Country Jukebox Jury EP: Counting Crows – Butter Miracle Suite One

May 23, 2021

May 2021 saw five EPs offering different spins on contemporary music from Nashville. Take your pick from the trad-pop of Dillon Carmichael, the Chesney-Aldean rockin’ country of Alexander Ludwig, the flawless roots-rock of Counting Crows, the Sheeran-pop of Ross Copperman and the radio-friendly unit-shifting country of Jordan Davis.

The Berkeley band’s debut album August and Everything After from 193 was produced by T-Bone Burnett. Back then, seven years before T-Bone helped produce the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou, Americana as a genre didn’t exist; it was called modern rock and encompassed every quirky, soulful, idiosyncratic band with guitars. In fact, Mr Jones (a top five song on American radio) didn’t properly chart because it wasn’t available as a physical single because the music industry were trying to entice people to spend $20 on an album, not $5 on a single. Then came iTunes and the emancipation of music.

Their last release was 2014, which was their first album of original music since 2008, so apart from two albums of covers Adam Duritz hasn’t written a great deal. Until now. In 2021, Counting Crows are their own entity. No longer locked into a deal with Geffen, whose money helped get them to American ears, they can release music when and where they want, and in whatever format. Butter Miracle is a suite of four pieces of music where each song melds into each other. I love Elevator Boots, a song about being on the road and playing rock’n’roll shows, something Counting Crows have done since about 1990. It has rootsy verses telling the story of Bobby and Alice, with an explosive and immediate chorus.

The Tall Grass uses a drum loop, over which the band create a comfortable mood which sets Adam Duritz’s lyrics, which include nouns like rifle, rabbit, clover and grassland, as well as the repeated statements ‘Can you see me? and ‘I don’t know why’. Adam’s dissociative disorder informs his songwriting, which has always been about uncertainty.

Angel of 14th Street includes the line ‘when she dies a ghost is born’ while ‘the king is screaming highway songs’. This is Duritz as Dylan, a familiar storytelling mien for him; in a different more folky arrangement this could have been a tune from the early days of the band, back when they were The Himalayans. The 2021 iteration of the band are full of harmonies, fortissimo trumpets, guitar lines and Adam yelling ‘Wake up!’ like Marvin Gaye and singing about angels, another common motif in his work. Perhaps he’s been checking out his old material and digesting it into one song.

Then there’s the bar-band bonanza of Bobby and the Rat-Kings, which will get thinkpieces because old man Adam (he’s 56) namechecks Tinder and Reddit, tools of a generation which ‘hasn’t even got a name of its own’ and for whom music helps them be comfortable in their own identity. I like the way Counting Crows sound very American: harmony like The Byrds, country like The Band, rock like the Heartbreakers, together in arms like The E Street Band.

They remain underrated only because they have only put out so few albums relative to their peers. It is so good to hear Adam showing us his latest homework, though he’s more likely to be cooking on Instagram these days.

Country Jukebox Jury EPs: Dillon Carmichael and Alexander Ludwig

May 23, 2021

May 2021 saw five EPs offering different spins on contemporary music from Nashville. Take your pick from the trad-pop of Dillon Carmichael (below), the flawless roots-rock of Counting Crows, the Chesney-Aldean rockin’ country of Alexander Ludwig (below), the Sheeran-pop of Ross Copperman and the radio-friendly unit-shifting country of Jordan Davis.

Dillon Carmichael – Hot Beer EP

I was addicted to the title track of this EP: three chords and an unwillingness to get back with an old fling. Big Truck was written with Jessi Alexander and David Lee Murphy, and the influence of the latter is clear thanks to the chugging rhythm and the song effectively being a rewrite of She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy, although Dillon has lots of other qualities and gifts.

Ray Fulcher, who will always be linked with his mate Luke Combs, pops up in the credits of the groovy and catchy love song Since You’ve Been In It (‘My world’s been better’). The equally addictive Sawin Logs has been out for a few months and showcases Dillon’s croon via lyrics which include the rhyme ‘hickory bundle/all kinds of trouble’. It’s filth flarn filth: ‘I’ve got wood and she’s sawin logs’ is a brilliant way of implying that his beloved is a passion killer.

The EP is intriguing because production is shared by Dann Huff and Jon Pardi; Dillon is on Riser House Records which put out the recent album by Ronnie Milsap. The midtempo leaving song Somewhere She Ain’t, written by Dillon with Jessi and the Peach Picker Ben Hayslip, sounds like a Jon Pardi song produced by Dann Huff, with some spacious guitars (and a patented Huff solo in the middle of the song) and a lovesick narrator who sounds in pain. He can’t even go to Carolina ‘cos that’s her middle name’. What a palaver, expertly told.

