2014 has revealed itself as the “Year of the Dark Horse” when it comes to compiling the greatest albums released in the last 12-month span. Tami Neilson, Karen Jonas, Charlie Parr, Matt Woods? Who’s heard of these people outside of their respective fan bases? And meanwhile the realm of mainstream music can’t field one candidate, unless you want to count First Aid Kit who resides on a major American label, while a dark horse from last year Sturgill Simpson leads the pack. But Sturgill shouldn’t be considered a shoo-in. All the candidates listed here have a legitimate stake at the distinction, and wouldn’t be included here if they didn’t. These eight albums will be vetted and consternated over for the next 30 days or so before the final winner will be revealed.
Interesting to note, all of these candidates were albums released in the first half of 2014, and many in the first 1/3rd of the year.
PLEASE NOTE: Saving Country Music also posts a more-encompassing “Essential Albums List” annually, so just because you don’t see one of your favorite albums on this list doesn’t mean it won’t be up for distinction. Leading the essential albums, and sitting right on the bubble as Album of the Year candidates were Jason Eady‘s excellent honky tonk album Daylight & Dark, Kelsey Waldon‘s brilliant The Gold Mine, John Fullbright‘s Songs, Zoe Muth‘s World of Strangers, Doug Seegers‘ Going Down The River, and Joseph Huber‘s The Hanging Road.
Audience participation is strongly encouraged, and will influence the outcome. Leave your opinions, write-in candidates, or other observations below in the comments section. This is not simply an up and down vote though. I make the final decision, so it is your job to convince me why the album you feel deserves to win is the right pick.
You’ve never heard of her, and many country and roots taste makers will leave this Canadian-born, and New Zealand-based singer and songwriter off their end-of-year lists from sheer ignorance of her existence. But they may be excluding not just one of the greatest albums and talents of 2014, but of the last half decade. Along with Sturgill Simpson, Tami has to be considered a top contender.
“Alright, before we get too deep into this matter, just understand that you’re going to want to be purchasing this album. It’s my job to sit here and gab at you for a while about it and explain why, and I’m flattered that you would entertain this notion and read the proceeding words. But you pretty much just need to get this album and thank me later.
What I’m trying to impart to you here is this might be the best record released in 2014 by any artist whose last name doesn’t rhyme with Pimpson. Who’s even heard of Tami Neilson? I sure as hell hadn’t. But apparently she won the New Zealand Music Award for “Best Country Album” in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Who knew? Sorry, but by happenstance I let my dues to the New Zealand Music Association lapse in 2008 and they ceased sending me newsletters. But here we are in 2014, and I almost feel like I owe an apology to the sainted Saving Country Music reader for not cluing you in on Tami Neilson prior to this moment.” (read full review)
Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
“Yeah yeah, dispense with the pageantry and just give give the damn distinction to Sturgill already,” is what many will say, but the album environment in 2014 is too rich to be so flippant with this decision. A front runner? Of course, and we’ve already seen the eager beavers of end-of-year list building engrave Sturgill’s name at the very top before we even sat down to Thanksgiving dinner. But an album not only has to be measured against its peers, but by the abilities of the artist themselves. As strange as it may sound, I still believe Sturgill is holding back, and so his place at the very top of 2014 is not secured in the annals of Saving Country Music just yet. We still have a month to weigh its merits against stiff competition.
“With ‘Metamodern Sounds in Country Music’, Sturgill Simpson doesn’t just capture our ears, he captures our imaginations. However misguided the notion is, most every disenfranchised country music fan harbors the idea that at some point some true country artist is going to come along that is so good, it is going to tip the scales back in the right direction. What ‘Metamodern Sounds’ does is it gives the true country music listener hope beyond the happiness the music conveys. It resolves that ever-present conflict between sticking to the traditional sound, but progressing forward.
It’s not time yet to be making comparisons to ‘Red Headed Stranger’, or even to ‘Phases & Stages’. But Sturgill Simpson, and Sturgill Simpson alone, defines the pinnacle, and what is relevant in the here and now of independent country music. And he’s done it from the sheer strength of this album.” (read full review)
Karen Jonas – Oklahoma Lottery
“Karen Jonas, whether she knew it or not, heeded the advice of the great Ray Wylie Hubbard to all songwriters: don’t just listen to ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’, read ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. How do we know this? It’s not just from the wisdom interwoven in the lyrics, it’s from the amount of pain Ms. Jonas is able to capture in her performance. This isn’t just an inflected interpretation, but the very evocation through herself of the troubled ghosts of the story —not just wrapping herself in their clothes, but walking a mile in their shoes, and then conveying the pain she knows they felt from the aching of her own blisters.
Similar to how the settlers of Oklahoma toiled at the yoke without a thought of rest, Karen Jonas, after putting her pair of young children to bed every night, tip toes to the other side of the house, takes the guitar in hand, and digs, hoping to unearth the riches of song. And lucky for her and the rest of us, the ground that she tilled ended up to be quite fertile, and the result a verdant display of artistic release.
If music was a lottery, then Karen Jonas hit big. But this is no fortune to be chocked up to sheer luck. The toil, the heart that Karen Jonas put into this music and this record is eminently palpable. And it is not just the result of talent, but talent honed and refined through cutting self-criticism, study, discipline, and work.” (read full review)
Don Williams – Reflections
This is not a sympathy inclusion, or simply a representation of classic country to add to this list. Don Williams has put out a towering album with great feeling and a thematic vision that deserves the highest of praise and the attention younger, newer artists are receiving for their career-defining releases.
“‘Reflections’ is much more than just the easy listening country it may appear to be on the surface. It’s an album with a message, and leads by example. Instead of whining about the state of country music, it does something about it.
The laid back, gentle-of-mind ease drips from this album like the sweetness of sun-drenched dew. Sometimes it’s simply implied, and other times it’s directly spoken, like in the appreciative and well-written ‘Working Man’s Son’ or the song that ties the entire theme of ‘Reflections’ together, ‘Back To The Simple Things’. Enough can’t be said either about the Townes cover ‘I’ll Be Here In The Morning’. Like when Willie and Merle took ‘Pancho & Lefty’ to another level, Don Williams’ touch on this song immortalized it, and in a different time it would have been a super hit.
“‘Reflections is the album we needed right here, right now. Not just from the perspective of saving country music, but the perspective of saving ourselves from the overwhelming onslaught of ensnaring technologies that rob the preciousness from life.” (read full review)
First Aid Kit – Stay Gold
Destined to be unfortunately overlooked by country fans because of its folksy exterior, Stay Gold is nonetheless a powerhouse performance that only gets better with more spins, and evidences both songwriting and singing brilliance that is ripe for appeal on a grand scale if simply given the opportunity to thrive in the wider American marketplace. It is simply a joyful, uplifting experience to behold, and leaves nothing behind when measured against its fellow 2014 competitors.
“‘Stay Gold’ captures First Aid Kit fearlessly unburdening their fears, confiding in the listener very personal matters of self-doubt and worry that are exacerbated by a world of constant change, endless travel, and the inherent travails of navigating life as a young woman amongst prying eyes and directionless paths. The honesty in the songwriting, and the sentiment that bleeds over demarcation lines of gender or situation to find sympathetic ears with most who have the patience and disposition to listen make Stay Gold a songwriting feat before any discussion is broached about the music itself.
“And when talking about the music, Johanna and Klara Söderberg put on a melody-crafting clinic, endowing ‘Stay Gold’ with one rich, fulfilling composition after another full of soaring, frothy vocal exhibitions that run circles around the modern age’s garden variety mainstream singers. One of the reasons First Aid Kit can concoct such astounding melodies and match them so well with story is because their range and adeptness allows them a vocal pasture much wider that most have access to.” (read full review)
Charlie Parr – Hollandale
“‘Hollandale’ is like nothing you’ve heard, from Charlie Parr or anyone else, at least not like anything you’ve heard for a very, very long time, and with this amount of body and clarity behind the recording itself. Whatever you were expecting from this album, you are probably wrong, and in its stead you get an in-depth exploration into what it means to be alive, to be human, to feel pain and to yearn and reflect, without a single word being spoken on the entire work.
“‘Hollandale’ is a victorious moment for Charlie Parr, and shouldn’t just make it into your home’s music collection, but is one of those works you could hear being secured in the Smithsonian’s archives of important American instrumental music works. Charlie Parr has set the bar of creativity and originality that all folk, blues, and country musicians will be measured against throughout 2014 and beyond, and did what every musician would love to do 12 releases into their musical journey: make an impact larger than themselves.” (read full review)
Jim Lauderdale – I’m A Song
“I’m afraid this album may get overlooked simply because many people think of Jim Lauderdale as a known quantity, and because he’s so prolific, it’s hard to choose where to start with him, or to keep up with all of his releases. But I’m A Song should be considered right there with the other top albums of 2014.
“Twenty damn songs, and not a slouch in the bunch, and very country. Though Lauderdale has been known to shift back and forth between bluegrass, country rock, and more subdued, acoustic singer/songwriter-type stuff, this here folks is a downright honky tonk album, not cut, quartered, or diminished with any other additives. How in the hell does Lauderdale do this? Being prolific is one thing, but he’s like a songwriting quasar, shifting styles and still spitting out material faster than you can listen to it, and each song barreling you over with the quality and taste exhibited in every point of the music making process.
“‘I’m A Song’ is exactly what Jim Lauderdale needed to do: Take a deep breath, and release an album that could have a greater impact on the world outside the sphere that already knows about him; something that had quality and appeal from cover to cover, and in a unified and accessible direction.” (read full review)
Matt Woods- With Love From Brushy Mountain
Matt Woods is the last man standing when it comes to earnest songwriters who can barrel you over with emotional haymakers aiming straight for the gut. This is the superlative songwriting performance set to music in 2014.
“‘Brushy Mountain’ is as complete of a country album as you will find, with excellent songwriting throughout, a great sound that is country at heart, but with sprouts of rock & roll that endow the project with spice and originality, and there’s something for every mood here. In other words, it lived up to the expectations of ‘Deadman’s Blues’, and even adds a few more exceptional song offerings that downright rival that song’s indelible impact.
“Matt Woods is no fluke, no one trick pony. Not even close. He’s a force of songwriting nature who can match his stories with inspired performances.” (read full review)
Fortuitous would be one way to describe this project. Moving would be another.
Rewind back to 2010, when singer and songwriter Cary Ann Hearst was still working as a waitress part time to pay the bills in between music gigs, including with husband and solo artist Michael Trent in a duo known as Shovels & Rope. Two years before in December of 2008, the tandem had already released an album called Shovels & Rope, and in 2009 the two solo performers got married, but Shovels & Rope was never meant to be a permanent thing. It was more of a collaboration between their two respective solo shows.
It was in 2010, around the time Cary Ann Hearst reached out to filmmakers Jace Freeman and Sean Clark to make a couple of videos for her individual music that serious plans were being laid to make Shovels & Rope the preferred project of both Hearst and Michael Trent. Jace Freeman and Sean Clark, known collectively as the Moving Picture Boys, saw an opportunity to chronicle the formation of the band by following the duo around for a few months with no real plan of how to feature the content once it was captured, but with a sense something interesting might come of it. Four years later, Freeman and Clark were still filming, and Shovels & Rope was becoming the biggest new band in Americana, winning top industry awards, playing Letterman and Austin City Limits, and generally exploding on the national scene.
Shovels & Rope and the filmmakers put the cart before the horse, but in this instance it paid off in a brilliant and inspiring film. The Moving Picture Boys didn’t have the daunting task that most documentary makers face in attempting to tell a compelling story about an unknown or mundane subject, or having to embellish the important moments to keep viewers entertained. The story was telling itself in a way no script could ever facilitate. They just had to make sure they did justice to the story unfolding before them. Then when a Kickstarter was launched to fund the final production of the film, the fierce Shovels & Rope fans doubled the pledge drive’s initial goal of $20K, pulling out any and all stops to making The Ballad of Shovels & Rope one of the best music documentary films of 2014.
The beginning of the film starts off a little bit awkward as you can tell Cary Ann and Michael are adjusting to having cameras in their creative and home space, and some of the moments come off a little more choreographed than spontaneous. But eventually everyone settles in and soon you’re witnessing the reality of this band in its formative and humble incarnation when crucial decisions are being made that will enable their eventual success. Their struggles, their second guesses and vulnerabilities are on display as they play frustrating shows and take a chance on going to LA to record an album in two days, and ultimately scrapping everything they cut. Though you go into this film knowing there’s a happy ending that is beyond all odds in a cutthroat business known for crushing 1,000 dreams for every one it fulfills, the documentary shows that even amidst their success, there was a litany of preliminary failures.
But perseverance, and the self-awareness of knowing when something is right, and when something is not is what powered this husband/wife duo through adversity, and landed them on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium, walking away with the Americana Song of the Year award for a composition the cameras are there to capture Cary Ann Hearst carving out of inspiration four years before in the very early stages of the film. You literally see a career-defining song go from scribbles in a notebook to being played at the Country Music Mother Church and being awarded the greatest distinction any song in the Americana realm can receive.
In between The Ballad of Shovels & Rope captures the band deciding to record their premiere album O Be Joyful DIY style in their own house as Cary Ann is still waiting tables and haunting laundromats in the throes of poor musicianhood. It shows them soliciting the services of Amanda Shires to record fiddle parts in the duo’s tour van as Shires’ future husband Jason Isbell sits in the background with a fedora and a mixed beverage in his pre-sober condition. The cameras are there when the duo is approached by the Dualtone label, and when they’re consternating and eventually make the fateful decision with their manager to sign the record deal, putting them on a path to roots music success. And there’s more intimate moments throughout the film, like the duo bedding with their dog Townes in Wal-Mart parking lots, and hanging out at Cary Ann’s parent’s house.
