My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Brandy Clark

“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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Single Review: Brandy Clark – ‘You’re Drunk’

It’s about time I let you in on a little secret. I’m always clamoring for new releases from Brandy Clark. When my local record store didn’t carry Live From Los Angeles this past Record Store Day, I went online and was able to secure the final copy at Bull Moose Records in New Hampshire.

I’m also still finding additional nuances in Big Day In A Small Town more than a year since it was released. I only recently uncovered the brilliance of “Since You’ve Gone To Heaven,” a track I had initially failed to understand in any concrete way. Brandy Clark isn’t just one of the strongest songwriters to come along this decade. She’s one of the greatest contemporary voices in country music, achieving an equal footing with the likes of Gretchen Peters, Matraca Berg, Bobbi Cryner and Lori McKenna.

Clark is adding to her legacy with “You’re Drunk” a staple of her live show and an outtake from the sessions for Big Day In A Small Town. The story goes that she never took the song seriously until she cut it, the track didn’t fit the vibe of the album and she had to find a way to get it out.

While I’m glad it’s out there, I’m thrilled it didn’t make the album. “You’re Drunk” is an outtake for a reason – it’s shallow, far too contemporary and lacks Clark’s overall distinctiveness. “You’re Drunk” feels undeveloped in a “Girl Next Door” sort of way, trying to be clever without really packing any significant punch.

Her work with Shane McAnally (they co-wrote this with Josh Osborne) has been incredible – the pair wrote “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven” together – but this feels like it’s dripping with McAnally’s influence and not in a good way. The production and overall vibe is far more “American Kids” than “Last Call” or “Follow Your Arrow.”

That being said, “You’re Drunk” isn’t terrible. It’s found a proper home as an outtake, where it belongs, and not the anchor to a new album, like the one consisting solely of drinking songs she wants to do at some point. I’ll give her a pass for this. It’s an outtake and nothing more. Even Brandy Clark doesn’t have to hit it out of the park every time she’s up at bat.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Varous Artists: ‘Gentle Giants: The Songs Of Don Williams’

Don Williams had a very successful career in Country Music and is pretty much beloved throughout the English-speaking world. Don would have a long run of chart singles (46 as a solo artist) that would run from 1973 to 1992, and he would continue to release albums of new music through 2014.

With such a long discography, the task is twofold: (1) find artists whose styles are sympathetic to the honoree’s style without being mere imitations, and (2) find some interesting catalog songs rather than simply covering the biggest hits. Moreover, tribute albums tend to be a mixed bag with some of them being very good, and others merely star vehicles for current stars rather than genuine tributes. Gentle Giants is a genuine tribute to Don.

This project succeeds in both respects. The artists cover a broad range of styles and while the songs are mostly big hits, a few lesser known songs are covered as well.

The album opens up with the Pistol Annies’ version of “Tulsa Time” a song written by Danny Flowers, one of Don’s band members. The arrangement of this 1979 #1 record for Don is considerably funkier than Don’s arrangement.

“I Believe In You” was written by Roger Cook and Sam Hogin, hitting #1 in 1980. This was probably Don’s biggest international hit, even reaching #4 on New Zealand’s pop charts. Brandy Clark does a decent job of the song, although it probably should have been tackled by a more grizzled artist than young Brandy.

“We’ve Got A Good Fire Going” was not one of Don’s bigger hits, only reaching #3 in 1986. Written by master songsmith David Loggins, the song seems perfectly suited for a vocal trio such as Lady Antebellum. The arrangement is very gentle with a light string accompaniment.

There’s a storm rollin’ over the hill
And the willow trees are blowin’
I’m standin’ here starin’ out the window
Safe and warm
I feel her put her arms around me
And it’s a good feelin’ that I’m knowin’
Oh, I’ve got a good woman and we’ve got a good fire goin’

“Some Broken Hearts Never Mend” comes from the pen of Wayland Holyfield. The song reached #1 in 1977, Dierks Bentley gives the song an acoustic, nearly bluegrass arrangement. I love the song and I love Dierks’ performance of the song.

While there are no complete misfires on the album, “Amanda” seems ill suited for the duo of Chris Stapleton and Morgane Stapleton. I really like Chris but his voice is just wrong for this song. His version is acceptable but both Don and ol’ Waylon did far better versions of the song.

Similarly Alison Krauss makes the mistake of slowing the tempo in “Till The Rivers All Run Dry”. Since all of Don’s songs are taken at slow to medium slow tempos, reducing the tempo on any of Don’s songs is a mistake. Alison provides a gorgeous vocal, but the song just seems to drag. Don co-wrote this song with Wayland Holyfield, his fourth #1 from back in 1976.

I regard John Prine as a talented songwriter but a poor vocalist with his vocal efforts ranging from mediocre to terrible. Somehow “Love Is On A Roll” works. It was a good idea to pair him with Roger Cook, especially since Prine and Cook were the writers on the song. Don took this song to #1 in 1983.

Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You”, as sung by Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, was a bit of a disappointment, mostly because Amanda Shires is no Emmylou Harris as a harmony singer. I think the song originally was an Emmylou Harris single featuring Don Williams since it was released on Warner Brothers, which was Emmylou’s label. The song only reached #3 but I thought it was an outstanding effort by Don and Emmylou.

“Maggie’s Dream” missed the top ten when released in 1984 but by then Don was staring to lose momentum as a singles artist. Also the album from which the song came, Cafe Carolina, was Don’s least successful album in a decade. Written by David Loggins and Lisa Silver, Trisha Yearwood does a masterful job with the song. I think it has one of the more interesting lyrics that Don ever tackled:

Maggie’s up each morning at four am
By five at the counter at the diner
Her trucker friends out on the road will soon be stopping in
As the lights go on at Cafe Carolina

Maggie’s been a waitress here most all her life
Thirty years of coffee cups and sore feet
The mountains around Ashevill,e she’s never seen the other side
Closer now to fifty than to forty

Maggie’s never had a love
She said she’s never had enough time
To let a man into her life
Aw but Maggie has a dream
She’s had since she was seventeen
To find a husband and be a wife

I am not that familiar with Keb Mo’ but he nailed “Lord I Hope This Day Is Good”, adding a very sincere vocal to an arrangement that is nearly a clone of Don’s original. The song was written by Dave Hanner, best known for his role in the Corbin/Hanner Band. The song reached #1 in 1981.

