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Album Review: Dierks Bentley – ‘Black’

dierks-bentley-black-album-coverDierks Bentley describes his eighth album Black as “a relationship album that covers the ups and downs of the journey and ends with some self-realization and evolvement.” The title comes from his wife’s maiden name, although the themes of the record are universal and not specifically about her.

I’ve already said my piece about the album’s vapid first single, the out-of-character “Somewhere On A Beach.” The song is awful, but the video’s farcical nature has eased my fears that this song is supposed to be taken seriously.

Bentley has followed with a unique marketing strategy that successfully sets the mood for the album. He’s released four black-and-white music videos connected by the story of a woman juggling two lovers. The visualization gives context to Black while simultaneously giving fans a taste of the record. He began with “I’ll Be The Moon,” an excellent duet with newcomer Maren Morris. Bentley has always championed up-and-coming female artists, and this is a perfect showcase for her contemporary stylings that allows her (and him) to show maturity.

The bombastic “What The Hell Did I Say,” came next. The rockish uptempo number, about a 3 a.m. drunk dial doesn’t fall into familiar troupes, which is a refreshing change of pace. “Pick Up” is even more modern, and unlike its predecessor, it’s nothing more than what you’d expect – a guy with a pickup truck and a phone desperate for time with his girl.

The final number in the video series is the title track, which Bentley chose to open the album and set the mood for the project as a whole. It’s a very sexy slice of pop/rock that has no resemblance to country music whatsoever. I will give slight credit to Bentley, who is wonderfully committed to helping advance the ambiance of the song through his vocal.

“Freedom” is atmospheric rock, an anthem for a life free of constrictions. “Roses and Time Machine,” with its hip-hop beat and deliberate phrasing, is likely to be the album’s most alienating number. Bentley doesn’t do himself any favors with the immature lyric or grating melody. The sonic nature of “Mardi Gras” is even worse, with Trombone Shorty’s contributions making the song damn near unlistenable. He mostly gets the lyric right on “All The Way To Me,” but fails to keep the arrangement tastefully uncluttered.

Bentley does succeed lyrically with the blistering “Light It Up,” a track that could easily be written for his wife. It’s a number about his woman’s ability to turn around his attitude with the little things in life. “Why Do I Feel” is the sense of balance on Black, a modern ballad that retains a bit the old-school Bentley we’ve come to admire all these years. I hate the repetition of the word ‘girl’ throughout, the song doesn’t need it at all, but in 2016 it’s all but unfortunately required.

“Different for Girls,” on the surface, isn’t a great song. But once it gets to the chorus, I like how Bentley turns convention on its head and makes it a breakup song detailing the differences in how a woman responds to the situation opposed to a guy. Elle King, of “Exs and O’s” fame provides a somewhat weak vocal that lacks the punch she brings to her own work.

The smartest aspect of Bentley’s video series is how it positions him as the narrator of Black and not the guy in these songs. In that sense he hasn’t lost his integrity as an artist. That doesn’t excuse the fact that Black is the most polarizing album he’s released to date, with hardly any reminders of his bluegrass-loving traditionalist side coming through. He’s forged ahead with a modern country album aimed at taking his career to the next level. Black is a serious push to get Bentley in awards contention, especially in Male Vocalist races. I cannot blame the strategy, nor do I blame him for it.

I do actively hate how the album is littered with references to modern technology, including cell phones and text messages. I understand it’s all a part of our modern world but I’m just not ready to have it bleed into my music in this heavy an extent. Black is just a bit too modern for my tastes but I’m also not embarrassed by it either. There’s too much by way of sex, but I didn’t feel it was handled in a grotesque manner. Bentley is still the adult in a world of overgrown boys.

