Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Carrie Underwood and Hannah White

June 29, 2022

Carrie Underwood – Denim & Rhinestones

What a great title, for a start. We’ve had the song for a few months and it’s not hard to imagine Carrie’s label asking her and her loyal writers – David Garcia, Josh Kear and Hillary Lindsey – to do a country version of Dua Lipa, given that she was playing Vegas as part of the build-up to this album, her ninth, which follows albums themed around Christmas and Easter.

Good though those were – her version of How Great Thou Art might be definitive – this is where she makes her money. As befits Carrie, who took over the Showgirl role of country music from Reba – who took it over from Dolly, who created the role – there’s pop, rock and country here to mop up all kinds of audiences aka key demographics. As with all acts who make their ninth album, there are tweaks to the formula but it’s still vocals + production and an assured familiarity. Carrie, it should always be noted, co-produces her own work.

Ghost Story (‘I’ll be haunting you, you’ll be wanting me’) was the first single and sounds like ten other Carrie songs, notably Something In The Water and Heartbeat. Poor Everybody Else is another Carrie Does Joan Jett moment where, over amps-to-11 guitars, she warns people to ‘watch your man’ because the woman she describes is ‘a wrecking ball looking for a wall to break’.

Crazy Angels, another track on country music’s Now That’s What I Call Bachelorette Party, is good fun and has the same huge guitars present on Undo It and Cowboy Casanova. Hate My Heart brings in a trademark Michael Hardy chorus and crunchy guitars to Carrie’s woe: she wants to be free but there’s an anchor in her chest tying her down to her memories.

Miranda had her Pink Sunglasses, and Carrie has ‘more buzz than pink Champagne’ thanks to her beau with whom she ‘can’t stay sober’. The thumping drum loop will sound great in a busy club, and I wonder if this will get some Reba-type remixes to ensure people go to the bar and order some pink champagne. Wanted Woman is another pro-relationship song (‘Right song on the radio turns you into Romeo’ is a great line) but it’s filler.

Velvet Heartbreak is full of backing vocals from Hillary and a brilliant chorus which will slot into her set nicely. Wind chimes open Faster, a ‘party for two’ which is a pastiche of every slow dance ballad on the radio in 1989, right down to the keyboard, backing vocal stabs and percussion sounds. It is even more Adult Contemporary country than Burn, which brought together Hillary, Liz Rose and Ashley Gorley. That song’s wide-open chorus and lyrics which go for the elements – love fades like a fire ‘keeping me warm but killing me’ – will make it a good pick for a single. It also makes good use of Carrie’s instrument, that million-dollar diaphragm, as she belts out some long notes.

Traditional country fans will love the song she debuted at the Opry, She Don’t Know, where she drafts in the world-class pair of Charlie Worsham on guitar and Stuart Duncan on fiddle. The song is a three-minute movie where one character doesn’t know that Carrie knows what’s going on: ‘The joke’s on her…What she don’t know is she can have him!’ If the Dixie Chicks were still bothering the charts, this is the music they would be making. After ten to fifteen years of blokes who emerged after the ‘cancellation’ of the Chicks, we should have more of this sort of thing.

The album closes with Garden, the God Song on the album full of Dollyesque spirituality that reminds us that however much a crazy angel Carrie is, she’s really the All-American Girl from Oklahoma who is making millions for Universal Music and being the pretty girl representing country music in America, appealing to Red and Blue states. She’s basically the Adele of country music, but with a hockey player for a husband.

Hannah White – About Time

Hannah White is the godmother of the UK country scene. The two branches of The Sound Lounge are packed with fans of roots music night after night; the cosy one on Morden High Street was joined by one in Hannah’s home town of Sutton, which succeeded in its crowdfunding campaign. There are seven patrons including broadcasters Paul Sexton, Baylen Leonard and Bob Harris, as well as musicians Jamie Lawson, Judie Tzuke, Tom Robinson and KT Tunstall. On Friday July 1, Danny George Wilson plays a gig with a host of friends from the Americana scene, while Steve Nieve plays the songs he wrote with his mate Elvis Costello on July 16.

In June, Hannah played Glastonbury and she’s on the road this autumn supporting Ricky Ross as he promotes his memoir. So she’s a girl with connections. Her latest album, following her 2020 collaboration with The Nordic Connections, is a 10-track solo effort which could well play on repeat at The Sound Lounge during the daytime as people drink coffee with oat milk and vegan brownies.

The album opens with You Don’t Want Me Anymore, with a high lonesome vocal saturated in echo. It Will Be Alright is appropriately comforting to both her and her children who learn at school ‘to divide and compete and be cruel’. The song has a fine structure which allows Hannah to stretch her voice, and is one of many on the album that reminds me of Suzanne Vega.

One thing I notice running through the album is the softness of the drums, appropriate for an act who owns a café. It allows Hannah’s voice and lyrics to dominate. Daddy’s Gonna Make Me A Star is a fun little piano-led character song about a girl who grew up wanting to be a showgirl that bears the influence of Randy Newman. I wonder if Hannah can spot the daddy’s girls who want to play a gig at the Sound Lounge!

