Country Jukebox Jury LP: Nickel Creek – Strangers

March 29, 2023

Mandolin wizard Chris Thile and the Watkins siblings Sara and Sean are from Carlsbad, San Diego. I know it well having spent a lot of time over there. A girl from Southern California introduced me to the term ‘Creek freak’ and I guess that’s what I am. I actually put together a sort of Best Of from the band’s catalogue way back in 2015, which you can hear here.

The tour to promote their seventh album includes three sold-out dates in Nashville and a tour of the rootsier parts of North America that stretches all the way until October with ’57 shows across 53 cities’. That’s a lot of van hours. The trio were in the UK in January to launch this album, their first since A Dotted Line in 2014 which they made in RCA’s famous ‘A’ Room. In the decade since that album, Chris has been busy transcribing JS Bach for the mandolin thanks to a Genius Grant, touring the world with his band The Punch Brothers and stepping in to host the syndicated US radio show which used to be called A Prairie Home Companion (APHC).

Chris joined Norah Jones on her Playing Around podcast in November 2022, well before the album was announced, chatting and playing songs. Chris told a story about being told off for an appearance on APHC when he played a solo version of a White Stripes song. He obviously left an impression. Check out the Live From Here Youtube channel and be entertained for hours; Musicians’ Birthdays was the best bit, and the version of Amy Grant’s Baby Baby always puts me in a good mood.

Mike Elizondo is given co-writing credits on the album, which is apt as he was Musical Director when Chris hosted the radio show Live From Here. He has also produced Eminem among many, many others (seriously, check out his credits). For their part, Sara and Sean have had their own band Watkins Family Hour, putting out three albums, while Sara is also part of the trio I’m With Her and put out two solo albums, one of which I reviewed here.

This is their longest album yet with 18 tracks, many of which are mini-suites which start in one place and meander from section to section, sometimes dispensing with any kind of chorus or refrain. Having done this for 30 years, I’d imagine the trio would want to test both themselves and the listeners, which is exactly what artists do even if they work in an old-time genre like bluegrass. If anything, Nickel Creek are their own genre.

There were three pre-released tunes: Strangers, which begins with the self-referential line ‘it’s been too long’ and has both a mandolin solo from Chris and some semiquaverous fiddling from Sara; Holding Pattern, a tale of love whispered into the mic by Chris who is accompanied by fingerclicks on the 2 and the 4; and Where The Long Line Leads, the most direct track on the album. On it, Sara hollers her satire on hip, trendy parties (‘we’re gonna have a big time!!’) to a typically excellent Creek arrangement whose chorus isolates vocal harmonies and mandolin.

Two parts of the hyperkinetic instrumental Going Out…Despite the Weather break up the album, while Water Under the Bridge is also separated near the start and end of the album. Opening track Celebrants welcomes the listener with a ‘good to see ya’ from Chris, whose wandering lead vocal notes that we took ‘gatherings…for granted’. There’s a lot of oomph and the production mixes handclap samples with some flowing melodies from all three instruments.

New Blood is another groove-driven tune which includes mentions of Jesus and the New York Times, oysters and pearls, fever and God’s love: ‘We’ve prayed and prayed but we’re no less afraid’. Sara takes lead on that track, as well as Thinnest Wall, a lover’s spat in song, and From The Beach, which has one of the album’s best opening lines in a collection full of them: ‘Playing tag with a seagull, I’ll be it!’ Sara also gets her tongue around the name Aphitrite, and the lyric is obtuse and unclear, with the familiar sounds of double bass and mandolin carrying the listener along.

Chris and his mandolin take the lead on The Meadow, a meeting of lovers which resets folk tropes in a modern setting (‘a cup of coffee’ is mentioned in the opening line), and Goddamned Saint, a sort of eulogy in song which is a tribute to ‘a man who’d made some records I admired’. Listen out for how the music mimics the ‘torrent of light’ in the bridge section. It’s not to be listened to casually.

Sean is the vocalist on Stone’s Throw, where a syncopated rhythm anchors a song where he shows empathy for a friend who set off a ‘distressed signal’, and Hollywood Ending, which does have a chorus. The narrator tells the story of a female actor who is ‘feels but cannot see the desert for the mighty trees’. She ends up ‘painted into a corner’ but we don’t know why; the lyric is a description of inner turmoil and is devoid of specifics, so it comes off more like a mood piece, cinematography rather than actors in the foreground.

Far better, and more specific in its outward imagery, is To The Airport. It’s a great idea, a song about staff and passengers (‘the mom running stoically through each kid-unfriendly gauntlet’) with some top fiddle playing. It reminds me of Paul Simon’s song Wristband about trying to get backstage to his own show, or one of those songs from Nashville’s top writers from the perspective of a bottle of alcohol.

Failure Isn’t Forever, the album’s closing track, ends with the line ‘we’re all in it together’, which serves as a theme to the trio’s career. This is an adventurous album which deserves repeat listening. They’ll be back in the UK for The Long Road, with a date at The Barbican on September 1. Be there.

Ka-Ching…With Twang: Luke Combs – Gettin’ Old

March 27, 2023

Did you know Luke Combs is an only child? That seems so rare among country musicians as to be remarkable. This fourth album, or second part of his third project that began with last year’s Growin’ Up, arrives with Luke adjusting to fatherhood and preparing a world tour which will take the two-time CMA Entertainer of the Year to London in October. A hat-trick is assured for the Garth Brooks of the 2020s.

In the modern country landscape, the human being making the money is as important as the music itself. It did seem a little People Magazine when he announced the news that he will become a father for a second time 48 hours before the release of this album. Never mind Garth, Luke is gamely playing the role Tim McGraw has played for 25 years: the family man selling rural songs back to rural audiences while spreading country music around the world.

Yet on this album there is a cover (brought down a semitone from A to A-flat) of Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car, which will be a nice little earner for Tracy, just as the Jonas Blue dance version was a few years ago. This goes to show what Nashville is comfortable with nowadays. It’s also the only solo write on the collection, which goes to show that Nashville still loves to give songwriters cuts in a world where Luke could put out some 100%-ers.

We heard the opening track Growin’ Up and Gettin’ Old (both with no G) before the album came out. As you’d expect, the voice is in good nick; I think the success of Luke mimics that of Ed Sheeran because he can be introvert and extrovert sometimes in the same song. Here, Luke says he’s ‘slowing my roll’ but he can still (predictably) ‘raise hell all night with the boys’ and do all the usual on-brand Luke Combs stuff. It’s also a carpe diem song which mentions time in an ‘hourglass’.

Back 40 Back is an acoustic ballad full of reminiscin’ which updates The House That Built Me. It is one of six tracks Luke wrote with his buddy Ray Fulcher, who must have bought a house with the cheques from being in the room for the number ones When It Rains It Pours, Even Though I’m Leaving and Lovin’ On You. The other five Fulcher cuts include the big hit Love You Anyway, which thanks to its warm arrangement is so much better sonically than the first album that it reminds me of how the production on Garth’s blockbuster albums made them sound so much more punchy compared to his debut. Money can’t buy you love but it can buy you better production desks.

There’s also See Me Now, an imagined conversation which updates an old friend on the progress of little Luke’s life (check out the tongue-twisting assonance of ‘a creek-fed pond and a food-plot stand’); Still, a finger-pickin’ campfire ballad full of metaphor and imagery (‘the North Star’, ‘summer honeysuckle’ and ‘flying high’); and the album’s closing track The Part, a companion piece to Honky Tonk Highway that has the narrator missing his beloved like crazy. After 17 tracks full of vim and vigour, the theme of that track is vulnerability. If he wants to push this, Luke could win awards with this song.

Tattoo on a Sunburn reminds me a lot of the Tim McGraw song Red Ragtop. In fact, it replaces that song’s abortion narrative with ‘the hum and the buzz and the sting of that needle’. Luke’s narrator doesn’t even remember the name of the girl but a ‘saltwater breeze’ helps him recall the night of passion and tattin’. Combs and Fulcher wrote that one with Peach Picker Ben Hayslip, who having written for Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton knows how to sculpt a song for a voice reared on rural things.

Fellow A Listers Jessi Alexander and Chase McGill helped Luke with Five Leaf Clover, which charted on the UK Top 100 and is another one of those ‘shucks ain’t I a lucky man’ tunes that Combs has probably written hundreds of. This one is a song in 12/8 time which mentions ‘cold beer’ and ‘good friends’. No doubt Ed Sheeran reminded Luke that Galway Girl was a big global hit so it wouldn’t hurt him to appeal/pander to the Irish country lot in his fanbase.

Casey Beathard was there to birth the song A Song Was Born, whose first word is ‘Haggard’ and which includes the T-shirt friendly advice for young writers: ‘Hitch a good rhyme to a mistake’. Another writers’ round song is My Song Will Never Die, which reminds listeners that when Luke will shuffle off this mortal coil, we’ll still have his catalogue and ‘someone else can sing my songs’.

In a move which seems odd for a prolific songwriter such as Luke, that song is an outside write: a gift from Eric Church and Travis Meadows, who wrote it with the album’s producer Jonathan Singleton. The big t-shirt lyric here is ‘It ain’t about the leaving, it’s in what you leave behind’. If he wants to push this, Luke (and Eric and Travis and Jon) could win awards with this song, which has an inbuilt coda perfect for stadium singalongs. It’s a strong start to the album’s second side, which is followed by the other outside write.

Where The Wild Things Are was written by Luke’s friend Randy Montana. We know it’s an outside write because Luke doesn’t have a big brother, who is the song’s main protagonist who left the country for Hollywood. Luke’s narrator visits him but realises he can’t leave the country behind. The proper nouns in that song will delight critic Grady Smith: ‘Indian Scout’, ‘American Spirit’ and ‘an Airstream trailer and a J-45 guitar’. If anything, the melody, the mix of rural and urban (the Hollywood hills) and the ‘woahs’ in the chorus remind me of a Zac Brown Band song. (Fun fact: Randy’s real name Randy Schlappi, which would have been fun if he’d married Kimberley Schlapman from Little Big Town. He won’t, because he’s a happily married father-of-two.)

This conflict between rural and urban has been, and continues to be, the big challenge for country music a century after it was first put on to shellac discs and sold to music fans. The end result is that Luke Combs gets to play London for two nights this autumn while also going down to Australia in August. He’s also playing Stockholm’s Avicii Arena, so maybe he’ll sing Wake Me Up while he’s there.

Elsewhere on the album, Take You With Me is another Zac Brown-alike which turns the words from Luke’s own dad and puts them in his own mouth. It seems certain that, like his dad, Luke will ‘sneak out back’ to drink some beers away from his wife’s watchful eye. I love the image of young Luke ‘clinging to his leg’ because his dad is off to work with ‘a cooler and a sandwich’. The Beer, The Band and the Barstool actually sounds like a title a computer would come up with after being fed Luke’s first three albums. The song itself is what the theme from Cheers would sound like if it were rewritten as a country song, with our ‘broken-hearted fool’ clinging to those three helpers ‘cos he’s been here before’. Garth would have taken this song if he’d been offered it in 1992.

You Found Yours starts with a nineties rock riff and continues in an anthemic manner (‘woah-woaaah!!’), with a brilliant groove and lyrics which will enable couples in the crowd to hug their own ‘living, breathing reason you’ve been looking for’. Fox in the Henhouse (great title!) turns up the amps, adds a Hammond organ and sticks some natural echo on Luke’s vocal as he moans of the ‘sinful deceiving’ of an unknown trouble. Tonight, Matthew, Luke’s going to be Chris Stapleton!

