My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Jason Isbell

Album Review: ‘Wynonna & The Big Noise’

8146Wru52WL._SX522_Wynonna & The Big Noise represents a change in direction for Wynonna Judd, a move away from the bland AC of most of her post-1993 albums. It is not a move back towards country, but I have long since given up hope that she will ever release another completely country album, barring another reunion of The Judds. There are more country moments on this album than we’re typically used to, however, and the entire album has more rootsy, organic feel than anything she’s done as a solo artist.

Wynonna’s husband Cactus Moser produced the album. Chris Stapleton and Julie Miller both contribute songs and Jason Isbell provides the duet vocals on “Things That I Lean On”, which I reviewed back in February. That track was one of a few that were released via iTunes in advance of the full album, but it does not appear to have been released as a single. That seems to suggest a change in strategy on the part of Curb Records, which may be forgoing promoting the album to radio and seeking alternate outlets instead. The album definitely seems to have been made without regard to the charts, with Wynonna and the band performing songs that moved them. There are plenty of songs that cater to Wynonna’s R&B/blues roc k leanings, beginning with the opening track “Ain’t No Thing”, penned by Chris Stapleton and John Scott Sherrill, and continuing on with “Cool Ya”, Julie Miller’s “You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast” and “Choose To Believe”, written by Kevin Welch and Charlie White.

She sounds like she is truly enjoying herself on all of these, but it is the quieter tracks, the ballads, that are the album’s best moments, beginning with the aforementioned “Things That I Lean On.” “Jesus and a Jukebox”, the most country-sounding song in the collection, is my favorite, with the Celtic-flavored “Keeps Me Alive” a close second. “Every Ending (Is Its Own Beginning)” is a very nice middle-of-the-road mid-tempo number that Wynonna and Moser wrote with Doug Johnson and Billy Montana.

The album’s most commercial track “Something You Can’t Live Without” is a Cactus Moser and David Lee Murphy composition that was a non-charting single in 2013, shortly after The Big Noise band was formed. It reminds me of some of Wy’s early solo efforts, although at five minutes and 33 seconds, it is way too long (presumably an edited version was sent to radio) and it begins to drag a bit after a while.

I haven’t been a huge fan of much of Wynonna’s solo work but this album was a pleasant surprise. Moser seems to have helped her find her niche. I look forward to their future projects together.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Southern Family’

southern familyMixed artist compilations can often be hit and miss. This concept album based on life in the American South, produced by Dave Cobb, is no exception. The concept itself hangs together a little vaguely, and the artists come from country and Americana with a side of (white) soul and rock. However, if it is intended to represent the South as a whole, it is rather lacking in the ethnic diversity of participants.

Jason Isbell is normally more Americana than country, but ‘God Is A Working Man’ is definitely a country song, and an excellent one to boot. The lyric pays tribute to a working class family with lots of colourful details about a Pentecostal preacher and his son. The melody and rustic vibe remind me of ‘Grandpa Was A Carpenter’, as recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and John Prine on Will the Circle Be Unbroken Part II. I like it better than any of Isbell’s past recordings.

Brent Cobb is producer Dave’s cousin (actually, first cousin twice removed). His track, ‘Down Home’, is quite pleasant without being very memorable. I also quite enjoyed Holly Williams’ ‘Settle Down’, about starting a new family.

I tend to prefer Miranda Lambert when she isn’t rocking it up, so I enjoyed her song, ‘Sweet By And By’ – not the gospel classic but a reflective depiction of rural life and family philosophy which sounds as though it was written for the prompt of the album concept. The old fashioned folky lyric and vocal are charming, although a more stripped down arrangement would have been even better.

‘Learning’, by Miranda’s new boyfriend, Anderson East, an Americana/R&B artist based in Nashville, is not my style of music, but is pretty good of its kind. Shooter Jennings’ ‘Can You Come Over’ is in similar vein, but more listenable. Rich Robinson of the rock band the Black Crowes offers a loud and boring number.

John Paul White’s former duo the Civil Wars were much admired by many critics, but they were never quite my thing, and I’m afraid I strongly disliked White’s whispery tune here, ‘Simple Song’.

Not all the songs here are new. Zac Brown (who appears to have lost the plot on his last album) is back on form here with a nice cover of Skip Ewing’s ‘Grandma’s Garden’. Lee Ann Womack adds a sweet harmony. Jamey Johnson wrote the tender ‘Mama’s Table’ for the Oak Ridge Boys a few years ago, and revives it here himself. The song remembers childhood happiness. Brandy Clark has recorded the affecting ‘I Cried’, about a family funeral, before, but it fits neatly in the theme for this collection, and she sings it beautifully.

Morgane Stapleton, wife of Chris, once had her own record deal, although nothing was ever released. She has a very pretty voice in the vein of Lee Ann Womack or Dolly Parton, so I was disappointed that her contribution (backed by Chris) was not really to my taste. It is a dramatically slowed down blues/rock take on the oldie ‘You Are My Sunshine’ which sounds suicidally depressed.

