Country Jukebox Jury LP: Sean Stemaly – Product of a Small Town

February 25, 2022

He dresses like Morgan Wallen. He shares a producer, Joey Moi, with Morgan Wallen, and a label, Big Loud, with Morgan Wallen.

Big Loud have, despite everything, had the act with the biggest album in country music for 45 weeks out of the last 50 or so. Dangerous: The Double Album is closing in on the record held by Luke Combs and Shania Twain of 50 weeks at the top. There is a market for blue-collar country music sung by hot, sexy guys over power chords.

Sean Stemaly is a songwriter who released his first single If This Truck Could Talk back in 2017. What could be more rural than a guy singing about his old truck, something Tim McGraw also realised on his song 7500 OBO? He’s out on tour with Dustin Lynch this spring, warming up a crowd who shovel down this sort of thing to kick back to and unwind with.

The title track kicks off the album and within ten seconds we know where we are. There’s a shoutout to the ‘southern drawl crowd’ then the patented Joey Moi stacked guitar line familiar from all those Florida Georgia Line smashes. Sean sings of muddy waters, Mason jars, ‘ride or die’ buddies, a neon moon, ‘heaven on dirt’ and that is country bingo.

Several tracks date back to pre-pandemic times. Hardy was involved in Back on a Backroad, which contains all of Hardy’s tricks that make a song so catchy it hurts, including the tongue-twisting line ‘put this two-tone, two-ton, too clean Chevy to work’. Indeed, we first heard WD-40 4WD on the Hardy Hixtape last year. Sean, Justin Moore and Jimmie Allen all hop on board to sing about country stuff. Tick them off on the bingo card as you go, while marvelling at the skill of the songwriters (none of whom are singing on the song) in putting in acronyms and abbreviations, spelling out ‘S-T-R-A-I-T’ at one point.

Last Night All Day is an outside write on which Sean takes the role of a guy replaying his one-night stand in his mind, while Georgia is one of those Frankenstein songs that tours the USA in country songtitles while settling on Georgia. Given that Aldean is from that state, I reckon he passed on this song because it was too similar to another song about Georgia that he was recording for what Grady Smith smartly calls the latest three minutes of ‘his two-hour track’ that he recorded several years ago.

When Sean opens for DL, we will have one singer praising Carolina and the other hymning the one he’s got on his mind. As Far As I Know, meanwhile, is an outside write which co-writer Jameson Rodgers might have passed on. It’s yet another song about ‘buddies and cold beer’ and a sweet local girl, and all the rural elements of a small town and the county lines. At this stage of the game it doesn’t matter which Southern boy sings a song like this, it’s still product that is definitely and defiantly country.

Then there’s pure product placement. Z71, to ingenus like me, is a package offered to Chevy drivers; all the song Z71 does it describe such a package and such a car. At least Aldean was ‘ready to ride’ on Take A Little Ride, which even its writer Rodney Clawson called a commercial. Conversely If Heaven Had A Weekend is a midtempo tune in triple time where Sean wishes he could hang out with his departed loved ones. It’s a thinker, co-written by Sean himself, which is very Writers Round-y. You can’t have deep without shallow in modern country music.

The cadence of smooth song Can’t Be Me is similar to that of Morgan Wallen, as if Joey Moi’s formula extends to the delivery of a melody. We get blue jeans, leather boots, ball caps, ‘vinyls of Cash and Keith’ and sweet tea in a rural chorus where Sean sings of his country credentials. It’s a formula and it works a treat.

Then come the sex jams. Hello, You Up is exactly what you think it is, with a woozy guitar effect to underscore the horny mood of a guy who is just one call away. Come Back to Bed, which is by far Sean’s most popular song, closes the album. It quotes the ‘if I said I need your body would you hold it against me’ chat-up line and sounds like Burnin It Down by Aldean or Strip It Down by Luke Bryan. Ditto Speaking My Language, which contrasts Sean’s grammar with a girl who ‘said isn’t’ but now has ‘a touch of twang’. It even sounds ‘a little dangerous’, which reminds me that I must go back and listen to that Morgan Wallen album…

