My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Kellie Pickler

Album Review: Tracy Lawrence – ‘Good Old Days’

If popular culture is to be believed, it seems the 1990s is the hottest decade right now. Most of the ‘new’ television shows are reboots of classics from the era, including Full House and Will & Grace, with the originals casts reprising their roles. In popular music, if you were a major player 20-25 years ago, then its suddenly fashionable to return with new music and slews of concert dates.

In country music, this trend extends to the return of Faith Hill and Shania Twain with their first new music in more than a decade while Garth Brooks is wrapping up his massive three-year tour this month in Nashville. Even Dixie Chicks came home to the United States with their first tour in ten years. What’s old is new again or rather the music that defined my childhood is suddenly hip again.

It would be a stretch to place Tracy Lawrence at the same level since he was never a global superstar or wheeled much influence on an international stage. But he was one of the most consistent and traditional artists in his day, with a catalog that more than stands up to anything released by the artists who may have eclipsed him in status.

To celebrate this resurgence, Lawrence has released Good Ole Days, which recognizes what he refers to as a ‘hunger for the music from my era.’ The album pairs him with modern day country artists singing his hits. The whole concept does seem like a gimmick, a cash grab for the gullible fan unaware they are likely only lining the pockets of the executive who dreamt up this project. But really it’s a chance to finally hear country’s current class sing real well-written songs for the first time in their careers. I jumped at the chance to review this album simply so I could hear how these artists sound when forced to interrupt the actual country music. I’ve always had a theory that there is talent there if these artists had the proper vehicle to show it off.

This is the proper vehicle because instead of the artists making these songs their own, with their typical non-country producers and such, they have to stick within the confines of the original arrangements, including the steel, fiddle, and twang. Without the ability to hide, every weakness would be on the table.

Luke Bryan tackles Lawrence’s 1991 debut “Sticks and Stones” and handles it well. I wasn’t impressed with Jason Aldean’s take on “Just Can’t Break It to My Heart,” his voice was a bit too dirty, but the energy was good.

I remember reading in Quotable Country, on the dearly-departed Country California, Justin Moore says if he had a say he would make an album in the vein of I See It Now. He goes back a bit further here with “Alibis” and knocks it out of the park. Moore is a great country singer and it’s a shame he has to reside in this current climate.

Dustin Lynch sounds exactly like a young Lawrence on “Texas Tornado,” which is kind of scary. His performance isn’t excellent, but it’s damn close. I was surprised Miranda Lambert, who has been known to belt this out in concert, wasn’t singing it but that could’ve been label politics.

Probably the newest artist featured here is Luke Combs, who just hit number one with “When It Rains It Pours.” There’s no mistaking he’s a country singer and he easily pulls this off. The same is true for Chris Young, but he sounds like he’s just going through the paces on “If The Good Die Young.” If he had just let go the results could’ve been incredible.

The legend of Tim McGraw is he moved to Nashville on May 9, 1989, and has always said he’s more of a storyteller while Keith Whitley is a singer. I agree wholeheartedly, but his performance of “Time Marches On” is bland. In contrast, Easton Corbin shines on “Paint Me A Birmingham.”

Kellie Pickler’s talent is wasted on “Stars Over Texas,” which finds her regulated to singing the chorus. As the sole female voice on the whole album, you would’ve thought she’d be allowed more of a presence. I didn’t care for her vocal either, which makes her sound like a little girl.

There are two new songs in the mix. Brad Arnold, the lead singer of Alternative Rock band Three Doors Down (think ‘Here Without You’) joins Lawrence on the title track, which is being billed as his “country music debut.” The song, which also features Big & Rich, is a faux-rock disaster. The military-themed fiddle drenched ballad “Finally Home,” which features Craig Morgan, is better but not really for my tastes.

Good Ole Days is a great concept with lousy execution. These tracks are collaborations between the singer and Tracy Lawrence which doesn’t work on any level. Get rid of Lawrence entirely and turn this into the proper tribute album it’s screaming to be. His nasally twang is insufferable and pointlessly distracting. The lack of female artists in the mix is also troubling, as you don’t need just men to sing these songs.

Grade: B-

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Album Review: Kenny Rogers – ‘Water & Bridges’

In 2006 Kenny Rogers once again found himself signed to a major label — an interesting turn of events for an almost 70-year-old artist. Water & Bridges was released by Capitol and produced by Dann Huff, who is not my favorite producer but I was pleasantly surprised by the fruits of their labors. Like most Kenny Rogers albums, this is a pop-country collection, but unlike a lot of his earlier work, there are no blatant pop songs. Everything is targeted for the mainstream country audience, such as it was a little over a decade ago. The production is polished, but not tastefully restrained.

The title track, which opens the album is a somber ballad written by Tim Nichols and Craig Wiseman, about life’s regrets and the need to accept them and move on. It was too serious for consideration as a single, but a very good song nonetheless. It had previously been recorded by Collin Rate a few years earlier. “Someone Is Me” is a bit of social commentary written by Josh Kear and Joe Doyle, which urges people to take action to correct the things that are wrong with this world instead of waiting for someone else to do it. “Someone Somewhere Tonight” is a little too slickly produced for my taste, but Sarah Buxton harmonizes well with Kenny. This song would later be recorded by Pam Tillis and Kellie Pickler, who took it to #49 on the Billboard country singles chart.

The album’s best song is its lead single “I Can’t Unlove You” which took Kenny to the Top 20 one last time. Peaking at #17, this break-up ballad would have been a monster hit if it had come along during Rogers’ commercial heyday. “The Last Ten Years (Superman)” was the next single. True to its title, it refers to a number of events that were in the news during the previous decade (1996-2006), making reference to events such as the Oklahoma City bombing, the Y2K hysteria, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as name-checking several celebrities that passed away during that time, from Minnie Pearl, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash to Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and actor Christopher Reeve. It’s a very good song, but as a stripped-down, serious ballad focusing on mostly unhappy events, it didn’t perform particularly well at radio, topping out at #56. “Calling Me”, a mid tempo number featuring a Gospel-like piano and duet vocal by Don Henley fared slightly better, peaking at #53. It’s a little more pop-leaning than the rest of the album but it deserved more attention than it received. It marks Kenny Rogers’ last appearance (to date) on the Billboard country singles chart.

Kenny’s voice shows some signs of wear and tear at times, but for the most part he is in good vocal form and I enjoyed this album a lot more than I expected to. It might have benefited from a little more uptempo material, but overall this is a solid effort. It’s available for streaming and worth checking out.

