Country Perspective’s 2015 Duo/Group of the Year

When it came to determining the winner for Group or Duo of the year, the main factor we took into determination was impact. All five groups we nominated delivered quality music and carry a dedicated fan base, but which of the five made the biggest impact to Country and Americana music? Maddie & Tae’s Start Here left quite the impact on mainstream country. Start Here is a great album and showed that Maddie & Tae are poised to take a position of leadership in country music, but this is just the beginning for the duo. The fact remains that they have room to grow and certainly have the potential to improve, build off Start Here and be the female leaders of country music that the Dixie Chicks were once upon a time. However, there was one other pair whose traditional country music album release left a bit bigger impact. Country Perspective’s 2015 Duo of the Year is Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen.

Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen’s Hold My Beer album was a career defining album for each Texas singer. In a time where Texas country musicians continue to let the new Nashville sound influence their music more, blurring the line that once separated Texas country from the rest of the genre, Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen showed leadership expected from two of the genre’s most well-known names.

Rogers and Bowen both dabbled their feet on a mainstream label, while not entirely abandoning their roots in the process. After failing to make a mainstream impact, they’ve both returned to independent labels for their new music. Rogers and Bowen said country music can still be country music and proved it with Hold My Beer. From traditional country heartbreak in “Til It Does” to fun protest with “Standards;” from covers of country greats like Merle Haggard to originals celebrating friendship, Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen let their talents speak for themselves. And even though “Standards” was rightfully named Song of the Year, “El Dorado”, the five-minute chronicle of a dying cowboy, may be the album’s best song. Randy & Wade are established enough in the genre where their decisions carry more weight than newcomers. In respect to their position in the genre, this leadership in the fight for traditional country music cannot go unnoticed.

Randy Rogers has been hard at work this year with his own band recording new music. He has promised that the band’s new album due out next month will continue his delivery of traditional country music. This year Wade Bowen also appeared on Jamie Lin Wilson’s debut album in a traditional country duet about lovers regretting their affair. Hold My Beer doesn’t appear to be an anomaly, as both Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen seem poised to continue bringing traditional country music to the forefront of the genre.

Country Perspective’s 2015 Song of the Year

Determining song of the year comes down to a few key attributes within the song. The song should tell a story with confidence and consistency in its approach. The lyrics need to be evocative and connect with the audience. The musical production should match the writing in its confidence and nuance. The artist singing the should deliver the material in a way to reach the desired effect of the lyrics. There were a few songs Josh and I narrowed this category down to. Songwriting was our main focus and we felt there were strong candidates in that regard. Ultimately, there was one song that stood out to us not only with the above criteria in mind, but also due to one final attribute: impact. To us, there was one obvious choice for Country Perspective’s 2015 Song of the Year…

Bowen & Rogers Hold My Beer

“Standards” by Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen caught the attention of the country music world. When Hold My Beer was announced, I think the general assumption was that the album was going to be a snapshot of Rogers & Bowen’s collaborative acoustic tour. But when the duo debut the first single from the project, everyone was surprised not only by an original song, but a well-written country protest song. A song steeped with fiddles and steel guitars, fun word play and double meanings in song’s hook, and two singers delivering the song with a fun, light-hearted attitude. “Standards” took the country world by storm in April and has maintained its impact through the year.

Protest songs about the establishment of Music Row are commonplace in independent country music circles. Many of the songs come from a place of anger or resentment against Nashville. What makes “Standards” stand out among the crowd is that it comes from a place of acceptance and confidence in one’s music. “But it ain’t me, so I shook my head and that’s all there is to that” sings Bowen to end the first verse. “Don’t get me wrong I want to hear my songs on country radio, but it’s gotta feel right standing here singing them at the show” the duo sings in song’s bridge. Both Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen spent some time on a major label, but now they’re both back making their music independently. They sing the song from a place of experience and assert their place in country’s world while only slightly dismissing the Nashville establishment.

