My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Ashton Shepherd

“Every Little Thing” and Carly Pearce’s fabricated fairy tale

The deeper I lean into the marketing of mainstream country music, The more I’m seeing the blatant manipulation. It’s no secret that Keith Hill’s comment that women are the tomatoes on the salad was offensive and misogynistic, but it was also, unfortunately, spot on. Women, unless they are members of a group, duo or collaboration also featuring men, have been shut out of even marginal airplay. Miranda Lambert is justifiably pissed at her diminishing returns, even as her music veers more and more towards Americana.

Media outlets that cover mainstream country have been celebrating the success of Carly Pearce’s “Every Little Thing” with Rolling Stone Country saying she “defied the odds with risky song” in a recent headline. I’ll admit, it’s against the norm, in this current climate, to release a ballad and have it succeed. The slower a song is the less likely it will fall under what is deemed “radio friendly.” That logic is nothing new.

But what’s baffling is the suppression of the truth. Carly Pearce is succeeding on her own merit about as much as Thomas Rhett. This grand success story? It’s all courtesy of iHeart Media and their “On The Verge” program. “On The Verge” exists to help struggling artists succeed and pretty much guarantees them a #1 hit. It’s the only reason former American Idol runner-up Lauren Alaina scored a chart topper with “The Road Less Traveled” seven years after her debut album bombed into oblivion. There’s absolutely no fairy tale here, no reason to cheer or even get excited. These feats are political manipulations swept under the rug disguised as major success stories.

We’re at a crisis point right now with female artists. Not only are none getting airplay, there really aren’t any in the mainstream sector for radio to embrace. Brandy Clark and Sunny Sweeney would never get airplay for the latest music, in any era, since they’re 40 years or older. Ashton Shepherd didn’t connect, with her heavy twang, so MCA dropped her. Ashely Monroe was told, on her last radio tour, that “On To Something Good,” was dead on arrival. Kacey Musgraves has done next to nothing to endear herself to the mainstream audience beyond wearing crazy outfits and adorning her sets with neon cacti. She will join Harry Styles on tour next year. Will Maren Morris connect? Possibly, as she’s already building a following. But I would think she’d have to prove herself as more than the “80s Mercedes” singer. “I Could Use A Love Song” has done that for me, but it’s only a step in the right direction for her to take as she contemplates her follow-up to Hero.

About the only person, we can count on is Carrie Underwood, who is currently in between albums. Time will tell if her newly minted deal with Capitol Nashville, the label that refused to sign her as a pre-teen back in 1996, will yield further success. I can’t imagine her being blackballed but I never thought Dixie Chicks would fall from grace like that either. In this market, anything is possible.

Is there a solution or silver lining in all of this? I honestly have no idea. I never imagined mainstream country music would ever be in this bad a shape in my life. It took until I got to college to see why Luke Bryan has been able to succeed like he has. He’s tapped into an audience previously ignored by country music, those who love to socialize and party and be high on life. He’s like the male Taylor Swift in that sense. He’s found his audience and he’s running with it all the way to the bank.

This era is the building block for whatever comes next. Has anyone else noticed the glaring oddity of Sam Hunt’s “Body Like A Backroad?” The song has succeeded without a music video, parent album or physical release of any kind. I can’t remember any other massive song that lacked even one of those three elements. These are uncharted waters and they’re reaping big rewards.

Maybe you know where we’re going from here. I know I probably shouldn’t care, and I have spent the majority of this year focused on independent releases, but I do. I can’t help it. It’s in my nature as female artists have always been my favorite, the ones I listen to most frequently. I guess Angaleena Presley and her fellow Pistol Annies said it best:

Dreams don’t come true

They’ll make a mess out of you

They’ll hang around the darkest corners of your mind

They’ll beat your heart black and blue

Don’t let anyone tell you they do

Dreams don’t come true

 

I hate to put a damper

On the fairy tale you pictured

I shoulda known all along that

Glass slippers give you blisters

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Album Review: Ashton Shepherd – ‘Out Of My Pocket’

out of my pocketAshton Shepherd’s major label career did not work out, despite a handful of top 20 singles, and now she is making music at home in Alabama. Her latest self-released album is now available. Her distinctively stretched out vocals aren’t to all tastes, but they work well on her new material, all of it self-penned, and better than the songs on her last album, It’s America, which I was a little disappointed by.

‘With Us Tellin’ The Truth’ is a poor working class woman’s lament against the state of the American economy. ‘I Just Need A Minute’ also successfully expresses the frustrations of a harried mother, although it collapses into melodrama at the end when she is reminded how much she loves them after a car accident. ‘Can’t Tell You No’ is about love carrying a couple through the hard times. This is the one misstep on the album, with some irritating oh-oh-oh sounds, although the song itself is a decent one.

One of my favourite tracks, ‘This Rainy Sunday’ is a dramatic song about a wife who returns from Sunday to discover her cheating husband in flagrante in what feels like the precursor to a murder ballad:

I thought I was walkin’ with God
But I guess now I’m not
Everything I did believe is erased
The man I love’s done more than I can take
And I’m losing my faith

The anguished ‘Glass And Nails’ sees the protagonist’s husband hiding from their troubles in a bottle:

I’m not walkin’ on pins and needles, baby,
I’m walkin’ through glass and nails

‘It’s You’ is a fine song about a woman struggling her way through life through a series of bar pickups and one night stands after a breakup:

That ain’t me
It ain’t who I ever was
Doesn’t anyone remember who I used to be
No, that ain’t me
I swear it’s the truth
That ain’t me
It’s you

‘I Don’t Know Why’ is another pained song about heartbreak following the end of a relationship.

The brash, confident honky tonker ‘I Like Bein’ Single’ is much more positive about a newly single status:

The bar’s open and I’m goin’ out tonight
No I ain’t worried about what’s wrong or what’s right
You thought I’d be cryin’ since you left me alone
But there ain’t been a tear shed here, hon, since you’ve been gone
I never knew I could be this happy without you around

The protagonist of ‘Take It Back Real Slow’ begs her husband to revert to the early romantic stages of their relationship. The tender ‘Come Here To Me’ has a lullaby feel, while ‘Don’t Wake Me Up’ is a happy love song. ‘Baby Doll’ relates a girl’s relationship with her father, from a little child not wanting to go to school, to the final separation of death.

This is an encouraging return from a talented singer-songwriter.

Grade: A

Album Review: Angaleena Presley – ‘American Middle Class’

angaleena-presley-album-american-middle-class-2014-08-1000pxFor her solo debut, Pistol Annie Angaleena Presley took the unconventional approach of self-producing the album along with her Husband Jordan Powell. Released earlier this month on Slate Creek Records, American Middle Class is one of the most authentic creations of self-expression you’ll likely hear all year.

Presley, who hails from Beauty, Kentucky, faced an uphill battle in Nashville where she couldn’t get signed to a major label. Then she landed her big break as ‘Holler Annie’ in the trio also consisting of Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe. As a songwriter, her “Fastest Girl In Town” was a top 5 hit for Lambert and Ashton Shepherd took her co-write “Look It Up” into the top 20.

I’ve always been a fan of Presley’s direct approach to songwriting, where she refuses to mince words in effort to make a point. Her Pistol Annies cuts have been some of my favorites from the trio, and while she doesn’t have the flashiest vocal tone, it works in her favor here.

