Based on the south coast of England, the UK’s answer to The Cadillac Three or Brothers Osborne have put out their third release in 18 months (one of which was a short EP of covers and is reviewed here.
Dave, Ryan and Pete open the album with Done My Time. There’s chaingang percussion, bluesy wails, harmonised call-and-response vocals and a guitar lick, and it’s a fine introduction to an album full of riffs and vocal reverb. See also the party-starting Back In The Game (bring your own alcohol) and Rattlesnake Sour Over-Proof, where ‘the lights are out and we lost all power’, probably because they turned the amps up too loud.
These guys know how to write rock’n’roll songs. Red Rag has a chorus full of colours and two guitar parts going on at any one time, while There’s No Easy Way To Say This opens with a punch and continues with similar intensity for 2 minutes 30 seconds. Rollin’ Stone has a tongue-twister of a chorus (‘you got me tied up, twisted and sewn’) which is followed by a guitar gently weeping and, later in the song, a brilliant middle eight that gives way to a fun solo.
They also add a little country hoedown (and a namecheck for Al Gore, I think) on Enough About Me (‘let’s talk about you, what you think about me?’). They can slow things down too, where the listener can catch their breath but still appreciate the high level of musicianship. Sea Legs is a power ballad about ageing, and Got It Made has a triple-time feel and some neat vocals bellowing about being jacks of all trades but masters of none.
The centrepiece of the album is Blame the Horse, a tale about betting on the gee-gees told over seven minutes, including a minute-long intro. Dave, whose vocals on the album are the best I have heard on a UK country release this year, growls his way through the narrative with openness (‘I’ll be frank, I’ve grown a beard!’) as the production piles organ on top of guitars on top of drums.
The sound of UK Country is better than it has ever been, and producers don’t get the credit they deserve, so well done to David Evans here, who has managed to capture the lightning of the band’s live show onto what I still want to call tape. The Outlaw Orchestra are the kind of band that DJs would convert into the listener’s favourite new band.
In the absence of Peel or Lamacq, my recommendation will have to do.
Kentuckian Elvie Shane has been the Little Engine of 2021. His song My Boy, about stepfatherhood, has climbed all the way to number one on radio. There is also a version called My Girl, where stepdaughters are praised too. As with Yours by Russell Dickerson, radio has supported a great song sung well, which the label hopes will translate into a career. Russell will play the main stage at C2C 2022, though he is more pop-leaning than Elvie, whose voice is similar to that of Luke Combs. Like Luke, Elvis writes all his own stuff with a host of colleagues, here including superstar drummer Fred Eltringham, Luke’s buddy Ray Fulcher and Dan Couch, who wrote Something Bout A Truck with Kip Moore.
On Wheelhouse Records, which also puts out Runaway June’s music, Elvie’s debut album includes My Boy as the tenth track on a 15-track set. It follows the County Roads EP which whetted appetites for this project. The album’s cover is notable, as it shows Elvie with his hands clasped in prayer. This sets up what ought to be an old-school country album where Jesus, family and plenty of rural signifiers will make up the lyrics and the music will twang.
The EP set up Elvie as a cross between Kip Moore and Eric Church, with even bigger drums.
There’s plenty of Broadway-style rockin’ out to County Roads, with some na-na-nas adding a singalongability. The song is a statement of intent, something to drink to thanks to the ‘here’s to’ lyric. Sundress, however, is a ballad in the Kip or Aldean vein about a girl and a car and sneaking off for some fun, while My Mississippi opens with a quick blast of organ before Elvie sings the praises of the eponymous river: ‘I know a girl a lot like you’ switches the narrative to love being like a river. It’s a smart song set to three familiar chords.
Keep On Strummin’ has him ‘running down a dream’ and will ‘hit the ground runnin’ while he plays his guitar. There’s a nice nod to Sixteenth Avenue, both the street and the song which details songwriters coming to town with a guitar and a dream. We get loads of references to famous country songs – Where I Come From, Fortunate Son, Born To Run – and Elvie is working in the tradition of Tom Petty, Alan Jackson, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Bruce Springsteen. I gotta have more cowbell! Kip Moore fans will find much to enjoy and if I heard this in a Broadway bar, I would pop a five-dollar bill in the jar.
Sundays In The South majors on twang before listing Southern images: NASCAR, potholes, church bells and spiritual songs like I’ll Fly Away and Amazing Grace. The Cadillac Three do this sort of thing and it’s credit to Elvie that this can stand alongside it.
The nine new tracks collected on the album include song of devotion I Will Run, the album opener which begins with synths straight out of 1983 and adds a percussion loop and some acoustic licks. I rose up out of my seat when I heard the intro of Love, Cold Beer, Cheap Smoke, where there’s more ‘running’: it contains my favourite type of chugging guitar sound, over which Elvie reminisces about good times and raising up beer bottles. It’s so close to an Eric Church song that he could claim a credit for the vibe.
Eric’s influence also looms over the great driving song Nothin Lasts Forever (‘but we could try’), with harmonies from Tenille Townes, and the funky, itchy Heartbreaks and Headaches, where drink makes another appearance. Conversely yet on the same theme, Rocket Science is a lovely power ballad about ‘leaving smoke trails’ since it’s so hard to forget the memory of an ex.
There’s a quirky interlude featuring the deep voice of The Fletch called Kickin’ Stones with plenty of religious fervour, which segues into the church-inspired rocker Saturday Night Me (‘and Sunday Morning you’), which ought to be brilliant live, especially with the vivid line linking ‘stained glass and my neon’.
My Kinda Trouble opens with a verse about not covering up tattoos because ‘your kinda crazy’s the kind I like…the kinda hammer that’ll hit you just right’. The wheel isn’t reinvented but why change the rockin’ formula? As well as femmes fatales, we’ve got mama: the album ends with the seven-minute, strings-laden opus Miles (with My Mama), as in the song is called Miles and Elvie’s mum appears too. Family, like a Fast & Furious movie, is omnipresent, and Elvie wants the listener to carpe the diem because there are ‘miles you’ll never get back again’.
As if to hammer home the allusions to Eric Church (come on, Elvie even wears aviator shades), there’s a fine passage of guitar to close the track and the album.
This album is part of a trilogy. The final track is the title track, which repeats the titles of both Wish You Were Here and Glad You Made It. I came across Joshua Ray Walker when I heard the second part and wrote in my review that ‘you know you’re in country music from the album’s first bar’. I heard yodelling, honky-tonk ready tunes and direct lyrics. It was among my 25 favourite albums of the year. I think this record is among my top 25 of this year.
I actually sighed contentedly when I heard the opening fiddle riff of Dallas Lights, which has the feel of an old Ryan Adams song or indeed the country-rock of Counting Crows. Ditto Fossil Fuel, where Joshua Ray’s voice threatens to be overpowered by the fiddle, drums and guitar flailing around him, and the autobiographical Dumpster Diving (great title).
Joshua Ray told Holler Country that he tries to write songs about people ‘forgotten in culture…the homeless or the foragers’. It makes sense that he’s thinking cinematically (‘in my mind the movie already exists’) which makes for great, emotional country music.
Cowboy contains some luscious pedal steel and diminished chords to match a mournful lyric and an excellent vocal. Flash Paper reminds me of Lukas Nelson, with a slight catch on the chorus which adds to the delightfulness of the tune. Three Strikes (‘once…twice….’) continues the swing feel while Sexy After Dark brings in a horn section and a Muscle Shoals brilliance.
Elsewhere, Welfare Chet is a character song about a man down on his luck (there’s an accordion solo) and the midtempo ballad Gas Station Roses compares a couple to flowers whose buds are ‘not meant to last’. This album shows musical maturity and deep knowledge of the Texan sound. I can’t wait to see where he goes next!
Creed Fisher – Whiskey and the Dog
The press release does the hard work for me: Creed Fisher is ‘unapologetic, patriotic and passionate’ so if that’s your thing, read on.
I spoke to Creed for my In The Red Dirt show on ARC Radio and learned of his hard work playing at bikers’ meets and in the bars of Texas, where Creed works as an indie-minded musician. He’s got another album of covers out next year but before then he puts out 14 tunes from his own hand, all of which contribute to Creed ‘fighting this battle for Real Country Music’.
High on the Bottle (‘addicted to the pain’) opens the album in a midtempo way as Creed laments the end of a relationship and how he plays sad songs in bars for people in his predicament. There are hints of Hank Jr in Girls With Big Titties, a horndog’s autobiography in song where Creed fulfils his brief of being an outlaw. Perhaps the baby he serenades on Down To The Riverbank has enormous breasts, although she would be equally attracted by the pulsating arrangement full of Hammond organ.
Similarly honky-tonkin’ are Hundred Dollars Short (‘the Devil went fishing and I took the bait’ is a fine line) and Honky Tonk Drankin (‘when my heart’s been sankin’), where jukeboxes and neon lights help ease the pain of a nasty ex-wife. The song seems to be the result of the narrative of the album’s title track, which refers to the only things a scorned ex should leave. For those who want some more heartache, I’m Crazy and You’re Gone provides it, with broken chords and an old-fashioned phone call from a friend in the middle of the song.
Interestingly, a lot of Californians are opting to move to Texas because the rent is (for the minute) more affordable. Thus does Creed warn incomers, on Don’t California My Texas, not to ruin paradise, with a swipe at their electric cars and confusion over gender-neutral lavatories. ‘We can sit and drink, don’t have to know what you think…just trying to warn you’ is his counsel.
This Town is a gentle tune full of pictures and memories of rural life sung simply with simple lyrics. Country bingo cards at the ready for sweet tea, apple pie, football games, trucks, deer, Johnny Cash and soldiers who didn’t make it home. Good Ol U S of A picks up this theme, a sway-along tune full of positivity and optimism which will be perfect for Thanksgiving and any occasion ‘when Old Glory waves and our anthems start’.
I love the thinkin’ song Find My Way Back Home, where a bluesy guitar part anchors a lyric about wandering being in one’s blood and how Creed’s ‘weak and weary soul’ is doomed to be ‘out here on this wind’. It sounds like the Texan plains and is one of the album’s highlights. Gray Skys (sic) is another song in triple time. It opens with fiddle to underscore the mood of heartbreak, growing older and plodding on through it. There are some fine backing vocals providing moral support.
The album closes with Hankles, a cute little song about Creed’s dog who ‘loves to chew on my ankles’. The pooch is also namechecked on Jesus, Haggard and Jones. Creed tells of how his uncles taught him to fight and to smoke and how his grandpa instructs him on the value of hard work. In fact, his grandpa appears across the album, as Creed recognises the folk he is descended from.
The instrumentation across the album – pedal steel, fiddle, snare rim shots – matches Creed’s spirited vocals, and there’s enough light and shade on the album to fully do justice to the singer’s writing skills. Those honky-tonks and biker meets which Creed told me took up most of his live shows will enjoy the tunes on the album. Maybe you will too.
Reba McEntire is a smart woman who moved into TV sitcoms when she became too old for country radio. Now, as a legacy artist who is about to leave a longterm Vegas residency, she has reimagined her catalogue to kick it into the new century. Not 10, not 20 but 30 tracks are included in the project. I thought she’d record an album with an orchestra but, what with social distancing, this is the next best thing.
I’m a Survivor is on two of the sets, Fancy on all three, which makes sense because they are probably her most beloved songs, the former as the theme to that sitcom, the latter the encore of her live set. I like evergreen hits The Greatest Man I Never Knew and The Night The Lights Went Out in Georgia, songs with depth and structure, and Reba handles them well in these new versions, which may be because she has to sing them on pain of refund.
The first disc, Revived, updates her catalogue in a traditional manner, essentially bringing contemporary production to the old hits. In fact, to avoid disappointing her acolytes, in her live sets she likes to perform medleys at the top of the show, usually including Can’t Even Get The Blues, which actually makes me feel better especially with the stylish ending, and Walk On, which is punchy with the contemporary production that removes the ‘Nashville circa 1989’ from the original version.
