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

February 19, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

February 12, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Country Jukebox Jury EP: Alex Hall – Six Strings

February 12, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Remember the name: Alex Hall.


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

February 5, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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


Country Jukebox Jury LP: Lucero – When You Found Me

January 30, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Country Jukebox Jury LP: Logan Mize – Still That Kid

January 30, 2021

He’s not in Kansas anymore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Country Jukebox Jury LP: Tebey and Willie Jones

January 22, 2021

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

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

Tebey – The Good Ones

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willie Jones – Right Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Country Jukebox Jury EP: Devin Dawson – The Pink Slip

January 15, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Country Jukebox Jury LP: Aaron Watson – American Soul

January 15, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

January 8, 2021

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

I call this genre Algorythm’n’Blues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Several executives have their careers on the line.

Find my version of Dangerous in a Spotify playlist here.

SIDE A

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

SIDE B

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


The Country Way of Life Fabulous Fifty of 2020

December 20, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

39 Ashley McBryde – Voodoo Doll. Sabbath Bloody Ashley

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

37 Canaan Smith – Colder Than You. Wry breakup song

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

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

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

33 Ruston Kelly – Radio Cloud. Poppy and melodic

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 The Mavericks – Cuando Me Enamoro. Glorious Tejano tune

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

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

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

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

21 Kenny Chesney – Here and Now. Built for stadiums

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

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

18 Ryan Hurd – Every Other Memory. Marvellous love song

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See the playlist on Youtube here.


Country Jukebox Jury LP: Russell Dickerson – Southern Symphony

December 7, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

December 4, 2020

Ashley McBryde – Never Will

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

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

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

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

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

Brett Eldredge – Sunday Drive

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

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

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – Reunions

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

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

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

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

The Texas Gentlemen – Floor It!!!

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

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

Brothers Osborne – Skeletons

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

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

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

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

The Top Five

Josh Turner – Country State of Mind

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

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

Chris Stapleton – Starting Over

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

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

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

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

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

Hardy – A Rock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori McKenna – The Balladeer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brandy Clark – Your Life is a Record

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ka-Ching…with Twang – The Albums of 2020: Part One, 25 to 11

December 4, 2020

Throughout 2020 I’ve been listening to every notable new album released by a US country act. Here are my favourite 25.

25-21

Will Hoge – Tiny Little Movies

If you like Jason Isbell, The Jayhawks and anything Bob Harris plays with guitars and drums, you’ll love Will Hoge. He delivers every song with a rye-soaked vocal. Every track has something to recommend it, be it a lyric, guitar tone or harmonica. The best ones on first listen are Midway Motel, as fine an opener as you will ever hear this side of a Bob Dylan album, the tender The Likes of You, ruminative Maybe This Is OK and The Curse.

Hot Country Knights – The K Is Silent

Dierks Bentley’s regular opening act are a comedy troupe which is, in fact, the headliners dressed up in funny costumes. The K is Silent comprises ten tracks over 36 minutes that try to give the listener a good time. Album opener Hot Country Knights begins by spelling out the band’s name and Dierks’ familiar voice prepares the listener for a ‘good time…everybody’s cutting loose with their jeans on tight’. There’s a passage full of key changes that goes nowhere, proving that the joke is musical as well as lyrical. It is definitely the latter on Then It Rained. Mull It Over is a heartache song which Midland would be proud of. Ditto the awesomely titled Kings of Neon, which is driven by the album’s best riff and chorus. Wrangler Danger is a cautionary tale set in Whiskey Row, which happens to be Dierks Bentley’s Nashville bar (product placement!!) and is about a ‘heartbreak kind’ of girl.

The album sounds like 1995 and it’s wonderful to see a major label support Dierks in bringing some joy to the country world.

Joshua Ray Walker – Glad You Made It

Joshua Ray Walker is a Texan singer who throws in all the country vocal tics of the old singers like Hank Williams and Roger Miller. Opening track Voices, with a tambourine on the backbeat, adds pedal steel and a voice that you could find in a church. You’d be forgiven for missing that he’s singing about driving his truck into a lake while leaving a bottle of alcohol in his hand. True Love picks up the pace but is nonetheless sad since it’s ‘meant to fade’.

You know you’re in country music from the album’s first bar: Loving County begins with some yodelling; Play You A Song is a hoedown, with some quick picking; One Trick Pony is a honky-tonker; and Cupboard begins with him examining cans and turns into a meditation on time. The lyric is direct and the drums are pulsating.

In Boat Show Girl he quotes the inscription on the Statue of Liberty while talking about the titular characters: ‘Take this beauty home…just like every boat show girl wishes that you would.’

Cam – The Otherside

After five years in development hell, and two years after Diane made the Radio 2 playlist, we have Cam’s second album. I loved the nostalgic Classic, the latter driven by a ukulele-type riff and which was written with Jack Antonoff (producer of fun, Lorde, Taylor Swift and recently the Dixie Chicks).

Cam has one foot in pop and one foot in Nashville but her heart is set on a wide pop audience. Happier For You was written by Sam Smith. What Goodbye Means has a rich 12-string guitar running through a song which sees Cam hope that the chap ‘might come back to me’. Redwood Tree veers towards Dolly Parton (‘don’t you recognise me…sorry I had to leave’) and ends up sounding like Ward Thomas with the lyric ‘You’ll know what you had when it’s gone’. Harry Styles provides an uncredited whistle solo on Changes, which has a wide open chorus about love and stuff but with the patented Lori McKenna Melancholy about how when you’re young you don’t think anything will change.

Lori is also involved in the breakup ballad Forgetting You and Like A Movie, which sees Cam team up with The Love Junkies (Liz Rose, Lori and Hillary Lindsey) to write a song that brings back the idea of country music with an orchestra. It’s an uplifting piece of music that veers on the Disney – ‘all the colours change when you say my name’ – which I think is what she was going for.

Another track with pristine production, Til There’s Nothing Left, involves Hillary Lindsey, while torch ballad closing track Girl Like Me was written with Natalie Hemby. The title track was written with Avicii and is driven by a woozy vocal riff and some jerky acoustic guitar. Cam sings a folky melody in the verse which soars upwards in the chorus. It’s the best track on a very good album. It is a high-end production and a fitting testament to the late producer and DJ.

Sam Hunt – Southside

Five years in the making, Southside arrived with four songs already embedded into fans’ lives. Downtown’s Dead was bouncy, Kinfolks was infectious, Body Like A Back Road was smart and worthy of its high placing on the all-genre Hot 100. Hard To Forget was innovative in its sample of There Stands The Glass. It also boasts a great title and chorus: ‘You’re playing hard to forget’ is such a great line, as is the ‘outta sight outta mind/ Girl you’re looking so good it’s driving me out of mine’.

