The Country Way of Life Fabulous Fifty of 2020

December 20, 2020

NB Each act is limited to one song, which must have been first released in 2020.

50 Scotty McCreery – You Time. American Idol, now indie act, making lovely pop music

49 Everette – Can’t Say No. Promising duo with Luke Laird’s blessing

48 Mickey Guyton – Black Like Me. GRAMMY-nominated topical song from a current voice

47 Maddie & Tae – Merry Married Christmas. Their life in a Christmas song

46 Cam – The Otherside. Avicii plus a terrific vocal equals anthem

45 Brent Cobb – Good Times and Good Love. Romantic front porch waltz

44 Luke Bryan – A Little Less Broken. Middle of the dirt road but a willing ear

43 Mac McAnally – Almost All Good. Feelgood music for dark times

42 The Texas Gentlemen – Ain’t Nothin New. Studio musicians show off in a melodic manner

41 William Michael Morgan – Cowboy Cool. Punchy indie country from an act loved in the UK

40 Little Big Town – Sugar Coat. Lori McKenna melancholy sung by the best

39 Ashley McBryde – Voodoo Doll. Sabbath Bloody Ashley

38 Steve Earle – It’s About Blood. History song sung with menace

37 Canaan Smith – Colder Than You. Wry breakup song

36 Dustin Lynch – Dirt Road. Smart contemporary country from the pen of Rhett Akins

35 Shenandoah and Blake Shelton – Then A Girl Walks In. Beautiful production to match a wonderful song

34 Ashley Campbell – Something Lovely. A hell of a meet cute

33 Ruston Kelly – Radio Cloud. Poppy and melodic

32 Trace Adkins – Big. A gift from Brothers Osborne to a voice of the ages

31 Lee Brice – More Beer. A bro’s gonna bro

30 Lauren Alaina ft Jon Pardi – Getting Over Him. Loud as hell from two fine contemporary voices

29 Luke Combs – Six Feet Apart. He can even turn quarantine into gold

28 Jordan Davis – Almost Maybes. Three chords and the truth from a poppy kid

27 Parker McCollum – Pretty Heart. Texan country star does heartbreak

26 The Mavericks – Cuando Me Enamoro. Glorious Tejano tune

25 Tim McGraw – Good Taste In Women. Insistent tune sung by a great voice

24 Jason Isbell – Be Afraid. Agitprop from a guy who won’t ‘shut up and sing’. Chorus literally grows as the song goes on

23 Aaron Watson – Silverado Saturday Night. High octane love song from Texan king of indie

22 Eric Church – Hell of a View. A love song with poise and control

21 Kenny Chesney – Here and Now. Built for stadiums

20 Devin Dawson – Range Rover. Quirky and cute breakup song

19 Matt Stell – Everywhere But On. Ploddy to match the message of the song

18 Ryan Hurd – Every Other Memory. Marvellous love song

17 Keith Urban – Out The Cage. Chic plus Keith does it again

16 Brandy Clark – Who Broke Whose Heart. The best of the breakup songs on a tremendous GRAMMY nominated album

15 Caylee Hammack – Redhead. One of the year’s best riffs, with added Reba

14 Will Hoge – Midway Motel. Nobody matches what he does for heartland rock

13 Chris Stapleton – Cold. Strings, as befits a king

12 Brothers Osborne – All Night. Another wonderful riff and a smart lyric

11 Kelsea Ballerini – Hole in the Bottle. Good fun with plenty of character

10 Lori McKenna – The Balladeer. A playlet in a pop song

9 RaeLynn – Keep Up. 99% character with production to back up the tune

8 Josh Turner – I Can Tell By The Way You Dance. Fun cover which outshines the original

7 Eric Paslay – Nice Guy. Pleasant and tongue in cheek

6 Mo Pitney – Local Honey. Very country, very simple, very good

5 Hardy ft Ashland Craft – So Close. A beautiful rock ballad

4 Lady A – Champagne Night. Who knew a smash about loving the low high life could come out of Songland?

3 Sam Hunt – Hard To Forget. Thanks to a Laird loop, Sam brings the old school into 2020

2 Mackenzie Porter – These Days. Nostalgia tied to a brilliant chord loop and vocal

1 Brett Eldredge – Magnolia. He’s having fun again doing it his way

See the playlist on Youtube here.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Russell Dickerson – Southern Symphony

December 7, 2020

This album has ten tracks on it and lasts just over 30 minutes. This is notable in itself: Morgan Wallen’s second album is a double that will have 30 tracks on it; Luke Combs put out five tracks before and six tracks after a 12-track second album which has hovered in the top five for a year.

