My Kind of Country

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Album Review: Tracy Lawrence – ‘Good Old Days’

If popular culture is to be believed, it seems the 1990s is the hottest decade right now. Most of the ‘new’ television shows are reboots of classics from the era, including Full House and Will & Grace, with the originals casts reprising their roles. In popular music, if you were a major player 20-25 years ago, then its suddenly fashionable to return with new music and slews of concert dates.

In country music, this trend extends to the return of Faith Hill and Shania Twain with their first new music in more than a decade while Garth Brooks is wrapping up his massive three-year tour this month in Nashville. Even Dixie Chicks came home to the United States with their first tour in ten years. What’s old is new again or rather the music that defined my childhood is suddenly hip again.

It would be a stretch to place Tracy Lawrence at the same level since he was never a global superstar or wheeled much influence on an international stage. But he was one of the most consistent and traditional artists in his day, with a catalog that more than stands up to anything released by the artists who may have eclipsed him in status.

To celebrate this resurgence, Lawrence has released Good Ole Days, which recognizes what he refers to as a ‘hunger for the music from my era.’ The album pairs him with modern day country artists singing his hits. The whole concept does seem like a gimmick, a cash grab for the gullible fan unaware they are likely only lining the pockets of the executive who dreamt up this project. But really it’s a chance to finally hear country’s current class sing real well-written songs for the first time in their careers. I jumped at the chance to review this album simply so I could hear how these artists sound when forced to interrupt the actual country music. I’ve always had a theory that there is talent there if these artists had the proper vehicle to show it off.

This is the proper vehicle because instead of the artists making these songs their own, with their typical non-country producers and such, they have to stick within the confines of the original arrangements, including the steel, fiddle, and twang. Without the ability to hide, every weakness would be on the table.

Luke Bryan tackles Lawrence’s 1991 debut “Sticks and Stones” and handles it well. I wasn’t impressed with Jason Aldean’s take on “Just Can’t Break It to My Heart,” his voice was a bit too dirty, but the energy was good.

I remember reading in Quotable Country, on the dearly-departed Country California, Justin Moore says if he had a say he would make an album in the vein of I See It Now. He goes back a bit further here with “Alibis” and knocks it out of the park. Moore is a great country singer and it’s a shame he has to reside in this current climate.

Dustin Lynch sounds exactly like a young Lawrence on “Texas Tornado,” which is kind of scary. His performance isn’t excellent, but it’s damn close. I was surprised Miranda Lambert, who has been known to belt this out in concert, wasn’t singing it but that could’ve been label politics.

Probably the newest artist featured here is Luke Combs, who just hit number one with “When It Rains It Pours.” There’s no mistaking he’s a country singer and he easily pulls this off. The same is true for Chris Young, but he sounds like he’s just going through the paces on “If The Good Die Young.” If he had just let go the results could’ve been incredible.

The legend of Tim McGraw is he moved to Nashville on May 9, 1989, and has always said he’s more of a storyteller while Keith Whitley is a singer. I agree wholeheartedly, but his performance of “Time Marches On” is bland. In contrast, Easton Corbin shines on “Paint Me A Birmingham.”

Kellie Pickler’s talent is wasted on “Stars Over Texas,” which finds her regulated to singing the chorus. As the sole female voice on the whole album, you would’ve thought she’d be allowed more of a presence. I didn’t care for her vocal either, which makes her sound like a little girl.

There are two new songs in the mix. Brad Arnold, the lead singer of Alternative Rock band Three Doors Down (think ‘Here Without You’) joins Lawrence on the title track, which is being billed as his “country music debut.” The song, which also features Big & Rich, is a faux-rock disaster. The military-themed fiddle drenched ballad “Finally Home,” which features Craig Morgan, is better but not really for my tastes.

Good Ole Days is a great concept with lousy execution. These tracks are collaborations between the singer and Tracy Lawrence which doesn’t work on any level. Get rid of Lawrence entirely and turn this into the proper tribute album it’s screaming to be. His nasally twang is insufferable and pointlessly distracting. The lack of female artists in the mix is also troubling, as you don’t need just men to sing these songs.

Grade: B-

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Week ending 7/29/17: #1 singles this week in country music history

1957 (Sales): Bye Bye Love — The Everly Brothers (Cadence)

1957 (Disc Jockeys): Bye Bye Love — The Everly Brothers (Cadence)

1967: Tonight Carmen — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1977It Was Almost Like a Song — Ronnie Milsap (RCA)

1987: The Weekend — Steve Wariner (MCA)

1997: Carrying Your Love With Me — George Strait (MCA)

2007: Lost in This Moment — Big & Rich (Warner Bros.)

2017: Body Like a Back Road — Sam Hunt (MCA)

2017 (Airplay): My Girl — Dylan Scott (Curb)

Week ending 7/22/17: #1 singles this week in country music history

1957 (Sales): Bye Bye Love — The Everly Brothers (Cadence)

1957 (Disc Jockeys): Four Walls — Jim Reeves (RCA)

1967: With One Exception — David Houston (Epic)

1977It Was Almost Like a Song — Ronnie Milsap (RCA)

1987: I Know Where I’m Going — The Judds (RCA/Curb)

1997: Carrying Your Love With Me — George Strait (MCA)

2007: Lost in This Moment — Big & Rich (Warner Bros.)

