Derek’s Top Ten Country & Americana Songs – October 2015

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October proved to be a solid month of country music releases across the board. A couple of mainstream releases from Nashville, two impressive debut records, Canadian Country Music, and Red Dirt Country all contribute to my top ten list this month. It’s nice to have representation of great songs from many of country’s sub genres on a list like this. I could easily have any of my top four songs in the top spot this month; they’re all excellent songs.

  1. “Low All Afternoon” by Hailey Whitters – I ended up choosing this as my top song over the other three simply because I was blown away listening to this song the first time. It’s a third person narration of a woman who’s struggling to move on after her love decided to end their affair and settle down with his wife. Whitters’ lyrics and rhyme schemes are spot on and her vocal delivery is the icing on the cake. “Low All Afternoon” is one of the standouts from Black Sheep.
  2. “Fat and Merry” by Jason Boland & The Stragglers – Boland’s newest album, Squelch, is full of political and social commentary and “Fat and Merry” is my favorite of the bunch. A sarcastic delivery making fun of the suburbia lifestyle combined with a fun, upbeat country production full of fiddles. The lyrics get the point across without getting too far. It took a few listens for this song to grow on me, but “Fat and Merry” has become one of my favorites this year.
  3. “This Damn Memory” by Jake Worthington – Jake Worthington caught a lot of attention on The Voice because of his traditional country approach to the competition, and his long-awaited EP only proves his dedication to making traditional country music. As Josh said, “This heartbreak ballad has everything you want in a country song from the sharp lyrics to the thick pedal steel guitar play.
  4. “One More Hell” by Hailey Whitters – Hailey Whitters wrote this song about coping with the passing of her brother. The personal nature of the song is evident throughout the whole track. Whitters’ lyrics strike a chord that allow the listener to share in the sorrow and confusion of the situation – that’s what great writing can accomplish. “One More Hell” is a quiet, powerful song.
  5. “The Girl You Think I Am” by Carrie Underwood – Carrie Underwood rarely digs into personal songs like this, but this song from a daughter to her parents is a touching song. I think every child wants their parents to be proud of who they’ve become and can connect with the slight vulnerability and doubt that this song brings. My favorite song off Storyteller.
  6. “Heartland Bypass” by Jason Boland & The Stragglers – A love song about finding freedom on the road with a fitting driving production, the parts work together wonderfully. The country instrumentation of steel guitars and fiddles are great on this song, and Boland’s baritone is excellent on this track.
  7. “Washed-Up Rock Star Factory Blues” by Corb Lund – I love the rock ‘n roll blend with country on this song’s production. The guitar lick is fascinating. The unique story of a singer returning to his old factory job work great here, too. Corb Lund is a great writer, and only a great writer could make a subject like this work in a four-minute song. This song stood out the most to me from Things That Can’t Be Undone.
  8. “Christmas in Huntsville” by Jason Boland & The Stragglers – A traditional country tune with an ironic upbeat production underneath some dark lyrics. The story details a man’s last day on death row before he dies as an innocent man for a crime he didn’t commit. This song stood out to me after my first listen of Squelch. Storytelling at it’s finest.
  9. “Choctaw County Affair” by Carrie Underwood – A song written by Jason White, this is sharp murder ballad that Carrie sings so well. I personally think her vocals are great on this track and the production work well to help tell this murderous tale.
  10. “Sunbeam” by Corb Lund – As commenter Curt pointed out to us, Corb Lund wrote this song about the passing of his niece. It has a great bluesy production and is simply a beautiful song.

Honorable Mentions:

  • “Seven Spanish Angels” by Stoney LaRue – In a solid month of releases, I opted not to include any songs off LaRue’s cover album Us Time, but this Willie Nelson cover he sings with Cody Canada is excellent.
  • “Holy Relic Sale” and “Do You Love Me Any Less” by Jason Boland & The Stragglers
  • “Church Bells” by Carrie Underwood
  • “That’s When” by Jake Worthington
  • “Black Sheep” and “Late Bloomer” by Hailey Whitters
  • “Sadr City” and “Weight Of The Gun” by Corb Lund

Album Review – Hailey Whitters’ ‘Black Sheep’

Iowa native Hailey Whitters has always had an affinity for music. She grew up in a large family in a small town and found herself drawn to country music, primarily women like The Dixie Chicks, Trisha Yearwood, and Patty Griffin. A trip to Nashville at age 16 confirmed to Whitters that country music was the place to be, and she signed with Carnival Music in 2012. The singer songwriter paid her dues in dive bars worked with producer Derek Wells to bring her debut album, Black Sheep, to life. Hailey Whitters had a hand in writing 8 of the 10 tracks, three of which she wrote herself.