This is a bit too varied for me as a whole, but there are several worthwhile tracks.

Grade: B

Predictions for the 58th Annual Grammy Awards

logoCountry music fans have much to look forward to come Grammy Night, which is coming up on Monday this year. Carrie Underwood and Sam Hunt will croon their duet “Heartbreat.” Chris Stapleton is slated to join Bonnie Raitt and others in a tribute to B.B. King. Luke Bryan is joining a slew of pop artists in honoring Lionel Richie, who is the Grammys MusiCares Person of the Year. Little Big Town will take the stage as well.

Best of all is the last minute announcement is that Eagles will honor Glenn Frey along with their good friend Jackson Browne. The rest of the show promises to be equally as jammed packed, with just about every major artist under the sun slated to take the stage.

Here are my predictions for the country nominees, plus categories that feature artists marketed within the country or American Roots genres. Please leave a comment and let us know who you think/hope will walk away with Grammy Gold.

Best Country Solo Performance

Little-Toy-GunsThis is a very solid group of nominees. Perennial favorite Carrie Underwood has lost this category only once – when Taylor Swift’s “White Horse” bested “Just A Dream.” Cam, surprisingly, is the weak link. Her hit version of “Burning House” is nowhere near as good as Emily Ann Roberts’ from The Voice last season. Who would’ve imagined a contestant on a reality singing competition would find the hidden nuance in a song its own singer couldn’t?

Should Win: “Chances Are” – Lee Ann Womack has yet to win a single award for her seventh album, a transitional record that showcased the artistic sensibilities she’s only hinted at until now. This is the album’s finest track, possibly the greatest performance she’s given to date. Real country music deserves to slay the competition.

Will Win: “Little Toy Guns” – It’s a fool’s game to bet against Carrie Underwood. Not only does she stand the strongest chance of winning, she’s the only one powerful enough to stop Chris Stapleton in his tracks. He will walk away a Grammy winner before the night it through, it just won’t be for the title track of his debut album.

Best Country Duo/Group Performance

81T8Z9H91mL._SL1500_This is a hodgepodge of nominees, with some forgettable performances along side some treasures.

Should Win: “If I Needed You” – Joey + Rory have the sentimental vote and a serge in name recognition since Joey’s cancer turned terminal last fall. They deserve to walk away the winner on what is their first and will likely be their only Grammy nomination.

Will Win: “Girl Crush” – There’s no stopping the Little Big Town behemoth, which is also in the running for the overall Song of the Year award. No one else is going to win this award.

Best Country Song

lovejunkies-660x400This is a heavyweight category, with a few extremely worthy nominees. I would love to see an upset here, but like the category above, there’s a very clear winner.

Should Win: “Hold My Hand” – Brandy Clark stole the show with her simple performance of this tune on last year’s telecast. The story of a woman determined to hold on to her man in the face of his ex is an instant classic. Clark deserves the prize for a tune she wrote and smartly kept for herself.

Will Win: “Girl Crush” – Should they lose Song of the Year, this will be their consolation prize. Should they win both, this will serve as icing on the cake.

travellerBest Country Album

Of all the country categories, this is easily the weakest. Little Big Town’s album was a dud, Kacey Musgraves’ was charming yet very uneven and Sam Hunt is…Same Hunt. The Grammys do deserve credit though – this is the first time in her career that Ashley Monroe has been nominated for an award for her own music.

Should Win: Traveller – I’m not fully on the Chris Stapleton bandwagon, but he does have the strongest album in this bunch. 

Will Win: Traveller – This is one, if not the only place, the Chris Stapleton bandwagon won’t be stopped.

A few more Predictions:

Jason-Isbell-24-frames-single-500x500Best American Roots Performance: I’d like to see Punch Brothers take this and finally win a Grammy of their own.

Best American Roots Song: Jason Isbell and “24 Frames.” The genius in the lyric is criminally underrated.

Best American Roots Album: I liked the upbeat nature of Punch Brothers Who’s Feeling Young Now better than the somber tone of The Phosphorescent Blues. They still deserve it, but I’d love to see Jason Isbell take this one. He hasn’t been recognized enough for his brilliant work.

Best Bluegrass Album: I haven’t a clue, but it would be interesting if the Steeldrivers take home an award the same night as their former lead singer Chris Stapleton does the same. If not, I’d go with Dale Ann Bradley.

Album of the Year: A strong category from which I’ve heard cases for each nominee to win. Stapleton could take it, as couldUnknown Alabama Shakes. But I’m going to go with Taylor Swift’s 1989, easily the most important pop album of the eligibility period.

Song of the Year: Taylor Swift has never won an award for her pop work with Max Martin. I expect that to change this year, when “Blank Space” deservedly takes this category. “Girl Crush” has a shot, but “Blank Space” is far more developed and clever.

Best New Artist: I’ll take a shot in the dark and choose Courtney Barnett. I just don’t see how this award could go to Sam Hunt. But stranger things have happened.