Grade: B

Christmas Rewind: Kellie Pickler – ‘The Man With The Bag’

Razor X’s Top 10 Albums of 2013

It’s that time of year where we publish our picks for the best singles and albums that country music had to offer during the previous twelve months. Usually I begin by lamenting the meager selections from which we had to choose. But not this time; for the first time in a long time, it’s been a very good year for country music. One wouldn’t know it by listening to the radio or watching the major awards shows, but a lot of my old favorites reemerged in 2013 with new offerings. Here are my picks:

10. The Woman I Am — Kellie Pickler

Pickler has made tremendous strides as an artist with her last two releases. Last year’s 100 Proof paid homage to the artists and sounds of yesterday, while the more contemporary and surprisingly good The Woman I Am shows the way forward for the next phase of her career. I hope she can overcome the disadvantage she faces in not having major label promotion. This album deserves to be heard.

9. Like A Rose — Ashley Monroelike a rose

The long-awaited return of Ashley Monroe did not make many commercial waves, but this Vince Gill-produced project is an artistic triumph. A guest appearance by Blake Shelton reassures those of us who had begun to fear that he was no longer capable of making good music.

8. Hammer Down — The SteelDrivers

Another personnel change didn’t prevent my favorite bluegrass band from releasing another stellar collection of new tunes. Hammer Down is a step up from 2010’s slightly disappointing Reckless, and is neck-and-neck with the group’s debut album for the best album of their career so far.

7. To All The Girls — Willie Nelsonto all the girls

At age 80, Willie’s voice not is not what it once was, but he sounds better than he has in years on this collection which boasts an impressive roster of female guest artists from both within and outside the country music community.

6. Love Is Everything — George Strait

Although he plans to continue recording, King George is in the process of wrapping up his touring career. Coinciding with his farewell tour is his best collection of songs in quite some time.

5. The Bluegrass Album — Alan Jacksonthe bluegrass album

Alan Jackson chose mostly new material for this project, unlike most artists who have mined the back catalogs for their bluegrass collections. The result is one of the best hour’s worth of music that 2013 had to offer. Jackson’s hitmaking days appear to be over, but from a creative standpoint he is as strong as ever.

4. Cheater’s Game — Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison

I’ll always regret that Kelly Willis was so under-appreciated during her major label days. Her albums these days are few and far between so it is a real treat when she releases something new. I prefer this effort with her songwriter husband Bruce Robison to 2007’s less rootsy Translated From Love.

3. Influence Vol 1: The Man I Am — Randy Travisrandy
Randy Travis’ voice has been deteriorating for years and it was especially noticeable on “Tonight I’m Playing Possum”, the George Jones tribute that served as the lead single for this project. I wasn’t expecting much from the rest of the album, but like Willie Nelson, Randy sounds better on his current project than he has in a long time. He’s suffered from serious medical problems this year; we wish him the best and hope that 2014 holds better things in store for him.

2. Old Yellow Moon — Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell

This duet project was a return to form for Harris and Crowell, both of whom who were cast aside by Nashville and who have been making their mark in the Americana world for the past several years. I’d like to hear more music in this vein from them, both separately and together, should they be inclined to team up in the studio again for a follow-up project.

1. Bakersfield — Vince Gill & Paul Franklinbakersfield

Vince Gill doesn’t ordinarily come to mind when one thinks of artists who are associated with the Bakerfield sound, but he shows he is more than capable of handling these classic Buck Owens and Merle Haggard songs and the participation of of steel guitar virtuoso Paul Franklin was the icing on the cake. This is by far the new album in my collection that got played the most this year. May we have some more, please?

Album Review: Kellie Pickler – ‘The Woman I Am’

picklerI wasn’t terribly impressed with Kellie Pickler when she first arrived on the scene and quickly wrote her off as a marginal talent without a lot of staying power. I was forced to reassess my opinion of her with the release of last year’s surprisingly good 100 Proof, which found her eschewing the trappings of contemporary country in favor of a more traditional sound. Predictably, 100 Proof’s singles received little support from radio and the album sold poorly. Pickler’s contract with BNA Records was terminated shortly thereafter, and I figured that the artistic growth she showed on 100 Proof was just a one-off. But once again Pickler proved me wrong. She signed with Black River Entertainment last fall, and The Woman I Am, her first album for the indie imprint, was released just this month.

Like 100 Proof, The Woman I Am was produced by Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten. Unlike 100 Proof, it is aimed squarely at a mainstream audience, serving notice that though Kellie may no longer be a major label artist, she still has her eye on the charts. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I consider most of today’s mainstream releases unlistenable, but I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this album. It has a couple of weak songs and some questionable production choices at times, but from beginning to end it maintains a semblance to actual country music and never dissolves into the lackluster Lite-FM sound that mars so much of today’s country music.

Two singles have been released so far. “Someone Somewhere Tonight” is a decent ballad that I probably would have liked a lot more if I’d never heard Pam Tillis’ version. The uptempo “Little Bit Gypsy” is Kellie’s current single. I quite enjoyed this one, despite the slightly cluttered nature of the production towards the end. Sadly, neither single has garnered much attention from radio. I don’t know how aggressively Black River will continue to promote this project, but there are several other worthy contenders for future single release.

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and Pickler is no exception as she opts to hock her engagement ring rather than return it to her two-timing ex-fiance in “Ring For Sale”, which was written by Jim Beavers and Chris Stapleton. “Bonnie and Clyde”, on which Kellie shares a co-writing credit with Kyle Jacobs and Liz Rose, is also quite good, despite a somewhat heavy-handed “Indian Outlaw” like arrangement. It is the ballads, however, on which Pickler truly shines, particularly on the lovely title track, which she also co-wrote, and “Tough All Over”, a Gary Nicholson and Leslie Satcher composition and not the 1990 Shelby Lynne song of the same name. “Buzzin'” is pleasant but lyrically shallow, and “No Cure For Crazy” quickly disintegrates into a too loud and too cluttered sonic mess.

The Woman I Am isn’t an outstanding album, but it is a very good one that proves that 100 Proof wasn’t just a fluke and that there is more substance to Kellie Pickler than one might have guessed based upon her first two albums and the dumb blonde shtick she engaged in at the time. The Woman I Am deserves a listen, even if like me, you weren’t a huge fan of Kellie’s early efforts.