The bluesy arrangements of the medley Take It Back and Why Haven’t I Heard From You, which she performed on The Tonight Show to promote the album, often ends her set proper (before she encores with Fancy). Not many country songs in 2021 would celebrate ‘the crazy little thing they call the telephone’ (although I am sure Brad Paisley could have shoehorned it into one of his).
Whoever’s In New England is another solid mainstay of her set; the Revived version helps cement the song’s classic status, with snare taps and soft acoustic guitar which set Reba’s vocal centre stage. She was the top country singer of the era, bringing choreography into her shows, before Garth started zipwiring himself over his audience. Sometimes the song takes centre stage, as it does on the sombre waltz You Lie, here moved down a few steps from B-flat to G to allow Reba’s voice to soar in her advanced years.
For My Broken Heart is another classic, with Reba praying and crying herself to sleep having lost her beloved. In part I get my wish here, as there’s a beefy string section and some delightful picking to underscore her emotion.
Disc Two offers the ten remixes. There’s a fun version of You Keep Me Hangin On inspired by Kim Wilde’s cover. I’m A Survivor has been remixed effectively by Lafemmebear, while Dave Aude has been entrusted with Fancy, Why Haven’t I Heard From You (which pulsates pleasantly) and I’m Gonna Take That Mountain, all of which would happily fit into any set on Broadway by a DJ helping to entertain a hen party.
Some remixes are less successful despite their good intentions. Eric Kupper turns The Night The Lights Went Out in Georgia, turning the hanging of an innocent man into a Giorgio Moroder homage, and Does He Love You, which is a less successful remix. The Tracy Young remix of Turn On The Radio, a number one from 2010 that sounds like a Carrie Underwood reject, is odd because Reba’s syncopated delivery simply doesn’t work over a straight 4/4 disco stomp.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, remixed by Ralphi Rosario, does work, especially with the guitar licks poking out of the production. Little Rock is given a 4/4 euphoric beat by Stonebridge that matches Reba’s insouciance of taking off her wedding ring to find a man ‘who really cares a lot’.
Finally we get ten tracks Revisited, produced by Reba and Dave Cobb, whose work with Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson has brought blues and rock into mainstream country music. The main event is a duet of Does He Love You with Dolly Parton, best known for that other love triangle Jolene. I wonder if, say, Carly Pearce and Lauren Alaina will bring the song back into popular conscience for a generation not used to these modern classics which are now 30 years old. It’s like current musicians doing Wonderwall and More Than Words by Extreme. Another factoid is that Reba has now had 72 charting singles.
The Fear of Being Alone is given fiddle and banjo accompaniment, while Consider Me Gone dials down the drums while Reba sets out her ultimatum. There’s rootsy fiddle and classic-sounding piano on Somebody Should Leave, One Promise Too Late and How Blue, all of which foreground Reba’s voice. Cobb has also worked with Brandi Carlile recently, proving he can frame female voices as well as male ones. The Last One To Know has some suitably mournful pedal steel and a top arrangement, while New Fool at an Old Game keeps the initial sound of the original studio version.
The Revisited set ends with a torchsong piano-led version of I’m A Survivor and Dave Cobb’s take on Fancy that recalls Sympathy For The Devil. It completes my favourite disc of the three, and well done to Reba for taking a chance on a remix album, which her loyal fans will view as a curio. They will prefer the stage-ready first disc but I remain curious to see if Reba goes out on a more acoustic tour in the next few years. More power to her, whatever she does.
I know a few things about Toby Keith. His last big hit was a decade ago, about the wonders of the red solo cup; he invested in Big Machine and got lots of money out of Taylor Swift; and he loves his I Love This Bar and Grill, which means he is rich enough to stay off the road. He was the ACM Entertainer of the Year 2002 and 2003, recorded Beer for my Horses with Willie Nelson and was a patriot who made money selling American patriotism back to America after the September 11 attacks. He also played the Trump inauguration, and the President rewarded him with a Medal of Arts.
Toby was a road warrior in the 1990s and 2000s and is still a keen player to US troops stationed overseas. He’s got the type of face which was deemed marketable in the SoundScan era of Garth, Reba and McGraw. He’s had a slew of big hits including the fun, tongue-twisting I Wanna Talk About Me, his debit smash Should’ve Been A Cowboy and the self-deprecating As Good As I Once Was (which would not even TOUCH the shelf today!).
Having turned 60 in July, he’s very much a legacy artist, one who I can play on my In The Red Dirt show because he’s from Oklahoma. Indeed the opening cover of a groovy track called Oklahoma Breakdown, originally released by Stoney LaRue, is excellent. The title track has an addictive groove and a lyric which is perfect for pre-gaming before a great night out, even if it isn’t in Mexico. ‘Gringo in my lingo’ is a fun line to sing.
Similarly funky is Old Me Better where Keith is ‘having second thoughts’ about his changed situation with fewer chances to party. In a similar vein, as an older guy looking back on stuff he has done, The Warren Brothers gift Toby the triple-time Days I Shoulda Died. The third verse is all about Zippo lighters and flames, which is very Toby Keith.
Rockstar Sammy Hagar co-wrote Growing Up is a Bitch with Toby, which is another very Toby Keith songtitle. The song opens with complaints about diets and how you ‘better listen to your doctor and your wife’; again, there is the dichotomy between growing old and having fun as you did when you were younger, which makes this album a sort of concept album.
Old School, written by Ryan Hurd and Maren Morris, was another pre-released track with a three-chord groove and a smart lyric about going out and having fun in old-fashioned ways, such as eating at Dairy Queen and listening to Bon Jovi (‘we’re halfway there’ is found in the second verse).
Toby is free to do as he wishes on his Show Dog imprint, rather than making money for a major label, and he shows himself to be a student of songwriting,. Thunderbird is a great study in classic Red Dirt country, with a brilliant arrangement and vocal. He interprets Take A Look At My Heart, written by Johns Prine and Mellencamp, with a lot of chugging that references the original, which had backing vocals from Bruce Springsteen. In fact, the politics of all three of those songwriters are far, far left of Toby’s! Music isn’t red or blue, might be the inference.
Meanwhile he rips off the rhyming ‘back, Jack/ plan, Stan’ of Paul Simon on the country ballad She’s Drinkin Again: ‘She’s mean as a snake, Jake…Don’t get up in her grill, Bill’. It’ll be a live favourite, especially with the brass instrumental section, as will the track which Toby put out this past July 4. Happy Birthday America is the latest in Toby’s series of patriotic songs that pander to his audience: ‘I get to wake up in your freedom…Seems like everybody’s pissing on the Red, White and Blue’.
At least he’s not afraid to be political, and everyone else has caught up. It still seems sad that Toby could have a career while the Dixie Chicks were run out of town. That’s country, folks.
Earlier this year, I was very impressed with Dillon’s six-track EP, which brought him to new ears and forms the backbone of his smartly titled 14-track debut album. He’s the protégé of Jon Pardi, the album’s co-producer along with Dann Huff, so it’s easy to compare him to the big-voiced Californian who has updated traditional sounds and added sprinkles of rock.
When the song came out, I was addicted to Hot Beer, three chords and an unwillingness to get back with an old fling. It is a brilliant start to the album. 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 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.
Family Tree, which would be a subdued set opener, begins with some soft strums to set up ‘a thinker’ of a song, full of Jesus and ‘the way we are’ and ‘old school Merle’. Casey Beathard was in the room for this one and it sounds like a mid-2000s country radio tune that Casey would have written for Trace Adkins or Gary Allan. The title track has the same songwriters and is governed by a descending chord progression and a lovely lyric about parents and kids. Casey’s son Tucker, also a singer/songwriter, might have been in mind on the line ‘played the “long as you’re living in my roof” card’. The middle eight references the rising divorce rate, which is worthy of note.
Hose Water shares that old neo-trad sound, a gentle Rhett Akins co-write reminiscin’ about how ‘there was nothin’ else to do’ aside from get out driving with your beloved and cope with the heat by sticking a hose in your mouth. Blake Shelton might have done a good job on this, and Dillon’s voice hits all the notes Blake could hit. Gonna Wish You Did was written by the Warren Brothers, Hardy and Brad (son of Rodney) Clawson. Marshall Tucker Band get a mention in the first verse as an example of things you wish you should do in life, which tumble over one another in the chorus and give way to a rockin’ solo (with no G).
Man Made A Bar comes from the super trio of Shane McAnally, Luke Laird and Jon Pardi, and opens with neon lights, bar bands and a punter ‘drowning shots of tequila’. It sounds like a Jon Pardi song and I wonder if Jon will release his own version next year, perhaps as a duet with Dillon, who handles the lyric well about how ‘God made a woman, man made a bar’. It’s a fun examination of masculinity.
Leave The Lovin, a song of apology and how ‘there ain’t much we can’t fix with a kiss’, is a smooth Jaren Johnston/Laird co-write, two men who know what commercial country sounds like. The album ends with the morose heartache ballad Baby I Would, another Johnston composition with some wonderful production touches from Dann Huff. Indeed, Jaren’s band The Cadillac Three appear on Pickin’ Up Girls, a bit of fun filler on the album’s second side with a false ending and a guitar wigout. Might we see Dillon supporting TC3 next year?
In fact, Dillon comes across like a marketing executive has cross-pollinated Combs and Wallen, which every smart man knows is the Sound of Country Music Today. Red White Camo and Blue, which Dillon wrote with the great Bobby Pinson (best known for working with Toby Keith and Sugarland), is another blue-collar rocker with great imagery. ‘We got more deer and cows than we got people’ aims this squarely at rural audiences, as does the brilliant fiddle solo.
Paychecks and Longnecks is also an outside write which Dillon has plucked off the shelf, a working man’s song that is so close to a Luke Combs hit that Luke could probably sue. In the second verse, Dillon wants to flip the bird ‘but you can’t cos you know you’ll get fired’. Big guitars, heavy drums and blue-collar vocals.
As I thought when the EP came out, the country sound of 1994 is back, although it never really went away.
The Lady A model of commercial country music – man and women duetting in harmony, or putting different sides of the same relationship – is probably one that Scott Borchetta saw dollar signs in. It must be noted that Big Machine, the label on which this album is released, is now owned by a Korean company; I bet Korean fans will go wild for Lady A as they love ballads.
Like A Lady (‘sipping on tequila with my Levis on’) is basically Now That’s What I Call Mum Jeans, sold convincingly by mother-of-three Hillary Scott. File alongside Downtown and Bartender. Things He Handed Down is a smart song about intergenerational love that Thomas Rhett could have made a fortune with if he hadn’t let Lady A record it. I imagine this can be paired with Hello World in concert.
That’s how I am viewing this collection of songs: new versions of old tropes but this time Big Machine makes back an advance, not Capitol Nashville. Talk of This Town is a typical Nicolle Galyon song (much like It Ain’t Pretty) where the trio sing of things which provide a town with gossip and conversation in checkout lines where ‘everybody’s takin’ sides’. It is such a Lady Antebellum song they are in danger of plagiarising themselves.
Hillary Lindsey was in the room for Fire, a song narrated by Hillary about love and stuff. This will make their setlist just after American Honey set to different words and music but the same key of D-flat. The second verse adds a new spin by introducing a guy chasing his dreams. The hook (‘Fi-RE! Fi-RE!’) is catchy and the sonic bed appeals to daughters of their target demographic: the 35-54-year-old woman driving a people carrier.