No matter how emotionally invested you may or may not be in Shovels & Rope’s music when you begin this 70-minute feature, both the rarity of being able to watch a quirky, cool, and creative band make it in the music business, and to have cameras there capturing all of the most important moments, makes The Ballad of Shovels & Rope something universally appealing beyond the musical quotient. The perseverance of hope is really what is chronicled in this film, along with a lot of wisdom to understand for a rag tag band to make it in 2014, it takes a tremendous amount of work, a few lucky opportunities, and not just the ability to make the right decisions, but the insight to not allow oneself to make the bad ones.
Just like the band itself, The Ballad of Shovels & Rope is an achievement beyond all odds that results in art that uplifts as it entertains.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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The Ballad of Shovels & Rope is officially released December 1st. It won the Nashville Film Festival “Ground Zero Tennessee Spirit Award” for Best Feature.
About the time it’s ready to take the turkey out of deep thaw is the time to start checking back to see what we may have missed in the year of music as the steady roll of new releases begins to slow down to a trickle and allows us to catch up. 2013 was such a bumper crop year for earnest, melancholic songwriters like Jason Isbell and John Moreland, our music stomachs were stretched in a way 2014 seemed it would never be able to fill. But some important projects have tried, and given us some new names to draw from when the mood is one where we enjoy drowning in sorrow.
I don’t expect you to recognize the name Arlo McKinley & The Lonesome Sound. There’s no major effort underway at the moment to promote his music to the masses. Unless you’re clued into the right sectors of the Cincinnati music scene, his name is likely one of a stranger. But just as music worth hearing tends to do, it has slowly been bubbling up from word of mouth until some of those mouths have begun to speak about this record as one of the best music offerings all year.
A heartbreaker of an album, Saving Country Music headquarters has been spinning Arlo McKinley for a while now, but concerns for just how distressing and slow it was kept delaying any copy on it. It’s also a bit of a creeper, as slower albums can be. You aren’t going to spy its magic simply by skimming through iTunes previews. There’s no catchy hooks or sick beats to grab you by the scruff and make you listen. It has its way of sticking to your bones however, to where you find yourself favoring it over more upbeat fare, and craving it when awash in certain dour moods.
Arlo McKinley has a little bit of Sam Quinn (formerly of the Everybodyfields) in his voice, and a style that is not all too foreign to that region between old-school inspired country, and new-school infused folk rock. It’s the appreciation for the honesty of country songwriting without all the fluff and circumstance, fiddle and steel guitar of the discipline. This album is ten slow and deliberate gut punches with little mercy or sunny interludes. McKinley isn’t dabbling in anything here, he’s lowering his head, swinging away, and hoping you feel as miserable as the moments that inspired these songs, with minimal and tasteful musical hues shading his tear-soaked sketches.
Coming to this album with a country mindset, “Time In Bars” jumps off the track list as one of the takeaways, and so does “Sad Country Song,” even though its methodology of making a country song from other country songs has been done a few times before. When you think Arlo can’t get more depressing, he doubles down with a song like “This Damn Town” with its purposely harsh guitar, or the unbearable emptiness at the beginning of “Waiting For Wild Horses.”
McKinley’s ear for matching emotion with sound is quite skilled, even if his approach isn’t wholly original. Even the more upbeat-sounding numbers like “Don’t Need to Know” or the pounding final track “Dark Side of the Street” deliver a bravely vulnerable and depressing account of the life and times of this adept Ohio songwriter.
It takes courage to unburden your soul and air your personal frailties in the way Arlo McKinley has done in this album, and it takes insight and study to do it in a way that sounds so so good.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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Time was when the Turnpike Troubadours were just hoping to garner enough of a following so they could play historic venues like Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, or Gruene Hall in New Braunfels, TX. Now they’re facing the reality that they may just be too big to play these historic spaces anymore except as a nostalgic anomaly. Sometimes Gruene Hall will carve out a couple of consecutive nights to feature an artist or band if their following is too big for only one. But for the Turnpike Troubadours, they required a three-night residency at the “Oldest Dance Hall in Texas” to accommodate all the comers, and crowds sold out all three nights in relatively short order for the November 20th thru 22nd stint.
For a chance to see the Turnpike Troubadours and Gruene, some passed up opportunities to see them closer to home, while others bought tickets for all three nights and decided to make a weekend of it. After the energetic Mike and the Moonpies warmed up the stage on Thursday night the 20th, the Turnpike Troubadours came out and captured the crowd in the crook of their hands by playing arguably all their biggest songs right off the bat and in consecutive order—”Every Girl,” “7&7,” “Gin, Smoke, Lies,” and then launching into a strong set of their originals, all led by frontman and songwriter Evan Felker.
Like many of the biggest country bands in the Texas music scene, the Troubadours put on a country show with a rock and roll attitude. It was up tempo, energetic, and loud, but all Turnpike Troubadour material builds from the words out, and when Felker sang, “I had no clue I’d be the boy who your momma warned you about,” or “Good Lord Lorrie I love you could it go more wrong,” the crowd was in full throat singing along, stomping their boots on the old wood floor and filling the ancient rafters with a youthful country energy.
Midway through the show guitarist Ryan Engleman stepped behind the steel guitar and they slowed the songs down to allow folks to really listen. Another highlight was when Evan Felkerman announced a new song co-written by fellow Oklahoman and former Turnpike Troubadour turned decorated songwriter John Fullbright. “A new album is on the way, as soon as we get all the songs written and in the studio,” Felker said.
Questions of when new music will be on the way are common for the Tahlequah-based group. They’re known for taking their sweet time between releases, and that patience has resulted in some of the best country music you can find from the region. The Turnpike Troubadours remain the ideal bridge if you’re looking to convert your mainstream country-listening friends over to the independent side of the world. But with growing crowds and interest in the band, it makes one wonder how long they can hold out doing it mostly DIY. Their next album promises to be a monster if it simply holds par with their previous releases, and could be one to solidify their place in the national country music consciousness.
For the encore, Evan Felker came out and sang a few just with his acoustic guitar, and bass player RC Edwards even took a turn on the mic. The band said since they were playing three shows in a row, each one would have something different, and something special for the folks who booked all three nights. And after three nights of testing the capacity of both the walls and floors of the historic dance hall, the Turnpike Troubadours brought the run to a close with a seven-minute version of “Long Hot Summer Day” (see video below)—a song that once made it all the way to the World Series. Led by fiddler Kyle Nix, Gruene Hall erupted, stomping out the beat as the entire crowd sang along.
It’s easy to get despondent about the direction of country music when listening to the radio or paying attention to the mainstream of country music day in and day out. But while watching the Turnpike Troubadours at Gruene Hall, it’s easy to forget all of that when you see the younger faces and feel the freshness of the music while still be surrounded by such history.
The Turnpike Troubadours play Cain’s Ballroom for a two night stay December 26th and 27th, and then Billy Bob’s in Ft. Worth on New Years Eve.
When it comes to Garth’s new album Man Against Machine, I’m not sure if it is possible for his singles strategy to be more ripe for second guessing. The first single “People Loving People” might as well have not even been released. In fact the case could be made that Garth would have been dramatically better off not releasing a single at all at this point. Now that his first song back has flopped, it’s going to make program directors even more reluctant than they were before to feature a 50-something, somewhat pudgy and out-of-touch star that’s an unknown quantity to most of their target demographic. American radio is already on rickety footing when it comes to the public’s attention span as their appetite for technological alternatives to radio continue to grow. To be taking chances on artists whose peak of relevancy was 20 years ago is a gamble, even if their name is Garth.
It’s unquestionable Garth Brooks has a capable team around him to promote his singles, but from the outside looking in it appears he’s surrounded by yes men who will ignore the data they have on his new songs and shoot whatever Garth is most enamored with at any given moment to country radio and hope it flies. Garth just needs to let people know he’s out there making music again with a sensible single that will get decent play; something beyond local headlines declaring he sold out half a dozen shows in six minutes. If Garth hasn’t played your town or you didn’t tune in for the awful American Music Awards, there’s little reason to know he’s back. Instead of letting radio do its job, Garth’s swinging for the home run ball on the first and second pitch, and like when he tried out for the Padres, he’s going down swinging.
No offense to “Mom,” or even “People Loving People.” These are not terrible songs in themselves. There’s just no sensibility to releasing them as singles. “Mom” is one of the few songs on Man Against Machine that actually resides in the sweet spot of Garth’s vocal range, where his bellowing low end can compliment the beginning of each phrase in a way that evokes memories of his early blockbusters. For my liking, I still think the song could be a half step lower, but unlike much of Man Against Machine that captures Garth in this pallid middle range, his voice is an asset in this song.
You would have to characterize the instrumentation and approach to “Mom” as traditional. Fiddle, steel guitar, piano, and a slow, reflective rhythm looking to capture memorable, shiver-inducing moments all makes for something refreshing to hear on mainstream country radio, but only if they’ll play it. All the soccer moms that once were one of country’s mainstays have moved on to the AAA and adult contemporary format. 16-year-old boys with their fists pumping to Florida Georgia Line are going to find “Mom” about as fun as a 9 PM curfew. And no matter the appetite of Robin Roberts on Good Morning America and a studio full of shills crying alligator tears, this song simply doesn’t resonate unless you’re suffering from morning sickness.
The problem with “Mom” is it has that mawkish, signature-Garth over-sentimentality that just makes you want to vomit. Are the words themselves terrible? No. But the lyrical payoff’s potency is good for about one pass of the song, if you can’t see the “Mom” hook coming from a mile away, which most listeners will. Where it’s supposed to deliver people to this warm place, instead it instills this rainbow of conflicting emotions, and even weird thoughts of personhood and conception—somewhere a country song shouldn’t go. Some, if not many moms and children’s experiences with them are much less idyllic than is what is portrayed here. Yes, we all love our moms, but the sad reality is some of them are bat shit crazy, and others are completely unprepared for parenthood. What about the babies who get delivered into their arms?
In the mid 90′s this song would have wooed America, and it still will be effective on some of the daytime TV crowd. But today we’re too gripped with irony and sarcasm to let something so sappy and direct resonate widely, which in truth is probably a sad commentary in itself, but a true assessment nonetheless. Garth has compared this to his iconic song “The Dance,” but “Mom” comes nowhere near capturing the universal sentiment or depth “The Dance” does, not matter what decade your perspective is stuck in.
No, this song is not terrible, and it’s not its fault that society these days is so bitter and full of angst that they can’t enjoy a song like this at least a little bit. It may do better than “People Loving People,” but I’m not sure if that’s saying much. Garth has a whole albums worth of songs—arguably all of the ones except the two he’s picked—that will work fine for radio, and one in “Tacoma” that could be huge. But the question is, by the time he gets to them, will everyone have grown tired of Garth 2.0?
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One Gun Up for a fairly well-written, traditional, and heartfelt song.
One Gun Down for sappiness, short-sightedness, and over-sentimentality.
One year ago Sunday, 11-23, Outlaw country artist and songwriter Wayne Mills was killed—shot in the back of the head at the Pit & Barrel Bar in Nashville, TN. Now almost a year to the day of Wayne Mills’ death, one of the many artists that Wayne Mills mentored on their way up the ranks paid a touching tribute to the fallen star on Monday night’s (11-24) episode of NBC’s reality singing competition The Voice, arguably the most recognition the fiercely-independent Mills received his entire career.
Country rocker Craig Wayne Boyd from Mesquite, TX had previously shared the stage with Wayne Mills, as well as with mutual friend Jamey Johnson many times, but has been given the opportunity of his life by finding himself in the Top 10 of this year’s The Voice competition. Originally chosen by Blake Shelton and then stolen by judge Gwen Stefani, Craig Wayne Boyd was later stolen back by Blake Shelton. This was only appropriate, because Blake Shelton too was mentored by Wayne Mills early on in his career. While a struggling performer just trying to gain attention, Wayne Mills let Blake Shelton open for him and showed him the ropes of how to make it in country music. Though Wayne Mills is not considered a household name, many of the young artists he helped shepherd, like Blake Shelton, Craig Wayne Boyd, and Taylor Hicks, have gone on to great things. Wayne Mills was the prototype.
On Monday night’s episode, before Craig Wayne Boyd’s performance of Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line,” Craig Wayne took a replica of the now famous “WM” necklace that Wayne Mills wore at all times (see above picture) from Wayne’s widow Carol, and presented it to Wayne’s former pupil, Blake Shelton. The circle was now completed, and then Craig Wayne Boyd sang “I Walk The Line” in a ballad style in tribute to Wayne Mills as eyes watered on the live set and in homes across the country.
“I’m not a country girl but I could see right away with you that you were a star,” his former coach Gwen Stefani said. Pharrell said, “I remember when you first came across the stage. I thought to myself that man is super sure of himself. There is nothing like coming across an artist who knows who they are.” Blake Shelton simply called the performance “magic.”
Craig Wayne Boyd has been doing very well on the competition, hitting #1 on the iTunes Country Chart last week. On Tuesday, the results of Monday’s voting will be revealed to see if the country singer will continue in the competition. Meanwhile the elevation the legacy of Wayne Mills received through The Voice presentation is something that cannot be overvalued. Even a year after his passing, the Wayne Mills influence lingers in some of the highest echelons of popular music.
The video below shows the Wayne Mills moment. The video below that is a better quality performance of Craig Wayne Boyd’s performance.
If you’re populating a list of criminally-underrated country music talent, Caleb Klauder has to be somewhere near the top. The Pacific Northwest’s best kept country music secret is beloved by those who know about him, and revered by his fellow musicians who’ve had the fortune of making his acquaintance.
