My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Kristen Hall

Razor X’s Top Ten Singles of 2011

It seems like every year it gets more and more difficult to find new single releases that I actually like. There were a few — but only a few — gems this year. Here are some of my favorites:

10. Northern Girl — Terri Clark. Clark’s homage to her homeland, co-written with former Sugarland member Kristen Hall, is her first single that I’ve truly liked in quite some time. Sadly, it failed to gain any traction on either side of the border.

9. Drink Myself Single — Sunny Sweeney. Currently at #36 on the charts, the third offering from Sunny’s Concrete collection has already out-performed its predecessor and hopefully will become her second Top 10 hit. It reminds me of the type of song radio regularly played back in the 90s during the line-dancing craze.

8. Home — Dierks Bentley. Finally, a song about love of country that manages to avoid jingoism and combativeness. It was written in response to the shooting incident that critically injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed six other people in January of this year.

7. Cumberland Rose — Sylvia. The former 80s star returned in January with her first single release in 24 years. Often unfairly dismissed as a minor talent, Sylvia delivers a lovely vocal performance on this folk ballad written by Craig Bickhardt and Jeff Pennig. I couldn’t find anyplace online to listen to it in its entirety, but it’s well worth the 99 cents to download it from iTunes or Amazon.

6. Tomorrow — Chris Young. The latest in a long tradition of country songs about clinging to one more night before finally ending a relationship that’s run out of steam. Chris Young is one of Nashville’s finest young talents and is destined for great things if he can keep finding material as good as this.

5. In God’s Time — Randy Houser. This introspective number provides a much better showcase for Houser’s vocal ability than his more popular Southern rock-tinged work. It’s the best thing he’s released so far.

4. Here For A Good Time — George Strait. After a couple of rocky years, George Strait finally got his mojo back with this fun number that he wrote with Dean Dillon and his son Bubba Strait.

3. Look It Up — Ashton Shepherd. This blistering confrontation of two-timing spouse deserved more airplay than it got. It may not have been a tremendous commercial success, but I’ll bet Loretta Lynn is proud.

2. Colder Weather — Zac Brown Band. Reminiscent of Dave Loggins’ classic “Please Come To Boston”, the Zac Brown Band continues to push the boundaries of country music without diluting it beyond recognition.

1. Cost of Livin’ — Ronnie Dunn. This tale of a down-on-his-luck veteran is a sad testament to the current economic difficulties in much of the world and a plight to which too many people can relate. Beautifully written and performed, it’s by far the best thing played on country radio this year. It failed to garner any Grammy nominations, but hopefully it will get some recognition by the CMA and ACM next time around.

Album Review: Terri Clark – ‘Roots & Wings’

I was disappointed by Terri’s first EMI Canada release a couple of years ago, which I felt was over-produced with largely mediocre material, but she appears to have rediscovered her musical voice with her latest release. She produced the album herself, and the sound is mellow but not over-produced, although she does seem to be moving away from conventional country music. Her distinctive voice is at its best throughout.

She also co-wrote all but one of the songs. Four are co-writes with Kristen Hall (who also sings backing vocals), including lead single ‘Northern Girl’, which celebrates Terri’s Canadian background but is disappointingly bland. When Hall left Sugarland under rather murky circumstances, she stated she was intending to concentrate on her songwriting. ‘Beautiful And Broken’ is not very country sounding, but an interestingly written and beautifully sung song with slightly obscure lyrics full of imagery; it seems to be about a failed relationship with the broken individual, but the protagonist retains feelings of friendship and perhaps love. Also very metaphor-heavy, ‘Flowers In Snow’ explores an unproductive relationship. These songs are perhaps more modern folk/singer-songwriter than country, but they are very well done. The best of the four, ‘Breakin’ Up Thing’ has an enjoyable mid-tempo groove and wry lyric commenting on the protagonist’s about-to-be-ex-partner’s ease at leaving.

‘The Good Was Great’ is an affectionate look back at a past relationship which Terri wrote with Tia Sillers and Deric Ruttan. This is rather good, but I was less impressed by the rather dull and overly loud ‘Wrecking Ball’ which Terri and Tia wrote with fellow-Canadian Victoria Banks and which opens the album.

The best song on the album by far is ‘Lonesome’s Last Call’, a traditional slow lonesome country song about a couple of desperate individuals who come together to find love in a bar, written by Terri with the great Jim Rushing. Andrea Zonn and Stuart Duncan’s twin fiddles add to the effect, and I would have loved to hear more like this.  The very personal and beautifully sung ‘Smile’ (written with Karyn Rochelle and featuring Alison Krauss on not-very-audible harmony) is a loving tribute to Terri’s mother who died of cancer last year. This is very moving, and another highlight.

