Country Jukebox Jury LP: Cody Johnson – Human

November 29, 2021

How long should an album be in the streaming age? Chris Brown has the record, I think, with 45 tracks, while Morgan Wallen has dominated the year with Dangerous, a 30-track double album whose promotion has been disrupted by the video of him using a bad word.

Cody Johnson would never use the word Morgan used. While Morgan is Too Big To Fail, like a bank circa 2008, CoJo seems to be the Radiohead of country music, the biggest act not to be a Big Act. While Thomas Rhett and Luke Combs stay in heavy rotation on country radio, which helps them sell concert tickets, CoJo recently tried to break into the pack but Dear Rodeo, a brilliant song from his last album Ain’t Nothin’ To It, stalled in the twenties. At least On My Way To You, an outside write from Brett James, broke the Top 20, while other songwriters to be given the CoJo treatment include Chris Stapleton, Radney Foster, John Osborne and Casey Beathard.

Grady Smith produced a short video essay on CoJo, who compares the ‘former rodeo rider turned sturdy country star’ to a popular TV show like Law & Order, whose success you cannot begrudge. Expanding his brand, Cody has just brought out a new cologne as well as a biographical film and these serve to complement the release of Human, the second album as part of his Warner Nashville deal.

Impact tracks included the bouncy, fun trio of Treasure (‘beauty’s in the heart and not the eye/rust is just another shade of silver’), Let’s Build A Fire (written by Chris Janson) and Longer Than She Did, which was written by Eric Paslay, Paul Sykes and Matt Stell. This may serve Matt in good stead; if his own major-label deal goes south, at least he’s in with CoJo.

Added to these three tempo tunes are Honky Tonk Hardwood Floors, which is in the Luke Combs vein and dares you not to dance and drink, and Driveway, where a series of rural signposts involving grandma and grandpa and hickory trees build up a picture of CoJo’s version of heaven.

Also in his corner are Willie Nelson and Vince Gill: Sad Songs and Waltzes (‘aren’t selling this year’) is an old Willie tune which suits what Cody wants to do with his music while Son of a Ramblin’ Man is one of Vince’s. Harlan Howard’s tune I Don’t Know A Thing About Love was a hit for Conway Twitty; CoJo turns it into a Mayer/Stapleton-type funky soul jam, and I hope more major-label releases honour the old guard of country to keep their name alive (not that Harlan ‘Three Chords and the Truth’ Howard will ever be forgotten).

The title track is an outside write from Travis Meadows, and it’s a meditation by a musician who apologises to his girl ‘if I get kind of careless with your heart…I’m still learning to be human’. The song was deemed so important to the project that it not only gives the album its title but it’s placed at the very top of the set. In the week of release, Human was the nineteenth biggest-selling album in America, ahead of the safe country-rock of Old Dominion.

Til You Can’t, written five years ago by Ben Stennis and Matt Rogers, will win awards next year. The writers think Cody is the new Garth Brooks because of his tremendous live performances; this song will pop live because of the crescendo in the final minute (more dynamic shifts in country music, please!!) and the carpe diem message of the lyric: ‘If you got a dream, chase it cos a dream won’t chase you back’. The recording was more powerful because Cody had recently lost his lieutenant, guitarist JT Corenflos.

Alongside these two songs is another one Cody will be playing every night for the rest of his life. I Always Wanted To ends the album’s first side. It’s a song Cody has said is the saddest song of all time, written by the team behind The House That Built Me. The protagonist is in his nineties and his life had a wretched middle and end, with unmade memories and untaken pictures. I expect this will be his career song and I wonder who passed on it (McGraw? Shelton? Brooks?) because it was too sad. CoJo might single-handedly ensure sad songs and waltzes get back in fashion. I would put this song alongside Whiskey and You and Cover Me Up if I were doing a country music version of Les Miserables. There’s none of the resolution of Live Like You Were Dying, which means the song is Red Dirt rather than Nashville, a true Texan composition.