Whereas Morgan and Luke are major-label priorities, Russell Dickerson is on Triple Tigers, a very respected indie label which has boosted the career of Scotty McCreery since he was spat out of the majors game. Scotty came over to London in October 2019 and is due to return for 2021; Russell wowed UK crowds at Nashville Meets London in Canary Wharf in 2017 and did the same at Country2Country, where he played tracks from his debut album Yours.

When I caught him on tour, it was clear to me that Russell was occupying the same domain as the likes of Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett. His mashup of his own MGNO with pop classics like Girls Just Want To Have Fun and I Wanna Dance With Somebody make him a pop act in country clothing, which makes him perfect for a UK market which likes its country only lightly twanging.

A darling of country radio, Russell launched his second album Southern Symphony with a song of devotion called Love You Like I Used To in which he sings of how he loves his lady even more than he used to. You know how 10,000 Hours was a huge song by Dan + Shay? It’s that sort of thing, but the magic production skills of Dann Huff gives this song a huge cut-through on radio among other soppy men called Chris, Dustin or Brett.

It follows three other chart-topping declarations of love: Yours, Blue Tacoma and Every Little Thing. The woman he is singing about is his wife, who also acts as his art director, but is vague enough to appeal to any couple listening.

The other three teaser tracks from the album include the two-chord opening track Never Get Old (‘whiskey, wine and gold’ but also love), poppy newlywed song Home Sweet (‘it’s more than just bricks and stone’) and party song It’s About Time, which includes added Florida Georgia Line and a fun ‘baptist choir’ stab.

Jon Nite helps out on All Yours All Night: ‘You know exactly what we’re gonna do!’ purrs Russell of his Friday night plans of fidelity and wine. The market wants songs about men loving on their ladies and at least this is sonically and lyrically interesting. Russell’s voice is delicious too and he really sells the song. 

Both Home Sweet and Forever for a Little While were written with Charles Kelley of Lady A; Russell even adds an ‘ooh’ to the start of the latter song which is a reminiscin’ song about mixtapes and bandanas and the sweetness of summer lovin’.

Waiting For You describes his girl as the missing piece but the song sounds like a One Direction album track, especially with the backing vocals in the chorus and the gentle piano riff. I am surprised by what sounds like a saxophone before the final chorus which redeems the song slightly, but it’s Nashville’s version of pop music, like Dan + Shay or Thomas Rhett.

Honey, meanwhile, is immediately interesting: over some crickets, the opening lyric is sung in a low growl before mention of a ‘Tupelo golden’ girl. Come To Jesus is middle of the dirt road music detailing how any devilish tendencies Russell has are opposed by his ‘hands up high Hallelujah’.

In conversation with Dan Wharton for Your Life in a Song, Russell talked about the quick writing session for the title track, a reminiscin’ song about Tennessee of the sort that Thomas Rhett likes to write. ‘Where I come from’, we are told, people drink sweet tea, listen to ‘Garth Brooks on a CD’, treat your mama with respect and include fiddle solos in songs. It’s the album’s centrepiece and a lot deeper than anything on the first album.

He’s more than just a pretty face, our Russell. Will Morgan Wallen’s album be three times as good because it has three times as many tracks? We shall see. 4/5

Ka-Ching…with Twang – The Albums of 2020: Part Two, The Top Ten

December 4, 2020

Ashley McBryde – Never Will

Ashley has taken the lead from Kacey Musgraves: throwing crumbs to radio but gaining fans one at a time, especially playing live. Ashley trailed the album Never Will with a trilogy of music videos. The melancholic One Night Standards, a song about meaningless pickup sex in a motel room written with Shane McAnally, sounds like a cigarette burning gently in an ashtray. ‘Lonely makes a heart ruthless’ distils the whole enterprise in one line.

Album opener Hang In There Girl comes off as an older sister talking to a teenage girl: ‘I’ve been right there at the end of that drive…Tangled up in the small town weeds, dreaming of the day you leave’. It’s of the Born To Run school of rock. The drums on Martha Divine set up the opposite of a murder ballad, as Ashley gets her shovel and sets about righting a wrong by bringing hard to ‘Jezebel’. This will be the highlight of her live set when the world becomes normal again.

Brandy Clark herself co-writes two tracks on the album. Voodoo Doll is driven by a stomping beat and bluegrass feel, over which Ashley sings of putting a curse on an ex-lover, it seems. Sparrow comes directly after it and is a proper country ballad about being out on the road: ‘Jack and Coke, a sleeping pill/ Living a dream’ yet thinking of home.

Velvet Red begins with a few bars of a cappella, giving the song a classic feel which is sustained in the effect given to Ashley’s voice. I don’t know the technical name but it sounds muffled. The plot of the song is: Boy meets girl, girl goes ‘sneakin’ out’ to see boy, something happens in the third verse that I’ll spoil by telling you about. Stone, written about her brother, is another proper country song which lists how ‘there’s throwin’ ones and rollin’ ones….The steppin’ kind, the steady kind’ before concluding that she and her late brother are ‘cut from the same stone’.

