My Kind of Country

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Album Review: Faith Hill – The previously unreleased material on ‘Deep Tracks’

faith-hill-deep-tracks-cover-artWhen Faith Hill emerged after an eight-year hiatus to celebrate her twentieth wedding anniversary, announce a Soul2Soul revival tour and mentor contestants on The Voice, I figured she was banking on nostalgia to propel this new era of her career. Hill has smartly been riding on Tim McGraw’s coattails since 2006, knowing she can’t fill arenas, or Vegas casinos, to (near) capacity without him.

She also couldn’t launch a comeback with Illusion, a record Warner Bros. likely shelved after two embarrassing singles – “Come Home” and “American Heart” bombed at country radio when she desperately needed a hit to regain momentum within the industry. That was never going to happen anyways, as age and changing trends saw Carrie Underwood filling the space she once occupied.

With those statistics in mind, I was surprised when she quietly announced a new album to end the record contract she signed in 1993. But I was disheartened to learn it would exist as Deep Tracks, a project comprised of previously released album cuts the label probably wisely never saw fit to release as singles. The project is nothing more than a cash grab and an insult to Hill’s tenure with the label. I’m glad to see Hill on board, though, which is more than I can say for the umpteenth Greatest Hits projects Curb released to extend McGraw’s contract. If the marketing is to be believed, it seems she actually selected these songs herself.

Tagged onto the end of the album are three previously unreleased songs, of which I was anxious to hear. I’ve been a big fan of Hill’s since I began listening to country music in the mid-90s and always welcome anything new she chooses to give her fans. And with the infrequency of her releases, I haven’t cast Hill aside as I’ve done to Martina McBride.

The new material begins with the recently recorded “Boy,” written by Lee Brice, Rob Hatch and Lance Miller. The track is classic Hill, a love song, she freely admits reminds her of her man. While it doesn’t break any new ground, the plucky ballad deviates from her typical sonic playbook just enough to keep the feel of the song fresh.

Rob Mathes and Allen Shamblin’s “Why” follows. Hill recorded the track in 2004 for Fireflies and when it failed to make the cut, Dann Huff brought the song to Rascal Flatts, who brought it to #18 in 2009. The song explores a woman’s anguish in the wake of an unimaginable tragedy:

Oh why, that’s what I keep askin’

Was there anything I could have said or done

Oh I, had no clue you were masking a troubled soul, God only knows

What went wrong, and why you’d leave the stage in the middle of a song

 

Oh why there’s no comprehending

And who am I to try to judge or explain

Oh, but I do have one burning question

Who told you life wasn’t worth the fight

They were wrong

They lied

And now you’re gone

And we cried

‘Cause It’s not like you, to walk away in the middle of a song

The execution is extremely heavy-handed with Huff’s production and Hill’s vocal leaning far too piano-ballad pop for my tastes. The lyric itself is somewhat powerful, but it lacks the subtlety that made “Can’t Be Really Gone” and “On A Bus To St. Cloud” so magical.

In context, the final cut is arguably the saddest. Hill’s mother had long wished her daughter would record a gospel album, the only type of music she wanted to hear her sing. Such a project never came to fruition, so “Come to Jesus” is the closest Hill’s come to carrying out her mother’s wishes. Hill’s mom passed away just three weeks ago, right before the CMA Awards, but was able to hear this song in time.

Hill could obviously still make a gospel album, which could be a treat, if it sounds nothing like she does on this Mindy Smith tune. I appreciate and wholeheartedly welcome the use of fiddle throughout, but there’s just nothing delicate or interesting to hold my attention. This is not the soaring moment (think “There Will Come A Day”) I was hoping for.

With this new material Hill deserves full credit for covering her bases. “Boy” fits perfectly within her penchant for love songs while “Why” displays her knack for age-appropriate material tackling emotional subjects. “Come to Jesus” is the type of song she was teasing when gearing up for the ill-fated Illusion that supposedly nixed her country sound for ‘southern soul.’

While I didn’t find much here to be excited about (“Boy” is the best of the new stuff and worth checking out), I don’t want to suggest the ‘deep tracks’ themselves are of poor quality. If you’ve never heard her take on Lori McKenna’s stunning “If You Ask,” do yourself a favor and check it out.

