Luke Bryan’s fellow Georgia boy and merch guy wrote Rollercoaster and Beer In the Headlights for him. He also penned Thomas Rhett’s song Get Me Some Of That and This Is How We Roll for Luke and Florida Georgia Line.
Cole Swindell was thus able to transition to a stage performer who has had tons of hits which have been firmly in the bro-country pocket. Will we hear Chillin It, Let Me See Ya Girl, Ain’t Worth The Whiskey, Middle of a Memory, You Should Be Here (dedicated to his late father), Break Up in the End or Love You Too Late in ten years’ time?
Cole will never be an A-lister, although he does headline a tour this year, but he looks country and sounds country and shifts units and fills up an undercard. His 2018 album All of It was immediately forgettable so I had middling hopes for Stereotype. He’s even hopped on the duets trend with a Lainey Wilson collaboration called Never Say Never, which is let down by tedious production choices and sounds like a Luke Bryan reject with a string section. I also don’t like the way the singers trade phrases rather than lines.
Cole also hopped on the Hardy trend, roping in his vocals on the fun Down to the Bar. Indeed, Hardy was in the room for several of the tracks here because he is so hot right now. The opening one-two punch of the title track and Every Beer sets the scene: the former is a list song in disguise as a dictionary definition with a smooth chorus and a lyrical twist where Cole praises his ‘turnin’ up my stereo type’ of girl; Every Beer (‘could be your last one’) is one of those Advice Songs which have long been part of country music: Live Like You Were Dying, People Are Crazy, Buy Dirt, Janice at the Hotel Bar and on and on. It’s a good trope and now Cole has his own Advice Song.
The album’s plodding first single, on which Cole sung about his last Single Saturday Night (a Hardy co-write), was at least a clever turn of phrase, while Girl Goes Crazy is a three-minute movie which would make a good music video. Verse one: guy messes around a booty call. Verse two: girl throws drink on that guy. Middle eight: sympathy for our heroine because of the ‘stupid boy’. It’s a conversation starter.
Thomas Rhett was in the room for She Had Me At Heads Carolina. Why just refer to an old song when you can rewrite it and say ‘she’s a 90s country fan like I am’? It’s another conversation starter but, by God, I hope this isn’t a trend as it reveals the bankruptcy of modern Music Row songwriting. Whatever next: I’m a friend in a low place? I sat in George’s chair? Fuggedaboutit, but don’t let me prejudice you. All those songwriters moving to town and they hear a song from 1996 brought out of retirement. Maybe it’s a way of telling youngsters there’s no future in songcraft.
Dustin Lynch didn’t even have room for ballad I’m Gonna Let Her on his recent record, which was full of tempo tunes which make money, so he passed it across to Cole, who is an identical product to DL. Sayin’ You Love Me is so inferior to anything on Ernest’s new album that he should take his name off the credits to that song. It also includes Grady Smith’s bugbear as the lady is ‘doin’ that thing you always do’. At least we get some punchy drums on How Is She, which might be the sequel to Break Up In The End.
As you would expect for a Commercial Country record, the big guns all show up to write with or for Cole: Miss Wherever had Luke Laird in the room, who may have brought the lyrical turn in the chorus but can’t save a narrow, pointless melody; Scooter Carusoe was there for the lovely Some Habits, which sounds like Kenny Chesney, in which Cole says that lying in bed with his beloved is a good habit; and both Rodney Clawson and Randy Montana give Cole the album closer Walk On Whiskey, which begins with the line ‘I bet I sound like a broken record’.
This hooks the listener even before the album’s best chorus, full of pathos and fear and humanity. The song, in fact, is far too good for Cole Swindell. Luke Combs would sell the hell out of Walk on Whiskey.
A final thought. Even though girls appear in most of the songs on Stereotype, Never Say Never co-writer Jessi Alexander is the only woman in the album’s writing credits, which is pathetic for a major-label release in 2022.
Country radio is in its dying gasps, like Voldemort at the end of the seventh Harry Potter film. With streaming taking the audience share, radio will never have the hegemony it had in 1990, 2000 or even 2010.
As with Maren Morris (whose new album Humble Quest was released in March 2022), Thomas Rhett has become immersed in Nashville’s music scene. A decade later both are automatic picks for country radio rotation. Maren’s third album and TR’s sixth (six!!) both push them into the next stage of their successful career. Both are parents – TR a father of four, Maren of a two-year-old son – who have enough hits to headline shows in the USA and the UK, thanks to radio play over here.
Their sound is on the poppy commercial end of country music, the type that makes money. TR is the cash cow of Big Machine, the label which grew rich on Taylor Swift, and has written with guys who helped carve the sound of One Direction. He will always be known as the son of Rhett Akins, the man who has become a top commercial songwriter with hits like Boys Round Here, Small Town Boy and lots of tracks about girls sung by Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan and TR himself. Grandpa Rhett used to go out on tour to open for his son and also babysit the grandkids while TR is dancing onstage as country’s answer to Ed Sheeran or Harry Styles (or Bruno Mars, but that’s a stretch).
For his part, TR wrote Round Here for Florida Georgia Line and was launched to market with a track where he wanted to have Beer with Jesus. After a decade of hits which include Die A Happy Man (a Billboard Hot 100 number 21 smash) and the Maren Morris duet Craving You (number 39), he has also hit the US album number one spot twice. This is testament to Scott Borchetta’s ability to market a good product but also to how TR presents himself as an American country-pop star. He’s hosted TV shows and done absolutely nothing of note apart from become a father of three kids with his wife Lauren and adopt a baby girl from Uganda.
His last album Country Again Side A was a perfectly acceptable commercial country record whose two singles were What’s Your Country Song and Country Again. This is because you make more money showing off your rural credentials these days than pretending you’re a popstar in LA. Even Lizzo is a part-time popstar these days, and she’s one of the best. In any case, put TR next to Nick Jonas, as happened on CMT Crossroads, and we know who the superstar is.
The marketing department at Big Machine who put together TR’s career will get a big return on their investment. Don’t forget that TR is a product of Music Row so has to convince his audience to show up and party with him in some large venues. After playing Stagecoach at the end of April, TR goes out on a headline tour this summer called Bring The Bar To You – with Parker McCollum in support! – so there’ll be plenty of party starters new and old.
He feels both ‘like a Buffett song’ and like a ukulele on Paradise, and there’s some uke in the production of Simple As A Song from the man that brought us Hard To Forget, Luke Laird. Despite yet another ‘Johnny and June walk the line’ reference (kill it), I like the frothy, summery song which will help sunny days go by this summer. It’s background music, but with finesse and charm.
The tour is named after a poppy, produced beach jam on the album which sounds like what Kenny Chesney would be doing if he were born in 1990 as opposed to trying to get his first record deal then. Ditto Anything Cold, which will see fans raise up their beers; it rhymes ‘Aquafina/ Margarita’ and has a funky solo in the middle. Labelmate Riley Green appears on Half Of Me, a song where Grandpa Rhett Akins was in the room. It’s basically a rewrite of Beer Can’t Fix, a far better duet with Jon Pardi which could provide a readymade medley in TR’s set. Maybe Big Machine think his fans are too stupid to notice, or just like hearing the same thing again.
They may sway and ‘talk to God’ on Luke Combs homage Angels, where TR hits a mellifluous falsetto note in the chorus to emphasise the brilliance of the lady in his life as opposed to the schlub he is. Julian Bunetta, his mate from LA, co-writes it, while fellow LA pop writer Jon Bellion had a hand in the horrendously bland Katy Perry duet which gives the album its title. The idea was likely dreamed up in a marketing meeting by someone who had heard the Keith Urban and Pink duet on the way into the office. How sad must Katy Perry be that she’s saved until track 15 rather than placed in the first half of the album?
‘Man it feels good to be country again’ sang TR on his 2021 album, although Where We Started is a pop album produced in Nashville. He even half-raps Somebody Like Me, showing a pretty flow. There are naturally plenty of perfectly country songtitles for pleasantly melodic songs about rural life that unite performer and listener: Church Boots was written with Ernest, who is so hot right now; Bass Pro Hat has him boast that he’s ‘luckier than Lucky Number Seven’; and Mama’s Front Door is a good concept for a song, given that it has hosted father’s blessings, flowers and ‘three crazy kids’ brought round to see grandma. Ain’t it funny how life changes, he might well wonder, and he does on the song’s coda.
As with Remember You Young, Marry Me and Beer With Jesus, TR always throws in a thinky-think song amid the tempo tunes. Tyler Hubbard and Russell Dickerson appear on Death Row, which is like when Ed Sheeran starts singing about drugs and stuff: ‘Jesus is the ticket and narrow is the road…Then it hit me: we’re all human’. Us Someday, co-written with Ed Sheeran’s friend Amy Wadge, begins with a wedding, continues with ‘handprints in a new driveway’ and concludes with TR and his beloved sat in rocking chairs. Will people gravitate to the thinkers or to the beach jams? The streaming numbers will reveal all.
