Album Review – Alex Williams “Better Than Myself”
When will country music be saved? When traditional country artists and quality songwriters are given equal billing right beside their pop and modern country counterparts on the radio, at award shows, on tour, or anywhere where country music is celebrated and recognized. It’s a seat at the table; an opportunity to espouse and ply the traditional roots of the genre without the burdens of obscurity relegating the music to inferior channels.
That’s why whenever a traditional country artist, especially a young one, emerges from a major Nashville label, it is worth paying extra attention to. If 90% of mainstream music is garbage, it stands to reason that 10% isn’t. It’s that 10% where not only some good listening can be found for traditional country fans and folks who lean more towards the Americana side, it’s also what must be celebrated in hopes that the percentage of good stuff rises.
The Big Machine Music Group is the home of Taylor Swift, Florida Georgia Line, Thomas Rhett, and a host of other villains to in the traditional and Outlaw music communities. But it’s not as if Scott Borchetta’s label has never championed quality country, or projects where the commercial possibilities are limited. It was Big Machine that released Saving Country Music’s 2013 Album of the Year, The Mavericks’ In Time. The label recently released a record from Aaron Lewis, and regardless of what you think about the Staind frontman personally, it’s hard to not call that record country. You can even point to Midland as a recent Big Machine experiment into the more traditional side of the genre.
But Alex Williams is not like any of those. Aaron Lewis and The Mavericks already had established names when Big Machine came calling, and even though Midland is more traditional than what the mainstream is used to, they have an image that people are buying into, and an actual radio strategy that has been pretty effective so far. With Alex Williams though, you have none of that. He’s a virtual unknown. Yet here he is releasing a by God traditional country record through arguably the most powerful major label in “country” music.
There is no need to mince words here or parse expectations. Alex Williams debut record Better Than Myself is traditional country music. And if it needs any qualifiers, it would be that it leans more toward the Outlaw style. There’s no compromise, no songs getting intro’d with a drum machine beat. It is true country music in every sense. Williams (no relation, by the way), who is originally from Indiana, wrote or co-wrote every song on the album. And just taking a look at him, this is not a guy trying to squeeze by on his Hollywood looks. With his long beard and hair, he could fit in right beside Cody Jinks and Whitey Morgan on an Outlaw festival lineup.
But as has been said on Saving Country Music many times, just because something is real country doesn’t mean it’s real good. The songs still have to say something. There still has to be an element of originality. Making true country can be difficult because you must adhere to established rules, yet find a way to innovate and put your signature stamp on the music within those rigid parameters.
Frankly, the most intriguing thing about Alex Williams and Better Than Myself is that it’s originating from Big Machine. When you start listening, despite the infectiousness and joy you find in the moaning steel guitar and twangy vocals, the lyrics rely often on fairly cliché drinking and smoking themes that have been worn out for many years. It’s not that drinking songs are a bad thing, but how do you write and sing one anew? Alex Williams struggles a bit with that in some of the tracks pushed out to the forefront to represent his style, songs like “Hellbent Hallelujah,” “Week Without A Drink,” and “Little Too Stoned.”
“More Than Survival” is basically a Bro-Country song set to a more Outlaw country style. Alex Williams directly cites Cody Jinks as one of his influences, but there’s no “David” or “I’m Not The Devil” on this record. It mostly represents the party hearty, renegade side of country, without much of the pain, struggle, or redemption that has always been at the heart of “Outlaw” country music, and overlooked by those who only take shallow observances of what an Outlaw is based on image and style.
Is Alex Williams just Big Machine seeing the success of Cody Jinks and Sturgill Simpson, and coming to the cursory conclusion that folks find those artists appealing just because they’re more traditional, and are hedging their bets in case all of country swings that way so they’ve already got a stake in it? If that’s the situation, then why not just sign a Cody Jinks or Whitey Morgan, who already have an established fan base, been doing it for years, and frankly have better songs?
One reason is probably because Cody and Whitey would tell Scott Borchetta to get bent. But the question still remains, why Alex Williams of all people? Why this guy, and right now? A traditional country artist like Alex Williams may be a novelty for a major label like Big Machine, but in the big scary music world, there are others like him, and many that have a head start.
