My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Jamey Johnson

Spotlight Artist: Randy Travis

For an all too short period in the late 1980s, Randy Travis was the biggest star in country music. But while his reign at the top was relatively brief, his influence is almost incalculable. His superstardom was a major factor in the reclamation of more traditional country music from the pop influences which had overtaken it in the ’80s, showing that it was not necessary to abandon the genre’s roots to appeal to mass audiences.

Born Randy Traywick in Marshville, North Carolina, in 1959, he started out singing in a duo with elder brother Ricky when he was still a child. The duo came to a halt when Ricky ended up in prison. Both boys were wild youths who got in regular trouble with the police. At 17, Randy made his final court appearance, and was told by the judge he should bring a toothbrush the next time he saw him to prepare for a long stay in jail. He was released into the custody of local club owner Lib Hatcher. She had taken an interest in the talented youngster after he won a singing contest at the club she managed in Charlotte, and focussed on helping him become a country star. Randy recorded a few singles for independent label Paula, and in 1982 the pair moved together to Nashville, where Lib took a job managing a nightclub, while Randy washed dishes and sang. Randy was rejected by every major country label because, despite his obvious talent, he was seen as “too country” in an industry dominated at that time by the Urban Cowboy movement and pop crossover. Using the stage name Randy Ray, he recorded a live album at Lib’s club, the Nashville Palace. It’s never been formally re-released, but the original vinyl LP has become a collector’s item. Many of the tracks can be heard on YouTube.

This exposure helped open a few doors in Nashville, and in 1985 Randy signed to Warner Brothers, who gave him his new stage name. His debut single, ‘On The Other Hand’, initially failed to make any inroads at radio, and might have confirmed those label executives’ “too country” reservations. Despite the lack of measurable achievement, the Academy of Country Music did name Randy the Top New Male Vocalist for 1985. The label had enough faith in Randy to push another single, ‘1982’. After this reached the top 10, they re-released ‘On the Other Hand’, which was to become Randy’s first #1 hit and an instant classic. Storms Of Life, his debut studio album, was a massive commercial and artistic success, uncompromisingly pure country, and regarded by many as the finest debut album ever released by a country artist. Follow-up Always And Forever was an even bigger success, the #1 country album for 43 weeks, thanks partly to the big hit, ‘Forever And Ever Amen’.

Randy was young and good-looking compared to most country stars of the time. Although he was firmly in the tradition of Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and Merle Haggard, and was warmly welcomed by fans of traditional country music, he was also marketed to younger audiences as a fresh new artist, compared to what was categorized (only partially correctly) as a middle-aged, middle of the road, establishment. But more important than the image was Randy’s voice. His was one of the classic country voices, a supple baritone with distinctive inflections, which was immediately identifiable. He won a string of industry awards, including the CMA Horizon Award in 1986 and Male Vocalist of the Year in 1987 and 1988, and Grammy’s in 1988 and 1989. He also spearheaded the country music industry’s international marketing campaign in 1988, with his performance at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in London forming the centerpiece of a major multi-artist initiative. He was the face of country music.

Randy and Lib’s relationship was by this time personal as well as professional. The label was not happy about the 16 year age gap, fearing fans’ backlash, particularly as Randy was being marketed to international and city audiences as something of a sex symbol. In 1991, however, they went public with the relationship and got married. They divorced last year, but Lib remains Randy’s manager.

It is possible that the news of the marriage did upset some fans. Randy’s career began to falter commercially in the 90s as a tidal wave of new talent came on the scene. Randy had developed an interest in acting, which probably distracted him from his music career to some degree. His earliest part was a cameo in Brat Pack western Young Guns in 1988, and he has since appeared in a number of film and TV roles. Faced with declining sales, Randy split with Warner Brothers in 1997, and signed with new label Dream Works. The move failed to revive his career, and he eventually returned to the Warner group.

The new millennium saw a distinct change in his career, as he released a string of religious albums, which were well received by Christian music organizations. He has won seven Dove Awards for his work in this style. He did enjoy one more big country hit in ‘Three Wooden Crosses’, but otherwise he has received little radio airplay in recent years even when he released a new secular album, Around The Bend, in 2008. He returned to the spotlight when pop-country star Carrie Underwood released her cover of Randy’s 1988 hit ‘I Told You So’ as a single, citing the original as a childhood favorite. After the pair duetted live on the song on American Idol, Randy’s vocals were dubbed on to the record, which was then promoted as a duet, which peaked at #2 on Billboard and won them a Grammy.

That success may perhaps have prompted his latest venture, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the release of Storms Of Life this month. Back at the height of his success Randy recorded a duets album with some of his Heroes And Friends; now, although his own commercial success has sadly diminished, he is the elder statesman of country with whom younger stars are honored to work. Anniversary Celebration is due in stores on 7 June, and consists of a collection of duets with stars old and new including Underwood again, Josh Turner, Jamey Johnson, Alan Jackson, and John Anderson.

Randy Travis was one of the first country artists with whose music I fell in love, and I am pleased to announce that he is our Spotlight Artist for June. Razor X paid tribute to his 1994 album This Is Me some time ago, and over this month we plan to highlight the best of his other work.

2011 ACM award predictions

The major country music awards are scattered through the year, so a new one seems to come along every few months. The Academy of Country Music is presenting its awards for achievement in 2010 in Las Vegas on April 3 on a televized show hosted by Reba McEntire and Blake Shelton. The West Coast based ACMs don’t have quite the prestige of the CMAs, awarded in November, but they have one advantage, in that their eligibility period is the previous calendar year, where the CMA and Grammy organizations have a strange mid-year cutoff which can make it hard to work out exactly what is eligible. On the downside, a few years ago in a misguided attempt at currying popularity with the public, the ACM decided to allow an online fan vote to determine the Entertainer of the Year and New Artist titles. This has been partially modified this year.

Entertainer of the Year

Jason Aldean
Toby Keith
Miranda Lambert
Brad Paisley
Taylor Swift

Keith Urban

Occasional Hope: There were loud squawkings from the fans of Carrie Underwood when she was omitted from the nominations this time, having won the title for the past two years. This is a partially fan-voted category this year, and with Carrie’s absence factored in, I think Taylor Swift is a slam-dunk for the victory, with her enormous and youthful fanbase. Surprise nominee Jason Aldean has earned platinum status for his last two albums and a string of top hits, so although I am underwhelmed by his heavy rocking brand of country, he might just have enough of a fanbase, and have the commercial impetus to impress the industry enough to achieve a surprise win. But the talented Miranda Lambert had a great year last year, and she would be my personal choice.

Razor X: This seems like it will be Miranda‘s year. If the award were entirely based on fan votes, Taylor Swift would be a very strong contender, but I think that because industry votes will be counted as well, they’ll offset the fan voting.

J.R. Journey: I’m assuming the members will win the battle in the combination membership/fan voting for the Entertainer race this year. Paisley may well hold his own in the online voting pools too, but I think he’ll outdistance the others as the overall vote-getter.

Top Male Vocalist of the Year

Jason Aldean
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton

George Strait
Keith Urban

O.H.: Brad Paisley has won this title for the last four years. I can’t see anyone pushing him out this time either. I can’t say I feel very enthusiastic about this category despite the underlying talent of those nominated. None of the nominees produced particularly memorable music in 2010 – Blake Shelton may be the reigning CMA Male Vocalist and half of country music’s favorite courrent love story, but I think the ACM likes to differentiate itself from the CMAs occasionally. I liked ‘Twang’, but it under-performed at radio.

J.R.: In addition to his co-hosting duties, Blake Shelton seems poised to finally unseat Brad Paisley as the reigning Male Vocalist this year.

R.X.: Blake Shelton . Again, I think the ACMs will follow the CMA’s lead. It’s time for some new blood in this category and I just can’t see the award going to Aldean. At least I hope not.

