My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Kacey Musgraves

Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘White Christmas Blue’

loretta-lynn-white-christmas-blue-1476726333The crop of Christmas albums has been hit or miss this year with big band affairs aptly showcasing Chris Young and Brett Eldridge’s vocal prowess and Kacey Musgraves’ continued decent into her own quirkiness. Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood had the most disappointing record, a haphazard affair unbecoming from an artist (Yearwood) with impeccable song sense who knows better.

Loretta Lynn has released the years most intriguing holiday record, White Christmas Blue, which comes a full fifty years since her Owen Bradley produced Country Christmas. The album is a full-on traditional affair and a delight at every turn.

I usually find fiddle and steel out of place on a Christmas album, but White Christmas Blue is changing that perception for me. The album is mostly comprised of holiday standards, with jovial renditions of “Frosty The Snowman” and “Jingle Bells” sitting comfortably along side “To Heck With Ole Santa Claus,” one of the album’s strongest cuts and a personal favorite of mine. “Blue Christmas,” a full-on honky-tonker in Lynn’s hands, is also excellent.

The ballads don’t hit as hard. It may be the starkness she brings to “Away In A Manger,” “Silent Night” and “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful” that didn’t do it for me or the fact I’ve heard them so often, in so may different versions, their simple beauty has begun to wear thin. “’Twas The Night Before Christmas” was a complete surprise, a perfect way to end the album.

White Christmas Blue also boasts two original numbers. “Country Christmas” is a rerecording of the title track from the last album and Lynn hasn’t lost any of the spunk she brought to the original. The other, the title track, is a rather somber affair, which finds Lynn with everything she wants – except her honey:

It’s Christmas Eve and I’m still all alone

It’ll be Christmas day when you come home

Icicles hanging from the eves, snow is glistenin’ from the trees

My Christmas time with you is over due

 

You turn into my white Christmas blue

You turn into my white Christmas blue

I should be saying ho ho ho instead of bu bu bu

Oh Santa Claus would no want you to break my heart in two

You turn into my white Christmas blue

I cannot recommend this album enough.

Grade: A-

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+

50th CMA Awards: Grading the Twenty Performances

Instead of the typical CMA Awards prediction post, I thought it might be fun to rank the twenty performances, all of which brought something special to the evening. Here they are, in ascending order, with commentary:

20.

imrs-phpBeyoncé Feat. Dixie Chicks – Daddy’s Lessons

The most debated moment of the night was the worst performance in recent CMA history, an embarrassment to country music and the fifty years of the organization. Beyoncé was the antithesis of our genre with her staged antics and complete lack of authenticity. If Dixie Chicks had performed this song alone, like they did on tour, it would’ve been a slam-dunk. They were never the problem. Beyoncé is to blame for this mess.

Grade: F

19.

Kelsea Ballerini – Peter Pan

I feel bad for her. It seems Ballerini never got the memo that this was the CMA Awards and not a sideshow at Magic Kingdom. Everything about this was wrong – the visuals, wind machine and, most of all, the dancers. Once I saw the harness in plain sight, I knew it was over.

Grade: F 

 18.

362x204-q100_121d9e867599857df2132b3b6c77e0c8Luke Bryan – Move

Nashville is perennially behind the trends as evidenced by Bryan’s completely out of place performance. One of only two I purposefully fast forwarded through.

Grade: F 

 17.

Florida Georgia Line feat. Tim McGraw – May We All 

Stood out like a sore thumb, for all the wrong reasons. Not even McGraw could redeem this disaster.

Grade: F  

16.

gettyimages-620669440-43407842-8b2a-437b-a6e4-f643a1b5b104Carrie Underwood – Dirty Laundry

The newly minted Female Vocalist of the Year gave the third weakest performance of this year’s nominees. I commend her use of an all-female band, but disliked everything else from the visuals to Underwood’s dancing. It all starts with the song and this one is among her worst.

Grade: D+

15.

Thomas Rhett – Die A Happy Man

The biggest hit of the year gave Thomas Rhett a moment his other radio singles proves he doesn’t deserve. He remained gracious throughout the night, proving he can turn it on when it counts. I just wish it wasn’t an act.

Grade: B- 

14.

362x204-q100_b63432d74b677e29d35917efd7490170Keith Urban – Blue Ain’t Your Color

A perfectly serviceable performance of an above average song. He did nothing to stand out from the pack neither adding to nor distracting from the night’s more significant moments.

Grade: B

13.

Dierks Bentley feat. Elle King – Different for Girls 

At least Bentley wasn’t showcasing the rowdier side of Black. He and King didn’t do anything to stand out and the whole thing was more middle of the road than anything else.

Grade: B

 12.

landscape-1478192054-gettyimages-620693852Martina McBride, Reba McEntire, Kacey Musgraves, Jennifer Nettles and Carrie Underwood – Dolly Parton Tribute 

I have nothing against Parton nor do I deny her incredible legacy as a pioneer in the genre. But it’s time to honor someone else. Parton has been lauded and it’s so old at this point, it’s unspectacular. That’s not to say this wasn’t a great medley, it was. I just wish it had been for someone different, like say, Tanya Tucker.

Grade: B

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Single Review: George Strait – ‘Goin’ Goin’ Gone’

goin-goin-gone-cover-artBeyond a few dates in Las Vegas with Kacey Musgraves, George Strait has remained dormant for the better part of the last year. Cold Beer Conversation has continued his downward trend as country radio continues to find little room for many with traditional-leanings. In the past few weeks Strait has returned, sitting down with The Dallas Observer (the interviewer, surprisingly, is no relation to me) for a must-read interview and mining his most recent album to release “Goin’ Goin’ Gone,” a honky-tonk rocker co-written by Wyatt Earp and Keith Gattis.

The lyric finds the protagonist down on his luck, with little savings:

I put in my forty and they take out way too much

 

I ain’t got no 401, ain’t got no benefits

They don’t hand out stock options, not down here in the pits

Despite his grim financial situation he is determined to forget his troubles, even if he only digs himself deeper:

I’m overdue so throw it on the card

Bartender, keep it open, I’m just getting started

Come Monday morning, I just might be overdrawn

But it’s Friday night, so, I’m goin’, goin’ gone

Even without a solid foundation, he does find the silver lining:

Might not be the big dream but I guess I can’t complain

It pays the rent but that’s about all that it pays

 

But I’ve got old glory hanging by my front porch light

Might not be the perfect world but then again, it might

Blue-collar anthems, once a staple of country music, have fallen by the wayside as the Nashville Machine went into overdrive to deemphasize the harsh realities of life in modern country songs. At its core, “Goin’ Goin’ Gone” is a drinking song dosed in realism, with the writers gifting us intent behind his need to keep throwing ‘em back.

