Country Music Week Digital 2020 – Part Three

October 26, 2020

The headline act for Friday night was a superlative trio of ladies who have all done well on country radio. Ashley McBryde, Carly Pearce (another act to take over Country Hits Radio on Saturday) and Lindsay Ell beamed in from the Bluebird Café. All three ladies were beaming, chatting effortlessly and sharing the love they genuinely seem to have for one another.

Ashley opened with One Night Standards, following it with the quirky Styrofoam (‘A drinking song and also an educational song’) and Shut Up Sheila, helped by solos from Lindsay. Martha Divine sounded just as terrific solo as it does on record: ‘It’s just like Jolene, except “You took him and I’m gonna break your face!”’ Ashley is an MC par excellence.

Then came A Moment. I was perturbed when Ashley ‘sprung a leak’(!) during new song Trust Yourself. She wrote it with Connie Harrington and Jessi Alexander, the power duo behind I Drive Your Truck. ‘I can’t think of a time when there was not a light on in the kitchen,’ Ashley said when introducing the song. Perhaps it was the Bluebird Café’s atmosphere that made her think of the family members who passed on pearls of wisdom. The 600-odd people watching the stream would have made streams of their own. It’s a magical song which falls about halfway through the 15-song concert available on the Bluebird Café’s Youtube channel.

Lindsay went with three chirpy love songs during her set: Want Me Back, Ready To Love and Hits Me. On the latter, she played rhythm and lead at the same time in the solo! In between them, she blindsided the audience with Make You, a song about surviving sexual assault, and the sombre I Don’t Love You with its winding verses.

Carly played her song about ‘guys who suck’ called Next Girl and another which turned the death of her friend busbee into the lyric Show Me Around. It’ll help a lot of people and Carly has the backing of Big Machine to hopefully do as she wishes. Busbee helped her write the smash hit Every Little Thing: ‘Butterflies like I’ve seen puppies!’ said Ashley, who compares her voice to that of Lee Ann Womack. She also played a new song, Heart First, whose demo was released this week: ‘When you fall, you fall heart first’ might well refer to her divorce from sleazy Michael Ray, and again it promises good things for her next project which she goes into with a number one at radio, I Hope You’re Happy Now which, in Lee Brice’s absence, was turned into a trio.

Saturday evening was equally packed and gave country fans a night-in to remember. The whole thing felt like a variety show, with chat, trivia, acoustic and amplified numbers from new and old friends.

At 6pm Haley & Michaels promoted their debut album Hail Mary, and the news of the birth of their daughter Keira, with the latest in their Drinking About YoUK series. These online gigs unite them with UK artists via their Facebook channel. Over Country Music Week, it was the turn of the mighty UK artist Kezia Gill, who sang Whiskey Drinkin Woman, I’m Here and House of Cards.

2020 has been a year of ups and downs for Kezia, who shortly after the death of her dad met Bob Harris when she appeared as part of the Radio 2 Country Festival along with Haley & Michaels. Kezia’s new single will come out at the end of November and it was a delight to see her chatting openly about music and life with two interested parties, who themselves performed Drinking About You and their wedding song Giving It All To You.

Until the computer crashed during the Country in the 2010s round, I was doing pretty well in the Destination Country Quiz, which tested a wide array of country music knowledge. Lauren Jenkins was an adept quiz MC and also performed a new song from her upcoming independent release. Dance in the Kitchen was a lot of fun, as was her interaction with over 50 quizzers from around the UK. Destination Country encourages fans to sign up to their Patreon page, giving them access to Happy Hour zoom chats. November will see Sunday night gigs by Darlingside, Steel Blossoms and Ward Thomas.

Following the conclusion of the quiz, I tuned in to watch a big event put on by Broken Bow Records and BMG, co-hosted by Lainey Wilson and her wonderful accent.

Elvie Shane, from Kentucky, sported a bushy beard and a voice which verged on the Kip Moore. I am sure he will find many fans over here, especially with a fun band behind him who pulled faces and played air guitar! My Mississippi was driven by a groove that got my foot tapping, which County Roads was a rocking song about the lessons learned as a kid: swearing on the schoolbus, for instance. He also played his radio smash My Boy, about being a stepdad, which since it was written five years ago has led him to many glorious events, including this showcase.

Granger Smith performed out in the open with a full band, giving a mini-greatest hits set: new single That’s Why I Love Dirt Roads, number one Back Road Song and the excellent pair of love songs Happens Like That and If The Boot Fits. Yee YEE! as the man himself says.

LOCASH sat around a campfire singing some of their big hits, also with a full band. They told a great story about eating Deer Jerky (with extra deer hair!!) as a gift from a fan. The camaraderie between Preston and Chris, who have been playing together for a long time, is evident in their stories, while the harmonies on I Love This Life (‘three minutes of feelgood’), It’s Only Midnight and new single Beers To Catch Up On are all delicious.

Track45 are so named because Highway 45 runs through Meridien, Mississippi, a town that houses a museum to its most famous son, Jimmie Rodgers. An introductory video shows how the Johnson siblings grew up as string players entertaining old folks who also sang around the table. KK was 14 when the three of them moved to Nashville and they finally have music out there.

If we’re calling them the new Hanson, then KK is Taylor, Ben is Zac and Jenna is a banjo-playing Isaac. Their voices came together on a fantastic two-verse version of Heartbreak Hotel, a hit for a fellow Mississippian. There’s star wattage here, especially in KK’s dynamic Swift-adjacent vocals and Ben’s musicality. One Life, which is not found on their three-track EP, is about enjoying the journey and seizing the moment, while they go heavier on the Little Big Townish Little Bit More. I want a lot more of Track45.

The showcase closed with UK duo The Shires, who sat in a living room (Ben has removed his dreadlocks, perhaps because his kids keep yanking them) and plugged their fourth album Good Years. Opening with their effortlessly melodic new single Lightning Strikes, they also played Day That I Die, About Last Night and New Year. There was a brief argument over popcorn choices but there is nothing to argue about in their sound and their place as market leader. In a few years when indigenous country music has grown still further, the pair will be viewed as trailblazers and elder statesmen in much the same way as Lady Antebellum and Taylor Swift have the same status in the USA.

Matt Spracklen had The Shires on his Country Hits Brits show on Sunday night talking about the new version of their song Lightning Strikes with Lauren Alaina. They teased another special guest (my guess is James Blunt) who will be popping up on another of their songs soon, as well as the ‘therapeutic’ performance they had recorded. Ben, however, felt ‘detached’ as no applause followed. After all, music is about the listener as well as the performer.

On Sunday, Country Hits Radio had a packed schedule while Chris Country hosted a familiar voice at noon. Charles Esten was due to play Country2Country this spring and, during a Sunday Lunch hour, fans heard his lovely song Sweet Summer Saturday Night, an acoustic version of A Road and a Radio and Eric Paslay’s song Nice Guy, whose video starred Charles going against type by playing a meshuggah. He also found room for music by his sometime tourmates The Adelaides and a duet he had recorded with Jillian Cardarelli called Strong, about the power of faith and overcoming obstacles.

Charles, whom Whose Line Is It Anyway fans will know as Chip, is one of the nicest men in music, the Dave Grohl figure perhaps. He is best known as Deacon from Nashville but he also played Buddy Holly on the West End stage in the early 1990s and lived in Kentish Town. He must be itching to get back to the UK.

Country Music Week Digital 2020 was a huge success. Radio programmers, fan-run sites, record labels and the artists themselves all came together to remind the audience of the variety, excellence and passion of country musicians and fans. Whether or not Country2Country goes ahead as planned – I think this was a pilot for a C2C Digital festival in 2021 – will surely be answered soon. It’s not the same thing as breathing the same air but it’ll do while that air is infected with a killer virus.


Country Music Week Digital 2020 – Part Two

October 26, 2020

Saturday night offered Kip Moore, a rockstar in country clothing, who was joined by his band the Slow Hearts in Grimey’s record store in Nashville. On his own Kip tends to ramble, as he did in his CMA Songwriters set a few years ago, but his voice is electric and he has thousands of fans in the UK.

