Ka-Ching…with Twang – Red Dirt Music from Flatland Cavalry and Mike Ryan

October 31, 2022

Flatland Cavalry – Songs To Keep You Warm

A mark of how far up in the world Flatland Cavalry are is the presence behind the boards of Bruce Robison, who wrote Travelin’ Soldier which the Dixie Chicks turned into a world-conquering hit (one of the last before The Event made them pariahs).

Bruce brings a traditional, warm touch to the six tunes which were recorded direct to tape. They form a stopgap EP between the album Welcome To Countryland, which took them to the UK for C2C 2022, and joining Luke Combs on his 2023 megatour. Riley Green, Lainey Wilson and Brent Cobb are also on the ball for what sounds like a top night out.

How Long and Parallel stay autumnal thanks to the warm harmonies from Kaitlin Butts and Ashley Monroe respectively. The latter sounds like a first dance at a wedding and it matches my thoughts of love exactly, ‘running in parallel’.

Mountain Song addresses the natural feature because Cleto Cordero wants to ‘take your place’. He also wants the river to cleanse his sins. Damaged Goods also has a narrator in dire straits, spotting his former belle at the farmer’s market. On If We Said Goodbye, where Cleto sings over a string section, he wonders what song accompanied a break-up which ‘left me standing in that driveway dust’.

The EP closes with Show Me Now Which Way To Go, which sounds effortless. The trick is to make all the effort invisible and Flatland, as they did on their full-length release, do it again here.

Mike Ryan – Longcut

Mike Ryan is another automatic star of Texan radio. His fourth album, his first in five years, begins with the title track. It’s instead of a shortcut, you see, and there’s a funky guitar hook that anchors a song that takes its inspiration from Take A Back Road. The moonlight shines down and the girl even has a ‘pretty little hand’ in Mike’s, making the song feel like what Nashville was putting on the radio in about 2015. Cute love songs never go out of style; I replayed this immediately.

Won’t Slow Down has massive guitars and a wretched narrator who is pursued by the memory of his former flame. On All My Songs, heartbreak is the reason every song he writes sounds like the others. Phil Vasser was in the room for the hugely melodic weepie Way It Goes, where Born To Run is on the radio and Mike’s old flame cleared off without making a fuss (no ‘foot down, finger up’ goodbye).

The great Ben Hayslip, whose biggest copyrights came right in that mid-2010s era where Luke Bryan was king, wrote Off My Thinker, a suitably philosophical stomper where our narrator drinks his pain away. Will Weatherly, a current hitmaker on Music Row, helped Mike with Can Down, a mellower version of the same song that was the album’s big single, or ‘impact track’ as it’s known today.

Brandy Clark co-wrote the number one hit Jacket On, which explains its clattering percussion, smoky arrangement and lyrical punchline: ‘I guess the Devil’s got his jacket on’. Brandy’s fellow A-Lister Hillary Lindsey put Loser on the shelf, which has a magnificent chorus to rival those Hillary has written with and for Carrie Underwood: ‘You don’t know heartbreak until it breaks for me…you’re not a loser until you lose ‘er’ is a hook perfect for a Texan country star. If Music Row is about fidelity and romance, Texan country is about tears on the red dirt (ooh that’s a good title).

Elsewhere, Die Runnin’ is an Aldeanish ballad of fidelity, and there’s a nice chug on both Get Away With Anything (which complements the compliments Mike gives the female addressee) and Gonna Take A Woman, which goes heavy on the guitars. Chris DuBois, best known for working with Brad Paisley was there for the album’s final pair of tracks: the sexy ballad Like I Don’t and Forgiveness and Rain, which is driven by a chaingang stomp. Mike’s narrator grew up on a tobacco farm with an uncle who smoked ‘two packs a day’; the chorus comprises words from father to son about rural life. Verse three includes the words ‘diversify or die’, as well as cotton and corn.

They used to sing this type of song on country radio but it’s too country for people in New York, London or LA.

As I often say about Texan acts, they can quite happily exist in the Red Dirt ecosystem – New Braunfels one weekend, Fort Worth the next – but it’d be lovely for Mike to head up to Nashville and show Music Row what they’re missing.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Lainey Wilson – Bell Bottom Country

October 28, 2022

There is one thing that sticks out from this second album from Lainey Wilson, who is set to come to the UK in March for Country2Country opening for Thomas Rhett. She sings every line on it.

In an era when every act needs a collaboration or a synergy with another artist, Lainey goes it alone on this collection of 13 originals and a very well-chosen cover. It is so refreshing to hear an obvious artist, one who has also had commercial success on country radio with songs like Things A Man Oughta Know. If Miranda wants to take a few years looking after the pups, Lainey will take her slot.

And yes, there are ‘slots’ in 2022 for female acts on radio. Look at this week’s chart: in the Top 20 Ingrid Andress (on a Sam Hunt duet) and Gabby Barrett are the only women there. Priscilla Block, Kelsea Ballerini and Carly Pearce will be Top 20 soon, as will Lainey with the lead single from the album Heart Like A Truck, which kicks off the second side of this album in track position eight.

In fact, Lainey is on two songs getting rotation, the other being future Song of the Year Wait in the Truck with Hardy. It’s smart for Lainey, from Louisiana, to team up with the guy from Philadelphia, Mississippi; game recognises game, as the kids say. Lainey writes the 13 original compositions on the album, throwing in a cover of Linda Perry’s song What’s Up (where she says hey yay yay, what’s going on).

It begins with Hillbilly Hippie, a party starter which will be a perfect opener to her live show. It puts Lainey in the Miranda/Eric Church mould, sticking to live instrumentation (including massed backing vocals) and familiar vocal stylings. Keith Whitley and The Rolling Stones both get a namecheck, as does Willie Nelson; ‘Willied up’ is a surefire t-shirt slogan.

Grease, written with Jessi Alexander, will also make any set. Lainey and her fella, who has ‘earned that farmer’s tan’, are ‘cookin’ with grease’ and she’s ‘beggin’ like an old hound dog’. Whatever can she want?? Atta Girl is a song full of melancholy, consoling the heartbroken woman whom Lainey addresses that she has a ‘damn good heart and some big dreams up ahead’. It’s a new spin on how a guy and a girl have different coping mechanisms, that a woman shouldn’t be engulfed by sadness, which makes the title (and its instrumental middle section) so uplifting.

Road Runner is a troubadour’s song (‘grab your boots and head for the highway’) with a melodic chorus. Watermelon Moonshine, which has a proper middle eight, is a midtempo tune perfect for a mellow moment, as Lainey recalls her first time and conjures up some terrific sense impressions with the help of A-Listers Josh Kear and Jordan Schmidt.

Two tracks were written with Nicolette Hayford, who has helped Ashley McBryde find her own outlaw sound: Weak End (great title) is a heartbreak song befitting its title and can be paired with the Lady A song It Ain’t Pretty on a typical Spotify playlist; This One’s Gonna Cost Me is another funky tune with a massive chorus that seems to point towards a hangover, romantic or alcoholic, Lainey won’t regret.

Lainey’s own team includes Dallas Wilson (who co-writes five tracks) and Trannie Anderson (in the room for four of them). This pair will, like Lainey, await some life-changing PRS cheques from Heart Like A Truck, but Live Off – written with a fourth body in the room, Adam Doleac – may follow it on to the radio. It’s a charming list of rural signifiers (work, music, romance) with a banjo layered underneath.

Wallflowers and Wild Horses is one of those country songs about meeting your maker, full of great imagery (‘barefooted, bareback…four-fifths of reckless and one-fifth of Jack’) and a smart arrangement which verges on bluegrass. Me, You and Jesus and Hold My Halo (another great title) are the token religious or spiritual songs on the album, placed beside one another on Side A (tracks six and seven). ‘The man upstairs’ makes an appearance on the former slow burner, while the latter is another one for the popular compilation Now That’s What I Call Lower Broadway on a Saturday Night.

The Lord also gets a mention on These Boots (Daddy’s Song), a toe-tapper which underlines that Lainey isn’t a Southern gal singing pop music but an on-brand Nashville star who has been nominated for two CMA Awards. Female Vocalist and Album might be out of her reach for now, but she’s a shoo-in for New Artist of the Year. She’s a great get for C2C 2023, in spite of what the naysayers are naysaying about the main stage players.

Ka-Ching with Twang: Red Dirt Music from Randy Rogers Band and David Adam Byrnes

October 27, 2022

Randy Rogers Band – Homecoming

An automatic on Texas radio, Randy’s recent release was with Wade Bowen, his fellow automatic. Now back with his band and with Radney Foster behind the board, this eighth album provides new and long-time fans with 11 new tunes.

Randy’s voice is in the same ballpark as that of Lee Brice, with both grit and tenderness on opening ballad I Won’t Give Up (‘I would fight the fires of hell and the Devil himself’). His lady is on the Leaving Side of Town, ‘fooling around’ and breaking his heart. The double-stopped fiddle part matches the tenor of the lyric, with the arrangement full of pathos and warmth.

Heart For Just One Team opens with piano and fiddle before Randy’s vocal comes in to describe watching a ballgame with his dad: ‘no church and no chores!!’ feels like the most innocent line on the album. I think you can tell where the narrative is going but grab some tissues and call your own dad if you can.

Big writers have queued up to work with one of the stars of the Red Dirt movement. Jon Randall was there for Nothing But Love Songs, whose expansive opening introduces a midtempo rocker about a narrator ‘hoping to hear a midnight crier’ to get over a breakup. It took 11 weeks to top the chart, a stunningly quick climb. Drew Kennedy, a Wade Bowen collaborator, helped with the Texas chart-topper Picture Frames, a toe-tapper with the reminiscin’-via-photos motif and a philosophical theme about time passing (‘where do the years go’). The middle eight is excellent.