Ernest helped Kentucky-born Sean write Love Me Like Kentucky where, yes, ‘her lips taste just like Bourbon’. Sean’s vocal reminds me of James Taylor and it’s very appealing. Comeback Town has hit written all over it, thanks to Ashley Gorley, Ernest and Jesse Frasure putting it on the shelf for Joe Country Boy to pluck off it and stick it on his album full of rural songs. The verses open up to a wide-open head-nodder of a chorus which invites the listener to never forget where they came from after they have been to ‘see the city lights’. Props to the writers for getting the title of Kaw-Liga by Hank Williams, recorded in 1952, in a country song in 2022. If they write a hundred of these songs a year, you need a little variety.

Like Dustin Lynch and Morgan Wallen before him, Sean Stemaly is a Music Row product hoping to make his label money by singing country songs to country people. It’s business disguised as art, but Music Row has been doing this for decades. If Sean doesn’t get drunk and use naughty words, he’ll have a good career. If he does, it seems, he’ll still have a good career.

Such is country music in 2022, the same as it ever was.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs – Noah Guthrie and Joe Nichols

February 20, 2022

Noah Guthrie – Blue Wall

I met Noah Guthrie once. He was playing Nashville Meets London in Canary Wharf and I inveigled my way into a chat he was having with the duo Two Ways Home, who were big fans of his Stapletonnish voice and performances in the TV soap Glee.

Noah had already auditioned for America’s Got Talent, going on to lose out in the semi-finals in favour of an electric violin player and a comedian. Noah’s Thursday Jukebox shows were his contribution to morale during the pandemic; 500,000 people subscribe to his Only1Noah Youtube channel. I hope many of them check out this excellent album.

Five of the tracks are 100%-ers, with music and lyrics by Noah himself. He frames the album with two of them: opener Hell or High Water and the title track, which is placed at the end of the album. The former is a windows-down rock song with a fine arrangement and structure, with Noah’s blues-rock voice pushed up high in the mix; the latter is a four-minute movie where Noah tells a typical American story of small towns, dashed dreams and lost love.

In between those two are ten other examples of the Noah Guthrie sound. Two were pre-released impact tracks: the mostly acoustic choir-accompanied tune Only Light I Need and Wishing I Was Wrong, a poppy tune written with the wonderful Adam Hambrick. The fiddle solo is unexpected but delightful.

That’s All smoulders with soft tom-tom drum smacks over which Noah talks to a former beloved about the past, a subject he returns to on both the ballad When You Go and Last Time I Think of You. On that track, Noah mulls things over ‘in a room outside of Reno’ and repeats his regret day after day. He could actually give this song to Stapleton as it sounds like a smash. Kudos to him and Maia Sharp, who is a performer in her own right and has written songs covered by Bonnie Raitt.

Things To Fix is full of vulnerability and regret, ‘skipping over number one’ and counting his own flaws, while Welcome The Stranger and Feel It Now are both head-nodders with guitars that sound like traditional Southern rock. Let The Damn Thing Break is a protest song which opens with Noah singing ‘there is a time for holding hands’.

On High Enough, Noah’s vocal rivals Drake White and Ryan Kinder for tuneful blues. I would buy a ticket to see Noah just extemporise and vocalise but he is able to place the wail carefully amid rock songs that put across his personality as well as his voice.

Joe Nichols – Good Day For Living

Oh, Joe Nichols, sexy Joe Nichols. The cheekbones probably got him a record deal, but it was handy that a) Garth had left country music to raise his kids and b) Joe could sing too. So could Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley and Keith Urban, who all replaced the mighty Garth on country radio.

In 2002, Joe had his first number one called Brokenheartsville, an outside write, which followed the success of debut hit The Impossible. That song was written by Lee Thomas Miller and Kelley Lovelace (both A-list writers of the era) and was also cut by fellow hunk Mark Chesnutt. The CMA gave Joe the Horizon Award for Best New Artist in 2003, where he beat Blake Shelton and Gary Allan.

The quirky Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off is still heard in DJ sets today (probably not for much longer, the way it’s all going) while I also loved his iPod-namechecking hit Yeah and the Peach Pickers two-chord jam Gimmie That Girl. I also quickly noticed he had a particular way to mime playing guitar in his music videos, which endeared me to the guy.