Grade: B+

Single Review – Danielle Bradbery – ‘The Heart of Dixie’

Danielle-Bradbery-The-Heart-Of-Dixie-Cover-ArtOne of the biggest mysteries in contemporary country music has been the ongoing stagnation at the top for female artists. Not since Taylor Swift debuted with “Tim McGraw” in June 2006, has a woman been able to have consistent airplay for their singles. Some (Jana Kramer and Kacey Musgraves) have launched big but seemingly fizzled out while others (Kellie Pickler and Ashton Shepherd) have been dropped by major labels after multiple albums worth of singles couldn’t peak better than top 20. You have to look at duos and groups to find any other females (Jennifer Nettles, Hillary Scott, Kimberly Perry, Shawna Thompson, Joey Martin Feek) who are having success and even they have enough male energy to keep them commercially viable.

Let’s not forget that two summers ago, fourteen days went by without a single song by a solo female in the top 30 on the Billboard Country Singles Chart. With the demographics in country music skewing younger and the music-seeking public increasingly more and more female, is there any hope this pattern will change? Can anyone break through the muck and join the ranks of Swift, Miranda Lambert, and Carrie Underwood?

If anyone can, it’s Danielle Bradbery. She has three strikes in her favor already – at 17 she’s young enough to appeal to the genre’s core demographic audience, she’s signed to the Big Machine label Group run by master monopolizer Scott Borchetta, and as winner of The Voice, she has Blake Shelton firmly in her corner. Plus, she’s an adorable bumpkin from Texas who has enough charisma and girl next door appeal to last for days.

They also nailed it with her debut single. “The Heart of Dixie” isn’t a great song lyrically speaking. Bradbery is singing about a girl named Dixie who flees her dead-end life (job and husband) for a better existence down south. But that’s it. There’s nothing else in Troy Verges, Brett James, and Caitlyn Smith’s lyric except a woman who gets up and goes – no finishing the story. How Matraca Berg or Gretchen Peters would’ve written the life out of this song 20 years ago. Also, could they have found an even bigger cliché than to name her Dixie?

But the weak lyric isn’t as important here as the melody. It has been far too long since a debut single by a fresh talent has come drenched in this much charming fiddle since probably Dixie Chicks. The production is a throwback to the early 2000s – think Sara Evans’ “Backseat of a Greyhound Bus” – and I couldn’t be happier. So what if the arrangement is a tad too cluttered? Who cares if Bradbery needs a little polish in her phrasing? There isn’t a rock drum or hick-hop line to be found here, and in 2013 country music that’s a very refreshing change of pace.

Bradbery isn’t the savior for female artists in country music. Expect for her Voice audition of “Mean” and a performance of “A Little Bit Stronger,” we’ve yet to hear Bradbery the artist, although Bradbery the puppet has been compelling thus far. Her lack of a booming vocal range like Underwood’s may also hurt her, but isn’t it time someone understated turned everything down a notch?

With everything she has going in her favor, Bradbery may be our genre’s best hope for fresh estrogen. I don’t see her injecting anything new into country music, but redirecting the focus back to a time when “Born To Fly”-type songs were topping the charts, isn’t a bad thing in my book. Hers mostly likely won’t be that lyrically strong, but if she can keep the fiddle and mandolin front and center – I won’t be complaining.

Grade: B 

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Album Review: Pam Tillis – ‘Rhinestoned’

rhinestonedAfter parting ways with Sony following the release of her 2002 tribute album to her father, Pam Tillis took a five-year hiatus from the recording studio. The time off did her some good from an artistic standpoint; Rhinestoned, which was released in the spring of 2007 on her own Stellar Cat imprint, easily trumps her last couple of uneven releases for Arista.

Surpisingly, Tillis only has songwriter credits on two of the album’s eleven tracks, though she did share production duties with Gary Nicholson and Matt Spicher. Many artists have difficulty getting access to first-rate material by the time the major label phases of their careers have ended, but this is decidedly not the case here. Rhinestoned boasts an impressive roster of songwriters, including Leslie Satcher, Lisa Brokop, Jon Randall, Matraca Berg, Gary Harrison and Bruce Robison. Pam’s brother Mel Jr. co-wrote one track with her.

My favorite track is the lovely opening number “Something Burning Out”, penned by Leslie Satcher, which finds Tillis lamenting a lost love and avoiding anything to do with fire — namely candles, the fireplace, and cigarettes — which remind her of happier times. I like to contrast this song to “Don’t Tell Me What To Do”; the earlier song finds Tillis defiant and determined to party away her troubles, whereas “Something Burning Out” finds her more weary and resigned to her situation. Also quite good is “Band In The Window”, the first of the album’s two non-charting singles, which takes a humorous look at the bar scene, the patrons who hang out there, and the aspiring musicians who perform there.

“That Was A Heartache”, a Bruce Robison co-write with Leslie Satcher, is another favorite. Pam performs it well, but it deserved a wider audience than she was able to reach at this point of her career. I’d like to see a mainstream artist cover this tune, though I can’t think of anyone from the current crop of artists who could do it justice, and country radio would probably not be interested in it anyway. Kellie Pickler did recently cover “Someone Somewhere Tonight”, a pretty but unmemorable and slightly dull ballad.

Pam co-wrote “Life Sure Has Changed Us Around” with Gary Nicholson, a track on which she duets with fellow performer John Anderson. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to pair these two up but they sound very good together and I wouldn’t mind hearing more collaborations from them. The Matraca Berg – Gary Harrison tune “Crazy By Myself” is given a Dixeland jazz arrangement, which provides a nice change of pace, though the production on the track is a little heavy-handed.

“Bettin’ Money On Love” is the album’s most unusual track. It is mostly spoken and not sung. I’m not a huge fan of spoken word songs, but this one has a really good fiddle track and I have to admit it is well done. Tillis portrays a bar owner — perhaps the same bar depicted in “Band In The Window” — who has banned football viewing from her establishment and goes on to recount the tale of her ex-lover who gambled away Tillis’ beloved Mustang on a football game.

Rhinestoned was apparently intended to be a 1970s-style “hippie country” record, and though I’m not sure it really succeeds on that level, it is a very entertaining and well-performed collection of songs that proved that while her hitmaking days may be behind her, the world hasn’t heard the last of Pam Tillis. And for that we are most grateful.

Grade: A-

Single Review – Kellie Pickler – ‘Someone Somewhere Tonight’

Someone-Somewhere-TonightOne of the great surprises of the spring television season has been Kellie Pickler’s turn on Dancing With The Stars. The show’s platform has been invaluable to her public image, helping her shatter any last strands of the ditzy blonde who came in fifth on American Idol and allowing her to show the confident and mature woman she’s become.

And it seems, unlike Blake Shelton, she’s using the platform for good. Pickler has gotten around to showing us the first signs of the ‘Kellie Country’ she said would come from her Black River Entertainment debut, and the results are beyond expectations. Her new single is “Someone Somewhere Tonight” a too-good-to-ignore Pam Tillis album cut from her 2007 album Rinestoned that perfectly displayed Tillis’ otherwordly voice in a master class of power and control unlike anything Nashville had seen since the Patsy Cline era. Pickler is clearly walking hallowed ground, and thankfully is more than up to the task.

