Country Jukebox Jury LP: Brad Cox – My Mind’s Projection

March 5, 2021

Brad Cox – My Mind’s Projection

This album came out towards the end of last year, so I come to praise it belatedly. Brad is an Australian who is huge over there (and huge everywhere, he’s a burly bloke) but, having opened for Jon Pardi and Brett Eldredge, he’s got a foot in Nashville.

I love the album’s single Give Me Tonight, a rocker which reminded me of Semisonic and namechecks John Denver. After Brad meets a girl at a bar in verse one, he bellows the chorus and in verse two pieces together last night, ending in a ‘handwritten letter’. Drinking Season was also rolled out a few months before the album’s release. It’s a chugging rocker where Brad is drinking by the lake. I love the animated video where various animals are chugging beer or lazing on the grass. Backwoods Creek, I’d love to hear a cover of it.

Album opener Hold Me Back is a perfect set opener too, the type that Jason Aldean cranks out once a year so he can now fill an entire set with ‘You ready to party?’ music. The devil appears, as does a very rude word which can be abbreviated MF, and in verse two there’s ‘blood on my face’. The title track has a similar mood and a cameo from the devil before a Memphis-type horn section come in to soundtrack Brad ‘chasing trouble’. I can see why Brad wanted to name the album after this track.

I suppose he couldn’t call it Caught in a Noose by a Stranger, after the LP’s penultimate, eight-minute song, complete with muted trumpet outro. ‘Honest’ Brad is trapped by a femme fatale stabbing him in the back, possibly represented by the meandering solo in the middle of the song. There’s a lot of Stapleton in the arrangement and this would be the centrepiece of his live set.

On Remedy, a crash of drums brings Adam Eckersley in to sympathise with Brad, who can’t stop thinking of his beloved and ‘running up hills backwards’ while a guitar weeps in the background. Adam has visited the UK to play Buckle and Boots and I hope Brad gets to come over when events allow him to.

The third single was heartbreak song Short Lived Love which begins ‘I’m trapped in a hospital room…inside my head’ and continues with despair and woe, as Brad (who wrote the music and lyrics by himself) delivers a wounded vocal from a character who turns to ‘the harshest chemicals’ and tries to ‘disappear’ while the melody line repeats itself into submission.

Wasted Time opens with Brad wanting to ‘numb my pain’ cos ‘it’s happy hour and I’m feeling down’. I also like the mention of Brad’s home state of New South Wales, but it’s a very bleak lyric set to a charming major-key melody because ‘I know I’ll find a way…all she put me through is wasted time’.

The ubiquitous Randy Montana co-writes the wedding song Thought I Knew Love (‘till you loved me’), with rimshots on the backbeat and Brad around a fire ‘with a couple of pals’. There are touches of harmonica too to underscore a list of ways to define love and companionship. I Keep Driving sees him, guitar in tow, throwing out any ‘need for a GPS’ with ‘no destination’ in mind. It’s the album’s poppiest moment.

Brad closes with the elegant I Still Want More, where he wishes to meet the mother and see the hometown of his beloved, and move things along to the soundtrack of trumpets and another crunchy guitar solo. This is an album full of peril and demons, with the odd moment of light and celebration. I would love to know more about Brad and I’m only sorry that I’ve only just got round to listening to the album.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Ian Munsick – Coyote Cry

March 5, 2021

Born in Wyoming and the son of a fiddle player, Ian moved to Nashville where he found success with the song Horses Are Faster. He calls his music a link between Chris LeDoux and Post Malone.

Long Haul is going to radio after Easter, so expect to hear more of the name Ian Munsick thanks to this song. Over a mix of some finger-picked acoustic, mandolin and slide guitar Ian sings how ‘I ain’t afraid of the slow burn’ and how some things, like love and stuff, take time. It’s a good introduction to Ian’s voice, which is the main ingredient here.

With light touches of production in the vocal, Ian sounds perfect for a Spotify playlist among many blokes in both the country and pop spheres. Sam Hunt may be the immediate contemporary, although he delivers the words in a higher register that really pops, even going to falsetto in places on opening track Solo. That track has banjo and fiddle on it, which locates it in country.

Ditto tracks two and three. Mountain Time (‘400 horses by the reins’) is a love song full of fiddle as Ian heads to the country because ‘I always find my way back to you…woo-hoo!’ It’s catchy too. The Mumfordy I See Country makes the same point with some well-worn markers – mama’s cooking, Dolly Parton, July 4, old dirt roads, front porches, banjos, whiskey – which are popular all the way across America. Perhaps this song appeals to people who will party to this song on Broadway in Nashville at their hen party. Ian told me that it’s a dominant 7th chord in the bridge, which you never hear in country music.  

Might Be Everything is my old school motto in song: Small Things Grow Peacefully. Ian illustrates how a humble beginning ‘might not be anything’ but could be it all. The second verse, predictably, is about love and stuff, with the nice line ‘picked a wildflower bouquet’. Come Home To You sounds like a Justin Bieber or John Legend tune with its triple-time feel. It’s awfully poppy.

The jaunty Humble (‘Ain’t afraid to rumble, a cowboy’s always humble’) namechecks old Chris LeDoux, while Like It Ain’t opens with a jukebox whirring into gear although the excellent production is very 2021. We get digital snaps, staccato guitar and a sonic bed which matches a lyric where Ian asks the lady to ‘be kind’ and tell lies about her new beau. I replayed it immediately.

She Was Right is a very produced song where it’s ‘too late’ for Ian to save the relationship with both digital cymbals and banjo and real fiddle. It’s what country music sounds like today and young audiences will go wild for it; it sounds like filler to me.

The quirky cover of Dreams by Fleetwood Mac is odd to hear from a male perspective, which proves Jon Pardi’s adage that it ain’t always the cowboy that rides away. In fact, Ian would be a perfect opening act for Pardi and everyone knows Dreams and can sing along with Ian’s smooth vocal. One foot in country, one foot in pop: he sees country fans everywhere.

Country Jukebox Jury EPs: Hicktown Breakout, The Southern Gothic and Clayton Smalley

February 26, 2021

Hicktown Breakout – Lost Myself

Hicktown Breakout are a Bristolian quintet who put out their EP in January 2021, led by the single Get Your Boots On, which is the correct choice of single: it’s a handclaps’n’stomper about how ‘country music’s gonna blow your mind’ full of open chords and fine guitar work. Resistance is futile.

Distorted Lullaby is a cross between The Calling and Counting Crows, with a lyric about how ‘nothing changes’ set to some electric guitars. Lost Myself is the most immediate track, with a Quo-like bouncing riff and great drumwork; the poor singer can’t go home because, it seems, he’s been thrown out by his ex. Yesterday is a chugging country-rock song full of loneliness and regret: ‘Tell me there’s another ways to get back to yesterday’ is a gloomy lyric.

Halfway is a mid-tempo ballad about love and stuff set over four very familiar chords. There’s a lot of Hootie & the Blowfish here, with lots of space in the bridge (‘no I don’t want this’), harmonies in the chorus and a nifty solo. It’ll be a decent singalong in the live sphere, and I don’t think the recording does it justice. Hootie, we recall, were a bar band first and a platinum recording act second. File Hicktown Breakout with The Blue Highways, as this would make an ace double bill.

The Southern Gothic – Burnin Moonlight

This six-track EP came out in November 2020. The band are based in Nashville and are led by Connor Christian, whose voice is authentically country.

Villain is very atmospheric, with a neat sonic bed, as Connor sings of having to be ‘the bad guy’ rather than her Superman. The second verse has a line about tying her to a railroad track in order to stop her trying to prolong the friendship. It’s a cool take on moving on.

Past Midnight (‘the clock keeps tickin and we keep talkin’) is a meet cute set to a fine groove. Ain’t Gonna Lie is horny, a sex jam without the sex, as the narrator realises ‘there ain’t no turning back’ once she gives him the go ahead. Gravity is a similar tempo tune in which Connor sings grandly about not wanting to weigh a lady down if she wants to spread her wings.

Up On Your Love is the result of finally going to bed with a lady and ‘wake up, up, up on your love’. It’s poppy and romantic and smooth. There’s a fiddle intro to Classic, which sounds like a wedding song. It’s another song about how love is like an old record (Garth gets a namecheck) and how ‘trends come and go’. It sounds like an Aaron Watson ballad and Southern Gothic would be a great opening act for Aaron.

Clayton Smalley – Dirt Road Therapy.

Clayton comes from Utah and he wants to make music that harks back to the AOR era of Eagles and Garth Brooks. Two Lane Time Machine is a wonderful homage to Californian rock, with sweet harmonies, some pretty chords and a very good delivery of lyrics full of reminiscin’: ‘One more shot to rewrite history’. Modern Day Merle opens with a fiddle and sounds a lot like Rodeo by Garth Brooks, as Clayton sings of a troubadour’s life on the road. ‘He sings what he sings, he loves who he loves’ is a bit banal but the guitars underneath it create a mood.

The EP’s title track is a slow rocker about wind and Joe Diffie on the radio and the weekend and ‘here we go’ and tossing away one’s cares. You know the sort of thing. I Never Let A Good Time Get Away illustrates what the typical weekend holds (‘always time for one more round’ and ‘no need to sleep it off’). Luke Combs does this sort of thing but Clayton’s effort is good.

Phoenix Rise should be covered by Gary Quinn, as it’s a song about rising up from the ashes with a woozy pedal steel guitar part. Ditto the EP’s closing ballad Watch Me Fall, in which Clayton asks his lady if all she’s going to do is look on as he suffers. It’s a bittersweet way to end an excellent set.

Country Jukebox Jury EPs – Adele & Andy, Track45 and Adam Hambrick

February 26, 2021

Adele & Andy – Where I Belong

The title track of the four-track EP from this British couple has a glorious guitar passage while Adele’s vocal makes me think of Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek, as she sings a thoughtful lyric externalising her feelings. ‘I was a prisoner of my mistakes’ but now she’s ‘riding the crest of the wave’ because she has found her man. No More Goodbyes is about going down a road (‘it is tiring’) but being cheered up by a guy, where Adele finds a Romeo to her Juliet, a ‘hero to her princess’, set to a gentle acoustic tune.

Echoes of the Forest is a story song which begins slowly but accelerates into the second verse, which talks of ‘deep betrayal in the middle of the night’. It breaks into a fab chorus which Adele sings superbly, and it’s a well written, folky story.

Misty Eyes, which was rolled out a month before the EP, chugs along, and the pair draw out the ‘eyes’ for nine syllables. It’s the most memorable part of the song. When I write songs, eyes are the easiest thing to focus on (windows to the soul, shining etc) but it’s a good choice of adjective to tell the tale of a cheat. ‘I was blinded…battered and bruised…broken and used’ is the conclusion, which I am sure Adele will spit out when the duo perform this live. I’ll be there to see it and I hope people give these four tracks a listen.

Track45 – Big Dreams

Track45, aka the siblings Jenna, KK and Ben Johnson, put out three tracks under the banner Small Town last year. I loved their little introduction set as part of Country Music Week last October and they aren’t like any other country act: they can play fiddle, cello, banjo and guitar between them and can also write songs (Ben wrote One of them Girls, the Lee Brice chart-topper).

