Country Jukebox Jury: Michael Ray v Carly Pearce 

September 18, 2021

Michael Ray – Higher Education EP

Michael Ray, who was called a Liability by his ex (more of whom shortly), has not risen above B List, scoring radio hits written by others: Thomas Rhett wrote Think A Little Less, Travis Denning wrote Her World or Mine, Abe Stoklasa wrote Get To You, Old Dominion wrote One That Got Away.

He’s drafted in Michael Hardy on his EP Higher Education, because Hardy is able to unite rural and urban effectively for the likes of Florida Georgia Line and Morgan Wallen. No wonder Mitchell Tenpenny has called on Hardy’s services too.

The first impact track from the EP was a ballad called Whiskey And Rain, a two-chord jam which reminded me of all those Gary Allen songs about heartache. I don’t know why the EP’s title track needs a staff of Lee Brice, Kid Rock, Tim Montana AND a solo from Billy Gibbons, but Michael will do anything for his label and it’s a party jam which sounds good cranked up to ten even if you only need to hear it once. I wonder if Michael could have learned how to keep a marriage together too.

Just The Way I Am is a Hardy jam which paints Michael as a chap with ‘too much pride’, owns a suit for when he needs to go to a funeral and who is ‘a poor man’s Hemingway’. (He liked a drink too…) This is rather ruined by the fact that a song called Just The Way I Am is an outside write. Ashley Gorley helps Michael himself on Didn’t Know I Was Country, a proper song which is aggressively contemporary and sounds like Thomas Rhett. We get a lot of rural signifiers – marrying childhood sweethearts, funny accents, peace of mind and a piece of land (the album’s best lyric) – and Michael singing to a fiddle accompaniment.

Jessi Alexander joins Hardy (who, let us remember, is up for Best New Artist at the CMAs) to write Live Without You, a midtempo ballad with a watertight chorus set over a four-chord loop. ‘Nitty needs some Gritty’ and so Michael would be dead without ‘you’; let’s just forget he’s divorced. Picture is a rewrite of Refrigerator Door by Luke Combs with a little more pathos and carpe diem-ness (‘tell them you love them while you got the chance’).

Holy Water, which is a very similar song to Hardy’s tune God’s Country, is the kind of song Blake Shelton could sell. Michael Ray does an okay job of telling the Southern Baptist story which conjures up images of Lincoln cars and Christianity. It sounds like a Hardy song that positions Michael as a rootsy singer who will do anything for his label.

I wonder if the money he earns from the project is going to his ex-wife.

Carly Pearce – 29: Written In Stone

I listened to the initial EP which forms the backbone of Carly’s new album, which everyone knows deals with her divorce from Michael Ray in a marriage that was as doomed as that of Katy Perry and Russell Brand (remember that??).

I saw her perform Show Me Around on a livestream and reckon this takes her to the next level. It’s a song dedicated to her late producer and imagines heaven as his ‘brand new place’ which will one day host Carly to ‘pick back up’ their relationship. Even without the context it’s a wonderful song and will comfort many people who have lost loved ones, especially in the last year.

To lose a friend is bad enough; to lose a marriage in the same year is extremely wretched. Next Girl is a warning to the next lady who falls in love with, well, let’s call him Ray Michael. The seven tracks from the EP, all of which are found on the album, create a whole which follows the long break-up album tradition pioneered by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, and extends into the present day with Sam Smith, Taylor Swift and Adele.

Should’ve Known Better is a companion to Every Little Thing – the song is in the same key and has the same touches of guitar – while on the funky Liability (lie ability, liability – it’s a country song), Ray does not come across well at all. The gentle and Swiftian Messy has verses full of cigarettes, little black dresses, mascara stains, Cabernet and regrettable texts, and a chorus which outlines how ‘moving on…ain’t always gonna be a clean break’.

Day One, where Matt Ramsey of Old Dominion (who gave The One That Got Away to sleazebag Michael Ray) was in the room, sounds like a journal entry or therapy. Carly lists the landmarks in getting over Ray, from not needing to numb her pain with alcohol to seeing a new guy after a month of heartbreak. The tenor matches that of Carly’s number one duet with Lee Brice, I Hope You’re Happy Now.

The title track has fiddle in its third bar, then two fiddles in the middle, which soundtrack a melancholic story – Carly’s story – of how ‘you’re supposed to find yourself’ and ‘stop calling your mum for help’ and get a mortgage and settle down and so on. The listener knows the story because country music loves its couples and looks kindly on those for whom love doesn’t work out.

Perhaps the most pertinent message about the song came from my friend Laura Cooney, who also became ‘a Miss to a Mrs then the other way around’ while writing for Entertainment Focus, which is part of the Destination Country collective. It’s a song of strength and one that Carly will sing with gusto in a live sphere. Once again, Josh Osborne and Shane McAnally help the singer tell her story.

There are thus eight new songs, led by Never Wanted To Be That Girl, a duet with Ashley McBryde which the pair wrote with the great Shane McAnally (who also co-wrote Ashley’s standard One Night Standards). I like the aesthetic of the song, whose first verse Ashley sings as backup. Is there autobiography? Is this fiction? Carly won’t tell whether she was ‘the other one’. It’s a great piece of music that I am sure Carly will play live, with or without Ashley.

The album begins with Kelsea Ballerini co-write Diamondback, which starts off with strings and opens up with a toe-tapping beat and a lyric full of pain. It sounds like Carly is singing over a Kelsea demo and I hadn’t realised how similar their voices were. It’s no surprise that Shane McAnally was in the room too, as Carly tells her ex (let’s call him Ray Michael) that he can keep the house, the truck and the dog but he’s ‘never getting the diamond back’. It’s brilliant, and in the tradition of songs about wedding rings. The best compliment I can pay is that it sounds like a Brandy Clark song.

Emily Shackleton, who co-wrote Every Little Thing, returns to the room on two tracks. What He Didn’t Do is a brutal list of Ray Michael’s flaws with which I am sure other ex-wives will be familiar, while All The Whiskey In The World is a mandolin-flecked waltz where Carly paints Ray in a sad light. It is even more ironic that Whiskey and Rain was the title of Michael’s attempt to control the narrative. ‘Keep on running, keep on hiding so you never face your demons, and tell yourself it’s freedom’ is cutting; Carly as Miss Loretta is a fabulous career move after two albums of iffy pop-country (with apologies to her late collaborator busbee).

On a similar theme Nicolle Galyon and Sasha Sloan were there for the funky Your Drinkin, My Problem: ‘4am, stumble to the bedroom again’ sets the mood and again paints Ray Michael as a bad husband. I love how the groove matches Drink In My Hand by Eric Church and how Ray’s problem is Carly’s. I wonder if this is the real reason they split up.

Natalie Hemby helped Carly write Easy Going, whose intro and bluegrassy long outro remind me of Sheryl Crow and whose punch was lacking from Carly’s first two albums. She sounds like a true artist now, with vocals fluttering around her in the chorus which delivers the Hembyesque punch ‘you made it so easy going’, ie so easy to go.

The album closes with Mean It This Time, where Carly plays a cross between Dolly, Kelsea and Hillary Scott from Big Machine labelmates Lady A. It’s a weepie which puts the focus back on Carly, who will be sure to pick the right second husband. You might as well call it Next Guy, a companion to Next Girl. The next guy is going to be lucky to encounter Carly, a Grand Ole Opry member, in this form. One of the most fully realised projects of the year and kudos goes to Scott Borchetta for letting Carly put her story on record. It’ll make Big Machine some money after all.


Country Jukebox Jury EPs: Four US EPs by King Calaway, Manny Blu, Drake Milligan and Tyler Booth

September 18, 2021

King Calaway – Midnight EP

King Calaway were a sextet who are now a quintet but is there a fanbase there for them?

On their new four-track EP, they want a lady to ‘get close to my locality’ on the fun Homegrown, which is very catchy and hooky and well produced. Heartbreaker is a slinky pop song with the same chorus as Hell of a Night by Dustin Lynch. More People is a plea to be kinder to one another (‘be the first to say sorry and strong enough to take the blame’) and it’s a pop song that Dan + Shay would have loved.

Lainey Wilson helps out on Good Time To Me, which was written by Charles Kelley and Russell Dickerson among others: we get Brooks & Dunn on a jukebox in the opening verse and the F-major chord running through it, with a neat ‘sounds like a good time to me’ post-chorus chant. I think the lyric is ‘music to my beers’ in the chorus itself, which is fun. This will be a great set opener if the band come over for Country2Country next year.

Manny Blu – Devil

2021 has brought five tracks, introduced in turn, now collected on the Devil EP: the party-starter Circle Up with amps cranked up and guitars a-buzzin; ‘dance with the devil, you might as well lead’ is a great lyric on a song with a descending chromatic riff that Aldean would kill to record; Train is poodle-rock in country clothing; and Valet is a ballad which takes the listener back to ‘a hotel rooftop reservation’, with the car left in the care of the valet in favour of a trip to the lady’s place. I’ll keep my ears open for the voice of Brittany Kennell.

The new track of the five is Rusty Things which, as with the other four, is also an outside write given to Manny who inhabits the song with a whisky-soaked croon. Here, his subject is a girl whose ‘heart takes a shine’ to rusted trucks and guitar strings and, of course, Manny himself.

Drake Milligan EP

A self-titled five-track set released on Broken Bow, you can tell the stamp of quality because Tony Brown is overseeing production. Drake is a Texan and you can tell from the first ten seconds of Over Drinkin’ Under Thinkin’, a honkytonk lament with fiddle and close harmony.

Don’t Look Down (‘just keep your eyes on me…We’re getting one two-step closer’) is a slow-dance in the George Strait tradition, while She is a ballad in the George Strait tradition: ‘I can’t believe she’s mine’ is the sentiment, and it sounds like a classic.

Kiss Goodbye All Night (GREAT title) is a sensational tempo tune in the tenor of Randy Rogers or Josh Abbott, with hints of Josh Turner; authentic is what it is. Terry McBride was in the room for Sounds Like Something I’d Do, a turbocharged rocker where Drake’s voice hits some low notes before bursting into a killer Garth/Brooks & Dunn-ish chorus. Remember the name: Drake Milligan.

Tyler Booth – Grab The Reins

Sony Music have introduced another bloke to a market which includes fellow Sony Music acts Ryan Hurd, Luke Combs, Chris Young, Willie Jones, Kane Brown, Adam Doleac, Niko Moon, Jameson Rodgers, Matt Stell and Kameron Marlowe. Let’s not saturate the market, chaps. Sony also own Brooks & Dunn and, indeed, I first heard Tyler sing on a Rebooted version of the song Lost and Found.

Tyler is from Kentucky, like Chris Stapleton, and also plays guitar, like Chris Stapleton. His voice is on the Toby Keith/Blake Shelton/Craig Morgan spectrum, with shades of Chris Stapleton, so if you like that tone then you’ll love Tyler’s croon. He showcases it on Drink It Up, which has a humongous melody and carpe diem lyrics: ‘Keep your family close cos you never know if you’re gonna get another round’ is a fine line written by, among others, the ubiquitous Ashley Gorley.