‘The One’ (written with Tom Shapiro and Jim Collins) has a mellow vibe and attractive tune about waiting for the right man, but the hook is the unoriginal:

I don’t need a love that I can live with
I want the one I can’t live without

I like the end result a lot, but it is more than a little reminiscent of Clint Back’s ‘The One She Can’t Live Without’, which has an almost identical chorus.  The only track I really don’t like is ‘We’re Here For A Good Time’, an over-produced and very poppy sounding cover of what I think must be a rock song from the 70s. It is Terri’s new single.

Where Terri’s first album for EMI Canada still seemed to be the product of hankering after mainstream success, this one shows her finding her own voice. It isn’t all moving in a direction I personally care for, but it effectively showcases Terri as an independent singer-songwriter.

Grade B+

Album Review: Sugarland – ‘Enjoy The Ride’

2006 saw a retooled Sugarland, now sans Kristen Hall, teaming up with a new producer, Byron Gallimore, for their sophomore release. Enjoy The Ride finds the now-duo, who share production credits, delving a little further into pop territory. Hall’s departure had seemingly no effect on the group’s popularity; the lead single “Want To”, written by Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush with Bobby Pinson, became Sugarland’s first #1 hit. The acoustic guitar-led track, which also features Dan Dugmore on dobro, is one of the more country-sounding songs on the album, and my personal favorite of the tracks that were released as singles. In addition to spending two weeks at the top of the charts, “Want To” became Sugarland’s fourth single to earn gold certification. The second single, the uptempo “Settlin'” likewise climbed to #1.

After “Settlin'” reached the top of the charts, another uptempo number was sent to radio. “Everyday America” is a story of about growing up in a small town, dreaming of moving on to bigger and better things, but ultimately deciding to stay put. In a sense it is a sequel to “Settlin'”, one in which a slightly older and presumably wiser protagonist has reconsidered her plans to change the world, opting instead to raise a family and enjoy a quiet life. Unfortunately, the track is too loud and overproduced, which detracts from the lyrics’ message. “Everyday America” was the worst-performing single from the album, though it still managed to crack the Top 10, peaking at #9.

The loudness and overproduction problems unfortunately are not unique to “Everyday America”; they plague a few of the album’s tracks, namely “County Line”, the annoying “Mean Girls”, and to a lesser degree, “Settlin'”. The tracks that work well are the quieter ones, most notably the sparsely produced ballad “Stay.” The album’s fourth single, which was written by Jennifer Nettles, features an acoustic guitar played by Kristian Bush, an organ, and Nettles’ powerhouse voice. Considered by many to be Sugarland’s finest moment on record, “Stay” — which Nettles says was inspired by Reba McEntire’s “Whoever’s In New England” — won two Grammys in 2006: Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal and “Best Country Song. It also won Single of the Year and Song of the Year from the ACM and Song of the Year from the CMA. It just missed becoming Sugarland’s third #1 hit; peaking at #2, but it became their first platinum single. Unfortunately, it remains their last truly great single to date.

“These Are The Days” is a decent but not great song, notable primarily because Kristian Bush shares lead vocals with Nettles. Unfortunately his grating voice ruins the track. Much better is “Sugarland”, which seems as though it should have been included on the group’s first album. Written in 2003 by Kristian Bush with Vanessa Olivarez and former Sugarland member Kristen Hall, it likely predates Nettles’ hiring as lead singer. It is thematically similar to “Everyday America” but it makes it point much more effectively, and allows the album to close on an introspective high note.

Overall, I enjoyed the ride, but not as much as the first Sugarland album, primarily because of some of the production choices on a handful of tracks. Like its predecessor, it was certified triple platinum by the RIAA.

Grade: B

Enjoy The Ride is widely available, from vendors such as Amazon and iTunes.

Album Review: Sugarland – ”Twice The Speed Of Life’

Sugarland’s debut album burst on an unsuspecting world in October 2004. Produced by Garth Fundis with a bright and punchy modern sound, this is the only Sugarland album to feature former member Kristen Hall (on guitar and backing vocals). Third member Kristian Bush plays mandolin and another acoustic guitar, with additional vocals. The then trio also collaborated on writing most of the songs, but the dominating element is undoubtedly Jennifer Nettles’s strong and distinctive voice. It is thoroughly contemporary with obvious rock and pop influences, but the quality of the songwriting and singing is what makes it resonate.

The lively debut single, ‘Baby Girl’, written by the trio with Troy Bleser, is based around a young woman’s difficulties trying to make it in Nashville, and her eventual triumph, but what it is really about is a child’s love for her parents . The story unrolls through her letters home, with her first asking for money and then able to return the favor. The single was an instant success for the group, peaking at #2.

