My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Dixie Chicks

Album Review: Brothers Osborne – ‘Port Saint Joe’

In recent years, Brothers Osborne has eclipsed Florida Georgia Line to win Vocal Duo of the Year honors from both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music. Video has also surfaced of their gritty reinterpretation of “Goodbye Earl” and they’ve honored Don Williams with “Tulsa Time” on numerous occasions since his passing last year.

Now they’re back with their second album, Port Saint Joe, which like their debut, was produced by Jay Joyce. There’s no mistaking the sound of this album. It’s unapologetically southern rock, with very little by way of the country music we’ve come to recognize through the years. They say the album actually developed organically from their live shows.

Our first taste of this new music came in January when the blistering 6:24 “Shoot Me Straight” was serviced to country radio. The lyric finds a guy in a bar asking the woman attempting to pick him up not to go easy on him. I hate the arrangement, but the lyric isn’t half bad.

One of the album’s major storylines finds our protagonist in the light of a clear blue morning, reflecting back on the night before. On the wonderful mandolin-drenched waltz “Tequila Again,” he’s messed up from the titular spirit, not another person as the song seems to suggest:

We’ll lose our minds, we’ll dance all night

Pick up right where we left off

Raise hell with the boys

Make all kinds of noise

Singing at the top of our lungs

Yeah once again I’ll wake up on time

With the headache turned up to 10

Asking myself why the hell

I fell in love with tequila again

“Drunk Like Hank” has him using legendary bad-boys of classic country to describe a wild night:

And I’m hazin’ out of line

Found a buzz and a hundred-proof chug and I lost my mind

Ain’t got a drop left in the tank

Not a nickel left in the bank

Yeah, we partied like The Possum and we drank like Hank

He’s on the mend, nursing a broken heart the only way he knows how on the excellent and bluesy “Weed, Whiskey and Willie:”

I’ve got bottles and bongs stacked to the ceilin’

I get stoned for survival, it helps with the healin’

And when it all goes to hell the only thing I believe in

Is weed, whiskey, and Willie

“A Little Bit Trouble” is a sonically adventurous tale about a man the heartbreaker with which he’s about to spend the night. “A Couple Wrongs Makin’ It Alright” continues in the progressive vein, while “Slow Your Roll” pushes the envelope even further.

The album is back on track with “I Don’t Remember You (Before Me),” a sweet love song about forgetting who you were in a past life. Also very enjoyable is “Pushing Up Daises (Love Alive),” a mature relationship song:

We’ll go on ’til were pushin’ up daisies

We’ll grow old and wild and I’ll still be callin’ you baby

We’ll never get enough, we’ll be livin’ it up right down to the day we die

Naw, we ain’t gettin’ out of this love alive

Like most songs that close an album, “While You Still Can” offers a refreshing change of pace on a reflective ballad about living without regret. The lyric doesn’t break any new ground, but this is still one of the strongest tracks on the album.

I’m glad I took this deep dive into Port Saint Joe. At first glance, I wasn’t a fan of this album at all. Jay Joyce’s arrangements aren’t my cup of tea in the least. But there are some truly excellent songs on here worth checking out. In spots, this album really does deliver the goods.

Grade: B

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Album Review: Kim Richey – ‘Kim Richey’

Kim Richey released her self-titled debut album this week in 1995 on Mercury Records. I remember this music well, from her association with Mary Chapin Carpenter. I even saw her open for Trisha Yearwood during an intimate ‘in the round’ performance during Trisha’s “Real Live Woman” tour in 2000.

To my ears, the song I most know her for is her debut single and biggest hit “Just My Luck,” which hit #47. The song is an excellent up-tempo number about a woman who is fine on her own until she falls in love:

I was livin’ the good life

None of that silly love stuff

Then I went and fell for you

Ain’t that just my luck?

“Just My Luck” feels like a Yearwood song through and through. Her second single, “Those Words We Said” subsequently appeared on Thinkin’ About You that very same year. The mid-tempo ballad, about a woman leaving home after an argument, is fabulous. It performed slightly worse for Richey, stalling at #59. Third single “From Where I Stand,” which peaked at #66, continues in the same vibe and is very good.

Another familiar tune, “You’ll Never Know” was the second single off of Mindy McCready’s sophomore album, If I Don’t Stay The Night in 1998. It’s always been one of my favorite singles from McCready and I didn’t realize until today that Richey had co-written it.

“Just Like The Moon” is equally excellent, with an engaging melody. “Let The Sun Fall Down” is a sparse ballad that nicely showcases Richey’s effective voice. “Sweet Mysteries” is a sweet ballad about a woman wondering why a man fell in love with her in the first place. “Can’t Find the Words” continues in the same vein, but finds a woman unable to properly tell her man she loves him. Richey is calling her man’s bluff on “That’s A Lie,” a very good song about confrontation.

“Echoes of Love” is an ear-catching rocker and a nice change of pace. “Here I Go Again” and “That’s Exactly What I Mean” are mid-tempo and fall in the same sonic makeup of “That’s My Luck.” Both are very strong and well executed. “Good,” which continues in that same vein, is a fine way to close out the album.

Richie reminds me a lot, at least on this record, as a country music answer to the pop females who dominated the Lilith Fair Circuit. In researching Richey for this review, I found out her song “Desire” was actually recorded by Dixie Chicks on Shouldn’t A Told You That in 1993.

Kim Richey is a great album that introduced a fine songwriter into the country music elite. I highly recommend seeking this one out.

Grade: A

Album Review: Tyler England – ‘Highways & Dance Halls’

Ty England released his third album in the fall of 2000. The record, his first and only on Capitol Nashville, was produced by Garth Brooks. The album spawned three singles, none of which even made a dent on the charts. Highways & Dance Halls found England recording as Tyler England for the first time.

The mid-paced “Too Many Highways” and similarly mid-tempo “I’d Rather Have Nothing” both failed to chart. They were sandwiched between “I Drove Her to Dallas,” which bottomed out at #53. The middle single, the only true ballad of the group, was the best of the bunch.

The album includes a pair of songs written by Bruce Robison. “She Don’t Care About Me” has an engaging melody and nice traditional production. The other one is “Traveling Soldier,” which of course was made famous by Dixie Chicks three or so years later. England’s version is very good, but I didn’t care for the intrusive background singer on the chorus.

