Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Alan Fletcher and JD Clayton

February 28, 2023

Alan Fletcher – The Point

After an EP in 2022, the man who is still Dr Karl Kennedy in Neighbours puts out a full-length album this February. He’ll return to the UK to promote it while also celebrating the now uncancelled show at the Palladium. As part of the jaunt supporting Lachlan Bryan, who produced The Point, he’ll play smaller venues like The Bedford in Balham and the pokey Bannerman’s on the perpetually sozzled Cowgate in Edinburgh.

The John Prine song Fish and Whistle is the only song from the EP to make it onto the album, which opens with the title track, a gorgeous, Prine-style contemplation of life and love. This suits Alan’s timbre, which sits comfortably in the tenor range.

Hey You is the single or, in modern parlance, the focus track. Alan sings of his best friend, or perhaps a dog, who is ‘watching down on me’. The lovely arrangement, including a smooth acoustic guitar solo, complements the lyric, as does the one on Leaving, with its ultimatum ‘one of us must go’ making it a sad, very country song.

Many of the tracks are similarly meditative. All That I Could Do To Set Her Free is a break-up track where Alan’s narrator seeks our sympathy: ‘Never made a bed but I’ve lied in a few!’ is a good line. Lost and Found (‘the item of concern is a memory’) is addressed to the department of that song’s title, while Quiet Time is a waltz which paints a tableau of a distant couple drinking wine and staring into the future.

The toe-tappier tunes include How Good Is Bed, which begins with the lick from Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones before the chorus kicks into a shuffle to underscore how ‘sleep is the most underrated therapy’. Somebody, which features terrific vocals from Alan’s wife Jennifer Hansen (I think I can guess her motivation!) is one of those bickering duets that Paul Heaton writes for him and Jacqui Abbott: ‘Somebody left the door unlocked!’ ‘Well somebody was in a rush!’

Jack is a song about Alan’s grandfather, who fought in World War II then apparently became a ‘drifter’ and a ‘pioneer’. Closing track Dance Through Time (‘I will sing your praises to the end of days’) finishes with Alan offering a lady a chance with him. He’s a doctor after all, and he has put together an impressive collection which should be heard beyond the soap’s fanbase. Maybe Dr Karl will sing some of Alan’s tunes on the next series of the show.

JD Clayton – Long Way From Home

The influence of The Band and Gram Parsons is strong on this album of country-rock which will please fans of Dawes, my favourite band. There’s not much to say about the album except it’s expertly sung, sumptuously arranged and pleasingly varied.

Goldmine is a delightful love song and I can see why it was chosen as the big single from the album. American Millionaire ambles along nicely, while Beauty Queen has the type of roots-rock band arrangement that sounded great half a century ago and still does today. Midnight Special, based on a Lead Belly tune, is faithful to the bluesy Creedence Clearwater Revival cover, while Different Kind of Simple Life is driven by an acoustic guitar with a marvellous, faded-out pedal steel solo to complement the philosophical lyric.

Heartaches After Heartbreak is a chugger where JD reaches the top of his natural range over some major chords. Cotton Candy Clouds is equally joyous and infectious, especially the moment a minute from the end when JD hollers to bring in the long meandering outro.

The title track is one of those ‘letters To mama’ songs that really are popular with country musicians, and there’s a lot of melancholy in the lyric. JD, who was writing from the ‘ten-year town’ of Nashville, returns to Music City on Sleepy Night in Nashville to close out the album. The multipart harmonies from the band, the mandolin tremolos and the twang in JD’s voice all recall the glory days of those groups who reinvented American rock by giving it a folky tinge.

This, like Western Swing and Dixieland Jazz, is one of the legendary types of musical arrangement that America has given its people.

Ka-Ching…With Twang: Dierks Bentley – Gravel & Gold

February 27, 2023

Country music is a weird beast. We know who the A List stars are – Garth, Stapleton, Combs, Carrie – and the ones who desperately want to be thought of as A Listers. Mainly, those in the latter category are kept bobbing on the ocean of noise by Country Radio, an entity which helps sell concert tickets and the idea of American rural life back to its listener. Think of Jason Aldean or Luke Bryan, good ol’ boys who rock out and sound good at 80 decibels.

Dierks Bentley, akin to someone like Eric Church, seems like he has a foot in each camp. Over the years he has made his share of radio-friendly unit shifters, seventeen of which have gone to number one, but beneath the sheen he seems to be a solid musician who is familiar with David Bowie’s famous maxim: you make one album for ‘them’ and one album for ‘you’. For instance, his Hot Country Knights project which he made with his backing band and used as ‘tour openers’ for his last tour was for him, the so-so Black was for money.

The latest album for ‘them’ seems to have been junked by Dierks because he didn’t think it was ‘good enough and had to start over twice’. The big radio hits Beers On Me and Gone don’t make the new album but the latter made recent setlists alongside the old warhorses: opener What Was I Thinkin’ (side one track one of his debut album), ode to Seat 7A Drunk on a Plane, positive pair I Hold On and Living, plus fan favourites Am I The Only One and 5-1-5-0. Missing from these is his best song, Bourbon In Kentucky, the opening track of his seventh album Riser that proves he can do brooding rock as well as throwaway fun.

