Album Review – Miranda Lambert’s ‘The Weight of These Wings’

miranda-lambert-the-weight-of-these-wings

Making a great album is a tough challenge. Making a great double album, though? You’re taking on an almost impossible task that many of the best artists can’t even pull off. I’ve made my stance on album length quite clear, with simple math telling us that the longer an album is the more chances you have of making mistakes. The biggest challenge with taking on a double album is finding enough great content to fill it up from start to finish. Most artists can’t put together 10-12 track length album because writing songs is hard. So when I heard Miranda Lambert’s new album would be a double at 24 songs long, I was worried about it. While no doubt the heartbreak and turmoil she’s experienced over the last couple years while also beginning a new chapter of her life would certainly give plenty of inspiration, I was skeptical if she could find enough for a double album. There would undoubtedly be great songs on it, but there could also be ample bad songs that could drag the good down. Not to mention I’ve lost track of how many different albums from major labels have been wrecked by bad production choices. On the flip side the names involved with the project inspires a lot of positive thinking. So with all of this in mind I dug deep into the mammoth-sized double album, The Weight of These Wings.

The album is broken into two 12 song parts, with the first part being called The Nerve and the second part being called The Heart. I’m going to review the first 12 songs together first and the second set after because this is how the album is intended to be listened. The ominous “Runnin’ Just In Case” opens it up and sets the tone for the album perfectly. Written by Lambert and Gwen Sebastian (who is part of writing some of the best songs on the album), the song is about running from the pain of love or love itself, not exactly sure of which it really is. What really captivates me is the raw emotion on display from Miranda, something that happens a lot on this album.

The decidedly upbeat “Highway Vagabond” is bound to be a future single and I’m surprised it wasn’t the follow-up to “Vice.” While the nature of the song is kind of kitschy, it’s also fun-loving and doesn’t take itself seriously, which is why I think many have already gravitated towards it. The album’s second single “We Should Be Friends” is another upbeat song, which Lambert wrote entirely herself. It’s a clever song about Lambert identifying who she has a friend in, from the frankly honest to the heartbroken. She keeps the song simple and it works. I’m not sure if country radio will get behind it though. I have to say I’m glad there are some upbeat songs on this double album because if it were just entirely heartbreak and dark songs it would be a draining listen. Also by having some lighter songs it acts as a great contrast and helps the darker songs stand out even more.

Lambert sings of helping a friend get out of a bad relationship in “Getaway Driver.” Written with Hemby and her boyfriend/Americana artist Anderson East, it’s a somber Bonnie & Clyde type song. Instead of gleefully riding into the sunset guns a blazing like in the movies, we get something real. Lambert duets with East on “Pushin’ Time.” It’s a song about falling in love, which I imagine is based on these two falling in love. Even if you had no clue these two were together when you listen to this song, you can feel the genuineness and love shine through in every aspect of the song. The steel guitar work by Spencer Cullum goes fantastically with the lyrics. This is hands-down one of the best songs of the album.

The Muscle Shoals-influenced “Covered Wagon” is one of those feel good songs that’s easy to sing along with. “Ugly Lights” sees Lambert incorporating a garage country like sound that Aubrie Sellers really brought to light with her debut album. It really suits both Lambert and the song, which is a sort of gritty and dark tune about hiding in a bar with your broken heart. The lyrics do an even better job of capturing this feeling, which doesn’t surprise me considering Lambert wrote it with Natalie Hemby and Liz Rose. The bluegrass-tinged “You Wouldn’t Know Me” speaks to the truth of not knowing a person just by asking them how they’re doing. A person can change everyday, so you really don’t know someone. It’s one of the simpler, more overlooked songs of the album, but it’s definitely one of my favorites on The Nerve.

There’s a couple of songs on The Nerve that get away from this simplicity and make things too complicated. “Smoking Jacket” is a straight up sex song. This itself isn’t bad; I’m just calling a spade a spade. What else can be gleaned from the line, “every night he makes his magic on me”? That being said this song just doesn’t do much for me, perhaps due to it being too long. One of my least favorites of the album and the worst on The Nerve is “Pink Sunglasses.” The production on this song is just way overdone and self-indulgent. Not to mention the song feels like it drags. It feels like six minutes when it’s only four. This all takes away from the theme of the song, which centers on the sentimental value and confidence one can gain from simple objects.

The final track of The Nerve is “Use My Heart,” which serves as the perfect transition into The Heart. The reason being is the song revolves around the phrase of “I don’t have the nerve to use my heart.” To boot it’s a great song, as Lambert sings of dealing with the inner demons of trying to move on and reconcile with what has happened. Lambert wrote the song with Ashley Monroe and Waylon Payne. I point this out because this is one of two songs this specific troika wrote on the album and both songs are excellent.

Kicking off The Heart is “Tin Man,” probably the most heartbreaking song of the album. It’s about Lambert and the tin man of the Wizard of Oz, who famously always wanted a heart, discussing the merits of having one. She explains to him how he doesn’t know what kind of pain he’s asking for when he asks for a heart and it’s not worth the trouble. By the end of the song she offers to trade her heart, which is shattered into pieces and covered in scars, to him in exchange for his armor. Written by Lambert and Jack Ingram (who is quite proficient in the art of writing about heartbreak), this is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard from Lambert.

