Ka-Ching…With Twang – Big Releases by UK Acts of 2020 so far

April 23, 2020

In this four-part series, I’ve looked back over big albums released in the early part of 2020, as well as those by bands touring albums which came out at the end of 2019. For the final part, I will look at some impressive albums by acts based in the UK: Ags Connolly, Twinnie, Two Ways Home and the Top 3 album by The Shires

It is very rare indeed for UK country acts to release albums. They must be on a major label, bankrolled by the likes of Sony, Warner or Universal; they need to be playing venues like the Shepherd’s Bush Empire and the Sage in Gateshead; and they need to be part of a marketing plan.

Album acts bring people into the genre and prompt a closer examination of what’s going on in the scene, which is populated by fantastic live acts who cannot afford to produce and market a full album. The first months of 2020 have seen three major-label releases, while I also love a 2019 release which has gained traction. Those four albums are indicative of the breadth of music – poppy, traditional and a mix of the two – that make up the UK country movement.

The 2019 release to mention is Oxford-based singer-songwriter Ags Connolly. If you’re on the hunt for something more traditional, with acoustic instruments and a voice than can come from a hollow in the South of America, Ags is your chap and his album Wrong Again is your tonic. Interviewed in 2014 by the magazine Country Music People, there was a pull quote: ‘If you’re expecting to hear something like what is called country now, that’s not what it’s going to be.’

Ags was in his lane, while acts like The Shires (to be discussed below), Laura Oakes and Ward Thomas were in theirs. As with Ashley McBryde and Brandy Clark, John Prine exerts a big influence on Ags, who wrote on Twitter: ‘One of the great American writers of our time, or any time.’

Of course there were more traditional bands across the country, and line-dancing clubs; the UK wing of the Americana Music Association was just getting going in the mid-2010s, though Ags remains adamant that he is country, not Americana. (Defining the latter term is impossible but acts like John Prine and Lucinda Williams are in it.)

His album Wrong Again has a champion in Bob Harris, who admires Ags’ ‘modern day traditionalism’. Great, truthful lyrics on the album abound over ten songs with three or four chords, whose titles alone evoke country music: What Were You Gonna Do About It, Indian Sign (‘I played this whole country in a 20-year-old car’) and Early Morning Rain (‘I’m a long way from home’) are four of them. Sad Songs Forever, naturally, is a major-key romp led by fiddle and pedal steel.

The arrangements and instrumentation are sublime: there’s pedal steel all over The Meaning of the Word, which is set to a oom-cha beat; accordion brings melancholy to Lonely Nights in Austin; there’s a neat fiddle solo in the middle of Wrong Again (You Lose a Life), and a punchy bit of electric guitar punctuates Say It Out Loud.

Ags has a little bit of a whistle in his voice, as if he’s chewing on some corn, which adds to the authenticity of his sound. It’s an ambient country album that will fit alongside any great singer of the last 70 years. Catch him on tour when you get the chance to do so.

After a crowdfunding campaign, Two Ways Home were able to release their first album, Break The Silence, in February 2020. It showcases the sweet harmonies of Lewis and Isi, who can do uptempo and slowies inspired by country songwriting, though the arrangements are sometimes more pop/rock. The groovier tunes on the album including the opening pair of Broken Hearts Club (which has some great woahs) and Speed Of Anything, as well as the toe-tapper Out on the Road. All there were singles released with promo videos which you can view on Youtube.

The bluesy pair Standing Still (‘are you lost in the crossfire of hope and broken dreams?’) and Prove Me Wrong show that Two Ways Home can do Southern rock-inflected tunes; the former cranking up into a muscular chorus, the latter starting with the chorus and containing the hardest guitars on the album. Nostalgia – ‘for something that ain’t mine…I must be colorblind’ – is a majestic ballad with understated production written with Katy Hurt and her guitarist Gab. Katy is yet to release a full-length album but her EP Unfinished Business is terrific.

Tattoo is the best song here, lyrically and musically: it’s a country lyric because the band bring to life all sorts of tattoos (‘on your shoulders hope and glory/ The wings on your back are taking flight’) while adding a melancholic middle eight. The big song is the closing track, The Ocean, on which Isi takes lead vocals while singing about devotion. It’s their ‘wedding song’ and demands that the listener waves a lighter aloft.

The title track, written with underrated UK artist Joe Martin, sees the duo trading lines over a country shuffle as they dance around the silence that their love will break. Again the middle eight (actually a middle six!) is gorgeous, proving that the pair know how a song is structured, and there’s room for a few bars of guitar solo. It’s a promising debut from two very lovely musicians. Look out for my feature on the band from 2019, which I’ll pop onto this site soon.

I’ve spent time in this series talking about a band’s place in the market and The Shires are market leaders. They were the first to break through, thanks to huge support from BBC Radio 2 and Bob Harris, and have played illustrious venues at home and abroad, including popping up at CMA Fest in Nashville. Their music must appeal to a broad fanbase, putting them in the pop-country bracket that holds the likes of Lady Antebellum and Little Big Town, which is not just a lazy mixed-groups comparison.

The Shires put out their fourth album Good Years on what has turned into a very bad year. Their UK tour to promote the album has been postponed, and when Country2Country was cancelled the duo were unable to fill in as main stage replacements for Old Dominion. A Greatest Hits set had been put out to gather the best of their first three albums to prepare new fans for Good Years.

The song New Year was premiered on Bob’s show and impressed me with its emotional depth. It’s a slushy song that hones in on the moment one year ticks into the next and, brilliantly, is a major-label credit for Kaity Rae, who will barring catastrophe become one of the great songwriters in the UK country movement. She also wrote Tattoo with Two Ways Home. Meanwhile, Cam gives them Lightning Strikes, the album’s poppy opening track.