Sean McConnell was in the room for Over You Blues, a triple-time lament that is 100% Texas. The narrator is a bar-dwelling schlub who can’t even tip the band for playing a song that reminds him of his ex. While Nashville keeps targeting the 18-34 demographic with sexy guys singing about trucks, this is adult country music tinged with regret and sadness. True country, some would call it.

The three A-Listers Randy Montana, Lee Thomas Miller and Wendell Mobley give him Fast Car, a series of pick-up lines which Randy’s narrator uses to entice a lady. If the fiddle were replaced by a second thwacking great electric guitar part, it’d be a Jason Aldean song thanks to its farmer’s chords (a phrase I learned about recently which has finally made it into a piece of criticism!).

Randy also wrote the melancholic rocker Small Town Girl Goodbye (‘she outshined our one stoplight and now there’s one less number on that city limit sign’) and Where’d You Run Off To. Randy’s protégé Parker McCollum was in the room for another song about a man missing his ex (‘why’d you have to take my heart?’), while Jack Ingram joined the hang on Know That By Now, another self-lacerating weepie which begins with Randy’s narrator complaining that ‘I can’t have one drink without having four’.

The album ends with Bottle of Mine, written with producer Radney. It’s a neat summary of the Red Dirt genre: Randy addresses his drink over a slow musical shuffle, begging it to ‘stay here with me cos I can’t live with myself’. It’s anthemic and the best song on a very good album.

David Adam Byrnes – Keep Up With A Cowgirl

David is another big name on the Red Dirt scene. His songs are often chart-toppers on Texas radio and his first album Neon Town got caught up in the pandemic.

The first few bars of the opening title track are saturated with fiddle. It’s a Texan version of those Music Row songs about how great a girl is, but with more panache, charm and musicality. Instantly we know where we are: the Red Dirt, once again.

I Find A Reason is a George Strait-y ballad set in a bar. Our ‘hard-headed narrator…heading where I’m headed’ cannot get over his former belle. A Shot or Two keeps David drinking to ‘break this heartbreak mood’, while Better Love Next Time is full of melancholy, governed by its fiddle part and how ‘you and me just don’t mix…c’est la vie’.

One Honky Tonk Town is a more uptempo breakup song (‘she locked the door and I backed down the drive’) where our poor narrator’s ex is ‘parked in my favourite spot’ at the bar. This town ain’t big enough for the both of them, because it’s the Smallest Town On Earth, as per the title of another track on the album.

Too Much Texas was another radio smash. The protagonist is a girl who tries to head out of Dallas but can’t take the Texas out of her heart. Like I’m Elvis is set in a Kentucky hotel room where the musician is missing his woman who ‘treats me like I just might be the King’. All I’m Missing, with a delicious few bars of pedal steel, is David’s plea for a lady to join him in paradise. Accidents has the best lyric on the album; it’s a songwriter’s round tune about the serendipity of life and how ‘accidents don’t just happen’ randomly.

Past My Bud Time is a phenomenal title; it’s not ‘bedtime’ but Bud Time!! It opens with David playing a working man who has to work overtime; the chorus rhymes ‘cutie/koozie’. Then he gets a flat tyre and, worst of all, his partner has taken the last beer from the fridge!! More happily, he gets off on time and celebrates on Cold Beer Time.

The album has four solo acoustic tracks tacked on to the end, including one that didn’t make the cut on the album proper. Everything That Glitters Is Not Gold is an imagistic narrative song where David reminisces over his ex and how she ‘used to ride in your rhinestones’. It’s a modern-day version of the poetic ‘song to a closed door’ where the narrator does not expect any reply, especially with ‘little Kacey’ missing her mum and asking where she is.

If David can afford to leave songs like this off an album, he must be a prolific songwriter. A future Texas Radio Hall of Famer who might follow Parker, Randall and CoJo into Nashville, should the opportunity arise. Otherwise he can be an Aaron Watson or Randy Rogers figure, content to sing songs to Texans for decades to come.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Sam Grow and Town Mountain

October 26, 2022

Sam Grow – Manchester

This album is co-produced by Colt Ford, one of the progenitors of bro-country who wrote Dirt Road Anthem. Singer Sam Grow is a more traditional singer rather than a rapper or speak-singer, although Manchester has all the ingredients of a classic Jason Aldean album: wide-open choruses, guitar solos, basic imagery and direct lyrics. I wonder if this has slipped out of fashion, even though it will always have an audience.

There are breakup songs by the barrel. On the punchy Live It Down, Sam’s life contrasts with a girl ‘in a new time zone’ putting happy pictures on social media; on Past A Heartbreak, the female protagonist is played by singer ACORN, who has moved on with her life; the roles are reversed on Over Me By Now, with his ex crawling back to Sam. He co-wrote Truck in the Yard, where our narrator is sad that it ain’t his truck coming home to the woman he used to have.

The lack of variety is becoming dull, as happens on Aldean’s albums.  The second side begins with Rascal Flattsish piano on the song Good At Lyin’, yet another breakup song, this one disguised as a series of statements which are actually the reverse of what Sam thinks, eg ‘I like to drink alone because I like my own space’. If I Had My Way is a four-chord song which had CJ Solar in the room and includes the lyric ‘middle finger flipped up’, which is very Aldeanish.

Maybe is a proper country song with a nice lyrical hook, but by track nine (Past A Heartbreak) we’ve already had eight breakup songs. Staying Over (great title) is probably the best, implying that an expired relationship cannot be rekindled; ‘every touch is just taking me higher’ sounds like a line that has been on every Aldean album. Found Love (‘when I found you’) is a power ballad which should have come far earlier in the tracklist to break up the bulwark of break-up songs. 

As befits a country album, there’s a song set in a barroom which compares a hook-up to a sip of Cheap Whiskey. Bar Like This was written with the great Terry McBride, who brings his ear for a nagging hook to a song which has characters celebrating divorce or promotion or just living itself. It closes the album, by which time many listeners may have tuned out; more songs like this would have made the album far stronger.

Town Mountain – Lines In The Levee

New West Records is a home for American artists who make American music. American Aquarium, Andrew Combs and Asleep at the Wheel are on it, and that’s just the As. Ben Folds, Buddy Miller (the mastermind behind the music of TV show Nashville), Calexico, Drive-By Truckers, Giant Sand, Guided By Voices, Jason Isbell, Jerry Lee Lewis, John Hiatt and his daughter Lilly, Joshua Hedley, Los Lobos, Lucinda Williams, Neko Case, Nikki Lane, Rodney Crowell, The Secret Sisters, Sara Watkins, Son Volt, Steve Earle; all are New Westies. The label also owns the catalogues of the outlaws: Merle, Willie, Waylon, Kris, JR Cash.

All this is to say that any act signing to the label is already held in high esteem, the sort of musicians who appeal to classic rock’n’roll or country with a lyricism and depth that goes beyond whatever Music Row puts out as ‘country’. Town Mountain are new signings to New West and it seems to be a match made in honky-tonk heaven, given that according to the band’s banjo player Jess they ‘let the artist steer the ship’.

The band played the first Earl Scruggs Music Festival recently alongside bluegrass mainstays Molly Tuttle, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas and many more. The sextet come from Luke Combs’ hometown Asheville in North Carolina, a mountainous state which deserves its own radio show if I ever get tired of the Red Dirt states of Texas and Oklahoma. Accordingly, the title and opening track has the typical Southern fiddle, harmonies and stomp common in bluegrass music.

Fans of Old Crow Medicine Show, Turnpike Troubadours and Avett Brothers – who are also from NC and seem too hackneyed a comparison with Town Mountain – will find much to enjoy in this album. As a Counting Crows fan, I love any bands where it feels like there’s a party in the studio. Comeback Kid, with mandolin, fiddle and banjo, is a fine example of their sound.

The great outdoors are all over the album. Magnolia blooms on Distant Line, while ‘the river’s riding high’ on Seasons Don’t Change, which has a magnificent solo violin section played with control and poise by Bobby Britt, a graduate of Berklee College. This bleeds into Daydream Quarantina, whose lyrics look back on a time before the pandemic. Charley Pride, who passed away from the virus in 2020, also gets a toast.

Big Decisions has the narrator heading out to California, with the great lyric ‘that’s a damn I’m just through givin’ emphasising his quest. Firebound Road has a punchline to go with its mandolin and fiddle solos: at a gig in California they are advertised as Mountain Town! This doesn’t deter them from touring the USA this fall and winter, though it may make venue managers double-check the marquee sign!

The variety of moods is excellent here, with the hyperactive American Family balancing out the stately, pessimistic Unsung Heroes. The six-minute closer Lean Into The Blue is the Town Mountain take on the break-up song. Sam Grow should listen closely.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Kendell Marvel and Ben Burgess

October 25, 2022

Kendell Marvel – Come On Sunshine

Chris Stapleton is one of the symbols of contemporary country music, much against his own wishes. He is naturally shy and has to be physically pushed out on tour by his wife Morgane. I wonder if his mate Kendell Marvel also does some of the pushing.

I enjoyed Kendell’s 2018 album Lowdown & Lonesome, which included a Marvel/Stapleton composition Untangle My Mind, which Stapleton recorded on his From A Room project. The behatted reluctant one appears on this album’s stately opening track Don’t Tell Me How To Drink, one for the barflies and downtrodden.

Stapleton also co-wrote and does backing vocals on Never Lovin’ You, a chugger of a love song with a magnificently squealing solo. Fool Like Me is in the Stapleton wheelhouse, with Kendell’s narrator following the yacht-rock template of the putz who couldn’t seal the deal. The understated arrangement gives it the feel of a torch ballad.

Producer Beau Bedford, who worked on the Sunny Sweeney album and the Jonathan Terrell EP, co-produces with Kendell. Defiance is a theme on the album, from a man who has long settled into the person he turned into: Keep Doing Your Thing is swampy and fun, with another neat solo interrupting the lyric; Hell Bent on Hard Times is contemplative and similar in tenor to tracks by Kendell’s friends John and TJ Osborne; Young Kolby Cooper helped him with Habits, a toe-tapper sung from the perspective of a stubborn man, an ‘old dog’ who can’t ‘jive’ with new tricks.

