My Kind of Country

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Single Review – Easton Corbin – ‘Clockwork’

Easton-Corbin-2-630x630The curious case of Easton Corbin continues.

In a format smothered by 80s rock, he’s the one artist given the freedom to retain a sound rich with steel guitars, fiddles, and audible twang. Country radio plays his singles, too, which is a remarkable feat for someone who wears their country credibility openly on their sleeve.

So why is he still recording mediocre inoffensive middle-of-the-road material? Does his record label have his image so tightly controlled he can’t rise to anything great nor fall to the doldrums like his peers?

“Clockwork” retains the same narrative Corbin’s been singing for his past few singles. It’s another guy-girl relationship song with the twist this time around being her punctual arrival at his place every Friday night. The writers inject the word ‘girl’ at the end of almost every line, as if to bro the song up, but it only sounds like a desperate plea to keep Corbin’s music on the radio.

Corbin could be a great country singer if he just had stronger lyrics and far more interesting melodies behind his natural twang. Even he, as evidenced by his relaxed vocal delivery, sounds a bit bored with his chosen material. Corbin does put some feeling into this, but his overall lack of energy prevents “Clockwork” from elevating past mundane.

This pleasing to all vanilla act has gone on too long. Let’s hope his upcoming album shows us what Corbin’s really made of.

Grade: B- 

Songwriters: Carson Chamberlain, Wade Kirby, and Ashley Gorley

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Album Review: Wynn Varble – ‘Freak Show’

wynnvarbleWynn Varble had been a successful songwriter for years without evident ambition of making it as an artist until he agreed to take party in CMT’s Next Superstar show a few years ago. He didn’t win, and was clearly cast as comic relief, but that made him the most entertaining aspect of that show. The title of new album Freak Show sounds as though it is a comedy record, but in fact is mixes up serious and funny songs. The production is competent but not inspired or subtle. Wynn is frankly a limited vocalist, without much range, so it is not surprising that it is the comedic material that works best for him, with a couple of genuinely funny numbers.

I loved ‘AA Meeting Gone Bad’, the simile for a disastrous family reunion. The comedy is broad but effective, with the protagonist correctly predicting the brawl that develops. Drunken criticisms lead to

Bunch of cousins cryin’
Blamin’ and denyin’
Like an AA meeting gone bad

The wife of the jailbird ex-preacher cousin declares,

“Your daddy was a Jones and you ain’t even really kin”
And the skeletons all started pilin’ out
Of the closets they were hidin’ in

It all ends with
A bunch of drunk men and women
Huggin’ and forgivin
Like an AA meeting gone bad

Keeping the song short and succinct at under three minutes helps the joke not to get overblown.

Varble co-wrote Easton Corbin’s ‘A Little More Country Than That’, but here he pokes a little fun at the country pride genre with the wry ‘A Little Too Country’. The self-proclaimed country boy narrator admits his hillbilly date(found online on downhomegirls.com) is hot but just a little too much of a stereotype with unsophisticated tastes, missing teeth, and inbred family that put paid to this romance:

I thought I’d never say these words
But she’s a little too country for me

It is funny, but some will be offended by the very broad humor.

‘John Deere Letter’ is a mildly amusing story song about a farmer whose wife says goodbye in a note stuck to his tractor dashboard. The poor cuckolded husband mows his response in his field of wheat so his ex’s lover (a cropduster) can see it when flying overhead.

‘Freak Show’ critiques the ever –increasing excesses of modern TV reality shows. It’s loud and obnoxious, rather like its subject, which may be appropriate but makes it unappealing to listen to.

‘Right’ is a less successful attempt at humor, with a rambling and not very interesting story of a bar encounter. ‘Ever Been Down To Mexico’ seems to be intended to be a funny take on the downside of a vacation which becomes a gambling trip, but it too falls flat, while ‘The Hot Sign’s On’ is pretty dull.

Wynn’s limited vocals do rather let down the serious material, like the affecting ‘The You I Never Knew’. This has Wynn hearing stories he could never have imagined about his straitlaced father’s wild early life at the old man’s funeral. This is quite good and could have been great with a more emotive vocalist. Another good song with a serious message, ‘Out Bailing Hay’, contrasts industry bailouts with the American farmer just getting on with life, whatever disasters befall. The production on this is a bit heavy handed, but the song works well.

The wistful ‘Even The River Don’t Know’ is quite pretty, and deserves a better singer. Wynn’s wearied everyman vocal is more successful on ‘Like Old Cowboys Do’, a nicely observed portrait of a soldier dreaming of a future life on the range. The jazzy minor keyed ‘Youth Is Wasted On The Young’ is about wasted opportunities and spurned chances, and has some insight, while ‘World Goes Round’ is a rather pedestrian slice of philosophy of the cycle of life.

It’s always interesting to hear a songwriter interpreting his (or her) own material, and this is no exception, even when the vocals are not as good. There are some worthwhile tracks here – and Wynn has a real gift for comedy.

Grade: B-

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

Single Review: Easton Corbin – ‘All Over The Road’

easton corbin roadThe second single (and title track) from Easton Corbin’s second album is a likeable enough love song. The attractive melody, Carson Chamberlain’s production and Easton’s smooth vocal are all very pleasing, and those alone set it above the mass of songs out there.

But when you listen closely, the lyrics are frankly problematic. The single portrays a man pulled over for dangerous driving thanks to the proximity of his sweetheart. Taken metaphorically, the emotion is quite sweet; but one can hardly take it seriously read literally. The feeble defence of the protagonist that he “don’t want to cause no wreck” are unbelievable; the disclaimer that he isn’t actually drunk is disingenuous. The girl is supposedly all over him while he’s trying to drive, and they’ll be “all over the road” in a literal sense if they’re not careful. You can’t really dismiss this level of irresponsibility as just a fun song. It was written by producer Carson Chamberlain with Ashley Gorley and Wade Kirby.

It does gain points for the sound, which is a nice balance of radio-friendly polish with genuinely country instrumentation, the melody and vocal, but they aren’t enough to make up for the folly of the lyrics. If the track is relegated to background music it’s nice enough, but one of the strengths of country music is that it takes real life seriously. The lyrics of a song almost always matter.

This is one of the (too many) tracks Jonathan Pappalardo dismissed as “lightweight filler” in his review of the album, and it’s hard to disagree. As one of the few traditionally-disposed artists currently welcome on country radio airwaves, and offering some hope for the future of the genre, it’s a real shame Easton Corbin isn’t finding more interesting material. But perhaps that’s what it takes these days, when artists like George Strait and Alan Jackson, who are clearly inspirations to Easton, have seen songs with real substance cast aside by radio.

Grade: C+

J.R. Journey’s Top Singles of 2012

Four veteran superstars, two of country music’s hottest groups, a couple of up-and-comers, and two debut singles make up my top ten singles list this year. Rather than tell you why it’s a damn shame that radio was unwelcoming toward Alan Jackson and George Strait’s respective singles and how they’ll probably cool toward Kasey Musgraves soon and likely won’t give Ashley Monroe a shot either, I’ll just say that six of my ten favorites were big hits. That’s something. And I’ll tell you why I like these songs.

10. Jana Kramer – “Why You Wanna”

One Tree Hill star Jana Kramer made the actress-to-country-singer leap flawlessly with her promising debut on this fiddle-laced plea. (Take note, future wannabes.)  “Out of all of the places in this little town/Yeah, you had to come walking in here and sit down” she mews and wins over millions of country fans, myself included.

kenny chesney - el cerrito place9. Kenny Chesney – “El Cerrito Place”

Kenny Chesney hits a sweet spot with medium-tempo ballads like this one, and he’s gotten a lot better at selecting them recently. (See: “Better As A Memory”, “You Save Me”, “You and Tequila”.) This Keith Gattis tune is more evidence of Chesney’s superior skills for selection and delivery.

