My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Dann Huff

Album Review: Daryle Singletary – ‘Ain’t It The Truth’

 

Released in February 1998, Ain’t It The Truth was Daryle’s third, and most successful album release, reaching #18 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, his only album to crack the top forty. This seems strange in that Daryle’s days of producing hit singles were over. There were three singles released from this album, only one of which cracked the top thirty country singles.

Despite the lack of singles success, this is a really fine country album with a cast of stalwart country musicians plying their trade on the album, headed by the following:

Larry Byrom – acoustic guitar, electric guitar

Joe Chemay – bass guitar

Larry Franklin – fiddle

Paul Franklin – dobro, steel guitar

Sonny Garrish – steel guitar

Steve Gibson – acoustic guitar, electric guitar, mandolin

John Hobbs – keyboards, synthesizer

Dann Huff – bass guitar, electric guitar

The album opens up with “The Note” a fine song that had been recorded by the likes of Conway Twitty, Tammy Wynette and Doug Supernaw before Daryle got around to releasing the song as a singleDaryle’s version reached #28 on the Country chart but also reached #90 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

The note was short, but lord so strong
It simply said I can’t go on
And live a lie with someone I don’t love
She couldn’t tell me face to face

Oh, but how my world was changed
By the hand that held the pen
That wrote the words that broke the heart
Of the one the only one that really loves her

My tears fell down like falling rain
But they can’t wash away the pain
How will I go to sleep without her in my arms
She never meant to break my heart

Oh,but how my world was torn apart
By the, hand that held the (f) pen
That wrote the words that broke the heart
Of the one the only one that really loves her

This is followed up by “Love or the Lack Of” by Mary Ann Kennedy and Rich Wayland, a mid-tempo ballad of what life really is about.

Jeff Crossan’s “That’s Where You’re Wrong” is a nice ballad, sung well by Daryle, and serves this album well by keeping the tempos on the album mixed. I don’t think the song had real potential as a single but it was released as the second single on the album, just cracking the top fifty.

 You said, what you had to say, would come as a surprise

You were right, honey, you were right

You told me, nothing I could do was gonna change your mind

I knew then, you’d be right again

But, when you said we were through, I knew that wasn’t true

 

[Chorus]

That’s where you’re wrong, that’s where you’re wrong

Deep down inside love lingers on, it won’t let go, it’s still too strong

That’s where you’re wrong

Daryle was never timid about tackling classic country ballads, and in Jerry Reed’s “A Thing Called Love” he has picked a good one. The song was originally released as a single by Jimmy Dean back in 1968 (still my favorite version of the song), taken to #1 (Record World) in 1972 by Johnny Cash, and covered by countless artists as an album track. Daryle gives this mid-tempo ballad a straight-ahead country treatment that does credit to the song.

Dwayne Blackwell’s rather tongue-in-cheek “I’d Live For You” would have made an excellent single:

 I won’t climb the highest mountain I won’t swim the deep blue sea

I won’t brave a raging river I’m no hero on TV

Well there are other ways to prove my love if you’re not too choosy

I’d swim the deep blue swimming pool climb the highest barroom stool

Brave the raging waters of a hot tub or Jacuzzi

 

Honey I’d live for you that’d be a lot more fun

Work and give to you vacations in the sun

No I wouldn’t die for love like the poets say they’d do

I love you so much honey I’d live for you

“A Miracle In The Making” finds Daryle as a duet partner with Kerry Singletary (now Kerry Harvick), his then- wife. Kerry’s not a bad singer, her voice somewhat reminiscent of Dolly Parton and I think this recording would have made a decent single

So I’m told it happens every day

Common as a wedding in the month of May

It’s something my heart won’t soon forget

There was nothing ordinary in that moment we met

 

We may not have seen the sea parted

We may not have tasted water turned to wine

And it may not appear all that earth shaking

Oh but I believe we could be a miracle in the making

Delbert McClinton’s “My Baby’s Lovin’ “ was the third and final single released from the album, reaching #44. Mc Clinton is a fine song-writer wih a bit of a bluesy touch to his ballads. This song is taken at a medium fast tempo and I’m surprised that it did not chart better.

The album closes with two songs on which Daryle has co-writing credit. “The Real Deal” is a good up-tempo song about the state of the narrator’s love (‘it’s the real deal’), whereas the title track is a ballad that pays homage to past country classics. I love the song, it definitely tells it like it is for Singletary and it would have made a great single. The track received some airplay here in Central Florida.

Born in this country red white and blue

From church pews to bar stools it’s always been true

From up in the mountains way back in the pines

From Crazy to Sweet Dreams to Yesterday’s Wine

 

All of my heroes from Lefty to Jones

Some are still with us and some have gone home

Oh precious are the memories of the music they made

Forever living not held by the grave

 

Forever and Always Chiseled in Stone

Like honky tonk prophets their words linger on

If you don’t believe me if you need some proof

Ask any old jukebox hey ain’t it the truth

 

Honest and simple never ashamed

Lord help us Jesus never to change

One day I’ll see Lefty when my work is through

He’ll say son you were country oh ain’t it the truth

 

Forever and Always Chiseled in Stone…

Ask any old jukebox hey ain’t it the truth      

 

I really like this album, and I play it with some regularity – I actually had been listening to the album the week before Daryl’s death. I’d call it a solid “A”

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Album Review: Kenny Rogers – ‘Water & Bridges’

In 2006 Kenny Rogers once again found himself signed to a major label — an interesting turn of events for an almost 70-year-old artist. Water & Bridges was released by Capitol and produced by Dann Huff, who is not my favorite producer but I was pleasantly surprised by the fruits of their labors. Like most Kenny Rogers albums, this is a pop-country collection, but unlike a lot of his earlier work, there are no blatant pop songs. Everything is targeted for the mainstream country audience, such as it was a little over a decade ago. The production is polished, but not tastefully restrained.

The title track, which opens the album is a somber ballad written by Tim Nichols and Craig Wiseman, about life’s regrets and the need to accept them and move on. It was too serious for consideration as a single, but a very good song nonetheless. It had previously been recorded by Collin Rate a few years earlier. “Someone Is Me” is a bit of social commentary written by Josh Kear and Joe Doyle, which urges people to take action to correct the things that are wrong with this world instead of waiting for someone else to do it. “Someone Somewhere Tonight” is a little too slickly produced for my taste, but Sarah Buxton harmonizes well with Kenny. This song would later be recorded by Pam Tillis and Kellie Pickler, who took it to #49 on the Billboard country singles chart.