Fingersnap percussion runs throughout People Like Us (‘cos I like us just the way we are’) while Better Place starts with a hookup and ends with a desire to ‘stay with you all of my days’. The ballads, so often saccharine and lachrymose on the first two Shires albums, have been improved thanks to the production of Lindsay Rimes who, as well as producing the band’s third album, has worked wonders with Thomas Rhett and Kane Brown. This makes Good Years the most complete Shires album by far.

Country music listeners like their alcohol and, as if seeing a gap in the market, The Shires sing Thank You Whiskey (‘Pour it on the rocks, we’ll be alright’), which should be a single and will certainly impress live venues whose punters will see the association and head to the bar to ‘raise a toast to the highs and lows’.

One complaint is that the ‘woahs’ are somewhat overused; Independence Day’s entire middle eight is guilty here. Another cavil is that the production is right in the middle of the road but, as discussed, this is an album that had a shot at being the UK’s number one. It peaked at three, which is pretty good going. It wouldn’t be awful if The Shires represented the UK at Eurovision – country act The Common Linnets did very well for the Netherlands – and their music sounds like all things to all people.

The Shires sound great. Both singers can sing – not such an essential part of being a singer in 2020 – and are especially good on About Last Night, a song about the first spark of romance which would appeal to Lady Antebellum fans; in fact, it sounds like ten Lady A songs in one. Ben has, I think, been instructed to sing more like Charles Kelley, of whom he is a long-time fan, which gives his voice more depth and heft than on earlier Shires albums.

The album’s other ballads include On The Day I Die (‘You better dance, don’t cry’) and the nostalgic Only Always. ‘Do I ever think about you still that way?’ goes the chorus, with a gentle mandolin high up in the mix. Closing track Crazy Days has real strings on it, something beyond the reach of many UK country acts. With more investment from major labels, the likes of The Southern Companion and Jake Morrell will follow Laura Oakes, Kezia Gill, Ward Thomas, The Wandering Hearts and The Shires onto the Radio 2 playlist and into the hearts of millions. Laura’s new five-track EP is on streaming services now, while Kezia’s single Another You is her best yet.

Kezia performed that track as part of the Radio 2 Country Festival, headlined by The Shires, which aired in lieu of the Country2Country coverage. Twinnie and The Adelaides were the other UK performers; the latter have also played a session for Michael Ball’s Sunday brunch show, while Twinnie is on the current Radio 2 Playlist with her single I Love You Now Change. It’s country in the way that Ingrid Andress and Kelsea Ballerini are: a little bit smart with the lyrics, elegant in the delivery but pop music in all but name.

The York-born singer, who I am obliged to say has performed on stage and screen as an actress (The Wife alongside Glenn Close, a brief run in Hollyoaks), turned down the offer to be the female voice in The Shires, and indeed co-wrote a track that made it onto Brave. Her chat with Matt Spracklen for No Chords But The Truth is a great introduction to Twinnie: she is magnetic, opinionated and very good at her job.

Being ‘half Hollywood, half gypsy’, she has called her debut album Hollywood Gypsy. It is Radio 2’s Album of the Week, which means approximately 8.5m listeners have heard tracks from it across the week during Ken Bruce’s mid-morning show and on the Midnight Shift.

Fans of Twinnie have waited five years for Hollywood Gypsy, throughout which time she has released several tracks which have ended up on it. The sombre Social Babies, all about how disastrous social media is (until the Corona era, at least) followed the chirpy Better When I’m Drunk (‘you taste better with a lime and salt!’).

Album and live show opener Type Of Girl, formerly T.O.G., has been given a makeover. The song’s 2020 release came with a brilliant video in which Twinnie plays ‘a fifties stereotype’, Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe. The tracks are country in as much as the lyrics are intelligent – ‘Vincent painted a masterpiece, Newton discovered gravity/You’ve got the impossible job of just loving me’ – but this is pop music with drum loops and pop cadences. If it means fans of Twinnie head to gigs by Two Ways Home, so much the better.

Lie To Me, a showcase for Twinnie’s terrific voice, was co-written with Jon Green, who has just had a number one on country radio with Lady Antebellum’s track What If I Never Get Over You. Superhero, another ballad, was written with Lucie Silvas: ‘I guess I’m human after all…I thought I was invincible’ is a raw, very country line. I remember being impressed when I heard it live in London and Blackpool last year, when I saw Twinnie at Nashville Meets London and The British Country Music Festival respectively.

Chasing, with a light dusting of banjo, comes off a lot like a Ward Thomas song in the verse – there’s a gap in the market while the girls are working on their fourth album – but is definitely ‘Twinnie’ in the chorus. The words trip over one another: ‘I should be finding me a nice guy…Rollercoaster taking me high then it’s over’ is her conclusion, and it sums up her love life. The album’s title track defines who she is, ‘smoking at the age of 10’ and able to ‘roll with the crowd’ in whichever company she is in. Telling your life in a song is pretty country.

The new tracks on the album mainly occupy its second half. More is almost a dating profile in song: Twinnie is ‘your puzzle’ who wants something physical with her new beau. ‘Show me that you’re worth it, show me you deserve it,’ she cries. It’s a great pop production. Live favourite Daddy Issues, with its gentle opening section, becomes a hoedown, which is definitely country. ‘Why do good, good women stay with bad, bad men?’ picks up on a theme introduced in Chasing, giving the album a coherence.