8. Easton Corbin – “Lovin’ You Is Fun”

This guy has the vocal chops and the strutting neotraditional sound to keep this kind of country alive for a new generation of fans. I really like the rapid fire verses meeting the toe-tapping chorus here.

carrie underwood - two black cadillacs7. Carrie Underwood – “Two Black Cadillacs”

Underwood’s finest single to date is “Does He Love You” meets “Delia’s Gone” set to an appropriately ominous contemporary sound.

6. Ashley Monroe – “Like a Rose”

As one-third of the Pistol Annies, Ashley Monroe and company gave us one of the best albums of 2011. This year, she attempts solo country stardom once more on a sweet song with smart lyrics. The hook is not original, but its memorable nonetheless. And it sticks in my ear just right.

zac brown band - uncaged5. Zac Brown Band – “Goodbye In Her Eyes”

Their breezy harmonies and snappy songs have made the Zac Brown Band a perennial favorite for me since their debut. And they didn’t disappoint this year with this slow-burning number.

4. George Strait – “Drinkin’ Man”

Thirty years into his recording career, Strait set a new high-water mark for himself with his Here for a Good Time album. This stunning narrative from a man battling his alcohol demons is one of his best singles ever.

band perry - better dig two3. The Band Perry – “Better Dig Two”

This song comes from two of my favorite current writers – Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark – with Trevor Rosen, but fits well with Kimberly Perry’s own clever musings on mortality and love. Continued kudos to the band for sticking with this organic sound following their big breakthrough.

2. Alan Jackson – “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore”

Jackson’s first single from his excellent Thirty Miles West album is stone country at its melancholy finest. It’s similar to those early gut punches in Jackson’s catalog like “Here In The Real World” and “Wanted”. Here, he’s taking all the blame for the end of this love affair and even says he won’t pick up if she ever drunk dials him one night. That’s downright decent.

kasey musgraves - merry go round1. Kacey Musgraves – “Merry Go Round”

The Texas singer and former Nashville Star contestant’s debut is a vivid and sometimes startling yarn about small town life and features a light touch of production well-suited to the lyrics and one of the neatest rhyme schemes I can remember.

Listen to a playlist of my favorites on Spotify.

Razor X’s Top Singles of 2012

Every year it seems that it becomes more difficult to compile a list of the year’s top singles. I seldom listen to country radio anymore and as such I’ve become much more album oriented and barely aware of which songs on my favorite albums were actually released as singles. However, I have managed to identify a few bright spots in a genre that is still sadly headed in the wrong direction. Here are my favorite choices of 2012:

dierks10. 5-1-5-0 — Dierks Bentley

Though not as good as his previous single “Home”, which made my list of 2011’s top singles, the title of this catchy number refers to the section of the California Welfare and Institutions Code which allows law enforcement officers to involuntarily confine individuals with mental disorders. In the case of the narrator of this story, it is his love interest who is making him crazy.

9. Neon — Chris Young

Songs paying homage to one’s favorite watering hole have long been a staple in country music, but this tune by the best of country music’s current crop of male vocalists does it in a fresh and interesting way, comparing the colors of the bar’s neon signs to the blue of a Wyoming sky, the red of a Santa Fe sunset, and the yellow of Texas sunflowers. It underperformed on the charts, peaking at a disappointing #23.

martina8. Marry Me — Martina Bride featuring Pat Monahan

It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to get excited about anything Martina McBride has done, but I was pleasantly surprised by this cover version of a hit for the group Train. Given country radio’s current pop leanings I expected this one to perform well on the charts, but it stalled at #45.

7. Diamonds Make Babies — Bradley Gaskin

I prefer Dierk Bentley’s version of this tune that delves into the six degrees of separation between engagement and parenthood, but it’s a fun song no matter who sings it.

terri6. Love Is A Rose — Terri Clark
If I were compiling a list of this sort a decade ago, it would have been inconceivable that the vast majority of my selections would be by male vocalists. Terri Clark is one of the few females who has released anything that I found remotely interesting this year. Sixteen years after she topped the charts with “Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me”, Clark shows that she can still wrap her vocal cords around a Linda Ronstadt tune. Unfortunately, Terri’s record is unlikely to get any chart action in the U.S., but hopefully it will gain some traction in Canada.

5. Living For A Song– Jamey Johnson featuring Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson and Hank Cochran

The capstone of Johnson’s magnficient tribute album to one of country music’s greatest songwriters finds him joining forces with legends Nelson, Haggard and Kristofferson, and the late Hank Cochran himself. Predictably, it was ignored by country radio.

Zac Brown Band in Concert on NBC's "Today Show" at Rockefeller Center in New York City on July 13, 20124. No Hurry — Zac Brown Band

I really liked everything that the Zac Brown Band released this year and was tempted to include all three of their single releases but that seemed like taking the lazy way out. “No Hurry”, which peaked at #2 early this year, is my favorite of the bunch.

3. Loving You Is Fun — Easton Corbin
This laid back tune, which I reviewed back in February, reminds me of the type of song Clint Black used to do in the 90s. Country music needs more artists like Easton Corbin.

2. So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore — Alan Jackson
Alan’s second single under a new deal with EMI Nashville is well written and impeccably performed but unfortunately, it did nothing to reverse his chart decline. The production and his vocal performance are nicely understated.

george1. Drinkin’ Man — George Strait
After phoning it in for the past couple of years, George Strait came back in a big way with this tune about a lifelong struggle with alcoholism. He tackles the topic in a straightforward and effective manner, never becoming maudlin or preachy. He co-wrote the song with his son Bubba and Dean Dillon. It stands in stark contrast with most of the fluff on country radio — or at least it would have had it received more airplay. It stalled at #37, which is nothing short of tragic because it likely means that the major labels will not be inclined to release material like this in the future. But even though it is the lowest charting single of Strait’s long and illustrious career, it is an artistic triumph.

Album Review – Easton Corbin – ‘All Over The Road’

Upon the release of his self-titled debut in 2010, Easton Corbin was branded as the savior of country music thanks to his neo-traditional sound and George Strait-like vocal approach. Corbin showed promise, and scored back-to-back #1s, but his debut felt too safe, like he was aiming to please by recording songs that were middle of the road and took few risks.

Unfortunately that trend continues with All Over The Road and I can fully understand why. In our post “Neon” and “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore” society, it’s clear that neo-traditionalism is being pushed out in an effort to “Kick It In The Sticks” with “The One That Got Away” while we “Tip It On Back” and “Take A Little Ride.”

But thankfully Corbin and producer Carson Chamberlin didn’t completely sacrifice quality at the price of commercial viability. There actually are some excellent songs thrown into the mix, and if country radio will play them, they might turn into big hits.

I’ve been a big fan of the lead single, Jim Beavers and Bob DiPiero’s “Lovin’ You Is Fun,” the catchy two-step number currently sitting at #8 and climbing. The easygoing nature of Corbin’s vocal coupled with the beautiful stands of steel guitar laced through the arrangement more than sell the song while the upbeat nature means its perfect fodder for heavy rotation at radio.

I also love the romantic “A Thing For You,” which Corbin co-wrote with Chamberlin and Tony Lane. Sounding like a long-lost mid-90s shuffle, the track succeeds because its light as air and turns the mournful steel guitar into an optimistic delight.

“Only A Girl” co-written by Chamberlin with Will Nance and Wade Kirby exists in much the same fashion, and is very ear catching. The hook of “It’s Only a Girl/There’s A Million of them in this Town” is kind of basic, but Corbin makes up for it by injecting the track with his personality.

