Tigirlily (pronounced TIE GIRL LILY) are two sisters from North Dakota based in the 615 House in Nashville. They spend their days pratting about on TikTok. Looking at Krista’s Twitter profile, the pinned tweet is the tale of a car crash where it seems that wearing a seatbelt saved the lady’s life.
The girls hold Sugarland as a big influence thanks to Jennifer Nettles’s voice (which has never been to my taste) and they fit in with that quirky pop-country aka TikTok Country that the likes of Priscilla Block are having success with and the father-of-six Walker Hayes has suddenly found a market for. Can they turn attention into money with their debut self-titled EP, produced by the magic pair of Luke Laird and Shane McAnally, to whose Monument label both Walker and Tigirlily are signed? I think they can.
My Thang and Everybody’s On Something were both written with Walker, whose own songs are full of bouncy loops, optimism and falsetto. Hence My Thang is bouncy and optimistic, with a really strong melody and a lyric about breaking dreams and picking up pieces. The second verse mentions Tinder. I think I’m too old for the way the sisters throw their voice on occasion but it’s very confessional and of the moment. The other song is about people having their medication, ‘trying to get high above the truth…I just wish my something wasn’t you’.
The girls already have a big audience who will delight in hearing the studio versions of their songs. Indeed, Somebody Does could be seen as a naked appeal for listeners, particularly the 13-25 demographic. ‘I don’t know who needs to hear this,’ the pair sing, in a pick-me-up song that sounds like Oprah or Ellen or a Hallmark card, with the ‘more than enough’ line that is very therapyspeak. That doesn’t make it unnecessary, and it’s a good thing for a listener to hear and it may even save their life.
Dig Yourself is a pop-country version of Love Yourself by Justin Bieber with the added line ‘why don’t you dig yourself a hole!’ I am won over by the strength of the melody and the sisterly harmonies. I suppose that’s what happens when Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne and Trevor Rosen from Old Dominion are in the room.
Known You Forever is the brand new song which hasn’t been trailed. The sound is very similar to that of Priscilla Block, a pop-rock sound that won’t offend anyone. There’s a minute-long outro on a smart song about friendship: ‘Sometimes you know someone who’s known you forever’ is the shoutout to the ‘ones back home’. Again, if country music is the clash between urban and rural, the North Dakota girls have done their homework.
They are in good hands with Shane McAnally and we’ll see them in the UK soon.
Hannah Dasher – The Half Record
What a great title, and there half a vinyl record on the cover. Hannah wrote Brad Paisley’s underrated song Go To Bed Early and Lainey Wilson’s song for Louisiana called LA, so I already know her work without knowing she was the artist. She’s also good friends with Jaren Johnston from The Cadillac Three and Charlie Worsham (whose new EP is out imminently), and her favourite artist is Hank Jr. Apparently Hannah’s Stand By Your Pan cooking show is popular on TikTok. I hope fans of that show check out her outstanding EP.
The two impact tracks were Left Right and Girls Call The Shots. The latter was written by, among others, the Warren Brothers, whose hits include Felt Good on my Lips for Tim McGraw and Red Solo Cup for Toby Keith. They’ve also written a song for Chase Bryant’s new project, more on which next time out.
Left Right (‘Ain’t preachin, I’m just sayin…Get your shit together!’) is a song where Hannah begs the listener to make a decision on love; Ashley McBryde is an obvious comparison here. Girls Call The Shots reminds me of Lainey Wilson’s work, in particular her radio smash Things A Man Oughta Know, and I love the mood of the song whose hook is ‘Guys buy the drinks, girls call the shots’. It’s a three-minute movie that is a good introduction to Hannah’s songwriting.
You’re Gonna Love Me is a self-actualisation song where Hannah lists all the things she is, with references to actor Sam Elliot and Alan Jackson and ‘bad mamajama’ which helpfully rhymes with Hannah. It’ll be the first song in her set and instantly hooks me with its guitars and attitude. I don’t like the word sass but I would like a buck for every time Hannah is called sassy in the next year as she’s rolled out by Sony Music.
Leave This Bar is a punchy, smouldering song that ‘feels like a Friday night should’; the reason to leave the bar is probably coital, with dancing feeling so good it makes you want more. It’s another song with a proper outro, which is nice to hear. Shoes is more understated, a song about a breakup although if Hannah was in the boy’s shoes ‘I’d come running back to me’. You can tell Hannah is a top songwriter because this would be an enormous radio smash.
That is, if country radio actually played more music by people without appendages.
Lauren Jenkins – Miles On Me
Lauren is that rare act who got dropped by Big Machine for poor performance of her debut album, possibly because she lacked an aforementioned appendage. Now independent, her latest project is a four-song EP Miles on Me, which she has co-produced. Like You Found Me was the impact track and chugs along head-noddingly with a melodic chorus that reminds me of a young Sheryl Crow. I am of the opinion that Sheryl Crow is a really significant country artist who, in the 1990s, was marketed as a rock musician because she held a guitar. Lauren would be a great opening act to warm people up for the hits.
She’s a Star (‘You’re caught up in a dream but you got the real thing’) continues the tenor, with great echoing guitars and a drawled delivery with some light keyboards; My Own Advice is a list of things to avoid doing (drinking, smoking, not telling your family you love them) which humorously namechecks her own song (‘giving up the ghost’ reminded me of Give Up The Ghost).