Single Review: Wynonna Judd feat. Jason Isbell – ‘Things That I Lean On’

wynonna-793x526The old adage about even a blind squirrel occasionally finding a nut is apparently true; after more than two decades of releasing bland pop music, Wynonna Judd has finally stumbled across a good song. It’s not clear if if “Things That I Lean On”, written by Travis Meadows and Daniel Sanders is an official radio single, but it is one of a handful of tracks from her upcoming album Wynonna & The Big Noise that is available for download ahead of the album’s official release on February 12th.

The track was produced by Wynonna’s husband and Highway 101 member Cactus Moser. Despite the album title’s reference to a “big noise”, there is nothing noisy but this stripped down, and largely acoustic number. The tastefully understated production features an acoustic guitar, some quiet percussion, a little fiddle, and some subtle background courtesy of Jason Isbell, which allow the listener to focus on Wynonna’s powerful voice and the song’s message. Yes, believe it or not, a major label country artist in 2016 has released a song that actually says something. While not a traditional country song (although she does name drop Conway Twitty), the Celtic-flavored number visits some tried and true country themes — temptation, chemical dependency, twelve step programs, faith and prayer, and ultimately redemption.

Wynonna hasn’t had a charting in over a decade and it’s unlikely that this will turn her commercial fortunes around, but it may be the beginning of a new, more artistic phase of her career. I didn’t love every track from the upcoming album that was available for preview on iTunes but I expect that it will contain at least a few more gems. Here’s to hoping that Wynonna has finally gotten around to releasing that evergreen record that we’ve always known she was capable of.

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: F

Jonathan Pappalardo’s favorite albums of 2015

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

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

kasey-chambers-bittersweet6. Kasey Chambers – Bittersweet

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

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

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

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

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

starte-here4. Maddie & Tae – Start Here

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

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

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

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

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

CD400_out2. Nancy Beaudette – South Branch Road

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

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

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

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

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

 

Album Review: Jason Isbell – ‘Something More Than Free’

jason-isbell-something-more-than-free-560x560Following up an album as iconic and masterful as Southeastern is not an easy task, even for the smartest of artists. I was very pleasantly surprised when I heard Jason Isbell had readied a follow-up record so quickly but nervous that it wouldn’t live up to the artistic behemoth that proceeded it. After all, how does an artist even begin to build upon the impossible foundation set by the greatest songwriting triumph this decade? Well, he just does it all over again.

Something More Than Free cements Isbell’s status as the best singer-songwriter currently orbiting the country universe. His way with a lyric is unparalleled to his peers, who can’t even come close to bringing as much sensitivity and nuance to the stories they construct. He’s simply a master among armatures.

Lead single “24 Frames” is a 1990s inspired gem that owes more to R.E.M. than Alan Jackson, bringing the same addictive quality (minus the mandolins) that made “Losing My Religion” so intoxicating. “24 Frames” is a fantastic meditation on relationships, cumulating with the chorus:

You thought God was an architect

Now you know
He’s something like a pipe-bomb ready to blow
Everything you’ve built that’s all for show goes up in flames

In twenty-four frames

One of the most poignant aspects of Something More Than Free is the reliance on songs about work with an overarching reflection on life as a whole. Album opener “If It Takes A Lifetime” is the greatest rumination on patience I’ve ever heard. “The Life You Chose” is a take-no-prisoners reality check on personal trajectory, asking, ‘are you living the life you chose? Are you living the life that chose you?’ Isbell’s turns of phrase are impeccable, when the chorus continues by asking, ‘are you taking the grownup dose?

Isbell is at his strongest on the title track, in which he paints a character spending his days enduring hellish extremes who is ‘just lucky to have the work.’ His songwriting genius reveals itself in the sly way he incorporates the lyric’s true meaning, by stating the song’s title only once. That single usage gives the song its powerful twist:

The day will come. I’ll find a reason
Somebody proud to love a man like me
My back is numb and my hands are freezing
but what I’m working for is something more than free

Those who’ve been deeply affected by Andy’s love for his cancer stricken friend in “Elephant” know Isbell is a storyteller in his class of his own. The remarkable “Speed Trap Town” isn’t as by the book, but it finds Isbell embodying the soul of a man as he realizes he needs a quick exit strategy:

And it never did occur to me to leave ’til tonight,
when there’s no one left to ask if I’m alright
I’ll sleep until I’m straight enough to drive, then decide

if there’s anything that can’t be left behind

In “Children of Children” Isbell introduces us to Michael, the son of a teenage mother who becomes a teenager with a child of his own. The heartbreaking twist comes when you realize the song is really about a woman’s worth and sacrifice:

You were riding on your mother’s hip

She was shorter than the corn
and all the years you took from her just by being born

Amidst all the grim realities, Isbell throws us a bone with “Flagship,” a sweet love song about one man’s observances and a simple vow to always find a way to keep the romance alive. He gives us a completely different kind of adoration on “The Band I Loved,” which is presumably about The Drive-By-Truckers. Isbell is trying to justify the circumstances when everything went to hell and how he looks back on it all today.