The song they wrote with Gabrielle Mooney, Come On In, hooked me with its line about ‘calling dinner supper’ and the mention of Avril Lavigne. The gentle Me + You (‘football and tailgates, bare feet and sand’) was also rolled out last year, as was the single the trio are sending to radio, Met Me Now. It’s very current in its production and KK’s vocals will hook people who love Kelsea and Carly Pearce, while the lyric is full of vulnerability: ‘I was young but I was stupid’ and ‘If I could find a way to rearrange the time’ are great, as is the melodic heft of the chorus and the harmonies throughout.

All three are on their Big Dreams EP, which adds two more tracks. I am positive they would have plugged it as part of Country2Country this year and, like The Bee Gees and Hanson, would become a family band the Brits would love.

Little Bit More, written with Audra Mae, and a cover of the Dolly Parton song Light of a Clear Blue Morning, both offer more treats. The former begins with KK hymning God for ‘all the shots’ she has taken, before the chorus explodes in gratitude: ‘I’d give it up for a little bit more’. It’s catchy and fun, and Ben takes the second verse (‘It’s high time I did some taking’). Check out the acoustic version on their Youtube channel which emphasises the harmonies. Their cover is well chosen, as the siblings take turns to sing of ‘looking for the sunshine’ and the hope on the horizon. They must have learned how to harmonise with this one, and it is wonderful that the world can share in their talent.

Adam Hambrick – Flipsides

The great Adam Hambrick’s new tune is Broken Ladder, the latest in a series where he brings out two tracks at a time. Having done this three times, we have six songs which have been collected on the Flipsides EP, which is the closest thing to an album he’s brought out. I love his songs Rockin All Night Long and Forever Ain’t Long Enough and, in particular, the terrific Country Stars, which he performed at C2C 2019 along with hits he wrote for Dan + Shay (How Not To) and Justin Moore (Somebody Else Will).

The four tracks we’ve heard are: the perky, poppy The Longer I Lay Here (a duet with Jillian Jacqueline), which rattles along tunefully; the ruminative Kill A Man, full of classic chords and a determination to go against one’s character and protect a woman at all costs (‘There’s no fire I wouldn’t walk through’) that sounds like Justin Bieber rewriting a mashup of two Bruno Mars songs (Grenade and When I Was Your Man); John Mayer homage Sunshine State of Mind, which compares a woman to the elements (‘love so bright I got my shades on’); and Do The Math, where Adam is alone in a bar regretfully counting out his drinks rather than ‘bouncing back’.

Broken Ladder has Adam singing he is a ‘record on repeat’ and once again drinking heavily because he can’t get over his ex. After a rapid-fire verse, the chorus comes in after 25 seconds, in the modern style, and has Adam ‘trying to climb to heaven’ on a broken ladder, a great metaphor. The production is superb too.

The other new song comes at the end of the EP. When It All Sinks In (written with fellow A-Listers Gordie Sampson and Kelly Archer) is about thCe time ‘between the no and then feeling’ as love dies. It’s a song about nothing, in that it spotlights the moment in time just before the realisation of loss hits. I like how the entire track drops out for half a beat before the second verse, which talks of wounds still being hot. This is very, very clever songwriting – it’s like they wrote it at Pixar HQ –  and no wonder it’s at the end of this brilliant project. I hope Adam becomes as successful as he deserves to be, even if his friends Dan and Shay sell out arenas.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Willie Nelson – That’s Life

February 26, 2021

This is the umpteenth album from Willie Nelson who has put his second volume of Frank Sinatra songs. You know what Willie Nelson sounds like by now and it’s 45 years since his album Stardust sold well and made him a critically acclaimed and commercially successful artist. 2018 had him covering My Way, Summer Wind, It Was a Very Good Year and Night And Day, so there are enough classics for volume two.

Many of these songs are part of the quilt of American music: Luck Be a Lady, a very jaunty Learnin’ The Blues, I Won’t Dance (with the ever sultry Diana Krall) and I’ve Got You Under My Skin, here given a bossa nova arrangement. Closing track Lonesome Road is the sort of gospel blues Leon Russell used to do. There’s a reason this album comes out on Legacy Recoprdings.

As with Sinatra’s great recordings with Nelson Riddle’s arrangements of the standards, Willie uses an orchestra on Cottage For Sale and In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning. Mickey Raphael’s harmonica pokes out on You Make Me Feel So Young and That’s Life (an anthem for my brother). If you want to soak in the bath or recline on the sofa with a good book, Willie’s new record will be perfect as a soundtrack.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Hailey Whitters – The Dream (Deluxe Edition)

February 26, 2021

Six artists informed the writing and promotion of Hailey’s debut album, which is repackaged with five extra tracks featuring those six acts. Happy People was written with Lori McKenna and, before its appearance on the album, was given to Little Big Town, which was a nice little earner for Hailey and helped to fund the project, which came out in March 2020 just as you-know-what decimated artists’ careers.

Brent Cobb and Jordan Davis had Hailey as a support act, and thus join her on Glad To Be Here and The Ride respectively. Trisha Yearwood remains an inspiration while Hillary Lindsay, as one of the best writers in town, is a guiding light too. More on them shortly.

Born in Iowa, Hailey wrote Ten Year Town, a fine summation of becoming a Nashville songwriter (although I love one argument that Nashville is so called because music is ten years behind). That song, written with the incomparable Brandy Clark, opens the album on a sombre note.

A host of publications loved the album – The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Stereogum – so it’s not news to call this a great album. Look at the credits: as well as Brandy, there’s Lori McKenna. The pair team up again on two other tracks aside from Happy People: the album’s centrepiece Janice at the Hotel Bar, about a grandma offering advice to a younger lady to ‘make a good life’; and album closer Living The Dream, a gorgeous tune about ‘the heartaches, the big breaks, the wrong turns, the mistakes’ which all form part of life. It bookends the album nicely and it’s good to end on a high note.

Hillary Lindsey was in the room for reminiscin’ song The Days (‘make em count’) and The Faker, a stark acoustic ballad expertly strummed and featuring the rhyme of ‘sceptre/jester’ (Hillary’s the best in town and has been nominated for the Songwriter award at the ACMs. She may well beat Josh Osborne, Ashley Gorley, Hardy and Shane McAnally.)

Chris Stapleton (nominated for Male and Entertainer at the ACMs) is found on The Dream because his song The Devil Always Made Me Think Twice was a cut on it before it appeared on Starting Over. Hailey’s version is in a lower key (B minor) and is produced with a louder arrangement than Chris’ version. As well as Maren Morris, whose tone she shares, Hailey’s voice reminds me of Natalie Maines duetting with Kacey Musgraves, with vulnerability and power, as on the vocalised middle section of the bluesy afternoon drinkin’ triple-time song Red Wine and Blue, which I hope someone covers. It’s a singer’s song.

In fact, all of these songs are ripe for covering. I love the perky pair of Dream, Girl and All The Cool Girls, both of which have FM radio-friendly choruses that Harry Styles and Miley Cyrus are putting out now. Conversely, Loose Strings (given to her by, among others, Brent Cobb) is a break-up song where the vocal is right up front in the mix and Hailey’s voice teeters on sobriety, full of character.

The melody of Heartland (‘you gotta let your heart land’) reminds me of Kelsea Ballerini which makes sense as Forest Whitehead, Kelsea’s main collaborator for her first records, was in the room to write a song about being ‘on the rocks…pulling double shifts…waking up alone’.

As for the five new tunes, I love How Far Can It Go. It was written by Hailey, Hilary Lindsey and Nicolle Galyon (who runs the Songs & Daughters publishing house). Handily for a throwback song, they get a 90s icon, Trisha Yearwood, to sing about a time in the 90s when story songs were all over the radio. And fiddle, too: we get two bars of fiddle at the top of the song and a pair of teenage lovers who ‘are about to find out how far they can go’. It’s immediately evocative and leaps out of the stereo thanks to the production of Jake Gear and Hailey herself.

How To Break A Heart is a proper songwriter’s song, a list of ways to disappoint someone’s expectations. As you’d expect it’s full of humour: ‘don’t call back’ after a wonderful night; ‘put a diamond on her hand then call up your best man’. As with the Highwomen, the middle eight is sung in unison with three voices singing the same part: ‘What goes around comes back again, karma’s a bitch!’ With a banjo and some pedal steel in the back, as well as a vocalised outro to bellow along to, this is a country song and helps position Hailey as a breakout star who can slot into Miranda’s place in music should the Texan prioritise her marriage and her dogs over her music.

I would advise Little Big Town to take Hailey as a support act on their next visit to the UK. One day, like Kacey Musgraves, Hailey Whitters will have her name in the biggest font on the ticket. Remember the name, listen to The Dream.

Country Jukebox Jury EP: Carly Pearce – 29

February 19, 2021

Carly is a Big Machine artist who almost fell at the first hurdle before her number one smash Every Little Thing put her on the radio. Her work with producer busbee brought pop and country together in a digestible package. I saw her perform Show Me Around on a livestream and reckon this takes her to the next level. It’s a song dedicated to her late producer and imagines heaven as his ‘brand new place’ which will one day host Carly to ‘pick back up’ their relationship. Even without the context it’s a wonderful song and will comfort many people who have lost loved ones, especially in the last year.

To lose a friend is bad enough; to lose a marriage in the same year is extremely wretched. At the moment Carly is on the radio with the single that promotes the 29 project. Next Girl is a warning to the next lady who falls in love with Michael Ray. The seven tracks create a whole which follows the long break-up album tradition pioneered by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, and extends into the present day with Sam Smith, Taylor Swift and Adele.

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

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

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

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

29 ought to bring thousands more fans to the church of Carly, who really does have one of the best voices in country music. Young divorcees aren’t really catered to in pop music – the world’s biggest song is about a failed high school romance – so this is a welcome project.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Lainey Wilson – Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’

February 19, 2021

Lainey Wilson sounds country. Like Jordan Davies and Willie Jones, she is from Louisiana.  She’s less likely to cross over into pop music, as Faith Hill or Carrie Underwood have done, although with Morgan Wallen having a number one album, everything is possible.

She’s signed to Jason Aldean’s label Broken Bow and this is another Jay Joyce production, so it’ll be rocky and rootsy (roocky?) even before the needle goes onto the record. You can catch her at the Grand Ole Opry on February 20 playing some of the tunes. Every one of the tracks is a Lainey Wilson composition, with the usual mix of top writers helping out.

‘They say I’m where the party is’ opens LA, on which Lainey corrects the assumption that it means Los Angeles; it means Louisiana. There’s more harmonica, talk about small towns and a loop that is impossible to resist. The line ‘Joplin meets Naomi Judd’ may be the best on the album.

The record begins with a bang, a few hard hits of percussion before Neon Diamonds, the song in which Lainey asks a man to be her ‘man in black’ under the proviso that they get ‘hitched on whiskey vows and exchanging drunk “I do”s.’ It’s a country honky-tonker in the Jay Joyce style: the algorithm will throw up Eric Church, Ashley McBryde, Brothers Osborne and Brandy Clark, so if you like any of those acts (all produced by Jay), you will love Lainey.

Sunday Best, which has a proper funky harmonica/spoken-word fading outro, is a funny tale about skipping church because of a hangover (‘I don’t feel like hallelujah’ is a great line) and is full of personality. Like Ashley, Lainey seems to be a drinkin’ and smokin’ country rock chick, as shown on Pipe: Luke Dick, a Miranda Lambert acolyte, helps out on a song which is as rocking as you can imagine for a Luke Dick composition.