Feeling of Falling has a Mumford stomp and is another aspect of Twinnie’s personality in song – ‘it’s a rollercoaster’ is a motif she has already used on the album, but here it describes the uncertainty of ‘the unknown’. It’s relatable and Twinnie wears her scars visibly, in spite of her brilliant stage presence. Album closer Whiplash sees Twinnie ask her beau to ‘hurt me’ like a car crash. It’s an odd metaphor: why not get rocked like a wagon wheel instead? She continues, comparing him to a lethal poison. ‘The pieces fall apart’ picks up the jigsaw metaphor from More.

As befits a stage performer, the ballads are stunning on Hollywood Gypsy, and she hits every note spot on. Given the chance, Twinnie will become a major pop star and we’ve certainly been waiting long enough for a UK-based one of those.

I will not hesitate to compare her to Lizzo, with the same vulnerabilities and vocal excellence. There’s only one Twinnie, though. It’s up to us, the listener, to listen to her.


Ka-Ching…With Twang – Big Releases by ‘Girl Singers’ of 2020 so far

April 23, 2020

The third part of this piece will cover albums by Ashley McBryde and Brandy Clark.

I have likened the country music marketplace to a stall full of apples where there’s an apple for everyone but some will leave a taste that lingers long after the bite. When it comes to female acts, there are four notable acts (three solo singers and a duo) who have launched new releases (or apples) into the marketplace (or stall) in early 2020.

In the early stages of what will hopefully be a career to last as long as Lady A or Little Big Town, Ingrid Andress unveiled an eight-track LP called Lady Like which contained the top ten radio hit More Hearts Than Mine: ‘If we break up I’ll be fine’, she sings of how the split will really bite for her family members. Happily, the song has spent much of the last six months rocketing up the radio chart and is being positioned to hit the top spot some time in April or May, just after I Hope by Gabby Barrett. Things are looking better for the ‘girl singer’ in country radio.

What is Ingrid bringing to the marketplace? Solid songs like More Hearts Than Mine and Lady Like, a poppy song which namechecks the Mona Lisa and has a melodic bridge: ‘Controversial, so outspoken/ I’ve been told that I’m not lady like…but I’m a lady like woah!’

The album as a whole has the feel of Meghan Trainor, especially on opener Bad Advice, Life of the Party (‘I’m killin’ it, it’s 3am still going strong!’) and We’re Not Friends, which documents the transition from friends to lovers. I found the production a little too overwhelming (I would prefer an acoustic album) but the strings are excellent throughout. If you’re a young woman looking for a guide to life, Ingrid Andress can be it.

Also finding an audience of smart young women are Maddie & Tae, who finally put their second album The Way It Feels into the world on Good Friday 2020. It took four years to be released as a whole and, like Sam Hunt’s album, is almost a greatest hits collection of that period.

First single Friends Don’t, a poppy love song, came out as far back as May 2018, with the gorgeous Die from a Broken Heart going to radio at the end of the year. Both songs featured on the One Heart to Another EP, which entered the market in April 2019 around the same time as the debut album by trio Runaway June. Finally, women not called Miranda or Carrie were being given a chance on country radio, which acts still had to cosy up to in order to secure an audience. In any case, young people were streaming Maddie & Tae’s music.

Also on that EP were One Heart to Another (‘from one ex to the next lover’), the funky New Dog Old Tricks – on which the girls rap the line ‘trust fund beard like Moses’ and which was written by the super trio of Emily Weisband, Jesse Frasure and Laura Veltz – and Tourist in this Town. On that last tender song, the narrator avoids familiar places where they would bump into people and be asked about why she was single. It’s a country song.

The title track of the EP Everywhere I’m Goin opens the album. It’s a song about their husbands, much like Trying On Rings, with gorgeous harmonies, a singalong melody and smart lyrics that take the listener on a tour of the USA: ‘He’s as cool as California/ Homegrown like they do it in Georgia…Strong like a Tennessee hickory’ and so on, movingly. This sounds like a huge radio smash, but not these days. There are other audiences to serve, who are younger than radio’s key demographic of 35-54.

The younger person will love Bathroom Floor, an encouragement to ‘get up girl!’ over two chords, as well as Ain’t There Yet. Dierks Bentley is drafted in on the ballad Lay Here with Me but let’s overlook the fact that he’s duetting with a duo.

Of the ‘brand new’ songs, two are chirpy and three are slow. The former are: My Man, which asks listeners to ‘put your hands up if you’re crazy in love’; and Write a Book (‘I’m shook!’), which compares love to a ‘New York Times bestseller’. Both songs are perfect for Youtube montages of ‘relationship goals’.

The three new slowies show the same variety in tone that the pair displayed on their debut album: Drunk Or Lonely takes it down a notch as the girls complain of 2am phone calls from a guy who can’t move on; Water In His Wine Glass is a hymn to God (the girls are very religious) sung over plinking acoustic guitar, wishing sobriety on a loved one; and I Don’t Need to Know is an MOR ballad which would fit on a Radio 2 playlist alongside Kelsea Ballerini and Ward Thomas.

The album The Way It Feels has had a very modern rollout strategy, coupled with lost record deals and life changes. Maddie & Tae’s young audience will know all the songs through streaming them repeatedly and will appreciate the five new tracks. Spotify figures are impressive for an act with little country radio play: as of Good Friday, Die From A Broken Heart has been streamed more times than their smash number one hit Girl in a Country Song. Friends Don’t isn’t far behind. Teen county-pop, as heard on the likes of Radio Disney Country, is a viable genre.

