In late November 2021 the BBC World Service broadcast a documentary about country music. It’s unlike any other country doc that has ever aired before, certainly from a UK broadcaster. It taps into the issues within and outside the music industry, asking whether the genre is moving beyond the ‘white male image’ (as with every other industry you could name and indeed put a 45-minute show for the BBC together).
For the last few years, I’ve seen fewer pieces about melodies and many more about representation. In that time, a few black acts have risen to the top in Nashville. Jimmie Allen won a CMA Award for Best New Artist and is GRAMMY nominated in the same category; Kane Brown is a regular on country radio; and Mickey Guyton is gaining exposure and plaudits for her debut album, which is ‘fine’ (A Country Way of Life). As for Rhiannon Giddens, she is fast becoming the Professor of Country Music thanks to her research into the origins of the genre in the USA.
I argued at the end of my review of Remember Her Name that the beneficiaries of Mickey Guyton’s long-delayed breakthrough will be other black artists. I previously pondered whether Blackamericana would work as a term to be told, no, these acts are country acts. Segregation, in music as in the 1950s, is foolish.
There is, naturally, a political element to the coterie of black acts following in Mickey’s slipstream: it’s to make country music more representative of America. It was Geoffrey Himes whose piece about ‘Afro-Americana’ inspired debate, especially the lines ‘flood of Afro-Americana albums’ and ‘a large crowd of the flawed and mediocre’. This was deleted in the rewrite, as Paste Magazine admitted that:
‘Due to a breakdown in our editorial process, a previous version of this piece contained racially insensitive language that fell short of Paste’s standards. We sincerely apologize for the oversight, and will retain the updated piece to serve as a reminder of our intent to recognize reader feedback and accept responsibility when we falter.’
The Nashville Scene’s end of year poll, curated by Himes, could not be run in 2021. As musician Jake Blount responded: ‘Black people have always been a part of Americana because Americana was built with our sounds.’ Indeed, Himes’ creation of a new genre serves to make black acts ‘compete with one another in the Negro leagues…[He] is not the first white man to see too many black people moving into the neighborhood and respond by building a wall and shutting the gates’.
I feel this was too big a reach, but then I’m not who Jake Blount is and he brings his experiences to bear as per journalism today. He does have a point, regardless.
The Black Experience
The other main story of 2021 (besides a mullet-haired chap caught on camera using an unspeakably awful word) concerned the Black Opry’s founding. There was a Black Opry house at the recent Americanafest where artist supported one another; the next step is to get the rest of the (non-black) world to listen, and to find common ground rather than arguing every point (which they have every right to do).
To return to the World Service documentary, it’s the kind of show that includes sentences like ‘before we talk about race, let’s talk about gender’ and ‘you stay true to your art regardless of genre’ and ‘people tried to step up’ and ‘it’s an overwhelmingly white space’ and ‘there’s a huge black influence which is often forgotten’. This is very much typical of what the BBC’s cultural output is like in 2021. It doesn’t make it any less true but these buzzwords are everywhere and about time, too.
The show was presented by British act Lady Nade, a Bristolian raised by a white mother and grandma. It featured talking heads including musicians Alison Russell (‘I am extremely genre resistant’), Rhiannon Giddens (‘You can hear Africa and Ireland’ in a banjo) and Yola (‘the industry should hire more black executives’ to ensure her skin is lit appropriately). Rissi Palmer notes the erasure of black voices in country music, including the A&R man for the Carter Family and the man who taught Hank Williams how to play guitar.
We’ll see Rissi in the UK at The Long Road festival next September when she brings an all-woman line-up, acts to be confirmed, to the Front Porch stage. Rissi recalled the farce of being asked to choose a love interest for a music video, but because she couldn’t have either a black or a white one she was left ‘rolling around in the sand by myself’!
Journalist Andrea Williams also appears on the documentary. She complained after the show was broadcast, as an attendum to the show, that black women have to work with white musicians and producers to get anywhere. I like Andrea, who has also set up a database of black instrumentalists, but you have to wonder when she will find happiness and contentment with her activism.
Fun fact: Alice Randall, another interviewee, was the first black woman to write a country number one. Born in Detriot and Harvard educated, Alice co-wrote XXXs and OOOs with Matraca Berg ‘in about 45 minutes’, which namechecks both Aretha Franklin and Patsy Cline. Randall is best known as a writer of fiction and who bigs up other black artists, but if only country music had been more receptive we may have had a rival for Loretta Lynn or Lori McKenna. ‘A third of all cowboys were black and brown,’ she adds as a QED.
In conversation with both Andrea Williams and Marcus K Dowling, I have learned that ‘every house is built with a single brick…To deny the placement of the brick is to deny the potential, and likely eventuality, of multiple bricks and multiple houses’, which I think was Marcus’ way of saying that we need to build the House of Country Music with diverse bricks. Andrea fights for ‘the many musicians and other black creatives for whom the movement hasn’t started’, which seems to encapsulate her desire to celebrate every black artist working in whatever art, be it painting, music or film.
Charles L Hughes gives a precis of the additions made to Country Music USA concerning the song Daddy Lessons by Beyonce, which is clearly a country song made by a girl from Houston. There is also the well-rehearsed arguments for Old Town Road, the longest-running number one in Hot 100 records, being a country song. Yola argues that Fancy Like has ‘changed the definition of country music to suit you’ and she has a point. Singer Reyna Roberts succinctly says she makes ‘Reyna Music’ such as the clapalong Stompin’ Grounds and is full of praise for the guidance she has had from Mickey Guyton.
