My Kind of Country

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Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Sing It Now: Songs of Faith and Hope’

rebaReligious albums, like Christmas albums, are sometimes a hard sell to fans because there is inevitably much overlap in song selection with other artists’ Gospel collections. Reba McEntire avoids falling into that trap with Sing It Now: Songs of Faith and Hope, which was released last week. The generous two-disc collection is evenly divided between traditional hymns and more contemporary inspirational songs. As long as thirty years ago, I can remember Reba saying she wanted to a Gospel album; finally, she has reached a point in her career where commercial pressures have eased enough to allow that dream to become a reality.

Reba produced the collection with Rascal Flatts member Jay DeMarcus. The first disc contains most of the old familiar favorites beginning with “Jesus Loves Me” – the first song Reba sang in public at age four, and progressing on to other standards such as “Oh, How I Love Jesus”, “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder”, “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art”. She is joined by family and friends on a few tracks: her mother and sisters provide the harmonies on “I’ll Fly Away”. The Isaacs appear on a mash-up of “In The Garden” and “Wonderful Peace” and Kelly Clarkson and Trisha Yearwood lend their voices to “Softly and Tenderly”, which closes out the first disc. This track was released as a single in December. It didn’t make the country charts but did reach #43 on the Christian chart. All of these songs are tastefully arranged; the production is appropriately sparse and traditional. Reba and DeMarcus push the envelope slightly on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, which features some nice steel guitar work (an instrument we rarely hear on Gospel albums). The only tune on the first disc that I didn’t particularly care for was “Oh Happy Day”, on which the production is a cluttered mess of too-loud horns, saxophones and a Gospel choir. Clocking in at more than five and a half minutes, it goes on way too long.

Disc Two contains more modern religious-themed songs, mostly performed in the pop-country style for which Reba is well known. I particularly liked the title track and the current single “Back to God”, which first appeared on Randy Houser’s 2008 debut album. A Houser co-write with Dallas Davidson, Reba’s version of “Back to God” currently resides at #25 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, although it has yet to appear on the airplay chart. “There Is a God” — also quite good — is a remake of the 2009 Lee Ann Womack single. “God and My Girlfriends” sounds as though it could have appeared on any Reba album released during the past twenty years. Not as overtly religious as the title suggests, it probably would have stood a chance of being a hit a few years ago, but probably not now. The upbeat “I Got The Lord on My Side” sounds like an old-time revival song; it was written by Reba and her mother Jackie McEntire.

“Angel on My Shoulder”, which features a banjo and drum machine suffers from the clichéd production that we’ve heard too much of in mainstream country in recent years. The song itself is not bad, but it is probably the weakest in the collection. “From the Inside Out” is a pretty but somewhat lifeless ballad.

Reba is one of the best female vocalists that country music has ever known and she’s always been one of my favorites. I’ve been critical of many of her musical choices over the past decade or so as she seemed more concerned with chasing trends and maintaining a presence on the radio than just singing good songs. Sing It Now shows that when she puts aside commercial considerations and works with good material, she is still second to none. Despite one or two minor missteps, Sing It Now is a great collection and hopefully a sign of the direction that this talented lady will be going in the future.

Grade: A-

Razor X’s Top 10 singles of 2014

law way im livinIt seems that every year it becomes more and more difficult to compile a list of the year’s ten best singles. I don’t listen to country radio very much (OK – at all) anymore, so when one of my favorite artists releases a new album, I’m not always aware of which tracks have become singles. In fact, many veterans on independent labels no longer bother releasing product to radio. That being said, there were some worthwhile single releases this year and the following were my favorites:

10. All Alright — Zac Brown Band

The Zac Brown Band had been one of the few consistent bright spots at country radio in recent years. This tune has a great melody and a strong vocal performance, and I would have rated it higher had it not been for the over-the-top guitar solo that mars an otherwise very good record.

9. Like A Cowboy — Randy Houser

In another era, Randy Houser might have been a superstar. He’s one of the genre’s best vocalists but like many of his contemporaries he has struggled to consistently select strong material. This pop/rock-with-steel-guitar power ballad is not a timeless classic, but it’s one of the relatively few songs that didn’t either bore or annoy me. Yes, the bar has been lowered that much. That’s not to suggest that I didn’t enjoy this song, just an admission that it probably wouldn’t have made my Top 10 list in a stronger year.

8. Lay Low — Josh Turner

Turner is another artist whose talent often far exceeds the quality of the songs he sings. The lyrics don’t have a whole lot of depth but Turner’s vocal performance is enough to make this an enjoyable listen.

Sunny-Sweeney-Bad-Girl-Phase7. Bad Girl Phase — Sunny Sweeney

After a three-year hiatus, Sunny Sweeney returned this year, feeling feisty and letting everyone know that she’s not just the girl next door in this unfortunately non-charting effort.

6. PrizeFighter – Trisha Yearwood ft. Kelly Clarkson

Trisha Yearwood is another one of my long-time favorites who made a comeback this year. While not the strongest entry in her discography, “PrizeFighter” is a good, though not great, record.

A Million Ways To Die Single Cover5. A Million Ways To Die — Alan Jackson

Radio totally ignored this song from the film A Million Ways To Die In The West. This retro-sounding effort totally different from anything Jackson has ever done and is reminsicent of something Johnny Cash would have enjoyed sinking his teeth into. A fun listen if you don’t take it too seriously.

4. Who I Am With You — Chris Young

His latest album found Chris Young moving in a more pop direction. While I prefer his more traditional efforts, he is such a strong vocalist, it’s difficult not to like his music. On this track, he often sounds like a young Randy Travis, though the song itself is a far cry from Randy’s brand of country.

3. That’s What Dreamers Do — Travis Tritt

This is a very nicely crafted ballad, from a film about the life of Walt Disney. Tritts’ voice sounds a little more worn than it did back when he was a staple on country radio, but this song holds its own with the best of his 90s ballads.

dolly bluesmoke2. Blue Smoke — Dolly Parton

This bluegrass-flavored single and the album from which it came marks Dolly Parton’s strongest effort since her bluegrass albums for Sugar Hill. At nearly 69 years of age, Dolly sound fresh and energetic and is showing no signs of slowing down any time soon.

