If you’re looking for the female equivalent to Bro-Country songs, i.e. something featuring lower brow formulaic songwriting, however less frequently they may find their way onto your radio, the proper comparison would be the “attitude song.” That’s what Miranda Lambert calls it.
“I love attitude songs,” says Miranda, who is regularly regarded as the queen of the style, and whose influence as one of the highest-grossing females in country music in the last half decade has seen female country performers like Carrie Underwood and others follow suit with similar songs not putting up with crap from their men, or the women who would be inclined to steal them. Attitude songs are all about keying paint jobs, swinging baseball bats, and lighting shit on fire, all while looking fabulous and sporting perfect hair. And like Bro-Country, they regularly list off items involved in such badassedry with little or no story conveyed.
Though attitude songs may not be as prevalent or intellectually torpid as Bro-Country, they can be just as tiring. Even Miranda Lambert agrees. “They can get old if you don’t do ‘em right,” she says. “I don’t want to keep doing the same type of attitude song, I’ve got to change them up.” So her answer to this concern on her latest album Platinum is called “Little Red Wagon,” written and originally performed by fellow Oklahoma-dwelling singer and songwriter Audra Mae. It has been announced as the third single from Miranda’s latest release, to impact radio right after the holidays.
Oh, you only love me for my big sun glasses
And my Tony Lomas
I live in Oklahoma
And I’ve got long, blonde hair
And I play guitar, and I go on the road
And I do all the shit you wanna do
And my dog does tricks
And I ain’t about drama, ya’ll
I love my apron
But I ain’t your mama!
And on and on from there, with a reprise about how you can’t ride in her little red wagon because “The front seat’s broken and the axle’s draggin’” which I’m not sure lends any more point to this song.
The music of “Little Red Wagon” is unapologetically rock, with a frenetic and diverse arrangement punctuated by wild dynamics that if nothing else, gets your attention and sends the pulse racing. Arena guitar indicative of Guns & Roses weaves in and out of an extra loud drum track, while the song starts and is bisected by two ultra-hushed pianissimos. Yes “Little Red Wagon” paws for your attention with its pronounced topography and has some interesting and original textures, but it lacks in pentameter. No consistent groove emerges in the wild-ass mood swings and multiple instrumental layers, potentially a symptom of the production crew trying to pull this new version comfortably away from Audra Mae’s original.
But the one thing high-minded standards for music, and opinions peppered with musical terms like “pianissimo” can’t resolve is just how fun many people will find this song, especially amongst the female listener. This is the reason it has been slated for a single release, and will probably hold its own on the charts for a valiant run. It’s fluff, but it doesn’t try to portray itself as anything but.
Miranda Lambert’s Platinum has become mainstream country’s default critically-considered album in 2014 despite songs like “Little Red Wagon” and “Somethin’ Bad” that have little to no nutritional value being put out there as singles. Though deeper listeners may complain why tracks like “Hard Staying Sober” and “Holding On To You” remain shelved, the point of singles is to draw the most attention as possible to albums and artists, and “Little Red Wagon” will most certainly do that.
This is not a good song, or at least not a good version of it. But there’s much greater sins out there to get worked up about. Let the ladies have their fun.
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1 Gun Up for being fun, involved, and invigorating.
1 Gun Down for being frenetic, pointless, and patently un-country.
“Girl In A Country Song” becomes:
- First #1 song on radio by a female act in over 2 years.
- First #1 debut song on radio by a female act in nearly 5 years.
- First #1 debut song not by Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, or Taylor Swift in 10 years.
- First #1 song on radio for DOT Records in 40 years.
- Only second #1 debut song from a female duo in Billboard’s Country Airplay Chart 25 year history.
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When Big Machine Label Group’s President and CEO Scott Borchetta signed a completely unknown 18-year-old singing duo based seemingly on the strength of one song, it seemed like a risky move, and one betting on the fact that the country music public was tiring of the Bro-Country trend and heading towards a backlash. Though the rise of “Girl In A Country Song” has been very slow (which is customary with many premier singles from previously-unknown artists in country), Scott Borchetta’s gamble has paid off, and the song is now #1 on country radio according to Mediabase. The distinction shatters a slew of dubious distinctions for the country format, and helps to slay the absolute dearth of female representation on country radio.
“Girl In A Country Song” received 7,986 spins from November 30th to December 6th according to Mediabase, besting its nearest competition, Tim McGraw’s “Shotgun Rider” by an impressive 684 spins. The song also gained 502 spins week over week. These numbers are good enough to land Maddie & Tae at #1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart to be published Monday afternoon.
What does this all mean? It means that country radio has its very first female-led act to hit number one on country radio in over 2 years. “Girl In A Country Song” is the first to top the chart since Carrie Underwood’s “Blown Away” in October of 2012. That was a whopping 26 months ago. That’s right, not even the Carrie Underwood / Miranda Lambert collaboration “Somethin’ Bad” went to #1 on radio, nor did any of those Taylor Swift blockbusters.
You have to go back even farther, nearly five years ago to January of 2010, to find the last time a country female artist had her first #1 hit on radio. It was Miranda Lambert’s “White Liar.” Even more stunning, you have to go all the way back to 2004—over-10 years ago— to find the last time a woman that wasn’t Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, or Taylor Swift celebrated a debut #1. That would be Gretchen Wilson according to the tabulations of country writer Billy Dukes. This doesn’t take into consideration groups with females in them like Sugarland or Lady Antebellum, but deals solely with solo artists or acts exclusively consisting of females.
Also the super duo The Wreckers made up of Michelle Branch and Jessica Harp had a “debut” #1 single in country called “Leave The Pieces” in 2006, but since both of these women had major singles as part of pop careers previous to their country success, it wasn’t a debut for the artists, just for the artists in the country format.
“Girl In A Country Song” also happens to be the first #1 for Big Machine’s DOT Records imprint in 40 years—which is where Maddie & Tae reside—but that is more of a symbolic victory since the label was mothballed for a majority of that time.
“Girl In A Country Song” has already gone gold, denoting over 500,000 digital downloads, and the video has already received over 13 million views. And all of this from a duo who when listening to their EP, leans more towards the traditional side, and for a song that overtly challenges the role females are cast in with many of country music’s other big hits.
If you needed yet another sign that Bro-Country is on it’s way out, the airplay success of “Girl In A Country Song,” which is a better barometer of the industry compared to metrics that factor in sales and streams, is a pretty good indication. Like the song or not, Maddie & Tae have have just etched an indelible mark on the country music timeline that will be very important for both women and the content of country moving forward.
On Friday morning (12-5), the Grammy Award nominations were inefficiently and unceremoniously announced via Twitter (like we need another reason to bury our faces in our phones), and once again proved that their nose for quality in country music is somewhat better than what we’re used to seeing from the country music industry itself, even if their ability to categorize music remains somewhat curious.
Why is Sturgill Simpson ‘Americana’ instead of ‘Country,’ and Brandy Clark ‘country’ instead of ‘Americana’? Just because one is independent and one is mainstream? And isn’t Nickel Creek bluegrass, which has its own Grammy category? Nonetheless, seeing names like Sturgill Simpson, Brandy Clark, and Nickel Creek receive nods gives a little more hope to the music heart that is regularly dashed by annual award exercises, so the people who spend 363 days a year pretending they’re too cool for award shows can celebrate.
***UPDATE: According to numerous concertgoers, at Sturgill Simpson’s concert on December 5th in Milwaukee, he said about the nomination, “One year ago today we threw together an album in four days, today it got nominated for a fucking Grammy. Not exactly sure what Americana means but apparently it means a lot more than country. I’d rather be in a category with Rosanne Cash and Brandy Clark than fucking Kenny Chesney anyway.”
He actually is not in the same category as Brandy Clark (because she’s in the country category), but the sentiment remains the same.
See you on Feb. 8th for Saving Country Music’s LIVE blog of the Grammys.
Best Country Album Nominees
- Dierks Bentley – Riser
- Eric Church – The Outsiders
- Brandy Clark – 12 Stories
- Miranda Lambert – Platinum
- Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’
Eric Church’s The Outsiders is a rock album. Along with her “New Artist” nomination, it appears Brandy Clark is the new critical darling i.e. the Kacey Musgraves of 2014, despite most of her songs being written by committee to formula. Good album and artist, but let’s tap the breaks just a little. Riser and The Way I’m Livin’ are solid nods.
Best Americana Album
- Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread
- John Hiatt – Term of My Surrender
- Keb’ Mo’ – Bluesamericana
- Nickel Creek – A Dotted Line
- Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds of Country Music
Progressive bluegrass band Nickel Creek was put in this category because they’re more commercially-viable than most bluegrass, and Sturgill Simpson was put in this category because he’s less commercially-viable than most country. Great to see Sturgill nominated, but would have been better if he wasn’t relegated to Americana, which is how this feels because he’s an independent artist. At least they didn’t screw up like last year when they didn’t nominate Jason Isbell at all. Rosanne Cash will probably win this. Maybe Sturgill, or maybe Nickel Creek who’ve the Grammy’s have given love to before.
Best Country Song
(sorry, you don’t get a cool graphic, you get Joy Williams and her bun announcing it in all her regal fabulousness sitting like a Chinese heroin God beside a fire)
Glen Campbell’s “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” is mawkish exploitation. There I said it. Otherwise, a completely dumb list of songs. Even worse than the CMA’s or ACM’s.