Gravel & Gold is his first album under his own name since 2018’s The Mountain, which included contributions from Brothers Osborne and Brandi Carlile. Dierks has followed his trick of picking a country favourite, here Ashley McBryde, and a critical darling from outside country radio, the magnificent Billy Strings; the former is heard on a song that exhausts every use for Cowboy Boots, the latter on closing track High Note, which was written by Charlie Worsham (who is coming to the UK to support Ward Thomas this spring). For Dierks, life should come to its natural end with ‘Willie’s best’ and some bluegrass records by Flatt & Scruggs. Billy’s solo and closing wigout, on a major release from Music Row, just proves how far the ship has turned since Chris Stapleton brought country back in the mid-2010s.

Album opener Same Ol Me, written with Luke Dick and Jon Randall, is one of those songs sung by country veterans to prove they are still alive and kicking (‘what you get is gonna be what you see’). Dierks is 47, which means he’s of the same vintage as Luke Bryan (46!), Brad Paisley (50!!) and Keith Urban (55!!!) and thus makes the same type of Middle of the Road rockin’ country as them. Dierks has the gruffest voice, though, as befits a chap born in Phoenix, and he can certainly sell the material well.

Randall also co-wrote the three-chord single Gold, whose chorus gives the album its title (see if you can spot Charlie Worsham on ganjo in the music video!). The song starts the second side of the album, which is a coherent collection of 14 songs. Unlike Morgan Wallen, Dierks is still releasing cordon bleu steaks rather than carb-laden vol-au-vents, some of which were written by Ross Copperman: All The Right Places is about learning from heartbreak, with a thump that will help the song sound good in an arena, and Sun Sets In Colorado is another one of those songs which boasts how there’s no place like where you grew up, even if like Dierks you live in Tennessee.

Ain’t All Bad is a perky break-up song with some pedal steel, on which Dierks sings that he ‘got the old me back’. It’s filler, and maybe it’s one of the holdovers from one of the two junked albums. Dierks has been around so long he’s now an elder statesman, which means plenty of A Listers can get in the room with him. Four of them – Hardy, Gorley, Dick and Ross – came up with two other breakup tunes. Heartbreak Drinking Tour is a slow shuffle that must have started with the title and tries to cram in as much alcohol as it can (Tanqueray, Cuervo, wine, whiskey and beer), while Something Real, on which he sings of needing ‘a little backbone in my backbeat’, has a chorus that can fit between beer and car commercials on radio.

Well, if you want real, go and tap up four writers who have had about 382 number ones between them. Ironically, this song seems to be complaining about the sort of songs they’ve all written for people like Dierks. Ditto Jim and Brett Beavers – whose best-known copyright is probably Red Solo Cup – who gifted Dierks the song Beer at My Funeral, which goes big on assonance with lines like ‘a black Cadillac hearse lacks six-packs’. They also helped him write the ballad Roll On, with some lovely dobro high in the mix alongside of those lyrics about keeping on keeping on.

Conversely, Still is one of those songs about doing nothing at all (‘my head’s clear as the sky’), which namechecks the Lord in the chorus. Walking Each Other Home’s first couplet mentions Kerouac and Shel Silverstein; it’s a warm song with some woahs in the middle eight and was written with John Osborne. Equally warm is the fiddle-soaked (Jenee Fleenor’s is my guess) Old Pickup. Add this to the Truck Song Playlist alongside with I Drive Your Truck, 7500 OBO and Truck Yeah.

Dierks seem to be doing ‘one for you, one for me’ on the same release, with something for everybody no matter your age, sex or location.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Zachariah Malachi and Pony Bradshaw

February 21, 2023

Zachariah Malachi – Local Bar Opry Star

I don’t know what’s better: the name of the artist or the name of the album. After a glowing review in Country Music People, who named Zachariah the act behind their 2021 Single of the Year, I clicked play on the album to hear what all the fuss was about.

Zachariah brought it out at the very end of last year after earning rave notices for his role as fiddle player Charlie Justice in the TV drama George and Tammy. The opening passage of the album, on the title track, is some lush fiddle. Zachariah’s plain, clear voice enters, boasting of being ‘the talk of this town’. His tone is very similar to that of Aaron Watson, another local bar Opry star.

Hillbilly Me contrasts Zachariah with a girl from California who isn’t familiar with rural matters, so would she fall for a country boy? The song’s B section has some diminished chords and harmonica, and then gives way to (can you guess?) four bars of fiddle and four of pedal steel.

With his woman gone, coffee doesn’t taste right and only That Ol’ Honky Tonk keeps him going even though he leaves at 2am empty-armed. The same character laments his fate on Again I Get To Missin’ You (good title), a familiar-sounding, harmonica-assisted sigh of a song. ‘I just long to be your lighthouse when you’re lost at sea’ is a good line.

Wrecked has a wretched narrator remembering his many beatings, ‘too lovedrunk to realise’ he should escape the worst ones from his ex. The Drinkin’ Song has a train beat which underscores all the times our narrator has a bit of alcohol, even ‘in bed with you at night!’ which is perhaps why he gets so wrecked. At last, on the triple-time Little Diva, he is ‘done just wastin’ our time’ and leaves his lady for good. It is worth the singalong that ensues.

There’s a harmonica break as well as an impressive fiddle solo on Where Do You Go?, where a shuffle beat helps to create a tense mood full of questioning which ends abruptly. Bedroom 201, which has that old piano sound that those George Strait songs had in 1983, is a reminiscin’ song about the place our narrator enjoyed a fun fling as a break from reality.

Final Stages of Hank blew away Duncan Warwick in his CMPeople review. It has the feel of Lovesick Blues, with the narrator ‘losing weight’ and in despair. Seventy years after the outlaw’s death, there are still musicians paying him homage. I’d watch out for Zachariah Malachi, and not just because Duncan says so.