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Recording new lows

Much has been said lately about plummeting music sales.  Country Universe has you covered with the latest numbers. This is effecting every genre, and country is no exception.  Each week the Billboard 200 album chart posts a new record low for the top-selling album. Everyone is looking for the silver lining. Shutting down massive file-sharing sites is really little victory in the long-term because these music pirates are finding new avenues to infringe copyrights even as I write this. I won’t try to kid myself that low, low record sales are anything but primarily caused by illegal downloading, but I am of the persuasion that there are other fixes than injunctions against the major culprits. Country music has been in the valley before, only to rise to glory time and time again.

Historically, when sales and listenership began to dwindle, the powers on Music Row raised up and began working to solve the problem.  When the rock and roll invasion in the 1950s brought country music sales to a standstill at the end of the decade, and more and more radio stations stopped programming the music, executives and producers opted to polish the sound of the music they created.

Born to compete commercially with rock and roll, the Nashville Sound embodied the lush, string-filled sounds of pop music from a couple decades past.  Artists like Brenda Lee, Glen Campbell and Bobby Bare found as much success on the pop charts as the country charts during this time.  By the 1970s, when the public began to tire of the slicker side of country from the likes of Crystal Gale, Kenny Rogers and others, there came a group of renegades who decided to turn up their amplifiers and sing about gritty, real-life subject matter.  We called them outlaws.  Then came Urban Cowboy, practiced by most of the same artists from the pre- and post-outlaw time, was yet another incarnation of the Nashville Sound.  The antidote for that overstated Urban Cowboy era was of course the New Traditionalist movement of the 80s.  And then you all know the story of Garth Brooks and the 90s, when CDs were still on the shelves, and were flying off daily.  We watched as country music became the popular music of the day.

Today, the biggest-selling artists remain middle-of-the road starlets like Lady Antebellum, Sugarland, Taylor Swift, and Jason Aldean.  These artists have taken an adult contemporary approach, aiming their music squarely for the top 40. Lady Antebellum is the very definition of a MOR act, straddling the line between pop/rock and country, while posting impressive sales numbers.

Like Lady A, Sugarland’s sales remain strong – 4 straight platinum CDs – but they’ve done it with the same ratio of mostly influences not indigenous to Music City.  Sugarland started out a very promising act in the pop-country field.  Their music sparkled with life, their lyrics were smart and original, and Jennifer Nettles brought with her an attention-grabbing vocal.  Their sound has evolved outside the sparkling pop-country of their first releases into the bombastic and shouted antics of The Incredible Machine. Now, like the industry that gave them a foothold, the duo seems to be in a sort of identity crisis, with no decided musical direction these days.  Their lack of focus, aside from the production, is the biggest fault with their most recent album, yet consumers have rewarded their uncertainty with a million purchases.

But that’s not all there is.  Lee Ann Womack has never matched the sales of her crossover mega-hit ‘I Hope You Dance’ with her acclaimed traditional releases in the past couple of years, but continues to crank out quality, country music in the traditionalist sense.   Sure, there are others – Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson are making some inroads – but I don’t see that either of them is doing much to change the tide.  Johnson can’t get on the radio with the singles from his latest album, no matter how good they are.  And Lambert is swimming in a sea of pseudo-twangy pop stars.  It’s still a wonder she’s made it as far as she has.  I certainly root, root, root for her continued success, but I wonder if her contributions to traditional country are enough.

After two decades of pop-country at the forefront, aren’t we overdue for a change of the tide once again?  I’d say we’re almost a decade behind the cycle.  I can’t be the only one who’s noticed.

My Kind Of Country’s 2011 Grammy predictions

Sunday evening sees the premier all-genre music awards ceremony at the Staple Center in LA, and broadcast on CBS. These awards relate to music released in the eligibility period from September 1, 2009 to September 31, 2010. A lot of the country music awards will be awarded in the non-televised portion of the show, but news of the winners will be keenly awaited nonetheless. Last year saw Taylor Swift winning three country categories and the all-genre Album of the Year; she is not nominated this time. Who will dominate the country honorees this time around? And will Lady Antebellum who, like Taylor last year, are nominated in several all-genre categories, match or outdo her? One general point I’ve noticed is how many bluegrass based recordings have been nominated across the country categories this year, and I wonder if this will be reflected in the results.

Country Album

Dierks Bentley, Up On The Ridge
Zac Brown Band, You Get What You Give
Jamey Johnson, The Guitar Song : Razor X
Lady Antebellum, Need You Now : Occasional Hope

Miranda Lambert, Revolution : J.R. Journey

Razor X: This is an unusually strong list of contenders. Bentley is the outlier in this group since his album had the least commercial success. I’m a bit torn as to whether I’d like to see him or Jamey Johnson take home this trophy. But if I’m forced to choose, I like the Johnson album a little better so that’s my pick for who should win. Since the Grammys have a tendency to recognize artistic merit a little more than either the CMAs or ACMs, I think Johnson will probably emerge as the winner.

J.R.: In a category full of top-of-their-game albums, Johnson and Lambert go into the Grammy show this year as the decided critics’ favorites, which usually spells win with NARAS voters. Both had broken through with their preceding albums, and with all eyes upon them, the leading man and woman of traditional country music turned in sets that not only built on their previous work, they both turned a couple more switches on in the process. With The Guitar Song Johnson embraced his southern rock and storytelling side, while still exploring even more and darker themes than we heard on That Lonesome Song. Revolution finds Lambert channeling the serious and introverted songwriter inside herself more than anything she’s done before, but she still retains the amped-up simplicity and accessibility we’ve come to love her for.

OH: Jamey Johnson’s double album is both the best and the most ambitious of these albums, but this is a more than respectable lineup . Dierks’s genre-blending mix of bluegrass, country and rock, the Zac Brown Band’s organic rootsy rock-country, and Miranda’s strong vocals and songs (notwithstanding the overbearing production/mixing), this is a group of albums all (with one jarring exception ) displaying real artistic ambition. I’d be happy with any of those four winning, but I’m going to be pessimistic here, and assume the Academy will be dazzled by commercial and crossover success, and pick Lady A’s high-selling but extremely bland Need You Now, which has also been nominated for the main Album of the Year category. I don’t think they’ll follow in Taylor Swift’s footsteps there, just because she is the only country winner of that category ever, but I think they should walk away with this one.

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J.R. Journey’s Top 10 Albums of 2010

So many of my perennial favorites released new material this year that no room was left on the top 10 for new faces.  It wouldn’t have been hard to double this list as I bought twice as much music as last year, and had even more than that sent to me, and I found myself enjoying more and more of it as the months went on.  This always makes listing your favorites in order a task to undertake.  So this year, I  simply ranked my albums list according to their plays on my iPod and the 2 media players on my computers.  So here then, are my favorite and my most-played albums of 2010.

10. Alan Jackson – Freight Train

The ever-dependable Jackson released one of the best sets of music Nashville offered this year. Too bad more of these songs weren’t released to radio since this is likely the best Alan Jackson album most people will never hear.  If you haven’t yet, listen to ‘Tail Lights Blue’, ‘Till The End’, and the title track.

9. Sarah Buxton – Sarah Buxton

Four years in the making, Sarah Buxton’s first full-length album was finally released earlier this year, though 6 of the songs were released digitally in 2007. In addition to Buxton’s original take on the Keith Urban hit ‘Stupid Boy’, this disc features the raspy-voiced singer-songwriter’s four top 40 radio hits, and will likely continue to be mined for future hits by more A-listers.

8. Willie Nelson – Country Music

Nelson’s sedate take on these country standards and other songs from the Great American Songbook, including more than one hymn, are each one sublime.  My personal favorites are ‘Pistol Packin’ Mama’, ‘You Done Me Wrong’, and an almost-hushed take on ‘Satisfied Mind’.