Casey Beathard helped write the smart WWDD, which I think was my introduction to Lainey’s work. Since it’s impossible not to love Dolly Parton, this will be a winner and I am sure Dolly, who is Lainey’s ‘go-to compass’, will give this her blessing. Straight Up Sideways is a party song, opening with a proper rock riff and helps its audience ‘take your blue collar off’. As she lists the ways to get drunk (which sounds like a really fun brainstorming session in the writers room), it reminds me of Gretchen Wilson, who doesn’t get the credit she deserves for teaching us that gals can party too.

Lainey can also do soft and slow, as on Dirty Looks, which sounds like a lost Lambert smash. ‘Dirty looks good on you’ is the kicker, and it also seems true to Lainey’s life. Keeping Bars In Business is, as well as being a great title, a proper Nashville song, full of sense impressions and vignettes of people who frequent bars. ‘Someone’s crying and someone’s kissing’ begins a top-drawer chorus which proves Lainey’s writing talent. This will be one of the songs she would play if she played a writers’ round for C2C.

Some songs put Lainey’s life in a song. I like Rolling Stone (‘like a feather in the wind I can be gone’) with a mandolin plucking an A minor chord for the final minute of a mood piece. The album’s title track is one of many which reference a cigarette and there’s a nice bit of self-awareness in the hook: ‘Even I can’t believe I’m sayin’ what I’m thinkin’.

Jonathon Singleton is one of the writers behind current smash Things A Man Oughta Know, a few stanzas of advice in 7/4 time on how to live a country way of life. Small Town, Girl (note the comma) is bluesy and also full of advice, which explodes into a fab chorus warning of the dangers of life in a place where ‘word gets out by word of mouth’. 

Half of the tracks on the album were ones I played immediately after hearing them, such is their quality and attitude. I buy into what Lainey is offering – need I say she sings with passion, conviction and pitch – and I hope thousands more do too.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Florida Georgia Line – Life Rolls On

February 12, 2021

No matter what I say about this album, it won’t stop Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line (who are on Big Machine) being millionaires, with their own line of whiskey and a bar on Broadway in Nashville. Cruise must have brought thousands of blokes into country music, reversing the Taylor Swift effect and making country music muscular. Along with Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and Sam Hunt, Nashville made stars of guys with smirks and a Southern charm.

With Morgan Wallen caught being very stupid, the whole era has abruptly ended; Luke Bryan is about to star in another series of American Idol, Sam Hunt spent five years making an album which COVID-19 didn’t allow him to tour and Aldean is stuck making the same song over and over again while his wife stirs her own controversy with her sympathies to confederate flags. Rolling Stone magazine called her a ‘country-wife political conspiracist’, naming Brian Kelley’s wife as kin.

All this infighting has flared up and FGL will explore solo projects this year. We’ve had the horrible song Undivided which Tyler sang with label mate Tim McGraw and we’ve heard much of Life Rolls On before. Joey Moi was busy helping make Morgan Wallen a number one recording artist so Chris Young’s guy Corey Crowder was on hand to pilot this fifth album.

I was immensely disappointed with the 6 Pack EP from last year. I repeat here what I wrote back then.

Beer:30 is a joke. I think Tyler knows it’s a joke: ‘It’s beer (pause) thirty and I’m (pause) thirsty’. His delivery is lower in pitch than usual and this is what country sounds like when it goes all rap. Thomas Rhett did this with Vacation.

Ain’t Worried Bout It is a Peach Pickers song, or at least Ben Hayslip and Dallas Davidson from the collective. This means it’s a down home southern boy tune with trucks and the Lord and Friday night and coolers. Plus, ‘my baby’s here’. The chorus rocks and the vocals are sweet. After all those Joey Moi guitars it’s synths and beds for FGL now.

US Stronger is a patriotic anthem that arrives into the marketplace as Joe Biden is preparing his campaign against the President. Without discussing politics, FGL blether on about America. US Stronger is what FGL sound like when writing a Shane McAnally song.

Shane worked on Second Guessing, the song that resulted from FGL’s appearance on Songland, the NBC show which is live A&R on TV. On the show you see the original song performance, the reworking and the final product. Griffen Palmer presents a slow acoustic driven song which Shane applauds when the kicker comes in the chorus: ‘I ain’t spent one second guessing’. Shane in fact gets angry at a hook. We know it’s a good song – Griffen also wrote Keith Urban’s new song Polaroid – and the guys from Songland just punch it up.

The reworked version rejigs the opening lines and speeds up the delivery to make it sound like an FGL song, or FGL as written by Shane McAnally. It’s a wedding song that is perfect for two men who used to cruise and who now want to dedicate their lives to their wives.

Countryside, meanwhile, is an outside write from three writers who I guess are on FGL’s imprint Tree Vibez. It puts an acoustic guitar loop over an electronic drum loop. ‘Downtown looks a little busy’ so let’s go to the countryside. It sounds like Thomas Rhett and we get ‘dixie cup/ giddy up’ as a fun rhyme.

Since the release of the first six tracks there have been three more. Long Live, New Truck and Life Rolls On are all forgettable, the first two are truly execrable and worse than Beer:30. The title track reaches for the status of a carpe diem song but we know about how we have to seize the moment and live like you were dying.

Canaan Smith co-writes Good To Me and Long Time Comin’. The former is a peppy four-chord song about how ‘God’s been good to me’ for bestowing blessings on them, like sunsets; the latter is a Backstreet Boys-type ballad about wanting to ‘make up for lost kisses’ that is surgically targeted at grown-up Backstreet Boys fans.

There is also an interlude, just one rather than four and instrumental rather than comedic as it was on their last album. I can only imagine it is separated out so people don’t skip Ain’t Worried About It when it comes on a Spotify playlist – it should really be called Intro To Ain’t Worried About It. This is just a reflection of how people listen to the music.

Hard To Get To Heaven is set over the same two chords as Niko Moon’s track Good Time, but the formula works again. ‘You loving me is a miracle’ is boyfriend country slow jam from the bros that is deathless filler or, in modern parlance, it’s skippable. Life Looks Good (‘sitting next to you’) sounds like a Blake Shelton album filler track from ten years ago, though that doesn’t make it bad. It’s written to a formula and the formula works.

Hardy had a hand in most of the last FGL album and, with a lot of his efforts going into his album A Rock (which is much better than Life Rolls On), he helps out on two tracks. Always Gonna Love You is a list of things the guys will love like a woman attached to a lethally catchy chorus (classic HARDY), while Eyes Closed also has Ross Copperman on writing credits. Ross is best known as Brett Eldredge’s guy and this has slow-jam vibes. Like Sam Hunt’s famous song, FGL compare bodies and back roads; indeed Sam sang of how he was ‘driving with my eyes closed’ so this is effectively a pastiche.

As for I Love My Country, it’s 100% Short Skirt Weather by Kane Brown, to such an extent that the writers of that song are credited here too. It’s smart for FGL, like boybands, to take a break after the fifth album. One Direction lost a member for their fifth then were allowed to break for solo projects. If you look at FGL as a boyband who make country music, you will understand the phenomenon better than looking at them as a country act.

Which of BK or T-Hub will be Niall Horan or Harry Styles? It’ll be fun to find out.

Country Jukebox Jury EP: Alex Hall – Six Strings

February 12, 2021

Alex is a guy from Georgia who is beloved in town. He launched his EP with a gig at the Bluebird Café with his good friends Kassi Ashton and Tenille Townes, as well as collaborator Brad Tursi whose band Old Dominion work with Shane McAnally. Shane runs Monument records, to which Alex is signed. Labelmates include Teddy Robb, Caitlyn Smith and Walker Hayes.

The EP includes tracks which have been dripfed over recent months. John Osborne plays a solo on Jealous Love, on which Alex is ‘holding you closer than a high school grudge’; Vince Gill guests on the gorgeous Never Seen The World, which sounds like a Charlie Worsham song with its tender vocal and protagonist whose eyes are opened by the one he loves; and Brad Paisley does his thing on the wedding waltz Last One To Leave. I’ve often said everything sounds better when sung by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, and I would add that everything sounds bolo with a Brad Paisley solo.

The smooth Other End of the Phone – on which Alex wants to pop over and hang with his lady – spent two years on the shelf as Alex signed a record deal on the strength of the song and waited (and waited) for it to get out into the world. I love it a lot, especially Brad’s guitar solo and the groove that is very Old Dominion-y.

Heart Shut, written with and with vocals from Tenille, outlines how she ‘looks happy now’ she’s with a new guy, even as she drinks the same drink she did when Alex was with her. Yet it is ‘hard to keep my heart shut’ so he can’t go over and say hello. Tenille, on her part, looks over and feels exactly the same. What a smart idea for a duet and it’s sung very tenderly.

As for Runs in the Family, Alex and Kassi sing in unison about how family will ‘defend your blood even if they ain’t right’. The payoff is that love brings more than just one person into your life, so this is a song for loved ones similar to More Hearts Than Mine by Ingrid Andress.

Remember the name: Alex Hall.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Aaron Lee Tasjan – Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!

February 5, 2021

The title is perhaps a nod to the Judy Garland album on Broadway Judy! Judy! Judy! This one begins with a song lamenting how hard it is to find Sunday women. This is music from East Nashville, where the hipsters go and is equal parts roots, rock, power-pop and California west coast chillout.

The first side of the album is as much pop and rock as it is roots. Up All Night is a heck of a pop song, with an unforgettable melody that someone like James Mercer from The Shins would write. The production is a homage to Jeff Lynne of ELO, which is always a sign of a muso. Computer of Love is Nilssonish, melodic and uses the word ‘avatar’ in the chorus.

Beatle influence peppers the album. There are some sumptuous diminished chords on Now You Know. Not That Bad is a musician’s tale about creating a song, which is very meta, set to some mellow acoustic guitar. Another Lonely Day is about ten Paul McCartney songs blended together, with some multi-layered harmonies over some finger-picking. The final chord is gorgeous as well.

Don’t Overthink It sounds like a George Harrison song, with the quavers in the bass and wide open chorus. John Lennon would write a lyric like ‘cartoon music for plastic people’, coupled with a middle eight where he repeats ‘are you losing your mind?’ melodically. The song’s production, guitar solo and chords remind me of Sondre Lerche, another guy who knows his pop heritage.

Feminine Walk combines Nilsson and McCartney, with a drizzle of Gerry Rafferty, and namechecks Spotify, where I listened to this album, and rock stars: ‘Bowie and Bolan and Jagger, Grace Jones, Joan Jett’. Aaron positions himself as ‘the metropolitan Conway Twitty’ but I’ll listen a few more times to work out what point he’s making about his perambulatory style.

Ultimately this sounds like a singular artist condensing his influences into something novel and fun, even if it can come across as homage or pastiche (note the panning in the production of the power-poppy Dada Bois). I think I will listen to this album all year, so well done to Aaron for a comprehensive piece of work. It’s only country because it’s made in Nashville but I am sure many country acts will borrow these songs.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Lucero – When You Found Me

January 30, 2021

An act pigeonholed as Americana are the Memphis-based rock band Lucero. Album number ten comes out with distribution by Thirty Tigers, which is always a great sign.