The album’s best song is its lead single “I Can’t Unlove You” which took Kenny to the Top 20 one last time. Peaking at #17, this break-up ballad would have been a monster hit if it had come along during Rogers’ commercial heyday. “The Last Ten Years (Superman)” was the next single. True to its title, it refers to a number of events that were in the news during the previous decade (1996-2006), making reference to events such as the Oklahoma City bombing, the Y2K hysteria, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as name-checking several celebrities that passed away during that time, from Minnie Pearl, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash to Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and actor Christopher Reeve. It’s a very good song, but as a stripped-down, serious ballad focusing on mostly unhappy events, it didn’t perform particularly well at radio, topping out at #56. “Calling Me”, a mid tempo number featuring a Gospel-like piano and duet vocal by Don Henley fared slightly better, peaking at #53. It’s a little more pop-leaning than the rest of the album but it deserved more attention than it received. It marks Kenny Rogers’ last appearance (to date) on the Billboard country singles chart.

Kenny’s voice shows some signs of wear and tear at times, but for the most part he is in good vocal form and I enjoyed this album a lot more than I expected to. It might have benefited from a little more uptempo material, but overall this is a solid effort. It’s available for streaming and worth checking out.

Grade: B

Album Review: Faith Hill – The previously unreleased material on ‘Deep Tracks’

faith-hill-deep-tracks-cover-artWhen Faith Hill emerged after an eight-year hiatus to celebrate her twentieth wedding anniversary, announce a Soul2Soul revival tour and mentor contestants on The Voice, I figured she was banking on nostalgia to propel this new era of her career. Hill has smartly been riding on Tim McGraw’s coattails since 2006, knowing she can’t fill arenas, or Vegas casinos, to (near) capacity without him.

She also couldn’t launch a comeback with Illusion, a record Warner Bros. likely shelved after two embarrassing singles – “Come Home” and “American Heart” bombed at country radio when she desperately needed a hit to regain momentum within the industry. That was never going to happen anyways, as age and changing trends saw Carrie Underwood filling the space she once occupied.

With those statistics in mind, I was surprised when she quietly announced a new album to end the record contract she signed in 1993. But I was disheartened to learn it would exist as Deep Tracks, a project comprised of previously released album cuts the label probably wisely never saw fit to release as singles. The project is nothing more than a cash grab and an insult to Hill’s tenure with the label. I’m glad to see Hill on board, though, which is more than I can say for the umpteenth Greatest Hits projects Curb released to extend McGraw’s contract. If the marketing is to be believed, it seems she actually selected these songs herself.

Tagged onto the end of the album are three previously unreleased songs, of which I was anxious to hear. I’ve been a big fan of Hill’s since I began listening to country music in the mid-90s and always welcome anything new she chooses to give her fans. And with the infrequency of her releases, I haven’t cast Hill aside as I’ve done to Martina McBride.

The new material begins with the recently recorded “Boy,” written by Lee Brice, Rob Hatch and Lance Miller. The track is classic Hill, a love song, she freely admits reminds her of her man. While it doesn’t break any new ground, the plucky ballad deviates from her typical sonic playbook just enough to keep the feel of the song fresh.

Rob Mathes and Allen Shamblin’s “Why” follows. Hill recorded the track in 2004 for Fireflies and when it failed to make the cut, Dann Huff brought the song to Rascal Flatts, who brought it to #18 in 2009. The song explores a woman’s anguish in the wake of an unimaginable tragedy:

Oh why, that’s what I keep askin’

Was there anything I could have said or done

Oh I, had no clue you were masking a troubled soul, God only knows

What went wrong, and why you’d leave the stage in the middle of a song

 

Oh why there’s no comprehending

And who am I to try to judge or explain

Oh, but I do have one burning question

Who told you life wasn’t worth the fight

They were wrong

They lied

And now you’re gone

And we cried

‘Cause It’s not like you, to walk away in the middle of a song

The execution is extremely heavy-handed with Huff’s production and Hill’s vocal leaning far too piano-ballad pop for my tastes. The lyric itself is somewhat powerful, but it lacks the subtlety that made “Can’t Be Really Gone” and “On A Bus To St. Cloud” so magical.

In context, the final cut is arguably the saddest. Hill’s mother had long wished her daughter would record a gospel album, the only type of music she wanted to hear her sing. Such a project never came to fruition, so “Come to Jesus” is the closest Hill’s come to carrying out her mother’s wishes. Hill’s mom passed away just three weeks ago, right before the CMA Awards, but was able to hear this song in time.

Hill could obviously still make a gospel album, which could be a treat, if it sounds nothing like she does on this Mindy Smith tune. I appreciate and wholeheartedly welcome the use of fiddle throughout, but there’s just nothing delicate or interesting to hold my attention. This is not the soaring moment (think “There Will Come A Day”) I was hoping for.

With this new material Hill deserves full credit for covering her bases. “Boy” fits perfectly within her penchant for love songs while “Why” displays her knack for age-appropriate material tackling emotional subjects. “Come to Jesus” is the type of song she was teasing when gearing up for the ill-fated Illusion that supposedly nixed her country sound for ‘southern soul.’

While I didn’t find much here to be excited about (“Boy” is the best of the new stuff and worth checking out), I don’t want to suggest the ‘deep tracks’ themselves are of poor quality. If you’ve never heard her take on Lori McKenna’s stunning “If You Ask,” do yourself a favor and check it out.

I’m just upset that after twenty-three years of enormous success, Hill and her fans aren’t being treated to a more heartfelt sendoff than Deep Tracks. Everyone involved deserves so much more than this.

Grades: 

Deep Tracks: D 

Boy:’ B+ 

Why:’ C 

Come To Jesus:’ C 

Album Review: Lonestar – ‘I’m Already There’

im-already-thereThe band’s fourth album was released in June 2001. Producer Dann Huff gave the somewhat generic rock-pop-country hybrid music a commercial sheen which appealed to fans, but has already dated.

The title track, a soaring ballad which shows off Richie McDonald’s voice at its best, was another big hit for them – not only a chart topper, but selling over half a million copies. An emotional song about a loving father stuck working on the road with a pretty melody and swelling strings, the passionate vocal just saves it from sentimentality. McDonald also gets a songwriting credit, alongside Gary Baker and Frank Myers (who had a shortlived attempt at a country career as a duo in the 90s). Unfortunately it is by far the best song on the album.

Follow up ‘With Me’ broke Lonestar’s streak of five straight #1s, only just squeezing into the top 10. Unsurprising, because it really isn’t a very good, or country, song. Unsubtle, intrusive production doesn’t help a boring lyric without much of a tune.

‘Not A Day Goes By’ was back to the ballads, and was much more successful, reaching #3. A wistful song about the power of a memory, McDonald sings it beautifully. It is more AC than country, but very well done.

The final single, Mark McGuinn’s ‘Unusually Unusual’ made it to #12. Huff’s production and arrangement choices are intrusive; the song itself tries to depict a charmingly quirky girl, but falls a bit flat for me.

‘I Want To Be The One’ is quite a good song about unrequited love, written by Chuck Cannon, Lari White and Gary Nicholson, but very pop backing vocals dominate it.

