Country Jukebox Jury EPs: Hicktown Breakout, The Southern Gothic and Clayton Smalley

February 26, 2021

Hicktown Breakout – Lost Myself

Hicktown Breakout are a Bristolian quintet who put out their EP in January 2021, led by the single Get Your Boots On, which is the correct choice of single: it’s a handclaps’n’stomper about how ‘country music’s gonna blow your mind’ full of open chords and fine guitar work. Resistance is futile.

Distorted Lullaby is a cross between The Calling and Counting Crows, with a lyric about how ‘nothing changes’ set to some electric guitars. Lost Myself is the most immediate track, with a Quo-like bouncing riff and great drumwork; the poor singer can’t go home because, it seems, he’s been thrown out by his ex. Yesterday is a chugging country-rock song full of loneliness and regret: ‘Tell me there’s another ways to get back to yesterday’ is a gloomy lyric.

Halfway is a mid-tempo ballad about love and stuff set over four very familiar chords. There’s a lot of Hootie & the Blowfish here, with lots of space in the bridge (‘no I don’t want this’), harmonies in the chorus and a nifty solo. It’ll be a decent singalong in the live sphere, and I don’t think the recording does it justice. Hootie, we recall, were a bar band first and a platinum recording act second. File Hicktown Breakout with The Blue Highways, as this would make an ace double bill.

The Southern Gothic – Burnin Moonlight

This six-track EP came out in November 2020. The band are based in Nashville and are led by Connor Christian, whose voice is authentically country.

Villain is very atmospheric, with a neat sonic bed, as Connor sings of having to be ‘the bad guy’ rather than her Superman. The second verse has a line about tying her to a railroad track in order to stop her trying to prolong the friendship. It’s a cool take on moving on.

Past Midnight (‘the clock keeps tickin and we keep talkin’) is a meet cute set to a fine groove. Ain’t Gonna Lie is horny, a sex jam without the sex, as the narrator realises ‘there ain’t no turning back’ once she gives him the go ahead. Gravity is a similar tempo tune in which Connor sings grandly about not wanting to weigh a lady down if she wants to spread her wings.

Up On Your Love is the result of finally going to bed with a lady and ‘wake up, up, up on your love’. It’s poppy and romantic and smooth. There’s a fiddle intro to Classic, which sounds like a wedding song. It’s another song about how love is like an old record (Garth gets a namecheck) and how ‘trends come and go’. It sounds like an Aaron Watson ballad and Southern Gothic would be a great opening act for Aaron.

Clayton Smalley – Dirt Road Therapy.

Clayton comes from Utah and he wants to make music that harks back to the AOR era of Eagles and Garth Brooks. Two Lane Time Machine is a wonderful homage to Californian rock, with sweet harmonies, some pretty chords and a very good delivery of lyrics full of reminiscin’: ‘One more shot to rewrite history’. Modern Day Merle opens with a fiddle and sounds a lot like Rodeo by Garth Brooks, as Clayton sings of a troubadour’s life on the road. ‘He sings what he sings, he loves who he loves’ is a bit banal but the guitars underneath it create a mood.

The EP’s title track is a slow rocker about wind and Joe Diffie on the radio and the weekend and ‘here we go’ and tossing away one’s cares. You know the sort of thing. I Never Let A Good Time Get Away illustrates what the typical weekend holds (‘always time for one more round’ and ‘no need to sleep it off’). Luke Combs does this sort of thing but Clayton’s effort is good.

Phoenix Rise should be covered by Gary Quinn, as it’s a song about rising up from the ashes with a woozy pedal steel guitar part. Ditto the EP’s closing ballad Watch Me Fall, in which Clayton asks his lady if all she’s going to do is look on as he suffers. It’s a bittersweet way to end an excellent set.

Country Jukebox Jury EPs – Adele & Andy, Track45 and Adam Hambrick

February 26, 2021

Adele & Andy – Where I Belong

The title track of the four-track EP from this British couple has a glorious guitar passage while Adele’s vocal makes me think of Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek, as she sings a thoughtful lyric externalising her feelings. ‘I was a prisoner of my mistakes’ but now she’s ‘riding the crest of the wave’ because she has found her man. No More Goodbyes is about going down a road (‘it is tiring’) but being cheered up by a guy, where Adele finds a Romeo to her Juliet, a ‘hero to her princess’, set to a gentle acoustic tune.