The album’s opening seconds include some sonic wizardry, an A major palm-stopped chord and the vocal melody sitting on top of the note. Have You Lost Your Way doesn’t explode but stays in the same place, setting the album’s tone.

Ben Nichols writes the songs and his stated goal with this album is to hark back to 80s FM radio but make it modern. Lyrically it’s inspired by his toddler, with whom he has spent a lot of time in the last few years since he and his band can’t play these songs in clubs and arenas. Outrun The Moon is representative of this aim: there are elements of Band of Horses, Steve Earle and Tom Petty, heartland rock with lots of movement in the lyric (‘she’s running through the moonlight’). There’s a great section where the drums play constant quavers that really matches the song’s title and shows a good grasp of matching lyric and melody.

Pull Me Close Don’t Let Go is a lullaby so simple and direct even a child could understand it, with a pulsating arrangement from the band. The tender title track is about love and stuff: ‘You found a way for me to find my way to you’ is as simple as declarations of love get.

Both All My Life and Good As Gone sound like modern rock. On the latter there are synths, a rumbling bass and a thrilling chorus about how ‘good as gone ain’t good enough’. Coffin Nails includes the words ‘banshee’, ‘ounce’ and ‘Ides of March’ and evokes a Western, outlaw mood as Ben seeks to ‘weigh my deeds on my father’s scales’. A City On Fire, meanwhile, comes off like a Metallica ballad covered by a Memphis bar band: ‘In a city built on a tinderbox, a spark becomes a flame.’

Ben’s voice growls on The Match (‘that knocks down your wall’) which seems very metaphorical. The lyrics contain plenty of animals – a white deer, a dog, ‘wolves outside your kitchen’ – but also a witch and ‘a beautiful girl in a white gown’. Back In Ohio is the album’s most direct song: ‘Sailing to redemption but they’ll miss you back home in Oooooooo-hio’ reminds me of Jason Isbell’s recent music but the guitar riff sounds like The Hold Steady, another bar band who can play clubs and arenas. There is a saxophone solo which can only remind the listener of The Big Man, Clarence Clemons, and the leader of the best bar band in the world: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

Rock out to When You Found Me but meditate to it in equal measure.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Logan Mize – Still That Kid

January 30, 2021

He’s not in Kansas anymore.

I am positive that is how many reviews of Logan’s work have begun. As with plenty of country musicians, he comes from noble stock: Billy Mize, who died in 2017 aged 88, headed over from Kansas to Bakersfield and became a TV star. It propelled him to the charts with songs of his own and writing for other including Dean Martin. He also charted with a cover of Take It Easy by The Eagles.

Logan is Billy’s great-nephew. He spent the 2010s building a following and releasing his debut album in 2017. He made it to Bush Hall in October 2019 for Country Music Week, but his voice almost didn’t as he’d had to cancel one of the UK shows. At the time he was best known on UK country radio for his cover of the Chainsmokers song Something Just Like This, which finds its way onto his second album as a sort of encore. It follows 10 compositions which showcase a quality voice that will sound excellent on country radio, should he want to pursue that avenue.

Still That Kid has been previewed in recent months by several singles. Donovan Woods, a pre-eminent Canadian songwriter, duets on his composition Grew Apart, and at the end of the album Alexandra Kay hops on another version. It’s one of the album’s tunes about breaking up with someone, with a chorus full of familiar reasons why it didn’t work out that will resonate with listeners who went through similar things in their life.

Two Peach Pickers, Dallas Davidson and Ben Hayslip, offer Get Em Together, which is a jaunty song which breaks up the ballads. Clare Dunn is the girl, Logan is the guy, and the pair bring A and B together (groove and record, red wine and whiskey to get ‘tailgate tipsy’, the ‘want to’ and ‘the time’) in the way that Brothers Osborne wanted to bring together ‘the all’ and ‘the night’. It’s Nashville Writers Room by Numbers – enough with Johnny and June!! – though there’s a cute four-bar guitar solo and it’s replayable.

Third Picker Rhett Akins was in the room for I Ain’t Gotta Grow Up. There are two versions of this song, one with rising starlet Willie Jones, so you can choose your own adventure. The song itself will go down well live: Logan wants a ‘good time all night’ and continue a party even after closing time. The sonic bed is very contemporary – Russell Dickerson and Filmore do this sort of thing too – and Willie’s fun verse builds on Logan’s original version. In fact, Logan and Willie could be a good package if they were to come to the UK when the time should arise.

Who Didn’t is a gift from three of the best: Nicolle Galyon, Ashley Gorley and Jimmy Robbins. It frames a list of universal country things: driving around, set up fireworks on July 4, attending to the lawn, ‘cold beer kissin’ and so forth. It’s radio-friendly and good fun, as you’d expect from those three A-List writers. Well done to Logan and his team for picking this one off the shelf. Ditto Hometown, which has a great line about being ‘like a steel guitar in a disco song’ to compare life in a new city to the ‘barefoot stomping ground’ of a hometown, with all the country things surrounding it.

As a songwriter on the Nashville-based Big Yellow Dog music publisher, which houses the likes of Meghan Trainor, Tenille Townes and Daniel Tashian, Logan is aware of the need to take songs off the peg, rather than create a bespoke composition. Thus some of the best technicians in town have cuts on the album.

Randy Montana, growing in reputation by the month, offers Practice Swing, a slice of melancholy about learning to live and love (‘first base first love’ is a good line) and soldier on through all the failures. I wish the baseball metaphor had been extended further, but perhaps that was lost in the edit. Gone Goes On and On is another pick-me-up song. Co-written by the great Josh Kear, who ten years on is still counting the Need You Now money, the bouncy backbeat is at odds with the message of the song: ‘It takes eight hours getting through the first night’ after a breakup.

Along with Davidson, Chris DeStefano offers Slow, which is a three-chord loop (I-III-IV) overlaid with an excellent lyric about love and life and stuff. ‘Do your best, be a friend…Have a drink, take a shot/ Save a little, spend a lot’ is sound advice to live a country way of life, and it is framed as advice from a fellow passenger on a red-eye flight. It’ll be a song to wave your arms in the air to when Logan plays live, and as with the rest of the album it is great to hear organic drums rather than programmed digital ones.

Logan has, in a very old-fashioned way, become a vessel for the work of others on this album. Of 11 tunes, only two are Mize compositions: American Livin’, which kicks off the album, namechecks John Cougar Mellencamp and ticks off a series of small-town vignettes over a middle of the dirt road groove; and the jaunty acoustic ballad Prettiest Girl in the World, where the protagonist needs assurances that she looks pretty. Vulnerability of the female is very topical in country music and I am sure the 18-34 demographic will go wild for this song, and for the rest of the album.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Tebey and Willie Jones

January 22, 2021

January 22 sees new releases from two black artists, which I am afraid is relevant as there is one fewer county star in the world after last month’s passing of Charley Pride.

Darius Rucker built a rock career before crossing over – as is his wont because he is from South Carolina – to country. He became an Opry member in 2012 and has performed there regularly, including with his golfing buddy Luke Bryan in 2020. Darius’ next album, his sixth solo album, is due imminently after he took a sabbatical to record an album and tour with his old band Hootie and the Blowfish. Yes Nashville needs to show black faces to the world but for the last decade Darius has been THE black face. Let us hope Willie Jones and Tebey follow Jimmie and Darius into public consciousness.

Tebey – The Good Ones

Tebey’s eight-track album follows his impressive hit Denim on Denim which came from his 2018 EP Love A Girl. Check out the funky Wreck Me and the ace That’s Gonna Get You Kissed for an introduction to his work.

Tebey has been going for a decade, debuting All About Us in 2011 and following it up with a duet with fellow Canadian country heartthrobs Emerson Drive on a cover of Avicii’s Wake Me Up in 2014. This featured on his album Two from that year and his Old School EP of 2016, and since then Tebey has gained more and more fans, including me and many others in the UK.

In recent months he has released several songs which are collected on this album. Shotgun Rider opens on the road – ‘top down dream…heaven in the headlights’ – with a silky melody and top notch production with a sprinkle of banjo over some familiar chords. It’s a winner. Happened on a Saturday Night is a list of fun things to do on the weekend – drinking, loving, partying – set to a jubilant chorus with some digital programmed drums. The Good Ones is a reminiscin’ song – you can tell it’s set in the past because we get ‘your tape deck’ – which sees Tebey reach the top of his range singing about ‘tears in the rain’ and remembering the happiest memories with Quebecoise singer Marie-Mai taking the second verse and playing the role of the girl.

Song of the Summer sounds like a Keith Urban song and brings together ideas from all three songs: lost love, ‘that shotgun smile’ and melancholy with added banjo. Good Jeans is a happy song about a girl who wears them ‘like a model’ in her ‘faded out painted-ons’. Tebey wants to be in her pocket and can’t wait to repeat the chorus. It’s good fun, as is See You Around, which has a tropical vibe that fits with the globetrotting Tebey does in the song. I like the Mexico/Texaco rhyme and the groove that sounds very contemporary.

Bad For Me is a familiar theme: a woman is ‘the craving that I can’t resist’. The chorus is astonishing and will sound brilliant in a live environment. Tebey played Buckle & Boots’ digital event last year and was due to come over to the UK for Country2Country. After Denim on Denim made UK country radio playlists, I would push for this one to liven up radio stations this year. Resistance is futile.

The album ends with Doing It Again, a sweet poppy love song full of the clichés of country songs of this type but sung with elegance and with lots of soul. Tebey has done a great job here representing Canada. It is only a shame that he has decided to leave Twitter, ‘a breeding ground for hate, misinformation and general negativity’. I’ll have to tell him via Instagram how much I admire his new album The Good Ones, which comes and goes in under 25 minutes but made me replay two tracks instantly.

Willie Jones – Right Now

Willie Jones got his start on TV as a contestant on The American X Factor back in 2012, singing Your Man by Josh Turner and sounding like a man from Louisiana. He had been due to release his debut album back in 2019, with Rolling Stone running a supportive feature to try and group him with Lil Nas X. ‘We just chasing the vibe,’ said Willie, who knows his audience are on streaming services and not on radio.

We already know Bachelorettes on Broadway, which I thought was too on the nose for me (ie it’s a song for hen parties invading Nashville), and Whole Lotta Love, which I liked a whole lotta more. When I caught Willie’s performance last year for Country Music Week I grooved along to Back Porch and Trainwreck (‘ever since you left’). Both were two peas in a musical pod, set to simple chord patterns and sung with soul and verve. I think he played Down For It as well, which was written by eight people and is a simple song about wanting to hang out with someone.

All four of those tracks make it to Right Now, Willie’s debut album which after a lengthy delay finally reaches our ears. The first song is called Country Soul, which showcases ‘Little Willie from around the way/ Shreveport, Louisiana born and raised’. Humorously he brings up genre immediately: what kind of music does he make? He makes them all, so get ready to ‘lose control’ with a mix of Tim McGraw, Aerosmith and TI. This is gentle and fun and immediately connects with a listener. Like Breland, vibe or mood takes precedence over genre. You can’t separate hillbilly music and black music when black and white folk all listen to Drake, The Beatles and Luke Combs.