On December 18 at the famous Exit/In venue in Nashville, after an inaugural gig in New York City in October, the Stars of the Black Opry Revue come to town, virus permitting, for a $20 ticket.
Aaron Vance, a preacher’s kid from Mississippi, seems to have put out two albums in 2021. He has a fan in Trigger from Saving Country Music, who wrote in 2020 that Vance was one of many acts who are ‘helping to keep country music history alive’ today. Trigger recommends his song Let’s Get Along from his 2017 album My Own Way, though the data shows that Cabin Fever is his ‘hit’ because of the jaw’s harp and the catch in his vocal delivery.
Fellow performer Jett Holden has covered Say You’ll Be There (yep, that one) while his original composition Taxidermy has the line ‘leave me a mangled mess’ in the chorus.
Lizzie No’s song Please Don’t Change Your Mind has enjoyed nearly 4m listens since it came out on a 2017 collection called Hard Won. Her voice is like gossamer thread and her strumming puts her in the folky mould of Lori McKenna or Tenille Townes. I would love to hear her interpret some of their tunes, actually. Similarly quiet and tender is the voice of Joy Clark, who has a song called Love Yourself that is perfectly contemporary. Both Lizzie and Joy veer into Americana, the genre for people without genres, but have a great grasp of melody.
The night’s ‘special guest’ is Frankie Staton, who put out her piano ballad Anaheim this year, which namechecks Diana Krall and plenty of Californian signifiers. Frankie co-founded the Black Country Music Association in 1995. The organisation was profiled by Rolling Stone in 2020 and co-founder and singer Cleve Francis noted that success was given, not earned. Staton, meanwhile, became the leader and ‘single-handedly accomplished’ many of their initial goals. These included Black Country Music showcases at the Bluebird Café where the admission was free.
Staton says in the piece that she became a godparent of the scene, the shoulder for people to cry on in the face of executives like Tony Brown who was ‘futilely searching’ for someone who didn’t sound like ‘a really bad version of Charley Pride’ or a pop singer who saw Nashville as a last resort. Valerie Hawkins was told ‘people sometimes hear what they see’ by Jim Ed Norman, another of the famous old guard of executives who didn’t want to market black singers. On the other side, a DJ at WSM-Radio was criticised for ‘kowtowing to black people’.
As with all voluntary or small organisations, it was politics that crushed it, with paying members feeling ‘entitled to performance slots’ and outsiders recognising cliques. The Black Opry has revived the spirit of the Black Country Music Association and, by inviting Staton, know the shoulders on whom they stand. For this reason too, Rissi Palmer named her radio show Color Me Country after Linda Martell’s record which has regained prominence and was also profiled in Rolling Stone under the headline ‘Country Music’s Lost Pioneer’.
In a bit of a coup, Black Opry has announced a three-night residency the weekend of January 20-22 at Dollywood (again, virus permitting).
Three To Watch
As well as Breland and Willie Jones, who are signed to major labels but can’t seem to gain much traction on country radio (though happily their streaming numbers are good), there are three releases from 2021 which are also worthy of attention.
Miko Marks first tried to get people to listen about 15 years ago, around the time Rissi Palmer was getting knocked back by imbeciles. Having worn the get-up (clothes, hat, boots), she eventually shaved her head. She played CMA Fest three times, once with her husband operating the soundboard, and failed to get the support from radio which would push her to bigger stages.
In March, backed by her band The Resurrectors, Miko released Our Country, a ten-track set which has the same swing as those old tunes made in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The album begins with the piano-led Ancestors, a song in the tradition of the Staple Singers. Pour Another Glass (‘of wine, Jesus’) and Mercy (‘Lord, for the children’) take us to church, while Goodnight America quotes America the Beautiful and sounds stark and relevant, just as This Land Is Your Land was when Woody Guthrie did the same thing 80 years ago.
The album’s big hit is We Are Here, which is about the human experience: ‘Poisoned water is all we have to drink…Laid off in the afternoon’ but ‘we hold on to faith’. Miko shows great empathy here, with a light rootsy backing. I also like the funky feel of Hold It Together, full of universal brotherhood and sunshine in the darkness, and the messages of Travel Light (‘all that’s left is to run’) and the singalong Not Be Moved.
Miko followed up the album with Race Records, an EP of six covers. It begins with eight bars of harmonica which introduces the traditional tune Long Journey Home. There follow fine arrangements of Whiskey River, Tennessee Waltz, Hard Times (a very old ballad from Stephen Foster which also featured on the album) and the harmony-rich Foggy Mountain Top, which was written by AP Carter. Throughout, Miko’s voice sounds terrific and powerful with plenty of character.
The set finishes with a faithful cover of Long As I Can See The Light, the Creedence Clearwater Revival gospel-blues. I hope Miko makes it over to the UK soon.
Once you hear Chapel Hart, you’re a fan. Like Runaway June or Dixie Chicks, there are three of them and their voices blend just as well. Unlike those two trios, Chapel Hart are an independent act putting out the music themselves. More impressively, they were named one of the Next Women in Country by CMT along with Brittney Spencer and Reyna Roberts, so in the next year they will have their videos played in rotation alongside the moneyed acts.