The toe-tapper First Thing I Reach For (‘is the last thing I need’) is in the tradition of morning-after songs, as Ashley wakes up after a heavy night with a stranger which served to ‘keep away the lonely’. On Shut Up Sheila, she sighs at a friend who is trying to console her with religious piety: ‘This here is a family thing’ will resonate with every Southerner who doesn’t follow the Good Book to the letter. In honour of her late friend Randall Clay, Ashley performs his song Styrofoam as the album’s closing track. It opens with a spoken-word explanation of who invented it and why it’s useful, especially to keep beer cold in ’44-ounce cups’.

Brett Eldredge – Sunday Drive

Gabrielle was the song with the big push before the album came out but four other songs, including the poppy Where The Heart Is. On Magnolia, it sounds like Brett is having a ball: over some rough piano, he sings of meeting a girl in ‘the heart of the heartland’. It’s a lot like Beat of the Music but set in the mid-west and not Mexico.

There are ballads, as there always are on a Brett Eldredge album. The classic-sounding Crowd My Mind is gorgeous, set over the same sort of piano found on Kacey Musgraves albums, while the philosophical When I Die is going to be as big as One Mississippi, one of Brett’s best songs.

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – Reunions

An album of songs with immaculate production, song structure and melodic shape. Jason has joined the ranks of great North American songwriters: Neil Young, Jeff Tweedy, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and the late John Prine.

His lyrics stand out: ‘This used to be a ghost town but even the ghosts got out’ on Overseas, which mourns a lost love; On River, with Amanda’s fiddle prominent, ‘The river is my saviour cos she used to be a cloud…even when she dries up 100 years from now I’ll lay myself beside her and call my name out loud’.

On Only Children he is ‘walking around at night/ fighting my appetite/ Every kid in cut-offs could be you’, while the middle eight of Be Afraid is ‘We don’t take request, we won’t shut up and sing/ Tell the truth enough you’ll find it rhymes with everything’.

St Peter’s Autograph takes the form of advice to a grieving friend: ‘What can I do to help you sleep?…We’re all struggling with a world on fire’. It Gets Easier (‘but it never gets easy’) will be a t-shirt slogan: ‘Last night I dreamed I’d been drinking…woke up fine and that’s how I knew it was a dream’.

The Texas Gentlemen – Floor It!!!

This is a band who have studied the greats – Elton John, The Band, Nilsson, Eagles – and you can tell that the band have played with Kris Kristofferson, who probably has stories about all of those acts and more.

The album begins with a rich brass instrumental called Veal Cutlass that sounds like The Titanic crashing into an iceberg. Bare Maximum is another phenomenal track, full of riffs, funk and soul and the album continues in that vein. We finally hear some lyrics on track three, Ain’t Nothin New, which has a classic West Coast feel. She Won’t ends in a wigout jam that sounds like fun. Charlie’s House is almost a Steely Dan collaboration with Jackson Browne.

Brothers Osborne – Skeletons

Jon Caramanica of the New York Times has coined the term ‘power country’ to refer to beefy rockin’ country music. This album is country music for classic rock fans. Never mind the Allmans, here’s the Osbournes.

As well as production from Jay Joyce, the album’s co-writers also include the crack pair of Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, who sprinkle some magic onto opening track Lighten Up, which is soaked in reverb and has TJ sing of guitars cranked up, drinks and lighters in the air.

Dead Man’s Curve takes 99% of its inspiration from Charlie Daniels Band and the other 1% from Ace of Spades and rollicks along at some speed. I can’t wait to hear this one live.  The smart All The Good Ones Are is written by TJ with Craig Wiseman and Lee Thomas Miller, who are both experts in humour and character. The song is anchored by the phrase ‘not every…but all the good ones are!’ and the chorus is an elegy to a lady punctuated by trademark huge guitars.

All Night is the correct choice of single: punchy, full of harmonies and lyrics like ‘I got the back if you got the beat’. Skeletons (‘I’ve got bones to pick with them’) is also a lot of fun, while Hatin Somebody and I’m Not For Everybody make the personal political, which I think is the USP of Brothers Osborne.

The Top Five

Josh Turner – Country State of Mind

Aside from Randy Travis adding the final ‘amen’ on his cover of Forever and Ever Amen, Josh ropes in the following stars: John Anderson on the rockin’ I’ve Got It Made; an octogenarian Kris Kristofferson on Why Me, where Josh hits some very low notes indeed; Allison Moorer on Hank Williams’ plea to the Lord, Alone and Forsaken; Runaway June on You Don’t Seem To Miss Me, written by the great Jim Lauderdale; Maddie & Tae on Desperately, where the harmonies are terrific; and Chris Janson on Country State of Mind, which was written and performed by Hank Williams Jr.