2017: Body Like a Back Road — Sam Hunt (MCA)

2017 (Airplay): Craving You — Thomas Rhett featuring Maren Morris (Valory)

Album Review: Lonestar – ‘Life As We Know It’

life-as-we-know-itRichie McDonald returned to the band in 2011, and in 213 they recorded a new album which was released on their own label.

The first single, ‘The Countdown’, is a well written song about looking forward to being reunited with a loved one, with a strong lead vocal from Richie McDonald; but the arrangement is musically bland and not very country with some irritating “oh-oh-ohs” interjected. It failed to catch fire with country radio, peaking well outside the top 40. The same fate befell ‘Maybe Someday’, another song whose arrangement has very little to identify it as country.

There were three further singles which sank without trace. The terrible ‘Party All Day’ is a dreadful brocountry mess of a song featuring shouting, a feeble rap, and a simplistic cliché-ridden sexist lyric. Embarrassingly bad. ‘Just the Rain’ is infinitely better, a delicate ballad about missing a loved one who has died, sung emotionally by McDonald (who wrote the song with Jeremy Bussey). It feels as if it is on the wrong album. The final single, ‘Pretty Good Day’ is pleasant but bland.

‘With My Eyes Open’ is an AC ballad. Also leaning in the AC direction, ‘If It Wasn’t For You’ is quite a pleasant love song. The title track is earnest but over-produced. ‘I Did It For The Girl’ is forgettable.

‘How Can She Be Everywhere’ is a loud rock number whose idea of a country star to name-drop is Big & Rich. ‘Oh Yeah’, which closes the record, is even worse, a witless repetitive rocker. ‘I Miss When’ is a boring song which the band has unsuccessfully tried to make interesting by adding weird experimental sound effects.

Download ‘Just The Rain’ and forget the rest.

Grade: D-

Album Review: Lonestar – ‘Crazy Nights’

600x600Lonestar released their second album, and last with John Rich, in June 1997. Crazy Nights continued in the tradition of their debut by keeping Don Cook and Wally Wilson at the helm.

The bright, effervescent and otherwise excellent “Come Cryin’ To Me” led the album and became the band’s second #1 single. The perfectly styled tune, with Cook’s signature percussion beats, was one of four tunes co-written by Rich.

They followed with “You Walked In,” a mid-tempo ballad that stalled at #12. The song, co-written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange, is sexy without being overt:

Everybody’s talkin’ ’bout the supermodel world

Cindy, Naomi and that whole bunch of girls

Redheads, brunettes and blondes with blue eyes

They come in every shape yea they come in every size

You know I love everything they do

I check ’em out on every Pay-Per-View

Oh, but honey that was way before I met you.

And then

***

You walked in with legs up to your neck

You walked in I’m a physical wreck

You walked in I’ve lost my cool babe

But what’d you expect

When you walk in baby love begins

When you walk by baby ooh my my

When you come around, my jaw hits the ground

When you shake your thing I jump outta my skin

When you cross the floor I scream “more baby more”

When you flash your smile you drive me wild

Yea, yea, yea, yea, yea

***

Everybody’s checkin’ out the glossy magazines

Madonna, Diana, you know the whole scene

The covergirls, the centerfolds and every movie star

And all those pretty ladies down there at the local bar

I couldn’t think of nothin’ better to do

Than checkin’ out a little wiggle or two

Oh, but honey that was way before I met you

“You Walked In,” may’ve been too left of center for country radio at the time, but it’s laughably tame in comparison to what the likes of Dierks Bentley, Keith Urban and Sam Hunt have gotten away with in the past few years. Piano ballad “Say When,” another Rich co-write faired just as poorly, peaking at #13.

They regained their stride with the album’s final and strongest single, the Richie McDonald co-written “Everything’s Changed.” The song tells the story of a woman returning to a now unrecognizable town and the man she left behind who still lives there. It’s not only my favorite song they’ve ever done, it’s their finest recorded moment to date:

Funny you should show up after all of these years

Yeah things sure have changed around here

Seen a lot of strangers since they put that interstate through

No this ain’t the same town that we once knew

***

They put up a plant where we used to park

That ol’ drive-in’s a new Wal-Mart

The caf¨¦ is closed where our names were carved on that corner booth

Yeah, everything’s changed except for the way I feel about you

***

That westbound to Santa Fe don’t stop here anymore

You were one of the last to get on board

That street that we grew up on you wouldn’t recognize

Girl nothing’s been the same since you said good-bye

Rich, who was still known as the band’s other lead singer, took the helm on two of the three non-singles he co-wrote. “John Doe on a John Deere” has all the tropes now associated with bro-country expect the woman isn’t treated like an object. Meanwhile “What Do We Do With The Rest of the Night” is simply pure fluff. His final co-write, the title track, has forceful production but not much passion either lyrically or vocally from McDonald.

“Keys To My Heart,” which McDonald co-wrote, is a pleasant contemporary rocker with ample fiddle and steel. The song doesn’t have any meat lyrically, so while it’s enjoyable to listen to, it’s just not a great song overall.

“Cheater’s Road,” which was co-written by Jason Sellers, saw a second life when Chalee Tennison included it on 2003’s Parading In The Rain. I like her version much better than theirs, although it’s truly not that compelling of a song to begin with. The final cut, “Amie” is a by-the-books cover of the Pure Prairie League classic that works surprisingly well.