While I do find the record infectious, and Strait sounds as high-energy as ever, the execution is lacking the uniqueness that would take this single over the top. Plus the arrangement, while excellent, feels a tad loud in the final mix.

“Goin’ Goin’ Gone” may have appeared on Cold Beer Conversation but MCA has serviced it as the promotional push for Strait Out of The Box: Part 2. Strait’s second boxed set (3 CDs), a Wal-Mart exclusive, will be released on November 18. In that case, “Check Yes or No” this is not. But it is very good.

Grade: B+

Album Review: John Prine and Friends – ‘For Better, Or Worse’

for-better-or-worseBack in 1999 singer-songwriter John Prine released a charming collaboration with a group of country and folk female singers, singing classic country duets. 17 years later here comes a sequel, which is just as delightful. Prine’s gruff vocals are set off by his duettist’s much better voices, and the combinations work very well.

Most of the collaborators are different, with the exception of Fiona Prine (John’s wife) and Iris De Ment. The latter featured on no less than four tracks on the first album, and two here, both originally recorded by Loretta Lynn and Ernest Tubb. The tongue in cheek opener ‘Who’s Gonna Take Your Garbage Out’ has Iris throwing out her good-for-nothing husband. He complains of being henpecked, while she declares,

Calling a man like you a husband’s like calling an ol’ wildcat a pet

They take a broken marriage more seriously in the sad ‘Mr And Mrs Used To Be’.

The wonderful Lee Ann Womack is ethereally sweet on ‘Storms Never Last’. She is even better on ‘Fifteen Years Ago’, a pained tale of long lasting heartbreak, which was a hit for Conway Twitty. Turning it into a duet transforms the song from one of solo heartache (a la ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’, but with no end in sight) to one of mutual regret, which is almost more poignant. This is my favourite track.

‘Cold, Cold Heart’ doesn’t work as well as a duet lyrically, but the cut shows duet partner Miranda Lambert can do traditional country with a lovely sounding and emotional vocal. Kacey Musgraves hams it up a bit on the ultra-retro ‘Mental Cruelty’, but the track is fun. Holly Williams is good on the sassy back-and-forth of ‘I’m Telling You’, although the song is very short (less than two minutes).

The pure voice of Kathy Mattea makes two appearances. ‘Dreaming My Dreams With You’ is gorgeously tender and romantic, while ‘Remember Me’ is pretty with a little melancholy undertone. Alison Krauss guests on the gently pretty ‘Falling In Love Again’. Probably the least known singer to a general audience is Morgane Stapleton (wife of Chris), but I’ve loved her voice since she was briefly signed to a major label a decade ago. Her performance on Vince Gill’s ‘Look At Us’ is lovely, and very reminiscent of Lee Ann Womack.

A very pleasant surprise for me was Susan Tedeschi, a blues/rock singer who does an excellent job on ‘Color Of The Blues’. Although she’s not the greatest vocalist, Americana artist Amanda Shires is also decent on ‘Dim Lights, Thick Smoke’ (one of my favourite songs), and adds a bit of quirky personality.

It’s fair to say that Fiona Prine is not in the same class as the other ladies vocally, but her duet, ‘My Happiness’, is quite pleasant. There is one solo track, the closing ‘Just Waitin’’, a surprisingly entertaining narration.

This is an excellent album which is vying to be my favorite of 2016.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Buddy Miller and Friends – ‘Cayamo Sessions At Sea’

cayamo sessions at seaBuddy Miller’s latest project comprises a series of collaborations with other artists recorded between 2012 and 2015 on the cruise ship Cayamo, as part of a music festival the ship puts on annually. The eclectic selection of artists tackle some classic country songs, with the odd outlier given a country arrangement, and the result is a joy to listen to from start to finish. Buddy does an excellent job producing, and sings either harmonies or duet vocals on each track.

The album opens with a tremendous version of the classic duet ‘After The Fire Is Gone’, performed with the always wonderful Lee Ann Womack. Kacey Musgraves is charming on Buck Owens’ upbeat ‘Love’s Gonna Live Here Again’. I also enjoyed the duet with the underrated Elizabeth Cook on ‘If Teardrops Were Pennies’.

Kris Kristofferson sings his own ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’, and sounds more controlled vocally than he usually does live. Lucinda Williams, another singer who can be unpredictable, is intensely emotional on a slow, measured version of ‘Hickory Wind’. The legendary British folk singer, Richard Thompson, has a longstanding love of traditional country music, and he sings Hank Williams’ somber ‘Wedding Bells’. Doug Seegers, an equally towering figure of American folk, joins Buddy for the gospel number ‘Take The Hand Of Jesus’.

Nikki Lane, whose music I had not heard previously, is soulful on ‘Just Someone I Used To Know’. Another unfamiliar name, Jill Andrews sings ‘Come Early Morning’ charmingly, duetting with Buddy.

Singer songwriter Shawn Colvin tackles the Rolling Stones’ most country-sounding song, the wistful ballad ‘Wild Horses’, to beautiful effect. Brandi Carlile, who falls somewhere in between alt-country and folk-rock, is joined by the Americana band The Lone Bellow for ‘Angel From Montgomery’. If this is my least favourite track, this is only because it is merely very, very good, and everything else is even better.

This is a superb album, which is my favorite of everything Buddy Miller has recorded. It is highly recommended.

Grade: A+

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.

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”

 

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2015

so this is lifeIt’s been a solid year rather than an outstanding one, with a number of interesting albums released but few really exciting ones. But any of my top 10 is well worth hearing.

angels and alcohol10. Alan Jackson – ‘Angels And Alcohol

The veteran star is reliable as ever with his latest release. It may break no new ground, but it’s good country music, and that’s something we always need more of.
Highlights: ‘Angels and Alcohol’, ‘The One You’re Waiting On’, ‘You Can Always Come Home

pageant material9. Kacey Musgraves – ‘Pageant Material
Unlike many, I actually preferred this to Kacey’s lauded debut because I found the production choices more sympathetic to her voice.
Highlights: ‘Pageant Material’, ‘Biscuits’, ‘Late To The Party

cold beer conversation8. George Strait – ‘Cold Beer Conversation
He may have retired from touring, and have lost his golden touch with country radio – but like Alan Jackson, George Strait is still making fine music. A solid classy album.
Highlights: ‘Something Going Down’, ‘Everything I See’, ‘Even When I Can’t Feel It’.

brennen leigh sings lefty frizzell7. Brennen Leigh – ‘Sings Lefty Frizzell
Only just released, this lovely tribute to one of the cornerstones of country music made a late charge up my best of the year list. A true delight. Brennen also teamed up this year with bluegrass singer Brandon Rickman and singer/fiddler Jenee Fleenor in a trio project called Antique Persuasion, which released a delightful acoustic tribute to the Carter Family in August which almost made this list, and a recent Christmas EP.