But you can’t discount the importance of what label is releasing this album, and where from. It’s always fair to consider music while sizing it up against its peers. And in the peer group of Alex Williams—whether regarding the roster of Big Machine or all of Nashville’s major labels in general—the fact that an artist like Alex Williams, and an album such as Better Than Myself made it past the oligarchs and out to the public is a remarkable feat in itself. It is part of that 10% of good stuff for sure.
And Better Than Myself gets a little better later in the record with songs like “Old Tattoo” and “Few Short Miles.” Taken individually, most all of the songs of Better Than Myself are pretty damn good aside from maybe “More Than Survival.” It’s when you get hit with one drinking song after another, and even a song like “Freak Flag” that has been done so damn often that you begin to become wary. I want to see Alex Williams go deeper. Okay, you’ve defied the odds and you’re now on the inside of the machine, calling your own shots, and getting traditional country down the conveyor belt. Now it’s time to take the songwriting to the next level, to challenge yourself, and to not just be that Outlaw guy on Taylor Swift’s label, but that Outlaw guy everyone is talking about no matter what record label’s name is on the binding.
Alex Williams is good, just not great. It’s one of those records where you have a lot of critical things to say, but end up with a sum positive. But what Alex Williams has is what a lot of artists in the traditional Outlaw community don’t have: an opportunity. He’s established himself as the real deal, crawled inside the belly of the beast while holding onto his own identity and style. Big Machine has even shown some understanding on how to work Alex Williams as a non radio star, debuting this album via NPR and such. Hopefully in the coming years he can bring it home, expand his songwriting vocabulary a bit, and be the mainstream traditional country artist to represent the throngs of hungry country fans looking for a reason to be hopeful in the future of country music.
1 1/4 Guns Up (6.5/10)
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August 14, 2017 @ 6:13 pm
I wanted to like this. I really did. The whole Big Machine thing didn’t even bother me, but this is so blah. That is the only way I know how to describe it. It did nothing for me.
August 14, 2017 @ 6:14 pm
August 14, 2017 @ 6:23 pm
I’ll give it a second chance based on your review. I had it on today but nothing really struck me as interesting. Like Hayes said, “blah.”
August 14, 2017 @ 6:26 pm
Sounds like crap, nothing original. Anyone can pop up there and do that.
Hold this, and give me that damn Mic.
August 14, 2017 @ 6:31 pm
Had Saw this on iTunes and hoped you would review it. I will give it a listen.
Headed to Bristol this weekend. Pumped that Cody Jinks will do the pre race show. Called the track because my seats aren’t close to the stage (stage will be on the back straightaway). Thankfully Bristol said that I could move in the stands directly in front of the stage for the duration of the concert. Bristol also said they have been surprised with the interest in the concert.
Trig…. wondering how big do you think this opportunity will be for Cody?
August 14, 2017 @ 6:57 pm
For what its worth, Big Machine’s head Scott Borchetta announced at Williams’ release party the other night that he will be a big part of next year’s NASCAR race in Indy.
August 14, 2017 @ 7:25 pm
Didn’t know that. It’s a much better choice than Gilbert in my opinion.
August 14, 2017 @ 8:54 pm
I’m not really sure. My NASCAR rader is a bit out of touch these days, but I’m not surprised the reception for Cody is strong. Just like Sturgill, he’s becoming a superstar that nobody has heard of.
August 14, 2017 @ 6:39 pm
I’m not buying this for one second. Some image consultant threw a Bobby Bare hat on top of long hair and a beard and created themselves an outlaw. I’m sure its a coincidence that the best selling country artist in the universe happens to have the exact same look. My money will stay right here in my pocket, Mr. Borchetta.
August 14, 2017 @ 7:57 pm
I don’t think its fair to lump Williams in with Midland. Williams had been playing the bar & songwriter scene before Borchetta signed him. I would agree that Borchetta signed him in part to try and capture some Stapleton dollars, but that shouldn’t play a factor in evaluating his album IMO.
Plus, I would argue that in some ways NOT supporting guys like Alex Williams because of who he signed with is hurting traditional Country fans more than helping. If Alex Williams somehow moves a decent number of records or gets a song on the radio in the top 15 or 20, that is a “win” for his sound. By ignoring Williams only because he signed with Big Machine, we are essentially encouraging Borchetta to keep pumping out FGL rejects.