7. Reba – All The Women I Am

Aside from that ghastly first single, Reba’s newest album is either half-full of good songs or half-empty, depending on how you look at it . Either way, the few tracks that do hit home pack a mighty punch. ‘The Day She Got Divorced’ stands as McEntire’s finest recording in years, while the weeping ‘Cry’ and the horn-infused title track remind us there’s still a gifted vocalist behind all that makeup and leather.

6. Coal Miner’s Daughter: Tribute to Loretta Lynn

Tribute albums? Meh. That’s usually my reaction too. But very rarely does a multi-artist collection offer so many one-time gems. (Think: Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles.) The usual suspects are all here – Reba’s awesome slice of western swing with ‘If You’re Not Gone Too Long’ is flawless – while even the likely Faith Hill and the unlikely Kid Rock step up to competence with Loretta Lynn’s  material. Added kudos for pairing Lynn with Miranda Lambert for the title track.

5. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song

Jamey Johnson’s epic follow up to his career-making That Lonesome Song doesn’t pack the knockout punch of that first record. Instead, these 25 songs deliver their message with subtle dark overtones, and the stories told here are the kind you just can’t make up. Check out ‘Lonely At The Top’, ‘Can’t Cash My Checks’, and ‘Playin’ The Part’.

4. Gary Allan – Get Off On The Pain

Allan’s eighth album is another installment of the gritty, pathos-infused West Coast country that only Gary Allan is doing. These songs find a man addressing the harsher realities of everyday life; lyrics driven all the way home with Allan’s competent vocal work throughout. Favorites include ‘Kiss Me When I’m Down’, ‘Along The Way’, and ‘No Regrets’.

3. Marty Stuart – Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions

Stuart’s throwback to country’s first golden era is highlighted mostly by warm musicianship, which features up heaping dollops of fiddle and steel while keeping that signature Bakersfield-meets Mississippi sound that made Stuart’s early recordings so engaging. Choice cuts include the high-octane ‘Bridge Washed Out’ and ‘I Run To You’ with Connie Smith.

2. Chely Wright – Lifted Off The Ground

Lifted off the Ground finds Chely Wright ably making the leap to a mature, serious, and literate artist in the vein of Mary Chapin Carpenter and Rosanne Cash, with a brilliant blend of country and folk with tinges of rock and pop, aided in part by Rodney Crowell, who urged Wright to pursue her inner songwriter, and also produced the set.

1. Zac Brown Band – You Get What You Give

It’s been a fairly slow build for me, but the Zac Brown Band have firmly planted themselves as one of my favorite mainstream country acts today. I’m not sure why their sometimes warm and fuzzy, sometimes humorous, always charming kind of country took two albums and half a dozen singles for me to get them, but I think I finally do. These guys are the opposite of what so many are trying to do in Nashville right now: these are legitimate southern rock stars recording actual country music (as opposed to the imposters with their ‘I’m country’ lyrics and hard-rocking guitars). Here’s a band that can out-island Kenny Chesney – ‘Settle Me Down’, ‘Let It Go’, out-country Strait – ‘Cold Hearted’, and probably out-Hollywood Tim McGraw if they chose to, but at the moment they’re making music. Substantial, memorable music full of hooks and melodies.  I really like these guys.

Razor X’s Top 10 albums of 2010

The past few years have not seen the release of a lot of great country music, but 2010 provided some pleasant surprises, including the return of some veteran artists we haven’t heard from in a while, which may be a sign that the genre is finally getting back on the right track. I was able to compile my Top 10 choices with a lot less difficulty than last year, which surely is a sign that things are starting to improve. Here’s my list:

10. Sammy Kershaw – Better Than I Used To Be. I’m not sure that Sammy is better than he used to be, as the title of his current album says, but he’s definitely as good as he once was, as Toby Keith might say. I was pleasantly surprised by the strength of the song selection on this album.

9. SteelDrivers – Reckless. For their sophomore release, this progressive bluegrass band doesn’t stray too far from the formula that made their debut album a winner. While not quite as good as its predecessor, Reckless offers a refreshing alternative to the often lackluster fare offered up by the mainstream.

8. Willie Nelson – Country Music. His voice is not what it once was, but Willie is still able to use it to great effect. For his Rounder Records debut, he chose a solid set of traditional old-time bluegrass and folk songs, that didn’t require him to stretch beyond his age-imposed vocal restrictions. Commercial concerns don’t seem to have been given much consideration in this project, and the result is an album that truly shines.

7. Merle Haggard – I Am What I Am. Like Willie, Haggard’s voice is showing signs of wear and tear, but it worked well with the album’s material, in one of his strongest efforts in recent memory.

6. Dierks Bentley – Up On The Ridge. That this bluegrass-inspired project was released on a major label by an artist who is still consistently charting in the Top 10 is nothing short of miraculous. Bentley and Capitol had originally planned to release a pure bluegrass album, but appear to have gotten cold feet and issued a set that is heavily bluegrass-influenced, but with some concessions to more mainstream tastes. Nevertheless, they deserve great credit for daring to buck commercial trends in an era in which “play it safe” is the norm.

5. Joe Diffie – Homecoming. Diffie’s bluegrass album is more traditional than Bentley’s, a luxury afforded to artists who are no longer competing for radio airplay. After a six-year hiatus from recording, it was great to hear from Joe again.

4. Zac Brown Band – You Get What You Give. I didn’t really give this band a fair chance when they first showed up at country radio,being a bit put off by the “genre-defying” moniker that many critics were using to describe them. Like their previous album, not everything on You Get What You Give is traditional or even country, but all of it is quite different from what anyone else is doing at the moment, and I ended up liking this album a lot more than I ever expected to.

3. Alan Jackson – Freight Train. This solid follow-up to 2007’s disappointing Good Time suffered commercially from Arista’s decision to release two of its weakest tracks as singles, while passing over much stronger alternatives. It was also the last studio album Jackson owed them under his contract, and that may have resulted in less promotional support than usual. Nevertheless, there are some very fine moments on this album, not the least of which is his duet with Lee Ann Womack, a cover of Vern Gosdin’s “‘Til The End”, which was nominated for Musical Event of the Year by the CMA.

2. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song. This double album, the long-awaited follow-up to That Lonesome Song, has been in heavy rotation in my CD player and iPod since it was released in September. It was recently awarded gold certification, despite a lack of support from radio.

1. Marty Stuart – Ghost Train. If I were stranded on a desert island with only one album from 2010 to listen to, this would be the one I’d choose hands down. This labor of love shows us what country music once was, and what it could and hopefully will be once again. I cannot praise this near-flawless masterpiece enough.

Occasional Hope’s Top 10 Albums of 2010

While great mainstream releases have been a little thin on the ground, there’s been some good music released if you look around, on both major and minor labels. Here are my favorite albums of the year (with links to fuller reviews):

10. Aaron Watson – The Road And The Rodeo

The best Texas country album of the year by a solo male vocalist. In the opening track Aaron talks about “seldom being heard on your radio”, but this is just the sort of music which ought to be at the heart of the mainstream.

9. Dierks Bentley – Up On The Ridge

Not quite everything gelled for me on Dierks’s bluegrass-influenced project, but it was a brave attempt at artistic growth and one of the most ambitious and adventurous records of the year. He was rewarded with three CMA nominations, more airplay than bluegrass can usually command, and respectable sales figures.

8. Merle Haggard – I Am What I Am

The legend returns with his best work in years. His voice has suffered the ravages of age, but his songwriting is still inspired, with ten of the twelve tracks consisting of solo Haggard compositions which stand comparison with his past repertoire. Highlights include the reflection on the changes brought by time, ‘I’ve Seen It Go Away’, which opens and sets the tone for the album.

7. Amber Digby and Justin Trevino – Keeping Up Appearances

A delightful set of covers of classic country duets by the excellent Amber Digby with her producer Justin Trevino recall the best of country music’s proud duet tradition.