Caleb’s fortunes turned for the worse this summer though when he was diagnosed with vocal cord polyps. One of the most distinct and treasured voices of traditional country music was slowly growing silent. “The last two years at least, maybe even longer, songs were falling out of my repertoire that I wasn’t having fun singing—songs that were more challenging,” Caleb explains. “And even in general I just started not singing as much in my free time. I wasn’t having fun with it, and then my voice just kind of went completely kaput. I was at a live show and just lost my voice. I couldn’t sing at all.”
For a man who makes his living with his voice, not just in the Caleb Klauder Country Band, but as one of the long-time members of the influential Foghorn Stringband, this development was troubling to say the least. “I didn’t know what it was. I knew something was weird. It kind of crept up on me. So I went to a doctor, and it got diagnosed right away. It was plain as day. They stuck a little scope down my throat, and looked at it. So then I had surgery and I feel really fortunate because the surgery is non intrusive. They go in your throat with a laser, and it cauterizes the cut as it goes so the healing process is relatively mild and quick. I couldn’t talk at all for seven days, which was crazy. And I couldn’t sing at all really for three months.”
But Caleb’s recovery has been going well, and with the help of a vocal coach, he’s becoming a better, more confident singer than he was before the surgery. “Now I’m back to singing which is really fun. I’ve been out touring for a little bit. Since the surgery and getting the polyps removed, and getting physical therapy with a vocal coach, it literally has brought back all these songs that I didn’t know if I was ever going to sing again. And I’m singing some songs that I was trying to learn to sing, but I just couldn’t get my voice wrapped around them. So it’s really exciting that I can possibly sing these songs again, and it’s actually fun to sing again. It was pretty dark there for a while, but with the vocal training and stuff I’m doing—it’s like weight lifting on your vocal chords—it’s helping out. I feel like I’m at 90% back to where I should be. It’s a fun feeling.”
After taking some extended time off from the country band, Caleb Klauder is back out there touring, and has just released a four-song Just A Little EP to tide folks over for a new full-length album on the way.
“These were the early recordings leading up to a new album,” Caleb explains. “You’ll hear a little bit of (the voice) in there. It will probably sound to people like I’ve always sounded. And the cool thing about the surgery is that it didn’t change my voice. I don’t sound like a totally different guy, which is something I think a lot of people were worried about. But it cleared up things and made it easier to sing, and made me able to access certain songs or certain notes that I couldn’t hit before. So the recordings on the EP are pre all of that, but I definitely had polyps then, I just didn’t really know it. That’s what this new EP and then the CD is about, is letting people know that we’re out, doing it again. We’re going to be working on the new album in January.”
Caleb’s Just A Little EP recorded in January of 2013 in Portland, OR features frequent duet partner Reeb Williams, Caleb’s “Country Band,” and guest fiddler Sam Weiss on the one cover of the album, “I’d Jump The Mississippi” by George Jones. It is available at Klauder’s live shows and will be made available online soon.
Caleb & Reeb w/ Foghorn Stringband Covering George Jones’ “I’d Jump The Mississippi”
In one respect, it’s an even tougher year than normal to make it as a critical darling in the independent country/Americana sphere with so much attention and kudos being sucked up and deservedly so by Sturgill Simpson. It’s like Jordan’s stellar career overshadowed the fact that Charles Barkley was one of the greatest to ever play the game. Here First Aid Kit is putting out the best album of their career in Stay Gold, one of the best albums of 2014, and also enjoying a meteoric and worthy rise, selling out theaters on their current US tour with Samantha Crain, and wooing critics and crowds left and right. Their 2014 success story is one not to overlook, and their music is something not to go unheard.
Something that First Aid Kit has that virtually no other artist or band in the independent roots realm of a similar or bigger size can match is a library of videos that dazzle, entertain, and incite wonder like little else you can find. It’s an attention to video making as a creative medium in itself with no boundaries that gives their music an extra special love. The release of a new First Aid Kit video is grounds for an immediate stop down, and not just their tightly-woven and intricate big-production music videos with multiple scenes and settings that cast the duo in regal and awe-inducing moments, but with the sincerity and talent this sister duo from Sweden displays, even a short acoustic performance in a publishing office or a covered wayside is something that can enthrall and shuttle you off into a wormhole of escapism. After all, it was a simple video of the duo singing a Fleet Foxes cover that is given credit for launching their career.
As an offering for Record Store Day’s upcoming Black Friday releases, Johanna and Klara Söderberg have covered Simon & Garfunkel’s iconic tune “America,” written by Paul Simon. A master work of the American songbook, the song peerlessly encapsulates the forlorn beauty of youthful restlessness and underlying abject fear that are an indelible part of the American experience. Deciding to cover a song such as this takes guts beyond mention, like tackling “Unchained Melody” or some other such tall order that holds such a mystique behind it, the ramifications are costly if one can’t handle the composition’s heavy demands.
It’s not just happenstance that the sisters decided to go with the song as the anchor of their 10″ Record Store Day release. In 2012 while performing at the Polar Music Prize, their “America” rendition backed by a full symphony sent the crowd reeling, and won them a standing ovation from Paul Simon himself who happened to be in attendance as the guest of honor (watch). Once again the sister duo had captured a singular moment on video.
The studio version of “America” finds First Aid Kit taking minimal creative license with the song, and instead focusing on trying to conjure up the original awe-inducing moments in an new rendition. The close harmonies that make the sisters the closest thing we have to the lineage of The Carter Family fit smartly within the song, and the duty of the final high-register harmonies is not shirked for a more manageable feat, but reached for and achieved so that the shivers the song can afford spring from the epidermis in full bloom. Only the original can best this version.
First Aid Kit elects to go with a more folksy and understated video presentation for the cover song, intermixing vintage footage with shots of their American tours, and snippets of the sisters performing the song at various stops, making for a cozy experience. “America” shows First Aid Kit’s prowess as singers and tasteful interpreters, and must be considered one of the marquee offerings for Record Store Day’s Black Friday event.
Two guns up.
Alright, before we get too deep into this matter, just understand that you’re going to want to be purchasing this album. It’s my job to sit here and gab at you for a while about it and explain why, and I’m flattered that you would entertain this notion and read the proceeding words. But you pretty much just need to get this album and thank me later.
What I’m trying to impart to you here is this might be the best record released in 2014 by any artist whose last name doesn’t rhyme with Pimpson. Who’s even heard of Tami Neilson? I sure as hell hadn’t. But apparently she won the New Zealand Music Award for “Best Country Album” in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Who knew? Sorry, but by happenstance I let my dues to the New Zealand Music Association lapse in 2008 and they ceased sending me newsletters. But here we are in 2014, and I almost feel like I owe an apology to the sainted Saving Country Music reader for not cluing you in on Tami Neilson prior to this moment.
That’s right, New Zealand has country artists, and if you thought that the folks there only listened to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack on repeat, you’re sorely mistaken. Let’s not just summarily lump New Zealand in with Australian country music either, but truth be known, that entire quadrant of the globe deserves more credit for their country music contributions than it regularly gets. Rugged, rural country produces the sound of a strained heart that is universal in its appeal regardless of what hemisphere it originates in.
But it just happens to be that Tami Neilson originally originated from North America. And get this, she even has country music skins on the wall. Growing up in Canada, Tami played in the Neilson Family Band that toured regularly and even opened for Johnny Cash and others. More recently she’s played with Emmylou Harris and Pokey LaFarge. But let’s not pretend that Tami is one of these artists you have to associate with other more well-known names just to get you interested. Her music speaks for itself.
Your brain is going to want to file Tami Neilson into the rockabilly lobe initially because of the angry bangs she’s rocking on the album cover and the rockabilly-ish opening track “Walk (Back To Your Arms),” and no doubt there’s a healthy dollop of that old school rock and roll vibe in her sound. But country is the most resounding influence on her new record Dynamite! released in March, and quite honestly her offerings dwarf many, if not most of the contributions from artists residing in country music’s native geography.
Frankly, I’m a little intimidated about where to start raining praises on this record, but let’s begin with Tami’s voice. Like a country music genetic experiment gone good, Tami Neilson sounds like the result of Patsy Cline and Wanda Jackson having a baby. Blow off everything else if you wish, but Dynamite! might be the best vocal performance turned in for quite a while. The song “Cry Over You” is downright shiver inducing, and shows itself as a strong contender for Song of the Year.
That leads us into a discussion on the sheer style of Tami’s music. This is totally a country throwback old-school 1950′s record with no tone or sentiment offered foreign to this time, and no anachronism overlooked. At the same time the songs are timeless, speaking to the modern heart as universally as they would have if they were released 60+ years ago. A big hand needs to be given to producers Ben Edwards and Delaney Davidson, the latter known for touring the U.S. regularly with Possessed by Paul James. So many albums try to evoke the throwback sound with close approximations of vintage tones and by simply relying on tubes and tape instead of true interpretations of styles. Just like Tami’s singing, if nothing else, Dynamite! might be one of the best-produced albums in recent memory. And not just in the tones, but in the instrumental performances themselves—the arrangements, the classic electric guitar, the pedal steel and fiddle. It’s all so splendidly compiled and blended to inflict the intended mood.
But you know how modern country fans love to complain about music that sounds just like grandpa’s. That’s where Tami Neilson’s songwriting comes in, making Dynamite! so much more than just a cool nostalgia record. Like any good country album, there’s moments where the songs simply pound at your emotional capacitors and make you relent; songs like “You Lie,” “Running To You,” and “Whiskey and Kisses.” Take these songs and overlay them with a hip-hop beat and they would still work brilliantly. Yes, there’s a lot of interpretation of style instead of originality on this album with songs like “Texas” that could have been ripped out of Patsy Cline’s song chronology, or “Woo Hoo,” which is just fun silliness. But a song like “Running To You” exhibits a lot of deep compositional brilliance.
There may be some songs here that are just simply fun, but there’s not a slouch in the entire bunch. And this album goes by so fast, like a succulent daydream you wake up too early from and try to fall back asleep to recapture. Luckily this isn’t 1954 and we have the aid of a repeat button.
Can’t say enough here. This is a good one, and a late edition to the albums that are being considered as the best in country music in 2014.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to delve into the rest of her catalog.
Two Guns Way Up!
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There was a time when we believed that the Garth Brooks comeback album would be the biggest event in country music all year, if not in the last half decade or longer. Now sales projections have the album struggling to reach 150K units sold in its debut week (though who knows how GhostTunes will account), while Garth’s comeback single “People Loving People” is a dud that has already been declared “done” at radio. Meanwhile he’s setting record attendance numbers all across the country as part of his comeback tour, but maybe the music became an afterthought, at least to consumers.
The truth is, Garth was never going to live up to the lofty expectations many were foisting upon his re-entry into the country fold. Forget the naysayers who still can’t get over his high wire act at Texas Stadium or the Chris Gaines gimmick, there was some thought that Garth may be the only one left with the star power to reignite the spark of true country music in the mainstream once again, however ironic this may be given Garth’s history. But in hindsight, this was sort of like thinking Mike Tyson could still be heavyweight champion in the early 00′s, or that Brett Favre could still win a Super Bowl. At some point our greatest talents leave us all, if they don’t become out-of-style even if they’re still present in full force.
Choosing to go with “People Loving People” as a lead single may have been the greatest single mistake of Garth’s career. Chris Gaines, eat your heart out. As Saving Country Music asserted amidst the song’s release, it would probably turn out to be the least country song of the entire project, and hearing the full Man Against Machine album now, this is most certainly true. The song left the country fans hoping for a triumphant Garth return crestfallen, and the rest of listeners just a little perplexed, despite not being a particularly bad song on its own autonomous merit. This was Garth being Garth—wanting to change the world with a song instead of simply putting something out there radio would play and help ease him back into the mainstream picture. Truth be known, Garth’s entire rollout has been wonky, with decisions easy to second guess.
But Man Against Machine is not all doom and gloom here. To begin with, forget whatever first impressions “People Loving People” may have given you; Man Against Machine is country. It’s Garth country no doubt, with a little bit of the arena rock attitude that he first brought to country, and a little soulful blue-eyed R&B with a country flavor mixed in. Getting even more specific, there’s a straight up Western Swing song on the album, and quite a few more songs that solidly fit in the true country style. There’s some overly sappy moments, like the sentimental song “Mom” which once again is very Garth. There’s also many well-written songs. Will Man Against Machine help save country music? You certainly don’t get that sense. But there’s still some good music here, and not much bad.
The opening title track of Man Against Machine is a maze of messages that can be read a number of ways, while the music itself is very much a hard-rocking and punctuated expression. Many are surmising that this song is a shot at Music Row and the country music machine. Others feel it challenges the drum machines and Auto-Tune that pervade popular country music, or that it is specific to his well-publicized battle with iTunes. Still others think it’s target and message is more global, that it’s showing concern for how technology is impinging on our lives.
But the genius of the song “Man Against Machine” is that it’s message can mean all of these things, or something entirely different depending on the perspective of the listener. Though the music might seem a little off-putting, or even arrogant to some listeners, the simple fact is “Man Against Machine” might be the best-written song on the album—on an album of well-written songs. The duplicitous meanings, the allusions to the classic John Henry story in country, lines like “Careful calculations details drawn down to design. Is it really for the better or a better bottom line,” and even the self-awareness of “‘Cause I’m a machine myself, but I’m one with a working heart,” make for a delicious riddle to unwind, and an inspiring message if one chooses to take it as such.
You can go back and forth about the objective or production of some of these songs, but the songwriting is somewhat hard to deny. Garth had his pick of the litter of material, and despite the lack of large singles on this album, the patience Garth exhibited vetting offerings, and the breath of the song selections, is impressive. The duet with wife Trisha Yearwood on a song Garth co-wrote called “She’s Tired of Boys” is quite striking, despite the schlock rock harmonized guitar lines and general adult contempo production. Again the production leaves something to be desired, but “Cold Like That” carries an advanced, almost esoteric message that challenges the listener—something refreshing and unusual from a mainstream country star.
