Here’s a quiz question: what links the following set of singers? Javier Colon, Jermaine Paul, Cassadee Pope, Danielle Bradbery, Tessanne Chin, Josh Kaufman, Craig Wayne Boyd, Sawyer Fredericks, Jordan Smith, Alisan Porter, Sundance Head, Chris Blue, Chloe Kohanski, Brynn Cartlli, Chevel Shepherd, Marlyn Jarmon, Jake Hoot, Todd Tilghman and Carter Rubin?
They all won The Voice USA.
Chevel Shepherd is from New Mexico and is only 18. She won Season 15 of The Voice when she was sixteen, singing songs by The Band Perry, George Strait, The Chicks, The Judds, Little Big Town, Loretta Lynn, LeAnn Rimes and Tanya Tucker, as well as Space Cowboy by Kacey Musgraves. After being mentored by Kelly Clarkson, Chevel opened for Maroon 5 in 2019, which must have been a condition of winning it. Her song Broken Hearts charted on the strength of her winning performance. It passed me by completely.
The title track of her seven-track EP Everybody’s Got a Story was written by Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark. It includes some glorious minor chords and a rocking chug which underscore lyrics about blaming people for your predicaments. Snakes is a story of ‘growing up in the backwoods’ where they don’t just live on the ground.
Southern Boy chugs along happily though the lyric compares guys in the South to those in New York and LA. Chevel wants a ‘back road, take it slow kinda love’ and the chorus is delicious. I listened to it again immediately. Good Boy is a bit more banal, as Chevel coos to her mama that she has found someone to love her.
Just Like The Circus (‘you always leave town’) is another Musgraves-McAnally write, and it makes sense because her voice is the same tone as Kacey’s, and very similar to that of Hailey Whitters. The Letter is a piano-led slowie which opens with a family crying and the doctors trying and someone writing a note (‘Don’t give up right before the miracle’) which is practically a Christian pop song.
Mama Got The Chair is a ballad about Chevel’s mum ‘drinking alone’ which sounds an awful lot like the George Strait song, which makes me think it’s an answer song. Both Danielle Bradbery and Cassadee Pope have had modest success, and I hope Chevel Shepherd joins them.
In the olden days Luke Bryan used to bring out a Spring Break EP every March, back when teenagers listened to his music. Today, in his forties, he is a legacy artist who pops up with Lionel and Katy and Bobby on American Idol. Thus, predictably, he adds tracks to his 2020 album Born Here Live Here Die Here – already packed with four number one hits – to prolong its shelf life. You can read the review of the original record here.
Of the six newies, we were dripfed Country Does – which is another Shane McAnally composition about corn and family and mud and a rhyme of ‘kinfolks with take-it-on-the-chin folks’ – and Drink A Little Whiskey Down, which is Drink A Beer with a different potable.
Waves, written by three chaps including Ryan Hurd, is middle of the dirt road smooch of a song which compares a lady to stars, water and the summer. There’s a patented Michael Carter guitar solo in the middle which woke me up, and the whole point of the song is that it licks you like an ocean spray. Perhaps it was too similar to much of the original release to take its place there last year but it’s a good piece of Adult Contemporary Country.
Up is not a Cardi B cover but a song that uses the word to inspire requests for rain, holding a beer up to the sky where there’s a guy ‘looking down on us’ and, above all, celebrating a ‘way to grow up’. There is a Michael Carter guitar solo in the middle of it.
Bill Dance is a Peach Pickers song: Akins-Bryan-Davidson-Hayslip, the band back together. We get country references – ‘green and tan Plano’, ‘that old sawmill’, ‘zoom black and red flake’ and the good old ‘Muckalee’ – and two mighty chords running throughout the song. It turns out that Bill Dance is a famous host of a fishing show on the Outdoor Channel, ‘a large mouth legend in a Tennessee hat’. The Best of the Peach Pickers is a hell of a catalogue and this one is a worthy addition. Bill himself called it a ‘humbling tribute. For once in my life I’m speechless!’
I can’t believe there hasn’t been a Luke Bryan song called Floatin’ This Creek (‘and taking it slow’). There are shards of harmonica poking out, at which point I realise that these extra tracks is a smart way to release a spring break EP by stealth. Smart Luke. He’s also on TV at the moment so go watch American Idol. Kinda sucks but he gotta make a dollar, to paraphrase this song’s middle eight, although he refers to his character, a construction worker digging a ditch.
The title track of this terrific album is a good place to start: a boogie-rocker about love and stuff where Tim invites us to toast people who defy long odds and ask a girl to dance. Get Em Up is an Aldean-ish invitation for fans to ‘kick it all night’. Bar Band is another song about songs – Marshall Tucker and John Prine get namechecks, as do Spinal Tap with the line ‘up to eleven’ – but the mood is middle of the dirt road rather than hardcore bar band music. There’s a sweet set of closing harmonies which invite us to put our hands up for a second song in a row.
Be A Cowboy is one of four songs on the album written with the great David Lee Murphy and sounds like five Aldean songs rolled into one. It’s enormous and loud and muscular, and is a good counterpoint to the album’s softer songs. River Kids is an acoustic reminiscin’ ballad which paints Tim the teenager hanging out by the river, drinking beer and fishing and doing country stuff. Gone Looks Better (‘on you than it does on me’) is a lovesick ballad that sounds like all the other country ballads of its type, while Tim tries out a bluesy wail on Stronger Than You: ‘There’s rattlesnake venom runnin’ through my veins’ is a good line.
Don’t Wait Up On Me (‘Ruby and Rosalie’) has a snakeskin-booted Tim telling his lady that he’ll be on the road at dawn; it sounds like an old-school groupie song. The protagonist of the fun Cars On Blocks is fresh out of jail ‘way out where the buffalo roam’; over three chords Tim puts across a lot of character and paints a picture of a land of mobile homes and ‘redbone hounds’. Closing power ballad To An End has sprinkles of pedal steel and a lyric full of bowed heads, closed eyes and prayer ‘so I can look her in the eyes again’. It’s the best vocal on an album full of great takes.
This is a mature album with much to enjoy and has less bombast and more soul than Jason Aldean, who by now is a parody of himself. Maybe Broken Bow should allocate Aldean’s resources to Tim.
Brett, who has had 15 Top 10 hits up in Canada, delivers What Is Life, a set of ten tracks and four interstitial monologues featuring his three kids (how cute!). Released on his own label Bak 2 Bak, it’s a personal project which resonates with his fans around the world.
Brett opens the album with a soliloquy which asks the question that gives the album its title. ‘Where’s our world headed? What will become of this life?’ He closes with the rough guitar-and-vocal demo-sounding Kindness, with a dropped guitar tuning. Brett sings about things his kids should take heed of: don’t hate, difference is a good thing and kindness should be ‘contagious’.
In between come nine other possible answers to his question, the first attempt being the single Make A Life, Not A Livin. Money is less important than breathing, as it seems are funky riffs. A nice triple-time ramble called Die To Go Home opens with a town that’s ‘way too quiet’ and makes teenage Brett ‘bored every Saturday night’. But life is about home, looking at farms from an aeroplane and remembering where you’re from: ‘Just like gravity tugging at your soul’ is a very good line that I might steal and hope nobody notices, which Brett sings over a gentle backing.
