Country Jukebox Jury: Jillian Jacqueline and Kylie Morgan

Jillian Jacqueline – Honestly

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.

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