Like Southeastern before it, Something More Than Free is soaked in gritty reality. Isbell is fearless in the honest way he stays true to the authenticity of every moment he creates. His albums, at least these last two, are drenched in rock elements that perfectly compliment his signature gravel and help create the individual mood of each song. Now that he’s strongly framed the house, I cannot wait to see where he takes us next.

Grade: A

Album Review: Zac Brown Band – ‘Jekyll + Hyde’

Social-Profile-Icon-ndash-576-X-576-_zpslo9jbbovSince debuting eight years ago, Zac Brown Band has been a bright light on the increasingly barren landscape of mainstream country music. Ballads “Highway 20 Ride,” “Colder Weather” and “Goodbye In Your Eyes” join rompers “As She’s Walking Away” and “The Wind” as some of the strongest radio singles of the period. I’ve always loved Brown’s affable voice and his instance that fiddle prominently factor into the core of his band’s harmonic sound.

Still, the need for change has always been there. Zac Brown Band is quick to grow complacent, retreading musical ground when they should be pushing to elevate to the next level artistically. Uncaged, for example, beat their island-themed subset into the ground with the ear piercing “Jump Right In.”

Like clockwork, they’ve managed to do it again. Jekyll + Hyde is their widest album yet stylistically, covering everything from EDM and rock to jam band and, yes, more of those island rhythms. In turn, it mixes a hodge-podge of everything with a lot of retreaded ground.

The album opens with the wailing “Beautiful Drug,” which attempts to cross-pollinate by mixing EDM with acoustic country instrumentation. They venture into acid rock on the disastrous second single (it was a #1 on the Billboard Rock Chart) “Heavy Is The Head,” which features an assist from Soundgarden lead vocalist Chris Cornell. They further hone this sound on “Junkyard,” another slice of head pounding acid drivel.

Lead single “Homegrown,” while not a complete misstep, is the worst song they’ve ever sent to country radio. The suffocating production, complete with harmonies lifted from Eagles “The Long Run,” is only compounded by a lyric that’s too rudimentary to be interesting. Brown, Niko Moon, and Al Anderson ingeniously give third single “Loving You Easy” a catchy chorus to distract from the fact the song is nothing more than blandly warmed-over 1970s soft rock, a slower sonic counterpart to “Keep Me In Mind.” The jam band aesthetic continues on groovy love songs “One Day” and “Young and Wild.”

Brown employs a hoard of songwriters, a tradition in modern pop music, to help with two of the album’s tracks. “Wildfire,” which is co-written with Eric Church, follows in the same musical vein as “Homegrown” and feels primed to be a single. “I’ll Be Your Man (Song for a Daughter),” presumably written from Brown’s personal experience (he has four of them), explores a pop-leaning waltzing style complete with staccato beats.

The resurrection of their island-theme signature comes in the form of “Castaway.” A breezy ukulele and steel drum soaked jam that continues the escapism of “Knee Deep,” the song beautifully evokes the intended feeling in a way that feels somewhat fresh yet cheesy at the same time. They go a step further by fully exploring horn-laden Swing on “Mango Tree,” a duet with pop vocalist Sara Bareilles. The upbeat jazzy grove fits Brown like a glove, which surprised even me.

The remainder of the album showcases how Zac Brown Band fares when they revisit what they’ve already done musically, but with fresh eyes. Life affirming “Remedy” preaches love as the answer with ribbons of Celtic influence. Discourse continues on “Tomorrow Never Comes,” a bluegrass romp delivering the same central message as the Garth Brooks classic. “Bittersweet” tells a dark tale about lost love with a melody that recalls, but adds a bit more meat to, their penchant for tracks with a delicate acoustic softness.

The Jason Isbell composition “Dress Blues” is easily the album’s most hyped moment, a rare instance where a mainstream artist uses their platform to elevate the stature an independent singer/songwriter. The proceedings are marred by a production that favors slick over raw, but it doesn’t hinder the overall beauty of the song, which features harmonies by Jewel. It says a lot about the quality of an album when its strongest track comes courtesy of an outside songwriter.

Grade: B

Predictions for the 54th Annual Grammy Awards

1015599-grammy-award-617-409The most significant aspect of the 54th annual Grammy Awards (airing Sunday night on CBS) is who isn’t nominated. Those looking for bro-country kingpins Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan among the nominees are out of luck. “Cruise” was easily a contender in many categories, but thankfully was completely shut out. Instead we’re left with country nominees that still hold strong allegiances to mainstream country music, but aren’t a celebratory party for the dreck Music Row has been spitting out for years now.

Country Nominations

American Roots Nominations

Here are my predictions for Sunday’s big night:

Best Country Solo Performance

528c0c3f7cdadGiven what was popular in mainstream country in 2013, this is a spectacularly solid list of recordings that received airplay but didn’t embarrass the history of the genre. What’s surprising is the category’s diversity; only Miranda Lambert has won previously, while category heavyweights Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley, and Keith Urban were shut out. It’s just too bad Kacey Musgraves, who has four other nominations, wasn’t included here as well for “Merry Go Round,” the best mainstream single of the eligibility period.