In a shirt which showed off his biceps – he knows his audience – Kip played with his band surrounding him close, just in front of a rack of vinyl. Janie Blu, Sweet Virginia, Wild World and Fire and Flame sounded excellent with three acoustic guitars, a double bass and a muted snare drum. It will make me return to his excellent album Wild World. I was one of 1000 people to watch the set as it was premiered.

If you are after more rock, you should catch the video of The Cadillac Three‘s contribution to CMW Digital. The band are Big Machine’s ‘big rock band’ and are led by super songwriter Jaren Johnston. They sat down with the lady who produces their own Big Machine Radio show for a chat which was aimed at a UK crowd.

TC3 opened with a giggle at their English accents, dislike of black pudding and love of a full English breakfast. The trio recalled their gigs at the Camden Barfly and in Manchester, and how Jaren got a tattoo of a Saltire, a Scottish flag, in Glasgow!

There was then a live performance played from the Country2Country show of three songs including their chantalong anthem The South, Slide and Peace Love & Dixie which was more rock than country and very energetic and loud. The trio were due to play on the Friday of C2C at the O2 in Greenwich, opening up for Eric Church, but the lockdown was announced on the Thursday. Next year, perhaps?

We love TC3 over here, and I particularly love the new album Tabasco & Sweet Tea, which is 11 slabs of Southern Funk. British fans apparently call them ‘MENTAL!’ and ‘LEGEND’. Go watch the video to see them tackle British slang – oh those hilarious Brits with their ‘palaver’ and ‘aubergines’ and ‘spotted dick’!!! TC3 are inviting fans to watch a concert which launches their new album this Tuesday (27th) at 6pm GMT, with access to a stream costing £15 for UK fans. (US fans get one on the same evening.)

Tyler Rich, Payton Smith and Danielle Bradbery are all signed to Big Machine too and all appeal to a young demographic (ie under 30s). Tyler talked about watching footie in a British pub and the atmosphere – ‘it felt so much like home’ – and wrote the song Feels Like Home about it. He also played his big lovey-dovey hit The Difference.

Danielle played her new single Never Have I Ever, one which ‘manifested’ her new relationship, as well as the lovely Sway and recent reminiscin’ song Girls In My Hometown. Her voice, which won her The Voice, sounds great and she has a fine set of songs and a great set of fans in the UK.

I can tell why Big Machine are trying to push Payton and why he is due his first UK visit very soon. He has a boyband-fresh voice, long flowing locks and a love of John Mayer that comes through in his guitar playing. Sat in a recording studio beside a mixing desk, he played three tunes including What It Meant To Lose You and the hyperkinetic streaming hit Like I Knew You Would.

He slowed it down with Daddy’s Boots when he made his debut at the Grand Ole Opry in February this year, aged 20; it’s his life in a song which namechecks his birthplace of Louisiana. There’s a lot of Eric Church and Keith Urban in him and, if his career is managed carefully, he could be the biggest star in country music in five years’ time, certainly as big as Chris Young, with whom he would have toured in 2020.

As well as looking at Song and Album of the Year before 2020 is out, I’ll put together a UK Country Top 40 of the year. I am aided in my task by Tim Prottey-Jones. He put together a two-hour A to Z of British country on his Homegrown show which went out on Wednesday evening. Usually he gets an hour so this is a welcome and chunky look at UK country that rounds up some of the top acts he has been rotating in recent months. Expect many of the following to feature in my Top 40 in December.

C is for Robbie Cavanagh, D is full-time busker Simeon Hammond Dallas, E is for Emma & Jolie, G for Gasoline & Matches, J for Tim’s pal Jake Morrell, K for Kezia Gill, M for Joe Martin, N for Nathan Carter with an Oirish cover of the folk song Games People Play, O is for both O&O and Laura Oakes (who have duetted together), Q for Gary Quinn, R for Remember Monday, S for The Shires and Tim’s musical theatre pal Steve Balsamo, U for Tim’s UK Country Collective, V for Vicki Manser, X was for Deeanne Dexeter (well done!), Y for Yola and Z for Zoee.

If we’re looking at UK country Blockbusters, I’d like to pick A, T and W please, Bob. A is for The Adelaides, who posted a little documentary onto their Facebook page on Wednesday. The Adelaides Bounce Back centres on their performance two weeks ago at Nash Nights UK in front of a paying crowd at Under The Bridge in West London. It’s their first gig in front of people since March. Since then they have had a tour and a Nashville trip cancelled and put out a fun video to their smash Seven Billion. To earn money they have worked in care homes or fish’n’chip shops, doing some relaxed livestreams when they could meet up in person.

We start in the dressing room as they discuss the harmonies of Head & Heart. The girls soundcheck and talk about being ‘excited but nervous’ in case the gig had to be pulled under government orders. There’s a very Spinal Tappy line from the drummer about being ‘further away but also closer’ to the girls. The barrier is set a long way back to be extra safe and the girls stride onto stage in personalised masks.

The band are unguarded, opening up to the camera and showcasing a side of themselves which fans might not see when they are performing. There’s a little bit of politics at the end: music is not a hobby for The Adelaides, who have been promising an album for years now. The footage of them performing Reckless and a boisterous Good Love, as well as their covers of Miss Me More and Nothing Breaks Like a Heart, is marvellous and very well edited together, with the trademarked three-part vocals silencing the room. Kudos to the camera team as well as the performers and venue.

The Bounce Back documentary can be viewed through the band’s Facebook account.

W is for Ward Thomas. After Tim’s show, I tuned into the twins’ 20-minute session on Facebook in association with Chris Country. Having heard them a fortnight ago play three gorgeous tunes for Bob Harris’ Radio 2 show, I knew what to expect. After some faff setting up the phone, they played Cartwheels, new tunes Someday and Don’t Be A Stranger and their cover of Landslide. Their voices were in fine fettle and I am sure they drove people to stream their new album; by the way, Invitation landed at an impressive 29 on the album charts, though that may rise as the band continue to promote the album into 2021.

T is for Twinnie who has been very active this week on Instagram. You can still catch the Tea With Twinnie videos, which were broadcast live at 3pm every day: she had Lainey Wilson on Monday, a proselytising Jimmie Allen and the irrepressible Lauren Alaina on Tuesday, Andrew Farriss on Wednesday, Lindsay Ell on Thursday, the great Lucie Silvas on Friday and Willie Jones on Saturday.

On Sunday she was spotted on terrestrial TV, guesting on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch in the morning. As a former Hollyoaks actress, I expect she talked about the Chester soap’s Silver Jubilee – did you know it started in 1995?? – as well as the release of the acoustic version of her debut album Hollywood Gypsy.

On Thursday, before Bob Harris’ Country Show, I tuned in to watch Brent Cobb who had sent over a five-song set for Destination Country which promoted his brand new album Keep Em On They Toes. Anyone professing ignorance to Brent’s talent will have been blown away and will head straight to the album after hearing new tunes played solo on an acoustic in front of an organ with plants upon it.

Soapbox remains my favourite though I also like Shut Up and Sing and This Side of the River (more songs should mention catfish). Brent also told the story about a gig in Manchester which was cancelled due to a power cut: ‘We drank a bunch of beer and got to know each other.’ He finished with the song Digging Holes.

On Sunday, Kyle Daniel did much the same thing, introducing himself to curious fans over here. He was due to pop over to the UK for Country2Country this March but his plans were scuppered. He had, however, come over last year for Country Music Week, opening for Brandy Clark and playing a showcase. A year on, Kyle posted a 25-minute set from his home in East Nashville which you can watch on his Facebook page ‘kyledaniel.music’.