God Bless The Boy is dedicated to Cody’s daughter Cori, and it’s a pretty country song full of heart and fiddle which imagines his future son-in-law, who must ‘have a sense of humour’ to deal with Cori for whom ‘ain’t no boy ever gonna be good enough’. It’ll be a song to cuddle with at CoJo gigs, as will Stronger, the sort of tune Jason Aldean used to make before he rested on his laurels, in which Cody’s masculinity is trumped by the ‘lighthouse’ of a woman.

The reminiscin’ song When It Comes To You is the inverse of Cody’s hit On My Way To You, and I imagine this was on the shelf for a while, which doesn’t make it any less of a super country song about hearts ‘born to win or born to lose’. Scotty McCreery could have had a hit with it, for example, or Chris Young. Every track on this album is better than Chris Young.

There are only four CoJo-written tunes here, which is probably a condition of his major-label deal since the majors have staff songwriters creating hits for a voice like Cody’s to sing. Made A Home sounds lush, especially with an opening lyric ‘poured the concrete, cut the two-by-fours’ that sounds like something CoJo would actually do – unlike 96% of today’s country stars, who are just singing haircuts.

Cowboy Scale of 1 to 10 is a rollicking good spoken-song which compares people to hotness of peppers. Cody is backed up by four fellow Texans (Corb Lund, Ned LeDoux, Red Steagall and Dale Brisby) who help to run the listener through the scale, with a pretty boy at 1 and a member of the armed forces at 10. The rocking love song Known For Loving You is a clapalong anthem written with Peach Picker Ben Hayslip and Trent Willmon, a former star who has now moved behind the scenes. Even if CoJo is known ‘from here till Timbuktu’ or if he’s on the cover of the Rolling Stone, he’d rather be known for being the partner of his wife.

The 100%-er By Your Grace ends the collection. ‘I’m aware of everything that’s wrong with me but you still accept me anyway’ can be country or gospel of Christian music but, to my mind, it’s the essence of Red Dirt music. It’s a confessional song where Cody is guided by the Lord who has ‘paid every debt I owe’. His voice soars in the chorus, with a gospel choir alongside him, and this may become a sleeper hit if it’s marketed the right way or gets the attention from being included in his set where he opens for Luke Combs in 2022 in stadiums. Which is admittedly a step down from the Houston Rodeo.

Regardless, this is a well-realised set of songs (perhaps three or four tracks too long) that showcases every side of Cody Johnson. He might not have the platinum records that Luke Combs does but he is everything that mainstream country music should be: heart, empathy, family, melody and a fantastic voice.

It’s up to us whether he rises or falls.

Ka-ching…With Twang – Bluegrass Music in 2021

November 25, 2021

Bluegrass – the mountain music form invented by Bill Monroe a few generations ago and advanced by the equally trailblazing duo Flatt & Scruggs – has a hardcore following who protect the sound and try and advance it.

Every few years someone pops up and makes headway outside the genre. Nickel Creek were teenagers who brought some vim to the genre in the 2000s, around the time that Dan Tyminski’s voice was put into the mouth of George Clooney in O Brother Where Art Thou, which introduced huge audiences to Ralph Stanley and Alison Krauss. Steve Martin has used his celebrity to bring his comedy fans into the genre, and is as acclaimed for his banjo playing as for being a ‘wild and crazy guy’.

The International Bluegrass Music Association are the flagbearers for the genre, ‘honoring tradition and encouraging innovation’ as the IBMA says on their site. Based in Tennessee, they have a Hall of Fame which in 2021 inducted Alison Krauss. She joins New Grass Revival, Tom T Hall, Ricky Skaggs, Del McCoury, John Hartford (Gentle on my Mind), The Carter Family, The Stanley Brothers and so many more. Rhonda Vincent, picked as a recent Opry member, is sure to follow soon, as is a regular Female Vocalist of the Year, Dale Ann Bradley. She was formerly part of the supergroup Sister Sadie. They have just been named Vocal Group of the Year for a third year in a row.

