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.