- Kenny Chesney – “American Kids” (Rodney Clawson, Luke Laird, Shane McAnally)
- Miranda Lambert — “Automatic” (Nicolle Galyon, Natalie Hemby, Miranda Lambert)
- Eric Church – “Give Me Back My Hometown” (Eric Church, Luke Laird)
- Glen Campbell – “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” (Glen Campbell, Julian Raymond)
- Tim McGraw featuring Faith Hill – “Meanwhile, Back at Mama’s” (Tom Douglas, Jaren Johnston, Jeffrey Steele)
Best Country Solo Performance
Remember, if Keith Urban walks away with this, Sam Hunt gets a Grammy as the songwriter. Carrie Underwood better damn win.
- Eric Church – “Give Me Back My Hometown”
- Hunter Hayes – “Invisible”
- Miranda Lambert – “Automatic”
- Carrie Underwood – “Something In The Water”
- Keith Urban – “Cop Car”
Best Country Duo/Group Performance
Dreck on parade. Even The Band Perry’s cover of Glen Campbell barely raises a pulse.
- The Band Perry – “Gentle On My Mind
- Miranda Lambert with Carrie Underwood - “Somethin’ Bad”
- Little Big Town – “Day Drinking”
- Tim McGraw with Faith Hill – “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s”
- Keith Urban with Eric Church – “Raise ‘Em Up”
Best Bluegrass Album
- The Earls of Leichester – The Earls of Leichester
- Noam Pikelny – Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe
- Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen – Cold Spell
- Bryan Sutton – Into My Own
- Rhonda Vincent – Only Me
Best American Roots Performance
- Gregg Allman & Taj Mahal – “Statesboro Blues”
- Rosanne Cash – “A Feathers Not a Bird”
- Billy Childs with Alison Krauss & Jerry Douglas – “And When I Die”
- Keb’ Mo’ – “The Old Me Better”
- Nickel Creek – “Destination”
Best American Roots Song
- Rosanne Cash – “A Feathers Not a Bird”
- Jesse Winchester – “Just So Much”
- Woody Guthrie & Del McCoury – “The New York Trains”
- Edie Brickell & Steve Martin – “Pretty Little One”
- John Hiatt – “Terms of My Surrender”
Best Folk Album
- Mike Auldridge, Jerry Douglas, & Rob Ickes – Three Bells
- Alice Gerrard – Follow The Music
- Eliza Gilkyson – The Nocturne Diaries
- Old Crow Medicine Show – Remedy
- Jesse Winchester – A Reasonable Amount of Trouble
Brandy Clark was nominated for “Best New Artist,” and Ryan Adams for Best Rock Song & Album, because he’s not country goddammit.
Hey Yeah, Kix Brooks My Man!
Actually Sorry Kix, But We Just Decided…
The only thing worse than a country music awards show is four of them. It feels like these annual earaches are multiplying like a pestilence in country music and the music world beyond, and now we have yet another machination of forced television pageantry to contend with. Say hello to the “American Country Countdown Awards”—the Busch League of country music award shows, and the replacement of the now apparently defunct “American Country Awards.” Yeah, sorry all you previous ACA winners, but it looks like those trophies are being rendered even more meaningless than they were before.
Since the ACA Awards were fabricated out of thin air by FOX to screw with the other networks who carry legitimate country awards shows with actual history, the show has featured B-level country talent, bad sound and performances, forced gratitude by award recipients, shitty hosts (aside from Kristin Chenoweth, she kicked ass in her own perky way), and a general low production-value presentation. They hope to change that all this year by bringing Dick Clark Productions in the mix—the same brain trust behind the ACM’s, or Academy of Country Music Awards, which would seem like natural competition, but what do I know?
One thing that apparently won’t change from the ACA’s to the American Country Countdown Awards is their history of shafting country music’s female artists. In 2011 the show ran down the 10 greatest “Artists of the Decade” and didn’t include even one female performer. Not even one out of the ten spots they had to fill. And this year in typical ACA, or ACCA (is that right?) form, there are no female nominees for their Song of the Year, no female nominees for “Digital” Song of the Year (like this deserves its own category), no female nominees for Breakthrough Artist of the Year, and no female nominees for Artist of the Year (though Lady Antebellum is somehow gerrymandered in there and is 1/3rd frau). Miranda Lambert’s Platinum is the only female Album of the Year nominee as well.
Oh and get this: Aside from the Breakthrough Artist of the Year category, the winners are chosen by aggregating airplay and touring stats from Soundscan and Mediabase and such, so pretty much anyone can sit there with a calculator and figure out who the winners are going to be before the first joke from hosts Florida Georgia Line falls flat. Watching those flunkies up there trying to read off a teleprompter might be the best entertainment all night. Kix Brooks was supposed to host the thing because he’s the American Country Countdown guy, but he’s all old and shit so let’s act like he doesn’t exist come TV time. Luke Bryan, Miranda Lambert, and the FGL boys are also scheduled to spare the crowd to death with performances. It’s all happening on December 15th at 8 PM Eastern if you want to tune in while wrapping presents to laugh your ass off.
Here’s their stupid nominees. Get and extra chuckle off the “Song of the Year” contenders. Maybe Saving Country Music will do a live blog if I’m bored.
Artist of the Year
- Jason Aldean
- Luke Bryan
- Florida Georgia Line
- Lady Antebellum
- Blake Shelton
Male Vocalist of the Year
- Jason Aldean
- Dierks Bentley
- Luke Bryan
- Randy Houser
- Blake Shelton
Female Vocalist of the Year
- Danielle Bradbery
- Miranda Lambert
- Cassadee Pope
- Taylor Swift
- Carrie Underwood
Album of the Year
- Crash My Party, Luke Bryan
- The Outsiders, Eric Church
- Here’s To The Good Times, Florida Georgia Line
- Just As I Am, Brantley Gilbert
- Platinum, Miranda Lambert
Song of the Year
- “When She Says Baby,” Jason Aldean
- “Beat of the Music,” Brett Eldredge
- “Lettin’ the Night Roll,” Justin Moore
- “Drink To That All Night,” Jerrod Niemann
- “Chillin’ It,” Cole Swindell
Breakthrough Artist of the Year
- Brett Eldredge
- Tyler Farr
- Kip Moore
- Thomas Rhett
- Cole Swindell
Group/Duo of the Year
- The Band Perry
- Eli Young Band
- Florida Georgia Line
- Lady Antebellum
- Zac Brown Band
Collaboration of the Year
- “This Is How We Roll,” Florida Georgia Line featuring Luke Bryan
- “Small Town Throwdown,” Brantley Gilbert featuring Justin Moore and Thomas Rhett
- “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s,” Tim McGraw featuring Faith Hill
- “My Eyes,” Blake Shelton featuring Gwen Sebastian
- “We Were Us,” Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert
Digital Song of the Year
- “Burnin’ It Down,” Jason Aldean
- “Drink A Beer,” Luke Bryan
- “Play It Again,” Luke Bryan
- “Dirt,” Florida Georgia Line
- “This Is How We Roll,” Florida Georgia Line featuring Luke Bryan
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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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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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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The Country Music Association Awards, or CMA’s are nigh upon us, and set to transpire on Wednesday, November 5th. And to get you all horny for the festivities, it’s been announced that ultra pop star Ariana Grande, and “All About That Bass” overnight sensation Meghan Trainor will be part of this year’s presentation. Miranda Lambert will be performing “All About That Bass” with Trainor, and Ariana will be performing with Little Big Town. Because you know, a country presentation devoid of high-caliber pop stars would be inherently boring and way too country to entice John Q Public to tune in apparently.
Pop stars and other non-country performers are nothing out-of-the-ordinary on the CMA stage, so let’s not make too much of this. Over the last few years, a non-country appearance by a big current star has almost become the norm. Remember when Kid Rock performed on the 2008 CMA Awards, and Lil’ Wayne showed up on stage, not really doing anything but soaking up face time on primetime television? This is all a symptom of country music’s lack of self-esteem and feeling like it needs to apologize for being country and prove it isn’t to win your interest. Instead the genre should be putting its best foot forward during its most prominent event of the year and making new fans by showcasing what it does best, and what makes it unique from the rest of music.
The problem with this particular selection of pop stars is that it speaks to a much deeper dilemma country music is facing, or more aptly, unwilling to face, and that’s why we’re taking critical awards show time from much more worthy country artists and relenting it to female pop stars outside the genre. It’s like when the country industry started nominating Kelly Clarkson for awards out of nowhere because they felt there were no other worthy names. Right now females are dominating the pop charts, holding the top five spots on Billboard’s Hot 100, including Meghan Trainor coming in at #1, Ariana Grande at #5, and lookey there, the artists formerly known as country, Taylor Swift, taking the salutatorian spot at #2.
Meanwhile, where are the women in the country charts? Carrie Underwood’s “Something In The Water” made a valiant showing, cresting at #2. But except for that, there’s not much to be found. Mark my words, the booking of Meghan Trainor and Ariana Grande is directly tied to the genre losing Taylor Swift this year, and needing a high-caliber pop-oriented female artist to compete for viewers. Really, if you’re going to go out and get a pop star, why not Taylor Swift? She’s got a brand new album coming out, and a history with the genre neither Meghan Trainor or Ariana Grande do. But Taylor is making a concerted effort to divest herself from the country mindset, and for reasons it’s hard to fault her for. This all says something very serious about the state of females in country music, and the country industry’s inability to develop female superstars.
