Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Alex Williams and Hillbilly Vegas

November 25, 2022

Alex Williams – Waging Peace

I missed the first album by Alex Williams, which was out on Big Machine the same year (2017) that Taylor Swift put out Reputation on the same label. The record did nothing and Alex became an independent artist while working on his second album.

It’s certainly a voice more suitable to an indie rather than a radio environment, although technically Big Machine is an indie attached to Sony Music. Old Before My Time chugs along like a Midland song (who are on Big Machine themselves), with Alex walking the line and ‘singing songs from 1969’.

The opening seconds of the opening track put me in mind of Jason Isbell or classic country chuggers like Waylon Jennings (‘ain’t lookin’ for any trouble, ain’t turnin’ any trouble down’). Higher Road stomps along with a marvellous groove that Alex’s vocals more than match as he dispenses wisdom such as ‘I won’t sell my soul lookin’ for a higher road’ and ‘only time can tell’.

Then there are the songs praising a wild spirit. Fire smoulders with a minute of guitar-led sound painting before Alex sings of ‘blue light innocence’, describing the effects of a girl he has just spotted who will ‘take your breath away’. Confession opens ‘she’s a lady most of the time’, which instantly draws in the listener’; Alex doesn’t know if he’s lucky or ‘cursed’ to have this lady.

The Best Thing (‘that’s ever happened to you’) is a smart shuffle with a neat hook and a brief harmonica solo in the middle. Rock Bottom also slows things down, with the arrangement matching the lyric of despair where Alex’s narrator is ‘counting his misfortunes’. There’s another smart lyrical hook here: ‘the only thing that’s left is anything to lose’. Then the lyric drops out and we get two minutes of blues in D major which fades out as the pedal steel comes in. Always leave the listener wanting more.

The title track sums up the sound of the album: reverberating guitar lines, a solid opening line about ‘a tripped-out TV’ and a well-worn vocal telling us that pacificism would meet ‘the belly of the beast’ which ‘looks a lot like me’. Double Nickel, on the other hand, is a fun road song full of abandon to match Alex’s drive on Interstate 55.

The album ends with a pair of tracks: The Struggle is four minutes of wisdom about the journey being more important than the destination (‘I made more miles than money’); The Vice asks listeners to ‘pick your poison’ in order to escape daily life. It’s a sombre end to a great collection whose musicianship and variety make it worth your time. Not for the first time, Big Machine’s loss is our gain.

Hillbilly Vegas – The Great Southern Hustle

Radio 2 has several specialist music shows dedicated to blues, jazz, folk, country and rock. Each has its own template and style, although sometimes you can get acts who mix genres. Fairport Convention and The Band did folk-rock, while

‘Bad rock with a fiddle’ is how Tom Petty described commercial country music. Southern rock, which his band the Heartbreakers specialised in, is a genre which draws fans of rock and country. Plenty of Nashville acts call themselves ‘country’ but are really ‘rock’: Brothers Osborne, Chris Stapleton, even Garth Brooks.

This compilation introduces the band to a UK market, coinciding with a show at the famed Troubadour venue in West London. You can already tell what it’s going to sound like by the tracklist. High Time for a Good Time and Shake It Like A Hillbilly both have squealing guitar solos and impassioned vocal performances that remind country fans of The Cadillac Three.

Livin’ Loud is a three-minute clarion call that cannot be listened to without nodding one’s head and taking the band’s advice to ‘grab a cold one’. Can’t Go Home is a hymn to living wild and carefree while getting blotto (‘so much for being happy – I wouldn’t want to lose my edge!’), while Hell To Pay brings the devil to the party.

Then, naturally, there come the power ballads. Long Way Back (‘from where I’m standing now’) is well arranged and sounds like what Boston, Asia, Chicago and all those other acts named after places used to do in about 1984. Little Miss Rough and Tumble has some gentle organ to underscore a compassionate lyric sung to the protagonist.

There’s a rock’n’roll thrust to Just Say You Love Me (‘I don’t need pictures and melodies’). Losin’ To Win sounds like Jon Bon Jovi broken down and heartbroken. ‘The life of the party is dying inside’ sings the narrator, along with the words ‘selective memory’ and ‘raise a toast to this jester’.

The second side of the album starts with I-Tsu-La/ Let’s Get Together, which is led by a prog-rock organ part that recalls the music made in 1973 (Dark Side of the Moon, by the way, is approaching 50 years old), then breaks into a bluesy series of riffs, the right amount of cowbell and the line ‘ain’t nothing wrong with how the spirit moves you’. Rock’n’roll is homage only at this point.

Two Gun Town combines the best elements of the album: organ, riffing, a breakdown in the middle of the song, close vocal harmonies and a heavy, heart backbeat. ‘I am the law in this town!!’ is the main hook. For an encore, there’s the old stalwart Ring of Fire, where a twin guitar attack helps the album end with a flourish.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Billy Strings and Granger Smith

November 24, 2022

Billy Strings – Me And Dad

Billy Strings did the double at this year’s IBMA Awards for bluegrass music, retaining the Entertainer award from 2021 and winning Song of the Year too. It’s natural that he should walk away with it, after two dates in London in March 2022 and a return visit on December 7 either side of a packed festival schedule promoting his album Renewal, discussed here.

