The Endless Music Odyssey, Vol. 6 — Reba, Keith Urban, Travis Tritt & more!

Reba McEntireRumor Has It (30th Anniversary Edition)

A classic album full of great love songs and heartbreakers with the iconic “Fancy” that I’m glad to see is getting a special anniversary release. If you’re a country fan and you haven’t heard this, you need to change this asap. One day I hope to give a full review of this album, along with many other past releases. Anyway, this anniversary edition comes with two new additions: a live version of “Fancy” and a Dave Audé remix of it. I want to talk about the latter, as once again Audé delivers a fun remix of a classic country song.

I know remixes aren’t exactly looked well upon by a lot of people in country music, but to me there’s everything to gain by releasing remixes of old country songs. At worst everybody ignores it and keeps listening to the original. But on the other hand you could entice a young listener who isn’t familiar with it to get into country music. Now some might argue this is the wrong way to get someone into country music through something that is sonically not country. But the biggest appeal for me in country music is the lyrics. “Fancy” is iconic because of the story, not the instrumentation. There are thousands of songs with the same sound as this remix and they remain ignored in a metaphorical music landfill. So if someone can find appeal in this remix of “Fancy,” I like to believe it’s because of the song itself.

Keith UrbanTHE SPEED OF NOW Part 1

You know this album starts out promising enough. Opening song “Out The Cage” has the kind of frenetic energy you want to open an album that grabs your attention. The P!nk duet “One Too Many” isn’t terrible, although a bit boring and run of the mill. “Live With” is actually quite enjoyable, as the chorus is catchy and has a good message about seeking a life that can be enjoyed. Not to mention the incorporation of Urban’s solid guitar work gives the song a needed punch. “Superman” is solid pop music with connectable imagery, even though the lyrics are a bit cliché.

With the exception of the nice collaboration with Eric Church on “We Were,” the rest of the album is quite vanilla and goes in one ear and out the other. In other words, what’s been the story for Urban on the last several albums. While the experimentation of Urban in his music was interesting at first, I think he’s well past due to get back to his roots and that’s guitar-driven music. But I don’t foresee this happening, as Urban seemingly got bored with this type of music. So since Urban seems hellbent on continuing the experimenting, here’s ultimately the biggest problem with it: it feels like he just wants to be the Ed Sheeran of country music.

Just like Sheeran in pop, Urban is trying to be everything to everybody and as the old saying goes, if you’re trying to please all, you’ll please none. I guess the most realistic ask I’m hoping from for Urban then is to pick a lane for an album and stick with it throughout. There’s just no constant theme with his albums anymore. It’s just jumping from one thing to the next and as an album listener I become frustrated quickly. Also two thoughts on “We Were.” First, there’s absolutely no need to have the non-Church version of the song. Second, I find it amusing a country artist adding a country artist to a song to make the sound more country to be hilarious. 4/10

Travis Tritt – “Ghost Town Nation”

I’ve quietly been waiting to see what comes of Travis Tritt’s team up with producer Dave Cobb on his new upcoming album and this is the first look. And I have to say I’m looking forward more to what’s in store. This is a great lead single that speaks to the divide between the rural people in towns across America and the media. The term “ghost town nation” is appropriate in this context as it reflects not only how small town America feels like everybody turns their noses up at them and that “there’s nothing there,” but also the loss of jobs and collapse of rural America due to the loss of manufacturing and other industries. If anybody can shine a spotlight on this divide in a way that’s articulate and gives insight to the issues faced by the average, small town American and their feelings of alienation, it’s Travis Tritt. 

