Morganway, Half Moon Putney, April 28 2022

April 29, 2022

Part of me wants to slather this review in hyperbole, full of superlatives and bolshy statements about the sextet being the Band for Our Times. Even the band themselves – SJ on vocals, Nicky on fiddle, Matt on keys, Ed on drums and Morgan twins Callum and Kieran swapping between guitar and bass – would prefer me not to describe them as the finest young band in Britain, or emphasise their supreme confidence, their masterful control of material and their eclectic setlist which included a surprise appearance of an old tune sprinkled in with future classics.

So I won’t do that.

Instead I’ll kvell in pride at how a band I first saw in 2016 have gradually become a must-see live act who have honed their live set into a proper hour of entertainment. I felt like Jon Landau seeing Bruce Springsteen or the guys from Subpop seeing Nirvana, who knew that the music they were witnessing could affect millions of lives. In a business which has contracted infinitesimally since the advent of downloads and streaming, the live set has returned to its place as the most important aspect of musical entertainment. Even major labels see more value in monetising their catalogue than in promoting newer acts.

Hence, bands need to be as tight and exciting as possible to convince an audience to support them, and for their records to push people towards the live show where they can recoup the sunk costs of production and promotion. It’s a business, man.  

A special mention goes to the band’s accomplished opening acts. Demi Marriner is a supremely underrated singer/songwriter who will one day host a whole evening of entertainment where, as she did for 30 minutes in Putney, she talks to herself and remembers to play songs from an album which comes out at the end of the year. Little Boy, which ended her set, is a future standard.

Jack Francis has a date in Brighton in May playing at an event organised by Bob and Myles Harris. With a voice that reminded me of Radio 2 stalwarts like William Prince and Tom Baxter, Jack is a tremendous songwriter who has crafted some gems including the magnificent, radio-ready Helena and the introspective A Little Love. Jack didn’t need to beg us to head to the merch table to buy his recent nine-track album, as several punters had already made up their minds. His music speaks for itself and the more people who discover it, the better.

I remember seeing Arcade Fire perform the songs Rebellion (Lies) and Neighborhood #3 (Power Out) on Later with Jools Holland and just laughing at the magnificence of the entire unit. They were hiding the many hours of experimentation and rehearsal which went into those epochal songs (which are far better than Wake Up, by the way, which I have never liked). I am sure Morganway do not want me to call them the British Arcade Fire, but until they send a cease-and-desist note, that’s what I’ll call them. (By the way, the Canadian group put out their first album in five years in May.)

Aside from SJ’s voice, which has never sounded better, there are four instruments which can take the lead at any one time. On their final tune Hurricane, each of keys, fiddle and guitar took an eight-bar solo, like at the end of the Beatles album Abbey Road. Matt slid his fingers, which sometimes were clothed in fingerless gloves, across the keyboard like a pro. Nicky was actually pogoing like a punk on her fiddle, a Zebedee who exuded elation and who duetted on occasion with both Kieran and Matt. Kieran himself seems to have added extra muscle mass to his arms after a tour playing rock riffs every night on one of several guitars which included a Flying V.

Beside him, his wife SJ went through about ten different styles of vocal: the gentleness of Sweetest Goodbye – the aforementioned surprise tune which SJ had to be reminded had been released on their ‘live album’ – the wide-open rock of new single Back To Zero and the siren call of Come Over. On those songs, from a forthcoming EP, all six members of the band took harmonies. Even Callum was surprised when Ed Bullinger thwacked the drums during a 30-second solo spot which certainly impressed the Bullinger family, who cheered from the back of the room. It was a perfect ‘end of the tour’ set which also coincided with SJ’s birthday. I hope the band enjoyed the two birthday cakes presented to her, one with her face on it. ‘I’ve peaked,’ smiled SJ.

The joy for someone who has supported a band from early on is seeing how much they still love playing old chestnuts which they must have played 200 times by now: My Love Ain’t Gonna Save You still smoulders, London Life still has a confident vocal from Callum and charming melodica solo from Matt, while Frozen In Our Time still broods.

I have now lost count of how many times I’ve seen the band. I’ve just counted ten: Buckle & Boots three times, Boisdale Canary Wharf, Slaughtered Lamb Farringdon, The Bedford Balham, Millport, British Country Music Festival and Country2Country twice or three times, plus Half Moon Putney. I also spotted some very familiar faces in the crowd who have good taste!

A recent support slot for Skunk Anansie at the UEA in Norwich had the legendary Skin showering them with praise – ‘How good were Morganway!’ she apparently said onstage – and the band will surely outgrow any desire to stay in the UK Americana or country scenes. Their genre is ‘Morganway’. They are now ready for enormous stages befitting their talent and, crucially and like all the best bands in rock music, togetherness.