Another standout is album highlight “Tulsa, Texas,” which Tony Lane co-wrote with Mike Lane and David Lee. Another upbeat steel infused honky-tonker, it didn’t make the cut for Corbin’s debut, but he liked it so much he put on here.

It’s easy to see why, as it boasts the best lyric on the album with the story of a guy telling his ex where she can find him:

I’ll be down in Tulsa, Texas, Tallahassee, Tennessee

Memphis, Mississippi, it’s probably where I’m gonna be

Albuquerque, Alabama, St. Lou, Louisiana

If you wanna find me, you can find me in Tulsa, Texas

Another favorite is the closer, Tom Shepherd and Jeff Silvey’s “I Think Of You,” which sounds like the best Zac Brown Band song they didn’t record. A perfect country tune, Chamberlin did a wonderful job of opening the track as a piano ballad before bringing in the steel, fiddle, drums, and guitars. That beginning allows Corbin to display his venerability and showcase how he’s grown since his debut.

Likely second single “Are You With Me” is a little slicker than we’ve come to expect from Corbin, but it never becomes bombastic thanks to the healthy dose of steel in the not-to-distant background. The romantic ballad also succeeds because of Corbin’s tender vocal, but the track would’ve been even better had it been a duet with someone like Carrie Underwood or Miranda Lambert or maybe even Kellie Pickler or Lee Ann Womack.

A duet would’ve given the album some added spice, which wouldn’t have hurt the proceedings, which were brought down by the addition of a few throwaway tracks. “That’s Gonna Leave A Memory,” “This Feels A Lot Like Love” and the title track are all okay in their own right, but feel like light weight filler. They’re the kind of songs Alan Jackson has been getting away with for more than a decade – indistinguishable honky-tonkers where you swap lyrics out of the same basic melody over and over again. I’ve been over this practice since before it began and don’t want to see Corbin brought down by it.

“Hearts Drawn In The Sand” has a solid story, but kind of feels like the type of song given to a new artist when they’re trying to establish themselves. I wasn’t impressed by its inclusion here, although Corbin does his best with what he’s given to work with.

But I really like “Dance Real Slow,” even if it has the same fiddle licks as Strait’s “Amarillo By Morning.” I love the accents of fiddle throughout and the whole vibe of the song just works.

Overall I really like All Over The World. When I was listening to it, I kind of felt like I was back in 1995 listening to Daryle Singletary, but the more I dig in the more solid the album feels. He definitely could’ve stood to take more risk and stretch himself (does every song have to be about a girl?) but he proves here he’s one of the good guys, even if he should rough himself up a bit more.

Grade: A –

Television Review – ‘The Joey + Rory Show’

For those old enough to remember, Country Music has a long history with the variety show. Everyone from Porter Wagoner to the Wilburn Brothers, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, The Statler Brothers and even Barbara Mandrell (along with her sisters Louise and Irlene) graced America’s TV sets at one point or another.

This tradition has long since ended as the format died out over the past thirty years. The downfall in this type of programming meant generations of country fans wouldn’t have the opportunity to see their favorite performers on TV each week and get a chance to pull back the curtain to see the person behind the celebrity.

But thanks to RFD-TV, the format is coming back strong. The traditionally structured Marty Stuart Show has been showing his, and Connie Smith’s, brand of country music for a couple of years now, and The Joey + Rory Show debuted two weeks ago.

Mixing homespun wisdom and old-fashioned charm, The Joey + Rory Show is the perfect showcase for the husband and wife duo residing in Pottsville, Tennessee. Filmed on their farm and in their restaurant Marcy Jo’s Mealhouse, they make you feel like you’ve gone back to the simpler ideals of the 1950s/1960s when America’s beating heart resided in Mayberry.

This simplicity gives the show its pulse and encases each episode in a sincere authenticity that feels genuine opposed to concocted from a network executive.  Each thirty-minute episode (13 comprise the first season) is broken into segments from musical performances, comedy sketches, and cooking demonstrations, to an inside look at their life and marriage.

The music-centric portions of the program are the show’s strongest, with the “Story Behind The Song” feature standing as the highlight of the half-hour. By combining the couple’s instinctive storytelling abilities with acoustic versions of songs they’ve written, you glean a much-appreciated insight into the lives of the duo. I loved hearing Rory talk openly about the seven-year journey it took to get “A Little More Country Than That” recorded, and how the royalty checks from Easton Corbin’s #1 hit afforded them a new tin roof on their 1890s farmhouse. I also enjoyed hearing Joey tell the story of how the couple met and hearing her sing “A Night To Remember,” the yet-to-be recorded song written about that experience.

Also outstanding are the opening numbers, live performances of tracks from their excellent His and Hers album due July 31. They showcased the Kent Blazy and Leslie Satcher co-write “Let’s Pretend We’ve Never Met” in the premiere and Rory’s “The Bible and a Belt” last week, opposite ends of the His and Hers spectrum that highlight Joey’s comedic strengths and Rory’s rich family oriented storytelling.

Each week the duo also showcases guest performers, personal favorites of their choosing. By highlighting lesser-known performers, they spotlight a more refreshing crop of talents like Bradley Walker, the wheelchair bound traditional country and Bluegrass singer and 2007 IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year. The inclusion of these such performers, opposed to drawing from a pool of more established acts, exposes the viewer to artists they may not have known before and I welcome, as well as appreciate, any and all opportunities to be exposed to fresh talent not connected to mainstream Nashville.

As a whole The Joey + Rory Show is unapologetically Joey  and Rory and if you’re not a fan of the couple’s aw shucks persona and simple lifestyle, then the broader moments of the program may not be for you. The weakest moment on the program remains an Andy Rooney style comedy commentary by their neighbor and friend Wynn Varble, an established country songwriter (“Waitin’ On A Woman,” “Have You Forgotten,” “Sounds Like Life To Me”). His southern sense of humor comes off a tad Hicky for my tastes. And while I love the charm of their cooking segments, like the Coca Cola Cake demonstrated in the first episode, they aren’t broad enough recipes to appeal to everyone. That isn’t a big issue, though, since I really enjoy these aspects into Joey’s other job as a restaurateur with Rory’s sister Marcy.

Overall, The Joey + Rory Show is a wonderful yet unconventional variety show bubbling with the personality both Joey Martin and Rory Lee Feek bring to the table each week. They wanted to create great family programming and they certainly achieve that objective tenfold, giving fans a very enjoyable look at what they’re about in all aspects of their life, proving they’re a natural at everything they do.

The Joey + Rory Show airs Friday nights at 9 EST on RFD-TV, Rural America’s Most Important Network

Grade: A- 

Single Review: Easton Corbin – ‘Lovin’ You Is Fun’

It seems like a long time since we’ve heard anything new from Easton Corbin. After arriving on the scene in a big way with two consecutive #1 hits two and a half years ago, he faltered with his third single “I Can’t Love You Back”, which stalled at #14. Since then he’s been relatively quiet, but he is finally back with a new single, with a new album slated for release later this year.

From the very beginning, Corbin’s vocal style was compared to that of a young George Strait, and though the similarities are still there, the first thing I thought of upon hearing the opening notes of “Lovin’ You Is Fun” was that it sounded very much like the kind of song that Clint Black used to do early in his career — fast paced, high energy and not taking itself too seriously, a throwback to the good old days in the 90s. It’s an upbeat, positive song that should appeal to country radio, if they can overlook the prominent pedal steel and lack of pop pretensions. It was written by Bob DiPiero and Jim Beavers. DiPiero has penned countless hits for the likes of The Oak Ridge Boys, Charly McClain, Reba McEntire, Pam Tillis, Brooks & Dunn, Sammy Kershaw and Sunny Sweeney, while Beavers co-wrote “Felt Good On My Lips” for Tim McGraw, “Red Solo Cup” for Toby Keith and a few of Dierks Bentley’s poorer efforts.

