Country Jukebox Jury EPs – Parker McCollum, Matt Stell and Trace Adkins

October 17, 2020

Parker McCollum – Hollywood Gold

Parker McCollum 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, helping 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. Expect to hear more of this sort of thing as the market turns to very good songs in the next few years (would that it were so simple…).

Aside from the two singles, there are four other tracks which introduce Parker to an audience beyond Texas. It will not surprise you to learn that it sounds like Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen, since that’s where the money is. Since he is Texan, there is plenty of self-reflection, as on the opening track Young Man’s Blues. This takes the Texan ennui and marries it 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.

4/5 for a set of songs which do not let the listener down. Let’s have the album soon.

Matt Stell – Better Than That

Matt Stell had a big hit called Prayed For You, the latest song to bring God back into God-honest country. He kept his faith in that old King James Bible, as the chorus goes, using the familiar four-chord progression IV-I-VI-V and had a number one hit. I am sure he has many pious fans in the American south.

Rather than release an album Matt has put out an eight-track EP which includes his number one smash and opens with his recent single Everywhere But On, which is a gorgeous tune about trying to shake off an ex from his mind. Both songs, by the way, were on his 2019 collection Everywhere But On.

We have also heard the more secular and punchy If I Was a Bar: ‘I’d have a little buzz in my neon light’ and there would be a cover band too, plus he ‘wouldn’t be falling this apart’. Better Than That is actually set in a bar. I like the groove of both songs, sung well in Matt’s tenor. 

I Love You Too is a middle of the dirt road song which sees Matt feel sorry for a girl who wants to hear ‘I love you’ more than when she demands it. Matt is going for the Brett Young market, the sensitive and handsome soul with a smooth voice. Sadie is another song about a lonely girl who has been ‘hurt lately’ but Matt, the sensitive guy, is there for her. The best part of the song is the hook ‘s-s-s-Sadie!!’

Chase It Down encourages her to leave her momma’s house and get going on the open road with Matt. The production is aggressively middle of the dirt road, suiting the subject matter and it’ll appeal to 20somethings looking to chase freedom down. The EP closes with a wedding song – can a bloke be a country newcomer without a wedding song?! – called Look At Me Now. It’s basically I Don’t Dance by Lee Brice crossed with In Case You Didn’t Know by Brett Young, so if you like the sound of that, flock to sensitive soul Matt Stell. 3/5

Trace Adkins – Ain’t That Kind of Cowboy

Trace Adkins has been in country music for 25 years, helping his fellow TV star Blake Shelton have hits, but he is best known culturally for winning the All Star Celebrity Apprentice (I forget who crowned him but he was last seen campaigning for a second term as President). Trace’s memoir offered opinions ‘from a free-thinking roughneck’ who survived being shot by his ex-wife before he became a country star, where being a redneck sold records in the era of Garth.

I still love the smooth Better Off, written by two of the Love Junkies and produced by Jon Pardi’s chum Bart Butler. Trace has his Mind on Fishin’ while sitting in church listening to the preacher, which is about as country as you can get in a sentence. Just The Way We Do It is a two-chord, rifftastic old-fashioned song which has the same preacher eating pie at a Sunday gathering. One guest, Jenny, is having a lot of fun letting her hair down. ‘Ain’t nobody getting hurt!’ Trace assures the listener.

Ain’t That Kind of Cowboy has Trace differentiating himself from John Wayne’s portrait of frontiersmen. The Brothers Osborne have given Trace the song Big which is smart given that TJ and Trace have very similar voices. I chuckled when he sang ‘all this abbreviation is a bunch of BS’ and Dolly Parton’s…’WIG!’, while he also laments the passing of phone cords and how you can’t have sex in small cars.

The EP’s best line is on the piano ballad Running Into You: ‘I can’t walk down memory lane without running into you’. It’s the sort of song Blake Shelton can turn into a number one but doesn’t fit with Blake’s new happy-with-Gwen persona. The writer James T Slater also wrote Guys Named Captain which Kenny Chesney put on his album this year; more people should know James.

I like this EP a lot and will investigate Trace’s catalogue. 5/5 for Ain’t That Kind of Cowboy, which I hope is part of a full album.

Country Jukebox Jury – Ashley Campbell and Shannon Hynes

October 17, 2020

Ashley Campbell – Something Lovely

Something Lovely is the follow-up to the album Remembering. Missing from that album was the track of the same name, which finds a home in an acoustic form on this album. Ashley’s dad Glen passed away from Alzheimer’s and in the song she sings: ‘Daddy don’t you worry, I’ll do the remembering.’ Bring tissues. 

She 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.

The opening track Good to Let Go, written by brother Shannon, uses some spiky guitar, rolling drums and an upwardly mobile melody to accompany Ashley’s voyage outta here with ‘your picture in the wind’. Yet on Diggin’ Deep (which has a terrific key change), she sings of ‘the hole you left behind’ and on Moonlight she ‘can’t sleep you off of my mind’.

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’.

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. If I Wasn’t sounds like The Beautiful South going noir, with Ashley’s voice floating on top of a delicious arrangement.

There’s a great pair of tracks, one on each side of the album. On the elegant title track, Ashley is a single woman in a bar asking 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.

Alice, meanwhile, sees her picking up the banjo again and finding her ‘Wonderland’ and not wanting ‘this dream to end’. Aww. 4/5 for a fine album which is as lovely as the title suggests.

Shannon Hynes – Country Words EP

With a similar high alto voice and tone, Shannon do a good job with many songs on Something Lovely.

From Welsh Wales, she is a regular at events for UK country fans so has plenty of friends and contacts. She has been played on Country Hits Radio by Matt Spracklen, who DJs or MCs at these events, and has been steadily building her recorded output since she released I’m Not Pretty in 2018.

Shannon has collected her singles on the Country Words EP which is only available in physical form at, priced £7. I’ve always liked I’m Not Pretty, especially the mention of how ‘blusher keeps the cheeks pink’, while Country Words impressed me from the first time I heard it when Shannon and I were writing and jamming together.

The variety of the seven tracks are impressive. Comfort uses some pedal steel to underscore that mood. Off Guard is a shiny pop song and Someone To Drink With is a sombre tune about wanting to ‘drown the silence out’. Shannon has included the unplugged version of Mother on the EP, on which she plays piano and sings of how important maternal love is to a daughter and vice versa. There is an additional track, Fear Blinds Me, a plea to a loved one.

4/5 for the EP, which shows immense potential and also the depth of talent in the UK’s country movement.

Country Jukebox Jury – Ward Thomas and Ferris & Sylvester

October 9, 2020

Ward Thomas – Invitation

It took me a while to appreciate Ward Thomas’ third album Restless Minds, which was all about social media anxiety and being young, but once I did I learned what excellent songwriters the twins are. In advance of Invitation’s release Ward Thomas fans heard Meant To Be Me, a reminiscin’ song with fingersnaps and past relationships; chirpy Hold Space, which picks up on themes from the third album and sounds like some tracks off the Taylor Swift album Lover; and Painted Legacy, one of those break-up ballads that Ward Thomas do so well.

Don’t Be A Stranger has contemporary production, handclaps on the offbeat and a sweet melody in a minor key. A similar mood is struck on My Favourite Poison, which the girls worked on with Ed Harcourt, a supremely underrated songwriter. The swoop of the arrangement, with piano and orchestra, is the winning ingredient here.

Someday, a waltz about the fear of commitment with some fine chords, has been getting some radio airplay on Chris Country and Radio 2, the latter station slapping it on the B List. It will be on their Greatest Hits whenever it emerges. Talking of Radio 2, Ward Thomas played a session for Bob Harris’ Country Show. They played a stunning acoustic version of Sweet Time, which opens the album mellifluously and in a well-produced manner.

Open Your Mind’s opening line is ‘closed like a coffee shop no one likes’ and continues to list doors, theme parks and worlds which are closed before the girls invite the audience to open their mind to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. It’s very middle of the dirt road and charming, with a great chorus and a proper middle eight. Little Mix would do a good job with this too. Wait Up gallops along with purpose, as the girls ask the guy to hold off from sleeping. The banjo loops in the background give it a country flavour.

Dear Me is a You Go Girl a cappella song in the form of a letter, set to some sweet oohs and aahs with a suitably hortatory lyric. ‘You don’t need to carry this alone,’ the girls sing. If There Were Words is another pretty love song which recalls their song This Too Will Pass. It’s a song about dealing with grief that will comfort many listeners, especially in this pandemic era.

They were due to play acoustic shows in the spring; when I saw them in Blackpool last autumn they shone when their voices took centre stage. As with album three, my complaint here is that sometimes the production gets in the way of the voices, but the production will ensure they are played on Radio 2 and drive listeners to their albums. I still think the twins are ‘Radio 2 pop’, which Americans call Adult Contemporary, rather than country.

If you need to know where the twins’ market is, look at the last three tracks: a duet with James Blunt called Halfway, which was rotated on Radio 2; a live version of Human by The Killers with their tourmate Jack Savoretti, himself a darling of Radio 2; and a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide, which became a country music standard through the Dixie Chicks’ version.

UK country music, at the elite level where The Shires dwell, is pop music with a bit of emotion and plays-on-words. In the US, Kelsea Ballerini, Carrie Underwood and Maren Morris are doing the same thing, and you can see why Ward Thomas are being sold as country in the way James Blunt and Jack Savoretti can’t be. I think it’s their most fully realised album and you can tell they are in control of their career. I think this’ll crash in at 1 or 2; if it’s 1, it’ll be well deserved. 4/5 for Invitation. I accept!

Ferris & Sylvester – I Should Be On A Train EP

Bob Harris likes Ferris & Sylvester so much that he named them his Emerging Artist at the 2020 UK Americana Music Awards. I caught the duo live in Norwich 18 months ago and chatted to them about future writing plans. They have followed up their Made In Streatham EP from 2018 – some of whose tracks have over a million Spotify streams – with a five-track EP titled after recent single I Should Be On a Train.

I heard that song, which mixes rock, blues and roots, on their session for Ricky Ross’ Another Country show on BBC Scotland. Ricky is a fan too, as is Baylen Leonard from Country Hits Radio. As well as talking about their time as a regular performing act at Camden Town’s Spiritual Bar (Jade Bird is a good friend), the pair played Knock You Down, the poppiest track on an EP which includes a lockdown cover the pair did of Joe Cocker’s version of With A Little Help from my Friends.

Everyone Is Home sets lockdown blues to an egg shaker and some mellow organ chords. Birds chirp to accompany the pair on the outro which quotes the Queen (via Vera Lynn) telling us ‘we’ll meet again’. Good Man is menacing, weird and demands repeated listens to lock into the rhythm and mood of the song, which is full of chromatic progressions and bolshy riffs. There are even a few bars of sitar. It’s about the lessons imparted to kids but the sound overwhelms the lyrics.

Ferris & Sylvester have received funding from PRS for Music to travel to Austin, Texas for South by South West and I think this decade will see millions more falling for two talented musicians with a grasp on several styles of music. A full album beckons and, with any luck, it’ll be in association with a major label who can promote their talent. 5/5

Country Jukebox Jury LPs – Brothers Osborne and Brent Cobb

October 9, 2020

Brothers Osborne – Skeletons

Jon Caramanica of the New York Times has coined the term ‘power country’ to refer to beefy rockin’ country music. Brothers Osborne, John and TJ, are just behind Luke Combs in the power country peloton. The pair have spent 2020 trailing Skeletons while being unable to play live. With a vaccine and some luck, they will win thousand more fans over 2021, especially thanks to the new album.

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. Casey Beathard writes Hatin Somebody and Side B opener High Note, which sounds like a radio single thanks to the production and a lyric which emphasises leaving a relationship on good terms.

That segues into a guitar boogie composed by John Osborne called Muskrat Greene and it would be remiss of me and every other reviewer not to note the passing of Eddie Van Halen this week, though John is far too humble to accept comparisons to the greatest guitar player of his era. This in turn segues into Dead Man’s Curve, which 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.  

I suppose I don’t need to tell you how the production brings out the songs, courtesy of the almighty Jay Joyce who seems to be a third member of the band by now. 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 other pre-released songs Hatin Somebody and I’m Not For Everybody make the personal political, which I think is the USP of Brothers Osborne.