Pony Bradshaw – North Georgia Rounder

From an actor to a writer: James ‘Pony’ Bradshaw prefers literature to other music to inspire his art. He is in danger of becoming a songwriter’s songwriter – translation: lots of respect, smaller house than he ought to have – and this third album doesn’t disprove it. The very title of Safe In The Arms of Vernacular (‘it smells like bleach in here’) tells you who the collection is aimed at.

It is certainly rootsy, with a burbling guitar poking out of the mix on A Free Roving Mind (‘it’s in our nature to build empires’) and a clearer sound to the solo on Holler Rose, a song which ends as a waltz seemingly because it can. The title track has a finger-picked melody on guitar and a welcome groove that could inspire me to wax lyrical about it but which just made me smile.

As a sucker for what comes out of the West Coast, I was instantly hit by the cool breeze of opener Foxfire Wine, where Bradshaw brought out his Laurel Canyon croon. It was the vibrato, as well as the fiddle, that struck me on the meditative A Duffel, A Grip and My D35 (‘this ain’t no damn democracy’). No Music Row writer would dare use the word ‘erstwhile’ and think it’d survive the draft. Even Hardy.

The album’s second side continues in the same vein that must be called Americana for want of anything else (David Crosby was Americana wasn’t he?). Go Down Appalachia is a twanging toe-tapper with the phrase ‘calico skin’ in its first verse and the word ‘transfiguration’ in the chorus (see previous paragraph); Kindly Turn the Bed Down Drusilla, whose lyric seems to be about life on the road, has a similar sound, with pedal steel prominent.

Bradshaw dwells on one syllable on the chorus of Mosquitoes, holding it across seven beats and exhibiting great vocal control amid another lyrical song (‘screeching through the smoke’). Notes on a River Town ends the album on a bluesy note that echoes Bradshaw’s lament for the passing of the glory days. It reminds me of how Steinbeck used nature as a metaphor for the perils of the American Dream, and I hope Bradshaw takes that as a compliment.

He’s made a great album which answers a question posed to me the other week: what albums have you enjoyed recently? I should have said Pony Bradshaw’s.

Ka-Ching…With Twang: Jordan Davis – Bluebird Days

February 18, 2023

Almost a century after commercialism took the hillbilly sound and stuck it on to discs to sell a lifestyle back to its people for profit, what is the sound of country music in 2023?

Well, it’s many things to many people, so long as it reflects either a past or present idyll of life in rural America. Its performers sing with twang and grit, and they are familiar with the many styles of music present in the genre today: ballads, heartbreak, party music, love of hometowns and alcohol.

Jordan Davis, whose new album ticks off all four of those topics is from Louisiana and has been a staple on country radio in what I suppose we should call the post-Stapleton Era which begat Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen, who are dominating Q1 2023 with new music. Like those three blokes, Jordan is familiar with catchy melodies: Singles You Up, Take It From Me and Almost Maybes have helped him be successful enough to follow Dan + Shay to the Country2Country main stage.

That analogy is apt because he shares producer Paul DiGiovanni with them. So much of the success of country music is about production which works on country radio, as it had been in the 1960s Nashville Sound which begat the Urban Cowboy movement of the 1980s which begat the neo-traditional sounds of the 1990s, which begat Stapleton.

At which point I should reiterate the chestnut that no more than 19 per cent of music is sung by women on radio. Many more imbecilic critics will ask, ‘Where are the women?’ but that ship sailed 20 years ago when Natalie Maynes convinced country radio programmers to drop the music of the Dixie Chicks. There’s a reason that Morgan Wallen has been able to succeed commercially in the aftermath of his controversy and the Chicks never hit the peaks of their early-00s success. It’s also why four voices in every five on radio belong to men.

MCA Nashville think they can get a return on their investment, by packaging songs to be delivered by a swarthy, bearded bloke. Jordan spent 2021 on the road with Kane Brown and is now a headline act, with his second album Bluebird Days following 2018’s Home State. Between these releases were two EPs, the latter preparing fans for the new LP by including the Luke Bryan duet Buy Dirt, one of those songs where an older person advises a younger person to live, to coin a phrase, a country way of life. It became Jordan’s biggest hit, landing just outside the Hot 100’s Top 20, and he now has a CMA Song of the Year to impress his two young kids. Impressively, those kids’ uncle Jacob also had a hand in writing that song and six others on the album.

I often try to imagine boardroom conversations, where the artist and his/her manager meet with the suits – marketing, finance, digital, promotion – and plot a project that needs to sound good on air and onstage. Buy Dirt increases Jordan’s brand recognition, which was also improved by a People Magazine cover story about his marriage, and the song marked him out as a contemporary country star. Jordan is a songwriter as well as a singer, in the modern post-Stapleton fashion, so has he written an album of songs – there are 17 of them – which can stand up without the fluffy production? Mostly, yes.

How about that album title, referencing the globally famous listening room where Garth Brooks heard Tony Arata sing The Dance? There’s even been a documentary about the café. The title track comes near the start of the second half of the album: it’s a triple-time tune not about the café but about growing up with divorced parents, how ‘the lie never outlives the truth’. It’s a simple, direct lyric – ‘two hearts fell in love and two hearts grew apart’ – which will chime with many listeners.

