Album Review – Blackie and the Rodeo Kings Bring Together Best Americana Male Artists on ‘Kings and Kings’

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What began as a tribute to Canadian songwriter Willie P. Bennett, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings have spent the past 20 years growing into one of Canada’s best roots music bands. Colin Linden, Stephen Fearing, and Tom Wilson, all with their own solo musical careers, have together developed Blackie and the Rodeo Kings into more than just a one-off tribute group. In 2011, the group collaborated with many of Americana and country’s finest female artists like Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, and Pam Tillis in Kings and Queens. Now five and a half years later, the group returns with Kings and Kings, a collaboration album with country and Americana’s best male singers, including Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell, Jason Isbell, Eric Church and many others.

Kings and Kings takes the best of each member and guest, which makes for an eclectic sound throughout. Written by all three members of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, and joined by the great Rodney Crowell, “Live by the Song” details the life of the band on the road and playing music. Fearing and Crowell split the vocals, and Crowell’s seasoned voice shines through; a perfect collaboration choice given the song’s content. Not all songs are vocal collaborations, with guest Nick Lowe taking full lead on “Secret of a Long Lasting Love” while the band harmonizes behind him. With Bruce Cockburn, Linden (who has produced many of Cockburn’s albums) not only splits verses with him on the tender “A Woman Gets More Beautiful,” but the pair move between English and French lyrics, adding a layer of romance onto the ballad.

Many guests bring their native band’s flair to their collaborations with the Canadian trio. Buddy Miller, who’s played guitar for many Country and American stalwarts, joins in on the rollicking “Playing By Heart.” Raul Malo brings a taste of The Mavericks’ signature Latin-inspired sound on Fearing’s “High Wire.” Jason Isbell (on “Land of the Living [Hamilton Ontario 2016]”) and Eric Church (on “Bury My Heart”) stay true to each of their respective rock oriented sounds, while the Willie P. Burnett penned “This Lonesome Feeling” sounds like a classic country standard, which is appropriate given the inclusion of Vince Gill on vocals. Keb Mo duets with Fearing on “Long Walk to Freedom”, a track that reminds the listener of a gospel song. The haunting “Bitter and Low” is benefited from a great vocals from Oakland’s Fantastic Negrito, while Dallas Green of City and Colour turns in a memorable performance on “Beautiful Scars.” Kings and Kings comes to a close with the men of the show Nashville on “Where the River Rolls.”

Overall, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings make the most of their talented guests, playing to each of their respective strengths and sounds, to create an authentic sounding roots album. Kings and Kings is the perfect example of why Americana is such a tough genre to define because a variety of sounds and styles all work under that umbrella. Blackie and the Rodeo Kings provide music fans with an album that epitomizes the genre, with great collaborations from the most respected singers of country and Americana music.

Grade: 9/10

Recommend? – Absolutely!

Album Highlights: Playing By Heart (feat. Buddy Miller), Long Walk to Freedom (feat. Keb Mo), This Lonesome Feeling (feat. Vince Gill), Bury My Heart (feat. Eric Church)

Bad Songs: None

Wallpaper: None

Don’t You Think This Whole Propaganda Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand?

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Did you hear the good news? Country music has been saved! The streets of Music Row are now paved in gold, heavenly choirs are singing in unison from the heavens above and country radio is using its powers for good. With the release of Jon Pardi’s new album earlier this year and William Michael Morgan’s debut album Vinyl this week, this seems to be the overwhelming sentiment I’m hearing from all corners of country music. Since Pardi got a #1 song at radio with “Head Over Boots” and Morgan got a #1 at radio with “I Met A Girl,” that means country music is all well and good now. It’s been saved!

Give me a damn break.