The pair come from Maryland and after a decade of patience are emerging as one of country music’s top acts. Their parents must be overjoyed, and the tribute is returned thanks to John’s solo write. Old Man’s Boots is an ode to papa Osborne whose boots ‘weren’t built for speed or comfort but you can bet they were building something’. Musicians are working men too, learning their craft and the art of performance. No wonder Britain has taken John and TJ to heart, helped by John marrying Lucie Silvas, a singer who was based in Britain before decamping to Nashville.

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.

The great Hayes Carll writes the third of the band’s drinking songs trilogy: we’ve had Rum and Tequila Again and now TJ is Back on the Bottle, where drinking is a substitute for loving and is a good way to close the first side. I like the tempo shift in the chorus. After While You Still Can on their second album, here we’ve the tremendous Make It A Good One (‘give all your heart to someone, leave nothing unsaid or undone’) as the brothers tell the listener how to live a country way of life.

This is country music for fans of classic rock. 5/5 and their best album so far.

Brent Cobb – Keep Em On They Toes

On the Thursday of Country Music Week, 22 October, there is a Destination Country live event with Brent Cobb. He’s a songwriting supremo in Nashville who has written songs for Miranda Lambert, Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney and Little Big Town. His first album on Elektra came out in 2016, with the second following in 2018. Well done to producer Brad Cook who has spent 20 years working wonders with the likes of Bon Iver, Waxahatchee and the War on Drugs and has a website with the excellent domain name All ten tracks are glorious in sound and Brent is mic’ed very well indeed. It’s so clear and I can hear every syllable.

If the credits are correct, then the lovely Good Times and Good Love was co-written with Luke Bryan. Brent turns it into a piano-and-fiddle tune of which Willie Nelson would be proud. It has that classic, homely feel of a Laurel Canyon masterpiece from 1969, with a winding melody that matches the sentiment. I think Brent has swallowed the discography of The Band, as it’s very rootsy and American.

This Side of the River mentions mud, overflowing streams, catfish and how you gotta ‘watch your step cos the current is swift’; Brent shows his fine songwriting skills by running with an idea and putting a decent song to the lyric. The World Is Ending, given its title, is suitably portentous with lots of minor chords and menace. Shut Up and Sing talks of ‘poison in our rhetoric and bullets in our schools’ while the music is aurally pleasant with some Scotty Moore slapback guitar. Dust Under My Rug has a fiendish solo and a rockabilly feel.

I really can’t place this album in an era – it takes every classic songwriter and blends them all together. Soapbox is definitely a modern take on Harry Nilsson, as Brent uses his record to put his voice on vinyl: ‘You might wear out my nerves but you ain’t changing my mind,’ Brent sings.

You’ll have a different favourite track when you listen to this, released via Thirty Tigers, one of the great indie labels of today. This is a delightful record by a craftsman who has done his homework and has delivered the equivalent of a Master’s thesis in song. 5/5.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs – Granger Smith and Justin Moore

September 25, 2020

Granger Smith – Country Things Vol 1

This is the first part of his tenth LP and the 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, we’re getting an album in instalments.

There are eight tracks on part one. Set opener Country Things checks off fireflies, polite phrases and the act of dying and going up to heaven. That’s Why I Love Dirt Roads is a catchy hymn to rural life with rivers and painted skies. There are many ways to get by on dirt roads such as Chevys and Hemis and Yotas and Fords: this is music to listen to while cruising around on your truck and it definitely sounds like it, with crunchy guitars and processed drums. Granger’s friend (and comic alter ego) Earl Dibbles Jr is relegated to rapping on the final track 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.

Being a Texan, Granger is aware of the proximity to Mexico, where he has never been but ‘laying with you is so damn close’. We’ve got tequila, sunlight and ‘places I’ve never been’. It’s a love song in the way that Hate You Like I Love You is a break-up song by numbers. I Kill Spiders, meanwhile, is in praise of Granger’s role as a dad guiding the way and getting rid of arachnids and Heroes is one of those ‘here’s to the unsung heroes’ songs that every artist will release in the next few years. Eight varied songs which are all sung and produced well that put me right in Texas in country country. 4/5

Justin Moore – Live At The Ryman

Did you know a live album isn’t really live? A lot of parts are re-recorded in a studio. I don’t know if anyone will remember Justin Moore when the dust settles but he can certainly sing songs pleasantly. He is the latest star to release a Live at the Ryman album, after Brothers Osborne. It’s one way of putting together a lot of hits and perhaps sell tickets to a live show in future (hmm). I’ve never fallen in love with Justin but I like the songs he is given to sing in his rich and wonderful voice.

My own favourite is set closer Point At You, from his third album Off The Beaten Path. By his fourth album Kinda Don’t Care he was a singer rather than a songwriter, gifted smash hits like the pairing early in his set: You Look Like I Need A Drink and Somebody Else Will were both big radio smashes thanks to Big Machine putting money marketing a guy with a fine voice and a cowboy hat. He is their ‘country guy’, their Aldean or Luke Bryan.

Happily his recent Late Nights and Longnecks album from last year reverses the trend and gives him writing credits on every track. Because the show was recorded in 2018 no tracks from this album feature, which gives it the air of a contract filler. The crowd gets to sing some of the choruses to give a simulacrum of a live show but they sound muted otherwise.

Then there are the covers and cameos. Chris Janson shouts his way through Country State of Mind, which proves that Justin has listened to Hank Williams II, who is given a namecheck on both the Aldeanish set opener Hank It and wistful driving ballad Flyin Down a Back Road, whose chorus includes drinking, fishing and hayfields. David Lee Murphy helps out on a cover of Waylon Jennings’ I Ain’t Living Long Like This and Nashville legend Ricky Skaggs lets Justin join him (or perhaps was invited to give Justin’s set some kudos) on his own Honey Open That Door.

There is no doubt that Justin is definitely country, judging by his setlist. I Could Kick Your Ass, Hank It, Backwoods and Small Town USA all came from Justin’s debut LP of 2009, while Flyin’ Down a Back Road, Bait A Hook – which ticks off Merle Haggard, Jack Daniels and trucks – and soppy ballad If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away are found on his second album Outlaws Like Me. He’s not an outlaw, he’s a guy who makes money for Big Machine because Taylor Swift couldn’t reach that demographic.

On two occasions he shouts out to country radio, which allows him to play the Ryman by playing his tunes. Business. 3/5

Country Jukebox Jury LPs – Luke Laird and Tyler Childers

September 25, 2020

Luke Laird – Music Row

Luke Laird has an enviable CV of writing, production and publishing. As well as being sober, a father, husband and Christian, the chap who grew up on Laird Road in Pennsylvania is one of the most respected writers in Music City. Check out his achievements: Last Name, Undo It, Temporary Home and So Small for Carrie Underwood, Hillbilly Bone and Gonna for Blake Shelton, Take a Back Road for Rodney Atkins, Pontoon with Little Big Town, 1994 for Jason Aldean, I See You and Fast for Luke Bryan, One of These Nights and Diamond Rings & Old Barstools for Tim McGraw, Radio for Darius Rucker, American Kids for Kenny Chesney, Head Over Boots for Jon Pardi, Hide The Wine for Carly Pearce, the terrific Suitcase by Steve Moakler, Talladega and others for Eric Church and assorted songs for Miranda Lambert, Old Dominion, Devin Dawson, Cam, Tenille Townes, Hunter Hayes, Brett Eldredge, Lee Brice and Florida Georgia Line. His closest collaborator has been Kacey Musgraves, with whom she has co-written six tracks on her first two albums.

That’s who Luke Laird is. He also hosts a show on Apple Music Country and launched his record Music Row at an empty Bluebird Café last week. The album is bookended by songs about songwriting, my favourite genre. Music Row namechecks Tony Arata and is in the tradition of 16th Avenue, the bleak song from the 70s about writing, while Country Music Will Never Die goes through Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle and Dolly and ‘the ones who knew the way…and put it all in a song so we had a way of dealing with life’. These include the man who coined the phrase ‘three chords and the truth’, Harlan Howard, a hero to songwriters like Luke. The chord pattern is gorgeous here, as is the line ‘prom night regret’ to rhyme with cigarette.

That one is, like the eight others, a Laird solo composition. The album is Luke’s attempt to put his life in a set of songs, so to that end we have tunes about his beloved wife Beth (Hanging Out), his beloved kids (Jake and Mack, with uncredited vocals from the kids themselves) and his good friends (Good Friends). We also have songs about his sobriety (That’s Why I Don’t Drink Any More, with a spoken word intro which sounds like a confession) and why he is who he is (the terrific and melodic Why I Am Who I Am, which is driven by a Laird Loop).

Equally excellent is a tribute to his late friend Corey, Leaves On The Ground which begins the second side of the album. One More Divorce, which Luke says was recorded by his friend Kacey Musgraves, is about small-town life and is sung at the bottom of Luke’s range with double-tracked vocals (a trick also employed elsewhere on the album). Branch on the Tree was written with Lori McKenna and Barry Dean, who are the kind of company Luke keeps in the writers rooms of Nashville. I love the line about living ‘on a rock that ain’t rolling around’ and the song itself is a page from a gratitude journal. I am thankful for Luke Laird and Music Row. 4/5

Tyler Childers – Long Violent History

This album came out to no fanfare except for a six-minute video in which Tyler talked about how he has a platform to talk about social issues, especially to his ‘white rural listeners’. I hope some of his more bigoted fans listen to his appeal to be aware of problems of black people. Proceeds from this album of instrumentals go to his own relief fund, Hickman Holler. ‘Love each other, no exceptions’ was his sign-off.

The album itself is released on Tyler’s indie label of the same name, with a push from Sony RCA. This is the same arrangement as many acts including Jack White and Cody Johnson; for Tyler, this album follows last year’s well received Country Squire album, which was up for Album of the Year at the Americana Music Awards.

Long Violent History opens with a waltz version of the great Stephen Sondheim number Send In The Clowns set to twin fiddles, one of which is played by Tyler himself, and banjo by John Haywood. There follow seven instrumentals, many in the public domain and thus out of copyright, which incorporate jauntiness (Squirrel Hunter and the effervescent Camp Chase) and mournfulness (Zollie’s Retreat and the beautiful melody of Midnight on the Water).

Whenever I talk about folky bluegrass mountain music I just say it sounds like Nickel Creek but this is music that sounds like and is as old as the hills, brought to the States by Scots and Irishmen who entertained themselves with fiddles and guitars and tunes to get them through the long afternoons on the porch. It is appropriate that the lurching, lumbering Sludge River Stomp sounds just like that, evoking Appalachia.

Tyler is from Kentucky and, like Chris Stapleton, is steeped in country music. He has previously said that Americana is a bogus genre and, though only 29, he has cultivated an enormous audience who respond to his deeply American music. Folk music sometimes gets pigeonholed as a museum piece but there are so many musicians keeping it alive. If you heard this played live, unamplified, you would be knocked over by the expertise; on record it’s no less stunning.

The final track is Long Violent History itself, where we hear Tyler’s voice emerge from a gorgeous fiddle-and-banjo intro. ‘It’s the worst thing it’s been…updated footage…hearsay and absolute lies!’ Tyler spits in the opening stanza. It goes on to become a Steve Earle-type State of the Union address which ends with the line ‘tucking our tails as we try to abide’. Worth a listen, and if it’s too folky for you, just go for two or three of the instrumentals and the title track. All proceeds to charity. 4/5

Country Jukebox Jury – Tyler Rich and Mickey Guyton

September 18, 2020

Tyler Rich – Two Thousand Miles

Tyler Rich has been building his fanbase steadily. The Difference is his best-known song, a gift to him from Devin Dawson, Devin’s twin Jacob and Rhett Akins.

He has co-written eight of the tracks on his debut album Two Thousand Miles, enlisting some fine writers who have given him some tips. On album highlight Leave Her Wild it’s the superstar pairing of Chris DeStefano and Jon Nite; Lindsay Rimes was in the room for Still Love You (‘When I don’t even like you’), while Lindsay worked with Nite and the late Andrew Dorff on the minor hit 11:11. Brad Tursi of Old Dominion helped Tyler and Lindsay on Rather Be Us.

