2020 has been devastating for UK artists. No indoor gigs or outdoor festivals like Buckle & Boots and Black Deer, no British Country Music Festival or Long Road in September, no radio sessions or showcases or support slots with US acts and, even though it’s a gig for exposure, no Country2Country 2020.
Nonetheless, recordings have still emerged and every one of these songs has been released in the horrible year we have all had. Many have been played on Country Hits Radio or Chris Country, the big two radio stations, or supported by stations or websites like ARC Radio, Lyric Magazine, Your Life in a Song, Entertainment Focus, Off The Record.
The online UK Country Music Week 2020 unites over 50 artists, many of whom are included in this chart. UK CMW runs from November 30 to December 6.
40 Charlotte Young – Praying For Rain
39 Remember Monday – Version of You
38 Hannah Paris – What The Hell
37 Danny McMahon – My Kinda City
36 Kelsey Bovey – Magnetic
35 Anna Krantz – We Could Be High
34 Laura Evans – Mess of Me
33 Harleymoon Kemp – Space
32 Katy Hurt – Unfinished Business
31 The Wandering Hearts – Over Your Body
30 Foreign Affairs – The Hope Comes Again
29 Shannon Hynes – Country Words
28 Jess Thristan – This Year’s Love
27 Joe Martin – Heartbreak Cult
26 Hannah White – My Father
25 Deeanne Dexeter – 4AM
24 The Rising –2AM Call
23 Jade Helliwell – The Moment
22 Jake Morrell – Taking Our Time
21 Megan O’Neill – Head Under Water
20 Two Ways Home & Joey Clarkson – One More for the Road
In this two-parter I run through the biggest acts and songs from my voyage into Red Dirt country where Texas declares its independence from the Nashville scene. In this second part, I look at songs by various members of the Texas music scene. All of them are either surging to or have been number one on the Texas Regional Radio Chart.
George Navarro – When She’s Drinkin. An irresistible four-chord pop which is at odds with the lyric. George realises the only time his lady loves him is when she’s had a few ‘and she ain’t drinkin’ anymore’. He’s singing through his heartbreak.
Mark Powell – Breaking Things. A midtempo ballad sung eloquently in a deep timbre: ‘My pride is whipped from a long stretch of heartache’. It’s another song from Texas that celebrates men who are quite rubbish in love? The lyric ‘you break it, you pay for it’ is great.
Reckless Kelly – I Only See You With My Eyes Closed. This sounds like an interstate drive on a July afternoon but there’s a sad lyric tied to the wide-open guitars and jolly melody.
Jody Booth – Gotta Go Back To Work. This starts with a twanging riff, adds some fiddle and pedal steel, then a Garthish croon comes in. ‘I don’t remember nothin bout last night,’ Jody sings of his crazy night, and realising that to ‘get a little rest’ he has to go to work, eschewing the honkytonks in the daytime.
Josh Abbott Band – The Luckiest. An obvious single from the great Highway Kind album, this is the wedding song that Texans will enjoy in a socially distanced fashion next year. The chorus shouts out hometowns, friends, cold beer and ‘good times’, as well as an obligatory reference to ‘King George’. Above all, Josh is ‘the luckiest to be loved by you’. As wedding songs go, with the rim of the snare drum driving the backbeat, this is glorious. The second verse, when the piano and banjo pop up, is glorious.
Jake Bush – Gravity & You. An army veteran, Jake’s seven-track album 7 is being promoted with a song about how dependent on his beloved he is. She keeps him ‘tethered’ and brings him ‘back to earth’. The sentiment is simple and direct and will resonate with many Texans.
Kylie Frey – Spur of the Moment. Over a chugging acoustic beat, Kylie sends off her man who has an adventurous soul; indeed, the spur is ‘digging in’ and ‘cuts deep’. What a great voice, harmonies and story here: ‘he ain’t my mama’s dream but he’s everything to me’ and thus she can’t go to sleep until she knows her man is safe. This is almost perfect and contains horses, which very few country songs today contain, and a fiddle solo (ditto).
Kylie Frey – I Do Thing. What a wonderfully kinetic opening few bars, setting the scene for a lyric where Kylie reveals her ‘habit of being attracted to doing whatever I want’. She never thought she’d want to settle down but ‘suddenly I’m changing my mind’. She’s a great vocalist, like her fellow Texans Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves who have made waves in Nashville. This song is getting pushed to Nashville radio and is climbing towards the top of the Texan chart. Her EP is called Rodeo Queen.
James Lann – Everydayers. The title refers to people who ‘in all kinds of weather…stick together in a world full of naysayers’. These people ‘get er done’ and ‘hang tough no matter what’, and it does sound a little vague. However, the guitar solo in the middle of it sounds like heartland rock and the vocal is very similar to Aaron Watson’s.
Deryl Dodd – Let Me Hold You Tonight. As I pressed play, I guessed this was to be a love song to slowdance to, and probably the guy is lucky to have the girl in spite of his faults. Nope. Deryl’s lady has left her but he wants to go after her. He is ‘not perfect’ – so far, so Texan – but can’t lose his beloved. ‘Come home to me, darling’ is his plea over a waltz tempo and some pedal steel. There’s heartache and longing and everything George Jones loves to sing about. As country as the day is long, and I was disappointed to hear a plaintive piano solo instead of a spoken word bit in the middle.
Bri Bagwell – As Soon As You. A very rare number one from a lady, the singer is a seven-time winner of Texas Female Vocalist of the Year. Her voice is somewhere between Ashley Monroe and Miranda Lambert, soft but punchy and As Soon As You is a good showcase for it. ‘Eventually I want to say I Do…I just won’t get there as soon as you!’ is a fine line.
David Adam Byrnes – Neon Town. The title track of his album. From Arkansas, David looks great in a cowboy hat. His biography says he headed to Nashville, got a minor hit, learned to write lots of bro country, lost his deal, heard Texas’ Red Dirt Music and heeded Aaron Watson’s advice to get the hell out of Nashville. His last song I Can Give You One was number one the week the pandemic hit America and any touring was postponed. Neon Town is a fine rocker of a song that I pressed play on immediately after hearing it a first time. ‘Raisin hell and raisin 12oz to a country song’ is fun, and any Luke Combs fan will find much to enjoy.
Curtis Grimes – Little Bit. The song starts with some fiddle and electric guitar and I love the opening line about a girl like ‘a needle in a haystack…A blond-haired Mona Lisa’. It transpired that it’s about his daughter whom he tucks in at night. Curtis’ baritone is magnificent and he certainly loves his kid who ‘throws a fit when she can’t get her jammies on’. ‘I dread that day me and mama give her away’.
Mark Powell – Project. I love the swampy riff, four bars of intricate pedal steel and Mark’s very country vocal tone. ‘I need a home and you need a project’ is the hook, as Mark invites the woman to turn a ‘stray dog’ into a man. The video is worth a watch as well, which brings the song to life through humour.
Jesse Raub Jr – I’d Look Good On You, which has another swampy riff and impassioned vocalist. Jesse sells the song brilliantly and I love the line ‘sawdust, hardwood, neon speaking the truth’. Jon Pardi does this sort of thing very well over in Nashville
Granger Smith – Country Things. Get this for songwriting credits: Ernest K Smith, Brian Kelley, Hardy (who is SO HOT right now) and Jordan Schmidt. These guys know country things and this is a nice gift for Granger. The song opens with banjo and mandolin then adds light drums, piano and fiddle before Granger has sung a syllable. It’s a list of things that are country – try and fill in your bingo card but I’ll start you off: ‘no ma’am’, ‘dirt road’, ‘church’, ‘boots’ and ‘crickets’. It’s gorgeous and clinical – exactly what Marty Stuart talks about when he says a country singer carries a briefcase in one hand and a guitar case in the other. There’s even an instrumental coda at the end.
Stoney LaRue and Tanya Tucker – Meet In The Middle. This chugs with energy from the opening bar – real drums, real harmonica – as Stoney (who is a man) sings of wanting to go all the way but asking Tanya to do a bit of giving as well as taking. Tanya, who started as a teenager, is becoming country’s answer to Mavis Staples, a heritage act with huge appreciation from those who came after her. Her vocal is tremendous and the song is a pleasant three minutes.