James T Slater brings his wisdom to Joe, a song in a dropped-D guitar tuning about a working man (average Joe, let’s call him) who is pious, hangs out with his buddies and toasts ‘good days, better tomorrows and a light at the end of the bottle’. You bet there’s a reference to serving overseas in the second verse, because this is prime cut Music Row product, delivered with poise and control by a man making money for Nashville just as Garth did in 1993 when, not coincidentally, he went on his world tour.

Hannah Ford Road is track two on the album and was the second track in his setlist when he played Texas the weekend the album was released (note well: Texas for a paying crowd, not Nashville for free like Wallen did). The opening drumroll and guitar licks are radio-friendly, while the lyric is a three-minute movie about young Luke meeting Hannah and taking her for a drive in spite of her father’s protestations. So far, so Springsteen, but if you’re playing stadiums you need to write this sort of anthem and Luke’s got about ten of them now. I bet his setlist guide goes ANTHEM-BALLAD-ANTHEM-BALLAD-DRINKING SONG and he just slots the songs in where they’re needed. It has made him a very rich man.

Rather wearisomely, this album will be compared to One Thing at a Time in a sort of hillbilly-off, especially as Combs and Wallen come to the UK either side of Thanksgiving. But it’s a false comparison: Luke appeals to the common working man with arrangements full of fiddle and live drums, while Wallen does whatever he can to maximise his streaming numbers, including bringing pop sounds and postures.

I think history will be kinder to Luke, who covers Diamond Rio in concert and is single-handedly breaking the band 49 Winchester, than Wallen, The Guy Who Used That Word. Both of them are laughing all the way to the bank and will give their kids, just as Garth gave his three daughters, a nice life.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Wilder Woods and Brigid O’Neill

March 25, 2023

Wilder Woods – Fever/Sky

Side projects can be fun, like when Jack White formed The Raconteurs with Brendan Benson or Garth Brooks did a pop album as Chris Gaines. Bear Rinehart’s day job is fronting the Christian rock band NEEDTOBREATHE, best known for their song Brother. They also opened for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill on their tour in 2017. (They’re also known for a physical fight Bear and his brother Bo got into, but that doesn’t seem relevant here!)

Bear named his side project after his two oldest children; his youngest is called Waters. When I heard the first single from this second solo album, called Maestro (Tears Don’t Lie), I replayed it four times. I liked absolutely everything about it: the chord progression, the double-tracked guitar solo, the grit in Bear’s vocal and the fuzz and reverb on it, the woe in his tale and, above all, the chorus which brought the backing vocalists to the forefront like the best Motown records.

How on earth could the rest of the album, which arrived two weeks before Easter, live up to its opening track? It does its best to.

The production on Patience, which begins and ends emphatically, shows what Bear has learned in two decades of trying to get music to wide audiences in big arenas. Indeed, on tracks like Criminal, the massed vocals and drum track make it sound like an LA pop album from Fitz & The Tantrums or Portugal, The Man.

Be Yourself is another one of those songs of self-improvement, underscored by a barely there arrangement. Wish It Was Mine and Go Ahead are two of the tracks where the melody and delivery remind me of Marcus Mumford, another songwriter whose Christian upbringing informs his music.

Heartland is yet another one of those songs that recasts songs by The Band, particularly the descending chord progression of The Weight, into a song about rural stuff. It doesn’t make it bad, and it’s one of the reasons I love authentic country-rock with a rootsy flavour. I replayed that one immediately too.

Get It Back is a love song that counsels that ‘when you give your heart to someone’ they might keep it, while on Death of Me Bear wishes he ‘could love you better’ over some tapped hand percussion. The album ends with Make Your Own Mistakes, another track to win over Mumford fans where Bear sings that ‘you can find your own forgiveness’ and should avoid ‘crooked roads’ and not following the mistakes he has made.

This is an album that sounds great and contains much to enjoy.

Brigid O’Neill – The Truth & Other Stories

What a great album title. This is Brigid’s third and fits snugly into any roots music playlist you may be compiling. She’s Irish and recorded this album in Nashville with Mary Gauthier’s producer Neilson Hubbard. There are sleevenotes from DJ Ralph McLean who praises the ‘empathy’ in many of these songs. Empathy Country would make a good genre or playlist title, actually.

Brigid’s voice is plain without being timid, which allows the arrangements to shine around her too. The jaunty opening track Live A Little Lie Oh creates a chirpy mood which is brought down by Easy, a meditative tune which could be an operatic aria by Puccini, and the wistful Ask Me in a Year. That song is driven by some A-major dominant-seventh chords that remind me of the work of Daniel Tashian from The Silver Seas, while the toe-tapping Prayers (‘it’s a set-up on the road to hell’) is irresistible. Ditto Amelia, to whose charm ‘everybody dances’, which Brigid sings near the top of her register.

Some of the tracks are, as per the album title, stories, which are full of mystery. Midweek Magic Club, which is in Minnesota, contains the words ‘conjuring’, ‘optical illusion’ and ‘subliminal messages’; the minor-key arrangement matches the mystery of the lyric.

There are two songs about leaving: one with that title where Brigid sings a tragic Gaultieresque folk ballad (with the mysterious line ‘to take her place by her children’s side’) in her Irish accent; the other is called You’re Not Gonna Leave Me Honey where a fiddle and a chorus of female voices join Brigid in her boast of how ‘I’ve got a hold on you’.

Messy Path (‘of other people’s hearts’) is a gentle tune where Brigid kicks herself for being so trusting in her fella. Take a Day is a song that promotes mindfulness in melody form, while closing track Pilot’s Weather sums up the album perfectly: a narrator who ignores the incoming storms, a spacious arrangement with piano, acoustic guitar and echoing trumpet; and words like ‘turbulence’ and ‘here nor there’. Give it a listen if you can.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Easton Corbin – Let’s Do Country Right

March 23, 2023

Easton Corbin’s debut hit A Little More Country Than That was part of a host of songs which came out in the pre-bro period between 2009 and 2012 where the singers boasted of being from rural parts of the USA; see also That’s How Country Boys Roll and Southern Voice. Easton opened for Brad Paisley and his country version of Are You With Me was reworked into a global dance hit. I once couldn’t work out how to turn on the data on my phone and the only song I could play for weeks was A Girl Like You, a number six radio hit for Easton that never appeared on an album.

After his third LP came out in 2015, we heard the excellent tempo tune Somebody’s Gotta Be Country, released independently in 2019 after Mercury dropped him. This seemed to be the first stirrings of a new album, but it has taken almost eight years for Let’s Do Country Right to emerge. It does so into a marketplace where streaming is big business and where the status of the bro has diminished, in spite of the presence of Brantley Gilbert, Jason Aldean and all the other guys who were on the radio in 2010. Fun fact: A Little More Country Than That knocked Hillbilly Bone off number one!

Rodney Clawson co-wrote Hey Merle which opens the album. It quotes plenty of Merle’s best songs and references elements of his life, ie ‘Did your mama cry on the day you left Muskogee?’ Easton’s Floridian twang sells the song well, and there’s four bars of guitar for good measure. Easton also covers Mama Tried in concert. The title track namechecks George Strait, as is obligatory when one seeks to evoke throwback tunes. There’s a fine blast of pedal steel and fiddle after the second chorus, and the song will sound great in the arenas where Easton is promoting the album this spring. They include: Goodwell, Oklahoma; Kinton Fork, North Carolina; Belle Glade, Florida; and Petco Park, San Diego.

Clawson and Ashley Gorley wrote Read Good Country Song, which they probably dashed off in fifteen minutes at the end of a session: ‘I want you in the bar, I want you in the car’ is evidence that points to this theory. Rhett Akins, who like Gorley helped refine the Bro sound, offers both Somebody’s Gotta Be Country (Easton’s set opener) and the sultry I Can’t Decide, a list of rural signifiers set to the effusive praise from a narrator who is bowled over by his beloved. Marry That Girl, written with the underrated Adam Craig, is a suitably gorgeous wedding song with the same guitar sound which was employed on Die A Happy Man.

Ben Hayslip, one of Akins’ fellow Peach Pickers usually found writing songs for country boys like Luke Bryan and Dustin Lynch, was in the room for Over A Girl. It’s yet another catchy two-chord song that lists what things should go with, ending with ‘boys were made to go little bit crazy over a girl’. David Lee Murphy was there for frothy feelgood filler Honky Tonk Land.

Elsewhere on the album, Between You and Me is a smart, Jon Pardiesque song which sounds like tonight is the night when two become one. Where Do You Go (‘from a girl like her’) is a deceptively uptempo tune with a sad lyric, while Wind You Up is a songwriting exercise written to the title. Showing some balance, there is a contemplative drinking song – Whiskey Don’t Take Me Back – and a happy one called Lonesome Drinkers, on which Easton sings of honkytonking being in his DNA. The twangin’ solo makes his point for him, though the song resets the chords of Head Over Boots a step lower.

Album closer In It comes from Laura Veltz and Jimmy Robbins, best known for writing The Bones with Maren Morris. There’s the old George Strait hits on the rim of the snare drum and an elegant arrangement which emphasises the lyrical hook and the sadness of a breakup: ‘When you open your eyes and that pretty little mind has a memory in it, I hope there’s still a little me in it.’ Great writing, very country and perfect for Easton Corbin.

I hope people hear this album, but the absence of a major label chucking money at it might mean it gets lost amid the Wallens and the Combses.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: The Panhandlers and Matt Andersen & the Big Bottle of Joy

March 22, 2023

The Panhandlers – Tough Country

Midland made another of their regular trips over to Europe for Country2Country this month. Never forget that they are artificial: one of them directs music videos for Bruno Mars and John Mayer, and another of them was a model who lived with Fearne Cotton. Still, they filled a gap in the market a few years ago when pedal steel was in danger of being smashed by drum loops.

Thank goodness for The Panhandlers, a group of buddies from the Red Dirt scene of Texas who write and perform together when time allows. Cleto Cordero, who is from Midland the place in Texas, is the songwriter of Flatland Cavalry, while Josh Abbott, Josh Baumann and William Clark Green are all road warriors with enormous fanbases. Funnily enough, they wrote songs from this second album in Marfa, Texas, the same place that Miranda Lambert goes to in order to write songs that stand up with the best Red Dirt tunes but are heard by millions more.

The album follows their 2020 debut that was a hit with commentator Grady Smith. It was preceded by an EP last year, which included four songs: Where Cotton is King, which has a pleasant thump on every beat and a fiddle to accompany how Mother Nature is the ‘queen’; The Chilton Song, an advertising jingle that celebrates the West Texan tipple of lemon with vodka (‘maybe not Russian!’) and soda; Midland Jamboree, a delightful bit of Western Swing about sitting on a lawnchair with alcohol, ‘poking fun at all the Okies’; and the excellent West Texas is the Best Texas, which has a dig at Californians who are keen to leave the palm trees for the land of panhandling (my own cousin now lives in Austin, having made the move from San Francisco).

Three of those songs were written by the four Panhandlers, who all get individual lines in a sort of Musketeers feel. Cleto and John wrote two songs by themselves. Cleto’s are the sumptuous Moonlight In Marfa and album-closing canine ode I-Got-Your-Back-Dog. John contributed Valentine for Valentines, which hooks the Texan town with February 14 in lieu of ‘candygrams’ (and none for Gretchen Wieners!), and The Last Gentleman in Southwest Texas, which makes me think of Duncan Warwick, the editor of Country Music People, who would find his tribe with the character described in the classic speak-sing country style.

