Country Jukebox Jury LP: Elle King – Come Get Your Wife

January 31, 2023

Rob Schneider’s daughter Tanner records as Elle King, using her own middle name and her mum London’s maiden name. She had a massive rock number one with the poorly punctuated Ex’s and Oh’s, which persuaded me to buy her debut album Love, Stuff. It sounded like a mishmash as Elle tried to do what she wanted to do, mainly banjo-led hollers, and also what her label wanted her to do, which was to sing ‘I’m not America’s sweetheart but you love me anyway.’

A second album stiffed and she got divorced from the Scottish man she had wed in secret after meeting days before: ‘I was partying so hard to numb emotions that I couldn’t handle at the time,’ she told one interviewer. Now, Elle is a proud mum who rubbed her bump during a TV performance of Drunk and I Don’t Wanna Go Home.

That song, which came out at the start of 2021 before Elle took maternity leave, is here, of course, and will be her career song that soundtracks millions of hen parties in Nashville and beyond. How does Elle make the case that she can do music that isn’t calculated to make money in the bars of Lower Broadway? How can she be the capital-A Artist that she wants to be?

Teaming up with Ross Copperman to co-produce the album has helped. Ross is himself a former artist who has moved into songwriting as Brett Eldredge’s key collaborator, and is very able to walk the pop/rock/country lines. Elle only has writing credits on half the tracks, which reminds me of the presence of big-name writers on rock albums by Maneskin and Liam Gallagher. Backroom boys are necessary when the talent is hitting big stages.

In fact Elle had junked an album recorded with the Foo Fighters producer Greg Kurstin; she said that in country, after all, ‘you have to be a lifer…I don’t want anyone to kick me out’ so it made sense to abandon any shot at pop stardom, where motherhood is almost frowned upon, to go country.

Those outside writes include Before You Met Me, where three writers sum up a carefree spirit like Elle, and Worth A Shot, where Elle wants to have ‘a last hurrah’ with her beau. The latter was written by Copperman, Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, who know what a hit sounds like and have written this type of song hundreds of times before. Playing the part of the ‘guy that used to make you laugh’ is Dierks Bentley, who returns the favour Elle had shown when she popped up on his number one Different For Girls, which was written by McAnally.

Tyler Childers, a bluegrass/rock act who is touring with Elle this year, has allowed her to record an official cover of his beloved and much covered Jersey Giant, a reminiscin’ song made up of four chords. The narrator wants the company of an old friend with whom she used to drink, sing and enjoy ‘nights of reckless glory’. The harmonies are terrific and I am sure she will get the banjo out for this one.

Crawlin’ Mood is a contribution from Jesse Frasure and Charlie Worsham with a nagging chorus and a narrator who can best be described using the hugely overused term unapologetic in spite of losing her man. I imagine that’s Charlie’s superb guitar in the middle of the song. Ashley Gorley – who really is on every album these days – was in the room for Try Jesus, which is placed just before Drunk… on the album. The song is part of the trend that sees modern country pivot back to the Lord and his son, and there’s the inevitable organ and choir on top. ‘Every other man let me down’ is the reason she gives, which is funny.

The trio of Bobby Hamrick, young Alabaman songwriter Ella Langley (Opry debut February 17!) and Matt McKinney contribute to five tracks on the album. Three of the five are: Ohio, a grand, scene-setting opening track where Elle wants to sit down with some beer and music while also admitting ‘I was eight years old when I learned not to cry’; Lucky, an introspective slowie where our protagonist has been ‘the fuse’ and ‘the lighter’ but above all very fortunate (and, as the final seconds show, a happy mummy); and Tulsa, a brilliant chugger with some lovely chromatic guitar lines which opens the album’s second side.

The other two tracks from the trio are Bonafide, another tune where Elle sings of her own kind of crazy but this time with fiddle and pedal steel, and Out Yonder, whose huge chorus and gossipy verses in the form of questions would make this an ideal set opener.

