The story of Little Big Town involved plenty of false starts, a lot of success and a long victory lap. The quartet are big enough to support Eagles on a Hyde Park date, play a headline slot at Country2Country and fill the Royal Albert Hall, thanks to evergreen hits like Pontoon, Girl Crush and Boondocks. Taylor Swift also gave them Better Man, her song about Calvin Harris, which is a weird Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
The youngest member of the quartet is 48-year-old Phillip, which puts the band in the sort of bracket as Legacy Artists whose days on country radio are over. This frees up their creativity since they aren’t chasing hits but are looking for songs to stick into a live setlist around the old faithful. Recently, for instance, they played a show which added Hell Yeah, a song that is the complete opposite of what you think it is: in spite of the whistling hook, narrator Phillip has been ‘going through hell, yeah’.
The band have produced this album themselves, which saves on costs when you’re paying a quartet, albeit one where two members, Jimi and Karen, are putting money into the same college fund for their kids. The formula works by now: the band get help from their friends to craft harmony-soaked Adult Contemporary pop songs which are imbued by living and working in the little big town of Nashville. Then they fit them into a live set around Boondocks, Girl Crush and Pontoon.
As is contractually obligatory by now, the Love Junkies (Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose but you know that) join the girls to work their magic on Three Whiskeys and the Truth and Something Strong. Both are heartbreak songs where drink numbs the pain, expertly communicated by Karen, and I wonder if a man in a suit would have only allowed one of these to make an LBT album ten years ago. It must be the case that the band are older than the suits these days, and all the better for it.
Dan Tashian returns to write the title track of this album, sung by Jimi and featuring all the magic chords Dan usually puts in his compositions to make it sounds like he wrote it in 1972 in Laurel Canyon. Fellow long-time traveller Sean McConnell gifts them One More Song, which opens with an image of packing boxes and ‘dancing around the hurt and the pain’. Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne bring their golden touch to the excoriating and sad Whiskey Colored Eyes (‘I guess I like the burn…I’ll let you get me high’).
Foy Vance, best known as a friend of Ed Sheeran’s and a favourite of many songwriters who appreciate the craft, was in the room for album closer Friends of Mine. Amid lyrics about storms and hardship, there is advice to ‘take courage’ in this crazy world. It’s almost country gospel, though the squealing guitars push it towards power ballad territory, and it would segue nicely into or from a song like Sober.
There are plenty of uptempo tracks here to balance out the ballads, any of which may fill the ‘Happy Tune’ slot in the band’s setlist if they want to retire Day Drinkin’, Wine Beer Whiskey or Stay All Night. There’s the singalong opening pair of All Summer and Better Love, the country disco duo of Song Back (sung by Karen) and Heaven Had A Dance Floor (with lead vocals from Kimberly) and the itchy, catchy Gold, written with the great Luke Dick. It brilliantly rhymes ‘sombrero/Cuervo’.
Jimi wrote the words and music for Rich Man (‘without a lick of money’), a song about God and family which seems obligatory on a country album. Last Day On Earth might well be sung a cappella, although the album version has some drums and guitars underscoring a tender love song (‘ashes to ashes, dust to dirt’) which actually reminds me of British duo Two Ways Home.
God Fearing Gypsies is all about time passing. It begins with ‘the golden days of being young in the summer are gone’, perfectly capturing the USP of Little Big Town. Different Without You is an outside write by Corey Crowder and Jordan Schmidt which they must have thought sounded like LBT when they got to the chorus.
Who knows which acts are going to sing this sort of tune after LBT have completed their farewell tour…
This was Alyssa Bonagura’s first London headline show, after a smattering of support slots for other artists. Like Nicole Kidman, she has one foot in the UK and the other in Nashville and is a frequent visitor to Britain. She was introduced by a man called John, who was a key figure in the development of her career and helped her win a scholarship to LIPA. He sat at the back of the packed Slaughtered Lamb and beamed with pride. There was also a table of people who had driven down from Norwich.
First, Sally and Steve aka Gasoline & Matches opened the evening with a set full of harmonies and mighty acoustic guitar solos. Damn You was an excellent poppy song which was rather affected by a loud bloke at the bar who had not learned the etiquette of a songwriters’ night and would later literally stumble from the room knocking the drink out of Sally’s hand. That doesn’t seem fair given that G&M had given us a country reading of Livin’ on a Prayer as well as a Lady A-sounding new single.
Alyssa has an enviable catalogue and played tracks from her 2012 album Love Hard and 2016’s Road Less Traveled. They included Warrior, a ‘fight song’ written for a friend going through medical issues, and Rebel, which Sally requested after Alyssa told the crowd to shout out what they wanted to hear. She wrote I Make My Own Sunshine on a ukulele in Liverpool; in one of those crazy stories artists can tell when things work out, it ended up on a Steven Tyler album where the ukulele part was played by ‘the best ukulele player on Maui!’
She has also had songs cut by Jana Kramer (the tender Circles which made Top 40 on country radio) and Jessie James Decker, who is currently competing on the American version of Strictly; I Do contained a glorious chord progression and a delightful lyric about the salvation of love.
Alyssa had tuned her guitar down two full steps, which meant her sparkly capo made an appearance on most songs, while she was joined for several songs by guitarist Steve. That isn’t Steve from G&M but a more swarthy figure who, bizarrely, studied physics at uni and was cheered on by his old course mates! The pair starred in the video for Alyssa’s recent radio-friendly single Other Side of the World, so it was excellent to see them on the same stage. The pair of Paper Airplane and reminiscin’ song Last Night in December, written with Sam Ellis and Jon Nite, were understated gems.
At various parts of the evening, she sounded like Sheryl Crow or Joni Mitchell but Alyssa can also do pop-punk. Her own song When You’re Gone led nicely into an impromptu version of Avril Lavigne’s I’m With You. She then pulled a friend out of the audience who happened to be Jess from the folk trio The Staves, who harmonised to gorgeous effect on Heavy on My Mind. New Wings will remain a crowd favourite because of its riff, doubled by Alyssa’s vocals, and future smash Love You Like That introduced a singalong element into proceedings.
It might feature on the long-delayed follow-up to Road Less Traveled, which might well prove John’s words that ‘the best is yet to come’. If it’s this good already, Alyssa could be scarily good by 2023.
A final thought. Every American act should stop off at The Slaughtered Lamb or a room of similar size which can hold 80 or 90 absolute maximum: a relaxed ‘Evening With…’ performance where collaboration, singalong and camaraderie trumps any promotional pushes.
In May 2021, Alexander released a self-titled EP which featured songs which reminded me of ‘Kenny Chesney singing Jason Aldean songs’, all the more pertinent because producers Kurt and Tully both play in Aldean’s band.
The album begins with Sunset Town, an Aldeanish tune about love and stuff that was also on that EP. Other songs making it over from EP to LP include: Summer Crazy, basically a rewrite of Summertime; carpe diem song Love Today, which has a nice line about ‘a fresh coat of paint’; How It Rolls, which describes true love as ‘honey off of your tongue’; and Malibu Blue, which compares a girl to ‘the brightest star on the boulevard’. This reminds us that Alexander’s day job is as an actor in, among other shows, Vikings.
Let Me Be Your Whiskey, which closes the album, was a standalone single from 2020 and sums up the musical sound of the album. Over a smouldering guitar part, Alexander sings about ‘something strong to forget about someone gone’. It sounds like he’d go down as smoothly as old Jim Beam.
The 10 new songs build on themes from the EP. Faded On Me, written by the A-List trio of Jon Nite, Ross Copperman and Josh Osborne, made its way to Alexander from the big shelf of songs. It hits all the commercial country beats: nagging riff, a narrator whose ‘true north is Tennessee’ and a melodic chorus that includes nouns like ‘town’, ‘heart’, ‘shots’, ‘girls’ and ‘heartache’.
That’s The Life I Want actually uses the line ‘Couldn’t dream it up in Hollywood’ to describe the sort of idyll that country folk live, while Rough Around The Edges sounds like a TV theme tune for a show about small-town folk. Like She Wanted To is an innocent love song set at a riverbank where the heroine of the song has both alcohol and agency.
201 Melrose Avenue is a midtempo thinkin’ song where our narrator deliberates calling an old flame but never goes through with it. Can’t Outrun You is another moving-on song with a rockier feel which reminds the listener that ‘there’s nothing faster than a memory’. Ditto Back, a song which has been written hundreds of times, not least I Go Back by Kenny Chesney; there’s a nice line about Alexander not getting his jean jacket back, but it’s a songwriting exercise with an Adult Contemporary Country arrangement.
If You Don’t I Do has a nagging melody and a lyric about having a good time, and That Kinda Love is a horny chugger. It is one of a number of songs that mentions dust, roads and having the ‘windows down’. After You is a beautiful tune which deserves a wide audience, as Alexander sighs that every woman will not come close to her.