6. Brennen Leigh – The Box

A really charming set of folk-country songs with pretty tunes mostly penned by the singer. The highlight is the Louvin Brothers style ‘Are You Stringing Me Along’, but it’s all worth hearing.

5. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song

Jamey’s magisterial double album opens with his cover of a previously unrecorded Keith Whitley song, ‘Lonely At The Top’, contrasting the miseries of fame with the greater problems of those less successful. It is chock full of songs about broken hearts, an unsentimental look at poverty (‘Poor Man Blues’, ‘Can’t Cash My Checks’), God (‘I Remember You’, ‘My Way To You’), country life, and country music itself, plus a song for Jamey’s little girl (‘Baby Don’t Cry’). Alongside the Whitley song are covers of Vern Gosdin’s ‘Set ‘Em Up Joe’, the Kris Kristofferson-penned Ray Price classic ‘For The Good Times’, and a malevolent take on ‘Mental Revenge’ (written by Mel Tillis but best known by Waylon Jennings), and legendary songwriter Bill Anderson duets with Jamey on the title track. This is not as dark as Jamey’s masterpiece That Lonesome Song, and I didn’t feel the songs were quite up to that standard. With the whole more than the sum of its parts, this is still a deeper and more challenging record than almost everything else cut in Nashville these days. Jamey has managed to sell pretty solid numbers despite the lack of a real radio hit so far this time around.

4. Marty Stuart – Ghost Train

This record was something of a revelation to me. I’ve never really got Marty Stuart’s music before, respecting his musicianship and admiring his approach, but never really loving the results. At last, this statement of what country music should be grabbed me from the first vibrant notes of opener ‘Branded’, in a set which is full of fire and energy. The backing is superb (with a handful of instrumentals including a steel guitar centered performance of ‘Crazy Arms’ by its writer Ralph Mooney). Marty’s vocals are truly heartfelt on the ballads and forceful on the up-tempo material, with wife Connie Smith duetting with him on a love song, and the material is excellent. Favorite tracks include the somber co-write with the dying Johnny Cash, ‘Hangman’.

3. Joe Diffie – Homecoming

Our August Spotlight Artist Joe’s long-awaited bluegrass album was well worth the wait. His voice sounds as good as ever and is ideally suited to the high lonesome sound, the production and musicians were spot-on, and the songs were great.

2. Joey + Rory – Album #2

I loved their debut, and their follow-up has all the charm of the original. Joey’s beautiful voice is still front and center, but Rory gets a bigger profile than previously, with the odd solo line and one lead vocal on his touching tribute to his father, ‘My Old Man’. Carl Jackson’s lovely clean production is the perfect match. Songs range from the witty sideswipe at the music industry which provides the title track to a set of sincere love songs, with a warning to a potentially erring husband (‘God Help My Man’), some western swing and country gospel along the way. This is one of those albums where you believe every word is true.

1. Ken Mellons – Rural Route

Dierks Bentley and Joe Diffie’s respective takes on bluegrass got most of the headlines this year, and both won places in my personal top 10. But for my money, the best of the lot was the underrated Ken Mellons with this superb album with character filled, emotional vocals, excellent material and outstanding bluegrass picking. It was hard to put my top five in order, but in the end this one just edged the rest. If you haven’t heard it, and like bluegrass as well as country, it really is an essential purchase.

Razor X’s Top 10 Singles and Tracks of 2010

2010 saw the release of a lot of good country music, very little of which actually made it to country radio. As such, my list will include some of my favorite singles as well as some album cuts that I would have liked to have been released as singles.

10. As She’s Walking AwayZac Brown Band featuring Alan Jackson

On the surface, this is just another one of those positive message songs that country radio likes so much these days, but the tight harmonies and guest vocals from Alan Jackson save this record from being trite. Keith Stegall’s stellar production helps this #1 hit stand out from the pack.

9. From A Table AwaySunny Sweeney

Sunny’s toned down her twang just a bit in an attempt to appeal to more mainstream tastes. The strategy seems to be working as she is on the verge of breaking the Top 20 for the first time. While this is not my favorite song from Sunny, it’s one of the best releases by a female artist this year. Hopefully she will finally get some well-deserved recognition.

8. Over YouBlake Shelton

This is the best cut of Blake’s career, and it sounds even better coming on the heels of the execrable “Hillbilly Bone” and “Kiss My Country Ass.” Unfortunately, very few people will get to hear it, as it was only available through iTunes as a bonus track with pre-order purchases of his recent Loaded: The Best of Blake Shelton. Hopefully it will resurface on another album sometime in the future.

7. Draw Me A MapDierks Bentley

The second single from his bluegrass project Up On The Ridge wasn’t mainstream enough to garner much radio airplay. Stalling at #33, it was Dierks’ worst performance to date on the singles chart. Nevertheless, it’s probably my favorite of the singles he’s released thus far in his career.

6. I’m Over YouChris Young

This acoustic version of the Keith Whitley classic was released as part of Young’s Voices EP, a project that showcases his powerful voice better than his two full-length albums, and serves notice that this newcomer is one to watch.

5. That’s Why I Write SongsJamey Johnson

This stripped-down tribute to Nashville’s greatest songsmiths, recorded on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium, is the best track from Johnson’s excellent two-disc collection The Guitar Song.

4. The House That Built MeMiranda Lambert

In a year when female artists underperformed at radio, Lambert stands out as the exception to the rule with her breakthrough hit, which I reviewed earlier in the year.

3. Highway 20 RideZac Brown Band

I was a little slow to warm up to these Georgia boys, but this heart-wrenching tune about a divorced father coping with separation from his son is the one that won me over. It was actually released to radio in late 2009, so technically it shouldn’t qualify for this list, but I’m including it since it hit #1 in 2010.

2. ‘Til The EndAlan Jackson and Lee Ann Womack

This remake of Vern Gosdin’s classic is the highlight of Jackson’s excellent Freight Train album, a project that saw two of its weakest tracks released as singles. Why this one wasn’t released is a head-scratcher. It did, however, receive a nomination for Musical Event of the Year from the Country Music Association.

1. I Run To YouMarty Stuart and Connie Smith

The best track from Stuart’s Ghost Train collection is so good, it’s breath-taking. Though not released as a single, it has earned the husband and wife team a Grammy nomination.

Overall, I think 2010 was a better year for country music than 2009, so here’s hoping that things continue to improve throughout 2011.

Occasional Hope’s Top 10 Singles of 2010

I’ve been moderately encouraged by the singles released this year compared with 2009, which seemed to offer a particularly disappointing crop. While there was plenty of dross around this year, there was some good music as well. Some of my picks of the year were even hits, with my personal #1 single hitting the top of the Billboard charts.

10. Stealing Angels – ‘He Better Be Dead’

This up-tempo rant about the guy who doesn’t call back after that promising romantic evening features the lead vocals of Loretta Lynn’s granddaughter Tayla. She’s not in the same league as the legend, but this is a fun, sassy single which introduced us to a talented trio. It didn’t make the Billboard top 40, but gained some airplay.

9. Tammy Cochran – ‘He Really Thinks He’s Got It’
This entertaining single from Tammy’s excellent independent 2009 album 30 Something And Single was released this year. Sadly (if unsurprisingly), with no label support it failed to chart, but it is a wry look at dating hell.

8. Joey + Rory – ‘That’s Important To Me’

A revival of a song from Joey Martin’s independent solo album has become the latest single for the husband and wife duo who emerged on 2008’s Can You Duet. It is being ignored by radio, but has a lovely clean production with Joey’s earnest vocals shining. She is one of my favorite female vocalists at the moment.

