Country Jukebox Jury LP: Gary Allan – Ruthless

June 25, 2021

Gary Allan is the same age as the likes of Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney, who have not had to wait eight years to release new music and perhaps don’t need the money.

Born in California, his actual surname is Herzberg and he turned down a deal as a teenager so he could finish school while playing bars as a semi-pro in the 1980s. His break came when he left a demo in a truck bought by some rich people who became his benefactors. Shockingly his third wife committed suicide and suffered from depression, which informed Gary’s Tough All Over album which followed his big pop smashes Nothing on But the Radio and Songs About Rain. The likes of Watching Airplanes and Every Storm Runs Out of Rain went to radio but, after three songs tanked between 2015 and 2017, Gary is definitely a legacy artist.

Those three, by the way, included Hangover Tonight which he wrote with Chris Stapleton among others. Using his contacts and the best songwriters in town – Nicolle Galyon, Jon Nite, Rodney Clawson, James T Slater, the Warren brothers,– he’s put together a 13-track album called Ruthless out on MCA Nashville, who have stuck by him rather than drop him. The investment in him must be enormous.

The tracks that stand out include the impact track SEX, the McAnally-by-numbers song with the lyric ‘even at its worst it’s still the best’. Waste of a Whiskey Drink is Hardy-by-Numbers, which is not a slight on Hardy (nor on McAnally on the last sentence) as the standard is so high.

I also like the punchy rhythms of opening track Temptation, closing track The Hard Way (the two are a country-rockin’ pair) and the staccato guitars of What I Can’t Talk About (‘Sometimes the melody’s the only thing that knows what I’m feeling’). Trouble Knows Trouble, a song Blake Shelton could have a smash with, is very mature, as Gary and a femme fatale have a one-night stand. ‘We both win and no-one’s gotta say I’m sorry’ is a good line, followed by some pedal steel.

Over the course of the album, Gary settles into a very samey groove. Mindful of this, the executives who have put this album together include some variety in the album’s second side. As you’d expect from a song written by Hillary Lindsey, Ryan Hurd and the late busbee, the title track has an elegance about it, coupled with a brass-assisted arrangement and a really great vocal. Gary’s cover of the old Jesse Winchester tune Little Glass of Wine has a great fiddle accompaniment in the second verse; I would have moved it up the tracklist.

Elsewhere Gary’s vocal comes off like that of Rob Thomas from Matchbox 20, and there are soft guitars which surround him on melody-packed tracks like Till It Felt Like You, Slide and High As I’ve Ever Been. They don’t say a great deal but they are sung expertly. The only track written with Gary in the room is ballad Pretty Damn Close, a sequence of compliments paid to a woman.

Ultimately, I feel, the aim of Ruthless is to provide Gary with new songs to sing alongside the hits, like when The Rolling Stones crank out some new songs that sound like the old songs people have paid good money to hear.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Jimmie Allen – Bettie James (Gold Edition)

June 25, 2021

Jimmie put out seven tracks in summer 2020 on an EP named Bettie James. Those seven tracks now have nine bedfellows as part of a Gold Edition of the project and, once again, Jimmie ropes in a host of acts because an algorithm probably shows that his listening figures will be greater with an A Lister alongside him.

Freedom Was A Highway has grown on me but I found a lot of the EP safe and boring, especially the Noah Cyrus duet This Is Us, and a lot of it too ‘marketing heavy’, especially Why Things Happen which roped in Darius Rucker and Charley Pride for a track which became very poignant given the film of the murder of George Floyd.

Breland and Lathan Warlick were odd omissions from the first set of songs and both appear on the trap-pop of Somebody, a track which is so beat-driven I can barely make out the words. I got bored halfway through. Neon Union are Andrew and Leo (the latter is black) and their big entry into the mainstream comes as vocal partners with Jimmie on Livin Man, a song about ‘livin, man’ which sounds like 1995 Brooks & Dunn, a proper country song with depth and gravitas.

I was really impressed when Jimmie played his song Pray (or rather a song written by pop songwriter Sean Douglas and Sam Hunt’s good buddy Jesse Frasure) as an exclusive to the Grand Ole Opry and here he uses the talents of Little Big Town and, smartly, r’n’b legend Monica to convey the depth of emotion and seriousness of the universal power of prayer. This is where Jimmie’s career should be going, not pratting around with digital programmed drums.

Ditto Forever, written with the pair of Babyface and Ashley Gorley, men of a thousand hits. This cannot fail: I love the r’n’b chords that open the song and how glorious to hear a 20-second intro in 2021!! Jimmie doesn’t want small talk, crooning about making a moment where the pair first kiss, giving way to the great Babyface for the second verse. It’s a stunning song and production (check out the choir of Babyfaces in the final chorus), which is streets ahead of anything else on the album.

Especially because the lows are so low. Flavor is Latino country, a genre I think we will hear a lot more of in the next few years. Vikina sings the hook, Pitbull does his shtick and LA-based duo teamwork appear on production. How Jimmie got involved is a mystery but I am sure the algorithm will drive new listeners to the rest of this album. Hen parties will go wild for this but does country music really need Pitbull raps?