Josh offers The Corner Comedian, with a begging narrator stating his case. William wrote the tear-in-the-beer Last Hangover (‘the worst part about sober’) and, with Cleto, the album’s title track. The best American roots music has production that matches its subject matter: here it’s three-part harmonies and rhythmic plucking from pedal steel, dobro and fiddle.

The opening track Flat Land, as well as being akin to the opening song of a movie from about 1969, is a hymn to the earth, which is about as country as you can get given that without land, settlers couldn’t grow corn to eat. Lajitas, which ends Side A with a magnificently long fadeout and some studio chatter, is a piano-led narrative song about a guy who ‘gets his mushrooms up in Austin’.

Santa Fe, written by the patron saint of Red Dirt music Guy Clark, has the narrator thinking ‘self-inflicted pain’ can be healed by a trip to the beach. All four Panhandlers have a grasp of song structure, putting in middle eights which keep the listener interested. I love this album and hope you find an hour to sit down, maybe with a Chilton cocktail, and give it a go.

Matt Andersen and the Big Bottle of Joy – The Big Bottle of Joy

Country music is very elastic: it admits plenty of types of sound and if the creator calls it country then that’s what it is. The Canadian performer Matt Andersen offers roots music, blues and folk on his tenth album The Big Bottle of Joy, which is also the name of his band much in the way that Robert Plant had a Band of Joy and an album of that title. I also applaud the name of Matt’s imprint: Stubbyfingers.

Three Smiths – Reeny, Hailey and Micah – are on hand with backing vocals, while drummer Geoff Arsenault seems to follow nominative determinism: drums are described as arsenals. Nobody gets to ten albums without being deeply impressive musically and through this album Matt and his band sound competent and proficient, which is my way of saying they’re really jolly good at what they do.

Witness the track Golden, where Matt tosses in words like ‘acrobatic’ and ‘unfolded’ to demonstrate how he sees the light; musically there’s funky guitar lines and a Hammond organ punctuating how he feels. Conversely, Keep Holding On and Rollin’ Down The Road – which rolls on for six minutes and has a 16-bar piano solo with some rolling figures – are both songtitles that have been used many, many times before; it’s as if the words are far down the list from melodies and arrangements in this sort of music.

Let It Slide counsels the listener not to get caught up or ‘bitch about the news’, and its message makes it a grown-up version of that song from Frozen. Miss Missing You is a roadhog’s lament, comparing hotel rooms and ‘wanderlust’ with the pull of the loved one at home. So Low, Solo is another ‘you’ve got a friend’ song, while it’ll be impossible for anyone to turn off How Far Will You Go after its funky opening riff.

What’s On My Mind opens with a few bars a cappella from the three singers before Matt calls for ‘something real to write on’ and in the chorus for universal brotherhood, a typical theme of soul music. The vicious organ solo hammers the point home, just as it does on Only An Island.

The album ends magnificently. Hands of Time is an impressive cover of a song written by Groove Armada and Richie Havens, while there’s an accordion helping Matt on Shoes (‘we’re dancing in the shoes we’ve got on’) which he wrote with the great Canadian folkie Donovan Woods.

A lot of this album reminds me of other jazzy, bluesy acts like Tedeschi Trucks Band or Gregory Porter: there’s not much to say about it except to light a candle, lie back and bask in the grooves.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Muscadine Bloodline and Brit Taylor

March 21, 2023

Muscadine Bloodline – Teenage Dixie

Independent country music has had a good few years. Zach Bryan is outselling everyone except Morgan Wallen and Luke Combs, while Tyler Childers is so popular he can play two dates in front of 1000 people each night at Islington’s gorgeous Assembly Hall. Grady Smith, a huge supporter of both Bryan and Childers, has not hidden his love of the duo Muscadine Bloodline, interviewing them on his channel in this 78-minute interview.

Gary and Charlie are from Mobile, Alabama, the home state of Jason Isbell, the indiest don daddy of the scene. The pair initially signed a deal with Luke Laird’s Creative Nation label but backed out of it to go independent. This third album follows the nine-track 2022 release Dispatch to 16th Avenue, which included the excellent Dyin’ For a Livin’.

Six of the album’s 15 tracks have been trailed over the last few months. Teenage Dixie, the album opener, hits all the barroom rock’n’roll beats: harmonica, 4/4 beat, chugging from the guitar and a pair of protagonists who had a romance long ago. The sex jam Me On You was released as far back as July 2022, and has a vocal that reminds me of Kenny Foster trying to wrap his tongue around Garth’s twistiest lyrics.

Other pre-release tracks include Evinrudin’, a chugger about fishing; Cryin’ In a GMC (ie a General Motors vehicle), which is another barroom-friendly jam with a host of characters and the line ‘laundry list of did-you-wrongs’; Made Her That Way, where the narrator blames himself for pushing an ex away; and Inconvenience Store (great title), which sounds like what happens when Chris Stapleton goes robbin’.

The other nine tracks build on that sextet. Pocketful of 90’s Country rollicks along with plenty of appreciation for ‘the solid country gold’ including lesser heard stars of the era like Mark Chesnutt and Sammy Kershaw; just when I was wondering when the girls would appear, the third chorus runs through five of the best of them in a new key! Let us not forget Deana, Reba, Shania, ‘Dixie Chicks’ (sic) and Martina. This song will go down well at festivals, especially if any of the old guard are on the bill to join in, and it seems less cliched and more fun than what Luke Combs is doing.

The second half of the album contains the tracks that haven’t been previewed and the pair saved the best for now. Devil Died in Dixie is the song that will pull neophytes in: it’s a sequel to the Charlie Daniels song about the fiddling devil, telling us what he did next and using the original as a template. More of this sort of thing, I say, rather than straight rewriting or rattling off of old songs. I can only imagine how electrifying this song will be live.

Life Itself is almost a pop song, with a suitably pop lyric (‘I love you more than life itself’). Named After Natives has the hook ‘all I want is all of you tonight’ and is one of those songs where the narrator wants to drive to a secluded spot (a bridge, in this case) and smooch. Elsewhere, his lady is so beautiful that she even surpasses Azalea Blooms, and the guitar outro complements the mood of the song overall.

Good to Drive musically takes its lead from Stapleton, the narrator making himself available if his addressee needs a friend. The closing pair of Knife To A Gunfight (‘round here respect is earned’) and Shootout in Saraland are bluesy and suitably menacing, while Old Man Gillich introduces Dixieland gangsters to the impressive lyrics sheet.

Major labels would throw money at Muscadine Bloodline, but the duo is sticking to its indie guns. All power to them. This is a magnificent piece of work.

Brit Taylor – Kentucky Blue

The Country Music People cover story with Brit Taylor had me at ‘runs her own cleaning business’. After a divorce and a flight from a job as a Music Row staff songwriter, Brit recorded her second album in three days with two of the best in town: David Ferguson and Sturgill Simpson.

Inspired by Patty Loveless, this is an album that can sit comfortably with Reba and Miranda, and indeed with Carly Pearce, who’s doing the same thing as Brit but with millions of dollars to help her out.

Tender opener Cabin in the Woods and the title track both ooze class. If You Don’t Wanna Love Me (‘this bird’s gotta fly!’) starts with the hook and gallops onward, while Love’s Never Been That Good To Me begins ‘the needle drops, the record spins’ and sounds like a modern standard. It’s lush and extraordinary and worth the price of admission. For A Night, with a sophisticated chorus full of strings that you just don’t get on radio any more, is even better. I almost gave it an ovation to match the lift I felt inside.

There’s fiddle on Ain’t a Hard Livin’ (‘when I’m lovin’ on you’) and Rich Little Girls (‘clink clink, they drink champagne’). Brit couches her scorn for Nashville’s hen party scene on No Cowboys in an arrangement which has the same sort of rich production that Sturgill had on his concept album about an outlaw. Here, however, the ‘desperadoes…have hung up their saddles’ and are nowhere to be seen.

Best We Can Do (‘these old blues can be so hard to shake’) is a lesson in love from a woman who got lucky the second time around. But one question remains: how bad is the music industry doing in 2023 that a first-class writer like Brit Taylor can only do it part-time?

Ka-Ching…with Twang – Thoughts on Morgan Wallen’s Hot 100 Number One

March 19, 2023

Morgan Wallen is at the top of the Hot 100 with the naggingly catchy Last Night.

Firstly, kudos to the five songwriters. Well done especially to Ashley Gorley, who has burst out of the country charts and finally written a number one pop hit. I wonder if the Number One trophy will go to the front of his packed cabinet or, more likely, trophy room.

Ditto for Charlie Handsome aka Ryan Vojtesak, who exec-produced the Post Malone album Stoney and has worked with Drake and Chris Brown. He was one of 13 writers to work on First Class, the 2022 number one from Jack Harlow, where his cheque was diluted because of the sample of Glamorous by Fergie.

Ryan/Charlie seems to have treated Wallen like a pop star who happens to be based in Nashville. He already has a lot of money from the tracks he wrote for Dangerous: the singles Wasted On You and More Than My Hometown, and album cuts Warning, Still Goin’ Down, Blame It On Me, This Bar and the Diplo collaboration Heartless.

The other two writers of Last Night are John Byron and Jacob ‘J Kash’ Hindlin. The former is a fellow Tennessean who is on the staff of Big Loud, Wallen’s label. On their website Byron’s biography notes that he ‘started his career writing mostly rap songs’. Eureka. In 2023 alone he has had four cuts on the new Chase Rice album including the single Way Down Yonder and the gorgeous Key West & Colorado, as well as eight cuts on the 36-track behemoth One Thing At A Time. I hope he invests his money wisely.

Those Wallen writes include 98 Braves, Sunrise (which is one of the hip-hoppy ones), Wine Into Water, In The Bible and I Deserve A Drink, which he wrote with Hillary Lindsey, Devin Dawson and Devin’s brother Jacob. Byron has earned his corn, as has Vojtesak, who is credited on 15 of the 36 tracks, three of which (Thinkin’ Bout Me, Days That End In Why and Single Than She Was) had Byron in the room too. The others include some of my favourite of the 36 – the poppy Me To Me, the Allman Brothers-indebted Everything I Love and the ‘dirt rock’ title track – and also my least favourite, the execrable 180 (Lifestyle).

As for J Kash, he first hit my ears when I learned he had written a lot of his friend Charlie Puth’s hits: Attention, How Long, Girlfriend, The Way I Am and We Don’t Talk Anymore. His list of copyrights include some huge pop hits, including the number one Savage Love for Jason Derulo and the One Direction US number 10 hit Perfect, when J Kash was in the room with big-hitting LA-based A-Listers Mozella and John Ryan. A pair of Maroon 5 hits, Sugar and Memories, were kept at number two (the former was written with pop producers Dr Luke and Cirkut) and Meghan Trainor’s No was held up at number three. J Kash’s trophy room is as packed as Gorley’s, and it’s no surprise that Nashville and LA writers have come together in the era of the monogenre when all music makes the same sound: KA-CHING!

All this is to say that Wallen was just a guy from Nashville, on a Nashville label, who was usually found all over country radio with his country twang. He is now one of America’s biggest pop stars, the Garth Brooks of the post-Trump era. I hope he’s prepared for it. Morgan is trying to control his drinking, especially as the father to a young son called Indigo, while also making a killing for Big Loud, who will be popping champagne to celebrate a Hot 100-Billboard 200 album chart double.