First off let me just address the absurd notion of “saving” country music. It’s an idea built on sensationalism and propaganda to appeal to the gullible and rebel hearted. Country music has never needed to be saved and it never will. It’s a marketing tactic that people will use to paint us vs them themes and build up a fictional battle taking place right in your backyard. It’s pandering to a natural human instinct to rebel against “the man” if you will. It’s no different from Toby Keith singing about having sex on the American flag on the back of an F-150 truck while fireworks go off in the background and bald eagles fly overhead. If you look me in the eye right now and told me country music needs saved I would laugh and point to Sturgill Simpson, Whitey Morgan and Margo Price. If you did this same thing in the 90s I would point to Alan Jackson, George Strait and Reba. In the 80s I would point to Dwight Yoakam, Keith Whitley and Randy Travis. I think you get my point. Every time in country music history where people think the genre needs “saved” a couple of traditional artists come along and gain popularity to appease the traditionalist masses. It’s a natural cycle that everyone tends to forget about and even yours truly at one point bought into the stupid idea country music needed saving.

This year in particular has really made me open my eyes up to what the real problem has been all along. It made me realize how exactly mainstream country would solve its traditional problem and would do it in the most predictably wrong way. The real problem all along with mainstream country music the past several years has been songwriting. It’s very easy to get hung up on all of these pop sounding songs and their terrible production that doesn’t resemble country in any way. Music Row wisely saw this, so you’ve seen a lot of acts this year go back to a more neutral/pop country sound. Just listen to Blake Shelton and Cole Swindell’s new albums. Zac Brown Band has just promised they’re going back to their roots on their next album. They’re all adjusting to a more country sound to easily appease a lot of people, all while they’re lyrics have not/will not change. Jekyll + Hyde pissed me off more with its lazy songwriting than its two EDM songs. That did more harm to the album than Brown’s egotistical attempts at making EDM music.

But this sound adjustment goes much deeper and clever than this. Music Row knows they can’t fool everyone with these slight pivots and the rest will have to be won over with more elaborate maneuvering. The rest is traditional country fans and what better way to win them over than with pedal steel guitar and a fiddle. Enter Jon Pardi, William Michael Morgan and Aaron Lewis. Pardi and Morgan both don cowboy hats and give numerous interviews talking about how proud they are to be country. Lewis’ leading song when joining Dot Records was about how things just aren’t country nowadays and he’s here to bring it back. All feature generous amounts of steel guitar and fiddle in their music. It all helps these labels frame and paint the exact narrative they want to spoon feed the public.

Now I’m painting a picture here insinuating that these artists aren’t genuine in their intentions. In the case of Morgan and Pardi, I don’t think they’re being disingenuous. I think they’re being quite sincere in their efforts of releasing traditional country music. I think Lewis on the other hand is a sleazy con man using traditional country as a vehicle to revive his career from irrelevancy because he pretty much admitted to it when he said he talked shit on pop country artists as a means to pander to his crowd at shows. Pardi and Morgan while sincere, make the perfect pawns for their respective labels and for the industry at whole, but they don’t realize it and won’t until years later.

These three artists being championed by country circles is the industry’s way of saying, “Ha! We still put out traditional country. Happy now? We gave you what you wanted.” While it may have given a lot of people what they wanted, it didn’t give the industry what it needs and that’s better, more honest songwriting. Many people and outlets are going to applaud Morgan and Pardi for bringing traditional country “back.” If you enjoy their music, that’s fine and I don’t knock you for it. Enjoy the music you want to enjoy. But there’s two artists in mainstream country this year that have run circles around everyone else and nobody is talking about them like they should: Tim McGraw and Eric Church. These two have been showing the real change that’s needed at radio and that is deeper songwriting. But because they’re not part of some propaganda movement or don’t have overwhelming steel guitar in their music, their accomplishments are glossed over. Church in particular has been doing more for country music with his songs and attitude than he’s ever done before.

So while Pardi and Morgan’s sound may harken back to Strait and Jackson, their lyrics certainly don’t measure up to the two titans. Both albums suffered from sub par and bad songwriting (yes, I’ll freely admit I overrated the Pardi album and it did not deserve the grade I gave it). But thanks to bringing back a sound many people craved, this was overlooked by many and including yours truly at first. While this traditional revival may sound like the real deal, its substance is still as fake as the pop country it opposes (Morgan and Pardi’s intentions are real, but their respective labels and the industry certainly aren’t). And the substance that is songwriting is something that cannot be faked no matter how hard Music Row tries. You’re not going to consistently get heart and soul out of the assembly line writers on Music Row. The music of Strait, Jones and Nelson is remembered not only for its great instrumentation, but heartfelt songwriting. A song is not just about how it sounds, but what it says.