Amy Wadge and Natalie Hemby help the band write Worship What I Hate, an immaculate piano-led ballad with a minute-long outro that begins with Hillary looking in the mirror ‘wishing for a brand new body…seeing every flaw’. This really is new: body positivity and self-empowerment sung with syrupy strings that will certainly find an audience. Verse two introduces red wine and ‘a button on a screen’, forming bad habits. It’s very American, although Ward Thomas have put out a lot of this sort of thing.
Chance of Rain is the rock ballad on the first half of the album, which reminds me of Can’t Stand The Rain (the clue’s in the title). The metaphor here is that you need to embrace the summer even though it might rain. It doesn’t make it any less excellent as an example of contemporary Nashville pop music. It doesn’t sound current, though, which may doom the project in much the same way that Tim McGraw will always be the Live Like You Were Dying guy.
The title track, written by Charles with Ryan Hurd, Laura Veltz and Sam Ellis – a new name to me but he’s worked with Ingrid Andress and Kane Brown – is a songwriting exercise set to a poppy beat. If you have driving, lighters, love, peace of mind, dancing, crying and kissing on your bingo card, have a drink. I wonder if they were tempted to put ‘help us buy a house because that’s what Need You Now allowed us to do’ on the card or in the middle eight. None of these seven songs will make them as much money but good on Big Machine for funding their efforts. They’re great live.
The second ‘side’ of the album completes the project, copying the current Big Machine strategy of releasing music in clumps; Carly Pearce, Thomas Rhett and Brett Young all put out EPs as part of a two-pronged attack. The first of the seven new tracks is acoustic ballad Where Would I Be, the album’s sole outside write by Natalie Hemby and David Garcia. It is sung deliciously by a band who have made millions with soft tunes like this aimed at adults as they sip wine after a hard day at the desk.
Friends Don’t Let Friends (‘drink alone’) includes both Carly and TR, as well as Darius Rucker, in a trick first attempted on Straight To Hell, a song notionally by Charles’ golf buddy Darius but featuring three other male singers. In a quest to make an ‘Event Release’, the voices pile up on top of each other, and Lady A seem to drop out entirely for the final verse. Six vocalists are unnecessary but I am sure the accountants love it. TR wrote this three-chord song with Ashley Gorley, Charles and his mate Julian Bunetta.
Swore I Was Leaving is a fine meet-cute waltz sung by Charles and Hillary which ends the album optimistically. In Waves is Lady A by numbers, with fluttering harmonies and a driving-friendly chorus that sets up the heartache felt by Charles in his vocal. Hillary almost answers that song from the other perspective of ‘heartbreak hell’ on the poppy You Keep Thinking That, while you can tell that Chris Young’s go-to guy Corey Crowder had a hand in Be That For You, a song of fidelity with a very long outro and a supercharged Dann Huff solo, which is gagging to be played at a wedding.
The fine-structured Workin On This Love was written and sung by Dave, whom I still remember being cheered at a C2C performance by, as Charles put it, ‘your fan club!!’ The song starts with a steel-stringed acoustic guitar and Dave singing tenderly about how ‘a firm foundation is hard to break’. He’s been waiting over a decade for this song, which has gospel overtones and plenty of metaphors to emphasise the relationship with his wife.
They will tour this album. Everyone will want to hear the classics, and one or two tracks from this record may well join them as classics, but at this stage of their career nobody will become a fan of a band who know their place in the market. That’s what their songs can do.
One of the Highwomen and a key part of Miranda Lambert’s songwriting gang, Natalie put out her debut album Puxico in 2017 on the GetWrucke label, named after her married name (producer Mike Wrucke is Mr Natalie Hemby). The big song on that album was This Town Still Talks About You, but it mostly went under the radar because country radio didn’t push it; it is notoriously unkind to women over the age of 35.
The pre-released tunes from this second album include the title track, a wonderful groove about love and stuff written with her pals Brothers Osborne, and the soaring Sheryl Crow-like Heroes, which opens the album. Conversely, Radio Silence is a chilling track about the difficulties in a relationship which paints the narrator as on the outside looking in.
New Madrid has Natalie singing near the top of her range about ‘the rift between us’ over a decent sonic bed, pronouncing the word ‘Mad-rid’ (as in angry). Lake Air shares the mood of Little Big Town’s recent work, as befits a songwriter like Natalie who can explore human relationships and deep emotion: ‘We were silhouettes, ghosts in the rain/ Every single word felt like a day’. I also like the metaphor on Pinwheel, ‘my head’s spinning, tilting on the whirl’, and the elegiac closing track Last Resort, which has a beautiful chorus and lyrics about shelters falling without warning.
Natalie has roped in some friends to help write songs for the album. Fellow Highwoman Maren Morris was in the room for Heart Condition, which has one of the album’s best choruses. Banshee (‘please leave my love alone’) and It Takes One To Know One were written with Miranda: the former has a spooky intro with whistling and a wordless middle section, while the latter has an unabashed pop chorus. Hardest Part About Business (‘is minding your own!), written with Sunny Sweeney, is driven by handclaps, Natalie’s double-tracked vocals and a banjo lick.
The album won’t be as heralded as Miranda’s, but it does show Natalie as a top songwriter who is finding an audience with some great songs in varied styles.
Ryan Hurd – Pelago
Mr Maren Morris, as he is forever known, has been knocking around as a singer/songwriter for several years, with tunes like To A T, Every Other Memory and Diamonds or Twine. All three of those songs are tacked onto the end of Pelago, Ryan’s debut album, which showcases his singing, songwriting and vocal prowess.
Ryan moved to Nashville to write songs, and was often in the room with Maren Morris before she blew up as a performer. Indeed, Ryan’s album opens with the pretty Pass It On, written with and featuring vocals from Maren as well as the hot-right-now Michael Hardy. The sunny optimism of the tune is very Kenny Chesney, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Ryan opens up for him next year. There is a C2C-sized gap in his tour dates, so expect to see him in the UK in March, crossing fingers.
It wouldn’t be his first visit: I caught him in London in 2018 in the All Bar One space playing tunes including You Look Good, which he wrote for Lady A. I don’t remember it but Ryan has been playing Chasing After You since 2017, a song which is on the album and which was a single that is now in the top ten at country radio. It is on course to get to number one and also to win a CMA Award, although Ryan didn’t write it.
Elsewhere on the album, sunniness can also be found on the singalong jam Coast, the reminiscin’ tune June July August and Palm Trees in Ohio. Ryan must have written hundreds of variations on the ‘I love you’ theme and this last one is probably one of his best, expressing the distance of his love until the elements stop working (‘when the Great Lakes run out of water’). I also like the line ‘there ain’t no way we can be platonic’, on the song of that name, though the chorus (‘oh yeah, hey girl’) is a bit immature for a man who is better suited to an older demographic.
Conversely, Ryan puts on a brave face on the strings-augmented Tab With My Name On It, while What Are You Drinking turns the bro-country trope on its head, as Ryan wonders whether his ex is on the wine or tequila, champagne or Tanqueray. It’s Adult Contemporary country produced immaculately by Ryan’s buddy Aaron Eshuis. Ditto I Never Said I’m Sorry, a triple-time tune full of penpics of a ruined relationship.
If I Had Two Hearts – ‘I’d let you break that one too’ just so his heartbreak can cease – sounds like contemporary country and could have been put on hold by any major-label act. It’s no surprise that Ryan’s A-list buddies Randy Montana and Will Weatherly, who are both often found in the brackets as songwriters, were in the room with him.
Ryan’s connections serve him well on The Knife or the Hatchet, a ballad written with Nicolle Galyon, Laura Veltz and Jimmy Robbins, who have all written with Maren too. Dierks Bentley had it on hold for ages but it reverts back to Ryan, who begs to be put out his miserable relationship and for the blow to be delivered either with the twist of a knife or a hatchet buried. This is proper songwriting by four A-Listers.
The two sides are brought together with melodic Shane McAnally co-write Hell Is An Island (‘without you’), where Ryan escapes from his ex by flying South, but not even sunshine can take his mind off her. Even the ‘strawberry daquiris’ remind him of the first time the pair met. Listen out for the autotune in the middle section!
What a mess Zac Brown’s career has been recently. It can be attributed directly to band lynchpin Wyatt Durette leaving to help Luke Combs write hits that capture the zeitgeist. Ten years ago it was the ZBB era, with the band playing wicked sets at Country2Country including passable versions of Enter Sandman and Bohemian Rhapsody. These didn’t sit well with the Jimmy Buffett-inspired beach jams like Knee Deep, Chicken Fried and Toes, which put the band on the radio regularly in the pre-Bro era.
Songs like Beautiful Drug and Zac’s Sir Rosevelt project with buddy Niko Moon (who co-wrote the mighty Loving You Easy) moved him away from country radio, while the likes of Chris Cornell popped up on albums which veered more towards blues and soul. Then Zac got divorced, released a panned solo album and an underwhelming album with the band, and now his new label Warner has told him to make some money. Return our investment, earn back our advance…
And so it comes to pass that the new ZBB album is called The Comeback, which may as well be called the Come to the Bank album. They’ll make their money from touring, not record sales as they did in the late-2000s, and so new songs need to slot into the old repertoire, like Coldplay or Adele. It’s exactly what accountants think Zac Brown Band sounds like, which makes it less art and more commerce.
Opening track Slow Burn, written with Peach Picker Ben Hayslip, opens with a riff and some band harmonies over the drum pattern from Clocks by Coldplay, while Zac sings about ‘young love and the radio’. The middle eight is the most interesting part of the song, rescuing it from being ploddy.
We were treated to that song and several others to whet fans’ appetites. Same Boat is Chicken Refried with a whistle solo, Old Love Song hops on the Frankenstein trend of naming lots of old songs in a brand new song, and Marcus King provides some blues guitar on the noodling, seven-minute Stubborn Pride, which is probably there to show long-time fans that the new label respects the jam. Out In The Middle was written with Luke Combs and you can tell, with plenty of rural signposts as well as being in Luke’s favourite key of D-flat major. The middle eight is the most interesting part of the song, rescuing it from being ploddy.
Praise be, Wyatt Durette is back in the songwriting room for several tracks on the album. There’s the warm ballad Wild Palomino, with its a cappella second verse and lush harmonies, the throwaway beach jam Paradise Lost On Me and title track The Comeback, where ‘if you hit rock bottom, the only way is up’ means more when you realise Zac went through a tough divorce relatively recently. Wyatt also helps out his old chums on the rifftastic GA Clay (which bursts into uncredited gospel vocals in the middle) and Don’t Let Your Heart, another carpe diem song which closes the album with a flourish that reminds me of The Band.
As seems to be popular on mainstream albums, a black performer features and, here, is credited! It’s Gregory Porter on Closer To Heaven, a marvellous midtempo ballad where they sing ‘goodbye to sad songs and hello to moving on’. Gregory may well have played similar festivals to Zac, like Bluesfest in London, so it’s not as wild a pairing as you’d think. The middle eight on this song anchors it nicely. Expect to hear it on the Radio 2 playlist by March.
Elsewhere, Any Day Now and Love & Sunsets both sound like classic ZBB ballads with plenty of heart and pretty arrangements – and probably the result of Warner Music asking for them as the contract stipulates – while and Us Against the World is a reminscin’ song with some heavy riffing and a wide-open chorus which would make it a decent radio single (the middle eight is great too).
Fun Having Fun, a surefire live favourite for their next tour, opens with a party horn and continues in a carpe diem fashion, with a superb instrumental middle section which briefly accelerates and catches the listener off guard.
Clearly The Comeback is the band’s best and most cohesive album in years, because it mimics what sold for the band at the start of their career. Whether by accident or design, or because Zac needs a lot of money to replenish his bank account, this is a great 54 minutes of music. James Daykin of Lyric Magazine has thanked him ‘for not being a dick anymore’; I would like to add thanks to Warner Music for helping remove that dickishness. Cash, as ever, is king.