Slightly better is the hyperactive Tequila Talkin’ where teamwork put together a track over which Jimmie and Lindsay Ell ‘can’t seem to let go’. I prefer Kameron Marlowe’s song with the same title, as I can latch hold of it; the production inhibits my enjoyment of this song. Eight writers are credited on Get Country, a three-chords-and-the-truth duet with LOCASH that chimes with new songs by Blanco Brown and Shy Carter in a similarly catchy manner. Mud, bonfires, cold ones and fishing holes are all present and correct, as is a guitar solo. Forgotten band LANCO join him on Home Sweet Hometown, an evocation of small towns with a sweet Lady A-type chorus that will sound excellent when Jimmie plays it in small towns across the USA as he builds a following.

Boy Gets A Truck was a tune written by Jimmie’s manager Ash Bowers and given to Keith Urban, who returned the favour as Jimmie put it on his debut album Mercury Lane. For no reason at all, Keith pops up to unite the two singers. The vocals are great but the production is plodding. I can make a great 10-track album out of the set, but then an album isn’t what this is.

Bettie James is a selection plate from which anyone can find something, be you an old-school country fan, Grand Ole Opry tourist, guitar student or poptimist. I wish Jimmie would pick a lane!

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Brian Kelley – Sunshine State of Mind

June 25, 2021

Imagine you’re sipping a margarita in a tiki bar on a beach in Maui. Your soundtrack is 50 minutes of sun-soaked country featuring the four tracks from the EP which came out earlier this year. My favourite was Beach Cowboy (‘yippee-yo kai-yay it’s your boy BK’), though I appreciated the marriage of beach and the Lord on Sunday Service in the Sand and the addictive Made by the Water, about love and stuff. I concluded that BK was pitching to the same people who bought Luke Bryan and Jake Owen’s material with music that is perfectly timed for vacation season.

Only three tracks are anything over three minutes long, so BK knows how to do this sort of thing with variations on a theme. (Hey, if classical composers can do it, why can’t Mr BK?) There is also unity in the writers as BK’s team of Corey Crowder, Blake Redferrin, Canaan Smith and Jake Rose are the main songwriters.

Opener Boat Names has BK contemplating putting his beloved’s name on a ’45-footer’, with the boat’s colour picked by the lady herself. I also love the picture painted by the opening verse of Songs For You, which breaks into a singalong chorus that Kenny Chesney could have had a smash hit with. Don’t Take Much celebrates seven years with the lady, now mother to his child, and BK concludes that the simple things in life make it worth living. (He doesn’t mention all the money or indeed the perils of the deadly virus that hit the world in 2020.)

Many of the tracks on the collection, perhaps on purpose, blend into the background: Sunburnt, Barefoot and In Love is one, Highway on the Water another, Party on the Beach (a campfire jam where ‘everything’s chill’) a third. All three are aurally pleasant, sung with light vibrato and set to inoffensive guitars with hints of fiddle. Say The Word invites the lady to ‘catch a flight to an island’ and sounds like a summer breeze, which is good ‘programmatic music’ where the lyrics match the tune and vice versa.

Then we have stuff you do on the sand and the water. When you Fish All Day (‘love all night’), it’s ‘maritime meditation’; Boat Ride sounds like its lyric (‘wild hair in your eyes, deep ocean blue’) while Horses on the Beach (‘run wild and free’) is a lot of fun and contains a uke-flavoured solo.

By Boat was written with the superstar pair of Jimmy Robbins and Nicolle Galyon: ‘I’ve seen God in the middle of June painting sunsets’ is a lovely line and it’s the most philosophical song. When BK dies, he’ll get to heaven by boat. Conversely, Real Good Day is positivity turned up to 100, which is at odds with everything going on in the world. It is bizarre to hear BK singing the sort of thing that FGL have been doing for ten years and it’s a relief to the ears not to hear Tyler’s vocal tag (‘YEAH BABY’) every three minutes. BK, by the way, is the Florida part of FGL and boasts about his home state on the album closer Florida Boy Forever.

If you want to forget about the death and destruction caused by automation, viruses and recessions, put on this album, or trim it to 12 tracks because we don’t need 17 versions of the same song. Maybe it’ll sound better in 2022, but perhaps we’re not yet ready for a ‘back to the beach’ album.

Country Jukebox Jury EP: Kezia Gill – The Mess I Made

June 25, 2021

Kezia’s music has been played on Bob Harris’s show for the past year. Her first, 2019’s Dead Ends and Detours, included fan favourite Whiskey Drinkin’ Woman and the tribute to her now late father Local Man’s Star. The EP is an enormous step up from a wonderful indie artist.

I like the way Kezia introduces herself on the EP’s final track, the country shuffle of The Adventures of a Travelling Mind (‘I can do anything I want, baby!’) which invokes her Friday night lockdown sessions but with a live band behind her.

The title track begins with a bluesy wail, which draws the listener in; Sarah Jory’s electric guitar meshes well with some terrific production in a song of vulnerability. ‘One mistake is all it takes’ is the song’s key line. Despite Kezia now calling herself a singer/songwriter rather than a country act, Country Song shows her affinity with the genre as she heads to Broadway in Nashville ‘straight into a country song’: cowboy boots, dancing, alcohol and that’s country bingo! Live It Up is similarly euphoric, as befits a carpe diem lyric with a singalong hook that repeats the word ‘tonight’.

All Of Me is a minor-key waltz which, thanks to the squealing guitar near the end, would sound brilliant on Strictly, with Kezia’s love sounding total (as befits the title) and vaguely frightening. Bad For Me is another triple-time tune with a musicbox mood. ‘Your web of lies did not surprise me’ is what Kezia sings of a man who makes ‘bad feel so good’. The arrangement is extraordinary, especially the massed backing vocals and the fierce, fearsome guitar solo. Please make 20 minutes to check our Kez’ out.