February seems like an odd time to release a light-hearted, beat-driven record like this one, but records take so long to climb the charts these days, summer will be just around the corner by the time this one peaks. I hope that does well for two reasons: (1) because Corbin needs a hit; in today’s climate he can’t afford to miss the Top 10 with two consecutive singles, and (2) because country music desperately needs more artists like Easton Corbin.

“Lovin’ You Is Fun” is not yet available for purchase, but it has been released to country radio and can be heard here.

Grade: A

All about the image?

The latest episode of CMT’s current reality competition, CMT’s Next Superstar, which you can catch up with on the CMT website if you havent been watching the show live, focussed on image. Viewers saw the five surviving competitors each getting a makeover and doing a photo shoot for an album, as well as recording a classic song, before selling themselves to staff at Warner Music, whose votes counted towards that week’s elimination. Image seems to be increasingly important in marketing country music today, and has been ever since music videos became a major way of selling artists.

While an artist’s looks and fashion choices have nothing to do with the quality of their music, they do help to form the general public’s expectations, particularly for a new artist. If New Singer X is pictured wearing jeans and a cowboy hat, I do expect to hear something different from what I expect to hear from New Singer Y, whose outfit is indistinguishable from his/her pop star counterparts.

Modern traditionalists like Alan Jackson and George Strait may seem to pay little attention to image matters, but their style is as (or more) effective in it its way by signalling to the audience that here is an unquestionably country singer. The neo-traditional wave of the early 90s fizzled out in a sea of “Hat Acts”, many of them fine artists in their own right, but they tended to merge into one to many listeners when they shared a similar look and musical style. Chris Young, one of the brightest young traditionalists, often wears that cowboy hat, although Strait-style Easton Corbin does not. Compare him to, say, Jimmy Wayne or the men in Lady Antebellum, who have a much more “fashionable” appearance – and a much less country sound. Of course, it can be misleading; other cowboy hat wearers include rocker Jason Aldean. Sometimes the cowboy hat is a visual equivalent of singing lyrics about how country you are, without necessarily being supported by the music. In the 90s, Marty Stuart was making energetic country rock, but was keenly carrying on country traditions by wearing Nudie style outfits reminiscent of veterans like Porter Wagoner. It was only later that he returned to more traditional musical styles.

Nudie’s elaborate bejewelled and embroidered outfits were almost a uniform for the biggest country stars of the 1950s and 60s, even though they were a world removed from their poverty-stricken rural roots. Porter Wagoner is perhaps the most famous wearer, but even Hank Williams, whose heart wrenching music might seem far removed from image considerations, famously wore a Nudie suit adorned with musical notations. When Gram Parsons encouraged the Byrds to venture into country music with the seminal country-rock album Sweetheart Of the Rodeo, he wore a custom-made Nudie suit with designs of marijuana leaves – combining an appeal to rebellious 60s teenagers with the “country star” outfit. But for most of their wearers, the outfits symbolized showmanship and stardom, just as Loretta Lynn always wore evening gowns on stage and most of her album covers. Using an identifiable image as shorthand to signal an artist as country is thus nothing new. The young Patsy Cline wore western-style dresses, and had to be persuaded to dress in a more sophisticated way when her music began to adopt more pop influences. Dolly Parton’s highly artificial image helped to make her an international superstar in the 70s and 80s, and is still instantly recognised today across the world, even among those who have heard little of her music. In contrast, when last month’s Spotlight Artist Emmylou Harris started her solo career after Gram Parsons’ death, she looked more like the folk singer she had been as a girl, with her long hair hanging down unadorned, whereas most of her contemporaries had big hair – often wigs.

Record labels invest money in artwork for CDs, in order to attract attention on store shelves. It’s never made much of a difference to me, and I would assume not to most passionate fans who spend a lot of time listening to the music, but it may help bring in more casual purchasers. I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but my own brother once asked for a record for Christmas, purely because he liked the picture on the cover and was intrigued to see how the music reflected it. Going back to CMT’s Next Superstar, one young female contestant was quite rightly criticized for picking a picture of herself smiling for the title ‘Cold Cold Heart’, just because she thought it made her look prettier than other pictures from the photo-shoot. Songwriter Wynn Varble, who is 50 years old and not exactly competing for heart-throb of the year, went for a simple honest look which would tell any potential purchaser that this was a country record.

Changing musical styles can also be flagged by a changing image. When Lee Ann Womack moved in a poppier direction in the early 200s, she took on a more overtly sexy look (left); then when she defiantly reverted to a retro style in 2005 with There’s More Where That Came From, she went for an equally retro 70s country album cover style (right). The music is, of course, what really matters, but the image helps signal the direction. Similarly, Reba progressed from traditional country and a semi-cowgirl look in the 1980s to a much more sophisticated style, both aurally and visually, in the 90s.

How much does an artist’s image affect what you expect to hear? Have you ever been surprised – pleasantly or otherwise – by a disconnect between the album cover and the music inside?

Album Review: Craig Campbell – ‘Craig Campbell’

Craig Campbell is a relatively new artist on the successful independent label Bigger Picture, helmed by famed producer Keith Stegall. He has a single rising up the country charts, but had managed to fly under my radar until a week or so ago, when C M Wilcox pointed out Craig’s song ‘You Probably Ain’t in a recent edition of Quotable Country over at Country California, his witty weekly take on the more notable or bizarre comments made relating to country music. That song appears on Craig’s self-titled debut album, which has just been released.

A lot of country fans seem to be getting tired of the seemingly unending assembly line of songs telling us how very country the singer is, often set to a notably un-country melody or production. Country radio, however, A lot of country fans seem to be getting tired of the seemingly unending assembly line of songs telling us how very country the singer is, often set to a notably un-country melody or production. Country radio is as keen on such fare as ever, but it looks as if Craig Campbell, Keith Stegall, and Michael White. writers of this song, share our frustration:

You can talk to me about tractors
Cowboy boots and pickup trucks
Old canepoles and dirt roads
And spit and skoal and a dixie cup
You can tell me (all a)bout your grandpa
And how he turned you on to Hank
If you gotta tell me how country you are
You probably ain’t

But if this initially seems to be a well-deserved sharp and well deserved little jab at the popular “I’m country” songs, in some ways, it is what it appears to disparage, when the old man in the bar who has voiced the comment adds:

He said, country is a way of life that’s almost gone
It’s about being honest and working hard
Looking someone in the eye and
Being who you say you are

I’m afraid I’m not convinced that everyone in rural areas is (or used to be) honest and hardworking, so although I still like the complete song, and love the chorus, it doesn’t really hold up lyrically for me as a whole. On the positive side, Craig has a fine voice, and at least this is a well written and genuinely country song.

And if Craig is critical of those posturing about country lifestyles, he does not eschew the subject himself. The likeable ‘Chillaxin’’ is not very ambitious, but has an attractive tune, and a lovely and appropriately relaxed feel, which could make it a summer hit. The next single, however, is reportedly, the rather dull ‘Fish’, which is rather like one of Brad Paisley’s lesser songs, trying to be amusing but falling short, and not even successful at the double entendre it tries for. Carson Chamberlain and Tim Nichols helped Craig write ‘That’s Music To Me’, with nods to Keith Whitley and Merle Haggard as well as the usual litany of high school football, family life, church on Sunday mornings and the Georgia scenery. It’s quite a good example of its kind, with another pleasing melody, and Craig sells the genuineness of the emotion underlying it, but it’s hardly groundbreaking lyrically:

Soaked in the whiskey and washed in the blood
That’s who I am and what I love
A hoe down fiddle, a little off key
An old hound dog howling
That’s music to me

The very perky ‘Makes You Wanna Sing’ (written by Craig with Rob Hatch and Lance Miller) glorifies the simple pleasures in life (and yes, rural ones), and the humming on the chorus gets irritating with repeat listens.