“Good Ole Boys Like Me”, written by Bob McDill is probably my favorite Don Williams song and Garth Brooks version tells me that Garth definitely grew up on and was inspired by Don’s songs. Billboard had this song dying at #2 but Cashbox and Record World both had it reaching #1.

All said, this is a pretty nice album. Don Williams was a pretty laid back artist and I wish someone had selected some of the more up-tempo songs (admittedly, there were not that many from which to choose). Other than Leon Redbone and Bobby Bare, no one was as good at laid-back as Don Williams.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Sunny Sweeney – ‘Trophy’

After falling in love with Brandy Clark’s Twelve Stories, Sunny Sweeney tapped Dave Brainard to produce Trophy, which grapples with misery and longing, tackling the well-worn themes with exciting twists and turns. Brainard works to nicely compliment Sweeney’s firecracker personality, giving us a sound far meatier than Clark’s, but in no way less sublime.

Our first taste, which Occasional Hope lovingly reviewed, is the astonishing “Bottle By My Bed,” a heartbreaking tale about Sweeney’s struggles with infertility co-written with Lori McKenna. I, too, have a very personal connection to the track, which details the anguish felt when “you never never wanted something so bad that it hurts.”

Sweeney begs the bartender to reserve judgment and just “Pass The Pain” on the album’s brilliant steel-drenched opener, a decade-old neotraditional ballad she felt was potentially too country for a modern audience. She recorded the song, which features an assist from Trisha Yearwood, at the insistence of her rock-leaning father.

She bookends with the stunning “Unsaid,” a heavily orchestrated ballad written with Caitlyn Smith following the suicide of a friend who was a father of two young children. While the track doesn’t chronicle his story, it lays bare her feelings towards the circumstances:

There’s so much left unsaid

Cuts to the bone to see your name written in stone

Wish I could get it off my chest

Shoulda let go of my pride when I still had the time

Dammit it hurts these words I left unsaid

Sweeney has said Chris Wall’s “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight” is her favorite country song ever. The track, a fiddle-drenched waltz popularized by Jerry Jeff Walker, boasts an engaging melody and killer hook:

And I play classical music when it rains,

I play country when I am in pain

But I won’t play Beethoven, the mood’s just not right

Oh, I feel like Hank Williams tonight

I also love “Nothing Wrong With Texas,” another of the four tracks she and McKenna co-wrote for Trophy. The song, an ode to Sweeney’s home state, is an effortless fiddle and steel adorned mid-tempo ballad.

The pair also wrote two distinctly different numbers about Sweeney’s marriage to her second husband Jeff Hellmer, a police sergeant in Austin, Texas. “Grow Old With Me” is a breathtaking love song, in which Sweeney promises, “grow old with me and I’ll keep you young forever.”

The other song is the feisty title track, written in response to Hellmer’s ex calling Sweeney a ‘trophy wife.’ She proves her worth in the situation with a clever, albeit cunning, retort:

I know what you called me

That word fits me to a T

You just think I’m pretty

And you’re just full of jealousy

I don’t make him play the fool

Put him on a pedestal

Something you would never do

Yah, he’s got a trophy now

For putting up with you

Like “Trophy,” the rest of the album trends uptempo, with in-your-face barn burning honky-tonkers. “Better Bad Idea” is a moment of levity, which finds Sweeney on the prowl to be naughty, hoping her man can top the mischief she’s thinking up on her own.

“Why People Change” is an excellent take on failed relationships, with Sweeney questioning why couples can drift apart. The lyric is well-written, and the engaging melody is nothing short of glorious.

I haven’t been this richly satisfied with an album probably since Twelve Stories. With Trophy, Sweeney has crafted a whip-smart and mature record nodding to tradition while correctly pushing the genre forward. Trophy is what happens when everyone steps aside and puts the focus deservedly on the music, where it belongs.

Grade: A+

Sunny Sweeny was also interviewed on Rolling Stone Country

Classic Rewind: Brandy Clark – ‘Hold My Hand’

Classic Rewind: Brandy Clark feat. Sam Tsui – ‘Love Can Go To Hell’

Brandy Clark reimagines the second single from Big Day In A Small Town as an acoustic ballad. Sam Tsui, a 27 year old graduate of Yale University and YouTube cover sensation, provides the assist. The track has been nominated for Best Country Solo Performance at next month’s Grammy Awards.

Top 10 hidden gems of 2016

drinking-with-dollyIn previous years, I’ve compiled a top 10 singles list, but although there have been some encouraging signs on country radio, I didn’t feel inspired by this year’s releases. Instead I want to highlight some of the best individual songs which appeared on albums which didn’t make my top 10 albums list, together with the odd single not yet featured on a full length release.

10. ‘What I’d Say’ – Lorrie Morgan
Realising her voice was in decline, Lorrie took steps to get it back to something approaching its best. This gorgeous reading of the classic was the highlight of her new album.

9. ‘I Never Will Marry’ – Loretta Lynn
Loretta goes old-time country folk on this track from Full Circle. A delight.


8. ‘Pawn Shop’ – Shelley Skidmore

A great Brandy Clark story song about hard lives and broken dreams reminiscent of the best country songs.

7. ‘Can’t Be That Wrong’ – Dolly Parton
A ballad about cheating, guilt and refusal to repent.

6. ‘Drinking With Dolly’ – Stephanie Quayle
A truly delightful wistful reimagining of the lives of country stars of the past.

5. – ‘It’s Just A Dog’ – Mo Pitney
A heartbreaker about the love of a rescue dog.

4. ‘Had A Thing’ – Curtis Grimes
The best song from Curtis’s excellent eight-track EP/album which, with a few more songs would have had a shot at making my top 10 list.