Drew Dixon, Green Note, April 21 2022

April 29, 2022

‘We were in Elgin,’ the very tall, very bearded Drew Dixon tells me downstairs at the Green Note in Camden Town on the London leg of his five-date tour which should have taken place in April 2020. ‘One of my first meals in Scotland, I am embarrassed to say, was a California burrito, the most stereotypical thing.

Drew moved to Nashville 11 years ago, so he’s primed to break through any day now under the ’10-Year Town’ rule. His buddy is the tour drummer for Luke Combs, who must be able to provide burrito fanatic Drew with tips on the cuisine he’s been enjoying (I’d follow that Twitter account).

‘I’m in Scotland eating a burrito! I don’t know what I was thinking. It was ridiculous! I felt bad so I went and had some fish and chips which were amazing.’

Two days after the London date, Drew would spend Saturday night in Blackpool with touring buddy Gary Quinn – ‘I’ve been told it’s like Atlantic City!’ – and a few nights later he would play the Greater Manchester village of Walsden. In London, Backwoods Creek played a set of old and new tunes to open the evening’s entertainment, which was put on by Gavin and Sue Chittick, who are preparing for Country In The Afternoon at the end of May and Millport up in Scotland in August.

Before the hour of acoustic music from Drew, where he was joined by the electrifying Dean Parker on guitar, he spared 15 minutes for CWOL to the gentle sounds of Backwoods Creek warming up about ten feet away. Drew joined the guys on record and on the night on the song Momma’s Prayers, a rifftastic tune where it must have been a delight for the guys to finally play the song live.

‘It’s the first time I’ve seen them live in person,’ Drew enthused. ‘We stayed in touch throughout the lockdown and they had a song which they thought my voice would be good on.’ We must see more of this sort of Transatlantic collaboration, something The Shires have done in recent years with Lauren Alaina and Jimmie Allen, and Tim Prottey-Jones did with Stephanie Quayle.

Drew opened his set with Music’s Over, whose melancholic lyric is underscored by Drew’s patented mix of Delta Blues and Southern Gothic. ‘I’m still figuring that out,’ he says of his sound, which he had ‘as far back as when I was first learning how to write a song in my mother’s house in Columbia, South Carolina.

‘I went to college in Athens, Georgia, playing music there. I could never pinpoint what genre my music was falling under. Being in Nashville, surrounded by great songwriters, the sound evolved. Sometimes the songs come out more blues, sometimes more straightforward rock or roots or country. The storytelling and the lyrics is where the Southern Gothic comes from. There’s some dark undertones.’

This is evident on songs like Whiskey and Wine, where Drew notes that a relationship would never work because he’s kinda whiskey and she’s kinda wine.

As with the music of Backwoods Creek, sometimes the riff drives the song. Drew encored with the effervescent Run (‘as fast as you can’), while he also played Madame D’s, a song based on a strange dream about a brothel, and the brilliant rocker Help Me.

‘That song came from a riff I was messing around with for years. I got in the room with the right guy and sat down. The rest of the song fell in. Sometimes you have a chord progression first and someone will play something during a jam and you add that to it.’

Drew’s first single Dead Man was released in 2015. Seven years on, have his influences changed? ‘I don’t know if they’ve changed. I can tell whether it’s a song I would like to keep for myself or show to someone else because it’s more their genre.

‘The core of my influences is older music from the 50s to the 70s. If I find new stuff from that era, that helps. Today’s music like Marcus King or Brothers Osbourne, even Luke Combs. It’s so catchy but so well done, with a powerful voice. That’s part of the whole mess of chaos that you hope a song can come out of that.

‘I played drums and bass. I had fun with them but I wasn’t very good. I still love getting behind the drumset but I kept at the guitar, and I always felt more natural singing my own stuff myself.’

Having been in Nashville for ten years already, the next ten will be about touring, building on his first UK visit back in 2019. ‘I’m self-financing this. I don’t have label, or management, or publishing. There’s no one behind me funding it upfront, so I don’t have to pay it back.

‘After this tour, I’ll go back and look at the books and say, “This was worth it, this wasn’t.” Is it worth spending that amount on plane tickets, getting people from the US over here or using guys from here entirely? Where am I staying, how much am I spending on promotion?’

As a Carolinian, Drew is enthused by Luke Combs, who is from Asheville, NC. ‘Every song he puts out is incredible. Even the album tracks. There’s no animosity between North and South Carolina. It’s cool to see a guy that’s humble and talented and that surrounds himself with a great team. You like it when the good guys win.