7. Martin Ramey – ‘Twisted’

This Curb duo’s only single to date seems to have sunk without a trace, but it made an impact on me if no one else. Brad Martin (formerly signed to Epic as a solo artist) and singer-songwriter John Ramey have pleasant but individually unremarkable voices, but their harmonies blend together very attractively, and are very reminiscent of 80s predecessors the O’Kanes. Their label affiliation means we may be waiting some time for more music, but I’ll be keen to hear more.

6. Jerrod Niemann – ‘What Do You Want’

The follow-up to Jerrod’s catchy pop cover and breakthrough hit ‘Lover, Lover’ was one of the highlights on Jerrod’s rather mixed album Judge Jerrod and the Hung Jury – really good contemporary country. The plaintive lead vocal, Rachel Bradshaw’s pretty harmony, and organ melody seep into your consciousness as Jerrod tries to find out what his ex is trying to do by keeping on making contact. The single is still rising in the charts.

5. Sammy Kershaw – ‘Better than I Used To Be’

The title track of 90s hitmaker Sammy’s latest independent album (and its lead single) is a deeply honest song about a man who has let people down in the past, but is man enough to admit to his failings, and to turn his life around. Sadly his return to the recording studio was not met with commercial success, but this lovely, mature song (written by Brian Simpson and Ashley Gorley) stands up well with his past classics.

4. Jamey Johnson – ‘Playing The Part’

This downbeat look at the real cost of chasing fame in Hollywood only just squeezed into the top 40 of the Billboard country singles chart, but it is one of the most memorable singles of the year. It’s not quite as good as ‘High Cost Of Living’, which was my personal #1 single of 2009, but a very fine song nonetheless.

3. Miranda Lambert – ‘The House That Built Me’

Miranda’s star has risen steadily over the past five years, but 2009’s Revolution took her to a new level. I was less impressed than some by that album (mainly due to issues with the sound mixing), but this acoustic guitar-led smash is one of the best things on it. The sensitive ballad about returning to a childhood home to reminisce and regain the emotional wholeness of childhood was one of the biggest hits of the year, and the CMA Song (and Video) of the Year. It was written by Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin.

2. Dierks Bentley – ‘Draw Me A Map’

Dierks Bentley made a rare brave artistic choice for a major label artist this year when he released an album incorporating bluegrass and other roots influences and asked radio to play the singles. The singles have been only modest successes, with this second single struggling to get out of the 30s, but they have at least received some exposure – and Dierks was nominated for three CMA awards on the strength of the album. It remains one of the most beautiful singles of the year, with Alison Krauss’s heavenly harmony and the haunting fiddle adding special touches.

1. Zac Brown Band – ‘Highway 20 Ride’

The Atlanta band with one foot in the Caribbean has become one of the most interesting acts in country music over the last couple of years, and they were rewarded this year with Grammy and CMA awards for Best New Artist, and an array of other nominations. They have become a staple at country radio, and have defied the latter’s fondness for things to stay the same by having each successive single represent a different side of their music – with five of the six singles to have completed their run to date hitting #1 on Billboard, and the other only just failing to do so. This is my favorite of their singles to date, and was their third #1 hit, reaching its peak in April this year. Written by lead singer Zac Brown with his frequent songwriting partner Wyatt Durette and inspired by the latter’s regular journeys taking a son to visit his mother, the downbeat ballad is my favorite single of the year. It embodies the essential truth common to all the greatest country songs; in this case portraying family breakdown and the impact of the son’s relationship with his father.

I reviewed it just after its release at the end of last year, and said then that if it was a hit it would go some way to restoring my faith in country radio. It was indeed a success, and overall this has been a better year for singles than 2009. So perhaps the tide is turning.

CMA picks and predictions

Last week we reminded you who all the nominees were. Now it’s time to reveal our predictions as to who is likely to walk away with the awards later this week – and who we think ought to win.

Entertainer of the Year

Razor X: Despite Taylor Swift’s win last year, the Entertainer of the Year awards is usually given to a seasoned veteran, which makes Keith Urban and Brad Paisley the two serious contenders. Despite having the third highest number of career CMA nominations after Alan Jackson and George Strait, Paisley has yet to win the top award. His turn has probably come this year.
Occasional Hope: It’s fascinating to see so many relatively new names in contention this year; it marks a real change in the CMA’s mindset as traditionally this highest honor has been reserved for more established artists. Last year’s win by Taylor Swift may be responsible for that change. In some ways, I think Lady A have a good claim, as they’ve dominated sales charts and had some international success, but I would like Brad Paisley to finally get it this year, and I believe he will. He’s been nominated for years without winning, and for the last two or three I’ve been thinking surely this was his year. I think his time to win this award is running out, but this should be his year.
J.R. Journey: Our current Spotlight Artist is currently tied with Kenny Rogers for most nominations without a win in this category. But I think Brad Paisley’s unsuccessful bids for country music’s top award will end this year. He’s had a great year commercially, but he’s had those in years past too. His edge this year comes mostly from the lack of seriously strong competition. Only Lady A and Miranda Lambert could stop him this year, and I think Lady A is still a ways from being fully embraced by Nashville. So barring a full-Lambert sweep in all her categories (which I also think is sorta unlikely), I think 2010 is Brad Paisley’s year for this trophy.

Male Vocalist

J.R.: Again, the lack of another stand-out contender is Brad’s biggest advantage in the Male Vocalist race. Keith Urban continues to perform well at radio and retail, but hasn’t had a monster hit in some time now. Shelton and Bentley are still newbs to this category and don’t have the label muscle behind them to win. A victory for Brad Paisley this year will give him four consecutive wins, still one behind five-time winners Vince Gill and George Strait.
OH: I’m delighted to see Dierks Bentley get nominated this year, having taken a rare artistic risk with his bluegrass influenced Up On The Ridge. I would love to see him win, but suspect it will go to Brad Paisley again.
Razor: Aside from Dierks Bentley, none of these artists released anything that really excited me during the past year. George Strait and Blake Shelton are the two best vocalists in the group; I’ll say that Strait should win simply because I liked his material this year better than Shelton’s. However, I think this category is wide open this year, and any one of the nominees has a shot at winning. My instincts, which haven’t always been reliable in the past, are telling me that this will be a good year for Brad Paisley.

Female Vocalist

Razor: Out of all of this year’s nominees, Miranda Lambert‘s career has picked up the most momentum. Taylor Swift didn’t release a new album during the eligibility period. Reba McEntire has enjoyed a resurgence, but I think her award-winning days are, for the most part, behind her. Martina McBride had another lackluster year; I’m not sure why she was even nominated. Carrie Underwood has an outside chance of winning; I’m betting that the Association will opt for a fresh face this year.
J.R.: It’s a sad state of affairs when there aren’t even five legitimate hit-makers or artistic stand-outs to fill out this ballot. Unlike seat-filler Martina McBride, the trio of Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, and Reba McEntire continue to have solid radio hits and release gold and platinum albums, but none have done anything substantial or memorable this year. Miranda Lambert, on the other hand, had her major breakthrough with the multi-week #1 ‘The House That Built Me’ and cemented her status as a superstar with her first headlining tour and the release of her third critically-acclaimed album. For all that, and her leading the nominations, Miranda seems like the logical choice to win.
OH: This is Miranda Lambert’s time to shine. She’s had a really big year, and although she won’t win Entertainer, this one should be hers.

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CMA award nominees, 2010: setting the stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Single Review: Brad Paisley – ‘Anything Like Me’

In his comedy routine Bill Cosby used to refer to the Mother’s Curse: “I hope that when you get married you have children that act the same way that you act.” Brad Paisley explores that theme in his latest single, “Anything Like Me.” The narrator of the song is an expectant father who envisions the future — and his own past — upon learning that his unborn child will be a son. He reminisces about his own formative years, about climbing trees and playing football, as well as getting grounded for skipping class and his first broken heart, and speculates that “it’s say to say that, I’m gonna get my payback, if he’s anything like me.”