My favourite new track from the album was Breaking Up Was Easy In The Nineties, a smart lyric set to a chirpy acoustic guitar about how in 2020 it’s tough to fully escape someone popping up in one’s timeline with a new guy. Once the listener negotiates the spoken-sung verse, the chorus is singable,

20-16

Tenille Townes – The Lemonade Stand

Holding Out For The One opens the album with fun rhythms and production, mixing live drums and loops, as Tenille sings about love and stuff in a sing-song manner. I Kept The Roses, meanwhile, reminds me of Jessie Buckley’s Wild Rose of the 2019 film. Carry tissues and put your heart over your sleeve. White Horse and Somebody’s Daughter are both urgent tracks with smart lyrics.

Her list of co-writers is impressive: Daniel Tashian, Luke Laird and Barry Dean on Somebody’s Daughter, Keelan Donovan – who guests on the terrific love song The Way You Look Tonight – and Sacha Skarbek, who co-wrote Wrecking Ball among many other pop classics and writes Find You here. That song, Where You Are and the welcoming Come As You Are are all close to the sort of pop-country we do in Britain.

Tenille can also do tender and serious. When I Meet My Maker picks up themes of Jersey On The Wall, with a tender lyric about angels and choirs and questions. Josh Kear, still counting the Need You Now money, helps Tenille write The Most Beautiful Things, which closes the album. It’s the sort of song Kelsea Ballerini would sing to be hashtag-serious; a series of images which serve to criticise people ‘Why do we close our eyes when we pray, cry, kiss?’ We don’t see beautiful things, but feel them. Then we get wind chimes. 

Luke Bryan – Born Here Live Here Die Here

Luke has taken the Blake/Keith approach and put his brand in front of middle America thanks to TV, and a lot more people know Luke Bryan than the country audience whom he was initially marketed to.

Knockin Boots, What She Wants Tonight and One Margarita are all fun songs about love, sex and drinking. Build Me a Daddy is sentimental gloop that aims its sights on your tearducts.

The title track is a blood brothers song that sounds like lighters in the air. Luke, for all his booty shaking, is to Georgia what Madness are to North London or the Ramones are to New York. Songs like this boost Luke’s localism – I believe him when he sings about boots and roots and local pride, regardless of political allegiance. ‘Same dirt, same church, same beer’ and REAL drums – great job by all concerned, including young writer Jameson Rodgers. His voice is marketable and he sounds like a man who hunts and fishes.

The musical theme of this album is… middle of the dirt road, a genre I have made up to convey safe, corporate music. That doesn’t mean it’s bad: Too Drunk to Drive is a Luke co-write that chugs along effectively in a fashion; Down To One, which is the only contribution to this album by Luke’s buddy Dallas Davidson, closes the album and is climbing up the radio airplay chart.

Where are we Goin, which Luke wrote with top singer/songwriter Brent Cobb, and Little Less Broken are almost Lionel Richie songs – I wonder if Lionel has given him tips on American Idol – although the latter also reminds me of Midland’s contemporary vintage style. For a Boat is also AC country in which Luke declares himself ‘too broke for a boat’ as a kid, spending Sundays with God and Saturdays with Dad. I like the specificity of ‘Evinrude’, which is a type of motor.

Ashley Campbell – Something Lovely

Ashley pays homage to dad with a cover of Good Vibrations – I expect she asked for Brian Wilson’s blessing – on which Glen played as a member of the Wrecking Crew studio and live band.

Throughout the album, the string arrangements and acoustics are glorious, particularly on Moonlight and Suitcase Heart, where she sings in a majestic chorus of being ‘always gone before it even starts’. If I Wasn’t sounds like The Beautiful South going noir, with Ashley’s voice floating on top of a delicious arrangement. On the elegant title track, Ashley is a single woman (‘such-and-such’) in a bar asking a ‘so-and-so’, a ‘lonely guy’ for mutual companionship set to some mellifluous nylon-stringed acoustic guitar. It is stunning and is worth the price of admission. By contrast, Walk On By has her ignoring the catcalls with a ukulele and steel guitar thrumming away as she sings ‘nothing to see here’. The rhyme of ‘victim/ symptoms’ is inspired.

Like her fellow regal daughter Rosanne Cash, Ashley knows her country music. Forever’s Not That Long could have come out in 1961 thanks to its rich fiddles, pedal steel and Steinway piano, while her instrumental Moustache Man could have emerged in the 1920s as it’s her and her godfather Carl Jackson pickin’ on banjos.

Mac McAnally – Once in a Lifetime

If you like country music, and want to waste away 40 minutes in Margaritaville, this album is for you. But Mac can do soft too: Just Like It Matters is a waltz which is full of pedal steel and heartache, as Mac tells of a girl leaving him. Thrown in for good measure is a cover of John Lennon’s song Norwegian Wood, complete with mystical drones, and the flight of fancy First Sign of Trouble, about the perils of doing anything when you’re singing about doing nothing.

On Almost All Good, which Kenny Chesney could turn into a number one, Mac sings: ‘We’re just trying to wear that First Amendment out!’ is a fun line. Good Guys Win is a Chesney title-in-waiting too, with a song set to a smooth rhythm and rhyming ‘disillusion’ and ‘turn on the news’ before changing key. It’s perfect on a 90-degree day. Brand New Broken Heart – fiddle, mandolin, a cracking middle eight and a Mumford-y guitar part – is divine. The album closes with The Better Part of Living, a credo in which Mac tells of the lessons he has learned.

Tim McGraw – Here On Earth

I Called Mama, Hallelujahville, Good Taste In Women and 7500 OBO can all be retitled as follows: Tim McGraw calls mum, Tim McGraw bigs up small towns, Tim McGraw is a lucky schlub and Tim McGraw sells his truck full of memories. The brilliant thing about 7500 OBO is it lays out what this album is: it’s a Tim McGraw album for fans of Tim McGraw.

Hold You Tonight is smooth MODR from writers Ross Copperman and Jon Nite with the lyric ‘I can’t fix the world but I can hold you tonight. Tim must have done this type of song on every album, right down to the guitar sounds.

The latest Tim McGraw love songs of devotion are Damn Sure Do, which is a smart wedding song, and Hard To Stay Mad At, written this time by three heavyweights: Lori McKenna, Shane McAnally and Luke Laird. It’s a wonderful love song which quotes the proverb about never going to bed angry.

On Chevy Spaceship he sounds like Brad Paisley, especially in the line ‘catch a buzz lightyear’. Tim McGraw has previously sung a song called Kristofferson and here he sings about Sheryl Crow, his fellow Big Machine artist; Tim’s girl is ‘gonna be stuck in my head forever’. Jason Aldean’s buddies Neil Thrasher and Wendell Mobley write this – so maybe this is an Aldean cast-off.

