Country Jukebox Jury EPs: Penny Jayne Black, Joe Martin and The Outlaw Orchestra

June 18, 2021

Penny Jayne Black – Early Works

Penny Jayne got in touch with me wanting to send over a four-track set called Early Works. The funky Gone is excellent as Penny Jayne doesn’t want to be taken for a fool; she spits out the lyrics with her voice high up in the mix with a light twang. I’m Fine is driven by a Keith Richards-type riff over which the singer assures her beau that nothing’s wrong apart from everything. Tanya Tucker seems a big influence, as well as Miranda Lambert, and any male listener can take home some useful points about how to treat a woman especially when she says everything is fine.

Steel Horse is an ode to cars which rhymes ‘tyres’ with ‘desires’ and features some great melody lines that nag after the brilliant ending. Fire in a Belly sees Penny Jayne reach the depths of her vocal range and I imagine this will be a fun song to play live. The four tracks are impressive, especially Gone and Steel Horse, and an album beckons soon.

Joe Martin – Bound for Lonesome

Joe recorded the five tracks with Lauren Housley and CJ Hillman, two of the best musicians in Britain, and the press for the EP comes with a quote from the New York Times, who saw his set at the Bluebird Café in Nashville. I love Heartbreak Cult and the power-chord driven Doesn’t Rain in LA, so it’s great to hear the other three tracks on the project, which will be part of his live set.

Forgotten Country Song lopes between bars of three and bars of four, showing sophisticated songwriting, while Joe remembers a ‘crazy trip’ to Austin with an ex. Thus his life is a ‘sad forgotten’ song which he now sings. Very meta, very country.

More Than Just Your Loving opens with some Hillman steel and a melancholic set of chords over which Joe remembers that same ex, I reckon, while he looks at his new girl. We’re privy to the thoughts in his head: he’s not ‘unfaithful’ but that’s not quite true, because reminiscin is keeping him awake. Take Me Home Tonight closes the EP with some brushed drums, reverbed guitars and a lyric set in a bar where Joe doesn’t ‘need you’. The middle eight elevates the song to another plane but I won’t tell you why, as does the falsetto note he hits in the final verse. This is a supremely good EP that will soundtrack my summer. Buckle & Boots awaits.

The Outlaw Orchestra – Under The Covers

The band have already released a great EP of hard rockin country this year. Their next trick is a six-song EP with six versions of classic country and rock from before 1980.

House of the Rising Sun incorporates the famous organ part underneath an austere interpretation which turns the triple-time feel of the Animals’ hit version into 4/4, even throwing in a Spanish translation of the title. It’s odd hearing a male voice take on 9 to 5, but the band don’t destroy it and I am sure Dolly would charge a glass.

There are very good straight covers of both For What It’s Worth and Long As I Can See The Light, songs which are 50 years old! Waylon’s Good Ol Boys opens with some slide guitar and is one which will light up the band’s live set, while their take on the Stones’ country ballad Sweet Virginia (from Exile on Main St) is tremendous.

Perhaps the second volume can comprise hits of the 1980s and 1990s!

Country Jukebox Jury EPs: Nate Barnes and Southerland

June 18, 2021

Nate Barnes – You Ain’t Pretty EP

Nate Barnes is a mixed-race chap who came to market with the excellent song You Ain’t Pretty last year, which he co-wrote. The song gives its name to Nate’s debut EP which features four outside writes from some top songwriters.

Steve Moakler contributes to the ‘getting over her’ song Ain’t Got a Shot, an ode to whiskey which here cannot heal his heart. I get Aldean and Jake Owen from If This Ain’t Heaven. That makes sense because it was written by Wendell Mobley who can be spotted in many of Aldean’s song credits. The song isn’t about very much but it’s sung powerfully and is good for driving around ‘out in the middle of nowhere’.

Right About Me is a chugger with wide-open guitars and a singalong hook. It reminds me of Charlie Worsham, perhaps on purpose, while I Love You Too is a list of things Nate loves about his beloved that has been said by other country musicians to their beloved 300 times before: she likes to ‘tug on my shirt, whisper and flirt…Wreck all my plans just cos you can’ and drink alcohol, which is pretty unfair if you’re sober or teetotal. All the same, great guitars and it rounds of an impressive set of songs. I reckon he’ll be pushed to the UK by Quartz Hill Records, a Sony Music imprint which has also signed Joe Nichols.

Southerland – Boot Up EP

Southerland are a duo, Chris and Matt, who are signed to Sony Music whose seven-song EP Boot Up came out at the end of May. Smartly, their influence comes from the muscular country music of the Garth/ Brooks & Dunn era, which is basically Luke Combs’ way to success. I wrote a song about boots once (called Boot Camp) so I like the message of Boot Up, which contains a squealing solo in the middle and a long wigout at the end. It almost dares the listener to keep listening to the rest of the EP.

The harmonies on Might As Well Be Us (‘Some things gotta last forever’) remind me of Holloway Road but the percussion is live and punchy like those of Luke Combs. Thing Is closes the EP with a honky-tonk Jon Pardi vibe with some great chords and licks, and a chorus which focuses on a lady.

Dance is a ‘how to pick up a girl’ guide set to a Mumford kick drum beat. The take-home point is to spin her around, not spin her a line. It’s a country song that I’d expect a Texan star like Aaron Watson to put out and (I smirked here) George Strait gets a mention in the chorus!

Came Out of Nowhere is a co-write with Jessi Alexander, who writes love songs which Blake Shelton often takes to number one. If Blake put this midtempo ballad out maybe ten years ago, it would be a smash because his audience would connect with love falling ‘out of thin air’.

Along Those Lines wafts along with such brilliance and elegance that I had to listen to it again to find out what it was about. It’s a reminiscin’ song about love and growing up and stuff, obviously, and quotes Chattahoochee because that was on the radio back then. Luke Combs would be proud to have written this song.

Little Bit of You substitutes a bar for what’s ‘at home’ after work. It’s a song of devotion that reminds me of Grady Smith’s discovery that country music prefers wine to beer, if you run the numbers (there’s ‘white wine on your lips’). I was singing along instantly, which is always a sign of a strong melody. There are seven superb songs from Southerland, who deserve not to get lost in the glut of new music this summer. I hope they have already sorted a UK visit out as we will go wild for them, just as we have taken Luke Combs to our bosom.

Country Jukebox Jury EPs: Gary LeVox and Kylie Morgan

June 18, 2021

Gary LeVox – One on One EP

Fun fact: the debut album by Rascal Flatts came out in June 2000. Jay DeMarcus was 29, Joe Don Rooney 24 and Gary LeVox 30. The full Rascal Flatts story involves a marketing team, Chely Wright – whose band Jay and Joe Don were part of – Lyric Street Music and middle America accepting what they are given.

The best loved Flatts songs, when I look at Spotify, are What Hurts the Most, Bless the Broken Road, I Like the Sound of That (written by Meghan Trainor and Shay from Dan + Shay) and, by a mile, the song that Pixar used for the movie Cars: Life is a Highway. That was where I first heard of the trio, who had 16 number ones. What Hurts The Most was a monster, a number six US Hot 100 hit and a number one Adult Contemporary song because adults go wild for it.

Because of Gary’s gospel voice, their songs are less about getting it on by a riverbank with a girl with her jeans off, and skewed towards the sort of pap that Lady A sing about: devotion, heartbreak, time passing, coming on over cos they like the sound of that. Diminishing returns and the presence of Dan + Shay, who are effectively the same product, have meant that Rascal Flatts are no longer viable as a radio act and thus a 50-year-old Gary LeVox can bring out his EP.

I don’t need to describe what the EP sounds like, because it sounds like Rascal Flatts just with Jesus instead of baby. Gary’s daughter Brittany LeVox (they don’t call her Brittany the Face) helps out on While I Wait (‘Lord I still praise you’) and Breland helps Gary co-write All I See, which before about 2016 I would say sounded like R Kelly but now I can’t. It just sounds like contemporary gospel music.

We learn that ‘a little love goes a long way’ and a stone in the water can become ‘a tidal wave’ (A Little Love), God’s love is ‘like a song’ (Never Forget, with an enormous choir) and there’s ‘help when there’s trouble’ on The Distance, in which an algorithm should have a credit because it ticks off so many tropes of Christian music. Even in the USA, Christian music is a minority genre but that still means there is money to be made. Big Machine will make a killing and Gary will probably thank the Lord.