Lambert’s sassy happiness shines through on “For The Birds.” It symbolizes her re-awakening so to speak after her breakup, wanting happiness and sunshine back after going through so much darkness. It’s finally finding that light at the end of a long tunnel. “Good Ol’ Days” is about Lambert willing to go back to where it all began for her to rediscover herself and her truth. It’s about re-examining everything and figuring out just where to go from where you’re at currently. The song does a great job of capturing the humility of the subject, which doesn’t surprise me because Brent Cobb and Adam Hood wrote the song with Lambert. “Tomboy” is a personal anthem from Lambert about her and everyone like her. She’s a proud tomboy who does it her way and this is her way of telling young girls it’s cool to be this way too. For this reason I think this would be a great choice for a single.

If you feel like you need more steel guitar in your life, just listen to “Things That Break” and “Well-Rested.” It’s as thick and infectious as molasses on each song. These are classic heartbreak country songs in every sense. There are a lot of great songs I enjoy on this album, but if I had to pick the best one on this expansive double album it would have to be “To Learn Her.” Written by the praised above troika of Lambert, Monroe and Payne, this song is pure country music. If you asked me to define country music, I would point to a song like this one. The heavy steel guitar makes me smile from ear-to-ear. This song is Lambert at her very best.

The other songwriting trio I absolutely enjoy on this album is Lambert, Hemby and Rose, who get their shining moment on “Keeper of the Flame. “ I didn’t even have to look at the credits to know these three wrote this because their fingerprints are all over it. The very best of these three come together to create this soaring love anthem that you just want to listen to over and over again. I even surprisingly enjoy the synthesizer on this song, which gives the song some real energy and urgency. “Bad Boy” is the weakest track of The Heart, but even it isn’t a bad song. It’s the fact that rest of it is so strong that a just solid song doesn’t quite stand out. While the song relies on the predictable trope of falling in love with the bad boy, I really enjoy the instrumentation. The song starts off with a harder rock edge before giving away to twang pedal steel guitar towards the end.

I really applaud Miranda for going completely outside the box on “Six Degrees of Separation.” I love it when an artist tries something completely different and takes risks and this song is a perfect example of why. The vocal layering combined with the grungy guitars and snappy lyrics make for an infectiously great song. Lambert’s ode to the sun “Dear Old Sun” shows a more subdued soulful side of her. It’s probably the most spiritual Lambert gets on the entire album, as you can really feel the heart in her voice as she sings. Then again Lambert bared her entire self in every part of this album.

The Weight of These Wings closes it’s story with “I’ve Got Wheels.” It’s where Lambert finally moves on from her demons. As she sings, she’s got wheels and now she’s using them to get away from the heartbreak that haunted her for so long. It’s that sobering feeling that you’ve finally picked up all of the pieces and can move on with your life to something after being consumed by something old for so long. And that itself is another chapter that won’t be easy, but Lambert at least knows she’s moving forward now.

After thoroughly listening to The Weight of These Wings from front to back and over again several times, Lambert accomplished something I’ve seen for the first time while running Country Perspective and that’s releasing a great double album. This is an amazing accomplishment that should make her proud because this is nothing to scoff at. If I had to pick the best side, it would definitely be The Heart. There’s not a single bad song on this part of the album, while The Nerve is hampered by the only three missteps of the entire album.

Lambert put every bit of her talent into this album; there was no holding back from her. She utilized some of the best songwriters in country music today, while also showing off her own songwriting chops. We not only get to see her at her most country, but she even takes some risks and pulls them off well too. Frank Liddell, Eric Masse and Glenn Worff for the most part did a great job producing this album and not falling into the usual mainstream pitfalls. Miranda Lambert did something many artists have trouble with and that’s channeling pure, raw energy into beautiful art. The Weight of These Wings is arguably the crowning jewel of Lambert’s entire career.

Grade: 9/10

 

Recommend? – Yes!

Album Highlights: Tin Man, To Learn Her, Ugly Lights, Runnin’ Just in Case, Vice, Pushin’ Time, Use My Heart, Good Ol’ Days, For The Birds, Six Degrees of Separation, I’ve Got Wheels

Bad Songs: Pink Sunglasses & Smoking Jacket

Wallpaper: None


Breaking Down & Examining The Quality of #1 Country Songs: 2015

Homegrown

Last week in comments section of the The Current Pulse of Mainstream Country Music, reader Nadia brought up the great point of Eric Church’s “Record Year” being the first great song (+4 or better) to top the charts in a few years. It really highlighted the importance of Church landing the #1 spot at country radio with such a quality song. The last song to do this in my book was Zac Brown Band’s “Sweet Annie” in 2013 and before that in 2011 with Zac Brown Band’s “Colder Weather.” Only three songs were able to rate a 9 or better in the last five years and top the Billboard Country Airplay chart. That’s kind of crazy and really puts things into perspective. This sparked me to think further and made me want to look back at the quality of #1 country airplay songs throughout the years. So that brings us to this new semi-regular feature and that’s picking a year and taking a look how I would rate the #1 songs of that year. The rankings will work exactly like The Current Pulse does, so if you’re not familiar with that criteria just take a look at the most recent one linked above. Reaching #1 is a big deal for an artist, which is why I want to look at the strength and quality of songs that are supposed to be smash hits. When I think #1 song, I think it should be pretty important not just to the artist, but demonstrates the direction of the industry at the time as a whole. We’ll start off with last year’s #1 songs…

