My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Miranda Lambert

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Southern Family’

southern familyMixed artist compilations can often be hit and miss. This concept album based on life in the American South, produced by Dave Cobb, is no exception. The concept itself hangs together a little vaguely, and the artists come from country and Americana with a side of (white) soul and rock. However, if it is intended to represent the South as a whole, it is rather lacking in the ethnic diversity of participants.

Jason Isbell is normally more Americana than country, but ‘God Is A Working Man’ is definitely a country song, and an excellent one to boot. The lyric pays tribute to a working class family with lots of colourful details about a Pentecostal preacher and his son. The melody and rustic vibe remind me of ‘Grandpa Was A Carpenter’, as recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and John Prine on Will the Circle Be Unbroken Part II. I like it better than any of Isbell’s past recordings.

Brent Cobb is producer Dave’s cousin (actually, first cousin twice removed). His track, ‘Down Home’, is quite pleasant without being very memorable. I also quite enjoyed Holly Williams’ ‘Settle Down’, about starting a new family.

I tend to prefer Miranda Lambert when she isn’t rocking it up, so I enjoyed her song, ‘Sweet By And By’ – not the gospel classic but a reflective depiction of rural life and family philosophy which sounds as though it was written for the prompt of the album concept. The old fashioned folky lyric and vocal are charming, although a more stripped down arrangement would have been even better.

‘Learning’, by Miranda’s new boyfriend, Anderson East, an Americana/R&B artist based in Nashville, is not my style of music, but is pretty good of its kind. Shooter Jennings’ ‘Can You Come Over’ is in similar vein, but more listenable. Rich Robinson of the rock band the Black Crowes offers a loud and boring number.

John Paul White’s former duo the Civil Wars were much admired by many critics, but they were never quite my thing, and I’m afraid I strongly disliked White’s whispery tune here, ‘Simple Song’.

Not all the songs here are new. Zac Brown (who appears to have lost the plot on his last album) is back on form here with a nice cover of Skip Ewing’s ‘Grandma’s Garden’. Lee Ann Womack adds a sweet harmony. Jamey Johnson wrote the tender ‘Mama’s Table’ for the Oak Ridge Boys a few years ago, and revives it here himself. The song remembers childhood happiness. Brandy Clark has recorded the affecting ‘I Cried’, about a family funeral, before, but it fits neatly in the theme for this collection, and she sings it beautifully.

Morgane Stapleton, wife of Chris, once had her own record deal, although nothing was ever released. She has a very pretty voice in the vein of Lee Ann Womack or Dolly Parton, so I was disappointed that her contribution (backed by Chris) was not really to my taste. It is a dramatically slowed down blues/rock take on the oldie ‘You Are My Sunshine’ which sounds suicidally depressed.

This is a bit too varied for me as a whole, but there are several worthwhile tracks.

Grade: B

Album Review: Buddy Miller – ‘Cruel Moon’

1999’s Cruel Moon was another excellent slice of Americana cruel moonflavored country (or possibly country-flavored Americana) from Buddy Miller. Brilliant musicianship, high quality songwriting, instinctively tasteful production and vocals which while not the smoothest are strongly emotional and sell the songs: what more could one ask for?

The outstanding ‘Does My Ring Burn Your Finger’ (written by Buddy with wife Julie) is a modern classic, also having been recorded by Lee Ann Womack and others including soul singer Solomon Burke on his Miller-produced Nashville set. The lyric calls to mind the Charley Price 1960s classic ‘Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger’, but the newer song is fiercer and edgier as he accusingly questions a restless spouse,

Does my ring burn your finger?
Did my love weigh you down?
Was a promise too much to keep around?

Julie was Buddy’s most frequent co-writer on this album, also co-ring the graceful, melodic waltz which lends the album its title. Emmylou Harris (for whom Buddy had been playing lead guitar) provides her distinctive harmony on this gorgeous pure country tune. They also wrote the sad but pretty-sounding ‘In Memory Of My Heart’, a wistful ballad on which Julie sings the harmony. ‘I’m Too Used To Lovin’ You’ is another very good song written by the couple.

The writing partnership was joined by Jim Lauderdale for a couple of songs. ‘Looking For A Heartache Like You’ is rhythmically catchy and upbeat, and was later recorded by Patty Loveless. In contrast, ‘Sometimes I Cry’ is imbued with a raw pain.

Buddy did not rely solely on his own songs for this album. The energetic and catchy ‘Love Match’ was written by Paul Kennerley; this uses boxing as a metaphor for falling in love and features a martial beat and guest vocals from Steve Earle, another of his former employers. While that song is archetypical Steve Earle in its sound, Buddy also chooses to cover one of Earle’s finest ballads, ‘I’m Not Getting Any Better At Goodbye’. Mark Chesnutt’s cut is still my favourite version of that song, but Buddy’s vulnerable take is excellent too, backed by a sparse arrangement.

‘I’m Gonna Be Strong’ is a classy 60s pop ballad with a soothing melody, which was most successful for Gene Pitney. While Buddy isn’t a conventionally great vocalist, he invests this song with strong emotions, backed by the harmony vocals of Joy Lynn White. Buddy turns to bluesy gospel with Pop Staples’ ‘It’s Been A Change’. Julie Miller’s ‘Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go’ (later covered by Miranda Lambert) is an up-tempo relentless rock-edged number with a reverb-heavy production, which is very well done of its kind but not one of my favorites.

This is an excellent album which I strongly recommend.

Grade: A+

Song Review: Miranda Lambert – ‘Bathroom Sink’

Miranda_Lambert_1

Miranda Lambert performs ‘Bathroom Sink’ at the 49th Annual CMA Awards, November 4, 2015.