So what happens next? Flogging the horse is what happens next.

Remember when Amy Winehouse got famous and begat Adele and Paloma Faith, or when Arctic Monkeys ushered in a host of regional rock bands from Sheffield and Staines? This is what happens when an act gets to number one. More recent examples include: Drake, who begat Future and Post Malone; Katy Perry, who begat Ke$ha; and Nicki Minaj, who begat Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion and, arguably, Lizzo, who herself begat Latto.

This is my Theory of Archetypes, where a really original act synthesises disparate musical elements to create something new. Then comes the horse-flogging, where chancers, copyists and acts who make money for their label and the label shareholders get a turn. George Michael and Prince, for instance, are groundbreakers; Robbie Williams and Babyface are lesser versions of those archetypes.

Wallen is interesting. He’s an act who has achieved enormous streaming numbers and has had plenty of number ones. Like Drake, he’s a mix of genres because he wants to get in as many playlists as possible. I remember him talking to Grady Smith about ‘DSPs’, a term new to both me and Grady, which reeked of marketing meetings at Big Loud: these Digital Streaming Platforms were key to making Wallen an A List star. The interview, which went live in February 2020, is worth watching.

Collaborations, such as the one Drake had with Rihanna (Beyonce was the archetype, Rihanna the copyist), increase the reach and brand recognition of a newer act. Indeed, Wallen’s first number one was a duet with Florida Georgia Line called Up Down. In some ways, Wallen has taken over from FGL, but in others he has had to move the sound of country music forward.

He’s also surpassed the pop chart performances of FGL, who had two huge Hot 100 hits with Cruise (number four) and Meant To Be (number two, kept off the top by Drake), while Sam Hunt took Body Like A Back Road to number six. Hunt, like Wallen, was keen on synthesising hiphop elements with Nashville melodies and stories, mingling the urban and rural and laughing all the way to the bank.

It may have helped Wallen’s cause that he was headline news for the video leaked to TMZ that threatened to wreck his career; when they were having hits, FGL and Hunt were both working within the constraints of the ‘good boy’ Nashville system even as they expanded the sound with guitars, loops and rapped deliveries. Would the average pop fan know which of FGL was Tyler Hubbard, for instance?

If anything, Wallen is a more successful version not just of Sam Hunt but of Jason Aldean, another hero of the flyover states who has had an extraordinary number of country number ones. Aldean’s own top 10 pop hit was Dirt Road Anthem, the ur-song of the bro era that was written by rapper Colt Ford. And yet Old Town Road, this millennium’s most successful song by its duration at number one in America, was ejected from the country chart despite sharing several elements of production with those on Wallen’s album. But we’ve done that argument, just as we’ve done the ‘Well, the Dixie Chicks said something bad and they were scrubbed off radio’.

The difference here is that Wallen, who is too big to fail, can bring a cavalry behind him. He already is: Bailey Zimmerman leapt out of TikTok and onto the radio, and he’s going out on tour with Wallen later this year. Hardy, who himself was due to support Wallen in the UK in 2020, has an album to promote which mixes hard rock and contemporary country, while Ernest K Smith (who, like Vojtesak, has had multiple credits across Wallen’s two albums) has traded his rap identity for a down-home blue-collar country style.

Lest we forget, Ernest and Hardy both feature on One Thing at a Time, respectively on the songs Cowgirls and In The Bible. Nor should we forget Broadway Girls, a collaboration between Wallen and rapper Lil Durk that topped the R&B/Hiphop charts. On the topic of rap, Jelly Roll has copied Ernest’s move away from rap, and like Hardy now has hits on the rock and country charts as he prepares an album for the country market, after many independent rap releases, just in time for CMA Fest. He has already been described as ‘country music’s Post Malone’ because of his face tattoos and last December he sold out the 16,000-capacity Bridgestone Arena. But Nashville already has a Post Malone and he’s called Morgan Wallen.

Indeed, one can compare Wallen to Drake in terms of chart performance: every track on One Thing at a Time made the Billboard Hot 100, something Drake has done on two occasions. In a time of few blockbuster stars, it’s easy to fix the charts and boast of having so many hits at any one time. But it’s not the size of the thing, it’s what you do with it. So what happens next?

Will people buy Ernest, whose song Flower Shops was a duet with Wallen and is arguably better than 95% of One Thing at a Time? Will they buy Hardy, once they figure out he’s one of the brains behind Wallen’s success? Will they see a massive guy with tattoos and buy Jelly Roll? What does this mean for women like Lily Rose, who is signed to Big Loud but is touring with Sam Hunt this year because there’s no space for her as Wallen gallops around the world?

More than one commentator, including Chris Molanphy in his Why Is This Song Number One essay for Slate Magazine, has posited that Wallen’s success is as a middle finger to the coasts, a sort of ‘own the Libs’ from the flyover states. Perhaps he is the totem of the same right-looking country as Toby Keith, particularly remembering the era after the September 11 attacks. Yet Wallen has not addressed the events of 2021 in song explicitly – and he certainly hasn’t warned any enemies of America ‘I’ll kick your ass’ – but, to quote the hook of the number one song, he certainly ‘let the liquor talk’ in the bender which led up to the video that almost killed his career.

In spite of his apology via the medium of an interview with Michael Strahan (‘I can only come tell my truth’), and in spite of donating half a million dollars to pro-black organisations, he still remains The Guy Who Used That Word.

Media organisations will always get clicks for painting Wallen as a saviour or a victim. Kyle Coroneos aka Trigger of Saving Country Music was very good at contextualising the incident, which happened in early February 2021 a month after the release of Dangerous, and compared the reaction to when Jason Aldean was caught cheating on his wife: ‘Everybody deserves a second chance but Morgan Wallen is about on chance #7.’

Even Kelefa Sanneh, in his recent appearance on the New York Times Popcast, admitted that people would turn off yet another conversation about The Guy Who Used That Word. He and host Jon Caramanica spent 20 minutes talking about the artist rather than the art; Caramanica called him ‘a cudgel of the culture wars’, while Sanneh marvelled: ‘He makes amazing songs…He has this kind of understated charisma!’

Sanneh has written two pieces on Wallen for the New Yorker: the first in 2020 went long on how he was ‘the most wanted man in country’ and ‘an online sex symbol’. By 2022, the narrative had turned into what was summed up in the headline ‘Morgan Wallen is Not on an Apology Tour’.

The era-dominant Dangerous is now joined by One Thing at a Time to create a total (with bonus tracks) of 68 songs across the two albums. Not even The Beatles or The Beach Boys could offer a catalogue like that and they were putting out two or three albums a year for two or three years. When it comes to the music, it is ‘a hybrid kind,’ Sanneh said, calling One Thing at a Time ‘an anti-concept album’.

Might this persuade other country artists to put out bloated albums? Bailey Zimmerman announced that his debut full-length, released by Elektra Records, will have 16 tracks. The exclusive came via an interview with Rolling Stone, which gave One Thing at a Time a lukewarm review which was headlined ‘A lot of partying, but not much introspection’. The reviewer noted that his ‘frizzled wail’ took influence from early-2000s rock bands like Staind.

It is interesting to note that Ernest put out his Flower Shops project as a ten-track album in 2022 and a 14-track follow-up in 2023. Blake Shelton once said he would prefer to put out singles than any albums: ‘Do people care about them anymore?’ Few cared about his 2021 release Body Language, which only had 12 tracks on it and was outstreamed by Wallen’s Dangerous.

I think, to quote Sanneh, we will see plenty more ‘slightly damaged heartthrobs’ like Wallen and Zimmerman. I bet every label in Nashville is scrolling through TikTok trying to spot a kid who would hit with the 16-34 demo in a small town in a flyover state. They would be made to slur country stuff over a lazy hiphop beat in a genre I’ll suggest should be called Hillbilly Hiphop but I bet someone has a better idea. There’s a marketing plan being written and a stylist trying to perfect the Wallen Look.

The music industry is very good at milking a cash cow, so expect Wallen and whatever sound it is that he makes to dominate country music and the pop charts until it is rendered as obsolete as yelling ‘hey baby get in my truck!’ over double-tracked guitars. It’s interesting that traditional music is back, and I wonder if Wallen will put out some acoustic versions of any of the 36 tracks to appease some fans.

As it stands though, he is dangerously close to being paid my ultimate compliment, which I’ve said about Stevie Wonder, Prince and Garth Brooks: Morgan Wallen is his own genre.

Read my piece on One Thing at a Time here.

Ka-Ching…With Twang – Rock’n’Roll Tribute Albums

March 17, 2023

Rock music is, at the oldest guess, coming towards its seventieth birthday. Elvis Presley’s first recording came out in 1954. The Beatles’ line-up solidified in 1963 when they went into Abbey Road and put down their first album in a 12-hour session after two years’ hard gigging. On a weekly basis one of the old guard – David Crosby, Jeff Beck, Charlie Watts – is going up to the Great Gig in the Sky.

And so the music industry is trying to shore up its legends before they leave this earth. Bob Dylan sold his catalogue to ensure his grandkids and their grandkids don’t have to work on Maggie’s Farm, and I am positive Taylor Swift is already future-proofing her catalogue even though she’s barely in her thirties. U2 have put out a 40-track retrospective of re-recordings, and Bono admitted to love ABBA as much as The Edge loved progressive rock. Catalogue is not tribal.

What about figures like Joni Mitchell and Mick Jagger, heroes of the baby boomer generation who are now settling into their retirement? Well, their listeners are. The Stones toured last summer and the Jagger/Richards partnership celebrates sixty years in the business. Their cover of Come On by Chuck Berry came out a few months after that first Beatles album, which was released into full Cliffmania. Summer Holiday was number one that spring, with Gerry and the Pacemakers leading the Merseybeat charge. The Stones hit number one twice in 1964 and a confected rivalry began.

Robert Deaton, who puts on the CMA Awards every year, surely has a TV special in mind for his celebration of Mick’n’Keef’n’company. Stoned Cold Country follows the example set by Elton John a few years ago when Chris Stapleton, Willie Nelson, Miranda Lambert and Maren Morris were among the country voices taking the lead from Reggie, who came up in the wake of both Beatles and Stones.

Just as they were with Rocket Man on the Elton project, Little Big Town are set loose for the harmonies of Wild Horses, the most overtly country hit song in the Stones’ catalogue which was co-written by Gram Parsons. Tumbling Dice was a hit for Linda Ronstadt, and it’s impossible not to hear her voice in Elle King’s interpretation. Lainey Wilson gets the seven-minute blues-rock of You Can’t Always Get What You Want (raised from C to E-flat), wrapping her Louisiana twang around words like ‘reception’ and ‘demonstration’, though she can also make ‘hand’ sound Southern. Have you ever looked at the lyric sheet to that song? Complete nonsense, but plenty of open vowels, like Wonderwall or Mr Brightside.

As you’d expect, there is nothing here from the Stones canon that goes beyond Miss You, because even the Stones stopped inventing themselves after they hung out at Studio 54. That song, by the way, is smartly crooned by Jimmie Allen, who gives Jagger’s talk-singing and the vocalised hook a good reading.

From their early catalogue are Paint It Black (Zac Brown Band, introduced by Jimmy De Martini’s trusty fiddle), Satisfaction (Ashley McBryde, who moves the key up from E to A) and Sympathy for the Devil, where Elvie Shane leads the famous ‘woo-woo!’ chorus which was originally supplied by Marianne Faithful and Keith’s partner Anita Pallenberg.

