My Kind of Country

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Album Review: Carrie Underwood – ‘Storyteller’

Carrie_Underwood_-_Storyteller_(Official_Album_Cover)Of all the criticisms I can level at mainstream country this year, the most unnerving is the brazen shamelessness of artists who’ve gone out of their way to change everything they’re about in order to chase a bigger high that doesn’t exist. More than adapting to changing trends, artists like Zac Brown Band and The Band Perry have abandoned their earnestness and sold their souls to Scott Borchetta, who interfered with their artistry in order to fill his pockets.

Carrie Underwood, luckily, isn’t on the Big Machine Label Group. That being said, I was still nervous about the direction of Storyteller. To compete in a tomato-smeared world, how much would she have to veer from the sound that made her a household name?

As much as I admire Underwood’s music, I cannot help but feel her output has been geared toward the right now, with songs that don’t stand the test of time. A lot of her music, especially the rockers, just isn’t strong enough to carry the nostalgia we now feel for the 1990s country we all love. She’s an incredible vocalist, and when she’s on point, no one can hold a candle to her.

That’s why I’m always excited when she releases new music. I’m even more pleased she and Arista Nashville added Jay Joyce and Zach Crowell as producers alongside Mark Bright. Underwood and Bright have been a well-oiled machine going on ten years, but it’s time to change it up for the sake of variety.

Our first taste of the switch-up is the Joyce produced “Smoke Break,” a rocker Underwood co-wrote with Chris DeStefano and Hillary Lindsay. It’s easily one of the most country songs on the radio right now, with Underwood’s natural twang carrying the somewhat generic story quite nicely. I only wish Joyce had dialed it back on the chorus, going for a more organic punch than the screaming rock that drowns Underwood out.

Likely second single “Heartbeat,” which features Sam Hunt and was produced by his orchestrator Crowell, finds Underwood in a field with her man ‘dancing to the rhythm of [his] heartbeat.’ The track, which Underwood and Crowell co-wrote with Ashley Gorley, is a pleasant pop ballad that finds Underwood nicely subdued.

She also co-wrote four other tracks on the album. “Renegade Runaway” kicks off Storyteller with bang. The rocker, co-written with her “Smoke Break” comrades, is slinky and fun but suffers from a god-awful chorus that renders the song almost unlistenable. Mike Elizondo, best known for his work with Drake and Eminem, was brought in collaborate with Underwood and Lindsay on club thumper “Chaser.” The results are immature at best and showcase Underwood at her most watered down.

Fortunately, Underwood rebounds with her final two co-writes. Underwood and Lindsay turned to David Hodges to write “The Girl You Think I Am,” an ode to her father in the vein of “Mama’s Song” from Play On. It’s a beautiful prayer about acceptance, from a daughter who wants to overcome her insecurities to live up to her father’s expectations.

The other, “What I Never Knew I Always Wanted,” is the centerpiece of Storyteller even though it closes the album. Underwood isn’t an artist who normally looks from within for inspiration, so it’s rare when she finds inspiration in her own life for a song. The results aren’t spectacular – she could’ve gone a lot deeper lyrically and found even a little hint of country music in the execution – but she’s gotten her feet wet for future moves in this direction.

Storyteller wouldn’t be an Underwood album unless she revisits the murderous themes that have become her touchstone. These songs have grown into bigger productions in the ten years since “Before He Cheats” and usually suffer from a lack of subtlety. That doesn’t change much here, although they are kind of fun to listen to. “Choctaw County Affair” showcases Underwood’s growth as a vocalist with a delicious story about a woman’s mysterious death. “Church Bells” is an excellent backwoods rocker about domestic abuse. “Dirty Laundry,” on the other hand, is juvenile and revisits themes already too well worn. “Mexico,” about bandits on the run, isn’t the island song you’d expect but a typical Underwood rocker.

On every Underwood album there’s one song that stands out from the rest, a likely non-single that’ll always be a much-appreciated deep album cut. On Storyteller that distinction goes to sensual ballad “Like I’ll Never Love You Again,” written by the CMA Song of the Year winning team behind “Girl Crush.” Underwood delivers flawlessly, while the lyric is the strongest and most well written on the whole album.

“Relapse” is nothing more than a blown out pop power ballad that does little to advance Underwood’s artistry beyond the fact she showcases new colors in her voice. “Clock Don’t Stop,” another ballad, suffers from a hip-hop inspired chorus that relies far too heavily on drawn out one syllable words and yeahs in place of actual lyrics.

Storyteller is an odd album. I refuse to judge its complete lack of actual country music as a flaw even though it hurts the proceedings quite a bit. There are some listenable pop songs here, like “Heartbeat,” but most of this music is below Underwood’s talent level. The deliciousness of “Choctaw County Affair” saves it from the scrap heap while the articulate lyric of “Like I’ll Never Love You Again” is very, very good. But there isn’t much here that doesn’t feel like poorly written middle of the road pop/rock passing as modern country.

I give Underwood complete credit for changing up her sound and trying something new. It just isn’t to my taste at all. I much prefer the powerhouse who gave us the one-two-punch of “Something In The Water” and “Little Toy Guns.” That’s the Carrie Underwood I could listen to all day.

Grade: B-

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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.