1. The Way I’m Livin’— Lee Ann Womack

A lot of big names returned from long hiatuses this year, but Lee Ann Womack’s was the one I was most excited about. This non-charting record is an example of what country music used to be all about. It’s the first release of the post-major label phase of her career. I hope that her association with Sugar Hill is a long one and that she’ll begin releasing music more frequently than she has in the past. Country music needs more Lee Ann Womacks.

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘PrizeFighter: Hit After Hit’

prizefighterThe initial euphoria I felt upon learning that Trisha Yearwood was finally releasing a new album was tempered slightly by the realization that it would be mostly comprised of her old hits along with six new tracks. After a seven-year hiatus, one would think that fans should be able to expect a full-length album’s worth of new material. The older songs included on PrizeFighter: Hit After Hit, are re-recordings of ten of Yearwood’s best known hits. They are faithful enough to the originals that casual fans will probably not notice the difference, with the possible exception of “XXX’s and OOO’s”, which lacks the double-tracked vocal of the original. These re-recordings are the rare exceptions that can hold their own against the orignals, proving that nearly a quarter-century after her debut, Yearwood can still deliver the goods. That being said, the newly-recorded versions don’t bring anything new to the table and no matter how well done they are, one can’t help feeling a little disappointed that Trisha and her producers didn’t make the effort to find a few more new songs to include on the album in their place.

As far as the new material goes, Trisha shows that she hasn’t lost her touch when it comes to choosing top-notch material. The title track and lead single “PrizeFighter“, which I reviwewed back in September, is the only one of the six new tracks that seemed tailor-made for radio. The collaboration with Kelly Clarkson peaked at a disappointing buy not surprising #42 on the country airplay chart and didn’t enter the main Billboard country singles chart at all. The remainder of the new material seems decidedly less commercial. The best of the group is “I Remember You”, a stripped-down acoustic ballad written by Kelly Archer, Ben Caver and Brad Rempel. Trisha’s sister provides the harmony vocals and the song is dedicated to their late parents. Almost as good is “Met Him In A Motel Room”, a Rory Lee Feek and Jamie Teachenor tune about a young girl, possibly a prostitute, meeting someone for a clandestine tryst. The setting of the seedy motel is juxtaposed with a church in the next verse. It’s not clear whether the girl is meeting a clergymen or a pillar-of-the-community married man, but she is later contemplating suicide in another motel room, when the sight of a Bible on the beside table gives her pause to reconsider.

“Your Husband’s Been Cheatin’ On Us” and “You Can’t Trust the Weatherman” provide a much-needed change of pace after such heavy material. The former is a bluesy number, a departure for Yearwood and reminsicent of something Wynonna might have recorded. It is told from the point of view of a cast-aside mistress who gets her revenge by telling her ex-lover’s wife about his affair with yet another woman. The song was written by Matraca Berg, Marshall Chapman and Jill McCorkle. “You Can’t Trust The Weatherman”, written by Ashley Gorley, Wade Kirby and Bryan Simpson, is a tongue-in-cheek number about a shotgun wedding that eventually finds the young couple becoming a latter-day Bonne and Clyde — and almost getting away with it. It is the most country-sounding of the album’s new songs.

Despite the somewhat disappointing recycling of so much old material, Trisha Yearwood fans are bound to be happy to finally have something new to sink their teeth into. The album can be purchased on CD or downloaded from GhostTunes.

Grade: A

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: Trisha Yearwood ft. Kelly Clarkson – ‘PrizeFighter’

PrizefighterArguably the most exciting news in country music this year was the recent announcement that Trisha Yearwood had inked a deal with RCA and was releasing a new single. “PrizeFighter” is her first single since 2008’s “They Call It Falling For A Reason”. It reunites her with her longtime producer Garth Fundis and with her pal Kelly Clarkson who provides harmony vocals on the track. The two had previously collaborated, along with Reba McEntire, on a recording of “Silent Night” for Clarkson’s 2013 Christmas collection.

I was so glad to hear that Yearwood was back, that the song itself almost didn’t matter to me. The tune, which was written by Jessi Alexander, Sarah Buxton, and Ross Copperman, is a midtempo empowerment anthem which stands as a metaphor for the uphill battle Trisha faces to get back on the charts and country radio. In lesser hands the overall “Yes, we can” message might sound trite. But her voice is as beautiful as ever, meshing well with Clarkson’s harmony vocals and that more than compensates for the lightweight lyrics. The production is tasteful, just layered enough to sound contemporary without being intrusive. It is not particularly country but Trisha was never a traditionalist. It is stylistically close enough to her big hits from the 90s that longtime fans will not be disappointed. It is in many ways, a play-it-safe choice, but that is understandable given the obstacles Yearwood faces as she attempts to relaunch her recording career.

The big question mark is whether country radio will welcome back into the fold a female artist whose last Top 10 hit was 13 years ago, and who turns 50 years old in a little more than two weeks’ time. If this record is successful, Yearwood will become one of a very select number of female artists to score a hit after the age of 50. This is presumably why the much younger Clarkson is credited as a featured guest, to appeal to younger audiences. Hopefully the strategy will work, because although “PrizeFighter” doesn’t rise to the level of Yearwood’s very best work, hers is still a voice that deserves to be heard. Hopefully we’ll be hearing much more from her in the near future.

Grade: B+

Song Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Pray for Peace’

reba - pray for peaceI read a quote once from Emmylou Harris that went something like “People tend to equate emotion in music with how hard the drum hits.” The drums aren’t being pounded in “Pray for Peace”, Reba McEntire’s first new music release in nearly four years. The drumbeat is right there through the entire four minute track and doesn’t even change tempo much. It is, like the song’s message, persistent.

Persistence and repetition are really the neatest aspects of this song. For the first two minutes, all you hear is the bass drum, a lonesome fiddle and Reba singing four words over and over, “please pray for peace”. Layers of production and guest voices are added after that, all leading up to a choir and a big finish.

Ronnie Dunn and Kelly Clarkson appear to do some serious scat-singing. Their efforts, for the most part, are just distracting.

Still, even with a full choir and the drums beating a bit harder, the production doesn’t take anything away from the song’s ultimate simplicity and unfortunately timely statement.  As Americans watch incidents like a jet being shot down in Ukraine and see Palestinian death tolls rising higher and higher each day, “Pray for Peace” is a tune that will resound with almost anyone who hears it. And it’s been smartly crafted and produced to do just that.

Grade: n/a

“Pray for Peace” is being offered as a free download at Reba’s official website.