That Somebody Ain’t Me is a brutal leavin’ song sung expertly, while Hollerin Hills cranked up the pace with a slide guitar that gave the song a Stapleton feel. As he would have done had he been over in the UK, Kyle previewed some tunes he was about to record in Muscle Shoals, Alabama: Running From Me was a typically rootsy tune about not drinking away your problems, which sounds like a Stapleton lyric; Wild, Free & Easy was a smooth reminiscin’ song about how ‘you can’t rewind the moment’; and Following The Rain makes the most of the ‘dark cloud’ over Kyle’s head as he tries to swerve the ‘hurricane’. I loved the swampy feel of Everybody’s Talking (‘Words ain’t worth a dime’) which worked well with the trio of guitars and voices.

Kyle’s set was one of the highlights of Country Music Week Digital 2020. Above all he shows the depth of the talent pool in town; if he were British he would be selling millions of records, while in Nashville he’s just another future superstar wondering when his day will come. He’ll be supporting The Cadillac Three for the American show to launch the trio’s album on Tuesday 27 October.

Willie Jones, who also took over Country Hits Radio on Saturday afternoon, played a short set for UK fans via his Facebook account. He had been due to play some big aftershow parties at C2C 2020 before he had to fly home. UK fans have heard sessions on Bob Harris Country, though, and in July he played for 20 fun-packed minutes for a Destination Country show. He reprised the set, live from Shreveport, Louisiana, with four soulful country songs with familiar chord progressions.

Windows Down is a I-V-VI-IV tune with a singalong post-chorus, while Back Porch is a VI-IV-I-V tune about chilling out (Willie shook an egg shaker). His vocals have the smoothness of Aloe Blacc or John Legend, but he has the hiphop cadences and ad-libs of a Drake. Despite being poor he has a Whole Lotta Love – ‘Look at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself you gotta whole lotta love!’ he encouraged his audience – while the groovy Down For It is a IV-I-V-VI tune whose vocals were partly lost because the guitar was very loud.

UK fans will lap this up and Willie’s slow climb will be rewarded in 2021, for sure.


Country Music Week Digital 2020 – Part One

October 26, 2020

As always in October, it’s Country Music Week in the UK, a showcase for plenty of US acts where they usually grip and grin and talk to the radio people. In 2020, it has gone digital!

On Thursday came the events with the widest reach, thanks to BBC Radio 2. Lady A and Morgan Wallen performed at opposite ends of the day and you can catch the sets via BBC Sounds and watch it on Youtube via the BBC Music channel. Ken Bruce told us they filmed ‘under the correct restrictions’ by sitting next to one another, and Lady A were a mid-morning treat at 11am on a station which has supported them since Need You Now crash-landed into the world a decade ago. Their acoustic version would have made many people in the 55+ demographic (ie Radio 2’s daytime audience) happy.

They also played one of my songs of the year, Champagne Night. They told the story of their Songland appearance and namechecking Madeline Merlo, whose song I’ll Drink To That was the foundation for a song about being broke but still getting ‘rhinestoned’. ‘The fans want new content’ and, despite it not being on their album they were promoting in 2020, it became a summer smash on country radio, where it’s at 15 and climbing.

Dave, who with his wife recorded the fun parody song Another Day In Quarantine, revealed that he has a home studio where he can work on the next Lady A record, which reminds him of the days before Need You Now. Hilary and Charles appreciate the UK fans, who love the album cuts as well as the singles. Now on Big Machine alongside Tim McGraw, Lady A will be the cash cows of the label.

Morgan Wallen has spent 2020 becoming a dad and having his dreams of performing on Saturday Night Live destroyed by his own petard (he was pictured without a mask at a social event). He is nonetheless readying his second album which features the woozy new single 7 Summers, which is finding its way to pop fans via canny playlist placements.

Initially, said Morgan, he had posted a demo of 7 Summers on Instagram then the song made the rounds on TikTok. Morgan will always be a country kid, especially with his mullet-and-drawl combo, and Bob Harris has been playing Chasing You and 7 Summers in recent months. Those songs and More Than My Hometown sounded super performed without studio trickery. He really does have a great voice and it looks like he’ll play the game on his terms – he famously walked out of The Voice after he saw through the format as a TV show. However, he could do with wearing a mask when he’s promoting a single that has got to number 6 on the Hot 100.

The final event of the week involved Bob himself. It was a Zoom event on Sunday with Destination Country to officially launch Stand By Me, the single with proceeds to charity which features a cast of important musicians. You can stream the song or, better still, buy it. After a great deal of illness in the past decade, including cancer treatment and heart trouble which forced him off air in 2019 – Bob sounds fitter than ever. That’s him on the triangle!

Aside from Radio 2, the three indigenous radio stations – Smooth Country, Country Hits Radio and Chris Country – have all welcomed the US acts, with Chris Young, Matt Stell and Dustin Lynch among those popping up for interviews.

On Monday, early afternoon Nashville time, the fabled Song Suffragettes team put on a show with plenty of panache and style. Lainey Wilson, Tenille Townes and Caylee Hammack played their well-known tunes, including Somebody’s Daughter (Tenille) and Family Tree (Caylee). Kalie Shorr MCed in a Nirvana t-shirt. She’s super cool and was in control of her material and the small crowd. I like her song Pity Party in particular.

Throughout the gig, Kalie threw over to the UK, where Twinnie sang her excellent Lie To Me, while Vic Allen and Emma & Jolie sang songs that matched the high standards of these major-label US acts. We also heard young Mia Morris try out her loop pedal, to varying degrees of success, but the magic of writers’ rounds is that nobody quite knows what’ll happen. The closing number was a phenomenal group cover of Wide Open Spaces so everyone left with a song in their hearts. A 90-minute argument for the Girl Singer.

Every Monday Niko Moon pops up on Facebook to hang out with his fans. This week he made an effort to connect with his UK and European fans, posting a 30-minute show on his Facebook page as his contribution to the Week. ‘Peter’s coming in from Belgium. I LOVE IT!’ he purred at one point. Niko and his wife got married in Pitlochry in Scotland, so there is an affinity with over here. He recently made his debut at the Opry, where he played Homegrown, a hit for his friends Zac Brown Band, and his single Good Time, which I have loved from the first time I heard it even though I can do without the digital drum pattern.

Niko played both of those songs here, as well as the funky Paradise To Me, which points to Niko’s USP: singing about the glory of small town life in a soulful manner. Way Back is impossible to keep quiet to, with its staccato riff and reminiscin’ lyric. Good At Loving You turns Niko’s lack of academic qualifications and inability to save money or learn Spanish into a positive. I hope his soulful voice gets an airing on his forthcoming album – there’s an EP which came out this year – and that he made some new fans in the UK with his special hangout this week.

On Tuesday Matt Stell performed his new EP Better Than That in full with a live band. There is a strong musicality to all eight songs, as my review made clear, and I especially love the mood of Everywhere But On and the stuttering Sadie. The major-label investment in him is justified and UK fans will love him much like they loved Brett Young and Thomas Rhett.

On a bluegrassier plain, Billy Strings picked four songs on a steel-string guitar on a Youtube show. Sitting on a high stool, Billy showcased his tremendous ability as a rootsy singer live from Nashville’s Station Inn. He reminds me of Charlie Worsham with his charming voice and pickin’ abilities and I would love to hear Billy and Charlie duel with guitars or banjos. His latest album, from which he played a couple of tunes, is called Home, released on the great Rounder Records. It came out in 2019 but is still flying in the Bluegrass Album chart, where it was knocked off the top by Nickel Creek the other week.

Billy also popped up on Baylen Leonard’s The Front Porch show at 1pm on Sunday on Country Hits Radio, which you can listen to on demand. It turns out Billy initially set bluegrass aside for Jimi Hendrix. ‘That screaming and stuff…This is terrible!!’ he recalled of his time as a heavy metal guitar player. Billy also namedropped Luke Combs, with whom he wrote two songs (Luke boasted of writing ten songs in 11 days before the two met!), and we heard Billy pick out a ditty before Baylen played the studio recording of Away From The Mire, the best representation of Billy’s cosmic Americana sound.