Some acts spend four years playing the same tunes over and over again. They write them, play them in bars, get a record deal, play them in clubs, go on a radio tour, play the songs, hear them on the radio, play them in small venues, play them abroad and eventually get sick of playing the song. Even new songs just mean there’s something to play before the hit. Two acts return with new ones after a long gestation period.

Country Jukebox Jury EPs: Penny Jayne Black, Joe Martin and The Outlaw Orchestra

June 18, 2021

Penny Jayne Black – Early Works

Penny Jayne got in touch with me wanting to send over a four-track set called Early Works. The funky Gone is excellent as Penny Jayne doesn’t want to be taken for a fool; she spits out the lyrics with her voice high up in the mix with a light twang. I’m Fine is driven by a Keith Richards-type riff over which the singer assures her beau that nothing’s wrong apart from everything. Tanya Tucker seems a big influence, as well as Miranda Lambert, and any male listener can take home some useful points about how to treat a woman especially when she says everything is fine.

Steel Horse is an ode to cars which rhymes ‘tyres’ with ‘desires’ and features some great melody lines that nag after the brilliant ending. Fire in a Belly sees Penny Jayne reach the depths of her vocal range and I imagine this will be a fun song to play live. The four tracks are impressive, especially Gone and Steel Horse, and an album beckons soon.

Joe Martin – Bound for Lonesome

Joe recorded the five tracks with Lauren Housley and CJ Hillman, two of the best musicians in Britain, and the press for the EP comes with a quote from the New York Times, who saw his set at the Bluebird Café in Nashville. I love Heartbreak Cult and the power-chord driven Doesn’t Rain in LA, so it’s great to hear the other three tracks on the project, which will be part of his live set.

Forgotten Country Song lopes between bars of three and bars of four, showing sophisticated songwriting, while Joe remembers a ‘crazy trip’ to Austin with an ex. Thus his life is a ‘sad forgotten’ song which he now sings. Very meta, very country.

More Than Just Your Loving opens with some Hillman steel and a melancholic set of chords over which Joe remembers that same ex, I reckon, while he looks at his new girl. We’re privy to the thoughts in his head: he’s not ‘unfaithful’ but that’s not quite true, because reminiscin is keeping him awake. Take Me Home Tonight closes the EP with some brushed drums, reverbed guitars and a lyric set in a bar where Joe doesn’t ‘need you’. The middle eight elevates the song to another plane but I won’t tell you why, as does the falsetto note he hits in the final verse. This is a supremely good EP that will soundtrack my summer. Buckle & Boots awaits.

The Outlaw Orchestra – Under The Covers

The band have already released a great EP of hard rockin country this year. Their next trick is a six-song EP with six versions of classic country and rock from before 1980.

House of the Rising Sun incorporates the famous organ part underneath an austere interpretation which turns the triple-time feel of the Animals’ hit version into 4/4, even throwing in a Spanish translation of the title. It’s odd hearing a male voice take on 9 to 5, but the band don’t destroy it and I am sure Dolly would charge a glass.

There are very good straight covers of both For What It’s Worth and Long As I Can See The Light, songs which are 50 years old! Waylon’s Good Ol Boys opens with some slide guitar and is one which will light up the band’s live set, while their take on the Stones’ country ballad Sweet Virginia (from Exile on Main St) is tremendous.

Perhaps the second volume can comprise hits of the 1980s and 1990s!

Country Jukebox Jury EPs: Nate Barnes and Southerland

June 18, 2021

Nate Barnes – You Ain’t Pretty EP

Nate Barnes is a mixed-race chap who came to market with the excellent song You Ain’t Pretty last year, which he co-wrote. The song gives its name to Nate’s debut EP which features four outside writes from some top songwriters.

Steve Moakler contributes to the ‘getting over her’ song Ain’t Got a Shot, an ode to whiskey which here cannot heal his heart. I get Aldean and Jake Owen from If This Ain’t Heaven. That makes sense because it was written by Wendell Mobley who can be spotted in many of Aldean’s song credits. The song isn’t about very much but it’s sung powerfully and is good for driving around ‘out in the middle of nowhere’.

Right About Me is a chugger with wide-open guitars and a singalong hook. It reminds me of Charlie Worsham, perhaps on purpose, while I Love You Too is a list of things Nate loves about his beloved that has been said by other country musicians to their beloved 300 times before: she likes to ‘tug on my shirt, whisper and flirt…Wreck all my plans just cos you can’ and drink alcohol, which is pretty unfair if you’re sober or teetotal. All the same, great guitars and it rounds of an impressive set of songs. I reckon he’ll be pushed to the UK by Quartz Hill Records, a Sony Music imprint which has also signed Joe Nichols.

Southerland – Boot Up EP

Southerland are a duo, Chris and Matt, who are signed to Sony Music whose seven-song EP Boot Up came out at the end of May. Smartly, their influence comes from the muscular country music of the Garth/ Brooks & Dunn era, which is basically Luke Combs’ way to success. I wrote a song about boots once (called Boot Camp) so I like the message of Boot Up, which contains a squealing solo in the middle and a long wigout at the end. It almost dares the listener to keep listening to the rest of the EP.

The harmonies on Might As Well Be Us (‘Some things gotta last forever’) remind me of Holloway Road but the percussion is live and punchy like those of Luke Combs. Thing Is closes the EP with a honky-tonk Jon Pardi vibe with some great chords and licks, and a chorus which focuses on a lady.