Three of the album’s songs would also appear on Brooks’ own The Lost Sessions in 2005. “My Baby No Está Aquí No More” has wonderful production but a hideous rhyme scheme. The other two were the aforementioned “She Don’t Care About Me” and “I’d Rather Have Nothing.”

“Collect From Wichita” is a pleasant and “I Knew I Loved You” is engaging. “Blame It On Mexico” is a cover of the George Strait song from 1981. England closes out the album by reprising “Should’ve Asked Her Faster” in collaboration with Steve Wariner.

Highways & Dance Halls is a very good album with a strong sense of song and wonderfully traditional production from Brooks. The weak link here is England, who lacks the personality vocally to elevate these songs and create worthy moments. He’s a wonderful singer, which he more than proved on his RCA releases, but everything here is too clean, neat and precise.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Tracy Lawrence – ‘Good Old Days’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B-

“Every Little Thing” and Carly Pearce’s fabricated fairy tale

The deeper I lean into the marketing of mainstream country music, The more I’m seeing the blatant manipulation. It’s no secret that Keith Hill’s comment that women are the tomatoes on the salad was offensive and misogynistic, but it was also, unfortunately, spot on. Women, unless they are members of a group, duo or collaboration also featuring men, have been shut out of even marginal airplay. Miranda Lambert is justifiably pissed at her diminishing returns, even as her music veers more and more towards Americana.

Media outlets that cover mainstream country have been celebrating the success of Carly Pearce’s “Every Little Thing” with Rolling Stone Country saying she “defied the odds with risky song” in a recent headline. I’ll admit, it’s against the norm, in this current climate, to release a ballad and have it succeed. The slower a song is the less likely it will fall under what is deemed “radio friendly.” That logic is nothing new.

But what’s baffling is the suppression of the truth. Carly Pearce is succeeding on her own merit about as much as Thomas Rhett. This grand success story? It’s all courtesy of iHeart Media and their “On The Verge” program. “On The Verge” exists to help struggling artists succeed and pretty much guarantees them a #1 hit. It’s the only reason former American Idol runner-up Lauren Alaina scored a chart topper with “The Road Less Traveled” seven years after her debut album bombed into oblivion. There’s absolutely no fairy tale here, no reason to cheer or even get excited. These feats are political manipulations swept under the rug disguised as major success stories.

We’re at a crisis point right now with female artists. Not only are none getting airplay, there really aren’t any in the mainstream sector for radio to embrace. Brandy Clark and Sunny Sweeney would never get airplay for the latest music, in any era, since they’re 40 years or older. Ashton Shepherd didn’t connect, with her heavy twang, so MCA dropped her. Ashely Monroe was told, on her last radio tour, that “On To Something Good,” was dead on arrival. Kacey Musgraves has done next to nothing to endear herself to the mainstream audience beyond wearing crazy outfits and adorning her sets with neon cacti. She will join Harry Styles on tour next year. Will Maren Morris connect? Possibly, as she’s already building a following. But I would think she’d have to prove herself as more than the “80s Mercedes” singer. “I Could Use A Love Song” has done that for me, but it’s only a step in the right direction for her to take as she contemplates her follow-up to Hero.

About the only person, we can count on is Carrie Underwood, who is currently in between albums. Time will tell if her newly minted deal with Capitol Nashville, the label that refused to sign her as a pre-teen back in 1996, will yield further success. I can’t imagine her being blackballed but I never thought Dixie Chicks would fall from grace like that either. In this market, anything is possible.

Is there a solution or silver lining in all of this? I honestly have no idea. I never imagined mainstream country music would ever be in this bad a shape in my life. It took until I got to college to see why Luke Bryan has been able to succeed like he has. He’s tapped into an audience previously ignored by country music, those who love to socialize and party and be high on life. He’s like the male Taylor Swift in that sense. He’s found his audience and he’s running with it all the way to the bank.

This era is the building block for whatever comes next. Has anyone else noticed the glaring oddity of Sam Hunt’s “Body Like A Backroad?” The song has succeeded without a music video, parent album or physical release of any kind. I can’t remember any other massive song that lacked even one of those three elements. These are uncharted waters and they’re reaping big rewards.

Maybe you know where we’re going from here. I know I probably shouldn’t care, and I have spent the majority of this year focused on independent releases, but I do. I can’t help it. It’s in my nature as female artists have always been my favorite, the ones I listen to most frequently. I guess Angaleena Presley and her fellow Pistol Annies said it best:

Dreams don’t come true

They’ll make a mess out of you

They’ll hang around the darkest corners of your mind

They’ll beat your heart black and blue

Don’t let anyone tell you they do

Dreams don’t come true

 

I hate to put a damper

On the fairy tale you pictured

I shoulda known all along that

Glass slippers give you blisters

Album Review: Janie Fricke and Johnny Duncan – ‘Nice ‘n Easy’

Nice ‘n’ Easy was released in October 1980, in response to significant demand for an album that collected the earlier Johnny Duncan recordings that prominently featured Janie Fricke, whether or not Janie was actually credited on the original recordings. It also served as a true duets album.

The album actually falls neatly into two categories: (1) new recordings made in order to have enough tracks to complete an album and give customers who already had the earlier tracks a reason to purchase this album, and (2) the earlier hit singles. The new recordings are on side one of the album, with the older tracks being on side two.

Billy Sherrill was the producer of the album. While albums of this era often did not provide musician credits, the album cover notes tell us that on side one the background singers were Lea Jane Berinati, Jackie Cusic, Larry Keith and Steve Pippin whereas on side two the Nashville Edition provided the background harmonies.

Side one opens with “He’s Out of My Life”, a song written by Tom Bahler. Pop artist Michael Jackson recorded the song on his 1979 album Off The Wall and released it as a top ten pop single. The original title was “She’s Out of My Life”, retitled for duet purposes with Duncan and Fricke swapping verses but most of the song told from the male perspective. I think it is a bit of an overwrought ballad (Bahler wrote it after breaking up with his girl friend) but it works. The song was a #20 country hit for Johnny & Janie in 1980.