There are some excellent lines: ‘You’d kill to be the train she wrecks’ on Leave Her Wild, a song about not taming a crazy lady or ‘dull the shine’; if you don’t like the idea of hearing someone sing about a ‘hottie riding shottie’, this isn’t for you. Like Hardy or, more pertinently, Morgan Evans or Chris Lane or Russell Dickerson or Dustin Lynch, the music is aimed at the 18-35 demographic who watch The Bachelor and post pictures on Instagram. The production on the album, especially on The Difference and Real Love, has a hazy sheen on it. The first line of Rather Be Us has Tyler looking at a couple on Instagram. So there.

Adrenaline opens with Tyler downcast, ‘throwin rocks at the Starbucks where she and I met’ but by the chorus is able to kiss lips ‘stronger than medicine’. Tyler wants his new angel to ‘run through my veins’ like adrenaline. It sounds a lot, A LOT like Get Me Some of That by Thomas Rhett. Opening track Feel Like Home namechecks 90s country star David Lee Murphy over some enormous guitars in 12/8 time. A lot of the tracks are driven by the production, much like his Big Machine mate Thomas Rhett. There is a little bit of a Keith Urban twang in his voice (especially on an acoustic version of 11:11 I heard).

It’s a corporate country album and I don’t think Tyler minds about it. Instagram couples need something to dance to and I don’t begrudge Big Machine a need to get profits through selling this music to them. Thomas Rhett does it better and more country, but at least the songs on Two Thousand Miles are palatable, in the way that salad is palatable. I admit I left some of the salad on the plate, ie I skipped a few songs at the second chorus mark.

Take It or Leave It gives the girl an ultimatum: ‘If you want that high we’ll light it/ If you want that slow we’ll ride it’.  I can take or leave this album, which is 3/5 because there is no point criticising it for being marketed at a young audience rather than being full of Ring of Fire. The cover of Billie Jean, should you be interested, is fine but Keith Urban does this sort of thing better. I’ll talk about Keith’s album in two weeks’ time but next week it’ll be the UK Country Top 40!

Mickey Guyton – Bridges EP

At the 2020 Country Radio Seminar Mickey Guyton received a huge ovation for singing a song called What Are You Gonna Tell Her, which is a good indication of which acts will do well this year. She also performed it at the ACMs, which was televised to the public. The song is found on her EP Bridges which positions her as the ‘see, we DO give black women a chance’ artist of 2020. I’m afraid Nashville has sat on their hands about Mickey for too long.

Yet to release an album, Mickey is in her mid-thirties and is yet to break through to mass consciousness in the same way that, I dunno, non-black acts have done. (Gabby Barrett, by the way is still at number one on Airplay with I Hope, and she is half Mickey’s age. Gabby got her start on TV.)

Mickey is expecting her first child early next year which will irritatingly play havoc with the promotion schedules for her next project but she is a keen Instagrammer, where she has 58,000 followers. To that child she will sing the likes of Black Like Me, Heaven Down Here and What Are You Gonna Tell Her, which she debuted in public at the Ryman and also sang at the ACM Awards, with Keith Urban on piano.

‘She thinks life is fair’ draws you in, ‘skin’s just skin’ makes it clear that race in an issue, then the next line is about sexual abuse. The chorus, which Mickey sang with a quavering voice on the verge of tears in the emotional performance, underlines the helplessness of a parent in the face of a world that will ‘let her down’. Informed by Mickey’s struggles in her job, this is surely her career song.

Following Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen, Mickey is the latest star to address race in her music. Black Like Me was a song she was scared to put out but I am glad she did. Over piano accompaniment, and with my favourite chord (a diminished fifth) in the middle eight, Mickey remembers how she ‘did her best to fit in’ when she was a kid in the playground. As an adult it’s the same nonsense, making a mockery of the slogan Land of the Free. ‘It shouldn’t be twice as hard’ for a black person to live their life.

Kudos to her label for putting a political song out into a country landscape which, as I will keep saying, must change or die. Yes we can have Thomases and Lukes, and Kane Brown is in the top three with Cool Again. Indeed, as I mentioned at the top of the show, Wendy Moten is playing the Opry this weekend and she is black.

Heaven Down Here is a plea to God, a character who has all but disappeared from country radio. In a year with thousands of deaths from a pandemic, this is a timely song which will resonate, even if it’s a little vague and general rather than specific. The EP’s title track, which adds a click track to a groovy piano riff and an electrifying chorus, talks about the ‘great divide’ where people are ‘on their knees holding Bibles’. Why can’t we all just get along, Mickey asks, 30 years after Michael Jackson wanted to heal the world. Stop making peace happen.

The EP also includes the charming Rose, where instead of moonshine, sangria, tequila and strawberry wine, Mickey chooses to sing about Rose-e-e-e-e. It’s catchy and perfect for TikTok should anyone be interested. Salt, meanwhile, is another song for the compilation Now That’s What I Call Ladykiller: ‘You think you’re getting sugar but you’re getting salt’. I like the line about being as fake as her extensions. It’s a fun pop song which feels a lot like a lost Carrie Underwood classic. We know why Carrie has sold so many records and Mickey hasn’t. Clue: use your eyes, not your ears.

Notable in this project is that four tracks were produced by Karen Kosowski, who is also from Canada! 5/5 with very little to criticise.

Country Jukebox Jury – Riley Green and Keith Urban

September 18, 2020

Riley Green – If It Wasn’t For Trucks

Riley Green is another country star who looks pretty, with Big Machine’s money behind him. He previewed some songs from his new EP on the Opry stage the day after it came out. He may have been a little intimidated by the space but he’s a very contemporary singer: trucker hat, denim jacket over a white vest, gentle strumming of a guitar.

We have so many of these that it’s hard to distinguish between them but I loved Riley’s debut hit There Was This Girl. I’m less keen on his smash I Wish Grandpas Never Died and so I went into his follow-up album with intrigue. Who is Riley Green and why should I subscribe to his world view so that Big Machine can earn some money to funnel into his career?

If It Wasn’t For Trucks is a five-track EP and we know where we are by the titles alone. I love the punchy Jesus and Wranglers, co-written with Randy Montana who helped Luke Combs have a smash with Beer Never Broke My Heart. I think the riff that runs through the song is terrific. The people behind Riley’s career have definitely looked at Luke Combs and Jon Pardi and sought to create a similar product. Riley is some way behind them both, but well done for trying.

If I Didn’t Wear Boots and If It Wasn’t For Trucks are essentially the same song: ‘I am only with you because I grew up in the country and have experience with farming and small towns.’ It’s a bit silly to put two identical songs on a product, even though they have both have suitably country instrumentation rather than processed beats.

Better Than Me is better. It includes Randy Owen from Alabama, in which Riley sings how ‘the good Lord’ knows where his life is heading. I like the line about the grass looking like Augusta, the pro golf course. Riley himself is from Alabama so this is a lovely collaboration full of heart and a lovely fiddle solo.

Behind The Times is basically Waiting on a Woman by Brad Paisley or People Are Crazy by Billy Currington, as Riley is the youngster being spoken to by a chap with the wisdom of an old timer. The man sits reading a paper and wants ‘another Reagan’. The chap tells Riley to ‘trust the Lord, buy a Ford’ and find a girl to love, just like he did. It’s sentimental and gooey and very country, and it’s good product. Three out of the five tracks are ace, which is why this EP gets 3/5.

Keith Urban – The Speed of Now Pt 1

The Sunday Times reviewer loved the country vibes of We Were and God Whispered Your Name, less so everything else. I agree with this professional opinion.

We heard much of the album before it came out: Polaroid and Superman were both heard on Radio 2 where Keith presented four hour-long Playlist shows where he showed off his love of all kinds of music, including country, rock and r’n’b. He also popped up on Radio 2 on the day of release, in his role as mum’s favourite country star. His brand is Keith Urban: experienced musician who can play good guitar solos and write fine country songs, but who has excelled as what Bo Burnham calls a Stadium Country star.

Keith Urban is not country. He’s Keith Urban. You know how Prince is Prince and Stevie Wonder is Stevie Wonder? Columbia music bet the house on making Keith Urban a star, and a star he duly became. Keith has given up on genre, having started out in the 2000s as ‘that country guy from Australia’ and the 2010s being ‘Mr Nicole Kidman’. In 2020, in his fifties, he has a huge fanbase of fans of what the late Tom Petty called ‘bad rock with a fiddle’. As shown on his patchy last two projects – Ripcord and Graffiti U – the Keith Urban brand is a bit pop, a bit rock, a bit dance and a lot of stadium-sized anthems. It means he can afford more guitars and more school fees for the kids.

Credits on those last two albums include Nile Rodgers, Pitbull, Ed Sheeran, Shy Carter, Jeff Bhasker, Benny Blanco, One Direction co-pilot Jamie Scott, JR Rotem (producer of Jason Derulo’s best stuff), MoZella (who wrote Wrecking Ball), Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels. And yet he remains country enough not to be called a pop star, working with the A List writers in Nashville where he has his own studio.

The Speed of Now opens with a hiphop beat and a funky bit of banjo-guitar. Out The Cage may make people spit out the CD but we know what Keith Urban does by now. It’s pop music with Nashville approval; here, Breland adds to his growing reputation and Nile Rodgers pops up with his patented guitar line. I had to listen to it twice to catch all the nuances (‘white men’?? No, ‘wild animals’!) but this will be an astonishing set opener if he dares open with it. The chorus is syncopated as hell and Keith really wants to be let out of the cage.

Soul Food, which I reckon kicks off the album’s second side, is another song co-written with Breland and it harks back to the Keith Urban of the 2000s. It’s got a lovely melody and gentle production, as well as mentioning ‘Friday night’, ‘little slice of paradise’ and how ‘nothin sparks my appetite’. It’s very light and fluffy and it perked me up after a quite awful first side, where songs are pleasant but unmemorable.

One Too Many, a dull song with a fun chorus featuring Pink, was previewed at the ACMs. I have no idea why Keith is drinking in the bar and wants his designated girl to pick him up. Live With is wretched while Superman (track four) is all production and is ‘country’ because Keith is Johnny in the Ring of Fire.

Say Something – with the lines ‘intimacy’s so hard for me’ and the awful ‘I wanna live my truths wide open’ – rhymes mama with karma and there’s another processed beat with those annoying digital hi-hats and some fun harmonies on the chorus but it’s all very blah, showing off vocal and production rather than song. Who wants a fiftysomething father-of-two wanting to sound like a cool, hip star? Answer: Keith’s fans. I won’t begrudge them.

There are rock songs here, like the Cadillac Three gift Tumbleweed, which is all action and no talk. Forever, also written by Jaren from TC3 along with songwriter Brent Cobb, is a rootsy track set over a looped beat that reminisces about tattoos, cigarettes, sunshine, cars and ‘this Podunk town’. The production is a bit muddy, as you would expect when you put Keith Urban guitar solos over a processed beat. The message is to remember the days when life was easy and free…and that Keith is country music’s guitar hero.

There are ballads here, as there always are. Change Your Mind sees Keith in Brooklyn wanting to speak to the girl who dumped him. Better Than I Am is a plea to ‘fall at your feet and let you in to where you can so damage me’. Keith likes to be Vulnerable Man, even if it’s ‘more a truce, less a surrender’. Interestingly Keith wrote this with Eg White, still best known to me as the writer of Leave Right Now for Will Young, a wonderful pop song that Keith should cover, as well as You Give Me Something for James Morrison and Chasing Pavements for Adele. This one, even with some OTT production, ranks up there too, with a proper middle eight.

Ain’t It Like A Woman sounds a lot like a John Mayer song and it’s another song from Now That’s What I Call I Love Nicole Kidman: Keith’s woman has stopped a ‘runaway train’, taken the reins and tamed ‘a wild horse’ with ‘her strong and her sexy’. I like the line in the chorus about how she has her hands on the wheel at ‘ten and two when I would’ve wrecked me’. Grady Smith, my favourite country commentator, won’t like the vagueness of how ‘she do the thing oh so well’. It’s just a very blah song and he’s done this before.