Most of the other tracks have strong rock leanings, with even the ballads loud, and are not particularly interesting.

The remains their second best seller, after the ‘Amazed’-spurred monster success of Lonely Grill. However, I would only bother downloading ‘I’m Already There’, and perhaps ‘Not A Day Goes By’.

Grade: C-

Album Review: Lonestar – ‘Lonely Grill’

41mmbvjspklFor their third outing, Lonestar joined forces with a new production team consisting of Dann Huff, Sam Ramage and Bob Wright. The result was a slicker and more pop-oriented sound and the best-selling album of the band’s career with more than three million units sold in the United States alone.

The lead single was the beat-driven, lyrically light party song “Saturday Night”, with a chorus consisting of song’s title being spelled out repetitively. Such a terrible song would be a monster hit today, but in the pre-bro country era, radio wasn’t impressed and it died at #47. I had never heard it before and did not even know it had been a single.

“Saturday Night” may have underperformed, but the album’s subsequent singles all rose to #1. The best-remembered of these is “Amazed”, the band’s signature tune which was also a huge crossover hit, reaching #1 on the Hot 100 — marking the first time a country act occupied that slot since Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton scored a #1 pop hit with “Islands in the Stream” in 1983. “Smile”, “What About Now” and “Tell Her” were the remaining singles. All of them rank among Lonestar’s best loved hits, and deservedly so. These songs solidified Lonestar’s position as one of the era’s most successful — perhaps THE most successful — country bands. The upbeat “What About Now” is a nice change of pace from the ballads. “Smile” and “Tell Her” are a little more AC-leaning than I would like, but both are decent songs.

The album cuts are a little more of a mixed bag. I enjoyed the reggae-flavored Don Henry-Benmont Tench number “Don’t Let’s Talk About Lisa” and “I’ve Gotta Find You”, written by Richie McDonald with Ron Harbin and Marty Dodson. None of the other tracks are particularly memorable, with the exception of the closing number which is an acoustic remake of Lonestar’s earlier hit “Everything’s Changed”, which proves that a gifted vocalist and a good song can shine without the aid of glossy production.

Lonely Grill is a must-have for diehard Lonestar fans, but more casual listeners will probably be just as happy with their Greatest Hits package.

Grade: B

Album Review: Martina McBride – ‘Reckless’

71DYXrOa+jL._SX522_Martina McBride has been suffering from a bad case of the dulls for about a decade now. 2005’s Timeless was her last worthwhile effort and I have to admit that I pretty much wrote her off after that. The mere fact that we’ve waited a full month to review her latest album is a testimony to how low our expectations were. In fairness, though, the new album is an improvement over all of her recent output, albeit only slightly.

Reckless — a rather tame and subdued affair despite its title — is her debut release for the recently formed Nash Icon Records. The imprint, a joint venture between Big Machine and Cumulus Media, was formed to give a home to veteran artists so that they no longer had to compete with newer acts for radio airplay. The idea was to create a new radio format for these displaced veterans, and to give them the artistic freedom to record what they wanted without having to worry about chasing the latest trends. The problem is that the radio format never really took off and none of the artists on the Nash Icon roster seem to be doing anything differently from before. McBride partnered up with producers Nathan Chapman and Dann Huff, which pretty much guaranteed that nothing new,innovative or very country-sounding was going to result.

Reckless does contain a handful of decent songs, which are unfortunately ruined by heavy-handed, synthesizer-laden production. In its better moments it is somewhat reminiscent of Evolution, which remains one of my favorite McBride albums, but even those moments don’t quite reach the lofty heights of that 1997 masterpiece. The title track, which serve as the album’s first single, gets the album off to a good start. It’s a catchy number that I really like; I just wish the intrusive background vocals had been left off. “Low All Afternoon”, my favorite track, is a very nice ballad about “the other woman” who comes out on the losing side when she forces her lover to choose between her and his fiancee. It features a nice steel guitar solo, but like “Reckless”, it is marred by “oohing and ahhing” background vocals. “The Real Thing” is a better than average “laundry list” song, on which guest Buddy Miller’s harmony vocals are drowned out by the overly loud electric guitars. “We’ll Pick Up Where We Left Off” is one of the album’s quieter selections. It’s a decent song, again marred by the background vocals and annoying handclaps. The closing track “You and You Alone” is torchy and totally non-country piano ballad that nicely showcases Martina’s beautiful vocals.

The rest of the album, including “Diamond”, featuring the always boring Keith Urban, is not worth mentioning in any great detail.

Reckless exceeded my admittedly low expectations. It’s more AC than country and not particularly interesting but it’s still better than anything Martina has released in quite a long time.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Wynonna – ‘What The World Needs Now’

what the world needs nowReleased in 2003, What the World Needs Now was Wynonna’s debut for Curb/Asylum after cutting ties with Mercury. Wynonna produced most of it with Dann Huff, and there is an overarching theme of vaguely uplifting spiritual encouragement, but with little in the way of country music. She had reportedly been planning on making a straight soul record, but decided, perhaps at the promptings of her record label, to at least pay lip service to still being a country artist.

The bluesy title track with a touch of gospel is competently performed but not country at all (apart from the rustic banjo introduction, which seems to belong to another song, and is soon swallowed up by all the other instrumentation). Country radio treated it with some scepticism, and it peaked at #14, marking Wynonna’s last top 20 hit. The follow-up, ‘Heaven Help Me’, is a classy AC ballad, with a spiritual edge, and beautifully interpreted with a tender vocal. It just crept into the top 40, but is much better than its predecessor, although the orchestral arrangement is a bit too much.

A dramatic cover of the rock ballad ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’, produced by R&B producer Narada Michael Walden and featuring rock guitar hero Jeff Beck, has absolutely no country elements, and perhaps represents the original plan for the album. Unsurprisingly, it won no country airplay, but it was a top 20 hit on both Adult Contemporary and Dance charts. The dance remix is tacked on as a ‘bonus’ track; it is quite unlistenable for me, but makes the other version sound much better in comparison. The only other track surviving from these sessions, ‘Who Am I Supposed To Love’, is a decent soul ballad, but a long way from country.

The final single ‘Rescue Me’, promoted to AC and Christian radio, failed to chart anywhere, and falls somewhere between gospel and Christian Contemporary. It was written by Katie Darnell, a terminally ill 17 year old, and had previously been recorded, but not released, by John Rich.

Most vaunted at the time of the record’s release was Wy’s reunion with mother Naomi on ‘Flies On The Butter (You Can’t Go Back)’. The third single, and Wynonna’s last solo top 40 country hit, it is charmingly nostalgic. The song was written by Chuck Cannon, Allen Shamblin, and Austin Cunningham, and is the album’s most convincingly country moment. Although it is billed as a duet, Naomi really only contributes harmonies on some lines.