I’m just upset that after twenty-three years of enormous success, Hill and her fans aren’t being treated to a more heartfelt sendoff than Deep Tracks. Everyone involved deserves so much more than this.

Grades: 

Deep Tracks: D 

Boy:’ B+ 

Why:’ C 

Come To Jesus:’ C 

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Predictions for the 50th annual ACM Awards

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

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

Check out the nominations, here.

UnknownEntertainer of the Year

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

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

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

4e35192a48a8e1409d2f92873a0dbab7Male Vocalist of the Year

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

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

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

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Week ending 8/23/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

conway and loretta1954 (Sales): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Jukebox): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1964: Dang Me — Roger Miller (Smash)

1974: As Soon As I Hang Up The Phone — Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn (MCA)

1984: Still Losing You — Ronnie Milsap (RCA)

1994: Be My Baby Tonight — John Michael Montgomery (Atlantic)

2004: Live Like You Were Dying — Tim McGraw (Curb)

2014: Burnin’ It Down — Jason Aldean (Broken Bow)

2014 (Airplay): I Don’t Dance — Lee Brice (Curb)

Single Review – Trent Tomlinson – ‘Come Back To Bed’

unnamedWith a beat slightly reminiscent of Luke Bryan’s “I Don’t Want This Night To End,” and a lyric not too far removed from the bro-country of today’s mainstream radio, Trent Tomlinson marks his return with a whimper that should be a bang.

“Come Back To Bed” says it all through its title. Tomlinson plays the part of a man desiring his woman to drop the towel around her newly showered body and return to his embrace to be covered in kisses and fawned over. Unfortunately that’s about as deep as the song gets.

But unlike most songs of its ilk, “Come Back To Bed” is nicely restrained and features zero of the 80s rock trappings that has ruined mainstream country over the past ten years and Tomlinson’s Lee Brice-like vocal is crisp and clean, not dirty and gravelly, which I greatly appreciate. He also seems invested in what he’s singing, which for a marginalized lyric like this, wins him many points.

Is “Come Back To Bed” the second coming of “One Wing In The Fire,” his excellent number from eight years ago? Of course not, and I’m not at all surprised, especially given the course of our genre in that short span of time. But it’s not an offensive song to women, nor is it rock or hip-hop in any noticeable way. I’ll take this over 99% of radio offerings any day. At least he keeps it listenable.

Grade: B

Hip Hop on Pop Country and other bad rhymes: the worst country songs of 2013

hop on popYoung bastard sub-genres like hick-hop and ‘bro country’ dominate our annual worst songs of the year list. Florida Georgia Line’s 2012-released “Cruise” makes it second appearance on our list fueled by its re-release of a remix with rapper Nelly and its record-setting year atop the new mongrel Hot Country Songs chart.  Eric Church, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and Florida Georgia Line all have double entries here, demonstrating their consistency in putting out large piles of musical bovine feces.

Here’s our pick for the ten worst mainstream songs of the year. What would your own list look like? Share in the comments.

10. “The Outsiders” – Eric Church

Heavy metal pretending to be country; loud, cluttered, tuneless and horrible, with risibly cliche’d wannabe outlaw lyrics I don’t find remotely credible, shouted (even screamed) rather than sung.  It does not inspire any positive hope for the new album it heralds.

– Occasional Hope

9. “Get Your Shine On” – Florida Georgia Line

Last year,when I heard “Cruise”, I really didn’t think these guys’ singles could get any worse. But they proved me wrong with both their 2013 releases. This is only a little worse than “Round Here” because it sounds like some parody lyric written for the Drunken Martina twitter account.

– J.R. Journey

8. “Redneck Crazy” – Tyler Farr

This tasteless muck (co-written by Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins of “Before He Cheats” fame) is another low for country music, in an era in which everyone seems to be trying to out do themselves for the lowest levels of douchedom. Count me out.

– Jonathan Pappalardo

7. “The Only Way I Know How” – Jason Aldean with Luke Bryan and Eric Church

This collaboration boasts lots of chest-thumping bravado, self-proclaimed superiority over anybody with even subtle differences to the narrators, and the whole thing is just way too loud and overbearing. The lyrics speak of humility, but everything about this mess screams “Look at me! And how much better I am than you!”.