Grade: B-

Week ending 5/21/16: #1 singles this week in country music history

Academy+Country+Music+Awards+Artist+Decade+6KPcHTfeigAl1956 (Sales): Heartbreak Hotel/I Was The One — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1956 (Jukebox): Heartbreak Hotel/I Was The One — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1956 (Disc Jockeys): Heartbreak Hotel — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1966: Distant Drums — Jim Reeves (RCA)

1976: What Goes On When the Sun Goes Down — Ronnie Milsap (RCA)

1986: Ain’t Misbehavin’ — Hank Williams, Jr. (Warner Bros./Curb)

1996: My Maria — Brooks & Dunn (Arista)

2006: Wherever You Are — Jack Ingram (Big Machine)

2016: H.O.L.Y. — Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

2016 (Airplay): Somewhere on a Beach — Dierks Bentley (Capitol)

Week ending 5/14/16: #1 singles this week in country music history

Charley-Pride_1981-21956 (Sales): Heartbreak Hotel/I Was The One — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1956 (Jukebox): Heartbreak Hotel/I Was The One — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1956 (Disc Jockeys): Heartbreak Hotel — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1966: I Want To Go With You — Eddy Arnold (RCA)

1976: My Eyes Can Only See as Far as You — Charley Pride (RCA)

1986: Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days) — The Judds (RCA/Curb)

1996: You Win My Love — Shania Twain (Mercury)

2006: Who Says You Can’t Go Home — Bon Jovi with Jennifer Nettles (Island)

2016: Somewhere on a Beach — Dierks Bentley (Capitol)

2016 (Airplay): Think of You — Chris Young featuring Cassadee Pope (RCA)

Week ending 5/7/16: #1 singles this week in country music history

mickey-gilley-041956 (Sales): Heartbreak Hotel/I Was The One — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1956 (Jukebox): Heartbreak Hotel/I Was The One — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1956 (Disc Jockeys): Heartbreak Hotel — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1966: I Want To Go With You — Eddy Arnold (RCA)

1976: Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time — Mickey Gilley (Playboy)

1986: Once in a Blue Moon — Earl Thomas Conley (RCA)

1996: You Win My Love — Shania Twain (Mercury)

2006: Who Says You Can’t Go Home — Bon Jovi with Jennifer Nettles (Island)

2016: Somewhere on a Beach — Dierks Bentley (Capitol)

2016 (Airplay): Confession — Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

Week ending 4/30/16: #1 singles this week in country music history

tumblr_m1utdqRcbD1qzn0deo1_5001956 (Sales): Heartbreak Hotel/I Was The One — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1956 (Jukebox): Heartbreak Hotel/I Was The One — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1956 (Disc Jockeys): Heartbreak Hotel — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1966: I Want To Go With You — Eddy Arnold (RCA)

1976: Together Again — Emmylou Harris (Reprise)

1986: Now and Forever (You and Me) — Anne Murray (Capitol)

1996: No News — Lonestar (BNA)

2006: What Hurts the Most — Rascal Flatts (Lyric Street)

2016: Somewhere on a Beach — Dierks Bentley (Capitol)

2016 (Airplay): I Like the Sound of That — Rascal Flatts (Big Machine)

Single Review: Dierks Bentley – ‘Somewhere On A Beach’

dierks-bentley-somewhere-on-a-beach-single-coverWe’ve been down this road before. Dierks Bentley releases something intelligent to country radio and it fizzles. He responds with a horrid piece of tripe just ripe enough to please the powers that be without completely alienating the fans who still consider him one of the last remaining good guys in modern country music. So why does the road look and feel so different this time?

It’s because “Somewhere On A Beach” is Bentley’s most shameless attempt yet at fitting in with the cool crowd. He’s been the sideways, drunk on a plane and bat shit crazy. But he’s never gone as far as to literally have sex in the sand. We’ve come a long way from the days when all it took was a white tank top to get him hot and bothered.

But this isn’t solely about Bentley and his image. It’s about a song that’s nothing more than a pile of dog dung left on the side of the road by an owner to lazy to bend over and pick it up. It’s about a brazen attempt at marrying bro and beach bum-country signifiers. It’s about a marriage made in the deepest depths of hell.

Worse, “Somewhere On A Beach” is about a genre where lines like ‘she’s got a body and she’s naughty’ are liquid gold. Where ‘I’m getting sun, getting some, and I ain’t slept in a week’ passes as a good time. Where the theme of summertime has been grossly exploited growing more blatantly graphic with each passing song.

The genre has been changing – the likes of Jason Isbell, Willie Nelson/Merle Haggard and Aaron Watson did score number one albums last year. The phenomenon that is Chris Stapleton is unstoppable. It makes one wonder, is the ‘cool crowd’ the country music fans or the gatekeepers pushing drivel like this on the unsuspecting public?