American Dream is the centrepiece of the album. Willie tells a young black man to remember his roots and how it is a ‘different’ kind of relationship when you are black. There are references to the death of black men and sportsmen taking the knee, while a spoken section in the middle of the song makes clear the ‘chequered past’. It’s another song by a black artist which highlights the experience as a black American. Jimmie Allen has a few, as does Mickey Guyton.

The second half of the album includes Trainwreck and Whole Lotta Love, as well as Right Now, a song for drinking ‘Bombay and lemonade’ and forgetting about systemic racism and the social justice struggles which have just been mentioned. It’s a wise idea to follow political commentary with something fluffier. Likewise, Drank Too Much, where whiskey helps Willie hook up with a lady. The presence of digital drum programming makes this closer to Drake than Tim McGraw, or rather to Florida Georgia Line or Sam Hunt. Funnily enough, Sam has a song called Drinking Too Much.

Hearing Whole Lotta Love reminds me of Niko Moon’s recent smash Good Time, both in mood and production. The melody is enticing and the delivery is stupendous. The album finishes with two more versions of Down For It, featuring the aforementioned TI, but they follow a ballad called Actions, a song about realising that sometimes leaving a relationship is better than constantly arguing.

Willie’s debut album is a full representation of his personality and sound, and is a welcome entry into a market which has less soulful acts who are gaining more plaudits. There is no reason to think that Jordan Davis, who is also from Shreveport, will have a rival (or tour support) in future months.

Country Jukebox Jury EP: Devin Dawson – The Pink Slip

January 15, 2021

It was in January 2018 that Devin released his debut album Dark Horse. It included songs written with the likes of Luke Laird, the Warren Brothers, Barry Dean, Laura Veltz and David Hodges. His brother Jacob worked on two of them including the smash radio hit All On Me, which brought John Mayer onto country radio. Unfortunately the follow-up single, the similarly soft Asking for a Friend, tanked at radio. They ought to have gone for Dip, a song about getting rowdy after an open mic night, or Second To Last. Ultimately the album was a bit too ‘open mic’, in that there were smart songs performed with pathos that didn’t necessarily grab the radio programmer’s attention.

It was produced by Jay Joyce, which makes Devin a member of the Joyce crew alongside Eric Church, Miranda Lambert, Ashley McBryde, Brandy Clark and Brothers Osborne. All of these acts are on the rockier end of country’s spectrum and this showed with Devin’s work. After all, he was formerly as a bassist in a death metal band called (wait for it) Shadow of the Colossus. He has since toured with Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, so he may have picked up some tips on how to break into the mainstream. He also wrote God’s Country for Blake Shelton, one of the best songs of the last few years.

As is the way of a record label, rather than a full album we have an Extended Play called The Pink Slip. Three of the tracks are instant, for me at least, with the other three needing a bit more work to enjoy. As with Sam Hunt and Keith Urban, only some of it is obviously country but a Nashville songwriter is surrounded by music, be it hillbilly or black.

The three songs which hadn’t been previewed in the EP’s rollout are a mixed bag. Who’s Gonna Hold Ya moves well away from country in its production, with an off-beat rhythm driving a quick song about romance. Whatever Forever Is announces itself with a digital loop and some chords on a piano, on top of which Devin talks of love and stuff. I would prefer it in an acoustic version as there’s a lovely song underneath all the digital effects. Dan + Shay, however, do this thing better and just as melodically.

I will be replaying Not on my Watch throughout the next week. It’s perky, with some skittering drums and some digital banjo. Production rules here but there’s plenty of melody on a song about ‘coming back a little stronger’. It’s invigorating and percussive ‘Nashville pop’ music with plenty of personality. There’s also a guitar solo too. It sounds like a Devin Dawson song, ultimately, which is the best compliment one can give.

We have had a few weeks to digest a third of the EP. I Got a Truck is a credo, as Devin lists all the things he got, over the top of a rootsy shuffle. It’s a grower with a very good middle eight and an extended solo in the last minute which lifts the song beyond the banal and into Keith Urban territory. It helps that it’s in the same key as Keith’s ubersmash Somebody Like You.

Range Rover is a wry pop song about an ex who was too hands-on. Lee Greenwood and Keith Whitley both have cameos, but this is a groove-based song featuring one of the riffs of last year. I must have played it ten times in a row after I first heard it.

Released on Thursday January 7, He Loved Her is driven by some smooth guitar and is sung with a vocal somewhere between Brad Paisley and John Mayer. It’s a song about a ‘small town simple man’ who ‘had a dog’ and ‘drank a beer’, the type that Devin wants to emulate. Because the video stars Devin’s grandparents, it seems like the way he wants to be remembered is just like the way his grandpa will be. I like the line in the second verse about the ‘half-price stones’ that should not be erected. Dirt, shirts, prayers and football also feature, so it’s a little checklisty but it does its job and Tim McGraw could have had a smash with this. It’s definitely country.

More will follow as Devin pushes his new project but, as with Dark Horse, I am on board.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Aaron Watson – American Soul

January 15, 2021

It’s odd to have a 10-song project from Aaron Watson, whose previous three have exceeded 15. The tight 31-minute ‘hit ‘em and quit’ approach is possibly meant to leave us wanting more, and Aaron has said that no sooner had this album leapt into world than his band are in the studio following it up.

The independent Texan artist who got out of Nashville only to have country radio fall for Outta Style knows what makes a hit. Now under no pressure to have one, he seems to be enjoying the same sort of career as Miranda Lambert or Brad Paisley: with nothing left to prove, he can enjoy himself.

Fans of Aaron know exactly what to expect: Texas music in all its forms. By the title alone, you can guess you will be served some very American, and very country, tunes, although it comes off like a checklist where he must tick off football, rock’n’roll, the military and cowboys while talking about love and stuff.

The album’s first ten seconds include a twanging guitar riff and a fiddle desperate to join in. That track, Silverado Saturday Night, is a smoochy song which hangs on the line ‘they don’t call it a truck bed for nothing!’ It’s a perfect opening track, which segues into Boots, which he ‘can’t keep on the ground’ on account of dancing with his beloved. It’s a rootsy three-chord tune that is instantly memorable and replayable.

Ditto Whisper My Name, another song dedicated to Aaron’s wife, his number one fan, which will find favour with married and loved-up couples among his fanbase, as well as on Texas country radio. The production is enormous and it’ll be another live favourite.

Out Of My Misery has Aaron begging his beloved not to ‘kick me when I’m down’. The chorus is strong and there are some delicious harmonies. Stay is sung with rapid-fire lyrics over some heartland rock chugging. Although its verse melody and message is very similar to Silverado Saturday Night’s, I am won over by a great chorus and the ‘NASCAR late nights’ in the second verse.

Having mentioned cars, Touchdown Town is all about gridiron. Guitars chug along hymning the ‘roar of the crowd’ at a Friday night football game. I like the middle eight, which mentions ‘trophies in the attic’ and makes the point that being a country performer mimics those days in pads and helmets.

Dog-lovers will adore Best Friend, a waltz about how ‘a dog will never break your heart’. In verse two, Aaron goes on a wild goose chase to find his friend only to end up at home seeing her wagging her tail on the swings! It’s very country, like Long Live Cowboys: ‘The world keeps changing, he won’t budge an inch!’ The great Chris LeDoux, to whom Garth Brooks owes most of his act, gets a namecheck over some chugging guitars, as does Guy Clark when Aaron sings of desperadoes waiting on trains.

The title track, in light of the recent riots, is a bit of wishful thinking. Aaron reckons Americans are united on many things, including arguing about politics, hanging out with grandparents and watching sport. Aaron sounds bombastic, quoting The Star-Spangled Banner and ‘In God We Trust’ on the penny. Phil Vassar’s song of the same name does this patriotic nationalism better, but Aaron’s version isn’t bad. But what is America in the post-Trump era of QAnon?

Album closer Dog Tags is another euphoric and American tune about how ‘heroes don’t wear capes’ but instead sport the titular tags which denote military service. It’s almost a power ballad sung for those who protect the red, white and blue, three colours which sum up this project.

There are three or four tracks that will make Aaron’s Best Of (Boots, Best Friend, Silverado Saturday Night, possibly Dog Tags). Rather than comparing him to Brad Paisley, maybe Ron Sexsmith or Bruce Springsteen are more apt comparisons. Like those two, we know what Aaron does and we like it. There aren’t any complaints in what he does, which is why American Soul is a lovely release.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Morgan Wallen – Dangerous, the Double Album

January 8, 2021

A record label today must recoup their outlay and, hopefully, make an immense profit so they can continue as a going concern (if a big conglomerate isn’t underwriting any pre-tax losses). That’s why a record executive hires A&R guys to keep their ears to the ground or, in today’s case, to the digital streaming platforms. Thus can an artist slide into people’s ears with something that sounds a lot like Elvis, The Beatles, Madonna, Whitney Houston, Oasis, Arctic Monkeys and Max Martin’s school of pop.

I call this genre Algorythm’n’Blues.

This album, released by Republic Records in association with Morgan’s Nashville-based label Big Loud, sounds like an algorithm. Put Ed Sheeran, Drake and Luke Combs in the mix and whizz it up. Package it in a bemulleted bloke who last year appeared on Saturday Night Live lampooning his own Covidiocy. Market it to the 18-35 demographic, as had been done with Sam Hunt, Thomas Rhett and Luke Combs, and watch the money roll in.

The sequencing doesn’t matter because nobody who listens to this album (bar about one in every 200) will work their way through 30 tunes in one go, or even in two groups of 15. Luke Combs delivered 23 tracks in three instalments, but Morgan is following the Chris Brown approach, who in 2017 put out a triple-disc set of 45 songs.

Morgan’s first album was radio friendly, full of anthemic pop including lead single The Way I Talk, Florida Georgia Line tagteam bro anthem Up Down, the biggest song on the radio 2019 Whiskey Glasses and the woozy Chasin’ You. I imagine songs on this album will soundtrack many TikTok videos and that’s where some of this album is aimed: accompanying moments in people’s lives. We already saw that with the enormous success of 7 Summers, where non-country listeners were introduced to Morgan.

As a product, Dangerous is very of its time. In 1968, The Beatles put out a four-sided vinyl album which included Blackbird, Helter Skelter and Revolution #9. In 1991, Michael Jackson’s Dangerous was about 20 minutes too long and went right to the edge of the compact disc, but nonetheless gave us Black or White and Remember The Time, both with blockbuster videos attached to turn them into events.

The album has taken a back seat in the digital era, thanks to the unbundling of tracks which mean people can just find the singles. Even Garth Brooks made fans wait over two years for his Fun album when three decades ago he was able to go up against The Beatles in the charts. He lost heavily but at least he could try.

In 2019, Old Town Road broke the record for longest-running Hot 100 number one. Country was megabucks again and Luke Combs had quickly become the most marketable star of the genre in a decade. Luke and Chris Stapleton have barely been off the album charts in six years, which is testament to their status as ‘gateways’ for country newbies. Perhaps Morgan is another gateway and he sounds and looks the part.

After all that, what does the album sound like? It sounds like a Joey Moi production, as the man who left his sonic fingerprints over Nickelback and Florida Georgia Line takes another large amount of money to make something the market wants to hear and the labels want to sell. A few tracks crank up the guitars to 12 but mostly there is clear separation or smart layering of tracks, with the trademark multivocal Moi effect present on plenty of tracks.