The point of this post isn’t to bash Pardi and Morgan, who are great, talented artists with very bright futures ahead of them. I’m coming from a place of honesty and genuine care that you the country music fan is being treated like a fool. The point of this post brings me back to something Jason Isbell once said to a fan on Twitter. Isbell said who needs genre, citing off numerous great acts in different genres. A fan said critics need genres and Isbell replied, “Only the lazy ones.” Another quote I leave you with comes from poet W.H. Auden: “Propaganda is a monologue that is not looking for an answer, but an echo.” The country music industry is being lazy and wants you to buy this propaganda that’s being pushed and it’s not right. Don’t be manipulated by what’s taking place and think for yourself. Otherwise you’re playing the part of the echo they desire.

 

The Hodgepodge: What Song Defines Country Music to You?

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It made it’s debut a few weeks back and now it’s back again. That right, this is an Ask The Readers Hodgepodge. It’s quite simple: I pose a question to you the readers and in the comments below we will discuss what our answers would be to the question. Sometimes it will be a yes or no question, but most times it’ll be something a little more detailed. This second Ask The Readers Hodgepodge will be quite subjective and should have a variety of answers.

If you had to choose one song, what song defines country music to you?

Guidelines:

  • This song can be from any era at anytime. Just be prepared of course to defend your choice, as someone will always be naturally curious as to why you chose a song.
  • There are no wrong answers, just like the previous Ask the Hodgepodge.
  • And of course feel free to pick songs for other genres if you feel like it, as we’re all music fans first.

 

As far as my answer for this question, the song I would pick that I feel defines country music is Townes van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty.” There have been many versions of this song, but I would have to pick Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s version as my favorite. The reason I would choose this song is it just has everything that a perfect country song should have. It was written by one of music’s greatest songwriters of all-time and performed by two of the best artists in the genre’s history. The song explores death, sadness and grief with some of the best storytelling you’ll ever hear in music. The instrumentation perfectly conveys the melancholy nature expressed by the lyricism in the song. To my ears it’s the perfect country song, defining the rich tapestry of the genre.

I would also highly recommend Jason Isbell and Elizabeth Cook’s version of the song, which is quite excellent too.

Upcoming/Recent Country & Americana Releases

  • Tomorrow William Michael Morgan will release his highly anticipated debut album Vinyl.
  • Also tomorrow the legendary John Prine will release his new duets album For Better, or Worse.
  • Aubrie Sellers new album New City Blues will be re-released through Warner Bros. Nashville tomorrow. “Sit Here and Cry” is going for adds at country radio on October 17.
  • Strap yourself in for October because it’s going to be a very busy month of releases, starting next Friday when the following albums are released:
    • Shovels & RopeLittle Seeds
    • Mo PitneyBehind This Guitar
    • Brent CobbSolving Problems
    • Matt WoodsHow To Survive 
  • Josh Abbott Band’s new single is “Amnesia” and it’s going for adds at country radio on October 17.
  • The Last Bandoleros released a self-titled, six song EP via digital services last week.

Throwback Thursday Song

Gary Stewart – “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)” – I feel like a lot of week’s I’m picking too many well-known acts and songs so this week I wanted to find a deeper cut from the past. Stewart is sort of unsung when discussing the best country artists of the 70s, but he shouldn’t because his music is excellent. This is his biggest hit and one of my personal favorites.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week

Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial – So this is an album and group I’ve been hearing a lot about from fellow music fans and critics. It’s received widespread praise and finally I got around to checking it out. Well now I know why it’s getting so much praise. I’m not usually a big fan of emo indie rock, but the songwriting on display on this album is impeccable. Turns out Teens of Denial is the 10th studio album and 13th overall album by Car Seat Headrest and they’ve only been a band for six years. That’s insane! Check these guys out.

Tweet of the Week

The picture he’s referring to is John Prine hugging Isbell after he won Americana Song of the Year for “Something More Than Free” at the Americana Awards last week. I would be pretty damn happy to get a hug from a legend too.

