Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Alex Williams and Hillbilly Vegas

November 25, 2022

Alex Williams – Waging Peace

I missed the first album by Alex Williams, which was out on Big Machine the same year (2017) that Taylor Swift put out Reputation on the same label. The record did nothing and Alex became an independent artist while working on his second album.

It’s certainly a voice more suitable to an indie rather than a radio environment, although technically Big Machine is an indie attached to Sony Music. Old Before My Time chugs along like a Midland song (who are on Big Machine themselves), with Alex walking the line and ‘singing songs from 1969’.

The opening seconds of the opening track put me in mind of Jason Isbell or classic country chuggers like Waylon Jennings (‘ain’t lookin’ for any trouble, ain’t turnin’ any trouble down’). Higher Road stomps along with a marvellous groove that Alex’s vocals more than match as he dispenses wisdom such as ‘I won’t sell my soul lookin’ for a higher road’ and ‘only time can tell’.

Then there are the songs praising a wild spirit. Fire smoulders with a minute of guitar-led sound painting before Alex sings of ‘blue light innocence’, describing the effects of a girl he has just spotted who will ‘take your breath away’. Confession opens ‘she’s a lady most of the time’, which instantly draws in the listener’; Alex doesn’t know if he’s lucky or ‘cursed’ to have this lady.

The Best Thing (‘that’s ever happened to you’) is a smart shuffle with a neat hook and a brief harmonica solo in the middle. Rock Bottom also slows things down, with the arrangement matching the lyric of despair where Alex’s narrator is ‘counting his misfortunes’. There’s another smart lyrical hook here: ‘the only thing that’s left is anything to lose’. Then the lyric drops out and we get two minutes of blues in D major which fades out as the pedal steel comes in. Always leave the listener wanting more.

The title track sums up the sound of the album: reverberating guitar lines, a solid opening line about ‘a tripped-out TV’ and a well-worn vocal telling us that pacificism would meet ‘the belly of the beast’ which ‘looks a lot like me’. Double Nickel, on the other hand, is a fun road song full of abandon to match Alex’s drive on Interstate 55.

The album ends with a pair of tracks: The Struggle is four minutes of wisdom about the journey being more important than the destination (‘I made more miles than money’); The Vice asks listeners to ‘pick your poison’ in order to escape daily life. It’s a sombre end to a great collection whose musicianship and variety make it worth your time. Not for the first time, Big Machine’s loss is our gain.

Hillbilly Vegas – The Great Southern Hustle

Radio 2 has several specialist music shows dedicated to blues, jazz, folk, country and rock. Each has its own template and style, although sometimes you can get acts who mix genres. Fairport Convention and The Band did folk-rock, while

‘Bad rock with a fiddle’ is how Tom Petty described commercial country music. Southern rock, which his band the Heartbreakers specialised in, is a genre which draws fans of rock and country. Plenty of Nashville acts call themselves ‘country’ but are really ‘rock’: Brothers Osborne, Chris Stapleton, even Garth Brooks.

This compilation introduces the band to a UK market, coinciding with a show at the famed Troubadour venue in West London. You can already tell what it’s going to sound like by the tracklist. High Time for a Good Time and Shake It Like A Hillbilly both have squealing guitar solos and impassioned vocal performances that remind country fans of The Cadillac Three.

Livin’ Loud is a three-minute clarion call that cannot be listened to without nodding one’s head and taking the band’s advice to ‘grab a cold one’. Can’t Go Home is a hymn to living wild and carefree while getting blotto (‘so much for being happy – I wouldn’t want to lose my edge!’), while Hell To Pay brings the devil to the party.

Then, naturally, there come the power ballads. Long Way Back (‘from where I’m standing now’) is well arranged and sounds like what Boston, Asia, Chicago and all those other acts named after places used to do in about 1984. Little Miss Rough and Tumble has some gentle organ to underscore a compassionate lyric sung to the protagonist.

There’s a rock’n’roll thrust to Just Say You Love Me (‘I don’t need pictures and melodies’). Losin’ To Win sounds like Jon Bon Jovi broken down and heartbroken. ‘The life of the party is dying inside’ sings the narrator, along with the words ‘selective memory’ and ‘raise a toast to this jester’.

The second side of the album starts with I-Tsu-La/ Let’s Get Together, which is led by a prog-rock organ part that recalls the music made in 1973 (Dark Side of the Moon, by the way, is approaching 50 years old), then breaks into a bluesy series of riffs, the right amount of cowbell and the line ‘ain’t nothing wrong with how the spirit moves you’. Rock’n’roll is homage only at this point.

Two Gun Town combines the best elements of the album: organ, riffing, a breakdown in the middle of the song, close vocal harmonies and a heavy, heart backbeat. ‘I am the law in this town!!’ is the main hook. For an encore, there’s the old stalwart Ring of Fire, where a twin guitar attack helps the album end with a flourish.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Billy Strings and Granger Smith

November 24, 2022

Billy Strings – Me And Dad

Billy Strings did the double at this year’s IBMA Awards for bluegrass music, retaining the Entertainer award from 2021 and winning Song of the Year too. It’s natural that he should walk away with it, after two dates in London in March 2022 and a return visit on December 7 either side of a packed festival schedule promoting his album Renewal, discussed here.

Astoundingly, Billy is playing three dates in Nashville in February: one at the Ryman for 2400 people, two at the Bridgestone Arena in front of 20,000. In May it’s two dates at the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado and a jaunt to California and Texas. That’s a lot of bluegrass fans!

The album title explains itself, with dad Terry helping his son on some old favourites. Dad takes lead on several tunes, including Life To Go, a George Jones song in the character in jail for 18 years so far ‘and still got life to go’ and Little Blossom, a bittersweet waltz about mum and dad written in 1959 by Hank Thompson.

The instrumental ditty Frosty Morn sounds effortless, although it takes a lot of effort to be so. Toes will tap to the delightful Little Cabin Home on the Hill. Stone Walls and Steel Bars (‘I’m a three-time loser!’) and I Haven’t Seen Mary In Years are familiar tunes which are brought to life by modern recording techniques, so each pluck of string vibrates in the listener’s ear.

Likewise, AP Carter’s Wandering Boy reaches across the decades to an audience who may have come to bluegrass and ‘old time music’ via Billy’s experimental style which has been compared to the great American jam bands like Phish and the Grateful Dead. (We call our jam bands ‘prog’ in the UK. Perhaps lots of prog acolytes will turn up to Billy’s UK sets.)

The set is well chosen. I Heard My Mother Weeping closes the album with a vocal from Billy’s own mum, who is upset at her son being sent to jail. John Deere Tractor, once interpreted by the Judds, is a letter written from son to mum (‘I guess my city days are done’), while Dig A Little Deeper (In The Well) includes a verse where the narrator recalls his dad’s old words. It impresses me that it was first performed by the Oak Ridge Boys in 1979, given that it has become a bluegrass standard.

Michael Cleveland’s fiddle joins the pair on the Doc Watson compositions Peartree and Way Downtown, which sound like the best kind of front porch jam. Emma John’s marvellous book on bluegrass, Wayfaring Stranger, shows that you don’t need to cram into an arena to see bluegrass done well, but it helps if you can make a bit of money doing it.

Granger Smith – Moonrise

When I started listening to country music properly in 2015, Granger Smith was always on the radio with songs like If The Boot Fits, Backroad Song and Happens Like That. His comic creation Earl Dibbles Jr amused me, and I have been impressed with how he and his family have bounced back from personal tragedy involving the death of a child. They have since had a boy named Maverick, born in August 2021.

Granger seems to alternate between big projects like his two-volume Country Things set from 2020 and his movie soundtrack They Were There, a tribute to veterans. He’s successful enough to open for Garth Brooks on one date of his massive tour, but lacks the awards to make him a household name. Indeed, his last single That’s Why I Love Dirt Roads missed the top 40 at radio and You’re In It, a delectable confection, stalled at 36.

Nonetheless, he is signed to Wheelhouse Records, a subsidiary of Broken Bow, and produces his music in a contemporary style which never detracts from his Texan roots. Listen to the fiddle and stomp that introduces Tailgate Church Pew, where he makes his truck his place of prayer.

Damn Guitar is 100-percenter, with words and music by Granger (rare enough in modern country music to still be notable). There’s a great but sombre line about how he has held his ‘six strings of therapy’ more than any girl, which will resonate with any songwriter and should find a big audience if given the right push.

The album’s impact track, which has a music video, is In This House, co-written by Mitchell Tenpenny and ticking off lots of rural cliches (‘watch football after Sunday service’) that are true to Granger’s life. Broke In is one of those songs where old things still hold up and ‘how it ain’t broken, it’s just broke in’ (smart), while Black Suit is an example of ekphrasis, a classical term meaning an extended description of an item (‘don’t fit like my blue jeans’). It reminds me of how Brad Paisley dared himself to write a song about water, or Natalie Hemby wrote one called Taxidermy.

Rodney Clawson, who has also written fine ekphrastic songs about dirt and one of those nights, was in the room for Something To Go On, another radio-friendly love song full of joy and levity. Ditto two passionate love songs, Still Find You and Never Been, while on Something Is Changing Granger likens himself, ‘a simple man’, to a ‘rock that needs something to lean on’. It seeks to change the conversation and is a very modern idea of how men should open up to someone as they grieve.

Granger puts the songs (many of which began life as sketches which he had lying around in notebooks) in the mouth of Will, his character in the forthcoming movie also called Moonrise, which will fight all those Christmas movies and Avatar 2 for viewers this holiday season. Forever Forward seems to wrap a bow on the story: ‘I don’t have to move on, I write it down in the words of a new song’ is a key lyric in a song about holding on, keeping on and being strong. I also like the rhyme of ‘brick and mortar’ with the song’s title. The album’s title track, where Granger flies so high he can see fireworks from above, is likely the end credits music.

I hope Granger and Earl come to the UK, perhaps on a family vacation, in 2023.

Ka-Ching…With Twang: Jake Blount – The New Faith

November 22, 2022

The reason that the Country Way of Life Twitter account has been locked and archived (with thanks for following!) is because country music criticism has ceased to be about music. There are Brantley Gilbert and Jason Aldean fanatics who would subscribe to their version of the ‘Never Kissed A Tory’ credo held by many left-leaning Britons. Politics has seized every aspect of American culture and that includes country music.

Rather cutely The Telegraph, the paper Tories kiss every morning, calls Jake Blount’s new album The New Faith ‘spiritually moving’ and ‘revelatory’, which rather suggests they are judging it on the music, as shall I. The above is a context of why music discussion should be about music, but nobody gets a like for saying ‘this is good on its own terms’.

Nashville became popular for music publishers because it printed Bibles too. It is no surprise that there has been a rush of folk from New York and Los Angeles to Nashville because follow the money remains law. With the businessmen come journalists who hold power to account: Marcus K Dowling, Charles L Hughes (an academic who wrote a book about a rapper with dwarfism, a condition from which he too suffers), Andrea Williams and Marissa Moss have all made a career out of reporting the modern conditions of Nashville.

To be clear, country music needs to adapt or die, especially after freezing out women from radio, a dying medium. The passion these critics feel for a wider array of voices is endearing but sometimes their anger becomes political and less about the music than about skin pigmentation or items of sexual equipment.