Blacked Out is the most musically interesting song on the album, which plays with tonality by having a major-key melody over a minor-key groove. The banjo and guitar match the mood of the lyric: mountains, rivers, punches, ‘I just don’t have the heart to love you’. Closing track Love Go By uses Elle’s throaty rasp and matches it with a Muscle Shoals-y, Rolling Stones circa 1971 lightly gospel number.

The album is fine, even a bit safe, but it positions Elle as a voice who can pull people into country. If anyone ‘can do it!’, to quote Elle’s father, she can.

Jeff Cohen and Sykamore, The Camden Club, January 29 2023

January 30, 2023

In conversation with the great Leah Sherlock on the most recent Behind The Sounds podcast, Sykamore mentioned that she is the daughter of rodeo performers and would save up her pocket money to buy country albums. She was looking forward to her first ever gig in London, following her first English gig in Liverpool at the start of a week which coincided with the Americana-UK Awards.

I had to let my grandma down to attend this gig, which fell on the same day as a popular annual quiz that she always gets a family table for. I mention this because ‘family’ is on my mind this year, as I work on a big essay on country music in the UK. There were plenty of familiar faces in the crowd who were ahead of the curve on the expertise of Sykamore in the homely Camden Club.

The title track of her album Pinto was written in 2018 and came out in 2022 after a delay because of the pandemic. Sykamore introduced it by comparing a bumpy, careering relationship to a ride in a very old car (the Ford Pinto). It was a perfect closer to a set which had seven fat-free country tunes which reminded me of both Tenille Townes and Ron Sexsmith, two Canadian wizards of melody.

New song Emotional, which she rhymed with ‘protocol’, was both hooky and folky, and Wallflower had a smart chorus which emphasised the narrator’s stomped-on heart. We Were Alright was a lament for faded love. Highway Towns was another metaphor, as Sykamore used the small town as a jump-off for a song about relationships, while California King pricked the hubristic pomposity of a guy.

Record High, meanwhile, was a sort of drinking game where the artist suggested we take a sip of alcohol every time we recognised a famous title: ‘Highway to hell…stairway to heaven’ was a smart antonym, in a song which benefitted from being written with the evening’s headliner.

Jeff Cohen is part of the UK movement, even though he was born in Brooklyn (the clue is in the name). Jeff became a music licensing executive in the last days of the record industry in the 1990s but took the plunge at 34 to become a songwriter. ‘I just turned 37!’ he joked.

He moved into writing songs for TV shows, was in a band and started working with US acts like The Band Perry, Kristian Bush and Evan and Jaron. Crazy For This Girl, which I recently discovered and which Katie Holmes once sang on Saturday Night Live, is one of his as well. Jeff segued into the theme tune for Paw Patrol, another of his compositions, which an audience member had requested.

Tony Moore, who runs the Camden Club, is an old friend and gave Jeff a lovely introduction. Our intrepid writer, whose voice is similar to many Nashville songwriters in that it sounds untrained and raw, opened his set with the Big & Rich song Holy Water. Kristian Bush’s song Walk Tall was a three-chord jam performed in Jeff’s thrashy style, while In Her Eyes was in the other, mellower style. He dedicated that song to a victim of dementia and told a quite incredible story about the power of music and the brilliance of Josh Groban, who recorded the studio version of the song.

Jeff has worked with British and Irish artists, including Megan O’Neill and Ward Thomas. Among his credits with The Shires are two career songs: A Thousand Hallelujahs and Daddy’s Little Girl, both of which he played with Ben Earle watching on. The pair had a writing date on Monday, which would be rather hazy because Jeff’s beloved Philadelphia Eagles had booked their Superbowl place the night before. He also ran a verse of I See Stars into a Jake Bugg song he’d also written, and told any songwriters in the audience that a song may be 75% done and sound fine, but if you keep working on the other 25% it can be great.