The arrangements of The Good Stuff, Heavy Light and Bluest Eyes are sublime, with some electric guitar nudging its way in. Hannah’s heart ‘is like a country song’ to match the tender shuffle of Broken Bird, while the arresting opening of album centrepiece Car Crash (‘they want to take my baby’) introduces a song where all Hannah ‘needed was a hand’.

The album ends with a lament called Fourteen Years, in which Hannah forsakes discussing world events in favour of a personal relationship with hit rocky times many years ago. It feels deeply personal and it is brave of Hannah to put her soul into her songs. That is what makes her so beloved by Paul Sexton, Ricky Ross and her legions of fans. It’s an excellent album that makes a case for the coffee shop in the digital era.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Aaron Watson and Creed Fisher

June 28, 2022

Aaron Watson – Unwanted Man

The Underdog who took on Music Row on his own terms and won, Aaron Watson puts out a record every 18 months or so that gives the people what they want: Texan country in the tradition of George Strait and his hero Guy Clark. His music is released independently on the Adub label, and the title track was written with Bob DePiero: ‘for once in my life’ he feels wanted and celebrates with a fine guitar solo in the middle of the song.

The rest of the album comprises 10 solo compositions which run through familiar themes from his career. As ever, we’ve got some love songs dedicated to Aaron’s wife and business partner: he calls her ‘my world, my queen, my girl, my everything’ on When I See You; his ‘favour colour on you is when there’s nothing on you’ on the track of that name; he sets the Texas number one hit Crash Landing to a George Harrisonian guitar line and hooky chorus. One In A Million Girl is, by Aaron’s standards, filler, but it’s no surprise that four of the 11 tracks are centred on the woman with whom Aaron was locked down with, and country needs fidelity songs.

Dancing Around The Truth, conversely, is a dance ‘for old time’s sake’ that precedes a break-up, while The Old Man Said is yet another one of those country songs about an old fella passing on wisdom to a youngster. I smirked when Aaron received a golden watch with the words ‘it’s borrowed time’. The once ‘proud and loud’ character Aaron plays in What’s Left Of Me, who can ‘hardly recognise himself’, can take plenty of this advice on board.

We also get two Aaron Doing His Job songs. He gets into a fight because it would make a Heck of a Song, on which Aaron says he is ‘addicted to the dream’ and is ‘following my heart’ through highways and cafes. He is also ‘a fan of the fan in the cheap seats’ on Cheap Seats, where he namechecks Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings while ‘driving with my band and singing songs that I believe’. The second verse is a great description of a musician’s early days playing to tiny crowds. I wonder if that set of fans are still into Aaron’s music all these years later.

Unwanted Man ends with Once In A Life which reminds me of Aaron’s track To Be The Moon in its nods to classic songwriting. I would love to hear Aaron tackle The Great American Songbook, because some of his tunes reach for Gershwin or Rogers & Hart. ‘I found your heart was made for mine’ is an excellent line, which is followed by a rhyme of ‘melancholy/love has done to me’. What, he asks, ‘if once in a life don’t happen twice’. He handles the key changes well, and there are four great bars of fiddle in the middle of the song as well as an extended outro.

All in all, more of the excellent same from our favourite indie-minded cowboy Aaron Watson.

Creed Fisher – Rebel in the South

In the first 30 seconds of Creed’s latest set of credos, we get trucks, beer and sunshine…‘cuz I’m country’. Creed, who lives in New Braunfels, Texas, quotes Hank Williams Jr and sings of pines, mama, the Bible, fishing, boots and that’s country bingo. His audience will lap it up much as they have supported him these past few years through his many and regular albums.

The song Nashville begins with the sound of piano, evoking a typical contemporary country radio smash, but the lyric asks whether Merle Haggard would have been the musician he was without his time in jail and his difficult youth. ‘Bright lights of Nashville ain’t what I want…Rest in peace Music Row’, Creed concludes, instead heading to ‘a hole in the wall’ with whiskey and a jukebox full of George Jones records.

The title track shows similar sentiments with even coarser language. Creed spits out the words ‘bro-country’ and is sad at how Waylon and the aforementioned George wouldn’t fit the current metier. Ditto Rebel in the South in Me, which seems like one scoop of ice cream too many on this album. As for the track where he is Texas as F—, it sounds exactly like you think it does and reflects the lyric in which Creed argues that true country songs are ‘from the heart’.

If you want tunes to soundtrack a throwdown, try the honkytonker A Bar Near San Antone (‘I’m drunk down here in Texas’), Down & Dirty (which quotes the title of a well-known Garth Brooks song) and Earplugs and Beer. That track is a message for the long-suffering husbands out there in that same bar, where we get some mandolin, steel guitar and harmonica which play alongside Creed’s croon.

For something more tender to play at bedtime or, in Wasted Life’s case, to literally come down from a heavy night out, go for I’ll Keep Drinkin’ (‘till your memory’s out of sight’) or I Still Miss You. The latter features the old-style snare-rim backbeat common in country from the urban cowboy era. It begins ‘another empty bottle, another empty bed’ and both are the epitome of Texan music thanks to Creed’s role as a wretched, heartbroken man.