While we’re dealing in bluegrass-loving artists, Ashley Campbell was the next to be interviewed. I reckon she would be a tremendous radio host herself – she’s a great MC of her own gigs, as she proved in a UK set a few years ago in East London – and her album Something Lovely is just that. After a too brief chat, Baylen played If I Wasn’t, a duet which imagines what happens if Vince Gill adds guitar and harmonies to a Beautiful South lament.

As part of the salute to black country acts, having spoken to Jimmie Allen and Mickey Guyton already in Black History Month, Baylen spoke to Darius Rucker. ‘It was three guys that were Program Directors’ who told Darius that he couldn’t make it as a black artist in country music because the audience wouldn’t be accepting. They were all proved wrong. ‘Being a real player is my protest. Success is the best protest.’ Good black musicians won’t make it; ‘You have to be great.’

The busy afternoon also included artist takeovers from Runaway June (in advance of their new Christmas EP) and Cam, who is plugging her new album The Otherside. We heard Jolene and Diane side by side, and she mentioned the ‘humanity’ of the unnamed woman whom Cam calls Diane asking ‘please’ not to take her man.

The 8pm weeknight slot was also given over to US acts playing DJ. Old Dominion picked some music, including Alan Jackson, Scotty McCreery and their own hit One Man Band, on Tuesday evening. Scotty himself was DJ on Wednesday night, with Caylee Hammack following on Thursday and Jameson Rodgers on Friday. The shows took the form of three or four pre-recorded inserts but were otherwise a normal hour, but it’s still good to hear American voices (other than the mighty Baylen Leonard and the afternoon zoo show) on the network.

Originally scheduled for 7pm on Friday but going live after 10pm, Jameson Rodgers gave us a Facebook show of sorts. A touring buddy of Luke Combs, Jameson included mighty Luke on his song Cold Beer Calling My Name. His first single Some Girls, which he gave UK audiences a rendition of, has successfully been pushed to number one on radio this very week – MAX SPINS NOW screamed the ads in the trade press. The version above is from two years ago, so he must have played this song thousands of times.

Although I think Jameson is more Cole Swindell level than Luke Combs, I like what he does and he has that Mississippi Delta charm that country radio programmers will love. Some Girls is in heavy rotation on Chris Country. It’s written by Hardy, who is so hot right now.

Monday’s Country Hits Radio selector was Tenille Townes, whose introduction to the UK market was helped by radio pushes by the BBC, especially. In the same way, Tenille made some headway after she moved from Canada to Nashville. Although her high alto can be an acquired taste, her songwriting is high in quality, as she showed in the Song Suffragettes show.

Tenille popped up on Ricky Ross’s BBC Radio Scotland show Another Country, which goes out live on Tuesday evenings and is available all week on BBC Sounds. She talked about growing up listening to Dolly and Shania, and how the aim of her debut album The Lemonade Stand was to ‘help people feel less alone’. Go check out the album, which I adore. It’s in the running for Album of the Year, which I’ll look at in December as part of three shows recapping these odd 12 months. I wonder if the late runner, Hey World by Lee Brice, will make it onto the list.

On Wednesday Lee Brice appeared on Baylen’s mid-morning show to premiere Do Not Disturb. What a great chap to give a world premiere to fans in the UK. He’s great mates with American Young, who are arguably bigger in the UK than in the US, and I met his brother Lewis who wowed me at Buckle and Boots 2019.

Lee was the star attraction for the Curb Records Showcase on the Curb Records Youtube channel at 6pm on Sunday evening. He performed his chart-topping tune One of Them Girls and Rumor, another song which has been rotated on the UK radio stations. More people need to hear a voice with heft and a man who told us that he’s ‘always having fun’ when he’s holding a guitar.

American Young are guitarist Jon and violinist Kristi, who have already made many pilgrimages to the UK and convinced the Brice brothers to make the trip too. They played their recent single Some Girl, a very contemporary sounding breakup song which would fit neatly onto Magic FM, as well as Whiskey Don’t Work. The pair are happily married so are in character as people trying to drown their sorrow in drink. I really connected with both songs.

Tim Dugger opened with a song laying his country credentials on the table and how any potential lady is ‘gonna love me’, with the lyric ‘the Hag, the Flag, In God We Trust’. I also liked a gentle song about cold beer nights – ‘we kick the dirt and we go to work and we go to church’ – which is satisfyingly traditional. Tim is a country artist in the vein of Rodney Atkins who, helpfully, is also on Curb and was part of the showcase.

Joined by Rose Falcon who helped him fight off midges, Rodney sang the love song Figure Out You (‘you keep me beautifully confused’) which is full of contradictions. Love is a crazy thing. Caught Up in the Country, a song which has been rotated on Chris Country in the last few years, was aired as well, showing off Rodney’s deep voice that could only be country.

Jackson Michaelson wore a bandana around his neck and crooned a couple of songs. One Day was a future-reminiscin song where Jackson projects a future day when babies grow up to ‘want my keys’ or ‘have a diamond ring’, no longer sleeping next to mum and dad. ‘We can’t waste a single day’ is proper Tim McGraw-esque philosophy. I like the line ‘One day they walk…the next they run’. His other song was a peppy track about ‘tossing a 20 in the tipjar’ so the band in the bar can set the mood for a romantic liaison as he gets over a breakup. Bon Jovi and Tom Petty are potential requests which will ‘replace the memories’ they shared. The song was so good I had to play it again. It sounds like a hit.

Mo Pitney was joined by his brother and sister to sing two songs from the Bluebird Café. The title track of his recent album Ain’t Looking Back and Mattress on the Floor, about ‘how you got it all when you got nothin’.

Ruthie Collins showed off a gorgeous vocal tone which has impressed Bob Harris. Joshua Tree is a reminiscin song full of mystery, perhaps about a friend who has died, inspired by the mystical nature of the Californian desert. Also from her album Cold Comfort, closing track Beg Steal Borrow sees her ask a man to hold her hand and ‘be satisfied with the faded disguise of your heart’. Her lonely narrator won’t give up hope of love from a man who might not want the same from her.

I am sure she made some fans in the UK, and not just me, with her short set.

Keep reading for parts 2 and 3.


Country Jukebox Jury – Sturgill Simpson and Jeremy Ivey

October 23, 2020

Sturgill Simpson – Cuttin Grass: Volume 1

Sturgill Simpson’s 2019 album Sound & Fury was full of rock music which was accompanied by an animated movie. Born in Kentucky, Sturgill has gone back to his roots and picked up some acoustic instruments. I’ve never found my way into his catalogue properly, though I do love what I’ve heard. He has also gone independent, making him a sort of Radiohead figure of country music.

He composed a mailing-list essay to coincide with the release of Cuttin Grass – Volume 1, whose songs are arranged in alphabetical order as if it’s a file dump rather than a carefully considered album. Bluegrass music, to Sturgill, ‘sounded like home…healing…It is made from ancient, organic tones’. Indeed, if songs don’t work with just a voice and guitar, ‘it’s probably not a very good song’.

He initially moved to Nashville to play bluegrass but could not make a living from it. I agree with Trigger at Saving Country Music: Sturgill has had to hide his true status as a bluegrass act in order to make a living as a country singer. All you do is change the production, getting some Dave Cobb dust sprinkled over your tunes, and you’re no longer a bluegrass struggler but a country outlaw.

With the Sound & Fury tour cancelled, and Sturgill’s body crying out for a rest (‘I was in the ER with pre-stroke blood pressure levels’) he slowed down in 2020, treating his fans to a livestream and this album which ‘might make some people forget about their pain and troubles for 55 minutes’. He’s right.

I Don’t Mind was written in the mid-2000s, and Sturgill wrote it is his wife’s favourite song. He leaves his woman and carries a ‘lonely feeling’, thinking of all the things left unsaid. ‘All I find is a world without light’ is his sad, suicidal conclusion. Why, then, does he ask to be loved again? Maybe it’s a deity, not a woman, he walked out on.