With You does the same thing: ‘If I was more like water I’d surround you like the tide’ is a good lyric but it is wrapped in tedious production that makes it scream ALBUM FILLER. Far, far better, in spite of its unnecessarily long outro, is God Whispered Your Name, which is a fine showcase of Keith’s vocal skills. It is one of many tracks given to Keith, whose pitch sheet for The Speed Of Now must have detailed specific requirements for songs which will fill out an album, like With You and Live With.

I don’t know why we need both the Eric Church duet and the solo versions of We Were but I think it’s because this is an album to be cherrypicked and made into playlists. There is no narrative cohesion to this album, which ticks off the elements of a Keith Urban release and will provide him with some tunes to stick into his hit-packed set. None of these songs, except perhaps We Were, Better Than I Am and God Whispered Your Name, will be played in 2030, when Keith will be over 60 but still out on the road because that’s what he does. He’s better on stage than on record, but at least he enjoys his job.

2/5 for The Speed of Now, Part 1, but it’ll be a 4/5 if it lost five tracks.  

The UK Country Top 40 Chart – September 2020

September 11, 2020

Find all the songs in full in this Spotify playlist.

40 Danny McMahon – My Kinda City

39 Emily Faye – Fearless

38 is Hannah Paris – What The Hell

37 Katee Kross – Diamonds in the Dust

36 Bailey Tomkinson – Silent Suffering

35 Shannon Hynes – Country Words

34 Kelsey Bovey – Magnetic

33 Anna Krantz – We Could Be High

32 Harleymoon Kemp – Space

31 Jess Thristan – Angel

30 Laura Evans – Mess of Me

29 Ags Connolly – Wrong Again

28 Kevin McGuire – On Time

27 Megan O’Neill – Fire With Fire

26 Hannah White – My Father

25 The Fatherline – This Work is a Drug.

24 The Wandering Hearts – Over Your Body

23 Katy Hurt – Unfinished Business

22 Joe Martin – Heartbreak Cult

21 Deeanne Dexeter – 4AM

20 Jade Helliwell – The Moment

19 The Rising – Better Off Now

18 Two Ways Home – She’s Electric

17 Jake Morrell – Taking Our Time

16 Gary Quinn – Tip Of My Tongue

15 Laura Oakes – Better In Blue Jeans

14 Holloway Road – About Town

13 Robert Vincent – Conundrum

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

11 O&O – When It Comes To Love

10 Morganway – My Love Ain’t Gonna Save You

9 Backwoods Creek – Better Days

8 Essex County – So Good

7 Kezia Gill – Another You

6 Ferris and Sylvester – I Should Be On A Train

5 Twinnie – Type of Girl

4 The Adelaides – Seven Billion

3 Yola – I Don’t Wanna Lie

2 Ward Thomas – Sweet Time

1 The Shires – Crazy Days

Watch Jonny count down the Top 40 here:

Country Jukebox Jury LPs – Lauren Alaina and Hardy

September 4, 2020

Lauren Alaina – Getting Over Him EP

This EP follow the Getting Good EP in a common release pattern for country acts like Maddie & Tae who prefer five-song drops to satiate their fanbase. Notably, Lauren has popped up as a guest vocalist on hits by Kane Brown (What Ifs) and Hardy (One Beer), as well as album cuts by Dustin Lynch (Thinkin Bout You) and Chris Young (Town Ain’t Big Enough).

The EP’s lead single is Run, which takes the word ‘run’ and runs with it, in the way Nashville songwriters love to focus in on all possible angles on a particular word or phrase. As the clock is running, we run like hell.

Getting Over Him is excellent, a thrusting rebound song with enormous guitars, the polar opposite of Run. Lauren’s vocal is as sleeky as Maren Morris’ except Lauren can hit every note spot on. The role of the man is played by Jon Pardi, whose delivery is awesome too. Never has a one-night stand sounded so fun.

A Bar Back is someone who puts drinks together, rather than the bartender who takes the orders. It is a wonderful title and the song is about giving things back after breaking up with someone, except Lauren wants her bar back. I am sure this has some personal slant for Lauren, who broke off an engagement last year.

Lauren wrote that with Jon Nite, David Garcia and Hillary Lindsey, who is incapable of writing a bad song. It’s interesting that Lauren, whose voice is very close in pitch to Carrie’s, is writing with them, but since Lauren also releases music through Simon Cowell’s 19 label. I don’t think autotune is necessary on any of Lauren’s terrific vocals, much as Carrie and Dolly do.

If I Was a Beer is co-written by Lauren with Garcia, who is Carrie Underwood’s producer and, of all people, Hardy. You can tell it is because of the silky riff running underneath Lauren’s vocal about ’11 good friends by my side waiting their turn’. Girl as beer is a fun image.

Seen You in Your Hometown is a funky pop song over three chords in which Lauren extols the virtues of a boy who is different from the loud football-playing jock when he goes back to mama. A good premise and very country, even if the production is poppy thanks to Paul DiGiovanni, the man who has made Dan + Shay sound like the future of commercial country music, for good and ill.

What Do You Think Of is a fascinating reminiscin’ song full of details inspired by Lauren’s life, I reckon. Lauren came up as a teenager on American Idol so she has an audience in the pop sphere; because she has a twang and is from Georgia, it makes sense to market her to country radio but with Lukas Graham on this song popping up it’s clear where she is heading. The chords and chorus melody are gorgeous and if Lauren plays the long game (she’s still only 25) she can be a star of the era. She needs a few more radio hits, like Carrie, but she is an electric personality and the pride of Georgia. 4/5.

Hardy – A Rock

Hardy landed in my consciousness when I heard the demo to the song Up Down, where his voice was processed through a vocoder. I did not like it one bit. I preferred Rednecker, his anthemic tune which invented a word, rednecker as a comparative adjective for redneck. The song – which included the line ‘I piss where I want to and I fish where I swim’ – stalled at 26 on country radio.

Hardy is the redneckest in fact, and beloved by many artists for writing hits for them. Here is a snapshot of his success, all achieved before he turns 30 on September 13. After graduating with a degree in commercial songwriting, Hardy has written plenty of songs by Florida Georgia Line including four huge hits of theirs: Up Down, Y’All Boys, Simple and Talk You Out Of It. Blake Shelton had Hell Right (Hardy’s personal catchphrase) and God’s Country which, like Chris Lane’s I Don’t Know About You and Locash’s One Big Country Song, gave Hardy another number one record as a songwriter. Only Luke Combs and Thomas Rhett are in his class as a writer-performer.

And Morgan Wallen. Morgan used five Hardy co-writes on his number one debut album If I Know Me, including the title track, Happy Hour, Had Me By Halftime and Whatcha Know Bout That. New song More Than My Hometown is another Hardy co-write which is hurtling up the chart. The pair were due to come to the UK in May 2020 but the pandemic scuppered that. If Hardy comes to London in 2021, I will be there with bells on.

Hardy is a prolific writer whose songs have been picked by many of the artists who guested with him on the Hixtape collection from last year. Jameson Rodgers actually took Some Girls off the shelf, having bagsied it for a few years, and that single is all over radio now. A Rock emerges after that mixtape, which as well as Rodgers, Wallen and Thomas Rhett featured the likes of Keith Urban, Cole Swindell, Dustin Lynch and even Joe Diffie.

His two EPs have included songs called Throwback, Signed, Sober You, This Ole Boy and All She Left Was Me, piquing the interest of one listener at a time. Many of them are assisted by the type of programmed rock guitars you get on Morgan Wallen and Florida Georgia Line songs, and have a lyrical content that appeals to the lucrative 18-35 demographic. Hardy might be the Lewis Capaldi of country music, if Luke Combs is clearly the Ed Sheeran.

One Beer is 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. He told The Boot website that he is an admirer of Brad Paisley’s knack of mixing humour and heaviness. I admire Paisley too and I think Hardy is the closest thing to a country act (Luke Combs aside) who can bring in non-country fans. Even Florida Georgia Line, who have duetted with Jason Derulo, cannot compete with Hardy, who is rednecker than them.

A Rock contains songs which we have heard before the album’s release. 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 So Close, which is influenced by Def Leppard and contains the voice of Ashland Craft, a singer also on the Big Loud label. It’s a finely structured breakup ballad with an explosive chorus that fellow Big Loud acts (Morgan Wallen and Florida Georgia Line, Jake Owen) would kill for. I wonder why Hardy chose to keep this one and the 11 others for himself.

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.

Like One Beer – which is about the perils or wonders of girls and trucks and beer – 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. Hate Your Hometown, is a kiss-off which uses the ‘I hope’ formula so beloved of songwriters. For a better kiss-off try He Went To Jared, a song from the Hixtape.

I was intrigued when I saw that track 11 is called Unapologetically Country As Hell. We’ve had these songs for decades and a keen listener can play Hick Bingo. The rules are simple: drink a shot of Florida Georgia Line’s own brand Campfire Whiskey when you hear ‘moonshine’, ‘truck’, ‘beer’, ‘Chevrolet’, ‘chicken’, ‘dogs’ and ‘George Jones’. Please don’t end up in hospital or play this game/ This is Rednecker part two, equally singalongable and targeted at the 18-35 demographic in Mississippi and other Southern states who may wish to purchase some merch with the phrase Unapologetically Country As Hell on it.

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.

Hardy is doing all the right things and should be talked about in the same breath as Luke Combs. Above all, 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).

I have no hesitation giving this album 5/5 and hope you give it a go before he becomes famous like Luke Combs.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs – Tucker Beathard, Jonathan Terrell and Ruston Kelly

August 30, 2020

In this series, I will present the reviews of big albums reviewed weekly as part of Country Jukebox Jury. You can hear me talk about all types of country – poppy, bluegrass, rock, Texan, Canadian and British – every week at

Tucker Beathard – King

Tucker’s dad Casey is a writers room legend who has written lots of songs by Eric Church as well as No Shoes No Shirt No Problem, which gives its name to Kenny Chesney’s fanbase, No Shoes Nation. Tucker’s grandpa was the GM of the NFL and his brother CJ is a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers.

Notable in the context of this album is Clayton Beathard, who was stabbed outside a Nashville bar four days before Christmas 2019. Tucker, who is only 25, has the potential to make art from this tragedy and has done so. As I mentioned the other week, the album ends with a father and son writing about the song I Ain’t Without You, one of many lighters-aloft anthems on an album that is in the lineage of Eric Church and other rocking country acts.

Indeed, One Upper, written with Eric Church’s guy Jeff Hyde, and You On, written with dad and Eric Church’s other guy Luke Dick, are evidence of this. The former is set in a bar, where Tucker meets a guy who lives a better life aside from Tucker’s baby who is ‘right on the money, top of the top’. It made me smile and want to book Tucker as a support act for The Chief.

You On, meanwhile, sees him want to ‘turn all this missing you to a smile on your face’. It ought to be called turn you on but I am sure this would offend somebody. I love the guitar line and you might too. The album begins with some pop-punky guitars and a rock drum pattern on Better Than Me whose chorus explodes into life.

It is followed by the rock ballad You Would Think, written with the great Canadian country act Donovan Woods and dad Casey. It’s a country song because the chorus goes ‘you would think you would think of me’ after all the things Tucker thinks of in the verses. A fun drinking game would be to drink on every think but please don’t: you will go to hospital.

The ballad Faithful and the almost college rock of Only are both written with another child of country royalty. Marla Cannon-Goodman is the daughter of Willy Nelson and Kenny Chesney’s producer Buddy Cannon.

Paper Town is another song driven by a massive riff that reminds me a little of Everybody Wants To Rule The World. The chorus is colossal and sounds like a song Bradley Cooper would sing in A Star Is Born, near the start. Find Me Here, Broke Down opens with Tucker full of regret, hungover in a hotel bed. He could have decorated this song with enormous guitars but, in a smart production move he goes all Dave Matthews and keeps it acoustic and ‘broke down’. I love the detail about using the Bible as a coaster. This sounds like a song Bradley Cooper would sing in A Star Is Born, near the end.