Dance is a ‘how to pick up a girl’ guide set to a Mumford kick drum beat. The take-home point is to spin her around, not spin her a line. It’s a country song that I’d expect a Texan star like Aaron Watson to put out and (I smirked here) George Strait gets a mention in the chorus!

Came Out of Nowhere is a co-write with Jessi Alexander, who writes love songs which Blake Shelton often takes to number one. If Blake put this midtempo ballad out maybe ten years ago, it would be a smash because his audience would connect with love falling ‘out of thin air’.

Along Those Lines wafts along with such brilliance and elegance that I had to listen to it again to find out what it was about. It’s a reminiscin’ song about love and growing up and stuff, obviously, and quotes Chattahoochee because that was on the radio back then. Luke Combs would be proud to have written this song.

Little Bit of You substitutes a bar for what’s ‘at home’ after work. It’s a song of devotion that reminds me of Grady Smith’s discovery that country music prefers wine to beer, if you run the numbers (there’s ‘white wine on your lips’). I was singing along instantly, which is always a sign of a strong melody. There are seven superb songs from Southerland, who deserve not to get lost in the glut of new music this summer. I hope they have already sorted a UK visit out as we will go wild for them, just as we have taken Luke Combs to our bosom.

Country Jukebox Jury EPs: Gary LeVox and Kylie Morgan

June 18, 2021

Gary LeVox – One on One EP

Fun fact: the debut album by Rascal Flatts came out in June 2000. Jay DeMarcus was 29, Joe Don Rooney 24 and Gary LeVox 30. The full Rascal Flatts story involves a marketing team, Chely Wright – whose band Jay and Joe Don were part of – Lyric Street Music and middle America accepting what they are given.

The best loved Flatts songs, when I look at Spotify, are What Hurts the Most, Bless the Broken Road, I Like the Sound of That (written by Meghan Trainor and Shay from Dan + Shay) and, by a mile, the song that Pixar used for the movie Cars: Life is a Highway. That was where I first heard of the trio, who had 16 number ones. What Hurts The Most was a monster, a number six US Hot 100 hit and a number one Adult Contemporary song because adults go wild for it.

Because of Gary’s gospel voice, their songs are less about getting it on by a riverbank with a girl with her jeans off, and skewed towards the sort of pap that Lady A sing about: devotion, heartbreak, time passing, coming on over cos they like the sound of that. Diminishing returns and the presence of Dan + Shay, who are effectively the same product, have meant that Rascal Flatts are no longer viable as a radio act and thus a 50-year-old Gary LeVox can bring out his EP.

I don’t need to describe what the EP sounds like, because it sounds like Rascal Flatts just with Jesus instead of baby. Gary’s daughter Brittany LeVox (they don’t call her Brittany the Face) helps out on While I Wait (‘Lord I still praise you’) and Breland helps Gary co-write All I See, which before about 2016 I would say sounded like R Kelly but now I can’t. It just sounds like contemporary gospel music.

We learn that ‘a little love goes a long way’ and a stone in the water can become ‘a tidal wave’ (A Little Love), God’s love is ‘like a song’ (Never Forget, with an enormous choir) and there’s ‘help when there’s trouble’ on The Distance, in which an algorithm should have a credit because it ticks off so many tropes of Christian music. Even in the USA, Christian music is a minority genre but that still means there is money to be made. Big Machine will make a killing and Gary will probably thank the Lord.

Kylie Morgan – Love, Kylie

This EP has the Shane McAnally touch, and the Ben Johnson from Track45 touch too. Over six tracks, Kylie introduces herself to the market with some poppy country tracks.

Kylie wrote Shoulda with her A-List producer/writers. Her voice cuts through the production and is often double-tracked, as on the chorus of the enormous I Only Date Cowboys, where John Wayne and Jesse James are both namechecked. Outdoor Voices is a smart way to tell a listener not to be quiet, and will help build atmosphere at a live gig. ‘When they say don’t we do!’ she sings, and I think Ben Johnson sings backing vocals. He may even have drafted sister KK in to play the fiddle.

Break Things has proven popular thanks to Kylie’s vulnerable vocal, warning someone that she has the capacity to hurt him and break his heart. Cheating On You (‘something has changed, when you say my name’) is a sombre song about how it feels when you and your beloved person are ‘miles apart’, feeling like strangers in a hotel room while at home in bed. Conversely, Mad I Need You has a mix of descending chords and triplet-y delivery to emphasise the nerves Kylie feels when she thinks about her new crush. It sounds like a musical theatre number for a show that doesn’t yet exist. Julia Michaels might well have a rival as the finest young songwriter working in America today.

Country Jukebox Jury LP and EP: Brett Young and Walker Hayes

June 18, 2021

Brett Young – Weekends Look a Little Different These Days

The title is so called because Brett is now a father, which makes this Dad Country. Thomas Rhett is on the same label so is this the same product, targeted at the same demographic of 35-54-year-old women with kids and husbands?

Lady is a smash hit with 50m Spotify plays from people who gravitate towards a guy who turned 40 in March and became a father to a little lady who will grow up to be as great as her mum, Brett’s wife. Written with Ross Copperman and Jon Nite, this is Adult Contemporary/ Dad Country that has clogged up country radio for years because soccer moms, of a similar age to Brett’s wife, go wild for it. Brett sounds vulnerable (‘I don’t know exactly what I’m doing’) and full of warmth towards his newborn. It sounds like a commercial.