The EP also contains breakup song Ghost Town, where brushes stroke the drums to create a melancholy mood; heartache-laden blues Stone Cold High and Dry, which is basically Nobody To Blame in they key of B; Gone Done Did, also in the key of B and a fine segue thematically as well, since Tyler is ‘doggone brokenhearted’; and Already Got One, a love song where happily Tyler can head home from the bar to be with his beloved. There is a fine guitar solo.

Palomino Princess is a 100-percenter, with words and music by Tyler himself. ‘Saddle me up,’ he croons, ‘and we can ride the night away’. The instrumentation is superb, with real snare drums and some pedal steel, and there is so much passion in the vocal.

Sony probably want to pivot to old-style country music from before the bro era, but there’s no point in complaining when the music is this good. Kudos should go to Phil O’Donnell, go-to guy for the like of Aaron Watson, Mo Pitney and Craig Morgan, for adding sensitivity to the production and bringing out Tyler’s voice. I am a fan.


Country Jukebox Jury EPs: Ashley Cooke and Mitchell Tenpenny

September 18, 2021

Ashley Cooke – Already Drank That Beer (Side A)

Ashley Cooke’s album has been produced by Jimmy Robbins, one of the best pop-country producers who typically works with women like Maren Morris. Ashley, who is a woman, has released the first side of her album Already Drank That Beer, which is full of digital drum loops and fine melodies, as on opener Gettin’ Somewhere (with no G). Under is a songwriting exercise where Ashley is ‘under the impression’, drunk ‘under the neon lights’ and ‘underneath the sheets with someone new’ because she ‘can’t get over you’. First Time, Last Night seems to be a catharsis, finally getting over the ex and going to a bar without drowning sorrows, while Never Til Now is a wedding song where Ashley spots someone who could help her reach maturity.

The obligatory duet comes on Good Goodbye, a wonderfully optimistic breakup song where Jimmie Allen croons the bloke’s part. Craig Wiseman gifts Ashley the philosophical Sunday Morning Kinda Saturday Night, where ‘the man upstairs’ gets a mention and makes me think of Jordan Davis’ Church in a Chevy. Already Drank That Beer is a wonderfully tender breakup song written by, among others, the marvellous Jessi Alexander, while Nicolle Galyon is on hand for the four chords and the truth Opposite of Love (‘ain’t saying that you hate me…ain’t kissin on somebody downtown at a bar’) which seems to point perversely to happiness since ‘we ain’t as out of love as we think’.

Her vocal is the same timbre as Kelsea Ballerini’s, which makes a comparison easy. The songs stand up and I hope they find an audience. The rest of the album should be just as fine.

Mitchell Tenpenny – Midtown Diaries EP

Mitchell Tenpenny is nicknamed Bitches because of an early single which backfired on him. Drunk Me, from his 2018 debut album, was his first number one and his breakup song-cum-emotional ransom note Truth About You is clambering up the radio chart alongside his collaboration with Chris Young, At The End of the Bar (which has no place on Mitchell’s EP). Truth About You is one of eight tracks on what he’s calling an EP and I am calling a mini-album. Being a hit songwriter in town he has access to others, such as Brad Tursi, Laura Veltz, Chris DeStefano and Michael Hardy.

Hardy was in the room for the Mumford-stomper To Us It Did, a song about how love seems to bend time and make life a little brighter, and I Can’t Love You Any More (‘than I do right now’) is a declaration of adoration told through the concept of finiteness, with some neat images and lines about ‘milking’ Sundays for all they are worth.

Bucket List is a carpe diem song in which Mitchell promises to ‘cross one off, put two more on it’ and make life better without thinking of the ‘what ifs’. Girl’s Love (‘lips taste like candy’) is similarly lovely, set to a funky lick and real drums that self-consciously mimic John Mayer, a key influence on country music today. The production choices swallow the sentiment of Good Thing, which has Mitchell purring that he’s ‘hot-headed’ while his belle is ‘a rock when the waves come…it’s a good thing you love me’.

Don’t Let Me Let You is middle of the dirt road fodder which rhymes ‘tequila…fever…amnesia’ in the first verse and contains a crunching guitar solo in the middle of Mitchell’s laments about keeping a girl at a distance. That is sensible on She Hates Me Too, a song of companionship as Mitchell consoles a guy who has broken up with the same girl he had done, complete with some Sam Hunt-like syncopated delivery in the verses and some f-words. It’s a neat sentiment and a fine song, and sounds very contemporary.


Country Jukebox Jury EPs: Four British EPs by Adele & Andy, Bob Fitzgerald, The Blue Highways and Caitlin Mae

September 18, 2021

Adele & Andy – Love, Loss and Life Lessons EP

The six tracks on this EP, which follows one released within the last year, are in turns mysterious and pretty.

As Much As I Miss You is about honouring the memory of the dead; it’s a proper country song with fleshed-out characters and a plea for a dying father to ensure that his son looks after his widow. Adele’s voice is extraordinary and the arrangement is tender. Myles Kennedy of the band Alter Bridge wrote Wonderful Life, which A&A turn into a country waltz with harmonies and snare-rim taps on the offbeat while being faithful to the original version.

Earl is a story song set in the 1800s where the poor protagonist takes the wrap for a crime he didn’t commit thanks to the actions of a wicked girl who uses her position of power and privilege. Maybe it’s an allegory or parable, and the arrangement puts the story first, adding some catchy earworms to ensure the message comes through. He Is Me is similarly mysterious: Adele has been changed, knows where she’s meant to be, thanks to advice from a wise man.

The production across the EP is brilliant, especially on midtempo tune I Got You and breakup song I’m Getting Over You, which follows the poppy tenor of the best UK country from the likes of Ward Thomas and Twinnie. I think A&A should be held in their class, given a bit of a push from Bob Harris, Matt Spracklen and Tim Prottey-Jones.

Caitlin Mae – Perspective EP

Caitlin announces herself with this promising four-track EP, on which are two country tunes and two pop/rock ballads. Country Eyes (‘they tell a story’) is driven by a soft shuffle and a strong chorus with some neat chord shifts, while the time signature moves from bars of three to bars of four, giving it a musical interest. Gasoline is full of character and funky riffs as Caitlin calls on the Devil to let her boy burn. The vocals are prominent and this will be a live favourite.

Take My Demons, full of monsters under beds and giving up, is delivered with a light twang over piano and drums; I expect this would work as an acoustic ballad too. Slam The Door has hints of pop-punk and I’d’ve loved to hear more of the guitar part to match Caitlin’s vocal where ‘losing you meant finding me’.

The Blue Highways – I Wanna Party EP

The Lury brothers – singer Callum, guitarist Jack and drummer Theo – return with four tracks. On the first bar of the EP’s title track, Callum bellows Bruce-ishly about a girl strutting ‘like a Kardashian sister’ over an E Street Band-style barroom arrangement. Theo gives the cymbals a workout and there are some fine keys too.

Try to resist the handclaps and woahs of She Moves (‘the earth seems to stand still’) and the fine energetic tunes Love Keeps Wasting My Time and Shut Up And Drive. The recorded version maintains the live panache and makes me want to catch the Lury brothers again soon.

Bob Fitzgerald – The Promenade EP

Bob has been on my radar for a while and has huge support from the radio fraternity. Produced with great sensitivity and charm by Tim Prottey-Jones, this five-track EP opens with a massive riff on the song B1G (‘Big’, spelled with a 1 instead of the ‘I’). Bob’s smooth vocal comes in singing about hard times, ‘running this that way’ and how ‘on the 3-6-5 we duck and dive’. It’s full of personality and the chorus is massive, as is the chunky solo in the middle. We don’t really have a Phil Vassar-type figure in the UK and I hope Bob appreciates the comparison.

I Could Just Stay is a pumped-up sex jam where Bob namechecks Brad Paisley (I bet he wants to get some mud on the tires) in his desire to not head home. Slow Drunk is a reminiscin’ song over a midtempo shuffle in which Bob tells a story of what I imagine is a teenage weekend and in the second verse looks back to those days long ago. Blue Sky Drinking is a phenomenal title for a song which reminds me of David Lee Murphy’s songs for Kenny Chesney, full of enormous guitars and wide-open vocals: ‘I’m raising a toast to my boss…Cheers, adios and I’m off!’ What a great melody from an underrated songwriter.

The final track, Ceri’s Song, opens with Bob clearing his throat and wanting ‘to do one more’ take of the EP’s slowie. ‘So how can I explain?’ he starts, over gently strummed electric guitar chords, singing of ‘the sunshine to my rain, the pleasure to ease my pain…the chorus to my verse’. Ooh it’s a wedding song, with a punchy chorus full of pathos and closing with 20 seconds of atmosphere.

I’ll snap up a ticket for Bob’s live show in 2022. It’d be a shame if he wasn’t booked to play C2C’s outside stages.


Country Jukebox Jury EPs: Bexar and Jackson Michelson

September 18, 2021

Bexar – Pronounced Bear

What a strange thing to do: put a silent X in the middle of a word and tell fans how to pronounce your name. I was immediately put off. It was Andrea Williams who joked that Nashville is known as a ten-year town because if you look at the pop charts from ten years ago you will find out what country sounds like ten years hence. I am reminded of this with the Mumford sound of Bexar’s tunes, which veer towards ‘stadium folk’ thanks to the production wizardry of Ross Copperman, who is a keen student of UK music having grown up wanting to be Noel Gallagher.

This is most obvious on Again, where there are even some HEYs after a chorus which is driven by a kick-drum on the crotchet beats (a Mumford trick). So is One Day, a singalong campfire jam which eschews a life in a suit and tie for life together ‘in the promised land’. So is Mexico, which opens up to a fine syncopated chorus which namechecks Cancun and reminisces about ‘a motel room’.

So is Key To Life, which adds some folky riffs to soundtrack lessons in how to enjoy life with ‘the simple things like you and me…just driving round turning that key to life’. It’s a terrific driving song. Be Good To Her is advice to a guy who must ‘treat her right’ and was written by Femke Weidema (co-writer of Jade Helliwell’s new song Smoke) and Liz Rose, co-writer of many of Taylor Swift’s early tunes. Carry You Home, meanwhile, is blah but at least it isn’t set to a Mumford beat.

I believe after Mumford & Sons came Gangnam Style, so if you see Dan + Shay or Thomas Rhett going K-Pop, then that’s why.

Jackson Michelson – Back To That Summer EP

Jackson has been over to the UK several times building a fanbase over here. The six tracks include the irresistible pop song Tip Jar, in which he keeps the memory of an ex alive by getting a bar band to play the songs they used to dance to all night long. I love the quick musical reference to Tom Petty’s song Mary Jane’s Last Dance.