If you know a girl under the age of 20, they would love this album but it’s likely they know who they are. Since 2015 the girls have opened for Dierks Bentley, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, who took them and Runaway June on tour with her in 2019. When life resumes, they will open up for Lady Antebellum on their Ocean tour.

For girls over the age of 20, Brandy Clark and Ashley McBryde are your best bets.

Brandy is revered in Nashville for writing the smashes Better Dig Two, Mama’s Broken Heart and Follow Your Arrow, as well as two solo albums full of gritty realism and gorgeous melodies. Soap Opera, Love Can Go To Hell, Stripes (‘I don’t look good in orange and I hate stripes!’) and Take a Little Pill are four of them. Shane McAnally, a fellow gay songwriter whose sexuality is only remarkable when remarked upon, said of his good friend: ‘I don’t know anybody better at telling a story with just a few words. She’s serving the song and the story and then she gets out of the way.’

On Brandy’s third album Your Life is a Record, her focus is on the break-up of her long-term relationship, placing the album in the long line of such albums in the rock and pop canon. There’s a mix of the jaunty and the melancholic, much like Brandy’s hero John Prine, who passed away a few weeks after Brandy put her new album into the world.

Because I prefer the jaunty to the ballad, the kiss-offs Long Walk and Who Broke Whose Heart grabbed me on first listen: the former imagines the addressee walking ‘off a real short pier’, while the latter places a swear word in the chorus following the words ‘all I know’s I loved you’. The funniest track is a duet with Randy Newman, which quotes the famous line from Jaws: ‘We’re gonna need a bigger boat.’ The final verse is the best: ‘We’re springing a leak, we’re coming apart/ We’re on the Titanic but we think it’s an ark’ must be the result of a brainstorming session coming up with ideas for famous boats.

The sad songs include album opener I’ll Be the Sad Song – country music is nothing if not literal! – on which Brandy sets out the album’s subject. ‘That last verse, you wanna change it’ is a wonderfully sad line, while Pawn Shop opens with the arresting line, ‘She pushed her wedding ring across the counter’, as Brandy trades jewels for a bus ticket. The elegant waltz Love is a Fire (written with the aforementioned Shane McAnally) runs with the motif of the title. ‘Kiss me like kerosene’ is another bumper sticker of a line.

Who You Thought I Was, released as a teaser for the album, seems autobiographical: Brandy wanted to be Elvis Presley, a circus performer and a cowboy ‘til I met you…now I wanna be the me I should have been when we were together.’ This is John Prine level stuff, or John Prine writing with Adele. On Bad Car, over a gentle guitar shuffle, Brandy mourns an old car which has ‘broke down’. No pop music (or indeed music that gets sent to country radio) does this sort of thing.

Can We Be Strangers, which sounds like a Muscle Shoals cut from the 1970s, contains real horns, strings, drums and lyrics as Brandy wants a complete break: ‘I don’t wanna hate you or even care enough to’ is the key lyric of the chorus. The album drifts off into the distance on The Past is the Past, with a gorgeous instrumental outro. This is a masterful album that deserves as wide an audience as possible.

Jay Joyce produced both Your Life is a Record and Never Will, the second album by Arkansas-born Ashley McBryde. The pair make a decent couplet, best enjoyed one after the other with a single malt whiskey in your hand. Once again, fans of Eric Church will find much to enjoy in Ashley’s catalogue, which is no coincidence as Jay also helps sculpt the sound of Eric’s records.

At 36, Ashley is one of the older acts to have won CMA New Artist of the Year, which she did in 2019 after a decade playing dive bars and biker hangouts. Her album Girl Going Nowhere was GRAMMY nominated despite the title track not doing much on radio. Not even her song Radioland gained traction, which proves something is awry on radio.

Nonetheless Ashley has taken the lead from Kacey Musgraves: throwing crumbs to radio but gaining fans one at a time, especially playing live. UK crowds have filled bigger and bigger venues to see Ashley from London’s Borderline on her first visit in 2018 to medium-sized venues like the Shepherd’s Bush Empire and, in Country2Country 2019, the likes of SSE Hydro in Glasgow and London’s O2 Arena. As things stand she is due to come to Britain in the autumn, including dates at the Camden Roundhouse and Glasgow’s mighty Barrowlands Ballroom.

Ashley trailed the album Never Will with a trilogy of music videos. The melancholic One Night Standards, a song about meaningless pickup sex in a motel room written with Shane McAnally, sounds like a cigarette burning gently in an ashtray. ‘Lonely makes a heart ruthless’ distils the whole enterprise in one line.

Album opener Hang In There Girl comes off as an older sister talking to a teenage girl: ‘I’ve been right there at the end of that drive…Tangled up in the small town weeds, dreaming of the day you leave’. It’s of the Born To Run school of rock.

The drums on Martha Divine set up the opposite of a murder ballad, as Ashley gets her shovel and sets about righting a wrong by bringing hard to ‘Jezebel’. This will be the highlight of her live set when the world becomes normal again.

Brandy Clark herself co-writes two tracks on the album. Voodoo Doll is driven by a stomping beat and bluegrass feel, over which Ashley sings of putting a curse on an ex-lover, it seems. It breaks into a guitar wigout halfway through which may push Ashley into the rock market. Sparrow comes directly after it and is a proper country ballad about being out on the road: ‘Jack and Coke, a sleeping pill/ Living a dream’ yet thinking of home.

Never Will picks up the theme but sets its lyric to heartland rock in the vein of Petty, Springsteen and Seger, music that nobody makes any more. It’s another song with fire in the lyric, a theme which unites the album and will be a decent thesis for someone working on the paper ‘Ashley McBryde: Standing Inside The Fire’. (Garth Brooks is a huge fan.)

