American Aquarium – Slappers, Bangers and Certified Twangers, Volume 2
In July 2021 I loved the first volume of ten 90s country covers by BJ Barham and his band of merry men. It turns out that there are ten more for the holiday season which once again include the familiar and the long-lost classics.
The familiar include Rhett Akins’ That Ain’t My Truck (which was referenced last year by Thomas Rhett in What’s Your Country Song) and the Mark Chesnutt hit Bubba Shot The Jukebox, a song about a ‘justifiable homicide’ which has some jaw’s harp and verses in three different keys.
Nor is there any surprise to see him tackle Independence Day and Strawberry Wine, whose original versions have never been bettered and are now classed as Classic Country. BJ changes the key of the latter from D-flat to F major (moving it up two whole tones), which gives it more of a lounge-country feel. Going gender-blind is smart too, as the melody is terrific even if it’s a man singing about ‘thirsting for knowledge’.
Less known to country newbies like me who missed the 90s are songs like Radney Foster’s heartbreak shuffle Nobody Wins (‘scars take time to heal’) and John Anderson’s Money in the Bank, which was co-written by Bob DePiero and is a good twist on an uptempo love song because ‘your love’s better’ than any boats or Z-28 Camaros he can afford. I gotta have more cowbell, though!!
Small Town Saturday Night, the Hal Ketchum hit, converts the twang of the original to a New Jersey barroom rocker. In an era where there are very few women coming to prominence, BJ picks songs by three of them: Lorrie Morgan (Watch Me, which is very empowering in a Reba sort of way), Wynonna (the punchy No One Else On Earth) and Pam Tillis, whose song Maybe It Was Memphis becomes a power ballad in the hands of BJ and the band.
I wonder how many country hits of 2022 will mention William Faulkner or Tennessee Williams, as that one does, but I bet it rhymes with ‘Nero’.
Manny Blu – Country Punk EP
On the final day of 2021, Manny Blu releases five new songs that follow those on his Devil EP. As with Devil, the tracks have been rolled out individually across several months and have been collected in a project. This may be the future of how acts release music, as ‘courses’ rather than banquets. They accurately convey the EP’s title in that they are rhythm-driven, anthemic tunes with country themes.
Doin Fine, which opens the EP, begins with a low bass rumble over which Manny adds a lyric about ‘leaving home, kicking up the dust’. It’s a carpe diem rocking song about living life with good forward momentum. I like the line about going to a bar with ‘our friends who we met last night’.
95 is a fist-pumping reminiscin’ song with a set of fine riffs which builds to an enormous chorus about how ‘someday you’re gonna be grown up’ but not to forget those days. The song takes a more melancholic turn in the middle eight where Manny’s belle leaves, ‘said she had somewhere else to go’.
Balance has Manny admit that he’s ‘born to fly but afraid of heights’, which is a catch-22 if ever there was one. The production is terrific and pushes Manny’s vocals to the front of the mix, as on Prove Me Wrong which is more pop-punk than country, with the ‘chucka-chucka’ guitar throbs and an appearance in the lyric from Jared Leto.
Too Bad So Sad, a solo write from Matt Lukasiewicz, is an acoustic break-up song with plenty of realism from Manny (‘it never should have gone this far’). I like the singsong nature of the way Manny sings the title of the song, and how the EP ends with a lighters-aloft singalong which explodes in its final minute, as I hoped it would, in firework drums and some freewheeling electric guitar.
It’s more punk than country, but Manny is country at heart.
In late November 2021 the BBC World Service broadcast a documentary about country music. It’s unlike any other country doc that has ever aired before, certainly from a UK broadcaster. It taps into the issues within and outside the music industry, asking whether the genre is moving beyond the ‘white male image’ (as with every other industry you could name and indeed put a 45-minute show for the BBC together).
For the last few years, I’ve seen fewer pieces about melodies and many more about representation. In that time, a few black acts have risen to the top in Nashville. Jimmie Allen won a CMA Award for Best New Artist and is GRAMMY nominated in the same category; Kane Brown is a regular on country radio; and Mickey Guyton is gaining exposure and plaudits for her debut album, which is ‘fine’ (A Country Way of Life). As for Rhiannon Giddens, she is fast becoming the Professor of Country Music thanks to her research into the origins of the genre in the USA.
I argued at the end of my review of Remember Her Name that the beneficiaries of Mickey Guyton’s long-delayed breakthrough will be other black artists. I previously pondered whether Blackamericana would work as a term to be told, no, these acts are country acts. Segregation, in music as in the 1950s, is foolish.
There is, naturally, a political element to the coterie of black acts following in Mickey’s slipstream: it’s to make country music more representative of America. It was Geoffrey Himes whose piece about ‘Afro-Americana’ inspired debate, especially the lines ‘flood of Afro-Americana albums’ and ‘a large crowd of the flawed and mediocre’. This was deleted in the rewrite, as Paste Magazine admitted that:
‘Due to a breakdown in our editorial process, a previous version of this piece contained racially insensitive language that fell short of Paste’s standards. We sincerely apologize for the oversight, and will retain the updated piece to serve as a reminder of our intent to recognize reader feedback and accept responsibility when we falter.’
The Nashville Scene’s end of year poll, curated by Himes, could not be run in 2021. As musician Jake Blount responded: ‘Black people have always been a part of Americana because Americana was built with our sounds.’ Indeed, Himes’ creation of a new genre serves to make black acts ‘compete with one another in the Negro leagues…[He] is not the first white man to see too many black people moving into the neighborhood and respond by building a wall and shutting the gates’.
I feel this was too big a reach, but then I’m not who Jake Blount is and he brings his experiences to bear as per journalism today. He does have a point, regardless.
The Black Experience
The other main story of 2021 (besides a mullet-haired chap caught on camera using an unspeakably awful word) concerned the Black Opry’s founding. There was a Black Opry house at the recent Americanafest where artist supported one another; the next step is to get the rest of the (non-black) world to listen, and to find common ground rather than arguing every point (which they have every right to do).
To return to the World Service documentary, it’s the kind of show that includes sentences like ‘before we talk about race, let’s talk about gender’ and ‘you stay true to your art regardless of genre’ and ‘people tried to step up’ and ‘it’s an overwhelmingly white space’ and ‘there’s a huge black influence which is often forgotten’. This is very much typical of what the BBC’s cultural output is like in 2021. It doesn’t make it any less true but these buzzwords are everywhere and about time, too.
The show was presented by British act Lady Nade, a Bristolian raised by a white mother and grandma. It featured talking heads including musicians Alison Russell (‘I am extremely genre resistant’), Rhiannon Giddens (‘You can hear Africa and Ireland’ in a banjo) and Yola (‘the industry should hire more black executives’ to ensure her skin is lit appropriately). Rissi Palmer notes the erasure of black voices in country music, including the A&R man for the Carter Family and the man who taught Hank Williams how to play guitar.
We’ll see Rissi in the UK at The Long Road festival next September when she brings an all-woman line-up, acts to be confirmed, to the Front Porch stage. Rissi recalled the farce of being asked to choose a love interest for a music video, but because she couldn’t have either a black or a white one she was left ‘rolling around in the sand by myself’!
Journalist Andrea Williams also appears on the documentary. She complained after the show was broadcast, as an attendum to the show, that black women have to work with white musicians and producers to get anywhere. I like Andrea, who has also set up a database of black instrumentalists, but you have to wonder when she will find happiness and contentment with her activism.
Fun fact: Alice Randall, another interviewee, was the first black woman to write a country number one. Born in Detriot and Harvard educated, Alice co-wrote XXXs and OOOs with Matraca Berg ‘in about 45 minutes’, which namechecks both Aretha Franklin and Patsy Cline. Randall is best known as a writer of fiction and who bigs up other black artists, but if only country music had been more receptive we may have had a rival for Loretta Lynn or Lori McKenna. ‘A third of all cowboys were black and brown,’ she adds as a QED.
In conversation with both Andrea Williams and Marcus K Dowling, I have learned that ‘every house is built with a single brick…To deny the placement of the brick is to deny the potential, and likely eventuality, of multiple bricks and multiple houses’, which I think was Marcus’ way of saying that we need to build the House of Country Music with diverse bricks. Andrea fights for ‘the many musicians and other black creatives for whom the movement hasn’t started’, which seems to encapsulate her desire to celebrate every black artist working in whatever art, be it painting, music or film.
Charles L Hughes gives a precis of the additions made to Country Music USA concerning the song Daddy Lessons by Beyonce, which is clearly a country song made by a girl from Houston. There is also the well-rehearsed arguments for Old Town Road, the longest-running number one in Hot 100 records, being a country song. Yola argues that Fancy Like has ‘changed the definition of country music to suit you’ and she has a point. Singer Reyna Roberts succinctly says she makes ‘Reyna Music’ such as the clapalong Stompin’ Grounds and is full of praise for the guidance she has had from Mickey Guyton.
On December 18 at the famous Exit/In venue in Nashville, after an inaugural gig in New York City in October, the Stars of the Black Opry Revue come to town, virus permitting, for a $20 ticket.
Aaron Vance, a preacher’s kid from Mississippi, seems to have put out two albums in 2021. He has a fan in Trigger from Saving Country Music, who wrote in 2020 that Vance was one of many acts who are ‘helping to keep country music history alive’ today. Trigger recommends his song Let’s Get Along from his 2017 album My Own Way, though the data shows that Cabin Fever is his ‘hit’ because of the jaw’s harp and the catch in his vocal delivery.
Fellow performer Jett Holden has covered Say You’ll Be There (yep, that one) while his original composition Taxidermy has the line ‘leave me a mangled mess’ in the chorus.
Lizzie No’s song Please Don’t Change Your Mind has enjoyed nearly 4m listens since it came out on a 2017 collection called Hard Won. Her voice is like gossamer thread and her strumming puts her in the folky mould of Lori McKenna or Tenille Townes. I would love to hear her interpret some of their tunes, actually. Similarly quiet and tender is the voice of Joy Clark, who has a song called Love Yourself that is perfectly contemporary. Both Lizzie and Joy veer into Americana, the genre for people without genres, but have a great grasp of melody.
The night’s ‘special guest’ is Frankie Staton, who put out her piano ballad Anaheim this year, which namechecks Diana Krall and plenty of Californian signifiers. Frankie co-founded the Black Country Music Association in 1995. The organisation was profiled by Rolling Stone in 2020 and co-founder and singer Cleve Francis noted that success was given, not earned. Staton, meanwhile, became the leader and ‘single-handedly accomplished’ many of their initial goals. These included Black Country Music showcases at the Bluebird Café where the admission was free.
Staton says in the piece that she became a godparent of the scene, the shoulder for people to cry on in the face of executives like Tony Brown who was ‘futilely searching’ for someone who didn’t sound like ‘a really bad version of Charley Pride’ or a pop singer who saw Nashville as a last resort. Valerie Hawkins was told ‘people sometimes hear what they see’ by Jim Ed Norman, another of the famous old guard of executives who didn’t want to market black singers. On the other side, a DJ at WSM-Radio was criticised for ‘kowtowing to black people’.
As with all voluntary or small organisations, it was politics that crushed it, with paying members feeling ‘entitled to performance slots’ and outsiders recognising cliques. The Black Opry has revived the spirit of the Black Country Music Association and, by inviting Staton, know the shoulders on whom they stand. For this reason too, Rissi Palmer named her radio show Color Me Country after Linda Martell’s record which has regained prominence and was also profiled in Rolling Stone under the headline ‘Country Music’s Lost Pioneer’.
In a bit of a coup, Black Opry has announced a three-night residency the weekend of January 20-22 at Dollywood (again, virus permitting).
Three To Watch
As well as Breland and Willie Jones, who are signed to major labels but can’t seem to gain much traction on country radio (though happily their streaming numbers are good), there are three releases from 2021 which are also worthy of attention.
Miko Marks first tried to get people to listen about 15 years ago, around the time Rissi Palmer was getting knocked back by imbeciles. Having worn the get-up (clothes, hat, boots), she eventually shaved her head. She played CMA Fest three times, once with her husband operating the soundboard, and failed to get the support from radio which would push her to bigger stages.
