Every time I see the name Brandi Carlile, who along with Tim and Phil Hanseroth has been making fine, critically acclaimed music for 15 years, I think of an anecdote Marissa Moss told about three years ago. At a concert, a chap who didn’t know who she was gradually grew interested in Brandi’s music. ‘Hot damn,’ he began and by the end of the gig he was yelling ‘HOT DAMN! HOT DAMN!’ Even Brandi herself saw the message, which coincided with the success of her album By The Way, I Forgive You.
I had a similar reaction when I saw a video of her song The Joke, which I felt put her in the Jason Isbell class of contemporary performer. Country radio won’t touch her as she uses weird phrasing and long words, but satellite radio and Radio 2 have loved her. Like Radiohead, listeners hopped along for the ride and have embraced what she and the twins have been doing, which was a sort of definitive, emotion-and-storyteller American music like John Prine, Dean Dillon or Tom T Hall. The Eye (‘you can dance in a hurricane but only if you’re standing in the eye’) was my introduction to her sound, which had Brandi and the twins harmonising beautifully with lyrics about survival.
Since then she has definitely become the Mom figure of the genre known as Americana; with the passing of her hero John, Brandi keeps the pilot light flickering for a genre that barely existed when she started out, a genre of misfit toys for people without a genre, like her good friend Yola and the likes of Amythyst Kiah. Unsurprisingly, Brandi was named Artist of the Year (beating Isbell) at the Americana Awards recently, regaining the title she won in 2019 (beating Mavis Staples!). In 2018 she had lost out to John himself. She was also a quarter of the Highwomen, touring with the ladies and putting out a wonderful album.
And so, with relatively little fanfare, Brandi’s new album comes to market. She has a fan in Stephen Colbert, on whose Late Show she performed Hello In There as a tribute to John and promoted her memoir Broken Horses, in which she told her story of growing up and learning who she was. She has the iconoclast badge thrust upon her because there aren’t many openly gay parents in country music, but she is truly blazing the same trail that kd lang, Lucinda Williams and Isbell all blazed.
Right On Time was the impact track from the album, a torch ballad that may well become a modern standard. As she had done on The Joke, she addresses someone directly (‘of course you are…you’re the strongest person in the room’) and delivers a quivering vocal over a piano line which follows her vocal. More layers are added as the song continues and this will pack a punch when she tours the album. She and the twins head to Carnegie Hall in November to perform Joni Mitchell’s album Blue.
It’s hard not to think of Joni when you hear You and Me on the Rock, featuring duo Lucius, which is a love song featuring lashings of harmony. The middle eight is particularly good. When You’re Wrong also flutters and talks about time passing (‘tomorrow you’re a ghost…you forgot yourself so long ago’) in a manner of which Joni would approve. The album closes with Throwing Good After Bad, a song about grief and love. The use of the word ‘coyote’ must be another allusion to Joni, who had a song with that title.
I wonder if Brandi will join Joni in the pantheon of singer/songwriters. A song like Stay Gentle, which may close her gigs until the end of time, is a positive example. Instead of hardening the heart with age, why not stay innocent, she asks. It’s a deliberately simple song in the same tenor as Somewhere Over The Rainbow. Conversely, the political Sinners, Saints and Fools references immigration and doing things ‘by the book’. It’s a thesis in a song, with the album’s rockiest moments. Brandi has added Shooter Jennings to the production team thanks to their work on Tanya Tucker’s last album, which means Dave Cobb has a buddy at the desk.
Brandi’s memoir gives the song Broken Horses its title, and seems to distil Brandi’s credo in a song. There is plenty of lyricism: we get ‘puppetmaster’s rules’, ‘lukewarm water’ and ‘tried and weathered woman’ who is ‘tethered in wide open spaces’ over a bluesy progression (see what I mean by long words that would put off country radio listeners). She told Stereogum that she doesn’t really do emotions except onstage, where she channels them into her music. This might be her gift.
This Time Tomorrow is about ageing, perhaps a song to Brandi’s children that doubles as a song to any grieving listener: ‘You will know what it means to be lost and without love’ is a killer, true line, which is followed by cooing harmonies from Brandi and the twins. Mama Werewolf is another song rich in poetic language: ‘long, sharp teeth’, ‘river of fear’, ‘moon shines through those parting clouds’, ‘my silver bullet in the gun’, ‘they fought the beast I feel within’…It’s very John Prine or John Cash, even Bob Dylan, though I am sure Brandi would shrug those comparisons off.
Letter To The Past, the song which will become known as the ‘stone wall in a world of rubber bands’ song, includes more advice to ‘let it go’ over piano chords. I reckon it will follow The Joke in her live shows to bring the pace down. I hope to go see her and the twins if and when she comes to the UK in 2022.
90 minutes of music, with contributions from Pitbull, Snoop Dogg and Stevie Wonder, makes me think that this a hodgepodge even before I hear it. Trace is best known for the ballad You’re Gonna Miss This, and also being quite mean to women, and also winning the All-Star Celebrity Apprentice.
His new, exhausting album begins with Where I Am Today, a Peach Pickers track that’s one of their thinkers, as Trace sings of ‘sacred ground’, ‘a goodnight kiss’ and ‘staring at the sunsets a little longer’. Luke Bryan or Blake Shelton probably had this, and many of the album’s tracks, on hold. Trace is in their vein, a country boy singing about life.
Similarly, Barry Dean and Brothers Osborne wrote The Way I Wanna Go, which mature performer Trace picked off the shelf. I would love to hear TJ duet with Trace, as their voices complement each other well. The brothers also wrote the fun Big from Trace’s 2020 EP Ain’t That Kind of Cowboy, which at six songs was too short. Here, the album is too long, and it’s a shame that there are eleven tracks after The Way I Wanna Go, which would make a closer for a tight collection. Perhaps you can Choose Your Own Trace Adkins Adventure if you cherrypick your favourites.
Country signifiers are plentiful on the ploddy rocker Cowboy Boots and Jeans. Jon Nite, Michael Hardy, Zach Crowell and Hunter Phelps churn out songs every day that namecheck Carolina and California like Somewhere In America, which Trace sings admirably. The Randy Montana co-write Jesus Was a Hippie is a meaningful conversation in a bar that Trace sells really well. Trace himself co-wrote It All Adds Up To Us, where ‘two soft hands and two that are rough’ are compared to other things which make a perfect pair.
There’s a lot of great imagery on Careful Girl, the kind of song the radio doesn’t play in 2021 but which has the hook ‘you’re gonna wind up in a song’. Empty Chair sounds like a classic and will appeal to men who have watched Trace at a US Overseas show. There’s plenty of pathos on You’re Mine, an old-fashioned country melody with a fine vocal performance and a lyric about letting the past be the past, and I Should Let You Go, which sounds like a Garth showstopper.
Love and stuff is also represented on the album by Heartbreak Song, where Trace keeps turning the dial to find a song ‘to share my pain’; Finding My Groove, a middle of the dirt road ballad with soft acoustic guitar and a rhyme ‘needle on vinyl/rescue-me revival’; Live It Lonely (‘if I lost my one and only’); Cowboy Up, a neat song where Trace pinches himself at how lucky he is to have his belle; and Honey Child (‘I’m gonna love you old school’), which uses the backing vocalists expertly.
A collaboration between Paul Overstreet, Kendall Marvell and Dan Auerbach led to Cadillac’n, a charming driving song where ‘baby’s on my right, wind in her hair’. Alt-rock pinup Melissa Etheridge duets on the power ballad Love Walks Through The Rain, a song co-written by Marla Cannon-Goodman with orchestral flourishes. Memory To Memphis features a harmonica solo from Stevie Wonder and bluesy wailing from Keb Mo, while Trace tells about his trip across America to get an ex out of his mind.
It’s a Good Thing I Don’t Drink has Trace pleading his own defence on ‘a harmless joke’ between three friends. It includes the word ‘fornicators’ in the chorus, which is a very Trace Adkins word. Like Toby Keith, he’s the kind of guy (at least in her persona) who doesn’t take any prisoners. Another standout track, which first appeared on a 2011 album, is If I Was a Woman (‘I’d love a man like me!’), where Trace and his great mate Blake Shelton trade quips over a sort of honkytonk Buble sound.
Got It Down was gifted to him by Craig Wiseman. Trace is ‘still hanging tough for another round’, chuckling to himself before a verse dedicated to his ‘baby’ and the arguments they have. Like Toby, Trace’s voice is full of character and I wish some of the contemporary voices had even HALF as much. I love the ad libs at the end of the song too, as Trace demands ‘a big old country-and-western ending…not exactly what I had in mind’. The album closer Welcome To is another Wiseman co-write (perhaps rejected by Blake?) which frames a visit to a small town as ‘between the Welcome To and the Y’All Come Back’.
I wonder if Snoop Dogg has heard of Hank Williams and George Jones, who are both namechecked on the duet So Do The Neighbors, which may well use the same backing track as Where My Country Girls At, the dopey tune with Pitbull and Luke Bryan collecting a big cheque for doing not very much. Similarly silly is Low Note, where Trace advises the listener to tell their boss to shove it and ‘leave ‘em on a low note’, matching the lyric with his deep vocal tones.
No Trace Adkins fan will complain about hearing 25 tunes. Morgan Wallen has spent most of this year enjoying the fruits of his 30-track album, while Jason Aldean is preparing a hybrid 30-track set with 20 originals and 10 live versions of his hits. The future is music, and lots of it, and Trace is in on the act too. He’s got plenty of gigs lined up in 2022. I wish he’d find time to come to the UK!
The man who wrote Whiskey Lullaby and Tin Man hasn’t put out music under his own name since the mid-2000s. Jon is beloved by many in Music City and I wouldn’t hesitate in calling him an heir to the Guy Clark style of lyrical songwriting. He is well known as a producer for Dierks Bentley, Parker McCollum and his wife Jessi Alexander, and was one-third of the gang who put out The Marfa Tapes in May 2021 (whose concert for Austin City Limits went out on October 2).
Having initially put out an EP, Jon’s self-titled set contains nine tracks which showcase his art. Ranchero stands out because it’s a two-minute instrumental that shows Jon’s chops as a guitarist who has played with Lyle Lovett and Emmylou Harris. Girls From Texas, written with Shane McAnally, was a duet between Lyle and Pat Green a decade ago where the argument is that there are fine girls everywhere in America; ‘girls from Texas are just a little bit better’. No explanation is necessary and Jon ropes in Jack Ingram for assistance.
Jon has picked tunes which are less Nashville and more Red Dirt, full of gravitas and depth. Opener Keep On Moving is a troubadour’s song by a narrator who doesn’t care what other people think (I wonder if it’s autobiographical). The Road sits at the end of the album as a sort of ring composition, a trucker’s hymn full of imagery and character. The UK government should use it as an anthem to encourage people to take up truck driving.
Driving To Mexico also takes place on the road, ‘driving till I run out of gas, out of luck, out of road, out of time’, trying to shake the memory of an ex. Perhaps it’s the girl in Tequila Kisses he is trying to escape. The song is gorgeous, full of reminiscin’ about a riverbank romance with a girl speaking ‘in broken English’, implying that Spanish is her first language and making tequila a sort of metonym for a Mexican woman.
The solo acoustic Acapulco Blue is another reminiscin’ song where Jon tells of playing music for tips to buy rock records and gasoline. Now the car of the title is worn and rusted, ‘memories I’ve lost’ stored up in the glovebox. That is one hell of a line, from a master craftsman.
Streets of Dallas is full of loneliness, helped by Jerry Douglas’s dobro. Jon is ‘down to my last 20 bucks’ having pawned his guitar watching ‘two strangers getting high’ and feeling the rain from a raging storm. Velvet Elvis Buzz includes a well-placed swear word with Jon seemingly addicted to a woman who serves to ‘trash my house and kiss me…You taste like nicotine, sweat and sweet perfume’. It’s a real turn of events for Jon, and he seems locked in a groove. I’d love to see him do it live, and with his friend Miranda due in Europe next spring, I hope he can hop on the bus too.
Several top songwriters help Sam write 11 of the 12 tracks on an album which introduces me to a fab new voice who opened for Tyler Farr a few years ago. This is Sam’s third album, whose title track opens it up. There’s a mix of squealing guitars, real snare drums and a fine melody which takes the trope of ‘this town loves to talk’ and adds four familiar chords to it. I adored Song About You when I first heard it, with its E Street Band circa The Rising feeling, and I like the effortless, frothy melody of Bar Last Night.
The songtitles are punchy as the guitars and lyrics which show personality and attitude, Colt Ford-style; Colt, who produces the album, wrote ur-Bro Country tune Dirt Road Anthem which Jason Aldean. Me and Mine is full of raised cups, skinning catfish and deer and how ‘Bocephus got it right’ about country boys. Sam sounds like Tyler Farr on Boy Like Me, a power ballad which could have gone to radio at any time in the last 20 years. Ditto Better Than Me, a moving-on song where Sam hopes his ex’s new beau is an improvement on Sam himself, as he puts himself down. On You Ain’t Gone he spots his ex’s ‘old shampoo, hairbrush and makeup’ after she left him. It’s basically 7500 OBO by Tim McGraw without the truck.
Go Right Now is another of those songs where the singer does country stuff with his Dad in the first two verses and then sees him die in the third. (Oh, come on, don’t shoot the messenger: country music templates are as old as time itself and I grabbed a tissue just after the first chorus!) This will be a key song in his live set, which UK-based country fanatics would love.
Grew Up Red ticks off those country signifiers as a thousand other songs do: ‘dirty work, honest dollar…calloused hands’ and messing around on tailgates. It even rhymes boots/roots in a way that I think is mandatory in a song of this type. Still, it’s three chords and the truth and that’s country. Kiss My Ass is another song like a thousand others, preaching loyalty to the American flag and not brooking any argument. You can imagine the guitar chords even before you hear them; it’s the country equivalent of putting ‘devil’s chords’ in a heavy metal song about Satan.
Texan songwriter Terry McBride helps Sam write the gentle Little House, where ‘it don’t take a mansion to find what’s really important in life’. It’s a triple-time ode to small-town life where Jesus pops up in the second verse. The album ends with Whiskey Bound, a ‘pour me another one’ song that could be sung by Matt Stell, Mitchell Tenpenny or Chris Young, country radio catnip where the schlub mourns another one gone.
