My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Tag Archives: Dierks Bentley

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Favorite Singles of 2014

When looking back, 2014 will be remembered as the year country music morphed into the biggest radio format in the land while pondering to never ending bro-country schlock and diminishing the efforts of solo female artists not named Miranda or Carrie. The genre also lost its biggest star, Taylor Swift, to world domination.

But I’ll remember a statistic far more puzzling. In the eighteen years I’ve been following the genre, I’ve never witnessed this big a turnover at the top of the Billboard Country Singles chart. How is it that seemingly every new male artist, either solo or in a group/duo, seems to be notching number one hits out of the gate? Everyone from Cole Swindell, Thomas Rhett, Sam Hunt, Parmalee, and Maddie & Tae are routinely racking up chart topping singles without having to fight for their chance to land on playlists. Watching the Billboard Country Airplay chart these days has become more than ridiculous.

My choices, as usual, prove radio doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface in the story of quality country music in 2014. I’ll say this until I’m blue in the face, but if you know where to look (Americana) the goods are definitely there.

Nickel-Creek-Destination10. Destination – Nickel Creek

After nine years of flexing their individual creative muscles, Sara Watkins, Sean Watkins, and Chris Thile reunited to celebrate Nickel Creek’s twenty-fifth anniversary. The time apart has only made them a stronger unit together, which boosts well for this plucky romp led by Sara’s wailing lead vocal. She’s done with her man and leaves no doubt she’s moving on to bigger and better things.

9. Frankie Please – Rodney Crowell

519z2FHhvCL._SL500_AA280_Leave it to Crowell to have the strongest opening line to any song in recent memory – ‘You tore through my life like a tornado looking for a trailer park.’ The blistering lead single from Tarpaper Sky only gets better from there, led by distinctive electric guitar and Crowell’s brilliant lyric. After 38 years in the business he proves he’s still on top of his game with no signs of slowing down.

8. I’ll Be There In The Morning – Don Williams

2468428_20140212162413_199149415The reason it’s so difficult to write an authentic love song is because the imagery has become so overdone, it borders on disingenuous parody. Simple sentiments like “You complete me” or the straightforward “I love you” have become so commonplace in our society, they mean almost nothing anymore.

Don Williams and producer Garth Fundis smartly avoid those trappings by looking forty-six years in the past and resurrecting Townes Van Zant’s elegant promise to his woman – no matter what trials and tribulations may arise on our journey, I’ll be next to you each time the sun rises to greet another day. A woman couldn’t ask more from her man and we couldn’t ask more from Williams, who imparts this wisdom as a man of seventy-five reflecting on the devotion of long-lasting love.

 7. Say You Do – Dierks Bentley

dierks-bentley-say-you-do-singleFinally back to form, Bentley leaves alcohol and frat parties in the dust for a melancholy ballad about a man pleading with the woman who won’t commit to their relationship, even after he begs her to ‘let those words roll off your tongue.’ He’s willing to do whatever it takes – buy her drinks, force her to lie, heck he wants her to lead him on – but she just won’t budge. Bentley hasn’t been this satisfying in years.

 6. Talladega – Eric Church

PrintAn epic ballad about the bonds of friendship set over a weekend at an empty NASCAR track, “Talladega” expertly illustrates Church’s storytelling prowess through Jay Joyce’s delicate production. When Church is on, there isn’t a more interesting or enjoyable male country singer scoring major hits today.

5. Meanwhile Back At Mama’s – Tim McGraw Featuring Faith Hill

 Tim-McGraw-Meanwhile-Back-At-MamasYou have to go back seven years to find Tim McGraw’s last truly outstanding single, the military-inspired “If You’re Reading This.” After years of screaming for relevancy he surrenders the fight and returns to form with a gracefully constructed lyric about home and the important role of family in our lives.

4. California – Radney Foster

RF.EISHS-11I couldn’t have willed this song to exist if I tried. ‘Can’t you hear California calling your name? A siren song, once you hear it, you’ll never be the same.’ Those nineteen words sum up exactly how I feel about the Golden State since visiting there repeatedly over the past few years. Foster has composed a stunner – part love story, part tourist battle cry.

600x600 3. The Trailer Song – Kacey Musgraves

 Kacey Musgraves’ genius lies in her ability to craft songs that on the surface seem littered with country clichés but are actually witty commentaries about the state of society as a whole. The two women depicted here may live in a trailer park, but they’re no different than any bickering neighbors setting up lives in suburbia. We all have that nosy neighbor, the one we wish would stay on their side of the fence and keep those damn mini-blinds closed.

2. What We Ain’t Got – Jake Owen

2522282_20140722163600_696746334Even as far back as six years ago, country singers abided by the cardinal rule – balance. For every uptempo ditty, artists would release a slice of substance to give themselves credibility. That concept, thank goodness, hasn’t been lost on Owen. “What We Ain’t Got” is a classic example of the kind of song that would’ve been all over 90s country radio.

Without a dousing of steel, it’s an almost perfect record about humans innate nature to always be searching for something that leaves us only wanting more. The almost non-existent production allows Owen to lay down a powerfully naked vocal that hits the listener like a sermon to the soul. Kudos to Travis Meadows and Travis Jerome Goff for pulling off the near impossible and Owen for driving it home like he should.

1. Automatic – Miranda Lambert

MirandaLambertAutomaticThe lead single from Platinum and CMA Single of the Year winner is without a doubt my favorite single of the year and easily a contender for one of the strongest country singles of the decade. Lambert, Nicolle Galyon, and Natalie Hemby have crafted a brilliant anthem capturing a shining testament to the days before social media, cell phones, and binge-watching overtook our lives.

There’s very little soul left in our modern world, a fact Lambert is thankfully self-aware enough to take to task. Even as a millennial, I’ll be 27 on Dec 31, I’m dying to get back to a time when media had half a brain and country music wasn’t run by rap influenced hooligans shamelessly flaunting their tatted up arms in tight wife beaters. The class is gone and without it, there’s nothing left. Lambert may have tamed her aggression, but she isn’t done standing up for what she believes in.