The title track begins this short eight-track album which is too long for an EP. Brett has gotten out of the bar and into the bedroom, no longer ‘staying up late and sleeping all day long’. It sounds so anodyne, so milquetoast; perhaps he’s made a mistake leaving the rowdiness behind because contentment seems so boring!! I don’t believe Brett stayed up late in any case, unless he was playing an 11pm open mic slot.

Queen of MOR Amy Wadge (last heard on a duet with Michael Ball) co-writes This, a song about couples who bicker and fight but are nonetheless in love. Leave Me Alone (‘the break in break-up’) is a pleasant toe-tapping request from Brett to his beloved to go, walk out that door.

Put Ashley Gorley, Jimmy Robbins and Jon Nite in a room with Brett and you get three great tunes. Dear Me is another AC Country ballad that harks back to a time when Brett was younger and more foolish, a barfly getting over an ex who actually gets together with him! It’s one of those ‘letters to my younger self’ that again prove Brett is soft and vulnerable. It is the distillation of that genre of country music, which doesn’t make it a bad song at all. The album closer You Didn’t is a triple-time ballad in which Brett croons about how ‘I fell in love and you didn’t’. Unrequited love in a country song is a good angle and the arrangement is sensitive. I hope people hear this and get behind it.

You Got Away With It is the third tune with those A-Listers commissioned to write Brett a hit. It’s hard to dislike, an immaculately structured tune that sounds great turned up loud. It’s a pop song, not a country song, which makes me wonder if anything on this project is country. Not Yet followed, which sounds like country radio: an ‘it’s getting dark but we should still snog’ lyric is set to tap-tapping percussion and a middle of the dirt road sonic bed. Hey, the market gets what the market wants but nobody will play this in three years. This is country music that people who don’t know what country music is think country music is, be it Carrie, Taylor, Dan + Shay and Gabby Barrett. There’ll always be someone willing to watch it. He’ll be out with fellow pop/country musicians Ryan Hurd, Maddie & Tae and Filmore in the autumn.

Walker Hayes – Country Stuff EP

I really don’t like the title track to Walker Hayes’ Country Stuff EP. Grady Smith planted a seed that he may be being ironic.

Walker is 41 and has six children. He’s signed to Monument, which is run by Shane McAnally (who gets a namecheck you can barely hear in the opening seconds of this EP). One feature of this album is to namecheck an old country song: Fishing in the Dark, Dixieland Delight and When You Say Nothing At All all appear in the first three tracks, which are all not to my taste.

He has access to some fine helpers on a six-song EP. Lori McKenna co-writes Briefcase with Walker: it’s a personal song about the example set by parents to their children (so far, so Lori). The tempo is extraordinarily quick and I wish it were slower so that we could ponder the words; as it is, the song feels rushed, like much of this EP. The classic song referenced here is the father-son ballad Cat’s in the Cradle, so at least there is some thematic unity to the six tracks.

Fancy Like is a hymn to a girl who is ‘bangin’ (again, Walker is 41) and together they are like a date at Appleby’s. (Is he being sponsored?) This is a two-chord jam that’s catchy but fluffy. Make You Cry still gets on my nerves. Walker likes it when tears fill his beloved’s eyes, such as when he asked to marry her. I Hope You Miss Me has an irresistible chorus and is a tremendous kiss-off to a girl who goes out West, leaving Walker behind. ‘If it’s a city of angels you should fit right in’ is such a great lyric and there is no surprise at all that McAnally is in the credits.

Carly Pearce is on hand to finesse the tender daydream of What If We Did (‘love is unconditional’). There are some fine close harmonies and a great groove although the song is quite slight and revolves around a two-chord loop.

So to Walker Hayes ‘Country Stuff’ is love, family, farewells and old country tunes. Other people do this stuff better, but Walker is so sexy and handsome (and he has six children) that it won’t matter.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Blackberry Smoke and Lukas Nelson & the Promise of the Real

June 18, 2021

Blackberry Smoke – You Hear Georgia

In mid-June 2021, the UK Rock Album chart Top 10 is populated by Foo Fighters, Nirvana and Pink Floyd but the non-heritage acts include Maneskin, who won the Eurovision Song Contest, former Alter Bridge vocalist Myles Kennedy and Fiddlehead. Rock is, as I always say, a heritage genre; there are no worlds left for rock music to conquer and, much as today orchestras play the hits of Handel, Mozart and Beethoven, in about ten years’ time the big draws will be bands playing the hits of Floyd, Beatles, Stones and Queen.

In the meantime, we have wonderful expressions of rock music from Blackberry Smoke. I really loved what I heard when the band, led by Charlie Starr, let viewers of the Whispering Bobcast hear tasters from their seventh album You Hear Georgia. The band celebrated 20 years last year and they are both Country and Rock according to Billboard. In the UK their last three albums have all topped the Rock chart; You Hear Georgia was classified as country and it shot to the top of the Country Album chart. Toyah, of all people, had the rock album that week.

I think I got them confused with rock band Blackstone Cherry but Blackberry Smoke are more Southern rock than rock’n’roll. The ten tracks on the album are all variations on a Southern rock theme. Ain’t The Same punches through with its Americana feel and sumptuous chords, while Hey Delilah is a fun singalong and Old Enough To Know is a set of sage pearls that Charlie is keen to pass on. My favourite is ‘Nothing worth a damn happens after 2am’.