I still love I Can Tell By The Way You Dance and I’m No Stranger To The Rain, from stars of the 1980s Vern Gosdin and Keith Whitley respectively. The album ends with the Johnny Cash song The Caretaker. It’s as if he is channelling John’s spirit, changing the name to Josh in a song about what happens after he dies. This is a tremendous collection of covers which introduced me to at least three fine songs which I had never heard before. Long live country from the pre-Garth era!

Chris Stapleton – Starting Over

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.

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.

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.

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. Guy Clark moved the pseudo-genre forward with his lyrical songwriting, to which Chris pays homage on covers of Worry B Gone and Old Friends.

Hardy – A Rock

If Luke Combs is clearly the Ed Sheeran of country music, Hardy might be the Lewis Capaldi. He’s funny and melodic and very popular.

One Beer spent 2020 climbing up the charts, thanks to a blockbuster video and a quirky topic for a song: one beer turns into an unplanned pregnancy and a shotgun marriage. Breakup song Boots begins with Hardy realising he woke up without taking his boots off after a heavy night and that he is more into drinking than spending time with his lady, making his exit speedy. I loved Give Heaven Some Hell, which is an ‘I’ll miss you brother’ weepie’ that is placed as the third track on the album, just after Boyfriend, a song about a man wanting to turn his status from In A Relationship to Married.

Having already written a song called 4X4, Truck is next on his list of modes of transport to use as subject matter. This is definitely a country song by Hardy: over a three-chord loop and with a gorgeous melodic shape, he universalises the ‘red white and blue collar’ bloke in every town in America whom you can judge by the contents of his truck. What a great premise. The chorus is enormous and I am sure many listeners in trucks will find much to love about a man who wears a trucker’s hat onstage.

Hillary Lindsey never writes a bad song, and she has written four pearls with Hardy on A Rock: Hate Your Hometown, Boots, One Beer and the terrific breakup ballad So Close, which is influenced by Def Leppard and contains the voice of Ashland Craft, a singer also on the Big Loud label.

Where Ya At is a lot of fun regardless of whether you have ‘hick in your blood’ or not and, in the way that Tim McGraw namechecked his label Big Machine, Hardy namechecks Big Loud. The pace is electric, though note that the drill sergeant middle section contains some swear words. This will be a live favourite wherever Hardy is at.

Ain’t A Bad Day is another interesting twist, as Hardy looks into his pit of despair after a breakup and realises today isn’t a bad time for Armageddon. It seems like a song that very lightly prompts people to seek advice for their demons and I hope the decade sees more of an awareness of this sort of thing in country music, which has spent a decade mostly saying that girls and trucks and beer are wonderful. Broke Boy is a love song which begins at a party and leads to Hardy having a ‘Mississippi Queen’ in his bed. ‘I didn’t have a dime to my last name but she took mine’ is such a good lyric.

I was intrigued when I saw that track 11 is called Unapologetically Country As Hell, which it is. A Rock the song closes the album, on which Hardy thinks about life and stuff. The terrific song was brought into the world with an extraordinary music video. It’s country because it talks about skipping rocks on the water, being stuck between a rock and a hard place as a young adult, being alive on ‘a rock’ and eventually having your name written on a rock and placed on a tombstone. I wondered where the chorus would be and laughed when I heard him go la-la-la-la.

I believe Hardy’s music is a fair representation of himself. This isn’t a construct or a persona. Sometimes the songs can be sonically very similar, cranking up in the chorus and having Hardy shout-sing the lyrics rather than croon them, so perhaps 12 in a row is a bit too much without sonic variation. Lyrically there are love songs, break-up songs and those two Country Songs (Where Ya At and Unapologetically Country As Hell).

Lori McKenna – The Balladeer

In the week of Taylor Swift’s album release, there was another folky country act with an album on the racks.

The pre-released songs from The Balladeer, which is being released through Thirty Tigers, include When You’re My Age (written with and featuring her fellow Love Junkies) and Good Fight. Both are grown-up songs for grown-up listeners. The title track is stunning, especially the middle eight where two new chords add a sense of unease to a three-act song which actually mirrors the plot of A Star Is Born.

Opening track This Town is a Woman is a more mature version of Body Like a Back Road, with much better lyrics. Two Birds is also a Love Junkies song that I won’t spoil but men don’t come out from it very well. The Dream is mysterious, with only ‘you and him’ mentioned in Lori’s dream. ‘He was one of a kind/ You would have loved him if you were born in his time.’ It could be about Lori’s mum, who was unable to hold her grandson, or her husband, ‘wearing the coat from 85’, talking to his never-mother-in-law. ‘Damn long view’ is sung over some lush chords, thanks to the production of the great Dave Cobb. The outro is sensational too, matching Dave’s work with Jason Isbell, who is one of very few songwriters in Lori’s class.

