My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Dallas Davidson

Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Sing It Now: Songs of Faith and Hope’

rebaReligious albums, like Christmas albums, are sometimes a hard sell to fans because there is inevitably much overlap in song selection with other artists’ Gospel collections. Reba McEntire avoids falling into that trap with Sing It Now: Songs of Faith and Hope, which was released last week. The generous two-disc collection is evenly divided between traditional hymns and more contemporary inspirational songs. As long as thirty years ago, I can remember Reba saying she wanted to a Gospel album; finally, she has reached a point in her career where commercial pressures have eased enough to allow that dream to become a reality.

Reba produced the collection with Rascal Flatts member Jay DeMarcus. The first disc contains most of the old familiar favorites beginning with “Jesus Loves Me” – the first song Reba sang in public at age four, and progressing on to other standards such as “Oh, How I Love Jesus”, “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder”, “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art”. She is joined by family and friends on a few tracks: her mother and sisters provide the harmonies on “I’ll Fly Away”. The Isaacs appear on a mash-up of “In The Garden” and “Wonderful Peace” and Kelly Clarkson and Trisha Yearwood lend their voices to “Softly and Tenderly”, which closes out the first disc. This track was released as a single in December. It didn’t make the country charts but did reach #43 on the Christian chart. All of these songs are tastefully arranged; the production is appropriately sparse and traditional. Reba and DeMarcus push the envelope slightly on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, which features some nice steel guitar work (an instrument we rarely hear on Gospel albums). The only tune on the first disc that I didn’t particularly care for was “Oh Happy Day”, on which the production is a cluttered mess of too-loud horns, saxophones and a Gospel choir. Clocking in at more than five and a half minutes, it goes on way too long.

Disc Two contains more modern religious-themed songs, mostly performed in the pop-country style for which Reba is well known. I particularly liked the title track and the current single “Back to God”, which first appeared on Randy Houser’s 2008 debut album. A Houser co-write with Dallas Davidson, Reba’s version of “Back to God” currently resides at #25 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, although it has yet to appear on the airplay chart. “There Is a God” — also quite good — is a remake of the 2009 Lee Ann Womack single. “God and My Girlfriends” sounds as though it could have appeared on any Reba album released during the past twenty years. Not as overtly religious as the title suggests, it probably would have stood a chance of being a hit a few years ago, but probably not now. The upbeat “I Got The Lord on My Side” sounds like an old-time revival song; it was written by Reba and her mother Jackie McEntire.

“Angel on My Shoulder”, which features a banjo and drum machine suffers from the clichéd production that we’ve heard too much of in mainstream country in recent years. The song itself is not bad, but it is probably the weakest in the collection. “From the Inside Out” is a pretty but somewhat lifeless ballad.

Reba is one of the best female vocalists that country music has ever known and she’s always been one of my favorites. I’ve been critical of many of her musical choices over the past decade or so as she seemed more concerned with chasing trends and maintaining a presence on the radio than just singing good songs. Sing It Now shows that when she puts aside commercial considerations and works with good material, she is still second to none. Despite one or two minor missteps, Sing It Now is a great collection and hopefully a sign of the direction that this talented lady will be going in the future.

Grade: A-

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Album Review: Joe Nichols – ‘Crickets’

crickets joe nicholsJoe Nichols’s career never quite recovered from his break to tackle his substance abuse problem in 2007, notwithstanding 2010’s chart topping single ‘Gimmie That Girl’. He has since lost his deal with Show Dog Universal, and his new album is released on the independent Red Bow. Independent labels tend to have fewer resources available for promotion, making radio hits harder to come by, and as if to compensate, Joe has followed the example of Chris Young by including a large proportion of lyrically unambitious commercial material. Luckily, a total of 16 tracks leaves enough room for good songs as well as bad, including three essential downloads.

The very best track on the album is a heartfelt, beautifully sung cover of Haggard’s ‘Footlights’. Joe is also at his neotraditional best with the Josh Turner-styled ‘Billy Graham’s Bible’, a lovely ballad which dresses up a love song into a discussion of destiny, with the protagonist comparing himself transformed by his love to the titular Bible, and to Willie Nelson’s guitar:

The good Lord had a plan for them
The moment they were made
In the right hands they come alive
You understand the reason why

Some things wind up where they’re meant to be
Like Billy Graham’s Bible
Willie’s old guitar
And me

It was written by Chris Dubois, Jimmy Melton and Neal Coty, and is outstanding.

Also excellent is ‘Old School Country Song’, written by Rivers Rutherford and Jim Collins, which pays tribute to the lasting power of real country music even in a changing world:

In a chat room out in cyberspace
They might not be face to face
They both know they’re up to something wrong
They say we’ve come a long, long way
Talkin’ bout the world today
Still sounds like an old school country song

Folks still love and folks still leave
Drunks get drunk and cheaters cheat
And there’s just something lonesome ‘bout a midnight train
Someone done somebody wrong
We’ll miss Mama when she’s gone
And trust me
That ain’t never gonna change

Breakin’ up is still a mess
It don’t make a heart hurt less
‘Cause you text it from a mobile phone
All you’ve really done, you see
Is modernize the melody
This still feels like an old school country song

You can take it off that ol’ jukebox
Burn it on your new Ipod
The three chords and the truth are just as strong
You can say we’ve come a long long way
Play what you want to play
But there’s nothing like an old school country song

‘Better Than Beautiful’ is a pretty love song delivered with palpable sincerity, which is the best of the rest. Opener ‘Just Let Me Fall In Love With You’ is quite an attractive mid-tempo tune, although the lyric is filled with clichés. ‘Love Has A Way’ is another pretty ballad spoiled in its second half by an insensitive and echoey production. ‘Baby You’re In Love With Me’ opens attractively, but has a cliche’d lyric about driving around in the country with a girlfriend. ‘Gotta Love It’ is nicely sung but the production is too loud and the song not very interesting.

‘Smile On Mine’ is, amazingly, a Peach Pickers’ song I actually like (despite the obligatory truck reference, it has a pleasant melody and decent lyric trying to get a girl interested). Dallas Davidson also co-wrote ‘Open Up A Can’ with Ashley Gorley and Kelley Lovelace, a relaxed number about taking a break from the stresses of life which isn’t bad but doesn’t need the party crowd sound effects.