On Lucky Man, Dillon counts his blessings in the way that Luke Combs has done before him. It’s a trend but at least it isn’t ‘hey baby girl let’s have sex in my truck by the river’. The country of 1994 is back, although it never really went away.

Dillon needs to hit more ears and I hope to see him come to the UK in 2022.

Alexander Ludwig EP

Alexander Ludwig’s self-titled EP has been produced by Kurt and Tully, two of Jason Aldean’s band of merry men. The pair wrote Summer Crazy – basically a rewrite of Kenny Chesney’s Summertime – with Alexander, whose day job is an actor who worked on Bad Boys For Life and is the lead on the show Vikings. But Nashville embraces performers so long as they throw their heart and soul into their music; indeed, what is Jason Aldean if not a muscular country character whose job is to make money for Broken Bow, which is the label releasing Alexander’s EP?

The other four tunes are outside writes, two from David Lee Murphy and two from Brad Tursi, among others, so we’re in the realm of Chesney/Old Dominion rocking popping country. Love Today is a fist-puncher about beers, optimism and seizing the day. How It Rolls is a gorgeous description of how true love feels: ‘Like honey off of your tongue…Like sunrise into moonlight’. There’s even an outro.

16 minutes of bliss continues with Malibu Blue, another song which compares a girl to California (‘the brightest star on the boulevard’), and Sunset Town, a middle of the dirt road tune on which Alexander imagines life without his woman over a Jason Aldean-type production.

The main impression of Alexander’s work is Kenny Chesney singing Jason Aldean songs, so if you like that, there’s much to enjoy on the EP.

Country Jukebox Jury EPs: Ross Copperman and Jordan Davis

May 23, 2021

May 2021 saw five EPs offering different spins on contemporary music from Nashville. Take your pick from the flawless roots-rock of Counting Crows, the trad-pop of Dillon Carmichael, the Chesney-Aldean rockin’ country of Alexander Ludwig, the Sheeran-pop of Ross Copperman and the radio-friendly unit-shifting country of Jordan Davis.

Ross Copperman – Somewhere There’s a Light On EP

Ross was briefly marketed as a Radio 2 middle-of-the-road singer-songwriter – his hits includes As I Choke and All She Wrote – before he found his true calling as a top songwriter and producer in Nashville. His CV includes production for Keith Urban, Dierks Bentley, Eli Young Band, Jake Owen and Darius Rucker. He has so far written 26 country number ones, which sounds absurd until you see that Ashley Gorley, his great mate, has about 50; Ross’s chart-toppers include Love Ain’t by Eli Young Band, Living by Dierks Bentley, Break On Me by Keith Urban and the Blake & Gwen pair Happy Anywhere and Nobody But You.

Ross is best known as Brett Eldredge’s wingman and if you like soulful pop music there will be much to enjoy on his EP. We’ve heard much of it over the last few months: Somewhere There’s a Light On is the title track, written with Ross’s mates Josh Osborne and Shane McAnally; buried within the poppy production there’s a country song but that’s not where Ross is pitching himself. The same criticism can be made of Holdin’ You (Copperman-McAnally-Osborne again), a song of devotion in the face of parental disdain and being unaware that ‘the world could be ending’.

Sam Hunt is a good analogy for what Ross is trying to do, though the EP as a whole steers more into the messianic pop of Coldplay or One Republic. Opening song Not Believe skips along like a Ryan Tedder composition and mentions ‘something out there bigger than us’. It’s about love and stuff, set to a plodding but commercially appealing track.

Electricity (‘most people would call it love but this feeling is more than that’) and Therapy (‘I feel like I’m in a video game’) both sound like Ed Sheeran because Ed wrote them with Ross. In the same way that Ross Copperman 1.0 wanted to be Chris Martin or Liam Gallagher, Ross 2.0 is desperate to be Ed Sheeran, standing on a stage in front of 90,000 lights singing how ‘your love is my therapy, ay!’