The contemporary production tricks are across this EP, which is full of strong melodies. The chorus of reminscin’ song Back To That Summer could grace any number of albums by any number of artists who are all Jackson’s contemporaries (Thomas Rhett, Ryan Hurd, Brett Young, Russell Dickerson). Amplifier has a funky riff and fast-paced, half-spoken lyrics which big up a lady who ‘turns me on and keeps me up all night’. It does seem a bit passe to call a girl ‘fire’ and it’s not country at all but it’s sticky.

Elsewhere on the EP, there’s the country-pop-by-numbers Love High (‘and I don’t ever wanna come down’), the smooth vocals and fingersnap percussion of Call Me No One, which sounds like a one-man boyband and the streaming smash Stay Over, which hits all the beats of country-pop in 2021 exhibited by the likes of fellow Curb signing Filmore. We’ve got rap-sung verses, chord loops and interaction between a guy and a girl.

The song was co-produced by Jim Ed Norman who is best known as head of A&R then president of Warner Nashville. He honed the careers of Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam and Faith Hill. He’s now CEO of Curb, who put Jackson’s music out, so this is a man who knows what sounds hip and trendy and Jackson’s EP certainly is. It’s product and enters a market saturated with this sort of thing. It also suggests that Jackson has as much personality as Michael Ray, ie very little.


The British Country Music Festival 2021 – American Guests

September 6, 2021

As with Buckle & Boots 2021, which welcomed Tebey and Alyssa Bonagura, this year’s British Country Music Festival allowed two American acts to slip through the net in a token gesture to the true home of country music.

Juna N Joey, a ‘modern day Carpenters crossed with Dan + Shay’, were over from Florida for their fist of what will become many visits to the UK. They will spend a few weeks bringing their poppy sound to Caffe Nero spots and I was won over by their charm. Playing to backing instrumentals with guitars in hand (and Mom on Facetime!), the siblings went through their own catalogue and some well-chosen covers.

I spoke to the kids a few days before they arrived in Blackpool, while they took in the sights of Salisbury. Juna was foolish because she hadn’t packed any warm clothes for the end of the British summer, while Joey said: ‘Your accents are amazing!

‘Our genre is country-pop,’ Joey told me, and they’ve picked some fine songs to interpret. They opened with Lovin On You, the Luke Combs tune, before playing the Combs-written pair of Beautiful Crazy and Old Love Song, which Zac Brown Band will have on their next album. Old Love Song sounded cute when played by two kids born after the year 2000, while Watermelon Sugar, with its four solid chords, showcased Joey’s great vocals.

As for the originals, some of which will emerge on a four-track EP, I love Till Your Heart Breaks best. New single Something Good To Miss sounded addictive and cute, and has gained US radio play. ‘We filmed a TikTok video reacting to hearing our song on the radio for a first time,’ Juna said.

A woman in the crowd swayed next to her partner in a frilly shirt while another woman who was wearing two cowboy hats was jigging away. Twinnie’s fans will enjoy their music as they support her on six dates this month across the UK, which will be their first international dates. More ought to follow, perhaps around Greenwich in March 2022.

Candi Carpenter will have gained hundreds of new fans with her Sunday afternoon slot, which was preceded by a half-hour soundcheck to ensure her voice and guitar could best be heard in the Ballroom, the ‘prettiest room I’ve played in’.

A teenage yodeller, Candi spent about 45 seconds showing off her pipes before reverting to the type of show UK fans have seen from the likes of Eric Paslay and Morgan Evans, the type that happens in Nashville every night of the week. One woman, one guitar, a thousand pairs of eyes on her and her effortless showmanship.

In a very male-dominated country sphere, because that’s what makes money and money yells in Music City, Candi has to be canny. Independence suits her, especially after a nasty stint when she was burned by the music industry and a marriage which didn’t work.

As for the music, Candi played the title track of recent EP When The Asteroid Comes as well as a tune from her Americana duo Church of Roswell. She closed her set with a cover of Little Sparrow by Dolly Parton, who ‘smells like a candle store’ and who remains the guiding force for female country singers. Indeed, Dolly has given Candi her blessing and called her a star.

There were two shocking moments in a set full of Candi’s dark past. On Exorcist, she sang ‘I need more than a therapist’ while Skinny was about her teenage years struggling with food, ‘literally trying to disappear’. Plenty of people took up the option after the set to get a hug from Candi, but perhaps it ought to be the other way round. Even her cover of Creep by Radiohead, which included a set of notes that Thom Yorke could never hit, laid bare her emotions.

At least she could be self-effacing, as when she introduced Serial Killer as one ‘written with my boyfriend’, who was filming her set in the crowd. Candi introduced one new song by saying how ‘scared’ she was to play it, because it went against conservative religious ideals. The lyric ‘Sold my soul to Carl Sagan’, referencing the scientist whose work is a rational deconstruction of religion, is worth the price of admission. American country’s loss is Americana’s gain. I wonder if other US acts will use the UK as a place they can work through their issues and anti-American feelings, since it’s not blasphemous to criticise religion here.

Rather than country music, it was very Lilith Fair. Is it unfair to group the likes of Brandi Carlile, with whom Candi recorded the recent EP, and Maren Morris in an all-female set of acts which, as in the 1990s, operate outside the mainstream?

I’d love to hear some more stories about being Little Jimmy Dickens’ housekeeper, which she shared in an online concert earlier this year, and about precisely which candles Dolly smells like. I am positive that Candi will make more pilgrimages to the UK in 2022 and, like Ashley McBryde before her, we will lap up her music one fan at a time.

If you’re quick you can find tickets to her UK shows on September 7 and 11 here.


The British Country Music Festival 2021

September 6, 2021

Or, as Tim Prottey-Jones called it, To Be Confirmed Music Festival (the hashtag is #tbcmf).

Tim is quickly becoming the popular face of UK country. He gave a fashion statement at the Blackpool-based weekend for country music-loving hordes: Chav Country, or Working Man’s Country as I’d call it. Three-quarter-length trousers, short socks, new trainers and a baseball cap complete the look, and we shall see if the fashion spreads to the crowd. They mostly sported the usual parade of boots, cowboy hats, checked shirts, trucker caps and tassels in Blackpool at the Winter Gardens, where you could buy a little stick of TBCMF Blackpool rock for a quid.

There were a couple of American visitors – who have their own essay here – but the focus here is on the UK scene. What is terrific about holding an event in the North-West of England is that people like me can come up from London, people like the Scottish Country Mafia can clamber down from Glasgow and the folk in Manchester can shuffle along to the coast. Blackpool was bathed in sunshine all weekend, and full of fireworks on Friday evening at the Blackpool Tower Illuminations. Thanks to Matt Spracklen’s late-night DJ sets, festival-goers mostly kept away from the seedier aspects of Blackpool, which is back in business, especially for the Sunday afternoon tourists. (I saw an ambulance attending to an unconscious man outside Ma Kelly’s.)

Friday

The party began on Friday night with Kezia Gill, whose star will rise further this autumn as The Shires take her out on the road. She has also recorded songs for a Radio 2 Country show appearance which cements the support Bob Harris and his team have given her. In thigh-high boots and with the Friday Night Crew waving a banner in her honour, Our Kez encouraged clapalongs and singalongs while being utterly in charge of her material. The a cappella opening to her career song, Whiskey Drinkin’ Women, sounds even better in person than through the screen or on record; her 2022 will be very fun indeed and it wouldn’t surprise me if she headlines at least one festival next year.

Holloway Road took up the baton for their first live show in 18 months. Blackpool virgins, Jack and Rob were delighted to be there, cracking up their guitarist Luke Thomas and interpolating both It Wasn’t Me and Because I Got High into one of their laid-back jams. New song Between Us got its world premiere and sat alongside recent hits like About Town, Lightning and Hang Over Here. Jack’s stagecraft was superb and that’s something I was watching out for across the weekend: in Nashville, performers are taught how to connect with the crowd. Holloway Road, as performers, needed no tuition, and are close to unmatched in the UK. The Empress Ballroom was a fine venue for their talents and it’s good to have them back playing live. I am sure they picked up some more tips from the experienced Nathan Carter, who headlined with typical aplomb.

Saturday

On the festival’s busiest day, there were four stages to enjoy. With the bar venue from 2019 taken over by a ‘comedy vocalist’ (I didn’t want to know), this time out the acoustic venue was the Pavilion, next to the piles of leather boots. Among the performers were Bethany Nelson, who led a singalong of ‘it gets me down’ on her tune I Don’t Wanna Listen to the News, a harmonica-assisted Eleri Angharad who showed promise with her own singalong (‘I love you, I delete it) and Ben Holland, who blew his own mouth organ while playing a guitar very high up on his torso. He reminded me of Richard Thompson, straddling folk, blues and country on the song Annaliese.

Over in the Arena, the 2019 trick of having an acoustic stage and an amplified main stage kept the music coming consistently. Compere Sally mistakenly referred to ‘Bob Roberts’ when she meant Bob Harris, who had given Demi Marriner and Robbie Cavanagh his Trailblazer Award early in the year. Robbie went for a bluesy set full of guitar licks while commenting that he’d seen many of his heroes at the Winter Gardens.

Demi is so assured, so in charge of her songs, that it felt odd that she had chosen to display her legs prominently (as is her choice!). She barely interacted with the crowd, supplying them with a fine set of songs which reminded me of Keira Knightly’s turn as a musician in the movie Begin Again. The melodies and arrangements were terrific. She was more chatty when showcasing some new songs from her forthcoming album (‘I’m scared to put it out!’) in the Pavilion. She introduced Some People by saying how ‘some people aren’t worth it – harsh!’ Her song Little Boy, about her young cousin born with health difficulties, included some delicious tonality and unexpected beauty. She’s a star.

Across the weekend, clashes meant I only caught a small portion of some acts’ sets. I liked Blue Rose Code’s song This Is Not a Folk Song, which actually reminded me of Lyle Lovett in its swinging, defiant melody, and I was impressed by Hayley McKay and her kinetic violinist.

Tennessee Twin showed their warm personalities in songs that bigged up the venue’s hospitality staff (Table Waiters) and the musician who plays for ‘tips in a jar’. I also appreciated their cover of A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega, the Ashley McBryde song, which brought Nashville country to Blackpool, where the UK is forming its own identity.

I could have done without a crying baby in the middle of their poppy acoustic tunes, which is worthy of mention because TBCMF is a family festival and there were plenty of kids whose cartwheels drew my eye across the Saturday. The wrinklies dominated, as befits a country crowd, but this was not a festival of line-dancing; country music appeals to folk who love stories, tunes and good-time fun. Nor was it akin to the Country Cosplay costumery of Country2Country. This was just British country fans, not British fans of country music. There’s a distinction.

Plenty of support for British country was on show on the main Arena stage from Morganway, although it was funny to hear singer SJ ask if there were any kids in before dropping some rude words in their fine cover of You Oughta Know! Live favourites London Life, My Love Ain’t Gonna Save You and Hurricane were present and correct, and we’ll get more of the same at Country in the Afternoon in Putney, South-West London, this coming Sunday at around 4pm.