Sam Grow might get less radio play than these major-label heartthrobs, but there’s much to enjoy on This Town.
In the first two parts, I introduced Scott and the talent he pushed on Big Machine, including Thomas Rhett and Taylor Swift. In the third part, I talked about the variety of acts signed to the group’s labels, including some Legacy Acts. The final part deals with the sale of Big Machine and where the label stands in 2021…
Track 7 Big Machine Today
2021 saw the release of the third album by an act who opened up for Lady A in 2019. Carly Pearce got her start singing Dolly Parton songs at Dollywood and her 29: Written In Stone project has moved her from a so-so artist to a big hitter. Every Little Thing was her first number one in 2017, and in 2019 she took a Luke Combs co-write I Hope You’re Happy Now to the top.
Also in 2021, Big Machine had three successive number ones at radio: Thomas Rhett’s What’s Your Country Song, which hopped on the trend that saw songs name other songtitles to form a new song; Lady by Brett Young, a song dedicated to his daughter and his wife in equal measure; and Long Live, a Florida Georgia Line song by numbers. TR’s album Country Again, like Lady A’s new album, has been delivered in two parts, as Big Machine realise fans like lots of music in bursts rather than waiting too long for them as a full album.
Oddly, for C2C 2022, only Brett Young is on Big Machine of the acts announced for the main stage. Teenage act Callista Clark will, however, play the B-stage in London on the Saturday, so I expect she’ll press flesh and do a lot of gigs onsite for her first C2C. She was born in 2003, the year before Taylor Swift sent her demo to Scott Borchetta, and her song It’s Cause I Am has spent most of 2021 in the Country Airplay chart (as I write this the song is at 25).
Among current label employees is Flo Myerscough-Harris, daughter of DJ Bob. She works as a Label Assistant in Big Machine’s UK base. It was underreported that Hybe bought the holding company that runs Big Machine in April 2021. Talking business means I must rehearse the argument between Scott and Taylor Swift back in 2019, headlined ‘Let the games begin!’ by Rolling Stone who reported on the feud.
That holding company, Ithaca, was owned by Scooter Braun, the manager of Justin Bieber and Dan + Shay, which is why 10,000 Hours was not as surprising a collaboration as you’d think. In November 2018, Taylor Swift became a free agent after 13 years and six albums with Scott Borchetta, opting for Republic Records who are now helping her re-record those six albums. Following Fearless earlier this year, 1989 comes out in November. This was the album that won Album of the Year at the GRAMMY Awards, her first proper pop album which was mostly a collaboration with Max Martin and Shellback. We’ve already heard the new version of Wildest Dreams which isn’t wildly different from the original but fans are encouraged to listen to that new version.
Scott was forced to defend himself on the Big Machine website with a blogpost in which he confirmed that his offer to extend the deal in 2018 was ‘extraordinary…She chose to leave’. In June 2019, Ithaca bought Big Machine and thus the masters, which means today Taylor Swift’s masters are owned by the guys who run BTS’s career.
As for Big Machine themselves? Their big priorities include the aforementioned Callista Clark, while Bob Harris has been playing tunes by Laci Kaye Booth, former oilfield worker Heath Sanders (basically Luke Combs) and the long-haired ‘retro contemporary’ Brock Gonyea in recent months, who reminds me of former Big Machine act Drake White, another casualty of the Dot Records shuttering. Drake was perhaps a few years ahead of his time. He’d fit right in with Riley Green, whose soppy songs like I Wish Grandpas Never Died and tempo tracks like There Was This Girl are Luke Combs pastiches. Tyler Rich, meanwhile, is Brett Young with a different face.
Realising there needs to be at least one non-white act on the label, Scott has signed the excellent Tiera and the teenage country poppet Kidd G, whose debut album Down Home Boys seems to be targeted at 14-25-year-olds attracted to digital drum loops, as appear on the title track. It is a deal with many hands, including Florida-based Rebel Music and Geffen, the same label that brought the world Olivia Rodrigo. ‘Kidd is a Southern boy who will blur and ultimately stretch format lines,’ gushed Scott on Big Machine’s involvement. Expect to hear Kidd’s music on country radio alongside the likes of 7500 OBO by Tim McGraw – who has returned to Big Machine after a difficult year elsewhere – and the terrific waltz Sunrise Tells The Story by Midland.
Irritatingly for Big Machine, their other teen-targeted band Avenue Beat are bringing out their debut farewell album on October 15, announcing their split before it has even been released. They are best known for F2020, where they complain about the pandemic in a poppy way.
On the Big Machine website, there is a page titled Music Has Value which sends users to the charity arm of the label. Fifteen grants of $10,000 are to be given to people who want a start in the music industry ‘in both rural and urban areas’. One of those went to United Sound, which helps music education for special needs students. I suppose when you have made millions you have to give some of them away.
Scott Borchetta remains one of the most impressive executives in Music City. I am sure when he writes his memoir it will be full of stories which place him side by side with Taylor Swift, the artist who succeeded as music became digital rather than physical. His role as CEO of Big Machine is as much a sinecure as anything else, a position of grandeur which means he can add his expertise as a sort of hyperconsultant. Thomas Rhett is the homegrown star while Tim McGraw and Lady A (as they are now called) are acts who make music that sounds eerily close to their greatest hits.
That, after all, is where the money is made these days: not the recordings, but the performance. Now that the people behind K-Pop ultimately own Nashville’s country stars, expect some terrific music as Music City opens itself up to the world. Scott, of course, is delighted that he still has new worlds to conquer.
You can listen to all four parts in one place here.
In the first two parts, I introduced Scott and the talent he pushed on Big Machine, including Thomas Rhett and Taylor Swift. In the third part, I talk about the variety of acts signed to the group’s labels, including some Legacy Acts…
Track 5 All Things To All People
Because of all these blokes, it seemed almost calculated that a response record of sorts would become a talked-about discussion point at the end of 2014. Girl in a Country Song was released by Maddie & Tae, who signed onto the Dot Records imprint of Big Machine. The song namechecked various trends spotted by Grady Smith and published in a famous viral video; he noticed that country stars called girls ‘girl’, drove to the nearest riverbank and told the objects of their affection to ‘slide’ over in their ‘cut-off jeans’. Unfortunately label politics meant that it took many years for the girls to follow up their first album, by which time they were both married. They now have a home on Mercury Nashville, alongside Chris Stapleton.
The Shires were also signed to the imprint and Scott showed them off in a 2017 BBC documentary on the rise of country music. Country2Country had begun in the early 2010s and, year on year, had attracted more fans to Greenwich, me included. Big Machine had a booth in the Town Square offering grip’n’grins with acts, goodie bags and competitions, and it is no coincidence that a Big Machine act has been on the main stage every year. Tim McGraw and Brantley Gilbert showed up in 2013, Rascal Flatts in 2014, Brantley in 2015 and both Maddie & Tae and Thomas Rhett in 2016.
Also on the main stage in 2015, right in the middle of Peak Bro Country, were Kip Moore, Jason Aldean and Florida Georgia Line. At the time FGL were on a joint deal with Republic and Big Machine which also had The Band Perry, Martina McBride and Sunny Sweeney on its roster, but were fully on the latter for their third album Dig Your Roots. It included a collaboration with the Backstreet Boys (God, Your Mama, And Me) and the groups would also appear on a CMT Crossroads show together. Cruise remains one of the songs of the century so far, and I don’t know how much money it made for Scott Borchetta. The duo kept releasing music to diminishing returns; in 2021, Tyler Hubbard is preparing a solo career and in 2020 teamed up with Tim McGraw for Undivided, a plea for universal brotherhood which they performed on a telecast to celebrate the inauguration of President Joe Biden.
Scott Borchetta’s politics are not something we really know, but it is interesting that Aaron Lewis, formerly of the band Staind, is signed to Big Machine. ‘I believe in the First Amendment. My job has never been to tell my artists what to sing and write about,’ Scott wrote in a letter published, humorously, by Bob Lefsetz, the man Taylor Swift wrote Mean about. ‘To just “cancel” Aaron is ridiculous,’ wrote Scott, because ‘Aaron’s message is speaking to millions of people…Be loud and be heard.’ Incredibly, the song Am I The Only One hit number one with no radio promotion.
Aaron is one of many rock acts affiliated to Big Machine. The Cadillac Three are led by Music Row songwriter Jaren Johnston and put out bluesy-rock albums which connect with live audiences. Tucker Beathard’s song Rock On is a ballad full of regret that did well at radio; Tucker’s dad Casey is another fine Music Row writer. Steven Tyler of Aerosmith put out an album on Dot Records in 2016 featuring the powercharged Red White and You (‘Bang bang baby like the fourth of July’); Jaren was one of the songwriters on that project.
Track 6 Icons
New wave band Cheap Trick also signed to Big Machine on a three-album deal between 2016 and 2017, though they returned to BMG for their recent release. Scott was pictured with Motley Crue in a publicity photo around the time he was mentoring contestants on American Idol. The Cheap Trick signing seemed to be part of the Borchetta strategy, signing up legacy brands to the label and looking after them in their twilight years. Wanda Jackson’s last album Encore was put out by Big Machine in collaboration with Blackheart, the label belonging to album producer Joan Jett.
Talking of legacy acts, Reba McEntire headlined C2C 2017 to promote her album Sing It Now, listed as Christian Country/ Gospel. Reba has aged out of country radio, which is really unkind to women over the age of 40, and spent many months in Las Vegas playing Fancy and other smashes. Reba was on MCA in the 1990s when Scott was there, but she told him that she was ‘done’ when he approached her in the 2010s. Scott managed to convince her to be the star artist on Nash ICON, which also housed Hank Williams Jr and Ronnie Dunn and was backed by another major organisation, Cumulus, who are key players in country music media. ‘Let’s play a new Reba next to an old Reba’ was his pitch for a new radio station (still on air as 95.5 NASH ICON), which led to a deal for new Reba tunes. 2019’s album Stronger Than The Truth was led by the single Freedom.
In the meantime, when it comes to new acts, Brett Young became the label’s token beefcake. His albums of adult contemporary country songs are precision targeted at women in the 25-54 demographic. Songs like Sleep Without You, Mercy and Like I Love You all dealt with masculine vulnerability. There is a Christmas EP on the way which follows an ordinary EP.
UK country fans will swoon to such songs at C2C 2022, where Brett returns having first visited in 2018 as part of a bill which included Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, who themselves put out an album of adult contemporary country songs precision targeted at women in the 25-54 demographic. One of them, The Rest Of Our Life, was written by Ed Sheeran.
At C2C 2018 were Sugarland, the duo who brought out their record on Big Machine which featured Taylor Swift collaboration Babe, and Midland, the fake country band featuring Fearne Cotton’s former flatmate and a guy who directed the video to John Mayer’s Last Train Home. Danielle Bradbery, who signed after success on The Voice, played the smaller stage. A deal with La’Porshe Renae, runner-up on American Idol, went nowhere, while The Voice winner Craig Wayne Boyd has been more successful making children (he has five of them) than as a recording artist, with his one hit My Baby’s Got a Smile on Her Face dropping off the charts entirely as a one-week wonder.
Brett’s ballad Here Tonight was written with Charles Kelley from Lady A, who played C2C 2019 as Big Machine artists and are about to release their second album on the label, titled What A Song Can Do. Notably the trio held a press conference at the event with members of country media where they spoke about being on the label, ‘a fresh new start for us’ and having lots of freedom in writing what they want to write according to Dave. Charles added: ‘They were supportive and encouraging for us to take our time and be a bit more honest.’ It didn’t hurt their status that Champagne Night, the song they worked on as part of NBC’s Songland show, did so well that it climbed all the way to number one on the Country Airplay chart, with the pandemic changing the promotion of their album Ocean.
(As a footnote, which is why this paragraph is in brackets, Scott brought a music show to Canadian TV called The Launch in 2018. A top artist like Shania Twain, Bryan Adams or Ryan Tedder would mentor a set of young acts who would all be given a pre-written song. Only one of the 12 songs was a hit on the Canadian charts.)
You can listen to a radio version of this piece here.
In Part One, I introduce Scott and Big Machine, whose teenage superstar Taylor Swift impressed with her first few releases. In Part Two, she goes supernova.
Track 3 A Call To Max
For her next trick, Taylor Swift moved into the pop charts properly with songs that were more production driven. This was down to Scott, who felt that the album was like a country producer doing a pop song, which it was. Rather than Nathan Chapman at the desk doing his award-winning thing, Red needed that Max Martin feel from tracks like I Kissed A Girl. At Taylor’s instruction, he rang up Max himself and helped Taylor follow her muse. ‘I got you, let’s go,’ he told the Canadian Music Week interview. ‘The first rule of Taylor Club is: Don’t talk about Taylor Club,’ Scott said, shutting down a question about any of the subjects of her songs.
We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together was Taylor’s biggest UK hit since Love Story, which got to number four in 2009. Better still for Big Machine, who had already turned six Taylor Swift songs into top ten hits, it was Taylor’s first Hot 100 number one. She had broken into Lady Gaga’s stratosphere and it was time for Big Machine to expand their portfolio.
Scott and Big Machine helped Garth Brooks debut at number one with the song More Than A Memory, from his Greatest Hits – the phrase ‘game recognises game’ springs to mind – but Garth had his own streaming service on his mind and that was his only collaboration. Before they also went independent, The Mavericks put out two albums on Big Machine: Big Time (2013) and Mono (2015). The former features the lovely Back In Your Arms Again.
The big signing of the 2010s was Tim McGraw, who had finally extricated himself from his Curb Records deal and released Two Lanes of Freedom in 2013. At the time, Taylor was still (just) a country artist and she sang the hook ‘I can’t live without you baby’ on the Tim McGraw hit Highway Don’t Care, which featured a guitar solo from Keith Urban, himself an artist who had one foot in the pop market thanks to appearing in celebrity magazines with his wife ‘Nic’, Nicole Kidman. Taylor’s love life is well documented in such magazines and on record, and I am sure Scott encouraged this.
Interestingly, We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together was number one on the day country radio charts separated from the Hot Country chart. Thus there could be a sales number one and an airplay number one, and any plays on pop radio would count to a country song’s Hot Country position. This is why Cruise, Meant To Be and Burnin It Down all had long runs on that chart, whereas several songs could climb to the top on radio.