3. ‘Lonesomeville’ – William Michael Morgan
A lovely neotraditional lost love ballad from a young man who is starting to make real headway in the mainstream. Very reminiscent of early Joe Nichols.

2. ‘Still A Child’ – Dori Freeman
25 year old Dori Freman from Virginia is a folk-country singer-songwriter whose self-titled debut album was produced by British folk musician Teddy Thompson. Not all of it is perfect, but her pretty, fragile voice shines, and the best song by far is this graceful waltz. A gentle melody belies a hard hitting lyric rejecting a man who just can’t grow up. Excellent.

1. ‘Sad One Coming On’ – Vince Gill
Vince’s latest solo album was a sad disappointment, but it was almost redeemed by this superb, heartfelt tribute to George Jones, which is an instant classic.

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2016

real-country-musicThere has been some excellent country music released this year, admittedly mostly away from the major labels. Just missing my cut were strong comebacks from Loretta Lynn and Lorrie Morgan; glorious Western Swing from the Time Jumpers; sizzling bluegrass from Rhonda Vincent and her band; and a pair of very promising debuts from Mo Pitney and William Michael Morgan.

10 – Bradley Walker – Call Me Old Fashioned
Traditional country meets gospel from an underrated singer.

Best tracks: ‘His Memory Walks On Water’; ‘Why Me’; ‘Sinners Only’; ‘In The Time That You Gave Me’.

big-day-in-a-small-toen9 – Brandy Clark – Big Day In A Small Town

Like Miranda Lambert’s latest, this album married outstanding storytelling and songwriting, good vocals and overbearing production. But the songs here are so strong that the end result still made it into my top 10.

Best tracks: ‘Since You’ve Gone To Heaven’; ‘Three Kids, No Husband’; ‘Homecoming Queen’.

8 – Cody Jinks – I’m Not The Devil

His deep voices tackles themes of darkness versus light, on some very strong songs.

Best tracks: ‘The Same’; ‘I’m Not The Devil’; ‘Grey’.

7 – Jamie Richards – Latest And Greatest

Warm, inviting vocals and excellent songs with a real gift for melody.
Best tracks: ‘I’ll Have Another’; ‘I’m Not Drinkin’; ‘Last Call’; ‘Easier By Now’.

for-the-good-times

6 –Willie Nelson – For The Good Times: A Tribute To Ray Price

As the veterans of country music continue to pass away, it’s a comfort to see that at 83, Willie Nelson is still going strong. His tribute to the late Ray Price, with the help on several tracks of The Time Jumpers, was a delightful reminder of some of the best country songs ever written.

Best tracks: ‘Heartaches By The Number’; ‘Crazy Arms’; ‘Invitation To The Blues’.

5 – Dallas Wayne – Songs The Jukebox Taught Me

The deep voiced singer’s Heart of Texas debut is a honky tonk joy.
Best tracks: ‘No Relief In Sight’; ‘Eleven Roses’; ‘She Always Got What She Wanted’.

4 – Mark Chesnutt – Tradition Lives

A solid return from the 90s star with some excellent songs. It feels as if the last 20 years never happened.

Best tracks: ‘Is It Still Cheating’; ‘So You Can’t Hurt Me Anymore’; ‘Neither Did I’.

hymns3 – Joey + Rory – Hymns That Are Important To Us

A final heartbreaking labor of love for the duo recorded during the last stages of Joey’s illness. Joey’s beautiful voice and inspirational spirit are showcased for the last time.
Best tracks: ‘Softly And Tenderly’; ‘When I’m Gone’; ‘I Surrender All’.

2 – John Prine – For Better, Or Worse

I adored John Prine’s collection of classic country duets on the topic of marriage, and said when I reviewed it that it was set to be my favourite of the year. I was almost right. It really is a delightful record – great songs, lovely arrangements, and outstanding vocals from the ladies counterpointing Prine’s gruff emotion.

Best tracks: ‘Fifteen Years Ago’ (with Lee Ann Womack); ‘Look At Us’ (with Morgane Stapleton); ‘Color Of The Blues’ (with Susan Tedeschi); ‘Cold Cold Heart’ (with Miranda Lambert); ‘Dreaming My Dreams With You’ (with Kathy Mattea); ‘Mr And Mrs Used To Be’ (with Iris De Ment).

1 – Gene Watson – ‘Real. Country. Music

While Willie Nelson is still great, his voice is showing signs of age. The wonderful Gene Watson is still at the peak of his powers in his 70s, and his skill at picking excellent material hasn’t faltered either. His latest album reminds younger performers what real country music is all about.

Best tracks: ‘Couldn’t Love Have Picked A Better Place To Die’; ‘Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall’; ‘When A Man Can’t Get A Woman Off His Mind’; ‘A Bridge That Just Won’t Burn’; ‘Ashes To Ashes’; ‘She Never Got Me Over You’.

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Favorite Singles of 2016

My favorite singles of the year run the gamut from commercial to obscure and everything in between. Keep reading for career moments from Tim McGraw and Reba McEntire to shining examples of why Lori McKenna and Brandy Clark are more than expert songwriters.

unknown10. Chris Young Feat Cassadee Pope – ‘Think Of You’

Young deserves credit for searching within his own genre for a female collaborator. He deserves praise for co-writing a song that doesn’t use Pope as
window dressing, but rather as a means of furthering the story. This tale of a once-great couple isn’t revelatory, but it’s catchy as hell.

 9. William Michael Morgan – ‘Missing’

The influence George Strait said was absent from country radio came roaring back to life with William Michael Morgan’s follow-up to “I Met A Girl.” “Missing” is an astonishing single in that it makes little compromise to the modern landscape. Warner Bros deserves credit for releasing something this country to radio. Time will tell if they respond favorably.

 500x5008. Kelsey Waldon – ‘All By Myself’

Among its many achievements, a few of which you’ll see highlighted further down, 2016 introduced Kelsey Waldon, a killer traditionalist, to the masses. “All By Myself” is a stern warning to fakers, a biting assessment of authenticity and a woman’s empowerment anthem for the current generation. 

7. Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘Something Tamed, Something Wild’

The most common criticism I’ve heard about Mary Chapin Carpenter’s more recent works is she ‘lacks a pulse.’ It may be true to an extent, but I’m not hearing it here. This introspective examination of existential curiosity is one of her finest in recent memory. The parent album it comes from is her best in more than a decade.

6. Time Jumpers – ‘Kid Sister’

Vince Gill’s tribute to Dawn Sears is both personal and touching.

record-year-cover5. Eric Church – ‘Record Year’

Not since “The Song Remembers When” has a song about songs been this clever or powerful. Church proves he’s a master once again, name checking legends at every turn and laying out a jovial tale of heartbreak both ear catching and believable. “Record Year” is undoubtedly the best mainstream single of the year.

 4. Lori McKenna – ‘Wreck You’

The lead single from The Bird and the Rifle is this masterful look at sabotage in which the woman is admitting fault, with brutal candor – “Something between us changed, I’m not sure if its you or me But lately all I do seems to wreck you.”

unspecified-13. Tim McGraw – ‘How I’ll Always Be’

2016 found Tim McGraw in an artistic renaissance, with his strongest back-to-back singles in twenty years. He succeeded in a climate unfavorable to substance without conceding to modern pressures. “Humble & Kind” is the better lyric. But “How I’ll Always Be” shines melodically. Not since “Just To See You Smile” has McGraw sounded this good on record. 

2. Brandy Clark – ‘Love Can Go To Hell’

The genius is in the delivery. Brandy Clark sings this so deadpan, it’s easy to miss the dark humor underneath the surface. I totally missed it, but when it hit me, I never heard this the same way again.

reba-1024x10241. Reba McEntire – ‘Just Like Them Horses’

Tim McGraw wasn’t the only one in the throws of an artistic reawaking in 2016. This tale of a dying man giving positive reassurance to the loved one he’s leaving behind may’ve been too much for radio to bare, the unique take on ‘if you love me, let me go’ too smart for the masses.

Reba eulogized her father with this tune before committing it to record, which only solidified the emotional undertones she brought forth in her performance, her strongest vocal since “If I Had Only Known” twenty-five years ago. “Just Like Them Horses” is just that good, a bone-chilling highlight from a career with far too many to count.

Christmas Album Review: Kacey Musgraves – ‘A Very Kacey Christmas’

a-very-kacey-christmasKacey Musgraves is not the first artist I would have expected to come out with a Christmas album, but here it is. She leans to the jazzy side of Christmas music, with a strong Hawaiian influence and her own quirky take on things – to the point of eccentricity at times. It is also entirely secular.

She opens with ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’, which is quite pleasant but not essential.

The Quebe Sisters provide backing vocals on a playful ‘Let it Snow’ and the Hawaiian ‘Mele Kalimaka’. The bilingual ‘Feliz Navidad’ is prettily sung by Kacey and a male chorus. Much of the album comprises pleasant but easy-to-overlook background music like this, but Kacey pushes the boundaries on other tracks.

She draws on her inner child with the playful, bouncy ‘I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas’ and the standard ‘Rudolph The Reindeer’, which is one of the few recordings where a child chorus is endearing rather than irritating (maybe because the kids don’t seem to have much enthusiasm). Both are great fun. The strangest choice, ‘Christmas Don’t Be Late’ , is better known as ‘The Chipmunk Song’, as recorded by Alvin and the Chipmunks. Kacey sings it apparently quite straight with a childlike quality, and I’m really not sure how far her tongue is in her cheek here.

It leads into the rather less family-friendly ‘A Willie Nice Christmas’, which as you may guess from the title is a holiday-themed tribute to Willie Nelson and his favorite product, featuring guest vocals from the man himself. It is rather charming in its way. Kacey wrote the song with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne.

She, McAnally and Brandy Clark wrote the melancholy ‘Christmas Makes Me Cry’. ‘Present Without A Bow’, a duet with neo-soul singer Leon Bridges about being alone at Christmas, is quite effective vocally, although the song itself isn’t that interesting. The hand-clapping, brassy ‘Ribbons And Bows’ is quite good though not country.

She closes with a languid jazz version of ‘What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve’, which I found rather boring.

I applaud Kacey’s willingness to try something a bit different, but the result isn’t entirely to my taste.

Grade: B-

Single Review: Brandy Clark – ‘Love Can go To Hell’

love can go to hellHaving loved Brandy Clark’s Twelve Stories, I was disappointed by some of the musical and arrangement choices producer Jay Joyce made for her current album, although her strong songwriting continues to shine. While the arrangement on new single ‘Love Can Go To Hell’ is more cluttered than it needs to be, fortunately it does not detract from the song, which Brandy wrote with Scott Stepakoff (a rock singer turned Nashille songwriter). It doesn’t sound bad – just a touch too busy.

A bitter post-breakup musing on the nature of love and pain sees Brandy reflecting on a recent breakup. She claims, not entirely convincingly, not to blame her ex:

Heaven knows
I only wish you well

I don’t blame you at all
No, I don’t hate you at all
It’s all love’s fault

But she is unable to move on:

I can get drunk on a Saturday night
And try to fall for someone new
But I’d just wake up hungover
Cursin’ the day I fell for you

The mid paced tune is redolent to me of 90s contemporary country, the kind of song Trisha Yearwood or Matraca Berg might have recorded (with a more subtle backing). Brandy is a fine singer as well as an excellent songwriter, with a voice capable of expressing strong emotions, and she performs this song well.

Curb artist Ashley Gearing also released the song as a single this year, but it failed to chart for her. Hopefully it will do better for its writer.

Grade: B+

Review: new tracks from Craig Morgan – ‘The Journey – Living Hits’

the journeyCraig’s second release for Black River Entertainment was a reworking of some of his past hits so the new label could cash in, together with four completely new tracks.

