes of Mindy McCready, LeAnn Rimes, Lila McCann and Lari White, duetting with Travis Tritt.

Eight different women were awarded the CMA Award for Female Vocalist in the 1990s: Kathy Mattea, Tanya Tucker, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Pam Tillis, Alison Krauss, Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood and Martina McBride. Shania Twain lost to Martina in 1999 but consoled herself by winning Entertainer of the Year.

This century, only four women have won that prize: three of them make up the Dixie Chicks, who became pariahs in 2003, were thrown out of country music and swept the board, middle fingers in the air, at the 2007 GRAMMY Awards. Only eight records released in 2006 sold more copies than Taking the Long Way, which featured the Song and Record of the Year, Not Ready to Make Nice.

By that time Taylor Swift, a young girl from Pennsylvania, had moved to Nashville and had put out her first single, named after Faith Hill’s husband Tim McGraw. By 2009 she was Entertainer of the Year, an award she regained in 2011, just as she was about to put out her album Red and mark her transition to the pop side of things. Her seventh album is due imminently.

In 2007 Taylor Swift had won the CMA Award for New Artist of the Year. Carrie Underwood won it in 2006, Kacey Musgraves in 2013 and Maren Morris in 2016; interestingly, Kacey’s Golden Hour won at the GRAMMYs and CMAs in 2018 but she was not Female Vocalist of the Year. Carrie Underwood was, winning it for a fifth time.

Miranda Lambert has won it seven times, following in the footsteps of Gretchen Wilson, who came out of nowhere with her redneck woman persona and disappeared just as quickly. No longer were women just there to dangle microphone cords and look pretty; they encouraged crowds to give a big ‘HELL YEAH!’ in what amounts to the same ladette culture that swept Britain in the 1990s.

Then came, among others, Cruise, Body Like a Back Road, Beautiful Crazy and Old Town Road, and one week in 2018 there was not one woman in the Country Airplay top 20.

Which brings us to Maren Morris. GIRL was released in March 2019. I listened to it for an entire afternoon on the day it came out and concluded that it was an album of two halves. The best tracks are feelgood pop songs like The Feels, Shade and Flavor, following the success of The Middle, a song which had been shopped around for a year and found its way to Maren. Hero, released in summer 2016, was a worldwide success; I was in London when she played My Church at the CMA Songwriters night over Country2Country weekend and fell in love with it. She followed it up with 80s Mercedes and Rich, two big songs from Hero, and had her radio number one with I Could Use a Love Song.

Maren married songwriter Ryan Hurd in 2017 and the two have a loyal following on social media. Ditto Kelsea Ballerini and her husband, songwriter Morgan Evans, who married the same year. After big hits from her teen-pop first album The First Time – Dibs, Love Me Like You Mean It and Peter Pan were all number ones on country radio – Kelsea returned with the sort of blah sonic template that doesn’t stand out and doesn’t offend. After Legends and I Hate Love Songs, her big hit Miss Me More clambered into the top three the week that only she and Maren were in the top 20.

When it topped the airplay chart, Runaway June had cracked the top 20 with the peppy Buy My Own Drinks, co-written with the prolific pair of Hillary Lindsay (Girl Crush) and Josh Kear (Need You Now). Carrie Underwood’s summer smash Southbound, performed at both the ACM and CMT Awards, is rising, while the phenomenal sound of Family Tree by Caylee Hammack is gaining traction. Miranda Lambert, recently married to a law enforcement officer, is off the charts but popped up at CMA Fest playing some new tunes from her next project.

Her last album was in 2016, the double-LP The Weight of These Wings, which begat radio hits Vice, We Should Be Friends and the modern standard Tin Man. Kacey Musgraves purposefully ignored radio, sending Butterflies and Space Cowboy to streaming services to preview Golden Hour, a remarkable album which is stamped, like Miranda’s album, with her personality. No other artist could have made either The Weight of these Wings or Golden Hour than Miranda and Kacey respectively. In their slipstream come the likes of Kassi Ashton, Ingrid Andress and Abby Anderson, confident performers with great songs building a career slowly, the old-fashioned way, just like the two Texans.

Interestingly, Kelsea Ballerini was rejected by everyone in town before finding a home with Black River, an independent label. Maren was a songwriter who had performed in her teenage years and the time was right to put out her debut album in 2016, which she toured worldwide in 2018 with Niall Horan from One Direction as a guest vocalist. As of June 2019, My Church has been streamed 74m million times on Spotify. The Middle has 700m. This makes Maren a big kinda deal.