Steve Earle (Angie, a great choice because his voice is in the same tenor as Jagger’s) and Brooks & Dunn (Honky Tonk Women, plenty of oomph) represent the old stagers who would have remembered hearing the Stones on rock radio as teenagers, while some of the rockier acts in town also show up to the party bearing riffs. Eric Church is an obvious choice for Gimme Shelter, whose gospel-flavoured rock he has been ripping off (paying homage to, sorry!) for his entire career, including his use of Joanna Cotten as a superlative backing vocalist until recently in a ripoff of/homage to Merry Clayton, whose part on Gimme Shelter would now be given a co-credit.

Marcus King and Koe Wetzel offer Can’t You Hear Me Knocking and Shine A Light: the former has a delicious Fender Rhodes keys solo and a nice long wigout, while the latter faithfully reproduces the gospely original and makes me think how awesome it would be if a huge band, complete with singers and a horn section, could appear more often than just as a one-off recording or TV special. Where is the Jools Holland Rhythm’n’Blues Orchestra of the States? Where is their Ruby Turner?

Maren Morris takes on Dead Flowers, a track from Sticky Fingers which has a dusting of pedal steel. I can’t think why Brown Sugar, also from that album, is missing but it must be something to do with the opening line ‘Gold Coast slave ships bound for cotton fields’. Instead we get Brothers Osborne and The War and Treaty singing about how much they like rock’n’roll, a lightweight song about nothing but itself, albeit with some terrific vocals and guitar playing from the four musicians out front. It more or less sums up the projects: glitz over grime, right on the border where the commercial meets the interesting.

Talking of interesting: I really think Joni Mitchell will end up as the most acclaimed singer/songwriter of the rock era. Move over Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen with your poetry; Joni veered from folk to jazz and invented her own idiom which I call Joniana. Nobody before Joni Mitchell wrote songs like she did; afterwards, so many tried to match her. Listen to a Brandi Carlile song to see the through line from Joni’s music to today’s Americana/Joniana stars.

Both Sides Now is a recent tribute album which acts as a companion piece to Stoned Cold Country. It is credited to Redtenbacher’s Funkestra, named after the arranger Stefan Redtenbacher who has recorded each song live with no overdubs and with the vocalist singing with the orchestra in the Sinatra manner.

There are, of course, tracks from Blue. Little Green, the song about the daughter Joni had to give up for adoption, is sung by Sarah Jane Morris. Jo Harman croons the album’s title track and glides over a sumptuous arrangement of A Case of You, which kd lang has also tackled. Mike Mayfield closes the album by skating away on River, which Herbie Hancock turned inside out on his own Album of the Year-winning tribute to Joni.

I first heard Circle Game on Mount Masada in Israel when it was used in a barmitzvah ceremony so I can’t hear the ‘painted ponies’ of the chorus without imagining desert sands. Hamish Stuart takes vocals here over a light jazz guitar-led arrangement, while the gorgeously lush voice of Rumer tackles Amelia (‘hexagram of the heavens…like Icarus ascending on beautiful foolish arms’!!) and Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow, which has a typically Joniesque structure where the music supports the words, like church music in the Renaissance.

Mayfield also takes the standard Both Sides Now, which is given treatment akin to Bridge Over Troubled Water, while Jana Varga is employed on Free Man in Paris, a song written from the perspective of David Geffen and featuring the word ‘unfettered’, which I don’t think Mick Jagger would have written. Mim Grey is the vocalist on two songs from the 1991 album Night Ride Home: the title track and (suitably, as she must have pointed out) Two Grey Rooms, with its repeated hook ‘below my window’.

There has been a recent craze for symphony orchestras being paired with original recordings of rock musicians (Elvis, Neil Diamond, Bob Marley, Roy Orbison), and ABBA have used motion-capture technology to entertain performers who don’t mind watching simulacra. But this sort of tribute album, using spectacular voices and A-grade arrangements, will be a way to pay respect to artists and introduce them anew.

Indeed, the Southbank Centre hosts a David Bowie tribute evening where acts including Jake Shears and Anna Calvi reimagine Aladdin Sane as part of a weekend celebrating the golden anniversary of the album’s release. What next: 50 Years of Hiphop? 50 Years of Disco? 40 Years of Bono?

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Blake O’Connor – Finding Light

March 15, 2023

I met Blake O’Connor at Buckle & Boots in 2019. He was barely out of his teens and was in the UK as part of the artist exchange which had taken Gary Quinn and Kezia Gill to the Tamworth Music Festival that January. Blake got to play there too, and won that year’s renowned Star Maker prize, which must always be followed by the sentence ‘Keith Urban won it in 1990’. Lee Kernaghan did so in 1982 and went on to be awarded the Order of Australia in 2004.

For his part, Blake is just happy to be making a living as an independent country artist down in Australia. This weekend (March 17-19), he’ll be at CMC Rocks, Australia’s version of Country2Country which this year is headlined by Morgan Wallen and Zac Brown Band. Blake has the 1145 hangover slot on the Sunday, on the second stage which will be closed by a one-two of Ernest then Hardy. I hope Blake meets the pair of those two writers in the Wallen camp, and gets a photo with Wallen himself.

Since the release of his debut album, also in 2019, Blake has put out tracks individually. Seven of them find their way onto Finding Light. The first of them was Willin’ and Ready, a toe-tapper with some rapid fire lyrics and some slide guitar and piano in the mix too. Kickin’ A Rock has some delicious Hammond organ and harmonica while Blake, with plenty of Stapleton in his voice, sings of how his ‘troubles are gone, gone, gone!’

Soul Feeling works its title with a marvellous rhythm and great vocal. Little Bit Longer (‘I know we’ve shared a heartache or two’) is one of those songs sung by a guy desperate not to lose his beloved. The backing vocalists offer some oohs while Blake gives it some welly. The production is tremendous as well, with nothing ‘in the box’ and sounding live and true.

The three tracks to immediately precede the album’s release were: Cover Me Up, which is not a Jason Isbell cover but a bluesy sex jam with the hook ‘cover me in your love’; Chained to the Ground, a triple-time tune where Blake advises a woman to fly and be free; and the album’s opening track Time to Kill. That song, which disguises a lost job and wife with a church music feel, reminds me of Ryan Tedder’s work with OneRepublic because of the handclaps.

The four new tunes build on the seven already in the world on album release day. Let a Bit of Light picks up the mood of Chained to the Ground, while Run With You is a rootsy Dierks Bentley-type song of the open road (with added cello!) which will go down really well at CMC Rocks.

I know it’s probably an obvious comparison given they’re Australia’s biggest rock’n’roll band, but I hear a bit of AC/DC in Honey, a rifftastic swampy blues where the elements swirl around Blake lyrically and musically. If You’re Looking Down closes the album on a melancholy note, as a finger-picked guitar forms the bed onto which Blake croons of how ‘when it rains, I dance in the puddles’.

Now if only we could entice Blake back to the Northern Hemisphere so we can hear him too!

Ka-Ching…With Twang: The War and Treaty – Lover’s Game

March 14, 2023

In 2020 Tanya and Michael Trotter were in the right place at the right time. Their album Hearts Town was sensational, a mix of gospel and country, blues and rock, black and white. It was distributed by Rounder Records, which made them an independent spirit and a flickering flame which didn’t catch fire due to the lack of live performances surrounding the album.

This became an inferno, however, when George Floyd was killed. This reminded Nashville that they really needed, on pain of irrelevance if they ignored it, a country music that reflects all of America, not just one flavour. We’ve thus had Mickey Guyton’s debut album, Kane Brown’s move to an A List star and a comedian of Asian descent, Henry Cho, invited to be a member of the Grand Ole Opry. All of these are Good.

The War and Treaty had already been acclaimed, having made their debut on the hallowed Opry stage in 2019, with a backstory that would appeal to Americans: Michael is a veteran who served in Iraq, and Tanya was a singer in her own right. In May 2022, a few months before winning Duo/Group of the Year at the Americana Awards (they won Emerging Artist in 2019), the pair signed a record deal with Mercury, which is swimming in Chris Stapleton money. They have been paired with Stapleton’s producer Dave Cobb, which must have been a fun series of sessions.

Holler Country gave Lover’s Game a 10/10 rating, though they mistakenly called it their debut (it’s their fourth) and was described as ‘a fervent cleansing…beacons dotting a craggy shoreline…an antidote to the world’s sickly state’. Up Yonder is even compared to Amazing Grace, ‘testifying to their belief that love heals all’. Is this hyperbole, or fashionable identity politics?

Regardless, they’re playing the Long Road, which might as well be named Baylen Leonard’s Rainbow Country Festival since all creeds, colours and genres are encouraged. This is a Good Thing as country music must adapt or die, although it would be nice if REDACTED hadn’t happened last year to make me question the LAWYERS ADVISED REDACTION of the festival.

Let’s consider the music, as I did with their last album. The interesting thing about The War and Treaty is that they can glide into the Adult Contemporary chart; they’re country in the way Little Big Town, Brothers Osborne or Chris Stapleton are country. Handily, they’re opening for Chris this summer.

Four songs were rolled out in 2022: Lover’s Game, the rock’n’roll boogie that serves as the album’s opening track; Blank Page, which would work in a Bob Harris Segue next to Broken Halos; and Dumb Luck, written by Beau Bedford, which quotes Wagon Wheel and allows Tanya’s voice to enjoy the natural echo of Nashville Studio A. (Fun fact: Dave Cobb took it over from Ben Folds, who saved it from closure after he rented it during the 2000s. Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley invented the Nashville Sound there in the 1960s.)

That’s How Love Is Made was written with Dave Barnes and sounds like a standard, a mix of Ronnie Milsap and Al Green with some lush diminished chords. Michael takes verse one, Tanya verse two and they sell the heck out of it; love is ‘all or nothing’, by the way. I expected a lovely middle eight and this one is full of sunshine and cloudy days.

Of the six tracks which are new to fans, Ain’t No Harmin’ Me was the one chosen to announce the album. Michael wails about seeing the Devil in a very Stapletonesque manner; he ends Angel, another one of those love songs comparing a woman to a heavenly being, with a gospel throaty yarl. Yesterday’s Burn is a sombre waltz where ‘honey’ and ‘sweetheart’ want one another to lay their hurt on them, while The Best That I Have is supremely gentle with Michael singing falsetto to be within the same melodic range as Tanya’s lead. The Golden Girls get a nice namecheck too.

As for Up Yonder, it’s a funeral ballad sung in perfect harmony by the pair which could work a cappella without the most tender arrangement backing it. The album closes with Have You A Heart, a piano-driven gospel song. Perhaps TW&T will bring church music back to country. Even if they don’t, they’re a welcome addition to the pews of the genre.

SightC2Cing: What I Saw at Country2Country 2023

March 13, 2023

As in previous years at Country2Country, rather than offer reviews of acts, I take a snapshot of what I see and hear. Here was 2022’s report.

The organisers must have been praying hard all week for sunshine and the sun popped on a ten gallon hat (hip hooray!) as early arrivals popped into the festival on Saturday morning. I did a double-take when I saw a man wearing a lanyard which he could place his beer into, leaving his hands free for another beer should he have wished. I didn’t check the prices, but I can’t imagine a pint was any cheaper than £7. I wonder if people have gone without heating this winter to afford alcohol across C2C weekend.