Rogers and Bowen’s confidence in their music is due to the fact that they know their songs have a longer shelf life than a Nashville hit song. They have fans who swarm their shows happy to hear any song the bands will play. As they say in the song “I don’t have hits, I have standards.” Standards meaning a timeless collection of country songs, and standards meaning that they won’t sell out to sing a dirt road song simply to have a top ten song on Billboard. Seven words full of rich meaning that not only connect with their audience, many of whom dislike Nashville and love the subtle jab, but the song also connects with their peers in the independent country music world.

As mainstream country continued to push away from the country sound, “Standards” feels more relevant each day. “Standards” has all the makings to be a country music standard. As great and well written as the other Song of the Year finalists are, “Standards” made an impact that wasn’t matched. This song and its lyrics perfectly describes the independent country music circle and those fighting the good fight for quality and country in our music. Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen dropped the defining song of 2015. “Standards” is a song that’s built to last and could very well maintain relevancy for years to come.

Country Perspective’s 2015 Album of the Year Nominees

Throughout 2015 Country Perspective has had the pleasure to review a lot of music from country, Americana, folk and alt-country. There’s been a lot of good and a lot of bad too. The world is filled with a lot of average and at times downright terrible music. But this article is not about that music. This is all about the great music and not just the great music, but the very best of the best. While there are a lot of people in country music and really music in general that have forgotten about the art of an album, there are many out there who still appreciate the ability to make a project of 10-12 songs (or more) and make something special.

When deciding what album will win the 2015 Country Perspective Album of the Year Award, we will take into consideration some key aspects: songwriting, instrumentation, production, accolades, impact on genre, consistent quality in the album and how memorable they are. Derek and myself will both ultimately decide which album will win Country Perspective’s top award. But we’re not the only ones deciding. We encourage feedback from you the readers! Your comments and suggestions will most certainly be considered when determine who wins not only this award, but all the year-end awards here at Country Perspective.

One more thing: In order for an album to be eligible for Album of the Year, it must have received a perfect 10/10 rating in its review. No other albums are considered. Only the best of the best get a shot. There were several albums to receive a grade of 10/10, too many in fact. This is pretty much on me getting carried away in a few reviews and next year there won’t be as many 10/10 grades given out. After much discussion Derek and myself narrowed it down to the eight albums we believe that are most worthy of being considered for Country Perspective’s Album of the Year award. Here are the eight nominees (in no particular order)…

Tami Neilson Don't Be Afraid

Tami Neilson – Don’t Be Afraid

For the second straight year the New Zealand country artist is nominated for Album of the Year. Neilson has one of the biggest and most dynamic voices in country music and once again she demonstrates it beautifully. This album was dedicated to her late father Ron, who was also an artist and one of the main inspirations behind most of the songs on it. While last year this was Sturgill Simpson’s award to lose, this year it’s wide open and Neilson has a chance again to win our top award.

Tami Neilson is proof that artistry is alive and well in country music. She channels her emotion so well into Don’t Be Afraid and the end result is beautiful music that will touch the minds and hearts of all that listen to it. This album is a true picture of life and love that doesn’t shy away from reality. Everything about this album is flawless and at its absolute best. 

Bowen & Rogers Hold My Beer

Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen – Hold My Beer, Vol. 1

Two of the brightest names in the Red Dirt/Texas Country scene united together to bring us an album that blew away all of our expectations. While a lot of people respect them and know they’re capable of good music, nobody expected them to deliver an album of this high of quality. Fans who were still wary of their music after both tried to cut it on Music Row were even more surprised. This collaboration reminded us all of the golden years of country music when legends like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard would get together and make an album.

Hold My Beer is simply put a fantastic album. There are no down moments in this album and it holds the listeners’ attentions the whole way through it. The rich and traditional instrumentation makes you want to listen to every song over and over again. I don’t think you can find too many pairs that would gel better than Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers either. This is a perfect example of why I want to see more collaborations in country music. On this album this two great artists in their own right came together and produced something amazing. I like how the full album name is Hold My Beer, Vol. 1. because that means this is the first of hopefully many more collaboration albums from these two.