He’s out of my life
He’s out of my life

And I don’t know whether to laugh or cry
I don’t know whether to live or die
And it cuts like a knife
He’s out of my life

It’s out of my hands
It’s out of my hands

To think the two years he was here
And I took him for granted, I was so cavalier
Now the way that it stands
He’s out of my hands

Track two is the title cut “Nice ‘n’ Easy” written by Alan Bergman, Marilyn Keith and Lew Spence. The song is best known for Frank Sinatra’s 1960 recording. The Sinatra album Nice ‘n’ Easy was nominated for a Grammy in 1960 and Frank took the title track onto the pop charts that year. Charlie Rich had a minor pop hit with it in 1964, and in later years country radio sometimes played the track (or a later 1970 Epic re-recording of it). It would be blasphemy to suggest that any of the covers were better than Sinatra’s recording (they weren’t) although Rich’s recording was nearly as good.

Let’s take it nice and easy
It’s gonna be so easy
For us to fall in love

Hey baby what’s your hurry
Relax and don’t you worry
We’re gonna fall in love

We’re on the road to romance – that’s safe to say
But let’s make all the stops along the way

The problem now of course is
To simply hold your horses
To rush would be a crime
‘Cause nice and easy does it every time.

Paul Anka is often thought of as a late50s-early 60s teen idol, but he was much more than that, providing a number of classic songs to other artists such as “My Way” to Frank Sinatra and “Guess It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” to Buddy Holly. “(I Believe) There’s Nothing Stronger Than Our Love” is a song that Paul kept this song for himself, recording it as a solo (#15 pop / #3 AC) in 1975 and later as a duet with Odia Coates. It works fine as a duet.

I believe there is nothing stronger than our love
I believe there is nothing stronger than our love
When I’m with you Baby
All my worries disappear

Troubles that surround me
Disappear when you are near
When you need my loving
I’ll be there

“Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes)” is a 1960 song written by Clyde Otis, Murray Stein and Brook Benton. It was originally recorded as a duet by Dinah Washington and Brook Benton, and reached #5 pop / #1 R&B. Later recordings include Jerry Lee Lewis & Linda Gail Lewis, Charlie Louvin & Melba Montgomery, Michael Buble (with Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings) and Kevin Mahogany. Obviously it works as a duet, and it works for Duncan and Fricke, although they do not bring the soulfulness to the song that Dinah & Brook achieved, nor the excitement of the Jerry Lee & Linda Gail recording. By the way, if you are unfamiliar with Brook Benton and/or Dinah Washington, you really should check them out.

“Loving Arms” was written by Tom Jans and is a ballad of longing and loneliness that has been recorded many times, initially by Dobie Gray, then Elvis and many times since then including the great Etta James and acts such as the Dixie Chicks. To my knowledge no one has ever had a big hit with the song.

If you could see me now
The one who said that he’d rather roam
The one who said he’d rather be alone
If you could only see me now

If I could hold you now
Just for a moment if I could really make you mine
Just for a while turn back the hands of time
If I could only hold you now

I’ve been too long in the wind, too long in the rain
Taking any comfort that I can
Looking back and longing for the freedom of my chains
And lying in your loving arms again

This concludes side one of the album. You will note that none of these songs were initially country songs, although all were songs of a good pedigree. By 1980, for better or worse, the ‘Nashville Sound’ era had passed and none of the songs featured string arrangements. The production could best be described as pop-country with steel guitar used mostly as background shading.

Side two collects the Johnny Duncan hits that featured Janie Fricke. Since these songs have already been discussed earlier I will simply touch them lightly.

“Come A Little Bit Closer” was a cover of a Jay & The Americans hit that Johnny and Janie took to #4 in 1977. This song was billed to both of them.

“It Couldn’t Have Been Any Better” went to #1 for Johnny in 1977, his second #1. The string arrangements on this recording are by Bill McElhiney.

“Atlanta Georgia Stray” was not released as a single for Johnny Duncan. It appears on Johnny’s 1977 album Johnny Duncan.

The song was recorded by Kenny Price for RCA in 1969 and made the country charts. I was living in England in 1969, but when I returned to the USA in 1970, I recall the song receiving some airplay as an oldie. I really liked Kenny’s version, but Fricke and Duncan do a reasonable job with the song. Bergan White does the string arrangements

On the Greyhound bus trip home I was feelin’ all alone
When a long haired gal sat down next to me
She said she was Atlanta bound, kill some time, maybe kick around
Cause it sounded like a friendly place to be

From Chicago to Kentucky we just talked awhile
And somewhere in between I was captured by her smile
But why I left the bus in Nashville has been a mystery till today
Cause for two years I’ve been tracking down that Atlanta Georgia stray

“Thinkin’of A Rendezvous” was Johnny’s first #1 county hit in 1976. Bergan White did the string arrangements.

“Stranger”,also from 1976, was Johnny’s second top ten hit reaching #4 country.

I do not mean to downplay Janie Fricke’s contributions to the songs on side two, but they were released as Johnny Duncan records and Janie’s role was less prominent on some of them than on some of the others.

In retrospect, most of our readers will think that the success of these recordings was due to Janie Fricke, since Johnny Duncan dropped out of the music scene for family reasons during the 1980s and then died too young in 2006. He had a significant career and some big hits that did not feature Janie Fricke, including several of my favorites.

Janie, of course, went on to have a brilliant career and is still active today

This album has never been released on CD. The hit singles are available on several Johnny Duncan CDs and possibly some various artist collections. As best as I can tell, the tracks from side one are not available anywhere.

Johnny Duncan and Janie Fricke were both very polished performers and I think most listeners would find the tracks on side one very interesting indeed. This is a well produced album that I would give a B+

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Somewhere In The Night’

When discussing country music released in the late 1980s, it’s almost customary to frame it within the context of the new traditionalist movement. But it’s easy to overlook the fact that not every artist releasing albums at that time adhered to the sound ushered in by Randy Travis on Storms of Life. Acts like Alabama, K.T. Oslin, Rosanne Cash and others were sticking with the pop-country sound that had dominated the better part of the decade. These artists were not only going against the trend, they were dominating at radio alongside everyone else.

You can easily add Sawyer Brown to this category, as well. Their fourth album, Somewhere In The Night, arrived in May 1987 under the direction of Ron Chancey. He had taken over for Randy Scruggs who wouldn’t produce a Sawyer Brown album until The Boys Are Back, two years later. Many know Chancey’s son Blake from his notable production work with David Ball, Dixie Chicks, Montgomery Gentry and Gretchen Wilson in the 1990s-2000s.