Highlights: ‘I Love You A Thousand Ways’, ‘Mom And Dad’s Waltz’, ‘How Far Down Can I Go’, ‘You Gotta Be Putting Me On

throwback6. Kevin Moon – ‘Throwback
A fabulous traditional country album from an unknown singer with a great voice. It’s a wonderful reminder of what country music used to be, with guest turns from artists including John Anderson, Rhonda Vincent and Ken Mellons. If there had only been a few more original tunes of the same quality, this would have been even higher in my year-end list.

Highlights: ‘The Storms Of Life’ (with Daryle Singletary), ‘Tennessee Courage’ (with Kevin Denney, Wesley Dennis and Billy Droze), ‘I’d Be Better Off (In A Pine Box)’ (with Doug Stone).

pocket full of keys5. Dale Ann Bradley – ‘Pocket Full Of Keys
Dale Ann has a pure, beautiful voice, and is one of my favorite bluegrass vocalists. This gorgeous effort shows her at her very best.

Highlights: ‘I’m So Afraid Of Losing You Again’, ‘The Stranger’, ‘Pocket Full Of Keys’.

traveller4. Chris Stapleton – ‘Traveler
Chris Stapleton’s triple triumph at the recent CMA awards, and subsequent sales spike, was one of the most unexpected in country music history. Although he was formerly lead singer of the SteelDrivers, and has been a very successful songwriter for years, he had rather flown under the radar as far as mainstream acknowledgement went. His solo debut album is a very strong piece of work, showcasing his bluesy, soulful vocals. I don’t love every track – occasionally his more esoteric leanings to blues and rock wander too far from country music for me – but when he’s at his best, he is magnificent.

Highlights: ‘Whiskey And You’, ‘Nobody To Blame’, ‘Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore’.

the underdog3. Aaron Watson – ‘The Underdog
Texan Watson has been steadily plugging on for a decade or so, and his latest album is as good as anything he’s done, with a powerful depiction of Johnny Cash at his turning point and a reflection on the state of country music. Solid Texas country music which deserves a mainstream hearing.
Highlights: ‘The Prayer’, ‘Fence Post’, ‘Bluebonnets (Julia’s Song)’.

the blade2. Ashley Monroe – ‘The Blade
A fine album by one of the best artists currently on a major label – even if that label isn’t bothering to push her work at radio. The title track in particular is exquisite.
Highlights: ‘The Blade’, ‘If The Devil Don’t Want Me’, ‘Dixie’, ‘I’m Good At Leaving’.

so this is life1. Courtney Patton – ‘So This Is Life
A lovely mature piece of work from a fine singer-songwriter, loaded with gorgeous country waltzes. For my money this is the most consistently great album of the year.
Highlights: ‘Little Black Dress’, ‘Need For Wanting’, ‘Killing Time

Occasional Hope’s top 10 singles of 2015

law 2015Country radio may be going from bad to worse with the arrival of the likes of the obviously non-country Sam Hunt, but there have been some superb singles released this year, particularly from female artists. A few of them have even made an impact on radio, proving there is still hope. Among the singles that just missed the cut for my top 10 were the charming first two singles from Kacey Musgraves’ second Mercury album – ‘Biscuits’ and ‘Dime Store Cowgirl’; Sunny Sweeney’s dead-marriage duet with Will Hoge, ‘My Bed’; and Chris Young’s sexy ‘I’m Comin’ Over’.

10. Jon Pardi – ‘Head Over Boots’
Sunny and catchy – this is country rock done exactly right. It’s currently working its way into the top 40.

9. Chris Stapleton‘Nobody To Blame’

Singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton’s unexpected triple victory at this year’s CMA Awards was the pleasantest surprise I’ve had at an awards ceremony in years. Showing why he deserved it, his November single release is an excellent song imbued with his bluesy soulful brand of country music.

burning house8. Cam – Burning House
I hear Camaron Ochs as more folky pop rather than a country singer at heart, but I’ve really liked her two 2015 singles, the upbeat ‘My Mistake’ (about embarking on a one night stand with no regrets), and the gentle melancholy of ‘Burning House’. The haunting melody makes this my favourite of the two, and for a change radio agrees with me, as this has proved to be her breakthrough, with the track at #11 on the country radio chart as of early November. Her debut album is due this month.

shut up and fish7. Maddie & Tae – ‘Shut Up And Fish’
An irresistibly catchy tune from the effervescent duo, which uses its comic trappings to dress up a serious message about sexual harassment.

6. Jason James‘I’ve Been Drinkin’ More’
Perhaps the most obscure of my top 10 singles is this solid barroom shuffle, which sounds like a forgotten county classic:

I’ve been drinkin’ more
Since you’ve been lovin’ me less

5. Jana Kramer – ‘I Got the Boy’
Disappointingly the album it heralded turned out to be otherwise terrible, but I still like Jana Kramer’s mature reflection on the passing of teenage romance, written by Connie Harrington, Tim Nichols and former child TV star Jamie Lynn Spears. Her vocal ability may not stand up to the other women who made my top 10 this year, but on this song at least, she has an appealing warmth. It was another genuine hit, and is still rising.

4. Trisha Yearwood‘I Remember You’
The second single from Trisha Yearwood’s 2014 mixture of hits and fine new songs, Prize Fighter, is an impeccable song, written by Canadians Kelly Archer, Ben Caver and Brad Rempel. My review said it was “as close to perfect as it gets”, and it is an exemplary example of understated subtlety in both the vocal and the production.

jamey johnson3. Jamey Johnson‘Alabama Pines’
Jamey Johnson has not been very forthcoming with new music even now that he has launched his own label. But he did share this single with us earlier this year, even initially allowing it to be downloaded free. A beautiful, steel laced melody, it looks back on his southern childhood and the dreams of a life in music who took him away.

the blade2. Ashley Monroe – ‘The Blade
For most of this year, the title track of Ashley’s latest album has been the song I’ve returned to over and over again. When I reviewed that set I called this a truly outstanding song, and my feelings have not changed. Written by Marc Beeson, Jamie Floyd and Allen Shamblin, produced by Vince Gill and Justin Niebank, and sung by the delicately vulnerable Ashley Monroe, this is a beautiful depiction of the pain of love which lasts longer on one side than the other:

That’s the risk you run when you love
When you love and you give it all you’ve got to give
Knowing all along there’s a chance
There’s a chance you’ll reach and they won’t
You’ll bleed and they don’t
For you, it’s over; for me, it’s not
I kept tryin’ and you just stopped
Now I know how you can sound so brave
Cause you caught it by the handle, baby
And I caught it by the blade

It wasn’t a hit of course – it was far too good for country radio: too country, too subtle, and too female.

