My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Josh Osborne

Album Review: Midland – ‘On The Rocks’

New country band Midland have received a certain amount of online criticism based on their perceived inauthenticity. I will say that the image as presented on the album cover comes across as trying too hard to be self-consciously retro, but no more so than Gram Parsons did in his day. That aside, is the music worthwhile? I wouldn’t call this a hardcore traditional record, but it has a lot of solid country input, and reminded me a little of the early work of the Mavericks.

All the songs were written by the band’s guitarist Jess Carson, mostly with other band members Cameron Duddy (bass guitar) and singer Mark Wystrach, and some outside input. Wystrach has a fine smooth tenor voice with a sophisticated crooning style which works best on ballads.

The lead single ‘Drinking’ Problem’, written by the band with their producers Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, was a considerable success for them, getting to #3 on the country airplay chart and sales being certified gold. It’s an excellent song in traditional vein about a man drinking to forget the woman who has broken his heart, with a memorable melody:

People say I got a drinkin’ problem
That ain’t no reason to stop
People sayin’ that I’ve hit rock bottom
Just ’cause I’m livin’ on the rocks
It’s a broken hearted thinkin’ problem
So pull the bottle off the wall
People say I got a drinkin’ problem
But I got no problem drinkin’ at all

They keep on talkin’
Drawin’ conclusions
They call it a problem
I call it a solution

There is even a steel guitar solo from Paul Franklin. It’s so good, in fact, I’m amazed it was so well received at country radio.

New single ‘Make A Little’, from the same writing team, raises the tempo and is decent but not that memorable, with a slightly annoying melodic twist on the hook. The best of the other songs written with McAnally and Osborne, ‘Nothin’ New Under The Neon’ is reminiscent of early George Strait, although Wystrach has an annoying habit of occasionally veering off into a falsetto which detracts from the song. ‘Burn Out’ is another good song about hanging out in a bar room because the protagonist’s love life hasn’t panned out, although this time he is smoking as well as drinking. ‘More Than A Fever’ is a pleasant sounding love song with the vocals failing to capture the passion evoked in the lyrics. ‘Electric Rodeo’ is not very interesting and slightly over produced.

Opener ‘Lonely For You Only’ is a another well sung crooned ballad, and a very good song, written by the band with Osborne and Rhett Akins. This partnership also produced the closing ‘Somewhere On The Wind’, a very nice valediction featuring Mickey Raphael’s harmonica. Akins and Rodney Clawson teamed up with the band to write ‘Altitude Adjustment’, quite a fun mid-tempo tune about heading off to Colorado. McAnally and Luke Laird helped to write the mid-tempo breakup song ‘Out Of Sight’ which is quite good with retro backing vocals.

Jonathan Singleton wrote two songs with the boys. ‘At Least you Cried’ is a bit boring and the brassy production flattens out Wystrach’s voice. ‘This Old Heart’ (also cowritten with David Lee Murphy) is okay but undistinguished. Finally, the band’s Jess Carson wrote one song on his own. ‘Check Cashin’ Country’ is a likeable mid-tempo number about life as a struggling country band.

Overall, this is a pretty good record. It’s not earth shattering, but it’s much better than most current major label releases. I would definitely recommend downloading ‘Drinking Problem’ and ‘Altitude Adjustment’ with a number of the other tracks worth checking out.

Grade: B

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Single Review: Brandy Clark – ‘You’re Drunk’

It’s about time I let you in on a little secret. I’m always clamoring for new releases from Brandy Clark. When my local record store didn’t carry Live From Los Angeles this past Record Store Day, I went online and was able to secure the final copy at Bull Moose Records in New Hampshire.

I’m also still finding additional nuances in Big Day In A Small Town more than a year since it was released. I only recently uncovered the brilliance of “Since You’ve Gone To Heaven,” a track I had initially failed to understand in any concrete way. Brandy Clark isn’t just one of the strongest songwriters to come along this decade. She’s one of the greatest contemporary voices in country music, achieving an equal footing with the likes of Gretchen Peters, Matraca Berg, Bobbi Cryner and Lori McKenna.

Clark is adding to her legacy with “You’re Drunk” a staple of her live show and an outtake from the sessions for Big Day In A Small Town. The story goes that she never took the song seriously until she cut it, the track didn’t fit the vibe of the album and she had to find a way to get it out.

While I’m glad it’s out there, I’m thrilled it didn’t make the album. “You’re Drunk” is an outtake for a reason – it’s shallow, far too contemporary and lacks Clark’s overall distinctiveness. “You’re Drunk” feels undeveloped in a “Girl Next Door” sort of way, trying to be clever without really packing any significant punch.

Her work with Shane McAnally (they co-wrote this with Josh Osborne) has been incredible – the pair wrote “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven” together – but this feels like it’s dripping with McAnally’s influence and not in a good way. The production and overall vibe is far more “American Kids” than “Last Call” or “Follow Your Arrow.”

That being said, “You’re Drunk” isn’t terrible. It’s found a proper home as an outtake, where it belongs, and not the anchor to a new album, like the one consisting solely of drinking songs she wants to do at some point. I’ll give her a pass for this. It’s an outtake and nothing more. Even Brandy Clark doesn’t have to hit it out of the park every time she’s up at bat.