Presley, who co-wrote the whole album, composed five of the album’s songs solo. “Ain’t No Man” is a brilliantly biting ballad with stunning turns of phrase while “All I Ever Wanted” sets a religiously confrontational lyric to an ear catching shuffle beat. The mix of Presley’s strong vocal with her prominent background vocalist renders “Pain Pills” too cluttered, distracting the listener from the tale of Jimmy, who’s drowning his sorrows in booze and narcotics in an effort to cope with his life.

Presley is at her best when her storytelling prowess remains the focus of a song, and American Middle Class abounds with prime examples. Her self-penned “Better off Red” is a masterpiece of perception, a beautiful reflection on one’s place in our world. Equally powerful is Lori McKenna co-write “Grocery Store,” three minutes of observations culled from a checkout line. The deceptively simple track is filled with gorgeous articulations of our mundane everyday lives and comes together as a dazzling work of art almost too good to be true.

“Life of the Party” teams Presley with her hero Matraca Berg for another mouth-watering creation, this time the pedal steel soaked story of a woman facing the light of day after a night spent with another man. The pair is an irresistible songwriting force, with Berg turning in a co-write on par with the myriad of classics she churned out in the 1980s and 1990s, a feat in of itself.

On “Drunk” Presley and co-writer Sara Siskind cover identical ground as Presley’s labelmate Brandy Clark did on “Hungover,” and they turn out equally as delicious a tune about unappreciative men and their selfish ways. “Knocked Up,” co-written with Mark D. Sanders, is the prequel to “Drunk,” a banjo driven number about an unplanned pregnancy and shotgun wedding that plays like a delightful dark comedy.

“Dry Country Blues,” which Presley also co-wrote with Sanders, paints the gritty glory of small town life down to the drunk boys out to get laid and their female counterparts trying not to turn into meth whores. The self-penned title track, which covers the same ground, boarders on preachy and falls dangerously close into a pandering flag-waving anthem, but she makes it work by bringing in Patty Loveless for a harmony vocal that gives the track an added texture that works well with the formidable arrangement.

“Blessing and a Curse,” co-written with Bob DiPiero, is one of the more mainstream-leaning lyrics on American Middle Class with a bluesy arrangement that works beautifully with Presley’s voice. Even the electric guitar, which dominates, isn’t a hinder but rather an assist to the track’s overall splendor. Another such track is “Surrender,” the record’s closing number and a co-write with Luke Laird and Barry Dean. The ballad is as lush and exciting as it is assessable, and Presley turns in an elegant vocal.

American Middle Class is easily a highlight of 2014 with Presley’s fine tuned prospective on the world expressed through sharp songwriting and immaculate choices in instrumentation. Her decision to co-produce with her husband has given the album an added authenticity that gives the record an artists’ touch, an obvious missing link in the majority of mainstream music today. Presley, who’s the real deal, has filled my heart with a joy I haven’t felt in a long, long time.

I cannot recommend this nearly flawless album enough.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Ashton Shepherd – ‘This Is America’

shepherdIt’s always interesting to see what artistic changes will occur when an artist moves from a major label to an indie.  The conventional wisdom tends to dictate that that artist, now unencumbered by corporate restraints, will be free to release the masterpiece that he or she always wanted to make.  In reality, however, the changes are more likely to occur due to budgetary constraints and access (or lack thereof) to first-rate songs and the guidance of a good producer.  On This Is America, Ashton Shepherd’s  new self-released collection, there isn’t a huge change in artistic direction, which is not entirely surprising since she’s always played a major role in writing her material.  It does suggest that MCA gave her relative freedom to record what she wanted during her two-album stint with the label, though they may not have always marketed the final product aggressively.   The production on This Is America is a little more spare and somewhat generic; whether this is due to personal taste or a smaller budget is not clear.   I haven’t been able to find a producer credit anywhere for the album, but in an interview Shepherd did say that all of the vocal tracks were recorded in one day, which suggests that costs were kept to a minimum.  Unlike the recent self-released album from Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan, however, the sound quality on This Is America is excellent throughout.

I enjoy patriotic songs as much as any red-blooded American, but a steady diet of them in recent years, has somewhat eroded my appetite, particularly since many of them appear to have been motivated not by a profound love for God and country but by a desire to capitalize on the emotions of the nation since the September 11th attacks nearly a dozen years ago.   So I can’t say that I was particularly excited when “This Is America” hit iTunes back in July as the album’s advance single.  However,  Ashton sings the song with a great deal of sincerity,  and the song has grown on me with repeated listenings, even though it doesn’t say much that hasn’t been said before.

Like patriotism, nostalgia plays a big role in this album, beginning with the opening number, “Andy”, which looks back at simpler and happier times (that probably never truly existed) and unfavorably compares them to the state of modern life.   Though Ashton is too young to remember The Andy Griffith Show during its initial airing, she does seem to draw more upon her own experiences in the album’s other nostalgic tune “Seventeen Again”, which finds her letting her hair down and reliving some moments of her youth, in an attempt to escape the drudgeries of day-to-day life.   It’s one of the album’s best tracks, and one that with some major label promotional muscle behind it, might have had some commercial potential.

“The Next Time You Cross My Mind”, which sounds like something that Patty Loveless might have recorded in the nineties, is my favorite song on the album, followed by a remake of “Golden Ring”, the George Jones and Tammy Wynette classic, with Daryle Singletary acting as Ashton’s duet partner.   Also quite good is “For Boosin’” (sic) , which tells the tale of a now washed-up country singer whose shot at the big time was sabotaged by a drinking problem.  “Final”, an ambitious ballad that follows a relationship through its various stages – courtship, marriage, divorce and death — is reminiscent of Martina McBride, although Ashton’s performance is much more restrained that I imagine Martina’s would have been.

Overall, This Is America is a solid but not outstanding effort, not unlike Ashton’s major label work.  It doesn’t contain anything truly outstanding or memorable, but it is a pleasant listen and in this age of obnoxiously overproduced arena rock, pleasant is enough.   The album is available for download at iTunes and Amazon, and CD copies can be purchased directly from Ashton’s website.

Grade: B

Single Review – Danielle Bradbery – ‘The Heart of Dixie’

Danielle-Bradbery-The-Heart-Of-Dixie-Cover-ArtOne of the biggest mysteries in contemporary country music has been the ongoing stagnation at the top for female artists. Not since Taylor Swift debuted with “Tim McGraw” in June 2006, has a woman been able to have consistent airplay for their singles. Some (Jana Kramer and Kacey Musgraves) have launched big but seemingly fizzled out while others (Kellie Pickler and Ashton Shepherd) have been dropped by major labels after multiple albums worth of singles couldn’t peak better than top 20. You have to look at duos and groups to find any other females (Jennifer Nettles, Hillary Scott, Kimberly Perry, Shawna Thompson, Joey Martin Feek) who are having success and even they have enough male energy to keep them commercially viable.

Let’s not forget that two summers ago, fourteen days went by without a single song by a solo female in the top 30 on the Billboard Country Singles Chart. With the demographics in country music skewing younger and the music-seeking public increasingly more and more female, is there any hope this pattern will change? Can anyone break through the muck and join the ranks of Swift, Miranda Lambert, and Carrie Underwood?