Sawyer Brown wasn’t exactly dominating at this point in their career. When Somewhere In The Night was released, the band was on a streak of six consecutive singles missing the top 10. Their most recent, “Savin’ The Honey for the Honeymoon” has petered out at #58. They needed a reverse in fortunes, and while this wasn’t the album to get them there, it did give them a slight reprieve with radio.

The title track, co-written by Don Cook and Rafe VanHoy, had originally appeared on the Oak Ridge Boys classic Fancy Free six years earlier. Sawyer Brown’s version retains a 1980s sheen, complete with dated harmonies and synth piano, but is otherwise an excellent and restrained ballad. The track peaked at #29.

The album’s biggest success came when second single “This Missin’ You Heart of Mine” peaked at #2. The ballad, co-written by Mike Geiger and Woody Mullis, is a wonderful example of the other side of late 1980s country music. While it might sound a bit dated today, the production is nicely restrained with Chancey framing their harmonies beautifully.

Kix Brooks, Kenneth Beal, and Bill McClelland are responsible for the album’s final single, “Old Photographs,” which stalled at #27. The lush ballad isn’t a strong one, a bit of filler that never would’ve made it as a single in any other era.

“In This Town,” co-written by Tom Shapiro and Michael Garvin, would’ve made a fantastic choice for a single, and probably would’ve sailed up the charts behind “This Missin’ You Heart of Mine.” Everything about the ballad is on point, from the melody to the harmonies.

Somewhere In The Night contains its share of uptempo material, so it’s curious why the label didn’t see fit to break the ballad fatigue with one of these tracks. Two such songs were solely penned by Dennis Linde. “Dr. Rock N. Roll” is a slice of catchy slick pop while “Lola’s Love” is a nice dose of country-rock. The latter is the better song, and as a single for Ricky Van Shelton from his 1994 album Love and Honor, it peaked at #62. Linde also wrote “Still Life In Blue,” a mid-tempo ballad with dated accents of synth-pop.

The percussion-heavy “Little Red Caboose” was written by Steve Gibson and Dave Loggins and recorded by Lee Greenwood on his 1985 release, Love Will Find Its Way To You. The results are catchy and brimming with personality.

“Still Hold On” was originally released by its co-writer Kim Carnes in 1981 and Kenny Rogers in 1985. The ballad soars, thanks to Mark Miller’s vocal, which is an outstanding example of pathos that hints at the gravitas he would bring to the band’s 1990s hits “All These Years” and “Treat Her Right.”

The final track, “A Mighty Big Broom” was written solely by Miller. It’s the album’s most adventurous track, with a rock-leaning arrangement and a silly lyric.

When approaching Somewhere In The Night, I fully expected not to be able to pick out the Sawyer Brown I know from this set of songs. I came to the band like all my country music, in 1996, long after “The Walk” had revolutionized their sound and grounded them with depth and substance. So I was surprised I could hear subtle hints of what the band would eventually become, on this album. It’s a stellar project through and through, with a nice batch of above average material.

Grade: A

Album Review: Joy White – ‘Between Midnight And Hindsight’

between-midnight-and-hindsightBilled simply as Joy White (she incorporated Lynn later), the redhead from Arkansas and Indiana had a sound as striking as her appearance. Signing to Columbia Records in 1992, no doubt the label had great hopes for her debut album, filled as it was with great songs and Joy’s distinctive vocals, by turns fierce and vulnerable, in a way which presages the mainstream music of the Dixie Chicks with Natalie Maines half a decade later. It is unsurprising that they even covered songs Joy did first. Paul Worley and Blake Chancey produced the set, and would go on to work with the Chicks.

Unfortunately country radio was not quite ready for Joy’s intensity, and none of the album’s three singles reached the top 40. First up was ‘Little Tears’, an up-tempo tune about defying the pain of heartbreak written by Michael Henderson and Mark Irwin.

‘True Confessions’, the closest Joy came to a hit single, peaked at #45. Written by Marty Stuart with hitmaker Kostas, it is a very good song given a compelling performance. Stuart has been quoted saying Joy’s voice “could make time stand still”, and she commits to a passionate tale of falling in love despite the man initially not being in it for the long run:

He only wanted my shoulder to cry on
He only wanted my love for a while
I was lookin’ for someone to rely on
I traced his heart from his smile

The stars were fallin’ in every direction
The moon was rockin’ back and forth in the sky
Modern day lovers with true confessions
Written in their eyes

The last single from this album, ‘Cold Day In July’, which was also recorded around this time by Suzy Bogguss, and was later a hit for the Dixie Chicks, was written by Richard Leigh, known for his songs for last month’s Spotlight Artist Crystal Gayle. A graceful subdued ballad about the shock of a breakup, Joy’s version shows her vulnerable side.

Another song which may be familiar is ‘Wherever You Are’, which Highway 101 had included on their Paul Worley produced Bing Bang Boom – an album on which in turn they had recorded a Joy White penned tune, ‘Big City Bound’.

Joy continues the assertive dealing-with-heartbreak up-tempo theme with songs like ‘Wishful Thinking’, written by the team of Michael Henderson and Wally Wilson. The same pair contributed the more positive ‘Let’s Talk About Love Again’, a catchy number which might have been a good choice for a radio single. ‘Hey Hey Mama’ has a rockabilly feel.

Slow and intense, ‘Those Shoes’ (written by Kevin Welch and Harry Stinson) is an excellent song addressed to the woman her ex left her for, and who has now shared the same fate:

I’ll bet you don’t know what went wrong
Why has your darling gone with her
You’re half wild
You wanna track him down
You think you can bring him round again
There’s nothing that you’d love more
Than to tear her in two
I know how close I came
Coming after you
Yes, I’ve walked in those shoes

I know where you’re headed
There’s still time to turn around
Don’t follow in my footsteps
Cause it’s a long way down
I’ve come back here tonight
To give you the news
You might think you’ve lost it all
But there’s a lot more you can lose

My favorite song, and the one whose lyrics provide the album title, is the beautifully constructed story song ‘Why Do I Feel So Good’, written by the great Bobby Braddock. It relates the tale of a young girl persuaded to marry the boring rich guy rather than her working class true love, and regretting every second:

Mom and Dad didn’t like her boyfriend
Cause working in a factory
Just wasn’t satisfactory
They said he’s too rough and a little too wild
They knew all the reasons she should leave him
She just smiled

“If he’s so bad
Why do I feel so good?
Why am I walking on air
Dropping his name everywhere?
Tell me Mom and Dad
If he’s so bad
Why do I feel so good?”