Happily, there are three songs of fidelity and family pride. The wedding song Till I Found You gives us Creed the Happy Husband, while Happy Father shows his pride on Daughter of an Outlaw and River Girl: the former is also a way for Creed to boast of his own outlaw credentials (‘daddy’s blood runs through her veins’), while on the latter, days blasting Johnny Cash in the truck ‘just seem so long ago’. Creed’s fans will be cranking up his own music and passing on the lessons of the outlaw and the rebel to their own daughters.

Ka-Ching…With Twang – Luke Combs: Growin’ Up

June 27, 2022

Luke Combs was born in March 1990 in North Carolina, gigging hard in bars while in college and able to hold all the cards when a major label wanted to take him on to release his music. His second album was called What You See Is What You Get. It includes songs about blue collared boys, his wife Nicole (‘some things last forever after all’, ‘some things just go better together’) and a great tune called Refrigerator Door which was full of images and even a Mariachi trumpet. Luke wrote I Hope You’re Happy Now, a number one gifted to Carly Pearce and Lee Brice, and he performed a duet with his hero Eric Church after daring to ask him. He has just become a father to a son, Tex, days before the release of his third album. He’ll be playing two dates in South Carolina in October. He has not yet released a Christmas song.

Ed Sheeran was born in February 1991 in Yorkshire, gigging hard as a teenager and winning an Ivor Novello Award for a song about a homeless woman who was ‘in the Class A team’. His second album included songs about love (‘we found love right where we are’) and seeing other musicians while on tour. Pharrell Williams popped up too. Ed wrote hits for Rita Ora, One Direction and Justin Bieber. On his third album, which he toured solo and for which he could sell out Wembley Stadium in his adopted home town, Ed once again referred to his hero Damien Rice, with whom he has never played. He married and had a baby, then put out his fourth album which comes to Wembley this week. He also had a Christmas number one with his pal, Elton John.

In March 2022, Ed Sheeran walked out during Luke’s headline set to surprise Country2Country attendees for a version of his song Dive. I hope I have made my point.

This third album, like Ed’s monster of all monsters Divide, will be a blockbuster. Luke denied himself a chart record when his second album dismounted his first, This One’s For You, from the top of the country album chart. Morgan Wallen, who surpassed Luke, will finally be ejected this month. Even with his career disrupted by the pandemic, Luke is able to play stadiums. His two studio albums, This One’s For You and What You See Is What You Get, have been supplemented by EPs tacked onto the album’s deluxe versions. Every song Luke puts out whizzes to number one within weeks. He is the closest thing to Garth since Garth, but without the Messiah complex.

Growin’ Up is a 12-track collection that contains familiar beats and rhymes. Reviewing a Luke Combs album in 2022 is like reviewing a Garth Brooks album in 1993. We know we’re going to get rock drums, lyrics about being an ornery boy and lots of songs bigging up a lady. Unlike Garth, Luke doesn’t wear a cowboy hat, but he wears his big heart on big sleeves. So how has the formula been fine-tuned or updated?

Middle of Somewhere, down in track 11, opens with chatter about beer and coffee and Jesus and how ‘we like life that way, sweet and slow and simple’. I don’t know how he keeps getting away with it, pointing out that one man’s nowhere is another’s somewhere. Aldean did this before and added crunching guitars, but Luke sets it to acoustic guitar and a gentle sonic bed that sounds like he’s ploughing a field. Randy Montana, one of the most underrated writers in town, comes good again, along with Jonathan Singleton, who co-produced the album with Luke and Chip Matthews.

The impact tracks were typically Combsian: Doin’ This, written with Drew Parker, was about showing up in your town to gig, based on an interview response that Luke would be onstage if he wasn’t onstage already. It’s an arms-aloft chantalong that mixes Honky Tonk Highway with This One’s For You, and it seems odd that he is singing about the act of singing for a big crowd. Luke is meta.

The ultimate praise for any new act is to write with a legend. Dean Dillon, who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame a few years ago, adds his magic touch to Tomorrow Me, which will be Luke’s career song if he pushes it right and lets the award shows bestow prizes onto it. It’s so gentle, very country and passionately sung: ‘Maybe we should let yesterday be, cos I gotta live with Tomorrow Me’ is worthy of George Strait, the man who would be nothing without Dean’s writing.

Luke later sings, on Used To Wish I Was, about his dreams of being a baseball player like Chipper Jones (good reference!) but he’s a ‘Carolina good old boy’ who plays guitar and makes loads of money selling small-town values back to small-town boys and girls and exporting it around the world (he doesn’t say that last bit out loud). The song is simple enough both to be sung at a campfire and belted out in a stadium. At Country2Country this year, Luke also slipped in covers of 90s hits I Like It I Love It and It’s A Great Day to Be Alive, proving that he both knows his forebears and wants to continue the lineage.

Better Back When continues the reminiscin’ in a different key; it’s a rewrite of A Long Way, with an added reference to Never Wanted Nothing More, a Kenny Chesney song written by Chris Stapleton. That’s what Luke is: Kenny Stapleton. Indeed, The Kind of Love We Make is a funky, lick-driven jam where our hero sings of ‘burning both ends’ and wanting to get ‘some records turning’. Call Me chugs along prettily, with a great first verse that includes the acronyms SOB and BFE, as Luke plays the wounded animal before delivering the punchline: ‘When you’re 2am buzzing…we both know you’re gonna call me!’