“All American Kid,” “Wrong About You” and “Cowboys Forever” are just straight ahead solid contemporary country numbers that are hard to complain about, though they may not offer anything particularly new or exciting. The Western Swing “Rodeo and Juliet” is certainly the most surprising track on the album, and when I say “Western Swing,” I’m talking about Bob Wills at Cain’s Ballroom, and a smart, fun, and once again well-written song, and the 3rd of the album with a Garth co-write credit. Though there are multiple variances from the country theme on this album, there is also ample steel guitar, some fiddle, mandolin, dobro, and piano, and a list of respected musicians who appear in the liners such as Jerry Douglas and Bryan Sutton.
“Send ‘Em On Down The Road” is where Garth gets the recipe of sentimentality correct; something he measures out too syrupy on “Mom.” The song “Fish” once again features a fine songwriting performance, and a message that seems to ring deep for Garth and is lovingly delivered. Man Against Machine ends with a distinct R&B flavor, with “You Wreck Me” feeling like a stretch out of Garth’s style pocket, and potentially one of the album’s bids for radio play, but one that feels a little dated. Meanwhile the final track “Tacoma” is arguably the best vocal performance for Garth on the entire album. A challenging structure imagined by songwriters Caitlyn Smith and Bob DiPiero, Garth does a superb job re-imaging the song in his own image while capturing the compelling original sentiment.
The change in Garth’s voice may be the greatest takeaway of Man Against Machine. Where classic Garth was able to dip down into the lower registers and then drawl back up with such a meaty tone on all those early 90′s standards, today’s Garth is an animal of the middle register with a much more rigid range, making his voice more ordinary, despite his control and ability to emote passion certainly still being present.
Man Against Machine is a strong performance from a mainstream artist coming off a 12 year hiatus, but you don’t hear the song that could be the commercial blockbuster or game changer that this album would need to put itself in front of the wider consciousness. They will find some singles on this album that country radio in 2014-2015 is more receptive to, while country’s impending format split might also aid Garth’s return. But radio may be salivating more for a new single if the first one had been better received. Now they may be more suspicious.
The purists will pan it because it’s Garth, and the mainstream may mostly ignore it because Garth is such an unknown quantity to their youthful demo. And everyone will question the wisdom of releasing “People Loving People” as a single or the somewhat silly cover art. But Man Against Machine is a solid Garth record, with some sappy moments, some rock and R&B moments, but mostly just good contemporary Garth country worthy of at least an open-minded listen.
1 1/2 of 2 Guns Up.
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“You can paint a wall green and call it blue, but it’s clearly not blue. That would go over badly, because people know. When people trust you, they believe you’re investing them with a piece of your life—and their lives in turn, so you want to keep that trust at every level.”
No this isn’t some illumination by a country music purist criticizing the excessive use of the term “country” these days to describe what is really pop, rap, rock, or some other form of music. These are the sage words from none other than Taylor Swift of why she decided to call her new album 1989 pop instead of country.
Taylor Swift went on to say, “So, it felt like it was important to tell people what  was…I don’t really think people were surprised I made a pop album; I think they were surprised I was honest about it.”
Contrast this with Sam Hunt, and his new album Montevallo. Forget all of the tired arguments about what is country and what is pop, and how pop has always been a part of country. All of that goes without saying when broaching discussions on acts like Luke Bryan or Florida Georgia Line, to the point of calling them not country is as cliché as their vacuous laundry list lyrics. But this Sam Hunt business enters an entirely new stratosphere of “country” term-perversion.
In a nutshell, Sam Hunt and Montevallo are not country, and this goes beyond opinion. So what that a couple of songs feature a banjo or a steel guitar. This arguably makes the offense even worse because it proves they know they’re trying to put one over on consumers. For every element someone presents to claim this album is country, I can present fifteen that prove it patently isn’t. And it’s not really even close.
Montevallo is country music in marketing only. This is EDM/pop. So the next question is, where is the label MCA Nashville in all of this, and the Country Music Association? Don’t they have a stake in making sure at least some control is levied and boundaries set around what country music actually is? Where are the radio programmers putting up the stop sign, protecting the integrity of the genre? How about Billboard who is including Sam Hunt’s albums and songs in their country charts?
At the moment, Sam Hunt’s Montevallo album bests all other country albums, sitting at #1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart for its debut week. His lead single “Leave The Night On” is #1 on the Country Airplay chart, meaning no song was played more on country radio in the last week. And it is also #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart, meaning overall it’s received more attention than any other song by radio and consumers. There was barely time to pay attention to Hunt’s X2C EP released in August before his full-length was announced to take advantage of his rapidly-rising demand. This is not Jerrod Niemann striking out with a gimmicky EDM song as the last dying gasp of a sputtering career, this is an artist poised to become a country music mega-star. But he’s not country, in really any capacity.
Montevallo is an excruciatingly-typical urban dance album that does Molly-laced grinds up against every single worn out trope of the velvet-roped, indirect-lighted, $15 cocktail club scene and the music thereof. Aside from the banjo in the song “House Party,” the steel guitar in “Single for the Summer,” and the sentiment in “Break Up In A Small Town,” this ten-song LP is a product of the pop/EDM world 100%.
This is the type of gaming of the country music term that has become typical over the past couple of years. Label managers looks for what they perceive as vacancies in the marketplace and interject manufactured stars to fill them. Hey, claiming rap and rock as country has been quite lucrative, so why not just launch your own EDM star and make believe it’s organic and erudite for the genre. Sam Hunt showed up into Nashville as a songwriter, and not a terrible one at that. But his most valuable asset revealed itself to be a willingness to make himself a blob of silly putty for marketing executives to fashion into whatever monster they so choose. Not that Sam doesn’t have his own motivations of money and stardom, or even sonic inspirations to take his music in this direction. If Sam Hunt’s music can make it in country, literally any type of music that exists on the planet can, and be successful enough where it tops the charts. This is not hyperbole. This is proven by Sam Hunt’s success.
Montevallo sits down in a space occupied by young white affluent to semi-affluent Americans that frequent the glitzy clubs of the shallow “see and be seen” world. Its lack of breadth and unifying emotional sentiments are striking. The songs “Break Up In A Small Town” and “Take Your Time” make use of the awful trend in EDM of talking verses in hushed tones, and transitioning over to heavily-infused Auto-Tuned singing towards the end. Jealousy and other signifiers of the under-maturated late-teen, early 20-something world are big players on Montevallo in songs like “Ex to See” and “Make You Miss Me,” while drum machines, DJ scratches, and synthesized accoutrements are featured unflinchingly. Though these things may be new to country, they come across as typical, if not tired elements of the EDM/dance world that has generally moved on to more complicated structures. Montevallo feels dated and unimaginative even in its native genre.
About the only saving grace of Sam Hunt and Montevallo is that the dude genuinely does not seem like the type of waste of human flesh that some of pop country’s other worst offenders embody. Sam Hunt seems more misguided. Similarly, a lot of these songs aren’t heavily-offensive to the ear on their own. The only reason to call them offensive is because they’re being called country—the same conundrum cast against Taylor Swift early in her career. The other question is why a 29-year-old is singing about the emblematic behavior of young adults just now exploring their legal right to drink?
Sam Hunt and Montavello symbolize nothing less than a dangerous, bordering on cataclysmic paradigm for country music where the genre could lose its identity long-term, rendering its autonomy and the entire meaning of “country” inert. Nice guy and good songs or not, Sam Hunt isn’t stretching the “Country” term, he is a downright attacking it, and represents a fulfillment of the mono-genre that should be roundly rejected by country music or face potentially dire long-term consequences.
Two Guns Way Down.
It’s the fall of 2007, and a mother and daughter from the little town of Lindale in east Texas are driving through New Braunfels, TX, just south of Austin, known nationally as the home of the historic Gruene Hall, when their car breaks down. Instead of stressing out about it, they decide to get a hotel room and a drink, and stumble into a rustic old bar called Tavern In The Gruene.
It is a Tuesday night, and like most every Tuesday night at the Tavern In The Gruene, Texas singer songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard is doing his Roots and Branches radio show live on KNBT, showcasing songwriters from the Texas scene. On the stage is a well-seasoned, but somewhat obscure songwriter named Adam Hood from Opelika, Alabama. The two stranded travelers from Lindale listen intently to Adam’s songs and are so impressed, the daughter waits until after the show to talk to him and Adam gives her a copy of his current album.
After listening to Hood’s music and falling in love with it, the mother and daughter decide to book Adam Hood to play a birthday party in November in Chicago for the daughter. The mother’s name was Beverly Lambert, and her daughter had just released a CD of her own, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend the went on to be named the ACM Album of the Year. As you might have guessed, Miranda Lambert was the weary traveler who’d stumbled on to Adam Hood, and knew she’d just discovered songwriting gold.
Soon Adam Hood was signed with Carnival Music Publishing and Carnival Records, the baby of Miranda’s producer Frank Liddell—the man also known for producing records for Stoney LaRue, and being married to (and producing) Lee Ann Womack. It’s a small world, but Adam Hood soon became a big songwriting cog in it, moving to Nashville to work as a professional songwriter, and becoming one of the most prolific song contributors to the Texas scene, churning out signature tracks for Wade Bowen, the Josh Abbott Band, Whiskey Myers, and too many more to name, and even some songs for some bigger names like Little Big Town. Hood wrote “I’ll Sing About Mine” with Brian Keane that was nominated for Saving Country Music’s 2013 Song of the Year.
It’s because of both the prolific nature and aptitude of Adam Hood as a songwriter that you almost have to remind yourself that he’s a performer too, and a damn good one. Miranda brought Hood out on tour numerous times, as has Willie Nelson and Leon Russell. He’s currently touring with Jason Eady, who included one of Hood’s songs on his latest album Daylight & Dark. But since Adam Hood is the epitome of a songwriter who makes it look effortless—penning stories that wrench the heart and encapsulate sentiments so poignantly that his peers are flush with admiration and envy—Adam’s songwriting is where it all starts. Though as he says on a song on this new album, “It takes a whole lot of hard work to make it look easy.”
Adam Hood is not a native of Texas or Oklahoma, but he is an honorary member of the Texas country scene if there ever was one. And now that he’s officially called Frank Liddel’s Carnival Records quits, he’s back releasing his music independently and calling his own shots. Only appropriate then that he would release an album that is strikingly personal in a very palpable and meaningful manner, making the music hold a weight that it otherwise wouldn’t if it was a collection of disparate perspectives. Adam Hood has written plenty of songs for others. He wrote and recorded Welcome to the Big World for himself.
Starting out loud and heavy, Welcome To The Big World opens almost like a Will Hoge record—more rock than country, but with a country heart. Hoge wrote one of the songs for the album with Adam Hood, but it isn’t one of the beginning ones, it’s one of the more country offerings called “Postcards and Payphones” that helps anchor the more country and subdued second half of the album. The opening song “Don’t That Sound Like Love” takes a realistic, if not dystopian view of love in a very heavy bluesy style, followed up by the full tilt rocking “Trying To Write A Love Song.”
From there is where the album turns more personal, starting with title track that Hood wrote just as much for his daughter as for himself about dealing with life’s inherent struggles and trying to forge a positive attitude about things you can’t control. “Bar Band” is deceptively deep in its perspective, uniting all of America’s watering holes with the mood that can be found on any given Friday night when local musicians are providing the entertainment. “Whole Lot of Hard Work,” “Postcards and Payphones,” and “Way Too Long” is where Hood’s songwriting brilliance is revealed in full force, while the duet with Sunny Sweeney called “The Countriest” offers a simple and fun palette cleanser amongst Hood’s heavy hitting material. “He Did” written about Hood’s dad lands another gut punch, and despite all the other noteworthy songs on the album, “I Took A Train” bringing up the caboose feels like the most timeless, like an instant standard.
Adam Hood did his time on big stages, gave his shot to Nashville where he still haunts songwriting rounds with some of his friends, and his mark will forever be left on the music even if his pen fell silent tomorrow. But now he seems content with the world and his place in it.
It was a random performance at the Tavern In The Gruene that landed Adam Hood on the greater country music map, but the songwriter never left the spirit of the intimate performance and the conveyance of a personal feeling that spoke to Miranda Lambert that night, and still rings pure and potent in the 11 tracks of Welcome to the Big World.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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Here we go folks, our annual gathering of old souls and independent-minded country fans to collectively commiserate and contemplate what the hell has happened to our fair genre known as country music as the pomp and circumstance of the CMA Awards transpires right before our shocked and disgruntled eyes. Be forewarned that all sense of decorum and courtesy will be tossed aside in lieu of admittedly immature and reactionary snark delivered with little or no governor. This is a night to get small and speak our minds, while at the same time being willing to give credit to any glimmers of true talent or hope.
So get your refresh fingers ready, and feel free to chime in yourself below in the comments.
Also, if you’re wondering why we pay attention to the CMA Awards if we hate them so much, please read the disclaimer at the bottom.
Pot right? Let’s wheel ‘em around!