Amazingly, he threw in the factoid that he dated Jennifer Aniston in his introduction to One and Only, a song by Teitur that the producers of Friends wanted for the Chandler and Monica wedding. Jeff cajoled the audience to join in on the final chorus, a moment he and we enjoyed.

‘Seeing people sing my songs will never get old,’ Jeff said. He has an album out shortly which will include a dedication to his partner, The Way You Look At Me.

Ka-Ching…with Twang – Tyler Hubbard

January 28, 2023

Six of the songs on the debut album by the ‘Georgia’ bloke from the platinum-selling duo Florida Georgia Line appeared last year on an EP called Dancin’ In The Country. Rather than repeat myself, here’s the link to it.

There’s one addendum: because my ears had switched off for the outro, I missed Tyler rattling off names of bars on Lower Broadway on Everybody Needs A Bar (‘Blake’s got Ol’ Red!’ he mentions), as well as the line ‘Carrie-oke Underwood’.

I described Tyler’s new direction using the term the McGraw Pivot, since he was trying to stay successful in his second decade as an A-Lister. In 2023 as in 2003, the sound of contemporary country has moved on and the star has to get with the times or risk irrelevance. Remember how Tim McGraw had a UK number one singing the hook on Over and Over by Nelly, then brought out his career song Live Like You Were Dying? That sort of thing.

Tyler Hubbard hit paydirt by following this to the letter. FGL had a 55-week Billboard Country number one Meant To Be, a duet with Bebe Rexha whose durability was due to a stupid rule that any country song that crossed over to the pop charts would have their streams linked to its country performance (which was why Despacito was a number one Latin hit for over a year too). As a thank you, Bebe is in the credits to Tough, a song about holding on and being strong, especially with ‘my faith to pull me through’. I am near certain there will be a second version or a live performance where Bebe shows up. I am just as certain it won’t make as much money as Meant To Be.

I really liked Me For Me when it emerged a few weeks before the album. Written with both Russell Dickerson and Thomas Rhett, it’s a certain single and has a brilliant chorus that contains a gorgeous diminished chord. The message of the song is the same as ‘love your perfect imperfections’, which made John Legend richer even than Tyler. It also reminds me that FGL, though a duo, were the closest thing to a country boyband in the 2010s, dancing around and rocking jeans with holes in them, which is funnily enough a reference on Me For Me.

To his credit, Tyler is credited as a writer on all 18 tracks as well as co-producing the album which is brought out via Hubbard House Records, an imprint of Universal Music. As you would expect for the solo album of a big-ticket performer, big Music Row names were in the room to write the songs. Ashley Gorley and Ben Johnson joined Tyler for Leave Me Alone (‘I love the way your love won’t leave me alone’), the sort of song Luke Bryan has made (or rather Gorley has given Luke) for a decade and which also processes Tyler’s vocals much as Tim McGraw’s had been on Southern Girl.

Rodney Clawson was there for Paradise, a piano ballad which paints a utopian picture. It sounds like a McGraw song on purpose, right down to the melody lines; it might as well be called Meanwhile Back at the Beach. 35’s, meanwhile, chugs along with our narrator singing of his desire to ‘slow down…make some time to kill’.

Canaan Smith co-wrote three tunes: as well as Baby Gets Her Lovin’, which first appeared last year as part of the EP that teased the album, Canaan contributes to the funky meet-cute By The Way – which has a pretty pedal steel solo but little besides that to elevate it beyond filler – and the album’s closing track Way Home, which is all about Tyler’s spiritual leaning which he hinted at on songs like Dirt. It’s his take on Amazing Grace, since he once was lost and now, with Jesus at the wheel, he is found.