Chris Stapleton Traveller

Chris Stapleton – Traveller 

There’s nobody in country music in right now hotter than Chris Stapleton. Really he’s one of the hottest artists in all of music, with only Adele eclipsing him in attention. The mainstream emergence of Stapleton occurred a few weeks back when he shocked the world winning three CMA Awards, including Album of the Year. While the rest of the world was introduced to Chris Stapleton that night, I knew back in May that his longtime coming debut album would be one of the finalists for Album of the Year. It’s hard to believe it took this long for Stapleton to put out a solo album, but as they say it’s better late than never. For many fans this is the album to beat.

I don’t think I could ask anymore from a country album than what I hear on this album. It has everything a country music fan should want in their music. What impressed me the most out of all is Stapleton’s voice. Holy shit I did not expect him to blow me away so much vocally. He’s easily one of the best in country music today. The songwriting is top-notch, but we knew that already. The instrumentation and production are spotless, as once again Dave Cobb is in top form. I have no complaints with this album, as Stapleton is a visionary.

Whitey Morgan Sonic Ranch

Whitey Morgan – Sonic Ranch

A lot of people love to anoint Sturgill Simpson as the modern-day Waylon Jennings, but if anyone deserves this comparison it’s Whitey Morgan. From his look to his music to the “Fuck Pop Country” shirts in his online store, Whitey Morgan is the modern-day Waylon. Sonic Ranch is his best work yet and for the first part of the year it was head and shoulders above the rest of the field. A lot more competition came about in the middle and latter part of the year, but this album is still one of the best and could easily be crowned the very best.

What makes this album stand out above a lot of other country albums released is how cohesive and tight-knit everything is on this album. The instrumentation and the production is flat-out perfect. The lyrics are emotional and tell brilliant stories throughout it. Morgan’s bellowing voice reminds me of a lot of Waylon Jennings and Sturgill Simpson, yet Whitey is much more gruff and gritty giving it a different texture compared to the likes of Jennings and Simpson. The album is the exact right length of 10 songs. It leaves no room for unnecessary filler that can bring the quality down. It’s straight, no-holds barred, outlaw-style country music that will leave you wanting more.

Don Henley Cass County

Don Henley – Cass County 

It’s 2015 and the drummer for the Eagles has released one of the best country albums of the year. If you had told me this back in January I would have questioned your sanity. But as this project came closer to release, the more my confidence grew in it. Henley brought together a top-notch group of country artists and put his full force of creativity behind it. The result is an album that is filled with memorable and emotional songs. Henley made a country album that many country artists who have been around for years haven’t come close to matching in quality.

Cass County excels in pretty much every area a country album needs to excel in. Henley’s voice is excellent, the songwriting is strong, the instrumentation even stronger and each of the guests on the album contribute something meaningful. It’s 2015 and Don Henley has delivered one of the best country albums of the year. Can you believe it? There have been a lot of pleasant surprises in country music in 2015, but this may be the biggest. Each time I listen to this album it gets better, which I think will allow this album to age well. It’s something you can play a couple of years from now and still sound just as good.

Jason Isbell Something More Than Free

Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free

The King of Americana has had himself one hell of a year. As usual he played in front of packed venues across the country, alongside his wife Amanda Shires, fellow critical darling Sturgill Simpson, legend Dwight Yoakam and a host of others. He followed up his critically-acclaimed 2013 album Southeastern with Something More Than Free, which reached #1 on the country, rock, folk and Americana charts. And he welcomed to the world his first child. It’s been a busy, yet really successful year for Isbell.

I didn’t think it would be possible for Jason Isbell to craft an album even better than Southeastern, but he’s done it with Something More Than Free. While Southeastern was the painful rebirth of Isbell, Something More Than Free feels like a celebration of life and finding your true happiness. There are still plenty of somber and sobering moments on the album, but I think it makes the bright moments feel that much brighter. It’s a true representation of the spectrum of life we live each and every day. I’ll admit that it took me a few listens to really get into this album, but trust me once it clicks you’ll fall in love with it.