2014 CMA Award Winners
- Luke Bryan – Entertainer of the Year
- Miranda Lambert – Female Vocalist of the Year
- Blake Shelton – Male Vocalist of the Year
- Little Big Town – Vocal Group of the Year
- Florida Georgia Line – Vocal Duo of the Year
- Miranda Lambert’s “Platinum” – Album of the Year
- Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow” – Song of the Year
- Miranda Lambert’s “Automatic” – Single of the Year
- Brett Eldredge – New Artist of the Year
- Miranda Lambert and Keith Urban “We Were Us” – Vocal Event of the Year
- Dierks Bentley’s “Drunk on a Plane” – Video of the Year
- Mac McAnally – Musician of the Year
- Vince Gill - Irving Waugh Award of Excellence
10:13 - Not as an exciting ending as last year when George Strait won Entertainer of the Year, but the writing was on the wall that Luke Bryan would win, especially after he got shut out in other categories. However there were some minor award victories, including Kacey Musgraves for Song of the Year, and not just because of the message of “Follow Your Arrow,” but because she’s a traditional artist, a female artists, and a songwriter. Also Brandy Clark is now a CMA award winner, which is big. But overall the awards were very same old, same old, and predictable. The CMA is going to have to do something about the Blake/Miranda Male/Female monopoly. It just doesn’t represent the music well, especially for Blake Shelton whose new record was a virtual flop.
What was positive was the overall presentation. Aside from Little Big Town’s neon silliness, most of the performances were sedated and tasteful, even if they weren’t especially entertaining. Carrie Underwood was the highlight as expected, as were Kacey Musgraves and Loretta Lynn. The Vince Gill award was a big surprise, and so was The Band Perry paying tribute to the ailing Glen Campbell. No Bro-Country was possibly the biggest story, aside from maybe Jason Aldean, which shows just how out-of-touch Bro-Country is becoming. Aldean’s performance seemed out of place.
Thanks everyone for reading. More tomorrow on the awards maybe…
10:02 - THANK YOU THANK YOU everyone who stopped by, read, commented, reposted, liked, retweeted, and everything else! I am going to compose some final thoughts, recap the winners, and then we’ll be done. More to come!
9:59 - Doobie Brothers weren’t bad taking it out though. They still got chops.
9:58 - Yeah, we should take our anger over the Luke Bryan Entertainer of the Year Award “To The Streets.” I need a Doobie.
9:56 - Your Saving Country Music alternative Entertainer of the Year is Sturgill Simpson!
9:54 - You don’t know how much it angered the blood to write that last line.
9:53 WINNER: The CMA for Entertainer of the Year goes to Luke Bryan.
9:52 - Nooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
9:51 - CMA’s give Garth Brooks a standing ovation as he comes out to hand out the Entertainer of the Year.
9:47 - Your Saving Country Music alternative Female Vocalist of the Year is Karen Jonas!
9:46 - This is Miranda Lambert’s 5th consecutive CMA for Female Vocalist, EXACTLY like her HUSBAND, Blake Shelton. Go wild conspiracy theorists. It also sets her up for the biggest CMA night ever if she wins Entertainer of the Year.
9:45: WINNER - The CMA for Female Vocalist of the Year goes to Miranda Lambert
9:44 - Sam Hunt needs to get busy bussing my table and filling my glass.
9:43: Normally I’d make a quip here about how this is the most country thing all night, but it actually isn’t for a change thanks to Musgraves and Loretta.
9:42: Yeah, maybe turn The Doobie Brothers’ mics on Pimples the Engineer boy.
9:40 - Shit, when I heard The Doobies were performing, I thought it was going to be a mashup of Eric Church and Kacey Musgraves. #legalizeoregon
9:38 - Remember for the ACM Awards, Luke Bryan’s peeps bitched when he got locked out. http://www.savingcountrymusic.com/members-of-luke-bryan-camp-mad-over-george-strait-acm-win
9:37 - Yes folks, that means Blake Shelton has now won five CMA Male Vocalist of the Year awards in a row. A deserved shout out to Earl Thomas Conley doesn’t deaden that sting at all. This is also another award many thought Luke Bryan would win, and he gets shut out once again. Expect the bitching from his camp to come out in full force if he doesn’t win Entertainer of the Year.
9:32 - Your Saving Country Music alternative Male Vocalist of the Year is Don Williams!
9:30 WINNER – The CMA for Male Vocalist of the Year goes to Blake Shelton.
9:29: Seriously, no offense to Eric Church, but why can’t we get the reigning Entertainer of the Year by himself in what might be his last CMA performance? He kind of stole the show.
9:27: Seeing Eric Church performing with George Strait is like looking at a really hot woman with a screaming, hairy mole on her cheek.
9:25: Irving Waugh was a veteran broadcaster who was instrumental in gaining national television exposure for country music during the ’50s and ’60s. He died in 2007. Johnny Cash was awarded the Irving Waugh Award in 2003. He was the only other ARTIST to win the award. Other winners include 1987 Frances Preston, 1991 Jo Walker-Meador, and 2009 Walter Miller. It is considered an industry award.
9:22 - Had never even heard of this Irving Waugh award before, but it was very well deserved for Vince Gill.
9:20 - WINNER: Vince Gill is Awarded the CMA Irving Waugh Award of Excellence, only awarded to one other artist before, Johnny Cash.
9:15 - Looks like Vince Gill may be getting the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award. If so, very deserved.
9:14 - Anyone check with Vegas on what the over/under is on how much Little Big Town paid for their Vocal Group of the Year trophy? More, or less than the Opry induction?
9:12 - Too many voices on Miranda’s “Smokin’ & Drinkin’”. This is not working. The song is flat to begin with. Tasteful instrumentation though.
9:11 - Could this Miranda Lambert / Little Big Town mashup start off more monotone?
9:07 - Also, Kacey Musgraves and Loretta Lynn, The Band Perry covering Glen Campbell. I’m telling you folks, still some terrible music out there, but you feel things slowly changing.
9:03 - Notice that there’s pretty much been NO Bro-Country so far? Even Luke Bryan is pulling out his adult contemporary material. Somebody sent out a memo.
9:01 - Your Saving Country Music alternative Vocal Group of the Year is the Turnpike Troubadours!
9:00 – WINNER: The CMA for Vocal Group of the Year goes to Little Big Town.
8:58 - I know some might find it screamy, but damn, I’m breaking out in goosebumps at this Carrie Underwood performance. The best singer right now in country music, period. Very inspiring. Two guns way up.
8:56 - Whoa! Which one of you bastards slipped the LSD in the beef stroganoff I was wolfing down in the commercial break? I’m seeing tracers, dude.
8:55 - Yes, there’s “Something In The Water,” but hopefully the preggo Carrie Underwood doesn’t drop hers when she hits that high note…
8:54 - Biggest awards coming up folks, hang in there!
8:47 - Great to see Ashley Monroe get some screen time, but this song does so little for me, and her teaming up with Blake Shelton is about as lame as when your parents showed up on Facebook. What’s up with all of this adult contemporary schlock?
8:42 - Yawn, Paisley. You’re lyrical hook is more flat than a pre-pubescent.
8:40 - Also, the producer of Miranda’s “Platinum” is Frank Liddel, who is the same producer of the new Stoney LaRue album.
8:38 - Miranda Lambert winning Album of the Year is a big development. This means she could have a HUGE night if she pulls off the upset for Entertainer of the Year. She’s already won two CMA’s for songs, and she’s pretty much a shoe-in for Female Vocalist. Also, this is another award Luke Bryan did NOT win. Surprising win for Miranda.
8:35 – WINNER: The CMA for Album of the Year goes to Miranda Lambert’s “Platinum”
8:30 – I think Dierks’ Riser album is tits, but “Drunk On A Plane” is an awful song in my opinion. Where’s a bunch of drunk Ukrainian separatists playing Galaga with a $500 million rocket launcher when you need them?
8:25 - Thanks to everyone leaving comments down below. Some great zings and observations!
8:24 - Let’s be thankful for the little gifts, like Cole Swindell only getting 60 seconds before getting cut off by commercials.
8:22 - Your Saving Country Music alternative Duo of the Year is First Aid Kit!
8:21 – WINNER – The CMA for Vocal Duo of the Year goes to Florida Georgia Line. And water is wet.
8:20 - Brandy Clark getting lots of face time tonight. Good for her.
8:19 - From Rawhide & Velvet on Twitter: “After the show Little Big Town will be outside Bridgestone Arena doing the traffic control.”
8:17 - “Truck Yeah” or truck no, Tim McGraw released on of the better mainstream country records so far this year. Not great, but just solid, unoffensive pop country music. Love the steel lick in this song.
8:14 - Overall though, this has been a pretty understated presentation comparatively. This keeps with the trend that started a couple of years ago. So far, no rap, no fire.
8:11 - But hey Little Big Town’s album cuts are REALLY REALLY good (please).
8:10 - Nobody told all the little glowing drummers boys what would happen if you brought a geiger counter close to their glow-in-the-dark suits. That was a performance to bee seen, not heard for sure.
8:09 - Talk your shit on Ariana Grande all you want, but it was the best $2.99 I ever spent at Taco Bell.
8:07 - Yes, that’s Little Big Town, who we gave a friggin’ Grand Ole Opry induction to in order to pad sales of their new album, and they still could only managed 40K.
8:05 - Better clean those cheeseballs up off stage before Luke Bryan gets up and waxes out on them.
8:02 - Jason ALdean spent $700 to have to rips in his jeans custom choreographed just for the CMA Awards. #lesserknownfacts
8:01 - Shouldn’t this asshole be in LA somewhere feeling up an American Idol castoff?
7:59 - So the “surprise legend” turned out to be Loretta. Would have loved to see Hank3′s reaction if it was Tom Hiddleston aping Hank Williams and singing “Jambalaya” with a Westminster accent. Would have loved to see MY reaction if it turned out to be Shania Twain in leopard skin stretch pants and a Madonna-esque cone bra. I’d be like Bob Knight whipping a chair across the room.
7:56 - Knew Brandy Clark didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning New Artist, but when they started with Brr…, I almost thought it was going to happen. Brantley Gilbert needs to get the damn marbles out of his mouth and quit being such a raging douchewad.
7:54 – WINNER – The CMA for New Artist of the Year goes to Brett Eldredge.
7:52: Kacey Musgraves sings Loretta Lynn’s “You’re Looking At Country” with the backdrop of the Grand Ole Opry barn. Loretta Lynn makes a suprise (somewhat) appearance and makes it a duet! Two guns up!
7:50 - Holy shit, someone is playing country music on the CMA Awards! Security!
7:48: “Follow Your Arrow” was also written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, meaning Brandy Clark is now a CMA Award winner.
7:44: The Band Perry is usually one of the most underwhelming performers on these things, but this Glen Campbell “Gentle On My Mind” rendition is really refreshing.
7:42: Kacey Musgraves on the Song of the Year win for “Follow Your Arrow” – “Do you know what this means for country music?”
7:40: WINNER: Kacey Musgraves wins Song of the Year for “Follow Your Arrow.”
7:38 : Tim Tebow: “Seriously America. I REALLY need work. Anything.”
7:36: Yes, Keith Urban. The only 47-year-old still adolescently-fascinated with owning a car and mugging down in the back of it. But with those highlights, he doesn’t look a day over 46.
7:34 – WINNER: Mac McAnally won a 7th consecutive Musician of the Year award. But of course that didn’t make the telecast.
7:32 - On the Miranda Lambert win for “Automatic”: Sort of an underwhelming song, but not a bad pick, especially for the more commercially-oriented “Single” instead of “Song” of the year.
7:30 - Don’t worry Florida Georgia Line fans, I’m sure they’ll be back later to shoot lasers out of their assholes!
7:28 - Sorry folks, but I don’t think Florida Georgia Line’s “Dirt” song is terrible. Much better to get this than that “Sun Daze” bullshit. They needs to re-alight the blow holes on their damn guitars though. It’s sending my OCD into overdrive.
7:26 - “Hey Bartender” by Lady Antebellum has got so much nothing. And that one guy looks like he should be a elementary school librarian that really into puppets, not a country star.
7:24 - Care of Rawhide & Velvet:
7:21 - I stand corrected. Apparently the picture I posted below of Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley did not include a homeless woman, but Bonnie Raitt. My apologies to Bonnie.
7:18 – WINNER: The CMA for Single of the Year goes to Miranda Lambert & the songwriters for “Automatic.”
7:17 - Quit being so mean America! I think Steven Tyler makes a very handsome older woman!
7:16 - Arena rocker Steven Tyler, “Country is the new rock and roll.”
7:15 - Now they’re razzing on Taylor Swift, Rene Zellweger, and naked selfies, as they do a grand tour of cliches of the American zeitgest.
7:10 - The opening monologue is pretty flat compared to last year, when they played off all the country music feuds. Ebola was last week.
7:08 - Brad Paisley & Carrie Underwood doing a dumb bit about George Strait. Meanwhile millions of Florida Georgia Line fans are wondering who the shit they’re talking about.
7:06 - For the record, I think Meghan Trainor is just fine.
7:04 - What does Miranda Lambert use to make her skin have the sheen of a bowling alley? Asking for a friend…
7:03 - If you’re wondering why Meghan Trainor is performing tonight, she’s a Nashville resident and actually co-wrote two songs on Rascal Flatts’ last album. She also once helped get Flatts’ frontman Gary LeVox’s head unlodged when he got it stuck between two rungs of a Carl’s Jr. jungle gym. The key was slathering LeVox’s head in an industrial-sized jar of Mayonnaise. True story.
7:00 - Here we go!
6:57 - Aww, Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley invited an older homeless woman to hang out with them backstage. #caring
6:53 - Some stuff of note from the red carpet. Yes, that is Kacey Musgraves’ hair, and meanwhile Sam Hunt looks like he should be fetching more lime wedges for my fish entreé.
6:50 - One thing we can be guaranteed of is that the opening performance will be the most non-country thing to transpire all night as ABC tries to lure in non-country viewers. Be ready for an unmerciful onslaught of your senses.