In 2011, Trigger at Saving Country Music first called Scott ‘the Country Music Antichrist’. He explained himself in a piece from June 2012. Scott had bent country to his will, diluting the ‘purity of genre terms’. How dare he call pop act Taylor and faux-outlaw Justin Moore country acts? When Taylor won the CMA Entertainer of the Year in 2009, he raised the white flag.
‘If the prototypical Music Row executive can be visualized as the gray-haired man with a steak-and-potatoes gut spilling out of his navy suit, then Borchetta is the in-shape, sleek guy in a tight-fitting black spandex shirt taking office Yoga breaks and ordering in sushi.
‘As the traditional labels in Nashville have been lethargic in their attempt to keep up with trends, Borchetta has been running circles around them, pilfering their talent rosters and penning historic deals that will re-shape the music industry for years to come.’
Aware of his reputation, Scott told American Public Radio in 2012 that he was ‘just the current one in a long line of being considered trying to kill country music…Our entire goal,’ he added, ‘is to make something that moves you.
‘If you don’t want to call it country, I don’t care. That doesn’t matter to me,’ is a perfectly sensible thing to say when you spent the first two decades of your life in California, where you learned about plugging records.
Always ahead of the curve, Scott signed a deal with the radio organisation Clear Channel (now iHeartMedia) which ‘will earn performance rights for his artists when they are played on the radio’. This was useful when Cruise was about to explode into the biggest country song of the decade so far. He also worked with the great Irving Azoff in a management company, which proves the depth of his connections in the industry.
As Taylor leapt across to pop with her album 1989, Scott needed to fill the gap on country radio where songs like Shake It Off, Blank Space and Bad Blood (all number one smashes on the Hot 100) couldn’t land. Of course Taylor’s country audience followed her to the pop charts but there needed to be young country singers who were inspired by the superstar who, according to journalist Chet Flippo, had brought this entirely new audience into the genre. Scott would counter that Jessica Andrews did something similar with Who I Am and, with other female artists falling off the rails, Taylor slid into the gap in the market with her acoustic pop.
In 2014, Brantley Gilbert brought his cutprice Aldean style into the charts with songs like Bottoms Up, from his second album Just As I Am. It also featured the song Small Town Throwdown, a rotten collaboration with labelmates Thomas Rhett, son of songwriter and co-writer of that song Rhett Akins, and Justin Moore, whose shtick was that he wore a cowboy hat.
Between the three of them, they kept Big Machine on the radio. Indeed, TR started his run of solo number ones with Get Me Some Of That, one of the many tunes where the protagonist complimented a girl in a bar. The first line of his hit Make Me Wanna from 2015 had the line ‘FM on the radio’ and a video of him grooving around in various outfits, while Crash and Burn took more inspiration from Sam Cooke’s Chain Gang than from tunes by any country act.
The song was co-written by Chris Stapleton, who would explode into national consciousness in the same year. Chris also wrote the pop-rock tune Keep On Lovin You by Big Machine signing Steel Magnolia, a number four hit in 2009. The duo had won CMT series Can You Duet but fizzled out due to personal problems.
TR’s Die A Happy Man, a shameless rewrite of Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud, ruled the opening three months of 2016, and I liked T-Shirt, a fun tune which namechecked Guns N’ Roses in the chorus. It wasn’t country in the slightest – nor was much of the album Tangled Up, from whence these songs came – but it still went to country radio because it was Scott Borchetta Country.
Lori McKenna gifted Tim McGraw (and Scott) the song Humble and Kind, which won awards and was turned into a picture book. I wonder if Scott was eyeing the moves of Dan + Shay, who had their first hits in 2015 under the auspices of manager Scooter Braun, closely. Shay Mooney co-wrote I Like The Sound of That, for Big Machine act Rascal Flatts, a song which namechecked Justin Timberlake in the first verse and had a middle eight with the line ‘turn your radio on’.
Justin Moore, meanwhile, took Lettin the Night Roll to the top which, as with Jack Ingram’s hit from 2005, had our hero driving a car. The lyric was about sunsets and girls looking ‘so damn good climbing up in my Chevy’ in a very contemporary style that filled radio slots in between commercials and helped shift concert tickets. His other number ones include Somebody Else Will and recent smash We Didn’t Have Much, the latter with more traditional country production and instrumentation as befits the current trend. Scott produced his last album Late Nights and Longnecks, which featured the singles The Ones That Didn’t Make It Back Home and Why We Drink.
Like TR and Brantley, Justin’s music is released by Valory Music, which was opened because Scott didn’t want 20 acts on one label, especially if they were all being pushed to country radio. The name is an alternative spelling of Valerie, the given forename of June Carter Cash, which inspired Scott.
If The Shires and The Wandering Hearts are in the top tier of UK Country music, then just beneath them are three acts who are vastly experienced on record and in the studio.
Over 2021, with gigs at both Buckle & Boots and The British Country Music Festival, Tim Prottey-Jones has been honing a set which includes tunes like Fire, Until I Do and Good Life. He also brought out a cover of The Joke by Brandi Carlile, singing the first chorus a cappella and silencing a room that would chat all the way through Gasoline & Matches.
Tim’s tunes combine poppy hooks and wonderful vocals, and in a solo gig he had to point out where the guitar solos usually occurred. Tim, of course, is one of the gatekeepers of country radio thanks to his Chris Country Homegrown show, making him more than just mere talent, and he is openly grateful to the UK scene for embracing his music. Drinking For Three, his set closer and a middle finger to the obstetrician who told him he’d never become a dad (‘my son just turned three!’), sounds like a smash.
Sally and Steve, the duo who perform as Gasoline & Matches, played a set of softer songs which fit two acoustic guitars. Their 2021 has already included a studio version of Never Have I Ever, performed here with a dash of Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Old songs like The Artist, about a breakup, and Not Into Country show fine interplay between the vocalists and the guitars. Steve’s soloing was exceptional and he is an asset to the UK scene. They played a full band show Under The Bridge in Chelsea at Nash Nights, where it’ll be too loud for the crowd to talk over.
Katy Hurt headlined the wee venue in Islington which often puts on country acts (I’ve seen Phil Vassar do his thing there. I think she’ll headline a festival next year, after her appearance in Blackpool on the main stage. In 2016 I saw her perform at Buckle & Boots in the middle of the afternoon and was very impressed with how her voice floated over some heavy guitars and drums. With more years of gigging behind her, she is even more confident onstage as she celebrated the release of the first single from her debut album.
‘I’ve been waiting a decade!’ she gushed, but is still not a full-time performer, having to do lots of grunt jobs to pay the bills. She puts her experience into the aforementioned single Sounds Good In A Bar, with its four-note singalong riff proving a well-chosen first cut from the album. Judging by the rest of the set, there is a panoply of fine melodies, particular opener Believer. These sat alongside old chestnuts like See Ya Later, now with added dance moves, and Drink. At the end of one song Katy went right up to the top of her range, rivalling musical theatre pro Tim for expertise.
At one stage Katy lamented her decision to headbang while wearing lipgloss, with her long hair sticking to the makeup. The high point of the set came with her career song Unfinished Business, where she was overcome by emotion and had to compose herself before the second verse.
The band make a lot of noise, even if drummer Joe had a bit of Lars From Metallica syndrome, standing up to thwack the tom-toms. Gab Zsapka, whose lead guitar work rivals Steve’s, was sensational when he stepped a foot to the left to take a solo, with Katy shimmying away behind him.
When I look to compile my UK Country Festive Fifty in December, I will remember the showmanship and prowess Katy showed. Keep your eyes open for the album announcement from the hard-working, hard-Hurtin’ star.
Sounds Good In A Bar is available to stream and download now
What links these songs: Highway Don’t Care by Tim McGraw, Mean by Taylor Swift, In Case You Didn’t Know by Brett Young, Cruise by Florida Georgia Line, Die a Happy Man by Thomas Rhett and Rewind by Rascal Flatts?
They were all released on Big Machine Records.
One man is responsible for a genre which I am naming after him. It’s at the intersection point of pop, rock, country and even blues, and which he has monetised to an astronomical level. He even became the story at one point, when his star artist complained about selling on the masters of her recordings.
He is the music business equivalent of someone like Bill Belichick, the football coach who was behind the success of the New England Patriots, or Scott Rudin, the man who produced all the great movies of the last 40 years (The Social Network, Wes Anderson’s movies) and helped bring The Book of Mormon to Broadway. Let us not mention the allegations of very poor behaviour to his staff.
This series, which is also available to listen to here, comes in four parts.
Track 1 Who is Scott Borchetta?
Scott Borchetta grew up around the record business in California. His dad Mike was a plugger for acts on Capitol, Mercury and RCA Records, working with the Beach Boys among others. Given that those three labels had branches in Nashville, it was easy for Mike to move across to Music City in the late 1970s, especially because he had separated from Scott’s mum.
In a 2011 essay for the New York Times, Scott described how college ‘was not for me’ and ‘I was looking for a way out’ from playing in rock bands in LA. He visited his dad in Nashville and was briefly the bassist in a country band (‘almost as a dare’) before quitting because they were ‘going nowhere’. In the daytime he was a mailroom boy at his dad’s company, while coming up against club owners ‘who didn’t know the music business’.
Mary Tyler Moore had set up her own label, MTM Records, and Scott worked there for three years in the late 1980s. Like his dad he hopped between labels, working with Universal, MCA and DreamWorks. Scott tells his story in a Youtube video interview in conversation for the 2018 Canadian Music Week. At MCA Nashville ‘we did a billion dollars’ breaking acts like Vince Gill and working with ‘edgier’ acts like Marty Stuart, kd lang and Dwight Yoakam. At DreamWorks, he helped Randy Travis have some hit records.
Ultimately Scott grew ‘too involved in the creative process’ for some executives and was frustrated with the egotism of the discrete parts of a record company: ‘This executive can’t talk to you about publishing because they’re in marketing.’ Scott pats himself on the back for doing the grunt work on the road while his bosses stayed in the office: ‘You have to be on the street and see what moves people,’ he notes sagely.
Thus in 2005, following his dad’s example again, Scott went solo, with help from the money and influence of Toby Keith. He met the teenage Taylor Swift in 2004, having opened her demo package and having seen her at the Bluebird Café, ‘just completely knocked out at how smart she was at 15’ and how good the songs were.
She had a development deal with RCA but Scott convinced Taylor (‘the Michaelangelo of the era’) to sign with him a year later, after he had left Universal and set up his own label. He heard hit single potential in her song Picture To Burn, which made the tracklist of her debut album.
Alongside Taylor he took Danielle Peck with him after she was dropped from DreamWorks. She had three country hits including I Don’t and Findin’ A Good Man. The former is a power ballad produced by Tim McGraw’s longtime producer Byron Gallimore, who surrounds her twanging voice with middle of the dirt road acoustic-pop country. The latter is a tempo track with some insistent riffs, which had an accompanying music video that is very much within the mid-2000s style of hot girls and guys in a bar. The line ‘if you hear me, girls, raise your hand’ positions her in the Gretchen Wilson mould, because that was making a lot of money in around 2004.
Track 2 The Big Machine Cranks Into Gear
As Scott was developing teenage Taylor, he worked Jack Ingram at radio. Jack had put out six albums while touring the bars of Texas and was able to come to market in Nashville with a live greatest hits set which included a studio version of a new song called Wherever You Are. The music video makes clear that it’s a driving song because Jack is either in or leaning on a car while complaining that ‘I’m missing you’ as the desert wind blows. It’s the sort of alt-rock that made the charts in 2000, now pushed to a country audience. It worked, and the song was a number one in May 2006.
The charts that summer included songs by Jason Aldean (Why), Rodney Atkins (If You’re Going Through Hell), Brad Paisley (The World), Kenny Chesney (six-week number one Summertime), Dierks Bentley (Settle For a Slowdown) and, intriguingly, a version of Who Says You Can’t Go Home by Bon Jovi featuring Jennifer Nettles, whose band Sugarland would one day sign to Big Machine. The Wreckers had a smash with Leave The Pieces; they were a duo featuring one of those alt-rock acts from around 2000, Michelle Branch. Carrie Underwood was preparing her smash hit Before He Cheats, and Scott was preparing to launch his own Carrie. He also worked with Trisha Yearwood, Sunny Sweeney and Jewel.
I remember being up at Edinburgh in my second-year flat and hearing Our Song being played on the radio as the current country music number one. Our Song, Taylor’s ode to ‘riding shotgun in the front seat’ of her beau’s car, topped the chart over Christmas 2006 into January 2007. It is a 100% Swift tune, with music and lyrics by her. It followed the ballads Tim McGraw and Teardrops On My Guitar onto the radio and persuaded kids to listen to her debut album, which came out to little fanfare in October 2006.
Quite incredibly, it would sell so well that it made the top 20 of the US Country Album chart’s end-year list in 2007 (number three behind Carrie Underwood and Rascal Flatts), 2008 (second only to the Eagles comeback album), 2009 (number six, when her follow-up LP Fearless was number one) and 2010, when it was still in the top 20 bestsellers. It is a measure of her success that Speak Now finished third after being released in late October, while Fearless was beaten only by Lady Antebellum’s Need You Now.
In 2007 and 2008 Taylor was not yet starry enough to headline her own shows, so in country music style she went out on the road with several A-Listers; first Rascal Flatts, then George Strait (the most successful singer on radio in recorded music), Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley and Tim McGraw/Faith Hill. Nobody could escape Taylor and, by 2009, she was entrusted with her own tour, where Justin Bieber played eight songs as an opening act.
How many executives would allow their star signing to write their third album with no outside help? Scott Borchetta allowed Taylor to produce Speak Now, which was rolled out with six singles to country radio in a period of eighteen months. Only Garth Brooks and Shania Twain could do something similar before her, although Luke Bryan and Luke Combs would also get lots of success from a single album.
Speak Now went platinum in its first week, debuting right at the top of the Billboard album chart in a very good year for country music. New albums by Zac Brown Band, Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney and Lady Antebellum did well in an era dominated by Eminem, the cast of Glee and, incredibly, Susan Boyle. Propelled by the Grammy nominations, Speak Now returned to the top of the charts for the four weeks at the start of 2011, and it must have impressed secret indie kid Taylor that cult band Cake knocked her off the top.