If anyone can, it’s Danielle Bradbery. She has three strikes in her favor already – at 17 she’s young enough to appeal to the genre’s core demographic audience, she’s signed to the Big Machine label Group run by master monopolizer Scott Borchetta, and as winner of The Voice, she has Blake Shelton firmly in her corner. Plus, she’s an adorable bumpkin from Texas who has enough charisma and girl next door appeal to last for days.

They also nailed it with her debut single. “The Heart of Dixie” isn’t a great song lyrically speaking. Bradbery is singing about a girl named Dixie who flees her dead-end life (job and husband) for a better existence down south. But that’s it. There’s nothing else in Troy Verges, Brett James, and Caitlyn Smith’s lyric except a woman who gets up and goes – no finishing the story. How Matraca Berg or Gretchen Peters would’ve written the life out of this song 20 years ago. Also, could they have found an even bigger cliché than to name her Dixie?

But the weak lyric isn’t as important here as the melody. It has been far too long since a debut single by a fresh talent has come drenched in this much charming fiddle since probably Dixie Chicks. The production is a throwback to the early 2000s – think Sara Evans’ “Backseat of a Greyhound Bus” – and I couldn’t be happier. So what if the arrangement is a tad too cluttered? Who cares if Bradbery needs a little polish in her phrasing? There isn’t a rock drum or hick-hop line to be found here, and in 2013 country music that’s a very refreshing change of pace.

Bradbery isn’t the savior for female artists in country music. Expect for her Voice audition of “Mean” and a performance of “A Little Bit Stronger,” we’ve yet to hear Bradbery the artist, although Bradbery the puppet has been compelling thus far. Her lack of a booming vocal range like Underwood’s may also hurt her, but isn’t it time someone understated turned everything down a notch?

With everything she has going in her favor, Bradbery may be our genre’s best hope for fresh estrogen. I don’t see her injecting anything new into country music, but redirecting the focus back to a time when “Born To Fly”-type songs were topping the charts, isn’t a bad thing in my book. Hers mostly likely won’t be that lyrically strong, but if she can keep the fiddle and mandolin front and center – I won’t be complaining.

Grade: B 

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Razor X’s Top 10 Albums of 2011

2011 was actually a slightly better year for country music than the past several years, though you’d never know it from listening to country radio. A lot of my old favorites released new albums this year, so it was a little easier than usual for me to find new music to listen to. Here are my favorite releases of 2011:

10. Working in Tennessee — Merle Haggard
While the material was not quite up to the standards of last year’s I Am What I Am, Haggard shows that he’s not ready to hang up his guitar just yet. Though he’s well past his vocal peak, his music is still worth listening to. An eclectic set that runs from Dixieland Jazz to more contemporary fare, with some social commentary and Hag’s views on the current state of country music, this set deserved more attention than it received. It is currently available for download for $4.99 at Amazon.

9. Remember Me, Volume 1 — Willie Nelson
This set picks up where last year’s Country Music left off, and even includes a re-recording of a track (a cover of Porter Wagoner’s “Satisfied Mind”) that appeared on that 2010 release. The album consists entirely of cover material, some of which Willie had recorded in the past, and none of which are his original compositions. It is to traditional country music what his Stardust collection was to pre-rock-and-roll pop. As the title suggests, a second volume is planned for sometime in 2012.

8. Neon — Chris Young
Chris Young is easily the best of the new male singers to emerge in the past few years, but his material has tended to be somewhat inconsistent. Neon is a huge step in the right direction.

7. Better Day — Dolly Parton
I was little skeptical when I first heard about this release, thinking that the last thing country music needs is another set of accentuate-the-positive songs, but Dolly pulls off this project quite well. She wrote all 12 tracks (one is a co-write with Mac Davis), and the lead single “Together You and I” is a remake of one of her old duets with Porter Wagoner. Overall, it’s a much stronger and more consistent set than her previous studio release, 2008’s Backwoods Barbie.

6. Where Country Grows — Ashton Shepherd
I really wanted to love Ashton’s debut album, 2008’s Sounds So Good, but found the material lacking in a lot of cases. After three long years, she finally released her sophomore disc, which is much more to my liking than the first. She’s tweaked her sound just enough to appeal to current commercial tastes, but sadly, the marketplace doesn’t seem to be paying much attention. If you haven’t heard this album yet, “Look It Up”. It’s currently available for download for $4.99 from Amazon.

5. Guitar Slinger — Vince Gill
The follow-up to These Days was long overdue but well worth the wait. As usual, Gill covers a wide range of musical territory from blues and contemporary Christian to adult contemporary and more mainstream county fare. But no matter what the label, it’s excellent music from start to finish.

4. Here For A Good Time — George Strait
I can’t remember a time when George Strait wasn’t at the top of the country charts. He’s been a constant presence for 30 years, and as such he is sometimes taken for granted. He hasn’t gotten a lot of critical acclaim in recent years, and admittedly, his last couple of albums didn’t compare with most of his earlier work. Here For A Good Time is his strongest effort since 2005’s Somewhere Down In Texas, and despite the title, is not a collection of party tunes. There is upbeat fare to be sure, but there are also darker and more serious offerings, such as “Drinkin’ Man”, “A Showman’s Life”, and “Poison”. For most of his career, Strait was well known for not writing the overwhelming majority of the songs he recorded, but he and his son Bubba wrote seven of the eleven tracks here, usually collaborating with Dean Dillon and Bobby Boyd.

3. Your Money and My Good Looks — Rhonda Vincent & Gene Watson
Two of country music’s best and most underrated artists teamed up for this project, which is a pure delight to listen to from beginning to end. It mixes a little bit of the old with a little bit of the new, but it is 100% pure country from beginning to end. No fancy studio trickery will be found here, just some excellent, well sung songs. My favorite tracks are the covers of Vern Gosdin’s “Till The End” and “This Wanting You”, which appeared on George Jones’ 1999 album Cold Hard Truth.

2. Hell on Heels — Pistol Annies
This collection from Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angeleena Presley has got to be the year’s most pleasant surprise. I really wasn’t expecting much but this ended up being one of my most-played albums of the year. Despite Lambert’s current popularity — or perhaps because of it — the album isn’t getting a lot of attention from radio. Hopefully radio’s tepid response and the demands of the group members’ solo careers won’t prevent another Pistol Annies collection from being released before too long.

1. Long Line of Heartaches — Connie Smith
I rarely get excited about upcoming album releases anymore, but this was a definite exception. It’s difficult not to get excited about a new Connie Smith album, since they are such infrequent events; Long Line of Heartaches was her first new album in 13 years, and prior to that there was a 20-year gap between albums. It was produced by Smith’s husband Marty Stuart, and like his Ghost Train (my #1 pick of 2010), it was recorded in the famous RCA Studio B, where so many of Connie’s classic hits from the 1960s and 1970s were laid on tape. Half of the album’s songs were written by Smith and Stuart, with the remainder coming from the pens of legends such as Harlan Howard, Dallas Frazier and Johnny Russell. It simply does not get any better than this. It is currently available for download for $4.99 at Amazon.