Opening track Damn Good Time reminds me of Party Mode, the opener of Dustin Lynch’s last album, but sung by Drake White. Brooks and Dunn, inevitably, get a namecheck on the song. The melodic breakup song Tucson Too Late (‘heaven knows I let her slip away’) tries to mimic those Brooks and Dunn tunes but Jordan’s voice will never be Ronnie’s. At least it has a proper middle eight, or a middle four.

There are at least five other break-up songs on the album, which is probably too many. You’ve Got My Number (‘I’m still hung up on you’) has a punchy guitar solo in the middle, while Midnight Crisis is a plodding duet with The Voice winner Danielle Bradbery. What I Wouldn’t Do is another song in my favourite genre: the alpha-privative, which regular readers will know is a song that just puts a list of phrases in the negative to emphasise the song’s point of view.

What’s the best way to get over lost love? Alcohol!! One Beer In Front of the Other opens with ‘cold sweats’ but sees our narrator take comfort in alcohol, perhaps encouraging the listener to do the same. Whiskey Weak, which might well be a Sam Hunt homage, has another catchy melody which contrasts with the sombre lyric that transposes a dead relationship to the bar (‘rock bottom’s gonna be a long way down’).

What My World Spins Around, the big single, is a perfect encapsulation of country radio: a two-chord loop and a Mumford beat beneath a processed acoustic guitar riff, sung-rapped verses and a wide-open chorus where Jordan is ‘wrapped round your finger like this ring I’m wearing’. It’s anonymous and perfect for an 18-34 demographic, as well as a reliable set opener.

Jordan’s recent setlist shows that he is sprinkling, or soft-launching, some of the new songs including that new single: Next Thing You Know is one of those songs that condenses a whole life into a song, like A Guy Walks Into A Bar or Wide Open Spaces; Fishing Spot is a version of Drink A Beer, as our narrator remembers his grandpa and namechecks Jesus and Hank Jr; Part Of It is a reminiscin’ song of the type where Jordan’s dad tells him to ‘live and learn’ from love that goes wrong. There’s also a reference to his grandpa’s will, which is a smart lyrical turn, and another middle eight that proves Jordan knows how to structure a song. He may have learned this from his uncle Stan, a songwriter who had success in the 1980s.

The gentle and philosophical Money Isn’t Real, which opens at a funeral, is an outside write from Jordan’s fellow radio-friendly bloke Jameson Rodgers among others. No Time Soon is another Combsalike, especially the throaty chorus to match the dedication in the lyric (‘tonight I’m like a freight train’), while Short Fuse is one of those songs where our angry narrator is pacified by a lady’s sweet love and affection.

Sunday Saints shows Jordan’s local pride, as the boy from Louisiana references the New Orleans gridiron team while acknowledging ‘we’re Saturday sinners’. It just comes across like a Luke Combs pastiche, a ‘good ol boys’ song, albeit with some rapid-fire rapping in the second verse. I won’t spoil which gospel song Jordan sings as a coda to the song, but you can guess.

The album is about three tracks too long and cements the singer as a reliable new star. I hope it’s not too damning praise to say Jordan Davis is going to be an ACM and CMT Award winner rather than a CMA Award regular.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Ernest – Flower Shops (The Album), Two Dozen Roses

February 14, 2023

Ernest has made it clear that this isn’t the second half of the album Flower Shops, which came out in spring 2022 and was reviewed here. What is an album anyway in 2023: a platter to pick vol-au-vents from, or a complete artistic statement?

Thirteen new tunes have been served up by the burly Ernest, and I’ll treat them like a discrete album. This the opening track is This Fire, which is a drink-sozzled honky-tonker written with, of all people, LA pop supremo and Thomas Rhett’s buddy Julian Bunetta. The verses are in 4/4 time and the chorus is in 6/8 time, which is good writing.

Songs We Used To Sing was chosen to announce the project, perhaps because it was written with Charles Kelley and because it’s one of many, many MANY songs that quote other songs that are easily accessible on a Spotify playlist underneath Songs We Used To Sing. The poor chap ‘can’t go to Broadway’ because the bands are playing those songs that remind Ernest of his ex. The song has a proper middle eight, which is good writing again.

Listening to the album, which is of the highest Music Row quality, I did wonder if Ernest’s own personality is subsumed, given that his job is to write songs which might end up on a Morgan Wallen album. A lot of these songs could fit on Wallen’s upcoming third LP, which is handy because Ernest is joining him on his world tour so the pair can sing Flower Shops together.

It isn’t just Hardy, who is also on that tour, who can turn a hook these days, as Ernest displays on songs like Hill, which is about a ranch ‘next to Nowhere, Tennessee’ that becomes ‘a hill I could die on’. There’s a melodic chorus on Burn Out which is enhanced by Joey Moi’s organic production, and Nothin To Lose, a carpe diem song with a gorgeous dominant-seventh chord in the chorus.

The shuffling and delectable Wild Wild West has that old George Strait twang and snare rimshot that evokes 1991. Handily, Hall of Famer Dean Dillon (who wrote all the King’s classics) appears as a vocalist as well as a songwriter on What Have I Got To Lose. All the ingredients of a classic Dean Dillon tune are present: a lyrical hook in the title (‘since losing you…’), a downtrodden narrator, a rhyme of ‘silhouette/cigarette’ and a discrete chorus that sounds different from the verse. I wonder how much Ernest and Brian Kelley, who also bragged his way into that writing session, learned from the undisputed heavyweight of his age.