Album Review: Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time – ‘All Star Duets’

all star duetsOne of my favorite songwriters, Larry Cordle’s latest album has been a long time in the making. he has teamed up with a selection of stars to recreate some of his big hits as a songwriter in a tasteful bluegrass setting, backed by Larry’s bluegrass band Lonesome Standard Time and a few added guests. Recording sessions have taken place at intervals over the past decade, and the album was first announced for release a couple of years ago. But the wait was worth it, because this is a truly lovely record filled with great songs.

Alison Krauss recorded Cordle’s ‘Two Highways’ as a teenager; revisiting the song as a mature adult she brings a fuller vocal, and the result is shimmeringly lovely. It’s actually the oldest composition here, having been written in 1977 when the young Larry Cordle was stuck in a job he hated and dreaming of music. Ricky Skaggs was Cordle’s earliest big supporter, and his recording of ‘Highway 40 Blues’ (also written in the late 70s) was his breakthrough as a songwriter. Skaggs revisits the song (one of many great Cordle songs he has recorded over the years) here, playing his mandolin as well as sharing the vocals. Skaggs’ 1983 #1 hit version made Cordle a name to be reckoned with, and as he puts it in the liner notes, “changed his life”.

I was a bit dismissive of Garth Brooks’ recording of ‘Against The Grain’ when I reviewed ‘Ropin’ The Wind’ recently, but the breezier bluegrass version he guests on here is much more enjoyable, although it’s still one of my less favourite tracks here. Much better is the beautiful high lonesome ‘Lonesome Dove’, which like ‘Against The Grain’ was written with Carl Jackson. Trisha Yearwood, who recorded it on her debut album, and is at her glorious best singing it here.

Dierks Bentley is an engaging guest on a version of the wry ‘You Can’t Take It With You When You Go’, which was a single for the great Gene Watson towards the end of his major label career. It is one of Cordle’s many collaborations with his friend Larry Shell. They wrote several songs here, including the most recently written song, the modern classic ‘Murder On Music Row’, which seems more topical every year. The guest vocalists are minor 90s star Daryle Singletary and the very underrated Kevin Denney, both of whom were regarded as “too country” for country music. Daryle is one of the best traditional country singers out there, and I’ve long regretted that Denney hasn’t recorded again since his one and only album in 2002. They do a great, heartfelt job, on this version. It is, incidentally, unfortunate that Denney’s name is mis-spelled on the cover. The liner notes (also available digitally) are otherwise excellent and informative, with a little discussion of how each song was written and picked up for recording.

Diamond Rio contribute duet and harmony vocals on Cordle and Shell’s ‘Mama Don’t Forget To Pray For Me’, which was one of my favorite of the band’s hit songs, and is another real highlight here. The gently melancholy tune is perfect for the emotional yet stoic lyric about the strains of life on the road, and the arrangement is beautiful. Less well known, but a very beautiful song written by the pair which deserves to be known better is the wistful ‘The Fields of Home’, which Ricky Skaggs recorded on Kentucky Thunder in 1989, and which feels like a sequel to ‘Mama Don’t Forget To Pray For Me’. Kenny Chesney appears as the duet partner here, and does a superb job exuding understated regret; I really wish he would return to this style of music.

Bluegrass giant Del McCoury guests on the playful ‘The Bigger The Fool’ (The Harder The Fall)’, which Chesney recorded on his first album (when he was a neotraditional youngster and had not yet gained fame and fortune or discovered the beach). The charming tune is one of two co-writes with Jim Rushing, the other being ‘Lonesome Standard Time’, which gave its name to Cordle’s band. Kathy Mattea, who had a hit with it, duets with Cordle here.

He teamed up with two great female songwriters, Leslie Satcher and the veteran Melba Montgomery, to write ‘Cure For The Common Heartache’. Terri Clark recorded it in the late 90s, and sounds great duetting with Cordle – it’s much better than anything on her current solo release. Cordle wrote ‘Rough Around The Edges’ for Travis Tritt with J P Pennington and Les Taylor from country-rockers Exile; it sounds much better in this energised bluegrass version, featuring Tritt.

This is a superb album, collecting an excellent set of songs and performing them with taste and heart.

Grade: A

It’s that time of year: Predictions for the 48th annual CMA Awards

Logo for "The 48th Annual CMA Awards"With Brad Paisley and a pregnant Carrie Underwood set to host for the seventh straight year, and all the usual suspects set to perform, you’d think business would run as normal. But you’re wrong. Not only will this mark the first CMA telecast without Taylor Swift in nine years, pop starlet Ariana Grande is set to perform with Little Big Town while Meghan Trainor will sing her hit “All About That Bass” with Miranda Lambert. Few other surprises have been announced, but God only knows why Trisha Yearwood has been regulated to a presenter’s slot and not given prime exposure to sing “PrizeFighter” with Kelly Clarkson.

At any rate, here are the nominees. You’ll find my Should Win / Will Win perdictions below. Do you agree/disagree? Sound off in the comments.

Entertainer of the Year

george-strait-credit-vanessa-gavalya-650Blake Shelton and Keith Urban have one trophy apiece while George Strait is nominated the year he gave his final concert. Only Luke Bryan and Miranda Lambert, who are on their second nominations, have yet to win.

Should Win: George Strait – The Country Music Hall of Famer and country music legend wrapped his Cowboy Rides Away Tour a year after beating his younger competition to win this award for the first time in 24 years. When all is said and done, the CMA would be foolish to deny Strait his rightful place as an all-time category winner (four wins), along with Garth Brooks and Kenny Chesney.

Will Win: George Strait – Prissy Luke Bryan can have his turn with his third consecutive nod next year. Strait, who’ll never be eligible for this award again, will go out in style.

Female Vocalist of the Year

m.lambert_264_Rsm_1595A milestone year, as Martina McBride and Miranda Lambert go for their record fifth win and Taylor Swift makes what’ll likely be her final appearance in the category. No artist has won five trophies; only Reba has as many as McBride and Lambert, so it’ll be very interesting to see how the Country Music Association votes this year.