The album The Girls Are Back In Town was trailed by the single You Can Have Him, Jolene, which is an alternate take on the tale Cam told in Diane. The trio’s version picks up on the ‘last song’ and notes how often Jolene’s man leaves the room to talk to her, which makes the narrator the Jolene figure who would be delighted for her man to be taken back. The harmonies fizz over pedal steel guitar and a really quick beat and it’s creeping up to 100,000 streams on Spotify.
The tender waltz Nearly Over You is a fine way to open the album. Fiddles, harmonies and a lyric about holding on to the memories of a former paramour sounds like country music to me. The triple-time feel is repeated on Just Say I Love You, where Danica Hart’s vocals are close-mic’d for maximum effect. The tender Angel is about a little girl who is ‘the last to get picked, the first to get picked on’, with ‘broken wings’ who waits for salvation.
They crank up the sound on 4 Mississippi, which contains a fine guitar solo, and on Grown Ass Woman, which is as fun as its title, a t-shirt slogan in the making. Even grown-ass men recognise the power of the song. The title track ends the album on a party-starting high with some fab riffage, a rapped section and a big cussword in the chorus, while Jesus & Alcohol contains the lyric ‘Jesus always said to love your enemy’, which must be why the girls are a-drinkin’ to the accompaniment of organ and barrelhouse piano.
I Will Follow (‘where my heart leads the way’) is a clapalong, singalong stomp full of humanity and self-assurance. I could really hear this on the daytime playlist on Radio 2. I would love to know the inspiration for Jacqui’s Song. Full of blissful chord shifts, it’s sung from the perspective of a woman looking back on her life, full of highs and low, and dispensing advice in the chorus about carpe-ing the diem.
Tailgate Trophy is another fun song which sounds like what it’d be like if TLC or Destiny’s Child tried their hand at the Dixie Chicks. I know that comparison will have been made before but it’s true. In any case, ‘I need some TLC’ is a lyric in the song.
So much of Adia Victoria’s album A Southern Gothic, released by Atlantic Records, is about escaping the evangelical aspect of growing up Christian, so-called Purity Culture. She grew up in Carolina, which explains the tracks called Carolina Bound (‘Tennessee has broke me’ is its sombre opening line) and album opener Magnolia Blues which namechecks Carolina. The latter song has been listened to over 1m times on Spotify; it’s got a fine arrangement too, with some pizzicato strings towards the end.
Mean-Hearted Woman is grounded by a looped guitar riff, above which Adia Victoria sings of avenging ‘all the pain you put me through’. She isn’t loud, but by being softer it sounds more menacing, like when a gangster tells you to do as he says in barely a whisper. There is great command in her voice even if she doesn’t bellow or belt her lyrics.
Whole World Knows tells the story of a girl who ‘would stray…not even humble’ when she turned 16, while Troubled Mind (which is addressed to ‘Lord’) follows on from that in a manner which suggests deliberate sequencing. Please Come Down opens with a broken arpeggio and the arrangement matches the ‘wind howling round and round’. It is certainly gothic, and kudos to Adia Victoria who has co-produced the album with Mason Hickman.
She wrote some of the album in Paris but also while working at the Amazon warehouse in Nashville. Far From Dixie is driven by a drum loop and a vocal which is heavily processed (like in Glory Box by Portishead). Adia Victoria wrote it on an aeroplane and the lyric reflects that, not just in the title but in the opening line ‘I’m running slow up against the sky’ and the line in verse two about neighbours being ‘sweet as a Southern sky’. The elements are present in Deep Water Blues, which lollops along prettily and has an addictive groove.
There’s a cover of the Blind Willie McTell song You Was Born To Die with added Jason Isbell on blues guitar and Margo Price and Kyshona Armstrong contributing verses. Matt Berninger of indie-rock darlings The National appears on album closer South For The Winter, which sounds perfect for an emotional scene in one of those arthouse movies set in New Mexico or somewhere. ‘It’s the cold that makes me wonder why I left home’ is the melancholic line, and the vocalists dance around the melody.
Quietly, Adia Victoria is becoming a superstar. Chapel Hart should keep releasing top-notch music, while Miko Marks has her moment in the sun after all those years of sufferance.
Michael Hardy has, according to critic Grady Smith, ‘hacked bro-country’. The guy from Philadelphia Mississippi wrote Up Down, Simple and Talk You Out Of It, three enormous yet forgettable singles for Florida Georgia Line. In 2019 he had his own success with volume one of this mixtape and his debut album proper, A Rock, came out in September 2020 during the pandemic. The smash hit Give Heaven Some Hell proves he can do deep and meaningful as well as shallow guff like Hell Right, which Blake Shelton and Trace Adkins took off the shelf.
Hardy himself is a beefy guy with a great sense of melody and rural life. That first album included the bumper sticker/ song Unapologetically Country As Hell, which seems to be a credo. As a songwriter, he must be running out of room on his wall, with Some Girls (Jameson Rodgers), God’s Country (Blake Shelton) and I Don’t Know About You (Chris Lane) all hitting number one. He was due to go out on the road with Thomas Rhett (in the USA) and Morgan Wallen (in the UK) but for the pandemic.
Nonetheless, he was nominated for Best New Artist at the CMA Awards and has enough of a following to put out the second Hixtape. As with the first one in 2019, the songs have been rolled out every Friday leading up to the release of the full set, which is a smart way to do it.