‘Luke had such a singular experience because he walked in the room with the label with so much leverage. “This is what’s gonna happen or I’m out the door” and the label had to take it or leave it. TikTok wasn’t around back in 2015, 2016, but you also didn’t have to prove you can transfer that to ticket sales and make more money.

‘In Nashville, you hear songwriters sing their songs in the writers’ rounds and it sounds one way, then you hear them on the radio and it’s entirely different. The songwriters aren’t gonna complain about the cheques that come in the mail every month.’

Drew’s music sounds on record as it did at the Green Note, with some additional production to flesh the songs out in the studio. I hope we see a full-band show at some point, given the ferocity of the studio and band version of Run. Alternatively, such was his fondness for sad songs that Drew promised to ‘bum you out then dig you out of the hole!’ with a happy song. The variety was appealing.

A fine cover of the John Prine standard Angel From Montgomery showed Drew as a great interpreter of song. He previewed future sing Lovin’est Kind, a gospel blues which will sound massive, while the unreleased song Leather (‘life is like leather, ain’t meant to be flawless forever’) showed his skill in lyric writing. In a Luke Combs style he posted it on Instagram at the end of 2020; if the major artist who has it on old releases it, Drew will be able to pay bills much more easily and might be able to afford better hotel rooms in his next UK visit to promote the forthcoming EP.

‘I don’t want it to be anywhere near close to two years before I come back again,’ Drew sighs. Judging by the brilliant reaction in Camden, he’ll be back soon enough.

Country Jukebox Jury EPs: Chayce Beckham and Tenille Townes

April 21, 2022

Chayce Beckham – Doin’ It Right EP

In the modern fashion, Chayce Beckham comes to market with a six-track EP rather than a full album. He was introduced to us on American Idol, a humble forklift operative with a voice that has what Aaron Watson would call commercial appeal. He’s already sent a song with Lindsay Ell to radio, which is a perfectly fine Country Duet that fits in with the current trend.

Chayce, whose voice possesses the same grit as Tim McGraw, has had fast-track access to some top Music Row writers. Ross Copperman produced five of the six tracks and co-wrote both the fist-pumping and euphoric Love To Burn and Tell Me Twice. That song has Chayce taking on board advice and experience, ‘taking time off with the ones you love’ and going to church and drinking beer, wanting to ‘hold on tight’ and ‘walk the line like Johnny said’ (if Johnny got royalties every time he was namechecked…).

Ben Hayslip was in the room for Where The River Goes, one of those songs about moving from A to B with a silky melody. I’ll Take The Bar is a solo write from Jordan Walker, formerly of the duo Walker McGuire. Priscilla Block claims ‘this is my bar’ on her new single, and this is a similar idea set to a middle-of-the-road, very Ross Copperman-patented backing track.

Shires producer Lindsay Rimes and Dustin Lynch’s pal Andy Albert helped Chayce with the EP’s title track, which unsurprisingly sounds like a DL tune and has Chayce boasting about the sights and sounds of California. ‘You ain’t doin’ it right’ if you don’t do a mass of rural stuff hymned in the chorus: ‘take in a back porch firefly sunset…slide on Neon Moon’ when you’ve got the radio on. If Brooks & Dunn got royalties etc etc.

Talk To Me was from the superb trio Hillary Lindsey, Will Hoge and Tom Douglas, who put it on a shelf ready to be cut by A Recording Artist. It’s an adult contemporary triple-time country tune that doesn’t reinvent the wheel but it sure sounds smooth: ‘this hotel TV ain’t no good company’ is a line full of yearning as Chayce seems to be keen to close the distance between him and his beloved.

Ross has done well shaping the sound of both Dierks Bentley and Brett Eldredge; fans of both of those guys will find something to enjoy in this EP. The production is warm but the song choices remind me of another TV star, Laine Hardy, whose songs were at pains to show him as a Country Guy. He even had one called Authentic.

Chayce is out with Jimmie Allen and will go out with Luke Combs later in the year to warm up Combsheads, an opportunity which comes from being signed to Wheelhouse Records, who probably have more money than they know what to do with these days. They’ve got plans for Chayce Beckham and they’ll make him a star.

Tenille Townes – Masquerades EP

One of Canada’s most successful country exports, Tenille has had two number ones on Canada’s country charts and was named Female Artist of the Year 2020 and 2021 at the CCMAs. Tenille seems like a lovely woman who is doing what she loves while also giving back philanthropically. She also stepped in for Runaway June when their line-up change kyboshed their appearance at C2C.