The cliché-ridden ‘Yeah’, written by Gorley with his regular writing partner Bryan Simpson, adds nothing new or interesting. ‘Hard To Be Cool’ is boring but could be worse. The title track is also pleasant-sounding but not very interesting. The lead single ‘Sunny And 75’ is rather forgettable, but less objectionable than 95% of current hits, and has rewarded Joe for his compromises by rising up the charts and is now on the brink of the top 10.

But while the majority of the tracklisting is mediocre rather than terrible, there are a pair of really awful songs tucked in the middle of the album: ‘Y’ant To’ and ‘Hee Haw’. The latter is not a tribute to the TV show, but a tacky, crude double entendre which is heavily over-produced.

Overall, a real mixed bag, with some genuine highlights.

Grade: B-

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: Randy Houser – ‘How Country Feels’

how country feelsRandy Houser’s third album, while his most consistent to date, is still a very mixed bag. Derek George’s production is generally unsubtle and loud, and acceptable but uninspired on the quieter tracks. Houser’s career seemed to have hit the roadblocks, when he left Show Dog-Universal for independent label Stoney Creek. However, ‘How Country Feels’ his first single for the new label proved to be a hit, and became only his second top 10 single to date. It isn’t a very interesting song, but regrettably that seems to be what it takes for commercial success these days.

New single ‘Running Outta Moonlight’, written by Dallas Davidson, Kelly Lovelace and Ashley Gorley, is quite catchy but too loud, and while not dislikeable, rather bland lyrically with its generic picture of outdoor romance in the South. However, its very flaws make it a good bet to repeat the performance of ‘What Country Feels’. Much the same goes for the equally loud ‘Growin’ Younger’, written by Randy with Justin Weaver and Brett James, with its positive but unoriginal message about living life to the full, and I could see this as a successful single later this year.

The nadir of the album is reached with ‘Absolutely Nothing’, a half-spoken, largely tuneless, incredibly bland and completely pointless song about doing nothing. It’s the kind of thing that was probably fun at an uninspired writing session, but has no interest for anyone else (the guilty parties are Lee Brice, Joe Leathers and Vicky McGehee). Luckily, it is the only track (of 15) which has absolutely no merit.

There is a handful of genuinely outstanding songs which make this project worthwhile (or are at least worth downloading separately). Perhaps the best of all is ‘The Singer’, written by Trent Willmon and Drew Smith. It is a tender portrait of the (ex?) wife of a successful but troubled musician:

She loved the singer
She just couldn’t live the song

Almost as good is Randy’s own ‘Power Of A Song’, written with Kent Blazy and Cory Batten. This gentle but powerful ballad sounds as though it was inspired by ‘Three Chords and the Truth’, telling the story first of a man planning on leaving his wife and kids and turned around by hearing a song on the radio:

That’s the miracle of music
Loves’s the only thing as strong

The second verse is a contrasting, and even more powerful, story of a woman who never thought she would have the courage to leave a violent relationship – and this time the song gives her the strength not to turn round, 40 miles out. Oddly, this great song has a copyright date of 2004, but somehow has never been cut before. I’m garteful Randy revived it for this album.

The third great song is ‘Along For The Ride’, a pensive philosophical number with gospel-style paino and a bluesy feel to the vocals which Randy wrote with Zac Brown and Levi Lowrey. The last standout is the closer, ‘Route 3 Box 250D’, even though it is a co-write about rural life with Rhett Akins and Dallas Davidson. What makes it work is that it is an emotionally invested, detailed story about a specific family situation which feels very real, which does not shy away from the dark side. The story of growing up in a trailer in Mississippi with a violent stepfather with the only refuge fishing on a neighbour’s pond until the child’s prayers are answered when rescue comes from an uncle is deeply moving, as the protagonist reflects,

That’s where I became a man
Long before my time

The lyrics note bleakly, “Hollywood don’t make no movies” about the kind of life he led, but actually there is the kernel of a film, or perhaps a novel, in this song.

I liked ‘Shine’, written by Neil Thrasher, Trent Summar, Wendell Mobley. Set to an engaging banjo-led arrangement (but still a bit too loud), it tells the story of a rural moonshiner giving some hope to the residents of a town badly affected by the economic downturn of the past few years.

‘Top Of The World’, written by Jason Sellers, Rob Hatch, Lance Miller and Vicky McGehee, is a pretty good mid-tempo love song with a catchy tune, and I also quite liked ‘Goodnight Kiss’, written by Hatch and Sellers with Randy. ‘Wherever Love Goes’ is a pleasant contemporary country duet with labelmate Kristy Lee Cook, written by Sellers with Neil Thrasher and Paul Jenkins.

‘Like A Cowboy’ and ‘Let’s Not Let It’ are decent songs both co written by Randy, hampered by heavy handed production. ‘Sunshine On The Line’, written with Dallas Davidson, has a fairly generic lyric about good times with a pretty girl in the summer, but is saved by the energetic Southern rock performance.

This is an uneven record, which always makes giving a grade somewhat notional. The best songs deserve A status, and I recommend cherrypicking those to download. I suspect these are the ones that won’t get played on radio, but it is good to see that artists with one eye on the charts are stil able to include songs of substance on their albums.

Grade: B

EP Reviews: ‘Hillbilly Bone’ and ‘All About Tonight’

hillbilly bone2010 saw a departure in Blake’s career, as his label used him as the guinea pig to pioneer their new SixPak idea – EPs with six tracks. It was originally intended that Blake should release three over an 18 month period, but in the event there were just two. Unexpectedly, it was to mark a watershed in Blake’s carer, catapulting him to the very top. None of his singles since 2010 has peaked lower than #1. Generally loud and unsubtle production from Scott Hendricks proved to be exactly tailored for country radio success.

Hillbilly Bone, the first of the two SixPaks, had just one single, the chart topping title track. The duet with Trace Adkins is in many ways annoying with cliche’d lyrics but there is a good humor and charm in the delivery which makes it hard to hate as much as it deserves. It was a genuine smash, selling over half a million downloads, and won Blake CMA and ACM awards for Vocal Event of the Year as well as the coveted CMA Male Vocalist of the Year, the first major awards of his career.

‘Kiss My Country Ass’ is unredeemed crap with no mitigating factors, the epitome of the country pride song with an aggressive edge. A cover of a poorly performing Rhett Akins single written by Akins with regular partner in crime Dallas Davidson and Jon Stone), it is predictably dreadful.

