The Long Road Day 2, Stanford Hall near Lutterworth, August 27

August 29, 2022

Pip Ellwood-Hughes has penned an interesting essay on his site Entertainment Focus. In the form of their country editor James Daykin, the site was represented at the third iteration of this festival, back after two years of pandemic-enforced fallowness and incredibly fortunate to get blue skies and light breezes (though spare a thought for hayfever sufferers, the sniffling minority).

In his essay, Pip asked whether the country bubble in the UK was bursting. There are, he says correctly, several acts who are making money in the USA without crossing the Atlantic, even though UK fans are screaming for Blake Shelton, Jon Pardi and Jake Owen. It seems incredible that Pardi won’t tour his new album in the UK next year. The fanbase knows what it likes and it likes what it knows, to paraphrase both Pip and Genesis, although it has taken Midland, Ashley McBryde and Drake White to heart. Has the genre ‘gone as far as it can here for the moment’?

Not if you ask the promoters of The Long Road, where a nattily dressed Baylen Leonard was holding fort at the festival he programmed. Without headliner Chris Young, whom Pip said had been having trouble shifting tickets for his gigs before illness denied him the chance to tour the UK, Baylen simply moved Brandy Clark over to the Rhinestone Arena and asked Marty Stuart, in what would have been a very short conversation, to play for two hours instead of one. More on him later. It was fun to hear Baylen’s voice boom from the main stage to tell people to pack away their chairs to allow as many people to listen to Marty as possible.

The Crowd

You could tell the type of person at the festival by the caravan park vexillary, aka the flags. It was a mix of British caravanning and US culture, with more than one flag proclaiming “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”. Amid smatterings of Texan and American flags, there were flags in honour of the armed services. I spotted a ‘Kiss My Country Ass’ car sticker and a van printed with the words ‘Bad Ass Cowboy’.

The festival was amenable for both kids and dogs. For the former, a play area offered paddleball and swingball and advertised dodgeball and tug-of-war. Pugs, terriers, German Shepherds and Bassett Hounds were all spotted on blankets enjoying the tunes. There was also a chance for grown-ups to play a little: I failed with all three of my horseshoe throws and both of my beanbag throws as I tried cornhole for the first time since kids camps.

Vendors hawked jewellery, boots and t-shirts. The choice of food was between halloumi wraps (courtesy of Say Cheese), burgers, Thai, Greek and pizza, with a 20-metre bar to wash it down with. In a matter of hours, the beer would end up in one of the portaloos, which had their own village, or in a nicer outhouse for VIPs, who had their own area to the right of the main stage.

Among the women in summer dresses and men in checked shirts, there was a chap with a small birthday rosette and a girl with a big badge proclaiming her 30th birthday who had met her now fiancé at this very field three years ago. A Long Road romance had come to fruition, and I hope Guy enjoyed The Cadillac Three on Sunday evening as much as his fiancée Nathalie loved seeing Sunny Sweeney.

The best tattoo award went to a man with a shin-covering bear with everything showing. I also did a double take when I spotted ‘man, myth, legend’ and documentarian DC Brown without his trusty bandana. On the main stage, every time the strobe lights flashed, how many people wondered, as I did, how much the energy cost was.

A host of UK musicians were milling around the site: Ben Earle, Tim Prottey-Jones (who would play drums for Kyle Daniel on Sunday on the main stage), Poppy Fardell, Kezia Gill, Gasoline & Matches, Two Ways Home and, with both a dog and Eric & Jensen in tow, Twinnie.

There will be tons of media coverage of the festival, judging by the activity in the media bit behind the VIP Area. Marty Stuart looked effortlessly cool although Brandy’s glittery stage get-up put him in the shade. Everette, Seaforth, Jess Moskaluke and Shy Carter did the rounds for sites as varied as Brits In Boots, Country In The UK and Entertainment Focus. Holler Country journalists wore branded tees, and Absolute Radio Country had a little alcove for interviews. Tim Prottey-Jones and Sophia Franklin recorded some bits for CountryLine Radio’s Country Line Up show.

Musical Moments

There was a Choose Your Own Adventure feel to the festival. In Buddy’s Juke Joint, you could catch folkier acts like Margo Cilker and Joana Serrat. Morganway had asked the crowd to clap, dance and sing at lunchtime to get them warmed up for the day ahead; in mid-afternoon, Jonathan Terrell rescued a broken string by bringing on a steel guitar player to accompany him on some cowboy poetry, then launched into a funky blues version of Eddie Rabbitt’s Driving My Life Away.

On the Interstate stage, Sarah Shook’s set measured at 105 decibels as she turned the amps up to 11. Irish band Hudson Taylor inspired a shirtless guy to prance around to their delightful and amiable folk singalongs. Their drummer was drenched in dry ice for most of the set. Allison Russell praised Brandi Carlile for her role in her career, which led to time in the quartet Our Native Daughters and a well-received solo album on which Allison played soprano saxophone. After a difficult childhood, she had found a ‘chosen family’ of musicians who backed her impressively on songs like Persephone, a ballad full of hope which put the singer’s life in a song.

Next door at the Front Porch, which inevitably suffered from the sound bleeding from the two heavily amplified stages, Everette boasted of jetlag from being bumped up to first class, forgetting which part of their Kings of the Dairy Queen Parking Lot their songs came from. They did remember where they got their name, singing Man of Constant Sorrow from the movie where George Clooney starred as a wayfaring stranger. Sam Williams followed the pair, covering his grandpa’s song about the lonesome whippoorwill and showcasing his own fine voice with a posse of photographers snapping away.

Over on the Rhinestone stage, Shy Carter, wearing a warm jumper and a gold chain, dispensing with Stuck Like Glue and It Don’t Hurt Like It Used To early in the set. He then made up a fun song about hats, having been thrown one of them to sign, while preparing to pour whiskey into fans’ cups at 2pm. Priscilla Block continued the party she had brought to Glasgow and London already that week, and Seaforth plugged their just released EP, which would get plenty of listeners in the coming days, and slipped in a cover of Seventeen Going Under to prove they had done their homework.

Brandy Clark ended her set with Stripes and Hold My Hand, having signed various items in the tent where the line was kept moving by the request ‘do not take photos please’. Drake White, Cassadee Pope and Priscilla Block also hobnobbed throughout the weekend, and Cassadee was smart enough to enlist her partner Sam Palladio to take Chris Young’s part on her number one smash Think of You.

Marty Stuart brought up Kezia Gill, Andrew Combs and the aforementioned Sunny Sweeney during his hootenanny headline set. He dropped Tempted in early before declaring the Long Road the ‘capital of surf music’. He paced his set brilliantly, allowed the Fabulous Superlatives to be just that. Any early leavers with a train from Rugby to catch were sad to miss out on the rest of the show, but the impromptu version of Ring of Fire was compensation enough.

Color Me Country

Before she finished MCing an afternoon of music by country stars who don’t look or sound like traditional country stars, Rissi Palmer became emotional. She told the familiar story of teenage Rissi moving to Nashville and being the only black face in town. Nobody looked like her and, after eight years plugging away, released an album in 2007 which featured three singles. One of them was a cover of the pop song No Air by Jordin Sparks. She lost her record deal and started a family.