Crazy Nights will forever be known as the final album before everything changed. Not only would Rich exit the group, but they would ditch their producers and cowboy hats for a more mainstream sound and their greatest success. Here is the band just two years before the craziness, with a clear direction and a couple of worthy songs.

I will always regard this era, 1995-1999, as Lonestar at their best – the songs were smart and interesting and Cook’s signature style fit them well. McDonald, though, was clearly the stronger singer. While John has shown improvement with Big & Rich, he clearly isn’t in top vocal form, here. I don’t blame BNA for pushing McDonald as the face of the band at all.

As an album, Crazy Nights is good but not great. There’s nothing truly essential beyond the lead and final singles.

Grade: B

Retro Album Review: John Anderson – ‘Easy Money’ (2007)

easy moneyBack in the days writing for the 9513 Blog, I would post occasional reviews on Amazon. We are republishing updated versions of some of those reviews here.

John Anderson and George Strait are about the only two with a high profile left from the generation of male singers that came to prominence in the early 1980s. Obviously Strait has been the more successful but John Anderson is the superior balladeer.

Here, John Anderson returns with his first CD of new recordings in several years, this time with John Rich of Big & Rich serving as producer. Fortunately. Rich stays largely out of the way and lets Anderson focus on that which he does best, as seven of the CD’s eleven songs are ballads.

First, some consumer advice. Upon inserting the CD into your player, troll over to track 11, “Willie’s Guitar” and give it a few listens as John, Merle Haggard (vocal) and Willie Nelson (vocal & a guitar solo) work their magic on this wistful tale which, curiously enough, wasn’t written by either John, Merle or Willie. No matter, as writers John Phillips and Ray Stephenson certainly caught the quintessential sense of heartbreak and resignation.

First the “bad”: the uptempo songs “Easy Money” , “Funky Country” and “If Her Lovin’ Don’t Kill Me” are merely okay – worth 3 or 3.5 stars each. These three songs are the ones on which the John Rich “Muzik Mafia” sound is the most in evidence.

Now the really good: The fourth uptempo number, however, “Brown Liquor” is really excellent, on a par with John’s best uptempo numbers like “Black Sheep”, “Chicken Truck” or “Swingin'”.

Aside from the John & Merle & Willie offering, John has six really, really good solo ballads; in fact, I don’t think John Anderson has ever done wrong by a ballad in his life. For me the highlights are “A Woman Knows”, a sensitive John Rich-Julie Roberts penned ballad along the lines of Johnny Darrell’s 1969 hit “A Woman Without Love” and John Anderson’s song about about a woman’s threat to her wayward husband that she’ll give him “Something To Drink About”. “Weeds” penned by Anderson and his late friend Lionel Delmore, might prove to be the favorite ballad from the CD for many listeners.

All in all, a very pleasant surprise as I was having nightmares about how a John Rich-produced CD might sound. Fortunately, it sounds like John Anderson being John Anderson, and it doesn’t get much better than that.

Grade: A

Album Review: Clint Black – ‘On Purpose’

711Wx-StaxL._SX522_In the seven years since we last heard new music from Clint Black (and ten since his last full album), the country music landscape has changed beyond recognition. Last week’s On Purpose is unlikely to garner much love from country radio, but Black’s return is surely something to celebrate for those of us who became castaways during the sea change in commercial tastes.

Black has made good use of his long hiatus. He wrote or co-wrote all of the album’s 14 tracks. The album has reunited him with his longtime co–producer James Stroud and while the final product doesn’t outdo anything that they did in the past, it more than holds it own against Black’s impressive back catalog. Black sounds as energetic and enthusiastic as he did back in 1989, and his voice is as good as ever. There are no huge artistic stretches; the album sounds exactly like something he would have released back in his commercial heyday, and I suspect that most fans will be more than OK with that. Clint was never quite the traditionalist he was given credit for, but his sound was always firmly rooted in country music, with fiddles, steel and harmonica on prominent display. There also was — and still is — a good deal of fancy electric guitar work, but not the heavy-handed arena rock-type that has become all too common in recent years. There is no pandering to current commercial tastes, just vintage Clint Black from start to finish.

Black’s old songwriting partner Hayden Nicholas co-wrote three of the album’s tracks: “Doing It Now For Love”, the catchy “Calling It News” — which laments the same old, same old dominating the headlines, and the excellent poignant ballad “The Last Day”, which finds an elderly couple reminiscing about the past, well aware that time is starting to run out. Frank Rogers co-wrote three tracks, including the current single “Time For That” and the excellent ballad “Breathing Air”, which is a lot more interesting than the title suggests. The tender love ballad is my favorite track on the album.

Steve Wariner shares co-writing credits on two tracks: “One Way to Live” is quite good but “Right on Time” is rather forgettable. The legendary Bill Anderson collaborated with Clint and Bob DiPiero for the album’s sole party song “Beer”, which ought to serve as an example to the bro-country crowd that drinking songs can still have intelligent lyrics. Big & Rich provide the background vocals.

I have a pet peeve about artists who, after long breaks between albums, include a remake of an older song on their comeback collections. I was, therefore, slightly disappointed to see a new version of “You Still Get To Me”, Clint’s 2008 duet with his wife Lisa Hartman Black, on the track listing. It’s bluesier than the original, but it seems like an unnecessary remake. However, the album contains a generous 14 tracks, so it’s a minor complaint at best.