Other fine tracks include 20/10 TN, a series of phone calls to a lady who seems to have abandoned him, and kiss-off song Miss You Now. They respectively sound like Old Dominion and Jason Aldean, so fans of those acts will enjoy King. Too Drunk (‘too drunk to drive me crazy!’) is almost a Nirvana pastiche. Nirvana, let it be known, disbanded before Tucker was born.

Above all this is a record Tucker wanted to make; a record, not a group of songs flung together. He’s not a major label puppet (in fact that major label album is not on Spotify). I think there’s enough here to stand up to repeated listening and I hope Tucker gets to play live, either solo or with a band. 4/5

Jonathan Terrell – Westward

Jonathan Terrell, known as JT, is going Westward for a rocking country album that opens with the one-two punch of Never Makes A Sound and Good Again. He’s ditched the quiet acoustics of his older material and, possibly inspired by Ruston Kelly’s work, has turned up the amps. There’s a great chat with the Austin Chronicle where JT reveals he had scrapped an entire album, has a chest tattoo of the words Heartache Tycoon, lost his brother to suicide and decided to enter the ‘young man’s game’ of rock music.

The album contains Mark from the band Midland, as well as a string quartet and organ from Gregg Rolie, best known as the singer of Santana and Journey. Many of the songs are suitably cinematic: Star Child has an added spoken word section and JT sighing ‘Tell me what you want’; Something I Do opens with a few bars of harmonica; and on Raining In Dallas he JT moans in despair towards the end of the song.

Even the title of the song Lemon Cigarettes and Pink Champagne, a David Ramirez co-write which is happily backed up by a tune where the word ‘coattails’ leaps out, evokes a movie. I found I could happily listen to more than 10 tracks, many of which are tight and taut and are almost too short, such as uptempo kiss-off The Last Time where, in true Texan style, he calls himself an ‘old fool’, and These Days, which pulverises the listener with its opening riff and JT’s growling vocal delivery. Album closer Cowboy Band is a wonderful waltz which Bob Harris would play on his show.

If like Bob and I you love bands who rock in a rootsy way, like Dawes, The Band or Reckless Kelly, this is a great album for you which hits the sweet spot between melancholy and forward thrust. 4/5

Ruston Kelly – Shape & Destroy

Ruston Kelly inspired a GRAMMY Album of the Year. Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour was all about how happy she was in love. For reasons known to them, the pair announced a separation in early July, meaning this is no divorce album. Indeed, Ruston sent Kacey a birthday message (fun fact: the pair were born exactly one year apart).

I first heard him thanks to his breakthrough LP Dying Star, which contains Mockingbird, one of the great songs of recent years. Shape & Destroy, which runs at a crisp 41 minutes, was previewed by five songs in the modern manner. Rubber adds some digital drums to a song that includes the words ‘suitcase’, ‘cathedral’, ‘mansion’ and namechecks Agatha Christie and Voltaire. It’s a soft singalong with strong melodic heft and includes the line ‘Can I bounce back or just lay flat?’ Brave is another soft, acoustic number where Ruston meditates on how he will be remembered. Radio Cloud opens with the line ‘call me a misfit’ and has a bulletproof chorus that shows he can write pop songs if he wants to.

We’ve also heard Pressure (‘I hate to be dramatic but I think these days I might crack’). He is a vulnerable songwriter who doubts happiness when he sees it. The stadium-sized Under The Sun, meanwhile, looks at ‘brighter days still to come’ that takes the themes of Kacey’s song Rainbow.

Album opener In The Blue opens with some urgent acoustic guitar and a lyric about having ‘rainbows in my mouth’. Alive sees Ruston ‘looking through a telescope, not a cloud in the sky’ because he is in love. What an interesting decision to leave a love song on the album. Mid-Morning Lament, with its pedal steel, is a sublime meditation.

Closest Thing is a gorgeous two-minute wedding song that compares love to flying and falling. Clean and Jubilee are toe-tappers, the latter driven by an ascending melody in the verse that mimics Ruston climbing a mountain. The album ends with the vignette Hallelujah Anyway, where a choir of Rustons, as on Brave, look towards the end of his life. This is an excellent album with top production values and a mix of happy and sad, to quote a Kacey Musgraves songtitle. 4/5

Country Jukebox Jury LPs – Josh Turner and The Mavericks

August 24, 2020

In this series, I will present the reviews of big albums reviewed weekly as part of Country Jukebox Jury. You can hear me talk about all types of country – poppy, bluegrass, rock, Texan, Canadian and British – every week at

Josh Turner – Country State of Mind

In 2019 Josh Turner headlined The Long Road then lost a valuable member of his crew in a road accident weeks later. He was promoting a spiritual record called I Serve A Savior, and Josh is a man of God whose piety is explicit rather than implied. He is also a fan of country music and knows his history, as evidenced by the tracks which have been released in the months leading up to the full project which is finally out now.

The big headline is his version of Forever And Ever Amen featuring Randy Travis adding the final amen. Josh is definitely in the ‘new trad’ tradition and displays it over the course of 12 tracks on Country State of Mind.

Aside from Randy, 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, the new Country Music Hall of Fame inductee.

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. Like Randy Travis, Alan Jackson has now passed into the realm of classic country. His story song about ‘a drunk man in a cowboy hat’ (who could it be??) Midnight in Montgomery is placed in between Forever and Ever and the theme to Dukes of Hazzard, originally a huge hit for its writer Waylon Jennings in 1980.

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 in the pre-Garth era! There’s gold in them vinyl records. 5/5

The Mavericks – En Español

The Mavericks are today on Mono, their own label, and tour the world with their Texmex grooves which mix country, Mariachi and the blues. Last year they put out their covers album, mixing songs by Waylon, Bruce and Elvis; before that was a Christmas album full of original compositions.

I caught them touring Brand New Day in 2017 at the Indigo2 which was packed with rich melodies sung by the wonderful Raul Malo. In 2020 their next trick is an album of Spanish-language songs written by the band. A useful tool was a dictionary from the 1940s!

The first brass note comes in just after the two-minute mark of the opening song La Sitiera, whose final minute is an excellent introduction to what the band are trying to do. No Vale la Pena and Cuando Me Enamoro add some accordion. This album has more horns than a Mark Ronson project, with some real echo in the studio, and Raul demonstrating that his should be considered one of the great voices of the last 50 years.

He told NPR that he used to speak in Spanish to his Cuban grandma. There is a cover of Me Olvide de Vivir (I Forgot to Live) originally by Julio Iglesias, which was Raul’s grandpa’s favourite song. It reminds me of On The Road Again or Gentle On My Mind and is a good starting point if you want to dip into the album.

My Spanish is atrocious but you get the general gist of what Raul is singing about from the titles alone: Recuerdos (Memories), the chirpy Poder Vivir (To Live), minor-key ballad Sombras Nada Mas (No More Than Shadows), infectious shuffle of Mujer (Lady), the sultry Sabor a Mi (Give Me a Taste) and Suspiro Azul (the mysterious Blue Sigh).

Cuande Me Enamoro translates as Timeless Love, which is a universal language. It is a beautiful, beautiful piece of music. Listen if you don’t believe me – it’s track 11 of En Espanol – and the best bit is when Raul sings in English over the fade!! Tantalisingly the final track fades too, as if the band are riding off into the sunset.

Just as In The Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda was a thankyou to his own grandparents, so En Español is the Mavericks attempting to do the same. If you liked the movie Coco or the Buena Vista Social Club guys, please take time to enjoy another fine record from an American treasure. Arriva! No need to travel with En Español. Cinco out of Cinco aka 5/5

Country Jukebox Jury LPs – Jason Isbell, Margo Price and Steve Earle

August 24, 2020

In this series, I will present the reviews of big albums reviewed weekly as part of Country Jukebox Jury. You can hear me talk about all types of country – poppy, bluegrass, rock, Texan, Canadian and British – every week at

IV Jason Isbell  and the 400 Unit – Reunions

Jason Isbell is the much-loved singer-songwriter-guitarist from Alabama who is Mr Amanda Shires. Fun fact: his first name is Michael, like how Paul McCartney is really a James. I won’t tell you what a brilliant album this is, with immaculate production, song structure and melodic shape, or compare Jason to Neil Young, Jeff Tweedy, Bob Dylan (yep he’s another new Dylan) and Bruce Springsteen (he’s also another new Bruce); others have already done so.

I’m just going to quote some of Jason’s poetry so you can go discover Reunions for yourselves and see how he frames the lyrics with the 400 Unit, who are one of the best bands in America.

‘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’ (which shouldn’t rhyme given what he’s saying in that couplet!).

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’.

An extra point to note: once again Jason has his own label and releases the record on Thirty Tigers, an independent label who, as with XL and 4AD, prove that there is space in the indie sector to make records that are miles better than focus-grouped albums that come out on Sony or Warners. 5/5, but you knew that anyway.

Margo Price – That’s How Rumors Get Started

Margo Price’s third album That’s How Rumors Get Started follows two albums released on Third Man, Jack White’s label, and also a solo album from Margo’s husband Jeremy Ivey (who will release another in the fall). The couple enjoyed the birth of her third child, Ramona Lynn, in May so she is technically on maternity leave while doing promo for the album.

Sturgill Simpson has produced it in much the same way as Dave Cobb produces those of Jason Isbell and (indeed) those of Simpson. A lush organic sound gives the listener an opportunity hear each note and beat as it lands. Margo’s country voice is soft and pure but with a bit of grit, a little like Linda Ronstadt’s or SJ from Morganway.

Letting Me Down is a wonderful bit of cool rock which has a long fade(!!), Hey Child has tinges of Muscle Shoals r’n’b while Stone Me was the album’s first single, a song about glass houses set to a saloon-style piano. Gone To Stay, meanwhile, is a lost Fleetwood Mac song.

The album is very American and very comfortable, the sort of music Lukas Nelson is making at the moment. On What Happened To Our Love she writes ‘you were the music, I was the dancer’.

At ten tracks it isn’t long enough but then again Margo recorded it while pregnant so her new baby will inspire her fourth album. Along with Brandi Carlile and Yola, she is proving that sisters can do it for themselves. 4/5

Steve Earle – Ghosts of West Virginia

Steve Earle is never less than interesting. He’s now a full-time dad to a special needs son and is working on what is sure to be the best memoir since Bob Dylan’s Chronicles. Married several (six!) times, imprisoned, strung out on drugs and now in the creative run of his life, Steve’s 20th album is Ghosts of West Virginia, a deeply personal album which is naturally political. It packs a punch, coming and going inside 29 minutes.

The track It’s About Blood is folk music that sounds like the Earth itself. It was sung on the New York stage in the play Coal Country, to which this album is a companion piece. Six tracks on the album are here, performed with The Dukes.

Steve is a loud Democrat and this album hopes to reach across the divide to people who didn’t vote Democrat in 2016, changing the world ‘one heart and one mind at a time’.

On the album, as in the show, Steve tackles the story of John Henry – ‘my son Justin Townes had written one and I hadn’t!’ he told World Café – because the mythical steeldriver may have worked in West Virginia on the railroads, blasting tunnels through the Appalachian mountains. Time Is Never on Our Side sounds a bit like A Life That’s Good from the TV show Nashville.

Steve’s voice throughout, full of humming and deep breaths, sounds like that of Johnny Cash, who was in his early sixties when he made those records with Rick Rubin. Fastest Man Alive is a bit of rockabilly, Black Lung is bluesy and closing track The Mine is sung with despair in Steve’s vocal chords. It’s About Blood remains the centrepiece of the album.

Ray Kennedy, Steve’s production ally, gets the best out of the instrumentation. Expect GRAMMY awards for Ghosts of West Virginia, an urgent album from a songwriter who can teach you how to do it at a good price. 5/5 – please make time for it.

Justin Townes Earle died on August 23 2020 aged 38. Long life to his dad Steve and all the Earle family.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs – Hot Country Knights, The Texas Gentlemen and Joshua Ray Walker

August 24, 2020

In this series, I will present the reviews of big albums reviewed weekly as part of Country Jukebox Jury. You can hear me talk about all types of country – poppy, bluegrass, rock, Texan, Canadian and British – every week at

Hot Country Knights – The K is Silent

Before Dierks Bentley plays his usual set, he comes out with his live band, all in wigs and facial hair, and sings a string of songs that pastiche 90s country music. With the recent death of Joe Diffie, and the irrelevance of Toby Keith, there is a gap for funny country music and there is nothing funnier than a major label giving Dierks Bentley a record deal for his side project.