1. Lee Ann Womack‘Chances Are’
I thought Ashley Monroe’s single was going to make #1 on my list until I heard late in October that Lee Ann Womack had issued the best song on her critically acclaimed 2014 album The Way I’m Livin’ as its third single. A world-wearied and desperately lonely soul still has hope for love and happiness:

Chances are I took the wrong turn
Every time I had a turn to take
And I guess I broke my own heart
Every chance I had a heart to break
And it seems I spent my whole life
Wishin’ on the same unlucky star
As I watch you ‘cross the barroom, I wonder
What my chances are

Well, I know you’ve been around
And you’ve seen what you needed to see
And at night when you’re dreamin’
You’re probably not dreamin’ ‘bout me
Oh, it’s safe to say I’ve stumbled
But I’ve managed to make it through this far
As I take one step and then another
I wonder what my chances are

I have watched the world go by
Hand in hand and wondered why
I’m still so alone
Could I lay down my foolish pride
Maybe finally find my heart a home

The band has started playing
A simple song I used to know
I take your hand and walk you out
Dance to the rhythm way down low
Every heart has got a story
Mine just has a few scars
But they could heal if you would hold me and tell me
What my chances are
Well, they could heal if you would hold me and tell me
What my chances are

I first heard this excellent song sung by its writer Hayes Carll a few years ago, but LAW’s version of this excellent Hayes Carll song is quite exquisitely beautiful: beautifully sung and interpreted like a masterclass in country music, and tastefully produced with lovely steel guitar dominating the mix. Her unexpected but well deserved nomination as the CMA’s Female Vocalist of the Year probably won’t gain her airplay for this stunning record, but it’s unmissable.

Predictions for the 49th Annual CMA Awards

CMA Awards 2015 graphicThe leaves are changing colors, the days are shorter and the weather is getting progressively colder by the day. When autumn rolls around, so do the annual Country Music Association Awards. The telecast, airing next Wednesday (November 4) on ABC, is the 49th in the show’s history.

The blending of ‘country’ with outside influences continues with scheduled duets between John Mellencamp & Keith Urban as well as Thomas Rhett & Fall Out Boy. Sam Hunt, Kelsea Ballerini and Maddie & Tae will take the stage for the first time. In an exciting twist, Hank Williams Jr will open the show with his brand new single “Are You Ready For The Country.” His cover of the Waylon Jennings tune will be presented as a duet with Eric Church.

Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley will return to host. You can check out the nominees, here.

ec_0184crop_300cmyk_webEntertainer of the Year

Garth Brooks has had more embarrassing gaffs in the last year than any artist should have in their whole career. His tour has been massive, but he’s more than botched his comeback. By falling short, he’s made a win here feel a bit disingenuous.

Should Win: Eric Church – In his first headlining tour he struck out on his own and invited a slew of Americana based acts to open for him. He doesn’t give a damn about the establishment and refuses to be anyone other than himself. 

Will Win: Luke Bryan – There isn’t a single artist in mainstream country who’s bigger than him right now. He’s got his second consecutive win in the bag.

Male Vocalist of the Year

Dierks_Bentley-514x336The endless debate rages on. How many times does one person have to win a single award? Blake Shelton hasn’t done anything in 2015 extraordinarily special. He’s been on tour, had a few chart toppers, and continued as a coach on The Voice. Yawn. This is a battle between Dierks Bentley and Eric Church. Both equally deserve it, but sonority should win in the end.

Should Win: Dierks Bentley – He’s been topping the charts and going to battle for authentic country music going on thirteen years now. It’s time the CMA take his career to the next level.

Will Win: Eric Church  – Bentley is on his second consecutive nomination for the first time, but Church has more nominations overall in a year he didn’t even release an album. That kind of recognition should mean he’s the favorite to win his first trophy in this category.

Female Vocalist of the Year

hc-lee-ann-womack-performs-at-ridgefield-playhouse-0416-20150416Miranda Lambert’s reception at country radio has significantly cooled since this time last year and Kelsea Ballerini  is so new her debut album hasn’t even been released. This is Carrie Underwood’s award to loose, with two massive hits under her belt all the while laying low after giving birth.

Should Win: Lee Ann Womack – no other nominee has shown as much nuance in his or her vocal delivery over the past year than Womack. Her gifts are astonishing and shockingly undervalued. She should win on principle, collecting her second trophy in fifteen years.

Will Win: Kacey Musgraves – Underwood’s overall lack of nominations is a strong indicator that Musgraves will finally be the one to dethrone Lambert.

littlebigtown30-1423681046Vocal Group of the Year

 Both The Band Perry and Zac Brown Band spent 2015 selling their souls to the devil. Rascal Flatts and Lady Antebellum are just more category filler.

Should Win: Little Big Town – None of the other nominees combined had a song as impactful as “Girl Crush” this year. They deserve this.

Will Win: Little Big Town – Songs like “Girl Crush” only happens once in a career. They won on the strength of far weaker material in the past few years. They’ll win in a landslide.

0515-maddie-new-1Vocal Duo of the Year

Competition in the CMA’s dullest category doesn’t happen very often. Florida Georgia Line find themselves in the commercial verses artistic battle once again, a contest they lost to Musgraves in round one two years ago.

Should Win: Maddie & Tae – They’re a fresh force on the scene, calling out clichés and stereotypes with gusto. They could be ballsier still, but they’re on the right track.

Will Win: Florida Georgia Line – Maddie & Tae are very new, which could hurt them. That’ll leave the category open for the establishment to swoop in for a third consecutive win. (Since M&T and FGL are both on Scott Borchetta’s label group, it’ll be interesting to see whom he puts his influence behind).

New Artist of the Year

0115weberiverbendhunt1798024130_t755_he05f79007e18b2a270e2a6ff224d41a8e296151bThomas Rhett’s appeal has only grown since his first nomination last year. He isn’t quite a superstar yet, but he’s well on his hip-hop, Bruno Mars influenced way. Also on his way is Drake influenced Sam Hunt, who has risen twice as fast as Rhett. Then there’s Maddie & Tae, the duo who openly admires Dixie Chicks and has taken down Bro-Country.

Should Win: Chris Stapleton – I’m not jumping up and down, but I do recognize quality when I hear it. He’s easily the most articulate artist of this bunch.

Will Win: Sam Hunt  – There’s talk Montavello could score an Album of the Year Grammy Nomination. The industry has been bending over backwards to give him one of the flashiest launches in country music history. A win here is likely part of that plan.

815sIYbfiAL._SL1500_Album of the Year

Jason Aldean is the most overrated artist in commercial country right now, with one empty single after another. Broken Bow deserves a lot of credit for manipulating the CMA to give him a nomination. Pain Killer is Little Big Town’s weakest album to date. Traveller is the strongest overall album, by a wide margin.