There isn’t much that can be said about the quality of Davis Raines and Walt Wilkins’ lyrics. The story is a striking juxtaposition between innocence (baby’s first steps, a first kiss) and corruptness (death, alcoholism, a life in jail), and their simultaneous harmony in our world. The song would elevate the quality of country music in any era to unimaginable heights, and the artist singing it would have a career moment. “Someone Somewhere Tonight” is just that good.

The inevitable comparisons between Tillis and Pickler are unfair as both bring their own vocal quality to the track with neither turning in the ‘better’ performance. Pickler’s voice is more delicate and twangy and that works to her advantage in selling the story. The urgency she brings to the line Someone somewhere tonight/ Is stuck in a prison/ Breathin’ but just barely livin’ Behind walls of their own” is so breathtaking, I realized I’d forgotten there was a time when country singers actually could relate (on a deeply personal level) to what they were singing about.

The production on the track is mostly stellar, but I could’ve done without the electric guitar that sits just underneath Pickler’s compelling vocal. The accompaniment also gets too loud towards the end, when the song builds to the emotional crescendo. But the prominent fiddle and steel guitar ground it in the traditional place Pickler came from on 100 Proof and not the horrendous pop/rock she tried out on her other two releases. She’s keeping it fairly neo-traditional and deserves credit for sticking to her artistic creativity.

But I’m most impressed that Pickler recorded this song at all, especially in an era where radio doesn’t support music of this high a caliber. If this first taste of her upcoming album is any indication of its quality, than we might be looking at a modern day throwback to the astute female vocalists from the 80s and 90s – ones who actually knew the difference between a great and bad song – and I couldn’t be happier about it. It’s about time someone championed that type of music again, and Pickler seems like the right artist to do just that.

Grade: A- 

Listen here. 

Here’s Kellie giving the story behind the song.

J.R. Journey’s Top Albums of 2012

Here are my favorite albums from 2012, in no order. Click the links to listen on Spotify.

nashville soundtrackNashville Cast The Music of Nashville: Season 1, Volume 1

The Tennesseean‘s Peter Cooper made a valid case about the music coming from the hit ABC drama being better than most mainstream country hits. I agree with him. While the TV show’s original songs haven’t yet shown much aptitude with traditional country sounds – leaning more toward Americana and pop-country – they’re leaps and bounds ahead of the current top 40 when it comes to content and substance.

Recommended tracks: “Wrong Song”, “If I Didn’t Know Better”, “No One Will Ever Love You”

Kellie Pickler100 Proof

A handful of barn-burning up-tempos, a few clever female-friendly medium tempos, and even more stone country tear-jerkers, served up with heaps of fiddle, pedal steel, and Kellie Pickler’s Carolina twang? Yes, please.

Recommended tracks: “Long As I Never See You Again”, “Where’s Tammy Wynette”, “The Letter (To Daddy)”

jameyjohnsonJamey Johnson – Living For a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran

Johnson’s tribute to Music Row pioneer and songwriting legend Hank Cochran features an all-star cast taking on some of Cochran’s big hits and a few well-chosen and lesser known gems.

Recommended tracks: “Make The World Go Away” (with Alison Krauss), “A-11” (with Ronnie Dunn), “A Way To Survive” (with Leon Russell and Vince Gill)

Zac Brown BandUncaged

On their third album, the Zac Brown Band again combines country with bluegrass and the sounds of the islands and the songs this time out are again smart and to the point.

Recommended tracks: “Sweet Annie”, “Goodbye In Her Eyes”, “The Wind”

Alan JacksonThirty Miles West

Jackson’s first album for the EMI Nashville label follows his winning no frills neotraditional formula. Thirty Miles West is a set full of top-notch songs and performances. I can’t stop playing it.

Recommended tracks: “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore”, “Look Her In The Eye and Lie”, “She Don’t Get High”

dwight yoakam - 3 pearsDwight Yoakam  – 3 Pears

Yoakam’s first album of all new material in seven years is as eclectic as the man himself. On 3 Pears, he shares production duties with punk-rock hero Beck and songwriting credit with Robert Richie (aka Kid Rock) and Ashley Monroe on respective tracks on a set that ably combines the sound of rock and roll’s golden AM era with his own distinctive country stamp.

Recommended tracks: “It’s Never Alright”, “Heart Like Mine”, “Long Way To Go”

Razor X’s Top Albums of 2012

Finding good new country music is not as easy as it once was, and due to a number of other things that were going on in my life, I’m afraid I didn’t put much effort into seeking out new music this year but I was able to find a few gems:


10. Heroes — Willie Nelson

Willie’s return to the major labels was an eclectic collection that found him covering Coldplay and Pearl Jam, but also reunited him with Merle Haggard and Ray Price, as well as sharing the spotlight a bit with his sons Lukas and Micah.

dierks9. Home — Dierks Bentley

2010’s Up On The Ridge was successful critically but not commercially, so it’s not surprising that Dierks chose to follow it up with a much more radio-friendly collection. The strategy worked, as Home produced three # 1 singles.

8. Nashville, Volume 1: Tear The Woodpile Down — Marty Stuart

Not quite the masterpiece that 2010’s Ghost Train was, this collection was still one of my favorite listens of the year. I would have rated it higher if it hadn’t contained some recycled material (“Sundown In Nashville”, “Truck Driver’s Blues”).

kelliepickler7. 100 Proof — Kellie Pickler

I never thought that Kellie Picker’s name would ever appear on any of my best of lists, but she really blossomed with this collection of more traditional-sounding tunes. Unfortunately, just as she was finally making music that allowed her to be taken seriously as an artist, she was dropped by her record label. What the future holds for her remains to be seen. There was a time when I would have said that she wouldn’t be missed very much, but now I’m curious to see what direction she goes in next.

6. Calling Me Home — Kathy Mattea

I wasn’t a huge fan of 2008’s Coal, but I like Kathy’s second visit to her Appalachian roots much better. This is a less bleak look at her heritage.

zbb5. Uncaged — Zac Brown Band

Creepy cover art aside, this collection allowed the Zac Brown Band to further expand on their increasing eclectic but always interesting catalog.

