Country Jukebox Jury LPs – Noah Guthrie and Joe Nichols

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.

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