Should Win: Pageant Material – Musgraves’ uneven sophomore set isn’t a tour-de-force, but it is the most interesting album of this bunch. 

Will Win: Pageant Material – Consider it an apology trophy for being the only organization that didn’t give this honor to Same Trailer Different Park. The CMA rarely acknowledges debut albums, but they see fit to celebrate their follow-up sets.

little-big-town-single-art-girl-crush-2015-03Single of the Year and Song of the Year

The battle here is between “Girl Crush” and “Take Your Time,” the two biggest singles of the past year. The only distinction between the two is that “Girl Crush” made waves for its content. Is it about lesbians? Are Little Big Town pushing a gay agenda? In that context, I see a very real and significant split.

(As an aside: overlooking “Something In The Water” is a major snub. Had Underwood’s single been nominated, I doubt we’d even be discussing even a remote chance of Hunt walking away a winner).

Will Win (Single): “Take Your Time” – The CMA have a history of awarding one-off singles such as “Cruise,” “Hurt,” “Man of Constant Sorrow,” “Achy Breaky Heart” and “Elvira,” which are flavors of the moment. The flavor right now is Hunt.

Will Win (Song): “Girl Crush”  – Ten years after Faith Hill brought her national attention, Lori McKenna will walk away with her first CMA Award for co-writing a song she thought no one would ever record.

Musical Event of the Year

Willie_Nelson_&_Merle_Haggard_-_Django_and_JimmieA full-length album goes up against four typical mainstream duets. It’s the second straight year the CMA has opted to nominate an LP, and like Bakersfield last year, the project deserves to compete in the Album of the Year category instead.

Should Win: Django and Jimmie – It’s been thirty-two years since Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard have come together for a collaborative effort. I wish Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell had been nominated instead, but it’s Nelson and Haggard.

Will Win: “Lonely Tonight” – Blake Shelton will win as a consolation prize when he hopefully looses his sixth straight Male Vocalist of the Year trophy. Then again, this is a duet with Ashley Monroe. Much like the country music community as a whole, the CMA have been criminally cool towards her. Hopefully Shelton can pull the pair over the top.

Music Video of the Year

carrie-underwood-something-in-the-waterIt should be a celebration that all five nominees are videos by female artists. But the CMA has regulated this as an off camera award, which dampens the progressiveness of the category this year. It’s always interesting to see who wins since this is often used as a consolation prize when the CMA overlooks artists in other categories.

Should Win: Something In The Water – Underwood is often overlooked, especially since her Female Vocalist run ended in 2009. She deserves this.

Will Win: “Something In The Water” was criminally overlooked for both Single and Song of the Year. It’s exclusion in those races only helps Underwood here. This is a consolation prize if there ever was one.

1885141596Musician Event of the Year

Mac McAnally has been nominated in this category for the past eight years. He’s won for the past seven years straight. He’s all but a lock to take it again.

Should Win: Dann Huff – It won’t count until next year, but he did a bang up job producing Maddie & Tae’s Start Here. I’d like to see him take this home.

Will Win: Mac McAnally – Betting against the status quo? Not this year.

Album Review: Kacey Musgraves – ‘Pageant Material’

kacey-musgraves-album-pageant-material-2015Despite the prestigious awards and critical acclaim, Kacey Musgraves has spent the better part of the last two years failed by an industry that doesn’t appreciate her unique quirkiness. The Country Music Association marred her performance of “Follow Your Arrow” by bleeping the word ‘joint.’

The Academy of Country Music offered her a slot for a shortened performance on their 2014 telecast, which she refused. Country Radio pulled “Biscuits” before it could gain any momentum. Mercury Nashville held back on “The Trailer Song,” her most fully formed slice of commentary, only to dump it on iTunes as an afterthought.

Fortunately for Musgraves, the songs speak for themselves. Same Trailer Different Park is one of the best mainstream country albums of the decade, showcasing an artist with an original perspective confidently following her own arrow. That arrow has now pointed to Pageant Material, her second major label album.

Like Same Trailer, Luke Laird and Shane McAnally produced Pageant Material, with Brandy Clark and McAnally returning as co-writers. That’s all fine and good, but is Pageant Material the worthy sophomore release it should be? Well, it’s not Same Trailer Different Park.

For all the criticism that both projects are incongruously similar, Pageant Material relies too heavily on observation. I don’t think Musgraves is deliberately trying to duplicate “Merry Go Round” and “Follow Your Arrow,” but the album sure has more than a few songs in that vein.

Pageant Material begins very strong. “High Time” is an excellent backwards country romp featuring handclaps and whistling, which keep it thoroughly modern. “Dime Store Cowgirl” is a strong first person ‘where I’m from’ narrative that cultivates an image without succumbing to cliché or stereotype.

When it debuted in April, I thought “Biscuits” was a contrived second-rate knockoff, but I’ve grown to admire the infectious melody and memorable hook. I also love “Good ‘Ol Boys Club,” which uses a soaking of steel to take the male artists monopolizing Nashville to task. Pageant Material comes alive on “Late For The Party,” easily the best song by a mile. Musgraves’ conversational vocal and the lush production are flawless, giving the track inviting warmth. “Fine” is also excellent, as is the cruelly hidden duet with Willie Nelson.

Problem is the majority of Pageant Material suffers without more “Life of the Party” or “Fine” type moments, which would’ve given the record much need diversity. Instead we’re treated to “Family Is Family” and “Cup of Tea,” and the title track, which come off as cheap imitations that try too hard to live up to her other songs in the same vein. If Musgraves had made smarter choices that relied more on varietal substance, I would’ve enjoyed the album more.

Grade: B

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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Single Review: Kacey Musgraves – ‘Biscuits’

Biscuits_by_Kacey_MusgravesCo-written with Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, the latest release from Kacey Musgraves is a catchy, if somewhat cliche-ridden anthem that preaches tolerance and minding one’s own business. In many ways, it delivers the same message as the songwriting trio’s 2013 composition “Follow Your Arrow”. This time around, however, the message is delivered in a less heavy-handed manner, which makes it a lot more palatable.

Musgraves and McAnally produced the track with Luke Laird. The production is mostly light-hearted, in keeping with the song’s lyrics, although the sing-songy background vocals on the chorus is a bit overdone, almost drowning out Kacey’s delicate voice at times. Thankfully, though, there is plenty of steel guitar and banjo without any fuzzy and overly loud electric guitars that have been become the hallmarks of today’s arena rock masquerading as country. There’s nothing terribly deep about ‘Biscuits’; it delivers a simple message in a pleasant manner and doesn’t demand much from the listener except perhaps to sing along. It currently resides at #28 on the charts and seems to be well positioned to become Musgrave’s second Top 10 hit.