15-11

Mo Pitney – Ain’t Looking Back

Mo Pitney is an apostle of George Strait. Ain’t Lookin Back is a good title of his second album, which comes out five years after Behind This Guitar, an album of traditional country songs expertly sung. The time is ripe, as Jon Pardi and Josh Turner would agree, to bring it back and Mo is well placed to find a huge audience.

Listening through to the album it sounds brilliant, with tender production from Jim Moose Brown and warmth in every syllable. ‘I didn’t come here to be famous’ is the album’s opening line, setting out Mo’s stall with a song in which he says ‘God said I’ll make me a music man’. Jamey Johnson, another music man who shuns fame and fortune, is a guest vocalist on a song Mo co-wrote.

I still love the poppy pair of Ain’t Bad for a Good Ol Boy and Local Honey, as well as the Old Dominion-written Plain and Simple, which is a lovely gift to their fellow top songwriter. Other legends contribute to others such as the funky love song Right Now With You (Paul Overstreet) and Boy Gets The Girl (Tim ‘Live Like You Were Dying’ Nichols), which takes the idea of a romcom and runs with it. The title track of Ain’t Lookin Back sounds like the long road on which Mo is on – bring back road songs in country music, I say! The album’s closing track, Jonas, is a Dean Dillon co-write which is a spiritual number. It ends a mature album which should not be ignored.

Caylee Hammack – If It Wasn’t For You

I was looking forward to Caylee’s debut album which includes her first hit Family Tree. It’s very poppy but full of personal touches and lyrics like ‘pot luck lunch’, Tupperware and ‘high school high’. Album opener Just Friends has also been knocking around for a while with its kickass tone and wild ending, while fellow Redhead Reba pops up on the glorious track of that name.

Small Town Hypocrite, solo acoustic track Gold (recorded as if it’s a demo) and Looking for a Lighter are softer songs on the album, the latter with the audible sonic fingerprint of the best in the business, Hillary Lindsey. Just Like You and King Size Bed are country songs at their heart, with strong melodies. Fans of Miranda will love Just Like You, on which Caylee plays tomboy, and Sister, which is a downhome country song about family and stuff. The production on the likes of King Sized Bed and Preciatcha may be poppy but these songs would work at the Song Suffragettes night just with Caylee on an acoustic guitar.

Shenandoah – Every Road

Shenandoah have hit the top five times and are probably best known for Two Dozen Roses, the third in a run of three chart-toppers in 1989 which began with The Church on Cumberland Road and continued with Sunday in the South.

The new album copies the Brooks & Dunn trick by pairing them with contemporary artists. Special mention too for Willie Nelson’s mate Buddy Cannon who produces with all the country touches expected of a classic band who trade in traditional sounds.

Every Time I Look At You is a track which didn’t make any Lady A projects (they wrote it) but it finds a home here. It’s another wedding song about how great a lady looks set to a lovely, warm melody. The punchy Make It Til Summertime has the fingerprints of Dallas Davidson and the voice of Dallas’ mate Luke Bryan. It opens with a lyric about ‘swinging this hammer’, continues through ‘Georgia pine’ and ‘Muscadine wine’ and is the honkiest-tonkiest thing Luke has ever recorded. The Warren Brothers, Brad and Brett, give them Then A Girl Walks In, a song about the marvels of women with added Blake Shelton that sounds like a modern rock version of a ballad you’d get from 1989.

The title track is a mellow and very contemporary track about finding yourself. I’ll Be Your Everything paints Marty as a shoulder to cry on, though it could also be about God and stuff.

Eric Paslay – Nice Guy

After an EP earlier this year, Nice Guy emerges with eight new tracks which follow his cover of Pill In Ibiza, single Heartbeat Higher and two great tunes Boat in a Bottle and On This Side of Heaven, which is really tremendous and a tearjerker. I also love Endless Summer Dream, which takes the feel of Even If It Breaks Your Heart.

Off the Edge of the Summer opens with the line ‘whispering wishes into wine bottles’ so if you like your song well written, Eric is your man. Co-writers include Kristian Bush (Just Once, which is middle of the dirt road and could be a Tim McGraw tune), Craig Wiseman (who is also a nice guy and helped Eric write the groovy title track), Caitlyn Smith (who also provides gorgeous uncredited harmonies on Under Your Spell) and the great Rodney Clawson on the equally great acoustic ballad Fingertips. This one is a father’s lullaby to his child and deserves to be heard. Album closer Woman Like Her (‘is good for a man’) is another Tim McGraw sort of tune with a singalong middle section.

Josh Abbott Band – The Highway Kind

There are country staples here: the title track, co-written by Jon Randall, is about being on the open road; Where I Wanna Be is the party song; The Luckiest (‘to be loved by you’) is the wedding song which as is almost obligatory for a Texan musician namechecks George Strait; One More Two Step is a raunchy love song which hints at some dancing in bed after closing time; Real Damn Good, which has Niko Moon among its credits, goes for Kiss T-shirts to imply how a woman is ‘real damn good at not giving a damn’.

Part Two, which counts down the top 10, can be found here.


The UK Country Top 40 of 2020

November 27, 2020

2020 has been devastating for UK artists. No indoor gigs or outdoor festivals like Buckle & Boots and Black Deer, no British Country Music Festival or Long Road in September, no radio sessions or showcases or support slots with US acts and, even though it’s a gig for exposure, no Country2Country 2020.

Nonetheless, recordings have still emerged and every one of these songs has been released in the horrible year we have all had. Many have been played on Country Hits Radio or Chris Country, the big two radio stations, or supported by stations or websites like ARC Radio, Lyric Magazine, Your Life in a Song, Entertainment Focus, Off The Record.

The online UK Country Music Week 2020 unites over 50 artists, many of whom are included in this chart. UK CMW runs from November 30 to December 6.

40 Charlotte Young – Praying For Rain

39 Remember Monday – Version of You

38 Hannah Paris – What The Hell

37 Danny McMahon – My Kinda City

36 Kelsey Bovey – Magnetic

35 Anna Krantz – We Could Be High

34 Laura Evans – Mess of Me

33 Harleymoon Kemp – Space

32 Katy Hurt – Unfinished Business

31 The Wandering Hearts – Over Your Body

30 Foreign Affairs – The Hope Comes Again

29 Shannon Hynes – Country Words

28 Jess Thristan – This Year’s Love

27 Joe Martin – Heartbreak Cult

26 Hannah White – My Father

25 Deeanne Dexeter – 4AM

24 The Rising –2AM Call

23 Jade Helliwell – The Moment

22 Jake Morrell – Taking Our Time

21 Megan O’Neill – Head Under Water

20 Two Ways Home & Joey Clarkson – One More for the Road

19 Holloway Road – About Town

18 Laura Oakes – Welcome to the Family

17 O&O – When It Comes To Love

16 Morganway – My Love Ain’t Gonna Save You

15 Gary Quinn – Tip Of My Tongue

14 Tim Prottey-Jones – Bite The Bullet

13 Robbie Cavanagh – Feeding Time

12 Demi Marriner – Because Of Her

11 Backwoods Creek – Better Days

10 Emma and Jolie – I Don’t Need A Man

9 Essex County – So Good

8 Kezia Gill – Wings

7 Robert Vincent – Conundrum

6 Ferris and Sylvester – I Should Be On A Train

5 The Adelaides – Seven Billion

4 Twinnie – Type of Girl  

3 Yola – I Don’t Wanna Lie

2 Ward Thomas – Someday

1 The Shires – Crazy Days

The playlist can be found here.