While On Purpose may not break any new ground, it is sure to please Clint’s old fans, who hopefully will support it so it can overcome the inevitable lack of radio support.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Mary Sarah & Friends – ‘Bridges: Great American Country Duets’

bridges18 year old Mary Sarah Gross (who has, like many very young performers, dropped her surname for professional purposes) has been performing country music since her childhood. Discovered on Youtube by veterans the Oak Ridge Boys, her debut album, produced by songwriter Freddy Powers, features a number of very starry guests. The style harks back, sometimes to traditional country, but more often to the Nashville Sound and the pop music of that era. Mary Sarah’s voice has quite a light timbre at present, perhaps because of her youth, but she clearly has a lot of potential.

A real highlight is ‘Crazy’, which really suits Mary Sarah vocally, and is performed as a duet with the song’s writer Willie Nelson (offering his usual idiosyncratic vocal), with an arrangement similar to the Cline version. Very impressive.

She tackles Merle Haggard’s ‘Fighting Side Of Me’ with a perky confidence, and is joined by Haggard. A great traditional country arrangement make this very enjoyable although I’m not sure the defiance of the original quite survived. ‘Heartaches By The Number’, sung as a duet with the late Ray Price, is also great, with a wonderful traditional arrangement.

’Go Rest High On That Mountain’, which Vince Gill recorded in memory of Keith Whitley, seems like a curious choice of cover due to the personal and specific nature of the lyrics, but it is beautifully and tenderly sung by Mary Sarah, with Gill’s heavenly harmony the perfect counterpoint.

I took a while to warm up to Mary Sarah’s vocal on ‘Jolene’, despite a nice arrangement and Dolly herself harmonising prettily. I think she just sounds a little too forceful and not quite vulnerable enough, but the version has grown on me over repeated listens.

‘Rose Garden’ works well for Mary Sarah, on which she duets with Lynn Anderson. Tanya Tucker helps out on an energetic take on ‘Texas (When I Die)’. I can’t normally stand Big & Rich, so I was surprised to quite enjoy their contribution to a pretty but rather old fashioned love song. The ballad ‘My Great Escape’. ‘All I Wanna Do Is Sing My Song’, sung with her producer Freddy Powers, is also nicely done.

‘What A Difference You’ve Made In My Life’ is in 70s/early 80s pop-country style, with new Hall of Fame inductee Ronnie Milsap harmonising and offering the odd solo line. It sounds a bit dated by today’s standards, and the production is a bit cluttered with strings and belted out vocals without room for much subtlety, but it has a certain guilty pleasure quality about it. ‘Dream On’ featuring the Oak Ridge Boys is more of a disappointment – cluttered sounding and not very interesting, although Mary Sarah sings it well.

I really disliked the retro-pop ‘I’m Sorry’ and ‘Where The Boys Are’, a duet with Neil Sedaka, which has no country influences at all.

The sequencing of the album groups the stronger, and more country, tracks at the start, with the effect that after halfway through it feels like a downhill ride. I’m not sure I quite know who Mary Sarah is an artist, but I enjoyed quite a lot of the album, and she definitely has talent.

Grade: B+

2013 CMA Awards predictions – Who should and will win

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

UnknownENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR

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

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

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

Cruise - Single CoverSINGLE OF THE YEAR

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

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

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

imagesALBUM OF THE YEAR

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

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

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

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Predictions for the 48th annual ACM Awards

Unknown-5Now that we’ve turned the clocks forward an hour and our calendars from March to April, it’s time to turn our attention to Las Vegas and the annual Academy of Country Music Awards telecast. CBS is carrying the show live Sunday Night (April 7) and it promises to be an eclectic mix of mainstream country music; hosted by Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan. Look for Tim McGraw to sing his latest “Highway Don’t Care” with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, while Jason Aldean is rumored to be involving Joe Diffie in his performance of “1994.” Kelly Clarkson will be singing “Don’t Rush” and Bryan plans to debut a new single, “Crash My Party.” But I’m most excited to see what promises to be a buzzed about moment – Garth Brooks and George Strait collaborating for the first time to pay tribute to show producer Dick Clark.

Here are the nominees and predictions:

UnknownEntertainer of the Year

· Jason Aldean

· Luke Bryan

· Miranda Lambert

· Blake Shelton

· Taylor Swift – Jonathan Pappalardo 

As a fan voted award, the logic would be on Taylor Swift to take this home. And while she’s the likely winner, I’m wondering if Blake Shelton’s Voice popularity may propel him to the podium instead. There has to be a chance someone besides Swift could take this home, right? Well, I’m not betting on it, but Shelton seems the most likely one to do it.

Unknown-1Male Vocalist of the Year

· Jason Aldean

· Luke Bryan

· Eric Church

· Toby Keith

· Blake Shelton – Jonathan Pappalardo 

It’s nice to see Keith sneak in a nod here, as he’s still a gifted vocalist and “Hope On The Rocks” proves it. Aldean is just too weak a singer to make much of a significant impact and I can’t see the Academy embracing Church. So this as a two-way race between show co-hosts Shelton and Bryan, and I only see the ACM awarding it to Bryan if they want to shake it up. But they may see him as an eventual winner (like after he releases his next album) and go with Shelton again.