Miranda Lambert is at her best when there’s actual intent behind her tough chick image. When she has a purpose, a la ‘Gunpowder & Lead,’ the message truly has meaning. When she’s aggressive just to be aggressive, dreck like ‘Fastest Girl In Town’ sees the completely undeserving light of day.

‘Bathroom Sink’ finds Lambert in the former category, venting her frustrations in a way she hasn’t done in more than nine years. The song is a searing meditation of self-doubt brutally eschewing women’s obsession with beauty and the wasted time they spend primping while getting ready. The makeup is only a cover up, a band-aid for “putting off the hard stuff.”

Lambert, who wrote the song solely from her own pen, finds her brilliance in her fully formed first person mature adult narrative. Unlike her recent co-writing efforts, there’s honesty to the lyric that forces you to believe her. When she references fighting with her mamma, or opens up about the rejection in her mirrored reflection, you feel her frustration and pain. She’s channeling something real, not just coming up with empty verses that play to current trends.

I’ve been known to blast Lambert for unforgivable lapses in judgment regarding production techniques, but the track’s hard rock edge is the driving force that glues the song’s pieces into place. “Bathroom Sink” is in no way a soft song and the arrangement exists solely to echo that sentiment. Plus, no matter what you may hear, this is a country song.

I only wish Lambert and RCA Nashville would have the good fortune to release this to radio, accompanied by the biting video treatment the song deserves. ‘Bathroom Sink’ is what happens when Lambert goes off script and puts effort into her craft.

She’s an authentic artist underneath her mainstream sheen and it’s about damn time she reverts back to that side of her artistic personality. Maybe her budding relationship with Anderson East will get her creative juices stirring again. We need and deserve more Lambert songs like this one.

Grade: A+

Predictions for the 49th Annual CMA Awards

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

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

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

ec_0184crop_300cmyk_webEntertainer of the Year

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

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

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

Male Vocalist of the Year

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

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

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

Female Vocalist of the Year

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

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

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

littlebigtown30-1423681046Vocal Group of the Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Artist of the Year

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

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

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

815sIYbfiAL._SL1500_Album of the Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Musical Event of the Year

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

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

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

Music Video of the Year

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

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

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

1885141596Musician Event of the Year

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

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

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

Album Review: Don Henley – ‘Cass County’

cass countyI was more than prepared to dislike this album. I haven’t liked Henley’s previous solo endeavors, nor the efforts of his band mates such as Glenn Frey, and I never liked Henley’s band the Eagles. Nevertheless, the song titles on the album intrigued me so I agreed to review the album.

Over the years many outsiders have attempted to enter the country music genre in an effort to revitalize flagging careers. There have been some outsiders who proved to have bona fide country credential, most notably Carl Perkins, Conway Twitty, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chris Hillman and Vince Gill.

Most, however are imposters peddling a brand of faux country (Jessica Simpson and Bret Michaels come to mind. Imagine my surprise, when I listened to this album and found that I enjoyed it as much as the new George Strait and Clint Black albums. While I wouldn’t describe this as 100% country, I would call it 100% very good!

Yes, Henley has brought in a bunch of country superstars to assist him in this endeavor, but they really were not needed, not that I don’t appreciated the talents of Miranda Lambert , Merle Haggard, Martina McBride, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill and Allison Krauss.

Cass County opens up with Tift Merritt’s “Bramble Rose,” with Miranda Lambert and Mick Jagger joining Henley. While I don’t think Jagger adds anything positive to the mix, neither does he destroy it.

Next up is a Henley composition “Cost of Living”. Henley collaborates with the legendary Merle Haggard, a somber ballad about the price of living and the challenges of growing older. I really don’t know much about Henley but Haggard surely knows these lessons as well as anyone, and maybe more so.

“Take A Picture Of This” is an odd song about a couple looking back on the past. The twist on the song is that that by the song’s end the man realizes that he doesn’t really know his wife anymore and decides to leave her.

“Waiting Tables” tells the tale of a young girl who grew up in a timber town, got married too young and wound ended up a single mother at 23 years old. Now she’s stuck waiting tables and hoping for a new love that will be more than a one night stand. This song is a nice example of songwriting craftsmanship.

The least country song on the album follows, the rockin’ blues number titled “No, Thank You” follows. The song advises the importance of viewing everything with a skeptical eye.

The pedal steel guitar dominates “Praying For Rain”, a song about drought stricken farmers hoping the rains will come soon. The stark realism of the song hits home.

“Words Can Break Your Heart” is slower and emotional. I regard the feel of the song as album filler, but if you listen closely to the lyrics, it is clearly more than that.

I haven’t anything from this album on the radio but it is my understanding that the first single from the album was “That Old Flame”. The song features Martina McBride in the role of an old flame wishing to make new acquaintance of a love from long ago. He wonders about her motives.

The album contains twelve songs with the deluxe edition containing sixteen songs and while I won’t comment on all of the remaining songs, I will comment on two songs that proved Henley’s bona fide credentials within the genre:

The Louvin Brothers were never massive sellers or hit makers but their influence ran both deep and wide. Dolly Parton joins Don on the Louvin’s “When I Stop Dreaming”. If this recording doesn’t stir your soul, just head for the morgue – you’re already dead and just hadn’t bothered to fall down.

The other song that Henley recorded that really interested me was the lovely “She Sang Hymns Out of Tune”. I think it is my favorite song on the album. Anyone who can dig out “She Sang Hymns Out of Tune” has more than a passing familiarity with country music. I have the song on a late 60s Dillards album but I am not sure who else may have sung it, although I have heard the song performed at bluegrass festivals. I think this song is only on the deluxe edition of the album; if that’s the case spend the extra money – it’s worth it!