As in pop, there seem to be two camps if you are a female performer: play the game or make your own rules. On Girl, Maren does both at the same time.

Those playing the game in today’s country music business include Carly Pearce, signed to Big Machine and rising on radio with Closer To You. Later in 2019 Carly, who got her start singing as Dolly Parton at Dollywood, will marry singer Michael Ray. Tenille Townes, whose song Somebody’s Daughter is climbing the Airplay chart, sang with Dierks Bentley at CMA Fest and looks set to have a phenomenal few years after patiently building a Canadian fanbase.

Lauren Alaina – who like Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert came through a TV talent show, in her case American Idol – took five years to follow up her debut album with a mature second record, Road Less Traveled. She will spend most of July in the UK on tour. Lauren’s new single, Ladies in the 90s, namechecks Britney Spears, Faith Hill, Alanis Morrissette, TLC and Dixie Chicks, an example of the genre of music which goes back to the past and just quotes old songs. Thus we hear ‘Cowboy take me away’ next to ‘hit me one more time’. It’s a smart song written with Amy Wadge, writer of the monster tune Thinking Out Loud by Ed Sheeran and a couple of songs on TR’s album (see the essay earlier in the magazine).

Then there are those who resolutely stick to their guns, Music City be damned. The Pistol Annies are made up of Miranda Lambert and her good friends Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, both mothers of young children but hugely respected for their songwriting. Margo Price, who has just become a mother to a third child (one passed away a fortnight after being born), performed in concert while nine months pregnant, and her song This Town Gets Around (‘it’s not who you know, it’s who you blow’) is a succinct version of her view of town. Jack White signed her to his Third Man label and she has friends on the Americana and roots scene.

On her second album, as on her first, Maren has writing credits on every track. Carrie and Miranda also contribute to the writing and production of their work, and I hope those who do not know that now do. Co-writers on Girl include Greg Kurstin (who wrote Hello with Adele), the duo Julian Bunetta and John Ryan (who are TR’s regular ‘pop’ guys) and Busbee (who co-wrote My Church and 80s Mercedes). Jon Randall, who helped Miranda Lambert write Tin Man, joins Maren and Natalie Hemby, Miranda Lambert’s go-to co-writer, on RSVP. Ryan Hurd, aka Mr Maren Morris, contributes to All My Favorite People and Great Ones.

There are two main writers on Girl: Laura Veltz, who helped Maren write Rich, and Jimmy Robbins, who is one of the great writers of the era and appears in the documentary It All Begins with a Song. Four songs are credited to Morris/Robbins/Veltz: The Feels, which is infectious; The Bones, which is a smash hit in waiting and a live favourite; A Song For Everything, which is more or less I Could Use Another Love Song redux; and Flavor, on which Maren sings the much-quoted line: ‘Shut up and sing, well hell no I won’t!’ It’s a great pop song and will be in her live set for years to come.

Carrie, meanwhile, has duetted with pop acts like Ludacris, while Kelsea gave her vocals to a song by The Chainsmokers. Maren, on a song credited to Zedd, Maren Morris & Gray (a production duo), had one of the smashes of 2018 with The Middle, which is kept back to the encore of her live show. During the main body of the set, she interpolateds Halo by Beyonce into her song Second Wind. She finishes with the four-punch of The Bones, RSVP, Rich and My Church, then encores with another Hemby co-write, Shade.

Touring Girl in 2019 will take her to Radio City Music Hall in New York, Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee, several festivals in Canada and Nebraska State Fair. There follow dates across the USA: Arizona, California, Pennsylvania, Las Vegas, Missouri, Iowa, South Dakota, Florida, Georgia, both Carolinas (North and South), Virginia and Minnesota. The tour will continue into 2020, with a likely stop at Country2Country’s various European legs.

At London’s Royal Albert Hall on the last day of May 2019, Maren was supported by the great RaeLynn who was a contestant on The Voice in 2012 aged 17. Her only album came out in 2017 and included the smash Love Triangle, though her follow-up songs including Tailgate have done well on streaming platforms (6.8m on Spotify as of June 17 2019). Raelynn joined Maren onstage for All My Favorite People, which nicks the melody of the verse of 9 to 5 by Dolly Parton and has Maren’s friends Brothers Osborne on it. ‘We love who we love’ is a reference to Maren’s support of the queer community.

