My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Josh Gracin

Week ending 3/21/15: #1 singles this week in country music history

16174412_1287061723731955 (Sales): In The Jailhouse Now — Webb Pierce (Decca)

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

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

1965: I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1975: Before The Next Teardrop Falls — Freddy Fender (ABC/Dot)

1985: Crazy For Your Love — Exile (Epic)

1995: This Woman And This Man — Clay Walker (Giant)

2005: Nothin’ To Lose — Josh Gracin (Lyric Street)

2015: Take Your Time — Sam Hunt (MCA)

2015 (Airplay): Just Gettin’ Started — Jason Aldean (Broken Bow)

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Album Review – Tim McGraw – ‘Set This Circus Down’

Our first taste of Tim McGraw’s Set This Circus Down album came when he sang “Things Change” at the CMA Awards in 2000. A poignant tale, the song dealt with changing attitudes over time within the music industry. While it wasn’t an official single, the song ended up charting via unsolicited airplay peaking at #31.

“Things Change” resonated with fans and spoke candidly about the growing frustration between traditional country and pop country:

Now some say it’s too country

Some say it’s too rock ‘n’ roll

But it’s just good music

If you can feel it in your soul

And it doesn’t really matter

It’s always been the same

Life goes on, Things Change

I always thought McGraw was singing that verse about the controversy surrounding his wife Faith Hill’s more pop-heavy Breathe album. There was a growing dissatisfaction with her attempts to reach a wider audience and many who felt she was leaving country music.  Nonetheless I love the song and the pop/rock heavy production for being a little slice of commentary without coming off too bitter or preachy.

The first official single, “Grown Men Don’t Cry” was released in March 2001 and topped the chart in June.  A moody piano ballad, it stuck me the first time I heard it as it marked a distinct departure for McGraw – his first real foray into pop ballad territory. It took a while for me to warm up to since I wasn’t used to this kind of song from him, but Tom Douglas and Steve Seskin pinned one of the finest singles of McGraw’s career. I also thought the twist in the title (grown men really do cry) was very clever.

A cover of Bruce Robinson’s “Angry All The Time,” a song he originally recorded with his wife Kelly Willis on his Wrapped album in 1998, followed. This tale of a crumbling marriage marked another step in McGraw’s evolution as an artist and the background vocals from Hill only add more nuance to the track. The song works on every level – Robinson has crafted a brilliant lyric that allows listeners to feel the pain of a strained union and Bryon Gallimore brought it over the top with the tasteful acoustic production. Another number one, it topped the charts in November 2001.

Third single, “The Cowboy In Me” would continue McGraw’s hot streak on the charts, hitting number one in March 2002. The song opened the album with soft acoustic guitar riffs over steel guitar and fiddle before morphing into a rock ballad on the chorus. The change in production did cause McGraw to shout on the chorus, but it was the opening verses that resonated with me most clearly. I’ve always felt like Al Anderson, Craig Wiseman, and Jeffery Steele were writing my story:

I don’t know why I act the way I do

Like I ain’t got a single thing to lose

Sometimes I’m my own worst enemy

I guess that’s just the cowboy in me

I got a life that most would love to have

But sometimes I still wake up fightin’ mad

At where this road I’m heading down might lead

I guess that’s just the cowboy in me

McGraw would see the top of the charts again when fourth and final single “Unbroken” hit number one in September 2002. Easily the most forgotten single from this album, it paled in comparison both lyrically and sonically to the ones that proceeded it. But that wasn’t for lack of trying, as “Unbroken” was perfect radio fodder and catchy enough to stick in your head, at least during its chart run.

Set This Circus Down is widely considered the strongest album of McGraw’s career and it’s easy to see why. In a rare feat, all of the singles topped the charts. But what sets it apart from his previous work is the stellar album cuts. Continuing the trend from A Place In The Sun, he left out disposable filler and found some truly stellar songs.

The rock heavy “Angel Boy,” written by Danny Orton, was given the music video treatment although it wasn’t a single. A story about a man who had dealings with the devil, it was always a favorite track of mine, despite the heavy production and somewhat muddy vocal. It was something cool and different and stuck out to me because of that.

My other favorite songs are the Spanish influenced “Let Me Love You,” which McGraw sang with Hill during the Soul 2 Soul tour in 2000, and the journeyman’s anthem “Telluride.” Both are lyrically strong and could’ve easily been radio singles. The latter was indeed a single, for Josh Gracin, and peaked at #34 in 2008. Another highlight is the steel guitar heavy “When You Get Used To Somebody” which shows off a more traditional country sounding McGraw and the title track, a fiddle-laced country rocker.

