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

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

25-21

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,

20-16

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.

15-11

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.

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