Sierra Hull is one of the many talented musicians who appear on the album, adding her echoed harmonies to songs like the new version of Breakers Roar. Turtles All The Way Down was my introduction to the ‘meta-modern sounds’ of Sturgill; the bluegrass version removes the orchestra and adds traditional fiddle to reshape the song. That fiddle, by Stuart Duncan, is brilliant throughout; he played with Marty Stuart at the Grand Ole Orpy the other week and was called the best in town. I trust Marty’s judgement.

This is a good way for me to look back on Sturgill’s catalogue. I like the gentle Time After All and the peppy tenor of Life Ain’t Fair and The World is Mean, which in its rewritten form namechecks the time Sturgill busked outside the venue for the CMAs: ‘You ain’t gotta read between the lines, you just gotta turn the page’. The original, from an album of 2014, is more of a Waylon Jennings-type tune while this new version is pure bluegrass.

The quick tunes like Railroad of Sin find a place alongside ballads like Old King Coal, both from his 2014 album High Top Mountain. The latter is a waltz that swaps pedal steel for human voices, describing the demise of the raw material that funds much of the livelihoods in Kentucky, but now ‘the rivers run muddy and the mountains are bare’.

As a gift for his supporters this is superb. As a catch-up service-cum-greatest hits it is invaluable. Everyone needs to slow down and, in the great pandemic, Sturgill slows everyone down from the panic and pain. 4/5

Jeremy Ivey – Waiting Out The Storm

As Morgan Evans said of Kelsea Ballerini, Jeremy Ivey may not even be the best songwriter in his kitchen. Along with his band the Extraterrestrials, Jeremy’s new album Waiting Out The Storm opens with Jeremy’s Dylanesque nasal whine asking ‘How’s your nuclear threat? How good is the virtual sex? Do your dreams have commercials?’ on a song called Tomorrow People. It’s co-written with Margo Price, the lady he eats his toast with in that kitchen.

This is another album steeped in classic singer/songwriter sounds like Gram Parsons, Dylan and The Band. Movies (‘They don’t make those stories anymore’) calls back to those days in a very meta song which features a harmonica solo while Loser Town is 100% Neil Young heartland rock, sung in a less whiny voice which, like the Canadian’s, won’t be to everyone’s taste.

Someone Else’s Problem is a sadly timely song about homelessness (‘the city should clean up all this trash’), slave labour, war and charity, even the original sin, set to a loping rhythm. It’s like a tribute to John Lennon’s political era but it still seems genuine. Hands Down In Your Pockets stays in the pocket of a groove as Jeremy talks though a similarly apocalyptic message. There are some cute backing vocals from Margo on Things Could Get Much Worse, which follows the gloomy White Shadow.

How It Has To Be is similarly pessimistic, even with a killer guitar solo in the middle of it and some Hammond organ throughout. The first line mentions Neil Armstrong and Tinder, while Oprah and Susan B Anthony appear in the third verse. The song bookends the album after the time-shifting opening track. Fun fact: two tracks mention rust. Go and listen to the album to see which ones! 4/5


Country Jukebox Jury – Everette and The Cadillac Three

October 23, 2020

Everette – Kings of the Dairy Queen Parking Lot Side A

Everette are two guys from Kentucky (one of them has the most amazing beard) whose album Kings of the Dairy Queen Parking Lot is coming out in two parts. Produced by Luke Laird, there are seven tracks on Side A which introduce the band to market. Is there space for them? Well it helps them that there aren’t many duos around, and it helps that the music is top quality.

Can’t Say No is a funky opener driven by a twanging riff. ‘Quitting you ain’t easy’ introduces a chorus full of pleasures – dancing, drinking, and you – which made me sway and sing. It’s as if someone has told Florida Georgia Line to stop posturing and grow up. It sounds authentically southern but very poppy and I can see Everette winning over many Luke Combs fanatics. Check out the brief key change and the wigout solo too! Note to the band: segue into Harry Nilsson’s Coconut when you perform it live.

Two more songs go long on the rock. Break It To Me is a song about waiting for a ‘big FU’, anticipating the very moment of a breakup but wondering how the woman will do it. It’s so hooky and effervescent. Dang The Whiskey is a tempo tune where the guys are getting ‘loose’ at the bar. It has hints of both Eric Church and The Cadillac 3 – it’s loud and contains the lyric ‘SOB’ – and it’ll sound great at a tailgate party, or when covered by Backwoods Creek, who would be a perfect support act should Everette be able to play huge venues in the UK next year.

The title track includes the line ‘being young ain’t never getting old’ – come on!! – and it makes me think how teenagers today can’t fumble around or muck about in a parking lot because of the virus. Way Back is a middle of the dirt road love song in the modern style: guy meets girl and have a ‘hands in pocket conversation’ but it seems like they’ve known each other since they were swapping mixtapes back in the day. Love Me Like I Am, about accepting a partner’s perfect imperfections, begins with a catchy wordless hook and a Church-like strum and vocal. ‘My straight and narrow’s crooked’ is a great line – they can sing, write and ensure good production from maestro Luke Laird – and it’s got a lovely melody.

Momma I’ll Be OK is a down home country song in which the vocalists tell their mum that they ought to call more and read books. Momma songs are coming back – Luke Combs has released Without You – and thank goodness for that. Some lovely whistling too. If Side B is as good as Side A, this band will be enormous. 5/5 and I trust Luke Laird’s taste (and the money from Broken Bow Records) on Everette. Remember the name.

The Cadillac Three – Tabasco & Sweet Tea

TC3, as they are known to all, were due to play Country2Country this spring before events intervened, while promoting their Country Fuzz album. I felt that record would have benefitted from being a little shorter and more varied tonally. The 11 tracks here, surprising fans in October, are a funky bunch. The fuzz pedals have stayed in the box and TC3 are experimenting a little. 

Tabasco & Sweet Tea kicks off with the title track, which compares a lady to things that are hot yet gorgeous. I love the chorus about ‘that bartender upstairs making a concoction’ that led to this woman. The riff is slinky and the melody is, as ever, excellent. Road Soda is even better, even if it’s 99% Uptown Funk.

It’s an album about girls and vehicles. Case in point: Stop That Girl, Head Over Wheels (‘that vroom vroom vroom gives me a heart attack’) and Sweet Southern Spirit, which namechecks Lynyrd Skynyrd. It makes a change from the dirty blues of previous albums and reminds me of Red Hot Chili Peppers more than anyone else. I hope some of these songs make it to their live set as it will give them the tonal variety that I wanted from their last album.

Bridges (‘we learn which ones to cross, which ones to burn’) is a two-chord tune which could also work as blues rock but it’s more gentle in this arrangement. It’s co-written with Frank Rogers, who has worked extensively with Brad Paisley. Money Ain’t Shit (‘if you ain’t got love’) has some nifty production while Turn The Radio On is potty-mouthed southern funk. Stoner jam Devil’s Lettuce is spoke-sung by Jaren and the lyric namechecks Dazed & Confused and ‘the munchies’. It reminds me of Beck.

The album ends with Sabbath On Cornbread, a piece of braggadocio which also looks at the gentrification of Nashville. ‘Three long-hairs gonna keep on changing the game’ is the takehome point and I think TC3 have earned the right to brag a bit. Well done to Big Machine for putting out something that looks like a very skilled passion project. Tabasco & Sweet Tea is a fully realised album and I look forward to seeing where TC3 go next, even if they may have to wait to come to London. 4/5


Country Jukebox Jury – Nickel Creek and Billy Strings

October 22, 2020

Nickel Creek – Live from the Fox Theatre

Crashing in at number one on the Billboard Bluegrass Album chart, this is Nickel Creek with a show from 2014 at Oakland’s Fox Theatre, their first show ever in the Californian city documented on their first ever live album. It’s available via Bandcamp for $10 or as a double vinyl set. This means I get to talk about the pride of Carlsbad, California, where I’ve been lucky to spend some weeks with family in the last 20 years. Guitarist Sean and fiddler Sara Watkins met gangly mandolin prodigy Chris Thile in the 1990s and as children the trio played folk clubs and festivals while building an original set of songs.