As well as several performers – Emma Moore, Gasoline & Matches, the new starlet Terri Leavey – the Chitticks, who put on Country in the Afternoon, were spotted in the crowd along with both the Hancock family and Gary Quinn, who host and put together the programme respectively for Buckle & Boots.

Gary told me that only one act, Tim Prottey-Jones, had played both the 2019 and 2021 iterations of TBCMF, which shows the depth of talent in the UK and will make compiling my Festive Fifty in December very tough indeed. Tim was busy across the weekend, hosting the Songwriters Carousel in the Pavilion on Saturday and reprising his Buckle & Boots set in the Ballroom on Sunday morning.

In the latter performance, the microphone swallowed a lot of his vocals – which is not good in a lyric-driven genre like country – but his stagework was excellent, particularly on the air-pumper Exit Wounds which will be a mainstay of his live set. You can tell he was constrained in his old band The Wandering Hearts, and I expect this Sunday hangover slot where ‘my job is to wake you up’ will be the Tim Prottey-Jones slot for years to come. Or, as he’d call it, the Chav Country slot.

As for the Carousel, it started late due to technical gremlins but silenced a packed Pavilion when it began. We had three songs each from Elles Bailey, Pete Riley and Wildwood Kin. Elles, who may have the finest voice in Britain and exhibited textbook microphone control, played some of her sadder songs including One Day at a Time and Walk on Water while promising to up the tempo in her Ballroom set later that evening.

Wildwood Kin brought out two old favourites, Time Has Come (about their place as women in life and in music) and Beauty In Your Brokenness, and gave a world premiere to Sunrise. It’s the best thing they’ve done and a good sign for album number three. I wonder how wise it was to put them, and not Lisa or Nathan, as Saturday night headliners, given that there are only 52 Saturday nights per year and acoustic folk works better on Sunday afternoons.

Pete Riley was my discovery of the weekend. He’s an acclaimed singer/songwriter who often plays with Ed Sheeran’s pal Amy Wadge and the alt-rocker Edwin McCain. Tim was full of praise for Pete, a man whose songs he even sung at his degree recital. I loved Pete’s first song, the poppy Shooting Stars, as well as a song about fatherhood with some incredible suspended chords, Elles looking on impressed. It makes me want to investigate his catalogue and again made me marvel that Ed Sheeran has effectively taken singer/songwriter to stadium level in a way not seen since Elton John or Billy Joel (or, indeed, Barry Manilow). I look forward to investigating Pete’s back catalogue. I also sang along boisterously with the HEYs in the Arena when Pete led the crowd in a singalong of the Beatles’ You Got To Hide Your Love Away.

It was delightful to see Halifax-born Jess Thristan play songs with a full band for, incredibly, the first time ever. I watched her play with a guitarist in 2019 and was amazed both by her voice and her songwriting, which wowed the Saturday afternoon crowd. New song Woman Up already sounds like a classic, sitting in nicely with a smart cover of Blue Ain’t Your Color and originals including Time of Our Lives and The Old Me. She also looked smart in a blazer. Big things beckon for the Yorkshire lass.

Specials mention for three other discoveries on Saturday in the Pavilion. Jack & Tim are a one-off: a father (Tim) and a son (Jack, who was a Britain’s Got Talent finalist) who play country-inflected music. I was sad to miss much of their set, which contained superlative vocals and harmonies, but I did hear The Lucky Ones, which sounded beautiful. I’m sure they will be back on the bill in 2022, along with Katy Hurt, whose Ballroom slot began Saturday evening’s entertainment.

Rosso have been in the studio with Tim to record their songs, which were performed here with a conga player who sometimes dominated over the pair of vocals. New single Found was actually about the guitar one of the girls was playing, which had been stolen and recovered, and I liked the way they involved the crowd on their closing number Pray. Their poppy tunes will find an audience, especially on radio, and they would make an earthy opening act for their friends Wildwood Kin.

Bryony Sier is a Welsh singer who talked in her set about struggling with self-worth and anxiety. Her rhythmic guitar playing brought lyrics like Who Am I, Personal Monster and Out with the Old to life. ‘It’s a miracle I’m up here,’ she said, and we are lucky she has found a place to put her story across in an acceptable environment. Shannon Hynes and Bryony have similar voices so if I were a producer (and I’m available!!), I would match their voices and maybe think about pairing them up as The Welsh Dragons.

Kudos to the bookers for getting a good Welsh representation among the English acts. There weren’t that many Scots, actually, but Scotland will be independent within a decade and will do their own thing for sure. Bailey Tomkinson represented Cornwell on Saturday, and they’re quite independently minded, come to think of it…

Sunday

The festival’s third day was concentrated in the Ballroom and brought Candie Carpenter (more on whom here), Fine Lines, Martin Harley and Lisa McHugh.

Fine Lines, by virtue of making Celtic-tinged country-rock with a man and a woman upfront, reminded me of Deacon Blue. From just down the way in Cheshire, the band previewed tracks from Deadbeat Lullabies which comes out next month with lots of vim and vigour.

Martin, meanwhile, began his lunchtime set sitting down with a lap steel guitar and gave a long solo to his bassist. Among many Stapletonesque, country/blues tunes, Feet Don’t Fail Me was the best, on record a collaboration with the celebrated Jerry Douglas. I wish the guitar had been turned up in time to catch most of the solo. I am sure these sound problems will be overcome in 2022, but it was one of too many occasions where I wanted to throttle the sound engineer. ‘Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, SOLO! Make sure we can hear the solo!’

Lisa McHugh, who was born in Scotland, grew up in Ireland and now lives (like Nathan Carter) in Northern Ireland, is a superstar across the Irish Sea. In her first gig back since the pandemic, she gave the best performance of the weekend as befits a seasoned performer. She played a few originals such as the well-received Hillbilly Girl, on which she flicked her hair on the line ‘I don’t care if I lose my hair’, and new single Bad Idea. I also loved The Scandal, which played on the rumours that surrounded her move to the North, and Country Mile, which sounds Radio 2 ready and will appear on her next album out soon.

The bulk of her set came from well-chosen covers. Her voice matches the pitch and timbre of Dolly Parton’s, so it was shrewd to play both 9 to 5 and Why D’Ya Come In Here Lookin Like That, as well as Travellin Soldier by The Chicks, Diane by Cam and Mean by Taylor Swift. After Candi Carpenter’s heart-on-sleeve set, these singalongs were catnip for the Sunday afternoon Blackpool crowd.

One thing I noticed about Lisa’s set was that she played with a live band rather than playing with a band AND over a track. Holloway Road and Tim Prottey-Jones both chose to deliver their sets in the latter manner, which is very much the modern style and adds some heft to the arrangement. Both are equally good for an audience, so long as the songs are good and the lyrics can be heard.

At one stage on Sunday, MC and DJ Matt Spracklen praised the critics of the UK country scene, such as Country Lowdown, Maverick Magazine and Countryline/Chris Country, all of who were present and correct. Their reviews will likely centre on the mainstage headliners like Nathan Carter and Wildwood Kin, and possibly the swampy sound across the weekend, but I am more concerned in how well TBCMF serves the country fanbase.

It’s an emphatic yes from A Country Way of Life. Chafing dishes contained burgers and chips for hungry fans, while plenty of chairs were set out for the Pavilion on Saturday and the relaxed Ballroom on the Sunday, a relief as the main dancefloor was sticky with hops by Sunday lunchtime. I also liked the closeness between the three spaces and the friendliness of the atmosphere, lubricated by drink and soundtracked by every sort of country music. Blues, folk, pop, rock and classic country were all represented.

It was confirmation that TBCMF is a fine addition to the UK country landscape, a complement rather than a rival to Country2Country and Buckle & Boots.

The next festival will take place in September 2022. Earlybird £70 tickets are available here.

PS Here’s what Nathan Carter’s live show looks like.


Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Clay Walker and Charlie Daniels

September 3, 2021

Clay Walker – Texas to Tennessee

Clay Walker was one of the Garth rivals in the 1990s but his career was interrupted by MS. New album Texas to Tennessee got a lukewarm write-up from Saving Country Music, which said it sounded like Jason Aldean with steel guitar overdubs and suffers from being less good than other traditional-leaning country albums like Parker McCollum and Luke Combs.

The opening pair are Anything To Do With You, a pledge of allegiance to a lady, and Need A Bar Sometimes, a sub-Aldean crooned tune about the humble drinkery. I Just Wanna Hold You and Catching Up With An Ol Memory are fine sentiments ruined by middle of the dirt road production from Michael Knox, the man who discovered Aldean, while Country Side is a bit of blah with plenty of signifiers (‘Livin’ kinda high, livin’ kinda slow’).

Far better are a pair of ballads, Cowboy Loves A Woman and (particularly sweet) Texas to Tennessee, which Clay could have had radio smashes with in 1996 but which have gone massively out of style as country has attached itself to the urban lifestyle. Exhibit C is You Look Good, where Clay’s lady ‘got that thing about you’ and looks good in various parts of the country, including on a tractor and with a beer in her hand. The album closes with the addictive two-minute party song One More, co-written by David Lee Murphy and full of his characteristic crunching guitars (see plenty of Kenny Chesney songs). There’s plenty of gold here.

Charlie Daniels – Duets

The late Charlie Daniels will forever be known around the world for one five-minute masterpiece, but there’s far more to him than a Devil playing the fiddle in Georgia. His manager has put together an hour-long set that carries on his memory. Everyone who is everyone is on here which, beyond the tracklisting itself, is the best recommendation, as the likes of Ray Charles, Elton John and Frank Sinatra have experienced in their own Duets collections.

The set starts, aptly, with What I’d Say, Ray Charles’ three-chord jam, with Travis Tritt helping out, and Signed Sealed Delivered, with assistance from Bonnie Bramlett from Delaney & Bonnie. Ray has just been announced as a Country Music Hall of Famer, at long last, so this is a smart way to pay homage to Brother Ray’s memory.

Bob Dylan is given a tribute on both Like A Rolling Stone (with Darius Rucker) and the fiddleful Maggie’s Farm (with Earl, Gary and Randy Scruggs), while The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down stays faithful to The Band’s arrangement, adding Vince Gill for good measure.

Dolly Parton brings Charlie in on her tremendous song Daddy’s Old Fiddle, as if knowing that Charlie’s biggest hit – a Hot 100 number one, don’t forget – centred on duelling violinists. Keeping the instrumental feel, Brad Paisley does his patented thing on Jammin For Stevie.

Brenda Lee (the classic sounding Let It Be Me), Del McCoury and his band (the harmony-soaked Evangeline) and Brooks & Dunn (a bluesy Long Haired Country Boy, a Charlie Daniels composition) all appear too, while Gretchen Wilson gives a bluesy interpretation of June Carter Cash’s part on Jackson, while Charlie makes a fine Johnny. Marty Stuart helps Charlie sing his composition God Save Us All From Religion, and Montgomery Gentry chant the fun drinking song Drinkin My Baby Goodbye. Thank God for Luke Combs who is so in thrall to this type of country music.