Signed to Big Loud, Lily has been building fans throughout the year with her songs Villain, where she agrees to take the blame if that’s what makes her ex happy, and the melodically strong Remind Me of You, the latter written by four writers including Sam Hunt and ERNEST. Well done to Big Loud for letting a woman sing how ‘she don’t remind me of you’.
Joey Moi, who helped sculpt first Florida Georgia Line’s sound then Morgan Wallen’s, has kept the guitars in the mix along with contemporary sonic beds across the tracks.
As is the case with new acts, songs have been plucked off the shelves for her. We’ve also heard both I Don’t Smoke and Stronger Than I Am, pieces of self-actualisation and keeping on’ through despair. The syncopated delivery on the former makes me think of both Hunt and Wallen, while the melodic chorus (over digital drums) sounds like country radio. It’ll do well live, even if the chorus is a double negative, as Lily Rose finds new ways to say ‘You know I will’.
Lily Rose co-writes the final three songs on the EP: Know My Way Around, written with One Direction and Thomas Rhett collaborator Julian Bunetta and seemingly putting Lily’s life in a song; Breakin’ In opens with a verse where Lily wants to move on ‘breakin’ in this broken heart’, which seems a mixed metaphor because you break in NEW shoes, not old ones; and Whole Lotta Hometowns, a country-by-numbers tune that would have had Keith Urban-style production in 2002 but now has digital cymbals and all the modern trappings of country music.
It’s a great voice and Lily can direct her career to her liking, helped by the people who made Morgan Wallen ‘too big to fail’.
Emilia Quinn – Medicate EP
English singer Emilia told Lyric Magazine that she cried while recording the four tracks on her new EP. The tears were ‘closure’, of ‘being able to let go’ of the songs, and the cover of the EP shows her submerged like Ophelia in the Millais painting.
Her anxiety has provided fuel for her songwriting. High sounds like the Radio 2 playlist, with a brilliantly melodic chorus in which she wants to let her ‘vices take over’. The production is superb, especially in the double-tracked final chorus.
It is stark to hear three songs in triple-time. Worse Than Whiskey is a pedal-steel-rich tune on which Emilia sighs that ‘it’s hard to break through to your emotions’. The almost emo Pretty Pink Pills, which opens with audible tears, describes the beta blockers which she takes to cope with her mental health struggles, while Head Rush is sung tenderly to match how ‘your touch gives me life’.
This is supremely emotional music, which makes it country music with a folky tinge. I also recommend Girl Talk, a kickass countrywide collaboration with a variety of singers including Jade Helliwell and Emma Moore.
Erin Enderlin – Barroom Mirrors
A sort of songwriter’s songwriter who has a fan in Tanya Tucker, Erin’s new six-track EP was trailed by three singles, all of which I loved.
Somebody’s Shot of Whiskey includes a fiddle solo from Jenee Fleenor, some excellent vocal harmonies and a bumper sticker of a line that underlines the love between Erin and her partner. The heartbreak waltz If I’m Not In Hell reminds me of Brandy Clark in its lyrical expertise (‘I’ve never felt this empty in the middle of the day’), while If There Weren’t So Many Damn Songs is a country song about country songs that make it difficult to escape songs about barrooms and jukeboxes. Terri Clark adds her pipes to that song while Rosanne Cash guests on Cut Through Me, a song full of fiddle and imagery to denote the pain she feels. I especially love the line about roses reclaiming graveyards.
When I’m Drinking Whiskey is a timeless barroom lament where Erin says ‘this broken heart’s busy’ drowning its sorrows: ‘I’ve hit the bottom of way more than just this glass’ is a super line. The EP’s title track is a similar lament about how mirrors ‘tell the truth’ about ‘all the things you can’t undo’.
This is a cohesive set of songs full of rich instrumentation and country topics. More people should know a name which is respected and cherished, in the category of Gretchen Peters or Brandy Clark. That’s a writers round I’d love to see!
This isn’t a country album…It’s Shane McAnally Country, named after the successful ambassador for music in Nashville whose goal is to make money for the label whose act he has been entrusted to produce. Shane also runs his own imprint, Monument, who have hit big with Fancy Like by Walker Hayes. I would expect Walker to go out on the road with Old Dominion next year to capitalise on his success.
Experienced songwriters Brad, Trevor and Matt, together with bassist Whit and drummer Geoff, have done very well for themselves since Old Dominion broke through with their debut album Meat and Candy. They share management with Kenny Chesney and are good mates with Phil Vassar, which tells you what they sound like: country-inflected pop-rock with lots of soul and heart.
Recorded in North Carolina over a period of three weeks, this fourth album sounds like Old Dominion. No throat-singing or bagpipes here, as Matt Jenkins, McAnally and Josh Osborne help to shape the studio sound of a band whose music has been all over country radio since Break Up With Him broke them. One Man Band was the ACM Song of the Year while the album it came from, their self-titled third one, was up for CMA Album of the Year.
It’s odd that I didn’t love the third record as much as I did Happy Endings, the superlative second album which included live set mainstays No Such Thing As A Broken Heart, Hotel Key and Written In The Sand. Perhaps it was the fact that, as a pandemic project, they replaced the vocal tracks of album three with Matt going ‘meow’ that put me off, but it did show how strong the melodies of songs like Some People Do were.
The album title comes from the opening line of No Hard Feelings, where Matt is ‘more messed up than I care to be’ after a breakup. He seems to sing his cares away, as if Kenny Chesney has read a self-help manual and seen a therapist (‘the sun keeps coming up, baby, and I’m still breathing’). It’s good songwriting even if the bass slide is a little annoying.
The presence of tequila in the album’s title subtly reminds fans that the group have their own alcoholic beverage for sale, diversifying their portfolio in a time when this album will hardly sell any physical copies and they’ll earn back their advance through other means. They are a crack live band, as they showed in their weekly videos online recently, and the accordion-assisted song I Was On A Boat That Day will slot effortlessly into their show. I predict t-shirts bearing the line ‘drunk as a skunk eating lunch with a cross-eyed bear’.
Opening track Why Are You Still Here, about the memory of a girl lingering, begins with ‘everybody’s drinkin’. It sounds like the sort of ballad that clogs up Maroon 5 records, complete with a singalong chorus and some hand percussion. Far better is Hawaii, which may be a memory of being with that girl, with suitably island-y guitar lines and Matt taking both ‘another cold beer from your brother’ and ‘pineapple rum out of a coconut’ and wondering why he and his belle left paradise; ‘on mainland, things ain’t the same, man’. This sounds like ‘third single summer jam’ radio smash, and those Old Dominion writers know how to craft a radio hit to fill the slots in between commercials.
Drinking My Feelings is a tongue-twisting tempo track where Matt sings ‘you can keep your 12 steps’, finding therapy through alcohol. There’s even some cowbell. Walk On Whiskey sounds like a John Mayer cut from one of his early albums, with melancholy in the chorus: ‘They used to call us the life of party but now the party’s over way too soon’. This is an album for adults, with flecks of country but which could well find a home for fans who like Adult Contemporary country of the sort that Keith Urban and Tim McGraw make.
In Something’s The Same About You, Matt spies an old friend drinking tequila and tries to rekindle something from the past. The production is very smooth and the song is based on a loop, without much variation between verse and chorus. This happens a lot on the album and it makes me want more variety in the tracks.
Time plays a role in Don’t Forget Me, where Matt pleads his ex to keep his memory in mind: ‘I’ll be right here where you left me’ could also be a plea to a friend or child. Having written a song about shoes, it’s only natural to work their way up the body; Blue Jeans is funky filler with a musical and lyrical nod to George Michael’s Faith. I wonder if they will interpolate the latter within the former in concert.
All I Know About Girls fits with the theme of time, as Matt claims to know ‘nothing at all’ about girls. I suppose this is one way of writing a song that fits the trend of The Pedestal, putting women front and centre in the man’s life. Gladys Knight, who lives in Asheville where the band recorded, was the obvious choice to accompany the band on Lonely Side of Town, where the band’s stacked harmonies make an appearance over another smooth groove. Perhaps history will remember Gladys as a country singer; Midnight Train To Georgia is at root a country song written by Jim Weatherly. I’ll overlook the age difference between the singers (maybe Mickey Guyton will appear on another version of the song).
I Wanna Live in a House With You Forever sounds vaguely Randy Newmanesque, like a sitcom theme tune with its many chords and a lyric full of tomatoes, jelly and ‘a couple rugrats singing Buckle My Shoe’. I like the way Matt leads into the second chorus (‘here comes the chorus on cue’) and how he packs the syllables into the line, a mark of a great writer. There is a double key change, so I suppose I got the variety I wanted!
Ain’t Nothing Wrong With Love closes the album with an insistent riff and a philosophical examination of human relationships: ‘eggs and bacon’, ‘Johnny had June’, ‘even that dish ran away with the spoon’. Old Dominion’s domestic concerns have made their way into their songs. It’s a companion piece to No Such Thing As A Broken Heart, with a fun kicker that I’m not going to spoil.
As always, there’s much to enjoy, although Brad Tursi must be disappointed not to get a lead vocal this time round. I am sure the royalties will help soften the blow.
This is a cohesive collection of music indebted to American sounds (rock, Christian, pop) sung with conviction. George Strait Songs (‘by heart’) is a good place for this album to start, as Logan constructs a sort of Country Minecraft town called Prairieville. The backbeat is enormously thwacky and the vocal is smooth like that of Lee Brice or Mo Pitney. Jesus is mentioned in the chorus too.
The title track starts depressingly, with ‘for sale signs on just about everything’ but it’s ‘a pretty drive’. Logan is always pulled back in by the small town, and the music helps its cause, evoking rural America. ‘Some of the dust gets in your soul’ is a line that is as tremendous as the pedal steel solo is sweet. I can imagine George Strait having a number one with this in 1997.
River Road has one of my favourite sounds, a chugging electric-and-acoustic guitar overlaid rhythm that evokes Bob Harris Country (another one of my made-up genres). Logan reminisces about catching baseballs with Dad, rainstorms and hanging out, and I love how he draws the listener in with direct questions about their best memories. Follow Your Heart (‘right back to me’) is another well-produced chugger, as are the singalong pair of If You Get Lucky and We Ain’t Broke, the latter thanks to a groove which rides the cowbell!
I can’t believe there hasn’t yet been a song called Wine at the Church, Beer at the Bar but here it is. It’s a fun touch to start with the melody played on the organ, while every facet of rural life is spun through in the song, set to a looping riff. The organ comes back for the solo!
I Need Mike seems to be about friendship (‘the kind of guy that don’t laugh at your dreams’) which leads inexorably to the final verse about Mike’s passing. Tell The Truth is another thinker, with reference to someone ‘shining down’ on him. I Still Miss You has some heartland rock guitar and fine production, while Logan sings of being ‘too small town for big shows’. Gentle album closer It’s About Time starts philosophically, helped by a Mumford beat and an upwardly mobile chorus. It’s a record to cherish.
Olivia Lane – Heart Change
Olivia has rolled out a lot of this album in the modern style, with plenty of impact tracks released over a period of months. The songs are a result of a lot of introspection and therapy. I’ve been impressed with them, and her smooth vocal tone which is somewhere in between Jana Kramer and Carly Pearce. It’s less country than Adult Contemporary, aimed at grown-ups.
Olivia tells herself to stop living in her head and start ‘living instead’ on the track of that name. Nothing Changes is a series of challenges to her and to the listener, a sort of diary entry with the page left open, while I Let The Devil In is a spiritual conversation about how ‘misery loves company’ and has a very open arrangement with lots of echo on the vocal.
Woman At The Well skips along, with Olivia ‘drinking red wine all alone’ and lamenting her fate, ‘wondering how someone could love me when I can’t love myself’. Lauren Alaina has tackled these feelings on her last album, which makes this very topical. The title track preaches that ‘there’s a fine line between passion and hate’ and how it’s easier said than done to change yourself, which is ‘where the real fix comes’. It is one of several tracks which refer to ‘grace’ on the album, and the music is graceful overall, with lots of piano tinkling.