On August 27 2022, Rissi stood at the side of the stage, a proud auntie watching the next generation of talent. Stood next to her friend Miko Marks, Rissi fanned herself in time with the backbeat from the house band who pulled a hell of a shift accompanying all six acts. Color Me Country, which takes its name first from a Linda Martell song and thus Rissi’s Apple Music radio show, is a community within a community. Country music will be obsolete if it doesn’t reflect the full spectrum of American voices, one which put the brakes on the country career of both Rissi and Miko.

Those fans who saw Seaforth, Priscilla Block and Cassadee Pope were totally unaware what they were missing, following Pip Ellwood-Hughes’ conclusion that they just don’t want to seek things out for themselves. Their loss!

Camille Parker, with an impossibly small waist and a megawatt smile, offered her single The Flame, which foreshadowed her debut EP which is out soon. She has already filled in for Rissi on her show, with Charly Lowery following suit. Charly beat a drum in tribute to her persecuted ancestors and her mother. While talking to ‘queens, divas and boss babes’ who ‘each have a light to shine’, she sang: ‘I’ve had enough…Some things never change’. She also delivered a brilliant version of Jason Isbell’s modern standard Cover Me Up, wringing emotion out of the lyric.

Valeria Ponzio offered a tribute to Selena, the Latina Madonna, with a tender version of I Could Fall In Love. Her own material included a hooky tune called Hologram and a song about her guitarist, who was also her husband. I loved her hooky tune called Hologram too, which was on a 2018 EP which she is following up with another one which is out at the end of September. It will include the lush song Just a Bordertown.

‘I went through a lot of hardship to get a good year,’ revealed Madeline Edwards during her superlative set. If we don’t make Madeline a star, it’s on us, not her. Wearing cool shades in what might have been her first ever gig in the UK, Madeline promoted her self-titled EP and forward-sold her November album release with panache and vim, in absolute control of her material and her voice, which has an admirer in Chris Stapleton.

She proved herself an omnivore, with versions of Redbone by Childish Gambino and Holding Back The Years by Simply Red. During Hearts Don’t Break, a funky little number, Rissi Palmer and Miko Marks led a dance, with Rissi grabbing Shy Carter like an auntie and pulling him into the party. Even the Musical Director on the keyboard was filming proceedings. Later, Miko would call herself ‘the OG of the bunch’ and would perform a set of songs calling out to the angels. Peace of Mind, from her forthcoming album, is a career song which she almost got through without breaking down in tears. We’ll see Miko over in the UK again soon, perhaps in a double-bill with Rissi herself.

Credit goes to Baylen for giving over the Front Porch to Rissi. The ladies are already making noises about returning to the UK in 2023, perhaps with a regular takeover of a Long Road stage. I’m all for it.

Nashville Meets London Day 2, Trinity Buoy Wharf August 25

August 26, 2022

The new home of Peter Conway’s country extravaganza is perfect for country fanatics. Situated in the old East India Docks which drove the industry of Empire, there’s a stunning view across the Thames to the Millennium Dome and, if you want a complete American experience, a diner whose staff were delightful and made some delicious sweet potato fries.

After a first evening headlined by Shy Carter, who was preceded by Sarah Darling, Arbor North, Manny Blu, Matt Hodges and Ruthie Collins, a similar eclecticism was on show for the second. Early attendees enjoyed a spectacular opening set from Essex County, who previewed not one but two forthcoming singles: Fire Up was given a brilliant wigout at the end, while power ballad You In Tennessee offered impressive variety to their amped-up set.

Notable was the presence of singer Nate behind the drumkit, playing solos with one hand and using his legs to propel the backbeat. There was even a ‘viral moment’ when guitar wizard Mark fell onto the floor and literally hit the Dust during the song of that name. It was a fabulous start to what would be probably the best night in the whole of London that evening.

Candi Carpenter, who possessed a new engagement ring and a haircut which exactly matched that of her fiancé, opened with a singalong called Serial Killer. As heard in Blackpool as part of the 2021 British Country Music Festival, Candi’s voice is a magnificent instrument and she deployed it on her cover of Radiohead’s Creep. The fact that she preceded it by a blast of yodelling only made her more assured of her performance: who else would mix country hollerin’ and angsty British rock?

The topics which Candi covered in her songs included vampire stories, exorcists, issues with food (‘literally trying to disappear’ on the song Skinny) and, on Go Ahead and Sue Me, blackmail and non-disclosure agreements. We can sense why Candi hasn’t been as successful as she ought to be and it’s nothing she herself has done. Alongside her duo project The Church of Roswell, she has pivoted to roots music and what sounds like Broadway torch confessional. She could turn her forthcoming album, whose title she was forbidden to announce, into either a one-woman show or a musical.

‘We’re not playing any ballads!’ said Tebey, who instead brought out the bangers. Happened on a Saturday Night, What Was I Drinking and his platinum smash Denim on Denim (‘about to go double platinum!’) all sounded tremendous, aided by the drummer smashing a cymbal which had been manipulated to sound like a computerised cymbal. New song Sink With The Sun was inspired by heading to Mexico to write the forthcoming album Tulum.

He also played Justin Moore’s number one Somebody Else Will, which he co-wrote, and his first Canadian number one Who’s Gonna Love You (‘if I don’t). He’s working ‘this territory’, as he called the UK, where he has some ancestry; after hitting Buckle and Boots in 2021, he has a big footprint over here. He would take the party to The Long Road over Bank Holiday Weekend, which was also the destination for DJ Hish, who played music in between the sets in Trinity Buoy Wharf and who had kickstarted Nashville Meets London Week with a DJ set on a boat down the Thames.

Sam Palladio (Gunnar from off of Nashville) was in the crowd to support his friends The Wandering Hearts, who were introduced by the leather-jacketed compere Matt Spracklen, a huge fan of their debut album Wild Silence. The trio have enjoyed weddings and babies in the past few years after a difficult journey to their second album, from which they played opening track Hammer Falls, fabulously atmospheric Build A Fire and Dreams, co-written with their friends Connie Smith and Marty Stuart. Marty was bumped up to the Saturday night headliner at The Long Road, which allows more time for bluegrass jams and stories from his 50-year career.

With AJ sporting shoulder-length hair and impressive facial whiskers, the trio looked the part, although there was perhaps too much crowd chatter throughout their acoustic set. Wish I Could was aided by some funky percussion shakes from Tara, who took lead on If I Were, while Chess plonked a mandolin when she wasn’t getting tied in knots telling anecdotes about their past few years of relative social media silence. The music, when it’s as good as their set closers Devil and Fire & Water, says all they need to say.

It is very rare to see the former fourth member of the band in the same room as them, but Tim Prottey-Jones was playing drums for Kyle Daniel that evening. He was muttering the count and gurning impressively while Kyle played songs that would sit alongside those of Chris Stapleton or Brothers Osborne. Accordingly, there was a faithful cover of the latter’s song Stay A Little Longer, complete with a pulsating breakdown.

A Friend With Weed (‘is a friend indeed’) was well received, as were tracks from his recent EP Following The Rain, released on his Groovin’ Buddha imprint. Everybody’s Talkin’ and Runnin’ From Me both sounded fine, with plenty of guitar riffing and spotlights for keyboard player Chris, who came across as the next Jools Holland. Kyle, who married and had a kid during the pandemic, will be welcome back over in the UK whenever he fancies it, even if by his own admission it’s harder to smoke cannabis over here than over in Nashville.