Grade: B-

Christmas Album Review: Kacey Musgraves – ‘A Very Kacey Christmas’

a-very-kacey-christmasKacey Musgraves is not the first artist I would have expected to come out with a Christmas album, but here it is. She leans to the jazzy side of Christmas music, with a strong Hawaiian influence and her own quirky take on things – to the point of eccentricity at times. It is also entirely secular.

She opens with ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’, which is quite pleasant but not essential.

The Quebe Sisters provide backing vocals on a playful ‘Let it Snow’ and the Hawaiian ‘Mele Kalimaka’. The bilingual ‘Feliz Navidad’ is prettily sung by Kacey and a male chorus. Much of the album comprises pleasant but easy-to-overlook background music like this, but Kacey pushes the boundaries on other tracks.

She draws on her inner child with the playful, bouncy ‘I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas’ and the standard ‘Rudolph The Reindeer’, which is one of the few recordings where a child chorus is endearing rather than irritating (maybe because the kids don’t seem to have much enthusiasm). Both are great fun. The strangest choice, ‘Christmas Don’t Be Late’ , is better known as ‘The Chipmunk Song’, as recorded by Alvin and the Chipmunks. Kacey sings it apparently quite straight with a childlike quality, and I’m really not sure how far her tongue is in her cheek here.

It leads into the rather less family-friendly ‘A Willie Nice Christmas’, which as you may guess from the title is a holiday-themed tribute to Willie Nelson and his favorite product, featuring guest vocals from the man himself. It is rather charming in its way. Kacey wrote the song with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne.

She, McAnally and Brandy Clark wrote the melancholy ‘Christmas Makes Me Cry’. ‘Present Without A Bow’, a duet with neo-soul singer Leon Bridges about being alone at Christmas, is quite effective vocally, although the song itself isn’t that interesting. The hand-clapping, brassy ‘Ribbons And Bows’ is quite good though not country.

She closes with a languid jazz version of ‘What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve’, which I found rather boring.

I applaud Kacey’s willingness to try something a bit different, but the result isn’t entirely to my taste.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Miranda Lambert – ‘Weight Of These Wings’

the-weight-of-these-wingsMiranda Lambert lost her crown as Female Vocalist of the Year at this year’s CMA awards. Listening to her new double album, I wonder if she is consciously moving beyond the genre. Even by today’s standards this sounds more like an Americana or alt-country record to me than a country one. Produced by Frank Liddell, Glenn Worf and Eric Masse, it is too often loaded with reverb and echo-ey production that is a long way from Nashville, particularly on the first of the two discs. As a country fan I’m disappointed, as the songwriting is strong and shows Miranda really developing artistically in this collection of songs reportedly inspired by her recent divorce.

‘Runnin’ Just In Case’, written with Gwen Sebastian, is a case in point: an interesting song about a restless soul beginning to regret her rootlessness just a little:

What I lost in Louisiana I found in Alabama
But nobody ever taught me how to stay
It ain’t love that I’m chasin’
But I’m running just in case

I ain’t unpacked my suitcase since the day that I turned 21
It’s been a long 10 years since then
It’s getting kind of cumbersome

‘Ugly Lights’ (written with Natalie Hemby and Liz Rose), is a nicely observed song about the morning-after drinking away the protagonist’s troubles, with a touch of self deprecating humor as she does the ‘Monday morning drive of shame’ picking up her car from the bar. ‘Use My Heart’, which Miranda wrote with Ashley Monroe and Waylon Payne, is a downbeat tune about the aftermath of a broken heart.

But good as these songs are, the arrangements and production simply don’t sound like they belong on a country album.

‘We Should Be Friends’, written by Miranda solo, is a fun song about female friendship and bonding over shared experience. The subdued ‘Getaway Driver’, written with Miranda’s new boyfriend Anderson East and old friend Natalie Hemby, is quite a good song about a pair of lovers on the run, written from the man’s viewpoint. In the lead single ‘Vice’, written with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, the protagonist is defiant about her sins.

Love song ‘Pushin’ Time’ (reportedly about her new romance) was okay but not very interesting. I didn’t much care for the perky ‘Highway Vagabonds’, and hated the noisy mess ‘Covered Wagon. ‘Pink Sunglasses’ was irritating and tuneless. ‘Smoking Jacket’ is boring and overwhelmed by the production. ‘You Wouldn’t Know Me’ was boring.

The production on side 2 is generally more bearable, and the songs less commercial.

My favorite tracks is ‘To Learn Her’, which has a pretty melody and sweet lyric about love and loss, which Miranda wrote with Ashley Monroe and Waylon Payne. It is the most country the album gets, and is a pleasure. ‘Tin Man’ is a delicately subdued tune about the pain of knowing love and heartbreak which Miranda wrote with Jon Randall and Jack Ingram.

The mid-tempo ‘Good Ol’ Days’ (a co-write with Brent Cobb and Adam Hood) is pretty good. The sunny ‘For The Birds’ is reminiscent of Kacey Musgraves. The ode in celebration of a Southern ‘Tomboy’ also reminded me of Musgraves. The wearied, gentle ‘Well-Rested’ is another nod to her split from Shelton.

In ‘Keeper Of The Flame’, written with Hemby and Liz Rose , she places herself as representative of a tradition of singer-songwriters, although without dropping any names or reflecting any specific tradition. ‘Dear Old Sun’ is rather boring, but perhaps on purpose as it is about surviving depression; less intentional is the fact that the backing vocals do not sound to be in tune.