2013 CMA Awards predictions – Who should and will win

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

UnknownENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR

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

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

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

Cruise - Single CoverSINGLE OF THE YEAR

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

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

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

imagesALBUM OF THE YEAR

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

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

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

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Predictions for the 48th annual ACM Awards

Unknown-5Now that we’ve turned the clocks forward an hour and our calendars from March to April, it’s time to turn our attention to Las Vegas and the annual Academy of Country Music Awards telecast. CBS is carrying the show live Sunday Night (April 7) and it promises to be an eclectic mix of mainstream country music; hosted by Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan. Look for Tim McGraw to sing his latest “Highway Don’t Care” with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, while Jason Aldean is rumored to be involving Joe Diffie in his performance of “1994.” Kelly Clarkson will be singing “Don’t Rush” and Bryan plans to debut a new single, “Crash My Party.” But I’m most excited to see what promises to be a buzzed about moment – Garth Brooks and George Strait collaborating for the first time to pay tribute to show producer Dick Clark.

Here are the nominees and predictions:

UnknownEntertainer of the Year

· Jason Aldean

· Luke Bryan

· Miranda Lambert

· Blake Shelton

· Taylor Swift – Jonathan Pappalardo 

As a fan voted award, the logic would be on Taylor Swift to take this home. And while she’s the likely winner, I’m wondering if Blake Shelton’s Voice popularity may propel him to the podium instead. There has to be a chance someone besides Swift could take this home, right? Well, I’m not betting on it, but Shelton seems the most likely one to do it.

Unknown-1Male Vocalist of the Year

· Jason Aldean

· Luke Bryan

· Eric Church

· Toby Keith

· Blake Shelton – Jonathan Pappalardo 

It’s nice to see Keith sneak in a nod here, as he’s still a gifted vocalist and “Hope On The Rocks” proves it. Aldean is just too weak a singer to make much of a significant impact and I can’t see the Academy embracing Church. So this as a two-way race between show co-hosts Shelton and Bryan, and I only see the ACM awarding it to Bryan if they want to shake it up. But they may see him as an eventual winner (like after he releases his next album) and go with Shelton again.

The 52nd Annual GRAMMY Awards - ArrivalsFemale Vocalist of the Year

· Miranda Lambert – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· Martina McBride

· Kacey Musgraves

· Taylor Swift

· Carrie Underwood

While I would love to see Musgraves take this home, she’s too new for such a prestigious honor. McBride’s a broken record at this point – she hasn’t had an impactful hit single in years and while Underwood is releasing some of the most ambitious songs of her career, she’ll likely be seen as old hat by this point. This is Lambert’s award to lose and Swift’s dominance in a completely different genre market isn’t going to change that.

images-2Vocal Duo of the Year

· Big & Rich

· Florida Georgia Line

· Love and Theft

· Sugarland

· Thompson Square – Jonathan Pappalardo 

If Florida Georgia Line wins this award, I’m done. “Cruise” may’ve been one of the biggest hits of last year, but popularity hardly denotes quality. Thompson Square should repeat here and even though they aren’t as strong as they could be, they’re the best of this bunch outside of Sugarland.

imagesVocal Group of the Year

· The Band Perry

· Eli Young Band

· Lady Antebellum

· Little Big Town – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· Zac Brown Band

After their come out of nowhere Grammy win in February, Little Big Town are the darlings of Nashville and that will continue with a win here. Their success is long overdue, as is a win in this category. Zac Brown Band and The Band Perry can have fun duking it out for second place.

Unknown-2New Artist of the Year

· Florida Georgia Line – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· Brantley Gilbert

· Jana Kramer

This is really a toss up. Any of these three could win although Kramer has proven the most country minded of the nominees. She’s my favorite, but I’m not counting out Florida Georgia Line. It’s another fan voted award and “Cruise” is insanely popular.

TornadoAlbum of the Year [Award goes to Artist(s)/Producer(s)/Record Company]

· Blown Away – Carrie Underwood (19/Arista Nashville), Produced by: Mark Bright

· Chief – Eric Church (EMI-Nashville), Produced by: Jay Joyce

· Red – Taylor Swift (Big Machine Records), Produced by: Jeff Bhasker, Nathan Chapman, Dann Huff, Jacknife Lee, Max Martin, Shellback, Taylor Swift, Butch Walker, Dan Wilson

· Tailgates & Tanlines – Luke Bryan (Capitol Nashville), Produced by: Mark Bright, Jeff Stevens

· Tornado – Little Big Town (Capitol Nashville), Produced by: Jay Joyce – Jonathan Pappalardo 

A good list of mainstream albums. Chief would seem the frontrunner since it already won the CMA Award, but this is the first race to include Little Big Town’s superstar making set. I’m going out on a limb and say Tornado will take this home.

Unknown-6Single Record of the Year [Award to Artist(s)/Producer(s)/Record Company]

· “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” – Eli Young Band (Republic Nashville), Produced by: Mike Wrucke

· “Over You” – Miranda Lambert (RCA), Produced by: Chuck Ainlay, Frank Liddell, Glenn Worf

· “Pontoon” – Little Big Town (Capitol Nashville), Produced by: Jay Joyce – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· “Springsteen” – Eric Church (EMI-Nashville), Produced by: Jay Joyce

· “Wanted” – Hunter Hayes (Atlantic/WMN), Produced by: Hunter Hayes, Dann Huff

“Pontoon.” It won the CMA, a Grammy, and reversed the fortunes of a band too talented for the oblivion it was heading for. There’s no way they’ll lose, but if they do it’ll go to Hayes and his sophomore single “Wanted.”

Unknown-7Song of the Year [Award to Composer(s)/Publisher(s)/Artist(s)]

· “A Woman Like You” – Lee Brice, Composers: Phil Barton, Johnny Bulford, Jon Stone, Publishers: 3JB Music (BMI), Adios Pantalones (SESAC), Hears That Skyline Music (SESAC), Sixteen Stars Music (BMI), Warner-Tamerlane Publishing Corp. (BMI)

· “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” – Eli Young Band, Composers: Will Hoge, Eric Paslay, Publishers: Cal IV Songs (ASCAP), Will Hoge Music (BMI)

· “Over You” – Miranda Lambert, Composers: Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton, Publishers: Pink Dog Publishing (BMI), Sony ATV/Tree Publishing (BMI) – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· “Springsteen” – Eric Church, Composers: Eric Church, Jeff Hyde, Ryan Tyndell, Publishers: Bug Music (BMI), Ole Purple Cape Music (BMI), Sinnerlina (BMI), Sony ATV/Tree Publishing (BMI)

· “Wanted” – Hunter Hayes, Composers: Hunter Hayes, Troy Verges, Publishers: Happy Little Man Publishing (BMI), Songs From The Engine Room (BMI), Songs Of Universal Inc. (BMI)

“Over You.” The ACM will follow in the footsteps of the CMA and bring Lambert and Shelton to the podium. Two genre superstars are just too hard to ignore. Their only competition, Kacey Musgraves’ ‘Merry Go ‘Round’ wasn’t even nominated, so I just don’t see anyone else taking this home.