William Clark Green – Poor. A waltz which is full of mandolin and fiddle, and William’s vocals aren’t quite there, giving it that Red Dirt authenticity. It helps that the chap looks like a manual worker too, with strong forearms. Whereas his lady is ‘a saint’ and ‘a queen’, he is ‘a sucker, a sinner, three times a loser’. I could predict a section full of la-laing. I wanted more about how they are poor; aside from ‘cracks in the ceiling’ there’s not much imagery.
In this two-parter I run through the biggest acts and songs from my voyage into Red Dirt country where Texas declares its independence from the Nashville scene.
In the first part, however, I discuss the stars who have leapt from Texas into Tennessee and are played on country radio.
Cody Johnson ft Reba – Dear Rodeo.
Cody is one of the biggest acts in Texas (bigger even than Aaron Watson), and Nashville think so as well. Reba was famously a cowgirl before she became the heir to Dolly. Reba, as you may know, is part of the double act hosting the CMA Awards next month along with Darius Rucker. Good old Darius, proving that country music isn’t racist. Over enormous drums and chugging guitars, with a long instrumental outro section, Cody and Reba sing of ‘almost-had-ems and broken bones’ although it’s clear Cody is comparing a lady to the rodeo and that Cody is still in love with her.
The man who fled Nashville and then had a number one album on Billboard keeps on keeping on. Silverado Saturday Night is a fluffy song which is all energy and drive. ‘They don’t call it a truck bed for nothing,’ Aaron purrs, namechecking Zebco fishing rods and wanting to be ‘dancing with the stars’. It’s about making love.
Whisper My Name is a rocking love song about his beloved wife. There’s touches of fiddle on a song which reminisces about how honkytonks are now parking lots. George Strait gets a namecheck – there must be a way to find out how many Texan country songs mention King George – and although the song is middle-of-the-dirt-road it makes my head nod.
The sappy and patriotic American Soul begins with gentle piano and some patriotic fiddle. I think I’ve heard every possible permutation of ‘Star-Spangled banner, hats and boots, hard-working, hard-partying, hard-living, Amazing Grace, baseball cards, gridiron, political parties, freedom and bravery’ but it’s still effective and affecting. There’s a good coda about love and stuff.
Parker 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, which ought to help 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.
Since he is Texan, there is plenty of self-reflection, as on the opening track Young Man’s Blues, which marries Texan ennui 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.
I love this singer the more I hear from him. His album One Light Town picked Drove Me to the Whiskey as a single, which was well chosen: heart on sleeve, wonderful voice and a lyric that sounds on close listen like a man determined to mess things up; it’s he, not his beloved, who drives him to drink. Crikey, this is Garth level stuff with the voice of Rob Thomas from Matchbox 20 and the tenor of Someone Like You by Adele.
His song Bad Guy is not a cover of Billie Eilish’s song but an acoustic tune that reminds me of James Taylor which revisits the Texan tropes of drinking and partying hard and being useless. Check out the pedal steel.
Feels Like Country Music opens with a gentle sound of the plains, indicated by pedal steel, acoustic guitar and brushed drums. He wears a cowboy hat, sings like George Strait and, as you can expect by the title, ticks off all the things that country music talks about: steel guitar ‘bending in the cracks’, hometowns in rearview mirrors, ‘left hand out the window’ and, in verse two, drinking after working all week with buddies. It’s authentic, with some lovely lush harmonica and some real drums. You could have Old Dominion or this song, which is undeniably country. There’s a guitar solo twangin’ in the middle of it too.
Jon’s next single is Heart To Steal Tonight a middle of the red dirt song that Nashville’s singers would kill for. Jon wants sunset to ‘hurry up’ because he’s been waiting all day to get married to him. The video to the song is actually a wedding video from Jon’s own wedding. As a groom he will ‘mean just what I say and say just what I mean’ and every other groom will relate to a song about the big day. Musically there are touches of fiddle and a great melody.
Garth Brooks is a big fan of Randall and, since Garth is from the Red Dirt state of Oklahoma, he knows his stuff.
She Gone is a chugging rock song whose first line mentioned ‘gravel flying, pedal down’; it’s driven by a driving beat and the lyrics are all about driving away in a car, ‘windows down – huh – and her finger up’. The chorus is fantastic, with Nashville-quality harmonies and real drums and pedal steel. A great voice, a very attractive man in a great package.
Hey Cowgirl has a great opening riff and a namecheck for George Strait’s song Amarillo By Morning. The chorus explodes into seventh chords and pounded drums. There is a sort of Texan melancholy running through the song, which ends with the words ‘good luck and goodbye’, that can only be explained in sound – ie you have to listen to the mournful fiddle’s melody and crying pedal steel.
Chad Cooke Band
In Four Minutes, the narrator notes how the girl in the song is singing George Strait songs and sagging her shoulders – ‘you wanna dance alone’ he concludes – but Chad wants to join her. He wants to put a quarter in the jukebox and ‘get you out on that dancefloor’. The production is stunning and this is no different to what Jon Pardi is doing.
Cowboy’s Cowgirl is a charged-up love song with hints of Joey Moi’s production work with Florida Georgia Line. Clay’s vocals are clear and the harmonies from the band are perfect. Having got ‘lasso around my heart, ‘in the chorus we have a ‘red dirt sunset’ which refers to the Texan style of Red Dirt music. In the second verse we get ‘rodeo’ and the ‘nail where I hang my hat’. It’s as if a Nashville writer has tried to get all the cowboy motifs into a love song.
Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen released an album of duets featuring the break-up song Rodeo Clown. ‘I was picturing the Marlboro Man…She left me for a Rodeo Clown!’ It wasn’t a lawyer or a ‘macho man’ but ‘Darryl, hidin’ in a barrel, red nose and a painted-on frown!’ Great imagery, great fiddle and a lot of fun in spite of the tears in the guys’ beer.
Randy’s band released You Me and a Bottle. The opening seconds are so comforting: fiddle, live drums, melancholy…then Randy comes in talking about being ‘broke down…beat up…crash and burning’. Texan music is all about men being useless: ‘When the lines all get tangled, baby I’m so thankful’ for another day under ‘a chandelier sky’. There is so much depth to this song, a lot of warmth. Luke Combs is trying his damnedest to change Nashville, but Texan musicians will look at the money and turn their noses up. Why try to compete when they are welcome in Texas?
Also by Randy Rogers Band, Drinking Money is making its way up the charts. It’s a chugging bit of country rock with a fiddle set on Friday night. It’s the same idea as Beer Money by Kip Moore with the added idea of how ‘she’s not here to tell me what I’m doing wrong’.
Read the second part of this piece, dealing with number one songs from local Texan successes, here.
I would file Granger in the second tier of country stars, alongside Justin Moore, Chris Janson and Kellie Pickler. All three preach to the south in a poppy, rocking manner and would impress a UK crowd if they were to come over here.
Granger is a Texan who has made inroads into Nashville with songs like If The Boot Fits and Back Road Song. The second of these was produced and written with Frank Rogers, who helped Brad Paisley on a path to success. In fact, as you will see, Granger has a good claim to be the Texan Brad Paisley.
His tenth LP is his first project since the death of his son at the start of 2019. As with several other acts such as Chase Rice and Maddie and Tae, fans received an album in instalments, with eight initial tracks being followed by a complete album just in time for Thanksgiving.
The key themes, as befitting the title, are love and life in the country. I called my project A Country Way of Life because country music can be a guide on living well. Granger agrees. Where I Get It From is a slight but fun three-chord chugger which tells stories of grandpa drinking beer and mama praying ‘every night and day’. Buy A Boy A Baseball is a father’s song to other fathers about how to raise a son or daughter which, even if you don’t know the story about his own tragedy, is poignant.
That’s What Love Looks Like encourages listeners to ‘look with our hearts and open up our eyes’ to life’s simpler things. There is a brief line about how ‘the color of skin doesn’t mean a thing’ when love conquers all, coupled with ‘John 3.16’ which is an explicit shout out to the Lord. I don’t want to assume it, since it is Granger’s story to tell, but after losing a loved one I imagine he would make a special effort to find some comfort in every little thing.
