I was very impressed by a song called Heartstrings, released in 2019 from a Welsh woman with a remarkable voice. Laura Evans has collected some recent songs, not including Heartstrings, on an 11-track set which emerged in July 2022.
State of Mind includes plenty of those songs. Solo, a song full of frustration and independence, slinks along with some handclaps and is a contender for Now That’s What I Call Hen Party. There’s also the punchy pair Gone and Drag Me Back In (‘grab me by the heart’), the poppy Good At Getting Over You (which reminded me of I Will Survive without the disco stomp) and Mess of Me, which was written with the great Jenn Bostic. ‘I can’t undo the mess you made of me’ is the best hook on an album full of them.
The two songs released to gear people up for the album were the opening track I’m Alright and third track Fire With Fire. Both songs smoulder like the sort of Carrie Underwood songs to which they are a homage, since Laura shares Carrie’s confidence and brilliant delivery.
Fool, written with Twinnie, is a breakup song with the same feel as Girl Crush, perhaps on purpose, with only a guitar supporting Laura’s poised, controlled vocal. The title track (‘we were high on love locked in a state of mind’) is a brilliant driving song with a wide open chorus, and will sound brilliant on radio, even if it is tinged with regret.
It runs nicely into Let You Down Easy, a breakup song with some gorgeous chords, a light gospel touch and an interpolation of The Rose by Bette Midler.
Free closes the album in the way that a barrister sums up his defence, bringing together musical and lyrical themes from the album. ‘Head held high, find your own dreams in the neon sky’ is a fine chorus and Laura’s music will affect plenty of folk who hear it. Catch Laura at the British Country Music Festival in September.
Brooke Eden – Choosing You EP
Nashville is changing, ever so incrementally, into a place where any artist can be free to be themselves regardless of gender, race or sexuality. It might not mean commercial success but it will enable artistic satisfaction.
When Brooke Eden came to C2C one year playing the part of country-pop princess, nobody knew she would one day marry a woman and be free to express her sexuality, as well she should. Attitude and Gay Times have introduced her to readers, who ought to shower her with love. Following the magnificent songs No Shade, Sunroof and Got No Choice, we get five new songs produced by Jesse Frasure, who brings his commercial touch to the EP.
I imagine Brooke is fed up of her voice being compared to that of Lauren Alaina, but it’s true. Knock and Left You For Me are both me-first pop songs which will appeal to young people unsure of their place in the world. Comeback Love is 100% Yaas Queen, with Brooke shooing away an ex via a funky riff.
The A-List pair of Lindsay Rimes (best known for working with The Shires) and Connie Harrington (I Drive Your Truck) helped Brooke write Heartless. That song could be delivered as a piano ballad but Frasure slathers it in production and Brooke strings out the song’s title when it appears at the end of the chorus. Heartless actually compares her current love to her former ‘heartless’ state, which ties in well with the unabashed love song Off The Ground which closes the EP.
She is lucky to have the woman who causes her to be ‘levitating’. With luck, she’ll be back over in 2023 to win over a whole new set of fans.
The two albums under discussion came out the same day as Lizzo released Special. I coined a genre for it. Thinkpiece Pop is music that is more about its creator than about the notes and words, which will prompt criticism that is more to do with its creator than any of the music itself. I think Ty and Tami have released two Thinkpiece Country albums.
Ty Herndon – Jacob
All I knew about Ty Herndon before listening to Jacob was that he came out as gay in 2014 and that there’s an annual concert for Love and Acceptance which I get emails about and which Ty organises. He told People Magazine that his addiction to crystal meth recently returned, bringing with it an attempt by Ty to end his life. As with Chase Bryant’s album from 2021, knowledge of the artist informs what we hear on record.
Ty’s first hit was in the Garth era, when he was signed to Nashville’s branch of Epic Records. Three number ones included What Mattered Most, Living In A Moment and It Must Be Love, while his other evergreens include I Want My Goodbye Back and Hands of a Working Man. Country songs, all of them, in the Garth’n’George Strait tradition.
He has brought backup on this, his first non-holiday or covers album for six years. Terri Clark, another openly gay singer, is a brilliant choice of duet partner on Dents on a Chevy, a song with an enormous backbeat and a lyric about love and stuff which fits in the ‘A goes with B’ trend. Wendy Moten, fresh from her Voice final appearance, adds some adlibs on Say It For You, a breakup ballad which is a combination between tango and salsa.
Shelley Fairchild joins him on Landslide, co-written by Morgan Myles, on which Ty begs to be held ‘not like you’re just lonely’. Lean In, a duet with Jamie Floyd (who is female), sounds like one of those Tim & Faith or Garth & Trisha duets where they both want each other’s love and touch.
Emily West wrote and appears on a ballad called Fighting For You, which begins with a line about ‘ghosts standing in my closet’. It’s a sort of coming-out song, because the narrator is ‘tired of fighting’ to be the person he needs to be. Shelley Fairchild was in the room herself for album closer Damn Good Feeling, a strong song with a good groove and lots of confidence from Ty’s vocal.
Happily for Ty, country music sounds like 1996 again, so album opener Till You Get There will fit with what’s on the radio today. It’s his life in a song, full of philosophy about keeping on. Ditto Standing In The Whiskey, a chantalong with a country arrangement and a lyric about being a different man than he used to be. Sleeping With A Stranger has an orchestra and a guitar wail in the opening 30 seconds, putting me in mind again of Garth, except for the fact that Ty sings about being kept ‘in a cage’ and the stranger of the title is a man.
The big song on the album is God or the Gun, which reminds me of the Rodney Atkins song If You’re Going Through Hell (‘keep on going’) and will similarly affect listeners in their thousands. The conclusion is that ‘nothing is bigger than love’. On Hallelujah, a song of devotion where there are ‘church bells singing’, I’m not sure whether it’s carnal or divine.
As with recent albums by Joe Nichols and Tanya Tucker, Ty Herndon proves that those stars of yesteryear aren’t going away. They might even get some new fans from these new projects, though I can already see the thinkpieces demand more country music by openly gay acts.
Tami Neilson – Kingmaker
Talking of Thinkpiece Country, an academic wrote the liner notes to this album. Dr Jada Watson is constantly bigging up country stars who aren’t blokes in hats. I was moved to ask her if she’d ever stop, and I don’t think I’ll live to see the day, given that only 3 of every 20 acts played on the radio are women. The rise of streaming can only help acts like Tami Neilson.
She’s an outspoken Canadian-born adopted Kiwi who has been in the business for years, starting out touring with her family. Spurred on by the reckoning of predatory men in the New Zealand music industry, this is an album with a statement to make. King of Country Music (‘Eve is picking apples, Adam’s blaming her’) asks whether a woman can be heir to the throne, with added banjo. Tami drops the name Kitty Wells, one of those acts she opened for in Canada, and tells the listener she played Opryland as a teenager too.
