Country Jukebox Jury: Shenandoah and Josh Abbott Band

Shenandoah – Every Road

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

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