‘You’ll Always Be Beautiful’ is an AC-leaning and sincerely sung romantic ballad about love for a woman even she doesn’t think she’s pretty. It was written by Lee Brice and Jerrod Niemann.

‘Can’t Afford To Love You’ is another Rhett Akins song about a working class guy in love with a high maintenance glamorous girl, which is an undistinguished but okay song buried under too much loud production.

The best track by far on this EP (and the only worthwhile download), Blake’s own song ‘Delilah’ is a rather sensitive song declaring love for a troubled woman who has been unlucky in love elsewhere; the girl’s name, incidentally, was taken from fiancee Miranda Lambert’s dog.

You can’t blame no one but you Delilah
For what you find when you never ever look around
Reach out for the one right here beside ya
And find the one that’s never gonna let you down

Clint Lagerberg and Craig Wiseman’s ‘Almost Alright’ is a well-written song about slowly getting over a relationship, spoiled by the inclusion of Caribbean steel drums which sound tinny.

all about tonightThe title track and lead single from Blake’s second SixPak, ‘All About Tonight’ is a party song written by the Peach Pickers, which, although it’s one of their better efforts, tells you all you need to know. The live ‘Got A Little Country’ which closes proceedings is just as bad and long much the same lines.

‘Who Are You When I’m Not Looking’, the second single, is much, much better, a rather charming love song written by Earl “Bud” Lee and John Wiggins, which had previously been recorded by Joe Nichols. It was another #1 hit for Blake.

‘Draggin’ The River’, written by Jim Beavers and Chris Stapleton, is a playfully performed duet with Miranda Lambert about a Southern rural romance opposed by the girl’s father, which is quite entertaining; the young lovers decide to fake their deaths while they elope. Miranda wrote ‘Suffocating’ with Lady A’s Hillary Scott (who also contributes harmonies), a ballad with rather a bland melody which does not effectively bring the downbeat lyric to life. Uninspired production doesn’t help. ‘That Thing We Do’, written by Jeff Bates and Jason Matthews, is okay but forgettable mid-tempo filler.

A bonus cover of the Dan Seals hit ‘Addicted’ was included for iTunes pre-orders; that track was later included as a bonus on Red River Blue and can be downloaded separately. It’s a shame this didn’t make the main setlist, as it’s a fine version which allows Blake’s incisive voice and sympathetic delivery to shine, and is one of his best recordings, although a stripped down production without the full orchestration which swamps the second half of the song would have made it better still.

Grade: Hillbilly Bone: D; All About Tonight C

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Emotional Traffic’

Were I unaware of the longstanding feud between Tim McGraw and Curb Records, and the resulting lawsuit surrounding the release of Emotional Traffic, I would likely be asking myself what on earth Tim was thinking when he recorded this collection. It’s difficult to imagine that he thought his fans were clamoring for an album of overproduced junk that, with only a few exceptions, is far removed from the realm of country music. One possible explanation is that it is an act of deliberate sabotage on Tim’s part, a parting shot at an unscrupulous company that went to great lengths to extend his contract term. It seems like a stretch at first, but the more I listened to the album, the more plausible the theory seems. While I do think that Curb treated McGraw shabbily, I’m slightly more sympathetic towards them after giving Emotional Traffic several spins. While Curb’s legal objections to Emotional Traffic were concerned with the timeframe in which the album was recorded, a more meritorious argument would have been that it doesn’t meet the standards of McGraw’s earlier work and that it provides them with very little usable material to promote to country radio. Make no mistake, this is one hot mess of a record.

Emotional Traffic was co-produced by Tim and Byron Gallimore, who has had a hand in producing Tim’s records since the very beginning of his career. Originally recorded in 2010, the album was shelved in favor of a redundant hits compilation and was then further delayed by the court case. One track, “Felt Good on My Lips” was released as a single in September 2010 and made it to #1. Though I’m not overly fond of the song, it does have a catchy melody, and despite its throwaway, fluffy lyrics, it’s one of three songs on the album that is at least tolerable. It was written by the Warren Brothers — who contributed four songs to the album — along with Brett Beavers and Jim Beavers. This foursome also collaborated on the rather annoying and sing-songy “Hey Now.” Tim himself shares songwriting credits along with Brett and Brad Warren and Martina McBride on “I Will Not Fall Down”, an introspective song about getting older that aims to be inspirational (“I will not fall down without getting up”), which ultimately falls flat due to the constant repetition of the title line, over-processed vocals and too-busy production.

“Touchdown Jesus”, written by Rhett Akins, Dallas Davidson, and Ben Hayslip is not a great song but it’s infinitely superior to most of the other offerings here. It has the potential to be a hit single, and I think I could get to like it more with repeated listenings, although it does degenerate into a bombastic gospel-like song towards the end.

Of the twelve tracks on this album, only one — the current single “Better Than I Used To Be” — is truly good — although, as Occasional Hope recently pointed out, it cannot compete with Sammy Kershaw’s far superior version. Nevertheless, I’m glad that someone who is still getting radio airplay decided to give it a chance. The only truly country-sounding song on the album, it is currently on the verge of cracking the Top 20 and will likely reach the higher rungs of the chart.

With the exceptions of “Better Than I Used To Be”, “Touchdown Jesus” and the mediocre “Felt Good On My Lips”, I’m afraid that I found Emotional Traffic to be quite unlistenable, and I imagine that all but the most dedicated McGraw fans will be disappointed in it. While Tim has never been one of my favorite artists, he has had a knack for picking some very good material in the past. Hopefully he has some better songs on hold for his next project once the remaining legal issues play out.

Grade: D

Album Review: Joe Nichols – ‘It’s All Good’

Joe Nichols is one of Music Row’s underrated journeymen performers. His sixth studio album, released last week is a mostly quiet affair, more rooted in tradition than the music of most his contemporaries, with a few concessions to contemporary tastes that should give him a shot at some radio airplay. As with his last few albums, he’s opted not to put all his eggs in one basket by using just one producer. This time around Mark Wright shares the honors with Buddy Cannon, with each contributing five tracks.

