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.