  • January 3-10: Tim McGraw – “Shotgun Rider” +2
    • McGraw has been in the midst of revival/comeback the last few years after drifting aimlessly with Curb for years and then going through that whole “Truck Yeah”/”Lookin’ For That Girl” phase. McGraw in other words rediscovered who he was and why people loved him in the first place. “Shotgun Rider” went a ways in helping fuel this comeback and at the time was refreshing to hear after the bro era. There’s nothing that significant about this love song, but it’s solid all around and decidedly country. 7/10
  • January 17-24: Brad Paisley – “Perfect Storm” +2
    • Paisley admittedly pissed me off with his 2014 album Moonshine in the Trunk because it felt like a pandering, low-grade effort from him in comparison to his full capabilities. The previous single before this was “River Bank,” which really caught my ire. This song kind of got back to what he does best and that’s heartfelt love ballads. In the last two years it’s safe to say this has been his best single. It’s also the last song he’s had reach #1 on the airplay chart (granted great timing helped aid it). 7/10
  • January 31: Kenny Chesney – “‘Til It’s Gone” 0 (Note: This was the last and only time the Pulse has ever been positive)
    • The story of Kenny Chesney’s career is beach music and playing it safe. In this case it’s the latter. This schmaltzy love song really does nothing to standout and it’s kind of telling I had to listen to it again because I really didn’t remember it. That’s how I feel about most Chesney songs though. 5/10
  • February 7: Eric Church – “Talladega” +3
    • This song has grown on me from when I originally heard it. It’s definitely one of the better ones from The Outsiders, an album I didn’t care for at all. Church really nails the nostalgic/reflective tone of this song and gets the listener to buy into what he’s singing. 8/10
  • February 14-21: Luke Bryan – “I See You” -2
    • The quality starts to take a big dip here, folks. “I See You” is an overproduced, pop rock mess of a breakup song. The point of a country breakup song is to express sorrow and sadness. Yet this song feels more happy and upbeat. Instead of trying to understand it I just tell myself its Luke Bryan and this par for the course for him. 3/10
  • February 28: Florida Georgia Line – “Sun Daze” -5
    • And here we have a 2014 finalist for Country Perspective’s Worst Song of the Year. Yet it didn’t win (you can thank Jerrod Niemann). This song not only has an annoying reggae beat and sound, but an annoying whistle too. Florida Georgia Line’s singing is at its most grating and by Florida Georgia Line of course I mean Tyler Hubbard because the other one never sings. Then you get to the lyrics, which are just a dumpster fire of quality. Two horrific lines stand out in particular:”Rock a little bit of hip-hop and Haggard and Jagger” and “I’ll sit you up on the kitchen sink
      And stick the pink umbrella in your drink.” These lines are disgusting and offensive in so many different ways. I never want to hear Hubbard sing about his dick again. 0/10
  • March 7: Thomas Rhett – “Make Me Wanna” -4
    • Overtly slick production and a blatant pop sound back this slow jam sex song. It’s easy to forget how bad this one was from Rhett because he still wasn’t that well-known and it proceeded a much clearer offensive song. There’s nothing country about “Make Me Wanna” and really nothing country about Rhett still. Just make sure you continue to forget this one. 1/10
  • March 14: Blake Shelton & Ashley Monroe – “Lonely Tonight” +1
    • I remember being quite happy for Monroe to get this opportunity from Blake to be heard by more people. I was also happy to see her associated with a #1 song. But now looking back at this song, I’m not nearly as smitten to it as I was originally. It’s pretty dull by both artists standards and could have been so much more. Luckily Monroe’s vocals and Blake’s charisma elevate it just enough. Then again this sounds like a damn masterpiece after the last two songs, so that perhaps explains my higher enthusiasm originally. 6/10
  • March 21: Jason Aldean – “Just Gettin’ Started” -3
    • Tell me what’s more vanilla and uninspiring: this or Aldean’s most recent #1 “Lights Come On.” They’re essentially the same rocker-infused anthem that says nothing. 2/10
  • March 28: Brett Eldredge – “Mean To Me” -1
    • zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz….Oh I fell asleep. This song makes me sleepy with its uninspired production and cliché, banal lyrics. Eldredge is a fine vocalist, but this is generic at it’s finest. 4/10
  • April 4: Cole Swindell – “Ain’t Worth The Whiskey” -2
    • You’re not worth the whiskey, Swindell. You’re not worth giving a full review for this subtly vindictive song. 3/10
  • April 11-28: Zac Brown Band – “Homegrown” +3
    • Ah it feels so long since we’ve had this Zac Brown Band. This was the lead single for Jekyll + Hyde and you all know how I feel about that album now. When I reviewed “Homegrown,” I said it gave me high hopes for the album. This was the exact type of song not only to get people excited about that album, but what should be on country radio in this day and age. It deservedly got a three-week reign at the top and I remember it even hung on the chart for another month after falling from the top spot. It was a true hit in every sense of the word. 8/10
  • May 2: Sam Hunt – “Take Your Time” -5
    • This was the song that kickstarted the reign of terror of Sam Hunt. I loathe this song with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. To the naive and quite frankly clueless listener, this is a sincere and sensitive love song about a guy treating a girl right. In reality, this song is all about Sam Hunt perfectly playing to a girl’s emotions so he can get down her pants. It’s deceptively creepy, sleazy and in no way country. 0/10
  • May 9-16: Dierks Bentley – “Say You Do” +1
    • This another song I remember liking a lot more originally, but now not so much. It’s an above average love song at best, even by Dierks’ standards. There were better songs on Riser, but then again just like “Lonely Tonight” this song has the benefit of being propped up when put next to all of the other terrible songs around it. 6/10
  • May 23: Keith Urban & Eric Church – “Raise ‘Em Up” 0
  • May 30: Tyler Farr – “A Guy Walks Into A Bar” +2
  • June 6: Billy Currington – “Don’t It” -2
  • June 13: A Thousand Horses – “Smoke” -1
    • This one has definitely worn thin on me since I originally reviewed, some thanks in part to the absolute success it had getting hits. It’s one of the top five most popular posts ever in the history of this blog. And one of the reasons why is because people wanting to know the name and identity of the stripper in the music video for the song. I’m dead serious and there’s still to this day some stray hits based off this Google search. Why in the hell do you want to know the name of the damn stripper? A Thousand Horses has pretty much been irrelevant since this song had its run. And they even had Dave Cobb produce their debut album. But hey they’ll always have that stripper video.
  • June 20: Florida Georgia Line – “Sippin’ On Fire” -4
  • June 27: Kenny Chesney & Grace Potter – “Wild Child” 0
    • I remember being told by some readers I should be praising this song more and I just had a pretty lukewarm response to it. Over a year later it’s still pretty lukewarm. Go listen to “You & Tequila” instead.
  • July 4: Kelsea Ballerini – “Love Me Like You Mean It” -4
    • This is the best example of bro pandering.
  • July 11: Blake Shelton – “Sangria” -3
    • With time every Blake Shelton single now gets even more annoying and grating on the ears. He’s a wizard in churning out sterile production backed, annoying ear worm songs.
  • July 25: Canaan Smith – “Label Pushed Song You Don’t Remember the Name Of” -3
    • Seriously can you remember it without Googling?
  • August 1: Jason Aldean – “Tonight Looks Good on You” -3
  • August 8: Brantley Gilbert – “One Hell of an Amen” +1
  • August 15: Luke Bryan – “Kick The Dust Up” -5
  • August 22: Michael Ray – “Kiss You in the Morning” -4
  • August 29: Zac Brown Band – “Loving You Easy” +2
  • September 5: Frankie Ballard – “Young & Crazy” +1
  • September 12: Sam Hunt – “House Party” -5
    • One of the most annoying songs I’ve ever heard. It’s vapid and completely lacks in substance in all facets of music.
  • September 19: Dustin Lynch – “Hell of a Night” -4
  • September 26: Thomas Rhett – “Crash and Burn” -5
  • October 3-17: Kenny Chesney – “Save It For A Rainy Day” 0
  • October 24: Brett Eldredge – “Lose My Mind” -2
  • October 31-November 7: Luke Bryan – “Strip It Down” -4
  • November 14-21: Old Dominion – “Break Up With Him” -5
    • One of the douchiest songs I’ve ever heard and yet it didn’t win worst song of the year. Thanks, Sam Hunt.
  • November 28-December 12: Chris Young – “I’m Comin’ Over” +1
  • December 19: Dan + Shay – “Nothin’ Like You” -2
  • December 26: Blake Shelton – “Gonna” -2