Unknown-8Songwriter of the Year

· Rodney Clawson

· Dallas Davidson (Already won, off-camera award) 

· Josh Kear

· Luke Laird

· Shane McAnally

Davidson has already won; this is an off-camera award. But I would’ve gone with McAnally who seems to be on fire right now. His collaborations with Brandy Clark are killer.

Unknown-3Video of the Year [Award to Producer(s)/Director(s)/Artist(s)] *(Off Camera Award) [TIE]

·” Creepin'” – Eric Church, Producer: Iris Baker Director: Peter Zavadil – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· Merry Go ‘Round – Kacey Musgraves, Producers: Perry Bean, Kacey Musgraves Director: Perry Bean

· “Tornado” – Little Big Town, Producer: Iris Baker Director: Shane Drake

· “Wanted” – Hunter Hayes Producers: Stephanie Reeves, Eric Williams Directors: Traci Goudie, Patrick Hubik

· “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” – Taylor Swift, Producer: John Nguyen Director: Declan Whitebloom

· “The Wind” – Zac Brown Band, Producer: Ben Kalina Director: Mike Judge

Most of Zac Brown Band’s videos are distracting, with annoying concepts that take away from the song completely. “The Wind” is no exception. The Swift clip is awful and does nothing to portray her maturity and “Wanted” isn’t special enough to stand out from this pack. Church deserves this the most, as both the song and video for “Creepin’” are completely original. This is where he should get some much-deserved hardware. 

Unknown-9Vocal Event of the Year [Award to Artist(s)/Producer(s)/Record Company] *(Off Camera Award)

· “Don’t Rush” – Kelly Clarkson Featuring Vince Gill (19/RCA/Columbia Nashville) Produced by: Dann Huff

· “Easy” – Rascal Flatts Featuring Natasha Bedingfield (Big Machine Records) Produced by: Dann Huff, Brian Kennedy, Rascal Flatts

·”Feel Like a Rock Star” – Kenny Chesney (Duet With Tim McGraw) (Blue Chair/BNA) Produced by: Buddy Cannon, Kenny Chesney  – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· “Let It Rain” – David Nail Featuring Sarah Buxton (MCA Nashville) Produced by: Chuck Ainlay, Frank Liddell

· “The Only Way I Know” – Jason Aldean With Luke Bryan & Eric Church (Broken Bow) Produced by: Michael Knox

What a terrible, terrible bunch of songs that equate to nothing more than empty opportunistic pandering. The only worthwhile songs here are “Don’t Rush” and “Let It Rain” and they are hardly ‘events.’ I bet Chesney/McGraw will take this home but if it wasn’t an off-camera award, than I’d say Aldean/Bryan/Church. The latter would make for ratings gold on stage, but it would be a wasted opportunity off-camera. In truth, though, I couldn’t care less about these nominees if I tried.

Predictions and analysis: The 55th Annual Grammy Awards

Grammy-AwardsIt’s that time of year again, to celebrate music’s biggest night. The 55th Grammy Awards are set to air this Sunday on CBS. In a rather surprising move, it’s the females who’ll be representing our genre at the show. Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift, and Miranda Lambert are all slated to perform, with Lambert teaming up with her ‘Locked and Reloaded’ tour partner Dierks Bentley for a special collaboration. The country nominees are below, and it turns out they’re much stronger than was expected. The Recording Academy seems to have found a happy medium between commercial and artistic popularity. We’ll have to see if any of the artistic nominees (Jamey Johnson, The Time Jumpers, and others) will prevail against their commercial contemporaries. Predictions are below:

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Album Review – Blake Shelton – ‘Cheers, It’s Christmas’

220px-CheersItsChristmasOn Cheers, It’s Christmas, his foray into holiday music, Blake Shelton is offering up fourteen tracks that mix traditional fare with newly-penned tracks and collaborations with everyone from Kelly Clarkson to Reba McEntire. And like Red River Blue, Scott Hendricks produces the set along with Brett Rowan.

The traditional songs are pretty standard, and Shelton turns in gorgeous readings of “White Christmas,” “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” “The Christmas Song,” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” Each are framed in a lush string heavy melody that doesn’t bring anything new to the tracks, but keeps them simple and classy. Shelton supercharges his rendition of “Winter Wonderland” with a heavy electric guitar, and instead of working against the song, it helps to showcase the much-recorded song in a new light.

The heart of Cheers, It’s Christmas, though, are the duets. “Jingle Bell Rock,” complete with loud guitars and crashing horns, features Miranda Lambert on backing vocals and their voices blend together nicely. Unfortunately the cheesy “Blue Christmas,” which features Pistol Annies pointlessly doo-wooping throughout, is a mess. The production is too loud and all meaning feels stripped from the song.

Shelton keeps the proceedings nice and simple on “Silver Bells,” one of my favorite Christmas songs. He’s joined by Xenia, a contestant from his team on season 1 of The Voice. Surprisingly, their voices blend well despite having two completely different vocal styles. The same is true for the holiday re-working of “Home” which features the tune’s original singer (and season 3 Voice mentor) Michael Bublé, although it’s kind of odd to hear the tune with the new, slightly awkward lyrics.

Shelton turns surprisingly traditional on “Oklahoma Christmas,” a duet with fellow Okie McEntire. While very good the exaggerated twang and somewhat predictable lyrics (written by Rob Byus, Jenee Fleenor, and Trent Willmon) put a slight damper on the proceedings. He revives Keith Whitley’s “There’s A New Kid In Town,” easily the album’s strongest track lyrically, as a duet with Clarkson. An astonishingly understated and tasteful rendition, their voices gel together wonderfully.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I heard Shelton co-wrote a duet with his mom Dorothy Shackleford, but it turned out really well despite her somewhat shaky vocal. “Time For Me To Come,” in which a mother calls up his son to come home for the holidays, has a lot of old-fashioned charm and works well coming from someone who’s so busy with both his music and television careers. Shelton also co-wrote “Santa’s Got A Choo Choo Train,” a somewhat bluegrass-y number that’s a bit cheesy, nicely understated, and sounds like something Brad Paisley would’ve done about eight years ago. Shelton’s third co-write “The Very Best Time of Year” is the album’s weakest track, spilling out a mess of yuletide clichés.