Like other reviewers, I don’t blame Bentley for this atrocity. He may be co-hosting the upcoming ACM Awards with Luke Bryan, but he knows quality music. I’d be shocked if his new album, Black, fails to deliver. It better live up to expectations.

Grade: F

Week ending 1/2/16: #1 singles this week in country music history

aarontippin1956 (Sales): Sixteen Tons — Tennessee Ernie Ford (Capitol)

1956 (Jukebox): Sixteen Tons — Tennessee Ernie Ford (Capitol)

1956 (Disc Jockeys): Love, Love, Love — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1966: Buckaroo — Buck Owens & The Buckaroos (Capitol)

1976: Convoy — C.W. McCall (MGM)

1986: Have Mercy — The Judds (RCA/Curb)

1996: That’s As Close As I’ll Get To Loving You — Aaron Tippin (RCA)

2006: Come a Little Closer — Dierks Bentley (Capitol)

2016: Die a Happy Man — Thomas Rhett (Valory)

2016 (Airplay): Die a Happy Man — Thomas Rhett (Valory)

Week ending 12/26/15: #1 singles this week in country music history

cw-mccall1955 (Sales): Sixteen Tons — Tennessee Ernie Ford (Capitol)

1955 (Jukebox): Love, Love, Love/If You Were Me — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Disc Jockeys): Love, Love, Love — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1965: Buckaroo — Buck Owens & The Buckaroos (Capitol)

1975: Convoy — C.W. McCall (MGM)

1985: The Chair — George Strait (MCA)

1995: That’s as Close as I’ll Get to Loving You — Aaron Tippin (RCA)

2005: Come a Little Closer — Dierks Bentley (Capitol)

2015: Die a Happy Man — Thomas Rhett (Valory)

2015 (Airplay): Gonna — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)

Week ending 12/12/15: #1 singles this week in country music history

images-81955 (Sales): Love, Love, Love/If You Were Me — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Jukebox): Love, Love, Love/If You Were Me — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Disc Jockeys): Love, Love, Love — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1965: Make the World Go Away — Eddy Arnold (RCA)

1975: Secret Love — Freddy Fender (ABC/Dot)

1985: I Don’t Mind the Thorns (If You’re the Rose) — Lee Greenwood (MCA)

1995: Tall, Tall Trees — Alan Jackson (Arista)

2005: Come a Little Closer — Dierks Bentley (Capitol)

2015: Die a Happy Man — Thomas Rhett (Valory)

2015 (Airplay): I’m Comin’ Over — Chris Young (RCA)

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Top 10 Singles of 2015

What does it say about me that the highest charting single on my list took eight months to peak at #9? I’ve continued to broaden my tastes as I’ve aged while continuing to closely follow the artists I’ve always admired. There was some stunning music this year and these ten selections are only the tip of the iceberg. Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

cdca72c7ec5625f0f1f483fb_440x44010. I’m With Her – ‘Crossing Muddy Waters’

I’m With Her (Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan) is one of the more unique collaborations of the year and their cover of the fifteen year old John Hiatt song is the amuse-bouche to a main course full-length album that may come within the next few years. This track is too faithful to be a doozy but it more than proves they have the potential to be an artistic force should they go down that road. I really hope they do.

Trisha-Yearwood-I-remember-You9. Trisha Yearwood – ‘I Remember You’

Every Trisha Yearwood album has its own personality and PrizeFighter: Hit After Hit lies on the more Adult Contemporary side of the country spectrum. “I Remember You,” a tribute to her mom, is far from the most dynamic ballad she’s ever recorded. But it shows off a tender side of her voice we’ve never heard before. Yearwood is a vocal chameleon able to adapt to any style and work within any parameters. She’s still a master after twenty-five years. I cannot wait to see what she has in store for us next.

Traveller8. Chris Stapleton – ‘Traveller’

“Tennessee Whiskey,” the early 1980s George Jones hit he sang on the CMA Awards, is the standout showcase for his gifts as a vocalist. “Traveller,” showcases his talents as a songwriter. This autobiographical mid-tempo ballad casts Stapleton as a vagabond who knows his path but cannot see his destination. Like any great artist he’s spent his time paying his dues and working the system until he could shine in his own light. He may always be a “Traveller,” but I bet he has a much clearer picture of where he’s headed now that the world finally knows his name.

