The newest country-themed film, Country Strong is due out next January, with an early release just before Christmas in Nashville and LA. The music is much more mainstream than it was in Crazy Heart, the last such movie, and indeed two singles are currently in the lower reaches of the country charts. The tracks are all new recordings, some from actors in the film, others from a selection of country artists. A variety of producers have been used, and the music ranges from traditional to pop country.
Actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays a successful country singer in the movie, sings four of the songs. Her singing is perfectly competent, if a little colorless; it’s hard to say without seeing the film whether this is in character with the part she’s playing. The theme tune is one of the two radio singles. It’s a pleasant enough generic contemporary song, produced by Byron Gallimore, which makes it perfectly convincing as a hit single. Vince Gill and Patty Loveless sing backing vocals but are too far back in the mix to be heard. ‘Coming Home’ is a rather boring and awkwardly phrased pop-country ballad written by Bob DiPiero, Tom Douglas, Hillary Lindsey and Troy Verges, and drowned in strings. Gwyneth rocks out Gretchen Wilson-style in ‘Shake That Thing’ (written by Mark Irwin, Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins), and while this is yelled and tuneless, it should be pretty convincing in the context of the movie. She duets with Tim McGraw (who also has a role in the film) on the breakup-themed rock ballad ‘Me And Tennessee’, written by Paltrow’s real-life rock star husband Chris Martin, who also plays acoustic guitar on the track.
Oddly, McGraw does not get any solo cuts here; maybe Curb wouldn’t allow it. Starlet Leighton Meester (best known for her TV role in Gossip Girl) covers a Rascal Flatts song, ‘Words I Couldn’t Say’, which is less histrionic than the original, but not particularly interesting, and Leighton’s vocals sound rather processed and like a slightly more tuneful Taylor Swift. The best of the actors’ songs is the gruff-voiced Garrett Hedlund who is very effective on ‘Chances Are’, a very good song written by Nathan Chapman, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose, and produced by Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten. I understand Hedlund’s role is as a singer-songwriter, and he certainly sounds the part here on this drawled, half-rueful confession of a man’s inadequacies:
I used to give a damn
I used to try real hard but I’ll give in tonight, chances are
One foot on the narrow way and one foot on the ledge
Sifting through the devil’s lies for what the Good Book says
If I’m going anywhere
I’ll probably go too far
Probably away from you, chances are
This track was the real surprise package on this record.
Country fans will be most interested in the new tracks from established artists. We’ve already heard Sara Evans’ latest single, ‘A Little Bit Stronger’, a pleasant but rather bland positive ballad about coping with adversity, which has grown on me since it was first released as the lead single for both this album and Sara’s long-awaited next solo album (said to be entitled Stronger and possibly now due early next year). Her voice at least sounds lovely on this Tony Brown-produced and Luke Laird/Hillary Lindsey/Hillary Scott-penned number. Like Sara, Faith Hill has been silent for some time, and returns here with a forgettable AC-leaning ballad, ‘Give In To Me’, produced by Jay Joyce, which is soothing and sounds as though it will be background music for a love scene, and goes on a bit too long.
Chris Young and Patty Loveless team up on a duet written by Marv Green and Troy Olsen, and was produced by James Stroud, which must have been the original theme song. ‘Love Don’t Let Me Down’ was the original title for the movie, and it is a decent song, but not a particularly memorable one. It feels like a waste of this pairing of two of the best voices in country music. Trace Adkins reminds us he really can sing well on the reflective Natalie Hemby/Troy Jones song ‘Timing Is Everything’. Nicely produced by Kenny Beard with some lovely fiddle from Larry Franklin, this fine song about the role of chance in our lives is sensitively interpreted by Trace, and rather better than most of the material on his current album.
Ronnie Dunn gets a much better song for his first solo outing since the breakup of Brooks & Dunn with his self-produced revival of the old Gary Stewart honky tonking classic ‘She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)’, although I was irritated by the fact that he changes doubles to double. Other than that, it’s an enjoyable recording with Ronnie in good voice, but lacks the unbridled passion and pain of the original. It raises my hopes for whatever solo album he may come up with. Veteran Hank Williams Jr. does his usual country rock thing on the insatiable drinking song ‘Thirsty’, written by Dallas Davidson, Rhett Akins and Brett Eldredge, produced by Michael Knox with added bar room crowd noises. It is undistinguished, but will probably work well in a bar scene.
The outstanding track is a lovely Lee Ann Womack recording of the very traditional sounding fiddle-led ‘Liars Lie’, written by Sally Barris, Morgane Hayes and Liz Rose. This is essential listening for any Lee Ann fan, produced by her husband Frank Liddell and Chuck Ainlay, and it is a shame that apparently it is not available for download on its own. It would be a welcome inclusion on her next album and is one of my favorite album tracks of the year. it opens with the classic country situation of the protagonist unexpectedly witnessing her spouse with another. She addresses him with a mixture of pain and resignation:
My heart stopped like it hit a freight train
You kissed her and twisted the knife
Now you’re trying to tell me she’s nothing
Why should I be so surprised?
Losers lose, winners win, cheaters cheat, and sinners sin,
Dreamers dream, criers cry, fools believe, and liars lie
It’d take all I got to forgive you
And sure as my heart starts to mend
I’d find you somewhere with another
And you’d hurt me all over again
“I shoulda known”, she repeats three times in the bridge,
Someone like you who can’t be true is bound to roam
I suspect this album has been released principally in order to build up interest among country fans in the movie in advance of its arrival in cinemas. I think it does a pretty good job, and although the material is as much of a mixed bag as one expects from a multi-artist compilation, it is all reasonably listenable, with one modern classic in the Lee Ann Womack track.