The title track is a duet with cult songwriter David Ramirez on which Lauren caresses the microphone while crooning ‘it was mostly my fault…I’m the only one to blame’ and comparing her heart to an old banger. Thus there are lots of mentions of rear-view mirrors, taking the keys and driving real fast ‘knowing we’d crash’. It’s a songwriting exercise which really pops thanks to the production. Lauren has moved effortlessly from country radio to Americana. Expect to hear her on XM Radio rather than country radio because this music is timeless and is more about art than it is about a return on investment.
What happened to LANCO, whose Greatest Love Story was a radio smash and who put on a raucous show at Country2Country in 2018?
A series of underwhelming songs has replaced any second album, though I did like Near Mrs which came out a few months ago. That track is not on the five-track EP which was smuggled out over Independence Day weekend called Honky-Tonk Hippies. The EP opens with the title track, which itself opens with Brandon Lancaster (the LAN of the band) telling the story of how he moved to Nashville, got a record deal and recorded the first album. Over a country-rock riff Brandon sings a song of self-empowerment, full of band t-shirts and the two words that explain his way of life, which wasn’t really evident on that first album which wasn’t particularly hippie or honky-tonk.
Wild Again is a reminiscin’ song that sounds anything but wild. For all the talk about dents in trucks, cold ones at Quick Stops, ‘blue collar holler’ and calling up my baby, this is ploddy. I would hope this punches the audience into submission live. In fact, Moonlight Mingle is just right, even if it’s a near identical lyric to Wild Again thanks to songs on the radio and lots of beer; it isn’t quite the same because there’s a linedance routine in the middle eight that even a child can do, ‘step it to the left, then you step it to the right’.
Given that track four is called I Need A Beer – a list song of things Brandon needs that will fill out your country bingo card – it makes me think that LANCO are doing their version of a Luke Bryan EP where all the songs sound good at a cookout. The production isn’t as punchy as Luke’s stuff and it’s pleasant enough.
The charming singalong Price You Pay (‘for living a country song’) opens with Brandon strumming an acoustic guitar and it turns out he’s singing about singing. Hangovers, cigarette smoke, trucks stuck in mud and a mandolin solo all appear. How these songs will fit in with the big hits of the first album is anyone’s guess and I imagine LANCO aren’t looking for country radio success any more.
If they keep some of the fans who latched onto their polished songs, there’s hope for them.
Beloved by critic Grady Smith (where I first heard of the band) and plenty of folks in Texas, Flatland Cavalry are the project of songwriter Cleto Cordero. He spent time working on The Panhandlers with some other musicians from the Red Dirt scene.
Flatland Cavalry share Luke Combs’ management so it’s set up for them to succeed, even though their fiddle player left just after their 2019 second album Homeland Insecurity came out. Indeed Mr Combs (whose song Forever After All has been number one on sales for ten weeks and on radio for six) co-wrote A Cowboy Knows How and passed it on to the band. It would be a bold man who didn’t bet on Luke being Entertainer of the Year at the CMAs this November. As for the song, it’s about a drunken phone call full of regret and about getting ‘back on the horse’ and finding someone else. I can hear Luke doing this with extra oomph but this is a Texan arrangement with some neat fiddle.
Life Without You has a similar tenor but with a key guest, Cleto’s wife and the band’s harmony singer Kaitlin Butts, and Fallen Star mentions dragons being slayed and absence making the heart grow fonder. Off Broadway is a waltz which paints the picture of a place in St Louis where the tourists don’t go, ‘frozen in time/ Graffiti tattoos’ on the walls. The accordion is a super touch, as is the singalong fadeout, and if The Mavericks are ever forced off the road, Flatland Cavalry will gain some of their audience.
The album is defiantly Texan, and so far up my street I’ve put in an offer on a house there. Cleto is Gettin’ By and sounding like Counting Crows, he’s Dancin Around A Fire like Casey Donahew, he’s enjoying Well-Spent Time sounding like Drive-By Truckers and there’s a touch of the Willie Nelsons on It’s Good To Be Back Round Here Again. Meanwhile, No Ace in the Hole twists the title of the song George Strait made famous and turns it into gloomy rock with some palm-stopped chords and a lyric ‘only jokers on your side’. I can imagine George recording the gorgeous Tilt Your Chair Back, a front porch song with some mellifluous chords and a touches of harmonica.
The arrangement on Daydreamer makes me feel good and indeed be one too, taking up Cleto’s call: brushed drums, a harmonica solo in the middle section and harmonies surrounding Cleto’s vocal talking of ‘bustling city streets, knee deep in concrete’. This is music with soul and verve thanks to the production of Jake Gear, who also brought joy to the tracks on his wife Hailey Whitters’ album.
Hailey (who is due to support Midland on their delayed UK dates this autumn) provides vocals on the album’s closing track Meantime which, to complete the circle, was co-written by Cleto with the great Lainey Wilson. Given that the track follows the euphoria of Off Broadway, I’m treating it as a kind of bonus track and the jew’s harp that bounces around underneath Cleto’s plaintive vocal does make it stand out. Hailey’s vocals overpower Cleto’s but the message is to ‘look around, take it in, slow it down’. There is a key change.