Others will have been introduced to Craig by way of his charming current single ‘Family Man’. This paints a realistic picture of a hard-pressed married man desperate to keep his temporary factory job to support his wife and kids, and is filled with genuine warmth and sincerity as he relates the various responsibilities of a father and shows how important his kids are to him. ‘My Little Cowboy’ (about striving to live up to his father’s belief in him, first as a child and then as struggling musician trying to support a wife and child of his own) is a little more heavy handed lyrically and offers a heavier vibe musically, which is less suited to Craig’s voice.

Trying to make ends meet in hard times also inspires the cheerful and very catchy mid-tempo response to a debt collector, ‘When I Get It’, which he wrote with Jason Matthews and Jim McCormick, although I found the na-na-nas in the chorus annoying.

One of the highlights is the interesting and nicely paced ‘I Bought It’, written by Craig with Philip Douglas and Dan Murphy. It starts out sweetly with a young couple just starting out in life together, with him buying a ring, the the mood sours with her infidelity and lies (which he also buys), and finally there is a little twist in the tale when he lies to her that he is willing to take her back.

Craig and/or his writing partners have a good ear for melody which is more consistent that their lyric writing, which is occasionally a little cliche’d. He co-wrote most of the songs, with only a couple from outside writers, one of which is provided by his producer. Keith Stegall wrote the seductive fiddle-led ‘All Night To Get There’ with Craig’s friend Lee Brice and Vicky McGehee. The only completely outside song is ‘That Going Away Look (About Her)’, written by Carson Chamberlain, Wade Kirby and Michael White, a well-written third-person account of a couple on the brink of separation, with a lovely mellow sound, which sounds like an outtake from Chamberlain’s protégé Easton Corbin.

Keith Stegall produces with his usual reliable light touch, offering sympathetic support for the young Georgia-born singer, whose voice is the real star here. His warm vocals with a lovely smooth tone are a delight to listen to, even on the less stellar material – rather like the aforementioned Corbin. Overall it’s a very likeable project and one showing great promise for the future. I certainly hope his career goes well and we hear more from him.

I am, incidentally, less than impressed by the packaging of the physical product. The CD liner notes are unfortunately almost entirely illegible thanks to being squeezed into a minuscule space to make room for a lot of pictures.

Grade: B+

2011 ACM award predictions

The major country music awards are scattered through the year, so a new one seems to come along every few months. The Academy of Country Music is presenting its awards for achievement in 2010 in Las Vegas on April 3 on a televized show hosted by Reba McEntire and Blake Shelton. The West Coast based ACMs don’t have quite the prestige of the CMAs, awarded in November, but they have one advantage, in that their eligibility period is the previous calendar year, where the CMA and Grammy organizations have a strange mid-year cutoff which can make it hard to work out exactly what is eligible. On the downside, a few years ago in a misguided attempt at currying popularity with the public, the ACM decided to allow an online fan vote to determine the Entertainer of the Year and New Artist titles. This has been partially modified this year.

Entertainer of the Year

Jason Aldean
Toby Keith
Miranda Lambert
Brad Paisley
Taylor Swift

Keith Urban

Occasional Hope: There were loud squawkings from the fans of Carrie Underwood when she was omitted from the nominations this time, having won the title for the past two years. This is a partially fan-voted category this year, and with Carrie’s absence factored in, I think Taylor Swift is a slam-dunk for the victory, with her enormous and youthful fanbase. Surprise nominee Jason Aldean has earned platinum status for his last two albums and a string of top hits, so although I am underwhelmed by his heavy rocking brand of country, he might just have enough of a fanbase, and have the commercial impetus to impress the industry enough to achieve a surprise win. But the talented Miranda Lambert had a great year last year, and she would be my personal choice.

Razor X: This seems like it will be Miranda‘s year. If the award were entirely based on fan votes, Taylor Swift would be a very strong contender, but I think that because industry votes will be counted as well, they’ll offset the fan voting.

J.R. Journey: I’m assuming the members will win the battle in the combination membership/fan voting for the Entertainer race this year. Paisley may well hold his own in the online voting pools too, but I think he’ll outdistance the others as the overall vote-getter.

Top Male Vocalist of the Year

Jason Aldean
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton

George Strait
Keith Urban

O.H.: Brad Paisley has won this title for the last four years. I can’t see anyone pushing him out this time either. I can’t say I feel very enthusiastic about this category despite the underlying talent of those nominated. None of the nominees produced particularly memorable music in 2010 – Blake Shelton may be the reigning CMA Male Vocalist and half of country music’s favorite courrent love story, but I think the ACM likes to differentiate itself from the CMAs occasionally. I liked ‘Twang’, but it under-performed at radio.

J.R.: In addition to his co-hosting duties, Blake Shelton seems poised to finally unseat Brad Paisley as the reigning Male Vocalist this year.

R.X.: Blake Shelton . Again, I think the ACMs will follow the CMA’s lead. It’s time for some new blood in this category and I just can’t see the award going to Aldean. At least I hope not.

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Single Review: Bradley Gaskin – ‘Mr Bartender’

It’s quite a coincidence that just last week I wrote about “soundalike” artists. Little did I know that another was about to emerge. New Columbia artist Bradley Gaskin sounds very like Travis Tritt both in his general style and in his vocal inflections, although I think he has his own voice. On his MySpace he calls his music “Johnny Paycheck meets Keith Whitley”, and he is also influenced by Haggard and Jones – definitely a good basis.

He wrote the song himself with Vicky Walker, proving himself a fine songwriter as well as a great singer, and this is an extremely promising debut.

Opening a cappella, this is a very traditional broken-hearted honky-tonk ballad with some beef in the production. Gaskin is produced by John Rich, who discovered the Alabama-born singer when he won Rich’s Get Rich talent show, but Rich does a much better job than usual, providing a solid honky-tonk backing for Bradley’s rich baritone. The overall production is quite full at times, but it has light and shade, and Gaskin has the vocal power not to be overwhelmed. His expressive vocals ally that power with an emotionally convincing performance.

The lyrics offer a familiar picture of a heartbroken man hoping to kill the pain with a drink or two, but the song is very well put together, and the vocal delivery really sells the song. There’s just enough gloss to make it radio-friendly, in the vein of the early 90s and particularly the aforementioned Travis Tritt. I hope he can join Chris Young and Easton Corbin among the younger artists keeping country on country radio; he even has an advantage over them in his songwriting ability.

The label wasn’t actually planning to launch Bradley until May, but apparently he sang this song at the Country Radio Seminar in Nashville, brought the house down, and they decided to capitalize and have rush-released this to radio. Let’s hope it is as well received across the airwaves and launches a very talented artist to a successful career. I’ll certainly be keeping a keen eye out for more from this exciting new artist.

Grade: A+

Listen for yourself.

Sounds just like…

The music distribution website CDBaby, where I sometimes go to get hold of more obscure independent artists, has a “sounds like” search function, where you can enter the name of a famous artist you already like, and find music by someone who supposedly sounds similar (at least according to that artist’s publicity). While this more often applies to general style than to real “soundalikes”, I’ve been thinking lately about the latter – when a new artist is more than just reminiscent of an established act.

Virtually every review to date of newcomer Easton Corbin has commented on his obvious debt to George Strait, although personally I would say he owes almost as much to Alan Jackson, and isn’t really a copycat of either. General awareness of this similarity does not seem to be hampering his career momentum – if anything it gives him some instant credibility in setting him apart from the pop-inspired hordes on country radio.