Since country music supports the alcohol industry, there are four titles with an explicit reference to drinking: Done At A Bar starts with eight bars of pedal steel to set up a hymn to the local establishment; Drunk With My Friends is a series of apologies for making his partner ‘pissed, pissed, pissed’, which seems to feature the French-sounding narrator from Spongebob Squarepants; and Anything But Sober, a stoner’s song which rhymes ‘ten milligrams/in my hand’.

The outro of Heartache In My 100 Proof – a song on which Ernest is joined by Jake Worthington and which is basically a new way of saying ‘there’s a tear in my beer’ – has pedal steel and twanging electric guitar trading bars. It effectively carries across the heartache without the need for lyrics.

Lyrics are central to the final pair of songs. Unhang The Moon is a breakup song to rival Flower Shops (on purpose, I think) that has plenty of sadness in the arrangement to underscore the narrator’s dashed dreams. Miss That Girl, with its singsong melody, is certain to be sung a cappella by the time Ernest finishes up the Wallen tour. I expect, as with Hardy and Wallen, he’ll pop over to the UK at some point to bring some Big Loud Country to our shores.

Country Jukebox Jury EPs: Matt Stell and Walker County

February 12, 2023

Matt Stell – One of Us EP

As is Matt Stell’s custom, he has put out an EP rather than an album, following a short set of songs in. Following his acoustic co-headline shows with Elvie Shane in the UK last year, Matt will be on the main stage at Country2Country this year so has been given a vote of confidence from the Country Music Association.

Five of these six tracks were produced by Matt with Jimmie Allen’s mate Ash Bowers, and Matt’s songs are sonically similar to those of Jimmie. They include Man Made and One of Us. The former is a love song to the female sex that namechecks Da Vinci and pivots around the hook ‘if a man made anything it’s cos a woman made that man’, while the latter is a sort of rewrite of Ed Sheeran’s Castle on the Hill, as kids grow up to be singers or parents, or prove there is ‘no settle-down in him’. There’s even a death in the second verse which I suppose has a true story behind it.

This One’s Gonna Hurt, like Man Made, is an outside write from, among others, Hardy and Tyler Hubbard. It’s a catchy if bog-standard drinking song enlivened by the truism that hangovers hurt more when you’re older. I actually looked to see if there was a song called A Little Bit Older, a Little Budweiser and there is. Well done to Randy Houser.

Shut The Truck Up is a bog-standard heartbreak song set to the old familiar vi-IV-I-V chord progression which is enlivened by its title. Randy Montana helped Matt out on Roots In This Ground, an anthemic if bog-standard song about being from the country which will fit well next to That Ain’t Me No More in his live set.

Somewhere Over The Radio panders to the country stations who have given Matt some number one hits. The song is a great confection, even if it tallies with my theory that we’re running out of songs. The lyric and chorus melody alludes to rainbows and yellow brick roads, and makes Music City today’s Oz. I wonder who the wicked witch of Music Row is…

Walker County – No Smoke and Mirrors EP

The sisters Ivy and Sophie Walker have put out 10 singles since 2018, among them the three-chord marvel Bits & Pieces. At long last they have an EP in the world.

As teasers we heard the gentle Mirror Mirror, a Maddie & Taeish song for girls who aren’t confident about their looks, and You and Jesus, written by the great Aaron Raitiere and Greylan James, who adds vocals too. It really is essential that God is kept in country, given His presence in rural life, and the song toes the line between love and Lord.

Between Boyfriends is a chirpy, Maddie & Taeish tune which will really hit the 18-34 demographic. I like the delivery of lines like ‘half-past buzzed when you walked in’, which most listeners would call ‘sassy’ or ‘unapologetic’. I wouldn’t disagree. Yours Tonight, meanwhile, is a ballad which reminds me of Ward Thomas or, well, see above: ‘I said last time was the last time but here we are again’ sets up a chorus which most listeners would call ‘Adele’. Kudos to producer AJ Pruis, who ensures the arrangement stays out of the way.

Stoned was written with Ashley Monroe, and you can tell just by the chord progression and gentle vocal delivery. It’s one of those ‘love is a drug’ songs but it’s musically interesting and very hooky. It bodes well for a full-length project and, indeed, any UK visits the girls may make in 2023 and beyond.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Cheat Codes – One Night In Nashville

February 11, 2023

Nashville is a city built on commerce: firstly Bibles, and now tourism based on commercial country music. Kids are flocking to the city, where income tax doesn’t exist(!), either to party or to work in the industry. As happened in Vegas, commercial dance music has come to Nashville, with first Diplo and now Cheat Codes putting out albums with plenty of country vocalists.

I didn’t like Diplo’s album whatsoever, which I called ‘background music for bachelorettes, made by men in suits to make money’. I thus had similar reservations about One Night In Nashville, released by the trio from LA who hit paydirt with No Promises in 2017. Other guest vocalists on their tunes have included Little Mix, Tinashe, Sofia Reyes and Kim Petras, as they do whatever makes money for their label 300 Entertainment (founded by Lyor Cohen, one of the main funders of rap music in the early 1990s).

Unlike Diplo, this is a straight pop album with country voices past and present, and should be considered on those terms. In 2021, the first stirrings of this project came with Never Love You Again, which drafted in British singer Bryn Christopher and the up-for-anything Little Big Town, who worked with Pharrell for a bit of a laugh in 2016. The song is a slice of euphoria (‘sorry but I blame the chemicals’ is a good line) which is streets ahead of much of the album, and it points to a future for the band because, as happened with Cher and Kylie Minogue, acts tend to go disco when they hit 50.