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

If you don’t like the opener you will hate the enforced jollity of this album but it’s the perfect one that idiots will say ‘we all need right now’. Comedy is necessary all the time, not just in a pandemic.

We knew many of the songs before the album’s release: the energetic Pick Her Up with Travis Tritt, which has a false ending; the single entendre of You Make It Hard with the underrated Terri Clark, which has pedal steel, a key change and a proper middle eight; and weepie Asphalt, with the lyric ‘I woke up at the crack of dawn and left a note by her bed’ and layers of whistling for the final chorus.

Moose Knuckle Shuffle is a line-dance song that will surely do well on TikTok: ‘Put your hands in your pants and you hike ‘em up high’ is a fun lyric and the song is driven by cowbell. Expect the dance to feature in UK parties for a good while once normality resumes.

Of the new tracks, Mull It Over is a heartache song which Midland would be proud of. Check out the key change! 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. There’s a joke in the middle eight about how to spell trouble; I won’t spoil the punchline in case you find it funny.

Then It Rained (‘It stopped for a little while’) is a story song about a man in a bar who hears George Strait. If it sounds a bit like The Thunder Rolls, it’s intentional; I expect Garth has waived his songwriting credits out of respect for the Knights, and I also expect it was a fun song to write. The song ends with a B major chord but it’s in B minor! Verse one recalls how the man’s wife was away and it rained; verse two is set in a honkytonk where he bought some wine and it rained; verse three has the man finding loose change in the sofa, which is stained; verse four features the man apologising to his wife for being late for dinner. The joke is that the rain is just the weather, in no way significant at all except to emphasise loneliness or disgust at the man’s situation.

Closing track The USA Begins With US is recorded live, with Dierks shouting ‘Let’s do this!’ before yelling like Kenny Chesney about playing ‘all 48 states’. It’s an anthem in the key of Toby Keith and Joe Diffie, with the ‘crowd’ cheering ‘USA! USA!’ and the chorus not allowed to come in until Dierks has finished proselytising. It actually sounds like a Jimmy Fallon skit where he impersonates Blake Shelton or someone. Over a recorder solo, we hear the great Presidential speeches, including Nixon’s ‘I am not a crook’, Clinton’s ‘I did not have sexual relations’ and George W Bush’s ‘Fool me once’. Again, this sounded like fun for Dierks and company. Like Midland’s repertoire, this is music to laugh at and then marvel at its composition. The joke is that it’s really not a joke! 4/5

The Texas Gentlemen – Floor It!!!

The Texas Gentlemen are beloved by those in the know including British-based duo O&O. The album is Floor It!!! and 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. This is a band who have studied the greats – Elton John, The Band, Nilsson, Eagles – and I am all in for it. You can tell that the band have played with Kris Kristofferson, who probably has stories about all of those acts and more.

The track Easy Street is followed by one called Hard Road. There’s a song called Skyway Streetcar, which is as awesome as it sounds. She Won’t ends in a wigout jam that sounds like fun. Charlie’s House is almost a Steely Dan collaboration with Jackson Browne. The title track, Floor It, is eight minutes that summarises a great, great album. Please take an hour to discover your new favourite band. O&O were right. 5/5

Joshua Ray Walker – Glad You Made It

Rolling Stone Country called Joshua Ray Walker ‘a baby-faced 6XL guitar hero with a Dwight Yoakam voice’. Glad You Made It is a quick follow-up to his debut Wish You Were Here. It’s also a quick album: 10 tracks, 31 minutes.

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 that fans of UK troubadour Ags Connolly will love. (In fact I would love a JRW and Ags double bill.) 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.’ Ooh.

As it stands Joshua is due in Europe in December. I’ll do my best to catch him and you should as well. 5/5 for the big-hearted guy.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs – Kip Moore and Brett Eldredge

August 24, 2020

In this series, I will present the reviews of big albums reviewed weekly as part of Country Jukebox Jury. You can hear me talk about all types of country – poppy, bluegrass, rock, Texan, Canadian and British – every week at

Kip Moore – Wild World

Kip Moore once scrapped an entire album and has spent his career toeing the line between critical success and returning record label investment. He’s like Eric Church with more of a screw-you attitude. A rocker in the body of a country musician, Wild World includes some Kip Moore songs: She’s Mine and Red White Blue Jean American Dream are both punchy, riff-driven and sung with that grainy voice.

Self-produced, Wild World welcomes writers like Brett James, Luke Dick and David Garcia to the party, as well as Dan Couch who wrote Somethin Bout a Truck. If you don’t know his music, his vocal on opening track Janie Blu will pull you in. There really is nobody like him, a sort of crooning rocker who never overdoes it.

Elsewhere the songs are mature and varied. Slowies and quickies, meditations and songs for relaxation, big singles and album tracks. Southpaw sounds like a smash to me, with a killer chorus and another great vocal, while Fire and Flame is produced immaculately, the better to underscore a really metaphysical song about a ‘reckless heart’. It is anthemic and deserving of huge stadiums. If only Kip played a little bit by the rules, he’d be a superstar. As it is, he is more a cult concern.

The title track is one of the meditative ones which uses the irritating ‘mama said’ motif but is nonetheless excellent; Hey Old Lover drives on, something it shares with Red White Blue Jean American Dream; Grow On You is rifftastic and reminds me of Downtown by Lady Antebellum; ‘a little bit of your love is more than enough’ is a fun love song. The final track is Payin’ Hard, an acoustic driven song played on what sounds like a 12-string. Kip sings about how his life is like a credit card where he buys now, pays later and pays hard. You feel like you’ve met Kip Moore on this album; every track is his and he has so much editorial control.

One issue I have with the album is that it’s very I-IV-V heavy – which means all songs sound quite similar – but that’s rock music’s rudimentary chord pattern so I can’t complain. Attitude gets Kip a long way here and several tracks will land on his Best Of, especially Fire and Flame and the title track. It’s not perfect but it’s relistenable and will convert a few new acolytes to the crowd. 4/5

Brett Eldredge – Sunday Drive

Brett Eldredge was obviously doing what he was told with his last album, so he went away for a year, wrote some songs with Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk and during 2020 he has been dripfeeding them to his fans. I am one of them, I think he’s terrific, with a soulful voice perfect for Christmas classics. Country Buble also looks swarthy and has a dog called Edgar, who was all over his social media channels before he disappeared. Going Away For A While wasn’t just a songtitle of his, it was a necessary step in his life. He’s all about mental health and having good days, as he told Pip at Entertainment Focus in a great interview.

He spoke about capturing the magic of the songs as they were being written in his garage in Illinois. Magnolia is a good place to start, where Brett is having a ball over some rough piano – it sounds like a demo take – as he talks of meeting a girl in ‘the heart of the heartland’. It’s a lot like Beat of the Music but set in the Midwest 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. I also applaud the pre-release campaign: Gabrielle was the song with the big push but four other songs, including the poppy Where The Heart Is and the brilliant Sunday Drive, first heard when Brett was on work experience many moons ago, were also pre-released to whet fans’ appetite. Mine was whetted and now satiated.

Sunday Drive is a terrific album, full of joy and excellent vocal prowess. It’s by far his best and a big step forward for an act whose songs have never quite put him into the A List. This album will. Congratulations, Brett, and see you soon. 5/5

Country Jukebox Jury LPs – The Veterans: Will Hoge, Willie Nelson, Clint Black and Ray Wyle Hubbard

August 24, 2020

In this series, I will present the reviews of big albums reviewed weekly as part of Country Jukebox Jury. You can hear me talk about all types of country – poppy, bluegrass, rock, Texan, Canadian and British – every week at

Will Hoge – Tiny Little Movies

Will Hoge is a veteran of East Nashville’s hip scene. He wrote Better Off Now, which was covered by Lady A, and co-wrote Even If It Breaks Your Heart, a number one for Eli Young Band (more writers of that song coming later). I was delighted that Brendan Benson, one of the top singer-songwriters operating today, covered Will’s song Baby’s Eyes on his new album.

Will put out the terrific album Anchors in 2017, following it up with the svelte but punchy My American Dream in 2018. Tiny Little Movies is beefier, with 11 songs that Rolling Stone reviewed positively. His 2015 albums Small Town Dreams was his stab at the mainstream but Will realised he was indie and not mainstream. It’s our gain: ‘You’ve really got to toe the line,’ he said in that interview. But Eric Church can operate outside yet within; perhaps Nashville is allowed to have one outlaw, for the brand, like the Stonecutter Club can have ‘no Homers but one Homer’.

If you like Jason Isbell, The Jayhawks and anything Bob Harris plays with guitars and drums, you’ll love Will Hoge. When I heard Young As We Will Ever Be on his show, I played it five times immediately afterwards. His new collection offers more of the brilliant same, delivered 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, which is 100% Will Hoge. Listen and discover your new favourite country rocker. 5/5.

Willie Nelson – First Rose of Spring

Bob Dylan topped the US Album Chart the week that an even older man put out his latest album.

I hate that his name is shorthand for cannabis consumption as Willie is so much more than the face of 4/20. At 87, Willie Nelson is still working, even though his July 4 celebration was moved to an online-only shindig. Willie played with his sons Micah and Lukas and his family at his Ranch, while many favourites of the fest – Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Sheryl Crow, Margo Price, Asleep At the Wheel, outlaw Kinky Friedman, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Ziggy Marley – called in from their home.

First Rose of Spring is Willie’s 70th – SEVENTIETH – solo album. Bob Dylan, a sprightly 79, is yet to hit 40 albums! Buddy Cannon has again produced Willie, who mixes covers and originals. The terrific opener and title track is co-written by Randy Houser, while the likes of Don’t Let The Old Man In by Toby Keith (a smart choice of cover, sung with a Leonard Cohen growl), Our Song by Chris Stapleton (‘I don’t know if heaven’s real but that’s how you make me feel’ is proper Stapleton), We Are the Cowboys by Billie Joe Shaver and Stealing Home by Buddy’s daughter Marla. Just Bummin Around sounds like a song young Willie would sing back in the 1940s; indeed, it was written in 1952. Willie was a teenager.

Though Willie is 87 years old, nobody stops being a songwriter. The two originals are Love Just Laughed and Blue Star. The latter song is gorgeous, spectacularly arranged by Buddy Cannon and with harmonica and pedal steel. Likewise Hier Encore, which is retitled Yesterday When I Was Young and given a Texan twist. This is organic music that needs to be heard. 5 blunts out of 5.

Clint Black – Out Of Sane

The hot new artist of 1989 was Clint Black, a rockin, cowboy-hatted guy who was Killin Time on his debut album. The album had four number ones, all written by him, and his big hit-making career coincided with that of Brooks & Dunn, Travis Tritt and Garth, Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney. Possibly because he hasn’t had a huge hit in 20 years, Clint is not mentioned in the same breath – it doesn’t help that Texas love and claim their own – but 28 Top 10 hits in the 1989 and 1990s made him a popular performer.

He featured on a Grand Ol Opry Saturday night show recently, playing alongside Darius Rucker, and I loved his song Nothing But The Taillights. He was there to plug Out of Sane – poor title – and he played a song called America (Still In Love With You), which is a bit sappy and saccharine but effective considering it really is a great nation (with tonnes of problems). I like the chords in The Only One and the positive nature of A Beautiful Day.

He’s a meditative chap as shown by tracks called Can’t Quit Thinkin and My Best Thinkin’. He’s also a detective – we’ve got Found It Anyway and Find Myself – though I think an editor would ensure words weren’t repeated across titles.

There’s a super version of Everybody’s Talkin with a great backbeat that comes in the middle of the album Out Of Sane. The album is full of twang – fans of Brad Paisley will love this! – and Clint’s baritone, which sounds better than ever. It’s a super album and I’m going back into his catalogue as the 90s revival, spearheaded by Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen, gathers pace. 4/5 for Out of Sane.

