Country Jukebox Jury LPs – Tim McGraw and Lori McKenna

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

Tim McGraw – Here On Earth

In 2019 Saving Country Music called Way Down by Tim McGraw ‘aggressively forgettable…a [sexual act redacted] song disguised as a Southern anthem’. Tim is 53 years old.

In 2017, the year he turned 50, Tim duetted with wife Faith Hill, with a stadium tour that also came to the UK for C2C, but Here On Earth is his first solo release since 2015’s Damn Country Music. That album, featuring Humble and Kind, was released on Big Machine, which Tim McGraw left and has since re-signed. This means there is no place for his radio smashes from 2019, Neon Church and Thought About You.

Because he is a guaranteed big seller, songwriters in town answer the call for ‘a Tim McGraw song’ that goes round the publishers. This is how Big Sellers cement their place in the market. You know a Kenny Chesney song, or a Jason Aldean song, or even a Garth Brooks song, when you hear it and this album takes 16 tries to show what a Tim McGraw song is.

The ones we’ve heard so far include the single I Called Mama, Hallelujahville, Good Taste In Women and 7500 OBO aka Tim McGraw calls mum, Tim McGraw bigs up small towns, Tim McGraw is a lucky schlub and Tim McGraw sells his truck full of memories.

The brilliant thing about 7500 OBO is it lays out what this album is: it’s a Tim McGraw album for fans of Tim McGraw. See if you can spot the quote of his song When The Green Grass Grows, as well as the lyrical reference to Shotgun Rider and Let Her Go. This is what happens when someone sees ‘Tim McGraw song’ on a pitch sheet and literally sticks to the brief.

You know that A List songwriters are getting some paycheck. Tom Douglas shows up in the writing credits, and he is one of country’s greatest writers. Along with fellow legends Aimee Mayo and Jaren Johnston of The Cadillac Three, he writes album closer Doggone, a Tim McGraw sings about his friend in heaven song; along with Allan Shamblin (The House That Built Me, I Can’t Make You Love Me) and newcomer Andy Albert, Tom enables Tim to sing how people should ‘smell the daisies/ everything else is gravy’ on a song with the word ‘epiphany’ in the opening line and how ‘happiness is a choice you choose’.

Hold You Tonight is smooth MODR writers Ross Copperman and Jon Nite with the lyric ‘I can’t fix the world but I can hold you tonight. Tim must have done this type of song on every album, right down to the guitar sounds. Maybe his next Best Of can be called A Shoulder to Cry On.

The one after that can be I Love You Faith. The latest Tim McGraw love songs of devotion are Damn Sure Do, which is a smart wedding song, and Hard To Stay Mad At, written this time by three heavyweights: Lori McKenna, Shane McAnally and Luke Laird. It’s a wonderful love song which quotes the proverb about never going to bed angry.

I love the string section, arranged by Beck’s dad David Campbell, which can be found on Hallelujahville and the opening track, LA. This is a country album and yet Tim is singing what sounds like a Blake Shelton cast-off (Blake’s been based in LA for the Voice for a while). Plus, Kelsea Ballerini had her own song called LA; stop trying to make LA happen, country music.

Not From California, meanwhile, is written by the Warren Brothers Brett and Brad and the Hummon clan, father Marcus and son Levi. It is presumably there to erase any thought of me going off on country musicians singing about LA. Stop trying to make not being from LA happen, country music!

Don’t forget that Tim McGraw is from Louisiana. If he were a cowboy, he sings on If I Was a Cowboy, he would ‘ride off into the sunset’ rather than drink his sorrows away in a bar. I just don’t believe he can ever separate from his beloved Faith Hill. His whole brand is that he is a loyal, sober, attractive husband and father. Maybe this fitted the brief ‘Tim McGraw needs a song which calls him a cowboy but which isn’t actually about him being a real cowboy’. Nonetheless, the guitar squeals effectively.

Ditto the understated pair of War of Art and Doggone which, when they come round as tracks 15 and 16, are the songs pitched as Tim McGraw singing about being a singer and Tim McGraw misses a dead friend which, sadly, I missed was a dog which has gone. That’s country music right there, and there’s a lovely line in the chorus about ‘Red Wing boots’ and ‘watercolor memories’, which is better than those in the forgotten Way Down whose chorus repeats ‘way down’ 15 times.