Things get off to a rocky start with the lead single, “Take It Off” a mediocre number that attempts but does not succeed in recreating the winning formula of 2005’s “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off”. Written by Dallas Davidson, Ashley Gorey, and Kelly Lovelace, the song is ultimately done in by the lack of subtlety in the lyrics, namely the part that goes:

You’re a pretty little country thing
But giddy under them cut-off jeans
Take ’em off, come on mama, take ’em off

Presumably these words of poetry are the handiwork of Kelly Lovelace, since they sound like something we’d normally hear from Brad Paisley. Released in August and reviewed by J.R. Journey shortly thereafter, “Take It Off” is currently at #25 on the charts.

The second track, “The More I Look” is a little better. It doesn’t contain any tasteless lyrics, but the production is a little cluttered and loud for my liking. Thankfully, this is the only production misstep on the album. I imagine that this track is earmarked for release as a single at some point, since it seems more radio friendly than most of the other songs on the album. Another likely single is “Somebody’s Mama”, a tune written by David Lee Murphy and Kim Tribble that finds Joe in the midst of covering up a tattoo that reminds him of an old flame. The couple apparently split up because Joe wasn’t ready to settle down:

She used to say all she wanted was babies
And I was too young to slow down
But I figure she’s probably somebody’s mama by now.

He goes on to speculate that she’s also dripping in diamonds and driving an expensive car, which seems odd because nothing else in the lyrics suggests that she was particularly materialistic. On the contrary, the fact that “she used to say all she wanted was babies” suggests quite the opposite. Still, it’s a pleasant song that stands a reasonable chance of success on the charts.

Things improve considerably from the fourth track on, with Joe sounding a lot at times like a younger George Strait, in both his vocal style and choice of material. The Strait influence is particularly evident with the title track written by Gary Burr and Georgia Middleman. “It’s All Good” is the most traditional and the best song on the album and probably not what radio wants, so it will likely linger in obscurity as an album cut. “No Truck, No Boat, No Girl” is also quite good and slightly more radio-friendly. The mood continues to get more mellow as the album progresses, with inoffensive filler like “Never Gonna Get Enough” and “She’s Just Like That.” The closing track “How I Wanna Go”, is a particularly laid-back tune that finds Joe contemplating an easy life on a sailboat with his guitar and lady, and again sounding very much like King George.

Nichols has had inconsistent success on the singles charts and there’s probably not anything here that is going to change that. It’s All Good is not an outstanding album, but it is very good above-average effort that deserves a listen. It is currently on sale for $5.99 at Amazon MP3.

Grade: B

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Songs About Me’

By 2005, the quality of Trace Adkins’s music had dwindled to new lows. He had finally reached instant-add status with country radio, but like Blake Shelton today, had compromised his music, especially his radio singles, to reach the top. That trend continued with Songs About Me. It may have earned double platinum certification, but it’s easily the most controversial album of his career.

At the time the second single, “Arlington” was climbing the charts (it peaked at #16), Adkins’s record label decided to pull the plug on the military ballad and rush-release “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” to country radio. There was much talk that “Arlington,” a first person story of a soldier buried in the national cemetery, offended military families due to the first person account. But on the flip side, the country music world considered the song a surefire #1 hit. While I understand where the controversy stems from, I personally don’t think it was warranted. It’s easily one of Adkins’s best performances and deserved its due.

Of course, when “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” came into the picture, all was forgotten about the debacle with “Arlington.” It stirred up an even bigger ruckus and caused even greater debate about sexism and the boundaries of country music. It didn’t help that the almost R-rated music video made Shania baring her midriff, Reba wearing her red dress, or Lorrie Morgan strutting around her bedroom in “Something In Red” all seem like a non-issue. That he scored a monster hit with this song (it peaked at #2) only proves that country music (and its fan base) has veered away from its ideals.

There is nothing about this song I care for whether it be the subject matter or the disastrous production values. That a dance version was created only sank this one lower in my book. In his defense of the song, Adkins said he would’ve recorded it for his debut Dreamin’ Out Loud had it been available at the time. I would’ve liked to see him get away with that in 1996.

But the most alarming thing of all was who wrote “Badonkadonk” – Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser, and Dallas Davidson. I can see where the Davidson influence comes in, he did co-write “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” with Luke Bryan, but the Johnson and Houser connection always throws me. Why would two of the best traditional voices recording country music today write something so offensive to the traditions of country music? It just doesn’t seem characteristic of them to me. To be fair, I understand “Badonkadonk” is all in good fun, but I take the ideals of country music very seriously, and in no way does this song fit with someone who’s a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Even Dixie Chick Natalie Maines saw the writing on the wall at the time – she openly wondered where the Chicks music would fit on country radio between “Badonkadonk” and Joe Nichols “Tequlia Makes Her Clothes Fall Off.”

Apart from the disastrous third single, which actually doesn’t fit in context with the rest of the album, Songs About Me gets more right than wrong. While there are a couple of filler power ballads, most of the tunes are understated and showcase the path I want Adkins to travel down with his music.

The title track, a song about singing about who you are, is the only “power” song he actually got right. The rock like production of heavy guitars and drums suits the passion he exudes in his vocal performance. The aforementioned “Arlighton” is a masterpiece and a lesson in using your voice to execute a powerful vocal track.

I also enjoyed “My Heaven” a song in which Adkins lists out what his idea of heaven is – a wood framed house with a porch swing with the kids playing in the yard eating watermelon and spending time with his wife. While the title might suggest more religious undertones, it’s actually a sweet tale made even stronger by the soft mandolin and understated production. I love that he sounds like he’s trying here to create a special moment and not just mailing it in for the sake of filling out an album. While not as memorable as other tunes on the subject, it’s a sweet tale that actually works. I enjoy the marriage here of his voice and the production – instead of reacting like oil and water, they work to compliment themselves nicely. He should record in this vein more often, or at least release these kinds of moments as singles.

“Metropolis,” another highlight (also recorded by its songwriter Anthony Smith in 2003 and Sammy Kershaw in 2008), finds Adkins playing the role of a man trying to make a living and juggle his career and his family. On songs like this, the way he manipulates his voice makes you believe the story he’s trying to convey. A prequal of sorts to “My Heaven,” “Metropolis” should’ve been a single and reminds me a lot of his future monster smash “You’re Gonna Miss This” but without the flash. I love the gorgeous guitar-laced production that helps opposed to hinder his vocal.