Ashley Gorley was in the room for seven of the album’s songs and he’s a perfect foil for the omnivorous TR. Oddly these days for him, he picks an outside write called The Hill, co-written by Lori McKenna, to open the album. It’s about how fighting for love is ‘the hill to die on’ and will do well with the 25-44-year-old suburban demographic. The production by Dann Huff, among others, is very (adult) contemporary, especially on the album’s radio single Slow Down Summer, which is full of nouns (shades, Roman candles, sunburns) and is a fine contemporary country song with a video, notably, with Asian lead actors.
Thomas Rhett makes money for Big Machine, which is now owned by a Korean company. I would love to see BTS in church boots, which is the natural end point for projects like this. TR’s a lovely guy with a gorgeous family, but nobody will listen to any of these songs in 2030 just as most of his second and third albums have been forgotten in 2022. The kids will all go to nice colleges, though.
Nashville Meets London is one of the loveliest nights on the UK country scene but the rubric has been disrupted by the pandemic. Thus we get two British acts instead of an American and a Brit, even though Twinnie spends many weeks a year in Nashville.
Before York’s self-proclaimed Hollywood Gypsy gave a star turn, Robbie Cavanagh offered 30 minutes of his understated songs, previewing his Tough Love album with songs that included the funky Helpless. There was also an extraordinary heartbreak ballad in the James Taylor mould and one called Thinking of Leaving (‘if you’re thinking of leaving, get up and go’). A Mancunian who won the Bob Harris Emerging Artist Award at the 2021 AMA-UK Awards, Robbie will be back down in London at the end of May. Beg or steal a ticket.
‘People are using their cutlery so quietly,’ Robbie marvelled at the diners who were still polishing off their pizzas in the basement venue of Holborn’s Pizza Express. There was a nice bit of banter about a vegan dish which, it transpires, can be ordered off menu, which surprised our humble singer/songwriter.
Twinnie released her long-awaited debut album Hollywood Gypsy in April 2020 but couldn’t tour it until the middle of 2021. The full Twinnie show delivers fireworks, high kicks and showstoppers with an amplified band but she proved she can impress with an acoustic set which felt like a soirée. She was dressed in denim bell bottoms which gave a Nashville twist.
Opening with her new single One Heart, Twinnie ran through old favourites like Type of Girl, Chasing and Cupid, which she wrote while ‘bitter and single, I still am’ and on which she hit a showstopping note. The setlist was as much a surprise for the band as for the audience, as our hostess played it by ear. ‘It’s just gonna be a jam tonight!’
Her songs ‘make people dance or break their heart’, which sounds like a chorus in itself: the former included Welcome to the Club and set closer Better When I’m Drunk, with the latter represented by the beautiful I Know A Woman. This single, which promoted Twinnie’s vital project which spotlights mental health in the music industry, was even more emotional for Twinnie as her darling mum was watching on.
As she displayed on the acoustic version of her album, Twinnie’s songs stand up without jazzy production, and guitarist Tommy and pianist Barnabus(!) were impressive foils throughout the soirée. Tommy’s leg got a workout on the toetapper Daddy Issues, banging a percussion block to provide the backbeat.
Something We Used To Say was the evening’s highlight. It was perfect for the basement dive: written with Barnabus and Laura Oakes, it was inspired by Carole King and its melancholy shone through. I hope it makes it onto Twinnie’s second album, which she was more or less auditioning in front of a lady from her record label.
Ditto Write You Out, a song about songwriting with a great lyrical hook, and future single Something or Somebody, during which Twinnie toured the room and was twirled around by a beaming fan. He wasn’t the only one entertained by a superstar who had complete command of the room. She doesn’t need high kicks when she has the high notes.
Nashville Meets London hosts a cruise on the River Thames on August 19. The next Pizza Express night is headlined by Jess Thristan on April 27.
Maren Morris moved to Nashville from Texas and, after a few years in writers’ rooms working on other people’s music, she teamed up with producer busbee and wrote ‘the one about a church’ which broke her in 2015. Her second album Girl was part love-letter to husband Ryan Hurd and part female empowerment tract. The pandemic scuppered her world tour, although she became a mother too and I am sure she will say in interviews that this was a blessing in disguise.
Along with Kelsea Ballerini and Carly Pearce, Maren is one of punishingly few ‘girl singers’ (as they laughably used to be called) to move up to the A List in the last ten years, thanks to support from country radio. As if to prove this, she promoted the release of the album on The Bobby Bones Show, which is like the Zoe Ball Breakfast Show out of Nashville, at 5am. That’s what you have to do to sell your record in Nashville.
After debut album Hero, which Bobby supported, came The Middle, from a Target ad, which had been turned down by more or less every popstar in town. Maren took her chance and her voice was all over pop radio (it reached number 5 on the Hot 100) and Adult Contemporary radio (a number one). So where does that leave Maren Morris the Country Star?
Sensibly, looking to what her fellow Texan Kacey Musgraves has done, Maren has opened up her audience beyond country radio even as she keeps her deal with Columbia Nashville. She pulls off the coup of securing one of the world’s best producers: Greg Kurstin is best known for his work with Adele (he co-wrote Hello and Easy On Me) and Foo Fighters.
As Kacey did on her albums, Maren works with a small group of collaborators. Jimmy Robbins and Laura Veltz co-wrote The Bones and help Maren write album highlight Background Music, a waltz with a melodic chorus and a smart lyric about eternal love and stuff. Sarah Aarons, who wrote the top line melodies of both The Middle and Girl, joined the trio to write Detour, and it’s another winner: ‘I threw my map away and that’s the way I stumbled into you’ is a terrific lyric which is allowed to shine thanks to Greg’s production. This will be a live highlight in the next world tour and will fit snugly next to I Could Use A Love Song and To Hell and Back.
Robbins and Natalie Hemby were in the room for sex jam Nervous. You can tell it’s a Hemby composition because of the cascading melody, heavy drum loop and jittery narrator who is ‘out of control, out of our clothes’. Hurd, who is about 6 foot 6, was ironically not in the room for Tall Guys, a song I cannot believe hasn’t been written before. It’s very Nashville and very fun. ‘We fly first class cos it’s the only way his knees fit’, while Maren, who is about 5 foot 2, can justify wearing high heels.
Jon Green, the Brit who has had a country number one with Lady A’s What If I Never Get Over You, joins Maren and Ryan to write the album’s final track What Would This World Do? It’s as if they’re writing their wedding vows; indeed, Maren sings of wine from their wedding day. Note how the road Maren namechecks is the I-405 in Los Angeles, not one in Nashville, and the song sounds like a classic ballad written in LA in the 1970s. It’s the best song Maren has put out and may overtake My Church and The Bones as her career song. Like Rainbow or Someone Like You, it’s the Piano Ballad from a Major-Label Release, a genre in itself nowadays.
Ryan’s uncredited harmonies can also be heard on The Furthest Thing and I Can’t Love You Anymore (‘than I do now’). The former is a song about being away from one another and making things work, while the latter namechecks ‘a poor boy from Michigan’. For her part, Maren acts like ‘a bitch’ and ‘to some I might be an acquired taste’. Check out the gorgeous diminished fifth chord and a gentle production from Greg Kurstin on The Furthest Thing, on which Maren’s vocals self-consciously recall those of Inara George, who was half of the duo The Bird and The Bee along with Greg himself.
First single Circles Around This Town is a self-referential tune which comprises three chords and Maren’s truth. If any genre if ripe for ‘speaking my truth’, it is country music; ever since Taylor Swift swept into town, plenty of girls with guitars have shown up to town but have ploughed their own furrow. Indeed, Maren was an early performer in Kalie Shorr’s Song Suffragette nights.
Hummingbird is an outlier, as it’s written with the famous Love Junkies (Liz Rose, Lori McKenna and Hillary Lindsey) who wrote Girl Crush for Little Big Town. It’s a lullaby dedicated to her son, who burbles over the intro: ‘On my skin rest your wings…I’ll let you fly free’ is the kind of lyric that can only come from four mums trading war stories in the same writers’ room.
I can see a baby photo montage on the screen behind Maren as she sings that song, and then a fan montage as she sings the pretty Good Friends (‘We got history, no conditions’). There should be more songs about friendship as well as love, and I reckon Columbia will stick another artist on it when it’s sent to radio. My guess is Elle King or Tenille Townes, or perhaps Natalie Hemby herself, given that she co-wrote the song.
