Here’s some country-pop from a lady who hits current trends. Alannah was born in Minnesota, went to college in Wisconsin but is now based in Music City, having moved away from an intensive career in field hockey.
With a pure vocal tone without much vibrato, she coos lyrics about love and stuff on the fluffy opener Something Like That (‘all I want is a little more conversation’). On the track On My Own, a guitar plonks along while Alannah mourns turning 30: all her friends are getting married but she ‘wasted so much time, put all my dreams aside’ for a man who didn’t love her back. The stacked harmonies add interest to a track which will make the listener empathise with her, with nobody there to dry her tears. Oof.
To counter the sadness, Back To Me is 99% Cowboy Casanova by Carrie Underwood, reversing the narrative and making Alannah the temptress who will lure the object of the song back to her. The chorus contains the line ‘karma’s gonna get ya’ as well as some magnificent guitar hooks that charmed me. Take It Slow has a gentle chug over which the narrator laments going ‘full speed ahead, nowhere fast’, calling for ‘patience to see where this can go’.
Co-writer Will Gittens appears on Can I Call, where Guy and Girl are physically apart and longing to speak to one another. There’s a fiddle line in the chorus to amp up the mawkishness and melancholy, which will chime with many listeners.
Hopefully an album will follow but this is an impressive handful of pop songs.
Tim Montana – Reno EP
Tim Montana, who is from that state, offers a six-pack of country-rock on this EP, where he has worked with some A-List writers and performers and, in Michael Knox, the man behind the Muscular Country sound of Jason Aldean. Tim is out on tour this year with Koe Wetzel and opening for the co-headline tour from Lee Brice and Michael Ray, so he should gain hundreds of new fans.
California Love – yes, THAT California Love – has drums from Matt Sorum, who is Slash’s right-hand man and regular drummer, as well as guitars from Billy Gibbons. Tim appeared with Lee, Michael, Billy and Kid Rock on a pile-up track from Michael’s album last year; here he takes Dr Dre and Tupac’s parts, shouting out the great state of California. I like it, plenty won’t, but it points to a future of country stars looking to hiphop as an influence on their live sets because their fans will chant it back at them.
Tim lands on more comfortable terrain for people scared by Dr Dre who, let us not forget, brought together stars of hiphop for this year’s Superbowl Half Time Show. Adam Sanders, who wrote Ain’t Worth The Whiskey, helps out on American Dream, a four-chord loop with some light whistling over which Tim paints a picture of how ‘we’re all alright…getting by with a Busch Lite’.
Real Good People features Colbie Caillat, who was last heard in the band Gone West which disbanded after her marriage dissolved too; the song is about keeping on keeping on, as Tim and Colbie ally themselves with the ‘hard livin’ folk’ who will probably show up to see Tim perform with Lee Brice and Michael Ray.
Jeremy Bussey, who wrote Ashley McBryde’s career song Girl Goin’ Nowhere, is between the brackets on Stoned On You, a waltz full of melancholy and regret where Tim’s narrator ‘ain’t found an up’ that doesn’t stop him feeling down.
A Guy Like Me is another one of those self-aggrandising, club-friendly tracks about how the singer is going to raise hell as ‘a fistful of bourbon’. The EP’s title track looks forward to how messed up (not the actual lyric) Tim will get ‘trashed in this casino’ while drinking away a ruined relationship. There is a diminished fifth chord (my favourite chord) in the middle section, where someone honks on a harmonica to underscore his loneliness.
Each of the five originals is pleasant, organic and with great production, lyrics and hooks. Give the Dr Dre cover a chance too, as it might well create the G-Funk Country genre.
Part of me wants to slather this review in hyperbole, full of superlatives and bolshy statements about the sextet being the Band for Our Times. Even the band themselves – SJ on vocals, Nicky on fiddle, Matt on keys, Ed on drums and Morgan twins Callum and Kieran swapping between guitar and bass – would prefer me not to describe them as the finest young band in Britain, or emphasise their supreme confidence, their masterful control of material and their eclectic setlist which included a surprise appearance of an old tune sprinkled in with future classics.
So I won’t do that.
Instead I’ll kvell in pride at how a band I first saw in 2016 have gradually become a must-see live act who have honed their live set into a proper hour of entertainment. I felt like Jon Landau seeing Bruce Springsteen or the guys from Subpop seeing Nirvana, who knew that the music they were witnessing could affect millions of lives. In a business which has contracted infinitesimally since the advent of downloads and streaming, the live set has returned to its place as the most important aspect of musical entertainment. Even major labels see more value in monetising their catalogue than in promoting newer acts.
Hence, bands need to be as tight and exciting as possible to convince an audience to support them, and for their records to push people towards the live show where they can recoup the sunk costs of production and promotion. It’s a business, man.
A special mention goes to the band’s accomplished opening acts. Demi Marriner is a supremely underrated singer/songwriter who will one day host a whole evening of entertainment where, as she did for 30 minutes in Putney, she talks to herself and remembers to play songs from an album which comes out at the end of the year. Little Boy, which ended her set, is a future standard.
Jack Francis has a date in Brighton in May playing at an event organised by Bob and Myles Harris. With a voice that reminded me of Radio 2 stalwarts like William Prince and Tom Baxter, Jack is a tremendous songwriter who has crafted some gems including the magnificent, radio-ready Helena and the introspective A Little Love. Jack didn’t need to beg us to head to the merch table to buy his recent nine-track album, as several punters had already made up their minds. His music speaks for itself and the more people who discover it, the better.
I remember seeing Arcade Fire perform the songs Rebellion (Lies) and Neighborhood #3 (Power Out) on Later with Jools Holland and just laughing at the magnificence of the entire unit. They were hiding the many hours of experimentation and rehearsal which went into those epochal songs (which are far better than Wake Up, by the way, which I have never liked). I am sure Morganway do not want me to call them the British Arcade Fire, but until they send a cease-and-desist note, that’s what I’ll call them. (By the way, the Canadian group put out their first album in five years in May.)
Aside from SJ’s voice, which has never sounded better, there are four instruments which can take the lead at any one time. On their final tune Hurricane, each of keys, fiddle and guitar took an eight-bar solo, like at the end of the Beatles album Abbey Road. Matt slid his fingers, which sometimes were clothed in fingerless gloves, across the keyboard like a pro. Nicky was actually pogoing like a punk on her fiddle, a Zebedee who exuded elation and who duetted on occasion with both Kieran and Matt. Kieran himself seems to have added extra muscle mass to his arms after a tour playing rock riffs every night on one of several guitars which included a Flying V.
Beside him, his wife SJ went through about ten different styles of vocal: the gentleness of Sweetest Goodbye – the aforementioned surprise tune which SJ had to be reminded had been released on their ‘live album’ – the wide-open rock of new single Back To Zero and the siren call of Come Over. On those songs, from a forthcoming EP, all six members of the band took harmonies. Even Callum was surprised when Ed Bullinger thwacked the drums during a 30-second solo spot which certainly impressed the Bullinger family, who cheered from the back of the room. It was a perfect ‘end of the tour’ set which also coincided with SJ’s birthday. I hope the band enjoyed the two birthday cakes presented to her, one with her face on it. ‘I’ve peaked,’ smiled SJ.
The joy for someone who has supported a band from early on is seeing how much they still love playing old chestnuts which they must have played 200 times by now: My Love Ain’t Gonna Save You still smoulders, London Life still has a confident vocal from Callum and charming melodica solo from Matt, while Frozen In Our Time still broods.
I have now lost count of how many times I’ve seen the band. I’ve just counted ten: Buckle & Boots three times, Boisdale Canary Wharf, Slaughtered Lamb Farringdon, The Bedford Balham, Millport, British Country Music Festival and Country2Country twice or three times, plus Half Moon Putney. I also spotted some very familiar faces in the crowd who have good taste!
A recent support slot for Skunk Anansie at the UEA in Norwich had the legendary Skin showering them with praise – ‘How good were Morganway!’ she apparently said onstage – and the band will surely outgrow any desire to stay in the UK Americana or country scenes. Their genre is ‘Morganway’. They are now ready for enormous stages befitting their talent and, crucially and like all the best bands in rock music, togetherness.
‘We were in Elgin,’ the very tall, very bearded Drew Dixon tells me downstairs at the Green Note in Camden Town on the London leg of his five-date tour which should have taken place in April 2020. ‘One of my first meals in Scotland, I am embarrassed to say, was a California burrito, the most stereotypical thing.
Drew moved to Nashville 11 years ago, so he’s primed to break through any day now under the ’10-Year Town’ rule. His buddy is the tour drummer for Luke Combs, who must be able to provide burrito fanatic Drew with tips on the cuisine he’s been enjoying (I’d follow that Twitter account).
‘I’m in Scotland eating a burrito! I don’t know what I was thinking. It was ridiculous! I felt bad so I went and had some fish and chips which were amazing.’
Two days after the London date, Drew would spend Saturday night in Blackpool with touring buddy Gary Quinn – ‘I’ve been told it’s like Atlantic City!’ – and a few nights later he would play the Greater Manchester village of Walsden. In London, Backwoods Creek played a set of old and new tunes to open the evening’s entertainment, which was put on by Gavin and Sue Chittick, who are preparing for Country In The Afternoon at the end of May and Millport up in Scotland in August.
Before the hour of acoustic music from Drew, where he was joined by the electrifying Dean Parker on guitar, he spared 15 minutes for CWOL to the gentle sounds of Backwoods Creek warming up about ten feet away. Drew joined the guys on record and on the night on the song Momma’s Prayers, a rifftastic tune where it must have been a delight for the guys to finally play the song live.
‘It’s the first time I’ve seen them live in person,’ Drew enthused. ‘We stayed in touch throughout the lockdown and they had a song which they thought my voice would be good on.’ We must see more of this sort of Transatlantic collaboration, something The Shires have done in recent years with Lauren Alaina and Jimmie Allen, and Tim Prottey-Jones did with Stephanie Quayle.
Drew opened his set with Music’s Over, whose melancholic lyric is underscored by Drew’s patented mix of Delta Blues and Southern Gothic. ‘I’m still figuring that out,’ he says of his sound, which he had ‘as far back as when I was first learning how to write a song in my mother’s house in Columbia, South Carolina.
‘I went to college in Athens, Georgia, playing music there. I could never pinpoint what genre my music was falling under. Being in Nashville, surrounded by great songwriters, the sound evolved. Sometimes the songs come out more blues, sometimes more straightforward rock or roots or country. The storytelling and the lyrics is where the Southern Gothic comes from. There’s some dark undertones.’
This is evident on songs like Whiskey and Wine, where Drew notes that a relationship would never work because he’s kinda whiskey and she’s kinda wine.
As with the music of Backwoods Creek, sometimes the riff drives the song. Drew encored with the effervescent Run (‘as fast as you can’), while he also played Madame D’s, a song based on a strange dream about a brothel, and the brilliant rocker Help Me.
‘That song came from a riff I was messing around with for years. I got in the room with the right guy and sat down. The rest of the song fell in. Sometimes you have a chord progression first and someone will play something during a jam and you add that to it.’
Drew’s first single Dead Man was released in 2015. Seven years on, have his influences changed? ‘I don’t know if they’ve changed. I can tell whether it’s a song I would like to keep for myself or show to someone else because it’s more their genre.
‘The core of my influences is older music from the 50s to the 70s. If I find new stuff from that era, that helps. Today’s music like Marcus King or Brothers Osbourne, even Luke Combs. It’s so catchy but so well done, with a powerful voice. That’s part of the whole mess of chaos that you hope a song can come out of that.