There were two unannounced guests who were able to be squeezed into the evening. Seaforth, whose support slot with Chris Young had been kyboshed by Covid, introduced themselves to some new listeners with three songs. Anything She Says and Good Beer were both very fun, the former running into I Want You Back impressively, but they have struck gold with Breakups, one of the finest songs from Music Row in recent years. They were heading on to the main stage at The Long Road too, picking up even more new fans. (Read the review of their EP which came out this weekend here.)

Drake White, who has survived a stroke which paralysed the left side of his body, is more or less an adopted Briton today. Having headlined Millport Festival, he made a two-song cameo before the main headliner. Hurts The Healing distils Drake’s mission statement to provide good times through music, and would certainly be a highlight his own Long Road set. Music Row chewed him up and spat him out, and he’s all the better for it.

Priscilla Block was elevated to headline status to close out the festival. What she lacks in vocal range she more than makes up for in performance. Over an hour, she and her raucous band fulfilled her remit of starting a Block Party. Priscilla stuck her hand and her drink in the air, praised Busch Light beer and proved she was more than a TikTok flash in the pan. A new song about ‘THE breakup’ was very writer’s round-friendly and sat well with her torch ballad Like A Boy and her breakthrough song Just About Over You, co-written with Sarah Jones, who was part of the band.

She left out her song about PMS but included a medley of songs which all came out in 1995: Check Yes or No, I Like It I Love It and Any Man of Mine. I hope it’s not too much of a denigration to say they would get hefty tips if they played it on Lower Broadway, because Priscilla’s music takes the bar experience to the masses. Hence her new song Off The Deep End, whose chorus boasts that ‘you can find me at the bar…batshit crazy!’

With Ashley McBryde doing this sort of thing, Priscilla is a more PG-rated version of that. I’d compare her to Lizzo in her unapologeticness, and what Priscilla shares with both Ashley and Lizzo is that mix of confidence and vulnerability. Peaked In High School apes Ashley’s Fat and Famous, but Ashley would never put out a song about thick thighs saving lives. Ashley McBryde goes to a hen party: that’s Priscilla Block’s shtick.

Peter Conway said some thanks just before Priscilla. He has moved the outdoor version of the Nashville Meets London nights at Pizza Express Holborn from Canary Wharf to this new venue, which suits the music and the crowd. ‘See you in 2023!!’ he yelled, as if ordering us back next summer.

The next indoor event is on September 27 with Alan Fletcher, recently retired as Dr Karl from Neighbours, returns to London to promote his latest EP. Tickets are here.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Wade Bowen – Somewhere Between the Secret and the Truth

August 25, 2022

Everyone who presents a radio show which plays music from Texas and Oklahoma (oh, just me?) knows about Wade Bowen. He’s one of the guys who can sell out venues in Texas and be invited to promote a new album at the Grand Ole Opry. He teamed up with fellow Red Dirt bloke Randy Rogers for two recent sets, winning the Best Duo/Group at the Texas Regional Radio Music Awards this year. Wade follows Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jerry Jeff Walker and Guy Clark as a North star for other musicians from Texas.

It seems a gross oversight that the lay country fan doesn’t know Wade or his music, given that he’s been going for two decades and released his eleventh studio album this summer on his Bowen Sounds imprint, with distribution from the great indie Thirty Tigers. He is an automatic regular on Texas radio, with his pleasant new single Everything Has Your Memory rising fast. It was written with Heather Morgan and Eric Paslay and kicks off this album with aplomb, and will appeal to people outside the Red Dirt scene much as the music of Randall King, Parker McCollum and Cody Johnson does.

Plenty of writers linked to Luke Combs are between the brackets in the credits Randy Montana, who is hot right now, co-writes the lightly smouldering Burnin’ Both Ends of the Bar, which is a heartbreak song about spotting an ex, and Hony Tonk Roll, which actually uses the line ‘burning both ends of the bar’ to refer to the way Wade’s narrator is out on the town. Ray Fulcher had a hand in If You Don’t Miss Me (‘when you’re gone’), a breakup song where Wade tells his beloved to find out what she wants in her life. It’s a very grown-up song and would have fitted into Ray’s recent album.

Away from the bars, Wade tells us The Secret to This Town, with all its characters contributing to the ‘amazing grace’ of a small town. It’s very country and very American, with all the sport that goes on, and Wade’s production is equally warm. There’s a lot of Travis Tritt or Brad Paisley (especially his song Wrapped Around) on the fab She’s Driving Me Crazy.

Knowing Me Like I Do, which sounds like a smash, is full of self-examination to match the meditative chord progressions and will chime with many listeners. That song’s co-writer Clint Ingersoll has also written with Chris Stapleton, whose voice hits the same notes as Wade’s but with more rasp and hollering. Say Goodbye (with uncredited backing vocals from Heather Morgan) and It’s Gonna Hurt are two more ‘tear in the beer’ tune about the effects of a breakup, with the latter adopting the old country trick of adding pedal steel and a snare rim backbeat.

Talking of country music, Vince Gill appears on A Guitar, A Singer and A Song, one of three tracks written by Lori McKenna, who knows a great songwriter when she writes with one. Songs about songs are one of my favourite genres, and I like the line ‘the song’s singing you’ which precedes the entry of Vince on buttery harmonies.

Lori appears on A Beautiful World. You can tell that she wrote it from its soft acoustic backing and rich imagery: rain on a sunny day, ‘being young in summertime’, handwritten letters and, brilliantly, saying ‘I love you’ for both the first and last time. It’s another Humble and Kind from the kind, humble Lori. She also co-wrote the album’s title track, a love song with a fine structure which rounds off the album. ‘There’s a choice you make that you just can’t undo’ is sage advice to a listener to know the one they really love. It made me go ‘ooh’ at the end because I appreciate the songcraft.

I like everything about this album, one of the best released in 2022, and I hope that you will find something you like too.

Country Jukebox Jury: Madeline Edwards and Seaforth

August 23, 2022

Madeline Edwards EP

One of the acts who is set to convert hundreds of people to her church at The Long Road this weekend (August 26-28) is Madeline Edwards. She’s part of Rissi Palmer’s guest curation of a stage full of artists she plays on her Color Me Country show on Apple Music.

A recent five-track self-titled EP offers a soupcon of what Madeline does. Hold My Horses will make a stunning set opener, with bluesy riffs and an excellent vocal style. Heart You Can’t Break is driven by a shuffle beat and the sort of instrumentation Yola has employed on her last album, or indeed Kacey Musgraves on High Horse. Its excellence is helped by the presence of Wyatt Durette, one of the secret weapons of country music from Zac Brown to Luke Combs, in the writer’s room.

Why I’m Calling rather undercuts the strength of that previous track, as Madeline’s narrator sings that the dishwasher ‘ain’t the only thing that’s broken’. There are wind chimes and whippoorwills in the chorus and wicker chairs in the second verse. Port City is a wistful number where Madeline heads somewhere new, feeling lost and hoping she finds what she’s looking for. ‘Fifteen dollar drinks’ and a ‘burned-out cover band’ must put her in Nashville, but this isn’t the city of dreams.

The Road, which has been streamed a phenomenal number of times, closes the set. It’s a love song where Madeline is saved from ‘drowning in the depths of my misery’ by a companion. The Long Road audience will go berserk for this and Madeline will return to the UK again soon.