Many successful artists in the past have been compared to stars of the past – when Sammy Kershaw emerged in the early 90s his vocal similarity to George Jones was noted, and part of the significance of country music’s respect for its roots is that the influence of stars of the past has always been acknowledged. Listen to Randy Travis, and you can hear the effect of years listening to Merle Haggard, Merle owed much to Lefty Frizzell and Jimmie Rodgers, and so on, but each of these artists was also able to develop their own spin on a common base. There is a fine line between being part of a tradition, and influenced by your predecessors’ vocal stylings, and coming across as a mere carbon copy. George Jones started out his career copying his childhood idol Roy Acuff, to the extent that his first producer Pappy Daily once asked him,

‘George, I’ve heard you sing like Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell. I just want to know one thing: Can you sing like George Jones?’

As it turned out, he certainly could, but had he not been able to develop his own distinctive voice, he would not now be regarded as the greatest country singer of all time. But with the rapid pace of country music careers today, and the industry’s fascination with very young performers, there is not always time for a young singer to develop his or her own style before being judged and found wanting.

This year’s country contender on American Ido is a 17-year-old who sounds quite remarkably like Josh Turner – not only that, young North Carolinian Scotty McCreery auditioned with Turner’s hit ‘Your Man’, repeated it during the lengthy televised selection process, and also sang Josh’s classic ‘Long Black Train’. Turner himself used his website to admit to being flattered by the choice. I understand that he branched out and sang a John Michael Montgomery song last night – I haven’t heard it yet, so I don’t know whether he achieved triumph or disaster or something in between. If he survives this week’s first vote, I think he has a voice which will be worth tuning in for, although perhaps not a fully polished style – unsurprising given his youth. But as a potential star in the real world, I wonder if he’s not a bit too similar to Turner for his own good. Would he be able to make his own music distinctive enough to get played in its own right, should he make it far enough on the show to guarantee a major label record deal? That seems all the more of an issue as the Idol franchise has now cut its longstanding ties with Sony, and first dibs on any stars created by this season will go to the Universal Music Group – parent of Josh Turner’s label MCA.

Do you think a new artist is harmed or helped by sounding like an old favorite?

Some hidden treasures of 2010

I restricted my top 10 singles list for the year to tracks which were formally released as singles, but a lot of the best music of the year was hidden away on albums. So to finish up our review of the year in country music, here are my favorite tracks from albums released this year. I’ve restricted the selection to one per artist (not counting duets), and I’ve excluded the albums which made it to my top 10 albums list to avoid too much duplication and to prevent the list being too long.

20. Trace Adkins – ‘Still Love You’ (Cowboy’s Back In Town)
Moving to Toby Keith’s label seems to have encouraged the talented but often artistically misguided Trace Adkins to give in to his worst instincts, but there is still some decent material on his latest album. This ballad swearing enduring love (written by love song specialist Jeff Bates with Robert Arthur and Kirk Roth) is a little heavily orchestrated, but has a great, understated vocal from one of the best voices around. It’s a shame the rest of the album wasn’t up to the same standard.

19. Gretchen Wilson – ‘I’m Only Human’ (I Got Your Country Right Here)
Gretchen has just scored an unexpected Grammy nomination for ‘I’d Love To Be Your Last’ from her self-released I Got Your Country Right Here, prompting general bewilderment from country fans online. But while that track isn’t bad, this song is rather better, a plaintive bar-room tale of a woman trying to resist the temptation of dalliance with a married man, which Gretchen wrote with Vicky McGehee, Dave Berg and Rivers Rutherford.

18. Jon Wolfe – ‘Play Me Something I Can Drink To’ (It All Happened In A Honky Tonk)
If you think Easton Corbin sounds like George Strait, you need to check out the Strait stylings of Jon Wolfe on his strong independent debut album. I particularly liked this classic country style bar room song (written by Kevin Brandt and Bobby Terry) about a guy seeking to get his broken heart temporarily cured by whiskey and a jukebox stocked with Hank and Jones.

17. Jamie Richards – ‘Half Drunk’ (Sideways)
A great song from a Texas-based artist about trying to get over an ex by drinking, but running out of money halfway through.

16. Miss Leslie – ‘Turn Around’ (Wrong Is What I Do Best)
A lovely steel-led heartbreak ballad written by honky tonker Miss Leslie herself, but sounding as though it could be a forgotten classic from the 60s.

15. Shawn Camp – ‘Clear As A Bell’ (1994)
This lovely song was my favorite from Shawn’s “lost” album which was resurrected from the Warner Bros vaults this year.

14. Zac Brown Band – ‘Martin’ (You Get What You Give)
Jamey Johnson personified a guitar in the title track of The Guitar Song, but Zac Brown sang a love song about one on their latest release. Charming and unusual.

13. Gary Allan – ‘No Regrets’ (Get Off On The Pain)
I’ve been disappointed by Gary’s musical direction over the past couple of albums, but the heartbreaking honesty of this touching song expressing his feelings about his late wife (which he wrote with the help of Jon Randall and Jaime Hanna) was a reminder of his excellent early work.

12. Jolie Holliday – ‘I’ll Try Anything’ (Lucky Enough)
A gorgeous cover of a sad song previously recorded by its co-writer Amber Dotson about struggling to cope with lost love. I can’t find a link for you to listen to the studio version, but here she is singing it live (after a nice version of ‘San Antonio Rose’. And as a bonus, here she is singing ‘Golden Ring’ live with Randy Travis.

11. Curly Putman – ‘Green Green Grass Of Home’ (Write ‘Em Sad – Sing ‘Em Lonesome)
The songwriter’s own version of his classic prisoner’s dream is as convincing as any version I’ve herd of this celebrated song.

10. Toby Keith – ‘Sundown‘ (Bullets In The Gun, deluxe version)
Toby is always a bit hit and miss for me, but this surprisingly restrained live version of the sultry folk-country classic is a definite hit.

9. Darin & Brooke Aldridge – ‘The Last Thing On His Mind’ (Darin & Brooke Aldridge)
I loved this husband and wife team’s sweet bluegrass album and this somber Easter song (written by Dennis K Duff) was the highlight for me.

8. Teea Goans – ‘I Don’t Do Bridges Anymore’ (The Way I Remember It)
Teea Goans’ retro independent release featured this lovely classic-styled ballad, written by Jim McBride, Don Poythress and Jerry Salley. Her voice is sweet but not that distinctive, but this breakup song is definitely worth hearing.

7. Catherine Britt – ‘Sweet Emmylou’ (Catherine Britt)
The Australian singer’s latest album was a bit hit and miss for me, but there were some very strong moments, including Catherine’s lovely version of her tribute to the healing power of the music of Emmylou Harris, which she wrote some years ago with Rory Feek. It has been released as a single in Australia.

6. Bill Anderson – ‘The Songwriters’ (Songwriter)
My favorite comic song of the year is the legendary Bill Anderson’s celebration (more or less) of songwriters’ lives, complete with the protagonist’s mother’s preference for a career as drug dealer for her son. Bill isn’t much of a singer, but this song (co-written with Gordie Sampson)is irresistible.

5. Randy Kohrs – ‘Die On The Vine’ (Quicksand)
One of the first songs to grab my attention this year was this lovely song warning a son against taking refuges from trouble in alcohol, written by famed dobro player and songwriter Randy Kohrs with Dennis Goodwin.

4. James Dupre – ‘Ring On The Bar’ (It’s All Happening)
I loved this sensitively sung low-key mid-tempo Byron Hill/Brent Baxter song about a man trying to figure out what happened to his marriage from youtube discovery James’s independent debut album, produced by Kyle Lehning.