A Spot-on Review of Luke Bryan’s New EP

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Luke Bryan released a new EP for his annual farm tour and predictably it’s not good. The only difference between it and his usual studio albums is here he thinks he can pander to farmers and the working people of America because I’m sure they see the millionaire artist who now sings about the clubs and dresses like a Nordstrom model as someone they can relate to (wanking motion). This listener above wasn’t fooled though and rightly calls him out.

The Hodgepodge: If You Were Stranded on an Island & Had to Pick One Country Record…

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After a long holiday weekend here in the United States and the unofficial end of summer, there hasn’t been too much happening in the world of country music. This comes a week after all the hoopla surrounding the 50th CMA Awards and who was in and out in terms of nominations. In addition the much-talked about Sturgill Simpson Facebook rant took place and was a topic that was beaten to death. Needless to say I didn’t feel like rehashing this again. With nothing else to really talk about, I decided to try out something I’ve been wanting to give a shot with The Hodgepodge for a while. That is an Ask The Readers Hodgepodge. It’s quite simple: I pose a question to you the readers and in the comments below we will discuss what our answers would be to the question. Sometimes it will be a yes or no question, but most times it’ll be something a little more detailed like today. The first Ask The Readers Hodgepodge will start with an age-old question involving numerous subjects, but this time country music.

If you were stranded on an island for the rest of your life and you had to pick one country album to bring with you, what would it be?

Some guidelines:

  • It can also be Americana/Folk/Roots Rock because we cover those in addition to country music and I know some only follow the blog for these sub-genres.
  • The album cannot be a greatest hits album, box set, compilation, covers album, live album or soundtrack. Double albums are fair game though, but it must be released at the same time and not separately.
  • You can have the album in any format you please (you get one outlet on the island to plug in your CD player, record player 0r MP3 player, although good luck getting your record not to warp with all of the sunlight)
  • The album you pick doesn’t necessarily have to be what you consider the greatest country album of all-time, although it can be. It’s more your favorite album.
  • There are no wrong answers here! (Except if you pick a Sam Hunt album because I would think being stranded on an island would be a hard enough life without his music)
  • Feel free to throw in your picks for other genres too. This is a topic to have fun with!

 

Now with all of the guidelines out of the way, I will give my answer. I haven’t decided as of this writing what one album I would pick, but rather a list I would highly consider from for my one pick. Those albums would be:

  • Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
  • Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free (of course my first two on the list are Country Perspective’s album of the year winners)
  • Chris Stapleton – Traveller
  • George Strait – Strait From The Heart
  • George Strait – Ocean Front Property 
  • Alan Jackson – Don’t Rock The Jukebox
  • Waylon Jennings – Dreaming My Dreams
  • Dwight Yoakam – Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. 

It’s your turn now! Be sure to weigh in below.

Upcoming/Recent Country & Americana Releases

  • Whiskey Myers will be releasing their new album MUD tomorrow. My review of it will also be out soon
  • St. Paul & The Broken Bones will be releasing their sophomore album tomorrow, titled Sea of Noise.
  • Next week Amanda Shires’ new album My Piece of Land will be released.
  • Australian country artist Kasey Chambers just released a new EP Ain’t No Little Girl and her new album Dragonfly will be released on January 20, 2017 (shout out to reader Melanie for giving me a heads up!)
  • It was just announced this week Jim Lauderdale will be releasing a new album titled This Changes Everything on September 30
  • A promising up and coming artist named Paul Cauthen will be releasing his debut solo record My Gospel on October 14. He’s the former frontman of Americana band Sons of Fathers.

Throwback Thursday Song

Willie Nelson – “I’d Have To Be Crazy” – This is one of my all-time favorite Willie Nelson songs and one of my favorite country love songs. For the eagle-eyed, yes Sturgill Simpson covered the very same song on his debut album High Top Mountain. It is also great and does Willie justice.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week

Carly Rae Jepsen – “Cry” – Yes, it’s the same artist that sang “Call Me Maybe.” But she’s moved on to much better music! Her last album Emotion was pop music at it’s best and recently she released the B-Sides EP for it. I recommend both if you listen to pop music, but this song in particular is fantastic off the EP. It reminds me of the best of 80s pop and would undoubtedly be a hit in that decade of music (think Heart or Pat Benatar).