Overall #1 Song Pulse for 2015: -61

 

Break Down of Number of Each Pulse Score

+5: None

+4: None

+3: 2 (Eric Church’s “Talladega” and Zac Brown Band’s “Homegrown”)

+2: 4 (Brad Paisley’s “Perfect Storm,” Tim McGraw’s “Shotgun Rider,” Tyler Farr’s “A Guy Walks Into A Bar” & Zac Brown Band’s “Loving You Easy”)

+1: 5

0: (Three of the four are Kenny Chesney songs)

-1: 2

-2: 6

-3: 4

-4: 6

-5: 6

 

So in 2015 there were 39 songs to reach #1 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart. Of those 39 songs, a whopping 24 of these 36 songs were in the negative. That’s 2/3 (or about 67%) of all #1 songs for the year! It gets even worse, as 1/3 of the #1 songs have a score of -4 or worse, indicating horrendous or of horrifically bad quality (33% of the #1 songs). On the flip side, there were zero songs that I considered great or excellent to reach the top of the airplay chart in 2015 and only two songs I would consider pretty good to reach #1. Needless to say I would have to evaluate the quality of #1 songs in 2015 to be quite shitty. The year actually got off to a great start, as three of the first four #1 songs were positive. Then you look at the end of the year, from September 12 onwards there was only one positive song to top the chart (ironically having the longest reign on top during this time). I would be willing to go out on a limb and say this was one of the worst stretches in the history of country radio. Also there was only one solo female artist to top the Billboard Country Airplay chart in 2015 and that was Kelsea Ballerini. Meanwhile Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and Kenny Chesney each had three #1 airplay songs in 2015. Of their nine songs to top the chart, five have negative scores, three have neutral scores and one has a positive score.

Let me know what you think in the comments below of the songs and this new feature. And feel free to ask me about my grades for the songs. 

The Hodgepodge: The Americana Movement & Why It’s Happening

Americana Music

(Note: Derek is on vacation this week, so I’m taking over The Hodgepodge!)

What’s the next big movement in country music? We’ve had bro country, metro bro and now we appear on the verge of some sort of weird, heavily Christian-influenced movement. It’s pretty evident when Florida Georgia Line releases “H.O.L.Y.” and Hillary Scott announces a Christian-influenced album. All of the popular country artists are talking about how their new music is going to be more mature and dig deeper. To be honest, you know what I think of all of this? I could not care any less. I’ve reached the point of not caring what the next movement in mainstream country music is because they change sounds like a person changes socks. Besides there’s a much more interesting, albeit less flashy movement happening before your very eyes: The Americana Movement.