Turnpike Troubadours Self Titled Album

Turnpike Troubadours – Self-Titled

The Oklahoma-based band made their long-awaited return to making new music in 2015 and they did not disappoint. Like the aforementioned Jason Isbell, the Turnpike Troubadours have made quite a name for themselves as independent artists. They’re proof you don’t need the support of country radio or mainstream country labels to be successful and prosperous. And while members of the band have come and go they’re still making great music.

With the return of the Turnpike Troubadours, marks the return of arguably the best Red Dirt group today. Really they’re one of the best groups in music today. This album is definitive proof of it and I hope we never have to wait three years for another album again. If you’re a fan of country music, this album is a must-buy. We can only hope that this album is what launches this group to even greater heights. You won’t find many better than the Turnpike Troubadours.

Houndmouth Little Neon Limelight

Houndmouth – Little Neon Limelight 

If you had to pick an underdog amongst these nominees, it would be newcomer Americana group Houndmouth. Based out of Indiana, this group was one of my favorite surprise discoveries of 2015. This group pretty much borrows from every genre and produces music that entertains and moves you. I feel like a lot of people have ignored this group, but you shouldn’t. And despite this they might just walk away with Album of the Year.

Little Neon Limelight is flawless in every aspect. Houndmouth’s vocals are dynamic and the harmonies will stick with you for a while. Each song tells a story or conveys some sort of emotion in the listener, which is what great music does. While there are a few somber songs, this album is mostly fun and even mixes in some good humor. This is an album I thinks some people might let slip through the cracks and miss out on. Don’t be one of these people. Anyone who appreciates great music should hear it.

That’s your nominees for Country Perspective’s 2015 Album of the Year award. Be sure to voice who you believe should win in the comments below. 

Josh’s 2015 Mid-Year Country Music Outlook

Both Derek and myself are taking a look back at what we considered the highs and lows of country music in 2015 so far. You just saw Derek’s outlook and now I’ll give you mine. This will give you a good idea of our overall thoughts on the year. And of course be sure to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments below.

Chris Stapleton Traveller

Favorite Album So Far: There are so many choices for my favorite, but there are two in particular I would consider my favorites: Chris Stapleton’s Traveller and Houndmouth’s Little Neon Limelight. I knew Stapleton was going to have a good debut album, but I never thought it would be this good. At first I thought maybe 14 songs was too many, but after giving it several more listens I really have no complaints about the length. It feels just right actually. From the top-notch songwriting to the brilliant instrumentation to Stapleton’s bluesy, powerful voice this is enjoyable from start to finish. Little Neon Limelight is certainly not one of the most buzzed about albums in country music this year, but it should be. It has everything I want in an album and hooks you from start to finish. It also may be the most fun album of the year, as there are several rollicking tracks and you can tell Houndmouth had fun making it.

Favorite Song So Far: Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers’ “Standards” has been the standout song to me so far. It’s a song that perfectly sums up the state of country music right now. You’re either an artist with hits or standards. You really can’t have both. This is probably one of the most polite country protest songs ever, but I think this helps get the point across even more. Protest songs have pretty much become cliché themselves, but Bowen and Rogers get it just right here. “Standards” is one of many great songs on their new album Hold My Beer. Honorable mention goes out to The Mavericks’ “What Am I Supposed To Do.”

Thomas Rhett Crash and Burn

Worst Song So Far: Wow! We’ve reviewed a lot of terrible songs this year, but there’s one song in particular that annoys me the most out of all of them and that’s Thomas Rhett’s “Crash and Burn.” Where do you begin with this train wreck? First off it’s not country at all. It’s a blatant pop tune where Rhett tries to imitate Bruno Mars and fails miserably because Rhett doesn’t have near the talent or charisma of Mars to pull this type of song off. Number two he blatantly rips off Sam Cooke. Third it has an annoying ear worm that can haunt you for days. Fourth the smug arrogance of Rhett as he sings this type of song just pisses me off. Really this song epitomizes what mainstream country music is in 2015.