Kylie Morgan – Love, Kylie

This EP has the Shane McAnally touch, and the Ben Johnson from Track45 touch too. Over six tracks, Kylie introduces herself to the market with some poppy country tracks.

Kylie wrote Shoulda with her A-List producer/writers. Her voice cuts through the production and is often double-tracked, as on the chorus of the enormous I Only Date Cowboys, where John Wayne and Jesse James are both namechecked. Outdoor Voices is a smart way to tell a listener not to be quiet, and will help build atmosphere at a live gig. ‘When they say don’t we do!’ she sings, and I think Ben Johnson sings backing vocals. He may even have drafted sister KK in to play the fiddle.

Break Things has proven popular thanks to Kylie’s vulnerable vocal, warning someone that she has the capacity to hurt him and break his heart. Cheating On You (‘something has changed, when you say my name’) is a sombre song about how it feels when you and your beloved person are ‘miles apart’, feeling like strangers in a hotel room while at home in bed. Conversely, Mad I Need You has a mix of descending chords and triplet-y delivery to emphasise the nerves Kylie feels when she thinks about her new crush. It sounds like a musical theatre number for a show that doesn’t yet exist. Julia Michaels might well have a rival as the finest young songwriter working in America today.

Country Jukebox Jury LP and EP: Brett Young and Walker Hayes

June 18, 2021

Brett Young – Weekends Look a Little Different These Days

The title is so called because Brett is now a father, which makes this Dad Country. Thomas Rhett is on the same label so is this the same product, targeted at the same demographic of 35-54-year-old women with kids and husbands?

Lady is a smash hit with 50m Spotify plays from people who gravitate towards a guy who turned 40 in March and became a father to a little lady who will grow up to be as great as her mum, Brett’s wife. Written with Ross Copperman and Jon Nite, this is Adult Contemporary/ Dad Country that has clogged up country radio for years because soccer moms, of a similar age to Brett’s wife, go wild for it. Brett sounds vulnerable (‘I don’t know exactly what I’m doing’) and full of warmth towards his newborn. It sounds like a commercial.

The title track begins this short eight-track album which is too long for an EP. Brett has gotten out of the bar and into the bedroom, no longer ‘staying up late and sleeping all day long’. It sounds so anodyne, so milquetoast; perhaps he’s made a mistake leaving the rowdiness behind because contentment seems so boring!! I don’t believe Brett stayed up late in any case, unless he was playing an 11pm open mic slot.

Queen of MOR Amy Wadge (last heard on a duet with Michael Ball) co-writes This, a song about couples who bicker and fight but are nonetheless in love. Leave Me Alone (‘the break in break-up’) is a pleasant toe-tapping request from Brett to his beloved to go, walk out that door.

Put Ashley Gorley, Jimmy Robbins and Jon Nite in a room with Brett and you get three great tunes. Dear Me is another AC Country ballad that harks back to a time when Brett was younger and more foolish, a barfly getting over an ex who actually gets together with him! It’s one of those ‘letters to my younger self’ that again prove Brett is soft and vulnerable. It is the distillation of that genre of country music, which doesn’t make it a bad song at all. The album closer You Didn’t is a triple-time ballad in which Brett croons about how ‘I fell in love and you didn’t’. Unrequited love in a country song is a good angle and the arrangement is sensitive. I hope people hear this and get behind it.

You Got Away With It is the third tune with those A-Listers commissioned to write Brett a hit. It’s hard to dislike, an immaculately structured tune that sounds great turned up loud. It’s a pop song, not a country song, which makes me wonder if anything on this project is country. Not Yet followed, which sounds like country radio: an ‘it’s getting dark but we should still snog’ lyric is set to tap-tapping percussion and a middle of the dirt road sonic bed. Hey, the market gets what the market wants but nobody will play this in three years. This is country music that people who don’t know what country music is think country music is, be it Carrie, Taylor, Dan + Shay and Gabby Barrett. There’ll always be someone willing to watch it. He’ll be out with fellow pop/country musicians Ryan Hurd, Maddie & Tae and Filmore in the autumn.

Walker Hayes – Country Stuff EP

I really don’t like the title track to Walker Hayes’ Country Stuff EP. Grady Smith planted a seed that he may be being ironic.

Walker is 41 and has six children. He’s signed to Monument, which is run by Shane McAnally (who gets a namecheck you can barely hear in the opening seconds of this EP). One feature of this album is to namecheck an old country song: Fishing in the Dark, Dixieland Delight and When You Say Nothing At All all appear in the first three tracks, which are all not to my taste.

He has access to some fine helpers on a six-song EP. Lori McKenna co-writes Briefcase with Walker: it’s a personal song about the example set by parents to their children (so far, so Lori). The tempo is extraordinarily quick and I wish it were slower so that we could ponder the words; as it is, the song feels rushed, like much of this EP. The classic song referenced here is the father-son ballad Cat’s in the Cradle, so at least there is some thematic unity to the six tracks.

Fancy Like is a hymn to a girl who is ‘bangin’ (again, Walker is 41) and together they are like a date at Appleby’s. (Is he being sponsored?) This is a two-chord jam that’s catchy but fluffy. Make You Cry still gets on my nerves. Walker likes it when tears fill his beloved’s eyes, such as when he asked to marry her. I Hope You Miss Me has an irresistible chorus and is a tremendous kiss-off to a girl who goes out West, leaving Walker behind. ‘If it’s a city of angels you should fit right in’ is such a great lyric and there is no surprise at all that McAnally is in the credits.

Carly Pearce is on hand to finesse the tender daydream of What If We Did (‘love is unconditional’). There are some fine close harmonies and a great groove although the song is quite slight and revolves around a two-chord loop.

So to Walker Hayes ‘Country Stuff’ is love, family, farewells and old country tunes. Other people do this stuff better, but Walker is so sexy and handsome (and he has six children) that it won’t matter.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Blackberry Smoke and Lukas Nelson & the Promise of the Real

June 18, 2021

Blackberry Smoke – You Hear Georgia

In mid-June 2021, the UK Rock Album chart Top 10 is populated by Foo Fighters, Nirvana and Pink Floyd but the non-heritage acts include Maneskin, who won the Eurovision Song Contest, former Alter Bridge vocalist Myles Kennedy and Fiddlehead. Rock is, as I always say, a heritage genre; there are no worlds left for rock music to conquer and, much as today orchestras play the hits of Handel, Mozart and Beethoven, in about ten years’ time the big draws will be bands playing the hits of Floyd, Beatles, Stones and Queen.

In the meantime, we have wonderful expressions of rock music from Blackberry Smoke. I really loved what I heard when the band, led by Charlie Starr, let viewers of the Whispering Bobcast hear tasters from their seventh album You Hear Georgia. The band celebrated 20 years last year and they are both Country and Rock according to Billboard. In the UK their last three albums have all topped the Rock chart; You Hear Georgia was classified as country and it shot to the top of the Country Album chart. Toyah, of all people, had the rock album that week.

I think I got them confused with rock band Blackstone Cherry but Blackberry Smoke are more Southern rock than rock’n’roll. The ten tracks on the album are all variations on a Southern rock theme. Ain’t The Same punches through with its Americana feel and sumptuous chords, while Hey Delilah is a fun singalong and Old Enough To Know is a set of sage pearls that Charlie is keen to pass on. My favourite is ‘Nothing worth a damn happens after 2am’.

Lonesome for a Livin is a waltz on which Jamey Johnson sarcastically delivers the country music mantra of ‘the drinkin, the cheatin and the lyin’, while the band sound like they really ‘put quite a few tears into quite a few beers’. All Rise Again, meanwhile, sounds like Soundgarden fronted by Neil Young, as guitar virtuoso Warren Haynes of Govt Mule helps Charlie to sing about his wish to ‘hold on to every precious day’ via a wonderful chorus.

I also love the rifftastic Morningside (not named after the district of Edinburgh I used to live near) and Old Scarecrow (‘his work is never done’), which is about the very rock’n’roll theme of holding on and being strong even though the singer is ‘ragged’ and getting older, preaching a ‘live and let live’ way of life. Blackberry Smoke are continuing the tradition of making amplified, live Southern rock.