Cheers, It’s Christmas is an uneven effort at best, with Shelton’s classy and rowdy sides fighting for dominance. But it’s also his best album in years, showcasing a bona fide superstar who isn’t afraid to keep it country when it counts the most. Since he’s so big right now, I have a hard time feeling the intimacy he strives for on the majority of the tracks, but he’s never sounded better and exuded so much personal confidence.

Grade: B

Keeping your ears warm: a slacker’s playlist

slacker playlist2December means list-making for lots of people. For Christmas shoppers. said list reminds you to buy Aunt Dorothy that bottle of Evening In Paris perfume and to likewise pick up those all-important token trinkets for every friend, relative, and passing acquaintance in your life. It’s the time of year for giving, after all.

And for music bloggers, it means whittling down the year’s releases into a tidy list of the best of the best. If you’re like me, you’ve waited until December to really start the process of putting them in order. I’ve kept a revolving list of my favorites since January, in no particular order. So for the past week I’ve been revisiting, adding new songs, and eliminating the middling music. In the meantime, I’ve found some great songs – new and old – to keep my ears warm when I’m not re-evaluating the best of 2012. Thanks to my handy Spotify account, I’ve got a pre-made list of my top 10 played songs during the past week. I’ll share them with you below – a sort of procrastination edition of the ever-popular iPod check – and invite you to share your own in the comments.

  • Kasey Musgraves – “Merry Go Round”
  • Don Gibson – “Oh Lonesome Me”
  • Lori McKenna – “Sometimes He Does”
  • Elvis Presley – “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”
  • Kelly Clarkson – “People Like Us”
  • Linda Ronstadt – “Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind”
  • Ray Charles – “I Can’t Stop Loving You”
  • Bobbie Cryner – “Leavin’ Houston Blues”
  • Rick Trevino – “Running Out of Reasons To Run”
  • Kelly Clarkson featuring Vince Gill – “Don’t Rush”

Spotify users can listen to my top 10 playlist.

What’s tops on your playlist right now? Share your top 10 (or 20 or 30) tracks with us.

Spotlight Artist: Blake Shelton

The decision of the Country Music Association to name Blake Shelton as this year’s Entertainer of the Year (as well as a third successive Male Vocalist of the Year award) clearly came as something of a surprise to many – including Blake himself. However, since his emergence at the beginning of the millennium, he has enjoyed a dozen #1 country hits, several of which have sold well enough to be certified gold or platinum. Five of his six full length studio albums have also gained gold status.

Born in Oklahoma in 1976, Blake moved to Nashville aged just 17 to pursue his dreams of country stardom. It took a few years before he got noticed, but legendary songwriter Bobby Braddock heard him singing on a demo tape and helped him sign a development deal with Giant Records (part of Warner Brothers) in 1998. His debut single ‘Austin’ (produced by Braddock) was a monster hit for him in 2001. This proved very lucky for Blake, as the label folded as the single began its run, and sister label Warner Brothers picked him up.

While commercial success was good, he was slow to gain accolades from his peers. His first major award did not come until 2010, when he was named the CMA’s Male Vocalist of the Year, a title he has not lost since. He became a member of the Opry in the same year, and this year gained the ultimate accolade from his peers.

Since moving on from Braddock, his more recent material has been less traditional in style, and has varied in quality, but he has become one of the most popular of today’s artists. His record label picked Shelton to try out SixPaks, a renamed extended EP which they hoped would revolutionise the way music was packaged, but after two of a planned three Blake Shelton SixPaks, he reverted to the traditional full-length album.

He has enjoyed a sideline as judge on several TV talent shows, first taking that role on the fifth season of Nashville Star in 2007, then Clash Of The Choirs where he mentored an Oklahoma choir. For the past two years he has gained national visibility on The Voice, the third season of which is showing now.

He seems to get as much attention for non-musical matters like his TV work, his marriage to Miranda Lambert in 2011, and his sometimes controversial Tweets, but it’s the music we’ll be concentrating on here. A Christmas album is out now, making Blake the perfect choice for December’s Spotlight Artist. He also has a Christmas special airing on NBC tonight, repeated on December 7, featuirng guest performances by Miranda Lambert, Reba McEntire, and former American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson who was so controversially nominated for the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year. We’ll be mixing up our look back at his career with our reflections on the past year in country music, so keep checking in through the month.

2012 CMA Awards: our predictions

The 46th annual Country Music Association annual awards ceremony will take place on November 1, 2012 at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. The show will air live on ABC television again this year and is presented by the pairing of Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, who will take over hosting duties for the fifth consecutive year. Eric Church and his massive hit “Springsteen” lead the list of nominees, with Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton close behind him.

On awards night, look for a musical tribute to Willie Nelson and The Band Perry to debut the first taste of their Rick Rubin produced sophomore album. There’s also talk that Female Vocalist nominee Kelly Clarkson will debut “Don’t Rush” on the telecast, a duet with Vince Gill featured from her Greatest Hits, Chapter One album in stores Nov. 19. Also look forward to a duet from Tim McGraw and Faith Hill (which I’ve heard is during the Nelson tribute), and solo performances from each.

Entertainer of the Year

Jason Aldean
Kenny Chesney
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton
Taylor Swift – Jonathan Pappalardo, J.R. Journey

The usual solid yet unspectacular group. Carrie Underwood fans are likely fuming at yet another snub, while everyone else will bark at the inclusion of Swift, a two-time winner and the incumbent, for her increasing lack of country credibility. But Aldean is the nominee to watch, as his recent stadium tour announcement will likely endear him to voters in the years to come.

Jonathan Pappalardo: I’ll bet on the safest choice this time around and say Taylor Swift is going to win. Chesney may have had the biggest tour, and Aldean is on fire right now, but Swift has the lock on this category.