‘Sometimes I Feel Like Elvis’, written by Derek George, Neil Thrasher, and Bryan White, is about longing for love rather than all the meaningless material goods remaining after a failed marriage, and the lyric is interesting although the melody and arrangement are pedestrian. It leads into a strong cover of the real Elvis’s ‘Burnin’ Love’ which was previously released on the soundtracks of the animated movie Lilo And Stitch. This is highly enjoyable.

‘I Will Be’ is a powerfully sung big ballad which isn’t a bad song underneath, but is heavily over-produced and pop rather than country. ‘Your Day Will Come’ is more contemporary country, and quite well done but a touch bland. The rocker ‘(No One’s Gonna) Break Me Down’ is rather busy with everything imaginable thrown in, including some nice honky tonk piano but too much in the way of electric guitar on top.

The black gospel-influenced ‘It All Comes Down To Love’ is partly spoken and too loud for my taste, but would appeal to fans of that style of music as it is powerfully performed. ‘It’s Only Love’ is in the same vein.

‘You Are’ had appeared on the soundtrack of one of her sister Ashley’s films a few years earlier. It’s rather bland and forgettable with some odd effects in the arrangement.

I like the album better than Revelations, which didn’t do anything for me, but not as much as he first two solo efforts. Wynonna is a great singer, and sings with conviction throughout, but her musical spectrum is wider than mine. This is not a bad album by any means – in fact it is rather a good one. It just has very little for country fans. Diehard Wynonna fans will love it regardless.

Grade: B

Predictions for the 49th Annual CMA Awards

CMA Awards 2015 graphicThe leaves are changing colors, the days are shorter and the weather is getting progressively colder by the day. When autumn rolls around, so do the annual Country Music Association Awards. The telecast, airing next Wednesday (November 4) on ABC, is the 49th in the show’s history.

The blending of ‘country’ with outside influences continues with scheduled duets between John Mellencamp & Keith Urban as well as Thomas Rhett & Fall Out Boy. Sam Hunt, Kelsea Ballerini and Maddie & Tae will take the stage for the first time. In an exciting twist, Hank Williams Jr will open the show with his brand new single “Are You Ready For The Country.” His cover of the Waylon Jennings tune will be presented as a duet with Eric Church.

Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley will return to host. You can check out the nominees, here.

ec_0184crop_300cmyk_webEntertainer of the Year

Garth Brooks has had more embarrassing gaffs in the last year than any artist should have in their whole career. His tour has been massive, but he’s more than botched his comeback. By falling short, he’s made a win here feel a bit disingenuous.

Should Win: Eric Church – In his first headlining tour he struck out on his own and invited a slew of Americana based acts to open for him. He doesn’t give a damn about the establishment and refuses to be anyone other than himself. 

Will Win: Luke Bryan – There isn’t a single artist in mainstream country who’s bigger than him right now. He’s got his second consecutive win in the bag.

Male Vocalist of the Year

Dierks_Bentley-514x336The endless debate rages on. How many times does one person have to win a single award? Blake Shelton hasn’t done anything in 2015 extraordinarily special. He’s been on tour, had a few chart toppers, and continued as a coach on The Voice. Yawn. This is a battle between Dierks Bentley and Eric Church. Both equally deserve it, but sonority should win in the end.

Should Win: Dierks Bentley – He’s been topping the charts and going to battle for authentic country music going on thirteen years now. It’s time the CMA take his career to the next level.

Will Win: Eric Church  – Bentley is on his second consecutive nomination for the first time, but Church has more nominations overall in a year he didn’t even release an album. That kind of recognition should mean he’s the favorite to win his first trophy in this category.

Female Vocalist of the Year

hc-lee-ann-womack-performs-at-ridgefield-playhouse-0416-20150416Miranda Lambert’s reception at country radio has significantly cooled since this time last year and Kelsea Ballerini  is so new her debut album hasn’t even been released. This is Carrie Underwood’s award to loose, with two massive hits under her belt all the while laying low after giving birth.

Should Win: Lee Ann Womack – no other nominee has shown as much nuance in his or her vocal delivery over the past year than Womack. Her gifts are astonishing and shockingly undervalued. She should win on principle, collecting her second trophy in fifteen years.

Will Win: Kacey Musgraves – Underwood’s overall lack of nominations is a strong indicator that Musgraves will finally be the one to dethrone Lambert.

littlebigtown30-1423681046Vocal Group of the Year

 Both The Band Perry and Zac Brown Band spent 2015 selling their souls to the devil. Rascal Flatts and Lady Antebellum are just more category filler.

Should Win: Little Big Town – None of the other nominees combined had a song as impactful as “Girl Crush” this year. They deserve this.

Will Win: Little Big Town – Songs like “Girl Crush” only happens once in a career. They won on the strength of far weaker material in the past few years. They’ll win in a landslide.

0515-maddie-new-1Vocal Duo of the Year

Competition in the CMA’s dullest category doesn’t happen very often. Florida Georgia Line find themselves in the commercial verses artistic battle once again, a contest they lost to Musgraves in round one two years ago.

Should Win: Maddie & Tae – They’re a fresh force on the scene, calling out clichés and stereotypes with gusto. They could be ballsier still, but they’re on the right track.

Will Win: Florida Georgia Line – Maddie & Tae are very new, which could hurt them. That’ll leave the category open for the establishment to swoop in for a third consecutive win. (Since M&T and FGL are both on Scott Borchetta’s label group, it’ll be interesting to see whom he puts his influence behind).

New Artist of the Year

0115weberiverbendhunt1798024130_t755_he05f79007e18b2a270e2a6ff224d41a8e296151bThomas Rhett’s appeal has only grown since his first nomination last year. He isn’t quite a superstar yet, but he’s well on his hip-hop, Bruno Mars influenced way. Also on his way is Drake influenced Sam Hunt, who has risen twice as fast as Rhett. Then there’s Maddie & Tae, the duo who openly admires Dixie Chicks and has taken down Bro-Country.

Should Win: Chris Stapleton – I’m not jumping up and down, but I do recognize quality when I hear it. He’s easily the most articulate artist of this bunch.

Will Win: Sam Hunt  – There’s talk Montavello could score an Album of the Year Grammy Nomination. The industry has been bending over backwards to give him one of the flashiest launches in country music history. A win here is likely part of that plan.

815sIYbfiAL._SL1500_Album of the Year

Jason Aldean is the most overrated artist in commercial country right now, with one empty single after another. Broken Bow deserves a lot of credit for manipulating the CMA to give him a nomination. Pain Killer is Little Big Town’s weakest album to date. Traveller is the strongest overall album, by a wide margin.

Should Win: Pageant Material – Musgraves’ uneven sophomore set isn’t a tour-de-force, but it is the most interesting album of this bunch. 