I give this album an A and hope Don Henley hangs around the genre a little longer.

Album Review: Ashley Monroe – ‘The Blade’

the bladeAshley Monroe’s second Warner Brothers release has been among my most-anticipated albums this year. While it lacks the immediate charm of the wonderful Like A Rose, the Vince Gill/Justin Niebank-helmed set has substance and beauty which grows on repeated exposure to reward the listener. Ashley’s delicately pretty voice is perfect for the vulnerable emotions expressed in many of the songs.

Ashley co-wrote every song but one. That outside contribution is the title track, written by Marc Beeson, Jamie Floyd and Allen Shamblin. It is a truly outstanding song about the disillusonment of finding one has always loved more than one’s partner, and is now left high and dry:

I let your love in, I have the scar
I felt the razor against my heart
I thought we were both in all the way
But you caught it by the handle
And I caught it by the blade

That’s the risk you run when you love
When you love and you give it all you’ve got to give
Knowing all along there’s a chance
There’s a chance you’ll reach and they won’t
You’ll bleed and they don’t

For you, it’s over; for me, it’s not
I kept tryin’ and you just stopped
Now I know how you can sound so brave
Cause you caught it by the handle, baby
And I caught it by the blade

Gill and Niebank’s understated production perfectly backs up Ashley’s hushed vocal. The whole thing is quite stunning.

The exquisite ballad ‘Has Anybody Ever Told You’ (written with Tyler Cain) is a charming love song supported with lovely steel guitar.

Another highlight is one of two songs written by Ashley with Chris Stapleton and Jessi Alexander, the traditional country lament ‘If The Devil Don’t Want Me’, in which a broken heart fails to find comfort anywhere:

I’ve heard stories ’bout honky tonk angels
Pickin’ up pieces of broken strangers
I’m at rock bottom with a smoke and a sin
When the party is over, then I’m lonely again

If the devil don’t want me
Where the hell do I go?
If I can’t see the light
In the neon glow
If there ain’t enough whiskey
To kill the fire in my soul

This writing partnership also produced the rapid paced bluesy rock ‘Winning Streak’, backed with wild honky tonk piano, on a similar theme, down and out with not even the devil interested. This is less to my taste musically than the other song, but well written and performed.

Alexander also co-wrote the contemporary ballad ‘If Love Was Fair’ with Ashley and with Steve Moakler. Miranda Lambert joined Ashley and Jessi to write the closing track, ‘I’m Good At Leavin’’, another excellent country tune, this time about an unapologetic rambling soul and free spirit, given a Celtic style arrangement.

Justin Davis and Sarah Zimmermann of the dup Striking Matches joined Ashley to write two songs. The gently pretty ‘From Time To Time’ has a tender lullabyish mood, while the memorable up-tempo ‘Dixie’ has a retro feel and a dramatic southern Gothic storyline:

It was the mines that killed my daddy
It was the law that killed my man
It was the Bible Belt that whipped me
When I broke the Fifth Command
I don’t hate the weather
I don’t hate the land
But if I had it my way I’d never see this place again

When I cross that line, man I’ll sing a brand new song
Instead of sitting here by the railroad tracks whistlin’ Dixie all day long
And I’m so tired of paying, praying for my sins
Lord get me out of Dixie Land
Jesus’ name, Amen

When I tread out of these parts
Look me up on the other side
Cause I’ll be damned if I go down in Dixie when I die

‘Bombshell’, written with Steve McEwan and Gordie Sampson, is about facing the guilty decision to tell a lover she is leaving, and knowing there is never going to be a good time to do it. Very good indeed.

Producer Gill co-wrote ‘Weight Of The Load’, a nice song about sharing the burdens of doubt and fear. Ashley’s friend Brendan Benson of the rock band The Raconteurs helped her with the pretty folky ballad ‘Mayflowers’. The first single, the upbeat and catchy ‘On To Something Good’ is agreeable listening if one of the lighter tracks.

The one track I didn’t much care for was the repetitive minor-keyed moody ‘I Buried Your Love Alive’ (a co-write with Matraca Berg), and even this grew on me a bit.

Overall, this is a great album which should raise Ashley Monroe’s profile.

Grade: A

Song Review: Miranda Lambert – ‘Roots & Wings’

Miranda-Lambert-Roots-Wings-CountryMusicRocks.net_Miranda Lambert has finally released a single that is actually country. Her twang is on full display, as are ample flourishes of dobro. So why must we wade through chaotic tornadic debris to find it all?

“Roots and Wings” made its debut earlier this year as the promotional song for RAM Trucks. The commercials wisely stuck to the intro of the song, where the organic twang and dobro are unmistakable. The brief tease was excellent, wetting my appetite for the whole track to be made available for download.

Careful what you wish for, apparently. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a great song. Lambert, who solely penned the track, works the concept very strongly. Going back to her childhood, she’s reflecting on her dad giving her the solid familial foundation while her mom gave her the courage she needed to leave the nest and become her own being in the world. The metaphor presented here isn’t revelatory nor is it original, but she keeps the concept fresh by turning it into an anthem all the while keeping it personal enough to her own experiences.

The song has substance and actually says something. In 2015, such an idea is revelatory. The dobro is heard from beginning to end. In 2015, such an idea is revolutionary. Neither should be a cause for any celebration, but alias, they are. I must give Lambert points for bucking all current convention and breaking with current trends, even for a one-off.

