My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Tag Archives: Ryan Tyndell

Album Review – Eric Church – ‘The Outsiders’

eric-church-the-outsidersWhen it comes to reviewing new releases, my philosophy is to tackle albums by artists for which I’m a fan opposed to critiquing records by artists that I actively can’t stand. That way the review isn’t a one-sided analysis based solely on an already established dislike for the artist or the music. I don’t usually like to waste my time on releases that are more of the usual mainstream drivel and don’t have the slightest chance of being anything other than trend-following fodder designed for maximum airplay on the ever shrinking playlists of country radio.

That being said, I’ve been an Eric Church fan since “How ‘Bout You” in 2006. While that might not have been my favorite song, I loved “Two Pink Lines” and “Guys Like Me.” From then on, I’ve enjoyed the majority of his singles and count Chief among the best mainstream releases this decade. Church has always been an original who follows the beat of his own drum and I wholeheartedly respect him for being his own man in a sea of interchangeable sameness.

But now it seems the biggest side effect of his success is overblown ego. Instead of using Chief as the platform from which build a follow-up record, he’s disregarded it completely and crafted what’ll likely be one of the most polarizing albums to come out of Nashville this year from a genre heavyweight. The Outsiders defies logic with a decidedly noncommercial sound that alienates the masses in favor of playing to whomever you would call the group that shares in his odd vision.

When listening to the album, which the majority of critics have referred to as “groundbreaking,” I kept searching for those more normal moments, songs like “Springsteen” or even “Love Your Love The Most” that I could easily enjoy (or see on country radio as potential singles). While they were hard to find, thankfully they are there in some form or another.

“Talladega,” co-written by Church and Luke Laird, is the most conventional and thus the album’s strongest moment overall. A story of friendship, the tune centers around five friends and their unforgettable times together at the famed racetrack. It’s a near perfect slice of rock-country and a song that wouldn’t have been out of place on Tim McGraw’s Set This Circus Down.

Church teams up with his “Springsteen” co-writers Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tendell for “Roller Coaster Ride,” a more progressive experience sonically, but a darn catchy tune with a nice hook (“Since you had to go, I’ve been on a roller coaster ride”). Also appealing is drinking song “Cold One” in which a man is lamenting the sudden end of a relationship when his girl leaves him ‘one beer short of a twelve pack.’ The track would’ve been a home run had Church and producer Jay Joyce kept the ear-catching backwoods arraignment that opens the track. When it morphs into the progressive hip/hop meets EDM mess towards the second verse, I’m all but lost. But the writers (Church, Hyde, and Luke Hutton) have written a fantastic lyric, and that about saves the whole thing.

As a general rule, Church is often better lyrically than sonically. Often, his best songs (think “Creepin’”) are as loud and obnoxious as they are lyrically inventive and original. That’s why I was kind of upset when the title track dropped last fall and left me cold. “The Outsiders” has since grown on me lyrically, but I still hate the heavy metal breakdown towards the end. Thankfully I do love second single “Give Me Back My Hometown” warts and all. It’s a far cry better than almost everything currently on country radio and one of the most exciting songs released so far this year even though it doesn’t have much to do with country music beyond Church’s audible twang.

The only other song on the project I can confess to liking even a little is “Broke Record,” since it is catchy although it wears thin after repeated listenings. The rest of the project, unfortunately, is a mess. Church mumbles his way through “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young” and thus renders the lyric impossible to understand. “Like A Wrecking Ball” features Church’s voice marred in an annoying echo effect, “That’s Damn Rock and Roll” is the dictionary definition of dreck, “Dark Side” is too moody, “Devil, Devil” is just awful, and “The Joint” is too hip/hop inspired (if that’s even what you call it) for my taste.

Given my admiration for Church as an artist, I wanted to love this album. But too many of the songs left me wishing for the formula he perfected with Chief , which rightfully won the CMA Album of the Year trophy. The Outsiders is an uneven album at best, heavy on experimentation and light on good quality music. But thankfully Church manages to keep his head out of the gutter for at least some of the tracks, and if his label is smart, those are the ones that’ll be sent to radio for a shot at heavy rotation airplay.

Grade: C

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Album Review: Charlie Worsham – ‘Rubberband’

rubberbandI was thoroughly charmed by Charlie Worsham’s debut single. And keen to see what the young Mississippian  would come up with on his first album.  the result is interesting.  While it’s not a traditional country record, it is a breath of fresh air in the rock and pop environs of modern country radio.  Charlie wrote all the songs with a variety of collaborators, many of them with his co-producer Ryan Tyndell.  He is a capable rather than outstanding vocalist, with a pleasant, rather light voice, but his songwriting and musicianship are both strong.