In March, backed by her band The Resurrectors, Miko released Our Country, a ten-track set which has the same swing as those old tunes made in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The album begins with the piano-led Ancestors, a song in the tradition of the Staple Singers. Pour Another Glass (‘of wine, Jesus’) and Mercy (‘Lord, for the children’) take us to church, while Goodnight America quotes America the Beautiful and sounds stark and relevant, just as This Land Is Your Land was when Woody Guthrie did the same thing 80 years ago.
The album’s big hit is We Are Here, which is about the human experience: ‘Poisoned water is all we have to drink…Laid off in the afternoon’ but ‘we hold on to faith’. Miko shows great empathy here, with a light rootsy backing. I also like the funky feel of Hold It Together, full of universal brotherhood and sunshine in the darkness, and the messages of Travel Light (‘all that’s left is to run’) and the singalong Not Be Moved.
Miko followed up the album with Race Records, an EP of six covers. It begins with eight bars of harmonica which introduces the traditional tune Long Journey Home. There follow fine arrangements of Whiskey River, Tennessee Waltz, Hard Times (a very old ballad from Stephen Foster which also featured on the album) and the harmony-rich Foggy Mountain Top, which was written by AP Carter. Throughout, Miko’s voice sounds terrific and powerful with plenty of character.
The set finishes with a faithful cover of Long As I Can See The Light, the Creedence Clearwater Revival gospel-blues. I hope Miko makes it over to the UK soon.
Once you hear Chapel Hart, you’re a fan. Like Runaway June or Dixie Chicks, there are three of them and their voices blend just as well. Unlike those two trios, Chapel Hart are an independent act putting out the music themselves. More impressively, they were named one of the Next Women in Country by CMT along with Brittney Spencer and Reyna Roberts, so in the next year they will have their videos played in rotation alongside the moneyed acts.
The album The Girls Are Back In Town was trailed by the single You Can Have Him, Jolene, which is an alternate take on the tale Cam told in Diane. The trio’s version picks up on the ‘last song’ and notes how often Jolene’s man leaves the room to talk to her, which makes the narrator the Jolene figure who would be delighted for her man to be taken back. The harmonies fizz over pedal steel guitar and a really quick beat and it’s creeping up to 100,000 streams on Spotify.
The tender waltz Nearly Over You is a fine way to open the album. Fiddles, harmonies and a lyric about holding on to the memories of a former paramour sounds like country music to me. The triple-time feel is repeated on Just Say I Love You, where Danica Hart’s vocals are close-mic’d for maximum effect. The tender Angel is about a little girl who is ‘the last to get picked, the first to get picked on’, with ‘broken wings’ who waits for salvation.
They crank up the sound on 4 Mississippi, which contains a fine guitar solo, and on Grown Ass Woman, which is as fun as its title, a t-shirt slogan in the making. Even grown-ass men recognise the power of the song. The title track ends the album on a party-starting high with some fab riffage, a rapped section and a big cussword in the chorus, while Jesus & Alcohol contains the lyric ‘Jesus always said to love your enemy’, which must be why the girls are a-drinkin’ to the accompaniment of organ and barrelhouse piano.
I Will Follow (‘where my heart leads the way’) is a clapalong, singalong stomp full of humanity and self-assurance. I could really hear this on the daytime playlist on Radio 2. I would love to know the inspiration for Jacqui’s Song. Full of blissful chord shifts, it’s sung from the perspective of a woman looking back on her life, full of highs and low, and dispensing advice in the chorus about carpe-ing the diem.
Tailgate Trophy is another fun song which sounds like what it’d be like if TLC or Destiny’s Child tried their hand at the Dixie Chicks. I know that comparison will have been made before but it’s true. In any case, ‘I need some TLC’ is a lyric in the song.
So much of Adia Victoria’s album A Southern Gothic, released by Atlantic Records, is about escaping the evangelical aspect of growing up Christian, so-called Purity Culture. She grew up in Carolina, which explains the tracks called Carolina Bound (‘Tennessee has broke me’ is its sombre opening line) and album opener Magnolia Blues which namechecks Carolina. The latter song has been listened to over 1m times on Spotify; it’s got a fine arrangement too, with some pizzicato strings towards the end.
Mean-Hearted Woman is grounded by a looped guitar riff, above which Adia Victoria sings of avenging ‘all the pain you put me through’. She isn’t loud, but by being softer it sounds more menacing, like when a gangster tells you to do as he says in barely a whisper. There is great command in her voice even if she doesn’t bellow or belt her lyrics.
Whole World Knows tells the story of a girl who ‘would stray…not even humble’ when she turned 16, while Troubled Mind (which is addressed to ‘Lord’) follows on from that in a manner which suggests deliberate sequencing. Please Come Down opens with a broken arpeggio and the arrangement matches the ‘wind howling round and round’. It is certainly gothic, and kudos to Adia Victoria who has co-produced the album with Mason Hickman.
She wrote some of the album in Paris but also while working at the Amazon warehouse in Nashville. Far From Dixie is driven by a drum loop and a vocal which is heavily processed (like in Glory Box by Portishead). Adia Victoria wrote it on an aeroplane and the lyric reflects that, not just in the title but in the opening line ‘I’m running slow up against the sky’ and the line in verse two about neighbours being ‘sweet as a Southern sky’. The elements are present in Deep Water Blues, which lollops along prettily and has an addictive groove.
There’s a cover of the Blind Willie McTell song You Was Born To Die with added Jason Isbell on blues guitar and Margo Price and Kyshona Armstrong contributing verses. Matt Berninger of indie-rock darlings The National appears on album closer South For The Winter, which sounds perfect for an emotional scene in one of those arthouse movies set in New Mexico or somewhere. ‘It’s the cold that makes me wonder why I left home’ is the melancholic line, and the vocalists dance around the melody.
Quietly, Adia Victoria is becoming a superstar. Chapel Hart should keep releasing top-notch music, while Miko Marks has her moment in the sun after all those years of sufferance.
Michael Hardy has, according to critic Grady Smith, ‘hacked bro-country’. The guy from Philadelphia Mississippi wrote Up Down, Simple and Talk You Out Of It, three enormous yet forgettable singles for Florida Georgia Line. In 2019 he had his own success with volume one of this mixtape and his debut album proper, A Rock, came out in September 2020 during the pandemic. The smash hit Give Heaven Some Hell proves he can do deep and meaningful as well as shallow guff like Hell Right, which Blake Shelton and Trace Adkins took off the shelf.
Hardy himself is a beefy guy with a great sense of melody and rural life. That first album included the bumper sticker/ song Unapologetically Country As Hell, which seems to be a credo. As a songwriter, he must be running out of room on his wall, with Some Girls (Jameson Rodgers), God’s Country (Blake Shelton) and I Don’t Know About You (Chris Lane) all hitting number one. He was due to go out on the road with Thomas Rhett (in the USA) and Morgan Wallen (in the UK) but for the pandemic.
Nonetheless, he was nominated for Best New Artist at the CMA Awards and has enough of a following to put out the second Hixtape. As with the first one in 2019, the songs have been rolled out every Friday leading up to the release of the full set, which is a smart way to do it.
The opening track was the first to be released. Hometown Boys features Dierks Bentley, with whom Hardy has just put out the song Beers On Me, and Matt Stell, and it’s ‘bout time somebody sang a song about them hometown boys’. I also love Small Town On It, where Chris Lane and Scotty McCreery purr about how God created rural life (‘a little rust on the Fender, a little dirt on them boots’).
Interestingly on this second Hixtape, Hardy does not sing on every track, in the manner of Drake or Kanye West on their hiphop mixtapes. With 33 artists to cram in, he has been generous in giving space to some old favourites and some newer names. Thus we have Sean Stemaly and Jimmie Allen who join Justin Moore on WD-40 4WD, a song about working hard and having a four-wheel drive; Larry Fleet trades lines with Jon Pardi on the throwback jam In Love With My Problems; Travis Denning and Josh Thompson are drafted in on Beer With My Buddies, which sounds like a song Florida Georgia Line rejected for sounding too much like them.
Far better is the instant classic Red Dirt Clouds, which hymns the simplicity of ‘riding round kicking up dust in a bucket of rust’ and features ERNEST, Ben Burgess and David Lee Murphy. Hardy didn’t write this and he doesn’t sing on it. It’s hard not to think this album has been dreamed up in the Big Loud boardroom, although the collaborations all make perfect sense.
It’s a good idea to bring Lee Brice and Randy Houser, two of the finest contemporary voices, together on Drink Up. For bro-country heads, Brantley Gilbert and Colt Ford join Hardy on To Hank, where the trio raise a glass to country boy Hank Jr and the original outlaw Hank Sr and quote plenty of their songtitles. Both songs are classic Hardy: simple chord structures, lyrics which celebrate rural life and those who soundtrack it. Above all, they make you feel good.
Respect to Hardy is due because he knows his history. On Jonesin’ (‘for some Jones’), Ronnie Dunn appears alongside two Jakes, Owen and Worthington. Marty Stuart plays a solo on Break Your Own Damn Heart, which is driven by Midland’s vocal contributions and is good fun. Old and new also combine on One Of Y’All, where Rhett Akins and The Cadillac Three tick off rural signifiers including beer, dirt, guns, day shifts and boots.
The complaint from me, and this really is shocking, is that Jimmie Allen is the only black act and there are only two women on the whole set. Ashland Craft, so good on hardy’s track So Close last year, joins TJ and John Osborne on the lolloping I Smoke Weed, while Lainey Wilson kicks off a smashing tune called Beer Song, where Chase Rice and Granger Smith also find room to appear. It has one of the album’s best choruses, which is high praise indeed for a man who is a solid chorus-builder in town.
That song was co-written by Morgan Wallen, who appears along with Chris Shiflett from Foo Fighters on a tune called Goin’ Nowhere. It’s the first new material that Morgan has sung on since his album was released and he had to take an enforced year off to better himself. Hardy takes the first verse and takes the listener on a whistle-stop tour of US cities but the chorus opens up, Hardy-style, with a set of lyrics asking: ‘why in the hell would I leave?’ Morgan takes verse two, picking up the baton and purring about how ‘all those daughters’ daddies were right’. It’s a bit blah, in spite of the guitar solo from Shiflett, but it shows that Big Loud have now un-suspended their cash cow.
Remember that DJ Khaled song with Justin Bieber AND Chance The Rapper AND Lil Wayne AND Quavo? This is an album of that, but with more references to Hank Williams. I hope it finds an audience.
Jon and Kristy of American Young are frequent visitors to the UK, playing high up the bill on Buckle & Boots in 2019. UK-based guitarist Luke Thomas often sports headwear with their AY logo on it and, sensibly, their new, second album is called AY II.
Album opener Happy Again, which begins with the song’s chorus, was the lead single. Ed Sheeran would be proud of the melody, and indeed several of those on this album. The song is echoed by Gonna Be You, a love song by numbers with very familiar chords and lush production from the band themselves.
Much of the album sounds like the sort of Adult Contemporary country that Big Machine crank out. Jon’s lead vocal on Some Girl (the album’s best song) is sympathetic, and I love how he’s worked on the top of his range, where some of the verse sits. The melody of Whiskey Don’t Work skips along in triplets to match the ‘heartbreak hell’ of the lyric, while the thinky Die Another Day asks ‘what if tonight is all we get?’ over a bland arrangement that many would call mature. The chorus, stuck on one note, is probably a metaphor for the lyric.
There’s not much reinvention of the wheel, however, on Let You Down, where the couple plead fidelity to one another even though they both have flaws and struggles. I prefer their cover of Seminole Wind, written by John Anderson, which opens with some rollicking fiddle.
A-Lister Rodney Clawson was in the room for two tracks. The groovy and gentle Say It To Me Sober has a melody which masks a lyric full of melancholy, how Kristy wants Jon to not only want her as a bootie call. Falling Star is a similarly placid love song, albeit one which doesn’t leave much of a footprint even after you have heard it three or four times.
