Album Review – Blackberry Smoke’s ‘Like An Arrow’

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A fool once said in 2016, “There are no cool rock bands anymore.” This makes sense to someone like Jason Aldean, who puts out bad pop music parading to be country. It also makes sense to anyone who just follows mainstream music because rock has been dead in the mainstream for a while. But bands like Blackberry Smoke can assure that rock is not only alive, but it’s still kicking ass. It’s just not on the radio. It’s out there in the independent scene and at concerts across the world, its natural environment far away from corporations and suits who wouldn’t know rock if it bit them in the ass. Blackberry Smoke is one of those bands that occupies a unique space, somewhere between country and rock, or put more simply southern rock. They probably don’t get the respect they deserve from either genre because they have a foot in each. But they should because they’re one of the best bands in music today.

Their last album Holding All The Roses was one of the best of 2015 and served as my personal introduction to the band. I’ve since dug deep into their library and from beginning to present they’ve consistently put out some of the best southern rock in the modern era. They started out with Zac Brown’s label Southern Ground before moving onto being independent and partnering with Thirty Tigers, which suits the band just fine. Their music and attitude has a very independent spirit about it. They also have one of the most passionate and dedicated fan bases in both country and rock. Their new album Like an Arrow debuts at Billboard at #1 on the country chart (second in a row), #1 on the Americana chart and #3 on the rock chart. Needless to say this is an album I was anxiously ready to dive into and give a listen. I can confidently say that once again Blackberry Smoke delivers excellence.

This album kicks ass from the moment you hit play on “Waiting for the Thunder.” The impressive roaring guitars hit you in the face like a ton of bricks. The lyrics scathingly take down powerful institutions that put down the men and women who bust their ass to get by. It’s a tornado of a song that just sort of leaves you in awe after hearing it. This may be one of the band’s best songs ever. “Let It Burn” can be interpreted as a dig at Music Row and it’s bullshit (something the band addressed on their last album) or any old small town across the country where people are fed up with the way things are run. Either way the lyrics hit hard and the guitars hit harder.

One of the more sentimental moments on the album is “The Good Life.” It’s about a father passing onto his son the advice his own father gave him when he was young. It’s a song that promotes the values of family, hard work and tradition. The heart behind the lyrics could bring a tear to your eyes. This is probably one of the most well written songs I’ve ever heard from Blackberry Smoke. “Running Through Time” is one of those songs that band makes look and sound so easy. I love the soulful touches added in throughout the song, with an organ sneakily playing in the background. That soulful influence shows up again on “Believe You Me,” a song about you controlling your own destiny. Again the guitar work blows me away and combined with the soulful touches it just makes the band’s sound even better.

There are some songs on this album where you just have to sit back and admire the instrumentation work, like on “What Comes Naturally” and “Ought to Know.” The latter especially has a memorable riff in the bridge. The album’s title track is about life and how sometimes we go high and sometimes we go low, just like an arrow. The guitar work on this song is extremely impressive and you’ll find yourself jamming along to this song with ease. Both the lyrics and instrumentation are so damn infectious and catchy. The same can be said about “Workin’ for a Workin’ Man.” Starr and the band sing about the grievances and pains of the workingman under the man. It’s a battle cry for everyone who feels short-changed at their jobs and at life. I mean look at lyrics like, “This bait and switch is a son of a bitch, it ain’t workin’ for a workin’ man, I got to shuck and jive just to even survive.” I find it impossible not to be hooked by lyrics like this because it’s not only catchy, but it can have real anger and power behind it.

One song that sort of sneaks up on you is “Sunrise in Texas.” On the first listen it may not stand out as much as other songs on the album do, but with more listens it just gets better and better. Charlie Starr delivers one of his best vocal performances here, just belting the lyrics with conviction and fire. Then you have the crunchy guitars in the bridge and you just have to marvel at this song. “Ain’t Gonna Wait” leans more country than rock and shows this band could go straight country if they wanted to and sound just as great. But why choose one genre when you can nail two at once? Gregg Allman of the iconic Allman Brothers joins Blackberry Smoke on the album’s final song, “Free On The Wing.” This song is about finding your way in life and saying goodbye to old stories to say hello to new ones. It’s appropriate to see Allman do a song with the band because Blackberry Smoke is the modern-day successor to the Allman Brothers.

Hands down Like an Arrow is one of the best albums of 2016. Blackberry Smoke continue to demonstrate why they’re amongst the best in both country and rock. What’s amazing is how flawless they make it look. But I probably shouldn’t be surprised. Blackberry Smoke isn’t your ordinary band that goes through slumps and bad albums. They consistently churn out some of the best music you’ll hear today. You can chalk up Like an Arrow as another fantastic album from Blackberry Smoke.

Grade: 9/10

 

Recommend? – YES

Album Highlights: Waiting for the Thunder, The Good Life, Running Through Time, Like an Arrow, Sunrise in Texas, Workin’ For A Workin’ Man, Let It Burn

Bad Songs: Nope!

