Ka-Ching…With Twang: Thinkpiece Country, with Ty Herndon and Tami Neilson

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.

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