Seaforth – What I Get For Loving You

You don’t get signed to Sony Music without being good. Mitch and Tom, aka Seaforth after the Sydney suburb they grew up in, came over to the UK for Country2Country to introduce themselves to a European market before the launch of this eight-track debut. They were due to support label mate Chris Young for four dates plus a mainstage set at The Long Road, but Chris couldn’t travel which threw their plans into chaos.

Sony need to make a return on their investment, so Seaforth probably went to sit in a marketing meeting with Sony and work out how to make money from their talent. This brings to mind their Long Road headliner Marty Stuart’s words about Nashville being a guy with a briefcase in one hand and a guitar case in the other. So how have Seaforth set out their stall?

By bringing in Sean ‘Beautiful Girls’ Kingston for a facsimile of a facsimile. Queen of Daytona Beach is certainly fun, with its bright Dann Huff production and beach-friendly lyrics (‘Jack Dan on the ‘Gram’). It made people sit up and take note about the guys, who sound like they have swallowed a Keith Urban concert DVD, but listeners were perhaps more likely to go and hear the Sean Kingston song from 15 years ago.

Queen of Daytona Beach is nowhere near as great as their breakout hit Breakups, which finds its rightful place on the album with its mandolin riffs and heartache all over the melody. Oddly it never charted, but that’s not the point any more when kids are more likely to stream the song than wait for it to come on between beer commercials and request the song on their favourite station. The instant comfort offered by the song which outlines how ‘breakups don’t work like that’ will chime with many listeners who aren’t served by country radio.

Dr Phil is another breakup song. Its great title feels rather shoehorned into a pop song, complete with a na-na hook, about throwing out the ex’s shampoo and getting ‘drunk as hell’. The title track is a proper song with an arresting first line: ‘When we first met I know that you were gonna break my heart’. I can imagine it, as could probably the Sony suits looking at their quarterly projections, being sung by Shawn Mendes, who can also transfer emotional vulnerability.

Palm of Your Hand has that Hunter Hayes or Shay Mooney trick of talk-singing the verses and opening up for a massive chorus, here about the guys being ‘the ice in your glass…ain’t just whiskey in the palm of your hand’, which is a great and vivid lyric. The pop-friendly production mirrors the type heard on Jordan Davis’ tunes, and it’s handy that the guys have drafted Jordan in on the perky drinking song Good Beer.

Yep, those songs make money every summer, so it’s the equivalent of printing money. So do wedding songs, and Seaforth offer Used To It (‘every touch still drives me wild’) and Magic (‘even when it’s raining it’s still Paris’), both of which will make couples hold each other tighter in the gigs.

So close is the product to what Dan + Shay offer that the boys could sue, but because both chaps sing lead it is actually more Shay + Shay. I bet that lazy joke will be made often as Seaforth tour to make back their advance. Such are the perils of being locked into a major-label deal.

Country Jukebox Jury EP: Tyler Hubbard – Dancin’ in the Country

August 22, 2022

We know T-Hub will release his debut solo album in January next year. To whet fan appetites, here are six tracks which will end up on that project, which is released via his Hubbard House imprint on EMI Nashville.

They include the first single 5 Foot 9, a hymn to Tyler’s wife and the things the Lord makes for man to use. This is the type of woman that, a decade ago, T-Hub would be winding the windows down to say hello to, but nowadays he is a father and needs to make the McGraw Pivot.

The McGraw Pivot is when a young buck grows into a legacy artist. He might not command the same interest from new country fans, especially with hotter and younger acts on the market, but the millions of fans he (or she, but 95% of the time it’s a he) already has will buy his records and show up to see his shows. Garth Brooks, Brad Paisley and Kenny Chesney are also in this category, as is Keith Urban, who has been a star for 20 years and doesn’t need to prove himself any more.

In 2022, Tyler finds himself at the same place and it’s interesting to note that Keith Urban was in the room for the EP’s jittery, anthemic title track, which is as great a song as you would expect from a session which also had Jon Nite and Ross Copperman in it. There are references to Alabama and Alan Jackson and it’s very on brand, especially with Lucchese boots stomping on the floor.

It’s even more interesting to note that Keith’s fans will be entertained by T-Hub on his fall tour of arenas, including a couple of dates in Georgia and Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. Those Urban fanatics will enjoy being warmed up by a mix of FGL hits and T-Hub solo cuts, coming to a country radio station near you soon.

Baby Gets Her Lovin’, which has Canaan Smith in the writing credits, is a meet-cute with all the contemporary country sonic touchstones and themes: fiddle, enormous drums, lyrics about snakeskin boots and getting free drinks from guys like T-Hub. Alabama, strangely, get another namecheck, which reminds the listener that the first line of Anything Goes is ‘Alabama on the boombox’.

FGL House on Broadway in Nashville now has its anthem in Everybody Needs A Bar, where our narrator talk-sings some lines about ‘Friday at 5.01’ in a way that is very Morgan Wallenish. Ronnie Dunn has just put out a whole album of this sort of thing, and it is in every way more interesting than T-Hub’s list of things you can do at FGL House or any other bar you choose (but please consider FGL House to host a bacherlorette celebration).

The ubiquitous Rhett Akins, who has given some songs to McGraw but is best known for some Blake Shelton tunes, is on the catchy I’m The Only One, where three chords underscore Tyler’s love for his beloved whom he can ‘love in the middle of the night’ (hmmm). Inside and Out is an Old Dominion co-write, as Brad and Trevor from the band bring the mood down. It’s T-Hub instead of Matt Ramsay talk-singing his way through a love song (‘I can’t believe I get to hold ya’). It’s a wedding video montage song that Tim McGraw has been doing for 20 years, so it’s no surprise Tyler is following the McGraw Pivot to the letter.

Arbor North: From Meet-Cute to Millport

August 18, 2022

Michael and AC, the duo known as Arbor North, head over to the UK on a working holiday

The UK remains a place where Nashville-based musicians can go on a busman’s holiday: they may look around the sights and taste the tea, but they can squeeze in a gig or three to try and impress themselves upon a market which usually only gets Nashville stars in small windows in March, May and October.

Arbor North are the latest tourists, with three big gigs in Birmingham, Scotland and London, the last of these as part of Nashville Meets London. Their Scotland trip is for Millport, a festival well known to Michael because he was up with his Lockeland trio, who have since disbanded.

‘We had a really good three and a half years. It kind of needed to end,’ Michael says, although perhaps the band was just a placeholder before Arbor North. You can catch them on Saturday afternoon at 4pm in the Acoustic tent, which will also house performances by Emma Moore, Kezia Gill, Kevin McGuire and Gary Quinn.

The meet-cute was very industry. AC and Michael met in 2020 at CRS, the big radio seminar where labels meet industry people and conflab about the big priorities for the year ahead. It happened in February, so the meeting was just before lockdown and the pair were married by the end of 2021. ‘We didn’t technically have a honeymoon,’ AC says, revealing that the couple will spend a few days in York before their London engagement.

Who could have known that Michael was sitting beside his future father-in-law at that dinner?

‘People ask us if there was a spark,’ AC says. ‘Well, not in the way you think. We were so in business mode it didn’t even cross our mind. Our first conversation was about production. We were both there to work! We didn’t realise the spark until months later.

‘I remember walking away thinking he was really easy to talk to. I could tell I was getting lost in the conversation. I found myself putting my elbows on the table and leaning into him as I was talking, and I caught myself.’