Echoes of the Forest is a story song which begins slowly but accelerates into the second verse, which talks of ‘deep betrayal in the middle of the night’. It breaks into a fab chorus which Adele sings superbly, and it’s a well written, folky story.

Misty Eyes, which was rolled out a month before the EP, chugs along, and the pair draw out the ‘eyes’ for nine syllables. It’s the most memorable part of the song. When I write songs, eyes are the easiest thing to focus on (windows to the soul, shining etc) but it’s a good choice of adjective to tell the tale of a cheat. ‘I was blinded…battered and bruised…broken and used’ is the conclusion, which I am sure Adele will spit out when the duo perform this live. I’ll be there to see it and I hope people give these four tracks a listen.

Track45 – Big Dreams

Track45, aka the siblings Jenna, KK and Ben Johnson, put out three tracks under the banner Small Town last year. I loved their little introduction set as part of Country Music Week last October and they aren’t like any other country act: they can play fiddle, cello, banjo and guitar between them and can also write songs (Ben wrote One of them Girls, the Lee Brice chart-topper).

The song they wrote with Gabrielle Mooney, Come On In, hooked me with its line about ‘calling dinner supper’ and the mention of Avril Lavigne. The gentle Me + You (‘football and tailgates, bare feet and sand’) was also rolled out last year, as was the single the trio are sending to radio, Met Me Now. It’s very current in its production and KK’s vocals will hook people who love Kelsea and Carly Pearce, while the lyric is full of vulnerability: ‘I was young but I was stupid’ and ‘If I could find a way to rearrange the time’ are great, as is the melodic heft of the chorus and the harmonies throughout.

All three are on their Big Dreams EP, which adds two more tracks. I am positive they would have plugged it as part of Country2Country this year and, like The Bee Gees and Hanson, would become a family band the Brits would love.

Little Bit More, written with Audra Mae, and a cover of the Dolly Parton song Light of a Clear Blue Morning, both offer more treats. The former begins with KK hymning God for ‘all the shots’ she has taken, before the chorus explodes in gratitude: ‘I’d give it up for a little bit more’. It’s catchy and fun, and Ben takes the second verse (‘It’s high time I did some taking’). Check out the acoustic version on their Youtube channel which emphasises the harmonies. Their cover is well chosen, as the siblings take turns to sing of ‘looking for the sunshine’ and the hope on the horizon. They must have learned how to harmonise with this one, and it is wonderful that the world can share in their talent.

Adam Hambrick – Flipsides

The great Adam Hambrick’s new tune is Broken Ladder, the latest in a series where he brings out two tracks at a time. Having done this three times, we have six songs which have been collected on the Flipsides EP, which is the closest thing to an album he’s brought out. I love his songs Rockin All Night Long and Forever Ain’t Long Enough and, in particular, the terrific Country Stars, which he performed at C2C 2019 along with hits he wrote for Dan + Shay (How Not To) and Justin Moore (Somebody Else Will).

The four tracks we’ve heard are: the perky, poppy The Longer I Lay Here (a duet with Jillian Jacqueline), which rattles along tunefully; the ruminative Kill A Man, full of classic chords and a determination to go against one’s character and protect a woman at all costs (‘There’s no fire I wouldn’t walk through’) that sounds like Justin Bieber rewriting a mashup of two Bruno Mars songs (Grenade and When I Was Your Man); John Mayer homage Sunshine State of Mind, which compares a woman to the elements (‘love so bright I got my shades on’); and Do The Math, where Adam is alone in a bar regretfully counting out his drinks rather than ‘bouncing back’.

Broken Ladder has Adam singing he is a ‘record on repeat’ and once again drinking heavily because he can’t get over his ex. After a rapid-fire verse, the chorus comes in after 25 seconds, in the modern style, and has Adam ‘trying to climb to heaven’ on a broken ladder, a great metaphor. The production is superb too.