This is one of the albums of the year, and I am sure Grady Smith loves it too.
In a world where everything white and male and privileged seems threatened by diverse experiences, it was obvious that country music was going to be on the hitlist. (I maintain that there’s a long list somewhere that the social justice movement is ticking off as they go, although things do need to be more representative of the world’s citizenry.)
The type of popular music that evolved from hillbilly music to become a billion-dollar industry based in Nashville, the city in Tennessee where Bibles are printed en masse, is now defending itself from claims that it’s too white and always has been. It took the death of a tall, black man captured on film to prompt a wail for change which had to happen or country music would look daft.
Just as various movie awards were ‘so white’, so a genre built on the white southern experience now looks horribly monocultural. I call this culture ‘Hey girl, hop in my truck and let’s get busy by the riverbank under the stars’. It got to the stage that a satire on this culture, a song called Girl in a Country Song by Maddie & Tae, was a massive hit at a time when very girls were singing those country songs.
I am also convinced that country music, on the commercial side, is deliberately crafted in waves. One year there’s violins and pedal steel guitars on the radio ‘bringing country back’; the next there’s hiphop delivery and processed beats; then we get the ‘return’ of violins. An example: Thomas Rhett, probably the Nashville equivalent of Harry Styles or Ed Sheeran, claims he is ‘country again’ on his new album, complaining that he’s been in LA too long and now gets to sit watching sunsets with his wife.
Money Doesn’t Talk, It Swears
It’s a business, man. Nashville is built on money which attracts writers, performers and (significantly) tourists. There’s a crazy statistic which says the net population of the city is growing by thousands year on year: nobody’s leaving and everybody’s coming in. It can be said that, even more than Los Angeles and New York City, Nashville is the musical centre of the USA as befits its Music City tag. Hen parties head to Broadway where honky-tonks provide alcohol and also live music played by jam bands for generous tips.
There’s the Grand Ole Opry, the Mother Church of country music where any number of professional musicians and comedians entertain diverse crowds of out-of-towners. I spend an hour every Sunday watching the Saturday night show which is shown on Youtube live; I hope to catch a show there when I head to town.
I think the reason country music is at a crossroads is because of the attention from critics and journalists who have come in from outside the genre. Ann Powers, the esteemed doyenne of music criticism, has a base there and often writes about artists with strong female perspectives. The likes of Emily Yahr in Washington DC, Jewly Hight and Marissa M Moss all write regularly about the genre, while Kelly McCartney has a show on Apple Music and writes for Holler Country, with a focus on women and gay artists.
Over the last decade, acts like Kacey Musgraves have attracted gay fans with songs like Follow Your Arrow and Rainbow. Singers such as Brandi Carlile, songwriters like Shane McAnally and broadcasters like Cody Alan are openly gay; Billy Gilman had to hide his sexuality and kd lang had to move out of country music because of her out-and-proud nature, so things have changed in that respect. If you have the talent, it doesn’t matter if you love someone of the same sex.
The next Rubicon to cross is a racial one. It’s America’s big hot-button issue, after all.
In June 2021 two artists released songs that seemed to assimilate them within country music. Shy Carter, who wrote Stuck Like Glue for Sugarland and God Whispered Your Name for Keith Urban, teamed up with Cole Swindell on a song called Beer With My Friends, written with and starring David Lee Murphy, a bastion of the type of country music made in the Garth Era where if you looked pretty and wore a cowboy hat then you could make money. Blanco Brown, meanwhile, updated the Cha Cha Slide and called it The Git Up, a contemporary linedance in the form of a novelty song; his new tune is Nobody’s More Country, which was co-written with Tyler Hubbard from Florida Georgia Line.
Everyone in the American South does country stuff, be it fishing, hunting, driving a truck, going to church, partying with your buddies, chatting up girls or eating pies baked by one’s mother. What country music does brilliantly is to tell stories, three-minute movies with melancholy, layers and style. The work of Lori McKenna, Hillary Lindsey and Taylor Swift recalls the stories told by Harlan Howard, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, which crossed over to pop audiences who wanted depth in their music.
There is a huge overlap between country and Adult Contemporary music, which is basically the playlist of Magic: How Do I Live by Leann Rimes, Need You Now by Lady Antebellum (more on them shortly) and Amazed by Lonestar are all targeted at mature couples rather than teenagers. There has always been money in this demographic and country music is as much about marketing as it is about music.
E Pluribus Unum
Which brings me to summer 2021. Morgan Wallen has the biggest album of the year but the most significant thing he did to promote it was a leaked video of him drunkenly using a horrible word that briefly forced his suspension from Big Loud Records. He is back on the roster now and has gained support from Miranda Lambert and Eric Church, two of the more critically acclaimed acts in town who could be called ‘outlaws’. Morgan is not an outlaw: he is, like his friends Florida Georgia Line, a cash cow with a mullet who sings expertly crafted songs about love and loss targeted at an 18-34 demographic.
Two of his contemporaries, Maren Morris and Luke Combs, spoke at the Country Radio Seminar with Ann Powers about accountability. Maren used her platform to promote black artists from the awards podium while Luke once again apologised for appearing in a music video of the rapper Upchurch where the Confederate flag was prevalent. Maren went so far as to say she didn’t want to play festivals where the flag was flown in the audience, as well as lampooning the ‘family’ nature of country music as ‘protecting white people’. You could substitute ‘status quo’ for the last two words.