Should Win: Kacey Musgraves – a year after winning Best New Artist and scoring two Grammy Awards, the only nominee who hasn’t won should emerge victorious with just her second nomination. 

Will Win: Miranda Lambert – stranger things have happened, but the artist with the most nominations usually walks away with at least one major award. It’s definitely time to spread the wealth, but that likely won’t come this year, thus helping Lambert make CMA history.

 dierks-600x399Male Vocalist of the Year

Jason Aldean has never been much of a compelling singer, but his radio and touring success should’ve earned him his fourth consecutive nomination. Dierks Bentley is back four years after his last nod, correcting a major oversight, and Keith Urban shows up for the tenth consecutive time.

Should Win: Bentley – it’s a race this year between Bentley and Luke Bryan, both of who deserve first time wins. But Bentley gets the edge thanks to seniority, and it’s about damn time, too.

Will Win: Blake Shelton – the reining champion is about the only one who can stop Bentley’s momentum. His material is getting weaker and his shtick ever more tiresome, but he’ll endure himself to voters anyways.

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Single Review: Dierks Bentley – ‘Say You Do’

dierks-bentley-say-you-do-singleThe real Dierks Bentley shows himself again.

“Say You Do” is a throwback to the type of fare the endured Bentley to radio listeners in the last decade, the type of song focused on his relationship with his woman; not his bros or a beer bottle. Joseph Hill, Shane McAnally, Trevor Rosen, and Matt Ramsey have composed an effecting lyric while Bentley supplies the perfect amount of desperate urgency to bring the story to life.

When I first heard “Say You Do” through the track’s music video, I was taken aback by the stark opening, Bentley’s voice framed by lush instrumentation. The current climate of country radio would never touch a song so elegantly constricted so I was almost begging the backing track to pick up, and fill out.

It isn’t every day you desire a more cluttered production, but when Bentley turns in this strong a vocal on a song so firmly against all popular trends, you want it to have every chance of succeeding. Producer Ross Copperman does his job, but ultimately drowns the track with so much noise, it’s all Bentley can do just to keep his head above water. That the listener can still feel his urgency through the muck attests to Bentley’s acute skills as a vocalist.

So we’re not graced with the second coming of “Settle For A Slowdown,” “Long Trip Alone,” or “Draw Me A Map.” But at least Bentley seems heading back in that direction, full steam ahead.

Progress is progress. I’ll take it.

Grade: B+

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Week ending 9/6/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

George Jones1954 (Sales): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Jukebox): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1964: I Guess I’m Crazy — Jim Reeves (RCA)

1974: The Grand Tour — George Jones (Epic)

1984: Let’s Fall To Pieces Together — George Strait (MCA)

1994: Whisper My Name — Randy Travis (Warner Bros.)

2004: Live Like You Were Dying — Tim McGraw (Curb)

2014: Burnin’ It Down — Jason Aldean (Broken Bow)

2014 (Airplay): Drunk On A Plane — Dierks Bentley (Capitol)

Week ending 8/30/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

nitty_gritty_dirt_band_hire1954 (Sales): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Jukebox): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1964: I Guess I’m Crazy — Jim Reeves (RCA)

1974: Old Man From The Mountain — Merle Haggard (Capitol)

1984: Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper’s Dream) — Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (Warner Bros.)

1994: Dreaming With My Eyes Wide Open – Clay Walker (Giant)

2004: Live Like You Were Dying — Tim McGraw (Curb)

2014: Burnin’ It Down — Jason Aldean (Broken Bow)

2014 (Airplay): Drunk On A Plane — Dierks Bentley (Capitol)

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘In a Perfect World’

perfectworldI’m not sure whether I’d call Shanachie a major label or not – it certainly is one of the big three when it comes to Irish/Celtic music, but however you chose to characterize the label, this album, produced by Brent Rowan, found itself issued on Shanachie, one of two Watson albums released on this particular label.

By the time this album was released in 2007, Gene had been bouncing from label to label for a decade since leaving Step One Records. In fact much of the output of the period (1998-2007) consisted of Gusto reissues of material taken from Step One albums and other material released on independent labels such as Broadlands.

Unlike previous albums, which never saw Watson other than as a solo vocalist, Watson entered new territory, recording six songs featuring guest artists (mostly as harmony vocalists rather than true duets) out of the eleven songs on the album. Also unlike recent albums, this album does not contain remakes of earlier Gene Watson hits, focusing instead on some old classic country songs, with some newer material mixed in.

While this album could never be described as innovative (a value-neutral term as innovation can be bad) or cutting edge, it is yet another example of a master craftsman applying his talents to a terrific set of songs.

The album opens with the old Hank Cochran classic “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me”. Released during the 1960s this recording would have been a major hit. This song is followed by Vince Gill harmonizing with Gene on the Harlan Howard’s “Let Me Be The First To Go”, a song initially recorded by the great Wynn Stewart. This song is a tearjerker in which Watson asks God to call him home first as he couldn’t handle life without his wife. Aubrey Haynie’s fiddle and Sonny Garrish’s steel guitar really standout on this track

“What Was I Thinking” follows next – this was not the Dierks Bentley hit of a few years earlier but a Skip Ewing ballad lamenting the breakup of a relationship.

“Today I Started Loving You Again” is one of Merle Haggard’s most famous songs, even though it was never a hit for the Hag (it was the B-side of “The Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde”) although Sammi Smith had a minor hit with it. The song has been recorded many times, but never better than this version which features Lee Ann Womack’s harmony vocals, especially noteworthy on the repeat chorus.

Harley Allen and Tim Mensy penned the title track “In A Perfect World” , a song of a man who has reached bottom and is imagining life as it could be, not as it really turned out to be. Joe Nichols harmony vocals provide the proper shading for this very desolate song:


In A Perfect World It Never Rains on Saturday
In A Perfect World I Wouldn’t Hate The Holidays
I’d Sleep Just Like A Baby and Have One Down The Hall
You’d Still Be My Girl, In A Perfect World

Tim Mensy also contributed “She’s Already Gone” and “This Side of he Door” (co-written with Shawn Camp). “She’s Already Gone” is just another good song about a relationship that is already dead except for someone actually leaving, but “This Side of The Door is really good. Guest vocalist Mark Chesnutt has some solo lines on this song, which Chesnutt originally recorded on his What a Way to Live album released in 2004. This songs rocks a little harder than is customary for Gene.