There are four more tracks written by Charlie himself on a deluxe version of the album which include a Keith Urban duet called The South’s Gonna Do It (Again), Southern Boy (again with Travis Tritt) and Texas, where Ray Benson pops up for a cameo extolling the glories of the mighty state. The arrangement is stunning.


Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Rodney Crowell and Jim Lauderdale

September 3, 2021

Rodney Crowell – Triage

Triage is a great title, a word meaning to have a looksie and diagnose an illness. Rodney’s done a lot of triaging in his life, getting to the nub of life and love and stuff. His recent interview with Holler Country notes that Americana, the genre in which Rodney operates, ‘at its best is the kind of music which requires you to stop and think’. That’s less good if you want to get on the radio, where the adverts come first, but if you want to make ‘music for the sake of music’, then call him Americana. 30 years ago Rodney had a fine run of hits which made his label money but now he is his own man.  He turned 71 on August 7 and his friends in music will have reached out and said hey, including Bob Harris who turned 75 this year.

After a soft opening minute to the album, Don’t Leave Me Now clatters into life following the first chorus as Rodney seeks to correct his wrongs: ‘Life has very simple laws to profit from the pain you cause’ is the kind of line Rodney’s mentor Guy Clark would write. I think Guy’s influence is on Here Goes Nothing, with winding verses that take us into Rodney’s head – ‘Perhaps I’ll find forgiveness for the things I can’t undo…The things that really matter have no tether to the past’ – and a strongly melodic chorus. Like a really pretty sculpture, Rodney has carved this song as if in stone.

The title track never mentions the word ‘triage’ but is an apt title for a song which diagnoses what love is: ‘A chance to do the right thing when there’s no one keeping tabs’ is his conclusion, via words like ‘gossip column news’, ‘self-righteous’ and ‘dribs and drabs’. This is degree-level songwriting that won’t get on the radio, nor should it.

The single was Something Has To Change where, along with a chanted chorus, he sings how ‘it’s greed, not money, through with evil works’. I love the way Rodney denies his preparedness for the modern world with an ‘emphatically no!’ which follows a muted trumpet solo.

Meanwhile, here are some words used in the soft, philosophical speak-sung protest song Transient Global Amnesia Blues: ‘fog bank on the Thames’, ‘faux silk pansy’, ‘would that I were born again’, ‘the rainbow eucalyptus’, ‘adios amigo’. It namechecks Bob Dylan’s album Love and Theft, and it’s about the only song that actively has a footnote in the middle of it! Dylan would be proud of Girl on the Street, a two-character story with three long verses full of pathos and spite that is far better than that other homeless anthem Another Day in Paradise.

Rodney namechecks himself (‘The name is Crowell, no harm no foul’) on One Little Bird, a toe-tappin’ meditation on ageing and dealing with one’s lot. He allows himself a full list on the throwaway I’m All About Love, which includes various Bible verses, Greta Thunberg (pronounced in the correct way) and Jessica Biel. It reminds me of those empty frothy tracks on The White Album, which are necessary in as much as you would miss them if you took them off the album.

It’s needed because of wordy tracks like the closer, This Body Isn’t All There Is To Who I Am, which ends with the line ‘Just for today, Namaste, no regrets’ and I think dares the listener to carpe the diem. I hope Rodney comes to play his mature Americana to UK audiences soon.

Jim Lauderdale – Hope

Like Willie Nelson, Jim Lauderdale puts out an album a year for a devoted fanbase who like well-crafted songs. As singer/songwriters go, like Steve Earle he bends towards the latter in that pair, and is able to shift shapes into several sounds.

In the opening few songs he reminds listeners of the blues (The Opportunity To Help Somebody Through It), Neil Young (Sister Horizon) and Willie Nelson (The Brighter Side of Lonely). There are also elements of The Rolling Stones on Brave One and, on both the spectacular Don’t You Dream Anymore and We Fade In We Fade Out, Lucinda Williams.

The tempo tunes are Here’s To Hoping, which has some euphoric mandolin and saxophone, and closing track Joyful Noise, which sends the listener off with a gospel singalong.

The quality control is high. When you’ve written hundreds, probably thousands, of songs you need to keep the occupation fun, and that seems to have happened on the folky Mushrooms Are Growing After the Rain. The production choices on Breathe Real Slow match the lyric, which cautions that you need to breathe slowly when bitten by a snake, while there’s a jazz club, Van Morrison vibe to When Searching for Answers, which has the same post-chorus as the INXS ballad Never Tear Us Apart.

I’m sorry that most of this write-up has been comparing Jim to other voices, but a man who has written songs cut by George Strait and Lee Ann Womack knows how to make his voice bend to those of others.


Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Connie Smith and Wanda Jackson

September 3, 2021

Connie Smith – The Cry of the Heart

Connie appeared on Bob Harris Country with her husband Marty Stuart. Connie has five kids, eight grandkids and one great-grandchild, so she doesn’t need to be mucking around making new music. However, like Willie Nelson, she is still offering fans new tunes, here 31 short, sweet minutes.

‘How many teardrops have I cried over you?’ is the set’s opening line, with the song’s title as the answer, ‘A Million and One’. Accompanied by the Fabulous Superlatives, who were sensational when I saw them at Country2Country when Marty came over, Connie puts her timeless voice to good use.

There are ballads aplenty on the collection, each accompanied by strings and the band. All The Time has a tremendous arrangement and a fleshed-out sound that I hope comes back to country radio (but won’t because young people aren’t the target of this sort of country music). Pedal steel matches the morose lyric of I Just Don’t Believe Me Anymore, and it’s in the background as Connie sings of ‘drowning in a sea of endless heartbreak’ on I’m Not Over You.

Connie and Marty wrote two numbers. There is heartbreak in every syllable and ghostly backing vocalised ‘ooh’ of Spare Me No Truth (‘my heart’s heard it all before’), and Here Comes My Baby Back Again, which recalls the Phil Spector sound and is majestic in every way, especially with the real strings.

The peppy tracks include To Pieces, in opposition to its mournful lyric (‘To pieces is the only place to go’) and Look Out Heart (‘here we go again!’). The latter was written by Marty’s drummer Harry Stinson and evokes the old sound of 60s country, which was beloved in the 90s much as the 90s are beloved today. Staying with the theme, the waltz Heart We Did All That We Could is the result of hurting it all over again.

There’s a chugging beat to Three Sides (‘to every story: your side and mine and the truth’) which evokes the best Loretta Lynn tunes and lets Marty loose on the guitar. The old Merle Haggard song Jesus Take A Hold is refreshed for the new era – indeed, Connie recorded it 50 years ago – but things haven’t changed and we still need some Messianic guidance to prevent ‘the mighty roar of gunfire’ and the noise of ‘angry men’ who make ‘destruction…the current trend’. In 50 years’ time, someone will still be recording this song, which sounds completely timeless coming from Miss Connie Smith.

Give the album 30 minutes of your time.

Wanda Jackson – Encore

The Rockabilly Queen returns with Joan Jett at the controls. What a pairing and a recognition that rock’n’roll-loving Joan emerged from Wanda’s fine rockabilly music which made black music popular in the 1950s. With the death of Don Everly, only Jerry Lee Lewis remains of the original Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame class of 1986; Wanda is in as an Early Influence who turns 84 in October whose first country hit came in 1954. She didn’t really get going until Let’s Have a Party in 1960, then had a decent run of hits in the 1960s including Tears Will Be The Chaser for your Wine.

We’re gifted eight tracks, several credited to the Blackhearts as well. When it comes to writers, the great Sonia Leigh was in the room for Treat Me Like A Lady, where Wanda begs to be kissed ‘softly every morning’ over stately organ. Luke Laird and Lori McKenna wrote That’s What Love Is, which as you would expect is a sweet tune about how ‘every day’s a gift’ and the world is a little better. It actually sounds like something Paul Williams would write for Kermit the Frog, which could apply to so many of Lori’s tunes.

Big Baby is a fun way to kick off the set, with a rocking arrangement, while a swampy riff opens You Drive Me Wild, which is brilliant to hear from an octogenarian mouth. The country-rocker We Gotta Stop is full of vim and passion, as is Two Shots, which features vocals from Elle King. The mighty pair of Candie Carpenter and Angaleena Presley can be heard adding some responsive backing vocals to Good Girl Down.

Conversely we get a weepie, It Keeps Right On A Hurtin’, that proves Wanda is not just a one-trick pony. It would be fun to hear Connie Smith and Wanda join forces but if this is an encore, it’s a lovely gift that passes the torch on from Wanda to Joan to Elle and Angaleena.


UK Country Top 40 Chart Countdown – Autumn/Fall 2021

August 30, 2021

Artists in bold can be heard in conversation with Jonny on the audio version of the chart at mixcloud.com/blastocast

Hear every song in full in a Spotify playlist here.

40 Stevie O’Connor – Chaos

39 Poppy Fardell – Drive

38 Shannon Hynes – Hide

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

36 Holloway Road – About Town

35 Jess Thristan – Woman Up

34 Alan Finlan – Passenger Seat

33 Taynee Lord & The Crookes – I Don’t Want Flowers

32 Laura Evans – Good At Getting Over You

31 Sam Coe – Newton’s Cradle

30 The Outlaw Orchestra – Rattlesnake Sour

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

28 Lisa Wright – The Idea of You

27 Deeanne Dexeter – Blind Eye

26 Wildwood Kin – Dakota

25 Una Healy – Song of the Summer (with Tebey)

24 Rae Sam – Feel This Good 

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

22 Elles Bailey – Love is Gonna Win

21 Kevin McGuire – Seeing Things

20 Robbie Cavanagh – Feeding Time

19 Demi Marriner – Because Of Her

18 Backwoods Creek – Momma’s Prayers (with Drew Dixon)

17 Emma Moore – Husbands or Kids

16 Joe Martin – Take Me Home Tonight

15 Ward Thomas – Don’t Be A Stranger

14 Megan O’Neill – Ireland

13 Kerri Watt – Band of Gold

12 Jake Morrell – Sunkissed

11 Morganway – My Love Ain’t Gonna Save You

10 Twinnie – Chasing

9 Gasoline & Matches – Never Have I Ever

8 Lauren Housley – This Ain’t The Life

7 Tim Prottey-Jones – Fire

6 Jade Helliwell – If I were you

5 Kezia Gill – All of Me

4 Gary Quinn – Catch Me

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

2 The Wandering Hearts – Dreams

1 Yola – Starlight


Country Jukebox Jury LPs: The Wolfe Brothers and Parmalee

August 20, 2021

The Wolfe Brothers – Kids on Cassette

The Global Country Artist at the International CMA Awards will be won by one of Sweden’s Jill Johnson, Canada’s Brett Kissel, the Shires from the UK or…The Wolfe Brothers.