6:49 - Some late-breaking intelligence on potential performances: Rumor has it Eric Church will be joining George Strait for his performance, and Loretta Lynn might be performing with Kacey Musgraves, which might be the “surprise legend” ballyhooed to be performing. And in case you missed it, the producer of the CMA’s said, “There’s going to be a surprise guest in one of our performances from one of the biggest legends of country music of all time.”
6:47 - For those drinkers out there, Farce The Music has put together a satirical CMA Awards Drinking Game. It’s satirical because if you actually participated, you’d be in the ICU with alcohol poisoning.
6:45 - Some awards have already been doled out. This morning on Good Morning America, it was announced Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert won for Musical Event of the Year for “We Were Us,” and Dierks Bentley won Music Video of the Year for “Drunk On A Plane.”
DISCLAIMER: So every year when we engage in this LIVE blog exercise, people complain, “If you hate the CMA Awards so much, why do you watch?!?” Or, “If you really want to save country music, you should be taking about something positive instead of wasting your time with this.” First, understand that the CMA Awards are the single most significant membership drive Saving Country Music engages in every year as hundreds of thousands of people turn on their TV sets, find themselves in abject horror at what they’re seeing, and take to the internet to find like-minded souls. By directly engaging with the CMA Awards—undisputably the most important night on the country music calendar (whether we like it or not)—it creates a place for those disenfranchised country music fans to connect with the independent world and discover the riches of artists and music it has to offer. This is not a theory. It has been proven to be effective year after year.
Saving Country Music’s mission is not to abandon the storied country music institutions like the CMA Awards to the money changers to do with what they wish, but to challenge them by directly engaging with them and offering our dissent. We have seen significant gains in the pursuit to return balance back to country music in the radio format that is currently splitting to represent more older artists. We could see similar successes with the Awards shows in the coming years, but only if we let our voices be heard. And when you see artists like George Strait winning Entertainer of the Year, and songwriters like Brandy Clark being nominated for major awards, you can see inroads being formed, regardless of how awful the Florida Georgia Line’s and Luke Bryan’s of the world are.
If you don’t want to watch the CMA Awards, I completely understand, trust me. I am not promoting the CMA’s, nor am I encouraging people to watch. But as part of the dirty job of running Saving Country Music, I must watch. And if I’m going to watch, I might as well have some fun with it. Because as soon as we stop laughing, that’s when they truly win.
–The Triggerman, savingcountrymusic.com
No matter where you stand on it, the enigma that is Maddie & Tae’s “Girl In A Country Song” has made for grand country music theater in 2014, marking one of the most talked about musical offerings since Kacey Musgraves’ “Merry Go ‘Round.” The song takes a swipe at the same sort of Bro-Country that has completely permeated country music’s airwaves, while still remaining playful enough where egos can’t be bruised (mostly) or turf wars can’t break out between the country music sexes.
But similar to Kacey Musgraves, we didn’t really know what to make of Maddie & Tae beyond this one song because we didn’t really have any other offerings to balance it with aside from a few acoustic performances at radio stations. Was this simply another Scott Borchetta pop country Frankenstein brought forth to be an alternative to Bro-Country to where the country music industrial machine gets you coming and going no matter what side of the debate you stand on? Cute little 18-year-old girls releasing a song that starts of with a hip-hop beat seemed so easy to refute, even if the sentiments of the song struck a favorable chord.
Make no mistake, the emergence of Maddie & Tae is the result of tactical gaming of country music’s notoriously malleable masses by label types, but that doesn’t mean that the music can’t be any good. “Girl In A Country Song” really didn’t help answer the question of, “Who are Maddie & Tae?” It exacerbated it. Were the hip-hop elements simply there for irony? Were these girls really influenced heavily by classic country as they said?
So now the young duo has released a four-song EP, and all of a sudden a brand new set of parameters emerge. You do hear those classic country leanings in the songwriting. You hear fiddle solos and steel guitar by god. You hear two girls singing in close harmony with heavy twang about similar themes once championed by Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn. And you begin to realize that whether Maddie & Tae are a machination of Big Machine Records or not, their music truly is living up to the more traditional and tasteful approach they were touted as embodying when they first emerged.
Granted, we only have four songs to draw from. But from what I’m hearing, the Maddie & Tae EP might just be the best offering of mainstream country so far in 2014, and I’m not kidding. Moreover, listening to “Girl In A Country Song” in the context of additional music refutes many of the concerns it initially posed, and emphasizes the song’s strengths. Maddie & Tae really are traditionally-leaning country girls who love to instill wit and a strong sense of feminine values into music that is both smart and fun, and fairly well suited for the listening enjoyment of both sexes and a general audience.
The other song floating out there in acoustic form before the release of this EP was “Sierra.” Already a witty and smart tune in its raw form, when fleshed out in the studio, we really see the potential of the Maddie & Tae project come to life. Up tempo and twangy, with fiddle and steel guitar right out front and a story fit for Dolly or Tammy with a few modernizations, this song announces Maddie & Tae as that potential act that can bridge strong country roots with present-day relevancy. Even the slight presence of electronic accoutrements doesn’t feel like a detriment here, but a tasteful way to bring the roots of country forward to a new audience.
This is followed by “Fly”— the sentimental offering in the group that revitalizes the inspiring style of female country indicative of the early careers of Lee Ann Womack and Martina McBride. It may be a little too adult contemporary for some, but “Fly” is a solid offering that illustrates a deeper side to these girls’ otherwise silly and smart approach. And again the song endears itself to discerning country ears by relying on fiddles to fill the solo allotment instead of Stratocasters.
“Your Side of Town” is where the electric guitars show up in force, and this is the song that sounds more similar to what we’re used to from country music’s leading ladies of today like Miranda Lambert, with attitude dripping from the lines and the fiddle fighting for attention. But the song still fits into the interesting space the duo has carved out for itself with this EP. Maddie & Tae are great singers as well, though I suspect their twang is so pronounced, it will be polarizing for some listeners.
Like every good EP should set out to accomplish, this collection of songs introduces you to what Maddie & Tae are all about without exposing too much, and wets your whistle for what else might be in store. With “Girl In A Country Song” cracking the Top 10 of the Country Airplay and Hot Songs charts on Billboard, we might expect a fairly quick turnaround to a full-fledged album. But for now, this EP offers a fun experience, and good insight into what this much debated and ballyhooed duo have in store.
Color me impressed.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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Some will tell you that when you get to the very top of Texas country it becomes difficult to tell the difference between it and Nashville. It’s true that with your foremost Texas acts like Eli Young Band, Randy Rogers Band, Josh Abbot Band, and Wade Bowen, there’s an element of pragmatism to their sound. Texas country has traditionalism plenty covered with artists like Aaron Watson and Jason Eady, but some of the bands will mix a fair bit of rock and roll flair into their music, and worry more about captivating an audience than capturing strict interpretations of country music’s traditions.
This however is not necessarily a knock on them. This in itself is a tradition of Texas country that can be traced back to Willie and Waylon. Some country artists who happen to be born in Texas leave for Nashville as soon as they can and never look back, and those are the ones who quickly become synonymous with Nashville instead of the Lone Star State. Others can’t stay gone from Texas no matter how hard they try. The suits in Nashville have just enough sense to understand that something truly special is going on in Texas and that they want to be a part of it, just like a lot of Texas acts know that to bust through the corrugated tin roof of Texas country, at some point you have to make the dreaded trek to Music Row.
I-40 is well-grooved with the rubber of Texas country acts coming and going. You’ll have a band try their hand at the Nashville thing, like the Josh Abbot Band, and meanwhile another is calling it quits and heading back home, like Wade Bowen. They meet up at a Chinese buffet in Little Rock and swap stories about pencil pushers who beat themselves up trying to tame the wanton talent of Texas with only marginal success. Texas country artists are nice enough to give anything a shot with an open mind, but stubborn enough to refuse to be pigeonholed. It’s the perfect formula to drive Music Row completely mad. But they’ll keep trying, because Texas artists are the ones with the authenticity they yearn for.
Wade Bowen tried his hand with the big boys, specifically BNA Records with his 2012 release The Given. It brought him a Top 10 country album, which is a career achievement he can be happy with. But now he’s back releasing albums independently. Almost as a playful parting shot of his experience with the big time, Bowen released a track called “Songs About Trucks” written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally ahead of this new album. Antagonistic and timely, it took Bowen’s star and made it shine even brighter. It was assumed (at least in some corners) the song was the lead single from this new album, but Bowen was wise to keep it off and leave it out there as its own animal. The acrimonious nature of “Songs About Trucks,” though justified and poignant, doesn’t really fit the mood and spirit of this project.
Ahead of this self-titled release, the buzz was immense. There was a sense this wasn’t going to be simply another Wade Bowen album—that his experiences of the last few years helped Wade see himself for who he really is, instead of who everyone else wants him to be.
Two songs in, and this album already delivers on any promises and expectations preceding it. “When I Woke Up Today” written by Bowen and Rodney Clawson is the type of song nobody has the balls to record anymore; songs that are both deep and sunny. And Bowen has something that trend chasers can never top, which is an established sound that immediately upon hearing it fills the listener with a warmth of familiarity. You pop this record in, and you’re immediately swept over by a change of perspective like the opening song portrays.
This is followed by “Sun Shines on a Dreamer” and a very similar mood-enhancing effect. Not just the lyrics, but the drums and bass on this song really emphasize the natural tension and resolution of the tune. Excellent arrangement and good writing makes this song one of the top standouts of the project. This album is marked by some really big songs—songs that tend go on to define a career. Yet another is the waltz-timed and mood heavy “West Texas Rain.” Count it amongst Wade’s greatest, written by Bowen with Travis Meadows.
Where you get into the material that some may say strays too near a commercial mindset, you come to a song like the up-tempo and rocking “When It’s Reckless” with its screaming guitar solos and rambunctious attitude. A couple of songs—”My California” and “Hungover”—take a smooth, almost R&B approach in the production, even though the heart of the story could still be considered a country song. The more country offerings are the solid “My Leona,” the aforementioned “West Texas Rain,” and one of the funnest moments of the album, “Honky Tonk Road,” which sees Randy Rogers, Cody Canada, and Sean McConnell each sing a verse. Other special guests on the album include Will Hoge on “When It’s Reckless” (which he co-wrote with Bowen), Sarah Buxton on “California,” and Vince Gill on “West Texas Rain.”
Releasing a self-titled album seven albums deep into your career is making a statement. “This is me,” Wade Bowen is saying, and with a cadre of great songs turned in on this album, “me” in regards to Wade Bowen is something worth listening to.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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“This site’s called savingcountrymusic.com. Why are you talking about Taylor Swift? She’s not country. She never was. Now she’s even saying she isn’t.”
Well guess what, tough titty. This is my damn website, and if I want to talk about Taylor Swift, I will. And guess what, you’ll probably read about it.
It’s true that Taylor Swift has officially left country, and the majority of the country music media needs to ween themselves off the Taylor Swift click bait and recuse themselves from running features on every Instagram picture she posts. But I can make the case that when it comes to this specific album, 1989, it is the most relevant, most important album released in country music in the entirety of 2014, let alone in music overall, and for a host of reasons, even though it’s not country. Thinking otherwise is vanity, and ill-informed, to the point where it would be almost irresponsible not to broach the subject of this album, and the potential repercussions it could have on the country genre at large.
For starters, if you trace back to the origination point 1989, it will lead you to the corporate headquarters of Big Machine Records—an independent label located at 1219 16th Ave South in a portion of the City of Nashville known by locals as Music Row, aka the mother brain of the country music industrial complex. Not to mention that said Big Machine Records also happens to be up for sale according to reports that first surfaced the third week of October, and have subsequently been stoked anew, and specifically name this album, 1989, it’s success, and the success and contract status of Taylor Swift as linchpins to the entire deal.
But let’s not bog down in business jargon and behind-the-scenes details. The reason 1989 is important to country music is not in lieu of Taylor Swift declaring herself and this album pop, it is because of it. Country music isn’t mad at Taylor Swift for leaving the genre, they’re mad because she blew their cover. Of course she’s not country, and never has been. Nor is the majority of what is clad in country clothing. It just happens to be that Taylor Swift is the only artist with the balls to say it, and the balls to admit she wants to make pop music. Oh my heavens, what a shock! Meanwhile the rest of country is syncing up banjos with drum machine beats, and singing about getting high in the bathrooms of downtown clubs. Say they’re not country though, and they’ll admonish you as a closed-minded purist, and claim what they’re doing is “evolution.” If nothing else, give Taylor Swift some damn credit for being honest with herself and her fans. That’s one big monkey off her back … at least for now.
But genres aside, 1989 has already revealed itself as transcendent from a commercial perspective. I don’t know if it’s even possible for us to quantify what kind of feat this album has achieved by selling more albums in a week than any other project in a dozen years. When you factor in the unchecked flight from physical product and now even downloads that is absolutely ramrodding the music marketplace into a downward spiral, this feat is nothing short of miraculous. Would this be the equivalent of selling 2.5 million records on debut in 1989—the year the album is named for? Three million? More?
The decision to not make 1989 available on Spotify proved to be a smart one, as 14-year-old girls all across the country crashed their local Target stores to obtain their copy. Remember the Taylor Swift op-ed from the Wall Street Journal and her fearful plea? “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free,” she said. “In mentioning album sales, I’d like to point out that people are still buying albums, but now they’re buying just a few of them. They are buying only the ones that hit them like an arrow… It isn’t as easy today as it was 20 years ago to have a multiplatinum-selling album…”
Unless you’re Taylor Swift.