It is hard to image that “Together Again” was the B-Side of “My Heart Skips A Beat” for Buck Owens never wrote a better song. Buck’s A-side spent seven weeks at #1 but so many DJs flipped the record that the B-side also spent two weeks at #1. Rhonda Vincent guest on this song, the only true duet on the album, an a harbinger of more collaborations to come. In my opinion, this is the standout track on the album.

Another Tim Mensy song “I Buried Our Love” was released as a single although I never heard it played on the radio. It has a strong lyric and should have received at least some airplay.

Connie Smith is one of the few country singers on a par with Watson in terms of being a master vocalist. I think this song was first recorded by Point of Grace but I doubt that many would consider this rendition in any way inferior to the original. I would like for Connie’s voice to have been more prominently featured.

The album closes with yet another Tim Mensy song, “Like I Wasn’t Even There”. This song sounds more like the stuff currently played on the radio (only sung better) than like classic country. The storyline of this ballad is one of a man encountering his ex and seeing her behave as if he didn’t exist.

Reaction to this album at the time of its release varied although all reviewers considered it a good collection of songs sung by an excellent singer, while docking it stars for not pushing the boundaries of the genre. In my humble opinion when an album is this good, I don’t care whether or not it breaks new ground.

From this point forward Gene would feature more duets – his next Shanachie album would feature actual duets with Trace Adkins and Rhonda Vincent and Alison Krauss providing harmony vocals on a track.

Grade: A

Album Review – Radney Foster – ‘Everything I Should’ve Said’

RF.EISHS-11To record his first album of original material since 2009, Radney Foster traveled to Dockside Studios in Lafayette, Louisiana, a converted whorehouse lacking modern amenities. Working alongside musicians he’s collaborated with during his two plus decades making music, Foster has crafted some of the most personal work of his career.

As a result, Everything I Should’ve Said radiates with rejuvenated energy from an artist roaring with passion and contemplating sizable ache. The rough edginess producer Justin Tocket brings to the proceedings displays a palpable urgency, even if the slightly dusty dirt penetrating the tracks comes off a little heavy-handed at times.

Self-penned stunner “Whose Heart You Wreck (Ode To The Muse),” which opens the album, finds Foster tipsy and ravished at the mercy of creativity, and not the hands of a woman: “You saunter in at 2 am and whisper poetry.Sensuous, whiskey-soaked and breathless next to me.You’ll sneak out before the dawn, but what should I expect? ‘Cause you don’t really give a damn whose heart you wreck.” That thematic twist is a stroke of brilliance and turns what could’ve been just an average heartbreaker into something far deeper and more impactful.

“The Man You Want” and “Holding Back” are two more numbers Foster wrote solo and both are excellent love songs. “The Man You Want” is also a glorious moment of self-reflection, with Foster laying bare his character traits only to admit his greatest life accomplishment is being the man his woman wants him to be. His girl is his kryptonite on “Holding Back,” a beautiful sentiment about the depths of affection.

My favorite of his five solely written numbers is “California,” a delicate love song about two gypsies starting over in the Golden State. The two wayward souls aren’t a couple, just like-minded people, which make the story all the more alluring. Foster also nails the simple yet oh-so-true hook: “Can’t you hear California calling your name, a siren song that once you hear it you’ll never be the same.

Foster teams up with Jay Clementi on two numbers, the jaunty “Hard Light of Day” and pulsating “Lie About Loving Me.” Both incorporate the wall-of-sound production technique that mares too much of mainstream music and gives the tunes a rockish feel that engulfs any distinctive qualities within the melodies. Fortunately the lyrical content is top-notch on both songs with “Lie About Loving Me” acting as somewhat of an addictive earworm. Another in this vein is his solely written “Unh, Unh, Unh,” an insufferable piece of dreck I skip whenever listening to the album.

The rock flavored production actually adds a dimension of anger to “Not In My House,” a generational number inspired by his a conversation with his fifth grade aged daughter about the meaning of the word ‘slut.’ Foster and co-writer Allen Shamblin broadened the song to incorporate themes of world injustice and put forth their mid-50s southern man prospective on hate and bigotry. The song is effective without being offensive and a strong lyric that needed to be said.

Two additional standout tracks find Foster co-writing with Gordie Sampson and Jim McCormick. “Noise,” may also employ the wall-of-sound recording technique but I don’t mind it as much thanks to Foster’s vocal, which cuts through nicely. “Keep Myself From Falling” is also in the same vein musically, but has a fabulous lyric that wouldn’t have been out of place on mainstream country radio (by the likes of Dierks Bentley) just five years ago and should be mainstream enough now if Bro-Country hadn’t taken over. The same goes for the title track, co-written with Darrell Brown, which has Foster laying bare his regrets in a relationship.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is “Mine Until The Morning,” a duet with Patty Griffin co-written with Darden Smith. A delicate piano-laced ballad, “Mine Until The Morning” is a gorgeous love song with Griffin’s guest vocal adding a beautiful richness to the track.

By most respects, Foster has turned in another wonderfully strong album both vocally and lyrically with Everything I Should’ve Said. Highlights abound left and right and “Whose Heart You Wreck (Ode To The Muse)” and “Not In My House” are two of the most powerful songs you’ll hear all year. The only misstep comes from Justin Tocket’s far too loud rockish production, which doesn’t render most tracks unlistenable, it’s just intrusive where it doesn’t need to be. Other than that, Everything I Should’ve Said is a solid album belonging in the company of Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash’s recent releases.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard’

working man's poetI have to admit to receiving the news of another Merle Haggard tribute album with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. It seemed unnecessary coming on the heels of Suzy Bogguss’ excellent Lucky and the artist line-up seemed uninspired, especially when compared to that of 1994’s Haggard tribute Mama’s Hungry Eyes, which featured like Randy Travis, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Radney Foster and Emmylou Harris, to name a few. I had serious doubts if half the artists on the just-released Working Man’s Poet had more than a vague awareness of who Haggard is before participating in this project. Some of them seem to have been selected primarily because they are on the roster of Broken Bow Records, which released the album. Others, like Joe Nichols and Randy Houser actually seemed to belong on such an album.