The album sounds country and will please those fans who live in either Aldean Nation or No Shoes Nation. This is like a turnpike album, one which is adjacent to the main thoroughfare where Chesney and Aldean live: Turnpike Country.
Daniel Breland from New Jersey, the son of two ministers who turned down a place at music school to study business, released his debut album on Atlantic Records at the start of September 2022. The label surely signed him on account of his way with melody and harmony. Keith Urban wrote a couple of tracks with him including Out The Cage, and the UK took to him when he came over for Country2Country 2022. It matters a great deal that he is non-white, but this album should be judged on its own merit.
Boldly, it does not include either the earworm My Truck, which was one of six tracks on an impressive debut EP released in 2020, or his number one Beers On Me, a collaboration with Hardy and Dierks Bentley.
It does have appearances from Ingrid Andress, Lady A, Thomas Rhett, Keith Urban and Mickey Guyton (who is on the title track), who should all push their fanbases on to Breland’s work. One can also include Shania Twain as a collaborator, given the way Breland’s song Natural rewrites (and credits) Man I Feel Like A Woman to essentially become ‘Man! Look at that woman!’ There is more than one key change.
The Ingrid collaboration Here For It opens the album. It reminds me, with its clapping and major-key melody, of the theme from TV cartoon Arthur, especially with the pair singing of telling each other about their problems because ‘misery loves company’. Praise The Lord, a nice ditty written with TR, is one of the most optimistic songs released this year, and the Lady A duet Told You I Could Drink (‘cos you pushed me to the brink’) proves that Breland can appeal to a country radio crowd too.
Keith Urban appeared on Radio 2 around the time My Truck was zooming up the charts and bigged up the young writer. Throw It Back has fiftysomething Keith cutting loose alongside Breland on a pop-trap tune that will sound great in one of those Lower Broadway clubs to get hen parties to buy drinks. ‘If you sexy and you know it make it clap!’ only has one kind of audience.
Six writers including LA pop chap Sean Douglas were there for the hooky-as-hell Thick, a song with a heavy beat targeted at folk with ample posteriors (‘Shout out to Lizzo!!’). The bouncy party song County Line, full of alcohol and Lynryd Skynyrd, has eight credits including Ernest and Sam Hunt as well as Breland’s sibilant pair of producers (get ready): Sam Sumser and Sean Small! The mix of processed beats, hiphop cadences and Sam Hunt-type melodies is attractive and very contemporary.
Ryan Hurd drops by to co-write Happy Song, a reminiscin’ song full of regret, while For What It’s Worth is a rewrite of Someone Like You. Growing Pains is a song of self-examination where our narrator learns to overcome life’s troubles; it also uses one of my favourite lyrical motifs, the ‘mama told me’ motif. Good For You, meanwhile, is a showstopper full of autobiography.
Don’t Look At Me – which is completely genre agnostic as per the reference to Prince and The Rolling Stones in the same couplet – has a fine melody and the album’s best chorus, which I hope doesn’t get lost in its place as Track 13 of 14. Final track Alone At The Ranch summarises the album’s mission statement, with Breland’s voice swooping to the top of his range and a syncopated melody drawing the listener in. It helps that it’s a slow jam full of wordplay.
The future is bright for Daniel Breland.
Kelsea Ballerini – Subject To Change
How quickly things can turn. Our Kelsea was ‘unapologetically in love’ two albums ago, but the rollout of album four is dominated by the surprise news of the breakdown of her marriage to Morgan Evans, who came to London this summer and sung all those songs he had written about her. He’s going to have to get some new songs, as Kelsea has.
She is in a tough position: she’s not an activist singer or mummy like Maren Morris, nor a twangin’ newcomer like Lainey Wilson or a traditionalist like Carly Pearce. She is in danger of being yesterday’s news, which makes Subject To Change an interesting listen. She launches it at Radio City Music Hall in New York, where she played to fans already familiar with her story via social media and such.
As if to perfectly hit the middle of the Pop/Country Venn Diagram, which was a theme of her self-titled third album, Subject To Change is co-produced by Shane McAnally (Mr Nashville) and Julian Bunetta, Mr Los Angeles who shaped the sound of first One Direction then of Thomas Rhett.
‘I was like oh my God!’ introduces I Guess Thay Call It Fallin’, a breakup song set to the same sort of poppy production that marked her debut album. Jimmy Robbins was in the room for Walk in the Park, which mentions both LA and Colorado in the first verse and has a fluttering chorus that reminds me of Shane’s work with Kacey Musgraves, who is also not a ‘walk in the park’.
I Can’t Help Myself moves from A to B to D, perhaps to indicate Kelsea’s flibbertigibbety nature, while If You Go Down (I’m Goin’ Down Too) is 100% Dixie Chicks thanks to its mandolin and fiddle arrangement. Love Is A Cowboy reminds us that Kelsea is from Tennessee, with ‘El Dorado and John Wayne’ present in the verse, while she throws her voice so it has that Hank Williams catch just before the final chorus.
It’s the clearest indication of what Kelsea is trying to do, thanks to working with both McAnally and Bunetta. Muscle Memory does much the same, with a singalong chorus full of ‘uh-huhs’ and a catch-up with an old friend in the verse, which reminds me of Thinkin’ About You, one of the biggest hits on country radio in the last year.
The single sent to radio to prepare fans for the album was the fluffy filler Heartfirst. That track and the title track were co-written by a woman fast becoming a sort of mother figure of Nashville, Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild. It opens with a Britney-like ‘yeah yeah’ vocal hook and a processed beat; the chorus is pure pop, while Kelsea thanks God and takes it ‘day by day’.
I wonder if You’re Drunk, Go Home, which features Carly Pearce and Kelly Clarkson, will get a push, especially given how Kelly has just taken over Ellen’s slot on mid-afternoon TV. Think of the synergy!! It’s a fine addition to Now That’s What I Call Bachelorette Party and is perfect to follow a Shania tune on Lower Broadway. There’s a nice reference to George Dickel whiskey which they perhaps paid for, much as a Silverado appears in another tune.
Eight of the 15 tracks were written with Alysa Vanderheym, a graduate of Nashville’s Belmont University whose big copyright is Talk You Out Of It, a slow jam by Florida Georgia Line. Weather reminds me of Lindsay Ell’s rapid-fire, hooky pop; Ashley Gorley helps the pair on The Little Things, which sounds like a pop/rock smash from 1997 and might be a future single, while pop writer Sasha Sloan joined them for Universe, a thinker of a song which will get fans illuminating the arenas with their phones.
Doin’ My Best sounds like an Instagram post in song (the second verse even mentions an iPhone!), with some clapping percussion and steel guitar underscoring mentions of therapy and how ‘showing up is good enough for me’. I expect every review will mention Halsey, whom Kelsea does not mention by name (‘I put ‘em on track four’). I really thought it a strange move for The Other Girl to be such a big single to push her third album, which was rather buried by the pandemic.
Marilyn is a 100%-er with music and lyrics by Kelsea, always a sign that this is An Important Song. Kelsea has realised Ms Monroe was a victim of the male gaze and a patriarchal society. It’s actually quite banal but I hope she gets to talk about celebrity while promoting album four.
The album concludes with What I Have, as country as the day is long. I wish she had plumped for one or the other, because she just seems as indecisive as ever, but such is the goal for Black River Entertainment to appeal to as wide an audience as possible who will pick and choose according to their tastes.
The village of Radlett is home to a large Jewish community, many of who are descended from Polish and German immigrants. There’s a phrase in Yiddish, which is a mishmash of those languages and Hebrew, which immediately came to mind as the music began in this tour de force of country music: ‘Mach Schau!‘
The Beatles were yelled to ‘mach schau’ when in Hamburg, and plenty of performers know that they’ve got to ‘put on a show!’ when a crowd demands it. The ten musicians onstage, many of whom double as the band for One Night in Dublin, each showcased fine showmanship and musicianship over the course of two hour-long sets that ticked every box. They also remembered to smile with their eyes and teeth, lest anyone forget that they were taking us out of our troubles and over to Texas.
In country music, you get laughed out of town if you can’t play. The band members all have their moment in the spotlight to prove their chops, with impressive solos from Matt Carr on guitar, Trevor Brewis on drums and the multipurpose Tim Howard, who brought out banjo and dobro in various spots during the evening. In a nice touch, the male members of the band were dressed in a uniform of checked shirts and cowboy hats.
Middi Murphy was our bandleader for the evening and, despite a very poor joke about a drunkard and a preacher, was on form. A fine vocalist who led the audience by the hand, Middi took lead on Friends in Low Places, where he sang the alternate version of the second verse, got his tongue around Chattahoochee, and was note-perfect on the Don Williams ballad She’s In Love with a Rodeo Man. Middi also brought out the mandolin for Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road – like Ziggy Stardust, he played it left hand – then chucked the instrument to their stage manager and ‘Pot Noodle purchaser’ Phil.