Astoundingly, Billy is playing three dates in Nashville in February: one at the Ryman for 2400 people, two at the Bridgestone Arena in front of 20,000. In May it’s two dates at the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado and a jaunt to California and Texas. That’s a lot of bluegrass fans!

The album title explains itself, with dad Terry helping his son on some old favourites. Dad takes lead on several tunes, including Life To Go, a George Jones song in the character in jail for 18 years so far ‘and still got life to go’ and Little Blossom, a bittersweet waltz about mum and dad written in 1959 by Hank Thompson.

The instrumental ditty Frosty Morn sounds effortless, although it takes a lot of effort to be so. Toes will tap to the delightful Little Cabin Home on the Hill. Stone Walls and Steel Bars (‘I’m a three-time loser!’) and I Haven’t Seen Mary In Years are familiar tunes which are brought to life by modern recording techniques, so each pluck of string vibrates in the listener’s ear.

Likewise, AP Carter’s Wandering Boy reaches across the decades to an audience who may have come to bluegrass and ‘old time music’ via Billy’s experimental style which has been compared to the great American jam bands like Phish and the Grateful Dead. (We call our jam bands ‘prog’ in the UK. Perhaps lots of prog acolytes will turn up to Billy’s UK sets.)

The set is well chosen. I Heard My Mother Weeping closes the album with a vocal from Billy’s own mum, who is upset at her son being sent to jail. John Deere Tractor, once interpreted by the Judds, is a letter written from son to mum (‘I guess my city days are done’), while Dig A Little Deeper (In The Well) includes a verse where the narrator recalls his dad’s old words. It impresses me that it was first performed by the Oak Ridge Boys in 1979, given that it has become a bluegrass standard.

Michael Cleveland’s fiddle joins the pair on the Doc Watson compositions Peartree and Way Downtown, which sound like the best kind of front porch jam. Emma John’s marvellous book on bluegrass, Wayfaring Stranger, shows that you don’t need to cram into an arena to see bluegrass done well, but it helps if you can make a bit of money doing it.

Granger Smith – Moonrise

When I started listening to country music properly in 2015, Granger Smith was always on the radio with songs like If The Boot Fits, Backroad Song and Happens Like That. His comic creation Earl Dibbles Jr amused me, and I have been impressed with how he and his family have bounced back from personal tragedy involving the death of a child. They have since had a boy named Maverick, born in August 2021.

Granger seems to alternate between big projects like his two-volume Country Things set from 2020 and his movie soundtrack They Were There, a tribute to veterans. He’s successful enough to open for Garth Brooks on one date of his massive tour, but lacks the awards to make him a household name. Indeed, his last single That’s Why I Love Dirt Roads missed the top 40 at radio and You’re In It, a delectable confection, stalled at 36.

Nonetheless, he is signed to Wheelhouse Records, a subsidiary of Broken Bow, and produces his music in a contemporary style which never detracts from his Texan roots. Listen to the fiddle and stomp that introduces Tailgate Church Pew, where he makes his truck his place of prayer.

Damn Guitar is 100-percenter, with words and music by Granger (rare enough in modern country music to still be notable). There’s a great but sombre line about how he has held his ‘six strings of therapy’ more than any girl, which will resonate with any songwriter and should find a big audience if given the right push.

The album’s impact track, which has a music video, is In This House, co-written by Mitchell Tenpenny and ticking off lots of rural cliches (‘watch football after Sunday service’) that are true to Granger’s life. Broke In is one of those songs where old things still hold up and ‘how it ain’t broken, it’s just broke in’ (smart), while Black Suit is an example of ekphrasis, a classical term meaning an extended description of an item (‘don’t fit like my blue jeans’). It reminds me of how Brad Paisley dared himself to write a song about water, or Natalie Hemby wrote one called Taxidermy.

Rodney Clawson, who has also written fine ekphrastic songs about dirt and one of those nights, was in the room for Something To Go On, another radio-friendly love song full of joy and levity. Ditto two passionate love songs, Still Find You and Never Been, while on Something Is Changing Granger likens himself, ‘a simple man’, to a ‘rock that needs something to lean on’. It seeks to change the conversation and is a very modern idea of how men should open up to someone as they grieve.

Granger puts the songs (many of which began life as sketches which he had lying around in notebooks) in the mouth of Will, his character in the forthcoming movie also called Moonrise, which will fight all those Christmas movies and Avatar 2 for viewers this holiday season. Forever Forward seems to wrap a bow on the story: ‘I don’t have to move on, I write it down in the words of a new song’ is a key lyric in a song about holding on, keeping on and being strong. I also like the rhyme of ‘brick and mortar’ with the song’s title. The album’s title track, where Granger flies so high he can see fireworks from above, is likely the end credits music.

I hope Granger and Earl come to the UK, perhaps on a family vacation, in 2023.

Ka-Ching…With Twang: Jake Blount – The New Faith

November 22, 2022

The reason that the Country Way of Life Twitter account has been locked and archived (with thanks for following!) is because country music criticism has ceased to be about music. There are Brantley Gilbert and Jason Aldean fanatics who would subscribe to their version of the ‘Never Kissed A Tory’ credo held by many left-leaning Britons. Politics has seized every aspect of American culture and that includes country music.