After the success of O Brother Where Art Thou’s folksy bluegrass soundtrack, Nickel Creek slid into the slipstream. I first heard of them in the 2000s when their song When In Rome was played on UK radio; their third album Why Should The Fire Die was produced by a guy who had worked with Good Charlotte, topping the Bluegrass Album chart and made number 17 on the overall album chart in the US.

This Side, produced by my other favourite Bluegrass artist Alison Krauss, included songs written by Stephen Malkmus of Pavement (Spit on a Stranger) and the mighty duo Gordon Kennedy and Wayne Kirkpatrick (Hanging by a Thread), as well as some Chris Thile instrumentals like Smoothie Song and Sean Watkins’ fine tune This Side, which has a majestic middle section.

The band then went off to pursue other projects – The Watkins Family Hour and The Punch Brothers notably, as well as Chris’ mandolin transcriptions of Bach pieces – before reuniting for 2014’s A Dotted Line, which is the album they were promoting at the Fox Theatre. It made the album top 10, topped the folk and bluegrass charts and spawned the magnificent song Destination and the apocalyptic anthem 21st of May. I fondly remember hearing their set from the Newport Folk Festival.

Their live show includes 22 tracks including wedding song Rest of My Life, farewell song Somebody More Like You, eerie Lighthouse’s Tale and, of course, When In Rome, Reasons Why, This Side, the pulsating You Don’t Know What’s Going On and the wonderful arrangement of the trad. arr. banger The Fox. Non-vocal instrumentals Elephant in the Corn, Scotch & Chocolate and Ode to a Butterfly are also present and correct here.

The set ends with a gorgeous cover of a song called Where Is Love Now, which the trio also performed as part of Live From Here, the now extinct show on US public radio which Chris hosted for a few years. Check out the Youtube video to be spellbound.

I like that the band are a sort of supergroup, who all sing, take solos and harmonise. Their original songs are rich in melody and vocal variation. I am a Creek Freak and I hope you will be too. 4/5

Billy Strings – Home

The album which Nickel Creek displaced at number one on the Bluegrass Chart is by a Michigan-born virtuoso who has been critically and commercially successful. Willian Apostol aka Billy Strings introduced himself to UK audiences over Country Music Week with a four-song performance live from the Station Inn in Nashville. Sitting on a high stool, Billy showcased his tremendous ability as a rootsy performer steeped in American music. He reminded me of Charlie Worsham with his charming voice and pickin’ abilities and I would love to hear Billy and Charlie duel with guitars or banjos.

Billy, who was nominated for Emerging Act of the Year at the postponed Americana Music Awards 2020, released his second full-length album Home in September 2019, on which he wrote and produced all 14 tracks. Hours before the release, the International Bluegrass Music Association named him New Artist and Guitar Player of the year, on the strength of his debut album Turmoil & Tinfoil.  It was his third solo release after an EP and an album. He must be irked that the festival season has been wiped out, meaning he wouldn’t play the folk and bluegrass crowds who would love this new slant on a genre as old as the Appalachian hills.

The album opens with an atmospheric thirty seconds before banjo and guitar come in with something that, as always to my ears, sounds like Nickel Creek. Taking Water has all the elements of a bluegrass song: stomping 4/4 beat, fiddle and harmonies on the chorus which has the lyric ‘this ole boy’s taking water’.

Running (‘as fast as I can go…from all the things I know’) is aptly titled, whizzing by a breakneck pace and making me think how much prep goes into making the fingers dextrous enough to play semiquavers on a mandolin. Hollow Heart is another toe-tapper with some double-stopped mandolin solos, and you will be amazed by the solo near the end of Everything’s The Same.

Rather than any genre, Billy Strings sounds like Billy Strings. At the album’s centre are two seven-minute songs which give rise to the label ‘psychedelic bluegrass’. Away From the Mire’s first part is traditionally acoustic, but the instrumental second half includes an electric guitar solo slathered in production, which marry well with the acoustic banjo, mandolin, fiddle and acoustic guitar. I hope rock fans give this track a try. It is followed by the title track, which is a meditation on how ‘home is a heartache’ set to tabla drums and chromatic harmonies.

Long Forgotten Dream puts echo on Billy’s vocal, while Highway Hypnosis gets very Sgt Pepper-era Beatles in the mid-section before recapping with some fine harmonies with Ronnie McCoury, son of the mighty bluegrass legend Del.

Enough To Leave slows the pace and even a simple tune is laden with backing vocal harmonies from the band. This would be an arms-around-shoulders festival moment, and it’s a good way into Billy’s album if the tablas have put you off. Ditto Love Like Me, a bluegrass love song with ringing guitars in dropped tunings, and Guitar Peace, which is pure atmosphere and should be picked up by a movie soundtrack supervisor.

The album ends with Freedom, where male backing vocals accompany Billy’s high tenor. ‘I want the road, I want the crown,’ Billy sings. Critics have given him a crown and it’s up to audiences to remember their love of bluegrass around 2000 to include Billy in their musical diet. 4/5 for Home.


Country Jukebox Jury EPs – Parker McCollum, Matt Stell and Trace Adkins

October 17, 2020

Parker McCollum – Hollywood Gold

Parker McCollum has put out two albums independently but his Hollywood Gold EP is his first project on a major label. It’s produced by Jon Randall, still best known for writing Whiskey Lullaby and for having married two songwriters, Lonnie Morgan and Jessi Alexander.

Parker is doing well at country radio with his debut single Pretty Heart and on Texas radio with Like a Cowboy. What a great two-pronged strategy, following Cody Johnson and indeed Aaron Watson, helping Parker to cross over from Texas to Nashville and make money from two markets. His voice is typically Texan, with soul and grit in equal measure, and I am sold on Pretty Heart with its lyrical and melodic hooks including holding the word heart for five beats which mirror the act of heartbreak Parker has inflicted on a poor lady.

Like A Cowboy is the best track on the EP, a sad piano-driven waltz which Parker sings brilliantly. The lyrics are thoroughly Texan, full of fenceposts and sunsets and ‘God made me this way’. It sounds timeless and a cut above a lot of pop pap that makes money in Nashville. Expect to hear more of this sort of thing as the market turns to very good songs in the next few years (would that it were so simple…).

Aside from the two singles, there are four other tracks which introduce Parker to an audience beyond Texas. It will not surprise you to learn that it sounds like Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen, since that’s where the money is. Since he is Texan, there is plenty of self-reflection, as on the opening track Young Man’s Blues. This takes the Texan ennui and marries it to a huge Nashville chorus. Hallie Ray Light, meanwhile, is equally punchy though the lyric is full of ‘raining’ and ‘leaving’ and ‘rear view’ and ‘goodnight Hallie Ray’. It’ll sound great live, especially with the slide guitar that runs through the song.

Hold Me Back is the weepie ballad where Parker wants someone to prevent him from ‘spinning these wheels’ and sinking to the bottom of a pit of despair. I love the production from Jon Randall, and it runs nicely into the understated Love You Like That. ‘I’ll be trying like hell…but I don’t know if I can love you like that’ once again proves that Texas does it differently from Nashville. However much Parker wants to be faithful and true, his inner nature means it’ll make it tough.

4/5 for a set of songs which do not let the listener down. Let’s have the album soon.

Matt Stell – Better Than That

Matt Stell had a big hit called Prayed For You, the latest song to bring God back into God-honest country. He kept his faith in that old King James Bible, as the chorus goes, using the familiar four-chord progression IV-I-VI-V and had a number one hit. I am sure he has many pious fans in the American south.

Rather than release an album Matt has put out an eight-track EP which includes his number one smash and opens with his recent single Everywhere But On, which is a gorgeous tune about trying to shake off an ex from his mind. Both songs, by the way, were on his 2019 collection Everywhere But On.