Any Given Friday Night has list-ticker-offer lyrics about trucks, drink, ‘denim and makeup’, the Dairy Queen and map dot towns. I also love the use of the word ‘rando’. The supercharged Ain’t Far From It is a stomper in the vein of 1, 2 Many, Beer Never Broke My Heart and Cold As You. On The Other Line is a summer jam that plays on the fish in the sea metaphor and the ‘caller on another line’ one. It’s smart and will fit well with When It Rains It Pours, which will always be Luke’s killer kiss-off.

I would have loved to have been in the room with Luke and Miranda Lambert as Outrunnin’ Your Memory was written. George Strait appears in the first verse and it’s a very Texan-type tune about trying to put an ex out of your mind. It’ll be a smash, and Miranda gets the second verse all to herself, which is very generous of Luke. Add this to her catalogue of top duets following appearances with Jason Aldean, Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban.

Going Going Gone ends the record, which comes in at a perfect 41 minutes, with a thinker that has a sad punchline I won’t spoil. The fact that the title could lend itself to a party song, a reminiscin’ song or a song about a relationship is testament to Luke’s skill as a writer – and he writes everything on this album, as he always does – and as a performer. He’s a fine exponent of country music that sounds like it was made by a guy from Asheville, North Carolina. He remains the biggest star in the firmament and some of these songs will slot into what is already a Greatest Hits set.

I wonder what his ex-future mother-in-law makes of him now.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Jimmie Allen – Tulip Drive

June 23, 2022

It is a measure of Nashville’s importance in the music of America that a major-label country album includes appearances from rapper T-Pain, popstar Jennifer Lopez and poppy rapper CeeLo. Jimmie Allen, from Delaware and with an invitation to the Grand Ole Opry to come sooner rather than later, doesn’t care any more about fitting into a box, especially in a genreless climate. There are two types of music anyway: good and not good.

Jimmie’s third album has been preceded by both types: his debut Mercury Lane was good, his second Bettie James, which I just didn’t get and whose every track was a collaboration, was not good. This was in spite of plenty of good tunes such as the gospel track Pray and the Brad Paisley-featuring Freedom Was A Highway, with all two of its chords.

In the modern manner the tracks on his third album are all presented in lower-case form, something borrowed from popstars like Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish. The two main impact tracks to prepare listeners for Tulip Drive were similar to how Ed Sheeran launched his Divide album, where Shape of You was for younger listeners and Castle on the Hill was for their mums and dads.

Down Home (look, it’s just easier if I use standard case for titles) is a tribute to Jimmie’s own late father. As Jimmie listens to Charley Pride and drives his truck, he hopes ‘I’m making you proud’. ‘I bet you’re up there making new friends’ is a lovely first line. He goes through images of his dad fishing, joking and shining a light with his smile and it’s a perfectly pleasant radio single which hits the country beats.

On My Way is a pop song that is intended to remind people of Keith Urban’s collaborations with popstars. As on so many places on Bettie James, the featured act takes the vocal for the first verse and chorus, which goes heavy on the digital production. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before and is an example of the monogenre in action: pop music in 2022 is a clash between acoustic and digital, melody and production. Maybe I’m too old for it.

Pesos’s digital cymbals threaten to overpower Jimmie on the hook and T-Pain and CeeLo on vocals, but it sounds like the trio had fun recording it. The song will do well on Broadway when a DJ slips it into his Saturday night set which soundtracks hen party celebrations. The ladies won’t pay attention to the lyrics, which are surprisingly good.

The other 14 tracks (about four too many) toe this pop/country line so that label Broken Bow Records can make money from fans of both sorts of music. The first verse of the first track, Be Alright, has ‘haters gonna hate’ as a lyric and a chorus which says that sometimes you’re high and sometimes you’re low but you should ‘let it ride’ and perhaps smoke something. Matthew McConaughey will, of course, demand credit for the use of his catchphrase ‘Alright, Alright, Alright’.

Habits & Hearts is a torchlight ballad in the John Legend tradition, stuck on a shelf by three writers including Derrick Southerland (More Hearts Than Mine) and plucked off it by Jimmie. The hook ‘habits are harder than hearts to break’ is brilliant, and I hope this necessary song finds its audience and changes some lives.

It stands out amid lots of filler, including Right Now (‘I need you so bad’) and What I’m Talkin Bout, an outside write from Hardy among others, which includes a lot of whooping and potential whoopee. It’s one of 11 tracks on the album which Jimmie has co-produced.

If you have the patience to get to track 14, Get You A Girl, you will enjoy Jimmie’s advice on how you won’t care about dressing nicely or saving money for a wedding ring until you find a loved one. It’s a country song with pop production and the best example of the line-toeing Jimmie has to do to make a return on investment for Broken Bow.

The other tracks which are more country than pop include Settle On Back, with a pleasant groove and a self-reflective lyric about how Jimmie needs ‘peace of mind’ amid all that touring he is contractually obliged to do. He does it more for the ‘hollers’ than for the ‘dollars’, but it helps to have the money too. Wouldn’t Feel Like Summer includes a verse all about listening to the radio and is appropriately in the same ‘country radio’ pocket that Luke Bryan has been in for the past two albums.