Impact track When’s It Gona Happen was one of the two tracks she played from the new EP, which arrives two years after debut album The Lemonade Stand; with a massive chorus, Tenille sings of her fears of not falling in love with someone, feeling like ‘the last one standing’. This will resonate with many listeners, some of whom will be at the Scala in London when she returns to the UK for a tour in October.

‘Hey, what a time to be alive!’ is the opening line of the EP’s opening track When You Need It which includes pop songwriter Wrabel. The fluttering chorus of the song, about companionship and ‘holding space’ (which I learned recently means being there for someone) reminds me of Cam; like her, Tenille veers towards pop production and there’s some pretty acoustic guitar to underscore the pair of voices.

The hopeful Villain In Me is perfect for a writer’s round: the second verse – ‘you only see me laughing, sunshine and endless smiling’ worn as a mask because ‘it’s easier that way’ – breaks into a contemplative middle eight. It explains the title of the EP. The song doesn’t fit on country radio, which is still all ‘hey baby’ and ‘let’s get drunk’. Tenille, who was so young when she came to Nashville that her parents drove her down, is on track to become a songwriter’s songwriter in the Lori McKenna vein.

There aren’t many songs about next-door neighbours in country music. On Shared Walls, Tenille sympathises with a guy who may be ‘going through the same thing’ as her. The guy’s character is played by Breland in another super guest appearance for a man who is gently being introduced to country fans and just topped the charts with a verse of Beers On Me.

The Sound of Being Alone has a great groove over which Tenille wonders what is distressing her. The vocal is right up front in the mix and the production does it justice. Same Road Home is a Mumford-y stomper with a great beat and lyrics about ‘broken dreamers’, ‘looking for answers’ and yearning for connection. I could predict the ‘woah’ section from the opening bar. The EP ends with Light In Your Eyes, not the Sheryl Crow power-pop classic (Tenille covers Sheryl’s song Steve McQueen live) but a bass-driven tune which is obviously inspired by Fleetwood Mac. Tenille seems to have found someone to journey on that same road home with.

There’s so much class on this EP, which will be on repeat for months.

Ka-Ching…With Twang: In The Red Dirt with Randall King and Casey Donahew

April 18, 2022

Cody Johnson recently topped the Nashville country charts with Til You Can’t, a thrusting song that makes listeners seize the moment. Miranda Lambert is preparing an album called Palomino, some of whose tracks were written in Marfa, Texas. Flatland Cavalry took their Red Dirt sound to Country2Country, propelled by the management team which brought us Luke Combs. There’s even a popular radio show on ARC Radio on Sundays at 4pm dedicated to playing the best music from Texas and Oklahoma.

Randall King and Casey Donahew are eligible to be played In The Red Dirt with me (yep, it’s a plug!). Randall has followed the CoJo and Parker McCollum blueprint and signed to a major label which will hopefully buy him the same sort of house Luke Combs is able to afford. An artist like Randall, who already has the patronage of Garth Brooks, probably wants a national stage that befits his talents. He knows there are many acts who can make a living playing Texan rodeos and honky-tonks, but he also knows how much money Garth earned and how it would set him and his family up for life.

If Nashville is pivoting back to traditional sounds and themes, they have made the correct decision to point people in the Red Dirt direction. In a town full of voices, the best ones always rise to the top, as Chris Stapleton proves every time he performs at an awards show.

Randall King – Shot Glass

Production on Randall’s debut album on his Nashville deal comes from Ryan Gore and Bart Butler, who help craft the sound of Jon Pardi, so it’s unsurprising that they set the voice of Randall King to similar music. Previously released singles Record High, You In A Honky Tonk and the gorgeous Hey Cowgirl are all present and correct, updating the Garth Brooks sound for the streaming era.

Opening track Baby Do has live drums, pedal steel, harmonies and the Garth-like catch in the vocal. Randall is ‘hard-headed…hard to handle’ but his lady ‘knows how to calm me down’. Try to resist singing along with the ‘but-but-but baby do’ hook in the chorus. Hard Way To Make It Rain is a punchy toe-tapper about what Randall does for a career, in a song that would slot alongside Luke Combs’ Honky Tonk Highway in a DJ set.

There’s also a midtempo sex jam, Can’t You Feel How That Sounds, which Alan Jackson would have killed for in about 1995 and is the sort of thing Scotty McCreery has been doing for the last few years of his career. The melancholic Middle of Nowhere Church was written with Jeffrey Steele who likely never had to work again after writing two evergreens: What Hurts The Most and The Cowboy In Me. Rascal Flatts and Tim McGraw could have done a good job with the gentle acoustic tune where ‘every tear, every hurt’ makes Randall want to ‘go back in reverse’.