In the 2000s, Shania Twain and Reba both played Las Vegas, as they are able to work a crowd, sing some great songs and employ some backing dancers and pyrotechnics. Carrie and Miranda have done the same, while Kacey wears glowing boots and sparkly dresses. Belles & Gals, a UK-based site which is determined to support the female voice in country music, thought her 2019 set was ‘mesmerising’.

Belles and Gals promotes several UK-based acts like Lucy Grubb and Hannah Paris, who are steeped in country and are following in the footsteps of the likes of Megan O’Neill, Laura Oakes and Liv Austen. All three of these hard-working ladies have toured the UK for more than five years, patiently building a fanbase and waiting for the right moment to burst through. The poppy-country likes of Jade Helliwell, The Adelaides and Twinnie all look set to follow The Shires and Ward Thomas into the sort of ‘Radio 2’ level of country act; Twinnie is opening for Lauren Alaina this July across the UK.

Louise Parker, who is a Belles & Gals artist, told the site that her opinions on women in country would be unprintable. ‘I think it’s quite beautiful to watch other artists as they grow and develop their sound,’ she says. ‘Sometimes this means evolving outside your genre. It’s human to want to be better, to become the best version of yourself. No one should put walls up; segregating artists and genres is just another form of discrimination.’

Indeed, in today’s marketplace, genre is more or less irrelevant. Maren sounds like Maren, a little bit pop and a little bit country – she’s from Texas and lives in Nashville now. Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves? Both from Texas, like the Dixie Chicks and George W Bush. Carrie Underwood is a beauty from Oklahoma while Kassi Ashton’s debut single was named California, Missouri after her home town.

These ladies may be from Lurleen Lumpkin kinda towns but they don’t need a Homer Simpson to push them into consciousness. Why can’t women just meet pop and country in the middle?

Maren Morris’ GIRL is out now. The new single is The Bones.


The Under the Apple Tree Live Show

August 26, 2019

This piece was originally published in the Summer 2019 edition of the Country Way of Life Magazine. The Autumn 2019 edition is out in September

News of Bob Harris’ recent heart problem, which has forced him off air until he’s better, passes the baton to his son Miles, an absolute spit of his dad.

Together with Bob’s wife Trudie, the MD of Whispering Bob Productions as well as director of the UK branch of the Americana Music Association, the 27-year-old Son of Bob is a broadcaster of quality. It’s in the genes.

Along with brother Dylan, who is in A&R and artist management, Miles is in the family business of supporting the best artists and giving them a platform to express themselves. In recent years that has been with the Under The Apple Tree project, using his dad’s home studio to film sessions with bands and artists, many of whom are friends of the family.

The famous studio ‘Under the Apple Tree’

In 2019, after several years putting on stages at Silverstone during Formula 1 week and at Country2Country, Miles and Bob teamed up for a national tour. This was a fine idea executed brilliantly. At each stopping point, a local act opened the show before Ferris & Sylvester brought their fine musical stylings.

Wildwood Kin, with awesome harmonies and emotionally charged songs, headlined the night, playing teasers from their second album and offering covers of the likes of Stevie Wonder’s Higher Ground.

I went to the tour’s closing night in Norwich, where Morganway opened. I’ll talk more about the sextet in the next magazine but they were as terrific as ever and a perfect opener. Also popping up around the country were Loud Mountains (Oxford), Eleanor Nelly (Liverpool), Demi Marriner (Birmingham), Foreign Affairs (Bristol), Worry Dolls and The Blue Highways (London), Roseanne Reid (Glasgow), Callum Pitt (Newcastle), Keto (Nottingham) and Robbie Cavanagh (Manchester).

Ten gigs in the space of 17 days is a big undertaking but there were no signs of exhaustion when I chatted to Archie Sylvester after the final gig of the tour. The duo’s plans include festivals – Isle of Wight and Glastonbury – and work on a new album.

They told Maverick Magazine that a full-length release will follow their Made In Streatham EP: ‘We listen to albums. We have a record player at home. We really value the album setup and we feel like our music is going to fit into that.’

Ferris and Sylvester are one of Britain’s best acts, I think. Their set was astonishing in its range and depth. The singles London’s Blues and Flying Visit were terrific, but it was their stagecraft that impressed me and their connection with the audience.