Produced by Frank Rogers and written with Dave Turnbull and Chris DuBois, “Anything Like Me” finds Paisley traveling in familiar territory. The song is strikingly similar to “Letter To Me”, which also dealt with an adult protagonist reflecting on his youth, but lacks the 2007 hit’s emotional punch. Comparisons between the two songs are inevitable, and that can only work to “Anything Like Me’s” detriment because a recycled theme is never as effective the second time around. It is not a bad song by any means; it is well written and the production is tasteful and understated. However, I can’t help but think that it is a focus group-driven product calculated to appeal to a key demographic of country radio listener, as well as a blatant and artistically lazy effort to tap into the success of an earlier record. Maybe I’ve spent too much time listening to Jamey Johnson’s new album this week, but I’d rather hear Paisley do something with a little more of an edge to it.

Grade: C+

Listen to “Anything Like Me” here.

Classic Rewind: Jamey Johnson – ‘In Color’

Album Review: Jamey Johnson – ‘The Guitar Song’

Jamey Johnson’s much-anticipated follow-up to That Lonesome Song was finally released last week, laying to rest the fears expressed by some that he would be unable to match that dark 2008 masterpiece. The two discs in the set are grouped loosely by theme into the “black” and “white” albums, the former supposedly comprised of darker, more menacing songs like its predecessor, and the latter made up of more positive fare. In reality, this seems to be more marketing hype than anything, as the definition of what is dark and menacing as opposed to positive turns out not to be so — well, black and white, if you’ll pardon the pun. After listening to a digital copy of the first disc, I wasn’t quite sure if I’d just heard the black or white album. The issue of which songs belong on which disc, however, is a minor quibble that in no way detracts from the listener’s enjoyment.

Like its predecessor, The Guitar Song is made up of mostly original material — Johnson wrote or co-wrote 20 of the 25 tracks — and a handful of covers of country classics. His band, The Kent Hardly Playboys are once again present and credited as producers, with Dave Cobb and Arlis Albritton listed as co-producers on a few selected tracks.

The black album opens with “Lonely At The Top”, written in 1988 by Don Cook, Chick Rains and the late Keith Whitley. A demo of Whitley’s version exists, but as far as I’m aware, this is the first time the song has been commercially recorded and released. It tells the tale of a rising country music star who complains about the pressures of fame and fortune to a stranger in a bar. The stranger accepts the singer’s offer of a drink, responding:

… Thanks, I’ll have a double
I’ve worked up a powerful thirst
Just listening to all your troubles
And while he makes that drink,
I’ll smoke one, if you’ve got ’em
It might be lonely at the top
But it’s a bitch at the bottom.

The next track, “Cover Your Eyes”, written with Wayd Battle and Bobby Bare, is decidedly darker fare, in which the protagonist breaks up with his girlfriend over the telephone. “Poor Man Blues” is sounds like something David Allan Coe would have sung back in his heyday. The tune, though not the lyrics, are reminiscent of Coe’s 1983 hit “The Ride.” Next is Johnson’s tribute to the late, great Vern Gosdin, a cover of “Set ‘Em Up Joe”, the highlight of the first disc.

“Can’t Cash My Checks”, which Jamey wrote with James Otto, Jason Cope, and Shannon Lawson, is a timely tale of a man struggling in hard economic times, to which many listeners will unfortunately be able to relate. Of all the tracks on the first disc, this one seems the most likely to be released as a single at some point.

Nothing on the black disc was as bleak and desperate as the songs on That Lonesome Song. Based solely on the marketing hype, I was expecting to want to slash my wrists after listening to it; however, I found it much more enjoyable than I had expected. I didn’t think that the white disc could possibly live up to the high standards set by the black disc and after hearing the first track on Disc 2, the slightly disappointing “By The Seat Of Your Pants” — which is a bit more Southern Rock for my taste, it appeared that I was correct. However, things began to improve with track #2, “California Riots” — which seems like it should have been on the black disc — and the unusual “Dog In The Yard”, which I really liked. The title track, on which Johnson is joined by co-writer Bill Anderson, is a gem. It is followed by the best song in the collection, “That’s Why I Write Songs”, a stripped-down song consisting solely of Johnson singing lead vocals and playing an acoustic guitar. Recorded at The Ryman Auditorium, it gives the listener a rare glimpse of Johnson’s sensitive side, as he pays tribute to the great songwriters who inspired him — a list that includes Harlan Howard, Bob McDill, Whitey Shafer, Bill Anderson, and Hank Cochran.

Things swing back into Southern Rock mode with “Macon” and back into Outlaw Country with “Good Times Ain’t What They Used To Be”, on which Johnson channels Waylon Jennings. This is followed by a surprisingly good cover version of “For The Good Times”, the Kris Kristofferson classic made famous by Ray Price. It’s worth listening to if only for Eddie Long’s magnificent steel guitar work.

Overall, this is a very satisfying album, without the pop pretensions and overwrought production that mar so many contemporary country releases. The utilization of Johnson’s road band gives the album a more live feel than most studio recordings. The band often breaks into lengthy jam sessions at the end of certain tracks — a bit too lengthy at times, bordering on self-indulgence. Fans of bubble-gum pop country will find little here to appeal to them, but those who yearn for the type of country music that Nashville used to produce with regularity, will be more than satisfied. This is without a doubt one of the best albums of 2010, and one that deserves a home in any country fan’s collection.

Grade: A

Album Review: Jamey Johnson – ‘That Lonesome Song’

The chequered career of Jamey Johnson has been recounted many times by now. He started out with the sentimental hit single ‘The Dollar’ on BNA in 2006. The solid album of the same title (produced by the estimable Buddy Cannon) was a fine and under-rated record (with some flaws), but the label made a catastrophic choice of follow-up single, the stupid ‘Rebelicious’ (along the same lines as the worst song Jamey has ever been involved in writing, Trace Adkins’s horrible hit ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’). When this failed to chart at all, Jamey was dropped by the label, coinciding with the failure of his marriage, and he descended into a spiral of despair. The artistic legacy of this time was the body of songs which make up the magisterial That Lonesome Song and provided an unlikely comeback for Jamey.

The bad times inspired Jamey’s songwriting to take a new, devastatingly honest, turn. He was getting a number of cuts by other artists, ranging from the aforementioned ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’ to George Strait’s hit ‘Give it Away’. He recorded the bulk of That Lonesome Song on his own, with his band, the Kent Hardly Playboys, credited as producers, and released it himself digitally in 2007. Mercury Records’ Luke Lewis knew a good thing when he heard it, and signed Jamey to a new deal the following year, re-releasing That Lonesome Song with a couple of track changes.

Jamey was responsible for writing a dozen of the fourteen songs, the quality of which is consistently high. Jamey’s voice does not have the greatest range, but his rough-edged voice is capable of conveying real emotional depth, as he does to devastating effect on most of the songs here. The overall effect is of a man baring his soul to the world.

The moving ‘In Color’ became Jamey’s most successful single, peaking at #9 in January 2009, and winning various nominations as Song or Single of the Year. Beautifully constructed by Jamey with his co-writers, James Otto and Lee Thomas Miller, it was originally pitched to Trace Adkins, who generously relinquished it when Jamey signed his new deal. The deeply affecting story frames an old man’s recollections by having him showing old black and white photographs to his grandson, showing his childhood struggles in the Depression, the terrors of war service, and finally the happy memories of a wedding day, telling the boy how much more intense each experience was in real life:

And if it looks like we were scared to death
Like a couple of kids trying to save each other
You should’ve seen it in color

The emotional force of the song is gradually built up through the three stories. Radio-only listeners may have got a somewhat misleading impression of Jamey as an artist, based on this and ‘The Dollar’.