Ka-ching…With Twang: My Favourite Number One Songs in Texas

November 27, 2020

In this two-parter I run through the biggest acts and songs from my voyage into Red Dirt country where Texas declares its independence from the Nashville scene. In this second part, I look at songs by various members of the Texas music scene. All of them are either surging to or have been number one on the Texas Regional Radio Chart.

George Navarro – When She’s Drinkin. An irresistible four-chord pop which is at odds with the lyric. George realises the only time his lady loves him is when she’s had a few ‘and she ain’t drinkin’ anymore’. He’s singing through his heartbreak.

Mark Powell – Breaking Things. A midtempo ballad sung eloquently in a deep timbre: ‘My pride is whipped from a long stretch of heartache’. It’s another song from Texas that celebrates men who are quite rubbish in love? The lyric ‘you break it, you pay for it’ is great.

Reckless Kelly – I Only See You With My Eyes Closed. This sounds like an interstate drive on a July afternoon but there’s a sad lyric tied to the wide-open guitars and jolly melody.

Jody Booth – Gotta Go Back To Work. This starts with a twanging riff, adds some fiddle and pedal steel, then a Garthish croon comes in. ‘I don’t remember nothin bout last night,’ Jody sings of his crazy night, and realising that to ‘get a little rest’ he has to go to work, eschewing the honkytonks in the daytime.

Josh Abbott Band – The Luckiest. An obvious single from the great Highway Kind album, this is the wedding song that Texans will enjoy in a socially distanced fashion next year. The chorus shouts out hometowns, friends, cold beer and ‘good times’, as well as an obligatory reference to ‘King George’. Above all, Josh is ‘the luckiest to be loved by you’. As wedding songs go, with the rim of the snare drum driving the backbeat, this is glorious. The second verse, when the piano and banjo pop up, is glorious.

Jake Bush – Gravity & You. An army veteran, Jake’s seven-track album 7 is being promoted with a song about how dependent on his beloved he is. She keeps him ‘tethered’ and brings him ‘back to earth’. The sentiment is simple and direct and will resonate with many Texans.

Kylie Frey – Spur of the Moment. Over a chugging acoustic beat, Kylie sends off her man who has an adventurous soul; indeed, the spur is ‘digging in’ and ‘cuts deep’. What a great voice, harmonies and story here: ‘he ain’t my mama’s dream but he’s everything to me’ and thus she can’t go to sleep until she knows her man is safe. This is almost perfect and contains horses, which very few country songs today contain, and a fiddle solo (ditto).

Kylie Frey – I Do Thing. What a wonderfully kinetic opening few bars, setting the scene for a lyric where Kylie reveals her ‘habit of being attracted to doing whatever I want’. She never thought she’d want to settle down but ‘suddenly I’m changing my mind’. She’s a great vocalist, like her fellow Texans Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves who have made waves in Nashville. This song is getting pushed to Nashville radio and is climbing towards the top of the Texan chart. Her EP is called Rodeo Queen.

James Lann – Everydayers. The title refers to people who ‘in all kinds of weather…stick together in a world full of naysayers’. These people ‘get er done’ and ‘hang tough no matter what’, and it does sound a little vague. However, the guitar solo in the middle of it sounds like heartland rock and the vocal is very similar to Aaron Watson’s.

Deryl Dodd – Let Me Hold You Tonight. As I pressed play, I guessed this was to be a love song to slowdance to, and probably the guy is lucky to have the girl in spite of his faults. Nope. Deryl’s lady has left her but he wants to go after her. He is ‘not perfect’ – so far, so Texan – but can’t lose his beloved. ‘Come home to me, darling’ is his plea over a waltz tempo and some pedal steel. There’s heartache and longing and everything George Jones loves to sing about. As country as the day is long, and I was disappointed to hear a plaintive piano solo instead of a spoken word bit in the middle.

Bri Bagwell – As Soon As You. A very rare number one from a lady, the singer is a seven-time winner of Texas Female Vocalist of the Year. Her voice is somewhere between Ashley Monroe and Miranda Lambert, soft but punchy and As Soon As You is a good showcase for it. ‘Eventually I want to say I Do…I just won’t get there as soon as you!’ is a fine line.

David Adam Byrnes – Neon Town. The title track of his album. From Arkansas, David looks great in a cowboy hat. His biography says he headed to Nashville, got a minor hit, learned to write lots of bro country, lost his deal, heard Texas’ Red Dirt Music and heeded Aaron Watson’s advice to get the hell out of Nashville. His last song I Can Give You One was number one the week the pandemic hit America and any touring was postponed. Neon Town is a fine rocker of a song that I pressed play on immediately after hearing it a first time. ‘Raisin hell and raisin 12oz to a country song’ is fun, and any Luke Combs fan will find much to enjoy.

Curtis Grimes – Little Bit. The song starts with some fiddle and electric guitar and I love the opening line about a girl like ‘a needle in a haystack…A blond-haired Mona Lisa’. It transpired that it’s about his daughter whom he tucks in at night. Curtis’ baritone is magnificent and he certainly loves his kid who ‘throws a fit when she can’t get her jammies on’. ‘I dread that day me and mama give her away’.

Mark Powell – Project. I love the swampy riff, four bars of intricate pedal steel and Mark’s very country vocal tone. ‘I need a home and you need a project’ is the hook, as Mark invites the woman to turn a ‘stray dog’ into a man. The video is worth a watch as well, which brings the song to life through humour.

Jesse Raub Jr – I’d Look Good On You, which has another swampy riff and impassioned vocalist. Jesse sells the song brilliantly and I love the line ‘sawdust, hardwood, neon speaking the truth’. Jon Pardi does this sort of thing very well over in Nashville

Granger Smith – Country Things. Get this for songwriting credits: Ernest K Smith, Brian Kelley, Hardy (who is SO HOT right now) and Jordan Schmidt. These guys know country things and this is a nice gift for Granger. The song opens with banjo and mandolin then adds light drums, piano and fiddle before Granger has sung a syllable. It’s a list of things that are country – try and fill in your bingo card but I’ll start you off: ‘no ma’am’, ‘dirt road’, ‘church’, ‘boots’ and ‘crickets’. It’s gorgeous and clinical – exactly what Marty Stuart talks about when he says a country singer carries a briefcase in one hand and a guitar case in the other. There’s even an instrumental coda at the end.