There is a reason why we are in an era when acts who break through the fourth wall are doing well: Ed Sheeran can play stadiums with songs that can be sung on Grafton Street in Dublin; Lewis Capaldi is essentially a Scottish balladeer who is quite good at interacting with people via social media; Adele and Coldplay both bring intimacy to the masses. So do Ferris and Sylvester, and big things await.

Under The Apple Tree’s MO is to bring music to people’s ears, ‘amazing artists who deserve to be heard by everyone’. Bob Harris had a national and international platform to do so, and he helped break Marc Cohn in the UK by championing Walking On Memphis. He has been a cheerleader for acts as varied as Mary Gauthier, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Ashley McBryde, Kacey Musgraves, Sam Outlaw, Walter Trout and Catherine McGrath. The Wandering Hearts had a session on Bob’s Radio 2 country show before they even put out an album.

Music is so easy to find nowadays that you could drown in it. Champions like Bob and Miles offer a filter: if they like it, you might too. It’s easy for a major label to sign a Lewis Capaldi or a Kacey Musgraves, but it pays to let them grow into the artists they want to be. Foreign Affairs, who are managed by Dylan, are Bristolian brothers who make great acoustic roots music; they will join Curse of Lono and Robert Vincent for a gig put on by Under The Apple Tree at Bush Hall in London on October 25 as part of Country Music Week. Previously they have put on afternoons showcasing acts they love. In 2017 they brought a bill including Robert Vincent, Catherine McGrath, Wildwood Kin and Seth Ennis.

In 2016 I had delighted in attending the Under The Apple Tree stage at Country2Country, where I looked on in awe at the likes of Balsamo Deighton, Laura Oakes and Kimmie Rhodes. All three of those acts are among the hundreds who have recorded sessions for Under The Apple Tree. Their Youtube channel Whispering Bob TV houses most of those sessions and I recommend you set aside some time to plunge in. You may find your next favourite act.

Bob Harris has an award named after him at the UK Americana Music Association awards for emerging artists. In 2019 Curse of Lono won it, following The Wandering Hearts (2018) and Wildwood Kin (2017). Curse of Lono have popped into the studios a couple of times. There is a video of their song Pick Up the Pieces on Youtube, part of the 360th session for the channel. Opening with an acoustic guitar, the song is full of lush harmonies and great instrumentation, including a box organ. It is rootsy, authentic, organic and everything great music ought to be. The band are at The 100 Club the week before they play Bush Hall; they term their music ‘Cinematic Southern Gothic Rock’, which is correct.

As of June 15 2019 there have been 419 sessions for Under The Apple Tree. Morganway have been on twice, with their second visit due to be uploaded soon. In fact, when I reviewed the band’s 2017 EP, I mentioned that Bob Harris would love a band like this; they were on their way to play Hurricane and their version of Dancing In The Dark. You can find their Bruce cover on the Unique Covers playlist on the Youtube channel which also features Laura Oakes’ take on Rocket Man, Ellen & The Escapades doing Dreams by Fleetwood Mac, Sam Outlaw doing White Christmas and Foreign Affairs doing a good job with Tennessee Whiskey. The Adelaides, meanwhile, mash up Jolene and Daddy Lessons, combining Dolly and Beyoncé.

Under The Apple Tree have found the perfect mix of the old and new, traditional and contemporary and serious with fun. The live show was fantastic and managed, when I went, to pack out a mid-sized venue in Norwich on a weeknight. I can’t wait for the next one, or indeed the London show in October.

UnderTheAppleTree.com is the place to find more information, while the Youtube channel is WhisperingBobTV. The Country Show is on Radio 2 on Thursdays at 9pm.

Ferris & Sylvester tour the UK this autumn, as do Wildwood Kin whose self-titled second LP is out on October 4.


Aaron Watson – Red Bandana

August 26, 2019

This piece first appeared in the Summer 2019 edition of the Country Way of Life magazine. The Autumn 2019 edition is out in September.

In 2015 Aaron Watson topped the Country Album chart with The Underdog, the first time an independent country musician had done so.

Dan Wharton has interviewed him many times for Your Life in a Song. The most recent interview was on his tour bus at CMA Fest 2019 in Nashville. Dan describes his friend Aaron as an ‘authentic Texas country artist who has forged his way independently staying true to himself and his roots throughout’.

Amen amigo! Red Bandana, Aaron’s 14th release in a career which has spanned two decades, came out on June 21 2019 in an environment where Thomas Rhett and Maren Morris have had the biggest albums of the year. A fun song about taking one’s horses to the old town road had spent 11 weeks as America’s biggest song in any genre.