How about Roger, Miller Lite and Me for a title! The chorus includes the phrase ‘pendulum swing’, quoting the line in Roger’s song England Swings (‘like a pendulum do’), but Randall is in a bad way because of country stuff: trailer for sale, honey gone, money gone and so forth. Country gospel also gets a look in on the final track, a version of I’ll Fly Away which formed a tribute to Randall’s late sister Leanna on the 2020 EP of that name. That release also included Around Forever, a song that encourages the listener to call their loved ones because ‘life spins like a Haggard record’. It’s country music in its old-fashioned form.

The title track is a terrific lyric: how does life and all its problems ‘fit into a shot glass’? One of the great things about country music, as witnessed on a track called Mama’s Front Porch on Thomas Rhett’s new album, is how many inanimate objects can make great titles and subjects of songs. Randall is less Red Solo Cup and more Shot Glass, as this excellent collection demonstrates.

Casey Donahew – Built Different

Across two long weekends in June, Casey Donahew will host his own Boots on the Beach festival in Mexico. A host of top Red Dirt acts will appear: Pat Green, Randy Rogers, Wade Bowen, Josh Abbott, Stoney Larue, Kylie Frey, Koe Wetzel and Mike Ryan. All will turn up and offer a fine alternative to what’s going on in Nashville, where CMA Fest sucks in tourists and locals (although Triston Marez and Parker McCollum are the Texan representatives that week).

This time out, it’s a ten-track offering from Casey, whose 15-track 2019 record One Light Town included several super songs which went to Texas radio. I loved Drove Me to the Whiskey, Queen for a Night and Bad Guy, which showcase a Steve Earle-ish voice and some fine arrangements surrounding it.

The title track of the album, which is released on his own Almost Country label, was another chart-topper, with amps turned up to 11 and a confident vocal from a ‘ride-or-die cowboy’ whose 20-year career shows no signs of stopping. In 2016, he sent a couple of tunes to Nashville country radio but failed to crack the top 40 in an era of bros. Given the success for CoJo and Parker, the Gold Chain Cowboy, I reckon Casey could try again if he wants to play the game.

I see no reason why he would, though, with his position in the Red Dirt scene secured for this generation. He is almost a legacy artist – he’s a similar age to Blake Shelton, Brad Paisley and Luke Bryan – and must be a guiding star for many acts in Texas or Oklahoma. Like Randall King and Aaron Watson, he’s making one fan at a time and that keeps him in corn.

Ballads are, of course, dotted throughout the album. On Telling on My Heart, a song written by Kip Moore, his mate Dan Couch and the great David Lee Murphy, Casey apologises if drink reveals how much he loves his beloved. On 83 Chevrolet Time Machine, Eagles song Peaceful Easy Feeling is namechecked while a fiddle plays and Casey reminisces about fishing and playing catch with his dad. ‘Every scratch and dent is a memory’ is a super line, and I appreciate how Casey can deliver a weepie as well as a honky-tonker.

Those tempo tunes include heavy drinking hymn Beer Tastes Good (‘whiskey tastes better’), bluesy and confident Legends (‘heroes get remembered but legends never die!) and Getting Even, a song in which a woman has ‘no regrets when she slips back on that ring…you can’t call it cheating’ when it’s just a matter of getting even. I would love to tell you that One Foot in the Grave is a cover of the TV theme tune but it’s a Casey-patented carpe diem tune about having a good time all the time. He is ‘a walking disaster stoned out of my mind’, with a fun second verse about reinventing himself as ‘Juan Carlos’.

Luke Combs has become a millionaire with this sort of thing, but Casey doesn’t break a sweat; he probably leaves that to the crowd. Starts in a Bar, written with the aforementioned Bart Butler, is a meet-cute in song with an opening chorus featuring a girl who has ‘moves a cowboy can’t ignore’. In a meta manner, perhaps love can blossom, and probably has done so, at a Casey Donahew show.

The album ends with the pair of Jackson Davis and Just One Beer. The former, with a barnstorming arrangement with military drums, is about a possibly fictitious rebel soldier who wanted freedom, whiskey and women. The latter is a typical ‘final track ballad’ led by the piano: Casey asks his new buddy if they can share another beer and ‘dance the night away’ to their jukebox selections, all in a clandestine manner before Casey goes back to his part of town.