The opening track was the first to be released. Hometown Boys features Dierks Bentley, with whom Hardy has just put out the song Beers On Me, and Matt Stell, and it’s ‘bout time somebody sang a song about them hometown boys’. I also love Small Town On It, where Chris Lane and Scotty McCreery purr about how God created rural life (‘a little rust on the Fender, a little dirt on them boots’).
Interestingly on this second Hixtape, Hardy does not sing on every track, in the manner of Drake or Kanye West on their hiphop mixtapes. With 33 artists to cram in, he has been generous in giving space to some old favourites and some newer names. Thus we have Sean Stemaly and Jimmie Allen who join Justin Moore on WD-40 4WD, a song about working hard and having a four-wheel drive; Larry Fleet trades lines with Jon Pardi on the throwback jam In Love With My Problems; Travis Denning and Josh Thompson are drafted in on Beer With My Buddies, which sounds like a song Florida Georgia Line rejected for sounding too much like them.
Far better is the instant classic Red Dirt Clouds, which hymns the simplicity of ‘riding round kicking up dust in a bucket of rust’ and features ERNEST, Ben Burgess and David Lee Murphy. Hardy didn’t write this and he doesn’t sing on it. It’s hard not to think this album has been dreamed up in the Big Loud boardroom, although the collaborations all make perfect sense.
It’s a good idea to bring Lee Brice and Randy Houser, two of the finest contemporary voices, together on Drink Up. For bro-country heads, Brantley Gilbert and Colt Ford join Hardy on To Hank, where the trio raise a glass to country boy Hank Jr and the original outlaw Hank Sr and quote plenty of their songtitles. Both songs are classic Hardy: simple chord structures, lyrics which celebrate rural life and those who soundtrack it. Above all, they make you feel good.
Respect to Hardy is due because he knows his history. On Jonesin’ (‘for some Jones’), Ronnie Dunn appears alongside two Jakes, Owen and Worthington. Marty Stuart plays a solo on Break Your Own Damn Heart, which is driven by Midland’s vocal contributions and is good fun. Old and new also combine on One Of Y’All, where Rhett Akins and The Cadillac Three tick off rural signifiers including beer, dirt, guns, day shifts and boots.
The complaint from me, and this really is shocking, is that Jimmie Allen is the only black act and there are only two women on the whole set. Ashland Craft, so good on hardy’s track So Close last year, joins TJ and John Osborne on the lolloping I Smoke Weed, while Lainey Wilson kicks off a smashing tune called Beer Song, where Chase Rice and Granger Smith also find room to appear. It has one of the album’s best choruses, which is high praise indeed for a man who is a solid chorus-builder in town.
That song was co-written by Morgan Wallen, who appears along with Chris Shiflett from Foo Fighters on a tune called Goin’ Nowhere. It’s the first new material that Morgan has sung on since his album was released and he had to take an enforced year off to better himself. Hardy takes the first verse and takes the listener on a whistle-stop tour of US cities but the chorus opens up, Hardy-style, with a set of lyrics asking: ‘why in the hell would I leave?’ Morgan takes verse two, picking up the baton and purring about how ‘all those daughters’ daddies were right’. It’s a bit blah, in spite of the guitar solo from Shiflett, but it shows that Big Loud have now un-suspended their cash cow.
Remember that DJ Khaled song with Justin Bieber AND Chance The Rapper AND Lil Wayne AND Quavo? This is an album of that, but with more references to Hank Williams. I hope it finds an audience.
Jon and Kristy of American Young are frequent visitors to the UK, playing high up the bill on Buckle & Boots in 2019. UK-based guitarist Luke Thomas often sports headwear with their AY logo on it and, sensibly, their new, second album is called AY II.
Album opener Happy Again, which begins with the song’s chorus, was the lead single. Ed Sheeran would be proud of the melody, and indeed several of those on this album. The song is echoed by Gonna Be You, a love song by numbers with very familiar chords and lush production from the band themselves.
Much of the album sounds like the sort of Adult Contemporary country that Big Machine crank out. Jon’s lead vocal on Some Girl (the album’s best song) is sympathetic, and I love how he’s worked on the top of his range, where some of the verse sits. The melody of Whiskey Don’t Work skips along in triplets to match the ‘heartbreak hell’ of the lyric, while the thinky Die Another Day asks ‘what if tonight is all we get?’ over a bland arrangement that many would call mature. The chorus, stuck on one note, is probably a metaphor for the lyric.
There’s not much reinvention of the wheel, however, on Let You Down, where the couple plead fidelity to one another even though they both have flaws and struggles. I prefer their cover of Seminole Wind, written by John Anderson, which opens with some rollicking fiddle.
A-Lister Rodney Clawson was in the room for two tracks. The groovy and gentle Say It To Me Sober has a melody which masks a lyric full of melancholy, how Kristy wants Jon to not only want her as a bootie call. Falling Star is a similarly placid love song, albeit one which doesn’t leave much of a footprint even after you have heard it three or four times.
The duo’s buddy Lee Brice helped write funky album closer Country Girls. It’s a very contemporary song which rattles off a Shane McAnally-esque list of country stuff (‘Miss-iss-iss-iss-iss-iss-ippi Mud Pie!!’) while Kristy says she isn’t ‘automatic, need a stick shift’. This, as well as the woah-tastic Soundtrack of Your Life, will be an instant live favourite.
Dave Hause – Blood Harmony
Dave is due in the UK in February as part of an extensive European jaunt. In 2019, he did something that also happened to my own dad: he fathered twins. His brother and musical collaborator Tim became an uncle and the pair of them, together with producer Will Hoge, have produced ten new tunes which will appeal to fans of 90s alternative rock music.