No offense to Ariana Grande or Meghan Trainor whatsoever. In this day and age of country music, Ariana can blow pretty much every single one of country’s weak, Auto-Tuned voices right off the stage save for maybe Carrie Underwood, and it will be refreshing to see an astounding voice perform instead of just another Bro-Country act up there hobbling though a backwards baseball cap white boy rap performance. And Meghan Trainor, who is a Nashville resident, has done something the girls of country have been unable to do heretofore, which is challenge the image-driven, male-dominated landscape with a self-empowering message that captures the zeitgest, regardless of how annoyingly ubiquitous and automated that particular song might be.
But why not give those performance positions to some of country music’s amazing young female talent, or some of the more mature talent that is being shuffled to the side? Maddie & Tae’s “Girl In A Country Song” is no “All About That Bass,” (and their performance on Letterman was pretty terrible), but why not give them the opportunity? How about Lee Ann Womack who has a new album, or Ashley Monroe who has a song out with Blake Shelton? The only way country will ever become independent of the pop world for eyeballs is if it develops its own performers of interest.
The CMA’s job is to promote the Country music industry, and the bump Ariana Grande and Meghan Trainor will receive won’t do that; it will diminish the country focus in a time support for country music’s female artists is needed the most. The CMA stage could make a star on November 5th. But only if they’re given the opportunity.
It was announced last week that a deluxe CD/DVD edition of George Strait’s The Cowboy Rides Away: Live From AT&T Stadium album will be released on November 10th exclusively through Wal-Mart. The much more expansive version than the 20-song The Cowboy Rides Away album that was originally released on September 16th will include eight more audio tracks, including collaborations with Alan Jackson and Miranda Lambert, and most notably, it will include a DVD of the 40-song show, and exclusive interviews. The Cowboy Rides Away chronicles George Strait’s final concert during his farewell tour held at the home of the Dallas Cowboys in Arlington, Texas on June 7,2014, that shattered indoor concert attendance records.
Though this new deluxe edition seems like an excellent way to experience the concert if you were unable to attend, or the perfect reminder if you were, or it might make a great gift for the country music fan in your family since it’s being released right before Christmas, I for one will not be purchasing this deluxe edition, or frankly any edition of The Cowboy Rides Away. An no, it’s not because of a natural aversion to placing a foot into Wal-Mart, though that certainly doesn’t help.
It is because up to this point, the entire Cowboy Rides Away project has been so unnecessarily and gratuitously slathered with Auto-Tune, it has ruined the entire experience for many George Strait fans. Starting with the first television broadcast of the concert that aired on CMT on August 29th, to the first 20-song album, Auto-Tune usurped the recording of the twang and tone that went into making George Strait’s songs and voice so memorable during his Hall of Fame career.
Sorry Universal Nashville, but yes, I’m that overgrown Boy Scout who won’t let an issue rest.
Nor should we. We’re talking about a historic event, and the way it has been chronicled for future generations is not only inaccurate, it isn’t particularly entertaining in its current form for people who love George just like he is, without the unnecessary and distracting enhancements. There has been positively no acknowledgement of the Auto-Tune issue from the label or George Strait’s camp, even though all of the most prominant customer reviews on iTunes and Amazon, and many of Strait’s own threads on Facebook and Twitter, are full of fans condemning the Auto-Tune on the album.
The deluxe edition release of The Cowboy Rides Away could be the perfect opportunity to correct this issue, and if so, it would be all the more reason to purchase it. But unless someone expressly says the Auto-Tune issue will be resolved, we have no other choice but to believe the expanded content will only be more of the same.
Let The Cowboy Ride Away with dignity, not saddled with pitch correction.
And then there were two. This is the assessment most country music power brokers were forced to swallow when Taylor Swift made it clear she’d be moving on in her career without country, leaving only Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood as proven country music females who could actually release singles and have them be heard on the radio. And then Carrie Underwood recently announced that she’s with child. Though this isn’t a guaranteed nail in the coffin of a high flying country career by any stretch, it certainly bisects any plans she might have with a maternity leave, and many times this is proceeded by successful women in entertainment with a re-assessment of priorities more towards family, which is natural and healthy. It’s not up to Carrie Underwood or Miranda Lambert to carry the female torch in country music forever, it’s up to the industry to solve this riddle of why they can’t develop female talent to help them.
On Friday (9-26), Carrie Underwood made an appearance on the TODAY Show to make a big announcement. You had to be pretty dim to not know that a new album would be involved in the appearance in some capacity, but it was somewhat surprising to hear that it would be a Greatest Hits package instead of an album of completely new music. Carrie has only released four records since 2005, and her last album Blown Away was released well over two years ago. And with a little bundle of joy on the way and Greatest Hits: Decade #1 not hitting shelves until December 9th, this stretches out the calendar even more before a new original album from Underwood may arrive.
However Carrie also said as part of the announcement that some new music would be part of the Greatest Hits album, and on Monday (9-29) she released a brand new single called “Something In The Water.”
A wide, sweeping undertaking, “Something In The Water” sees Carrie Underwood carve out the sweet spot for her voice and make an inspiring and faith-based composition the vessel to illustrate the mighty ferocity of her God-given vocal prowess, along with instilling the moments with an elegance and grace that in unison swell to achieve one awe-inspiring performance height.
“Something In The Water” is purely pop country from a stylistic standpoint, but draws heavily from country’s Gospel roots and the ritual of river baptisms to create the compelling narrative at the song’s heart. Though the “something in the water” colloquialism is not wholly unique in this context, the content is nonetheless refreshing in the way it disregards all concern for trends or tropes and instead shows confidence in Carrie’s voice to carry a tune to the top levels of widespread appeal. Resolving with the verses of “Amazing Grace” intermixed with the song’s melody, “Something In The Water” traces a lineage directly back to the very primitive beginnings of country music, intertwining old roots among the song’s otherwise pristine and nouveau passages.
Carrie’s voice is so soaring and strong in this moment, it will comes across as polarizing to some ears, especially to those not used to such bold expressions as this in country music. That is one of the problems for country in 2014: with such a lack of raw talent and the vehicles to express it, when somebody does do something bold, it comes across as an oddity, as too much to take in, almost like it is a pompous attempt to overtly impress instead of sincere expression. In the pop world, this type of exhibition of talent isn’t just common, it is necessary. Pop and R&B can field an army of sensational singers, whereas country commonly leans on the services of Auto-Tune and talk-style phrasing to make up for a lack of natural aptitude. Carrie Underwood once again proves she’s one of the strongest singers of this generation.
“Something In The Water” will also be jeered as pure pop by many, but even with this assessment it still puts it in front of the garbled, directionless multi-genre hodgepodge presented by many of the genre’s top male stars. This is the true “anti Bro-Country” salvo country music has been lacking—one that doesn’t write its plan as the exact opposite of the scribblings in Bro-Country’s playbook, but one that blows the entire argument out of the water. Call it pop if you want, but the delineation the song truly strives for is “timeless.”
It is fair though to to assess that “Something In The Water” may be a little too perfect, a little too esoteric. It’s too much Celine Dion and not enough Oklahoma, while others will question if this rather unapologetic foray into non-secular material should, or can be valued with high regard in the commercial world. But true, openhearted fans of music will find the sway of “Something In The Water” hard to resist, and it should fare positively on country radio which is thirsty for female voices, and Carrie Underwood’s specifically.
Very, very powerful.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
This isn’t just your average album release, or even your average album release from Lee Ann Womack. There’s a lot of moving parts involved here that make this album one to watch, and one to pay a little extra attention to. Lee Ann Womack has earned the listening public’s undivided attention already from her years of stellar contributions, but this one has a little more special meaning for Womack since it is her first release without a major label, and a release that helps rate of progress for both women and traditional country artists looking to revitalize their place to a wider audience.
The evolution of The Way I’m Livin’ was a little strange. Made with Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell (producer for Miranda Lambert, Eli Young Band, others), the album has been finished now for two years and just sitting on a shelf. While still signed with MCA Nashville, label head Luke Lewis told Lee Ann to make the album that she wanted, to pick the songs herself and not worry about any commercial concerns. And so that is what she did.
The choices of where to find songs to record in Nashville are endless, but Lee Ann took a unique approach, especially for an artist who has amassed as many industry trophies as she has over the years. Her litmus test was that the song had to be written with the intent of being performed by that writer. Think of the exact opposite of Music Row’s songwriting-by-committee approach. She wanted songs culled from inspiration. This resulted in Womack acquiring material from a list of artists that is mouth watering all to itself: Chris Knight, Bruce Robison, Hayes Carll, Brennen Leigh, and Mando Saenz just to name some of them. This isn’t a rundown of the songwriting credits from a major Nashville release, this is an All-Star guitar pull lineup in Austin, TX on a Saturday night.
“In the past, Merle and Willie and Hank would sing real lyrics about life,” Womack tells Dallas News. “But today’s Music Row records don’t talk about those subjects, at least not in a grownup way. That’s one reason all these songs spoke to me.”