Marie ‘looks more like our mother, prettier and softer’ and it’s an ode to Lori’s older sister. ‘We both got the same sized shoes but no-one’s ever walked in mine but me…and Marie.’ Something happens in the third verse, something Lori has written about before, that floors the listener: if there was a country music anthology of lyrics, this song would be in it. This is a proper country song written by a master of the form: her life, in a song.

Stuck in High School is a reminiscin’ song about how as a kid you ‘try on every shoe and you stand in every shadow/ Hope you find yourself somewhere between the first pew and the back row’. Even when you’re 50, that kid is still there, asking you if those dreams came true or if you’re stuck in high school with all the dreams and ambition of a young pup…

Final track Till You’re Grown, which ends with Elton Johnnish piano, is Humble and Kind Part 2: smoking won’t be cool, tattoos are stupid so don’t get one, ‘running away won’t look like a cure to anything that really hurts’ and ‘time moves faster than you think…’ Uphill could be a spiritual song or a mother’s song to her child. My eyes were moist by the end of the first stanza; damn Lori. ‘Hard times and landslides are part of life…‘I’ll walk with you even if it’s uphill’. It’s beautiful.

Brandy Clark – Your Life is a Record

On Brandy’s third album Your Life is a Record, her focus is on the break-up of her long-term relationship, placing the album in the long line of such albums in the rock and pop canon. There’s a mix of the jaunty and the melancholic, much like Brandy’s hero John Prine, who passed away a few weeks after Brandy put her new album into the world.

Because I prefer the jaunty to the ballad, the kiss-offs Long Walk and Who Broke Whose Heart grabbed me on first listen: the former imagines the addressee walking ‘off a real short pier’, while the latter places a swear word in the chorus following the words ‘all I know’s I loved you’. The funniest track is a duet with Randy Newman, which quotes the famous line from Jaws: ‘We’re gonna need a bigger boat.’ The final verse is the best: ‘We’re springing a leak, we’re coming apart/ We’re on the Titanic but we think it’s an ark’ must be the result of a brainstorming session coming up with ideas for famous boats.

The sad songs include album opener I’ll Be the Sad Song – country music is nothing if not literal! – on which Brandy sets out the album’s subject. ‘That last verse, you wanna change it’ is a wonderfully sad line, while Pawn Shop opens with the arresting line, ‘She pushed her wedding ring across the counter’, as Brandy trades jewels for a bus ticket. The elegant waltz Love is a Fire (written with the aforementioned Shane McAnally) runs with the motif of the title. ‘Kiss me like kerosene’ is another bumper sticker of a line.

Who You Thought I Was, released as a teaser for the album, seems autobiographical: Brandy wanted to be Elvis Presley, a circus performer and a cowboy ‘til I met you…now I wanna be the me I should have been when we were together.’ This is John Prine level stuff, or John Prine writing with Adele. On Bad Car, over a gentle guitar shuffle, Brandy mourns an old car which has ‘broke down’.

Can We Be Strangers, which sounds like a Muscle Shoals cut from the 1970s, contains real horns, strings, drums and lyrics as Brandy wants a complete break: ‘I don’t wanna hate you or even care enough to’ is the key lyric of the chorus. The album drifts off into the distance on The Past is the Past, with a gorgeous instrumental outro.

Read the first part, covering 25 to 11, here.

Ka-Ching…with Twang – The Albums of 2020: Part One, 25 to 11

December 4, 2020

Throughout 2020 I’ve been listening to every notable new album released by a US country act. Here are my favourite 25.


Will Hoge – Tiny Little Movies

If you like Jason Isbell, The Jayhawks and anything Bob Harris plays with guitars and drums, you’ll love Will Hoge. He delivers every song with a rye-soaked vocal. Every track has something to recommend it, be it a lyric, guitar tone or harmonica. The best ones on first listen are Midway Motel, as fine an opener as you will ever hear this side of a Bob Dylan album, the tender The Likes of You, ruminative Maybe This Is OK and The Curse.

Hot Country Knights – The K Is Silent

Dierks Bentley’s regular opening act are a comedy troupe which is, in fact, the headliners dressed up in funny costumes. The K is Silent comprises ten tracks over 36 minutes that try to give the listener a good time. Album opener Hot Country Knights begins by spelling out the band’s name and Dierks’ familiar voice prepares the listener for a ‘good time…everybody’s cutting loose with their jeans on tight’. There’s a passage full of key changes that goes nowhere, proving that the joke is musical as well as lyrical. It is definitely the latter on Then It Rained. Mull It Over is a heartache song which Midland would be proud of. Ditto the awesomely titled Kings of Neon, which is driven by the album’s best riff and chorus. Wrangler Danger is a cautionary tale set in Whiskey Row, which happens to be Dierks Bentley’s Nashville bar (product placement!!) and is about a ‘heartbreak kind’ of girl.