Country music is a lifestyle as well as a genre, and there was the usual plethora of tassels, denim and hats. Last year I was impressed with the quota of mullets, and it was lovely to spot a fella in a Luke Combs tee topped off with a Wallen mullet. I saw at least three ‘teeny weeny beanies’, the type of hat worn by a Shoreditch media guy, which would never have been spotted ten years ago at the first C2C.

Plenty of UK broadcasters and writers were present. In the morning, before producing three hours of live radio for Radio 2, Marc Hagen wandered around the foyer. There was no sighting of Bob Harris, or of Baylen Leonard who REDACTED ON LAWYER’S ADVICE last year, but Matt Spracklen of CountryLine Radio looked in good health after his DJ set the night before.

James Daykin of Entertainment Focus was with wife and son, on a break from his coverage which is as excellent as ever; Dan Wharton (ex of Your Life in a Song) was with family, Pete Woodhouse and the w21Music crew were buzzing around and Karl Shoemark of SW20 Country was with alcohol, but not too much as he was heading back to Somerset by train having sold his evening arena ticket.

As for the musicians in the crowd, I spied Ben Earle, Jeff Cohen, Gasoline & Matches, Vic Allen, Kaity Rae and Liv Austen plus bump. Kezia Gill’s manager Donna Zanetti, who along with Pete runs w21Records, told Karl that she and Kezia had driven up to Glasgow the day before, driven down overnight via Derby and arrived in London a few hours earlier so she could play the Indigo on Sunday. You have to be insane or dedicated or both to do that; Kezia’s set in Glasgow as part of a showcase at King Tut’s is available on BBC Sounds until Easter here.

At any one time across the Arena site, there was music in eight places: four free stages, upstairs at the All Bar One, the Indigo, the Bluebird Café and the Barrelhouse. The queue for the last of these peaked around the time Megan McKenna played at 3pm. At that time I had my back to the queue, facing the Big Entrance stage. Jess Clemmons was backed by her Bandits but the bass was too loud. Within half an hour, the rain had come, but by this time I’d had four uninterrupted hours of music.

Smithfield started the day with some originals including breakthrough hit Hey Whiskey, but people would have paused on their way in to the arena to hear a medley that included Livin’ On A Prayer, That Don’t Impress Me Much and This Kiss. All were songs that hit the charts before the year 2000, which proved that I belong in the 35-54 demographic that the CMA are appealing to by essentially putting on CMA Fest: UK.

Upstairs to the Icon Stage and Lewis, Isi and Clancy had drawn a decent crowd for the Two Ways Home Half-Hour. Old chestnuts Just For Now and Push & Pull were joined by new song Signals In The Smoke, where Lewis’s guitar decided to pack up. A musician was in the house and Obadiah from O&O handed him his own. This won’t happen at the forthcoming Round Up events, tickets for which are here (though many dates are now sold out!)

Paris Adams is now a solo act having broken away from her two Adelaides. She sang a note-perfect cover of Caitlyn Smith’s song High, and previewed a new song with an extraterrestrial theme: ‘Your love is alien to me!’ I predict enormous things for Paris, who was in complete control of the audience and her original material, some of which was written with Hall of Fame songwriter Liz Rose. The Wayside Stage on which Paris performed had been turned 90 degrees this year to allow better access for non-festival goers to get to the bowling at that part of the arena.

Randall King, who will play the Grand Ole Opry after he returns from C2C, entertained a few hundred folk with a set that celebrated both cowboys and cowgirls. Afterwards, many acolytes received a signed photo and a grip-and-grin. Those close to the stage could see a silver sticker in the shape of Texas, which may portend a troupe of other Texans for future festivals. Jonathan Terrell brought his Red Dirt rootsy sound to the Wayside Stage as well.

As Randall was about to let down much of a long line of folk looking to be met and greeted, First Time Flyers were dealing with technical issues. Their half-hour set was dynamic and fun in spite of malfunctioning wedges and missing keyboards – good thing Tim Prottey-Jones is versatile! – and the singles Heartbreak Handshake and Happier were well received. The denim uniform was well chosen, too, and if they want to add an FTF jacket to their merch stall, they’d make a lot of money. I’ll leave that to Pete and Donna, who are guiding them in their new venture.

Back over at the Wayside, Brian Collins brought a Stapletonish burr and harmonica to the occasion. Having opened for Kezia Gill last year, he could well headline in his own right and his performance proved that you should trust the festival bookers when they serve up magnificent musicians who may be unknown to most. I loved Shine a Little Love and new single The Finer Things.

In the evening, as Lady A played the hits to 17,000 people, a few hundred enjoyed Morganway’s first full band gig of 2023. SJ performed in an arm sling because, as her partner Kieran said: ‘She smashed her elbow ten days ago!’ ‘I didn’t break my voice!’ SJ replied, correctly, as the 45-minute performance showed.

They opened with Hurricane, with SJ taking the first verse and easing the crowd in before the band kicked in for verse two, and included plenty of old tunes: My Love Ain’t Gonna Save You, London Life and set closer Let Me Go, which had an enormous rock ending. Because the crowd had been taught some line dancing steps earlier in the evening, a few of them were trying to quick-step to the last two, perhaps helped by alcoholic stimulants!

The band’s second album comes out in May and their ten-date tour comes to London on April 15 at Omeara (tickets here but be quick). World Stopped Running, Wait For Me and Come Over (which would mash up with What Goes Around by Justin Timberlake) will all be on that album and showcase the band sound, supplied by a crack rhythm section (bassist Callum and drummer Eddie, both in white) and the colourful phrases of keyboardist Matt and fiddler Nicky. Guitarist Kieran wore a white cowboy hat to prove the band are a country one, albeit with plenty of rock and blues elements which in turn make them a perfect opening act for Elles Bailey this spring.

A couple of new tracks were given world premieres: one with an opening line ‘he said that she was crazy’ which had a rapid-fire chorus that went ‘feels like feels like’; the other about ‘howling’ with plenty of oomph. Having seen them in double-digit figures now, it has been terrific to watch the band grow from a more sedate country-rock group to one who, like Lady A, inhabit their own genre.

Tickets for the 2024 iteration of Country2Country are on sale now

Ka-Ching…With Twang: Ward Thomas – Music in the Madness

March 10, 2023

Ward Thomas, by my metrics, are the most successful UK country act of the C2C era. The Shires have never had a number one album but Cartwheels, the second Ward Thomas release in 2016, did top the chart. Lizzie and Catherine aren’t even 30; this year Lizzie will become a mum and Catherine an aunt, so they have followed the example of their good friends and put out an album just before maternity leave strikes.

Their fifth release follows the poppy Invitations, which did feature a duet with Cam. It returns them to the country sound of their debut release From Where We Stand. This is smart, given that they launch it the weekend of Country2Country and host the Radio 2 stage aka the Indigo venue. By this time, they have defined their British Country sound, influenced by the kind of production you get on MOR tracks which are added to Radio 2’s playlist.

Their sizeable following means that their tour will take in mid-sized venues: the Barbican in the City of London, the Albert Hall in Manchester and The Forum in Bath. Credit is due to their label and/or management who see that they can make a return on their investment.

I was impressed when I caught them in Blackpool in 2019 and at the Union Chapel in 2022. Their songs have great melodies and structures, but the key is listener involvement. Carry You Home is their career song because it has a magical melody and lots of space for singalongs. Their music is true to them as twentysomething girls from the South of England, particularly No Filter and the delightful Hold Space. It may not be aimed at me, a 35-year-old from Watford, but I can appreciate craft and expertise.

The rollout for this album previewed half of it, which also revealed a fine producer in Ed Harcourt, a veteran who had hits in the early 2000s including Karaoke Soul. Justice & Mercy is one of those brooding tracks that is made to sound rootsy thanks to ‘hum’ backing vocals and a heavy thump on the drums. The lyric is almost a pastiche of outlaw country, outlining a case where half the town want punishment for the man who ‘swindled the good in each neighbourhood…across the whole South…the devil had a baby and he’s coming for you’.

The title track was written with the twins’ core contributors Rebekah Powell and Jess Sharman. ‘Stand up! Make noise! Hey hey hey we’re alive!’ is a perfect example of a participatory hook, as the girls know that the people coming to see them need to feel part of the show. This will sound extraordinary at the Indigo and provide one of the moments of the weekend.

Next To You might rival it, a midtempo love song whose melody positively swoons and which includes a few bars of handclap a cappella for the final chorus. Ditto Loved By You, a piano ballad fit for weddings which opens with a line that ends ‘on the shoulder of the highway’, sung over reverberating piano chords: ‘with you I’ve changed, I’m finally brave enough’ is a warm, welcoming hook.

All Over Again opens with one of the girls (I can never tell which, but I think it’s Lizzy) having a ‘quarter-life crisis’; the chorus opens up with major-key optimism and Ed’s spacious production which sounds organic, as if the room’s sound has been captured without the need for post-production ‘in the box’. I don’t know why they’ve chosen to boost the PRS statements of Andy Burrows and Johnny Borrell from Razorlight by covering America, their 2006 number one which – FUN FACT – held off a campaign to get David Hasselhoff’s Jump In My Car to the top. Simpler times.

If It All Ends Today is a pretty piano ballad about love and stuff where ‘none of this is guaranteed’. Joan of Arc, which is an Ed Harcourt co-write, has the twins declaiming that they’re ‘starting a war’ and asking the addressee to ‘realise the shit I’ve sacrificed’. Oddly, this doesn’t count as explicit language so the track is not marked with an E on Spotify. I Think I Hate You is one of the politest and most melodic of kiss-offs, which any David Cassidy fans will appreciate because it twists the title of his old hit I Think I Love You. Not even an F-word can convince the censors to mark it with parental guidance; perhaps they couldn’t believe they had it in them!

Love Does sounds like the sort of slowie that Ben Earle would write, and it makes sense that Aaron Eshuis, a renowned Music Row writer who has worked with Ryan Hurd and Scotty McCreery, was in the room. The Eshuis-produced Unravel is another one of the girls’ ‘You’ve Got A Friend’ songs with empathy for its addressee – ‘your heart is stitched on a tight sleeve’ – with call-and-response vocals cementing the lyric: ‘let it unravel and when you do I’ll hold the line’.

The album ends with Flower Crowns, a 100%-er by the girls who also produced it. They create a sonic bed of wordless aahs over which they sing about eternal love. It is the best moment of the album where the two voices blend magnificently. There’s perhaps a bit too much unison vocals but this may be the point: two Ward Thomas sisters, one Ward Thomas sound.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Iris DeMent and Karen Jonas

March 8, 2023

Iris DeMent – Workin’ On A World

I know Iris from the song In Spite of Ourselves, her collaboration with John Prine. Her voice is an acquired taste because she sings through her nose but, again like John, you cannot knock her grasp of metre, prosody and character.

Her seventh album, which has had a six-year gestation period, is a fine example of American music: it mixes different styles including gospel, blues, country and folk. The jazzy guitar that runs through the album, especially on tracks like Nothin’ For The Dead and Warriors of Love, reminds me of Bob Dylan’s releases since 1997, while the chug of The Sacred Now puts me in mind of Lucinda Williams and Rosanne Cash.

Activism is high on Iris’ mind. Going Down To Sing In Texas is an eight-minute protest song with a mix of piano and Hammond organ setting the scene: ‘Let’s ban hate from every corner of our land’ is a nice sentiment, and comes during a stanza about the travel ban on Muslims. She gallops through war criminals, capitalists like Jeff Bezos and murdered black folk and those who stand up for their rights.