‘I saw her name pop up on my comments and I slid into the DMs as the young kids say! It was a divine meeting,’ Michael says, as he reconnected with AC after she responded to an Instagram comment and he suggested a coffee. ‘Does he mean professionally?’ she wondered.

Safe in the knowledge that they have missed the worst of the summer heat, they will have plenty to do in the UK on their visit, so long as the trains don’t wreck their transport. ‘We’re taking a bus up from Birmingham. Our good friend and promoter Gavin told us about the rail strike!’ they say.

The Birmingham gig was part of Nashville Sounds in the Round on August 17, where they played alongside Kenny Foster and Alyssa Bonagura, two acts very familiar with the UK. The hosts, Sally & Steve from Gasoline & Matches, are a couple as well.

At Millport they are looking forward to seeing Drake White, while Shy Carter headlines the first day of Nashville Meets London, where Arbor North join Matt Hodges, Ruthie Collins, Manny Blu and Sarah Darling on a packed bill. ‘We’re doing a full band slot so it’ll be the whole nine yards!’ Michael says, excitedly.

Michael, from New York state, moved to Nashville to study at Belmont. He graduated into the industry and became a session and tour drummer, as well as Musical Director. His collaboration with the Nashville Celts meant he had been inducted into the UK movement as well as playing the Opry with them.

The drummer is now upfront – ‘same industry but a different angle’ – sharing vocals with AC (Amanda Cosette) Jones. She is from Ohio and has a BSc in Biochemistry which she says gave her the ability to ‘trust myself, believe in myself, stay confident, work hard for what you wanted and that determination of getting through that degree. It’s okay to take a chance.

‘When I got into the music industry it made me so hungry to ask questions and not be afraid to ask them, learning as I went.’ AC’s solo material has come out over the last few years and there’s a lot of Bonnie Raitt in her vocal tone. There’s a Grand Ole Opry tribute called Stand In The Circle, as well as a meditative song called Castle.

Michael is familiar with how to market an independent act even when he was a hired hand. ‘I did a lot of the booking for Lockeland,’ he says. The division of labour in Arbor North gives AC responsibility for social media and marketing, while Michael took on the task of finding a pick-up band for Nashville Meets London.

‘We aren’t going to have a rehearsal,’ he says. ‘I sent out the information and made it as detailed as I could. It’s very mapped out so they can learn it ahead of time and we can play a great show.’

The three Arbor North releases so far are all of a kind, given that the pair have fallen in love with one another. All The Right Mistakes was the first offering in February, followed by the divine You Me & Jesus. Would’ve Met You Anyway is the third track, a country toe-tapper with some rapid-fire lyrics. That must have been enormous fun to write, and a listener can hear the smiles from the singers coming through the recording booth. Michael’s friend Kyle Pudenz is terrific on the fiddle.

On the duo’s website, which is run by AC, they both boast of being fans of Star Wars. ‘If I may,’ Michael starts when asked about the new Mandalorian series, ‘I recommend you watch all the movies, One through Nine. That’s the main story arc…’

‘It’ll enrich the Mandalorian so much more for you. You’ll notice nods,’ AC says.

‘The team of directors really are knocking it out the park,’ Michael adds. ‘You can tell they are very passionate and know the weight that they carry.’

At this point there should be some kind of Star Wars quotation to end the piece, but the force is strong with Arbor North.

Arbor North play Nashville Meets London at Trinity Wharf on August 24. Tickets cost £34 and are available here.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Whiskey Myers and Vandoliers

August 15, 2022

Whiskey Myers – Tornillo

This sixth album opens with a full minute of Mariachi trumpets, lest we forget that the band are from Texas. With the live horns and what sounds like few overdubs, it puts me in mind of a Later…With Jools Holland performance. It’s less rootsy than their recent albums but it will sound extraordinary live. The band have a packed schedule for the rest of 2022 but will surely be eyeing up a European jaunt next year.

John Wayne is a proper band number which, impressively, kicks off the album with panache. Ditto Bad Medicine and Antioch, where horns stab, backing vocalists chime in and, on the latter, lead singer Cody Cannon purrs about there being ‘hell to pay’ and daddy going somewhere. The lyrics are definitely secondary to the sound of the band.

The fun rocker Mission To Mars was co-written by Cannon and Aaron Raitiere, who is hot right now; Cody sings of acid rain falling onto his bean fields and wants to join the ‘rich folks’ going to live in space like Han Solo in a Stetson.

The oddly punctuated Feet’s returns us to earth. It’s a driving rock song where Cody keeps his ‘eyes on the horizon’ (Clarkson would adore this album, naturally). There’s a bluesy ‘shoop’-filled breakdown halfway through. Other Side chugs like a Tom Petty tune and opens with ‘my daddy was a ramblin’ man’. Heart of Stone starts like a Guns N’ Roses ballad with Cody muttering about reflections and dark sides. The guys have a great record collection.

John Jeffers, who offers a great slide guitar solo during Antioch, contributes Heavy On Me and Whole World Gone Crazy. The former gets stuck in a groove via some acoustic pickin’, while the latter laments the state of the world in a familiar but welcome manner.

After twenty minutes of riffs and horns on the first side of the album, For The Kids offers some more traditional country-rock where the melody takes precedence as well as a chant of ‘We don’t have to be happy!’ Side B opens with The Wolf, where Cody is ‘howlin’ at the moonlight’ and puts me in mind of Dave Grohl and his band Foo Fighters.

It’s no surprise that Whiskey Myers albums end up near the top of the charts in the US. When done well, rock’n’roll is still a fine way to get the blood pumping.

Vandoliers – The Vandoliers

This lot are loud, nasal and good fun, and will hype up the crowd for Mike and the Moonpies this autumn, having done the same for Turnpike Troubadours and Flogging Molly already this year. That is a great way to describe their sound: rootsy punk with a spirited Texan feel. It’s another band record, with Travis Curry’s fiddle prominent and Cory Graves plonking a keyboard in between work by the brothers Fleming, Joshua (vocals) and Dustin (guitar).

The songs are singalongs full of chantable choruses that mimic those of Turnpike and Molly. Bless Your Drunken Heart is pure Molly, with Joshua’s vocal coming from the back of his throat a la Jaret Ray Reddick from Bowling For Soup. Down And Out is pure Turnpike with a narrator ‘shattered into pieces…rock bottom’ and smoking the night away remorsefully. Dustin adds a particularly good solo on the latter.

Too Drunk To Drink also has a Texmex, Mavericks-y shuffle, but Raul Malo would never sing a lyric of this sort: ‘Where you from, girl, can I get a ride home?’ comes from a cheeky narrator who is borne on the trumpet riff that trades melodic ideas with Travis’s guitar.

Every Saturday Night (‘I took for granted every Saturday night’) starts with the hook and continues without letting the backbeat go, almost obscuring the narrator’s sorry tale (‘we should have danced when they turned out the lights). Howlin’, which is accompanied by a marvellous and funny video, grabs the listener instantly thanks to eight bars of fiddle and eight of harmonica. Joshua’s vocals are keening (‘as my heart breaks in two…lonesome and blue’) and he captures the mood of the song expertly.

Before the Fall, with its introductory horn riff, is what counts as a ballad by Vandoliers standards. I Hope Your Heartache’s A Hit is a fine kiss-off written by Cory, with a mighty piano solo in the middle of it. Steer Me Wrong is redeemed by a fine chorus, while Better Run has the vocal verging on the Kip Moore with talk of ‘the men in blue coming after you’. It’ll be a live favourite and would sound great segueing into their set closer, I’m Gonna Be by The Proclaimers(!)