The duo’s new album Kids on Cassette was reviewed kindly by James Daykin at Lyric Magazine. The brothers found an audience on the Australian version of the Got Talent brand and have been a fixture over there for a decade, consistently placing albums in the Top 20 and winning CMAA (Australian CMAs) Awards in 2019. Australia’s country scene is enormous and they host Country2Country these days as well, with the McClymonts and Adam Eckersley on par with visiting Americans like Tim McGraw and Kelsea Ballerini.

As with the UK, Nashville has forged a link with Australia through collaborative songwriting. LOCASH appear on the groovy summer jam Startin Something and experienced songwriter Lindsay Rimes, who made the move from Australia to Nashville, can be found in the credits of the energetic single No Brakes and euphoric album closer Time To Be Alive.

There’s plenty to like on the first side, from the bouncy chorus of Anybody Ever, with touches of falsetto, to the perky line ‘I like a lot, you like a little…We can meet in the middle’ of the feelgood tune Something Good’s Gonna Happen and the party song Down Time, where verses full of hard work give way to hard partying (‘some gettin’ loud time…pour some fuel on the fire’) and the wah-wah wigout is epic at the end. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel but this would be a perfect set opener.

The second side of the album includes gorgeous melodies on Soundtrack To An Endless Summer and ‘home ain’t’ Home Without You, the universalist Small Town Song (co-written with INXS chap Andrew Farriss) and the carpe diem tune What You Make It. If you’re keeping count, that’s two ‘carpe diem’ tunes. The Wolfe Brothers should seize their moment with a poppy album that is informed by country radio in the USA.

Parmalee – For You

Like Old Dominion, Parmalee are a pop/rock act based in Nashville and are thus considered country. They are best known for their mid-2010s hits Close Your Eyes and Carolina, which were both plodding, and their last album from 2017 saw the likes of Craig Wiseman, Ross Copperman and Tom Douglas in the credits. Here they return to songs written as a band, perhaps worked up in the studio.

The album has two moods: I love you, and I used to love you. Opener Only You sounds like five Ed Sheeran songs squished together, right up to lines like ‘only you can know my scars’. Just The Way is the same song but with added Blanco Brown; it sounds like country radio and justifiably hit the top there as well as hitting number 31 on the Hot 100.

The album continues in its aggressively marketed vein. It’s broad-brush country with very little nuance. There’s Backroad Girl (‘I’m just a hometown boy looking for a backroad girl…diamonds and pearls’) and Greatest Hits, which lists various qualities in the form of music (she’s a bit Motown, a bit rock and a bit country) and introduces Parmalee fans to the poppy rapper Fitz, who sounds like Flo Rida. I’ll Take The Chevy is a rewrite of I’ll Name The Dogs that is shameless in its intention and includes a verse all about mathematics, which proves this album is about counting money.

Inevitably, there are songs where singer Matt Thomas boasts of his fidelity just as Thomas Rhett, Luke Combs, Morgan Evans, Brett Young and so many other singers have made money boasting about. Take your pick from I Do, I See You (which sounds like a vision board), the lighter-than-air Better With You (‘You put the full up in the moon’), Take My Name (‘and make it yours’) and Alone Like That (‘That boy must have been crazy’).

Every song has an Instagram sheen and, just as inevitably, there are down moments too. Matt is regretful on Miss You Now and Forget You (‘hearts break every time love gets broke’), which features expressive, poppy vocals from Avery Anna wailing about ‘stupid mistakes’. The middle eight is strong. I also love the excellent title track (‘Everybody singing along to the song I wrote for you’) but I had to wade through 12 other tracks to get to it. I haven’t been so annoyed by an album since Chris Lane’s lazy effort, which like this album was full of chord loops, declarations of love and aggressive targeting of the 25-44 demographic.

Good luck to the guys but Luke Combs does this sort of thing far better and less blandly.


Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Chris Young and Billy Currington

August 20, 2021

Chris Young – Famous Friends

Chris is one of those B-listers who are always on the radio but never seem to break through to popular consciousness because they aren’t on primetime TV shows or swear on camera. Chris won Nashville Star in 2006 thanks to his rich, textured voice and has had hits for 15 years, sometimes wearing a cowboy hat but in the last few years not. I came on board thanks to I’m Comin Over, though I remain lukewarm about many of his radio singles.

Famous Friends is his seventh album, eighth if you include the Christmas one, and the title track is an enormous Billboard Hot 100 hit, a number 21 which makes it his most successful of 16 Hot 100 smashes.  Chris can do tempo tracks like album opener Raised On Country, the first track ever played on what used to be called Country Hits Radio, probably because it mentions both ‘props to the radio’ and several country stars, all male. I love the brilliant party song One of Those Nights and the Luke Combs pastiche Hold My Beer Watch This. I was also impressed with his sweet emotional ballad Drowning, which shows Serious Chris singing about friendship and loss: ‘Missing you comes in waves’ is a super line, but the production rather ruins a song that would work better as a naked piano ballad.

Similar production choices are made on Rescue Me, a ballad of vulnerability that we’ll see a lot of in the coming years as men drop the bravado and start singing about their feelings. For money. Chris, however, cannot Break Like You Do, getting drunk after a break-up while his ex has moved on. Chris’s vocal is full of sentiment and he really sells the vocal and makes it his own. He’s going to Boot Camp!

Cross Every Line, again ruined by lashings of production, is a gift from Hillary Lindsey and David Garcia while Ashley Gorley was in the room for the far better wedding song Love Looks Good On You (‘You’ve taken it up one more notch’). Best Seat in the House sounds like a radio single with those multi-tracked guitars and Chris wanging on about going to a show, sitting in the bleachers but (of course) he has the headliner in his eyes next to him! Why waste money going to the show in the first place then, eh?

There are three algorithm-friendly collaborations: Kane Brown is on the title track, Lauren Alaina offers her voice to heartbreak song Town Ain’t Big Enough (‘for both of us’, written with the great Shay Mooney) and Chris’ upcoming tourmate Mitchell Tenpenny is on At The End of the Bar. The song is basically a theme tune to a Cheers reboot that has yet to be commissioned, a song that bigs up the humble local bar ‘where it all starts’. Mitchell competes in tone but not quality with Chris, and I am sure they will have fun out on the road where this song will pop.

‘You can look for answers at the bottom of a glass’ or drink and ‘forget why you came’ while a band plays Brand New Man and Time Marches On (again with the 90s country references, as if it’s a giant record company ploy to direct people to their legacy recordings – hmmm). Album closer Tonight We’re Dancing is also a song of fidelity and love and stuff, namechecking You Look So Good In Love by George Strait.

Everyone’s coming to hear the classics and Chris has plenty of them. Maybe one or two more will join that class of song from this set, but it’s product that reminds people that Chris Young exists and he’s coming to a town near you to purr through 20 songs about love.

Billy Currington – Intuition

Like Chris Young, I think Billy Currington, who has got into some scrapes with the law, is a B-lister too. He was one of the post-Garth hunks (see also Joe Nichols) who came up in the 2000s with excellent songs like Good Directions and Must Be Doing Something Right. Luke Bryan stole a lot of his audience, I think, and he’s now on American Idol while Billy’s career is in the doldrums.

Billy’s new surprise-release album, his first in six years since the bro-tastic Summer Forever, is called Intuition and he’s written it with producer Rob Persaud who was born in London and got his start writing hits for Blue and Josh Groban. Interestingly, his publisher is the great pop Svengali Dr Luke. Goodness knows how the new stuff will fit alongside the country hits.

It is interesting to hear how similar in tone Thomas Rhett’s voice is to Billy, seeing as TR has replaced him on country radio. TR is an apt comparison for the poppy production of Lead Me (‘through the darkness’) and the programmed percussion of the single Complicated and octave-split vocals of Words. Billy’s voice hits every note and the production is sensitive to his voice, as on the tender Déjà Vu and the breakup song Moon & Back. The sex jam Get Close which rhymes ‘synergy/chemistry’ will be a live favourite if Billy goes out on the road, as will the irresistible Confess which bounces along merrily.

None of the tracks on this album can be found on Billy Currington’s official Youtube channel. Odd.


Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Chase Bryant and Parker McCollum

August 20, 2021

Chase Bryant – Upbringing

What a fine debut album this is, from the title track to the long outro of High, Drunk and Heartbroke, before which Chase allows himself a knowing chuckle. He could play the album top to bottom in his live show.

Having Jon Randall as producer was a shrewd choice; Jon has had his share of being high, drunk and heartbroke. He gifts Chase his composition Drunk In My Car, perhaps in solidarity with the artist: ‘My favourite bar is in a Chevrolet…There’s a shotgun seat’ if anyone else wants to drink. The production is understated without being mawkish or doomy, in the way that Randall’s song Whiskey Lullaby is like. It’s an old-fashioned toe-tapper sung by a protagonist who seems to have accepted his lot.

The first side of the album is full of songs about moving on. Breakup song Think About That is expertly sung, near the top of Chase’s range, while there’s a nice beat to Somewhere in a Bar. Jessi Alexander, Randall’s wife, adds harmonises on the tender Even Now (‘are we even now?’).

Cold Beer impressed me when it was released a few months ago as one of five impact tracks which previewed the album. It’s bar-band rock’n’roll which reminds me of AC/DC, perhaps on purpose, but with the pop sensibilities of a songwriter who was in a lot of rooms with people who knew how to write a country song that made money.

The album’s second side is full of love songs, such as the sequence of Selfish and Paradise, which blend into each other expertly, perhaps because they were written by the trio of Cary Barlowe, Will Weatherly and Chase himself. I also like the thrusting Red Light (‘I kissed a girl at a red light’) and the more sombre In The First Place, where Chase lists all the things he put before his ex whom he ‘never loved’, so he is ‘drunk on regret’. The fact that he didn’t write it doesn’t mean he can’t communicate those feelings.

I cannot emphasise enough how good it is to hear Chase produce an album that is so at odds with his early radio-friendly unit shifters. It’s wretched that it took a suicide attempt to make but Chase will gain many new fans if the label promotes it properly. I would pair him with Brothers Osborne in a double bill so he can show off his guitar work.

Parker McCollum – Gold Chain Cowboy

Jon Randall has also produced the debut major-label album by Parker, a Texan who is being positioned as the Gold Chain Cowboy, a guy comfortable in both urban and rural environments. Hey, it worked for George Strait and Garth and Shania and Dixie Chicks and Taylor Swift and Thomas Rhett…

It’ll be interesting to see if any other Texan acts try for success in Nashville, as there are plenty whose sound will impress the 35-54 demographic. Triston Marez and Kylie Frey are my tips, but some may have similar problems to Cody Johnson, who was deemed ‘too rodeo for radio’. Indeed, Randy Rogers co-writes plenty of the album, including opener Wait Outside, which has the same forward thrust as his own radio hits: ‘Hey pretty angel’ is Parker’s opening to a song of fidelity: ‘I’ll love you in heaven/ I’ll just have to wait outside’ is a new spin on loving someone forever.