There were also two ‘girl singers’, to use a term that died in about 1985. Deeanne Dexeter, whose own music is worth a listen, sang crowd pleasers like 9 to 5, Suds in the Bucket and She’s In Love With The Boy. Best of all was a brilliant contribution to Past The Point of Rescue, a duet with Middi that was one of the standout songs of the night and which I listened to on repeat as I wrote up this piece.
There was also a mighty arrangement of the Alison Krauss song The Lucky One with Tim on the dobro and Sophy Ball on violin. Sophy’s playing was extraordinary all night, and she put on a costume for her showstopper about a devil down in Georgia. Props also go to clarinet and sax player Fay Donaldson, who brought Ring of Fire and sundry other tunes to life. There was even a (toy) train whistle for Folsom Prison Blues.
Biddy Ronelle, whose energy could be bottled and sold as a tonic, was just as tremendous, especially on the surprisingly jaunty Golden Ring, which country fans will know is about the breakdown of a marriage symbolised in the title object. There was unbridled panache on Man! I Feel Like A Woman!, with Biddy’s performance taking in those two exclamation marks, and fine harmonies all night from the ladies especially on Country Roads.
The pair flapped their arms during Chicken Fried, the night’s most recent song from way back in 2008, and joined voices and forces on the band numbers Mountain Music, The Gambler, Achy Breaky Heart and The Cowboy Rides Away. The medley of tunes by outlaws – Merle, Waylon, Willie and JR Cash – was expertly done early in the first half, with Middi on lead vocals and the ladies chiming in with harmonies and accoutrements. They were sat stage left at an upturned beer keg, part of a smart set design which set the mood excellently.
The event website onenightintexas.com lists plenty of dates all around the UK right up to next November so if you see One Night in Texas listed in your area rush to it and be impressed at the breadth and depth of material offered up by Middi and the band. I expect a show over Valentine’s Weekend in Blackpool would be a good choice.
I don’t know if you look at the Hot 100 a lot, but something odd has happened recently and it involved country music. There were, for the chart dated September 17 2022, an absurd quotient of tunes made in Nashville dominating the US charts.
Unsurprisingly, Harry Styles was enjoying a thirteenth week at number one (three behind One Sweet Day, six behind Old Town Road). Morgan Wallen has two songs in the Top 20, while Luke Combs’ The Kind of Love We Make is a place ahead of Beyonce. Cole Swindell’s She Had Me At Heads Carolina is ahead of Doja Cat, and Tyler Hubbard, Jon Pardi, Zach Bryan, Bailey Zimmerman and Jelly Roll mix with Bad Bunny and Ed Sheeran.
In at 54 is Truth About You, the lead single from Mitchell Tenpenny’s new album in which our narrator threatens to tell people what really happened in response to his ex telling lies about him. The song has just hit number one on country radio which, yep, still exists in an era of streams and TikTok. So do albums, as Morgan Wallen has proved in the last 18 months by gaming the system with a 30-track album and a leaked video which proves all publicity is good publicity in Nashville (he’s CMA nominated).
Mitchell, who has been in Music City for years, has a rasping voice that matches the moment. In the last year alone he put out an eight-track mini-album and a Christmas record, so he’s been allowed to be prolific after the pandemic shutdown. This accounts for the 20 tracks (19 plus an intro, really) on this album, all written with Mitch in the room along with the typical A-List names and produced by Jordan Schmidt, who has been studying the sound of country music in 2022. Fun fact: Jordan is from Duluth, the Minnesota town which will forever be known as the home of Bob Dylan.
Ashley Gorley does add his stardust to the rapid-fire love song Always Something With You, while Jesse Frasure turns up in the room for the happy-sad Miss You Cause I’m Drinking (‘I ain’t drinkin’ cos I miss you…’). The father-and-son team of Rodney and Brad Clawson joined him for Sleeping Alone, which provides a novel way of asking if someone is still single (with their ‘sweatpants on’). The Warren Brothers Brad and Brett helped him on the closing track That’s How She Goes, which has the album’s most interesting bridge.
Devin Dawson, Seth Ennis, Chris DeStefano and Laura Veltz are there too, as are the sibilant producers of the new Breland album Sean Small and Sam Sumser, who help out on Elephant In The Room. The track features pop vocalist Teddy Swims and sounds completely inorganic and ‘in the box’, which is what happens when Nashville tries to be like Los Angeles.
Bucket List first appeared on the 2021 mini-album Midtown Diaries. It’s a carpe diem song in which Mitchell promises to ‘cross one off, put two more on it’ and make life better without thinking of the ‘what ifs’. Good Place has our narrator singing of being ‘a midtown mess’ while a dull, MOR track buzzes behind him. There’s a swear word in the chorus of More Than Whiskey Does which is completely at odds with the safe production, while Mitchell offers his shoulder on Cry Baby, which is almost offensive in its dullness.
As you’d expect from an album targeted at young adults between 18 and 34, there’s plenty here about matters of the heart. We Got History (‘I know we don’t have a future any more’) is a fun spin on a mournful track about an ex, who elsewhere is Happy and I Hate It, says Mitchell. Do You is a triple-time tune where our narrator namechecks The Lumineers while bemoaning the nature of love.
Lululemon gets a plug (and hopefully Mitchell’s wife got some stock) on the snaptracky Still Thinking ‘Bout You. There’s a song of fidelity called Long As You Let Me which drowns any sentiment in production gloop. Obsession has some massive guitars to underline how Mitchell has fallen in love with a new lady, while Now We’re Talking is a smooth meet-cute with a strong melody that hints at ‘doing more than talking tonight’.
There is even a song about a dive bar called Losers which ‘made a winner’ out of our protagonist. Perhaps this album will be heard in Lower Broadway’s bachelorette party places. I understand that the production is there to appeal to pop audiences, but I would suggest Mitchell records these songs with just guitar and voice, as there is plenty of decent songwriting here buried under mounds of studio wizardry.
I doubt any listener will put the whole album on in one sitting, which explains its sonic homogeneity: tracks merge into one another, with lyrical tropes (drinking, heartbreak) popping up on most songs. It is Functional Country, the sort that Jason Aldean pioneered. It sounds like commercial country made in Music Row.
Nashville loves to mimic what New York and Los Angeles are doing. When casting around town a few years ago for someone who could play piano and sing ballads like Julia Michaels or Billie Eilish, they alit upon Michigan-born Berklee School of Music graduate Ingrid Andress. Lady Like was a fine song, as was her number one smash More Hearts Than Mine, which has led to a follow-up album which she has co-produced with her key collaborator Sam Ellis.
Sam has worked with Thomas Rhett, Kane Brown and Lady A so he knows how to tread the line between pop and country. Ingrid has found a place on country radio with her Sam Hunt collaboration Wishful Drinking, which is basically a rewrite of Meant To Be. That song is tacked on to the end of the album, which is made up of 12 pop songs which Nashville is selling as country music.
Priscilla Block’s main collaborator Steph Jones co-wrote the title track, which opens the album. We hear Ingrid harmonising with herself in a manner that has been all over LA and NYC pop for the last few years. ‘I pray for the ones that I love every night’ lays bare a narrator who is struggling with morality, much the same as Cody Johnson was on the title track of his album Human. Lose the harmoniser and add some pedal steel and this is country music.
Other songs can soundtrack people in love, as pop music has done for decades. ‘I love that we forgive but hate that we forget’ is a good lyric on Talk, where the harmoniser returns. How Honest Do You Want Me To Be (yep, the harmoniser is here too) begins with Ingrid singing about ‘drinking too much’ and threatening to say how she really feels. Falling For You looks to the future, hoping that love doesn’t fade like colours on a t-shirt, while All The Love is anchored by a pretty melody and another acoustic guitar loop.
Shane McAnally was in the room for two songs, one of which may well be the song of the year. Yearbook, which I’m led to believe is about Ingrid’s parents, flips the familiar motif outlined in songs like Luke Combs’ Refrigerator Door or Pictures by Lady A to tell the tale of a couple who are still together despite only being ‘on the same page’ back when they were teenagers. It’s a proper country song that only Nashville writers’ rooms (and, indeed, the superlative Shane McAnally) can tell.
Blue is the other McAnally co-write, packed full of imagery that riff on the titular colour. Ingrid adds some light keyboard to the track, which she will surely dedicate to blue-eyed crowd members. Shane’s fellow A-Lister Jesse Frasure was there for the smart Seeing Someone Else (‘you’re seeing who I used to be’), one of those pop-country tunes driven by an acoustic guitar part and a snarling narrator who unfurls her story in a hurry. In fact, it sounds like a Julia Michaels song, which is handy as the pop writer was with Ingrid and Sam for Feel Like This, a pure, unabashed love song with a lyric that skips in part. It would work on pop radio.