Occasional Hope’s Top Ten Singles of 2011

While it wasn’t a great year for country music, there were some definite signs of life, and some very good songs made their way across the airwaves. A few were even hits. Here are my favorite singles this year:

10. ‘Look It Up – Ashton Shepherd’
Ashton comes across like a modern Loretta Lynn in this scornful rejoinder to a cheating spouse. Forgiveness is not an option. Although it was a top 20 hit and just about her biggest to date, I expected more commercial success from this sassy number, written by Pistol Annie Angaleena Presley with Robert Ellis Orrall.

9. ‘Colder Weather’ – Zac Brown Band
The Georgia band is one of the most artistically adventurous acts in country music, and this is one of their finest records. A complex lyric depicts a couple separated by the man’s driving job; she seems keener than he does on their being together. It was inspired by co-writer Wyatt Durrette’s own thwarted romance with a girl who struggled with the travel demanded by a music career. The production neatly marries an understated piano-led first verse with rock elements as the protagonist’s emotions rise. It was another #1 hit for the band.

8. ‘In God’s Time’ – Randy Houser
Rich-voiced singer-songwriter Randy Houser released his finest effort to date this year with this gently understated expression of faith in God, whatever may happen. A gentle piano-led accompaniment provides effective support. This was intended to be the lead single for Houser’s third album for Show Dog Universal, but it did not do as well as hoped, and Houser has now left the label. He has since signed to indie label Broken Bow, so hopefully he will be able to continue releasing mauic of this caliber.

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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: Ashton Shepherd – ‘Where Country Grows’

Ashton Shepherd was the youngest of the artists we spotlighted last year as the “new New Traditionalists”. At last, three years after she emerged on the scene, she has released her second album, which marks a serious bid for mainstream success by a talented young singer-songwriter. It is produced, like her first record, by Buddy Cannon, who does a fine job balancing contemporary and traditional elements of Ashton’s sound and emphasizing her unique voice.

The insistent lead single ‘Look It Up’ (written by Angaleena Presley and Robert Ellis Orrall), which I reviewed at the end of last year, has Ashton coming on scornfully like a modern Loretta Lynn. This works tremendously well, and it is a shame it was not a monster hit for Ashton rather than peaking just inside the top 20 – although that made it her biggest hit to date.

It is one of only two tracks not written by Ashton. She is developing well as a songwriter, and I am pleased to see her working with other writers to hone her own gifts, building on the untutored natural talent she showed on her debut three years ago.  Former artist and recent Sugarland collaborator Bobby Pinson helps writing a couple of country-living themed numbers. The title track and current single is a bit predictable as Ashton pays tribute to her rural roots, but the up-tempo ‘More Cows Than People’ on the same theme is quite entertaining, with colorful details rooting the song in a specific reality. This one isn’t a generic southern small town. I also like the relaxed but catchy ‘Beer On A Boat’. Written by Marv Green, Ben Hayslip and Rhett Akins, some of the lyrics might sound leering sung by a man, but Ashton makes it wholesome and charming. These four originally appeared on an EP earlier this year, which Razor X reviewed in anticipation of the album.

The best of the new songs is the sultry ‘That All Leads To One Thing’, one of Ashton’s solo compositions. It has a southern gothic Bobbie Gentry feel. A tormented married woman addresses the husband who is obviously cheating. With a vibe too dark for today’s country radio, it is one of the highlights on the record.  The upbeat ‘Tryin’ To Go To Church’ (written with Shane MacAnally and Brandy Clark) is lively and entertaining tune about struggling to live right in the face of various temptations (like the “husband-stealing heifer” she has to “set right”), and is reminiscent of ’70s Linda Ronstadt.

‘I’m Just A Woman’ is a ballad about being a woman, and specifically a wife and mother; the lyrics are not particularly deep or insightful, but the extraordinarily intense vocal makes it sound better than it is. The ballad ‘While It Ain’t Raining’ is equally intense to the point of verging on the over-dramatic, and although the song itself is well written (by Ashton with Troy Jones) a slightly more understated approach might have been more effective. Both tracks have backing vocals from Melonie Cannon (Buddy’s daughter and an exceptional talent in her own right).

‘I’m Good’ is a fine song which Ashton wrote with Dale Dodson and Dean Dillon. Like ‘Look It Up’, it is presented from the point of view of a woman refusing to forgive the man who has hurt her, but with a mellower feel musically as she concentrates on affirming her own strength and moving on. Her enunciation is oddly over emphasized – a feature of her vocals some criticized on her first album, which seems to have been intensified on this track in particular. ‘Rory’s Radio’ fondly recalls teenage memories of listening to the radio while driving with her older brothers, and has some slightly awkward phrasing.

I thought Ashton’s debut was enormously promising, the voice of a fresh new talent while still unmistakably country. This is more commercial, and will hopefully gain her some radio play, but although this is an encouraging step forwards, I feel she is still a work in progress, with her best yet to come.

Grade: B+

Buy it at amazon.

Single Review: Sunny Sweeney – ‘Staying’s Worse Than Leaving’

Like Ashton Shepherd, Sunny Sweeney has spent the past couple of years struggling to get new music released and stay alive commercially. And like Shepherd, Sweeney has had to tweak her sound just enough to find some mainstream acceptance, but not enough to be labeled a sellout. She managed to find the right balance on her recent single and first Top 10 hit “From A Table Away”.

Her latest release, “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving”, which Sunny co-wrote with Brennan Leigh is in a similar vein. Producer Brett Beavers has included plenty of prominent electric guitar work and drums to appeal to contemporary tastes, but there is also a generous amount of pedal steel, fiddle, and Sunny’s East Texas twang, which is the glue that holds the recording together. The first few electric guitar notes sound like the intro to an old Ray Price record, but things quickly take a more contemporary turn as the song gets underway. It deals with a couple confronting each other about the state of their broken relationship and reluctantly concluding that it’s better to go their separate ways than to stay together. The tune, which is surprisingly upbeat given the subject matter, was apparently not influenced by Sweeney’s own recent divorce.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed Sunny’s 2006 album Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame, it was obvious that nothing from that collection had any serious shot at mainstream success. Her recent EP should serve as a primer on how to broaden one’s mainstream appeal without sacrificing the country elements. There’s no reason to expect that “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving” won’t follow “From A Table Away” into the Top 10. Country radio will be greatly improved if it embraces artists like Sunny Sweeney.

Grade: A-

“Staying’s Worse Than Leaving” is available for individual download, but I strongly recommend buying her entire 5-track EP, which is available from both Amazon and iTunes.

Album Review: Ashton Shepherd – ‘Look It Up (EP)’

Ashton Shepherd’s fate has been uncertain in the three years since the release of her debut album Sounds So Good, which was acclaimed by traditionalists but underperformed commercially. In the past, artists in her position have been forced to modify their sound, toning down the twang, fiddles and steel in order to garner the approval of country radio and more mainstream appeal. And in more recent years, declining revenues for record labels have made it difficult for struggling artists to release new albums at all, without first racking up a big radio hit. It is, therefore, nothing short of miraculous that Ashton was not only allowed to release new music, but was able to keep the traditional country elements in her music front and center.