The album sounds like 1995 and it’s wonderful to see a major label support Dierks in bringing some joy to the country world.

Joshua Ray Walker – Glad You Made It

Joshua Ray Walker is a Texan singer who throws in all the country vocal tics of the old singers like Hank Williams and Roger Miller. Opening track Voices, with a tambourine on the backbeat, adds pedal steel and a voice that you could find in a church. You’d be forgiven for missing that he’s singing about driving his truck into a lake while leaving a bottle of alcohol in his hand. True Love picks up the pace but is nonetheless sad since it’s ‘meant to fade’.

You know you’re in country music from the album’s first bar: Loving County begins with some yodelling; Play You A Song is a hoedown, with some quick picking; One Trick Pony is a honky-tonker; and Cupboard begins with him examining cans and turns into a meditation on time. The lyric is direct and the drums are pulsating.

In Boat Show Girl he quotes the inscription on the Statue of Liberty while talking about the titular characters: ‘Take this beauty home…just like every boat show girl wishes that you would.’

Cam – The Otherside

After five years in development hell, and two years after Diane made the Radio 2 playlist, we have Cam’s second album. I loved the nostalgic Classic, the latter driven by a ukulele-type riff and which was written with Jack Antonoff (producer of fun, Lorde, Taylor Swift and recently the Dixie Chicks).

Cam has one foot in pop and one foot in Nashville but her heart is set on a wide pop audience. Happier For You was written by Sam Smith. What Goodbye Means has a rich 12-string guitar running through a song which sees Cam hope that the chap ‘might come back to me’. Redwood Tree veers towards Dolly Parton (‘don’t you recognise me…sorry I had to leave’) and ends up sounding like Ward Thomas with the lyric ‘You’ll know what you had when it’s gone’. Harry Styles provides an uncredited whistle solo on Changes, which has a wide open chorus about love and stuff but with the patented Lori McKenna Melancholy about how when you’re young you don’t think anything will change.

Lori is also involved in the breakup ballad Forgetting You and Like A Movie, which sees Cam team up with The Love Junkies (Liz Rose, Lori and Hillary Lindsey) to write a song that brings back the idea of country music with an orchestra. It’s an uplifting piece of music that veers on the Disney – ‘all the colours change when you say my name’ – which I think is what she was going for.

Another track with pristine production, Til There’s Nothing Left, involves Hillary Lindsey, while torch ballad closing track Girl Like Me was written with Natalie Hemby. The title track was written with Avicii and is driven by a woozy vocal riff and some jerky acoustic guitar. Cam sings a folky melody in the verse which soars upwards in the chorus. It’s the best track on a very good album. It is a high-end production and a fitting testament to the late producer and DJ.

Sam Hunt – Southside

Five years in the making, Southside arrived with four songs already embedded into fans’ lives. Downtown’s Dead was bouncy, Kinfolks was infectious, Body Like A Back Road was smart and worthy of its high placing on the all-genre Hot 100. Hard To Forget was innovative in its sample of There Stands The Glass. It also boasts a great title and chorus: ‘You’re playing hard to forget’ is such a great line, as is the ‘outta sight outta mind/ Girl you’re looking so good it’s driving me out of mine’.

My favourite new track from the album was Breaking Up Was Easy In The Nineties, a smart lyric set to a chirpy acoustic guitar about how in 2020 it’s tough to fully escape someone popping up in one’s timeline with a new guy. Once the listener negotiates the spoken-sung verse, the chorus is singable,


Tenille Townes – The Lemonade Stand

Holding Out For The One opens the album with fun rhythms and production, mixing live drums and loops, as Tenille sings about love and stuff in a sing-song manner. I Kept The Roses, meanwhile, reminds me of Jessie Buckley’s Wild Rose of the 2019 film. Carry tissues and put your heart over your sleeve. White Horse and Somebody’s Daughter are both urgent tracks with smart lyrics.

Her list of co-writers is impressive: Daniel Tashian, Luke Laird and Barry Dean on Somebody’s Daughter, Keelan Donovan – who guests on the terrific love song The Way You Look Tonight – and Sacha Skarbek, who co-wrote Wrecking Ball among many other pop classics and writes Find You here. That song, Where You Are and the welcoming Come As You Are are all close to the sort of pop-country we do in Britain.