In ‘Things That Break’ (written with Jon Randall’s wife Jessi Alexander and Natalie Hemby), Miranda reflects on a propensity for accident. The rocky ‘Bad Boy’ is less effective despite some perceptive lines, while ‘Six Degrees Of Separation’ is another muddy mess.

If much of the record is dominated conceptually by the experience of Miranda’s divorce, by the final track she is optimistic:

Sometimes these wheels
Get a little heavy
I can’t stay between the lines but I’m rockin’ steady
When I can’t fly
I start to fall
But I’ve got wheels
I’m rollin’ on

This is the kind of album it’s hard to assign a grade to. The songwriting is of a very high quality, really showing Lambert coming into her own as a mature artist. But the production choices are just not enjoyable for me.

Grade: B+

Single Review: Artists of Then, Now and Forever – ‘Forever Country”

forevercountry-1110x400

The Country Music Association has found a way of honoring their fiftieth anniversary – gather 30 of the genre’s biggest stars from the past, present and future for an unprecedented collaboration. The result is certainly buzzworthy and continues the tradition of the ‘all-star jam’ that saw its beginnings with the original 1972 recording of ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken.’ The trend continued into the 1990s (Think “I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair” and “One Heart At A Time”) before seemly dying off.

“Forever Country,” as the collaboration is called, blends three country standards – “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “I Will Always Love You” and “On The Road Again” into a single song showcasing each of the artists involved with dedicated solos. The John Denver classic is the bedrock, with the others woven in.

The song succeeds because of Shane McAnally, who subtracts not distracts with his warm production values. He does a superb job of complimenting each artist with a sense of balance that allows each one to shine individually. While they also beautifully come together as a collective whole, it’s obvious that some do shine brighter than others, which is understandable in such a context.

It’s been a long time since the legacy of country music has been honored and I admire the Country Music Association for bringing their theme and mission alive in such a public way. To have all these artists in one place, on one track truly is astonishing. We’ve let history fall by the wayside in recent years as boom era veterans (the last artists to grow up on classic country music) have been pushed out in favor of younger artists who meet demographic needs but have little knowledge of or appreciation for what it took to make their careers possible. This pattern is cyclical and leaves behind those who refer to the past as ‘the good ole days’ when country music still had a soul.m_forevercountrycma

Those unworthy younger performers, of which there are too many to mention, are nowhere to be found, which begs a question – are they subtly making the claim that no one, save Brett Eldridge (who adds is voice to the mix), is truly worthy of carrying the torch for the next generation? It also saves the track from coming off as a laughing stock.

“Forever Country” could’ve exercised a bit more imagination than having Dolly being Dolly at the end, there are legends missing I would’ve liked to have seen included and it’s odd to have Jason Aldean (who was shut out of the nominations entirely) figure so prominently. But the intention and heart of the project is carried out in execution, which is why “Forever Country” shines so brightly. It’s the gimmick that succeeds in not being gimmicky at all. It’s far from the greatest recording I’ve ever heard, but it is a welcomed surprise. I’ll take it.

Grade: A

 

 

Album Review: Craig Morgan – ‘A Whole Lot More To Me’

CraigMorgan-AWholeLotMoretoMeFor his seventh album, A Whole Lot More To Me, Craig Morgan wanted to craft a record that broke down genre stereotypes and cast him in a new light. It’s his first album of original material in four years as well as his second album for Black River.

The first single, “When I’m Gone” was released back in September and peaked at #48. Written by Justin Ebach and Steven Dale Jones is an optimistic banjo-driven uptempo about wanting to be remembered as someone who lived life to the fullest.

The second single, released in May and yet to chart, is the power ballad “I’ll Be Home Soon” written by Ebach, Jones and John King. The lyric is typical of modern country love songs, but Morgan brings an emotional gravitas that elevates the song to just above generic.

Morgan had a hand in co-writing five of the album’s twelve tracks. “Living On The Memories” is a bombastic power ballad he collaborated on with Scott Stepakoff and Josh Osborne. Mike Rogers joined him for the title track, where he goes out of his way to debunk his country boy image with an interesting laundry list of illustrations emoted by a vocal that could’ve been toned down a few notches. “I’m That Country” walks everything back by devolving into Morgan’s typical style. “Remind Me Why I’m Crazy” is an excellent ballad about lost love with a cluttered treatment that intrudes on my overall enjoyment. Morgan’s final co-write, “I Can’t Wait to Stay,” is nothing more than a song about remaining in the town where your family has generational roots.

It feels as if a prerequisite of any modern day country album is having a song co-written by Shane McAnally. His contribution, a co-write with Eric Paslay and Dylan Altman is “Country Side of Heaven,” which is actually a great song. The overall track would’ve been better served with an acoustic arrangement, which would’ve brought fourth the interesting lyric a lot more.

“All Cried Out” is a bombastic power ballad ruined by atrocious wall-of-sound production that causes Morgan to over sing. “Nowhere Without You,” co-written by Michal McDonald and John Goodwin, is much better although I found the piano based production rather bland. Will Hoge and Gordie Sampson teamed with Altman on “Who Would It Be,” a name-check song about the legends you would spend time with if you could.