Liz Rose helped Ingrid tell the story of No Choice, a grown-up torch song about falling out of love. ‘A ship without an anchor’s gonna float away’ is another great lyric, and the narrator is full of self-doubt. The twist in the chorus – ‘I left you because you left me no choice’ – is pure Nashville, while the dusting of staccato strings is very LA. As for the character in the vocal and her sigh before the final chorus, it’s Broadway.
Is it country music? It is if Ingrid says it is. Lady A tread the same line and it makes sense that Laura Veltz, who wrote the pair of Lady A tunes What I’m Leaving For and What If I Never Get Over You with Sam, was drafted in for the triple-time tune Pain, which includes some keening pedal steel to underscore a great lyric and vocal, as Ingrid drags some syllables out for multiple beats.
On Things That Haven’t Happened Yet, Ingrid mentions her age. It’s 29, the same age Carly Pearce was on her recent album. It’s boring to compare female acts but it is an obvious comparison to note that Carly is going down the country-pop path while Ingrid is doing pop-country, if you see what I mean. There is room for both kinds of music in Nashville, and Keith Urban fans will be warmed up with a set from Ingrid before their guitar hero wanders on to play his rocking country music.
Country-adjacent, we should call it.
Hollie Rogers – Criminal Heart
So is Hollie Rogers, one of the smart bookings at the recent British Country Music Festival, which I reviewed here.
During one of her two performances, she caught her hand and drew blood, such was her enthusiasm. She was previewing songs from this album, which is an example of British country thanks to its storytelling.
Hollie has Kezia Gill’s gift for pop melodies and a voice like that of Elles Bailey or, in places, of Tracy Chapman. British country will receive her warmly, as it welcomes more folk from Cornwall (Bailey Tomkinson is a key figure down there). Indeed The Coast Road is a gorgeous song in honour of her home county, ‘not a care, not a thought, just the view’. There’s also a version where she sings the chorus in Cornish which is worth tracking down.
The title track is a brilliant way to begin the album, with its immaculate pop chorus and a fine vocal. At TBCMF, Hollie also performed the funky blues number Strange, which eventually made the point that her husband loves her a lot. She played the tracks Love and Sinner as well, the former counselling that ‘love ain’t always ribbons and gold’ and the latter a lightly jazzy tune of a femme fatale.
Bring Me Some Peace and Girl on a Mission are the type of Adult Contemporary country song that Gary Quinn writes: on the former, therapy and reminiscin’ are high on Hollie’s agenda but ‘still I’m incomplete’; the latter has a string section to underscore a lyric full of determination and heart (‘I believe in us’). One Last Time can also be bracketed in the AC Country genre, with the arrangement matching a lyric which mentions ‘putting out the fire’ and a plaintive plea: ‘Don’t turn me down or fade me out’.
Youth is the album’s seven-minute centrepiece, full of open-throated vocals and a message to seize the day. The final two minutes are full of vocalisations and guitar wigouts, and it ends the album’s first side in a very anthemic manner. Guest vocalist Jamie Lawson appears on the melancholic track Love and Distance, which kicks off the second side.
The Man You Had To Be, assisted by a resonant cello part, and her tribute to London called City of Colour both show Hollie to be a fine songwriter who is respected within the music industry. She needs commercial success as well, whether as a UK country act or as a singer/songwriter whose music crosses any boundary.
Andrew Combs played the main stage at C2C back in 2016 and was in the UK for a week of UK dates including The Long Road and The Grace in Islington. He was promoting his fifth album and cherrypicking songs from his other four, two of which came out in 2019. He announced Sundays with a frank message on his Facebook page which began: ‘Chaos is the norm these days. But what comes from chaos?’
Now signed to Loose Music but essentially an independent musician, every review of Sundays is thus clouded by a revelation that he had a nervous breakdown, brought on by anxiety and depression, last year. The opening track is called (God)less, which sets the downbeat mood of the album.
Andrew has chosen to have a snare hit running through every track on the album, with no cymbal crashes or frills, so that people can focus on the melodies and words. That’s not to say the arrangements aren’t without merit. A saxophone parps halfway through the gentle Mark of the Man, one of the tracks on which Andrew’s voice soars into the upper register. The brass comes back on Down Among The Dead and there is a cathartic guitar solo on Drivel to a Dream.
Still Water (‘you see what you want to see’) has a triangle or cymbal twinkling in harmony with a lo-fi arrangement of bass and snare drum. If Andrew turned up the guitar this could be a power-pop number, but he has been deliberate in setting the lyric to a quiet piece of music.
Adeline, with its sweet yet forlorn chorus, is gorgeous. Truth and Love sounds like a mid-period Radiohead track, with a liquid guitar line and Andrew’s lyric mentioning shady places and being ‘tarred and feathered’. Closing track Shall We Go is a cappella besides a droned harmonium sound.
This is an album that will grow in stature every time you listen, and it demands active rather than passive listening. It is completely out of time with the current moment, which makes it all the more stark. Good on Loose Music for backing Andrew to do his own thing in his own way. From chaos comes order, it seems, or a semblance of it.
Steve Moakler – Make A Little Room
On the other hand, Steve Moakler has no such qualms. A staff writer for Creative Nation, which was set up his fellow songwriter Luke Laird, Steve wrote Riser for Dierks Bentley and Angel Singin’ for Reba. He knows the system and wants no part of it when it comes to putting his own music out there. Thomas Rhett gifted him the song Suitcase, which was the first thing I heard of Steve’s way back in the mid-2010s and which came from an impressive album Steel Town.
Since then he has released three more albums, the most recent coming in August 2022. Make A Little Room is full of songs written during the past two years where he enjoyed more time than he had planned with his newborn son (and there’s a second on the way). Steve takes his music directly to fans when he goes on road trips, getting to know the people who connect with his tunes.
Dan Wharton has already called it ‘the best album by some distance’ which he has heard this year, so who am I to doubt Dan’s excellent opinion? For a start it’s 33 minutes long so it can’t outstay its welcome. As with many staff songwriters, especially Ryan Hurd whose voice hits the same timbre as Steve’s, the voice serves the song and doesn’t burden it with curlicues or melisma.
The title track opens the album, with a computerised track underscoring a carpe diem lyric full of imagery and character. ‘Turn the TV off!’ Steve suggests, ‘put a little more space between livin’ and dyin’. You Being You is a sweet song to his son: ‘Life’s a wild ride…Chase all of your dreams’ is his advice, and dad’s voice threatens to crack in the final chorus.
Pack It Up takes the theme of moving house (well done to Steve for getting ‘dust bunnies’ into the lyric) and extends it to kids running around the yard. Tennessee Girl is a fine love song with plenty of cities and songtitles namechecked, while Steve puts his life in a song on Northerner (‘chasing Southern song’). The title is a very good word to sing because Steve can hold the first syllable over several notes of the bar.
Steve is helped by some A-List buddies. Barry Dean and the aforementioned Luke Laird were in the (zoom) room for Let’s Go to the Lake, which begins with the line ‘everybody’s got their poison’. Steve’s is to get in touch with nature and ‘drift away’. Autumn Came Back, a song about the end of a summer love, features vocals and piano from its co-writer Lucie Silvas. The melody is tremendous and I hope the song finds an audience. Drummer Neil Mason from The Cadillac Three co-wrote Start A Band, an ode to the road; you can tell Neil is a drummer because there’s a stomp on every crotchet.
Better Days is a lovely tune with a deceptively bleak lyric that taps into the current era: ‘Been losing ground but we can’t lose faith’ is almost a protest lyric. Closing track Numbered has an end credits feel and lists things you can count: candles, beer, the time it takes between seeing lightning and hearing thunder. As with Andrew Combs’ record, this is an album to dip yourself into, which comes from the pen of a seasoned writer/performer.
Still principally known for hits on the country charts 20 years ago like the GRAMMY-nominated Wave on Wave, Pat Green is now a staunchly independent Texan act who can afford, as here, to take seven years between albums while selling out shows across the state. He turned 50 earlier this year, which puts him in the same age bracket as Keith Urban and Kenny Chesney. His voice comes off more as Lee Brice or Randy Houser, or even Cody Johnson to make it more Texas-specific.
I actually leaned back in my chair in comfort when the opening guitar chords of I’m Going Home emerged. In a thick Texan accent and with some magical diminished chords, Pat sings of trainwrecks, horizons and ‘the day that saves me’. The arrangement is euphoric with a thonking great backbeat anchoring the song.