Elsewhere on the album, there’s the typical Music Row interpretation of rural themes. Out This Way’s hymn to rural life is enlivened by a half-rapped delivery; it’s basically a rewrite of Up Down set to the chords of Ridin’ Roads by Dustin Lynch. It’s filler. Small Town Me sees millionaire, diamond-selling Tyler recall a time before all the excesses when he had a ‘beat-up pawn-shop guitars’ and ‘talked to Jesus, I believed John 3:16’.

Not for the first time when listening to Tyler’s music, Bo Burnham’s Pandering popped into my head. How Red (‘is your neck of the woods’) is a fun way of asking a listener how rural they are, again through the form of questions and signifiers: ‘If you say “hell yeah, hot damn!” I can see us getting along.’ The song shows two things: the influence of Hardy on contemporary songwriting in Nashville, and that pandering can be charming too.

She Can, which more than anything else reminds me of The Candy Man from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is one of those songs which could work as Christian music with a different protagonist. Instead, it’s a familiar love song which is perfect for wedding video montages.

Miss My Daddy is a 100%-er. I could imagine McGraw going on about his dad, who died in 2007 before Cruise made Tyler a millionaire (did I already mention that he’s rich?) teaching him ‘how to work a clutch’ and how if the pair could talk now ‘his grandkids talk about the man they never knew’. As long as Nashville is making money, its big acts will put songs about their late parents as the penultimate track of an 18-track album.

I’d say that preferred Brian Kelley’s Florida beach album from last year, but it’s not a competition between FGL members. I would put money on Tyler Hubbard playing C2C 2024, on an undercard which features Tim McGraw as headliner. That’d be a good show full of hits, even though most people will be waiting for Tyler’s old favourites rather than his new, McGraw-influenced pop music.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Brett Kissel – South Album

January 27, 2023

I’m working on a big piece about UK country music this year, taking the reader from the 1930s to the present day. One of the challenges of country music in this country, according to people who run a successful festival, is to ‘level up’ the genre and make it better known and thus more profitable as a business. For guidance, perhaps we should look to Canada.

Tenille Townes, Lindsay Ell and Shania Twain have all travelled to the UK after first driving down to Nashville and getting in front of the right people. All three are respected in their home nation, as is a chap who is going to have a busy year. Brett Kissel is the Canadian version of The Shires, a huge indigenous country star with a worldwide following too. In the last decade he’s had three big albums and plenty of hits from them, which got him in front of fans of Garth Brooks when he came to Canada in 2019.

Brett also covers songs by Steve Earle and John Denver in his live shows and there’s a live album due at the end of 2023. Before then, he’s putting out three studio albums and grouping the 2023 quartet as the Compass Project. Unlike Zach Bryan and Morgan Wallen, who have both dumped 30 tracks or more on listeners in one go, Brett is being sensible and staggering the new material over the three albums.

The South album is the first. There are ten originals alongside a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s three-chord marvel Cadillac Ranch. Just because he’s from Jersey doesn’t mean Bruce isn’t a country singer.

There were four impact tracks to preview the album, including a perfunctory ‘A goes with B’ duet with 98˚ called Ain’t The Same, ie ‘making love feels better when it’s all night’. Never Have I Ever – alas not a Gasoline & Matches cover! – was the most recent of those previews. The song opens with Brett spitting a verse about meeting his wife, making him perhaps the Canadian Thomas Rhett, who could also have written this hooky tune which opens the album. The chorus nicks the ‘one more time’ motif from the chorus of the Rascal Flatts song Rewind, and I like the line ‘double-dare you to stay the night’, which picks up on the idea of the title.

First Place is one of those happy-sad breakup songs, this one hanging on the lyrical hook ‘should have never put her second in the first place’. In some places on the album Brett almost raps the lyrics, sticking on a single note to hammer home the lyric, as on All I Ever Wanted and That’s Just You. On the latter, Brett complains about her capriciousness: ‘you’re fire then you’re ice, all wrong but so right’ is simple but elegant.