Dan Auerbach is in the credits of the funky Off My Mind, where Kendell is ‘having one hell of a time’ drinking his cares away. He is helped by a honky-tonk piano, of which we hear too little in contemporary country music.

The title track is another one of those songs that uses the elements as a metaphor to conjure up a prayer in a lightly gospely manner (check out those vocalised oohs from the backing vocalists). The great line ‘why when I get so high do I get so low?’ is effortless writing, as is ‘soul food fatten up the hypocrites’ on Put It in the Plate, a diatribe against Sunday services which kicks off the album’s second side.

Closing track Dyin’ Isn’t Cheap ties everything together: imagery (‘an empty Bourbon bottle by the bed’) and meditation as to how expensive it is to drink and smoke and suffer from all that heartbreak and those bad habits. What makes this album great is that Kendell’s voice gives credence to the stories. He’s an underrated artist.

Ben Burgess – Tears The Size of Texas

The man from Dallas who wrote Whiskey Glasses for Morgan Wallen as well as plenty of tracks on his 77-week number one album Dangerous finally follows Ernest and Hardy in making a solo album. It’s a Joey Moi production on Big Loud Records; why change the formula?

He’s also had one foot in the pop sphere, touring with Guy Sebastian in Australia and working with Diplo. Knowing what makes money, although I am sure he’s following his muse too, he’s a country artist whose genre can almost be called Big Loud Country.

Ben begins with the title track, which was the big impact track to promote the album. The vocal sits alongside those of Ernest, Hardy and Wallen, while the subject of the track is heartbreak with a Texas theme (‘how Wild the West is’). Sick and Tired is Big Loud Country-by-numbers: we begin with some rural choral harmonies, there’s a full-throated verse and a lyrical spin on the chorus (‘I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired’) over some farmer’s chords. The miracle is that Hardy, Ernest or Wallen don’t come in for the second verse, Hixtape style.

White Picket Fence (which should not be built ‘around a house of cards’) and the Wallenesque Kill A Man – where Ben says he’d rather not know the name of his ex’s new flame lest jealousy cause murder – are written with Kevin Kadish, who I hope invested the All About That Bass money wisely. Kadish also co-wrote the gentle High Road, about a crisis in a relationship which can be worked out with a ‘Bud from my buddy’.

There’s a lot of wisdom in Big Loud Country, where flower shops have good days and dead folk can go give heaven some hell. When We Die kicks into gear about 70 seconds in to reveal that it’s a love song rather than a meditation on dying. Heartbreak, which starts the second side, concludes that ‘heartbreak makes the world go round’ and that without falling out of love ‘there wouldn’t be no Vegas’. I wonder if Ben will get a free round of drinks when he next pops over there.

Jackson had Jesse Frasure, Jessie Jo Decker and Brandy Clark in the room, who combine for one of those songs praying that a place ‘don’t take my girl’. Hunter Phelps was there for Started A Band, one of those songs about the power of music, with a neat narrative twist that I won’t give away; it’s nice to hear lighters being mentioned in a country song. The album closer Ain’t Got No Phone sounds like a demo, with a stomp on every beat and some bluesy guitar picking.

That track underlines my issue with the album as a whole. For all the terrific writing and vocal performances, there is a sonic sameness on this album which, although commercially appealing, does dull very quickly. It’s good that Big Loud Country supports people who write their own material; in the Age of Wallen, everyone in the brackets seems to go on to have a career.

There’s a reason the CEO of the label is called Craig Wiseman, a man who is very wise.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Matt Owens and Samuel James Taylor

October 24, 2022

Matt Owens & the Delusional Vanity Project – Beer For The Horses

UK Americana is another made-up genre that puts misfit acts into a box. Matt Owens was part of Noah & The Whale, who came up in the same South London scene as Mumford & Sons and Laura Marling. Matt now has a delusional vanity project, which is what he calls his band, and this is his third solo release.

The great Robert Vincent was in the studio helping to produce the album, which Matt launches at Sutton’s Sound Lounge on November 3. If British country is about good stories with traditional arrangements, then Matt Owens is a shoo-in for Blackpool’s British Country Music Festival in 2023. The title If You Won’t Leave Me, I’ll Find Someone That Will deserves a song to match it. ‘Nepotist mensch’ is a pleasant line in the second verse of a song full of oomph.

The opening track Genie and the Bottle reminds me of a Celtic act like The Waterboys or The Undertones, with Matt’s voice taking on the same tenor as Mike Scott’s or Feargal Sharkey’s. After a minute of solo vocals, a drum loop comes in and the band joins in to set the tone for the album.

The title track is a stomper with Matt’s narrator remembering an old flame who made him happy (‘I hope you had fun’), while the rocking 300 Shows asks the listener if they can do what the band do, ‘night after night, just the band and the crew’.

The softness of Where He Goes and Go Easy On Yourself – a nice counsel about keeping the pressure off one’s shoulders as a father or son – are balanced by the chugging Drinking by the River. That song is immediately followed by Gonna Keep Some of These Vices Around (another fine title). The bridge of Up To Here gets stuck on a G chord, as if the narrator is also stuck. The lyrics include wordplay about turning over a new leaf and rounds of ‘fine vermouth’.

Numbered Days (For Little Mammoths) concludes the album on a meta note, with gear in a van (‘guitars up with the snare’) to play a wedding and recording sessions where the drum sound needs fine-tuning (‘wait till there’s a crowd!’). Yet there’s melancholy because, Matt says, ‘I miss these things’.

This is the type of album that unfurls itself over multiple listens, as more lyrics poke out of the gruff delivery and the arrangements grow in sumptuousness through familiarity.

Samuel James Taylor – Wild Tales and Broken Hearts

From the city of Sheffield that brought us Pulp, Cabaret Voltaire and Arctic Monkeys, Samuel James Taylor came up as part of the band Dead Like Harry. In 2021 he headed to Nashville and went back to the singer/songwriters who had first made him pick up an instrument.

Wild Tales and Broken Hearts starts the album off with a sombre toe-tapper (‘love is your asylum’ is a fun lyric), sung from the back of the throat with gusto. A harmonica enters after the second chorus. Exquisite Pain sounds like the title of a Nine Inch Nails album and the song is a downbeat ditty where Samuel is asking a loved one what has changed. He asks someone, perhaps the same person, to ‘take a chance on our history and turn back time’ on the optimistic Through the Silence and the Half Light.

The ballads include I Kissed Your Sister by the Apple Tree (‘just keep your eyes on me’) and Churchville Avenue, a vignette with familiar chords and a warm vocal set in the former bedroom of a mystery addressee. Samuel concludes that ‘the past is just a trick’.

Musicality is excellent throughout. Virginia Girl (‘dance with the future in the palm of your hand’) and Rolling Thunder (‘the rain is falling heavy, it’s coming for me soon’) are both rhythmic and very hooky. There are some lush diminished chords on Faith, Hope and Fortune, a meditative singer/songwriter tune where our narrator is ‘still diving for pearls’, which seems like an obvious allusion to the song Shipbuilding, written by Elvis Costello.

Rage and Fight is a love song to someone who is ‘everything’, with a soupcon of harmonica underlining the passion Samuel feels. She is the Map of Love (as per the song’s title) and ‘everything that’s right’, while the melody of The Best Is Yet To Come is gossamer thin but holds up the world, ending on an unresolved chord.

Closing track Time May Dance is a meditation on getting old with a lovely middle section and plainly delivered lyrics. This is a fine tribute to singer/songwriters from the past and deserves to be heard.

Country Music Week – Tenille Townes, Elvie Shane and Matt Stell

October 24, 2022

If I were in charge of the country – and judging by the Year of Three PMs, it’s my turn soon – I would force people who talk though the quiet bits of gigs to do community service. Both gigs under discussion were rather interrupted by loud voices in the crowd, which were not policed and seem to point to the fact that as long as people pay their money at the door, they can do what they like. Is that an allegory for the country, or just an overreach?

I was quite upset that When I Meet My Maker, a quite brilliant song performed at London’s Scala by award-winning Canadian country star Tenille Townes, was ruined by a couple of chuntering ladies behind me. Two blokes to my left were even louder. Perhaps I should ‘get barrier’ and stand near the front because the back of the room seems to give licence to such imbeciles.

Tenille and her band, reduced to guitarist and drummer, filled the Scala with sound, and the singer and songwriter showed both sides of her art. Often it was Tenille playing solo, as on the encore of At Last or the modern standard Jersey on the Wall. Other times it was the trio smashing through rocking numbers like White Horse, When’s It Gonna Happen or Holding Out for the One.

As she had done at Country2Country 2022 in the O2 Arena, Tenille dropped in a verse of Sheryl Crow’s Steve McQueen. She also told a story about a guy who drove them from Cumbria to Bristol when their tour manager came down with the flu. A scared Ben Earle guested on When You Need It and more than matched Tenille’s lead, perhaps influenced by the massive held note at the end of one of the preceding songs. The Canadian wished a mazaltov to Crissie, Ben’s fellow Shire, whose twins were born in September.

Tenille ended up in tears, overwhelmed by the support of a strong UK fanbase. Matt Stell is returning to the O2 Arena in March 2023 and tested the waters at Bush Hall at the conclusion of Country Music Week, which also welcomed Breland, Caitlyn Smith and the exciting Song Suffragettes movement led by Kalie Shorr, which may well become a permanent fixture in the UK soon.

Elvie Shane, whose hit My Boy was left until the end, was nursing a two-day flu which prevented him from playing the previous day’s songwriter’s round. He joined Matt in a sort of writer’s line, with the pair alternating songs from their respective projects. Elvie winked at the crowd when he said a C2C appearance was ‘TBD’, but his redneck act suited Bush Hall. If he ends up playing Indigo2 or the O2 Arena itself in the spring, he’ll win over thousands more with his personality and full-throttle attitude.