Now she lives in a 40 room mansion
With a man so boring
That Mom and Dad adore him
She lost in the big bed where she lies
And somewhere between midnight and hindsight she cries

“If he’s so good
Why do I feel so bad?
Why am I chilled to the bone
Wishing I’d never left home
And if I should feel so good
Why do I feel so bad?”

Then she runs home to Mama
And she cries to her Dad
“Why did you talk me out me out of
The only chance for happiness I ever had?

If he’s so bad
Why did I feel so good?
Why was I walking on air
And dropping his name everywhere
Tell me Mom and Dad
If he’s so bad
Why did I feel so good?”

Joy wrote a couple of the songs herself, both ballads. ‘Bittersweet End’, a co-write with Sam Hogin and Jim McBride, is a reflective song about the aftermath of a relationship where “the taste of forever still lingers”. Some lovely fiddle augments it beautifully. The delicate ‘It’s Amazing’ is a gentle love song given a string arrangement to close out the set.

I was always sorry this album did not help Joy to break through. It is well worth checking out.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Dixie Chicks – ‘You Were Mine’

Single/Song Review: Sunny Sweeney – ‘Bottle By My Bed’

trophyThe first single from Sunny Sweeney’s much anticipated new album is something of a change of pace emotionally. Coming to the song cold I expected this to be about the alcoholic type of bottle, but it is something quite different. Drawing on her real life experience of infertility the song, which Sunny wrote with Lori McKenna, voices her and her husband’s longing for a baby.

She compares her life, apparently enviable, but empty, to that of friends already raising children, whereas she has “an empty room at the top of the stairs”. She says she would be happy to exchange worldly possessions for the baby bottle, and later the carpool.

Occasionally addressing the future child she dreams of, she declares,

“I don’t even know you yet but I know I love you”

There is a thread of hope saving the mood from one of self-pity, ending the song with “We wait”.

A fairly sparse string arrangement allows the song’s emotions to take center stage, with a somber cello performance from Jake Clayton standing out. Sunny’s incisive vocal sells the song effectively.

This is a subject rarely addressed in country music. There’s an obscure track by Kellie Coffey, ‘I Would Die For That’, and the Dixie Chicks’ more allusive ‘So Hard’ (from the post-controversy Taking The Long Way). But Sunny’s song is the best written of these three, and the one which speaks most strongly to me. It has a special resonance for me as my mother has talked about her own struggles with fertility, many years ago, putting strain on my parents’ marriage before eventually adopting me and my brother, a path less easily available nowadays.

I’m not sure I can hear this as a radio single, but it is the kind of song which gives country music its reputation as the reflection of true life in all its complexities.

Grade: A+

Listen here, and read an interview with Sunny about the background to the song.

50th CMA Awards: Grading the Twenty Performances

Instead of the typical CMA Awards prediction post, I thought it might be fun to rank the twenty performances, all of which brought something special to the evening. Here they are, in ascending order, with commentary:

20.

imrs-phpBeyoncé Feat. Dixie Chicks – Daddy’s Lessons

The most debated moment of the night was the worst performance in recent CMA history, an embarrassment to country music and the fifty years of the organization. Beyoncé was the antithesis of our genre with her staged antics and complete lack of authenticity. If Dixie Chicks had performed this song alone, like they did on tour, it would’ve been a slam-dunk. They were never the problem. Beyoncé is to blame for this mess.

Grade: F

19.

Kelsea Ballerini – Peter Pan

I feel bad for her. It seems Ballerini never got the memo that this was the CMA Awards and not a sideshow at Magic Kingdom. Everything about this was wrong – the visuals, wind machine and, most of all, the dancers. Once I saw the harness in plain sight, I knew it was over.

Grade: F 

 18.

362x204-q100_121d9e867599857df2132b3b6c77e0c8Luke Bryan – Move

Nashville is perennially behind the trends as evidenced by Bryan’s completely out of place performance. One of only two I purposefully fast forwarded through.

Grade: F 

 17.

Florida Georgia Line feat. Tim McGraw – May We All 

Stood out like a sore thumb, for all the wrong reasons. Not even McGraw could redeem this disaster.

Grade: F  

16.

gettyimages-620669440-43407842-8b2a-437b-a6e4-f643a1b5b104Carrie Underwood – Dirty Laundry

The newly minted Female Vocalist of the Year gave the third weakest performance of this year’s nominees. I commend her use of an all-female band, but disliked everything else from the visuals to Underwood’s dancing. It all starts with the song and this one is among her worst.

Grade: D+

15.

Thomas Rhett – Die A Happy Man

The biggest hit of the year gave Thomas Rhett a moment his other radio singles proves he doesn’t deserve. He remained gracious throughout the night, proving he can turn it on when it counts. I just wish it wasn’t an act.

Grade: B- 

14.

362x204-q100_b63432d74b677e29d35917efd7490170Keith Urban – Blue Ain’t Your Color

A perfectly serviceable performance of an above average song. He did nothing to stand out from the pack neither adding to nor distracting from the night’s more significant moments.

Grade: B

13.

Dierks Bentley feat. Elle King – Different for Girls 

At least Bentley wasn’t showcasing the rowdier side of Black. He and King didn’t do anything to stand out and the whole thing was more middle of the road than anything else.

Grade: B

 12.

landscape-1478192054-gettyimages-620693852Martina McBride, Reba McEntire, Kacey Musgraves, Jennifer Nettles and Carrie Underwood – Dolly Parton Tribute 

I have nothing against Parton nor do I deny her incredible legacy as a pioneer in the genre. But it’s time to honor someone else. Parton has been lauded and it’s so old at this point, it’s unspectacular. That’s not to say this wasn’t a great medley, it was. I just wish it had been for someone different, like say, Tanya Tucker.

Grade: B

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Dixie Chicks Live: long time gone, but back once again

imageIf there was ever a time for Dixie Chicks to mount a comeback tour in the United States, it would be now, while we’re in the midst of the most decisive presidential election in our nation’s history. Dixie Chicks are a political band, for better or worse, and not just because they register folks to vote in the concession area before, during and after each show.