Everything in the Rearview contains ‘a laundry list of things’ Brett did before he got out of his home town, ‘the bitter and the sweet’. It’s a reminiscin’ song about learning lessons (such is life!!) in years which fly by. Carpe diem is the message, baked in a middle of the dirt road pie. Without is a fun love song which has a list of essential items that people can remove from Brett’s world, even light itself. (Good luck getting enough oxygen from plants that can’t grow because there’s no sun.)
Down To Earth was written with the great Eric Paslay. It’s another carpe diem pop song which celebrates a rural life and getting ‘lost in a neverending sky’ with a lady. ‘The moon is all we need’ is a line from the first verse of Better Bad Idea, where life is about spending time cuddling in private, ‘my hands your hips/ I kiss your lips’; the arrangement is like a hug and a kiss too, with a silky guitar solo in the middle. I don’t know why it sounds very Canadian but it does.
Brad from Old Dominion is one of the writers for Night in the Life (not Day in the Life!), an Old Dominion-ish slice of party music with ‘boys chasing girls chasing stars’. It comes off as a Rascal Flatts tune, with potluck dinners and ties loosened after work and crowd singalongs (of, I imagine, Old Dominion tunes as well as Brett Kissel tunes). As with Better Bad Idea, there’s a brief section where Brett makes love. It sounds like a radio smash, and perhaps life is about enjoying the downtime.
Can you guess what Slidin Your Way is about? It’s about drinking, partying with loud music and getting jiggy, and it’ll sound perfect at Brett’s next gig thanks to its addictive and sticky chorus. Alternatively, From This Day Forward is a piano-and-strings wedding song (‘You give my life a new perspective’), and it’s good to hear devotion rather than sex. Life is about deep emotional connections and being a better person in step with someone else.
The pop-rock pair of Brett Beavers and Jimmy Robbins produced Canaan’s debut album Bronco, from 2015, which featured such hits as Hole In The Bottle and Love You Like That. It served the radio, with lots of bombast and muscle to make it a comfortable fit with all the other blokes on radio at the time. Since then, Canaan has put out six songs including Beer Drinkin Weather and Like You That Way (‘Miranda Lambert crazy’, remember that one?). I don’t know if he put his foot down or read the market, but this is a very contemporary collection of songs which will sound good in between Combs, Pardi and Hardy.
Canaan writes and produces all 12 tracks. We’ve heard half of High Country Sound over the last year or so: the excellent thumping hoedown of Mason Jars & Fireflies, the triple-time breakup jam Colder Than You, the homespun Sweet Virginia (which is a tribute in part to his daughter Virginia) and reminiscin’ song Cabin in the Woods, refuge of the check-shirted mountain man and a place where Canaan had a ball round the fire singing ‘old John Denver’. There is a fiddle solo.
The first couplet of the album includes Canaan remembering a ‘hometown area code’ and the chorus mentions ‘daddy’, beer, heartbreak, red dirt on my boots, gospel truth and roots. It’s basically Dirt by Florida Georgia Line (which is okay as the album comes out on the duo’s Tree Vibez imprint), but with some oddly clear production, with fiddle poking underneath a steady drumbeat.
There’s an early reference to the ‘Blue Ridge Mountains’ of Virginia, which makes this a personal track as well as a generic one that can address fans across the South. American Dream is another fiddle-flecked Mumford stomp about love and stuff, complete with a ‘glass of wine’ which is prevalent in a lot of today’s country music. It’s not beer drinkin’ weather any more…
Catch Me If You Can is an FGL and Canaan co-write featuring Brent Cobb, ‘bootleggin rebels’ on the run from the po-po. There’s yet more fiddle and Brent’s vocal is very Hardyish. On Still, Canaan invites his girl – it is very funny that the song begins with the word girl – to go camping in a holler, ‘turn off the phone’ and find a little bit of ‘heaven on Earth’ where the Whippoorwill wakes them. Gosh it is so nice to hear this sort of thing on a country record that isn’t by Luke Bryan and Canaan sells it very well.
Compared to that Like I Ain’t Missin’ You is banal: drinking to get over an ex in a bar listening to George Strait on the jukebox. Fiddle and pedal steel join in, and I can imagine King George giving this a go. George appears again on the final track, Losin Sleep Over A Girl, where we smell the ‘sunflower perfume’ Canaan smelt on a third date to his show. It seems to be his life in a song: ‘We were buying dishes, hanging pictures, setting up forever’ and then by the third verse it’s Canaan’s turn to feed his daughter. I don’t think he’s chasing a trend: I think this is the album Canaan wanted to put into the world as an artist.
Commentator Billy Dukes likes to review albums in one word. High Country Sound is: Grown-up.
From Virginia, Morgan overcame addiction to make her debut LP Reckless. The record is produced by Sadler Vaden, who is a guitarist in Jason Isbell’s band The 400 Unit, and Paul Ebersold, who won a Rock Gospel Album Grammy back in 2004 and is best known for working with corporate rockers 3 Doors Down.
Side A opens with Wilder Days, which sounds like The Wallflowers, and Side B with Last Cigarette. Along with the tremendous title track, both are irresistible pop nuggets which I call ‘Bob Harris Country’: chunky basslines, melodic guitars and a punchy melody. I’m a sucker for melody-driven rock with lots of hooks in the guitar part.
I love the production and arrangement of Matches and Metaphors, which sounds a little like Elle King, and the wedding song Other Side, which has the sort of grit that Ashley McBryde delivers in her songs: ‘You’ve seen the parts of me the world says I should hide’. With different production, Don’t Cry could be Hole-like grunge or Avril Lavigne pop-rock, but it’s catchy like the best songs of both those acts.
Kalie Shorr mixes country confessional and rock attitude but Morgan’s voice is one I like better. She is vulnerable on triple-time song Mend (‘I hope you can mend me’) and on Take Me Away (‘I wanna feel something’). Ernest Hemingway gets a namecheck on closing acoustic ballad Met You, which opens with her ‘numb from a cocktail of pills’ and has her reminiscing on happier times.
When she pleads for her beloved to return, asking him how that ‘northern air’ is on the song of the same name, she adds the detail of the red stain on the ‘white dress that I bought to impress you that night I confessed my truth’. There’s a lot of subtext in the song that will emerge in a live setting too. I’ll be there.
Valerie June – The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers
I saw the long-haired genre-hopper Valerie June perform on the open stage at Latitude one year to an appreciative crowd. Valerie is Americana and will win awards in that category in future, though I am sure she is more concerned about getting her music to as many ears as possible.
I was surprised at how understated the tracks on this album were. Both Colors and Stardust Scattering remind me of Deep Forest’s new age track Sweet Lullaby: drums are soft, the production creates a sonic bed for the horns to emerge. Valerie’s voice wraps around Carla Thomas’s on Call Me A Fool where, like The Highwomen, a unison vocal makes the lines punchier.
Elsewhere, Valerie is at the top of her range on the gentle Fallin’, swoons in the middle of Two Roads, is joined by percussion and many voices on the sweet final minutes of Within You and sings an appropriate sunny melody on Smile. I love the strings added to Why The Bright Stars Glow, which I hope she can replicate in the live sphere.