Jake Blount is a musician who intersects (buzz word!!) music and academia. Born in Washington DC as the son of TV anchors, his heritage comes from both Sweden and the African diaspora. Jake studied folk music much like Rhiannon Giddens, who is doing astonishing work correcting the biased history of folk and bluegrass in America and for whom Jake opened.

This second album The New Faith comes out on Smithsonian Folkways, the Blue Note or Deutsche Grammophon of folk music. Its creator was on the cover of Country Music People magazine to promote it. He has also been supported by Apple Music, NPR and Rolling Stone, the last of these giving him space (buzz word number two!!) to write an essay about how climate change is affecting live music.

‘I am a homosexual,’ he writes in the very first paragraph before going on to criticise streaming royalties and ‘the music industry’s climatological malfeasance’ that makes Jake and his fellow folkies ‘complicit’ in destroying nature and ‘systemic discrimination’ (buzz word bingo) against those who live in hotter countries which include ‘women, people of color and people with low incomes’.

Naturally, he thinks ‘regulating the current music industry out of existence’ is the way to go, promoting the folk ideal of community and art over profit, which is brave to write in Rolling Stone, which became a brand in defiance of its counter-cultural nature.

That’s 500 words before I even press play on the album. I know Jake from his Twitter account @forked_queer where I am advised to use the he/they pronoun.  In response to news that two big publishers couldn’t merge, Jake wrote ‘break up the major labels’. He commented on the passing of gay performer Patrick Haggerty, who was ‘a relative of my family through marriage’, and told people to attack Saturday Night Live for giving ‘the famously bigoted and problematic’ Dave Chappelle 15 minutes to talk about Jewish prejudice. He also wanted to know if other folk were leaving Twitter and changed his handle to ‘’.

It’s not new to mix country music and politics – Loretta Lynn, Alan Jackson, Toby Keith and on and on – but it’s now part of the appeal. An album by a performer who is both black and queer must be heard in that context, especially a folk artist in the long line of performers keeping songs alive and writing new twists on old tropes.

Jake’s voice reminds me of that of David Byrne, another man who sometimes looks to folk music for inspiration. The Downward Road, on which Jake tells the role of a bard asking his audience to ‘gather round’, is ‘crowded’. Both that track and the following one, the trad. arr. Didn’t It Rain, are accompanied by handclap percussion.

Take Me To The Water (‘to be baptised’) is sung a cappella over a babbling brook before a spoken prayer (‘we gather here to reject the greed of our forefathers’). There is another spoken-word parable moving the listener to the coast, as storms, lynchings and fever take the lives of ‘refugees’ heading north. ‘Only three of the original 30 remained’ is the last sentence of the parable, which falls into the traditional song Death Have Mercy, which features a rap from Demeanor. He also pops up on Give Up The World, where he seems to rhyme ‘Fibonacci/ malarkey’. Modern and ancient folk tales interweave magnificently.

The track Psalms continues the narrative: ‘spare me, O Death’ is the first prayer that influences those settlers. It’s a muddled poem where voices overlap with each other and Jake challenges the listener to do good and right. ‘Trouble not with worldly possessions!’ he orders, in the sort of tone that his news-reading parents would use.

Tangle Eye Blues was a track transcribed by Alan Lomax, which Jake arranges with double-stopped fiddle drone and vocalised oohs, with the vocals (‘daddy please don’t go’) particularly poignant across the decades. City Called Heaven has bluesy guitar and a sampled sound of what might be white noise anchoring a story of a poor wayfarer, while They Are Waiting For Me is a gospel tune transferred to a chirpy major-key acoustic guitar part. Just As Well Get Ready, You Got To Die is self-explanatory; the string section and close harmony singing elevate the song.

This arresting yet tough album finishes with Once There Was No Sun, which pulls the lyrical and musical strands together. I’ll certainly follow Jake’s career which, like Rhiannon Giddens, may involve as much documentary as performance. For a start, he should be booked at Black Deer and The Long Road in 2023 to preach his gospel to UK crowds.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Teague Brothers Band and Gabe Lee

November 21, 2022

Teague Brothers Band – Love and War

In the course of the last two years, I have greatly enjoyed presenting an hour-long Sunday afternoon show on Arc Radio with a focus on music from Texas and Oklahoma. I have come to love acts like Mike and the Moonpies, Mike Ryan, Jesse Daniel and Casey Donahew, as well as mainstays of the Texas Regional Radio chart and the associated scene. Josh Abbott Band, Bri Bagwell, Kylie Frey, Randy Rogers Band and Wade Bowen are never off the radio.

Nor are Teague Brothers Band. This second album follows their 2019 debut Harvest Day, which had eight tracks including singles Coyote and Fingers and Thumbs, and a 2021 EP American Folk Songs. That collection included the monster hit Don’t Want To Go Home. The group leader and main songwriter is John Teague, who used to be a soldier and now runs a construction company. He and his wife operate a ranch with bees, chickens, pigs and cows.

The lead track I Found Trouble (‘I found you…I’m chasing you till my feet get sore!’) sets the tone for the album. A stomping backbeat and a jubilant fiddle part introduce John’s throaty, rough-edged vocal, with the band’s harmonies joining him a few bars later. Turnpike, Avett, Flatland and Josh Abbott all do this sort of rootsy Southern rock too, which ensure feet tap and hands clap and your face unconsciously breaks out in a smile.

The title track is a powerful rock’n’roller about a lady who wants something more than John, who was ‘king of the Dairy Queen’ when the pair fell in love but to whom she keeps giving second chances. These Days is a midtempo tune of advice full of ‘suffering’ and how you can’t ‘trust someone else’ to shoot a lame cow. The fiddle part follows the tenor of the song. Pipeliner’s chorus includes more close harmony that makes the metaphor come to life (‘she don’t mind me being married to work’). Pretty Ugly, meanwhile, is a proper Texan country tune with the hook ‘she’s not pretty, she’s not ugly’.

John’s lonely vocals echo around the studio on Blow, which has a swampy feel to match the swampy waters of the lyric. Moscato Wine is a waltz where John’s narrator bemoans his lady walking out on him. ‘Don’t feel sorry for me,’ he adds bitterly, ‘it’s amazing how resilient a man can be’. Last Thing You Heard (Jericho) is another triple-time chest-beater where the narrator enlists his brother Jericho to avenge a murder. ‘I’m the courier of truth’ is a good line, as is ‘I’m the cornerstone of truth’.

January (‘nice to meet you’) is another slowie that settles the pulse before the turbocharged Buckskin Gelding, which is my country star name. ‘Between you and I let’s settle this!’ sets up a fight that will convert anyone who says ‘ach I don’t listen to country!’ Ah, but do you know of Red Dirt music? It’s like country but proper.

Gabe Lee – The Hometown Kid

Gabe Lee is a barman in Nashville who knows that musicians are fifty-a-penny in Music City. Happily, Gabe got the support of Grady Smith and Kyle Coroneos (aka Trigger from Saving Country Music) and also A Country Way of Life for his entertaining second album Honky Tonk Hell, which came out in the middle of March 2020. Rats.

Album three comes out on his producer Alex Torrez’s label. It begins with Wide Open, a troubadour’s song with widescreen guitars and, in the lyric, a John Prine bumper sticker. Rusty is about growing old with ‘not enough gasoline’ and has Gabe’s narrator asking for ‘an angel on patrol’. On Kinda Man, he is full of defiance in spite of his regrets, such as injuring his ankle just before he could have gone on to play college football.

Gabe’s voice has the same high tenor range as Lukas Nelson’s, and he uses it well on songs like Over You and Lucky Stars, which hints at trips to therapy or AA groups. One of These Days is a pick-me-up song, with added fiddle, where the narrator despairs of his decisions; the line ‘I have to be honest to my own stubborn ways’ is set to a diminished chord.

Gabe must have an enormous record collection, judging by the influences on this album. Long Gone has the side-to-side sway of a Randy Newman song (‘I used to pray every morning’), while Buffalo Road, another heartache song, sounds like a Jackson Browne ballad from 1971, right down to the wailing guitar solo that anchors it. The album’s second side begins with the delicious acoustic ballad Lonely, which ‘ain’t what it used to be’ with ‘Willie Nelson and a box of wine’. Angel Band closes the album with a punchy drum part and some honky-tonk piano to match the kind of band Gabe wants to play in when he dies.

The album’s centrepiece is the eight-minute suite Longer I Run/ Hammer Down. The former (‘this living is far from just begun’) foregrounds Gabe’s voice with a bass accompaniment before a retro arrangement for verse two. There are even some horns and some sweet call-and-response backing vocals in the chorus, giving it a smooth quality that reminds me of Paul Simon.

Hammer Down is a waltz where Gabe tells his steel player to get playing. That sound, with added fiddle, continues on Never Rained Again, a magnificent love song about how every cloud has its silver lining. For that track alone, you should pay attention to Gabe Lee.

Ka-Ching…With Twang: Joniana from Native Harrow and First Aid Kit

November 18, 2022

Native Harrow – Old Kind of Magic

First Aid Kit – Palomino

Joniana is a genre I invented to describe acts influences by Canadian maven Joni Mitchell. It is beyond obvious to point out the debt to Joni on the music of both Native Harrow, who are from London (though now based on the South Coast) and signed to Loose Music, and First Aid Kit, the Swedish sisters with fluttering harmonies. Both acts put out albums around Daylight Savings Time 2022.

Old Kind of Magic, the duo Native Harrow’s fifth album, contains plenty of ingredients that make up Joniana. There is strength in breaking up and going it alone on the title track (‘me, myself and I’). The six-minute Heart of Love is right in the Laurel Canyon mode, which continues on I Was Told, with some blue notes and diminished chords from singer Devin Tuel. A dropped-tune 12-string guitar thrums on I Remember, sounding like Joni’s autoharp, and closing track Find A Reason.

‘Time waits for no-one so darling take its hand’ is a lyric on Magic Eye. There are some social politics on Used To Be Free, as well as a meta commentary on Devin’s singing (‘I swallow notes’). The magisterial chorus of As It Goes has a Hammond organ part behind her vocals, which pass the baton to a string section for the final minute of the song. There’s a lush arrangement on Long Long Road which makes me think a set at next year’s Long Road festival would welcome the duo.

Johanna and Klara aka First Aid Kit did put out a tribute album to Leonard Cohen last year, a palate cleanser before their first original material since 2018’s Ruins. Out of My Head opens softly before rolling drums accompany the chorus and the harmonies intertwine on the second verse; the narrator is a beggar, prisoner and river, stacking up the metaphors while ‘running on love’. Angel (‘can’t you see you’re free?’) is even bigger and bolder. Both songs were apt choices of impact tracks to promote Palomino; it’s also odd that there are two albums (the other by Miranda Lambert) with the same title in the same year of release.

Turning Onto You has some horns parping behind a song of fidelity, as is Nobody Knows (‘me the way that you do’) and The Last One, where our narrator laments ‘wasting my time before you’. There’s a set of three notes that reminds me of The Tide Is High, which is probably accidental, as is the ‘take it slow’ hook of Ready To Run (where the narrator was ‘a nervous little kid’) that matches the one in John Legend’s Ordinary People.

There’s a lot of bass in the mix of Heavy Snow (‘I’m gonna love you till the moon don’t shine’ and I can imagine a mass humming session on Wild Horses II, a road trip with a magnificent arrangement. There are handclaps and electric guitar on the breakup song, and fellow impact track, A Feeling That Never Came, which provides some variety even though the lyrics would fit a ballad; this must be the ‘happy-sad’ that those Swedes do so well.