The election does play a role, albeit a small one, in this latest production. The MMXVI Tour, as it’s being called, exists to commemorate the watershed moment Natalie Maines replaced Laura Lynch as lead singer twenty years ago. The success that followed forever changed the trajectory of mainstream country music, although this show, fierce country-tinged rock, spends more time ignoring that legacy than honoring it.

The balance skewed Taking The Long Way-heavy (although “Easy Silence, complete with a lyrical video, and the unexpected and rarely performed “Silent House” were fabulous), which allowed banjos, fiddles and dobros to act as accents opposed to centerpieces for the majority of the evening. But this being a Dixie Chicks show, they honored their past with fiery renditions of “Sin Wagon,” “Wide Open Spaces,” “Some Days You Gotta Dance,” “Mississippi” and “Not Ready To Make Nice.” Lush renditions of “Cowboy Take Me Away” and “Landslide” were also excellent, while the latter had a beautiful backdrop containing reflective images of the Chicks’ heads.

The rock theme was matched by the black and white set, minimal yet powerful, which hit you in the face with lights and sound as Dixie Chicks took the stage for the one-two punch of “The Long Way Around” and “Lubbock or Leave It.” They added significant muscle to the uptempos from Home, giving “Truth No. 2” and “Long Time Gone” a charge of energy unmatched by their humble acoustic beginnings.

The show is broken into two separate sections at the conclusion of highlight “Goodbye Earl,” and is bridged by a black-and-white car chase in which the ladies race to the sounds of Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades.” They returned with the night’s strongest segment, an acoustic set that hinted at their beginnings (“Traveling Soldier” and “White Trash Wedding”) while nicely showing where they could go with a cover of Beyoncé’s “Daddy’s Lessons,” from her recently released Lemonade. (They excluded their brilliant reading of Patty Griffin’s “Don’t Let Me Die In Florida,” for obvious reasons). They concluded this portion with an instrumental they concocted that had Maines banging a single drum framed in bluegrass beats.

FullSizeRenderThey skewed the presidential race jib-jab style on “Ready To Run,” my favorite moment of the whole show, which ended with red, white and blue confetti festively blanketing the audience. The eluded to Donald Trump just twice more; giving him devil horns during “Goodbye Earl” and when Maines said she’d protect a bug that had flown on stage by ‘building a wall’ around it.

It actually wasn’t Trump, but the recently deceased Prince that dominated the evening. They set the stage for the evening with him singing “Let’s Go Crazy” (after a video about wrongly incarcerated inmates, Dixie Chicks trivia questions and a random selections of Maines’ always colorful tweets) and treated the crowd to a stunning cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U” that brought fourth unforeseen colors in Maines’ voice soaked in a backdrop of his giant purple symbol. They ended the evening with Ben Harper’s “Better Way,” which they dedicated to the Pulse Nightclub victims in Orlando.

This Mansfield, MA stop on their tour was my fourth time seeing Dixie Chicks live. I saw them open for George Strait in 1999 and headline their own Top of The World (2003) and Accidents and Accusations (2006) tours. I was supposed to see them open for Eagles in 2010 at Gillette Stadium, but an unforeseen engagement got in the way. Each show has been dramatically different from the last, providing its own distinct flavors and textures.

While I’ll likely always regard their 2003 outing as their finest, this show wasn’t without considerable charms. The Chicks haven’t lost an ounce of the spunk they’ve cultivated over the past twenty years. They may have been pushing a bit too hard – the show was much louder than it needed to be – but the true essence of Dixie Chicks came through wonderfully. They’ve only gotten better, which is a testament to their incredible prowess. Ten years was a long time, but it was certainly worth the agonizing wait.

Jonathan Pappalardo’s favorite albums of 2015

I don’t have a full list of favorite albums this year. As I age, the bar is increasingly higher for what it takes to grab me. There have been so many albums I’ve admired this year, but these six are the ones that transfixed my attention and kept me coming back for more. These are the six that deserve to be highlighted.

Are there themes? Well, only one featured a single that topped the charts. I don’t even think combined sales would equal a million copies sold. As I get older, my tastes have increasingly drifted towards albums that eschew the mainstream. I want music that leaves an impression and these releases do it in spades. Take a look and let me know what you think.

kasey-chambers-bittersweet6. Kasey Chambers – Bittersweet

 I couldn’t put the spellbinding title track on my favorite singles list since it came out back in 2014. The emotion is palpable in the uniquely structured tale, in which Chambers gives voice to both sides of a disintegrating marriage. It sets the scene for the whole album, a primal scream in the wake of her divorce from Shane Nicholson. The roar is loudest on the final track, “I’m Alive,” as she proudly declares “And through all the blood and the sweat and the tears, things ain’t always what they appear, I made it through the hardest fucking year.”

Key Tracks: “Bittersweet (feat. Bernard Fanning),” “I’m Alive,” “Wheelbarrow”

kacey-musgraves-album-pageant-material-20155.  Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material

 Pageant Material is a very uneven follow-up to Same Trailer Different Park. The majority of the songs sound like they’re outtakes from the first album that weren’t strong enough to make the cut on that set. But at its best, Pageant Material is sharp and biting. Cuts like “Good ‘Ol Boys Club” and the title track are ballsy declarations with clear messages. She also unapologetically turned up the steel and committed to recording in the throwback vibe that has become her trademark in live performances. She got a lot wrong but shined brighter than her competition with everything she got right.

Key Tracks: “Good ‘Ol Boys Club,” “Pageant Material,” “Late to the Party”

starte-here4. Maddie & Tae – Start Here

Mainstream country has been overdue for an artist with a unique sound and fresh perspective who is also firmly rooted in the traditions of the genre. Maddie and Tae aren’t saviors, but their blend of pop country hasn’t been this charming or welcomed since it died with the Dixie Chicks in 2003. Their perception could be sharper and even more biting, but Maddie & Tae are well on their way. Start Here is a promising first glimpse into what they bring to the table.