Biggest Surprise: The great amount of awesome country albums that have been released so far. This year the amount of quality music that’s being released is astounding and really a country music fan’s dream. 2015 will far surpass 2014 in terms of the quantity of quality. The race for album of the year will be as tight as possible and as Farce The Music said on Twitter it’s guaranteed there won’t be a consensus on best country album this year. There are too many choices for the top spot as it is and we still have several big releases to come.

Biggest Disappointment: Even though I’ve warmed up on it a little bit, Zac Brown Band’s Jekyll + Hyde album has to be the biggest disappointment of country music in 2015. There was such high hopes for this album and instead we got a hodgepodge of sounds that had absolutely no direction. While there were some good moments, this album was so all over the place it was hard to grasp what the band was going for here. At times it felt like a Zac Brown solo project and the band was completely buried in the background. I believe this wasn’t a sell-out moment though and I think the next album will be a return to their normal sound. I would chalk this up to a huge creative misstep.

Best Male Artist: Chris Stapleton without a doubt is the best male artist so far. He produced one of the best albums of the year in Traveller and continues to be one of the few writers on Music Row who can write creative songs.

Best Female Artist: In 2014 the female artists dominated our end of the year awards and produced some of the best albums of the year. In 2015 it’s been a slower start and we have yet to hear new material from some prominent female artists. But of the few that have released new music, Gretchen Peters has been the standout female artist. Her new album Blackbirds has been quietly one of the best of the year and arguably the darkest album in Americana. It’s full of emotional tracks that will rip your heart out and really make you listen to the music.

Breakout Artist: There have been several artists that have broken out in my eyes, but none more than Whitey Morgan. Coming into 2015 I wasn’t as sold on Whitey as some independent country fans, but he changed that with Sonic Ranch. It’s easily one of the best of the year, with its gritty, honky-tonk style. While there are a good amount of covers, he really makes these songs his own and puts his own spin on them. “Still Drunk, Still Crazy, Still Blue” and “Waitin’ Round To Die” are two of my favorite songs of the year. I hope this album makes Whitey a bigger household name because he deserves to reach higher heights with this album. I also give a special shoutout to Striking Matches, who completely surprised me with their debut album.

Worst Artist: I could choose so many different artists for the worst of the year, but I’m going with Derek here and giving it to RaeLynn. It’s 2015 and she is still a thing. RaeLynn is the only artist to receive multiple 0/10 reviews this year, with her Me EP and her single “For A Boy.” She also has the most 0/10 reviews all time on the site with three total. There are several talented female artists out there in the independent scene who deserve the shot RaeLynn got, but since they aren’t buddies with Blake Shelton they don’t get a deal. RaeLynn is nothing but a product of corporate executives and Blake.

Sturgill Signs With Atlantic Records

Most Anticipated Release in the Second Half of 2015: I could easily say July 17 is the day I’m looking forward to most (Jason Isbell and Alan Jackson’s new albums). But that would be a lie. The release I’m looking forward to most is Sturgill Simpson’s third album and his first under a major label.  This hasn’t been officially announced yet, but it’s highly speculated and Trigger at Saving Country Music has said multiple times it’s happening. Metamodern Sounds in Country Music was easily the best country album of 2014 and one of the best in country music the last several years. What’s scary is this third album could be even better! Along with Simpson and July 17, I’m also looking forward to Jamey Johnson’s return album. It hasn’t been officially announced yet either, but I’ll be shocked if it isn’t out by the end of the year.

The first half of 2015 has certainly been interesting in country music and can’t wait for the second half, where I’m sure there will be plenty more intriguing stories to come.

Derek’s Top Ten Country Songs – April 2015

April ALbums

April had a huge amount of album releases this year! And for the most part, the quality matched the quantity of songs. Many great albums from start to finish and several albums with some strong songs make for a difficult time when compiling a top ten list. While the following list is mostly subjective to my personal taste, if you believe I overlooked a song for my top ten or honorable mentions, please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts below. There’s a chance I haven’t listened to everything released in April, though I sure did try.