Jordan Davis – Buy Dirt EP

For something closer to country, there is a snatch of John Prine that begins Jordan Davis’ new EP. Blow Up Your TV is used as an intro to Buy Dirt, a track written with Jordan’s brother Jacob and featuring Luke Bryan. That’s useful because it sounds like a Luke Bryan song, a passing of wisdom from elder to junior: ‘Do what you love but call it work…Add a few limbs to your family tree.’ ‘Buy dirt’ means buy some land, and is a bumper sticker or T-shirt waiting to make Jordan some money. We can’t do that here because the Queen owns all the dirt; maybe ‘go to the Land Registry’ would be a UK translation.

Need To Not and Lose You both sound like country radio in 2021: middle of the dirt road mush about the perils of getting back with an ex and the joys of fidelity respectively. Brett Young does this but without Jordan’s Louisiana rasp, while Dan + Shay share producer Paul DiGiovanni with Jordan. It’ll be perfect for the 18-34 demographic who will see him support Kane Brown later this year.

This eight-track set is somewhere between an EP and a mini-album which is united by the sonic touches of DiGiovanni and Jordan’s impassioned vocals of Jordan who mostly preaches about the joys of love. I loved Jordan’s debut single, the catchy smash Singles You Up but I found his debut album a bit samey on the whole.

He sure can sing, as demonstrated on his latest smash Almost Maybes, which is three chords and the truth about love and stuff. It’s another philosophical country toe-tapper which works on the radio, as befits a song co-written with A-Listers Jesse Frasure and Hillary Lindsey.

Drink Had Me is another jam which lodges in your frontal lobe and won’t move from it. Luke Bryan or Morgan Wallen or Brett Eldredge could have done this funky pop-country meet-cute, doing that ‘break up make up thing’. As with that song, Trying is also a Davis-DiGiovanni-Gorley-Weisband composition, this time a song of devotion, climbing mountains and ‘fighting’ to control one’s demons: ‘I might never love you right but I’ll die trying.’ Oof, that’s vulnerable and relatable.

I Still Smoked is another song with the touch of the Luke Combses, a midtempo reminiscin song painted by Jordan with A-Listers Randy Montana and Jonathan Singleton. Eminem is on the stereo and there’s football on TV and Jordan wanted to seize the day in his jeep with his girl ‘and I still smoked’. It’s country music, a three-minute movie with real drums.

Later in the year Jordan is due to become a dad for a second time, so mazaltov to him. He seems friendly and grateful to do what he loves for a living; it’s the family business as his uncle also wrote songs for a living and gave Tracy Lawrence two of his big hits.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Adam Sanders – What If I’m Right

May 23, 2021

Out on the Spend a Buck label, the debut album from Adam Sanders is like Jason Aldean if he’s told to turn his amps down a bit, or Luke Bryan if he turns his amps up. Adam’s success as a songwriter comes from a pair of smashes: Ain’t Worth the Whisky for Cole Swindell and Hell of a Night for Dustin Lynch. As with many writers, he has stepped up to launch a solo career which should bring him the same success as Cole and Dustin, in a fair and just world.

The album What If I’m Right opens with All About That, which is country as the day is long and kicks off 13 tracks of solid contemporary country sung in a high tenor voice. There are echoes of Luke Bryan in Just Need One and of Jason Aldean in both the toe-tapping title track and So Good At That, where he wonders why his ex is making it tough for him to move on. Burn The Stars is an impressive power ballad with a lovely image where the stars are like candles, burning to the end of its life. I also love the rhyme of ‘hallelujah/ pull me to ya’ on Good Way To Go.

Adam writes all 13 tracks on this album, with some A-List help on My Kinda People: the superstar A-List team of Jessi Alexander, Will Weatherly and Cary Barlowe, who wrote the fast riser Famous Friends and is probably reaping his investments from the proceeds of American Honey. My Kinda People is instantly poppy and mixes pedal steel and dobro with guitar and drum loops, over which Adam sings of a clash between rural and urban. ‘A y’all in your drawl…dirt under your nails…whiskey in a glass’ and that’s country bingo!

The underrated songwriter Adam Craig helps out another Adam on Make Em Wanna Change, the pre-released smash from the album that praises the ability of a woman to put a man on the right path. It’s a shame that Blake Shelton stole Adam’s thunder by pre-releasing his track Bible Verses. Adam’s tune Bible Versus uses the same play on words as Adam pits church against the bar; the Bible gets a namecheck in Daddy Jesus Earnhardt, ‘from Talladega all the way to Daytona’.