Lukas Nelson & the Promise of the Real – A Few Stars Apart

So is Lukas Nelson, born on Christmas Day 1988. The man who wrote Shallow probably has a healthy bank balance but has been unable to play music live in the last 15 months, which is a killer for a road warrior like Lukas Nelson. He’s been joined by younger brother Micah in the family business of bringing people together through music. The Nelson legacy is in good hands.

The album opens with a sort of ‘welcome to the party, would you like a drink, take off your shoes if you want’ feel of We’ll Be Alright before the poppy Perennial Bloom (Back To You), which is proper country-rock with a driving acoustic rhythm and backbeat. It’s basically Bob Harris Country, the sort of guitar-heavy 4/4 groove that goes down well on Radio 2, and that sort of thing is prevalent on the too-brief love song No Reason (‘I wouldn’t want you in my life’) and Leave Em Behind, which flies off into the stratosphere halfway through and sounds like Neil Young fronting Pink Floyd.

The music of 1967 to 1972, made by groups like The Band and Little Feat, loom large in the arrangements, which combine folk lyrics and ‘get it together in the country’ arrangements, as on Throwin Away Your Love and Wildest Dream, which is a perfect evocation of West Coast rock. Dawes do this expertly too.

The piano-led title track has the sort of chords Elton John and Leon Russell used 50 years ago, back when Lukas’s dad was a sprightly 40-year-old outlaw back in Texas. Dave Cobb is in the control room again, coaxing performances out of the Promise of the Real, who have also acted as Neil Young’s backing band in recent years with technical proficiency and a lot of groove. I love the rumble of Corey McCormick’s bass on Giving You Away, which operates alongside Lukas’ advice to someone whose time it is ‘to fly…you’re no longer mine’.

On More Than We Can Handle, there’s a toe-tappin’ feel at odds with the lyric of keeping on keeping on, which segues into a series of piano chords and Lukas singing ‘I can’t help but smile’ on the track Smile. This closes an album that I’ll replay often in the coming months, and you should too.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Chase Rice – The Album

June 18, 2021

The man who held an unsocially distanced gig last year still has a career because of money accrued through writing Cruise. His UK gig last January included a medley of All The Small Things by Blink 182, Sweet Home Alabama and Sweet Caroline, all of which are better than his set closer and bro-country banger Ready Set Roll.

Now the third and final part of The Album has been released and I can talk about the entire release. The cover, by the way, has Chase in his ballcap on which reads HDEU: Head Down, Eyes Up.

The first part came out nearly 18 months ago and was promoted by the hit song Lonely If You Are, which is boring and is all the worst aspects of commercial country radio. Songs like this are one of the reasons (with apologies) that I find it tough to listen to the big country stations.

Among the tracks that now populate the first half of the album, there’s the gentle Forever To Go which is a tableau of a summer night that marks another year of being together. American Nights, In The Car and Best Night Ever are all nothing songs with nothing ‘woah’ hooks about being human delivered in Chase’s knock-off Sam Hunt. Messy, underscored by an acoustic guitar, is Chase’s version of All of Me by John Legend but without the panache. Maybe he wanted to put out the songs in three goes to avoid accusations of filler.

Part Two followed last May. Down Home Runs Deep, which is a little checklisty, and the universalist anthem Belong (‘Let’s put more Amazing back into Grace!’ and more talk-singing and woahs) both got big pushes. Both were co-written by A-Listers, respectively Hardy (you can tell) and Jon Nite. Jon also wrote the in-yer-face You (‘You! You!’) and Bedroom, on which more shortly. The Mumford-y hoedown of Break. Up. Drunk. (note the full stops) is basically Drunk on a Plane but the woman’s on the plane and Chase is drowning his sorrows down below. As with You, the production from Chase and Chris DeStefano is enormous and this one is definitely not filler. Unsurprisingly Chase puts this near the top of his live set.

The big new song, among four that stand as the third and final part, is the peppy Drinking Beer Talking God Amen, which acts as an album closer and already has 25m streams thanks to radio play which takes it towards the top 10. It’s a campfire jam that cancels out a lot of dreck on The Album.

The Nights is an introspective ballad where Chase can’t get over his ex. Maybe I’m too old for it but I can’t connect with the speak-singing or his vocals, which over the course of the album show the narrowness of his range. No wonder he has to utter his lyrics rather than stick them to a melody.

Bedroom is another Nite-Rice-Robbins composition, and Jimmy Robbins is one of the best topline writers in town, so at least there’s a tremendous chorus in this song about perhaps having sex. If I Didn’t Have You is a galloping tune where Chase says he would be a ‘wreck on a local barstool’ without his beloved holding him down. I think that is an apt metaphor for an album where the big writers rescue this collection from being atrocious and, as he alludes to, a load of ‘truck songs’. Chase is best when he’s singing melodies. Ultimately Sam Hunt does this much better because he’s a genius songwriter.

Chase, who is a berk whose career really should be over by now, got lucky by being in the room where Cruise happened. I wish him well.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Rory Feek – Gentle Man

June 18, 2021

This is the first solo album from a man who lost his wife Joey in 2016. I didn’t know about Joey + Rory until I read the obituaries that outlined how beloved Joey Feek was. Rory has written tons of hit songs from the 90s and 2000s. I know the silly Some Beach which Blake Shelton took to number one.

A good introduction to Rory’s voice is on his portentous version of The Times They Are A-Changin’, with a traditional acoustic arrangement and a soft croon that actually reminds me of Garth Brooks.

Rory’s daughter Heidi harmonises softly on Out On A Limb, a track which sums up the album. Written by Rory’s open mic buddy Phillip Coleman, Rory sings of two characters – a gym owner and a singer ‘who had dreams of Broadway’ – who fail to carpe the diem. Likewise, Alison Krauss appears on a song written by Harlan Howard and Beth Neilsen Chapman called Time Won’t Tell, which was originally recorded by Sara Evans. It’s well chosen for Rory’s album because it’s a reminiscin’ song full of drama (‘Here’s where you turn around and walk away’) and advice (‘You never see the road you didn’t take’). Rory warns the listener to seize the moment, and with an arrangement as stunning as this, why wouldn’t you?

Much of this album has been used as impact tracks, two at a time, and features an impressive cast list of legacy acts like Ms Krauss whose presence lend the album gravitas. Dolly Parton lends her pipes to One Angel, which opens with the line ‘the dominoes kept falling in slow motion’ and is obviously about Joey (‘chemo’ and ‘poison pouring through your veins’), as Rory drinks three fingers of tequila to drown his sorrows. The arrangement is as divine as Joey, with strings and acoustic guitar accompanying Rory and Dolly. I imagine this was a tough song to record and will be accompanied by sniffles when he plays it live. 

Vince Gill – and is there anyone Vince hasn’t worked with?? – pops up on opening track Me & The Blues, which even starts with Rory waking up this morning. Meanwhile, at the Small Talk Café, you can find Ricky and Sharon White Skaggs plucking a mandolin and harmonising respectively. There’s some fine pedal steel as well from (I imagine) Paul Franklin. The production is as warm as the inside of the café, and once again Rory infers that the death of his wife (or someone who ‘left’ his character) will be ‘big news’.

Lee Ann Womack is on Satan & Grandma, a deeply metaphorical song which talks about Grandma’s faith. Again, this is the sort of country song that listeners who aren’t Christian may feel is too religious, but the timbre of the song make it worth heeding, especially when Satan tries to tempt Rory into his car.

Time Machine was originally recorded in 1995 by Collin Raye and the feel is definitely of that era. ‘A few drinks and then she’ll be with him again’ is the key line in a song where ‘tomorrow will not be the cure’. Salvation, written by the same man who wrote Time Machine (Gary Burr), is about a truck driver who picked up the ‘not perfect yet’ narrator, who is told about the small statues of Jesus on his dashboard because the Saviour can ‘watch where I’m going cos he already knows where I’ve been’. The intersection between county and Christian music is clear, especially when a widow is the vocalist.