Ashley Gorley and Zach Crowell bring their A-lister expertise to Kissin You, which will certainly be a single (and a TikTok craze) thanks to its easy groove, chantalong chorus and electric guitar lick. Later on, Jimmie is making Love In The Living Room (‘we didn’t make it to the hallway’), another one of those modern country songs where John Mayer is a dominant influence.

It’s odd that this one isn’t a duet, although Broken Hearted drafts in Katie Ohh (who once won $1m on a TV singing show) to ask each other if they would be sad ‘if I walked out of your door tonight’. There is yet another guest on closing track You Won’t Be Alone: Jimmie’s son Aadyn shouting ‘Hey daddy I love you!’ at the start of the song, which is a father’s song about time, life and fatherhood.

Other A-Listers earn their corn on the album. Brad Tursi of Old Dominion seems to pop up everywhere these days, and he’s in the brackets on the skittish sex jam Keep Em Coming. The acoustic ballad Undo is a gift from Breland on which Jimmie sings ‘I don’t love loving you cos love is the hardest thing to undo’. I like the internal rhyme of ‘smell of Chanel’. Jon Nite and Ross Copperman offer Every Time I Say Amen, which has images of tractors and ‘Old Crow Medicine Show t-shirts’ and Saturday Night Live on the TV. I wonder if Dierks Bentley turned it down.

The worry about albums like Tulip Drive is that, by being everything to everyone, it lacks coherence as a product. Rather than picking a (Mercury) lane, Jimmie drives a whacking great machine over every one of them. This is the streaming business model, where people can choose the Pop or Country tunes to put into their own playlists, so there’s little point complaining.

Yet it seems, like instead of acts ‘going electric’ like Bob Dylan or having a ‘Berlin trilogy’ like David Bowie, newer acts are cramming multiple ideas into one album to stop them being dropped. Happily, Jimmie makes more money on the road than he does with recorded music, so he can switch his sets depending on his audience: down home in Delaware he can be a little more country, over in New York he can bring out J-Lo and T-Pain. Everyone wins, especially Broken Bow Records.

Country Jukebox Jury: Eli Young Band and Niko Moon

June 10, 2022

Eli Young Band – Love Talking

Like Old Dominion and Parmalee, Eli Young Band (named after members Mike Eli and James Young) are a rock act on the country charts. Interestingly, with the band now signed to Big Machine, Mike has just signed a songwriting deal there too, so we may see his name on the credits of that label’s big acts in the next few years.

The group are best known for big number one hits written by others: Crazy Girl, Even If It Breaks Your Heart and Love Ain’t were put on the shelf by the likes of Eric Paslay, Shane McAnally and Liz Rose. That is what makes it interesting that Love Talking, the title track of this mini-album which includes that final abovementioned track, was self-penned. It’s a great idea, that it is the emotions which bring the words to the surface (‘never been more sober!’ Mike declares). I love the diminished chord that runs throughout the song.

Mike joined the megawriters behind The Bones, Jimmy Robbins and Laura Veltz, who were in the room for the poppy Lucky For Me. Laura wrote their hit Drunk Last Night and the pop-country formula still sounds terrific, even if its chorus feels like a pastiche of an Old Dominion track.

Worse still is Break Up In A Bar, which combines two titles written by Old Dominion (Break Up With Him and A Guy Walks Into A Bar) to form a completely new song. Written by the super trio of Ashley Gorley, Ben Johnson and Hunter Phelps, it is driven by a Southern rock riff and a steady beat that we’ve heard before but set to a lyric full of goodbyes.

Chances Are has a four-note hook that powers a song about missing you, ‘drinking and thinking about you’. Live With It has a flawless melody and a great lyric, again one that the Old Dominion guys would be proud us, where Mike describes himself, flaws and all, and seeks to be loved after his beloved can ‘try it on for a little bit, see if you like how it fits’. Uncertainty and concern are key to the lyric of Tell Me It Is, a little vignette where Mike’s ‘only antidote’ but he can tell that all is not as it seems.

Before an acoustic version of Love Talking, we hear A Good Thing, a concoction that is lighter than air and functions as background music. High calibre musak, but musak nonetheless, which is more or less Big Machine’s MO in 2022. I am sure Eli Young Band don’t mind, so long as they can play big venues and have a career.

Niko Moon – Coastin’ EP

George Ezra has been called today’s most optimistic popstar, but even his feelgood schtick pales in comparison with what Niko Moon offers. As with his debut album, he offers unalloyed positivity on this five-track EP. At 14 minutes long, Niko Moon offers pleasant distraction with his patented contemporary country sound.

Easy Tonight (‘ain’t it good when it all feels right?’) is bright and breezy. All Niko needs are beers and friends who will help him ‘get there faster if we take it slow’. On the EP’s title track, Jimmy Buffett and Kenny Chesney are appropriately both on the radio while Niko is ‘working on a three-day tan’. He’s on the whiskey on One Drink Away, a party song where he has a ‘little liquid courage’ and wants to chat a girl up.