Lee Brice and Lindsay Ell answered the call for How Do You Love, the second collaboration to be released. It’s driven by an urgent submerged riff over which our vocalists sing about love and stuff with Cheat Codes producing the hell out of it. Enough with Johnny walking the line, already, though!

That was followed by six other teasers for tracks on the album. There was I Remember, with Russell Dickerson and (for money reasons, probably) as a bonus remix featuring Internet personality Dixie D’Amelio. Our narrator reminisces about Third Eye Blind’s Semi Charmed Life playing while he made out with a girl wearing his jumper. The music crescendos in the chorus and hits the breakdown in that typical dull way.

In fact, there is a formula to every track on this album, many of which match secondary radio stars with a lyric that works with an 18-34 demographic. There’s One Night Left, a carpe diem dance-pop number tunefully sung by Mackenzie Porter. There’s Lose You, a carpe diem dance-pop number tunefully sung by Jimmie Allen, while Matt Stell sings the romantic When You Know, on which he warns ‘them haters, naysayers’ to shut up! Mitchell Tenpenny growls his way through What’s It Gonna Take (‘to get over you’), which quotes the line ‘just turned 21’ from the much better Hunter Hayes tune.

All four of these tracks run out of steam halfway through and are instantly forgettable. Ditto opening track Something’s Coming, featuring Lady A who can be found in what Grady Smith calls The Valley of Blah in spite of its best efforts to sound like Avicii’s Wake Me Up, and You Ain’t Been In Love (‘til you been loved like that’), written and performed by Nate Smith.

Adam Doleac is on We’ll Break Up, a sub-Wallen concoction about love told through the metaphor of impossible things (‘vacuums don’t suck, eggs don’t come in a dozen’) which is so blah it makes me think Cheat Codes should have just remixed Adam’s track Whiskey’s Fine. Already Hungover, written by Nicolle Galyon, Amy Allen and David Garcia, has Maddie & Tae singing a tale of Tylenol and being ‘so sober I cold cry’ with ‘emotions…over ice’.

Ross Copperman was one of the writers of Hurt That You Gave Me, a melodic break-up song on which Brett Young takes the vocals. Its third word is ‘drink’, which makes sense because this album is basically Now That’s What I Call Bachelorette Spring/Summer 2023. Sippin (‘on your love too long’) has no guest, as the trio take vocals themselves. They sound better than Chainsmokers but not as good as Calvin Harris, if we were to rank singing dance acts.

The interesting guest vocalist, as if to give kudos and stardust to a project that desperately needs it, comes on Bets On Us: HRH Dolly Parton, who must also be there to get people asking ‘isn’t that…?’ Extra pizzazz comes in the brackets where the name James Newman (nul points for the UK at the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest) can be found. He contributes to lyrics with a card-game theme: aces, high rollers, ‘gambling on this game of love’. The production deadens any of the atmosphere in the song, and even the banjo solo sounds ‘in the box’ rather than played by a human being.

‘It sounds very five years ago’ was the verdict of my partner, completely unaware that that’s how country music works. The critic Andrea Williams once said it was a ten-year town because if you look at the pop charts ten years ago, you’ll find the sound of country music ten years in the future. Maybe it’s a five-year town now!

Ultimately, this is music designed to be talked over while people order birthday drinks on Lower Broadway. It is as functional as the benches and booths those clubbers sit on but costs a lot more to put together.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Chase Rice – I Hate Cowboys & All Dogs Go To Hell

February 10, 2023

The Florida Georgia Line song Cruise, which Chase Rice co-wrote, was the first country song to sell 10m copies or equivalent. Thus Chase is a diamond-selling songwriter and should live off the interest of that song for decades.

As an artist, he is still best known for two things: Ready Set Roll, a bro-y song that rode the Cruise trend; and that he put on a gig during a pandemic and still has a career. In fact, he plays the Ryman Auditorium as part of the tour to promote this new album. His ‘Head Down Eyes Up’ mantra helps shift merch, while songs like Eyes On You and Drinkin’ Beer Talkin’ God Amen kept him on the radio.

This new album has already received rave notices from James Daykin at EF Country, who awarded it a five-star review and called it ‘an absolute triumph: personal, meaningful, heartfelt’. It is, but I had fun playing Spot The Influence.

Opener Walk That Easy smoulders with a chugging chorus and meditative, very rural lyrics (‘paint turns rust and trucks get sold’) which basically rewrite the lyrics to the Charlie Worsham song Love Don’t Die Easy. Chase continues the mood on All Dogs Go To Hell, which puts the term ‘I miss you’ in the double negative form – you should be familiar with my term ‘alpha-privative’ by now.

I was blown away by Way Down Yonder, the track about country life (‘making love where bees make honey’) which gives its name to Chase’s forthcoming tour. Was this rootsy song made by the same guy who talk-sung his way through the dull Eyes On You? Given that Chase was in the room for Cruise, he does know how to write a copper-plated chorus. He also gets his mouth around some tongue-twisting lyrics: ‘Where coppers don’t crack down on them copper steels’ and ‘a bunch of bootleg birdies and their bandit boys’ are just good writing. It’s no surprise that Hunter Phelps, who hangs out with Wallen and Hardy, was in the room.

Brian Kelley was there for Key West & Colorado (‘a brand new way to say adios’), a gentle tune which could have fitted on his own impressive renaissance album from last year. Kudos on the rhyme Austin/ Boston too. Isn’t it interesting how the millionaire bros are pivoting to a post-Wallen/Combs/Stapleton world? The school fees and second-home utility bills need topping up.