While popular country fans fuss over it and critics spend their time on self-important think-pieces on the next big thing on country radio, I’ve been quietly observing something pretty brilliant taking shape with this Americana movement. It’s becoming the “genre” (if you want to call it this) where country artists who don’t want to be called country artists go basically. It’s also home to many older country acts that the genre has cast aside for new shiny toys and other sincere, genuine artists who really can’t put their music into the box of a genre. That last point in particular is why I think many artists are drawn to the Americana label. This allure of not having to play by genre rules and standards is quite appealing. You don’t have to hear some stodgy, old critic or fan tell you that your songs aren’t country enough or shouldn’t include horns. You don’t have to hear some whiny popular country music fan tell you that you’re boring and not pop-y enough. In many ways Americana symbolizes freedom and control of your music to an artist.

Country music fans love to sit around and fantasize a new outlaw era rearing its head like in the 70s where Waylon, Willie and Merle all stood up to make their own music and how country radio was a golden paradise of songs. All of the artists band together and take down the labels and Florida Georgia Line gets put in the music version of Guantanamo Bay. And we all lived happily ever after. This is all fantasy of course. Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt and Luke Bryan aren’t going away ever. They’re making a lot of money for themselves, their label and have throngs of fans. This stuff doesn’t disappear. Country radio will never stop playing them (at least until they’re deemed too old to play). Mainstream country and country radio will at best be mediocre and downright garbage at worst.

Back to the Americana movement taking shape, at its core this is exactly like the outlaw movement. These are artists independently taking it upon themselves to make their own music and do things their own way. They’re experiencing sales and chart success in the forms of Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton. “But they’re country artists,” you say. Are they really country artists? For that matter is your favorite country artist really a country artist by today’s definition? Probably not. “I’m talking about the actual country standards,” you say. Define universal country standards that we can all agree on. Go on, I’ll wait. In the meantime I’m going to tell you why these three artists belong to Americana. I’ll start with the easiest argument. Jason Isbell is considered the Americana King, has championed it for years and identifies as such. Everyone pretty much agrees he’s Americana. Then we have Chris Stapleton. When you hear his music, is it straight country? No. You hear blues, soul and even some roots-rock. Now let’s look at the definition of Americana:

Americana is contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band.

I would say Stapleton fits this more than country music, especially today’s definition of country music. Finally that brings me to Sturgill Simpson, who’s solo career sums up best why this Americana movement has been growing and has become such a thing. He made his debut with High Top Mountain, an album full of pure country and bluegrass. Independent country fans flocked to him in droves and touted his name as one to watch. Country radio and mainstream of course ignored him, something the fans who fantasize about a new outlaw movement were fine with being the case. Screw country radio they would say. Then he followed it up with Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, an album full of straight country, some roots rock and psychedelic rock-country fusion. It launched him into the stratosphere, gaining the attention of mainstream and hipsters everywhere. Country radio continued to ignore him and country fans continued to say screw radio. However he was nominated for a Grammy for Best Americana Album.

Now that brings us to his newly released third album A Sailor’s Guide To Earth. Country fans expected something straight country or close to it. Hipsters and mainstream bandwagoners expected more psychedelic music. Neither got what they wanted or expected. Despite universal critical acclaim, a large number of people have called out Sturgill for getting away from his roots and what’s best for him in their minds. They’ve criticized the horns on his record. Sturgill’s response is naturally to be a little bit angry. Here’s a group of people holding him to their standards and telling him how to make his music. So it came as no surprise to me that Simpson had this to say at a concert in Dallas this past weekend:

“You won’t see my ass at the ACMs or the CMAs. It’s all politics, and I’ve got a better chance at winning the presidency. I’d rather play for you guys, because who cares about that shit. It might take 10 years, but when they need my help, I’m gonna give ‘em two of these.”

Simpson went on to give a one-finger salute with each hand and earlier in the night defended the horns on his new album. It doesn’t sound like someone who considers himself part of country music. He even admitted before A Sailor’s Guide To Earth came out that it may not be a country record. Of course I’ve seen fans and critics say Sturgill is ruining his career by saying such things and that he should show up to these award shows with open arms These are the same awards shows that have ignored him for years. I’ve even seen fans who said Simpson screwed up by not having some “radio songs” on his new record. Keep in mind this is the same group that said screw country radio the last two albums. Now all of a sudden they care about these pointless award shows and radio? This is flat-out hypocritical. Meanwhile they’re saying Simpson has turned his back on the people who got him where he’s at with these remarks and this new album.

I tell you this entire anecdote on Simpson’s career because it proves the point of the Americana movement. Here’s a talented artist making great music and some people just can’t help but pedantically criticize just to criticize and squabble about genres. Who needs that? There are several more examples that prove why we need Americana to continue to grow, like the ridiculousness of the “Texas Country” scene. Genuine female country artists have been ignored by radio for years and are forced to become “alt-country.” We live in a world where Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe are essentially black balled from major airwaves because they refuse to play the game. Alan Jackson can’t get a freaking add at radio for his new single. There’s a group of talented artists on major labels making great music, but many are suppressed by radio. I could go on and on.