On All That We Need, Niko reminds us that all we need is one another to have a good time. As with the album, the EP was written with his wife Anna, who must love the upbeat nature of her husband. Back Nine is a songwriting exercise themed around golf: the back nine of the title refers to holes 10 thru 18 and is transferred to mean that Niko is ‘in the back nine of a broken heart’, getting ‘through the woods’ and on the green. It is the first golf-related country song I have ever heard.

The UK Country Top 40 Chart: Summer 2022

June 10, 2022

You can hear me talk to the artists whose names are in bold on the audio version of this countdown, which you can find divided into the following sections, most of which feature Georgie Thorogood, the MD of Tennessee Fields festival.

  • 40 to 34, with Little Lore, Brooke Law, Biddy Ronelle and Georgia Nevada
  • 33 to 27, with Harley Moon Kemp, The Outlaw Orchestra and Emma Moore
  • 26 to 21, with Emilia Quinn and Danni Nicholls
  • 20 to 11, with Katy Hurt
  • The Top 10, with Nicole Terry from Morganway

Hear every song in full at this playlist.

40 Ags Connolly & Kenny Foster – Auld Lang Syne

39 Stevie O’Connor – Waitin’ On Willie

38 Robbie Cavanagh – Godsend

37 Little Lore – Shallow

36 Brooke Law – We All Need Saving

35 Biddy & The Bullets – Dark Side

34 Georgia Nevada – Sin on a Shoestring

33 Harriet Rose – Love Me Like That

32 Two Ways Home – Waiting On Luck

31 Ward Thomas – Don’t Be A Stranger

30 Blue Rose Code – The Wild Atlantic Way

29 Harley Moon Kemp – He Ain’t You

28 The Outlaw Orchestra – Rattlesnake Sour

27 Emma Moore – Husbands or Kids

26 Emilia Quinn – One of You.

25 Holloway Road – Between Us

24 Alan Finlan – Passenger Seat

23 Jess Thristan – No Mercy

22 Danni Nicholls – Little Fictions

21 The Rising – When You Were Mine

20 The County Affair – Man of Note

19 Simeon Hammond Dallas – A Hundred Lovers

18 Eddy Smith & The 507 – The Ballad of Bobby Gray

17 Tim Prottey-Jones – Love On Our Side

16 Katy Hurt – Wish I Could Give You Up

15 Hannah White – Car Crash

14 Wildwood Kin – Beauty in Your Brokenness

13 Robert Vincent – So In Love

12 Laura Evans – Fire With Fire

11 Twinnie – Type of Girl

10 Lady Nade – Willing

9 Ferris & Sylvester – Superhuman

8 Morganway – Back To Zero

7 Kezia Gill – Whiskey Drinkin’ Woman

6 Jade Helliwell – Smoke

5 Gary Quinn – Point of View

4 Elles Bailey – The Game

3 The Shires – Cut Me Loose

2 The Wandering Hearts – Instead of You

1 Yola – Dancing Away In Tears

Once again, you can hear every track in full in this playlist.

SightB&Bing: What I Saw at Buckle & Boots 2022

June 7, 2022

The Atmosphere

You know the best kind of pub, where newcomers and daytrippers can drop in and find a chair among the regulars? That’s what Buckle and Boots is like. The t-shirts read ‘The Festival of Handshakes’ for good reason.

Ms Buckley was celebrating her 50th birthday and a hen party was all dressed up for a shindig, with men in dresses too! As well as humans, there was a whole spree of dogs on site: West Highland terriers, a bulldog called Merle, some corgis (appropriately given it was the Platinum Jubilee weekend), border terriers and Ivy, the Outlaw Orchestra mascot who was best in show.

Saturday was excellent, with deckchairs aplenty in the day and a busy bar in the evening. I watched an incendiary set by Eddy Smith and the 507 from the top deck of a bus converted into a sort of Royal Circle, while below me a staff member threw wood on the bonfire to warm up punters as the sun and the temperature fell at about 9pm. Extra kudos is awarded to Eddy’s dad, who helped me to set up my tent, and Eddy’s mum who was quick to offer me a cuppa and shortbread. I had to pack my tent up on Sunday morning because of the dreich weather but I am sure I’ll bump into them again.

A feature which was new to the Whitebottom Farm site were the country lyrics painted on wooden signs dotted around the park, giving me instant earworms. There was also a signpost for other country festivals around the UK; it was impossible to miss because it was the midpoint of the trek between the two stages. I hope for better weather at Tennessee Fields, and at least The British Country Music Festival is indoors at Blackpool Winter Gardens.

Band t-shirts and caps were doing a good trade. There were lots of Kezia Gill printed tees and some Emilia Quinn hoodies, with hats and tees on sale from Emma Moore and Georgia Nevada’s stall: ‘Pricks. Everywhere’ with cacti was a good one, but I think British Country Music Club should happen. It is so fetch.

Foodwise, there was no pizza to sustain me this year but the halloumi flatbread with aubergine was enormously filling and should return next year if campers make their feelings known.

