Ernest – Flower Shops (The Album)
If country music were a utensil it would be a fork, with different prongs coming together to form one excellent tool. These two albums each demonstrate their own type of prong.
Ernest K Smith has written plenty of hit songs as a recording artist at Big Loud, home to Morgan Wallen. He’s got his name in the brackets on Big Big Plans by Chris Lane, Breaking Up was Easy in the 90s by Sam Hunt and several tracks on Dangerous, which is about to break a record at the top of the Country Album chart despite the artist being in the doghouse throughout its run.
Like his mate Hardy, Ernest knows where the hooks are and can write a country song that gets on the radio. He was in the room for no fewer than 11 songs on Dangerous, including first single More Than My Hometown, new smash Wasted On You and one of my favourite tracks Me On Whiskey. Ernest is basically the same product with a different haircut, and he has made a lot of money from his songwriting in the last year.
The rehabilitation of Morgan Wallen, who is too big to fail, continued with one of the songs of the decade so far, written by Ernest and so good that it appears twice on the album that shares its title. Morgan takes the second verse and Big Loud Records are hoping that a year has been enough and now poor (rich) Morgan, their cash cow with a mullet and cut-offs, can resume his career in peace. In the tradition of a classic country song with a wounded narrator, a tearful lady and a triple-time feel, ‘it’s a bad day for love but a good day for flower shops’. The guys emote like they’re Dan + Shay but stay true to the type of country that was on the radio in 1983, which is hot right now.
As for Ernest, we were due to have a duets record with him and Hailey Whitters called Countrypolitan but all we’ve had so far is a great version of Islands in the Stream. With both Ernest and Hailey doing their own thing, the project has been put back on the shelf while Flower Shops surges to the top. After two standalone singles, Cheers and American Rust, we’ve got a whole album of Ernest originals, engineered to fit into a gap in the market and thus make money.
Sucker For Small Towns has that peaceful easy feeling common from the work of Eagles and the rural charm of (yep) all those Morgan Wallen songs. It’s a world away from the sound of a guy who used to rap under the moniker Ernest K: on Bad Boy he ‘loved it when you dropped me them digits, I’m all about you like a freaking fanatic…I’ll be the Hova and you’ll be my Bey’.
It is incredible that Bad Boy and Tennessee Queen come from the same man: Ernest is now looking to be the lady’s Elvis in blue suede shoes as they settle in their Graceland and get all shook up. It’s a songwriting exercise but it’s good to see Elvis back in country music, 45 years after his death and close to 70 years(!) after his breakthrough.
Classic, with John Mayerish guitars and a smooth delivery, sounds a lot like what Devin Dawson did on his debut album, which is apt as the song was written with Devin Dawson’s brother Jacob who also wrote much of Devin’s stuff. The Warren Brothers help Ernest write the slow song Feet Wanna Run, which includes some mellow chords, pedal steel guitar and lyrics about forks in the road and spreading one’s wings.
Rodney Clawson assisted Ernest on both the introspective ‘writer’s round’-type tune Comfortable When I’m Crazy, on which he complains ‘girl look what you made me do to me’, and Did It With You, which is a more uptempo tune about love and stuff which must have come from listening to Boys of Summer by Don Henley.
Newcomer Lily Rose was in the room for a catchy midtempo heartache ballad What It’s Come To, while Ben Hayslip and Michael Carter, best known respectively for writing and playing guitar for Luke Bryan, offer their services on the proper country song If You Were Whiskey (‘I’d still be holding you’). Full of regret and melancholy, Luke could have sold this but he’s locked in an American Idol contract making money. Big gun Ashley Gorley comes out for album closer Some Other Bar, a melodic meet-cute which sounds like those hits he has written for Luke, like Crash My Party and Play It Again.
All this is to say that Music Row’s A-listers have assembled to craft ten very good pieces of contemporary commercial country music about love, loss and alcohol. One of them will be Song of the Year. The first rule of country music, after all, is the same as All The President’s Men: follow the money.
Jeremy Ivey – Invisible Pictures
The second rule is to be true to the person you really are. Luke Combs is currently making millions of dollars doing just that, as is Thomas Rhett who literally puts his life in a song. Across town in East Nashville, the hipsters take shelter from higher commercial rates in an expanding city which is becoming too big for itself.
Jeremy Ivey is a resident. He will always be introduced as Mr Margo Price but, between raising children and supporting Margo’s career as an outlaw of repute, Jeremy has put out three albums of his own on the Anti label, the latest of which is called Invisible Pictures.
The title track includes a chant of ‘nothing can bring me down today’ which will chime with thousands of listeners. Ditto Black Mood, where Jeremy tries to hide his depression and regret, ‘the Great Pretender…save me from me, Angel of Mercy’. Given the melody and arrangement of that song, it doesn’t surprise me that Jeremy is a fan of Elliot Smith.
Musically the album is terrific, with a double-stopped fiddle and lap steel guitar on Grey Machine, harmonica on album closer Silence and Sorrow, piano on Trial By Fire and a string section on Downhill (Upside Down Optimist). Ivey/Price co-write Keep Me High, a country-rocker where the mafia and witness protection appear in the second verse. I also like the chugging opening track Orphan Child and the spiky Phantom Limb.
If Nashville is a town of songwriters, a scan of the lyric sheet shows that Jeremy fits in perfectly. He has studied the great songwriters of the classic era, like Leon Russell, Elton John and Harry Nilsson, and keeps their spirit alive in a timeless fashion. Listen out too for various suspended or diminished chords dotted throughout the album, over which he sings in a fragile croon.
Nashville and country music, to reiterate the fork analogy, is an implement of many prongs. Some are more independently minded than others, which seek to make money for a conglomerate. The song comes first, and long may it continue to be so.