In 2015, when The Underdog was riding high, Aaron spoke to Rolling Stone Country, who profiled a man who topped the chart with an album that wasn’t made ‘in the system’ of Music Row. ‘What we’re doing right now is pretty much a David versus Goliath kind of situation,’ Aaron explained, ‘because I’ve never been embraced by the music industry.

‘There’s only so many times you can be told you’ll never make it. At some point, you have to say, Hey, we’re gonna need to take a different route to get where we’re wanting to go. And that’s what we did. If someone shuts a door in your face, you don’t let that stop you; you pick the lock, take it off its hinges or find another door that’s open.’

When he started in the early 2000s, Aaron found a friend in David Macias, one of the most important guys in Nashville and co-founder of the label Thirty Tigers. After his gigs he would sleep on David’s floor. The Rolling Stone piece compared him to fellow Tiger Jason Isbell, whose career includes Grammy Awards and songs on Hollywood film soundtracks. ‘Heavy touring, a strong social media presence and a grassroots fanbase to sell albums’ are pivotal for an indie at without the mechanisms of a Big Machine or Warner Music behind them to do the dirty work.

On the different flavours of country music, which in 2015 was all Sam Hunt and Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line, Aaron gave an analogy: ‘Wouldn’t it be a shame if you went to the store and the only kind of jelly on the shelf was grape? Sometimes you want apricot. Sometimes you want strawberry. You need different flavours.’

On staying true to his roots, Aaron told Dan in 2018: ‘It’s what makes me me. Music should be a window into your heart and soul.’ It is important for Aaron to sing songs he believes in, especially in front of a crowd. I wonder if Aaron will perform Red Bandana in its entirety, as if a cinematic experience.

Dan spoke to Aaron, a father of three children, in June 2019. The pair were in Aaron’s van the day after he joined Crystal Gayle and Charley Pride at the Grand Ol Opry, telling a great anecdote about Steven Tyler of Aerosmith being backstage at a previous performance. I recommend you watch his Opry performance, days before the release of Red Bandana, of Country Radio. Done it? Good.

Before I dissect the album properly I must emphasise two tracks that are among the best by anyone released so far in 2019. Country Radio appears on the first disc – oh, the album has 20 tracks and is 70 minutes long, so strap in! The seventh track, Country Radio is a marvellous piece of music. Aaron recalls how his mum and dad used to dance around the living room with the Grand Ol Opry on the radio. Now Aaron has songs of the radio himself, not least Kiss That Girl Goodbye, a hit on Texan radio and even on country radio more generally. ‘Tempo! Tempo! Tempo!’ was how the song was sold in Billboard’s Country Update weekly magazine. As of June 2019, the song was at 27 in the Country Indicator chart for smaller stations and falling from a peak of number two in the Texan Radio chart.

Dan’s website Your Life in a Song is a big supporter of country music. Aaron was plugging The Underdog in the UK in January 2016 and a very green Dan Wharton filmed an interview, which is available on Youtube. Speaking of European fans Aaron admires ‘the people’ and their ‘appreciation for country music’; crowds are ‘less rowdy’ than in the States.

In a 2018 interview Aaron told a more experienced Dan of his love of the UK: ‘Maybe it’s because my last name is Watson! It’s such an honour to have people enjoy my music from so far away. The UK is as important as a touring destination as the East Coast of the USA. These people are passionate about country music. Fans in the UK are maybe better music critics: they dig a little deeper, it’s not about the party song. They’re listening to melodies and lyrics and a lot of times they’re more into who wrote the song, not the “star” that’s singing it.’ And yes, he did air-quotes around star.

Dan asks Aaron about being a chart-topping independent artist in the country charts. ‘I thank God for blessing me with such loyal fans. Getting to do what I love for a living…We had success and we continued to work hard and keep doing what we do. I’m gonna keep giving it my best.

‘I don’t really have a bucket list. I just take every day and try to make the most of it. Every day is such a blessing. If you have these things, you’re gonna miss a lot of wonderful things along the way. I never thought I’d get to sing with Willie, play the Grand Ol Opry…’

In 2017 I wrote weekly Country Radio Updates for Your Life in a Song. At the time it was the era of Body Like a Back Road, the biggest country song in decades. Coming up was another big song, Outta Style, the lead single from Vaquero. ‘Rather than chase after hits, we’re chasing after heart,’ Aaron told Dan in 2018. ‘Vaquero was a bigger success [than The Underdog], but it came it at number 2. It was the number 1 seller.’