The final cut, “Hearts I Leave Behind,” features Christian Rock singer Mac Powell. The song was originally recorded by Pete Scobell Band Featuring Wynonna Judd, which I reviewed last year. It’s far and away the crowning achievement of A Whole Lot More To Me and a perfect song for Morgan.

The marketing materials for A Whole Lot More To Me describe the album as ‘sexy,’ which I most certainly would not. There is hardly anything here in that vein, unlike Dierks Bentley’s Black, which makes it an odd descriptor. Morgan does sing at full power, which showcases his range but unintentionally sound like Blake Shelton circa 2008. The album is bombastic and unremarkable on the whole, but I give Morgan credit for giving into mainstream pressures without selling his soul. A Whole Lot More To Me is nowhere near the upper echelon of albums for 2016, but it is far from the scrap heap. He could’ve done better, but it’s clear he is giving his all.

Grade: B

Review: new tracks from Craig Morgan – ‘The Journey – Living Hits’

the journeyCraig’s second release for Black River Entertainment was a reworking of some of his past hits so the new label could cash in, together with four completely new tracks.

Two of the new songs were released as singles, but as is commonplace in such cases they were considerably less successful than the previous singles had been. Top 20 hit ‘Wake Up Lovin’ You’, written by Josh Osborne, Matt Ramsey and Trevor Rosen, is about love outlasting the presence of its object, and while lyrically strong is rather boring melodically, notable only for its opening sounds of an alarm clock. A full blooded vocal does its best to give the song some life, struggling against somewhat cluttered, uninspired production. It was Craig’s last real radio hit to date.

‘We’ll Come Back Around’ a better song, did not crack the top 40. Written by Rosen again, with Brandy Clark and Jessie Jo Dillon, it is a mid paced tune about a couple who fight but always make up again. I could do without the na-na-na-nas, which always sound as if the writer ran out of inspiration, and the production is a bit muddy, but otherwise this is a solid song which was too adult for contemporary radio:

Put your fist through the wall
Say you’re through with it all
Baby I’m through too
Let’s throw a log on the fire of the heat of the moment
Put your key in the car
Jerk it right outta park
Flip a big F-you

You say you won’t come back
I say amen to that then I lock that door
But I know you got a key
And I’m gonna leave a light on

‘If Not Me’ is a beautifully written and sympathetically sung song about a young man taking the step of joining the military, which must have struck a chord with veteran Morgan, although the song is written (by Tom Douglas and Lee Thomas Miller) from the point of view of the boy’s parents. I’m surprised this wasn’t a single.

‘Party Girl, on the other hand, is a dreadful throwaway bro-country number complete with electronic distortion.

Grade for the new tracks: B-

EP Review: Shelley Skidmore – ‘Shelley Skidmore’

shelley skidmoreKentucky-born Shelley Skidmore co-wrote (with Brandy Clark and Shane MacAnally) a song I loved a few years back when Joanna Smith recorded it – ‘We Can’t Be Friends’. Now she has released her own five track EP (produced by Paul Worley), and proves to have a fine voice with a smooth tone, and a genuine country sensibility. In a recent interview she cites her favorite albums of all time as Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Comes From and Patty Loveless’s When Fallen Angels Fly – definitely an indicator of someone who loves traditional country music and knows great songs when she hears them.

The excellent ‘White Picket Fences’ was written by Shelley with Brandy Clark and Jessie Jo Dillon, and it’s a very typical Clark story song. It paints a scathing picture of the guilty secrets lying behind both a small town’s respectable surfaces, which are not so very different from the open sins of the dreaded big city:

It’s all white picket fences
It’s all pink and purple pansies
Its the face of small town grace
The perfect place to raise a family
We’re all scandal
We’re all scripture
We’re all smiling for the picture
It’s alright because it’s all white picket fences

A little bit of tasteful brass adds a jocular air.

This is the only song on the set Shelley had a hand in writing – it’s a shame she didn’t include her own version of ‘We Can’t Be Friends’.

The very best song on the album is another Brandy Clark song, this time a co-write with Troy Verges. ‘Pawn Shop’ is a modern classic of a story song, as a woman pawns her wedding ring to raise the money for a bus ticket away from her bad marriage:

It ain’t stolen
It ain’t hot
Someone told me it cost a lot
Man ain’t that the truth
I thought I’d wear it my whole life
It never even crossed my mind
Back when it was new
It’d end up in a pawn shop on Charlotte Avenue

A musician then hands over his beloved guitar, and with it gives up his dreams. And the dreams of both love and music will pass to other dreamers in their turn. This is beautifully written and sung, and deeply moving.

Shelley’s husband, Greg Bates, had a shortlived career with one hit a few years back. Greg never released an album despite a top 5 single, and seems not to have enjoyed the touring aspects of being a star. He duets with Shelley on the ballad ‘What You Need From Me’, a beautiful sad song about a failed relationship written by Jon Randall, Jessi Alexander, and Phillip White:

Woman: You need a trophy on your arm
So you don’t look so lonely
Someone to get you through the nights
Someone to start your morning coffee

Man: You need a man that you can count on
Someone who’ll finish what he started
Not a restless soul that comes and goes
And only leaves you broken hearted

Both: I’m so sorry that I’ll never be what you need from me

With regret they acknowledge their mutual failure to meet the other’s needs. Greg sounds very good here, and it’s enough to make me regret the loss of his career as a solo artist before it had really got going. The tasteful and understated arrangement is very traditional country, with some lovely steel and fiddle.