Two of the new songs were released as singles, but as is commonplace in such cases they were considerably less successful than the previous singles had been. Top 20 hit ‘Wake Up Lovin’ You’, written by Josh Osborne, Matt Ramsey and Trevor Rosen, is about love outlasting the presence of its object, and while lyrically strong is rather boring melodically, notable only for its opening sounds of an alarm clock. A full blooded vocal does its best to give the song some life, struggling against somewhat cluttered, uninspired production. It was Craig’s last real radio hit to date.

‘We’ll Come Back Around’ a better song, did not crack the top 40. Written by Rosen again, with Brandy Clark and Jessie Jo Dillon, it is a mid paced tune about a couple who fight but always make up again. I could do without the na-na-na-nas, which always sound as if the writer ran out of inspiration, and the production is a bit muddy, but otherwise this is a solid song which was too adult for contemporary radio:

Put your fist through the wall
Say you’re through with it all
Baby I’m through too
Let’s throw a log on the fire of the heat of the moment
Put your key in the car
Jerk it right outta park
Flip a big F-you

You say you won’t come back
I say amen to that then I lock that door
But I know you got a key
And I’m gonna leave a light on

‘If Not Me’ is a beautifully written and sympathetically sung song about a young man taking the step of joining the military, which must have struck a chord with veteran Morgan, although the song is written (by Tom Douglas and Lee Thomas Miller) from the point of view of the boy’s parents. I’m surprised this wasn’t a single.

‘Party Girl, on the other hand, is a dreadful throwaway bro-country number complete with electronic distortion.

Grade for the new tracks: B-

EP Review: Shelley Skidmore – ‘Shelley Skidmore’

shelley skidmoreKentucky-born Shelley Skidmore co-wrote (with Brandy Clark and Shane MacAnally) a song I loved a few years back when Joanna Smith recorded it – ‘We Can’t Be Friends’. Now she has released her own five track EP (produced by Paul Worley), and proves to have a fine voice with a smooth tone, and a genuine country sensibility. In a recent interview she cites her favorite albums of all time as Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Comes From and Patty Loveless’s When Fallen Angels Fly – definitely an indicator of someone who loves traditional country music and knows great songs when she hears them.

The excellent ‘White Picket Fences’ was written by Shelley with Brandy Clark and Jessie Jo Dillon, and it’s a very typical Clark story song. It paints a scathing picture of the guilty secrets lying behind both a small town’s respectable surfaces, which are not so very different from the open sins of the dreaded big city:

It’s all white picket fences
It’s all pink and purple pansies
Its the face of small town grace
The perfect place to raise a family
We’re all scandal
We’re all scripture
We’re all smiling for the picture
It’s alright because it’s all white picket fences

A little bit of tasteful brass adds a jocular air.

This is the only song on the set Shelley had a hand in writing – it’s a shame she didn’t include her own version of ‘We Can’t Be Friends’.

The very best song on the album is another Brandy Clark song, this time a co-write with Troy Verges. ‘Pawn Shop’ is a modern classic of a story song, as a woman pawns her wedding ring to raise the money for a bus ticket away from her bad marriage:

It ain’t stolen
It ain’t hot
Someone told me it cost a lot
Man ain’t that the truth
I thought I’d wear it my whole life
It never even crossed my mind
Back when it was new
It’d end up in a pawn shop on Charlotte Avenue

A musician then hands over his beloved guitar, and with it gives up his dreams. And the dreams of both love and music will pass to other dreamers in their turn. This is beautifully written and sung, and deeply moving.

Shelley’s husband, Greg Bates, had a shortlived career with one hit a few years back. Greg never released an album despite a top 5 single, and seems not to have enjoyed the touring aspects of being a star. He duets with Shelley on the ballad ‘What You Need From Me’, a beautiful sad song about a failed relationship written by Jon Randall, Jessi Alexander, and Phillip White:

Woman: You need a trophy on your arm
So you don’t look so lonely
Someone to get you through the nights
Someone to start your morning coffee

Man: You need a man that you can count on
Someone who’ll finish what he started
Not a restless soul that comes and goes
And only leaves you broken hearted

Both: I’m so sorry that I’ll never be what you need from me

With regret they acknowledge their mutual failure to meet the other’s needs. Greg sounds very good here, and it’s enough to make me regret the loss of his career as a solo artist before it had really got going. The tasteful and understated arrangement is very traditional country, with some lovely steel and fiddle.

The one song that doesn’ t appeal to me is the jaunty ballad ‘Making Babies’, written by Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, and Matt Jenkins, about pressure from the in-laws to start a family. It is neatly written but the melody is the least country sounding on the album, and doesn’t quite work for me with the song.

The album closes with the quirky ‘Back In The Saddle’, a 20 year old Matraca Berg song which Berg recorded on her 1997 album Sunday Morning To Saturday Night Shelley’s version uses the same arrangement, with backing vocals from Berg, Deana Carter, Kathy Mattea and Brandy Clark. It’s very entertaining and ends the too-short set on a high.

This is a great EP I very much enjoyed. I only wish it was a full length album.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Brandy Clark – ‘Big Day In A Small Town’

promoted-media-optimized_56fe8b2ad785eIn recording 12 Stories Brandy Clark said she made a concept record about a small-town woman and her journey through our world. The finished product didn’t completely fulfill that vision (the song sequence was changed), but it did introduce us to a compelling and complex heroine framed with sonic touches that made 12 Stories an album that respected the past in order to create the future.

Big Day In A Small Town ultimately builds upon its predecessor by giving our heroine a backbone formed on the foundation of experience woven by Clark’s eye for detailing the emotional complexities of everyday life with razor-sharp precision. Our main character reached this authoritative state (elevated with an eclectic sonic backdrop spearheaded by Jay Joyce) by having lived and come out the other side with a clear picture of how she wants to move forward with her life. Her circumstances will never be without turmoil, but for her to live as her authentic self means she has to embrace who she is at her messiest while attempting to establish some type of order to her state of affairs.