The title track is more reflective, with ‘endless fields of green’ and rivers setting the scene as Pat drives. It might well be a song in memoriam to somebody close to Pat, or a hometown, but it’s vague enough to stand for anything. Glen Campbell sets Pat reminiscin’ on the album’s closing track Echo, a track which also mixes nature and human contact.
Pat celebrated his half-century this spring and April 5th (his birthday) is full of reminiscences and honky-tonk piano. The gang vocals are great too. Bad Bones (‘hurricane is coming’) is a confident love song led by a swampy guitar part which goes heavy on the wah-wah to match the organ part. I can imagine this running to several minutes in the live sphere and the song fades out tantalisingly! Pat would not have been allowed to do this in 2004, and is all the better for doing so today.
Some of this album has the feel of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, thanks to major-key arrangements and pensive lyrics. If I Don’t Have a Honky Tonk (‘my soul’s been saved!!’) is the current single at Texas radio. It will go down well live when Pat plays such establishments. Build You A Bar sounds like a hit, with a brilliant melody and a lyric that fills in the bar as the verses go along. Abby Anderson, another act who has had her brush with Music City, joins Pat on the singalong All In This Together, where Pat sings of the ‘ecstasy of agony…when the pain is more you can take, that’s when you know you’re alive’. It’ll help plenty of listeners get through trouble in their lives.
This Old Hat takes the familiar motif of describing an object (ekphrasis is the term) to spark off memories and wisdom about life. Steady, a love song which begins ‘her daddy never liked me much’, is another proper songwriter’s tune that would suit any guitar pull. There is fiddle running through the song too.
The risk is that an album like this, which is magnificent, will not find an audience because it lacks a push from the sort of marketing team who helped Pat’s label make money off him in the post-Garth era. As country music remembers that period of history, it should make room for Pat Green. Not that Pat cares if people remember him or not, because he’s got his loyal audience who will go wild for one of the best Red Dirt records of the decade so far.
Bri Bagwell – Corazon y Cabeza
Some radio shows, such as the one on Arc Radio at 4pm on Sundays (repeated 9pm Tuesdays), try to serve up a mix of acts from Texas and Oklahoma. Bri Bagwell is one of those names which always pops up on radio playlists; her new song Trenches kicks off an album with a Spanish title meaning ‘Heart and Head’. It should be noted that a woman called Rachel Loy is the producer of this album.
Hello Highway (‘I wonder why I wander’) is one of those troubadour songs that is natural for someone growing up in Texas to write. Cowboy Cold sounds lush thanks to a fine pedal steel running through the song. Free Man chugs along prettily and Bri adds some verses that a poorer critic than I would call sassy or confident. Texan is a better word, and Bri works in the tradition of her forebears, particularly the peerless Miranda Lambert.
Josefina, about a barmaid and her helicoptering husband, begins with a few bars of Mexican guitar to set the mood. Songs like this are definitely written on Music Row but they’re relegated to album tracks. The Dust (‘wherever we go, vaya conmigo’) is a marvellous waltz that they can only really do in Texas where Latin and American go hand in hand through the sort of windstorms mentioned in the chorus and mimicked by the pedal steel.
Til I Can Let You Go is sung to a wine glass (‘I need you to help me not to think’) and reminds me of Mickey Guyton, whose voice Bri matches here. Mickey could also have written Sarah, a song which hooks the listener from the first line (‘he puts you through hell’). It turns out Bri has experienced the same sort of mistreatment from a guy and tells Sarah that she (and indeed every woman listening) deserves a man who treats her well.
Table Manners, with bass and drums dominant, has the album’s most triumphant chorus, while Happy New Year has a request for rent buried in the second verse. The pedal steel solo smartly interpolates Auld Lang Syne but is at odds with the self-critical lyric.
The album ends with a ballad. Old Together sounds like a stream of consciousness, as if Bri is spilling her soul to her beloved ‘in case we don’t grow old together’. Again the pedal steel works its magic and Bri’s Texas Regional Radio Music Award-winning voice, which I don’t think I’ve praised enough, is clear and high in the mix.
Bri had the 2020 TRRMA Single of the Year and may well win it next year with any of these 11 superlative tunes. A sixth Vocalist of the Year award is more or less guaranteed. Let’s hope more people outside Texas can hear her fifth album and she becomes an international star as well as a star of the Red Dirt firmament.
There is a certain class of country music critic that looks to be appalled, who hunts for offence. When the CMA Award nominations came out this week, it was a surprise to many that Kane Brown was not among the nominees. This was obviously, beyond any doubt, evidence of how the CMA was, in the words of one activist, ‘founded on white supremacy’. Apparently you are a ‘sealion’ if you ask for evidence of this, though I have been told that the CMA are not anti-racist enough.
Those critics, many of whom have come across from other fields of cultural journalism, have an agenda: they want country music to adapt to the new puritanical era, and they feel terribly smug when the CMA, say, give a bauble to a black man or a woman or a gay woman or a trans disabled non-binary person. That is how progress is made: through award shows.
Kane Brown would, I am sure, love to add some awards to his mantelpiece, but he’d much rather sell out stadia, write great songs and fulfil his early promise when he was uploading cover videos of neo-traditional songs onto Youtube. He has navigated commercial country music expertly: indeed, side one track one of his debut album was written by Florida Georgia Line and had him boast of wanting to ‘make my hometown proud’ while shouting out ‘North-West Georgia’.
This is a country boy who has made radio-friendly pop songs like Good As You, Heaven and the Lauren Alaina duet What Ifs (the pair were at school together). His song Short Skirt Weather was an attempt to update Achy Breaky Heart that deserved to be a bigger smash.
As with Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini, Kane has been pushed to a pop audience thanks to his vocal on One Thing Right, one of those streaming-friendly tracks by Marshmello that blends into the background. He’s also become a father and a record label owner, guiding the career of trio Restless Road on his 1021 Entertainment imprint. He is booked to play Hammersmith Apollo in January, which is a big show of support from his label but which may run into the cost of living fiasco and sell fewer tickets than planned.
Kane’s third album emerges a few weeks after Luke Combs, who has announced a pair of gigs at the O2 Arena for next year, put out his third. They are both Sony recording artists whose success impacts the bottom line, which means an album like Different Man is a product as much of the boardroom as the studio. Over 17 tracks, Kane builds on his existing catalogue and ticks various boxes to appeal to folk in Louisiana and Los Angeles, as per the modern country superstar like Combs, Morgan Wallen or Thomas Rhett.
The three tracks which warmed fans up for Different Man are typical. Actually it’s four, as Kane sung on 2021’s biggest radio song Famous Friends, a Chris Young tune about hometown heroes which is absent from this album just as Mitchell Tenpenny’s Chris young duet is missing from his album.
One Mississippi is a drinking song co-written by Ernest, while Like I Love Country Music is a marketing tool. Over a four-note riff, Kane namechecks Alan Jackson, Brand New Man (Ronnie Dunn actually pops up and takes the money), Johnny and June (boring, it’s been done), being ‘high as Willie’ and ‘the radio’. Plus eight bars of fiddle in the middle, plus a pedal steel outro. Don’t tell me this wasn’t cooked up in a boardroom.
Georgia frames the album, in a manner which was probably drawn up by a man in a suit saying: ‘When people think Kane Brown they think…GEORGIA!!!’ Track one is called Bury Me In Georgia, which begins with a tolling bell, fiddle and chain gang percussion: ‘When it’s my day, put me in that clay’ is the lyric in the chorus that leaps out. Track 17 is Dear Georgia, co-written with Josh Hoge and Ernest among others and sees Kane remember where he came from over an achingly contemporary pop-country track of the sort Thomas Rhett has been singing over for a decade.
The 15 tracks in between, all commendably co-written by Kane, deal with the usual rural affairs. Ernest continues his hot streak by writing the ploddy, fiddle-featuring Go Around – which mentions ‘a what if song’ in a very meta moment – as well as the chirpy love song Nothin’ I’d Change and Drunk or Dreamin’. That song gives its title to that world tour and has a soft shuffle and acoustic guitar line to evoke a somnolent state.
Mike Posner was in the room for Grand, which is a pop song produced by LA-based Andrew Goldstein on which Kane raps about how his life is pretty good. It’s the age-old trope of Nashville acts copying what happens in LA, but don’t worry because he’s going to be buried in Georgia and he put fiddle on the track immediately before it!! The track after Grand is See You Like I Do, co-written by Devin Dawson. ‘Beverly or Sunset…with Gigi and Giselle’ reminds his audience that he is trying to get people in LA (Beverly Hills, Sunset Boulevard) to appreciate his wife Katelyn, who is part of Brand Kane Brown in the ever durable country power couple manner.
Romance is a big part of Kane’s life and that of his intended audience, who have already lapped up tunes like Homesick and Worship You. There are three more here: Thank God, which features Katelyn’s fluttering pop vocals, is perfect for a TikTok clip or Instagram feed; Losing You and Leave You Alone are sung excellently with a commercial sheen provided by Dann Huff’s production, and very on-brand. Like a ‘red wine stain’, Kane won’t vanish.