4. Thirty Miles West — Alan Jackson

There weren’t any real surprises or stretches in Alan’s EMI Nashville debut; it’s very much in the same vein as most of the other albums he’s released over the past twenty-odd years — which is exactly what country music needs right now.

terriclark3. Classic — Terri Clark

Terri Clark and I were born just a few weeks apart, so we grew up listening to much of the same music. This collection, in which she covers tunes by Linda Ronstadt, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Reba McEntire and Tanya Tucker, provided a wonderful trip down memory lane and is the best album of her career.

2. Restless — Sweethearts of the Rodeo

This long overdue new release was well worth the wait. It’s a shame that it won’t be as widely heard as it deserves.

jameyjohnson1. Living For A Song – A Tribute to Hank Cochran — Jamey Johnson

By the time I was three tracks into listening to this album for the first time, I knew it was my favorite of the year. It’s a beautifully crafted masterpiece with an impressive guest roster that pays homage to one of the greatest country songwriters of all time. I can’t say enough good things about this album.

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Top Albums of 2012

Adventurism. Turning convention on its head. Those are just two of the themes threading each of the albums on my list. I’ve noticed my tastes venturing further and further from the mainstream, as radio playlists are marginalized and top 40 acts are less and less interesting. To get an even fuller picture of my picks, check out the albums I ranked 19-11 here.

gretchenpeters10. Gretchen Peters – Hello Cruel World

Thinking people’s music from a lyrical master. It’s easy to overlook the beauty of Hello Cruel World and cast it off as slow, depressing, and moody. But to do that is to completely miss the point of an emotional woman bearing her soul for all who will listen.

9. Various Artists – Kin: Songs by Rodney Crowell and Mary Karr

A patchwork quilt infusing distinct individual moments with simple yet evocative lyrics brought to life by a stellar cast, Kin is a concept project done right. But the marriage of the poet and song master is its greatest achievement, two people from different fields of work, aiming at the same goal – affecting emotion. Look no further than “My Father’s Advice” or even “Mama’s On A Roll” to know they’ve succeeded in spades.

living for a song8. Jamey Johnson and Friends – Livin’ For A Song – A Tribute to Hank Cochran

 One of country’s greatest songwriters gets a tribute from one of its fiercest advocates for tradition. Johnson could’ve done the work solo and still come through with a masterwork, but instead he’s paired with some of the finest vocalists of our generation, elevating simple lyrics into works of art.

7. The Time Jumpers – The Time Jumpers

Time and again I’ve said it but I really miss the days when Vince Gill brought his class and sophistication to mainstream country. Now its a prime example of you don’t know what you had until it was gone. Like last year’s stellar Guitar Slinger, he’s back working his magic, this time with his stellar string band. A not to be missed delight The Time Jumpers is the convergence of expertly talented musicians and singers coming together to spread their considerable awesomeness onto the world.

100 Proof6. Kellie Pickler – 100 Proof

Often regulated to singing kiss off songs about men that have done her wrong (“Things That Never Cross A Man’s Mind,” “Best Days of Your Life,” “Red High Heels”) and empowerment anthems (“Don’t You Know you’re Beautiful”), Kellie Pickler became a singer who never quite rose above mediocrity.

Enter 100 Proof, a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am/take-no-prisoners/unapologetic classic country tour de force that finally matches the music to the talent, For the first time since America first met Pickler on American Idol, she makes a statement. And it’s a giant leap forward.

5. Jana Kramer – Jana Kramer 

Haven’t we seen this before? An actress from a television show detours through Nashville to have their fifteen minutes of fame as a country singer. They claim their allegiances to the music, try to sing and look the part, but end up only as a parody of the real thing, a jokester trying in vain to pull off a charade so fake you wonder how on earth this could’ve transpired in the first place.

Luckily they’re not all built from the same tattered cloth. Jana Kramer is the exception, turning the most satisfying and promising debut album in years. I found myself continually mesmerized by her voice and spellbound by her ability to fish through the dreck and find quality music. So this isn’t Storms of Life Part II. But she’s obviously trying and cares to sound country. And not generically pop-country, either. She might not be a revolution, but she’s the most promising step in the right direction a commercially viable mainstream country singer has gone in years. And I couldn’t be happier about it.

marty-stuart-nashville-cover4. Marty Stuart – Tear The Woodpile Down: Nashville, Volume 1 

Stuart’s latest foray into traditional country refines the formula set by Ghost Train by pairing originals with well-chosen covers. He fearlessly wears his love for country music on his sleeve and proves he’s the best teacher any contemporary country singer can learn from, if only they would take his class. A cover of Luke The Drifter’s “Pictures From Life’s Other Side,” a duet with his grandson Hank III, is easily among the best album cuts 2012 had to offer.

3. Punch Brothers – Ahoy! – EP

A creative risk like none you’ll hear all year, Punch Brothers fill their Who’s Feeling Young Now companion with brazen eccentricity, wild abandon, and more than enough musical gambles to make anyone dizzy.

They stand out because they’re fierce and bold, charting a course all their own. No one else looks or sounds like them and their underground following is a testament to their originality. Where they’ll venture from here is anyone’s guess.

2. Punch Brothers – Who’s Feeling Young Now?

Now this is acoustic music I can fully endorse. Where acts like Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers blend too much rock into their sound for my liking, The Punch Brothers take their cues directly from the foundations of bluegrass and build their sound from there. But like their rock counterparts, this isn’t strictly acoustic – odes to pop (“This Girl”) and funk (“Patchwork Girlfriend”) mix in effortlessly and are guided by Chris Thile’s measured vocals and brilliant mandolin playing. For lovers of an adventurous out of the box take on the traditional album format, look no further than Who’s Feeling Young Now, one of the finest albums of 2012.

Calling Me Home1. Kathy Mattea – Calling Me Home

In the increasingly marginalized landscape of current popular music, realism is as rare a virtue as honesty, with singers churning out products aimed at returning maximum profit at radio and retail without effort towards impact or intention. Music as a means to influence emotion and affect thought is nearly non-existent. Not everyone sees it that way, thankfully, as Calling Me Home is the infrequent exception to the current model, a masterwork forcing us human Beings to venture inward and examine our complacency towards place and the havoc our irreversible actions have had on mankind.

Although the chronicled subjects rise from the Appalachian Mountains, and the day-to-day realities revolve around the “scoundrel and saint” that is coal, the overarching messages in these songs are universal to anyone with a conscious. But even more important is the conveyor, and Mattea brings each track to life with the power of her voice, a ribbon weaving through the complexities of each lyric, driving home every declaration.

At 53, Mattea is singing from the sharpened eye of experience, pondering the meaning of life and death with the vibrancy and vigor of wisdom that surfaces through a life lived with spiritual connectedness to ones own body and mind. And for that reason, Calling Me Home is one of the most important records to come along in a long, long time, a masterpiece of the soul and the earth from which all of us are born.