And though The Way I’m Livin’ began on Music Row with a major label, that’s not where it ended up. After Womack wiggled her way out of her MCA Nashville contract, she ended up working with the independent bluegrass label Sugar Hill Records to finally release this album. Even though it might officially symbolize Lee Ann taking a step down from the top-tier level she’s enjoyed for most of her career, she seems perfectly fine with that. “Let’s face it. Award shows are not really about who was best,” Womack continues to Dallas News. “They’re about selling advertising. I’m grateful for the awards I have, but if you came to our house, you’re not going to see any of them out. You’re gonna see guitars and music everywhere, but not awards or platinum records on the wall.”
This is still Lee Ann Womack though, and don’t think the industry isn’t paying close attention. That voice is too powerful, and her fans are too loyal to ignore. The title track off this album was the very first single to be added to Cumulus Media’s NASH Icon network as an example of new music from a seasoned artist that the new radio format boasts as wanting to champion. Lee Ann Womack hasn’t been put out to pasture by any stretch. She’s the female that is leading the pack of artists left behind by country radio and trying to revitalize the market for more classic-sounding country, and The Way I’m Livin’ is just the album to do it with both country roots and relevancy embedded in its songs, and a salivating public who’s waited six years for new, original music from the singer.
Recorded mostly live, The Way I’m Livin’ pins its eye to Lee Ann’s voice as its focal point, and never strays. You hear this emphasis immediately on the very first track “Prelude: Fly,” which leaves you inspired and primed for what lies ahead. The Way I’m Livin’ pulls from two primary influences: traditional country marked with loud and present steel guitar, and a more progressive “Americana” approach that has a lot of gospel and blues textures intermixed with a rootsy feel. God and Mammon are at war in The Way I’m Livin’ for the soul of the song’s protagonists more often than not, and though it would be a misnomer to label it a concept album, this battle is a recurring theme of the album, and one that illustrates the more true reality of things where good and evil are not always polar opposites separated by tremendous space, but side by side separated only by a thin membrane that temptation is always trying to pull you across.
This eternal pull and tug gives The Way I’m Living a vitality, whether it is portrayed in a gospel tradition like the song “All His Saints,” a more grounded atmosphere like in her take on Hayes Carll’s “Chances Are,” or the traditional country, folklore-style approach like on Brennen Leigh’s “Sleeping With The Devil.” These are story songs one after another filled with internal strife, and the arrangement present on The Way I’m Livin’ is truly masterful one track after another. There’s both a sparsity, and a robust presence to the instrumentation that makes sure nothing suffocates, and everything soars. There’s not a lot of layering that goes on here. You have your primary instruments only, and if there’s anything diverting your attention from Lee Ann’s voice, it is a singular lead instrument, usually a steel guitar set high in the mix that eventually gives way once again to Lee Ann. The song “Nightwind” isolates Lee Ann’s voice once again, and never on this album do you feel as if doubt or indecision filled what direction this record should take.
The Way I’m Livin‘s true country songs are slightly more backloaded towards the end of the project, but no matter where you start this album, it’s hard not to land on something to like. A few of the tracks came across as a little bit sleepy towards the center, and initially I was concerned that the song “Don’t Listen to the Wind” borrowed too much of the melody from the song “All My Tears” from Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball album until I deduced both songs were written by Julie Miller.
Lee Ann Womack seems almost ethereal at this point in her career: timeless, and like an apparition of authentic country music who drifts above the rest of the genre’s singers and pickers as they slave away at their little songs and albums and daily deeds and dilemmas. Yet she still has that endearing element of the small town girl at home in the Texas pines, simply wanting to make a career out of what she would be doing if nobody was listening or watching. She’s an artist who has the freedom to truly do what she wants, while she still enjoys the attention of the industry, however muted it might be these days.
There may be a few more albums that are better than The Way I’m Livin’ that will be released this year, but none that are this good that will reach as many ears. Lee Ann Womack is a heavyweight for women, for hard country, and now for independent artists, and with this Sugar Hill release she releases and lands a haymaker.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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When it comes to country music documentaries, especially when they center around often-overlooked independent artists, European filmmakers don’t just have American filmmakers beat, the sad prognosis is that there’s just very few if any American filmmakers to compete with. For whatever reason, the collective will to raise the capital to chronicle American roots music exists in much greater numbers in the Old World than in country music’s place of origin. Country music ambassadors like the recently-passed George Hamilton IV planted the seeds of appeal for the authenticity of American country music and roots, and that desire has remain steadfast over the years, and manifested into material support for artists in both the performance and journalistic realm.
Working with German-based outfit Art Haus Musik, filmmaker Marieke Schroeder takes a deep dive into the American South and the artists at the forefront of the next generation in Country Roads, The Heartbeat of America. Making appearances during the 90-minute documentary are John Carter Cash, Caitlin Rose, her mother and songwriter Liz Rose, Woody Guthrie’s daughter Norah Guthrie, Kevin Costner, Papa Joe and the Carter Family Fold, The Ryman Auditorium, Robert’s Western World in Nashville and Brazilbilly, and most prominently, Justin Townes Earle in possibly the most intimate look at the 2nd generation performer we have seen to date. Other notables that make quick appearances include Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley, and Miranda Lambert in the capacity of The Pistol Annies, Amanda Shires, and Lisa Marie Presley. Stock footage of Johnny Cash and others is also used in the film.
Acting as a guide through both the explanation of the roots of country music and the streets of Nashville, Justin Townes Earle and many others try best to define “country” for a foreign audience in the film. If there was a second most-featured character in the film, it would be Woody Guthrie. From Earle’s deep study of the man, to the appearance of his daughter, to his influence on the music being made even today, Woody, and to an extent The Carter Family, become the centerpiece-in-spirit of the story. The Country Roads DVD also includes an entire Justin Townes Earle concert performed at Pace University on October 26th and 27th of 2012 called “The Spirit of Woody Guthrie.” The presentation doesn’t include Woody Guthrie songs, but instead features songs inspired by Woody’s musical legacy and performed by Justin.
Something else Country Roads affords for Americana music aficionados is intimate footage of Justin Townes Earle recording his 2012 album Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now, and the actual studio session where Caitlin Rose is singing her now highly-regarded Arctic Monkeys cover of “Piledriver Waltz.” This tells you that the film was shot roughly two-and-a-half years ago, and so in some ways you feel like you’re looking a little bit towards the past, though the film presents itself as being a relevant, here-and-now project, making for a slightly unusual sense of timing. Both Caitlin and Justin Townes Earle have subsequently put out newer music.
“This is one of our few untouched things in Nashville—RCA Studio ‘B’,” Justin explains in one portion of the film while standing amidst the heart of Nashville’s Music Row. “But then you just look around at all the crap that has been built around it. This is like the belly of the beast right here. This is where all the bad ideas are thought up. This is where all the bad country songs come from. This is where they’re all recorded. In all these buildings, this is where all the ‘geniuses’ that are thinking all the crap up and what they’re gonna do … It’s amazing to me that the people that work here now can hold their heads up, that they can walk these streets and think that if Hank Williams wasn’t here right now he wouldn’t whip their fucking ass.”
Country Roads is exquisitely shot, and does a great job capturing the dirty details of the South from a cinematic standpoint. The film is interspersed with rolling footage taken from the vantage point of a traveler on country roads, presenting both the most humble of existences in the form of outdated singlewides on stilts and backwoods cabins, to stately new upper class suburbs. Filmmaker Marieke Schroder, who in the mid 80′s lived in the United States in a school exchange and discovered the emotionalism present in Southern culture, makes stops along these roads to talk to common people: shopkeepers, the unemployed and retired, oyster fishermen dealing with the aftermath of the BP oil spill, and others. In these encounters you get a glimpse of the South beyond the music.
What the American audience and seasoned country music listeners should approach this film with is the understanding that at its core this movie is not made for them. It is made to be a primer to country music and the American South. The narration of the film comes across in the English version as quite presumptive about Southern culture and certain events, romanticizing the plight of the recent economic downturn and the depravity the South finds itself in, as well as getting other specific details a little off. For example, a couple of times the film says that Southerners now mostly hang out at gas stations. Though that may be true for some communities, that is not necessarily true for the entire Southern region. Some things may have been lost in the translation, while other broad generalities made in the narration may actually be a concise way to explain the complexities of the South to a foreign and unfamiliar audience.
What the established country music audience does get from Country Roads is a quite valuable and involved portrait of Justin Townes Earle, and a lesser, but still insightful glimpse at Caitlin Rose, John Carter Cash, The Carter Family Fold, and other important cultural players and institutions.
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See, this is the kind of weird stuff we need more of.
If you have a strong penchant towards wondering about the untold stories of music’s most adept sidemen like I do, then perhaps you have already pondered upon Telecaster player Jeremy Fetzer and pedal steel player Spencer Cullum Jr. from seeing them on stage with artists like Caitlin Rose, Andrew Combs, and Jonny Fritz just to name a few. There they are doing their worst in the wings while the person whose name is on the poster soaks up the spotlight.
It was in a collaborative state with Caitlin Rose that I first noticed these two young men on stage together, and in my conniving brain I looked at the lanky Cullum Jr., all British and badass on the steel, licking it harder than a calico cat trying to unlodge a gob of Wrigley’s gum from its underbelly, and Mr. Fetzer looking like some damn modern incarnation of Joey Lawrence, all bushy eyebrowed and boyish, who could probably lay half the town’s female eligibles, and I imagined some scandalous love triangle being hatched between the two and Caitlin as they stood up on stage, kicking the crowd’s asses so effortlessly it seemed unfair. In truth it was probably all platonic, but for some reason the idea of sexual frustration permeating that lineup made the music sound that much better.