Black performers have seldom if ever been welcome in this family; indeed, ‘hillbilly’ and ‘race’ were separate categories in the early days of commercial music. For tokenistic reasons, and because he made a lot of money for RCA Records, Charley Pride was one of the most popular country stars of the 1970s. Ray Charles was welcomed into the genre too, because he transcended categorisation.
No black woman was given a fair chance, even if she had been the first to play the Opry. Now 80 years old, Linda Martell told her story to Rolling Stone last year. The article opened: ‘Long after the music faded out, she can still hear the hateful words.’ Martell’s posters promoted her as the First Female Negro Country Artist and her album Color Me Country came out on Plantation Records. In 1970! She couldn’t play a show in Texas, despite being booked, because the promoter was shocked by her skin pigmentation.
Linda also alludes to the idiocy of the business aspect of country. Harper Valley PTA was such a smash for Jeannie C Riley that Plantation Records directed all their energy into her, not into Linda, and she was prevented from moving to another label by industry politics. Linda went on to sing on cruise ships, run record stores, teaching kids and even drive buses, using her birthname Thelma.
Rissi Palmer has taken the title of Linda’s album, which was recorded in a single day and was out of print for years, for her own Apple Music show. Give the album a listen and you’ll discover a great set of 11 country songs including Before the Next Teardrop Falls and the toe-tapping Color Him Father. Linda’s voice has the same plainness as Loretta Lynn’s and it sounds very commercial, especially with the contemporaneous arrangements.
Mickey Guyton didn’t even know Linda, the South Carolina-born daughter of a sharecropper, existed but ‘she gave me the courage’ to perform in the country genre, even as her newborn child is a victim of morons via social media. There’s also a burgeoning movement in country and roots music which allows black women to tell their stories. The trio of Alison Russell, Amythyst Kiah and Rhiannon Giddens formed the supergroup Our Native Daughters, while Englishwoman Yola is an heir to Mavis Staples and featured on the Highwoman project with Maren, Brandi, Natalie Hemby and founding figure Amanda Shires.
Two beloved acts have had to remove references to Southern history from their names: Lady Antebellum have long been known as Lady A, while Dixie Chicks were thinking of changing their name long before they dropped the first word. Lady A even played their song Like A Lady with an almost all-black band behind them, perhaps to distract people from the controversy of taking the name of ‘the real Lady A’, Anita White, who accused them of ‘using their privilege’. She revealed that the band’s Hillary Scott ‘immediately burst into tears’ when the pair talked, upset at the offence caused. It’s a great big mess that perhaps would have been solved by not using the word Antebellum in their name in the first place.
The most notable representative of black Southern country has been the rock star from South Carolina whose band Hootie & The Blowfish (another stupid name!) went multiplatinum in the days when rock music was the dominant genre. After an album of r’n’b, Darius Rucker pivoted successfully to country while including covers of Purple Rain and Hootie hits in his live set. Significantly, he has had plenty of radio hits, including It Won’t Be Like This For Long, If I Told You and, of course, his version of Wagon Wheel. Four of his five albums have topped the charts and he is preparing to release a new album in late 2021, helped by the feelgood smash Beers and Sunshine.
Darius hasn’t really been able to outline his experience as a black man on his albums, preferring themes of fatherhood, husbandhood, beers, sunshine and how shoes, wine and Patsy Cline make his life alright. His tremendous, raw interview with NBC Today in February 2021 saw Darius do something for the first time (to quote his song): really open up and share with his audience the pain of being a black man not just in country music but in America.
Darius was due to headline Country2Country in 2020. He wasn’t the only black country star due to appear: Willie Jones finally released his album Right Now in 2021, which included the singles Bachelorettes on Broadway and Down For It. There’s a version of the latter featuring rapper TI, which tallies with the prevalence of rappers like Nelly on country songs in recent years, but the centrepiece of the album is American Dream, with politically charged verses and a lot of autobiography that is welcome in country music.
A lady who has toured with Little Big Town and Carrie Underwood as a backing vocalist, Brittney Spencer’s solo career has gained support from CMT. The channel played her song Sober & Skinny on a Times Square billboard, something Brittney wrote makes her success ‘our ancestors’ wildest dreams’. It also seems the right time for the independent trio Chapel Hart to break through: two siblings and a cousin (so far, so Kings of Leon) popping out of New Orleans with a fully-formed sound. Last year, bluesman Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top joined them on the song Jesus & Alcohol, which has both twang and soul, harmony and attitude as well as a chorus with the line ‘Pass the Bible and Bourbon…pourin’ and prayin’.
Alongside pop-country kid Kane Brown, who got his start playing covers on Youtube and has had hits like Good As You, Homesick and What Ifs, Jimmie Allen is making black performers visible on country radio. His Twitter biography simply reads: ‘I create music outside of boxes’.
Jimmie’s second album Bettie James is in the form of 16 collaborations, which seems a pop strategy to bring an act to people’s attention by pairing them with known names. Alongside black acts like Nelly, Mickey Guyton, Monica, Charley Pride, Lathan Warlick, Darius Rucker and Kenny Edmonds aka Babyface, there are tunes with Keith Urban, The Oak Ridge Boys, Tim McGraw and Brad Paisley. The radio smash Freedom Was a Highway has Paisley ‘singing along to a hiphop song’, while Noah Cyrus joins Jimmie for the ballad This Is Us.