Martin Luther King gets a namecheck in the opening line of How Long and Mahalia, meanwhile, asks if Mahalia Jackson had someone to lean on: ‘You gave to a world that never had your back’. Mahalia Jackson was the lady who asked MLK to tell the crowd about his dream.

Iris’s voice takes on different timbre on Let Me Be Your Jesus, where it is scratchy and rough. The Cherry Orchard, meanwhile, is sung in an Emmylouish quaver: ‘I bid adieu’ sounds melancholic in this voice. The title track also sounds like something Emmylou would have sung in 1974, with light reverb on Iris’ voice beckoning the listener into the album. She ends it with Waycross Georgia, an old folk song for wanderers which is given a typically DeMentian arrangement.

I Won’t Ask You Why (‘you don’t have to worry no more’) is a proper country song with the old rhythms of a song from the 1960s. Say A Good Word also has a fine structure and melody, while there’s some fluttering mandolin on Walkin’ Daddy. Like Bjork or Tori Amos, Iris DeMent is to be appreciated and applauded even if an hour might be too much in one sitting.

Popular music can be ephemeral but we also need capital-A Artists to sit and think with. Iris, like her pal John Prine, is in that class.

Karen Jonas – The Restless

Joni Mitchell, meanwhile, is a big influence on Karen Jonas, an English graduate whose sixth album begins in a Paris hotel on the song Paris Breeze. That’s Not My Dream Couch has a delightful arrangement and a charming narrator who is sipping coffee with a newspaper. If you translated more than just the last line into French, it would get heavy rotation on francophone radio.

Forever is a reminiscin’ song with some finger-picked steel-string acoustic guitar and some dobro underscoring the narrator’s memories of happier times, swigging wine from the bottle and looking up at the sky. ‘Sweat and chardonnay’ is good writing. The dobro returns on the triple-time Throw Me To The Wolves and the two-chord groove of We Could Be Lovers: ‘Is it getting hot in here or is it just you?’ Come on, that’s great writing.

Elegantly Wasted is not an INXS over but a soft shuffle on which Karen sings of being ‘beautiful and restless’. Fans of Margo Price will find solace in the mood of this song. Likewise Rock The Boat is not an Aaliyah or Hues Corporation cover but another Margoesque story in a minor mode: ‘Take a step into the light…Don’t be afraid to die!’

The Breakdown has a chorus full of ‘whiskey and regret’, although the vocal reminds me of the Poole sisters from Alisha’s Attic in parts. Lay Me Down, which also features on the album in an acoustic form, has a majestic chorus that hints at the poppier moments of Tori Amos’ career, especially with an electric guitar line joining the piano.

Drunken Dreamer is a tribute to Justin Townes Earle, Steve’s son, who died a few years ago. Karen describes ‘angels calling your star-crossed soul’ and hopes he ‘found peace’. The arrangement is surprisingly jaunty for a song so tender, and I’m sure Steve will approve of this tribute as well as the other nine tunes here.

Country Jukebox Jury EPs: Tyler Braden and Randall King

March 7, 2023

Tyler Braden – Neon Grave

What links the following acts: Laci Kaye Booth, Cassadee Pope, Brooke Eden, Bailey Bryan, Drake White, LANCO, Noah Schnacky and Abby Anderson? All of them have played Country2Country while they were signed to a major label who has since released them from their deal.

It is remarkable how country music churns through talent. Development deals lead to EPs, local and international touring and a gruelling experience for the artist with early alarm calls for appearances on a weeks-long trot around America’s radio station. When their music doesn’t sell, for whatever reason, the act gets dropped. Charlie Worsham, who is coming over to the UK in spring to open for Ward Thomas, should be an A List star, but was bruised by the experience of touring with Sam Hunt, who went on before him and rendered Charlie little more than an undercard.

Tyler Braden and Randall King are both signed to Warner Nashville and are coming over to make footprints in the UK at Country2Country 2023. They join the likes of Ashley Cooke, MacKenzie Porter and Drake Milligan; like Tyler, they all have a marketing plan that takes in international audiences, and with luck UK crowds will become fans and spread the word, if they haven’t heard their music already. My other top tips are 49 Winchester, Catie Offerman and Pillbox Patti aka Nicolette Hayford.

Warner Music are launching Tyler Braden onto the world with an EP produced by Randy Montana, who is in the Luke Combs camp. What makes Warner so sure he can succeed, based on this initial collection? Because his voice is a mix of Combs and Brett Young, and it is surrounded by contemporary arrangements with everyday themes targeted at a young demographic.

Neon Grave is a brooding look at an ideal afterlife sung with the same growl adopted in the post-Stapleton era of Combs and Wallen. Joe Diffie and the ‘Good Lord’ both get a mention. Choose Me’s gentle groove matches the narrator’s hopeful romantic begging of the narrator. Wrong Right Now is the type of sex jam Jason Aldean has been churning out for two decades, but that doesn’t make it any less powerful. Middle Man is yet another song about how a dead loved one would marvel at the changes in the world, as well as the importance of prayer. It’s almost Christian music.

There are two versions of Try Losing One, one featuring Syndey from Echosmith. The song first came out on a 2021 EP, so it already has traction as a solo performance. The ascending melody in the chorus, sung over some piano crotchets, makes it sound like a song perfect for Voice contestants. Cellos join for verse two and, in the duet version, the vocalists blend pleasingly.

I am sure Tyler will win some new fans at C2C. It’s up to his label how long they keep him before he, like the acts in the opening paragraph, is tossed back to open mics and life hustling as an independent artist. Surely this isn’t sustainable, except for the fresh crop of acts that turn up in town every month hoping to be the next Tyler Braden.

Randall King – Small Town BS

As for Randall King, he has picked the right moment to sign with Warner.

After Elvie Shane pulled out of C2C on doctor’s orders, Randall King has been kicked up to the Spotlight Stage on Saturday. I wonder if he’ll play his version of I’ll Fly Away, which he dedicates to his late sister Leanna, whose name is also on his suit. He’ll be playing the Opry on the Wednesday after the festival, having made his debut there exactly a year before on an extraordinarily emotional evening. Fun fact: his dad’s name is Randy!

For those who will have arrived late and missed his performances across the O2 during the day, they will see the spirit of Red Dirt country, as approved by Garth Brooks, so long as they haven’t nipped to the loo or joined a queue for an overpriced pint of alcohol. He’ll also be in Garth’s hometown of Stillwater, Oklahoma in April, so a trip to London is a chance for him to promote his album Shot Glass and his recent EP. In fact, he’s over here on business as it’s a two-week trip to press the flesh and perhaps see some sights.

Small Town BS came out last November and built on Randall’s brand of neo-traditional brilliance. It is hard not to think of Garth when you hear him sing about ‘stepping in small town bullshit’, with the same Garthian cadence to his voice. She’s Gonna Kill Me is delivered with a triplet-y swing and a smirk: ‘She’s a broken record, I’m a needle that skips’. John Osborne helped him write Honkytonk Side of Me, a supremely melodic song of Southern identity that sounds like a TV theme.

There’s a pair of sad songs. In The Picture has Randall lamenting how ‘you can fit that much pretty in a three-by-three…but she ain’t in the picture anymore’. Without her, ‘it’s all Down Hell from here’. The melodies, the arrangements and the tenor of Randall’s delivery are a match for those of Alan Jackson, an obvious influence. It would be lovely if Randall King got to headline C2C this decade, and thanks to Warner Nashville’s money he will be back over here any time he wants to return.

The Texas pipeline shows no signs of running dry: Parker, Cody, now Randall King.

Ka-Ching…With Twang: Morgan Wallen – One Thing at a Time

March 5, 2023

Remember how Drake and Chris Brown put out bloated albums in the 2010s which were designed to be buffets rather than a la carte? Now the practice has spread into country music: Luke Combs did it with 23 tracks released as a full album and two EPs tacked on either side of it, and of course Morgan himself gave us 30 tracks over a double album, which was bettered by Zach Bryan in 2022.

This is a tentpole release from man who has been number one for most of the last two years with his second album Dangerous (it helps that double-disc sets count as two discs when it comes to sales figures), but I’m not going to bother reviewing the album as a whole, as a cohesive unit that unfurls from section to section. It’s not what he wants us to do, and in any case there’s no cohesion.

Instead, inspired by something I read in Tom Gatti’s introduction to his book Long Players, I’m going to suggest playlists where you can drag and drop each of the 36 songs, 14 of which are Wallen compositions and 22 are outside writes. Apparently he cut it down from 42, so at least he realised he was being ludicrous even as he was being ludicrous. At 112 minutes, the ‘album’ is longer than a lot of movies, although not the blockbusters that Morgan is clearly emulating.

You can judge for yourself if it’s more Iron Man or Antman; he doesn’t care and nor do Big Loud, the label which suspended him then let him back after they realised that his success pays for the solo careers of Ernest, Hardy and all the rest of the writers who craft the Big Loud Sound.

The big tracks from One Thing at a Time already in the world have been Thought You Should Know and You Proof. You should consider the playlist ‘Mum I’m OK’ and also ‘Country Songs Written By Women For Men’ for the former, given that Nicolle Galyon and Miranda Lambert were in the room, and the popular playlist ‘Breakups Make Me Miserable’ for the latter, which has had a superb run at radio: ten weeks at number one and number five on the Hot 100.

Thought You Should Know followed it to number one, proving that being caught using a rude word while having a drink problem doesn’t derail a career if you’re making money for the label and drawing people to country music.

Added to those two chart-toppers, which were Wallen’s seventh and eighth respectively (7 Summers would have been one had radio not stopped its run), eight other tracks have been rolled out by Wallen in the last few months, enough for a full album but only equivalent to about 30% of One Thing At A Time. Here are some playlist suggestions for these nine.

Last Night: ‘Songs Written by J Kash’ (he’s a friend and collaborator of Charlie Puth, which means Morgan gets amid lots of pop acts. He has the chart position to show for it, as this song is his biggest pop hit, reaching number three on the Hot 100)

I Deserve A Drink: ‘Songs Written by Brothers’ (here Devin Dawson and his brother Jacob, so the song will join songs by The Jackson Five, The Bee Gees and Jedward)

Don’t Think Jesus: ‘Country Boy Confession’

One Thing At A Time: ‘Cruising Down The Freeway To Get Over a Break-Up’

Days That End In Why: ‘Breakups Make Me Miserable’

Tennessee Fan: ‘College Football Country’

Everything I Love: ‘Allman Brothers Banditry’ (it samples their song Midnight Rider)

I Wrote The Book: ‘A Country Way of Life, by Hardy’ (you can tell Hardy was in the room)

Now for the 26 tracks released on March 3, to ‘complete the set’. Again, Morgan does NOT want you to listen to all 36 songs in one go.

Born With a Beer in My Hand: ‘Country Music and Alcohol’ (a playlist which may need to be subdivided into grape and grain)

Man Made A Bar: ‘You know who would sound great on this breakup song? Eric Church’ (this will be a single)

Devil Don’t Know: ‘Breakups Make Me Miserable’

’98 Braves: ‘Love is like Baseball’ (how about that line about Andrew and Chipper Jones?)

Ain’t That Some: ‘Rap-Influenced Country but Definitely Not Rap’

Tennessee Numbers: ‘Breakups Make Me Miserable’

Hope That’s True: ‘Wish You The Worst’

Whiskey Friends: ‘Country Music and Alcohol’

Sunrise: ‘Do You Have To Let It Linger?’