J.R. Journey: Taylor Swift now not only represents about one-fourth of the total United States GDP, she also hawks makeup, perfume, and shoes on the side. And she just had the #1 song in 12 countries. I say Swift is most likely to succeed on CMA night.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Kelly Clarkson
Miranda Lambert – Jonathan Pappalardo
Martina McBride
Taylor Swift – J.R. Journey
Carrie Underwood

Kelly Clarkson, really? She did score a #21 hit with the country version of “Mr. Know It All” so her nomination is somewhat, albeit very marginally, justified. She has yet to fully embrace a career in country music. McBride is a snoozer scoring her 14th consecutive nomination and 15th overall as her career takes a downward spiral. See, this is what happens when all the great female artists of late (Kimberly Perry, Jennifer Nettles, Shawna Thompson) are members of duos and groups.

Jonathan Pappalardo: While I’d love to see this award go to Clarkson (to tick off the industry if nothing else), she’s a pop singer who’s done a bang up job covering country songs in concert. That’s about it. Miranda Lambert, meanwhile, is the biggest star in country music right now that actually looks and sounds country. And her intuition to form the Pistol Annies proves she’s not afraid to take creative risks. Its her award to lose, and I don’t foresee that happening.

J.R. Journey: Taylor Swift is the likely winner here for pretty much the same reasons she’ll win Entertainer of the year. Miranda Lambert’s new solo music is way below her usual standards this year and I think Carrie Underwood’s dog already had its day in this category, so I don’t see voters leaning toward either of them. 

Male Vocalist of the Year

Jason Aldean
Luke Bryan
Eric Church
Blake Shelton – Jonathan Pappalardo, J.R. Journey
Keith Urban

Another somewhat standard list until you take into account Urban is here in place of red-hot Dierks Bentley. Bentley’s exclusion, which comes on the heels of three back-to-back #1 hits is shocking. Urban should be joining Brad Paisley and been made to sit this one out this year.

Jonathan Pappalardo:  There’s seemingly no stopping Blake Shelton right now despite one mediocre single after another. He’s the biggest star here next to Jason Aldean and the all around better vocalist. He’ll sail to his third straight win no problem.

J.R. Journey: Blake Shelton is coming off two consecutive wins here and his visibility remains higher than Aldean’s, the next closest competitor. Long shots for the win Luke Bryan and Eric Church are still newcomers and first time nominees leaving Keith Urban the longest shot “veteran” slot. For my money, Shelton will repeat a third time here.

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Random playlist 5

Here are five songs I’ve been playing a lot recently…

Elizabeth Cook – “Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman” … I’ve been re-watching my Weeds DVDs in anticipation of season eight’s premiere (it’s this Sunday!) and thanks to the show’s excellent taste in and use of popular music, I was reminded of the sorta-title track to Cook’s 2007 Rodney Crowell-produced album. This bit of raucous ear candy is bitingly funny in its flippant take on the old gender double standards.  Even if it’s not your style, it’s worth a spin if only to hear the lady sing the word “honey”. It’s great.

Waylon Jennings – “You Asked Me To” … I’ve been adding to my limited Waylon Jennings collection lately. After I got a copy of Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroes set, it was this top 10 hit I kept spinning. It’s a straightforward confessional from a man devoted to the woman he loves and his lack of regard for much else. Because it’s Waylon, it comes with a powerful bass line and plenty of the singer’s strong-jaw personality . Co-writer Billy Joe Shaver later recorded it with Willie Nelson and Elvis even took a shot at it, but Waylon owns this one outright.

Carrie Underwood – “Wine After Whiskey” … I hope the Carrie Underwood camp releases this to radio at some point. It has all the elements of my favorite classic country music: a tale of lost love told with an alcohol metaphor. Underwood turns in an unusually understated performance on this track she co-wrote with Dave Berg (of current Rodney Atkins’ hits fame) and heavy hitter Tom Shapiro, and the steel guitar flourishes almost make up for the lack of fiddles.

Dwight Yoakam – “Intentional Heartache” … Woman scorned, gets pissed, takes revenge. Not so much an original concept. But one should never underestimate Dwight Yoakam’s ability to make a retro theme sound like the first time you heard it. Could be because in this snide tale of said scorned woman motoring to North Carolina to return her man’s prized possessions – “boots, Bud cap, and signed Dale Jr. poster” (but not before spraypainting them and his Monte Carlo neon green) – Yoakam sounds positively delighted to not be on the receiving end this time. That’s my theory.  And a blistering bluegrass meets rockabilly band jams while it all happens.

Reba & Kelly Clarkson – “Up to the Mountain (Live in Dayton, Ohio)” … I was at this show, but I didn’t capture this video. On their 2 Worlds, 2 Voices Tour, the two spent the entire evening turning their respective hits into duets. The result was a vocal showdown of shouting and warbling for the most part. But they kept their showboating to a minimum on this verse-trading number (and a few others) and with a simple piano backdrop turn in a definitive performance of my favorite Patty Griffin song.

What’s your current fancy on your chosen listening device?

ACM Award predictions

The Academy of Country Music is announcing its annual awards live on TV on Sunday. Here are our predictions and hopes for the ceremony:

Entertainer of the Year

Jason Aldean
Kenny Chesney
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton
Taylor Swift

Jonathan: First off, let the Carrie Underwood backlash begin. And end. I agree with the fans who love her, but she didn’t make enough of a splash in 2011 to be considered here. At least you need to release a solo single. I agree with this list as it features most of the big players in country music right now. I would’ve included Zac Brown Band here as musicianship should win out over star power. But I can’t say any of these artists don’t deserve it from a numbers perspective.
Will Win: Taylor Swift – it’s still a fan voted award and she has the largest fan base for these kinds of contests.
Should Win: Blake Shelton – not because of his radio hits but because he’s the only one here to ascend to the next level in 2011. He makes country music look cool on The Voice, too. He may not have a strong catalog of singles but we could do far worse in Hollywood’s ideal of country music.

OH: I think I would also lean to Blake Shelton here. Chesney, Aldean and Swift have all had bigger tours and more impressive sales, but Blake has been representing country music to a mass audience thanks to his TV exposure. However, this being a fan-voted category, I think Taylor Swift will be Sunday’s winner, with only the fast-rising rocker Jason Aldean likely to challenge.

Razor X: Taylor Swift has this one in the bag, as it’s fan voted again this year.