In contrast, “I Learned How To Love From You,” hits some but not all of the right notes. A good showcase of his voice, the strings and paino create a mix that overbears the lyrical content and Adkins’s emotional delivery of the song. I might’ve enjoyed it more had it been more starkly produced and a bit toned down. But it is going in the right direction of where Adkins should be as an artist.

As for the duds, “Baby I’m Home” is exactly the kind of immature song you’d expect from Adkins, especially in this period of his career. As he proves on “Arlington” and “My Heaven,” he’s above such trite lyrics as “She’s got 100 candles burning/she’s got next to nothing on,” or at least I want him to be. It’s songs like “Baby I’m Home” (and “Badonkadonk” of course) that keep my appreciation for Adkins quite low. Why is it that all men of a certain age can sing about is hot women?

“Find Me A Preacher,” recorded as “Somebody Find Me A Preacher” by Chad Hudson in 2008, is overwrought and the in your face mix of loud guitars and drums distract from Adkins’s performace. It isn’t too bad, considering how little feeling he puts into the song. As far as album cuts go, this is second-rate filler. I liked how Hudson makes his tale believable, Adkins just seems like he’s trying to fill out an album.

In the end, Songs About Me is a pretty consistent project split down the middle between questionable choices, and moments of growth. Given that this project gave the world “Badonkadonk,” I wasn’t expecting a whole lot of artristy, but was proven wrong by most of what Adkins has to offer this time around. Songs About Me still didn’t convert me into a diehard fan, but a few of the better moments came awfully close.

Grade: B 

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Proud To Be Here’

Trace Adkins’s artistic identity may be the most fractured in country music, raging from the depths of ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’ to the artistic heights of songs like ‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired’. This album, Trace’s second for Show Dog Universal, has its share of the raucous and insubstantial, but mainly it focuses on Trace the family man, satisfied with his life. Unlike the similarly themed recent work of Brad Paisley, Josh Turner and Darius Rucker, however, the songs on this theme are all solid and worth hearing. I have already written about the heartwarming ‘Just Fishin’, the album’s first hit single and one of the best things to hit country radio this year. This track alone was produced by Michael Knox, with the remainder of the album in the hands of Kenny Beard.

The title track (written by Chris Wallin, Aaron Barker and Ira Dean, apparently specifically for Trace) is also very good, with a reflective look at the protagonist’s life, with memories of an early career playing “for tips and compliments”, while driving a truck worth substantially less than the radio. The equilibrium of the present day is convincingly portrayed, as Trace declares:

I’m just proud to be on the right side of the dirt
I’ve been loved and I’ve been lost and I’ve been hurt
I leave the hard stuff up to God
Try not to worry about a whole lot
And I have no regrets for what it’s worth
I’ve been living on borrowed time for years
And I’m just proud to be here

The production gets a bit heavier than I would like in the second half, but this is a heartfelt vocal on an excellent song which seems to reflect Trace’s true feelings about his life.

‘Million Dollar View’, written by David Lee Murphy and George Teren is a cheerful country-rocker about satisfaction with a happy domestic life which sounds tailor-made for country radio. Much better, but potentially also commercial, is the mellow take on chilling out and escaping from the world’s pressures on ‘Days Like This’, which is one of Trace’s rare writing credits, alongside producer Kenny Beard and Casey Beathard.

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Album Review: ‘Country Strong’ soundtrack

The newest country-themed film, Country Strong is due out next January, with an early release just before Christmas in Nashville and LA. The music is much more mainstream than it was in Crazy Heart, the last such movie, and indeed two singles are currently in the lower reaches of the country charts. The tracks are all new recordings, some from actors in the film, others from a selection of country artists. A variety of producers have been used, and the music ranges from traditional to pop country.

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays a successful country singer in the movie, sings four of the songs. Her singing is perfectly competent, if a little colorless; it’s hard to say without seeing the film whether this is in character with the part she’s playing. The theme tune is one of the two radio singles. It’s a pleasant enough generic contemporary song, produced by Byron Gallimore, which makes it perfectly convincing as a hit single. Vince Gill and Patty Loveless sing backing vocals but are too far back in the mix to be heard. ‘Coming Home’ is a rather boring and awkwardly phrased pop-country ballad written by Bob DiPiero, Tom Douglas, Hillary Lindsey and Troy Verges, and drowned in strings. Gwyneth rocks out Gretchen Wilson-style in ‘Shake That Thing’ (written by Mark Irwin, Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins), and while this is yelled and tuneless, it should be pretty convincing in the context of the movie. She duets with Tim McGraw (who also has a role in the film) on the breakup-themed rock ballad ‘Me And Tennessee’, written by Paltrow’s real-life rock star husband Chris Martin, who also plays acoustic guitar on the track.

Oddly, McGraw does not get any solo cuts here; maybe Curb wouldn’t allow it. Starlet Leighton Meester (best known for her TV role in Gossip Girl) covers a Rascal Flatts song, ‘Words I Couldn’t Say’, which is less histrionic than the original, but not particularly interesting, and Leighton’s vocals sound rather processed and like a slightly more tuneful Taylor Swift. The best of the actors’ songs is the gruff-voiced Garrett Hedlund who is very effective on ‘Chances Are’, a very good song written by Nathan Chapman, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose, and produced by Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten. I understand Hedlund’s role is as a singer-songwriter, and he certainly sounds the part here on this drawled, half-rueful confession of a man’s inadequacies:

I used to give a damn
I used to try real hard but I’ll give in tonight, chances are
One foot on the narrow way and one foot on the ledge
Sifting through the devil’s lies for what the Good Book says
If I’m going anywhere
I’ll probably go too far
Probably away from you, chances are

This track was the real surprise package on this record.

Country fans will be most interested in the new tracks from established artists. We’ve already heard Sara Evans’ latest single, ‘A Little Bit Stronger’, a pleasant but rather bland positive ballad about coping with adversity, which has grown on me since it was first released as the lead single for both this album and Sara’s long-awaited next solo album (said to be entitled Stronger and possibly now due early next year). Her voice at least sounds lovely on this Tony Brown-produced and Luke Laird/Hillary Lindsey/Hillary Scott-penned number. Like Sara, Faith Hill has been silent for some time, and returns here with a forgettable AC-leaning ballad, ‘Give In To Me’, produced by Jay Joyce, which is soothing and sounds as though it will be background music for a love scene, and goes on a bit too long.