– J.R. Journey

6. “Ready, Set, Roll” – Chace Rice

The fact that this guy co-wrote “Cruise” tells you all you need to know about him as an artist.  The single boasts rock vocals, completely generic leering lyric, no melody to speak of, tinny processed sound.  Bad and boring; at least the likes of Joanna Smith and Chris Young can sing.

– Occasional Hope

5. “Parking Lot Party” – Lee Brice

Is there a chance Lee Brice may be the only male country singer to understand the concept of balance? I could knock him for recording this awful cliché-drenched ode to tailgating, but it comes on the heels of “I Drive Your Truck,” a surprisingly substantive moment in mainstream country this year. It’s just too bad he needs to offset a steel-heavy ballad with a desperate attempt at remaining a hero to the teen and college set.

– Jonathan Pappalardo

4. “1994” – Jason Aldean

Like most of Jason Aldean’s singles of late, ‘1994’ has no narrative to speak of, no point to its existence, or any artistic credibility whatsoever. Aldean is singing about a man once nicknamed ‘Joe Ditty,’ in a song that makes “Pickup Man” and “John Deere Green” sound like the second coming of “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” When tribute songs are of a far lesser quality than the music of artist they’re honoring, is there even a point?

– Jonathan Pappalardo

It’s an insult to Joe Diffie to include references to him on this ghastly hip hop trash.

– Occasional Hope

3. “That’s My Kind of Night” – Luke Bryan

Zac Brown called it ‘one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard’.  I don’t know that I’d go that far, but it is very poor indeed, with pornographic uh-ing at the start, little melody, cliche’d lyric, jerky phrasing; even Luke sounds as though he’s on autopilot.  Sticking banjo on top is just like putting lipstick on a pig – and not Babe or Miss Piggy, a really hairy, smelly boar with swine flu.

– Occasional Hope

2. “Cruise Remix” – Florida Georgia Line feat. Nelly

The newly minted CMA Single of the Year is the worst novelty hit in decades. The rap remix is nothing more than ‘Anti-Christ’ Scott Borchetta cementing his stronghold over commercial country, and his dominance as dictator of Music Row. He’s becoming more of a problem then his artists at this point.

– Jonathan Pappalardo

 The original was bad enough; this ill-conceived rap remix unbelievably makes it even worse.

– Occasional Hope

I said a lot about this song last year, and I stand by all of it.

– J.R. Journey

1.”Boys Round Here” – Blake Shelton feat. Pistol Annies and friends

Absolutely horrible rap with awful country-pride lyrics.  An appalling waste of talent.  This sub-genre has become a parody of itself.

– Occasional Hope

Shelton is arguably the biggest star in country music right now. That he’s using his high profile to market this kind of garbage – “chew tobacco, chew tobacco, chew tobacco, spit”, you’re kidding me? – is bad enough. But when he uses his considerable influence to recruit the likes of the Pistol Annies, Reba McEntire, Ronnie Dunn, Josh Turner, and Brad Paisley into being featured on the song’s “celebrity mix” it’s just despicable.

– J.R. Journey

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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A Separation of Church and State: How the Country Music Association mostly got their nominations right this year

as13-dateIn 2006, the Country Music Association sent Faith Hill a clear message when Carrie Underwood was awarded Female Vocalist of the Year, only two singles removed from winning American Idol. They were ushering in a changing of the guard that sent ripple effects through country’s core women, making way for new talent at the helm.

Underwood has received a similar message this year with Taylor Swift being nominated for Entertainer of the Year in her place. Swift may be a bigger celebrity with a broader reach, but Underwood’s no slouch – a sold out tour, four #1 singles, ambassadorship for country music, and she’s been hosting the ceremony going on five consecutive years. Heck she just took over Sunday Night Football theme song duties.

In recent history all the top solo female artists (Reba McEntire, Shania Twain, and Faith Hill) have been nominated and won (Hill lost to Dixie Chicks in 2000) while her contemporaries Swift has won twice and Miranda Lambert received her only nod to date in 2010. That Underwood is being snubbed yet again is one of the biggest injustices in the 47-year history of the award show. Underwood and Swift should be competing in the category together – they both have rightfully earned their place in the category.