29 Palms Highway, which repeats the line ‘I hold my arms out to you’, ends with a high string part which increases the yearning. The title track jingles and jangles and, like many other tracks on the album, mentions the elements (‘wind in my hair’) and a drive on the highway. It’s not just about the harmonies here: the arrangements, structure and instrumentation are all excellent.

The Swedes can even do roots music better than the Americans.

The UK Country Top 40 Bubbling Further Under Chart: Autumn 2022

November 18, 2022

Hear every song in full at this Spotify playlist.

Acts in bold are interviewed in the radio versions of the chart, which can be found here.

First part: 40 to 21

Second part: 20 to 11 with Sarah Louise and Pete Gow

Third part: The Top 10 with Robyn Red, Preston D Barnes and April Moon

40 Lisa T and Elaine Lennon – The Best Kept Secret

39 Anna Krantz – Ready To Meet You

38 Emma & Jolie – All That Glitters

37 Raintown – Play It Loud

36 Flatland Kings – Won’t Let Go

35 Andrew Jones – Broadway Lights

34 Recovering Satellites – The Fair

33 Thomas Kavanagh – Other Side of You

32 Mr Paul Adams – 47

31 Sarah Yeo – No Way Jose

30 Danny McMahon – Forget About That

29 Eleri Angharad – New Sin

28 Jeannine Barry – Fearless

27 Roseanne Reid – Hallucinate

26 Simon James – Ghosts

25 A Million Ashes – Singles Shooting Doubles

24 Izzie Walsh – Jimmy

23 Kerri Watt – Bad Moon Rising

22 Rae Sam – Feel This Good

21 Angell & King – Long Ride

20 Pete Gow – Where Else Would We Be Going? 

19 Lucy Grubb – You Don’t Do Anything

18 The Blue Highways – Nobody Lives Here Anymore

17 Adam Brucass – If I Didn’t Know You

16 Jeorgia Rose – Safe Place to Land

15 Blue Rose Code – The Wild Atlantic Way

14 Meg McPartlin – Mama Watch Me Dance

13 Jack & Tim – Little House, Big Love

12 Sarah Louise – My Grandparents and Me

11 Megan McKenna – The Good, The Bad and the Bitch

10 Kevin McGuire – Killing Time

9 Chloe Jones – Giving Up The Ghost

8 April Moon – The Lord Hath Taken Away

7 Catherine McGrath – Grace

6 Megan O’Neill – Fail Better

5 Preston D Barnes – Still Believe in Crazy Love

4 Robyn Red – Like A Bullet

3 Jordan Harvey – I Will

1= Chloe Chadwick – 2 Peas in a Pod

1= Lorna Reid – My Hotel Wrecking Days Are Over

Hear every song in full at this Spotify playlist.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Brantley Gilbert and Randy Houser

November 16, 2022

Brantley Gilbert – So Help Me God

Look, there’s no point in having a go at Brantley, who has a devoted fanbase and much more money than I. Signed to Valory, which also makes money off Thomas Rhett, he co-wrote Dirt Road Anthem, the song that hit pay dirt. Hee has been on radio for a decade with variants on the broish Aldean formula. As we saw at the 2022 CMA Awards, the genre now makes money from neo-neo-traditional acts like Lainey Wilson and Luke Combs, which make Brantley and Aldean yesterday’s men. There is a reason Tyler Hubbard will release an album in January which paints him as the new Tim McGraw, not the new Aldean.

Here on his seventh album, Brantley hits up the man of the moment Michael Hardy to assist on his latest bit of brand extension. Toby Keith and a saxophonist turn up with the pair on The Worst Country Song of All Time, which replaces every rural cliché with an urban one. ‘I support Kim Jong-Un and Putin’ remains in the lyric, which is a gross mistake given what Putin has done in Ukraine since the song was released.

We’ve already heard half of this mercifully short collection. Rolex® on a Redneck (sic) puts Brantley and Aldean together in what could have been a wonderful bit of class politics were it not for the execrable production choices and a lyric which actually includes ‘do what it does’, a lazy line. Perhaps Randy Montana and Hardy were both hungover that day, or just overruled. Hardy was in the room for the title track, which closes the album on a philosophical note: ‘if I don’t quit she’s gonna quit me’ sighs the narrator who needs to change his ways to keep his beloved. This song might help thousands of listeners to reach sobriety and might increase a pastor’s flock.

Seven men, including those two A-listers, came up with the song Heaven By Then, and two more – Blake Shelton and Vince Gill – turned up in the studio. It’s the same idea as Worst Country Song… but the trio imagine those horrible things happen after they have left the earth. How To Talk To Girls took eight men to write including Michael Ray; it’s a plodder redeemed by its hook where our narrator is ‘lost for words’ and thus learning how to talk at all.

Tom Petty called country music ‘bad rock with a fiddle’ and Miles of Memories uses the same delayed guitar trick The Edge has deployed for 40 years. She’s The One is a power ballad which may soundtrack first dances when two members of Brantley Nation get married. Gone But Not Forgotten (‘memories, we got ‘em’) is filler, and will be forgotten as soon as you hear it.

Little Piece of Heaven is alas not a cover of the Elles Bailey modern standard but a complaint from our narrator that his beloved is making his life ‘hell on earth’ with her fiery personality. I’d have thought Brantley would like this sort of thing!

On Son of the Dirty South, he is joined by Jelly Roll, who might have more tats than Brantley. Jelly, whose song Son of a Sinner has been on country radio all year, returns to his rapping wheelhouse, similar to how Lil Nas X rapped on Old Town Road but was taken off the country chart, probably because radio didn’t want to play a black man when they could play Aldean and Brantley. Guitar solos and processed beats may sound hackneyed in 2022 but there’s still a market for this type of thing, especially when the city kids come to Nashville to throw hen and stag dos on Broadway.

Nobody will become a Brantley Gilbert fan by listening to this album. Like Aldean, it’s all diminishing returns for the Dirt Road bros. Commercial country has never been either/or, but both; money can be made from anyone at any time. It’s sad that Nashville waited so long to pivot away from the bros, but it’s a town run by spreadsheets and suits.

Randy Houser – Note to Self

Like Scotty McCreery, Randy Houser is thriving as an independent artist, free from the trappings of Music Row (and its accountants) but keeping his friends close. I first knew him as a singer of We Went and Running Outta Moonlight, which were cooked up in a writer’s room and handed to Randy to sing the heck out of them to play between commercials on country radio.

After an astonishing album in 2019 called Magnolia, this is the second album of Randy’s renaissance. Opening track Still That Cowboy has pedal steel and harmonies in the right places, as the narrator pledges eternal love to his beloved even as ‘a kid with a couple kids’. The title track was the first preview of this ten-song collection. Such is the esteem in which Randy is held that Ross Copperman, Casey Beathard and Bobby Pinson (whose songs have been cut by Toby Keith) added star wattage to the room. It’s a song full of advice to Randy himself and any listener, with the best being not to ‘take her for granted’ but ‘take her out’.

The pattern continues for the rest of the album, with writers like Randy Montana popping up on the gospel-tinged Workin’ Man, which is suitably Combsian given that Randy has written a lot of Luke’s great tunes. Paul Overstreet co-writes the heartbreak ballad Call Me, a list of words Randy wants to be called so long as his beloved calls him. The legendary Warren brothers channel their expertise into American Dreamer, a set of images and vignettes that come together to warm the cockles of any country fan’s heart. Randy sells the heck out of it, especially the vocal wigout near the end.

He co-writes Remember How To Pray with Kendell Marvel, which starts with an image of Randy at eight years old (the same age Scotty McCreery was in the opening of Five More Minutes!!) learning how to praise the Lord. We know exactly where this is going: through adolescence, performing in ‘empty bars’ and believing in a ‘perfect’ deity. There is a magnificent acoustic guitar passage before the final chorus whose lyric matches the warmth of Randy’s vocal.

Jeff Hyde was there for both Take It To The Bank (the ol’ familiar trope of hanging out at the riverbank with beer, wine and ‘a hook on a line’) and the deliciously retro Country Round Here Tonight, which is one of many songs which take the Luke Combs idea of singing about singing to people. It would have been a smash in 2011 and might well be in 2023, if Randy is at all interested in playing the country radio game. Out and Down has a similar tone, reversing ‘down and out’ as Randy drinks ‘cheers to all my troubles’.

Rub A Little Dirt On It (‘when life gets a little hurt on it’) is a twist on familiar rural themes that soothe the soul. It sounds like a Tim McGraw hit from 2005 and that retro sound suits Randy’s voice. If only he hadn’t come up in the middle of the Bro Era he’d be far more garlanded, rather than a sort of secret.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Madeline Edwards and Stephanie Quayle

November 15, 2022

Madeline Edwards – Crashlanded

Looking at the tracklengths for the 12 songs on Crashlanded, which are around the three-minute mark you’d think Madeline Edwards was trying to enter Eurovision, or its American equivalent. The title track explodes into a chorus which will cross borders, while she notes bitterly that ‘people are famous for no reason’ and politicians are fake.

Why I’m Calling, which was on an EP released earlier this year, opens with an image of a broken dishwasher which pulls the listener in. Madeline’s narrator wants to hear the whippoorwill wind back home in Houston, so the presence of this track on the album introduces new fans to another Texan. Her voice is in the same ballpark as Kelly Clarkson’s.

On the fearsome Spurs, Madeline sings that ‘these boots can put you through hell’; Forehead Kisses has a heavy backbeat, a slinky groove and a great set of lyrics. How Strong I Am has the Ross Copperman touch and bounces along philosophically and will comfort those who are fighting through the same sort of ‘pain’ Madeline sings about. Piano-led Too Much of a Good Thing is a torch song full of uncertainty and questioning.

Madeline is wearing many hats on an album full of variety and character. She supported Chris Stapleton this year and his mix of musical influences reflects what she is about as well. Mama, Dolly, Jesus proves she can do country music with melodic heft. She wrote it with three heavyweight writers: Jimmy Robbins, Jessi Jo Dillon and Laura Veltz. Luke Dick joins Laura and Madeline in the room for the funky pair Playground (‘I’ll swing you way out’) and Heavy, a song about fidelity on which the narrator wants her friend to ‘let down your guard’.

Luke Dick has worked with Miranda Lambert and Eric Church, two acts who look as good in sunglasses as Madeline does on the cover of the album. Miranda will also note the ‘palomino’ in the opening of Hold My Horses which becomes a metaphor for Madeline herself. Elle King has an album out in January and the bluesy riffs on both that track and The Wolves (‘I ain’t scared of nothin’) would make the pair fine festival bookings.

The Biggest Wheel is the outlier, a ballad that runs well over three minutes which has some fluffy chords from what sounds like a Mellotron in the second verse. Big up to Englishman Rob Persaud who co-wrote the song. I hear a lot of Pink’s voice in Madeline’s, which might make her perfect for a vocal on a dance hit.

It’s clear with this album that Warner Nashville are positioning her as An Artist with a capital A. She appeared at the 2021 CMA Awards with Mickey Guyton and Brittney Spencer, and it would be too easy to lump Madeline in with the pair of them just because of her skin pigmentation. Ditto Miko Marks, who returns to the UK in January for AmericanaFest, and godmother Rissi Palmer, who brought Madeline and Miko to the UK in September for The Long Road.