Velvet Red begins with a few bars of a cappella, giving the song a classic feel which is sustained in the effect given to Ashley’s voice. I don’t know the technical name but it sounds muffled. The plot of the song is: Boy meets girl, girl goes ‘sneakin’ out’ to see boy, something happens in the third verse that I’ll spoil by telling you about. Stone, written about her brother, is another proper country song which lists how ‘there’s throwin’ ones and rollin’ ones….The steppin’ kind, the steady kind’ before concluding that she and her late brother are ‘cut from the same stone’. The song was written with Nicolette Hayford, whose brother died in combat.

Like Brandy, and indeed like the late John Prine, Ashley can be funny or wry. The toe-tapper First Thing I Reach For (‘is the last thing I need’) is in the tradition of morning-after songs, as Ashley wakes up after a heavy night with a stranger which served to ‘keep away the lonely’. On Shut Up Sheila, she sighs at a friend who is trying to console her with religious piety: ‘This here is a family thing’ will resonate with every Southerner who doesn’t follow the Good Book to the letter.

In honour of her late friend Randall Clay, Ashley performs his song Styrofoam as the album’s closing track. It opens with a spoken-word explanation of who invented it and why it’s useful, especially to keep beer cold in ’44-ounce cups’. It sounds like an idea on a Brad Paisley album and rounds off Never Will as a sort of bonus track; credit the record label for letting it sneak onto the tracklisting.

Thank goodness for Brandy Clark and Ashley McBryde, who have both made two great albums which will still be heard in ten years’ time.


Ka-Ching…With Twang – More of the Big Releases of 2020 so far

April 23, 2020

The second part of this piece on new releases in 2020 looks at other big hitters, ranging from The Cadillac Three to Little Big Town

Kelsea Ballerini and Sam Hunt have both played the O2 Arena, Kelsea in 2018 just under Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Sam as part of the 2016 iteration when many Carrie Underwood fans either headed to the bar or stayed to hear the hits sung by a swarthy chap.

In 2019, Country2Country welcomed two Big Machine acts who were working on new albums which have recently hit the marketplace. One of them came out at the end of 2019 but will be toured in 2020, while the other act released her second album on Valentine’s Day 2020.

That day was apt. Carly Pearce is now most famous for marrying Michael Ray, a hunky singer who named his album Amos after his grandpa but wrote not one word of any song. Carly, whose song Every Little Thing was number one on radio, worked on four of the 13 tracks on her second self-titled album, one of which is I Hope You’re Happy Now. That song, co-written with Luke Combs, is sung with Lee Brice, who croons the second verse of a song which sounds perfect in between car commercials on country radio. Thomas Rhett and Kelsea Ballerini had a hand in writing Finish Your Sentences, a People magazine article attached to a plodding melody; indeed, Heart’s Going Out Of Its Mind sounds like a Kelsea tune, with a great bounce and a lyric about falling in love.

Because it’s a country album one of the tracks is called Dashboard Jesus, which uses the familiar Don’t Stop Believin chord progression and overlays a lyric about a girl going out to see the world with 50 bucks in your wallet. There’s a lovely dobro solo in the middle of it. On the other hand, there are poppy tracks like opener Closer To You and the ballads Love Has No Heart (a country songtitle) and It Won’t Always Be Like This, which are both immaculately sung; Carly’s CV includes a stint singing Dolly Parton songs at Dollywood so she’s no slouch as a singer. If you like the mellifluous tones of Hillary Scott, you’ll love Carly Pearce.

Handily Lady Antebellum, newly signed to Big Machine, will spend 2020 promoting their album Ocean. It’s a return to their ballad-saturated sound. The trio played a few new tracks on their C2C visit in 2019: Be Patient With My Love (‘I could use some Jesus’) was prefaced by an emotional speech from Charles Kelley, who seems to have overcome some personal issues in advance of the album’s release. The song is placed after What I’m Leaving For. If the band sing this with a screen behind them, expect a montage of family videos documenting each member’s ‘little paradise’ back home; indeed, on the ACM telecast during the quarantine period, Charles cuddled his son as he sung his part.

Song about faith, song about family; we’re in country music. Because it’s a country album one of the tracks is called Boots, an air-puncher of a track about devotion with a sweet breakdown section. Pictures is a sweet song about being ‘happy in pictures’ to hide the hurt in the relationship. Crazy Love, written by Charles, has a pretty fiddle solo in the middle of it, while You Can Do You is another widescreen Lady A tune about ‘searching for a good time’ and will fit well into their live set. I love the rhyme of ‘wallflower/ whiskey sour’.

The ballads, however, are what fans buy the record for. Album opener and radio smash What If I Never Get Over You goes big on Lady A’s MO and USP: harmonies and emotions. ‘The moving on is the hardest part’ is the second line of the song. Fun fact: one of the writers, Jon Green, is a Brit. Let It Be Love could have been on any of their other seven albums, with Dann Huff’s production foregrounding the vocals, which float on top of some twang. On A Night Like This, meanwhile, is stunning, especially the song’s bridge with its classic chord progressions and real string section.

The title track concludes the album. Ocean is a showstopper of a vocal performance by Hillary, extremely close mic’d and backed up by more real strings. Lyrics like ‘all I wanna do is swim, but the waves keep crashing in…I’m so tired of the shore’ made it a difficult song to record. If you like the band, you’ll love the album, the best since their debut which exists as a set of new songs to play in a set which will contain old favourites like Downtown, I Run To You, Hello World and of course Need You Now.