The fact that Kanye West, another act with a chart-topping album, had interrupted her MTV Video Awards acceptance speech in September 2009 was also useful at getting her name out to the general public. All the same, he was right about Single Ladies being a more memorable video than You Belong With Me.
The setlist for her Fearless and Speak Now tours between 2009 and 2012 was already a Greatest Hits set: You Belong With Me, The Story Of Us, Mean, Our Song, Teardrops on My Guitar, Love Story, White Horse, Fifteen, Fearless, Picture To Burn and Should’ve Said No all featured, as did interpolations of songs by One Republic, Train and Jason Mraz, all of which were played alongside Taylor’s tunes on pop radio. This was all the more fascinating because Taylor was still a country act first and foremost, though those days were soon to finish.
Part Two takes us through the pop career of Taylor Swift and the acts who replace her on country radio, including Justin Moore and Thomas Rhett, who are pushed by Scott.
Niko wrote Homegrown for Zac Brown Band, was one-third of Sir Roosevelt and has emerged from Atlanta to become a solo star. The first track is called No Sad Songs, which means Niko has done me a favour and reviewed his own album. Positivity can be grating but Niko really does feel great to be alive, as evidenced by his closing cover of the renowned Travis Tritt standard.
This is an album primed for playlists made by pop fans. The production is full of skittering digital cymbals to underscore some fine melodies which are very sticky. Good Time struck me the very first time I heard it, ‘like a bobber on a wet line’. These are songs about life in the country sung with so much character which Niko wrote with his wife Anna and recorded in their home studio.
Paradise To Me, a beach jam and follow-up single to Good Time, sounds a bit ‘in the box’ (made by machines) to fully reflect the glories of ‘pina coladas down in PCB’ (Panama City Beach in Florida) and I’d like to hear this track done with acoustic instruments. In fact, Niko has released six songs from the album as part of a Campfire Sessions EP which is merely a set of alternative mixes rather than any live band interpretations.
There are love songs like the evocative Diamond which could be a Backstreet Boys hit (‘you’re timeless, I’m talking priceless’), the slinky Dance With Me (‘you and me together, spinning like a record’), the midtempo Good At Loving You – on which Niko says he’s having trouble learning Spanish and managing money but at least he’s good at being a partner – and Last Call, which compares a girl who ‘got that top shelf’ to several alcoholic drinks. It’s not unusual for a couple to write love songs but Niko treats the ladies in the song with respect and humanity, rather than lust and horniness. More of this would be welcome in contemporary country music, where there are far more blokes than ladies in the writers rooms.
Reminiscin song Way Back is driven by a two-chord loop and another fine chorus, while Let It Ride is a song about wanting to do nothing, like Bruno Mars’ Lazy Song. She Ain’t You reminds me of Flo Rida’s work: it makes your head nod, your mouth sing and your heart gladden, and includes a bridge featuring some hiphop delivery (‘she got…she got…’). In a rare sad moment, Drunk Over You masks Niko’s mournfulness with a poppy melody and lots of alcohol (‘the more I drink, the more I find getting drunk over you is just wasted time’).
The album’s best chorus comes on Small Town State of Mind, which repeats the title six times and is an ideal campfire singalong, but it’s a relief when the percussion drops out and Niko’s voice can come through on Without Sayin A Word, which praises Niko’s dad who by his very existence taught him how to be a good, humble person. That humility is all over the debut album, which I hope is the first of many.
Larry Fleet – Stack of Records
Jake Owen took Larry Fleet on tour with him last year, having met him in 2017. In that timespan Luke Combs has sold squillions of concert tickets that make this year’s hottest trend ‘authentic, heart-on-sleeve’ music. Thus do Combs fans have much to enjoy on this album, Larry’s second.
On the album cover, the singer sits in front of shelves of vinyl. Helped by Eric Paslay and Ben Hayslip, the title track opens the album: ‘If you wanna know me, you gotta know what’s in my soul’, he sings, namechecking Muscle Shoals Alabama, Waylon Jennings’ theme to Dukes of Hazzard and Midnight Train to Georgia.
The minor radio hit Where I Find God was written with Connie Harrington, who is best known for I Drive Your Truck. It deserves to be heard and Larry’s vocal reminds me of Lee Brice, unsurprisingly given Lee won awards for interpreting that song. It is a shame that such drek has been nominated for CMA Song of the Year when songs as good as these are hiding in plain sight. Larry has plenty of help from top writers which his label, Big Loud, has put him together with. It is nonetheless impressive that Larry was in the room for every track on the release. Producer Joey Moi continues a renaissance by pivoting from Florida Georgia Line loudness to sensitive country-rock.
Brett James was there for Lifetime Guarantee and A Life Worth Living, which are both found on the album’s first side. The former, where Larry compares himself to a Timex watch, is the best song Luke Combs is yet to write about life and how to live it; the latter is basically A Life That’s Good from the TV show Nashville, full of humanity and lessons on how to live a country way of life. Church Parking Lot is a great reminiscin’ song about learning about life in an unusual venue for a song, while God gets a mention too, as the title suggests.
The Warren Brothers were there for the ballad Hurt Feelings, whose chorus begins ‘you can punch me in the face’ and contains a lot more violence as well as a terrific middle eight. Jeff Hyde was there for the ruminative Heart On My Sleeve (‘from a chip on my shoulder’), which is a slowburn track full of emotion that reminds me of Jeff’s buddy Eric Church.
There are fun, quick songs to leaven the impact of the slowies. Jon Pardi pops up to add vocals on In Love With My Problems, a putdown of a song where the punchline is that if the protagonist ‘fell in love with my problems, maybe they’d leave me too!’ I also like the country rocker Quittin Ain’t Workin and the smooth Different Shade of Red, another song about how a lady brings out a different side of the protagonist, with the image of rose petals on the bed in the chorus.
For a Proper Song, try Three Chords and a Lie, which hooks you from the opening line, or Never Wanna Meet Another Woman, which is the album’s token wedding song. Suitably the album ends with the chugging blues harmonica-assisted rocker One For The Road (‘long way to go’), although the physical CD has a bonus track which features Jamey Johnson and Bryan Sutton called Highway Feet, a very quick track full of banjo which reminds me of Alabama.
How about this for planning: Scotty McCreery’s song You Time and Jameson Rodgers’ duet with Luke Combs, Cold Beer Calling My Name (they are both River House artists) are this month among the most played songs on country radio. Not coincidentally, both acts are this month putting out new albums.
Jameson’s song Some Girls came out in 2018, was a number one in 2020 and is being followed by a full-length album which contains Some Girls. The album itself follows two EPs, both of which contained Some Girls. Jameson, who didn’t write Some Girls, is in the Cole Swindell tradition of acts who write songs, sing them, have a bit of a toothy smile and are from the South. I am sure he’ll gain many fans but he’ll never be a superstar in the Luke Combs/ Thomas Rhett level.
As well as his two big singles, tracks that migrate from those EPs to the album include Good Dogs (‘don’t live long enough’), Missing One (a very good chorus and a live favourite) and Desert. When the EP came out in April, I noted that Desert was ‘a piece of country philosophy that every new artist writes which here notes that “the cold and the rain and the pain don’t last forever” and you need the lows to appreciate the highs’.
The track Girls That Smoke (‘they’ll burn you down to ashes man it ain’t no joke!’) dates from a 2016 EP and has been re-recorded (in the key of E) and with slightly softer drums. The six repackaged tracks makes this a sort of album that says, This guy has been around for ages but now he’s got a lot of money behind him. Is there any need for a Jameson Rodgers album, other than to say he’s got an album out?
The new tracks which originate on the album kick off with One Day, a heartland rock chugger full of Eric Church-like self-reflection. I could have done without ‘one day I’m gonna die’ in the chorus, but the song is redeemed by the superlative guitar solo-ing at the end of the song. There’s a nice namecheck for Merle Haggard, who ‘woulda wrote songs about you’, on a soft ballad which lingers on an ex. It’s odd to put such a tender song as the album’s second track, so early on the tracklisting but I bet this is deliberate, much as Luke Combs put Lonely One as the third track on his debut album.
Girl with the Broken Heart (‘Go set them selfies on fire…drink that wine you’re gonna be fine’) chugs along effectively, while Close to Anything has a chorus as massive as the guitars but it’s pretty lightweight. It is followed by the far better five-minute title track, another one indebted to The Chief, Eric Church, with rural signifiers including pick-up trucks, ‘hauling hay’ at a summer job’, clear skies where you can ‘see every star’ and the ‘muddy river’ which is the site of baptism. It’s a winner and shows how much an influence Eric, the outlaw of mainstream country music, has been on contemporary country.
Bars Back Home is another homage, complete with some gentle mandolin and a namecheck for Black Water, the excellent Doobie Brothers tune, as is Bringing It Back, with the dropped guitar tuning and tender vocals which tell a story of trying to win a girl by putting the fire back in her eyes. The production from relative newcomer Jake Mitchell and Deana Carter’s producer Chris Farren is gorgeous, on this track and throughout the new songs.
Porch With A View reminds me of Florida Georgia Line’s ballads, and it’s an effective love song which pivots around the line ‘arm wrapped around you’. You Won’t, which sounded great on Bob Harris Country last week, has a triple-time swing beat and a mournful lyric which prove that Jameson can write a great tune. It’s up to him, and the audience, whether he’ll be a Luke Bryan A-Lister or a Cole Swindell B-Lister.
Laine Hardy – Here’s To Anyone
Laine wrote only two of the songs so this is an old-fashioned corporate country album, which makes perfect sense because we’re nearing the end of the Idol era. Laine won American Idol in 2019, the series in which Laci Kaye Booth made the last five. From Louisiana, Laine made his Opry debut to promote the album and was impressive in a corporate kind of way. He didn’t seem overawed by the occasion, probably because of all the TV work he did on Idol, and looks delightful and marketable.
He performed the three-chord opening track Authentic, which was written by Jessi Alexander, Matt Jenkins and David Lee Murphy; For A Girl is another fine melody from the Mobley-Thrasher team who have given Jason Aldean so many hits – indeed, the album is produced by Michael Knox, who helped pioneer the muscular country of Aldean – while Comin Down sounds like a sex jam Aldean would put on hold. There’s wire-brushed drums on the pretty Tiny Town (‘what I wouldn’t give right now to be back’).
Here’s To Anyone is a poppy three-chord drinkin song with a mighty chorus and lots of Southern signifiers – fishing, eating, riding, ‘George Jones and Cash’ – sung with gusto. I also love the descending riff that runs through Memorize You, which is basically I Don’t Know About You by Chris Lane but a lot, lot better. Laura Veltz’s smooth grasp of melody adds to the bouncy One of Those, which Laine co-wrote, while Brett Beavers adds his own country sentiments to Ground I Grew Up On, which sounds like ten Blake Shelton album tracks rolled into one.
Busbee, Andrew Dorff and Jon Nite wrote California Won’t (of those three only Nite is alive today). It’s like an ultimatum: California may be full of ‘velvet ropes’ and the Hollywood Walk of Fame ‘but I’ll hold you close’. As with all Jon Nite tunes, there’s a lot of melancholy in the melody. The funky Other LA picks up on a similar theme, the same one that Lainey Wilson sings about on her track LA, contrasting ‘Hollywood noise’ and the ‘good ole boy’. Laine, however, sounds functional and without the personality of a Luke Combs or Luke Bryan, who would destroy this song.
Ditto Let There Be Country, which closes the album like a fireworks display with its rural signifiers. Get the Country Bingo cards out: live bands with a tip jar, trucks, back road, John Deere tractor, cold beer, Friday night, neon lights, bonfires, shotgun seats, jeans, dancing, Bass Pro caps, apple pie and BINGO! It’s one of those list songs set to three familiar chords and I am sure every writer in Nashville has written this song. Doesn’t make it any less country, which is what Laine Hardy is being marketed as. I wish him well!
Simon Cowell’s X Factor has just come to an end but it’s redundant in an era of TikTok fame and influencer culture. In the 2000s it pulled millions upon millions of viewers and formats aired in countries like Afghanistan. Back in 2011, two teenage country singers came up in the same season and have had to bide their time and ride some rough waters.
Lauren Alaina – Sitting Pretty on Top of the World
Lauren’s third album has been preceded by two EPs and a lot of heartache including a broken engagement. As the opening track notes, It Was Me, not her ex-fiance, who needed the break. One of the best voices in all of American music, we first heard Lauren as a teenager thrust into the spotlight. She has grown into a performer to more than match Carrie Underwood – Lauren has a personality, Carrie is bland – and a fine Georgia accent.
I expect she has had a lot of editorial control over her album, which contains plenty of songs which have appeared on those two EPs. The album’s second side begins with the brilliant single Getting Over Him, which pairs Lauren with Jon Pardi and is a deserved smash even if it’s a rewrite of Home Alone Tonight by Luke Bryan and Karen from Little Big Town. If The World Was A Small Town still sounds to me like a Carrie Underwood song thanks to her writers David Garcia and Josh Miller creating a lightly country-sounding background. Ditto Good Ole Boy (‘who didn’t love me that good, ole boy’), a song full of regret with respect for the boy who is ‘back in the saddle’ and drinking in his favourite haunts.
Last year’s EP contained Run and What Do You Think Of (a duet with Lukas Graham), while Getting Good was the title of a 2019 collection and now includes Miss Trisha Yearwood for added oomph. By necessity the production is very poppy, which rather clashes with Trisha’s superb pipes, and the song should stand on its own merit. The same kind of tenor is displayed on Change My Mind, where Lauren begs her heart to break down the barriers preventing her from falling in love again. The vocal is exquisite.
Lauren puts her life in songs like I’m Not Sad Anymore which, by the first chorus, you can tell is a Love Junkies collaboration thanks to the emotional heft of Liz Rose, Hillary Lindsey and Lori McKenna. It’s one of three on the album: on Same Story, Different Saturday Night, there is tenderness from the narrator who paints the scene of a bar full of ‘neon hearts poured out over ice’, while Written In The Bar is a three-minute romantic comedy fuelled by tequila and ‘numbers-on-Friday-night napkins’.
I am sure Lauren brought some of her life to You Ain’t A Cowboy, which opens with a lyric comparing the Wild West and a ‘Podunk Town’ and namechecks George Strait. Alternatively, the kiss-off When The Party’s Over is not a cover of the Billie Eilish song, though I reckon Lauren could cover it in her shows, but a tempo tune with a great bouncing melody but ‘if you don’t call me when you’re sober I’m not picking up when the party’s over’! Yaaaas queen.