Underwood aside, it’s nice to see the Country Music Association mostly get it right this year. The major theme of the nominations is artistic quality, as evidenced by Kacey Musgraves receiving six nominations, a move I didn’t see coming. She’s been building a lot of buzz this year but with little support from country radio, I hardly gave her a chance. Her nominations prove the CMA is still looking for quality contemporary music and actually care about maintaining at least one shred of dignity. They should’ve gone further and showered Ashley Monroe with praise, too, but her outsider-looking-in status likely left her a square peg in a round hole and she was deemed too Americana for this mostly mainstream affair.

There was once a time when you could count the number of females who’ve taken home Album of the Year on one hand. That list has grown in the past few years thanks to wins by Lee Ann Womack (2005), Taylor Swift (2008) and Miranda Lambert (2010). This year Blake Shelton stands alone as the only solo male artist in the category, proving that airplay on country radio isn’t the only factor in scoring a nomination.

I believe whole heartedly that you cannot deny an artist success once they’ve achieved it, no matter how much you may dislike the singer or their song. The world may cry foul over Florida Georgia Line and “Cruise,” but they clearly earned the Single of the Year, Musical Event of the Year, Duo Of The Year, and New Artist nods. The song is a behemoth and is clearly being rewarded as such. Swift’s showering of affection is more puzzling, since the success of Red came in the pop market, but “Begin Again” and “Highway Don’t Care” did keep her relevant in her home genre this year.

Where the Country Music Association deserve the most credit is with the separation of church and state – if you notice, “Cruise” isn’t in the Song of the Year race nor is Here For The Good Times up for Album. In fact, none of the genre’s biggest names (Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, or Shelton) have a Single or Song of the year nod, something I never thought I’d see. Absence by ‘bro-country’ powerhouses leaves the likes of “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Mama’s Broken Heart” to battle it out for the win.

It’s nice to see Nashville songwriters back in the Song of The Year race, too. Even more impressive is the CMA’s distinction in excellence, seeing that the best of commercial Nashville scored big, while the laundry list lovers are left to voyage down dirt roads with beer kegs, country girls, and pickup trucks. Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally are two of the best writers around right now and combined with Musgraves, they’re killer. What other writing team can claim two nominations in the same year?

In sizing up the New Artist competition, I was about to show my denial of a mass extinction, until I looked at the Billboard Airplay Chart and noticed “Parking Lot Party” in the top 10, on it’s way to becoming Lee Brice’s fourth consecutive number one. Like fellow nominee Kip Moore, he’s becoming a force for the future, and with his single “I Drive Your Truck” up for Song of the Year (Brice doesn’t have a writing credit on it), he has a better chance of winning than I gave him credit for initially. This is a very strong category, although Musgraves is the only nominee with proven artistic potential, a necessary ingredient for longevity.

I’ll have my predictions closer to the November 9 telecast, with a breakdown per category, and thoughts on each individual race. But overall the Country Music Association deserves credit for getting more right than wrong this year, mostly opting for artistic integrity over commercial viability.

Check out all the nominations here.     

Week ending 4/20/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

Alabama-band-rca021953 (Sales): Kaw-Liga — Hank Williams (MGM)

1953 (Jukebox): Kaw-Liga — Hank Williams (MGM)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): Kaw-Liga — Hank Williams (MGM)

1963: Still — Bill Anderson (Decca)

1973: A Shoulder To Cry On — Charley Pride (RCA)

1983: Dixieland Delight — Alabama (RCA)

1993: The Heart Won’t Lie — Reba McEntire & Vince Gill (MCA)

2003: Have You Forgotten? — Darryl Worley (DreamWorks)

2013: Cruise — Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

2013 (Airplay): I Drive Your Truck — Lee Brice (Curb)

Album Review: Randy Houser – ‘How Country Feels’

how country feelsRandy Houser’s third album, while his most consistent to date, is still a very mixed bag. Derek George’s production is generally unsubtle and loud, and acceptable but uninspired on the quieter tracks. Houser’s career seemed to have hit the roadblocks, when he left Show Dog-Universal for independent label Stoney Creek. However, ‘How Country Feels’ his first single for the new label proved to be a hit, and became only his second top 10 single to date. It isn’t a very interesting song, but regrettably that seems to be what it takes for commercial success these days.