The guitar solo will satisfy anyone who listened to rock’n’roll in the MTV era, while the album as a whole is a fine display of Red Dirt country rock. If Randall is the heir to Garth, Casey is the disciple of Steve Earle.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Caitlyn Smith and Eric Paslay

April 14, 2022

Caitlyn Smith – High

She’s a songwriter’s songwriter and a mum of two whom I saw in the film It All Begins with a Song writing with Bob DePiero in a candlelit writers room. Ed Sheeran was a fan of her album Starfire. Garth Brooks recorded her song Tacoma. Meghan Trainor is a friend and collaborator.

Caitlyn Smith’s Country2Country performance on the Big Entrance Stage was full of bouncing around, as she delighted in promoting this mini-album. It opens with the effervescent title track, which was written with (and perhaps for, given the melodic shape) Miley Cyrus. Caitlyn’s music comes out on the Monument Records imprint (which has done well with Walker Hayes in the last year) and the man in charge, Shane McAnally, and songwriter’s songwriter Lori McKenna were in the room for Dreamin’s Free, which puts a new spin on not having much money. ‘I can be your muse if you wanna be van Gogh’ is a great line, as you would expect from three crafters of modern popular song. Catch the quadruple rhyme of bees/knees/weeds/trees and marvel.

The sex jam Good As Us has a gorgeous groove over which Caitlyn’s voice floats, singing about fidelity and how ‘everything else disappears’. The next single is Downtown Baby, a poppy tune which crams Kristofferson, Dylan and John Wayne into the opening stanza and ‘Kpop karaoke’ in the second one before opening up with a fine chorus.

In a fair world, Caitlyn she would be the equivalent of Chris Stapleton; his fans will find much to enjoy in the arrangement of Nothing Against You and Maybe In Another Life. Both were part of her set and were met with applause; the former has another fine chorus and blissful middle eight. The second has a ‘purple moon’ overlooking a dreaming Caitlyn who despairs of the images she conjures while she sleeps. It’s a vocalist’s song as well as a songwriter’s song, and I hope it finds its audience. If Fancy Like can get to number three in America, then so can this one.

The final track of the mini-album, I Don’t Like The World Without You, is another slow, meditative song, tenderly fingerpicked and with a vocal that reminds me of Miranda Lambert. It’s also nice to hear some lush diminished chords which prove that Caitlyn is a master of the art. Please listen.

Eric Paslay – Even If It Breaks Your Barefoot Friday Night

Eric Paslay is back in the UK soon to support The Shires in their long-delayed acoustic tour. As a treat, he has re-recorded nine of his compositions to remind fans why he’s one of the best writers on Music Row.

Eric can do slow and steady, as on She Don’t Love You, which was intended for George Strait. He can do poppy and fun, as on High Class, which he turns into an acoustic jam by removing all the whizzy production, and the eternal Barefoot Blue Jean Night, where he refers to ‘my buddy Jake’ as a thankyou for Jake Owen making it one of the century’s biggest country songs. ‘Never gonna grow up, never gonna slow down’ is a bumper sticker of a chorus, and the woahs are very amenable to a Shires audience also used to singalongs.

Eric probably has a good investment portfolio if he has put his money in the right places thanks to his number one hits which recall the heartland rock of Tom Petty. Petty even gets a namecheck in Eric’s version of Rascal Flatts song Rewind, which is moved down a couple of keys to suit Eric’s voice. He also reclaims ownership of Even If It Breaks Your Heart (Eli Young Band) and Angel Eyes (Love and Theft), which were both jazzed up with contemporary production when they went to radio.

If anyone missed Eric’s solo album from 2016, they have a new version of Song About A Girl on this collection, which also includes a fine version of Friday Night, another song he recorded for that album which was cut by Lady A. The elegant song The Driver became the title track of a solo album by Charles Kelley and Eric’s voice suits the chantalong chorus of ‘easy come, easy go’.

He will be a great warm-up act for The Shires this spring. He flies in after Easter for 25 dates which climax on May 24 at the London Palladium. Don’t get to the venue late.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Cole Swindell – Stereotype

April 8, 2022

Luke Bryan’s fellow Georgia boy and merch guy wrote Rollercoaster and Beer In the Headlights for him. He also penned Thomas Rhett’s song Get Me Some Of That and This Is How We Roll for Luke and Florida Georgia Line.

Cole Swindell was thus able to transition to a stage performer who has had tons of hits which have been firmly in the bro-country pocket. Will we hear Chillin It, Let Me See Ya Girl, Ain’t Worth The Whiskey, Middle of a Memory, You Should Be Here (dedicated to his late father), Break Up in the End or Love You Too Late in ten years’ time?

Cole will never be an A-lister, although he does headline a tour this year, but he looks country and sounds country and shifts units and fills up an undercard. His 2018 album All of It was immediately forgettable so I had middling hopes for Stereotype. He’s even hopped on the duets trend with a Lainey Wilson collaboration called Never Say Never, which is let down by tedious production choices and sounds like a Luke Bryan reject with a string section. I also don’t like the way the singers trade phrases rather than lines.