Northstar (‘My sweet little babies, you came and saved me’) is a rootsy opening track with some fabulous diminished chords and a tight arrangement; The 400 Unit guitarist Sadler Vaden chugs away. The twins bookend the album, with closing track Little Wings including plenty of paternal advice: ‘I don’t know what I’m doing but I know what I’ve got’ is a great lyric, all the better because uncle Tim has helped out in its composition. The tunes put me in mind of Laura Veirs’ work, especially the twinkling glockenspiel on Northstar, but sung by Rob Thomas from Matchbox 20.
Leave It In That Dream is a melancholic song with another great arrangement where Dave talks about being trapped in a cabin in his dream. Hanalei, meanwhile, is an acoustic chugger that reminds me of Del Amitri and a request by Dave to stay in Hawaii, much like a track on Old Dominion’s recent album strangely.
Indeed, Surfboard has the feel of the Old Dominion song Make It Sweet but the lyrics are more morose, as ‘the rent got hard to pay’ and Dave feeling like he’ll ‘drown in these waves’. Adam Duritz of Counting Crows must be an influence, especially with the prominent mandolin in this track, and across the album as a whole. Reminiscin’ song Sandy Sheets has that Will Hoge feel of forward momentum from the arrangement, with precise vocals and a strong melody on a song that looks back on ‘when it was easy’ and a lovely lyric ‘champagne taste but the budget was beer’. The line in the chorus namechecking Gin Blossoms’ ‘Hey Jealousy on repeat’ gives the game away; this is for fans of melodic rock that ruled radio in 1994.
Plagiarist (‘make a dollar off a stolen dime’) also has that country-rock guitar and will be a punch-the-air favourite at Dave’s gigs with its ‘hold tight to me!’ pre-chorus. Snowglobe moves from soft verses to a power-chord chorus, while Carry The Lantern is a singalong rock song with some rich major chords. Gary (‘I knew a Gary in school’) is just as thrusting, in a song which emphasises the off-beat and includes the line ‘kids say the damnedest things’.
In Part One, I talked about Brett Eldredge and Kelly Clarkson. Part Two dealt with Mitchell Tenpenny, Brett Young and Josh Turner.
Amanda Shires was the driving force behind The Highwomen, corralling Maren, Brandi and Natalie to push the sound of women in the country genre. She strikes out on her own with an 11-track Christmas set, her ninth album under her own name, that mixes traditional with original.
As I have come to expect, there’s an austere minor key version of Silent Night, which is so old that they would have been strumming it on the prairies about 120 years ago. There’s the standard What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve, written by Frank Loesser in 1947 and full of jazzy chords and a charming lyric.
Two of the songs are written with Brittney Spencer. Album opener Magic Ooooooh (yep, six Os) is a song to sway to with a great arrangement and full of discovery, magic and a ‘starry feeling’ in Amanda’s heart that she can’t stop singing about. Blame It On The Mistletoe harks back to A Long December by Counting Crows, with similar chords and a mournful lyric: ‘There were stars and there was chemistry’ sets the mood for a song with a classic sound with no trace of fiddle, oddly, for a woman who plays the fiddle on record and in concert.
A Real Tree This Year opens with some snowfall-like piano and Amanda sings of her 52-week anticipation for the decorations. Slow Falling Snow (‘there’s something in the quiet hours calling me’) and Let’s Get Away both open with grandiose piano rolls and the hymnic, crochet-heavy melody on the latter song adds to the holiday feel even as she wants to ‘get away from Christmas…let’s pack a suitcase and get on out of here’.
The kiss-off Gone For Christmas is funky, with the punchy drums of session guy Fred Eltringham and some neat backing vocals from the McCrary singers who underscore what gifts Amanda wants, including ‘a date with Larry David’! That’d be pretty, pretty good.
There’s more tender fare on Home To Me, which includes longing notes and how ‘it’s too cold to walk’ in a way that sounds like Dolly Parton singing Carole King songs. Wish For You is a riff on the chords from Let It Be, with added ‘snow angels in the morning’ and some passionate vocals, as well as a pretty and unrestrained fiddle solo from Amanda.
The album ends with another waltz, Always Christmas Around Here. ‘My sisters aren’t speaking!’ she sighs, while singer Lawrence Rothman intones a new year greeting to close out an album rich in musicality and personality.
Lori McKenna, who has spent over 20 Christmases worrying about presents for one or more of her five kids, has written five tunes for Christmas Is Right Here. Before the new ones, she has covered Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime with a stripped arrangement that is worlds away from last year’s Lady A interpretation.
Lori’s famous friends appear in the credits. Luke Laird and Barry Dean produce the EP and were in the room for Christmas Without Crying and Hail Mary: the former references old catalogues, Sunday hymns and ‘stringing up those lights’ remembering grandpa where the melody pulls on the heartstrings; the latter sounds like a grown-up Taylor Swift song, full of rhythmic propulsion and singable melodic lines. Lori flutters in the top of her range in the middle eight before a blockbuster, movie soundtrack strings section.
Time is the essential ingredient in a Lori McKenna song and, as with Last Christmas by Wham, it makes her own tunes a series of winners. The Love Junkies (Lori, Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey as any fool knows) came together for North Pole, a waltz full of sense impressions like mom’s cooking, snowfall (‘if we’re lucky’), sisters in PJs and parents making them wait for gifts while Lori namechecks a series of places in America which are now ‘as far away as the North Pole…What I wouldn’t give for a memory more’. The final line is a nice pay-off.