Bob Harris introduced me to Molly Tuttle, the first woman to win the IBMA award for Guitar Player of the Year (in both 2017 and 2018). In 2019 that award went to Billy Strings, who repeated the feat a few weeks ago and did even better by accepting Entertainer of the Year, which was won last year by Sister Sadie. I recommend both of their self-titled albums, which showcase excellent musicianship and vocal distinction.

Billy, even above Sister Sadie, is the sound of contemporary bluegrass. His album Home impressed many, while he teamed up with Luke Combs in 2020 on the well-meaning tune The Great Divide. Luke hasn’t named Billy as one of his support acts for 2022, probably because Billy is playing his own headline shows to promote his album Revival.

Starting at aged four as a kid in Michigan, he played with his dad at parties and got involved in jam sessions. (The man was actually his stepdad as his birth father had overdosed on heroin when Billy was two.) The house became an ‘all-hours drug den’ and Billy’s guitar would turn his parents’ focus onto him rather than the mess surrounding him.

Meanwhile he started to appreciate virtuosi of the rock guitar like Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix, learning about heavy music and answering to the nickname Boomer. At 14 he left the den to better himself; another 14 years later and he counts the great Bela Fleck as a friend. ‘This music needs a fresh jolt once in a while from someone who comes in from a different angle,’ Bela says of ‘lightning rod’ Billy, who has spoken about the racism inherent in the bluegrass scene.

His Native American auntie gave him the new moniker, which stuck when he moved to Nashville five years ago. At that time he gave up alcohol too, something he told the New York Times. You know you’re a big deal when you get a Times profile: ‘He has zigged and zagged between the form’s antediluvian traditions and rapid-fire improvisations…all within songs with hooks so sharp that he seems poised for crossover stardom.’ His lyrics contain ‘disarming simplicity’, while he is engaged to be married to his tour manager.

The album itself should bring in rock listeners much as the somewhat psychedelic rock of Home did. At 16 tracks, it looks like a rock album. Some moments, carefully chosen, opt for woozy production techniques and I imagine every review of this album mentions the closing lines of Heartbeat of America (one of those tracks): ‘Now I’m seeing music that nobody else can see/ With all the colors like a symphony surrounding me’.

The two impact tracks were In The Morning Light and Fire Line. The former is a love song to his fiancee, ‘a wonder to behold…captivating’ even though ‘I’m not sure that I deserve the love that I receive’. The latter has elements of Pearl Jam in Billy’s growling about how he’ll ‘drain the rivers dry’.

Elsewhere it’s straight-up, faithful bluegrass where fiddle, percussion and guitar mesh brilliantly. Red Daisy crams a lot of notes into 160 seconds, while The Fire On My Tongue (‘is for those who die young’) and Hellbender are both enormous fun, even if they make drinking seem like the last thing you want to do when times are tough.

The closing minute of the nine-minute opus Hide and Seek, which features some dissonant fiddle and some chromatic guitar lines, quotes a text message sent by a friend before their suicide. I was also struck by Love And Regret, a reminiscin’ song where the guitar matches the lyric: ‘The house of silence in the light of the moon brings to me a sense of ease’. Verse three brings owls, coyotes and ravens, as well as a namecheck for Gentle On My Mind writer John Hartford. I hope people are introduced to the album through this song, as it’s a winner.

Ditto Nothing’s Working, a modal lament with a pentatonic, folky feel (‘she’s feeling dismal…take time to listen to the quiet ones’) and there’s an anthemic quality to Leaders, with its singalong refrain and simple campfire riff. Ice Bridges reminds me of Grappelli and Reinhardt, with its gypsy feel.

The Assembly Hall in Islington next March 26 or 27 will be the place to be. It is, of course, returns only.

Sierra Ferrell, meanwhile, comes to the genre with the album Long Time Coming, which is on the esteemed Rounder Records that puts out folk and roots music from all sorts of artists. Surrounded by flowers on the album cover, we are ushered into Sierra’s world.