The 52nd Annual GRAMMY Awards - ArrivalsFemale Vocalist of the Year

· Miranda Lambert – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· Martina McBride

· Kacey Musgraves

· Taylor Swift

· Carrie Underwood

While I would love to see Musgraves take this home, she’s too new for such a prestigious honor. McBride’s a broken record at this point – she hasn’t had an impactful hit single in years and while Underwood is releasing some of the most ambitious songs of her career, she’ll likely be seen as old hat by this point. This is Lambert’s award to lose and Swift’s dominance in a completely different genre market isn’t going to change that.

images-2Vocal Duo of the Year

· Big & Rich

· Florida Georgia Line

· Love and Theft

· Sugarland

· Thompson Square – Jonathan Pappalardo 

If Florida Georgia Line wins this award, I’m done. “Cruise” may’ve been one of the biggest hits of last year, but popularity hardly denotes quality. Thompson Square should repeat here and even though they aren’t as strong as they could be, they’re the best of this bunch outside of Sugarland.

imagesVocal Group of the Year

· The Band Perry

· Eli Young Band

· Lady Antebellum

· Little Big Town – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· Zac Brown Band

After their come out of nowhere Grammy win in February, Little Big Town are the darlings of Nashville and that will continue with a win here. Their success is long overdue, as is a win in this category. Zac Brown Band and The Band Perry can have fun duking it out for second place.

Unknown-2New Artist of the Year

· Florida Georgia Line – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· Brantley Gilbert

· Jana Kramer

This is really a toss up. Any of these three could win although Kramer has proven the most country minded of the nominees. She’s my favorite, but I’m not counting out Florida Georgia Line. It’s another fan voted award and “Cruise” is insanely popular.

TornadoAlbum of the Year [Award goes to Artist(s)/Producer(s)/Record Company]

· Blown Away – Carrie Underwood (19/Arista Nashville), Produced by: Mark Bright

· Chief – Eric Church (EMI-Nashville), Produced by: Jay Joyce

· Red – Taylor Swift (Big Machine Records), Produced by: Jeff Bhasker, Nathan Chapman, Dann Huff, Jacknife Lee, Max Martin, Shellback, Taylor Swift, Butch Walker, Dan Wilson

· Tailgates & Tanlines – Luke Bryan (Capitol Nashville), Produced by: Mark Bright, Jeff Stevens

· Tornado – Little Big Town (Capitol Nashville), Produced by: Jay Joyce – Jonathan Pappalardo 

A good list of mainstream albums. Chief would seem the frontrunner since it already won the CMA Award, but this is the first race to include Little Big Town’s superstar making set. I’m going out on a limb and say Tornado will take this home.

Unknown-6Single Record of the Year [Award to Artist(s)/Producer(s)/Record Company]

· “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” – Eli Young Band (Republic Nashville), Produced by: Mike Wrucke

· “Over You” – Miranda Lambert (RCA), Produced by: Chuck Ainlay, Frank Liddell, Glenn Worf

· “Pontoon” – Little Big Town (Capitol Nashville), Produced by: Jay Joyce – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· “Springsteen” – Eric Church (EMI-Nashville), Produced by: Jay Joyce

· “Wanted” – Hunter Hayes (Atlantic/WMN), Produced by: Hunter Hayes, Dann Huff

“Pontoon.” It won the CMA, a Grammy, and reversed the fortunes of a band too talented for the oblivion it was heading for. There’s no way they’ll lose, but if they do it’ll go to Hayes and his sophomore single “Wanted.”

Unknown-7Song of the Year [Award to Composer(s)/Publisher(s)/Artist(s)]

· “A Woman Like You” – Lee Brice, Composers: Phil Barton, Johnny Bulford, Jon Stone, Publishers: 3JB Music (BMI), Adios Pantalones (SESAC), Hears That Skyline Music (SESAC), Sixteen Stars Music (BMI), Warner-Tamerlane Publishing Corp. (BMI)

· “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” – Eli Young Band, Composers: Will Hoge, Eric Paslay, Publishers: Cal IV Songs (ASCAP), Will Hoge Music (BMI)

· “Over You” – Miranda Lambert, Composers: Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton, Publishers: Pink Dog Publishing (BMI), Sony ATV/Tree Publishing (BMI) – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· “Springsteen” – Eric Church, Composers: Eric Church, Jeff Hyde, Ryan Tyndell, Publishers: Bug Music (BMI), Ole Purple Cape Music (BMI), Sinnerlina (BMI), Sony ATV/Tree Publishing (BMI)

· “Wanted” – Hunter Hayes, Composers: Hunter Hayes, Troy Verges, Publishers: Happy Little Man Publishing (BMI), Songs From The Engine Room (BMI), Songs Of Universal Inc. (BMI)

“Over You.” The ACM will follow in the footsteps of the CMA and bring Lambert and Shelton to the podium. Two genre superstars are just too hard to ignore. Their only competition, Kacey Musgraves’ ‘Merry Go ‘Round’ wasn’t even nominated, so I just don’t see anyone else taking this home.

Unknown-8Songwriter of the Year

· Rodney Clawson

· Dallas Davidson (Already won, off-camera award) 

· Josh Kear

· Luke Laird

· Shane McAnally

Davidson has already won; this is an off-camera award. But I would’ve gone with McAnally who seems to be on fire right now. His collaborations with Brandy Clark are killer.