But, everything else is unforgiveable. “Roots and Wings,” as far as I know, isn’t headed to country radio. Its sole existence is to promote the RAM brand of pickup trucks. Focus groups and appealing to so-called ‘new country’ fans shouldn’t even be a factor in the sonic quality of this song. The drenching electric guitar is inexcusable. The overall busyness is indefensible.

Miranda Lambert has ruined the most organically country sounding song she’s released in years by subverting country music entirely. I still strongly believe Lambert is one of the great females to grace our genre, a modern day Patty Loveless or Loretta Lynn. I will gladly go down in flames defending why I know for sure she has the goods. But I refuse to defend her recent choices, “Roots and Wings” included, which have grown egotistically obnoxious.

Grade: C+

Single Review: Chris Stapleton – ‘Traveller’

imagesIt’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly five years since Chris Stapleton gave up his gig as lead vocalist for The SteelDrivers. Since then, in addition to writing hits for the likes of Kenny Chesney, Josh Turner, George Strait Darius Rucker and Miranda Lambert (among others), he briefly fronted the rock band The Jompson Brothers before being signed as a solo act to Mercury Nashville in 2013. “Traveller”, which was sent to radio yesterday is his second single for Mercury and the title track of his upcoming solo debut album which will become available one week from today.

The mid-tempo “Traveller” is decidedly more mainstream than the music Stapleton made with The SteelDrivers, yet it still has an Americana feel to it that makes it different from anything else that is played on country radio stations these days. Part of that is due to Stapleton’s soulful and somewhat gravelly voice, which at times is reminiscent of Travis Tritt. However, that voice is accompanied by acoustic guitar, plenty of pedal steel and a beautiful harmony vocal from an unidentified female singer, all of which should appeal to fans who are tired of arena rock masquerading as country, even if this is a little more left-of-center than what those fans usually listen to. Thematically (though not sonically) it is similar to Merle Haggard’s “Ramblin’ Fever.”

Unfortunately for Stapleton — and for country music in general — neither he nor his music is what radio is generally looking for today. With his Jamey Johnson-style long hair and beard, he is no pretty boy, and while that shouldn’t matter, in this day and age good looks trump talent almost every time. Additionally, his voice is probably a bit too rough for many fans who are used to more cookie-cutter singers. I don’t expect it to be a huge commercial success, but it will likely get some attention in the Americana world as well as from followers of The SteelDrivers as well as fans who have learned to look beyond the mainstream for decent entertainment.

Listen to it here.

Grade: A

Predictions for the 50th annual ACM Awards

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

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

Check out the nominations, here.

UnknownEntertainer of the Year

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

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

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

4e35192a48a8e1409d2f92873a0dbab7Male Vocalist of the Year

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

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

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

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Predictions for the 57th Annual Grammy Awards

It’s early February, which means it’s time for the annual Grammy Awards telecast, airing this Sunday at 8pm on CBS. Look for performances from Eric Church and Miranda Lambert, plus winners in the Country and American Roots categories.

GiveMeBackMyHometownBest Country Solo Performance

Consisting of four former winners, who have proven perennial Grammy favorites, this couldn’t be a more predicable group of nominees. Miranda Lambert won the CMA Award so she has less of a chance of winning here, but really everyone has a very good chance of walking away with the trophy.

Should Win: “Give Me Back My Hometown” – The buzz surrounding The Outsiders coupled with the fact he’s never won a Grammy, should be enough to push him over the top.

Will Win: “Something In The Water” – With a win for “Last Name,” the Grammy voters proved they would award Carrie Underwood for just opening her mouth. She made quite a splash this year, so look for her winning streak to continue.

Little-Big-Town-Day-DrinkingBest Country duo/group performance

A banal group of mainstream fare, these nominees are far more flash than artistry. The Band Perry has the best song, but Kimberly’s feathery vocal, likely from screaming too much during the Pioneer era, hinders their Glen Campbell cover.

Should Win: “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s” – Although it wasn’t much of a duet, Tim & Faith should be rewarded solely for McGraw’s artistic comeback.

 Will Win: “Day Drinking” – Miranda and Carrie won the CMA, which dramatically hurts their chances here. That’ll leave room for Little Big Town to swoop in and claim victory with their anathematic earworm.

10523141_295010450688997_7271262647762240217_nBest Country Song

A sentimental nod for Glen Campbell gives these nominees, which are otherwise tethered to mainstream fare, a bit more variety. He could very easily win on principal, which would be a wonderful thing to see.

Should Win: “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” – a win now for Campbell would indeed be wonderful, especially after all he’s been through.

Will Win: “American Kids” – Grammy song categories are always surprising, as the substantive ballad doesn’t always emerge victorious. Kenny Chesney’s hit is an offbeat choice, but crazier things have happened. If Chesney doesn’t win, I could see Eric Church easily taking this home.

12 storiesBest Country Album

The strongest of the country categories, with five worthy nominees, including two that should be duking it out to the finish.

Should Win: It’s a statistical dead heat between 12 Stories and The Way I’m Livin.’ Brandy Clark and Lee Ann Womack turned in stellar recordings that, in their own right, each deserve this award.

Will Win: The Outsiders – Eric Church’s wildly uneven fourth album has a buzz that cannot be ignored. It’s a good project, but nowhere near the artistic caliber of Clark and Womack’s sets.

UnknownBest American Roots Performance

I’m not as well versed here, but Rosanne Cash and Nickel Creek turned in valiant efforts and Alison Krauss is featured on a track.

Should Win: “Destination” – Nickel Creek came back together after nine years, bringing with them their artistic gains from solo and side projects. Their astounding growth shouldn’t be ignored. 