The one song that doesn’ t appeal to me is the jaunty ballad ‘Making Babies’, written by Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, and Matt Jenkins, about pressure from the in-laws to start a family. It is neatly written but the melody is the least country sounding on the album, and doesn’t quite work for me with the song.

The album closes with the quirky ‘Back In The Saddle’, a 20 year old Matraca Berg song which Berg recorded on her 1997 album Sunday Morning To Saturday Night Shelley’s version uses the same arrangement, with backing vocals from Berg, Deana Carter, Kathy Mattea and Brandy Clark. It’s very entertaining and ends the too-short set on a high.

This is a great EP I very much enjoyed. I only wish it was a full length album.

Grade: A+

Predictions for the 50th annual ACM Awards

To celebrate their 50th anniversary, The Academy of Country Music Awards is being held at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, TX  this Sunday on CBS. Blake Shelton is returning for his fifth year as host while Luke Bryan will co-host for the third consecutive time. Notable performers include George Strait, Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, and Dierks Bentley along with the usual mainstream country suspects. Nick Jonas and Christina Aguilera will also take the stage as part of unique duets.

Along with the regular awards, the ACM will also be handing out specially designed 50th anniversary Milestone Awards to Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney, Miranda Lambert, Brooks & Dunn, Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks and George Strait. (Swift is expected to accept in person despite distancing herself from the genre).

Check out the nominations, here.

UnknownEntertainer of the Year

Garth Brooks, who has six previous wins, is nominated for the first time since 2001 in a year that saw him break ticket sale records, but underwhelm with his Man Against Machine album. The absence of Taylor Swift, George Strait and Tim McGraw left the category open for some fresh blood, resulting in Florida Georgia Line’s first nomination.

Should Win: Garth Brooks – he continues to show how it’s done, twenty-five years after his debut.

Will Win: Luke Bryan – he’ll ride his CMA momentum all the way to the finish line, scoring his second win in three nominations.

4e35192a48a8e1409d2f92873a0dbab7Male Vocalist of the Year

Despite eight previous nominations with five wins, it’s not shocking to see Brad Paisley included here. But after such an underwhelming year, it’s still surprising to see him included in a six-way tie. Dierks Bentley scores his second nomination in ten years, while half of the remaining four consist of previous winners. Jason Aldean has taken home this award for the past two years.

Should Win: Dierks Bentley – His only previous nomination came in 2005, while he was still in the promotional cycle for his sophomore album. His stature has only risen in the years since, with critical acclaim and consistent support from country radio, making him long overdue for his turn in the spotlight.   

Will Win: Luke Bryan – He’s arguably the biggest male artist in country music right now, eclipsing Aldean, Eric Church, and Blake Shelton with his stadium show, fast rising singles, and immense popularity. There’s little chance he’ll walk away empty handed, taking home his first win on his third consecutive nomination.

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Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Love Somebody’

Reba_LoveSomebodyIn the five years since All The Women I Am, Reba McEntire thought the changing tides of mainstream country music had swung too far in the opposite direction and thus she had recorded her final album. With playlists catering almost exclusively to men, she felt there wasn’t room for her anymore. That didn’t stop Scott Borchetta from begging, and after four years, he finally got her back in the studio.

Love Somebody is McEntire’s twenty-seventh album and first as the flagship artist of Nash Icon, Borchetta’s newest venture in which he signs legacy acts with hopes of returning them to prominence. The album, co-produced between McEntire, Tony Brown, and James Stroud, is an eclectic slice of modern country that proves the 60-year-old hall of famer can still keep up with the young guns. She hasn’t lost any of the distinctive color in her voice nor has she forsaken the themes that have kept her career afloat for more than forty years.

McEntire’s distinctive ear for songs brimming with attitude is evident in “Going Out Like That,” the lead single that’s beating the odds and becoming a sizeable hit. She continues in that vein on “Until They Don’t Love You,” a Shane McAnally co-write with Lori McKenna and Josh Osborne. Brash and theatrical, the track has prominent backing vocals and nods to her mid-90s anthems although it lacks their distinctiveness. The electric guitar soaked “This Living Ain’t Killed Me Yet” has an engaging lyric courtesy of Tommy Lee James and Laura Veltz and is far more structured melodically.

Pedal Steel leads the way on “She Got Drunk Last Night,” which finds a woman drunk-dialing an old flame. McEntire conveys Brandy Clark and McAnally’s lyric with ease, but I would’ve liked the song to go a bit deeper into the woman’s desperation. She finds herself haunted by the memory of an ex on “That’s When I Knew,” about the moment a woman realizes she’s finally moved on. Jim Collins and Ashley Gorley’s lyric is very good and finds McEntire coping splendidly with a powerful yet thick arrangement.

Throughout Love Somebody, McEntire grapples with intriguing thematic and sonic choices that display her ability to reach beyond her usual material. “I’ll Go On” finds her singing from the prospective of a woman who actually forgives the man who doesn’t love her. She tries and ultimately fails to adequately execute a Sam Hunt co-written hip-hop groove on the title track, one of two love songs. The other, “Promise Me Love,” is a much better song, although Brown’s busy production hinders any chance of the listener truly engaging with the lyric.