The title track which opens the album has reverberating guitars and vocals, a string section and an acerbic lyric. Baby You’re A Gun evokes the frontier in its impeccable production and melody, while Green Peaches has a fine shuffle and a tale that someone like Margo Price (another Thinkpiece Country act) can tell so well.
Careless Woman, which will be a live highlight and has a proper music video, has handclaps and a four-note riff to introduce a vocal delivered with abandon and character that makes its message clear in under two minutes. There’s also a retro chorus complete with a shushing sound on Mama’s Talkin’, a song which in the same couplet includes the words caveman, dinosaur and timeline.
Tami’s two kids contribute vocals to The Grudge, where Tami’s voice takes on the timbre of Rhiannon Giddens’ and on which she chants ‘choose pride over love’. The 89-year-old outlaw Willie Nelson does his thing on the breakup waltz Beyond The Stars. Similarly alluring is I Can Forget (‘Your memory takes me by surprise’), where Tami shows off her vibrato over yet more strings.
The album ends with the chantalong Ain’t My Job. ‘Keep your flowers! Take a cold shower!’ coos Tami over a swampy groove. It’s to Tami’s credit that the songs are musically as well as lyrically interesting, and this album deserves a wide audience as much for how it sounds as for Tami’s words. As with Ty Herndon’s album, thinkpieces will be good, but songs are always better.
A lady called Hannah, already giddy with wine, was stood next to me in the new venue underneath Universal Records’ UK base in Kings Cross. She had never been to a country show before, so had no idea what to expect.
Someone had told her that opening act Twinnie had played Porsche on Hollyoaks. Tracks from her new four-track EP got an airing: Welcome To The Club opened the set with a bang, One Heart (‘it only takes one heart to break two) and Somebody or Somebody now rivals Better When I’m Drunk as a set highlight. As well as a brand new ballad written with Lucie Silvas to rival Superhero, there were some fine solos by Rich which made Twinnie whip her hair back and forth. Arms swayed, voices warmed up and Twinnie knew her role as an opening act (‘You’ve not come to see me!’ she said).
Fun fact, with which I won’t bore Hannah: Ben Johnson has produced Twinnie’s EP and co-written much of Morgan’s latest project Country and the Coast. It’s being released in two parts. The second one will surely include All Right Here, which Morgan performed solo and which sounded like an instant smash.
The first part of the project included the magical driving song Love Is Real, where Morgan adopted the rather hackneyed trick of dividing the crowd into two and making them compete for noise. His new single Country Outta My Girl is a fine distillation of his sound, which reflects well on Kelsea. I love the line ‘She’ll “Bless Your Heart” when she’s mad’!
Like Ryan Hurd, Morgan has a wife (Kelsea Ballerini) who is better known than he is. Morgan told me that he wasn’t even the best songwriter in his kitchen, but he can certainly match Kelsea for showmanship. That girl, who has just announced that her fourth album is to be called Subject To Change, features in absentia.
Morgan played his wedding song I Do and his ballad Dance With Me. He also told a story about his American Dream Truck (‘we sold the house and kept the truck!’). Morgan was able to thank the crowd for supporting his debut smash Kiss Somebody and give some background to Hooked, a song cut by Dylan Scott which spun off an idea to write a response song to Kelsea’s Peter Pan. That’s one for Hannah to catch up on.
Morgan was warming up for two arena dates in support of Brad Paisley, the London show ‘a good cure for jetlag!’ He first came over to the UK at the request of Gary Quinn in 2017, accompanied by his trusty loop pedal, playing songs which would end up on his debut album Things That We Drink To. He now had three musicians backing him up, including guitarist Gideon and a frizzy-haired bassist who was visibly impressed by the crowd’s knowledge of Morgan’s music.
The 80-minute set was full of contemporary country classics and Hannah whooped and hollered in the right places. The title track of his first album is a tribute to his old manager, and he interpolated the coda of Coldplay’s Fix You into the song, which he performed at the piano. Elsewhere he celebrated George Harrison with a take on Here Comes The Sun, fresh from holding up the traffic on Abbey Road.
His set opened with Young Again, a song full of wordless woahs, while set closer Day Drunk was accompanied by solos from each bandmember that stretched the track out. New song Sing Along Drink Along was written for small crowds like ours, and Hannah must have been impressed at the skill of Morgan as both a writer and a showman. His well-deserved encore was Diamonds, a standalone track from 2019 that I’d missed completely when it came out. Hannah loved it and will begin her journey of country discovery which may take her away from the house music to which she usually dances.
Brad Paisley has once again chosen a fine opening act to his UK shows. Morgan will surely return to the UK in 2023, if the grip’n’grin queue was any indication.
Rhiannon Giddens is fast becoming the voice of country music scholarship. A banjo player whose work in Carolina Chocolate Drops did for bluegrass what Jack White did for the blues, as a solo act she has released four albums of roots music, two with her partner Francesco Turrisi with whom she lives in Ireland. BBC Radio 4 commissioned this three-part series in which Rhiannon tells the stories of black musicians who seem to have been lost in the mists of time, perhaps on purpose.
Bluegrass, conventional wisdom goes, was pioneered by Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt. Recent stars include Molly Tuttle, Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show and Billy Strings but, as in every cultural item from movies to TV to literature to actors, we must view bluegrass through the prism of the 2010 Equality Act and right historical wrongs.
BBC Radio 3 typically does this type of music programme well, using a skilled musician to tell a story, but Radio 4 seems to obey the edict to put on air more minority voices not usually represented in the past 100 years of the Home Service. It’s a welcome correction, and if it means more Rhiannon Giddens, whose version of She’s Got You is the definitive version, so much the better.
Within two minutes of the first episode, we get Rhiannon stating her race – ‘as a mixed race person’ and later ‘the only black face in a jam session’ and ‘an outsider in a white folk culture’ – just in case nobody knows about her performance and scholarship. ‘There is no Black South and White South,’ she argues, and square dancing is ‘uniformly white’ too, even though in 1900 there was a common songbook for people of all creeds.
Fusionism, mixing white and black performers and cultures, was the order of the day. Then, at the turn of the century, came the ‘white backlash’ which drove out the black folk, thanks to the fear of mixed relationships.
We hear about two fiddlers from North Carolina in the show. Frank Johnson was born a slave whose talent was passed on to future generations. He died as a renowned player in a post-abolition era. Rhiannon’s own teacher Joe Thompson was 86 when she met him as ‘one of the last living links’ to the bluegrass fiddlers of the 1600s, which included Johnson. These chaps would play on plantations and make folk dance until the sun came up, and Rhiannon earns her fee by giving us the old ‘barking puppy’ rhythm.