Also just missing the very top spot was the follow up, the vibrant ‘Something More’, which opens the album with a shouted “Come on“, as Jennifer launches into her frustration with an ordinary urban life and a boring job, declaring:

I could work my life away but why?
I got things to do before I die
There’s gotta be something more

The third single was a Kristen Hall solo composition which is the best song on the album, the excellent ‘Just Might (Make Me Believe)’, This powerful ode to the power of love to help through the hard times and to outlast doubts was another top 10 hit for the group, and has one of Jennifer’s finest vocal performances to date. It remains one of my favorite Sugarland recordings. My least favorite of the four singles was the up-tempo romp ‘Down In Mississippi (Up To No Good)’ about breaking away from the domestic routine with some friends; this one is lacking in both melody and subtlety, but it has an undeniable energy.

The radio-friendly and rather poppy sounding ‘Tennessee’ was written by Hall and Bush with David Labruyere, and has a radio call-in request “from a boy in love to a girl called Tennessee” who he regrets having let slip away from his fear of commitment. It has a great vocal from Jennifer, and only the gimmicky name of the girl that mars the otherwise charming song.

The reflective ‘Hello’ sounds autobiographical, with a wistful almost folky feel to its reminiscences of young love and youthful surroundings revisited; I can imagine the band’s fellow Georgian Trisha Yearwood (also often produced by Fundis) covering this successfully. ‘Fly Away’ was written by Bush and Hall with Corri English and Billy Gewin (probably while they were still based in Atlanta), and expresses the restlessness of a dissatisfied small town girl who wants to make her own path in life. The gentle acoustic ‘Small Town Jericho’ offers a fonder and more reluctant farewell to childhood surroundings with Jennifer stretching out the word goodbye until it is almost un recognisable at times. Kristen and Jennifer’s catchy ‘Speed Of Life’, which provides the album title, is an older woman’s reminiscences about a runaway teenage marriage with a happy ending:

It’s hard to slow it down when it feels so right…
We’re travelling at twice the speed of life

The closing track ‘Stand Back Up’ is a dignified acoustic ballad about resilience in the face of adversity:

I’ve been beaten up and bruised
I’ve been kicked right off my shoes
Been down on my knees more times than you’d believe
When the darkness tries to get me
There’s a light that just won’t let me
It might take my pride and tears may fill my eyes
But I’ll stand back up

The only song I don’t really care for on this album is ‘Time, Time. Time’, which is a little dull, but overall this was a very strong debut. It stretches the boundaries of country music, but in a palatable way. The album appealed to country listeners as much as the singles did to radio programmers, and it has been certified triple platinum. It is also, as noted above, the only evidence of Sugarland as a trio rather than today’s duo, as Kristen Hall left the group in December 2005, before they returned to the studio.

Grade: A-

Spotlight Artist: Sugarland

From the Atlanta underground scene, Sugarland was first brought to life by former member Kristen Hall.  In 2002, Hall contacted Kristian Bush about the possibility of creating a band together.  Hall had herself released a half-dozen assorted solo projects and Bush had found some success with the duo Billy Pilgrim, but both were now eyeing the country music umbrella as a release for their music.  When the two decided they needed a powerful female lead voice for the songs they were writing together, they immediately thought of a spunky blonde also making waves on the Atlanta club scene with her own band.  Jennifer Nettles had herself been busy fronting Soul Miner’s Daughter, a folk-rock, garage-band type outfit, and later The Jennifer Nettles Band before releasing 2 solo albums.  Nettle agreed to jump on board and the Sugarland trio was born.

Within a few short years, the band had a deal with Mercury Records’ Nashville office.  Their first single, a frank look at the ups and downs of a fledgling musician, shot to #2 on the country charts, and the pair were on their way.  Two more singles from that album reached the country top 10 and a fourth landed inside the top 20, while the album went on to sell more than 3 million copies.  During the chart run of the album’s third single, Kristen Hall abruptly announced her departure from the group, citing the desire to concentrate on songwriting as her primary reason for quitting.  Three years later, Hall would file a lawsuit claiming she was owed a percentage of all the group’s future royalties.  The suit was settled for an undisclosed amount earlier this year.

Now a duo sans Hall, the group’s second album, Enjoy The Ride, hit shelves in November 2006, propelled by the lead single, the smoking hot ‘Settlin’.  Both ‘Settlin’ and ‘Want To’ hit the top of the country singles chart, but the album’s fourth top 10 hit would prove to be Sugarland’s signature so far.  Jennifer Nettles plaintive delivery of the plight of the other woman with little more than her aching voice and an acoustic guitar instantly connected with a wide-range of audiences, and in addition to its #2 spot on the country chart, the song hit the top 40 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the U.S. Pop chart.  It would also be the duo’s first platinum-selling single.