Like Lady A, Little Big Town are frequent visitors to the UK. The quartet have moved into the tier of ‘heritage acts’ who can always play Pontoon, Boondocks and of course Girl Crush while dotting their set with mature pop songs such as Sugar Coat and The Daughters. The former stems from another brilliant metaphor from the mind of Lori McKenna, while the latter is sung by two ladies who are both 50 years old and concerned for the next generation. Fun fact: heartbreak ballad Questions (‘with no intention of ever saying them out loud’) was written by Jon Green.

Both are songs on their ninth album Nightfall, which came out in January 2020. Aside from the party songs Over Drinking and Wine, Beer, Whiskey – the band can add these to their catalogue of songs about drink like Pain Killer and Day Drinking – the album sticks to its middle-of-the-road, grown-up feel. The quartet teamed up with the wizards behind Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves (who have also worked on Brett Eldredge’s forthcoming fourth album) and it sounds suitably lush, especially when the voices of all four singers reverberate during a chorus.

Lady A’s album brings together the two groups on The Thing That Wrecks You, a piece of adult contemporary fluff in which the supergroup sing about love and stuff. There’s something powerful about the second chorus, where all seven voices must have sounded phenomenal in the studio. Perhaps that’s how to get LBT on country radio; Thomas Rhett had a collaboration on his 2019 album, lest we forget.

For that reason, given that we know the processed beats that fill country radio in 2020, nothing on Nightfall would gain heavy rotation. It’s a SiriumXM album, not a Moondog in the Morning one. This may be intentional, as the band have said they have a much more uptempo album already recorded full of songs like the one-off single Summer Fever.

Philip’s tenor is rich on Forever and a Night and Kimberley’s alto sounds super on Throw Your Love Away (‘and I can’t give it back to you’), which is another song written with The Love Junkies, the folks that brought them Girl Crush. On album closer The Trouble with Forever, you can hear the air in the room vibrate as the guitars are being recorded, making it a very earthy major-label release.

Finally, I will mention two rockier albums released in the opening months of 2020. Dustin Lynch’s Tullahoma (named after his home town in Tennessee) is his fourth, and features the two radio airplay number ones Good Girl and Ridin Roads. Momma’s House is sure to become number three, even if it’s very plodding. Those three titles tell you everything you need to know about the album: it’s 11 songs about girls, small towns and rural life that appeal to boys and girls in small towns.

Pick any track and write down the list of rural stuff in the lyrics. Sometimes it’s novel: Country Star does at least place ‘steel guitar’ and ‘steal your heart’ in the same couplet. Track two is even called Dirt Road, which is a funky song of nostalgia that namechecks ‘fried chicken’ and ‘city limits’. It is suspiciously close to Kelsea’s A Country Song and is written by Ben Hayslip and Rhett Akins, who gave Dustin his career song Small Town Boy. It’s the album’s best track.

Tullahoma is an album made by committee and, although Dustin is a fun live performer as witnessed in his 2019 C2C set, none of these songs is in any way durable. At least it sounds like contemporary country music and not ‘country star does trap’.

Jaren Johnson has written plenty of great songs for other acts in the last decade, including Beachin for Jake Owen, Livin the Dream for Drake White, Raise Em Up for Keith Urban and Eric Church and Tim McGraw’s pair of Meanwhile Back at Mama’s and Southern Girl. Jake also recorded a version of Days of Gold, which was a track on the debut album by Jaren’s band, The Cadillac Three (TC3). They themselves haven’t really had a smash hit of their own; their reputation has come as a live act.

TC3 were unable to travel to the UK for Country2Country, which is a shame as they would have been an ideal warmup act for Eric Church. Fans of the Chief will have much to enjoy in Country Fuzz, the band’s fourth album, again released on Big Machine.

Many songs on Country Fuzz are focus-grouped party jams or beer advert soundtracks: Bar Round Here, The Jam, All The Makins of a Saturday Night, Crackin’ Cold Ones with the Boys, Raise Hell and Jack Daniels’ Heart, which ends with a hoedown! In a live setting, this is exactly what the crowds want; on record, a little more variety (or fewer tracks) would be nice.

Labels is driven by a superb riff, contemporary production and a clever lyric; I imagine many current acts would place this song on hold. Ditto Dirt Road Nights, with its smooth groove and nostalgic lyric about wanting to ‘hit the gas on the time machine’. Travis Tritt and Chris Janson are drafted in for Hard Out Here for a Country Boy, which pummels you over the head with blue-collar sentiments and Janson’s harmonica solo. Long After Last Call is a rocking love song which rounds the album off prettily but may get lost in the stream if people give up halfway through the second side. Back Home, not written by the band, uses several phrases with the word ‘back’ in it and is a proper ‘Nashville Writers Room’ song.

One thing that irked me while listening is that the whole album seems to be in the key of ‘drop D’, creating a numbing sonic uniformity that I didn’t get on Port Saint Joe, a similarly minded blues-rock album by Brothers Osborne. Listeners to albums by Dustin Lynch, Ingrid Andress, Little Big Town and Sam Hunt may also complain that ‘it all sounds the same’ but if an act wants a USP then they need ‘their sound’. Not for nothing are the best bands recognisable within the opening bars of any song.

Country Fuzz is more a rock album than a country album, just as Sam Hunt and Kelsea are pop acts. For authentic country, it’s best to head to Texas’ Red Dirt Scene or East Nashville’s hipster acts. Mainstream country music targets fans of rock and pop, bringing them into the genre gently and encouraging them to go to acts like Ashley McBryde and Brandy Clark who may be ‘too country’ for listeners of country radio.