The album ends with 90 seconds of birdsong and pipes, sending the listener off to dreamland with a goodnight kiss. Valerie will win many more fans, more dreamers, with this album.
Stuart Duncan, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile – Not Our First Goat Rodeo
Yo-Yo Ma is a well-known bluegrass cellist(!!) who teams up with fiddler Stuart Duncan, mandolin player Chris Thile and bassist Edgar Meyer on Not Our First Goat Rodeo, which has been nestling inside the bluegrass albums for nine months. It defies categorisation: there are a lot of pentatonic melodies from cello and bass on Your Coffee Is A Disaster; Voila! is great fun thanks to its jaunty melody; and I like the just-right wrongness of the portamento sliding on Every Note a Pearl.
There is some traditional folk on here. Stuart takes the lead on Waltz Whitman and there’s a Nickel Creek flavour to The Trappings. We Were Animals is a vocal-driven tune where Chris’s mandolin marries with Ma’s cello. The virtuosity is the selling point of the album but there’s plenty of melody and harmony to keep the casual listener interested.
Sara Watkins – Under The Pepper Tree
Like bandmate and old mate Chris Thile, Sara Watkins is not defined by the bluegrass music she grew up creating. She opens Under The Pepper Tree with a cover of Pure Imagination, with some glorious tremolando violin at the beginning, which segues seamlessly into The Second Star to the Right, from off of Peter Pan.
Brother Sean, with some clippety-clop strumming, and Chris on the mandolin pop up on Blue Shadows on the Trail, taken from The Three Amigos, which might as well be a Nickel Creek encore. Her voice flutters throughout When You Wish Upon A Star (written in 1939, lest we forget) and Edelweiss is turned into a lullaby featuring future Nickel Creek member, Sara’s daughter.
Mary Poppins inspires the presence of Stay Awake, a literal lullaby, and she bestows a mother’s love on an acoustic version of You’ll Never Walk Alone. At her producer’s suggestion, she ends with lullaby Good Night, a song for Ringo on the self-titled 1968 album by The Beatles. Her take on Moon River, one of the greatest popular songs ever written, is terrific too.
Every song on this collection has a strong melody. At what age, I wonder, do kids who grow up on lullabies start writing to rhythm not to melody? Maybe it’s when they discover girls and the mating rhythm of the backbeat.
I adore Sara’s own Joni Mitchell-ish lullaby Night Singing, with the chorus of ‘I love you’ sticking in the memory. Good old Taylor Goldsmith is on Blanket for a Sail, the Harry Nilsson song, and the waltz La La Lu from Lady and the Tramp is sung to a pizzicato accompaniment where she might be strumming the violin with her thumb. I’d never heard the country song Tumbling Tumbleweeds, on which Sara recruits her friends from trio I’m With Her (including Aoife O’Donovan who appears on the Goat Rodeo album above) and some lush piano.
This is a wonderful set of songs that deserve to be heard. I wonder if Sara will do the sort of ‘mother and baby’ event that cinemas put on, or kid-targeted opera companies.
Barely six months after My Gift, Carrie Underwood follows a festive album with the gospel album which she has spent 15 years waiting to make. There was no doubt that once she’d done all the usual girl-singer stuff – woman scorned, woman in love, woman taking a Louisville Slugger to both headlights – she was going to get to sing to My Savior on an album of 13 tracks. She’ll play them on Facebook on Easter Sunday, with donations to Save The Children, at 11am Nashville time which is 5pm British Summer Time.
Softly and Tenderly, Blessed Assurance and Just As I Am are all tender, acoustic ballads that sound like Temporary Home. Carrie’s voice quivers, mostly over solo piano or strings, in awe of the Lord. We get hymns galore about the Holy Trinity: Great Is Thy Faithfulness is a duet with the Carrie Underwood of gospel, CeCe Winans; I Surrender All (‘to Him I freely give’) goes out to the Lord, Carrie’s biggest fan.
The Old Rugged Cross (‘the emblem of suffering and shame’) make the release topical, since the album will be played by thousands over Easter Week 2021. With acoustic guitar and some gentle backing vocals, this is the type of gospel-pop Whitney Houston may have moved to once she got too old for r’n’b.
One thing that Carrie and David Garcia (or the people funding this release, Capitol Records Nashville) must have known is that we don’t need the church all the way through. Thus Nothing but the Blood of Jesus and Because He Lives are given Mumford beats and guitars (played by the great Mac McAnally), Victory in Jesus is presented as an old country shuffle, and both O How I Love Jesus and How Great Thou Art, in the middle of the album, put echo on Carrie’s voice. The latter has a key change and is the best track on the album. I predict a viral hit for that one, perhaps even a top 10 smash. Ditto Amazing Grace, where guitar, voice and Buddy Greene’s harmonica intersect and then a kids’ choir of wretches join in for the last chorus.
Carrie literally takes us to church with her once-in-a-generation voice. The production, which glows throughout, is sometimes more drum-heavy than, say, a Reba McEntire or Alan Jackson gospel album was in the 1990s, since pop production has moved into the 21st Century. This is a proper digital era album, in the style of Josh Groban.
Perhaps Amy Grant is the main influence here, and she can’t go on forever.
Megan O’Neill topped this season’s UK Country Top 40 thanks to tracks which have been dripped to fans during the last year or so. Megan is set to tour the UK and Ireland in October, trotting around the UK and playing King Tuts in Glasgow, Birmingham Glee Club and The Lexington in London (if it remains open after a very challenging year).
I caught her live when she launched her last album Ghost of You back in 2018, and I’ve also seen her entertain tourists and lunch-eaters in London Bridge. She told BBC Radio Ulster that her personal life overtook her musical life and, given that she couldn’t control what she couldn’t control, she leaned into it. ‘This acceptance that life is always going to change’ dominates the subject matter of the album. She also played her cover of Time in a Bottle on the RTE discussion show, the Irish equivalent of the Jonathan Ross or Graham Norton show. It takes its place as a sort of bonus track on this concept album about place, love and doubt.
I first heard Megan play Rootless (‘I’m running out of seasons to grow/ There must be a demon, I know’) at the British Country Music Festival 18 months ago. The song outlined her decision to move back to Ireland, having lived in Nashville and London; her life in a song. As I’ve written before, her song Ireland is her career song, the one that will finish every set she ever performs, an ode to the land she fell in love with only after leaving. That song contrasts with the piano-led London City: ‘You kept me crazy, you kept me blind…I won’t shed a tear for you’, on the one hand, and ‘you taught me how to be myself’ on the other.
I loved Head Under Water, where Megan wishes ‘the ground would open up, swallow me whole’ instead of making a choice in a relationship, and Devil You Know, written with the great Jake Morrell. Megan’s old pal Ben Earle co-writes Strangers Before We Met, which opens with a set of tableaux – trains, cafes, bypassers, back-to-back in a bar – with a cello providing an ostinato. The chorus contains the words ‘I don’t know’, which pop up throughout the album which, lest we forget, is titled Getting Comfortable with Uncertainty.