The duo’s buddy Lee Brice helped write funky album closer Country Girls. It’s a very contemporary song which rattles off a Shane McAnally-esque list of country stuff (‘Miss-iss-iss-iss-iss-iss-ippi Mud Pie!!’) while Kristy says she isn’t ‘automatic, need a stick shift’. This, as well as the woah-tastic Soundtrack of Your Life, will be an instant live favourite.
Dave Hause – Blood Harmony
Dave is due in the UK in February as part of an extensive European jaunt. In 2019, he did something that also happened to my own dad: he fathered twins. His brother and musical collaborator Tim became an uncle and the pair of them, together with producer Will Hoge, have produced ten new tunes which will appeal to fans of 90s alternative rock music.
Northstar (‘My sweet little babies, you came and saved me’) is a rootsy opening track with some fabulous diminished chords and a tight arrangement; The 400 Unit guitarist Sadler Vaden chugs away. The twins bookend the album, with closing track Little Wings including plenty of paternal advice: ‘I don’t know what I’m doing but I know what I’ve got’ is a great lyric, all the better because uncle Tim has helped out in its composition. The tunes put me in mind of Laura Veirs’ work, especially the twinkling glockenspiel on Northstar, but sung by Rob Thomas from Matchbox 20.
Leave It In That Dream is a melancholic song with another great arrangement where Dave talks about being trapped in a cabin in his dream. Hanalei, meanwhile, is an acoustic chugger that reminds me of Del Amitri and a request by Dave to stay in Hawaii, much like a track on Old Dominion’s recent album strangely.
Indeed, Surfboard has the feel of the Old Dominion song Make It Sweet but the lyrics are more morose, as ‘the rent got hard to pay’ and Dave feeling like he’ll ‘drown in these waves’. Adam Duritz of Counting Crows must be an influence, especially with the prominent mandolin in this track, and across the album as a whole. Reminiscin’ song Sandy Sheets has that Will Hoge feel of forward momentum from the arrangement, with precise vocals and a strong melody on a song that looks back on ‘when it was easy’ and a lovely lyric ‘champagne taste but the budget was beer’. The line in the chorus namechecking Gin Blossoms’ ‘Hey Jealousy on repeat’ gives the game away; this is for fans of melodic rock that ruled radio in 1994.
Plagiarist (‘make a dollar off a stolen dime’) also has that country-rock guitar and will be a punch-the-air favourite at Dave’s gigs with its ‘hold tight to me!’ pre-chorus. Snowglobe moves from soft verses to a power-chord chorus, while Carry The Lantern is a singalong rock song with some rich major chords. Gary (‘I knew a Gary in school’) is just as thrusting, in a song which emphasises the off-beat and includes the line ‘kids say the damnedest things’.
In Part One, I talked about Brett Eldredge and Kelly Clarkson. Part Two dealt with Mitchell Tenpenny, Brett Young and Josh Turner.
Amanda Shires was the driving force behind The Highwomen, corralling Maren, Brandi and Natalie to push the sound of women in the country genre. She strikes out on her own with an 11-track Christmas set, her ninth album under her own name, that mixes traditional with original.
As I have come to expect, there’s an austere minor key version of Silent Night, which is so old that they would have been strumming it on the prairies about 120 years ago. There’s the standard What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve, written by Frank Loesser in 1947 and full of jazzy chords and a charming lyric.
Two of the songs are written with Brittney Spencer. Album opener Magic Ooooooh (yep, six Os) is a song to sway to with a great arrangement and full of discovery, magic and a ‘starry feeling’ in Amanda’s heart that she can’t stop singing about. Blame It On The Mistletoe harks back to A Long December by Counting Crows, with similar chords and a mournful lyric: ‘There were stars and there was chemistry’ sets the mood for a song with a classic sound with no trace of fiddle, oddly, for a woman who plays the fiddle on record and in concert.
A Real Tree This Year opens with some snowfall-like piano and Amanda sings of her 52-week anticipation for the decorations. Slow Falling Snow (‘there’s something in the quiet hours calling me’) and Let’s Get Away both open with grandiose piano rolls and the hymnic, crochet-heavy melody on the latter song adds to the holiday feel even as she wants to ‘get away from Christmas…let’s pack a suitcase and get on out of here’.
The kiss-off Gone For Christmas is funky, with the punchy drums of session guy Fred Eltringham and some neat backing vocals from the McCrary singers who underscore what gifts Amanda wants, including ‘a date with Larry David’! That’d be pretty, pretty good.
There’s more tender fare on Home To Me, which includes longing notes and how ‘it’s too cold to walk’ in a way that sounds like Dolly Parton singing Carole King songs. Wish For You is a riff on the chords from Let It Be, with added ‘snow angels in the morning’ and some passionate vocals, as well as a pretty and unrestrained fiddle solo from Amanda.
The album ends with another waltz, Always Christmas Around Here. ‘My sisters aren’t speaking!’ she sighs, while singer Lawrence Rothman intones a new year greeting to close out an album rich in musicality and personality.
Lori McKenna, who has spent over 20 Christmases worrying about presents for one or more of her five kids, has written five tunes for Christmas Is Right Here. Before the new ones, she has covered Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime with a stripped arrangement that is worlds away from last year’s Lady A interpretation.
Lori’s famous friends appear in the credits. Luke Laird and Barry Dean produce the EP and were in the room for Christmas Without Crying and Hail Mary: the former references old catalogues, Sunday hymns and ‘stringing up those lights’ remembering grandpa where the melody pulls on the heartstrings; the latter sounds like a grown-up Taylor Swift song, full of rhythmic propulsion and singable melodic lines. Lori flutters in the top of her range in the middle eight before a blockbuster, movie soundtrack strings section.
Time is the essential ingredient in a Lori McKenna song and, as with Last Christmas by Wham, it makes her own tunes a series of winners. The Love Junkies (Lori, Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey as any fool knows) came together for North Pole, a waltz full of sense impressions like mom’s cooking, snowfall (‘if we’re lucky’), sisters in PJs and parents making them wait for gifts while Lori namechecks a series of places in America which are now ‘as far away as the North Pole…What I wouldn’t give for a memory more’. The final line is a nice pay-off.
Still Christmas In Nashville is the kind of heart-warming song I try to write, with Lri able to include ‘mac and cheese’ and ‘drugstore makeup’ inside one of the gentle verses about ‘the city that dreamers built’. A muted trumpet joins in to answer lines about dreamers who ‘live inside a snow globe’ (come on!!!!).
The EP closes with Grateful, a McKenna 100-percenter where she takes us to church: ‘Mother Mary’s holding out her arms, I wish I could rush into them’ (come on!!!). With lyrics about mortality and mistakes, this is almost a challenge for the listener to call someone they love after they hear it. Lori is a songwriter’s songwriter, which means she can walk down the street unmolested except for people who have heard at least one minute of her music. She must influence so many writes in Nashville, who will rush to put this on as they deck their own halls. Lori is a treasure.
Opry Member Steve Wariner offers his third collection of songs for the holidays. On Christmas Memories, from 1998, he included I Saw Three Ships, Do You Hear What I Hear and Let It Snow, while in 2010 Guitar Christmas offered Deck The Halls, The Christmas Song, Jingle Bells and much more.
On Feels Like Christmas Time, we get both sides. The album is warm, deliberately I reckon, and perfect for winter, like a dressing gown or a blanket. The First Noel is arranged brilliantly for a small ensemble, while It Came Upon The Midnight Clear and Silent Night are repeated from past Christmas sets; indeed, it’s a third outing for God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, which sounds great on the acoustic guitar.
Originals include the title track, a warm lyric about a time of year where warmth is as essential as Jesus. There’s the piano-led On Christmas Morning, which sets the domestic scene and contains a revelation that ‘my children’s eyes is more than worth the price I have to pay’ for buying all those gifts, and the fun guitar piece Tennessee Snowfall has a gorgeous melody that I’d love to add lyrics to.
Lyrics appear in It Won’t Be Christmas (‘if you’re not here with me’), which sets a tableau of imagery to another languid, classic chord progression. It reminds me of mid-period George Michael. Christmas in Your Arms, written with his fellow Opry stalwart Bill Anderson, drop-tunes the guitar to accompany a lyric about the place Steve wants to spend the holidays: anywhere, so long as it’s in ‘your arms’.
The tender Our Savior Is Born (‘he was born in the hay’) evokes the same feelings as the medley of Away In A Manger and O Little Town of Bethlehem, with a fast-fingered We Wish You A Merry Christmas tacked on for a sort of encore. I would love to hear Steve and Vince Gill do A Very Country Christmas. I wonder how much they’d do it for…
Finally, Hell of a Holiday is the latest chapter in the career of The Pistol Annies. Miranda, Angeleena and Ashley reconvene for a seasonal release. ‘The whole world is decorating and it’s only November 1!’ is how the title track goes, as the trio tick off some Christmas signifiers to ease the listener into the set, helped by some sensitive production that puts the vocal up front.
Angaleena takes lead on Harlan County Coal; ‘not a creature was sober, especially not my spouse!’ is the introductory spoken couplet to a song about ‘making decorations after shotgun shelves’ and how, if arguments aren’t resolved and he doesn’t help with preparing for Christmas, it’s a lump of coal for him! Conversely, Make You Blue is a marvellous pop song with a Be My Baby beat on which the Annies sets the mood with jingling bells and decorated shops, reindeer ready to fly and pumpkin pie in the oven. ‘Don’t let all this red and green make you blue’ is a fine lyric. There is a half-step key change.
Leanin’ On Jesus opens with hubbub and whispers before Miranda sings over a kick drum about leaving her ‘restless worried mind’ behind her because Jesus is true. There is an organ solo and a big gospel finish with some hallelujahs.
Some songs are as gentle as snowfall on a windowpane. The Only Thing I Wanted (‘was you’) sounds like a lullaby sung by a mother to her baby or a wife to her loved one. Believing is a gentle song of faith in 6/8 while the ladies sing Happy Birthday to Jesus with fluttering melodies and warm harmonies. The song Joy is a hymn to how ‘love, joy, it takes time’, three stanzas which condense life into a lovely melody. It’s proper songwriting.
There are takes on Sleigh Ride, which as with Runaway June sounds terrific arranged for three female voices, and an a cappella Auld Lang Syne, while there’s a clever cover of Merle Haggard’s If We Make It Through December, which notes how ‘Daddy can’t afford no Christmas gift’. I hope that Come on Christmas Time makes it into the canon of great seasonal songs: the girls all have Santa on their list, taking it in turns to describe what they want to do with him.
Get some Girl Power this Christmas, if you tire of Brett and Buble.
In Part One, I praised new albums by Brett Eldredge and Kelly Clarkson, who add to their seasonal catalogues
A new name entering the Christmas market in 2021 is Mitchell Tenpenny, who is best known for his first hit Drunk Me and his recent hit Truth About Me, although Trigger at Saving Country Music won’t let us forget that one of his early singles was called Bitches.
His 11-song set Naughty List mixes classics with self-penned tunes trying to muscle their way into Christmas playlists. All the old favourites are here, albeit with a new twist. Let It Snow is mellow, while Joy to the World is turned into the sort of country-pop slow jam that makes Jesus come across as a girl in a tank top. There’s a faithful take on Jingle Bell Rock which is followed by an equally power-pop version of Santa Claus Is Comin To Town, which ends with a guttural thrash metal vocal from Mitchell. It’s almost pantomime season, as he sounds like John Mayer on Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, while he’s doing his best Brett Eldredge impression on O Holy Night.
I Hope It Snows (‘on Christmas Eve’) is all about showing a beloved around one’s hometown and the ‘smalltown tradition’. The lead vocal comes from Mitchell’s girlfriend Meghan Patrick in a nice bit of brand consolidation. I don’t read country gossip websites but I presume the pair are getting a lot of press coverage. The song seems to visualise an Instagram post, so maybe fans will hope that it indeed does snow for Christmas, so the pictures can get more likes and reposts.
One can imagine that Meghan is the subject of both Neon Christmas – a funky and catchy tune with a neat key change – and Don’t Hang The Mistletoe, on which Mitchell pleads for his baby that ‘if you want to leave the house’, don’t give him an excuse to kiss her repeatedly.