Wouldn’t you know it, two oafs in the balcony upstairs whooped at irregular intervals, even louder than Elvie’s self-described ‘yelling in key’. He yelled/played plenty of his album Backslider, restarting the best track Love, Cold Beer, Cheap Smokes and giving great readings of I Will Run, Sundress, County Roads, Rocket Science and My Kinda Trouble. A new song called Baptised was given a big build-up by Matt, who bantered well with Elvie and shared an end-of-term feeling.

Matt was more laid back, singing ‘Ex-Boyfriend Country’ about love and relationships from his two EPs and well as coming out with an aphorism: ‘In America, 200 years is old. In Europe, 200 miles is far.’ His first song was the brilliant Better Than That and throughout the night he offered up plenty of fab singles: That Ain’t Me No More, Boyfriend Season and Man Made, plus his breakthrough song Prayed For You.

Matt also included the stuttering Sadie (‘S-s-s-Sadie!!’) and the passionate I Bet Whiskey Would, which was based around a meet-cute at a wedding reception and had the Music Row style rapid fire lyrical delivery attached to a hooky melody. These are songs built for a full band on the big stage, but it was excellent to hear them with cajon and acoustic accompaniment.

If only the eejits shut up, the gig would be better. Otherwise, Country Music Week provided a useful stopgap between CMA Fest and Country2Country and provided a route to market for stars who wanted to hit a key overseas market.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Kenny Foster and Pillbox Patti

October 21, 2022

Kenny Foster – Somewhere In Middle America

I imagine there will be ecstatic reviews across the board for this album, which I’ve known about for a year. Kenny had finished it in 2021 and wanted to play it to key UK reviewers and, also, me. I didn’t take any notes about the album, some of which was played live by Kenny in a room under a pub, but I was swept away by the concept, which is clear in the title.

Kenny has since become a father and wisely took a sabbatical before unleashing the album on to the rest of the world. He’s a regular visitor to the UK, playing songwriter showcases as well as festivals like Millport and Country2Country. His face is as well-known as his love of Tottenham Hotspur, while many fans fell in love with his album Deep Cuts way back in 2017. Not many fans also shared a train journey back from Birmingham to London with Kenny and his wife Sara, but I couldn’t possibly say who that fan was.

Somewhere In Middle America has had support from Bob Harris, making Kenny the latest in a long line of Bob-approved acts like Jason Isbell, Charlie Worsham and Sam Outlaw. Those three acts combine to form the sonic template for the album, with a mix of wide-open anthems and the sort of inner monologues common on Deep Cuts.

The kid from Joplin, Missouri looks back on his younger and more vulnerable days. They called him and his friends the Poor Kids, the ‘got-it-from-the-goodwill-store kids’ with ‘a mattress for a trampoline’. The production on that track and throughout the LP is radio-ready. The voice is direct and pure even before the sublime middle eight, perhaps the musical moment of the year, arrives after the second chorus.

A man who writes hundreds of songs a year – including one called Safe Word which didn’t make the tracklist!! – Kenny has picked 13 of his finest here on a country theme. They include Said To Somebody, which has a heck of a kicker (‘things you wish you said to somebody’) which should prompt the listener to call a loved one. Find The Others is a jubilant campfire singalong of universal brotherhood which may turn into his career song and a longterm set closer.

There’s a lot of affection for, one presumes, Kenny’s own dad on closing track The Same, which complements Copy Paste Repeat. Both are sombre, humane summations of small-town life – he sings ‘graduate, find love, get married’ on the latter – and Kenny, the Nashville-based singer/songwriter, has spent his career in opposition to it. Indeed, Country Heart could be about Kenny himself, with the song’s avatar a ‘city girl…a wildflower child’ who hears crickets in the chorus. Smartly, we get crickets chirruping in the song’s fadeout.

You can’t escape your upbringing in Middle America, because you learn about life there. Driveway, with its huge drums and percussive guitar part, is another reminiscin’ song with a magnificent chorus. Farmer is a welcome ode to rural life as Kenny realises he has inherited some of the traits of men who till the land; after all, ‘most of the work the folks don’t see’ can be applied to songwriting, fatherhood or being a good husband.

In another arrangement, For What It’s Worth could be gospel but comes out as a country boogie from a ‘worn-out sole on some borrowed boots’. The uptempo love song Dreams Change and the dobro-dusted Good For Growing Up (which is a riff on legendary song The House That Built Me) remind me of the sort of tunes that Charlie Worsham writes about the passage of time and the importance of a strong romantic partner and a front porch to sit and think.

Balancing that pair is The One, where Kenny realises that he was only a detour as his former belle treated him as a warm-up act for her eventual suitor. ‘I was almost but not quite’ is the most sombre lyric on the album. For a true country music album full of wisdom even beyond Kenny’s advanced years, right up until the final Day In The Life-type chord, head to Somewhere in Middle America.

As a postscript, here is one of the finest ‘About’ pages on any artist website.

Pillbox Patti – Florida

No sooner had she popped up on Lindeville, the new project helmed by Ashley McBryde, than Nicolette Hayford’s alter ego gets eight songs of her own, collected on Florida. Written with the same guys from that writers’ retreat – Ashley, Aaron Raitiere, Benjy Davis, Connie Harrington, Brandy Clark and others – it also comes out on Monument Records, the imprint run by Shane McAnally.

I’ll refer to Patti as Nicolette, which is a cool name for a singer too. With a voice that has the same lingering ennui as those of Kassi Ashton or Natalie Hemby, she begins with Good People, about people with ‘bad habits…even Jesus had his reasons for turning water into wine!’ That’s not the most shocking line on the record.

Valentine’s Day is a three-minute movie with sparse accompaniment, foregrounding Nicolette’s story of what seems to be a teenage abortion, ‘lying on a cold steel table’ with people protesting outside the building. Suwanee is a happier tune, with an opening tableau of Stepford Wives-type figures with ‘big ass earrings’ and bombastic boasting from Nicolette about being ‘free bird free in an endless summer’.

Eat Pray Drugs must have been a title one of the many A-Listers had carried around with them for a while. The song that resulted is a credo of small-town life and those three pastimes. Young and Stupid is a reminiscin’ song where Nicolette compares her current life to when ‘all I needed was a Pontiac’. Her delivery reminds me of that of Taylor Swift, which would make Pillbox Patti a decent opening act for Taylor.

Hookin Up is the album’s centrepiece and seems to be influenced by weird indie-rock acts like St Vincent and Panda Bear. Its chaotic final minute contains a brass instrument, perhaps a trombone, and assorted vocal contributions from the gang. It’s kooky and charming.

The smouldering driving song Candy Cigarettes (‘who’s a big girl now?’ she asks herself) is immaculately produced by Park Chisholm who – fun fact! – is mates with Kevin Costner. Album closer 25 MPH Town is driven by a one-note piano motif which sets another lyric about teenage love: ‘Never grow up even if you get out’ must chime with listeners who came from small towns and moved to a city like Nashville.

As with Hardy, who provided both Florida Georgia Line and Morgan Wallen with hits before becoming a noted solo act, Nicolette has stepped out of the brackets in the credits and into her own artistic journey. I hope she gets over to the UK soon.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Nikki Lane and Sunny Sweeney

October 19, 2022

Nikki Lane – Denim & Diamonds

I really enjoyed Nikki Lane’s fourth album Highway Queen, which came out as long ago as 2017 and included fab songs like Jackpot and 700,000 Rednecks that sat neatly in the aisle between Brandy Clark and Brandi Carlile, with a little bit of Pistol Annies and Lily Hiatt.

This new album, as most reviews will probably point out, has been produced by Josh Homme, who also worked on Humbug, the underrated third album by Arctic Monkeys. It begins with a bass-driven chugger called First High, with an itchy chorus and a great vocal.

The title track follows the template, with some double-tracked vocals and what sounds like a guiro in the form of a plastic bottle in the mix. Nikki boasts that she can ‘make her own damn denim and diamonds’, an independence echoed on the song Born Tough, a song where the narrator takes advice from her parents and learns ‘to play by my own rules’. That’s rock’n’roll and yet, because it’s Nikki’s life in a song, also country.

There’s some lush pedal steel on Faded, with some low harmonies by Josh, while album closer Chimayo is grounded by an acoustic guitar part and atmospheric production that pushes Nikki’s vocals to the top of the mix.

A lot of the album’s lyrics deal in self-help: Try Harder has a chirpy major-key arrangement to emphasise Nikki’s advice to power through any hardships; Good Enough kicks off the album’s second side with a plea to be patient; and Live/Love notes that ‘you’ve gotta stay true to what you do’.

Pass It Down (‘Change don’t come till you let it out’) is a jubilant country song which will sound tremendous live at the Bowery Ballroom in New York at the start of December. It’s Houston and Austin this week, and Nikki’s rootsy sound will impress the Texan crowds if they know what’s good for them.

Sunny Sweeney – Married Alone

Talking of Texans, Sunny Sweeney returns with her first album in five years on her Aunt Daddy label. In 2011, she had major label support for her album Concrete, a lost gem which featured some A-List writers (Lori McKenna, Brett James, Bob DiPiero) and the big single From A Table Away, which made the Hot 100 but stalled at 10 on country radio (sometimes, as the DJ Gary Davies often says, we just don’t get it right).

Married Alone is co-produced by Paul Cauthen and Beau Bedford, who impressed me on Paul’s album earlier this year. They frame Sunny’s voice with traditional instrumentation, and the themes suit a lady in her forties. ‘You can tie me up but baby you can’t tie me down’ is the introductory chorus to the album on Tie Me Up.