Two songs are co-written with Kaity Rae: you can tell Sometimes I Learn is a Rae composition as it’s full of melancholy and melody (‘maybe I just gotta wait my turn’) with a xylophone used on the chorus; the poppy chorus of Break Hearts is at odds with the content of the lyric, where she and Joe Dunwell are infatuated with one another but are ‘afraid’ of ruining a friendship. I like the image of both of them having the other as a lockscreen photo, and the middle eight of a repeated line: ‘Would it be worth it?’
At that London gig, she played with duo The Dunwells, who produce the album and write several tracks including brooding, meditative opener Should’ve Known Better, where she takes responsibility and seeks to ‘be honest with myself’. Hitting the top of her range, she really pulls us in. Likewise on Underrated, her cry of ‘I’m not afraid to go it alone’ will chime with a lot of listeners.
The album ends, before Time in a Bottle, with Winter Sun, a majestic love song with some strings and many Megans harmonising around her lead vocal and piano. It sounds like Enya and it’s a rare moment of certainty on an album of doubt. Ireland have a superstar in Megan O’Neill, whose independent spirit is shining through on this album. I can’t wait to see her in the autumn.
On Big Machine, it’s the latest female teenager with a pop-country style and a great voice. Callista Clark’s song It’s Cause I Am, by a teenager for teenagers, was played by Bob Harris. I sang along by the end of it, and it’s a good introduction to the project Real To Me, the first EP from Callista. She already has 92,000 followers and over 1m likes on TikTok, which is where she will make fans over 2021. If you like Kelsea Ballerini, you’ll love Big Machine’s version of it. The producer is Nathan Chapman, mastermind behind the early Lady A sound.
The title track is a triple time tune with my second least favourite phrase after ‘mama said’: ‘they say’. Ugh, I really don’t like that phrase. The song is pretty (‘blue still feels blue’, ‘rain is still rain’) and there’s a lot of melancholy in the track, which does contain a fab diminished chord. Carly Pearce does this thing better but Callista joins Alana Springsteen as a young lady to watch.
Heartbreak Song had a hell of a room: Liz Rose, Chris DeStefano and Emily Shackleton, who must have had 50 number ones between them, write a pop song about pop songs (my favourite genre) that drive Callista insane about a breakup. It’s so nice to hear an early Swift-type guitar-driven pop song, sung well, and inspiring other teenagers to do the same. Callista even has the Swiftian glint in her eyes on the cover of the EP. It’s almost a way for Scott Borchetta to produce the same product in a younger model. Shameless, but will make him some money.
Change My Mind (‘you ain’t gotta change my heart, boy’) is a groovy tune about courtship that reminds me of Maren Morris’ first album. Don’t Need It Anymore is like Hillary Scott singing a Taylor Swift song, with Kelsea on harmonies; the song itself is about moving on and being strong and asking her man to keep her broken heart. It’s teenpop fodder and it could be a huge hit on TikTok.
Joey Hendricks – Between The Clouds
Joey announces himself as having the gentle roughness, or the rough gentleness, of Matt Stell, Tebey or Ryan Hurd.
Yours or Mine is cute and very contemporary, with a woozy sonic bed underscoring a meet-cute lyric. Hollywood ticks off some cities – ‘New York City’s got nothin’ on your eyes’ – which pale in comparison with Joey’s beloved. It also has the same swooping hook as Brett Young’s Like I Love You. The hook is so good it’s used as the bridge too.
Top Drawer is a reminiscin’ song full of imagery (Zippo lighters and cigarettes, fake IDs and a ‘brown paper bag’) which reminds me of Luke Combs’ Refrigerator Door. Going Home, with an acoustic guitar, is about the passage of time, as Joey notices the changes in his old hometown, where he left his old flame behind. On that song, Joey calls himself a ‘rolling stone’ and repeats his claim on Drifter, where he is caught between settling down and being ‘long gone’. I believe him, but the bluesy solo on that track is the only indication that his music matches his lyrics. One to see live when the time comes.
Tiera – Tiera
Tiera interests me greatly. Not many black songwriters inveigled their way into the Song Suffragettes movement which Kalie Shorr began in 2014 and celebrates its seventh birthday next weekend. I still think Candi Carpenter is the superstar from that crew, which welcomed Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini before they had hits, and Tiera may be next with a self-titled five-track EP. She appeared on the cable show Real Country, where she was mentored by Shania Twain, and has released the EP independently via Nicolle Galyon’s Songs & Daughters publishers.
Tiera told Holler Country that she isn’t ‘a slow song type of person’, and nor am I. Laid Back is the closest thing to it, as befits a song about watching scary movies, drinking wine and putting ‘Johnny Cash on’ while relaxing on the couch with her beau. It has one wonderful C-minor chord in the chorus (if anyone listening writes songs, stick a Diminished 5th into the chorus).
Shut It Down (‘if you keep it up, we’re gonna shut it down’) is a funky pop song where Tiera is ‘breaking all the weekend rules’ with her beau. I replayed it twice. Found It In You is also funky, and humorously for me includes the ‘mama said’ lyric. The beau makes her ‘promiscuous, wild’ and this is a three-chord song of love and affection, delivered with a great tone. It’s like Maren Morris with extra polish. Likewise Not Your Girl, where she lays down the rules for her beau because she won’t ‘switch it up for you’. I like the crunchy solo in the middle of it, though I wish the chorus had more melodic variation first time round.
We’ve heard Miles, featuring Breland, who boasts that he is ‘fuel efficient’, which I missed on first listen. That song is not a one-off; this is one of the strongest collections of songs I have heard in months, probably rivalling Carly Pearce for EP of the year.
At 88 years old. and after overcoming many health issues that have forced her off the road, Loretta Lynn returns with a record produced by her daughter Patsy and John Cash’s son John.
His grandpa AP Carter made the song Keep On The Sunny Side a standard in the 1920s. Loretta’s version sounds breezy and bluegrassy here, while she is punchy and obdurate in the treatment of Where No One Stands Alone and I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight. Hank Williams’ evergreen anthem I Saw The Light (‘Praise the Lord!’) pops up too, as does the trad. arr. I Don’t Feel At Home Anymore, where steel guitar is the dominant instrument.
Many songs are new takes on some of Loretta’s catalogue, such as her first hit Honky Tonk Girl (from 1960!) and I Wanna Be Free, a song that hit the charts 50 years ago when the great Owen Bradley poured treacle and ‘aaah’s from male backing singers over it. I recommend listening to 40-year-old Loretta next to the veteran Loretta, especially as there is some hyperactive banjo in the mix in 2021.
There’s a brief mandolin solo on Old Kentucky Home (‘it’s summer and everyone’s gay…the birds, they make music all day’); the banjo-and-vocal Coal Miner’s Daughter is recited rather than sung (I forgot Loretta was one of eight children). My Love is a love song on which Loretta’s voice is extraordinary and tender.
There’s a reason Loretta was named the first CMA Female Vocalist of the Year in 1967, which she regained in 1972 and 1973. She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1988 and gained a Kennedy Center Honor during George W Bush’s presidency in 2003.
Not many 88-year-olds can write new music that sounds contemporary; perhaps only Willie Nelson comes close. The opening track Is such a tune, as she proclaims she ‘wasn’t raised to give up’. The little-known Oklahoman pair of Reba McEntire and Carrie Underwood tell their tales too, which is testament to the reverence the pair feel for a trailblazer who, I think even more than Dolly Parton, kicked down the door for the girl-singer.