The second episode asks ‘How has the banjo been whitewashed?’ We hear the famous Foggy Mountain Breakdown, one of many tunes which commercialised the genre and led people to think it had lots of Caucasians as pioneers. This started with minstrelsy, which is a whole other kettle of fish.
Our tour guide heads to Kentucky where she tells us about Arnold Shultz, who died in 1931 and was an influence on Bill Monroe, the self-proclaimed shaper of the genre. ‘I wish I could be a banjo player, not a black female banjo player,’ says Rhiannon, reminding us of the point of this series. ‘You don’t have to carry a torch for a whole entire race!’ But that’s what is being thrust upon her, just as the many women in country must represent half of humanity.
On their recent brilliant album, Old Crow Medicine Show included a hymn to harmonica player DeFord Bailey, the first black performer to be an Opry member and the only one there in his lifetime. (Charley Pride wasn’t invited until 1993, a decade after DeFord died.) DeFord (pronounced ‘Dee-Ford’, by the way) gets the acclaim in the final episode of the series, which begins with words from Frankie Station, the Black Country Music Association’s founder.
Frankie reminds that listener that, even in 1996, there was opposition to black acts. ‘I was just tired of Nashville,’ she says, ‘looking at a big party through a glass window.’ Rhiannon ‘did not always feel welcome because of the colour of my skin…It was always a white town.’
Likewise, although she loved the Southern entertainment offered on the stereotypical Hee Haw, it left out the racial tensions and, yep, erased and whitewashed black musicians like DeFord. His family, who were farmhands on a white farm, furnished him with a harmonica to console him while he was in quarantine with polio, being the 1900s and with no vaccine available. We hear him speaking incomprehensibly, like Shane MacGowan, before Rhiannon’s fellow Chocolate Drop Dom Flemons goes behind the curtain to show us how DeFord sounded like a train and invented blues harmonica with a single blue note.
In fact, DeFord was given a break by WSM, the radio station which aired the Opry radio show that booked him every Saturday night for 15 years until he was fired for insubordination relating to politics between radio and publisher. It was nothing to do with him being ‘lazy’, as one source inaccurately alleged. By the 1940s, race records and hillbilly records were being marketed to different audiences, which meant that white performers were preferred for country record labels. ‘There was little room allowed,’ Rhiannon says, ‘for black hillbilly musicians’. What was Elvis Presley, I would add, than a Tupelo truck driver dressed as a bluesman?
If someone isn’t working on a screenplay about DeFord Bailey, who lived in a time of segregation and is compared by one academic to Jimi Hendrix or Prince, I’ll write one. He died 40 years ago this month and it is to the credit of the interviewees in the third show, especially his biographer and friend who is audibly overcome with emotion, that he is remembered.
Only two other black guys are Country Music Hall of Fame members, though. It is a time for ‘reckoning and reconciliation’, so the sins of the past can be atoned thanks to champions like Rhiannon Giddens.
July 1 was Canada Day, presumably to ensure Canadians get to celebrate in the same period of the year as the Americans mark their Independence. Canadian country music is its own world, with some crossover acts including Anne Murray, Terri Clark, Lindsay Ell and that woman who wasn’t much impressed.
Bros Landreth are two brothers from Canada, David and Joey, who bumped into Bob Harris in Nashville and handed him a CD. Bob loved it and started playing them, ensuring them a UK audience. They’ll be back this September to tour their third album – with nine UK dates including, impressively, Shepherd’s Bush Empire – to crowds who love their folky country music.
The album was self-produced with longterm buddy Murray Pulver who has since worked with UK acts including Katy Hurt and The Jackson Line. I’m sure I’m not the first writer to make the Paul Young or Ron Sexsmith comparisons but that is what I hear throughout the album. The brothers call it ‘heart-on-your-sleeve songwriting’.
The six-minute Drive All Night is a wistful reminiscin’ song with some funky keyboards. It would definitely fall under my invented genre Bob Harris Country, which welcomes music with harmonies, expert production and a mood that makes the song segue from or into music of any genre at all. This is boundless music.
It is full of empathy which the arrangements reflect: there’s some steel guitar on Shame (‘pride came before the fall’), some wire-brushed drums on You Don’t Know Me and the addition of harmonies from Leith Ross on the stoical and magnificent Don’t Feel Like Crying.
Corduroy, beyond its title, is also a great song which is indebted to 70s soul and has a marvellous final minute of guitar’n’organ bliss. The title track sounds like a lullaby that Ron Sexsmith could knock up on a half-hour walk after dinner, while the brothers even get away with calling the final and wryly comic track Back To Thee (‘take mine eyes, I don’t need them to see/ the most beautiful one splits my rent with me’).
Testament to their calibre is that Luke Combs’ producer Jonathan Singleton was in the room to write a pair of tracks: the fluttering ballad What In The World (‘would I do without you’) and After The Rain, a pretty melody which reflects the optimism that the world will be different and there will be dancing and fun after the struggle. The final minute is one of the best on record all year. I won’t spoil the thrill. Just listen.
Orville Peck – Bronco
Testament to Orville’s calibre is the presence of Jay Joyce on production for his third project. Jay has carved the sound of Eric Church and Ashley McBryde, which puts Orville in esteemed company. His third project, following the album Pony and the six-track mini-album Show Pony, is released on the famous Sub Pop label, which is now a subsidiary of Columbia Records.
Indeed, he released the album in three tranches of five tracks this spring and is out on tour this summer in Australia and his present home of Canada. Orville is the openly gay singer who grew up in South Africa who wears a tasselled facemask when he performs, with a voice that echoes through the ages like a cross between fellow Canadian Colter Wall and Johnny Cash. He has spoken of wanting to be a ‘David Bowie of country’, using his training in performance.
Trample Out The Days actually reminds me a little bit of Cher. Orville has already covered songs by Lady Gaga and kd lang, and I can hear any of those acts covering the torch ballad Let Me Drown, the album’s big bit of catharsis with a string section which Columbia Records must have greenlit. Orville has admitted to being depressed before he worked on Bronco, which he used as therapy.
There is no sign of the sadness in the musical aspect of Outta Time, which quotes Elvis Presley’s A Little Less Conversation and is driven by a great groove which reflects the line in the chorus about ‘heading down the PCH’, the Pacific Coast Highway in California. Elvis and Phil Spector seem to be influences on the grandiose C’mon Baby Cry, while the electrifying trio Lafayette, Any Turn and the album’s title track are driven by rockabilly drums.