Will Win: Pageant Material – Consider it an apology trophy for being the only organization that didn’t give this honor to Same Trailer Different Park. The CMA rarely acknowledges debut albums, but they see fit to celebrate their follow-up sets.

little-big-town-single-art-girl-crush-2015-03Single of the Year and Song of the Year

The battle here is between “Girl Crush” and “Take Your Time,” the two biggest singles of the past year. The only distinction between the two is that “Girl Crush” made waves for its content. Is it about lesbians? Are Little Big Town pushing a gay agenda? In that context, I see a very real and significant split.

(As an aside: overlooking “Something In The Water” is a major snub. Had Underwood’s single been nominated, I doubt we’d even be discussing even a remote chance of Hunt walking away a winner).

Will Win (Single): “Take Your Time” – The CMA have a history of awarding one-off singles such as “Cruise,” “Hurt,” “Man of Constant Sorrow,” “Achy Breaky Heart” and “Elvira,” which are flavors of the moment. The flavor right now is Hunt.

Will Win (Song): “Girl Crush”  – Ten years after Faith Hill brought her national attention, Lori McKenna will walk away with her first CMA Award for co-writing a song she thought no one would ever record.

Musical Event of the Year

Willie_Nelson_&_Merle_Haggard_-_Django_and_JimmieA full-length album goes up against four typical mainstream duets. It’s the second straight year the CMA has opted to nominate an LP, and like Bakersfield last year, the project deserves to compete in the Album of the Year category instead.

Should Win: Django and Jimmie – It’s been thirty-two years since Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard have come together for a collaborative effort. I wish Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell had been nominated instead, but it’s Nelson and Haggard.

Will Win: “Lonely Tonight” – Blake Shelton will win as a consolation prize when he hopefully looses his sixth straight Male Vocalist of the Year trophy. Then again, this is a duet with Ashley Monroe. Much like the country music community as a whole, the CMA have been criminally cool towards her. Hopefully Shelton can pull the pair over the top.

Music Video of the Year

carrie-underwood-something-in-the-waterIt should be a celebration that all five nominees are videos by female artists. But the CMA has regulated this as an off camera award, which dampens the progressiveness of the category this year. It’s always interesting to see who wins since this is often used as a consolation prize when the CMA overlooks artists in other categories.

Should Win: Something In The Water – Underwood is often overlooked, especially since her Female Vocalist run ended in 2009. She deserves this.

Will Win: “Something In The Water” was criminally overlooked for both Single and Song of the Year. It’s exclusion in those races only helps Underwood here. This is a consolation prize if there ever was one.

1885141596Musician Event of the Year

Mac McAnally has been nominated in this category for the past eight years. He’s won for the past seven years straight. He’s all but a lock to take it again.

Should Win: Dann Huff – It won’t count until next year, but he did a bang up job producing Maddie & Tae’s Start Here. I’d like to see him take this home.

Will Win: Mac McAnally – Betting against the status quo? Not this year.

Album Review: Maddie & Tae – ‘Start Here’

starte hereMaddie Marlow and Tae Dye are a breath of fresh air in mainstream country music. The girls co-wrote every song on the album, most frequently with mentor Aaron Scherz. They consitently display both melodic and lyrical gifts, producing songs which usually have catchy and memorable tunes and intelligent, often amusing, lyrics. Their producers Dann Huff applies an unaccustomed light hand to the 90s-style arrangements.

I still like the witty take down of misogyny in bro-country, ‘Girl In A Country Song’ which was the duo’s breakthrough hit and was one of my favorite singles last year. Their current hit ‘Fly’ is a lovely inspirational ballad about striving to succeed, even at the risk of falling:

Cause you can learn to fly
On the way down

These two tracks also appeared on a test-the-waters EP earlier this year. Also from that EP is ‘Sierra’, a tart critique of a beautiful but bitchy rival set to a very pretty melody:

I wish I had something nice to say
About that girl and her million-dollar face
But beauty only gets you so far
A heart of pure gold is something very rare
And the only one she has
Is on that necklace that she wears
Acts like she’s some kind of movie star

My least favourite from the EP is the insistent poppy ‘Your Side Of Town’, which lacked their usual melodic adeptness, but it has energy in spades and shows off their attitude seeing off an ex.

Turning to the new material
The set opens with the thematically appropriate ‘Waitin’ On A Plane’, an upbeat tune about being on the verge of starting a new life in a new town – although in times past no aspiring country singer would have been planning on first class travel.

The wistful ‘Smoke’ is addressed to an elusive lover, who she believes is reluctant to commit due to past heartbreak. The smoke simile is nicely realised throughout the song.

It’s back to the comic sass of their debut with ‘Shut Up And Fish’, as the protagonist fends off a fishing companion with an ulterior motive for the trip, and seriously wandering hands:

I could tell pretty fast he had more than just bass on his mind

Oh, I was fishin’
He was wishin’ we were kissin’
I was gettin’ madder than a hornet in an old coke can
Gettin’ closer, slidin’ over
Crowdin’ up my casting shoulder
Reachin’ out trying to hold my reelin’ hand
Sayin’ I’m pretty
Sayin’ he’s in love
And how it don’t get any better than this

I said yeah it could
Boy, if you would
Shut up and fish
Shut up and fish

For a little while he calmed down and let up
But then he went right back to pushing his luck
and that line of mine wasn’t all I wanted to throw in

She does indeed end up pushing him in the lake.

‘Right Here, Right Now’ and ‘No Place Like You’ are quite pleasant pop-country love songs, which just pale set against the more interesting songs.

Much better is ‘After The Storm Blows Through’, which has a lovely melody with Celtic touches, and a moving lyric about supporting a friend through difficulties. They close up with the thoughtful take on leaving home, ‘The Downside Of Growing Up’. The deluxe edition also has acoustic versions of the last two songs.

The overall feel of the album is charming. They aren’t had core traditional country, but their brand of pop-country has a lot more country elements than most of their peers, and a lot more substance. This is an excellent debut from a very promising new act, who seem to have the increasingly rare knack of combining broad commercial appeal with real artistic merit.

Grade: A

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: Collin Raye – ‘Tracks’

tracksCollin Raye was one of country music’s hottest male singers during the 1990s but by the end of the decade his career had begun to lose momentum. Though 1998’s The Walls Came Down managed to produce three Top 10 singles, it sold only about half the number of copies of his previous albums, and was his first album not to earn platinum certification. In an effort to remain commercially viable, he changed musical directions and released Tracks, an album that is as uninspired as its title. Dann Huff was his new co-producer — which is never a good sign — and the album that resulted found Collin moving even further away from his country roots and further into R&B and mainstream pop.

The opening track, “She’s All That” is a retread of 1994’s “My Kind of Girl” and could just as easily been titled “Been There, Done That”. Radio programmers were unimpressed; when the track was released as the album’s third single, it topped out at #43. The second track “I Want To Be There” is a tedious R&B flavored number and the third track “Completely”, while slightly more country-sounding, is equally tiresome.