The other new song comes at the end of the EP. When It All Sinks In (written with fellow A-Listers Gordie Sampson and Kelly Archer) is about thCe time ‘between the no and then feeling’ as love dies. It’s a song about nothing, in that it spotlights the moment in time just before the realisation of loss hits. I like how the entire track drops out for half a beat before the second verse, which talks of wounds still being hot. This is very, very clever songwriting – it’s like they wrote it at Pixar HQ –  and no wonder it’s at the end of this brilliant project. I hope Adam becomes as successful as he deserves to be, even if his friends Dan and Shay sell out arenas.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Willie Nelson – That’s Life

February 26, 2021

This is the umpteenth album from Willie Nelson who has put his second volume of Frank Sinatra songs. You know what Willie Nelson sounds like by now and it’s 45 years since his album Stardust sold well and made him a critically acclaimed and commercially successful artist. 2018 had him covering My Way, Summer Wind, It Was a Very Good Year and Night And Day, so there are enough classics for volume two.

Many of these songs are part of the quilt of American music: Luck Be a Lady, a very jaunty Learnin’ The Blues, I Won’t Dance (with the ever sultry Diana Krall) and I’ve Got You Under My Skin, here given a bossa nova arrangement. Closing track Lonesome Road is the sort of gospel blues Leon Russell used to do. There’s a reason this album comes out on Legacy Recoprdings.

As with Sinatra’s great recordings with Nelson Riddle’s arrangements of the standards, Willie uses an orchestra on Cottage For Sale and In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning. Mickey Raphael’s harmonica pokes out on You Make Me Feel So Young and That’s Life (an anthem for my brother). If you want to soak in the bath or recline on the sofa with a good book, Willie’s new record will be perfect as a soundtrack.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Hailey Whitters – The Dream (Deluxe Edition)

February 26, 2021

Six artists informed the writing and promotion of Hailey’s debut album, which is repackaged with five extra tracks featuring those six acts. Happy People was written with Lori McKenna and, before its appearance on the album, was given to Little Big Town, which was a nice little earner for Hailey and helped to fund the project, which came out in March 2020 just as you-know-what decimated artists’ careers.

Brent Cobb and Jordan Davis had Hailey as a support act, and thus join her on Glad To Be Here and The Ride respectively. Trisha Yearwood remains an inspiration while Hillary Lindsay, as one of the best writers in town, is a guiding light too. More on them shortly.

Born in Iowa, Hailey wrote Ten Year Town, a fine summation of becoming a Nashville songwriter (although I love one argument that Nashville is so called because music is ten years behind). That song, written with the incomparable Brandy Clark, opens the album on a sombre note.

A host of publications loved the album – The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Stereogum – so it’s not news to call this a great album. Look at the credits: as well as Brandy, there’s Lori McKenna. The pair team up again on two other tracks aside from Happy People: the album’s centrepiece Janice at the Hotel Bar, about a grandma offering advice to a younger lady to ‘make a good life’; and album closer Living The Dream, a gorgeous tune about ‘the heartaches, the big breaks, the wrong turns, the mistakes’ which all form part of life. It bookends the album nicely and it’s good to end on a high note.

Hillary Lindsey was in the room for reminiscin’ song The Days (‘make em count’) and The Faker, a stark acoustic ballad expertly strummed and featuring the rhyme of ‘sceptre/jester’ (Hillary’s the best in town and has been nominated for the Songwriter award at the ACMs. She may well beat Josh Osborne, Ashley Gorley, Hardy and Shane McAnally.)

Chris Stapleton (nominated for Male and Entertainer at the ACMs) is found on The Dream because his song The Devil Always Made Me Think Twice was a cut on it before it appeared on Starting Over. Hailey’s version is in a lower key (B minor) and is produced with a louder arrangement than Chris’ version. As well as Maren Morris, whose tone she shares, Hailey’s voice reminds me of Natalie Maines duetting with Kacey Musgraves, with vulnerability and power, as on the vocalised middle section of the bluesy afternoon drinkin’ triple-time song Red Wine and Blue, which I hope someone covers. It’s a singer’s song.

In fact, all of these songs are ripe for covering. I love the perky pair of Dream, Girl and All The Cool Girls, both of which have FM radio-friendly choruses that Harry Styles and Miley Cyrus are putting out now. Conversely, Loose Strings (given to her by, among others, Brent Cobb) is a break-up song where the vocal is right up front in the mix and Hailey’s voice teeters on sobriety, full of character.