Rather cutely The Telegraph, the paper Tories kiss every morning, calls Jake Blount’s new album The New Faith ‘spiritually moving’ and ‘revelatory’, which rather suggests they are judging it on the music, as shall I. The above is a context of why music discussion should be about music, but nobody gets a like for saying ‘this is good on its own terms’.

Nashville became popular for music publishers because it printed Bibles too. It is no surprise that there has been a rush of folk from New York and Los Angeles to Nashville because follow the money remains law. With the businessmen come journalists who hold power to account: Marcus K Dowling, Charles L Hughes (an academic who wrote a book about a rapper with dwarfism, a condition from which he too suffers), Andrea Williams and Marissa Moss have all made a career out of reporting the modern conditions of Nashville.

To be clear, country music needs to adapt or die, especially after freezing out women from radio, a dying medium. The passion these critics feel for a wider array of voices is endearing but sometimes their anger becomes political and less about the music than about skin pigmentation or items of sexual equipment.

Jake Blount is a musician who intersects (buzz word!!) music and academia. Born in Washington DC as the son of TV anchors, his heritage comes from both Sweden and the African diaspora. Jake studied folk music much like Rhiannon Giddens, who is doing astonishing work correcting the biased history of folk and bluegrass in America and for whom Jake opened.

This second album The New Faith comes out on Smithsonian Folkways, the Blue Note or Deutsche Grammophon of folk music. Its creator was on the cover of Country Music People magazine to promote it. He has also been supported by Apple Music, NPR and Rolling Stone, the last of these giving him space (buzz word number two!!) to write an essay about how climate change is affecting live music.

‘I am a homosexual,’ he writes in the very first paragraph before going on to criticise streaming royalties and ‘the music industry’s climatological malfeasance’ that makes Jake and his fellow folkies ‘complicit’ in destroying nature and ‘systemic discrimination’ (buzz word bingo) against those who live in hotter countries which include ‘women, people of color and people with low incomes’.

Naturally, he thinks ‘regulating the current music industry out of existence’ is the way to go, promoting the folk ideal of community and art over profit, which is brave to write in Rolling Stone, which became a brand in defiance of its counter-cultural nature.

That’s 500 words before I even press play on the album. I know Jake from his Twitter account @forked_queer where I am advised to use the he/they pronoun.  In response to news that two big publishers couldn’t merge, Jake wrote ‘break up the major labels’. He commented on the passing of gay performer Patrick Haggerty, who was ‘a relative of my family through marriage’, and told people to attack Saturday Night Live for giving ‘the famously bigoted and problematic’ Dave Chappelle 15 minutes to talk about Jewish prejudice. He also wanted to know if other folk were leaving Twitter and changed his handle to ‘’.

It’s not new to mix country music and politics – Loretta Lynn, Alan Jackson, Toby Keith and on and on – but it’s now part of the appeal. An album by a performer who is both black and queer must be heard in that context, especially a folk artist in the long line of performers keeping songs alive and writing new twists on old tropes.

Jake’s voice reminds me of that of David Byrne, another man who sometimes looks to folk music for inspiration. The Downward Road, on which Jake tells the role of a bard asking his audience to ‘gather round’, is ‘crowded’. Both that track and the following one, the trad. arr. Didn’t It Rain, are accompanied by handclap percussion.

Take Me To The Water (‘to be baptised’) is sung a cappella over a babbling brook before a spoken prayer (‘we gather here to reject the greed of our forefathers’). There is another spoken-word parable moving the listener to the coast, as storms, lynchings and fever take the lives of ‘refugees’ heading north. ‘Only three of the original 30 remained’ is the last sentence of the parable, which falls into the traditional song Death Have Mercy, which features a rap from Demeanor. He also pops up on Give Up The World, where he seems to rhyme ‘Fibonacci/ malarkey’. Modern and ancient folk tales interweave magnificently.

The track Psalms continues the narrative: ‘spare me, O Death’ is the first prayer that influences those settlers. It’s a muddled poem where voices overlap with each other and Jake challenges the listener to do good and right. ‘Trouble not with worldly possessions!’ he orders, in the sort of tone that his news-reading parents would use.

Tangle Eye Blues was a track transcribed by Alan Lomax, which Jake arranges with double-stopped fiddle drone and vocalised oohs, with the vocals (‘daddy please don’t go’) particularly poignant across the decades. City Called Heaven has bluesy guitar and a sampled sound of what might be white noise anchoring a story of a poor wayfarer, while They Are Waiting For Me is a gospel tune transferred to a chirpy major-key acoustic guitar part. Just As Well Get Ready, You Got To Die is self-explanatory; the string section and close harmony singing elevate the song.