He was also in the room for Dallas, a song with a bellowable chorus, a country-rock organ solo in the middle, harmonies from Danielle Bradbery and a rudimentary I-V-VI-IV chord progression that unites the song with plenty of ballads of the past. Parker’s talent is to convey emotion through his voice, which knows when to hold back and when to explode.

Pretty Heart makes an appearance, as befits a number one smash based on three familiar chords, as do the three impact tracks: the Green Day-inflected ballad/soliloquy Rest of My Life; the Lee Thomas Miller co-write Drinkin’, where Parker is reasoning with himself that his beloved has moved onto someone else; and the sensational To Be Loved By You (‘What in the hell does a man have to do!’), written with TR’s dad Rhett Akins.

Young songwriter Miranda Lambert co-wrote the driving rock’n’roller Falling Apart which picks up the common Texan theme of the lovesick fool: ‘Everything I touch becomes a mess…You were falling in love and I was falling apart.’ Why Indiana is similarly chugging and deals with similar themes, expressed with the simple line ‘I know it’s over and you don’t love me anymore’. If Parker’s going down, he’s going down swinging, laughing ‘just to keep from crying’.

Brian Kelley continues his winning streak, co-writing album closer Never Loved You At All, a series of regrets that form a story of a ruined relationship. As for Heart Like Mine, it is self-consciously Texan with its heavy backbeat, reverberating guitar solo and a lyric full of melancholy: ‘I’m good at getting lost but I’m bad at getting found’ is his credo as he lays bare his heart when recalling a lost love who will be a memory.

There’s an audience for this, and I hope Parker makes back his advance, having done the legwork as an independent artist building a fanbase. This is the future of country music.


Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Mike and the Moonpies & Sam Williams

August 20, 2021

Mike and the Moonpies – One To Grow On

I wish I hadn’t read the review from Saving Country Music before I heard this album: ‘The single greatest band in country music at the moment has just released one of the single greatest records you will hear in country music in the last few years.’ Trigger calls them ‘a true blue honky-tonk band for the everyman’ and gives the album an almost unprecedented 10/10. Surely it can’t be that good, can it?

I adored You Look Good In Neon, from their last album Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold, with strings from the London Symphony Orchestra and a great grasp of musicality. The follow-up has everything I like: melody, melancholy, the guitar sound that moves my innards, superlative vocals, fab harmonies and lots of words about love and stuff. The whole thing hangs together thematically. The opening Garthtastic track, Paycheck To Paycheck (‘one quarter at a time’), whetted the appetite of fans for the project and is a fine summation of it.

As Trigger says, this is a set of songs for blue-collared working men: Growing Pains has a train beat and a lyric full of ‘bills I plan to pay’ and the perils of being a breadwinner; Rainy Day advises the listener to ‘take pride in a farmer’s tan’ and ‘keep the wolves away’, set to a toe-tapping arrangement with plenty of pedal steel; ‘the wheels turn to dust and steel turns to rust’ on the assonant chorus of Whose Side You’re On.

Mike strikes ‘black gold’ and, on Brother, sings a triple-time melody where he’s in search of his brother, ‘riding South to Old Mexico…We just struck oil and daddy passed on…He dug his whole life till he dug his own grave’. Burn Out is a songwriting exercise, where dynamite and cigarette filters are present along with some fiery guitar work.

Love comes on The Vein, a hell of a groove that reminds me of British group The Southern Companion. The chorus contains the bait-and-switch ‘You play me till I’m broken, run the needle through the vein’, not the record which later in the song ‘skips but the song’s the same’. Southern rock at its finest.

The heartache comes on Hour on the Hour – where sad songs come on the radio and Mike drives ‘in silence, scared to death to touch the dial’ in case a song reminds him of an ex – and Social Drinkers, where Mike reminisces on the ‘old winos’ he used to see at bars in his younger days.

This really is my kind of music. It could be yours too.

Sam Williams – Glasshouse Children

Sam Williams is part of the dynasty which includes grandpa Hank Sr, father Hank Jr and sister Holly. He announced himself to a TV audience when he performed his song Can’t Fool Your Own Blood, co-written with Mary Gauthier, in the bare halls of his grandpa’s old house. His voice, which namechecks the ‘lost highway’ and sings of how ‘you can lie to a liar’ but not to your own family, reverberated naturally off the walls and he stared right into the camera, as I would imagine Hank Sr would have done if he had been a TV star rather than the king of the late 1940s radio era.

Glasshouse Children is Sam’s first album on a major label. He launched it in tandem with the Country Music Hall of Fame in a concert which you can view on the website (this week Ray Charles became the third black performer to be added to the Hall). The album opens with a string section – that’s what being on Mercury Records can do for you – and Sam sings the title track, written with Ronnie Bowman and the ubiquitous Dan Auerbach. He starts as he means to go on, and there’s sonic uniformity to an album full of deep, emotional songs.

Incredibly, two songs have come out this month called 10-4. Jordan Rowe had one and Sam has one, written with the underrated Daniel Tashian. It’s radio-friendly, with punchy production and great delivery from Sam, who’s going ‘down, down to the river’ to find a waterfall. Ditto Wild Girl (‘tap into the crazy underneath your wings’), produced by and written with the great Jaren Johnston, who can do bluesy country-rock about girls who are like tornados in his sleep. We have also heard reminiscin’ song Kids, which was gifted to Sam from three outside writers. Keith Urban pops up to add a patented solo.

The blockbuster moment is the introduction of Dolly Parton’s harmonies to the song Happy All The Time, a philosophical tune about how money should be able to buy happiness but it doesn’t. Brandy Clark helped Sam with the midtempo heartbreak song Shuteye, where ‘the Sandman and I always fight…whenever I shuteye I shatter on the inside’. I also like the gentle groove of Hopeless Romanticism (‘is f—ing narcissim’), written with Justin Parker who wrote Video Games with Lana del Rey, and album closer The World: Alone, on which Sam laments not being by the side of a lady in Barcelona or Amsterdam, even thinking of hooking up with ‘the nearest girl’ instead. What a sad narrator, who sounds downtrodden and unhappy thanks to the minor key guitar riffs that pepper the song.

Sam will see the world with this album and I hope he comes to London.


Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Sean McConnell and Ryan Kinder

August 20, 2021

Sean McConnell – A Horrible Beautiful Dream

Some artists are timeless whenever they come to market. Vince Gill, Dolly Parton or Rodney Crowell all perform songs that may change with the whims to recorded sound, but why would any of those artists use a drum loop or draft in Nelly?

Sean McConnell has written hits for Little Big Town (Wine Beer Whiskey) and Brett Young (Mercy) but made an impression on me with the first impact track from his album A Horrible Beautiful Dream. He called himself, or the character he was playing, the ‘black sheep…I bring up the back of the entourage’, the 13th Apostle. Musically and sonically I was won over: the acoustic instruments and warm vocal reminded me of Ryan Adams before his wickedness was unmasked, or Ruston Kelly, who is a nicer human being.

Other impact tracks followed: the triple-time I Built You Up (‘to be what I need’) where Sean coaxes the vocals like Damien Rice, the gospel-tinged song of devotion Leave The Light On (‘My love’s like the sun’) and the wise Price of Love (‘Nothing good comes for free, you gotta pay your dues’). The lyric ‘All I know for sure is nothing anymore’ makes Sean a narrator who has made peace with his mistakes. He can also counsel someone to focus on the moment and not ‘spend your life getting somewhere’ (Getting Somewhere); I like the line in the chorus about keeping ‘your hands on the 10 and the 2, keep your eye on the ball and follow through’. It may be from parent to child or friend to friend; it also has the word ‘prayer’ in the chorus. Country needs to bring God back.

I’m a sucker for melodic guitar-led music, and I loved the song The Wonder Years. It’s a head-nodder and a thinker: ‘Everything resurrects into something new’ is the mark of a true writer and the imagery (‘Queen of Ellis Island’) is superb. The internalised horrors of What The Hell Is Wrong With Me are set to a jaunty major-key tune, much like all the great pop songs (Dancing on My Own by Robyn, for example). ‘I’m a burden! I’m a basket case!’ could be set to soft piano but Sean chooses to put euphoric organ to it.

The slow song As The Curtain Came Down includes a harmonica solo recorded so as to include the room’s natural echo, while Dan Tyminski and Audra Mae provide harmonies on a song about an old timer reminiscin’ about all the great things about being on the road. The word ‘Epiphone’ colours the song enormously, as does the stark last verse set in a green room. As for the album closer Remember You’re Here, Sean accompanies himself and chooses to set his voice amid crickets, ‘lost inside the fear’ and intoning the album’s title.

As well as real drums and a small choir on the album, there are also real strings which gives it a warm, lived-in sound. Natalie Hemby adds her alto to the feather-soft Waiting To Be Moved, which namechecks Moses and Galileo and talks about dreams and ‘sweet redemption’. Similar pathos is all over Used To Think I Knew, where Sean sings how ‘the weight of the world was a burden I tried to bear’.

This is grown-up music which fits alongside Little Big Town, who would do well to take Sean out on the road with them.

Ryan Kinder – Room To Dream

This album should push Ryan to everyone’s ears. I saw him support Ashley McBryde in 2018 and was blown away by his bluesy voice and guitar playing. He also played the Hyde Park stage. If Stapleton retires to spend more time with his money and kids, Ryan can easily step in. He’s also been writing with Tim Prottey-Jones so we may see the pair of them tour.

As with Parker McCollum’s album, it arrives with half of it known to keen-eared fans. The punchy Blame was tremendous live and is just as emphatic on record. For such a bluesy voice, it’s a shame that the production is so processed but that’s what makes money. Opener Something is a meditation on being between friends and lovers, as is Friends (‘don’t look at friends the way you’re looking at me right now’).

Tangled Up is a slow-dance where Ryan hits some falsetto notes in the chorus, there’s ‘nothing plain about Jane’ on the poppy track that reaches for Jason Mraz (written with Ross Copperman and Josh Osborne) and the title track is a smooth, singalong driving song where the vocal is pushed very high in the mix.

I almost pumped my fist in the air listening to Southbound, which shows that Ryan is a great student of Southern Rock thanks to a crunching solo passage in the middle and a clapalong breakdown. Want comes across like Rag’N’Bone Man thanks to the gravel in Ryan’s voice, while Nothing But Time is a smart closing ballad that allows Ryan to show off his long notes. Incredibly it dates back to 2015, proving that country musicians have to be patient before the world at large can hear songs which any executive can smell money in.

The market is ready for Ryan Kinder and it’s nice that he is writing songs with UK artists. Let’s have him back here soon.


Country Jukebox Jury LPs: The Wandering Hearts and Jade Bird

August 20, 2021

The Wandering Hearts LP

The Wandering Hearts have given us about half of their second record, which is self-titled, over the past year. I love Dreams, a timeless and wistful song written by their mate Marty Stuart and his wife Connie Smith, while recent single On Our Way pushes on in an Arcade Fire manner. Dolores (the album’s centrepiece) is saturated in the trio’s harmonies, Gold has a great chanted chorus and Over Your Body (written when Tim was still part of the group) has AJ delivering a laconic vocal about breaking chains and deadweights over a very Radio 2-friendly track.