New single ‘Running Outta Moonlight’, written by Dallas Davidson, Kelly Lovelace and Ashley Gorley, is quite catchy but too loud, and while not dislikeable, rather bland lyrically with its generic picture of outdoor romance in the South. However, its very flaws make it a good bet to repeat the performance of ‘What Country Feels’. Much the same goes for the equally loud ‘Growin’ Younger’, written by Randy with Justin Weaver and Brett James, with its positive but unoriginal message about living life to the full, and I could see this as a successful single later this year.

The nadir of the album is reached with ‘Absolutely Nothing’, a half-spoken, largely tuneless, incredibly bland and completely pointless song about doing nothing. It’s the kind of thing that was probably fun at an uninspired writing session, but has no interest for anyone else (the guilty parties are Lee Brice, Joe Leathers and Vicky McGehee). Luckily, it is the only track (of 15) which has absolutely no merit.

There is a handful of genuinely outstanding songs which make this project worthwhile (or are at least worth downloading separately). Perhaps the best of all is ‘The Singer’, written by Trent Willmon and Drew Smith. It is a tender portrait of the (ex?) wife of a successful but troubled musician:

She loved the singer
She just couldn’t live the song

Almost as good is Randy’s own ‘Power Of A Song’, written with Kent Blazy and Cory Batten. This gentle but powerful ballad sounds as though it was inspired by ‘Three Chords and the Truth’, telling the story first of a man planning on leaving his wife and kids and turned around by hearing a song on the radio:

That’s the miracle of music
Loves’s the only thing as strong

The second verse is a contrasting, and even more powerful, story of a woman who never thought she would have the courage to leave a violent relationship – and this time the song gives her the strength not to turn round, 40 miles out. Oddly, this great song has a copyright date of 2004, but somehow has never been cut before. I’m garteful Randy revived it for this album.

The third great song is ‘Along For The Ride’, a pensive philosophical number with gospel-style paino and a bluesy feel to the vocals which Randy wrote with Zac Brown and Levi Lowrey. The last standout is the closer, ‘Route 3 Box 250D’, even though it is a co-write about rural life with Rhett Akins and Dallas Davidson. What makes it work is that it is an emotionally invested, detailed story about a specific family situation which feels very real, which does not shy away from the dark side. The story of growing up in a trailer in Mississippi with a violent stepfather with the only refuge fishing on a neighbour’s pond until the child’s prayers are answered when rescue comes from an uncle is deeply moving, as the protagonist reflects,

That’s where I became a man
Long before my time

The lyrics note bleakly, “Hollywood don’t make no movies” about the kind of life he led, but actually there is the kernel of a film, or perhaps a novel, in this song.

I liked ‘Shine’, written by Neil Thrasher, Trent Summar, Wendell Mobley. Set to an engaging banjo-led arrangement (but still a bit too loud), it tells the story of a rural moonshiner giving some hope to the residents of a town badly affected by the economic downturn of the past few years.

‘Top Of The World’, written by Jason Sellers, Rob Hatch, Lance Miller and Vicky McGehee, is a pretty good mid-tempo love song with a catchy tune, and I also quite liked ‘Goodnight Kiss’, written by Hatch and Sellers with Randy. ‘Wherever Love Goes’ is a pleasant contemporary country duet with labelmate Kristy Lee Cook, written by Sellers with Neil Thrasher and Paul Jenkins.

‘Like A Cowboy’ and ‘Let’s Not Let It’ are decent songs both co written by Randy, hampered by heavy handed production. ‘Sunshine On The Line’, written with Dallas Davidson, has a fairly generic lyric about good times with a pretty girl in the summer, but is saved by the energetic Southern rock performance.

This is an uneven record, which always makes giving a grade somewhat notional. The best songs deserve A status, and I recommend cherrypicking those to download. I suspect these are the ones that won’t get played on radio, but it is good to see that artists with one eye on the charts are stil able to include songs of substance on their albums.

Grade: B

EP Reviews: ‘Hillbilly Bone’ and ‘All About Tonight’

hillbilly bone2010 saw a departure in Blake’s career, as his label used him as the guinea pig to pioneer their new SixPak idea – EPs with six tracks. It was originally intended that Blake should release three over an 18 month period, but in the event there were just two. Unexpectedly, it was to mark a watershed in Blake’s carer, catapulting him to the very top. None of his singles since 2010 has peaked lower than #1. Generally loud and unsubtle production from Scott Hendricks proved to be exactly tailored for country radio success.