The melody of Heartland (‘you gotta let your heart land’) reminds me of Kelsea Ballerini which makes sense as Forest Whitehead, Kelsea’s main collaborator for her first records, was in the room to write a song about being ‘on the rocks…pulling double shifts…waking up alone’.

As for the five new tunes, I love How Far Can It Go. It was written by Hailey, Hilary Lindsey and Nicolle Galyon (who runs the Songs & Daughters publishing house). Handily for a throwback song, they get a 90s icon, Trisha Yearwood, to sing about a time in the 90s when story songs were all over the radio. And fiddle, too: we get two bars of fiddle at the top of the song and a pair of teenage lovers who ‘are about to find out how far they can go’. It’s immediately evocative and leaps out of the stereo thanks to the production of Jake Gear and Hailey herself.

How To Break A Heart is a proper songwriter’s song, a list of ways to disappoint someone’s expectations. As you’d expect it’s full of humour: ‘don’t call back’ after a wonderful night; ‘put a diamond on her hand then call up your best man’. As with the Highwomen, the middle eight is sung in unison with three voices singing the same part: ‘What goes around comes back again, karma’s a bitch!’ With a banjo and some pedal steel in the back, as well as a vocalised outro to bellow along to, this is a country song and helps position Hailey as a breakout star who can slot into Miranda’s place in music should the Texan prioritise her marriage and her dogs over her music.

I would advise Little Big Town to take Hailey as a support act on their next visit to the UK. One day, like Kacey Musgraves, Hailey Whitters will have her name in the biggest font on the ticket. Remember the name, listen to The Dream.

Country Jukebox Jury EP: Carly Pearce – 29

February 19, 2021

Carly is a Big Machine artist who almost fell at the first hurdle before her number one smash Every Little Thing put her on the radio. Her work with producer busbee brought pop and country together in a digestible package. I saw her perform Show Me Around on a livestream and reckon this takes her to the next level. It’s a song dedicated to her late producer and imagines heaven as his ‘brand new place’ which will one day host Carly to ‘pick back up’ their relationship. Even without the context it’s a wonderful song and will comfort many people who have lost loved ones, especially in the last year.

To lose a friend is bad enough; to lose a marriage in the same year is extremely wretched. At the moment Carly is on the radio with the single that promotes the 29 project. Next Girl is a warning to the next lady who falls in love with Michael Ray. The seven tracks create a whole which follows the long break-up album tradition pioneered by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, and extends into the present day with Sam Smith, Taylor Swift and Adele.

Should’ve Known Better is a companion to Every Little Thing – the song is in the same key and has the same touches of guitar – while on the funky Liability (lie ability, liability – it’s a country song), Michael Ray does not come across well at all. The gentle and Swiftian Messy has verses full of cigarettes, little black dresses, mascara stains, Cabernet and regrettable texts, and a chorus which outlines how ‘moving on…ain’t always gonna be a clean break’.

Day One, where Matt Ramsey of Old Dominion (who gave The One That Got Away to sleazebag Michael Ray) was in the room, sounds like a journal entry or therapy. Carly lists the landmarks in getting over Michael Ray, from not needing to numb her pain with alcohol to seeing a new guy after a month of heartbreak. The tenor matches that of Carly’s number one duet with Lee Brice, I Hope You’re Happy Now.

The title track has fiddle in its third bar, then two fiddles in the middle, which soundtrack a melancholic story – Carly’s story – of how ‘you’re supposed to find yourself’ and ‘stop calling your mum for help’ and get a mortgage and settle down and so on. The listener knows the story because country music loves its couples and looks kindly on those for whom love doesn’t work out.

Perhaps the most pertinent message about the song came from my friend Laura Cooney, who also became ‘a Miss to a Mrs then the other way around’ while writing for Entertainment Focus, which is part of the Destination Country collective. It’s a song of strength and one that Carly will sing with gusto in a live sphere. Once again, Josh Osborne and Shane McAnally help the singer tell her story.

29 ought to bring thousands more fans to the church of Carly, who really does have one of the best voices in country music. Young divorcees aren’t really catered to in pop music – the world’s biggest song is about a failed high school romance – so this is a welcome project.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Lainey Wilson – Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’

February 19, 2021

Lainey Wilson sounds country. Like Jordan Davies and Willie Jones, she is from Louisiana.  She’s less likely to cross over into pop music, as Faith Hill or Carrie Underwood have done, although with Morgan Wallen having a number one album, everything is possible.