Reservations about the artist line-up aside, there is much to enjoy about this album and it even serves to illustrate that even relatively unexciting artists can rise to the occasion when given decent material to perform. I never expected to particularly enjoy anything by Thompson Square, for example, but their two contributions “You Take Me For Granted” (one of my favorite Haggard tunes) and “Let’s Chase Each Other Around The Room” are among the best on the album. Former American Idol contestant Kristy Lee Cook also turned in a solid performance on “Today I Started Loving You Again”, as did Dustin Lynch on “That’s The Way Love Goes”.

It was no surprise that Randy Houser’s versions of “Misery and Gin” and “Ramblin’ Fever” and Joe Nichols’ performances of “Footlights’ and “My Favorite Memory” were all excellent, but I was a little disappointed by Toby Keith’s rendition of “Carolyn”, which is marred by an intrusive string arrangement. “Pancho and Lefty” was always more of a Willie Nelson vehicle rather than a Haggard one, so I thought it was a little strange that it was included here. It’s performed by Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley with Bryan doing all the heavy lifting — singing Willie’s part. I don’t care much for the arena-rock style production but I was impressed with Bryan’s vocal performance. He is an artist I could actually enjoy if he chose his own material more carefully. It would have been nice if Dierks had been given another song to perform in addition to this one.

Another curious choice was the obscure 1980 track “Make Up and Faded Blue Jeans” — my least favorite on the album, performed by Jake Owens who sounds as though he is in way over his head. I tried very hard to set aside my intense dislike of Jason Aldean and fairly evaluate his two contributions, “Going Where The Lonely Go” and “Are The Good Times Really Over.” The results are a mixed bag; he rises to the occasion on the former, but falls flat on the latter. Haggard’s son Ben also makes two appearances with “Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home”. His voice is pleasant to listen to but he lacks his father’s vocal chops.

The CD version of the album includes “The Bottle Let Me Down”, but since it is performed by Garth Brooks, it was omitted from the iTunes version. I didn’t realize that when I downloaded the album, but I can live without it.

Although I still prefer the Mama’s Hungry Eyes album, I enjoyed Working Man’s Poet much more than I thought I would. It was worth purchasing, even if it did mean giving Jason Aldean space in my iTunes library.

Grade: B+

Week ending 4/5/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

tanyatucker1954 (Sales): Slowly – Webb Pierce (Decca)

1954 (Jukebox): Slowly – Webb Pierce (Decca)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): Slowly – Webb Pierce (Decca)

1964: Understand Your Man — Johnny Cash (Columbia)

1974: Would You Lay With Me (In A Field Of Stone) — Tanya Tucker (Columbia)

1984: Let’s Stop Talkin’ About It — Janie Fricke (Columbia)

1994: My Love — Little Texas (Warner Bros.)

2004: When The Sun Goes Down — Kenny Chesney with Uncle Kracker (BNA)

2014: This Is How We Roll — Florida Georgia Line ft. Luke Bryan (Republic Nashville)

2014 (Airplay): I Hold On — Dierks Bentley (Capitol)

My predictions for the 49th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards

Much like the state of modern country music the 49th annual Academy of Country Music are somewhat of a joke, marred by controversy and shameless rule breaking. Trigger, from Saving Country Music, did an excellent job summing up Justin Moore’s erroneous nomination for New Artist of the Year and exposing the truth behind the ‘fan voting.’ I highly suggest reading these three articles before proceeding further:

Justin Moore Should Be Disqualified from ACM’s “New Artist”

ACM’s Respond to Justin Moore’s “New Artist” Ineligibility

Why The Best Fan Vote for the ACM’s Is No Vote At All

 That being said, when the show airs this Sunday on CBS, it promises to be a fun night of modern country music. Here are the nominees. My Should Win / Will Win are predictions below:

UnknownEntertainer of the Year

It’s a solid list of deserving nominees who’ve all had a very big year in one-way or another.

Should Win: George Strait – he captured the CMA equivalent last fall in a surprise victory and continues to show all the ‘young guns’ how it’s done on his farewell Cowboy Rides Away Tour. He’s a legend, Country Music Hall of Famer, and the single most consistent artist and performer of the past thirty years. For him to lose would be an injustice.

Will Win: Blake Shelton or Luke Bryan – the show co-hosts are at the height of their popularity, with everything they touch turning to Gold. Bryan surprisingly won last year, so I’m betting Shelton will edge him out, and take home his first such trophy from the ACM. That is, if they don’t give the award to Strait.

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Album Review: Dierks Bentley – ‘Riser’

riserOf today’s current crop of artists, Dierks Bentley is one of the few who at least tries to get it right. Much of the time he succeeds, though occasionally his projects fall short of expectations. Unfortunately, his latest effort Riser, which was released last month falls mostly into the latter category. If you like your country arena-rock style, then you’ll probably enjoy this album, but if you think country music should actually sound country, you’ll likely be disappointed.

Riser was produced by singer-songwriter Ross Copperman. Though he has dabbled in country music from time to time — he co-wrote “Tip It On Back” (one of my least favorite Dierks Bentley singles) as well as songs for Steve Holy and Jennette McCurdy — Cooperman is best known for songs like “All She Wrote”, which was a 2007 pop hit in the UK and “Holding On And Letting Go”, which was featured in the television series The Vampire Diaries. Not surprisingly, bringing in a producer from outside the genre has resulted in one of Dierks’ least country-sounding albums.

Things get off to a decent start with “Bourbon In Kentucky”, the album’s lead single featuring background vocals from Kacey Musgreaves. Surprisingly, the record stalled at #40. The current single “I Hold On”, which Bentley wrote with Brett James, has fared much better. It currently resides at #3 on the charts, but it’s not particularly memorable.