It is welcome to see black faces in a hitherto white genre, and the hope is that this will in turn draw black fans and musicians to country music and, by stealth, reshape country music for the modern era.
Democracy In Action
To return finally to journalists who chronicle this era, I had a thought the other day. In past generations, music fans used to be organised by tribe: mods, rockers, teds, teenyboppers, Bobbysoxers, punks, goths and Take That fans (subdivided into who was your favourite Take That member).
Today, now that life is lived online through technology, fans are organised by gender, skin pigmentation and sexuality. BTS fans are all one Army, Bieber fanatics are Beliebers and so on. Country fans come in many amorphous groups, including female fans, black fans and gay fans, subdivided still further (but not according to whether you like Dan or Shay, Maddie or Tae, Brooks or Dunn).
Publishing has seen a spike in books from the minority perspective, while the success of Black Panther means Hollywood cannot deny that the black perspective doesn’t make money.
When it comes to country music, the major labels still hold the cards but journalists like Andrea Williams and Marcus Dowling are very vocal, especially on social media platforms, about the state of contemporary country. Andrea’s pieces on Vulture.com are full of scorn and sighing, and she seems on a mission to educate white fans of country music that they are racist.
This is what Andrea wrote in the aftermath of the Lady A story in summer 2020, using the discussion of the word ‘antebellum’ as a forebear of how today ‘labels and publishers and artists must actively and intentionally do the work on the ground to welcome Black people, one by one, into this multibillion-dollar genre that bears their own blood.
‘Racism is everywhere in this industry. It’s in the major label offices with one or no Black employees, the publisher rosters with one or no Black songwriters…
‘For every one Mickey Guyton or Darius Rucker wannabe, there are 100, maybe 1,000, never-wills, the people whose hearts beat to a banjo-laced track but who wouldn’t dare subject themselves to the humiliation of being Black in country music.
‘My husband and I know countless Black artists, musicians, writers, and producers who made their way to Music City only to give up and leave, the idea of shucking and jiving for conditional acceptance by country music’s gatekeepers was too much to consider.’
The emotive language certainly puts across her point, and I am sure country music journalism isn’t used to seeing this sort of thing in print. A year on, Andrea writes ‘Duh’ as business continues as normal after Morgan Wallen’s shameful slur. She opensg her article with reference to black county musicians who never became stars, such as Ruby Falls, Nisha Jackson and Frankie Staton. The last of these pioneered the Black Country Music Association (now disbanded). 2020/21 is just 1975 or 2007 repeating itself.
Andrea’s polemic concerns ‘a segregated industry’ full of ‘chronic racism’ which told black people ‘we never belonged in the first place’. It does seem as if Andrea is a warrior for the voiceless artists: ‘The initial color line drawn by the industry has been repeatedly darkened over time, traced over and over by each new wave of industry executives.’ Those executives ‘can also put on a good face and expresstheir disgust’ when the golden boy does something nasty, ‘then, just a few months later, they can act as if it never happened.
‘The script has a predetermined victor in its white male hero, that the illusion of anything contrary is only meant to keep things interesting — and only temporarily.’ With its ineffable, systemic whiteness, Nashville has ‘stopped the architects and builders at the door, making them feel like unwanted guests and accepting only a handful for temporary stays, all while allowing the long-term occupants to turn something once shared and sacred into a shrine of their own sins.’
Whether you agree or disagree, this is Andrea speaking ‘her truth’, one which sees no ‘admission of sickness’, no ‘corporate penance’ from the industry. That isn’t entirely true because the promotional rollout of the album was disrupted, but Andrea uses the welcoming back of Morgan Wallen, which has been number one in country music for most of the year, and the people who helped create it.
‘Never mind that the list of collaborators on Dangerous is starkly white, as is the board that voted on this decision [to withdraw him from award nominations], save for Jimmie Allen.’ It is true that fingers cannot just click equality into life, though allies like Jason Isbell are applauded just as they are in other areas of the critical race debate. Expect to see more ‘allyship’ and questions about ‘anti-racism’ in the next stage of the battle.
I feel a duty to quote Kyle ‘Trigger’ Coroneos, a fearless commentator on the Saving Country Music website. He points out that critics like Andrea and Marcus ‘are solely read by their fellow activist intellectuals’; they are ‘winning every battle but losing the war…using identity to sow division’. Indeed, they seem to be ‘supplanting one unfair system with another’, with a set of rules based on identity.
TJ Osborne, himself fearless having come out this spring, wishes that streaming services should promote gay artists all year round. ‘You doing it in Pride month is nice, but that’s helping you.’ Trigger states that Brothers Osborne are closer to rock than country, while Mickey Guyton was performing in the White House back in 2015, so it does look like ‘her moment’ is being used as tokenism. I hope Grady Smith – who, though gay, never makes this a key part of his criticism – addresses the issue in his criticism, which is very much pro-outsiders.