Joyce’s production brings out the outlaw spirit of songs like Hexie Mountains – where the reverb on Orville’s voice is a literal echo of the rocks – Iris Rose (which has dustings of horn) and the smart Kalahari Down. That last song sets a Western tune in Africa, opening with a few bars of reverbed harmonica and including the strings again. Blush is a sun-drenched chugger set in London with the opening line ‘Red sky in morning, still thinking of courtin’ you’. I forgot that Orville was singing about men, and his career will be fascinating to watch, not just for the reasons of a man singing about a man in country music.
Closing track All I Can Say was co-written with Bria Salmena, who takes the first verse and chorus: ‘All I can say is goodbye’ was obvious from the start of the song as the lyric, which closes the album with the same tenor that came before it. It’s a winning formula.
He calls himself Mr Jukebox because he has hundreds of tunes at his disposal for a gig on Lower Broadway. Following up the 2018 album of that title, Joshua releases a 12-track set which recalls the mighty country music of the 1990s. He does it in a less obvious manner than Cole Swindell, who will have a number one by shamelessly nicking Heads Carolina Tails California for his own gains.
Josha, meanwhile, is ‘working like a dog, sweating like a hog’ but he’s Broke Again on the album’s opening track. It has fiddle, a stuttering hook and a drumbeat which was all the rage in 1994, when Joe Diffie, Brooks & Dunn and the rest were topping the charts without nicking old songs to do so.
Country & Western underlines that the genre is ‘about real life: drinking, cheating, loving…I cry alone to a steel guitar’, with a wah-wah cry from that instrument, while a twangin’ guitar opens Old Heartbroke Blues (‘there’s a cowgirl on the loose’). Free (One Heart) reminds me of Joe Nichols, who also stuck to traditional sounds on his last album, as Joshua advertises himself for a new owner. It even fades out like songs in 1994 did and this gently ends the first ‘side’ of the album.
That side also includes Down To My Last Lie, an authentic country song which paints Joshua as a schmuck with lots of keening in his voice, and The Last Thing In The World. That song opens in a honkytonk, an environment where Joshua has made a living, as he calls for an end to the parade of broken-hearted punters.
The title track opens the second ‘side’ with a tale that stays in the honkytonk, with ‘Friday night loving’ making his heart turn Neon Blue. This is also the mood of Wonder If You Wonder. There follows a proud Bury Me With My Boots On, then a pair of magnificently gorgeous tunes.
One is about a couple celebrating their ruby wedding anniversary that gives lie to the saying that love cannot be Found In A Bar. The other is a waltz called Let’s Make A Memory which is about 100% George Strait. The album ends with the philosophical River In The Rain, which also fades out.
Credit goes to Joshua’s producers Jordan Lehning and Skylar Wilson, plus co-writers Carson Chamberlain (who has also worked with Billy Currington), Wyatt McCubbin and Zach Top. The album is a beautiful homage to an era that is back in fashion only because Nashville thinks it can make money by selling it again. Joshua cares more for heritage than money, although a generous tip would be welcome.
Ian Noe – River Fools & Mountain Saints
Underrated? Cult songwriter? Ian Noe (real first name Joey) seems to be among the ranks of certain roots performers who are acclaimed within the scene but not known beyond it. Dave Cobb produced his 2019 debut album, having worked with Ian’s fellow Kentuckian Chris Stapleton, while Ian opened for John Prine on one of his final tours.
This second album – distributed by Thirty Tigers who also brought John’s records out – opens with a few bars of groove and guitar which introduce the song Pine Grove (Madhouse). Ian’s vocals sound adenoidal but direct, giving us a view of life in middle America.
The tunes keep coming, each with nagging melodies, vivid lyrics and arrangements that go long on traditional instruments. Tom Barrett, about a murderer, was ‘waiting for a better time to tell her he’d be gone’, an opening line which hooks the listener like a great storyteller does. Ditto Burning Down The Prairie (‘Daddy’s on the rampage’), which kicks into an electric wigout halfway through. The title Appalachia Haze might well be a nod to Hendrix’s Purple one, but there are no electric guitar fireworks to be here.
River Fool is a John Prine-ish character song about a guy prone to strumming Creedence Clearwater Revival while he wastes the days away. The Appalachian harmonies are as appealing as the mandolin and acoustic guitar which drive the rhythm of the song.
This is proper singer/songwriter stuff, music which would work with just a mouth and a guitar but on record can be surrounded by excellent arrangements. From the jaunty Strip Job Blues 1984 to the image-heavy toe-tappers POW Blues and Mountain Saint, Ian knows how to write a folk song. Road May Flood, which segues into It’s A Heartache, is a lovely closing duo; the latter has a string section, which helps the album and Ian drift off on the breeze.
For slower songs, try the rolling guitar of Ballad of a Retired Man, the apt Lonesome As It Gets, and One More Night, where Ian gently finger-picks his guitar while brooding about those who voyage on the sea. There is a muted horn solo in the middle of that last song which I hope Ian can repeat on the road so audiences obtain the full experience.
He comes to End of the Road festival and a pair of UK dates in early September.
Ray is the most successful songwriter you’ve never heard of. A kid from a small town in Georgia, he met a fellow Eric Church fan, Luke Combs, back in 2014 and by 2018 had success as part of Luke’s crew. Ray was in the room for Even Though I’m Leaving, a song Luke will still be playing in 2050, and his second number one When It Rains It Pours.
Four years after that song hit number one, Ray puts out his hour-long debut full-length release, following a 2019 EP, on Black River. As with Luke’s third album, it is produced by Jonathan Singleton, who is hot right now. Similar to how Cole Swindell isn’t a patch on Luke Bryan, Ray’s voice lacks the character of Luke Combs’ but the songs are contemporary and appealing and will ensure he has success out on the road promoting this album. He’ll be supporting the great Craig Morgan this autumn.
Sellin’ Cars is the artist’s statement of intent: Ray’s job as a songwriter ‘sure beats the hell’ out of a sales job. Bucket List Beers had Combs in the room. It’s a song about marking big moments in your life with alcohol and should be heard on a beer commercial. Beer also pops up in the punchline of Hearts To Break (‘and I got beers to drink’), which has a radio-friendly chorus.
All Gas No Brakes opens the set with a declaration of love, while the magnificent love song After The Rain (‘loving you is like a blue sky after the rain’) slows things down to prove Ray can do balladry too. Life Changing Money has a wistful tone appropriate to a reminiscin’ lyric about buying a ring for his beloved, and Compliment is a fine country song in every respect: drive, melody, production, guitar solo and a great lyric where Ray is ‘set in my ways’.
Eric Church and Jon Stone from American Young gave Ray The Battle of Betty’s Love. It sounds like a Chief song, with a spacious melody and a lyric about a football game and homecoming queens, as well as a pun on Gettysburg in the title. Football also appears in Damn If It Didn’t Hurt, one of many vignettes in a song where Ray tells us that what doesn’t kill him makes him stronger. Sorry, Heart is a great idea well executed and a perfect writers’ round song.