Screen-Shot-2015-05-05-at-10.39.03-AM7. Jason Isbell – ’24 Frames’

“24 Frames” is a 1990s inspired gem that owes more to R.E.M. than Alan Jackson, bringing the same addictive quality (minus the mandolins) that made “Losing My Religion” so intoxicating. “24 Frames” is a fantastic meditation on relationships, cumulating with a chorus that compares God to an architect and declares, “he’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.”

Thile & PB6. Punch Brothers – ‘I Blew It Off’

The coolest track from The Phosphorescent Blues is this plucky slice of bluegrass-pop, a style Chris Thile and the boys have perfected over the course of their four albums. They returned after a three-year hiatus to find Thile with a ‘bad case of twenty-first century stress,’ which is about the only thing he can’t shrug off. He’s furious yet knows he isn’t alone, declaring by the end that modern technology is having an effect on everyone, not just him. “I Blew It Off” is as simple as any song could be saying a lot in a very tiny space. That’s often where the most valuable riches can be found.

Fly5. Maddie & Tae – ‘Fly’

Not since “Cowboy Take Me Away” has a fiddle driven pop-country ballad reached these artistic heights. At a moment when Maddie & Tae had to show the world what else they could do, they blew away the competition with their exquisite harmonies and pitch perfect lyric. They aren’t the Dixie Chicks by any means, but they’re pretty darn close.


Dierks-Bentley-Riser-Album-Art-CountryMusicIsLove4. Dierks Bentley – ‘Riser’

Even in the face of commercial pressures, Dierks Bentley sticks to his convictions. “Riser” is a sweeping tale of overcoming odds and one of his finest singles. I have no clue why he hasn’t risen (no pun intended) to the upper echelon of country greats at a time when he’s bucking trends and releasing worthy songs to country radio. He’s one of the best we have and deserves to be compensated as such.

2647969113. Jana Kramer – ‘I Got The Boy’

Leave it to Jamie Lynn Spears, of all people, to write the strongest hook of the year: ‘I got the boy, you got the man.’ Leave it to Jana Kramer to sell the pain and conviction felt by the scorned ex who is seeing the boy she loved transformed into the man she always wanted him to be.

Eric-Church-Like-a-Wrecking-Ball2. Eric Church – ‘Like A Wrecking Ball’

When Eric Church brought the idea for this song to co-writer Casey Beathard he balked. At the time, Miley Cyrus was hitting big with her similarly titled smash. Church, who cannot be under estimated, knew exactly what he was doing. This tour de force is the most original song about making love to hit any radio format in recent memory. It’s also the coolest one-off artistic statement since Dwight Yoakam hit with “Nothing” twenty years ago. Eric Church is the strongest male country singer in the mainstream right now.

lee-ann-womack_9601. Lee Ann Womack – ‘Chances Are’

What needs to be said about Lee Ann Womack wrapping her exquisite voice around a pure country weeper? She came into her own on The Way I’m Livin’ and finally found the space to create the music in her soul. The album’s third single is a shining example of the perfect song matched with the only artist who has enough nuance to drive it home. Lee Ann Womack is simply one of the greatest female country singers ever to walk the earth.

 

Week ending 12/5/15: #1 singles this week in country music history

1955 (Sales): Love, Love, Love/If You Were Me — Webb Pierce (Decca)

211955 (Jukebox): Love, Love, Love/If You Were Me — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Disc Jockeys): Love, Love, Love — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1965: Make the World Go Away — Eddy Arnold (RCA)

1975: It’s All in the Movies — Merle Haggard (Capitol)

1985: Too Much on My Heart — The Statler Brothers (Mercury)

1995: Check Yes or No — George Strait (MCA)

2005: Come a Little Closer — Dierks Bentley (Capitol)

2015: Die a Happy Man — Thomas Rhett (Valory)

2015 (Airplay): I’m Comin’ Over — Chris Young (RCA)

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.

Single Review: Charles Kelley feat. Eric Paslay and Dierks Bentley – ‘The Driver’

Screen-Shot-2015-10-04-at-8.08.01-PMI’ll admit that seven years ago, I was a Lady Antebellum fan. Their debut album, co-produced by the illustrious Victoria Shaw, showcased a band with tremendous promise. While not earth shattering, “Love Don’t Live Here” had grit that proved they were a force to be reckoned with. “I Run To You” made good on their potential and deservedly won the CMA Single of the Year award. “Need You Now” and “American Honey” were also good, but the album that surrounded them marked the beginning of the end. After just five singles, Lady Antebellum devolved into a second-rate pop act.