Spirituality and religion are also found on Rory’s own composition Met Him In A Motel Room, a proper three-minute movie where a master of his craft paints the scene and contrasts the community of church with Trisha Yearwood as the lady ‘with a long, long list of sins’. There’s a Bible in the bedside drawer which provides salvation, so now we know Whom the lady met in that room. It’s an extraordinary song that may well change a life.

The tone of the album is homespun, homely, hortatory, full of advice for instance about what to do ‘with that broken heart…Are you gonna hold on or let go or let it drive you insane?’ The title track, Gentleman, notes how ‘being cool is all the rage’ but traditional Rory, as per his raisin’ is (deep breath) ‘a faded jean, farmer tan, work boots, callous hand, redneck, blue-collar hard-workin’ gentle man’. He advises the listener to follow his example and the Isaacs, a Christian bluegrass group, back him up. The middle eight is gorgeous.

The Isaacs are also found on the passionate clarion call Someone Is Me, which takes the listener through a panoramic opening verse with cigarette butts and graffiti: ‘It’s easy to see this town’s going downhill fast,’ concludes Rory, who exhorts himself (and by extension the listener) to fix things up. The opening notes of Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home (written by Joe South) draw in the listener, with a bluegrass arrangement which matches the ‘Georgia sun’ showing Rory the way home. After all, travelling makes ‘God’s children weary’. Rory should expect standing ovations when he plays this collection of songs live, keeping his late wife’s memory alive.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Amythyst Kiah – Wary + Strange

June 18, 2021

Amythyst sings on Natural Blues with Gregory Porter in a new version of the Moby song. She is the type of artist country music needs to support or the genre dies a death: gay, black, female but above all musically talented. She plays guitar and banjo and studied folk music for her degree.

There seems to be a Blackamericana genre growing. Wary + Strange, which Amythyst co-produced, is the first solo album from the member of Our Native Daughters, which brought together Allison Russell and Carolina Chocolate Drops. As well as Allison, there’s Valerie June and the great Rhiannon Giddens plus Yola, and even Lianne La Havas could move across from singer/songwriter.

A song like Wild Turkey, with the vocal line dominant and asking ‘Will I ever feel right again?’ (it’s about her mum who killed herself), sits next to the bold Black Myself, which is a statement of intent. Hangover Blues is in the great tradition of Sunday Morning Coming Down, while Firewater is a mellow acoustic number where Amythyst asks her listener to ‘let me be’. Ballad of Lost is a morose waltz that segues into the suitably woozy Sleeping Queen: ‘Please leave me alone!’

There is something elemental (and very Rhiannon Giddens) about the bass-driven blues of Opaque and the album’s centrepiece Tender Organs. On the latter, we hear what sounds like a creek bubbling in the background before a wild guitar part is married to cries of ‘Woe is me! When I wake up, I feel like I’m dying.’ I am sure there is a great deal of subtext behind the song, but even without any racial angle this is a song of pain.

An album which is bookended by the song Soapbox must have something to say. Rounder Records, who put out Wary + Strange, have helped Amythyst say it. We ought to listen.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: The Oak Ridge Boys – Front Porch Singin’

June 18, 2021

The Oak Ridge Boys have been going for 75 years next year. Today the vocal quartet are the lead Duane Allen (a Boy for 55 of those 75 years!!), the tenor Joe Bonsall, baritone William Lee Golden and all the way down in the bass clef, Richard Sterban. This lineup have been going since the 1970s on and off (Golden took a decade off) but this is the crew who sung Elvira, the Billboard top 10 hit and CMA Single of the Year 1981 which was released 40 years ago this month at the very zenith of the Urban Cowboy era.

They have spent 10 years as members of the Opry and are also members of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame (which includes the likes of Ricky Skaggs, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Amy Grant, Al Green, Pat Boone, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton).

We know what the Oak Ridge Boys do because they’ve done it for so long. There’s no Indian nose flute or digeridoo. Producer Dave Cobb is in the control room pressing RECORD and grabbing the tea because there’s not much production needed throughout the 30 minutes of music that I imagine needed no patched vocals or overdubs.

Cobb has a go at writing two tunes for the quartet. Til I See You Again is a stately waltz where the boys reminisce over a rootsy arrangement, while the other original brings rockabilly to the album. Rock My Soul is a perfect take on the way gospel and hillbilly were brought together in the 1950s and, like Canadian folk song Red River Valley, highlights Richard in bass, whose lead vocals are in the style Lee Marvin used on Wandering Star.

The echo reverberates around the studio on Promised Land, as do the harmonies on Love Light and Healing (‘home, family and faith’), which opens with the chorus and approached gospel music. Unclouded Day, from way back in 1879 and giving its name to the debut album by the Staple Singers, is unadulterated front-porch gospel music with touches of twang; it could have been made any time in the last 60 years which suggests a timeless quality to the group. Like The Temptations, no matter who sings the tunes, the tunes will last forever.

The universalism of Life Is Beautiful (co-written by Charles Esten’s good friend Colin Linden) kicks off the set in an appropriate manner and there are times on the album where you think the four elements are making music, as on the old Baptist hymn Life’s Railway To Heaven and Swing Down Chariot, both delivered without accompaniment.

The album closes with When He Calls, which Cobb surrounds with a soft arrangement over which the foursome pray for salvation and a safe passage to heaven. For all the money that Elvira must have made, this is the purest form of country music.

The UK Country Top 40 Chart Countdown – Summer 2021

June 5, 2021

Hear the Top 40 in full in this Spotify playlist.

40 Bailey Tomkinson – Bright Red

39 Holloway Road – About Town

38 Twinnie – Chasing

37 Essex County – For You

36 Kelsey Bovey – Another Word

35 Two Ways Home – The Ocean (reworked)

34 Lucy Blu – Shine

33 Lisa Wright – Everything Changes

32 Shannon Hynes – Hide

31 Louise Parker – Lie To Me

30 Matt Hodges – Proud To Be Me

29 Lisa McHugh – Bad Idea

28 Emma & Jolie – How Do I Choose (with Josh Kerr)

27 Rae Sam – Wildly Me

26 Hannah White and the Nordic Connection – Pay Me a Compliment

25 Wildwood Kin – Dakota

24 Eddy Smith & the 507 – Strangers (Since I’ve Been Loving You)

23 Kevin McGuire – Seeing Things

22 Joe Martin – Doesn’t Rain in LA

21 Jade Helliwell – If I Were You

20 Una Healy – Swear It All Again

19 Elles Bailey – Love is Gonna Win

18 Robbie Cavanagh – Feeding Time

17 Demi Marriner – Because Of Her

16 Robert Vincent – This Town

15 Backwoods Creek – Morphine

14 Morganway – My Love Ain’t Gonna Save You

13 Ward Thomas – Don’t Be A Stranger

12 Deeanne Dexeter – Blind Eye

11 Emma Moore – Husbands or Kids

10 Jake Morrell – This House

9 Tim Prottey-Jones – Until I Do (with Stephanie Quayle)

8 Gary Quinn – Complicated

7 Kezia Gill – All of Me

6 Yola – Diamond Studded Shoes

5 The Wandering Hearts – Dreams

4 Megan O’Neill – Ireland

3 Kerri Watt – Band of Gold

2 Lauren Housley – This Ain’t The Life

1 The Shires – On The Day I Die (with Jimmie Allen)

Country Jukebox Jury EP: Counting Crows – Butter Miracle Suite One

May 23, 2021

May 2021 saw five EPs offering different spins on contemporary music from Nashville. Take your pick from the trad-pop of Dillon Carmichael, the Chesney-Aldean rockin’ country of Alexander Ludwig, the flawless roots-rock of Counting Crows, the Sheeran-pop of Ross Copperman and the radio-friendly unit-shifting country of Jordan Davis.

The Berkeley band’s debut album August and Everything After from 193 was produced by T-Bone Burnett. Back then, seven years before T-Bone helped produce the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou, Americana as a genre didn’t exist; it was called modern rock and encompassed every quirky, soulful, idiosyncratic band with guitars. In fact, Mr Jones (a top five song on American radio) didn’t properly chart because it wasn’t available as a physical single because the music industry were trying to entice people to spend $20 on an album, not $5 on a single. Then came iTunes and the emancipation of music.