Lonesome for a Livin is a waltz on which Jamey Johnson sarcastically delivers the country music mantra of ‘the drinkin, the cheatin and the lyin’, while the band sound like they really ‘put quite a few tears into quite a few beers’. All Rise Again, meanwhile, sounds like Soundgarden fronted by Neil Young, as guitar virtuoso Warren Haynes of Govt Mule helps Charlie to sing about his wish to ‘hold on to every precious day’ via a wonderful chorus.

I also love the rifftastic Morningside (not named after the district of Edinburgh I used to live near) and Old Scarecrow (‘his work is never done’), which is about the very rock’n’roll theme of holding on and being strong even though the singer is ‘ragged’ and getting older, preaching a ‘live and let live’ way of life. Blackberry Smoke are continuing the tradition of making amplified, live Southern rock.

Lukas Nelson & the Promise of the Real – A Few Stars Apart

So is Lukas Nelson, born on Christmas Day 1988. The man who wrote Shallow probably has a healthy bank balance but has been unable to play music live in the last 15 months, which is a killer for a road warrior like Lukas Nelson. He’s been joined by younger brother Micah in the family business of bringing people together through music. The Nelson legacy is in good hands.

The album opens with a sort of ‘welcome to the party, would you like a drink, take off your shoes if you want’ feel of We’ll Be Alright before the poppy Perennial Bloom (Back To You), which is proper country-rock with a driving acoustic rhythm and backbeat. It’s basically Bob Harris Country, the sort of guitar-heavy 4/4 groove that goes down well on Radio 2, and that sort of thing is prevalent on the too-brief love song No Reason (‘I wouldn’t want you in my life’) and Leave Em Behind, which flies off into the stratosphere halfway through and sounds like Neil Young fronting Pink Floyd.

The music of 1967 to 1972, made by groups like The Band and Little Feat, loom large in the arrangements, which combine folk lyrics and ‘get it together in the country’ arrangements, as on Throwin Away Your Love and Wildest Dream, which is a perfect evocation of West Coast rock. Dawes do this expertly too.

The piano-led title track has the sort of chords Elton John and Leon Russell used 50 years ago, back when Lukas’s dad was a sprightly 40-year-old outlaw back in Texas. Dave Cobb is in the control room again, coaxing performances out of the Promise of the Real, who have also acted as Neil Young’s backing band in recent years with technical proficiency and a lot of groove. I love the rumble of Corey McCormick’s bass on Giving You Away, which operates alongside Lukas’ advice to someone whose time it is ‘to fly…you’re no longer mine’.

On More Than We Can Handle, there’s a toe-tappin’ feel at odds with the lyric of keeping on keeping on, which segues into a series of piano chords and Lukas singing ‘I can’t help but smile’ on the track Smile. This closes an album that I’ll replay often in the coming months, and you should too.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Chase Rice – The Album

June 18, 2021

The man who held an unsocially distanced gig last year still has a career because of money accrued through writing Cruise. His UK gig last January included a medley of All The Small Things by Blink 182, Sweet Home Alabama and Sweet Caroline, all of which are better than his set closer and bro-country banger Ready Set Roll.

Now the third and final part of The Album has been released and I can talk about the entire release. The cover, by the way, has Chase in his ballcap on which reads HDEU: Head Down, Eyes Up.

The first part came out nearly 18 months ago and was promoted by the hit song Lonely If You Are, which is boring and is all the worst aspects of commercial country radio. Songs like this are one of the reasons (with apologies) that I find it tough to listen to the big country stations.

Among the tracks that now populate the first half of the album, there’s the gentle Forever To Go which is a tableau of a summer night that marks another year of being together. American Nights, In The Car and Best Night Ever are all nothing songs with nothing ‘woah’ hooks about being human delivered in Chase’s knock-off Sam Hunt. Messy, underscored by an acoustic guitar, is Chase’s version of All of Me by John Legend but without the panache. Maybe he wanted to put out the songs in three goes to avoid accusations of filler.

Part Two followed last May. Down Home Runs Deep, which is a little checklisty, and the universalist anthem Belong (‘Let’s put more Amazing back into Grace!’ and more talk-singing and woahs) both got big pushes. Both were co-written by A-Listers, respectively Hardy (you can tell) and Jon Nite. Jon also wrote the in-yer-face You (‘You! You!’) and Bedroom, on which more shortly. The Mumford-y hoedown of Break. Up. Drunk. (note the full stops) is basically Drunk on a Plane but the woman’s on the plane and Chase is drowning his sorrows down below. As with You, the production from Chase and Chris DeStefano is enormous and this one is definitely not filler. Unsurprisingly Chase puts this near the top of his live set.

The big new song, among four that stand as the third and final part, is the peppy Drinking Beer Talking God Amen, which acts as an album closer and already has 25m streams thanks to radio play which takes it towards the top 10. It’s a campfire jam that cancels out a lot of dreck on The Album.

The Nights is an introspective ballad where Chase can’t get over his ex. Maybe I’m too old for it but I can’t connect with the speak-singing or his vocals, which over the course of the album show the narrowness of his range. No wonder he has to utter his lyrics rather than stick them to a melody.