Increasingly any artist with self-respect for their music doesn’t want to be identified with country music. Why would they? They get ignored by the mainstream and radio. Their hard work is ignored and dismissed. The popular country music over the last few years has destroyed the genre’s reputation and made it a laughing stock in some circles. If you walked up to someone on the street and told them you’re a country fan, they’re going to think Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan. This whole fight to restore/save country music is pointless because great music is being made somewhere by someone. It may not be on the radio or charting alongside Beyoncé on iTunes, but it’s being made and you can access it with ease. Why does great music have to be popular? Why does it have to fit in a box? It doesn’t. Popularity should never dictate music. *Genre rules and lines shouldn’t dictate music. The only use of terms like country and Americana is to guide us, the listener. It just makes it easier for us to find what kind of music we’re looking for and wanting to hear. A true artist does not go into a studio and let genre guide the music. They just make music. That’s what Americana is all about for these artists.

*Of course don’t get this twisted to think it’s okay for Zac Brown Band to make EDM music and put it on country radio. He has every right to make EDM music and put it on his album. But when you’re sending “Beautiful Drug” to country radio, you’re calling it a country song. And that means you’re just lying straight to my face, which isn’t okay. That’s like pointing at a duck and calling it a chicken. That’s an insult to my intelligence. Don’t tell me that this song is one thing when it clearly isn’t.  

Upcoming/Recent Americana and Country Releases

  • The following artists are releasing new albums tomorrow:
    • Jennifer NettlesPlaying With Fire
    • Michaela AnneBright Lights and the Fame
    • Hard Working AmericansRest in Chaos
    • Darrell ScottCouchville Sessions
    • Wild Ponies – Radiant
  • The Honeycutters will be releasing a new album titled On The Ropes next week
  • Luke Bell will be releasing a new self-titled album on June 17
  • Jack Ingram announced he will be releasing his first new studio album in seven years on June 24 and it will be called Midnight Motel
  • Cody Jinks announced he’s releasing a new album I’m Not The Devil on August 12.
  • Avett Brothers announced they will also be releasing a new album on June 24 and it will be titled True Sadness
  • Finally some news that caught me off guard and that’s the surprise re-emergence of Josh Turner. In Country Aircheck this week, an ad ran promoting Turner’s new single called “Hometown Girl” and it’s going for adds on May 31.

Throwback Thursday Song

Linda Ronstadt’s “The Only Mama That’ll Walk The Line” – Fellow country writer Jason Scott encouraged me to dig into Linda Ronstadt’s catalog and I wasn’t disappointed. This is from her debut album and one of my favorites from her. If you aren’t familiar with Ronstadt like I was, I encourage you to check her out too.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week

Kyle Craft’s Dolls of Highland – If you follow me on Twitter I’ve been non-stop praising new artist Kyle Craft. He’s a rock artist who grew up Louisiana before moving to Portland, Oregon a few years back. You can definitely hear the southern influence in the album, along with several other influences from a variety of genres. I’ve seen him compared to David Bowie, but I hear more Queen actually. Anyway he’s fantastic and Dolls of Highland is one of my favorite albums released this year.

Tweet of the Week

https://twitter.com/KaceyMusgraves/status/728779798055669760

Somebody on Twitter wondered what has happened to Kacey Musgraves and she made the perfect response.

A Great iTunes Review

New Urban album

This is a pretty spot-on review of the new Keith Urban album Ripcord. Not much country to be found on it.

The Hodgepodge: Revisiting Radio Programming Issues and the Tomato Problem

Keith Hill’s comments on females at country radio took the country music world by storm last year. Just to quickly refresh your memory Hill said “The tomatoes of our salad are the females.” This was in the context of calling males the lettuce and encouraging radio program directors to take females out of rotation in order to maximize ratings. As I’m sure you remember, reactions to Hill’s comments were fierce. Josh’s response in The Hodgepodge took a look at the larger, underlying issue of the lack of overall quality on radio.

I think you can make the argument that there hasn’t been much improvement on either front: female representation or quality. Looking at The Pulse from June 13, 2015 (published the same week as the previously linked Hodgepodge), there were two solo females on the charts in the top 10: Carrie Underwood (7) and Kelsea Ballerini (8). One female duo with Maddie & Tae at 24, and a female led group at 10 with Little Big Town. Also in the top 10 were two songs with female harmonies (“Wild Child” and “Diamond Rings & Old Barstools”). The overall pulse that week was -14. Compare that to yesterday’s Pulse with two solo females in the top 10: Carrie Underwood (1) and Maren Morris (10). Maddie & Tae again at 23, and then Cassadee Pope in a duet with Chris Young at 12. The pulse sits at -10.

That’s fairly even, if you ask me. In the latest issue of Country Aircheck, Lance Houston from iHeartMedia station WBWL in Boston sort of echoed Keith Hill’s comments and took it a step further. Now, before I move on, I just want to clarify that I’m not trying to restart a controversy or blow this up into something it’s not. His comments are interesting, and I think they’re worth commenting on. Houston approaches programming from balancing the logs of who is singing the song. “If you’ve got two females back to back, you don’t have a balanced log given the format’s small percentage of female music. The goal should be to make the most balanced log possible. The same thing goes with other [artist characteristics]; you don’t have a balanced log if you have three or four male duos in a row.”

From a business and programming standpoint, I completely understand that approach. You have A (female solo), B (male solo), C (female duo), D (male duo), and E (bands). In an ideal world, radio has an even distribution of A, B, C, D, and E, without ever repeating letters. But here’s the kicker from Houston’s comments: “given the format’s small percentage of female music.” The representation of A is low, and B is extremely high. Looking again at yesterday’s Pulse of the top 30, here’s the distribution: A (2 songs), B (21 songs), C (1 song), D (2 songs), E (3 songs), and we’ll classify Chris Young & Cassadee Pope as F, a Male/Female duo (1 song). So in reality, you take what you’re given and distribute the choices in the most even possible way.