Sand in my Boots opens the album. Morgan sings about where he’s from and a girl tries to match his accent. We get ‘flipflops’, ‘dodging potholes in my sunburnt Silverado’, ‘heartbroke desperado’ and stars in the sky. It sounds like a song Luke Combs would take to number one across the world. There are organic instruments, Morgan’s voice is really high up in the mix and the melody is really strong. It sounds like the future of country music, appealing to folk beyond the South of America and, in fact, beyond America itself.

Wasted On You has Morgan sing how ‘I dropped the ball’ and introduces some digital cymbals to a tale of heartache. Ben Burgess co-wrote Whiskey Glasses and, as a thank you, he appears as a featured vocalist on Outlaw which portrays the lady as someone who shoots a ‘bad’ man with a ‘bang bang’.

Chris Stapleton pops up on Only Thing That’s Gone to ensure the algorithm will pick up this song which can be dragged into a Roots playlist. Over a dropped-D guitar line, the pair harmonise with a request for a drink which ‘ain’t the only thing that’s gone’. As many reviewers will note, Morgan more than holds his own as a singer with the Great Stapleton.

That duet segues into a studio version of Cover Me Up. Millions have viewed various videos online or heard Morgan play this near the end of his concerts. It told country fans that he respects the craft, much like Stapleton. Assisted by a pedal steel guitar solo, this is a Proper Song about sobriety which will earn its writer Jason Isbell a great deal of money in mechanical royalties (and, with luck, even more new fans).

There follow the two biggest teasers for the album: reminiscin’ tune 7 Summers, which has already had a life on TikTok and enjoyed success on the Hot 100, peaking at six; and bittersweet More Than My Hometown, where ‘our mamas are best friends’ and love feels like when ‘the bass hits the hook’. The first side demonstrates that Morgan knows that Tennessee is home but that themes of finding love and self-pity of heartbreak are universal. Republic/Big Loud know this as well.

Another Proper Song is Quittin’ Time. Eric Church and Luke Laird must have finished it and thought a young whippersnapper could do with it instead. Morgan is that cub, who does a nifty impression of Eric singing of thinking, drinking and how ‘rhyme has a reason’. It’s a country song which concludes the double album but will be plucked out for playlists.

Somebody’s Problem is a song which allows very little room to breathe, constantly pushing forward and, in an Ed Sheeran style, self-censoring (‘eff it up’). The melody is terrific and the chorus has some marvellous chords over softly plucked nylon strings. 865 is the area code for Knoxville, Tennessee, and gives its name to a song in which Morgan attempts to drink to forget his beloved but he can’t forget the phone number, which forms most of the chorus. This song is perfect for a playlist of phone numbers in songs.

On the other hand, More Surprised Than Me (co-written by Niko Moon, Burgess and veteran Lee Thomas Miller) is another song that alights upon Morgan’s accent, in a song whose chorus lays bare the premise of the song: Morgan is amazed (indeed ‘surprised’) that his lady has chosen him. This song is perfect for a playlist of ‘I’m a lucky sod’ songs.

Blame It On Me is yet another song that mentions Morgan’s drawl – we get it, we got it from his debut single! – but it sounds like what Nashville reckon pop music is: a wash of guitar over a processed beat and a digital lick, with layers of vocals singing about being from the South. It’s filler and co-writer Ashley Gorley knows it. Today, you would call it ‘skippable’. Ditto the song Warning, which is poodle rock transplanted to Nashville’s Broadway, and Neon Eyes, a singalong Middle of the Dirt Road tune about dancing, possibly in a bar at Nashville’s Broadway.

This album is labelled country so there must be country songs. Co-written by Wallen with his fellow Big Loud songwriter Ernest K Smith, Wonderin’ bout the Wind would have fitted in well on his first album: there’s smooth production and big drums, but it also has the sort of melancholy melody that makes it interesting and a lyric in touch with the elements. Country A$$ Shit (note the dollar signs) employs some twang and a bellowable chorus to underscore Morgan’s desire to hang out with his buddies. Luke Combs does this sort of thing better, but the algorithm will throw up Morgan, who will forever be in Luke’s shadow.

Whatcha Think of Country Now is a gift from Devin Dawson and Dallas Davidson, a good friend of Luke Bryan. Country has moved on from Luke shaking his tush, and indeed Florida Georgia Line yelling at ladies from car windows. Putting Luke and FGL into an algorithm gets this song, in which Morgan takes his lady ‘riding on the farm…fishing in the dark’. The rhyme ‘old Willie/ hillbilly’ is smart and the song is fun. It sounds like city girls visiting Nashville for a bachelorette party, which may have been the brief.

Dallas co-wrote Silverado For Sale, with Luke’s other mate Ben Hayslip (which is Peach Pickers bingo!!). The song is identical to the recent Tim McGraw song 7500 OBO, Thomas Rhett’s That Old Truck or Jason Aldean’s If My Truck Could Talk. Maybe the algorithm will throw those up when someone searches for ‘country songs about vehicles’. That isn’t to deny that the song is great, with a Middle of the Dirt Road groove.

Luke Bryan could well have recorded Me On Whiskey, one of many songs which mention a jukebox – spot them all and win a free shot of JD! A rewrite of Luke’s Strip It Down with even more foreplay and containing the same number of chords (two), a lady in a red dress and Morgan, probably with his cut-off denim shirt, get ‘tipsy in the neon light’ and probably end up making love.

Whiskey’d My Way is a song Jon Pardi could have cut, with its soft shuffle and talk of ‘rock bottom’. The fact that Thomas Rhett wrote it impressed me, and I imagine TR’s forthcoming fifth album will sound sonically and lyrically very similar to much of Dangerous. Your Bartender is another Rhett composition, a co-write with dad Rhett Akins who, even though he is in his fifties, still knows what the kids like to hear. The song is full of the poppy elements of a TR song, with a second verse about beds, bibles and dreams, and I won’t spoil the killer line of the chorus. It’s a nice gift from TR to MW, the former being too cute and in love with his wife to act as a bartender and sell the song as well as Morgan does.

The second half of the album is a continuation of the first, with plenty of country radio catnip such as Rednecks, Red Letters, Red Dirt (‘one life, one bar, one church’) and Still Goin Down. That one is track 16, or the first track of the second disc, and was performed on SNL. It’s a perfect track to lead an album with, a ‘Heeeeere’s Morgan!’, albeit delivered in a gentler manner than it could be. Featuring another chorus about ‘beer on a Friday night’ in a small town, it is one of seven tunes on the album written with or by Michael Hardy, who was set to support Morgan on a set of European dates in May 2020. The venues – Islington Garage, Glasgow SWG3 Warehouse, Manchester Gorilla, Newcastle Academy2 – would have been intimate. Morgan Wallen will never play venues of that size again.

Hardy has a knack for knowing what sounds great, which he demonstrates on his own album A Rock, and his co-compositions run through the second half of the album. Beer Don’t opens with squealing guitars last heard on Hardy’s album and Morgan banging on about how ‘round here the sun goes down slow but the beer don’t’. Livin The Dream is about being a musician on the road, which deserves to be much higher up the album than track 29(!) with the disjunction between appearance and reality (‘There’s a stranger in the mirror’).

Somethin Country sounds like ‘something Hardy’ even down to the vocal inflections. It’s brill. Conway Twitty gets a namecheck, there’s a ‘skimpy/Mississippi’ rhyme and ‘catfish’ in the verses, and in the chorus Morgan encourages his new belle to duck out of the bar with some rapped delivery that reminds every listener of Tyler Hubbard. It’s fun and rowdy, and it should be a crowd favourite. Kudos to Hardy and the chaps for putting ‘back forty’ (the deepest part of a farm) on a commercial country album.

Because it’s a modern country album there is drinking here too. Morgan enjoys rites of passages such as getting drunk, being nice to the bouncer and watching a potential wife ‘walk through the door with some new jerk’ on This Bar. The title track is another Smith/Wallen tune where our protagonist sing-raps lines about ‘stayin’ right here’ but gives way to a middle-eight with some falsetto notes. Sam Hunt’s influence on the current crop has been enormous, and Morgan slides effortlessly into the market Sam created with his album Montevallo, which took five years to follow up. Morgan did it inside three.

Need A Boat sees a woman’s presence on an album built for the bros. (Or rather, to be as reductive as a sales rep: guys want to drink with him, girls want to drink beside him). Hillary Lindsey sprinkles her magic on a honky-tonker which includes barstools, bottles and a desire to go fishing to forget his problems. The melody is strong (Hillary helped Carrie Underwood write smash after smash) and Morgan sells it well. I am sure Morgan can buy whatever boat he wants, to go with that Silverado, such will be the success of Dangerous: The Double Album.

I wonder if the point of presenting a buffet of 30 songs is to allow playlist-makers (ie, the consumer or music fanatic) to design their own Morgan Wallen adventure. (See my 17-track offering below.) Country fans can pick Cover Me Up and all the Hardy tunes; pop fans can opt for 7 Summers, Somebody’s Problem and the ‘Wallen Album Mix’ of the Diplo duet Heartless. Here, the song’s original vocal is underlaid by a more rockin’ arrangement.

I don’t know if ‘the buffet’ will be a trend. Even Dua Lipa limited herself to 11 tracks, albeit with a dance mix following along. Last year Dua Lipa had five hits and ended the year with an expensive streamed concert. Two years ago this week, Lizzo released Juice, an astonishing piece of pop that ushered in the Year of Lizzo.

The rapper/flautist/activist/singer may well emerge with a new album this year but until then this is the Year of Wallen, the Tennessee tyke. After the stupidity of disrespecting quarantine and still having a career, it will be fascinating to see how streaming services, Youtube, radio, labels and, of course, the consumer unite to make Morgan Wallen a superstar.

Several executives have their careers on the line.

Find my version of Dangerous in a Spotify playlist here.


Still Going Down
Beer Don’t
7 Summers
Your Bartender
Somethin’ Country
Only Thing That’s Gone
Livin The Dream
More Than My Hometown


Whatcha Think of Country Now
Somebody’s Problem
More Surprised Than Me
Me on Whiskey
Need A Boat
This Bar
Quittin Time
Silverado For Sale
Cover Me Up

The Country Way of Life Fabulous Fifty of 2020

December 20, 2020

NB Each act is limited to one song, which must have been first released in 2020.