Starts And Ends was written with Karen Kosowski, who has worked a lot with Mickey Guyton. It’s another TR-type dedication to a woman with a melodic chorus and a little bit of dobro. It reminds me a lot of Wrapped Up In You, and if you’re going to be inspired by anyone in country music, choose Garth.

Watch It is a carpe-diem ballad about being a dad on which Brett reminds himself to ‘take life one day at a time’ and how ‘there’s no way to bottle lightning’. The key to this song is the change in perspective, making it fun to follow who is watching what or whom and when they’re doing it. It’s gorgeous and should win some awards. Both that song and Standing In The Dark, which could be a showstopper in a musical in another guise, are both outside writes which fit the Brett Kissel sound.

Two songs are 100%-ers written entirely by Brett. Our Home sounds anthemic from the long opening passage of drums which makes me think this was intended as an album opener. Brett comes in to sing of the glory of home, which can imply a house or a country, with a series of adjectives including ‘wonderful’ and ‘magical’. It achieves its goal in stirring the soul.

Line In The Sand opens with images of closed businesses and irritating bosses. Our narrator refuses to have his spirit beaten out of him, with patriotic pride and a desire to ‘see the good in everyone’ in spite of all those politicians – like the Canadian leader who was once photographed in blackface, perhaps – making it tough. I would have been disappointed if there wasn’t a squealing guitar solo in the middle of it and a massive wigout, as that would be my line in the sand.

Brett’s impressive vocals and delivery make this a fine start to his 2023 tetralogy. That’s one more than a trilogy but nobody ever uses the term apart from Classics graduates.

Country Jukebox Jury EPs: Jordan Harvey and Colton James

January 20, 2023

Jordan Harvey – It Is What It Is

Here’s something that wouldn’t have been released ten years ago: the debut EP from a former country boyband member who grew up in Edinburgh. Amazingly, I think I saw Jordan Harvey at a Battle of the Bands back in 2011 as the drummer for indie-rock band OK Social Club. Their song Everybody’s At It would impress fans of The Fratellis.

Jordan is signed to Broken Bow, home of Aldean, Lainey Wilson and Jelly Roll. King Calaway are still a going concern but Jordan decided to break away and go solo. In 2022, we heard his entry to market with two songs: Alabama Girl, which skips along with an off-beat guitar line and an instantly catchy  melody line which emphasises the lyric (‘she likes my accent, I love her drawl’); and I Will, a catchy appeal to a potential belle (‘be the late-night lips you’re kissin’).

Three new songs that complete the EP. Along For The Ride is another one of those songs about driving with music playing and the wind in your hair. The melody bobs along and the chorus is radio-friendly with a great lyric about the driver’s ‘paparazzi Hollywood smile’. Break-up song Overnight sounds enormous, even if its theme is essentially ‘one last booty call’. The song is elevated by Jordan’s smooth half-rapped delivery and hooky tag to the chorus (‘so come over tonight’).

Think About Change begins ‘Never liked white-picket fences’ and is set to the sort of piano chords and drum loop that have anchored radio ballads by Jordan Davis and Dan + Shay. Fans of Parmalee will also enjoy this country-inflected pop, which will surely make its way back to the UK this year.

Colton James – America

Colton James, meanwhile, is an American performer who has opened for Toby Keith and Jason Aldean, which is one of the most sensible bookings you can imagine given this seven-track EP, which has patriotism running through it like whatever the American equivalent of seaside rock candy is.

Toby and Aldean have made squillions with their brand of chest-thumping country music; without being too reductive about this EP, Colton is a few chevrons behind them in their lane. I Miss America opens the set with a crash from the snare and a squeal from a guitar. Colton sings of small towns filled with working men who eat chicken on Sunday at grandma’s with ‘Old Glory waving tall, waving proud’. We are definitely in the Land of the Free, perhaps when it used to be great or at least ‘so much simpler’.