Two more girl singers appear on the album. Tanya Tucker adds harmonies and solo lines to album closer You Ain’t Woman Enough, which was originally released when Tanya was seven in 1966. Brandi Carlile, who is Tanya’s main collaborator these days, is another in the tradition of Loretta Lynn, as is Margo Price, who appears on One’s On The Way, an ode to motherhood written by Shel Silverstein and a hit for Loretta 50 years ago. The tune is given the sort of treatment Loretta’s songs used to get: fiddle, steel, oom-chacka drum beat, punchy spoken word section.
Margo would have been a superstar in any other era but she sticks out on country radio; thankfully satellite radio can play Loretta, Tanya and Margo back to back and create the chain through the ages.
Raul Malo has posted weekly Quarantunes onto The Mavericks’ Youtube channel. Even more astonishingly, he had surgery at the end of 2019 so moved from convalescence to quarantine. Such are the benefits of being on your own label, Mono Mundo, that Raul can control his output and so a two-disc collection of 30 cover versions now appear on streaming services too. Perhaps Gary Barlow will do the same with his Crooner Sessions.
Raul has help from Band of Heathens and his trusty Mellotron, which provides the basic drum track and old-timey accompaniment over which Raul plays and sings. On Disc One alone, I recommend the opening pair Love and Spanish Eyes, with Raul wrapping his pipes around some classic songwriting. See also Forever and Ever, a languid melody that Raul sings as if he’s on a soundtrack of a black-and-white movie (thanks to the mood of the Mellotron). Tom Waits’ Jersey Girl, John Prine’s I Just Want to Dance With You and the waltz Santa Lucia, complete with a chuckle from Raul, are gorgeous. The non-anglophone pair of Hey Gumbaree (I know it as Eh Cumpari) and Besame Mucho are good fun too.
Then come some standards: Those Were The Days and The Sound of Silence, with the melody taken on both occasions by a forlorn electric guitar; All of Me, where the vocal is stunning; My Way, which is better than most interpretations; and, rounding off the set, a solo version of A Change is Gonna Come.
Under socially distanced conditions, his band join him on tracks on Disc Two including Here Comes The Sun, Ventura Highway by America and the band’s classic Back In Your Arms Again, a live highlight. And who knew Sweet Caroline sounded brilliant as a soft country shuffle?
The version of Rockin’ In The Free World came too late for the CD but it’s there on Youtube, with Raul playing with his sons Max and Dino. They’re lucky to have such a talented and cool dad, who proves himself one of America’s underrated interpreters of popular song.
Welcome to the Spring 2021 edition of the UK Country Top 40 Chart. It’s a chronicle of the biggest acts in the indigenous country scene, with an objective and subjective feel: objective because some acts have albums out, radio play and huge fanbases; subjective because I like some songs more than others which push the act up the countdown.
It is excellent that it’s easy to fill a Top 40 but I must pass over some acts who this season are outside the countdown. Katy H urt brought out her Unfinished Business EP back in 2019 and we await new music from her. She’s more of a touring musician who will restart her career when the world restarts. Jess Thristan’s recent cover of This Year’s Love was part of an EP of songs with Christian Reindl.
There’s Hannah Paris, who just misses out on a meet-cute tune The Sun Will Come, Kelsey Bovey with her song I Found Me, Charlotte Young and Georgia Nevada who are On The Loose and Harleymoon Kemp who is L-U-C-K-Y. Joey Clarkson is angry at a Cheating Man, and Foreign Affairs want to see us One of These Days. Any other season these tracks would make the 40 but they are all just outside. Ditto Lisa Wright’s return to the music scene with a cover of Anyone by Justin Bieber.
All of those tracks are bubbling under the Top 40 and, after much reorganisation, I now have the Spring 2021 edition of the UK Country Top 40. Into the 40 we go!
40 Laura Evans – Mess of Me
39 The Wandering Hearts – Over Your Body
38 Anna Krantz – Unacceptable
37 Kevin McGuire – Seeing Things
36 Una Healy – Swear It All Again
35 Shannon Hynes – Standing Me Up
34 Hannah White and the Nordic Connection – Pay Me a Compliment
I’ve decided to put on a festival. Obviously it’s imaginary but come on in!!
The most impressive thing about C2C is that music hits you as soon as you walk in, thanks to the Big Entrance Stage. I would put on some of the most impressive British acts including Robert Vincent, Ferris & Sylvester, The Blue Highways and Laura Oakes. All four of them have superb catalogues and mix blues, rock, pop and country.
I would also put on the sparkly dressed Jade Helliwell, owner of the finest voice in British country, Representing American country would be Kenny Foster, a very nice gentleman who covers country classics and peppers them amongst his own songs about love and loss. Together with him, I’d showcase bluesy Kyle Daniel, energetic Track45, contemporary Mackenzie Porter, suave Alex Hall and Texan horseshoer Jarrod Morris.
And, of course, Holloway Road, one of the most fun bands on the circuit.
The Indigo2 venue is used during the daytime to prepare folk for the main event but it can also act as a main event in itself. I caught Adam Hambrick showcase some of his songs – How Not To, Rockin All Night Long, Somebody Else Will, lost classic Country Stars – to an appreciative crowd, so he would play the Tent.
In the absence of the Town Square Stage, which is now held in a tent outside the O2 main complex and where vendors sell boots and whiskey, I would ensure some top acts entertain the crowd. Brittney Spencer’s soulful country, Tebey’s poppier style, Jimmie Allen’s rocking tunes and ballads and the indomitable Morganway would certainly play this venue, as would Phil Vassar, who would show up and ask the crowd which one of his many, many hits he should play.
In a very masculine US market, country in the UK is predominantly performed by women which means American acts like Abby Anderson, Kassi Ashton, RaeLynn and the superlative Hailey Whitters all have fans this side of the Atlantic Ocean. To balance them out, I would put on the party-starting Filmore and the underrated Charlie Worsham, who is now attached to Old Crow Medicine Show.
The big swingers will entertain thousands across the weekend. Returning heroes Eric Church and Darius Rucker, who were both due to headline C2C 2020, can mix slow and quick songs, as can Luke Bryan who has a decade’s worth of hits and, since this is a festival of the mind, won’t be tied down by American Idol.
In support would be three hot, sexy guys with good catalogues: Brett Young, Dustin Lynch (DL) and Thomas Rhett (TR), who are ‘automatics’ on country radio. The UK’s love of rockin’ country would be satiated by Brothers Osborne and Lindsay Ell, while Caylee Hammack and Twinnie would both put on showcases of their personalities and music. Cam and Brad Paisley, a pair perhaps more beloved to the East of the Atlantic than to the West of it, would round off the roster.
Then everyone would drunkenly stumble home, unless they hit the afterparties!
This album came out towards the end of last year, so I come to praise it belatedly. Brad is an Australian who is huge over there (and huge everywhere, he’s a burly bloke) but, having opened for Jon Pardi and Brett Eldredge, he’s got a foot in Nashville.
