Album Review — Michaela Anne’s ‘Desert Dove’

Michaela Anne is an artist I’ve always seen a lot of promise in, but she had to yet fully show it for an entire album. Well that changes on her newest album Desert Dove, as she’s seemed to find the sound that suits her best. Opening track “By Our Design” features some gorgeous and sweeping strings that gives the song a relaxing, yet cinematic feel. It sets the tone for the album, as the sound on this album wavers between cinematic and 90s country, back when the genre never forgot to include a good melody. This album has good melody in spades, a credit to the great work of producers Sam Outlaw and Kelly Winrich. Most importantly it fits Anne’s voice and style to a T.

“One Heart” is about falling too fast and too hard for someone. But yet the one falling so hard doesn’t care as the one being fallen for says they’re moving too fast. I particularly enjoy how the song starts out slow and soft, but then picks up in intensity as the two protagonists of the song question the other’s passion in the relationship. The lyrics and melody match each other and each help tell the story equally. “I’m Not the Fire” feels like it was plucked right from the impressive catalog of breezy 90s country love songs that you heard on the radio. The lyrics are clever with it’s flame metaphors and they’re easy to pick up too. It’s such a playful and fun love song, there’s no good reason why this shouldn’t be a hit. But the radio has given up on quality music.

“Child of the Wind” sees Anne recalling her childhood of having to move from town to town, never settling long enough to never be more than a temporary friend. But rather than look at this negatively, Anne embraces this lifestyle that goes and comes with the wind. Again the lyrics and sound make you feel what the song is about. This song makes you feel like you’re in the backseat of that car with Anne traveling on the highway looking up at the sky. That’s when you know you’re listening to a damn good song. “Tattered, Torn and Blue (And Crazy)” is a southwestern flavored song about always ending up alone with a broken heart, never feeling like you can love and trust someone. It’s an achingly great heartbreak song.

The album’s title track is about examining the relationship of a “lady of the night” and the cowboy she’s with, wondering how they truly feel about each other. The song attempts to view the complexity of each other’s emotions towards each other in this relationship, wondering how lonely each feel. I feel Anne does a pretty good job looking beyond the obvious in the situation and exploring the nuance of what each person truly wants in the situation.

“Run Away with Me” feels like a long lost Shania Twain or LeAnn Rimes song. Again it’s the soft breeziness and accessibility of the lyrics that make this song so easy to fall in love with like many others on this album. Perhaps it’s this song’s West Coast feel (and really the album as a whole) that lends to what makes it so infectious, as West Coast country feels like it gets drowned out by Nashville and Texas. “Two Fools” is that classic country love ballad about two people falling in love who don’t want to admit it. Anne really hits the high notes in this well, showcasing the wanting and resisting emotions of the two lovers in the song. I hate making yet another 90s country comparison, but Anne really sounds like Alison Krauss on this song and that’s a great thing of course.

“If I Wanted Your Opinion” is about a woman standing up for herself against a man who doesn’t want to see her for her, but rather a “porcelain doll.” I really enjoy the message and the way Anne delivers it, but it doesn’t feel like it fits the rest of the album’s theme. It feels like it was forced into the album and it would have been better off as a standalone single.

“Somebody New” is about a woman feeling guilty for falling in love with someone else and breaking her current-now-former man’s heart. Now this song I have to applaud for all of the little details Anne writes, like how the song opens with “I’m drinking day old coffee and watching the clouds roll in.” That’s an excellent detail and perfectly puts you in the mindset of a guilty and sad person. This song is also appealingly smooth, making it another song I would call yacht country.

“Be Easy” closes out the album and is a stripped-down song about trying to quiet your mind and find peace. It was a great call by Anne to make this track acoustic and let the raw emotion of the lyrics do the heavy lifting. This is a song for those who beat themselves up too much and it’s also an appropriate closer to an album that compares various characters and ends up back at Anne looking into herself.

Michaela Anne delivers an amazing album in Desert Dove. It’s full of smooth and breezy songs that only take a couple of listens to truly enjoy. This feels like Anne’s breakout moment, as she finds the sound and themes she needed to truly show her full potential and prove herself as an artist that should be on your radar if you love country music.