3. Lee Ann Womack – ‘Liars Lie’ (Country Strong soundtrack)
I’m beginning to get impatient for a new album from Lee Ann, and this soundtrack cut has really whetted my appetite. This excellent song, written by Sally Barris, Morgane Hayes and Liz Rose, and the combination of Lee Ann’s beautiful vocals and the harmony from Charlie Pate, a pure country production (thanks to Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell and Chuck Ainlay), and a fine song make this a sheer delight.

2. Chris Young – ‘Chiseled In Stone’ (Voices EP)
Song for song, this young neotraditionalist’s three song EP of covers was the most impressive release of the year, allowing Chris to exercise his outstanding baritone voice on really top quality material – something sadly missing on his two full length albums. This Vern Gosdin song was my favorite of the three, but his takes on Keith Whitley’s ‘I’m Over You’ and John Anderson’s ‘Swingin’ were also great.

1. Alan Jackson ft Lee Ann Womack – ‘Til The End’ (Freight Train)
This particular treasure is not very well hidden, as although it hasn’t been released as a single it gained sufficient attention to get a well-deserved nomination as Musical Event of the Year at the recent CMA awards. This exquisite reading of another Vern Gosdin classic was by far the best thing on Alan’s latest (and possibly last) album for Arista.

Do you have any special favorite album tracks from this year which haven’t gained the attention they deserve?

Single Review: Easton Corbin – ‘I Can’t Love You Back’

Two #1 singles into his career, young neo-traditionalist Easton Corbin releases his third single. ‘I Can’t Love You Back’ is a lost love ballad about clinging on to his feelings despite the absence of the loved one, written by Easton’s producer Carson Chamberlain with Clint Daniels and Jeff Hyde.

The emotion expressed is a straightforward one: no matter how much he continues to love her, that will not bring her back to him. It is very nicely presented, with Easton’s nicely understated vocal still sounding very reminiscent of a meld of George Strait and Alan Jackson. The tasteful production adds greatly to the effect, with Paul Franklin’s sweetly slithering steel guitar underlining the delicate sadness of the mood. This alone makes this track a welcome breath of fresh air on country radio.

The song itself is not spectacular, but a competently written, if perhaps a touch too tightly focussed, lyric, and an attractive melody. We don’t learn anything about the circumstances of the breakup: who left whom, why, even how long ago, or details of the relationship, and while that would have deepened the song emotionally, and made it more memorable in the long-term, the relative blank canvas allows a simple focus on the purity of the emotion, and perhaps allows listeners to project their own story into the empty spaces.

There is no trace of blame either addressed to the former loved one, or to himself, but there is clearly absolutely no hope for a reconciliation:

I could write a thousand letters
Call a hundred times a day
Or try to drown my sorrow at the bar
I could go down to the church
Get on my knees and pray
But it still won’t change the way things really are
Won’t bring you back again

If it were not for the lines about writing or calling her, one might assume she had died, so final is the loss. He sounds almost resigned to it, however; this is a subdued regret, not unbearable agony.

I do think that to consolidate his career, Easton needs stronger material for his second album, but this will do very nicely for now.

Grade: B+

Listen here.

CMA award nominees, 2010: setting the stage

It’s awards time again, with this year’s CMA awards being announced next week. We’ll share our predictions on Monday, but meanwhile here’s a reminder of who is nominated and why. The nominations this year have a few new faces showing up in unexpected places. The big questions of this year’s show will be whether Miranda Lambert will dominate the night as she has the nominations list. Whatever happens, outraged fans are likely to complain that their favorite has been “snubbed”, or someone else has won undeservedly.

Entertainer of the Year
Lady Antebellum
Miranda Lambert
Brad Paisley
Keith Urban
Zac Brown Band

Last year’s controversial winner Taylor Swift was snubbed altogether in this category this year – perhaps partly because of the backlash after her clean sweep last time, but also because she released little during the nomination period. Instead, the category sees no less than three first-time nominees: critical flavor of the month Miranda Lambert (who leads nominations overall), and the two hottest bands of recent years, Lady Antebellum and the Zac Brown Band, who are among the few current artists to be selling in the millions. They join Keith Urban (the only former winner to be in the running this time) and our own current Spotlight Artist Brad Paisley, who has been nominated every year since 2005 but is so far without the trophy.

Male Vocalist
Dierks Bentley
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton
George Strait
Keith Urban

Brad Paisley has won this award for the past three years, and Keith Urban took it home for the three years prior to that. Both men are still scoring regular #1 hit singles and selling well, but is it time for another change at the top? There are two first-time nominees, Dierks Bentley, rewarded by the CMA for his artistic ambition even though country radio has been reluctant to embrace the singles from his bluegrass-inspired Up On The Ridge, and Blake Shelton, who is becoming a regular fixture at the top of the charts. The evergreen George Strait, meanwhile, seems to be nominated virtually every year, but hasn’t won since 1998 (his third year in a row – he also has a couple of trophies from the 80s).

Female Vocalist
Miranda Lambert
Martina McBride
Reba McEntire
Taylor Swift
Carrie Underwood

Last year’s winner Taylor Swift gets another nod, recognizing her commercial preeminence despite a series of woeful live TV performances – including at last year’s CMA awards show. She faces pop-country queen Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert, who had a massive breakthrough this year, and is the only one of these ladies to be nominated in the Entertainer category. Reba McEntire, the oldest nominee, is still contending on the charts, but the fifth nominee, Martina McBride, seems to be merely filling out the category, as she has not had a good year commercially or critically.

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Week ending 10/30/10: #1 singles this week in country music history

1950: I’m Movin’ On — Hank Snow (RCA)

1960: Alabam – Cowboy Copas (Starday)

1970: Run, Woman, Run — Tammy Wynette (Epic)

1980: I Believe In You – Don Williams (MCA)

1990: Friends In Low Places — Garth Brooks (Capitol)

2000: The Little Girl — John Michael Montgomery (Atlantic)

2010: Roll With It — Easton Corbin (Mercury)

Group Spotlight: the new New Traditionalists

This month we’re trying something a little different with our Spotlight Artist feature. We thought we would look at some of the major label artists who have been carrying the torch for more traditionally rooted styles of country music in the past decade, but none of whom have released enough music for us to spend a whole month on individually. For want of a better term, we’ve been calling them “the new New Traditionalists”, as these artists are a generation younger than the original New Traditionalists of the late 80s and early 90s. Most of them are on major labels, with a few on respected independent labels, but they have all made some impact on the scene.

Joe Nichols was the first of our selected artists to debut on the country charts. Born in Arkansas in 1976, he got a couple of unsuccessful record deals in his early 20s before breaking through in 2002. He was an immediate success with his smooth baritone, ear for a melody, and pure country instincts. In 2003 he won the CMA Horizon Award. He has released five studio albums for Universal South, the most recent of which, last year’s Old Things New, produced his third #1 single, ‘Gimmie That Girl’. He has revealed his good musical taste by his choice of covers of lesser known classic country songs on his albums. A struggle with alcohol slowed down his career for a while in the second part of the last decade, but he seems to be back at the top, and is one of the brighter spots on country radio. His latest single, ‘The Shape I’m In’, has just been released.

Dierks Bentley (a year older than Joe) was the next to come to our attention, when his debut single ‘What Was I Thinkin’ reached #1 in 2003. Six more #1s have followed, with a string of other hits, and his first two albums went platinum. He was the ACM’s Top New Artist in 2004 and won the Horizon Award in 2005. He has managed to balance traditional country leanings with a commercial sound, writing much of his material. Notably, and almost uniquely among current chart acts, he has made a habit of including a bluegrass track on each album until this year, when his fifth studio album on Capitol, Up On The Ridge saw him make a temporary change of direction completely incorporating bluegrass and Americana influences into his sound, bravely defying the trends of country radio. The latest single is ‘Draw Me A Map’. He also has a sideline as a radio host, broadcasting on The Thread every Monday at 2pm CST and you can tune in online.