The Performers

Sally Morris from Gasoline & Matches was at the festival on her own (Steve was at a trade fair in California), while I bumped into Jensen from Eric & Jensen who said they had similarly dreary weather to Sunday in their recent three-week stint in Nashville. At least they had a captive audience in the evening when they reprised their Country2Country set.

Audra McLaughlin, one of the visiting Americans who played on Friday night, hit an extraordinary high note as part of her set at the Writers Round on Saturday afternoon, accompanied by Sally on guitar. Karen Waldrup then posted one of the performances of the weekend, putting the life of a 101-year-old D-Day veteran to song on Normandy. I completely forgot that D-Day was June 6 1944, making this a song about an event 78 years ago when that man was barely out of his teens.

This tune came immediately after Gary Quinn’s cheeky kiss-off featuring the lyric ‘make sure the door don’t hit you on your way out’, which he has played annually at Buckle & Boots, the festival whose music he is in charge of. Far more moving was when Gary collected himself before the final line of He’s My Dad, getting a hug from his dad as thanks. His own kids were there as well, which made it even more impactful.

After Gary played a song called Poison, his co-writer William Michael Morgan yelled ‘LOVE YOU GARY!’ Willie’s set included plenty of old favourites: Beer Drinker, Vinyl, Missing, his radio smash I Met A Girl. He was ably supported by Backwoods Creek, the festival’s house band. It was a surprise and a delight to see guitarist Johnny behind the drumkit. Is there no end to his talents? The band hung around on Sunday and it was a show in itself seeing them doss around in the green room while keeping minds active and fingers warm.

The highlight of William’s set were the three songs which he invited us to critique. In Walked You had a traditional feel, while Whiskey On was sultry. Now independent, Willie will be a regular visitor to the UK, and he pressed the flesh all weekend while wearing a t-shirt, shades and cowboy hat.

The quality of music was extraordinary. Jack & Tim’s supreme harmonies suited Goodbye Carolina, while The Jackson Line evoked Laurel Canyon with the three-part harmonies on their song about California. The frontman’s invitation to ‘look us up on Myspace, Friends Reunited’ was the patter of the weekend and they will hopefully play the main stage next year.

On that main stage a chap played mandolin and guitar in the same song backing Jeorgia Rose, while Harley Moon Kemp sang about her awful love life wearing a red corset and sparkly cowboy hat. She thanked one woman for dancing jovially to her song LUCKY.

Back on the Paddock Stage, Shannon Hynes’s short, sweet set included a best-ever version of I’m Not Pretty and finished with a wigout for Country Words. Helped by three long-haired fellas behind her, Shannon felt ‘super powerful’ singing Hide and, like The Jackson Line, spoke of fulfilling a dream that she had wanted to achieve for years.

The line-up mixed debutants and old hands. The Rising played for the first time since 2016, with singer Chantelle in a very stylish outfit leading an uptempo set. Guitarist Chris managed a solo behind his head in a bout of one-upmanship, and it was nice to meet the rhythm section who will delight the Tennessee Fields crowd in July.

Biddy and the Bullets woke up the farm at noon on Sunday, with Biddy performing every syllable. Her hyperactive bassist was a danger unto himself, as the stage struggled to contain the rocking tunes. They should expect an upgrade for 2023. Georgia Nevada followed Biddy, wearing a jacket with fluorescent tassels next to which her bassist was dreadbanging! That was my image of Buckle and Boots 2022: dreadbanging at a country music festival.

The Covers

Not that country music was ignored over the weekend, although Georgia Nevada was joined by Terri Leavey on a version of You Shook Me All Night Long by AC/DC as Backwoods Creek led a Jam in the Barn to close the festival where all genres were considered.

Jess Thristan, who performed on Friday evening on the main stage, was right at the front during Saturday’s legendary Honky Tonk Roadshow, which made its debut at Buckle & Boots last year. In a white jacket and aviator shades, Gary took lead vocals on She’s Country, Minimum Wage and Aw Naw and duetted with Jade on Think of You. Kezia and Jade matched the original version of Somethin’ Bad and they looked to be having so much fun.

Part of the thrill of following the UK country movement is being impressed by the camaraderie between musicians; there are no rivalries, only friendships. The most magnificent moment of the weekend came on Sunday afternoon in the more sedate Song Swap featuring the same three performers. As Gary Quinn was performing Kezia’s song I’m Here he broke into ‘rising up, back on the street’. I got that tune in three. Kezia, for her part, took an unreleased Jade Helliwell song about having ‘nothing but the radio on’, and Jade returned the favour when she told Kezia’s story for her on a totes-emosh cover of Local Man’s Star. The quartet, joined by Luke Thomas on fine wisecracking form, dealt with the chilly Sunday weather with professionalism.

There were plenty of other familiar tunes sprinkled in performers’ sets among their original compositions: Reya Jayne included a gorgeous cover of You’re Still The One, while Brooke Law launched into Ironic; Georgia Nevada’s voice suited the Caylee Hammack song Small Town Hypocrite; Shannon Hynes correctly celebrated Miranda Lambert with Strange, a highlight of Miranda’s recent album; Biddy and the Bullets spotlighted a recent Reba album track called Storm in a Shot Glass, which will be their next single.