There are two full-on Xmas sex jams. The rapid flow of Snow Angels contains an exhortation to ‘stay in bed, start a fire in here instead’, with no need for mistletoe. The title track is set at Mitchell’s belle’s parents’ house, and our protagonist is walking the line between kisses ‘sweeter than the cookies that we licked’, ‘buzzing off the eggnog’ and being on his best behaviour. There’s an audience for this.
On Big Machine, Brett Young is trying to earn his label some money by dragging in some friends who Sing the Christmas Classics. As with 2020 when Thomas Rhett did it, this year it’s Brett’s turn to do a Christmas TV show. For some reason, perhaps kudos, pop singer Sam Fischer appears on a strings-laden version of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Christian music is represented in the form of elfin Christian singer Chris Tomlin, who pops up on an acoustic guitar-laden Silent Night, and Phil Wickham, who is roasting chestnuts on an open fire.
Elsewhere, it’s a who’s who of country folk. Who’s Brett rockin’ around the tree with? Why it’s Darius Rucker (who put out his own Christmas album a few years ago)! Who’s by the delightful fire harmonising on Let It Snow? It’s Maddie & Tae! And who weaves a guitar line through Brett’s requests for hula hoops on The Chipmunk Song? Producer and guitarist Dann Huff!! Newly single Colbie Caillat is helping Brett dream of a White Christmas in a cute but anodyne fashion, while Brett opens the set with a woozy version of Silver Bells.
The tracks are aggressive in their dullness, with a soft backbeat accompanying the whole thing that turns it into music you’d hear in a candle store, which may be the point. CMT Crossroads Christmas will air in December and drive people to the studio versions of the songs. I can already see them being introduced on the TV show by some adorable skits which feature Brett’s wife and child.
Brett should take note on how to add richness to a Christmas set from Josh Turner. Josh follows an album of gospel music with one for Christmas, much as Carrie Underwood did in the last 12 months (though she did it the other way round).
King Size Manger contains the Turner family version of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, as well as secular tunes Santa Claus is Comin To Town and Mele Kalikimaka, which was recently done by Kacey Musgraves on her own festive release. The whistling solo is excellent.
Otherwise it’s God and Jesus for the win. The album opens with a rocking arrangement of the hymn Angels We Heave Heard on High (‘Gloria in excelsis deo’) and there’s a bluegrass feel to What He’s Given Me thanks to some fiddle and the voice of Pat McLaughlin. A toe-tapping version of Joy To The World (‘and heaven and nature swing!’) brings in Opry member Rhonda Vincent, and Go Tell It On The Mountain is Sunday morning gospel.
The title track, co-written by Josh himself, is a gorgeous take on the earliest moments of Jesus’s life, as he sets the Gospel to a lush musical setting. Tom Douglas and Scooter Carusoe, two A-list Nashville writers, open the ballad Soldier’s Gift with a verse from Twas The Night Before Christmas, and turn the figure of Santa into a soldier who keeps America safe. It’s heartstrings-tugging and should be heard by every sentient human being this Christmas.
The album finishes with an austere version of Silent Night, sung brilliantly with the ‘heavenly peace’ that features in the lyrics, praising the birth of Jesus. I cannot recommend this album highly enough.
Look, I’m sure I’m not the only one to lump all the Christmas releases together but, in case you missed them or want to refresh your palate this season, there are plenty of collections to play alongside evergreen bestsellers by Lady A, Buble, Chris Young, Brad Paisley and a panoply of others.
Part Two deals with younger acts like Mitchell Tenpenny and Brett Young, as well as the first Christmas album from Christian bloke Josh Turner. Part three takes in Steve Wariner, Amanda Shires and The Pistol Annies, with an EP from Lori McKenna thrown in as well.
I’ll start with the big guns in the first part, as two old Christmas favourites have returned to market.
Brett Eldredge has been sold as the Nashville version of Michael Buble and suitably (that’s a pun because he wears a suit) is embarking on some holiday shows. Brett is Mr Christmas following the release of his album Glow, and that moniker gives the new collection its title. Brett has sought to refresh his Christmas catalogue before those shows having on Glow ticked off (deep breath): The First Noel, Silent Night, Winter Wonderland, White Christmas, The Christmas Song, Let It Snow, Baby It’s Cold Outside, I’ll Be Home For Christmas, The First Noel, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,
Thus, with assistance from Idina Menzel’s musical director Rob Mounsey, who returns on production duties (check out his CV, it’s magnificent), we get the stories of Rudolph’s red nose, the merry gentlemen who bring tidings of comfort and joy (with some austere brass in tow) and bells that jingle all the way.
Brett has studied the great vocalists, his hero Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby in particular. His vocal on I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, based on an H.W. Longfellow poem written 150 years ago during the American Civil War (‘the wrong must fail, the right prevail’), is spectacular and finely framed by the orchestra. Likewise Merry Christmas Baby, written in 1947 but a song I know best from Rod Stewart’s version, gets a wonderful guitar solo. Cool Yule (‘you gon’ flip when Ole Saint Nick takes a lick on the peppermint stick’) was written by comic Steve Allen in the 1950s and was first heard as a Louis Armstrong tune all about Santa’s visit. There is a faithful trumpet solo.
Andy Williams recorded It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year in 1963. Two generations hence, Brett can croon it on an album which repackages Christmas sentiment for a new era. And a new era must mean new Christmas songs. The title track, playing on his unofficial nickname, is an original composition from Brett and his great mate and producer Ross Copperman, It’s full of fingersnaps, sleighbells and various Christmas signifiers (‘you are the angel on the top of that evergreen’, ice skating, Santa on his sleigh) in the tradition of Big Band Buble.
The other original is Feels Like Christmas, a triple-time tune with egg-shaker percussion where ‘the only thing missing is you and me kissing’. There is a key change. The album ends with a ‘joyful and triumphant’ take on O Come All You Faithful. Brand Brett rolls on, and he’ll be over in the UK in May 2022 with a less seasonal set.
Kelly Clarkson is stepping into Ellen’s TV slot next year as she moves closer to American Treasure status. Having won American Idol all those years ago, she is able to straddle country and pop; only country radio’s hatred of women over 40 probably prevents her becoming country’s biggest star. As it is, Kelly will have another bumper Christmas this year, because her evergreen song Underneath The Tree is 99% Mariah Carey and keeps the royalties flowing after a tough few years.
That song came from Under The Mistletoe, released in 2013, which also featured her takes on Blue Christmas, Run Run Rudolph, and the ubiquitous pair of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and White Christmas. She also roped in Ronnie Dunn, her then-stepmum-in-law Reba and Trisha Yearwood, though she likely won’t play Winter Dreams any more as it was dedicated to her now ex-husband Brandon.
In recent years she has added three Christmas songs to her repertoire, which feature as bonus tracks on the new album. Don’t get confused either by All I Want For Christmas Is You, which has nothing to do with Mariah. Brett Eldredge appeared with Kelly on the toe-tapping Under The Mistletoe, which also came out over Christmas 2020, while Christmas Eve (‘I’ve waited all year baby just to see that sleigh’) dates back to 2017.
When Christmas Comes Around, which promotes an NBC TV special of the same name, is a resolutely mainstream album rather than a country one. We get her versions of It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas, Rockin Around The Christmas Tree, Jingle Bell Rock and Wham!’s Last Christmas, which Taylor Swift gamely covered before she went pop. She turns that song, with a double key change, into a lament. She does a less good job with Santa Baby, which is a little too ‘Kelly-oke’. I want more sultriness.
Every year we get a popstar doing Christmas tunes and it always sounds the same: a dusting of sleigh bells, loud arrangements in a major key, musical allusions to Phil Spector’s Christmas Gift For You, some digital horn stabs and vocal acrobatics (see Cosy Little Christmas by Katy Perry). A few years ago it was Ariana Grande, who is drafted in to get Kelly’s streaming numbers up on the track Santa Can’t You Hear Me, which Kelly co-wrote and is at least a minute too long. Driven by a ‘keep…’ refrain, the verses build up to a soaring finale where the ladies want love for the season. Ariana, recently married, has her wish; Kelly, of course, is now single!
Cleverly, Kelly has written new songs called Glow and Merry Christmas Baby, perhaps to confuse the streaming services to see if they’re paying attention. The former, featuring the marvellous Chris Stapleton, is a come-on (‘you’re the only one I’ve got my eyes on’) with a Christmas theme – snow is falling, bells are ringing – but ‘even Christmas can’t compete with your glow’! The latter is a kiss-off (‘you can keep the charming lines and you can keep your wandering hands and eyes’), full of long notes that enable Kelly to show off her voice and the scorn she feels for her ex. It’s the first track on the album. Is there a hint of autobiography?
Merry Christmas (To The One I Used To Know) uses piano and orchestra to surround Kelly’s tale of woe (‘the past is all that’s left of you and I’), which is sung with typical panache. There’s a great line about how ‘on Christmas Eve, my gift to me is dancing with your ghost’. Oof.
The song that is likeliest to join Underneath The Tree as a big hit is the fun Christmas Isn’t Canceled (Just You), a divinely constructed song with some diminished chords and a fine chorus. Meanwhile, Christmas Come Early is crooned, as a tortured Kelly wants ‘a break from myself’.
The great Toby Gad, who wrote All Of Me and need never work again, co-wrote the ballad Blessed, where Kelly doesn’t want ‘to take a moment for granted’ and is ‘learning to have faith in forgiving’. I am sure she’ll perform this on her show and get some moms weeping. It’s a super melody tied to a self-reflective lyric. The key line is in the final verse: ‘I’ll never be perfect but I try my best to remember I’m blessed’.
It’s very American, if you know what I mean, much like the album itself.
How long should an album be in the streaming age? Chris Brown has the record, I think, with 45 tracks, while Morgan Wallen has dominated the year with Dangerous, a 30-track double album whose promotion has been disrupted by the video of him using a bad word.
Cody Johnson would never use the word Morgan used. While Morgan is Too Big To Fail, like a bank circa 2008, CoJo seems to be the Radiohead of country music, the biggest act not to be a Big Act. While Thomas Rhett and Luke Combs stay in heavy rotation on country radio, which helps them sell concert tickets, CoJo recently tried to break into the pack but Dear Rodeo, a brilliant song from his last album Ain’t Nothin’ To It, stalled in the twenties. At least On My Way To You, an outside write from Brett James, broke the Top 20, while other songwriters to be given the CoJo treatment include Chris Stapleton, Radney Foster, John Osborne and Casey Beathard.
Grady Smith produced a short video essay on CoJo, who compares the ‘former rodeo rider turned sturdy country star’ to a popular TV show like Law & Order, whose success you cannot begrudge. Expanding his brand, Cody has just brought out a new cologne as well as a biographical film and these serve to complement the release of Human, the second album as part of his Warner Nashville deal.
Impact tracks included the bouncy, fun trio of Treasure (‘beauty’s in the heart and not the eye/rust is just another shade of silver’), Let’s Build A Fire (written by Chris Janson) and Longer Than She Did, which was written by Eric Paslay, Paul Sykes and Matt Stell. This may serve Matt in good stead; if his own major-label deal goes south, at least he’s in with CoJo.
Added to these three tempo tunes are Honky Tonk Hardwood Floors, which is in the Luke Combs vein and dares you not to dance and drink, and Driveway, where a series of rural signposts involving grandma and grandpa and hickory trees build up a picture of CoJo’s version of heaven.
Also in his corner are Willie Nelson and Vince Gill: Sad Songs and Waltzes (‘aren’t selling this year’) is an old Willie tune which suits what Cody wants to do with his music while Son of a Ramblin’ Man is one of Vince’s. Harlan Howard’s tune I Don’t Know A Thing About Love was a hit for Conway Twitty; CoJo turns it into a Mayer/Stapleton-type funky soul jam, and I hope more major-label releases honour the old guard of country to keep their name alive (not that Harlan ‘Three Chords and the Truth’ Howard will ever be forgotten).