Cole also hopped on the Hardy trend, roping in his vocals on the fun Down to the Bar. Indeed, Hardy was in the room for several of the tracks here because he is so hot right now. The opening one-two punch of the title track and Every Beer sets the scene: the former is a list song in disguise as a dictionary definition with a smooth chorus and a lyrical twist where Cole praises his ‘turnin’ up my stereo type’ of girl; Every Beer (‘could be your last one’) is one of those Advice Songs which have long been part of country music: Live Like You Were Dying, People Are Crazy, Buy Dirt, Janice at the Hotel Bar and on and on. It’s a good trope and now Cole has his own Advice Song.

The album’s plodding first single, on which Cole sung about his last Single Saturday Night (a Hardy co-write), was at least a clever turn of phrase, while Girl Goes Crazy is a three-minute movie which would make a good music video. Verse one: guy messes around a booty call. Verse two: girl throws drink on that guy. Middle eight: sympathy for our heroine because of the ‘stupid boy’. It’s a conversation starter.

Thomas Rhett was in the room for She Had Me At Heads Carolina. Why just refer to an old song when you can rewrite it and say ‘she’s a 90s country fan like I am’? It’s another conversation starter but, by God, I hope this isn’t a trend as it reveals the bankruptcy of modern Music Row songwriting. Whatever next: I’m a friend in a low place? I sat in George’s chair? Fuggedaboutit, but don’t let me prejudice you. All those songwriters moving to town and they hear a song from 1996 brought out of retirement. Maybe it’s a way of telling youngsters there’s no future in songcraft.

Dustin Lynch didn’t even have room for ballad I’m Gonna Let Her on his recent record, which was full of tempo tunes which make money, so he passed it across to Cole, who is an identical product to DL. Sayin’ You Love Me is so inferior to anything on Ernest’s new album that he should take his name off the credits to that song. It also includes Grady Smith’s bugbear as the lady is ‘doin’ that thing you always do’. At least we get some punchy drums on How Is She, which might be the sequel to Break Up In The End.

As you would expect for a Commercial Country record, the big guns all show up to write with or for Cole: Miss Wherever had Luke Laird in the room, who may have brought the lyrical turn in the chorus but can’t save a narrow, pointless melody; Scooter Carusoe was there for the lovely Some Habits, which sounds like Kenny Chesney, in which Cole says that lying in bed with his beloved is a good habit; and both Rodney Clawson and Randy Montana give Cole the album closer Walk On Whiskey, which begins with the line ‘I bet I sound like a broken record’.

This hooks the listener even before the album’s best chorus, full of pathos and fear and humanity. The song, in fact, is far too good for Cole Swindell. Luke Combs would sell the hell out of Walk on Whiskey.

A final thought. Even though girls appear in most of the songs on Stereotype, Never Say Never co-writer Jessi Alexander is the only woman in the album’s writing credits, which is pathetic for a major-label release in 2022.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Thomas Rhett – Where We Started

April 1, 2022

Country radio is in its dying gasps, like Voldemort at the end of the seventh Harry Potter film. With streaming taking the audience share, radio will never have the hegemony it had in 1990, 2000 or even 2010.

As with Maren Morris (whose new album Humble Quest was released in March 2022), Thomas Rhett has become immersed in Nashville’s music scene. A decade later both are automatic picks for country radio rotation. Maren’s third album and TR’s sixth (six!!) both push them into the next stage of their successful career. Both are parents – TR a father of four, Maren of a two-year-old son – who have enough hits to headline shows in the USA and the UK, thanks to radio play over here.

Their sound is on the poppy commercial end of country music, the type that makes money. TR is the cash cow of Big Machine, the label which grew rich on Taylor Swift, and has written with guys who helped carve the sound of One Direction. He will always be known as the son of Rhett Akins, the man who has become a top commercial songwriter with hits like Boys Round Here, Small Town Boy and lots of tracks about girls sung by Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan and TR himself. Grandpa Rhett used to go out on tour to open for his son and also babysit the grandkids while TR is dancing onstage as country’s answer to Ed Sheeran or Harry Styles (or Bruno Mars, but that’s a stretch).

For his part, TR wrote Round Here for Florida Georgia Line and was launched to market with a track where he wanted to have Beer with Jesus. After a decade of hits which include Die A Happy Man (a Billboard Hot 100 number 21 smash) and the Maren Morris duet Craving You (number 39), he has also hit the US album number one spot twice. This is testament to Scott Borchetta’s ability to market a good product but also to how TR presents himself as an American country-pop star. He’s hosted TV shows and done absolutely nothing of note apart from become a father of three kids with his wife Lauren and adopt a baby girl from Uganda.