Why is Taylor Swift’s 1989 relevant to a country music website? Because it is relevant to any music website, because we very well may be looking at the very last American album sold in a physical form that permeates the entire population. Vinyl collectors will tell you, if you crash any given pile of records, whether at a garage sale, a thrift store, etc., you always see the same revolving titles: John Denver’s Greatest Hits, Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass for example. It’s uncanny, and doesn’t matter where you are in the country. It’s because everybody bought those records. Or at least the people that bought records did. 1989 may be the last record of that lineage, and the only person or album that might have a chance at besting or repeating this deed would be Taylor Swift in two years when she releases her next one. It was Taylor Swift’s last album Red that 1989 broke the record for a debut week initially, until the tally of 1989 sales started to reach past 1.25 million, and we had to go all the way back to 2002′s The Eminem Show to find a peer. That is an illustration of how Taylor Swift truly is the artist of a generation, even before factoring music’s dramatic sales slide. And the fact she accomplished all of this after declaring herself no longer country is a footnote worth not glossing over.
How did she do it? The Spotify embargo helped, but she also did it by showing love to the physical format. The cover of Swift’s 1989 is fairly nondescript, but purposely so, and you can almost squint and tell how over time it could become iconic with its retro attitude. But it really was the little treats Taylor Swift put inside each package that made her many fans and even passers by decide to go physical. In each package is a card that enters listeners into a sweepstakes for a chance to meet Taylor Swift. A Willy Wonka golden ticket so to speak. It also comes with a little package that says “Photos” that includes 13 cards, or mock Polaroids of Taylor Swift, each numbered as part of a bigger sequence, with the lyrics to songs scribbled in Sharpie on the bottom.
This all gives a physical representation to the incredible amount of social traffic Taylor Swift generates. It’s something tangible that separates her from the virtual stars of today. Like the spinning cover of Led Zepplin’s III‘s original album cover where you could change what’s peeking through the windows, it shows imagination, and effort.
The problem with 1989 though is that it is just not a very good album. Country, or not. The analogy employed for Taylor Swift albums by this country music critic for her previous releases was that of an Italian food critic sent to a Chinese restaurant, and asked to judge the Chinese food … as Italian food. Clearly the result would be a failing grade, and that is what Taylor Swift received, regardless of how good the music was as pop. But judging it as pop music specifically, it was hard to not admit that the music had its moments, and its depth and value.
1989 has some depth too, and some value here and there, but overall you feel like you’re getting the worst of all those older Taylor Swift albums—the unabashed pandering to the public at large in smash singles, and some of the self-ingratiating sentimentality—all condensed into one. There are respites, and as Taylor Swift says herself, this is the most cohesive album she’s ever made sonically, and that may be true. But I’m not sure that is something to be boasting about when this is the result.
Taylor Swift’s 1989 could have been great, and you get a sense that it almost was. The idea of this retro, 25-year throwback perspective personified in new music is probably a worthy one. That 25-year marker is thrown around regularly as the measurement of when music of the previous generation reaches its apex of emotional virility and maximum memory response in its listeners. Before the 25-year window, the music feels unfashionable. Beyond it, and it feels outmoded. 25 years is the sweet spot, and that is why country music is seeing a revival of its “Class of ’89″ artists like the recently-unretired Garth Brooks, and Alan Jackson who is going on a 25-year Anniversary tour.
25 years ago was a big time in country music, or at least the time of a big freshman class. But what about pop? 1989 was the year of Milli Vanilli. The 80′s were already an era of music that would be called lost by some, and laughable by others. Why does a lot of commercial country today sound like bad 80′s hair metal? Why did Taylor Swift’s Big Machine record label release a Mötley Crüe tribute album this year? Because it hits on that 25-year sweet spot. But hair metal and Milli Vanilli were godawful, just like much of 80′s music.
If you wanted to look for what has withstood the test of time from the 80′s era of pop, you look to New Wave, and one hit wonders. Yes, this was the era when synthesized music took hold in earnest, but it was also the time of tantalizing melodies and arrangement—guilty pleasures for Audiophiles and ear worms galore for the masses. And we’ve already seen Taylor Swift tap into this retro music magic, and rather successfully ahead of the 1989 release.
A song like “Enchanted” from Taylor Swift’s 2010 album Speak Now has that 80′s synth pop thing going strong. On 2012′s Red, a perfect example of this is the song “Starlight.” And the single that preceded this album called “Sweeter Than Fiction” that appeared on the soundtrack of the film One Chance also found Taylor Swift revitalizing the New Wave vibes that marked some of the best moments of 80′s pop, and doing it with Jack Antonoff as producer—the guitar player for the band Fun, and the man who also co-wrote and produced two songs for 1989, including one of the lead singles, “Out of the Woods.”
Listening to “Sweeter Than Fiction” and some of Swift’s other synth-pop songs from the past, you though that if this was the direction 1989 took, the results could be quite tantalizing. Taylor has proven to be adept at re-imagining the 80′s. But I hate to say, this album did not take that direction, really whatsoever. If “Sweeter Than Fiction,” or even “Starlight” or “Enchanted” were included on this album, they would immediately become the best tracks by far. One of the surprising things about 1989 is how much it resides solidly in the here and now, startlingly so. There’s not really any retro vibe. Instead we get Max Martin/Shellback smash single formulas, a fairly lackluster, unimaginative, and disappointing performance by Jack Antonoff, and only a few songs that really simulate any intrigue to the discerning ear.
1989, just like the year itself, is sort of a bore. The cohesiveness of the album eliminates any spice or suspense. The modes of production are transparent, and the melodies are rendered powerless by rhythmic seizures, excessive repetitiveness, and poor decision making in the composition. This album is just kind of a mess in places, guessing at what might make a song a smash hit instead of doing the inspiration justice.
It’s been the assertion by Saving Country Music that all popular music is slowly transitioning to simply being noise scientifically formulated to stimulate the highest possible dopamine response in the brain. Swedish hitmakers Max Martin and Shellback—who joined Taylor’s team at the behest of Scott Borchetta during Red—are the precursors to this impending era. They were responsible for Red‘s three huge pop hits, but like Taylor accurately picked up on, their compositions came out of nowhere on that album, like interjections to the listener, and hurt her overall effort, regardless of the success of the songs themselves. She avoids that same mistake here, but unfortunately she does it by enacting this Max Martin/Shellback composition-by-formula across the board on these 13 tracks.
Whatever the original melodies to these songs were, we’ll never know. Taylor herself has probably forgotten them already. I have little doubt most of the words are her own. But then she brought them into the studio, was asked to sing them a certain way, and then they were summarily dumped into a sound file, cut and pasted like text from a Wikipedia page into a student’s history report, and then used as the producers wished to craft what they believed would be infectious patterns for mega hits. The result is that any and all inspiration behind the songs has been scrubbed from the performances. Taylor Swift’s words and voice are just another sonic elements to fit into a pre-arranged composition optimized for mass consumption. The curly-haired awkward girl sitting in her bedroom writing down her feelings while playing her acoustic guitar was not only lost in this process, she was murdered.
What’s the most shocking about this is that we can expect this kind of behavior from the music cretins like Max Martin and Shellback, who along with Joey Moi and other producers are really at the heart of destroying American popular music. But Jack Antonoff of Fun, and Ryan Tedder—the OneRepublic frontman who also co-writes and produces a couple of songs on this album—seem so eager to play ball with this formulaic approach. This was possibly the fatal flaw of bringing in Max Martin on not just as a songwriter and producer, but as the executive producer of the project. Everything was exposed to his corrupting mandibles, aside from maybe the song “This Love” that Swift did with her long-time original producer Nathan Chapman.
In fact the guest producers do such a poor job and this album is such a lowering of the bar overall, the songs that shine the brightest are arguably the ones Max Martin and Shellback had the heaviest hand in—a complete role reversal from Red. Even Imogen Heap’s contribution on the final track “Clean” feels tired, forced, and unimaginative. However, this is nothing close to praise of the Swedish pair. It’s just happens to be that a few of the songs they didn’t completely suffocate the melodies or ruin the songs with rhythmic pap, though many of them they still did.
The song “Style” works well as a modern pop song, and the theme about being classic and above style trends is really smart, while the song also conveys the story of a passionate romance. The other standout of the album is “How You Get the Girl.” Despite being hamstrung by the annoyingly-rhythmic confusion at the beginning of the song, it rallies to evidence one of the most catchy moments on an album that is curiously lacking in them for a pop project. “This Love”—the only solo write by Swift on the entire album and produced by Nathan Chapman—is alright, but is a little too flat and Enya-like to hold the attention for very long, even though for once on this album you get the sense you’re listening to something very personal.
Other songs like “All You Had To Do Was Stay” would have been good, buy why, why choose to put some ridiculous banshee yawp enhancement on the final “stay” of every phrase to take a perfectly fine pop song and make it polarizing? “Wildest Dreams,” “I Wish You Would,” are just okay, and don’t even get me started with the album’s lead singles: “Shake It Off,” “Out of the Woods,” and “Welcome To New York.” These songs are just bullshit. “Out of the Woods” can’t be saved by the inclusion of a personal narrative because it is simply caustic to the ears with its rhythmically disjointed repetitiveness. “Bad Blood” is downright annoying. The entire project is so racked with poor rhythm decisions, repeated words and sounds, Shellback loading up Taylor Swift’s voice in a memory bank and playing it back on a MIDI controller like a Moog, it’s just objectionable to the ear in many places. 1989 is the worst album Taylor Swift has every made.
But how about the words, is there any redemption here? Sure, maybe. But once again we’re asked to praise Taylor Swift the songwriter when her words have been buried beneath layers of synthesizer beds and over-production that screams out for the predominant attention, while the lead single of the album is built around the vacuous “Players gonna play, and haters gonna hate” über cliché of our era. If Taylor Swift wants respect as a lyricist, she needs to put the material out front that flatters these attributes, not that refutes them. Yes, there are some good lines, and good sentiments on 1989‘s lyrical set. But we’re not seeing Taylor Swift evolve. When she was fifteen, we were amazed at the maturity and self-awareness she embedded in her cute little pop songs. Now you’re starting to wonder if and how her fame has stunted her emotional development.
That doesn’t mean songs like “Wildest Dreams,” “This Love,” and “I Know Places” don’t have a little something. But songs like “Blank Space” and “Bad Blood” come across as immature and self-indulgent. Let’s not forget that Taylor Swift is still only 24. But where before she was a 15-year-old writing as a 24-year-old, now it feels like she’s a 24-year-old writing as an 18-year-old in segments of this album.
Where does 1989 rate when it comes to the great pop albums of this generation? It’s fate is probably secured in being considered top grade simply because of its commercial performance. Hell, the City of New York has already named Swift their “ambassador” for the next two years based off of 1989‘s lead song and Swift buying and apartment in Manhattan. But I’m sorry to say, “Welcome to New York” as a song offers nothing. At all. 1989 held up against Lorde’s Pure Heroine, or Adele’s 21, or even taking a further step back and looking at Nelly Furtado’s Loose for example, and you feel like it would be patently unfair to compare those projects to what Taylor Swift has offered up here. It’s more on par with Ke$ha’s Animal—simply a collection of digital production performances and studio magic with some flashes of fair writing.
Swift seems to think that to loosen the bonds of country, she had to completely go away from instrumentation. Virtually the entirety of 1989 was sequenced on Mac computers, and you can feel that in the results. Yet you listen to where the rest of pop music is headed, and you see it beginning to favor instrumentation more and more, like the standup bass in Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” that has consistently bested Swift’s “Shake It Off” in the charts.
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There are some decent moments on this album, and I don’t want to downplay this opinion. And I would be interested in hearing the songs that did not make the cut, as I’m sure there were many fleshed out in the studio that we’re not getting a chance to hear.
But it’s over. That young girl with big dreams and an acoustic guitar sitting on the edge of her bed writing silly little heartfelt songs that became America’s sweetheart has become just a franchise name for dubious-intentioned producers to do with what they will. Max Martin finished the job in 1989 he started on Red. The fact that Taylor Swift still writes most of her lyrics is simply a facade that she has complete control over what is transpiring, misleading not just her fans and the public, but more disappointingly, herself. The problem with money and success is that you can always have more of it, and this is usually where the compromising of principles occurs, trying to best records you’ve already broken. When you attain goals by reaching outside yourself, the losses are greater than the gains.
1989 does not represent the year Taylor Swift was born, it represents the moment her music died as a form of her original expression.
1 1/2 of 2 Guns Down.
Less country music Christmas albums, and more country music Halloween albums I say. And if a cottage industry happened to crop up for spooky country music every October, it would stand to reason Madison, Wisconsin’s Those Poor Bastards would have the market cornered. Beware interlopers and carpetbaggers, these bastards have been purveyors of their self-described “Country Doom” for over a decade, dealing out an unlucky 13 albums to date, including their latest dreadful offering Vicious Losers freshly-exhumed just this Halloween month. And that doesn’t include the more ghost and goblin-oriented side project of Those Poor Bastard’s principal member Lonesome Wyatt called The Holy Spooks, whose multiple releases include Ghost Ballads and Halloween is Here released last year.
But Those Poor Bastards is not some Disney version of “H E double hockey stick” horror, and this is not some seasonal pursuit. Lonesome Wyatt and The Minister have become the kings of Gothic country over their terrible tenure, and are made to be imbibed in year round. The duo’s dark and artistic oriented music draws directly from country music’s formative years and the exploration of sin, guilt, depravity, and death that were very much at the heart of these tunes—I’m speaking of artists like The Carter Family, The Louvin Brothers, and even Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, where sin and redemption weren’t polar opposites, but separated by a thin membrane that the forces of good and evil were constantly at war trying to pull you across. Then all of this was cast in a mood of desperation from the death, hopelessness, and chronic poverty that gripped country music’s Appalachian homeland in the late 1800′s and early 1900′s, and still lingers throughout the hills and hollers of that region today.