‘I played drums and bass. I had fun with them but I wasn’t very good. I still love getting behind the drumset but I kept at the guitar, and I always felt more natural singing my own stuff myself.’
Having been in Nashville for ten years already, the next ten will be about touring, building on his first UK visit back in 2019. ‘I’m self-financing this. I don’t have label, or management, or publishing. There’s no one behind me funding it upfront, so I don’t have to pay it back.
‘After this tour, I’ll go back and look at the books and say, “This was worth it, this wasn’t.” Is it worth spending that amount on plane tickets, getting people from the US over here or using guys from here entirely? Where am I staying, how much am I spending on promotion?’
As a Carolinian, Drew is enthused by Luke Combs, who is from Asheville, NC. ‘Every song he puts out is incredible. Even the album tracks. There’s no animosity between North and South Carolina. It’s cool to see a guy that’s humble and talented and that surrounds himself with a great team. You like it when the good guys win.
‘Luke had such a singular experience because he walked in the room with the label with so much leverage. “This is what’s gonna happen or I’m out the door” and the label had to take it or leave it. TikTok wasn’t around back in 2015, 2016, but you also didn’t have to prove you can transfer that to ticket sales and make more money.
‘In Nashville, you hear songwriters sing their songs in the writers’ rounds and it sounds one way, then you hear them on the radio and it’s entirely different. The songwriters aren’t gonna complain about the cheques that come in the mail every month.’
Drew’s music sounds on record as it did at the Green Note, with some additional production to flesh the songs out in the studio. I hope we see a full-band show at some point, given the ferocity of the studio and band version of Run. Alternatively, such was his fondness for sad songs that Drew promised to ‘bum you out then dig you out of the hole!’ with a happy song. The variety was appealing.
A fine cover of the John Prine standard Angel From Montgomery showed Drew as a great interpreter of song. He previewed future sing Lovin’est Kind, a gospel blues which will sound massive, while the unreleased song Leather (‘life is like leather, ain’t meant to be flawless forever’) showed his skill in lyric writing. In a Luke Combs style he posted it on Instagram at the end of 2020; if the major artist who has it on old releases it, Drew will be able to pay bills much more easily and might be able to afford better hotel rooms in his next UK visit to promote the forthcoming EP.
‘I don’t want it to be anywhere near close to two years before I come back again,’ Drew sighs. Judging by the brilliant reaction in Camden, he’ll be back soon enough.
In the modern fashion, Chayce Beckham comes to market with a six-track EP rather than a full album. He was introduced to us on American Idol, a humble forklift operative with a voice that has what Aaron Watson would call commercial appeal. He’s already sent a song with Lindsay Ell to radio, which is a perfectly fine Country Duet that fits in with the current trend.
Chayce, whose voice possesses the same grit as Tim McGraw, has had fast-track access to some top Music Row writers. Ross Copperman produced five of the six tracks and co-wrote both the fist-pumping and euphoric Love To Burn and Tell Me Twice. That song has Chayce taking on board advice and experience, ‘taking time off with the ones you love’ and going to church and drinking beer, wanting to ‘hold on tight’ and ‘walk the line like Johnny said’ (if Johnny got royalties every time he was namechecked…).
Ben Hayslip was in the room for Where The River Goes, one of those songs about moving from A to B with a silky melody. I’ll Take The Bar is a solo write from Jordan Walker, formerly of the duo Walker McGuire. Priscilla Block claims ‘this is my bar’ on her new single, and this is a similar idea set to a middle-of-the-road, very Ross Copperman-patented backing track.
Shires producer Lindsay Rimes and Dustin Lynch’s pal Andy Albert helped Chayce with the EP’s title track, which unsurprisingly sounds like a DL tune and has Chayce boasting about the sights and sounds of California. ‘You ain’t doin’ it right’ if you don’t do a mass of rural stuff hymned in the chorus: ‘take in a back porch firefly sunset…slide on Neon Moon’ when you’ve got the radio on. If Brooks & Dunn got royalties etc etc.
Talk To Me was from the superb trio Hillary Lindsey, Will Hoge and Tom Douglas, who put it on a shelf ready to be cut by A Recording Artist. It’s an adult contemporary triple-time country tune that doesn’t reinvent the wheel but it sure sounds smooth: ‘this hotel TV ain’t no good company’ is a line full of yearning as Chayce seems to be keen to close the distance between him and his beloved.
Ross has done well shaping the sound of both Dierks Bentley and Brett Eldredge; fans of both of those guys will find something to enjoy in this EP. The production is warm but the song choices remind me of another TV star, Laine Hardy, whose songs were at pains to show him as a Country Guy. He even had one called Authentic.
Chayce is out with Jimmie Allen and will go out with Luke Combs later in the year to warm up Combsheads, an opportunity which comes from being signed to Wheelhouse Records, who probably have more money than they know what to do with these days. They’ve got plans for Chayce Beckham and they’ll make him a star.
Tenille Townes – Masquerades EP
One of Canada’s most successful country exports, Tenille has had two number ones on Canada’s country charts and was named Female Artist of the Year 2020 and 2021 at the CCMAs. Tenille seems like a lovely woman who is doing what she loves while also giving back philanthropically. She also stepped in for Runaway June when their line-up change kyboshed their appearance at C2C.
Impact track When’s It Gona Happen was one of the two tracks she played from the new EP, which arrives two years after debut album The Lemonade Stand; with a massive chorus, Tenille sings of her fears of not falling in love with someone, feeling like ‘the last one standing’. This will resonate with many listeners, some of whom will be at the Scala in London when she returns to the UK for a tour in October.
‘Hey, what a time to be alive!’ is the opening line of the EP’s opening track When You Need It which includes pop songwriter Wrabel. The fluttering chorus of the song, about companionship and ‘holding space’ (which I learned recently means being there for someone) reminds me of Cam; like her, Tenille veers towards pop production and there’s some pretty acoustic guitar to underscore the pair of voices.
The hopeful Villain In Me is perfect for a writer’s round: the second verse – ‘you only see me laughing, sunshine and endless smiling’ worn as a mask because ‘it’s easier that way’ – breaks into a contemplative middle eight. It explains the title of the EP. The song doesn’t fit on country radio, which is still all ‘hey baby’ and ‘let’s get drunk’. Tenille, who was so young when she came to Nashville that her parents drove her down, is on track to become a songwriter’s songwriter in the Lori McKenna vein.
There aren’t many songs about next-door neighbours in country music. On Shared Walls, Tenille sympathises with a guy who may be ‘going through the same thing’ as her. The guy’s character is played by Breland in another super guest appearance for a man who is gently being introduced to country fans and just topped the charts with a verse of Beers On Me.
The Sound of Being Alone has a great groove over which Tenille wonders what is distressing her. The vocal is right up front in the mix and the production does it justice. Same Road Home is a Mumford-y stomper with a great beat and lyrics about ‘broken dreamers’, ‘looking for answers’ and yearning for connection. I could predict the ‘woah’ section from the opening bar. The EP ends with Light In Your Eyes, not the Sheryl Crow power-pop classic (Tenille covers Sheryl’s song Steve McQueen live) but a bass-driven tune which is obviously inspired by Fleetwood Mac. Tenille seems to have found someone to journey on that same road home with.
There’s so much class on this EP, which will be on repeat for months.
Cody Johnson recently topped the Nashville country charts with Til You Can’t, a thrusting song that makes listeners seize the moment. Miranda Lambert is preparing an album called Palomino, some of whose tracks were written in Marfa, Texas. Flatland Cavalry took their Red Dirt sound to Country2Country, propelled by the management team which brought us Luke Combs. There’s even a popular radio show on ARC Radio on Sundays at 4pm dedicated to playing the best music from Texas and Oklahoma.
Randall King and Casey Donahew are eligible to be played In The Red Dirt with me (yep, it’s a plug!). Randall has followed the CoJo and Parker McCollum blueprint and signed to a major label which will hopefully buy him the same sort of house Luke Combs is able to afford. An artist like Randall, who already has the patronage of Garth Brooks, probably wants a national stage that befits his talents. He knows there are many acts who can make a living playing Texan rodeos and honky-tonks, but he also knows how much money Garth earned and how it would set him and his family up for life.
If Nashville is pivoting back to traditional sounds and themes, they have made the correct decision to point people in the Red Dirt direction. In a town full of voices, the best ones always rise to the top, as Chris Stapleton proves every time he performs at an awards show.
Randall King – Shot Glass
Production on Randall’s debut album on his Nashville deal comes from Ryan Gore and Bart Butler, who help craft the sound of Jon Pardi, so it’s unsurprising that they set the voice of Randall King to similar music. Previously released singles Record High, You In A Honky Tonk and the gorgeous Hey Cowgirl are all present and correct, updating the Garth Brooks sound for the streaming era.
Opening track Baby Do has live drums, pedal steel, harmonies and the Garth-like catch in the vocal. Randall is ‘hard-headed…hard to handle’ but his lady ‘knows how to calm me down’. Try to resist singing along with the ‘but-but-but baby do’ hook in the chorus. Hard Way To Make It Rain is a punchy toe-tapper about what Randall does for a career, in a song that would slot alongside Luke Combs’ Honky Tonk Highway in a DJ set.
There’s also a midtempo sex jam, Can’t You Feel How That Sounds, which Alan Jackson would have killed for in about 1995 and is the sort of thing Scotty McCreery has been doing for the last few years of his career. The melancholic Middle of Nowhere Church was written with Jeffrey Steele who likely never had to work again after writing two evergreens: What Hurts The Most and The Cowboy In Me. Rascal Flatts and Tim McGraw could have done a good job with the gentle acoustic tune where ‘every tear, every hurt’ makes Randall want to ‘go back in reverse’.
How about Roger, Miller Lite and Me for a title! The chorus includes the phrase ‘pendulum swing’, quoting the line in Roger’s song England Swings (‘like a pendulum do’), but Randall is in a bad way because of country stuff: trailer for sale, honey gone, money gone and so forth. Country gospel also gets a look in on the final track, a version of I’ll Fly Away which formed a tribute to Randall’s late sister Leanna on the 2020 EP of that name. That release also included Around Forever, a song that encourages the listener to call their loved ones because ‘life spins like a Haggard record’. It’s country music in its old-fashioned form.
The title track is a terrific lyric: how does life and all its problems ‘fit into a shot glass’? One of the great things about country music, as witnessed on a track called Mama’s Front Porch on Thomas Rhett’s new album, is how many inanimate objects can make great titles and subjects of songs. Randall is less Red Solo Cup and more Shot Glass, as this excellent collection demonstrates.
Casey Donahew – Built Different
Across two long weekends in June, Casey Donahew will host his own Boots on the Beach festival in Mexico. A host of top Red Dirt acts will appear: Pat Green, Randy Rogers, Wade Bowen, Josh Abbott, Stoney Larue, Kylie Frey, Koe Wetzel and Mike Ryan. All will turn up and offer a fine alternative to what’s going on in Nashville, where CMA Fest sucks in tourists and locals (although Triston Marez and Parker McCollum are the Texan representatives that week).
This time out, it’s a ten-track offering from Casey, whose 15-track 2019 record One Light Town included several super songs which went to Texas radio. I loved Drove Me to the Whiskey, Queen for a Night and Bad Guy, which showcase a Steve Earle-ish voice and some fine arrangements surrounding it.
The title track of the album, which is released on his own Almost Country label, was another chart-topper, with amps turned up to 11 and a confident vocal from a ‘ride-or-die cowboy’ whose 20-year career shows no signs of stopping. In 2016, he sent a couple of tunes to Nashville country radio but failed to crack the top 40 in an era of bros. Given the success for CoJo and Parker, the Gold Chain Cowboy, I reckon Casey could try again if he wants to play the game.