NasKing’s Disease

You know I really wanted to enjoy this album. Nas is one of the all-time great rappers in the history of hip-hop and is required listening for anybody who has any kind of interest in the genre. But this album feels too same-y in so many spots and this makes for a tedious listen at times. Songs like “Ultra Black,” “All Bad” and “10 Points” are great, but in between these standout moments are songs that just don’t really stand out in terms of production or lyrics. Of course when you’ve set the bar as high as Nas has with previous albums, that undoubtedly hurts perception of new albums. While this is not a good album, it’s not bad either and it’s worth your time to spin through it once. 6/10

Aaron Frazer – “Bad News”

The fantastic drummer and falsetto vocalist for Durand Jones and the Indications teaming up with Easy Eye Sounds and Dan Auerbach is a combination that absolutely excites me on paper. Each have a foot solidly in the classic/throwback world while delivering lyrics that are modern and fresh. After hearing this enjoyably funky and soulful lead single, rest assured this debut album is one already on my radar for 2021. 

Texas HillTexas Hill EP

A brand new trio formed between Adam Wakefield, Casey James and Craig Wayne Boyd, I was intrigued by this grouping. Their obvious commonality of course is their backgrounds, as they each come from music competition shows. Each hasn’t really had the success as solo artists as I imagine they would prefer, so forming this trio is a pretty good idea. And I will say it’s clear right away their voices harmonize quite well together. Blending country, rock and soul, it’s a catchy sound too. They’ve said though they recorded a dozen songs together, so this EP is only a teaser of the full offering to come. So I’ll keep my comments on the vague side for now, as I want to hear the full project before offering my full thoughts. I’ll say this though: Texas Hill shows a lot of potential with these songs and I’m looking forward to hear what else they have in store. 

The Allman Betts BandBless Your Heart

This is a band on paper that is very much in the same vein of bands like Blackberry Smoke and The Wild Feathers. It’s a band I expect to enjoy, so I expected great things from this album. But there’s a big issue that prevents it from being enjoyable and that’s it’s runtime. There’s no reason why this album should be over an hour long. If you cut about 25 minutes from this album it would be a much better listen, but instead of this album concluding when it hits the sweet spot, it well overstays it’s welcome and makes me not want to revisit it. An undoubtedly talented band that fell into the trap a lot of younger acts fall into with albums. 6/10

JojiNectar

Once again this is another example of an album going way too long. Clocking in at just under an hour, there are multiple songs on this album that feel like a repetition of a previous song. Trim it down to around 30 minutes and this album would have gotten a full review and recommendation from me because Joji has a lot of great ideas, especially production-wise, throughout this album. “Ew” is a fantastically melancholy song about not feeling like enough in the wake of a breakup. “Tick Tock” and “Gimme Love” are absolute jams. Joji shows great introspection on “High Hopes” and “Mr. Hollywood” too. But unlike The Allman Betts Band, Joji’s longer than necessary runtime feels more like a major label trying to game streaming numbers. Despite my issues with this album though, Nectar is worth a listen if you’re into darker, “crying in the club” type R&B-influenced pop music. 6/10

Ranking Mainstream Country Music Artists: Grade C

Two weeks ago I began the task of ranking all of the artists in mainstream country music. Handing out grade A and grade B rankings was quite easy because people don’t get angry when you’re positive. Today however is when the ranking begin to take a negative turn. To see the artists I considered Grade A, click here. To see the artists I considered Grade B, click here.

Keep in mind these rankings were entirely compiled by yours truly. It’s only my opinion. The only artists I’m considering in these rankings is mainstream country artists that are on major labels and/or still get radio time. I’m also including legends and acts that are too big to be considered independent artists. The way I determine these rankings is by looking at the overall body of work of the artist, as well as taking into account the most recent offerings from them. So bro country artists that have been churning out hit after hit will be lower on the list. If an artist made bad music in the past, but is now putting out better music lately that will help them. But that bad music won’t be forgotten either. One more thing: attitude and respect for the genre will be considered. The rankings will be determined by grade. Now I’ll take a look at part three of this series, the artists I feel are worthy of a C grade.