This arresting yet tough album finishes with Once There Was No Sun, which pulls the lyrical and musical strands together. I’ll certainly follow Jake’s career which, like Rhiannon Giddens, may involve as much documentary as performance. For a start, he should be booked at Black Deer and The Long Road in 2023 to preach his gospel to UK crowds.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Teague Brothers Band and Gabe Lee

November 21, 2022

Teague Brothers Band – Love and War

In the course of the last two years, I have greatly enjoyed presenting an hour-long Sunday afternoon show on Arc Radio with a focus on music from Texas and Oklahoma. I have come to love acts like Mike and the Moonpies, Mike Ryan, Jesse Daniel and Casey Donahew, as well as mainstays of the Texas Regional Radio chart and the associated scene. Josh Abbott Band, Bri Bagwell, Kylie Frey, Randy Rogers Band and Wade Bowen are never off the radio.

Nor are Teague Brothers Band. This second album follows their 2019 debut Harvest Day, which had eight tracks including singles Coyote and Fingers and Thumbs, and a 2021 EP American Folk Songs. That collection included the monster hit Don’t Want To Go Home. The group leader and main songwriter is John Teague, who used to be a soldier and now runs a construction company. He and his wife operate a ranch with bees, chickens, pigs and cows.

The lead track I Found Trouble (‘I found you…I’m chasing you till my feet get sore!’) sets the tone for the album. A stomping backbeat and a jubilant fiddle part introduce John’s throaty, rough-edged vocal, with the band’s harmonies joining him a few bars later. Turnpike, Avett, Flatland and Josh Abbott all do this sort of rootsy Southern rock too, which ensure feet tap and hands clap and your face unconsciously breaks out in a smile.

The title track is a powerful rock’n’roller about a lady who wants something more than John, who was ‘king of the Dairy Queen’ when the pair fell in love but to whom she keeps giving second chances. These Days is a midtempo tune of advice full of ‘suffering’ and how you can’t ‘trust someone else’ to shoot a lame cow. The fiddle part follows the tenor of the song. Pipeliner’s chorus includes more close harmony that makes the metaphor come to life (‘she don’t mind me being married to work’). Pretty Ugly, meanwhile, is a proper Texan country tune with the hook ‘she’s not pretty, she’s not ugly’.

John’s lonely vocals echo around the studio on Blow, which has a swampy feel to match the swampy waters of the lyric. Moscato Wine is a waltz where John’s narrator bemoans his lady walking out on him. ‘Don’t feel sorry for me,’ he adds bitterly, ‘it’s amazing how resilient a man can be’. Last Thing You Heard (Jericho) is another triple-time chest-beater where the narrator enlists his brother Jericho to avenge a murder. ‘I’m the courier of truth’ is a good line, as is ‘I’m the cornerstone of truth’.

January (‘nice to meet you’) is another slowie that settles the pulse before the turbocharged Buckskin Gelding, which is my country star name. ‘Between you and I let’s settle this!’ sets up a fight that will convert anyone who says ‘ach I don’t listen to country!’ Ah, but do you know of Red Dirt music? It’s like country but proper.

Gabe Lee – The Hometown Kid

Gabe Lee is a barman in Nashville who knows that musicians are fifty-a-penny in Music City. Happily, Gabe got the support of Grady Smith and Kyle Coroneos (aka Trigger from Saving Country Music) and also A Country Way of Life for his entertaining second album Honky Tonk Hell, which came out in the middle of March 2020. Rats.

Album three comes out on his producer Alex Torrez’s label. It begins with Wide Open, a troubadour’s song with widescreen guitars and, in the lyric, a John Prine bumper sticker. Rusty is about growing old with ‘not enough gasoline’ and has Gabe’s narrator asking for ‘an angel on patrol’. On Kinda Man, he is full of defiance in spite of his regrets, such as injuring his ankle just before he could have gone on to play college football.

Gabe’s voice has the same high tenor range as Lukas Nelson’s, and he uses it well on songs like Over You and Lucky Stars, which hints at trips to therapy or AA groups. One of These Days is a pick-me-up song, with added fiddle, where the narrator despairs of his decisions; the line ‘I have to be honest to my own stubborn ways’ is set to a diminished chord.

Gabe must have an enormous record collection, judging by the influences on this album. Long Gone has the side-to-side sway of a Randy Newman song (‘I used to pray every morning’), while Buffalo Road, another heartache song, sounds like a Jackson Browne ballad from 1971, right down to the wailing guitar solo that anchors it. The album’s second side begins with the delicious acoustic ballad Lonely, which ‘ain’t what it used to be’ with ‘Willie Nelson and a box of wine’. Angel Band closes the album with a punchy drum part and some honky-tonk piano to match the kind of band Gabe wants to play in when he dies.

The album’s centrepiece is the eight-minute suite Longer I Run/ Hammer Down. The former (‘this living is far from just begun’) foregrounds Gabe’s voice with a bass accompaniment before a retro arrangement for verse two. There are even some horns and some sweet call-and-response backing vocals in the chorus, giving it a smooth quality that reminds me of Paul Simon.

Hammer Down is a waltz where Gabe tells his steel player to get playing. That sound, with added fiddle, continues on Never Rained Again, a magnificent love song about how every cloud has its silver lining. For that track alone, you should pay attention to Gabe Lee.

Ka-Ching…With Twang: Joniana from Native Harrow and First Aid Kit

November 18, 2022

Native Harrow – Old Kind of Magic

First Aid Kit – Palomino

Joniana is a genre I invented to describe acts influences by Canadian maven Joni Mitchell. It is beyond obvious to point out the debt to Joni on the music of both Native Harrow, who are from London (though now based on the South Coast) and signed to Loose Music, and First Aid Kit, the Swedish sisters with fluttering harmonies. Both acts put out albums around Daylight Savings Time 2022.