Will Win: “And When I Die” – I never bet against the obvious, Alison Krauss is featured here, but I could easily see Rosanne Cash taking this home as well. 

rosannecashBest American Roots Song

I’ve only heard Rosanne Cash’s track, and while good, it isn’t “When The Master Calls The Roll.”

Should Win: “A Feather’s Not A Bird” – I’d still give this one to Cash

Will Win: “Pretty Little One” – Steve Martin wins without even trying, so he has the edge here. Jesse Winchester, who passed away last year, could also claim the sentimental vote.

Rosanne CashBest Americana Album

All hail the might God that is Sturgill Simpson. Most were furious he wasn’t in the Best Country Album category, since his album has Country Music in its title, but its experimental nature makes it a perfect fit here. I haven’t been able to get into him (sacrilege of the highest order) but I can appreciate his artistry.

Should Win: The River & The Thread – Rosanne Cash’s impeccable ode to her family legacy is one of the year’s true masterworks 

Will Win: The River & The Thread – Cash has the name recognition to pull this off and it couldn’t be more deserved. But she isn’t Simpson, and that could hurt her, and everyone else in this category.

81Yyaq+5nDL._SL1500_Best Bluegrass Album

This is quite the substantive category, with at least three nominees that could emerge victorious.

Should Win: I honestly don’t have any idea

 Will Win: Only Me – Rhonda Vincent is the biggest name here, a fact that usually secures a win

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Top Ten Albums of 2014

For whatever reason, I always find it easier to tackle a singles list than one dedicated to albums. It’s easier to dive into the creative merits of a song for me than to look at a whole album, at least where a ranked list is concerned. As country music has veered off course in recent years, I’ve noticed my tastes have shifted away from the mainstream as I’ve filled my ears with the sounds of independent or Americana leaning artists, who still make music for themselves, and not for the corporate machine.

My top ten includes an artist who staged a wonderful comeback, another who treated us to his second album this decade, a group who reunited for their twenty-fifth anniversary, and a duet pairing who’ve spoiled us with riches two years in a row. All are strong artistic triumphs and prove, once again, that incredible country music continues to see the light of day.

71Pl0cfcAZL._SL1500_10. Nickel Creek – A Dotted Line

Nine years after breaking off in different directions, Sara, Sean, and Chris reunite showing astonishing artistic growth. A Dotted Line doesn’t eclipse their breathtaking 2000 debut, but it’s just so great to have them back.

Key Tracks: “Destination,” “Hayloft,” “Love Like Mine”

9. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Our Year11183_JKT

The married couple follow-up 2013’s stellar Cheater’s Game with a traditional delight that packs on the steel and Willis’ once in a lifetime voice with Robison’s brilliant songwriting. It doesn’t get much better.

Key Tracks: “Carousel,” “Anywhere But Here,” “This Will Be Our Year”

MirandaLambertPlatinum8. Miranda Lambert – Platinum

The de facto mainstream entry goes to Lambert’s latest set, which balances progressive sensibilities while remaining nostalgic for times gone by.

Key Tracks: “Automatic,” “Pricilla,” “All That’s Left (with Time Jumpers)”  

RF.EISHS-117. Radney Foster – Everything I Wish I’d Said

Foster’s latest covers wide ground – the grip of creativity, love for the Golden State, and racism, et al – but it all works, thanks to his sharp songwriting and blistering production.

Key Tracks: “Whose Heart You Wreck,” “California,” “Not In My House”

lm_album6. Lori McKenna – Numbered Doors 

The first of three stellar collections from female singer-songwriters to land on the list comes from McKenna, singing exquisitely about small-town life. It’s always a treat when she releases a new set, and Numbered Doors is no exception.

Key Tracks: “The Time I’ve Wasted,” “Stranger In His Kiss,” “What A Woman Wants”

angaleena-presley-album-american-middle-class-2014-08-1000px5. Angaleena Presley – American Middle Class 

Holler Annie’s voice is an acquired taste and her production choices aren’t entirely conventional, but her songwriting is vividly clear and features the focused prospective of a woman breathing every last word.

Key Tracks: “Grocery Store,” “Life of the Party,” “Better Off Red”

don-williams-album-reflections-2014-400px4. Don Williams – Reflections

And So It Goes was a wonderful reintroduction to Don Williams for a new generation, as a man in his 70s. Fully reacquainted, Williams has released the collection of his life – ten reflections on life from a man who’s lived and breathed every word.

Key Tracks: “I’ll Be There In The Morning,” “Working Man’s Son,” “Talk Is Cheap”

81jry8GphML._SL1425_3. Rodney Crowell – Tarpaper Sky

Rodney Crowell is irrefutably one of the greatest songwriter/artists of the past forty years. He’s done it all in his astonishing career, yet he continues to surprise at a point in his profession where artists either hang it up or coast on their success. He’s at the peak of his ability with no signs of slowing down. All the better for us, and the greater good of the country genre.

Key Tracks: “The Long Journey Home,” “God I’m Missing You,” “The Flyboy & The Kid”

the way im livin2. Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’ 

A new Lee Ann Womack album is a cause for celebration, and while I wasn’t blown away by her latest set, there were some incredible moments throughout. It also doesn’t hurt that she’s championing pure country music, especially at a time when the genre is poppier than it’s ever been.

Key Tracks: “Fly,” “Same Kind of Different,” “Sleeping With the Devil”

Rosanen-Cash-The-River-The-Thread-300x3001. Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread

The third consecutive release in which she mines her family legacy is Cash’s masterpiece, the brilliant singer-songwriter project that comes wholly from the soul of its creator. Through twelve immaculate southern-themed songs, Cash vividly paints her landscapes and introduces us to those who call this region of the country home.