Should Win: “I Drive Your Truck” – Lee Brice gives an incredibly heartfelt vocal and proves he can pull off as close to a traditional ballad as country radio would play in 2013 

Will Win: “I Drive Your Truck” – The force of this song will propel it to victory

Make A Case For: “Mine Would Be You” – There’s been a lot of chatter that Blake Shelton is the only coach on The Voice who’s yet to win a Grammy Award. That’ll definitely change this year and I hope it does here, allowing a far more deserving nominee to pick up Best Country Album.

Best Country Duo/Group Performance 

2009-10-27-kenny-dolly-duet-fullThe Grammys were criticized in the 2000s for veering too far away from mainstream country and thus seeming out of touch with what was popular. They’ve since gone to extremes in the other direction, but it’s nice to see The Recording Academy hasn’t lost their artistic touch completely, as the solid nominees in this category prove.

Should Win: “You Can’t Make Old Friends” – thirty years after the pair was nominated (and lost) in this same category for “Islands In The Stream,” Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton show up again with their second duet in as many years. The indelible magic is still there, even if the tempo has slowed with time.

Will Win: “Highway Don’t Care” – The Recording Academy loves Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift, and Keith Urban separately, the trio has 14 Grammys between them, and so collaboration between them will likely be too difficult for voters to resist.

Best Country Song

Merry_go_'roundIt says a lot about the overall quality of writing on Music Row these days when four of the nominees in this category show up twice among these five nominees. But it speaks volumes that half of Kacey Musgraves’ four nominations are found here, proving she’s more then just your average recording artist.

Should Win: “Merry Go Round” – I’d been waiting for just such a song for years and Musgraves, Shane McAnally, and Josh Osborne didn’t disappoint with their fantastic ode to suffocating small town life.

Will Win: “I Drive Your Truck” – the poignancy of this true story about a dad, the son who died in war, and the truck he left behind was too much for the CMA to ignore, and the same will prove true of the Recording Academy.

Best Country Album

UnknownThis is the weakest field of nominees in any of the country categories by a mile. The fare here is far too mainstream, clichéd, and sound-alike. I genuinely feel for those who’ll use this list as a benchmark of excellence for country music in 2013. Without the likes of Ashley Monroe among the nominees, that just isn’t fair.

Should Win: Same Trailer Different Park – given Musgraves’ competition, this shouldn’t even be a close call. She’s in a class of her own that the likes of McGraw, Shelton, and Jason Aldean couldn’t ascend to on their best day.

Will Win: Red – it’s general logic: if you’re nominated for Album of The Year, you usually take home your genre prize as a consolation or in some cases you win both. It isn’t always true, in which case Based On A True Story will take this, but it happens more often then not.

Best Americana Album

8fb2d908A solid list, although I expected to see Jason Isbell nominated here for Southeastern given the media blitz the CD was given. If he had been included, I would’ve been rooting for his win. Isbell’s album is just that good.

Should Win: Old Yellow Moon – Emmylou Harris is a Grammy Favorite and has released her strongest collection in years. That it’s also a duets project with Rodney Crowell more than forty years in the making only makes it sweeter.  

Will Win: One True Vine – Mavis Staples has won similar categories in the past few years and remains a Grammy favorite. I don’t see a reason to bet against her here.

Best Bluegrass Album 

0011661914124Without an eligible album in the running from Alison Krauss, the category is left without a ‘celebrity’ name to carry a win. Alan Jackson’s bluegrass project made the eligibility cut by a week, but was likely too new (despite the availability of advanced copies) to score a nomination.

Should Win: Streets of Baltimore

Will Win: Brothers of the Highway

Best New Artist 

imagesAn odd list, given that Lorde was left off while James Blake and Ed Sheeran were included despite not being new. Name recognition, and a plump spot on Taylor Swift’s tour, could propel Sheeran to the podium but he faces tough competition from Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, who had a breakout year.

Should Win: Kacey Musgraves – I have to stick with country music on this one. Of these nominees she’s the most well rounded mixing country with folk sensibilities in all the best ways. Plus, can any of the other acts claim half their nominations were for songwriting?

Will Win: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis – easily the most talked about duo in popular music in all of 2013. They may’ve hit it big with “Thrift Shop,” but their martial equality anthem “Same Love” showed their true artistry. Look for that to give them the edge over their competition.

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Favorite Country Albums of 2013

The statistic is getting old, fast. If your name isn’t Miranda, Carrie, or Taylor and you’re a solo female artist, then you’re probably not going to have many hit singles. It’s too bad because the strongest country music released this year comes from female artists who aren’t scared to go against the grain and say what needs sayin.’ I’m always amazed at the good quality music that’s released each year – and these are ten such releases, all of which should be apart of your musical catalog.

Unknown-1

10. Alan Jackson – The Bluegrass Album

Now a legacy artist, Jackson proves he isn’t done doing what he does best – crafting simple songs framed in equally uncomplicated melodies. But he nicely updates his formula this time around by making a bluegrass record, proving he isn’t done with experimentation. May he never go to the lows of Thirty Miles West ever again.

jason-isbell-southeastern

9. Jason Isbell – Southeastern 

The best modern album by a male country singer released this year. Southeastern is a tour-de-force of emotion and strength – a modern masterwork from a man who’s just getting started reaching his potential.