Stoney LaRue and Tanya Tucker – Meet In The Middle. This chugs with energy from the opening bar – real drums, real harmonica – as Stoney (who is a man) sings of wanting to go all the way but asking Tanya to do a bit of giving as well as taking. Tanya, who started as a teenager, is becoming country’s answer to Mavis Staples, a heritage act with huge appreciation from those who came after her. Her vocal is tremendous and the song is a pleasant three minutes.

William Clark Green – Poor. A waltz which is full of mandolin and fiddle, and William’s vocals aren’t quite there, giving it that Red Dirt authenticity. It helps that the chap looks like a manual worker too, with strong forearms. Whereas his lady is ‘a saint’ and ‘a queen’, he is ‘a sucker, a sinner, three times a loser’. I could predict a section full of la-laing. I wanted more about how they are poor; aside from ‘cracks in the ceiling’ there’s not much imagery.

Read the first part of this piece here.


Ka-ching…With Twang: My Favourite Number One Songs in Texas

November 27, 2020

In this two-parter I run through the biggest acts and songs from my voyage into Red Dirt country where Texas declares its independence from the Nashville scene.

In the first part, however, I discuss the stars who have leapt from Texas into Tennessee and are played on country radio.

Cody Johnson ft Reba – Dear Rodeo.

Cody is one of the biggest acts in Texas (bigger even than Aaron Watson), and Nashville think so as well. Reba was famously a cowgirl before she became the heir to Dolly. Reba, as you may know, is part of the double act hosting the CMA Awards next month along with Darius Rucker. Good old Darius, proving that country music isn’t racist. Over enormous drums and chugging guitars, with a long instrumental outro section, Cody and Reba sing of ‘almost-had-ems and broken bones’ although it’s clear Cody is comparing a lady to the rodeo and that Cody is still in love with her.

Aaron Watson

The man who fled Nashville and then had a number one album on Billboard keeps on keeping on. Silverado Saturday Night is a fluffy song which is all energy and drive. ‘They don’t call it a truck bed for nothing,’ Aaron purrs, namechecking Zebco fishing rods and wanting to be ‘dancing with the stars’. It’s about making love.

Whisper My Name is a rocking love song about his beloved wife. There’s touches of fiddle on a song which reminisces about how honkytonks are now parking lots. George Strait gets a namecheck – there must be a way to find out how many Texan country songs mention King George – and although the song is middle-of-the-dirt-road it makes my head nod.

The sappy and patriotic American Soul begins with gentle piano and some patriotic fiddle. I think I’ve heard every possible permutation of ‘Star-Spangled banner, hats and boots, hard-working, hard-partying, hard-living, Amazing Grace, baseball cards, gridiron, political parties, freedom and bravery’ but it’s still effective and affecting. There’s a good coda about love and stuff.

Parker McCollum

Parker has put out two albums independently but his Hollywood Gold EP is his first project on a major label. It’s produced by Jon Randall, still best known for writing Whiskey Lullaby and for having married two songwriters, Lonnie Morgan and Jessi Alexander.

Parker is doing well at country radio with his debut single Pretty Heart and on Texas radio with Like a Cowboy. What a great two-pronged strategy, following Cody Johnson and indeed Aaron Watson, which ought to help Parker to cross over from Texas to Nashville and make money from two markets. His voice is typically Texan, with soul and grit in equal measure, and I am sold on Pretty Heart with its lyrical and melodic hooks including holding the word ‘heart’ for five beats which mirror the act of heartbreak Parker has inflicted on a poor lady.

Like A Cowboy is the best track on the EP, a sad piano-driven waltz which Parker sings brilliantly. The lyrics are thoroughly Texan, full of fenceposts and sunsets and ‘God made me this way’. It sounds timeless and a cut above a lot of pop pap that makes money in Nashville.

Since he is Texan, there is plenty of self-reflection, as on the opening track Young Man’s Blues, which marries Texan ennui to a huge Nashville chorus. Hallie Ray Light, meanwhile, is equally punchy though the lyric is full of ‘raining’ and ‘leaving’ and ‘rear view’ and ‘goodnight Hallie Ray’. It’ll sound great live, especially with the slide guitar that runs through the song.

Hold Me Back is the weepie ballad where Parker wants someone to prevent him from ‘spinning these wheels’ and sinking to the bottom of a pit of despair. I love the production from Jon Randall, and it runs nicely into the understated Love You Like That. ‘I’ll be trying like hell…but I don’t know if I can love you like that’ once again proves that Texas does it differently from Nashville. However much Parker wants to be faithful and true, his inner nature means it’ll make it tough.

Casey Donahew

I love this singer the more I hear from him. His album One Light Town picked Drove Me to the Whiskey as a single, which was well chosen: heart on sleeve, wonderful voice and a lyric that sounds on close listen like a man determined to mess things up; it’s he, not his beloved, who drives him to drink. Crikey, this is Garth level stuff with the voice of Rob Thomas from Matchbox 20 and the tenor of Someone Like You by Adele.

His song Bad Guy is not a cover of Billie Eilish’s song but an acoustic tune that reminds me of James Taylor which revisits the Texan tropes of drinking and partying hard and being useless. Check out the pedal steel.

Jon Wolfe

Feels Like Country Music opens with a gentle sound of the plains, indicated by pedal steel, acoustic guitar and brushed drums. He wears a cowboy hat, sings like George Strait and, as you can expect by the title, ticks off all the things that country music talks about: steel guitar ‘bending in the cracks’, hometowns in rearview mirrors, ‘left hand out the window’ and, in verse two, drinking after working all week with buddies. It’s authentic, with some lovely lush harmonica and some real drums. You could have Old Dominion or this song, which is undeniably country. There’s a guitar solo twangin’ in the middle of it too.

Jon’s next single is Heart To Steal Tonight a middle of the red dirt song that Nashville’s singers would kill for. Jon wants sunset to ‘hurry up’ because he’s been waiting all day to get married to him. The video to the song is actually a wedding video from Jon’s own wedding. As a groom he will ‘mean just what I say and say just what I mean’ and every other groom will relate to a song about the big day. Musically there are touches of fiddle and a great melody.

Randall King

Garth Brooks is a big fan of Randall and, since Garth is from the Red Dirt state of Oklahoma, he knows his stuff.

She Gone is a chugging rock song whose first line mentioned ‘gravel flying, pedal down’; it’s driven by a driving beat and the lyrics are all about driving away in a car, ‘windows down – huh – and her finger up’. The chorus is fantastic, with Nashville-quality harmonies and real drums and pedal steel. A great voice, a very attractive man in a great package.