Do What We Do, which was my introduction to Adam, is a country boy’s hymn to rural life, while the pretty I Got Roots is a morose breakup song where Adam finds comfort in the land. This is country music for rural folk which should also gain an audience abroad as an authentic representation of the American South.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: The Steel Woods – All of Your Stones

May 23, 2021

The band’s third album opens with the atmospheric noise of a truck being turned off. The first track, Out of the Blue, explodes with some power chords and crash cymbals and all is well in the country-rock world. ‘The birds are singing a new tune’ sings Wes Bayliss. The guitar work has been performed by Jason Cope, who passed away after the album was finished and was Jamey Johnson’s longtime guitarist. Anyone who knows hard or country rock will know the guy known as Rowdy, but it’s a new name to me.

There’s not much to add about the music beyond it’s a rock album by guys who could get a few hundred dollars in tips if they played at 6pm in a Broadway bar in Nashville. You’re Cold twists and turns impressively, driven by Wes’ bass riffs and finishing with some elegant strings; You Never Came Home opens with some piano chords and becomes a sort of Soundgarden ballad that has never been in fashion or gone out of fashion; ‘the wind cuts like razors’ is a great line on Ole Pal, where Wes is down on his luck. I love Aiming For You, which is soft and smooth and includes some gorgeous reversed guitars.

The title track closes the album: ‘I built a house with all of your stones/ I kept from all the ones you have thrown’ is the key lyric, underscored by a typical country-rock triple-time shuffle. Beware of the false ending. The album’s second side opens with the seven-minute centrepiece. I Need You features Ashley Monroe and some squealing guitar skills from Rowdy that remind me of all the great guitarists of the last 50 years. It’s a good place to start on an album full of great tunes.

What a shame we can’t see Jason play them live but Kyle aka Trigger from Saving Country Music, who called the album an opus, told me that the replacement guitarist is more than able to step into the breach.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Blake Shelton – Body Language

May 23, 2021

In the 1990s it was Tim McGraw whose voice and face made his record label squillions. In the 2000s Blake Shelton followed the formula to the letter: a county boy with cool hair, Blake married a country star and communicated joy, love and pain in three-minute crooned movies.

Tim starred in an actual movie, Country Strong, in which he was unrecognisable, like Garth Brooks playing at being a pop crooner on the Chris Gaines project. For his part, Blake took a deal with NBC to sit in a chair which turned around when he pushed a button and, for ten years, was Mr Country Music to middle America. He got divorced from Miranda, got paired up with a divorcee whom he met on The Voice and lived happily ever after while putting out new product every year.

Blake Shelton will not be as fondly cherished as his fellow Okie Garth Brooks, however, or even Tim McGraw. For 20 years, since his enormous debut hit Austin, Blake has released 12 albums of variable quality, writing some compositions but choosing to adopt an old-fashioned way of plucking tunes off the shelves of Music Row. Many of them – Boys Round Here, the Michael Buble tune Home, Hillbilly Bone, Sangria, Sure Be Cool If You Did, God’s Country – are evergreen and keep Blake on the radio just as Live Like You Were Dying and Something Like That keep Tim in residual cheques.

What happens to an act who dominated the genre, as Blake did in the early 2010s, but is now in his mid-forties and looking to spend more time on the farm with his stepkids and less time on the road with his back catalogue? We know what happens, because Luke Bryan did it last year: step into Adult Contemporary County and perform music which befits your age.

The title track is a sex jam of that genre, written by The Swon Brothers who provide harmonies on a song that shares a chord progression and key with the AC jam Human, from the Human League. Two-chord jam Now I Don’t, written by Hardy and Jessi Alexander (who can be heard on backing vocals), also sees a change between the Blake of the past and the Blake of the present; there’s a nice use of the word ‘pedestal’ in the second verse. Jessi is also a writer of the funky Monday Mornin Missin You, where Blake sings how he feels ‘bulletproof’ during weekend drinking sessions but will return to feeling lonely on Monday.

Two years ago, Blake was less keen to put out albums than singles, so let us treat Body Language as his twelfth collection of individual songs. The first two singles had him singing ‘my home’s wherever your heart is’ on the gorgeous Happy Anywhere and ‘your love is money, can make a man feel rich on minimum wage’ on Minimum Wage, which began ‘playing for pennies on a dive bar stage’ and speaking the truth over three chords. The final track is Bible Verses, which shows ‘Serious Blake’ come to terms with his faith.

The big names justify their appearance fee between the brackets. Nicolle Galyon and Jesse Frasure will get big cheques this summer for Minimum Wage and Craig Wiseman will gain plaudits for Corn, a songwriting exercise which praises the humble kernel.