The title track is an outside write from Travis Meadows, and it’s a meditation by a musician who apologises to his girl ‘if I get kind of careless with your heart…I’m still learning to be human’. The song was deemed so important to the project that it not only gives the album its title but it’s placed at the very top of the set. In the week of release, Human was the nineteenth biggest-selling album in America, ahead of the safe country-rock of Old Dominion.
Til You Can’t, written five years ago by Ben Stennis and Matt Rogers, will win awards next year. The writers think Cody is the new Garth Brooks because of his tremendous live performances; this song will pop live because of the crescendo in the final minute (more dynamic shifts in country music, please!!) and the carpe diem message of the lyric: ‘If you got a dream, chase it cos a dream won’t chase you back’. The recording was more powerful because Cody had recently lost his lieutenant, guitarist JT Corenflos.
Alongside these two songs is another one Cody will be playing every night for the rest of his life. I Always Wanted To ends the album’s first side. It’s a song Cody has said is the saddest song of all time, written by the team behind The House That Built Me. The protagonist is in his nineties and his life had a wretched middle and end, with unmade memories and untaken pictures. I expect this will be his career song and I wonder who passed on it (McGraw? Shelton? Brooks?) because it was too sad. CoJo might single-handedly ensure sad songs and waltzes get back in fashion. I would put this song alongside Whiskey and You and Cover Me Up if I were doing a country music version of Les Miserables. There’s none of the resolution of Live Like You Were Dying, which means the song is Red Dirt rather than Nashville, a true Texan composition.
God Bless The Boy is dedicated to Cody’s daughter Cori, and it’s a pretty country song full of heart and fiddle which imagines his future son-in-law, who must ‘have a sense of humour’ to deal with Cori for whom ‘ain’t no boy ever gonna be good enough’. It’ll be a song to cuddle with at CoJo gigs, as will Stronger, the sort of tune Jason Aldean used to make before he rested on his laurels, in which Cody’s masculinity is trumped by the ‘lighthouse’ of a woman.
The reminiscin’ song When It Comes To You is the inverse of Cody’s hit On My Way To You, and I imagine this was on the shelf for a while, which doesn’t make it any less of a super country song about hearts ‘born to win or born to lose’. Scotty McCreery could have had a hit with it, for example, or Chris Young. Every track on this album is better than Chris Young.
There are only four CoJo-written tunes here, which is probably a condition of his major-label deal since the majors have staff songwriters creating hits for a voice like Cody’s to sing. Made A Home sounds lush, especially with an opening lyric ‘poured the concrete, cut the two-by-fours’ that sounds like something CoJo would actually do – unlike 96% of today’s country stars, who are just singing haircuts.
Cowboy Scale of 1 to 10 is a rollicking good spoken-song which compares people to hotness of peppers. Cody is backed up by four fellow Texans (Corb Lund, Ned LeDoux, Red Steagall and Dale Brisby) who help to run the listener through the scale, with a pretty boy at 1 and a member of the armed forces at 10. The rocking love song Known For Loving You is a clapalong anthem written with Peach Picker Ben Hayslip and Trent Willmon, a former star who has now moved behind the scenes. Even if CoJo is known ‘from here till Timbuktu’ or if he’s on the cover of the Rolling Stone, he’d rather be known for being the partner of his wife.
The 100%-er By Your Grace ends the collection. ‘I’m aware of everything that’s wrong with me but you still accept me anyway’ can be country or gospel of Christian music but, to my mind, it’s the essence of Red Dirt music. It’s a confessional song where Cody is guided by the Lord who has ‘paid every debt I owe’. His voice soars in the chorus, with a gospel choir alongside him, and this may become a sleeper hit if it’s marketed the right way or gets the attention from being included in his set where he opens for Luke Combs in 2022 in stadiums. Which is admittedly a step down from the Houston Rodeo.
Regardless, this is a well-realised set of songs (perhaps three or four tracks too long) that showcases every side of Cody Johnson. He might not have the platinum records that Luke Combs does but he is everything that mainstream country music should be: heart, empathy, family, melody and a fantastic voice.
Bluegrass – the mountain music form invented by Bill Monroe a few generations ago and advanced by the equally trailblazing duo Flatt & Scruggs – has a hardcore following who protect the sound and try and advance it.
Every few years someone pops up and makes headway outside the genre. Nickel Creek were teenagers who brought some vim to the genre in the 2000s, around the time that Dan Tyminski’s voice was put into the mouth of George Clooney in O Brother Where Art Thou, which introduced huge audiences to Ralph Stanley and Alison Krauss. Steve Martin has used his celebrity to bring his comedy fans into the genre, and is as acclaimed for his banjo playing as for being a ‘wild and crazy guy’.
The International Bluegrass Music Association are the flagbearers for the genre, ‘honoring tradition and encouraging innovation’ as the IBMA says on their site. Based in Tennessee, they have a Hall of Fame which in 2021 inducted Alison Krauss. She joins New Grass Revival, Tom T Hall, Ricky Skaggs, Del McCoury, John Hartford (Gentle on my Mind), The Carter Family, The Stanley Brothers and so many more. Rhonda Vincent, picked as a recent Opry member, is sure to follow soon, as is a regular Female Vocalist of the Year, Dale Ann Bradley. She was formerly part of the supergroup Sister Sadie. They have just been named Vocal Group of the Year for a third year in a row.
Bob Harris introduced me to Molly Tuttle, the first woman to win the IBMA award for Guitar Player of the Year (in both 2017 and 2018). In 2019 that award went to Billy Strings, who repeated the feat a few weeks ago and did even better by accepting Entertainer of the Year, which was won last year by Sister Sadie. I recommend both of their self-titled albums, which showcase excellent musicianship and vocal distinction.
Billy, even above Sister Sadie, is the sound of contemporary bluegrass. His album Home impressed many, while he teamed up with Luke Combs in 2020 on the well-meaning tune The Great Divide. Luke hasn’t named Billy as one of his support acts for 2022, probably because Billy is playing his own headline shows to promote his album Revival.
Starting at aged four as a kid in Michigan, he played with his dad at parties and got involved in jam sessions. (The man was actually his stepdad as his birth father had overdosed on heroin when Billy was two.) The house became an ‘all-hours drug den’ and Billy’s guitar would turn his parents’ focus onto him rather than the mess surrounding him.
Meanwhile he started to appreciate virtuosi of the rock guitar like Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix, learning about heavy music and answering to the nickname Boomer. At 14 he left the den to better himself; another 14 years later and he counts the great Bela Fleck as a friend. ‘This music needs a fresh jolt once in a while from someone who comes in from a different angle,’ Bela says of ‘lightning rod’ Billy, who has spoken about the racism inherent in the bluegrass scene.
His Native American auntie gave him the new moniker, which stuck when he moved to Nashville five years ago. At that time he gave up alcohol too, something he told the New York Times. You know you’re a big deal when you get a Times profile: ‘He has zigged and zagged between the form’s antediluvian traditions and rapid-fire improvisations…all within songs with hooks so sharp that he seems poised for crossover stardom.’ His lyrics contain ‘disarming simplicity’, while he is engaged to be married to his tour manager.
The album itself should bring in rock listeners much as the somewhat psychedelic rock of Home did. At 16 tracks, it looks like a rock album. Some moments, carefully chosen, opt for woozy production techniques and I imagine every review of this album mentions the closing lines of Heartbeat of America (one of those tracks): ‘Now I’m seeing music that nobody else can see/ With all the colors like a symphony surrounding me’.
The two impact tracks were In The Morning Light and Fire Line. The former is a love song to his fiancee, ‘a wonder to behold…captivating’ even though ‘I’m not sure that I deserve the love that I receive’. The latter has elements of Pearl Jam in Billy’s growling about how he’ll ‘drain the rivers dry’.
Elsewhere it’s straight-up, faithful bluegrass where fiddle, percussion and guitar mesh brilliantly. Red Daisy crams a lot of notes into 160 seconds, while The Fire On My Tongue (‘is for those who die young’) and Hellbender are both enormous fun, even if they make drinking seem like the last thing you want to do when times are tough.
The closing minute of the nine-minute opus Hide and Seek, which features some dissonant fiddle and some chromatic guitar lines, quotes a text message sent by a friend before their suicide. I was also struck by Love And Regret, a reminiscin’ song where the guitar matches the lyric: ‘The house of silence in the light of the moon brings to me a sense of ease’. Verse three brings owls, coyotes and ravens, as well as a namecheck for Gentle On My Mind writer John Hartford. I hope people are introduced to the album through this song, as it’s a winner.
Ditto Nothing’s Working, a modal lament with a pentatonic, folky feel (‘she’s feeling dismal…take time to listen to the quiet ones’) and there’s an anthemic quality to Leaders, with its singalong refrain and simple campfire riff. Ice Bridges reminds me of Grappelli and Reinhardt, with its gypsy feel.
The Assembly Hall in Islington next March 26 or 27 will be the place to be. It is, of course, returns only.
Sierra Ferrell, meanwhile, comes to the genre with the album Long Time Coming, which is on the esteemed Rounder Records that puts out folk and roots music from all sorts of artists. Surrounded by flowers on the album cover, we are ushered into Sierra’s world.
Sierra tags Billy in as well on the song Bells In Every Chapel, a waltz where his nimble fingers stand in for the subject of the song, a guy who was ‘the one for me’. There’s clarinet and trumpet as well as mandolin on the Norah Jones-y At The End of the Rainbow, which must have been a lot of fun to record and ends with Sierra begging to be given a man’s love.
West Virginia Waltz properly evokes the title, conjuring images of ‘true love waiting’. Far Away Across The Sea repeats a Cubano rhythm and Buena Vista-ish trumpet part, while Silver Dollar is a toe-tapper with a neat fiddle part and Give It Time goes heavy on the banjo, steel guitar and old-fashioned harmonies.
The opening track is called The Sea, which begins with a theremin-sounding sawed bowed instrument before glockenspiel and fiddle come in. The production, as with the track Why D’Ya Do It, reminds me of Pink Martini, with a gypsy-jazz feel. The Sea slides into the light bluegrass of Jeremiah, which is delivered with a vocal full of character and charm, similar to those of the First Aid Kit girls or Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley. In Dreams is alt-country rock with a charming siren vocal from Sienna (‘won’t you sit down…you look so tired’) and backing harmonies from the inestimable Sarah Jarosz. I replayed it instantly, twice.
There are touches of the greatest songsmiths (Dylan, Mitchell, Carlile) on Made Like That, a song of fidelity which is soaked in three-part harmonies and T-Bone Burnett-style percussion to frame the lyric. ‘I’ll fix all of your bridges I have watched you burn to the ground’ is some line. The song has a sad coda where Sienna sings of leaving West Virginia, which leads into the closing track Whispering Waltz. The song is elemental, with water, fire and earth all present, with the narrator in tears and heading to the river ‘with the ashes of a letter’. It is disarmingly simple and I reckon she could sing this a cappella like a folk song.
Sierra has realised her sound, one which her voice is compatible with. Live, she will be as sublime as Billy Strings, and she is also on these shores in January with two gigs at the tiny church in St Pancras in London and one at the Celtic Connections jamboree up in Glasgow. The London gigs are sold out and I expect BBC Radio Scotland will carry the Glasgow gig.
LOCASH are one of those acts who get songs placed on country radio but aren’t household names. Their success seems to come down to knowing the right people. Their first big hit from 2015 was the overly positive I Love This Life, written with Chris Janson who also helped the duo write Truck Yeah for Tim McGraw. I Know Somebody (written by Ross Copperman), Ring On Every Finger (written by Thomas Rhett) and One Big Country Song (written by Ashley Gorley and Hardy) were all plucked off the shelves and sung by the pair who used to be called LOCASH Cowboys.
This five-track EP includes their first new material in almost three years. Beach Boys picks up where country-popper Brian Kelley’s last album left off: ‘Let’s take the country to the beach, boys’ is the command, while they interpolate I Get Around on the post-chorus and the famous harmonies to such an extent that Brian Wilson and Mike Love will get royalties from a tune which namechecks Brooks & Dunn. I like the line about getting ‘some red on the rednecks’ and how they smuggle Kokomo into the middle eight. It’s smart but you don’t need to hear the studio version more than once.