Girl In It was the song that got the big push and I wonder if any big acts like Tim McGraw had it on hold. The other big Ray Fulcher song is actually an outside write: the first verse of Love Ya Son, Go Dawgs takes the form of a voicemail from a dad to his son, which is drenched in pathos and smalltown life: the weather, selling a car, the departure of the preacher and the success of the local football team. It’ll make dads and their sons hug one another, and I wish there were more of this type of song in country today.
Without his beloved, it’d be like the Wild West without John Wayne, as the track with that name lists a whole load of things, including ‘Merle without that Bakersfield sound’, that do not lack that crucial ingredient. Merle isn’t the only musician namechecked on the album, which also gives props to Travis Tritt (a more sedate version of When It Rains It Pours called So Far So Bad), Bruce Springsteen (Way Out), Tom Petty (Anything Like You Dance) and Willie Nelson on vinyl on If You Like Your Boys Like That (‘then you’re gonna love me’).
That last song paints Ray as a good old country boy, which is one of the themes of this album. We don’t need 17 tracks but, having waited a decade for this moment, I won’t begrudge Ray the chance to showcase the full extent of his talent. The car dealership’s loss is country music’s gain. Let’s hope he can get over to the UK for C2C next year.
Aaron Raitiere – Single Wide Dreamer
Like Ray, Kentucky-born Aaron has had his name in the brackets of songs on major releases. Tall Guys, on the recent Maren Morris album, did not have a fan in the similarly short Dave Cobb, for whose Low Country Sound label Aaron is a staff writer; Greg Kurstin, who produced the song, is extremely tall so it found favour with him.
Having written Country Money for Miranda’s record Palomino, Aaron has recorded a toe-tappin’ version of For The Birds, a fine track from The Weight of These Wings which was mostly written at 7.30am staring out the window trying to wake up. He also wrote Look What I Found and I’ll Never Love Again for Lady Gaga to sing on A Star Is Born. As well as holding a degree from Cornell University, Aaron also paints, so maybe Lady Gaga has a Raitiere on her wall.
Aaron will be over in the UK this October supporting Tenille Townes in her jaunt to the UK. He told Your Life In A Song that he wants to make people feel good with his music. Guided by the album’s producer Anderson East – a former boyfriend of Miranda’s – Aaron brought in Foy Vance and Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead to help Aaron, proof that the network is strong in town. It’s out on the Dinner Time imprint and there is much food for thought on the album.
The title track tells of a country-sounding guy who is a fan of Johnny and Merle but lives ‘in a double wide world’. I love the speak-singing Aaron employs, as well as language like ‘bona fide’ and ‘high falutin’. The character of that song smokes, as does the one on Everybody Else, which sounds like a campfire singalong and includes a guy playing acoustic guitar which is awfully meta.
The chirpy and philosophical Cold Soup would work well in a DJ set next to 10cc’s Life is a Minestrone. At Least We Didn’t Have Any Kids is a carefree song where Aaron is free of regrets, while Can’t Rain All The Time is a major-key that looks on the bright side of life despite how ‘the beetles got the apples and the worms got the corn’. You’re Crazy, a list of ways of calling someone less than sane, was written with songwriter’s songwriter Erin Enderlin and reminds me of Charlie Worsham’s funnier songs.
Elsewhere, in a more morose tenor, Dear Darlin’ has Aaron ‘cussing you in cursive’ while doing a Conway Twitty impression. He’s also ‘cussin’ on Worst I Ever Had, which has a singalong section to hammer home Aaron’s pain. Tell Me Something True, co-written with Ashley Monroe, is an acoustic lament where Aaron begs his beloved to stick the knife in ‘even if it hurts’. Your Daddy Hates Me is a son-in-law’s lament which will land well with some of his audience.
Time Will Fly, a Hemby/McAnally/Raitiere co-write about life and stuff, closes the album and it is to Aaron’s credit that he can be bracketed with these hitmakers.
Molly Tuttle is a leading figure in contemporary bluegrass, a world which was discussed in Emma John’s wonderful travelogue Wayfaring Stranger. Bob Harris is a fan of Molly’s and has been playing her music for the past few years, probably because it recalls the mighty Alison Krauss.
If you judge a person by the company she keeps, Molly is a superstar. The album is produced by dobro wizard Jerry Douglas and is packed with guests from the bluegrass firmament. If anything, this is a sort of bluegrass version of what DJ Khaled does, except Molly doesn’t yell her name before her guest takes a verse.
Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show joined Molly to write eight of the album’s 13 tracks. His band feature on the delightful Big Backyard, which contrasts the country girls and the city guys out in Hollywood or New York but ‘come rain or shine, it’s the same big sky’. Flatland Girl features Margo Price, who helps Molly sing about how ‘a farmer’s day is never done’. It is gorgeous and, like much of the album, soaked in fiddle.
Speaking of strings(!!), Billy Strings accompanies his bluegrass mate on the bluesy Dooley’s Farm, which has a nice kicker at the end. The mood is evoked by the Blue Ridge Mountains and the slow, woozy musical accompaniment.
The title track is a fable of nature, in which Molly comes down on the side of the crooked tree that can’t easily be turned into ‘toothpicks and 20-dollar bills’ at the mill. As if to exaggerate the crookedness, Molly changes the number of beats in the bars where the titular tree is mentioned. It reminds me a little bit of The Lorax, Dr Seuss’s environmental parable, and I reckon it’ll become a bluegrass standard. She personifies nature in The River Knows, which ‘cries’ when love goes awry, while Grass Valley is a place where Molly was ‘standing round jamming’ with her dad as a kid.
Nashville Mess Around is lightly critical of Music City (‘we’ve had our boom and there’s no room!’) but it’s a heap of fun thanks to the yodelling. Castilleja is a proper bluegrass band song: the instrumentalists take solos and Molly sings of love and stuff in the desert. Technically, melodically and narratively, it is perfect and worthy of the audience that Alison Krauss and, indeed, Sierra Hull and Gillian Welch get.
Those two woman also join in the fun: Sierra’s mandolin helps Molly go Over The Line – the line being the US-Mexico border – while Gillian is sat Side Saddle on the feminist bluegrass song (‘I just wanna ride bow-legged like a boy’). Dan Tyminski, who has worked with Alison Krauss and was the real voice coming out of George Clooney in O Brother Where Art Thou, adds harmonies to the melancholy waltz San Francisco Blues, which recalls the state of Molly’s birth.
This is a wonderful album, full of nature, empathy and musicianship. Worse still for us old folk, Molly is 29. Go listen while she’s ascending the bluegrass ladder.