It’s a surprise to hear some poppy production on Sweet Sister (‘you got a good man’) and Why Don’t We, which reminds me of Suzanne Vega with the vocals right up front and lyrics about dancing too close ‘though we both know it’s a slippery slope’. Olivia wants the new friend to dive into love with her, and this will do very well in her live sets. It seems things have gone well, because the track Boy’s Still Got It follows along, with Olivia appreciating ‘his nonchalant air…he walks the walk, talks the talk’. It’s a wedding song supreme. Lois Lane, meanwhile, is a fun title because it’s the name of Olivia’s grandma who ‘found a Superman…in an Air Force uniform’.
The album ends with Break, a plea to be open with your emotions, to be ‘ready to change’. The album as a whole is full of emotion-driven pop songs, which in some ways can be classed as ‘country music’. I hope Olivia Lane finds her audience.
The County Affair – Off The Grid
How’s this for a tale, which I am sure is quoted in every review of the album Off The Grid: in the 1970s Tony and Kevin were The Rambling Boys, following Kevin’s dad, who was in a show band called The Moonshiners, onto the stage. The pair crossed paths in the States and played to crowds in Houston, Texas, before going West to San Francisco. They forsook music careers for the corporate lifestyle (a wise decision) with jobs in marketing and advertising, the latter with Quorn in quite a senior role.
Yet Kevin kept writing lyrics for Tony to write the music to, like a globetrotting Elton’n’Bernie, and in 2021 the pair have put together an album of rocking country music, using all that experience for half a century ago. I loved Nashville Storm Warning when I heard it earlier in the year; it’s another one of those songs which compare women to meteorological phenomena (with sound effects), driven by a lovely riff.
Off The Grid is similarly rockin’, a young man’s tale of living ‘nice and simple’ with a pretty solo in the middle, while Every Ghost (‘has a story’) is a great lyric which includes the line ‘cardboard cold life’ sung with a simple melody set to a chugging beat. It sounds like The Waterboys, another Celtic country-rock act.
There’s reminiscin’ on Beach (‘You said I had two left feet, better than one!’ is a nice punchline) and despair on Bourbon Breakfast, which is a hell of a title. The Seaview Inn is shot through with melancholy, with a wake taking place in the second verse and irony in the title because ‘there’s no views’ from the bar.
Often the melodies stick rigidly to the chord progressions, which means you can predict a lot of the shapes, as on Lying Next To Me (‘the truth’s all plain to see’) and The Waitress, where we see ‘cocky’ musicians through the eyes of the title character. The track which gives the duo its name opens with the line ‘Eight-track still played some old Johnny Cash’. There’s a nifty spoken word verse that sums up the ‘story of the county affair’, which is a sort of Ode to Billie Joe, full of mystery.
The album is full of accordion, which sounds great on that title track and on Playing Poker (‘I know I’ll bet again’), which is a proper roots-rock tune. It’s also sprinkled on top of Baby, a mournful tune, and is granted a welcome solo on album closer Go Tell Your Father, a proper Irish diaspora tune about leaving home or staying there. It ends on an interrupted cadence, which is the most musically fascinating thing on an album where the lyrics and music are in perfect harmony.
Every time I see the name Brandi Carlile, who along with Tim and Phil Hanseroth has been making fine, critically acclaimed music for 15 years, I think of an anecdote Marissa Moss told about three years ago. At a concert, a chap who didn’t know who she was gradually grew interested in Brandi’s music. ‘Hot damn,’ he began and by the end of the gig he was yelling ‘HOT DAMN! HOT DAMN!’ Even Brandi herself saw the message, which coincided with the success of her album By The Way, I Forgive You.
I had a similar reaction when I saw a video of her song The Joke, which I felt put her in the Jason Isbell class of contemporary performer. Country radio won’t touch her as she uses weird phrasing and long words, but satellite radio and Radio 2 have loved her. Like Radiohead, listeners hopped along for the ride and have embraced what she and the twins have been doing, which was a sort of definitive, emotion-and-storyteller American music like John Prine, Dean Dillon or Tom T Hall. The Eye (‘you can dance in a hurricane but only if you’re standing in the eye’) was my introduction to her sound, which had Brandi and the twins harmonising beautifully with lyrics about survival.
Since then she has definitely become the Mom figure of the genre known as Americana; with the passing of her hero John, Brandi keeps the pilot light flickering for a genre that barely existed when she started out, a genre of misfit toys for people without a genre, like her good friend Yola and the likes of Amythyst Kiah. Unsurprisingly, Brandi was named Artist of the Year (beating Isbell) at the Americana Awards recently, regaining the title she won in 2019 (beating Mavis Staples!). In 2018 she had lost out to John himself. She was also a quarter of the Highwomen, touring with the ladies and putting out a wonderful album.
And so, with relatively little fanfare, Brandi’s new album comes to market. She has a fan in Stephen Colbert, on whose Late Show she performed Hello In There as a tribute to John and promoted her memoir Broken Horses, in which she told her story of growing up and learning who she was. She has the iconoclast badge thrust upon her because there aren’t many openly gay parents in country music, but she is truly blazing the same trail that kd lang, Lucinda Williams and Isbell all blazed.
Right On Time was the impact track from the album, a torch ballad that may well become a modern standard. As she had done on The Joke, she addresses someone directly (‘of course you are…you’re the strongest person in the room’) and delivers a quivering vocal over a piano line which follows her vocal. More layers are added as the song continues and this will pack a punch when she tours the album. She and the twins head to Carnegie Hall in November to perform Joni Mitchell’s album Blue.
It’s hard not to think of Joni when you hear You and Me on the Rock, featuring duo Lucius, which is a love song featuring lashings of harmony. The middle eight is particularly good. When You’re Wrong also flutters and talks about time passing (‘tomorrow you’re a ghost…you forgot yourself so long ago’) in a manner of which Joni would approve. The album closes with Throwing Good After Bad, a song about grief and love. The use of the word ‘coyote’ must be another allusion to Joni, who had a song with that title.
I wonder if Brandi will join Joni in the pantheon of singer/songwriters. A song like Stay Gentle, which may close her gigs until the end of time, is a positive example. Instead of hardening the heart with age, why not stay innocent, she asks. It’s a deliberately simple song in the same tenor as Somewhere Over The Rainbow. Conversely, the political Sinners, Saints and Fools references immigration and doing things ‘by the book’. It’s a thesis in a song, with the album’s rockiest moments. Brandi has added Shooter Jennings to the production team thanks to their work on Tanya Tucker’s last album, which means Dave Cobb has a buddy at the desk.
Brandi’s memoir gives the song Broken Horses its title, and seems to distil Brandi’s credo in a song. There is plenty of lyricism: we get ‘puppetmaster’s rules’, ‘lukewarm water’ and ‘tried and weathered woman’ who is ‘tethered in wide open spaces’ over a bluesy progression (see what I mean by long words that would put off country radio listeners). She told Stereogum that she doesn’t really do emotions except onstage, where she channels them into her music. This might be her gift.
This Time Tomorrow is about ageing, perhaps a song to Brandi’s children that doubles as a song to any grieving listener: ‘You will know what it means to be lost and without love’ is a killer, true line, which is followed by cooing harmonies from Brandi and the twins. Mama Werewolf is another song rich in poetic language: ‘long, sharp teeth’, ‘river of fear’, ‘moon shines through those parting clouds’, ‘my silver bullet in the gun’, ‘they fought the beast I feel within’…It’s very John Prine or John Cash, even Bob Dylan, though I am sure Brandi would shrug those comparisons off.
Letter To The Past, the song which will become known as the ‘stone wall in a world of rubber bands’ song, includes more advice to ‘let it go’ over piano chords. I reckon it will follow The Joke in her live shows to bring the pace down. I hope to go see her and the twins if and when she comes to the UK in 2022.
90 minutes of music, with contributions from Pitbull, Snoop Dogg and Stevie Wonder, makes me think that this a hodgepodge even before I hear it. Trace is best known for the ballad You’re Gonna Miss This, and also being quite mean to women, and also winning the All-Star Celebrity Apprentice.
His new, exhausting album begins with Where I Am Today, a Peach Pickers track that’s one of their thinkers, as Trace sings of ‘sacred ground’, ‘a goodnight kiss’ and ‘staring at the sunsets a little longer’. Luke Bryan or Blake Shelton probably had this, and many of the album’s tracks, on hold. Trace is in their vein, a country boy singing about life.
Similarly, Barry Dean and Brothers Osborne wrote The Way I Wanna Go, which mature performer Trace picked off the shelf. I would love to hear TJ duet with Trace, as their voices complement each other well. The brothers also wrote the fun Big from Trace’s 2020 EP Ain’t That Kind of Cowboy, which at six songs was too short. Here, the album is too long, and it’s a shame that there are eleven tracks after The Way I Wanna Go, which would make a closer for a tight collection. Perhaps you can Choose Your Own Trace Adkins Adventure if you cherrypick your favourites.
Country signifiers are plentiful on the ploddy rocker Cowboy Boots and Jeans. Jon Nite, Michael Hardy, Zach Crowell and Hunter Phelps churn out songs every day that namecheck Carolina and California like Somewhere In America, which Trace sings admirably. The Randy Montana co-write Jesus Was a Hippie is a meaningful conversation in a bar that Trace sells really well. Trace himself co-wrote It All Adds Up To Us, where ‘two soft hands and two that are rough’ are compared to other things which make a perfect pair.
There’s a lot of great imagery on Careful Girl, the kind of song the radio doesn’t play in 2021 but which has the hook ‘you’re gonna wind up in a song’. Empty Chair sounds like a classic and will appeal to men who have watched Trace at a US Overseas show. There’s plenty of pathos on You’re Mine, an old-fashioned country melody with a fine vocal performance and a lyric about letting the past be the past, and I Should Let You Go, which sounds like a Garth showstopper.
Love and stuff is also represented on the album by Heartbreak Song, where Trace keeps turning the dial to find a song ‘to share my pain’; Finding My Groove, a middle of the dirt road ballad with soft acoustic guitar and a rhyme ‘needle on vinyl/rescue-me revival’; Live It Lonely (‘if I lost my one and only’); Cowboy Up, a neat song where Trace pinches himself at how lucky he is to have his belle; and Honey Child (‘I’m gonna love you old school’), which uses the backing vocalists expertly.
A collaboration between Paul Overstreet, Kendall Marvell and Dan Auerbach led to Cadillac’n, a charming driving song where ‘baby’s on my right, wind in her hair’. Alt-rock pinup Melissa Etheridge duets on the power ballad Love Walks Through The Rain, a song co-written by Marla Cannon-Goodman with orchestral flourishes. Memory To Memphis features a harmonica solo from Stevie Wonder and bluesy wailing from Keb Mo, while Trace tells about his trip across America to get an ex out of his mind.
It’s a Good Thing I Don’t Drink has Trace pleading his own defence on ‘a harmless joke’ between three friends. It includes the word ‘fornicators’ in the chorus, which is a very Trace Adkins word. Like Toby Keith, he’s the kind of guy (at least in her persona) who doesn’t take any prisoners. Another standout track, which first appeared on a 2011 album, is If I Was a Woman (‘I’d love a man like me!’), where Trace and his great mate Blake Shelton trade quips over a sort of honkytonk Buble sound.
Got It Down was gifted to him by Craig Wiseman. Trace is ‘still hanging tough for another round’, chuckling to himself before a verse dedicated to his ‘baby’ and the arguments they have. Like Toby, Trace’s voice is full of character and I wish some of the contemporary voices had even HALF as much. I love the ad libs at the end of the song too, as Trace demands ‘a big old country-and-western ending…not exactly what I had in mind’. The album closer Welcome To is another Wiseman co-write (perhaps rejected by Blake?) which frames a visit to a small town as ‘between the Welcome To and the Y’All Come Back’.