Every act has a place in the market, and every shopper has an apple for them. Some apples are tastier than others, though.


Ka-Ching…With Twang – Big Releases of 2020 so far

April 23, 2020

In a four-part roundup I focus on releases from the first quarter of 2020. Future parts will focus on UK releases, female acts Ashley McBryde and Brandy Clark and major-label acts who borrow heavily from rock and middle-of-the-road pop.

This first part deals with new albums by two other pop acts in the country sphere: Kelsea Ballerini and Sam Hunt…

As I never tire of remembering, to quote Marty Stuart: country music has a briefcase in one hand and a guitar case in the other. Thus do record labels need to turn a profit by marketing country artists to an audience who may not have grown up in Tennessee or Georgia.

Some acts are busy with family commitments this year, which impact their ability to promote their album and thus accrue money for their record label. Maren Morris (on Sony) gave birth to her first child while Thomas Rhett (on Valory Music, an imprint of Big Machine) fathered his third: their albums GIRL and Center Point Road were both released in Spring 2019, meaning they would be touring songs on those albums over summer 2019 and through the end of 2020, before the Coronavirus scuppered their plans.

Regardless, Maren’s singles Girl and The Bones both had success on radio, while TR’s single Beer Can’t Fix looped four chords underneath a lyric about drinking through loneliness and heartbreak. Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic co-wrote the song, which went to country radio and will race up the charts: TR is known as an ‘automatic’.

Following other automatics like Keith Urban and Blake Shelton onto primetime TV, Luke Bryan was preparing his latest and seventh album Born Here Live Here Die Here. The chirpy Knockin Boots was followed by the crunching guitars of What She Wants Tonight (‘she gets what she wants and I get to be what she wants tonight’). One Margarita, a party song entirely sung over an A major chord, trailed the album weeks before the virus outbreak hit America. Luke and Kenny Chesney were to release the summer’s ‘too big to flop’ albums; Chesney prepared his audience for his album with the Ed Sheeran co-write Tip Of My Tongue and the power-chord riffage of Here and Now, tailor-made for stadium shows on his postponed Chillaxification tour. The song Knowing You is Classic Chesney, a gorgeous waltz that is one of the songs of the year so far.

Florida Georgia Line also previewed their fifth album with a forgettable track called I Love My Country which ticked off rural elements like a pastiche of a Country Song by Numbers. The Lord, fishing, hunting, drinking, wide open country, George Strait, Lynyrd Skynyrd, pretty girls, blue tick hounds and on and on, with a Joey Moi-produced guitar solo thrown in. FGL are the Nickelback of country music: there must be demand for their music or they wouldn’t keep bringing it to market.

As well as summer festivals and big tours, the pandemic meant that the UK leg of Country2Country 2020 was cancelled, the week after the Berlin edition took place. Thus the O2 Arena was deprived of the likes of Brett Young, Tanya Tucker, Charles Esten, Runaway June and three returning performers: Darius Rucker, Eric Church and Luke Combs.

Luke’s album What You See Is What You Get had knocked his debut This One’s For You off the top spot of the Country Albums chart in the US. Once again it was full of rocking blue-collar anthems about beer and hard work – he even convinced Eric Church to sing the third verse on Does To Me, Luke’s next big hit – as well as tearjerkers like Even Though I’m Leaving, Luke’s seventh number one. For the best take on Luke’s superstardom, Grady Smith made a video essay about him which you can find HERE.

Luke’s album was a marquee release from the end of 2019, and 2020 saw a couple of tentpole albums released close to one another. One came from a lady who launched the album with a CMT Crossroads show with Halsey, one of the world’s biggest popstars; the other was sung by a man who at the end of 2019 was arrested for driving under the influence.

Kelsea Ballerini is a terrific songwriter and performer. Her third album, the self-titled kelsea (all tracks are expressed in lower case), sees her adopt the Taylor Swift strategy of going pop but keeping at least two toes in country music. She is, after all, a Tennessee native who would never abandon her beloved folk down in the South. half of my hometown puts ten Taylor Swift songs into a blender and comes out with an acoustic-led pop song with a chorus on which Kenny Chesney provides harmonies.

The album as a whole is packed with elements of pop production, and will be marketed as such, much like Carrie Underwood’s before her. The melodic a country song consists of the vocalist recalling times when country music helped her through key moments of her life, but the loop that underpins it is like a Little Mix loop with a bit of twang. Incidentally, two tracks – the hoedown stomper Hole in the Bottle and Love Me Like a Girl – have the sonic prints of Hillary Lindsey, Carrie’s long-time songwriting partner. bragger, about her husband Morgan Evans, has a sweet shuffle and some syncopated, hiphop-type delivery.

A-List popstars are drafted in to push Kelsea to a mainstream audience. Julia Michaels brings her magic touch to needy, Ed Sheeran to love and hate, and Halsey’s voice to the other girl. That last track was co-written with Sam Hunt’s regular collaborator Shane McAnally: the chorus – ‘is it me? Is it you?…Who’s the diamond, who’s the pearl?’ – would fit on pop radio, even though it is being marketed to country radio as an update on The Boy Is Mine by Brandy and Monica. Halsey will be yet another pop star taking the sort of space on the airwaves that a dues-paying gal like Kelsea, or the likes of Mickey Guyton and Kassi Ashton, should be given. But radio stations are businesses too.

overshare opens the album, a song written with Tayla Parx, who has High Hopes, Thank U Next and Love Lies on her CV. The words trip off Kelsea’s tongue, the melody is bouncy and it’s as fluffy as Kelsea’s early singles like Dibs and Yeah Boy. Equally sweet is club, which rhymes ‘tequila’ and ‘feelings’ in its first couplet before breaking into a pop chorus that sounds a lot like a Taylor Swift chorus. Also recalling Swift is la, a solo write by Kelsea about Los Angeles which closes the album: ‘I park my heart at the valet’ is a great line, and she doubts she is ‘cool enough’ to hang out ‘with bigger names’ at parties out in California. Can the girl from Knoxville commit to Hollywood, as I am sure her record label are dying for her to?