She also takes a stab at recreating the magic of “Does He Love You” through a duet with Jennifer Nettles. Written by Kelly Archer, Aaron Scherz, and Emily Shackelton, “Enough” boasts a strong lyric about two women who’ll never be sufficient for this one guy. The premise is stellar and McEntire and Nettles deliver vocally. I just wish the production were softer so we could get the full effect of their anger and despair.

While not particularly unusual, McEntire turns in another story song with “Love Land,” Tom Douglas and Rachael Thibodeau’s composition first recorded by Martina McBride on her 2007 album Waking Up Laughing. It’s never been one of my favorite songs, as I find it very heavy-handed, but McEntire handles it well.

The centerpiece of Love Somebody is Liz Hengber’s “Just Like Them Horses,” a delicate ballad about a recently departed loved one journeying to the other side. The recording is a masterpiece of emotion from Hengber’s perfect lyric to Brown’s elegant production. McEntire’s vocal, channeling the pain she felt when she first sang it at her father’s funeral last fall, is in hallowed company – it’s on par with her delivery of “If I’d Only Known” from twenty-four years ago.

The album closes with her charity single “Pray For Peace” the first self-written song McEntire has recorded since “Only In My Mind” thirty years ago. Like the majority of Love Somebody it shows her taking chances while also staying true to authentic self. While there are few truly knockout punches, this is a very good album. It might not be the strongest set she’s ever released, but it’s a solid reminder that she should stay in the game and take shorter gaps between projects.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Sundown Heaven Town’

Sundown_heaven_townTim McGraw got off to as bad a start as any could ever dream of when introducing his thirteenth album to the world this past winter. The first single, Mark Irwin, James T. Slater, and Chris Tompkins’ “Lookin’ For That Girl” was a smooth hip/hop meets R&B ballad with McGraw desperately pleading for relevance by pandering to trends in order to score airplay. Then came the album’s title, Sundown Heaven Town, which carries with it racial connotations so horrid, everyone in McGraw’s camp should’ve known better and avoided completely unnecessary controversy.

By the time “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s” dropped this spring, McGraw needed the course correction the single ultimately gave him. The elegantly sparse ballad, co-written by Tom Douglas, Jaren Johnson, and Jeffery Steele, is McGraw’s finest single in seven years thanks to an assist from Faith Hill and a charming tale about home. McGraw and Hill are deservedly vying for both Single and Musical Event of the Year at the upcoming CMA Awards.

Just this month Big Machine released the third single from the album, a Marv Green, Hillary Lindsey, and Troy Verges penned tune entitled “Shotgun Rider.” The track, while it sounds good with a shuffle beat, is middle of the road at best and hardly memorable. The problem is keen McGraw fans will remember a different tune with the same name appearing on his Let It Go album in 2007. That “Shotgun Rider,” a duet with Hill, was far more country and less wordy than this tune.

McGraw treated fans to another of the album’s tracks, Canadian country singer/songwriter Deric Ruttan’s “City Lights” when he performed on The Voice this spring. The track is excellent, and while louder, recalls the best of his 90s/00s work. Also classic McGraw is “Overrated,” a sonically progressive muscular ballad penned by Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, and Rivers Rutherford. The chorus is strong and memorable and he gives a nicely commanding performance reminiscent of “Unbroken” from 2001. Big Machine would be smart to release this as a single.

Newcomer Catherine Dunn, who also happens to be McGraw’s cousin, joins him on “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools,” a pure country album highlight that has a bit too much electric guitar, but adds a nice helping of steel about halfway through. While she’s regulated to singing harmony, Dunn adds a nice texture to the track that helps balance McGraw’s gruffness. It’s just weird to me he isn’t singing with Hill, who also would’ve been perfect here.

I also like “Words are Medicine,” a good pop-country number that I might’ve loved had someone like Jennifer Nettles sang it. As it is McGraw does well with it, but his vocal lacks a subtly a better song interpreter would’ve brought to it. “Last Turn Home” is just too loud and McGraw gives an annoying vocal performance on it, which is unfortunate.

“Portland, Maine” finds McGraw with a smoothed processed vocal that does little to give him any credibility. The lyric, by Abe Stoklasa and Donovan Woods, is idiotic, with the laughable hook of “Portland, Maine I don’t know where that is.” The track is ripe for parody and completely beneath McGraw’s talents. “Still On The Line” isn’t any better, with an arrangement that leans far too pop for my tastes.

Also terrible is “Dust,” an embarrassing slice of bro-country dreck unsurprisingly co-written by two-thirds of the Peach Pickers. McGraw co-wrote “Keep On Truckin’” with The Warren Brothers and Bill Daly. Like most of the dreck in mainstream country music, it’s another laundry list number that spends a lot of time saying next to nothing. Andrew Dorff’s “Sick of Me” isn’t awful, but McGraw’s vocal is grating and the song’s structure is annoying.

A deluxe edition of Sundown Heaven Town gives the listener an additional five tracks. McGraw gives a tender vocal on the piano ballad turned overproduced social conscious track “Kids Today,” he turns the volume up to eleven on “I’m Feeling You,” mixes organic country with too much rock on “The View” and ventures into Lady Antebellum territory with “Black Jacket.” I wanted to love the Kid Rock assisted “Lincoln Continentals and Cadillacs,” but the lyric was embarrassingly juvenile and the production far too progressive for my tastes.