Man Made again opens with a banjo over a simple chord loop. Granger sings about things man makes, like ‘the telephone, the radio, footprints on the moon’, in order to get married and make their family proud. The payoff is that ‘a woman made that man’; after all, it was Mona Lisa who inspired the painting and made Da Vinci renowned. We’re in the Men Applaud Woman genre of country music and the middle of the dirt road musical track backs up the lyric. I can see this being a sleeper hit and fan favourite.
Being a Texan, Granger is aware of the proximity to Mexico, where he says he has never been but ‘laying with you is so damn close’. We’ve got tequila and sunlight, two things the country does well, and it’s a love song. 6 String Stories is literally life in a song as ‘all the smiles, all the scars’; verse two documents Granger proposing to his future wife and he loses his dad in the middle eight. Hate You Like I Love You is a break-up song by numbers, similar to the new hit Just About Over You by Priscilla Block.
The set opener Country Things, which I would place in the genre Country Bingo, checks off fireflies, polite phrases like ‘yes sir, no ma’am’ and the act of dying and going up to heaven over fiddle and banjo. Anything Like Me is another hymn to country kids: sunsets, backyards, porches, pretty girls, church on Sundays and being satisfied with your lot. This is delivered with contemporary production and some woahs.
Chevys and Hemis and Yotas and Fords lists the many ways to get by on dirt roads, music to listen to while cruising around on your truck. It definitely sounds like it, with crunchy guitars and processed drums. Ditto radio single That’s Why I Love Dirt Roads, a catchy rocking hymn to rural life with rivers and painted skies. There is also a bonus stripped version with Christian hiphop act Lathan Warlick offering a poignant set of bars about love and loss.
As with many Texan entertainers, Granger can do deep as well as fluffy. I Kill Spiders is in praise of Granger’s role as a dad guiding the way and getting rid of arachnids, while Heroes is one of those ‘here’s to the unsung heroes’ songs that every artist will release in the next few years. He seems genuine rather than pandering here, and serves up a good mix of material.
Granger’s friend (and comic alter ego) Earl Dibbles Jr appears on four tracks. He is relegated to rapping on Country & Ya Know It, which made me laugh out loud: instead of clapping your hands, the listener raises his beer if he really wants to show it. Tyler Hubbard from Florida Georgia Line is one of five writers on this fun ditty. The power-charged Holler, driven by layers of electric guitar, is a song that they or Jason Aldean would kill for.
Diesel, which documents the working week in a country workplace, is even harder. It’s the hillbilly equivalent of heavy metal with a solo that sounds like a power saw ‘making tree-huggers choke’. As for the vocal, it’s hard to tell where Granger ends and Earl Jr begins, which is rather the point.
Workaholic is sung entirely by Mr Dibbles. He enjoys working hard during the weekend too: working on his tan, working up a sweat on the beach and ‘putting in overtime’ at the creek while he fishes. Comedy and country have a long history together and Granger, or rather his pal Earl Jr, is keeping the flame going. Indeed, whereas Granger has 260,000 people following him on Twitter, Earl Jr has almost 450,000.
Granger knows where he stands, appeasing fans with Earl’s appearances, but it’s his name on the album and he knows country things too. 3/5
As Chris Molanphy points out in this month’s Hit Parade podcast, no Garth Brooks means no McGraw, no Shania, no Chesney and, I would add, no Country2Country jamborees. I’d love for Garth to headline a C2C of the future. Indeed, I find it tough to believe he hasn’t been in talks with the O2 for a multi-date run for his next tour. He’d probably be supported by Ashley McBryde – he covered Girl Goin Nowhere on tour – and one of his acolytes like Mitch Rossell or Randall King.
Troyal Garth Brooks remains the biggest country star in the world (just surpassing Dolly Parton) and has finally allowed Fun to be released into the world. I am delighted that I am able to review fun as it’s only on Amazon Music and I borrowed a friend’s login.
It has been in the works for years, and we’ve heard a lot of it before. In June 2018 the wild and loud All Day Long (with its ‘somebody’ repetition) hit radio, then he premiered the none-more-Garth ballad Stronger Than Me at the 2018 CMAs at which he won Entertainer of the Year. After a massive concert tour in 2019 he won the same award for a seventh time; in 2020, he recused himself and told the CMA voters to pick someone else.
Also last year he released a fun duet with Blake Shelton called Dive Bar into the world, which climbed to six at radio. I replayed it about eight times when I first heard it because it’s a fun tale of spending ‘the weekend in the deep end of a dive bar’. I still love the line ‘Crank that jukebox up and Hank it’. Blake and Garth sound great together, as befitting the Oklahoman master and one of his many heirs. The track’s rise was helped by the first music video Garth had made since 2013, where the pair and the band were immersed in a CGI fish tank.
Just before Fun came out, Garth and Miss Trisha Yearwood put out their popular take on Shallow, from A Star is Born. A shrewd move, this generation’s Big Karaoke Duet gets the Garth treatment, with some stellar vocals. Indeed, it’s a measure of how terrific Lady Gaga is that Trisha doesn’t outclass her original too much. Lukas Nelson, who wrote Shallow, will benefit from this version until the day he dies, much as Bob Dylan will from Garth’s superior version of Make You Feel My Love, which was the basis for Adele’s almighty pop version.
We know Garth’s many moods by now, because he was a human algorithm before algorithms were cool. Album opener The Road I’m On is Rock Star Garth, a chugger which paints a picture: ‘bluebirds’, ‘steel belts’ and ‘neon’. If anything, it sounds like Bruce Springsteen with a steel guitar, except it’s about Garth going out and being Garth. (A Hard Way To Make An) Easy Livin’ looks back to his early days as a performer, with ‘half-naked hotties’ and groupies popping up in verse two. First world problems, courtesy of one of the biggest singer-songwriter performers in the recorded music era.
Coincidentally, the Triple Live set with recordings from his stadium dates in recent years is reissued with three bonus tracks on the same day as Fun.
The Courage of Love is Global Messiah Garth and it’s better than his last one of these, People Loving People. Over bluesy guitar and an orchestra, he sings of how ‘anyone can start a fight but to love is so much bigger’. Veterans, farmers and ‘our children’ are the targets for a song which could be a charity single. There’s a proper middle eight too which will encourage the waving of mobile phones or lighters in Garth’s next stadium tour. Perhaps stadium tours will never take place again in our lifetime. (Did you know that Triple Live is available now?)
Message in a Bottle unites Rock Star Garth and Messiah Garth: love, ‘children laughing’, dancing and world peace over horns and keys. There is a key change which Westlife would stand up to sing and an ad-libbed outro.
Then we get Okie Garth, the singer who grew up in the country. That’s What Cowboys Do outlines that, ‘when it came to the leaving part’, a cowboy will always move town ‘chasing sunsets down’. This is a song I would expect a Texan star like Garth’s beloved apostle Randall King to write. Garth, even more than George Strait, brought the Texan-Oklahoma Red Dirt sound to Nashville, and ran away with the millions.
Amen is Gospel Garth, with an RnB groove that underlines how much he loves his life: ‘It feels too good to be a sin’. This sounds like five years of the Rolling Stones’ career condensed into one track, and proves he can reach beyond his core country constituency.
Like Dive Bar, Party Gras is a good time tune with plenty of Cajun fiddle, ‘gumbo’ and ‘jambalaya’; it might as well be subtitled ‘Visit New Orleans’. Like Stronger Than Me, I Can Be Me With You is Garth’s attempt at sending a love letter in song to his wife from ‘Prince Charmer, Knight in shining armour’. His listeners will both appreciate the lyric and the music, which is swaytastic. As a songwriter, I appreciate the tight structure of the song, which sounds like a smash.
As well as Party Garth and Gentleman Garth, he cannot resist bringing out Healer Garth. The album’s most emotional moment comes on Where The Cross Don’t Burn. Garth’s ‘only black friend’ is, rather hilariously, played by the surprise guest on the album, Charley Pride, who literally played the role of country music’s only black friend in the 1970s. Back in the 1960s ‘when change came slow’, Garth had a chat with the ‘black old man…walking hand in hand’: Charley imparts a lot of wisdom in the role of ‘wise old man’ that I am sure will get some pushback because this is a trope. It doesn’t make the song any less emotional and, released in a country music and American environment today, it sounds quaint and twee. Good on Garth for trying.