American_Kid_cover

8. Patty Griffin – American Kid

In an effort to pay tribute to her father Patty Griffin has given us one of the best discs to tackle the many facets of death in recent memory. One listen to her spiritual anthem “Go Where Ever You Wanna Go” and you’ll be hooked into taking this journey right along with her. Be sure to catch, “Please Don’t Let My Die In Florida.” It’s the best song against retirement in the Sunshine State I’ve ever heard.

AnnieUp

7. Pistol Annies – Annie Up

When most people criticize modern country they take aim at the songwriting, which has been modified to appeal to a younger demographic. The other complaint is the addition of rock and hip-hop sounds into the music. Even worse, then all of that is the diminishing of traditional country instruments in modern sound.

Annie Up is a fantastic country album both vocally and lyrically. Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley defied the sophomore slump by recording another killer record. Tracks like “Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” “Dear Sobriety,” and “I Hope you’re The End of My Story” are among the best of the year. I just wish the CD didn’t so blatantly throw its lack of steel guitar and fiddle in our faces. If these country songs retained the hallmarks of classic country, I’d have this ranked much higher.

MI0003484229

6. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Cheater’s Game

One of the year’s most refreshing albums came from this husband and wife duo, who’ve never recorded a LP together until now. Both give us fantastic numbers; Willis shines on a cover of Hayes Carll’s “Long Way Home” while Robinson is perfect on Robert Earl Keen’s “No Kinda Dancer.” But it’s Robison’s self-penned material that shines brightest, making me long for the days when his no-fuss songwriting was a regular fixture on country radio.

emmylou-harris-rodney-crowell-ap-nonesuchjpg-8bbf69f514dc6c0d

5. Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – Old Yellow Moon

Ever since a glimpse at the track listing a year ago, I can’t help but shake the feeling this decades-in-the-making collaboration is merely an above average album, not the transcendent masterwork it could’ve been. Covers of “Invitation to the Blues” and “Dreaming My Dreams” are very good, but feel like doorstops. Surely Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell could’ve dug a little deeper into their combined musical legacies instead of spending their time covering country classics. In any event, it’s still among my most played CDs this year which means they did something right.

ashleymonroe_2012cdcvr_h

4. Ashley Monroe – Like A Rose

Like A Rose redefines the sophomore record by building on the tremendous potential set by the artist’s debut. Monroe brings a sharper pen and keener ear to these 9 songs that are standards, more than mere pieces of music. Observances on out-of-wedlock pregnancy (“Two Weeks Late”), drunken flings (“The Morning After”), and adulteresses (“She’s Driving Me Out of His Mind”) are rarely this fully formed, from someone so young. At its best Like A Rose is a modern masterpiece from a woman who’s just getting started forming her artistic identity.

As far as female vocalists go, Monroe holds her own with all the genre greats from Loretta Lynn and Connie Smith to Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton. Her buttery soprano is a modern wonder, shifting from honky-tonk twang to contemporary pop with ease far beyond her 26 years. God only knows where she’ll go from here.

Vince Gill And Paul Franklin - Bakersfield_Cvr_5x5_300cmyk

3. Vince Gill & Paul Franklin – Bakersfield

Twenty years ago when Vince Gill was accepting the ACM Song of the Year trophy for “I Still Believe In You” he quipped about the state of modern country saying, “I’ve been watching this show tonight and I’ve marveled at how country music has grown. And I want you to know that in my heart country music hasn’t changed, it has just grown. And that’s the healthiest thing we got goin’” He went on to share a lesson he learned from his parents, that a person’s greatest strengths are embedded in their roots.

For Gill that optimistic view of commercial country doesn’t hold up today, but as a legacy artist he’s clearly taking his parents’ innate wisdom to heart. Teaming up with Steel Guitarist Paul Franklin to cover a set of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens tunes is no easy undertaking, but the pairing has resulted in one of the only perfect country albums of 2013. Instead of merely covering the hits, the duo dug deep into the artists’ catalog and unearthed gems even they weren’t familiar with going in. The added effort gave the album unexpected depth but a flawless reading of “I Can’t Be Myself,” a favorite of Gill’s since his late teens, gave the album it’s heart and soul.

images1

2. Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer Different Park

If you view Kacey Musgraves as yet another castoff from a reality singing competition, she placed seventh on Nashville Star in 2007, then you’re missing out on the most promising newcomer signed to a major Nashville label in years.

Musgraves didn’t win the Best New Artist CMA Award (beating Florida-Georgia Line) by accident. She won on the sheer strength of her debut album, an exceptional collection of songs bursting with a depth of clarity well beyond her 24 years. “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Follow Your Arrow” are just the beginning, introductions to the deeper material found within. She’s only just scratched the surface, which makes the prospect of future recordings all the more exciting.

