Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Kendell Marvel and Ben Burgess

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.

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