I still love the single, which makes a delightful opening to the album and remains my favourite track.  The following ‘Want Me Too’ is stylistically very similar with a bright youthful feel, prominent banjo, and strong harmonies on the chorus.   The lyric (once more about the early stages of falling in love) has an arresting opening,

You’ve got a lock on your heart
It’s chained in the dark
And somehow you lost the key

But the darkness doesn’t last long, as a sunny attitude imbues the song; one feels quite confident that she will succumb to the protagonist’s charms.

There is a very youthful feel to the whole record.  I very much liked the folky and probably autobiographical ‘Young To See’, about seizing opportunities to experience life.  ‘How I Learned To Pray’ is a gentle ballad about finding God through first love which is rather sweet.  The more wistful ‘Mississippi In July’ also looks back to his teens and is quite atmospheric in an understated way.

‘Tools Of The Trade’ is a paean to making music, with some star guests: Marty Stuart and Vince Gill, on both vocals and mandolin/guitar respectively, and (billed only in the small print) Rebecca Lynn Howard on backing vocals.  It’s a bit heavier sounding than the remainder of the record, but still fairly rootsy.

I also liked ‘Love Don’t Die Easy’ and ‘Break What’s Broken’, a pair of low-key ballads, the former with Sheryl Crow on backing vocals.

‘Trouble Is’ is pleasant but unexciting, while ‘Someone Like Me’ is like early Keith Urban, with quite  a nicely written wistful lyric.  The one track I didn’t enjoy at all was the self-indulgent title track, which is repetitive and nonsensical lyrically, and really just an excuse for some experimental musicianship.

While not an essential purchase, this is a very pleasant sounding record with some decent songs.  it is very tastefully produced and mixed so that electric guitars and drums do not overwhelm everything else as they do on so many commercial successes.  I hope that this more understated and organic sound can find a space on country radio.

Grade: B+

Predictions for the 48th annual ACM Awards

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

Here are the nominees and predictions:

UnknownEntertainer of the Year

· Jason Aldean

· Luke Bryan

· Miranda Lambert

· Blake Shelton

· Taylor Swift – Jonathan Pappalardo 

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

Unknown-1Male Vocalist of the Year

· Jason Aldean

· Luke Bryan

· Eric Church

· Toby Keith

· Blake Shelton – Jonathan Pappalardo 

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

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

· Miranda Lambert – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· Martina McBride

· Kacey Musgraves

· Taylor Swift

· Carrie Underwood

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

images-2Vocal Duo of the Year

· Big & Rich

· Florida Georgia Line

· Love and Theft

· Sugarland

· Thompson Square – Jonathan Pappalardo 

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

imagesVocal Group of the Year

· The Band Perry

· Eli Young Band

· Lady Antebellum

· Little Big Town – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· Zac Brown Band

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

Unknown-2New Artist of the Year

· Florida Georgia Line – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· Brantley Gilbert

· Jana Kramer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unknown-8Songwriter of the Year

· Rodney Clawson

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

· Josh Kear

· Luke Laird

· Shane McAnally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Predictions and analysis: The 55th Annual Grammy Awards

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

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Single Review: Charlie Worsham – ‘Could It Be’

could it be charlie worshamThe latest newcomer to hit country radio looks like Warner Brothers’ Charlie Worsham, and this single is a very promising start for him. The Mississippi-born multi-instrumentalist made his Opry aged 12 as a child prodigy banjo player, but is now forging out on his own as a mainstream country artist.

Worsham has a light but attractive tenor voice with a slight plaintive feel. His voice is pleasant rather than really distinctive, but it works well on this track, particularly when he is backed u on the chorus by strong harmonies. The multi-tracked first line in particular gives the track a bright opening which grab the audience’s attention and sets out the positive mood (after an adventurous but slightly odd instrumental opening).

The song is contemporary country with a fairly organic production, striking a balance which should appeal to fans of acts like The Band Perry and Edens Edge. The tune is catchy and suits the lyrics’ hopeful approach. The end result is fresh and new while still being recognizably country.

He wrote the well-constructed and tuneful song himself with Marty Dodson and Ryan Tyndell. It presents a bright optimistic sunny look at the possibilities of a new love interest. An evening’s drinking with a friend leads to a change in their relationship:

Who knows, we might go down in flames
Then again I might just change your name
Could it be I’m finally holding what I’ve been hoping for
Could it be the end of “just friends”
The start of something more?
Oh, the way I’m feeling now
It’s worth sticking around to see
Is this love, or could it be?