The title track, which Occasional Hope reviewed in December, has been slowly but steadily climbing the charts and is currently at #23. If it can climb higher than #20, it will become Shepherd’s highest-charting single to date. There is no reason to believe it will not do so; the catchy and energetic tune is easily my favorite single of 2011 so far, and is the strongest track in this four-song collection. “Where Country Grows”, one of two original compositions Ashton contributed to the project, is on the surface another “I’m from the country and proud of it” anthem, but she manages to sound sincere and authentic, preventing the tune from sounding cliched and overcoming the slightly too-loud production. “Beer On A Boat” is a little light lyrically, but the melody is infectious and it sounds like a good summertime tune. “More Cows Than People”, the second Shepherd-penned tune also celebrates country living, albeit a little more effectively than “Where Country Grows”, thanks to more vivid imagery in the lyrics.

Throughout the four tracks, Ashton sounds both enthusiastic and at ease. Her Alabama accent is never toned down, nor does it sound exaggerated and affected. If the current single manages to become her commercial breakthrough, she may be well positioned to become country radio’s token traditional-leaning female, a niche that has been vacant since Patty Loveless slipped off the charts. It would have been nice to have had a ballad thrown into the mix, but that minor flaw can be overlooked due to the restrictions imposed by limiting the collection to four tracks.

Though I was initially disappointed that Look It Up was only an EP, the four tracks are all strong ones, and after such a long wait, I’m happy to have any new music from Ashton at all. It isn’t clear whether plans to release a full album this summer are still on track, but this collection will fill the gap nicely in the meantime.

Grade: A

Look It Up can be downloaded from Amazon and iTunes.

Something to look forward to

We spent part of last month rounding up the best and worst of 2010. Now we’re into a brand new year, it’s time to start looking forward again, and wondering what the year ahead may hold in store.

Newly crowned CMA Entertainer of the Year Brad Paisley’s This is Country Music has a release date in March, with the lead single already on its way up the charts. Current Arista labelmate Alan Jackson is reportedly considering his future options now that he has fulfilled his obligations to the label, and perhaps we will see him moving to pastures new like Martina McBride and Trace Adkins, although either way I don’t really expect a new album from him this year. Ronnie Dunn has already been into the studios for his contribution to the Country Strong soundtrack, and is working on his solo album. I doubt he can expect Brooks & Dunn levels of success for this, even if he was the voice of the duo’s hits, but I’m looking forward to hearing what he comes up with.

The Sony group has relied on American Idol to pick up new artists with a built-in fanbase for several years; this tie-in has now ended, with the group now planning to be associated with Simon Cowell’s rival X Factor show (launching in the fall), and the Idol link now picked up by the Universal Music Group (country imprints are MCA and Mercury). The most successful of these signings is of course Carrie Underwood, whose pattern of releases to date suggests a new album at the end of 2011. I don’t expect any change in direction from her high-energy pop-based style, but more intriguing are the things Kellie Pickler has been saying about her third album being more firmly rooted in traditional country music. I haven’t been particularly impressed by her music to date, but I’m willing to keep an open mind. The latest Idol alumnus to go country after the show is Texan Casey James, who finished third on last year’s Idol and is now with BNA (as the Casey James Band); his roots seem to be more blues than country but he may be worth watching out for. RCA will be releasing a second album from the previous year’s third place finisher Danny Gokey; his debut sold pretty well but failed to set the radio alight or to connect with more traditional country fans.

RCA has lost one of its superstar acts in the form of Martina McBride. It will be interesting to see what (if any) effect Martina’s move to Republic Nashville has on her music: a determined attempt to regain the limelight following the relative under-performance of her last album and recent singles by appealing to modern radio tastes a la Reba’s recent work, an artistic resurgence, or just more of the same? Sunny Sweeney’s Republic debut is also keenly anticipated.

Sticking with RCA, Sara Evans’s long-delayed new album (originally announced for January 2010) is now due to come out in March, taking its title, Stronger, from her Country Strong cut, which is rising up the charts. Again, we’ll have to wait to see if she is trying to get radio play by concentrating on her pop crossover style, or returning to her country roots. I suspect the former, particularly since she has been working with Taylor Swift’s producer Nathan Chapman. My favorite RCA artist at the moment is Chris Young, and I hope he will be back in the studios this year, as his breakthrough second album was released in September 2009. I feel his material to date has (with a few exceptions) not been worthy of his great voice, and I hope that now he can claim two #1 hits, he can demand the very best of what Nashville’s songwriters have to offer.

Reigning CMA Male and Female Vocalists of the Year Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert have a wedding to plan, but Miranda in particular will be expected to produce a follow-up to her acclaimed 2009 release, Revolution. Blake divided his 2010 output into two “Sixpak” EPs (neither of them very good, the first producing just one single), and it will be interesting to see if he sticks with this template or reverts to a fullscale album in future.

I hope this will be the year Ashton Shepherd finally breaks through commercially. The prolific George Strait tends to release an album a year, so with nothing new in 2010 he is overdue for a new album. Joe Nichols has a Greatest Hits set out soon, so I assume Show Dog Universal has stopped promoting 2009’s Old Things New, and perhaps we can look forward to something new later in the year. But the artist I’m most hoping for new music from is Lee Ann Womack, especially after her stellar contribution to the Country Strong soundtrack.

Over at Curb, it seems that Tim McGraw may finally be out of his contract. LeAnn Rimes’s Vince Gill-produced covers set was supposed to be released last year, but may appear this year, although I’m not inspired by what we’ve heard so far. Heidi Newfield is also supposedly due to have her second solo effort for the label out this year. I’d like to hear more from talented duo Martin Ramey and Star de Azlan, but as it’s Curb I’m not exactly holding my breath in anticipation.

One of my favorite artists, Randy Travis is celebrating the 25th anniversary of his groundbreaking Storms Of Life with his second duets album, the success of which will depend partly on the choice of duet partners. Legends who have new music in the works include Dolly Parton and Charley Pride. And of course, I’m also hoping to hear some great music from new acts.

What are you most looking forward to this year?

Single Review: Ashton Shepherd – ‘Look It Up’

We haven’t heard any new music from the very talented Ashton Shepherd since 2008. At last she has recorded a new single (due to go to radio at the beginning of January).

This catchy uptempo slice of wrathful attitude addressed to a cheating man is a welcome return to the airwaves, and hopefully a second album will follow some time next year. Ashton’s voice sounds crisper and her diction less drawn-out than on her debut album, but her voice is still instantly recognisable. The beaty production is a bit busy towards the end, but overall it’s an enjoyable track.

Ashton’s scornful vocal is impassioned as she offers a string of contentious words she suggests her about-to-be-ex should check the meaning of as he obviously has no clue, starting with “faithful” and ending with “over”. The other woman (“that piece of trash ridin’ around in your pickup truck”) isn’t neglected either, as she defines the word “easy”.

The errant spouse is also a drinker:

You said you’re sober
Look it up
It’s right next to hell is freezing over, flyin’ pigs and all that stuff

Forgiveness is definitely not an option:

It’s what Jesus has in store for you but I don’t, no matter what

Neatly constructed and concisely written, this has all the hallmarks of a radio hit, sounding more potentially commercial than Ashton’s previous singles, both of which peaked around the #20 mark. It’s also a promising sign for Ashton’s follow-up to her debut Sounds So Good.