August 14, 2017 @ 8:20 pm
I’ll be honest – Midland was the first thing that came to my mind. Right down to the sepia-toned, faux-worn album cover. You seem to know a lot more about Alex Williams’s history than I do, so if he really has been playing the bar & songwriter scene then fair play to him. I’ll admit that it is really hard for me, personally, to get past the Borchetta aspect.
All I know is that I came across this guy on Spotify a few months ago and it just happened to be the lead single “More Than Survival”. I completely swore off this album. After listening to the rest of it just now, I’m only slightly more impressed. If he does get a song in the top 15 on radio, we all know damn well which one it’ll be.
August 15, 2017 @ 5:25 pm
but by buying any album with Big Machine’s stamp on it we are giving Scott Borchetta money. money he uses to destroy us all!!!!
if we don’t buy any of his albums he won’t have money to create another FGL.
starve him financially!
August 15, 2017 @ 7:15 pm
Borchetta has enough money from Taylor Swift residuals to run Big Machine for as long as he wants. You are kidding yourself if you think you not buying/streaming Alex Williams record does anything other than give Borchetta proof (in his mind) that traditional-sounding Country can’t sell at Big Machine.
August 16, 2017 @ 3:53 am
and I won’t give the man who ruined my Country Music one penny. it’s principal.
I won’t buy any more George Strait neither since Sam Hunt’s on his label.
This is about principles.
And I care too much about the integrity of Country Music to let this go.
And as far as I’m concerned, Maddie and Tae fans, anybody who buys this record, and anybody who doesn’t boycott the establishment by my side is part of the problem and is part of the movement that took Country Music away from me.
August 17, 2017 @ 11:44 am
I listened to this album before knowing anything about Alex at all. I wanted to like it but it just fell short. Midland,i’ve been a fan of for a while. You should youtube some interviews of them, i think you might change your opinion. They busted their asses on the road and Drinkin’ Problem was on youtube long before it hit the radio. Also, look for their song Fourteen Gears.
August 14, 2017 @ 8:58 pm
I have no reason to doubt the authenticity of Alex Williams. I have never met him, but my guess is you talk to him and he’s a good dude. I really do think he listens to Bobby Bare and Cody Jinks. I think he wants to be a traditional/Outlaw country artist, and I think Big Machine knows that if the try to control him too much, it will lose the magic.
I wouldn’t compare this to Midland, not in sound or approach. Image is what Midland is relying on, and is actually hurting how people are perceiving the music. I could barely find a promo pic for Alex to use in this review.
August 14, 2017 @ 9:36 pm
Yeah, Alex is a good dude. And the real deal. He’s authentic. He’s young. He’s been paying his dues for quite a while now. I met Alex several years ago….we don’t see each other often now, but any time we cross paths, he is like an old friend. I’m happy to see him get this golden opportunity…as you said earler…few do. I’m hoping he capitalizes on this BM deal to get this style of music to the lesser initiated masses used to being spoon-fed the more contemporary pablum.
August 14, 2017 @ 9:46 pm
I guess my reason to doubt his authenticity is his label. Given Big Machine’s history, and the fact that authenticity concerns constantly come up with their artists, I don’t know what they’ve done to earn the benefit of the doubt. I’d feel a lot better if I could find any mention of him prior to 2017. I don’t know the guy at all, so perhaps it is unfair of me to consider Alex Williams guilty by association.
I really do hate that “More Than Survival” song though.
August 14, 2017 @ 6:51 pm
borchetta didn’t force williams to sign. williams signed on. it’s big machine getting another small but real percentage. williams and whatever he represented is now a machine commodity.
“When traditional country artists and quality songwriters are given equal billing right beside their pop and modern country counterparts on the radio”
we part ways here, I’m afraid. this formulation means the commodity machine wins, the house rules, and that salvation will never come from the wilderness.
the deep game imo is the heart.
August 14, 2017 @ 7:29 pm
Haven’t heard the whole album yet but I enjoy Little Too Stoned. Curious to hear the rest of the album.
August 14, 2017 @ 8:00 pm
I got this album but had no idea it was from Big Machine. Guess I didn’t pay attention. Either way, I thought it was ok. I think good but not great is a good description.
Got a few new songs for my beer drinking playlist though.