The album’s final track is (Sometimes You’ve Got To Die To) Live Again, which I think places Garth at Dolly level. We know Dolly likes to dispense wisdom to her listeners which is rooted in Bible teachings and Garth reaches, with the help of a falsetto chorus, to preaching the message of reconciliation with a loved one or, when necessary, leaving them behind. Relationship Counsellor Garth? Vicar Garth? Moneymaking Garth with an exclusive Amazon deal?
Nobody was crying out for Fun, Garth’s 14th studio album and only his fourth since he returned from a hiatus in 2014. He releases new product to keep the setlist fresh but, like his friend Billy Joel whose last non-instrumental material came out back in 1993, Garth doesn’t need to add to his catalogue, as his Triple Live album suggests. Still, there’s plenty of fun on this album – it fulfils the brief – but also a reminder of what a good interpreter of song Garth is.
He swallowed up the era thanks to his rock-inspired stadium shows and marketed himself outside the American South without abandoning them. Even his Chris Gaines project (aka Garth Goes Pop) sold 2m copies. Fun won’t sell anywhere near that, let alone his Diamond-sellers from the 1990s, but albums no longer give Garth a pension. Garth On Tour is the big earner but in an era where his live earnings will take a hit – will he produce televised concerts for Amazon? – this sets up Garth’s fourth decade in music very nicely. 4/5
Two EPs, a new album and a reissued favourite with bonus tracks round off this three-part celebration of this season’s new Christmas music
Last year, Sounds Like Nashville put together a list of the 12 essential country Christmas albums. Vince Gill, Martina McBride, Faith Hill, Chris Young, Kacey Musgraves, Brett Eldredge and his royal Garthness and Lady Trisha all made the list, edging out so many acts who have also plugged seasonal product. In the peloton are Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, Blake Shelton, Buck Owens, Loretta Lynn, George Strait, Brooks & Dunn, Rascal Flatts, Darius Rucker and even Merle Haggard. Some acts like Reba and Alan Jackson have multiple Christmas releases!!
Lady A – On This Winter’s Night (Deluxe)
The trio were called Lady Antebellum when they released their fourth album in 2012. Now on Big Machine and with no new album to promote this Christmas, they have decided to add four new tracks to the set.
The original collection included a softer version of All I Want For Christmas Is You and covers of old favourites: A Holly Jolly Christmas, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, a cabaret version of Blue Christmas, Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), Donny Hathaway’s This Christmas and Let It Snow. For religious fans Hillary dragged Silent Night and The First Noel out of the hymn books.
The title track was an original composition with gentle strings and piano underscoring a lyric about stars, mistletoe, wrapping presents, snowflakes like frosting and people smiling. The melody is beautiful, with an assist from the great Tom Douglas and a children’s choir singing ‘we’ll count our blessings’. The song is among Lady A’s finest moments.
This album is really a four-track EP appended to something many people will already own. The song Christmas Through Your Eyes is the new offering, written by the band. Whereas they weren’t parents in 2012, now they will use the proceeds from this reissue to buy presents for their kids and partners which, would you believe it, is the theme of this song. Hillary takes the lead, singing of ‘reindeer jammies’ and watching old video footage and ‘how hard it was to fall asleep’. Lady A’s target audience of soccer moms will go wild for this.
Otherwise, three old favourites are updated with Dann Huff’s experienced production trickery: The Beach Boys’ Little Saint Nick (which ‘comes this time each year’); Ray Charles’ That Spirit of Christmas; and an orchestral version of Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime which is better than the original.
Maddie & Tae – We Need Christmas
Maddie & Tae are two pious girls who have kept religion mostly out of their music so far will surely pivot to Christian music when they can. We Need Christmas has six tracks produced by the team of Derek Wells and Jimmy Robbins.
There’s a glorious and simple arrangement of O Come All Ye Faithful which showcases those trademark harmonies, with the girls intoning a Bible verse as a coda. There are also three songs tackled by Lady A in 2012: Holly Jolly Christmas, This Christmas and a gentle acoustic version of Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) which initially threw me as I was hearing the song in a straight four when it’s in 12/8. You won’t have that problem because it’s a perennial. Phil Spector can never be cancelled.
There are two originals here too. Merry Married Christmas celebrates the girls’ newlywed status; indeed, Tae’s husband is in the writing credits. It made me go ‘ooh’ as the intro came in and I can check a lot of squares on my New Christmas Song bingo card: snow, cheers, holly, presents (though not necessary since the girls have their guy) and sleigh bells underneath the chorus. It’s irresistible and a beacon of joy. I love the line about wanting to start a new tradition.
We Need Christmas namechecks Charlie Brown, hugs with family, winter coats, snow on the road (there is always snow, isn’t there?) and ‘a little healing’ and ‘joy (there is always joy, isn’t there?). The song is lightly religious, spiritual if anything, but I am sure there is some political commentary too. It’s also nice to see Salvation Army cans and carols in the second verse, which is apt for two lovely religious girls who have followed up their second album with an excellent holidays project. Marital bliss must make for good music for Maddie & Tae.
Runaway June – When I Think About Christmas
Almost mirroring Maddie & Tae, this EP gathers three covers and two originals. A pedal steel-assisted Sleigh Ride, O Holy Night and Let It Snow are present and correct, with all the three-part harmonies in the right places.
When I Think About Christmas itself mentions gifts, snow, tinsel, mistletoe and that ‘the only present I need’ is you. The pedal steel solo redeems the song but even that is slightly ruined by shouts to ‘take it home’. It’s traditional enough, though.
Christmas on the Radio was written by the guys behind High Hopes by Panic at the Disco and Yesterday’s Song by Hunter Hayes. It’s jaunty and mentions snow in the very first word of the song. Otherwise we have ‘Jingle Bells and mistletoe’, ‘chestnuts on the fire’, White Christmas, Let It Snow, Jack Frost and a request to ‘make my wish come true’. Again the song sounds like enormous fun, both to write and record, especially with new addition Natalie Stovall on fiddle.
Home Free – Warmest Winter
You know the a cappella group Pentatonix? Home Free are that but with boots on.
Opening with the Alvin & the Chipmunks ditty Christmas Don’t Be Late, there are several marvellous originals here, like the sentimental and nostalgic Warmest Winter and triple-time pop ballad Snow Globe (‘you shook me up…Maybe we should settle down’), which I do wish had acoustic instruments on it rather than lots of bass voices.
You can tell Home Free are experts at writing seasonal material, having put out albums of Christmas stuff in 2014 and 2016. Christmas Ain’t For The Lonely is a beautiful but melancholy song where there’s ‘nothing left but memories’ when you have broken up with someone. Christmas in LA and Cold Hard Cash (as a present) are a lot more fun, while What We Need Is Love is a carpe diem song which benefits from stripping the melody and harmony back to just the voice. It sounds gorgeous and ends the album terrifically.
Rachel Wammack pops up on Amy Grant’s song Tennessee Christmas and Striking Matches join them on Run Run Rudolph, which has a beatbox solo that makes Home Free an acquired taste. Alabama, meanwhile, appear on a version of their own tune Christmas In Dixie where Randy Owen’s fabled voice is enveloped by a five-part arrangement that reminds me of NSYNC. Home Free are a male vocal harmony group without the dance moves or the overt sex appeal.
I love the jaunty take on Stevie Wonder’s What Christmas Means To Me and Winter Song, written and sung originally by Ingrid Michaelson and Sara Bareilles, turns every note into a vocal sound, wrapping the listener in sound. Fans of the quintet, who won the NBC show The Sing Off, helped their online campaign for an online concert reach its target within a few hours. The total approached $250,000 and those who didn’t pledge for the show can buy tickets for it at HomeFreeVIP.com. Featuring skits and guest appearances from the album’s featured acts, it premieres on December 2 with six showings in total over the course of the week.