Sippin’ Sunsets (good title) compares the ‘golden’ view to the boys’ beloved, with another languid melody. Having introduced the water, In The Woods turns the phrase ‘it’s all good in the hood’ to a rural setting. It sounds like one of those Rhett Akins tunes that, in one form or another, is on country radio every hour of every day. The digital drum loop ruins what could have been a really good acoustic pop song, full of catchiness and smart lyrics.
Indeed Rhett is called up with his Peach Picker buddies Ben Hayslip and Dallas Davidson on Small Town For Life. As you can well imagine, it’s a series of rural signifiers, so country bingo cards at the ready: jeans, boots, red dirt roots, trucks, praying for rain, daddy, ‘my back home girl’, amen. The vocal interplay reminds me of Holloway Road, who would make a good opener if LOCASH tour their music in the UK next year.
Chillionaire (not a good title) lopes along with both a whistling hook and a ‘sit/sip’ pre-chorus hook that will pop live. It’s country-pop hip-hop in the modern style which rhymes ‘cheddar/go-getter’ and builds to a chorus full of laziness. Florida Georgia Line could have cut this in their golden days of 2015; it feels vaguely nostalgic now. I hope there’s still a place for this in the market. The style will never go away but it’s in direct opposition to the current trend, as this is fun music for parties and gatherings.
The main point to note for this EP is that five years ago Townsend lost her drummer and collaborator. The album Show Me Home came out in 2018 and now, along with a podcast, there are five new tracks on a self-titled EP.
Stay was the impact track, which had hints of confessional songwriting from the 1990s – Counting Crows, Fiona Apple and Liz Phair for instance – with wide-open production, a chugging instrumental section and yearning lyrics sung with a keening melody (‘I need love…I don’t want to stay’). It’s country in as much as she’s telling a story and drawing in the listener, but it’s on the rockier, poppier side.
The rest of the EP continues in a similar vein, which will interest fans of Brandi Carlile, for instance. Can’t Travel has Townsend saying ‘I blame myself’ over a train beat and a simple chord progression, while Whisper has another familiar progression (the Don’t Stop Believing One) and adds a chorus full of empathy and melody, with some vocalised scatting to accompany some nice exhortations: ‘Keep your eyes shut tightly…Don’t worry, baby stop your shaking’.
Scars (which ‘made me, me’) is a story of self-examination that 1000 open mic singers have sung but is made interesting by another great development section in the middle. I loved the short, sweet Sunrise, which adds some rhythm to a pretty melody, and would love to hear more than 19 minutes of what Townsend has to say.
The aim of her podcast is to ‘encourage people to feel less alone’. Her music does the same.
Since 1969, Ray Benson has employed almost 100 hired hands in his quest to keep Western Swing in the musical sphere. It is a selfless and altruistic aim which has gained him a cult following; Van Morrison was an early supporter, while Willie Nelson did a whole album with them in 2009 called Willie and the Wheel. The band have also brought out two sets of Bob Wills interpretations, acknowledging the King of Western Swing.
Their new project is a mix of old and new, making it the closest thing to an Asleep At The Wheel live show. The old include: their very first single Take Me Back To Tulsa (‘I’m too young to marry!!’), which here features George Strait and Willie Nelson; The Letter That Johnny Walker Read, their biggest hit; the charming Bump Bounce Boogie, first recorded in 1975; a version of the Bob Wills classic Spanish Two Step, which includes the original Playboys Jesse Ashlock and fiddler Johnny Gimble; and a pair originally recorded in 1976, Miles and Miles of Texas (where Austin is praised as ‘the cradle of the West) and Route 66.
The title track opens the set with Ray singing ‘I’ve been round the bend!’ and namechecking ‘Buck and Merle’, as well as Willie, to the accompaniment of horns, piano and some neat guitar fretwork. As ever, it’s fun and gets the toes tapping. Ditto Miles and Miles of Texas, which is music to be played by anyone wanting a good time and praises Austin, ‘the cradle of the West’ and my cousin’s new home city.
Ray has gotten the band back together to celebrate the half-century. It’s The Same Old South and My Little Baby (with a self-referential line about girls crying as if it’s a country song!) has warm vocals from a woman who was part of the group in its early days, Chris O’Connell. Old timer LeRoy Preston sings on three of his own tunes: the laid-back and sombre Paycheck to Paycheck; The Photo, which sounds like country music from the 1950s; and the excellent I Do What I Must.
Lyle Lovett, a fellow Texan musician, helps Ray out on the bouncy Benson composition There You Go Again. Willie and the great Emmylou Harris adds her wonderful voice to album closer The Road Will Hold Me Tonight, a waltz supreme where the trio of voices mesh delightfully.
Other highlights on an album smattered with marvellous melodies and the usual virtuosity include Word to the Wise, where Ray and Bill Kirchen (‘these two hicks’) trade quips before Bill pops up to sing his self-penned set of morals. That’s How I Remember It has grand piano chords and a self-consciously classic melody and lyric about holding memories in your hands.
On the other hand, I Love You Most of All (When You’re Not Here) sounds exactly like you think it does, a proper jive of a tune (with a few bars of saxophone solo) when absence truly makes the heart grow fonder (‘I think it’s time to wander!!).
Ray Benson, it occurs to me, is the American equivalent of Jools Holland. It is crazy that the whole of America isn’t in thrall to Ray (the leading Jewish light in American swing music) the way Jools’ Rhythm and Blues Orchestra are a Christmas institution today. Hootenanny!!
Sturgill Simpson – The Ballad of Dood and Juanita
Slipped out with very little fanfare, country maverick Sturgill has popped out a concept album which, if rumours are to be believed, completes his career catalogue of five albums. In recent years he has made a straight-ahead rock album and two volumes of bluegrass versions of his country catalogue, while becoming an independently minded star who accompanied Chris Stapleton on guitar on a Saturday Night Live performance thanks to their mutual friend, producer Dave Cobb. (Find the review of Cuttin’ Grass: Volume 1 here: https://countrywol.com/2020/10/23/country-jukebox-jury-sturgill-simpson-and-jeremy-ivey/)
Co-produced by Sturgill with David Ferguson, the album opens with a military drum beat and whistling, introducing an old-fashioned tale, set in ’29 (1829 or 1929, I suppose each can apply), set in ‘the old Kentucky hills’ about Dood, ‘son of a mountain miner’, and his ‘one true love’ Juanita.
Over 28 minutes, we get banjos, fiddles, block harmonies and Sturgill’s fabled Appalachian tenor voice. After two albums where he reinvented his rock songs as bluegrass music, Sturgill takes us on a cinematic voyage of sound. The meet-cute is described in the song One in the Saddle, One on the Ground, where it’s revealed the pair create two children, Dood was ‘working the plough far away from his rifle’ but couldn’t stop the bandit knocking him out (‘Dood crumpled down’) and Juanita snatched. He leaves his children ‘till Daddy returns’. Thus we have a bardic quest, accompanied by bluegrass instrumentation including harmonica, fiddle and bass.
Dood’s horse Shamrock and his dog Sam both get their own song in the tradition of hundreds of old songs describing the American West. The horse ‘stood about 19 hands’ and there’s even the jaw’s harp boinging away and some coconut percussion in the mix, while the banjo solo serves to move the narrative along and keeps the mood focussed on the quest. Sam, however, doesn’t survive the journey and there’s a funereal a cappella song to underline that ‘the runt of the litter’ was ‘wonder of all walkers’.
Between those odes is the song Played Out, a slow song in 12/8 time full of prayers to the Lord: ‘Don’t let this journey be all in vain’, Dood sings of his woe, sagging on his horse with ‘shoulders throbbing’ at a high vantage point to try and spot the dastardly bandit.
As for the Tejano-flavoured Juanita, Willie Nelson joins in to further reach back into the past (bear in mind he is 88 years old) and provide support for Sturgill’s narrator, who reminisces about their love: ‘You are the ocean, I am a grain of sand’. Go In Peace starts with a bluegrass hoedown and tells of a meeting with a blind Native American chief who, incredibly, now has possession of Juanita. So it must be 1829, as the Natives had been put in reservations by 1929 (GCSE History!).
In the third verse, the pair are reunited (hence the hoedown) and the military drumbeat returns to send them on their way, as Dood and the bandit, Seamus McClure, meet for a showdown. This time, of course, Dood has his rifle and he ‘let that iron ball fly free’. He doesn’t kill him first time but, tomahawk in hand, makes sure of it the second. They all lived happily ever after, though I hope the kids didn’t create too much mayhem back on the homestead.
The fact that an award-nominated star can put this record out in 2021 gives me hope for independently minded music.
Based on the south coast of England, the UK’s answer to The Cadillac Three or Brothers Osborne have put out their third release in 18 months (one of which was a short EP of covers and is reviewed here.
Dave, Ryan and Pete open the album with Done My Time. There’s chaingang percussion, bluesy wails, harmonised call-and-response vocals and a guitar lick, and it’s a fine introduction to an album full of riffs and vocal reverb. See also the party-starting Back In The Game (bring your own alcohol) and Rattlesnake Sour Over-Proof, where ‘the lights are out and we lost all power’, probably because they turned the amps up too loud.
These guys know how to write rock’n’roll songs. Red Rag has a chorus full of colours and two guitar parts going on at any one time, while There’s No Easy Way To Say This opens with a punch and continues with similar intensity for 2 minutes 30 seconds. Rollin’ Stone has a tongue-twister of a chorus (‘you got me tied up, twisted and sewn’) which is followed by a guitar gently weeping and, later in the song, a brilliant middle eight that gives way to a fun solo.
They also add a little country hoedown (and a namecheck for Al Gore, I think) on Enough About Me (‘let’s talk about you, what you think about me?’). They can slow things down too, where the listener can catch their breath but still appreciate the high level of musicianship. Sea Legs is a power ballad about ageing, and Got It Made has a triple-time feel and some neat vocals bellowing about being jacks of all trades but masters of none.
The centrepiece of the album is Blame the Horse, a tale about betting on the gee-gees told over seven minutes, including a minute-long intro. Dave, whose vocals on the album are the best I have heard on a UK country release this year, growls his way through the narrative with openness (‘I’ll be frank, I’ve grown a beard!’) as the production piles organ on top of guitars on top of drums.
The sound of UK Country is better than it has ever been, and producers don’t get the credit they deserve, so well done to David Evans here, who has managed to capture the lightning of the band’s live show onto what I still want to call tape. The Outlaw Orchestra are the kind of band that DJs would convert into the listener’s favourite new band.
In the absence of Peel or Lamacq, my recommendation will have to do.
Kentuckian Elvie Shane has been the Little Engine of 2021. His song My Boy, about stepfatherhood, has climbed all the way to number one on radio. There is also a version called My Girl, where stepdaughters are praised too. As with Yours by Russell Dickerson, radio has supported a great song sung well, which the label hopes will translate into a career. Russell will play the main stage at C2C 2022, though he is more pop-leaning than Elvie, whose voice is similar to that of Luke Combs. Like Luke, Elvis writes all his own stuff with a host of colleagues, here including superstar drummer Fred Eltringham, Luke’s buddy Ray Fulcher and Dan Couch, who wrote Something Bout A Truck with Kip Moore.
On Wheelhouse Records, which also puts out Runaway June’s music, Elvie’s debut album includes My Boy as the tenth track on a 15-track set. It follows the County Roads EP which whetted appetites for this project. The album’s cover is notable, as it shows Elvie with his hands clasped in prayer. This sets up what ought to be an old-school country album where Jesus, family and plenty of rural signifiers will make up the lyrics and the music will twang.
The EP set up Elvie as a cross between Kip Moore and Eric Church, with even bigger drums.
There’s plenty of Broadway-style rockin’ out to County Roads, with some na-na-nas adding a singalongability. The song is a statement of intent, something to drink to thanks to the ‘here’s to’ lyric. Sundress, however, is a ballad in the Kip or Aldean vein about a girl and a car and sneaking off for some fun, while My Mississippi opens with a quick blast of organ before Elvie sings the praises of the eponymous river: ‘I know a girl a lot like you’ switches the narrative to love being like a river. It’s a smart song set to three familiar chords.