Chris Young and Patty Loveless team up on a duet written by Marv Green and Troy Olsen, and was produced by James Stroud, which must have been the original theme song. ‘Love Don’t Let Me Down’ was the original title for the movie, and it is a decent song, but not a particularly memorable one. It feels like a waste of this pairing of two of the best voices in country music. Trace Adkins reminds us he really can sing well on the reflective Natalie Hemby/Troy Jones song ‘Timing Is Everything’. Nicely produced by Kenny Beard with some lovely fiddle from Larry Franklin, this fine song about the role of chance in our lives is sensitively interpreted by Trace, and rather better than most of the material on his current album.

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Album Review: Jerrod Niemann – ‘Judge Jerrod & The Hung Jury’

Jerrod Niemann seems to have something of a split personality musically. He is a competent if not particularly distinctive singer with a nice grainy quality at times, who seems determined to compensate for that by over-ornamenting his records with gimmicks. The songs are interspersed with a set of comic sketches conceived by Jerrod with Dave Brainard (with whom he shares production credits). These share the fatal flaw of not actually being funny. Most of them weren’t even funny the first time I listened to them, with the sole exception of a pointed if unoriginal little jab at radio demographics and teenage girls not being interested in drinking songs. After listening through the number of times I needed to in order to review this, I hated them. Self-indulgent in the extreme, these make an excellent argument to download selected tracks. There is a particularly annoying piece right at the end which implies one needs to be drunk to appreciate the album. I’m not so sure that’s wrong, either.

His current big hit, ‘Lover, Lover’, which has propelled this album to good early sales figures, is a remake of a 90s pop song which is very catchy with multi tracked vocals all from Jerrod himself, even though it has very little to do with country music. There is one other cover, Robert Earl Keen’s double-entendre ‘The Buckin’ Song’, which has some fine instrumental breaks but is tiresome to anyone sober over the age of about 15. Keen is a significant Texas songwriter, but this particular song is juvenile. However, I was familiar with Jerrod’s name as a songwriter, and had hopes for this album. He has written or co-written all but two of the tracks, most often with one Richie Brown.

In fact, one of my favourite tracks was a song which was already familiar. ‘How Can I Be So Thirsty’ was one of my favourite tracks from last year’s John Anderson release, which Jerrod wrote with Anderson and Billy Joe Walker Jr. Jerrod’s version is enjoyable if lacking the vocal punch Anderson brought to this hangover complaint. Jerrod has an obviously penchant for the subject matter, as Jerrod’s only solo composition here is the far less likable ‘For Everclear’, a drunken college (I hope) student’s song rather implausibly involving getting way too close to one of his teachers (an ex-stripper). Niemann appears to be about ten years past the point at which this song would be appropriate.

‘One More Drinking Song’ is a relaxed-sounding defence of that sub-genre, which has no actual reasons included, and has an irritating repeated hey-hey-hey in the chorus, but is good-humored and bearable. It was released as a single last year, but sank without trace. ‘Down In Mexico’ is very nice sounding, but a rather generic Chesney-style song about the impossibility of being depressed on the beach.

Written with Dallas Davidson and Jamey Johnson is the jazzy loungy ‘They Should Have Named You Cocaine’ which is a pretty good song about a woman with a hold on the singer, which would have been more pleasing to listen to without the pointless artificial sound effects in the mix. ‘Bakersfield’ is a pleasant sounding ballad about nostalgia for a weekend’s romance in California. Co-written with Wayd Battle and Steve Harwell, the song isn’t bad but the production gets a bit busy towards the end. ‘I Hope You Get What You Deserve’, a generous goodbye wish to an ex, also has too much going on musically. All these songs might have sounded better with a more stripped down approach.

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Single Review: Josh Turner – ‘All Over Me’

The title of Josh Turner’s latest single suggests that it is a ballad about someone lamenting over an ex-lover who has moved on, but judging a song by its title proves to be a mistake, at least as far as this rollicking, upbeat tune is concerned. In the opening line, we are told that the weather forecast is “for a hot one”, so Turner decides that a day on the water is called for. He instructs his girlfriend to grab her shades, string bikini and Coppertone 45 and join him for a day of boating and an evening by the campfire. Though the destination is a spot down by the river underneath a sycamore tree, the imagery of sunglasses, swimsuits and sunscreen conjures up associations with the beach,. This is entirely appropriate, since this release was clearly timed to be ascending the charts by summertime.

The second single from Turner’s Haywire album was produced by Fred Rogers and written by Rhett Akins, Dallas Davidson, and Ben Hayslip. It opens with some honkytonk-style piano and drums, which set it apart from much of the bland fare that will be surrounding it on the radio airwaves. The piano and drums are quickly joined by the electric guitar with some banjo thrown into the mix much later in the song. The intent seems to be to make the record sound contemporary without sacrificing its country identity. In that respect it works, but the guitar riffs are somewhat overbearing. Instead of gradually building up in intensity, which is the usual practice, the listener is hit over the head with them near the beginning of the song.

In the long term, ‘All Over Me’ is unlikely to be remembered as a standout entry in Turner’s catalog, but in the short term, it’s a fun, lighthearted summer song that is enjoyable to listen to, despite the slightly heavy-handed production.

Grade: B

‘All Over Me’ is available for download at iTunes and Amazon.

Album Review: Gretchen Wilson – ‘I Got Your Country Right Here’

Gretchen’s first independent release following her departure from Sony sees her taking the producer’s chair herself alongside Blake Chancey (and old friend John Rich on a handful of tracks). The end result is not that far removed from her Sony records, and fans of Gretchen’s rocking side will be happy. Admirers of her way with a ballad (Wilson’s most underrated talent) will be more disappointed.

Current single ‘Work Hard, Play Harder, is set to a relentless rock beat which led to a copyright infringement claim from the rock band the Black Crowes; the case was settled out of court and led to the writers of the latter’s song being given co-writing credit here, alongside the originally credited Wilson, John Rich and Vicky McGehee. This lyrically predictable and musically dull piece about a hardworking “redneck, blue-collar” bartender/waitress is already Gretchen’s biggest hit since 2006’s ‘California Girls’, perhaps because it fits into the pigeonhole Gretchen created for herself with her signature tune ‘Redneck Woman’.