Still Christmas In Nashville is the kind of heart-warming song I try to write, with Lri able to include ‘mac and cheese’ and ‘drugstore makeup’ inside one of the gentle verses about ‘the city that dreamers built’. A muted trumpet joins in to answer lines about dreamers who ‘live inside a snow globe’ (come on!!!!).
The EP closes with Grateful, a McKenna 100-percenter where she takes us to church: ‘Mother Mary’s holding out her arms, I wish I could rush into them’ (come on!!!). With lyrics about mortality and mistakes, this is almost a challenge for the listener to call someone they love after they hear it. Lori is a songwriter’s songwriter, which means she can walk down the street unmolested except for people who have heard at least one minute of her music. She must influence so many writes in Nashville, who will rush to put this on as they deck their own halls. Lori is a treasure.
Opry Member Steve Wariner offers his third collection of songs for the holidays. On Christmas Memories, from 1998, he included I Saw Three Ships, Do You Hear What I Hear and Let It Snow, while in 2010 Guitar Christmas offered Deck The Halls, The Christmas Song, Jingle Bells and much more.
On Feels Like Christmas Time, we get both sides. The album is warm, deliberately I reckon, and perfect for winter, like a dressing gown or a blanket. The First Noel is arranged brilliantly for a small ensemble, while It Came Upon The Midnight Clear and Silent Night are repeated from past Christmas sets; indeed, it’s a third outing for God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, which sounds great on the acoustic guitar.
Originals include the title track, a warm lyric about a time of year where warmth is as essential as Jesus. There’s the piano-led On Christmas Morning, which sets the domestic scene and contains a revelation that ‘my children’s eyes is more than worth the price I have to pay’ for buying all those gifts, and the fun guitar piece Tennessee Snowfall has a gorgeous melody that I’d love to add lyrics to.
Lyrics appear in It Won’t Be Christmas (‘if you’re not here with me’), which sets a tableau of imagery to another languid, classic chord progression. It reminds me of mid-period George Michael. Christmas in Your Arms, written with his fellow Opry stalwart Bill Anderson, drop-tunes the guitar to accompany a lyric about the place Steve wants to spend the holidays: anywhere, so long as it’s in ‘your arms’.
The tender Our Savior Is Born (‘he was born in the hay’) evokes the same feelings as the medley of Away In A Manger and O Little Town of Bethlehem, with a fast-fingered We Wish You A Merry Christmas tacked on for a sort of encore. I would love to hear Steve and Vince Gill do A Very Country Christmas. I wonder how much they’d do it for…
Finally, Hell of a Holiday is the latest chapter in the career of The Pistol Annies. Miranda, Angeleena and Ashley reconvene for a seasonal release. ‘The whole world is decorating and it’s only November 1!’ is how the title track goes, as the trio tick off some Christmas signifiers to ease the listener into the set, helped by some sensitive production that puts the vocal up front.
Angaleena takes lead on Harlan County Coal; ‘not a creature was sober, especially not my spouse!’ is the introductory spoken couplet to a song about ‘making decorations after shotgun shelves’ and how, if arguments aren’t resolved and he doesn’t help with preparing for Christmas, it’s a lump of coal for him! Conversely, Make You Blue is a marvellous pop song with a Be My Baby beat on which the Annies sets the mood with jingling bells and decorated shops, reindeer ready to fly and pumpkin pie in the oven. ‘Don’t let all this red and green make you blue’ is a fine lyric. There is a half-step key change.
Leanin’ On Jesus opens with hubbub and whispers before Miranda sings over a kick drum about leaving her ‘restless worried mind’ behind her because Jesus is true. There is an organ solo and a big gospel finish with some hallelujahs.
Some songs are as gentle as snowfall on a windowpane. The Only Thing I Wanted (‘was you’) sounds like a lullaby sung by a mother to her baby or a wife to her loved one. Believing is a gentle song of faith in 6/8 while the ladies sing Happy Birthday to Jesus with fluttering melodies and warm harmonies. The song Joy is a hymn to how ‘love, joy, it takes time’, three stanzas which condense life into a lovely melody. It’s proper songwriting.
There are takes on Sleigh Ride, which as with Runaway June sounds terrific arranged for three female voices, and an a cappella Auld Lang Syne, while there’s a clever cover of Merle Haggard’s If We Make It Through December, which notes how ‘Daddy can’t afford no Christmas gift’. I hope that Come on Christmas Time makes it into the canon of great seasonal songs: the girls all have Santa on their list, taking it in turns to describe what they want to do with him.
Get some Girl Power this Christmas, if you tire of Brett and Buble.
In Part One, I praised new albums by Brett Eldredge and Kelly Clarkson, who add to their seasonal catalogues
A new name entering the Christmas market in 2021 is Mitchell Tenpenny, who is best known for his first hit Drunk Me and his recent hit Truth About Me, although Trigger at Saving Country Music won’t let us forget that one of his early singles was called Bitches.