I love the album’s single Give Me Tonight, a rocker which reminded me of Semisonic and namechecks John Denver. After Brad meets a girl at a bar in verse one, he bellows the chorus and in verse two pieces together last night, ending in a ‘handwritten letter’. Drinking Season was also rolled out a few months before the album’s release. It’s a chugging rocker where Brad is drinking by the lake. I love the animated video where various animals are chugging beer or lazing on the grass. Backwoods Creek, I’d love to hear a cover of it.
Album opener Hold Me Back is a perfect set opener too, the type that Jason Aldean cranks out once a year so he can now fill an entire set with ‘You ready to party?’ music. The devil appears, as does a very rude word which can be abbreviated MF, and in verse two there’s ‘blood on my face’. The title track has a similar mood and a cameo from the devil before a Memphis-type horn section come in to soundtrack Brad ‘chasing trouble’. I can see why Brad wanted to name the album after this track.
I suppose he couldn’t call it Caught in a Noose by a Stranger, after the LP’s penultimate, eight-minute song, complete with muted trumpet outro. ‘Honest’ Brad is trapped by a femme fatale stabbing him in the back, possibly represented by the meandering solo in the middle of the song. There’s a lot of Stapleton in the arrangement and this would be the centrepiece of his live set.
On Remedy, a crash of drums brings Adam Eckersley in to sympathise with Brad, who can’t stop thinking of his beloved and ‘running up hills backwards’ while a guitar weeps in the background. Adam has visited the UK to play Buckle and Boots and I hope Brad gets to come over when events allow him to.
The third single was heartbreak song Short Lived Love which begins ‘I’m trapped in a hospital room…inside my head’ and continues with despair and woe, as Brad (who wrote the music and lyrics by himself) delivers a wounded vocal from a character who turns to ‘the harshest chemicals’ and tries to ‘disappear’ while the melody line repeats itself into submission.
Wasted Time opens with Brad wanting to ‘numb my pain’ cos ‘it’s happy hour and I’m feeling down’. I also like the mention of Brad’s home state of New South Wales, but it’s a very bleak lyric set to a charming major-key melody because ‘I know I’ll find a way…all she put me through is wasted time’.
The ubiquitous Randy Montana co-writes the wedding song Thought I Knew Love (‘till you loved me’), with rimshots on the backbeat and Brad around a fire ‘with a couple of pals’. There are touches of harmonica too to underscore a list of ways to define love and companionship. I Keep Driving sees him, guitar in tow, throwing out any ‘need for a GPS’ with ‘no destination’ in mind. It’s the album’s poppiest moment.
Brad closes with the elegant I Still Want More, where he wishes to meet the mother and see the hometown of his beloved, and move things along to the soundtrack of trumpets and another crunchy guitar solo. This is an album full of peril and demons, with the odd moment of light and celebration. I would love to know more about Brad and I’m only sorry that I’ve only just got round to listening to the album.
Born in Wyoming and the son of a fiddle player, Ian moved to Nashville where he found success with the song Horses Are Faster. He calls his music a link between Chris LeDoux and Post Malone.
Long Haul is going to radio after Easter, so expect to hear more of the name Ian Munsick thanks to this song. Over a mix of some finger-picked acoustic, mandolin and slide guitar Ian sings how ‘I ain’t afraid of the slow burn’ and how some things, like love and stuff, take time. It’s a good introduction to Ian’s voice, which is the main ingredient here.
With light touches of production in the vocal, Ian sounds perfect for a Spotify playlist among many blokes in both the country and pop spheres. Sam Hunt may be the immediate contemporary, although he delivers the words in a higher register that really pops, even going to falsetto in places on opening track Solo. That track has banjo and fiddle on it, which locates it in country.
Ditto tracks two and three. Mountain Time (‘400 horses by the reins’) is a love song full of fiddle as Ian heads to the country because ‘I always find my way back to you…woo-hoo!’ It’s catchy too. The Mumfordy I See Country makes the same point with some well-worn markers – mama’s cooking, Dolly Parton, July 4, old dirt roads, front porches, banjos, whiskey – which are popular all the way across America. Perhaps this song appeals to people who will party to this song on Broadway in Nashville at their hen party. Ian told me that it’s a dominant 7th chord in the bridge, which you never hear in country music.
Might Be Everything is my old school motto in song: Small Things Grow Peacefully. Ian illustrates how a humble beginning ‘might not be anything’ but could be it all. The second verse, predictably, is about love and stuff, with the nice line ‘picked a wildflower bouquet’. Come Home To You sounds like a Justin Bieber or John Legend tune with its triple-time feel. It’s awfully poppy.
The jaunty Humble (‘Ain’t afraid to rumble, a cowboy’s always humble’) namechecks old Chris LeDoux, while Like It Ain’t opens with a jukebox whirring into gear although the excellent production is very 2021. We get digital snaps, staccato guitar and a sonic bed which matches a lyric where Ian asks the lady to ‘be kind’ and tell lies about her new beau. I replayed it immediately.
She Was Right is a very produced song where it’s ‘too late’ for Ian to save the relationship with both digital cymbals and banjo and real fiddle. It’s what country music sounds like today and young audiences will go wild for it; it sounds like filler to me.
The quirky cover of Dreams by Fleetwood Mac is odd to hear from a male perspective, which proves Jon Pardi’s adage that it ain’t always the cowboy that rides away. In fact, Ian would be a perfect opening act for Pardi and everyone knows Dreams and can sing along with Ian’s smooth vocal. One foot in country, one foot in pop: he sees country fans everywhere.
Hicktown Breakout are a Bristolian quintet who put out their EP in January 2021, led by the single Get Your Boots On, which is the correct choice of single: it’s a handclaps’n’stomper about how ‘country music’s gonna blow your mind’ full of open chords and fine guitar work. Resistance is futile.
Distorted Lullaby is a cross between The Calling and Counting Crows, with a lyric about how ‘nothing changes’ set to some electric guitars. Lost Myself is the most immediate track, with a Quo-like bouncing riff and great drumwork; the poor singer can’t go home because, it seems, he’s been thrown out by his ex. Yesterday is a chugging country-rock song full of loneliness and regret: ‘Tell me there’s another ways to get back to yesterday’ is a gloomy lyric.
Halfway is a mid-tempo ballad about love and stuff set over four very familiar chords. There’s a lot of Hootie & the Blowfish here, with lots of space in the bridge (‘no I don’t want this’), harmonies in the chorus and a nifty solo. It’ll be a decent singalong in the live sphere, and I don’t think the recording does it justice. Hootie, we recall, were a bar band first and a platinum recording act second. File Hicktown Breakout with The Blue Highways, as this would make an ace double bill.
The Southern Gothic – Burnin Moonlight
This six-track EP came out in November 2020. The band are based in Nashville and are led by Connor Christian, whose voice is authentically country.
Villain is very atmospheric, with a neat sonic bed, as Connor sings of having to be ‘the bad guy’ rather than her Superman. The second verse has a line about tying her to a railroad track in order to stop her trying to prolong the friendship. It’s a cool take on moving on.
Past Midnight (‘the clock keeps tickin and we keep talkin’) is a meet cute set to a fine groove. Ain’t Gonna Lie is horny, a sex jam without the sex, as the narrator realises ‘there ain’t no turning back’ once she gives him the go ahead. Gravity is a similar tempo tune in which Connor sings grandly about not wanting to weigh a lady down if she wants to spread her wings.