Old Crow Medicine Show – Paint This Town
OCMS, meanwhile, are much more than bluegrass now. They are led by Ketch Secor, who added verses to an old chorus by Bob Dylan about rocking him like a wagon wheel and made both of their accountants very happy. They also performed Bob’s first ‘Nashville album’ Blonde on Blonde in its entirety in 2017 and you must listen to the set recorded at the Country Music Hall of Fame to appreciate the musicianship and songwriting of an album that contributed to the birth of rock music (as opposed to rock’n’roll).
OCMS are at this point as beloved as The Mavericks, The Oak Ridge Boys and Zac Brown Band. We expect showmanship, musicianship and all the other ships and the quality control is extraordinary. While hunky guys and pretty girls get played on the radio and shift units to a predetermined audience, OCMS will outlast all of them and attract an audience who care about Music with a capital M. ’23 years…and we’re still strumming…harder!’ was their note to fans upon the release of the album.
Paint This Town is produced by Matt Ross-Spang, who rose to become Chief Engineer at Sun Studio Memphis before setting up his own studio. He’s helped craft the sonics of records by Jason Isbell, Lori McKenna, The Mountain Goats, Margo Price and John Prine, so our ears are in safe hands. I imagine lots of people will listen to the album on hi-fidelity audio and it seems a shame to stream it in low quality via Spotify.
They were meant to play at Country2Country 2020 but the virus scuppered their chances of bringing their good-time music to Greenwich. OCMS have added the guitar-playing wizard Charlie Worsham to their band too, which is a match made in bluegrass heaven. The accelerator is pressed right down to the floor on the tracks Bombs Away (‘I don’t mind if I lose my mind!’), Painkiller (‘mama won’t you ease my mind!’ – make your mind up, Ketch!!) and Used To Be A Mountain, which rotates between soft and hyperactive sections.
Reasons To Run is a gorgeous song where Ketch is ‘running out of reasons’ to escape the ghost towns. Spot the nasal delivery of a line near the end of the song which is pure Dylan, as is the structure and delivery on New Mississippi Flag, which is almost a tribute to the type of song on Blonde on Blonde. Honey Chile is rich in harmonies like the best music by the band who backed Bob on the Blonde on Blonde tour, which became The Band.
There’s an appropriately gospely, New Orleans boogie-woogie feel to Lord Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise, and Ketch becomes a Pentecostal preacher on the unhinged John Brown’s Dream, which will be enormous fun to perform live. As will Hillbilly Boy, a story song about a fiddler with a chorus featuring the line ‘pass that jug of wine and let it shine, shine, shine!’ Songs like these are amazing to hear in an era of processed drums and reconstituted disco beats. Just as The White Stripes rescued the Delta Blues from academic study, so Ketch and his crew are bringing bluegrass to the masses.
The band’s recent setlist includes neither John Brown’s Dream nor Hillbilly Boy, though they do play Gloryland, where Ketch looks upon a ‘ruined nation’ to the accompaniment of a stately arrangement in direct opposition to those feelgood tunes elsewhere on the album. It is even more stark given recent events in the USA.
The most poignant song on the album is DeFord Rides Again, which tells the story of the 4’9” DeFord Bailey, the famous harmonica player whose career was rather ruined by the racism of the American South. Kudos to the band’s blower Cory Younts, who takes the solo and honks throughout this tribute to a man whose memory the band, who are Opry regulars just as DeFord had been. The outro of the song includes a few bars of DeFord blowing, on a record in 2022.
Heritage is vital to the survival of country music and Old Crow Medicine Show, Opry members since 2013, are one of the best at offering it.
If country radio is a young man’s game, there is no age limit for outlaws. If you add up the ages of these three men, you get 231. In ascending order, Steve Earle is 67, Ray Wylie Hubbard is 75 and Willie Nelson will turn 90 next year.
Fans of outlaw country can grab a ticket for February 2023’s Outlaw Country Cruise, which stops off in Mexico and the Bahamas and has booked acts such as Vandoliers, Mike and the Moonpies, Lucinda Williams, The Mavericks…and Ray Wylie Hubbard and Steve Earle. Willie is helming another Farm Aid event this September, with Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Margo Price and Dave Matthews already confirmed.
Willie Nelson – A Beautiful Life
Willie put out his 98th album this April on the day he turned 89. As with his recent albums, his producer Buddy Cannon sends him songs to sing over, but Buddy has put a call out for other writers.
The opening love song I’ll Love You Till The Day I Die was what I hope is the first of many co-writes between Rodney Crowell and Chris Stapleton, and I expect Chris will record a version of it one day. The excellent title track (‘If I ever get old, I’ll still love the road’) was written by Shawn Camp, who both produced Guy Clark’s late albums and co-wrote Two Pina Coladas, which hopefully bought him a house.
It is one of several tracks on which Mickey Raphael adds flecks of harmonica; he’s a sort of country version of Stevie Wonder because you always know it’s Mickey when he blows on a Willie Nelson song. They include album closer Leave You With A Smile, a song to a partner from a man determined to improve on how he treats his woman. The message sounds even more tender coming from the mouth of a man who has been in the business since the 1950s.
Shawn also wrote We’re Not Happy (Till You’re Not Happy), a song about the strains of gambling (‘Here comes Moneybags again’) with a brief reference to Willie’s beloved marijuana. I Don’t Go To Funerals is another humorous song, in the tenor of Still Not Dead or I’m My Own Grandpa, although the second verse checking off Willie’s old friends (Waylon, Patsy Cline, Freddy Powers) is poignant.
As you would expect, a lot of songs about looking in the rear view mirror: My Heart Was A Dancer, troubadour anthem Me And My Partner, the sombre Dreamin’ Again, Dusty Bottles (‘pour a finer glass of wine…and wisdom only comes with time’) and Live Every Day, which encourages the listener to ‘pick up the phone’ to an old friend and to do as you would be done by.
Buddy Cannon’s production is extraordinary throughout the album, particularly Energy Follows Thought with its long accordion chords and the tender Don’t Touch Me There (‘that’s where my heart is’). There’s also a cover of Tower of Song (‘I ache in the places where I used to play’), the Leonard Cohen song in which he addresses Hank Williams while stating ‘I was born with the gift of a golden voice’. Willie also includes a gorgeous cover of the Lennon/McCartney number With A Little Help From My Friends, with a lot of help from Mickey’s harmonica.
Willie Nelson, who wrote some country standards that will be sung in a century’s time, should be remembered just as those three men are. At this stage of Willie’s career, it’s all legacy consolidation. Those 90th birthday celebrations next year will be something special.
Steve Earle – Jerry Jeff
At a mere 67 years old, Steve has been in rock’n’roll for half a century now. He’s already buried his son Justin Townes, whose songs Steve covered on the second of his trilogy of albums. The first was dedicated to Guy Clark and the third is in honour of Jerry Jeff Walker, the doyen of Red Dirt music who settled in Austin and became the mayor of the scene.