  1. “’Til It Does” by Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen – When Randy and Wade sing about having standards over hits, this song is the perfect example of that. A broken heart can just sneak up and hit you at any moment. There’s no way to prepare for it, and you won’t know it until it happens. The message is simple, the delivery is flawless, and the instrumentation is beautiful.  “’Til It Does” is the country music standard.
  2. “Dress Blues” by Zac Brown Band – “Dress Blues” is a tragically beautiful song. Jason Isbell paints the perfect picture with his lyrics, and the way he tells the story conveys the sorrow of the situation is as heartbreaking as it is wonderful. I think the Zac Brown Band’s cover is an excellent version of the song and does justice to Isbell and his original cut. Not to mention, Jimmy De Martini’s fiddle solo mid-song is breathtaking. No question that this is the best track on JEKYLL + HYDE.
  3. “Standards” by Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen – This song alone exponentially increased everyone’s excitement for Hold My Beer Vol. 1. A lighthearted poke at record executives who pine for one big hit, and a fun critique at the mainstream country climate. This song sums up the whole album, and truly sums up the careers of both Rogers and Bowen.
  4. “Second Hand Heart” by Dwight Yoakam – The title track of Yoakam’s new album is far and away my favorite. It was hard for me to pick just one from Second Hand Heart because the album is packed with great song after great song. Country and rock blends nicely on this track, and Yoakman’s vocal delivery is excellent.
  5. “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To” by Will Hoge – Hoge teamed up with Texas songwriter Sean McConnell to write this song about a son trying to live up to his dad’s hardworking legacy. The linear way they compare the father’s working life to the son’s is great, and the piano in the melody is the icing on the cake. This song is a much more authentic version of Hoge’s hit “Strong” and is the top track on Small Town Dreams.
  6. “Just Like Them Horses” by Reba McEntire – Reba sings of a loved one passing away in this heartbreaking song.  The lyrics describe the goodbye in a wonderful way, and Reba’s vocal delivery knocks this out of the park. The best song, in my opinion, on Love Somebody(Thanks to reader Scott for enlightening me on the song’s background.)
  7. “El Dorado” by Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen – There’s something to be said for a great cowboy song, and that’s what “El Dorado” is. Bowen and Rogers detail the old cowboy’s story with great imagery and feeling. Wade sings most of the song, but when Randy chimes in for the last verse and chorus, it adds more sorrow to stinging words of the cowboy’s final goodbye. “El Dorado” also features a great musical outro of guitars, fiddles, and steel guitars that you can’t help but love.
  8. “Man Of Constant Sorrow” by Dwight Yoakam – Yoakam’s rocking version of this timeless classic is fantastic! The guitars carry more of an old-time rock and roll sound, but the song is nothing but country.
  9. “Bittersweet” by Zac Brown Band – JEKYLL + HYDE saw the band from Georgia dipping into genre after genre, but this track is an evolution of the Zac Brown Band sound. A song about preparing to say goodbye to an ill loved one, and the acoustic instrumentation building to a roaring climax is a great compliment to lyrics. Also, Zac Brown’s vocal delivery is awesome.
  10. “Jayton and Jill” by Zane Williams – A lovely story song off Williams’ Texas Like That. Jayton and Jill meet on a dark highway in the rain, and together they ride the storm out at a local diner while they talk. The night sparks a friendship that lasts a lifetime, and a friendship that saves both their lives. This is an example of great story telling in country music.

Honorable Mentions

  • “Guitar or a Gun” by Will Hoge.
  • “Dreams of Clay” by Dwight Yoakam.
  • “Sympathy” and “Still Think About You” by William Clark Green from his album Ringling Road.
  • “White Flag” by John Moreland from his album High on Tulsa Heat.
  • “Suffer in Peace” by Tyler Farr from his album Suffer in Peace.

Find all 16 songs in the Spotify playlist below.  And I’d love to hear some of your favorite songs from the month.