In the second of three pieces, I talk about three albums by three of country music’s most beloved female performers
Dolly Parton – A Holly Dolly Christmas
The big two albums are by Carrie and Dolly. Dolly first, as is always the case, country music’s beloved grandma.
After her Christmas duets album to plug a 1984 Christmas special with Kenny Rogers, A Holly Dolly Christmas sees the girl singer go solo. Seven are original Parton compositions and she delivers her vocals with so much character throughout. Christmas on the Square is a country Christmas song with fiddle, banjo and massed harmonies. There’s even a yee-haw thrown in for good measure. Comin’ Home For Christmas (‘Save a place for me’) is a domestic setting with candles, keys under mats and ‘sweet memories’.
Circle of Love is a different type of country song, wishing Jesus a happy birthday and praising the Lord who gives ‘salvation for all’ and ‘that gift from above’. Pretty Paper drafts in its writer, Willie Nelson, to sing about the wrapping of gifts like pencils with humble ribbons. You Are My Christmas is a duet with younger brother Randy, who make a good case for family being the true meaning of the season. It’s catchy as well (‘You you you!’) and it’s very country. You can never take the Tennessee out of the superstar.
There is plenty of Cyrus family representation here: Billy Ray is on Christmas Where We Are (another song about how ‘your love is the only gift I need’) and Miley is on Christmas Is. That song is a sweet ballad where godmother and goddaughter hymn about giving, sharing and ‘kindness, love and compassion’. It’s a secular religious song with a light dashing of ‘His Glory’ that may well pick up some traction this year, even though Miley literally phones in her performance.
Cuddle Up, Cozy Down Christmas drafts in Mr Christmas himself, Michael Buble, in a song which updates Baby It’s Cold Outside for the woke era. I like the image of Michael and Dolly curling up, and I would have hoped Kenny Rogers would have sung on this had he not passed away in March. The duet of All I Want For Christmas Is You repeats the Islands in the Stream trick of having the male vocalist, here Jimmy Fallon, singing in a different key to Dolly. It’s fun for them but the listener will be singing along and drowning the pair of them out.
The other evergreen numbers include Holly Jolly Christmas, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus and the deathless Mary Did You Know, which was once recorded by Kenny himself. I wish she had had a crack at Wizzard or Slade, as a bone to throw to her UK fans, but her audience will spin this with a great deal of regularity this December. A little bit of Dolly is always a good thing.
Carrie Underwood – My Gift
I have no idea whyCarrie Underwood has chosen 2020 to release her first Christmas album. Maybe the calendar has to work out so that her release is the tentpole one. Perhaps motherhood has taken her away from the studio in the last few years but the Oklahoma girl’s album My Gift will be the CD of choice for mums and aunts in middle America this year.
As you would expect from a pious religious girl, making music for pious religious girls, there’s a lot of God and Jesus on My Gift. It opens with the Ode to Joy-type melody of Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee, which is almost a cappella because the backing track is barely there. It’s as always fun to hear what beloved voices have done to beloved songs: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas and Away In A Manger, which bends the melody into new shapes, add orchestra or piano respectively to her Idol-winning voice. O Come All Ye Faithful, O Holy Night and Silent Night leap out of the hymn books, while Mary Did You Know is given the Carrie treatment just as Dolly had left her personal imprint on the song.
Little Drummer Boy features Carrie’s son Isaiah taking the second verse sounding like one of the Little Rascals. It will melt anyone’s heart even though I prefer Bing and David marrying the song with Peace On Earth.
There are a pair of original compositions by Carrie, David Garcia and Brett James. Let There Be Peace is a gospel tune which channels Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson; rather than presents, she wants world peace (good luck!). There is a key change. Sweet Baby Jesus is a songwriting exercise which imagines the baby lying in the manger, with ‘tiny feet and tiny hands’. It’s inoffensive but decent.
Carrie has one foot in Christian music and I am sure there is a full-on Christian album that she must want to do at some point. As it is, this album is a good example of brand extension. It tries to appease all bases and the two originals will sound excellent at any Christmas With Carrie concerts that will make her money in the next decade.
Talking of money, John Legend (the African-American Buble or Groban) both gives her Hallelujah and appears on it, though it was left off his own Christmas album from last year. Well done to John for trying to match Carrie for vocal chops, and for writing a hymn-like contemporary song full of angels, choirs, ‘moonlit air’ and a wish to ‘hold on to hope’. If it’s pushed properly, this may go top 10 and become a Christmas staple, ensuring that Isaiah can be sent to some posh schools and get horse riding lessons in perpetuity.
Terri Clark – It’s Christmas…Cheers!!
To Canada! Terri Clark offers ten tracks including a waltz called Cowboy Christmas, co-written by Erin Enderlin and featuring the great Ricky Skaggs. Snow is like tinsel ‘in the Montana sky’ but there’s a melancholy in the second verse.
A very old song about Santa and his reindeer, Up On The Housetop, was written in 1864 and is updated with Terri’s terrific ‘ho ho ho’s and a brief accordion solo.
Away In A Manger and Silent Night are almost contractually obliged to be present, although Vince Gill and a fiddle solo are present on the latter and Pam Tillis, Suzy Bogguss and a fine string section adorn the former. There’s also Winter Wonderland and a big band treatment of Jingle Bells, a jazzy The Christmas Song and a hillbilly-tinged Silver Bells with the fulsome backing vocals of The Oak Ridge Boys.
As on most holiday albums, Terri has a crack at the ubiquitous pair of I’ll Be Home For Christmas and Let It Snow. The latter drafts in Dierks Bentley who, as far as I know, has not recorded a festive album. Maybe it’s his turn in 2021, although there’s a new album due shortly.
In the first of three pieces, which also deal in LPs and EPs, I look at individual songs released by country acts.
Florida Georgia Line want to get Lit This Year and I completely missed the drugs reference when I heard it initially. Lit can mean a Christmas tree decorated with lights and a party being on fire ie lit. Santa, mistletoe and eggnog all appear but I’m surprised how chirpy the song is. I’d expect stadium rock guitars but I like the light dashes of banjo.
Dan + Shay want you to Take Me Home for Christmas, in a song which needed six people to write and is produced by Dan himself. They encourage the lady to take them to their home town, maybe ‘do a little carolling’ and drinking with high school friends. The chorus is very strong indeed and there’s a key change and some of Shay’s renowned vocal gymnastics. I imagine this will get lots of spins this year.
Gary LeVox, who is now 50, has enlisted the help of composer Stephan Moccio (who worked on Earned It by The Weeknd) to write Christmas Will Be Different This Year, which also involved Natalie Hemby. Stephan’s album Winter Poems is full of piano arrangements of traditional tunes including, sweetly, Walking In The Air from the Snowman and the Francophone anthem Petit Papa Noel. This one, which isn’t on Stephan’s album, showcases Gary’s once in a generation voice (which Shay is copying all the way to the bank). He sings about snow ‘falling like angels’ but nobody can go to church or deck the halls and, significantly, Gary cannot be with the object of his song, perhaps a parent or a loved one. It’s simple and effective and will comfort those who lost family members this year. Rascal Flatts’s holiday album came out in 2016 and is called The Greatest Gift of All, so go listen if you want more of Gary singing silent nights and herald angels.
Olivia Lane has co-written Feeling Like Christmas, a toast in the form of a song which in its first 30 seconds quotes Little Drummer Boy’s rum-pa-pum-pum before adding sleigh bells and a very festive chorus with all the Christmassy cadences. Santa has granted her ‘someone to kiss’ and it’s the sort of song you can sway to with your loved ones this year, in a socially distanced way.
Kassi Ashton is having a Hard Candy Christmas, with strings surrounding her as she struggles through the holiday season. Her vocal is tremendous and Kassi is playing the long game. Maybe 2021 will be the year that everyone, in Nashville and outside it, knows of her obvious talent. There’s a key change too!
Darius Rucker’s band Hootie & The Blowfish Won’t Be Home For Christmas this year, assisted by Abigail Hodges, daughter of the great David who was in Evanescence. She’s writing to Santa who doesn’t want toys but wants her father, who is a soldier, to get home for the holidays. Darius, as the soldier, takes the second and third verses and even mentions ‘the birth of the King’ before a sha-la chorus is both joyous and sad, because it appears wars are more important than Santa. Sorry, Abigail.