She’s signed to Jason Aldean’s label Broken Bow and this is another Jay Joyce production, so it’ll be rocky and rootsy (roocky?) even before the needle goes onto the record. You can catch her at the Grand Ole Opry on February 20 playing some of the tunes. Every one of the tracks is a Lainey Wilson composition, with the usual mix of top writers helping out.

‘They say I’m where the party is’ opens LA, on which Lainey corrects the assumption that it means Los Angeles; it means Louisiana. There’s more harmonica, talk about small towns and a loop that is impossible to resist. The line ‘Joplin meets Naomi Judd’ may be the best on the album.

The record begins with a bang, a few hard hits of percussion before Neon Diamonds, the song in which Lainey asks a man to be her ‘man in black’ under the proviso that they get ‘hitched on whiskey vows and exchanging drunk “I do”s.’ It’s a country honky-tonker in the Jay Joyce style: the algorithm will throw up Eric Church, Ashley McBryde, Brothers Osborne and Brandy Clark, so if you like any of those acts (all produced by Jay), you will love Lainey.

Sunday Best, which has a proper funky harmonica/spoken-word fading outro, is a funny tale about skipping church because of a hangover (‘I don’t feel like hallelujah’ is a great line) and is full of personality. Like Ashley, Lainey seems to be a drinkin’ and smokin’ country rock chick, as shown on Pipe: Luke Dick, a Miranda Lambert acolyte, helps out on a song which is as rocking as you can imagine for a Luke Dick composition.

Casey Beathard helped write the smart WWDD, which I think was my introduction to Lainey’s work. Since it’s impossible not to love Dolly Parton, this will be a winner and I am sure Dolly, who is Lainey’s ‘go-to compass’, will give this her blessing. Straight Up Sideways is a party song, opening with a proper rock riff and helps its audience ‘take your blue collar off’. As she lists the ways to get drunk (which sounds like a really fun brainstorming session in the writers room), it reminds me of Gretchen Wilson, who doesn’t get the credit she deserves for teaching us that gals can party too.

Lainey can also do soft and slow, as on Dirty Looks, which sounds like a lost Lambert smash. ‘Dirty looks good on you’ is the kicker, and it also seems true to Lainey’s life. Keeping Bars In Business is, as well as being a great title, a proper Nashville song, full of sense impressions and vignettes of people who frequent bars. ‘Someone’s crying and someone’s kissing’ begins a top-drawer chorus which proves Lainey’s writing talent. This will be one of the songs she would play if she played a writers’ round for C2C.

Some songs put Lainey’s life in a song. I like Rolling Stone (‘like a feather in the wind I can be gone’) with a mandolin plucking an A minor chord for the final minute of a mood piece. The album’s title track is one of many which reference a cigarette and there’s a nice bit of self-awareness in the hook: ‘Even I can’t believe I’m sayin’ what I’m thinkin’.

Jonathon Singleton is one of the writers behind current smash Things A Man Oughta Know, a few stanzas of advice in 7/4 time on how to live a country way of life. Small Town, Girl (note the comma) is bluesy and also full of advice, which explodes into a fab chorus warning of the dangers of life in a place where ‘word gets out by word of mouth’. 

Half of the tracks on the album were ones I played immediately after hearing them, such is their quality and attitude. I buy into what Lainey is offering – need I say she sings with passion, conviction and pitch – and I hope thousands more do too.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Florida Georgia Line – Life Rolls On

February 12, 2021

No matter what I say about this album, it won’t stop Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line (who are on Big Machine) being millionaires, with their own line of whiskey and a bar on Broadway in Nashville. Cruise must have brought thousands of blokes into country music, reversing the Taylor Swift effect and making country music muscular. Along with Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and Sam Hunt, Nashville made stars of guys with smirks and a Southern charm.

With Morgan Wallen caught being very stupid, the whole era has abruptly ended; Luke Bryan is about to star in another series of American Idol, Sam Hunt spent five years making an album which COVID-19 didn’t allow him to tour and Aldean is stuck making the same song over and over again while his wife stirs her own controversy with her sympathies to confederate flags. Rolling Stone magazine called her a ‘country-wife political conspiracist’, naming Brian Kelley’s wife as kin.