As a whole, Sundown Heaven Town is a mixed bag, with McGraw getting a few things right, but still taking a lot of wrong turns along the way. I was a rabid fan of his from 1996-2007, but as the trends in mainstream country have changed, and he along with them, I’ve lost interest. He’s nicely evened out with Sundown Heaven Town, though, with the McGraw of “Truck Yeah” thankfully not showing up here. While he does need a new, far less rockified sound, this is his best album since Let It Go, which is saying a lot these days.

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.

2013 CMA Awards predictions – Who should and will win

Here are my predictions for the 47th annual show, airing next Wednesday on ABC. Do you agree/disagree? As always you can check out the nominations, here.

UnknownENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR

A solid list of well deserving nominees, minus Carrie Underwood, whose lack of a nomination has already incurred my wrath. Taylor Swift may be the biggest star here, but the Country Music Association deserve credit for keeping their traditional edge alive and including George Strait, whose in the middle of his final tour.

Should Win: George Strait – he won back-to-back in 1989 and 1990 and deserves his third win this year, while he’s half way through his two year goodbye to the road

Will Win: Luke Bryan – he’s the biggest male artist in country music right now, selling huge amounts of albums and ranking up hit after hit. He’s on top and here to stay, which a win in this category is going to prove.

Cruise - Single CoverSINGLE OF THE YEAR

A surprising yet diverse list of nominees with Florida Georgia Line’s behemoth squaring off with Darius Rucker’s mainstream reading of an underground smash going up against Kacey Musgraves’ critical favorite, and Miranda Lambert’s best dose of angst since “Gunpowder & Lead.” I only wish The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” was here in place of “Highway Don’t Care.”

Should Win: “Mama’s Broken Heart” – the fourth single from Four The Record was album’s best and proof that artists who get complacent should put down their own pen and let the professionals take over.

Will Win: “Cruise” – It’s the #1 song in country music history with a rap remix that also made it relevant in pop, and more than five million digital downloads. Is there any other single of the year?

imagesALBUM OF THE YEAR

Taylor Swift’s first (but likely not last) foray into pop is up against Kacey Musgraves’ critical smash and Little Big Town’s coming out. Underwood’s album is just okay and Shelton’s should’ve been replaced with Ashley Monroe’s Like A Rose.

Should Win: Same Trailer Different Park – the best album of the bunch comes from a 24-year-old who pours more life experience into her twelve songs than all the other nominees combined. One of the strongest major label debuts in years.

Will Win: Red – name recognition alone will endear her to voters, who’ve been handing this award to the biggest star for the past several years. Not even the fact it’s a pop album will hurt her.

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Album Review: Chris Young – ‘A.M.’

AMChris Young has the best voice in contemporary country music. His problem for me has always been a too-often mediocre choice of songs, but at least his traditional instincts meant it sounded good (and there have been some outstanding highlights like ‘Tomorrow’ and ‘Drinking Me Lonely’, and his super Voices EP of three classic covers). Unfortunately, the demands of country radio have struck again, and this album comes across as a determined and probably successful effort to get airplay. In other words, it’s over-produced (by James Stroud), and the largely generic songs (many of them co-written by Chris) aren’t much good either, with a couple of exceptions.

The barely-bearable lead single ‘Aw Naw’ (written by Chris with Ashley Gorley and Chris DiStefano) features partying lyric, depressingly shallow attitude towards women, loud production, not much melodic range, and irritating spelling, the only semi-redeeming factor being Chris’s muscular vocal which is actually pretty good. This had already steeled me for the possibility that this album (Chris’s fourth) would be a complete sellout, and sadly those fears were realized, although nothing else is quite as bad.

The same trio responsible for ‘Aw Naw’ also wrote the title track (a very similar loud high-energy track about late nights out) and ‘Goodbye’. The latter, product of the same writing session, is a much better song, a ballad about an unexpected call from a lover planning on breaking up. Although the production is cluttered and insensitive after a misleadingly pretty piano opening, the vocal is fine, as Chris embarks on a convincingly impassioned appeal to her that their relationship is “too good for goodbye”.

The two Chrises (Young and Di Stefano) teamed up with Rhett Akins for ‘We’re Gonna Find It Tonight’, another pretty generic partying song, delivered efficiently. Unexpectedly Akins also co-wrote the best song on the album, ‘Text Me Texas’ (alongside Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne). A nicely understated ballad about a man angsting over what his girlfriend may be doing in Houston, and with whom. He begs her to make contact – even a texted lie if she’s not willing to talk would be better than nothing. An excellent vocal is married to sympathetic production, making this a real standout.

‘Forgiveness’, written by Casey Beathard and Scooter Carusoe, is also very good, a reflective confession of the protagonist’s failings as he yearns for the peace of mind he can only get from one person’s forgiveness, which is nicely produced and arranged, with Chris using the deepest part of his vocal range with magisterial effect:

It ain’t hidin’ in a bottle on a shelf
Or lying in the bed with someone else
I can’t feel it on some Sunday morning pew
But one sleepless night it dawned on me
The peace I need so desperately
Is buried in the one place I can’t get to
Girl, it’s got to come from you

McAnally and Osborne wrote ‘Hold You To It’ with Chris Young, which is a return to the generic with a medium-tempo bar pick-up number, although it does have quite a catchy melody. Young’ s final writing credit is for the closing track ‘Lighters In The Air’, another with a pleasant tune but plodding production and not very memorable lyrics. More interesting than either song is the fact that both refer to music but not apparently to country; the former refers to the girl’s favorite song as having a “pumping” bass-line and “grooving” backbeat, while the latter is “summertime rock ‘n roll”.