Someday You’ll Call My Name is spikier and more of a hoedown, and How’d I End Up Lonely Again brings the tempo down (‘another wrong turn, another dead end’) to prove Sunny’s versatility. Wasting One On You has the backing harmonies, foregrounded horns and Hammond organ of a Muscle Shoals classic.

The title track is a proper country song (‘Together apart, married alone’ coos Sunny over reverberating guitars) co-written by Reba McEntire’s daughter Autumn and features harmonies from the mighty Vince Gill who plays the part of the husband. Leaving Is My Middle Name is set at a bar and our narrator is a femme fatale: ‘a heartache waiting to happen, a chance you don’t want to take’. Sunny gets inside the character and the arrangement matches the lyric perfectly.

There are other artists co-signing the project: Want You To Miss Me is a Sweeney/Caitlyn Smith write with the hook ‘I don’t want you back, I just want you to miss me’; and the great Kendall Marvel provides Sunny with a torch song called Fool Like Me, which is in the tradition of She’s Got You.

Lori McKenna is the main collaborator on the album, bringing her wisdom to four of the tracks on the album. She and Heather Morgan were in the room for the melancholic Easy As Hello (‘I finally realised enough is enough’), which recalls the mood of From A Table Away and has a gorgeous instrumental coda. Lori also co-wrote A Song Can’t Fix Everything, a superlatively arranged track with an extremely good vocal performance from Sunny; All I Don’t Need, a four-minute movie where the narrator tries to resist falling in love with her fellow traveller; and closing track Still Here.

That track neatly sums up the mission statement of this album: grown-up country music where Sunny ponders affairs of the heart. ‘Some nights the world tries to tell you that you’re alright’ is what she sings, rewarding her steadfastness and fidelity either to her beloved or to life itself. This will comfort so many listeners and Sunny ought to return to the UK in 2023 after launching the album at Millport and The Long Road this year.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Miko Marks & the Resurrectors and Legends of Country

October 18, 2022

Miko Marks and the Resurrectors – Feel Like Going Home

I made up a genre a few months ago called Thinkpiece Country: country music which provides as much food for the brain as for the ears.

Miko Marks, who fits snugly in that genre, had a stab at being a country star in the mid-2000s, but after 9/11 and with a panoply of Garth replacements there wasn’t much scope for Miko’s music, just as there wouldn’t be for the music of her good friend Rissi Palmer. Rissi is now the matriarch of the efforts to give voice to non-white voices in the genre, foremost of whom is Miko; indeed, it was Rissi who told Miko that she was to make her debut at the Grand Ole Opry in autumn 2022, where she met Garth and Trisha Yearwood.

Born in Michigan, Miko follows two releases from 2021 – the album Our Country and the Race Records EP – with a full-length album released on her Redtone label. The twang of those independent releases in the 2000s has vanished, replaced by a lot of open-throated Mavis Staples-type held notes.

The title track starts as Miko means to go on, with gospely arrangements and passionate vocal contributions. At The Long Road, Miko previewed much of the album, including the marvellous One More Night and the emotional centrepiece of the album, the six-minute piano-led Peace of Mind.

River features some sublime mouth organ and slide guitar, with The Other Side (‘I ain’t looking for your shelter’) bursting out of its swampy opening few minutes into a guitar wigout. Trouble has a good time stomp and a screed of acerbic lyrics that address politicians and the modern world.

Conversely, ‘the willows weep’ on The Good Life where Miko seeks ‘strength in my struggle’ with similar sentiments shown on Lay Your Burdens Down and Deliver Me. The latter could have gone on for another five minutes had the song not faded out! The album ends with Jubilee, which repeats its title in the manner of Let It Be.

If you are preached a gospel, it is up to you as the listener to spread it. I expect Miko will return to the UK often as she finally gets her reckoning and UK listeners should welcome her next year and beyond.

Legends of Country – Anything But Country

Jof Owen has catapulted himself into the Festive 50 countdown of UK acts (coming mid-December) thanks to his first album in seven years. Jof’s day job is as a sub-editor at Holler.country, for which he wrote this track-by-track guide to Anything But Country.

So thorough is the guide that I was thinking of just linking to it on the Twitter page @CountryWOL but, given that UK acts often choose to release EPs than LPs, it is a momentous event. I saw the band tour their last album Talk About Country and was won over by songs like Jelly and Jam and It’s A Long Way Back From A Dream, which might be the only country ditty about darts players.

Here, Jof starts with the title track which will bring wry smiles to anyone who hears friends or strangers say they don’t like the twang. They simply need a wise head to introduce them to the likes of Hank Williams Jr and Merle Haggard.

What Women Do and It Isn’t Easy Being A Man tackle fashionable gender politics. The former is a bit too close to a Holler Country editorial for my liking, but the latter is the album highlight: written with Peter from Jof’s twee-infused pop duo The Boy Least Likely To, the instrumentation is tremendous, with a twinkling piano part and some mellifluous horns.

There are a couple of love songs. Punchin’ has a key change and a twangin’ guitar solo (with no g), while the jaunty Single Again is informed by Jof’s divorce. The pair of Everything’s Going South and Funerals and Fiftieths, looking back on the days when couples danced to Neil Young in ‘that overly lit village hall’, are both fun songs about getting older.

Paul Heaton, whose music is also inspired by country, will love this album. New Year New Me is a song to sing on January 1: ‘I will, I’ll change!’ sounds hopeful and there’s a lot of empathy for the narrator who forswears takeaways and wants to ‘turn my life around’.

If That’s What It Takes is a song about the industry which might well be Jof’s life in a song: ‘I’ve been looking at the optics…need to learn some dance moves’ is one way our narrator could succeed, as well as wearing a baseball cap backwards. Chapeau for the rhyme of ‘Oasis/Friends in Low Places’.

The album closes with a song about Armageddon called It’s the End of the World. ‘I’ve packed a Puzzler magazine!!’ boasts Jof before the horn section comes in and John Prine gets a namecheck. As heard in his work with The Boy Least Likely To, Jof has a great grasp of the popular song and this is a fab second Legends of Country project. Must we wait seven years for the third??!

Ka-Ching…With Twang: Bailey Zimmerman and Callista Clark

October 17, 2022

Bailey Zimmerman – Leave The Light On EP

There was a piece written by the critic Chris Molanphy this month about Bad Habit by Steve Lacy, the number one song in the USA. He concluded that the charts of 2022 are being dominated by acts who succeed on TikTok with direct and emotional songs which spoke to the target market.

Nashville became aware of TikTok and, having made Priscilla Block a star, is proceeding to do the same with Bailey Zimmerman. Elektra, that great label of punk and folk acts, has enlisted the services of one of many young things who sang short songs on the Chinese-owned app.

Eight of them are on his debut EP, including the number 31 Hot 100 smash Fall In Love. It’s a song about how a new flame ‘don’t know you like I did…cos love’s a smoke ring wrapped around your finger’, the chorus is set to four very familiar chords and contains some woahs. There’s a massive guitar solo too. It is a Top 10 country radio tune after only four months of airplay, proving that country radio follows the market these days. How many fans of Bailey care if he’s on country stations?

After an unnecessary spoken word intro, Never Leave opens the EP. You can hear instantly why Bailey has a record deal: his voice has a Morgan Wallenesque quiver and the lyrics are direct (‘I’ll fight for you, I’ll fight for us’). The production is as bland as possible for maximum TikTokage.

On Waiting, he wants to hear from his beloved, with dustings of fiddle, pedal steel and mandolin over the Don’t Stop Believing chord sequence. House On Fire, already the title of a Mimi Webb pop hit, is a ballad which rhymes ‘fire and gasoline’ with ‘back to you and me’. There is violin here too, so at least Bailey is working with traditional instruments rather than loops, but the songs don’t reinvent the wheel in spite of his pleasant voice.

Rock and a Hard Place, a throaty acoustic tune where ‘rock’ refers to a wedding ring, was the second biggest country song in America at one point and charted at 24 on the Hot 100. Popular music has always been driven by things other than the music – dancing, image and celebrity to name three – and it is hard to know how much of Bailey’s success is the result of looking good on a tiny screen or the songs themselves.

Where It Ends, which ends the collection, was co-written by Joe London, a pop producer who may have had an influence on the radio-friendly pop-rock track. Amazingly, its chorus uses more or less the same chord sequence as Fall In Love, although this song is about falling out of love, with red flags and ‘too much pride’ to repeat old mistakes.

From the Fall is a four-chord loop with a lyric about ‘hanging on by a thread’ and, crazily, ‘writing these letters’ (can’t he put it in an email?). Trainwreck is another heartbreak song and it does not surprise me in the slightest that it’s a Morgan Wallen co-write; it has the sort of delayed guitars that Creed or Nickelback had in 2001, proving once again Tom Petty’s adage that country music is ‘bad rock with a fiddle’.

Doesn’t mean it doesn’t keep selling. If Bailey can parlay his voice and face into a career, with the help of Music Row, it proves that the old talent system is alive and well regardless of where the talent is discovered.

Callista Clark – Real To Me: The Way I Feel

On the other hand, as Callista Clark has done, you can sign to Taylor Swift’s old label and fill a Taylor-shaped gap in the market.

I suppose it works for a new artist like Callista to release an album in two parts, the first five songs from which were included on a 2021 EP called Real To Me.

The five new songs, which form The Way I Feel, include Gave It Back Broken, which was written with Lauren Alaina’s friend Emily Shackleton and is a heartbreak ballad fit for Lauren herself. ‘It’s all on me for expecting some honesty’ is a good line, and the song is placed at track two on the album to emphasise that Callista isn’t just the poppy It’s Cause I Am gal.

As you would expect from an album released on Big Machine, Callista has been teamed up with some of the best writers in town. Worst Guy Ever, written with Emily Weisband, obviously recalls those heartbreak songs written by Taylor Swift in about 2008, or Kelsea Ballerini in 2014 (there is a template for young girls in country). Yet it’s from a smart angle, with Callista imagining that she was the guy letting down a girl.