Wallpaper: Nope!


Zac Brown Band’s New Strategic Partnership for Southern Ground

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On September 19th at the iHeartRadio Music Festival, Zac Brown announced a partnership of his own music label, Southern Ground, with some of music’s biggest label groups and brand masters. Big Machine Records (Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw), Republic Records (The Band Perry, Eli Young Band) and John Varvatos Records are the three labels lined up with Brown’s Southern Ground Artists, who was previously signed with Atlantic Records, in this strategic partnership.

Back in February of this year, renowned fashion designer John Varvatos began a partnership with Republic Records launching John Varvatos Records. From Universal Music’s website, Varvatos’ role in this Republic partnership is to focus on “spearheading the signing of new acts and the release of high-profile reissues and compilations. The imprint’s focus is genuine music in the spirit of legends.” Musical campaigns launched since this agreement included legendary artists like Willie Nelson, Robert Plant, ZZ Top (a Republic Record’s artist) and Dave Matthews.

For Brown and Southern Ground, this is certainly a positive move in respect toward the young music label. For Zac Brown alone, however, this is a curious move. Zac Brown famously criticized Luke Bryan (and subsequently Dallas Davidson) about his song “That’s My Kinda Night” calling that song “The worst song I’ve ever heard.” Alongside those comments was further commentary about how the same guys were writing the same songs in different arrangements.

Furthermore, Scott Borchetta, Big Machine Records’ CEO, has ruffled quite a few feathers among country music purists due to the control he has over his artists and the way he markets them. Republic Nashville, who also includes Florida Georgia Line, is a branch of Big Machine Label Group. Essentially, Scott Borchetta’s label features two of country music’s most successful crossover artists in Taylor Swift and Florida Georgia Line. From a musical standpoint, Brown’s decision to partner up here is a bit of a head scratcher. However, as much as he is a lead singer of a band, he’s also the mastermind behind Southern Ground Artists and this partnership provides several advantages to Southern Ground Artists. While the main motivation for this move revolves around more exposure and growth for the Southern Ground brand, we may see some other musical benefits as well.

Exposure for Southern Ground’s lesser-known artists – Alongside country’s big names on Big Machine, Southern Ground Artists may find more exposure from this partnership. Southern rockers Blackberry Smoke, singer-songwriters Niko Moon and Levi Lowery, and Americana, blues band The Wood Brothers already have a deep collaboration history with the Zac Brown Band. Many of these acts have toured with the band and have great musical catalogs of their own. The exposure that this partnership could provide may elevate these musical careers to a higher, well-deserved level. Not to mention, young acts like the AJ Ghent Band, Dugas and Little Feather may see a quicker rise in popularity as well. Also this exposure should help these artists, along with the Zac Brown Band to get increased radio play and maybe more award show appearances. If these award shows are as political as some claim, then a partnership with Big Machine can only help Zac and his band get some more votes on their side to win more well-deserved hardware.

Crossover Appeal – Blackberry Smoke is a southern rock band. AJ Ghent Band are self-described as “southern soul” with a blend of funk, blues, soul and rock. Dugas have a pop, rock sound. Simply put, Southern Ground Artists do not feature only country music. This label covers a wide range of genres, and Republic Records has the crossover capability to further this exposure. Lorde, Drake, Pearl Jam, Ariana Grande, Jack Johnson and Colbie Caillat are all signed under Republic. These artists from Southern Ground can potentially find a new audience for their music. And it’s not like they’re struggling for a fan base, but Zac Brown Band could also find success in this way too. Their newest EP, The Grohl Sessions Vol. 1 is more rock than any other genre. If these guys continue moving toward rock, then a label featuring ZZ Top, Pearl Jam and Godsmack can’t be a bad partner to have.

Possibility for more mainstream lyrical quality – This is my own opinion, but I don’t believe you’ll find a better group of songwriters than those in Southern Ground. Levi Lowrey’s two records feature great songs like “Wherever We Breakdown,” “Urge for Leaving” and “The Problem with Freedom.” Lowrey is also a credited co-writer on “Colder Weather,” which is arguably one of Zac Brown Band’s best songs. Niko Moon (formerly Nic Cowan) has songs like “Reno” and “Sun Dress” on his studio album, and has co-written Brown songs like “Keep Me In Mind,” “Lance’s Song” and “Day That I Die.” With a writing team like that including Brown himself, frequent co-writer Wyatt Durette, the men from Blackberry Smoke and The Woods Brothers, there’s a chance we could see these names on songs cut by other country artists like Eli Young Band, The Cadillac Three, or even Florida Georgia Line (we can dream, right?) And if there’s one thing we can all agree on, Zac Brown Band has released some great, quality songs to country radio.