1052311_591462260874890_775508162_o

1. Brandy Clark – 12 Stories

Not since Clint Black reinvigorated Merle Haggard’s legacy on his classic Killin’ Time has a debut album come so fully formed, from an artist with such a clear prospective. Clark’s brilliance isn’t an updated take on classic country but rather the next evolution of the 90s female renaissance – a group of individualists (Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, Patty Loveless, etc) who owe their genesis to Linda Ronstadt and the rulebook she crafted through Prisoner In Disguise and her definitive take on “Blue Bayou.”

Clark is the first newcomer to work with the formula in more than 20 years, and she often exceeds what her forbearers brought to the table. “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” and “Pray to Jesus” are two of the best songs Yearwood has yet to record, while “The Day She Got Divorced” is as perfect a story song as any I’ve ever heard.

Nashville, while admitting their admiration for the album, found 12 Stories too hot to touch. It’s shameful the adult female perspective has been silenced in Music City since without it country music has lost a major piece of its cultural identity. Where would we be as a genre today if the likes of Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, and Emmylou Harris had been regulated to offbeat labels and kept off of radio? Clark is fortunate she’s found success writing for other artists, but country music would be far better off if she found success as a singer, too.

Top 10 Favorite Country Singles of 2013

It was just a few months ago, I was in panic mode. How the heck am I supposed to compile and rank a list of favorite singles when the majority of country music, especially mainstream terrestrial radio country, left me numb? Hell, I don’t even have a can’t-live-without favorite single from 2013. I don’t know when the tide turned, but I was once again able to rank a list I’m very happy with. None of these were big hits (although #8 did chart top 15), but they were the artistic statements that should’ve ruled the airwaves. The genre would’ve been better off if they had.

Bruises-Single-cover

10. Bruises – Train Feat. Ashley Monroe 

Two high school classmates run into each other for the first time since graduation ten years ago. He marvels at her ability to retain her beauty after having two kids, while she’s glad to hear he’s finally left their suffocating small-town. Lovers or not, they’ll always be linked by their bruises – those moments in life resulting in a stumble on the path to enlightenment.

Hailing from San Francisco and making his mark in pop music, Train’s Pat Monahan is forgiven for recycling Phil Vassar’s “Carlene” just about word-for-word. This take on the tale stands out, though, because he gives voice to the female perspective through Monroe who turns in a buttery vocal that’s one of her finest moments she’s ever committed to record.

Little-Big-Town-Sober-Mock-2013

9. Sober – Little Big Town 

The centerpiece of Tornado, “Sober” proves there’s life beyond Karen Fairchild whose position as the band’s lead singer has left little diversity in their radio offerings of late. Whether or not this turns into the hit it deserves to be, it’s good to see the criminally underrated Kimberly Schlapman given her due. She’s more then just a pretty face, and is finally able to prove that here.

2396522_20130610113831_31973973

8. All Kinds of Kinds – Miranda Lambert

Lambert’s best single since “The House That Built Me” is Don Henry’s timeless ode to diversity that makes a strong statement without seeming preachy or political. These are the types of quality records that helps Lambert stand above her competition, schooling them on how to challenge the listener with substance while honing the artistic image that’s made them famous.

She howls, ‘When I stood up in Geometry and everybody stared at me as I tossed my test into the trash’ with the same bite she brings to her revenge anthems, but you feel the weight of maturity from an artist who isn’t afraid to grow in a market that rewards stagnation around every corner. Lambert is a fully modern country singer, but “All Kinds of Kinds” proves she isn’t done pulling new tricks out of her sleeve.

Unknown-1

7. Blue Ridge Mountain Song – Alan Jackson 

Leave it to Alan Jackson, three years after being blackballed by country radio, to release one of his greatest singles – an old fashioned testament to true love sprinkled with trademarks of the bluegrass tradition. He may move the story a little too quickly, in order to get to the twist towards the end, but he does everything else right. May this mark the beginning of an exciting new chapter in his career.

0002161042_500

6. Over When It’s Over – Eric Church 

With Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean facing deserving near-constant criticism for their shallow lyrics and douche bag behavior, their “Only Way I Know” counterpart Eric Church has been givin the space to forge his own path. Instead of rapping about trucks and dirt roads, he has consistently crafted original compositions that possess a decidedly rock edge, but are cut from the cloth of classic country (“The Outsiders” notwithstanding).

“Over When It’s Over” is a sparse reflection on a relationship gone sour, with both parties going their separate ways through a seething fog of regret. What the track lacks in production is compensated for in Church’s tour-de-force vocal conveying the perfect amounts of anger and sadness. It’s the best track from Chief, and while it could’ve used accents of pedal steel in its execution (and how cool would’ve been if Natalie Maines could’ve provided the backing vocals?) what we have is just enough to make it stand out from the pack.

41mVHDu4xvL._SL500_AA280_

5. Stripes – Brandy Clark

Shane McAnally had the idea to write a song called “Orange” about a woman who stops short of killing her cheating husband because she doesn’t look good in the titular prison color. He brought the idea to Clark, stuck on the fact nothing rhymes with his clever hook. She turned it around saying “but everything rhymes with stripes.”