Given the fact that there aren’t many female artists available for radio to choose from, we don’t get much female music on the radio. Maren Morris is a newcomer who could build on a successful run after a top 10 debut single. Carrie Underwood will release a new single soon to follow “Heartbeat” at number one, Kelsea Ballerini’s “Peter Pan” is on its way, and Miranda Lambert is working on new music. Jennifer Nettles, Cam, Brandy Clark, Martina McBride, and Brook Eden all have songs in the bottom half of the top 60.

It’s a slow process, but we could see more females impacting radio. It’s possible, given the recent success of Cam, Kelsea Ballerini, and now Maren Morris. I think the outcry after the tomato comments could have influenced this, but we have to understand it’ll take time. We’re coming off the bro-country era. Programmers can’t just flip the switch and go 50/50 distribution between males and females. But labels can up their rosters to include more females, or even make way for non-music row artists to be played.

Just last year, quality albums from Whitney Rose, Lindi Ortega, and Hailey Whitters provide some great music to choose from. Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe and Lee Ann Womack are familiar faces who get ignored. Aubrie Sellers’ debut album is excellent. I’d be okay if she got a chance from nepotism, like Thomas Rhett did, if it meant hearing Sellers on the radio. I’d also argue that the aforementioned females would also up the quality of music on the charts if they’re given the chance.

Unfortunately, the business side may not pave the way for the quality side of music. We may never see the day of high female representation on the charts, and it pains me to say it. As much as I’d like to see it, the label attitudes of the label executives would have to drastically change. I have a better chance of getting a country record deal than that happening. And as radio slowly slips away for other outlets, this whole conversation may be a moot point someday. But until that day comes, I hope the winds of change blow in the direction of a higher female representation on country radio. I think the demand is there, and the supply is certainly available.

Upcoming/Recent Country Releases

  • Southern Family is finally released tomorrow. I’ve listened to it on NPR First Listen, and I enjoyed it. You’ll see Josh’s review soon.
  • William Michael Morgan releases his debut EP tomorrow as well.
  • Maren Morris announced that her debut album, Hero, will be released on June 3.
  • Randy Houser‘s next single will be “Song Number 7.” We will review the single, but not Fired Up. 
  • Kenny Chesney is trying to be cryptic on social media to get fans excited for an upcoming announcement. Most likely, on March 24, Chesney will give us details on some new music, be it a single, album, or both.

Throwback Thursday Song

“Leave the Pieces” by The Wreckers. The Wreckers, made up of Jessica Harp and Michelle Branch, had a short life in country music. One successful album in 2006 yielded two top ten hits: “My, Oh My” at #9 and this song as their only number one. I’m a big fan of this song and I wish we could have had more music from this duo.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week

Ray LaMontagne Ouroboros. LaMontagne’s newest album was produced by My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. It’s a heavier, psychedelic-like album calling back to a classic rock approach to music production. Just like old vinyl, the album is broken into two parts, emulating the need to flip the record over. The production over shadows LaMontagne’s signature vocals, but it’s still a good offering from this rock singer-songwriter.

Tweet of the Week

This is a great picture of Sturgill and Merle.

Two Randy Houser iTunes Reviews

RH1 RH2

As I said, we’re not reviewing Fired Up as a whole because its way too long and overrun with the same, low quality crap. Though this first review would have you think otherwise. I’d argue that the album is full of filler.

As for the second review, that comparison to Toby Keith is hilarious! Sharing it with Josh, he agreed that it’s an accurate comparison given that both singers are talented, yet put out clichéd music. But this person’s reasoning? HA! If Houser didn’t put out 17 songs of radio pandering bull crap, then I’d agree. “Like a Cowboy”, or most of Houser’s first couple albums is the kind of country music that’s good. You don’t sell out like this to get “earned” recognition.

Predictions for Country & American Roots Categories at the 2016 Grammy Awards

Grammy

On Monday we celebrate the biggest music awards show of the years. I’m of course referring to the 58th Grammy Awards, set to air Monday night at 8 pm ET on CBS. With it being a holiday and football season being over, it should pull even more eyes than usual. It’s an even bigger deal for country and Americana acts this year, as many deserving names are up for the top awards in both. Not only this, but Chris Stapleton is set up to have another huge awards night. This could be another big step forward in mainstream country improving its quality of music and Americana continuing to rise in stature. Now let’s get to the predictions! Keep in mind I’m not the best at this prediction game, but I feel like I do a little better each year. The award shows can be unpredictable. And be sure to make your own predictions in the comments.

Album of the Year

  • Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color
  • Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
  • Chris Stapleton – Traveller
  • Taylor Swift – 1989
  • The Weeknd – Beauty Behind The Madness 

What I Would Pick To Win: Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly or Chris Stapleton’s Traveller

What I Predict Will Win: Chris Stapleton’s Traveller – After the 2015 CMA Awards I learned something important: do not bet against Chris Stapleton. This man will prove you wrong. He continues to have monster sales in the fallout of that impressive night. There will be enough vote splitting amongst Lamar and Swift to open it right up for Stapleton to pull off the “upset.” Alabama Shakes have almost no chance and The Weeknd had a breakout 2015, but I don’t think they have enough momentum to win. Beck shocked the world winning this award last year and Stapleton will do it this year.