But here are Fetzer and Cullum Jr. striking out on their own, and I have to say I wasn’t particularly excited about this development when it first came across the wires. These two young men were so “instrumental” (hardy har) in the sound that Caitlin Rose cultivated on her formidable last album The Stand-In, I was completely unreceptive to any changes that might disrupt that chemistry.
What’s so great about sidemen is they don’t give a shit about being out front. But in the Booker T & the MG’s lineage, Steelism is very much a sidemen band. They could have thumbed through their beefy Rolodex of previous collaborators and solicited the vocal services of some of their semi-famous to famous friends. Hell, they’ve played behind Miranda Lambert before. A few weeks ago I was watching that dumb “CMA Music Festival: Country’s Night to Rock” extravaganza on ABC, and there was Spencer Cullum Jr., all swaying his head as he played steel guitar for the Carrie Underwood / Miranda Lambert screech fest “Somethin’ Bad.” Yes, apparently that song has steel guitar. Somewhere.
But really where these two young twangers trace their nucleus back to is the East Nashville independent scene where they’ve played with just about everybody and established that they’re pretty much cooler than any of us could every be, at least judging by the list of their hip musician friends. But you won’t hear any famous vocalist contributions here. In fact you won’t hear any vocals at all. This is all about the instrumentation baby, so stoke your inner band geek and get ready for an innovative, yet influence-grounded exploration of composition and instrumentation that would be quite a stretch to classify as “country,” but still appeals to people with open minds who enjoy all music that shows reverence to the roots of modern sounds.
The title 615 To Fame is not some out-front prediction of where this record might take this duo, it is in reference to how half the album was cooked up in a collaborative space in Nashville (whose phone prefix is ’615′) called Club Roar, and the other half looked to imbibe their tunes with the Southern sweat indicative of the Muscle Shoals vibe that they tried to capture at Fame Recording Studio with the Alabama Shakes’ Ben Tanner in the role of producer. The result is a multi-faceted and spicy record, that takes both an informed and inquisitive exploration into the bounty of sounds that lend to the diverse and rewarding American music experience, with a little British spy and Beatlesesque psychedelia from across the pond mixed in for good measure.
This stuff ain’t for everyone. This is for the vinyl nerds and the deep diggers of the music consuming populous who like to find that little offbeat project that their friends would never get, and listen to it too loudly alone on a random Saturday night. What surprised me the most is the depth of instrumentation Spencer and Fetzer enlisted for this endeavor, and the lengths they went to and the courage they had to put whatever they heard in their minds on these tracks instead of settling for what was close at hand.
When this project first started out, they were farting around with cover songs and such, and I was scared it would become some cheeseball hipster project that I would resent even more for jeopardizing the Caitlin Rose mojo. Instead it is expansive and joyous, though still probably a little too fey and a little too undefined for the average listener. But screw those average listeners, they shouldn’t be reading Saving Country Music anyway. 615 To Fame is totally in the spirit of Booker T & the MG’s Green Onions in the way it begins with the groove, but Steelism gets much more involved, adding layers of ideas and interwoven melodies.
So yes, I give you permission, even as a hardened country fan to enjoy this album. And I also give my papal blessing to Steelism, as long as Spencer Cullum Jr. and Brian Fetzer promise to continue to lend their creative juices in at least some capacity to headliners in the future, since this has resulted in some of the best music that has graced our ears in the past few years.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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One of the things that can be so frustrating for distinguishing country music fans is knowing many of country music’s current stars can do so much better. Many of them have sensational voices, and can write great songs when they set their mind to it. And many times you can hear examples of this when listening to their albums. The garbage that artists and labels release as singles these days usually constitute the absolute worst an album has to offer. When listening to the albums of even some of country music’s worst acts, you’re regularly surprised by the substance and the amount of sincerity they exhibit in some songs.
A few months ago Saving Country Music published and article called “Before They Sucked: Big Country Music Stars At The Start.” As a similar exercise, let’s look at some of the album cuts of the biggest stars, and see the kind of heart, and country-sounding material they’re capable of when they set their mind to it.
PLEASE NOTE: This is not a recommendation of any of these songs. This is simply an exercise to illustrate that returning more substance to country isn’t necessarily tied to recording different songs, it could simply be tied to releasing different singles. Florida Georgia Line’s recent single “Dirt” is an example of how a big mainstream act can have a chart-topping success with a song with substance if they just make the conscious choice to do so.
And this is just the very tip of the iceberg of examples. The truth is most any top tier country artist is going to have songs of substance on their album.
Brantley Gilbert – “That Was Us” and “I’m Gone”
Brantley Gilbert might be the best example of an artist who releases the most vile detritus as singles, but when you actually listen to his records, you are surprised to find songs that are not just serious and sincere, but that are downright powerful. Gilbert is the mainstream artist with a grassroots following. He’s one of the few mainstream artists left who can sell albums, primarily because his ultra-loyal fans know there are going to be some really deep songs there that the radio will never play. These songs are one of the reasons his fan base seems to be ready to jump off a cliff for him if he ordered it, and will argue for days how great he is.
Brantley Gilbert’s last album Just As I Am is culpable for two of the crappiest singles found on country radio today: “Bottom’s Up” and “Small Town Throwdown.” But there are also a couple of tracks that show a lot of substance and heart, and even capture Brantley breaking away from his mumbling singing style. “That Was Us” starts out feeling like you’re average four minute laundry list pablum, but it reveals itself as a waltz-timed memory trip that includes moments of vulnerability and even self-effacing honesty. “I’m Gone” is another one from Just As I Am that is driven by mandolin and steel guitar, and aside from a Richie Sambora guitar wank-off bisecting the song, it’s a good reminder that Brantley Gilbert is a songwriter that writes his own stuff, and can write in story form with very strong results.
Justin Moore (w/ Miranda Lambert) - “Old Habits”
Maybe a little too sappy for some, while others won’t be able to get past what they consider Justin Moore’s fake accent, but boil this one down at 212° F and you’ve got an old-fashioned country heartbreaker that could jerk tears from some of the most hardened mainstream country haters. Why in the hell wasn’t this released as a single instead of Justin Moore’s Mötley Crüe screech fest tribute? You have Miranda Lambert on the track who is a hot commodity, and a hell of a lot more feeling than anything we’ve heard from Justin Moore in a long time. I fail to see how this wouldn’t perform much better than “Home Sweet Home” which stalled out on the charts in the 30′s. Give this song a chance as a single, and mainstream country steps up its game immediately.
Blake Shelton – “Lay Low”
There’s a few songs on Blake Shelton’s Based On A True Story that are not nearly as bad as “Boys ‘Round Here.” Truth is, Blake Shelton has never defined the worst country has to offer, especially when it comes to his album cuts. It’s that his alligator mouth gets ahead of his hummingbird ass more often than not. Songs like “Do You Remember” and “Grandaddy’s Gun” get brownie points for effort, and so should “Lay Low.” What’s good about this song is it really revitalizes the mood of mid to late 80′s country before everything went Garth crazy. It’s smooth and laid back. It doesn’t say much, but what it does say fills the spirit with a warm, relaxed feeling. It reminds you of what country sounded like before … you know … people like Blake Shelton came along.
If you want an example of an artist with one of the greatest voices ever to grace the genre, and who threw his talents away by defining his career through stupid singles, look no further than Mr. “Honky Tonk Badonka Donk” himself. The simple fact is Trace Adkins has entire albums of songs that are way more substantive that what is symbolized by “Brown Chicken Brown Cow” and the other bull he’s released to radio. This guy once won the ACM for Best New Male Vocalist, and is a member of the Grand Ole Opry. His last album Love Will… is full of serious love songs, and as one would expect, it virtually flopped despite being arguably his most mature album yet. The Trace Adkins career arch is one that conveys that you may get hot with big singles, but you can also die by them when you become a joke to many listeners.
Jason Aldean – “Church Pew or Bar Stool”
Jason Aldean has never been a songwriter; he’s always been a pure singer and performer. But one thing he has done over his career is establish a theme surrounding his music of the small town identity that looks at the world through the simple eyes of the forgotten people in America’s heartland and hometowns. Songs like “Amarillo Sky,” “Water Tower,” and “Flyover States” speak very specifically to people forgotten by time and technology, and that struggle to find their identity in a challenging new world while still holding on to who they are.
We have to remember that Jason Aldean wasn’t a huge star until “Dirt Road Anthem,” and his label Broken Bow wasn’t a big deal until Jason Aldean. As time has gone on, just like so many stars who get overtaken by the Music Row machine, Aldean has backslid into chasing trends and losing touch with what made him unique when he first entered the business. But throughout his discography, you can hear the sentiment that gives a solemn assessment of lost America and its forlorn residents.
On Wednesday morning (9-3), the nominees for the 48th Annual CMA Awards were announced on ABC’s Good Morning America and through a CMA Live stream. The 2014 CMA Awards will happen on Wednesday November 5th on ABC, and will be hosted by Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood.