2008’s Love On The Inside continued their run of country success with 3 consecutive #1 singles, a double platinum certification, and another round of industry awards.  2007 saw them dethrone long-running champs Brooks & Dunn for the CMA Vocal Duo of the Year award, a slot they’ve since repeated in 4 years running.  Love also found the pair stretching their musical muscles as they ably incorporated 80s rock, girl-band pop, and the best of modern Nashville, all to dazzling results.  Unfortunately the same can’t be said of their most recent release, the arena rock-influenced The Incredible Machine.  Still, the album’s first single, ‘Stuck Like Glue’, went to #1, and they’ve just released its best track as the follow-up single.

Irresistibly catchy melodies, simple, positive lyrics, and the throaty twang of Jennifer Nettles make up the basis of Sugarland’s distinctive and identifiable sound.  Kristian Bush adds milk and toast harmonies that more often than not, perfectly compliment Nettles lead.  The pair are also responsible for writing or co-writing nearly every song they record.  Their influences run wide, but their general sound found root in country music, and that allowed me to discover their music.  Keep reading this month as we look back over the past 6 years of Sugarland transitioning into the top duo in country music.

The truth behind the music

A few pieces of news struck me last week. Apparently the new biography of Buck Owens paints him as a sometime-unscrupulous businessman, and Sugarland lead singer Jennifer Nettles’ comments on former band member Kristen Hall’s contributions to the band make her sound more than a little arrogant. A little earlier in the week, John Berry admitted to having been “a rude and arrogant individual who wasn’t much of a team player, I’m afraid. It was my own fault that they dumped me off the label”. Much as I would like to believe all my favorite artists are nice people, I fear he is unlikely to have been unique.

So that conjunction led me to think about how our perception of an artist’s personality affects our appreciation of their music. My gut reaction was that art is not an aspect of morality, but thinking about it more seriously -and honestly – it is a more complex issue. For me, it depends in part on how much I liked the music to start with.

Both George Jones and Keith Whitley were destructive alcoholics who must have been very difficult to live with in real life. Knowing that does not affect my love of their often sublime music at all. George in particular actually used his alcoholism to create great music many times, in classic songs like ‘A Drunk Can’t Be A Man’, right up to ‘Ol’ George Stopped Drinking Today’. After he sobered up he even felt able to refer back jokingly to that period in songs like ‘No Show Jones’ and the video for ‘Honky Tonk Song’.

In contrast, I’ve never been able to think kindly of Troy Gentry since the tame bear-killing incident. But I was never a big fan of Montgomery Gentry to start with – I quite liked some of their singles but they never made it to my purchase list. Their chart success does not seem to have been much affected by the controversy – unlike the reaction of some Dixie Chicks fans to their political storm.

It has been suggested that Sara Evans’ messy divorce contributed to her slowing career in the last few years, and the breakdown of LeAnn Rimes’ marriage, and that of her new boyfriend, has attracted a lot of online opprobrium. Only a minority of country stars seem to find divorce hurts them professionally; perhaps it depends on the level of publicity, and who is perceived to be at fault, or perhaps it depends partly on their fans’ level of investment in their public persona?

Country music is so often rooted in real experience that sympathising with an artist’s real-life tribulations often feeds into our appreciation of their music – think of Loretta Lynn’s autobiographical songs about living with a philandering husband and Tammy Wynette’s many tales of marital breakdown which mirrored her own chequered marital career. There is an added frisson listening to Vern Gosdin’s deeply sad Alone album knowing it was largely inspired by the collapse of his marriage. Hearing that an artist wrote a particular love song for his or her spouse (for instance, when Trace Adkins wrote ‘The Rest Of Mine’ for his wedding) often makes it strike home with a little more emotional force. But then if the relationship fails, does the song stand on its own? I confess personally to finding Vince Gill’s ‘I Still Believe In You’ less resonant as a love song after he left his first wife (for whom it had been written) – but my own reaction is also colored by that song’s conection for me with a failed relationship of my own. Many years later, I can appreciate the song’s beauty again in its own right.

In parallel with these thougts about whether an artist’s bad behavior affects how their music is perceived, I have noticed that many younger fans appear to believe that their special favorite should be immune from criticism because of that artist’s sterling character. Personally, I think being either a nice person or a total jerk does not affect musical ability – although either may conceivably limit someone’s ability to convey a full range of emotions in a song. But what we know about the background does often affect us, sometimes subliminally.

What do you think? Have you ever soured on an artist because of their offstage actions?

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