Country Jukebox Jury EPs: Conner Smith and Rod + Rose

January 28, 2022

Conner Smith – Didn’t Go Too Far

After spending this year’s spring break with Sam Hunt, Conner Smith will be going out with Thomas Rhett and Parker McCollum this summer, so leave your tailgate party early to catch the opening act. Both in Nashville, like TR, he’s the son of a journalist who may well have interviewed Rhett Akins in her job. He’s a fan of Eric Church and Kip Moore, as well as Justin Bieber(!).

We have already heard three songs from this six-track EP, which is a Big Machine release (fun fact: they have just opened an LA office to be closer to their Korean owners). Produced by Zach Crowell, best known for putting together the track over which Sam sung of his back-road-bodied girl, this is contemporary country music aimed at 16-24-year-olds.

College Town is Conner’s life in a song which shows how the sausage gets made: ‘me and my band hopped in a van’ to play shows at college like the very song he is singing now. It’s loud, proud and goes well with keg stands.

Given that the EP also includes Somewhere In A Small Town – a song driven by a kick drum that has probably been written by every writer in Nashville – I realise this is exactly the same product as what Noah Hicks is offering. He put out tracks called Drinkin in a College Town and I Can Tell You’re Small Town. Connor is on the indie label Red Creative, so this is Big Machine’s attempt to use their millions to market a similar product to kids in small towns who want to hear sensitive white boys sing about love and stuff.

Learn From It has a John Mayer-ish riff, lyrics about baseball, scars and how mistakes make people stronger. The chorus is enormous and hugely melodic, definitely in the Sam Hunt wheelhouse: ‘Growing up with nothing to do makes you play with fire’ is a very good lyric. There’s even some speak-singing in the middle of the EP’s title track, with lines about young love and how there’s ‘one bar…one church, how do I move on’. It’s basically Break Up In A Small Town with a smarter hook, ‘the one that got away didn’t go too far’.

Take It Slow, co-written with Ryan Hurd, uses the same banjo sound as What Ifs by Kane Brown to underscore a ballad where Conner is convinced to drive down to a quiet spot and listen to a song on the radio while kissing. The triplet-y delivery makes it sound good next to melodic rap or rappy pop, as the monogenre means everything bleeds into each other and country sounds like pop sounds like rap. It sells, so I won’t complain, but I bet no hiphop act would use a banjo setting.

I Hate Alabama is an outside write that opens with a sports rivalry before opening up into a chorus which can only end in ‘that’s where I lost you’. It is good to hear a singer wrap his tongue around the word ‘Tuscaloosa’ though. Good luck to Conner, who can convey emotion with his great voice.

Now to let the Big Machine crank into gear.

Rod + Rose

Here’s how country music works, in three acts.

Rodney Atkins started having hits in the mid-2000s when signed to Curb Records. After four albums and six number one singles, his brand of country was elbowed out by younger guys in jeans yelling about girls. He still had enough hits to be a big live draw, and radio supported his comeback single Caught Up in the Country in 2018, an outside write which was given to him to promote the album of the same name.

A couple of the tracks on that album were written by Rose Falcon, who herself signed to Columbia Records as a teenager then moved to Toby Keith’s Show Dog imprint in 2011. 19th Avenue came out in two parts in 2012 and 2013 while, as a writer, she co-wrote Friday Night, which was a hit for both Eric Paslay and Lady A.

Rose is the daughter of Billy Falcon, a frequent co-writer with Jon Bon Jovi. The pair of them wrote a song that was on the Country Strong soundtrack called Give In To Me. That must have helped her bank account but hasn’t helped her become a household name.

Her own household includes a kid she had with husband Rodney and, sensibly, the pair have started recording together and have put out a five-track EP as Rod + Rose. We’ve had Tim McGraw and Faith Hill record their own album together, while Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood have been on the radio for the last year with their take on Shallow. Eight of the top 20 country songs at radio, as I write this, are duets or collaborations, which makes this EP part of a current trend, probably by accident.

In 2021 the duo previewed two of the tracks. Being Here Being There has both singers lament hard days in the verse but celebrate each other’s presence in the chorus, while Put Me Back Together is almost a power ballad where Rod and Rose coo in praise of each other. It’s all very Adult Contemporary with modern production, as if Rodney is showing Thomas Rhett how to do this sort of thing when TR’s career takes a similar path in about eight years’ time.