Leading all nominees with nine is Miranda Lambert. Dierks Bentely also turns in a strong showing with five considerations. And amongst the critic’s favorites, Brandy Clark comes in with two nominations, including for New Artist of the Year, and steel guitarist Paul Franklin also receives two nominations.
Though Taylor Swift has officially declared herself pop, she still rounds out the Female Vocalist category with a nomination. And despite officially retiring from touring this year, reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year George Strait shows up once again for the distinction.
The other curious takeaway from the nominations is Jason Aldean isn’t nominated for anything. After the year he’s had, this is nothing short of astounding. There is a story here somewhere, maybe doing with his infidelity, or with his label Broken Bow. The exclusion of Jason Aldean could set up as a big night for Luke Bryan.
Entertainer of the Year
Whether Taylor Swift would be included in this category was one of the biggest questions heading into these nominations. She’s been a perennial Entertainer nominee for the last half decade. There also seemed to be a slight chance we could see Florida Georgia Line here with the huge year they have had. In the end, Big Machine Records gets shut out, Miranda Lambert is the female representative, and King George shows up yet again, challenging the notion that last year’s win was a parting gift.
This is a two horse race. Luke Bryan has put together an incredible year, and has to be considered the front runner, but George Strait with his touring success can’t be ruled out. Remember at the ACM Awards earlier in 2014 when George got picked over Luke, members of the Luke camp erupted. This duel will be the big drama of the night.
Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert have no chance. Blake Shelton would be the dark horse.
- Luke Bryan – Winner
- Miranda Lambert
- Blake Shelton
- George Strait – Another Potential Winner
- Keith Urban
Male Vocalist of the Year
Blake Shelton has been a shoe-in for this distinction the last few years, just as his wife Miranda Lambert has been the shoe-in for the females. But Luke Bryan has to be considered the strongest in the field. If Luke gets locked out of the Entertainer of the Year, the pressure may be to give Luke Bryan Male Vocalist as a consolation prize. Eric Church and Keith Urban are not contenders. Keith is simply the name the CMA’s are using to fill out the lists this year. Dierks has put together a great run with Riser, and would be both the dark horse, and the critical favorite.
- Dierks Bentley
- Luke Bryan – Winner
- Eric Church
- Blake Shelton – Other Potential Winner
- Keith Urban
Female Vocalist of the Year
Of course the CMA nominates Taylor Swift in this category despite her not considering herself country anymore, though hypothetically this is for the year that just passed—before Taylor made her pop declaration. And lacking any real candidates because of the exclusiveness of mainstream country music, the CMA taps Martina McBride again to fill the 5th spot. Country music is not developing female talent, and perusing this category annually proves this.
Miranda runs away with it.
- Miranda Lambert – Winner
- Martina McBride
- Kacey Musgraves
- Taylor Swift
- Carrie Underwood
Album of the Year
Since Eric Church’s last album Chief swept this category at the award shows two years ago, he has to be considered a contender. But you just don’t feel the same momentum for The Outsiders. If label politics win out however, he may walk away with it. This is the award the Eric Church camp will be lobbying heaviest for.
But this all feels like it is setting up to be a big night for Luke Bryan, and Crash My Party is a front runner. Keep an eye out for Dierks Bentley too. This would be considered the critical favorite of the bunch. Sorry Keith, you’ve got no chance.
- Crash My Party, Luke Bryan – Winner
- Fuse, Keith Urban
- Platinum, Miranda Lambert
- Riser, Dierks Bentley – Other Potential Winner
- The Outsiders, Eric Church – Other Potential Winner
Song of the Year
“Follow Your Arrow” would be the winner that would have the media agog over its liberal message in what’s considered a conservative environment, but that subplot may never have a chance to materialize. Fairly wide open field here, but let’s all hope Dallas Davidson doesn’t walk away with any hardware. “Automatic” and “I Hold On” would be the two songs that balance the critical and commercial success a Song of the Year usually needs to win, but if the CMA wants to make a statement, “Follow Your Arrow” may just prevail. There weren’t five better songs out there in country music?
- “Automatic,” Nicolle Galyon, Natalie Hemby, and Miranda Lambert
- “Follow Your Arrow,” Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves
- “Give Me Back My Hometown,” Eric Church & Luke Laird
- “I Don’t Dance,” Lee Brice, Dallas Davidson, & Rob Hatch
- “I Hold On,” Dierks Bentley & Brett James
Single of the Year
Boy, the CMA’s and mainstream country music are really showing just how bereft they are by these song nominations.
- “Automatic,” Miranda Lambert
- “Drunk On A Plane,” Dierks Bentley
- “Give Me Back My Hometown,” Eric Church
- “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s,” Tim McGraw featuring Faith Hill
- “Mine Would Be You,” Blake Shelton
New Artist of the Year
Very cool to see Brandy Clark’s name here, and simply her nomination has to be considered a victory. But she has no chance. Thomas Rhett has been pegged as one of the next country superstars for a few years now, and his pedigree may be enough to best Kip Moore and Cole Swindell, who are the other strong contenders.
- Brandy Clark
- Brett Eldredge
- Kip Moore
- Thomas Rhett – Winner
- Cole Swindell – Other Potential Winner
Vocal Duo of the Year
Who, who, and who? Once again mainstream country proves how top heavy their talent is, and how terrible they are at developing new acts when it comes to trying to round out these categories with artists that are deserving of such a distinction. The world will end before anyone but Florida Georgia Line walks away with this.
- Florida Georgia Line – Winner
- Love & Theft
- Swon Brothers
- Thompson Square
Vocal Group of the Year
Good to see the Texas scene represented here (at least to some degree) with Eli Young Band. Zac Brown should win it, Lady Antebellum doesn’t have a chance since it’s an off-year for them. Little Big Town is the reigning champion, and there seems to be a lot of energy behind them lately.
- Eli Young Band
- Lady Antebellum
- Little Big Town – Winner
- The Band Perry – Other Potential Winner
- Zac Brown Band – Other Potential Winner
Event of the Year
Cool to see names like Vince Gill, Paul Franklin, Dolly Parton, and Kenny Rogers show up, but in the end there’s probably only two strong contenders. “We Were Us” would be a dark horse, but its rise and fall on the singles charts was pretty fast. “Somethin’ Bad” shouldn’t be nominated for anything and would be an embarrassment if it won, which it very well might.
- “Bakersfield,” Vince Gill & Paul Franklin
- “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s,” Tim McGraw featuring Faith Hill – Winner
- “Somethin’ Bad,” Miranda Lambert duet with Carrie Underwood – Other Potential Winner
- “We Were Us,” Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert
- “Can’t Make Old Friends,” Dolly Parton & Kenny Rogers
Music Video of the Year
So, so blah. So many great videos out there, and we’re nominating “Somethin’ Bad” and “Drunk On A Plane”?
- “Automatic,” Miranda Lambert, directed by Trey Fanjoy
- “Bartender,” Lady Antebellum, directed by Shane Drake
- “Drunk On A Plane,” Dierks Bentley, directed by Wes Edwards
- “Follow Your Arrow,” Kacey Musgraves, directed by Honey & Kacey Musgraves
- “Somethin’ Bad,” Miranda Lambert & Carrie Underwood, directed by Trey Fanjoy
Musician of the Year
Good to see Paul Franklin land two nominations this year. Normally this is the hardest category to forecast, but you have to feel like Franklin is the front runner for 2014.
- Sam Bush, mandolin
- Jerry Douglas, dobro
- Paul Franklin, steel guitar – Winner
- Dann Huff, guitar
- Mac MacAnally, guitar
When perusing the bereft landscape of mainstream country music and searching for a female performer with some substance and an independent spirit who could possibly still raise a blip at the highest levels, Sunny Sweeney is one of the first names to come to mind. It’s not too hard to envision the Texas native making a splash in the mainstream because she has done it before. In 2010, her single “From A Table Away” made it all the way to #10 on the Billboard charts—a feat for any woman in this particular country music climate. Of course it helped that Sweeney had Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records behind her at that time. Sweeney was one of the very first Big Machine signees along with Taylor Swift, and when Borchetta opened up the Republic Nashville imprint, Sweeney was the label’s inaugural artist.
These days the particulars of Sunny Sweeney’s business dealings are much different. Her latest album Provoked was released through Thirty Tigers—the same independent, champion-of-the-little-guy distributor that artists like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell use. But Sweeney’s sound still remains very much steeped in that space that can find consensus amongst both mainstream fans, and traditional/independent fans from leanings that are traditional, expressive, yet still accessible to the wide ear.
Just like Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musggraves, Sunny Sweeney is an east Texas girl at her core, and no matter what Nashville does, it’s never possible to completely quiet those jangling spurs or smooth out that accent. Sweeney though, compared to Miranda and Kacey for example, seems to have held onto her decidedly Texas style even more so over the years. She very much fits that mold of the Texas country artist that got big enough to be recognized by Music Row, but always felt just a little too authentic to do much more than experience that world from the outside looking in.
At the same time, Sunny Sweeney also has some quickly-identifiable fingerprints of the industry in her sound. Sometimes it feels like instead of hearing three chords and the truth, you’re hearing three professional songwriters and a hook. It might still be a hook that is hard to escape the appeal of, but the formulas and tropes find their way into the female side of country music too, and there’s a few of those overt moments on Provoked. The album’s two beginning tracks—”You Don’t Know Your Husband” and “Bad Girl Phase”—strike at that female answer to Bro-Country vein in portraying the sassy, non-behaving female quite directly.