Note: Voting is still open for anyone who wants to make their contribution. Read more of this post

2012 Grammy predictions

The Grammy awards are probably the world’s most prestigious cross-genre awards in the word of music, although within country music the CMA and ACM awards hold greater weight. The significance of the Grammies has been further affected this year with the contraction in the number of categories of interest to country fans. But awards shows offer a way of taking stock once every few months regarding the genre as a whole, particularly the more mainstream end. In a few days, we’ll learn who has won this year’s awards. In the meantime, here are our predictions:

Best Country Solo Performance

This new category combines the former nods to performances by male and female vocalists.

‘Dirt Road Anthem’ – Jason Aldean
‘I’m Gonna Love You Through It’ – Martina McBride
‘Honey Bee’ – Blake Shelton
‘Mean’ – Taylor Swift
‘Mama’s Song’ – Carrie Underwood

Razor X: I can’t remember the last time I came across a more underwhelming list of nominees. “Honey Bee” is the only one on the list that I can tolerate, but it doesn’t seem like the sort of song that usually wins Grammys. I think Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood are the two real contenders here; I’ll predict that Underwood will win.

Occasional Hope: A remarkably uninspiring lineup in this category. I suppose by default my vote (if I had one) would have gone to Blake Shelton. Carrie Underwood’s song is well-meaning but bland; Martina McBride’s is the epitome of emotional manipulation; Jason Aldean’s record is horrible; and Taylor Swift’s song has nice production for once, but the lyric collapses into juvenile namecalling (and I’m afraid I’m still unimpressed by her vocal ability). That leaves Blake Shelton with a slight but not unlistenable song, making it my lukewarm favorite by default. Who will actually win it? The Grammy voting pool is a bit different from the specialist country awards shows, so I’m going to predict Taylor Swift as although Aldean has had a big breakthrough over the past couple of years, I think his lack of cross-genre name recognition will limit his appeal to voters. He, Swift and Blake Shelton all have performance slots on the show (Blake as part of a Glen Campbell tribute and Jason Aldean revisitng his duet with Kelly Clarkson), which could be an indication that the battle is between these three.

Jonathan Pappalardo: It seems as though the Grammy organization can’t win. If they go by artistic merits they’re deemed out of touch with reality. If they go with what’s popular, they’re deemed too mainstream. For my tastes these nominees are awful. There isn’t a song here I can get excited about, apart from Taylor Swift’s “Mean.” If she has to win an award this year, let it be this one.

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2011 CMA Awards Recap

Now that the annual train wreck known as the CMA Awards Show has again come and gone, it’s time to take a look back and see how well the MKOC writers did with our predictions. The results are pretty evenly split this year, with Jonathan Pappalardo and Occasional Hope correctly predicting the winner in six categories, while J.R. Journey and I each guessed the winner five times.

Entertainer of the YearTaylor Swift

Perhaps in denial that such a travesty could happen more than once, none of us chose Taylor Swift as the winner in this category. All of us were rather confident that the trophy would go home with Blake Shelton.

Male VocalistBlake Shelton

Jonathan, Occasional Hope, and I all accurately predicted the winner in this category, while J.R. thought that the honor would go to Jason Aldean.

Female VocalistMiranda Lambert

This one was pretty much a no-brainer that all of us accurately predicted.

New ArtistThe Band Perry

Both J.R. and Occasional Hope called this one correctly, while Jonathan chose Luke Bryan and I predicted that the award would go to Chris Young (wishful thinking on my part).

Vocal Group Lady Antebellum

Jonathan and I got this one right, while Occasional Hope went with the Zac Brown Band and J.R. predicted that The Band Perry would be the victors in this category.

Duo of the YearSugarland

There wasn’t any real competition in this category; consequently we all accurately called this one for Sugarland.

Single of the Year“If I Die Young” – The Band Perry

Both JR. and Occasional Hope got this one right. I thought that the award would go to “Colder Weather” by the Zac Brown Band and Jonathan felt it would go to Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson for “Don’t You Wanna Stay.”

Song of the Year“If I Die Young” – The Band Perry

I was the only one who got this one wrong, thinking (hoping) that it would go to the Zac Brown Band’s “Colder Weather”.

Album of the YearMy Kinda Party – Jason Aldean

I predicted that this award would go to Taylor Swift for Speak Now. While I’m not sorry to have been wrong, it is small consolation that it actually went to Jason Aldean as Jonathan alone accurately predicted. Both J.R. and Occasional Hope had thought that Brad Paisley would win for This Is Country Music.

Musical Event of the Year“Don’t You Wanna Stay” – Jason Aldean & Kelly Clarkson

I was the only one who got this one right. Everyone else went with “As She’s Walking Away” by the Zac Brown Band and Alan Jackson. I take no pleasure in being right on this one.

Music Video“You and Tequila” – Kenny Chesney with Grace Potter

Only Jonathan and Occasional Hope made predictions in this category, and neither was correct. Jonathan chose “Mean” by Taylor Swift while Occasional Hope went with “Old Alabama” by Brad Paisley and Alabama.

Musician of the YearMac McAnally, guitar

Occasional Hope and I were the only ones who participated in this category. Both of us thought that Dann Huff would win.

To say that I am disappointed in any of the results would imply that I had any reasonable expectations that I would be happy with any of the outcomes. I don’t feel that any of the awards, with the exception of the Male and Female Vocalist trophies, went to the most deserving winner. The program lived up to my low expectations, but all the same it is still somewhat discouraging that this bunch seems to be the best Nashville has to offer these days.

2011 CMA award predictions

The Country Music Association annual awards ceremony will take place on November 9th, 2011, presented by the pairing of Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, who have become something of a fixture in that role in the past few years. Last year Brad also triumphed by winning the Entertainer of the Year title for the first time. The show will feature performances from many of the nominees, plus American Idol Scotty McCreery and pop star Lionel Richie, who has been recording duets with country stars for release next spring.

Here are our thoughts about who will walk away smiling next Wednesday night, category by category:

Entertainer of the Year

Jason Aldean
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton: Jonathan Pappalardo, Occasional Hope, Razor X, J.R. Journey
Taylor Swift
Keith Urban

Occasional Hope: I feel this is a genuinely open category this year. Brad Paisley is the reigning Entertainer, having finally won the long overdue title last year, and is clearly popular with voters. However, I think he has passed his peak both commercially and (more importantly) artistically, with relatively disappointing sales figures for recent albums, although he continues to do well at radio with a #2 and two #1 hits over the period. He is also one of the top earners in country music, alongside Taylor Swift. Teen favorite Swift won the title controversially in 2009, then was largely ignored last year, and is back again with a brace of nominations. She undoubtedly has the biggest international and pop profile of all the nominees, as well as the biggest sales, with over three million copies sold so far of Speak Now in the U.S. and platinum or multi-platinum status in a number of other countries, some (like the Philippines) with little exposure to country music. She has also toured successfully overseas this year. Of course, that makes her an international pop star as much or more than a country star who has gotten lucky with pop airplay; how far should that sway the CMA?