Jerry Jeff wrote a song about a man who’ll dance for you called Mr Bojangles, which Robbie Williams recorded for his swing album in the spirit of Sammy Davis Jr. Steve, who has of course included his take on it, was keen to remind the world that Jerry Jeff wrote more than just that tune, so we have nine other compositions.
Steve seems to have picked up a habit of growling after every line, which becomes grating, but the spirit is there on the immaculate set opener Gettin’ By, which would sound great in the sort of Austin saloon that Jerry Jeff made his own. Likewise Gypsy Songman and the wry I Makes Money (Money Don’t Make Me).
Charlie Dunn introduces listeners to a figure of the Austin scene ‘with a smile and a leathery face’, which is apt as he made boots for the famous, a kind of Nudie Cohen of the Texas scene. Hill Country Rain has the barroom groove of a Bruce Springsteen tune, again unsurprising as Steve modelled his breakthrough on Bruce.
The more tender tracks include Little Bird, which sounds like a Steve Earle song with its gentle melody, and Jerry Jeff’s songs about his dad, My Old Man and Wheel. On the latter he describes helping his dad in the field, which Steve arranges expertly. The album concludes with Old Road, where Steve sings a cappella and accompanies himself on harmonica, letting Jerry Jeff’s words reverberate with the listener so they don’t forget a great American artist whose spirit lives in Steve Earle.
Ray Wylie Hubbard – Co-Starring Too
Born in Oklahoma but a resident of Texas as a child, Ray wrote the Jerry Jeff Walker song Up Against The Wall, Redneck Mother and helped Eric Church on his Rolling Stones pastiche Desperate Man. Having already released a 2020 collection with mates including Pam Tillis, Ronnie Dunn, Ashley McBryde and The Cadillac Three, he’s repeated the trick, recording that Chief tune with The Band of Heathens as an album closer that turns it into a swamp blues tune.
Before it, we have ten other Ray-written tunes. Handily for this piece, both Willie Nelson and Steve Earle are among the guests. Willie joins him on the elegiac Stone Blind Horses, which means Ray has to find the harmony with Willie’s wandering vocal lines. Steve is on Hellbent For Leather, where the pair leave LA to go to Oklahoma, tired of life in California.
Fancy Boys is a satire on Nashville’s desire for hunks, a far cry from the original outlaw Hank Williams. There’s also a lyrical nod to the final line of Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues. Lzzy Hale from Halestorm adds some pizzazz on Naturally Wild, set in a club in Austin and driven by a fine riff. The solo is appropriately blistering. Groove, meanwhile, lists old songs by Mavis Staples, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Al Green while emphasising the ‘soulful groove’ running through them all.
Ray pays homage to today’s Red Dirt scene by recruiting Wade Bowen, Randy Rogers and Cody Canada on the groovetastic Even If My Wheels Fall Off, written with Wade and with resolute determination in the message ‘I ain’t slowin’ down’. Sticking with the great state, Texas Wild Side is another rifftastic song that namechecks Jerry Jeff Walker and Billy Joe Shaver who ‘always tell the truth’.
Only A Fool brings the Lord and the 19th Amendment into the song to underline the message that ‘only a fool a’disrespect a woman’. Supporting that credo, Wynonna appears on the song Pretty Reckless (Ray loves a woman who ‘wears a bullet on her necklace’) along with Bob Dylan’s guitar player Charlie Sexton.
Another groove-based rock’n’roll song Ride Or Die recruits Heart’s Ann Wilson, Ringo Starr (who turns 82 this month), guitar wizard Steve Lukather and Ray’s son Lucas. It is a measure of the respect shown to Ray that he can once again gather a galaxy of stars to record versions of some of his copyrights.
There are so many women in Nashville who pop up every year with fine music but who seem to exist in a sort of purgatory: too good to go indie, not worthy enough for big stages for some reason to do with ROI and marketing.
Ingrid Andress at least had a number one with More Hearts Than Mine, and Callista Clark has taken her time putting in sessions to write songs for a debut album which Big Machine are making a priority release this autumn. Or how about Cam, who since Burning House has been vocal about how women are getting a raw deal on country radio?
Cam, like Caitlyn Smith and Elle King, are working mums now, as is Jillian Jacqueline. She put out her debut album in two parts, Side A (2017) and Side B (2018), via Big Loud. God Bless This Mess and Reasons gained her plenty of fans, including Bobby Bones who spoke to her for his Bobbycast in June. Even a Keith Urban collaboration failed to dent the chart so Jillian was dropped.
She married Bryan Brown, brother of Nashville A-List writer/producer Tofer who worked on that debut album. Both brothers jointly produce Honestly, and Jillian laid down some of the vocals while holding her and Bryan’s baby.
As with the new Brett Eldredge album, Jillian mixes lightly jazzy pop like When It Rains and confessional singer/songwriter material. She still has pals in town including Charlie Worsham and TJ Osborne: Charlie adds a harmonic vocal line to opening track The Ocean, a song where Jillian puts her life in a song and edges her way towards you, the ocean; TJ is her duet partner on the triple-time Better With A Broken Heart, one of those songs where A matches with B.
The album features some big names between the brackets who helped Jillian write this album, which is released independent of any label in town. Trevor from Old Dominion was there on the gorgeous mandolin-flecked Bandwagon, which aptly sounds like a driving song. Daniel Tashian, best known for his work on Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves, was there for Hummingbird, which has some fluttering harmonies and a deeply personal lyric which begins: ‘I hate to be alone but I’d rather be alone when I’m not alone…’ Oddly, new mum Maren Morris wrote a lullaby called Hummingbird on her new album, but Jillian centres her narrative on herself.
Lori McKenna, who co-wrote God Bless This Mess and, oddly, Maren’s Hummingbird, returns on Sure, which sounds like a career song. The hook ‘I’m sure about you’ makes this a wonderful wedding song with some piano accompaniment and both warmth and vulnerability in her vocal. It sounds like a hit in any other universe except this one. The Nashville treasure Shane McAnally adds his magic to a song about the first fumblings of love called Magic. ‘Was it magic or just nostalgic?’ Jillian asks herself while a gentle swirl of sound surrounds her.
Elsewhere, her voice soars right to the top of her range on both Iconic (great title) and the finger-picked majesty of Compliment (‘I should be glad that we’re talking at all’). Hurt Somebody Else, with the album’s best chorus, was written with Justin Parker, who is best known for writing Video Games with Lana Del Rey. The piano ballad Honeymoon closes the album with more philosophy. It seems to quote the title of Charlie Worsham’s last album (‘why we love the beginnings of things’).