The title track sees Maren pivot to the new craze for self-analysis. Grounded by a similar three-note riff to 80s Mercedes, Maren’s voice flutters with a lyric about how she ‘kept hitting my head on the glass…polite till I spoke up’. Whereas Bono was spiritual and gospel in trying to find what he was looking for, Maren tries hard to be humble: ‘How do I not cast a shadow?’ she wonders, which is like threading a camel through the eye of a needle.
So is she still a country star? No, she’s a popstar who lives in Nashville and can play shows in LA. Just like Thomas Rhett, who puts out his sixth album early in the year to give us his latest life update. They both make modern country music, which looks outwards from Music City even as its stars look inwards to go on humble quests.
It has taken three years for Sam Outlaw to come back to the UK. The Omeara gig to kick off the Popular Mechanics tour was the first time he played some of the tracks from the new album live anywhere in the world. Running on fumes having landed in London that morning, Sam powered through a 90-minute set which included old favourites and plenty of new stuff.
‘I never thought I’d miss touring!’ Sam told the crowd, asking him to join in with a celebratory shout of YEAH! Without the support of Bob Harris, he said, Sam might not even have anyone to see him, and it must be said that the crowd were mostly of Bob’s vintage.
This was grown-up country music, with a pedal steel guitar player dovetailing with three acoustic guitars, one wielded by support act Ruthie Collins, whose version of It Must Have Been Love by Roxette threatened to steal the show from Sam.
In a smart shirt and hat, Sam played the old tunes he has sung a thousand times before, including the gorgeous Tenderheart, the sombre Ghost Town and the mellifluous Bougainvillea, I Think. There were also rich cheers for the title track of his debut album Angeleno, and warm applause for several new tunes.
Rest of Our Lives was a shrewd choice of first single from the new album, and it was the highlight of the set thanks to some three-part harmonies and a driving rhythm that didn’t need any percussion. We also heard Polyamorous and the marvellous Language of Love (which has a key change!). This last song reminded me of tunes by Fountains of Wayne; the late Adam Schlesinger, who was the band’s frontman, has to be an influence on Sam’s work.
Molly Parden showed off a fashionable shoulder bag as she hopped onstage for a duet. A family friend, Molly had played Omeara (‘not O-me-ah-ra!’ as Sam chastised himself) a few days before Sam and she had stayed in town just to see him before heading back to the USA. How amazing must it be to have a job where you can meet friends onstage thousands of miles away from home.
In reality, we in Britain have adopted Sam as one of ours and he’ll be welcome back any time his family schedule allows.
If country music were a utensil it would be a fork, with different prongs coming together to form one excellent tool. These two albums each demonstrate their own type of prong.
Ernest K Smith has written plenty of hit songs as a recording artist at Big Loud, home to Morgan Wallen. He’s got his name in the brackets on Big Big Plans by Chris Lane, Breaking Up was Easy in the 90s by Sam Hunt and several tracks on Dangerous, which is about to break a record at the top of the Country Album chart despite the artist being in the doghouse throughout its run.
Like his mate Hardy, Ernest knows where the hooks are and can write a country song that gets on the radio. He was in the room for no fewer than 11 songs on Dangerous, including first single More Than My Hometown, new smash Wasted On You and one of my favourite tracks Me On Whiskey. Ernest is basically the same product with a different haircut, and he has made a lot of money from his songwriting in the last year.
The rehabilitation of Morgan Wallen, who is too big to fail, continued with one of the songs of the decade so far, written by Ernest and so good that it appears twice on the album that shares its title. Morgan takes the second verse and Big Loud Records are hoping that a year has been enough and now poor (rich) Morgan, their cash cow with a mullet and cut-offs, can resume his career in peace. In the tradition of a classic country song with a wounded narrator, a tearful lady and a triple-time feel, ‘it’s a bad day for love but a good day for flower shops’. The guys emote like they’re Dan + Shay but stay true to the type of country that was on the radio in 1983, which is hot right now.
As for Ernest, we were due to have a duets record with him and Hailey Whitters called Countrypolitan but all we’ve had so far is a great version of Islands in the Stream. With both Ernest and Hailey doing their own thing, the project has been put back on the shelf while Flower Shops surges to the top. After two standalone singles, Cheers and American Rust, we’ve got a whole album of Ernest originals, engineered to fit into a gap in the market and thus make money.
Sucker For Small Towns has that peaceful easy feeling common from the work of Eagles and the rural charm of (yep) all those Morgan Wallen songs. It’s a world away from the sound of a guy who used to rap under the moniker Ernest K: on Bad Boy he ‘loved it when you dropped me them digits, I’m all about you like a freaking fanatic…I’ll be the Hova and you’ll be my Bey’.
It is incredible that Bad Boy and Tennessee Queen come from the same man: Ernest is now looking to be the lady’s Elvis in blue suede shoes as they settle in their Graceland and get all shook up. It’s a songwriting exercise but it’s good to see Elvis back in country music, 45 years after his death and close to 70 years(!) after his breakthrough.
Classic, with John Mayerish guitars and a smooth delivery, sounds a lot like what Devin Dawson did on his debut album, which is apt as the song was written with Devin Dawson’s brother Jacob who also wrote much of Devin’s stuff. The Warren Brothers help Ernest write the slow song Feet Wanna Run, which includes some mellow chords, pedal steel guitar and lyrics about forks in the road and spreading one’s wings.
Rodney Clawson assisted Ernest on both the introspective ‘writer’s round’-type tune Comfortable When I’m Crazy, on which he complains ‘girl look what you made me do to me’, and Did It With You, which is a more uptempo tune about love and stuff which must have come from listening to Boys of Summer by Don Henley.
Newcomer Lily Rose was in the room for a catchy midtempo heartache ballad What It’s Come To, while Ben Hayslip and Michael Carter, best known respectively for writing and playing guitar for Luke Bryan, offer their services on the proper country song If You Were Whiskey (‘I’d still be holding you’). Full of regret and melancholy, Luke could have sold this but he’s locked in an American Idol contract making money. Big gun Ashley Gorley comes out for album closer Some Other Bar, a melodic meet-cute which sounds like those hits he has written for Luke, like Crash My Party and Play It Again.
All this is to say that Music Row’s A-listers have assembled to craft ten very good pieces of contemporary commercial country music about love, loss and alcohol. One of them will be Song of the Year. The first rule of country music, after all, is the same as All The President’s Men: follow the money.
Jeremy Ivey – Invisible Pictures
The second rule is to be true to the person you really are. Luke Combs is currently making millions of dollars doing just that, as is Thomas Rhett who literally puts his life in a song. Across town in East Nashville, the hipsters take shelter from higher commercial rates in an expanding city which is becoming too big for itself.
Jeremy Ivey is a resident. He will always be introduced as Mr Margo Price but, between raising children and supporting Margo’s career as an outlaw of repute, Jeremy has put out three albums of his own on the Anti label, the latest of which is called Invisible Pictures.
The title track includes a chant of ‘nothing can bring me down today’ which will chime with thousands of listeners. Ditto Black Mood, where Jeremy tries to hide his depression and regret, ‘the Great Pretender…save me from me, Angel of Mercy’. Given the melody and arrangement of that song, it doesn’t surprise me that Jeremy is a fan of Elliot Smith.
Musically the album is terrific, with a double-stopped fiddle and lap steel guitar on Grey Machine, harmonica on album closer Silence and Sorrow, piano on Trial By Fire and a string section on Downhill (Upside Down Optimist). Ivey/Price co-write Keep Me High, a country-rocker where the mafia and witness protection appear in the second verse. I also like the chugging opening track Orphan Child and the spiky Phantom Limb.
If Nashville is a town of songwriters, a scan of the lyric sheet shows that Jeremy fits in perfectly. He has studied the great songwriters of the classic era, like Leon Russell, Elton John and Harry Nilsson, and keeps their spirit alive in a timeless fashion. Listen out too for various suspended or diminished chords dotted throughout the album, over which he sings in a fragile croon.
Nashville and country music, to reiterate the fork analogy, is an implement of many prongs. Some are more independently minded than others, which seek to make money for a conglomerate. The song comes first, and long may it continue to be so.
Dixie Musgraves. That’s the short version, but this is a blog, not a Twitter account, so here are 800 more words on why you should listen to this excellent album.
Hailey Whitters once sang of living in a Ten-Year Town. She broke through in Nashville a decade after moving to Music City whereupon a global pandemic didn’t allow her to tour that breakthrough album The Dream. Collaborations with Trisha Yearwood and Little Big Town boosted her following and now, as she prepares to unleash this masterful album about Small Town America onto the world, she is promoting her music in Europe at long last.