Grade: 9/10

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eEAJPIrxhCI

Album Review – Mark Chesnutt’s ‘Tradition Lives’

Mark Chesnutt Tradition Lives

When it comes to music I’ve realized there are two groups of artists: those who make the music they want to and those who make what everyone else wants. In other words, who does and doesn’t compromise their artistic integrity. If you turn on country radio today, you’ll hear a lot of compromising. So obviously you won’t be hearing the music of Mark Chesnutt. Throughout the 90s you would hear Chenutt all the time until he was faced with the same dreaded compromise forced by a major label. This came in the form of his cover of Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing,” which he just revealed recently that he didn’t feel comfortable doing (his mentor and friend George Jones was angry about the cover too):

“As luck would have it, it ended up going to No. 1 hit for four damn weeks!” he says, bursting out laughing. But he maintains, “It didn’t sell anything. So I asked to leave the label, ’cause when it was time to go back in the studio, there was another pop hit they wanted me to cover. I said no, absolutely not. That made everyone at the label mad at me, and I got the reputation in town of being hard to work with. And once you get that label, then you’re pretty much done.”

Ever since then Chesnutt has been out on his own making music with smaller labels and playing lots of shows every year. Of course after an artist leaves a major label, it leaves the impression on casual fans that the artist has retired and faded into the sunset. That’s far from the case for Chesnutt as he returns with his first new album in eight years, Tradition Lives. It’s the culmination of years of writing and work that Chesnutt is quite proud of releasing to the public. And I have to say he should be beaming with pride, as this album is a true example of why artists should stick to their guns and make the music they want to make.

Chesnutt takes us back to early 90s country radio from the get go with “I’ve Got a Quarter In My Pocket.” It’s one of many heartbreak songs on the album, as Chesnutt schools us on the lost of art of country heartbreak tunes. The lamenting “Is It Still Cheating” tackles the complications of cheating partners. Written by Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser and Jerrod Niemann, the song begins with a husband listening to his wife leave yet another message on the answering machine saying she’ll be home late. He knows of course that she’s out cheating, but this is fine to him because he’s at home cheating on her. Both sides are lying and cheating, but the husband ponders if it’s really cheating. It’s a complex conundrum that leaves it up to the listener to decide. Either way I find it to be an intriguingly great song and one of the best on Tradition Lives.

The upbeat “Lonely Ain’t the Only Game In Town” puts me in mind of the dance halls down in Texas. The steel guitar and fiddle driven tune is about a woman feeling lonely, so she heads to where the neon shines bright and goes for a night on the town. In a perfect world, this song would be playing on country radio because I think it could have been a hit in the 90s (although there are several songs I could say that about on this album). “Oughta Miss Me by Now” sees a man wishing and hoping for his ex to realize she made a mistake ending their relationship. Keep in mind this isn’t from a vindictive point of view like many mainstream country artists would frame this type of song, but rather from a person who is heartbroken and having trouble moving on. It’s desperate hoping that he probably knows deep down isn’t going to happen. Chesnutt comes from the point of view of experience in relationships on “Neither Did I.” It sees an older gentleman bestowing advice to younger men on what happens in relationships and what to expect when it can hit the rocks. It’s not a bad song, but one of the more forgettable tracks on the album. I will say though I enjoy the instrumentation, as there’s plenty of fiddle and steel guitar throughout the song.

There are a lot of great songs on this album, but the best to my ears is “So You Can’t Hurt Me Anymore.” An always-present steel guitar throughout gives the song a reflective feel, as a man realizes he needs to break up with his woman so she can’t hurt him anymore. It’s not an easy decision after all they’ve been through, but he realizes he has to move on for his own sake. I should point out that the writers of this song are producer Jimmy Ritchey, Roger Springer and William Michael Morgan. It’s cool to see the latter’s name associated with this song, proving once again Morgan wants to carry on what artists like Chesnutt did before him. This is also the type of song that shows why Mark Chesnutt is far from being done in his career.

“You Moved up in Your World” is about a man reuniting with a woman who had left his hometown and made a life outside while he’s been living there the whole time. To the rest of the world she’s kind of a celebrity, while he still sees her as the woman he grew up and fell in love with. It’s a very bittersweet song, as you can tell the man never really expressed how he felt to her. Contrasting lives are put on display on “Look at Me Now.” A man sits in a hotel room in the dark and flipping through channels on TV while he listens to a new couple making love next door. He realizes what a mess he has become and is haunted by his past decisions that led to this situation. It’s a solid tune, where once again the traditional instrumentation really shines and hooks the listener in.

