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.