But country music is much more than the big radio hits and the sooner folk realise it, the better.

Stephanie Quayle

In 2017 Stephanie Quayle released the minor radio hits Selfish and Drinking With Dolly, which enabled her to play Country2Country and do some grippin’ and grinnin’ with UK fans. Five years later, she follows up the album Love The Way You See Me with a self-titled set of eight tracks, once again released independently.

I Want The World For You is yet another version of Someone Like You (cf I Hope You’re Happy Now) sung prettily and with feeling. Karen Kosowski, who produced Mickey Guyton’s album, joins Stephanie in the room for Hang My Hat, a delectable love song full of rural imagery (boots, gates, faith) and a vocal that reminds me of Jana Kramer’s. We Buy Gold is another magnificent tune in praise of the wedding band, an item which was mentioned in I Got The Boy, my favourite Jana Kramer song.

The Kitchen is a proper country song about domestic matters, where there’s ‘fighting, forgiving, making everyone’s business our business’. I like the double-tracked guitar solo too. By Heart takes the motif of the narrator asking loads of questions to find out about a new crush, which is the premise of I Don’t Know About You. This is a more tuneful, more swayable and better song than that in ever way. There’s a nod to Sweet Caroline too for good measure.

Wild Frontier was put on a shelf by Maren Morris, Shane McAnally and Ross Copperman. It can’t fail and it hasn’t failed, mainly because the arrangement follows the lyric, which starts with a rhyme of ‘blaze of glory/uncharted territory’. It’s not suitable for Maren’s lovey-dovey persona so Stephanie runs away with it. Lone Ranger, co-written by Stephanie, has a similar musical palate but a narrator who would rather be single, would rather ‘heartache be my friend’, than an object of desire for some schmo. There is another massive guitar solo in the middle of the song.

Light My Way is a tune by Brett James, Caitlyn Smith and Chris DeStefano which ends the album. It’s one of those songs about being ‘tired of flying blind’, ‘holding on to letting go’ and moving on and being strong. There’s a clever hook about how ‘the bridges that I burn will light my way’ and it’ll touch lots of listeners but, like much of this collection, it’s a bit banal. But banality works in country music.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Russell Dickerson

November 8, 2022

While promoting his first album Yours in the UK, I was very impressed by Russell when he played both Nashville Meets London and Country2Country. I loved Blue Tacoma the moment I heard it, even if it had the same chords as his soppy ballad Yours, with its ‘boat stuck in a bottle’ image. I loved his debut album which included the poppy single Every Little Thing, and I like the fact that his wife Kailey is part of his team.

His second album Southern Symphony came and went, lost during the pandemic (and fatherhood) but driven by the radio hits Love You Like I Used To and Home Sweet (which stalled at 10 on radio). It allowed him to play the main stage at C2C in 2022, opening for Miranda Lambert.

His friends BK and T-Hub from FGL (Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard from Florida Georgia Line) are working on solo projects; Russell has been out on the road with Tim McGraw, who also does romantic rural music with a poppy edge and, like Russell, is from Tennessee.

RD’s third album is self-titled and was trailed by the impact track She Likes It, a completely blah Tiktokable duet with its co-writer Jake Scott that of course is being spun on country radio. The key lyric is ‘she likes it when I oooooh’. There’s no point in complaining about this: Russell’s face fits, as does his voice and his haircut, but he’s an independent act signed to Triple Tigers, which is also home to Scotty McCreery and Cam. That, I think, would be a perfect night of country music: Russell brings the party and the ballads, Scotty brings the ballads and the party, Cam is a woman.

Russell starts with an MOR ballad, Blame It On Being Young, a reminiscin’ tune which mentions ‘fake ID’ and ‘TP’ (toilet paper) in the first stanza. As a sort of thank you for taking him out on the road, he even namechecks Tim McGraw just before the final chorus. I Remember is the same song but with a cumbia beat (the one from Despacito); he even quotes Semi Charmed Life by Third Eye Blind in the second verse, which is one step down from what Cole Swindell does on She Had Me At Heads Carolina, which I’ve still not gotten over.

His other uptempo or party songs sound like FGL from 2015. Sorry (‘for kissing you in front of everybody’) sounds like every other drum-heavy perky tune sung by a bloke, be they Mitchell Tenpenny or Dustin Lynch, but that’s the market imperative. All The Same Friends says nothing in a melodic manner and Big Wheels (‘back roads and cold beer’) comes and goes inside two minutes.

She’s Why was written with LA pop writer Sean Douglas and Josh ‘Need You Now’ Kerr. Russell croons about how his lady is like a heatwave, ‘the reason why God made jeans’ and ‘TK Maxx, no Gucci’, while there’s a muted guitar part that is fresh out of LA. Another pop writer, Ilsey Juber, was in the room for 18, another pop song where Russell wishes he had met his wife far earlier than he did. Over and Over would have been better as an acoustic outro to the album; it’s insubstantial and another song perfect for young couples who are the album’s target demographic.

Russell started as a songwriter in town and was also the useless (by his own admission) guitar tech for contemporary Christian singer Chris Tomlin. God Gave Me A Girl is his nod to CCM (contemporary Christian music), with the sort of production Carrie Underwood has used throughout her career and a lyric that is yet another addition to Russell’s stack of wedding ballads. There is no surprise that Ashley Gorley is involved in this song, which does its job impressively and ends the first side of the album. Ashley was also in the room for Drink To This, a song that stretches a moment from present to future. It includes a coda full of woahs which will bring out the cameraphones.

Russell has also drafted in some Nashville A-Listers. The great Jon Nite was in the room for I Wonder, a philosophical breakup song with an enormous guitar part: ‘Will I ever love like I loved her?’ is the narrator’s conclusion. On Beers to the Summer – produced by Zach Crowell who is the king of the track (ie the production or the ‘record’ element of a song’) – he at least calls the sky ‘sapphire’ to distinguish it from other midtempo tunes about nothing. Just Like Your Mama is a Lori McKenna co-write which Russell played on his recent visit to the UK. It celebrates his daughter and wife much like Brett Young does on his song Lady, except with the lyric ‘no bull and no drama’.

I Still Believe is a load of images strung together by a credo: ‘the best songs go oh-oh-oooh’, sweet tea, gridiron, calling mama, John 3:16 and that’s country bingo. It’s basically Most People Are Good by Luke Bryan or any number of other songs of that ilk, but with a throbbing guitar solo in the middle of it. Perhaps they’ve got one bloke churning these out every day on Music Row as punishment for putting a polysyllabic word into a narrative epic in 2018.

Kudos to Russell for co-producing the album in a country-pop manner which will appeal to his international fanbase. He’s basically a clean-shaven Thomas Rhett, or Kane Brown with a designer haircut. Either way, he’ll still get played on the radio and people will stream this album.

Ka-Ching…with Twang – Red Dirt Music from Flatland Cavalry and Mike Ryan

October 31, 2022

Flatland Cavalry – Songs To Keep You Warm

A mark of how far up in the world Flatland Cavalry are is the presence behind the boards of Bruce Robison, who wrote Travelin’ Soldier which the Dixie Chicks turned into a world-conquering hit (one of the last before The Event made them pariahs).

Bruce brings a traditional, warm touch to the six tunes which were recorded direct to tape. They form a stopgap EP between the album Welcome To Countryland, which took them to the UK for C2C 2022, and joining Luke Combs on his 2023 megatour. Riley Green, Lainey Wilson and Brent Cobb are also on the ball for what sounds like a top night out.

How Long and Parallel stay autumnal thanks to the warm harmonies from Kaitlin Butts and Ashley Monroe respectively. The latter sounds like a first dance at a wedding and it matches my thoughts of love exactly, ‘running in parallel’.

Mountain Song addresses the natural feature because Cleto Cordero wants to ‘take your place’. He also wants the river to cleanse his sins. Damaged Goods also has a narrator in dire straits, spotting his former belle at the farmer’s market. On If We Said Goodbye, where Cleto sings over a string section, he wonders what song accompanied a break-up which ‘left me standing in that driveway dust’.

The EP closes with Show Me Now Which Way To Go, which sounds effortless. The trick is to make all the effort invisible and Flatland, as they did on their full-length release, do it again here.

Mike Ryan – Longcut

Mike Ryan is another automatic star of Texan radio. His fourth album, his first in five years, begins with the title track. It’s instead of a shortcut, you see, and there’s a funky guitar hook that anchors a song that takes its inspiration from Take A Back Road. The moonlight shines down and the girl even has a ‘pretty little hand’ in Mike’s, making the song feel like what Nashville was putting on the radio in about 2015. Cute love songs never go out of style; I replayed this immediately.

Won’t Slow Down has massive guitars and a wretched narrator who is pursued by the memory of his former flame. On All My Songs, heartbreak is the reason every song he writes sounds like the others. Phil Vasser was in the room for the hugely melodic weepie Way It Goes, where Born To Run is on the radio and Mike’s old flame cleared off without making a fuss (no ‘foot down, finger up’ goodbye).

The great Ben Hayslip, whose biggest copyrights came right in that mid-2010s era where Luke Bryan was king, wrote Off My Thinker, a suitably philosophical stomper where our narrator drinks his pain away. Will Weatherly, a current hitmaker on Music Row, helped Mike with Can Down, a mellower version of the same song that was the album’s big single, or ‘impact track’ as it’s known today.

Brandy Clark co-wrote the number one hit Jacket On, which explains its clattering percussion, smoky arrangement and lyrical punchline: ‘I guess the Devil’s got his jacket on’. Brandy’s fellow A-Lister Hillary Lindsey put Loser on the shelf, which has a magnificent chorus to rival those Hillary has written with and for Carrie Underwood: ‘You don’t know heartbreak until it breaks for me…you’re not a loser until you lose ‘er’ is a hook perfect for a Texan country star. If Music Row is about fidelity and romance, Texan country is about tears on the red dirt (ooh that’s a good title).

Elsewhere, Die Runnin’ is an Aldeanish ballad of fidelity, and there’s a nice chug on both Get Away With Anything (which complements the compliments Mike gives the female addressee) and Gonna Take A Woman, which goes heavy on the guitars. Chris DuBois, best known for working with Brad Paisley was there for the album’s final pair of tracks: the sexy ballad Like I Don’t and Forgiveness and Rain, which is driven by a chaingang stomp. Mike’s narrator grew up on a tobacco farm with an uncle who smoked ‘two packs a day’; the chorus comprises words from father to son about rural life. Verse three includes the words ‘diversify or die’, as well as cotton and corn.

They used to sing this type of song on country radio but it’s too country for people in New York, London or LA.

As I often say about Texan acts, they can quite happily exist in the Red Dirt ecosystem – New Braunfels one weekend, Fort Worth the next – but it’d be lovely for Mike to head up to Nashville and show Music Row what they’re missing.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Lainey Wilson – Bell Bottom Country

October 28, 2022

There is one thing that sticks out from this second album from Lainey Wilson, who is set to come to the UK in March for Country2Country opening for Thomas Rhett. She sings every line on it.

In an era when every act needs a collaboration or a synergy with another artist, Lainey goes it alone on this collection of 13 originals and a very well-chosen cover. It is so refreshing to hear an obvious artist, one who has also had commercial success on country radio with songs like Things A Man Oughta Know. If Miranda wants to take a few years looking after the pups, Lainey will take her slot.