To fully understand her newly enlightened state, we need to fill the gaps in her back-story. Those details come courtesy of the brilliant “Homecoming Queen,” in which she finds herself at twenty-eight realizing she’s holding onto a superficial falsity that is as empty as the dead-end town she calls home:

Too bad love ain’t a local parade

In your uncle’s Corvette on a Saturday

With all the little girls waiting on you to wave

When you’re 17

You don’t know

That you won’t always be

Homecoming queen

It’s worth reiterating that our heroine isn’t a single construct but a composite sketch of women everywhere. She’s the one-time “Homecoming Queen” as much as she’s the mother with “Three Kids No Husband.” Both scenarios find her living out the reality of her situation including the latter, a co-write with Lori McKenna that beautifully details the laundry list of different people our heroine has become to keep her family running smoothly.

Her backbone manifests as a take-no-prisoners frankness that unapologetically stings any man who crosses her path. This change in her attitude is best exemplified by the subtle twist in “You Can Come Over,” a lush slice of piano pop that finds the man able to visit but not allowed inside. Cyclone-wrapped “Girl Next Door” shoves the man to the curb, instructing him to look to the neighbor for his idea of the perfect woman.

That feistiness is even more fully formed on “Daughter,” an outstanding takedown in which the woman wants karma to bite him in the ass by his own offspring. The track is modern day Loretta Lynn at her finest, down to a 1960s inspired arrangement and bold lyric that pushes even Lynn’s stretchiest envelope.

Through it all she still has weaknesses, and they take the form of the deliciously banjo-drenched “Love Can Go To Hell.” Once she realizes what it’s like to be alone, that life might not be all she imagined when she kicked him to the curb. The up-tempo number (my favorite amongst the eleven tracks) is the album’s most commercial, but its infectiousness is more Dixie Chicks than Bon Jovi.

Clark travels even further into classic country on the wonderful “Drinkin’ Smokin’ Cheatin,’” the proof that through it all morality still wins. As much as playing the good girl makes her miserable, our heroine can’t help but draw a line she won’t cross.

By the end of Big Day In A Small Town, our heroine isn’t any better or worse off than she was three years ago. Clark closes the album on a sober note, with the slow-burning ballad “Since You’ve Gone To Heaven,” a striking look at life in the wake of a father’s death. It’s the album’s sole break in the story and one of its most vivid tracks.

It would be easy to compare Big Day In A Small Town to 12 Stories, but to do so would be unfair to the distinctive characteristics that make each album uniquely their own. If Clark set out to prove anything it’s that she didn’t have to sacrifice her unique individuality while working with a producer very much the antithesis of Dave Brainard. Joyce’s choices do overwhelm a couple of songs, but he mostly stays out of Clark’s way, letting her narratives take center stage and command our complete and undivided attention.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Jennifer Nettles – ‘Playing with Fire’

JN_ART_ALBUM_PWF_Cover_2016.03.02_FNL_1_67b07e04-f0ad-4db5-bb6c-9d0a73d70a65_2048x2048Our first taste of Playing with Fire came a year ago when Jennifer Nettles debuted the dobro-driven “Sugar.” The depth-defying track displays Nettles at her most cunning, wrapping a stern message to the country music industry in a deceptively easy-to-swallow package:

Don’t You Go a Changin’

Cause They Only Like You One Way

Oh But This Girl You See

Is Only Pieces of Me

And I’m More Than Just A Toppin’

“Unlove You,” which I reviewed unfavorably back in January, is a classic example of the Jennifer Nettles the industry has shaped over these past eleven years. Those moldings actually work in the song’s favor, a track I must confess I’ve changed my tune on. After repeated listenings, I’ve come to hear the striking vulnerability in the lyric, which Nettles conveys in spades through her vocal performance.

“Unlove You,” more than anything, is the bridge from which we journey from the Jennifer Nettles of old to a newfound risk taker with bold ambitions. She’s out for blood, literally playing with fire, fearless and confident. Nettles co-wrote the majority of the album with Brandy Clark, her tour mate for the past two years. They collaborated on seven of the album’s twelve tracks.

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Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Southern Family’

southern familyMixed artist compilations can often be hit and miss. This concept album based on life in the American South, produced by Dave Cobb, is no exception. The concept itself hangs together a little vaguely, and the artists come from country and Americana with a side of (white) soul and rock. However, if it is intended to represent the South as a whole, it is rather lacking in the ethnic diversity of participants.

Jason Isbell is normally more Americana than country, but ‘God Is A Working Man’ is definitely a country song, and an excellent one to boot. The lyric pays tribute to a working class family with lots of colourful details about a Pentecostal preacher and his son. The melody and rustic vibe remind me of ‘Grandpa Was A Carpenter’, as recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and John Prine on Will the Circle Be Unbroken Part II. I like it better than any of Isbell’s past recordings.

Brent Cobb is producer Dave’s cousin (actually, first cousin twice removed). His track, ‘Down Home’, is quite pleasant without being very memorable. I also quite enjoyed Holly Williams’ ‘Settle Down’, about starting a new family.

I tend to prefer Miranda Lambert when she isn’t rocking it up, so I enjoyed her song, ‘Sweet By And By’ – not the gospel classic but a reflective depiction of rural life and family philosophy which sounds as though it was written for the prompt of the album concept. The old fashioned folky lyric and vocal are charming, although a more stripped down arrangement would have been even better.

‘Learning’, by Miranda’s new boyfriend, Anderson East, an Americana/R&B artist based in Nashville, is not my style of music, but is pretty good of its kind. Shooter Jennings’ ‘Can You Come Over’ is in similar vein, but more listenable. Rich Robinson of the rock band the Black Crowes offers a loud and boring number.

John Paul White’s former duo the Civil Wars were much admired by many critics, but they were never quite my thing, and I’m afraid I strongly disliked White’s whispery tune here, ‘Simple Song’.

Not all the songs here are new. Zac Brown (who appears to have lost the plot on his last album) is back on form here with a nice cover of Skip Ewing’s ‘Grandma’s Garden’. Lee Ann Womack adds a sweet harmony. Jamey Johnson wrote the tender ‘Mama’s Table’ for the Oak Ridge Boys a few years ago, and revives it here himself. The song remembers childhood happiness. Brandy Clark has recorded the affecting ‘I Cried’, about a family funeral, before, but it fits neatly in the theme for this collection, and she sings it beautifully.