Key Tracks: “When The Master Calls The Roll,” “Night School,” “The Sunken Lands”

Christmas Rewind: Blake Shelton & Miranda Lambert – ‘Home’

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Favorite Singles of 2014

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

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

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

Nickel-Creek-Destination10. Destination – Nickel Creek

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

9. Frankie Please – Rodney Crowell

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

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

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

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

 7. Say You Do – Dierks Bentley

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

 6. Talladega – Eric Church

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

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

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

4. California – Radney Foster

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

600x600 3. The Trailer Song – Kacey Musgraves

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

2. What We Ain’t Got – Jake Owen

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

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

1. Automatic – Miranda Lambert

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

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

Single Review: Miranda Lambert Featuring Little Big Town – ‘Smokin’ and Drinkin’

LBT-MirandaBack in 2009, I remember lamenting over the fact Miranda Lambert hadn’t won a CMA Female Vocalist of the Year award. She had just released “White Liar” and while the momentum was just beginning to swing in her direction, I couldn’t understand why she hadn’t yet been given her due.

I most certainly couldn’t have predicted what would come next, the erosion of pure female talent within the mainstream sector of the genre and a recording breaking five consecutive wins. She’s now won the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year trophy every year since Taylor Swift emerged victorious in 2009.

It’s not surprising that as Lambert’s career has reached incredible heights, her output of singles has grown increasingly spotty. Flashes of her brilliance are almost the exception now, whereas they seemed liked the rule when she was making a consistent home for herself in the top fifteen.

Despite a lyric co-written by newly minted CMA Song of the Year recipient Shane McAnally and Lambert favorites Luke Laird and Natalie Hemby, “Smokin’ and Drinkin’” isn’t much of a song. The lyrics rely on repetitiveness; a repetition of the chorus to stretch the thin tune well past the five minute mark.

But even more puzzling is the final recording, which pairs Lambert with Little Big Town. A collaboration between these two should be a cause for celebration, but the listener is left with an indistinguishably watered down version of both artists. If Karen Fairchild hadn’t interjected a few vocal kickbacks at the end, I probably wouldn’t have known Little Big Town were featured on the recording if I didn’t already know going in.

“Smokin’ and Drinkin’” isn’t a terrible song at all. The gorgeously relaxed bluesy production pairs nicely with the blending of vocals, which are perfectly understated for a tune seeking heavy rotation airplay in 2014. Even the message of the song, which condones alcohol and cigarettes (or cigars) as a worthy weekend pursuit, doesn’t turn me off.

I just can’t shake how bland everyone sounds together. A showcase for either the five-time CMA Female Vocalist or three-time CMA Vocal Group this is not. Which is a shame.

Grade: B

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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Album Review: Angaleena Presley – ‘American Middle Class’

angaleena-presley-album-american-middle-class-2014-08-1000pxFor her solo debut, Pistol Annie Angaleena Presley took the unconventional approach of self-producing the album along with her Husband Jordan Powell. Released earlier this month on Slate Creek Records, American Middle Class is one of the most authentic creations of self-expression you’ll likely hear all year.

Presley, who hails from Beauty, Kentucky, faced an uphill battle in Nashville where she couldn’t get signed to a major label. Then she landed her big break as ‘Holler Annie’ in the trio also consisting of Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe. As a songwriter, her “Fastest Girl In Town” was a top 5 hit for Lambert and Ashton Shepherd took her co-write “Look It Up” into the top 20.

I’ve always been a fan of Presley’s direct approach to songwriting, where she refuses to mince words in effort to make a point. Her Pistol Annies cuts have been some of my favorites from the trio, and while she doesn’t have the flashiest vocal tone, it works in her favor here.

Presley, who co-wrote the whole album, composed five of the album’s songs solo. “Ain’t No Man” is a brilliantly biting ballad with stunning turns of phrase while “All I Ever Wanted” sets a religiously confrontational lyric to an ear catching shuffle beat. The mix of Presley’s strong vocal with her prominent background vocalist renders “Pain Pills” too cluttered, distracting the listener from the tale of Jimmy, who’s drowning his sorrows in booze and narcotics in an effort to cope with his life.

Presley is at her best when her storytelling prowess remains the focus of a song, and American Middle Class abounds with prime examples. Her self-penned “Better off Red” is a masterpiece of perception, a beautiful reflection on one’s place in our world. Equally powerful is Lori McKenna co-write “Grocery Store,” three minutes of observations culled from a checkout line. The deceptively simple track is filled with gorgeous articulations of our mundane everyday lives and comes together as a dazzling work of art almost too good to be true.

“Life of the Party” teams Presley with her hero Matraca Berg for another mouth-watering creation, this time the pedal steel soaked story of a woman facing the light of day after a night spent with another man. The pair is an irresistible songwriting force, with Berg turning in a co-write on par with the myriad of classics she churned out in the 1980s and 1990s, a feat in of itself.

On “Drunk” Presley and co-writer Sara Siskind cover identical ground as Presley’s labelmate Brandy Clark did on “Hungover,” and they turn out equally as delicious a tune about unappreciative men and their selfish ways. “Knocked Up,” co-written with Mark D. Sanders, is the prequel to “Drunk,” a banjo driven number about an unplanned pregnancy and shotgun wedding that plays like a delightful dark comedy.