The super trio of Hardy, Brad from Old Dominion and Ross Copperman helped Chase write the album closer I Hate Cowboys, where he moans of how proper Texan chaps steal his women. The second verse is three phrases long, proving the maxim not to bore us and get to the chorus. Spot the Influence led to the conclusion that the song is basically a more spiteful take on A Guy Walks Into A Bar, which was written by Brad from Old Dominion. You can’t self-plagiarise, after all.

Bench Seat, with its mini-feature video, is told from the perspective of a man’s best friend, his dog. It transpires that the man who inspired the song was in dire straits and only the affection shown by his dog stopped him from doing anything stupid. There’s a lump in Chase’s throat in the final chorus, perhaps in yours too.

The song is one of three 100%-ers, along with If I Were Rock & Roll and Life Part of Livin’. This pair was where I realised Chase has basically made an Eric Church tribute album: the former has a reference to Nascar in the first line mimics the setting of Talladega, but he chickens out of singing ‘ass’ for reasons of taste or intended audience (ie fans of Eyes On You); the latter spins the title of Eric’s song Livin’ Part of Life into avuncular advice. I was listening out for ‘I learned not to put on a show for a maskless crowd during a global pandemic’ but Chase must have cut that line in the edit.

Elsewhere, Bad Day To Be A Cold Beer is one of those songs where a millionaire tries to empathise with a working man by singing about a post-shift blowout. It sounds like an Eric Church song, probably on purpose. The groovy honky-tonker Sorry Momma (‘for the hell you raised!’) spends its first verse extolling the virtues of alcohol, which Homer Simpson famously called the cause of, and solution to, all the world’s problems. The piano wigout reminds me of another act, probably on purpose.

I Walk Alone opens with an arpeggiated acoustic guitar and Chase hitting the top of his range singing of numb hands and weak knees; I’d take the character, and his ebullient final chorus, more seriously if the singer hadn’t put on a concert during the pandemic for a maskless crowd. I think I’ve made my point.

Read Southall and his band join Chase on the seven-minute jam Oklahoma, a midtempo ballad about a girl whose guitar wigout mimics Talladega, and (as writers) on Goodnight Nancy, which nicks the chord progression from The Weight by The Band to tell the tale of ‘heading on South where the saltwater meets the sand’. Because you can’t copyright a chord progression, Chase gets away with this homage, but as with Blurred Lines the vibe is so similar that a lawsuit may arise.

This album is a homage to other (and better) songs. It doesn’t make its art any less impactful, and when Chase comes to play the UK to tour the album he will certainly help people have a good night. But it does make the experienced listener play a game of Spot The Influence.

Tenille Arts, Omeara London, February 2 2023

February 3, 2023

We need to learn more from Canada than we do from Music City. As I mentioned when writing about Sykamore last week, it’s all well and good trying to compete with Nashville and ‘level up’ British country music, but some acts just want to play their songs for a willing audience. One audience member at the Sykamore show, who is also playing Country2Country this year, was critical of the UK movement trying (and I’m paraphrasing) to craft the Shires’ Nashville Grey Skies to the letter.

I think one way to improve is to tap into music schools like LIPA in Liverpool and the ICMP in London, whose students could shape their sound for any audience be it pop or rock, rough or smooth. Alyssa Bonagura, who graduated from LIPA and is now a professional musician, should give advice to young performers about how to do it properly. Having headlined a London show in September 2022, Alyssa is playing C2C for the first time where she ought to attract more fans of her mature, very contemporary country-inflected pop songwriting.

Her long-awaited third album is due soon and her support slot included a song called On It, an incredibly catchy number. Heartbreak song Paper Airplanes was terrific, as was Other Side of the World where Alyssa brought out her loop pedal. For the first time I realised her voice was a dead ringer for that of Sheryl Crow and I’d love to hear Alyssa tackle some of Sheryl’s rootsy tunes that were described as rock back in 1996 but would now be considered country.

Tenille Arts hit headlines for having a number one hit on country radio, Somebody Like That, which was created (ie produced and sung) solely by woman. This is like seeing a unicorn and a pig bouncing over a blue moon, but it also proves there is an audience for what she’s doing. After popping over for C2C in March, Tenille was due to play a big festival in Essex last summer, which sadly had to be pulled, but she did play a gig in Glasgow.

After a return to Scotland, Tenille came down to play a solo gig put on by Country2Country at the sleek Omeara. There was a famous face in town: Grady Smith, the American critic, tried not to spill three drinks in two hands to his place near the front of the crowd. Since we only ever see him sitting down, it’s odd to see how small he is in real life but he’s a massive screen presence. One fan of his rocked a t-shirt. Why is there no British country critic on Youtube? Just a thought.

To Tenille Arts, whose show was packed with songs from her 2021 release Girl To Girl: the title track, That’s My Friend You’re Talkin’ About, Heartbreak Regulars, Give It To Me Straight, Over You Is You plus the effervescent Back Then Right Now. The test of a good song is whether it sounds good as a solo acoustic number, and they all did. I’m sure she’ll bring the band over next time.

Without them she couldn’t do a 90s medley but she did introduce a Dixie Chicks cover with the line: ‘My dream was more important than Wide Open Spaces.’ She also debuted a piano-led cover of Easy On Me by Adele, which was received well by the London crowd.

Even if you’ve sung these songs hundreds of times, a performer is always boosted by a new set of fans roaring it back at you. Tenille seemed to grow in stature during some numbers in a 90-minute show. It was a shame that some of the crowd had to head home before the chart-topper closed the set. Before it, she switched from acoustic guitar to electric then to piano. Some songs had the same familiar I-V-VI-IV chord progression, which only served to put the focus on the lyrics and the voice.