“Couldn’t Last A Moment” isn’t one of my favorite Collin Raye songs, but it’s one of the better songs in this collection. The spoken intro reminds me of one of Conway Twitty’s early 80s efforts. Released as a single in advance of the album, “Couldn’t Last A Moment” brought Raye into the Top 10 one final time, landing at #3. The uptempo and more country-sounding “A Long Way To Go” is a breath of fresh air and is by far the album’s best track.

Two of the album’s tracks — “Harder Cards” and “Water and Bridges” were co-produced by Paul Worley, and both were later covered by Kenny Rogers. “Harder Cards” is told from the point of view of a policeman who is dealing with the dregs of humanity, while “Water and Bridges” is the story of an unplanned pregnancy that ends with an abortion and the regret that lingers long afterward.

Aside from “The Gift”, which was a previously unreleased track on Collin’s 1997 hits compilation, none of his previous albums contained any duets. “Loving This Way”, a duet with soap star Bobbie Eakes, is a mainstream pop ballad. It’s a bit overproduced and not very country, but it’s not a bad song. It was more suited to adult contemporary radio, though it did not make the AC charts at all. It stalled at #50 on the country charts.

The album’s closing number “She’s Gonna Fly” is about an Alzheimer’s patient whose caregiver questions the Almighty’s motives. It’s meant to be inspirational but the it’s too saccharine for my taste.

Tracks did little to change Collin Raye’s declining commercial fortunes. It failed to earn gold status and marked the beginning of the end of his dominance on the singles charts. It is one of his poorer efforts and arguably his worst album. It is not essential listening but used copies are available very cheaply, so those who want to hear it can do so affordably.

Grade: C

2012 CMA Awards: our predictions

The 46th annual Country Music Association annual awards ceremony will take place on November 1, 2012 at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. The show will air live on ABC television again this year and is presented by the pairing of Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, who will take over hosting duties for the fifth consecutive year. Eric Church and his massive hit “Springsteen” lead the list of nominees, with Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton close behind him.

On awards night, look for a musical tribute to Willie Nelson and The Band Perry to debut the first taste of their Rick Rubin produced sophomore album. There’s also talk that Female Vocalist nominee Kelly Clarkson will debut “Don’t Rush” on the telecast, a duet with Vince Gill featured from her Greatest Hits, Chapter One album in stores Nov. 19. Also look forward to a duet from Tim McGraw and Faith Hill (which I’ve heard is during the Nelson tribute), and solo performances from each.

Entertainer of the Year

Jason Aldean
Kenny Chesney
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton
Taylor Swift – Jonathan Pappalardo, J.R. Journey

The usual solid yet unspectacular group. Carrie Underwood fans are likely fuming at yet another snub, while everyone else will bark at the inclusion of Swift, a two-time winner and the incumbent, for her increasing lack of country credibility. But Aldean is the nominee to watch, as his recent stadium tour announcement will likely endear him to voters in the years to come.

Jonathan Pappalardo: I’ll bet on the safest choice this time around and say Taylor Swift is going to win. Chesney may have had the biggest tour, and Aldean is on fire right now, but Swift has the lock on this category.

J.R. Journey: Taylor Swift now not only represents about one-fourth of the total United States GDP, she also hawks makeup, perfume, and shoes on the side. And she just had the #1 song in 12 countries. I say Swift is most likely to succeed on CMA night.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Kelly Clarkson
Miranda Lambert – Jonathan Pappalardo
Martina McBride
Taylor Swift – J.R. Journey
Carrie Underwood

Kelly Clarkson, really? She did score a #21 hit with the country version of “Mr. Know It All” so her nomination is somewhat, albeit very marginally, justified. She has yet to fully embrace a career in country music. McBride is a snoozer scoring her 14th consecutive nomination and 15th overall as her career takes a downward spiral. See, this is what happens when all the great female artists of late (Kimberly Perry, Jennifer Nettles, Shawna Thompson) are members of duos and groups.

Jonathan Pappalardo: While I’d love to see this award go to Clarkson (to tick off the industry if nothing else), she’s a pop singer who’s done a bang up job covering country songs in concert. That’s about it. Miranda Lambert, meanwhile, is the biggest star in country music right now that actually looks and sounds country. And her intuition to form the Pistol Annies proves she’s not afraid to take creative risks. Its her award to lose, and I don’t foresee that happening.

J.R. Journey: Taylor Swift is the likely winner here for pretty much the same reasons she’ll win Entertainer of the year. Miranda Lambert’s new solo music is way below her usual standards this year and I think Carrie Underwood’s dog already had its day in this category, so I don’t see voters leaning toward either of them. 

Male Vocalist of the Year

Jason Aldean
Luke Bryan
Eric Church
Blake Shelton – Jonathan Pappalardo, J.R. Journey
Keith Urban

Another somewhat standard list until you take into account Urban is here in place of red-hot Dierks Bentley. Bentley’s exclusion, which comes on the heels of three back-to-back #1 hits is shocking. Urban should be joining Brad Paisley and been made to sit this one out this year.

Jonathan Pappalardo:  There’s seemingly no stopping Blake Shelton right now despite one mediocre single after another. He’s the biggest star here next to Jason Aldean and the all around better vocalist. He’ll sail to his third straight win no problem.

J.R. Journey: Blake Shelton is coming off two consecutive wins here and his visibility remains higher than Aldean’s, the next closest competitor. Long shots for the win Luke Bryan and Eric Church are still newcomers and first time nominees leaving Keith Urban the longest shot “veteran” slot. For my money, Shelton will repeat a third time here.

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Album Review: Edens Edge – ‘Edens Edge’

New Big Machine trio Edens Edge is built around the distinctive piercing twangy lead vocals of Hannah Blaylock. The production, helmed by Mark Bright and Dann Huff, is unfortunately cluttered with too much going on most of the time. The talented band members play a variety of instruments (Cherrill Green comes from a bluegrass background, and plays mandolin and banjo, while Dean Berners plays dobro and guitar), and a more natural, less processed, sound woul allow them to shine more.