Old Kind of Magic, the duo Native Harrow’s fifth album, contains plenty of ingredients that make up Joniana. There is strength in breaking up and going it alone on the title track (‘me, myself and I’). The six-minute Heart of Love is right in the Laurel Canyon mode, which continues on I Was Told, with some blue notes and diminished chords from singer Devin Tuel. A dropped-tune 12-string guitar thrums on I Remember, sounding like Joni’s autoharp, and closing track Find A Reason.

‘Time waits for no-one so darling take its hand’ is a lyric on Magic Eye. There are some social politics on Used To Be Free, as well as a meta commentary on Devin’s singing (‘I swallow notes’). The magisterial chorus of As It Goes has a Hammond organ part behind her vocals, which pass the baton to a string section for the final minute of the song. There’s a lush arrangement on Long Long Road which makes me think a set at next year’s Long Road festival would welcome the duo.

Johanna and Klara aka First Aid Kit did put out a tribute album to Leonard Cohen last year, a palate cleanser before their first original material since 2018’s Ruins. Out of My Head opens softly before rolling drums accompany the chorus and the harmonies intertwine on the second verse; the narrator is a beggar, prisoner and river, stacking up the metaphors while ‘running on love’. Angel (‘can’t you see you’re free?’) is even bigger and bolder. Both songs were apt choices of impact tracks to promote Palomino; it’s also odd that there are two albums (the other by Miranda Lambert) with the same title in the same year of release.

Turning Onto You has some horns parping behind a song of fidelity, as is Nobody Knows (‘me the way that you do’) and The Last One, where our narrator laments ‘wasting my time before you’. There’s a set of three notes that reminds me of The Tide Is High, which is probably accidental, as is the ‘take it slow’ hook of Ready To Run (where the narrator was ‘a nervous little kid’) that matches the one in John Legend’s Ordinary People.

There’s a lot of bass in the mix of Heavy Snow (‘I’m gonna love you till the moon don’t shine’ and I can imagine a mass humming session on Wild Horses II, a road trip with a magnificent arrangement. There are handclaps and electric guitar on the breakup song, and fellow impact track, A Feeling That Never Came, which provides some variety even though the lyrics would fit a ballad; this must be the ‘happy-sad’ that those Swedes do so well.

29 Palms Highway, which repeats the line ‘I hold my arms out to you’, ends with a high string part which increases the yearning. The title track jingles and jangles and, like many other tracks on the album, mentions the elements (‘wind in my hair’) and a drive on the highway. It’s not just about the harmonies here: the arrangements, structure and instrumentation are all excellent.

The Swedes can even do roots music better than the Americans.

The UK Country Top 40 Bubbling Further Under Chart: Autumn 2022

November 18, 2022

Hear every song in full at this Spotify playlist.

Acts in bold are interviewed in the radio versions of the chart, which can be found here.

First part: 40 to 21

Second part: 20 to 11 with Sarah Louise and Pete Gow

Third part: The Top 10 with Robyn Red, Preston D Barnes and April Moon

40 Lisa T and Elaine Lennon – The Best Kept Secret

39 Anna Krantz – Ready To Meet You

38 Emma & Jolie – All That Glitters

37 Raintown – Play It Loud

36 Flatland Kings – Won’t Let Go

35 Andrew Jones – Broadway Lights

34 Recovering Satellites – The Fair

33 Thomas Kavanagh – Other Side of You

32 Mr Paul Adams – 47

31 Sarah Yeo – No Way Jose

30 Danny McMahon – Forget About That

29 Eleri Angharad – New Sin

28 Jeannine Barry – Fearless

27 Roseanne Reid – Hallucinate

26 Simon James – Ghosts

25 A Million Ashes – Singles Shooting Doubles

24 Izzie Walsh – Jimmy

23 Kerri Watt – Bad Moon Rising

22 Rae Sam – Feel This Good

21 Angell & King – Long Ride

20 Pete Gow – Where Else Would We Be Going? 

19 Lucy Grubb – You Don’t Do Anything

18 The Blue Highways – Nobody Lives Here Anymore

17 Adam Brucass – If I Didn’t Know You

16 Jeorgia Rose – Safe Place to Land

15 Blue Rose Code – The Wild Atlantic Way

14 Meg McPartlin – Mama Watch Me Dance

13 Jack & Tim – Little House, Big Love

12 Sarah Louise – My Grandparents and Me

11 Megan McKenna – The Good, The Bad and the Bitch

10 Kevin McGuire – Killing Time

9 Chloe Jones – Giving Up The Ghost

8 April Moon – The Lord Hath Taken Away

7 Catherine McGrath – Grace

6 Megan O’Neill – Fail Better

5 Preston D Barnes – Still Believe in Crazy Love

4 Robyn Red – Like A Bullet

3 Jordan Harvey – I Will

1= Chloe Chadwick – 2 Peas in a Pod

1= Lorna Reid – My Hotel Wrecking Days Are Over

Hear every song in full at this Spotify playlist.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Brantley Gilbert and Randy Houser

November 16, 2022

Brantley Gilbert – So Help Me God

Look, there’s no point in having a go at Brantley, who has a devoted fanbase and much more money than I. Signed to Valory, which also makes money off Thomas Rhett, he co-wrote Dirt Road Anthem, the song that hit pay dirt. Hee has been on radio for a decade with variants on the broish Aldean formula. As we saw at the 2022 CMA Awards, the genre now makes money from neo-neo-traditional acts like Lainey Wilson and Luke Combs, which make Brantley and Aldean yesterday’s men. There is a reason Tyler Hubbard will release an album in January which paints him as the new Tim McGraw, not the new Aldean.