Bedroom is another Nite-Rice-Robbins composition, and Jimmy Robbins is one of the best topline writers in town, so at least there’s a tremendous chorus in this song about perhaps having sex. If I Didn’t Have You is a galloping tune where Chase says he would be a ‘wreck on a local barstool’ without his beloved holding him down. I think that is an apt metaphor for an album where the big writers rescue this collection from being atrocious and, as he alludes to, a load of ‘truck songs’. Chase is best when he’s singing melodies. Ultimately Sam Hunt does this much better because he’s a genius songwriter.

Chase, who is a berk whose career really should be over by now, got lucky by being in the room where Cruise happened. I wish him well.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Rory Feek – Gentle Man

June 18, 2021

This is the first solo album from a man who lost his wife Joey in 2016. I didn’t know about Joey + Rory until I read the obituaries that outlined how beloved Joey Feek was. Rory has written tons of hit songs from the 90s and 2000s. I know the silly Some Beach which Blake Shelton took to number one.

A good introduction to Rory’s voice is on his portentous version of The Times They Are A-Changin’, with a traditional acoustic arrangement and a soft croon that actually reminds me of Garth Brooks.

Rory’s daughter Heidi harmonises softly on Out On A Limb, a track which sums up the album. Written by Rory’s open mic buddy Phillip Coleman, Rory sings of two characters – a gym owner and a singer ‘who had dreams of Broadway’ – who fail to carpe the diem. Likewise, Alison Krauss appears on a song written by Harlan Howard and Beth Neilsen Chapman called Time Won’t Tell, which was originally recorded by Sara Evans. It’s well chosen for Rory’s album because it’s a reminiscin’ song full of drama (‘Here’s where you turn around and walk away’) and advice (‘You never see the road you didn’t take’). Rory warns the listener to seize the moment, and with an arrangement as stunning as this, why wouldn’t you?

Much of this album has been used as impact tracks, two at a time, and features an impressive cast list of legacy acts like Ms Krauss whose presence lend the album gravitas. Dolly Parton lends her pipes to One Angel, which opens with the line ‘the dominoes kept falling in slow motion’ and is obviously about Joey (‘chemo’ and ‘poison pouring through your veins’), as Rory drinks three fingers of tequila to drown his sorrows. The arrangement is as divine as Joey, with strings and acoustic guitar accompanying Rory and Dolly. I imagine this was a tough song to record and will be accompanied by sniffles when he plays it live. 

Vince Gill – and is there anyone Vince hasn’t worked with?? – pops up on opening track Me & The Blues, which even starts with Rory waking up this morning. Meanwhile, at the Small Talk Café, you can find Ricky and Sharon White Skaggs plucking a mandolin and harmonising respectively. There’s some fine pedal steel as well from (I imagine) Paul Franklin. The production is as warm as the inside of the café, and once again Rory infers that the death of his wife (or someone who ‘left’ his character) will be ‘big news’.

Lee Ann Womack is on Satan & Grandma, a deeply metaphorical song which talks about Grandma’s faith. Again, this is the sort of country song that listeners who aren’t Christian may feel is too religious, but the timbre of the song make it worth heeding, especially when Satan tries to tempt Rory into his car.

Time Machine was originally recorded in 1995 by Collin Raye and the feel is definitely of that era. ‘A few drinks and then she’ll be with him again’ is the key line in a song where ‘tomorrow will not be the cure’. Salvation, written by the same man who wrote Time Machine (Gary Burr), is about a truck driver who picked up the ‘not perfect yet’ narrator, who is told about the small statues of Jesus on his dashboard because the Saviour can ‘watch where I’m going cos he already knows where I’ve been’. The intersection between county and Christian music is clear, especially when a widow is the vocalist.

Spirituality and religion are also found on Rory’s own composition Met Him In A Motel Room, a proper three-minute movie where a master of his craft paints the scene and contrasts the community of church with Trisha Yearwood as the lady ‘with a long, long list of sins’. There’s a Bible in the bedside drawer which provides salvation, so now we know Whom the lady met in that room. It’s an extraordinary song that may well change a life.

The tone of the album is homespun, homely, hortatory, full of advice for instance about what to do ‘with that broken heart…Are you gonna hold on or let go or let it drive you insane?’ The title track, Gentleman, notes how ‘being cool is all the rage’ but traditional Rory, as per his raisin’ is (deep breath) ‘a faded jean, farmer tan, work boots, callous hand, redneck, blue-collar hard-workin’ gentle man’. He advises the listener to follow his example and the Isaacs, a Christian bluegrass group, back him up. The middle eight is gorgeous.

The Isaacs are also found on the passionate clarion call Someone Is Me, which takes the listener through a panoramic opening verse with cigarette butts and graffiti: ‘It’s easy to see this town’s going downhill fast,’ concludes Rory, who exhorts himself (and by extension the listener) to fix things up. The opening notes of Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home (written by Joe South) draw in the listener, with a bluegrass arrangement which matches the ‘Georgia sun’ showing Rory the way home. After all, travelling makes ‘God’s children weary’. Rory should expect standing ovations when he plays this collection of songs live, keeping his late wife’s memory alive.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Amythyst Kiah – Wary + Strange

June 18, 2021

Amythyst sings on Natural Blues with Gregory Porter in a new version of the Moby song. She is the type of artist country music needs to support or the genre dies a death: gay, black, female but above all musically talented. She plays guitar and banjo and studied folk music for her degree.

There seems to be a Blackamericana genre growing. Wary + Strange, which Amythyst co-produced, is the first solo album from the member of Our Native Daughters, which brought together Allison Russell and Carolina Chocolate Drops. As well as Allison, there’s Valerie June and the great Rhiannon Giddens plus Yola, and even Lianne La Havas could move across from singer/songwriter.