I wonder if Snoop Dogg has heard of Hank Williams and George Jones, who are both namechecked on the duet So Do The Neighbors, which may well use the same backing track as Where My Country Girls At, the dopey tune with Pitbull and Luke Bryan collecting a big cheque for doing not very much. Similarly silly is Low Note, where Trace advises the listener to tell their boss to shove it and ‘leave ‘em on a low note’, matching the lyric with his deep vocal tones.
No Trace Adkins fan will complain about hearing 25 tunes. Morgan Wallen has spent most of this year enjoying the fruits of his 30-track album, while Jason Aldean is preparing a hybrid 30-track set with 20 originals and 10 live versions of his hits. The future is music, and lots of it, and Trace is in on the act too. He’s got plenty of gigs lined up in 2022. I wish he’d find time to come to the UK!
The man who wrote Whiskey Lullaby and Tin Man hasn’t put out music under his own name since the mid-2000s. Jon is beloved by many in Music City and I wouldn’t hesitate in calling him an heir to the Guy Clark style of lyrical songwriting. He is well known as a producer for Dierks Bentley, Parker McCollum and his wife Jessi Alexander, and was one-third of the gang who put out The Marfa Tapes in May 2021 (whose concert for Austin City Limits went out on October 2).
Having initially put out an EP, Jon’s self-titled set contains nine tracks which showcase his art. Ranchero stands out because it’s a two-minute instrumental that shows Jon’s chops as a guitarist who has played with Lyle Lovett and Emmylou Harris. Girls From Texas, written with Shane McAnally, was a duet between Lyle and Pat Green a decade ago where the argument is that there are fine girls everywhere in America; ‘girls from Texas are just a little bit better’. No explanation is necessary and Jon ropes in Jack Ingram for assistance.
Jon has picked tunes which are less Nashville and more Red Dirt, full of gravitas and depth. Opener Keep On Moving is a troubadour’s song by a narrator who doesn’t care what other people think (I wonder if it’s autobiographical). The Road sits at the end of the album as a sort of ring composition, a trucker’s hymn full of imagery and character. The UK government should use it as an anthem to encourage people to take up truck driving.
Driving To Mexico also takes place on the road, ‘driving till I run out of gas, out of luck, out of road, out of time’, trying to shake the memory of an ex. Perhaps it’s the girl in Tequila Kisses he is trying to escape. The song is gorgeous, full of reminiscin’ about a riverbank romance with a girl speaking ‘in broken English’, implying that Spanish is her first language and making tequila a sort of metonym for a Mexican woman.
The solo acoustic Acapulco Blue is another reminiscin’ song where Jon tells of playing music for tips to buy rock records and gasoline. Now the car of the title is worn and rusted, ‘memories I’ve lost’ stored up in the glovebox. That is one hell of a line, from a master craftsman.
Streets of Dallas is full of loneliness, helped by Jerry Douglas’s dobro. Jon is ‘down to my last 20 bucks’ having pawned his guitar watching ‘two strangers getting high’ and feeling the rain from a raging storm. Velvet Elvis Buzz includes a well-placed swear word with Jon seemingly addicted to a woman who serves to ‘trash my house and kiss me…You taste like nicotine, sweat and sweet perfume’. It’s a real turn of events for Jon, and he seems locked in a groove. I’d love to see him do it live, and with his friend Miranda due in Europe next spring, I hope he can hop on the bus too.
Several top songwriters help Sam write 11 of the 12 tracks on an album which introduces me to a fab new voice who opened for Tyler Farr a few years ago. This is Sam’s third album, whose title track opens it up. There’s a mix of squealing guitars, real snare drums and a fine melody which takes the trope of ‘this town loves to talk’ and adds four familiar chords to it. I adored Song About You when I first heard it, with its E Street Band circa The Rising feeling, and I like the effortless, frothy melody of Bar Last Night.
The songtitles are punchy as the guitars and lyrics which show personality and attitude, Colt Ford-style; Colt, who produces the album, wrote ur-Bro Country tune Dirt Road Anthem which Jason Aldean. Me and Mine is full of raised cups, skinning catfish and deer and how ‘Bocephus got it right’ about country boys. Sam sounds like Tyler Farr on Boy Like Me, a power ballad which could have gone to radio at any time in the last 20 years. Ditto Better Than Me, a moving-on song where Sam hopes his ex’s new beau is an improvement on Sam himself, as he puts himself down. On You Ain’t Gone he spots his ex’s ‘old shampoo, hairbrush and makeup’ after she left him. It’s basically 7500 OBO by Tim McGraw without the truck.
Go Right Now is another of those songs where the singer does country stuff with his Dad in the first two verses and then sees him die in the third. (Oh, come on, don’t shoot the messenger: country music templates are as old as time itself and I grabbed a tissue just after the first chorus!) This will be a key song in his live set, which UK-based country fanatics would love.
Grew Up Red ticks off those country signifiers as a thousand other songs do: ‘dirty work, honest dollar…calloused hands’ and messing around on tailgates. It even rhymes boots/roots in a way that I think is mandatory in a song of this type. Still, it’s three chords and the truth and that’s country. Kiss My Ass is another song like a thousand others, preaching loyalty to the American flag and not brooking any argument. You can imagine the guitar chords even before you hear them; it’s the country equivalent of putting ‘devil’s chords’ in a heavy metal song about Satan.
Texan songwriter Terry McBride helps Sam write the gentle Little House, where ‘it don’t take a mansion to find what’s really important in life’. It’s a triple-time ode to small-town life where Jesus pops up in the second verse. The album ends with Whiskey Bound, a ‘pour me another one’ song that could be sung by Matt Stell, Mitchell Tenpenny or Chris Young, country radio catnip where the schlub mourns another one gone.
Sam Grow might get less radio play than these major-label heartthrobs, but there’s much to enjoy on This Town.
In the first two parts, I introduced Scott and the talent he pushed on Big Machine, including Thomas Rhett and Taylor Swift. In the third part, I talked about the variety of acts signed to the group’s labels, including some Legacy Acts. The final part deals with the sale of Big Machine and where the label stands in 2021…
Track 7 Big Machine Today
2021 saw the release of the third album by an act who opened up for Lady A in 2019. Carly Pearce got her start singing Dolly Parton songs at Dollywood and her 29: Written In Stone project has moved her from a so-so artist to a big hitter. Every Little Thing was her first number one in 2017, and in 2019 she took a Luke Combs co-write I Hope You’re Happy Now to the top.
Also in 2021, Big Machine had three successive number ones at radio: Thomas Rhett’s What’s Your Country Song, which hopped on the trend that saw songs name other songtitles to form a new song; Lady by Brett Young, a song dedicated to his daughter and his wife in equal measure; and Long Live, a Florida Georgia Line song by numbers. TR’s album Country Again, like Lady A’s new album, has been delivered in two parts, as Big Machine realise fans like lots of music in bursts rather than waiting too long for them as a full album.
Oddly, for C2C 2022, only Brett Young is on Big Machine of the acts announced for the main stage. Teenage act Callista Clark will, however, play the B-stage in London on the Saturday, so I expect she’ll press flesh and do a lot of gigs onsite for her first C2C. She was born in 2003, the year before Taylor Swift sent her demo to Scott Borchetta, and her song It’s Cause I Am has spent most of 2021 in the Country Airplay chart (as I write this the song is at 25).
Among current label employees is Flo Myerscough-Harris, daughter of DJ Bob. She works as a Label Assistant in Big Machine’s UK base. It was underreported that Hybe bought the holding company that runs Big Machine in April 2021. Talking business means I must rehearse the argument between Scott and Taylor Swift back in 2019, headlined ‘Let the games begin!’ by Rolling Stone who reported on the feud.
That holding company, Ithaca, was owned by Scooter Braun, the manager of Justin Bieber and Dan + Shay, which is why 10,000 Hours was not as surprising a collaboration as you’d think. In November 2018, Taylor Swift became a free agent after 13 years and six albums with Scott Borchetta, opting for Republic Records who are now helping her re-record those six albums. Following Fearless earlier this year, 1989 comes out in November. This was the album that won Album of the Year at the GRAMMY Awards, her first proper pop album which was mostly a collaboration with Max Martin and Shellback. We’ve already heard the new version of Wildest Dreams which isn’t wildly different from the original but fans are encouraged to listen to that new version.
Scott was forced to defend himself on the Big Machine website with a blogpost in which he confirmed that his offer to extend the deal in 2018 was ‘extraordinary…She chose to leave’. In June 2019, Ithaca bought Big Machine and thus the masters, which means today Taylor Swift’s masters are owned by the guys who run BTS’s career.
As for Big Machine themselves? Their big priorities include the aforementioned Callista Clark, while Bob Harris has been playing tunes by Laci Kaye Booth, former oilfield worker Heath Sanders (basically Luke Combs) and the long-haired ‘retro contemporary’ Brock Gonyea in recent months, who reminds me of former Big Machine act Drake White, another casualty of the Dot Records shuttering. Drake was perhaps a few years ahead of his time. He’d fit right in with Riley Green, whose soppy songs like I Wish Grandpas Never Died and tempo tracks like There Was This Girl are Luke Combs pastiches. Tyler Rich, meanwhile, is Brett Young with a different face.
Realising there needs to be at least one non-white act on the label, Scott has signed the excellent Tiera and the teenage country poppet Kidd G, whose debut album Down Home Boys seems to be targeted at 14-25-year-olds attracted to digital drum loops, as appear on the title track. It is a deal with many hands, including Florida-based Rebel Music and Geffen, the same label that brought the world Olivia Rodrigo. ‘Kidd is a Southern boy who will blur and ultimately stretch format lines,’ gushed Scott on Big Machine’s involvement. Expect to hear Kidd’s music on country radio alongside the likes of 7500 OBO by Tim McGraw – who has returned to Big Machine after a difficult year elsewhere – and the terrific waltz Sunrise Tells The Story by Midland.
Irritatingly for Big Machine, their other teen-targeted band Avenue Beat are bringing out their debut farewell album on October 15, announcing their split before it has even been released. They are best known for F2020, where they complain about the pandemic in a poppy way.
On the Big Machine website, there is a page titled Music Has Value which sends users to the charity arm of the label. Fifteen grants of $10,000 are to be given to people who want a start in the music industry ‘in both rural and urban areas’. One of those went to United Sound, which helps music education for special needs students. I suppose when you have made millions you have to give some of them away.
Scott Borchetta remains one of the most impressive executives in Music City. I am sure when he writes his memoir it will be full of stories which place him side by side with Taylor Swift, the artist who succeeded as music became digital rather than physical. His role as CEO of Big Machine is as much a sinecure as anything else, a position of grandeur which means he can add his expertise as a sort of hyperconsultant. Thomas Rhett is the homegrown star while Tim McGraw and Lady A (as they are now called) are acts who make music that sounds eerily close to their greatest hits.
That, after all, is where the money is made these days: not the recordings, but the performance. Now that the people behind K-Pop ultimately own Nashville’s country stars, expect some terrific music as Music City opens itself up to the world. Scott, of course, is delighted that he still has new worlds to conquer.
You can listen to all four parts in one place here.
In the first two parts, I introduced Scott and the talent he pushed on Big Machine, including Thomas Rhett and Taylor Swift. In the third part, I talk about the variety of acts signed to the group’s labels, including some Legacy Acts…
Track 5 All Things To All People
Because of all these blokes, it seemed almost calculated that a response record of sorts would become a talked-about discussion point at the end of 2014. Girl in a Country Song was released by Maddie & Tae, who signed onto the Dot Records imprint of Big Machine. The song namechecked various trends spotted by Grady Smith and published in a famous viral video; he noticed that country stars called girls ‘girl’, drove to the nearest riverbank and told the objects of their affection to ‘slide’ over in their ‘cut-off jeans’. Unfortunately label politics meant that it took many years for the girls to follow up their first album, by which time they were both married. They now have a home on Mercury Nashville, alongside Chris Stapleton.