His 11-song set Naughty List mixes classics with self-penned tunes trying to muscle their way into Christmas playlists. All the old favourites are here, albeit with a new twist. Let It Snow is mellow, while Joy to the World is turned into the sort of country-pop slow jam that makes Jesus come across as a girl in a tank top. There’s a faithful take on Jingle Bell Rock which is followed by an equally power-pop version of Santa Claus Is Comin To Town, which ends with a guttural thrash metal vocal from Mitchell. It’s almost pantomime season, as he sounds like John Mayer on Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, while he’s doing his best Brett Eldredge impression on O Holy Night.
I Hope It Snows (‘on Christmas Eve’) is all about showing a beloved around one’s hometown and the ‘smalltown tradition’. The lead vocal comes from Mitchell’s girlfriend Meghan Patrick in a nice bit of brand consolidation. I don’t read country gossip websites but I presume the pair are getting a lot of press coverage. The song seems to visualise an Instagram post, so maybe fans will hope that it indeed does snow for Christmas, so the pictures can get more likes and reposts.
One can imagine that Meghan is the subject of both Neon Christmas – a funky and catchy tune with a neat key change – and Don’t Hang The Mistletoe, on which Mitchell pleads for his baby that ‘if you want to leave the house’, don’t give him an excuse to kiss her repeatedly.
There are two full-on Xmas sex jams. The rapid flow of Snow Angels contains an exhortation to ‘stay in bed, start a fire in here instead’, with no need for mistletoe. The title track is set at Mitchell’s belle’s parents’ house, and our protagonist is walking the line between kisses ‘sweeter than the cookies that we licked’, ‘buzzing off the eggnog’ and being on his best behaviour. There’s an audience for this.
On Big Machine, Brett Young is trying to earn his label some money by dragging in some friends who Sing the Christmas Classics. As with 2020 when Thomas Rhett did it, this year it’s Brett’s turn to do a Christmas TV show. For some reason, perhaps kudos, pop singer Sam Fischer appears on a strings-laden version of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Christian music is represented in the form of elfin Christian singer Chris Tomlin, who pops up on an acoustic guitar-laden Silent Night, and Phil Wickham, who is roasting chestnuts on an open fire.
Elsewhere, it’s a who’s who of country folk. Who’s Brett rockin’ around the tree with? Why it’s Darius Rucker (who put out his own Christmas album a few years ago)! Who’s by the delightful fire harmonising on Let It Snow? It’s Maddie & Tae! And who weaves a guitar line through Brett’s requests for hula hoops on The Chipmunk Song? Producer and guitarist Dann Huff!! Newly single Colbie Caillat is helping Brett dream of a White Christmas in a cute but anodyne fashion, while Brett opens the set with a woozy version of Silver Bells.
The tracks are aggressive in their dullness, with a soft backbeat accompanying the whole thing that turns it into music you’d hear in a candle store, which may be the point. CMT Crossroads Christmas will air in December and drive people to the studio versions of the songs. I can already see them being introduced on the TV show by some adorable skits which feature Brett’s wife and child.
Brett should take note on how to add richness to a Christmas set from Josh Turner. Josh follows an album of gospel music with one for Christmas, much as Carrie Underwood did in the last 12 months (though she did it the other way round).
King Size Manger contains the Turner family version of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, as well as secular tunes Santa Claus is Comin To Town and Mele Kalikimaka, which was recently done by Kacey Musgraves on her own festive release. The whistling solo is excellent.
Otherwise it’s God and Jesus for the win. The album opens with a rocking arrangement of the hymn Angels We Heave Heard on High (‘Gloria in excelsis deo’) and there’s a bluegrass feel to What He’s Given Me thanks to some fiddle and the voice of Pat McLaughlin. A toe-tapping version of Joy To The World (‘and heaven and nature swing!’) brings in Opry member Rhonda Vincent, and Go Tell It On The Mountain is Sunday morning gospel.
The title track, co-written by Josh himself, is a gorgeous take on the earliest moments of Jesus’s life, as he sets the Gospel to a lush musical setting. Tom Douglas and Scooter Carusoe, two A-list Nashville writers, open the ballad Soldier’s Gift with a verse from Twas The Night Before Christmas, and turn the figure of Santa into a soldier who keeps America safe. It’s heartstrings-tugging and should be heard by every sentient human being this Christmas.
The album finishes with an austere version of Silent Night, sung brilliantly with the ‘heavenly peace’ that features in the lyrics, praising the birth of Jesus. I cannot recommend this album highly enough.
Look, I’m sure I’m not the only one to lump all the Christmas releases together but, in case you missed them or want to refresh your palate this season, there are plenty of collections to play alongside evergreen bestsellers by Lady A, Buble, Chris Young, Brad Paisley and a panoply of others.
Part Two deals with younger acts like Mitchell Tenpenny and Brett Young, as well as the first Christmas album from Christian bloke Josh Turner. Part three takes in Steve Wariner, Amanda Shires and The Pistol Annies, with an EP from Lori McKenna thrown in as well.
I’ll start with the big guns in the first part, as two old Christmas favourites have returned to market.
Brett Eldredge has been sold as the Nashville version of Michael Buble and suitably (that’s a pun because he wears a suit) is embarking on some holiday shows. Brett is Mr Christmas following the release of his album Glow, and that moniker gives the new collection its title. Brett has sought to refresh his Christmas catalogue before those shows having on Glow ticked off (deep breath): The First Noel, Silent Night, Winter Wonderland, White Christmas, The Christmas Song, Let It Snow, Baby It’s Cold Outside, I’ll Be Home For Christmas, The First Noel, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,
Thus, with assistance from Idina Menzel’s musical director Rob Mounsey, who returns on production duties (check out his CV, it’s magnificent), we get the stories of Rudolph’s red nose, the merry gentlemen who bring tidings of comfort and joy (with some austere brass in tow) and bells that jingle all the way.