Wise County Friday Night – the place is north-West of the conurbation of Dallas-Fort Worth where the band are from – ends the album in a party mood. By the creek at 4am, Joshua’s ‘hands drew constellations on her back and down her spine’ and fiddle, guitar and keyboards get to solo handsomely. It’s a fine album which, tantalisingly, fades into the distance. I didn’t want it to end.

Country Jukebox Jury: Luke Flear and Simeon Hammond Dallas

August 15, 2022

Luke Flear – Looks Country To Me

This August brings projects from two acts who have done more than just put out a track or two, going for an EP or LP.

Luke Flear’s 12-track debut announces this Leeds-born singer who has moved across to country. Like Hunter Hayes before him, Luke plays drums and guitar on the album. He has definitely studied the modern sound of his fellow Lukes, Bryan and Combs.

The opening pair, the title track and Alive, set the album’s mood with flecks of banjo and solid choruses. Luke’s voice is given light reverb throughout. It is clear without being punchy, akin to that of Sam Palladio (Gunnar from Nashville). Tassels and Flares (great title) has another catchy chorus and could have gone on twice its length, while November Night is a toe-tapper with some stuttering vocals that mimic the euphoria of new love. I love the rhyme of ‘blushing/shushing’!

Luke has, as country music’s mission statement affirms, put his life in a song, as on Young, a pretty ditty where he says he is ‘still chasing dreams’. He also knows his way around a slow song, as on the gentle lament sung from a motel room, I Left My Heart At Home, and the anthem for drinking one’s cares away, Today Ain’t The Day (‘dance with the devil in the glass’). Red Vodka appears on the album in two versions, justifying its status as the album’s serious song. Piano chords underscore a sombre lyric full of cigarettes in ashtrays and an inability to ‘let go of you’.

Cross The Line, which namechecks songs by Keith Urban and George Jones, skips along jauntily over three familiar chords as Luke tries to convince a lady to go with him; indeed, These 3 Chords (which actually has four!) has him wishing to sing ‘a song that hasn’t been sung’. As per the final track, Luke has Something To Say, and hits some fine falsetto which he may seek to employ more on future projects.

Simeon Hammond Dallas – Make It Romantic EP

Often spotted busking on the South Bank of the Thames, Simeon Hammond Dallas is one of the rising stars of roots music in the UK and plays The Long Road festival this August. She also goes out on the road opening for Lady Nade in October, with a London date at Cecil Sharp House on the 12th.

The five-track EP includes A Hundred Lovers, a song which is full of character and melodic heft with a vocal that reminds me of all those women from the 1990s like Jewel or Sarah McLachlan. This is music you can’t put in a genre box.

The Blues is a Game has a freewheeling arrangement over which Simeon’s tremulous vocal sits. It’s a hell of a way to start the project, boasting of being ‘a good, good woman with a good, good heart’.

Betting On You begins ‘I fell in love with two dozen white boys…I’m just a chick in some bar’, probably in her home of Camden Town. The acoustic guitar pattern perfectly sets the lyric, which is sung with gusto and vulnerability. There is more of the former than the latter on Fucking Her, a set of accusations made over a great band arrangement.

The EP’s magnificent title track is a relief to hear after the anger of the previous track. The vocal performance is a match for the best voices on the UK scene. Kezia Gill, Jade Helliwell, Elles Bailey and Yola are now her peers and Simeon will earn plenty more fans this year. At least she isn’t competing with the South Bank for people’s attention!

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Ronnie Dunn and CJ Solar

August 11, 2022

Ronnie Dunn – 100 Proof Neon

I don’t suppose Ronnie cares if only the loyal faithful hear this album, his fourth of original material, which he himself produced. He no longer bothers country radio and he doesn’t need to write anything new. After all, he is making plans for his 70th birthday next year.

The copyrights on Boot Scootin’ Boogie, Hard Workin’ Man, Neon Moon and My Next Broken Heart must ensure he need never work again but, once you’re a songwriter and performer, the itch never ends. Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney are on tour at 80, while Willie Nelson will be 90 next year, making one half of Brooks & Dunn a young whippersnapper.

In 2020 he put out a 24-track set of covers called Re-Dunn, while his old buddy Kix Brooks has now gone a decade without putting out an album, content to host the American Country Countdown. One of the most commercial voices of the post-Garth era, Ronnie was paired with Kix as a sort of Music Row version of Hall & Oates. The pair are touring this summer, heading to Durant, Oklahoma, Brandon, Mississippi and Springfield, Illinois this August, having played the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville in June. They remain a big draw and, like Garth or Reba or Alan Jackson, play to three generations of fans as a legacy act.

The album opens with Broken Neon Hearts, a funky song set in a bar where lonely souls drink and a band plays loud, which is followed by Honky Tonk Town. As well as a lovely cowbell in the chorus and a fine key change, it features vocals from young Jake Worthington. Ronnie’s voice soars to a falsetto on the hopeful If Love Ever Comes My Way Again, where ‘neon lights’ once again appear in the lyric.

Later on we get Honky Tonk Skin, which rather belabours the point but still sounds great with its thunking backbeat and good-time lyric which shows Ronnie’s pride in being ‘raised on Hag songs, baptised in neon’ and ‘comfortable in my honky tonk skin’. The song’s texture is further improved by the backing vocals which provide a nice bed on which the lead voice sits; there’s a nice nod to Honky Tonk Woman too. We remain on the dancefloor for Two Steppers, Waltzes, and Shuffles that namechecks Johnny Cash and another Rolling Stones tune.

The Triston Marez song Where The Neon Lies (‘where the jukebox plays and the heart don’t break’), on which Ronnie guested, gets the solo treatment to bring it to any ears that haven’t yet heard the song. The guy knows a good song when he hears it, and his take on heartbreak ballad The Blade is the equal of Ashley Monroe’s original version. Parker McCollum appears on Road to Abilene, where both narrators mourn a lost love over pedal steel heartache. I love the description of the sky as ‘bloodshot’.

Lee Thomas Miller and Bob DiPiero bring their A game to Good Bartender, the album’s closing track which begins: ‘Happy Hour was a big letdown’. Resistance is futile as you try not to sing along to the woahs. Shawn Camp (who wrote Two Pina Coladas) and his mate Terry McBride (who wrote Play Something Country) were in the room for She’s Why I Drink Whiskey (‘I can’t drown her memory, I can’t move on’); with its snare rimshots and ‘empty glasses’, and the ‘girl done left me’ lyric, it is country in its purest form. The mighty Dean Dillon co-wrote Somethin’ I Can’t Have, which is slathered in fiddle and heartbreak.

This album reminds me of Bruce Springsteen, who has made album after album in the last 20 years, each with panache and charm. The Rising, released 20 years ago, was full of tunes driven by Max Weinberg’s drums and lyrics about togetherness. 100 Proof Neon has that same quality; any song Ronnie decides to play from this album will not drive people to the bar as they wait for those big tunes.

CJ Solar – The Future’s Neon

Ronnie isn’t the only man inspired by Broadway’s honky-tonks. CJ Solar is a songwriter of some repute who co-wrote a great song called Blue Bandana which was a minor hit for Jerrod Niemann. He also has plaques and money from his number one radio smashes Some Girls for Jameson Rodgers and Up Down for Florida Georgia Line.