The rollout of the album has been delayed by the virus so it arrives at a time when blissful harmonies should be New Normal-proof. They will tour in May 2022 with dates that include Shepherd’s Bush Empire, but are promoting the album with an extensive two-month trek to places like Tunbridge Wells, Cottingham and the lovely Summerhall venue in Edinburgh.

One notable thing from the album’s credits is the variety of producers on call. Some of them have four of them plus the band themselves – does any song need seven producers? It’s clear that the trio have been working for many months to get their second release right. No longer on Decca, who must have funded a lot of the recording, their album has come out through Cooking Vinyl, a commendable indie label who also release Billy Bragg, Del Amitri, Kerri Watt, Lissie, Ron Sexsmith, Will Young and Suzanne Vega. 

The great Fiona Bevan helps craft the anthemic Build a Fire, which is precision-engineered for big fields – The Long Road, Country2Country and even Glastonbury may enlist their services in 2022 – and is a song about fidelity. It even starts off with a guncrack sound! Acoustic number I Feel It Too will slot alongside Burning Bridges as a showstopper at their gigs, a love song of great craft which compares companionship to eagles flying.

Never Too Late (‘to dream…to stop…to dance’ and so on) brings out the Englishness of AJ’s voice thanks to some round vowels, while the harmonies flutter to encourage the listener to carpe the diem. The charming Stardust is another philosophical track with middle of the dirt road production, verging on a Eurovision entry thanks to its universal themes. AJ wrote and takes lead on the meditative and appropriately dreamy Tell Me When I Wake Up (‘Are we gonna make it?’), which reminds me of Kurt Cobain’s softer songs without the self-laceration. The album ends with a Lullaby that sends the listener off into dreamland, where the music of The Wandering Hearts lives and breathes.

Jade Bird – Different Kind of Light

Like The Wandering Hearts, Jade Bird has found a home in Americana. Her second album is Produced by Dave Cobb – a genre in itself – which must mean real drums, real emotion and real rock’n’roll. You get that on Open Up The Heavens and 1994, where on both Jade sounds a bit like Cerys Matthews, and the whole album is less Americana than Wolf Alicesque indie-rock. See in particular I’m Getting Lost.

Jade’s debut album, also marketed as Americana, was full of tunes with hooks, and there are plenty on Honeymoon and Punchline. BBC 6Music go mad for this type of woozy rock music, and likewise the acoustic folk of the title track will appeal to fans of Phoebe Bridgers. Trick Mirror takes its title from the Jia Tolentino book which Jade must be a fan of, and I am won over by the arrangement and the poppy chords. Ditto pleasant acoustic guitar-led pop songs Prototype and Now Is The Time, and the soft and mysterious acoustic ballad Red White and Blue which doesn’t mention the title until the very end of the song.

As for Headstart, the most immediate song on here, it’s worthy of all 6m Spotify streams and it’s a fine way into a collection of superb tracks with the Dave Cobb touch.


Country Jukebox Jury LP: Dan + Shay – Good Things

August 20, 2021

Is there anything ‘country’ on this album, either production, lyric or imagery? What classifies this as a country project other than the fact they live and work in Nashville. Did you know Shay Mooney was a rapper signed to T-Pain’s label? The man will do anything for some money and since 2014 he’s been singing in basically a boyband with the attractive Dan Smyers.

Over three albums Daniel and Seamus, as I call them, have clearly been targeted as much to pop audiences as country ones; their smash with Justin Bieber, who is also managed by Scooter Braun, was on a NOW compilation, while their recent tunes I Should Probably Go To Bed, Glad You Exist and Lying are all pop-inflected and are only country because the pair live in Nashville. The opening track that gives the album its name is poppy too.

It’s time for them to leave country behind, as Taylor Swift did before them and as Kelsea Ballerini should do. Kelsea’s last album contained a pop song called A Country Song and a hoedown called Hole in the Bottle.

With a different arrangement Let Me Get Over Her could be a sad country song but with orchestra (budget!!) and falling chords, it’s Bette Midler or Celine Dion. It must be a knowing joke that one of the seven songs added to the previous four is called One Direction, which uses the word ‘accentuating’ in the second line and mentions ‘freckles’ too. Shay sings over acoustic guitar before the chorus cranks up; it’s a combination of Sheeran and Mumford and it sounds like an end credits song at the end of a Netflix teen movie. Or money, as it’s also known.

Two pop writers are in the album credits: Shawn Mendes was in the room for the beach-ready Body Language and there will probably be a collaborative version out soon. Julia Michaels was there for hooky piano ballad Give In To You and Irresponsible (‘to be this close after midnight’).

The production by Dan and Scott Hendricks, who masterminded Blake Shelton’s sound, is aimed at the 25-44 demographic of couples in love, the people who swooned at Speechless and 10,000 Hours. You, with a backing choir, and Steal My Love are hooky and effective and sound like Rascal Flatts, who have aged out of country music and are in any case too Christian. Dan + Shay are perfect for communicating feelings of desire for other human beings, a note that is well sung but repetitive. Stereogum’s reviewer correctly compared the duo to Christian music with ‘worship leader energy’.

At least the songs are over quickly, with little flab and a desire to get to the end as soon as possible. This is not a country album but it’s being marketed at country fans, who deserve something less like pop music and more like country music. But money doesn’t talk, it yells. Enjoy your mansions.


Country Jukebox Jury LP: Yola – Stand For Myself

August 20, 2021

Yola has received acclaim from both the UK and US Americana awards. I imagine Stand For Myself will walk the 2022 awards, although Brandi Carlile and Natalie Hemby will offer stiff competition. Both, coincidentally, appear on the record. Brandi sings on Be My Friend – written with Ruby Amanfu – and If I Had To Do It All Again and Now You’re Here had Hemby in the room.

The vocal on that last song is spellbinding, a song of passion and tenderness, with Dan’s guitar working its magic whenever Yola isn’t singing. It’ll prompt her fans to cuddle their loved one. Like A Photograph comes a close second in the vocal performance stakes; before Yola takes on the role of Sister Rosetta in the new Elvis Presley biopic with Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker, make sure you get in there before the masses.

I recommend a track-by-track guide to the album by Yola herself which she conducted with Stereogum. Yola talked about how she used to be a doormat but now stands up for herself. She performed the title track of her album Stand For Myself (another Hemby co-write) on The Late Show. There was one phrase near the end of the song where she seemed uninhibited, throwing herself into the performance and using every word against her as a strength. Dan Auerbach believes in her talent, signing her to his Easy Eye Sound label, and late-night music bookers love her too.

This album could have come out in 1975 or 1995; it’s timeless, influenced by the likes of Mary J Blige and Annie Lennox and full of ad-libs. Diamond-Studded Shoes is a political tune which took Theresa May’s footwear as inspiration and Aaron Lee Tasjan is a fine co-writer here. Liz Rose, best known for being Taylor Swift’s early collaborator, was in the room for Break The Bough, a farewell to her late mother and Yola’s Barbadian heritage and the Windrush generation. On a country album no less!!

As for Whatever You Want, I played it again instantly because it’s the best thing on the album: a rollicking pop song which sounds effortless and classic, as if written by a Graham Nash or Neil Young. There are also handclaps. Yola performed this even before her first record came out so she’s had it in her locker. What else is in there?!

In the UK, we sent her off by not listening closely enough, probably because there wasn’t a place to put a black Dolly Parton acolyte who sounds like Mavis Staples but grew up in Bristol and was the uncredited voice in the middle of Blind Faith, a huge dance track. We’re idiots. Yola is a megastar and this album puts her heart, soul and mind into music.

It will take an exceptional album to knock this off the perch as my favourite of 2021.


Country Jukebox Jury EPs: Jordan Rowe and Kolby Cooper

August 13, 2021

Jordan Rowe – Bad Case of the Good Ole Boy

Jordan is introduced to market as an ‘If you like Morgan Wallen and Luke Combs, you’ll love this’ with an eight-track album. It opens with two bars of fiddle and Jordan intoning the EP’s title Bad Case of the Good Ole Boy. He drives a truck, goes fishing and sounds like a good ole boy with his clear, syncopated vocals and real drums surrounding them.

Can’t In A Car begins with a spoken verse which recalls Blake Shelton’s best work and, as if knowing people would get the reference, mentions the ‘boys round here’: ‘One you go truck you never go back’ is a t-shirt slogan. The Warren brothers were on hand to help Jordan write The Good Ones Do, a list of situations where not every girl/mama/friend comes up to scratch. The chorus is superb, as is the one on I Didn’t Sleep Last Night, where the hook comes from the fiddle. It is so refreshing (even if it feels like a trend) to hear fiddle on mainstream country releases.

There are two duets here: Who Needs You (‘I do’) has Ashland Craft playing the part of the woman Jordan’s pining for, while top 10 recording artist Lainey Wilson co-wrote the gorgeous Mama Ain’t Jesus (‘but she’s a close second’). I do wonder if the album is calibrated to hit all the country beats – trucks, heartbreak, baseball (as on Had a Ball, which reminds me of Eric Church and Luke Bryan simultaneously), true love, mama – but then why complain when this IS what country music should be.

There is also an orgy, as I call it, as Rhett Akins, Eddie Montgomery and Tracy Lawrence join Jordan on 10-4, which brings some banjo into the intro before Jordan sings a first verse that seems to pun ‘ten (beers) for’ with the police call of the title. It’s good fun and a great way to connect Jordan with the men who were big before the era of the Bro. This is why Morgan Wallen is too big to fail: even if you drop a horrible word, the industry needs you to succeed so the likes of Jordan Rowe can have a career too.

Kolby Cooper is a boy from Anderson County, and thus he has called his new EP that. He’s written all six of the tracks, which he sings with a Luke Combs-like burr, and he comes to the major-label market after impressive numbers from his independent EPs and an album. With Dillon Carmichael also fighting for our attention, the post-Combs breed of hefty blokes with their heart of their sleeves shows no signs of slowing down.

Jacob Davis was in the room for Her Favorite Songs, which is a smart song about how ‘the joke’s on you’ because Kolby’s songs delight the woman but not the man she lives with, who used to tease Kolby and now has to watch his old nemesis be successful.

Good For You is a singalong breakup jam which Kolby co-wrote with Jameson Rodgers. The production is 100% Jason Aldean – apt as he is signed to Broken Bow Records like Jason – and it’s radio-friendly. Ditto Excuses, where ‘deep down we both know the truth is these are just excuses’ for ending a relationship, and Way To Go, where the narrator has ‘bloodshot eyes’ thanks to his drinking.

I like the celebratory groove of This Song Don’t Make No Sense, a song about songwriting where, given the death of a relationship, ‘you plus me just didn’t add up’. The EP’s title track is a hymn to the girl who was ‘put on earth for this old boy to love her’, which does remind me of Luke Combs a lot. He can’t help it.