To that end: will there be ‘structural change’ in country music, which journalists and campaigners demand? The Black Opry channel launched in spring to promote the ‘versatility and diversity in sound’. A festival will run in New Orleans in late October 2021. Rissi Palmer, meanwhile, has become the mother hen of the genre, pointing out that a song that contains rap gets way more support from radio than a song by an act like Breland or Willie Jones. Streaming, Rissi says, is the ‘saving grace’.
Jimmie Allen, whose songs have millions of streams and also radio plays, is preparing two big events this summer to accompany the Gold Edition of Bettie James: a hootenanny in his hometown at Hudson Fields in Milton, Delaware accompanied by DJ Jazzy Jeff on August 7 and, probably on sale there, My Voice is a Trumpet, a book for children which celebrates ‘the many types of voices that can effect change’. Scroll down on his Twitter feed and he’s pictured with his arm around Elton John, ‘such a sweet soul’, and celebrating the ‘world class entertainer’ Garth Brooks being honoured by the Kennedy Center. He also offers pearls of motivational wisdom which has brought him many fans.
It is not news that today anyone can write a review on a microblogging site, or that any artist can recommend other acts, as Elton himself does with his radio show. I reckon Chapel Hart and Brittney Spencer would be the breakout acts at Country2Country 2022 because both feel hugely authentic, the buzzword for country music since commercialism began. As in cinema and literature, where white perspectives keep selling until suddenly a non-white perspective makes money, country music will benefit hugely from talented singers and performers who may or may not choose to bring their skin colour into the conversation.
Just as Taylor Swift has inspired hundreds of girls to pick up a guitar, so might the black singers of the 2020s do the same. Coupled with favourable playlisting and concert bookings, whether part of an affirmative action scheme or just because the acts have a big grassroots following, there will certainly be a golden age of country music.
Gary Allan is the same age as the likes of Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney, who have not had to wait eight years to release new music and perhaps don’t need the money.
Born in California, his actual surname is Herzberg and he turned down a deal as a teenager so he could finish school while playing bars as a semi-pro in the 1980s. His break came when he left a demo in a truck bought by some rich people who became his benefactors. Shockingly his third wife committed suicide and suffered from depression, which informed Gary’s Tough All Over album which followed his big pop smashes Nothing on But the Radio and Songs About Rain. The likes of Watching Airplanes and Every Storm Runs Out of Rain went to radio but, after three songs tanked between 2015 and 2017, Gary is definitely a legacy artist.
Those three, by the way, included Hangover Tonight which he wrote with Chris Stapleton among others. Using his contacts and the best songwriters in town – Nicolle Galyon, Jon Nite, Rodney Clawson, James T Slater, the Warren brothers,– he’s put together a 13-track album called Ruthless out on MCA Nashville, who have stuck by him rather than drop him. The investment in him must be enormous.
The tracks that stand out include the impact track SEX, the McAnally-by-numbers song with the lyric ‘even at its worst it’s still the best’. Waste of a Whiskey Drink is Hardy-by-Numbers, which is not a slight on Hardy (nor on McAnally on the last sentence) as the standard is so high.
I also like the punchy rhythms of opening track Temptation, closing track The Hard Way (the two are a country-rockin’ pair) and the staccato guitars of What I Can’t Talk About (‘Sometimes the melody’s the only thing that knows what I’m feeling’). Trouble Knows Trouble, a song Blake Shelton could have a smash with, is very mature, as Gary and a femme fatale have a one-night stand. ‘We both win and no-one’s gotta say I’m sorry’ is a good line, followed by some pedal steel.
Over the course of the album, Gary settles into a very samey groove. Mindful of this, the executives who have put this album together include some variety in the album’s second side. As you’d expect from a song written by Hillary Lindsey, Ryan Hurd and the late busbee, the title track has an elegance about it, coupled with a brass-assisted arrangement and a really great vocal. Gary’s cover of the old Jesse Winchester tune Little Glass of Wine has a great fiddle accompaniment in the second verse; I would have moved it up the tracklist.
Elsewhere Gary’s vocal comes off like that of Rob Thomas from Matchbox 20, and there are soft guitars which surround him on melody-packed tracks like Till It Felt Like You, Slide and High As I’ve Ever Been. They don’t say a great deal but they are sung expertly. The only track written with Gary in the room is ballad Pretty Damn Close, a sequence of compliments paid to a woman.
Ultimately, I feel, the aim of Ruthless is to provide Gary with new songs to sing alongside the hits, like when The Rolling Stones crank out some new songs that sound like the old songs people have paid good money to hear.
Jimmie put out seven tracks in summer 2020 on an EP named Bettie James. Those seven tracks now have nine bedfellows as part of a Gold Edition of the project and, once again, Jimmie ropes in a host of acts because an algorithm probably shows that his listening figures will be greater with an A Lister alongside him.
Freedom Was A Highway has grown on me but I found a lot of the EP safe and boring, especially the Noah Cyrus duet This Is Us, and a lot of it too ‘marketing heavy’, especially Why Things Happen which roped in Darius Rucker and Charley Pride for a track which became very poignant given the film of the murder of George Floyd.
Breland and Lathan Warlick were odd omissions from the first set of songs and both appear on the trap-pop of Somebody, a track which is so beat-driven I can barely make out the words. I got bored halfway through. Neon Union are Andrew and Leo (the latter is black) and their big entry into the mainstream comes as vocal partners with Jimmie on Livin Man, a song about ‘livin, man’ which sounds like 1995 Brooks & Dunn, a proper country song with depth and gravitas.