Hillbilly Bone, the first of the two SixPaks, had just one single, the chart topping title track. The duet with Trace Adkins is in many ways annoying with cliche’d lyrics but there is a good humor and charm in the delivery which makes it hard to hate as much as it deserves. It was a genuine smash, selling over half a million downloads, and won Blake CMA and ACM awards for Vocal Event of the Year as well as the coveted CMA Male Vocalist of the Year, the first major awards of his career.

‘Kiss My Country Ass’ is unredeemed crap with no mitigating factors, the epitome of the country pride song with an aggressive edge. A cover of a poorly performing Rhett Akins single written by Akins with regular partner in crime Dallas Davidson and Jon Stone), it is predictably dreadful.

‘You’ll Always Be Beautiful’ is an AC-leaning and sincerely sung romantic ballad about love for a woman even she doesn’t think she’s pretty. It was written by Lee Brice and Jerrod Niemann.

‘Can’t Afford To Love You’ is another Rhett Akins song about a working class guy in love with a high maintenance glamorous girl, which is an undistinguished but okay song buried under too much loud production.

The best track by far on this EP (and the only worthwhile download), Blake’s own song ‘Delilah’ is a rather sensitive song declaring love for a troubled woman who has been unlucky in love elsewhere; the girl’s name, incidentally, was taken from fiancee Miranda Lambert’s dog.

You can’t blame no one but you Delilah
For what you find when you never ever look around
Reach out for the one right here beside ya
And find the one that’s never gonna let you down

Clint Lagerberg and Craig Wiseman’s ‘Almost Alright’ is a well-written song about slowly getting over a relationship, spoiled by the inclusion of Caribbean steel drums which sound tinny.

all about tonightThe title track and lead single from Blake’s second SixPak, ‘All About Tonight’ is a party song written by the Peach Pickers, which, although it’s one of their better efforts, tells you all you need to know. The live ‘Got A Little Country’ which closes proceedings is just as bad and long much the same lines.

‘Who Are You When I’m Not Looking’, the second single, is much, much better, a rather charming love song written by Earl “Bud” Lee and John Wiggins, which had previously been recorded by Joe Nichols. It was another #1 hit for Blake.

‘Draggin’ The River’, written by Jim Beavers and Chris Stapleton, is a playfully performed duet with Miranda Lambert about a Southern rural romance opposed by the girl’s father, which is quite entertaining; the young lovers decide to fake their deaths while they elope. Miranda wrote ‘Suffocating’ with Lady A’s Hillary Scott (who also contributes harmonies), a ballad with rather a bland melody which does not effectively bring the downbeat lyric to life. Uninspired production doesn’t help. ‘That Thing We Do’, written by Jeff Bates and Jason Matthews, is okay but forgettable mid-tempo filler.

A bonus cover of the Dan Seals hit ‘Addicted’ was included for iTunes pre-orders; that track was later included as a bonus on Red River Blue and can be downloaded separately. It’s a shame this didn’t make the main setlist, as it’s a fine version which allows Blake’s incisive voice and sympathetic delivery to shine, and is one of his best recordings, although a stripped down production without the full orchestration which swamps the second half of the song would have made it better still.

Grade: Hillbilly Bone: D; All About Tonight C

Week ending 11/17/12: #1 singles this week in country music history

1952: Jambalaya (On The Bayou) — Hank Williams (MGM)

1962: Mama Sang a Song — Bill Anderson (Decca)

1972: My Man — Tammy Wynette (Epic)

1982: Heartbroke — Ricky Skaggs (Epic)

1992: No One Else on Earth — Wynonna (MCA/Curb)

2002: Somebody Like You — Keith Urban (Capitol)

2012: We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together — Taylor Swift (Big Machine)

2012 (Airplay): Hard To Love — Lee Brice (Curb)

Week ending 11/10/12: #1 singles this week in country music history

1952: Jambalaya (On The Bayou) — Hank Williams (MGM)

1962: I’ve Been Everywhere — Hank Snow (RCA)

1972: It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad) — Merle Haggard (Capitol)

1982: You’re So Good When You’re Bad — Charley Pride (RCA)