Ray Wylie Hubbard – Co-Starring

At 73, Ray Wylie Hubbard is newly signed to Big Machine, having co-written a big song for Eric Church called Desperate Man. I know him by name as an old-school singer who had hits in the pre-Garth era but I wouldn’t be able to hum anything he’s written, so I am coming at his new album Co-Starring relatively fresh.

Big Machine have copied what they did with Sheryl Crow last year – I am positive that Tim McGraw is lining up a duets album with someone other than his wife. I’d love to hear a Garth Brooks duets album too, by the way – I’d like that.

Here, on Co-Starring, Ray sings with acts including Joe Walsh, Ringo Starr, Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes, Ashley McBryde, The Cadillac Three, Pam Tillis and Ronnie Dunn. Opening track Bad Trick is smoky and cool. Ringo is on drums, which is very cool considering he just turned 80 (EIGHTY!!). On Fast Left Hand he sounds a lot like Steve Earle, growling over the top of The Cadillac Three’s bluesy guitar playing with, strangely enough, rapidity in the fingering hand.

Cult musician Aaron Lee Tasjan appears on Rock Gods and Larkin Poe are on Rattlesnake Shakin Woman. Drink Till I See Double is a lot of fun, perfect for Broadway’s honkytonks. Pam Tillis lends her gentle voice to both the plinky-plonky Mississippi John Hurt, a good title, and album closer The Messenger, where the great Ronnie Dunn also pops up. The album is rich in sound and a perfect representation of RWH’s USP. I hope he can tour even though he is in the at-risk category. 4/5 for Co-Starring.

Country Jukebox Jury EPs/Mini-LPs – Cassadee Pope, RaeLynn and Rascal Flatts

August 24, 2020

In this series, I will present the reviews of big albums reviewed weekly as part of Country Jukebox Jury. You can hear me talk about all types of country – poppy, bluegrass, rock, Texan, Canadian and British – every week at

Cassadee Pope – Rise and Shine

She says it’s an EP but it’s an eight-track mini-album on which Cassadee has writing credits for every track. An independent artist not beholden to commercial pressures, she has chosen to present all of them with just acoustic instruments.

Rise and Shine, the title track, is indicative of the project even if it makes me smile because it references a Kylie Jenner catchphrase. Let Me Go is a tender and glorious breakup plea. Reminiscin song Hoodie is poppier and an interesting premise: Cassadee wants to return an ex’s old hoodie, in the knowledge that he will think it’s an excuse to see him. ‘It’s funny how it took me back to us’. It’s very relatable. Counting on the Weather is a fine pop song with a lot of Taylor Swift influences. Ditto Hangover, which compares a new guy to a car crash and an alcoholic binge.

Sand Paper is another great country songtitle, as Cassadee melodiously refuses to be changed. Built This House, written with the power duo Forest Glen Whitehead and Kelly Archer, is predictably great even if it’s a similar song in theme to The Bones by Maren Morris.

California Dreaming is a duet with her new beau, the great Sam Palladio, the only country star to make it in Nashville having come from Cornwall (via Kent). His recent film role was in Catherine the Great, the TV series with Helen Mirren. The pair’s harmonies work brilliantly on a song about Cassadee trying to forget about her ex. Cassadee’s voice, as you would expect from the winner of The Voice, needs no autotune and sounds pure and fragile. She sells the song well and I think the project is a success. There’ll be something for you here. 4/5, come back to the UK when you can, Cassadee!

RaeLynn – Baytown

This begins with Keep Up and ends with Bra Off, two songs that are chock full of personality and position the Voice finalist as an artist rather than a singer. I have loved both songs since I first heard them at Country2Country, having expected a set full of ballads like Love Triangle, her radio smash. Rather than deliver a full album, RaeLynn’s EP misses the fan favourites Rowdy, Queens Don’t and Tailgate (which I love) in favour of a six-track limit.

Me About Me previewed the EP. I admire the vibe of a song co-written by the magnificent Bob DePiero and has RaeLynn pleading for a boy to let her open up about her life, though there is a fab YOU GO GIRL twist at the end. Fake Girl Town, meanwhile, is one of those ballads women in country do so well. ‘There’s gotta be some real girls’ is RaeLynn’s plea over some soft guitar. Kudos for writing a song where a girl looks for girl friends, perfect for Galentine’s Day!

Brett James co-wrote Judgin To Jesus, on which RaeLynn raps verses and mentions Cardi B and whose chorus is anthemic and singalong. Emily Weisband helped her on the enormously fun Bra Off, which compares a breakup to breasts being free. Still Smokin made me smile from the opening piano riff; it’s a song about a summer fling, ‘one hell of a Saturday’. RaeLynn wrote it with Jason Derulo’s producer JJJJ-JR Rotem.

I only mention the co-writers to show the quality in the room while Racheal Lynn Davis aka RaeLynn put across what she wanted to say. This is a fine collection from a lady who opened for Maren Morris in her 2019 tour of the UK. She’s better than Maren as a singer and close to her as a songwriter. 5/5

Rascal Flatts – How They Remember You

Can seven tracks be called an EP?

We all know Rascal Flatts and their handsome lead singer Gary Le Vox from such anthems as Life is a Highway (actually a cover), What Hurts The Most and Bless The Broken Road, some of their 17 number ones. Their last album was a hodgepodge and that is the word used in a piece about this EP on A brilliant cover of Through The Years, the interesting Quick Fast In a Hurry with Rachel Wammack and the middle of the dirt road title track (which is very American) were all released before the EP proper.

Feel It in the Morning opens with beer, bourbon and wine with Gary Le Vox essentially willing his friend to be hungover, to party so hard and be coursing with so much adrenaline that sleep is impossible. The musical backing, however, is so dull, so middle of the dirt road, it’s almost offensive. This is what Dan + Shay are using as a template to make millions of dollars.

Looking Back, a Thomas Rhett song in all but name as he wrote it, is anodyne and dull. Warmer, which at least has a key change, is a desperate plea by Gary to learn what his beloved thinks – ‘tell me if I’m getting warmer’ – and makes me think of a review yesterday in The Times in which Ronan Keating is so dull he makes Cliff Richard look edgy. This makes Ronan Keating like Cliff Richard. But then again I am not the target market.

Slip Away namechecks ‘Corona and a lime’ – just change the name of the beer!! – in a dull song about wanting to get on ‘anything that floats’ in a pool. It sounds like Dan + Shay, which is not a criticism. It’s at least enough to make my head nod. ‘Sip away before it slips away’ is a fun lyric.

It’s better than this sometimes plodding farewell. 3/5 but there’s a readymade replacement (clue: one of them is called Dan).

Country(?) Jukebox Jury LPs – Thomas Wesley Pentz (Diplo), Gabby Barrett and Lindsay Ell

August 24, 2020

In this series, I will present the reviews of big albums reviewed weekly as part of Country Jukebox Jury. You can hear me talk about all types of country – poppy, bluegrass, rock, Texan, Canadian and British – every week at

Thomas Wesley Pentz – Snake Oil

Thomas Wesley Pentz was born in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1978 but grew up to become one of the top producers in the world. Under the name Diplo he worked on records by Major Lazer, LSD (with Sia), MIA, Beyonce, Jack U and Silk City. Best as a collaborator, he goes solo here in the Snake Oil project which has been trailed for the last year.

As of the album’s release Heartless has 125m Spotify listens, Lonely 116m and the remix of Old Town Road 68m, so the numbers don’t lie. This is global dance music made by a guy who could probably do country as well as he does EDM. On the album he enlists several pop acts – Julia Michaels, Jonas Brothers and Noah Cyrus – so I will limit myself to talking about country acts. The album’s intro features the fascinating Orville Peck blethering on like Johnny Cash over acoustic guitar to set the scene.

Cam pops up on the gorgeous So Long, co-written by nine writers including Hardy who is so HOT RIGHT NOW. Ryan Hurd, among others, worked on the very contemporary trap-pop-country-EDM mulch Heartless, which saw Morgan Wallen leap from country radio staple to pop act. See him be catapulted into Luke Combs territory in 2021.

Blanco Brown is on the atrocious Do Si Do. As for Old Town Road, Diplo sprinkles some of his dust on an already magical tune. Dance With Me puts together Young Thug and Thomas Rhett in a song with eight writers including Ryan Tedder and Zac Brown. It’s a pop song that positions TR as a southern pop star, not a country act. Hey, if Taylor Swift can go pop so can TR.

Fans of Major Lazer will like this, but it’s a bit fluffy. Zac himself can be found on Hometown along with Danielle Bradbery. It sounds like Thomas Rhett, but more boring. The album is background music for bachelorettes, made by men in suits to make money. 2/5

Gabby Barrett – Goldmine

Gabby Barrett is only 20 years old. Her debut hit I Hope was 100% Before He Cheats by Carrie Underwood and Gabby’s career is following the Carrie model: appear on TV and win the heart of America; work really hard to ensure post-TV fame turns into a career; get a big number one; put out the album, with songs co-written with some big guns.

Goldmine is her album, produced by Ross Copperman who is best known as Brett Eldredge’s co-pilot and producer. The big names in the brackets include Jon Nite, Jimmy Robbins, Adam Doleac, Josh Osborne, Josh Kear and Emily Weisband. For no reason at all Charlie Puth pops up on a reworking of I Hope.

Gabby should become a big important star and this record introduces her to the masses in a way that talent show stars have been introduced from time immemorial. If you’re a 13-year-old girl you’ll lap this up, and your parents will like it too. Inoffensive to the point of offense, this is a fine album. The whistle notes she hits on Hall of Fame are extraordinary; Gabby co-wrote the song, something Carrie doesn’t get enough credit for in her own music.

We have songs called Thank God, Jesus & My Mama and Strong. Footprints on the Moon is 100% You Go Girl! Indeed, this is ‘You go, girl!’ pop music with a light country touch. Got Me, the new song with Shane & Shane, is proper Christian contemporary music, which is bound to be covered by Hillsong. Christian contemporary is a genre almost invisible to the majority of the US but is very important to record labels. TV star Chrissy Metz is going to put out her album just in time for Christmas, while Carrie Underwood is finally getting around to putting out her own Christmas collection.

The title track Goldmine is written by the heavyweight trio of Nicolle Galyon, Caitlyn Smith and Liz Rose. It’ll probably be a single, with its huge rock chorus full of Carrie-type notes and a lyric about how ‘kisses are riches and you hit the jackpot’. 3/5 but then it’s not aimed at me..

Lindsay Ell – Heart Theory

Lindsay Ell releases her second album of original material three years to the week after her debut The Project. Heart Theory is a journey from love to loss, starting with the poppy openers Hits Me and How Good, the poppy ballad I Don’t Love You and the excellent pop-rock of Want Me Back. Guitarist Dann Huff, a hero to Lindsay, is the producer and lets the instruments shine.

I’m loath to call this country music. This is rock made in Nashville and Lindsay, who is Canadian, could well make it in the pop landscape as her talent and musicality are enormous. But then Nashville likes talent and Lindsay is a phenomenal performer, so why not push it to country? It’s not, though, and she must realise that. It’s lyrical pop music which Taylor Swift and Kelsea fans will appreciate, especially the likes of Body Language of a Breakup.

Get Over You, Ready To Love and The Other Side (‘sure feels good on the other side of you’) are all magical pop songs – do you sense a theme in my criticism? – while Make You is a song with personal significance to Lindsay as she hopes to be an advocate for rape survivors.

The problem with Lindsay Ell, as with so many acts, is that she’s not just one thing. Lenny Kravitz had this problem: too much of a guitar hero for pop, too much of a songwriter for rock, too independent for country. She’s great all the same and if you love Keith Urban, check out Heart Theory. Unrated but worth a listen.

This is why I put “country(?)” in the title of this post. But since all three acts call themselves country, that’s what I call them too.

Country Jukebox Jury LPs – Tenille Townes and Caylee Hammack

August 24, 2020

In this series, I will present the reviews of big albums reviewed weekly as part of Country Jukebox Jury. You can hear me talk about all types of country – poppy, bluegrass, rock, Texan, Canadian and British – every week at

Tenille Townes – The Lemonade Stand

The process of taking a new artist to market, as the business saying goes, can be long and arduous. Tenille Townes moved from Canada to Nashville and has been biding her time in recent years. Jersey on the Wall was our introduction to her folk-country stylings – Lori McKenna, Gretchen Peters and Mary Chapin Carpenter are all influences – but I loved White Horse and Somebody’s Daughter, both urgent tracks with smart lyrics.