The title track is the first time we hear her voice. It’s Dixie Chicks meets Kacey Musgraves, hymning the rural life that has served her well. The album is a concept album with different spins on the theme of living in the country: tracks like Big Family, Our Grass Is Legal – a Hailey Whitters 100%-er that recalls some of the work Brothers Osborne have done – and Boys Back Home could mix down into a single song but, when the arrangements are so good, why not elaborate on the theme? The melodies are hummable and the rhythms are toe-tappers. As for the voice, it’s purer than Kacey’s.
The poppy single Everything She Ain’t contains the best chorus on the album: it’s the one that goes ‘whiskey in your soda, lime in your Corona’ and that is rather ballsy to use the name of that drink after the last two years. If I were Hailey, I would consider running the song next to There’s Your Trouble because it’s basically a rewrite, albeit one which substitutes June and Johnny for ‘Audrey to your Hank’. There is also fiddle.
Plain Jane picks up the theme of self-expression. It was made with Hillary Lindsey, on which Hailey says she won’t change for anybody, ‘love me or hate me…That’s how God made me, how my mama raised me’. This will connect with thousands of young women who are ‘a little more Messed-Up Mary than Plain Jane’. There lies a t-shirt slogan.
Pretty Boy, written with Scooter Carusoe and the legendary Tom Douglas, sounds like a career song: in an era of male vulnerability, being sensitive is cool. Hailey offers a song to guys who find it hard to be themselves and strong, who have ‘always been a bit different’. Thousands of young men will etc etc.
BJ Barham of American Aquarium, a man who has made vulnerability into art, pops up on Middle of America, which is effortlessly poppy and cinematic and has been given an outing Hailey’s recent live sets. ‘A whole lotta nothin’s still something to some folks’ is a great line, as is the hook where folk are ‘left right in the middle of America’. It’s great when a top songwriter gets the spotlight too. That song, by the way, was written with Bobby Pinson, who is best known for Toby Keith tunes like Beers Ago and Made In America.
College Town is a killer tune, one of two tunes written with the mighty Nicolle Galyon (the others are Raised and Big Family. As I was listening to College Town, which is basically the continuation of the story of the girl from Wide Open Spaces coming back to the less wide open spaces, I said out loud: What a great song. College life can change a person but ‘they don’t teach you in school’ what you learn at college. Again, this will impact so many young women, who already have fine role models in Carly Pearce and, to a lesser extent, Kacey.
Since she wrote every song here, Hailey’s personality is all across the album. Whenever Lori McKenna writes her last song, Hailey will pick up the baton. Lori was in the room for both The Neon, a heartbreak song where Hailey heads to the bar to ‘get back on that barstool again’, and Beer Tastes Better, which picks up the themes of College Town because it’s always better to hang out in your hometown reminiscin’ about stuff.
Elsewhere, Everybody Oughta offers advice on how to live a country way of life – heartbreak, alcohol, music, ‘a real good dog’ – set to a warm production which lets the arrangement breathe. In A Field Somewhere ends the album, discounting the instrumental coda: it starts with Hailey learning to drive, then moving to drinking, smoking, swimming and finding love. With a fiddle chugging away, Hailey reminds the listener that ‘life in good’ in the country just as she has done in the preceding 45 minutes.
Hailey Whitters will be back in the UK soon, and I am writing this even before she impresses the big arenas with her take on a country way of life. As country music tries to sell itself (out) to city folk, there is still joy in celebrating the small towns of America.
In 2012, country music was about Need You Now, Cruise and Taylor Swift’s album Red. Country2Country was but a twinkle in the eye of the Country Music Association. Indigenous country music in the UK, to me, was all show bands in the Irish tradition. It was still uncool to love country.
Ten years on, we know what has happened. The Country Music Attendees Facebook group (‘politics are to be avoided’) has over 10,000 members who turn up whenever US visitors come over to promote country music, be they heartthrobs like Chase Rice, guitar wizards like Keith Urban or modern-day outlaws like Ashley McBryde. Next year, Country2Country turns 10. It’s as if the CMA had a plan of their own to turn the UK on to country music, with Radio 2 and especially Bob Harris promoting the genre and the many new acts making waves in the USA.
And so to Ben and Crissie, whose fifth album as The Shires makes them the most durable contemporary UK act. Their back catalogue is full of ballads and toe-tappers which are essentially pop songs with meaningful emotional content and a dash of banjo. Daddy’s Little Girl, Brave and Sleepwalk are songs which show empathy with the listener and are produced immaculately. They are perfect for a mature Radio 2 audience between 35 and 54 who love adult contemporary pop music, and are regularly playlisted alongside Steps, Westlife and Kylie (yes, Radio 2 is basically Smash Hits FM now).
As with any act deep into their career, nobody is going to become a fan of the pair who have not already got into them. I thought the first Shires album was too ballad-heavy and preferred third album Accidentally On Purpose which included Echo, Guilty and the Ed Sheeran-penned Stay The Night. In 2020 Good Years came out in a very bad year and the duo are only just getting round to touring it: notable on that album were collaborations with Lauren Alaina and Jimmie Allen, which seemed to be a manoeuvre to get fans of those American acts to become aware of the duo, who remain the UK’s answer to Lady A. It cannot be forgotten that their US deal with Dot Records collapsed at the worst possible time.
While in Nashville, they heard Cut Me Loose, a song by Lizzy McAvoy. Having recorded it, they left the tune off the second album My Universe and it finally finds a home on album five. It sounds like a contemporary country-pop song, with some banjo buried in the production. Lindsey Rimes, a frequent collaborator with the band, puts a commercial sound underneath the harmonies.
The album’s lead single I See Stars is, by design, bland and inoffensive and singalongable. All the same, it is immaculate, as is euphoric second single Wild Hearts. I would declare it to be ‘country tango’, a syncopated meet-cute in a bar which falls into the same musical tenor as Beats To Your Rhythm and A Thousand Hallelujahs.
Sparks Fly shares a title with the Taylor Swift song and the sound of about 10 Lady A tunes: ‘If you wanna keep the fire alive, you gotta let the sparks fly’ is a familiar take on a love song. Forever Tonight is a funky slow jam with some fine diminished chords and a lyric where the pair declare ‘it’d be kinda nice waking up in your arms every day’.
The album’s effortless title track is also about love and stuff, as Ben tries to be a better person for his beloved, who is ‘right at the top’ of his plan. Side by Side and Sky Dive are two more patented Ben Earle wedding songs, with lush melodies, strong imagery and some sustained piano chords leading to Disneyfied choruses. When It Hurts is another declaration of love with an understated arrangement that proves Ben can really write a pop ballad.
The duo’s tourmate Eric Paslay and Jennifer from Runaway June add some Nashville chaser to the mix on A Bar Without You, where you can tell Americans are involved because two Brits are singing about ‘a two-dollar dive’ rather than a Wetherspoons. They also tackle a familiar country theme of having little money but a lot of love on Baby We’re Rich, a likely radio single.
Plot Twist may be a career song; written with Beth McCarthy (a former Voice contestant), it is literally a three-minute movie with Crissie singing of ‘pieces of my heart I won’t get back’. She pulls back for the chorus, where ‘happy ever after ain’t too good to be true’ and she doubts the comfort and cosiness of love.
It reminds me a lot of Cartwheels by Ward Thomas who, unlike The Shires, have had a UK number one album. All three of the last three Shires albums have gotten stuck at number three, with the likes of Barbra Streisand, Craig David and Niall Horan standing in their way.
Given that there are a lot of 100%-ers (music and lyrics by the same person), there are parts of this album that make it seem like a Ben Earle solo project conceived while off the road. Contractual obligations mean Crissie has to sing too. Peggy I’m Sorry – which is unvarnished by big production or Crissie’s voice and is marked as ‘demo’ on the album itself – is dedicated to Ben’s grandma who is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. I am positive we’ll see a band version on a deluxe edition of the album, but the sparse arrangement of just a loop and some block harmonies fits the song. Ben sings from the heart about not seeing his grandma as much as he ought to, but ‘can’t bear to see you this way’.
As long as Ben and Crissie want to be playing venues like The Palladium, their label will continue to support their music, as will Bob Harris, who will play tracks from the album on The Country Show which will stand up with the best of what is coming out of Nashville. It’s to the duo’s credit that the singing and writing are of that standard, and the acts trailing in their wake (such as Kezia Gill and Morganway) will learn a great deal from the pair.
Here’s what I saw around the O2 complex over Country2Country weekend, both on the stages and in the crowd. It is by no means comprehensive but other media outlets are available if you want to learn about the many visiting US acts.
There was the usual parade of check shirts, tassels, jeans, leather trousers, trucker caps and five- or ten-gallon hats. Sometimes it’s as if the music is an excuse for people to cosplay: why wear boots when they are so uncomfortable?! We’re in Greenwich, not Greensboro. Hello!