“Dry Country Blues,” which Presley also co-wrote with Sanders, paints the gritty glory of small town life down to the drunk boys out to get laid and their female counterparts trying not to turn into meth whores. The self-penned title track, which covers the same ground, boarders on preachy and falls dangerously close into a pandering flag-waving anthem, but she makes it work by bringing in Patty Loveless for a harmony vocal that gives the track an added texture that works well with the formidable arrangement.

“Blessing and a Curse,” co-written with Bob DiPiero, is one of the more mainstream-leaning lyrics on American Middle Class with a bluesy arrangement that works beautifully with Presley’s voice. Even the electric guitar, which dominates, isn’t a hinder but rather an assist to the track’s overall splendor. Another such track is “Surrender,” the record’s closing number and a co-write with Luke Laird and Barry Dean. The ballad is as lush and exciting as it is assessable, and Presley turns in an elegant vocal.

American Middle Class is easily a highlight of 2014 with Presley’s fine tuned prospective on the world expressed through sharp songwriting and immaculate choices in instrumentation. Her decision to co-produce with her husband has given the album an added authenticity that gives the record an artists’ touch, an obvious missing link in the majority of mainstream music today. Presley, who’s the real deal, has filled my heart with a joy I haven’t felt in a long, long time.

I cannot recommend this nearly flawless album enough.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Flatt Lonesome – ‘Too’

tooI was very impressed by young Florida-based bluegrass band Flatt Lonesome’s debut album, although it came my way a bit too late for me to review it. Their second is just as good.

The vocals are shared between siblings Buddy, Kelsi and Charli Robertson, who form the heart of the band, while they and their bandmates (who include Kelsi’s husband Paul Harrigill) are all excellent musicians. The girls are both fine singers, and one of them has a particularly lovely voice. Buddy’s lead vocals are a bit more generic. The siblings’ harmonies are excellent throughout.

Charli sings the opening ‘So Far’ backed up by the sibling harmonies, a pacy slice of high lonesome which is a joy to listen to despite the downbeat lyric. ‘Make It Through The Day’ is a yearning ballad with a delicate arrangement, which is beautifully interpreted and a real highlight. My favorite track is the sad ‘I Thought You Were Someone I Knew’, a ballad with a lovely melody and a rueful lyric about discovering a lover’s true character the hard way. This is outstanding.

‘Never Let Me Go’ is a very charming mix of western swing and bluegrass written by Kelsi, with close harmonies. The girls also harmonise prettily on the wistful ‘Letters Have No Arms’, an old Ernest Tubb song which works perfectly for them. More unexpectedly, ‘I Can’t Be Bothered’ (a Travis Howard song which was a hidden gem in Miranda Lambert’s debut album) gets an inspired bluegrass makeover.

‘I’m Ready Now’ written by the band’s banjo player Paul Harrigill, is typical uptempo positive bluegrass gospel . The other religious song included, ‘He Still Hears’, is more contemplative and emotional, a tender ballad written by the siblings’ father, a minister.

Buddy takes the lead on four tracks. ‘Dangerous Dan’ is an entertaining story song about a hard-pressed Depression era outlaw who ends up finding God. The lonesome wail of heartbreak song ‘It’s Probably Just Her Memory Again’ is also pretty good. He is brisk on ‘Slowly Getting You Out Of the Way’. ‘How Long’ is a breezy prison song written by California folk rocker J D Souther which has a slightly different feel to the rest of the record.

This band is one of the brightest rising stars in bluegrass, and has much to appeal to acoustic country fans. This is an excellent album (as indeed was their debut).

Grade: A+

Week ending 7/12/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

Anne_Murray1954 (Sales): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

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

1954 (Disc Jockeys): Even Tho — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1964: My Heart Skips A Beat — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1974: He Thinks I Still Care — Anne Murray (Capitol)

1984: Somebody’s Needin’ Somebody — Conway Twitty (Warner Bros.)

1994: Wink — Neal McCoy (Atlantic)

2004: Whiskey Girl — Toby Keith (DreamWorks)

2014: Somethin’ Bad — Miranda Lambert with Carrie Underwood (RCA)

2014 (Airplay): My Eyes — Blake Shelton ft. Gwen Sebastian (Warner Bros.)

Album Review – Miranda Lambert – ‘Platinum’

MirandaLambertPlatinumMidway through Miranda Lambert’s new album Platinum comes a jarring exception to the rule as daring as the twin fiddles that opened Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Came From nine years ago. The one-two punch of a Tom T and Dixie Hall composition coupled with a glorious arrangement by The Time Jumpers has yielding “All That’s Left,” a rare nugget of traditional western swing with Lambert channeling high lonesome Patty Loveless. Besides producing one of the years’ standout recorded moments, “All That’s Left” is a crucial nod to our genre’s heritage, and the fulfillment of the promise Lambert showed while competing on Nashville Star.

Suffice it to say, there’s nothing else on Platinum that equals the brilliance of “All That’s Left,” since Lambert never turns that traditional or naturally twangy again. Instead she opts for a fifteen-slot smorgasbord, mixing country, pop, and rock in an effort to appeal to anyone who may find his or her way to the new music. In lesser hands the record would be an uneven mess, but Lambert is such an expert at crafting albums she can easily pair western swing and arena rock and have it all fit together as smaller parts of a cohesive whole.

The main theme threading through Platinum is one of getting older, whether for purposes of nostalgia, or literally aging. She continues the nostalgia trip she began with fantastic lead single “Automatic” on “Another Sunday In The South” as she recruits Jessi Alexander and fellow Pistol Annie Ashley Monroe to reminisce about the good ‘ol days of 90s country music, among southern signifiers like lazy afternoons and times spent on the front porch. The only worthwhile name check song in recent memory, “Another Sunday” cleverly weaves Restless Heart, Trace Adkins, Pam Tillis, Clint Black, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and song namesake Shenandoah through the lyrics without pandering or sounding cutesy. I only wish she had referenced Diamond Rio and had producer Frank Liddell pepper the track with more of a 90s throwback production, which would’ve fit slightly better than the soft rockish vibe the track was given.