When they announced their upcoming hiatus, I was thrilled. Would they use this time to reevaluate what had happened to their sound? Charge their depleted artistic batteries? Well, we got an answer this week when Charles Kelley announced a solo single and upcoming EP. As Lady Antebellum’s artistic prowess went south, Kelley’s rich baritone went along with it. He used to be the guy who let loose, a nice counterbalance to Hillary Scott’s softer soprano.

Now we have “The Driver” to contend with. Kelley’s first solo single is a piano drenched soft rock ballad that wouldn’t be out of place in Lady Antebellum’s repertoire. The track is listenable and while the lyric doesn’t have anything to say at all, it contains zero traces of bro, metro, or any other of the current trends turning mainstream country into the unrecognizable laughing stock it is today.

Is this a step in the right direction? No, it’s not. What is this song even about? You have three acts, sung by Kelley, Eric Paslay, and Dierks Bentley respectively. Kelley portrays the driver, the one in charge of bringing the circus to town. Paslay is the dreamer sitting in the front row, enjoying the show. Bentley meanwhile is the singer, giving the audience all he has during his performance. While the characters are well thought out, they don’t go anywhere. There’s no reason to care about any of them, so we don’t. Why is this song even called “The Driver” (opposed to “The Dreamer” or “The Singer”)? Is he the glue that holds everyone together?

Like a lot of modern country songs that hint at substance, “The Driver” has good bones and a clever premise. It fails because it doesn’t take the story anywhere. All we have are descriptions of three characters – no depth or soul to make them more than constructs on a casting director’s call sheet. What’s missing is the actor brave enough to take what’s on the page and turn it into a multi-dimensional character worth caring about. Why is it so novel to actually develop a story into something worthwhile?

The only credit I can give to Kelley and Co is that they’ve presented us with a tune that doesn’t out rightly offend in any major way (except the fact IT’S NOT COUNTRY. AT ALL). They’re committed vocally. I don’t hear any noticeable use of computers in place of instruments. They appear to actually be singing. None of these things should ever be a cause for celebration, but in the current climate, we have to take what we can get. I’ll reserve the ‘F’ and ‘D’ grades for the pure dreck. In comparison, “The Driver” isn’t horrible, it’s just lazy in every noticeable way.

Grade: C-

Single Review: Dierks Bentley – ‘Riser’

Dierks-Bentley-Riser1To complete the Riser era of his career, Dierks Bentley lobbied his label to release the album’s downbeat title track to radio. He feels it’s the cornerstone of the album, a once-in-a-career song that would’ve haunted him had he left it as an album cut.

With that kind of praise coming directly from the artist’s mouth, it’s practically a setup for failure. Is Bentley purposefully overselling things in order to drum up excitement for a mediocre song? Is “Riser” really as good he claims?

I don’t know if I’d call it a ‘once-in-a-career’ song, but succeeds by tapping into our need for anthems that champion overcoming adversity without devolving into riddled clichés. Travis Meadows and Steve Moakler have found a unique angle from which to make their point, using the phrase ‘I’m A Riser’ to convey their message. By paying close attention to other songs of this ilk, they’ve ditched what’s tired and exercised ample imagination. I cannot praise them enough for taking the time to find the deeper song underneath the schlock.

Bentley, meanwhile, gives an interesting vocal performance that shows off new colors in the deeper register of his voice. By completely bucking convention he’s showing growth as a performer and using his voice to suit the overall tone of the track on which he’s singing. It’s not necessarily my cup of tea, but the effort is there, and should be applauded none-the-less.

Production-wise, “Riser” isn’t “Say You Do,” which is among the finest singles of Bentley’s career to date. I hate the gruff masculinity of it. Growing up, I became accustom to country music that was soft, both vocally and in terms of production. While this aspect of “Riser” does absolutely nothing for me, it doesn’t hinder the track in any significant way.

So what if “Riser” has more in common with arena rock than country music? It’s still a very strong intelligent lyric sung by a mainstream country artist still committed to bringing quality songs to the public. May he finally get the awards that have cruelly eluded him for far too long.