More Musical Collaborations – Zac Brown Band and the fairly well-established Blackberry Smoke have collaborated with some of music’s best. It’s no secret Zac Brown enjoys playing and singing alongside his heroes. His band has performed with the likes of Jimmy Buffet, Gregg Allman, Dave Grohl and Dave Matthews just to name a few. And Blackberry Smoke has recorded a version of “Yesterday’s Wine” with the late, great George Jones and Jamey Johnson. With Varvatos’ work with musical legends, we may be treated to more collaborations between Southern Ground Artists and some of music’s best.

Arguably the most important potential benefit here is branding. Southern Ground is more than an independent record label; Southern Ground is a brand of life. Zac Brown has built the Southern Ground Music Festival, Camp Southern Ground, and Southern Grind, a metal and knife shop, just to name a few. Zac Brown commented on John Varvatos’ clothing line and the success of his brand since 2000. Varvatos’ branding skills and marketability should certainly assist in molding the Southern Ground brand Zac Brown has already worked to build.

Admittedly, there is one aspect to be weary of with this partnership. Much like how we may see writers from Southern Ground getting songs cut by Republic and Big Machine artists, we may also see writers from those two labels getting songs cut by Southern Ground Artists. Scott Borchetta has a lot of power in country music. While I don’t think he’ll have the same level of control over Southern Ground Artists like he does his own, it’s possible he may find ways to influence Zac or other Southern Ground groups to record a Republic or Big Machine written song or two for future albums. And recently there has been some questionable songs coming out of these two labels, think “God Made Girls,” “Lookin’ For That Girl,” or “This is How We Roll.” Now, I have faith that Zac Brown won’t compromise his vision for the band or his label by recording songs like that, but it’s one thing to keep an eye on.

From the beginning the Zac Brown Band has done it their way and I don’t expect that to change with this partnership. Overall this strategic partnership is for the Southern Ground brand. This brand is Zac Brown’s baby and as a leader for this brand he made a business move that should positively impact Southern Ground. Zac Brown has a grander vision than simply making music and this partnership is indicative of his efforts to take that vision to the next level. Time will only tell if this will lead to the additional musical benefits listed above. The first big release from this joint-venture will be the newest Zac Brown Band album, which is due out in the early half of 2015. And for that band, at least we’ll get a good idea of what the future will hold with Southern Ground, Big Machine, Republic and Varvatos coming together. Zac Brown is a man who surrounds himself with individuals whose talent moves his vision forward. When the band released “Chicken Fried” there were only five official members in the Zac Brown Band. That number has jumped to eight this year, due to Zac wanting to add more instrumentation and harmonies to the band’s music. Through adding more avenues for his brand and label to grow, it’s obvious Zac Brown expects big things to happen as a result. And if his band’s growth is any indication, I bet this business move will be successful in its efforts to improve everything enveloped in Southern Ground.

Top Country Road Trip Songs [Playlist]

Top Road Trip Songs

With everyone going on vacations and taking road trips right now, I thought I would put together a playlist of some of the great country road trip songs for you to play on those long drives. Of course these songs will be great for a road trip during anytime of the year. You’ll find there’s a good mix of older and newer country music. I’m not trying to exclude or include any certain songs, so please don’t take offense if you don’t see a song you feel is deserving of making the list. Be glad I didn’t put this list into a stupid slide show. I hate those kind of lists. Anyway here’s Country Perspective’s Top 20 Country Road Trip Songs (no particular order).

 

If there are any songs you would add to your own list that didn’t make Country Perspective’s list, let me know in the comments section below.

Top Ten Country Songs – May 2014

The month of May brought a lot of bad country songs, but a lot of great country songs too. Here is Country Perspective’s Top Ten Country Songs in May 2014 (in order):

(Note: Song must be released in May 2014 to be eligible)

Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music was by far the best country album and perhaps best album in all of music released in May, so it’s no surprise three of his songs made my list. This album will be one of the front-runners for Country Perspective’s Best Album of 2014. The second best country album released in May was Matt Woods’ With Love From Brushy Mountain. I haven’t had a chance to review this album yet, but expect to see a review on this soon. It also landed three songs on the list, so expect high marks for it too. Woods was kind of overshadowed because his album was released the same week as Simpson’s album, but it certainly deserves a lot of praise. With Love From Brushy Mountain will be a contender for Country Perspective’s Best Album of 2014 too.

Two songs from Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison’s new album Our Year made the top ten. This is another album I hope to review soon. It was just released this week. Two songs that round out my top ten list are Zac Brown, Vince Gill and Gregg Allman’s cover of “Midnight Rider” from All My Friends: Celebrating the Songs & Voice of Gregg Allman and Josh Kelley’s new single “Mandolin Rain.” I was hesitant to put “Midnight Rider” on the list because it sounds more rock than country, but this song is too damn good not to get attention. Gill has an amazing guitar solo at the end of the song. Kelley’s “Mandolin Rain” received a good review on here and it was the biggest surprise I found in May.

All in all, May was a pretty good month to be a real country music fan. Lots of great songs and albums worth checking out. June will be hard pressed to top this list.