Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Brantley Gilbert and Randy Houser

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.

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