‘All I ever wanted to be was on the radio,’ she said knowingly, and plenty of songs had poppy hooks and relatable lyrics which pulled in a varied audience which went beyond the same 36 fans who go to every country show. This may be because of her appearance on both The Bachelor and poppy playlists: Tenille hit and sustained an amazing high note on I Hate This, preceded Growing Old Young with a request to focus on men’s mental health and put a new spin on Girl Crush with the Emily Weisband-written Jealous of Myself.

There was, of course, A Woman whooping and chattering and calling out for Tenille’s deep cut Cold Feet. Wildfire and Whiskey, which segued into a singalong of Taylor Swift’s Love Story, pleased The Woman, while I was more impressed with new song Motel On The Moon, about giving an ex space, and the perky Right Guy Wrong Time.

With Lady A and Thomas Rhett headlining the O2 for C2C, there’s a slipstream of acts like Tenille Arts who can also appeal to similar demographics in the UK, one which the CMA is now supplying all year round. I wonder if Grady Smith will make one of his deep-dive videos about the country crowds here.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Margo Price – Strays

February 1, 2023

As in any city, there’s the touristy bit and the ‘real’ bit. If Lower Broadway is where the glamour of Nashville lies, then the Eastern bit of the city is where the cool kids hang out.

Margo Price told her local magazine The East Nashvillian in 2018 that one winter she and her husband and musical soulmate Jeremy Ivey ‘didn’t have money to pay the gas deposit, so we didn’t have heat all winter’. Now she’s mates with Willie Nelson and has just released her fourth album, whose opening track Been To The Mountain includes a reference to ‘food stamps’.

It had taken 15 years for Margo, the ‘Midwest Farmer’s Daughter’ from Illinois, to achieve any success in town, by which time she was in her mid-thirties while mothering twins. One, Ezra, passed away shortly after being born, which sent Margo into depression, alcoholism and a DUI which took her to a weekend in jail, about which she has also written.

Just as Yola’s career has benefitted by Dan Auerbach’s patronage, so Margo got a lift from her association with Jack White, who signed her to Third Man Records. Her best-loved songs have a political tinge, such as Pay Gap and the infamous This Town Gets Around, on which she sings ‘it’s not who you know, it’s who you blow’. With Loretta Lynn no longer with us, Margo is taking on Issues and earning plaudits, fans and useful fees for college funds, especially as she had her first daughter in 2019.

Awards, Rolling Stone interviews, sell-out dates at the Ryman Auditorium and Saturday Night Live beckoned, as did a book deal to write her 2022 memoir Maybe We’ll Make It. Willie Nelson invited her onto the board of Farm Aid, where she regularly plays, and she will celebrate her fortieth birthday in April. And Willie’s 90th at the Hollywood Bowl.

Before that pair of hootenannies, Margo is on the promotional circuit for Strays, which she produced with country-rocker Jonathan Wilson and which features some famous friends who aren’t called Willie. Sharon Van Etten co-wrote and adds harmonies to the suitably poppy Radio, while Mike Campbell brings his guitar expertise to the multifarious Light Me Up, which has the line ‘paranoid by cryptic dreams that left me so uptight’.

Lucius, who might well win a Grammy or two for their work with Margo’s fellow independent spirit Brandi Carlile, join her on Anytime You Call, which was a solo write from Jeremy. One presumes he wrote it about himself, and how he is still willing to be a friend even though the two subjects of the song are ‘not as stable as we seem’.

The five Ivey-Price compositions (one of which is Light Me Up) include the two impact tracks which are both bluesy chuggers: the aforementioned Been To The Mountain, which begins with the declaration ‘I got nothing to prove’; and Change of Heart, which has a candy-flavoured chorus to match the stabs of organ throughout. The other two are County Road, a six-minute track whose narrative and arrangement unfurl to close the album’s first side, and Landfill, which closes the album proper with delayed guitars to mimic the ‘Sahara winds’ of the second verse; ‘only love,’ she concludes, ‘can tear you apart’.

Elsewhere Margo mixes Issues with Grooves. The former are described on Lydia, which was written in the shadow of the overturning of the Roe v Wade statute: ‘Just make a decision, it’s yours’ positions Margo as a friend whom Lydia can use while she waits tables at a bar. The music complements the lyric perfectly, circling back round on itself, and the sung-spoken delivery makes the song come off like one by Guy Clark, the patron saint of country songwriting. There’s a huge amount of pathos for the song’s subject and I am sure it will be picked up as a sort of protest song.

The sugar comes from Time Machine, a delicious arrangement with sombre lyrics (‘Nothing is ever going to change’). Non-binary singer/songwriter Lawrence Rothman, who was all over the credits to Amanda Shires’ recent album, brings their pen to Hell in the Heartland, more blues in a minor key sung with believability. The final minute, which speeds up into the sunset, is excellent.

To promote the album Margo is playing rock venues like the 9.30 Club in Washington DC and Webster Hall in New York, but is booked into the Ryman for her home show. It was Tom Petty, the man who enlisted Mike Campbell as a Heartbreaker, who called country music ‘bad rock with a fiddle’. Helen M Jerome was right to call the album ‘non-judgemental and beautiful’ in her Holler Country review; for balance, Duncan Warwick’s one-star Country Music People write-up called it ‘absolutely nothing to do with country music’.

You be the judge!!