All this infighting has flared up and FGL will explore solo projects this year. We’ve had the horrible song Undivided which Tyler sang with label mate Tim McGraw and we’ve heard much of Life Rolls On before. Joey Moi was busy helping make Morgan Wallen a number one recording artist so Chris Young’s guy Corey Crowder was on hand to pilot this fifth album.

I was immensely disappointed with the 6 Pack EP from last year. I repeat here what I wrote back then.

Beer:30 is a joke. I think Tyler knows it’s a joke: ‘It’s beer (pause) thirty and I’m (pause) thirsty’. His delivery is lower in pitch than usual and this is what country sounds like when it goes all rap. Thomas Rhett did this with Vacation.

Ain’t Worried Bout It is a Peach Pickers song, or at least Ben Hayslip and Dallas Davidson from the collective. This means it’s a down home southern boy tune with trucks and the Lord and Friday night and coolers. Plus, ‘my baby’s here’. The chorus rocks and the vocals are sweet. After all those Joey Moi guitars it’s synths and beds for FGL now.

US Stronger is a patriotic anthem that arrives into the marketplace as Joe Biden is preparing his campaign against the President. Without discussing politics, FGL blether on about America. US Stronger is what FGL sound like when writing a Shane McAnally song.

Shane worked on Second Guessing, the song that resulted from FGL’s appearance on Songland, the NBC show which is live A&R on TV. On the show you see the original song performance, the reworking and the final product. Griffen Palmer presents a slow acoustic driven song which Shane applauds when the kicker comes in the chorus: ‘I ain’t spent one second guessing’. Shane in fact gets angry at a hook. We know it’s a good song – Griffen also wrote Keith Urban’s new song Polaroid – and the guys from Songland just punch it up.

The reworked version rejigs the opening lines and speeds up the delivery to make it sound like an FGL song, or FGL as written by Shane McAnally. It’s a wedding song that is perfect for two men who used to cruise and who now want to dedicate their lives to their wives.

Countryside, meanwhile, is an outside write from three writers who I guess are on FGL’s imprint Tree Vibez. It puts an acoustic guitar loop over an electronic drum loop. ‘Downtown looks a little busy’ so let’s go to the countryside. It sounds like Thomas Rhett and we get ‘dixie cup/ giddy up’ as a fun rhyme.

Since the release of the first six tracks there have been three more. Long Live, New Truck and Life Rolls On are all forgettable, the first two are truly execrable and worse than Beer:30. The title track reaches for the status of a carpe diem song but we know about how we have to seize the moment and live like you were dying.

Canaan Smith co-writes Good To Me and Long Time Comin’. The former is a peppy four-chord song about how ‘God’s been good to me’ for bestowing blessings on them, like sunsets; the latter is a Backstreet Boys-type ballad about wanting to ‘make up for lost kisses’ that is surgically targeted at grown-up Backstreet Boys fans.

There is also an interlude, just one rather than four and instrumental rather than comedic as it was on their last album. I can only imagine it is separated out so people don’t skip Ain’t Worried About It when it comes on a Spotify playlist – it should really be called Intro To Ain’t Worried About It. This is just a reflection of how people listen to the music.

Hard To Get To Heaven is set over the same two chords as Niko Moon’s track Good Time, but the formula works again. ‘You loving me is a miracle’ is boyfriend country slow jam from the bros that is deathless filler or, in modern parlance, it’s skippable. Life Looks Good (‘sitting next to you’) sounds like a Blake Shelton album filler track from ten years ago, though that doesn’t make it bad. It’s written to a formula and the formula works.

Hardy had a hand in most of the last FGL album and, with a lot of his efforts going into his album A Rock (which is much better than Life Rolls On), he helps out on two tracks. Always Gonna Love You is a list of things the guys will love like a woman attached to a lethally catchy chorus (classic HARDY), while Eyes Closed also has Ross Copperman on writing credits. Ross is best known as Brett Eldredge’s guy and this has slow-jam vibes. Like Sam Hunt’s famous song, FGL compare bodies and back roads; indeed Sam sang of how he was ‘driving with my eyes closed’ so this is effectively a pastiche.