Unknown-3Video of the Year [Award to Producer(s)/Director(s)/Artist(s)] *(Off Camera Award) [TIE]

·” Creepin'” – Eric Church, Producer: Iris Baker Director: Peter Zavadil – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· Merry Go ‘Round – Kacey Musgraves, Producers: Perry Bean, Kacey Musgraves Director: Perry Bean

· “Tornado” – Little Big Town, Producer: Iris Baker Director: Shane Drake

· “Wanted” – Hunter Hayes Producers: Stephanie Reeves, Eric Williams Directors: Traci Goudie, Patrick Hubik

· “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” – Taylor Swift, Producer: John Nguyen Director: Declan Whitebloom

· “The Wind” – Zac Brown Band, Producer: Ben Kalina Director: Mike Judge

Most of Zac Brown Band’s videos are distracting, with annoying concepts that take away from the song completely. “The Wind” is no exception. The Swift clip is awful and does nothing to portray her maturity and “Wanted” isn’t special enough to stand out from this pack. Church deserves this the most, as both the song and video for “Creepin’” are completely original. This is where he should get some much-deserved hardware. 

Unknown-9Vocal Event of the Year [Award to Artist(s)/Producer(s)/Record Company] *(Off Camera Award)

· “Don’t Rush” – Kelly Clarkson Featuring Vince Gill (19/RCA/Columbia Nashville) Produced by: Dann Huff

· “Easy” – Rascal Flatts Featuring Natasha Bedingfield (Big Machine Records) Produced by: Dann Huff, Brian Kennedy, Rascal Flatts

·”Feel Like a Rock Star” – Kenny Chesney (Duet With Tim McGraw) (Blue Chair/BNA) Produced by: Buddy Cannon, Kenny Chesney  – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· “Let It Rain” – David Nail Featuring Sarah Buxton (MCA Nashville) Produced by: Chuck Ainlay, Frank Liddell

· “The Only Way I Know” – Jason Aldean With Luke Bryan & Eric Church (Broken Bow) Produced by: Michael Knox

What a terrible, terrible bunch of songs that equate to nothing more than empty opportunistic pandering. The only worthwhile songs here are “Don’t Rush” and “Let It Rain” and they are hardly ‘events.’ I bet Chesney/McGraw will take this home but if it wasn’t an off-camera award, than I’d say Aldean/Bryan/Church. The latter would make for ratings gold on stage, but it would be a wasted opportunity off-camera. In truth, though, I couldn’t care less about these nominees if I tried.

Album Review: Martina McBride – ‘Martina’

martinaThe four new tracks on Martina McBride’s Greatest Hits album were largely seen as a return to form following 1999’s disappointing Emotion, but unfortunately the regained momentum was quickly lost again with the release of Martina, an album that is consistently mentioned by fans as one of their least favorites in the McBride discography. However, while I wouldn’t rank Martina among McBride’s best work, it does have its bright spots and is a much better album than Emotion or most of the albums that came after it.

Martina once again shared production duties with Paul Worley. The album was released in September 2003, and McBride definitely had one eye on the pop charts this time around. The first single, the somewhat bland female empowerment anthem “This One’s For The Girls”, which featured backing vocals from Faith Hill and Carolyn Dawn Johnson, was not only a #3 country hit, it also reached #1 on the adult contemporary charts. I always thought this song was screaming out to become a Cledus T. Judd parody called “This One’s For The Squirrels.”

Encouraged by the crossover success of “This One’s For The Girls”, RCA selected the very middle-of-the-road piano and string quartet ballad “In My Daughter’s Eyes”, with lyrics by Hallmark, as the album’s next single. A pretty but somewhat saccharine number, it charted at #4 country and #3 adult contemporary. The next single didn’t fare as well, peaking just outside the Top 10 on the country chart, and missing the AC chart altogether, but “How Far”, a Jamie O’Neal co-write with Shaye Smith and Ed Hill, is a much better song than either of its predecessors, despite some oversinging at times. In the vein of “Whatever You Say”, it would have been right at home on the Evolution album.

The album’s biggest misstep is the fourth and final single, “God’s Will”, which tries too hard to tug at the heartstrings and comes off as a crass attempt to manipulate the listener’s emotions. The lyrics seem forced, the melody is plodding and at almost six minutes in length, it is way too long (I assume the radio edit was shorter). Peaking at #16, it marks the beginning of Martina’s chart decline; most of her singles from this point forward would chart outside the Top 10.

Overall, Martina is very mixed bag, but there are some worthwhile tracks among the album cuts, the best of which is the bluegrass-flavored “Reluctant Daughter”, which features backing vocals from Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White, and features Skaggs on mandolin. It’s a nice reprieve from the rest of the tracks, which are mostly pop-leaning. Also quite good is “Wearing White”, a song about a bride who opts for a traditional wedding with all the trimmings, despite an apparently checkered past. Vince Gill contributes harmony vocals to this track, which also features some very nice fiddle playing by Jonathan Yudkin. Not quite as good but still enjoyable was the Celtic-flavored but lyrically fluffy “So Magical”. The Big & Rich written “She’s A Butterfly” has a pretty melody, but there is too much reverb on the vocal track, a problem which also plagues the track “Learning To Fall.”