Another standout on Tradition Lives is “Losing You All Over Again.” Chesnutt once again delivers a classically great heartbreak song, with plenty of steel guitar. After listening to this album multiple times, it still doesn’t sink in how great Chesnutt is when it comes to these types of songs. It’s like secondhand nature to him and makes it look so easy. Today’s country artists would be wise to take note. Chesnutt lets his thoughts on the country music industry be known on “Never Been to Texas.” It’s not necessarily a protest song, but he pointedly calls out Music Row for saying people aren’t interested in drinking and cheating songs anymore. He refutes their claims by pointing to Texas as an example of real country songs being made. He also sings about how the steel guitar won’t ever die in country songs despite Music Row’s attempts to minimize it. It’s a fun song, both lyrically and instrumentation-wise. It also avoids the pitfalls of how cliché protest songs have become.

“What I Heard” welcomes the listeners with a warm melody that harkens back to better days in country music. The song is about a woman telling goodbye to her man with tears rolling from her eyes. To the man, what he heard was more than just goodbye. Rather he thinks that this is just temporary and that she’ll come back someday. He’s clearly in denial over the breakup. It’s refreshing to hear this type of song because so many male artists today come off as trying to look cool coming off a breakup (in other words trying to win it), whereas Chesnutt shows the more true feelings someone goes through (denial and false hope). The laid back “Hot” is one of the less serious songs on the album. Chesnutt sings about how hot it is outside, which at this time of the year in the United States is quite accurate (especially for folks down in the southern portion of the country). Just like “Neither Did I,” this song isn’t bad, but there’s not much to it. Tradition Lives closes with the subdued “There Won’t Be Another Now.” Chesnutt superbly covers the 1985 Merle Haggard song, as there’s a lot of heart behind his vocals. Chesnutt did it to honor not only the late legend Haggard, but also the writer of the song Red Lane who passed away. It’s another example of the deep respect he has for all the artists that paved the way for him. I would suggest listening to both Haggard and Chesnutt’s versions. It’s a fantastic and classy way to conclude the album.

Mark Chesnutt really impresses me with Tradition Lives and reminded me of why I was such a fan of his music growing up as a kid. I have to admit I was unsure of how good this album would be, as I’ve been disappointed by some recent releases by veteran artists. But Chesnutt clearly still has his “fastball” and sounds just as great as he did when radio played him. For some fans, this will be their favorite album of the year and I don’t blame them. This album is full of wonderful heartbreak songs, as well as some fun tunes too. If you loved 90s country or are just someone who appreciates traditional country, you need to check this out. Tradition Lives without a doubt lives up to its name, reminding us all that traditional country will never fade away.

Grade: 8/10

Album Review – Jon Pardi’s ‘California Sunrise’

Jon Pardi California Sunrise

When it comes to quality of music from major label country artists this year, it’s been disappointing to say the least. To be more blunt, it’s been pretty mediocre and surprisingly boring. That sums up about 90% of the album releases I’ve heard from major label country artists this year. I can tell many share this sentiment, so when fans saw Jon Pardi was releasing his sophomore album California Sunrise, it became one of the most anticipated albums this year. After all Pardi is one of the few major label artists willing to keep it country with music. His current single and the lead single of the album, “Head Over Boots” is one of the most traditional songs at radio right now. Outside of Chris Stapleton, Pardi perhaps best represents the hopes and aspirations of traditional country fans hoping radio goes back to the sound. So with the hype in mind, does California Sunrise live up to the expectations? Well it depends on what exactly you expected out of the album and you’ll know what I mean by this by the end of the review.