We have also heard the more secular and punchy If I Was a Bar: ‘I’d have a little buzz in my neon light’ and there would be a cover band too, plus he ‘wouldn’t be falling this apart’. Better Than That is actually set in a bar. I like the groove of both songs, sung well in Matt’s tenor. 

I Love You Too is a middle of the dirt road song which sees Matt feel sorry for a girl who wants to hear ‘I love you’ more than when she demands it. Matt is going for the Brett Young market, the sensitive and handsome soul with a smooth voice. Sadie is another song about a lonely girl who has been ‘hurt lately’ but Matt, the sensitive guy, is there for her. The best part of the song is the hook ‘s-s-s-Sadie!!’

Chase It Down encourages her to leave her momma’s house and get going on the open road with Matt. The production is aggressively middle of the dirt road, suiting the subject matter and it’ll appeal to 20somethings looking to chase freedom down. The EP closes with a wedding song – can a bloke be a country newcomer without a wedding song?! – called Look At Me Now. It’s basically I Don’t Dance by Lee Brice crossed with In Case You Didn’t Know by Brett Young, so if you like the sound of that, flock to sensitive soul Matt Stell. 3/5

Trace Adkins – Ain’t That Kind of Cowboy

Trace Adkins has been in country music for 25 years, helping his fellow TV star Blake Shelton have hits, but he is best known culturally for winning the All Star Celebrity Apprentice (I forget who crowned him but he was last seen campaigning for a second term as President). Trace’s memoir offered opinions ‘from a free-thinking roughneck’ who survived being shot by his ex-wife before he became a country star, where being a redneck sold records in the era of Garth.

I still love the smooth Better Off, written by two of the Love Junkies and produced by Jon Pardi’s chum Bart Butler. Trace has his Mind on Fishin’ while sitting in church listening to the preacher, which is about as country as you can get in a sentence. Just The Way We Do It is a two-chord, rifftastic old-fashioned song which has the same preacher eating pie at a Sunday gathering. One guest, Jenny, is having a lot of fun letting her hair down. ‘Ain’t nobody getting hurt!’ Trace assures the listener.

Ain’t That Kind of Cowboy has Trace differentiating himself from John Wayne’s portrait of frontiersmen. The Brothers Osborne have given Trace the song Big which is smart given that TJ and Trace have very similar voices. I chuckled when he sang ‘all this abbreviation is a bunch of BS’ and Dolly Parton’s…’WIG!’, while he also laments the passing of phone cords and how you can’t have sex in small cars.

The EP’s best line is on the piano ballad Running Into You: ‘I can’t walk down memory lane without running into you’. It’s the sort of song Blake Shelton can turn into a number one but doesn’t fit with Blake’s new happy-with-Gwen persona. The writer James T Slater also wrote Guys Named Captain which Kenny Chesney put on his album this year; more people should know James.

I like this EP a lot and will investigate Trace’s catalogue. 5/5 for Ain’t That Kind of Cowboy, which I hope is part of a full album.


Country Jukebox Jury – Ashley Campbell and Shannon Hynes

October 17, 2020

Ashley Campbell – Something Lovely

Something Lovely is the follow-up to the album Remembering. Missing from that album was the track of the same name, which finds a home in an acoustic form on this album. Ashley’s dad Glen passed away from Alzheimer’s and in the song she sings: ‘Daddy don’t you worry, I’ll do the remembering.’ Bring tissues. 

She pays homage to dad with a cover of Good Vibrations – I expect she asked for Brian Wilson’s blessing – on which Glen played as a member of the Wrecking Crew studio and live band.

The opening track Good to Let Go, written by brother Shannon, uses some spiky guitar, rolling drums and an upwardly mobile melody to accompany Ashley’s voyage outta here with ‘your picture in the wind’. Yet on Diggin’ Deep (which has a terrific key change), she sings of ‘the hole you left behind’ and on Moonlight she ‘can’t sleep you off of my mind’.

Throughout the album, the string arrangements and acoustics are glorious, particularly on Moonlight and Suitcase Heart, where she sings in a majestic chorus of being ‘always gone before it even starts’.

Like her fellow regal daughter Rosanne Cash, Ashley knows her country music. Forever’s Not That Long could have come out in 1961 thanks to its rich fiddles, pedal steel and Steinway piano, while her instrumental Moustache Man could have emerged in the 1920s as it’s her and her godfather Carl Jackson pickin’ on banjos. If I Wasn’t sounds like The Beautiful South going noir, with Ashley’s voice floating on top of a delicious arrangement.

There’s a great pair of tracks, one on each side of the album. On the elegant title track, Ashley is a single woman in a bar asking a ‘lonely guy’ for mutual companionship set to some mellifluous nylon-stringed acoustic guitar. It is stunning and is worth the price of admission. By contrast, Walk On By has her ignoring the catcalls with a ukulele and steel guitar thrumming away as she sings ‘nothing to see here’. The rhyme of ‘victim/ symptoms’ is inspired.

Alice, meanwhile, sees her picking up the banjo again and finding her ‘Wonderland’ and not wanting ‘this dream to end’. Aww. 4/5 for a fine album which is as lovely as the title suggests.

Shannon Hynes – Country Words EP

With a similar high alto voice and tone, Shannon do a good job with many songs on Something Lovely.

From Welsh Wales, she is a regular at events for UK country fans so has plenty of friends and contacts. She has been played on Country Hits Radio by Matt Spracklen, who DJs or MCs at these events, and has been steadily building her recorded output since she released I’m Not Pretty in 2018.

Shannon has collected her singles on the Country Words EP which is only available in physical form at ShannonHynes.com, priced £7. I’ve always liked I’m Not Pretty, especially the mention of how ‘blusher keeps the cheeks pink’, while Country Words impressed me from the first time I heard it when Shannon and I were writing and jamming together.

The variety of the seven tracks are impressive. Comfort uses some pedal steel to underscore that mood. Off Guard is a shiny pop song and Someone To Drink With is a sombre tune about wanting to ‘drown the silence out’. Shannon has included the unplugged version of Mother on the EP, on which she plays piano and sings of how important maternal love is to a daughter and vice versa. There is an additional track, Fear Blinds Me, a plea to a loved one.

4/5 for the EP, which shows immense potential and also the depth of talent in the UK’s country movement.


Country Jukebox Jury – Ward Thomas and Ferris & Sylvester

October 9, 2020

Ward Thomas – Invitation

It took me a while to appreciate Ward Thomas’ third album Restless Minds, which was all about social media anxiety and being young, but once I did I learned what excellent songwriters the twins are. In advance of Invitation’s release Ward Thomas fans heard Meant To Be Me, a reminiscin’ song with fingersnaps and past relationships; chirpy Hold Space, which picks up on themes from the third album and sounds like some tracks off the Taylor Swift album Lover; and Painted Legacy, one of those break-up ballads that Ward Thomas do so well.

Don’t Be A Stranger has contemporary production, handclaps on the offbeat and a sweet melody in a minor key. A similar mood is struck on My Favourite Poison, which the girls worked on with Ed Harcourt, a supremely underrated songwriter. The swoop of the arrangement, with piano and orchestra, is the winning ingredient here.

Someday, a waltz about the fear of commitment with some fine chords, has been getting some radio airplay on Chris Country and Radio 2, the latter station slapping it on the B List. It will be on their Greatest Hits whenever it emerges. Talking of Radio 2, Ward Thomas played a session for Bob Harris’ Country Show. They played a stunning acoustic version of Sweet Time, which opens the album mellifluously and in a well-produced manner.

Open Your Mind’s opening line is ‘closed like a coffee shop no one likes’ and continues to list doors, theme parks and worlds which are closed before the girls invite the audience to open their mind to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. It’s very middle of the dirt road and charming, with a great chorus and a proper middle eight. Little Mix would do a good job with this too. Wait Up gallops along with purpose, as the girls ask the guy to hold off from sleeping. The banjo loops in the background give it a country flavour.