Lauren is spending the autumn promoting the album as well as a book and a movie appearance, and it wouldn’t surprise me to hear Goodbye Street in a TV movie. It’s full of imagery (picket fences, headlights, windowpanes) and a soaring melody over a plucked acoustic guitar.
On Top of the World, the song which gives the album its title, was written with pop writer Sasha Sloan who was behind the song Never Be The Same for Camila Cabello. Her grasp of melody helps Lauren tell her breakup tale in a triple-time tune which contrasts ‘life of the party’ with ‘hitting rock bottom…I’d rather be faking than drinking alone’. It’s a modern country song that will be in her set even when she settles down with the right man some day.
Then we’ll hear more love songs from her, rather than brilliant self-love songs, which this album is full of.
Scotty McCreery – Same Truck
Scotty’s last album was his first as an independent artist. It was propelled by Five More Minutes, a weepie that got all the way to number one and proved he was more than a talent show champ, here today, gone tomorrow.
As he displays on the title and lead track, which is a song of universal brotherhood, his songs are in the Brad Paisley or Bill Anderson vein. It Matters To Her, written with Brad’s collaborator Lee Thomas Miller and the ubiquitous Rhett Akins, is a punchy love song in which Scotty seems to be advising listeners to ‘put her first every single time’. Ashley Gorley seems contracted to appear in the credits of every album made on Music Row. He co-wrote the funky Small Town Girl with the super ‘track guy’ Zach Crowell, best known for his work with Sam Hunt. The chorus is effortlessly catchy and itchy, and the hook is double-tracked with electric and acoustic guitars.
I also love Why You Gotta Be Like That, where Scotty and his unnamed belle (Gabi, a nurse, whose name rhymes with ‘capisce’), get all frisky before a night out. Blake Shelton or Luke Bryan would have had a huge hit with this in 2014, as this lovely country music never goes out of style and makes the woman look good.
Two tunes were written with Scotty’s producer Frank Rogers, best known for discovering Brad Paisley. Home is a reminiscin song full of happy memories of hanging with the boys at the bar that are at odds with his mature, domestic life, while The Waiter, which ends the record’s first side, is a rewrite of Brad’s Waiting on a Woman.
It’s a piano ballad set in a restaurant where an old gent is ‘talking to heaven’ where his former wife lives. It’s a three-minute movie which screams Emotional Album Track and Concert Weepie. Scotty’s narrator, the waiter, leaves him to his ritual: ‘He ain’t missed a date with her since 1959’. I expected a pay-off in the third verse and it’s testament to the writing and the production that we care so much about this widow. It’ll make you tell your loved ones you love them.
Similar pathos comes from the proud hometown anthem Carolina To Me, which will join Five More Minutes and wedding song This Is It in Scotty’s setlist for decades to come. It’s a country song which, as is often the case, describes how home is where the heart is. His descriptions of Carolina pines on Tobacco Road, Andy Griffith’s fun TV character from the olden days, wild horses on the beach and grandpa fishing on the river are evocative, as is the picked guitar and pedal steel which create a mood that country music has trademarked.
The album ends with the smouldering love song That Kind of Fire (‘every kiss is like a spark’) and How Ya Doin Up There, which contains the best vocal performance on the album and will work well as a solo acoustic number. It’s a musical prayer to the Lord and Scotty mentions how ‘faith has disappeared’. God is due a comeback in country music and Scotty’s deep voice should help.
Two outside writes also make the album. Damn Strait, which sounds like a Blake Shelton classic, is one of those songs which tie together songtitles and call it a song in a genre known as Frankenstein Country. At least there’s a point to it, like Shut Up Kenny by Walker Hayes, where the singer’s tunes don’t give the heartbroke guy a break. The production recalls that of George’s classic tunes, with loads of pedal steel. Meanwhile It’ll Grow On Ya is about the difference between blacktops roads and red-dirt country towns, with plenty of rural signifiers: kudzu vines, chatting to strangers, tractors, two-lane roads, ‘they don’t take credit cards’. It’s sort of an invitation to the dance in a song: ‘This ain’t the place to stop if you’re just passing through’ is a good way to sell rural life and the music fits around it.
Why Scotty was banging on about Southern Belles in the bro era, his record company only knows. This is a young man confident in his art and in himself. We love him in the UK and he’ll get plenty of applause at C2C 2022, third on the bill on the Darius Rucker day. Runaway June and Brett Young complete a very girl-friendly line-up which comes to London on the Saturday.
In the modern style, echoing the likes of Maddie & Tae, an entire album seems to have already been rolled out. There’s nothing wrong with that, when streaming comes first for an artist targeted at the under-30s with their playlists and TikTok accounts, but it doesn’t half dilute the impact of a new full-length release when most of the songs are well known.
I spent the first part of 2020 deeply hooked on Keep Up, a wonderful song in which RaeLynn boasted of her ‘Baytown twang’. Suitably, her album (which begins with Keep Up) is named after her hometown, population 76,000, who should all be proud of her.
I loved her song Love Triangle, a slow burner from her last full-length release, and the Lori McKenna co-write God Made Girls, both of which she performed in the tent outside the O2 Arena when she came over for Country2Country in 2019. She also supported Maren Morris in some big UK venues that spring, where she played the fine trio of Bra Off (‘breaking up with you is like taking my bra off, feeling free and loose’), the bro-country-sung-by-a-gal Rowdy and the excellent song Only In A Small Town.
That last tune was written by small-town bard Rhett Akins and we get plenty of rural signifiers: Walmart, ‘more trucks than cars’, ‘tea is sweet’, dogs in the shotgun seat, living for Friday, back roads, first kiss in the backroads, fishing…but not bingo because God isn’t there for some reason. Rhett being Rhett, there’s a fun verse about ex-boyfriends and a good line about going to ‘Mickey D’s…supersized’. The vocal has personality and charm, as always, although I do wonder how many ways Rhett Akins can write the same song before he runs out of road. Crap, that’ll probably be a Rhett Akins song too!
We’ve also heard Still Smokin’, a jazzy song about a summer fling; Fake Girl Town, about being a young lady hiding the hurt on a night out (Jesus gets a namecheck in the chorus); and Judgin’ To Jesus, which is full of personality and wit and reminds me of Maddie & Tae’s finest tunes, especially because RaeLynn raps the verses.
The previously released pair of Me About Me – a slice of autobiography disguised as a lament for her partner not asking about her – and Small Town Prayer (‘we’re so little and He’s so big’) both show depth in her songwriting. She Chose Me, written with the stellar Jimmy Robbins, is a story of her own conception: ‘More than just love was made’ when her parents met in a Galveston motel room. Her mum didn’t choose ‘one quick fix’ and instead gave birth to Rachael Lynn! What a bold song to release, and no wonder if was kept from the public until the album. The album concludes with a demo version of her song Made For Me To Love, which is all about her own pregnancy which led to a newborn baby a few weeks ago. Jesus gets a namecheck in the third verse.
Neon Cowgirl is a barroom song where RaeLynn encourages the protagonist to keep shining in spite of her breakup, a more traditional take on the Maddie & Tae tune Bathroom Floor. The production from Corey Crowder, who also helped Chris Young’s recent work, is tender.
Not happy with a spot on that Chris Young album Mitchell Tenpenny joins RaeLynn on Get That All The Time, which was curiously written by both Tyler Hubbard and Kane Brown but which features neither of them. This might be because it’s a bit of fluff set in a bar and doesn’t really feature much of the male vocalist.
Elsewhere, Blake Shelton uses his muscle as her former Voice coach to duet on Why I Got A Truck, another song co-written by T-Hub (whose Tree Vibez label puts out RaeLynn’s music). Blake play the role of a father figure teaching RaeLynn to drive a big vehicle: ‘It’s a little bumpy but I like it that way!’ There’s also a nice Joe Diffie allusion as Blake purrs how girls ‘love a pickup man’. It’s just two country kids singing about trucks and there’s nowt more country than that.
Mickey Guyton – Remember Her Name
I worry for Mickey Guyton who has spent seven years waiting to release her debut album.
Thanks to the protests over the treatment of black Americans, Nashville has looked around and realised there’s not much diversity in the sea of white faces (make it happen at executive level too and there’ll be proper change). It remains a damning indictment that Mickey could release a human being into the world before this album, and credit should go to Capitol Nashville for financing this album and, hopefully, enable her to support a top-level artist (I would suggest Alicia Keys) on tour next year. She went out with Brad Paisley back in 2015, since when a lot has changed. Chrissy Metz, a make-up artist who became an actress on This Is Us, is one of many singers who are better known by country fans than Mickey.
Mickey is now based in LA, so is geographically far away from Nashville, and I think it’s a farewell. She knows, as I do, that she’ll be treated as the Black Girl in Town. She’s already been given a CMT Award and I am sure a CMA Award will follow. Her voice is similar to that of Carrie Underwood and is best served by ballads like Better When You Left Me, which appears in a new version six years after it was first released. Imagine Carrie with a political conscience.
This is definitely her story and it stands out in today’s climate. Black Like Me (‘it’s a hard life on easy street’) and What Are You Gonna Tell Her are both showstoppers which would be perfect for American Idol contestants in lieu of the Dreamgirls official soundtrack. Both of those songs brought Mickey back into the conversation; I knew of her through Somebody Else Will, a poppy track written by some A-Listers that felt very conveyer belt. Now, as an artist, she follows acts like Maren Morris and Carly Pearce in being more than a cookie-cutter Music Row puppet.
Jon Caramanica spoke to Mickey for the New York Times, where the singer revealed she was on medication to keep her mood up and, shockingly, recounted the times she had to go on round trips to Atlanta to see a stylist for her red carpet appearances when she first broke through. She also self-medicated with alcohol, which she doesn’t now she’s a mummy. That brings a new flavour to Rose, which becomes a sort of taunt rather than a bachelorette anthem.
Another theme on the album is Mickey’s place in the world, using her identity to inform her art, which starts with the title track that opens the album. With impassioned vocals, especially in the middle eight, Mickey does the modern thing of ‘taking up space’ in a way that should inspire the listener. It’s a great instrument that hasn’t been allowed to flourish in Nashville; again, it damns the city.
All American trots around the country and ticks off ‘James Brown and James Dean’ to unite black and white before unleashing a chantalong chorus. Fine British songwriter Anna Krantz gets a co-write on Love My Hair, another song which will launch a thousand thinkpieces: ‘I found my freedom,’ Mickey sings, addressing her 12-year-old self and all 12-year-old girls who will see an aunt or big sister figure.
The tracklisting is full of punchy one-word titles: Words is a therapy session in song which rhymes ‘my truth/bulletproof’ and will resonate with plenty of listeners (‘what can I say, I’m only human’); the insistent pop song Different, which actually sounds like a song that would play over the credits of a Disney movie aimed at kids, perhaps on purpose; the worshipful ballad Higher, written with Narada Michael Walden who wrote I Love Your Smile for Shanice; the accusatory Smoke, written with Balewa Muhammed who worked on Dirrty for Christina Aguilera; and Indigo, where Mickey is ‘bluer than blue’.
Some of the tracks take on themes which are too rote. Lay It On Me is another one of those songs about crying on the singer’s shoulder and feels like filler. Dancing in the Living Room is another one of those songs about slow-dancing in a dimly lit room. Do You Really Wanna Know is another one of those songs about hiding the truth about how you feel, with the revelation that her dependency on drink has led her to therapy and changing ‘the way I think about the way I think’.
Grady Smith once described ‘Nashville country music’ today as the intersection between Adult Contemporary, Christian music and pop music, with a dash of rural themes common in country music. Like Dan + Shay, Gabby Barrett and Thomas Rhett, Mickey is operating in this genre, which may well open up the genre to black acts like Brittney Spencer and Chapel Hart. Mickey’s album is fine, but what she represents is the game-changer.
I can’t wait for the follow-up, which ought not to take eight years to make.
Kacey Musgraves’ last album Golden Hour was all about finding love (‘a wild thing’) and appreciating life (‘let go of your umbrella’). Now divorced from Ruston Kelly, her fourth album is full of songs about losing that love. The record comes with a film which puts Kacey alongside the likes of Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Beyonce and (surely) Lizzo and Ed Sheeran.
But none of those acts would take psilocybin to help zap their neural pathways into forming new thoughts. Kacey, like Dolly before her, is starting to become her own genre, with a sort of cosmic American music thanks to co-producers Dan Tashian and Ian Fitchuk who can get the best out of her voice. It’s very difficult not to hear this album as Music Industry A-Lister Sounds Sad.
We have nylon-stringed acoustic pattens on the title track, which begins with Kacey setting the scene: ‘Two lovers ripped right at the seams/ They woke up from the perfect dream’. The middle section piles voice upon voice to create a cavalcade of woe. Melancholy reigns on If This Was A Movie (‘I’d be surprised hearing your car coming up the drive’), Camera Roll (‘chronological order and nothing but torture’ is a good rhyme) and Angel, where the soft acoustic guitar from the title track returns.
Easier Said contains the ever poignant diminished fifth chord (F minor in the key of B-flat) where Kacey lingers on the art of love, which many divorcees will find comfort in. It segues effortlessly into Hookup Scene, a song with minimal production trickery and all the better to transfer the starkness of the emotions of a woman warning the listener to hold love close, lest you end up sleeping around and feeling even more lonely.
Being grown-up, sings Kacey on the majestic Swift-like Simple Things, ‘kinda sucks’, which has the same percussive drive as tracks like Golden Hour or Love Is A Wild Thing, proving a musical continuity with the last album which gained her millions of pop fans. I hope Kacey gets her due as a songwriter and melodist, as this one is watertight. As is the album’s single Justified, with its ‘just a little justified’ lyrical hook.
Breadwinner is driven by a percussive guitar part, over which Kacey warns that certain boys want ‘your dinner till he ain’t hungry any more’ (Dolly could have written that line). Without the brilliant melodies the songs would sound angry but there’s some sugar in her scorn.
