Country Jukebox Jury EPs: Stephen Wilson Jr and Alana Springsteen

Stephen Wilson Jr – Bon Aqua EP

Here’s what Big Loud are spending the Wallen money on: acquisitions. They’re a small business buying up assets to improve their street cred, like when Facebook bought Snapchat and Instagram.

Charles Wesley Godwin is the latest signing and he joins Stephen Wilson Jr – and, in case you don’t know, Wallen and Hardy and Ernest – in their roster. Wilson has toured with Midland and Brothers Osborne, and he is now out on the road with Hailey Whitters, with whom he wrote American Gothic. It’s a reminiscin’ song about finding things to do to pass the time as a teenager before TikTok and Snapchat: ‘Mellencamp, Springsteen, marijuana, seventeen’ is a fantastic use of alliteration and the production matches the power of the vocals.

That song is the new one that completes this seven-song set of songs released over the previous three years; indeed, Year to be Young 1994 came out all the way back in March 2020. There’s a Boyz II Men reference as well as a Tom Petty one, and I wonder how much the success of the track is to do with the humble pager getting a mention in the second verse. It’s probably more to do with the rock thrust of the track, which Kip Moore fans will enjoy. It’s no wonder Stephen is part of the same bill as Kip, Morgan Wade and Jackson Dean at May 20’s Highways event at the Royal Albert Hall.

The EP begins with The Devil and ends with The Beginning, which both proves correct Stephen’s definition of his sound as ‘Death Cab for Country’; like Ben Gibbard’s band Death Cab for Cutie, there is a lot of atmosphere, which is helped by cellos and acoustic guitars. The lyric of The Devil begins ‘hand on the Bible’ and Stephen’s baritone mumbles about ‘filthy rich’ people, snakes shedding their skin and getting tired while working for the man.

On The Beginning the ‘mark of the beast’, ‘the holy books’ and ‘revelation’ all appear because, Stephen sings, ‘we’ve been talking ‘bout the end since the beginning’; for a song so apocalyptic, the arrangement is deceptively toe-tapping, perhaps following the dictum Prince set out that if we’re going to die in 2000, we’d better party like it’s 1999.

Holler From The Holler was written with Big Loud chief Craig Wiseman. Stephen’s back-of-the-throat vocals come to the fore as he hollers the word holler and the line ‘I was kinda quiet as a kid growing up’. There’s plenty of character here, and I can see exactly why Craig wanted him on the Big Loud roster.

Hometown is an outside write that has a punctuated post-chorus (‘HOME! TOWN!’) that borrows from the Lumineers, with some moodily reverberating guitars running throughout a well-written song: ‘barefoot stomping ground’ is particular excellent. Billy also rumbles along as Stephen paints a portrait of an everyman who can ‘skin a buck with one hand’ and is always around to finish some alcohol (‘half mudblood, half mulekick whiskey’). The arrangement piles riffs on riffs and it’s endlessly replayable, much like all seven tracks on this EP.

After all, Big Loud wouldn’t have invested in Stephen Wilson Jr. if they didn’t think they would get a return on him.

Alana Springsteen – Twenty Something: Messing It Up

Fifteen years ago, Taylor Swift helped country music target young girls in the same way Britney Spears helped pop music appeal to that constituency ten years beforehand. Now that those kids have grown up, Nashville wants the money of young women, which accounts for heart-throb Wallen and girl-power and sudden drag queen convert Kelsea.

Now there’s Alana Springsteen, who is signed to Colombia. The review on Holler Country complained that Alana is a break-up song merchant, as she proved on her recent two-part release History of Breaking Up, but one word disproves this argument: Adele. It hasn’t done her career any harm.

There are plenty of big names involved in the project, including Will Weatherly and Liz Rose, who was the song doctor for Shoulder To Cry On: ‘I need a drink but damnit I’m driving’ underlines the narrator’s heartbreak while driving, which is why she needs to pull over and cry. On If You Love Me Now, Alana sings that she’s bound to move on despite being ‘top shelf, straight out the bottle’ over contemporary candy floss production from Paul DiGiovanni, who has found the sound for Jordan Davis and Dan + Shay.

Three of the six tracks are co-written by Mitchell Tenpenny: the excellent kiss-off You Don’t Deserve A Country Song, which sounds great but suffers from being yet another one of those country songs whose lyrics take the form of other copyrights (What Hurts The Most, for instance); Caught Up To Me, where Alana’s narrator regretfully admits she ‘f—ed up and fell too hard’; and Goodbye Looks Good On You, on which Mitchell voices the bloke in the song.

Tennessee Is Mine adds some dobro to a singable melody, which makes me conclude that this is precision engineered country music that will get its audience. Like Stephen Wilson Jr, Alana Springsteen is just as much of an asset and Columbia will hope to get a return on their investment.

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