Brave Girl (written with Ben Johnson) will appeal to other teenage girls who are afraid to be their true selves, while Wish You Wouldn’t, like the track Real To Me, has an MOR pop production with some bluesy chords. It underscores a lyric about how Callista is tempted by ‘the sound of you and me together’ and ignores any risk of getting hurt when an ex calls. It’s pop music in the Maren vein and should do well.

Maren has in the past benefitted from the golden touch of Jimmy Robbins, who helps out on Sad, the fifth new song released as part of Callista’s album proper. It has a magnificent chorus on which she asks why she isn’t gloomy about breaking up. I also spotted the phrase ‘hard-to-forgetter’.

I do wonder if Taylor Swift would have been as successful as she was in the mid-2000s if she had come up now. For a young singer like Callista or Bailey, music is almost secondary to the personality which comes across on TikTok. Both Elektra and Big Machine need a return on their investment, so expect to hear a lot of Bailey Zimmerman and Callista Clark in the next year.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Courtney Marie Andrews and Chloe Jones

October 12, 2022

Courtney Marie Andrews – Loose Future

Courtney is a big name in American roots music. She was inspired by Lucinda Williams and brought out a book of verse in 2021. Her voice would fit snugly next to that of Laura Marling or Brandi Carlile, or indeed Big Thief, whose producer Sam Evian is behind the boards here. She’s on Fat Possum, the same label as The Black Keys and The Weather Station, making her the kind of act you can imagine graphic designers humming along to as Courtney’s music plays on BBC 6 Music.

This 10-track set begins with a gorgeous title track with plenty for Fleetwood Mac or Taylor Swift fans to admire (yep, this is American music). ‘I’ll keep pretending that I want you’ locates this album in the same tenor as Rumours or Blue by Joni Mitchell, who remains a key influence on what may be called Joniesque some day (we know it as Roots/Americana). First Aid Kit fans, patiently waiting for the duo’s own new album next month, will have their appetites sated by Loose Future.

Satellite, the big single, is hooky and tender, with Courtney’s vocals double-tracked, while Thinkin’ On You makes heartbreak sound glorious, with the melody in opposition to the lyric. You Do What You Want paints a mellifluous tableau, complete with lap steel guitar, of a man whom women forgive.

That song is indebted to Drunken Angel by Lucinda Williams to such an extent that Courtney has set the lyrics for the verses over that song’s chords. Maybe she’ll run them together in concert. She launched the album with two sets at Rough Trade stores in Bristol and Brick Lane and she will return to Europe in March 2023. A month-long tour will take in France, Germany, Scandinavia and the UK.

A highlight is sure to be the date at KOKO in Mornington Crescent, which will reverberate to songs like Let Her Go, a mood piece where Courtney hits some high notes and describes a manic-pixie-ish dream girl who is ‘an emotional Aries dancing to Tim McGraw’ and ‘in her past life she was a willow tree’.

There are plenty of maxims among the melodies and string accompaniment: ‘life is better without plans’ (Older Now); ‘I’ve gotten used to moving on’ (On The Line); ‘people like me think feelings are facts’ (These Are The Good Old Days, which opens in a car). Change My Mind opens with the line ‘I don’t recognize the way you see me’ and continues with the narrator telling us she is ‘looking for new ways to be let down’.

Me & Jerry, the album’s closing track, summarises the musical and lyrical aims of a lovely album with much to say about love, loss and the human condition. And isn’t that country music in a sentence?

Chloe Jones – Sundown

Chloe is so far off my radar that she didn’t make it into my Bubbling Under Top 40 Chart, with apologies. I had filled the Top 40 before the release at the end of September of the new EP, and before the announcement that Chloe had been nominated for BCMA Female Vocalist of the Year alongside Sarah Louise, Jade Helliwell, Kezia Gill and Emilia Quinn. Sorry!!

Chloe is from Manchester and her influences include Brandi Carlile, Fleetwood Mac and, topically, Courtney Marie Andrews, so I hope Chloe is enjoying Loose Future. The Mancunian launched the EP at the excellent Eagle Inn in Salford as part of a month of gigs around the North-West, hitting Chorlton and Congleton as well. She’s in the North-West country crew along with Gary Quinn and Jade Helliwell and, accordingly, has played Country on the Clyde and Buckle and Boots, both of which Gary programs.

Damsel came out in 2020, New Mexico in 2021. The former is the sort of country song Patsy Cline would have sung, where the narrator cries out from a hotel room in Guatemala City ‘wishing more than anything that you can be here with me’. The latter is a tender tune full of words like ‘wilderness’ and ‘white sands’, plus a warm cello line.

The acoustic ditty Big Man Says also has some excellent strings which enrich a song about love and being ‘more than friends’. Crocodile is a slinky tune to match its title, full of reverberating guitars and brushed drums. Giving Up The Ghost begins ‘Who are we? We are drifters…’ and there’s some delightful pedal steel to underscore Chloe’s vocals.

A wise booker would let Chloe open for Courtney. Will any wise booker read this?

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Dailey & Vincent and Jim Lauderdale

October 12, 2022

Dailey & Vincent – Let’s Sing Some Country!

Check that exclamation mark! Produced by the great Paul Worley, Dailey & Vincent have put together a fine tribute to hillbilly music, interpreting 11 songs.

A version of Hillbilly Highway by Steve Earle contains some fine close harmony singing, while there’s some jubilant organ on You Rescued Me. There’s an appreciable stomp and some excellent vocal throws on Those Memories Of You, and a fine key change on Dig A Little Deeper in the Well. Feels Like That Again has both a euphoric melody and a basso profundo anchoring the song.

Vince Gill, whose status as a living country legend will grow with every passing year, provides three tunes for the project: Colder Than Winter (‘every time the sun sets I shed another tear’), If I Die A Drinkin’ and Young Man’s Town, a mournful ballad about Nashville. As for Message From The Farm, where ‘pigs won’t even wallow in the mud’ because the lady of the house is absent, it is a delight to hear a proper song about rural matters that doesn’t involve perfunctory references to getting up at dawn to plough the fields with a tractor.

I hope there’s an audience for this, and I hope the pair show up for Country2Country next year.

Jim Lauderdale – Game Changer

You know how someone like Daniel O’Donnell or Tom Jones keeps cranking out albums that their fanbase will always hear? Jim Lauderdale is like the country version of that. His tunes have been recorded by George Strait, Elvis Costello and Patty Loveless, and like Willie Nelson (a far better analogy but I’ll keep the lede as it is!!), he puts out an album a year, mostly on his Sky Crunch label.

Over 12 ditties, Jim reminds us of his talent for great country music. The songs are served well by his unadorned vocal style that makes him more a songwriter than a singer. Friends Again, with a gorgeous antiphonal riff in the chorus, sounds like it could have been recorded in 1962. Ditto Wishbone (great title), with fiddle and pedal steel underscoring Jim’s melancholy.

There’s romance in the grooves, as on Keep It Real, Game Changer (‘I’ve been waiting all my life for you!’) and Lightning Love (‘history and electricity was in the making). You’re Hoggin’ My Mind (great title) is a more uptempo tune saying much the same thing, while Let’s Make Some Memories seems to have a ukulele as a dominant instrument in an old-fashioned arrangement.

Our Happy Hour sees Jim ‘get drunk on you way too fast’, and the music shifts time signatures and tempos in a similarly hiccupping manner. With its themes of universal brotherhood, we’re All We’ve Got comes off like a Willie Nelson song. Ditto closing track I’ll Keep My Heart Open for You (‘I won’t ever lock the door’), which is a delightful ballad in the tradition of the genre Jim has made his life working in. Not a quaver is out of place on another fine collection.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Everette – Kings of the Dairy Queen Parking Lot Side B

October 11, 2022

Back in 2020, I used to give rating out of five for new projects. I gave the first side of the duo’s two-sided release 5/5 calling them ‘authentically southern but very poppy’. Brent and Anthony from Kentucky have everything going for them, including a burgeoning UK fanbase.

I caught their set at The Long Road, which they followed by talking to a coterie of country critics milling around in the press area. They reprised their set from C2C, covering Man of Constant Sorrow and previewing songs from this second side.

With money from Broken Bow and production from Luke Laird, Everette have the best possible chance to succeed. Even better, they have some fine A-listers in the room with them while the songs came into being. Ross Copperman added his signature anthemic songwriting style to Run, which opens the project with a plea to a lady to ‘run right back to me’ when she is ready to do so.

Ryan Tyndell – who co-wrote Springsteen with Eric Church, an obvious influence on this project – worked on their single Gonna Be A Problem, which sounds like country radio in 2022 by production (bass drum stomp, explosion into the chorus), lyric (‘the reason I’m having trouble breathing!’) and melody, with spoken-sung verses that elide prettily into the chorus. It’s a winner.

The great Aaron Raitiere, who is so hot right now and has worked with Ashley McBryde on her Lindeville project, was there for three of them: Woo Hoo Hoo, a sort of modern-day work song which keeps the guys positive as they toil and includes a punchline (‘you can be the bread or you can be the toaster’); Wild Woman, which is a riff-driven barroom stomper; and (watch it, DJs) Shunk As Drit, a toe-tapper full of consonantal replacement, which isn’t reduced to just the song’s title, about laughing in the face of Armageddon which is almost a comedy song.

Bryan Simpson, who was in a band which once released a song called Harry Potter, was with Everette in the composition of She Got That From Me. It’s an excellent list song, if such a thing can exist, where a lady picks up various things from various other things (freckles from the Kentucky sun, temper from her Irish blood, style from Vogue Magazine) but her ‘heartache’ comes from her ex, voiced by the duo. I hope it gets the audience it deserves.