And yes, there are ‘slots’ in 2022 for female acts on radio. Look at this week’s chart: in the Top 20 Ingrid Andress (on a Sam Hunt duet) and Gabby Barrett are the only women there. Priscilla Block, Kelsea Ballerini and Carly Pearce will be Top 20 soon, as will Lainey with the lead single from the album Heart Like A Truck, which kicks off the second side of this album in track position eight.

In fact, Lainey is on two songs getting rotation, the other being future Song of the Year Wait in the Truck with Hardy. It’s smart for Lainey, from Louisiana, to team up with the guy from Philadelphia, Mississippi; game recognises game, as the kids say. Lainey writes the 13 original compositions on the album, throwing in a cover of Linda Perry’s song What’s Up (where she says hey yay yay, what’s going on).

It begins with Hillbilly Hippie, a party starter which will be a perfect opener to her live show. It puts Lainey in the Miranda/Eric Church mould, sticking to live instrumentation (including massed backing vocals) and familiar vocal stylings. Keith Whitley and The Rolling Stones both get a namecheck, as does Willie Nelson; ‘Willied up’ is a surefire t-shirt slogan.

Grease, written with Jessi Alexander, will also make any set. Lainey and her fella, who has ‘earned that farmer’s tan’, are ‘cookin’ with grease’ and she’s ‘beggin’ like an old hound dog’. Whatever can she want?? Atta Girl is a song full of melancholy, consoling the heartbroken woman whom Lainey addresses that she has a ‘damn good heart and some big dreams up ahead’. It’s a new spin on how a guy and a girl have different coping mechanisms, that a woman shouldn’t be engulfed by sadness, which makes the title (and its instrumental middle section) so uplifting.

Road Runner is a troubadour’s song (‘grab your boots and head for the highway’) with a melodic chorus. Watermelon Moonshine, which has a proper middle eight, is a midtempo tune perfect for a mellow moment, as Lainey recalls her first time and conjures up some terrific sense impressions with the help of A-Listers Josh Kear and Jordan Schmidt.

Two tracks were written with Nicolette Hayford, who has helped Ashley McBryde find her own outlaw sound: Weak End (great title) is a heartbreak song befitting its title and can be paired with the Lady A song It Ain’t Pretty on a typical Spotify playlist; This One’s Gonna Cost Me is another funky tune with a massive chorus that seems to point towards a hangover, romantic or alcoholic, Lainey won’t regret.

Lainey’s own team includes Dallas Wilson (who co-writes five tracks) and Trannie Anderson (in the room for four of them). This pair will, like Lainey, await some life-changing PRS cheques from Heart Like A Truck, but Live Off – written with a fourth body in the room, Adam Doleac – may follow it on to the radio. It’s a charming list of rural signifiers (work, music, romance) with a banjo layered underneath.

Wallflowers and Wild Horses is one of those country songs about meeting your maker, full of great imagery (‘barefooted, bareback…four-fifths of reckless and one-fifth of Jack’) and a smart arrangement which verges on bluegrass. Me, You and Jesus and Hold My Halo (another great title) are the token religious or spiritual songs on the album, placed beside one another on Side A (tracks six and seven). ‘The man upstairs’ makes an appearance on the former slow burner, while the latter is another one for the popular compilation Now That’s What I Call Lower Broadway on a Saturday Night.

The Lord also gets a mention on These Boots (Daddy’s Song), a toe-tapper which underlines that Lainey isn’t a Southern gal singing pop music but an on-brand Nashville star who has been nominated for two CMA Awards. Female Vocalist and Album might be out of her reach for now, but she’s a shoo-in for New Artist of the Year. She’s a great get for C2C 2023, in spite of what the naysayers are naysaying about the main stage players.

Ka-Ching with Twang: Red Dirt Music from Randy Rogers Band and David Adam Byrnes

October 27, 2022

Randy Rogers Band – Homecoming

An automatic on Texas radio, Randy’s recent release was with Wade Bowen, his fellow automatic. Now back with his band and with Radney Foster behind the board, this eighth album provides new and long-time fans with 11 new tunes.

Randy’s voice is in the same ballpark as that of Lee Brice, with both grit and tenderness on opening ballad I Won’t Give Up (‘I would fight the fires of hell and the Devil himself’). His lady is on the Leaving Side of Town, ‘fooling around’ and breaking his heart. The double-stopped fiddle part matches the tenor of the lyric, with the arrangement full of pathos and warmth.

Heart For Just One Team opens with piano and fiddle before Randy’s vocal comes in to describe watching a ballgame with his dad: ‘no church and no chores!!’ feels like the most innocent line on the album. I think you can tell where the narrative is going but grab some tissues and call your own dad if you can.

Big writers have queued up to work with one of the stars of the Red Dirt movement. Jon Randall was there for Nothing But Love Songs, whose expansive opening introduces a midtempo rocker about a narrator ‘hoping to hear a midnight crier’ to get over a breakup. It took 11 weeks to top the chart, a stunningly quick climb. Drew Kennedy, a Wade Bowen collaborator, helped with the Texas chart-topper Picture Frames, a toe-tapper with the reminiscin’-via-photos motif and a philosophical theme about time passing (‘where do the years go’). The middle eight is excellent.

Sean McConnell was in the room for Over You Blues, a triple-time lament that is 100% Texas. The narrator is a bar-dwelling schlub who can’t even tip the band for playing a song that reminds him of his ex. While Nashville keeps targeting the 18-34 demographic with sexy guys singing about trucks, this is adult country music tinged with regret and sadness. True country, some would call it.

The three A-Listers Randy Montana, Lee Thomas Miller and Wendell Mobley give him Fast Car, a series of pick-up lines which Randy’s narrator uses to entice a lady. If the fiddle were replaced by a second thwacking great electric guitar part, it’d be a Jason Aldean song thanks to its farmer’s chords (a phrase I learned about recently which has finally made it into a piece of criticism!).

Randy also wrote the melancholic rocker Small Town Girl Goodbye (‘she outshined our one stoplight and now there’s one less number on that city limit sign’) and Where’d You Run Off To. Randy’s protégé Parker McCollum was in the room for another song about a man missing his ex (‘why’d you have to take my heart?’), while Jack Ingram joined the hang on Know That By Now, another self-lacerating weepie which begins with Randy’s narrator complaining that ‘I can’t have one drink without having four’.

The album ends with Bottle of Mine, written with producer Radney. It’s a neat summary of the Red Dirt genre: Randy addresses his drink over a slow musical shuffle, begging it to ‘stay here with me cos I can’t live with myself’. It’s anthemic and the best song on a very good album.

David Adam Byrnes – Keep Up With A Cowgirl

David is another big name on the Red Dirt scene. His songs are often chart-toppers on Texas radio and his first album Neon Town got caught up in the pandemic.

The first few bars of the opening title track are saturated with fiddle. It’s a Texan version of those Music Row songs about how great a girl is, but with more panache, charm and musicality. Instantly we know where we are: the Red Dirt, once again.

I Find A Reason is a George Strait-y ballad set in a bar. Our ‘hard-headed narrator…heading where I’m headed’ cannot get over his former belle. A Shot or Two keeps David drinking to ‘break this heartbreak mood’, while Better Love Next Time is full of melancholy, governed by its fiddle part and how ‘you and me just don’t mix…c’est la vie’.

One Honky Tonk Town is a more uptempo breakup song (‘she locked the door and I backed down the drive’) where our poor narrator’s ex is ‘parked in my favourite spot’ at the bar. This town ain’t big enough for the both of them, because it’s the Smallest Town On Earth, as per the title of another track on the album.

Too Much Texas was another radio smash. The protagonist is a girl who tries to head out of Dallas but can’t take the Texas out of her heart. Like I’m Elvis is set in a Kentucky hotel room where the musician is missing his woman who ‘treats me like I just might be the King’. All I’m Missing, with a delicious few bars of pedal steel, is David’s plea for a lady to join him in paradise. Accidents has the best lyric on the album; it’s a songwriter’s round tune about the serendipity of life and how ‘accidents don’t just happen’ randomly.

Past My Bud Time is a phenomenal title; it’s not ‘bedtime’ but Bud Time!! It opens with David playing a working man who has to work overtime; the chorus rhymes ‘cutie/koozie’. Then he gets a flat tyre and, worst of all, his partner has taken the last beer from the fridge!! More happily, he gets off on time and celebrates on Cold Beer Time.

The album has four solo acoustic tracks tacked on to the end, including one that didn’t make the cut on the album proper. Everything That Glitters Is Not Gold is an imagistic narrative song where David reminisces over his ex and how she ‘used to ride in your rhinestones’. It’s a modern-day version of the poetic ‘song to a closed door’ where the narrator does not expect any reply, especially with ‘little Kacey’ missing her mum and asking where she is.

If David can afford to leave songs like this off an album, he must be a prolific songwriter. A future Texas Radio Hall of Famer who might follow Parker, Randall and CoJo into Nashville, should the opportunity arise. Otherwise he can be an Aaron Watson or Randy Rogers figure, content to sing songs to Texans for decades to come.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Sam Grow and Town Mountain

October 26, 2022

Sam Grow – Manchester

This album is co-produced by Colt Ford, one of the progenitors of bro-country who wrote Dirt Road Anthem. Singer Sam Grow is a more traditional singer rather than a rapper or speak-singer, although Manchester has all the ingredients of a classic Jason Aldean album: wide-open choruses, guitar solos, basic imagery and direct lyrics. I wonder if this has slipped out of fashion, even though it will always have an audience.

There are breakup songs by the barrel. On the punchy Live It Down, Sam’s life contrasts with a girl ‘in a new time zone’ putting happy pictures on social media; on Past A Heartbreak, the female protagonist is played by singer ACORN, who has moved on with her life; the roles are reversed on Over Me By Now, with his ex crawling back to Sam. He co-wrote Truck in the Yard, where our narrator is sad that it ain’t his truck coming home to the woman he used to have.

The lack of variety is becoming dull, as happens on Aldean’s albums.  The second side begins with Rascal Flattsish piano on the song Good At Lyin’, yet another breakup song, this one disguised as a series of statements which are actually the reverse of what Sam thinks, eg ‘I like to drink alone because I like my own space’. If I Had My Way is a four-chord song which had CJ Solar in the room and includes the lyric ‘middle finger flipped up’, which is very Aldeanish.

Maybe is a proper country song with a nice lyrical hook, but by track nine (Past A Heartbreak) we’ve already had eight breakup songs. Staying Over (great title) is probably the best, implying that an expired relationship cannot be rekindled; ‘every touch is just taking me higher’ sounds like a line that has been on every Aldean album. Found Love (‘when I found you’) is a power ballad which should have come far earlier in the tracklist to break up the bulwark of break-up songs. 

As befits a country album, there’s a song set in a barroom which compares a hook-up to a sip of Cheap Whiskey. Bar Like This was written with the great Terry McBride, who brings his ear for a nagging hook to a song which has characters celebrating divorce or promotion or just living itself. It closes the album, by which time many listeners may have tuned out; more songs like this would have made the album far stronger.

Town Mountain – Lines In The Levee

New West Records is a home for American artists who make American music. American Aquarium, Andrew Combs and Asleep at the Wheel are on it, and that’s just the As. Ben Folds, Buddy Miller (the mastermind behind the music of TV show Nashville), Calexico, Drive-By Truckers, Giant Sand, Guided By Voices, Jason Isbell, Jerry Lee Lewis, John Hiatt and his daughter Lilly, Joshua Hedley, Los Lobos, Lucinda Williams, Neko Case, Nikki Lane, Rodney Crowell, The Secret Sisters, Sara Watkins, Son Volt, Steve Earle; all are New Westies. The label also owns the catalogues of the outlaws: Merle, Willie, Waylon, Kris, JR Cash.