Sierra tags Billy in as well on the song Bells In Every Chapel, a waltz where his nimble fingers stand in for the subject of the song, a guy who was ‘the one for me’. There’s clarinet and trumpet as well as mandolin on the Norah Jones-y At The End of the Rainbow, which must have been a lot of fun to record and ends with Sierra begging to be given a man’s love.

West Virginia Waltz properly evokes the title, conjuring images of ‘true love waiting’. Far Away Across The Sea repeats a Cubano rhythm and Buena Vista-ish trumpet part, while Silver Dollar is a toe-tapper with a neat fiddle part and Give It Time goes heavy on the banjo, steel guitar and old-fashioned harmonies.

The opening track is called The Sea, which begins with a theremin-sounding sawed bowed instrument before glockenspiel and fiddle come in. The production, as with the track Why D’Ya Do It, reminds me of Pink Martini, with a gypsy-jazz feel. The Sea slides into the light bluegrass of Jeremiah, which is delivered with a vocal full of character and charm, similar to those of the First Aid Kit girls or Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley. In Dreams is alt-country rock with a charming siren vocal from Sienna (‘won’t you sit down…you look so tired’) and backing harmonies from the inestimable Sarah Jarosz. I replayed it instantly, twice.

There are touches of the greatest songsmiths (Dylan, Mitchell, Carlile) on Made Like That, a song of fidelity which is soaked in three-part harmonies and T-Bone Burnett-style percussion to frame the lyric. ‘I’ll fix all of your bridges I have watched you burn to the ground’ is some line. The song has a sad coda where Sienna sings of leaving West Virginia, which leads into the closing track Whispering Waltz. The song is elemental, with water, fire and earth all present, with the narrator in tears and heading to the river ‘with the ashes of a letter’. It is disarmingly simple and I reckon she could sing this a cappella like a folk song.

Sierra has realised her sound, one which her voice is compatible with. Live, she will be as sublime as Billy Strings, and she is also on these shores in January with two gigs at the tiny church in St Pancras in London and one at the Celtic Connections jamboree up in Glasgow. The London gigs are sold out and I expect BBC Radio Scotland will carry the Glasgow gig.

She’ll be back.

Country Jukebox Jury EPs: LOCASH and Townsend

November 8, 2021

LOCASH – Woods & Water EP

LOCASH are one of those acts who get songs placed on country radio but aren’t household names. Their success seems to come down to knowing the right people. Their first big hit from 2015 was the overly positive I Love This Life, written with Chris Janson who also helped the duo write Truck Yeah for Tim McGraw. I Know Somebody (written by Ross Copperman), Ring On Every Finger (written by Thomas Rhett) and One Big Country Song (written by Ashley Gorley and Hardy) were all plucked off the shelves and sung by the pair who used to be called LOCASH Cowboys.

This five-track EP includes their first new material in almost three years. Beach Boys picks up where country-popper Brian Kelley’s last album left off: ‘Let’s take the country to the beach, boys’ is the command, while they interpolate I Get Around on the post-chorus and the famous harmonies to such an extent that Brian Wilson and Mike Love will get royalties from a tune which namechecks Brooks & Dunn. I like the line about getting ‘some red on the rednecks’ and how they smuggle Kokomo into the middle eight. It’s smart but you don’t need to hear the studio version more than once.

Sippin’ Sunsets (good title) compares the ‘golden’ view to the boys’ beloved, with another languid melody. Having introduced the water, In The Woods turns the phrase ‘it’s all good in the hood’ to a rural setting. It sounds like one of those Rhett Akins tunes that, in one form or another, is on country radio every hour of every day. The digital drum loop ruins what could have been a really good acoustic pop song, full of catchiness and smart lyrics.

Indeed Rhett is called up with his Peach Picker buddies Ben Hayslip and Dallas Davidson on Small Town For Life. As you can well imagine, it’s a series of rural signifiers, so country bingo cards at the ready: jeans, boots, red dirt roots, trucks, praying for rain, daddy, ‘my back home girl’, amen. The vocal interplay reminds me of Holloway Road, who would make a good opener if LOCASH tour their music in the UK next year.