Josh Osborne and Shane McAnally (Blake’s fellow NBC star thanks to his turn on Songland) are joined by Ross Copperman for The Flow and by Brad from Old Dominion for the sunny Making It Up As You Go. The former is written from the perspective of a fortysomething guy remembering to seize the day as he gets older, ‘wondering how much brass is left on that ring’, the latter is a fun meet-cute where Blake sings of drunkenly trying to pick up a lady, possibly heeding his advice to go with the flow and not have a plan. He is also drinking on Neon Time, a two-step in the sand.

The Peach Pickers are on board too. Dallas Davidson and renowned writer Casey Beathard offer Whatcha Doin Tomorrow (‘bout 12.01am’!), which has the same chord progression and feel of Jon Pardi’s new smash Tequila Little Time. Ben Hayslip provides The Girl Can’t Help It, which is another in his catalogue of toe-tappin’ two-chord jams like Gimme That Girl where the girl here is ‘bendin those words like the Mississippi River’. Simple but effective.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Alan Jackson – Where Have You Gone

May 14, 2021

After Travis Tritt brought out an album this month, his fellow member of the Class of ’89 (which also counts Clint Black and Garth Brooks as members) Alan Jackson has done so. Randy Travis arrived at the head of the ‘neo-traditionalists’ who brought back whatever the Nashville record labels thought they were bringing back. It was a marketing tool to convince people that these guys were worth listening to. Alan has quietly become the man who keeps the trad flame alive, and at 62 only works when he needs to work. Bob Harris tells the story that at the CMA Awards he dangled a mic in front of him asking Alan if he had any messages for his UK fans. Alan virtually spat in Bob’s face.

Among Alan’s 26 number ones are Don’t Rock the Jukebox and Chattachoochee, both enormous smashes of the early 1990s, and It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere, the beach jam which got to number 17 on the Hot 100 and ruled 2003. He had number ones aplenty in the 1990s and 2000s, including the 9/11 catharsis of award-munching Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning) though make time for the Phil Vassar song Right On The Money, a 1998 number one, and the Zac Brown Band duet As She’s Walking Away. In 2017, he followed Randy Travis, Garth Brooks, Reba, Ronnie Milsap and Kenny Rogers into the Country Music Hall of Fame. His citation noted that his songs ‘are marked by humility, humour and eloquent simplicity’.

Where Have You Gone was launched with a slew of pre-released nuggets including a title track which pointedly asks where country music traditionalism has gone. Things That Matter sounds like a Song of the Year from 1995, with some gentle fiddle providing some harmonic counterpoint. Alan is a man who uses twang and heartfelt lyrics, which in the 1990s were country’s main sonic signposts, as they had been in Alan’s childhood growing up in Georgia in the era of Chet Atkins’ Nashville Sound.

Several songs were written for members of his family: You’ll Always Be My Baby and I Do address his daughters, the latter sounding like a first dance; the hymnal Where Her Heart Has Always Been is a memorial for Alan’s mum which could also work as an a cappella song; since his last album, Merle Haggard has passed away and so Alan dedicates That’s The Way Love Goes to him. Check out the glorious chorus which has Alan sing that old music ‘is never old but grows’.

Back begins with ‘tomatoes on the vine, elderberry wine’ and sounds like one of those fun songs in the neo-traditional movement. Accordingly, Alan is ‘bringing country back’ with a song that reminds me of Good Time, which contains tons of verses and tons of fiddle and twang. Beer:10 is similarly raucous, sounding like a Brad Paisley happy song amid the many about love and stuff. It also has the best fiddle solo on the album by Alan’s longtime touring violinist Ryan Joseph.

Conversely, Alan sounds stark and lonesome on Way Down in my Whiskey, a mood matched by the arrangement and produced by longtime collaborator Keith Stegall, who doesn’t change the formula that made Alan a superstar in the 1990s. Ditto I Was Tequila (‘she was champagne’) and on another track he is Livin on Empty. Yep, he used to be Livin on Love now he’s ‘lovin’ on fumes’.

The songtitles on the album sound like classic Alan Jackson titles: Where The Cottonwood Grows, I Can Be That Something, Write It In Red (‘Take out your lipstick’ he tells a woman on the point of leaving), Wishful Drinkin’, These songs are all of the highest quality, with traditional country instrumentation (including plenty of fiddle) and Alan’s legendary Hall of Fame voice.