Tenille can also do tender and serious. When I Meet My Maker picks up themes of Jersey On The Wall, with a tender lyric about angels and choirs and questions. Josh Kear, still counting the Need You Now money, helps Tenille write The Most Beautiful Things, which closes the album. It’s the sort of song Kelsea Ballerini would sing to be hashtag-serious; a series of images which serve to criticise people ‘Why do we close our eyes when we pray, cry, kiss?’ We don’t see beautiful things, but feel them. Then we get wind chimes. 

Luke Bryan – Born Here Live Here Die Here

Luke has taken the Blake/Keith approach and put his brand in front of middle America thanks to TV, and a lot more people know Luke Bryan than the country audience whom he was initially marketed to.

Knockin Boots, What She Wants Tonight and One Margarita are all fun songs about love, sex and drinking. Build Me a Daddy is sentimental gloop that aims its sights on your tearducts.

The title track is a blood brothers song that sounds like lighters in the air. Luke, for all his booty shaking, is to Georgia what Madness are to North London or the Ramones are to New York. Songs like this boost Luke’s localism – I believe him when he sings about boots and roots and local pride, regardless of political allegiance. ‘Same dirt, same church, same beer’ and REAL drums – great job by all concerned, including young writer Jameson Rodgers. His voice is marketable and he sounds like a man who hunts and fishes.

The musical theme of this album is… middle of the dirt road, a genre I have made up to convey safe, corporate music. That doesn’t mean it’s bad: Too Drunk to Drive is a Luke co-write that chugs along effectively in a fashion; Down To One, which is the only contribution to this album by Luke’s buddy Dallas Davidson, closes the album and is climbing up the radio airplay chart.

Where are we Goin, which Luke wrote with top singer/songwriter Brent Cobb, and Little Less Broken are almost Lionel Richie songs – I wonder if Lionel has given him tips on American Idol – although the latter also reminds me of Midland’s contemporary vintage style. For a Boat is also AC country in which Luke declares himself ‘too broke for a boat’ as a kid, spending Sundays with God and Saturdays with Dad. I like the specificity of ‘Evinrude’, which is a type of motor.

Ashley Campbell – Something Lovely

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

Throughout the album, the string arrangements and acoustics are glorious, particularly on Moonlight and Suitcase Heart, where she sings in a majestic chorus of being ‘always gone before it even starts’. If I Wasn’t sounds like The Beautiful South going noir, with Ashley’s voice floating on top of a delicious arrangement. On the elegant title track, Ashley is a single woman (‘such-and-such’) in a bar asking a ‘so-and-so’, a ‘lonely guy’ for mutual companionship set to some mellifluous nylon-stringed acoustic guitar. It is stunning and is worth the price of admission. By contrast, Walk On By has her ignoring the catcalls with a ukulele and steel guitar thrumming away as she sings ‘nothing to see here’. The rhyme of ‘victim/ symptoms’ is inspired.

Like her fellow regal daughter Rosanne Cash, Ashley knows her country music. Forever’s Not That Long could have come out in 1961 thanks to its rich fiddles, pedal steel and Steinway piano, while her instrumental Moustache Man could have emerged in the 1920s as it’s her and her godfather Carl Jackson pickin’ on banjos.

Mac McAnally – Once in a Lifetime

If you like country music, and want to waste away 40 minutes in Margaritaville, this album is for you. But Mac can do soft too: Just Like It Matters is a waltz which is full of pedal steel and heartache, as Mac tells of a girl leaving him. Thrown in for good measure is a cover of John Lennon’s song Norwegian Wood, complete with mystical drones, and the flight of fancy First Sign of Trouble, about the perils of doing anything when you’re singing about doing nothing.

On Almost All Good, which Kenny Chesney could turn into a number one, Mac sings: ‘We’re just trying to wear that First Amendment out!’ is a fun line. Good Guys Win is a Chesney title-in-waiting too, with a song set to a smooth rhythm and rhyming ‘disillusion’ and ‘turn on the news’ before changing key. It’s perfect on a 90-degree day. Brand New Broken Heart – fiddle, mandolin, a cracking middle eight and a Mumford-y guitar part – is divine. The album closes with The Better Part of Living, a credo in which Mac tells of the lessons he has learned.

Tim McGraw – Here On Earth

I Called Mama, Hallelujahville, Good Taste In Women and 7500 OBO can all be retitled as follows: Tim McGraw calls mum, Tim McGraw bigs up small towns, Tim McGraw is a lucky schlub and Tim McGraw sells his truck full of memories. The brilliant thing about 7500 OBO is it lays out what this album is: it’s a Tim McGraw album for fans of Tim McGraw.

Hold You Tonight is smooth MODR from writers Ross Copperman and Jon Nite with the lyric ‘I can’t fix the world but I can hold you tonight. Tim must have done this type of song on every album, right down to the guitar sounds.