Up On Your Love is the result of finally going to bed with a lady and ‘wake up, up, up on your love’. It’s poppy and romantic and smooth. There’s a fiddle intro to Classic, which sounds like a wedding song. It’s another song about how love is like an old record (Garth gets a namecheck) and how ‘trends come and go’. It sounds like an Aaron Watson ballad and Southern Gothic would be a great opening act for Aaron.
Clayton Smalley – Dirt Road Therapy.
Clayton comes from Utah and he wants to make music that harks back to the AOR era of Eagles and Garth Brooks. Two Lane Time Machine is a wonderful homage to Californian rock, with sweet harmonies, some pretty chords and a very good delivery of lyrics full of reminiscin’: ‘One more shot to rewrite history’. Modern Day Merle opens with a fiddle and sounds a lot like Rodeo by Garth Brooks, as Clayton sings of a troubadour’s life on the road. ‘He sings what he sings, he loves who he loves’ is a bit banal but the guitars underneath it create a mood.
The EP’s title track is a slow rocker about wind and Joe Diffie on the radio and the weekend and ‘here we go’ and tossing away one’s cares. You know the sort of thing. I Never Let A Good Time Get Away illustrates what the typical weekend holds (‘always time for one more round’ and ‘no need to sleep it off’). Luke Combs does this sort of thing but Clayton’s effort is good.
Phoenix Rise should be covered by Gary Quinn, as it’s a song about rising up from the ashes with a woozy pedal steel guitar part. Ditto the EP’s closing ballad Watch Me Fall, in which Clayton asks his lady if all she’s going to do is look on as he suffers. It’s a bittersweet way to end an excellent set.
The title track of the four-track EP from this British couple has a glorious guitar passage while Adele’s vocal makes me think of Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek, as she sings a thoughtful lyric externalising her feelings. ‘I was a prisoner of my mistakes’ but now she’s ‘riding the crest of the wave’ because she has found her man. No More Goodbyes is about going down a road (‘it is tiring’) but being cheered up by a guy, where Adele finds a Romeo to her Juliet, a ‘hero to her princess’, set to a gentle acoustic tune.
Echoes of the Forest is a story song which begins slowly but accelerates into the second verse, which talks of ‘deep betrayal in the middle of the night’. It breaks into a fab chorus which Adele sings superbly, and it’s a well written, folky story.
Misty Eyes, which was rolled out a month before the EP, chugs along, and the pair draw out the ‘eyes’ for nine syllables. It’s the most memorable part of the song. When I write songs, eyes are the easiest thing to focus on (windows to the soul, shining etc) but it’s a good choice of adjective to tell the tale of a cheat. ‘I was blinded…battered and bruised…broken and used’ is the conclusion, which I am sure Adele will spit out when the duo perform this live. I’ll be there to see it and I hope people give these four tracks a listen.
Track45 – Big Dreams
Track45, aka the siblings Jenna, KK and Ben Johnson, put out three tracks under the banner Small Town last year. I loved their little introduction set as part of Country Music Week last October and they aren’t like any other country act: they can play fiddle, cello, banjo and guitar between them and can also write songs (Ben wrote One of them Girls, the Lee Brice chart-topper).
The song they wrote with Gabrielle Mooney, Come On In, hooked me with its line about ‘calling dinner supper’ and the mention of Avril Lavigne. The gentle Me + You (‘football and tailgates, bare feet and sand’) was also rolled out last year, as was the single the trio are sending to radio, Met Me Now. It’s very current in its production and KK’s vocals will hook people who love Kelsea and Carly Pearce, while the lyric is full of vulnerability: ‘I was young but I was stupid’ and ‘If I could find a way to rearrange the time’ are great, as is the melodic heft of the chorus and the harmonies throughout.
All three are on their Big Dreams EP, which adds two more tracks. I am positive they would have plugged it as part of Country2Country this year and, like The Bee Gees and Hanson, would become a family band the Brits would love.
Little Bit More, written with Audra Mae, and a cover of the Dolly Parton song Light of a Clear Blue Morning, both offer more treats. The former begins with KK hymning God for ‘all the shots’ she has taken, before the chorus explodes in gratitude: ‘I’d give it up for a little bit more’. It’s catchy and fun, and Ben takes the second verse (‘It’s high time I did some taking’). Check out the acoustic version on their Youtube channel which emphasises the harmonies. Their cover is well chosen, as the siblings take turns to sing of ‘looking for the sunshine’ and the hope on the horizon. They must have learned how to harmonise with this one, and it is wonderful that the world can share in their talent.
Adam Hambrick – Flipsides
The great Adam Hambrick’s new tune is Broken Ladder, the latest in a series where he brings out two tracks at a time. Having done this three times, we have six songs which have been collected on the Flipsides EP, which is the closest thing to an album he’s brought out. I love his songs Rockin All Night Long and Forever Ain’t Long Enough and, in particular, the terrific Country Stars, which he performed at C2C 2019 along with hits he wrote for Dan + Shay (How Not To) and Justin Moore (Somebody Else Will).
The four tracks we’ve heard are: the perky, poppy The Longer I Lay Here (a duet with Jillian Jacqueline), which rattles along tunefully; the ruminative Kill A Man, full of classic chords and a determination to go against one’s character and protect a woman at all costs (‘There’s no fire I wouldn’t walk through’) that sounds like Justin Bieber rewriting a mashup of two Bruno Mars songs (Grenade and When I Was Your Man); John Mayer homage Sunshine State of Mind, which compares a woman to the elements (‘love so bright I got my shades on’); and Do The Math, where Adam is alone in a bar regretfully counting out his drinks rather than ‘bouncing back’.
Broken Ladder has Adam singing he is a ‘record on repeat’ and once again drinking heavily because he can’t get over his ex. After a rapid-fire verse, the chorus comes in after 25 seconds, in the modern style, and has Adam ‘trying to climb to heaven’ on a broken ladder, a great metaphor. The production is superb too.
The other new song comes at the end of the EP. When It All Sinks In (written with fellow A-Listers Gordie Sampson and Kelly Archer) is about thCe time ‘between the no and then feeling’ as love dies. It’s a song about nothing, in that it spotlights the moment in time just before the realisation of loss hits. I like how the entire track drops out for half a beat before the second verse, which talks of wounds still being hot. This is very, very clever songwriting – it’s like they wrote it at Pixar HQ – and no wonder it’s at the end of this brilliant project. I hope Adam becomes as successful as he deserves to be, even if his friends Dan and Shay sell out arenas.
This is the umpteenth album from Willie Nelson who has put his second volume of Frank Sinatra songs. You know what Willie Nelson sounds like by now and it’s 45 years since his album Stardust sold well and made him a critically acclaimed and commercially successful artist. 2018 had him covering My Way, Summer Wind, It Was a Very Good Year and Night And Day, so there are enough classics for volume two.
Many of these songs are part of the quilt of American music: Luck Be a Lady, a very jaunty Learnin’ The Blues, I Won’t Dance (with the ever sultry Diana Krall) and I’ve Got You Under My Skin, here given a bossa nova arrangement. Closing track Lonesome Road is the sort of gospel blues Leon Russell used to do. There’s a reason this album comes out on Legacy Recoprdings.