I see no reason why he would, though, with his position in the Red Dirt scene secured for this generation. He is almost a legacy artist – he’s a similar age to Blake Shelton, Brad Paisley and Luke Bryan – and must be a guiding star for many acts in Texas or Oklahoma. Like Randall King and Aaron Watson, he’s making one fan at a time and that keeps him in corn.
Ballads are, of course, dotted throughout the album. On Telling on My Heart, a song written by Kip Moore, his mate Dan Couch and the great David Lee Murphy, Casey apologises if drink reveals how much he loves his beloved. On 83 Chevrolet Time Machine, Eagles song Peaceful Easy Feeling is namechecked while a fiddle plays and Casey reminisces about fishing and playing catch with his dad. ‘Every scratch and dent is a memory’ is a super line, and I appreciate how Casey can deliver a weepie as well as a honky-tonker.
Those tempo tunes include heavy drinking hymn Beer Tastes Good (‘whiskey tastes better’), bluesy and confident Legends (‘heroes get remembered but legends never die!) and Getting Even, a song in which a woman has ‘no regrets when she slips back on that ring…you can’t call it cheating’ when it’s just a matter of getting even. I would love to tell you that One Foot in the Grave is a cover of the TV theme tune but it’s a Casey-patented carpe diem tune about having a good time all the time. He is ‘a walking disaster stoned out of my mind’, with a fun second verse about reinventing himself as ‘Juan Carlos’.
Luke Combs has become a millionaire with this sort of thing, but Casey doesn’t break a sweat; he probably leaves that to the crowd. Starts in a Bar, written with the aforementioned Bart Butler, is a meet-cute in song with an opening chorus featuring a girl who has ‘moves a cowboy can’t ignore’. In a meta manner, perhaps love can blossom, and probably has done so, at a Casey Donahew show.
The album ends with the pair of Jackson Davis and Just One Beer. The former, with a barnstorming arrangement with military drums, is about a possibly fictitious rebel soldier who wanted freedom, whiskey and women. The latter is a typical ‘final track ballad’ led by the piano: Casey asks his new buddy if they can share another beer and ‘dance the night away’ to their jukebox selections, all in a clandestine manner before Casey goes back to his part of town.
The guitar solo will satisfy anyone who listened to rock’n’roll in the MTV era, while the album as a whole is a fine display of Red Dirt country rock. If Randall is the heir to Garth, Casey is the disciple of Steve Earle.
She’s a songwriter’s songwriter and a mum of two whom I saw in the film It All Begins with a Song writing with Bob DePiero in a candlelit writers room. Ed Sheeran was a fan of her album Starfire. Garth Brooks recorded her song Tacoma. Meghan Trainor is a friend and collaborator.
Caitlyn Smith’s Country2Country performance on the Big Entrance Stage was full of bouncing around, as she delighted in promoting this mini-album. It opens with the effervescent title track, which was written with (and perhaps for, given the melodic shape) Miley Cyrus. Caitlyn’s music comes out on the Monument Records imprint (which has done well with Walker Hayes in the last year) and the man in charge, Shane McAnally, and songwriter’s songwriter Lori McKenna were in the room for Dreamin’s Free, which puts a new spin on not having much money. ‘I can be your muse if you wanna be van Gogh’ is a great line, as you would expect from three crafters of modern popular song. Catch the quadruple rhyme of bees/knees/weeds/trees and marvel.
The sex jam Good As Us has a gorgeous groove over which Caitlyn’s voice floats, singing about fidelity and how ‘everything else disappears’. The next single is Downtown Baby, a poppy tune which crams Kristofferson, Dylan and John Wayne into the opening stanza and ‘Kpop karaoke’ in the second one before opening up with a fine chorus.
In a fair world, Caitlyn she would be the equivalent of Chris Stapleton; his fans will find much to enjoy in the arrangement of Nothing Against You and Maybe In Another Life. Both were part of her set and were met with applause; the former has another fine chorus and blissful middle eight. The second has a ‘purple moon’ overlooking a dreaming Caitlyn who despairs of the images she conjures while she sleeps. It’s a vocalist’s song as well as a songwriter’s song, and I hope it finds its audience. If Fancy Like can get to number three in America, then so can this one.
The final track of the mini-album, I Don’t Like The World Without You, is another slow, meditative song, tenderly fingerpicked and with a vocal that reminds me of Miranda Lambert. It’s also nice to hear some lush diminished chords which prove that Caitlyn is a master of the art. Please listen.
Eric Paslay – Even If It Breaks Your Barefoot Friday Night
Eric Paslay is back in the UK soon to support The Shires in their long-delayed acoustic tour. As a treat, he has re-recorded nine of his compositions to remind fans why he’s one of the best writers on Music Row.
Eric can do slow and steady, as on She Don’t Love You, which was intended for George Strait. He can do poppy and fun, as on High Class, which he turns into an acoustic jam by removing all the whizzy production, and the eternal Barefoot Blue Jean Night, where he refers to ‘my buddy Jake’ as a thankyou for Jake Owen making it one of the century’s biggest country songs. ‘Never gonna grow up, never gonna slow down’ is a bumper sticker of a chorus, and the woahs are very amenable to a Shires audience also used to singalongs.
Eric probably has a good investment portfolio if he has put his money in the right places thanks to his number one hits which recall the heartland rock of Tom Petty. Petty even gets a namecheck in Eric’s version of Rascal Flatts song Rewind, which is moved down a couple of keys to suit Eric’s voice. He also reclaims ownership of Even If It Breaks Your Heart (Eli Young Band) and Angel Eyes (Love and Theft), which were both jazzed up with contemporary production when they went to radio.
If anyone missed Eric’s solo album from 2016, they have a new version of Song About A Girl on this collection, which also includes a fine version of Friday Night, another song he recorded for that album which was cut by Lady A. The elegant song The Driver became the title track of a solo album by Charles Kelley and Eric’s voice suits the chantalong chorus of ‘easy come, easy go’.
He will be a great warm-up act for The Shires this spring. He flies in after Easter for 25 dates which climax on May 24 at the London Palladium. Don’t get to the venue late.
Luke Bryan’s fellow Georgia boy and merch guy wrote Rollercoaster and Beer In the Headlights for him. He also penned Thomas Rhett’s song Get Me Some Of That and This Is How We Roll for Luke and Florida Georgia Line.
Cole Swindell was thus able to transition to a stage performer who has had tons of hits which have been firmly in the bro-country pocket. Will we hear Chillin It, Let Me See Ya Girl, Ain’t Worth The Whiskey, Middle of a Memory, You Should Be Here (dedicated to his late father), Break Up in the End or Love You Too Late in ten years’ time?
Cole will never be an A-lister, although he does headline a tour this year, but he looks country and sounds country and shifts units and fills up an undercard. His 2018 album All of It was immediately forgettable so I had middling hopes for Stereotype. He’s even hopped on the duets trend with a Lainey Wilson collaboration called Never Say Never, which is let down by tedious production choices and sounds like a Luke Bryan reject with a string section. I also don’t like the way the singers trade phrases rather than lines.
Cole also hopped on the Hardy trend, roping in his vocals on the fun Down to the Bar. Indeed, Hardy was in the room for several of the tracks here because he is so hot right now. The opening one-two punch of the title track and Every Beer sets the scene: the former is a list song in disguise as a dictionary definition with a smooth chorus and a lyrical twist where Cole praises his ‘turnin’ up my stereo type’ of girl; Every Beer (‘could be your last one’) is one of those Advice Songs which have long been part of country music: Live Like You Were Dying, People Are Crazy, Buy Dirt, Janice at the Hotel Bar and on and on. It’s a good trope and now Cole has his own Advice Song.
The album’s plodding first single, on which Cole sung about his last Single Saturday Night (a Hardy co-write), was at least a clever turn of phrase, while Girl Goes Crazy is a three-minute movie which would make a good music video. Verse one: guy messes around a booty call. Verse two: girl throws drink on that guy. Middle eight: sympathy for our heroine because of the ‘stupid boy’. It’s a conversation starter.
Thomas Rhett was in the room for She Had Me At Heads Carolina. Why just refer to an old song when you can rewrite it and say ‘she’s a 90s country fan like I am’? It’s another conversation starter but, by God, I hope this isn’t a trend as it reveals the bankruptcy of modern Music Row songwriting. Whatever next: I’m a friend in a low place? I sat in George’s chair? Fuggedaboutit, but don’t let me prejudice you. All those songwriters moving to town and they hear a song from 1996 brought out of retirement. Maybe it’s a way of telling youngsters there’s no future in songcraft.
Dustin Lynch didn’t even have room for ballad I’m Gonna Let Her on his recent record, which was full of tempo tunes which make money, so he passed it across to Cole, who is an identical product to DL. Sayin’ You Love Me is so inferior to anything on Ernest’s new album that he should take his name off the credits to that song. It also includes Grady Smith’s bugbear as the lady is ‘doin’ that thing you always do’. At least we get some punchy drums on How Is She, which might be the sequel to Break Up In The End.
As you would expect for a Commercial Country record, the big guns all show up to write with or for Cole: Miss Wherever had Luke Laird in the room, who may have brought the lyrical turn in the chorus but can’t save a narrow, pointless melody; Scooter Carusoe was there for the lovely Some Habits, which sounds like Kenny Chesney, in which Cole says that lying in bed with his beloved is a good habit; and both Rodney Clawson and Randy Montana give Cole the album closer Walk On Whiskey, which begins with the line ‘I bet I sound like a broken record’.
This hooks the listener even before the album’s best chorus, full of pathos and fear and humanity. The song, in fact, is far too good for Cole Swindell. Luke Combs would sell the hell out of Walk on Whiskey.
A final thought. Even though girls appear in most of the songs on Stereotype, Never Say Never co-writer Jessi Alexander is the only woman in the album’s writing credits, which is pathetic for a major-label release in 2022.
Country radio is in its dying gasps, like Voldemort at the end of the seventh Harry Potter film. With streaming taking the audience share, radio will never have the hegemony it had in 1990, 2000 or even 2010.
As with Maren Morris (whose new album Humble Quest was released in March 2022), Thomas Rhett has become immersed in Nashville’s music scene. A decade later both are automatic picks for country radio rotation. Maren’s third album and TR’s sixth (six!!) both push them into the next stage of their successful career. Both are parents – TR a father of four, Maren of a two-year-old son – who have enough hits to headline shows in the USA and the UK, thanks to radio play over here.
Their sound is on the poppy commercial end of country music, the type that makes money. TR is the cash cow of Big Machine, the label which grew rich on Taylor Swift, and has written with guys who helped carve the sound of One Direction. He will always be known as the son of Rhett Akins, the man who has become a top commercial songwriter with hits like Boys Round Here, Small Town Boy and lots of tracks about girls sung by Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan and TR himself. Grandpa Rhett used to go out on tour to open for his son and also babysit the grandkids while TR is dancing onstage as country’s answer to Ed Sheeran or Harry Styles (or Bruno Mars, but that’s a stretch).
For his part, TR wrote Round Here for Florida Georgia Line and was launched to market with a track where he wanted to have Beer with Jesus. After a decade of hits which include Die A Happy Man (a Billboard Hot 100 number 21 smash) and the Maren Morris duet Craving You (number 39), he has also hit the US album number one spot twice. This is testament to Scott Borchetta’s ability to market a good product but also to how TR presents himself as an American country-pop star. He’s hosted TV shows and done absolutely nothing of note apart from become a father of three kids with his wife Lauren and adopt a baby girl from Uganda.