Their meeting of the minds resulted in a wickedly smart cheating song littered with originality and quirky turns of phrase (“there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion”) that reveal the underlying humor underscoring the uptempo numbers on 12 Stories. Clark’s ability to find comedy in some of life’s most despairing moments is one of her greatest skills as a songwriter.

Unknown-1 

4. Blacktop – Alan Jackson

I was glad to see the blacktop, no more dust in my eyes” and with that Jackson lays down the gauntlet in opposition to bro-country with an act of striking civil disobedience. How refreshing is it that twenty-four years into his storied career Jackson still has something meaningful to contribute to the country music landscape?

jason-isbell-southeastern

3. Elephant – Jason Isbell 

The mark of a great songwriter is their ability to take well-worn themes and make the listener feel like they’re hearing them for the first time. In an era saturated with an “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” mentality, where hair is replaced with “Skin” and women are “Tough,” Isbell is just trying to ignore the elephant in the room and let his woman enjoy what little life she has left – letting her get drunk and high, joke about her harsh reality, and sing although her voice is nearly gone.

He’s the truest of friends, there for her but not a burden. He just wants one night where they both forget the bitter truth staring them squarely in the face, an impossible proposition seeing as he’s an emotional wreck bursting at the seams, a levee that miraculously hasn’t breached. Never has the word “somehow” been packed with so much meaning.

emmylou-harris-rodney-crowell-ap-nonesuchjpg-8bbf69f514dc6c0d

2. Hangin’ Up My Heart – Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell

The best track from Old Yellow Moon is this ripped from the 1970s traditional number penned by Crowell for Sissy Spacek’s lone early 1980s country album. The pair sound invigorated here, with a renewed freshness that showcases what the resulted album could’ve and ultimately should’ve been.

Unknown

1. Follow Your Arrow – Kacey Musgraves

The most important country single of 2013 is a gay-rights battle cry openly embracing a love who you love mentality in a genre where anything ‘gay’ is almost non-existent. Musgraves is a new age Loretta Lynn not afraid to speak her mind and be open towards her beliefs. Her boldness is refreshing and hopefully the seed that gives her fellow contemporaries the guts to bring substance to their music again.

Album Review: Dierks Bentley – ‘Home’

It was inevitable that Dierks Bentley’s follow-up to 2010’s Up On The Ridge would be a more radio-friendly project; I was slightly fearful that he would offer up a collection of mindless party songs in the vein of “Sideways” in order to get back in the good graces of country radio programmers.  What I didn’t expect was an album that was more mainstream while retaining many of the bluegrass-flavored elements of its predecessor.  This is likely the handiwork of Jon Randall, who produced Up On The Ridge, and who is back on board to share production duties with Luke Wooten and Dierks’ longtime producer Brett Beavers.

The similarities to Up On The Ridge are immediately apparent from the first notes of the opening track “Am I The Only One”, (reviewed by Occasional Hope last April) which reached #1 last September.   It starts off with a prominent banjo track, though the slightly too loud electric guitars take over by the time the song ends.   “Gonna Die Young” takes a similar approach, though this song works less well overall; the production is a little more heavy-handed and there is a slight hip-hop rhythm to the lyrics. “5-1-5-0” and “Heart of a Lonely Girl” both sound as though they could have been recorded during the Up On The Ridge sessions.

One of the album’s highlights is the title track and current single, which was selected as the official song of Dierks’ native Arizona’s Centennial Commission.  Written by Dierks with Brett Beavers and Dan Wilson in response to the shooting of U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords last year, the song breaks from the rock-grass formula of the album’s first three tracks. It currently resides at #6 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. I reviewed the single back in October. Since that time, former Drive-By Truckers member Jason Isbell has accused Bentley of plagiarism, citing similarities between “Home” and his own “In a Razor Town”. Listen here and decide for yourself.

Things take a less serious turn when Dierks advises a friend who is about to get engaged, about the slippery slope he’s embarking on, in “Diamonds Make Babies.” I’d like to see this one become a single, but I’m inclined to think that the generic, play-it-safe “In My Head” will be the next track sent to radio. On the bluesy “When You Gonna Come Around”, Dierks is joined by Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild. Though their voices blend well together, the tune itself borders on bland. As the least country-sounding track on the album, it too could be a contender for a future single release.

Dierks saves the best for last. The closing track “Thinking of You” is a beautiful acoustic number, which at just over seven minutes is too long. After an extended instrumental break, it fades out after about five and a half minutes, only to fade back in several seconds later with a verse sung by a very young child, presumably Dierks’ daughter. Some will find this precious, but I could have done without it.

Not every track is stellar. “Tip It On Back”, about finding an escape from life’s daily trials and tribulations, and “Breathe You In” are both throwaways, but overall, Bentley succeeds in creating a sound that is contemporary while deeply rooted in country and bluegrass. There is plenty here to appeal to country radio, without alienating longtime fans.

Grade: B+