It’s not formally out yet, but you can listen to the song here.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Ashton Shepherd – ‘Sounds So Good’

Album Review: Ashton Shepherd – ‘Sounds So Good’

Ashton Shepherd, the youngest of the artists we’re spotlighting this month, was the subject of a lot of hype when she emerged aged just 21. She hasn’t really lived up to that commercially yet, and after two modestly successful singles, both peaking around the #20 mark in 2008, she has gone rather quiet.

Her life experience was wider than that of many of her peers, as she was already married with a young child at the age of 19, and this was reflected in the relative maturity of the material on her debut album. This was a promising start, showcasing her gorgeous tone, distinctive wail, and strong Alabama accent. Ashton wrote almost all the songs, occasionally collaborating with her brother in law Adam Cunningham, who contributes one solo composition of his own. Her songwriting ability was impressive for her age, but perhaps not quite fully developed yet, as she occasionally sounds repetitive in her themes and imagery. The album might have been stronger if she had mixed up the best of her own songs with some well chosen selections from Music Row, and I am interested in seeing how her songwriting and selection develop on her next album. Buddy Cannon’s production is sympathetic, adding just enough gloss to make it palatable for radio tastes, while keeping the basic structure rooted in country, with tasteful fiddle and steel.

It opens with a bang with the lead single as Ashton’s voice breaks acapella into the silence. Defiant and determined to prove her independence, this gives a voice to an unhappily married woman out drinking alone and contemplating breaking free from the bond symbolized by her wedding ring:

I’m the only one who can set myself free
So I’m takin’ off this pain you put on me

One of my favorite tracks, ‘I Ain’t Dead Yet’, may be rooted in Ashtons real life experiences, as she admits to occasionally wrestling with the mundanity of a happy domestic life:

I still like a cold beer and a long dirt road
And listenin’ to some Keith Whitley on the radio
Don’t mean I ain’t a good mama
Don’t mean I ain’t a good wife
I’m just like anybody else that needs a break from time to time

Also good is ‘Regular Joe’, where the protagonist regrets too late leaving her nice guy and warns his new girlfriend not to make the same mistake.

Lost love is also the subject of the pain-filled ‘Old Memory’, a fine song even though it echoes the chorus line of ‘Takin’ Off This Pain’ with the phrase,

I should have already set myself free

Here, though, it is not a marriage to which she is chained, but the emotion chains of her ex’s memory, when he doesn’t even recognize her. I really like this one (one of three co-writes with Ashton’s brother in law Adam Cunningham). ‘How Big Are Angel Wings’ is a heartfelt story about a seriously ill child which totters on the edge of sentimentality, but is saved by the intense wail of her vocal. In contrast the charmingly bouncy ‘The Bigger The Heart’ depicts a tough guy felled by love.

Adam Cunningham also wrote the one song to which Ashton did not contribute. The dramatic and pain-filled ’Whiskey Won the Battle’ closes the album, with a song where the protagonist fails to banish her heartache with booze:

I drank til two, til I just fell out on the floor
The whiskey won the battle but your memory won the war

The big vocal performance on this might perhaps have been a fit for radio, had the label not given up after the second single failed to exceed the performance of its predecessor. The title track (that second single) vividly recounts the sounds of a Southern summer. She sings equally engagingly about making music with friends in ‘The Picking Shed’ at her husband’s house.

She reportedly wrote ‘Lost In You’ when she was only fifteen, band unfortunately it sounds like it; Ashton’s vocal is a bit too drawn out and the song is rather dull. ‘Not Right Now’ is okay, a defiant claim to enjoy staying out late, dancing and drinking, which is okay but too similar to, and not as good as, some of the other songs.

Sales have been relatively modest, but this album was well received by critics, and was a very promising start for Ashton. We have not heard any new music from her in two years, and I hope her limited commercial success does not mean the label has lost faith in her potential. A new album (also produced by Buddy Cannon) is reportedly in the works, and I hope this will demonstrate further artistic development. She has an instantly recognisable voice, and greater acceptance by radio would bring some much needed variety into the mainstream.

Grade: B+

Too much too soon?

Arguably, the biggest star in country music today, at least in sheer commercial terms, is Taylor Swift. She controversially swept the board at last year’s CMA award ceremony, but has been overlooked in most categories this year. Her undeniable appeal to young girls has led to suggestions that as her fans grow up, they will outgrow Taylor, and that her current stratospheric career may not be sustained at the same level, while others have suggested that she may mature as a songwriter and actually expand her fan base. Fans laud her songwriting (even when they admit her vocal shortcomings), particularly given her youth, implying she will improve further as she gets older. Sales figures for her upcoming third album are likely to be scrutinised closely. A look back at other teenage country stars is not encouraging.

The most famous teenage country stars of the past are LeAnn Rimes and Tanya Tucker, both of whom became stars at the age of 13, but neither of them had an easy road to maintaining that success. Tanya’s teenage stardom fizzled out after she moved to a sexier image and pop material, and endured a few years in the wilderness before making her comeback in the mid 80s. The jury is still out on LeAnn; her initial hit with ‘Blue’ was very much in the vein of Patsy Cline, for whom the song had originally been intended, but since then she has seemed uncertain of her identity as an artist. One cannot help wondering if that was because her initial career path was influenced by her parents. Like Tanya, she chased the pop crossover market, with more success, but the pop world is a fickle one, and in 2005, she was back in country music with some accomplished pop-country. Her emotional comeback hit ‘Probably Wouldn’t Be This way’ was a very fine record, but overall I didn’t feel she had really developed as an artist as much as I would have hoped considering how phenomenal she was as a child. She was not able to sustain this second blast, and the recent unfavourable publicity relating to her private life is unlikely to help. Her upcoming covers album may be produced by Vince Gill, but what we’ve heard from it so far does not inspire. Unlike Taylor Swift, however, LeAnn and Tanya were not marketed to their peers, and neither wrote songs as teenagers. Rather, both were presented as girls with voices mature beyond their years, and Tanya in particular recorded very adult material right from the start.

Following the initial success of LeAnn Rimes, the late 90s saw other labels jumping on the bandwagon and signing big-voiced teenagers. The 15-year-old Lila McCann scored the biggest selling debut album of 1997 and a #3 hit in ‘I Wanna Fall In Love’. Hers was another flash in the pan, as she only had one more top 10 hit. Her bright pop-country records have not worn particularly well, and an attempt at a comeback as an adult in the mid 2000s met with general indifference. The very similar Jessica Andrews had an almost identical career trajectory: her first hit at 15, in 1999, a solitary #1 the following year, with radio interest subsequently diminishing, and a comeback attempt which soon fizzled out. These girls were initial beneficiaries and longterm casualties of the Nashville tendency to copy the latest trend. Both had good voices, but not very distinctive ones, and their youth made their vocal ability and longterm potential seem more impressive than perhaps it really was.

What impresses in a teenager does not necessarily translate into exceptional adult ability. Further, many of these young artists have not really developed a strong sense of themselves as an artist, tending to adopt the latest trend. The roots of their artistry often seem to run rather shallow, and there is usually (and inevitably) a lack of maturity. Wynonna was only a teenager when The Judds burst onto the scene, but it seems clear that although Wynonna’s voice provided the essence of their music, their musical direction was largely directed by Naomi. Looking at some of Wynonna’s later solo music, one wonders if left to her own devices, she would have picked country music as the market place for her undeniable talent.