CJ often puts out songs which get a little bit of radio pla, such as American Girls and Airplane, without becoming widely popular. After EPs in 2017 and 2020, CJ releases his first album on his Raining Bacon imprint, with nine tracks clocking in at half an hour. He appears on the cover with a trademark hat, shoulder-length hair and beard.

The lead single All I Can Think About Lately is driven by a two-chord loop and a chorus with a wish to get high with his beloved. Conversely, More Than She Loves Me was written with Jon Pardi’s pal Bart Butler and shares the heartstring-tugging feel of some of Pardi’s ballads, even as CJ’s girl leaves him for Texas. Jesus & A Woman looks to Whiskey and You for inspiration (‘one will drive you drinking, one will save you for yourself’) and will be a writers’ round tune for many years.

Coming Around, written with Michael Hardy (who is hot right now), echoes Scotty McCreery’s Damn Strait. CJ hears a song on the radio that makes his ex’s memory come back around. There’s a nice reference to November Rain by Guns N’ Roses and the song is sticky.

If you’ve written thousands of songs, you need a new way to say something familiar. Oddly, CJ wants his beloved to show him a Little Less Mercy and, it seems, chastise him once in a while. Over some slide guitar and heavy drumwork he admits that ‘I know how bad I can be’. The grooves continue on both Drunk Dancing and Long Nights, anthems to partying which seem made for Lower Broadway.

The album’s title track unites honky-tonk thrills and forgetting about an ex, sung with clarity and power without overwhelming the listener. The closing waltz Hungover Enough takes a sober look at the previous eight tracks: CJ sings ‘Don’t know why I keep doing this to myself’ over piano chords and a sonic wash of pedal steel. It’s very country and very good.

Country Jukebox Jury: Dylan Scott – Livin’ My Best Life

August 8, 2022

Do you want to make your own commercial country album? Let me show you how.

First off, you need a bloke. Seventeen of every 20 acts that are concocted for mass consumption are blokes. Why not try a former jingle singer from Louisiana whose voice was heard between songs, ads and Bob Kingsley’s script on the Country Top 40? Give him a haircut and hey presto, your star is ready for launch.

Dylan topped that chart with a song called My Girl, which saw him purr, belt and rap in different places. Eighteen other blokes could have put the song out, but Dylan was now in the marketplace. He brought that woman who lost it at a Chewbacca mask out on stage with him, giving him the common touch. Now casual country fans know who this guy is.

Six years after his debut, a second must follow in order to push him to headliner status. Since 2016, Dylan has fathered two kids and has taken three songs into the Top 40: Nothing To Do Town made virtue of the glory in small town life; Nobody praised his fidelity to his wife in a Brett Young/ Dan + Shay way; and New Truck is so similar in tenor to 7500 OBO by Tim McGraw that it’s like when Dreamworks ripped off a Disney movie 20 years ago.

That last track and the driving song Static – ‘making dollars makes good sense’ is a line which is much better than the KABLAM of the drums in the chorus – were both written by four of the hottest writers on Music Row: Ashley Gorley, Ben Johnson, Hardy and Hunter Phelps. These men know what commercial country sounds like, and Dylan is one of those 18 blokes who can sing the song with passion and vim. Others include Thomas Rhett, Michael Ray, Darius Rucker, Cole Swindell, Lee Brice, Jon Pardi, Scotty McCreery, Kane Brown, Jake Owen, Justin Moore, Jackson Dean, Chris Young, Thomas Rhett, Riley Green, Mitchell Tenpenny, Ernest and Tyler Hubbard.

Mitchell Tenpenny and Ernest (who is hot right now) wrote the excellent Leave Her Alone, a message to a girl’s old flame who left Dylan to swoop in and find her. The ‘too big to fail’ writer Morgan Wallen was one of four who put a song called Amen To That (‘praising the Lord for giving me that woman I’ve been praying for’) on the shelf. The song has three chords and hyperkinetic modern production which will get it on the radio. It also gives its title to Dylan’s tour in the fall.

T-Hub is trying to launch a solo career himself, given the hiatus of Florida Georgia Line, and he’s writing loads of tracks that others can use. In fact, the one Dylan has picked (or which was picked for Dylan) gives the album its title: ‘Pour a drink, YOLO!’ sets the tenor for the album’s catchiest pop song (Thomas Rhett is involved) which is charming and will distract people for three minutes at a time.

In Our Blood is a more ethereal song featuring vocals from Jimmie Allen. ‘We all got hearts and we all feel pain’ unites every human whatever their skin pigmentation. It’s a cool songwriting exercise, with reference to ‘the man on the cross’. There is an awful lot of ‘Sunday morning’ in the lyrics across the album, pitching Dylan Scott as an artist true to his roots. When he’s not getting an amen, he’s with his girl or remembering when he wasn’t with her. He’s not the type to go on a drinking bender then get caught on video saying something that would get him dropped, or at least suspended, from his label, before having a number one album for 15 months.

To his credit, eight of the 16 songs are Dylan Scott compositions that touch on today’s country music matters. Boy I Was Back Then is the token reminiscin’ song that takes the listener back to the time before he met his wife when cops and ‘daddies’ didn’t like Dylan. Good Times Go By Too Fast (‘live it up while we can’) and Killin’ Some Time (‘making the most of what the good Lord gave me’) are the token reminders to focus on the present. Lay Down With You is the token song that starts with a 5am alarm for work and ends in bed with the woman who has been in his thoughts all day.

Can’t Have Mine (Find You A Girl) is an acoustic-driven song about places (the bar, the church) you can find a girl just like Dylan did. Was anybody asking to take Dylan’s wife away from him?! Ain’t Much Left of Me is a waltz that lists all the country stuff he can live without (guns, his home town, trucks) but he sure can’t live without his woman. He rhymes ‘smile’ with ‘side’, which is the weakest rhyme I have ever heard in a country song. And what happens if a bear attacks his woman and Dylan doesn’t have his shotgun?!

Unlike the Cole Swindell album, which had one woman in the credits, Dylan’s has a total of THREE women contributing to the songs. Kelsey Hart was with Tommy Cecil on Hell Out Of Me, one of those songs where the narrator says all the things he was (‘rough around the edges…a dead end road’) before a heavenly angel took the hell away from him.

Emily Landis (who wrote The Good Ones for Gabby Barrett) and Claire Douglas, daughter of Tom, wrote Tough, which is one of those songs which teaches a listener by proxy how to treat a girl. It begins with Dylan counselling his kid to fish, drink, drive, throw and all those other American rural things. His kid’s future wife, and Dylan’s future daughter-in-law, ‘will mess you up’ and will keep him in his place and make him go weak. It’s another writers’ round song that could have been a hit for any of the 18 singers listed above.

Look, the whole point of commercial country is that it exists to make money. It’s not Thinkpiece Country; it is product around which to sell a star and give them something to sing on tour, on TV spots and on 6am radio appearances that are necessary to shift product in an age when money is made out on the road.

It’s the Tim McGraw model, which is apt because Curb Records (to which Dylan is signed) used McGraw as a cash cow. The landscape has changed and Dylan will never be McGraw, but the model remains because it keeps making money, even if we’ve heard every tune before, sung by the same sort of voice.