The band’s debut single ‘Amen’ (a top 20 hit last year) is a pretty good song gloating over the departure of a romantic rival, and is one of the few tracks to successfully balance country radio’s demands of a glossy finish with an attractive organic yet contemporary country feel. It is one of three songs here co-written by Hannah, this one with Skip Black, Catt Gravitt and Gerald O’Brien. Danny Myrick teamed up with Blaylock and Gravitt for ‘Last Supper’, a rather intense pop country ballad about an impending breakup. It’s heavily over-produced, but is a good song underneath, with some interesting lyrical choices. I quite liked the quirky ‘Who Am I Drinking Tonight’, which was written by Hannah with Laura Veltz, comparing the guys she meets and their choice of drinks to country stars, but I would have preferred a significantly scaled-back production

‘Skinny Dippin’ (not the Whitney Duncan song but a new one written by Veltz, band member Dean Berners, and Vince Melamed) is a self-conscious attempt at playful charm which more or less comes off. Remniscent of the Pistol Annies, the first half of the song is quite catchy with a bright acoustic arrangement, but Huff and Bright can’t resist the temptation of throwing in weird processing on the backing vocals and too much sound in general, and it all derails. This trio also contributed ‘Cherry Pie’, a very cluttered sounding number looking back at a happy childhood, which would be a lot better with half the amount of instrumentation or less. Cherry Pie, incidentally, is the name of Hannah’s real life childhood pony. As it is largely unlistenable after the low-key and pretty first verse and the sweet lyrics and genuine emotion are crushed by an unnecessary wall of sound.

Veltz wrote the album’s best track, the pain-filled ‘Liar’, with Andy Stochansky. The narrator is hiding her pain as the man she loves, and who thinks of her as just a friend, is set to marry another girl. She pretends to be happy for him, but admits in the song she is “the biggest liar in the world”. Production here is for once restrained enough to let the song breathe. The narrator’s heartbreak is very convincingly conveyed by Blaylock’s vulnerable vocal, with the unfortunate girl even having to help choose and try on the engagement ring.

A close second is ‘Swingin’ Door’ (written by Terry Clayton, Brett James and underrated singer-songwriter Ashley Monroe), which was cut by the Australian Catherine Britt on her outstanding RCA album a few years back. Hannah’s version sounds a little less fragile, as she invests a lot of determination rejecting the lover trying to use her. It’s an excellent song, and a thoroughly enjoyable track.

‘Too Good To Be True’, written by pop-country stalwarts Hillary Lindsey, Gordie Sampson and Troy Verges, sounds just like a Carrie Underwood track, with belted-out, almost shouted, vocals, frequent nonsensical syllables, lots of attitude but not much melody, and no subtlety. Naturally it’s the current single. ‘Feels So Real’, another Lindsey song (written with Angelo and Tia Sillers), is more interesting, but very poppy sounding and oversung.

The acappella ‘For Christ Alone’ (written by the band’s mentor Steve Smith, who brought them together in their home state of Arkansas) is one of the few occasions where the vocals of Hannah Blaylock’s bandmates Dean Berner and Cherrill Green are really distinct as they don’t have to fight against the overwhelming backing, and although it sounds like a hymn with choral styled harmonies rather than a country song, it really shows how ill-served the group has been by their producers.

Edens Edge is a group with a lot of potential, but they have compromised too much to fit into country radio for this album to fulfil it for me.

Grade: B

2011 CMA award predictions

The Country Music Association annual awards ceremony will take place on November 9th, 2011, presented by the pairing of Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, who have become something of a fixture in that role in the past few years. Last year Brad also triumphed by winning the Entertainer of the Year title for the first time. The show will feature performances from many of the nominees, plus American Idol Scotty McCreery and pop star Lionel Richie, who has been recording duets with country stars for release next spring.

Here are our thoughts about who will walk away smiling next Wednesday night, category by category:

Entertainer of the Year

Jason Aldean
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton: Jonathan Pappalardo, Occasional Hope, Razor X, J.R. Journey
Taylor Swift
Keith Urban

Occasional Hope: I feel this is a genuinely open category this year. Brad Paisley is the reigning Entertainer, having finally won the long overdue title last year, and is clearly popular with voters. However, I think he has passed his peak both commercially and (more importantly) artistically, with relatively disappointing sales figures for recent albums, although he continues to do well at radio with a #2 and two #1 hits over the period. He is also one of the top earners in country music, alongside Taylor Swift. Teen favorite Swift won the title controversially in 2009, then was largely ignored last year, and is back again with a brace of nominations. She undoubtedly has the biggest international and pop profile of all the nominees, as well as the biggest sales, with over three million copies sold so far of Speak Now in the U.S. and platinum or multi-platinum status in a number of other countries, some (like the Philippines) with little exposure to country music. She has also toured successfully overseas this year. Of course, that makes her an international pop star as much or more than a country star who has gotten lucky with pop airplay; how far should that sway the CMA?

I have a sneaking suspicion that Jason Aldean could be a big winner this year overall. He’s had a good year, with one of the best-selling albums (over 1.5 million sales), and his brand of country-rock, while far heavier on the rock than the country, has carved out a niche in the market for himself. I’m not a fan myself, but he is undeniably one of the big names in country music at the moment, with two #1 and a #2 hit single from this album, and a crossover AC hit thanks to his duet with Kelly Clarkson. But my gut feeling is that it’s a bit soon to win the top award this year. Blake Shelton, despite his title as reigning Male Vocalist, is the other surprise nominee, and he could just swing it based on the impact he has had as an ambassador for the genre, with his TV role on The Voice. He has also had two #1 singles with ‘Who Are You When I’m Not Looking’ and ‘Honey Bee’, and the frankly baffling inclusion of his poorly selling EP among the Album nominees signals that the Association voters are keen to reward him.

Razor X: It’s hard for me to get very excited about any of these nominees, but Shelton seems to be on a hot streak so I think he will win. And if I have to root for one of these nominees, I’d probably go with him.

Jonathan: This is a case of the veterans versus the newcomers. Urban hasn’t won since 2005 and I don’t expect that drought to end this year. Paisley (who should win) and Swift are strong contenders, but their steady success isn’t enough to help them prevail. It comes down to Shelton versus Aldean, and in a battle between the country rocker and the TV star, Shelton walks away with his first Entertainer trophy.

J.R. Journey: I think Paisley and Urban are just slot-fillers at this point in their careers, so they’re out. Jason Aldean had a strong year and so did Taylor Swift, but neither exploded into the mainstream – Taylor’s been there for several years now – like Blake Shelton, with a major television and soundtrack push. He’s on a major upswing, and that ought to sway voters enough to give him the edge.

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CMA award nominees, 2010: setting the stage

It’s awards time again, with this year’s CMA awards being announced next week. We’ll share our predictions on Monday, but meanwhile here’s a reminder of who is nominated and why. The nominations this year have a few new faces showing up in unexpected places. The big questions of this year’s show will be whether Miranda Lambert will dominate the night as she has the nominations list. Whatever happens, outraged fans are likely to complain that their favorite has been “snubbed”, or someone else has won undeservedly.

Entertainer of the Year
Lady Antebellum
Miranda Lambert
Brad Paisley
Keith Urban
Zac Brown Band

Last year’s controversial winner Taylor Swift was snubbed altogether in this category this year – perhaps partly because of the backlash after her clean sweep last time, but also because she released little during the nomination period. Instead, the category sees no less than three first-time nominees: critical flavor of the month Miranda Lambert (who leads nominations overall), and the two hottest bands of recent years, Lady Antebellum and the Zac Brown Band, who are among the few current artists to be selling in the millions. They join Keith Urban (the only former winner to be in the running this time) and our own current Spotlight Artist Brad Paisley, who has been nominated every year since 2005 but is so far without the trophy.