Their last release was 2014, which was their first album of original music since 2008, so apart from two albums of covers Adam Duritz hasn’t written a great deal. Until now. In 2021, Counting Crows are their own entity. No longer locked into a deal with Geffen, whose money helped get them to American ears, they can release music when and where they want, and in whatever format. Butter Miracle is a suite of four pieces of music where each song melds into each other. I love Elevator Boots, a song about being on the road and playing rock’n’roll shows, something Counting Crows have done since about 1990. It has rootsy verses telling the story of Bobby and Alice, with an explosive and immediate chorus.

The Tall Grass uses a drum loop, over which the band create a comfortable mood which sets Adam Duritz’s lyrics, which include nouns like rifle, rabbit, clover and grassland, as well as the repeated statements ‘Can you see me? and ‘I don’t know why’. Adam’s dissociative disorder informs his songwriting, which has always been about uncertainty.

Angel of 14th Street includes the line ‘when she dies a ghost is born’ while ‘the king is screaming highway songs’. This is Duritz as Dylan, a familiar storytelling mien for him; in a different more folky arrangement this could have been a tune from the early days of the band, back when they were The Himalayans. The 2021 iteration of the band are full of harmonies, fortissimo trumpets, guitar lines and Adam yelling ‘Wake up!’ like Marvin Gaye and singing about angels, another common motif in his work. Perhaps he’s been checking out his old material and digesting it into one song.

Then there’s the bar-band bonanza of Bobby and the Rat-Kings, which will get thinkpieces because old man Adam (he’s 56) namechecks Tinder and Reddit, tools of a generation which ‘hasn’t even got a name of its own’ and for whom music helps them be comfortable in their own identity. I like the way Counting Crows sound very American: harmony like The Byrds, country like The Band, rock like the Heartbreakers, together in arms like The E Street Band.

They remain underrated only because they have only put out so few albums relative to their peers. It is so good to hear Adam showing us his latest homework, though he’s more likely to be cooking on Instagram these days.

Country Jukebox Jury EPs: Dillon Carmichael and Alexander Ludwig

May 23, 2021

May 2021 saw five EPs offering different spins on contemporary music from Nashville. Take your pick from the trad-pop of Dillon Carmichael (below), the flawless roots-rock of Counting Crows, the Chesney-Aldean rockin’ country of Alexander Ludwig (below), the Sheeran-pop of Ross Copperman and the radio-friendly unit-shifting country of Jordan Davis.

Dillon Carmichael – Hot Beer EP

I was addicted to the title track of this EP: three chords and an unwillingness to get back with an old fling. Big Truck was written with Jessi Alexander and David Lee Murphy, and the influence of the latter is clear thanks to the chugging rhythm and the song effectively being a rewrite of She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy, although Dillon has lots of other qualities and gifts.

Ray Fulcher, who will always be linked with his mate Luke Combs, pops up in the credits of the groovy and catchy love song Since You’ve Been In It (‘My world’s been better’). The equally addictive Sawin Logs has been out for a few months and showcases Dillon’s croon via lyrics which include the rhyme ‘hickory bundle/all kinds of trouble’. It’s filth flarn filth: ‘I’ve got wood and she’s sawin logs’ is a brilliant way of implying that his beloved is a passion killer.

The EP is intriguing because production is shared by Dann Huff and Jon Pardi; Dillon is on Riser House Records which put out the recent album by Ronnie Milsap. The midtempo leaving song Somewhere She Ain’t, written by Dillon with Jessi and the Peach Picker Ben Hayslip, sounds like a Jon Pardi song produced by Dann Huff, with some spacious guitars (and a patented Huff solo in the middle of the song) and a lovesick narrator who sounds in pain. He can’t even go to Carolina ‘cos that’s her middle name’. What a palaver, expertly told.

On Lucky Man, Dillon counts his blessings in the way that Luke Combs has done before him. It’s a trend but at least it isn’t ‘hey baby girl let’s have sex in my truck by the river’. The country of 1994 is back, although it never really went away.

Dillon needs to hit more ears and I hope to see him come to the UK in 2022.

Alexander Ludwig EP

Alexander Ludwig’s self-titled EP has been produced by Kurt and Tully, two of Jason Aldean’s band of merry men. The pair wrote Summer Crazy – basically a rewrite of Kenny Chesney’s Summertime – with Alexander, whose day job is an actor who worked on Bad Boys For Life and is the lead on the show Vikings. But Nashville embraces performers so long as they throw their heart and soul into their music; indeed, what is Jason Aldean if not a muscular country character whose job is to make money for Broken Bow, which is the label releasing Alexander’s EP?

The other four tunes are outside writes, two from David Lee Murphy and two from Brad Tursi, among others, so we’re in the realm of Chesney/Old Dominion rocking popping country. Love Today is a fist-puncher about beers, optimism and seizing the day. How It Rolls is a gorgeous description of how true love feels: ‘Like honey off of your tongue…Like sunrise into moonlight’. There’s even an outro.

16 minutes of bliss continues with Malibu Blue, another song which compares a girl to California (‘the brightest star on the boulevard’), and Sunset Town, a middle of the dirt road tune on which Alexander imagines life without his woman over a Jason Aldean-type production.

The main impression of Alexander’s work is Kenny Chesney singing Jason Aldean songs, so if you like that, there’s much to enjoy on the EP.

Country Jukebox Jury EPs: Ross Copperman and Jordan Davis

May 23, 2021

May 2021 saw five EPs offering different spins on contemporary music from Nashville. Take your pick from the flawless roots-rock of Counting Crows, the trad-pop of Dillon Carmichael, the Chesney-Aldean rockin’ country of Alexander Ludwig, the Sheeran-pop of Ross Copperman and the radio-friendly unit-shifting country of Jordan Davis.

Ross Copperman – Somewhere There’s a Light On EP

Ross was briefly marketed as a Radio 2 middle-of-the-road singer-songwriter – his hits includes As I Choke and All She Wrote – before he found his true calling as a top songwriter and producer in Nashville. His CV includes production for Keith Urban, Dierks Bentley, Eli Young Band, Jake Owen and Darius Rucker. He has so far written 26 country number ones, which sounds absurd until you see that Ashley Gorley, his great mate, has about 50; Ross’s chart-toppers include Love Ain’t by Eli Young Band, Living by Dierks Bentley, Break On Me by Keith Urban and the Blake & Gwen pair Happy Anywhere and Nobody But You.

Ross is best known as Brett Eldredge’s wingman and if you like soulful pop music there will be much to enjoy on his EP. We’ve heard much of it over the last few months: Somewhere There’s a Light On is the title track, written with Ross’s mates Josh Osborne and Shane McAnally; buried within the poppy production there’s a country song but that’s not where Ross is pitching himself. The same criticism can be made of Holdin’ You (Copperman-McAnally-Osborne again), a song of devotion in the face of parental disdain and being unaware that ‘the world could be ending’.

Sam Hunt is a good analogy for what Ross is trying to do, though the EP as a whole steers more into the messianic pop of Coldplay or One Republic. Opening song Not Believe skips along like a Ryan Tedder composition and mentions ‘something out there bigger than us’. It’s about love and stuff, set to a plodding but commercially appealing track.

Electricity (‘most people would call it love but this feeling is more than that’) and Therapy (‘I feel like I’m in a video game’) both sound like Ed Sheeran because Ed wrote them with Ross. In the same way that Ross Copperman 1.0 wanted to be Chris Martin or Liam Gallagher, Ross 2.0 is desperate to be Ed Sheeran, standing on a stage in front of 90,000 lights singing how ‘your love is my therapy, ay!’

Jordan Davis – Buy Dirt EP

For something closer to country, there is a snatch of John Prine that begins Jordan Davis’ new EP. Blow Up Your TV is used as an intro to Buy Dirt, a track written with Jordan’s brother Jacob and featuring Luke Bryan. That’s useful because it sounds like a Luke Bryan song, a passing of wisdom from elder to junior: ‘Do what you love but call it work…Add a few limbs to your family tree.’ ‘Buy dirt’ means buy some land, and is a bumper sticker or T-shirt waiting to make Jordan some money. We can’t do that here because the Queen owns all the dirt; maybe ‘go to the Land Registry’ would be a UK translation.