Good Wife is a majestic melody with some patented Tashian 7th chords sitting underneath a lyric about uxoriousness. Cherry Blossom double- or triple-tracks her vocals and adds some pentatonic touches to allude musically to Japan. This would work as an acoustic track but lashings of contemporary production give it warmth. This is the ‘in love’ phase of the album, tinged with the melancholic wish of Kacey singing ‘don’t let me blow away’.
The final tracks on the album are full of hope and optimism; it’s almost a joke to hear the fingerclicks and jaunty major key of Keep Lookin’ Up. Ditto the self-referential What Doesn’t Kill Me, where the ‘golden hour faded black’ and where a bright guitar and percussive beat try to pick Kacey up by musical osmosis. She continues, on the next track, ‘There is a light inside of me’, where the production recalls High Horse’s cosmic disco. I imagine this will work well live, especially with the flute solo (Ron Burgundy? Lizzo? The guy from Jethro Tull?). It’s also the sound of a confident artist whose record label realised that it’s probably wise to push her to a pop market (via Interscope) as well as a country one (she is still signed to MCA Nashville).
The album, which recalls Red by Taylor Swift in its defiant push beyond Nashville, ends with Gracias A La Vida, a folk song written in 1960s Chine by Violeta Parra, who killed herself soon after it was released. Initially sung in Spanish, like an old Tejano melody, over crackling vinyl, before different production choices mark each section of the song and becoming more emphatic. Having started with analogue production, we have a heavily treated vocal line to end the song and ground it in the digital era. It’s probably a sonic metaphor of how time passes, and it’s a fine interpretation of what I am sure will also be a concert staple. If nothing else, this is an interesting piece of work.
Ashland Craft – Travelin Kind
I first heard Ashland on the duet So Close with Hardy and admired her EP which included Two Wildflowers and a Box of Wine. I don’t know why the EP was released before the album but I trust Big Loud in how they roll out their artists (even when they are forced to suspend them when they realise their cash cow is an alcoholic who needs careful handling).
One of the live performance videos to promote the album was of the final track That’s The Kinda Place (‘I grew up in’), a shoutout to smalltown life written with producer Jonathan Singleton and the brilliant Rodney Clawson: ‘The place you fall out of love and back in love with’ is a whole album in itself.
Ashland’s voice can be filed with that of Ashley McBryde, a Southern rock vocal which suits piledriving guitar parts. She takes old tropes familiar to the genre, as you can tell from the title track which will surely open her live show. Fab blues harmonica underscores what may well be Ashland’s life in a song. On Make It Past Georgia, she’s fleeing an ex who likes to drink and can’t ‘get his shit together’. The boot is on the other foot as she shows her love for a cowboy by ‘letting you go’ on Letcha Fly because ‘you can’t rope an Always Gonna Go When The Wind Blows cowboy like you’.
She continues common country themes with reference to parentage on Your Momma Still Does, to drinking on both the fun honky-tonker Last 20 Dollars (‘plastic maxed to the limit’) and the midtempo Mimosas In The Morning (which revolves around a drunken escapade) and heartache, of which there are plentiful examples. The fiddle-ful Leavin You Again reminds me of the country-rock that Sheryl Crow was recording in the late 1990s. Marcus King, who also features on the upcoming Zac Brown Band album, joins Ashland for Highway Like Me, a triple-time ballad full of heartache on which Ashland compares herself to a road being driven on. Jessi Alexander, a common writers room occupant, helps Ashland here.
Day By Day begins with a man who ‘jumped ship’ who causes the protagonist more heartache and into the arms of a stranger ‘to make the bad feel a little better’. The vocal carries the song and the production from top songwriter Singleton is perfect on this track and throughout the album. Great voice, great style and worthy of your time.
Michael Ray, who was called a Liability by his ex (more of whom shortly), has not risen above B List, scoring radio hits written by others: Thomas Rhett wrote Think A Little Less, Travis Denning wrote Her World or Mine, Abe Stoklasa wrote Get To You, Old Dominion wrote One That Got Away.
He’s drafted in Michael Hardy on his EP Higher Education, because Hardy is able to unite rural and urban effectively for the likes of Florida Georgia Line and Morgan Wallen. No wonder Mitchell Tenpenny has called on Hardy’s services too.
The first impact track from the EP was a ballad called Whiskey And Rain, a two-chord jam which reminded me of all those Gary Allen songs about heartache. I don’t know why the EP’s title track needs a staff of Lee Brice, Kid Rock, Tim Montana AND a solo from Billy Gibbons, but Michael will do anything for his label and it’s a party jam which sounds good cranked up to ten even if you only need to hear it once. I wonder if Michael could have learned how to keep a marriage together too.
Just The Way I Am is a Hardy jam which paints Michael as a chap with ‘too much pride’, owns a suit for when he needs to go to a funeral and who is ‘a poor man’s Hemingway’. (He liked a drink too…) This is rather ruined by the fact that a song called Just The Way I Am is an outside write. Ashley Gorley helps Michael himself on Didn’t Know I Was Country, a proper song which is aggressively contemporary and sounds like Thomas Rhett. We get a lot of rural signifiers – marrying childhood sweethearts, funny accents, peace of mind and a piece of land (the album’s best lyric) – and Michael singing to a fiddle accompaniment.
Jessi Alexander joins Hardy (who, let us remember, is up for Best New Artist at the CMAs) to write Live Without You, a midtempo ballad with a watertight chorus set over a four-chord loop. ‘Nitty needs some Gritty’ and so Michael would be dead without ‘you’; let’s just forget he’s divorced. Picture is a rewrite of Refrigerator Door by Luke Combs with a little more pathos and carpe diem-ness (‘tell them you love them while you got the chance’).
Holy Water, which is a very similar song to Hardy’s tune God’s Country, is the kind of song Blake Shelton could sell. Michael Ray does an okay job of telling the Southern Baptist story which conjures up images of Lincoln cars and Christianity. It sounds like a Hardy song that positions Michael as a rootsy singer who will do anything for his label.
I wonder if the money he earns from the project is going to his ex-wife.
Carly Pearce – 29: Written In Stone
I listened to the initial EP which forms the backbone of Carly’s new album, which everyone knows deals with her divorce from Michael Ray in a marriage that was as doomed as that of Katy Perry and Russell Brand (remember that??).
I saw her perform Show Me Around on a livestream and reckon this takes her to the next level. It’s a song dedicated to her late producer and imagines heaven as his ‘brand new place’ which will one day host Carly to ‘pick back up’ their relationship. Even without the context it’s a wonderful song and will comfort many people who have lost loved ones, especially in the last year.
To lose a friend is bad enough; to lose a marriage in the same year is extremely wretched. Next Girl is a warning to the next lady who falls in love with, well, let’s call him Ray Michael. The seven tracks from the EP, all of which are found on the album, create a whole which follows the long break-up album tradition pioneered by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, and extends into the present day with Sam Smith, Taylor Swift and Adele.
Should’ve Known Better is a companion to Every Little Thing – the song is in the same key and has the same touches of guitar – while on the funky Liability (lie ability, liability – it’s a country song), Ray does not come across well at all. The gentle and Swiftian Messy has verses full of cigarettes, little black dresses, mascara stains, Cabernet and regrettable texts, and a chorus which outlines how ‘moving on…ain’t always gonna be a clean break’.
Day One, where Matt Ramsey of Old Dominion (who gave The One That Got Away to sleazebag Michael Ray) was in the room, sounds like a journal entry or therapy. Carly lists the landmarks in getting over Ray, from not needing to numb her pain with alcohol to seeing a new guy after a month of heartbreak. The tenor matches that of Carly’s number one duet with Lee Brice, I Hope You’re Happy Now.
The title track has fiddle in its third bar, then two fiddles in the middle, which soundtrack a melancholic story – Carly’s story – of how ‘you’re supposed to find yourself’ and ‘stop calling your mum for help’ and get a mortgage and settle down and so on. The listener knows the story because country music loves its couples and looks kindly on those for whom love doesn’t work out.
Perhaps the most pertinent message about the song came from my friend Laura Cooney, who also became ‘a Miss to a Mrs then the other way around’ while writing for Entertainment Focus, which is part of the Destination Country collective. It’s a song of strength and one that Carly will sing with gusto in a live sphere. Once again, Josh Osborne and Shane McAnally help the singer tell her story.
There are thus eight new songs, led by Never Wanted To Be That Girl, a duet with Ashley McBryde which the pair wrote with the great Shane McAnally (who also co-wrote Ashley’s standard One Night Standards). I like the aesthetic of the song, whose first verse Ashley sings as backup. Is there autobiography? Is this fiction? Carly won’t tell whether she was ‘the other one’. It’s a great piece of music that I am sure Carly will play live, with or without Ashley.
The album begins with Kelsea Ballerini co-write Diamondback, which starts off with strings and opens up with a toe-tapping beat and a lyric full of pain. It sounds like Carly is singing over a Kelsea demo and I hadn’t realised how similar their voices were. It’s no surprise that Shane McAnally was in the room too, as Carly tells her ex (let’s call him Ray Michael) that he can keep the house, the truck and the dog but he’s ‘never getting the diamond back’. It’s brilliant, and in the tradition of songs about wedding rings. The best compliment I can pay is that it sounds like a Brandy Clark song.
Emily Shackleton, who co-wrote Every Little Thing, returns to the room on two tracks. What He Didn’t Do is a brutal list of Ray Michael’s flaws with which I am sure other ex-wives will be familiar, while All The Whiskey In The World is a mandolin-flecked waltz where Carly paints Ray in a sad light. It is even more ironic that Whiskey and Rain was the title of Michael’s attempt to control the narrative. ‘Keep on running, keep on hiding so you never face your demons, and tell yourself it’s freedom’ is cutting; Carly as Miss Loretta is a fabulous career move after two albums of iffy pop-country (with apologies to her late collaborator busbee).
On a similar theme Nicolle Galyon and Sasha Sloan were there for the funky Your Drinkin, My Problem: ‘4am, stumble to the bedroom again’ sets the mood and again paints Ray Michael as a bad husband. I love how the groove matches Drink In My Hand by Eric Church and how Ray’s problem is Carly’s. I wonder if this is the real reason they split up.
Natalie Hemby helped Carly write Easy Going, whose intro and bluegrassy long outro remind me of Sheryl Crow and whose punch was lacking from Carly’s first two albums. She sounds like a true artist now, with vocals fluttering around her in the chorus which delivers the Hembyesque punch ‘you made it so easy going’, ie so easy to go.
The album closes with Mean It This Time, where Carly plays a cross between Dolly, Kelsea and Hillary Scott from Big Machine labelmates Lady A. It’s a weepie which puts the focus back on Carly, who will be sure to pick the right second husband. You might as well call it Next Guy, a companion to Next Girl. The next guy is going to be lucky to encounter Carly, a Grand Ole Opry member, in this form. One of the most fully realised projects of the year and kudos goes to Scott Borchetta for letting Carly put her story on record. It’ll make Big Machine some money after all.
King Calaway were a sextet who are now a quintet but is there a fanbase there for them?
On their new four-track EP, they want a lady to ‘get close to my locality’ on the fun Homegrown, which is very catchy and hooky and well produced. Heartbreaker is a slinky pop song with the same chorus as Hell of a Night by Dustin Lynch. More People is a plea to be kinder to one another (‘be the first to say sorry and strong enough to take the blame’) and it’s a pop song that Dan + Shay would have loved.
Lainey Wilson helps out on Good Time To Me, which was written by Charles Kelley and Russell Dickerson among others: we get Brooks & Dunn on a jukebox in the opening verse and the F-major chord running through it, with a neat ‘sounds like a good time to me’ post-chorus chant. I think the lyric is ‘music to my beers’ in the chorus itself, which is fun. This will be a great set opener if the band come over for Country2Country next year.
Manny Blu – Devil
2021 has brought five tracks, introduced in turn, now collected on the Devil EP: the party-starter Circle Up with amps cranked up and guitars a-buzzin; ‘dance with the devil, you might as well lead’ is a great lyric on a song with a descending chromatic riff that Aldean would kill to record; Train is poodle-rock in country clothing; and Valet is a ballad which takes the listener back to ‘a hotel rooftop reservation’, with the car left in the care of the valet in favour of a trip to the lady’s place. I’ll keep my ears open for the voice of Brittany Kennell.
The new track of the five is Rusty Things which, as with the other four, is also an outside write given to Manny who inhabits the song with a whisky-soaked croon. Here, his subject is a girl whose ‘heart takes a shine’ to rusted trucks and guitar strings and, of course, Manny himself.
Drake Milligan EP
A self-titled five-track set released on Broken Bow, you can tell the stamp of quality because Tony Brown is overseeing production. Drake is a Texan and you can tell from the first ten seconds of Over Drinkin’ Under Thinkin’, a honkytonk lament with fiddle and close harmony.
Don’t Look Down (‘just keep your eyes on me…We’re getting one two-step closer’) is a slow-dance in the George Strait tradition, while She is a ballad in the George Strait tradition: ‘I can’t believe she’s mine’ is the sentiment, and it sounds like a classic.
Kiss Goodbye All Night (GREAT title) is a sensational tempo tune in the tenor of Randy Rogers or Josh Abbott, with hints of Josh Turner; authentic is what it is. Terry McBride was in the room for Sounds Like Something I’d Do, a turbocharged rocker where Drake’s voice hits some low notes before bursting into a killer Garth/Brooks & Dunn-ish chorus. Remember the name: Drake Milligan.
Tyler Booth – Grab The Reins
Sony Music have introduced another bloke to a market which includes fellow Sony Music acts Ryan Hurd, Luke Combs, Chris Young, Willie Jones, Kane Brown, Adam Doleac, Niko Moon, Jameson Rodgers, Matt Stell and Kameron Marlowe. Let’s not saturate the market, chaps. Sony also own Brooks & Dunn and, indeed, I first heard Tyler sing on a Rebooted version of the song Lost and Found.
Tyler is from Kentucky, like Chris Stapleton, and also plays guitar, like Chris Stapleton. His voice is on the Toby Keith/Blake Shelton/Craig Morgan spectrum, with shades of Chris Stapleton, so if you like that tone then you’ll love Tyler’s croon. He showcases it on Drink It Up, which has a humongous melody and carpe diem lyrics: ‘Keep your family close cos you never know if you’re gonna get another round’ is a fine line written by, among others, the ubiquitous Ashley Gorley.