Grade: B+

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Favorite Singles of 2014

When looking back, 2014 will be remembered as the year country music morphed into the biggest radio format in the land while pondering to never ending bro-country schlock and diminishing the efforts of solo female artists not named Miranda or Carrie. The genre also lost its biggest star, Taylor Swift, to world domination.

But I’ll remember a statistic far more puzzling. In the eighteen years I’ve been following the genre, I’ve never witnessed this big a turnover at the top of the Billboard Country Singles chart. How is it that seemingly every new male artist, either solo or in a group/duo, seems to be notching number one hits out of the gate? Everyone from Cole Swindell, Thomas Rhett, Sam Hunt, Parmalee, and Maddie & Tae are routinely racking up chart topping singles without having to fight for their chance to land on playlists. Watching the Billboard Country Airplay chart these days has become more than ridiculous.

My choices, as usual, prove radio doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface in the story of quality country music in 2014. I’ll say this until I’m blue in the face, but if you know where to look (Americana) the goods are definitely there.

Nickel-Creek-Destination10. Destination – Nickel Creek

After nine years of flexing their individual creative muscles, Sara Watkins, Sean Watkins, and Chris Thile reunited to celebrate Nickel Creek’s twenty-fifth anniversary. The time apart has only made them a stronger unit together, which boosts well for this plucky romp led by Sara’s wailing lead vocal. She’s done with her man and leaves no doubt she’s moving on to bigger and better things.

9. Frankie Please – Rodney Crowell

519z2FHhvCL._SL500_AA280_Leave it to Crowell to have the strongest opening line to any song in recent memory – ‘You tore through my life like a tornado looking for a trailer park.’ The blistering lead single from Tarpaper Sky only gets better from there, led by distinctive electric guitar and Crowell’s brilliant lyric. After 38 years in the business he proves he’s still on top of his game with no signs of slowing down.

8. I’ll Be There In The Morning – Don Williams

2468428_20140212162413_199149415The reason it’s so difficult to write an authentic love song is because the imagery has become so overdone, it borders on disingenuous parody. Simple sentiments like “You complete me” or the straightforward “I love you” have become so commonplace in our society, they mean almost nothing anymore.

Don Williams and producer Garth Fundis smartly avoid those trappings by looking forty-six years in the past and resurrecting Townes Van Zant’s elegant promise to his woman – no matter what trials and tribulations may arise on our journey, I’ll be next to you each time the sun rises to greet another day. A woman couldn’t ask more from her man and we couldn’t ask more from Williams, who imparts this wisdom as a man of seventy-five reflecting on the devotion of long-lasting love.

 7. Say You Do – Dierks Bentley

dierks-bentley-say-you-do-singleFinally back to form, Bentley leaves alcohol and frat parties in the dust for a melancholy ballad about a man pleading with the woman who won’t commit to their relationship, even after he begs her to ‘let those words roll off your tongue.’ He’s willing to do whatever it takes – buy her drinks, force her to lie, heck he wants her to lead him on – but she just won’t budge. Bentley hasn’t been this satisfying in years.

 6. Talladega – Eric Church

PrintAn epic ballad about the bonds of friendship set over a weekend at an empty NASCAR track, “Talladega” expertly illustrates Church’s storytelling prowess through Jay Joyce’s delicate production. When Church is on, there isn’t a more interesting or enjoyable male country singer scoring major hits today.

5. Meanwhile Back At Mama’s – Tim McGraw Featuring Faith Hill

 Tim-McGraw-Meanwhile-Back-At-MamasYou have to go back seven years to find Tim McGraw’s last truly outstanding single, the military-inspired “If You’re Reading This.” After years of screaming for relevancy he surrenders the fight and returns to form with a gracefully constructed lyric about home and the important role of family in our lives.

4. California – Radney Foster

RF.EISHS-11I couldn’t have willed this song to exist if I tried. ‘Can’t you hear California calling your name? A siren song, once you hear it, you’ll never be the same.’ Those nineteen words sum up exactly how I feel about the Golden State since visiting there repeatedly over the past few years. Foster has composed a stunner – part love story, part tourist battle cry.

600x600 3. The Trailer Song – Kacey Musgraves

 Kacey Musgraves’ genius lies in her ability to craft songs that on the surface seem littered with country clichés but are actually witty commentaries about the state of society as a whole. The two women depicted here may live in a trailer park, but they’re no different than any bickering neighbors setting up lives in suburbia. We all have that nosy neighbor, the one we wish would stay on their side of the fence and keep those damn mini-blinds closed.

2. What We Ain’t Got – Jake Owen

2522282_20140722163600_696746334Even as far back as six years ago, country singers abided by the cardinal rule – balance. For every uptempo ditty, artists would release a slice of substance to give themselves credibility. That concept, thank goodness, hasn’t been lost on Owen. “What We Ain’t Got” is a classic example of the kind of song that would’ve been all over 90s country radio.

Without a dousing of steel, it’s an almost perfect record about humans innate nature to always be searching for something that leaves us only wanting more. The almost non-existent production allows Owen to lay down a powerfully naked vocal that hits the listener like a sermon to the soul. Kudos to Travis Meadows and Travis Jerome Goff for pulling off the near impossible and Owen for driving it home like he should.

1. Automatic – Miranda Lambert

MirandaLambertAutomaticThe lead single from Platinum and CMA Single of the Year winner is without a doubt my favorite single of the year and easily a contender for one of the strongest country singles of the decade. Lambert, Nicolle Galyon, and Natalie Hemby have crafted a brilliant anthem capturing a shining testament to the days before social media, cell phones, and binge-watching overtook our lives.

There’s very little soul left in our modern world, a fact Lambert is thankfully self-aware enough to take to task. Even as a millennial, I’ll be 27 on Dec 31, I’m dying to get back to a time when media had half a brain and country music wasn’t run by rap influenced hooligans shamelessly flaunting their tatted up arms in tight wife beaters. The class is gone and without it, there’s nothing left. Lambert may have tamed her aggression, but she isn’t done standing up for what she believes in.

It’s that time of year: Predictions for the 48th annual CMA Awards

Logo for "The 48th Annual CMA Awards"With Brad Paisley and a pregnant Carrie Underwood set to host for the seventh straight year, and all the usual suspects set to perform, you’d think business would run as normal. But you’re wrong. Not only will this mark the first CMA telecast without Taylor Swift in nine years, pop starlet Ariana Grande is set to perform with Little Big Town while Meghan Trainor will sing her hit “All About That Bass” with Miranda Lambert. Few other surprises have been announced, but God only knows why Trisha Yearwood has been regulated to a presenter’s slot and not given prime exposure to sing “PrizeFighter” with Kelly Clarkson.