Sam Hunt’s debut Montevallo saw Drake make his influence known on country music. The Atlanta-born songwriter who gave Come Over to Kenny Chesney, Cop Car to Keith Urban and I Met A Girl to William Michael Morgan hit big with singles from Montevallo. I preferred Make You Miss Me, written with Old Dominion, and House Party to the massive number one Take Your Time, and I wasn’t initially sold on Drinking Too Much or Sinning With You, two of the more melancholic tracks that were released in advance of Southside, an album five years in the making.

I did, however, love the four ‘tempo’ tracks. Downtown’s Dead was bouncy, Kinfolks was infectious, Body Like A Back Road was smart and worthy of its high placing on the all-genre Hot 100. Hard To Forget was innovative in its sample of There Stands The Glass. It also boasts a great title and chorus: ‘You’re playing hard to forget’ is such a great line, as is the ‘outta sight outta mind/ Girl you’re looking so good it’s driving me out of mine’. Luke Laird’s loop is the key factor here.

My favourite new track from the album was Breaking Up Was Easy In The Nineties, a smart lyric set to a chirpy acoustic guitar about how in 2020 it’s tough to fully escape someone popping up in one’s timeline with a new guy. Once the listener negotiates the spoken-sung verse, the chorus is singable, much as Take Your Time had been, back in the early months of 2015. The album opens with the sombre 2016, where Sam wants to ‘put the smoke back in the joint’ and ‘take 2016 and give it back to you’ over acoustic guitar and no percussion.

Saving Country Music’s Trigger will never be a Sam Hunt fan, but even he concedes that album opener 2016 is the right sort of song for Sam to be singing. Trigger gave Southside ‘two guns down’, lambasting Sam for the homogenous nature of country music in the last five years. The market was going to turn towards bringing in contemporary sounds to country music anyway – while also appealing to those who like fiddle and pedal steel – and it’s unfortunate that Sam is in the firing line as the most handsome, melodically gifted songwriter of the decade.

Sam’s audience is young and would have no problems putting any of the tracks on Southside alongside Post Malone, Kane Brown and Cardi B in a personal Spotify playlist. Young Once, for example, with its dense production and trademark lyrical delivery; Sam bangs on about getting drunk, ‘stupid’ and ‘lost tonight’ through ‘wheat fields’. He smuggles the line ‘some day we’re gonna know too much to know it all’, which seems profound but is claptrap!!

On That Ain’t Beautiful Sam addresses the sort of girl who is mistreated by a guy and cakes her face in makeup, telling her ‘you can do better’ than attending destination weddings in a bad mood. It’s filler. Let It Down is far better, with interesting chords, steel guitar parts and an addictive rhythm. The album is not a masterpiece and suffers from having half of its tracks already in the public domain. Crowds will go nuts for the tempo tracks, while Sam includes enough new versions of Take Your Time to strengthen his USP.

Whether he wants to keep performing, and to take the hits from fans of traditional music while being ‘too country’ for pop, is something to monitor during this album cycle, which has been disrupted by Coronavirus.


The UK Country Top 40 Chart – April 2020

April 6, 2020

Hear the radio version of this chart, with clips from several songs, here:

The playlist with all songs in full can be found here:

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/6HVF5xDxWo8vsXb2Yr2Y7n?si=pacmF3uVR_eascWt9kX2gA

Bubbling Under Chris Mossop – Sister Mary & Sister Josephine

40 Izzie Walsh – Clouded Mind

39 Shannon Hynes – Comfort

38 Kelsey Bovey – Define Me

37 Laura Evans – Heartstrings

36 Joe Martin – Letters Of Regret

35 Lucy Blu – Tequila Made Me Do It

34 Backwoods Creek – Coulda Been You

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

32 Stuart Landon – Beautiful Mess

31 Ags Connolly – Wrong Again (You Lose A Life)

30 Morganway – Let Me Go

29 Megan Louise – Train Song

28 Elles Bailey – Woman Like Me

27 Jess Thristan – Time Of Our Lives

26 Katy Hurt – Unfinished Business

25 Essex County – So Good

24 Danny McMahon – Lonely

23 The Luck – Lionheart

22 Megan O’Neill – Devil You Know

21 Jade Helliwell – Stay

20 Vic Allen – Enough

19 Katee Kross – Diamonds In The Dust

18 Gasoline & Matches – Tequila’s a Healer

17 Holloway Road – Even If

16 Gary Quinn – Tip Of My Tongue

15 The Blue Highways – He Worked

14 Laura Oakes – Welcome to the Family

13 Two Ways Home – Broken Hearts Club

12 The Adelaides – I’d Do It Again

11 The Wandering Hearts – Wish I Could

10 Ward Thomas – Painted Legacy

9 Catherine McGrath – Wild

8 Wildwood Kin – Time Has Come

7 Ferris & Sylvester – I Dare You

6 Robert Vincent – Conundrum

5 Yola – I Don’t Wanna Lie

4 Jake Morrell – Freewheelin

3 Kezia Gill – Whiskey Drinkin Woman

2 Twinnie – Type Of Girl

1 The Shires – Independence Day