If the album has a fault, it lies for me in the sometimes self-indulgent snippets of talk and laughter between some of the tracks. It opens with the least objectionable of these, a slightly contrived introduction which purports to reveal Jamey released from prison, leading both literally and thematically into the outstanding ‘High Cost Of Living’, which he wrote with James Slater. While it was not directly autobiographical, the emotional underpinning of the story recounted here was undoubtedly inspired by Jamey’s descent following the loss of his original record deal and the failure of his marriage. Dark and uncompromising, this frank confession of addiction, sin and loss, and the hard price the protagonist ends up paying as he comes to realize,

The high cost of living ain’t nothing like the cost of living high

is extraordinarily intense, and one of the finest songs written in the past decade. With its reference to exchanging his home and wife “for cocaine and a whore”, this was always a risky choice as a single given the increasingly family-friendly nature of country radio, and although it charted briefly, it peaked at #34.

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Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Better Than I Used To Be’

It really is tempting fate for any artist, particularly one who is past his or her commercial peak, to entitle an album Better Than I Used To Be, because (almost always) it begs a negative answer. Rich-voiced 90s star Sammy Kershaw has been away from the charts for a while, most recently concentrating on a venture into Louisiana state politics. His new album is on an independent (possibly self released) label, Big Hit Records. However, while I don’t think Sammy’s music is “better than it used to be”, the new album stands up pretty well against his back catalog. There are no obvious hit singles here, but Sammy is still in fine voice, and Buddy Cannon’s supportive production is excellent, and undoubtedly country.

The album is bookended by songs Sammy himself had a share in writing. The unremarkable but energetic ‘That Train’, which he wrote alone, opens the album. In an interview with the 9513 earlier this year, Sammy admitted:

“I’m not much of a songwriter but every once in a while I get lucky and write one in 10 or 15 minutes. If it goes any longer than that, I get rid of them. I never work on them again”

Frankly, this song does indeed sound as though it only took a few minutes to write, although it clearly inspired the cover art. Much better is the co-write with John Scott Sherrill and Scotty Emerick which closes the set. ‘Takin’ The Long Way Home’ places the protagonist in a bar, because he has too little to go home for, with a woman who’s obviously on her way out. The sweet sadness of the fiddle line underscores the delicately understated emotion of a man who has no remedy for his sense of abandonment, as he concludes at the end of the evening,

And it’ll be time for me to go
Where I’m going I don’t know
I just know I’m takin’ the long way home

However rash it may be as the title track, ‘Better Than I Used To Be’, written by Brian Simpson and Ashley Gorley, is a highlight of the record. It is a tender, even inspiring, promise from a man who has made mistakes in the past and is in the process of turning his life around:

I can’t count the people I’ve let down
Or the hearts I’ve broke
You aint gotta dig too deep
If you want to find some dirt on me
I’m learning who you’ve been
Ain’t who you’ve gotta be…

Standin’ in the rain so long
Has left me with a little rust
But put some faith in me
Someday you’ll see
There’s a diamond under all this dust

But he acknowledges this is a work in progress in this lovely, mature song. A video was made to support this song as a single earlier this year, and it is a shame it failed to make many waves.

Equally good is the subdued sadness of ‘Like I Wasn’t Even There’, written by Wes Hightower, Monty Criswell and Tim Mensy. The protagonist runs into his ex for the first time since the breakup, and is ignored as though their relationship never existed.

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Group Spotlight: the new New Traditionalists

This month we’re trying something a little different with our Spotlight Artist feature. We thought we would look at some of the major label artists who have been carrying the torch for more traditionally rooted styles of country music in the past decade, but none of whom have released enough music for us to spend a whole month on individually. For want of a better term, we’ve been calling them “the new New Traditionalists”, as these artists are a generation younger than the original New Traditionalists of the late 80s and early 90s. Most of them are on major labels, with a few on respected independent labels, but they have all made some impact on the scene.

Joe Nichols was the first of our selected artists to debut on the country charts. Born in Arkansas in 1976, he got a couple of unsuccessful record deals in his early 20s before breaking through in 2002. He was an immediate success with his smooth baritone, ear for a melody, and pure country instincts. In 2003 he won the CMA Horizon Award. He has released five studio albums for Universal South, the most recent of which, last year’s Old Things New, produced his third #1 single, ‘Gimmie That Girl’. He has revealed his good musical taste by his choice of covers of lesser known classic country songs on his albums. A struggle with alcohol slowed down his career for a while in the second part of the last decade, but he seems to be back at the top, and is one of the brighter spots on country radio. His latest single, ‘The Shape I’m In’, has just been released.

Dierks Bentley (a year older than Joe) was the next to come to our attention, when his debut single ‘What Was I Thinkin’ reached #1 in 2003. Six more #1s have followed, with a string of other hits, and his first two albums went platinum. He was the ACM’s Top New Artist in 2004 and won the Horizon Award in 2005. He has managed to balance traditional country leanings with a commercial sound, writing much of his material. Notably, and almost uniquely among current chart acts, he has made a habit of including a bluegrass track on each album until this year, when his fifth studio album on Capitol, Up On The Ridge saw him make a temporary change of direction completely incorporating bluegrass and Americana influences into his sound, bravely defying the trends of country radio. The latest single is ‘Draw Me A Map’. He also has a sideline as a radio host, broadcasting on The Thread every Monday at 2pm CST and you can tune in online.

A few months after the release of Dierks’ debut album, Josh Turner’s Long Black Train came rolling down the line. The darkly religious title track was only a modest radio hit, but it and Josh’s unforgettable deep bass voice made a massive impact, and sales were impressive. He was nominated for the Horizon Award in 2004, but lost out to Gretchen Wilson. Three of his singles have hit #1, and his second album Your Man has been certified double platinum. His fourth MCA record, Haywire, came out earlier this year, and the second single ‘All Over Me’ is currently in the top 10.

TV reality shows may sometimes be sneered at but they can showcase genuine talent. Tennessee-born Chris Young, a decade younger than the other guys on this list, won the 2006 season of Nashville Star thanks to a fine classic baritone voice and his original song ‘Drinkin’ Me Lonely’. The show has not been as successful at launching country artists as the multi-genre American Idol, and Chris’s first album failed to make an immediate impact. Happily, his label, RCA, had faith in the young singer, and persevered until ‘Gettin’ You Home (The Black Dress Song)’, the second single from his second album became his first real hit just last year. He has cemented his neotraditional credentials with his excellent EP Voices, and is a nominee for this year’s CMA New Artist of the Year.

Jamey Johnson’s career has been the most chequered of all this month’s artists. He had a hit with the sentimental ‘The Dollar’ in 2006, but then everything went wrong. The follow-up single flopped, label BNA dropped him, his marriage broke up, and his life collapsed. But this all cued one of the most startling turnarounds in recent years. Jamey channeled his personal disasters into some of the most intense music in Nashville at the moment. He was seeing success as a songwriter with songs like George Strait’s hit ‘Give It Away’, and in 2008 Mercury picked up That Lonesome Song, the album he had recorded independently and re-released it. ‘In Color’ became one of the most memorable hits of the year, and although other singles were not as radio friendly, Jamey sold 650,000 copies of the critically acclaimed album. His much-anticipated new double album, The Guitar Song, is due out this month.

Sunny Sweeney is the least commercially successful of the group so far. Her debut album (recorded independently, like That Lonesome Song) was re-released by Big Machine in 2007. Critically admired if not yet accepted on radio, her music is unmistakably hardcore country. She has now been transferred to Big Machine’s daughter label Republic Nashville, and her second album is hotly awaited. The lead single, ‘From A Table Away’, is her first to chart, and shows her refining her style.