Jillian told Your Life In A Song that she has been listening to ‘timeless classic’ albums. This is echoed in a technically excellent album. Without Big Loud backing her, I hope she can find the financial backing to come to the UK to perform.
Kylie Morgan – P.S.
Here’s a seven-song project, which Kylie calls an EP but could easily be a mini-album, from Kylie. She has already opened for Brett Eldredge, Dan + Shay, Maren Morris and Jason Derulo. Her debut EP Love, Kylie came out in 2021. It included Break Things and I Only Date Cowboys, tracks which she was due to play at Country2Country in 2020 but went home having played a showcase. That EP got lost in the pandemic shuffle and I am positive she will make it over to C2C in March to impress UK audiences with songs from her catalogue.
Her voice has a little gravel in it, similar to that of Elle King or Morgan Wade, with the melodic grasp of RaeLynn or Tenille Townes. The production is bona fide pop thanks to the man with money in his ears, Shane McAnally, who also has an eye on the spreadsheets and knows where to target Kylie. It’s all Gucci on the song Gucci, which will appeal to the 25-34 demographic who might strike a pose to a clip of the song on TikTok.
The country king of that app is Walker Hayes, who co-wrote and sings backing vocals on Country Anyway. Despite mentioning Miranda Lambert and Tootsie’s lounge, a hangout for songwriters who are down on their luck, is a pop song in the form of a conversation with Kylie’s mama about Nashville. It rhymes ‘awesome’ with Boston, Austin and Charleston.
Kylie’s music is a clash between the rural and the urban, the country and the pop. Love Like We’re Drunk is a song that I can hear hen parties bellow on Lower Broadway in Nashville, while Independent With You is a more domestic come-on. Over A Redneck nicks the ‘red-red-redneck’ hook from Boys Round Here and surrounds it with a magnificently produced pop song.
If He Wanted To He Would is a lovely bit of sisterly advice, while the great Nash Overstreet from Hot Chelle Rae helped her write Mean Girls, which seems like a teen version of Girl Goin’ Nowhere by Ashley McBryde. It is a shame she couldn’t shoehorn the name Gretchen Wieners into the song.
Kylie is making the music Jillian used to make, and that is the circle of life in country music.
The Bubbling Under Chart lists the 40 acts who didn’t quite make it into the Top 40 proper this summer. 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.
What a great hook for a collection of songs, which adds an eighth, the smartly titled piano ballad Where My Home Is.
Cold Day In Tucson (‘you’re too far gone for a love song’) is perfect Radio 2 fodder with an inapposite bouncy arrangement and a passionate vocal. Likewise Lonely Night in LA (‘Hollywood ain’t so good’), with its Laurel Canyon grooves, and Miss Me Memphis. That song starts with a keyboard vamp and harmonica and namechecks for Beale Street and Graceland.
Paris Wheel, meanwhile, picks up the pace and takes us to the boulevard and the museums. The chorus is terrific, and there is another fine instrumental section with piano, guitar and jazz fiddle inveigling their way into the mix.
How’s The View In New York City is just lush. It opens with some a cappella stems which lead to a classic songwriter-sounding verse and, in the instrumental section, some suspended chords played by a string section. The lyrics see Raleigh asking what his beloved had for breakfast – as if they do it differently in the big city – and if she misses him.
We return to the country with Send My Love To Lexington, co-written by Semisonic’s Dan Wilson. Dobro at the start of the song introduces a place that Raleigh ‘might have left but it never left me’. New To Nashville is a songwriter’s story of ‘paying dues’ and waiting for proper furniture in a city of ‘a thousand hungry heartbreaks’. I can’t wait to see where Raleigh goes next, geographically and musically.
Alan Fletcher – Dispatches
Dr Karl Kennedy has always had a sideline in music. In fact, his band The Waiting Room were booked back in 2006 to play Edinburgh’s student union because they could guarantee an audience for the guy off of Neighbours, a student staple. Now the TV show is on the home straight, Alan Fletcher can go full-time with his tunes.
For his latest EP, and the forthcoming album which will be the first under his own name, Alan has gone country, with four originals and a cover of Fish and Whistle written by the late John Prine. Appropriately for a man whose job in a TV soap is about to end, one verse is about being ‘fired for being scared of bees’.
Old song Time Was finally has an arrangement worthy of its composition, which is full of diminished chords and a whistling solo. Alan’s voice comes across like that of Neil Young, though he’s more Bob Dylan on the verbose Spend A Little Time With Me, on which he plans to give up ‘recreational toking’ to appease his beloved. There’s also a neat duet with Alyce Platt on Sorry Is The Word (‘we never find’), a song which Paul Heaton could have written for him and Jacqui Abbott.
The EP’s opening track Meet Me On The Steps of the Bombed Out Church is a Celtic-tinged tune about Liverpool led by plucked banjo and folk fiddle with a pub singalong of a chorus. This is given more verisimilitude by Alan’s weather-worn voice that is coming to London next week. Catch him at the Bedford in Balham on July 4 and/or the Camden Club in Chalk Farm on July 5. Matt Spracklen is one of the support acts.
American Aquarium – Chicamacomico
BJ Barham returns with another record, his tenth of original material, following two sets of covers albums. Having played the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville for the first time, the band are on the road all summer all across America including a return to Music City for AmericanaFest in September. Americana is a good label for BJ’s music – BJ hires new musicians all the time, so it’s effectively a solo project with a band name – and the album has all the ingredients of great American roots music.
Built To Last describes the way old trucks and houses have survived many miles and storms. It opens with the line ‘they don’t build a heart like they used to’ and is the kind of song that defines the genre: organic music finely produced by Brad Cook of Nathaniel Rateliff’s band. The FM radio homage All I Needed is equally celebratory and is a good place to start.
The title track opens the album with an instruction to head down to the river to get clean. Little Things is more domestic as, thanks to his morning coffee and an evening lullaby, BJ is able to ‘see what I was working for’ with a charming arrangement. He’s not a roadhog but ‘a father and a husband who knows his way around a microphone’. Wildfire starts as a love song with some wah-wah guitar in the chorus, seemingly to undercut the tenderness of the lyric (‘watch that spark turn to wildfire’) and warn us of what is to come.
Plenty of songs are meditative and emotional, which is very much BJ’s brand as a now sober fella. Just Close Enough is a domestic argument where the pair of lovers are ‘too far away’. The Hardest Thing (‘I know it’s just my imagination’) and Waking Up The Echoes could be about the same person as The First Year, where BJ is at their graveside (I won’t say who it is).
The Things We Lost Along the Way ruminates on death and ‘the razor-thin line’ between right and wrong; it’s vaguely spiritual and reminds me of when Bruce Springsteen goes acoustic every few albums. I know BJ is bracketed among the great American songwriters and this album does nothing to disprove that case.