As with Sinatra’s great recordings with Nelson Riddle’s arrangements of the standards, Willie uses an orchestra on Cottage For Sale and In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning. Mickey Raphael’s harmonica pokes out on You Make Me Feel So Young and That’s Life (an anthem for my brother). If you want to soak in the bath or recline on the sofa with a good book, Willie’s new record will be perfect as a soundtrack.
Six artists informed the writing and promotion of Hailey’s debut album, which is repackaged with five extra tracks featuring those six acts. Happy People was written with Lori McKenna and, before its appearance on the album, was given to Little Big Town, which was a nice little earner for Hailey and helped to fund the project, which came out in March 2020 just as you-know-what decimated artists’ careers.
Brent Cobb and Jordan Davis had Hailey as a support act, and thus join her on Glad To Be Here and The Ride respectively. Trisha Yearwood remains an inspiration while Hillary Lindsay, as one of the best writers in town, is a guiding light too. More on them shortly.
Born in Iowa, Hailey wrote Ten Year Town, a fine summation of becoming a Nashville songwriter (although I love one argument that Nashville is so called because music is ten years behind). That song, written with the incomparable Brandy Clark, opens the album on a sombre note.
A host of publications loved the album – The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Stereogum – so it’s not news to call this a great album. Look at the credits: as well as Brandy, there’s Lori McKenna. The pair team up again on two other tracks aside from Happy People: the album’s centrepiece Janice at the Hotel Bar, about a grandma offering advice to a younger lady to ‘make a good life’; and album closer Living The Dream, a gorgeous tune about ‘the heartaches, the big breaks, the wrong turns, the mistakes’ which all form part of life. It bookends the album nicely and it’s good to end on a high note.
Hillary Lindsey was in the room for reminiscin’ song The Days (‘make em count’) and The Faker, a stark acoustic ballad expertly strummed and featuring the rhyme of ‘sceptre/jester’ (Hillary’s the best in town and has been nominated for the Songwriter award at the ACMs. She may well beat Josh Osborne, Ashley Gorley, Hardy and Shane McAnally.)
Chris Stapleton (nominated for Male and Entertainer at the ACMs) is found on The Dream because his song The Devil Always Made Me Think Twice was a cut on it before it appeared on Starting Over. Hailey’s version is in a lower key (B minor) and is produced with a louder arrangement than Chris’ version. As well as Maren Morris, whose tone she shares, Hailey’s voice reminds me of Natalie Maines duetting with Kacey Musgraves, with vulnerability and power, as on the vocalised middle section of the bluesy afternoon drinkin’ triple-time song Red Wine and Blue, which I hope someone covers. It’s a singer’s song.
In fact, all of these songs are ripe for covering. I love the perky pair of Dream, Girl and All The Cool Girls, both of which have FM radio-friendly choruses that Harry Styles and Miley Cyrus are putting out now. Conversely, Loose Strings (given to her by, among others, Brent Cobb) is a break-up song where the vocal is right up front in the mix and Hailey’s voice teeters on sobriety, full of character.
The melody of Heartland (‘you gotta let your heart land’) reminds me of Kelsea Ballerini which makes sense as Forest Whitehead, Kelsea’s main collaborator for her first records, was in the room to write a song about being ‘on the rocks…pulling double shifts…waking up alone’.
As for the five new tunes, I love How Far Can It Go. It was written by Hailey, Hilary Lindsey and Nicolle Galyon (who runs the Songs & Daughters publishing house). Handily for a throwback song, they get a 90s icon, Trisha Yearwood, to sing about a time in the 90s when story songs were all over the radio. And fiddle, too: we get two bars of fiddle at the top of the song and a pair of teenage lovers who ‘are about to find out how far they can go’. It’s immediately evocative and leaps out of the stereo thanks to the production of Jake Gear and Hailey herself.
How To Break A Heart is a proper songwriter’s song, a list of ways to disappoint someone’s expectations. As you’d expect it’s full of humour: ‘don’t call back’ after a wonderful night; ‘put a diamond on her hand then call up your best man’. As with the Highwomen, the middle eight is sung in unison with three voices singing the same part: ‘What goes around comes back again, karma’s a bitch!’ With a banjo and some pedal steel in the back, as well as a vocalised outro to bellow along to, this is a country song and helps position Hailey as a breakout star who can slot into Miranda’s place in music should the Texan prioritise her marriage and her dogs over her music.
I would advise Little Big Town to take Hailey as a support act on their next visit to the UK. One day, like Kacey Musgraves, Hailey Whitters will have her name in the biggest font on the ticket. Remember the name, listen to The Dream.
Carly is a Big Machine artist who almost fell at the first hurdle before her number one smash Every Little Thing put her on the radio. Her work with producer busbee brought pop and country together in a digestible package. I saw her perform Show Me Around on a livestream and reckon this takes her to the next level. It’s a song dedicated to her late producer and imagines heaven as his ‘brand new place’ which will one day host Carly to ‘pick back up’ their relationship. Even without the context it’s a wonderful song and will comfort many people who have lost loved ones, especially in the last year.
To lose a friend is bad enough; to lose a marriage in the same year is extremely wretched. At the moment Carly is on the radio with the single that promotes the 29 project. Next Girl is a warning to the next lady who falls in love with Michael Ray. The seven tracks create a whole which follows the long break-up album tradition pioneered by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, and extends into the present day with Sam Smith, Taylor Swift and Adele.
Should’ve Known Better is a companion to Every Little Thing – the song is in the same key and has the same touches of guitar – while on the funky Liability (lie ability, liability – it’s a country song), Michael Ray does not come across well at all. The gentle and Swiftian Messy has verses full of cigarettes, little black dresses, mascara stains, Cabernet and regrettable texts, and a chorus which outlines how ‘moving on…ain’t always gonna be a clean break’.
Day One, where Matt Ramsey of Old Dominion (who gave The One That Got Away to sleazebag Michael Ray) was in the room, sounds like a journal entry or therapy. Carly lists the landmarks in getting over Michael Ray, from not needing to numb her pain with alcohol to seeing a new guy after a month of heartbreak. The tenor matches that of Carly’s number one duet with Lee Brice, I Hope You’re Happy Now.
The title track has fiddle in its third bar, then two fiddles in the middle, which soundtrack a melancholic story – Carly’s story – of how ‘you’re supposed to find yourself’ and ‘stop calling your mum for help’ and get a mortgage and settle down and so on. The listener knows the story because country music loves its couples and looks kindly on those for whom love doesn’t work out.
Perhaps the most pertinent message about the song came from my friend Laura Cooney, who also became ‘a Miss to a Mrs then the other way around’ while writing for Entertainment Focus, which is part of the Destination Country collective. It’s a song of strength and one that Carly will sing with gusto in a live sphere. Once again, Josh Osborne and Shane McAnally help the singer tell her story.
29 ought to bring thousands more fans to the church of Carly, who really does have one of the best voices in country music. Young divorcees aren’t really catered to in pop music – the world’s biggest song is about a failed high school romance – so this is a welcome project.