Here on his seventh album, Brantley hits up the man of the moment Michael Hardy to assist on his latest bit of brand extension. Toby Keith and a saxophonist turn up with the pair on The Worst Country Song of All Time, which replaces every rural cliché with an urban one. ‘I support Kim Jong-Un and Putin’ remains in the lyric, which is a gross mistake given what Putin has done in Ukraine since the song was released.

We’ve already heard half of this mercifully short collection. Rolex® on a Redneck (sic) puts Brantley and Aldean together in what could have been a wonderful bit of class politics were it not for the execrable production choices and a lyric which actually includes ‘do what it does’, a lazy line. Perhaps Randy Montana and Hardy were both hungover that day, or just overruled. Hardy was in the room for the title track, which closes the album on a philosophical note: ‘if I don’t quit she’s gonna quit me’ sighs the narrator who needs to change his ways to keep his beloved. This song might help thousands of listeners to reach sobriety and might increase a pastor’s flock.

Seven men, including those two A-listers, came up with the song Heaven By Then, and two more – Blake Shelton and Vince Gill – turned up in the studio. It’s the same idea as Worst Country Song… but the trio imagine those horrible things happen after they have left the earth. How To Talk To Girls took eight men to write including Michael Ray; it’s a plodder redeemed by its hook where our narrator is ‘lost for words’ and thus learning how to talk at all.

Tom Petty called country music ‘bad rock with a fiddle’ and Miles of Memories uses the same delayed guitar trick The Edge has deployed for 40 years. She’s The One is a power ballad which may soundtrack first dances when two members of Brantley Nation get married. Gone But Not Forgotten (‘memories, we got ‘em’) is filler, and will be forgotten as soon as you hear it.

Little Piece of Heaven is alas not a cover of the Elles Bailey modern standard but a complaint from our narrator that his beloved is making his life ‘hell on earth’ with her fiery personality. I’d have thought Brantley would like this sort of thing!

On Son of the Dirty South, he is joined by Jelly Roll, who might have more tats than Brantley. Jelly, whose song Son of a Sinner has been on country radio all year, returns to his rapping wheelhouse, similar to how Lil Nas X rapped on Old Town Road but was taken off the country chart, probably because radio didn’t want to play a black man when they could play Aldean and Brantley. Guitar solos and processed beats may sound hackneyed in 2022 but there’s still a market for this type of thing, especially when the city kids come to Nashville to throw hen and stag dos on Broadway.

Nobody will become a Brantley Gilbert fan by listening to this album. Like Aldean, it’s all diminishing returns for the Dirt Road bros. Commercial country has never been either/or, but both; money can be made from anyone at any time. It’s sad that Nashville waited so long to pivot away from the bros, but it’s a town run by spreadsheets and suits.

Randy Houser – Note to Self

Like Scotty McCreery, Randy Houser is thriving as an independent artist, free from the trappings of Music Row (and its accountants) but keeping his friends close. I first knew him as a singer of We Went and Running Outta Moonlight, which were cooked up in a writer’s room and handed to Randy to sing the heck out of them to play between commercials on country radio.

After an astonishing album in 2019 called Magnolia, this is the second album of Randy’s renaissance. Opening track Still That Cowboy has pedal steel and harmonies in the right places, as the narrator pledges eternal love to his beloved even as ‘a kid with a couple kids’. The title track was the first preview of this ten-song collection. Such is the esteem in which Randy is held that Ross Copperman, Casey Beathard and Bobby Pinson (whose songs have been cut by Toby Keith) added star wattage to the room. It’s a song full of advice to Randy himself and any listener, with the best being not to ‘take her for granted’ but ‘take her out’.

The pattern continues for the rest of the album, with writers like Randy Montana popping up on the gospel-tinged Workin’ Man, which is suitably Combsian given that Randy has written a lot of Luke’s great tunes. Paul Overstreet co-writes the heartbreak ballad Call Me, a list of words Randy wants to be called so long as his beloved calls him. The legendary Warren brothers channel their expertise into American Dreamer, a set of images and vignettes that come together to warm the cockles of any country fan’s heart. Randy sells the heck out of it, especially the vocal wigout near the end.

He co-writes Remember How To Pray with Kendell Marvel, which starts with an image of Randy at eight years old (the same age Scotty McCreery was in the opening of Five More Minutes!!) learning how to praise the Lord. We know exactly where this is going: through adolescence, performing in ‘empty bars’ and believing in a ‘perfect’ deity. There is a magnificent acoustic guitar passage before the final chorus whose lyric matches the warmth of Randy’s vocal.