All the same, I hope the merch stalls in the Town Square did good business. I felt sorry for people who were out in the rain waiting to get into the tent, while the queue for the Radio 2 Country stage within the Indigo venue was omnipresent all weekend. Staff were on hand to pen people into taped areas at the Garden and Big Entrance stages, to ensure passage of cattle – I mean fans – around the complex.
It was lovely seeing plenty of UK country acts coming down to show support for their mates. I spotted Gasoline & Matches, Two Ways Home, Kaity Rae, Emilia Quinn, Jake Morrell, Poppy Fardell and Obadiah from O&O, a duo whom I once saw play a private lounge at C2C playing for VIPs, who applauded politely as they sipped champagne flutes.
Shannon Hynes was talking to her friend Lucy Blu, who joined Darius Rucker on the O2 Arena stage to sing Wagon Wheel. She will surely boost her streaming numbers in the coming weeks: ‘As seen singing for 20,000 people!!!’
I also saw the full megillah of UK Country media: Dan Wharton from Your Life in a Song had raced around London conducting interviews on the Thursday and got to say hi to Russell Dickerson on the Friday; we both saw Bob Harris glide past us on the way to his backstage lair to broadcast for BBC Radio 2; Tim Prottey-Jones from CountryLine Radio was omnipresent as MC and performer, while I walked past the station’s new head honchos Simon and Nathalie filming outside the Arena complex. Paul Sexton, the fine freelance writer and supporter of UK country music, also wandered over towards where I was standing. Simon and Charlotte from ARC Radio and James Daykin from Lyric Magazine were far too busy to stop and chat!!
Absolute Radio Country’s Matt Spracklen was in his leather-and-quiff get-up but was off duty over the weekend (while also on air!!). At one point he excused himself so he could film the chorus of an Essex County song. I also walked past Baylen Leonard, the station’s daytime presenter, who was enjoying himself before the chaos of The Long Road, the festival for which he is Artistic Director and takes place over August Bank Holiday Weekend in Staffordshire.
For more indie-minded media, Nick Cantwell of Belles & Gals snuck up on me as I was ambling towards the arena on Saturday, then I bumped into him and Lisa T, the artist he manages, as I ambled out in the afternoon. Chris Farlie and Pete Woodhouse of w21Music were there, as were videographers and photographers DC Brown (‘The Man, The Myth, The Legend’) and Colin Jones. Naomi Kane was on assignment with Twinnie, who was looking very glam in her stage gear, and I surprised Naomi by messaging that I’d spotted her, something nobody had ever done before!
I suppose I’d better talk about the music, which showcased the finest UK and international acts. I loved the timbre of Laci Kaye Booth’s voice; she played songs from her eponymous album to an interested audience at the Big Entrance Stage on Friday afternoon. Caitlyn Smith, meanwhile, was bouncing around and promoting her forthcoming album High; she is a singer/songwriter of the highest order, and her two kids are lucky to have such a cool mom!
Laine Hardy, who came to prominence on The Voice, snuck in some covers of What’s Up and The Weight into a set which proved he was as authentic as he boasted about on his album. Ruthie Collins has a smooth vocal tone and has a commanding stage presence; she’s due to come back to the UK in August and this was a good way to softly launch her to a British crowd. A full review will come as part of a piece on Sam Outlaw’s London gig this week, since Ruthie is the support act.
Jaret Ray Reddick brought out some fans of his band Bowling For Soup to Greenwich, saying upfront that he was not going to play his smash 1985. Instead, he sang about his ‘royal family’ and how his ‘truck up and left’ him. He galloped away in front of his poor drummer, so excited was he during one song from an album full of country tropes and fine tunes. I’ve spoken to him for my In The Red Dirt show on ARC Radio, which you can hear on March 27.
The Big Entrance stage was prime real estate upon which the UK’s finest country acts could build their expanding fanbase. Katy Hurt, ably assisted by her crack band, ran through some choice cuts from her forthcoming album including the single Sounds Good In A Bar. I liked her ad-libbed sound check where she followed ‘one, two’ with ‘three, four, five!’ There was no Mambo Number 5 this time out, though.
Gary Quinn, meanwhile, sang some copper-bottom country tunes on the Garden Stage, some of which are now ten years old. On Your Way Out, for instance, is ageing like a fine whiskey and it was good to hear Gary down in London rather than having to traipse up to a barn near Stockport. He’s put together a fine line-up for Buckle & Boots, which takes place over Platinum Jubilee Weekend in early June.
Eric & Jensen, who will play that barn in June, posted a photo of themselves from a few years ago stood in front of the Big Entrance stage; on Sunday afternoon, they played that very stage. I caught them at 11am on Saturday morning on the Garden Stage, and popped in briefly to see their acoustic set on Friday. They were shockingly amped up for an early performance of originals including new single Party Strong, as well as covers of Brooks & Dunn and Travis Tritt tunes.
There were plenty of other C2C virgins popping their cherry in 2022. Danny McMahon has a nice line in country-pop and made his debut across the weekend, while Jess Thristan was so relaxed she was able to wish someone happy birthday from the stage! The Halifax-born singer and her band played old chestnuts like The Old Me and Time of Our Lives as well as offering a well-chosen cover of Blue Ain’t Your Color by Keith Urban.
The Icon stage was relocated to the small pub next to the Garden Stage, which may have been a compromise given that the usual patch was out of action because the shopping centre was closed. It did not do the acts a favour at all, who suffered from the sound not reaching the back of a room full of a chattering crowd. Normal service must be resumed next year but it seems churlish to complain.
On Sunday, Laura Oakes added a band to some magnificent tunes which she’d performed on Saturday by herself. Laura, like Gary Quinn, can do this sort of thing with her eyes closed and seems so assured now and in control of her material and the crowd. Like Jess Thristan’s set, Laura’s performance was two years in the making; indeed, Laura’s last EP had been primed to come out at Country2Country 2020, which was wretchedly postponed with a day’s notice. Ironically, How Big Is Your World came out in the era where that world was a park or a garden. Incidentally, the CD stall in the Town Square was offering the compilation CD for ‘the festival that never was’ for a fiver, which must be cheaper than most of the street food that was being served 10 metres away.
In the middle of their two-month UK tour, Morganway (above) popped down to Greenwich and blasted through singalongs new (Come Over) and old (London Life). Guitarist Kieran turned up Matt’s keyboard for his solo during Hurricane, which filled the space brilliantly. I took some photos of a fan of the band, who claimed the full house by getting pictures with all six Morganway members.
Essex County were even more impressive. The Bass brothers divide their time between Nashville and the UK, and they’ve got it all, including the tunes. Guitarist Mark was tapping his notes like Eddie van Halen (no wonder he was named England’s best guitarist as a 10-year-old), vocalist Nate crooned in a very commercial manner while rhythm guitarist Kieran overcame a technical hitch with a smile and a wink. Their photogenic status can’t hurt their appeal either. They are going to be huge. Buy stock in Essex County.
Buy stock in Kezia Gill too, who has joined The Shires, Ward Thomas, Twinnie and Yola as one of UK Country’s superstars. With a particularly big crowd for her solo set at the Garden Stage on Sunday, Kez played old favourites like Whiskey Drinkin Woman and Dead Ends & Detours to show off that marvellous voice. She also played I’m Here, which she preceded by a chat about checking one’s mental health. Her late dad would have been so proud of Kez, who will surely be back for C2C 2023.
Finally, I must mention the mullets. At least three people had the old Pat Sharp cut going on. I don’t remember spotting any mullets in 2019 so Morgan Wallen really has brought it back. Would C2C dare book Morgan for the 2023 festival? They’d be foolish not to, but it depends on his own schedule.
Maren Morris looks a certainty, given that she’s on an album cycle, as is Thomas Rhett. Shy Carter, Tiera Kennedy, Brittney Spencer and Breland both proved that country is no longer a Caucasian occasion, or a ‘But we have Darius!’ genre. Jimmie Allen, to that end, may be getting a call this year, but whoever joins the jamboree will entertain the thousands of cowboy-booted folk.
But seriously, we’re in London, not Louisville.
Check out the recent UK Country Top 40 Chart here.C2C returns for 2023 over the weekend of March 10-12.
He dresses like Morgan Wallen. He shares a producer, Joey Moi, with Morgan Wallen, and a label, Big Loud, with Morgan Wallen.
Big Loud have, despite everything, had the act with the biggest album in country music for 45 weeks out of the last 50 or so. Dangerous: The Double Album is closing in on the record held by Luke Combs and Shania Twain of 50 weeks at the top. There is a market for blue-collar country music sung by hot, sexy guys over power chords.