Outta Style, however, is Aaron’s biggest smash. The song was the little engine that could, rising and never stalling. In my early updates I was amazed at how it got into the thirties, which is awesome for any act without major-label support; some labels give promotions departments six-figure sums to call radio stations and get them to rotate their latest hit. It’s a game and Aaron was playing it too.

The remarkable thing was that it kept climbing. Here’s what I wrote in April 2017 when Outta Style had moved from 40 to 33: ‘It’s one of the songs of the year, putting you in a good mood, referencing Eric Church in the first line (“if every memory is like a melody…”) and putting the case for indie country, a relatively new genre. As you’ll know from this site, Aaron is both a great guy and a great ambassador for country music.’

The next week I made a foolish promise: ‘I will keep featuring this song here until it leaves the 40; sitting at 32 is Brett Eldredge, while Drake White is at 34. Both acts are just as talented but have millions of dollars behind them; Aaron is doing it for the little guy, and he’ll never go outta style!’

By May he had edged up to number 30 but then dropped to 36. In June he played CMA Fest and clambered back up the thirties. In his 26th week on the charts Outta Style had equalled its peak position of number 29. Something was definitely going on and as summer became fall he was climbing, hitting number 26. I compared Outta Style to one of Bruce Springsteen’s best, with a ‘nagging riff’. The song went on to peak at 10 on radio…the week before Christmas 2017, a whole year after entering the 40.

Over summer 2018 Dan caught up with Aaron twice: once in Colorado, again on his tour bus, to get a situation report before he visited the UK in September to play second in the bill to Carrie Underwood. With Carrie suffering from the effects of pregnancy Aaron ended up headlining the night: ‘I never consider myself the headliner,’ Aaron told Dan backstage at The Long Road in the second interview: ‘Just the last guy that gets to play. My job is to give the fans their money’s worth.

2018 saw Aaron release two albums: a Christmas album with vocals from him and his family, and a live album which included Run Wild Horses and Outta Style, the two singles from Vaquero. The former song is another song about Aaron’s wife with a cinematic mood; it was the album’s centrepiece.

‘We’ve worked hard,’ Aaron told Dan about the top 10 placing of Outta Style. ‘We have a solid business model and honestly I let radio know: better get used to me cos we’re not gonna go away! I don’t wanna sign a record deal. I take pride in being an independent artist, and it’s important to my fans that I stay independent.

‘Other artists can see me achieve these things and know it is very possible for them. Maybe we can knock down some walls that have been keeping a lot of independent artists back over the years.

‘The joy of being independent is that Aaron gets to ‘choose my path, the songs I wanna sing. I’m writing every song on my next record. I’m not the best singer, the best performer but my strength is my songwriting. I want to grow as a writer.’

On his fans, Aaron says that they are ‘so excited. Seeing their excitement gets me excited!’ One audience member in the UK had connected with Aaron’s music and consoled her in her life: ‘That’s the power of music. Just that lady made the whole trip worthwhile.’

Speaking nine months before the release of Red Bandana, Aaron said he had 20 songs he was ‘confident in. There’s some rockabilly, lots of folk-sounding songs.’ Referencing the Beatles album with the white cover, nicknamed The White Album but properly called The Beatles; ‘The freedom as artists, there’s a lot to learn from that. You don’t want to give people ten songs. You want to give them a journey, to go back to year after year after year to become something more meaningful every time they hear it.’

Elaborating on the Beatle theme, he told Dan in the van that Paul McCartney was just as capable of writing Blackbird as he was Drive My Car (‘Beep beep, beep beep, YEAH!’). ‘I take a sharp turn and throw you,’ Aaron promised a week before the release of Red Bandana as Dan caught up with him in Nashville. ‘I needed to give those fans something and they needed to know that every word was straight out of my heart.

‘I put a lot of work into the flow of this record. Three or four moments connect, so the music never stops. The whole album’s continuous. In a world where everyone is putting out these three-song EPs…’ At this Aaron sighs. ‘I can’t stand EPs! A true music lover wants an album they can live with: it’s like books – do you want a whole book or just a couple of chapters?’