Jeff Hyde was there for both Take It To The Bank (the ol’ familiar trope of hanging out at the riverbank with beer, wine and ‘a hook on a line’) and the deliciously retro Country Round Here Tonight, which is one of many songs which take the Luke Combs idea of singing about singing to people. It would have been a smash in 2011 and might well be in 2023, if Randy is at all interested in playing the country radio game. Out and Down has a similar tone, reversing ‘down and out’ as Randy drinks ‘cheers to all my troubles’.

Rub A Little Dirt On It (‘when life gets a little hurt on it’) is a twist on familiar rural themes that soothe the soul. It sounds like a Tim McGraw hit from 2005 and that retro sound suits Randy’s voice. If only he hadn’t come up in the middle of the Bro Era he’d be far more garlanded, rather than a sort of secret.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Madeline Edwards and Stephanie Quayle

November 15, 2022

Madeline Edwards – Crashlanded

Looking at the tracklengths for the 12 songs on Crashlanded, which are around the three-minute mark you’d think Madeline Edwards was trying to enter Eurovision, or its American equivalent. The title track explodes into a chorus which will cross borders, while she notes bitterly that ‘people are famous for no reason’ and politicians are fake.

Why I’m Calling, which was on an EP released earlier this year, opens with an image of a broken dishwasher which pulls the listener in. Madeline’s narrator wants to hear the whippoorwill wind back home in Houston, so the presence of this track on the album introduces new fans to another Texan. Her voice is in the same ballpark as Kelly Clarkson’s.

On the fearsome Spurs, Madeline sings that ‘these boots can put you through hell’; Forehead Kisses has a heavy backbeat, a slinky groove and a great set of lyrics. How Strong I Am has the Ross Copperman touch and bounces along philosophically and will comfort those who are fighting through the same sort of ‘pain’ Madeline sings about. Piano-led Too Much of a Good Thing is a torch song full of uncertainty and questioning.

Madeline is wearing many hats on an album full of variety and character. She supported Chris Stapleton this year and his mix of musical influences reflects what she is about as well. Mama, Dolly, Jesus proves she can do country music with melodic heft. She wrote it with three heavyweight writers: Jimmy Robbins, Jessi Jo Dillon and Laura Veltz. Luke Dick joins Laura and Madeline in the room for the funky pair Playground (‘I’ll swing you way out’) and Heavy, a song about fidelity on which the narrator wants her friend to ‘let down your guard’.

Luke Dick has worked with Miranda Lambert and Eric Church, two acts who look as good in sunglasses as Madeline does on the cover of the album. Miranda will also note the ‘palomino’ in the opening of Hold My Horses which becomes a metaphor for Madeline herself. Elle King has an album out in January and the bluesy riffs on both that track and The Wolves (‘I ain’t scared of nothin’) would make the pair fine festival bookings.

The Biggest Wheel is the outlier, a ballad that runs well over three minutes which has some fluffy chords from what sounds like a Mellotron in the second verse. Big up to Englishman Rob Persaud who co-wrote the song. I hear a lot of Pink’s voice in Madeline’s, which might make her perfect for a vocal on a dance hit.

It’s clear with this album that Warner Nashville are positioning her as An Artist with a capital A. She appeared at the 2021 CMA Awards with Mickey Guyton and Brittney Spencer, and it would be too easy to lump Madeline in with the pair of them just because of her skin pigmentation. Ditto Miko Marks, who returns to the UK in January for AmericanaFest, and godmother Rissi Palmer, who brought Madeline and Miko to the UK in September for The Long Road.

But country music is much more than the big radio hits and the sooner folk realise it, the better.

Stephanie Quayle

In 2017 Stephanie Quayle released the minor radio hits Selfish and Drinking With Dolly, which enabled her to play Country2Country and do some grippin’ and grinnin’ with UK fans. Five years later, she follows up the album Love The Way You See Me with a self-titled set of eight tracks, once again released independently.

I Want The World For You is yet another version of Someone Like You (cf I Hope You’re Happy Now) sung prettily and with feeling. Karen Kosowski, who produced Mickey Guyton’s album, joins Stephanie in the room for Hang My Hat, a delectable love song full of rural imagery (boots, gates, faith) and a vocal that reminds me of Jana Kramer’s. We Buy Gold is another magnificent tune in praise of the wedding band, an item which was mentioned in I Got The Boy, my favourite Jana Kramer song.

The Kitchen is a proper country song about domestic matters, where there’s ‘fighting, forgiving, making everyone’s business our business’. I like the double-tracked guitar solo too. By Heart takes the motif of the narrator asking loads of questions to find out about a new crush, which is the premise of I Don’t Know About You. This is a more tuneful, more swayable and better song than that in ever way. There’s a nod to Sweet Caroline too for good measure.

Wild Frontier was put on a shelf by Maren Morris, Shane McAnally and Ross Copperman. It can’t fail and it hasn’t failed, mainly because the arrangement follows the lyric, which starts with a rhyme of ‘blaze of glory/uncharted territory’. It’s not suitable for Maren’s lovey-dovey persona so Stephanie runs away with it. Lone Ranger, co-written by Stephanie, has a similar musical palate but a narrator who would rather be single, would rather ‘heartache be my friend’, than an object of desire for some schmo. There is another massive guitar solo in the middle of the song.