Grade C

Today’s artists I would consider to be middle-of-the-road or average in the world of mainstream country music. A lot of these artists have released good music and bad music, which explains why they’re in the middle. Some simply haven’t done enough yet to garner a higher or lower grade. I consider this the most polarizing grading of the series because there will be an artist or two you feel should be higher or lower. In fact I’ll start with the most polarizing choice of the most polarizing grade…

Miranda_Lambert

Miranda Lambert – Unlike other traditional country fans who monitor mainstream country music, I haven’t been as impressed as them with Lambert’s body of work. Yes she’s done good work with the Pistol Annies, which has promoted two talented A-grade artists in Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley. She has also released a few good songs (“House That Built Me” and “Only Prettier”). However I’m going to point out what no one else points out enough. All of her songs are about passive aggressive violence against men who do women wrong or caddy, sarcastic vulgarity against people who do wrong (Kerosene, Gun Powder & Lead, White Liar, Baggage Claim, etc.). Her excessive twang has also annoyed me and I know several other country fans who don’t listen to her for the same reason. In my mind she’s pretty average compared to some of the best female artists in the independent and Americana scenes. Sorry Miranda fans, but she just doesn’t impress me.

Blake Shelton – I feel like I’m being generous with Miranda’s husband. I will never forget the monstrosity that was “Boys ‘Round Here.” I consider it one of the worst country songs of all-time. I think what saves Blake in my mind from being lower in my rankings is the early half of his career. I enjoyed a lot of his early work and I will occasionally listen to a few of these songs. There’s no doubt he has talent as an artist, but his terrible attitude and his pandering to corporate country demands makes it hard to like him at times. If you just disagree with him or write a bad review about him, he’ll send his army of sheep fans after you on Twitter. Shelton just can’t take criticism and to me that has been his ultimate downfall into the embarrassment he is today.

Eric Church – You can pretty much take what I just said what was the worst about Miranda and the worst about Blake, combine them together and that is what my problem is with Eric Church. He’s another average artist who panders to fans who want traditional country music back on radio and are completely unaware of the country music world outside of the mainstream realm. His whole “outsider,” “outlaw” image makes me want to puke and his ego seems to be growing bigger with each album. Just like Blake, his early material is great. But with each album his music has steadily gotten worse. I didn’t get a chance to review The Outsiders album, but I did listen to it and I found it be quite mediocre. But hey according to Church he did invent beer and truck related songs.

Keith Urban – The Australian pop country artist has always been about average to me. I’ve never been really angry at him for a song or something he has said, yet I have never thoroughly enjoyed one of his songs. I view him as the Switzerland of country music and that’s probably one of the safest spots to be in the genre.

Big & Rich – I’ll just repeat what I said in my review of their album Gravity: “The country duo of John Rich and Big Kenny of Big & Rich have always been interesting. They’ve proven they can make quality music (“8th of November” and “Lost in This Moment”), but also stupid novelty music (“Save A Horse” and “Comin’ To Your City”). So there are times when you want to applaud them and then other times where you’re just flat-out embarrassed for them. One thing about their dumber music though is they’re willing to admit up front they’re not being serious with it, unlike bro country where their dumb music is actually trying to be serious when it’s the furthest thing from serious.”

Jake Owen – I went back and forth on Jake Owen’s placement in my rankings. He released one of the worst country songs of 2014 in “Beachin’.” However his bro country music isn’t as offensive as the other bro country music on radio. Owen is also a pretty nice guy and has said in interviews he wants to make more serious music. He’s started to back this up by releasing “What We Ain’t Got,” a great single with substance. We’ll see what his next album is like because that will determine if he moves up or down in the rankings.

The Eli Young Band – The Texas band is in a pretty unique position. They’re still beloved in the Texas country music scene and get radio play too. Ever since they went mainstream though I haven’t enjoyed their music as much. Nothing really stands out about this band.

800px-Gretchen_Wilson,_2009

Gretchen WilsonThe precursor artist to Miranda Lambert. Really Wilson laid the blueprint to Lambert’s career. Go back and listen to Wilson’s songs like “Redneck Woman” and you could easily picture Lambert singing these songs. Wilson has shown she is capable of producing great music, but like Lambert the amount of twang in her voice sounds almost fake. I’m sure it isn’t, but nevertheless it’s annoying. Despite their similarities though I would take Wilson over Lambert. In fact Wilson might be having the success Lambert is having right now, but Wilson peaked too late and she didn’t marry a loudmouthed tool shed another country star.