Need To Not and Lose You both sound like country radio in 2021: middle of the dirt road mush about the perils of getting back with an ex and the joys of fidelity respectively. Brett Young does this but without Jordan’s Louisiana rasp, while Dan + Shay share producer Paul DiGiovanni with Jordan. It’ll be perfect for the 18-34 demographic who will see him support Kane Brown later this year.

This eight-track set is somewhere between an EP and a mini-album which is united by the sonic touches of DiGiovanni and Jordan’s impassioned vocals of Jordan who mostly preaches about the joys of love. I loved Jordan’s debut single, the catchy smash Singles You Up but I found his debut album a bit samey on the whole.

He sure can sing, as demonstrated on his latest smash Almost Maybes, which is three chords and the truth about love and stuff. It’s another philosophical country toe-tapper which works on the radio, as befits a song co-written with A-Listers Jesse Frasure and Hillary Lindsey.

Drink Had Me is another jam which lodges in your frontal lobe and won’t move from it. Luke Bryan or Morgan Wallen or Brett Eldredge could have done this funky pop-country meet-cute, doing that ‘break up make up thing’. As with that song, Trying is also a Davis-DiGiovanni-Gorley-Weisband composition, this time a song of devotion, climbing mountains and ‘fighting’ to control one’s demons: ‘I might never love you right but I’ll die trying.’ Oof, that’s vulnerable and relatable.

I Still Smoked is another song with the touch of the Luke Combses, a midtempo reminiscin song painted by Jordan with A-Listers Randy Montana and Jonathan Singleton. Eminem is on the stereo and there’s football on TV and Jordan wanted to seize the day in his jeep with his girl ‘and I still smoked’. It’s country music, a three-minute movie with real drums.

Later in the year Jordan is due to become a dad for a second time, so mazaltov to him. He seems friendly and grateful to do what he loves for a living; it’s the family business as his uncle also wrote songs for a living and gave Tracy Lawrence two of his big hits.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Adam Sanders – What If I’m Right

May 23, 2021

Out on the Spend a Buck label, the debut album from Adam Sanders is like Jason Aldean if he’s told to turn his amps down a bit, or Luke Bryan if he turns his amps up. Adam’s success as a songwriter comes from a pair of smashes: Ain’t Worth the Whisky for Cole Swindell and Hell of a Night for Dustin Lynch. As with many writers, he has stepped up to launch a solo career which should bring him the same success as Cole and Dustin, in a fair and just world.

The album What If I’m Right opens with All About That, which is country as the day is long and kicks off 13 tracks of solid contemporary country sung in a high tenor voice. There are echoes of Luke Bryan in Just Need One and of Jason Aldean in both the toe-tapping title track and So Good At That, where he wonders why his ex is making it tough for him to move on. Burn The Stars is an impressive power ballad with a lovely image where the stars are like candles, burning to the end of its life. I also love the rhyme of ‘hallelujah/ pull me to ya’ on Good Way To Go.

Adam writes all 13 tracks on this album, with some A-List help on My Kinda People: the superstar A-List team of Jessi Alexander, Will Weatherly and Cary Barlowe, who wrote the fast riser Famous Friends and is probably reaping his investments from the proceeds of American Honey. My Kinda People is instantly poppy and mixes pedal steel and dobro with guitar and drum loops, over which Adam sings of a clash between rural and urban. ‘A y’all in your drawl…dirt under your nails…whiskey in a glass’ and that’s country bingo!

The underrated songwriter Adam Craig helps out another Adam on Make Em Wanna Change, the pre-released smash from the album that praises the ability of a woman to put a man on the right path. It’s a shame that Blake Shelton stole Adam’s thunder by pre-releasing his track Bible Verses. Adam’s tune Bible Versus uses the same play on words as Adam pits church against the bar; the Bible gets a namecheck in Daddy Jesus Earnhardt, ‘from Talladega all the way to Daytona’.

Do What We Do, which was my introduction to Adam, is a country boy’s hymn to rural life, while the pretty I Got Roots is a morose breakup song where Adam finds comfort in the land. This is country music for rural folk which should also gain an audience abroad as an authentic representation of the American South.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: The Steel Woods – All of Your Stones

May 23, 2021

The band’s third album opens with the atmospheric noise of a truck being turned off. The first track, Out of the Blue, explodes with some power chords and crash cymbals and all is well in the country-rock world. ‘The birds are singing a new tune’ sings Wes Bayliss. The guitar work has been performed by Jason Cope, who passed away after the album was finished and was Jamey Johnson’s longtime guitarist. Anyone who knows hard or country rock will know the guy known as Rowdy, but it’s a new name to me.

There’s not much to add about the music beyond it’s a rock album by guys who could get a few hundred dollars in tips if they played at 6pm in a Broadway bar in Nashville. You’re Cold twists and turns impressively, driven by Wes’ bass riffs and finishing with some elegant strings; You Never Came Home opens with some piano chords and becomes a sort of Soundgarden ballad that has never been in fashion or gone out of fashion; ‘the wind cuts like razors’ is a great line on Ole Pal, where Wes is down on his luck. I love Aiming For You, which is soft and smooth and includes some gorgeous reversed guitars.

The title track closes the album: ‘I built a house with all of your stones/ I kept from all the ones you have thrown’ is the key lyric, underscored by a typical country-rock triple-time shuffle. Beware of the false ending. The album’s second side opens with the seven-minute centrepiece. I Need You features Ashley Monroe and some squealing guitar skills from Rowdy that remind me of all the great guitarists of the last 50 years. It’s a good place to start on an album full of great tunes.

What a shame we can’t see Jason play them live but Kyle aka Trigger from Saving Country Music, who called the album an opus, told me that the replacement guitarist is more than able to step into the breach.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Blake Shelton – Body Language

May 23, 2021

In the 1990s it was Tim McGraw whose voice and face made his record label squillions. In the 2000s Blake Shelton followed the formula to the letter: a county boy with cool hair, Blake married a country star and communicated joy, love and pain in three-minute crooned movies.

Tim starred in an actual movie, Country Strong, in which he was unrecognisable, like Garth Brooks playing at being a pop crooner on the Chris Gaines project. For his part, Blake took a deal with NBC to sit in a chair which turned around when he pushed a button and, for ten years, was Mr Country Music to middle America. He got divorced from Miranda, got paired up with a divorcee whom he met on The Voice and lived happily ever after while putting out new product every year.

Blake Shelton will not be as fondly cherished as his fellow Okie Garth Brooks, however, or even Tim McGraw. For 20 years, since his enormous debut hit Austin, Blake has released 12 albums of variable quality, writing some compositions but choosing to adopt an old-fashioned way of plucking tunes off the shelves of Music Row. Many of them – Boys Round Here, the Michael Buble tune Home, Hillbilly Bone, Sangria, Sure Be Cool If You Did, God’s Country – are evergreen and keep Blake on the radio just as Live Like You Were Dying and Something Like That keep Tim in residual cheques.

What happens to an act who dominated the genre, as Blake did in the early 2010s, but is now in his mid-forties and looking to spend more time on the farm with his stepkids and less time on the road with his back catalogue? We know what happens, because Luke Bryan did it last year: step into Adult Contemporary County and perform music which befits your age.

The title track is a sex jam of that genre, written by The Swon Brothers who provide harmonies on a song that shares a chord progression and key with the AC jam Human, from the Human League. Two-chord jam Now I Don’t, written by Hardy and Jessi Alexander (who can be heard on backing vocals), also sees a change between the Blake of the past and the Blake of the present; there’s a nice use of the word ‘pedestal’ in the second verse. Jessi is also a writer of the funky Monday Mornin Missin You, where Blake sings how he feels ‘bulletproof’ during weekend drinking sessions but will return to feeling lonely on Monday.

Two years ago, Blake was less keen to put out albums than singles, so let us treat Body Language as his twelfth collection of individual songs. The first two singles had him singing ‘my home’s wherever your heart is’ on the gorgeous Happy Anywhere and ‘your love is money, can make a man feel rich on minimum wage’ on Minimum Wage, which began ‘playing for pennies on a dive bar stage’ and speaking the truth over three chords. The final track is Bible Verses, which shows ‘Serious Blake’ come to terms with his faith.