His last album Country Again Side A was a perfectly acceptable commercial country record whose two singles were What’s Your Country Song and Country Again. This is because you make more money showing off your rural credentials these days than pretending you’re a popstar in LA. Even Lizzo is a part-time popstar these days, and she’s one of the best. In any case, put TR next to Nick Jonas, as happened on CMT Crossroads, and we know who the superstar is.
The marketing department at Big Machine who put together TR’s career will get a big return on their investment. Don’t forget that TR is a product of Music Row so has to convince his audience to show up and party with him in some large venues. After playing Stagecoach at the end of April, TR goes out on a headline tour this summer called Bring The Bar To You – with Parker McCollum in support! – so there’ll be plenty of party starters new and old.
He feels both ‘like a Buffett song’ and like a ukulele on Paradise, and there’s some uke in the production of Simple As A Song from the man that brought us Hard To Forget, Luke Laird. Despite yet another ‘Johnny and June walk the line’ reference (kill it), I like the frothy, summery song which will help sunny days go by this summer. It’s background music, but with finesse and charm.
The tour is named after a poppy, produced beach jam on the album which sounds like what Kenny Chesney would be doing if he were born in 1990 as opposed to trying to get his first record deal then. Ditto Anything Cold, which will see fans raise up their beers; it rhymes ‘Aquafina/ Margarita’ and has a funky solo in the middle. Labelmate Riley Green appears on Half Of Me, a song where Grandpa Rhett Akins was in the room. It’s basically a rewrite of Beer Can’t Fix, a far better duet with Jon Pardi which could provide a readymade medley in TR’s set. Maybe Big Machine think his fans are too stupid to notice, or just like hearing the same thing again.
They may sway and ‘talk to God’ on Luke Combs homage Angels, where TR hits a mellifluous falsetto note in the chorus to emphasise the brilliance of the lady in his life as opposed to the schlub he is. Julian Bunetta, his mate from LA, co-writes it, while fellow LA pop writer Jon Bellion had a hand in the horrendously bland Katy Perry duet which gives the album its title. The idea was likely dreamed up in a marketing meeting by someone who had heard the Keith Urban and Pink duet on the way into the office. How sad must Katy Perry be that she’s saved until track 15 rather than placed in the first half of the album?
‘Man it feels good to be country again’ sang TR on his 2021 album, although Where We Started is a pop album produced in Nashville. He even half-raps Somebody Like Me, showing a pretty flow. There are naturally plenty of perfectly country songtitles for pleasantly melodic songs about rural life that unite performer and listener: Church Boots was written with Ernest, who is so hot right now; Bass Pro Hat has him boast that he’s ‘luckier than Lucky Number Seven’; and Mama’s Front Door is a good concept for a song, given that it has hosted father’s blessings, flowers and ‘three crazy kids’ brought round to see grandma. Ain’t it funny how life changes, he might well wonder, and he does on the song’s coda.
As with Remember You Young, Marry Me and Beer With Jesus, TR always throws in a thinky-think song amid the tempo tunes. Tyler Hubbard and Russell Dickerson appear on Death Row, which is like when Ed Sheeran starts singing about drugs and stuff: ‘Jesus is the ticket and narrow is the road…Then it hit me: we’re all human’. Us Someday, co-written with Ed Sheeran’s friend Amy Wadge, begins with a wedding, continues with ‘handprints in a new driveway’ and concludes with TR and his beloved sat in rocking chairs. Will people gravitate to the thinkers or to the beach jams? The streaming numbers will reveal all.
Ashley Gorley was in the room for seven of the album’s songs and he’s a perfect foil for the omnivorous TR. Oddly these days for him, he picks an outside write called The Hill, co-written by Lori McKenna, to open the album. It’s about how fighting for love is ‘the hill to die on’ and will do well with the 25-44-year-old suburban demographic. The production by Dann Huff, among others, is very (adult) contemporary, especially on the album’s radio single Slow Down Summer, which is full of nouns (shades, Roman candles, sunburns) and is a fine contemporary country song with a video, notably, with Asian lead actors.
Thomas Rhett makes money for Big Machine, which is now owned by a Korean company. I would love to see BTS in church boots, which is the natural end point for projects like this. TR’s a lovely guy with a gorgeous family, but nobody will listen to any of these songs in 2030 just as most of his second and third albums have been forgotten in 2022. The kids will all go to nice colleges, though.
Nashville Meets London is one of the loveliest nights on the UK country scene but the rubric has been disrupted by the pandemic. Thus we get two British acts instead of an American and a Brit, even though Twinnie spends many weeks a year in Nashville.
Before York’s self-proclaimed Hollywood Gypsy gave a star turn, Robbie Cavanagh offered 30 minutes of his understated songs, previewing his Tough Love album with songs that included the funky Helpless. There was also an extraordinary heartbreak ballad in the James Taylor mould and one called Thinking of Leaving (‘if you’re thinking of leaving, get up and go’). A Mancunian who won the Bob Harris Emerging Artist Award at the 2021 AMA-UK Awards, Robbie will be back down in London at the end of May. Beg or steal a ticket.
‘People are using their cutlery so quietly,’ Robbie marvelled at the diners who were still polishing off their pizzas in the basement venue of Holborn’s Pizza Express. There was a nice bit of banter about a vegan dish which, it transpires, can be ordered off menu, which surprised our humble singer/songwriter.
Twinnie released her long-awaited debut album Hollywood Gypsy in April 2020 but couldn’t tour it until the middle of 2021. The full Twinnie show delivers fireworks, high kicks and showstoppers with an amplified band but she proved she can impress with an acoustic set which felt like a soirée. She was dressed in denim bell bottoms which gave a Nashville twist.
Opening with her new single One Heart, Twinnie ran through old favourites like Type of Girl, Chasing and Cupid, which she wrote while ‘bitter and single, I still am’ and on which she hit a showstopping note. The setlist was as much a surprise for the band as for the audience, as our hostess played it by ear. ‘It’s just gonna be a jam tonight!’
Her songs ‘make people dance or break their heart’, which sounds like a chorus in itself: the former included Welcome to the Club and set closer Better When I’m Drunk, with the latter represented by the beautiful I Know A Woman. This single, which promoted Twinnie’s vital project which spotlights mental health in the music industry, was even more emotional for Twinnie as her darling mum was watching on.
As she displayed on the acoustic version of her album, Twinnie’s songs stand up without jazzy production, and guitarist Tommy and pianist Barnabus(!) were impressive foils throughout the soirée. Tommy’s leg got a workout on the toetapper Daddy Issues, banging a percussion block to provide the backbeat.
Something We Used To Say was the evening’s highlight. It was perfect for the basement dive: written with Barnabus and Laura Oakes, it was inspired by Carole King and its melancholy shone through. I hope it makes it onto Twinnie’s second album, which she was more or less auditioning in front of a lady from her record label.
Ditto Write You Out, a song about songwriting with a great lyrical hook, and future single Something or Somebody, during which Twinnie toured the room and was twirled around by a beaming fan. He wasn’t the only one entertained by a superstar who had complete command of the room. She doesn’t need high kicks when she has the high notes.
Nashville Meets London hosts a cruise on the River Thames on August 19. The next Pizza Express night is headlined by Jess Thristan on April 27.
Maren Morris moved to Nashville from Texas and, after a few years in writers’ rooms working on other people’s music, she teamed up with producer busbee and wrote ‘the one about a church’ which broke her in 2015. Her second album Girl was part love-letter to husband Ryan Hurd and part female empowerment tract. The pandemic scuppered her world tour, although she became a mother too and I am sure she will say in interviews that this was a blessing in disguise.
Along with Kelsea Ballerini and Carly Pearce, Maren is one of punishingly few ‘girl singers’ (as they laughably used to be called) to move up to the A List in the last ten years, thanks to support from country radio. As if to prove this, she promoted the release of the album on The Bobby Bones Show, which is like the Zoe Ball Breakfast Show out of Nashville, at 5am. That’s what you have to do to sell your record in Nashville.
After debut album Hero, which Bobby supported, came The Middle, from a Target ad, which had been turned down by more or less every popstar in town. Maren took her chance and her voice was all over pop radio (it reached number 5 on the Hot 100) and Adult Contemporary radio (a number one). So where does that leave Maren Morris the Country Star?
Sensibly, looking to what her fellow Texan Kacey Musgraves has done, Maren has opened up her audience beyond country radio even as she keeps her deal with Columbia Nashville. She pulls off the coup of securing one of the world’s best producers: Greg Kurstin is best known for his work with Adele (he co-wrote Hello and Easy On Me) and Foo Fighters.
As Kacey did on her albums, Maren works with a small group of collaborators. Jimmy Robbins and Laura Veltz co-wrote The Bones and help Maren write album highlight Background Music, a waltz with a melodic chorus and a smart lyric about eternal love and stuff. Sarah Aarons, who wrote the top line melodies of both The Middle and Girl, joined the trio to write Detour, and it’s another winner: ‘I threw my map away and that’s the way I stumbled into you’ is a terrific lyric which is allowed to shine thanks to Greg’s production. This will be a live highlight in the next world tour and will fit snugly next to I Could Use A Love Song and To Hell and Back.
Robbins and Natalie Hemby were in the room for sex jam Nervous. You can tell it’s a Hemby composition because of the cascading melody, heavy drum loop and jittery narrator who is ‘out of control, out of our clothes’. Hurd, who is about 6 foot 6, was ironically not in the room for Tall Guys, a song I cannot believe hasn’t been written before. It’s very Nashville and very fun. ‘We fly first class cos it’s the only way his knees fit’, while Maren, who is about 5 foot 2, can justify wearing high heels.
Jon Green, the Brit who has had a country number one with Lady A’s What If I Never Get Over You, joins Maren and Ryan to write the album’s final track What Would This World Do? It’s as if they’re writing their wedding vows; indeed, Maren sings of wine from their wedding day. Note how the road Maren namechecks is the I-405 in Los Angeles, not one in Nashville, and the song sounds like a classic ballad written in LA in the 1970s. It’s the best song Maren has put out and may overtake My Church and The Bones as her career song. Like Rainbow or Someone Like You, it’s the Piano Ballad from a Major-Label Release, a genre in itself nowadays.
Ryan’s uncredited harmonies can also be heard on The Furthest Thing and I Can’t Love You Anymore (‘than I do now’). The former is a song about being away from one another and making things work, while the latter namechecks ‘a poor boy from Michigan’. For her part, Maren acts like ‘a bitch’ and ‘to some I might be an acquired taste’. Check out the gorgeous diminished fifth chord and a gentle production from Greg Kurstin on The Furthest Thing, on which Maren’s vocals self-consciously recall those of Inara George, who was half of the duo The Bird and The Bee along with Greg himself.
First single Circles Around This Town is a self-referential tune which comprises three chords and Maren’s truth. If any genre if ripe for ‘speaking my truth’, it is country music; ever since Taylor Swift swept into town, plenty of girls with guitars have shown up to town but have ploughed their own furrow. Indeed, Maren was an early performer in Kalie Shorr’s Song Suffragette nights.
Hummingbird is an outlier, as it’s written with the famous Love Junkies (Liz Rose, Lori McKenna and Hillary Lindsey) who wrote Girl Crush for Little Big Town. It’s a lullaby dedicated to her son, who burbles over the intro: ‘On my skin rest your wings…I’ll let you fly free’ is the kind of lyric that can only come from four mums trading war stories in the same writers’ room.
I can see a baby photo montage on the screen behind Maren as she sings that song, and then a fan montage as she sings the pretty Good Friends (‘We got history, no conditions’). There should be more songs about friendship as well as love, and I reckon Columbia will stick another artist on it when it’s sent to radio. My guess is Elle King or Tenille Townes, or perhaps Natalie Hemby herself, given that she co-wrote the song.