The Band Perry – This is another group that just doesn’t stand out much to me. Their singles on radio have irritated me because the hooks of those songs were quite annoying. They did improve some in my eyes recently when they performed a beautiful cover of Glen Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind” on the 2014 CMA Awards, proving they could perform real country music. I hope this performance opened up their minds and convinced them to make more traditional country music.

The Swon Brothers, Danielle Bradbery, Cassadee Pope, Gwen Sebastian – I felt it was appropriate to group all of The Voice alumni together. They all impressed me more on the show than they have with their careers after the show. Blake Shelton endorsements on Twitter don’t sell a lot of albums nor impress critics like me.

Tyler Farr – “Redneck Crazy” is horrible and a song I wish I could destroy with a sledgehammer. It was creepy, in poor taste and probably one of the worst song choices I have ever heard for an artist to start their career out with. “Whiskey in My Water” was nothing special. However I did enjoy “A Guy Walks Into a Bar” and found it to be a solid song. I also thought he did a good job with his cover on The Doobie Brothers tribute album. It feels like to me that his career is stalling out and it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if he left Nashville. He could actually be a great artist if he went out on his own. We’ll wait and see.

Brett Eldredge, Casey James, Frankie Ballard, Kristian Bush, Kelleigh Bannen – Meh.¯\_(ツ)_/¯

That’s all for part three. Be sure to check back for part four where I breakdown the D grade artists. 

Album Review – The Doobie Brothers’ Southbound Sees Current Country Artists Tackle Classic Hits

Classic rock artists having current country stars cover their hits seems to be a new trend. This all really began, if memory serves me correctly, when Lionel Richie put out an album of current country artists covering his biggest hits. It went over great and Richie has even said he has thought about doing another album like that one. This year alone we’ve had a tribute album to The Allman Brothers, a terrible Mötley Crüe tribute album and mainstream country artists even attempted to cover the great Merle Haggard’s greatest songs. Now we have The Doobie Brothers doing that exact same thing. Did you really think The Doobie Brothers just showed up at 2014 CMA Awards for nothing? All about business and promotion, baby. Personally I enjoyed their performances, although I thought Jennifer Nettles brought them down a little with her terrible dancing. Nevertheless, let’s go through another classic rock tribute album done by mainstream country artists. It can’t be as bad as the Mötley Crüe one, right?

The Best Songs on the Album

Well I’ll tell you right up front that this is better than the Crüe tribute album, but that isn’t saying much. There are some definite bright spots on this album. The Zac Brown Band fits perfectly with “Black Water.” Southern fried country is Zac Brown Band, so of course they do great with a southern roots rock song. Keep in mind this review is slightly different from normal reviews because I’m judging more of how the artist covers the song and the choices made by production rather than the song itself. The signifier of a great cover to me is if it does justice to the integrity of the song and yet makes it feel fresh. The Zac Brown Band nails both of these aspects. They already did justice to their cover of The Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider” earlier this year with Vince Gill and they deliver again with this Doobie Brothers cover.

The choice of Sara Evans for “What a Fool Believes” is a fantastic choice. It’s higher pitched and perfectly suits a dynamic female voice. This song is a great reminder of how great Evans’ vocals are and how I wish she was still on radio. It’s evident The Doobie Brothers and Evans have good chemistry, making for a great cover. You may not like this song and I understand that completely because it could get annoying after several plays. But give credit to Evans doing a grade A job with this cover. You’ll never believe who else does a great job on this album: Tyler Farr. He covers “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me)” and hits a home run. The heavy rock influence suits Farr’s rough voice and style, which makes for a great cover. Farr makes it his own and still pays homage to the sound of the song. He stands out and shines beside The Doobie Brothers. His vocal range is stretched a little, but he makes it work. I want to see more of this Farr and never again want to see the “Redneck Crazy” version of Farr.