Pardi begins the album with “Out of Style.” From the title I was expecting a song about how traditional country is considered out of style, but instead it’s about Pardi trekking to Nashville and learning how to write songs. The song elaborates further about how singing about how cold beers and complaining about the nine to five Monday through Friday lifestyle will never go out of style. It’s a longer song than what you’re accustomed to hearing from mainstream artists, as it allows Pardi and the band to show off their instrumentation. It’s a solid song, despite being a tad cliché. This is followed by the more traditionally arranged “Cowboy Hat.” And when I say traditionally arranged, there’s pedal steel guitar and fiddles throughout. The song itself is a love song, as Pardi sings of the love he has for his woman and how he loves seeing her in nothing but his cowboy hat. The whole song reminds me of something you would hear on country radio in the 90s (good or bad depending on your outlook on that era). I find it to be one of the best on the album and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a single for Pardi, as I think it could be a hit.

I could see it as the follow-up to “Head Over Boots” even, which follows on the album. I gave my thoughts on Pardi’s first career top ten hit last year and I still thoroughly enjoy the song. From my original review: It opens with the sounds of an acoustic guitar and steel guitar. These are the main instruments used throughout the song, with some fiddles sprinkled in too. It’s country through and through. The song itself is a love ballad, which is proving to be a strong suit for Pardi. In a way this song kind of reminds me of Brad Paisley’s “We Danced,” a solid love song that isn’t some all-time classic, but a feel good song that anyone can enjoy.

“Night Shift” sees Pardi singing of the working class man. The song is about a man who works several hours a week, but he looks forward to the “night shift” with his wife in bed. On the surface this seems like an overtly sexual jam that has plagued country radio recently. But really it comes off as sentimental and plays to the blue-collar sensibility of work hard, play harder. Not to mention there’s plenty of fiddle. This theme continues with “Can’t Turn You Down,” as we see the man in the song calling up his woman to meet up with her and later go back to his place for a romantic night. While the lyrics get a little stereotypical millennial-y with lines like “a phone call turns into a what’s up what’s up,” it’s a good song with a nice melody.

The album up to this point has been mostly good, but it starts to take a turn in the other direction with “Dirt on My Boots.” With one of the co-writers being Jesse Frasure (the other two writers being Rhett Akins and Ashley Gorley), I’m not surprised because he’s helped write his share of bad music. Right away there’s a noticeable drum loop that gives the song a dance club beat, clearly trying to create some adult contemporary appeal. Yet there’s a steady presence of a fiddle too. The song itself is about a farmer after a long day cleaning up to go to town with his girl for a night of dancing and fun. This song is one of three clear moments on this album of what I would call label meddling. Despite the pop leanings of this song, I don’t dislike it too much due to the fiddle play, Pardi’s charisma in his delivery and the hard to deny catchiness of the lyrics.

The best song hands down on California Sunrise is “She Ain’t In It.” Sounding like something straight off a classic Alan Jackson album, Pardi sings of his broken heart and how it’s prevented from going out and living his life. He’s now ready to do his normal things and go out into crowds, as long as his ex isn’t involved or mentioned. Otherwise the heartache will come rushing back. It’s not only the best song on this album, but one of the best I’ve heard this year. Two of the songs I thought of when listening to this song were Sammy Kershaw’s “Politics, Religion & Her,” as well as Garth Brooks’ “Learning To Live Again.” All three capture the feelings of getting over heartbreak perfectly. This could be a career song for Pardi and I truly hope him and his label release this as a single.

Unfortunately, the worst song follows the best song of the album. That would be “All Time High.” It’s a love song with a nauseating amount of clichés and comparisons of love to drugs and getting high that we’ve heard too much in recent years. One line that elicited a groan from me was Pardi singing about how he enjoys his girl turning “his knob” up to 11. I get where songwriters Pardi, Bart Butler and Brice Long are going for here, but the lyrics are just a clunky mess. At least there’s a lot of fiddle in the song I guess. The third and final song clearly involving label meddling is “Heartache on the Dance Floor.” Just like “Dirt on My Boots,” this song has a clear pop dance beat accompanied by fiddles. For a song with heartache in the title, I didn’t expect it to be so upbeat. Out of all the songs on the album, this one confuses me the most. You have this dance beat, but also fiddles and steel guitar. Why couldn’t we just have the latter? Well the obvious answer is the label wanting something pop-y and Pardi having to comply. For a “compromise song,” it’s not terrible.