Album Review – Easton Corbin – ‘All Over The Road’

Upon the release of his self-titled debut in 2010, Easton Corbin was branded as the savior of country music thanks to his neo-traditional sound and George Strait-like vocal approach. Corbin showed promise, and scored back-to-back #1s, but his debut felt too safe, like he was aiming to please by recording songs that were middle of the road and took few risks.

Unfortunately that trend continues with All Over The Road and I can fully understand why. In our post “Neon” and “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore” society, it’s clear that neo-traditionalism is being pushed out in an effort to “Kick It In The Sticks” with “The One That Got Away” while we “Tip It On Back” and “Take A Little Ride.”

But thankfully Corbin and producer Carson Chamberlin didn’t completely sacrifice quality at the price of commercial viability. There actually are some excellent songs thrown into the mix, and if country radio will play them, they might turn into big hits.

I’ve been a big fan of the lead single, Jim Beavers and Bob DiPiero’s “Lovin’ You Is Fun,” the catchy two-step number currently sitting at #8 and climbing. The easygoing nature of Corbin’s vocal coupled with the beautiful stands of steel guitar laced through the arrangement more than sell the song while the upbeat nature means its perfect fodder for heavy rotation at radio.

I also love the romantic “A Thing For You,” which Corbin co-wrote with Chamberlin and Tony Lane. Sounding like a long-lost mid-90s shuffle, the track succeeds because its light as air and turns the mournful steel guitar into an optimistic delight.

“Only A Girl” co-written by Chamberlin with Will Nance and Wade Kirby exists in much the same fashion, and is very ear catching. The hook of “It’s Only a Girl/There’s A Million of them in this Town” is kind of basic, but Corbin makes up for it by injecting the track with his personality.

Another standout is album highlight “Tulsa, Texas,” which Tony Lane co-wrote with Mike Lane and David Lee. Another upbeat steel infused honky-tonker, it didn’t make the cut for Corbin’s debut, but he liked it so much he put on here.

It’s easy to see why, as it boasts the best lyric on the album with the story of a guy telling his ex where she can find him:

I’ll be down in Tulsa, Texas, Tallahassee, Tennessee

Memphis, Mississippi, it’s probably where I’m gonna be

Albuquerque, Alabama, St. Lou, Louisiana

If you wanna find me, you can find me in Tulsa, Texas

Another favorite is the closer, Tom Shepherd and Jeff Silvey’s “I Think Of You,” which sounds like the best Zac Brown Band song they didn’t record. A perfect country tune, Chamberlin did a wonderful job of opening the track as a piano ballad before bringing in the steel, fiddle, drums, and guitars. That beginning allows Corbin to display his venerability and showcase how he’s grown since his debut.

Likely second single “Are You With Me” is a little slicker than we’ve come to expect from Corbin, but it never becomes bombastic thanks to the healthy dose of steel in the not-to-distant background. The romantic ballad also succeeds because of Corbin’s tender vocal, but the track would’ve been even better had it been a duet with someone like Carrie Underwood or Miranda Lambert or maybe even Kellie Pickler or Lee Ann Womack.

A duet would’ve given the album some added spice, which wouldn’t have hurt the proceedings, which were brought down by the addition of a few throwaway tracks. “That’s Gonna Leave A Memory,” “This Feels A Lot Like Love” and the title track are all okay in their own right, but feel like light weight filler. They’re the kind of songs Alan Jackson has been getting away with for more than a decade – indistinguishable honky-tonkers where you swap lyrics out of the same basic melody over and over again. I’ve been over this practice since before it began and don’t want to see Corbin brought down by it.

“Hearts Drawn In The Sand” has a solid story, but kind of feels like the type of song given to a new artist when they’re trying to establish themselves. I wasn’t impressed by its inclusion here, although Corbin does his best with what he’s given to work with.

But I really like “Dance Real Slow,” even if it has the same fiddle licks as Strait’s “Amarillo By Morning.” I love the accents of fiddle throughout and the whole vibe of the song just works.

Overall I really like All Over The World. When I was listening to it, I kind of felt like I was back in 1995 listening to Daryle Singletary, but the more I dig in the more solid the album feels. He definitely could’ve stood to take more risk and stretch himself (does every song have to be about a girl?) but he proves here he’s one of the good guys, even if he should rough himself up a bit more.

Grade: A –

Album Review: Kellie Pickler – ‘100 Proof’

For some years, former American idol contestant Kellie Pickler has been saying encouraging things about her interpretation of country music, but not backing them up with her music, with her first two albums being somewhat over-produced pop-country efforts with average material and processed vocals. At last she has come through with something really worth hearing. She has obviously worked on her singing as well, and makes the most of a voice which is nice enough but not outstanding. Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten support her vocals infinitely better than her previous producers. There is a lot of variety in tempos and styles here, ranging from very traditional to more contemporary but recognisably country.

The voice and artistry of one of my favourite current songwriters, Leslie Satcher, underpin the vision of this record. She wrote or co-wrote five of the eleven tracks, including the first two singles, and anyone familiar with her own excellent records will recognise the style here. Underperforming lead single ‘Tough’, written especially for Kellie, about a rough-edged girl, has an energetic beat and I would have expected it to do better than a #30 peak, which is an ominous sign for the commercial prospects of this project, but despite its pedigree it is one of the less stellar songs. The title track and current single ‘100 Proof’ is a tender love ballad with a pretty tune, written by Satcher with James T Slater. The protagonist compares her own experience of true happiness with those she sees in a bad relationship.

The best of Satcher’s compositions here is ‘Where’s Tammy Wynette’ which opens the set. It is an excellent, pure country song, written by Satcher with Jimmy Ritchey and Don Poythress, from the point of view of the lonely wife of a man “torn between neon lights and home”, and searching for wisdom in Tammy’s music. On this track in particular Kellie’s vocal inflections are highly reminiscent of writer Leslie Satcher’s stylings. Leslie co-wrote a couple of the songs with Kellie. The rhythmic banjo-led ‘Unlock That Honky Tonk’ is pretty good, and sung with aggressive attack once more reminiscent of Satcher, with ex-SteelDriver Chris Stapleton’s backing vocals evident. However, the ballad ‘Turn On The Radio And Dance’, while not unpleasant, is forgettable filler.