The big names justify their appearance fee between the brackets. Nicolle Galyon and Jesse Frasure will get big cheques this summer for Minimum Wage and Craig Wiseman will gain plaudits for Corn, a songwriting exercise which praises the humble kernel.

Josh Osborne and Shane McAnally (Blake’s fellow NBC star thanks to his turn on Songland) are joined by Ross Copperman for The Flow and by Brad from Old Dominion for the sunny Making It Up As You Go. The former is written from the perspective of a fortysomething guy remembering to seize the day as he gets older, ‘wondering how much brass is left on that ring’, the latter is a fun meet-cute where Blake sings of drunkenly trying to pick up a lady, possibly heeding his advice to go with the flow and not have a plan. He is also drinking on Neon Time, a two-step in the sand.

The Peach Pickers are on board too. Dallas Davidson and renowned writer Casey Beathard offer Whatcha Doin Tomorrow (‘bout 12.01am’!), which has the same chord progression and feel of Jon Pardi’s new smash Tequila Little Time. Ben Hayslip provides The Girl Can’t Help It, which is another in his catalogue of toe-tappin’ two-chord jams like Gimme That Girl where the girl here is ‘bendin those words like the Mississippi River’. Simple but effective.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Alan Jackson – Where Have You Gone

May 14, 2021

After Travis Tritt brought out an album this month, his fellow member of the Class of ’89 (which also counts Clint Black and Garth Brooks as members) Alan Jackson has done so. Randy Travis arrived at the head of the ‘neo-traditionalists’ who brought back whatever the Nashville record labels thought they were bringing back. It was a marketing tool to convince people that these guys were worth listening to. Alan has quietly become the man who keeps the trad flame alive, and at 62 only works when he needs to work. Bob Harris tells the story that at the CMA Awards he dangled a mic in front of him asking Alan if he had any messages for his UK fans. Alan virtually spat in Bob’s face.

Among Alan’s 26 number ones are Don’t Rock the Jukebox and Chattachoochee, both enormous smashes of the early 1990s, and It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere, the beach jam which got to number 17 on the Hot 100 and ruled 2003. He had number ones aplenty in the 1990s and 2000s, including the 9/11 catharsis of award-munching Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning) though make time for the Phil Vassar song Right On The Money, a 1998 number one, and the Zac Brown Band duet As She’s Walking Away. In 2017, he followed Randy Travis, Garth Brooks, Reba, Ronnie Milsap and Kenny Rogers into the Country Music Hall of Fame. His citation noted that his songs ‘are marked by humility, humour and eloquent simplicity’.

Where Have You Gone was launched with a slew of pre-released nuggets including a title track which pointedly asks where country music traditionalism has gone. Things That Matter sounds like a Song of the Year from 1995, with some gentle fiddle providing some harmonic counterpoint. Alan is a man who uses twang and heartfelt lyrics, which in the 1990s were country’s main sonic signposts, as they had been in Alan’s childhood growing up in Georgia in the era of Chet Atkins’ Nashville Sound.

Several songs were written for members of his family: You’ll Always Be My Baby and I Do address his daughters, the latter sounding like a first dance; the hymnal Where Her Heart Has Always Been is a memorial for Alan’s mum which could also work as an a cappella song; since his last album, Merle Haggard has passed away and so Alan dedicates That’s The Way Love Goes to him. Check out the glorious chorus which has Alan sing that old music ‘is never old but grows’.

Back begins with ‘tomatoes on the vine, elderberry wine’ and sounds like one of those fun songs in the neo-traditional movement. Accordingly, Alan is ‘bringing country back’ with a song that reminds me of Good Time, which contains tons of verses and tons of fiddle and twang. Beer:10 is similarly raucous, sounding like a Brad Paisley happy song amid the many about love and stuff. It also has the best fiddle solo on the album by Alan’s longtime touring violinist Ryan Joseph.

Conversely, Alan sounds stark and lonesome on Way Down in my Whiskey, a mood matched by the arrangement and produced by longtime collaborator Keith Stegall, who doesn’t change the formula that made Alan a superstar in the 1990s. Ditto I Was Tequila (‘she was champagne’) and on another track he is Livin on Empty. Yep, he used to be Livin on Love now he’s ‘lovin’ on fumes’.

The songtitles on the album sound like classic Alan Jackson titles: Where The Cottonwood Grows, I Can Be That Something, Write It In Red (‘Take out your lipstick’ he tells a woman on the point of leaving), Wishful Drinkin’, These songs are all of the highest quality, with traditional country instrumentation (including plenty of fiddle) and Alan’s legendary Hall of Fame voice.

The Boot and This Heart of Mine are both written by Alan’s nephew and songwriter Adam Wright. The former is set in a bar and takes the form of a guy opening his heart to the narrator. The harmonies create a depth in the arrangement that match the song’s emotion of simplicity. As for the latter, it’s as country as the day is long, a description of the narrator’s heart, battered and bruised but still able to be repaired. On the other hand, on Alan’s song Chain, he won’t ‘free my heart and break the chain…Though it hurts I can’t let go’. Well that’s one way of declaring universal love…

So Late So Soon was written by the great Daniel Tashian, among others, and his lush knowledge of melody (he recently worked with Burt Bacharach!) is a perfect fit for a country croon. I listened to it immediately after it finished, to savour the song which is very much a Chateaubriand. Ditto A Man Who Never Cries, which sees Alan look back on his wonderful life, full of ‘happy tears’ though he rarely shows emotion. His fans from 1991 will lap this up. The album closes with The Older I Get, about the importance of friendship and ‘when to just not give a damn’ about things. It was written by nephew Adam Wright and the brilliant Hayley Whitters, who might well join Alan on tour should the opportunity arise. I’d go.

I hope new fans are converted but everyone knows Alan, the guy who didn’t want the jukebox rocked and who learned a little about love down in Chattahoochee. The industry knows that along with Garth (who was more of a pan-American phenomenon), Alan defined what country music sounded like in the neo-traditional era before Shania and the Chicks. Like those three acts in that last sentence, and like Reba too, Alan is a legacy act who will always be praised even as young pretenders bring their programmed drums and hiphop cadences. Country music has many forms; many people prefer the one Alan Jackson offers.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Jack Ingram, Jon Randall and Miranda Lambert – The Marfa Tapes

May 7, 2021

It is so rare than a major-label release has consistency of songwriters. Usually Miranda Lambert works with a cornucopia of writers and producers: Luke Dick, the Love Junkies, Natalie Hemby, Brent Cobb, Ashley Monroe. Here her two buddies Jack Ingram and Jon Randall back her up with harmonies and guitars on every track. They’re like Peter, Paul and Mary.

The trio go on writing retreats in Marfa, Texas, population just under 2000, majority Latino/Tejano, founded as a water stop town for horses between a set of mountains and a national park in the Western bit of Texas that just out like a nose. The Marfa air is the fourth songwriter on this album, which seems to have been recorded directly onto tape (or a mixing console) with no overdubs and with ad-libs left in. Indeed, The Wind’s Just Gonna Blow is the name of one of the tracks, with either Jack or Jon pickin’ a rhythm and the trio singing of darkening skies, dust on the roads and gettin’ to moving on. ‘Bad times they all pass, for me they usually don’t’ is astonishingly vulnerable from a woman who used to be sold as Blake Shelton’s wife. The album closes with Amazing Grace (West Texas), which links the elements with an old hymn: sunsets, church bells and rainfall are all the work of the Lord.

Pre-released singles include opener In His Arms, methodical Am I Right or Amarillo and addictive stutter of Geraldene, which Elle King should cover. We know the album version of Tequila Does, with its shifting tempos, and it’s great to hear the demo version here.

The first line of Ghost has Miranda burning some jeans and there’s a lyric calling the addressee ‘the meanest man I’ve ever known’, ‘a shell of a man’. Is this a murder ballad or a chirpy kiss-off? If this were turned into a studio version it’d have a patented Jay Joyce sonic bed with minimal instrumentation, perhaps just a soft organ or pedal steel. In fact, he’d turn it into what we heard on the studio recording of Tin Man, which is also here in demo form.