It sounds like that new ChatGPT algorithm has been fed Toby Keith’s catalogue and told to write a new tune based on that data, right down to the vocal tone and vibrato. Ditto Take This Country Back, which complements the opener but also mentions Jesus and Colton’s grandpa (‘he lived hard…back when a man and a woman fell in love for life’). I don’t know why Colton included both of these on the EP as each does the job of the other; he even sings of the American flag and ‘simple days’, so even the vocabulary is the same across both songs.

47 Acre Farm opens with Colton’s father (‘blue collar sweat, red dirt ground’) and praises the wisdom of owning a piece of land and doing country stuff on it. There is an Aldeanish passage of guitar in the middle of it, and both the lyrics and the delivery are direct and impactful.

There is, of course, the anthemic song about going off to war to ‘bleed for the flag to make sure the stripes stay there’ (Brave Men) and the anthemic song about American farmers who ‘scrape to make their last payment’ (American Farmer). There’s one about Colton’s babe – Ring On Her Finger, a lovely vignette with dustings of pedal steel – and another on the things you can’t buy called Richest Man Alive: ‘peace of mind don’t cost a dime’ is a good line.

This EP is the country version of the Pledge of Allegiance, with some hearty vocals and rural themes.

Ka-Ching…With Twang: Hardy – The Mockingbird and The Crow

January 20, 2023

Michael Hardy is a genius, if you define it correctly as a little bit of talent plus a lot of hard work.

As a staff songwriter he wrote Up Down and Talk You Out of It for Florida Georgia Line, God’s Country for Blake Shelton, I Don’t Know About You for Chris Lane and Some Girls for Jameson Rodgers. He is also a key part of the Morgan Wallen camp, writing seven songs on Dangerous including Still Goin Down, More Than My Hometown, Beer Don’t and the smash Sand In My Boots, which he wrote with Ashley Gorley.

When he won the BMI Songwriter of the Year Award in 2022, to add to awards from the ACM and AIMP organisations and marking his 12 career number ones, Hardy joked that the only way he could beat his friend Ashley at something was to be published by BMI! His style is similar to that of Rhett Akins, using as few chords as possible to tell his stories, on which he uses the poetic technique of assonance, finding similar vowel sounds (‘Big Dip spitting in a Big Gulp cup…Eatin’ meat and three fried green tomatoes’)

As an artist, Hardy arrived on the scene by claiming ‘I’m Rednecker than you’. He also hit number one as part of Beers On Me, the latest number one for Dierks Bentley (who also has new music imminent). In 2019, he took a cue from hiphop and put together the first of two Hixtapes, either writing or performing on tracks like Boy From The South (where the assonance in the previous paragraph comes from), Red Dirt Clouds and the smash hit song about teenage pregnancy One Beer. The second set was issued one song at a time across autumn 2021, with the final track Goin’ Nowhere the last out because it featured Morgan Wallen. Intriguingly, the Hixtape sets are classified under Hixtape, not under Hardy, on Spotify; he told Holler Country that he wanted them to be the country version of Now That’s What I Call Music, taking on a life of their own.

Hardy was due to go out on the road with Thomas Rhett and open for Morgan Wallen in the UK in 2020, but he had to stay at home and write some more songs. He also found time to get married in 2022, after which he announced this second solo album which follows 2020’s A Rock. The big song on that album was a funeral song written with Gorley called Give Heaven Some Hell, which went to radio and had an impressive run considering it wasn’t about beer, girls or heartache.

Wait in the Truck, the impact single from his second album, goes further away from the quotidian themes of country radio in 2023. It’s a murder ballad where Hardy helps a woman, played by Lainey Wilson, take vengeance on her abuser who left her ‘bruised and broke from head to toe’. It is so believable and the production is like Roger Deakins’ cinematography in how it creates a mood over which the narrative takes place. What boldness from Hardy to send a song to radio that includes pistols, policemen, the chorus ‘Have mercy on me, Lord’ and a jail term for the narrator which ‘was worth the price’ of what he did.