1992: No One Else on Earth — Wynonna (MCA/Curb)

2002: Somebody Like You — Keith Urban (Capitol)

2012: We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together — Taylor Swift (Big Machine)

2012 (Airplay): Hard To Love — Lee Brice (Curb)

Week ending 11/3/12: #1 singles this week in country music history

1952: Jambalaya (On The Bayou) — Hank Williams (MGM)

1962: Mama Sang a Song — Bill Anderson (Decca)

1972: Funny Face — Donna Fargo (Dot)

1982: Close Enough To Perfect — Alabama (RCA)

1992: No One Else on Earth — Wynonna (MCA/Curb)

2002: Somebody Like You — Keith Urban (Capitol)

2012: We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together — Taylor Swift (Big Machine)

2012 (Airplay): Hard To Love — Lee Brice (Curb)

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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Week ending 4/21/12: #1 singles this week in country music history

1952: (When You Feel Like You’re In Love) Don’t Just Stand There — Carl Smith (Columbia)

1962: She’s Got You — Patsy Cline (Decca)

1972: My Hang-up Is You — Freddie Hart (Capitol)

1982: The Clown — Conway Twitty (Elektra)

1992: There Ain’t Nothin’ Wrong With The Radio — Aaron Tippin (RCA)

2002: My List — Toby Keith (DreamWorks Nashville)

2012: A Woman Like You — Lee Brice (Curb)

Album Review: Craig Campbell – ‘Craig Campbell’

Craig Campbell is a relatively new artist on the successful independent label Bigger Picture, helmed by famed producer Keith Stegall. He has a single rising up the country charts, but had managed to fly under my radar until a week or so ago, when C M Wilcox pointed out Craig’s song ‘You Probably Ain’t in a recent edition of Quotable Country over at Country California, his witty weekly take on the more notable or bizarre comments made relating to country music. That song appears on Craig’s self-titled debut album, which has just been released.

A lot of country fans seem to be getting tired of the seemingly unending assembly line of songs telling us how very country the singer is, often set to a notably un-country melody or production. Country radio, however, A lot of country fans seem to be getting tired of the seemingly unending assembly line of songs telling us how very country the singer is, often set to a notably un-country melody or production. Country radio is as keen on such fare as ever, but it looks as if Craig Campbell, Keith Stegall, and Michael White. writers of this song, share our frustration:

You can talk to me about tractors
Cowboy boots and pickup trucks
Old canepoles and dirt roads
And spit and skoal and a dixie cup
You can tell me (all a)bout your grandpa
And how he turned you on to Hank
If you gotta tell me how country you are
You probably ain’t

But if this initially seems to be a well-deserved sharp and well deserved little jab at the popular “I’m country” songs, in some ways, it is what it appears to disparage, when the old man in the bar who has voiced the comment adds:

He said, country is a way of life that’s almost gone
It’s about being honest and working hard
Looking someone in the eye and
Being who you say you are

I’m afraid I’m not convinced that everyone in rural areas is (or used to be) honest and hardworking, so although I still like the complete song, and love the chorus, it doesn’t really hold up lyrically for me as a whole. On the positive side, Craig has a fine voice, and at least this is a well written and genuinely country song.

And if Craig is critical of those posturing about country lifestyles, he does not eschew the subject himself. The likeable ‘Chillaxin’’ is not very ambitious, but has an attractive tune, and a lovely and appropriately relaxed feel, which could make it a summer hit. The next single, however, is reportedly, the rather dull ‘Fish’, which is rather like one of Brad Paisley’s lesser songs, trying to be amusing but falling short, and not even successful at the double entendre it tries for. Carson Chamberlain and Tim Nichols helped Craig write ‘That’s Music To Me’, with nods to Keith Whitley and Merle Haggard as well as the usual litany of high school football, family life, church on Sunday mornings and the Georgia scenery. It’s quite a good example of its kind, with another pleasing melody, and Craig sells the genuineness of the emotion underlying it, but it’s hardly groundbreaking lyrically:

Soaked in the whiskey and washed in the blood
That’s who I am and what I love
A hoe down fiddle, a little off key
An old hound dog howling
That’s music to me

The very perky ‘Makes You Wanna Sing’ (written by Craig with Rob Hatch and Lance Miller) glorifies the simple pleasures in life (and yes, rural ones), and the humming on the chorus gets irritating with repeat listens.