His last album Country Again Side A was a perfectly acceptable commercial country record whose two singles were What’s Your Country Song and Country Again. This is because you make more money showing off your rural credentials these days than pretending you’re a popstar in LA. Even Lizzo is a part-time popstar these days, and she’s one of the best. In any case, put TR next to Nick Jonas, as happened on CMT Crossroads, and we know who the superstar is.

The marketing department at Big Machine who put together TR’s career will get a big return on their investment. Don’t forget that TR is a product of Music Row so has to convince his audience to show up and party with him in some large venues. After playing Stagecoach at the end of April, TR goes out on a headline tour this summer called Bring The Bar To You – with Parker McCollum in support! – so there’ll be plenty of party starters new and old.

He feels both ‘like a Buffett song’ and like a ukulele on Paradise, and there’s some uke in the production of Simple As A Song from the man that brought us Hard To Forget, Luke Laird. Despite yet another ‘Johnny and June walk the line’ reference (kill it), I like the frothy, summery song which will help sunny days go by this summer. It’s background music, but with finesse and charm.

The tour is named after a poppy, produced beach jam on the album which sounds like what Kenny Chesney would be doing if he were born in 1990 as opposed to trying to get his first record deal then. Ditto Anything Cold, which will see fans raise up their beers; it rhymes ‘Aquafina/ Margarita’ and has a funky solo in the middle. Labelmate Riley Green appears on Half Of Me, a song where Grandpa Rhett Akins was in the room. It’s basically a rewrite of Beer Can’t Fix, a far better duet with Jon Pardi which could provide a readymade medley in TR’s set. Maybe Big Machine think his fans are too stupid to notice, or just like hearing the same thing again.

They may sway and ‘talk to God’ on Luke Combs homage Angels, where TR hits a mellifluous falsetto note in the chorus to emphasise the brilliance of the lady in his life as opposed to the schlub he is. Julian Bunetta, his mate from LA, co-writes it, while fellow LA pop writer Jon Bellion had a hand in the horrendously bland Katy Perry duet which gives the album its title. The idea was likely dreamed up in a marketing meeting by someone who had heard the Keith Urban and Pink duet on the way into the office. How sad must Katy Perry be that she’s saved until track 15 rather than placed in the first half of the album?

‘Man it feels good to be country again’ sang TR on his 2021 album, although Where We Started is a pop album produced in Nashville. He even half-raps Somebody Like Me, showing a pretty flow. There are naturally plenty of perfectly country songtitles for pleasantly melodic songs about rural life that unite performer and listener: Church Boots was written with Ernest, who is so hot right now; Bass Pro Hat has him boast that he’s ‘luckier than Lucky Number Seven’; and Mama’s Front Door is a good concept for a song, given that it has hosted father’s blessings, flowers and ‘three crazy kids’ brought round to see grandma. Ain’t it funny how life changes, he might well wonder, and he does on the song’s coda.

As with Remember You Young, Marry Me and Beer With Jesus, TR always throws in a thinky-think song amid the tempo tunes. Tyler Hubbard and Russell Dickerson appear on Death Row, which is like when Ed Sheeran starts singing about drugs and stuff: ‘Jesus is the ticket and narrow is the road…Then it hit me: we’re all human’. Us Someday, co-written with Ed Sheeran’s friend Amy Wadge, begins with a wedding, continues with ‘handprints in a new driveway’ and concludes with TR and his beloved sat in rocking chairs. Will people gravitate to the thinkers or to the beach jams? The streaming numbers will reveal all.

Ashley Gorley was in the room for seven of the album’s songs and he’s a perfect foil for the omnivorous TR. Oddly these days for him, he picks an outside write called The Hill, co-written by Lori McKenna, to open the album. It’s about how fighting for love is ‘the hill to die on’ and will do well with the 25-44-year-old suburban demographic. The production by Dann Huff, among others, is very (adult) contemporary, especially on the album’s radio single Slow Down Summer, which is full of nouns (shades, Roman candles, sunburns) and is a fine contemporary country song with a video, notably, with Asian lead actors.

Thomas Rhett makes money for Big Machine, which is now owned by a Korean company. I would love to see BTS in church boots, which is the natural end point for projects like this. TR’s a lovely guy with a gorgeous family, but nobody will listen to any of these songs in 2030 just as most of his second and third albums have been forgotten in 2022. The kids will all go to nice colleges, though.