Many young artists are signed to development deals which do not pan out, leaving them high and dry a year or two down the line. Examples of promising young artists chewed up by the system include Ashley Monroe, whose excellent Satisfied finally won a digital-only release last year after years on the shelf; she has now signed to the LA branch of Warner Brothers. Her friend the Australian Catherine Britt never saw her superb RCA album released in the US at all. Both girls were lucky to some degree in that their singles had made some critical waves, and they have been able to continue musical careers, even if mainstream country stardom has so far escaped them. A worse fate lies in wait for the many who sign to a major label, but never seem to release a thing. I remember some years back, there was some buzz surrounding a then-14 year old named Alexis who was signed to Warner Brothers and was supposedly very talented. If you’ve never heard of her, that’s because no records were ever released, and she was eventually dropped by the label. Might artists like this (particularly one who should still be in school) be better served if they waited to sign a record deal until they were ready to make a record? Not everyone who wants to become a star is going to succeed, and the excitement of apparently achieving that dream must surely derail thoughts of a backup plan.

Another of today’s superstars, Carrie Underwood, tried and failed to get a deal in Nashville as a 15-year-old, and in the long run that failure probably did her a favour, giving her a free run when she auditioned for American Idol. Fellow Idol alumna Kristy Lee Cook, who did sign to Arista at 17, saw no discernible benefit from this, only to have her second deal with the same label (post-Idol) fizzle out after a rush-released album and some rather half-hearted promotion.

But could this be such an artist’s only chance anyway? Billy Gilman’s career was one which could not wait on maturity because it was based on his unbroken child’s treble. A modest success as a 12-year-old has not translated into a career as an adult. Taylor Swift’s longterm career trajectory is as yet unclear, but so far her success has been built on her appeal to girls her own age and younger; delaying the onset of her career might have helped her hone her often derided performance skills, but she would have lost that USP – the insight into the emotional lives of high school age girls.

One of the artists we are spotlighting this month, Ashton Shepherd was signed to MCA at 20 with a songbook of material she had composed in her teens. In her case, her youth was balanced by the life experience which came with early marriage and motherhood. She was lucky in that her debut album was released within a year, with label boss Luke Lewis saying then that they had not delayed, in order to capture her raw talent before she got sucked into the system. However, that meant that while the album she released showed a great deal of promise, it was also evident that there was room for improvement.

It is mainly females who seem to be victims of this trend, with male singers rarely being spotted before they hit their 20s. One exception is Blaine Larsen, who emerged at just 18 with a mature voice and material which spanned the age appropriate (‘My High School’, and the teen suicide-themed ‘How Do You Get That Lonely’) and songs clearly designed for someone rather older (‘Teaching Me How To Love You’), which however well sung were not entirely convincingly from such a young man. He didn’t really click with radio and is currently going the indie route, with a new album expected this year. It is unclear whether he will have the chance of a comeback, or if his big chance as a teenager was his one and only chance at making it big.

Instrumental musical prodigies run counter to this to a degree. Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley and Marty Stuart were all playing bluegrass professionally as teenagers, but only became country stars in their own rights years later. Alison Krauss was recording in her teens but although she sang on her records, she was promoted mainly as a fiddle prodigy. Indeed, those early vocal efforts barely hint at the unique vocal talents she developed as an adult.

Sometime your first shot at success is the only chance you’ll ever get. The public’s first impression may well endure, and an artist whose juvenilia becomes the best-selling work of their career, may never achieve what might have been.

Do you think a young singer should take the first shot at realizing their dreams, or wait until they have honed their craft?

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.

Looking for the saviour of country music (again)

New Mercury artist Easton Corbin, whose single ‘A Little More Country Than That’ is heading up the charts and whose debut album was released earlier this week, has been touted by some as the latest great hope for a revival of more traditionally rooted music on country radio. He has a pleasant voice and I like his general approach, but I think he is going to need stronger material if he is to fulfil the hype; these are heavy expectations on any young artist in his circumstances in any case.

The last person to bear that mantle, Ashton Shepherd, has been pretty quiet lately, after her first (and so far only) two singles both stalled around #20 in 2008. I still hope to hear more, and better, from Ashton, who is reportedly currently working on a new record, although I felt that her debut album showed promise more than a full achievement of her potential. Earlier in the decade similar hopes were placed on singers like Joe Nichols and Josh Turner, neither of whom has quite fulfilled their potential, although both are maintaining a chart presence. Jamey Johnson, another figurehead for non-pop country (although in his case a little more on the ‘Outlaw’ line of descent) had a really big hit with ‘In Color’, and sales of the acclaimed That Lonesome Song were unexpectedly good, but subsequent singles were a little too much for country radio. His new album is one which I am eagerly awaiting, but it remains to be seen whether it will have another mainstream hit to keep his profile high.

In some ways, the state of commercial country music is not unlike that of the mid 1980s. 25 years ago, pop-influenced sounds had largely ousted more traditional country music from the airwaves, with a sprinkling of more traditional artists to leaven the dough. The big stars of the day were mainly pop-influenced artists like the smoky voiced Earl Thomas Conley, Lee Greenwood, Gary Morris, and former pop group Exile. When a new Warner Brothers artist named Randy Travis released a classic almost-cheating song, ‘On the Other Hand’, in 1985, it was deemed far too country for country radio.

It wasn’t all bad news, though, with a handful of older stars still active; George Jones and Merle Haggard were still having #1 hit singles. Their closest equivalents today would be George Strait and this month’s Spotlight Artist Alan Jackson. Other traditionally-rooted artists were still getting played too, alongside the pop-country, although some had compromised their sound to stay competitive, most notable Dolly Parton, whose music was at its most pop at this date. Even someone like John Anderson who had emerged in 1980 as a hard country act had moved to a poppier sound by 1983. A handful of younger artists including Strait (then at the start of his career), Ricky Skaggs, and Reba McEntire were signs of things to come. Because what few would have predicted in, say, 1984, was the emergence of the neotraditional movement and the way it briefly dominated country music.

The rise to stardom of Randy Travis in 1986 was the real catalyst for that movement. He was certainly not the first – Strait and Skaggs had been around since the start of the decade, and Reba, whose early records were more pop-country had defiantly recorded a selection of older songs on her breakthrough My Kind Of Country album in 1984, and they were all highly successful. But they were exceptions.

Once radio had accepted his single ‘1982’, the now-classic ‘On The Other Hand’ was re-released, and went to #1. Randy’s album Storms Of Life was one of the first country albums to go platinum, thanks to a combination of high quality material, a classic country voice, and strong marketing across genres, and that commercial success encouraged Warners and other labels to sign more young but definitely country artists. Other young singers who had previously recorded more pop-country material, like Steve Wariner and Kathy Mattea, began to sound more traditional or rootsy.

The sea change of the late 80s in fact was not restricted to reviving traditional honky tonk style music; Mattea, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Nanci Griffith all brought folk-rooted music to the major labels. Even Dolly – her finger always on the pulse – abandoned her flirtation with pop and returned to very traditional sounding music with her acclaimed Trio collaboration with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt in 1987 and then asking Ricky Skaggs to produce her White Limozeen album in 1989. Those who had struggled to break through because they were “too country” , like Randy himself, and Keith Whitley, were finally accepted. Even 50-something Vern Gosdin, who had had some hits earlier in the decade, enjoyed a late flowering boom and his greatest period of sustained success in the last few years of the decade.