Earlier this year we heard half of the album, including the above singles as well as a cover of Keith Urban’s Stupid Boy and original compositions I Kept The Roses and Holding Out For The One. The latter 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.

Ahead of the release of the full album, Tenille spoke to the team at Destination Country, who remembered her UK debut at Country Music Week 2019. She is a natural interviewee and raconteur who like all Canadian entertainers is grateful for her platform. Seriously: Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, Alanis Morrissette and Lindsey Ell. In comedy, the likes of Martin Short, Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, Colin Mochrie from Whose Line, Rick Moranis, Norm MacDonald, Dan Aykroyd and of course Lorne Michaels. The late pair of Phil Hartman, voice of Lionel Hutz, and John Candy, were also Canadians. Canada: punching above their weight.

We now hear the other half to make the whole album which is another Jay Joyce masterpiece. In terms of classic contemporary country, Jay and Dave Cobb are the sonic architects. Jay takes charge of The Lemonade Stand, which is named after a line in the chorus of SD. This isn’t Caylee Hammack/Dixie Chicks type music, but Tenille is a singer/songwriter in the Canadian tradition.

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 – which Tenille played live for the Destination Country interview – are all close to the sort of pop-country we do in Britain. They are very fluffy and very catchy and prove why Tenille is such a star over here already.

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. What a massive song. This is a brilliant, brilliant album, full of light and shade. No wonder she famously drove with her parents as a teenager to Nashville. This album has been a decade in the making and her next one will be even better. 5/5, eh!!

Caylee Hammack – If It Wasn’t For You

Caylee Hammack’s anticipated debut If It Wasn’t For You has been years in the making. I heard her song Family Tree about 18 months ago, which is very poppy but full of personal touches and lyrics like ‘pot luck lunch’, Tupperware and ‘high school high’. I like the idea that nothing’s gonna shake her family tree and I patiently waited, and waited, for the next thing she did.

Eventually in 2020 she hit big with Small Town Hypocrite, after the song Preciatcha. The rollout to the album has whetted my appetite for the full album, which means I’ve heard the magnificent Redhead, a fine set opener, and the elegant Forged in the Fire. Album opener Just Friends has also been knocking around for a while with its kickass tone and wild ending.

Not on the album is her duet with Alan Jackson, Lord I Hope This Day Is Good, as there is no room for it. 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.

The album ends with New Level of Life, a moving on and being strong song that summarises Caylee’s gifts for melody, production and vocal performance. This track and several others contain the S-word, so if you don’t like bad language listen to this album anyway and deal with it.

I wasn’t too fussed by Mean Something, a collaboration with Ashley McBryde and Tenille Townes that is obviously a record company move. In terms of those three acts, Tenille has the best voice, Ashley the best production and Caylee the best chance of being a household name. I hope people do hear her in the next few years, or else she’ll be stuck at Lauren Alaina level: always the bridesmaid.

Please note that Caylee co-produced this album, which is a sign of a confident artist who wants to be in control of her material. Unlike the next album I’m to discuss, If It Wasn’t For You is a country album, not a pop album (you may respectfully disagree). I think she’s the heir to Dolly and Reba, though it’s up to us to make her the star she deserves to be. 4/5

Country Jukebox Jury LPs – Sara Evans, Mary Chapin Carpenter and (Dixie) Chicks

August 24, 2020

In this series, I will present the reviews of big albums reviewed weekly as part of Country Jukebox Jury. You can hear me talk about all types of country – poppy, bluegrass, rock, Texan, Canadian and British – every week at

Sara Evans – Copy That

Sara Evans has put out a record full of covers, Copy That, whose cover has her adjusting a blonde wig. The album starts with If I Can’t Have You, a sweet version of Don’t Get Me Wrong and the evergreen Come On Eileen. Before you start putting them onto WTF covers lists, listen. Sara’s voice brought joy to millions in the 2000s before she got too old for country radio.

Her voice slinks around the modern standard It’s Too Late, jaunty Fleetwood Mac song Monday Morning, John Mayer’s All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye. 6th Avenue Heartache, written by Bob Dylan’s son Jakob, is on here too as well as a bit of fun. I realised My Sharona is almost uncoverable.  Hard To Say I’m Sorry morphs into September in a wigout. It’s a lot of fun.

The countryest thing here is I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, in which she ropes in Old Crow Medicine Show, while Phillip off of Little Big Town joins her on the Kenny Loggins song Whenever I Call You Friend, complete with key change for the chorus. Hank Cochrane’s She’s Got You, one of the 100 best songs ever written, is also here. On her own Born To Fly label, Sara deserves some love. 4/5 and a really great thing to do.

Mary Chapin Carpenter – The Dirt and the Stars

Mary Chapin Carpenter is still best known for poppy hits in the 90s like Passionate Kisses and Shut Up and Kiss Me and was the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year 1992 and 1993. Since 2000 she has shunned the charts and ploughed her own furrow, writing albums with a political slant. Having re-recorded some songs for her 2018 release Sometimes Just The Sky, this album is her first set of originals since 2012. Like Rodney Crowell, who has just turned 70, songwriters look up to Mary even if the albums do not sell in huge quantities.

The Dirt and the Stars is produced by Ethan Johns, who has worked on albums by Paul McCartney, The Staves, Tom Jones, Laura Marling and Kings of Leon, as well as being a songwriter in his own right). production is austere, letting the song breathe and sounding like the room it was recorded in: the hallowed Real World Studios owned by Peter Gabriel.

The opening track Farther Along and Further In reminds me of Ron Sexsmith or Laura Veirs with its gentle piano and melancholic timbre. There are some sweet guitar lines on It’s OK To Be Sad (‘how else would you know you’re alright?’) and there’s a shimmering sheen to All Broken Hearts Break Differently. This is the sort of music that’s not quite folk or rock or roots or country – it just is. It’s itself, a breathing piece of music with organic drums and sparkle that doesn’t come from a little box hooked up to a PC programme.

T-Bone Burnett and Dave Cobb let the players play, and Ethan Johns does too. This is why I am going on about how the album sounds – that’s also because many of the tracks contain instrumental sections where Mary gives way to her band. In fact, the nearest equivalent is probably Rosanne Cash, who also makes grown-up music for grown-ups and is ably assisted by her husband & producer John Leventhal.

Other fine tracks include the gentle Nocturne, with some fine acoustic picking; the rootsy Secret Keepers, about what new people are hiding or failing to disclose; Everybody’s Got Something, which seems to be about Mary’s depressive episode; and Between the Dirt and the Star, with some soft organ underscoring a lyric where Mary is 17 and lonely, with Wild Horses on the Radio (‘everything you’ll ever know is in the choruses’). It’s a superb reminiscing song with an extended guitar solo in the second half from a man called Duke Levine (who has also played with Rosanne Cash and Aimee Mann) that sums up the album nicely. For a fan of rootsy country-folky rocking American music, this is a fine album. 5/5

The Chicks – Gaslighter

The act formerly known as Dixie Chicks added to their tally of Top 10 albums next week by topping the charts with Gaslighter. It was their first release since Taking the Long Way in 2006, which helped them win acclaim and awards after they were cancelled for expressing an opinion and not shutting up and singing.

Here is the rollcall of writers on Gaslighter: Jack Antonoff, Teddy Geiger, Justin Tranter, Julia Michaels, Ariel Rechtshaid, Sarah Aarons, Ian Kirkpatrick, Ross Golan, Dan Wilson (who helped them win awards for Not Ready To Make Nice), St Vincent and a chap called Ben Abraham who wrote Praying with Kesha. These are all pop writers; in fact, there are no Nashville writers at all on this album, which is a wise move since Nashville effectively placed them on the blacklist back in 2003.

Over 12 tracks The Chicks set out their stall as veterans of popular music. It should not be ignored that these women are now in their forties or, in fiddle player Martie’s case, 50. It’s rare that women of that age have such a big push from their label, but then the Chicks are a special case. They were the biggest thing since Garth Brooks, when Wide Open Spaces, Fly and Home sold squillions at the turn of the century. The former has sold 13m in America, Fly 11m, Home 6m, meaning the band have two Diamond albums. Then came the demise of the recording industry, but Taking The Long Way still sold 2m in America, which means not everyone thought they were cancelled. The band toured in 2016 – including a date at London’s O2 – and put out a recording in 2017. They’re now streaming the full show on Youtube in case people have forgotten songs like Wide Open Spaces and Cowboy Take Me Away, which are now classics.

And so to Gaslighter. The title track was the first single and didn’t do much for me, though it’s a You Go Girl song that is a perfect opening track. The album track Tights on my Boat picks up the themes of the track Gaslighter – something happened on a boat and the woman was done wrong. Hope It’s Something Good seems to complete the trilogy: ‘We fought our wars with silence…Now that you’re done I get to write this song’. Only DCX can write this type of song…well, and Taylor Swift.

March March is terrific. The trio performed the song on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert – or rather A Late Show as he is broadcasting from his lounge – and noted that back in March the band were called the Dixie Chicks. Natalie says ‘it was about time – we wanted to change it for a long time and we were using DCX for a long time’.

I will call them DCX as The Chicks isn’t a terrific name. They were toying with MEN – Martie, Emily, Natalie – or Puss In Boots. Every time Taylor Swift talks about Trump in the next few months, we must realise she is only able to do so because the world has caught up with what DCX were saying back in 2003. Having the Chicks sing on Soon You’ll Get Better on her last album will ensure many of Taylor’s fans will check out, and love, Gaslighter.

The second single Julianna Calm Down was similarly meh-ful, sounding like something Pasek and Paul might write for one of their teen-targeted musicals, but with two minutes of confetti at the end. It’s not aimed at me. The track which was pushed to coincide with the launch of the DCX album is Sleep At Night, track two, in which DCX ask ‘how do you sleep at night?’ to someone who done them wrong. You go girl.

Texas Man opens with a neat little riff before the lyric enters about love and stuff. He needs ‘patient hands’ to catch a chick. You can tell Julia Michaels has some sonic fingerprints on this. For Her is a Sarah Aarons topline – from the lady who brought us GIRL and The Middle for Maren Morris – and this song For Her is a plea for ‘someone who cares’ to be ‘a little bit kinder and a lot less guarded’. The middle eight – ‘stand up, show love for her’ – is anthemic. When the band tour this will be an enormous part of their set: their audience are girls and women and they know it. Sarah is one of the top songwriters in the world and DCX do this understated song justice over five minutes.

Ditto Everybody Loves You. This is an outside write from Joe Spargur – aka Joe London, who produces Ross Golan’s And The Writer Is podcast – Charlotte Lawrence (who has just turned 20 and is also the daughter of Bill Lawrence, the showrunner of Scrubs) and Hayley Gene Penner (whose dad Fred Penner was a beloved Canadian children’s entertainer and recipient of the Order of Canada). Not that any of that matters. This is a stunning piece of music.

My Best Friend’s Weddings has a recurring ‘Go it alone’ chant in the middle over some soft banjo and fiddle. It’s a song made for Youtube montages – again, the band knows their audience. Young Man is the same, except a mum’s song for her son. Bring tissues: ‘My blues aren’t your blues: it’s up to you.’ Maybe this is even better than For Her. Natalie’s vocals are sublime, especially on the couplet about storms and truth. St Vincent aka Annie Clark is a co-writer here, so if any of her fans hear this track they will enjoy the rest of the album.

Here are some of the words used in the final track Set Me Free: ‘Sick from hurt’; ‘tethered’; ‘untangle me’; ‘decency’; ‘exhausting’; ‘broke my spirit’; and, finally, ‘there’s a good guy in there’.

This is the album Taylor Swift would make if she’d broken up with all those boys in her forties, not her twenties. As it is, this is grown-up pop music from three grown-ups who will delight their grown-up fans with a grown-up album. It’s not perfect so 4/5 from me, but I am ashamed I am not from Texas. Remember, when they got cancelled for telling the truth? Now you have to speak up if you want a career. Funny old world…