‘I’m catching my stride as a songwriter,’ he adds. ‘I don’t want to be Luke Bryan or Sam Hunt – those guys are great – but I want to be a songwriter.’ Judge for yourself with Red Bandana.

Grady Smith, who is a sort of independent broadcaster with a Youtube channel and a podcast, tweeted to his 11,600 followers that Aaron ‘WENT FOR IT. This album is kinda crazy but I love it. It has a heart.’

Aaron is guilty on both counts: crazy because of how ambitious it is, heartfelt because of the passion and tenderness in the ballads. Reviewing it on his popular Youtube channel, Grady enjoyed the ‘earnestness, passion [and the] honest display of emotion’ on Red Bandana, contrasting it with the punk and bombast of fellow Texan act Koe Wetzel. Grady loves the opening song Ghost of Guy Clark where Aaron is ‘planting his flag’ and outlining his credo.

Like me, Grady (a man of taste) loves Country Radio and the ‘slow and gorgeous’ To Be The Moon. The song Legends, which starts by naming Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and the pastor Billy Graham, is an academic lecture in country music with a shuffle.

The first disc is very strong indeed: Dark Horse has a Aaron chanting how he has ‘a chip on my shoulder but it doesn’t weigh me down’; Old Friend will be a live favourite, a song about love and life with a chugging four-chord rhythm that both sounds like and namechecks Tom Petty; Am I Amarillo is a modern standard, a kitchen-sink drama and break-up song. The songwriting, as it is throughout the album, is beautiful.

On Disc 2 we hear the suite Riding With Red/ Red Bandana, which explains why Aaron wears that item in concert. Over accordions and guitars and with a tremendous orchestral outro, Aaron lingers on the words ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust’. Trying Like The Devil, like Kiss That Girl Goodbye, is fun and fluffy, except here we’ve got some banjo. Country radio seems robotic in comparison with such an organic album, rich in the sort of Nashville Sound that used to come out of country radio back in the day.

I would have trimmed some of the ‘fourth side’ and finished with the excellent Home Sweet Home, which is Track 15, on which Aaron calls himself ‘a tired troubadour, a hopeless romantic, a vagabond that don’t belong’. His scene painting rivals Bruce Springsteen or Guy Clark, which is handy when Guy’s ghost popped up on Track 1.

Also on ‘side four’ are a pair of love songs: You On My Hands and To Be The Moon. The latter is just outstanding, a Hollywood-tinged love song that rivals When You Wish Upon a Star or City of Stars.

Meanwhile Kyle Coroneos aka Trigger, the man who is ‘Saving Country Music’ at the website of the same name, ran the rule over Red Bandana. Unlike Trigger’s favourite acts – Cody Johnson, Tyler Childers, Sturgill Simpson – Aaron stayed away from major-label overtures, even though he has ‘commercial appeal’, to quote Aaron’s satirical song Fence Post. Trigger loves ‘how involved and lush’ the orchestration is: ‘This isn’t just a country record; it’s a Western record, a cowboy record.’

The week after Tom Petty died, Aaron wrote Old Friend, a song with his influence and ‘being kind to others. It’s a fun song,’ he told Dan. ‘I love playing that one live. My oldest boy Jake listens to it nonstop.’ Jake has his dad’s talent for guitars and drums: ‘He just wants to play.’ Aaron’s middle child loves Heartstrings. ‘She asked me to teach her how to write a song. I showed her how to put chords to it. I wrote that song for her, so she loves it!’ There is ‘no greater compliment’ than having daddy’s music coming from the kids’ rooms.

Awarding the album 1¾ guns up (8/5 out of 10), Trigger says the album is ‘ambitious in its goals, inspiring in its scope and nearly flawless in its execution.’ Its composer is ‘one of a kind’.

Aaron told a revealing anecdote to Rolling Stone in 2015: ‘I let Luke Bryan open up for me in 2009, and the whole deal was that I was supposed to go out to the southeast and open up some shows for him. Six years later, I’m still waiting for that phone call.’ Whatever happened to Luke Bryan?

As a coda to Red Bandana, at Track 20 Aaron adds 58, a song lasting that number of seconds which was written at the request of bereaved fans who lost friends and loved ones at the Route 58 disaster.

58 lost their lives, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives/ 58 every daughter and son left a long trail of tears along 91/ 58 got wings way too soon waltzing across the stars and the moon/ 58 angels singing along forever missed. This is your song.

Red Bandana is out now on BIG Label Records.