50 Scotty McCreery – You Time. American Idol, now indie act, making lovely pop music

49 Everette – Can’t Say No. Promising duo with Luke Laird’s blessing

48 Mickey Guyton – Black Like Me. GRAMMY-nominated topical song from a current voice

47 Maddie & Tae – Merry Married Christmas. Their life in a Christmas song

46 Cam – The Otherside. Avicii plus a terrific vocal equals anthem

45 Brent Cobb – Good Times and Good Love. Romantic front porch waltz

44 Luke Bryan – A Little Less Broken. Middle of the dirt road but a willing ear

43 Mac McAnally – Almost All Good. Feelgood music for dark times

42 The Texas Gentlemen – Ain’t Nothin New. Studio musicians show off in a melodic manner

41 William Michael Morgan – Cowboy Cool. Punchy indie country from an act loved in the UK

40 Little Big Town – Sugar Coat. Lori McKenna melancholy sung by the best

39 Ashley McBryde – Voodoo Doll. Sabbath Bloody Ashley

38 Steve Earle – It’s About Blood. History song sung with menace

37 Canaan Smith – Colder Than You. Wry breakup song

36 Dustin Lynch – Dirt Road. Smart contemporary country from the pen of Rhett Akins

35 Shenandoah and Blake Shelton – Then A Girl Walks In. Beautiful production to match a wonderful song

34 Ashley Campbell – Something Lovely. A hell of a meet cute

33 Ruston Kelly – Radio Cloud. Poppy and melodic

32 Trace Adkins – Big. A gift from Brothers Osborne to a voice of the ages

31 Lee Brice – More Beer. A bro’s gonna bro

30 Lauren Alaina ft Jon Pardi – Getting Over Him. Loud as hell from two fine contemporary voices

29 Luke Combs – Six Feet Apart. He can even turn quarantine into gold

28 Jordan Davis – Almost Maybes. Three chords and the truth from a poppy kid

27 Parker McCollum – Pretty Heart. Texan country star does heartbreak

26 The Mavericks – Cuando Me Enamoro. Glorious Tejano tune

25 Tim McGraw – Good Taste In Women. Insistent tune sung by a great voice

24 Jason Isbell – Be Afraid. Agitprop from a guy who won’t ‘shut up and sing’. Chorus literally grows as the song goes on

23 Aaron Watson – Silverado Saturday Night. High octane love song from Texan king of indie

22 Eric Church – Hell of a View. A love song with poise and control

21 Kenny Chesney – Here and Now. Built for stadiums

20 Devin Dawson – Range Rover. Quirky and cute breakup song

19 Matt Stell – Everywhere But On. Ploddy to match the message of the song

18 Ryan Hurd – Every Other Memory. Marvellous love song

17 Keith Urban – Out The Cage. Chic plus Keith does it again

16 Brandy Clark – Who Broke Whose Heart. The best of the breakup songs on a tremendous GRAMMY nominated album

15 Caylee Hammack – Redhead. One of the year’s best riffs, with added Reba

14 Will Hoge – Midway Motel. Nobody matches what he does for heartland rock

13 Chris Stapleton – Cold. Strings, as befits a king

12 Brothers Osborne – All Night. Another wonderful riff and a smart lyric

11 Kelsea Ballerini – Hole in the Bottle. Good fun with plenty of character

10 Lori McKenna – The Balladeer. A playlet in a pop song

9 RaeLynn – Keep Up. 99% character with production to back up the tune

8 Josh Turner – I Can Tell By The Way You Dance. Fun cover which outshines the original

7 Eric Paslay – Nice Guy. Pleasant and tongue in cheek

6 Mo Pitney – Local Honey. Very country, very simple, very good

5 Hardy ft Ashland Craft – So Close. A beautiful rock ballad

4 Lady A – Champagne Night. Who knew a smash about loving the low high life could come out of Songland?

3 Sam Hunt – Hard To Forget. Thanks to a Laird loop, Sam brings the old school into 2020

2 Mackenzie Porter – These Days. Nostalgia tied to a brilliant chord loop and vocal

1 Brett Eldredge – Magnolia. He’s having fun again doing it his way

See the playlist on Youtube here.

Country Jukebox Jury LP: Russell Dickerson – Southern Symphony

December 7, 2020

This album has ten tracks on it and lasts just over 30 minutes. This is notable in itself: Morgan Wallen’s second album is a double that will have 30 tracks on it; Luke Combs put out five tracks before and six tracks after a 12-track second album which has hovered in the top five for a year.

Whereas Morgan and Luke are major-label priorities, Russell Dickerson is on Triple Tigers, a very respected indie label which has boosted the career of Scotty McCreery since he was spat out of the majors game. Scotty came over to London in October 2019 and is due to return for 2021; Russell wowed UK crowds at Nashville Meets London in Canary Wharf in 2017 and did the same at Country2Country, where he played tracks from his debut album Yours.

When I caught him on tour, it was clear to me that Russell was occupying the same domain as the likes of Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett. His mashup of his own MGNO with pop classics like Girls Just Want To Have Fun and I Wanna Dance With Somebody make him a pop act in country clothing, which makes him perfect for a UK market which likes its country only lightly twanging.

A darling of country radio, Russell launched his second album Southern Symphony with a song of devotion called Love You Like I Used To in which he sings of how he loves his lady even more than he used to. You know how 10,000 Hours was a huge song by Dan + Shay? It’s that sort of thing, but the magic production skills of Dann Huff gives this song a huge cut-through on radio among other soppy men called Chris, Dustin or Brett.

It follows three other chart-topping declarations of love: Yours, Blue Tacoma and Every Little Thing. The woman he is singing about is his wife, who also acts as his art director, but is vague enough to appeal to any couple listening.

The other three teaser tracks from the album include the two-chord opening track Never Get Old (‘whiskey, wine and gold’ but also love), poppy newlywed song Home Sweet (‘it’s more than just bricks and stone’) and party song It’s About Time, which includes added Florida Georgia Line and a fun ‘baptist choir’ stab.

Jon Nite helps out on All Yours All Night: ‘You know exactly what we’re gonna do!’ purrs Russell of his Friday night plans of fidelity and wine. The market wants songs about men loving on their ladies and at least this is sonically and lyrically interesting. Russell’s voice is delicious too and he really sells the song. 

Both Home Sweet and Forever for a Little While were written with Charles Kelley of Lady A; Russell even adds an ‘ooh’ to the start of the latter song which is a reminiscin’ song about mixtapes and bandanas and the sweetness of summer lovin’.

Waiting For You describes his girl as the missing piece but the song sounds like a One Direction album track, especially with the backing vocals in the chorus and the gentle piano riff. I am surprised by what sounds like a saxophone before the final chorus which redeems the song slightly, but it’s Nashville’s version of pop music, like Dan + Shay or Thomas Rhett.

Honey, meanwhile, is immediately interesting: over some crickets, the opening lyric is sung in a low growl before mention of a ‘Tupelo golden’ girl. Come To Jesus is middle of the dirt road music detailing how any devilish tendencies Russell has are opposed by his ‘hands up high Hallelujah’.

In conversation with Dan Wharton for Your Life in a Song, Russell talked about the quick writing session for the title track, a reminiscin’ song about Tennessee of the sort that Thomas Rhett likes to write. ‘Where I come from’, we are told, people drink sweet tea, listen to ‘Garth Brooks on a CD’, treat your mama with respect and include fiddle solos in songs. It’s the album’s centrepiece and a lot deeper than anything on the first album.

He’s more than just a pretty face, our Russell. Will Morgan Wallen’s album be three times as good because it has three times as many tracks? We shall see. 4/5

Ka-Ching…with Twang – The Albums of 2020: Part Two, The Top Ten

December 4, 2020

Ashley McBryde – Never Will

Ashley has taken the lead from Kacey Musgraves: throwing crumbs to radio but gaining fans one at a time, especially playing live. Ashley trailed the album Never Will with a trilogy of music videos. The melancholic One Night Standards, a song about meaningless pickup sex in a motel room written with Shane McAnally, sounds like a cigarette burning gently in an ashtray. ‘Lonely makes a heart ruthless’ distils the whole enterprise in one line.

Album opener Hang In There Girl comes off as an older sister talking to a teenage girl: ‘I’ve been right there at the end of that drive…Tangled up in the small town weeds, dreaming of the day you leave’. It’s of the Born To Run school of rock. The drums on Martha Divine set up the opposite of a murder ballad, as Ashley gets her shovel and sets about righting a wrong by bringing hard to ‘Jezebel’. This will be the highlight of her live set when the world becomes normal again.

Brandy Clark herself co-writes two tracks on the album. Voodoo Doll is driven by a stomping beat and bluegrass feel, over which Ashley sings of putting a curse on an ex-lover, it seems. Sparrow comes directly after it and is a proper country ballad about being out on the road: ‘Jack and Coke, a sleeping pill/ Living a dream’ yet thinking of home.

Velvet Red begins with a few bars of a cappella, giving the song a classic feel which is sustained in the effect given to Ashley’s voice. I don’t know the technical name but it sounds muffled. The plot of the song is: Boy meets girl, girl goes ‘sneakin’ out’ to see boy, something happens in the third verse that I’ll spoil by telling you about. Stone, written about her brother, is another proper country song which lists how ‘there’s throwin’ ones and rollin’ ones….The steppin’ kind, the steady kind’ before concluding that she and her late brother are ‘cut from the same stone’.

The toe-tapper First Thing I Reach For (‘is the last thing I need’) is in the tradition of morning-after songs, as Ashley wakes up after a heavy night with a stranger which served to ‘keep away the lonely’. On Shut Up Sheila, she sighs at a friend who is trying to console her with religious piety: ‘This here is a family thing’ will resonate with every Southerner who doesn’t follow the Good Book to the letter. In honour of her late friend Randall Clay, Ashley performs his song Styrofoam as the album’s closing track. It opens with a spoken-word explanation of who invented it and why it’s useful, especially to keep beer cold in ’44-ounce cups’.

Brett Eldredge – Sunday Drive

Gabrielle was the song with the big push before the album came out but four other songs, including the poppy Where The Heart Is. On Magnolia, it sounds like Brett is having a ball: over some rough piano, he sings of meeting a girl in ‘the heart of the heartland’. It’s a lot like Beat of the Music but set in the mid-west and not Mexico.

There are ballads, as there always are on a Brett Eldredge album. The classic-sounding Crowd My Mind is gorgeous, set over the same sort of piano found on Kacey Musgraves albums, while the philosophical When I Die is going to be as big as One Mississippi, one of Brett’s best songs.

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – Reunions

An album of songs with immaculate production, song structure and melodic shape. Jason has joined the ranks of great North American songwriters: Neil Young, Jeff Tweedy, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and the late John Prine.

His lyrics stand out: ‘This used to be a ghost town but even the ghosts got out’ on Overseas, which mourns a lost love; On River, with Amanda’s fiddle prominent, ‘The river is my saviour cos she used to be a cloud…even when she dries up 100 years from now I’ll lay myself beside her and call my name out loud’.

On Only Children he is ‘walking around at night/ fighting my appetite/ Every kid in cut-offs could be you’, while the middle eight of Be Afraid is ‘We don’t take request, we won’t shut up and sing/ Tell the truth enough you’ll find it rhymes with everything’.

St Peter’s Autograph takes the form of advice to a grieving friend: ‘What can I do to help you sleep?…We’re all struggling with a world on fire’. It Gets Easier (‘but it never gets easy’) will be a t-shirt slogan: ‘Last night I dreamed I’d been drinking…woke up fine and that’s how I knew it was a dream’.

The Texas Gentlemen – Floor It!!!

This is a band who have studied the greats – Elton John, The Band, Nilsson, Eagles – and you can tell that the band have played with Kris Kristofferson, who probably has stories about all of those acts and more.

The album begins with a rich brass instrumental called Veal Cutlass that sounds like The Titanic crashing into an iceberg. Bare Maximum is another phenomenal track, full of riffs, funk and soul and the album continues in that vein. We finally hear some lyrics on track three, Ain’t Nothin New, which has a classic West Coast feel. She Won’t ends in a wigout jam that sounds like fun. Charlie’s House is almost a Steely Dan collaboration with Jackson Browne.

Brothers Osborne – Skeletons

Jon Caramanica of the New York Times has coined the term ‘power country’ to refer to beefy rockin’ country music. This album is country music for classic rock fans. Never mind the Allmans, here’s the Osbournes.