As for I Love My Country, it’s 100% Short Skirt Weather by Kane Brown, to such an extent that the writers of that song are credited here too. It’s smart for FGL, like boybands, to take a break after the fifth album. One Direction lost a member for their fifth then were allowed to break for solo projects. If you look at FGL as a boyband who make country music, you will understand the phenomenon better than looking at them as a country act.

Which of BK or T-Hub will be Niall Horan or Harry Styles? It’ll be fun to find out.

Country Jukebox Jury EP: Alex Hall – Six Strings

February 12, 2021

Alex is a guy from Georgia who is beloved in town. He launched his EP with a gig at the Bluebird Café with his good friends Kassi Ashton and Tenille Townes, as well as collaborator Brad Tursi whose band Old Dominion work with Shane McAnally. Shane runs Monument records, to which Alex is signed. Labelmates include Teddy Robb, Caitlyn Smith and Walker Hayes.

The EP includes tracks which have been dripfed over recent months. John Osborne plays a solo on Jealous Love, on which Alex is ‘holding you closer than a high school grudge’; Vince Gill guests on the gorgeous Never Seen The World, which sounds like a Charlie Worsham song with its tender vocal and protagonist whose eyes are opened by the one he loves; and Brad Paisley does his thing on the wedding waltz Last One To Leave. I’ve often said everything sounds better when sung by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, and I would add that everything sounds bolo with a Brad Paisley solo.

The smooth Other End of the Phone – on which Alex wants to pop over and hang with his lady – spent two years on the shelf as Alex signed a record deal on the strength of the song and waited (and waited) for it to get out into the world. I love it a lot, especially Brad’s guitar solo and the groove that is very Old Dominion-y.

Heart Shut, written with and with vocals from Tenille, outlines how she ‘looks happy now’ she’s with a new guy, even as she drinks the same drink she did when Alex was with her. Yet it is ‘hard to keep my heart shut’ so he can’t go over and say hello. Tenille, on her part, looks over and feels exactly the same. What a smart idea for a duet and it’s sung very tenderly.

As for Runs in the Family, Alex and Kassi sing in unison about how family will ‘defend your blood even if they ain’t right’. The payoff is that love brings more than just one person into your life, so this is a song for loved ones similar to More Hearts Than Mine by Ingrid Andress.

Remember the name: Alex Hall.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Aaron Lee Tasjan – Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!

February 5, 2021

The title is perhaps a nod to the Judy Garland album on Broadway Judy! Judy! Judy! This one begins with a song lamenting how hard it is to find Sunday women. This is music from East Nashville, where the hipsters go and is equal parts roots, rock, power-pop and California west coast chillout.

The first side of the album is as much pop and rock as it is roots. Up All Night is a heck of a pop song, with an unforgettable melody that someone like James Mercer from The Shins would write. The production is a homage to Jeff Lynne of ELO, which is always a sign of a muso. Computer of Love is Nilssonish, melodic and uses the word ‘avatar’ in the chorus.

Beatle influence peppers the album. There are some sumptuous diminished chords on Now You Know. Not That Bad is a musician’s tale about creating a song, which is very meta, set to some mellow acoustic guitar. Another Lonely Day is about ten Paul McCartney songs blended together, with some multi-layered harmonies over some finger-picking. The final chord is gorgeous as well.

Don’t Overthink It sounds like a George Harrison song, with the quavers in the bass and wide open chorus. John Lennon would write a lyric like ‘cartoon music for plastic people’, coupled with a middle eight where he repeats ‘are you losing your mind?’ melodically. The song’s production, guitar solo and chords remind me of Sondre Lerche, another guy who knows his pop heritage.

Feminine Walk combines Nilsson and McCartney, with a drizzle of Gerry Rafferty, and namechecks Spotify, where I listened to this album, and rock stars: ‘Bowie and Bolan and Jagger, Grace Jones, Joan Jett’. Aaron positions himself as ‘the metropolitan Conway Twitty’ but I’ll listen a few more times to work out what point he’s making about his perambulatory style.

Ultimately this sounds like a singular artist condensing his influences into something novel and fun, even if it can come across as homage or pastiche (note the panning in the production of the power-poppy Dada Bois). I think I will listen to this album all year, so well done to Aaron for a comprehensive piece of work. It’s only country because it’s made in Nashville but I am sure many country acts will borrow these songs.