The Shires were also signed to the imprint and Scott showed them off in a 2017 BBC documentary on the rise of country music. Country2Country had begun in the early 2010s and, year on year, had attracted more fans to Greenwich, me included. Big Machine had a booth in the Town Square offering grip’n’grins with acts, goodie bags and competitions, and it is no coincidence that a Big Machine act has been on the main stage every year. Tim McGraw and Brantley Gilbert showed up in 2013, Rascal Flatts in 2014, Brantley in 2015 and both Maddie & Tae and Thomas Rhett in 2016.
Also on the main stage in 2015, right in the middle of Peak Bro Country, were Kip Moore, Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line. At the time FGL were on a joint deal with Republic and Big Machine which also had The Band Perry, Martina McBride and Sunny Sweeney on its roster, but were fully on the latter for their third album Dig Your Roots. It included a collaboration with the Backstreet Boys (God, Your Mama, And Me) and the groups would also appear on a CMT Crossroads show together. Cruise remains one of the songs of the century so far, and I don’t know how much money it made for Scott Borchetta. The duo kept releasing music to diminishing returns; in 2021, Tyler Hubbard is preparing a solo career and in 2020 teamed up with Tim McGraw for Undivided, a plea for universal brotherhood which they performed on a telecast to celebrate the inauguration of President Joe Biden.
Scott Borchetta’s politics are not something we really know, but it is interesting that Aaron Lewis, formerly of the band Staind, is signed to Big Machine. ‘I believe in the First Amendment. My job has never been to tell my artists what to sing and write about,’ Scott wrote in a letter published, humorously, by Bob Lefsetz, the man Taylor Swift wrote Mean about. ‘To just “cancel” Aaron is ridiculous,’ wrote Scott, because ‘Aaron’s message is speaking to millions of people…Be loud and be heard.’ Incredibly, the song Am I The Only One hit number one with no radio promotion.
Aaron is one of many rock acts affiliated to Big Machine. The Cadillac Three are led by Music Row songwriter Jaren Johnston and put out bluesy-rock albums which connect with live audiences. Tucker Beathard’s song Rock On is a ballad full of regret that did well at radio; Tucker’s dad Casey is another fine Music Row writer. Steven Tyler of Aerosmith put out an album on Dot Records in 2016 featuring the powercharged Red White and You (‘Bang bang baby like the fourth of July’); Jaren was one of the songwriters on that project.
Track 6 Icons
New wave band Cheap Trick also signed to Big Machine on a three-album deal between 2016 and 2017, though they returned to BMG for their recent release. Scott was pictured with Motley Crue in a publicity photo around the time he was mentoring contestants on American Idol. The Cheap Trick signing seemed to be part of the Borchetta strategy, signing up legacy brands to the label and looking after them in their twilight years. Wanda Jackson’s last album Encore was put out by Big Machine in collaboration with Blackheart, the label belonging to album producer Joan Jett.
Talking of legacy acts, Reba McEntire headlined C2C 2017 to promote her album Sing It Now, listed as Christian Country/ Gospel. Reba has aged out of country radio, which is really unkind to women over the age of 40, and spent many months in Las Vegas playing Fancy and other smashes. Reba was on MCA in the 1990s when Scott was there, but she told him that she was ‘done’ when he approached her in the 2010s. Scott managed to convince her to be the star artist on Nash ICON, which also housed Hank Williams Jr and Ronnie Dunn and was backed by another major organisation, Cumulus, who are key players in country music media. ‘Let’s play a new Reba next to an old Reba’ was his pitch for a new radio station (still on air as 95.5 NASH ICON), which led to a deal for new Reba tunes. 2019’s album Stronger Than The Truth was led by the single Freedom.
In the meantime, when it comes to new acts, Brett Young became the label’s token beefcake. His albums of adult contemporary country songs are precision targeted at women in the 25-54 demographic. Songs like Sleep Without You, Mercy and Like I Love You all dealt with masculine vulnerability. There is a Christmas EP on the way which follows an ordinary EP.
UK country fans will swoon to such songs at C2C 2022, where Brett returns having first visited in 2018 as part of a bill which included Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, who themselves put out an album of adult contemporary country songs precision targeted at women in the 25-54 demographic. One of them, The Rest Of Our Life, was written by Ed Sheeran.
At C2C 2018 were Sugarland, the duo who brought out their record on Big Machine which featured Taylor Swift collaboration Babe, and Midland, the fake country band featuring Fearne Cotton’s former flatmate and a guy who directed the video to John Mayer’s Last Train Home. Danielle Bradbery, who signed after success on The Voice, played the smaller stage. A deal with La’Porshe Renae, runner-up on American Idol, went nowhere, while The Voice winner Craig Wayne Boyd has been more successful making children (he has five of them) than as a recording artist, with his one hit My Baby’s Got a Smile on Her Face dropping off the charts entirely as a one-week wonder.
Brett’s ballad Here Tonight was written with Charles Kelley from Lady A, who played C2C 2019 as Big Machine artists and are about to release their second album on the label, titled What A Song Can Do. Notably the trio held a press conference at the event with members of country media where they spoke about being on the label, ‘a fresh new start for us’ and having lots of freedom in writing what they want to write according to Dave. Charles added: ‘They were supportive and encouraging for us to take our time and be a bit more honest.’ It didn’t hurt their status that Champagne Night, the song they worked on as part of NBC’s Songland show, did so well that it climbed all the way to number one on the Country Airplay chart, with the pandemic changing the promotion of their album Ocean.
(As a footnote, which is why this paragraph is in brackets, Scott brought a music show to Canadian TV called The Launch in 2018. A top artist like Shania Twain, Bryan Adams or Ryan Tedder would mentor a set of young acts who would all be given a pre-written song. Only one of the 12 songs was a hit on the Canadian charts.)
You can listen to a radio version of this piece here.
In Part One, I introduce Scott and Big Machine, whose teenage superstar Taylor Swift impressed with her first few releases. In Part Two, she goes supernova.
Track 3 A Call To Max
For her next trick, Taylor Swift moved into the pop charts properly with songs that were more production driven. This was down to Scott, who felt that the album was like a country producer doing a pop song, which it was. Rather than Nathan Chapman at the desk doing his award-winning thing, Red needed that Max Martin feel from tracks like I Kissed A Girl. At Taylor’s instruction, he rang up Max himself and helped Taylor follow her muse. ‘I got you, let’s go,’ he told the Canadian Music Week interview. ‘The first rule of Taylor Club is: Don’t talk about Taylor Club,’ Scott said, shutting down a question about any of the subjects of her songs.
We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together was Taylor’s biggest UK hit since Love Story, which got to number four in 2009. Better still for Big Machine, who had already turned six Taylor Swift songs into top ten hits, it was Taylor’s first Hot 100 number one. She had broken into Lady Gaga’s stratosphere and it was time for Big Machine to expand their portfolio.
Scott and Big Machine helped Garth Brooks debut at number one with the song More Than A Memory, from his Greatest Hits – the phrase ‘game recognises game’ springs to mind – but Garth had his own streaming service on his mind and that was his only collaboration. Before they also went independent, The Mavericks put out two albums on Big Machine: Big Time (2013) and Mono (2015). The former features the lovely Back In Your Arms Again.
The big signing of the 2010s was Tim McGraw, who had finally extricated himself from his Curb Records deal and released Two Lanes of Freedom in 2013. At the time, Taylor was still (just) a country artist and she sang the hook ‘I can’t live without you baby’ on the Tim McGraw hit Highway Don’t Care, which featured a guitar solo from Keith Urban, himself an artist who had one foot in the pop market thanks to appearing in celebrity magazines with his wife ‘Nic’, Nicole Kidman. Taylor’s love life is well documented in such magazines and on record, and I am sure Scott encouraged this.
Interestingly, We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together was number one on the day country radio charts separated from the Hot Country chart. Thus there could be a sales number one and an airplay number one, and any plays on pop radio would count to a country song’s Hot Country position. This is why Cruise, Meant To Be and Burnin It Down all had long runs on that chart, whereas several songs could climb to the top on radio.
In 2011, Trigger at Saving Country Music first called Scott ‘the Country Music Antichrist’. He explained himself in a piece from June 2012. Scott had bent country to his will, diluting the ‘purity of genre terms’. How dare he call pop act Taylor and faux-outlaw Justin Moore country acts? When Taylor won the CMA Entertainer of the Year in 2009, he raised the white flag.
‘If the prototypical Music Row executive can be visualized as the gray-haired man with a steak-and-potatoes gut spilling out of his navy suit, then Borchetta is the in-shape, sleek guy in a tight-fitting black spandex shirt taking office Yoga breaks and ordering in sushi.
‘As the traditional labels in Nashville have been lethargic in their attempt to keep up with trends, Borchetta has been running circles around them, pilfering their talent rosters and penning historic deals that will re-shape the music industry for years to come.’
Aware of his reputation, Scott told American Public Radio in 2012 that he was ‘just the current one in a long line of being considered trying to kill country music…Our entire goal,’ he added, ‘is to make something that moves you.
‘If you don’t want to call it country, I don’t care. That doesn’t matter to me,’ is a perfectly sensible thing to say when you spent the first two decades of your life in California, where you learned about plugging records.
Always ahead of the curve, Scott signed a deal with the radio organisation Clear Channel (now iHeartMedia) which ‘will earn performance rights for his artists when they are played on the radio’. This was useful when Cruise was about to explode into the biggest country song of the decade so far. He also worked with the great Irving Azoff in a management company, which proves the depth of his connections in the industry.
As Taylor leapt across to pop with her album 1989, Scott needed to fill the gap on country radio where songs like Shake It Off, Blank Space and Bad Blood (all number one smashes on the Hot 100) couldn’t land. Of course Taylor’s country audience followed her to the pop charts but there needed to be young country singers who were inspired by the superstar who, according to journalist Chet Flippo, had brought this entirely new audience into the genre. Scott would counter that Jessica Andrews did something similar with Who I Am and, with other female artists falling off the rails, Taylor slid into the gap in the market with her acoustic pop.
In 2014, Brantley Gilbert brought his cutprice Aldean style into the charts with songs like Bottoms Up, from his second album Just As I Am. It also featured the song Small Town Throwdown, a rotten collaboration with labelmates Thomas Rhett, son of songwriter and co-writer of that song Rhett Akins, and Justin Moore, whose shtick was that he wore a cowboy hat.
Between the three of them, they kept Big Machine on the radio. Indeed, TR started his run of solo number ones with Get Me Some Of That, one of the many tunes where the protagonist complimented a girl in a bar. The first line of his hit Make Me Wanna from 2015 had the line ‘FM on the radio’ and a video of him grooving around in various outfits, while Crash and Burn took more inspiration from Sam Cooke’s Chain Gang than from tunes by any country act.
The song was co-written by Chris Stapleton, who would explode into national consciousness in the same year. Chris also wrote the pop-rock tune Keep On Lovin You by Big Machine signing Steel Magnolia, a number four hit in 2009. The duo had won CMT series Can You Duet but fizzled out due to personal problems.
TR’s Die A Happy Man, a shameless rewrite of Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud, ruled the opening three months of 2016, and I liked T-Shirt, a fun tune which namechecked Guns N’ Roses in the chorus. It wasn’t country in the slightest – nor was much of the album Tangled Up, from whence these songs came – but it still went to country radio because it was Scott Borchetta Country.