A song like Wild Turkey, with the vocal line dominant and asking ‘Will I ever feel right again?’ (it’s about her mum who killed herself), sits next to the bold Black Myself, which is a statement of intent. Hangover Blues is in the great tradition of Sunday Morning Coming Down, while Firewater is a mellow acoustic number where Amythyst asks her listener to ‘let me be’. Ballad of Lost is a morose waltz that segues into the suitably woozy Sleeping Queen: ‘Please leave me alone!’

There is something elemental (and very Rhiannon Giddens) about the bass-driven blues of Opaque and the album’s centrepiece Tender Organs. On the latter, we hear what sounds like a creek bubbling in the background before a wild guitar part is married to cries of ‘Woe is me! When I wake up, I feel like I’m dying.’ I am sure there is a great deal of subtext behind the song, but even without any racial angle this is a song of pain.

An album which is bookended by the song Soapbox must have something to say. Rounder Records, who put out Wary + Strange, have helped Amythyst say it. We ought to listen.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: The Oak Ridge Boys – Front Porch Singin’

June 18, 2021

The Oak Ridge Boys have been going for 75 years next year. Today the vocal quartet are the lead Duane Allen (a Boy for 55 of those 75 years!!), the tenor Joe Bonsall, baritone William Lee Golden and all the way down in the bass clef, Richard Sterban. This lineup have been going since the 1970s on and off (Golden took a decade off) but this is the crew who sung Elvira, the Billboard top 10 hit and CMA Single of the Year 1981 which was released 40 years ago this month at the very zenith of the Urban Cowboy era.

They have spent 10 years as members of the Opry and are also members of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame (which includes the likes of Ricky Skaggs, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Amy Grant, Al Green, Pat Boone, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton).

We know what the Oak Ridge Boys do because they’ve done it for so long. There’s no Indian nose flute or digeridoo. Producer Dave Cobb is in the control room pressing RECORD and grabbing the tea because there’s not much production needed throughout the 30 minutes of music that I imagine needed no patched vocals or overdubs.

Cobb has a go at writing two tunes for the quartet. Til I See You Again is a stately waltz where the boys reminisce over a rootsy arrangement, while the other original brings rockabilly to the album. Rock My Soul is a perfect take on the way gospel and hillbilly were brought together in the 1950s and, like Canadian folk song Red River Valley, highlights Richard in bass, whose lead vocals are in the style Lee Marvin used on Wandering Star.

The echo reverberates around the studio on Promised Land, as do the harmonies on Love Light and Healing (‘home, family and faith’), which opens with the chorus and approached gospel music. Unclouded Day, from way back in 1879 and giving its name to the debut album by the Staple Singers, is unadulterated front-porch gospel music with touches of twang; it could have been made any time in the last 60 years which suggests a timeless quality to the group. Like The Temptations, no matter who sings the tunes, the tunes will last forever.

The universalism of Life Is Beautiful (co-written by Charles Esten’s good friend Colin Linden) kicks off the set in an appropriate manner and there are times on the album where you think the four elements are making music, as on the old Baptist hymn Life’s Railway To Heaven and Swing Down Chariot, both delivered without accompaniment.

The album closes with When He Calls, which Cobb surrounds with a soft arrangement over which the foursome pray for salvation and a safe passage to heaven. For all the money that Elvira must have made, this is the purest form of country music.

The UK Country Top 40 Chart Countdown – Summer 2021

June 5, 2021

Hear the Top 40 in full in this Spotify playlist.

40 Bailey Tomkinson – Bright Red

39 Holloway Road – About Town

38 Twinnie – Chasing

37 Essex County – For You

36 Kelsey Bovey – Another Word

35 Two Ways Home – The Ocean (reworked)

34 Lucy Blu – Shine

33 Lisa Wright – Everything Changes

32 Shannon Hynes – Hide

31 Louise Parker – Lie To Me

30 Matt Hodges – Proud To Be Me

29 Lisa McHugh – Bad Idea

28 Emma & Jolie – How Do I Choose (with Josh Kerr)

27 Rae Sam – Wildly Me

26 Hannah White and the Nordic Connection – Pay Me a Compliment

25 Wildwood Kin – Dakota

24 Eddy Smith & the 507 – Strangers (Since I’ve Been Loving You)

23 Kevin McGuire – Seeing Things

22 Joe Martin – Doesn’t Rain in LA

21 Jade Helliwell – If I Were You

20 Una Healy – Swear It All Again

19 Elles Bailey – Love is Gonna Win

18 Robbie Cavanagh – Feeding Time

17 Demi Marriner – Because Of Her

16 Robert Vincent – This Town

15 Backwoods Creek – Morphine

14 Morganway – My Love Ain’t Gonna Save You

13 Ward Thomas – Don’t Be A Stranger

12 Deeanne Dexeter – Blind Eye

11 Emma Moore – Husbands or Kids

10 Jake Morrell – This House

9 Tim Prottey-Jones – Until I Do (with Stephanie Quayle)

8 Gary Quinn – Complicated

7 Kezia Gill – All of Me

6 Yola – Diamond Studded Shoes

5 The Wandering Hearts – Dreams

4 Megan O’Neill – Ireland

3 Kerri Watt – Band of Gold

2 Lauren Housley – This Ain’t The Life

1 The Shires – On The Day I Die (with Jimmie Allen)