Kellie also had the opportunity to co-write with Dean Dillon (another of my favourite writers) and Dale Dodson; this threeway partnership produced a bruised reflection on the end of a love affair , where she says she’ll be alright ‘Long As I Never See You Again’. This is a fine, downbeat song which grows on repeat listening. They also worked together on the therapeutic In ‘The Letter (To Daddy)’, an incredibly personal open letter to Kellie’s father, whose addiction-fueled crimes led him to spend most of his daughter’s childhood in prison, but, according to this song, has found sobriety. This is rather touching and definitely a highlight.

She has addressed her difficult family background before, with her early single ‘I Wonder’, addressed to the mother who, unable to cope, abandoned her to the care of her grandparents, and those emotions are revisited here. ‘Mother’s Day’, written by Kellie with her husband, Kyle Jacobs, is gentle and rueful as she broods on the absence of her mother from her childhood, and speculates about becoming a mother herself. To be perfectly honest, although this is a more mature reflection, delivered with a delicate vulnerability which shows the pain of that early abandonment has still not left Kellie, the song is not as emotionally immediate as the emotionally rawer ‘I Wonder’ on her debut album.

She also contemplates babies in the not-too-distant future in ‘Rockaway (The Rockin’ Chair Song)’, a pleasant and more contemporary sounding song about domestic happiness which she wrote with Brent Cobb and Barry Dean, and which one assumes is addressed to Jacobs. It’s quite a slight song, but is soothing and attractively melodic.

My favourite song by far is the fantastic and very traditional country ‘Stop Cheatin’ On Me’, written by Chris Stapleton, his wife Morgane Hayes, and Liz Rose. Paul Franklin’s steel slides under Kellie’s deceptively sweet vocal, as the lyric pays off with an ultimatum:

Stop cheatin’ on me – or I’ll start cheatin’ on you

This would have been a smash hit in the 70s. Today’s country radio wouldn’t touch it, which is a sad indictment.

I also enjoyed the upbeat ‘Little House On The Highway’, written by Rodney Clawson and Natalie Hemby, about the traveling life.

Overall, this was a surprisingly enjoyable release from an artist for whom my expectations were limited. I hope it does well for her.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Leslie Satcher – ‘Gypsy Boots’

Leslie Satcher is one of my favourite current songwriters, and she is also a fine singer with a velvety tone who can tackle both understated ballads and full-on attack songs with attitude. When she first came to Nashville from Texas, she did so with the aim of becoming a recording artist, before discovering her talent writing, and she has released two previous albums – the excellent Love Letters in 2001 and Creation in 2005. After a long delay, she has returned to the studio to record some of her more recent compositions, and it has proved to be worth the wait.

A couple of the songs are familiar. The title track has been recorded by Terri Clark, who co-wrote it with Leslie and Jon Randall. It’s not a favorite of mine, but Leslie’s version is funky and assertive with a strong rhythm and backing vocals effectively quoting the Motown classic ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’, which give it real impact. The unapologetic ‘Tough’ was written for Kellie Pickler and is her most recent top 30 single; the original is okay but has struggled on the charts somewhat, and Leslie’s voice has more force behind it.

The mid-tempo ‘Where I Am’ (written with Michael P Heeney) is on a similar theme to ‘Gypsy Boots’ about a restless spirit with no particular destination in mind (and “only Jesus knows where I am”). It is, however, a much better song, which could easily be a hit if recorded by a major label artist.

The gently sung and pretty sounding ‘Reasons To Hang On’ (written with Stephanie Chapman) has Leslie affirming the joys of life, possibly to someone struggling to find reasons to live:

What more do you want?
You wanna hear the voice of God?
He’d just tell you to hang on
If he could get you on the phone
Oh what’s it gonna take for you to find your faith,
To wake up before they’re gone,
Your reasons to hang on?

The unusual and charming mid-tempo ‘Sing Like Loretta Lynn’ is written with Jim Lauderdale and tells of an angel’s night time visit to a similarly despondent woman, making her forget her broken heart with a vision of the music-filled streets of Heaven. There are also a couple of good but more conventional religious songs, ‘In The Shadow Of Your Wings’ and the very pretty ballad ‘Rock Of Your Love’ (written with Al Anderson and Vince Gill, and previously recorded by Vince on his These Days set in 2006).

The enjoyable and energetic ‘And The Well Run Dry’ is a story song co-written with Jim Beavers, sung with aggressive attack. It tells the story of a moonshining woman who finds religion, something which kills the party mood in the technically dry town:

She sold beer to the just gettin’ started
Shine to the too-far-gone
Whiskey to the broken hearted and the ones just holdin’ on…

Y’all, she had the whole town out there getting high
Til she got Jesus
And the well run dry

The effervescent ‘Somethin’ ‘Bout Your Lovin’’ written with Al Anderson and Delbert McClinton has a fun rockabilly feel with lots of Jerry Lee Lewis styled piano. ‘Delta Wedding’ is a slower sultry Southern blues which offers an atmospheric and closely observed picture of a shotgun wedding on a hot summer day in Mississippi, with a melting cake and a bride whose fancy hairdo “even Jesus wouldn’t mess with”:

And she’s just about covered up what they’ve just about covered up
All for a nail biting bundle of joy

The melancholic ‘Lonely Doesn’t Know How To Leave’ (also written with Anderson) has a soothing vocal as the protagonist stays up all night dwelling on her sadness.

Leslie’s voice is shown off by the completely acappella solo delivery (and occasionally spoken) of the closing story song about her father’s journey to visit relatives, ‘Georgia Trip ‘56’, which is a tour de force. There are also impressive harmonised acappella opening to ‘If I Had Wings’, a delicate ballad with a lovely tune, and ‘Where That Train Was Going’, a gripping story song written with Jon Randall, which has a bluesy feel.

This record is a joy from start to finish, although the overall feel is a bit bluesier and less traditional than one might expect from her songs written for others.

Grade: A

It is widely available digitally. Hard copy CDs can be obtained from Leslie’s website or from CDBaby, where you can also hear brief clips of the songs:

http://www.lesliesatcher.com/
http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/lesliesatcher2

Amazon also sells the CD version, but at a higher price.

Single Review – Thompson Square – ‘I Got You’

“I Got You,” the follow-up to their monster hit “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not,” finds Thompson Square firmly within the rock infused sound that has taken over mainstream country in recent years.  I’ve often compared their production with Jason Aldean’s, and it’s fitting to see both acts will be touring together this summer.

With “Kiss,” they proved themselves a formable talent. It was memorable enough to catch people’s attention, and once it caught on five months after it was released, it blew up like gangbusters.

Largely benefiting from the success of “Kiss,” they’re able to garner the airplay, but “I Got You” is a dip in quality from their previous hit. The main problem is the predictability of the verses.  The build up to the chorus is an obvious mix of pairings leading up to them declaring they have each other. It isn’t an interesting concept and it leads to a weak execution.