Male Vocalist
Dierks Bentley
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton
George Strait
Keith Urban

Brad Paisley has won this award for the past three years, and Keith Urban took it home for the three years prior to that. Both men are still scoring regular #1 hit singles and selling well, but is it time for another change at the top? There are two first-time nominees, Dierks Bentley, rewarded by the CMA for his artistic ambition even though country radio has been reluctant to embrace the singles from his bluegrass-inspired Up On The Ridge, and Blake Shelton, who is becoming a regular fixture at the top of the charts. The evergreen George Strait, meanwhile, seems to be nominated virtually every year, but hasn’t won since 1998 (his third year in a row – he also has a couple of trophies from the 80s).

Female Vocalist
Miranda Lambert
Martina McBride
Reba McEntire
Taylor Swift
Carrie Underwood

Last year’s winner Taylor Swift gets another nod, recognizing her commercial preeminence despite a series of woeful live TV performances – including at last year’s CMA awards show. She faces pop-country queen Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert, who had a massive breakthrough this year, and is the only one of these ladies to be nominated in the Entertainer category. Reba McEntire, the oldest nominee, is still contending on the charts, but the fifth nominee, Martina McBride, seems to be merely filling out the category, as she has not had a good year commercially or critically.

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Album Review: LeAnn Rimes – ‘This Woman’

"This Woman"Around the same time as Faith Hill released “Mississippi Girl”, her big return to country, LeAnn Rimes released her first single from This Woman called “Nothin’ ‘Bout Love Makes Sense”. It too, was supposed to be Rimes’ big return to country music after the pop records I Need You and Twisted Angel. It succeeded in doing so; the single peaked at #5 on the country charts, #1 on the Canadian country charts, and #52 on the U.S.  Hot 100. This became her highest ranking single on the country charts since 1998, but this was soon to be beat by the two follow-ups “Probably Wouldn’t Be This Way” (#3), and “Something’s Gotta Give” (#2). The album has since been certified gold, selling about 750.000 copies.

The set opens  “I Want To With You”, a simple tune about the narrator’s desire to do the important things in life together with her partner.LeAnn is showing off her lower register on this song, which, along with Dann Huff’s soulful production, makes the song sound not only sexy, but also a little bit intimidating, especially as she sings these lines;

Life is a lot like a battle
When love is under attack
Once I was easily rattled
I’d run just like that
I wouldn’t fight back

This combination works very, very well, and definitely makes it stand out among similarly themed songs. A far too busy production slams us in the face as the album’s second track “You Take Me Home” opens (after all, it IS a Dann Huff record). A song that’s supposed to be about love, and how love feels like it takes you home to the simpler times and simpler things, is definitely damaged by such a busy production. LeAnn’s vocal is indeed very fine, but it could be a bit less bombastic. The lyrics are rather well-written though, and LeAnn, while she is a little bombastic, conveys the message of being homesick well, making the song quite listenable, despite the production dragging it down. It’s a shame though, that it’s only listenable, because I’m very convinced that had she recorded this with another producer (Garth Fundis, or even Mutt Lange, for instance), it could be a killer track.

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Album Review: LeAnn Rimes – ‘Family’

FamilyAt the age of 26, LeAnn Rimes is already somewhat of a veteran in the business. Her first album Blue was released in 1996, when she was only thirteen years old. Her debut single, the traditional “Blue”, a song written for Patsy Cline, showed an incredibly talented 13 year old singing like a forty-something woman who had lived a life of heartbreak and sorrow. The rest of the album did not quite live up to the promise of the debut single however.

Two mediocre albums followed, until 1998’s Sittin’ On Top Of The World came along and showed us an aspiring pop star, with good material to match. 1999’s LeAnn Rimes returned her to a more traditional sound, with no less than five Patsy Cline covers. 2001 gave us I Need You, a mix of ho-hum dance pop and ballads. 2002 gave us the abysmal Twisted Angel, which made me almost lose faith in LeAnn. She returned with one of the very best Christmas albums ever in 2004 however, and to say my faith was restored is to put it mildly. She followed it up with an even better album, the masterpiece that was This Woman. She made a europop excursion with 2006’s Whatever We Wanna, an excellent pop album. This short summary of her career shows that she has been a busy woman, which in her early years affected the quality of her music. Her last four albums however, including this one, were pumped out in four years, one per year, and yet they are still of remarkable quality.

As you can see, LeAnn has experimented with many kinds of music, everything from traditional country to pop; even rock. Family features a bit of everything, which is one of it’s many strengths. It is also the very first album that LeAnn has written or co-written all of the songs for, which shows. LeAnn connects with the songs in a way she hasn’t ever done before. Her voice has also never sounded any better than it does on this album, the album-closer “What I Cannot Change” being the absolute high point for her voice.

Family opens with the title track, a track more rock than it is country. LeAnn sings about the strong bond that a family shares, and she sings it with a passion few artists can match. The lead off single “Nothin’ Better To Do” oozes sex and soul, and it is truly one of the most infectious country-pop singles of later years. She tones it down a notch on “Fight”, one of the more traditional sounding songs on the album, and gives a vocal performance to die for. “Good Friend And A Glass Of Wine” and “Something I Can Feel” follows, “Good Friend….” being the strongest of the two. “Something I Can Feel” is slightly overproduced, but not enough to really drag down the song. A romantic ballad follows, “I Want You With Me”, one of the strongest cuts on the album. LeAnn really connects with the lyrics, and you really feel the words she is singing. “Nothing Wrong” is a steamy duet with Marc Broussard, and his scratchy vocals compliments LeAnn’s perfectly. Hot.

Track #9, “Pretty Things” is my absolute favorite from the album. LeAnn sings about vanity and materialism, and her interpretation of the song raises it above the “ordinary” love ballad it would have been without her masterful vocals to guide it. She rocks it out again on “Upper Hand”, and takes a swing into traditional country again with the superb, retro “One Day Too Long”. The album closer “What I Cannot Change” features one of the finest vocal performances I have ever heard from anyone. The production of the song is a little odd to me, but LeAnn’s soft, almost whispering of the chorus is enough to make even the strongest man emotional.

I will learn to let go what I cannot change
I will learn to forgive what I cannot change
I will learn to love what I cannot change
But I will change, yeah I will change
Whatever I, whenever I can

The album also has two bonus tracks, duets with Reba McEntire and Bon Jovi. They can be found on Reba Duets and Lost Highway respectively.

This is truly one of the best albums in any genre in the 2000’s.

A+

Listen to ‘Pretty Things’.