I was really impressed when Jimmie played his song Pray (or rather a song written by pop songwriter Sean Douglas and Sam Hunt’s good buddy Jesse Frasure) as an exclusive to the Grand Ole Opry and here he uses the talents of Little Big Town and, smartly, r’n’b legend Monica to convey the depth of emotion and seriousness of the universal power of prayer. This is where Jimmie’s career should be going, not pratting around with digital programmed drums.
Ditto Forever, written with the pair of Babyface and Ashley Gorley, men of a thousand hits. This cannot fail: I love the r’n’b chords that open the song and how glorious to hear a 20-second intro in 2021!! Jimmie doesn’t want small talk, crooning about making a moment where the pair first kiss, giving way to the great Babyface for the second verse. It’s a stunning song and production (check out the choir of Babyfaces in the final chorus), which is streets ahead of anything else on the album.
Especially because the lows are so low. Flavor is Latino country, a genre I think we will hear a lot more of in the next few years. Vikina sings the hook, Pitbull does his shtick and LA-based duo teamwork appear on production. How Jimmie got involved is a mystery but I am sure the algorithm will drive new listeners to the rest of this album. Hen parties will go wild for this but does country music really need Pitbull raps?
Slightly better is the hyperactive Tequila Talkin’ where teamwork put together a track over which Jimmie and Lindsay Ell ‘can’t seem to let go’. I prefer Kameron Marlowe’s song with the same title, as I can latch hold of it; the production inhibits my enjoyment of this song. Eight writers are credited on Get Country, a three-chords-and-the-truth duet with LOCASH that chimes with new songs by Blanco Brown and Shy Carter in a similarly catchy manner. Mud, bonfires, cold ones and fishing holes are all present and correct, as is a guitar solo. Forgotten band LANCO join him on Home Sweet Hometown, an evocation of small towns with a sweet Lady A-type chorus that will sound excellent when Jimmie plays it in small towns across the USA as he builds a following.
Boy Gets A Truck was a tune written by Jimmie’s manager Ash Bowers and given to Keith Urban, who returned the favour as Jimmie put it on his debut album Mercury Lane. For no reason at all, Keith pops up to unite the two singers. The vocals are great but the production is plodding. I can make a great 10-track album out of the set, but then an album isn’t what this is.
Bettie James is a selection plate from which anyone can find something, be you an old-school country fan, Grand Ole Opry tourist, guitar student or poptimist. I wish Jimmie would pick a lane!
This is the trio’s second project on Big Machine. What A Song Can Do is the title, and for Lady A it can make them rich. 10 years ago, Need You Now and I Run To You both pushed the same sort of Adult Contemporary country which was strong on melody and harmony. I prefer their quicker songs like You Look Good, Lookin for a Good Time and Downtown but Lady A are about ballads and heartache and longing and melancholy and money. Did I mention money?
Having moved to Big Machine to replace Taylor Swift on their roster, it seems that Scott Borchetta wants some money. Thus their album Ocean included some top-notch ballads like What If I Never Get Over You although the rollout was scuppered by coronavirus and the success of Champagne Night, which was part of the NBC Songland show.
Their next project comes in two parts and has been trailed by two sides of Lady A: Like A Lady (‘sipping on tequila with my Levis on’) is basically Now That’s What I Call Mum Jeans, sold convincingly by mother-of-three Hillary Scott. File alongside Downtown and Bartender. Things He Handed Down is a smart song about intergenerational love that Thomas Rhett could have made a fortune with if he hadn’t let Lady A record it. I imagine this can be paired with Hello World in concert.
That’s how I am viewing this collection of songs: new versions of old tropes but this time Big Machine makes back an advance, not Capitol Nashville. Talk of This Town is a typical Nicolle Galyon song (much like It Ain’t Pretty) where the trio sing of things which provide a town with gossip and conversation in checkout lines where ‘everybody’s takin’ sides’. It is such a Lady Antebellum song they are in danger of plagiarising themselves.
Hillary Lindsey was in the room for Fire, a song narrated by Hillary about love and stuff. This will make their setlist just after American Honey set to different words and music but the same key of D-flat. The second verse adds a new spin by introducing a guy chasing his dreams. The hook (‘Fi-RE! Fi-RE!’) is catchy and the sonic bed appeals to daughters of their target demographic: the 35-54-year-old woman driving a people carrier.
Amy Wadge and Natalie Hemby help the band write Worship What I Hate, an immaculate piano-led ballad with a minute-long outro that begins with Hillary looking in the mirror ‘wishing for a brand new body…seeing every flaw’. This really is new: body positivity and self-empowerment sung with syrupy strings that will certainly find an audience. Verse two introduces red wine and ‘a button on a screen’, forming bad habits. It’s very American, although Ward Thomas have put out a lot of this sort of thing.
Chance of Rain is the rock ballad on the first half of the album, which reminds me of Can’t Stand The Rain (the clue’s in the title). The metaphor here is that you need to embrace the summer even though it might rain. It doesn’t make it any less excellent as an example of contemporary Nashville pop music. It doesn’t sound current, though, which may doom the project in much the same way that Tim McGraw will always be the Live Like You Were Dying guy.