Keep On Strummin’ has him ‘running down a dream’ and will ‘hit the ground runnin’ while he plays his guitar. There’s a nice nod to Sixteenth Avenue, both the street and the song which details songwriters coming to town with a guitar and a dream. We get loads of references to famous country songs – Where I Come From, Fortunate Son, Born To Run – and Elvie is working in the tradition of Tom Petty, Alan Jackson, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Bruce Springsteen. I gotta have more cowbell! Kip Moore fans will find much to enjoy and if I heard this in a Broadway bar, I would pop a five-dollar bill in the jar.
Sundays In The South majors on twang before listing Southern images: NASCAR, potholes, church bells and spiritual songs like I’ll Fly Away and Amazing Grace. The Cadillac Three do this sort of thing and it’s credit to Elvie that this can stand alongside it.
The nine new tracks collected on the album include song of devotion I Will Run, the album opener which begins with synths straight out of 1983 and adds a percussion loop and some acoustic licks. I rose up out of my seat when I heard the intro of Love, Cold Beer, Cheap Smoke, where there’s more ‘running’: it contains my favourite type of chugging guitar sound, over which Elvie reminisces about good times and raising up beer bottles. It’s so close to an Eric Church song that he could claim a credit for the vibe.
Eric’s influence also looms over the great driving song Nothin Lasts Forever (‘but we could try’), with harmonies from Tenille Townes, and the funky, itchy Heartbreaks and Headaches, where drink makes another appearance. Conversely yet on the same theme, Rocket Science is a lovely power ballad about ‘leaving smoke trails’ since it’s so hard to forget the memory of an ex.
There’s a quirky interlude featuring the deep voice of The Fletch called Kickin’ Stones with plenty of religious fervour, which segues into the church-inspired rocker Saturday Night Me (‘and Sunday Morning you’), which ought to be brilliant live, especially with the vivid line linking ‘stained glass and my neon’.
My Kinda Trouble opens with a verse about not covering up tattoos because ‘your kinda crazy’s the kind I like…the kinda hammer that’ll hit you just right’. The wheel isn’t reinvented but why change the rockin’ formula? As well as femmes fatales, we’ve got mama: the album ends with the seven-minute, strings-laden opus Miles (with My Mama), as in the song is called Miles and Elvie’s mum appears too. Family, like a Fast & Furious movie, is omnipresent, and Elvie wants the listener to carpe the diem because there are ‘miles you’ll never get back again’.
As if to hammer home the allusions to Eric Church (come on, Elvie even wears aviator shades), there’s a fine passage of guitar to close the track and the album.
This album is part of a trilogy. The final track is the title track, which repeats the titles of both Wish You Were Here and Glad You Made It. I came across Joshua Ray Walker when I heard the second part and wrote in my review that ‘you know you’re in country music from the album’s first bar’. I heard yodelling, honky-tonk ready tunes and direct lyrics. It was among my 25 favourite albums of the year. I think this record is among my top 25 of this year.
I actually sighed contentedly when I heard the opening fiddle riff of Dallas Lights, which has the feel of an old Ryan Adams song or indeed the country-rock of Counting Crows. Ditto Fossil Fuel, where Joshua Ray’s voice threatens to be overpowered by the fiddle, drums and guitar flailing around him, and the autobiographical Dumpster Diving (great title).
Joshua Ray told Holler Country that he tries to write songs about people ‘forgotten in culture…the homeless or the foragers’. It makes sense that he’s thinking cinematically (‘in my mind the movie already exists’) which makes for great, emotional country music.
Cowboy contains some luscious pedal steel and diminished chords to match a mournful lyric and an excellent vocal. Flash Paper reminds me of Lukas Nelson, with a slight catch on the chorus which adds to the delightfulness of the tune. Three Strikes (‘once…twice….’) continues the swing feel while Sexy After Dark brings in a horn section and a Muscle Shoals brilliance.
Elsewhere, Welfare Chet is a character song about a man down on his luck (there’s an accordion solo) and the midtempo ballad Gas Station Roses compares a couple to flowers whose buds are ‘not meant to last’. This album shows musical maturity and deep knowledge of the Texan sound. I can’t wait to see where he goes next!
Creed Fisher – Whiskey and the Dog
The press release does the hard work for me: Creed Fisher is ‘unapologetic, patriotic and passionate’ so if that’s your thing, read on.
I spoke to Creed for my In The Red Dirt show on ARC Radio and learned of his hard work playing at bikers’ meets and in the bars of Texas, where Creed works as an indie-minded musician. He’s got another album of covers out next year but before then he puts out 14 tunes from his own hand, all of which contribute to Creed ‘fighting this battle for Real Country Music’.
High on the Bottle (‘addicted to the pain’) opens the album in a midtempo way as Creed laments the end of a relationship and how he plays sad songs in bars for people in his predicament. There are hints of Hank Jr in Girls With Big Titties, a horndog’s autobiography in song where Creed fulfils his brief of being an outlaw. Perhaps the baby he serenades on Down To The Riverbank has enormous breasts, although she would be equally attracted by the pulsating arrangement full of Hammond organ.
Similarly honky-tonkin’ are Hundred Dollars Short (‘the Devil went fishing and I took the bait’ is a fine line) and Honky Tonk Drankin (‘when my heart’s been sankin’), where jukeboxes and neon lights help ease the pain of a nasty ex-wife. The song seems to be the result of the narrative of the album’s title track, which refers to the only things a scorned ex should leave. For those who want some more heartache, I’m Crazy and You’re Gone provides it, with broken chords and an old-fashioned phone call from a friend in the middle of the song.
Interestingly, a lot of Californians are opting to move to Texas because the rent is (for the minute) more affordable. Thus does Creed warn incomers, on Don’t California My Texas, not to ruin paradise, with a swipe at their electric cars and confusion over gender-neutral lavatories. ‘We can sit and drink, don’t have to know what you think…just trying to warn you’ is his counsel.
This Town is a gentle tune full of pictures and memories of rural life sung simply with simple lyrics. Country bingo cards at the ready for sweet tea, apple pie, football games, trucks, deer, Johnny Cash and soldiers who didn’t make it home. Good Ol U S of A picks up this theme, a sway-along tune full of positivity and optimism which will be perfect for Thanksgiving and any occasion ‘when Old Glory waves and our anthems start’.
I love the thinkin’ song Find My Way Back Home, where a bluesy guitar part anchors a lyric about wandering being in one’s blood and how Creed’s ‘weak and weary soul’ is doomed to be ‘out here on this wind’. It sounds like the Texan plains and is one of the album’s highlights. Gray Skys (sic) is another song in triple time. It opens with fiddle to underscore the mood of heartbreak, growing older and plodding on through it. There are some fine backing vocals providing moral support.
The album closes with Hankles, a cute little song about Creed’s dog who ‘loves to chew on my ankles’. The pooch is also namechecked on Jesus, Haggard and Jones. Creed tells of how his uncles taught him to fight and to smoke and how his grandpa instructs him on the value of hard work. In fact, his grandpa appears across the album, as Creed recognises the folk he is descended from.
The instrumentation across the album – pedal steel, fiddle, snare rim shots – matches Creed’s spirited vocals, and there’s enough light and shade on the album to fully do justice to the singer’s writing skills. Those honky-tonks and biker meets which Creed told me took up most of his live shows will enjoy the tunes on the album. Maybe you will too.
Reba McEntire is a smart woman who moved into TV sitcoms when she became too old for country radio. Now, as a legacy artist who is about to leave a longterm Vegas residency, she has reimagined her catalogue to kick it into the new century. Not 10, not 20 but 30 tracks are included in the project. I thought she’d record an album with an orchestra but, what with social distancing, this is the next best thing.
I’m a Survivor is on two of the sets, Fancy on all three, which makes sense because they are probably her most beloved songs, the former as the theme to that sitcom, the latter the encore of her live set. I like evergreen hits The Greatest Man I Never Knew and The Night The Lights Went Out in Georgia, songs with depth and structure, and Reba handles them well in these new versions, which may be because she has to sing them on pain of refund.
The first disc, Revived, updates her catalogue in a traditional manner, essentially bringing contemporary production to the old hits. In fact, to avoid disappointing her acolytes, in her live sets she likes to perform medleys at the top of the show, usually including Can’t Even Get The Blues, which actually makes me feel better especially with the stylish ending, and Walk On, which is punchy with the contemporary production that removes the ‘Nashville circa 1989’ from the original version.
The bluesy arrangements of the medley Take It Back and Why Haven’t I Heard From You, which she performed on The Tonight Show to promote the album, often ends her set proper (before she encores with Fancy). Not many country songs in 2021 would celebrate ‘the crazy little thing they call the telephone’ (although I am sure Brad Paisley could have shoehorned it into one of his).
Whoever’s In New England is another solid mainstay of her set; the Revived version helps cement the song’s classic status, with snare taps and soft acoustic guitar which set Reba’s vocal centre stage. She was the top country singer of the era, bringing choreography into her shows, before Garth started zipwiring himself over his audience. Sometimes the song takes centre stage, as it does on the sombre waltz You Lie, here moved down a few steps from B-flat to G to allow Reba’s voice to soar in her advanced years.
For My Broken Heart is another classic, with Reba praying and crying herself to sleep having lost her beloved. In part I get my wish here, as there’s a beefy string section and some delightful picking to underscore her emotion.
Disc Two offers the ten remixes. There’s a fun version of You Keep Me Hangin On inspired by Kim Wilde’s cover. I’m A Survivor has been remixed effectively by Lafemmebear, while Dave Aude has been entrusted with Fancy, Why Haven’t I Heard From You (which pulsates pleasantly) and I’m Gonna Take That Mountain, all of which would happily fit into any set on Broadway by a DJ helping to entertain a hen party.
Some remixes are less successful despite their good intentions. Eric Kupper turns The Night The Lights Went Out in Georgia, turning the hanging of an innocent man into a Giorgio Moroder homage, and Does He Love You, which is a less successful remix. The Tracy Young remix of Turn On The Radio, a number one from 2010 that sounds like a Carrie Underwood reject, is odd because Reba’s syncopated delivery simply doesn’t work over a straight 4/4 disco stomp.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, remixed by Ralphi Rosario, does work, especially with the guitar licks poking out of the production. Little Rock is given a 4/4 euphoric beat by Stonebridge that matches Reba’s insouciance of taking off her wedding ring to find a man ‘who really cares a lot’.
Finally we get ten tracks Revisited, produced by Reba and Dave Cobb, whose work with Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson has brought blues and rock into mainstream country music. The main event is a duet of Does He Love You with Dolly Parton, best known for that other love triangle Jolene. I wonder if, say, Carly Pearce and Lauren Alaina will bring the song back into popular conscience for a generation not used to these modern classics which are now 30 years old. It’s like current musicians doing Wonderwall and More Than Words by Extreme. Another factoid is that Reba has now had 72 charting singles.
The Fear of Being Alone is given fiddle and banjo accompaniment, while Consider Me Gone dials down the drums while Reba sets out her ultimatum. There’s rootsy fiddle and classic-sounding piano on Somebody Should Leave, One Promise Too Late and How Blue, all of which foreground Reba’s voice. Cobb has also worked with Brandi Carlile recently, proving he can frame female voices as well as male ones. The Last One To Know has some suitably mournful pedal steel and a top arrangement, while New Fool at an Old Game keeps the initial sound of the original studio version.
The Revisited set ends with a torchsong piano-led version of I’m A Survivor and Dave Cobb’s take on Fancy that recalls Sympathy For The Devil. It completes my favourite disc of the three, and well done to Reba for taking a chance on a remix album, which her loyal fans will view as a curio. They will prefer the stage-ready first disc but I remain curious to see if Reba goes out on a more acoustic tour in the next few years. More power to her, whatever she does.
I know a few things about Toby Keith. His last big hit was a decade ago, about the wonders of the red solo cup; he invested in Big Machine and got lots of money out of Taylor Swift; and he loves his I Love This Bar and Grill, which means he is rich enough to stay off the road. He was the ACM Entertainer of the Year 2002 and 2003, recorded Beer for my Horses with Willie Nelson and was a patriot who made money selling American patriotism back to America after the September 11 attacks. He also played the Trump inauguration, and the President rewarded him with a Medal of Arts.