Though not in alignment with my tastes, Riser is at least several notches above the usual dreck heard on country radio today, and it does contain some substantive songs. “Here on Earth” was inspired by the death of Dierks’ father and the 2012 Sandy Hooks school shootings in Connecticut, and “Damn These Dreams”, about trying to juggle competing priorites is well written. But I am bored to distraction with arena rock laced with a bit of banjo and steel guitar so people will think it’s country.

I became more and more disillusioned with this album with each passing track, when I was pleasantly surprised by the very last one — “Hurt Somebody”, which — surprise! actually sounds country and even contains a bit of fiddle and background vocals by Chris Stapleton, whose gravelly voice complements Dierks’ nicely. “Hurt Somebody” is the album’s one truly great song. Download it along with “Bourbon In Kentucky” and “Here on Earth” and skip the rest.

Grade: C

Christmas Rewind: Dierks Bentley – ‘Please Come Home For Christmas’

2013 CMA Awards predictions – Who should and will win

Here are my predictions for the 47th annual show, airing next Wednesday on ABC. Do you agree/disagree? As always you can check out the nominations, here.

UnknownENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR

A solid list of well deserving nominees, minus Carrie Underwood, whose lack of a nomination has already incurred my wrath. Taylor Swift may be the biggest star here, but the Country Music Association deserve credit for keeping their traditional edge alive and including George Strait, whose in the middle of his final tour.

Should Win: George Strait – he won back-to-back in 1989 and 1990 and deserves his third win this year, while he’s half way through his two year goodbye to the road

Will Win: Luke Bryan – he’s the biggest male artist in country music right now, selling huge amounts of albums and ranking up hit after hit. He’s on top and here to stay, which a win in this category is going to prove.

Cruise - Single CoverSINGLE OF THE YEAR

A surprising yet diverse list of nominees with Florida Georgia Line’s behemoth squaring off with Darius Rucker’s mainstream reading of an underground smash going up against Kacey Musgraves’ critical favorite, and Miranda Lambert’s best dose of angst since “Gunpowder & Lead.” I only wish The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” was here in place of “Highway Don’t Care.”

Should Win: “Mama’s Broken Heart” – the fourth single from Four The Record was album’s best and proof that artists who get complacent should put down their own pen and let the professionals take over.

Will Win: “Cruise” – It’s the #1 song in country music history with a rap remix that also made it relevant in pop, and more than five million digital downloads. Is there any other single of the year?

imagesALBUM OF THE YEAR

Taylor Swift’s first (but likely not last) foray into pop is up against Kacey Musgraves’ critical smash and Little Big Town’s coming out. Underwood’s album is just okay and Shelton’s should’ve been replaced with Ashley Monroe’s Like A Rose.

Should Win: Same Trailer Different Park – the best album of the bunch comes from a 24-year-old who pours more life experience into her twelve songs than all the other nominees combined. One of the strongest major label debuts in years.

Will Win: Red – name recognition alone will endear her to voters, who’ve been handing this award to the biggest star for the past several years. Not even the fact it’s a pop album will hurt her.

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Week ending 9/28/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

crystal1953 (Sales): A Dear John Letter — Jean Shepard & Ferlin Husky (Capitol)

1953 (Jukebox): Hey Joe!– Carl Smith (Columbia)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): Hey Joe!– Carl Smith (Columbia)

1963: Abilene – George Hamilton IV (RCA)

1973: You’ve Never Been This Far Before — Conway Twitty (MCA)

1983: Baby What About You — Crystal Gayle (Elektra)

1993: Holdin’ Heaven — Tracy Byrd (MCA)

2003: What Was I Thinkin’ — Dierks Bentley (Capitol)

2013: That’s My Kind Of Night — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

2013 (Airplay): Round Here — Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

Single Review: Dierks Bentley featuring Kacey Musgraves – ‘Bourbon In Kentucky’

Dierks Bentley - Bourbon In KentuckyOne of the best things about mainstream country today is they haven’t forgotten the drinking songs. Dierks Bentley is one of a handful of artists who consistently hits the top of the charts and still consistently hues more to the traditional side of things. Bentley’s latest single finds the singer lamenting that there’s not enough liquor to numb his heartbreak, already well-mined subject matter for country songwriters.

The track opens with a moody distortion to the music and builds to an arena rock-style crescendo. The juxtaposition of all that bombast and Bentley’s fretful performance of a tried and true classic country music theme actually works very nicely here and Kacey Musgraves provides a fitting smoky harmony part. Continued kudos to Dierks Bentley for keeping the quality high even when he’s obviously aiming for country radio airplay.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Craig Campbell – ‘Never Regret’

neverregretCraig Campbell’s eponymous debut album was one of the few bright spots in country music in 2011. It contained some first-rate songs, but lacking the support of a major label, it didn’t sell as well as it should have. Never Regret, which was released last month, continues in the same neotraditional vein. Keith Stegall and Matt Rovey produced the set, and Campbell shares songwriting credits on half of the album’s songs.

“Truck-N-Roll”, the opening track, is not as fluffy as the title might suggest. Co-written by Campbell with Brett Beavers and Chris Lindsey, it sounds a lot like something Beavers might have written for Dierks Bentley. It is also reminiscent of Easton Corbin’s “All Over The Road”, but it’s a better song and would make a good summertime single. Another mid-tempo number, the more contemporary “Keep Them Kisses Comin'” likewise should have a lot of appeal to radio, as would the humorous “My Baby’s Daddy” in which Campbell discusses an uneasy relationship with his future father-in-law. To date, however, only one single has been released — “Outta My Head”, a pleasant but forgettable piece of fluff that cracked the Top 40 last fall.

The album’s best track is the ballad “When She Grows Up”, about a father’s aspirations for his infant daughter, though I could have done without the very young child singing “Jesus Loves Me”, which serves as the song’s intro. “That’s Why God Made A Front Porch” is another winner, though it is probably not commercial enough to be released to radio. Another Campbell co-write, it is one of those increasingly rare songs that manages to pay homage to the country lifestyle without a lot of amped-up electric guitars and redneck posturing. “You Can Come Over”, is another nice ballad in which Campbell attempts to keep at arm’s length an old flame that he’s not quite over yet.