Tweet of the Week

Laughing at Blake Shelton’s current terrible single is always appropriate, but especially when it’s struggling on the chart.

Some Thoughts on Kelsea Ballerini’s Album

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I’m not sure why you bought the album either, Danyelle. And it does sound pop, Victoria.

Looking Back at The Top 20 Albums of 2015

Country Perspective's 2015 Most Essential Albums

Lately I decided to go back and take a look at all of the album grades I handed out last year. When it comes to grading albums, it can be very polarizing to say the very least and I know there are times when you flat out disagree with me. Other times we’re in complete agreement. One of the toughest aspects of grading is deciding what album is worthy of a 10/10. What constitutes a 10/10 can vary amongst people and I’ve found context is one of the biggest determining factors. Some view a 10/10 in a historical context, some view it in a yearly context, some in a genre context, etc. When it comes to a 10/10 to me, at its core it all comes to a feel for me. I can usually sense a 10/10 from my first listen and I know it’s the mark of a truly great album.

Another important thing I keep in mind when grading is not putting too much weight on the artist’s past material. It should be considered for in terms of comparison for their average sound and whether they deviate from it or not. But in my mind you shouldn’t knock a current album’s grade just because it isn’t as good as the last one in your mind. For example, it baffled me how so many people knocked their grade for Jason Isbell’s 2015 album Something More Than Free because it wasn’t as good in their mind as his previous album Southeastern, so therefore it can’t be a 10/10 if they gave Southeastern a 10/10 in their mind. I also consider it unfair to hold an album in a historical light right upon its release. In my opinion it takes years to determine how well it holds up historically, all-time. Finally I believe there’s no such thing as a perfect album. Every album has its little flaws and has areas where it could be a little better. So I think giving a 10/10 only in the case of it being “perfect” is a little absurd. But as they say it’s all subjective and I just wanted to clarify how I look at albums.

Without further ado I wanted to give you my thoughts on what I would grade albums I gave a 10/10 last year at this current time after having more time to digest and listen to them. Some have held up and some have not. Like I said at the beginning of the year when I announced we were approaching 10/10 grades differently this year, I gave way too many last year. So now I give you what I believe the true 10/10 grades, as well as what I believe didn’t hold up as 10/10. There probably won’t be another post like this next year because I’m being more focused on the grading this year and don’t have any regrets like last year. So here you go:

10/10

Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free

Whitey Morgan – Sonic Ranch 

Chris Stapleton – Traveller 

Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen – Hold My Beer 

Don Henley – Cass County

Turnpike Troubadours – Self-Titled

Houndmouth – Little Neon Limelight

Whitney Rose – Heartbreaker of the Year

Thoughts: Of course our album of the year choice is still a 10/10. I also still stand by my point that Something More Than Free is a better album than Southeastern, even though I’m aware this is unpopular. The key word here is album. If you asked me to pick the best three songs amongst the two albums, I’m probably picking them from Southeastern. But looking at both as whole albums, Something More Than Free is better because it flows better as a whole, thematically and sonically. I know people will disagree.

Of the others that hold up to a 10/10, I know there’s only three of them that some people would disagree. While Traveller being at 14 songs is not ideal and detracted from it in people’s minds, it ultimately doesn’t hurt the album’s overall quality in my opinion. Houndmouth may never put out a better album than Little Neon Limelight again, especially in light of the news of Katie Toupin departing from the band earlier this year. Her vocals were a big reason why I loved that album. As for Whitney Rose’s Heartbreaker of the Year, it just does such a great job of standing out and taking risks while remaining rooted in country. It’s why she won our Female Artist of the Year award.