Now on Quartz Hill, who call Joe ‘a 21st Century traditionalist’ on their website, Joe spent the pandemic working on the new album while putting covers of Guy Clark and Merle Haggard songs up on his Youtube channel. Tradition runs through the album as if that’s the Joe Nichols brand. The Chris Janson song Hawaii On Me, one of the highlights of his Real Friends album, appears here as the token weepie as the narrator tells his beloved to take some money and have a good time in his honour.

Joe aged out of country radio in around 2013 when Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line came along to refresh the format, but Joe had a decent decade as a hot face and voice. In 2015, he told a newspaper that ‘we’ve forgotten who loves our music and for the most part that’s middle America…We’re country music. We represent the common man and woman.’ The industry was ‘fickle’ but Joe works in opposition to it, ever keen to make country music ‘believable’. He did that on his 2017 album Never Gets Old, which was too long and didn’t sell. The three singles all missed at radio and Joe lost his deal with Aldean’s label Broken Bow.

The title track could well be a Janson tune too. Joe hymns the wonders of the world in spite of how his orange juice comes from concentrate! ‘Gonna take a sweet sip of whatever life’s fixin’ is his conclusion. Blake Shelton can probably afford boats and credit cards, and proper orange juice, since he has been locked into The Voice for a decade. I Got Friends That Do, on which Blake appears, is a chirpy tune, co-written by the great Tebey. It features the great rhyme ‘bender/bartender’ and its cheesy ending comes with the type of bickering common in duets between blokes.

Brokenhearted is a bolshy way to begin the album, a way to get back at Music Row who burned him once his expiry date came. I knew I’d heard it before and it turns out William Michael Morgan used it as the title of his major-label debut. He was since been released from that deal, thus proving that ‘there ain’t nobody broken-hearted in country music any more’!

Alan Jackson did the same thing on his recent album Where Have You Gone, so it seems that the neo-traditionalists are striking back at Nashville. It’s odd to discover, however, that JT Harding and Rhett Akins wrote the song, since they have a foot in both camps. That’s Nashville for ya.

Joe cannot have it both ways, though, but he does. Three of today’s biggest Music Row writers – Ross Copperman, Dallas Davidson and Ashley Gorley – wrote the blah single Home Run. Emily Shackleton was in the room for Dance With The Girl, on which Joe regrets ‘what I didn’t do’ and tells the next man to do a better job than he did. Aldean’s mate Neil Thrasher wrote Screened In, another song where a guy sits with his buddies drinking beer on a hot day while guitars twang away. Doesn’t make it bad, it is just a familiar trope.

The great Adam Craig co-wrote the very rural That’s How I Grew Up, a list of country signifiers tied up with a bow, and Why Can’t She. That song is a prayer to God, written with the equally great Jon Nite. Dierks Bentley could also sell the line ‘When you bend the truth at all, it ends up broken’, especially when it rhymes with ‘redemption’. Joe asks why God can forgive but his former partner can’t. Ten years ago this would have been a hit, as would One Two Step Closer, where Joe loses himself on the dancefloor to the sounds of (with clunking inevitability) a George Strait song and a pedal steel guitar.

Randy Montana, who is so hot right now, wrote Reckon, which thumps along with a heavy backbeat and a rapid series of lyrics that Joe handles brilliantly. If you think the title is also a pun, and if the song sets up one hell of a payoff, you have figured out why Randy Montana is so hot right now.

The album ends with She Was, a story song about a young couple that is in the tradition of She’s Leaving Home, Red Rag Top and Two Pink Lines. No tune on country radio will contain a bridge like ‘he was 18, she wasn’t but she said she was’, or even document teenage pregnancy, but that is rural life with all its struggles. Tissues at the ready for the third verse.

This is a fine album of timeless country music in the Randy Travis tradition. It deserves to have an audience.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Priscilla Block – Welcome to the Block Party

February 11, 2022

There’s little point moaning about how Walker Hayes has gotten more famous from a dance routine than for any of his fine poppy country songs. That’s the way the market goes at the moment.