Keith Whitley: ‘Quoting Old Songtitles’ (but at least it’s Whitley and not Brooks & Dunn or George Strait)

In The Bible (ft. Hardy): ‘Hallelujah Amen!’ (oh look, the Lord makes an appearance!)

F150-50: ‘To Have or Have Not’ (great title, so-so song)

Neon Star (Country Boy Lullaby): ‘Breakups Make Me Miserable’

Wine Into Water: ‘Sorry Baby’ (‘wine into water under the bridge’ is a good idea but clunky)

Me + All Your Reasons: ‘Sorry Baby’

Money On Me: ‘Country Boy Confession’ (ironically, Big Loud are chucking money at him, although his tour is being promoted independently as far as I remember)

Thinkin’ Bout Me: ‘Rap-Influenced Country but Definitely Not Rap’ (if this is country, Lil Nas X should sue in spite of how Old Town Road is the biggest song this century)

Single Than She Was: ‘Meet-Cute’

Last Drive Down Main: ‘Dirt Rock’ (a genre Morgan has said was inspired by listening to The War On Drugs)

Me To Me: ‘Ashley Gorley was In The Room’ (if you want to sound country in the modern radio-friendly fashion, get Gorley on board. He adds some melodic heft to average songs)

180 (Lifestyle): ‘Rap-Influenced Country but Definitely Not Rap’

Had It: ‘To Have or Have Not’

Cowgirls (ft. Ernest): ‘Rap-Influenced Country but Definitely Not Rap’ (at least the title is country, although the melody and production are not. Fun fact: Ernest first broke through as a rapper.)

Good Girl Gone Missin’: ‘Ashley Gorley was In The Room’

Outlook: ‘Believe Me, I’ve Changed’

Dying Man: ‘Believe Me, I’ve Changed’ (look at how he’s ended the album with two proper songs. What a shame we had 34 before it to dilute their effect)

Will anyone remember these songs in ten or twenty years, or is it product for the Instagram/early streaming era? Judging by the gig at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville to promote the release of the album, Morgan added 13 of the 36 songs into his set, perhaps previewing his world tour that is surely coming to the UK as part of the cycle.

The title track, album opener (Born with a Beer In My Hand) and closing track (Dying Man) are there, as are Keith Whitley and Everything I Love (to prove Morgan has listened to music from before he was born), Me + All Your Reasons, Whiskey Friends, Tennessee Fan, Sunrise and Devil Don’t Know.

Thinkin’ Bout Me and 180 (Lifestyle) are two of the rap songs that aren’t rap, just like Burnin’ It Down by Aldean and Cruise by FGL weren’t rap but were huge pop hits. I don’t know if any non-country acolytes will investigate, say, You Proof or the Ashley Gorley co-writes, but Morgan doesn’t care. It’s a numbers game, as it is for Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran. Morgan, for better or worse, is now in that category of performer. Like Garth and Luke Combs, he’s bigger than country music.

It’s interesting that spring 2023 sees two big albums released by two kids from Tennessee: Miley Cyrus puts out her new album on March 10, which will depose Wallen. They are in the same school year (Class of 2011), as Miley is six months older. Miley is Dolly Parton’s goddaughter and seems to know exactly what she’s doing.

I just hope the people around Wallen, who is a father to a toddler, stop him from doing dumb things. He’ll make money until he doesn’t want to any more.

Hear my digested 14-track version of One Thing At A Time here.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: The Shootouts and Willie Nelson

March 3, 2023

The Shootouts – Stampede

I spoke to Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel last year, who belongs in the pantheon of musicians, along with Marty Stuart, and Charlie Worsham, who are keeping the old traditions of Western Swing and old-time music alive.

Benson has produced this third album by The Shootouts. The band are from Akron, Ohio, the small town filled with talent from The Pretenders to Devo to Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. They were nominated as Best Honky Tonk Group at the recent Ameripolitan Awards, which rewards acts who are rockabilly and Western Swing. Winners included Sierra Ferrell (who is confirmed for this August’s Long Road festival) and Asleep at the Wheel’s lieutenant and fiddle player, Katie Shore.

Stampede got a five-star write-up in Country Music People, and the album will appeal to those who like their country on the twangier side. Run For Cover (‘here comes a heart’) is a two-minute slice of rockabilly with a femme fatale twist, while the title track is similarly quick and reminds me of one of Brad Paisley’s guitar jams. Feelin’ Kind of Lonely Tonight (good title) has a delicious saxophone solo, while closing track Angel’s Work (‘is never done’) slows things down tenderly, like a car pulling into a drive after a day at work.

Throughout the album, Ryan Humbert’s vocals remind me of the great Ed Robertson from Barenaked Ladies, as on Coming Home By Going Away. The lyric, which is also the sort that Robertson would write, begins ‘I’d rather be a circle than a square’ and continues in that self-effacing mood.

Marty Stuart himself is on album opener Better Things To Do, a kiss-off which immediately hits us with a bluegrass beat and a finger-picked electric guitar line full of semiquavers. There’s a mandolin solo too, and a bit where the band sinks to pianissimo. Ray takes a feature on One Step Forward, which is a homage to Ray’s band right down to his Bob Wills-inspired callouts and eight tidy bars of fiddle. ‘Gambled on my heart and lost it to you’ points to a lyric about falling for someone, though Ray’s verse is an extended fishing metaphor. Must Be A Broken Heart is also a lot of fun in spite of a lyric which could be a ‘tear in the beer’ weepie.

Some of the tracks have that lush country-soul sound that Bob Harris would love. Anywhere But Here has Buddy Miller, the man who drew up the soundtracks to the TV show Nashville, and he is perfect for a song whose gentle arrangement is full of pedal steel and twang. ‘Where do you stand when your feet don’t touch the ground’ is good writing. Raul Malo adds harmonies on the chugging love song I’ll Never Need Anyone More, while the great Jim Lauderdale is on Tomorrow’s Knocking (‘on our door again’), a song about singing which could have been a Buck Owens tune.

Like Dixieland Jazz and the music of Chic, Western Swing is ageing gracefully as a cornerstone of American popular music. There’s a reason acts like The Shootouts are still working in a tremendously enjoyable type of music.

Willie Nelson – I Don’t Know A Thing About Love

And then there’s Willie, 89 years old and physically unable to retire. Maybe that big IRS tax settlement is the reason he’s still putting on gigs and putting himself into more versions of popular song. His birthday celebration in LA at the end of April 2023 as part of the Stagecoach festival weekend will certainly be recorded for release later this year and will include appearances from his many acolytes. They will range from the sublime (Neil Young, Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price) to the Snoop Dogg.

For his seventy-third solo release, Willie has laid down ten interpretations of Harlan ‘Three Chords and the Truth’ Howard, who died on March 3 2002. The collection was released on the 21st anniversary of his friend’s passing.

Willie’s versions are as faithful as his guitar Trigger, with tremulous vocals sitting on top of Buddy Cannon’s arrangements. The title track of the album passes on lessons from ‘the man in the moon’ to someone looking for the answers to life’s big questions. It was a 1984 hit by Conway Twitty and was recorded by Cody Johnson for his album Human.

Buck Owens made hits out of Tiger by the Tail and Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got A Heartache). The Chokin’ Kind (‘if you don’t like the peaches walk on by the tree’) was a Waylon Jennings hit in 1967, where it sat on an entire album of Howard’s songs. Two years before that, Little Jimmy Dickens recorded Life Turned Her That Way, a lyric full of empathy and empty space for the pedal steel to glide through.

That track has two brief bars of a patented Mickey Raphael harmonica solo too, and he takes the lead on Busted, a smash hit for Ray Charles, with whom Willie has duetted before. I suppose, given the run-ins with the law, Willie had to record this Harlan Howard composition.

The achingly simple She Called Me Baby (‘now there’s no more “baby baby” all night long’) was a hit for Howard himself; a decade later, a recording by Charlie Rich was rediscovered and became his fifth number one. Too Many Rivers was a song initially placed on the B side of a Brenda Lee release but got into the top 20 of the Hot 100; this evocation of heartbreak must have helped Harlan buy a house, or provide alimony for one of four ex-wives he accrued during his life.

Beautiful Annabel Lee has the innocence of young love – if Willie is singing of being ‘a child’ then that was around the time America fought in World War II – while Streets Of Baltimore, written with Willie’s fellow outlaw Tompall Glaser, sounds like an old folk song these days. The heartbreaking line ‘she loved those bright lights more than she loved me’ will resonate in a century’s time.

Willie Nelson, who has sung the Great American Songbook, has reminded us that Harlan Howard is ‘the Irving Berlin of country music’. Now he should look forward to his own celebrations.

Morgan Evans – Over For You

March 1, 2023

This 45-minute documentary was released in five parts, like a Youtube video from 2008 when you couldn’t upload more than ten minutes at a time. It takes its title from the song Morgan debuted in Australia at the Rod Laver Stadium in Sydney at CMC Rocks, in front of 22,000 people.

Aussie women bellow along to Young Again, Kiss Somebody, Day Drunk and (ironically) Love Is Real. C2Cgoers in 2023 will be impressed at how Morgan gets the stadium to chant along to the chorus of this last song, something he did at his London show in 2022, weeks before his divorce from a Nashville singer was announced to the public.

An uncle to five, Morgan’s divorce has been well documented, and the tittle-tattle will get clicks for the worst sorts of websites for months to come. This film is Morgan’s story – his ex isn’t even mentioned by name – and it is as tightly controlled as whatever Prince Harry has been doing since his family stopped supporting him. Conversely, we see Morgan’s proud dad kvell with joy at his son’s success but also how ‘he needed to come home’ to a place where ‘everyone loves him’. It really does seem to have reset his career, as his dad suggests.

A relaxed homecoming gig at the Stag and Hunter in Newcastle is a high point of the film. ‘You have to work for it here, you don’t get anything for nothing,’ Morgan says. ‘All my best mates in town had bands,’ he adds. One of them, Mark, wrote songs with Morgan and talks on camera about how Morgan’s positivity helped Mark get through a hospital spell from cystic fibrosis. They wrote the uplifting acoustic jam Big Skies, which amusingly was released back in 2007, the time when you could only upload a 10-minute Youtube video.

Morgan talks about ‘the amount of in-depth messages on social media’ which followed the viral moment when the live version of Over For You went around the world. The song was not even out in its studio form yet, so Morgan decided to tweak it to sound more like that live clip. Like his former partner, Morgan is a musician and is in visible awe at being in Neil Finn’s studio. He’s filmed playing the piano chords and glancing at the camera as he lays down the vocals.

The throwaway line ‘Let’s go play a show and smile!’ might well be a songtitle on his next album. It’ll certainly make for a good t-shirt. There’s a bit at the end of the fourth part of the documentary where Morgan bursts into laughter after looking into the camera lens, guffawing at his own punchline, none of which I’ll spoil.

Inevitably, Morgan gets back to nature for the final part, surrounded by chirruping crickets and the waves lapping on a Queensland beach (at ‘an undisclosed location’). He sits on the bed of his truck with his shades on, sampling the Australian springtime, grabbing his surfboard and finding peace with himself.

I am sure the film will resonate with people whose relationship has terminally broke down. I also bet Michael Ray wishes he’d done something like this when his marriage to Carly Pearce ended. Morgan has put a full stop, publicly, on this stage of his life. What next?

Over For You is available on Youtube here