9/9

Tami Neilson – Don’t Be Afraid 

Sam Outlaw – Angeleno 

The Malpass Brothers – Self-Titled

The Lone Bellow – Then Came The Morning 

Thoughts: So now we get to the albums where they didn’t hold up. Don’t Be Afraid ultimately doesn’t hold up for me because it just doesn’t follow the emotional punch of its title song all the way through the album. Angeleno was a big favorite in a lot of circles, but I just don’t get the same feeling as I did when I first listened to it. It just doesn’t sound as good hearing it back now, but it’s still a great album. The Malpass Brothers are an act I really enjoy, but giving 10/10 to an album mostly full of cover songs wasn’t the right choice. Then we have one of the big surprises for me of 2015 and that’s The Lone Bellow’s Then Came The Morning. A lot of people missed this one because it was a January release. It’s still a really really good album, but it just doesn’t make the cut in my mind for a 10/10, although it’s close.

8/8

Maddie & Tae – Start Here

Jonathan Tyler – Holy Smokes

Dwight Yoakam – Second Hand Heart

The Mavericks – Mono

Banditos – Self-Titled

Thoughts: This is where I know I’m ruffling feathers and people won’t like my downgrading. But I remind you this is just my opinion and not the end all be all. We’ll start with the elephant in the room: Maddie & Tae’s Start Here. I’m a big fan of this duo and that’s one of the things that ultimately clouded my final grade. There’s arguably no other act in mainstream country I want to see succeed more than these two. So I gave Start Here a grade it shouldn’t have received. There’s a lot of really good moments on the album, but it doesn’t follow that through on all of it’s songs. “Your Side of Town” is one song that brings it down, as well as “Right Here, Right Now” and “No Place Like You” for just not being memorable songs. I still say their best album will come when they finally get fed up of the games you have to play on a major label and leave to make their own records on Thirty Tigers.

My fandom also clouded my judgement on Second Hand Heart and Mono. Dwight Yoakam is a living legend and The Mavericks are perhaps one of the most underrated acts in music. Both delivered really good albums with some fun songs, but they’re just not 10/10 albums. Both needed more serious songs on the album to merit it. I enjoy Jonathan Tyler’s Holy Smokes and even bought it on vinyl, but I don’t know what I was thinking giving it 10/10. Maybe it was the summer heat? Ditto for Banditos’ self-titled album. Just a case of me going overboard.

Oh and one last thing. I wanted to give you what I considered a ranking of the top 20 albums of 2015. I think this will also serve useful to those who have just found the site and are looking for great music. These are albums you can’t go wrong with and you can’t go wrong with any of the ones I mentioned above too. My top 20 ranking is all albums reviewed, not just what I reviewed. If you have any questions about this, feel free to ask below.

  1. Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free
  2. Whitey Morgan – Sonic Ranch
  3. Chris Stapleton – Traveller 
  4. Turnpike Troubadours – Self-Titled (This one has gotten even better for me upon more listens)
  5. Wade Bowen & Randy Rogers – Hold My Beer
  6. Don Henley – Cass County (Still can’t believe the drummer for the Eagles made a top ten country album of the year)
  7. John Moreland – High on Tulsa Heat (This one has really grown on me)
  8. Blackberry Smoke – Holding All The Roses
  9. Houndmouth – Little Neon Limelight 
  10. Whitney Rose – Heartbreaker of the Year
  11. Eric Church – Mr. Misunderstood (Still not giving this a 10/10, Church fans. So don’t ask)
  12. The Lone Bellow – Then Came The Morning
  13. Sam Outlaw – Angeleno (This placing will get more complaints than you realize)
  14. Brandi Carlile – The Firewatcher’s Daughter (I hate myself for giving out 9.5/10 grades at one point)
  15. Cody Jinks – Adobe Sessions (Most under-the-radar debut of 2015)
  16. Gretchen Peters – Blackbirds
  17. Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material (Deserves a lot more credit than it received)
  18. Corb Lund – Things That Can’t Be Undone (Also deserved more credit)
  19. Tami Neilson – Don’t Be Afraid
  20. Will Hoge – Small Town Dreams (I always forget about this one, which is dumb)

Just missed the cut: James McMurtry’s Complicated Game, Tony Furtado’s The Bell, Justin Townes Earle’s Absent Fathers and Jami Lin Wilson’s Holidays and Wedding Rings.