‘Nothin’ But The Cooler Left’ is cluttered, loud, pandering and exceptionally boring and quite likely to be a successful single next summer. ‘Lonely Eyes’is set in a bar again, but with a darker feel which makes it more interesting, but the production is too loud in places. ‘Who I Am With You’ is a decent positive love song (written by Marv Green, Jason Sellers and Paul Jenkins), with a sincere vocal but too heavy a hand on the production.

Download ‘Text Me Texas’ and ’Forgiveness’, and perhaps also ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Who I Am With You’, but pass on the rest.

While I’ve been critical of the production choices, it’s only fair to say that it’s not as bad as much of what’s getting radio play these days – faint praise, perhaps, but worth mentioning. And Chris Young still has a great, great voice. Hopefully at some point he can make a great album too.

Grade: C

Album Review: Kacey Musgraves – ‘Same Trailer, Different Park’

imagesA major reason for my disillusionment with modern commercial country music is the lack of the mature adult female prospective that elevated the quality of radio playlists throughout the 1990s. The absence of Matraca Berg and Gretchen Peters songs on major label albums (and the decline in popularity of artists such as Pam Tillis, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, and Trisha Yearwood) has left a noticeable gap, one filled with unsatisfying party anthems and the occasional attempt at a throwback that just never quite quenches the thirst.

Thank goodness for Kacey Musgraves. The 24-year-old former Nashville Star contestant from Golden, TX is the take-no-prisoners rebel country music needs to get out of its funk. Same Trailer, Different Park is the strongest commercial country album I’ve heard in ages, filled with timely songs that say something relevant to the modern world. She has a way of crafting lyrics that touch a nerve without seeming offensive that goes well beyond her years.

Initially I will admit I wasn’t floored by “Merry Go ‘Round” the way that most everyone else was, because I managed to get it lost in the shuffle when it debuted late last year. I now fully see the genius in it – the striking way Musgraves (along with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne) paints a deeply honest portrait of small town life so simply. She also brings those same qualities to her new single “Blowin’ Smoke,” which includes a genius play on words (literally smoking/wasting time) for added effect.

I found that a main commonality in the records I’ve loved in past few years are lyrics containing interesting couplets, and Same Trailer Different Park is no different. The obvious example is scrapped second single “Follow Your Arrow,” which among other things, brings the equality debate firmly to the forefront:

Make lots of noise
And kiss lots of boys
Or kiss lots of girls
If that’s something you’re into
When the straight and narrow
Gets a little too straight
Roll up a joint, or don’t
Just follow your arrow
Wherever it points, yeah
Follow your arrow
Wherever it points

Say what you feel
Love who you love
‘Cause you just get
So many trips ’round the sun
Yeah, you only
Only live once

To me it’s a shame that the country music industry has evolved into a place where such a song can’t be given its due, especially since it’s not so different from such classics as “The Pill” or “The Rubber Room,” and is an anthem for our times. Personally I celebrate her boldness (which in actuality is pretty tame) and quite enjoy both the banjo driven musical arrangement and her uncomplicated twangy vocal. The track’s overall feel good attitude really works for me.

Another favorite line, ‘You sure look pretty in your glass house/You probably think you’re too good to take the trash out’ opens another confident statement piece, “Step Off,” which plays like the typical breakup ballad sans petty revenge. Also slightly atypical is the similar themed “I Miss You,” another love gone wrong song, but this time with the added vulnerability of actually missing the guy she’s broken up with. It’s nice, and a refreshing change of pace, to hear someone still grappling with feelings towards the ex instead of just writing them off in a typical Taylor Swift type scenario. The gently rocking “Back On The Map” goes even a step further and finds Musgraves pleading for a date, telling the men of the world “I’ll do anything that you ask.”

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Single Review: Chris Young – ‘Neon’

Chris Young has one of the very best voices in current country music, a burnished baritone which echoes the great vocalists of the past, which has made it frustrating that his choice of material has not always lived up to that voice and his potential.  Radio seems happy to play mediocre songs like the pedestrian ‘You’, which despite being the most boring moment on the artist’s otherwise otherwise promising third album, was his most recent #1 hit.

Happily, he has followed it up with the title track and one of the better songs from that album.  Written by Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne and Trevor Rosen, the lyric compares the beauties of nature in the American southwest unfavorably to the joys of the honky-tonk, with Chris declaring neon to be his favorite color.

Using Urban Cowboy era Johnny Lee as the jukebox artist is the most interesting choice by the writers, compared to the usual nods in a song like this to Haggard, Jones or Hank.  Perhaps the reason is that the song itself is not about dealing with (or failing to deal with) the agonised heartbreak of the best bar room laments, but a positive depiction of honky tonk life, with the bar room is made to sound exceptionally inviting as a home from home.  While it is a place to set aside one’s troubles for a while, it isn’t a way to escape life altogether.  After all, our protagonist is clearly familiar with the great outdoors and appreciates in its way, at least before dark when the lure of the neon lights is too much to resist.

The graceful melody,  traditional arrangement, and wistful-sounding vocal all elevate the song into something which is superior to the vast majority of contemporary radio fare.  It is already in the top 40, and will hopefully follow its predecessors to the top.

Grade: A-