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.