Song of the Year 

  • Kendrick Lamar – “Alright”
  • Taylor Swift – “Blank Space”
  • Little Big Town – “Girl Crush”
  • Wiz Khalifa & Charlie Puth – “See You Again”
  • Ed Sheeran – “Thinking Out Loud”

What I Would Pick To Win: Kendrick Lamar – “Alright”

What I Predict Will Win: Wiz Khalifa & Charlie Puth’s “See You Again” – This song was one of the biggest emotional hit songs of 2015 and had a monster run on the charts. I give “Alright” and “Blank Space” decent shots at winning. Little Big Town had one of the biggest hits in country music in 2015 with “Girl Crush,” but they stand no chance against these huge names.

Best New Artist

  • Courtney Barnett
  • James Bay
  • Sam Hunt
  • Tori Kelly
  • Meghan Trainor

Who I Would Pick To Win: Courtney Barnett

Who I Predict Will Win: Meghan Trainor – Trainor should win this in an absolute walk. She’s the biggest name of the five by far. Sam Hunt is shockingly the only other artist I could see winning here, but he just doesn’t compare to Trainor’s stardom and impact. For once I’m glad to see Trainor’s name, as it will block Hunt from winning something at an actual awards show.

Best Country Solo Performance 

  • Cam – “Burning House”
  • Chris Stapleton – “Traveller”
  • Carrie Underwood – “Little Toy Guns”
  • Keith Urban – “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16”
  • Lee Ann Womack – “Chances Are”

What I Would Pick To Win: Chris Stapleton – “Traveller” (Anything but Urban’s song)

What I Predict Will Win: Chris Stapleton’s “Traveller” – Remember: Do not bet against Stapleton. Nice to see Cam getting some attention and Carrie continuing to get noticed by the Grammys, unlike the CMA and ACM Award shows. It’s really cool to see LeeAnn Womack’s name here too.

Best Country Duo/Group Performance

  • Brothers Osborne – “Stay A Little Longer”
  • Joey + Rory – “If I Needed You”
  • Charles Kelley, Dierks Bentley & Eric Paslay – “The Driver”
  • Little Big Town – “Girl Crush”
  • Blake Shelton & Ashley Monroe – “Lonely Tonight”

 

What I Would Pick To Win: Joey + Rory – “If I Needed You” (Really I would be fine with any of these)

What I Predict Will Win: Joey + Rory’s “If I Needed You” – I believe this will undoubtedly get the sympathy vote, just like Glen Campbell in the Best Country Song category last year. It would be a great sight to see such a loving and talented couple like Joey and Rory to get this honor.

Best Country Song

  • Lee Ann Womack – “Chances Are”
  • Tim McGraw – “Diamond Rings & Old Barstools”
  • Little Big Town – “Girl Crush”
  • Brandy Clark – “Hold My Hand”
  • Chris Stapleton – “Traveller”

What I Would Pick To Win: Brandy Clark – “Hold My Hand” (But again I would be fine with any of these)

What I Predict Will Win: Chris Stapleton’s “Traveller” – Once again I believe Stapleton will have another huge night. The Grammys did a really great job with this category and all five are certainly deserving. Tim McGraw continues to get nominations for the Grammys, but shut out from country awards shows like Carrie. Brandy Clark is set up to have a bigger year at the Grammys next year, but it’s nice to see a quality song like “Hold My Hand” get recognized.

Best Country Album

  • Sam Hunt – Montevallo
  • Little Big Town – Pain Killer 
  • Ashley Monroe – The Blade
  • Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material
  • Chris Stapleton – Traveller

What I Would Pick To Win: Pageant Material or Traveller

What I Predict Will Win: Chris Stapleton’s Traveller – Need I say it again? Also it’s an absolute joke to see Hunt’s name here.

Best American Roots Performance 

  • Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn – “And Am I Born To Die”
  • Buddy Guy – “Born To Play Guitar”
  • The Milk Carton Kids – “City of Our Lady”
  • Punch Brothers – “Julep”
  • Mavis Staples – “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”

What I Would Pick To Win: Punch Brothers – “Julep”

What I Predict Will Win: Punch Brothers – “Julep” – The Grammys seem to really love this group, so I’ll go with it.

Best American Roots Song

  • The Mavericks – “All Night Long”
  • Don Henley & Merle Haggard – “The Cost of Living”
  • Punch Brothers – “Julep”
  • Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – “The Traveling Kind”
  • Jason Isbell – “24 Frames”

What I Would Pick To Win: Only one? But they’re all fantastic!

What I Predict Will Win: Jason Isbell – “24 Frames” – After getting screwed over by the Grammys a few years ago, they finally make amends. With the #1 album in country, folk, rock and Americana, Isbell by far had the biggest 2015. But then again I could conceivably see Henley and Haggard get the nod, along with The Mavericks who seem to do well when nominated for something on the awards circuit. But really what a class of songs to choose from!

Best Americana Album

  • Brandi Carlile – The Firewatcher’s Daughter
  • Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – The Traveling Kind
  • Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free
  • The Mavericks – Mono
  • Punch Brothers – The Phosphorescent Blues

What I Would Pick To Win: Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free (Because why would I pick against our own 2015 Album of the Year winner?)

What I Predict Will Win: Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free – See the reasons I cited above. I have to say it’s great to see Brandi Carlile’s name here, as she is an underrated artist more people need to know about.