The album closes with a live in concert rendition of “Over The Rainbow”, which while well done, seems a bit out of place with the rest of the songs on the disc.

Though rarely counted as a favorite by McBride’s country fans, Martina is the artist’s second-best selling album, after Evolution, selling more than two million copies and reaching #1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart, a feat no doubt achieved by the crossover success of the album’s first two singles. Though not essential listening, it’s worth picking up a cheap copy on Amazon.

Grade: B-

Week ending 6/23/12: #1 albums this week in country music history

1967: Eddy Arnold – The Best of Eddy Arnold (RCA)

1972: Charley Pride – The Best of Charley Pride, Vol. 2 (RCA)

1977: Waylon Jennings – Ol’ Waylon (RCA)

1982: Willie Nelson – Always On My Mind (Columbia)

1987: Randy Travis – Always & Forever (Warner Brothers)

1992: Billy Ray Cyrus – Some Gave All (Mercury)

1997: Tim McGraw – Everywhere (Curb)

2002: Kenny Chesney – No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems (BNA)

2007: Big & Rich – Between Raising Hell and Amazing Grace (Warner Brothers)

2012: Alan Jackson – Thirty Miles West (Capitol)

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Let It Go’

Like most of Tim McGraw’s albums, 2007’s Let It Go is a combination of the good, the bad, and the mediocre on which Byron Gallimore and Darran Smith returned to share co-production duties. The lead single was the annoyingly fluffy “Last Dollar (Fly Away)” which was written by Big & Rich’s Big Kenny. It’s a mediocre song with a sing-songy chorus that grows tiresome with repeated listenings. The final chorus on which McGraw is joined by his three young daughters only adds to the irritation factor. Nevertheless, it reached the top spot on the charts, becoming McGraw’s first #1 hit since 2004’s “Back When”.

Much more to my liking is the album’s second cut, “I’m Workin'”, written by Darrell Scott and Lori McKenna. It’s a gritty number that in years past would have been a big hit on country radio. From the opening line, “Damn, I hope no one dies on this night shift tonight”, the listener is immediately pulled into the story. The narrator’s profession is never revealed. My first thought was that he was a policeman, but he could just as easily be a paramedic or even an ER doctor. Another song that should have been a single is the album’s best track “Whiskey and You”, a pure country number written by Lee Thomas Miller and then-Steeldrivers member Chris Stapleton. Likely deemed too traditional for country radio, “Whiskey and You” was left to languish in obscurity as an album cut, passed over in favor of schlock like the title track, a boring AC-leaning duet with Faith Hill, and a cover of an Eddie Rabbitt song — one of the songs in the late singer/songwriter’s catalog least worthy of a remake.

Faith Hill makes one of her two guest appearances on “I Need You”, a rather lackluster number written by David Lee and Tony Lane, that reached #8. It’s not nearly as good as “Shotgun Rider”, which is not a true duet but features a prominent harmony vocal from Hill. Written by Anthony Smith, Jeffrey Steele and Sherrie Austin, it’s the best McGraw/Hill song I’ve ever heard. It’s too bad Tim and Faith haven’t done more songs in this vein.

“Suspicions” was a #1 hit for Eddie Rabbitt in 1979, an era when a lot of barely-country sounding songs were big hits. It’s one of my least favorite Rabbitt songs. Tim’s version is very faithful to the original, but it only reached #12, making it one of the very few McGraw singles not to make the Top 10, in spite of Tim’s popularity and country radio’s increasing willingness to play non-country material. The follow-up single was the much more traditional “Kristofferson”, a tribute to one of country music’s greatest songwriters, written by Anthony Smith and Reed Nielsen. It fared even worse on the charts than “Suspicions”, stalling at #16. Tim bounced back, however, with the generic and overproduced title track, which climbed to #2.

The very best of the album’s seven singles was not included on the album when it was initially released. “If You’re Reading This”, on which Tim shares a rare songwriting credit with Brad and Brett Warren, was performed on the 2007 Academy of Country Music Awards telecast. It tells the heartbreaking story of a fallen soldier, in his own words, in a letter to his wife, to be sent to her in the event of his death. It was one of the best performances of Tim’s career and was so well received that the song entered the Billboard charts from unsolicited airplay of the audio from the telecast. This prompted Curb to release the live recording as a single, between “I Need You” and “Suspicions” and to include it on subsequent pressings of the album. “If You’re Reading This” peaked at #3; I was surprised that it didn’t go all the way to #1.

Mid-2008 was about the time when Curb Records began playing games to prolong Tim’s contract. Instead of releasing a new album, they opted to release a seventh single, “Nothin’ To Die For”, a preachy and overproduced “don’t drink and drive” number that reads like a public service announcement that somehow climbed to #5 on the charts.

The rest of the album is mostly generic filler, with the exception of “Between The River and Me”, which tells the story of a son’s revenge against an abusive father. It’s a southern Gothic number in the traditon of “Ode To Billy Joe”, “Fancy” and “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia”, but unlike those classics, “Between The River and Me” is ruined by over-the-top production that renders it almost unlistenable. To call it bombastic would be an understatement.

Though it has its share of duds, Let It Go is one of the stronger album’s in Tim’s discography and has enough good songs on it to make it worth recommending. It is easy to find at reasonable prices.