The title track sees Maren pivot to the new craze for self-analysis. Grounded by a similar three-note riff to 80s Mercedes, Maren’s voice flutters with a lyric about how she ‘kept hitting my head on the glass…polite till I spoke up’. Whereas Bono was spiritual and gospel in trying to find what he was looking for, Maren tries hard to be humble: ‘How do I not cast a shadow?’ she wonders, which is like threading a camel through the eye of a needle.
So is she still a country star? No, she’s a popstar who lives in Nashville and can play shows in LA. Just like Thomas Rhett, who puts out his sixth album early in the year to give us his latest life update. They both make modern country music, which looks outwards from Music City even as its stars look inwards to go on humble quests.
It has taken three years for Sam Outlaw to come back to the UK. The Omeara gig to kick off the Popular Mechanics tour was the first time he played some of the tracks from the new album live anywhere in the world. Running on fumes having landed in London that morning, Sam powered through a 90-minute set which included old favourites and plenty of new stuff.
‘I never thought I’d miss touring!’ Sam told the crowd, asking him to join in with a celebratory shout of YEAH! Without the support of Bob Harris, he said, Sam might not even have anyone to see him, and it must be said that the crowd were mostly of Bob’s vintage.
This was grown-up country music, with a pedal steel guitar player dovetailing with three acoustic guitars, one wielded by support act Ruthie Collins, whose version of It Must Have Been Love by Roxette threatened to steal the show from Sam.
In a smart shirt and hat, Sam played the old tunes he has sung a thousand times before, including the gorgeous Tenderheart, the sombre Ghost Town and the mellifluous Bougainvillea, I Think. There were also rich cheers for the title track of his debut album Angeleno, and warm applause for several new tunes.
Rest of Our Lives was a shrewd choice of first single from the new album, and it was the highlight of the set thanks to some three-part harmonies and a driving rhythm that didn’t need any percussion. We also heard Polyamorous and the marvellous Language of Love (which has a key change!). This last song reminded me of tunes by Fountains of Wayne; the late Adam Schlesinger, who was the band’s frontman, has to be an influence on Sam’s work.
Molly Parden showed off a fashionable shoulder bag as she hopped onstage for a duet. A family friend, Molly had played Omeara (‘not O-me-ah-ra!’ as Sam chastised himself) a few days before Sam and she had stayed in town just to see him before heading back to the USA. How amazing must it be to have a job where you can meet friends onstage thousands of miles away from home.
In reality, we in Britain have adopted Sam as one of ours and he’ll be welcome back any time his family schedule allows.
If country music were a utensil it would be a fork, with different prongs coming together to form one excellent tool. These two albums each demonstrate their own type of prong.
Ernest K Smith has written plenty of hit songs as a recording artist at Big Loud, home to Morgan Wallen. He’s got his name in the brackets on Big Big Plans by Chris Lane, Breaking Up was Easy in the 90s by Sam Hunt and several tracks on Dangerous, which is about to break a record at the top of the Country Album chart despite the artist being in the doghouse throughout its run.
Like his mate Hardy, Ernest knows where the hooks are and can write a country song that gets on the radio. He was in the room for no fewer than 11 songs on Dangerous, including first single More Than My Hometown, new smash Wasted On You and one of my favourite tracks Me On Whiskey. Ernest is basically the same product with a different haircut, and he has made a lot of money from his songwriting in the last year.
The rehabilitation of Morgan Wallen, who is too big to fail, continued with one of the songs of the decade so far, written by Ernest and so good that it appears twice on the album that shares its title. Morgan takes the second verse and Big Loud Records are hoping that a year has been enough and now poor (rich) Morgan, their cash cow with a mullet and cut-offs, can resume his career in peace. In the tradition of a classic country song with a wounded narrator, a tearful lady and a triple-time feel, ‘it’s a bad day for love but a good day for flower shops’. The guys emote like they’re Dan + Shay but stay true to the type of country that was on the radio in 1983, which is hot right now.
As for Ernest, we were due to have a duets record with him and Hailey Whitters called Countrypolitan but all we’ve had so far is a great version of Islands in the Stream. With both Ernest and Hailey doing their own thing, the project has been put back on the shelf while Flower Shops surges to the top. After two standalone singles, Cheers and American Rust, we’ve got a whole album of Ernest originals, engineered to fit into a gap in the market and thus make money.
Sucker For Small Towns has that peaceful easy feeling common from the work of Eagles and the rural charm of (yep) all those Morgan Wallen songs. It’s a world away from the sound of a guy who used to rap under the moniker Ernest K: on Bad Boy he ‘loved it when you dropped me them digits, I’m all about you like a freaking fanatic…I’ll be the Hova and you’ll be my Bey’.
It is incredible that Bad Boy and Tennessee Queen come from the same man: Ernest is now looking to be the lady’s Elvis in blue suede shoes as they settle in their Graceland and get all shook up. It’s a songwriting exercise but it’s good to see Elvis back in country music, 45 years after his death and close to 70 years(!) after his breakthrough.
Classic, with John Mayerish guitars and a smooth delivery, sounds a lot like what Devin Dawson did on his debut album, which is apt as the song was written with Devin Dawson’s brother Jacob who also wrote much of Devin’s stuff. The Warren Brothers help Ernest write the slow song Feet Wanna Run, which includes some mellow chords, pedal steel guitar and lyrics about forks in the road and spreading one’s wings.
Rodney Clawson assisted Ernest on both the introspective ‘writer’s round’-type tune Comfortable When I’m Crazy, on which he complains ‘girl look what you made me do to me’, and Did It With You, which is a more uptempo tune about love and stuff which must have come from listening to Boys of Summer by Don Henley.
Newcomer Lily Rose was in the room for a catchy midtempo heartache ballad What It’s Come To, while Ben Hayslip and Michael Carter, best known respectively for writing and playing guitar for Luke Bryan, offer their services on the proper country song If You Were Whiskey (‘I’d still be holding you’). Full of regret and melancholy, Luke could have sold this but he’s locked in an American Idol contract making money. Big gun Ashley Gorley comes out for album closer Some Other Bar, a melodic meet-cute which sounds like those hits he has written for Luke, like Crash My Party and Play It Again.
All this is to say that Music Row’s A-listers have assembled to craft ten very good pieces of contemporary commercial country music about love, loss and alcohol. One of them will be Song of the Year. The first rule of country music, after all, is the same as All The President’s Men: follow the money.
Jeremy Ivey – Invisible Pictures
The second rule is to be true to the person you really are. Luke Combs is currently making millions of dollars doing just that, as is Thomas Rhett who literally puts his life in a song. Across town in East Nashville, the hipsters take shelter from higher commercial rates in an expanding city which is becoming too big for itself.
Jeremy Ivey is a resident. He will always be introduced as Mr Margo Price but, between raising children and supporting Margo’s career as an outlaw of repute, Jeremy has put out three albums of his own on the Anti label, the latest of which is called Invisible Pictures.
The title track includes a chant of ‘nothing can bring me down today’ which will chime with thousands of listeners. Ditto Black Mood, where Jeremy tries to hide his depression and regret, ‘the Great Pretender…save me from me, Angel of Mercy’. Given the melody and arrangement of that song, it doesn’t surprise me that Jeremy is a fan of Elliot Smith.
Musically the album is terrific, with a double-stopped fiddle and lap steel guitar on Grey Machine, harmonica on album closer Silence and Sorrow, piano on Trial By Fire and a string section on Downhill (Upside Down Optimist). Ivey/Price co-write Keep Me High, a country-rocker where the mafia and witness protection appear in the second verse. I also like the chugging opening track Orphan Child and the spiky Phantom Limb.
If Nashville is a town of songwriters, a scan of the lyric sheet shows that Jeremy fits in perfectly. He has studied the great songwriters of the classic era, like Leon Russell, Elton John and Harry Nilsson, and keeps their spirit alive in a timeless fashion. Listen out too for various suspended or diminished chords dotted throughout the album, over which he sings in a fragile croon.
Nashville and country music, to reiterate the fork analogy, is an implement of many prongs. Some are more independently minded than others, which seek to make money for a conglomerate. The song comes first, and long may it continue to be so.
Dixie Musgraves. That’s the short version, but this is a blog, not a Twitter account, so here are 800 more words on why you should listen to this excellent album.
Hailey Whitters once sang of living in a Ten-Year Town. She broke through in Nashville a decade after moving to Music City whereupon a global pandemic didn’t allow her to tour that breakthrough album The Dream. Collaborations with Trisha Yearwood and Little Big Town boosted her following and now, as she prepares to unleash this masterful album about Small Town America onto the world, she is promoting her music in Europe at long last.
The title track is the first time we hear her voice. It’s Dixie Chicks meets Kacey Musgraves, hymning the rural life that has served her well. The album is a concept album with different spins on the theme of living in the country: tracks like Big Family, Our Grass Is Legal – a Hailey Whitters 100%-er that recalls some of the work Brothers Osborne have done – and Boys Back Home could mix down into a single song but, when the arrangements are so good, why not elaborate on the theme? The melodies are hummable and the rhythms are toe-tappers. As for the voice, it’s purer than Kacey’s.
The poppy single Everything She Ain’t contains the best chorus on the album: it’s the one that goes ‘whiskey in your soda, lime in your Corona’ and that is rather ballsy to use the name of that drink after the last two years. If I were Hailey, I would consider running the song next to There’s Your Trouble because it’s basically a rewrite, albeit one which substitutes June and Johnny for ‘Audrey to your Hank’. There is also fiddle.
Plain Jane picks up the theme of self-expression. It was made with Hillary Lindsey, on which Hailey says she won’t change for anybody, ‘love me or hate me…That’s how God made me, how my mama raised me’. This will connect with thousands of young women who are ‘a little more Messed-Up Mary than Plain Jane’. There lies a t-shirt slogan.
Pretty Boy, written with Scooter Carusoe and the legendary Tom Douglas, sounds like a career song: in an era of male vulnerability, being sensitive is cool. Hailey offers a song to guys who find it hard to be themselves and strong, who have ‘always been a bit different’. Thousands of young men will etc etc.
BJ Barham of American Aquarium, a man who has made vulnerability into art, pops up on Middle of America, which is effortlessly poppy and cinematic and has been given an outing Hailey’s recent live sets. ‘A whole lotta nothin’s still something to some folks’ is a great line, as is the hook where folk are ‘left right in the middle of America’. It’s great when a top songwriter gets the spotlight too. That song, by the way, was written with Bobby Pinson, who is best known for Toby Keith tunes like Beers Ago and Made In America.
College Town is a killer tune, one of two tunes written with the mighty Nicolle Galyon (the others are Raised and Big Family. As I was listening to College Town, which is basically the continuation of the story of the girl from Wide Open Spaces coming back to the less wide open spaces, I said out loud: What a great song. College life can change a person but ‘they don’t teach you in school’ what you learn at college. Again, this will impact so many young women, who already have fine role models in Carly Pearce and, to a lesser extent, Kacey.
Since she wrote every song here, Hailey’s personality is all across the album. Whenever Lori McKenna writes her last song, Hailey will pick up the baton. Lori was in the room for both The Neon, a heartbreak song where Hailey heads to the bar to ‘get back on that barstool again’, and Beer Tastes Better, which picks up the themes of College Town because it’s always better to hang out in your hometown reminiscin’ about stuff.