It is one of only two tracks co-written by Gretchen. Dallas Davidson helped her with the other, the rocking sociopolitical statement ‘Blue Collar Done Turn Red’ which mixes a declaration of patriotism with some social criticism of modern changes:

We used to judge a man by the shake of his hand
And his honor and his honesty
Never knocked him down when he stood his ground
Cause it wouldn’t fit the policy now
There’s bailout bills and fat cat deals

Ex-SteelDriver Chris Stapleton and Terry McBride offer a trenchant criticism of modern country radio in ‘Outlaws & Renegades’:

Well, just the other day I was driving down the road
Listening to the stuff coming out of Music Row
I didn’t recognise a single song or none of the names
But it didn’t really matter cause they all seem to sound the same

Where’s all the outlaws and renegades?
Lord knows I miss those days
When they said what they thought
And what they thought was what was on your mind

It seems to veer off course in the last verse when it moves into another political complaint (about politicians and gas prices), and then back to music with a spoken outro namechecking Cash, Jennings and Nelson.

Their era is also recalled in the rather generic Southern Rock-country of the title track, written by consummate hit maker Jeffrey Steele and Tom Hambridge. This pays cursory tribute to various 70s Outlaw and Southern Rock acts – Waylon again, of course, plus the Charlie Daniels Band, Hank Williams Jr, and on the rock side of the border, the Allman Brothers, Z.Z. Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd. It is one of those tracks that strikes one as being more fun for the musicians to make than for the listener; it isn’t that interesting on record either musically or lyrically; it’s all about the groove and feel, which probably works better live.

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Single Review: Blake Shelton – ‘All About Tonight’

So after just one single, the #1 duet with Trace Adkins, Blake Shelton’s label is abandoning support of his only-just-released ‘SixPak’ Hillbilly Bone in favor of the lead single from the second installment, due in August. The most interesting thing about this release is, sadly, not the song itself, although this is perfectly adequate and better than much of what makes playlists these days, but what it means for the marketing of Blake’s work. It really cannot be designed to sustain the sales of Hillbilly Bone, unless the label plans to return to the latter later on, switching between the two SixPaks.

Blake’s new single, a paean to partying with no thought for the consequences, is a cheerful mid-tempo number which I do at least like better than ‘Hillbilly Bone’, and I believe is written by Rhett Akins, Dallas Davidson and Ben Hayslip.

The protagonist is wilfully ignoring the prospects of a hangover, as he opens the song with the frank admission:

Don’t bother telling me what I got comin’ in the morning
I already know
I got some feel-good pills and a red Gatorade by my bed ready to go

Right now he only cares about the fun he intends to have right now, drinking and dancing until the bar shuts down, then moving on to wherever else in open.

It has a similar superficially good-humored feel masking some slightly unsavory attitudes. What could be more romantic than this drunken approach to a woman?

Hey pretty thing, I’ve been looking at you since the moment that you walked in
I’ve got some wild ass buddies that love spending money
And I see you brought a couple of friends
Just tell me your name, I don’t need your number or a date next Saturday

It is only thanks to Blake’s charm that this comes across as good-humored rather than offensive.

Blake’s voice sounds really good and the production is not overdone, so this is perfectly listenable, apart from a very slightly irritating a-ha interjected in the middle. If more substantial material was on offer alongside it, either on the radio, or on the second SixPak, it might even be a refreshingly fun change of pace. But Blake’s recent output has not offered enough variety, and this doesn’t change anything. It is disappointing when he proved earlier in his career that he was capable of better things.

Ultimately this is a song which unintentionally embodies its message – it is fun for the moment but will be forgotten tomorrow, metaphorically speaking.

Grade: B

Listen to the song.

Album Review: Josh Thompson – ‘Way Out Here’

It’s easy to categorize new Columbia artist Josh Thompson as another in the long line of outlaw wannabe who needs to tell us how country he is rather than showing it in the music. He does have more life experience to draw on than some of his competitors, having spent several years working in the real world before coming to Nashville in his 30s.

However, self-conscious statements of countriness do form the core theme for the songs on his debut album (all written or co-written by Josh), including the title track, which is a “my hometown is so country” number, complete with name-dropping mention of Johnny Cash, and is Josh’s new single. It is probably just generic enough to be a hit, as is ‘Blame It On Waylon’, co-written with former artist Rhett Akins, and a likely future single (it is one of the tracks billed rather prematurely on a sticker as a ‘hit song’). This is borne out in these lyrics:

If I got a don’t care attitude and long hair
And mean every damn word I’m singin’
I blame it on Waylon
And all them other outlaws

This seems to be more about image than substance, missing the point on a fairly fundamental level. The best part of this track comes in the instrumental break at the end of the song, where the rhythm actually is reminiscent of Waylon, rather than generic rock-country, and feels more like a genuine tribute than the main part of the song. The forgettably generic ‘You Ain’t Seen Country Yet’ references Haggard in the lyrics seemingly at random, and also features annoying “crowd” noise. ‘A Name In This Town’, written with Casey Beathard and David Lee Murphy, has more specific detail and a sense of ambivalence about the home town, which makes it the best of the songs in this vein. ‘Always Been Me’ has a hackneyed hook line, but feels the most sincere.

But there is some real substance here, notably with Josh’s sole solo composition, the reflective ‘Sinner’, my favorite track. It is encouraging to see that this is one of the songs expected to be a single, according to the label sticker. It treads a well-worn path thematically, but it is one that never really palls, as the protagonist humbly confesses his sins and inadequacies:

My heart’s been filled with hate, greed and envy
But I believe Jesus died to save souls like me

Cause I’m a sinner, that’s just what I am
Sometimes the devil can get the upper hand
But I hit my knees, close my eyes and bow my head
And thank the good Lord that when it comes to forgiveness
He’s no quitter cause I’m a sinner

If heaven had a limit
On the number of commandments you could break
Before they just cast your soul away
Well then, there’s no doubt
Where I’ll be heading when I check out

The song also benefits from Josh’s best vocal interpretation, coming across as more heartfelt than all the posturing.

The other really good song here is the waltz-time ‘I Won’t Go Crazy’, a dogged determination not to crack up over his heartbreak, co-written with Dallas Davidson. On a similar theme is the more superficial ‘Won’t Be Lonely Long’. I like the low key opening with the protagonist down in the dumps after his girl has walked out, but luckily she left at 7 pm on a Friday night, enabling him to go out and drown his sorrows (or have a good time instead). It isn’t a bad song (although any love whose loss is so easily overcome suggests it is fairly shallow-rooted), but it becomes less interesting as it bursts into the rocking chorus; I could imagine Brooks & Dunn doing this. I did like the wry spoken outro (“is it too late to get you back?”) which hints at something a little more ambivalent than the body of the song offers.