The other issue is the production, which fights the vocals opposed to complementing them. The heavy guitars and loud drums are distracting to the listener and lessen whatever charm they were going for here.

But I will give them credit for showcasing Shawna’s voice on the second verse. She has strong vocals and sounds like a less twangy Kellie Pickler. Much like when Lady Antebellum first showcased Hillary on “Looking For A Good Time,” the song benefits from hearing both sing lead.

And the song is radio-friendly and stands to further their careers down the path to major success. “I Got You” does its job of catching your attention when it comes on the radio and despite it shortcomings, the fans will likely push it into the top ten.

Grade: B – 

American Idol Season 10: Gone country

Unexpectedly, this week’s American Idol finale features not one but two young singers who will be unleashed on the country music world in the coming months. Perhaps because they represent different styles of country music, they appear not to have split the “country” vote getting to the final two. I mentioned deep voiced 17-year-old Scotty McCreery from North Carolina earlier this year, commenting on his similarity to Josh Turner, but at that point 16-year-old Georgia girl Lauren Alaina had managed to fly under my radar. She is a pop-country singer, with a voice not unreminiscent of a young Faith Hill. Both have selected a number of country songs to perform over the past weeks, and both are likely to head to Nashville once the show is over.

To be perfectly honest, both teenagers seem to have some raw talent but might have been better had they spent a few years honing their vocal and performance skills. Scotty is understood to be the front-runner, regularly eliciting deafening screams from young girls in the Idol audience, and he has by far the more confident polished approach, with an ease on stage which belies his youth and inexperience. Idol judge Randy Jackson even made some rather implausible comparisons to Garth Brooks last week. His poise and confidence will stand him in good stead whether his career takes him to superstardom or if he crashes and burns when out of the Idol bubble.

Back in April I speculated as to whether Scotty’s debut performance would involve “triumph or disaster”. I must confess that even after a dozen weeks of competition, I’m still on the fence. His voice certainly rivals Josh Turner’s in its range, but it signally lacks Turner’s resonance and richness of tone. I have also noticed that when he strays out of the most comfortable part of his range, his tone develops a slightly foghorn quality which is not mellifluous. Canny song choices when he is picking songs to record will be vital if he is to make a record I personally will like. And he is still only 17 – his voice may have room to develop and grow.

I want to root for Scotty, though, just because he is the most traditionally inclined of any real contender who has ever been on American Idol. Season 5’s Kellie Pickler, who has promised her upcoming third album will offer us some more traditional country, was never likely to win and ended up in sixth place, noted more for her dizzy blonde persona and dramatic family background than her singing.

Lauren, who was an early judges’ favorite, appears to have lost some confidence over the course of the show, and has the general demeanour and maturity level one would expect from a high school girl. This is not a criticism – merely an observation, and she will, in due course, grow up. I am inclined to think her voice may possibly have more potential than Scotty’s, as although she has shown some technical deficiencies – issues with her breath control and an occasional tendency to oversing in the manner of Carrie Underwood – she has a very nice underlying tone. Her youth makes her appear to be more malleable by producers and label executives, and her personal musical taste also leans very much pop-country, so I would be less likely to want to buy her post-Idol work.

Both of the youngsters are likely to sign record deals with one of the labels in the Universal Music Group, and I would expect Mercury or MCA Nashville the most likely homes for them. That brings in an additional complicating factor for Scotty McCreery, as his own idol Josh Turner is already on MCA. Regardless of the results of the show, it could be interesting to see what happens with the careers of the two finalists. It’s UMG’s first year in association with Idol. When the Sony group signed artists from Idol, if they didn’t meet with immediate success they were soon disposed of (Kristy Lee Cook, for instance, now signed to Broken Bow). They have been going slower with last year’s third placer Casey James, who has still not released anything. Will UMG want instant returns, or would they have the patience to emulate what RCA did with Nashville Star’s fourth season champion Chris Young or Columbia did with the same show’s Miranda Lambert, namely give these youngsters time after their reality show runs to mature and develop?

Scotty and Lauren duet on ‘I Told You So’:

The Idol effect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emotional truth: sentiment and sentimentality in country music

Maschera Tragica (Mask of Tragedy)

Maschera Tragica (Mask of Tragedy)

Emotional truth is at the heart of almost all truly great country songs.  There is a very fine line in country music between the true tearjerkers, for which the genre is justly known, and the cloying sentimentality which outsiders sometimes ascribe to the music. Not, I have to admit, always completely unfairly – if the strings are too obvious, the emotion feels forced, and the song just doesn’t work.  But as I said, the line is a fine one, and a song’s impact depends on a number of factors.

Country music does not consist solely of confessional singer-songwriters, and we do not expect every song recorded to be a personal slice of the author’s life – certainly not when it comes to a love song or cheating song. However, when we are aware a song draws on its writer’s experiences, I think we are more disposed to respond to them as “real”.  If a love song is said to be for its writer’s spouse, and the marriage subsequently breaks up (as, for instance, with Vince Gill’s ‘I Still Believe In You’, written for first wife Janis Gill before he left her for another woman), the song may suddenly seem emotionally dishonest in retrospect, purely because the listener has bought into the story behind the song.  In the case of a song specifically designed to elicit an emotional response, this authenticity is all the more important.

There is a line in the Mavericks’ song ‘Children’ which refers to “a life where everything’s real and nothing is true”.  I do not believe a song has to be factually real to convey emotional truth, but it does help to dispel accusations of sentimentality.  An example of this would be Tammy Cochran’s ‘Angels In Waiting’.  This tribute to Tammy’s two brothers, who both died young as a result of cystic fibrosis, would be cloying if the song were an invented one.  It probably wouldn’t even work if it were sung by an unconnected singer, even though it was written from the heart and is a well-constructed song. Here it is almost completely the fact that it is the true story of the person singing it which carries the emotional force of the song.

Another instance is Jimmy Wayne, whose first self-titled album was filled with intensely emotional songs inspired by his childhood. These songs — the hits ‘I Love You This Much’ and ‘Paper Angels’, and other less-known numbers on similar themes — would undoubtedly fall in the emotionally manipulative category if they were not genuinely based on Jimmy’s appalling childhood in foster-care. That lends an emotional truth which is not found in the same singer’s love songs which are forgettable.  American Idol finalist Kellie Pickler is frankly not a very good singer, but her song ‘I Wonder’, about the mother who abandoned her in childhood, has an emotional resonance, which is lacking in her other material, and is genuinely moving — as long as you know the story behind it is true.  I don’t think it stands on its own merits.

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