“Front Row Seats” is a sensational track on this album, superbly written and pointed in its message, but it still plays very much to this Kacey Musgraves anti-conformist formula that the success of “Merry ‘Go Round” has given rise to. A song like “Sunday Dress” shows that when it comes to the women in country, ‘mama’ is the female version of the men’s ‘tailgate,’ and disobeying her wisdom is expected on an album at least a few times. From another perspective though, many of these trends and tropes are hot right now, and Sunny’s contributions overall are just a little more thoughtful, and little more developed, and a little more country than most of her country peers who’ve seen mainstream success.
Sweeney also strikes out on some limbs, and in moments let’s her traditional influences shine through unapologetically. The gem of this album might be the swing-timed “Find Me.” It is so aching, so brilliant in the way it builds tension both in the story and sonically until Sunny has swept you up in a wave of emotions. Like all but two of the songs on Provoked, “Find Me” is co-written by Sweeney, and feels like a very personal expression. The only true cover on the album is Randy Weeks’ “Can’t Let Go” which has been done many times by many artists, maybe most notably by Lucinda Williams, but Sweeney really nails her version, with the song seeming to be custom-made to fit her Southern twang, and the half-time beat highlighting the chorus being the perfect call in the arrangement.
“My Bed” with Will Hoge is another Provoked highlight, and is a good example of how Sweeney also translates well into the more progressive, Americana-style of production that a few of the album’s tracks veer toward. And though the sassy, non-behaving female formula was decried above, the final track on the album, “Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass” is just too damn fun, the lyrics too good, and the steel guitar too hot to give it anything less than two guns up.
Sunny Sweeney has a very sweet, very alluring natural tone to her voice, but it has always felt like she stops her phrasing a little too short, as evidenced on Provoked in the song “Second Guessing.”
In the end it is not Sunny Sweeney’s super heartbreaking sentimentality, or her high caliber songwriting that makes her stand out in the crowd. It is her practical, pragmatic, bridge-building approach to country music for all that stays true to her nature that has you rooting for her no matter what the color of your country music stripes.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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The virtual disappearance of female country music stars on American radio is a dilemma that has now stretched out for nearly half a decade. Despite the efforts of many well-meaning taste makers in both the media and the industry to make sense of the problem and solve it, nothing so far has significantly penetrated the male blockade dominating country radio. When you take away Taylor Swift, Miranda Lambert, and Carrie Underwood, there are no other female country stars who have received any significant chart success with songs since 2010.
Now the senior director of music programming at SiriusXM is looking to try and do something about the problem and hopefully create interest around some of country music’s undiscovered and worthy female talent. SiriusXM’s John Marks has launched a new feature on the satellite radio station’s major mainstream channel The Highway called Fresh Female Voices that three times an hour will feature female artists from both the up-and-coming ranks of the mainstream, and the independent music world. The feature will run all this week while John Marks monitors sales data and social network chatter to see if the program is having a significant impact and which female stars resonate the most.
Female artists who’ve been mentioned as part of the program include Brandy Clark, Sunny Sweeney, First Aid Kit, The Pistol Annies’ Angaleena Presley, Kelleigh Bannen, and Leah Turner. Fresh Female Voices will add an estimated 200 additional spins for female country acts beyond the coverage The Highway regularly gives to the women of country.
Interestingly, it was a similar John Marks program that is given credit to the rise of Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise”, and songs from Chase Rice and Cole Swindell before they were signed to labels. Marks hopes a similar fate awaits the ladies he’s looking to feature.
“It’s a fan question and an industry question that everyone is asking right now,” John Marks says. “Where is the female talent in country music? With ‘Fresh Female Voices,’ we will be introducing our national audience to a wide variety of female talent that is out there right now working hard and trying to connect with fans. We hope to be a conduit by exposing a wide variety of types and styles of country music – while spotlighting up and coming female country music talent.”
“We’re pulling in a wide swath of female talent to gather up what the listeners will respond to,” Marks tells Brian Mansfield of USA Today about the program. “For me, it’s turning into a quest to find the one that finally rings the bell for the country consumer.”
Marks also says the problem isn’t male listeners dominating the country marketplace, it is female listeners not responding to female talent. “The females typically lead in not liking female talent,” he says. “The trick is going to be how you get the females to like the females.”
Fresh Female Voices marks one of the first programs specifically targeting the country listening audience on radio to try to solve country’s female problem, and one that can have a national impact because of the subscription service’s reach.
Tragic news out of the Cleveland area as a 22-year-old man named Cory Barron who went missing on Friday, July 18th during a Jason Aldean concert at Progressive Field, was found by a landfill worker in New Russia Township, just outside of Cleveland on Tuesday (7-22). The man’s body was in a dumpster that had been transported from the ballpark. The Lorain County Sherriff’s Department responded to the landfill and identified the body as the missing man. The young man still had his ID and ticket stub on his person when he was discovered.
Local investigators are looking into the possibility that the concertgoer fell down a trash chute that led to the dumpster. The chute was located near where the Fremont, OH native had tickets to the concert. According to workers, the man would have fallen five or six stories down the chute to reach the dumpster. What the man was doing by the chute, how he gained access to it, or if any foul play was involved has yet to be determined. The cause of death has yet to be determined pending an autopsy by the Lorain County Coroner’s Office.
An intense search operation that involved the FBI was commenced the day after Friday’s concert when Cory Barron went missing. He was last seen at around 9:30 PM after leaving his assigned seating area to meet up with friends in another section of the ballpark. Cory never returned, and Saturday morning a missing persons report was filed. A search then commenced, including by air and watercraft in the area. The entire ballpark was searched three times with no clues, and surveillance video found nothing suspicious.
Florida Georgia Line, Miranda Lambert, and Tyler Farr also played at the concert.
On Tuesday night after the news of Cory Barron’s death was made public, Jason Aldean said on Twitter, “My sincere condolences go out to Cory Barron’s family and friends. My heart is heavy for you all and you are in my thoughts and prayers.”
The Cleveland Indians, whose home is Progressive Field, also said, “The Cleveland Indians are saddened by the news of Cory Barron’s untimely death and wish to extend their sincere condolences to the Barron family and friends. We are cooperating with the authorities in their investigation and do not have additional comment at this time.”
Last year about this time, music periodicals left and right were falling over themselves to declare 2013 the “Year of the Woman” in country music. From Billboard, to NPR, to right here on Saving Country Music, the recognition of the creative leadership coming from female performers such as Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe, Brandy Clark, Caitlin Rose, Lindi Ortega, Holly Williams, Kellie Pickler, and others was seen as one of the universal themes of 2013. Of course this theme paralleled one of the worst commercial performances by country’s females in history, seeing the virtual evaporation of women from the top of the genre’s main indices, and making the “Year of the Woman” a tale of two stories.
Music Row in Nashville may be dumb, but it’s not stupid. They saw the need to ramp up the female quotient to restore some diversity to the format. And here in the summer of 2014, we’re very much seeing the results of those efforts. And unfortunately, it’s not very pretty.
The first onslaught our ears were subjected to was the lamentable duet between two of country music’s most powerhouse females in Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert. An intriguing pairing, it was sure to get the attention of people even if the song was terrible, which it was. “Somethin’ Bad” was nothing more than a story-less banshee yawp taking two stars completely out of their element to try and show up the boys, and ended up denting the dignity of these artists as an obvious attention grab. It was the proverbial “Hey, look over here!” moment. And though the song did crest Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart for a very short period, it has since fallen, while stalling on the Country Airplay chart at #21. Even with a double shot of star power, “Somethin’ Bad” didn’t have nearly the staying power of many of Bro-Country’s biggest anthems, which quickly rise to the very top, and stay there sometimes for months.
Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert weren’t going to “out bro” the Bro-Country stars, and attempting to do so was futile. Besides, Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert were two of the three female names (along with Taylor Swift) who actually could still climb country’s charts on their own.
As strange as it may seem to characterize Underwood and Lambert as older stars since they still feel like fresh arrivals in the country scene in many respects, they are now both in their 30′s and are very much part of the established country music vista. Bro-Country has been mostly fueled by non-established male stars springing up left and right and landing monster hits. As soon as super hits from Luke Bryan or Jason Aldean begin to falter from a multi-month reign, there’s a Florida Georgia Line or Cole Swindell to back them up. Country music needed some girl power, and from some fresh faces if it was going to attack its female problem with full force. And that is just what we have seen over the last few weeks.
So now we have Maggie Rose and her tune “Girl In Your Truck Song” taking a submissive, pandering role to the Bro-Country phenomenon, hoping to ride the coat tails of the trend to a high chart rating. A new artist named Raelynn has a song out some are touting as being an answer to Bro-Country called “God Made Girls”. And leading them all might be Maddie & Tae from the Big Machine Records stable and what they hope to be a blockbuster in “Girl In A Country Song”.
All of these girls are very young, very cute, and very blonde, but do they deserve attention, and will they ultimately be successful? Though each artist and song deserves to be dealt with individually because they pose such variations to the Bro-Country backlash, they all are still taking the stance of referencing or utilizing the same approach as Bro-Country does in one capacity or another. It’s the “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude. Leadership is not seeing what someone else is doing and attempting to capitalize off of it, whether that be from a positive or negative stance. It is about blazing your own path and making others follow in your wake.