Grade: B

Changing the face but not the name

Gary Nichols

This week’s news that the great bluegrass-based group the SteelDrivers have changed lead singers after one acclaimed album from the distinctive sound of songwriter Chris Stapleton (who wants to return to a life concentrating on writing) to former Mercury artist Gary Nichols was a little disappointing. Musicians would probably disagree with this, but to me the lead singer is the most distinguishing feature of any band’s identity – and changing the face at the front seems to change the dynamic for better or worse.

One-time hitmakers Lonestar have a new album out soon with a new lead singer, but do not seem to be attracting much attention with it. They in fact started out with two lead singers (John Rich and Richie MacDonald), and when John Rich left to try a solo career (which flopped, leading to his finding success as half of Big & Rich) that did not cause any problems for the band, who went on to release their biggest hit, ‘Amazed’. But when Richie left the band a couple of years ago, the group had already passed its commercial peak. Richie’s solo career has not been particularly successful, and although I haven’t heard Lonestar’s material with their new lead singer yet, I would be surprised if it brought them back to the top.

One band to have gone through various changes of personnel, but for whom real success was associated with the original lead singer was Highway 101, a favorite of mine from the late 80s. Fronted by Paulette Carlson, the group released three fine albums and a string of top 10 hits including several #1s between 1987 and 1990. Paulette then decided she wanted to go it alone, and released a solo album. This proved to be a bad move for her as her new record was a complete flop. The band meanwhile recruited a new lead singer, Nikki Nelson who had a strong, commercial voice, but one with less personality than Paulette’s. The new line-up had a few hits in the arly 90s, but ones which peaked lower on the charts than their earlier material. In 1996 Paulette rejoined the group and they released the appropriately entitled Reunited, but their time had passed and they could not reignite the flame of their glory days. They split again, and the band tried with a third lead singer, with even less success. I understand they are currently performing with Nikki Nelson again. This was a case study where the original combination of lead singer and band was the magical one, and subsequent reinventions just didn’t work.

Chris Stapleton

Sometimes switching the lead singer works out. The Dixie Chicks’ early records featured two lead singers (Laura Lynch and Robin Lee Macy) who were both eventually discarded. It was only when Natalie Maines joined that the band got their major label deal, and proceeded to mass success in the late 90s. Even today, after they have fallen from grace with country radio, the Court Yard Hounds side venture of sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, the founder members of the Chicks, without Natalie, seems unlikely to attract the same level of support of their most recent album with her. Since the other two own the rights to the name, it is interesting that they decided to drop it for this project.

These last two cases do involve someone with a particularly distinctive voice which served to mark the band out. A similar case involving a less successful group is Trick Pony and its lead singer Heidi Newfield. When Heidi left to go solo, the band initially tried to find a new lead singer, but Heidi’s replacement Aubrey Collins left before any new music could be released, and the surviving band members eventually called it a day. In this case some lead vocals had been taken by one of the guys in the band, but Heidi was the dominating presence at the center of the group.

In previous generations, however, changes of personnel were less disruptive. The Statler Brothers replaced Lew De Witt with Jimmy Fortune, and the Oak Ridge Boys have been going since 1945 with many changes. However, these cases did not involve changing a sole lead singer. The pioneering Carter Family consisted of A P Carter, wife Sara and sister-in-law Maybelle in the 1930s; later on Maybelle continued the group with her daughters. Bluegrass groups seem generally to be formed around an inspirational instrumentalist rather than the singer, and have frequently featured changes in lead vocalist. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band have changed personnel over the years, but retained a strong musical identity regardless.

Which of today’s groups could survive a new face at the front?

Week ending 9/5/09: #1 albums this week in country music history

reba vanity fair1984: George Strait – Right or Wrong (MCA Nashville)

1989: Reba McEntire – Sweet Sixteen (MCA Nashville)

1994: Tim McGraw – Not A Moment Too Soon (Curb)

1999: Shania Twain – Come On Over (Mercury)

2004: Big & Rich –Horse of a Different Color (Warner Brothers)

2009: Reba McEntire – Keep On Loving You (Valory/Starstruck)

ACM Predictions

acmpromo1Tomorrow night’s Academy of Country Music awards are on everybody’s minds and lips. Reba will be hosting for the 11th time as the Academy hands out the awards on their 44th annual show.  Here then, is our contribution to the ACM Awards media frenzy.  These are the predictions of the My Kind of Country writing staff.

The 44th annual Academy of Country Music Awards airs Sunday, April 5 at 8:00 Eastern time on your local CBS station.

Entertainer of the Year

  • Kenny Chesney  J.R., Chris
  • Brad Paisley   Erik
  • George Strait
  • Carrie Underwood  Razor, Meg, Lisa
  • Keith Urban

Top Male Vocalist

  • Kenny Chesney
  • Toby Keith
  • Brad Paisley   Meg, Lisa, Erik
  • George Strait
  • Keith Urban  Rob, J.R., Chris

Top Female Vocalist

  • Miranda Lambert
  • Heidi Newfield
  • Taylor Swift   J.R.
  • Carrie Underwood   Razor, Meg, Lisa, Erik, Chris
  • Lee Ann Womack

Top Vocal Group

  • Lady Antebellum Lisa, Erik, Chris
  • Little Big Town
  • Rascal Flatts  Razor, Meg, J.R.
  • Randy Rogers Band
  • The Lost Trailers

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