The UK Country Top 40 Chart Countdown: Fortnight Commencing August 19 2019

August 23, 2019

Bubbling Under: Rosey Cale – Mary Jane

40 RE-ENTRY Holly Rose Webber – Heartbreaker

39 Hannah Paris – Never Bring Me Down

38 Jess and the Bandits – Don’t Let Me Take You Home

37 The Fatherline – Before The Trend Set In

36 NEW Kevin McGuire – The Night Is Young (T.N.I.Y.)

35 Backwoods Creek – When I Grow Up

34 Holloway Road – Lightning

33 NEW Elles Bailey – Deeper

32 Laura Oakes – The Middle

31 Remember Monday – Drive

30 Katy Hurt – Unfinished Business

29 Curse of Lono – Valentine

28 Foreign Affairs – Faded

27 Robert Vincent – Lady

26 Liv Austen – Detour

25 O&O – Tears in the Rain

24 Gasoline & Matches – Tequila’s a Healer

23 Jessie Buckley – Glasgow (No Place Like Home)

22 Izzie Walsh – Clouded Mind

21 Megan O’Neill – Lonely Weekend

20 Danny McMahon – Boys Cry Too

19 The Southern Companion – Cigarette Row (Five O Clock Freedom)

18 Ferris & Sylvester – Flying Visit

17 Jess Thristan – Time of our Lives

16 Clara Bond – Crown

15 Jade Helliwell – Put It On You

14 Gary Quinn – Bumpin Into You

13 Two Ways Home – As I Leave

12 Jake Morrell – Freewheelin

11 Kezia Gill – Dead Ends and Detours

10 The Blue Highways – He Worked

9 Yola – Love All Night (Work All Day)

8 The Luck – Ready To Run

7 Sasha McVeigh – Rock Bottom

6 Wildwood Kin – Beauty in Your Brokenness

5 Catherine McGrath – Wild

4 The Adelaides – Good Love

3 Twinnie – Social Babies

2 Ward Thomas – One More Goodbye

1 Morganway – Let Me Go

Hear the chart at mixcloud.com/blastocast from August 25 2019

The playlist with all songs in full: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/6HVF5xDxWo8vsXb2Yr2Y7n?si=pacmF3uVR_eascWt9kX2gA


The UK Country Top 40 Chart Countdown: Fortnight Commencing August 5 2019

August 11, 2019

Bubbling Under: Traveller – Old Stories

40 Emily Faye – Little Bit Of You ft Jake Morrell

39 Jeannine Barry – Love Just Hurts

38 Hannah Paris – Never Bring Me Down

37 Jess and the Bandits – Don’t Let Me Take You Home

36 Liv Austen – Detour

35 Ferris & Sylvester – Flying Visit

34 Stuart Landon – The Shape I’m In

33 Jessie Buckley – Glasgow (No Place Like Home)

32 The Fatherline – Before The Trend Set In

31 Izzie Walsh – Clouded Mind

30 Laura Oakes – The Middle

29 Gasoline & Matches – Tequila’s a Healer

28 Backwoods Creek – When I Grow Up

27 Wildwood Kin – Never Alone

26 Jess Thristan – The Old Me

25 Holloway Road – Lightning

24 RE-ENTRY O&O – Tears in the Rain

23 Katy Hurt – Natchez

22 Remember Monday – Drive

21 Megan O’Neill – Lonely Weekend

20 Gary Quinn – Bumpin Into You

19 NEW Curse of Lono – Valentine

18 Foreign Affairs – You’ve Got a Friend In Me

17 Robert Vincent – Lady

16 The Southern Companion – Cigarette Row (Five O Clock Freedom)

15 Jade Helliwell – Put It On You

14 Two Ways Home – As I Leave

13 Jake Morrell – Freewheelin

12 Danny McMahon – Boys Cry Too

11 Kezia Gill – Dead Ends and Detours

10 RE-ENTRY Catherine McGrath – Wild

9 Ward Thomas – One More Goodbye

8 The Blue Highways – He Worked

7 Yola – Love All Night (Work All Day)

6 NEW The Luck – Ready To Run

5 NEW Sasha McVeigh – Rock Bottom

4 Clara Bond – Crown

3 The Adelaides – Good Love

2 Twinnie – Social Babies

1 Morganway – Let Me Go

Hear the radio show based on this chart at mixcloud.com/blastocast.

A playlist of all the tracks on this chart can be found here.