All this is to say that any act signing to the label is already held in high esteem, the sort of musicians who appeal to classic rock’n’roll or country with a lyricism and depth that goes beyond whatever Music Row puts out as ‘country’. Town Mountain are new signings to New West and it seems to be a match made in honky-tonk heaven, given that according to the band’s banjo player Jess they ‘let the artist steer the ship’.

The band played the first Earl Scruggs Music Festival recently alongside bluegrass mainstays Molly Tuttle, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas and many more. The sextet come from Luke Combs’ hometown Asheville in North Carolina, a mountainous state which deserves its own radio show if I ever get tired of the Red Dirt states of Texas and Oklahoma. Accordingly, the title and opening track has the typical Southern fiddle, harmonies and stomp common in bluegrass music.

Fans of Old Crow Medicine Show, Turnpike Troubadours and Avett Brothers – who are also from NC and seem too hackneyed a comparison with Town Mountain – will find much to enjoy in this album. As a Counting Crows fan, I love any bands where it feels like there’s a party in the studio. Comeback Kid, with mandolin, fiddle and banjo, is a fine example of their sound.

The great outdoors are all over the album. Magnolia blooms on Distant Line, while ‘the river’s riding high’ on Seasons Don’t Change, which has a magnificent solo violin section played with control and poise by Bobby Britt, a graduate of Berklee College. This bleeds into Daydream Quarantina, whose lyrics look back on a time before the pandemic. Charley Pride, who passed away from the virus in 2020, also gets a toast.

Big Decisions has the narrator heading out to California, with the great lyric ‘that’s a damn I’m just through givin’ emphasising his quest. Firebound Road has a punchline to go with its mandolin and fiddle solos: at a gig in California they are advertised as Mountain Town! This doesn’t deter them from touring the USA this fall and winter, though it may make venue managers double-check the marquee sign!

The variety of moods is excellent here, with the hyperactive American Family balancing out the stately, pessimistic Unsung Heroes. The six-minute closer Lean Into The Blue is the Town Mountain take on the break-up song. Sam Grow should listen closely.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Kendell Marvel and Ben Burgess

October 25, 2022

Kendell Marvel – Come On Sunshine

Chris Stapleton is one of the symbols of contemporary country music, much against his own wishes. He is naturally shy and has to be physically pushed out on tour by his wife Morgane. I wonder if his mate Kendell Marvel also does some of the pushing.

I enjoyed Kendell’s 2018 album Lowdown & Lonesome, which included a Marvel/Stapleton composition Untangle My Mind, which Stapleton recorded on his From A Room project. The behatted reluctant one appears on this album’s stately opening track Don’t Tell Me How To Drink, one for the barflies and downtrodden.

Stapleton also co-wrote and does backing vocals on Never Lovin’ You, a chugger of a love song with a magnificently squealing solo. Fool Like Me is in the Stapleton wheelhouse, with Kendell’s narrator following the yacht-rock template of the putz who couldn’t seal the deal. The understated arrangement gives it the feel of a torch ballad.

Producer Beau Bedford, who worked on the Sunny Sweeney album and the Jonathan Terrell EP, co-produces with Kendell. Defiance is a theme on the album, from a man who has long settled into the person he turned into: Keep Doing Your Thing is swampy and fun, with another neat solo interrupting the lyric; Hell Bent on Hard Times is contemplative and similar in tenor to tracks by Kendell’s friends John and TJ Osborne; Young Kolby Cooper helped him with Habits, a toe-tapper sung from the perspective of a stubborn man, an ‘old dog’ who can’t ‘jive’ with new tricks.

Dan Auerbach is in the credits of the funky Off My Mind, where Kendell is ‘having one hell of a time’ drinking his cares away. He is helped by a honky-tonk piano, of which we hear too little in contemporary country music.

The title track is another one of those songs that uses the elements as a metaphor to conjure up a prayer in a lightly gospely manner (check out those vocalised oohs from the backing vocalists). The great line ‘why when I get so high do I get so low?’ is effortless writing, as is ‘soul food fatten up the hypocrites’ on Put It in the Plate, a diatribe against Sunday services which kicks off the album’s second side.

Closing track Dyin’ Isn’t Cheap ties everything together: imagery (‘an empty Bourbon bottle by the bed’) and meditation as to how expensive it is to drink and smoke and suffer from all that heartbreak and those bad habits. What makes this album great is that Kendell’s voice gives credence to the stories. He’s an underrated artist.

Ben Burgess – Tears The Size of Texas

The man from Dallas who wrote Whiskey Glasses for Morgan Wallen as well as plenty of tracks on his 77-week number one album Dangerous finally follows Ernest and Hardy in making a solo album. It’s a Joey Moi production on Big Loud Records; why change the formula?

He’s also had one foot in the pop sphere, touring with Guy Sebastian in Australia and working with Diplo. Knowing what makes money, although I am sure he’s following his muse too, he’s a country artist whose genre can almost be called Big Loud Country.

Ben begins with the title track, which was the big impact track to promote the album. The vocal sits alongside those of Ernest, Hardy and Wallen, while the subject of the track is heartbreak with a Texas theme (‘how Wild the West is’). Sick and Tired is Big Loud Country-by-numbers: we begin with some rural choral harmonies, there’s a full-throated verse and a lyrical spin on the chorus (‘I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired’) over some farmer’s chords. The miracle is that Hardy, Ernest or Wallen don’t come in for the second verse, Hixtape style.

White Picket Fence (which should not be built ‘around a house of cards’) and the Wallenesque Kill A Man – where Ben says he’d rather not know the name of his ex’s new flame lest jealousy cause murder – are written with Kevin Kadish, who I hope invested the All About That Bass money wisely. Kadish also co-wrote the gentle High Road, about a crisis in a relationship which can be worked out with a ‘Bud from my buddy’.

There’s a lot of wisdom in Big Loud Country, where flower shops have good days and dead folk can go give heaven some hell. When We Die kicks into gear about 70 seconds in to reveal that it’s a love song rather than a meditation on dying. Heartbreak, which starts the second side, concludes that ‘heartbreak makes the world go round’ and that without falling out of love ‘there wouldn’t be no Vegas’. I wonder if Ben will get a free round of drinks when he next pops over there.

Jackson had Jesse Frasure, Jessie Jo Decker and Brandy Clark in the room, who combine for one of those songs praying that a place ‘don’t take my girl’. Hunter Phelps was there for Started A Band, one of those songs about the power of music, with a neat narrative twist that I won’t give away; it’s nice to hear lighters being mentioned in a country song. The album closer Ain’t Got No Phone sounds like a demo, with a stomp on every beat and some bluesy guitar picking.

That track underlines my issue with the album as a whole. For all the terrific writing and vocal performances, there is a sonic sameness on this album which, although commercially appealing, does dull very quickly. It’s good that Big Loud Country supports people who write their own material; in the Age of Wallen, everyone in the brackets seems to go on to have a career.

There’s a reason the CEO of the label is called Craig Wiseman, a man who is very wise.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Matt Owens and Samuel James Taylor

October 24, 2022

Matt Owens & the Delusional Vanity Project – Beer For The Horses

UK Americana is another made-up genre that puts misfit acts into a box. Matt Owens was part of Noah & The Whale, who came up in the same South London scene as Mumford & Sons and Laura Marling. Matt now has a delusional vanity project, which is what he calls his band, and this is his third solo release.

The great Robert Vincent was in the studio helping to produce the album, which Matt launches at Sutton’s Sound Lounge on November 3. If British country is about good stories with traditional arrangements, then Matt Owens is a shoo-in for Blackpool’s British Country Music Festival in 2023. The title If You Won’t Leave Me, I’ll Find Someone That Will deserves a song to match it. ‘Nepotist mensch’ is a pleasant line in the second verse of a song full of oomph.

The opening track Genie and the Bottle reminds me of a Celtic act like The Waterboys or The Undertones, with Matt’s voice taking on the same tenor as Mike Scott’s or Feargal Sharkey’s. After a minute of solo vocals, a drum loop comes in and the band joins in to set the tone for the album.

The title track is a stomper with Matt’s narrator remembering an old flame who made him happy (‘I hope you had fun’), while the rocking 300 Shows asks the listener if they can do what the band do, ‘night after night, just the band and the crew’.

The softness of Where He Goes and Go Easy On Yourself – a nice counsel about keeping the pressure off one’s shoulders as a father or son – are balanced by the chugging Drinking by the River. That song is immediately followed by Gonna Keep Some of These Vices Around (another fine title). The bridge of Up To Here gets stuck on a G chord, as if the narrator is also stuck. The lyrics include wordplay about turning over a new leaf and rounds of ‘fine vermouth’.

Numbered Days (For Little Mammoths) concludes the album on a meta note, with gear in a van (‘guitars up with the snare’) to play a wedding and recording sessions where the drum sound needs fine-tuning (‘wait till there’s a crowd!’). Yet there’s melancholy because, Matt says, ‘I miss these things’.

This is the type of album that unfurls itself over multiple listens, as more lyrics poke out of the gruff delivery and the arrangements grow in sumptuousness through familiarity.

Samuel James Taylor – Wild Tales and Broken Hearts

From the city of Sheffield that brought us Pulp, Cabaret Voltaire and Arctic Monkeys, Samuel James Taylor came up as part of the band Dead Like Harry. In 2021 he headed to Nashville and went back to the singer/songwriters who had first made him pick up an instrument.

Wild Tales and Broken Hearts starts the album off with a sombre toe-tapper (‘love is your asylum’ is a fun lyric), sung from the back of the throat with gusto. A harmonica enters after the second chorus. Exquisite Pain sounds like the title of a Nine Inch Nails album and the song is a downbeat ditty where Samuel is asking a loved one what has changed. He asks someone, perhaps the same person, to ‘take a chance on our history and turn back time’ on the optimistic Through the Silence and the Half Light.

The ballads include I Kissed Your Sister by the Apple Tree (‘just keep your eyes on me’) and Churchville Avenue, a vignette with familiar chords and a warm vocal set in the former bedroom of a mystery addressee. Samuel concludes that ‘the past is just a trick’.

Musicality is excellent throughout. Virginia Girl (‘dance with the future in the palm of your hand’) and Rolling Thunder (‘the rain is falling heavy, it’s coming for me soon’) are both rhythmic and very hooky. There are some lush diminished chords on Faith, Hope and Fortune, a meditative singer/songwriter tune where our narrator is ‘still diving for pearls’, which seems like an obvious allusion to the song Shipbuilding, written by Elvis Costello.

Rage and Fight is a love song to someone who is ‘everything’, with a soupcon of harmonica underlining the passion Samuel feels. She is the Map of Love (as per the song’s title) and ‘everything that’s right’, while the melody of The Best Is Yet To Come is gossamer thin but holds up the world, ending on an unresolved chord.

Closing track Time May Dance is a meditation on getting old with a lovely middle section and plainly delivered lyrics. This is a fine tribute to singer/songwriters from the past and deserves to be heard.

