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

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.

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