Light My Way is a tune by Brett James, Caitlyn Smith and Chris DeStefano which ends the album. It’s one of those songs about being ‘tired of flying blind’, ‘holding on to letting go’ and moving on and being strong. There’s a clever hook about how ‘the bridges that I burn will light my way’ and it’ll touch lots of listeners but, like much of this collection, it’s a bit banal. But banality works in country music.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Russell Dickerson

November 8, 2022

While promoting his first album Yours in the UK, I was very impressed by Russell when he played both Nashville Meets London and Country2Country. I loved Blue Tacoma the moment I heard it, even if it had the same chords as his soppy ballad Yours, with its ‘boat stuck in a bottle’ image. I loved his debut album which included the poppy single Every Little Thing, and I like the fact that his wife Kailey is part of his team.

His second album Southern Symphony came and went, lost during the pandemic (and fatherhood) but driven by the radio hits Love You Like I Used To and Home Sweet (which stalled at 10 on radio). It allowed him to play the main stage at C2C in 2022, opening for Miranda Lambert.

His friends BK and T-Hub from FGL (Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard from Florida Georgia Line) are working on solo projects; Russell has been out on the road with Tim McGraw, who also does romantic rural music with a poppy edge and, like Russell, is from Tennessee.

RD’s third album is self-titled and was trailed by the impact track She Likes It, a completely blah Tiktokable duet with its co-writer Jake Scott that of course is being spun on country radio. The key lyric is ‘she likes it when I oooooh’. There’s no point in complaining about this: Russell’s face fits, as does his voice and his haircut, but he’s an independent act signed to Triple Tigers, which is also home to Scotty McCreery and Cam. That, I think, would be a perfect night of country music: Russell brings the party and the ballads, Scotty brings the ballads and the party, Cam is a woman.

Russell starts with an MOR ballad, Blame It On Being Young, a reminiscin’ tune which mentions ‘fake ID’ and ‘TP’ (toilet paper) in the first stanza. As a sort of thank you for taking him out on the road, he even namechecks Tim McGraw just before the final chorus. I Remember is the same song but with a cumbia beat (the one from Despacito); he even quotes Semi Charmed Life by Third Eye Blind in the second verse, which is one step down from what Cole Swindell does on She Had Me At Heads Carolina, which I’ve still not gotten over.

His other uptempo or party songs sound like FGL from 2015. Sorry (‘for kissing you in front of everybody’) sounds like every other drum-heavy perky tune sung by a bloke, be they Mitchell Tenpenny or Dustin Lynch, but that’s the market imperative. All The Same Friends says nothing in a melodic manner and Big Wheels (‘back roads and cold beer’) comes and goes inside two minutes.

She’s Why was written with LA pop writer Sean Douglas and Josh ‘Need You Now’ Kerr. Russell croons about how his lady is like a heatwave, ‘the reason why God made jeans’ and ‘TK Maxx, no Gucci’, while there’s a muted guitar part that is fresh out of LA. Another pop writer, Ilsey Juber, was in the room for 18, another pop song where Russell wishes he had met his wife far earlier than he did. Over and Over would have been better as an acoustic outro to the album; it’s insubstantial and another song perfect for young couples who are the album’s target demographic.

Russell started as a songwriter in town and was also the useless (by his own admission) guitar tech for contemporary Christian singer Chris Tomlin. God Gave Me A Girl is his nod to CCM (contemporary Christian music), with the sort of production Carrie Underwood has used throughout her career and a lyric that is yet another addition to Russell’s stack of wedding ballads. There is no surprise that Ashley Gorley is involved in this song, which does its job impressively and ends the first side of the album. Ashley was also in the room for Drink To This, a song that stretches a moment from present to future. It includes a coda full of woahs which will bring out the cameraphones.

Russell has also drafted in some Nashville A-Listers. The great Jon Nite was in the room for I Wonder, a philosophical breakup song with an enormous guitar part: ‘Will I ever love like I loved her?’ is the narrator’s conclusion. On Beers to the Summer – produced by Zach Crowell who is the king of the track (ie the production or the ‘record’ element of a song’) – he at least calls the sky ‘sapphire’ to distinguish it from other midtempo tunes about nothing. Just Like Your Mama is a Lori McKenna co-write which Russell played on his recent visit to the UK. It celebrates his daughter and wife much like Brett Young does on his song Lady, except with the lyric ‘no bull and no drama’.

I Still Believe is a load of images strung together by a credo: ‘the best songs go oh-oh-oooh’, sweet tea, gridiron, calling mama, John 3:16 and that’s country bingo. It’s basically Most People Are Good by Luke Bryan or any number of other songs of that ilk, but with a throbbing guitar solo in the middle of it. Perhaps they’ve got one bloke churning these out every day on Music Row as punishment for putting a polysyllabic word into a narrative epic in 2018.

Kudos to Russell for co-producing the album in a country-pop manner which will appeal to his international fanbase. He’s basically a clean-shaven Thomas Rhett, or Kane Brown with a designer haircut. Either way, he’ll still get played on the radio and people will stream this album.