Sean Stemaly is a songwriter who released his first single If This Truck Could Talk back in 2017. What could be more rural than a guy singing about his old truck, something Tim McGraw also realised on his song 7500 OBO? He’s out on tour with Dustin Lynch this spring, warming up a crowd who shovel down this sort of thing to kick back to and unwind with.
The title track kicks off the album and within ten seconds we know where we are. There’s a shoutout to the ‘southern drawl crowd’ then the patented Joey Moi stacked guitar line familiar from all those Florida Georgia Line smashes. Sean sings of muddy waters, Mason jars, ‘ride or die’ buddies, a neon moon, ‘heaven on dirt’ and that is country bingo.
Several tracks date back to pre-pandemic times. Hardy was involved in Back on a Backroad, which contains all of Hardy’s tricks that make a song so catchy it hurts, including the tongue-twisting line ‘put this two-tone, two-ton, too clean Chevy to work’. Indeed, we first heard WD-40 4WD on the Hardy Hixtape last year. Sean, Justin Moore and Jimmie Allen all hop on board to sing about country stuff. Tick them off on the bingo card as you go, while marvelling at the skill of the songwriters (none of whom are singing on the song) in putting in acronyms and abbreviations, spelling out ‘S-T-R-A-I-T’ at one point.
Last Night All Day is an outside write on which Sean takes the role of a guy replaying his one-night stand in his mind, while Georgia is one of those Frankenstein songs that tours the USA in country songtitles while settling on Georgia. Given that Aldean is from that state, I reckon he passed on this song because it was too similar to another song about Georgia that he was recording for what Grady Smith smartly calls the latest three minutes of ‘his two-hour track’ that he recorded several years ago.
When Sean opens for DL, we will have one singer praising Carolina and the other hymning the one he’s got on his mind. As Far As I Know, meanwhile, is an outside write which co-writer Jameson Rodgers might have passed on. It’s yet another song about ‘buddies and cold beer’ and a sweet local girl, and all the rural elements of a small town and the county lines. At this stage of the game it doesn’t matter which Southern boy sings a song like this, it’s still product that is definitely and defiantly country.
Then there’s pure product placement. Z71, to ingenus like me, is a package offered to Chevy drivers; all the song Z71 does it describe such a package and such a car. At least Aldean was ‘ready to ride’ on Take A Little Ride, which even its writer Rodney Clawson called a commercial. Conversely If Heaven Had A Weekend is a midtempo tune in triple time where Sean wishes he could hang out with his departed loved ones. It’s a thinker, co-written by Sean himself, which is very Writers Round-y. You can’t have deep without shallow in modern country music.
The cadence of smooth song Can’t Be Me is similar to that of Morgan Wallen, as if Joey Moi’s formula extends to the delivery of a melody. We get blue jeans, leather boots, ball caps, ‘vinyls of Cash and Keith’ and sweet tea in a rural chorus where Sean sings of his country credentials. It’s a formula and it works a treat.
Then come the sex jams. Hello, You Up is exactly what you think it is, with a woozy guitar effect to underscore the horny mood of a guy who is just one call away. Come Back to Bed, which is by far Sean’s most popular song, closes the album. It quotes the ‘if I said I need your body would you hold it against me’ chat-up line and sounds like Burnin It Down by Aldean or Strip It Down by Luke Bryan. Ditto Speaking My Language, which contrasts Sean’s grammar with a girl who ‘said isn’t’ but now has ‘a touch of twang’. It even sounds ‘a little dangerous’, which reminds me that I must go back and listen to that Morgan Wallen album…
Ernest helped Kentucky-born Sean write Love Me Like Kentucky where, yes, ‘her lips taste just like Bourbon’. Sean’s vocal reminds me of James Taylor and it’s very appealing. Comeback Town has hit written all over it, thanks to Ashley Gorley, Ernest and Jesse Frasure putting it on the shelf for Joe Country Boy to pluck off it and stick it on his album full of rural songs. The verses open up to a wide-open head-nodder of a chorus which invites the listener to never forget where they came from after they have been to ‘see the city lights’. Props to the writers for getting the title of Kaw-Liga by Hank Williams, recorded in 1952, in a country song in 2022. If they write a hundred of these songs a year, you need a little variety.
Like Dustin Lynch and Morgan Wallen before him, Sean Stemaly is a Music Row product hoping to make his label money by singing country songs to country people. It’s business disguised as art, but Music Row has been doing this for decades. If Sean doesn’t get drunk and use naughty words, he’ll have a good career. If he does, it seems, he’ll still have a good career.
Such is country music in 2022, the same as it ever was.
I met Noah Guthrie once. He was playing Nashville Meets London in Canary Wharf and I inveigled my way into a chat he was having with the duo Two Ways Home, who were big fans of his Stapletonnish voice and performances in the TV soap Glee.
Noah had already auditioned for America’s Got Talent, going on to lose out in the semi-finals in favour of an electric violin player and a comedian. Noah’s Thursday Jukebox shows were his contribution to morale during the pandemic; 500,000 people subscribe to his Only1Noah Youtube channel. I hope many of them check out this excellent album.
Five of the tracks are 100%-ers, with music and lyrics by Noah himself. He frames the album with two of them: opener Hell or High Water and the title track, which is placed at the end of the album. The former is a windows-down rock song with a fine arrangement and structure, with Noah’s blues-rock voice pushed up high in the mix; the latter is a four-minute movie where Noah tells a typical American story of small towns, dashed dreams and lost love.
In between those two are ten other examples of the Noah Guthrie sound. Two were pre-released impact tracks: the mostly acoustic choir-accompanied tune Only Light I Need and Wishing I Was Wrong, a poppy tune written with the wonderful Adam Hambrick. The fiddle solo is unexpected but delightful.
That’s All smoulders with soft tom-tom drum smacks over which Noah talks to a former beloved about the past, a subject he returns to on both the ballad When You Go and Last Time I Think of You. On that track, Noah mulls things over ‘in a room outside of Reno’ and repeats his regret day after day. He could actually give this song to Stapleton as it sounds like a smash. Kudos to him and Maia Sharp, who is a performer in her own right and has written songs covered by Bonnie Raitt.
Things To Fix is full of vulnerability and regret, ‘skipping over number one’ and counting his own flaws, while Welcome The Stranger and Feel It Now are both head-nodders with guitars that sound like traditional Southern rock. Let The Damn Thing Break is a protest song which opens with Noah singing ‘there is a time for holding hands’.
On High Enough, Noah’s vocal rivals Drake White and Ryan Kinder for tuneful blues. I would buy a ticket to see Noah just extemporise and vocalise but he is able to place the wail carefully amid rock songs that put across his personality as well as his voice.
Joe Nichols – Good Day For Living
Oh, Joe Nichols, sexy Joe Nichols. The cheekbones probably got him a record deal, but it was handy that a) Garth had left country music to raise his kids and b) Joe could sing too. So could Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley and Keith Urban, who all replaced the mighty Garth on country radio.
In 2002, Joe had his first number one called Brokenheartsville, an outside write, which followed the success of debut hit The Impossible. That song was written by Lee Thomas Miller and Kelley Lovelace (both A-list writers of the era) and was also cut by fellow hunk Mark Chesnutt. The CMA gave Joe the Horizon Award for Best New Artist in 2003, where he beat Blake Shelton and Gary Allan.
The quirky Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off is still heard in DJ sets today (probably not for much longer, the way it’s all going) while I also loved his iPod-namechecking hit Yeah and the Peach Pickers two-chord jam Gimmie That Girl. I also quickly noticed he had a particular way to mime playing guitar in his music videos, which endeared me to the guy.
Now on Quartz Hill, who call Joe ‘a 21st Century traditionalist’ on their website, Joe spent the pandemic working on the new album while putting covers of Guy Clark and Merle Haggard songs up on his Youtube channel. Tradition runs through the album as if that’s the Joe Nichols brand. The Chris Janson song Hawaii On Me, one of the highlights of his Real Friends album, appears here as the token weepie as the narrator tells his beloved to take some money and have a good time in his honour.
Joe aged out of country radio in around 2013 when Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line came along to refresh the format, but Joe had a decent decade as a hot face and voice. In 2015, he told a newspaper that ‘we’ve forgotten who loves our music and for the most part that’s middle America…We’re country music. We represent the common man and woman.’ The industry was ‘fickle’ but Joe works in opposition to it, ever keen to make country music ‘believable’. He did that on his 2017 album Never Gets Old, which was too long and didn’t sell. The three singles all missed at radio and Joe lost his deal with Aldean’s label Broken Bow.