There isn’t anything particularly memorable about the remainder of the album’s songs. Overall, the material on Never Regret isn’t as strong as that of the first album. Campbell didn’t write as many of the songs this time around, and it appears as though he and his producers may have had some trouble finding an entire album’s worth of first-rate tunes. It comes off as a largely play-it-safe effort that probably won’t earn Campbell any new fans, but also won’t alienate those who liked his first album.

Grade: B

Album Review: Brad Paisley – ‘Wheelhouse’

wheelhouse“Southern Comfort Zone”, the lead single from Brad Paisley’s newly-released album Wheelhouse is a fish out of water tale that makes the case that pushing the envelope and venturing outside one’s familiar territory can be a very positive thing. It’s a very appropriate message from an artist who has been pushing his own boundaries, with varying degrees of success, beginning with 2009’s American Saturday Night. Wheelhouse is Paisley’s most ambitious project to date; he wrote or co-wrote all of its songs, and produced the album itself. Unfortunately, the material is very uneven in quality and even the better tracks serve as evidence that up to now Paisley has benefited immensely from the guidance of Frank Rogers, who produced all of his previous albums.

With its references to Billy Graham and Martha White, “Southern Comfort Zone” is a celebration of southern culture, complete with audio clips from The Andy Griffith Show, and makes the case that travel broadens the mind. It’s an appropriate opening track to an album that takes the listener on a long (sometimes too long) musical journey that has a few twists and turns along the way. It is followed by Paisley’s current single, “Beat This Summer”, a feel-good summertime tune with not-too-deep lyrics, that suffers from production that is too cluttered and overwhelming.

Brad is joined by an eclectic roster of guest artists, including Dierks Bentley, Hunter Hayes, Charlie Daniels, the late Roger Miller, and rapper LL Cool J. Of these collaborations, the Bentley/Hayes/Miller one, “Outstanding In Our Field” is the most interesting, though the inclusion of Miller’s vocals seems gimmicky and unnecessary. “Karate”, featuring Daniels, is about a battered wife who takes her revenge by studying the martial arts. It sounds too much like a party anthem for such serious subject matter. But the album’s true zenith comes with “Accidental Racist”, in which Paisley apologizes to a Starbucks barista for wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a Confederate flag, as well as all the social injustices of the last 150 years. LL Cool J provides the other side of the conversation, which is an admirable (I suppose) attempt at a serious dialog about race, but instead comes across as pandering.

There is a fair sampling of songs that are more vintage Paisley — such as “Death of a Single Man” and “Runaway Train” (the one track on the album that I truly enjoyed), but even these are marred by overwrought production and Paisley’s attempts to sing at the top of his vocal register. Many of the album’s songs contain background vocals from annoying choruses that mimic the “oohing” and “ah-ing” of area rock concert audiences.

In addition to the standard album, there are two extended versions of Wheelhouse – the Deluxe and Cracker Barrel editions, which each containing different sets of bonus tracks, that I found more enjoyable than most of the songs on the main part of the album. The Cracker Barrel edition, which oddly enough is available for download from Amazon, contains an acoustic version of “Beat This Summer” which is far superior to the original. “Only Way She’ll Stay” and “She Never Quite Got Over Him” both deserved slots on the main part of the album.

It’s hard to fault Paisley for trying to expand his horizons, but by and large Wheelhouse does not succeed on an artistic level, and since his fingerprints are all over the project as its producer and main songwriter, the fault clearly lies with him. After the somewhat disappointing This Is Country Music, I’d hoped for a return to form. I still think Brad Paisley has a lot of good music left in him, but not enough made it into this collection. Here’s to hoping that his next album will be a bit less self-indulgent and more conventional.


Grade: C-

When the dead roam the country charts: posthumous hits and manufactured “duets”

brad paisleyWhen Brad Paisley’s Wheelhouse was released last week, everybody was talking about “Accidental Racist”, the controversial duet with LL Cool J. Late night shows like Saturday Night Live and The Colbert Report were merciless in taking apart the song’s misguided message. And the discussion isn’t likely to be over anytime soon.

Another track on the album stood out to me too. “Outstanding In Our Field” features guest vocals from Dierks Bentley and the late Roger Miller, and Hunter Hayes on guitar. Miller’s contribution is used mostly to beef up the rhythm section of Paisley’s latest loud party anthem list song.  Paisley’s track rips off the entire ten-second opening of Miller’s “Dang Me” – the part where Roger sings  “boo doo boo ba ba bum bom” – but any similarities between the two songs ends with that sampling. If Paisley’s song charts, it could be Miller’s first showing on the Country Songs list since 1986.

Country music has a long history of singers hitting the charts after their deaths, with solo hits and with “duets” pieced together using studio master tapes. Hank Williams had 4 #1 hits and a handful of top 10’s after his death on New Year’s Day 1953. (Even though it was on the charts in 1952, because “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive” hit the top shortly after the singer’s death it is counted in Billboard as a posthumous hit.) In 1989, Hank Williams Jr. took a demo recording of his father singing “There’s a Tear In My Bear”, beefed up the production and added his own vocals to create a top 10 hit single, which would go on to win both Williamses a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Collaboration. The music video for that song featured old television footage of Hank Sr. performing merged with Hank Jr. and made for a cool illusion of the two singing together. It took home Video of the Year awards from the CMA and the ACM’s that year.

In May 1989, country music lost another great talent when Keith Whitley died. He too would hit the top spot after his death, with “I Wonder Do You Think of Me” and “It Ain’t Nothin'”. Whitley charted two more top 20 releases as a solo artist after his death, and two more in duets with wife Lorrie Morgan – “Til a Tear Becomes a Rose” – and with Earl Thomas Conley, on “Brotherly Love”. Unlike the duet with his widow, Whitley and Conley had recorded their song two years before, so it’s not an example of an electronic duet.