Blake Shelton pops up on the title track, where Kane’s vocal is excellent as he considers and denies alternative things to do than sing and perform (and help those Sony suits make a lot of money). The great Adam Craig gets a nice paycheck for co-writing the breakup ballad Whiskey Sour, which begins with ten seconds of fiddle, while Kane’s voice dips low for the fun tune about a femme fatale, Devil Don’t Even Bother. Pop’s Last Name is your typical ‘I miss daddy’ song that was probably brainstormed in that meeting room.
I know I’ve wasted 1000 words here to convince readers that this is a typical Nashville record. Like Thomas Rhett and Luke Bryan before him, Kane Brown will succeed because he’s a good old country boy who can also do pop music. There’s money behind him, the brand is strong and it’s the right time for Nashville to push through a new non-white star who isn’t called Darius (with apologies to Jimmie Allen).
There’s a formula in Music City. It works. Just ask those Sony boardroom members lounging in their beach houses.
JT’s day job is as a key part of Midland’s live band but he is a songwriter of some repute. I caught him performing to an inattentive room in South London a few years ago where he played rich, warm acoustic tunes with a Red Dirt feel, and I saw him at The Long Road doing much the same but with added covers versions and cowboy poetry. The audience was much more appreciative.
This six-song EP opens with the chugging story of Samantha, a simple country lady getting by selling things on the roadside. It’s one of two songs written with Jess from Midland, the other being Texas, which has a suitably Red Dirt feel where you can hear the neon signs on the highway crackle and hiss. There’s a lot of Willie Nelson in his vocal too.
JT sings the rocking I Know with gusto from the back of his throat, much like Will Hoge or BJ Barham from American Aquarium. He continues the heartland rock feel on Paint By Lightning, which is really warm and tender thanks to an arrangement flecked with pedal steel and a harmonica solo in the middle of it.
Place Out Back lopes hither and yon, with some cowbell grounding a tune, while Better For You contains some lush minor chords and the same rhythm that drives Gentle On My Mind. This is skilful songwriting from a man who deserves more commercial success.
Drake Milligan – Dallas/Fort Worth
In an ideal world, a singer as talented as Drake Milligan shouldn’t have to go on to a Simon Cowell talent show to get his face out there, but such is the music industry in the current era and he duly reached the Top 11. He was thus in with a chance of winning $1m in prize money and a slot in Las Vegas, which is the American version of the Royal Variety Performance.
If Drake had won, would the money just have gone to the label so he could pay back his advance? Two hours after the final was aired, Dallas/Fort Worth came out, which makes it seem like Stoney Creek planned this to happen. Nonetheless it emerges with plaudits from America’s Got Talent judges Sofia Vergara and Heidi Klum, which means Drake will be asked about them rather than, say, George Strait as he tries to promote this album.
Those who have heard his debut EP from last year will know Drake is operating in the Red Dirt tradition of fine songs that can soundtrack merriment in honkytonks across Texas. His producer Tony Brown also sculpted the sounds of King George and Queen Reba – incidentally, why does Reba not get the sort of royal moniker that George Strait does? – and knows how to do the same with Drake. Smartly, to take account of DFW’s twin city attitude, Drake has split the album into two sides: a more contemporary Dallas side and a Western swing style Fort Worth side.
The Dallas septet includes Kiss Goodbye All Night, where Drake matches Randy Rogers or Josh Abbott, and the love song She. There’s also a Liz Rose co-write called Hearts Don’t Break Even (‘one’s moved on and one’s left alone’), which has a truly magnificent arrangement that reminds me of The Mavericks, and a Terry McBride co-write Sounds Like Something I Do, which Drake performed on the AGT final. The Youtube video used the caption ‘the new Elvis of country music’, a name bestowed on him by judge Howie Mandel, which is apt because Drake played him on a CMT show a few years ago.
Hating Everything She Tries On is silky and seductive, as you can tell by the smooth arrangement and a lyric seemingly about Drake wanting his beloved to be naked. Bad Day To Be A Beer is a fine example of Seinfeld Country on which Drake sings of having ‘a bunch of nothing planned’, just as the TV sitcom (which aired on NBC, the same network that broadcasts AGT) is famously about nothing.
The waltz Dance of a Lifetime begins: ‘If love was a melody, I’d want you to sing to me’ and continues in a wedding dance fashion. There will always be a market for love songs crooned by Texans, which is why George Strait is spending his retirement on the riverbank and not the retirement village performance circuit.
The Fort Worth tracks include two more carried over from the EP: the fiddle-tastic Over Drinkin’ Under Thinkin’ and Don’t Look Down, a slow dance which includes the lyric, Just keep your eyes on me…We’re getting one two-step closer’. Save It For A Sunny Day is a song about making the most of the rain, which is perfect reminiscin’ weather, and it’s a neat twist on a very old formula.
There are two more songs written with McBride: Tipping Point (which is a brilliant title and should have been the name of the album) is a two-minute honky-tonker, while the album’s closing track Cowboy Kind of Way is so romantic and widescreen that you can hear the dust being kicked up. There is also a sort of ‘end credits’ instrumental passage for the final minute and the band deserves equal billing for their contributions. This is as much a band album as a vehicle for Drake Milligan.
Long Haul, written with the legendary Bob DiPiero, will get boots a-scootin’ and mouths racing to catch up with some rapid-fire lyrics, and Goin’ Down Swingin’ is a faithful Western Swing track which namechecks Bob Wills and George Strait’s Ace in the Hole band. There’s plenty of fiddle and the Bob Wills-type ‘ahhh’ holler, but it never sounds like a period piece because this sort of thing never goes out of style, as Asleep at the Wheel can attest.
If Drake can parlay his TV success into the sort that helped the careers of Carrie, Scotty, Lauren, Cassadee, Danielle, Sundance Head and so many more, then he can certainly have a few hits. He’s guaranteed a good year of publicity but he’ll hope to be more than just a cherub who made Simon Cowell some money. It has certainly fast-tracked him to Billy Bob’s, where he can pop his handprints in the wall besides those of his Western Swing heroes.
When musicians half your age are releasing music, you start to realise the time of life you are in. In every review of this EP, brother and sister Juna and Joey will have their ages (17 and 19) mentioned, much as Zac from Hanson was ten (TEN!!) when Mmmbop came out. Country music is about truth, so this is teenage truth from the pair of them.
In 2021 I caught them when they toured the UK. They played short sets at the British Country Music Festival (BCMF) and at Omeara supporting Twinnie, where they threw in a cover of Watermelon Sugar. They also played their then-current single Something Good To Miss, which kicks off this EP. ‘Goodbyes get in the way,’ they sing, harmonising wonderfully over a poppy track.
There are two versions of the torch ballad Til Your Heart Breaks. ‘Suddenly every memory is burned in my mind’ is Joey’s opening line, as he and Juna mourn the passing of love. More Than A Maybe is a lovely meet-cute where Joey asks his belle-to-be if she’ll be ‘at the party tonight’. Conversely, I’m So Over You sees Juna flutter her way through a kiss-off, ‘not playing these games with ya’. How innocent young love is, and Juna N Joey are fine narrators.
Celine Ellis – Unravelled EP
A North Walian who makes ‘country music with attitude’, Celine Ellis played early on Saturday afternoon in Blackpool as part of the aforementioned BCMF.
The two singles from the EP, which came out in March, are both excellent and show both sides of Celine’s musical personality. Without Me is a ruminative ballad where Celine’s narrator ‘can still hear’ her former partner as she grabs her things and moves on with her life. Getaway Car is one of those driving songs with big guitar chords and lyrics about forks in the road.
‘Set fire to my heart!’ she cries on the gutsy opening track Gasoline & Matches, which is driven by a two-chord loop. Where Do You Go possesses a fine chorus with some open-throated vowel sounds that suit its uptempo instrumentation, while the softer Shadow of the Moon is full of imagery and sense impressions, as befits its title.
Valerie June – Under Cover
We know the Tennessee-born Valerie – whose father promoted acts including Bobby Womack – by her keening high voice and recognisable silhouette, but mostly because she writes fine songs. This project brings eight cover versions of some quite excellent singer/songwriters from days gone by.
Bob Dylan recorded Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You for his Nashville Skyline album on which Charlie Daniels (yep, that one) was a session musician. As often happens with Dylan, a great vocalist elevates the lyric beyond the initial version. Valerie also interprets Pink Moon by Nick Drake and Into My Arms by Nick Cave, the one which begins with a refusal to believe ‘in an interventionist God’.
Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings’ Look At Miss Ohio, which has also been covered by Miranda Lambert, is given a fine reading, as is the little-known John Lennon song where he imagines people living in peace. She turns that song into a band arrangement driven by a drum shuffle and plenty of echo on her double-tracked vocal, not dissimilar to the Mazzy Star anthem Fade Into You which she also covers.
Godspeed is a love song originally written by Frank Ocean and reinterpreted by James Blake, making Valerie’s understated version a cover of a cover (cover-squared). Joe South won Song of the Year at the GRAMMYs for Games People Play, beating two Bacharach & David compositions. His gospel-tinged tune Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home (‘we’re all God’s children’) was never a UK hit but deserves to be discovered as part of this fine set of cover versions produced by Valerie and released via her own June Tunes imprint.
It does look likely that Jon Pardi will tour his fourth album around Europe. He has spent a decade hoicking himself across America with his good-time country music, playing songs about boots written by A-Listers like Rhett Akins. His last album Heartache Medication contained plenty of fiddle from Jenee Fleenor and a voice that would fit well in a playlist alongside both Nashville acts like Luke Combs and Texan acts like Parker McCollum and Cody Johnson.
Pardi, from California, has played it perfectly. While various boys from Florida, Georgia and Tennessee were hopping on the hiphop trend, Pardi kept things traditional from the cowboy hat to the Mariachi horns on the lost classic Tequila Little Time. There is of course space for everything in the church of country music, but Pardi respects what his forebears have done. He also knows his rock, as he showed with an extraordinary cover of the Tom Petty song The Waiting which was one of eight tracks on a covers EP which also featured tunes by George Strait, Merle Haggard and Prince (Nothing Compares 2 U).
Mr Saturday Night emerges in the Combs/Wallen Era and Capitol Nashville are putting money behind their guy. The title track, which also begins the album, shows how confident Jon is in his writing, punning on ‘mister/missed her’ and putting tears in his beer from the first minute. He then asks for some beer on Fill Er Up, so he can ‘cut loose’. He is joined by what must be Paul Franklin’s pedal steel on a honky-tonker of the sort Travis Tritt and Ronnie Dunn sung in 1995.
The two radio hits have been expertly chosen. Last Night Lonely had three chords and a feelgood lyric, just like his song Night Shift, while the Midland collaboration Longneck Way To Go (co-written with Rhett Akins!) fulfilled the promise of its title and is a perfect way to kick off the album’s second side. It also begins with the chorus.
Pardi has a habit of doing this. He does it on both Fill Er Up and New Place To Drink too. The latter tune was one of four on the album written with the great Luke Laird. The others are: Workin’ on a New One, a song about hangovers which is built on one of Luke’s famous loops; reminiscin’ song Santa Cruz, which was written in 2018 and has finally seen the light of day; and the carefree Smokin’ A Doobie, co-written with Rhett Akins, who must have been responsible for introducing cypress trees into the second verse and ‘some Hill Country healing’. This will sound lovely alongside Tequila Little Time when Pardi comes over to the UK, perhaps as soon as March if he can make the calendar work.
As is typical on a major-label release, Pardi has picked plenty of tunes written by the best in town off the shelf, such as Last Night Lonely. Paul DiGiovanni, who produces the music of Dan + Shay and Jordan Davis, wrote Neon Light Speed which sounds just like the slow dances it will surely soundtrack. Naturally, ‘Brooks & Dunn are on the ‘box’ and there are ‘disco ball stars’ lighting up the juke joint. It’s a winner. The funky next single Your Heart or Mine and The Day I Stop Dancin’, a forever love song with the line ‘when Texas runs outta Strait’, were co-written by his producer Bart Butler, who deserves credit for getting the Pardi Sound right. He is the Dean Dillon to Pardi’s King George, the Buddy Cannon to Pardi’s Willie.
Jameson Rodgers was in the room for Hung The Moon, on which the ‘long lost desperado’ sings of how he’s an outlaw who met an angel who has no idea of his redneck ‘reckless’ past. Morgan Wallen could have sold this one too, but Pardi adds some Fleenor fiddle. Michael Tyler is one of three writers behind Raincheck, another ‘tear in beer’ tune on which the protagonist wants a ‘raincheck on moving on’, which is a Nashville writers’ room way of saying ‘can we still be friends?’
The final track on the album is, rather brilliantly, called Reverse Cowgirl. It’s obviously not about that, because it’s a song on a mainstream country release. Listen out for backing vocals from one of the town’s secret weapons, Sarah Buxton. I can just imagine Pardi’s face when he saw that title in his inbox, then his delight at hearing the heartbreak narrative where the narrator wants his former beloved to ‘put that thing in reverse, cowgirl’. Again, Nashville is a city where you say familiar things in novel ways with guys in cowboy hats selling the sizzle.
There’s plenty of sizzle in this album. We’ll go wild for him if – or, rather, when – he finally makes it over to London.
Johnny Vegas was indisposed on Friday night so the famous Illuminations (how much would it cost this year to keep them lit?!) were turned on by the mighty Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. At the Winter Gardens, Amy Wadge performed two massive copyrights, Thinking Out Loud and Space Man, for the amusement of country music fans.
Amy, a long-term resident of Nashville, was a superlative booking for the third iteration of the British Country Music Festival, which this year put a premium on that first word. If country music is about storytelling, regardless of whether you slap a banjo, fiddle, processed beat or lap steel underneath the story, then all are welcome.
The festival takes place in three areas of the Winter Gardens complex. There’s the Empress Ballroom, lit up with candles and happy faces. There’s the room next door, or the Arena, and thirdly there’s the Horseshoe Pavilion, just past the merchandise stalls. There are plenty of new discoveries to be made among the big acts on the bill, which on Saturday included Tom Odell and Lucy Spraggan, and Wayne Hadlow was there as always to sell you a pair of fine boots.
The line-up was terrifically eclectic, which would make a good strapline for the festival. (Hi to M&M if you’re reading this! I hope you slept well on the Monday!!). Hollie Rogers, from down in Cornwall, was previewing her crowdfunded album Criminal Heart, out on September 9. It will include a song written with Jamie Lawson called Love & Distance. Hollie’s trained voice served the songs excellently, and she was so lost in the moment that she clipped her hand, drew blood and left a mark on the guitar. She bled for us, though we were impressed enough with her voice and songs.
Another fine discovery were Motel Sundown, three songwriters from Liverpool who have a great grasp of the popular song, as can be heard on their marvellous debut album If You Were Listening. There’s a lot of First Aid Kit in the harmonies and arrangements, especially the singles One More for the Road and Perfect Eyes, as I am sure they are told after every performance. Their Facebook page has a track-by-track guide to the album and lays bare their influences, which include The La’s, Fleetwood Mac, The Band and, yep, First Aid Kit. Their cover of Peaceful Easy Feeling by Eagles was a fine way to end their set in the Arena, where they hopped to after playing two original compositions in a Songwriters Carousel which took a while to set up.
Poppy Fardell, in big knee-high white boots, led a chorus of Country Roads, Take Me Home to alleviate the technical hitches. She told MC Laura Oakes to play that ‘Blue Jeans and a Suit’ song and delivered her own fun pair of tunes, Double Denim and Beer Budget. Happily Poppy remembered the words to the former in her own set; her new single Good Girl comes out on September 16.
It is a mark of a fine programme that you can go from Poppy’s folky-pop to the blues-rock of True Strays, who were promoting their recent album Heart of the Matter, which follows their superb 2019 EP Homeward Bound. They’ve recently been to Norway and Sweden, so Blackpool is a perfect next stop. They also head to Nash Nights on September 16.
The Bristolian duo prove beyond doubt that there is something in the River Avon, what with Elles Bailey, Yola and Lady Nade high up the UK Country Top 40 Chart this season. Much as acts like Eddy Smith and the 507 and their fellow duo Foreign Affairs mix rock, blues and gospel, so True Strays are the complete package. Their chemistry comes from their lifelong friendship and they have a whale of a time onstage (and off – I caught the bemulleted James singing Wherever You Will Go by The Calling in an unguarded moment).
Singalongs like God Damn My Soul and Let Your Heart Lead The Way are properly arranged, and both James and Joe can sing and play. They were assisted by a fine organ player who added depth to the sound, which filled the Arena. ‘Blame the immigrant, not the CEO,’ they sing bitterly on Golden Age, unafraid to take the political view, while the character described on Rosalea keeps a bottle by his side. Both Baylen at Long Road and Gary at Buckle & Boots would be fools not to book True Strays next year, though perhaps they would warn James off crowdsurfing with a double bass, as he did in a previous festival appearance.
Siblings and Partnerships
We already have Ward Thomas and Wildwood Kin proving sisters can do it for themselves, and Robinson-Stone also fit in that nook. Made up of three siblings (Danny, Leyna and Dean), they play Celtic-tinged folk which would fall under UK Country. I am sure they are fed up of comparisons to The Carpenters, but on record their arrangements are pretty, especially Runaway Overload (good title, even better harmonies). I also heard hints of Sting’s more folky stuff on Heaven and Hell.