The title track could well be a Janson tune too. Joe hymns the wonders of the world in spite of how his orange juice comes from concentrate! ‘Gonna take a sweet sip of whatever life’s fixin’ is his conclusion. Blake Shelton can probably afford boats and credit cards, and proper orange juice, since he has been locked into The Voice for a decade. I Got Friends That Do, on which Blake appears, is a chirpy tune, co-written by the great Tebey. It features the great rhyme ‘bender/bartender’ and its cheesy ending comes with the type of bickering common in duets between blokes.
Brokenhearted is a bolshy way to begin the album, a way to get back at Music Row who burned him once his expiry date came. I knew I’d heard it before and it turns out William Michael Morgan used it as the title of his major-label debut. He was since been released from that deal, thus proving that ‘there ain’t nobody broken-hearted in country music any more’!
Alan Jackson did the same thing on his recent album Where Have You Gone, so it seems that the neo-traditionalists are striking back at Nashville. It’s odd to discover, however, that JT Harding and Rhett Akins wrote the song, since they have a foot in both camps. That’s Nashville for ya.
Joe cannot have it both ways, though, but he does. Three of today’s biggest Music Row writers – Ross Copperman, Dallas Davidson and Ashley Gorley – wrote the blah single Home Run. Emily Shackleton was in the room for Dance With The Girl, on which Joe regrets ‘what I didn’t do’ and tells the next man to do a better job than he did. Aldean’s mate Neil Thrasher wrote Screened In, another song where a guy sits with his buddies drinking beer on a hot day while guitars twang away. Doesn’t make it bad, it is just a familiar trope.
The great Adam Craig co-wrote the very rural That’s How I Grew Up, a list of country signifiers tied up with a bow, and Why Can’t She. That song is a prayer to God, written with the equally great Jon Nite. Dierks Bentley could also sell the line ‘When you bend the truth at all, it ends up broken’, especially when it rhymes with ‘redemption’. Joe asks why God can forgive but his former partner can’t. Ten years ago this would have been a hit, as would One Two Step Closer, where Joe loses himself on the dancefloor to the sounds of (with clunking inevitability) a George Strait song and a pedal steel guitar.
Randy Montana, who is so hot right now, wrote Reckon, which thumps along with a heavy backbeat and a rapid series of lyrics that Joe handles brilliantly. If you think the title is also a pun, and if the song sets up one hell of a payoff, you have figured out why Randy Montana is so hot right now.
The album ends with She Was, a story song about a young couple that is in the tradition of She’s Leaving Home, Red Rag Top and Two Pink Lines. No tune on country radio will contain a bridge like ‘he was 18, she wasn’t but she said she was’, or even document teenage pregnancy, but that is rural life with all its struggles. Tissues at the ready for the third verse.
This is a fine album of timeless country music in the Randy Travis tradition. It deserves to have an audience.
There’s little point moaning about how Walker Hayes has gotten more famous from a dance routine than for any of his fine poppy country songs. That’s the way the market goes at the moment.
Priscilla Block waited tables, sat for people’s dogs, cleaned people’s houses and played open mics for years to become an overnight success thanks to Just About Over You. The song became her breakout smash after getting caught up in an algorithm, which meant she was quickly snapped up by Mercury Nashville to make them, and her, some money. Now we’ve got 11 tracks that she’ll perform to thousands of people in the next year, to make Mercury Nashville some money and her own hard work pay off.
Her audience will look like her, probably sound like her and will likely have discovered her on a Chinese app that has driven music industry eyeballs to it. The appearance of this album is inevitable, so it is interesting to see how Priscilla makes sure she catches her moment and establishes her brand in a market where about one female singer makes it to public prominence every year.
In 2021 Priscilla (or Cilla to her friends) put out a six-track EP which included the big smash and tunes about heartbreak. Wish You Were The Whiskey, Heels In Hand and the gossipy I Bet You Wanna Know all cross over from the EP to make the album. All are radio-friendly unit shifters which were written with Priscilla’s friend Sarah Jones.
Just About Over You appears on the back half of the album, rather than track two or three, because streaming doesn’t need albums to be front-loaded with the hits. It is followed by Peaked In High School, which brings the album to a close. That song is basically Fat and Famous by Ashley McBryde updated for the age of oversharing. It is dedicated ‘to all the girls who made me cry’. You go, girlfriend! Yaaas.
Talking of self-expression, Thick Thighs appears in a new version and it is less funny than it was when I first heard it. Indeed, Priscilla told the New York Times that her dream is a CMT Crossroads show with Lizzo. For those who haven’t seen a picture of Priscilla, it’s the same shtick which is still novel in a pop-country world where Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris appear in very short shorts to sell their music.
The new single My Bar is a country tune which wards off an ex because Priscilla has her own territory. The humungous drum track makes it perfect country radio fodder and her vocal is authentically southern. The other brand new tracks include a duet with Hillary Lindsey called I Know A Girl, which sounds like a writers’ room therapy session turned into a three-minute introspective ballad: ‘A girl who finally learned to love herself’ is Hallmark Country.
The pair wrote the song with David Garcia. This must have been the result of a phone call from the record label boss who realised that the presence of Carrie Underwood’s big two collaborators can beef up an album which includes a song about muffin tops. I’ve Gotten Good was written with Phil Barton and Hillary’s fellow Love Junkie Liz Rose, which gives an adult contemporary feel to yet another song about moving on from a relationship. This album should come with a free bottle of wine.
Like A Boy will likewise chime with any listener who has been through a breakup, as Priscilla gets called ‘moody’ by her partner and soundtracks it with fat piano chords. As on Heels In Hand, she stretches out syllables across several beats of a bar. Priscilla sticks to the theme on Ever Since You Left (‘I’m feeling better, more together’), which scrubs out one swear word in the second verse but leaves in ‘kiss me ass’ cos that’s just the kind of gal Priscilla is!!
The album opens with a procession of voices saying her name, including Bobby Bones introducing her on the Grand Old Opry TV programme. Priscilla Block was a household name before she released an album or a major-label EP. But attention only gets you so far. Priscilla has wanted this attention ever since she moved to Nashville from North Carolina in 2014 and, eight years on, she finally has her own full-length album. I hope she gets a second too.
Like the aforementioned Ashley McBryde, Priscilla will, barring a catastrophe, be over in the UK for Country2Country. She will, I think gain the same number of fans that Ashley gained when she came over in 2018 to play the side stages.
When you go into a clothes store, you always see mannequins modelling the clothes to give an impression of what you, the buyer, will look like wearing those clothes. Likewise, when you flick over to a commercial country music station, in between adverts for cars and alcohol you will hear songs where husky-voiced men sing about cars and alcohol and girls.
Country music is a business. As the shop window, radio has been the dominant way of getting music to consumers for almost a century. Radio airplay sells albums, which sells concert tickets, which sells beer and cowboy boots and merchandise. It’s a business, you see.
Dustin Lynch is the latest in the production line which brought us Tim McGraw, Jason Aldean and Brooks & Dunn. Starting out in the early 2010s, the man known as DL has mixed wholesome songs like Cowboys and Angels, dedicated to his grandparents, with sex jams like Where It’s At, Mind Reader, Ridin’ Roads, Hell of a Night, Good Girl and Seein’ Red. Sex jams do well at radio, you see.
His last album Tullahoma included tracks called Dirt Road, about how the ‘six-lane city’ is ‘a long way from little bitty’, and Workin’ on You, which contrasted the daily demands of farming with how he’ll keep working hard to satisfy his beloved. Rural loving, DL style. Importantly, I believe what he’s singing.
This is the DL brand. It makes money. It will keep making money until the public decide it doesn’t want to buy DL any more. This is why Jason Aldean still has a career: people want to show up and bellow Big Green Tractor and She’s Country. The important thing to note about Aldean is that he has had extraordinary success at radio because his songs fit well next to the aforementioned adverts. Even the ballads are powerful.
Ditto for DL: after Small Town Boy became the biggest song on radio in 2017, his song Momma’s House spent over a year being promoted and clambered to the top of the Airplay chart. His eighth chart-topper was his collaboration with MacKenzie Porter, Thinkin Bout You, a multi-week number one across 2021 and 2022. It also became DL’s biggest Hot 100 hit across all genres, reaching number 30.
A version of the song featuring Lauren Alaina was on Tullahoma, but due to Lauren’s presence on a Jon Pardi song it was decided to replace her vocal. Heaven forfend listeners would hear Lauren’s voice two songs in a row. Sensibly, the new version is high up the tracklist on the new album, although Stars Like Confetti uses exactly the same chord progression but up a key, which lessens its impact on the album.
Blue In The Sky builds on the DL Brand which he has grown across a decade. He seems like a nice guy, always smiling, and he has never been in trouble with the law or has boasted of political views which create clickbait-y stories. DL is a squeaky-clean country star who makes wholesome music for a country radio demographic, a cross between McGraw and Aldean. He will never be a superstar but he’s a reliable unit-shifter for Broken Bow Records, for whom Aldean is the prize bull.