Chris DuBois brings his expertise to Make Me Want One, which opens with the image of a cigarette ‘rolling off your pretty red lips’, continues with an invitation to a Panic! At The Disco gig and has a come-on of a guitar part to echo the chorus lyric. Matt Jenkins helped them with closing track Get By, which rhymes ‘freight train/hurricane’ in its first couplet and becomes one of the many carpe diem songs with a singalong feel which are written in Music City to make money.

Everette make it sound tuneful and a third UK visit must be on the agenda for 2023.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Ashley McBryde Presents Lindeville

October 10, 2022

Ashley McBryde has reminded folk that major-label artists can score a big win if they are allowed to do what they want. Inspired by songwriter Dennis Linde, who wrote Goodbye Earl and Bubba Shot The Jukebox, she has created a world populated by small-town characters.

This is almost a ‘what we did in our summer holidays’ project from Ashley, akin to The Highwomen. She has been joined by some of the best writers in town to create a world that could only be found in rural America. They include: Aaron Raitiere, who is hot right now; Connie Harrington, still best known for I Drive Your Truck; the peerless Brandy Clark; and Ashley’s mate Nicolette Hayford, who records as Pillbox Patti.

The ten tracks are interspersed with three interludes imagining jingles from pawnshops, diners and funeral homes (‘When you meet your maker, we’ll be your undertaker!’). The Missed Connection Section of the Lindeville Gazette sounds like something they’d do on A Prairie Home Companion, where author Garrison Keillor tells of the lives of Lake Wobegon as a sort of country version of Ambridge, home of The Archers.

The Girl In The Picture is a suitably vivid song with words and phrases like ‘cigarette hand’ and ‘tablecloth’. It has vocals by Patti/Nicolette, who will be a superstar. If These Dogs Could Talk is a waltz with Brandy on vocals (don’t forget Brandy wrote a song called Soap Opera which could fit snugly if a musical were based on Lindeville) while Play Ball has John and TJ Osborne doing their award-winning rootsy rock.

The song is full of wisdom (‘soak it in when you win’) and reminds me of any number of songs of that ilk, like Waitin’ on a Woman by Brad Paisley. John Osborne, who has learned a great deal from Jay Joyce’s eccentric corralling of musicians who include Ashley herself, is named as the producer but must also provide those guitar solos that run throughout the album. Jesus Jenny features vocals from Aaron lamenting Jenny’s hangover (‘can’t even cuss me right!’) and ‘praying that your demons go away’. The production includes some wah-wah guitar which mimic Jenny’s state of mind.

Gospel Night at the Strip Club has talk-sung vocals from Benjy Davis, the sixth member of the crew, who is ‘waiting for more sinners to show up’. He also asks whether you’d know Jesus ‘if he bought you a beer’ and there are massed hallelujahs which will be wonderful should the project go to the stage.

Caylee Hammack, who has flown under the radar in recent years after an impressive debut album, returns with a vengeance and brings her vocals to three tracks, joining Brandy and Patti/Nicolette: album opener Brenda Put Your Bra On, about catching a neighbour in a fight with his wife, is as fun as its title; When Will I Be Loved is a transcription of the Linda Ronstadt cover of the Phil Everly composition; while Bonfire At Tina’s has Ashley’s lead vocals answered by cries of ‘light it up!’ and a lyric which has the same emotional pull as many of Ashley’s songs about life in a small town. There’s even a string section in the middle to hammer home the pathos.

Ashley ends the album with the title track on which dogs are howling, the wind is blowing and the stars are out. Someone strums a mandolin and we have a parade of characters getting on with their lives. I would have moved this up the tracklist, or made it the ‘explainer’ track in the musical, but it ends the album with a flourish. Lindeville beats a Christmas project as a stopgap before a bigger album.

And, of course, a huge mazaltov for Ashley McBryde on her invitation to become an Opry member, extended by Garth Brooks, who loved her song Girl Goin’ Nowhere so much he covered it in concert.

UPDATE: As predicted, the show is coming to Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in February 2023.

The UK Country Top 40 Bubbling Under Chart: Autumn 2022

October 8, 2022

The Bubbling Under Chart exists to highlight acts who didn’t quite make it into the UK Country Top 40 proper.

You can hear an audio version of this chart in two parts at the Mixcloud page.

Part One takes us from 40 to 16.

Part Two includes interviews with Celine Ellis, Luke Flear and True Strays, who are all in the top 15.

Hear every track in full in this Spotify playlist.

40 Between The Vines – All In

39 Fargo Railroad Company – Barroom Band

38 Lisa Wright – Ready Now

37 The Goudies – When This Is Over

36 Megan Rose – Cluedo

35 Noble Jacks – Last of the Wild

34 Hannah Paris – Only You

33 Emily Faye – When It Comes To Leaving

32 Chris Mossop – Candle In You Still Burns

31 Allie Marie Hunter – Bonnie & Clyde

30 Shannon Hynes – Woman’s Scorn

29 William The Conqueror – Cold Ontario

28 Tennessee Twin – Rewind

27 Emma Moore – Husbands or Kids

26 Backwoods Creek – Mama’s Prayers (ft Drew Dixon)

25 Harriet Rose – Love Me Like That

24 Alan Finlan – Passenger Seat

23 Holloway Road – Between Us

22 Danni Nicholls – The River

21 Roisin O’Hagan – Broken Wings

20 Jake Morrell – This House (live acoustic version)

19 The Jackson Line – Up In Flames

18 Kelsey Bovey – Vinyl

17 Rosey Cale – Secrets

16 Deeanne Dexeter – Blind Eye

15 Biddy Ronelle & The Bullets – Dark Side

14 Charlotte Young – Lonely In My Dreams

13 O&O – A Spark Away From Fire

12 Lucy Blu – Surrender

11 Celine Ellis – Leave The Light On

10 Luke Flear – Looks Country To Me

9 Legends of Country – Single Again

8 Our Atlantic Roots – Under the Sun

7 Poppy Fardell – Good Girl

6 Stevie O’Connor – That Dog Can Hunt

5 Joe Martin – Take Me Home Tonight

4 True Strays – Let Your Heart Lead The Way

3 Motel Sundown – Brake Lights

2 Paris Adams – The Good Ones (acoustic)

1 Lauren Housley – We’re Not Backing Down

Find a playlist of every track in full here.

Country Jukebox Jury EP: Jade Helliwell – Woman

October 7, 2022

This is a very important EP. Jade is the lass from Batley who quit her job as a teaching assistant to go full-time as a singer/songwriter. She is a regular performer at Buckle and Boots and finally got to tour as part of a double bill with Kezia Gill at the end of 2021. Kez is preparing an album and a headline tour of her own, while Jade is going out to promote this EP – her first in four years!! – in October. There are six dates including a homecoming show/engagement party in Batley on Saturday 15th.

It’s a great time to be involved in the UK country scene, which even has its own chart thanks to some berk who spotted a gap in the market (a Bubbling Under Top 40 is out now too). Jade is perched near the top of the UK Country Top 40 because of her status just under the A-List quartet of Ward Thomas, Twinnie, The Shires and The Wandering Hearts. Elles Bailey and Gary Quinn are also regulars in the Top 20, which Yola dominates every quarter.

Jade, however, is close to A-List status herself. Not just because her fiancé is the son of the chair of the British Country Music Association, which helps raise her profile within the fanbase of the genre. It’s because she’s really good at what she does, one of the best performers on the circuit who dresses to impress and has the voice to match. She has a packed set including singles like Stormchaser, Put It On You, Boom Tick and Telephone, and the EP includes five songs which she has been previewing in recent shows.

Woman I Am, written with Laura Oakes, has an itchy chorus and fine production to match the lyric which is 100% yaaas queen. Nothing But The Radio is another of those sex jams where the vocalist hopes to get hot and heavy. How fun must it be for Luke Thomas to play those riffs next to the woman he loves!

Lead Me On also fits nicely next to anything coming out of Nashville, a woman scorned who has had enough of being messed around with. Drink This Wine is a piano ballad which highlights Jade’s vocal talent – she has reined in the vibrato that made her name – although there are too many uses of the word ‘just’ as filler in the lyric.

Undercover opens with the line ‘you’ve got a special set of skills’ which sets the scene for a song which crams in a ton of words in the bridge before opening up to a hugely melodic chorus that also twists the title in a neat way. This proves that Jade can not only produce fine pop songs with a country feel but, should any visiting American act need some local support (as Priscilla Block and Tenille Arts recently discovered), then Jade would be the first pick.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Chris Canterbury and Caleb Caudle

October 7, 2022

Chris Canterbury – Quaalude Lullabies

‘A heart only breaks when you use it’ is a line in this 28-minute album’s opening track The Devil, The Dealer and Me, sung over double bass, keyboard and resonating guitar. This is a Difficult Album from Chris, a Louisianan who approaches songwriting like a conversation at a kitchen table.

Self-produced, this is a piece of art akin to the latest album by Andrew Combs. Fall Apart is an acoustic ballad that Bob Harris would love. It’s full of lyrics like ‘lonesome highway’ and ‘a pound of grass’ as Chris paints the portrait of a troubadour. Similar ideas come on Felt The Same, where our narrator realises the disconnect between the hopes of hometown folk and the reality of his profession: ‘There’s nothing in this world quite as lonesome as midnight on a highway you don’t know’. The guitar and organ are perfectly arranged to suit the song.

There are more songs set on the road. Sweet Maria is a ballad celebrating a lady singing along and ‘keeping time with the radio’, while Over The Line is a trucker anthem (‘Texarkana to Carolina’) where death cannot help but rear its head (‘Drive me home, take me over the line’).

Heartache For Hire continues the downbeat mood, as Chris offers himself as someone who will ‘cut you like a cold wind if you need someone to blame’. Kitchen Table Poet is a vivid portrait of a man Chris met who ‘could turn a phrase like an AM dial…’

Yellow Mama, written by Will Kimbrough, is in the same tenor as Nick Cave’s The Mercy Seat, with the protagonist set to be executed via electric chair (’10,000 volts running straight to my head’). The accordion is completely at odds with the lyric: ‘Have mercy on me’ is not the most obvious singalong but Chris sells it well. Back On The Pills echoes the theme with the narrator, who is buzzing in a motel room, asking for forgiveness for his sins with his soul ‘as black as asphalt’.