The title track, written by Charles with Ryan Hurd, Laura Veltz and Sam Ellis – a new name to me but he’s worked with Ingrid Andress and Kane Brown – is a songwriting exercise set to a poppy beat. If you have driving, lighters, love, peace of mind, dancing, crying and kissing on your bingo card, have a drink. I wonder if they were tempted to put ‘help us buy a house because that’s what Need You Now allowed us to do’ on the card or in the middle eight. None of these seven songs will make them as much money but good on Big Machine for funding their efforts. They’re great live.
Imagine you’re sipping a margarita in a tiki bar on a beach in Maui. Your soundtrack is 50 minutes of sun-soaked country featuring the four tracks from the EP which came out earlier this year. My favourite was Beach Cowboy (‘yippee-yo kai-yay it’s your boy BK’), though I appreciated the marriage of beach and the Lord on Sunday Service in the Sand and the addictive Made by the Water, about love and stuff. I concluded that BK was pitching to the same people who bought Luke Bryan and Jake Owen’s material with music that is perfectly timed for vacation season.
Only three tracks are anything over three minutes long, so BK knows how to do this sort of thing with variations on a theme. (Hey, if classical composers can do it, why can’t Mr BK?) There is also unity in the writers as BK’s team of Corey Crowder, Blake Redferrin, Canaan Smith and Jake Rose are the main songwriters.
Opener Boat Names has BK contemplating putting his beloved’s name on a ’45-footer’, with the boat’s colour picked by the lady herself. I also love the picture painted by the opening verse of Songs For You, which breaks into a singalong chorus that Kenny Chesney could have had a smash hit with. Don’t Take Much celebrates seven years with the lady, now mother to his child, and BK concludes that the simple things in life make it worth living. (He doesn’t mention all the money or indeed the perils of the deadly virus that hit the world in 2020.)
Many of the tracks on the collection, perhaps on purpose, blend into the background: Sunburnt, Barefoot and In Love is one, Highway on the Water another, Party on the Beach (a campfire jam where ‘everything’s chill’) a third. All three are aurally pleasant, sung with light vibrato and set to inoffensive guitars with hints of fiddle. Say The Word invites the lady to ‘catch a flight to an island’ and sounds like a summer breeze, which is good ‘programmatic music’ where the lyrics match the tune and vice versa.
Then we have stuff you do on the sand and the water. When you Fish All Day (‘love all night’), it’s ‘maritime meditation’; Boat Ride sounds like its lyric (‘wild hair in your eyes, deep ocean blue’) while Horses on the Beach (‘run wild and free’) is a lot of fun and contains a uke-flavoured solo.
By Boat was written with the superstar pair of Jimmy Robbins and Nicolle Galyon: ‘I’ve seen God in the middle of June painting sunsets’ is a lovely line and it’s the most philosophical song. When BK dies, he’ll get to heaven by boat. Conversely, Real Good Day is positivity turned up to 100, which is at odds with everything going on in the world. It is bizarre to hear BK singing the sort of thing that FGL have been doing for ten years and it’s a relief to the ears not to hear Tyler’s vocal tag (‘YEAH BABY’) every three minutes. BK, by the way, is the Florida part of FGL and boasts about his home state on the album closer Florida Boy Forever.
If you want to forget about the death and destruction caused by automation, viruses and recessions, put on this album, or trim it to 12 tracks because we don’t need 17 versions of the same song. Maybe it’ll sound better in 2022, but perhaps we’re not yet ready for a ‘back to the beach’ album.
Kezia’s music has been played on Bob Harris’s show for the past year. Her first, 2019’s Dead Ends and Detours, included fan favourite Whiskey Drinkin’ Woman and the tribute to her now late father Local Man’s Star. The EP is an enormous step up from a wonderful indie artist.
I like the way Kezia introduces herself on the EP’s final track, the country shuffle of The Adventures of a Travelling Mind (‘I can do anything I want, baby!’) which invokes her Friday night lockdown sessions but with a live band behind her.
The title track begins with a bluesy wail, which draws the listener in; Sarah Jory’s electric guitar meshes well with some terrific production in a song of vulnerability. ‘One mistake is all it takes’ is the song’s key line. Despite Kezia now calling herself a singer/songwriter rather than a country act, Country Song shows her affinity with the genre as she heads to Broadway in Nashville ‘straight into a country song’: cowboy boots, dancing, alcohol and that’s country bingo! Live It Up is similarly euphoric, as befits a carpe diem lyric with a singalong hook that repeats the word ‘tonight’.
All Of Me is a minor-key waltz which, thanks to the squealing guitar near the end, would sound brilliant on Strictly, with Kezia’s love sounding total (as befits the title) and vaguely frightening. Bad For Me is another triple-time tune with a musicbox mood. ‘Your web of lies did not surprise me’ is what Kezia sings of a man who makes ‘bad feel so good’. The arrangement is extraordinary, especially the massed backing vocals and the fierce, fearsome guitar solo. Please make 20 minutes to check our Kez’ out.
Some acts spend four years playing the same tunes over and over again. They write them, play them in bars, get a record deal, play them in clubs, go on a radio tour, play the songs, hear them on the radio, play them in small venues, play them abroad and eventually get sick of playing the song. Even new songs just mean there’s something to play before the hit. Two acts return with new ones after a long gestation period.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.