At any rate, here are the nominees. You’ll find my Should Win / Will Win perdictions below. Do you agree/disagree? Sound off in the comments.

Entertainer of the Year

george-strait-credit-vanessa-gavalya-650Blake Shelton and Keith Urban have one trophy apiece while George Strait is nominated the year he gave his final concert. Only Luke Bryan and Miranda Lambert, who are on their second nominations, have yet to win.

Should Win: George Strait – The Country Music Hall of Famer and country music legend wrapped his Cowboy Rides Away Tour a year after beating his younger competition to win this award for the first time in 24 years. When all is said and done, the CMA would be foolish to deny Strait his rightful place as an all-time category winner (four wins), along with Garth Brooks and Kenny Chesney.

Will Win: George Strait – Prissy Luke Bryan can have his turn with his third consecutive nod next year. Strait, who’ll never be eligible for this award again, will go out in style.

Female Vocalist of the Year

m.lambert_264_Rsm_1595A milestone year, as Martina McBride and Miranda Lambert go for their record fifth win and Taylor Swift makes what’ll likely be her final appearance in the category. No artist has won five trophies; only Reba has as many as McBride and Lambert, so it’ll be very interesting to see how the Country Music Association votes this year.

Should Win: Kacey Musgraves – a year after winning Best New Artist and scoring two Grammy Awards, the only nominee who hasn’t won should emerge victorious with just her second nomination. 

Will Win: Miranda Lambert – stranger things have happened, but the artist with the most nominations usually walks away with at least one major award. It’s definitely time to spread the wealth, but that likely won’t come this year, thus helping Lambert make CMA history.

 dierks-600x399Male Vocalist of the Year

Jason Aldean has never been much of a compelling singer, but his radio and touring success should’ve earned him his fourth consecutive nomination. Dierks Bentley is back four years after his last nod, correcting a major oversight, and Keith Urban shows up for the tenth consecutive time.

Should Win: Bentley – it’s a race this year between Bentley and Luke Bryan, both of who deserve first time wins. But Bentley gets the edge thanks to seniority, and it’s about damn time, too.

Will Win: Blake Shelton – the reining champion is about the only one who can stop Bentley’s momentum. His material is getting weaker and his shtick ever more tiresome, but he’ll endure himself to voters anyways.

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Single Review: Kacey Musgraves – ‘The Trailer Song’

a79d7d3ac9769604c51ae1c7002daad439759ad6ffa4664b7e510fcb078f1d0f_largeAren’t there times you wish you could just reveal your true feelings about a situation without the fear of consequence? Like shooting your cheating spouse or burning down your house to eradicate the problems threatening your very existence? For us pedestrians it’s human nature to ponder the inexcusable. For country singers, it’s fodder for three and a half minutes of entertaining bliss.

Kacey Musgraves has found herself in a pickle. She’s single and ready to mingle. Problem is she lives in a trailer park one section of white picket fence away from the neighborhood gossip, a woman who thinks she’s a two-timin’ floozy. So with co-writer Brandy Clark firmly in her corner, Musgraves sets off to put the woman, and her not-so-subtle habits of egg “borrowing” and “bird” watching, in her place.

What “The Trailer Song” does well is to articulate a mundane truth of our everyday existence, set it against a decidedly country backdrop, and keep the proceedings from falling into the clichéd trappings of the lifestyle. Much like Clark’s own “Pray To Jesus,” it’s a lot harder than it may seem on the surface to make fun of “The Trailer Song” simply because it mentions doublewides. The writers aren’t using the trailer park as a country signifier but rather the key to these women’s daily reality. That subtle distinction gives these characters authenticity and keeps them from dissolving into caricatures held hostage by their lifestyle.

Mercury Nashville and Musgraves herself probably have their valid reasons why this worthy waltz wasn’t included on Same Trailer Different Park. The production is a lot simpler, and makes far better use of steel guitar than most of the songs on her major label debut. The overall track has a bit of an unfinished quality to it, like we’re hearing a demo, but that only adds to the overall charm.

Grade: A

Listen 

Songwriters: Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves

Concert Review: Willie Nelson & Family and Alison Krauss and Union Station along with Kacey Musgraves

“That is the most random pairing of acts I’ve ever seen in one show together in my life”

300x_062014If not my exact words, that’s at least what I was thinking when I logged into Engine 145 Feb 10 to Ken Morton Jr’s headline – “Willie Nelson, AKUS announce co-headlining tour.” Why in the world would two seemingly completely different acts share a stage unless for a one off benefit show somewhere in Texas or Nashville? Well I didn’t get my answer June 17 at The Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on the Boston Waterfront, but I was treated to four hours worth of music across the span of three acts.

I was most excited about tour opener Kacey Musgraves, the only act on the bill I hadn’t previously seen live. Her thirty-minute set was short, and we came in while she was performing a perfect rendition of her live-your-life mid-tempo ballad “Silver Lining.”

She plucked away on the banjo during “Merry Go ‘Round” and tried to get the crowd going during the chorus of “Follow Your Arrow,” which worked surprisingly well. Both were good, but Musgraves stunned with “It Is What It Is,” wrapping her voice around the lyric brilliantly. She gave her underrated steel player a gorgeous solo – and an “I love Pedal Steel” shout out – that easily trumps the recorded version.

The main concern people have with Musgraves is her burgeoning friendship with Katy Perry, a move that could transition her away from country. But the set showcased her country bonafides wonderfully, from her naturally twangy voice to her love of western themes (trademark neon cacti). As proof, Musgraves and her band closed their set with a glorious a Capella rendition of the Roy Rogers classic “Happy Trails To You” featuring the refrain “Till We Meet Again.” I know I’ll be meeting her again, hopefully as a headliner, real soon.

Alison Krauss and Union Station were next, bringing their comforting bluegrass picking to the hungry audience. From the first notes of opener “Let Me Touch You For A While,” I was home. Their 90-minute set was spectacular, with Krauss wrapping her otherworldly voice around their signature songs – “The Lucky One,” “Every Time You Say Goodbye,” “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You,” to “You Will Be My Ain True Love,” “Sawing On The Strings,” “Ghost In This House,” and “Paper Airplane.”

While their set was familiar, it was heavy on uptempo material, which I found surprising, given Krauss is known for her ballads. It worked though, as a whole night of ballads would’ve been too much. Even more startling was Dan Tyminski’s heavier-than-usual role acting like a second lead singer more than just a band member. He ripped through many of songs he fronts including “Dust Bowl Children” and got a charge out of some venue workers with “Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn.” Krauss showcased her trademark wit when talking about “Hey Brother,” his collaboration with EDM mastermind Avicii and the mainstream exposure it’s afford him, including a prime spot over the speakers at Kohl’s stores. Tyminski played that, too, along with his classic rendition of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” He’s a great singer but his prominence was likely do to Krauss’ vocal troubles over the past year.