The EP also contains breakup song Ghost Town, where brushes stroke the drums to create a melancholy mood; heartache-laden blues Stone Cold High and Dry, which is basically Nobody To Blame in they key of B; Gone Done Did, also in the key of B and a fine segue thematically as well, since Tyler is ‘doggone brokenhearted’; and Already Got One, a love song where happily Tyler can head home from the bar to be with his beloved. There is a fine guitar solo.
Palomino Princess is a 100-percenter, with words and music by Tyler himself. ‘Saddle me up,’ he croons, ‘and we can ride the night away’. The instrumentation is superb, with real snare drums and some pedal steel, and there is so much passion in the vocal.
Sony probably want to pivot to old-style country music from before the bro era, but there’s no point in complaining when the music is this good. Kudos should go to Phil O’Donnell, go-to guy for the like of Aaron Watson, Mo Pitney and Craig Morgan, for adding sensitivity to the production and bringing out Tyler’s voice. I am a fan.
Ashley Cooke’s album has been produced by Jimmy Robbins, one of the best pop-country producers who typically works with women like Maren Morris. Ashley, who is a woman, has released the first side of her album Already Drank That Beer, which is full of digital drum loops and fine melodies, as on opener Gettin’ Somewhere (with no G). Under is a songwriting exercise where Ashley is ‘under the impression’, drunk ‘under the neon lights’ and ‘underneath the sheets with someone new’ because she ‘can’t get over you’. First Time, Last Night seems to be a catharsis, finally getting over the ex and going to a bar without drowning sorrows, while Never Til Now is a wedding song where Ashley spots someone who could help her reach maturity.
The obligatory duet comes on Good Goodbye, a wonderfully optimistic breakup song where Jimmie Allen croons the bloke’s part. Craig Wiseman gifts Ashley the philosophical Sunday Morning Kinda Saturday Night, where ‘the man upstairs’ gets a mention and makes me think of Jordan Davis’ Church in a Chevy. Already Drank That Beer is a wonderfully tender breakup song written by, among others, the marvellous Jessi Alexander, while Nicolle Galyon is on hand for the four chords and the truth Opposite of Love (‘ain’t saying that you hate me…ain’t kissin on somebody downtown at a bar’) which seems to point perversely to happiness since ‘we ain’t as out of love as we think’.
Her vocal is the same timbre as Kelsea Ballerini’s, which makes a comparison easy. The songs stand up and I hope they find an audience. The rest of the album should be just as fine.
Mitchell Tenpenny – Midtown Diaries EP
Mitchell Tenpenny is nicknamed Bitches because of an early single which backfired on him. Drunk Me, from his 2018 debut album, was his first number one and his breakup song-cum-emotional ransom note Truth About You is clambering up the radio chart alongside his collaboration with Chris Young, At The End of the Bar (which has no place on Mitchell’s EP). Truth About You is one of eight tracks on what he’s calling an EP and I am calling a mini-album. Being a hit songwriter in town he has access to others, such as Brad Tursi, Laura Veltz, Chris DeStefano and Michael Hardy.
Hardy was in the room for the Mumford-stomper To Us It Did, a song about how love seems to bend time and make life a little brighter, and I Can’t Love You Any More (‘than I do right now’) is a declaration of adoration told through the concept of finiteness, with some neat images and lines about ‘milking’ Sundays for all they are worth.
Bucket List is a carpe diem song in which Mitchell promises to ‘cross one off, put two more on it’ and make life better without thinking of the ‘what ifs’. Girl’s Love (‘lips taste like candy’) is similarly lovely, set to a funky lick and real drums that self-consciously mimic John Mayer, a key influence on country music today. The production choices swallow the sentiment of Good Thing, which has Mitchell purring that he’s ‘hot-headed’ while his belle is ‘a rock when the waves come…it’s a good thing you love me’.
Don’t Let Me Let You is middle of the dirt road fodder which rhymes ‘tequila…fever…amnesia’ in the first verse and contains a crunching guitar solo in the middle of Mitchell’s laments about keeping a girl at a distance. That is sensible on She Hates Me Too, a song of companionship as Mitchell consoles a guy who has broken up with the same girl he had done, complete with some Sam Hunt-like syncopated delivery in the verses and some f-words. It’s a neat sentiment and a fine song, and sounds very contemporary.
The six tracks on this EP, which follows one released within the last year, are in turns mysterious and pretty.
As Much As I Miss You is about honouring the memory of the dead; it’s a proper country song with fleshed-out characters and a plea for a dying father to ensure that his son looks after his widow. Adele’s voice is extraordinary and the arrangement is tender. Myles Kennedy of the band Alter Bridge wrote Wonderful Life, which A&A turn into a country waltz with harmonies and snare-rim taps on the offbeat while being faithful to the original version.
Earl is a story song set in the 1800s where the poor protagonist takes the wrap for a crime he didn’t commit thanks to the actions of a wicked girl who uses her position of power and privilege. Maybe it’s an allegory or parable, and the arrangement puts the story first, adding some catchy earworms to ensure the message comes through. He Is Me is similarly mysterious: Adele has been changed, knows where she’s meant to be, thanks to advice from a wise man.
The production across the EP is brilliant, especially on midtempo tune I Got You and breakup song I’m Getting Over You, which follows the poppy tenor of the best UK country from the likes of Ward Thomas and Twinnie. I think A&A should be held in their class, given a bit of a push from Bob Harris, Matt Spracklen and Tim Prottey-Jones.
Caitlin Mae – Perspective EP
Caitlin announces herself with this promising four-track EP, on which are two country tunes and two pop/rock ballads. Country Eyes (‘they tell a story’) is driven by a soft shuffle and a strong chorus with some neat chord shifts, while the time signature moves from bars of three to bars of four, giving it a musical interest. Gasoline is full of character and funky riffs as Caitlin calls on the Devil to let her boy burn. The vocals are prominent and this will be a live favourite.
Take My Demons, full of monsters under beds and giving up, is delivered with a light twang over piano and drums; I expect this would work as an acoustic ballad too. Slam The Door has hints of pop-punk and I’d’ve loved to hear more of the guitar part to match Caitlin’s vocal where ‘losing you meant finding me’.
The Blue Highways – I Wanna Party EP
The Lury brothers – singer Callum, guitarist Jack and drummer Theo – return with four tracks. On the first bar of the EP’s title track, Callum bellows Bruce-ishly about a girl strutting ‘like a Kardashian sister’ over an E Street Band-style barroom arrangement. Theo gives the cymbals a workout and there are some fine keys too.
Try to resist the handclaps and woahs of She Moves (‘the earth seems to stand still’) and the fine energetic tunes Love Keeps Wasting My Time and Shut Up And Drive. The recorded version maintains the live panache and makes me want to catch the Lury brothers again soon.
Bob Fitzgerald – The Promenade EP
Bob has been on my radar for a while and has huge support from the radio fraternity. Produced with great sensitivity and charm by Tim Prottey-Jones, this five-track EP opens with a massive riff on the song B1G (‘Big’, spelled with a 1 instead of the ‘I’). Bob’s smooth vocal comes in singing about hard times, ‘running this that way’ and how ‘on the 3-6-5 we duck and dive’. It’s full of personality and the chorus is massive, as is the chunky solo in the middle. We don’t really have a Phil Vassar-type figure in the UK and I hope Bob appreciates the comparison.
I Could Just Stay is a pumped-up sex jam where Bob namechecks Brad Paisley (I bet he wants to get some mud on the tires) in his desire to not head home. Slow Drunk is a reminiscin’ song over a midtempo shuffle in which Bob tells a story of what I imagine is a teenage weekend and in the second verse looks back to those days long ago. Blue Sky Drinking is a phenomenal title for a song which reminds me of David Lee Murphy’s songs for Kenny Chesney, full of enormous guitars and wide-open vocals: ‘I’m raising a toast to my boss…Cheers, adios and I’m off!’ What a great melody from an underrated songwriter.
The final track, Ceri’s Song, opens with Bob clearing his throat and wanting ‘to do one more’ take of the EP’s slowie. ‘So how can I explain?’ he starts, over gently strummed electric guitar chords, singing of ‘the sunshine to my rain, the pleasure to ease my pain…the chorus to my verse’. Ooh it’s a wedding song, with a punchy chorus full of pathos and closing with 20 seconds of atmosphere.
I’ll snap up a ticket for Bob’s live show in 2022. It’d be a shame if he wasn’t booked to play C2C’s outside stages.
What a strange thing to do: put a silent X in the middle of a word and tell fans how to pronounce your name. I was immediately put off. It was Andrea Williams who joked that Nashville is known as a ten-year town because if you look at the pop charts from ten years ago you will find out what country sounds like ten years hence. I am reminded of this with the Mumford sound of Bexar’s tunes, which veer towards ‘stadium folk’ thanks to the production wizardry of Ross Copperman, who is a keen student of UK music having grown up wanting to be Noel Gallagher.
This is most obvious on Again, where there are even some HEYs after a chorus which is driven by a kick-drum on the crotchet beats (a Mumford trick). So is One Day, a singalong campfire jam which eschews a life in a suit and tie for life together ‘in the promised land’. So is Mexico, which opens up to a fine syncopated chorus which namechecks Cancun and reminisces about ‘a motel room’.
So is Key To Life, which adds some folky riffs to soundtrack lessons in how to enjoy life with ‘the simple things like you and me…just driving round turning that key to life’. It’s a terrific driving song. Be Good To Her is advice to a guy who must ‘treat her right’ and was written by Femke Weidema (co-writer of Jade Helliwell’s new song Smoke) and Liz Rose, co-writer of many of Taylor Swift’s early tunes. Carry You Home, meanwhile, is blah but at least it isn’t set to a Mumford beat.
I believe after Mumford & Sons came Gangnam Style, so if you see Dan + Shay or Thomas Rhett going K-Pop, then that’s why.
Jackson Michelson – Back To That Summer EP
Jackson has been over to the UK several times building a fanbase over here. The six tracks include the irresistible pop song Tip Jar, in which he keeps the memory of an ex alive by getting a bar band to play the songs they used to dance to all night long. I love the quick musical reference to Tom Petty’s song Mary Jane’s Last Dance.
The contemporary production tricks are across this EP, which is full of strong melodies. The chorus of reminscin’ song Back To That Summer could grace any number of albums by any number of artists who are all Jackson’s contemporaries (Thomas Rhett, Ryan Hurd, Brett Young, Russell Dickerson). Amplifier has a funky riff and fast-paced, half-spoken lyrics which big up a lady who ‘turns me on and keeps me up all night’. It does seem a bit passe to call a girl ‘fire’ and it’s not country at all but it’s sticky.
Elsewhere on the EP, there’s the country-pop-by-numbers Love High (‘and I don’t ever wanna come down’), the smooth vocals and fingersnap percussion of Call Me No One, which sounds like a one-man boyband and the streaming smash Stay Over, which hits all the beats of country-pop in 2021 exhibited by the likes of fellow Curb signing Filmore. We’ve got rap-sung verses, chord loops and interaction between a guy and a girl.
The song was co-produced by Jim Ed Norman who is best known as head of A&R then president of Warner Nashville. He honed the careers of Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam and Faith Hill. He’s now CEO of Curb, who put Jackson’s music out, so this is a man who knows what sounds hip and trendy and Jackson’s EP certainly is. It’s product and enters a market saturated with this sort of thing. It also suggests that Jackson has as much personality as Michael Ray, ie very little.
As with Buckle & Boots 2021, which welcomed Tebey and Alyssa Bonagura, this year’s British Country Music Festival allowed two American acts to slip through the net in a token gesture to the true home of country music.
Juna N Joey, a ‘modern day Carpenters crossed with Dan + Shay’, were over from Florida for their fist of what will become many visits to the UK. They will spend a few weeks bringing their poppy sound to Caffe Nero spots and I was won over by their charm. Playing to backing instrumentals with guitars in hand (and Mom on Facetime!), the siblings went through their own catalogue and some well-chosen covers.
I spoke to the kids a few days before they arrived in Blackpool, while they took in the sights of Salisbury. Juna was foolish because she hadn’t packed any warm clothes for the end of the British summer, while Joey said: ‘Your accents are amazing!
‘Our genre is country-pop,’ Joey told me, and they’ve picked some fine songs to interpret. They opened with Lovin On You, the Luke Combs tune, before playing the Combs-written pair of Beautiful Crazy and Old Love Song, which Zac Brown Band will have on their next album. Old Love Song sounded cute when played by two kids born after the year 2000, while Watermelon Sugar, with its four solid chords, showcased Joey’s great vocals.
As for the originals, some of which will emerge on a four-track EP, I love Till Your Heart Breaks best. New single Something Good To Miss sounded addictive and cute, and has gained US radio play. ‘We filmed a TikTok video reacting to hearing our song on the radio for a first time,’ Juna said.
A woman in the crowd swayed next to her partner in a frilly shirt while another woman who was wearing two cowboy hats was jigging away. Twinnie’s fans will enjoy their music as they support her on six dates this month across the UK, which will be their first international dates. More ought to follow, perhaps around Greenwich in March 2022.
Candi Carpenter will have gained hundreds of new fans with her Sunday afternoon slot, which was preceded by a half-hour soundcheck to ensure her voice and guitar could best be heard in the Ballroom, the ‘prettiest room I’ve played in’.
A teenage yodeller, Candi spent about 45 seconds showing off her pipes before reverting to the type of show UK fans have seen from the likes of Eric Paslay and Morgan Evans, the type that happens in Nashville every night of the week. One woman, one guitar, a thousand pairs of eyes on her and her effortless showmanship.
In a very male-dominated country sphere, because that’s what makes money and money yells in Music City, Candi has to be canny. Independence suits her, especially after a nasty stint when she was burned by the music industry and a marriage which didn’t work.
As for the music, Candi played the title track of recent EP When The Asteroid Comes as well as a tune from her Americana duo Church of Roswell. She closed her set with a cover of Little Sparrow by Dolly Parton, who ‘smells like a candle store’ and who remains the guiding force for female country singers. Indeed, Dolly has given Candi her blessing and called her a star.
There were two shocking moments in a set full of Candi’s dark past. On Exorcist, she sang ‘I need more than a therapist’ while Skinny was about her teenage years struggling with food, ‘literally trying to disappear’. Plenty of people took up the option after the set to get a hug from Candi, but perhaps it ought to be the other way round. Even her cover of Creep by Radiohead, which included a set of notes that Thom Yorke could never hit, laid bare her emotions.