In 2013, Kelly Clarkson put out her Christmas album, including the perennial Underneath The Tree which is a nice little earner for Kelly, as well as covers of White Christmas, Silent Night (with Reba and Trisha) and I’ll Be Home For Christmas, which is the American version of Wizzard or Slade. Reminding people of the album’s existence are two new songs.
Under the Mistletoe with Brett Eldredge, a song she wrote herself and captures the moment that a lady kisses a man. In a year where Kelly has split with her husband, this sounds bittersweet. Maybe she’s trying to tell us that Brett is her new beau, even though his vocals barely touch those of its composer. There’s help from RnB group Atlantic Holiday, too.
To kick off the covers section, there is a song called All I Want For Christmas Is You. It was a country one-hit wonder Christmas tune by Vince Vance and the Valiants which LeAnn Rimes covered on her 2004 Christmas album (see, everybody’s done one). It’s basically My Heart Belongs Only To You by Bobby Vinton with angels, mistletoe and Christmas trees. Kelly does what she does effortlessly. There is a key change.
I’ll Be Home for Christmas was made famous by Bing Crosby in 1943 before a plethora of country stars, including Pentatonix, Lady A, Reba and Rascal Flatts, have recorded it. Groban and Buble fans will know the song, which Chrissy Metz gives a jazzy treatment and sings with charm and panache. This was supposed to be the year Chrissy, from This Is Us, brought out an album but I imagine the pandemic has pushed it into 2021.
After Lady A’s success with Mariah’s million-dollar tune, Morgan Evans has given it a spin on an acoustic guitar and his Keith Urban-ish vocal. It sounds like a campfire singalong at an Australian beach over Christmastime and, even though it removes a lot of the original diminished chords, it does its job. But it’ll return your ears to Mariah’s song, which only topped the US chart last year for the first time and has never been a UK number one.
Brett Kissel, meanwhile, is hanging out with Frosty the Snowman at the honkytonk, giving the old standard a traditional country arrangement with plenty of Western swing, Canadian style. There is a key change and a magnificent ending.
Jimmie Allen has teamed up with the duo Louis York, aka Nashville writers Claude Kelly and Chuck Harmony, and the trio The Shindellas. Their tune What Does Christmas Mean updates the track which originally emerged in 2017. The bonhomie is evident from the off, with some neat doobie-doos from the trio and sleigh bells running quietly underneath the lead line.
Gabby Barrett has had a good year and will hopefully celebrate the birth of her first child next year. The First Noel opens with an orchestral flourish and some sentimental piano, as Ross Copperman shapes the backing for Gabby’s voice to shine. The acoustic guitar in the first verse gives way to a warm, Grobanish second verse. Gabby sings the final chorus as if she is in the presence of the King of Israel himself.
Mackenzie had put The One on a shelf for a year while her hit These Days climbed the charts. There is echo on her voice and very sparse production to match how she is ‘lost in a champagne recollection’ at the wedding reception of her ex. I love the line ‘I was the pearl before the diamond’, not putting herself down but recognising that she couldn’t seal the deal.
Mackenzie’s brother Kalan won Canadian Idol in 2004 and she herself won the 2011 Nashville North Star, juggling a singing career with her acting. Her self-titled album emerged back in 2014, whereupon she was signed by Big Loud.
Rather than release it on its own, The One comes packaged as one of seven tracks on Drinking Songs: The Collection. Although Joey Moi produces all the tracks, there isn’t too much of his power-rock guitars that he made famous with Jake Owen, Nickelback and Florida Georgia Line, and indeed the type of guitar sound which TR’s new song imitates.
These Days appears in two forms: the majestic original and the poppier remix with extra snaps and whistles on the track which was a Top 10 all-genre hit on Canadian radio. It’s such a stunning pop song, with enough melancholy to give it depth, that has helped me through 2020 and Mackenzie sells it very well. Drive Thru, written with Natalie Hemby, sees Mackenzie rejecting a booty call because ‘you can’t roll up whenever you like…whenever you got an appetite’. Two chords and the truth, with a playground nyah-nyah chanted chorus. It came out in 2018 so Mackenzie has been patiently building her career.
About You, released in early 2019, was written with fellow Big Loud artist Hardy, who is so hot right now. The song was a number one on Canadian Radio and contains the magical Hardy ingredients of ‘breaking up and waking up’ and moving on from an old flame. The chorus, which soars and swoops, is well executed and it proves that Hardy has a knack of writing songs to fit female voices too.
Seeing Other People is a gentle song written by, among others, Matt McGinn. It’s sung with a sweet vocal but it’s a bit frothy and produced, as Mackenzie sings of wanting to only see other people with her former beloved. I imagine the narrator is the same one from The One, so it appears he has seen other people after all. It’s a relatable lyric, all the same, and I like the four-bar ‘middle four’. Drinkin Songs is a poppy tune which I liked when it came out earlier this year, with a very melodic shape and a hookiness in its production. I hope there’s a full album coming soon but patience, as Mackenzie well knows, is essential in country music. 4/5 for the Drinkin Songs project.
Jake Etheridge – Because I’m High
In real life Mackenzie got married in July to singer Jake Etheridge. Jake joined the Common Linnets post-Eurovision and replaced original singer Waylon, then went on to play Sean on the TV show Nashville. Mr Mackenzie Porter’s EP has six songs which are in the Josh Rouse, Daniel Tashian or Ruston Kelly arena, just the type of classic songwriting I adore. Jake has self-released this and more than mere Nashville fans should give the EP a listen. There is some mild swearing throughout, so maybe those who are Maddie and Daphne’s age should wait a while.
In My Head is mellifluous, as is I Should Know, an apology in song where Jake admits to hating parties (me too). Forget My Name and Kayla’s Party include some gorgeous chords and delicious strings to create a sublime mood, while the EP’s title track notes that ‘memory is such a fickle bitch’. Rock and Roll, with its electric guitar solo and acoustic guitar chug, sees Jake’s voice reach higher volumes than the rest of the EP. It’s locked in a quiet groove but there is a uniformity to the set. 4/5
Save The Roses is track five on Lee Brice’s new album. It’s the sound of smart contemporary country today. It sounds like a song Garth Brooks (whose album Fun emerged on the same day as Hey World) would have made one of many of his career songs, sung in the voice of a man whose body lies in church at his own funeral. ‘Save the roses, don’t waste ‘em on me’ is a quite remarkable lyric, perhaps a new twist on ‘smell the roses’ and ‘carpe diem’.
Listeners who have spent 2020 in mourning for loved ones will be reminded of this lesson. This year Lee has featured on two massive number one smashes: his own song One of Them Girls, a bit of four-chord fluff; and the goodbye song I Hope You’re Happy Now, a gift from Luke Combs in which Lee’s second verse elevated the song and complement Carly Pearce’s voice perfectly.
As album teasers, fans were also able to hear the sultry pair of Do Not Disturb – in which Lee and his beloved book a hotel room and hang a sign on the door – and Soul (‘You’re Mozart in the sheets!’). Lee also pre-released the tender Memory I Don’t Mess With and the song I would retitle Serious Chuggin’: More Beer, with its chant ‘we’re gonna need more beer!’ Half of the album is thus familiar on the day of release, including the title and closing track.
The song Hey World verges on the Disney soundtrack. Its second verse is sung by visually impaired Nigerian-born singer Blessing Offor, who rose to fame on The Voice. ‘Everything I need’s right here at home’ is a handy lyric which will be timely even when the world isn’t forced to stay home.
Lee, who turned 40 last year and has just fathered his third child, is best known for his ballads, including I Don’t Dance and the peerless I Drive Your Truck. His hit song Rumor led the interest in his self-titled album from 2017. Lee deserves to be talked about in the tones used for Tim McGraw, who used to be signed to Curb Records, which houses Lee to this day.
Of the unreleased songs on the album, Don’t Need No Reason is a triple-time Thomas Rhett-type tune in which Lee doesn’t need Valentine’s Day or an excuse to hug, kiss and dance with his beloved. ‘You’re the why!’ is a wonderful lyric. Though there’s lots of production on the studio version, Lee could sell this live with just a voice and guitar.