Hey Cowgirl has a great opening riff and a namecheck for George Strait’s song Amarillo By Morning. The chorus explodes into seventh chords and pounded drums. There is a sort of Texan melancholy running through the song, which ends with the words ‘good luck and goodbye’, that can only be explained in sound – ie you have to listen to the mournful fiddle’s melody and crying pedal steel.

Chad Cooke Band

In Four Minutes, the narrator notes how the girl in the song is singing George Strait songs and sagging her shoulders – ‘you wanna dance alone’ he concludes – but Chad wants to join her. He wants to put a quarter in the jukebox and ‘get you out on that dancefloor’. The production is stunning and this is no different to what Jon Pardi is doing.

Cowboy’s Cowgirl is a charged-up love song with hints of Joey Moi’s production work with Florida Georgia Line. Clay’s vocals are clear and the harmonies from the band are perfect. Having got ‘lasso around my heart, ‘in the chorus we have a ‘red dirt sunset’ which refers to the Texan style of Red Dirt music. In the second verse we get ‘rodeo’ and the ‘nail where I hang my hat’. It’s as if a Nashville writer has tried to get all the cowboy motifs into a love song.

Randy Rogers

Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen released an album of duets featuring the break-up song Rodeo Clown. ‘I was picturing the Marlboro Man…She left me for a Rodeo Clown!’ It wasn’t a lawyer or a ‘macho man’ but ‘Darryl, hidin’ in a barrel, red nose and a painted-on frown!’ Great imagery, great fiddle and a lot of fun in spite of the tears in the guys’ beer.

Randy’s band released You Me and a Bottle. The opening seconds are so comforting: fiddle, live drums, melancholy…then Randy comes in talking about being ‘broke down…beat up…crash and burning’. Texan music is all about men being useless: ‘When the lines all get tangled, baby I’m so thankful’ for another day under ‘a chandelier sky’. There is so much depth to this song, a lot of warmth. Luke Combs is trying his damnedest to change Nashville, but Texan musicians will look at the money and turn their noses up. Why try to compete when they are welcome in Texas?

Also by Randy Rogers Band, Drinking Money is making its way up the charts. It’s a chugging bit of country rock with a fiddle set on Friday night. It’s the same idea as Beer Money by Kip Moore with the added idea of how ‘she’s not here to tell me what I’m doing wrong’.

Read the second part of this piece, dealing with number one songs from local Texan successes, here.


Country Jukebox Jury: Granger Smith – Country Things

November 27, 2020

I would file Granger in the second tier of country stars, alongside Justin Moore, Chris Janson and Kellie Pickler. All three preach to the south in a poppy, rocking manner and would impress a UK crowd if they were to come over here.

Granger is a Texan who has made inroads into Nashville with songs like If The Boot Fits and Back Road Song. The second of these was produced and written with Frank Rogers, who helped Brad Paisley on a path to success. In fact, as you will see, Granger has a good claim to be the Texan Brad Paisley.

His tenth LP is his first project since the death of his son at the start of 2019. As with several other acts such as Chase Rice and Maddie and Tae, fans received an album in instalments, with eight initial tracks being followed by a complete album just in time for Thanksgiving.

The key themes, as befitting the title, are love and life in the country. I called my project A Country Way of Life because country music can be a guide on living well. Granger agrees. Where I Get It From is a slight but fun three-chord chugger which tells stories of grandpa drinking beer and mama praying ‘every night and day’. Buy A Boy A Baseball is a father’s song to other fathers about how to raise a son or daughter which, even if you don’t know the story about his own tragedy, is poignant.

That’s What Love Looks Like encourages listeners to ‘look with our hearts and open up our eyes’ to life’s simpler things. There is a brief line about how ‘the color of skin doesn’t mean a thing’ when love conquers all, coupled with ‘John 3.16’ which is an explicit shout out to the Lord. I don’t want to assume it, since it is Granger’s story to tell, but after losing a loved one I imagine he would make a special effort to find some comfort in every little thing.

Man Made again opens with a banjo over a simple chord loop. Granger sings about things man makes, like ‘the telephone, the radio, footprints on the moon’, in order to get married and make their family proud. The payoff is that ‘a woman made that man’; after all, it was Mona Lisa who inspired the painting and made Da Vinci renowned. We’re in the Men Applaud Woman genre of country music and the middle of the dirt road musical track backs up the lyric. I can see this being a sleeper hit and fan favourite.

Being a Texan, Granger is aware of the proximity to Mexico, where he says he has never been but ‘laying with you is so damn close’. We’ve got tequila and sunlight, two things the country does well, and it’s a love song. 6 String Stories is literally life in a song as ‘all the smiles, all the scars’; verse two documents Granger proposing to his future wife and he loses his dad in the middle eight. Hate You Like I Love You is a break-up song by numbers, similar to the new hit Just About Over You by Priscilla Block.

The set opener Country Things, which I would place in the genre Country Bingo, checks off fireflies, polite phrases like ‘yes sir, no ma’am’ and the act of dying and going up to heaven over fiddle and banjo. Anything Like Me is another hymn to country kids: sunsets, backyards, porches, pretty girls, church on Sundays and being satisfied with your lot. This is delivered with contemporary production and some woahs.

Chevys and Hemis and Yotas and Fords lists the many ways to get by on dirt roads, music to listen to while cruising around on your truck. It definitely sounds like it, with crunchy guitars and processed drums. Ditto radio single That’s Why I Love Dirt Roads, a catchy rocking hymn to rural life with rivers and painted skies. There is also a bonus stripped version with Christian hiphop act Lathan Warlick offering a poignant set of bars about love and loss.

As with many Texan entertainers, Granger can do deep as well as fluffy. I Kill Spiders is in praise of Granger’s role as a dad guiding the way and getting rid of arachnids, while Heroes is one of those ‘here’s to the unsung heroes’ songs that every artist will release in the next few years. He seems genuine rather than pandering here, and serves up a good mix of material.

Granger’s friend (and comic alter ego) Earl Dibbles Jr appears on four tracks. He is relegated to rapping on Country & Ya Know It, which made me laugh out loud: instead of clapping your hands, the listener raises his beer if he really wants to show it. Tyler Hubbard from Florida Georgia Line is one of five writers on this fun ditty. The power-charged Holler, driven by layers of electric guitar, is a song that they or Jason Aldean would kill for.

Diesel, which documents the working week in a country workplace, is even harder. It’s the hillbilly equivalent of heavy metal with a solo that sounds like a power saw ‘making tree-huggers choke’. As for the vocal, it’s hard to tell where Granger ends and Earl Jr begins, which is rather the point.

Workaholic is sung entirely by Mr Dibbles. He enjoys working hard during the weekend too: working on his tan, working up a sweat on the beach and ‘putting in overtime’ at the creek while he fishes. Comedy and country have a long history together and Granger, or rather his pal Earl Jr, is keeping the flame going. Indeed, whereas Granger has 260,000 people following him on Twitter, Earl Jr has almost 450,000.