Grade: B+

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Week ending 5/16/15: #1 singles this week in country music history

hqdefault1955 (Sales): In The Jailhouse Now — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Jukebox): In The Jailhouse Now — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Disc Jockeys): In The Jailhouse Now — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1965: Girl On The Billboard — Del Reeves (United Artists)

1975: She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles) — Gary Stewart (RCA)

1985: Somebody Should Leave — Reba McEntire (MCA)

1995: I Can Love You Like That — John Michael Montgomery (Atlantic)

2005: My Give A Damn’s Busted — Jo Dee Messina (Curb)

2015: Girl Crush — Little Big Town (Capitol)

2015 (Airplay): Say You Do — Dierks Bentley (Capitol)

Week ending 5/9/15: #1 singles this week in country music history

18012-101955 (Sales): In The Jailhouse Now — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Jukebox): In The Jailhouse Now — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Disc Jockeys): In The Jailhouse Now — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1965: This Is It — Jim Reeves (RCA)

1975: Roll On Big Mama — Joe Stampley (Epic)

1985: There’s No Way — Alabama (RCA)

1995: I Can Love You Like That — John Michael Montgomery (Atlantic)

2005: It’s Getting Better All The Time — Brooks & Dunn (Arista)

2015: Girl Crush — Little Big Town (Capitol)

2015 (Airplay): Say You Do — Dierks Bentley (Capitol)

Predictions for the 50th annual ACM Awards

To celebrate their 50th anniversary, The Academy of Country Music Awards is being held at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, TX  this Sunday on CBS. Blake Shelton is returning for his fifth year as host while Luke Bryan will co-host for the third consecutive time. Notable performers include George Strait, Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, and Dierks Bentley along with the usual mainstream country suspects. Nick Jonas and Christina Aguilera will also take the stage as part of unique duets.

Along with the regular awards, the ACM will also be handing out specially designed 50th anniversary Milestone Awards to Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney, Miranda Lambert, Brooks & Dunn, Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks and George Strait. (Swift is expected to accept in person despite distancing herself from the genre).

Check out the nominations, here.

UnknownEntertainer of the Year

Garth Brooks, who has six previous wins, is nominated for the first time since 2001 in a year that saw him break ticket sale records, but underwhelm with his Man Against Machine album. The absence of Taylor Swift, George Strait and Tim McGraw left the category open for some fresh blood, resulting in Florida Georgia Line’s first nomination.

Should Win: Garth Brooks – he continues to show how it’s done, twenty-five years after his debut.

Will Win: Luke Bryan – he’ll ride his CMA momentum all the way to the finish line, scoring his second win in three nominations.

4e35192a48a8e1409d2f92873a0dbab7Male Vocalist of the Year

Despite eight previous nominations with five wins, it’s not shocking to see Brad Paisley included here. But after such an underwhelming year, it’s still surprising to see him included in a six-way tie. Dierks Bentley scores his second nomination in ten years, while half of the remaining four consist of previous winners. Jason Aldean has taken home this award for the past two years.

Should Win: Dierks Bentley – His only previous nomination came in 2005, while he was still in the promotional cycle for his sophomore album. His stature has only risen in the years since, with critical acclaim and consistent support from country radio, making him long overdue for his turn in the spotlight.   

Will Win: Luke Bryan – He’s arguably the biggest male artist in country music right now, eclipsing Aldean, Eric Church, and Blake Shelton with his stadium show, fast rising singles, and immense popularity. There’s little chance he’ll walk away empty handed, taking home his first win on his third consecutive nomination.

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Classic Rewind: Dierks Bentley and Harley Allen pay tribute to the Louvin Brothers – ‘I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby’

Album Review: Ralph Stanley & Friends – ‘Man Of Constant Sorrrow’

man of constant sorrowJust after the release of the very similarly titled tribute I reviewed recently comes another project, this one featuring the man himself, produced by Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale. Mostly the guests sing lead with Dr Ralph harmonising, but some are true duets too.

There is some overlap in personnel (of those associated personally and professionally with Dr Ralph) but almost none with songs. The smooth-voiced Nathan Stanley duets with his grandfather on ‘Rank Stranger’ to great effect. Ricky Skaggs shows up again here with Carter Stanley’s ‘Sweethearts In Heaven’ and combines plaintive emotion with a solid driving rhythm.