Vicki Manser slipped her own name into Redneck Woman, keeping it coun-tree, while my ears perked up when The Rogue Embers started The Devil Went Down To Georgia, a US Hot 100 number one smash. The Outlaw Orchestra closed their set with the coruscating John Lennon song Come Together, while Ashley Campbell and Thor Jensen (deputising for the absent Julia Cole) gave us a gentle take on the Tom Waits song Long Way Home, which is available as a studio recording.

William Michael Morgan, meanwhile, proved his credentials by covering George Strait (Check Yes or No), Toby Keith (Should’ve Been A Cowboy) and Brad Paisley, where he brought out Kezia Gill to take the Alison Krauss part on Whiskey Lullaby, one of the moments of the weekend and perhaps foreshadowing a future joint-headline tour.

The theme of the Sunday service was ‘Stay Gentle, Remain Beautiful’, a line written on pebbles which were dashed throughout the tent. As well as prayers and a celebration of The Queen, there was a hymn in the form of My Church, a marvellous singalong which made the rain stop briefly.

Rain would never dampen the high spirits of the Buckle & Boots crowd, and once again the Hancock family – Karl, Jan and Laura – were fine hosts in this hidden gem of a festival. will have details of the 2023 festival.

Country In The Afternoon, Half Moon Putney, May 28-29 2022

June 2, 2022

Gavin and Christine Chittick are two unsung heroes of UK Country. Jon Stone of American Young, who headlined the second day of the festival, wants Gavin to have a radio show in East Nashville to bring his Scottish brogue to Music City. Make it happen, Jon!

Jon and his wife Kristy followed their date at Buck N Bull on Saturday night with a 4pm show at Putney’s most celebrated venue. They were the eighth act to play across the weekend where daytime revellers packed into the room. Tables and chairs were laid out for those who arrived prompt for the 1pm start.

On Saturday, two magnificent English acts began the afternoon before Robbie Cavanagh reprised his Nashville Meets London set (reviewed here) and the super trio Balsamo Collins Riley iced the cake. Alan Finlan and Emilia Quinn will both be at Buckle and Boots with a full band, but the afternoon called for a more stripped-back set.

Emilia is a star and is a sort of mother hen figure of the scene having pulled together many ladies for the song Girl Talk. She actually told the audience to be louder if they wanted to, and thanked them for being ‘so attentive’. With her wife at the back of the room, Emilia played a 40-minute set full of impressive songs accompanied by her resonant guitar in a ‘dropped D’ tuning.

Emilia admitted that she only has one love song, a recently released track called One of You. It’s hard to write a love song without descending into cheesiness, she said, though she showed a good grasp of the genre as she sang of that ‘special kind of someone’. Conversely there was a fine song about murder, which will go down well at Buckle and Boots too.

I don’t like referring to how performers dress, but the ripped jeans, cowboy boots and sleeveless top was a perfect costume for Emilia’s performance. Her song Head Rush reminded me of Girl Crush, while her guttural vocal on Through My Veins proved that she could encapsulate a full-band number on her own. A new song was given its third-ever live outing and impressed the crowd with an a cappella opening, while a song called Daddy’s Girl had a funky riff which will sound great on record when she gets in the studio to lay down the tracks.

Having impressed fans on the Paddock Stage last year, Alan Finlan has been upgraded to a Friday night main stage performance at Buckle & Boots. He is a great ambassador for UK country, having moved across from rock, and easily filled 40 minutes with self-deprecation, anecdotes and great songs.

There was a fine key change in his opener Whiskey On Ice, a word perfect version of the carpe diem song Making Your Mark (which Alan said he always fumbled) and fine rhythmic player on my favourite track of his, Big Man Small Town. As well as the amped-up tunes, his set also included the soft Battle of the Bands, the melancholy waltz This Drink Is Like Having You Home and a slightly slower version of party song No Money By Monday.

There was a segue from his own Cowboy Truth into Luke Combs’ 1, 2 Many. ‘People say I look like…this,’ Alan said, pointing to his Combs-like features, ‘but I’m more attractive!’ The highlight of the set was a dedication of Country Roads to his late grandfather, who had incredibly never heard him sing before. Stick at it, Grandpa said, and Alan will keep the John Denver song in his set for years.

As for American Young, who followed Tupelo Lime, Eddy Smith and the 507 and Meg McPartlin on the Sunday, there was a slight end of term feel about proceedings. Kristy’s fiddle was brilliant throughout but Jon, who broke a string in one of the first numbers, seemed distracted. Old favourites like Love Is War blended well with new ones like Some Girl, a song which was first heard by Gavin Chittick himself, who told Jon it was a smash. It was a terrific hour of country music which ended with a medley of classic country songs including Kiss My Country Ass and My Maria. Credit goes to band – Luke on guitar, Chris on drums, Phil on bass – for holding the rhythm while Jon’s mind wandered off into the sunset.

There are still tickets available for Millport Festival, which is also put on by the Chittick family and this year happens the weekend of August 19-20. Headliners include Drake White and Sunny Sweeney. Information can be found here.

Alan and Emilia perform at Buckle and Boots – Emilia on the Paddock Stage where Gavin acts as MC – and will both feature in the Summer 2022 edition of the UK Country Top 40 Chart Countdown.