Lori McKenna gifted Tim McGraw (and Scott) the song Humble and Kind, which won awards and was turned into a picture book. I wonder if Scott was eyeing the moves of Dan + Shay, who had their first hits in 2015 under the auspices of manager Scooter Braun, closely. Shay Mooney co-wrote I Like The Sound of That, for Big Machine act Rascal Flatts, a song which namechecked Justin Timberlake in the first verse and had a middle eight with the line ‘turn your radio on’.
Justin Moore, meanwhile, took Lettin the Night Roll to the top which, as with Jack Ingram’s hit from 2005, had our hero driving a car. The lyric was about sunsets and girls looking ‘so damn good climbing up in my Chevy’ in a very contemporary style that filled radio slots in between commercials and helped shift concert tickets. His other number ones include Somebody Else Will and recent smash We Didn’t Have Much, the latter with more traditional country production and instrumentation as befits the current trend. Scott produced his last album Late Nights and Longnecks, which featured the singles The Ones That Didn’t Make It Back Home and Why We Drink.
Like TR and Brantley, Justin’s music is released by Valory Music, which was opened because Scott didn’t want 20 acts on one label, especially if they were all being pushed to country radio. The name is an alternative spelling of Valerie, the given forename of June Carter Cash, which inspired Scott.
If The Shires and The Wandering Hearts are in the top tier of UK Country music, then just beneath them are three acts who are vastly experienced on record and in the studio.
Over 2021, with gigs at both Buckle & Boots and The British Country Music Festival, Tim Prottey-Jones has been honing a set which includes tunes like Fire, Until I Do and Good Life. He also brought out a cover of The Joke by Brandi Carlile, singing the first chorus a cappella and silencing a room that would chat all the way through Gasoline & Matches.
Tim’s tunes combine poppy hooks and wonderful vocals, and in a solo gig he had to point out where the guitar solos usually occurred. Tim, of course, is one of the gatekeepers of country radio thanks to his Chris Country Homegrown show, making him more than just mere talent, and he is openly grateful to the UK scene for embracing his music. Drinking For Three, his set closer and a middle finger to the obstetrician who told him he’d never become a dad (‘my son just turned three!’), sounds like a smash.
Sally and Steve, the duo who perform as Gasoline & Matches, played a set of softer songs which fit two acoustic guitars. Their 2021 has already included a studio version of Never Have I Ever, performed here with a dash of Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Old songs like The Artist, about a breakup, and Not Into Country show fine interplay between the vocalists and the guitars. Steve’s soloing was exceptional and he is an asset to the UK scene. They played a full band show Under The Bridge in Chelsea at Nash Nights, where it’ll be too loud for the crowd to talk over.
Katy Hurt headlined the wee venue in Islington which often puts on country acts (I’ve seen Phil Vassar do his thing there. I think she’ll headline a festival next year, after her appearance in Blackpool on the main stage. In 2016 I saw her perform at Buckle & Boots in the middle of the afternoon and was very impressed with how her voice floated over some heavy guitars and drums. With more years of gigging behind her, she is even more confident onstage as she celebrated the release of the first single from her debut album.
‘I’ve been waiting a decade!’ she gushed, but is still not a full-time performer, having to do lots of grunt jobs to pay the bills. She puts her experience into the aforementioned single Sounds Good In A Bar, with its four-note singalong riff proving a well-chosen first cut from the album. Judging by the rest of the set, there is a panoply of fine melodies, particular opener Believer. These sat alongside old chestnuts like See Ya Later, now with added dance moves, and Drink. At the end of one song Katy went right up to the top of her range, rivalling musical theatre pro Tim for expertise.
At one stage Katy lamented her decision to headbang while wearing lipgloss, with her long hair sticking to the makeup. The high point of the set came with her career song Unfinished Business, where she was overcome by emotion and had to compose herself before the second verse.
The band make a lot of noise, even if drummer Joe had a bit of Lars From Metallica syndrome, standing up to thwack the tom-toms. Gab Zsapka, whose lead guitar work rivals Steve’s, was sensational when he stepped a foot to the left to take a solo, with Katy shimmying away behind him.
When I look to compile my UK Country Festive Fifty in December, I will remember the showmanship and prowess Katy showed. Keep your eyes open for the album announcement from the hard-working, hard-Hurtin’ star.
Sounds Good In A Bar is available to stream and download now
What links these songs: Highway Don’t Care by Tim McGraw, Mean by Taylor Swift, In Case You Didn’t Know by Brett Young, Cruise by Florida Georgia Line, Die a Happy Man by Thomas Rhett and Rewind by Rascal Flatts?
They were all released on Big Machine Records.
One man is responsible for a genre which I am naming after him. It’s at the intersection point of pop, rock, country and even blues, and which he has monetised to an astronomical level. He even became the story at one point, when his star artist complained about selling on the masters of her recordings.
He is the music business equivalent of someone like Bill Belichick, the football coach who was behind the success of the New England Patriots, or Scott Rudin, the man who produced all the great movies of the last 40 years (The Social Network, Wes Anderson’s movies) and helped bring The Book of Mormon to Broadway. Let us not mention the allegations of very poor behaviour to his staff.
This series, which is also available to listen to here, comes in four parts.
Track 1 Who is Scott Borchetta?
Scott Borchetta grew up around the record business in California. His dad Mike was a plugger for acts on Capitol, Mercury and RCA Records, working with the Beach Boys among others. Given that those three labels had branches in Nashville, it was easy for Mike to move across to Music City in the late 1970s, especially because he had separated from Scott’s mum.
In a 2011 essay for the New York Times, Scott described how college ‘was not for me’ and ‘I was looking for a way out’ from playing in rock bands in LA. He visited his dad in Nashville and was briefly the bassist in a country band (‘almost as a dare’) before quitting because they were ‘going nowhere’. In the daytime he was a mailroom boy at his dad’s company, while coming up against club owners ‘who didn’t know the music business’.
Mary Tyler Moore had set up her own label, MTM Records, and Scott worked there for three years in the late 1980s. Like his dad he hopped between labels, working with Universal, MCA and DreamWorks. Scott tells his story in a Youtube video interview in conversation for the 2018 Canadian Music Week. At MCA Nashville ‘we did a billion dollars’ breaking acts like Vince Gill and working with ‘edgier’ acts like Marty Stuart, kd lang and Dwight Yoakam. At DreamWorks, he helped Randy Travis have some hit records.
Ultimately Scott grew ‘too involved in the creative process’ for some executives and was frustrated with the egotism of the discrete parts of a record company: ‘This executive can’t talk to you about publishing because they’re in marketing.’ Scott pats himself on the back for doing the grunt work on the road while his bosses stayed in the office: ‘You have to be on the street and see what moves people,’ he notes sagely.
Thus in 2005, following his dad’s example again, Scott went solo, with help from the money and influence of Toby Keith. He met the teenage Taylor Swift in 2004, having opened her demo package and having seen her at the Bluebird Café, ‘just completely knocked out at how smart she was at 15’ and how good the songs were.
She had a development deal with RCA but Scott convinced Taylor (‘the Michaelangelo of the era’) to sign with him a year later, after he had left Universal and set up his own label. He heard hit single potential in her song Picture To Burn, which made the tracklist of her debut album.
Alongside Taylor he took Danielle Peck with him after she was dropped from DreamWorks. She had three country hits including I Don’t and Findin’ A Good Man. The former is a power ballad produced by Tim McGraw’s longtime producer Byron Gallimore, who surrounds her twanging voice with middle of the dirt road acoustic-pop country. The latter is a tempo track with some insistent riffs, which had an accompanying music video that is very much within the mid-2000s style of hot girls and guys in a bar. The line ‘if you hear me, girls, raise your hand’ positions her in the Gretchen Wilson mould, because that was making a lot of money in around 2004.
Track 2 The Big Machine Cranks Into Gear
As Scott was developing teenage Taylor, he worked Jack Ingram at radio. Jack had put out six albums while touring the bars of Texas and was able to come to market in Nashville with a live greatest hits set which included a studio version of a new song called Wherever You Are. The music video makes clear that it’s a driving song because Jack is either in or leaning on a car while complaining that ‘I’m missing you’ as the desert wind blows. It’s the sort of alt-rock that made the charts in 2000, now pushed to a country audience. It worked, and the song was a number one in May 2006.
The charts that summer included songs by Jason Aldean (Why), Rodney Atkins (If You’re Going Through Hell), Brad Paisley (The World), Kenny Chesney (six-week number one Summertime), Dierks Bentley (Settle For a Slowdown) and, intriguingly, a version of Who Says You Can’t Go Home by Bon Jovi featuring Jennifer Nettles, whose band Sugarland would one day sign to Big Machine. The Wreckers had a smash with Leave The Pieces; they were a duo featuring one of those alt-rock acts from around 2000, Michelle Branch. Carrie Underwood was preparing her smash hit Before He Cheats, and Scott was preparing to launch his own Carrie. He also worked with Trisha Yearwood, Sunny Sweeney and Jewel.
I remember being up at Edinburgh in my second-year flat and hearing Our Song being played on the radio as the current country music number one. Our Song, Taylor’s ode to ‘riding shotgun in the front seat’ of her beau’s car, topped the chart over Christmas 2006 into January 2007. It is a 100% Swift tune, with music and lyrics by her. It followed the ballads Tim McGraw and Teardrops On My Guitar onto the radio and persuaded kids to listen to her debut album, which came out to little fanfare in October 2006.
Quite incredibly, it would sell so well that it made the top 20 of the US Country Album chart’s end-year list in 2007 (number three behind Carrie Underwood and Rascal Flatts), 2008 (second only to the Eagles comeback album), 2009 (number six, when her follow-up LP Fearless was number one) and 2010, when it was still in the top 20 bestsellers. It is a measure of her success that Speak Now finished third after being released in late October, while Fearless was beaten only by Lady Antebellum’s Need You Now.
In 2007 and 2008 Taylor was not yet starry enough to headline her own shows, so in country music style she went out on the road with several A-Listers; first Rascal Flatts, then George Strait (the most successful singer on radio in recorded music), Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley and Tim McGraw/Faith Hill. Nobody could escape Taylor and, by 2009, she was entrusted with her own tour, where Justin Bieber played eight songs as an opening act.
How many executives would allow their star signing to write their third album with no outside help? Scott Borchetta allowed Taylor to produce Speak Now, which was rolled out with six singles to country radio in a period of eighteen months. Only Garth Brooks and Shania Twain could do something similar before her, although Luke Bryan and Luke Combs would also get lots of success from a single album.
Speak Now went platinum in its first week, debuting right at the top of the Billboard album chart in a very good year for country music. New albums by Zac Brown Band, Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney and Lady Antebellum did well in an era dominated by Eminem, the cast of Glee and, incredibly, Susan Boyle. Propelled by the Grammy nominations, Speak Now returned to the top of the charts for the four weeks at the start of 2011, and it must have impressed secret indie kid Taylor that cult band Cake knocked her off the top.
The fact that Kanye West, another act with a chart-topping album, had interrupted her MTV Video Awards acceptance speech in September 2009 was also useful at getting her name out to the general public. All the same, he was right about Single Ladies being a more memorable video than You Belong With Me.
The setlist for her Fearless and Speak Now tours between 2009 and 2012 was already a Greatest Hits set: You Belong With Me, The Story Of Us, Mean, Our Song, Teardrops on My Guitar, Love Story, White Horse, Fifteen, Fearless, Picture To Burn and Should’ve Said No all featured, as did interpolations of songs by One Republic, Train and Jason Mraz, all of which were played alongside Taylor’s tunes on pop radio. This was all the more fascinating because Taylor was still a country act first and foremost, though those days were soon to finish.
Part Two takes us through the pop career of Taylor Swift and the acts who replace her on country radio, including Justin Moore and Thomas Rhett, who are pushed by Scott.