Key Tracks: “Shut Up and Fish,” “After the Storm Blows Through,” “Sierra”

jason-isbell-something-more-than-free-560x5603. Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free

Albums like Southeastern come along once in an artist’s career if at all. The follow-up record is an often-daunting task to tackle. For everyone except Jason Isbell, that is. Something More Than Free arrives just two years later and is every bit as artistically masterful as its predecessor. Isbell is fearless in the honest way he stays true to the authenticity of every moment he creates. His music is drenched in gritty reality. His way with a lyric is unparalleled to his peers, who can’t even come close to bringing as much sensitivity and nuance to the stories they construct. Jason Isbell is simply a master among armatures. Could we really ask for anything more?

Key Tracks: “Something More Than Free,” “24 Frames,” “Speed Trap Town”

CD400_out2. Nancy Beaudette – South Branch Road

Beaudette’s relatability, and the personal connections I’ve found within these songs, drew me in to fully appreciate the magic of South Branch Road, a window into her soul. She’s constructed an album from the inside out, using her own life to give the listener a deeply personal tour of her many winds and roads, reflecting on the lessons learned around each curve and bend. Beaudette is already a bright bulb on the independent music scene but the release of South Branch Road demands that light shine even brighter. (NOTE: I said it back and June and still mean it wholeheartedly six months later)

Key Tracks: “Something To Me,” “Till The Tomatoes Ripen,” “Shoot To Score,” “South Branch Road”

eric-church-mr-misunderstood1. Eric Church – Mr. Misunderstood

Eric Church shocked the music industry when he unleashed a surprise album on his fan club by sending out copies (CD, vinyl and digital downloads were distributed) without warning. Those fans got an early taste of the best album of Church’s career. Mr. Misunderstood is an artistic triumph and the first time Church has sustained his unique sound across an entire record without brazen experimentation clouding our listening experience. Here are ten exceptional reasons why Church is the strongest male artist in the mainstream sector of the genre right now.

Key Tracks: “Three Year Old,” “Round Here Buzz,” “Record Year”

 

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.

 

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.

Classic Rewind: Dixie Chicks – ‘I Hope’

Hurricane Katrina devistated the Gulf Coast ten years ago today. Dixie Chicks provided Country Music’s most powerful response, via one of their greatest singles:

Classic Rewind: Dixie Chicks – ‘Long Time Gone’

Album Review: Kelly Willis – ‘Easy’

KellyWillisEasyMy first exposure to Kelly Willis came around 2002 when the video for “I Left You” was featured on CMT’s fantastic TRL inspired Most Wanted Live video countdown program. The single led Easy, Willis’ second album for Rykodisc Records and first batch of new material in three years. Gary Paczosa, who’s gone on to produce Joey + Rory and Kathy Mattea among others, co-produced with Willis.

The two singles from the album, neither of which charted, remain a couple of my favorite songs from the 2000s still today. Willis wrote “If I Left You,” an acoustic guitar soaked masterpiece about a woman running through how she’d act if she left her man, in the wake of him actually leaving her. Her gorgeous cover of UK singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl’s “Don’t Come The Cowboy With Me, Sunny Jim!” is even better; a stunning waltz about a woman’s stern warning to a man that she’s done being taken advantage of by players. Her vocal on the Spanish-flavored tune is perfection, a great example of Willis’ ability to wrap her distinct twang around a song.

Beyond “If I Left You,” Willis had a hand in writing three more tracks solo. “Not What I Had In Mind” is a mournful ballad about a woman “loving you now, though you’re no longer mine.” It’s a great lyric, but the production is lacking in steel guitar, an oversight leaving the track feeling unfinished. “Reason To Believe” is lush lullaby equating a woman’s ability to let go and live with the start of a romantic relationship. Willis’ vocal is the star here, a master class of control. The track forces her to whisper more than belt and she mostly pulls off the restraint with little difficulty. The title track, the final number Willis penned solo, is excellent, even though the melody could’ve stood for a bit more distinction.

Willis co-wrote two more tracks on Easy. “Getting to Know Me” “Getting to Me” is a mid-tempo mandolin drenched number penned alongside Gary Louris, a founding member of The Jayhawks, and a prominent co-writer on Dixie Chicks’ Taking The Long Way album. It’s a good song, but feels like a second-rate “If I Left You” sonically. “Wait Until Dark” found Willis collaborating with Rosanne Cash’s husband John Leventhal. The ballad is excellent, with Willis and Paczosa dressing it in a fabulous mandolin and acoustic guitar driven arraignment reminiscent of the work Cash would come to produce later in the decade.

Willis turned to her husband Bruce Robison for “What Did You Think,” an excellent ballad, and one of the strongest tracks on Easy thanks to its full melody and strong lyric. Paul Kelly wrote “You Can’t Take It With You,” Willis’ sole detour into bluegrass, a shift that would’ve benefited from a more energized vocal, but is great nonetheless. Blues Pianist and singer Marcia Ball wrote “Find Another Fool,” a steel and fiddle centric ballad about a woman done with a no good man that allows Willis to soar vocally.

I actually downloaded the two singles from Easy long before I went back and purchased the whole album. They remain my favorite of the tracks, likely due to their more commercial bent. The remainder of Easy is a mixed bag, more ballad driven than I was expecting with far less interesting arrangements than I thought would be here given how great the singles sounded. But Easy isn’t a bad album by any means and well worth revisiting if you’ve never heard it or haven’t given it a listen in a while.

Grade: B

Album Review – Jennifer Nettles – ‘That Girl’

ThatGirlCDIn the four years since Sugarland graced us with The Incredible Machine it’s become abundantly clear that the project was the inaugural example of country music’s changing tide from a genre of integrity to one corrupted by an 80s rock mentality. As the first instance of the paradigm shift the results were shocking, but in context they make a little more sense.

There’s no secret fans have been clamoring for a redo from the duo, but the fallout from still-pending lawsuits relating to the collapse of their stage at the Indiana State Fair in August 2011, where seven people died, have prevented their collective return to music.

In the meantime, we have That Girl, the first solo offering from Jennifer Nettles; a project she says she’s been writing for the past three years. When the album was announced last summer I was excited, mostly because Rick Rubin was at the helm. Rubin, the man behind Johnny Cash’s American Recordings and Dixie Chicks’ spellbinding Taking The Long Way, knows how to craft complete albums better than almost anyone. So to say my expectations were unbelievably high would be an understatement.

By all accounts, That Girl is a solidly above average album. Nettles’ songwriting skills are sharper than ever and she delivers one stunning vocal after another. But the ingredients just don’t add up, leaving the bulk of That Girl feeling lost and cold.