The Boot and This Heart of Mine are both written by Alan’s nephew and songwriter Adam Wright. The former is set in a bar and takes the form of a guy opening his heart to the narrator. The harmonies create a depth in the arrangement that match the song’s emotion of simplicity. As for the latter, it’s as country as the day is long, a description of the narrator’s heart, battered and bruised but still able to be repaired. On the other hand, on Alan’s song Chain, he won’t ‘free my heart and break the chain…Though it hurts I can’t let go’. Well that’s one way of declaring universal love…

So Late So Soon was written by the great Daniel Tashian, among others, and his lush knowledge of melody (he recently worked with Burt Bacharach!) is a perfect fit for a country croon. I listened to it immediately after it finished, to savour the song which is very much a Chateaubriand. Ditto A Man Who Never Cries, which sees Alan look back on his wonderful life, full of ‘happy tears’ though he rarely shows emotion. His fans from 1991 will lap this up. The album closes with The Older I Get, about the importance of friendship and ‘when to just not give a damn’ about things. It was written by nephew Adam Wright and the brilliant Hayley Whitters, who might well join Alan on tour should the opportunity arise. I’d go.

I hope new fans are converted but everyone knows Alan, the guy who didn’t want the jukebox rocked and who learned a little about love down in Chattahoochee. The industry knows that along with Garth (who was more of a pan-American phenomenon), Alan defined what country music sounded like in the neo-traditional era before Shania and the Chicks. Like those three acts in that last sentence, and like Reba too, Alan is a legacy act who will always be praised even as young pretenders bring their programmed drums and hiphop cadences. Country music has many forms; many people prefer the one Alan Jackson offers.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Jack Ingram, Jon Randall and Miranda Lambert – The Marfa Tapes

May 7, 2021

It is so rare than a major-label release has consistency of songwriters. Usually Miranda Lambert works with a cornucopia of writers and producers: Luke Dick, the Love Junkies, Natalie Hemby, Brent Cobb, Ashley Monroe. Here her two buddies Jack Ingram and Jon Randall back her up with harmonies and guitars on every track. They’re like Peter, Paul and Mary.

The trio go on writing retreats in Marfa, Texas, population just under 2000, majority Latino/Tejano, founded as a water stop town for horses between a set of mountains and a national park in the Western bit of Texas that just out like a nose. The Marfa air is the fourth songwriter on this album, which seems to have been recorded directly onto tape (or a mixing console) with no overdubs and with ad-libs left in. Indeed, The Wind’s Just Gonna Blow is the name of one of the tracks, with either Jack or Jon pickin’ a rhythm and the trio singing of darkening skies, dust on the roads and gettin’ to moving on. ‘Bad times they all pass, for me they usually don’t’ is astonishingly vulnerable from a woman who used to be sold as Blake Shelton’s wife. The album closes with Amazing Grace (West Texas), which links the elements with an old hymn: sunsets, church bells and rainfall are all the work of the Lord.

Pre-released singles include opener In His Arms, methodical Am I Right or Amarillo and addictive stutter of Geraldene, which Elle King should cover. We know the album version of Tequila Does, with its shifting tempos, and it’s great to hear the demo version here.

The first line of Ghost has Miranda burning some jeans and there’s a lyric calling the addressee ‘the meanest man I’ve ever known’, ‘a shell of a man’. Is this a murder ballad or a chirpy kiss-off? If this were turned into a studio version it’d have a patented Jay Joyce sonic bed with minimal instrumentation, perhaps just a soft organ or pedal steel. In fact, he’d turn it into what we heard on the studio recording of Tin Man, which is also here in demo form.

Waxahachie includes words like ‘bourbon buzz’, ‘turnaround tempo’ and ‘gasoline, memories and nicotine’ (album title alert). It sounds like a song that could have been peppered up by a train beat, steel guitar and harmonies from session singers but here it’s Miranda ooh-oohing to an acoustic guitar. We’ll Always Have The Blues, the best song Willie Nelson’s never written, deserves an orchestra rather than just a whistle solo: a serenade from a jukebox, a slow dance between two people who cannot be together. Jack’s vocal is as crackly and warm as the sound of the hiss of the tape. Two-Step Down To Texas is the perkiest moment on the album, reminding everyone of the song All That’s Left from Miranda’s Platinum album. In the absence of a banjo or a mandolin, there’s another whistle solo. I hope this song gets fleshed out.