Granger knows where he stands, appeasing fans with Earl’s appearances, but it’s his name on the album and he knows country things too. 3/5


Country Jukebox Jury: Garth Brooks – Fun

November 20, 2020

(All music is available on Amazon Music)

As Chris Molanphy points out in this month’s Hit Parade podcast, no Garth Brooks means no McGraw, no Shania, no Chesney and, I would add, no Country2Country jamborees. I’d love for Garth to headline a C2C of the future. Indeed, I find it tough to believe he hasn’t been in talks with the O2 for a multi-date run for his next tour. He’d probably be supported by Ashley McBryde – he covered Girl Goin Nowhere on tour – and one of his acolytes like Mitch Rossell or Randall King.

Troyal Garth Brooks remains the biggest country star in the world (just surpassing Dolly Parton) and has finally allowed Fun to be released into the world. I am delighted that I am able to review fun as it’s only on Amazon Music and I borrowed a friend’s login.

It has been in the works for years, and we’ve heard a lot of it before. In June 2018 the wild and loud All Day Long (with its ‘somebody’ repetition) hit radio, then he premiered the none-more-Garth ballad Stronger Than Me at the 2018 CMAs at which he won Entertainer of the Year. After a massive concert tour in 2019 he won the same award for a seventh time; in 2020, he recused himself and told the CMA voters to pick someone else.

Also last year he released a fun duet with Blake Shelton called Dive Bar into the world, which climbed to six at radio. I replayed it about eight times when I first heard it because it’s a fun tale of spending ‘the weekend in the deep end of a dive bar’. I still love the line ‘Crank that jukebox up and Hank it’. Blake and Garth sound great together, as befitting the Oklahoman master and one of his many heirs. The track’s rise was helped by the first music video Garth had made since 2013, where the pair and the band were immersed in a CGI fish tank.

Just before Fun came out, Garth and Miss Trisha Yearwood put out their popular take on Shallow, from A Star is Born. A shrewd move, this generation’s Big Karaoke Duet gets the Garth treatment, with some stellar vocals. Indeed, it’s a measure of how terrific Lady Gaga is that Trisha doesn’t outclass her original too much. Lukas Nelson, who wrote Shallow, will benefit from this version until the day he dies, much as Bob Dylan will from Garth’s superior version of Make You Feel My Love, which was the basis for Adele’s almighty pop version.

We know Garth’s many moods by now, because he was a human algorithm before algorithms were cool. Album opener The Road I’m On is Rock Star Garth, a chugger which paints a picture: ‘bluebirds’, ‘steel belts’ and ‘neon’. If anything, it sounds like Bruce Springsteen with a steel guitar, except it’s about Garth going out and being Garth. (A Hard Way To Make An) Easy Livin’ looks back to his early days as a performer, with ‘half-naked hotties’ and groupies popping up in verse two. First world problems, courtesy of one of the biggest singer-songwriter performers in the recorded music era.

Coincidentally, the Triple Live set with recordings from his stadium dates in recent years is reissued with three bonus tracks on the same day as Fun.

The Courage of Love is Global Messiah Garth and it’s better than his last one of these, People Loving People. Over bluesy guitar and an orchestra, he sings of how ‘anyone can start a fight but to love is so much bigger’. Veterans, farmers and ‘our children’ are the targets for a song which could be a charity single. There’s a proper middle eight too which will encourage the waving of mobile phones or lighters in Garth’s next stadium tour. Perhaps stadium tours will never take place again in our lifetime. (Did you know that Triple Live is available now?)

Message in a Bottle unites Rock Star Garth and Messiah Garth: love, ‘children laughing’, dancing and world peace over horns and keys. There is a key change which Westlife would stand up to sing and an ad-libbed outro.

Then we get Okie Garth, the singer who grew up in the country. That’s What Cowboys Do outlines that, ‘when it came to the leaving part’, a cowboy will always move town ‘chasing sunsets down’. This is a song I would expect a Texan star like Garth’s beloved apostle Randall King to write. Garth, even more than George Strait, brought the Texan-Oklahoma Red Dirt sound to Nashville, and ran away with the millions.

Amen is Gospel Garth, with an RnB groove that underlines how much he loves his life: ‘It feels too good to be a sin’. This sounds like five years of the Rolling Stones’ career condensed into one track, and proves he can reach beyond his core country constituency.

Like Dive Bar, Party Gras is a good time tune with plenty of Cajun fiddle, ‘gumbo’ and ‘jambalaya’; it might as well be subtitled ‘Visit New Orleans’. Like Stronger Than Me, I Can Be Me With You is Garth’s attempt at sending a love letter in song to his wife from ‘Prince Charmer, Knight in shining armour’. His listeners will both appreciate the lyric and the music, which is swaytastic. As a songwriter, I appreciate the tight structure of the song, which sounds like a smash.

As well as Party Garth and Gentleman Garth, he cannot resist bringing out Healer Garth. The album’s most emotional moment comes on Where The Cross Don’t Burn. Garth’s ‘only black friend’ is, rather hilariously, played by the surprise guest on the album, Charley Pride, who literally played the role of country music’s only black friend in the 1970s. Back in the 1960s ‘when change came slow’, Garth had a chat with the ‘black old man…walking hand in hand’: Charley imparts a lot of wisdom in the role of ‘wise old man’ that I am sure will get some pushback because this is a trope. It doesn’t make the song any less emotional and, released in a country music and American environment today, it sounds quaint and twee. Good on Garth for trying.

The album’s final track is (Sometimes You’ve Got To Die To) Live Again, which I think places Garth at Dolly level. We know Dolly likes to dispense wisdom to her listeners which is rooted in Bible teachings and Garth reaches, with the help of a falsetto chorus, to preaching the message of reconciliation with a loved one or, when necessary, leaving them behind. Relationship Counsellor Garth? Vicar Garth? Moneymaking Garth with an exclusive Amazon deal?

Nobody was crying out for Fun, Garth’s 14th studio album and only his fourth since he returned from a hiatus in 2014. He releases new product to keep the setlist fresh but, like his friend Billy Joel whose last non-instrumental material came out back in 1993, Garth doesn’t need to add to his catalogue, as his Triple Live album suggests. Still, there’s plenty of fun on this album – it fulfils the brief – but also a reminder of what a good interpreter of song Garth is.