Priscilla Block waited tables, sat for people’s dogs, cleaned people’s houses and played open mics for years to become an overnight success thanks to Just About Over You. The song became her breakout smash after getting caught up in an algorithm, which meant she was quickly snapped up by Mercury Nashville to make them, and her, some money. Now we’ve got 11 tracks that she’ll perform to thousands of people in the next year, to make Mercury Nashville some money and her own hard work pay off.

Her audience will look like her, probably sound like her and will likely have discovered her on a Chinese app that has driven music industry eyeballs to it. The appearance of this album is inevitable, so it is interesting to see how Priscilla makes sure she catches her moment and establishes her brand in a market where about one female singer makes it to public prominence every year.

In 2021 Priscilla (or Cilla to her friends) put out a six-track EP which included the big smash and tunes about heartbreak. Wish You Were The Whiskey, Heels In Hand and the gossipy I Bet You Wanna Know all cross over from the EP to make the album. All are radio-friendly unit shifters which were written with Priscilla’s friend Sarah Jones.

Just About Over You appears on the back half of the album, rather than track two or three, because streaming doesn’t need albums to be front-loaded with the hits. It is followed by Peaked In High School, which brings the album to a close. That song is basically Fat and Famous by Ashley McBryde updated for the age of oversharing. It is dedicated ‘to all the girls who made me cry’. You go, girlfriend! Yaaas.

Talking of self-expression, Thick Thighs appears in a new version and it is less funny than it was when I first heard it. Indeed, Priscilla told the New York Times that her dream is a CMT Crossroads show with Lizzo. For those who haven’t seen a picture of Priscilla, it’s the same shtick which is still novel in a pop-country world where Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris appear in very short shorts to sell their music.

The new single My Bar is a country tune which wards off an ex because Priscilla has her own territory. The humungous drum track makes it perfect country radio fodder and her vocal is authentically southern. The other brand new tracks include a duet with Hillary Lindsey called I Know A Girl, which sounds like a writers’ room therapy session turned into a three-minute introspective ballad: ‘A girl who finally learned to love herself’ is Hallmark Country.

The pair wrote the song with David Garcia. This must have been the result of a phone call from the record label boss who realised that the presence of Carrie Underwood’s big two collaborators can beef up an album which includes a song about muffin tops. I’ve Gotten Good was written with Phil Barton and Hillary’s fellow Love Junkie Liz Rose, which gives an adult contemporary feel to yet another song about moving on from a relationship. This album should come with a free bottle of wine.

Like A Boy will likewise chime with any listener who has been through a breakup, as Priscilla gets called ‘moody’ by her partner and soundtracks it with fat piano chords. As on Heels In Hand, she stretches out syllables across several beats of a bar. Priscilla sticks to the theme on Ever Since You Left (‘I’m feeling better, more together’), which scrubs out one swear word in the second verse but leaves in ‘kiss me ass’ cos that’s just the kind of gal Priscilla is!!

The album opens with a procession of voices saying her name, including Bobby Bones introducing her on the Grand Old Opry TV programme. Priscilla Block was a household name before she released an album or a major-label EP. But attention only gets you so far. Priscilla has wanted this attention ever since she moved to Nashville from North Carolina in 2014 and, eight years on, she finally has her own full-length album. I hope she gets a second too.

Like the aforementioned Ashley McBryde, Priscilla will, barring a catastrophe, be over in the UK for Country2Country. She will, I think gain the same number of fans that Ashley gained when she came over in 2018 to play the side stages.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Dustin Lynch – Blue In The Sky

February 11, 2022

When you go into a clothes store, you always see mannequins modelling the clothes to give an impression of what you, the buyer, will look like wearing those clothes. Likewise, when you flick over to a commercial country music station, in between adverts for cars and alcohol you will hear songs where husky-voiced men sing about cars and alcohol and girls.

Country music is a business. As the shop window, radio has been the dominant way of getting music to consumers for almost a century. Radio airplay sells albums, which sells concert tickets, which sells beer and cowboy boots and merchandise. It’s a business, you see.