As well as production from Jay Joyce, the album’s co-writers also include the crack pair of Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, who sprinkle some magic onto opening track Lighten Up, which is soaked in reverb and has TJ sing of guitars cranked up, drinks and lighters in the air.

Dead Man’s Curve takes 99% of its inspiration from Charlie Daniels Band and the other 1% from Ace of Spades and rollicks along at some speed. I can’t wait to hear this one live.  The smart All The Good Ones Are is written by TJ with Craig Wiseman and Lee Thomas Miller, who are both experts in humour and character. The song is anchored by the phrase ‘not every…but all the good ones are!’ and the chorus is an elegy to a lady punctuated by trademark huge guitars.

All Night is the correct choice of single: punchy, full of harmonies and lyrics like ‘I got the back if you got the beat’. Skeletons (‘I’ve got bones to pick with them’) is also a lot of fun, while Hatin Somebody and I’m Not For Everybody make the personal political, which I think is the USP of Brothers Osborne.

The Top Five

Josh Turner – Country State of Mind

Aside from Randy Travis adding the final ‘amen’ on his cover of Forever and Ever Amen, Josh ropes in the following stars: John Anderson on the rockin’ I’ve Got It Made; an octogenarian Kris Kristofferson on Why Me, where Josh hits some very low notes indeed; Allison Moorer on Hank Williams’ plea to the Lord, Alone and Forsaken; Runaway June on You Don’t Seem To Miss Me, written by the great Jim Lauderdale; Maddie & Tae on Desperately, where the harmonies are terrific; and Chris Janson on Country State of Mind, which was written and performed by Hank Williams Jr.

I still love I Can Tell By The Way You Dance and I’m No Stranger To The Rain, from stars of the 1980s Vern Gosdin and Keith Whitley respectively. The album ends with the Johnny Cash song The Caretaker. It’s as if he is channelling John’s spirit, changing the name to Josh in a song about what happens after he dies. This is a tremendous collection of covers which introduced me to at least three fine songs which I had never heard before. Long live country from the pre-Garth era!

Chris Stapleton – Starting Over

Starting Over was rolled out with three pre-released singles, the punchy Arkansas, the lovely title track with fluttering harmonies singing of lucky pennies and four-leaf clovers and Cold, which showcased the voice of his generation with a full orchestra and is smartly placed as track three. Expect it to be heard at major award shows in the coming year.

As well as the pre-released tracks, the 11 Stapleton compositions on the album include Watch You Burn, Chris’ take on the Route 91 festival shooting, which was written with Campbell. ‘Only a coward would pick up a gun’, wails Chris over barely any backing at all, allowing his words to puncture the air and connecting him and the listener. The guitar work, when it comes, is dirty and punchy. I imagine Mother Mavis Staples, with whom Chris is out on tour in 2021, will join him on this protest song where the chorus ‘You’re gonna get your turn’ becomes a chanted message of defiance. The final minute is chilling and is testament to the work of Stapleton, Campbell and Cobb.

As on Traveller, there are plenty of bluesy pieces here. Devil Always Made Me Think Twice and Hillbilly Blood sound swampy, and the latter contains a rude word. Whiskey Sunrise, meanwhile, is a triple-time sad song written with the late Tim Krekel, also from Kentucky.

Some tunes add to the pile of songs about Morgane, such as When I’m With You, written when Chris turned 40 a couple of years ago. Joy of My Life is a John Fogerty song which Chris delivers with gusto and panache in which he calls himself ‘the luckiest man alive’. I hope John gets Chris a nice gift for Christmas with the royalties.

Maggie’s Song (‘Be as free as you are wild’) is the most majestic song I can think of about a dog. It contains a solo from Benmont Tench on the Hammond and the sort of rootsy shuffle that The Band were doing 50 years ago to invent Americana. Guy Clark moved the pseudo-genre forward with his lyrical songwriting, to which Chris pays homage on covers of Worry B Gone and Old Friends.

Hardy – A Rock

If Luke Combs is clearly the Ed Sheeran of country music, Hardy might be the Lewis Capaldi. He’s funny and melodic and very popular.

One Beer spent 2020 climbing up the charts, thanks to a blockbuster video and a quirky topic for a song: one beer turns into an unplanned pregnancy and a shotgun marriage. Breakup song Boots begins with Hardy realising he woke up without taking his boots off after a heavy night and that he is more into drinking than spending time with his lady, making his exit speedy. I loved Give Heaven Some Hell, which is an ‘I’ll miss you brother’ weepie’ that is placed as the third track on the album, just after Boyfriend, a song about a man wanting to turn his status from In A Relationship to Married.

Having already written a song called 4X4, Truck is next on his list of modes of transport to use as subject matter. This is definitely a country song by Hardy: over a three-chord loop and with a gorgeous melodic shape, he universalises the ‘red white and blue collar’ bloke in every town in America whom you can judge by the contents of his truck. What a great premise. The chorus is enormous and I am sure many listeners in trucks will find much to love about a man who wears a trucker’s hat onstage.

Hillary Lindsey never writes a bad song, and she has written four pearls with Hardy on A Rock: Hate Your Hometown, Boots, One Beer and the terrific breakup ballad So Close, which is influenced by Def Leppard and contains the voice of Ashland Craft, a singer also on the Big Loud label.

Where Ya At is a lot of fun regardless of whether you have ‘hick in your blood’ or not and, in the way that Tim McGraw namechecked his label Big Machine, Hardy namechecks Big Loud. The pace is electric, though note that the drill sergeant middle section contains some swear words. This will be a live favourite wherever Hardy is at.

Ain’t A Bad Day is another interesting twist, as Hardy looks into his pit of despair after a breakup and realises today isn’t a bad time for Armageddon. It seems like a song that very lightly prompts people to seek advice for their demons and I hope the decade sees more of an awareness of this sort of thing in country music, which has spent a decade mostly saying that girls and trucks and beer are wonderful. Broke Boy is a love song which begins at a party and leads to Hardy having a ‘Mississippi Queen’ in his bed. ‘I didn’t have a dime to my last name but she took mine’ is such a good lyric.

I was intrigued when I saw that track 11 is called Unapologetically Country As Hell, which it is. A Rock the song closes the album, on which Hardy thinks about life and stuff. The terrific song was brought into the world with an extraordinary music video. It’s country because it talks about skipping rocks on the water, being stuck between a rock and a hard place as a young adult, being alive on ‘a rock’ and eventually having your name written on a rock and placed on a tombstone. I wondered where the chorus would be and laughed when I heard him go la-la-la-la.

I believe Hardy’s music is a fair representation of himself. This isn’t a construct or a persona. Sometimes the songs can be sonically very similar, cranking up in the chorus and having Hardy shout-sing the lyrics rather than croon them, so perhaps 12 in a row is a bit too much without sonic variation. Lyrically there are love songs, break-up songs and those two Country Songs (Where Ya At and Unapologetically Country As Hell).

Lori McKenna – The Balladeer

In the week of Taylor Swift’s album release, there was another folky country act with an album on the racks.

The pre-released songs from The Balladeer, which is being released through Thirty Tigers, include When You’re My Age (written with and featuring her fellow Love Junkies) and Good Fight. Both are grown-up songs for grown-up listeners. The title track is stunning, especially the middle eight where two new chords add a sense of unease to a three-act song which actually mirrors the plot of A Star Is Born.

Opening track This Town is a Woman is a more mature version of Body Like a Back Road, with much better lyrics. Two Birds is also a Love Junkies song that I won’t spoil but men don’t come out from it very well. The Dream is mysterious, with only ‘you and him’ mentioned in Lori’s dream. ‘He was one of a kind/ You would have loved him if you were born in his time.’ It could be about Lori’s mum, who was unable to hold her grandson, or her husband, ‘wearing the coat from 85’, talking to his never-mother-in-law. ‘Damn long view’ is sung over some lush chords, thanks to the production of the great Dave Cobb. The outro is sensational too, matching Dave’s work with Jason Isbell, who is one of very few songwriters in Lori’s class.

Marie ‘looks more like our mother, prettier and softer’ and it’s an ode to Lori’s older sister. ‘We both got the same sized shoes but no-one’s ever walked in mine but me…and Marie.’ Something happens in the third verse, something Lori has written about before, that floors the listener: if there was a country music anthology of lyrics, this song would be in it. This is a proper country song written by a master of the form: her life, in a song.

Stuck in High School is a reminiscin’ song about how as a kid you ‘try on every shoe and you stand in every shadow/ Hope you find yourself somewhere between the first pew and the back row’. Even when you’re 50, that kid is still there, asking you if those dreams came true or if you’re stuck in high school with all the dreams and ambition of a young pup…

Final track Till You’re Grown, which ends with Elton Johnnish piano, is Humble and Kind Part 2: smoking won’t be cool, tattoos are stupid so don’t get one, ‘running away won’t look like a cure to anything that really hurts’ and ‘time moves faster than you think…’ Uphill could be a spiritual song or a mother’s song to her child. My eyes were moist by the end of the first stanza; damn Lori. ‘Hard times and landslides are part of life…‘I’ll walk with you even if it’s uphill’. It’s beautiful.

Brandy Clark – Your Life is a Record

On Brandy’s third album Your Life is a Record, her focus is on the break-up of her long-term relationship, placing the album in the long line of such albums in the rock and pop canon. There’s a mix of the jaunty and the melancholic, much like Brandy’s hero John Prine, who passed away a few weeks after Brandy put her new album into the world.

Because I prefer the jaunty to the ballad, the kiss-offs Long Walk and Who Broke Whose Heart grabbed me on first listen: the former imagines the addressee walking ‘off a real short pier’, while the latter places a swear word in the chorus following the words ‘all I know’s I loved you’. The funniest track is a duet with Randy Newman, which quotes the famous line from Jaws: ‘We’re gonna need a bigger boat.’ The final verse is the best: ‘We’re springing a leak, we’re coming apart/ We’re on the Titanic but we think it’s an ark’ must be the result of a brainstorming session coming up with ideas for famous boats.

The sad songs include album opener I’ll Be the Sad Song – country music is nothing if not literal! – on which Brandy sets out the album’s subject. ‘That last verse, you wanna change it’ is a wonderfully sad line, while Pawn Shop opens with the arresting line, ‘She pushed her wedding ring across the counter’, as Brandy trades jewels for a bus ticket. The elegant waltz Love is a Fire (written with the aforementioned Shane McAnally) runs with the motif of the title. ‘Kiss me like kerosene’ is another bumper sticker of a line.

Who You Thought I Was, released as a teaser for the album, seems autobiographical: Brandy wanted to be Elvis Presley, a circus performer and a cowboy ‘til I met you…now I wanna be the me I should have been when we were together.’ This is John Prine level stuff, or John Prine writing with Adele. On Bad Car, over a gentle guitar shuffle, Brandy mourns an old car which has ‘broke down’.

Can We Be Strangers, which sounds like a Muscle Shoals cut from the 1970s, contains real horns, strings, drums and lyrics as Brandy wants a complete break: ‘I don’t wanna hate you or even care enough to’ is the key lyric of the chorus. The album drifts off into the distance on The Past is the Past, with a gorgeous instrumental outro.

Read the first part, covering 25 to 11, here.