Elsewhere, Everybody Oughta offers advice on how to live a country way of life – heartbreak, alcohol, music, ‘a real good dog’ – set to a warm production which lets the arrangement breathe. In A Field Somewhere ends the album, discounting the instrumental coda: it starts with Hailey learning to drive, then moving to drinking, smoking, swimming and finding love. With a fiddle chugging away, Hailey reminds the listener that ‘life in good’ in the country just as she has done in the preceding 45 minutes.
Hailey Whitters will be back in the UK soon, and I am writing this even before she impresses the big arenas with her take on a country way of life. As country music tries to sell itself (out) to city folk, there is still joy in celebrating the small towns of America.
In 2012, country music was about Need You Now, Cruise and Taylor Swift’s album Red. Country2Country was but a twinkle in the eye of the Country Music Association. Indigenous country music in the UK, to me, was all show bands in the Irish tradition. It was still uncool to love country.
Ten years on, we know what has happened. The Country Music Attendees Facebook group (‘politics are to be avoided’) has over 10,000 members who turn up whenever US visitors come over to promote country music, be they heartthrobs like Chase Rice, guitar wizards like Keith Urban or modern-day outlaws like Ashley McBryde. Next year, Country2Country turns 10. It’s as if the CMA had a plan of their own to turn the UK on to country music, with Radio 2 and especially Bob Harris promoting the genre and the many new acts making waves in the USA.
And so to Ben and Crissie, whose fifth album as The Shires makes them the most durable contemporary UK act. Their back catalogue is full of ballads and toe-tappers which are essentially pop songs with meaningful emotional content and a dash of banjo. Daddy’s Little Girl, Brave and Sleepwalk are songs which show empathy with the listener and are produced immaculately. They are perfect for a mature Radio 2 audience between 35 and 54 who love adult contemporary pop music, and are regularly playlisted alongside Steps, Westlife and Kylie (yes, Radio 2 is basically Smash Hits FM now).
As with any act deep into their career, nobody is going to become a fan of the pair who have not already got into them. I thought the first Shires album was too ballad-heavy and preferred third album Accidentally On Purpose which included Echo, Guilty and the Ed Sheeran-penned Stay The Night. In 2020 Good Years came out in a very bad year and the duo are only just getting round to touring it: notable on that album were collaborations with Lauren Alaina and Jimmie Allen, which seemed to be a manoeuvre to get fans of those American acts to become aware of the duo, who remain the UK’s answer to Lady A. It cannot be forgotten that their US deal with Dot Records collapsed at the worst possible time.
While in Nashville, they heard Cut Me Loose, a song by Lizzy McAvoy. Having recorded it, they left the tune off the second album My Universe and it finally finds a home on album five. It sounds like a contemporary country-pop song, with some banjo buried in the production. Lindsey Rimes, a frequent collaborator with the band, puts a commercial sound underneath the harmonies.
The album’s lead single I See Stars is, by design, bland and inoffensive and singalongable. All the same, it is immaculate, as is euphoric second single Wild Hearts. I would declare it to be ‘country tango’, a syncopated meet-cute in a bar which falls into the same musical tenor as Beats To Your Rhythm and A Thousand Hallelujahs.
Sparks Fly shares a title with the Taylor Swift song and the sound of about 10 Lady A tunes: ‘If you wanna keep the fire alive, you gotta let the sparks fly’ is a familiar take on a love song. Forever Tonight is a funky slow jam with some fine diminished chords and a lyric where the pair declare ‘it’d be kinda nice waking up in your arms every day’.
The album’s effortless title track is also about love and stuff, as Ben tries to be a better person for his beloved, who is ‘right at the top’ of his plan. Side by Side and Sky Dive are two more patented Ben Earle wedding songs, with lush melodies, strong imagery and some sustained piano chords leading to Disneyfied choruses. When It Hurts is another declaration of love with an understated arrangement that proves Ben can really write a pop ballad.
The duo’s tourmate Eric Paslay and Jennifer from Runaway June add some Nashville chaser to the mix on A Bar Without You, where you can tell Americans are involved because two Brits are singing about ‘a two-dollar dive’ rather than a Wetherspoons. They also tackle a familiar country theme of having little money but a lot of love on Baby We’re Rich, a likely radio single.
Plot Twist may be a career song; written with Beth McCarthy (a former Voice contestant), it is literally a three-minute movie with Crissie singing of ‘pieces of my heart I won’t get back’. She pulls back for the chorus, where ‘happy ever after ain’t too good to be true’ and she doubts the comfort and cosiness of love.
It reminds me a lot of Cartwheels by Ward Thomas who, unlike The Shires, have had a UK number one album. All three of the last three Shires albums have gotten stuck at number three, with the likes of Barbra Streisand, Craig David and Niall Horan standing in their way.
Given that there are a lot of 100%-ers (music and lyrics by the same person), there are parts of this album that make it seem like a Ben Earle solo project conceived while off the road. Contractual obligations mean Crissie has to sing too. Peggy I’m Sorry – which is unvarnished by big production or Crissie’s voice and is marked as ‘demo’ on the album itself – is dedicated to Ben’s grandma who is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. I am positive we’ll see a band version on a deluxe edition of the album, but the sparse arrangement of just a loop and some block harmonies fits the song. Ben sings from the heart about not seeing his grandma as much as he ought to, but ‘can’t bear to see you this way’.
As long as Ben and Crissie want to be playing venues like The Palladium, their label will continue to support their music, as will Bob Harris, who will play tracks from the album on The Country Show which will stand up with the best of what is coming out of Nashville. It’s to the duo’s credit that the singing and writing are of that standard, and the acts trailing in their wake (such as Kezia Gill and Morganway) will learn a great deal from the pair.
Here’s what I saw around the O2 complex over Country2Country weekend, both on the stages and in the crowd. It is by no means comprehensive but other media outlets are available if you want to learn about the many visiting US acts.
There was the usual parade of check shirts, tassels, jeans, leather trousers, trucker caps and five- or ten-gallon hats. Sometimes it’s as if the music is an excuse for people to cosplay: why wear boots when they are so uncomfortable?! We’re in Greenwich, not Greensboro. Hello!
All the same, I hope the merch stalls in the Town Square did good business. I felt sorry for people who were out in the rain waiting to get into the tent, while the queue for the Radio 2 Country stage within the Indigo venue was omnipresent all weekend. Staff were on hand to pen people into taped areas at the Garden and Big Entrance stages, to ensure passage of cattle – I mean fans – around the complex.
It was lovely seeing plenty of UK country acts coming down to show support for their mates. I spotted Gasoline & Matches, Two Ways Home, Kaity Rae, Emilia Quinn, Jake Morrell, Poppy Fardell and Obadiah from O&O, a duo whom I once saw play a private lounge at C2C playing for VIPs, who applauded politely as they sipped champagne flutes.
Shannon Hynes was talking to her friend Lucy Blu, who joined Darius Rucker on the O2 Arena stage to sing Wagon Wheel. She will surely boost her streaming numbers in the coming weeks: ‘As seen singing for 20,000 people!!!’
I also saw the full megillah of UK Country media: Dan Wharton from Your Life in a Song had raced around London conducting interviews on the Thursday and got to say hi to Russell Dickerson on the Friday; we both saw Bob Harris glide past us on the way to his backstage lair to broadcast for BBC Radio 2; Tim Prottey-Jones from CountryLine Radio was omnipresent as MC and performer, while I walked past the station’s new head honchos Simon and Nathalie filming outside the Arena complex. Paul Sexton, the fine freelance writer and supporter of UK country music, also wandered over towards where I was standing. Simon and Charlotte from ARC Radio and James Daykin from Lyric Magazine were far too busy to stop and chat!!
Absolute Radio Country’s Matt Spracklen was in his leather-and-quiff get-up but was off duty over the weekend (while also on air!!). At one point he excused himself so he could film the chorus of an Essex County song. I also walked past Baylen Leonard, the station’s daytime presenter, who was enjoying himself before the chaos of The Long Road, the festival for which he is Artistic Director and takes place over August Bank Holiday Weekend in Staffordshire.
For more indie-minded media, Nick Cantwell of Belles & Gals snuck up on me as I was ambling towards the arena on Saturday, then I bumped into him and Lisa T, the artist he manages, as I ambled out in the afternoon. Chris Farlie and Pete Woodhouse of w21Music were there, as were videographers and photographers DC Brown (‘The Man, The Myth, The Legend’) and Colin Jones. Naomi Kane was on assignment with Twinnie, who was looking very glam in her stage gear, and I surprised Naomi by messaging that I’d spotted her, something nobody had ever done before!
I suppose I’d better talk about the music, which showcased the finest UK and international acts. I loved the timbre of Laci Kaye Booth’s voice; she played songs from her eponymous album to an interested audience at the Big Entrance Stage on Friday afternoon. Caitlyn Smith, meanwhile, was bouncing around and promoting her forthcoming album High; she is a singer/songwriter of the highest order, and her two kids are lucky to have such a cool mom!
Laine Hardy, who came to prominence on The Voice, snuck in some covers of What’s Up and The Weight into a set which proved he was as authentic as he boasted about on his album. Ruthie Collins has a smooth vocal tone and has a commanding stage presence; she’s due to come back to the UK in August and this was a good way to softly launch her to a British crowd. A full review will come as part of a piece on Sam Outlaw’s London gig this week, since Ruthie is the support act.
Jaret Ray Reddick brought out some fans of his band Bowling For Soup to Greenwich, saying upfront that he was not going to play his smash 1985. Instead, he sang about his ‘royal family’ and how his ‘truck up and left’ him. He galloped away in front of his poor drummer, so excited was he during one song from an album full of country tropes and fine tunes. I’ve spoken to him for my In The Red Dirt show on ARC Radio, which you can hear on March 27.
The Big Entrance stage was prime real estate upon which the UK’s finest country acts could build their expanding fanbase. Katy Hurt, ably assisted by her crack band, ran through some choice cuts from her forthcoming album including the single Sounds Good In A Bar. I liked her ad-libbed sound check where she followed ‘one, two’ with ‘three, four, five!’ There was no Mambo Number 5 this time out, though.
Gary Quinn, meanwhile, sang some copper-bottom country tunes on the Garden Stage, some of which are now ten years old. On Your Way Out, for instance, is ageing like a fine whiskey and it was good to hear Gary down in London rather than having to traipse up to a barn near Stockport. He’s put together a fine line-up for Buckle & Boots, which takes place over Platinum Jubilee Weekend in early June.
Eric & Jensen, who will play that barn in June, posted a photo of themselves from a few years ago stood in front of the Big Entrance stage; on Sunday afternoon, they played that very stage. I caught them at 11am on Saturday morning on the Garden Stage, and popped in briefly to see their acoustic set on Friday. They were shockingly amped up for an early performance of originals including new single Party Strong, as well as covers of Brooks & Dunn and Travis Tritt tunes.
There were plenty of other C2C virgins popping their cherry in 2022. Danny McMahon has a nice line in country-pop and made his debut across the weekend, while Jess Thristan was so relaxed she was able to wish someone happy birthday from the stage! The Halifax-born singer and her band played old chestnuts like The Old Me and Time of Our Lives as well as offering a well-chosen cover of Blue Ain’t Your Color by Keith Urban.
The Icon stage was relocated to the small pub next to the Garden Stage, which may have been a compromise given that the usual patch was out of action because the shopping centre was closed. It did not do the acts a favour at all, who suffered from the sound not reaching the back of a room full of a chattering crowd. Normal service must be resumed next year but it seems churlish to complain.