Jack takes the lead on the funky party song Homegrown Tomatoes, punctuated by Miranda’s chuckles. They rhyme the title with ‘little instigator’ as A-List writers are apt to do but this song is, by their own admission, about nothing at all, just a nod to Guy Clark who wrote a song of the same name. Jon’s tender croon leads the two-minute long breakup song Breaking A Heart, which asks for sympathy for the person doing the breaking up (‘I really do wish you were the one letting go’ ). He also takes the lead on Anchor, which is a proper country song full of metaphor: anchor, ‘salvation in the sweetest suicide’, going ‘to the other side’. Remember, this is the man who wrote that perky pop song Whiskey Lullaby, so I take it as a bleak tune.

Every release puts Miranda at the very vanguard of her generation: she’s less druggy than Kacey, less showbiz than Carrie, less flash in the pan than Gretchen Wilson. 15 years into a brilliant career, which has been aided by Jon and Jack, this is a quiet masterpiece. Let’s call it Miranda’s Nebraska, one for true fans rather than those who turn up in pink Stetson hats to bellow along about kerosene, gunpowder and lead. With especial apologies to Jack, Miranda is the top name here.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Kenny Chesney and American Aquarium

May 7, 2021

Kenny Chesney – Here and Now (Deluxe Version)

In my review of the original album release, his nineteenth, I called Here and Now Kenny’s best in at least a decade, one which cements the ‘strong brand that makes him squillions of dollars, the Don’t Worry Be Happy country guy laughing all the way to the beach. Am I being cynical?’

The four extra tracks build on the formula. Wind On begins with the radio on, shirts off, tattoos on show and ‘every care in the world’ thrown to the wind. It’s Chesney by Numbers, literally a song about nothing with crunching guitars borrowed from songs like Live A Little and American Kids. Check the minute-long guitar jam, though, which makes it fun to be alive.

My Anthem is a Jason Gantt-McAnally-Osborne write is a song about songs that accompany people as ‘salvation…education’. The middle eight is very good, the bridge even better, a typical Shane McAnally device where he puts vinegar in the cakemix. Songs can’t ultimately help people ‘outrun their youth’, but they do make it easier.

Fields of Glory is a Copperman-Gorley-Osborne write, which means even before I hear it I can tell it’ll have smooth acoustic guitars, a list of activities people do on a field – stay out late, play football – and some ‘woah-woah’ backing vocals. Ashley Gorley and Ross Copperman know that people want songs as comfort blankets, reassuring humanity that the past was a nicer place. This is a nice song that adds nothing to anything.

Streets was written with Tom ‘House that Built Me’ Douglas. It’s a series of images, as if Kenny is singing a video montage, that takes us all across America, from Times Square to Disneyland to Hollywood. ‘On the streets of Nashville all is well’ seems to imply that nobody will run out topics to sing about. ‘All is well’ is a ridiculously ‘Imagine there’s no heaven’ thing to write, so I think this is a utopian dream, or even satire, rather than social commentary. Of course all isn’t well in America – Kenny should write about opioid addiction, police brutality or the Capitol insurrection – but the music is so pretty I am willing to ignore the politics for five minutes.

American Aquarium – Slappers, Bangers and Certified Twangers

What links Patty Loveless, Sammy Kershaw, Trisha Yearwood, Joe Diffie, Faith Hill, Brooks & Dunn, Jo Dee Messina, Toby Keith, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Sawyer Brown? They all had hits in the mid-1990s and BJ Barham aka American Aquarium has bestowed fans with 10 covers of tunes made famous by all of them. There’s no Travis, Tim or Garth but the set does introduce younger fans to these now classics that all emerged in the Soundscan era where America could finally see how popular hillbilly music was.

I am familiar with Heads Carolina, Tails California (moved from E to G and with Springsteen-y undertones by BJ), Should’ve Been A Cowboy (which really does sound like an E Street Band song) and She’s in Love With The Boy, which are all modern classics. Joe Diffie’s John Deere Green is a song ripe for rediscovery, a muscular song that Jon Pardi, Aldean and Combs should cover in concert. As we’re seeing today, the veneration of Brooks & Dunn, whose schtick is virtually Luke’s, shows no stopping and BJ covers Lost and Found.