Ka-Ching…with Twang – Girl Singers in 2022

August 1, 2022

The title of this piece is horrifically sexist, but country music really did refer to ladies who appeared onstage as girl singers. Never mind the latter-day reputations of Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton or Emmylou Harris as artists in the Joni Mitchell mould; not that Joni was ever a ‘girl singer’.

We’ve already had a memoir from Brandi Carlile and there’s one on the way from Margo Price, plus a podcast looking at every aspect of Dolly, one of the key country music performers of the commercial era along with Hank Williams, Ray Charles and Garth Brooks.

Amanda Shires – Take It Like A Man

Amanda Shires, the fiddle player whose husband Jason Isbell might also be bracketed with the figures in that last paragraph, formed The Highwomen along with Carlile, Natalie Hemby and Maren Morris.

Natalie helps Amanda on this album’s closing ballad Everything Has Its Time, a song which encapsulates the mood of the collection. A reminiscin’ song which seems to have moonlight in its chords, Amanda sings how ‘it’s easier to stay inside, you’re too tired to go anywhere’ when you have hit that comfortable point in a relationship.

The ten self-written songs are produced by, and sometimes written with, Lawrence Rothman. Lawrence is a non-binary Jewish songwriter from St Louis who also put out an album of poetry last year, and I’ll be getting into the past material soon.

How’s this for a writers room on Don’t Be Alarmed, a song in the little-used 12/8 time signature: Amanda and husband Jason, plus Liz Rose (who helped Taylor Swift back when she needed to write country songs) and Ruston Kelly, a songwriter who will forever be Kacey Musgraves’ first husband. It’s a very adult song that will hit home with plenty of listeners. It might even be Amanda’s career song, her very own Cover Me Up and a nice little earner for the family business (the album is released on the indie label ATO).

The big impact track is the one which leads off the album, Hawk For The Dove. ‘You can call me serious trouble’, Amanda sings over reverbed guitars and tom-tom drums, asking to ‘feel something again’. Her vocal reminds me of Martha Wainwright or Morgan Wade (who is hot right now), while her narration is in the tradition of women who want to be loved and possessed. It takes two-and-a-half minutes for Amanda’s pentatonic fiddle part to come in, which is suitably impassioned.

The title track, one for Now That’s What I Call Thinkpiece Country, follows it. Light organ and a steady beat ground a track in which Amanda’s narrator throws her voice like Dolores from the Cranberries or (more likely) Dolly Parton, to match the ‘quivering’ she undergoes. There is a fine instrumental passage where guitar and violin battle. Someone will snap this up for a TV soundtrack for one of those dramas.

Empty Cups has a twinkling piano opening which is at odds with the extreme vulnerability and the heartbreak in the lyric: ‘the sound of silence rings in every room…a rainbow of tears’ and a well-placed swear word. It reminds me of some of the tunes by UK writer Hannah White (who will incidentally be out with Ricky Ross in the autumn), as does the gloomy Fault Lines, although the piano part makes me think of Schubert’s Winterreise.

Here He Comes perks things up a bit, as if Amanda knows she has started the album with a lot of doom, and Bad Behavior has a charming vocal hook to reflect the lyric (‘so what if I do?’). For all that, Stupid Love (‘can I say that I caught you?’) has a retro Muscle Shoals feel (which is code for horn stabs and organ lines) and a fine structure. Lonely At Night is a proper song in the vein of Carole King or Dan Tashian, with an expansive arrangement and melody.

It says much about me that I was more attracted to the second, happier side of the album than the morose first. Which will you prefer?

Nicolle Galyon – firstborn

Nicolle Galyon also has a husband, songwriter Rodney Clawson, as well as a stepson, Brad, in the industry. Along with Natalie Hemby, Nicolle is a mother hen figure in town who has worked with young pups like Kelsea Ballerini and RaeLynn. She got her start with It Ain’t Pretty, a remarkable ballad made famous by Lady A, and she won awards for Tequila, the heartbreak song by Dan + Shay, and Automatic, the Miranda Lambert reminiscin’ song she wrote with Natalie.

Nicolle set up the Big Loud imprint Songs & Daughters in 2019, using her experience to shift further into the back rooms of Music City, guiding the careers of Tiera Kennedy and Hailey Whitters. She does perform herself, as I saw at the Thursday night C2C opening performance in 2018. Her fragile voice and mellow piano chords stuck out against the power of Luke Combs, Kip Moore, Brett James and even Natalie, who performed a wonderful version of the Labrinth track Jealous which I will never forget.

Until summer 2022, we’ve not had a Nicolle Galyon album but, moved to do so by imaginary grandkids googling her, firstborn (whose title and tracks are expressed in the lower case but I’ll use sentence case) is that debut album, released on her birthday. So what will those future grandkids learn of Grandma Nicolle, who had songs on something called the radio back in the days of President Trump who they learned about at school?

She is a Winner, according to the album’s opening track that could only have been written with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne. Winner was the town in South Dakota that she was born in, though she lost her dad at three but ‘what good is being a winner if all you’re doing’s keeping score?’ The second verse talks about body issues and the horrors of Music Row, which will still be prevalent in 50 years’ time. Her ‘greatest victory’ today is being a mum.

Five Year Plan was written by Nicolle and Rodney. It namechecks Ford, their son who may give birth to those grandchildren! Husband adds harmonies to a chorus that tells the story of their marriage: the line ‘being a singer got knocked off the top of my list’ emphasises that matrimony cannot run alongside a career. ’Thirty seconds into my 15 minutes’ is a very good line. This will be a writers’ round song.

Nicolle also wrote a pair of songs which have been recorded by others and which she includes on her own set. Consequences was written with Amy Wadge and Camila Cabello, who recorded it for her debut solo album in 2018 and gave voice to how ‘loving you had consequences’. The advice song Boy was written with Jon Nite and plucked off the shelf by Lee Brice. Rodney adds his harmonies again.

History may show there are fewer better songwriters of the era than Hillary Lindsey, so Nicolle’s grandkids will hear some of grandma’s work with auntie Hillary. Boy Crazy, also written with Kelsea Ballerini, is a gender examination on how only girls are called names even if boys are unmarried or carrying more weight around their middle. The song has been arranged with synthetic strings and harmonies which possibly come from both co-writers.

Contemporary issues surface on Self Care, a song which will appeal to young girls unsure about their appearance (‘I think I like me’ is a t-shirt slogan). Younger Woman is a song about age being nothing but a number and how growing up is about maturity, while Tendencies ups the tempo in a song about Nicolle’s foibles, namechecking her daughter Charlie who may well inherit some of her mum’s particularities.

Pop writer Sasha Sloan was in the room for three songs. Sunflower addresses Nicolle’s younger self and her insecurities. It opens with images of unworn high heels ‘cos I’ve been taller than the boys since I was a sophomore’. In lyric and production it sounds like Kacey or Kelsea in its sparse instrumentation. I spotted that word ‘superpower’ in the chorus, which turns someone’s differences or perceived weaknesses into strengths. Disneyworld includes words like ‘self-sufficient’ and ‘common sense’ in a kind of love song to Rodney, who is ‘patient with my mum’, she says.

Death Bed was written with Sloan and the album’s producer Jimmy Robbins, who seems to have been listening to Billie Eilish and has created similar soundscapes. Never mind her grandchildren, whose parents are ‘one hell of a legacy’; a listener in 2022 will find lots of comfort in this album. I hope Nicolle can bring the kids over to the UK soon to perform the album, perhaps opening for Kelsea or Miranda.