On Sunday, Laura Oakes added a band to some magnificent tunes which she’d performed on Saturday by herself. Laura, like Gary Quinn, can do this sort of thing with her eyes closed and seems so assured now and in control of her material and the crowd. Like Jess Thristan’s set, Laura’s performance was two years in the making; indeed, Laura’s last EP had been primed to come out at Country2Country 2020, which was wretchedly postponed with a day’s notice. Ironically, How Big Is Your World came out in the era where that world was a park or a garden. Incidentally, the CD stall in the Town Square was offering the compilation CD for ‘the festival that never was’ for a fiver, which must be cheaper than most of the street food that was being served 10 metres away.
In the middle of their two-month UK tour, Morganway (above) popped down to Greenwich and blasted through singalongs new (Come Over) and old (London Life). Guitarist Kieran turned up Matt’s keyboard for his solo during Hurricane, which filled the space brilliantly. I took some photos of a fan of the band, who claimed the full house by getting pictures with all six Morganway members.
Essex County were even more impressive. The Bass brothers divide their time between Nashville and the UK, and they’ve got it all, including the tunes. Guitarist Mark was tapping his notes like Eddie van Halen (no wonder he was named England’s best guitarist as a 10-year-old), vocalist Nate crooned in a very commercial manner while rhythm guitarist Kieran overcame a technical hitch with a smile and a wink. Their photogenic status can’t hurt their appeal either. They are going to be huge. Buy stock in Essex County.
Buy stock in Kezia Gill too, who has joined The Shires, Ward Thomas, Twinnie and Yola as one of UK Country’s superstars. With a particularly big crowd for her solo set at the Garden Stage on Sunday, Kez played old favourites like Whiskey Drinkin Woman and Dead Ends & Detours to show off that marvellous voice. She also played I’m Here, which she preceded by a chat about checking one’s mental health. Her late dad would have been so proud of Kez, who will surely be back for C2C 2023.
Finally, I must mention the mullets. At least three people had the old Pat Sharp cut going on. I don’t remember spotting any mullets in 2019 so Morgan Wallen really has brought it back. Would C2C dare book Morgan for the 2023 festival? They’d be foolish not to, but it depends on his own schedule.
Maren Morris looks a certainty, given that she’s on an album cycle, as is Thomas Rhett. Shy Carter, Tiera Kennedy, Brittney Spencer and Breland both proved that country is no longer a Caucasian occasion, or a ‘But we have Darius!’ genre. Jimmie Allen, to that end, may be getting a call this year, but whoever joins the jamboree will entertain the thousands of cowboy-booted folk.
But seriously, we’re in London, not Louisville.
Check out the recent UK Country Top 40 Chart here.C2C returns for 2023 over the weekend of March 10-12.
He dresses like Morgan Wallen. He shares a producer, Joey Moi, with Morgan Wallen, and a label, Big Loud, with Morgan Wallen.
Big Loud have, despite everything, had the act with the biggest album in country music for 45 weeks out of the last 50 or so. Dangerous: The Double Album is closing in on the record held by Luke Combs and Shania Twain of 50 weeks at the top. There is a market for blue-collar country music sung by hot, sexy guys over power chords.
Sean Stemaly is a songwriter who released his first single If This Truck Could Talk back in 2017. What could be more rural than a guy singing about his old truck, something Tim McGraw also realised on his song 7500 OBO? He’s out on tour with Dustin Lynch this spring, warming up a crowd who shovel down this sort of thing to kick back to and unwind with.
The title track kicks off the album and within ten seconds we know where we are. There’s a shoutout to the ‘southern drawl crowd’ then the patented Joey Moi stacked guitar line familiar from all those Florida Georgia Line smashes. Sean sings of muddy waters, Mason jars, ‘ride or die’ buddies, a neon moon, ‘heaven on dirt’ and that is country bingo.
Several tracks date back to pre-pandemic times. Hardy was involved in Back on a Backroad, which contains all of Hardy’s tricks that make a song so catchy it hurts, including the tongue-twisting line ‘put this two-tone, two-ton, too clean Chevy to work’. Indeed, we first heard WD-40 4WD on the Hardy Hixtape last year. Sean, Justin Moore and Jimmie Allen all hop on board to sing about country stuff. Tick them off on the bingo card as you go, while marvelling at the skill of the songwriters (none of whom are singing on the song) in putting in acronyms and abbreviations, spelling out ‘S-T-R-A-I-T’ at one point.
Last Night All Day is an outside write on which Sean takes the role of a guy replaying his one-night stand in his mind, while Georgia is one of those Frankenstein songs that tours the USA in country songtitles while settling on Georgia. Given that Aldean is from that state, I reckon he passed on this song because it was too similar to another song about Georgia that he was recording for what Grady Smith smartly calls the latest three minutes of ‘his two-hour track’ that he recorded several years ago.
When Sean opens for DL, we will have one singer praising Carolina and the other hymning the one he’s got on his mind. As Far As I Know, meanwhile, is an outside write which co-writer Jameson Rodgers might have passed on. It’s yet another song about ‘buddies and cold beer’ and a sweet local girl, and all the rural elements of a small town and the county lines. At this stage of the game it doesn’t matter which Southern boy sings a song like this, it’s still product that is definitely and defiantly country.
Then there’s pure product placement. Z71, to ingenus like me, is a package offered to Chevy drivers; all the song Z71 does it describe such a package and such a car. At least Aldean was ‘ready to ride’ on Take A Little Ride, which even its writer Rodney Clawson called a commercial. Conversely If Heaven Had A Weekend is a midtempo tune in triple time where Sean wishes he could hang out with his departed loved ones. It’s a thinker, co-written by Sean himself, which is very Writers Round-y. You can’t have deep without shallow in modern country music.
The cadence of smooth song Can’t Be Me is similar to that of Morgan Wallen, as if Joey Moi’s formula extends to the delivery of a melody. We get blue jeans, leather boots, ball caps, ‘vinyls of Cash and Keith’ and sweet tea in a rural chorus where Sean sings of his country credentials. It’s a formula and it works a treat.
Then come the sex jams. Hello, You Up is exactly what you think it is, with a woozy guitar effect to underscore the horny mood of a guy who is just one call away. Come Back to Bed, which is by far Sean’s most popular song, closes the album. It quotes the ‘if I said I need your body would you hold it against me’ chat-up line and sounds like Burnin It Down by Aldean or Strip It Down by Luke Bryan. Ditto Speaking My Language, which contrasts Sean’s grammar with a girl who ‘said isn’t’ but now has ‘a touch of twang’. It even sounds ‘a little dangerous’, which reminds me that I must go back and listen to that Morgan Wallen album…
Ernest helped Kentucky-born Sean write Love Me Like Kentucky where, yes, ‘her lips taste just like Bourbon’. Sean’s vocal reminds me of James Taylor and it’s very appealing. Comeback Town has hit written all over it, thanks to Ashley Gorley, Ernest and Jesse Frasure putting it on the shelf for Joe Country Boy to pluck off it and stick it on his album full of rural songs. The verses open up to a wide-open head-nodder of a chorus which invites the listener to never forget where they came from after they have been to ‘see the city lights’. Props to the writers for getting the title of Kaw-Liga by Hank Williams, recorded in 1952, in a country song in 2022. If they write a hundred of these songs a year, you need a little variety.
Like Dustin Lynch and Morgan Wallen before him, Sean Stemaly is a Music Row product hoping to make his label money by singing country songs to country people. It’s business disguised as art, but Music Row has been doing this for decades. If Sean doesn’t get drunk and use naughty words, he’ll have a good career. If he does, it seems, he’ll still have a good career.
Such is country music in 2022, the same as it ever was.
I met Noah Guthrie once. He was playing Nashville Meets London in Canary Wharf and I inveigled my way into a chat he was having with the duo Two Ways Home, who were big fans of his Stapletonnish voice and performances in the TV soap Glee.
Noah had already auditioned for America’s Got Talent, going on to lose out in the semi-finals in favour of an electric violin player and a comedian. Noah’s Thursday Jukebox shows were his contribution to morale during the pandemic; 500,000 people subscribe to his Only1Noah Youtube channel. I hope many of them check out this excellent album.
Five of the tracks are 100%-ers, with music and lyrics by Noah himself. He frames the album with two of them: opener Hell or High Water and the title track, which is placed at the end of the album. The former is a windows-down rock song with a fine arrangement and structure, with Noah’s blues-rock voice pushed up high in the mix; the latter is a four-minute movie where Noah tells a typical American story of small towns, dashed dreams and lost love.
In between those two are ten other examples of the Noah Guthrie sound. Two were pre-released impact tracks: the mostly acoustic choir-accompanied tune Only Light I Need and Wishing I Was Wrong, a poppy tune written with the wonderful Adam Hambrick. The fiddle solo is unexpected but delightful.
That’s All smoulders with soft tom-tom drum smacks over which Noah talks to a former beloved about the past, a subject he returns to on both the ballad When You Go and Last Time I Think of You. On that track, Noah mulls things over ‘in a room outside of Reno’ and repeats his regret day after day. He could actually give this song to Stapleton as it sounds like a smash. Kudos to him and Maia Sharp, who is a performer in her own right and has written songs covered by Bonnie Raitt.
Things To Fix is full of vulnerability and regret, ‘skipping over number one’ and counting his own flaws, while Welcome The Stranger and Feel It Now are both head-nodders with guitars that sound like traditional Southern rock. Let The Damn Thing Break is a protest song which opens with Noah singing ‘there is a time for holding hands’.
On High Enough, Noah’s vocal rivals Drake White and Ryan Kinder for tuneful blues. I would buy a ticket to see Noah just extemporise and vocalise but he is able to place the wail carefully amid rock songs that put across his personality as well as his voice.
Joe Nichols – Good Day For Living
Oh, Joe Nichols, sexy Joe Nichols. The cheekbones probably got him a record deal, but it was handy that a) Garth had left country music to raise his kids and b) Joe could sing too. So could Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley and Keith Urban, who all replaced the mighty Garth on country radio.
In 2002, Joe had his first number one called Brokenheartsville, an outside write, which followed the success of debut hit The Impossible. That song was written by Lee Thomas Miller and Kelley Lovelace (both A-list writers of the era) and was also cut by fellow hunk Mark Chesnutt. The CMA gave Joe the Horizon Award for Best New Artist in 2003, where he beat Blake Shelton and Gary Allan.
The quirky Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off is still heard in DJ sets today (probably not for much longer, the way it’s all going) while I also loved his iPod-namechecking hit Yeah and the Peach Pickers two-chord jam Gimmie That Girl. I also quickly noticed he had a particular way to mime playing guitar in his music videos, which endeared me to the guy.
Now on Quartz Hill, who call Joe ‘a 21st Century traditionalist’ on their website, Joe spent the pandemic working on the new album while putting covers of Guy Clark and Merle Haggard songs up on his Youtube channel. Tradition runs through the album as if that’s the Joe Nichols brand. The Chris Janson song Hawaii On Me, one of the highlights of his Real Friends album, appears here as the token weepie as the narrator tells his beloved to take some money and have a good time in his honour.
Joe aged out of country radio in around 2013 when Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line came along to refresh the format, but Joe had a decent decade as a hot face and voice. In 2015, he told a newspaper that ‘we’ve forgotten who loves our music and for the most part that’s middle America…We’re country music. We represent the common man and woman.’ The industry was ‘fickle’ but Joe works in opposition to it, ever keen to make country music ‘believable’. He did that on his 2017 album Never Gets Old, which was too long and didn’t sell. The three singles all missed at radio and Joe lost his deal with Aldean’s label Broken Bow.
The title track could well be a Janson tune too. Joe hymns the wonders of the world in spite of how his orange juice comes from concentrate! ‘Gonna take a sweet sip of whatever life’s fixin’ is his conclusion. Blake Shelton can probably afford boats and credit cards, and proper orange juice, since he has been locked into The Voice for a decade. I Got Friends That Do, on which Blake appears, is a chirpy tune, co-written by the great Tebey. It features the great rhyme ‘bender/bartender’ and its cheesy ending comes with the type of bickering common in duets between blokes.
