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.