Waxahachie includes words like ‘bourbon buzz’, ‘turnaround tempo’ and ‘gasoline, memories and nicotine’ (album title alert). It sounds like a song that could have been peppered up by a train beat, steel guitar and harmonies from session singers but here it’s Miranda ooh-oohing to an acoustic guitar. We’ll Always Have The Blues, the best song Willie Nelson’s never written, deserves an orchestra rather than just a whistle solo: a serenade from a jukebox, a slow dance between two people who cannot be together. Jack’s vocal is as crackly and warm as the sound of the hiss of the tape. Two-Step Down To Texas is the perkiest moment on the album, reminding everyone of the song All That’s Left from Miranda’s Platinum album. In the absence of a banjo or a mandolin, there’s another whistle solo. I hope this song gets fleshed out.

Jack takes the lead on the funky party song Homegrown Tomatoes, punctuated by Miranda’s chuckles. They rhyme the title with ‘little instigator’ as A-List writers are apt to do but this song is, by their own admission, about nothing at all, just a nod to Guy Clark who wrote a song of the same name. Jon’s tender croon leads the two-minute long breakup song Breaking A Heart, which asks for sympathy for the person doing the breaking up (‘I really do wish you were the one letting go’ ). He also takes the lead on Anchor, which is a proper country song full of metaphor: anchor, ‘salvation in the sweetest suicide’, going ‘to the other side’. Remember, this is the man who wrote that perky pop song Whiskey Lullaby, so I take it as a bleak tune.

Every release puts Miranda at the very vanguard of her generation: she’s less druggy than Kacey, less showbiz than Carrie, less flash in the pan than Gretchen Wilson. 15 years into a brilliant career, which has been aided by Jon and Jack, this is a quiet masterpiece. Let’s call it Miranda’s Nebraska, one for true fans rather than those who turn up in pink Stetson hats to bellow along about kerosene, gunpowder and lead. With especial apologies to Jack, Miranda is the top name here.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Kenny Chesney and American Aquarium

May 7, 2021

Kenny Chesney – Here and Now (Deluxe Version)

In my review of the original album release, his nineteenth, I called Here and Now Kenny’s best in at least a decade, one which cements the ‘strong brand that makes him squillions of dollars, the Don’t Worry Be Happy country guy laughing all the way to the beach. Am I being cynical?’

The four extra tracks build on the formula. Wind On begins with the radio on, shirts off, tattoos on show and ‘every care in the world’ thrown to the wind. It’s Chesney by Numbers, literally a song about nothing with crunching guitars borrowed from songs like Live A Little and American Kids. Check the minute-long guitar jam, though, which makes it fun to be alive.

My Anthem is a Jason Gantt-McAnally-Osborne write is a song about songs that accompany people as ‘salvation…education’. The middle eight is very good, the bridge even better, a typical Shane McAnally device where he puts vinegar in the cakemix. Songs can’t ultimately help people ‘outrun their youth’, but they do make it easier.

Fields of Glory is a Copperman-Gorley-Osborne write, which means even before I hear it I can tell it’ll have smooth acoustic guitars, a list of activities people do on a field – stay out late, play football – and some ‘woah-woah’ backing vocals. Ashley Gorley and Ross Copperman know that people want songs as comfort blankets, reassuring humanity that the past was a nicer place. This is a nice song that adds nothing to anything.

Streets was written with Tom ‘House that Built Me’ Douglas. It’s a series of images, as if Kenny is singing a video montage, that takes us all across America, from Times Square to Disneyland to Hollywood. ‘On the streets of Nashville all is well’ seems to imply that nobody will run out topics to sing about. ‘All is well’ is a ridiculously ‘Imagine there’s no heaven’ thing to write, so I think this is a utopian dream, or even satire, rather than social commentary. Of course all isn’t well in America – Kenny should write about opioid addiction, police brutality or the Capitol insurrection – but the music is so pretty I am willing to ignore the politics for five minutes.

American Aquarium – Slappers, Bangers and Certified Twangers

What links Patty Loveless, Sammy Kershaw, Trisha Yearwood, Joe Diffie, Faith Hill, Brooks & Dunn, Jo Dee Messina, Toby Keith, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Sawyer Brown? They all had hits in the mid-1990s and BJ Barham aka American Aquarium has bestowed fans with 10 covers of tunes made famous by all of them. There’s no Travis, Tim or Garth but the set does introduce younger fans to these now classics that all emerged in the Soundscan era where America could finally see how popular hillbilly music was.

I am familiar with Heads Carolina, Tails California (moved from E to G and with Springsteen-y undertones by BJ), Should’ve Been A Cowboy (which really does sound like an E Street Band song) and She’s in Love With The Boy, which are all modern classics. Joe Diffie’s John Deere Green is a song ripe for rediscovery, a muscular song that Jon Pardi, Aldean and Combs should cover in concert. As we’re seeing today, the veneration of Brooks & Dunn, whose schtick is virtually Luke’s, shows no stopping and BJ covers Lost and Found.

New tunes to my ears include Queen of my Double Wide Trailer, a Sammy Kershaw hit from 1993 with twang and Hammond organ; Sawyer Brown’s Some Girls Do and Faith Hill’s Wild One could only have been put out in the post-Garth, pre-Shania window, where country was trying to rock but come off as very milquetoast (I love that word!). Mary Chapin Carpenter, as you would expect, gets the balance right with Down at the Twist and Shout, which sounds like a line dance translated into musical notes. At least BJ adds some contemporary production while staying faithful to the era. What a fun surprise release.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Travis Tritt – Set In Stone

May 7, 2021

I know very little about Travis Tritt. He’s on Twitter (Tritter?) constantly; he had a hit song with It’s A Great Day to be Alive which is terrific; he was friends with Marty Stuart, duetting on a great ballad called This One’s Gonna Hurt You for a Long Long Time; he got a namecheck in May We All by Florida Georgia Line; he has a moustache.

He has won GRAMMYs and CMA Awards, and in 1992 became a member at the Grand Ole Opry, where he has performed regularly. He has been married three times, with the first two coming before he was 25. He had most of his success in the early 1990s, co-writing all five of his number ones: Help Me Hold On, Anymore, Can I Trust You With My Heart, Foolish Pride and Best of Intentions. The last of these charted at number 27 on the Hot 100.

Now working with Dave Cobb, Set In Stone has been trailed by a Grand Ole Opry performance and several singles, including the chugging Ghost Town Nation and Smoke In A Bar, an outside write about how life used to be. Applause was warm from Opry congregants that night. Travis comes across like a heartland rocker who would drink with his fans after a show.

I love Stand Your Ground, a great opening track that seems like his life in a song: ‘Did it my way, worked every time.’ The guitar solo is blistering and the gospel backing vocals are typical Dave Cobb flourishes. Waylon Jennings is a key influence on the album, which rocks in a rockin’ way. I’m sure Dave was in his element, being paid to record Travis’s music. It’s a hard life being Dave Cobb, who has sculpted the Chris Stapleton sound that has sold umpteen million albums.

There’s some traditional country amid the blues and rock. Better Off Dead is a tearjerker with requisite pedal steel and a mighty fine vocal from a guy who broke through alongside Alan Jackson and Clint Black. Meanwhile, Travis pays homage to his roots on both the blues-rockin’ Southern Man (‘The one thing I’ve been all along’) and the harmonica-heavy Way Down In Georgia: ‘Born and raised where the tall pines grow…Honeysuckle dancing on the evening breeze.’

A-Listers pepper the credits. Brent Cobb was in the room for three songs: Set In Stone, all about a musician, or indeed a man’s, legacy; the reminiscin’ song Open Line, where Travis looks back on the past over soft guitars and tom-tom drums; and Ain’t Who I Was, which sounds like a Brent Cobb soulful country song with plenty of diminished chords and a strong mournful melody.

Wyatt Durrette co-wrote Stand Your Ground and Southern Man, while Ashley Monroe worked on Leave This World (‘I don’t wanna leave this world without you’) on which Travis wishes that he and his beloved die at the exact same time. It’s a country song. Ditto They Don’t Make ‘em Like That No More, a driving rock song with appropriately twanging guitars that will turn an arena (perhaps in Greenwich next March??) into a honkytonk. What a great vote of confidence in co-writer Dillon ‘Hot Beer’ Carmichael that Travis has included the cut on this album, which ought to reposition Travis as a key voice in the sound that made country music relevant in the 21st century.