Brokenhearted is a bolshy way to begin the album, a way to get back at Music Row who burned him once his expiry date came. I knew I’d heard it before and it turns out William Michael Morgan used it as the title of his major-label debut. He was since been released from that deal, thus proving that ‘there ain’t nobody broken-hearted in country music any more’!
Alan Jackson did the same thing on his recent album Where Have You Gone, so it seems that the neo-traditionalists are striking back at Nashville. It’s odd to discover, however, that JT Harding and Rhett Akins wrote the song, since they have a foot in both camps. That’s Nashville for ya.
Joe cannot have it both ways, though, but he does. Three of today’s biggest Music Row writers – Ross Copperman, Dallas Davidson and Ashley Gorley – wrote the blah single Home Run. Emily Shackleton was in the room for Dance With The Girl, on which Joe regrets ‘what I didn’t do’ and tells the next man to do a better job than he did. Aldean’s mate Neil Thrasher wrote Screened In, another song where a guy sits with his buddies drinking beer on a hot day while guitars twang away. Doesn’t make it bad, it is just a familiar trope.
The great Adam Craig co-wrote the very rural That’s How I Grew Up, a list of country signifiers tied up with a bow, and Why Can’t She. That song is a prayer to God, written with the equally great Jon Nite. Dierks Bentley could also sell the line ‘When you bend the truth at all, it ends up broken’, especially when it rhymes with ‘redemption’. Joe asks why God can forgive but his former partner can’t. Ten years ago this would have been a hit, as would One Two Step Closer, where Joe loses himself on the dancefloor to the sounds of (with clunking inevitability) a George Strait song and a pedal steel guitar.
Randy Montana, who is so hot right now, wrote Reckon, which thumps along with a heavy backbeat and a rapid series of lyrics that Joe handles brilliantly. If you think the title is also a pun, and if the song sets up one hell of a payoff, you have figured out why Randy Montana is so hot right now.
The album ends with She Was, a story song about a young couple that is in the tradition of She’s Leaving Home, Red Rag Top and Two Pink Lines. No tune on country radio will contain a bridge like ‘he was 18, she wasn’t but she said she was’, or even document teenage pregnancy, but that is rural life with all its struggles. Tissues at the ready for the third verse.
This is a fine album of timeless country music in the Randy Travis tradition. It deserves to have an audience.
There’s little point moaning about how Walker Hayes has gotten more famous from a dance routine than for any of his fine poppy country songs. That’s the way the market goes at the moment.
Priscilla Block waited tables, sat for people’s dogs, cleaned people’s houses and played open mics for years to become an overnight success thanks to Just About Over You. The song became her breakout smash after getting caught up in an algorithm, which meant she was quickly snapped up by Mercury Nashville to make them, and her, some money. Now we’ve got 11 tracks that she’ll perform to thousands of people in the next year, to make Mercury Nashville some money and her own hard work pay off.
Her audience will look like her, probably sound like her and will likely have discovered her on a Chinese app that has driven music industry eyeballs to it. The appearance of this album is inevitable, so it is interesting to see how Priscilla makes sure she catches her moment and establishes her brand in a market where about one female singer makes it to public prominence every year.
In 2021 Priscilla (or Cilla to her friends) put out a six-track EP which included the big smash and tunes about heartbreak. Wish You Were The Whiskey, Heels In Hand and the gossipy I Bet You Wanna Know all cross over from the EP to make the album. All are radio-friendly unit shifters which were written with Priscilla’s friend Sarah Jones.
Just About Over You appears on the back half of the album, rather than track two or three, because streaming doesn’t need albums to be front-loaded with the hits. It is followed by Peaked In High School, which brings the album to a close. That song is basically Fat and Famous by Ashley McBryde updated for the age of oversharing. It is dedicated ‘to all the girls who made me cry’. You go, girlfriend! Yaaas.
Talking of self-expression, Thick Thighs appears in a new version and it is less funny than it was when I first heard it. Indeed, Priscilla told the New York Times that her dream is a CMT Crossroads show with Lizzo. For those who haven’t seen a picture of Priscilla, it’s the same shtick which is still novel in a pop-country world where Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris appear in very short shorts to sell their music.
The new single My Bar is a country tune which wards off an ex because Priscilla has her own territory. The humungous drum track makes it perfect country radio fodder and her vocal is authentically southern. The other brand new tracks include a duet with Hillary Lindsey called I Know A Girl, which sounds like a writers’ room therapy session turned into a three-minute introspective ballad: ‘A girl who finally learned to love herself’ is Hallmark Country.
The pair wrote the song with David Garcia. This must have been the result of a phone call from the record label boss who realised that the presence of Carrie Underwood’s big two collaborators can beef up an album which includes a song about muffin tops. I’ve Gotten Good was written with Phil Barton and Hillary’s fellow Love Junkie Liz Rose, which gives an adult contemporary feel to yet another song about moving on from a relationship. This album should come with a free bottle of wine.
Like A Boy will likewise chime with any listener who has been through a breakup, as Priscilla gets called ‘moody’ by her partner and soundtracks it with fat piano chords. As on Heels In Hand, she stretches out syllables across several beats of a bar. Priscilla sticks to the theme on Ever Since You Left (‘I’m feeling better, more together’), which scrubs out one swear word in the second verse but leaves in ‘kiss me ass’ cos that’s just the kind of gal Priscilla is!!
The album opens with a procession of voices saying her name, including Bobby Bones introducing her on the Grand Old Opry TV programme. Priscilla Block was a household name before she released an album or a major-label EP. But attention only gets you so far. Priscilla has wanted this attention ever since she moved to Nashville from North Carolina in 2014 and, eight years on, she finally has her own full-length album. I hope she gets a second too.
Like the aforementioned Ashley McBryde, Priscilla will, barring a catastrophe, be over in the UK for Country2Country. She will, I think gain the same number of fans that Ashley gained when she came over in 2018 to play the side stages.
When you go into a clothes store, you always see mannequins modelling the clothes to give an impression of what you, the buyer, will look like wearing those clothes. Likewise, when you flick over to a commercial country music station, in between adverts for cars and alcohol you will hear songs where husky-voiced men sing about cars and alcohol and girls.
Country music is a business. As the shop window, radio has been the dominant way of getting music to consumers for almost a century. Radio airplay sells albums, which sells concert tickets, which sells beer and cowboy boots and merchandise. It’s a business, you see.
Dustin Lynch is the latest in the production line which brought us Tim McGraw, Jason Aldean and Brooks & Dunn. Starting out in the early 2010s, the man known as DL has mixed wholesome songs like Cowboys and Angels, dedicated to his grandparents, with sex jams like Where It’s At, Mind Reader, Ridin’ Roads, Hell of a Night, Good Girl and Seein’ Red. Sex jams do well at radio, you see.
His last album Tullahoma included tracks called Dirt Road, about how the ‘six-lane city’ is ‘a long way from little bitty’, and Workin’ on You, which contrasted the daily demands of farming with how he’ll keep working hard to satisfy his beloved. Rural loving, DL style. Importantly, I believe what he’s singing.
This is the DL brand. It makes money. It will keep making money until the public decide it doesn’t want to buy DL any more. This is why Jason Aldean still has a career: people want to show up and bellow Big Green Tractor and She’s Country. The important thing to note about Aldean is that he has had extraordinary success at radio because his songs fit well next to the aforementioned adverts. Even the ballads are powerful.
Ditto for DL: after Small Town Boy became the biggest song on radio in 2017, his song Momma’s House spent over a year being promoted and clambered to the top of the Airplay chart. His eighth chart-topper was his collaboration with MacKenzie Porter, Thinkin Bout You, a multi-week number one across 2021 and 2022. It also became DL’s biggest Hot 100 hit across all genres, reaching number 30.
A version of the song featuring Lauren Alaina was on Tullahoma, but due to Lauren’s presence on a Jon Pardi song it was decided to replace her vocal. Heaven forfend listeners would hear Lauren’s voice two songs in a row. Sensibly, the new version is high up the tracklist on the new album, although Stars Like Confetti uses exactly the same chord progression but up a key, which lessens its impact on the album.
Blue In The Sky builds on the DL Brand which he has grown across a decade. He seems like a nice guy, always smiling, and he has never been in trouble with the law or has boasted of political views which create clickbait-y stories. DL is a squeaky-clean country star who makes wholesome music for a country radio demographic, a cross between McGraw and Aldean. He will never be a superstar but he’s a reliable unit-shifter for Broken Bow Records, for whom Aldean is the prize bull.
In the Nashville way, DL gets a smattering of credits among the outside writers drafted in to provide him with songs. He co-writes Break It On A Beach (‘I never thought you would bury me in the sand!’) with the A-List trio Ashley Gorley, Hunter Phelps and Zach Crowell, who produced the album. Poor DL can’t even drink pina coladas, such is the memory of heartbreak by the water.
More happily he’s drinking Tequila on a Boat with Chris Lane, an equally anonymous radio favourite. The goal of this song is to make the listener feel good and to sing along with the tune. Expect this to be a future single. Having recorded a song called Party Song, we’ve now got new single Party Mode, a bit of fluff which took as many people to write as there are chords in the song (five). The guitar sound is decent and I like the line ‘There ain’t no future in lookin’ back’.
Summer Never Ended, however, just sounds like by-the-numbers filler and deserves to be treated as such. Eric Church’s mate Jeff Hyde helped DL with Pasadena, a midtempo reminiscin’ tune on which DL and his girl, ‘with a flower in her hair’, have a brief fling in California. He goes ‘back there all the time in my mind’. It’s one of the album’s better tunes.
Tennessee Trouble (‘You walked in like a neon smoking gun’) and Huntin’ Land had Hunter Phelps in the room too. It’s a tribute to the Peach Pickers tunes which document rural life in country songs: DL complains about how his girl dislikes all the stuff he does but ‘her daddy’s got huntin’ land’ so he persists. Riley Green, another anonymous radio favourite, pops up with a verse on that song, which means that aside from four beats in the middle eight there are as many vocalists on the song as there are chords (two). Doesn’t mean it’s not catchy and smart.
Jameson Rodgers had a hand in Back Road TN, which makes it a hat-trick for the Gormless Radio Favourites. It’s one of those songs in which the singer ticks off places in the USA but concludes that nothing is as wholesome as Tennessee because there’s ‘the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen’ next to him. Commentator Grady Smith will wince at the mention of the moon, which dominated the last album Tullahoma.
The two deep and meaningful tracks are the type that country music has produced since time immemorial to show that you can live a country way of life (hmm, nice phrase). Somethin’ That Makes You Smile is one of those carpe diem songs like Humble and Kind that no English songwriter would dare write; it is Hallmark Country that reminds the listener that we’re ‘only here for a little while’. The first line is about drinking Coca-Cola, which is code for buying stuff. At least it makes you happy, as does fixing a car, going fishing, heading to the bar or watching some American Football.
DL has already sung album closer Not Every Cowboy on the stage at the Opry, where he was honoured with membership in 2018. It was, incidentally, co-written by Conner Smith; it’s a love song which includes the lines ‘silhouette Stetson’ and ‘there’s parts where the movies got it wrong’. It’s one of the three or four tracks that will make DL’s greatest hits set; it’s his Drink A Beer or Neon Moon. They’re known as career songs and it may well win some awards.
Country music needs stars like DL to keep the genre going. As long as he avoids getting stuck in Aldean territory, making the same song over and over again, DL will be fine.