It is probably unrealistic to expect a similar transformation today. What I think would make a difference would be if one of the younger traditional artists were to start selling well – as well or better than the pop-inspired artists. The music business is just that – a business, and the bottom line has often been more important than artistic merit in Nashville. It is dispiriting to realise that if the genre as a whole is not selling as well as it used to, traditional country is on the whole selling even less. We can’t blame Nashville’s woes solely on the poor quality of many major labels’ output, tempting though that is. If someone is to break through like Randy Travis did, it would almost certainly have to be someone good looking as well as talented. Today youth and beauty are even more important than they were in the 80s, when videos were in their infancy as a marketing tool.

There certainly seem to be few signs of hope for those disenchanted by country radio’s latest lurch popwards. Taylor Swift’s sweep of recent awards shows and domination of the country charts is showing no signs of having run its course yet. The latest country awards nominations (the ACMs) show a predominance of pop-country artists with the melodic but not-very-country Lady Antebellum leading the charge. But the mid 80s were little more promising either. Maybe all we need is that one extraordinary talent to lead the way back.

Returning to Easton Corbin, he is certainly showing signs of appealing to country radio, which is encouraging, as (at last) is Chris Young, who has a great voice and all the right musical instincts but mediocre material. But is either of them a new Randy Travis who can cross over while not compromising? I’m not so sure. Vocally, Easton is being compared most to George Strait, and emulating his career would certainly be no bad thing. Strait’s long career has been remarkably consistent, while Travis’s star burned more brightly for a while before fading in commercial terms. But without that star, the history of country music would have been very different.

Do you think the current direction of country music could be reversed if the right artist came along, or have the changes been too fundamental?

Decade in Review: Occasional Hope’s Top 50 Singles

Inevitably, anyone’s list of their favorite singles of the decade is going to be more mainstream-oriented than one of the best albums over the same period, just because independent artists are less likely to get their singles played on radio, and they tend to release fewer. My list doesn’t consist solely of hits, but a good proportion did get the success they deserved.

50. I Still Miss Someone – Martina McBride featuring Dolly Parton.
Martina recruited Dolly Parton to sing harmonies on her cover of this Johnny Cash classic on her Timeless album in 2006. It didn’t appeal to country radio, but it is a lovely recording.

49. How Do You Like Me Now?! – Toby Keith
The only song where Toby Keith managed to exercise his giant ego yet seem appealing at the same time. This #1 hit from 2000 is meanspirited but somehow irresistible. The video’s a bit heavy-handed, though.

48. I Hope You Dance – Lee Ann Womack
The enormous crossover success of Lee Ann’s signature song in 2000 set her on the wrong path musically for a while, but that doesn’t detract from the song itself, a lovely touching offering to LeeAnn’s daughter, featuring additional vocals from the Sons of the Desert.

47. You Shouldn’t Kiss Me Like This – Toby Keith
Toby is a very hit-and-miss artist for me, but he makes his second apearance in this list with my favorite of his singles, the tender realization on the dancefloor that a friend might be turning into a romantic interest. It was another #1 hit, this time in 2001. It has another terribly conceived video, though.

46. The Truth About Men – Tracy Byrd
Tracy Byrd recruited Blake Shelton, Andy Griggs and Montgomery Gentry to sing on this comic song about gender differences. Of course it’s not universally true – but it’s quite true enough to be funny. The single was a #13 hit in 2003, and is one of the few singles of recent years to inspire an answer song – Terri Clark’s ‘Girls Lie Too’, which was an even bigger hit the following year but has worn less well.

45. I Wish – Jo Dee Messina
Jo Dee Messina’s glossy pop-country was very accomplished but not always to my taste. But I did love this relatively subdued ballad which appeared only on her Greatest Hits album in 2003, and reached #15 on Billboard, with its neat twist as the protagonist bravely wishes her ex best, before admitting, “I wish you still loved me”.

44. Does My Ring Burn Your Finger – Lee Ann Womack
This biting reproach to a cheating spouse, written by Buddy and Julie Miller, was the best moment on Lee Ann’s bigselling I Hope You Dance. It was the least successful single from it, however, only reaching #23 in 2001.

43. Long Black Train – Josh Turner
Josh is one of the few traditionally oriented artists currently on a major label, although he has often recorded material which is not quite worthy of his resonant deep voice. His debut single was a heavily allusive religious song about sin which, although it only got to #13 in 2003, really established him as a star.

42. One More Day – Diamond Rio
A #1 hit from 2001 about bereavement and longing for more time with the loved one who has been lost, this touching song has heartfelt vocals and lovely harmonies from one of the best groups in country music over the past 20 years.

41. Another Try – Josh Turner and Trisha Yearwood
A classy ballad about hoping for better luck in love from two of the best mainstream singers around, this reached #15 in 2008, but should have been a #1.

40. I Still Sing This Way – Daryle Singletary
In 2002 Daryle had a single out called ‘That’s Why I Sing This Way’ (written by Max D Barnes) declaring himself a real country singer (“Mama whupped me with a George Jones record, that’s why I sing this way”). Five years later Daryle himself co-wrote this sequel, which I like even more, as he looks wryly at the music industry’s demands for glitz and glamor. He tells his manager he’s fine with a change of image – but he can’t change the way he sings.

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Ashton Shepherd’s ACM chances, and another look at Sounds So Good

ashton-shepherdI was pleased to see that Ashton Shepherd had been nominated for Best New Female Vocalist at the upcoming ACM awards, especially as I felt she was wrongly omitted from the CMAs last year.   Ashton’s voice is a distinctive blend of sweetness and character, with her very strong Alabama accent infusing every syllable she sings.  She is emphatically not one of those singers who blend into one another, and in my opinion she would be the most deserving winner of the award this year.  

This seems like a good opportunity to take another look at her debut album, Sounds So Good, released almost a year ago.  Ashton seems to be one of the most solidly grounded in country music of today’s major label artists, but producer Buddy Cannon did a good job of making the album sound radio-friendly without completely selling out. Ashton’s voice did the rest.

Ashton wrote virtually all the songs on Sounds So Good, and this is an area of her talent she needs to develop.   However, at the moment, she’s a good writer but not a great one, and I think Buddy Cannon, her producer, should have steered her in the direction of some outside material from the better Nashville writers – indeed, some of his own songs might have gone down well.  I do understand an artist wanting to let their own songs be heard, especially when much of it is very personal in nature, but this would have been a better record overall if Ashton had included some carefully selected outside songs mixed in with the best of her own.   That suggestion is underlined by the fact that the one song she didn’t co-write, ‘Whiskey Won The Battle’, is one of the record’s finest moments. It may be a well-worn theme (drinking away lost love, and not succeeding), but it’s a good example, and Ashton interprets it with conviction. Some of the songs are co-written with the writer of that song, Adam Cunningham, who is Ashton’s brother-in-law, so even this isn’t a true outside contribution.   Co-writing with some established songwriters might be a good idea in future if Ashton wants to continue solely singing her own songs. Read more of this post