I was quite encouraged by this debut single and am interested in hearing more from this young artist.

Grade: B

Listen here.

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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Album Review: Neal McCoy – ‘XII’

One way for a minor 90s star to get some attention for his independent comeback is to recruit two of today’s biggest names to assist with production. Neal McCoy called on Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert to produce his twelfth album, helped by the experienced Brent Rowan. Together they do a good and unexpectedly restrained job on the sound of the album, and although some of the material is pleasant but forgettable, there is a good humored mood which makes the record thoroughly engaging.

The relaxed lead single ‘A-OK’ is quite catchy with its whistled opening and would be radio friendly if cut by a current star. Blake and Miranda sing recognisable backing vocals, contributing to the feelgood mood. On similar lines is the slightly jerky and bluesy ‘Real Good Feel Good’.

Much better is the soul-laced ‘Judge A Man By The Woman’, which is very well done with excellent phrasing and emotional interpretation. It was previously done by Heartland, best known for their one and only hit ‘I Loved Her First’ a few years back, and has also been cut by actor John Corbett, but Neal’s version, dedicated to his wife of over 30 years, is the best.

The most entertaining track is the frivolous but amusing western swing ‘Mouth’, written by Jamey Johnson and Barry Tolliver. It is about putting one’s foot in it. There is more wry humor in ‘That’s Just How She Gets’, a plaintive complaint from a drinking man, previously cut by Australian Adam Harvey:

All that liquor made her different
And I knew I couldn’t win
She wasn’t the girl that I knew when I met her
She was makin’ a fool of herself and I let her
Kept cussin’ and a-screaming ’till I couldn’t even think
That’s just how she gets when I drink

The bright up-tempo ‘Shotgun Rider’ is one of the Peach Pickers’ standard efforts lyrically (but better than most of their work), but some nice production choices and Neal’s warm vocal make it an attractive listening experience. ‘Borderline Crazy’ is a Mexican styled tale of dreams of Mexican vacations, “countin’ Margaritas instead of sheep”. ‘Crazy Women’, written by George Teren and Rivers Rutherford, is mellow and frankly a bit unexciting for a song with that title.

Neal co-wrote a couple of the songs. ‘That’s You’ (written with Clint Daniels and Jeff Hyde, is quite a nice love song with a sincere vocal bringing it to life. ‘Lucky Enough’ is more generic and over- produced, and is a co-write with Hyde and Ryan Tyndell.

The melodic ‘Every Fire’ was written by John Scott Sherrill and Cathy Majeski, and although I don’t think it’s ever been a single, it has been recorded by a number of artists in the past, starting with Shenandoah on their 1994 effort In The Vicinity Of The Heart. It’s a pretty tune with a faintly melancholic undertow, which is well worthy of a revival, with Miranda Lambert’s harmony adding sweetness to Neal’s convincing lead.

Finally, Allen Shamblin and Tom Douglas wrote the introspective ‘Van Gogh’ a rare down tempo moment, offering reflective thoughts on the nature of artistry:

You pour your heart out on the page
You bare your soul up on stage
You’ve got the power to make us feel
You’ve got the power to help us heal

You’re not crazy when it hurts and makes you cry
You draw the beauty from your pain
Life is just too beautiful to put it in a frame
Maybe that’s the reason why
Van Gogh went insane

You offer up your best and it don’t sell
It cuts you to the bone and hurts like hell
Promise me you’ll still give your fragile heart
Cause you and I both know, baby
That it’s still a work of art

This is definitely not the kind of song I expected from Neal, and is the best song included.

Overall, this is a surprisingly attractive record with even the lesser material sounding good. The worst thing about it is the dreadfully unimaginative cover art, but if it was a budget issue I’d rather they spent the money on the music.

Grade: B+

Single Review – Eric Church – ‘Springsteen’

When a singer desires to prove their worth they’ll often name check a music legend in their song in hopes of drudging up a modicum of credibility. Of late, the practice has been in overdrive morphing from adoration to insolence. And it seems the songs with the most name checking often rock harder than any of the legends being cited within.

So it’s refreshing that Eric Church would co-write a song, about a legend, that smartly avoids those pitfalls. “Springsteen” is by and large one of the strongest songs currently vying for airplay because the details in the story and the choices in the production are nearly flawless.

We’ve all heard it before – the teenage couple in love and the song that binds them together for life, long past the confines of the relationship. Here that song is “Born In The USA,” Bruce Springsteen’s classic from 1984. But what makes “Springsteen” a cut above the rest is the masterful way Church and co-writers Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tyndell craft the story.