In the Nashville way, DL gets a smattering of credits among the outside writers drafted in to provide him with songs. He co-writes Break It On A Beach (‘I never thought you would bury me in the sand!’) with the A-List trio Ashley Gorley, Hunter Phelps and Zach Crowell, who produced the album. Poor DL can’t even drink pina coladas, such is the memory of heartbreak by the water.
More happily he’s drinking Tequila on a Boat with Chris Lane, an equally anonymous radio favourite. The goal of this song is to make the listener feel good and to sing along with the tune. Expect this to be a future single. Having recorded a song called Party Song, we’ve now got new single Party Mode, a bit of fluff which took as many people to write as there are chords in the song (five). The guitar sound is decent and I like the line ‘There ain’t no future in lookin’ back’.
Summer Never Ended, however, just sounds like by-the-numbers filler and deserves to be treated as such. Eric Church’s mate Jeff Hyde helped DL with Pasadena, a midtempo reminiscin’ tune on which DL and his girl, ‘with a flower in her hair’, have a brief fling in California. He goes ‘back there all the time in my mind’. It’s one of the album’s better tunes.
Tennessee Trouble (‘You walked in like a neon smoking gun’) and Huntin’ Land had Hunter Phelps in the room too. It’s a tribute to the Peach Pickers tunes which document rural life in country songs: DL complains about how his girl dislikes all the stuff he does but ‘her daddy’s got huntin’ land’ so he persists. Riley Green, another anonymous radio favourite, pops up with a verse on that song, which means that aside from four beats in the middle eight there are as many vocalists on the song as there are chords (two). Doesn’t mean it’s not catchy and smart.
Jameson Rodgers had a hand in Back Road TN, which makes it a hat-trick for the Gormless Radio Favourites. It’s one of those songs in which the singer ticks off places in the USA but concludes that nothing is as wholesome as Tennessee because there’s ‘the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen’ next to him. Commentator Grady Smith will wince at the mention of the moon, which dominated the last album Tullahoma.
The two deep and meaningful tracks are the type that country music has produced since time immemorial to show that you can live a country way of life (hmm, nice phrase). Somethin’ That Makes You Smile is one of those carpe diem songs like Humble and Kind that no English songwriter would dare write; it is Hallmark Country that reminds the listener that we’re ‘only here for a little while’. The first line is about drinking Coca-Cola, which is code for buying stuff. At least it makes you happy, as does fixing a car, going fishing, heading to the bar or watching some American Football.
DL has already sung album closer Not Every Cowboy on the stage at the Opry, where he was honoured with membership in 2018. It was, incidentally, co-written by Conner Smith; it’s a love song which includes the lines ‘silhouette Stetson’ and ‘there’s parts where the movies got it wrong’. It’s one of the three or four tracks that will make DL’s greatest hits set; it’s his Drink A Beer or Neon Moon. They’re known as career songs and it may well win some awards.
Country music needs stars like DL to keep the genre going. As long as he avoids getting stuck in Aldean territory, making the same song over and over again, DL will be fine.
Garth Brooks was born on February 7 1962. He became one of the most successful performers in the recorded music era, selling more albums than anyone on earth in the 1990s. His catalogue is full of remarkable songs about the human condition, many of which were written by other acts.
In this celebratory show, first broadcast on ARC Radio, you can hear a number of these songs performed by the likes of Billy Joel, Tony Arata, Kent Blazy, Huey Lewis, Wayne Kirkpatrick, Caitlyn Smith, Rick Carnes, Shawn Camp and Westlife (yep.).
Hear an hour of music by acts from Texas and Oklahoma on ARC Radio every Sunday at 4pm GMT (repeated Tuesdays at 7pm GMT). In The Red Dirt plays music from familiar acts and those just starting out.
After spending this year’s spring break with Sam Hunt, Conner Smith will be going out with Thomas Rhett and Parker McCollum this summer, so leave your tailgate party early to catch the opening act. Both in Nashville, like TR, he’s the son of a journalist who may well have interviewed Rhett Akins in her job. He’s a fan of Eric Church and Kip Moore, as well as Justin Bieber(!).
We have already heard three songs from this six-track EP, which is a Big Machine release (fun fact: they have just opened an LA office to be closer to their Korean owners). Produced by Zach Crowell, best known for putting together the track over which Sam sung of his back-road-bodied girl, this is contemporary country music aimed at 16-24-year-olds.
College Town is Conner’s life in a song which shows how the sausage gets made: ‘me and my band hopped in a van’ to play shows at college like the very song he is singing now. It’s loud, proud and goes well with keg stands.
Given that the EP also includes Somewhere In A Small Town – a song driven by a kick drum that has probably been written by every writer in Nashville – I realise this is exactly the same product as what Noah Hicks is offering. He put out tracks called Drinkin in a College Town and I Can Tell You’re Small Town. Connor is on the indie label Red Creative, so this is Big Machine’s attempt to use their millions to market a similar product to kids in small towns who want to hear sensitive white boys sing about love and stuff.
Learn From It has a John Mayer-ish riff, lyrics about baseball, scars and how mistakes make people stronger. The chorus is enormous and hugely melodic, definitely in the Sam Hunt wheelhouse: ‘Growing up with nothing to do makes you play with fire’ is a very good lyric. There’s even some speak-singing in the middle of the EP’s title track, with lines about young love and how there’s ‘one bar…one church, how do I move on’. It’s basically Break Up In A Small Town with a smarter hook, ‘the one that got away didn’t go too far’.
Take It Slow, co-written with Ryan Hurd, uses the same banjo sound as What Ifs by Kane Brown to underscore a ballad where Conner is convinced to drive down to a quiet spot and listen to a song on the radio while kissing. The triplet-y delivery makes it sound good next to melodic rap or rappy pop, as the monogenre means everything bleeds into each other and country sounds like pop sounds like rap. It sells, so I won’t complain, but I bet no hiphop act would use a banjo setting.
I Hate Alabama is an outside write that opens with a sports rivalry before opening up into a chorus which can only end in ‘that’s where I lost you’. It is good to hear a singer wrap his tongue around the word ‘Tuscaloosa’ though. Good luck to Conner, who can convey emotion with his great voice.
Now to let the Big Machine crank into gear.
Rod + Rose
Here’s how country music works, in three acts.
Rodney Atkins started having hits in the mid-2000s when signed to Curb Records. After four albums and six number one singles, his brand of country was elbowed out by younger guys in jeans yelling about girls. He still had enough hits to be a big live draw, and radio supported his comeback single Caught Up in the Country in 2018, an outside write which was given to him to promote the album of the same name.
A couple of the tracks on that album were written by Rose Falcon, who herself signed to Columbia Records as a teenager then moved to Toby Keith’s Show Dog imprint in 2011. 19th Avenue came out in two parts in 2012 and 2013 while, as a writer, she co-wrote Friday Night, which was a hit for both Eric Paslay and Lady A.
Rose is the daughter of Billy Falcon, a frequent co-writer with Jon Bon Jovi. The pair of them wrote a song that was on the Country Strong soundtrack called Give In To Me. That must have helped her bank account but hasn’t helped her become a household name.
Her own household includes a kid she had with husband Rodney and, sensibly, the pair have started recording together and have put out a five-track EP as Rod + Rose. We’ve had Tim McGraw and Faith Hill record their own album together, while Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood have been on the radio for the last year with their take on Shallow. Eight of the top 20 country songs at radio, as I write this, are duets or collaborations, which makes this EP part of a current trend, probably by accident.
In 2021 the duo previewed two of the tracks. Being Here Being There has both singers lament hard days in the verse but celebrate each other’s presence in the chorus, while Put Me Back Together is almost a power ballad where Rod and Rose coo in praise of each other. It’s all very Adult Contemporary with modern production, as if Rodney is showing Thomas Rhett how to do this sort of thing when TR’s career takes a similar path in about eight years’ time.
There is a re-recorded version of Figure Out You, a track which was on Rodney’s last solo album. As it did in its original form, the song foregrounds the vocals with an acoustic accompaniment but with extra lashings of string. It’s a wedding song where each is kept ‘beautifully confused’ because of their love. The rest of their lives will be spent ‘trying to figure out you’.
Fine By Me includes wordplay in the title (‘lookin’ so fine by me…that’s fine by me’) and the word ‘hickory’ in the chorus. It’s a chantalong tune with a fine arrangement, and I love the love that the couple have for each other. Anyway uses four familiar chords to underscore another song of devotion with some neat jokes about how one of them may ruin a movie or tell an old corny joke. Love, however, conquers all.
A full album of this sort of deep, compassionate adult-focussed music would be brilliant.
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.