More than nine years ago I fell in love with Nettles’ voice when “Just Might (Make Me Believe)” was climbing the charts and became obsessed with “Want To” when it led their second album two years later. There was a beautiful intimacy to those tracks that coupled with decidedly country production (fiddles, dobros, and mandolins) created an indelible magic that only got stronger with each passing album.

That Girl retains the intimacy but is completely void of the country production elements from Sugarland’s best work. Seeing that this is a solo project, it’s unfair for Nettles to be expected to carry over the Sugarland sound. But Rubin has presided over an album that can hardly be called country at all, even by today’s standards. That wouldn’t normally be a problem but it aids in helping That Girl loose focus, and without a big standout track, the CD (as a whole) falls into a sea of sameness the renders the proceedings kind of boring.

But I do like and appreciate some of the tracks on their own merits. I love the sentiment of “Thank You,” her co-write with Little Big Town’s Phillip Sweet. The acoustic guitar backdrop is sleepy, but the pair managed to craft a wonderful lyric about appreciation that’s both beautiful and endearing. “Good Time To Cry,” co-written with Mike Reid, is an outstanding R&B flavored number and one of Nettles’ best vocals ever committed to record. She also hits “Falling,” a number about loosing one’s virginity, out of the park. It’s also the closet vocally to the Nettles’ we’ve come to know and love.

The sea of sameness is broken up a few times by some uptempo tracks, although none are overwhelmingly exciting. There’s a Caribbean feel to Kevin Griffin co-write “Jealousy” and somewhat of a hook, but the song gets a tad annoying with repeated listenings. Richard Marx co-write “Know You Wanna Know” succeeds on wordplay, and “Moneyball” displays the most personality from Nettles. The problem with the upbeat material isn’t the lyrical content but rather Rubin’s decision to make them feel too serious. Nettles has shown in the past she does better when she can be more playful (think “Settlin’” or “Steve Earle”).

I really wanted to love That Girl a lot more than I do, as I’ve been unhealthily obsessed with Nettles’ voice over the years and have seen Sugarland live three times. This solo effort would’ve been a stronger listening experience if it had been more varied in tempo, with a few more hook-laden songs and less sameness balladry. If these songs were sprinkled over the course of a few albums, I bet we would’ve been able to appreciate them more. That Girl is by no means a bad album, but it’s not the transcendent project it could and should’ve been.

Grade: B- 

Album Review – Robert Plant & Alison Krauss – ‘Raising Sand’

raising_sandI remember the instance where I logged onto CMT.com in August 2007 and saw a story about Alison Krauss teaming up with Robert Plant for a duets project. Having immersed myself in country music since I was a kid, I had no idea who Plant was, although I had heard of Led Zeppelin. Like everything Krauss does, I eagerly anticipated the album knowing it would result in a musical journey worth taking.

The genesis of Raising Sand came during a Lead Belly tribute at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in which the two singers performed together for the first time. O, Brother Where Art Thou mastermind T-Bone Burnett produced the sessions, taking place in both Los Angeles and Nashville. The album consists mostly of cover tunes, with Plant and Krauss acting out a role reversal – he tackles her trademark bluegrass while she embraces the bluesy style that penetrates his solo work.

A faithful to the original cover of the Everly Brothers “Gone, Gone, Gone (Done Moved On)” preceded the project, allowing Plant to lead with his signature wail. The version is excellent, with some gorgeous lead guitar riffs and drumbeats to give the track a distinctively lively yet retro feel. The pair won The Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals Grammy for the track in 2008.

The second single was “Please Read The Letter,” an original tune that Plant released as a collaboration with Jimmy Page in 1998. This version is wonderful, with Plant once again taking lead, and Krauss turning in an intoxicating fiddle solo reminiscent of Martie Maguire’s work with Dixie Chicks. Plant’s vocal is a bit shaky so Burnett was smart to employ a minimal production that allowed the pair’s harmonies to take center stage. The track was named Record of the Year at the 2009 Grammy Awards.

The third and final single was “Rich Woman,” a nice enough track but my least favorite of the three thanks to a rocking beat and choral refrain that grows grating after repeated listenings. It isn’t a bad song at all, just not to my personal taste. Like it’s predecessors, “Rich Woman” also won a Grammy, taking home Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals in 2009.

“Killing The Blues,” written by Rowland Salley of Chris Issak’s band Sivertone is my favorite track on the project, a rootsy country masterpiece drenched in steel guitar. The track is simply gorgeous, and very much deserving of the Best Country Collaboration with Vocals Grammy it won in 2009. Possibly even better then “Killing The Blues” is the Tim Burton-esque “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us,” a Krauss-led number with a fabulous banjo driven arrangement written by female singer-songwriter Sam Phillips. I love the twisty Halloween-esque vibe of the track, creepy and strange, anchored by Krauss’ crystal-clear vocal. Both songs are worth the price of the album, hands down.

Doc Watson and Rosa Lee Watson co-wrote “The Long Journey,” the project’s lone spiritual number that has a surprisingly sing-song-y feel. The track closes the album, which makes sense, because it feels more produced than the other numbers and has more of a shimmer to it. Come from nowhere is a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Nothin’” which shakes up the pace of the project with a loud electric guitar driven sound that helps it stand out, for the wrong reasons. It’s a good song lyrically, which a more understated arrangement would’ve made clearer. Mel Tillis wrote “Stick With Me Baby,” another track christened by The Everly Brothers in the 1960s. Plant and Krauss’ version is mellow and slow, almost a bit sleepy.

Unfortunately, nothing else from Raising Sand stood out to me. As a whole the project is kind of uneven but that’s likely do to my need to hear more steel and banjo to appreciate what everyone involved was going for here. But the best tracks (which I highlighted) are near incredible, making Raising Sand a unique album on the musical landscape and a bright spot when it first came out six years ago. In addition to the Grammys for individual tracks, the record itself won Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album and the overall Album of The Year (a first for Rounder Records) categories in 2009. All involved reunited for a follow-up shortly after their Grammy Sweep, but those sessions proved unsuccessful. It’s too bad, because I would like to hear more from this duo. I saw them when they toured off the record and it proved they still had more up their sleeve (the live show was much better then the album). But if Raising Sand is all we get, this is a fine collaboration from two worthy talents.

Grade: B