Black Sheep begins with “Long Come to Jesus” which Whitters wrote with songwriting veteran Matraca Berg. The country rocker is a first person take of how Whitters, once again, falls for a guy even though the red flags fly high for everyone to see. She knows that her family and friends don’t agree with what’s happening and that there’s a “long come to Jesus waiting on the other side” of this journey. The production is rather safe on this song, but it works nicely as an album opener. Whitters’ voice carries a Texas like attitude that fits nicely with the lyrics. As I listened to the album, I heard a lot of Kacey Musgraves, Lee Ann Womack and a little Miranda Lambert in Hailey Whitters. “City Girl” is one of the two songs Hailey Whitters didn’t write, but the song feels genuine as she grew up in a town of 600 people. The song idolizes rich city girls who dress fancy and have unlimited credit cards to go out and do stuff while she sits at home in the middle of nowhere. It’s a different song than you’d expect in country music as the song carries little pride for the small town home life.

“Late Bloomer” is somewhat autobiographical for Whitters. The lyrics say it’s okay if you’re a late bloomer in life whether it’s the growth spurt or figuring out your life plan. The lyrics aren’t cheesy given the subject matter, but it’s the production that shines on this track. The slide guitar licks in the chorus of this ballad compliment the song well. This is followed by the title track, which encourages one to embrace their differences. “Black Sheep” is a heavy country rocker with a great, biting vocal performance. “Who really wants to be white as snow? The thing about black is the dirt don’t show,” she sings in the chorus. The metaphor works well in the song. On “Low All Afternoon,” Whitters sings to a woman who’s been rejected by her man. This woman was “the other woman” in this man’s life, and now he’s ready to settle down and removes her from his life. A piano drives this ballad and Hailey Whitters’ sings at a higher register that sounds great. Martina McBride is slated to record a version of this song on her next release.

Whitters gets deeply personal with “One More Hell.” A song written in the wake of her brother’s death, the song details how she wishes to raise one more hell with him before going to heaven. The lyrics are painfully honest with the first verse essentially ripped out of her personal diary. “I’ve heard that in time the pain will go away. My tears will all dry up and I’ll smile when I hear your name. Mama’s not right and daddy’s still mad, he says he wants to kicks God’s ass. ‘Cause he says it ain’t right that he took you so fast.” I applaud the brutal honesty in the lyrics because that’s what makes the story connect. The acoustic production aids the song nicely behind Whitters’ great vocal delivery. “One More Hell” is far and away the best song on the album.

“Heartbeaker” is another country rocker full of bad girl attitude. She sings of a man who carelessly plays with her heart. If he keeps it up, she claims she can also be a heartbreaker to him as well. There’s a sense of familiarity in this song, not even in the subject matter, but also the production. It’s not a bad delivery of the song at all, but there’s not much originality in this song. On “People Like You”, Hailey Whitters sings to a friend who’s broken and scarred just like herself. The lyrics encourage this friend to not be afraid to show vulnerability when they’re together. It’s a nice ballad with good sentimental lyrics.

“Pocket Change” is another hell raising rocker about not putting up with being toyed around with. She doesn’t want to be anybody’s pocket change and wants to leave town. There’s a big classic influence in this rowdy honky-tonk song that sounds great. The lyrics are bit repetitive, but the production is a standout. Black Sheep wraps up with “Get Around.” This song is an honest look at the girl who gets around. They beat around the bush with phrases like “word gets around that I get around” and “it ain’t easy being easy.” It’s a tender ballad that shines a light past the surface of this girl.

Overall, Black Sheep is a solid debut effort from Hailey Whitters. Production-wise, the album sounds very safe. Don’t get me wrong, the instrumentation is good and is a nice blend of country and rock, but there weren’t many chances taken in that area of the album. Black Sheep carries a sound that is all too familiar, yet it works and has a slight air of freshness to it, mostly due to the lyrics of the songs. Hailey Whitters’ strength is in her songwriting and Black Sheep offers up many great well-written stories and songs. There’s a great sense of maturity and life experience in the lyrics. Hailey Whitters is one to keep your eye on and Black Sheep is an album worth listening to.

Grade: 8/10