Lambert actually does recapture the Patty Loveless-like twang on “Old Shit,” Brent Cobb and Neil Mason’s love letter to the appealing nature of antiques. The framing technique of using the grandfather and granddaughter relationship coupled with the organic harmonica laced organic arrangement is charming, and while I usually don’t advocate for swearing in country songs, it actually works in this case and seems more appropriate than any of the cleaner words they could’ve used instead.

The aging side of getting older, which Lambert and company began tackling with “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty” on Annie Up last year, is far more prevalent a force on Platinum. As has become customary for Lambert, she wrote thumping rocker “Bathroom Sink” solo. The lyric is scathing, detailing scary self-loathing that builds in intensity along with the electric guitars. Lambert’s phrasing is annoying, though; punctuating the rimes so much they begin to sound rudimentary. While true, “Gravity’s a Bitch,” which Lambert co-wrote with Scotty Wray, just doesn’t feel necessary to me. I think being outside the track’s demographic target aids in my assessment, but I do enjoy the decidedly country meets bluesy arrangement.

When the press release for the album said the title track was ‘Taylor Swift pop’ I was admittedly worried, no matter how many times I got down with the dubstep of “I Knew You Were Trouble” or the bubblegum of “22.” Since Max Martin isn’t anywhere near this album, “Platinum” is more “Red” than anything else, and the infamous ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you blonder’ lyric is catchy as hell. Similarly themed and produced “Girls” is just as good, and like “Gravity’s a Bitch,” it’ll appeal quite nicely to the fairer sex.

The rest of Platinum truly defines the smorgasbord aspects of the album, with some conventional and extremely experimental tracks. Lambert co-wrote “Hard Staying Sober” with Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird and it ranks among her finest moments, with the decidedly country production and fabulously honest lyric about a woman who’s no good when her man isn’t present. “Holding On To You,” the closet Lambert comes to crooning a love song, is sonically reminiscent of Vince Gill’s 90s sound but with touches that makes it all her own. While good it’s a little too bland, as is “Babies Making Babies,” which boats a strong opening verse but eventually comes off less clever than it should’ve and not surprising enough for me.

Ever since Revolution, production on Lambert’s albums has to be taken with a grain of salt, which is unfortunately still the case here. I’m betting, more than anything since Brandy Clark and Lambert co-wrote it together with Heather Little, that “Too Rings Shy” has a strong lyric underneath the unlistenable production that found Lambert asking her production team to go out and lyrically record circus noises. It’s a shame they couldn’t make this work, since they pulled it off with Randy Scruggs reading the Oklahoma Farm Report in the background of “Easy Living” on Four The Record. There’s just no excuse why the track had to be mixed this intrusively.

Polarizing more than anything else is Lambert’s cover of Audra Mae’s “Little Red Wagon,” which I only understood after listening to Mae’s original version. Given that it’s a duet with Little Big Town, I know most everyone expected more from “Smokin’ and Drinkin,’ and I understand why (the approach isn’t traditional), but I really like the lyric and production, making the overall vibe work really well for me. The same is true about “Something Bad,” which isn’t a great song, but works because of the beat, and interplay between Lambert and Carrie Underwood. The two, even on a marginalized number like this one by Chris DeStefano, Brett James, and Priscilla Renea, sound extremely good together.

Nicolle Galyon and Jimmy Robbins teamed up with Hemby to write the album’s most important track, a love letter Lambert sings to Priscilla Presley. While the concept is questionable on paper, the results are a revelation and give Lambert a chance to directly address what she’s been going through since her husband’s career skyrocketed on The Voice. At a time when most artists of Lambert’s caliber are shying away from singing what they’re going through, Lambert is attacking her rise in celebrity head on with a clever lyric, interesting beat, and an all around engaging execution that makes “Priscilla” this album’s “Mama’s Broken Heart.”

Even without the added punch of co-writes with her fellow Nashville Star contestant Travis Howard or the inclusion of a bunch of artistic covers from the pens of Gillan Welch, Allison Moorer, Carline Carter, and others – Platinum ranks high in Lambert’s catalog. She’s gotten more introspective as she’s aged but instead of coasting on past success or suppressing her voice in favor of fitting in or pleasing people, she remains as sharp as ever tackling topics her closest contemporaries wouldn’t even touch. I didn’t care for this project on first listen, but now that I completely understand where she’s coming from, I’m fully on board. All that’s left is my desire she go even more country in her sound, but Platinum wouldn’t be a Miranda Lambert record without the added touch of Rock & Roll.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind – Miranda Lambert – ‘The House That Built Me’

Today we officially sold my childhood home, which my parents bought in the late 1970s. I’ve been on an emotional roller coaster, especially this past weekend, when we cleaned the last of our belongings out of the garage.

Last week a close friend came over to help us say goodbye to the house, and I shared this song with her to mark the occasion. When she arrived she said she had been fine (she’s also in the process of selling her childhood home) until she pressed play. I had a feeling she hadn’t heard Allen Shamblin and Tom Douglas’s  masterful lyrics or Miranda Lambert’s perfect delivery.

There isn’t a better piece of music to sum up exactly what I’ve been feeling as we’ve led up to this day. This is also my favorite performance of the song, the singular highlight of the 2010 ACM telecast.