Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Sean McConnell and Ryan Kinder

Sean McConnell – A Horrible Beautiful Dream

Some artists are timeless whenever they come to market. Vince Gill, Dolly Parton or Rodney Crowell all perform songs that may change with the whims to recorded sound, but why would any of those artists use a drum loop or draft in Nelly?

Sean McConnell has written hits for Little Big Town (Wine Beer Whiskey) and Brett Young (Mercy) but made an impression on me with the first impact track from his album A Horrible Beautiful Dream. He called himself, or the character he was playing, the ‘black sheep…I bring up the back of the entourage’, the 13th Apostle. Musically and sonically I was won over: the acoustic instruments and warm vocal reminded me of Ryan Adams before his wickedness was unmasked, or Ruston Kelly, who is a nicer human being.

Other impact tracks followed: the triple-time I Built You Up (‘to be what I need’) where Sean coaxes the vocals like Damien Rice, the gospel-tinged song of devotion Leave The Light On (‘My love’s like the sun’) and the wise Price of Love (‘Nothing good comes for free, you gotta pay your dues’). The lyric ‘All I know for sure is nothing anymore’ makes Sean a narrator who has made peace with his mistakes. He can also counsel someone to focus on the moment and not ‘spend your life getting somewhere’ (Getting Somewhere); I like the line in the chorus about keeping ‘your hands on the 10 and the 2, keep your eye on the ball and follow through’. It may be from parent to child or friend to friend; it also has the word ‘prayer’ in the chorus. Country needs to bring God back.

I’m a sucker for melodic guitar-led music, and I loved the song The Wonder Years. It’s a head-nodder and a thinker: ‘Everything resurrects into something new’ is the mark of a true writer and the imagery (‘Queen of Ellis Island’) is superb. The internalised horrors of What The Hell Is Wrong With Me are set to a jaunty major-key tune, much like all the great pop songs (Dancing on My Own by Robyn, for example). ‘I’m a burden! I’m a basket case!’ could be set to soft piano but Sean chooses to put euphoric organ to it.

The slow song As The Curtain Came Down includes a harmonica solo recorded so as to include the room’s natural echo, while Dan Tyminski and Audra Mae provide harmonies on a song about an old timer reminiscin’ about all the great things about being on the road. The word ‘Epiphone’ colours the song enormously, as does the stark last verse set in a green room. As for the album closer Remember You’re Here, Sean accompanies himself and chooses to set his voice amid crickets, ‘lost inside the fear’ and intoning the album’s title.

As well as real drums and a small choir on the album, there are also real strings which gives it a warm, lived-in sound. Natalie Hemby adds her alto to the feather-soft Waiting To Be Moved, which namechecks Moses and Galileo and talks about dreams and ‘sweet redemption’. Similar pathos is all over Used To Think I Knew, where Sean sings how ‘the weight of the world was a burden I tried to bear’.

This is grown-up music which fits alongside Little Big Town, who would do well to take Sean out on the road with them.

Ryan Kinder – Room To Dream

This album should push Ryan to everyone’s ears. I saw him support Ashley McBryde in 2018 and was blown away by his bluesy voice and guitar playing. He also played the Hyde Park stage. If Stapleton retires to spend more time with his money and kids, Ryan can easily step in. He’s also been writing with Tim Prottey-Jones so we may see the pair of them tour.

As with Parker McCollum’s album, it arrives with half of it known to keen-eared fans. The punchy Blame was tremendous live and is just as emphatic on record. For such a bluesy voice, it’s a shame that the production is so processed but that’s what makes money. Opener Something is a meditation on being between friends and lovers, as is Friends (‘don’t look at friends the way you’re looking at me right now’).

Tangled Up is a slow-dance where Ryan hits some falsetto notes in the chorus, there’s ‘nothing plain about Jane’ on the poppy track that reaches for Jason Mraz (written with Ross Copperman and Josh Osborne) and the title track is a smooth, singalong driving song where the vocal is pushed very high in the mix.

I almost pumped my fist in the air listening to Southbound, which shows that Ryan is a great student of Southern Rock thanks to a crunching solo passage in the middle and a clapalong breakdown. Want comes across like Rag’N’Bone Man thanks to the gravel in Ryan’s voice, while Nothing But Time is a smart closing ballad that allows Ryan to show off his long notes. Incredibly it dates back to 2015, proving that country musicians have to be patient before the world at large can hear songs which any executive can smell money in.

The market is ready for Ryan Kinder and it’s nice that he is writing songs with UK artists. Let’s have him back here soon.

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