The big country names all do a fine job. Josh Turner delivers a solid lead vocal on the joyful ‘We Shall Rise’. Dierks Bentley is excellent and sounds very authentic on the high lonesome ‘I Only Exist’. Lee Ann Womack is exquisite leading on ‘White Dove’.

The producers join Ralph on a three part harmony on ‘I Am The Man, Thomas’ with Stanley on lead vocal. Americana favourites Gillian Welch and David Rawlings join Dr Ralph on the traditional ‘Pig In A Pen’, which is very enjoyable.

I’m not much of a fan of Robert Plant, but his voice combines surprisingly well with Ralph’s on the ethereal ‘Two Coats’, and the effect is very haunting. Rock singer Elvis Costello has never had much of a voice, and while his duet with Ralph on ‘Red Wicked Wine’ isn’t at all bad, it is more or less saved by Stanley’s emotional heft, and the fact that Costello mostly doesn’t get to sing solo.

Fellow bluegrass veteran Del McCoury joins Ralph on the Jesse Winchester tune ‘Brand New Tennessee Waltz’. Modern jug band Old Crow Medicine Show join Ralph on ‘Short Life Of Trouble’.

‘Hills Of Home’ is a mostly-spoken eulogy to Ralph’s late brother, the troubled Carter Stanley, which is genuinely moving.

This release is currently a Cracker Barrel exclusive but hopefully it will get a wider relase at some point.

Grade: A

Top 20 Albums of 2014: A Hidebound Traditionalist’s View

Rosanne CashWe didn’t get a chance to run this before the end of the year, but we figured our readers wouldn’t mind reading Paul’s year in review a little late. — Razor X

1. Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread

This album came out fairly early in the year, and yet I was fairly sure it would be the best new album I would hear in 2014. Elegant and insightful would be the terms I would think best describe this album.

2. Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard

So timeless are the songs are the songs of Merle Haggard that even marginal talents such as Jason Aldean and Jake Owen couldn’t mess up the songs. If fact I would regard Aldean’s take on “Going Where The Lonely Go” as he best recording he’s ever made. This tribute album is largely composed of modern country artists (Toby Keith, Parmalee, Dustin Lynch, Kristy Lee Cook, Randy Houser, Joe Nichols, Jake Owen, Jason Aldean and James Wesley) with Merle’s son Ben thrown in for good measure and Garth Brooks on the physical CD available at Walmart. The two tracks by Thompson Square (“You Take Me For Granted”, “Let’s Chase Each Other Around The Room”) are given a playful reading and are my favorite tracks, but every artist keeps the spirit of the Hag alive with these songs.

3. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Our Year

The follow-up to Cheater’s Game dishes up another nice serving of real country music with more focus on newer material but with some covers including a nice take on the Statler Brothers classic “I’ll Go To My Grave Loving You” .

4. Jerry Douglas – Earls of Leicester

An instant classic, this album is almost a theatre piece with various stellar musicians cast in the roles of the members of the classic Flatt & Scruggs lineup of the 1950s and 1960s, doing a program of classic Flatt & Scruggs material. Starring Jerry Douglas on dobro, Barry Bales on bass, Shawn Camp on acoustic guitar and vocals, Johnny Warren – fiddle, Tim O’Brien – mandolin, & Charlie Cushman – banjo and guitar. Johnny Warren is the song of longtime F&S fiddler Paul Warren.

5. Carlene Carter – Carter Girl

Carlene Carter pays tribute to her musical heritage with a classic collection of Carter Family tunes plus a pair of original compositions. These recording have a modern sound that differs from, but is true to, the spirit of the originals.

6. Ray Price – Beauty Is

I wanted to call this the best album of 2014 and if Ray had been in top vocal form I would have, but this is the swan song of a dying man who knows the end is but months away. The album is elegant and heartfelt, in many respects a valentine to his wife of many years.

7. Jeff Bates – Me and Conway

For as popular as Conway Twitty was during his heyday (think George Strait), he has been almost entirely forgotten. A tribute to Conway Twitty is long overdue and while I think a multi-artist album would be nice, if it has to be a single artist tribute album, there is no one better to do it than Jeff Bates, whose voice can sound eerily similar to that of Conway Twitty. The album is about half Conway Twitty songs and half new material including the title track. My favorite tracks are the title track, “Lost In The Feeling” and Jeff’s duet with Loretta Lynn on “After The fire Is Gone” .