There is a re-recorded version of Figure Out You, a track which was on Rodney’s last solo album. As it did in its original form, the song foregrounds the vocals with an acoustic accompaniment but with extra lashings of string. It’s a wedding song where each is kept ‘beautifully confused’ because of their love. The rest of their lives will be spent ‘trying to figure out you’.

Fine By Me includes wordplay in the title (‘lookin’ so fine by me…that’s fine by me’) and the word ‘hickory’ in the chorus. It’s a chantalong tune with a fine arrangement, and I love the love that the couple have for each other. Anyway uses four familiar chords to underscore another song of devotion with some neat jokes about how one of them may ruin a movie or tell an old corny joke. Love, however, conquers all.

A full album of this sort of deep, compassionate adult-focussed music would be brilliant.

Country Jukebox Jury: American Aquarium and Manny Blu

January 6, 2022

American Aquarium – Slappers, Bangers and Certified Twangers, Volume 2

In July 2021 I loved the first volume of ten 90s country covers by BJ Barham and his band of merry men. It turns out that there are ten more for the holiday season which once again include the familiar and the long-lost classics.

The familiar include Rhett Akins’ That Ain’t My Truck (which was referenced last year by Thomas Rhett in What’s Your Country Song) and the Mark Chesnutt hit Bubba Shot The Jukebox, a song about a ‘justifiable homicide’ which has some jaw’s harp and verses in three different keys.

Nor is there any surprise to see him tackle Independence Day and Strawberry Wine, whose original versions have never been bettered and are now classed as Classic Country. BJ changes the key of the latter from D-flat to F major (moving it up two whole tones), which gives it more of a lounge-country feel. Going gender-blind is smart too, as the melody is terrific even if it’s a man singing about ‘thirsting for knowledge’.

Less known to country newbies like me who missed the 90s are songs like Radney Foster’s heartbreak shuffle Nobody Wins (‘scars take time to heal’) and John Anderson’s Money in the Bank, which was co-written by Bob DePiero and is a good twist on an uptempo love song because ‘your love’s better’ than any boats or Z-28 Camaros he can afford. I gotta have more cowbell, though!!

Small Town Saturday Night, the Hal Ketchum hit, converts the twang of the original to a New Jersey barroom rocker. In an era where there are very few women coming to prominence, BJ picks songs by three of them: Lorrie Morgan (Watch Me, which is very empowering in a Reba sort of way), Wynonna (the punchy No One Else On Earth) and Pam Tillis, whose song Maybe It Was Memphis becomes a power ballad in the hands of BJ and the band.

I wonder how many country hits of 2022 will mention William Faulkner or Tennessee Williams, as that one does, but I bet it rhymes with ‘Nero’.

Manny Blu – Country Punk EP

On the final day of 2021, Manny Blu releases five new songs that follow those on his Devil EP. As with Devil, the tracks have been rolled out individually across several months and have been collected in a project. This may be the future of how acts release music, as ‘courses’ rather than banquets. They accurately convey the EP’s title in that they are rhythm-driven, anthemic tunes with country themes.

Doin Fine, which opens the EP, begins with a low bass rumble over which Manny adds a lyric about ‘leaving home, kicking up the dust’. It’s a carpe diem rocking song about living life with good forward momentum. I like the line about going to a bar with ‘our friends who we met last night’.

95 is a fist-pumping reminiscin’ song with a set of fine riffs which builds to an enormous chorus about how ‘someday you’re gonna be grown up’ but not to forget those days. The song takes a more melancholic turn in the middle eight where Manny’s belle leaves, ‘said she had somewhere else to go’.

Balance has Manny admit that he’s ‘born to fly but afraid of heights’, which is a catch-22 if ever there was one. The production is terrific and pushes Manny’s vocals to the front of the mix, as on Prove Me Wrong which is more pop-punk than country, with the ‘chucka-chucka’ guitar throbs and an appearance in the lyric from Jared Leto.

Too Bad So Sad, a solo write from Matt Lukasiewicz, is an acoustic break-up song with plenty of realism from Manny (‘it never should have gone this far’). I like the singsong nature of the way Manny sings the title of the song, and how the EP ends with a lighters-aloft singalong which explodes in its final minute, as I hoped it would, in firework drums and some freewheeling electric guitar.

It’s more punk than country, but Manny is country at heart.