Country Music Week – Tenille Townes, Elvie Shane and Matt Stell

October 24, 2022

If I were in charge of the country – and judging by the Year of Three PMs, it’s my turn soon – I would force people who talk though the quiet bits of gigs to do community service. Both gigs under discussion were rather interrupted by loud voices in the crowd, which were not policed and seem to point to the fact that as long as people pay their money at the door, they can do what they like. Is that an allegory for the country, or just an overreach?

I was quite upset that When I Meet My Maker, a quite brilliant song performed at London’s Scala by award-winning Canadian country star Tenille Townes, was ruined by a couple of chuntering ladies behind me. Two blokes to my left were even louder. Perhaps I should ‘get barrier’ and stand near the front because the back of the room seems to give licence to such imbeciles.

Tenille and her band, reduced to guitarist and drummer, filled the Scala with sound, and the singer and songwriter showed both sides of her art. Often it was Tenille playing solo, as on the encore of At Last or the modern standard Jersey on the Wall. Other times it was the trio smashing through rocking numbers like White Horse, When’s It Gonna Happen or Holding Out for the One.

As she had done at Country2Country 2022 in the O2 Arena, Tenille dropped in a verse of Sheryl Crow’s Steve McQueen. She also told a story about a guy who drove them from Cumbria to Bristol when their tour manager came down with the flu. A scared Ben Earle guested on When You Need It and more than matched Tenille’s lead, perhaps influenced by the massive held note at the end of one of the preceding songs. The Canadian wished a mazaltov to Crissie, Ben’s fellow Shire, whose twins were born in September.

Tenille ended up in tears, overwhelmed by the support of a strong UK fanbase. Matt Stell is returning to the O2 Arena in March 2023 and tested the waters at Bush Hall at the conclusion of Country Music Week, which also welcomed Breland, Caitlyn Smith and the exciting Song Suffragettes movement led by Kalie Shorr, which may well become a permanent fixture in the UK soon.

Elvie Shane, whose hit My Boy was left until the end, was nursing a two-day flu which prevented him from playing the previous day’s songwriter’s round. He joined Matt in a sort of writer’s line, with the pair alternating songs from their respective projects. Elvie winked at the crowd when he said a C2C appearance was ‘TBD’, but his redneck act suited Bush Hall. If he ends up playing Indigo2 or the O2 Arena itself in the spring, he’ll win over thousands more with his personality and full-throttle attitude.

Wouldn’t you know it, two oafs in the balcony upstairs whooped at irregular intervals, even louder than Elvie’s self-described ‘yelling in key’. He yelled/played plenty of his album Backslider, restarting the best track Love, Cold Beer, Cheap Smokes and giving great readings of I Will Run, Sundress, County Roads, Rocket Science and My Kinda Trouble. A new song called Baptised was given a big build-up by Matt, who bantered well with Elvie and shared an end-of-term feeling.

Matt was more laid back, singing ‘Ex-Boyfriend Country’ about love and relationships from his two EPs and well as coming out with an aphorism: ‘In America, 200 years is old. In Europe, 200 miles is far.’ His first song was the brilliant Better Than That and throughout the night he offered up plenty of fab singles: That Ain’t Me No More, Boyfriend Season and Man Made, plus his breakthrough song Prayed For You.

Matt also included the stuttering Sadie (‘S-s-s-Sadie!!’) and the passionate I Bet Whiskey Would, which was based around a meet-cute at a wedding reception and had the Music Row style rapid fire lyrical delivery attached to a hooky melody. These are songs built for a full band on the big stage, but it was excellent to hear them with cajon and acoustic accompaniment.

If only the eejits shut up, the gig would be better. Otherwise, Country Music Week provided a useful stopgap between CMA Fest and Country2Country and provided a route to market for stars who wanted to hit a key overseas market.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Kenny Foster and Pillbox Patti

October 21, 2022

Kenny Foster – Somewhere In Middle America

I imagine there will be ecstatic reviews across the board for this album, which I’ve known about for a year. Kenny had finished it in 2021 and wanted to play it to key UK reviewers and, also, me. I didn’t take any notes about the album, some of which was played live by Kenny in a room under a pub, but I was swept away by the concept, which is clear in the title.

Kenny has since become a father and wisely took a sabbatical before unleashing the album on to the rest of the world. He’s a regular visitor to the UK, playing songwriter showcases as well as festivals like Millport and Country2Country. His face is as well-known as his love of Tottenham Hotspur, while many fans fell in love with his album Deep Cuts way back in 2017. Not many fans also shared a train journey back from Birmingham to London with Kenny and his wife Sara, but I couldn’t possibly say who that fan was.

Somewhere In Middle America has had support from Bob Harris, making Kenny the latest in a long line of Bob-approved acts like Jason Isbell, Charlie Worsham and Sam Outlaw. Those three acts combine to form the sonic template for the album, with a mix of wide-open anthems and the sort of inner monologues common on Deep Cuts.

The kid from Joplin, Missouri looks back on his younger and more vulnerable days. They called him and his friends the Poor Kids, the ‘got-it-from-the-goodwill-store kids’ with ‘a mattress for a trampoline’. The production on that track and throughout the LP is radio-ready. The voice is direct and pure even before the sublime middle eight, perhaps the musical moment of the year, arrives after the second chorus.

A man who writes hundreds of songs a year – including one called Safe Word which didn’t make the tracklist!! – Kenny has picked 13 of his finest here on a country theme. They include Said To Somebody, which has a heck of a kicker (‘things you wish you said to somebody’) which should prompt the listener to call a loved one. Find The Others is a jubilant campfire singalong of universal brotherhood which may turn into his career song and a longterm set closer.

There’s a lot of affection for, one presumes, Kenny’s own dad on closing track The Same, which complements Copy Paste Repeat. Both are sombre, humane summations of small-town life – he sings ‘graduate, find love, get married’ on the latter – and Kenny, the Nashville-based singer/songwriter, has spent his career in opposition to it. Indeed, Country Heart could be about Kenny himself, with the song’s avatar a ‘city girl…a wildflower child’ who hears crickets in the chorus. Smartly, we get crickets chirruping in the song’s fadeout.

You can’t escape your upbringing in Middle America, because you learn about life there. Driveway, with its huge drums and percussive guitar part, is another reminiscin’ song with a magnificent chorus. Farmer is a welcome ode to rural life as Kenny realises he has inherited some of the traits of men who till the land; after all, ‘most of the work the folks don’t see’ can be applied to songwriting, fatherhood or being a good husband.

In another arrangement, For What It’s Worth could be gospel but comes out as a country boogie from a ‘worn-out sole on some borrowed boots’. The uptempo love song Dreams Change and the dobro-dusted Good For Growing Up (which is a riff on legendary song The House That Built Me) remind me of the sort of tunes that Charlie Worsham writes about the passage of time and the importance of a strong romantic partner and a front porch to sit and think.

Balancing that pair is The One, where Kenny realises that he was only a detour as his former belle treated him as a warm-up act for her eventual suitor. ‘I was almost but not quite’ is the most sombre lyric on the album. For a true country music album full of wisdom even beyond Kenny’s advanced years, right up until the final Day In The Life-type chord, head to Somewhere in Middle America.

As a postscript, here is one of the finest ‘About’ pages on any artist website.

Pillbox Patti – Florida

No sooner had she popped up on Lindeville, the new project helmed by Ashley McBryde, than Nicolette Hayford’s alter ego gets eight songs of her own, collected on Florida. Written with the same guys from that writers’ retreat – Ashley, Aaron Raitiere, Benjy Davis, Connie Harrington, Brandy Clark and others – it also comes out on Monument Records, the imprint run by Shane McAnally.

I’ll refer to Patti as Nicolette, which is a cool name for a singer too. With a voice that has the same lingering ennui as those of Kassi Ashton or Natalie Hemby, she begins with Good People, about people with ‘bad habits…even Jesus had his reasons for turning water into wine!’ That’s not the most shocking line on the record.

Valentine’s Day is a three-minute movie with sparse accompaniment, foregrounding Nicolette’s story of what seems to be a teenage abortion, ‘lying on a cold steel table’ with people protesting outside the building. Suwanee is a happier tune, with an opening tableau of Stepford Wives-type figures with ‘big ass earrings’ and bombastic boasting from Nicolette about being ‘free bird free in an endless summer’.

Eat Pray Drugs must have been a title one of the many A-Listers had carried around with them for a while. The song that resulted is a credo of small-town life and those three pastimes. Young and Stupid is a reminiscin’ song where Nicolette compares her current life to when ‘all I needed was a Pontiac’. Her delivery reminds me of that of Taylor Swift, which would make Pillbox Patti a decent opening act for Taylor.

Hookin Up is the album’s centrepiece and seems to be influenced by weird indie-rock acts like St Vincent and Panda Bear. Its chaotic final minute contains a brass instrument, perhaps a trombone, and assorted vocal contributions from the gang. It’s kooky and charming.

The smouldering driving song Candy Cigarettes (‘who’s a big girl now?’ she asks herself) is immaculately produced by Park Chisholm who – fun fact! – is mates with Kevin Costner. Album closer 25 MPH Town is driven by a one-note piano motif which sets another lyric about teenage love: ‘Never grow up even if you get out’ must chime with listeners who came from small towns and moved to a city like Nashville.

As with Hardy, who provided both Florida Georgia Line and Morgan Wallen with hits before becoming a noted solo act, Nicolette has stepped out of the brackets in the credits and into her own artistic journey. I hope she gets over to the UK soon.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Nikki Lane and Sunny Sweeney

October 19, 2022

Nikki Lane – Denim & Diamonds

I really enjoyed Nikki Lane’s fourth album Highway Queen, which came out as long ago as 2017 and included fab songs like Jackpot and 700,000 Rednecks that sat neatly in the aisle between Brandy Clark and Brandi Carlile, with a little bit of Pistol Annies and Lily Hiatt.

This new album, as most reviews will probably point out, has been produced by Josh Homme, who also worked on Humbug, the underrated third album by Arctic Monkeys. It begins with a bass-driven chugger called First High, with an itchy chorus and a great vocal.

The title track follows the template, with some double-tracked vocals and what sounds like a guiro in the form of a plastic bottle in the mix. Nikki boasts that she can ‘make her own damn denim and diamonds’, an independence echoed on the song Born Tough, a song where the narrator takes advice from her parents and learns ‘to play by my own rules’. That’s rock’n’roll and yet, because it’s Nikki’s life in a song, also country.

There’s some lush pedal steel on Faded, with some low harmonies by Josh, while album closer Chimayo is grounded by an acoustic guitar part and atmospheric production that pushes Nikki’s vocals to the top of the mix.

A lot of the album’s lyrics deal in self-help: Try Harder has a chirpy major-key arrangement to emphasise Nikki’s advice to power through any hardships; Good Enough kicks off the album’s second side with a plea to be patient; and Live/Love notes that ‘you’ve gotta stay true to what you do’.

Pass It Down (‘Change don’t come till you let it out’) is a jubilant country song which will sound tremendous live at the Bowery Ballroom in New York at the start of December. It’s Houston and Austin this week, and Nikki’s rootsy sound will impress the Texan crowds if they know what’s good for them.

Sunny Sweeney – Married Alone

Talking of Texans, Sunny Sweeney returns with her first album in five years on her Aunt Daddy label. In 2011, she had major label support for her album Concrete, a lost gem which featured some A-List writers (Lori McKenna, Brett James, Bob DiPiero) and the big single From A Table Away, which made the Hot 100 but stalled at 10 on country radio (sometimes, as the DJ Gary Davies often says, we just don’t get it right).