I have a sneaking suspicion that Jason Aldean could be a big winner this year overall. He’s had a good year, with one of the best-selling albums (over 1.5 million sales), and his brand of country-rock, while far heavier on the rock than the country, has carved out a niche in the market for himself. I’m not a fan myself, but he is undeniably one of the big names in country music at the moment, with two #1 and a #2 hit single from this album, and a crossover AC hit thanks to his duet with Kelly Clarkson. But my gut feeling is that it’s a bit soon to win the top award this year. Blake Shelton, despite his title as reigning Male Vocalist, is the other surprise nominee, and he could just swing it based on the impact he has had as an ambassador for the genre, with his TV role on The Voice. He has also had two #1 singles with ‘Who Are You When I’m Not Looking’ and ‘Honey Bee’, and the frankly baffling inclusion of his poorly selling EP among the Album nominees signals that the Association voters are keen to reward him.

Razor X: It’s hard for me to get very excited about any of these nominees, but Shelton seems to be on a hot streak so I think he will win. And if I have to root for one of these nominees, I’d probably go with him.

Jonathan: This is a case of the veterans versus the newcomers. Urban hasn’t won since 2005 and I don’t expect that drought to end this year. Paisley (who should win) and Swift are strong contenders, but their steady success isn’t enough to help them prevail. It comes down to Shelton versus Aldean, and in a battle between the country rocker and the TV star, Shelton walks away with his first Entertainer trophy.

J.R. Journey: I think Paisley and Urban are just slot-fillers at this point in their careers, so they’re out. Jason Aldean had a strong year and so did Taylor Swift, but neither exploded into the mainstream – Taylor’s been there for several years now – like Blake Shelton, with a major television and soundtrack push. He’s on a major upswing, and that ought to sway voters enough to give him the edge.

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Single Review: Kid Rock & Sheryl Crow – ‘Collide’

Part-time country hit makers Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow are again aiming for the country charts with what could be the direct sequel to their previous cross-genre megahit – or prequel, depending on your interpretation of the lyrics.  All the parts are here to recreate the magic of their first hit. Well, almost. Bob Seger’s piano playing’s helps moves along the lyrics of angst, loneliness, and the inevitable hook-up that comes from so much alone time, with the help of a steady back beat.

Released to radio this week, the pair’s duet was introduced to the mainstream country audience via a performance at the 2011 CMA Musis Fest. Despite its immediate fast-track, “Collide” lacks the kind of instantly endearing melody that turns your garden variety power ballad duet into something epic like “Picture” or “Don’t You Wanna Stay”. Without the agile punch of like-minded hits, this nomadic rhythm won’t be replacing any of its competing country power ballad duets as a perennial karaoke favorite, much less gain status as a radio hit.

Grade: C+

Listen here.

New singles roundup: Swift, Flatts & Bedingfield, Shelton

Taylor Swift – “Sparks Fly”   Listen.

When most of us were still clumsy, horomonal teenagers, our high school English teachers drilled Mark Twain’s old adage “write what you know” into our heads as if the statement held some great truth, and Taylor Swift has certainly given the questionably sage advice new credibility with her music. After all, who knows more about the thunder and lightning in your head as physical attraction causes an ebb and flow of emotions than a 21 year-old woman, fresh from her teens and with enough life experience to recognize it as it’s happening? “Sparks Fly” isn’t propelled by an original idea like the singer’s recent singles – dropping everything for the passion of a sweet embrace is perhaps pop and country music’s most popular go-to place right now – but will stand up with the heavier-hitters in Swift’s catalog because the songwriter’s vocabulary has evolved to speak to her target audience instinctively. She’s singng about engaging green-eyed boys and fantasies of kissing in the pouring rain, being carried up the stairs, and so on. Add to that the engaging Swiftian melody, some really clever lines – “something that’ll haunt me even when you’re not around” is a personal favorite – and the stop and start production, where the electric guitar pounds as hard as the drums, and you’ve got a ready-made chart-topper. Even with lighter fare such as this, Swift demonstrates why she’s got the corner on the country-light market right now.

Grade: B+

Rascal Flatts featuring Natasha Bedingfield – “Easy”   Listen.

Another season, another country star/pop star collaboration for the radio playlists.  This time out, it’s Rascal Flatts teaming with British dance/pop hit-maker Natasha Bedingfield.  Katrina Elam and Mike Mobley’s lyrics offer a telling glimpse into the awkwardness two ex-lovers experience trying to keep their cool in a crowd of Friday night revelers.  It’s got more substance than “Don’t You Wanna Stay”, for instance, but to their credits, Aldean and Clarkson had the horse sense to limit their showboating to a realized final crescendo.  Here, LeVox and Bedingfield do a disservice to the true-to-life lyrics with their “I’m so deep, complex, and heartbroken this is the only way I can express myself” approach to performing the song. The pounding production tricks that work to punctuate the lyrics in the chorus do nothing more than ratchet up the pretentiousness of the affair by two, as swells of screaming electric guitars and an electronic drum machine frame the vocal antics.  They seem to have been going for over-the-top schmaltz, and they’ve accomplished that, but in the end, “Easy” comes off as “Picture” with an emo-sensibility.

Grade: D+

Blake Shelton – “God Gave Me You”   Listen.

The first four lines to the CMA Male Vocalist of the Year’s latest single don’t signal a big love song is soon to come.  Those bits of self-realized honesty do serve to characterize the narrator, however, and lend an air of believability (not to mention leniency) to coming statements like “You’ll always be love’s great martyr/I’ll be the flattered fool/And I need you“.  Contemporary Christian artist Dave Barnes had a 2009 hit on the Adult and triple C charts with the song.  Shelton has injected his best matter-of-fact country boy vocal into the song, overcoming the smashing electric guitars and electric piano that lead the song.  “God Gave Me You” is a better offering from the singer than his previous four consecutive chart-topping singles, and will earn its eventual place at the top.

Grade: B