“Paycheck” is about a man hoping his paycheck will help take his work blues away, as he spends it at the bar. The country rock production combined with the catchy lyrics makes it easy to sing along with. It’s your standard drinking, blue-collar song that is solid, yet unspectacular. “Lucky Tonight” has a more traditional arrangement that dominates the album for the most part. It’s about a man whose woman left him weeks ago and now is trying to rebound in the bar scene and move past her. While the lyrics are a little simplistic and a tad too mainstream, the song is pretty solid to my ears. Not every heartbreak song has to be a complex ballad. The album’s title track brings it to a close, another highlight of this album, only trailing quality-wise to “She Ain’t In It.” The song is about Pardi singing of the love he has for his woman and comparing it the California sunrise he sees back home. It’s nice to see Pardi honor where he’s from, comparing someone he cares for so much to his home that he cares for so much too. Regional pride is something country artists need to embrace more. Despite some rocky songs in the middle, Pardi ends the album on a strong note.

Based on my expectations heading into this album, Jon Pardi delivers a solid album with California Sunrise. I knew going into this album that it wouldn’t be at a level of Chris Stapleton’s Traveller nor would it be stone cold country all the way through because this is an album from a major label and Jon Pardi is still early in his career. I expected some label meddling and there was actually less of it on here than I thought there would be. What did surprise is how almost every song on this album has a combination of fiddle and steel guitar. Instead of focusing on what this album did wrong, I’d rather focus on this because this caught my eye more than the mistakes on it. Pardi clearly wants to make that traditional, early 90s country music and for the most part these songs accomplish this. He also does a good job balancing between serious songs and fun songs. Despite this album’s faults at times, I find California Sunrise to be a very enjoyable, fun album and will go down as one of the best from a major label country artist this year.

Grade: 8/10

The Hodgepodge: The Return of Garth Brooks Has Fallen Well Short of Expectations

542px-Garth_Brooks

When Garth Brooks announced he was returning to country music last year, many expected it to be one of the biggest stories of the year in music. After all Brooks is one of the highest selling artists of all-time and was the undisputed face of country music in the 90s. Expectations were set high and many thought he could be a voice of reason in a genre that has no leadership or direction. I was certainly one of those people too. As I said in my review of his comeback album last year, I considered Taylor Swift to be the only current artist in the same range of Brooks’ icon status. Here’s how I led off my review of Man Against Machine:

In the world of music there were two albums everyone was looking forward to listening to this year: Taylor Swift’s 1989 and Garth Brooks’ Man Against Machine. Everyone looked forward to listening to Swift of course because she’s one of the top-selling and most popular artist in music today. To add to the hype she announced she left country music and that 1989 would be her first documented pop album. Regardless of the quality of the album, everyone knew it would have huge sales numbers. This proved to be true as it’s the only album of the year to be certified platinum. It gives you an idea of how bad music sales are right now and shows you why country music was devastated to lose her. Luckily for country music, Garth Brooks has made his triumphant comeback. Garth is the only other artist that can sell more albums than Swift in music right now. After all Garth is one of the most popular selling artists of all-time right alongside the Beatles and Elvis. Regardless of what I think or anyone else thinks of Man Against Machine, this album will be the second and only other album to be certified platinum in 2014.

Sometimes I’m right on with my predictions. This time I was wrong. Man Against Machine has achieved platinum status, but it took longer than anyone predicted and Taylor Swift outsold Garth by a lot. As of April 29, there have been 626,100 copies of Garth’s comeback album sold. Originally industry insiders predicted that 250,000-300,000 copies would be sold in the first week. Instead only 119,000 copies of the album were sold. Pretty disappointing numbers for an artist some hold in the same regard as Elvis and Michael Jackson. His sales are good compared to the average, as Man Against Machine was one of the top ten highest selling albums in country music in 2014. But that really isn’t saying much considering we’re talking about Garth Brooks and the current state of country music sales is in the dumps.

For the majority of 2014 radio struggled to find substance to put on the radio and many felt Garth could solve this problem. He was the king of country radio in the 90s after all. Instead Garth has been non-existent at country radio since his return. If you’re a country music fan, who for some reason only keeps up with the genre through radio you would have no idea Garth even returned. The first single, “People Loving People,” peaked at #19 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart. The followup single, “Mom,” did even worse, as it peaked at #32 on the Airplay chart. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Brooks told the outlet that he doesn’t know when his next single is coming out. Garth says he is uncertain because of the shakeup in leadership at Sony Music Nashville, as now former CEO Gary Overton has left.