The song begins with the male protagonist thinking back on the memories drudged up whenever the magical song comes on the radio:

To this day when I hear that song

I see you standin’ there on that lawn

Discount shades, store bought tan

Flip-flops and cut-off jeans

Somewhere between that setting sun

I’m on fire and born to run

You looked at me and I was done

And we’re, we’re just getting started

While Church does mumble the opening lines a bit too much for my taste, he makes up for his delivery by nicely setting the scene for the love affair to be fleshed out in more detail later. The second verse has the lead character running into this girl in the present day yet she doesn’t remember him that well. The writers glaze over this meeting but use it as a bridge to further develop the love story back when the characters were 17:

 Back when I was gasoline

And this old tattoo had brand new ink

And we didn’t care what your mom would think

About your name on my arm

Baby is it spring or is it summer

The guitar sound or the beat of that drummer

You hear sometimes late at night

On your radio

And like any well-crafted song, it isn’t just the tiny details in the lyrics (like mentioning the jeep they would ride around in) but also choices in the production that add to the overall feeling of the song. Sonically, “Springsteen” is unlike anything else on country radio right now – a little gritty and atmospheric with a steady drumbeat to help guide the story along.  When listening you get the impression that you’re hearing the work of a singer/songwriter and not just another four minutes of filler churned out by the Nashville machine. It’s that level of concentration that elevates “Springsteen” above the standard piece of nostalgia.

This may be another song about songs, but it works because the whole thing is believable. Brad Paisley’s “Old Alabama,” for instance, failed because he tried to mix novelty and tribute in his ode to Alabama. Adding in that touch of playfulness only extenuated the weaknesses in the lyrics and turned what could’ve been great, into something corny. It’s as if Church learned from the faults of that and other recent songs about songs and decided to write something truly outstanding that honored the artist being mentioned without that singer getting in the way of the song.

But you’ll see in the coming months that “Springsteen” is more than just the third single from an album, but rather a turning point in a career. It’s now that Church will begin to be taken seriously as an artist and not just as a singer. I’ve always preferred his rockish stylings to Jason Aldean – there’s an authenticity to Church you don’t get with Aldean. Like Miranda Lambert he’s a real country singer and I’m glad to see the material is finally matching the promise I’ve seen in him since I first heard Sinners Like Me seven years ago.

Grade: A 

Single Review: Clay Walker – ‘Where Do I Go From You’

Clay Walker was one of those 90s sensations that exploded right out of the box, with 5 of his first 6 single releases shooting straight to the top.  Between 1991 and 1998, Walker released 17 singles to country radio, with all of them going into the top 40, and 12 landing inside the top 10.  But somewhere around the end of the decade, mergers and further consolidation between labels relocated Clay to Giant’s parent company, Warner Brothers.  After a few minor hits there, he made a short-lived switch to RCA in 2001, where another sprinkling of top 10 hits followed.  His third label deal came from Asylum’s Curb division.  The interesting aspect to Clay Walker’s chart success, to me, has been his many stops and starts over the past 7 or 8 years.  While most artists struggle to get back in the graces of radio programmers after a year or more hiatus, Walker has found himself staging mini-comebacks on at least 3 occasions, the most recent being last year’s top 5 ‘She Won’t Be Lonely Long’, his best showing on the singles chart in a decade.  But, recent history has shown Walker unable to follow up a career-reviving hit with another.

‘Where Do I Go From You’ attempts to recapture the tone of ‘She Won’t Be Lonely Long’.  It succeeds in being radio-friendly without sounding polished, something the best Clay Walker singles have always done.  A similar laid-back electric guitar groove compliment the driving mid-tempo beat, and Clay’s vocals succeed in clearly cutting through the production.

Where it falters in its unoriginal concept, and very underdeveloped plot.  We learn that the narrator’s love interest left him, got on a plane and skipped town.  Now our narrator is getting lost in his job by day and inhabiting the local beer joint by night, all in his efforts to dull the pain.  The chorus is, interestingly enough, the most abstract part of the lyrics, and the only area of the song where we get any insight into the relationship gone wrong: ‘Where do I go to get over the fact that you got on a plane and you ain’t coming back/I said what I said and you did what you had to do/Where does a man have to go to get over the truth?/Where do I go from you?’

What did he say?  It must have been substantial enough that he understands her reasons for leaving.  All we’re really left with in the end is his continuing plea for guidance from a woman who’s likely a thousand miles away.

Grade: C

Purchase ‘Where Do I Go From You’ digitally at amazon or iTunes.

Songwriters: Don Cook, Clint Daniels, Ryan Tyndell