August 14, 2017 @ 9:36 pm
The posibillity this guy will sell more than Cody Jinks makes me sick.
August 14, 2017 @ 9:39 pm
I agree with the sentiment that taken on their own, the songs are more interesting than all together. I need to give it a couple more listens though.
I have a feeling they won’t sign a Jinks or a Morgan both because of the reason you pointed out, that these artists would tell them to go to hell, but also because some part of them wants to prove this traditional/Americana thing taking hold is false. sign Jinks, and it works. He’s selling tons of records, and they have to admit there’s something to all this. Sign this guy, whom no one has heard of, and when people like some of the ones above who stay way from this because it’s some random guy claiming to be an outlaw on Big Machine, combined with the simple fact people haven’t heard of him in the first place, and when he fails to make a significant impact, labels can point to this to say that the mainstream/radio model is still the best. I’m not saying that’s entirely the reason Big Machine has gone this way, Scott Borchetta does have a history of signing more traditional acts right along with the Florida Georgia Lines of the world, but I think that’s why we are seeing someone virtually unknown like Alex Williams get signed instead of an artist with more of an established following. All the best to Alex, though, I wish him success with this album and in the future.
August 15, 2017 @ 7:06 am
It’s music row’s version of Cody Jinks and I’m not impressed. This nasal vocal, name dropping, long beard, outlaw thing is overplayed. No thanks.
August 15, 2017 @ 9:41 am
After a first round with the album I’m not impressed. The guy is trying so hard to sound like an “outlaw” country act. The instrumentation is the same song after song. But i will give the album a second round later.
Compared with other new acts (Morgan Wallen, Jacob Davis, Jordan Davis, Brandon Lay, Brandon Ray or Seth Ennis)…Alex Williams is a step in the right direction.
The new Seth Ennis single (“Look At You”) is the next song for the worst-song-of-the-year list.
There is a universe between real country music & Seth Ennis. Alex Williams is more on the real country side.
August 15, 2017 @ 9:58 am
Speaking of “outlaw country,” I saw Dallas Moore play for just tips for four hours of 100%country (two short breaks, no repeated songs). He has a new album on the way this fall. I’ve also heard new material from Dustin Sonnier and Jason James,both of whom are excellent and as “real country” as it gets. Also, Erin Enderlin’s new album should be really good.
August 15, 2017 @ 11:23 am
August 15, 2017 @ 11:25 am
excellent review. I happened on this album the other day before this was posted.
I am pretty much right in line with you trig on this one.
August 15, 2017 @ 12:40 pm
No matter what label he is with, or what you or Big Machine’s marketing team want to pigeon hole him into genre wise. I will always have his and his bands back. He doesn’t claim to be outlaw, or country’s next savior. He has couch flopped at my house a dozen times a year over the course of the last 6 years when he is in Northern Indiana, after playing 4-5 hour shows in dives & biker bars. Alex is authentic, Alex is real country, & Alex works his ass off to play country music for people who want to listen. I know the best is yet to come from this young man. Last weekend he and his whole band covered an extra hour when Muddle of Pudd was a no show at a local biker rally. They murdered their original set, & then came back on, to a pissed off crowd of bikers & murdered another hour! Then they hung out and met people, partied with them and genuinely appreciated earning a few new fans. They didn’t have to do any of that, they wanted too! They graciously slept on the floor & couches at my house, before rolling back to Nashville. I am an old punk Rocker Cow/Punk Bass Player. I love real country music & in my eyes he has earned an honest listen no matter who he signed with or who does his marketing. See him live if you get the opportunity! It seems like an appropriate week to say fuck the haters!
August 15, 2017 @ 2:01 pm
That may all be true…..and I am sure it is…but that doesn’t mean the music is all that great. I totally get that reading internet comment sections about people you know personally can be tough, especially when people question things that they are speculating about (i.e., how “country” he is in real life).
BUT, at the end of the day, the music has to stand on its own. In this case, the music – while not completely terrible by any stretch – is just kind of “meh”.
August 15, 2017 @ 6:44 pm
I guess I am in the minority here, but I did not think it was a bad album. I could give two shits about what label he is on. I had a chance to listen to the whole album from NPR First Listen and liked it enough to purchase it when it came out. I have not put enough spins on it to decide how many songs I really like and how many I don’t, but as someone who listens to outlaw country most of the time, I am willing to give him a chance.