Married Alone is co-produced by Paul Cauthen and Beau Bedford, who impressed me on Paul’s album earlier this year. They frame Sunny’s voice with traditional instrumentation, and the themes suit a lady in her forties. ‘You can tie me up but baby you can’t tie me down’ is the introductory chorus to the album on Tie Me Up.

Someday You’ll Call My Name is spikier and more of a hoedown, and How’d I End Up Lonely Again brings the tempo down (‘another wrong turn, another dead end’) to prove Sunny’s versatility. Wasting One On You has the backing harmonies, foregrounded horns and Hammond organ of a Muscle Shoals classic.

The title track is a proper country song (‘Together apart, married alone’ coos Sunny over reverberating guitars) co-written by Reba McEntire’s daughter Autumn and features harmonies from the mighty Vince Gill who plays the part of the husband. Leaving Is My Middle Name is set at a bar and our narrator is a femme fatale: ‘a heartache waiting to happen, a chance you don’t want to take’. Sunny gets inside the character and the arrangement matches the lyric perfectly.

There are other artists co-signing the project: Want You To Miss Me is a Sweeney/Caitlyn Smith write with the hook ‘I don’t want you back, I just want you to miss me’; and the great Kendall Marvel provides Sunny with a torch song called Fool Like Me, which is in the tradition of She’s Got You.

Lori McKenna is the main collaborator on the album, bringing her wisdom to four of the tracks on the album. She and Heather Morgan were in the room for the melancholic Easy As Hello (‘I finally realised enough is enough’), which recalls the mood of From A Table Away and has a gorgeous instrumental coda. Lori also co-wrote A Song Can’t Fix Everything, a superlatively arranged track with an extremely good vocal performance from Sunny; All I Don’t Need, a four-minute movie where the narrator tries to resist falling in love with her fellow traveller; and closing track Still Here.

That track neatly sums up the mission statement of this album: grown-up country music where Sunny ponders affairs of the heart. ‘Some nights the world tries to tell you that you’re alright’ is what she sings, rewarding her steadfastness and fidelity either to her beloved or to life itself. This will comfort so many listeners and Sunny ought to return to the UK in 2023 after launching the album at Millport and The Long Road this year.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Miko Marks & the Resurrectors and Legends of Country

October 18, 2022

Miko Marks and the Resurrectors – Feel Like Going Home

I made up a genre a few months ago called Thinkpiece Country: country music which provides as much food for the brain as for the ears.

Miko Marks, who fits snugly in that genre, had a stab at being a country star in the mid-2000s, but after 9/11 and with a panoply of Garth replacements there wasn’t much scope for Miko’s music, just as there wouldn’t be for the music of her good friend Rissi Palmer. Rissi is now the matriarch of the efforts to give voice to non-white voices in the genre, foremost of whom is Miko; indeed, it was Rissi who told Miko that she was to make her debut at the Grand Ole Opry in autumn 2022, where she met Garth and Trisha Yearwood.

Born in Michigan, Miko follows two releases from 2021 – the album Our Country and the Race Records EP – with a full-length album released on her Redtone label. The twang of those independent releases in the 2000s has vanished, replaced by a lot of open-throated Mavis Staples-type held notes.

The title track starts as Miko means to go on, with gospely arrangements and passionate vocal contributions. At The Long Road, Miko previewed much of the album, including the marvellous One More Night and the emotional centrepiece of the album, the six-minute piano-led Peace of Mind.

River features some sublime mouth organ and slide guitar, with The Other Side (‘I ain’t looking for your shelter’) bursting out of its swampy opening few minutes into a guitar wigout. Trouble has a good time stomp and a screed of acerbic lyrics that address politicians and the modern world.

Conversely, ‘the willows weep’ on The Good Life where Miko seeks ‘strength in my struggle’ with similar sentiments shown on Lay Your Burdens Down and Deliver Me. The latter could have gone on for another five minutes had the song not faded out! The album ends with Jubilee, which repeats its title in the manner of Let It Be.

If you are preached a gospel, it is up to you as the listener to spread it. I expect Miko will return to the UK often as she finally gets her reckoning and UK listeners should welcome her next year and beyond.

Legends of Country – Anything But Country

Jof Owen has catapulted himself into the Festive 50 countdown of UK acts (coming mid-December) thanks to his first album in seven years. Jof’s day job is as a sub-editor at, for which he wrote this track-by-track guide to Anything But Country.

So thorough is the guide that I was thinking of just linking to it on the Twitter page @CountryWOL but, given that UK acts often choose to release EPs than LPs, it is a momentous event. I saw the band tour their last album Talk About Country and was won over by songs like Jelly and Jam and It’s A Long Way Back From A Dream, which might be the only country ditty about darts players.

Here, Jof starts with the title track which will bring wry smiles to anyone who hears friends or strangers say they don’t like the twang. They simply need a wise head to introduce them to the likes of Hank Williams Jr and Merle Haggard.

What Women Do and It Isn’t Easy Being A Man tackle fashionable gender politics. The former is a bit too close to a Holler Country editorial for my liking, but the latter is the album highlight: written with Peter from Jof’s twee-infused pop duo The Boy Least Likely To, the instrumentation is tremendous, with a twinkling piano part and some mellifluous horns.

There are a couple of love songs. Punchin’ has a key change and a twangin’ guitar solo (with no g), while the jaunty Single Again is informed by Jof’s divorce. The pair of Everything’s Going South and Funerals and Fiftieths, looking back on the days when couples danced to Neil Young in ‘that overly lit village hall’, are both fun songs about getting older.

Paul Heaton, whose music is also inspired by country, will love this album. New Year New Me is a song to sing on January 1: ‘I will, I’ll change!’ sounds hopeful and there’s a lot of empathy for the narrator who forswears takeaways and wants to ‘turn my life around’.

If That’s What It Takes is a song about the industry which might well be Jof’s life in a song: ‘I’ve been looking at the optics…need to learn some dance moves’ is one way our narrator could succeed, as well as wearing a baseball cap backwards. Chapeau for the rhyme of ‘Oasis/Friends in Low Places’.

The album closes with a song about Armageddon called It’s the End of the World. ‘I’ve packed a Puzzler magazine!!’ boasts Jof before the horn section comes in and John Prine gets a namecheck. As heard in his work with The Boy Least Likely To, Jof has a great grasp of the popular song and this is a fab second Legends of Country project. Must we wait seven years for the third??!

Ka-Ching…With Twang: Bailey Zimmerman and Callista Clark

October 17, 2022

Bailey Zimmerman – Leave The Light On EP

There was a piece written by the critic Chris Molanphy this month about Bad Habit by Steve Lacy, the number one song in the USA. He concluded that the charts of 2022 are being dominated by acts who succeed on TikTok with direct and emotional songs which spoke to the target market.

Nashville became aware of TikTok and, having made Priscilla Block a star, is proceeding to do the same with Bailey Zimmerman. Elektra, that great label of punk and folk acts, has enlisted the services of one of many young things who sang short songs on the Chinese-owned app.

Eight of them are on his debut EP, including the number 31 Hot 100 smash Fall In Love. It’s a song about how a new flame ‘don’t know you like I did…cos love’s a smoke ring wrapped around your finger’, the chorus is set to four very familiar chords and contains some woahs. There’s a massive guitar solo too. It is a Top 10 country radio tune after only four months of airplay, proving that country radio follows the market these days. How many fans of Bailey care if he’s on country stations?

After an unnecessary spoken word intro, Never Leave opens the EP. You can hear instantly why Bailey has a record deal: his voice has a Morgan Wallenesque quiver and the lyrics are direct (‘I’ll fight for you, I’ll fight for us’). The production is as bland as possible for maximum TikTokage.

On Waiting, he wants to hear from his beloved, with dustings of fiddle, pedal steel and mandolin over the Don’t Stop Believing chord sequence. House On Fire, already the title of a Mimi Webb pop hit, is a ballad which rhymes ‘fire and gasoline’ with ‘back to you and me’. There is violin here too, so at least Bailey is working with traditional instruments rather than loops, but the songs don’t reinvent the wheel in spite of his pleasant voice.

Rock and a Hard Place, a throaty acoustic tune where ‘rock’ refers to a wedding ring, was the second biggest country song in America at one point and charted at 24 on the Hot 100. Popular music has always been driven by things other than the music – dancing, image and celebrity to name three – and it is hard to know how much of Bailey’s success is the result of looking good on a tiny screen or the songs themselves.

Where It Ends, which ends the collection, was co-written by Joe London, a pop producer who may have had an influence on the radio-friendly pop-rock track. Amazingly, its chorus uses more or less the same chord sequence as Fall In Love, although this song is about falling out of love, with red flags and ‘too much pride’ to repeat old mistakes.

From the Fall is a four-chord loop with a lyric about ‘hanging on by a thread’ and, crazily, ‘writing these letters’ (can’t he put it in an email?). Trainwreck is another heartbreak song and it does not surprise me in the slightest that it’s a Morgan Wallen co-write; it has the sort of delayed guitars that Creed or Nickelback had in 2001, proving once again Tom Petty’s adage that country music is ‘bad rock with a fiddle’.

Doesn’t mean it doesn’t keep selling. If Bailey can parlay his voice and face into a career, with the help of Music Row, it proves that the old talent system is alive and well regardless of where the talent is discovered.

Callista Clark – Real To Me: The Way I Feel

On the other hand, as Callista Clark has done, you can sign to Taylor Swift’s old label and fill a Taylor-shaped gap in the market.

I suppose it works for a new artist like Callista to release an album in two parts, the first five songs from which were included on a 2021 EP called Real To Me.

The five new songs, which form The Way I Feel, include Gave It Back Broken, which was written with Lauren Alaina’s friend Emily Shackleton and is a heartbreak ballad fit for Lauren herself. ‘It’s all on me for expecting some honesty’ is a good line, and the song is placed at track two on the album to emphasise that Callista isn’t just the poppy It’s Cause I Am gal.

As you would expect from an album released on Big Machine, Callista has been teamed up with some of the best writers in town. Worst Guy Ever, written with Emily Weisband, obviously recalls those heartbreak songs written by Taylor Swift in about 2008, or Kelsea Ballerini in 2014 (there is a template for young girls in country). Yet it’s from a smart angle, with Callista imagining that she was the guy letting down a girl.

Brave Girl (written with Ben Johnson) will appeal to other teenage girls who are afraid to be their true selves, while Wish You Wouldn’t, like the track Real To Me, has an MOR pop production with some bluesy chords. It underscores a lyric about how Callista is tempted by ‘the sound of you and me together’ and ignores any risk of getting hurt when an ex calls. It’s pop music in the Maren vein and should do well.

Maren has in the past benefitted from the golden touch of Jimmy Robbins, who helps out on Sad, the fifth new song released as part of Callista’s album proper. It has a magnificent chorus on which she asks why she isn’t gloomy about breaking up. I also spotted the phrase ‘hard-to-forgetter’.

I do wonder if Taylor Swift would have been as successful as she was in the mid-2000s if she had come up now. For a young singer like Callista or Bailey, music is almost secondary to the personality which comes across on TikTok. Both Elektra and Big Machine need a return on their investment, so expect to hear a lot of Bailey Zimmerman and Callista Clark in the next year.