He swallowed up the era thanks to his rock-inspired stadium shows and marketed himself outside the American South without abandoning them. Even his Chris Gaines project (aka Garth Goes Pop) sold 2m copies. Fun won’t sell anywhere near that, let alone his Diamond-sellers from the 1990s, but albums no longer give Garth a pension. Garth On Tour is the big earner but in an era where his live earnings will take a hit – will he produce televised concerts for Amazon? – this sets up Garth’s fourth decade in music very nicely. 4/5


Country Jukebox Jury: EPs and LPs for Xmas 2020 – Lady A, Home Free, Maddie & Tae and Runaway June

November 20, 2020

Two EPs, a new album and a reissued favourite with bonus tracks round off this three-part celebration of this season’s new Christmas music

Last year, Sounds Like Nashville put together a list of the 12 essential country Christmas albums. Vince Gill, Martina McBride, Faith Hill, Chris Young, Kacey Musgraves, Brett Eldredge and his royal Garthness and Lady Trisha all made the list, edging out so many acts who have also plugged seasonal product. In the peloton are Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, Blake Shelton, Buck Owens, Loretta Lynn, George Strait, Brooks & Dunn, Rascal Flatts, Darius Rucker and even Merle Haggard. Some acts like Reba and Alan Jackson have multiple Christmas releases!!

Lady A – On This Winter’s Night (Deluxe)

The trio were called Lady Antebellum when they released their fourth album in 2012. Now on Big Machine and with no new album to promote this Christmas, they have decided to add four new tracks to the set.

The original collection included a softer version of All I Want For Christmas Is You and covers of old favourites: A Holly Jolly Christmas, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, a cabaret version of Blue Christmas, Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), Donny Hathaway’s This Christmas and Let It Snow. For religious fans Hillary dragged Silent Night and The First Noel out of the hymn books.

The title track was an original composition with gentle strings and piano underscoring a lyric about stars, mistletoe, wrapping presents, snowflakes like frosting and people smiling. The melody is beautiful, with an assist from the great Tom Douglas and a children’s choir singing ‘we’ll count our blessings’. The song is among Lady A’s finest moments.

This album is really a four-track EP appended to something many people will already own. The song Christmas Through Your Eyes is the new offering, written by the band. Whereas they weren’t parents in 2012, now they will use the proceeds from this reissue to buy presents for their kids and partners which, would you believe it, is the theme of this song. Hillary takes the lead, singing of ‘reindeer jammies’ and watching old video footage and ‘how hard it was to fall asleep’. Lady A’s target audience of soccer moms will go wild for this.

Otherwise, three old favourites are updated with Dann Huff’s experienced production trickery: The Beach Boys’ Little Saint Nick (which ‘comes this time each year’); Ray Charles’ That Spirit of Christmas; and an orchestral version of Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime which is better than the original.

Maddie & Tae – We Need Christmas

Maddie & Tae are two pious girls who have kept religion mostly out of their music so far will surely pivot to Christian music when they can. We Need Christmas has six tracks produced by the team of Derek Wells and Jimmy Robbins.

There’s a glorious and simple arrangement of O Come All Ye Faithful which showcases those trademark harmonies, with the girls intoning a Bible verse as a coda. There are also three songs tackled by Lady A in 2012: Holly Jolly Christmas, This Christmas and a gentle acoustic version of Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) which initially threw me as I was hearing the song in a straight four when it’s in 12/8. You won’t have that problem because it’s a perennial. Phil Spector can never be cancelled.

There are two originals here too. Merry Married Christmas celebrates the girls’ newlywed status; indeed, Tae’s husband is in the writing credits. It made me go ‘ooh’ as the intro came in and I can check a lot of squares on my New Christmas Song bingo card: snow, cheers, holly, presents (though not necessary since the girls have their guy) and sleigh bells underneath the chorus. It’s irresistible and a beacon of joy. I love the line about wanting to start a new tradition.

We Need Christmas namechecks Charlie Brown, hugs with family, winter coats, snow on the road (there is always snow, isn’t there?) and ‘a little healing’ and ‘joy (there is always joy, isn’t there?). The song is lightly religious, spiritual if anything, but I am sure there is some political commentary too. It’s also nice to see Salvation Army cans and carols in the second verse, which is apt for two lovely religious girls who have followed up their second album with an excellent holidays project. Marital bliss must make for good music for Maddie & Tae.

Runaway June – When I Think About Christmas

Almost mirroring Maddie & Tae, this EP gathers three covers and two originals. A pedal steel-assisted Sleigh Ride, O Holy Night and Let It Snow are present and correct, with all the three-part harmonies in the right places.

When I Think About Christmas itself mentions gifts, snow, tinsel, mistletoe and that ‘the only present I need’ is you. The pedal steel solo redeems the song but even that is slightly ruined by shouts to ‘take it home’. It’s traditional enough, though.

Christmas on the Radio was written by the guys behind High Hopes by Panic at the Disco and Yesterday’s Song by Hunter Hayes. It’s jaunty and mentions snow in the very first word of the song. Otherwise we have ‘Jingle Bells and mistletoe’, ‘chestnuts on the fire’, White Christmas, Let It Snow, Jack Frost and a request to ‘make my wish come true’. Again the song sounds like enormous fun, both to write and record, especially with new addition Natalie Stovall on fiddle.

Home Free – Warmest Winter

You know the a cappella group Pentatonix? Home Free are that but with boots on.

Opening with the Alvin & the Chipmunks ditty Christmas Don’t Be Late, there are several marvellous originals here, like the sentimental and nostalgic Warmest Winter and triple-time pop ballad Snow Globe (‘you shook me up…Maybe we should settle down’), which I do wish had acoustic instruments on it rather than lots of bass voices.

You can tell Home Free are experts at writing seasonal material, having put out albums of Christmas stuff in 2014 and 2016. Christmas Ain’t For The Lonely is a beautiful but melancholy song where there’s ‘nothing left but memories’ when you have broken up with someone. Christmas in LA and Cold Hard Cash (as a present) are a lot more fun, while What We Need Is Love is a carpe diem song which benefits from stripping the melody and harmony back to just the voice. It sounds gorgeous and ends the album terrifically.

Rachel Wammack pops up on Amy Grant’s song Tennessee Christmas and Striking Matches join them on Run Run Rudolph, which has a beatbox solo that makes Home Free an acquired taste. Alabama, meanwhile, appear on a version of their own tune Christmas In Dixie where Randy Owen’s fabled voice is enveloped by a five-part arrangement that reminds me of NSYNC. Home Free are a male vocal harmony group without the dance moves or the overt sex appeal.

I love the jaunty take on Stevie Wonder’s What Christmas Means To Me and Winter Song, written and sung originally by Ingrid Michaelson and Sara Bareilles, turns every note into a vocal sound, wrapping the listener in sound. Fans of the quintet, who won the NBC show The Sing Off, helped their online campaign for an online concert reach its target within a few hours. The total approached $250,000 and those who didn’t pledge for the show can buy tickets for it at HomeFreeVIP.com. Featuring skits and guest appearances from the album’s featured acts, it premieres on December 2 with six showings in total over the course of the week.