It is no wonder that Chris’s grandpa was a Baptist preacher, as there are a great deal of lessons to be learned from the characters on this album. If you’re missing Chris Stapleton, give Chris Canterbury a go.

Caleb Caudle – Forsythia

Another half-hour of musical power comes from Caleb Caudle, whose album Forsythia begins with a toetapper called I Don’t Fit In. It has everything I like in music: a bit of twang in the guitars, some odd chords (thirds and sevenths rather than just ones, fours and fives) and a self-effacing lyric sung with panache. Bob Harris played it on The Country Show recently in between songs by Charlie Daniels and Twinnie.

Every review is likely to note that it was recorded at Cash Cabin with production by the keeper of JR’s flame John Carter Cash. Instrumentalists like Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush offer their A-List talents (actually AAA-List as they’re the best of the best), while vocals come from Carlene Carter and Elizabeth Cook. Hikes during the pandemic inspired the sound of the album, which takes its title from the yellow forsythia bushes Caleb would walk past. There’s a track on the album also called Forsythia,

His rootsy voice, which reminds me of the croon of Sean McConnell, does the songs justice. Whirligigs is about an 83-year-old man who sells items on the roadside. Jerry Douglas’ effortless solo on the dobro is like a breeze on a river and a listener shouldn’t miss the second verse where our protagonist buys an ice cream cone for his late wife. This is great songwriting full of pathos and verve.

Crazy Wayne, notionally a song about heartbreak, is driven by the lyrical hook ‘it must not be a coincidence’, while Sam Bush does his mandolin thing.

Through My Hands (‘sometimes a little warmth is hard to find’) is a gentle ballad which sounds like Alison Krauss covering a John Prine song. Tears of Savannah is a well-constructed bluegrass song with a sombre lyric and arrangement. Texas Tea has a brilliant chorus which includes a line about how ‘some mountains are worth climbing’. Caleb’s narrator was ‘born for the chase’ as he is surrounded by ‘night as dark as Texas tea’.

Shattered Glass has some great imagery to underline how Caleb can ‘handle heaviness’: rollercoasters slowing down, the Western wind blowing weathervanes, flickering lights and the burial of pride and hatchets. The album ends with Red Bank Road, a track which would sound great on a hiking trip through the land around Cash Cabin.

This piece was brought to you by the letter C!

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Kameron Marlowe – We Were Cowboys

October 6, 2022

A few weeks ago, I used Dylan Scott as an example of how to create a commercial country album. I’m now going to explain the Cookie Cutter approach to commercial country music using Kameron Marlowe’s 16-track album.

Poor Kameron has done nothing wrong, by the way, and he can definitely sell emotion through his voice. It is not his fault that Luke Combs has added a second date at the O2 Arena to his world tour next year, meaning 30,000 people are believed to be keen on seeing him perform. It is our fault, really, that he has made a traditional-leaning album which tries to recapture the spirit of a Luke Combs album.

Giving You Up first came out in June 2019. A 100%-er with music and lyrics by Kameron, it takes four familiar chords and a boring beat to underscore a song about telling an ex to get the hell away from him. It will appeal to the 18-34 streaming demographic who have lapped up Combs and Wallen in recent years. There is a danger that Music Row are flooding the market with Combsalikes and Wallengangers, but such is the way of Nashville.

Burn Em All, with its enormous guitars, also makes it over from his 2020 EP (though there’s no place for a brilliant standalone single Tequila Talking). Girl On Fire smoulders as Kameron sings of lost love, while he laments the inevitable on Does It Have To Be Over. ‘There ain’t nothing like a girl saying goodbye’ is the hook on Saying Goodbye, which is filler, while there Ain’t Enough Whiskey to help him get over a break-up.

The title track begins the album because it needs to underline how Kameron is a country artist. Cowboys are creatures of rural America, and everybody used to be a child: hence this reminiscin’ song where Clint Eastwood and John Wayne are namechecked and the chorus amps up thanks to Kameron singing from his throat. It’s followed by Country Boy’s Prayer, where Kameron throws his voice in a Combsian manner and allows me to resurrect country bingo: Charlie Daniels, church on Sunday, back roads, Bridgestone tyres, ‘the family farm’, soldiers, Grandpa and tractors are all here.

There is the usual share of A-Listers getting cuts to keep their publishers happy. Casey Beathard was there for the swampy blues of Money Ain’t $hit and Country Boy’s Prayer, while his son Tucker was in the room for Over Now, a peace offering from Kameron after an argument with his lady. The ballad Steady Heart (‘we go together like a gravel road and AM radio’) was written with Jessi Alexander and Craig Wiseman popped the jubilant Long Way Down on his Big Loud shelf.

Tyler Farr, of all people, is a secret weapon here. A man who took an Old Dominion song called A Guy Walks Into A Bar to the top of the charts in the mid-2010s is present on several tracks on this album, which at 59 minutes is far, far too long. They include the catchy This Old Town, where a fiddle answers Kameron’s voice in the chorus.

There are a pair of tracks written with the Warren Brothers, who always seem to be there whatever fork in the road commercial country music takes; they wrote Red Solo Cup, Lights Come On, Drink To That All Night, Felt Good on my Lips and Highway Don’t Care, which are all distinctive songs and all number one smashes. Can Kameron get to the top with Fool Me Again, a meditative tune where Kameron mourns a lost love with whiskey and Keith Whitley, who is fast becoming the new Waylon, a go-to country star to be namechecked.

The Warrens also helped Kameron write Granny’s Got A Garden, which is dedicated to G’maw Jan and reminds me of plenty of Tim McGraw’s catalogue. There’s even some whistling, which is lovely to hear in tandem with a mandolin.

Runnin’ Out On You is the showstopper on the album, a writer’s round-type confessional which Kameron didn’t write but gives a great reading of. Good voices will always rise to the top in Music City, and whenever they get there they will have to play the game. At least ‘the game’ in 2022 is making the sort of country that has pedal steel, fiddle and depth, but all I can hear is share prices staying high by giving people what they want.

Country Jukebox Jury EPs: Essex County, Valerie Ponzio and The Outlaw Orchestra

October 4, 2022

Essex County EP

The Bass brothers – singer/drummer Nate, guitar wizard Mark and rhythm player Kieran – landed on my radar with So Good, a radio-ready ballad which sounded like Kip Moore. Fed up of the TV talent show culture in the UK, they moved from Essex to Tennessee in 2015 and thus became familiar with how to get that sort of sound which would appeal to folk who liked rockin’ country music. They even teamed up with Ron Fair, who was instrumental in getting Christina Aguilera onto the radio in 2000.

Unable to work their material live during the pandemic, the trio had to wait until 2022 to display their brilliance at both Country2Country and Nashville Meets London. Nate played drums with one hand and held the microphone with the other, while Mark tripped over his own foot in his eagerness to impress.

They enjoyed blasting through the effervescent Fire It Up, the impact track from the self-titled project, and a power ballad called You In Tennessee where Nate hits some lovely falsetto notes while taking a tour of the state (‘They call it Wyoming but tell me why you had to go!’)

Waiting On Me is a heartbreak ballad where Nate calls out to a woman ‘up there’, asking if people have ‘wings of gold’ in heaven. Kieran takes lead on Can’t Find Me (‘without you’), sounding a lot like a boyband vocalist, with less gruffness than his brother and a yearning in his vocal (‘now I’m crying, feel like dying’).

Long Way Home opens with a spindly guitar part which is followed by Nate waking up in a hotel room while on the road; he later reveals he’s ‘missing them London bars’. The chorus is driven by the tick of a clock and some contemporary production, which proves the band can be good on record as well as onstage.

Valerie Ponzio – Frontera EP

Part of the Color Me Country line-up at The Long Road this September, Valerie won the unofficial Best Dressed award thanks to a colourful outfit that was perfectly chosen for the occasion.

The EP has been rolled out one track at a time this year, concluding with the fourth song Desert Rain, a languid ballad with an excellent vocal performance. Orale is a pop-country come-on sung in English whose Spanish title sounds great as a hook. I Could Fall In Love, conversely, is a magnificent ballad full of brushed drums and echoing steel guitar; it was a hit for Selena, a Latin popstar whose reputation has grown since her shocking death in the mid-1990s when she was on the cusp of a breakthrough in the Anglophone world. Valerie does her memory justice and I hope she covers more, especially the magnificent Bidi Bom.

Just a Bordertown was a highlight of her Long Road set. Valerie sings that her home on the Texas/Mexico border is so much more than a mere dot on a map: it taught her how to work hard, love, pray and ‘never be ashamed of the people who raised me’. This will resonate with plenty of folk and there’s a great line about ‘Circle K Saturdays’.

Gracias y mas, por favor, señora!

The Outlaw Orchestra – Back Under The Covers

The trio who impressed me at Buckle and Boots this summer return with another covers project, adding five more interpretations of rock songs to the six from 2020. They tackled tunes by Waylon Jennings, The Animals, Dolly Parton and Buffalo Springfield there, and they waste no time impressing the listener with a bluegrassy rock take on John Lennon’s Come Together, where three men make the noise of nine (as the band name suggests).

Itchycoo Park is as pretty as Joe Walsh’s Rocky Mountain Way is rocking, proving that the guys can do soft as well as heavy (check out a smart few bars of drummer Ryan on his own).

There aren’t many bands who can tackle tunes by The Band (Cripple Creek, with a barking finish) and Motorhead, whose song Iron Fist takes away the pummelling drums and replaces them with banjo and slide guitar. Although the trio are a live band foremostly, this EP will get the haemoglobin going too.