8. Mandy Barnett – I Can’t Stop Loving You: The Songs of Don Gibson

Mandy is a masterful singer, if somewhat addicted to slow songs. Don Gibson was a top-drawer song writer, as well as a soulful performer. This album, initially available as a Cracker Barrel exclusive is proof that when you pair great songs with a great singer that very good things can happen. Don’s been gone for over a decade so it’s nice to see someone keep his songs in front of the American public.

9. Ray Price – A New Place To Begin

I am mystified that the tracks on this album went unreleased on an album for so long. During the mid 1980s Ray Price and Snuff Garrett collaborated on a number of successful singles (some of which were used in movie soundtracks) plus some other songs. True, producer Snuff Garrett fell ill somewhere along the line and retired, but Garrett was a big name producer and you would think these would have escaped somehow. This CD features seven chart singles that were never collected on an album, and seven other songs that were never released on an album. Sixteen tracks from one of the masters most featuring more steel guitar than was common for Ray during this period .

10. George Strait – The Cowboy Rides Away (Deluxe Edition)

This album has some flaws including what sounds like auto-tune on some tracks and the standard issue of the album doesn’t warrant a top twenty listing since it has only twenty songs on it. The Deluxe Edition, however, plants you into the middle of a George Strait concert – twenty-eight songs on the two CD set plus the entire 40 song set on the concert DVD with some bonus features. George never did tour extensively and when he hit town, the tickets were expensive and sold out quickly so I never did get to see him live in concert. This set is the next best thing. While the studio recordings are better, this is still worth having.

11. Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer – Bass & Mandolin

This album is a little hard to characterize – it’s not exactly bluegrass, folk, jazz or classical music, but it is all of them and more on the ten featured tunes, all of them co-writes. Meyer plays piano on a few tunes but mostly plays bass. Thile shines on the mandolin. The listener exults in the magic.

12. Sammy Kershaw – Do You Know Me: A Tribute To George Jones

True, Sammy is a distant cousin to Cajun pioneers Rusty and Doug Kershaw, but Sammy’s musical muses were Mel Street and George Jones. Here Sammy pays tribute to George Jones and does it well. My favorite among the dozen Jones hits (plus two new songs) covered is “When The Grass Grows Over Me”.

13. Joe Mullins – Another Day From Life

Joe Mullins has been around the bluegrass scene for a while, but this album was the first of his albums I happened to pick up. It’s very good and I’ll be picking up more of his albums when I hit the bluegrass festival in Palatka, Florida on February 20.

14. Rhonda Vincent – Only Me

Half country/half grass but 100% excellent. I wish that Rhonda would do an entire album of western swing and honky-tonk classics. It was silly to split this up into two six song discs, but I guess that the ears of the bluegrass purists needed protection from the country classics. My favorite track is “When The Grass Grows Over Me” which was also my favorite George Jones song. Rhonda’s takes on “Once A Day” and “Bright Lights and Country Music” are also highlights.

15. Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’

It is good to see new music from Lee Ann. I don’t regard this as highly as I did her first few albums, but it is a welcome return to form.

16. Willie Nelson – Band of Brothers

Death, taxes and a new Willie Nelson album are the only things you can really count on seeing every year. This one is up to the usual standards, with Willie having written nine of the fourteen songs on the album.

17. Secret Sisters – Put your Needle Down

I actually liked their debut album better, but this one will appeal more to younger listeners. At this rate they won’t be a secret much longer. Buy it at Cracker Barrel as their version has two extra songs.

18. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

A lot has been written about this album, but the truth is that words really don’t adequately describe it. This album requires repeated listening.

19. Dierks Bentley – Riser

I like this album, but I keep expecting more of DIerks Bentley. “Drunk On A Plane” and “I Hold On” were the big radio/ video singles but I don’t think they were the best songs on the album.

20. Cornell Hurd Band – Twentieth Album

In some ways the Cornell Hurd Band is like Asleep At The Wheel, a very versatile band that can handle anything. Both are terrific swing bands but AATW leans more to the jazzy side while the CHB is more honky-tonk and more prone to novelty lyrics. All of their albums are filled with many and varied treasures.

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