Others will have been introduced to Craig by way of his charming current single ‘Family Man’. This paints a realistic picture of a hard-pressed married man desperate to keep his temporary factory job to support his wife and kids, and is filled with genuine warmth and sincerity as he relates the various responsibilities of a father and shows how important his kids are to him. ‘My Little Cowboy’ (about striving to live up to his father’s belief in him, first as a child and then as struggling musician trying to support a wife and child of his own) is a little more heavy handed lyrically and offers a heavier vibe musically, which is less suited to Craig’s voice.

Trying to make ends meet in hard times also inspires the cheerful and very catchy mid-tempo response to a debt collector, ‘When I Get It’, which he wrote with Jason Matthews and Jim McCormick, although I found the na-na-nas in the chorus annoying.

One of the highlights is the interesting and nicely paced ‘I Bought It’, written by Craig with Philip Douglas and Dan Murphy. It starts out sweetly with a young couple just starting out in life together, with him buying a ring, the the mood sours with her infidelity and lies (which he also buys), and finally there is a little twist in the tale when he lies to her that he is willing to take her back.

Craig and/or his writing partners have a good ear for melody which is more consistent that their lyric writing, which is occasionally a little cliche’d. He co-wrote most of the songs, with only a couple from outside writers, one of which is provided by his producer. Keith Stegall wrote the seductive fiddle-led ‘All Night To Get There’ with Craig’s friend Lee Brice and Vicky McGehee. The only completely outside song is ‘That Going Away Look (About Her)’, written by Carson Chamberlain, Wade Kirby and Michael White, a well-written third-person account of a couple on the brink of separation, with a lovely mellow sound, which sounds like an outtake from Chamberlain’s protégé Easton Corbin.

Keith Stegall produces with his usual reliable light touch, offering sympathetic support for the young Georgia-born singer, whose voice is the real star here. His warm vocals with a lovely smooth tone are a delight to listen to, even on the less stellar material – rather like the aforementioned Corbin. Overall it’s a very likeable project and one showing great promise for the future. I certainly hope his career goes well and we hear more from him.

I am, incidentally, less than impressed by the packaging of the physical product. The CD liner notes are unfortunately almost entirely illegible thanks to being squeezed into a minuscule space to make room for a lot of pictures.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Southern Voice’

Southern VoiceTim McGraw has never impressed me as one of the great country voices, but where he frequently has impressed me is in his choice of interesting material, the kind of songs which are worth hearing in anyone’s hands. His tenth studio album is produced by the same production team of McGraw, Byron Gallimore and Darran Smith (the lead guitarist in Tim’s band the Dancehall Doctors) as Tim’s last three, with backing from the Dancehall Doctors on all but one track, occasionally augmented by additional musicians or string sections. The sound is definitely quite rock-influenced, and a long way from traditional country, but the production is a good deal more restrained than on much of what is emerging from Nashville at the moment. Overall, there isn’t much variation in tempo or melody, but the material is mostly interesting and adult. There isn’t much to appeal to the children and emotional adolescents at whom current radio playlists seem aimed, and this is a good thing. I don’t like everything here, but it is a serious attempt at making an artistically satisfying album.

It gets off to a discouraging start. Opening track ‘Still’, written by fellow-Curb artist Lee Brice with Kyle Jacobs and Joe Leathers, is a very well-written song with a nice reflective feel and effective restrained vocals in the verses about seeking refuge from the stresses of the world in memory and imagination, and finally in church, but the chorus is musically rather pop-sounding, with strings and detectable vocal processing in places. The next track, ‘Ghost Town Train (She’s Gone)’, a heavily allusive song written by Troy Olsen and Marv Green about a woman leaving, is a bit dull and emotionally unconvincing with a lot of soulless “oh nos” despite some nice fiddle lines from Dean Brown.

Things really start to pick up with ‘Good Girls’, the first of the well-chosen story songs which dominate the song selection. The downbeat melancholy tale of a woman’s murderous response to her husband cheating with her best friend was written by the Warren Brothers with Aimee Mayo and Chris Lindsey, and is well played out although I don’t much like the tune on the chorus.

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