Morgane Stapleton, wife of Chris, once had her own record deal, although nothing was ever released. She has a very pretty voice in the vein of Lee Ann Womack or Dolly Parton, so I was disappointed that her contribution (backed by Chris) was not really to my taste. It is a dramatically slowed down blues/rock take on the oldie ‘You Are My Sunshine’ which sounds suicidally depressed.

This is a bit too varied for me as a whole, but there are several worthwhile tracks.

Grade: B

Predictions for the 58th Annual Grammy Awards

logoCountry music fans have much to look forward to come Grammy Night, which is coming up on Monday this year. Carrie Underwood and Sam Hunt will croon their duet “Heartbreat.” Chris Stapleton is slated to join Bonnie Raitt and others in a tribute to B.B. King. Luke Bryan is joining a slew of pop artists in honoring Lionel Richie, who is the Grammys MusiCares Person of the Year. Little Big Town will take the stage as well.

Best of all is the last minute announcement is that Eagles will honor Glenn Frey along with their good friend Jackson Browne. The rest of the show promises to be equally as jammed packed, with just about every major artist under the sun slated to take the stage.

Here are my predictions for the country nominees, plus categories that feature artists marketed within the country or American Roots genres. Please leave a comment and let us know who you think/hope will walk away with Grammy Gold.

Best Country Solo Performance

Little-Toy-GunsThis is a very solid group of nominees. Perennial favorite Carrie Underwood has lost this category only once – when Taylor Swift’s “White Horse” bested “Just A Dream.” Cam, surprisingly, is the weak link. Her hit version of “Burning House” is nowhere near as good as Emily Ann Roberts’ from The Voice last season. Who would’ve imagined a contestant on a reality singing competition would find the hidden nuance in a song its own singer couldn’t?

Should Win: “Chances Are” – Lee Ann Womack has yet to win a single award for her seventh album, a transitional record that showcased the artistic sensibilities she’s only hinted at until now. This is the album’s finest track, possibly the greatest performance she’s given to date. Real country music deserves to slay the competition.

Will Win: “Little Toy Guns” – It’s a fool’s game to bet against Carrie Underwood. Not only does she stand the strongest chance of winning, she’s the only one powerful enough to stop Chris Stapleton in his tracks. He will walk away a Grammy winner before the night it through, it just won’t be for the title track of his debut album.

Best Country Duo/Group Performance

81T8Z9H91mL._SL1500_This is a hodgepodge of nominees, with some forgettable performances along side some treasures.

Should Win: “If I Needed You” – Joey + Rory have the sentimental vote and a serge in name recognition since Joey’s cancer turned terminal last fall. They deserve to walk away the winner on what is their first and will likely be their only Grammy nomination.

Will Win: “Girl Crush” – There’s no stopping the Little Big Town behemoth, which is also in the running for the overall Song of the Year award. No one else is going to win this award.

Best Country Song

lovejunkies-660x400This is a heavyweight category, with a few extremely worthy nominees. I would love to see an upset here, but like the category above, there’s a very clear winner.

Should Win: “Hold My Hand” – Brandy Clark stole the show with her simple performance of this tune on last year’s telecast. The story of a woman determined to hold on to her man in the face of his ex is an instant classic. Clark deserves the prize for a tune she wrote and smartly kept for herself.

Will Win: “Girl Crush” – Should they lose Song of the Year, this will be their consolation prize. Should they win both, this will serve as icing on the cake.

travellerBest Country Album

Of all the country categories, this is easily the weakest. Little Big Town’s album was a dud, Kacey Musgraves’ was charming yet very uneven and Sam Hunt is…Same Hunt. The Grammys do deserve credit though – this is the first time in her career that Ashley Monroe has been nominated for an award for her own music.

Should Win: Traveller – I’m not fully on the Chris Stapleton bandwagon, but he does have the strongest album in this bunch. 

Will Win: Traveller – This is one, if not the only place, the Chris Stapleton bandwagon won’t be stopped.

A few more Predictions:

Jason-Isbell-24-frames-single-500x500Best American Roots Performance: I’d like to see Punch Brothers take this and finally win a Grammy of their own.

Best American Roots Song: Jason Isbell and “24 Frames.” The genius in the lyric is criminally underrated.

Best American Roots Album: I liked the upbeat nature of Punch Brothers Who’s Feeling Young Now better than the somber tone of The Phosphorescent Blues. They still deserve it, but I’d love to see Jason Isbell take this one. He hasn’t been recognized enough for his brilliant work.

Best Bluegrass Album: I haven’t a clue, but it would be interesting if the Steeldrivers take home an award the same night as their former lead singer Chris Stapleton does the same. If not, I’d go with Dale Ann Bradley.

Album of the Year: A strong category from which I’ve heard cases for each nominee to win. Stapleton could take it, as couldUnknown Alabama Shakes. But I’m going to go with Taylor Swift’s 1989, easily the most important pop album of the eligibility period.

Song of the Year: Taylor Swift has never won an award for her pop work with Max Martin. I expect that to change this year, when “Blank Space” deservedly takes this category. “Girl Crush” has a shot, but “Blank Space” is far more developed and clever.

Best New Artist: I’ll take a shot in the dark and choose Courtney Barnett. I just don’t see how this award could go to Sam Hunt. But stranger things have happened.

Single Review: Jennifer Nettles – ‘Unlove You’

JN-Unlove-YouI first became hooked on Jennifer Nettles when Mercury Nashville released ‘Just Might (Make Me Believe)’ to country radio ten and a half years ago. Nettles’ voice was butter wrapped in organic mandolin. It was nothing short of a killer record. “Want To,” which came just eleven months later, duplicated the magic with ease.

No one will argue that country music has significantly changed in the decade since and not for the better. Nettles has continued to play the game, with mixed results. She’s ditched the organic elements that gave flavor to Sugarland’s early ballads in favor of inching closer and closer to pop/rock territory. All the while she’s continued to pledge her allegiance to country music.