The latest Tim McGraw love songs of devotion are Damn Sure Do, which is a smart wedding song, and Hard To Stay Mad At, written this time by three heavyweights: Lori McKenna, Shane McAnally and Luke Laird. It’s a wonderful love song which quotes the proverb about never going to bed angry.

On Chevy Spaceship he sounds like Brad Paisley, especially in the line ‘catch a buzz lightyear’. Tim McGraw has previously sung a song called Kristofferson and here he sings about Sheryl Crow, his fellow Big Machine artist; Tim’s girl is ‘gonna be stuck in my head forever’. Jason Aldean’s buddies Neil Thrasher and Wendell Mobley write this – so maybe this is an Aldean cast-off.


Mo Pitney – Ain’t Looking Back

Mo Pitney is an apostle of George Strait. Ain’t Lookin Back is a good title of his second album, which comes out five years after Behind This Guitar, an album of traditional country songs expertly sung. The time is ripe, as Jon Pardi and Josh Turner would agree, to bring it back and Mo is well placed to find a huge audience.

Listening through to the album it sounds brilliant, with tender production from Jim Moose Brown and warmth in every syllable. ‘I didn’t come here to be famous’ is the album’s opening line, setting out Mo’s stall with a song in which he says ‘God said I’ll make me a music man’. Jamey Johnson, another music man who shuns fame and fortune, is a guest vocalist on a song Mo co-wrote.

I still love the poppy pair of Ain’t Bad for a Good Ol Boy and Local Honey, as well as the Old Dominion-written Plain and Simple, which is a lovely gift to their fellow top songwriter. Other legends contribute to others such as the funky love song Right Now With You (Paul Overstreet) and Boy Gets The Girl (Tim ‘Live Like You Were Dying’ Nichols), which takes the idea of a romcom and runs with it. The title track of Ain’t Lookin Back sounds like the long road on which Mo is on – bring back road songs in country music, I say! The album’s closing track, Jonas, is a Dean Dillon co-write which is a spiritual number. It ends a mature album which should not be ignored.

Caylee Hammack – If It Wasn’t For You

I was looking forward to Caylee’s debut album which includes her first hit Family Tree. It’s very poppy but full of personal touches and lyrics like ‘pot luck lunch’, Tupperware and ‘high school high’. Album opener Just Friends has also been knocking around for a while with its kickass tone and wild ending, while fellow Redhead Reba pops up on the glorious track of that name.

Small Town Hypocrite, solo acoustic track Gold (recorded as if it’s a demo) and Looking for a Lighter are softer songs on the album, the latter with the audible sonic fingerprint of the best in the business, Hillary Lindsey. Just Like You and King Size Bed are country songs at their heart, with strong melodies. Fans of Miranda will love Just Like You, on which Caylee plays tomboy, and Sister, which is a downhome country song about family and stuff. The production on the likes of King Sized Bed and Preciatcha may be poppy but these songs would work at the Song Suffragettes night just with Caylee on an acoustic guitar.

Shenandoah – Every Road

Shenandoah 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.

The new album copies the Brooks & Dunn trick by pairing them with contemporary artists. Special mention too for Willie Nelson’s mate Buddy Cannon who produces with all the country touches expected of a classic band who trade in traditional sounds.

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. 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. The Warren Brothers, Brad and Brett, give them Then A Girl Walks In, a song about the marvels of women with added Blake Shelton that sounds like a modern rock version of a ballad you’d get from 1989.

The title track is a mellow and very contemporary track about finding yourself. I’ll Be Your Everything paints Marty as a shoulder to cry on, though it could also be about God and stuff.

Eric Paslay – Nice Guy

After an EP earlier this year, Nice Guy emerges with eight new tracks which follow his cover of Pill In Ibiza, single Heartbeat Higher and two great tunes Boat in a Bottle and On This Side of Heaven, which is really tremendous and a tearjerker. I also love Endless Summer Dream, which takes the feel of Even If It Breaks Your Heart.

Off the Edge of the Summer opens with the line ‘whispering wishes into wine bottles’ so if you like your song well written, Eric is your man. Co-writers include Kristian Bush (Just Once, which is middle of the dirt road and could be a Tim McGraw tune), Craig Wiseman (who is also a nice guy and helped Eric write the groovy title track), Caitlyn Smith (who also provides gorgeous uncredited harmonies on Under Your Spell) and the great Rodney Clawson on the equally great acoustic ballad Fingertips. This one is a father’s lullaby to his child and deserves to be heard. Album closer Woman Like Her (‘is good for a man’) is another Tim McGraw sort of tune with a singalong middle section.

Josh Abbott Band – The Highway Kind

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’.

Part Two, which counts down the top 10, can be found here.