Nor am I sure about him trying on new hats. On Chevy Spaceship he sounds like Brad Paisley, especially in the line ‘catch a buzz lightyear’. Tim McGraw has previously sung a song called Kristofferson and here he sings about Sheryl Crow, his fellow Big Machine artist; Tim’s girl is ‘gonna be stuck in my head forever’. Jason Aldean’s buddies Neil Thrasher and Wendell Mobley write this – so maybe this is an Aldean cast-off.

Look, I know Big Machine have to make money and the market will ensure that Tim’s fans flock to Here On Earth. This is because it has been designed to sound like Tim McGraw. There are no vocoders or even too many processed loops. He isn’t chasing a trend. I would cut four tracks so that the overly long 16 becomes a manageable 12. His album launch special streams at 7pm Nashville time. The album is full of good stuff but it’s just too long. 4/5 but Tim will remain a multimillionaire.

Lori McKenna – The Balladeer

In the week of Taylor Swift’s album release, there was another folky country act with an album on the racks. What else is there to say about Lori McKenna? Her album The Balladeer is her eleventh and the first since she turned 50 in 2018. Lest we forget, she won the GRAMMY and CMA Song of the Year award for Girl Crush, Humble and Kind and was ACM Songwriter of the Year 2018. The Bird and the Rifle was nominated for the GRAMMY for Best Americana Album, and follow-up The Tree was up for Album of the Year at the Americana Music Awards.

The beautiful song People Get Old was up for Song of the Year in the same contest in which she was against herself thanks to her work on the song By Degrees. In 2020, her contribution to A Star Is Born, Always Remember Us This Way, lost out in the Song of the Year category to Billie Eilish’s Bad Guy. (Lover by Taylor Swift was also nominated.) Her song It All Comes Out In The Wash, written with Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose (the trio known as the Love Junkes), lost the Best Country Song GRAMMY to Tanya Tucker’s Bring My Flowers Now. So Lori knows her stuff when it comes to music and lyrics: she is the songwriter’s songwriter.

The pre-released songs from The Balladeer, which is being released through Thirty Tigers, include When You’re My Age (written with and featuring her fellow Love Junkies) and Good Fight. Both are grown-up songs for grown-up listeners. The title track is stunning, especially the middle eight where two new chords add a sense of unease to a three-act song which actually mirrors the plot of A Star Is Born.

Opening track This Town is a Woman is a more mature version of Body Like a Back Road, with much better lyrics. Two Birds is also a Love Junkies song that I won’t spoil but men don’t come out from it very well. The Dream is mysterious, with only ‘you and him’ mentioned in Lori’s dream. ‘He was one of a kind/ You would have loved him if you were born in his time.’ It could be about Lori’s mum, who was unable to hold her grandson, or her husband, ‘wearing the coat from 85’, talking to his never-mother-in-law. ‘Damn long view’ is sung over some lush chords, thanks to the production of the great Dave Cobb. The outro is sensational too, matching Dave’s work with Jason Isbell, who is one of very few songwriters in Lori’s class.

Marie ‘looks more like our mother, prettier and softer’ and it’s an ode to Lori’s older sister. ‘We both got the same sized shoes but no-one’s ever walked in mine but me…and Marie.’ Something happens in the third verse, something Lori has written about before, that floors the listener: if there was a country music anthology of lyrics, this song would be in it. This is a proper country song written by a master of the form: her life, in a song.

Stuck in High School is a reminiscin’ song about how as a kid you ‘try on every shoe and you stand in every shadow/ Hope you find yourself somewhere between the first pew and the back row’. Even when you’re 50, that kid is still there, asking you if those dreams came true or if you’re stuck in high school with all the dreams and ambition of a young pup…

Final track Till You’re Grown, which ends with Elton Johnnish piano, is Humble and Kind Part 2: smoking won’t be cool, tattoos are stupid so don’t get one, ‘running away won’t look like a cure to anything that really hurts’ and ‘time moves faster than you think…’

Uphill could be a spiritual song or a mother’s song to her child. My eyes were moist by the end of the first stanza; damn Lori. ‘Hard times and landslides are part of life…‘I’ll walk with you even if it’s uphill’. It’s beautiful, just beautiful. Though it won’t get the streaming numbers that Folklore will, it equals and surpasses Taylor’s effort. 5000/5.

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