Toby was a road warrior in the 1990s and 2000s and is still a keen player to US troops stationed overseas. He’s got the type of face which was deemed marketable in the SoundScan era of Garth, Reba and McGraw. He’s had a slew of big hits including the fun, tongue-twisting I Wanna Talk About Me, his debit smash Should’ve Been A Cowboy and the self-deprecating As Good As I Once Was (which would not even TOUCH the shelf today!).
Having turned 60 in July, he’s very much a legacy artist, one who I can play on my In The Red Dirt show because he’s from Oklahoma. Indeed the opening cover of a groovy track called Oklahoma Breakdown, originally released by Stoney LaRue, is excellent. The title track has an addictive groove and a lyric which is perfect for pre-gaming before a great night out, even if it isn’t in Mexico. ‘Gringo in my lingo’ is a fun line to sing.
Similarly funky is Old Me Better where Keith is ‘having second thoughts’ about his changed situation with fewer chances to party. In a similar vein, as an older guy looking back on stuff he has done, The Warren Brothers gift Toby the triple-time Days I Shoulda Died. The third verse is all about Zippo lighters and flames, which is very Toby Keith.
Rockstar Sammy Hagar co-wrote Growing Up is a Bitch with Toby, which is another very Toby Keith songtitle. The song opens with complaints about diets and how you ‘better listen to your doctor and your wife’; again, there is the dichotomy between growing old and having fun as you did when you were younger, which makes this album a sort of concept album.
Old School, written by Ryan Hurd and Maren Morris, was another pre-released track with a three-chord groove and a smart lyric about going out and having fun in old-fashioned ways, such as eating at Dairy Queen and listening to Bon Jovi (‘we’re halfway there’ is found in the second verse).
Toby is free to do as he wishes on his Show Dog imprint, rather than making money for a major label, and he shows himself to be a student of songwriting,. Thunderbird is a great study in classic Red Dirt country, with a brilliant arrangement and vocal. He interprets Take A Look At My Heart, written by Johns Prine and Mellencamp, with a lot of chugging that references the original, which had backing vocals from Bruce Springsteen. In fact, the politics of all three of those songwriters are far, far left of Toby’s! Music isn’t red or blue, might be the inference.
Meanwhile he rips off the rhyming ‘back, Jack/ plan, Stan’ of Paul Simon on the country ballad She’s Drinkin Again: ‘She’s mean as a snake, Jake…Don’t get up in her grill, Bill’. It’ll be a live favourite, especially with the brass instrumental section, as will the track which Toby put out this past July 4. Happy Birthday America is the latest in Toby’s series of patriotic songs that pander to his audience: ‘I get to wake up in your freedom…Seems like everybody’s pissing on the Red, White and Blue’.
At least he’s not afraid to be political, and everyone else has caught up. It still seems sad that Toby could have a career while the Dixie Chicks were run out of town. That’s country, folks.
Earlier this year, I was very impressed with Dillon’s six-track EP, which brought him to new ears and forms the backbone of his smartly titled 14-track debut album. He’s the protégé of Jon Pardi, the album’s co-producer along with Dann Huff, so it’s easy to compare him to the big-voiced Californian who has updated traditional sounds and added sprinkles of rock.
When the song came out, I was addicted to Hot Beer, three chords and an unwillingness to get back with an old fling. It is a brilliant start to the album. Big Truck was written with Jessi Alexander and David Lee Murphy, and the influence of the latter is clear thanks to the chugging rhythm and the song effectively being a rewrite of She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy, although Dillon has lots of other qualities and gifts.
Ray Fulcher, who will always be linked with his mate Luke Combs, pops up in the credits of the groovy and catchy love song Since You’ve Been In It (‘My world’s been better’). The equally addictive Sawin Logs has been out for a few months and showcases Dillon’s croon via lyrics which include the rhyme ‘hickory bundle/all kinds of trouble’. It’s filth flarn filth: ‘I’ve got wood and she’s sawin logs’ is a brilliant way of implying that his beloved is a passion killer.
The midtempo leaving song Somewhere She Ain’t, written by Dillon with Jessi and the Peach Picker Ben Hayslip, sounds like a Jon Pardi song produced by Dann Huff, with some spacious guitars (and a patented Huff solo in the middle of the song) and a lovesick narrator who sounds in pain. He can’t even go to Carolina ‘cos that’s her middle name’. What a palaver, expertly told.
Family Tree, which would be a subdued set opener, begins with some soft strums to set up ‘a thinker’ of a song, full of Jesus and ‘the way we are’ and ‘old school Merle’. Casey Beathard was in the room for this one and it sounds like a mid-2000s country radio tune that Casey would have written for Trace Adkins or Gary Allan. The title track has the same songwriters and is governed by a descending chord progression and a lovely lyric about parents and kids. Casey’s son Tucker, also a singer/songwriter, might have been in mind on the line ‘played the “long as you’re living in my roof” card’. The middle eight references the rising divorce rate, which is worthy of note.
Hose Water shares that old neo-trad sound, a gentle Rhett Akins co-write reminiscin’ about how ‘there was nothin’ else to do’ aside from get out driving with your beloved and cope with the heat by sticking a hose in your mouth. Blake Shelton might have done a good job on this, and Dillon’s voice hits all the notes Blake could hit. Gonna Wish You Did was written by the Warren Brothers, Hardy and Brad (son of Rodney) Clawson. Marshall Tucker Band get a mention in the first verse as an example of things you wish you should do in life, which tumble over one another in the chorus and give way to a rockin’ solo (with no G).
Man Made A Bar comes from the super trio of Shane McAnally, Luke Laird and Jon Pardi, and opens with neon lights, bar bands and a punter ‘drowning shots of tequila’. It sounds like a Jon Pardi song and I wonder if Jon will release his own version next year, perhaps as a duet with Dillon, who handles the lyric well about how ‘God made a woman, man made a bar’. It’s a fun examination of masculinity.
Leave The Lovin, a song of apology and how ‘there ain’t much we can’t fix with a kiss’, is a smooth Jaren Johnston/Laird co-write, two men who know what commercial country sounds like. The album ends with the morose heartache ballad Baby I Would, another Johnston composition with some wonderful production touches from Dann Huff. Indeed, Jaren’s band The Cadillac Three appear on Pickin’ Up Girls, a bit of fun filler on the album’s second side with a false ending and a guitar wigout. Might we see Dillon supporting TC3 next year?
In fact, Dillon comes across like a marketing executive has cross-pollinated Combs and Wallen, which every smart man knows is the Sound of Country Music Today. Red White Camo and Blue, which Dillon wrote with the great Bobby Pinson (best known for working with Toby Keith and Sugarland), is another blue-collar rocker with great imagery. ‘We got more deer and cows than we got people’ aims this squarely at rural audiences, as does the brilliant fiddle solo.
Paychecks and Longnecks is also an outside write which Dillon has plucked off the shelf, a working man’s song that is so close to a Luke Combs hit that Luke could probably sue. In the second verse, Dillon wants to flip the bird ‘but you can’t cos you know you’ll get fired’. Big guitars, heavy drums and blue-collar vocals.
As I thought when the EP came out, the country sound of 1994 is back, although it never really went away.
The Lady A model of commercial country music – man and women duetting in harmony, or putting different sides of the same relationship – is probably one that Scott Borchetta saw dollar signs in. It must be noted that Big Machine, the label on which this album is released, is now owned by a Korean company; I bet Korean fans will go wild for Lady A as they love ballads.
Like A Lady (‘sipping on tequila with my Levis on’) is basically Now That’s What I Call Mum Jeans, sold convincingly by mother-of-three Hillary Scott. File alongside Downtown and Bartender. Things He Handed Down is a smart song about intergenerational love that Thomas Rhett could have made a fortune with if he hadn’t let Lady A record it. I imagine this can be paired with Hello World in concert.
That’s how I am viewing this collection of songs: new versions of old tropes but this time Big Machine makes back an advance, not Capitol Nashville. Talk of This Town is a typical Nicolle Galyon song (much like It Ain’t Pretty) where the trio sing of things which provide a town with gossip and conversation in checkout lines where ‘everybody’s takin’ sides’. It is such a Lady Antebellum song they are in danger of plagiarising themselves.
Hillary Lindsey was in the room for Fire, a song narrated by Hillary about love and stuff. This will make their setlist just after American Honey set to different words and music but the same key of D-flat. The second verse adds a new spin by introducing a guy chasing his dreams. The hook (‘Fi-RE! Fi-RE!’) is catchy and the sonic bed appeals to daughters of their target demographic: the 35-54-year-old woman driving a people carrier.
Amy Wadge and Natalie Hemby help the band write Worship What I Hate, an immaculate piano-led ballad with a minute-long outro that begins with Hillary looking in the mirror ‘wishing for a brand new body…seeing every flaw’. This really is new: body positivity and self-empowerment sung with syrupy strings that will certainly find an audience. Verse two introduces red wine and ‘a button on a screen’, forming bad habits. It’s very American, although Ward Thomas have put out a lot of this sort of thing.
Chance of Rain is the rock ballad on the first half of the album, which reminds me of Can’t Stand The Rain (the clue’s in the title). The metaphor here is that you need to embrace the summer even though it might rain. It doesn’t make it any less excellent as an example of contemporary Nashville pop music. It doesn’t sound current, though, which may doom the project in much the same way that Tim McGraw will always be the Live Like You Were Dying guy.
The title track, written by Charles with Ryan Hurd, Laura Veltz and Sam Ellis – a new name to me but he’s worked with Ingrid Andress and Kane Brown – is a songwriting exercise set to a poppy beat. If you have driving, lighters, love, peace of mind, dancing, crying and kissing on your bingo card, have a drink. I wonder if they were tempted to put ‘help us buy a house because that’s what Need You Now allowed us to do’ on the card or in the middle eight. None of these seven songs will make them as much money but good on Big Machine for funding their efforts. They’re great live.
The second ‘side’ of the album completes the project, copying the current Big Machine strategy of releasing music in clumps; Carly Pearce, Thomas Rhett and Brett Young all put out EPs as part of a two-pronged attack. The first of the seven new tracks is acoustic ballad Where Would I Be, the album’s sole outside write by Natalie Hemby and David Garcia. It is sung deliciously by a band who have made millions with soft tunes like this aimed at adults as they sip wine after a hard day at the desk.
Friends Don’t Let Friends (‘drink alone’) includes both Carly and TR, as well as Darius Rucker, in a trick first attempted on Straight To Hell, a song notionally by Charles’ golf buddy Darius but featuring three other male singers. In a quest to make an ‘Event Release’, the voices pile up on top of each other, and Lady A seem to drop out entirely for the final verse. Six vocalists are unnecessary but I am sure the accountants love it. TR wrote this three-chord song with Ashley Gorley, Charles and his mate Julian Bunetta.
Swore I Was Leaving is a fine meet-cute waltz sung by Charles and Hillary which ends the album optimistically. In Waves is Lady A by numbers, with fluttering harmonies and a driving-friendly chorus that sets up the heartache felt by Charles in his vocal. Hillary almost answers that song from the other perspective of ‘heartbreak hell’ on the poppy You Keep Thinking That, while you can tell that Chris Young’s go-to guy Corey Crowder had a hand in Be That For You, a song of fidelity with a very long outro and a supercharged Dann Huff solo, which is gagging to be played at a wedding.
The fine-structured Workin On This Love was written and sung by Dave, whom I still remember being cheered at a C2C performance by, as Charles put it, ‘your fan club!!’ The song starts with a steel-stringed acoustic guitar and Dave singing tenderly about how ‘a firm foundation is hard to break’. He’s been waiting over a decade for this song, which has gospel overtones and plenty of metaphors to emphasise the relationship with his wife.
They will tour this album. Everyone will want to hear the classics, and one or two tracks from this record may well join them as classics, but at this stage of their career nobody will become a fan of a band who know their place in the market. That’s what their songs can do.