“You Belong to Me” is covered by an artist I had never heard of before. Amanda Sudano Ramirez covers this song and does a fantastic job. She is one half of the indie duo Johnnyswim and is the daughter of the late “Queen of Disco,” Donna Summer. While her inclusion on an album of country artists is interesting since she’s more of a folk/blues singer, she really stands out. Her voice is great and I want to hear more of her music personally. Vince Gill plays guitar on this song and does phenomenal as always. The other song that stood out to me is Charlie Worsham covering “Nobody.” There’s a separate introduction to this track, giving it a special feel and for good reason Charlie Worsham does a great job with The Doobie Brothers on this song and it’s great to see an underrated artist like Worsham get this special attention. This is how a cover should be done and it’s a good way to close the album.

The Worst Songs on the Album

While there were these bright moments, there were also some downright puzzling moments. Take for instance “Long Train Runnin’.” The choice of Toby Keith for this song is at best puzzling. Really it’s a bad choice. This song is another higher pitched song that suits a female artist more so than a male artist, especially a male artist like Keith who doesn’t have dynamic vocals. I would have picked Carrie Underwood to cover this song. Keith just sounds so out-of-place and is stretching his vocals too far at times. Huey Lewis sounds great on the harmonica at least.

There’s one point in this album where there are three straight songs where I have the same criticism with each of them. When covering a song with the original artist it’s important not to get buried by the original artist. You should shine along side them and make the song sound new. Love & Theft does not do this on “Takin’ It to the Streets.” Casey James does not do this on “Jesus Is Just Alright” and Brad Paisley doesn’t do it on “Rockin’ Down the Highway.” It feels like they’re just in the background and contribute absolutely nothing to the song. They are all forgettable covers and you won’t remember them tomorrow.

This is all leads to perhaps the most puzzling choice of artist on the entire album. I would say “South City Midnight Lady” is the most serious toned song on the album. Who do they pick to cover it? Jerrod Niemann, the same artist who put out a song called “Donkey” and rapped alongside Pitbull earlier this year. This is a stupid choice, despite the fact Niemann does okay with the song. Just like those three songs above though, it’s not very memorable. The performance is dry and boring.

The Rest of the Album

Blake Shelton and Hunter Hayes cover “Listen to the Music.” This is an interesting duo to cover this song. Then again they decided to take a more pop country approach with this upbeat and memorable song, so it makes sense to put Blake and Hayes on this song. It was also a good move to put Hayes just on guitar and not have him sing. It would’ve been funny hearing him attempt to cover this song. The original is still better, but this isn’t a bad cover. It’s just a little too generic for my taste. Chris Young covers the upbeat “China Grove.” Even though I find Young’s voice to sound a little generic at times, I think he does a solid job covering the song. It seems to fit his comfort zone just right and Young doesn’t sound like he’s out of place at any point. He also reminds everyone that he has the chops to sing more dynamic songs and not the boring pop country he has put out recently.

Overall Thoughts

This is pretty much what I expected out of The Doobie Brothers’ Southbound album. There are some good moments, bad moments and boring moments. Most of the time cover albums prove to be pretty pointless from a quality and artistic standpoint. This is nothing but a quick cash grab. If I want to hear these songs I’ll go listen to the original versions, not bastardized versions with Toby Keith or Love & Theft. Cover albums work in when the artists actually collaborate together to create great, new versions of the song. The most recent example of a good cover album would be Mary Sarah’s Bridges earlier this year. You could tell Sarah actually spent a good amount of time with these artists and it shined through in the final product. Other than Bridges, I would say this is the best cover/tribute album I’ve seen put out by mainstream country music this year. Not a high bar to hurdle, but there was still a few covers worth listening to on Southland. I would recommend this album only if you’re a hardcore Doobie Brothers’ fan or if you like mediocre cover albums.

Grade: 6/10