One of the problems with the approach of these girls and their songs is they fail to recognize that Bro-Country is already very long in the tooth as a trend. Public sentiment is turning against Bro-Country in big numbers, and whether positive or negative in their take on the trend, by harnessing themselves to it these girls risk going down with the sinking ship. They may be very successful in the short-term, but if Bro-Country does a disappearing act like the disco or hair metal of country music, there will be collateral damage, just like there was in the disillusion of those trends.
Really, the most successful challenges to Bro-Country haven’t been coming from girls, but from men. Dierks Bentley was able to release an album and multiple singles that have shown surprising success amongst the Bro-Country landscape despite not giving into the trend himself. Same could be said for Eric Church. And as ironic as it may seem, Florida Georgia Line’s “Dirt”, which just became the most-added debut country single in country radio history, and has already landed at #1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, might be the most successful ANTI Bro-Country song yet, because it comes from one of the subgenre’s pioneers, and still works well within the styling of the trend while delivering greater substance. “Dirt” does what the women failed to do: offer a more subsnative alternative that still includes mass appeal.
The problem with country music’s females are not the songs. There are plenty of songs out there that challenge Bro-Country; not because they directly call it out, but because they illustrate how you can have substance in a song, and it still be engaging and relevant. But those songs aren’t being released to radio, or promoted heavily by their labels.
What the women of country music need to do is to continue to the leadership they displayed during “The Year of the Woman” and let the men come back to them in the implosion of Bro-Country, not try to beat them at their own game. If you released a song like Kacey Musgraves’ “The Trailer Song” to radio, you would have a Top 10 hit with a waltz-time tune that would also have the country world singing along and tapping their toes. This would illustrate to country consumers that they have females choices in country music too.
The women are doing nothing wrong. There’s no need to have a change of direction. There are plenty of women and songs already saving country music. We just have to let them.
Could we be on the brink of a blockbuster country protest song?
I was going to start this off with a spirited dissection of just how Nashville’s Music Row is re-integrating the anti “bro-country” sentiment back into the country music industrial complex, just like they did with the “New Outlaws” in the earlier part of this decade, and make no mistake ladies and gentlemen, that is what is going on with this song, no matter the original intention of these two 18-year-old girls. But out of respect for these young ladies, and the song itself, we’ll leave a more in-depth exploration of those matters for another time (read more here).
Maddie & Tae are the first signees to Scott Borchetta’s Dot Records—the most recent imprint to his Big Machine Label empire (NASH Icons notwithstanding). Maddie & Tae were not signed to Dot because of a lengthy performance resume. The girl’s performance schedule has been very limited up to this point. They were not signed to Dot on the strength of a completed album. In fact their debut album is still in the writing phase. And it’s not because Maddie & Tae are making a big buzz in the social media world, or the music world in general. At the moment, the duo’s Facebook page only has 1,100 “likes” (though this will all change in due course, trust me). The reason Maddie and Tae were signed to Dot Records was off the strength of one tune, “Girl In A Country Song”, and that one song now has the duo being underwritten by country music’s biggest label, poised to take country music by storm.
Make no mistake about it, “Girl In A Country Song” will be a huge hit, because Scott Borchetta will make it that way. The pretty faces help, and so does the fact they they can write and sing a little bit—just exactly how much though has yet to be truly battle tested. But this one song is good enough apparently to give the duo a green light. Yes ladies and gentlemen, this is the brave new world of country music.
“One of the reasons we activated Maddie & Tae right now, it started with this song, ‘Girl In A Country Song’,” says Big Machine CEO Scott Borchetta in the duo’s EPK (see below). “I think we’re staring off Dot Records with an absolute heater. There is a gaping hole for a female act to come and re-engage teenage girls in the format. It really hasn’t happened since Taylor (Swift).”
In Rolling Stone‘s recent special country music edition, in the feature on Scott Borchetta, they capture Borchetta interfacing with the new duo. “Borchetta’s last meeting of the day is with Maddie and Tae, a perky blonde duo, both 18, signed to Big Machine publishing, who are about to become full-fledged label artists. Their label is excited about “Girl In A Country Song,” which pokes gentle fun at the genre’s stereotypes—but they need to finish writing the album.”
Maddie Marlow and Taelyn Elizabeth are from Texas and Oklahoma respectively. They met in 2011 via a vocal coach and originally were going under the name “Sweet Aliana“. Ahead of the release of “Girl In A Country Song”, they are saying most of the right things.
“There are so many teenagers and duos, so many people trying to do the same thing,” says Maddie. “All of it’s about guys. We like to write about that, too. But what’s going to set us apart? We want to be intriguing but also put out songs with good messages.”
“We kind of like to shock people,” adds Taelyn. “We like to write a song that most people would never expect from two teenage girls. We make it modern but still really country. Hopefully, it catches on with people.”
The two girls list their influences a Dolly Parton, Joe Dee Messina, The Dixie Chicks, Carrie Underwood, Lee Ann Womack, and Shania Twain, who they reinforce is “THE thing” in their ethos.
So what do we get when we finally get to hear this much ballyhooed “Girl In A Country Song”?
Sonically, we get a pretty straightforward pop country structure, with the sentimental banjo and mandolin present here and there, but not too loud or out front, as is the custom of the day. Rock guitar sets the rhythmic base of the song, and though the solo is handled by a fiddle (a scandalous decision these days), its tone is tinged such that it could almost be mistaken as a Stratocaster. The turntable scratches at the beginning could be serious, or could be mockery. It’s anyone’s guess at this point.
The girls sing with that saucy twang that starts purposely below the register, and comes up to meet the proper note, imbibed with lots of attitude a la Miranda Lambert.
The words to “Girls In A Country Song” are what have everyone riled, and undoubtedly are what have Scott Borchetta rubbing his hands together, envisioning this track co-written by the duo will strike at a nerve just at the time the bro-country wave has reached its peak.
That’s right, Maddie & Tae are not just harping on “bro-country” per se, they’re specifically putting Blake Shelton’s “Boys ‘Round Here” (which has the same “red red red” cadence), and Tyler Farr’s creepy stalker song “Redneck Crazy” in its crosshairs. That’s a lot of guano-stirring for a couple of girls who likely wrote this song when they were 17.
Yes, “Girl In A Country Song” could very much be considered to fall in line with the long-standing country music tradition of protest songs, however playful, light, and potentially tongue-and-cheek as it might be. But let’s all just tap the breaks in saying this is “anti bro-country”. Are a couple of 18-year-old girls really looking to take on virtually the entire country music recording industry, even if Scott Borchetta has their backs? This song is being submitted to the masses because the bean counters at Big Machine think it can sell. That is in no way an attempt to belittle the sentiment and the inspiration instilled in this song by two girls, but let’s be honest.
The simple fact is country protest songs in 2014 are almost as cliché as the songs they’re chiding. We have clichés calling out clichés, and soon we’ll have protest songs calling out all of the protest songs. and is this truly a protest song, or should it be considered more an “answer” song in the old school country convention, where a female (or male) artist takes a song and writes a playful rebuttal? The true “anti bro-country” songs aren’t saucy ditties like this one from Matty & Tae, and it’s certainly not Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood’s “Somethin’ Bad”. It is Kacey Musgraves’ “The Trailer Song“. It is First Aid Kit’s “My Silver Lining“. These are songs with true originality, with story, and from major label artists whose best songs have no excuse not to be released to radio. Bro-country won’t be defeated by being attacked, or by being one-up’d by employing the same shallow tactics. It will be defeated when it is ignored, when alternatives that resonate deeper are offered and bro-country blends into the background as the hyper-trend it is. By getting behind this song, the industry, or at least Scott Borchetta, is signaling they believe bro-country’s relevancy arch is getting long in the tooth.
This is a cute little song, but I hate to place too much of a burden on it by loading it up with what some country fans want from it. What Maddie & Tae will truly become in the country realm is yet to be determined, and with girls this young, we all have to be careful and respectful of what our words, wants, and wishes might do to their original visions and dreams.
In the Rolling Stone feature on Scott Borchetta, the part about Maddie & Tae concludes, “When the pair seem eager to defer to the company’s wisdom, Borchetta gently chides them, ‘We’re activating this because of your vision,’ he says, his expression grave. ‘Don’t lose it.’” This speaks to Borchetta’s long-standing principle to dole out more artistic freedom than most of his Music Row comrades. And I would concur with his sentiments. These girls are so young, who knows where things will go. But as for “Girl In A Country Song”, I think without question, it is headed straight to the top. And it’s somewhat empowering and resonant sentiment along with it.
1 1/4 of 2 guns up.
To listen to “Girl In A Country Song”:
You can listen to it in the background of the EPK below, or ….
You can either try by Clicking Here, or by pasting the following url: mms://126.96.36.199/verifiedwma/2034521.wma into you Windows Media Player, Real Player, VLC Player, etc.
NOTE: The song might sound strange, especially in the beginning because it has been protected from re-recording. Hang with it.
As soon as a proper copy has been made available, it will be posted here.
“Girl In A Country Song” is set to be released to radio on 7/21 according to Windmills Country.
Lyrics first transcribed by Farce The Music.
Performed by Maddie & Tae)
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