Dustin Lynch is the latest in the production line which brought us Tim McGraw, Jason Aldean and Brooks & Dunn. Starting out in the early 2010s, the man known as DL has mixed wholesome songs like Cowboys and Angels, dedicated to his grandparents, with sex jams like Where It’s At, Mind Reader, Ridin’ Roads, Hell of a Night, Good Girl and Seein’ Red. Sex jams do well at radio, you see.

His last album Tullahoma included tracks called Dirt Road, about how the ‘six-lane city’ is ‘a long way from little bitty’, and Workin’ on You, which contrasted the daily demands of farming with how he’ll keep working hard to satisfy his beloved. Rural loving, DL style. Importantly, I believe what he’s singing.

This is the DL brand. It makes money. It will keep making money until the public decide it doesn’t want to buy DL any more. This is why Jason Aldean still has a career: people want to show up and bellow Big Green Tractor and She’s Country. The important thing to note about Aldean is that he has had extraordinary success at radio because his songs fit well next to the aforementioned adverts. Even the ballads are powerful.

Ditto for DL: after Small Town Boy became the biggest song on radio in 2017, his song Momma’s House spent over a year being promoted and clambered to the top of the Airplay chart. His eighth chart-topper was his collaboration with MacKenzie Porter, Thinkin Bout You, a multi-week number one across 2021 and 2022. It also became DL’s biggest Hot 100 hit across all genres, reaching number 30.

A version of the song featuring Lauren Alaina was on Tullahoma, but due to Lauren’s presence on a Jon Pardi song it was decided to replace her vocal. Heaven forfend listeners would hear Lauren’s voice two songs in a row. Sensibly, the new version is high up the tracklist on the new album, although Stars Like Confetti uses exactly the same chord progression but up a key, which lessens its impact on the album.

Blue In The Sky builds on the DL Brand which he has grown across a decade. He seems like a nice guy, always smiling, and he has never been in trouble with the law or has boasted of political views which create clickbait-y stories. DL is a squeaky-clean country star who makes wholesome music for a country radio demographic, a cross between McGraw and Aldean. He will never be a superstar but he’s a reliable unit-shifter for Broken Bow Records, for whom Aldean is the prize bull.

In the Nashville way, DL gets a smattering of credits among the outside writers drafted in to provide him with songs. He co-writes Break It On A Beach (‘I never thought you would bury me in the sand!’) with the A-List trio Ashley Gorley, Hunter Phelps and Zach Crowell, who produced the album. Poor DL can’t even drink pina coladas, such is the memory of heartbreak by the water.

More happily he’s drinking Tequila on a Boat with Chris Lane, an equally anonymous radio favourite. The goal of this song is to make the listener feel good and to sing along with the tune. Expect this to be a future single. Having recorded a song called Party Song, we’ve now got new single Party Mode, a bit of fluff which took as many people to write as there are chords in the song (five). The guitar sound is decent and I like the line ‘There ain’t no future in lookin’ back’.

Summer Never Ended, however, just sounds like by-the-numbers filler and deserves to be treated as such. Eric Church’s mate Jeff Hyde helped DL with Pasadena, a midtempo reminiscin’ tune on which DL and his girl, ‘with a flower in her hair’, have a brief fling in California. He goes ‘back there all the time in my mind’. It’s one of the album’s better tunes.

Tennessee Trouble (‘You walked in like a neon smoking gun’) and Huntin’ Land had Hunter Phelps in the room too. It’s a tribute to the Peach Pickers tunes which document rural life in country songs: DL complains about how his girl dislikes all the stuff he does but ‘her daddy’s got huntin’ land’ so he persists. Riley Green, another anonymous radio favourite, pops up with a verse on that song, which means that aside from four beats in the middle eight there are as many vocalists on the song as there are chords (two). Doesn’t mean it’s not catchy and smart.

Jameson Rodgers had a hand in Back Road TN, which makes it a hat-trick for the Gormless Radio Favourites. It’s one of those songs in which the singer ticks off places in the USA but concludes that nothing is as wholesome as Tennessee because there’s ‘the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen’ next to him. Commentator Grady Smith will wince at the mention of the moon, which dominated the last album Tullahoma.