Overall, Set This Circus Down is another highpoint from McGraw and my second favorite album of his career. It was nice to see, in 2001, he was finally making albums and not just singles. This is another strong set and if you don’t have it, it’s easily found on Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: A

The Idol effect

There is no doubt that American Idol has had an impact on mainstream country radio. Fourth season winner Carrie Underwood has built on her launch on the show to become one of today’s best selling artists. She can boast several CMA Female Vocalist titles, and is the reigning ACM Entertainer of the Year. The show has been much more successful at kicking off careers than country-based equivalents like Nashville Star and CMT’s Can You Duet, although sustaining them has proved harder.

The first Idol contestant to make a mark on country radio was Josh Gracin, who finished fourth in season 2, in 2003. He signed to Lyric Street, and enjoyed a short run of success including one #1 hit and several top ten singles, but his time ran out and he was dropped by his label last year. Carrie then raised expectations for Idol alumni, and the year after her win saw two contestants move on to country chart success. Kellie Pickler has gained more attention for her personality than for her music, but is still doing reasonably well. Bucky Covington followed Gracin to Lyric Street, and his career pattern is looking similar: he enjoyed some success from his first album, but singles from his as-yet unreleased follow-up have not done as well.

Contestants from later season have not fared as well. Season 6’s Phil Stacey and season 7’s Kristy Lee Cook both got deals soon after their runs on the show; in a bizarre coincidence each released one single reaching exactly #28 on the Billboard country chart, and an album which was received with indifference, before being unceremoniously dropped. Stacey then moved into Contemporary Christian music. The latest product of the show, last year’s Danny Gokey, has a single currently in the lower reaches of the chart and an album out today; it will be interesting to see if he catches on with a country audience, having (like Stacey) not been identified with the genre while on the show.

This year’s show has two teenage pop-country singers very much on the pop side of that equation – Aaron Kelly, who cites Rascal Flatts and Keith Urban as influences, and African-American Haeley Vaughn, who is comparable to a non-writing Taylor Swift, right down to the poor live vocals. The history of the show suggests that if either of these 16 year olds can reach the top six or eight, they can pretty much count on a major label deal. Any lower placing probably means a quick return to obscurity.

Nashville Star has been generally less successful at launching careers. The last two winners never even got a general album release. The biggest star from the show is season 1’s third placed Miranda Lambert, but her rise has been slow; followed by season 4 winner Chris Young, who had to wait a few years before getting his first big hit last year. Both are genuine talents who I suspect would have got there in some other way eventually. Can You Duet, lauded as the best of the reality shows at finding real talent, launched the wonderful Joey + Rory, but first season winners Caitlin & Will flopped at radio. The jury is still out on their successors Steel Magnolia.

Why has a country-based show been less successful than a multi-genre one at launching country artists? Partly the answer lies in exposure: Idol is shown on a bigger TV network, and can boast substantially higher audience figures. There are several drawbacks to this; one is that effectively the new artists gaining the greatest media exposure are selected by a TV production company without any particular interest in country music, and whose primary concern is making a TV program which will attract the greatest number of viewers and sell commercials. In addition, those who do well on Idol tend to be those who appeal across demographics and musical tastes. Carrie Underwood was very vocal about being a country singer, but clearly her musical influences incorporate pop as well, and she gained fans on the show partly through her performances of rock songs. Doing well on a voting-based show with Idol’s numbers indicates a starting fan base which does a lot of the groundwork for the marketing people. Others to have launched country careers after the show (Gracin, Stacey and Gokey for instance) showed little attempt to come across as country artists at all until very late in the day. The Idol contestant who appears to be the most rooted in country music are probably Kellie Pickler, and her records have not yet borne that out, while she is not the strongest singer; and Kristy Lee Cook, who was a pleasant enough singer but lacked the vital spark.

Appearing on Idol is by no means a guarantee of stardom in country music, but it allows some singers to get that initial break, together with mass exposure most can only dream of. I can hardly blame any aspiring singer from applying for the show, or begrudge them any success they may get as a result. Nor can the show be blamed for the drift popwards of country radio, which was already well underway before it was launched. It has however benefitted from that drift, which has offered a more welcoming home for artists with the inbuilt crossover appeal necessary for a successful Idol run. I can’t really criticise the labels for signing artists from Idol or similar shows, either. In some ways, the voting audience provides a giant focus group for the A&R department, as well as providing publicity and developing fan bases  which help to get a nascent career off to a good start. A down side is that poor live performances are also transmitted to a wide audience, and those bad memories can linger. I still remember with shuddering horror Kellie Pickler failing to hit the high notes on aversion of Martina McBride’s hit ‘How Far’, and that has probably colored my response to her records ever since.

Do you think American Idol and its competitors have been an influence for good or bad on country music – or have they made no real difference to the underlying issues, just changing some of the faces?