Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Carrie Underwood and Hannah White

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.

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