Imagine condensing the dark sentiments from all of these early country pioneers together, and adding a few new methods of composition and sound from more modern apparitions such as Tom Waits and Nick Cave, and you have a sound that however niche it might be, has cast a wide net of loyal parishioners all over the world who collect Those Poor Bastards’ short run colored vinyl projects and pour over their artistically-oriented music as fine art, no matter how hauntingly it may screech and moan to get its dreadful point across.
Part of the pleasure in Those Poor Bastards is to try and glean the moral and motivations of their music. As disturbed as it clearly presents itself from song one, there is also a profound sense of morality, economic justice, and concern for the lost souls of modern men confined to the rat race that punctuates any Those Poor Bastards’ effort. But don’t think that recuses them from delving into the temptations of sin or the unsettled recesses of the brain where where silent killers and psychopaths in all of us await. Whether you’re truly disturbed, or simply love to immerse yourself in that dark side of humanity inherent in us all by design, Those Poor Bastards can be a vessel for your journey.
Those Poor Bastards have already amassed a fine catalog that defines Gothic country, including songs like “Behold Black Sheep,” “With Hell So Near,” “Crooked Man,” “The Dust Storm,” their cover of Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line,” and “Pills I Took” once covered by Hank Williams III. Vicious Losers now adds another 13 songs to their repertoire, ranging from the raging, serrated and harsh “I Am Lost” opening track, to the simple clawhammer banjo driven “Strange Dark Night,” or the quieted 40-seconds of “Big Trees.”
Words and textures are one in the same with Those Poor Bastards, and one thing Lonesome Wyatt can never get enough credit for is his prowess as a vocalist that is virtually unparalleled this side of Tom Waits in conveying mood and character with such range. Vicious Losers has a couple of songs where Lonesome Wyatt puts on a clinic, shape-shifting between his evil growl, his bass-heavy belly voice, and a clear and eerily beautiful high range whose total breadth on the tone scale would best most any of mainstream country’s top singers. The song “Lonely Man” is a perfect example of this.
“Give Me Drugs” is a cautionary tale to America’s pill problem, but to balance becoming too preachy, it is followed up by the unhinged and ribald “Dolled Up.” Vicious Losers ends with an 11-minute noise opus called “Today I Saw My Funeral;” a song that could have been written by The Carter Family, beginning as a primitive country ballad whose refrain then floats in and out as the song descends into an extended foray of disturbed noises. Another hallmark of Those Poor Bastards is Lonesome Wyatt’s ear for the everyday sounds of life that trigger dark memories. This song on loop would be the perfect ambient noise for your neighborhood’s haunted house.
On second thought, I don’t know that I want all of the country artists who are inclined to make Christmas records deciding instead to dip their toes in the Gothic country realm. Those Poor Bastards have it covered just fine.
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Stoney LaRue: One of the few artists the national media will label as “Red Dirt” and actually be right about …. though it will still be by mistake from the common misconception that “Red Dirt” and “Texas Country” are interchangeable.
The Texas born, Southeastern Oklahoma-bred singer and songwriter who once swept the floors at the Tumbleweed Dancehall was just as famous for his own songs as he was for being the brother of Bo Phillips and the “guy in the bandanna” in the Red Dirt scene until his 2011 album Velvet really put him on the map as his own man. His earlier career had been filled with a lot of heartfelt music and mostly live recordings—he was the life of the Red Dirt party so to speak—but by his own admission it was mostly driven by just really wanting to be involved in the music he was surrounded by as opposed to putting his own signature stamp on it.
Velvet changed all of that, and it wasn’t symbolized just by the few cents extra that he splurged on to have the jewel cases covered with short, wine-colored fur. This was Stoney asking and answering the question “Who am I, and what is my sound?” Still as great as that album was, there was sort of a safeness, a pensiveness to the approach you could sense if you put your ear to the ground, almost like Stoney knew he hit on something right, but still didn’t have the confidence in it completely to deliver it with 100% commitment. He needed to get it out there in the public to see how it was received before fully buying in that what he was feeling was right, and good.
With his new album Aviator, you not only get that great, signature Stoney LaRue sound, you get it with Stoney and all the involved parties buying in by not just showing confidence, but even showing a little boldness and willingness to do some things a little offbeat, run some songs together and carry others out a little longer than they should be, and this all results in that enriching Stoney LaRue mood becoming even more enhanced.
Aviator isn’t one of those albums you cherry pick through to the best songs. That would be like choosing a favorite child, because all of these songs are great and work so well together and in succession. This is one of those albums you put on for a long road trip or a restful backyard barbecue and then press repeat when you get to the end. It is the embodiment of that laid back Texoma flavor that doesn’t just remind you to take a deep breath and appreciate life for the moment, it demands it.
From an “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mindset, Stoney LaRue assembles the same team to work on Aviator as he did for Velvet, including producer Frank Liddell, most famous for his efforts with Miranda Lambert (including getting Stoney to sing backup on Miranda’s 2013 hit “All Kinds of Kinds”), and producer Mike McCarthy. Cut mostly live and to 2-inch tape in Nashville’s historic Studio ‘A’, the album has an organic, loose feel, with a lot of the live energy embedded in the tracks. Along those lines, this is an album that makes you want to hear these songs on stage. Though one of the underlying factors in Aviator‘s inspiration was LaRue’s recent divorce, even the dark moments are turned gray or rosy from the easy-hearted attitude that permeates this project.
Written with his common co-conspirator Mando Saenz, and released by eOne Music who should help Stoney enjoy a little more exposure though this release, Aviator is one of those albums that defines a career when many of the Red Dirt originators are growing long in the tooth, and a lot of Texas country headliners are letting the Nashville influence seep in a little too much. This is good country music, and bonus tracks “Natural High (for Merle Haggard)” and “Studio A Trouble Time Jam” are also worth hunting down.
Not just an album of great songs, Aviator is a great album cover to cover.
1 3/4 of 2 Gun Up.
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Mostly known by industry types as a songwriter whose pen to paper has resulted in some very memorable cuts, including the recent Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers duet “You Can’t Make Old Friends,” one of the most recognizable songs from ABC’s drama Nashville called “Don’t Put Dirt On My Graves Just Yet,” and even some songs from bigger names such as Jason Aldean and Lady Antebellum, Caitlyn Smith steps out from the songwriting shadows to release a seven song EP full of wide ranging emotions, slickly-penned sentiments, and spectacular vocal performances worthy of wider attention.
When you talk about an artist known as a songwriter first, you tend to look for the strength in the lyric. But Caitliyn Smith is very much a multi-tool performer, and her vocals can rival any in country music’s top tier, and she’s a great musician as well. Her style is very sensible—country pop in the traditional sense, with rising choruses, juicy melodies, and familiar themes of love, loss, and hope. But similar to how Caitlyn Smith songs are the ones artists and managers gravitate toward when they’re looking for something with more body beyond a smash radio hit, instilled in all of Caitlyn’s work is a sincerity, authenticity, and the ends of country roots sticking out from the surface.
Though it may be a stretch to call this Everything To You EP traditional, the amount of banjo on this album is surprising, and really comprises the sonic base for a few of these songs. And I’m not talking about the six-string version of the banjo with a Stratocaster head stock and flames painted down the side, these are songs bred from inspiration, not formula, even if a few songwriting hands were employed before calling them finished. Fiddle and mandolin float in and out as well, as does some heavier guitar riffs when the composition calls for it. But really the focus of Everything To You is squarely on Caitlyn, her songs, and her voice, which is where it should be, and this is where this album will build its greatest consensus amongst listeners with country sensibilities.
Everything To You starts out with the driving “Fever” with its two-part chorus and towering requests for Caitlyn to immediately hit top-register notes and nail them, which she does with ease. This leads into the more subdued and acoustic “Dream Away”—an empowering testament about sticking to your dreams; something Caitlyn can speak about from the experience of being a small town girl from Minnesota desiring to be a songwriter and now singing along to some of her co-writes on the radio.
“Wasting All These Tears” takes a more somber pitch, almost like a jilted Taylor Swift song from earlier in her career, then the autobiographical “Everything To You” immediately shifts gears to a more happier tone. “Grown Woman” finds Caitlyn evoking the common “I’m a woman, hear me roar” attitude we’ve been hearing often from mainstream women, while the yearning and wrenching of “Novocaine” cuts at the listener’s emotional stability. The album ends with the thankful and sweet “All My Lovers” about Caitlyn finding her way to her husband.
Though Everything To You never turns you off, it never really takes any chances either, or sails into the uncharted waters beyond the familiar harbors of co-write country. The songs all seem to authentically emanate from Caitlyn’s life story and this feels like a very personal album, but you can’t escape the feeling that you’ve heard a version of some of these songs before. Slick arrangements, production, and instrumentation make Everything To You accessible, though not necessarily challenging. However Caitlyn Smith and Everything To You very much embody the idea that there are artists out there with mainstream-caliber chops who if just given a chance could shift country in a more substantive, and even sustainable direction.
2013 was considered by many to be the “Year of The Woman” in country music from the concentration of forward-thinking and nourishing projects proffered to the public by females who could nip at the edges of the mainstream, but still find friendly ears in the independent world. Caitlyn Smith may be a year too late to be considered in that class, but she belongs with the other ladies of country music leadership trying to keep at least a modicum of respect in the genre, even if those women struggle compared with their male counterparts in chart performance and cash flow.
Before Garth Brooks decided to go with “People Loving People” as his first single after coming out of retirement, another song on his new album called “Tacoma”—written by Caitlyn Smith and Bob DiPiero—was scheduled to be the return single. Only stands to reason “Tacoma” will be released as a single eventually, and with the timely release of this EP, it very well may deliver an extra bit of interest to a well-deserving and hard working songwriter with a voice worthy of much more than the audience listening song pitches on demo tapes.
1 1/2 of 2 Guns Up.
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Nothing is more satisfying for the music devotee than stumbling upon a new top shelf songwriter you’ve never heard of before. Though maybe if you were paying a little bit better attention, you would have already heard of Eliot Bronson. The Atlanta, GA-based songwriter has released two solo albums since exiting Atlanta’s The Brilliant Intentions duo some years back, and was awarded the 1st place prize for the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2013. But being brilliant, and being the best does not always mean being visible, especially in this day of skewed priorities in the musical arts.
One name that has been receiving worthy recognition for his contributions recently has been producer Dave Cobb. In the last 24 months, Dave has gone from a mostly industry-known working man’s version of more famous producer T Bone Burnett, to becoming producer du jour— just as hot, if not a hotter commodity than T Bone and other big name producers from his proven success with Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Lindi Ortega, Whiskey Myers, and so many others.
Dave Cobb has now entered the stratum where more times than not his name is preceding whatever artist he’s working with, and though this seems like both an unfair balancing of priorities in music, and against Dave Cobb’s otherwise long-standing temperment to prefer to stay behind-the-scenes, boy it sure makes for smart marketing. Whenever you see Dave’s name attached to a project, you’re probably wise paying a little closer attention.
Sensing this, and wanting to see his music score more heavily with people outside of the local Atlanta music mindset, Eliot Bronson reached out to Cobb coldly, looking for a long shot chance to land the producer for a definitive-minded, self-titled project. And to Eliot’s surprise, not only did Cobb respond, he responded favorably from the brilliance he found in Bronson’s poetry. “I was stunned when I got a response,” says Eliot. “It was really validating for me because I sort of had him on a pedestal.” Next thing you know the two are hanging out in Cobb’s home studio making a record.
Eliot Bronson is Americana in the truest sense of the word—instead of simply falling back on the term as a default. His lyrics come inspired from America’s country and roots past, but the music refers to more progressive folk rock and blues legacies. First and foremost though, his self-titled LP is a songwriter’s showcase, capturing moments of spectacular insight and feeling, and giving words to what previously were thought to be unmentionable, and undefinable feelings, and doing it all with a deep sense of mood and melody that make the emotions drip from the edges of the notes like tears.
This is the type of album we wished all our favorite old songwriters would make again. This is the type of album that made us first love all of those old songwriters. It concentrates some of the best characteristics of Justin Townes Earle and Chris Issak, while capturing a sentiment unique enough to feel fresh and undone. Eliot Bronson would not be considered a singer unique to our time from his voice’s natural tone or cadence, but the way he cups the emotions in his words and pours them out at the most opportune times makes for a vocal performance that lives up to the lyricism, while he’s not afraid to rely on “ooh’s and aah’s” to covey the weight of moments where words would invariably fail.
The music of this album is tastefully understated, but comes out growling when called for. Dave Cobb’s analog studio underpins a vintage warmth to the entire project, even if at times a palpable hiss or seemingly unbalanced sounds show up like in the song “Sleep On It.” The old-school audio approach is one of the watermark’s of Cobb’s handiwork recently, and as has been stated before in regards to other projects, can bestow both virtues and failings in the recording process.
Standout tracks on this album come mostly towards the center of the track list, with the hopping “Comin’ For Ya North Georgia Blues” being one of the album’s best foot tappers, and both “You Wouldn’t Want Me If You Had Me” the later solo acoustic number “Never Been A Friend of Mine” being excellent vessels for raw emotion. “New Pain” finds a slightly-familiar, old school Paul Simon vibe, while “Just Came Back To Tell You That I’m Leaving” is a punching, country heartbreaker fleshed out with bluesy slide guitar for one of the album’s most lively moments. “Time Ain’t Nothin’” with it’s haunting “Talk to momma, talk to momma” verses really unguards the listener. Bronson’s songs are easy to love, yet lasting in their appeal.
You get the sense listening to this album that Eliot Bronson is not just releasing his latest album, but the one he sacrificed pieces of his soul to make. This is “the one” so to speak, and that sense of purpose, if not desperation and pent up frustrations at being a 30-something songwriter still struggling to find his place and the proper attention from the public results in a passion that is palpable, and music that is memorable.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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