At least she could be self-effacing, as when she introduced Serial Killer as one ‘written with my boyfriend’, who was filming her set in the crowd. Candi introduced one new song by saying how ‘scared’ she was to play it, because it went against conservative religious ideals. The lyric ‘Sold my soul to Carl Sagan’, referencing the scientist whose work is a rational deconstruction of religion, is worth the price of admission. American country’s loss is Americana’s gain. I wonder if other US acts will use the UK as a place they can work through their issues and anti-American feelings, since it’s not blasphemous to criticise religion here.
Rather than country music, it was very Lilith Fair. Is it unfair to group the likes of Brandi Carlile, with whom Candi recorded the recent EP, and Maren Morris in an all-female set of acts which, as in the 1990s, operate outside the mainstream?
I’d love to hear some more stories about being Little Jimmy Dickens’ housekeeper, which she shared in an online concert earlier this year, and about precisely which candles Dolly smells like. I am positive that Candi will make more pilgrimages to the UK in 2022 and, like Ashley McBryde before her, we will lap up her music one fan at a time.
If you’re quick you can find tickets to her UK shows on September 7 and 11 here.
Or, as Tim Prottey-Jones called it, To Be Confirmed Music Festival (the hashtag is #tbcmf).
Tim is quickly becoming the popular face of UK country. He gave a fashion statement at the Blackpool-based weekend for country music-loving hordes: Chav Country, or Working Man’s Country as I’d call it. Three-quarter-length trousers, short socks, new trainers and a baseball cap complete the look, and we shall see if the fashion spreads to the crowd. They mostly sported the usual parade of boots, cowboy hats, checked shirts, trucker caps and tassels in Blackpool at the Winter Gardens, where you could buy a little stick of TBCMF Blackpool rock for a quid.
There were a couple of American visitors – who have their own essay here – but the focus here is on the UK scene. What is terrific about holding an event in the North-West of England is that people like me can come up from London, people like the Scottish Country Mafia can clamber down from Glasgow and the folk in Manchester can shuffle along to the coast. Blackpool was bathed in sunshine all weekend, and full of fireworks on Friday evening at the Blackpool Tower Illuminations. Thanks to Matt Spracklen’s late-night DJ sets, festival-goers mostly kept away from the seedier aspects of Blackpool, which is back in business, especially for the Sunday afternoon tourists. (I saw an ambulance attending to an unconscious man outside Ma Kelly’s.)
The party began on Friday night with Kezia Gill, whose star will rise further this autumn as The Shires take her out on the road. She has also recorded songs for a Radio 2 Country show appearance which cements the support Bob Harris and his team have given her. In thigh-high boots and with the Friday Night Crew waving a banner in her honour, Our Kez encouraged clapalongs and singalongs while being utterly in charge of her material. The a cappella opening to her career song, Whiskey Drinkin’ Women, sounds even better in person than through the screen or on record; her 2022 will be very fun indeed and it wouldn’t surprise me if she headlines at least one festival next year.
Holloway Road took up the baton for their first live show in 18 months. Blackpool virgins, Jack and Rob were delighted to be there, cracking up their guitarist Luke Thomas and interpolating both It Wasn’t Me and Because I Got High into one of their laid-back jams. New song Between Us got its world premiere and sat alongside recent hits like About Town, Lightning and Hang Over Here. Jack’s stagecraft was superb and that’s something I was watching out for across the weekend: in Nashville, performers are taught how to connect with the crowd. Holloway Road, as performers, needed no tuition, and are close to unmatched in the UK. The Empress Ballroom was a fine venue for their talents and it’s good to have them back playing live. I am sure they picked up some more tips from the experienced Nathan Carter, who headlined with typical aplomb.
On the festival’s busiest day, there were four stages to enjoy. With the bar venue from 2019 taken over by a ‘comedy vocalist’ (I didn’t want to know), this time out the acoustic venue was the Pavilion, next to the piles of leather boots. Among the performers were Bethany Nelson, who led a singalong of ‘it gets me down’ on her tune I Don’t Wanna Listen to the News, a harmonica-assisted Eleri Angharad who showed promise with her own singalong (‘I love you, I delete it) and Ben Holland, who blew his own mouth organ while playing a guitar very high up on his torso. He reminded me of Richard Thompson, straddling folk, blues and country on the song Annaliese.
Over in the Arena, the 2019 trick of having an acoustic stage and an amplified main stage kept the music coming consistently. Compere Sally mistakenly referred to ‘Bob Roberts’ when she meant Bob Harris, who had given Demi Marriner and Robbie Cavanagh his Trailblazer Award early in the year. Robbie went for a bluesy set full of guitar licks while commenting that he’d seen many of his heroes at the Winter Gardens.
Demi is so assured, so in charge of her songs, that it felt odd that she had chosen to display her legs prominently (as is her choice!). She barely interacted with the crowd, supplying them with a fine set of songs which reminded me of Keira Knightly’s turn as a musician in the movie Begin Again. The melodies and arrangements were terrific. She was more chatty when showcasing some new songs from her forthcoming album (‘I’m scared to put it out!’) in the Pavilion. She introduced Some People by saying how ‘some people aren’t worth it – harsh!’ Her song Little Boy, about her young cousin born with health difficulties, included some delicious tonality and unexpected beauty. She’s a star.
Across the weekend, clashes meant I only caught a small portion of some acts’ sets. I liked Blue Rose Code’s song This Is Not a Folk Song, which actually reminded me of Lyle Lovett in its swinging, defiant melody, and I was impressed by Hayley McKay and her kinetic violinist.
Tennessee Twin showed their warm personalities in songs that bigged up the venue’s hospitality staff (Table Waiters) and the musician who plays for ‘tips in a jar’. I also appreciated their cover of A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega, the Ashley McBryde song, which brought Nashville country to Blackpool, where the UK is forming its own identity.
I could have done without a crying baby in the middle of their poppy acoustic tunes, which is worthy of mention because TBCMF is a family festival and there were plenty of kids whose cartwheels drew my eye across the Saturday. The wrinklies dominated, as befits a country crowd, but this was not a festival of line-dancing; country music appeals to folk who love stories, tunes and good-time fun. Nor was it akin to the Country Cosplay costumery of Country2Country. This was just British country fans, not British fans of country music. There’s a distinction.
Plenty of support for British country was on show on the main Arena stage from Morganway, although it was funny to hear singer SJ ask if there were any kids in before dropping some rude words in their fine cover of You Oughta Know! Live favourites London Life, My Love Ain’t Gonna Save You and Hurricane were present and correct, and we’ll get more of the same at Country in the Afternoon in Putney, South-West London, this coming Sunday at around 4pm.
As well as several performers – Emma Moore, Gasoline & Matches, the new starlet Terri Leavey – the Chitticks, who put on Country in the Afternoon, were spotted in the crowd along with both the Hancock family and Gary Quinn, who host and put together the programme respectively for Buckle & Boots.
Gary told me that only one act, Tim Prottey-Jones, had played both the 2019 and 2021 iterations of TBCMF, which shows the depth of talent in the UK and will make compiling my Festive Fifty in December very tough indeed. Tim was busy across the weekend, hosting the Songwriters Carousel in the Pavilion on Saturday and reprising his Buckle & Boots set in the Ballroom on Sunday morning.
In the latter performance, the microphone swallowed a lot of his vocals – which is not good in a lyric-driven genre like country – but his stagework was excellent, particularly on the air-pumper Exit Wounds which will be a mainstay of his live set. You can tell he was constrained in his old band The Wandering Hearts, and I expect this Sunday hangover slot where ‘my job is to wake you up’ will be the Tim Prottey-Jones slot for years to come. Or, as he’d call it, the Chav Country slot.
As for the Carousel, it started late due to technical gremlins but silenced a packed Pavilion when it began. We had three songs each from Elles Bailey, Pete Riley and Wildwood Kin. Elles, who may have the finest voice in Britain and exhibited textbook microphone control, played some of her sadder songs including One Day at a Time and Walk on Water while promising to up the tempo in her Ballroom set later that evening.
Wildwood Kin brought out two old favourites, Time Has Come (about their place as women in life and in music) and Beauty In Your Brokenness, and gave a world premiere to Sunrise. It’s the best thing they’ve done and a good sign for album number three. I wonder how wise it was to put them, and not Lisa or Nathan, as Saturday night headliners, given that there are only 52 Saturday nights per year and acoustic folk works better on Sunday afternoons.
Pete Riley was my discovery of the weekend. He’s an acclaimed singer/songwriter who often plays with Ed Sheeran’s pal Amy Wadge and the alt-rocker Edwin McCain. Tim was full of praise for Pete, a man whose songs he even sung at his degree recital. I loved Pete’s first song, the poppy Shooting Stars, as well as a song about fatherhood with some incredible suspended chords, Elles looking on impressed. It makes me want to investigate his catalogue and again made me marvel that Ed Sheeran has effectively taken singer/songwriter to stadium level in a way not seen since Elton John or Billy Joel (or, indeed, Barry Manilow). I look forward to investigating Pete’s back catalogue. I also sang along boisterously with the HEYs in the Arena when Pete led the crowd in a singalong of the Beatles’ You Got To Hide Your Love Away.
It was delightful to see Halifax-born Jess Thristan play songs with a full band for, incredibly, the first time ever. I watched her play with a guitarist in 2019 and was amazed both by her voice and her songwriting, which wowed the Saturday afternoon crowd. New song Woman Up already sounds like a classic, sitting in nicely with a smart cover of Blue Ain’t Your Color and originals including Time of Our Lives and The Old Me. She also looked smart in a blazer. Big things beckon for the Yorkshire lass.
Specials mention for three other discoveries on Saturday in the Pavilion. Jack & Tim are a one-off: a father (Tim) and a son (Jack, who was a Britain’s Got Talent finalist) who play country-inflected music. I was sad to miss much of their set, which contained superlative vocals and harmonies, but I did hear The Lucky Ones, which sounded beautiful. I’m sure they will be back on the bill in 2022, along with Katy Hurt, whose Ballroom slot began Saturday evening’s entertainment.
Rosso have been in the studio with Tim to record their songs, which were performed here with a conga player who sometimes dominated over the pair of vocals. New single Found was actually about the guitar one of the girls was playing, which had been stolen and recovered, and I liked the way they involved the crowd on their closing number Pray. Their poppy tunes will find an audience, especially on radio, and they would make an earthy opening act for their friends Wildwood Kin.
Bryony Sier is a Welsh singer who talked in her set about struggling with self-worth and anxiety. Her rhythmic guitar playing brought lyrics like Who Am I, Personal Monster and Out with the Old to life. ‘It’s a miracle I’m up here,’ she said, and we are lucky she has found a place to put her story across in an acceptable environment. Shannon Hynes and Bryony have similar voices so if I were a producer (and I’m available!!), I would match their voices and maybe think about pairing them up as The Welsh Dragons.
Kudos to the bookers for getting a good Welsh representation among the English acts. There weren’t that many Scots, actually, but Scotland will be independent within a decade and will do their own thing for sure. Bailey Tomkinson represented Cornwell on Saturday, and they’re quite independently minded, come to think of it…
The festival’s third day was concentrated in the Ballroom and brought Candie Carpenter (more on whom here), Fine Lines, Martin Harley and Lisa McHugh.
Fine Lines, by virtue of making Celtic-tinged country-rock with a man and a woman upfront, reminded me of Deacon Blue. From just down the way in Cheshire, the band previewed tracks from Deadbeat Lullabies which comes out next month with lots of vim and vigour.
Martin, meanwhile, began his lunchtime set sitting down with a lap steel guitar and gave a long solo to his bassist. Among many Stapletonesque, country/blues tunes, Feet Don’t Fail Me was the best, on record a collaboration with the celebrated Jerry Douglas. I wish the guitar had been turned up in time to catch most of the solo. I am sure these sound problems will be overcome in 2022, but it was one of too many occasions where I wanted to throttle the sound engineer. ‘Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, SOLO! Make sure we can hear the solo!’
Lisa McHugh, who was born in Scotland, grew up in Ireland and now lives (like Nathan Carter) in Northern Ireland, is a superstar across the Irish Sea. In her first gig back since the pandemic, she gave the best performance of the weekend as befits a seasoned performer. She played a few originals such as the well-received Hillbilly Girl, on which she flicked her hair on the line ‘I don’t care if I lose my hair’, and new single Bad Idea. I also loved The Scandal, which played on the rumours that surrounded her move to the North, and Country Mile, which sounds Radio 2 ready and will appear on her next album out soon.
The bulk of her set came from well-chosen covers. Her voice matches the pitch and timbre of Dolly Parton’s, so it was shrewd to play both 9 to 5 and Why D’Ya Come In Here Lookin Like That, as well as Travellin Soldier by The Chicks, Diane by Cam and Mean by Taylor Swift. After Candi Carpenter’s heart-on-sleeve set, these singalongs were catnip for the Sunday afternoon Blackpool crowd.
One thing I noticed about Lisa’s set was that she played with a live band rather than playing with a band AND over a track. Holloway Road and Tim Prottey-Jones both chose to deliver their sets in the latter manner, which is very much the modern style and adds some heft to the arrangement. Both are equally good for an audience, so long as the songs are good and the lyrics can be heard.
At one stage on Sunday, MC and DJ Matt Spracklen praised the critics of the UK country scene, such as Country Lowdown, Maverick Magazine and Countryline/Chris Country, all of who were present and correct. Their reviews will likely centre on the mainstage headliners like Nathan Carter and Wildwood Kin, and possibly the swampy sound across the weekend, but I am more concerned in how well TBCMF serves the country fanbase.
It’s an emphatic yes from A Country Way of Life. Chafing dishes contained burgers and chips for hungry fans, while plenty of chairs were set out for the Pavilion on Saturday and the relaxed Ballroom on the Sunday, a relief as the main dancefloor was sticky with hops by Sunday lunchtime. I also liked the closeness between the three spaces and the friendliness of the atmosphere, lubricated by drink and soundtracked by every sort of country music. Blues, folk, pop, rock and classic country were all represented.
It was confirmation that TBCMF is a fine addition to the UK country landscape, a complement rather than a rival to Country2Country and Buckle & Boots.