The most stark title on A Rock was Unapologetically Country As Hell, which sounds like a bumper sticker or t-shirt slogan. In fact, as we discovered on A Rock and more starkly when Hardy covered Blurry by Puddle of Mudd, he is also rock as hell. Sensibly, the folks at Big Loud Records have given him the creative freedom to make two records in one, although the lines blur in part thanks to the production. The Mockingbird represents country music, which marks the first half, and The Crow is the rockier second half.

When the album was announced, Hardy released three ‘instant grat’ tracks. The title track is the literal centrepiece of the album, with plenty of autobiography: he grew up in Philadelphia, Mississippi, ‘a little town named after another’ from where Marty Stuart also hails. There’s some satire too, as the power chords amp up and Hardy turns into the crow like a regenerating Doctor: ‘Do this, do that/ That shirt, this hat/ Don’t forget to smile, kiss the ring once in a while’.

Sold Out, one of the rock tracks on the collection, was released back in March 2022. It’s an odd lyric, given that Carrie Underwood’s producer David Garcia was in the room to write it which is as mainstream as country gets. ‘Keep your in crowd, I’ll be the outcast’ doesn’t work as a line given that Hardy has all those gold records and songwriting awards. The narrator is full of curse words and redneck pride. I know Hardy is playing the role of a rock’n’roller who growls the song’s key lyric (‘wall to wall and I still ain’t sold out’), but it reminds me of comedian Bo Burnham’s song Pandering, where the narrator looks like a farmer but wears $3000 boots.

Morgan Wallen could afford a whole closet of boots now. He hit paydirt by combining rock motifs and his southern drawl, and he appears on Hardy’s track Red, which was written with Rhett Akins and passes the baton from grandpa Rhett to kid Hardy. It’s another songwriting exercise where the pair hymn various red things: college football jerseys, stop signs, the American flag, a bank account in debit, necks which have toiled in the sun all day.

Hunter Phelps, another member of the Wallen crew who has had a very good last few years, was in the room for nine of the album’s 17 songs, including Wait in the Truck, Drink One For Me – which is effectively Give Earth Some Heaven, since the narrator tells his mates to celebrate his life when he goes because there’s no alcohol up there – and the Florida Georgia Line-ish Screen, which are all notionally part of the country set. The drums on the last of these are massive, built for the stadiums where Hardy will be supporting Wallen this summer. He’ll tour this album in smaller venues across America in the spring, as part of a double bill with Jameson Rodgers.

There were two other pre-released tracks from the rock set. Jack, written with Hillary Lindsey and David Garcia, is one of those songs about whiskey and its effects on folk, both positive (‘I can fix your problems, always got your back…rock bottom ain’t as bad when you’re rocking with me’) and negative (‘you’re broken and you’re soulless and it’s all my fault’). I expect a lot of reviews will mention Limp Bizkit and the genre ‘nu-metal’, especially when the title track turns emo, but this is rock music with a country tinge.

The song acts as a companion piece to the album opener Beer, which is credited to Gorley, Hardy, Phelps and fellow hitmaker Ben Johnson. Immediately we know where we are: ‘Hank and Blink 182’ both get namechecks as Hardy personifies his alcoholic friend to the backing of enormous drums and power chords courtesy of the great Joey Moi, the architect of the Nickelback sound who has brought big loud production to Big Loud Records. Sort of the Max Martin of country music, Moi produced Cruise and Wallen’s album Dangerous. He’s laughing all the way to his (one assumes) very big house.

Hardy says he ‘woke up on the wrong side of the truck bed this morning’ on Truck Bed, another catchy tune which had Ashley Gorley in the room for its composition. Our narrator was thrown out of the bedroom and forced to sleep with ‘a camo jacket for a blanket’. I appreciate that assonance and also the in-joke about how ‘at least I took my boots off this time’, which refers to his track Boots, where he was so sozzled that he didn’t even take his shoes off when he crashed.

