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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