The pleasant ‘Back Around’ offers mellow recollections of teenage love, and is nice enough as far as it takes us, but lacks context – there is no indication as to how the relationship ended up, and Josh is not a sufficiently expressive singer to give us more than the lyric supplies. Josh’s debut single, the punchily fast-paced working man’s declaration of working hard to put ‘Beer On The Table’ sounds just like early Tim McGraw (or Tim’s more recent ‘It’s A Business Doing Pleasure with You’), and seems to have peaked just inside the top 20. It’s no classic, but it is quite entertaining, and one of the more memorable tracks here.

Neither Josh’s voice nor his material are particularly distinctive, but some of it is worth hearing. The current artist he reminds me of most strongly stylistically is Eric Church. I would be interested in hearing more if he could find the inspiration to tread some less well trodden paths in his songs.

Grade: C+

Way Out Here is available as a CD or digitally from amazon.

Album Review: Brooks & Dunn – ‘Cowboy Town’

For what would be their final studio album, Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn, the duo turned in a near carbon copy of their previous releases from this decade.  And in what appears to be a split-down-the-middle approach, Ronnie Dunn dominates the first half of the disc with both his lead vocals taking on the first five songs as well as them coming from his own pen.  Kix Brooks gets his chance to shine on the second half.  And while both members turn in a few solid performances to winning lyrics, they seem to have either went out of their way to separate their contributions, or were just getting sloppy at this point, and stacked Ronnie’s studio performances next to Kix’s to make the disc’s eventual song order.  I’d think it was a bit of both, but more of the latter.

For his half, Ronnie Dunn would obviously account for the singles.  Kix had become a full-time sideman by this point, having not sang lead on a Brooks & Dunn single since 1999.  The title track kicks off the disc, written by Ronnie with Paul Nelson and Larry Boone.  It’s another declaration of affection for the small town life, only this time it’s a ‘cowboy town’ though sentiments like ‘sweat of our brow’ and wearing your boots to church have been used to describe more than the ranching lifestyle lately, so the lyric is a bit generalized.   The same writing team also gave us ‘Johnny Cash Junkie (Buck Owens Freak)’, which finds Dunn singing the praises of his heroes.  The lead single, ‘Proud of the House We Built’, a mid-tempo Marv Green and Ronnie Dunn composition.  This testament to the power of lasting love sailed to a #4 peak on the Country Singles chart.

Citing Reba McEntire as the inspiration behind ‘Cowgirls Don’t Cry’, the pair performed the song on the 2008 CMA Awards show with Reba, before adding her to the single version, and crediting the song on the charts to Brooks & Dunn with Reba McEntire. Peaking at #2 on the charts, it became the second top 10 pairing of the two acts.  The concept of a tough cowgirl, set to a three-act country story song, is akin to ‘Does The Wind Still Blow In Oklahoma’, which Ronnie Dunn wrote with Reba for her 2007 Duets project.  I’ve always said I don’t think McEntire added much to the single, but the more I listen to it (thanks, radio), the more I understand and appreciate her contribution.

The rocked up ‘Put A Girl In It’ was third to radio, and it’s a tribute to the duo’s hits of the past if nothing else.  One of few outside written songs, this one was penned by one time ’90s hit-maker Rhett Atkins with Ben Hayslip and Dallas Davidson. Complete with rodeo-style yells from Ronnie, it fits in neatly with their similar-sounding hits and works just as well in concert with their mega-size inflatable cowgirls.  It went to #3 on the charts.  So ends the Ronnie Dunn-styled half of Cowboy Town, though he still has a few more vocal performances to give before the disc ends.

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Album Review: Joe Nichols – ‘Old Things New’

Old Things NewA few years ago, Joe Nichols looked to be one of the brightest young country stars, with an interestingly textured voice and a sound with genuinely country roots which still worked on country radio, thanks to some very good songs. His career seems to have gone off track since them – no doubt not helped by a spell in rehab just after the release of his last album, Real Things, two years ago. That album produced a couple of top 20 singles, but no major hits. In some ways, then, this album is something of a comeback attempt. It is mainly produced by Joe’s longterm producer Brent Rowan, with three tracks courtesy of Mark Wright.

Leadoff single ‘Believers’ performed relatively poorly, peaking at #26 on Billboard, despite an obviously sincere vocal praising those with faith in something, whether that’s a matter of politics, love or religion, with some gospel-style backing vocals on the last chorus which fortunately do not overwhelm it, and are at least in keeping with the subject matter. The song might have more impact if it concentrated on one of the three stories it touches on. The current single, the oddly spelt ‘Gimmie That Girl’ (co-written by 90s chart artist Rhett Akins with Dallas Davidson and Ben Hayslip) is a warmhearted but over-produced love song lauding the narrator’s girlfriend au naturel. It is one of three tracks produced by Mark Wright, and is as close as the album gets to pop-country (with one glaring exception, of which more later).

‘The Shape I’m In’ is another Akins/Davidson/Hayslip song produced by Wright, but is much better than the single. The protagonist is suffering both a literal hangover and a metaphorical one, the after-effects of a failed relationship, but is starting to feel better, commenting:

I’m doing alright
For the shape I’m in

The third Wright-produced track is ‘Man, Woman’, written by Shawn Camp and Marv Green, a midtempo song about a guy who realizes his heartbreak is worse than he had thought it would be, with some nice fiddle from Aubrey Haynie. Joe does have a engagingly warm and fairly distinctive voice with inflected edges which can make average material sound better than it is, and he does that on songs like this pleasant if undistinguished song. Similarly, ‘We All Go Home’, written by Jimmy Melton, Neal Coty and Michael Mobley, is quite a nice song about being reminded of one’s childhood home. It doesn’t break new ground, but is very well sung, which also features Mac McAnally on acoustic guitar,and is another possible single. Its main flaw is unnecessary and slightly overpowering gospelly backing vocals at the end.

‘This Bed’s Too Big’, written by Gary Burr and Victoria Shaw, is a tenderly sung love song about needing to stay really close to the protagonist’s loved one, but it sounds a little dull.

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