Likewise Lies, a very American song which starts with TV adverts for ‘some potion, some pill’, moves to drinks at the bar, a girl trying to make a living with her body and a couple who have fallen out of love. The initial chorus is full of putdowns but the final chorus is full of hope, how ‘it’s okay to struggle’. The song will help a lot of people but it’s very American in the way it tells you how to feel. The strings threaten to overpower the song, which again would work in an acoustic setting.
The second verse of Sons and Daughters can be summed up as ‘Think before you tweet’. Over very modern production, Lee sings about boys on tractors and female law enforcement officers. ‘Before you go and hurt someone,’ Lee counsels, remember the person’s family.
Country Knows, with its atmospheric pedal steel and heavily echoed voice, is a formulaic song setting the small-town scene. There’s probably one of these songs on a big release every month – tick off your laundry list of country things – but Lee adds a chorus which says ‘Country knows how I feel’.
For all the mid-tempo tunes, Lee (or Curb Records) knows when to crank it up. The opening track is called Atta Boy (great title) which sets the scene for the album. Over a chugging guitar line, Lee shouts out devoted fathers whose daughters can change a flat tyre, sons who help their mom bring in the groceries and one who is ‘pretty brave for eight’ and comes to someone’s aid on the playground. Unafraid to venture into peril on track one, the second verse is a thankyou to a friend who wouldn’t let a drunk guy drive home and risk his life. ‘We could use a few more like you’ is a good ol line.
Good Ol Boys, meanwhile, marries a hiphop-friendly beat and guitar loop to a lyric about respecting parents, partying on Saturday night and taking it ‘to the limit’. It’s simple but effective and proves that songs for the bros are good in moderation. The song If You continues the mood, with some chunky guitars and an unapologetic narrator who finds different ways to avoid saying the F word.
There are various themes and moods and production styles on this album, which gives it a welcome tonal palate. Lee’s European 2020 tour has been pushed back to summer 2021 and I hope to be there bellowing along, in a socially distanced way. His sensational new album offers well sung compositions which ought to win him a huge audience. 5/5
In the week that Starting Over dominated the conversation in town, the other big album came from Shenandoah, a group I know by name but I couldn’t hum any of their hits. They celebrated 35 years together last year, having formed in Muscle Shoals in 1984. The only original members left are vocalist Marty Raybon and drummer Mark McGuire (not the baseball player). They have hit the top five times and are probably best known for Two Dozen Roses, the third in a run of three chart-toppers in 1989 which began with The Church on Cumberland Road and continued with Sunday in the South. They were nominated five times for CMA Group of the Year but never won, in the days of Diamond Rio and The Mavericks (and the Kentucky Headhunters, whom I must look up).
The new album is called Every Road and copies the Brooks & Dunn trick by pairing them with contemporary artists: Zac Brown Band, Luke Bryan, Ashley McBryde, Dierks Bentley, Blake Shelton, Cody Johnson, Lady A, Brad Paisley and Carly Pearce. Special mention too for Willy Nelson’s mate Buddy Cannon who produces with all the country touches expected of a classic band who trade in traditional sounds.
Plenty of A-list songwriters have given the band some tunes. Two Bretts, Beavers and James, worked on I’d Take Another One of Those, a carpe diem song.
The punchy Make It Til Summertime has the fingerprints of Dallas Davidson and the voice of Dallas’ mate Luke Bryan. It opens with a lyric about ‘swinging this hammer’, continues through ‘Georgia pine’ and ‘Muscadine wine’ and is the honkiest-tonkiest thing Luke has ever recorded. More, please, as Luke moves into the Legacy category of act that houses Shenandoah.
Lori McKenna and Phil Barton give the band If Only, a reminiscin song full of mama and church and front porches and ice tea and that’s bingo. Every Road is a mellow and very contemporary track about finding yourself. Every Time I Look At You is a track which didn’t make any Lady A projects (they wrote it) but it finds a home here. It’s another wedding song about how great a lady looks set to a lovely, warm melody. I’ll Be Your Everything paints Marty as a shoulder to cry on, though it could also be about God and stuff. I hear a lot of Alison Krauss in Carly Pearce’s voice and a lot of Vince Gill in the vibe of the track. Again, Buddy Cannon frames the song excellently.
The Warren Brothers, Brad and Brett, give them Then A Girl Walks In, a song about the marvels of women with added Blake that sounds like a modern rock version of a ballad you’d get from 1989. It sounds like a radio smash but the band are on their own label, Foundry, and are more likely to drop this one into their live shows along with the hits of yesteryear.
The album’s second side begins with the chunky bassline of small-town anthem High Class Hillbillies, helped by Texan star Cody Johnson who also popped up on that Brooks & Dunn Reboot album. The Brad Paisley collaboration Life Would Be Perfect (‘If Walmart had a bar’ is the best line in the song) is similarly chirpy and releases plenty of endorphins. Fans of Mac McAnally will dig this album. It ends with the Austin Merrill song Boots on Broadway, a funky and melodic jam about working men who go ‘against the grain’ and go to do ‘the Nashville thing’, just as their dads did back home in their small town farming life. There’s a pedal steel solo in the middle of it too, for added trad vibes.
It is essential that youngish fans like me appreciate the stars of the pre-Garth era. It was delightful to see Charley Pride on primetime this week, and Brooks & Dunn nominated for a CMA Award after all these years. Shenandoah, still beloved by those who grew up with them, are in the old class of performer who can still gig and tour and, with a clever project, revitalise their sound. 4/5 for Every Road. Please give it a go and, CMA, please fund their trip to Britain for Country2Country.
Josh Abbott Band – The Highway Kind
Josh Abbott Band are from Lubbock Texas, Buddy Holly Country. There are country staples here: the title track, co-written by Jon Randall, is about being on the open road; Where I Wanna Be is the party song; The Luckiest (‘to be loved by you’) is the wedding song which as is almost obligatory for a Texan musician namechecks George Strait; One More Two Step is a raunchy love song which hints at some dancing in bed after closing time; Real Damn Good, which has Niko Moon among its credits, goes for Kiss T-shirts to imply how a woman is ‘real damn good at not giving a damn’.
The band have had five songs which have stalled in the 40s on country radio but Little More You sounds like a smash, should the label give it a push. It’s is a three-chord jam which uses the word ‘little’ a lot (cup needs whiskey, sky needs more blue) and it reminds me of some of Old Dominion’s work. Jon Pardi has gifted them the supercharged 24-7-365, which every country DJ should add to their setlist prontissimo.
There are no processed beats and plenty of fiddle and lots of atmosphere, as found on Settle Me Down and Women & Wishes (‘Lord knows I’ve missed this’).Eric Church’s pal Jeff Hyde writes the lovely Old Men & The Rain with Josh, about a men’s group who eschew politics and just shoot the breeze and ‘sit around and talk about the rain’.
It rounds off a quite superb album that is all the better for coming with no expectation from me. Unlike Stapleton’s album, which comes out on a major label with TV appearances and Tom Petty’s pals, Josh and his band have crafted a work they should be proud of. I’ve got plenty of catching up to do with their catalogue – they recorded with Kacey Musgraves way back in 2011 – and I have no hesitation in recommending The Highway Kind to you, on Pretty Damn Tough Records. 5/5
With Ramones-like speed, this EP contains five tracks and is over inside 15 minutes. The easy comparison is with Jason Aldean, both in delivery and thematics. Burnout Town has a powered-up chorus and an invitation to ‘kiss me baby’, while Born To Ride is more middle of the dirt road and very contemporary.
Both Ain’t Got You and Sink are excellent drinking songs which help Manny forget his ex. There’s funk and soul and great vocals, and an awesome solo in the middle of the former.
Old Money mentions ‘summer in the Hamptons’ and is a mid-tempo rock song where Manny sounds like Morgan Wallen. Morgan is a major-label star with a 30-track album on the way; Manny, an indie act, is just as good. 4/5
Kameron Marlowe – Kameron Marlowe
Kameron Marlowe’s EP is produced by Brad Hill, who helped Maren Morris find her sound. Kameron is another TV star who popped up on The Voice after he was spotted on Youtube. He sang a song by fellow North Carolina musician Luke Combs.