Chillionaire (not a good title) lopes along with both a whistling hook and a ‘sit/sip’ pre-chorus hook that will pop live. It’s country-pop hip-hop in the modern style which rhymes ‘cheddar/go-getter’ and builds to a chorus full of laziness. Florida Georgia Line could have cut this in their golden days of 2015; it feels vaguely nostalgic now. I hope there’s still a place for this in the market. The style will never go away but it’s in direct opposition to the current trend, as this is fun music for parties and gatherings.

Townsend EP

The main point to note for this EP is that five years ago Townsend lost her drummer and collaborator. The album Show Me Home came out in 2018 and now, along with a podcast, there are five new tracks on a self-titled EP.

Stay was the impact track, which had hints of confessional songwriting from the 1990s – Counting Crows, Fiona Apple and Liz Phair for instance – with wide-open production, a chugging instrumental section and yearning lyrics sung with a keening melody (‘I need love…I don’t want to stay’). It’s country in as much as she’s telling a story and drawing in the listener, but it’s on the rockier, poppier side.

The rest of the EP continues in a similar vein, which will interest fans of Brandi Carlile, for instance. Can’t Travel has Townsend saying ‘I blame myself’ over a train beat and a simple chord progression, while Whisper has another familiar progression (the Don’t Stop Believing One) and adds a chorus full of empathy and melody, with some vocalised scatting to accompany some nice exhortations: ‘Keep your eyes shut tightly…Don’t worry, baby stop your shaking’.

Scars (which ‘made me, me’) is a story of self-examination that 1000 open mic singers have sung but is made interesting by another great development section in the middle. I loved the short, sweet Sunrise, which adds some rhythm to a pretty melody, and would love to hear more than 19 minutes of what Townsend has to say.

The aim of her podcast is to ‘encourage people to feel less alone’. Her music does the same.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Asleep at the Wheel and Sturgill Simpson

November 6, 2021

Asleep At The Wheel – Half a Hundred Years

Since 1969, Ray Benson has employed almost 100 hired hands in his quest to keep Western Swing in the musical sphere. It is a selfless and altruistic aim which has gained him a cult following; Van Morrison was an early supporter, while Willie Nelson did a whole album with them in 2009 called Willie and the Wheel. The band have also brought out two sets of Bob Wills interpretations, acknowledging the King of Western Swing.

Their new project is a mix of old and new, making it the closest thing to an Asleep At The Wheel live show. The old include: their very first single Take Me Back To Tulsa (‘I’m too young to marry!!’), which here features George Strait and Willie Nelson; The Letter That Johnny Walker Read, their biggest hit; the charming Bump Bounce Boogie, first recorded in 1975; a version of the Bob Wills classic Spanish Two Step, which includes the original Playboys Jesse Ashlock and fiddler Johnny Gimble; and a pair originally recorded in 1976, Miles and Miles of Texas (where Austin is praised as ‘the cradle of the West) and Route 66.

The title track opens the set with Ray singing ‘I’ve been round the bend!’ and namechecking ‘Buck and Merle’, as well as Willie, to the accompaniment of horns, piano and some neat guitar fretwork. As ever, it’s fun and gets the toes tapping. Ditto Miles and Miles of Texas, which is music to be played by anyone wanting a good time and praises Austin, ‘the cradle of the West’ and my cousin’s new home city.

Ray has gotten the band back together to celebrate the half-century. It’s The Same Old South and My Little Baby (with a self-referential line about girls crying as if it’s a country song!) has warm vocals from a woman who was part of the group in its early days, Chris O’Connell. Old timer LeRoy Preston sings on three of his own tunes: the laid-back and sombre Paycheck to Paycheck; The Photo, which sounds like country music from the 1950s; and the excellent I Do What I Must.

Lyle Lovett, a fellow Texan musician, helps Ray out on the bouncy Benson composition There You Go Again. Willie and the great Emmylou Harris adds her wonderful voice to album closer The Road Will Hold Me Tonight, a waltz supreme where the trio of voices mesh delightfully.