Dear Me is a You Go Girl a cappella song in the form of a letter, set to some sweet oohs and aahs with a suitably hortatory lyric. ‘You don’t need to carry this alone,’ the girls sing. If There Were Words is another pretty love song which recalls their song This Too Will Pass. It’s a song about dealing with grief that will comfort many listeners, especially in this pandemic era.

They were due to play acoustic shows in the spring; when I saw them in Blackpool last autumn they shone when their voices took centre stage. As with album three, my complaint here is that sometimes the production gets in the way of the voices, but the production will ensure they are played on Radio 2 and drive listeners to their albums. I still think the twins are ‘Radio 2 pop’, which Americans call Adult Contemporary, rather than country.

If you need to know where the twins’ market is, look at the last three tracks: a duet with James Blunt called Halfway, which was rotated on Radio 2; a live version of Human by The Killers with their tourmate Jack Savoretti, himself a darling of Radio 2; and a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide, which became a country music standard through the Dixie Chicks’ version.

UK country music, at the elite level where The Shires dwell, is pop music with a bit of emotion and plays-on-words. In the US, Kelsea Ballerini, Carrie Underwood and Maren Morris are doing the same thing, and you can see why Ward Thomas are being sold as country in the way James Blunt and Jack Savoretti can’t be. I think it’s their most fully realised album and you can tell they are in control of their career. I think this’ll crash in at 1 or 2; if it’s 1, it’ll be well deserved. 4/5 for Invitation. I accept!

Ferris & Sylvester – I Should Be On A Train EP

Bob Harris likes Ferris & Sylvester so much that he named them his Emerging Artist at the 2020 UK Americana Music Awards. I caught the duo live in Norwich 18 months ago and chatted to them about future writing plans. They have followed up their Made In Streatham EP from 2018 – some of whose tracks have over a million Spotify streams – with a five-track EP titled after recent single I Should Be On a Train.

I heard that song, which mixes rock, blues and roots, on their session for Ricky Ross’ Another Country show on BBC Scotland. Ricky is a fan too, as is Baylen Leonard from Country Hits Radio. As well as talking about their time as a regular performing act at Camden Town’s Spiritual Bar (Jade Bird is a good friend), the pair played Knock You Down, the poppiest track on an EP which includes a lockdown cover the pair did of Joe Cocker’s version of With A Little Help from my Friends.

Everyone Is Home sets lockdown blues to an egg shaker and some mellow organ chords. Birds chirp to accompany the pair on the outro which quotes the Queen (via Vera Lynn) telling us ‘we’ll meet again’. Good Man is menacing, weird and demands repeated listens to lock into the rhythm and mood of the song, which is full of chromatic progressions and bolshy riffs. There are even a few bars of sitar. It’s about the lessons imparted to kids but the sound overwhelms the lyrics.

Ferris & Sylvester have received funding from PRS for Music to travel to Austin, Texas for South by South West and I think this decade will see millions more falling for two talented musicians with a grasp on several styles of music. A full album beckons and, with any luck, it’ll be in association with a major label who can promote their talent. 5/5


Country Jukebox Jury LPs – Brothers Osborne and Brent Cobb

October 9, 2020

Brothers Osborne – Skeletons

Jon Caramanica of the New York Times has coined the term ‘power country’ to refer to beefy rockin’ country music. Brothers Osborne, John and TJ, are just behind Luke Combs in the power country peloton. The pair have spent 2020 trailing Skeletons while being unable to play live. With a vaccine and some luck, they will win thousand more fans over 2021, especially thanks to the new album.

The album’s co-writers also include the crack pair of Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, who sprinkle some magic onto opening track Lighten Up, which is soaked in reverb and has TJ sing of guitars cranked up, drinks and lighters in the air. Casey Beathard writes Hatin Somebody and Side B opener High Note, which sounds like a radio single thanks to the production and a lyric which emphasises leaving a relationship on good terms.

That segues into a guitar boogie composed by John Osborne called Muskrat Greene and it would be remiss of me and every other reviewer not to note the passing of Eddie Van Halen this week, though John is far too humble to accept comparisons to the greatest guitar player of his era. This in turn segues into Dead Man’s Curve, which takes 99% of its inspiration from Charlie Daniels Band and the other 1% from Ace of Spades and rollicks along at some speed. I can’t wait to hear this one live.  

I suppose I don’t need to tell you how the production brings out the songs, courtesy of the almighty Jay Joyce who seems to be a third member of the band by now. All Night is the correct choice of single: punchy, full of harmonies and lyrics like ‘I got the back if you got the beat’. Skeletons (‘I’ve got bones to pick with them’) is also a lot of fun, while other pre-released songs Hatin Somebody and I’m Not For Everybody make the personal political, which I think is the USP of Brothers Osborne.

The pair come from Maryland and after a decade of patience are emerging as one of country music’s top acts. Their parents must be overjoyed, and the tribute is returned thanks to John’s solo write. Old Man’s Boots is an ode to papa Osborne whose boots ‘weren’t built for speed or comfort but you can bet they were building something’. Musicians are working men too, learning their craft and the art of performance. No wonder Britain has taken John and TJ to heart, helped by John marrying Lucie Silvas, a singer who was based in Britain before decamping to Nashville.

The smart All The Good Ones Are is written by TJ with Craig Wiseman and Lee Thomas Miller, who are both experts in humour and character. The song is anchored by the phrase ‘not every…but all the good ones are!’ and the chorus is an elegy to a lady punctuated by trademark huge guitars.

The great Hayes Carll writes the third of the band’s drinking songs trilogy: we’ve had Rum and Tequila Again and now TJ is Back on the Bottle, where drinking is a substitute for loving and is a good way to close the first side. I like the tempo shift in the chorus. After While You Still Can on their second album, here we’ve the tremendous Make It A Good One (‘give all your heart to someone, leave nothing unsaid or undone’) as the brothers tell the listener how to live a country way of life.

This is country music for fans of classic rock. 5/5 and their best album so far.

Brent Cobb – Keep Em On They Toes

On the Thursday of Country Music Week, 22 October, there is a Destination Country live event with Brent Cobb. He’s a songwriting supremo in Nashville who has written songs for Miranda Lambert, Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney and Little Big Town. His first album on Elektra came out in 2016, with the second following in 2018. Well done to producer Brad Cook who has spent 20 years working wonders with the likes of Bon Iver, Waxahatchee and the War on Drugs and has a website with the excellent domain name BradleyTime.com. All ten tracks are glorious in sound and Brent is mic’ed very well indeed. It’s so clear and I can hear every syllable.

If the credits are correct, then the lovely Good Times and Good Love was co-written with Luke Bryan. Brent turns it into a piano-and-fiddle tune of which Willie Nelson would be proud. It has that classic, homely feel of a Laurel Canyon masterpiece from 1969, with a winding melody that matches the sentiment. I think Brent has swallowed the discography of The Band, as it’s very rootsy and American.

This Side of the River mentions mud, overflowing streams, catfish and how you gotta ‘watch your step cos the current is swift’; Brent shows his fine songwriting skills by running with an idea and putting a decent song to the lyric. The World Is Ending, given its title, is suitably portentous with lots of minor chords and menace. Shut Up and Sing talks of ‘poison in our rhetoric and bullets in our schools’ while the music is aurally pleasant with some Scotty Moore slapback guitar. Dust Under My Rug has a fiendish solo and a rockabilly feel.

I really can’t place this album in an era – it takes every classic songwriter and blends them all together. Soapbox is definitely a modern take on Harry Nilsson, as Brent uses his record to put his voice on vinyl: ‘You might wear out my nerves but you ain’t changing my mind,’ Brent sings.

You’ll have a different favourite track when you listen to this, released via Thirty Tigers, one of the great indie labels of today. This is a delightful record by a craftsman who has done his homework and has delivered the equivalent of a Master’s thesis in song. 5/5.