The third song released back in October was Here Lies Country Music, a heck of a title which reminds me of Murder on Music Row, the famous Alan Jackson song about the state of Music City in 2001. Two decades on, ‘the cause of death was a lonely broken heart’; concerts, whiskey, beer, Ring of Fire, Family Tradition, ‘names that I won’t mention’ (coward: name them!!) who watered down the genre and ‘three chords and the truth six feet in the ground’. And then Hardy woke up and it was all a dream. It’s a similar tale to his Worst Country Song of All Time, which wraps a hymn to the genre in a negative (what I call the alpha-privative type of song, but that’s all Greek to most of you).

I almost stood up and applauded when I heard the lyrical reveal on I in Country, a power ballad which I won’t spoil except to say I can’t believe nobody had written it before Hardy. When you write hundreds of songs a year, you can afford to experiment for your own material and give away tunes with familiar topics. Happy, meanwhile, is a Hardy 100%-er, with music and lyrics from the performer as he once again gives characteristics to an abstract concept. It’s smart without being overly smart, and vaguely hippieish (‘hey Happy, why can’t everybody just be you?’). Rather brilliantly, as he revealed in this chat with Holler Country, the seed of the idea was a children’s book he wanted to write.

I think Hardy has used Jaren Johnston from The Cadillac Three as a model for this album. Like Hardy, Jaren is a respected staff songwriter with a band which provides an outlet for his hankering for live performance. I can imagine TC3 doing Radio Song, which features Jeremy McKinnon, frontman of Floridian rockers A Day To Remember: it purposefully sounds like pastiche, putting in a candy-covered chorus (‘kiss you in the moonlight…Everybody sing along’) before a bellowed swear word. You only need to hear it once. When you’ve written so many Wallen tracks, you get to stick a gag near the end of your album and Hardy makes a valid point about the commercial imperative of Music City.

The rock set makes me think a live Hardy show will similarly demarcate rock and country. Perhaps he’ll do the country set for Wallen gigs and the rock set in the sticky clubs. Both sets can include I Ain’t In The Country No More, a mood piece with an opening blast of staccato guitars where rural kid Hardy finds himself among the beggars, the ‘concrete’ and ‘choir of singing sirens’.

In the modern rock style where genre is dead, Kill Sh!t Till I Die is anchored by a riff which is overtaken by a drum loop and Hardy espousing his country boy philosophy. The song .30-06, which opens with some power chords straight out of an old Green Day album, has a title which represents the Springfield cartridge for a popular rifle. The narrator has a gun taken by an ex but, he suggests from the back of his throat straight out of an old Green Day album, there are plenty more where that came from.

The album ends with Redneck Song, a sort of pirate song transferred to country boys, which starts with a singalong chorus that is drenched in vinyl crackle. The middle eight is a hymn to mixing Mountain Dew and George Dickel whiskey. Fans of Hardy’s delivery here will love the work of Jaret Ray Reddick, a Texan best known for his rock band Bowling For Soup but who put out a country album in 2022. I wonder if Hardy and Jaret will connect this year.

The key to this album is believing the vocalist and realising Hardy is a bulky guy who, despite his Music Row A-List status, will always be the guy from Mississippi who does country stuff. I am sure he’ll talk to rock publications to establish his credibility; he’s already booked for a summer festival in Florida. It’s interesting that the big rock release in January 2023 is the first post-Eurovision set by Maneskin, the Italian quartet who have worked with Max Martin. Otherwise rock is a heritage genre with big stars like Jeff Beck and David Crosby already passing on in the first three weeks of the year.

On the country side, Wallen’s album has been number one for most of the last two years. Hardy’s set won’t surpass it but it does cement the Big Loud Sound as one of the sounds of contemporary country. I hope we’ll see Hardy and Wallen in the UK soon; for the moment, we’ve got the recordings.