A few months after the release of Dierks’ debut album, Josh Turner’s Long Black Train came rolling down the line. The darkly religious title track was only a modest radio hit, but it and Josh’s unforgettable deep bass voice made a massive impact, and sales were impressive. He was nominated for the Horizon Award in 2004, but lost out to Gretchen Wilson. Three of his singles have hit #1, and his second album Your Man has been certified double platinum. His fourth MCA record, Haywire, came out earlier this year, and the second single ‘All Over Me’ is currently in the top 10.

TV reality shows may sometimes be sneered at but they can showcase genuine talent. Tennessee-born Chris Young, a decade younger than the other guys on this list, won the 2006 season of Nashville Star thanks to a fine classic baritone voice and his original song ‘Drinkin’ Me Lonely’. The show has not been as successful at launching country artists as the multi-genre American Idol, and Chris’s first album failed to make an immediate impact. Happily, his label, RCA, had faith in the young singer, and persevered until ‘Gettin’ You Home (The Black Dress Song)’, the second single from his second album became his first real hit just last year. He has cemented his neotraditional credentials with his excellent EP Voices, and is a nominee for this year’s CMA New Artist of the Year.

Jamey Johnson’s career has been the most chequered of all this month’s artists. He had a hit with the sentimental ‘The Dollar’ in 2006, but then everything went wrong. The follow-up single flopped, label BNA dropped him, his marriage broke up, and his life collapsed. But this all cued one of the most startling turnarounds in recent years. Jamey channeled his personal disasters into some of the most intense music in Nashville at the moment. He was seeing success as a songwriter with songs like George Strait’s hit ‘Give It Away’, and in 2008 Mercury picked up That Lonesome Song, the album he had recorded independently and re-released it. ‘In Color’ became one of the most memorable hits of the year, and although other singles were not as radio friendly, Jamey sold 650,000 copies of the critically acclaimed album. His much-anticipated new double album, The Guitar Song, is due out this month.

Sunny Sweeney is the least commercially successful of the group so far. Her debut album (recorded independently, like That Lonesome Song) was re-released by Big Machine in 2007. Critically admired if not yet accepted on radio, her music is unmistakably hardcore country. She has now been transferred to Big Machine’s daughter label Republic Nashville, and her second album is hotly awaited. The lead single, ‘From A Table Away’, is her first to chart, and shows her refining her style.

Joey + Rory are perhaps the most surprising success story. Lead singer Joey Martin was signed to Sony in the early years of the decade, but nothing ever materialized. She was dropped after she married songwriter Rory Lee Feek, and in 2008 they entered the CMT contest Can You Duet, despite never having sung together before. The couple finished in third place, but Joey’s outstanding voice and the couple’s obvious chemistry led to a deal with the respected independent label Vanguard. A critically acclaimed album came out later that year, and the irresistible ‘Cheater, Cheater’, which they had performed on the show, was a top 30 hit. They won this year’s fan-voted ACM award for Best New Duo, and the appropriately titled Album # 2 is due this month. They’ve also been nominated in the CMA Duo of the Year category again despite limited mainstream exposure.

Finally, our youngest contender is singer-songwriter Ashton Shepherd, a young wife and mother born in Alabama in 1986. Her debut album on MCA elicited two modest hit singles in 2008, and she is reportedly working on a follow-up.

Another artist who fits our criteria is Easton Corbin, just rewarded with a CMA Single of The Year nomination for his breakthrough hit ‘A Little More Country Than That'; Razor X reviewed his debut album earlier in the year. Easton is also up against Chris Young for this year’s New Artist award.  Also making waves on the Texas music circuit is honky-tonker Amber Digby, a fine singer and songwriter who’s released 4 albums on the independent Heart of Texas Records.

All these artists, and the fact that they are gaining real success, give us renewed hope that the future of country music isn’t going to completely lose touch with its roots.  We’ll be telling you more about them and their contemporaries all month long.

Album Review: Easton Corbin – ‘Easton Corbin’

I’ve become somewhat jaded in the past few years and no longer expect to like new artists trying to break into mainstream country music. Country radio has gotten so bad, I haven’t listened to it in over two years. As a result, I’m not always up to date on the latest crop of new artists. I’d read a little bit about Easton Corbin on some of the other country blogs, but after hearing about his traditionalist leanings, I avoided reading too much about him until I could hear his music for myself and form my own opinion.

I initially cringed upon learning that Corbin’s debut single was titled “A Little More Country Than That”, expecting it to have come directly out of Jason Aldean’s playbook. It was a relief to learn that this wasn’t another redneck anthem. Instead of a defiant declaration of Southern pride and boasting about his tractor and pickup truck, Corbin makes use of the imagery of rural living while making a declaration of love (and possibly a proposal) to his sweetheart. In some respects, it is reminiscent of the Charley Pride classic “All I Have To Offer You Is Me”. Clearly tailor-made for radio, it’s a pleasant if somewhat fluffy song with slightly cliched lyrics. Written by Rory Lee Feek, Don Poythress, and Wynn Varble, it’s not a song that makes the listener stop in his or her tracks and listen, but it’s better than what is typically offered on country radio these days.

The album was produced by Carson Chamberlain, who has also produced Mark Wills and Billy Currington, but I won’t hold that against him since he has written some of my favorite Alan Jackson songs. Chamberlain had a hand in writing six of the album’s eleven songs, while Easton himself co-wrote four. The production choices are stellar; I can’t remember the last time I heard the pedal steel featured so prominently on a mainstream artist’s debut release. Corbin and Chamberlain don’t pander to radio’s current pop leanings and wisely avoids the production excesses that have marred so many contemporary country releases.

Corbin has been criticized for sounding too much like George Strait, and the similarities in their vocal styles is undeniable. Many of the songs, such as “Someday When I’m Old” and “Don’t Ask Me About A Woman” sound as if they came from the Strait catalog. “Someday When I’m Old”, written by Nashville tunesmiths Chris Lindsey, Aimee Mayo and Troy Verges is my favorite song on the album and “A Lot To Learn About Livin'” written by Liz Hengber, Sonny LeMaire and Clay Mills, is an example of a beach song done properly. Kenny Chesney, please take note. On the other hand “I Can’t Love You Back” doesn’t quite work. The lyrics are somewhat problematic and a bit confusing:

Girl, I love you crazy
It comes so easy, after all we had
I could love you with all my heart
But the hardest part is
I just can’t love you back

The first time I heard the chorus, it didn’t make sense to me. I thought why can’t he love her back, thinking that “love you back” meant “love you in return.” It wasn’t until the second verse that I finally realized that the protagonist’s love interest is gone, and Easton is lamenting that he can’t bring her back, which might have been a better way to phrase the sentiment.

Overall, the album is pleasant, but not particularly memorable. The material is mostly lightweight and the album would have benefited from the inclusion of one or two more substantial songs, as well as a little more variety in tempo. Corbin will also have to develop a more distinctive vocal style in order to avoid being dismissed as a George Strait wannabe. I have no doubt that he can do this; after all, Clint Black was mistaken for Merle Haggard when his first single hit the airwaves, and Owen Bradley was reluctant to sign Loretta Lynn because she sounded too much like Kitty Wells. That didn’t stop Black or Lynn from successfully developing their own styles. If Corbin can do the same, and can find some weightier material the next time around to build upon this solid debut, he has the potential to become a huge star in his own right.

Grade: B

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