The EP begins with his smash Giving You Up, written in the aftermath of a bad breakup and which has 27m plays on Spotify. Listeners appreciate his country croon and his way with a melody. With a lyric about giving up a woman just like giving up whiskey or tobacco, it sounds like a number one hit and I expect more people will hear this song in 2021. Will he follow other Voice graduates Danielle Bradbery and Trent Harmon onto big stages?
Sober as a Drunk is a very contemporary track with some fast-paced lyrics in the chorus where Kameron is ‘high as rock bottom’. The vocal is excellent, as you would expect from someone who turned the chairs of Kelly and Blake before he even got to the bridge of One Number Away.
Goin’ There Today opens with Kameron declining an invitation to a café because ‘I don’t feel like goin there today’. It turns out that he would see her former girlfriend there. Singing Marina Del Rey reminds him of her too. It’s a bit slender as a song but it sounds great.
Burn Em All is a slow chugger about going out and setting the night on fire. Hungover is the result of that entertainment, sung like a younger Chris Stapleton. Likewise Leavin To Me, which is the best song on the EP, with washes of steel guitar behind Kameron’s pained narrator pleading his beloved to break everything he has since she broke his heart too. 4/5
Easton Corbin – Didn’t Miss A Beat
I first heard Easton Corbin in 2015, when his song Yup was on the charts. I went back to the chirpy Loving You Is Fun from 2012 which followed a pair of number ones: A Little More Country Than That and Roll With It. The former was nominated for CMA Single of the Year in 2010 but lost out to Need You Now. Easton was one of those hot sexy guys who was and is very attractive. He also earned good money from allowing his song Are You With Me to be remixed by Lost Frequencies which went all the way to number one in Germany, the UK and Australia. That, and a tour with Carrie Underwood, didn’t stop him leaving Mercury Records in 2018 and he is now independent.
Turn Up, which namechecks Conway Twitty and is a goodtime jam, while the funky title track is a pretty good meet-cute. Back To Me is a lament which opens the door to a departed flame; conversely, the door is closed because Old Lovers Don’t Make Good Friends, which chugs along pleasantly in the middle of the dirt road accompanied by four bars of squealing guitar in the middle.
Before You Wish You Had is the obligatory carpe diem song that every artist must write once in their career, though Easton’s version is pretty and understated. The EP closes with Here’s to the Next One which may be a coded message to Mercury Records or just a self-effacing song about learning to fail better in love. Six fine songs which bring Easton back into the conversation. He’ll keep his old fans and may earn two or three with this. 3/5.
Chris Stapleton will one day be inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Bobbie Gentry, Steve Earle and the great Brett James are in the Class of 2020, along with Kent Blazy, writer of big hits for Garth Brooks like If Tomorrow Never Comes.
Chris’s 2015 album Traveller is still in the Top 5 of the country album chart. As new fans are turned on to country, they look at what is popular and listen to it and recommend it to new fans. This is why the UK album chart is full of acts like ABBA, Oasis, Arctic Monkeys, Fleetwood Mac, Queen and Eminem. By the way, Bob Marley’s Legend has just spent its 950th week on the UK chart.
Chris Stapleton has been on the country chart in the US for a measly 288 weeks. He was launched as an album act in a world of bros and superstars, although Nobody To Blame eventually clambered into the top ten and Chris had his moment at the CMA Awards in November performing with Justin Timberlake. Then a star was born and since then Chris has only been away on paternity or through injury. He has five Grammy awards (two for Best Country Album) seven ACMs and ten CMAs, including four Best Males in a row. Nine songs he has co-written are among ASCAP’s most performed of any given year, including his own Broken Halos, the Country Song of the Year at the 2018 GRAMMY Awards.
He is the most reluctant superstar in America, close only to Sam Hunt. I’d love to hear them duet. As it is, Starting Over arrives in an environment which Stapleton started. We would not have Luke Combs without Stapleton.
Back in May 2015, when Traveller was released and Luke Combs was still developing his chops, the two biggest songs in country music were Take Your Time by Sam Hunt and Girl Crush by Little Big Town. On radio, the likes of A Guy Walk Into A Bar, Raise Em Up, Don’t It, Smoke, Sippin On Fire, Wild Child and Kelsea Ballerini’s first number one Love Me Like You Mean it were on heavy rotation.
Nowhere to be seen are songs like Traveller, Whiskey and You (a song written by Chris and originally an album track from a mid-2000s Tim McGraw album) or, for the moment, Chris’ epochal cover of Tennessee Whiskey, which were gaining fans in the middle of 2015 but would gain more ears into 2016.
Starting Over was rolled out with three pre-released singles, the punchy Arkansas, the lovely title track with fluttering harmonies singing of lucky pennies and four-leaf clovers and Cold, which showcased the voice of his generation with a full orchestra and is smartly placed as track three. Expect it to be heard at major award shows in the coming year.
Starting Over, as with his previous three albums, is produced by Dave Cobb. The formula isn’t completely the same: the most interesting novelty on album four is that Chris is working with two of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, the great Mike Campbell and organ player Benmont Tench. Chris has plenty of rocking tunes in his catalogue so it’s no big surprise that he has picked these guys, who are short of a frontman since Tom Petty passed away.
As well as the pre-released tracks, the 11 Stapleton compositions on the album include Watch You Burn, Chris’ take on the Route 91 festival shooting, which was written with Campbell. ‘Only a coward would pick up a gun’, wails Chris over barely any backing at all, allowing his words to puncture the air and connecting him and the listener. The guitar work, when it comes, is dirty and punchy. I imagine Mother Mavis Staples, with whom Chris is out on tour in 2021, will join him on this protest song where the chorus ‘You’re gonna get your turn’ becomes a chanted message of defiance. The final minute is chilling and is testament to the work of Stapleton, Campbell and Cobb.
As on Traveller, there are plenty of bluesy pieces here. Devil Always Made Me Think Twice and Hillbilly Blood sound swampy, and the latter contains a rude word. Whiskey Sunrise, meanwhile, is a triple-time sad song written with the late Tim Krekel, also from Kentucky.
As the very poppy You Should Probably Leave started up, I was not surprised to see two huge A-Listers work with Chris on a soulful tune which may well become a radio smash. Ashley Gorley and Brad Paisley’s good friend Chris DuBois have helped him to write a song in the Muscle Shoals soul tradition, with Morgane providing top-notch harmonies.
Some tunes add to the pile of songs about Morgane, such as When I’m With You, written when Chris turned 40 a couple of years ago. Joy of My Life is a John Fogerty song which Chris delivers with gusto and panache in which he calls himself ‘the luckiest man alive’. I hope John gets Chris a nice gift for Christmas with the royalties.
Chris knows his heritage and opts to record two songs by the songwriter’s songwriter, Guy Clark, another Americana artist. At the Country Music Hall of Fame, there is a model of Guy’s workroom which attracted the likes of Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris. Worry B Gone and Old Friends are tucked together on the album’s second side. The former is a drinking song with a Status Quo-y, rockabilly feel, and sounds like a lot of fun. The latter is soft and tender and features Chris narrating verses over acoustic guitar and piano. If it turns his listeners on to Guy’s work, his work is done.
Maggie’s Song (‘Be as free as you are wild’) is the most majestic song I can think of about a dog. It contains a solo from Benmont Tench on the Hammond and the sort of rootsy shuffle that The Band were doing 50 years ago to invent Americana. Chris breaks up with Nashville, TN on the album’s final track, in character as a struggling songwriter who is finally giving up his dream. It’s a wonderful metaphor and will resonate with writers of country songs who could only have imagined Chris’ reluctant status as the critically acclaimed and commercially successful performer of his generation.
Next year Chris is to tour with Mavis Staples, as mentioned, giving fans two staples for the price of one. Also out on the road with him are The Highwomen, with one date pencilled in for Madison Square Garden and two at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. That’ll be one hell of a show, vaccine permitting. I’ve seen Stapleton twice at the O2 and his understated show is all about the tunes. The package is there: riffs, blues, rock, roots, soul, gospel, a dash of pop and above all American music. 5/5