Her master Dobro player Jerry Douglas also got a solo, plucking away on covers including one by Paul Simon. He’s incredible and the obvious master of his craft. They closed their set with an encore highlight, gathering around in a semi-circle to gift the audience short snippets of “When You Say Nothing At All,” “Down At The River To Prey,” the chorus of “Whiskey Lullaby” and a fabulous take on “The Long Journey,” which Krauss recorded with Robert Plant. The inventive encore was the highlight, a surprise moment of magic. At this point, especially since they haven’t released new music in three years, Krauss and Union Station is a well-oiled machine, albeit an exquisite one.

It’s hard to believe Willie Nelson is a man of 81, when he sings and has the energy of men thirty years his junior. After the show a friend asked me if he still had the goods and with a resounding yes, he does. But really, does he sing well? No, he doesn’t. But much like Kris Kristofferson, that’s to be expected, as Willie will always be Willie.

Like most every other show he’s played, Nelson began his set just as expected, with “Whiskey River.” He has to be the oddest entertainer I’ve ever seen as he doesn’t take breaks between songs, instead he lets song after song bleed into one another so you don’t know where one ends or the next begins. It works for him as he bled “Crazy” into “Night Life” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” into “Always On My Mind.”

He also turned in fantastic renditions of “On The Road Again” and “Good Hearted Woman,” which he dedicated to Waylon Jennings. When he launched into “Beer For My Horses,” I didn’t recognize the song at first given how he’d changed it up, but the lyric caught up to me when he got to the “Pappy told my pappy” line in the second verse. I always love hearing him sing “Me and Paul,” and especially liked the all-too-appropriate line about him singing on a package show with Charley Pride.

Nelson had his family band with him, which included his two sons and sister Bobbie, who gave a nice piano showcase. His guitarist was introduced as simply as Johnny, and revealed late last week to be the actor Johnny Depp, who’s in town playing Mobster Whitey Bulger in the biopic Black Mass.

His son Lukas had a showcase of his own, ripping through the blues on “Texas Flood,” a nine minute set highlight showcasing his masterful guitar playing and powerfully aching booming voice. He later went more restrained and joined his dad for their recent duet “Just Breathe.”

As much as for his own material, Nelson’s set was a showcase for country music. He gifted us with three Hank Williams covers – “Jambalaya,” “Hey Good Lookin,” and “I Saw The Light,” all of which were outstanding. He turned “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” into a chant, converting the word ‘mama’ into a deep-throated wail, which worked for a sing-along but became grating.

Nelson, who transported the crowd to a 1970s Texas honky-tonk with his unique outlaw sound, closed the show (and evening) with a sing-along that brought out Krauss, Union Station, Musgraves, and her band. With everyone on stage they went through the gospel favorite “I’ll Fly Away” and country standard “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” among others. It was fabulous he included everyone in this and it was a hoot to see Musgraves’ band in their flashy suits that light up like a Christmas tree.

All and all it was a fantastic evening of live music that left this Musgraves, Krauss, and Nelson fan extremely satisfied. Given that Rounder Records began in Massachusetts, it’s wonderful that Krauss gave a shot out to the people who signed her in 1985 – who also happened to be in attendance.

Now, could Nelson have sung “Poncho and Lefty” or “City of New Orleans?” Of course. Should Musgraves have been allowed to play longer? Hell, yeah. Did I want to hear Krauss sing a bit more? Without a doubt. But that’s just nitpicking a near perfect evening of exceptional music from three of the brightest talents country music has to offer. Just a terrific show, and wonderful evening, all around.

Album Review – Lucy Hale – ‘Road Between’

Lucy-Hale-Road-Between-2014-1200x1200As predicted by Bob McDill twenty years ago, it’s not that uncommon anymore for artists to go country, especially those known for other career aspirations. It’s particularly true for television actresses, with Pretty Little Liars star Lucy Hale adding her name to the growing list that includes Jana Kramer and Julianne Hough.

Hale is no different than her contemporaries, having to fight to earn her country credentials just like Kramer and Hough before her. With ample fiddle and a cool yet catchy drumbeat, she sets off on the right foot with “You Sound Good To Me,” a sunny uptempo number written by Ashley Gorley, Luke Laird, and Hillary Lindsey. Hale brings a natural effervescence to the track that works well.

Hale brings a sinister vibe to “Goodbye Gone,” a dusty banjo-infused rocker written by J.T. Harding, Melissa Peirce and Andy Dodd. She may be caught up in the all-to-familiar tale of a woman ending things with her man, but Hale brings ferocity to the proceedings that help sell the track beautifully.

While the electric guitars may come on a little thick on “Lie A Little Better,” Hale’s confident vocal cuts through the noise just enough that isn’t as intrusive as it could be. “Kiss Me” is a lot softer and allows Hale the room to breathe and give a tender vocal that’s quite endearing. With neither of the songs overwhelm lyrically, Hale saves the day by injecting the right amounts of personality into her vocal performances. “Love Tonight” is another similar song in nature, but the handclaps in the melody are a bit addicting and make up for any weaknesses in the lyric.

“From the Backseat” is a nice mid-tempo number sonically reminiscent of Sara Evans’ Restless album written by Mike Daly, Jimmy Robbins, and Nicolle Clawson. The track had me until it went flavorless on the chorus, which employs the wall-of-sound production technique so much that it intrudes on the uniqueness of the song and Hale’s vocal.

The truest test for any singer on a debut album is the moments where the production is left sparse, where any vocal limitations will stand out like a sore thumb. Hale’s moment comes on Tom Douglas, James Slater, and Lindsey’s “Nervous Girls” and she passes with flying colors. The production may still lean country-pop, but she proves quite nicely that she can hold her own against any of her contemporaries.

Joe Nichols, back in traditional country mode vocally, joins Hale for “Red Dress,” a somewhat awkward moment that finds the two playing out the male and female aspects of a relationship. Kacey Musgraves co-wrote “That’s What I Call Crazy” and proves she’s adept at writing both artistic and commercially viable numbers. Hale’s only co-write comes in album closer “Just Another Song” and it’s one of the strongest numbers on the album thanks to a co-writing credit by Catt Gravitt, who helped write some of the best numbers on Kramer’s debut two years ago.

Listening to “Just Another Song” makes one wish Gravitt had contributed more here, as she thrives in this type of setting, writing songs for young female artists who may be looking for a voice. While there’s little revelatory about Road Between, it does showcase a budding talent that has the goods to extend her television career into one involving music. Hopefully she’ll be allowed to record a bit more substantive material going forward (really, how many numbers about kissing does one need on an eleven song album?) and further develop the strong potential she showcases on Road Between.

Grade: B+