The two deep and meaningful tracks are the type that country music has produced since time immemorial to show that you can live a country way of life (hmm, nice phrase). Somethin’ That Makes You Smile is one of those carpe diem songs like Humble and Kind that no English songwriter would dare write; it is Hallmark Country that reminds the listener that we’re ‘only here for a little while’. The first line is about drinking Coca-Cola, which is code for buying stuff. At least it makes you happy, as does fixing a car, going fishing, heading to the bar or watching some American Football.

DL has already sung album closer Not Every Cowboy on the stage at the Opry, where he was honoured with membership in 2018. It was, incidentally, co-written by Conner Smith; it’s a love song which includes the lines ‘silhouette Stetson’ and ‘there’s parts where the movies got it wrong’. It’s one of the three or four tracks that will make DL’s greatest hits set; it’s his Drink A Beer or Neon Moon. They’re known as career songs and it may well win some awards.

Country music needs stars like DL to keep the genre going. As long as he avoids getting stuck in Aldean territory, making the same song over and over again, DL will be fine.

In The Red Dirt: February 6 show – Garth Brooks Turns 60

February 6, 2022

Garth Brooks was born on February 7 1962. He became one of the most successful performers in the recorded music era, selling more albums than anyone on earth in the 1990s. His catalogue is full of remarkable songs about the human condition, many of which were written by other acts.

In this celebratory show, first broadcast on ARC Radio, you can hear a number of these songs performed by the likes of Billy Joel, Tony Arata, Kent Blazy, Huey Lewis, Wayne Kirkpatrick, Caitlyn Smith, Rick Carnes, Shawn Camp and Westlife (yep.).

Hear an hour of music by acts from Texas and Oklahoma on ARC Radio every Sunday at 4pm GMT (repeated Tuesdays at 7pm GMT). In The Red Dirt plays music from familiar acts and those just starting out.

The UK Country Top 40 Bubbling Under Chart

February 4, 2022

The Chart is made up of acts who did not get into the Festive 50.

It is available to hear in three parts.

Part One, including a chat with Erin Ponsonby, is here.

Part Two, where Allie Marie Hunter appears, can be found here.

Part Three, which features interviews with Chris Logan from The Rising and with Bob Fitzgerald, is here.

Hear every track in full here in a Spotify playlist

40 Zoee – Just A Little Bit Longer

39 Eleri Angharad – Delete It

38 Charlotte Young – Praying For Rain

37 Ben Selleck – Soul Food

36 Biddy Ronelle – DRINK

35 Kelsey Bovey – Another Word

34 Tebey and Una Healy – Song of the Summer

33 Lisa Wright – The Idea of You

32 The Remedy Club – I Survived

31 The Orange Circus Band – I Miss You

30 Hannah Paris – Calm After The Storm

29 Louise Parker – I’ve Forgotten How To Smile

28 One Trick Pony – Rollercoaster

27 Sam Coe – Newton’s Cradle (with Pete Gow)

26 Vic Allen – Drive-Thru

25 Blue Rose Code – The Wild Atlantic Way

24 Bryony Sier – Personal Monster

23 Rosso – You’ll Be Fine

22 Erin Ponsonby – Getting Over You

21 Tennessee Twin – When We Move

20 Taynee Lord & The Crookes – I Don’t Want Flowers

19 Simeon Hammond Dallas – August

18 Johnny Brady – This Country Girl

17 Mayah Herlihy – Hometown Girl

16 Jeorgia Rose – Recipe For Disaster

15 Harriet Rose – Love Me Like That

14 Brooke Law – Best Regret

13 Allie Marie Hunter – Hair of the Dog

12 Emilia Quinn – Worse Than Whiskey

11 Bailey Tomkinson – Bright Red

10 Joe Martin – Take Me Home Tonight

9 Simon James – Ghosts

8 Lisa McHugh – Bad Idea

7 The Rising – Bruise You Left

6 Ags Connolly – Auld Lang Syne (with Kenny Foster)

5 O&O – A Spark Away From Fire

4 Bob Fitzgerald – B1G

3 Laura Evans – Good At Getting Over You

2 Stevie O’Connor – White Feathers

1 Foreign Affairs – Make A Move

As a reminder, you can listen to every track in full in one place here.