Gentleman Jim Reeves is country music’s biggest posthumous hit-maker. His string of hits after death is as impressive as what he charted during his lifetime. Reeves racked up 6 #1 country hits after he died in 1964, as well 13 top 10s, and over two dozen total country top 40 chart outings stretching to 1984 – two full decades later. He also consistently hit the top 10 on the charts in Norway and the U.K., Reeves even topped the U.K. singles chart with “Distant Drums” in 1966. Partly because of his continued popularity on the radio and in the record stores, Jim Reeves was also one of the first artists to have his vocals isolated and then remixed with another singer’s to form a duet. In 1979, Deborah Allen kickstarted her short solo career when she contributed to RCA’s unfinished master tapes of Reeves – which resulted in  3 consecutive top 10 hit duets. The Gentleman was then paired with his contemporary Patsy Cline – the two had recorded a number of the same songs – for a pair of albums on MCA and RCA, and they hit the top 5 with “Have You Ever Been Lonely” in 1982.

Those are just some highlights in country music’s history of posthumous duet creations. There are lots more, and some weren’t as well-received. Anita Cochran controversially added Conway Twitty to her “I Wanna Hear a Cheatin’ Song” in 2004. Several other artists and even the late singer’s family spoke out when Twitty’s vocals were spliced from former performances and interviews and added to the song, in what has correctly been called a case of “musical necrophilia“.

roger millerIs Paisley guilty of the same musical necrophilia? I say he is. Unlike all the hit duet creations I mentioned above, Conway Twitty and Roger Miller didn’t record a version of either “I Wanna Hear a Cheatin’ Song” or “Outstanding In Our Field”. These are songs that were written years after their deaths. And while Brad Paisley’s sampling of Roger Miller’s distinct and well-known song opening  works better as an homage than Anita Cochran’s creepy robotic-sounding creation, it still seems like a cutesy way of paying tribute to Miller. How about covering “England Swings” or “Old Toy Trains”? Or better yet, why not write an original song that sounds like it was inspired by Roger Miller?

Roger Miller is not here today to say whether or not he’d like to add his trademark scatting to a song all about a party in a field, with a tractor tire as a cooler for the beer and a bonfire to light up the night. A song with all the subtlety and charm of a drill sergeant at six a.m.  Roger Miller – a man renowned for his quick wit and quips like “Some people walk in the rain, others just get wet.” – would likely object to it. But that’s not really my call to make. None of us – music blogger or platinum-selling country star – should be making that call for Roger Miller.  Dang you, Brad Paisley. Dang you.

Album Review: Holly Williams – ‘The Highway’

the highwayBeing the grand-daughter of Hank Williams (and to a rather lesser extent the daughter of Hank Jr) is a lot for a young singer-songwriter to live up to. Holly’s first two major label albums had some fine songs, but I was not quite convinced she was a fully formed artist. Now in her 30s, she has made the leap and produced a truly excellent collection of songs, released on her own label. Holly’s sultry alto voice is compelling as she portrays a variety of characters or bares her own soul. In a vague modern Americana singer-songwriter style with frequent use of a cello giving a richer, less sweet sound than the more familiar fiddle, it is tastefully produced by the artist with Charlie Peacock, best known for his work with critical favourites The Civil Wars.

Among the best songs is the bleak ‘Giving Up’, which she announces as “the saddest damn story you’ve ever seen”. It is a weary plea addressed to an alcoholic friend who keeps on claiming to be tackling her problem, a wife and mother so far gone, “the doctor said you’d die if you had another drink”. But that doesn’t seem to get her beyond platitudes, and Holly notes, incisively:

Well, I wonder if it scares you
I wonder if you think about
The daughter that you’re leaving
The man you used to love
And the son that cries for you
..
Well I guess this is it
Oh yeah, you must be giving up

You put us all through a living hell
A thousand excuses for your liquor trail
But my compassion is fading fast
Another rehab, and you break another glass

Bottles in driers
Bottles in shoes
There are even bottles in the baby’s room
You’re losing everything that you ever had
Your life is one thing all that money can’t buy back

This hits very hard, and sounds as if it was inspired by a specific person.

The powerful, pained ‘Drinkin’ tackles a drinking, cheating, abusive husband to ask him why, and is another of the strongest songs, with Holly’s compelling vocal grabbing attention.

Another highlight is ‘Waiting On June’ a tender reimagining of Holly’s maternal grandparents’ love story, which is very touching, with added poignancy from the death of the grandfather’s WWII comrade. The acoustic arrangement and actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s backing vocals give it a homespun feel.

Also based on her family, the quietly mournful ‘Gone Away From Me’ is a beautifully observed recollection of a small town childhood blighted by the loss of family members, and is another highlight. Jackson Browne sings backing vocals, but it is Holly’s emotional vocal which really bring this alive.

‘Railroads’ picks up the tempo with a disconcertingly upbeat tone musically belying the dark first-person story of a sinful preacher’s wild son.

‘Happy’ is a mournful reverie about a past relationship the protagonist now regrets throwing away, with the cello sounding almost menacing as Holly bemoans:

The truth is I loved you all the same
That night I broke your heart
And the day you cursed my name
And the truth is I never really knew
You were everything to me
Until it was much too late
Cause you’re the only one who makes me
The only one who makes me happy

Like the stripped-down acoustic bluesy folk ‘Let You Go’, it is written by Holly with Chris Coleman, her rock drummer husband. With Cary Barlowe, the pair also wrote ‘Til It Runs Dry’, a cheerful-sounding mid-tempo number featuring Dierks Bentley’s backing vocals.

‘Without You’, written with Lori McKenna, looks back to past searching for love and life, from a position of fulfilment. Jakob Dylan sings backing vocals, and a stately cello gives a mature feel befitting the literary allusions in the lyric. Sarah Buxton co-wrote ‘A Good Man’, a sweet love song with a striking acappella first verse and stately melody.

The title track was the least compelling song, but the weakest song on an album this strong is still pretty good. here Holly fondly recalls the period she was on the road with her music.

This is an excellent set which should appeal to fans of literate female singer-songwriters with country and Americana connections, like Matraca Berg, Lori McKenna and Mary Chapin Carpenter, but for my money this is the most appealing record of its kind I’ve heard in a long time.

Grade: A

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