Joey + Rory are perhaps the most surprising success story. Lead singer Joey Martin was signed to Sony in the early years of the decade, but nothing ever materialized. She was dropped after she married songwriter Rory Lee Feek, and in 2008 they entered the CMT contest Can You Duet, despite never having sung together before. The couple finished in third place, but Joey’s outstanding voice and the couple’s obvious chemistry led to a deal with the respected independent label Vanguard. A critically acclaimed album came out later that year, and the irresistible ‘Cheater, Cheater’, which they had performed on the show, was a top 30 hit. They won this year’s fan-voted ACM award for Best New Duo, and the appropriately titled Album # 2 is due this month. They’ve also been nominated in the CMA Duo of the Year category again despite limited mainstream exposure.

Finally, our youngest contender is singer-songwriter Ashton Shepherd, a young wife and mother born in Alabama in 1986. Her debut album on MCA elicited two modest hit singles in 2008, and she is reportedly working on a follow-up.

Another artist who fits our criteria is Easton Corbin, just rewarded with a CMA Single of The Year nomination for his breakthrough hit ‘A Little More Country Than That’; Razor X reviewed his debut album earlier in the year. Easton is also up against Chris Young for this year’s New Artist award.  Also making waves on the Texas music circuit is honky-tonker Amber Digby, a fine singer and songwriter who’s released 4 albums on the independent Heart of Texas Records.

All these artists, and the fact that they are gaining real success, give us renewed hope that the future of country music isn’t going to completely lose touch with its roots.  We’ll be telling you more about them and their contemporaries all month long.

Single Review: Jamey Johnson – ‘Playing The Part’

Jamey Johnson’s new single ‘Playing The Part’ (co-written with Shane Minor) should whet fans’ appetites for his new album, due next month. This mid-tempo track sounds like a more natural progression from That Lonesome Song than the other two tracks which have so far surfaced (‘Macon’ and ‘My Way To You’).

In some ways it sounds like a more commercial companion piece to the brilliant ‘High Cost Of Living’, although it isn’t in quite the same class as that dark-tinged masterpiece. The disillusioned protagonist is based in Hollywood rather than Nashville this time, but once again a dream has soured on him, leaving him to reflect wistfully on

A time
When the only LA I knew was Lower Alabama
Back when me and Hannah
Was wishing on a southern star

Clearly, whatever has gone wrong is at least partly his own fault, as he wonders with more self-blame than self-pity,

Promises break like an egg on the hot asphalt
What the hell was I thinking
Drinkin’ like I’d never get caught

The story is not fully fleshed out, and we are left wondering about the details – did Hannah leave him when he drank too much? What exactly was his Hollywood dream – actor, writer, director? But I think we get the gist of the story, enough to explain the emotion resulting from the situation. We gather that he achieved his goals, but found that the prize was not worth the price he had to pay, as he concludes in the second verse.

These high dollar women and the fame and the fortune
Ain’t worth the ticket I bought

It is a really effective snapshot of a man who has lost his way in life, no longer sure why he came in the first place, and pretending to be someone he’s not,

Acting like I’m playing the part

The emotions of this man are regret and an inward sense of failure, even though others may ring true. Jamey’s rough voice has an intrinsic believability factor which makes the character he is playing here as convincing as on the personally inspired songs on That Lonesome Song.

The song proper is over after two and a half minutes, with a long instrumental break seguing into some odd (but not unpleasant sound effects, including a child’s music box; no doubt this will be stripped off the radio edit. I’m not sure what the point is of these, but perhaps it will make sense on the context of the full album.

It is a very good song, which avoids the problems the superior ‘High Cost Of Living’ had making its way on radio playlists (i.e. no radio-scaring references to prostitutes or drugs other than legal medication for depression). It may still be too downbeat for contemporary radio tastes, and with too little to appeal to juvenile listeners who have yet to experience this kind of disappointment and cannot relate to it, so it may not be a big commercial hit. But personally, I definitely like it the best of the songs we’ve heard from the new album.

Grade: A-

Listen here.

Random playlist 2

It’s been a month since I posted my last random playlist, so I thought I’d update my new favorites list. These are just a selection of songs I’ve been listening to quite frequently lately. Maybe one or more of them are in heavy rotation for you right now too.

Trisha Yearwood – Drown Me … This is just one of the many, many superb tracks on Trisha Yearwood’s Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love album, in which she created a template for a modern female country album that’s near perfect. Too bad not many are following her design. This funky, rhythm-driven country romp finds two lovers at the end of their time together, with both realizing it, but neither wanting to hurt the other with a goodbye. Yearwood wryly tells her boy, ‘So won’t you give it to me straight/I got a lot of heart to break/And a lot of love for you that needs to die‘, hoping the un-amicable ending will cool any flames that might remain between the two.

Sunny Sweeney –Refresh My Memory … Like a fool, I let all the glowing recommendations of Sunny Sweeney’s Heartbreakers Hall of Fame album pass right by me, mostly because I’ve always got way too many titles on my to-buy list.  But after hearing her stellar new single, ‘From A Table Away’, I finally picked up a copy of her CD – at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop in Nashville, no less.  On the drive home to Ohio from that trip, I gave the CD two complete listens, and the first track is the one I was drawn to most.  It’s been an awful long time since she felt the spark this guy brings to her, or perhaps since she’s felt any sparks at all, and with ‘Refresh My Memory’, she implores him to jog her memory a bit.  With steel guitar leading her Texas twang, Sunny glides through the song effortlessly.

George Jones – I’m Not Ready Yet … ‘I’ve always said that someday I was gonnnaa leeeeeaaaaavvee you‘.  So begins this classic George Jones hit where he contemplates over and over again the day he’ll finally leave this relationship that’s been dying for quite some time.  More than once, he set a date to walk out, but he’s just not ready yet to be out on his own.  Maybe someday.

Suzy Bogguss – Aces … Guilt is a very unkind and unsettling emotion.  And some of us don’t take criticism very well.  ‘Aces’ addresses both of those topics with candid honesty.  Amidst an elegant backdrop of 90s country production, Suzy Bogguss sings here of the mistakes she’s made, her lover’s reaction, and gives her response to the charges – ‘You can’t deal me the aces and think I wouldn’t play’ – before ending with her declaration of love.  Truly excellent.

Martina McBride – Wrong Again … The continuing countdown of the 400 Greatest Singles of the ’90s at Country Universe brought this song back to my attention again last week.  Since then, I’ve found myself clicking play on it more and more.  One of Martina’s finest and most understated moments, it finds her admitting her own mistakes, and longing to be past making them at this point.  I’m with you, Martina.

Mary Chapin Carpenter – I Put My Ring Back On … The lead single from Carpenter’s latest album didn’t get much attention from country radio, but it’s right up there with the best of her literate and melodic up-tempo tracks.  Finding faith to stay the course in a relationship makes the basis for ‘I Put My Ring Back On’, which, as the title suggests, finds the singer forgiving rather than running away, after a heated fight.

Kenny Chesney – Better As A Memory … Easily my favorite Chesney single from the past decade, ‘Better As A Memory’ is a slow-paced and sparse confessional, and the delivery showcases Kenny Chesney’s ability to wrap into a great lyric, when he’s chosen one.  ‘Never sure when the truth won’t do/I’m pretty good on a lonely night/I move on the way a storm blows through/I never stay, but then again, I might‘.  And so goes the revealing testimony in this track.

Jamey Johnson – Women … With romantic entanglement comes frustration.  Jamey Johnson and co-writer Jim Brown come closer to describing the fairer sex than I ever could with this soon-to-be classic cut.  Another confessional, this time framed by a more traditional country production, Johnson tells of his struggles with commitment, ‘I’ve made a sad one laugh/And I’ve made a good one cry/I’ve made one scream my name to the good lord by and by/I’ve made ‘em go insane and I’ve made ‘em go away/Just can’t ever seem to make one stay‘ before concluding his weakness and the self-realization that ‘with any luck I’ll take one home tonight’.

What songs are you playing the most these days? Any particular reason why you’re drawn to them right now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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