Other highlights on an album smattered with marvellous melodies and the usual virtuosity include Word to the Wise, where Ray and Bill Kirchen (‘these two hicks’) trade quips before Bill pops up to sing his self-penned set of morals. That’s How I Remember It has grand piano chords and a self-consciously classic melody and lyric about holding memories in your hands.

On the other hand, I Love You Most of All (When You’re Not Here) sounds exactly like you think it does, a proper jive of a tune (with a few bars of saxophone solo) when absence truly makes the heart grow fonder (‘I think it’s time to wander!!).

Ray Benson, it occurs to me, is the American equivalent of Jools Holland. It is crazy that the whole of America isn’t in thrall to Ray (the leading Jewish light in American swing music) the way Jools’ Rhythm and Blues Orchestra are a Christmas institution today. Hootenanny!!

Sturgill Simpson – The Ballad of Dood and Juanita

Slipped out with very little fanfare, country maverick Sturgill has popped out a concept album which, if rumours are to be believed, completes his career catalogue of five albums. In recent years he has made a straight-ahead rock album and two volumes of bluegrass versions of his country catalogue, while becoming an independently minded star who accompanied Chris Stapleton on guitar on a Saturday Night Live performance thanks to their mutual friend, producer Dave Cobb. (Find the review of Cuttin’ Grass: Volume 1 here:

Co-produced by Sturgill with David Ferguson, the album opens with a military drum beat and whistling, introducing an old-fashioned tale, set in ’29 (1829 or 1929, I suppose each can apply), set in ‘the old Kentucky hills’ about Dood, ‘son of a mountain miner’, and his ‘one true love’ Juanita.

Over 28 minutes, we get banjos, fiddles, block harmonies and Sturgill’s fabled Appalachian tenor voice. After two albums where he reinvented his rock songs as bluegrass music, Sturgill takes us on a cinematic voyage of sound. The meet-cute is described in the song One in the Saddle, One on the Ground, where it’s revealed the pair create two children, Dood was ‘working the plough far away from his rifle’ but couldn’t stop the bandit knocking him out (‘Dood crumpled down’) and Juanita snatched. He leaves his children ‘till Daddy returns’. Thus we have a bardic quest, accompanied by bluegrass instrumentation including harmonica, fiddle and bass.

Dood’s horse Shamrock and his dog Sam both get their own song in the tradition of hundreds of old songs describing the American West. The horse ‘stood about 19 hands’ and there’s even the jaw’s harp boinging away and some coconut percussion in the mix, while the banjo solo serves to move the narrative along and keeps the mood focussed on the quest. Sam, however, doesn’t survive the journey and there’s a funereal a cappella song to underline that ‘the runt of the litter’ was ‘wonder of all walkers’.

Between those odes is the song Played Out, a slow song in 12/8 time full of prayers to the Lord: ‘Don’t let this journey be all in vain’, Dood sings of his woe, sagging on his horse with ‘shoulders throbbing’ at a high vantage point to try and spot the dastardly bandit.  

As for the Tejano-flavoured Juanita, Willie Nelson joins in to further reach back into the past (bear in mind he is 88 years old) and provide support for Sturgill’s narrator, who reminisces about their love: ‘You are the ocean, I am a grain of sand’. Go In Peace starts with a bluegrass hoedown and tells of a meeting with a blind Native American chief who, incredibly, now has possession of Juanita. So it must be 1829, as the Natives had been put in reservations by 1929 (GCSE History!).

In the third verse, the pair are reunited (hence the hoedown) and the military drumbeat returns to send them on their way, as Dood and the bandit, Seamus McClure, meet for a showdown. This time, of course, Dood has his rifle and he ‘let that iron ball fly free’. He doesn’t kill him first time but, tomahawk in hand, makes sure of it the second. They all lived happily ever after, though I hope the kids didn’t create too much mayhem back on the homestead.

The fact that an award-nominated star can put this record out in 2021 gives me hope for independently minded music.