Nobody wants to say it, although many are thinking it. I have no problem saying it though: 2015 Garth Brooks is completely out of touch with the music industry. He may have been a brilliant marketer and entertainer in the 90s, but it’s a completely different game in 2015. There are so many things Garth has done wrong since his return I don’t know where to begin. Let’s start with his singles. First off his reasoning for holding off on a third single because of a leadership shakeup at Sony Music Nashville is complete bullshit. Chris Young just released a new single and he’s on the same label as Garth. Miranda Lambert and Jake Owen are both set to release new singles within the next month. Garth doesn’t want to admit that he completely botched the first two single choices. Man Against Machine certainly wasn’t a great album, but it was solid and contained a few fine single choices to release to radio.

Garth blindly thought he could make “People Loving People” another “We Shall Be Free” and this blew up in his face. “People Loving People” is even more generic and bland than “We Shall Be Free.” “Mom” is even more milquetoast and vanilla. Everyone knew this single was dead on radio at arrival. It was maddening to see him choose these as singles, as they’re arguably the two worst songs on the album. I think the album’s title track, “Midnight Train” and “Cold Like That” would all be great single choices. The album’s title track could especially do well at radio with its working class theme and catchy rhythm. It’s also more rock than country sounding. This should easily be the third single choice, but instead he’ll probably choose the cheesy and cliché “All-American Kid,” which is way too country for the current radio environment to succeed.

As bad as his single choices have been and the poor radio performance to show for it, there’s something hurting him even more than his lack of radio presence. It’s his refusal to embrace streaming and YouTube. Every other artist out there releases their music to YouTube because it’s smart and how many people find music nowadays. Every other artist also has their music available on Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, Google Play and Amazon because once again it’s just the right thing to do. This how most people consume music nowadays. I bet 95% of my readers get their music through these outlets. As admirable as Garth’s crusade is to preserve the concept of albums and selling music in this way, it’s really hurting him. Singles are the new albums. Artists today focus on making great singles over great albums because it’s easier to pull off. Even though I buy the bulk of my music as an entire album, I know I’m in the minority.

Back to the YouTube subject, some artists get big mostly through this outlet. A non-country example is the a cappella group Pentatonix. Their brilliant covers of hit songs helped many people discover them. Another non-country example is hip-hop artist Lunchmoney Lewis, as his video for his hit single “Bills” has gotten over 10 million views as of this writing. Lewis was a complete unknown coming into 2015 and now he has a hit single, mostly thanks to YouTube. Garth is cutting off an entire outlet that could not only boost his single sales and radio airplay, but introduce him to a whole new generation of listeners. Many younger listeners have no idea who Garth Brooks is and really don’t care. Garth isn’t on YouTube or iTunes, so he’s completely off the radar in their minds. You can’t buy just his singles, so there’s another turnoff. Throw in the fact you can’t stream his music at all before listening and it perfectly explains why Brooks is in the situation he’s in. His GhostTune store is the Zune to Apple’s iPod.

Garth is trying to do things his own way in 2015 and it simply isn’t going to work his way. Most people are no longer driving to Walmart to buy a CD and instead purchasing their music online digitally. Digital is the name of the game. Garth said this himself in an interview with CMT. Why aren’t you following your own words, Garth? It’s pretty simple: ditch GhostTunes, join iTunes, make your music available for streaming, allow your music to be sold individually instead of as a whole album, and pick better singles. Brooks can still be a factor in 2015 and make the impact on country music we all envisioned he could. But he needs to make changes quickly. They say an old dog can’t learn new tricks, but Garth better if he wants to be relevant again.

Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases

  • Whitey Morgan is releasing his much-anticipated Sonic Ranch album to the public next Tuesday. I’ve had an early copy for months and I’ve been dying to review it here on the site. This is an album you do not want to miss out on, so stay tuned for my review on it next week.
  • Jon Pardi is releasing an EP next week titled The B-Sides, 2011-2014. These are songs I’m assuming didn’t make the cut for his debut album Write You A Song. We haven’t heard a new single from him for a while, so I’m guessing there will at least be one new single from this EP. We’ll definitely a review on this.
  • Kelsea Ballerini is releasing her debut album The First Time next Tuesday. Based on what I’ve heard and seen from Ballerini, I’m not that excited about it. She’s proven to be the female equivalent of Sam Hunt to this point with her brand of pop music being marketed as country music.
  • Mickey Guyton announced this week that she’s releasing a self-titled EP on May 26. Unlike Ballerini, I’m excited to hear new music from Guyton. In a perfect world her single “Better Than You Left Me” is on the cusp of the top ten instead of “Love Me Like You Mean It.” This one will definitely get reviewed.
  • Luke Bryan is releasing his new single from his new upcoming album next Tuesday. As everyone speculated, it’s called “Kick The Dust Up,” a Dallas Davidson co-written song. I can only imagine how bad this song is going to be.
  • Chris Young just released his new single “I’m Comin’ Over,” which is the first track of his new upcoming album set to be released this fall. You’ll see my review on it soon.
  • Toby Keith’s new album is coming out on June 26 and it’s titled 35 MPH Town. I wonder if he acts like a grumpy old Baby Boomer throughout it like the album’s title track?
  • Steven Tyler just released his first country song, “Love Is Your Name.” Believe it or not, it’s actually not terrible. We’ll have a review on it soon.
  • Kid Rock is releasing a single to country radio titled “First Kiss,” off of his new album. This is nothing new, as a few years ago “All Summer Long” was a big hit on country radio and Kid Rock knows how to make money. I’m curious to see how well this does on the Airplay chart.

Throwback Thursday Song

Alan Jackson – “Chattahoochee” – The warm weather is coming and summer is just around the corner, so I thought why not choose one my favorite summer country songs. Fun and traditional don’t have to be mutually exclusive, bro country artists. Plus there’s no other video where you can see Alan Jackson on water skis!

Non-Country Song of the Week

Adele – “Take It All” – After having a great conversation with Noah in the comments section of last week’s Hodgepodge about Adele and the impact she could have in country music, I went back and listened to her 21 album. It’s as good as I remembered and instead of pointing out one of her great singles, I instead chose to point out a great album cut, “Take It All.” The piano play is top-notch and Adele’s voice is just awesome.

Tweet of the Week

You want to know what else didn’t make me excited about Ballerini’s album? When this was brought to my attention. Kudos to Windmills for pointing this out.

An iTunes Review That Will Make You Face Palm

Hunt Idiot #150

It’s another comment left under Sam Hunt’s Montevallo album. We’re now at the point that Hunt fans are using Brantley Gilbert quotes to defend him. Oy.

That’s it for the Hodgepodge this week! Be sure to sound off in the comments! 

Album Review – Aaron Watson’s ‘The Underdog’

Aaron Watson The Underdog

What’s an underdog? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, underdog is defined as the following:

a person, team, etc., that is expected to lose a contest or battle

a less powerful person or thing that struggles against a more powerful person or thing (such as a corporation)

Aaron Watson has been making music for over 15 years and has now released a dozen albums. He’s beloved in the Texas/Red Dirt scene and is known quite well in those parts. How is Watson an underdog? Well in the world of country music Watson is absolutely an underdog. He’s an independent, Texas/Red Dirt country artist who doesn’t have a single mainstream hit and yet probably should have several by now. By all accounts and judging by his interactions on social, he’s a very nice person and a good family man. Watson has the country look and the country sounding music that people like. Has the total package, right? But take a look at the second line of the definition of underdog. Aaron Watson is the personification of it. The corporation is Nashville/Music Row.

Aaron Watson’s new album The Underdog is his stand and really the stand for underdog country artists everywhere. Fans have noticed too, as each week leading up this album release a new song from the album was released to iTunes and it immediately shot to the top of the country chart. To say the intrigue and anticipation for this album was high is an understatement. So does The Underdog match the hype? Well if you love the honky-tonk, 90s style country sound you’ll definitely want to keep reading.

The album kicks off with “The Prayer,” where Watson prays to God. The Christian influence is palpable in this song, as Watson professes that he can’t be the “king of me.” The instrumentation is really well done and is a precursor to the rest of the album. The next song, “Wildfire,” takes a more fun approach. This song was actually originally performed by John Mayer and also previously covered by Rascal Flatts. I can definitely say this is the best version of the three. The clapping in the chorus of this song makes it quite catchy and provides a great hook. While the lyrics mirror bro country, I wouldn’t necessarily classify it as such. It’s not as forced and there’s no creepy misogyny behind it.

