Ka-Ching…With Twang – Texan Music from Jonathan Terrell and Drake Milligan

Jonathan Terrell – A Couple 2, 3… EP

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.

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