New tunes to my ears include Queen of my Double Wide Trailer, a Sammy Kershaw hit from 1993 with twang and Hammond organ; Sawyer Brown’s Some Girls Do and Faith Hill’s Wild One could only have been put out in the post-Garth, pre-Shania window, where country was trying to rock but come off as very milquetoast (I love that word!). Mary Chapin Carpenter, as you would expect, gets the balance right with Down at the Twist and Shout, which sounds like a line dance translated into musical notes. At least BJ adds some contemporary production while staying faithful to the era. What a fun surprise release.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Travis Tritt – Set In Stone

May 7, 2021

I know very little about Travis Tritt. He’s on Twitter (Tritter?) constantly; he had a hit song with It’s A Great Day to be Alive which is terrific; he was friends with Marty Stuart, duetting on a great ballad called This One’s Gonna Hurt You for a Long Long Time; he got a namecheck in May We All by Florida Georgia Line; he has a moustache.

He has won GRAMMYs and CMA Awards, and in 1992 became a member at the Grand Ole Opry, where he has performed regularly. He has been married three times, with the first two coming before he was 25. He had most of his success in the early 1990s, co-writing all five of his number ones: Help Me Hold On, Anymore, Can I Trust You With My Heart, Foolish Pride and Best of Intentions. The last of these charted at number 27 on the Hot 100.

Now working with Dave Cobb, Set In Stone has been trailed by a Grand Ole Opry performance and several singles, including the chugging Ghost Town Nation and Smoke In A Bar, an outside write about how life used to be. Applause was warm from Opry congregants that night. Travis comes across like a heartland rocker who would drink with his fans after a show.

I love Stand Your Ground, a great opening track that seems like his life in a song: ‘Did it my way, worked every time.’ The guitar solo is blistering and the gospel backing vocals are typical Dave Cobb flourishes. Waylon Jennings is a key influence on the album, which rocks in a rockin’ way. I’m sure Dave was in his element, being paid to record Travis’s music. It’s a hard life being Dave Cobb, who has sculpted the Chris Stapleton sound that has sold umpteen million albums.

There’s some traditional country amid the blues and rock. Better Off Dead is a tearjerker with requisite pedal steel and a mighty fine vocal from a guy who broke through alongside Alan Jackson and Clint Black. Meanwhile, Travis pays homage to his roots on both the blues-rockin’ Southern Man (‘The one thing I’ve been all along’) and the harmonica-heavy Way Down In Georgia: ‘Born and raised where the tall pines grow…Honeysuckle dancing on the evening breeze.’

A-Listers pepper the credits. Brent Cobb was in the room for three songs: Set In Stone, all about a musician, or indeed a man’s, legacy; the reminiscin’ song Open Line, where Travis looks back on the past over soft guitars and tom-tom drums; and Ain’t Who I Was, which sounds like a Brent Cobb soulful country song with plenty of diminished chords and a strong mournful melody.

Wyatt Durrette co-wrote Stand Your Ground and Southern Man, while Ashley Monroe worked on Leave This World (‘I don’t wanna leave this world without you’) on which Travis wishes that he and his beloved die at the exact same time. It’s a country song. Ditto They Don’t Make ‘em Like That No More, a driving rock song with appropriately twanging guitars that will turn an arena (perhaps in Greenwich next March??) into a honkytonk. What a great vote of confidence in co-writer Dillon ‘Hot Beer’ Carmichael that Travis has included the cut on this album, which ought to reposition Travis as a key voice in the sound that made country music relevant in the 21st century. 

Country Jukebox Jury EP: Emma Moore – The Table

May 7, 2021

This six-track project from Blackpool lass and MA in Songwriting Emma was launched in February to her most loyal fans. She knows the marketing/PR side of music and she’s an example of what an independent act should be doing.

Husbands or Kids is the opener, which packs a mighty punch. It is true to the genre: an enormous backbeat, veiled autobiography, a rhyme of complicated/jaded, wonderful twangin’ guitar solo and anthemic, wide open vocals. Blinded (‘by your fantasy’) is a narration of a girl trapped in the love she has for her beau, and I can’t tell if Emma sympathises or calls her a fool, only that the situation drives her ‘crazy’. Match Made In Hell tells a similar story with a lot of vim and electricity. The lead up to the final chorus is particularly good. The arrangements are terrific, especially for an artist funding the release herself. Merch is available at

There are ballads, as there always are. When is the centrepiece here, a cheating song on which Emma wonders when the moment of infidelity occurred. Late to the Table sounds like 11pm at the best bar in town even as it is a psychological drama; the chorus twists and turns, modulating up to E major and adding some fun chords to a tortured vocal performance. Waiting For You is a forlorn tune with great instrumentation and a lyric full of acceptance that an ex’s new belle is far better for him than Emma. The music sounds like teardrops hitting the guitar, which is itself gently weeping. It’s sad.