The energy stays high with “Freight Train.” The banjo drives the rhythm of this song and gives it the element many 90s country songs had: it makes people want to dance. And no Watson is not rapping like the bro country artists have attempted in recent years. He’s doing spoken word, which is a lost art in country music (or butchered in a few cases in 2014). Some may even call it an auctioneer style. This is a fun country song that belongs on the radio. Yes, bro country and metro-politan fans real country music can be fun.

While “That Look” is a little too checklist-y to me at times, it really reminds me of 90s country. From the instrument arrangement to the lyrics, this song could have easily played on the radio in the 90s. One cheesy line that does make me cringe a little is when Watson sings, “that girl is off the hook.” I could have done without that line and so could the song. “Getaway Truck” is another song that just relies too much on clichés. In fact this is one of the closest songs to bro country on the album. The instrumentation is good though, especially the fiddles.

One of the best songs on The Underdog is “Bluebonnets (Julia’s Song).” It’s essentially a song about life and how short it can be, so you should enjoy it for all you can. He compares life to bluebonnets in the spring. This song is easy to like because it appeals to your heart, not your mind. You can also tell it comes from Watson’s heart. This makes it easy for listeners to connect. Watson goes to the cowboy cliché well in “That’s Why God Loves Cowboys.” It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s all stuff we’ve heard before. And hey I’ll take cowboy songs over the mainstream country songs about going to the club. This sounds country and is thematically country at least.

“That’s Gonna Leave a Mark” is another fun song from Watson that could have easily passed for 90s country. It’s catchy, simple and Watson’s self-deprecation gives it a humorous edge too. This is the kind of song I think would be perfect for radio today because it’s really a good compromise between traditional country fans’ wants and Music Row’s wants. The album’s title track is about life. I think more than anything it’s about Watson’s life, as he self-reflects on it. This is especially evident when he sings about his wife to his kids. This song is really an embodiment of what Aaron Watson is all about. It’s a family friendly song that I think many listeners will be able to connect with too.

Another song with too many checklist elements is “Blame It on Those Baby Blues.” I think this one tries too hard to appeal to radio like “Getaway Truck.” But like that song I can appreciate the fact that this song isn’t offensive and it has a good sound. Watson sings about romance in “One of Your Nights,” a song about a man after a long day needing his woman to be there for him that night. Think of it more as a husband-wife dynamic and not a boyfriend-girlfriend dynamic. For those married, you probably understand the angle of this song best. The piano also makes for a nice touch, especially to close the song.

“Family Tree” is about the strength and importance of family. It also has a strong Christian tone, as it mentions the importance of God alongside family. While the lyrics feel a little campy, it comes from Watson’s heart and it isn’t hyperbole. This is another song with instrumentation that sounds like it came straight out of the 90s. The penultimate song on the album is “Rodeo Queen,” a song about a rodeo clown falling in love with a rodeo queen. It’s a love song with a funny twist and I applaud Watson for the creative spin on the average country love song. We also get to hear Watson’s falsetto, which isn’t too shabby. This is a fun little song.

The final song on the album is “Fence Post” and it’s one hell of a way to conclude The Underdog. It’s a country music protest song that hits the nail right on the head. “Fence Post” is brutally honest and paints a brilliant picture of country music today. I’m not going to describe this one because this is one you just need to hear for yourself. I’ll say one thing: I’ll be keeping this in mind for Country Perspective’s 2015 Song of the Year award.

Is The Underdog the best country album of the year? No. But it could be one of the most important country albums of the year. Why? It could be one of the most important because it’s the perfect example of something that would please both traditional country fans and the suits in Nashville. It has commercial appeal (just as “Fence Post” says!), yet has substance. More importantly it sounds like country music. I’ve seen many people aptly compare this album to the material Brad Paisley, Clay Walker and Tim McGraw were churning out around the late 90s to the early 2000s. Everyone loves and roots for the underdog. Country music fans need to root for this underdog, Aaron Watson, as I definitely recommend checking this album out. The Underdog deserves to “blow up” and it’s the kind of album that could fix mainstream country music.

Grade: 8/10