Likewise, partnerships like Gasoline & Matches, Two Ways Home, O&O, Ferris & Sylvester and Tennessee Twin make music together and there are two married pairs at TBCMF. Our Atlantic Roots have set up their marital home in Cornwall, although neither Laura nor Mac are from there, instead travelling from South Yorkshire and North Carolina respectively. ‘This is the furthest North we’ve been in two years!’ Laura admitted, while Mac talked about panic attacks during the pandemic which inspired a hymn to nature called Take Time.
They were plugging their forthcoming EP, which will contain the tender song Golden Hour. There is a reason their song Carry On, about keeping on and being strong, is approaching a million Spotify streams, a nice little earner which will help them, ironically, carry on when they feel glum about the whole music thing. Their vocal blend reminded me of Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott, while the crowd became a choir on Wildflower in one of the weekend’s most glorious moments.
Another married pair followed immediately after OAR. Beth and Sam Goudie play as The Goudies, and each plucks a guitar as they sing folk songs with their voices in fine harmonic intervals. They played Nashville Meets London in April and took themselves up to Blackpool to charm the afternoon crowd. They eschewed their version of It’s Not Unusual and instead took inspiration from Carlton in their cover of the theme from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Their own pandemic song When This Is Over (‘let’s carry so much less’) was gorgeous, and they have made the right decision to amalgamate their material.
Kez, Tom and Lucy
After her Ballroom full band set last year, brochure cover star Kezia Gill packed out the Pavilion, delighted that she didn’t have to pitch a tent or play outdoors. She is gearing up for her first headline tour and finished festival season with aplomb. With The Shires on an enforced break while Crissie has twins – in fact, Ben is sensibly going it alone and has a gig during Country Music Week in October – Kezia should become the face of UK Country music, which means she and husband Lloyd will become Lord and Lady of the genre.
Kez’s pseudo opening acts deserve plaudits for warming the crowd up. Celine Ellis debuted a song imagining an unhappy event with the motif ‘rolling the window down’. Otherwise she kept the mood happy with tunes like Leave The Light On, Getaway Car and Fallen Angel, as befits her MO to play country music with attitude. Louise Parker followed and proved herself an adept performer, acting out the lyrics as she played new single Bring It On (Set Me Free) and ran her own Tequila Sunset into an old tune about Human Nature. Operating a harmoniser pedal with her feet, she had command of her material and the audience, even letting slip the name of a future single.
The Wandering Hearts started the main stage party with the same set they played at Nashville Meets London, complete with the fiery concluding pair of Devil and Fire & Water. Laura Evans, previously very good at Buckle & Boots, headlined with songs from her album State of Mind. In between came Tom Odell (more on whom shortly) and Lucy Spraggan, who may well have been booked because her last album Choices is all about getting sober and dealing with divorce. These are topics are as country as the day is long. Lucy also has plenty of tales to go alongside her tunes, such as Blues Song, which is about a guy who told her she didn’t sing blues when Lucy played a gig in a blues bar, and Tea & Toast, about an elderly couple she met while busking.
It has been a decade since she popped up on The X Factor as a teenager with a ditty about alcohol called Last Night (Beer Fear), which made an appearance during the set. After opening with recent tune Run, Lucy was keen to get the crowd’s voices going and to reward them with old favourites like Lighthouse. Incredibly, she gave a reading of I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) as an X Factor-type song, but she did well to work out that the Proclaimers have written one of UK Country’s finest songs. (Are the Reids a potential booking for 2023? I’ll leave the programme to the Blores.)
Lucy worked with The Dunwells on the record, a secret weapon who brought out her poppier side and who have already been confirmed as performers in 2023, along with Shea Rafferty and Sam Turner. The former puts out his album Making History on Friday, and Tim Prottey-Jones has a hand in it.
Playing a grand piano and with a chap accompanying him on various types of guitar including pedal steel, Tom Odell played a set which in recent months has graced Webster Hall in New York and Lincoln Hall in DC. To be stood 20 feet away from him for his hour-long set of ballads and singalongs was breathtaking, even though most people were waiting to hear Another Love. A cover of Piano Man was well received but it was annoying to hear one punter call him ‘pretentious’. If that’s what wearing your heart over your sleeve is, those punters can leave it.
These interlopers from pop were examples of how ‘more music styles merge’, according to festival honchos Martin and Marina Blore, who knew the audience would have fun ‘embracing this blurring of borders’. It reminded me of the year when Zac Brown Band did a version of Bohemian Rhapsody, simply because they could, and lots of people walked out muttering ‘that ain’t country’. Genre is a marketing tool anyway, and Blackpool is one place, alongside Whitebottom Farm which hosts Buckle & Boots, that welcomes all genres so long as there’s a story to tell.
Sunday in the Ballroom
As in past years, Sunday was held entirely in the ballroom, starting with another Carousel of songwriters. Steve Marks of Gasoline & Matches said the Empress Ballroom was, in his three decades of guitar-playing, ‘the most beautiful room I’ve ever played in’. He and Sally Rae boldly played their drinking game in song Never Have I Ever at noon, along with the ballad Tequila’s A Healer and a new song called Glory Hunter about bandwagon-jumping. Laura Oakes rose to the occasion with her Beth Nielsen Chapman co-write Learning To Be Lonely Again, telling the story of her grandpa always locking the door of his home. She also, sensibly, requested tea rather than beer.
Due to timing issues, Henry Priestman only played two songs during the round, including the witty Old, based on the realisation that he has reached the age his dad thought wasn’t young any more. A songwriter of some repute, Henry was born in Hull and was part of the Christians. Laura referred to him as an ‘honorary Scouser’ and he also, handily for the organisers of the BCMF, went to Nashville with Amy Wadge (the biography on his website is worth reading). His album The Chronicles of Modern Life is a good way into his catalogue. I love the ‘Indians/ minions/ opinions’ rhyme on Don’t You Love Me No More, as well as the ‘dreamer/arena’ couplet on an acerbic love song What You Doin’ With Me, which sounds like a Leonard Cohen song set to a country beat. Henry has recorded three albums as a performer and advised the crowd to follow their dreams and to ‘stick with it even though you’re crap!’
The unannounced guest was Kylie Price, a Kiwi who is now based in London. Kylie has already recorded at Abbey Road Studios and shot a video in town too. Obviously you have to be very good to get all the way from New Zealand to London, but if Kylie doesn’t break through by the end of 2023, it’s our fault. Her voice hit soprano notes, her fingers hit semiquavers on the guitar (I wonder if she brought her Gold Guitar awards with her) and her songs were fragile and arresting. She’s headlining Camden Chapel on October 6. Bigger venues await.
Robert J Hunter reminded me of Ocean Colour Scene in parts, although there was plenty of gospel, blues and rock’n’roll in there. He needn’t have apologised for the lack of the band’s organ player, as there was plenty of oomph on songs like Rushing. Sunbirds is the new project of former Beautiful South singer Dave Hemingway, which also includes songwriter and former NHS computer technician Phil Barton. Props also go to fiddle player and vocalist Laura. The band are touring their 2020 album Cool To Be Kind and Sunday afternoon provided a perfect setting for a set full of melodies and harmonies that will appeal to fans of The Magic Numbers and, obviously, Dave’s former band.
They jokingly dedicated one song to Liz Truss, noted the pedigree of the ballroom before playing the song Gene Kelly and closed their set with the Nick Lowe song Peace, Love and Understanding. There was certainly harmony in their set, and I noticed that Dave, like his old mate Paul Heaton, needs to read the lyrics off a stand. Age cannot wither him…
Having already played Country2Country and The Long Road this year, Jess Moskaluke completed a hat-trick of UK festivals with her 4pm slot. ‘After ten days I still feel jetlagged!’ Jess complained, more than once saying she missed her dogs and that she didn’t want to miss her train (which felt a bit disingenuous to a crowd who also had trains to catch).
Jess began with three rocking tunes before slowing things down with an acoustic medley of unexpected covers. These included No Scrubs, You’re Still The One, Wide Open Spaces and Teenage Dirtbag. The set highlight was her own song Take Me Home, which she wrote, and the anthemic pair of Style by Taylor Swift and Kelly Clarkson’s Since U Been Gone, where the band botched the ending and hoped nobody noticed!
Throughout the weekend, the crowd were impressed – ‘she’s good in’t she?’ said one punter of Kezia Gill – and proudly wore t-shirts boasting their support of Louise Parker, Gasoline & Matches and The Wandering Hearts. After three iterations, there are familiar faces returning year after year who are interested in discovering the thrills of country music in the UK which is (to repeat a phrase) terrifically eclectic.