Brett has studied the great vocalists, his hero Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby in particular. His vocal on I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, based on an H.W. Longfellow poem written 150 years ago during the American Civil War (‘the wrong must fail, the right prevail’), is spectacular and finely framed by the orchestra. Likewise Merry Christmas Baby, written in 1947 but a song I know best from Rod Stewart’s version, gets a wonderful guitar solo. Cool Yule (‘you gon’ flip when Ole Saint Nick takes a lick on the peppermint stick’) was written by comic Steve Allen in the 1950s and was first heard as a Louis Armstrong tune all about Santa’s visit. There is a faithful trumpet solo.
Andy Williams recorded It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year in 1963. Two generations hence, Brett can croon it on an album which repackages Christmas sentiment for a new era. And a new era must mean new Christmas songs. The title track, playing on his unofficial nickname, is an original composition from Brett and his great mate and producer Ross Copperman, It’s full of fingersnaps, sleighbells and various Christmas signifiers (‘you are the angel on the top of that evergreen’, ice skating, Santa on his sleigh) in the tradition of Big Band Buble.
The other original is Feels Like Christmas, a triple-time tune with egg-shaker percussion where ‘the only thing missing is you and me kissing’. There is a key change. The album ends with a ‘joyful and triumphant’ take on O Come All You Faithful. Brand Brett rolls on, and he’ll be over in the UK in May 2022 with a less seasonal set.
Kelly Clarkson is stepping into Ellen’s TV slot next year as she moves closer to American Treasure status. Having won American Idol all those years ago, she is able to straddle country and pop; only country radio’s hatred of women over 40 probably prevents her becoming country’s biggest star. As it is, Kelly will have another bumper Christmas this year, because her evergreen song Underneath The Tree is 99% Mariah Carey and keeps the royalties flowing after a tough few years.
That song came from Under The Mistletoe, released in 2013, which also featured her takes on Blue Christmas, Run Run Rudolph, and the ubiquitous pair of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and White Christmas. She also roped in Ronnie Dunn, her then-stepmum-in-law Reba and Trisha Yearwood, though she likely won’t play Winter Dreams any more as it was dedicated to her now ex-husband Brandon.
In recent years she has added three Christmas songs to her repertoire, which feature as bonus tracks on the new album. Don’t get confused either by All I Want For Christmas Is You, which has nothing to do with Mariah. Brett Eldredge appeared with Kelly on the toe-tapping Under The Mistletoe, which also came out over Christmas 2020, while Christmas Eve (‘I’ve waited all year baby just to see that sleigh’) dates back to 2017.
When Christmas Comes Around, which promotes an NBC TV special of the same name, is a resolutely mainstream album rather than a country one. We get her versions of It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas, Rockin Around The Christmas Tree, Jingle Bell Rock and Wham!’s Last Christmas, which Taylor Swift gamely covered before she went pop. She turns that song, with a double key change, into a lament. She does a less good job with Santa Baby, which is a little too ‘Kelly-oke’. I want more sultriness.
Every year we get a popstar doing Christmas tunes and it always sounds the same: a dusting of sleigh bells, loud arrangements in a major key, musical allusions to Phil Spector’s Christmas Gift For You, some digital horn stabs and vocal acrobatics (see Cosy Little Christmas by Katy Perry). A few years ago it was Ariana Grande, who is drafted in to get Kelly’s streaming numbers up on the track Santa Can’t You Hear Me, which Kelly co-wrote and is at least a minute too long. Driven by a ‘keep…’ refrain, the verses build up to a soaring finale where the ladies want love for the season. Ariana, recently married, has her wish; Kelly, of course, is now single!
Cleverly, Kelly has written new songs called Glow and Merry Christmas Baby, perhaps to confuse the streaming services to see if they’re paying attention. The former, featuring the marvellous Chris Stapleton, is a come-on (‘you’re the only one I’ve got my eyes on’) with a Christmas theme – snow is falling, bells are ringing – but ‘even Christmas can’t compete with your glow’! The latter is a kiss-off (‘you can keep the charming lines and you can keep your wandering hands and eyes’), full of long notes that enable Kelly to show off her voice and the scorn she feels for her ex. It’s the first track on the album. Is there a hint of autobiography?
Merry Christmas (To The One I Used To Know) uses piano and orchestra to surround Kelly’s tale of woe (‘the past is all that’s left of you and I’), which is sung with typical panache. There’s a great line about how ‘on Christmas Eve, my gift to me is dancing with your ghost’. Oof.
The song that is likeliest to join Underneath The Tree as a big hit is the fun Christmas Isn’t Canceled (Just You), a divinely constructed song with some diminished chords and a fine chorus. Meanwhile, Christmas Come Early is crooned, as a tortured Kelly wants ‘a break from myself’.
The great Toby Gad, who wrote All Of Me and need never work again, co-wrote the ballad Blessed, where Kelly doesn’t want ‘to take a moment for granted’ and is ‘learning to have faith in forgiving’. I am sure she’ll perform this on her show and get some moms weeping. It’s a super melody tied to a self-reflective lyric. The key line is in the final verse: ‘I’ll never be perfect but I try my best to remember I’m blessed’.
It’s very American, if you know what I mean, much like the album itself.