So, why has it come to this? Her new single “Unlove You” is about the most flavorless and generic Nettles has ever been. I don’t feel the immediate emotional connection I got when listening to ‘Just Might (Make Me Believe)’ or ‘Want To.’ Her vocal is fine, indicative of the pop/rock styling she adapted for Sugarland’s masterpiece Love On The Inside. But I want to feel something. For me, ‘Unlove You’ is the type of song you hear once and then forget about as soon as you hear it.

I don’t expect Nettles to revert back to a Sugarland of old that’s been dead for more than five years. She’s a solo artist now and deserves to find her own identity. But I at least want a similar level of passion that she gave to those early hits. Then maybe I’d be able to connect on at least some level with the song.

‘Unlove You’ isn’t the worst song I’ve ever heard. It’s weaker than should be expected from a Brandy Clark co-write, but it isn’t dreck. Its just meh.

Grade: B-

Album Review: George Strait – ‘Cold Beer Conversation’

cold beer conversationAlbums these days are usually announced well in advance, with much anxious testing of the waters and delays if singles under-perform. So it was a big shock when George Strait suddenly released his new album on iTunes with just a few days’ notice. It is his first album since retiring from the road, although he simultaneously announced a short Vegas residency.

‘Let It Go’, the first single, sadly showed that country radio has moved on [from real country music] and there is no longer a place for the most consistent hitmaker of the past 35 years. A relaxed tune about taking life as it comes, it was written by Strait with son Bubba and Keith Gattis.

The same trio teamed up with old friend Dean Dillon to write one of the standout songs. ‘Everything I See’, a touching tribute to Strait’s late father John Byron Strait, who died in 2013. The tasteful production support the thoughtful lyrics. Dillon also wrote the gently philosophical defence of faith and optimism, ‘Even When I Can’t Feel It’, with Ben Hayslip and Lee Miller.

The title track, and new single, was written by Hayslip with Jimmy Yeary and Al Anderson, and is a nicely observed conversational number expressing more homespun philosophy. There is a delightful Western Swing confection (written by George and Bubba with Wil Nance and Bob Regan), ‘It Takes All Kinds’, on the theme of mutual tolerance.

Jamey Johnson contributed a couple of songs. The tongue-in-cheek jazzy ode to booze which is ‘Cheaper Than A Shrink’, written with Bill Anderson and Buddy Cannon, was previously recorded by Joe Nichols and is pretty good. Johnson’s other song here, written with Tom Shapiro, ‘Something Going Down’, is a gorgeously seductive and tender love song.

The gently regretful ‘Wish You Well’ is set on a Mexican island resort, with the protagonist set on drinking away his regrets over lost love.

The one real mis-step, ‘Rock Paper Scissors’, written by Bubba with Casey Beathard and Monty Criswell, has a loud rock arrangement which completely overwhelms George’s vocals on what might be a decent breakup song underneath the noise. The Keith Gattis song. ‘It Was Love’ is also over produced in terms of my personal taste, but that fact rather fits the lyrics, which deal with the overpowering nature of young love.

I really liked the mid-tempo ‘Goin’ Goin’ Gone’, a Gattis co-write with Wyatt Earp. It deals with partying over the weekend as a way to forget the protagonist can barely make ends meet on his weekly wage. A likeable bar room chorus adds to the everyman atmosphere:

I put in my forty and they take out way too much
The same old story, same old brown-bag homemade lunch
Might not be the big dream but I guess I can’t complain
It pays the rent but that’s about all that it pays…
Ain’t got no 401
Ain’t got no benefits
They don’t hand out stock options
Not down here in the pits
But I got Ol’ Glory hanging by my front porch light
Might not be the perfect world
But then again, it might

..
I’m overdue so throw it on the card
Bartender, keep it open
I’m just gettin’ started
Come Monday mornin’ I just might be overdrawn
But it’s Friday night so I’m goin’, goin’… gone

The mid-tempo ‘Stop And Drink’ is another celebration of drinking as a way of coping with the annoyances of everyday life.

‘Take Me To Texas’, written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, was originally recorded for the soundtrack to Texas Rising, a TV miniseries dramatising the Texan Revolution against Mexico in the 1830s. It works okay as a standalone song, expressing pride in the
protagonists’ Texas family roots.

Grade: A

Single Review: Jennifer Nettles – ‘Sugar’

SugarThe first time I heard Sugarland on the radio, I thought that they were the best band I’d heard in quite some time. Unfortunately, I grew to like them a little less with each subsequent album, with 2010’s The Incredible Machine being the last straw. It’s been five years since they released any new music and I can’t honestly say that I’ve missed them. My expectations for Jennifer Nettles’ new solo release, therefore, were low. But I was pleasantly surprised after hearing ‘Sugar’, her first single for EMI Nashville, which is to say, it’s actually pretty good.

‘Sugar’ was written by Nettles with Brandy Clark and Jessie Jo Dillon. While it’s still more pop than country, a healthy dose of dobro can be clearly heard above the fuzzy electric guitars, and this gives this piece of ear candy a rootsy feel. Although the production is a bit more heavy-handed than I would like, and the background vocals are particularly intrusive, the tune itself is infectious and Nettles is in good vocal form. This sounds a lot like something Sugarland would have released a decade ago, during the Twice The Speed of Life and Enjoy The Ride years, before they ventured off into steampunk and totally went off the rails. Nettles sounds positively gleeful as she flirts with her admirers and plays hard to get. Traditional it is not, but it’s a nostalgic look back at how mainstream country was not too many years ago before hick-hop and bro-country took hold. I never thought that I’d consider the music of Sugarland as part of the “good old days”, but if it came down to a choice between ‘Sugar’ and anything else that radio is playing these days, it’s a no-brainer. I’m cautiously optimistic about Nettles’ next full album. I sincerely hope that ‘Sugar’ is the beginning of a return to form and not just a one-off.

Listen to it here:

Grade: B+