August 16, 2017 @ 12:20 am
I didn’t think it was a bad album either, just not a great one. I want more from Alex Williams, and think he has more to give.
August 16, 2017 @ 7:10 am
This. I’m sure he’s a good dude but the music is somewhere between not bad and good. He does seem to have potential; he could improve the songwriting and fix whatever the hell he’s doing with his voice. But most likely he won’t stray too far from the middle on a label like Borchetta’s.
Big Al Grewell
October 5, 2017 @ 10:15 am
Fuck yes Alex is for real.. they need to get him some airplay. He is Country, unlike everything i hear on pussy country radio.
August 15, 2017 @ 2:22 pm
In other words:
buy this album so Scott Borchetta gets more money to fund his war on Country Music.
I want Country Music to live, thank you.
August 15, 2017 @ 2:23 pm
and Midland makes trashy music.
August 15, 2017 @ 4:01 pm
….but they look so pretty and country-ish doing it!!! Come on! : )
August 15, 2017 @ 4:32 pm
August 15, 2017 @ 2:29 pm
His voice sounds 100% forced and awkward. Goodness, that is annoying.
August 15, 2017 @ 6:02 pm
I bought the album to support a hometown artist. Tyler Childers, Purgatory album is my favorite of the two. Alex has his foot in the door and a chance, that’s more than some get, BM, SB or not. From Pendleton and as a fellow Araibian…..good luck and keep shooting.
August 16, 2017 @ 4:51 am
I found the review a tad harsh. Is this album really only 0.5 better than Pardi’s and not as good as Mo Pitney’s.
While I understand the criticisms of the subject matter this is pretty good music and the best mainstream album since Drake White’s.
August 16, 2017 @ 8:00 pm
Rather liked “Old Tattoo”, but I have not heard any other tracks. The (Hammond?) organ work on Old Tattoo gives it a nice vibe. Judging from what people are sayin’, though “More Than Survival” sounds like a bit of a worry. In any case, I will look up the album on I-Tunes rather than passing on it out-of-hand.
August 16, 2017 @ 9:09 pm
Damn! Lot’s of hate here! This dude showed up on my “release radar” on spotify. Seeing that he was signed to Big Machine was hard to swollow but i listened to the single a few weeks back. “Little Too Stoned”. I listened to it while ibwas grabbing a bite at work. It was okay…the rest of this album is better. This IS a REAL country music album. Sure, it is pretty bland lyrically but if the horrible lable he signed to doesn’t take his creatitiv from him, I could see him going better places. I immediately get the feeling that Big Machine is using this guy as an attempt to hop on the underground resurgence of outlaw country music. They very may well be *trying* their damndest to have an artist on the lable who could “fit in” with Whitey, Jinks, and others. It is entirely possible that this guy is every bit as fabricated as FGL (same lable, anyway) to show that Big Machine can be “outlaw”, too. All that aside, tge music itself here isn’t half bad. It ain’t no Jinks or Morgan…not by a fucking long-shot, but you have to admit this is better than any new artist Machine has put out in a good damn while. I’ll probably throw it on now and then but i’m not holding my breath. Excellent review, Trigger. I would give it a cautious 5/10 myself. But a lot of these comments seem to come from a place of “Big Machine?! ……next?”. Just because something is or will become popular or mainstream does not make it bad. Sometimes country fans can be just as close-minded as pubk rock fans. Keep an open mind, folks! I’m gonna wait and see where Alex Williams goes from here. 5/10. Probably good to drink beer to wgile with friends,, anyway. Background music, mostly, but i do not DISLIKE this album.
August 16, 2017 @ 9:11 pm
also, sorry for the typos. I have big thumbs and i hate typing on phones. 😂
August 18, 2017 @ 12:25 am
I like it but Jamey Johnson should be getting royalties on this album.
August 25, 2017 @ 9:10 pm
I liked it. Seems like there’s a lot of folks dying to win a battle, so they don’t lose a war. Ignoring this kid because he signed with the wrong label just seems foolish, to me.
This guy is country. REAL country. If you don’t support his music, then you’ll be treated to clones of Luke, Blake, and FL/Ga Line, for the rest of your life.