John Anderson is truly one of the most under-appreciated artists in the history of country music, as his distinctive voice has fueled so many great songs. Whether they be on the more serious or novelty side, Anderson could deliver a memorable performance. So after a long hiatus from music and overcoming health setbacks, I was thrilled to see him back with his first new album in 20 years. Produced by Dan Auerbach and David Ferguson and released on Easy Eye Sound, who I’ve given lots of praise, I was intrigued to hear what the group had in store for Years.
The mellow and subdued “I’m Still Hangin’ On” opens the album. Right away I’m impressed with how great Anderson’s voice still sounds after all these years. It’s aged like fine wine. And it’s an appropriate song to open the album, as Anderson reflects on his life and how he’s still moving forward, even though many thought he wouldn’t make it to this point. The songwriting is so sharp and detailed, with memorable lines giving the perfect insight into Anderson’s psyche and the quiet, humble optimism that beams within him. “Celebrate” continues on with the same theme of Anderson’s own mortality and celebrating all the gifts he’s been given in his life. The mix of countrypolitan and western sounds great, especially the hints of harmonica that show up throughout give it a “journey” feel.
The album’s title track became an instant favorite for me. For one, the hook is instantly catchy and I love how the production mashes together classy sounding strings and roaring guitar interludes. It’s not only a triumphant and uplifting sound, but a homage to the sounds of Anderson’s career, as he often mixed rock in with his country. Anderson is surprisingly joined by Blake Shelton on “Tuesday I’ll Be Gone” and man they sound pretty great together on this warmly melodic track. Despite my issues with Shelton over the years, he undeniably has a fantastic voice and it’s cool how this collaboration came together thanks to Shelton having Anderson open for him on his tour. I love to see older and younger generations of artists collaborating and this is one of the best examples I’ve heard in recent years. In a better music world, this song about finding solace in alone time would be a hit.
“What’s a Man Got to Do” is about a man barely holding on in a relationship, wondering what he has to do to keep it alive. It’s really solid storytelling, Anderson’s pen shining through, and I love how much the fiddles and strings stand out in this track, giving it an enjoyably smooth feel. “Wild and Free” is Anderson’s ode to still living life wild and free. He may be getting up there in age, but his spirit is still as vibrant and young as ever. Again, I love the optimism he expresses and I love the sly nod with the song’s name to his album Wild and Blue. The waltzing love ballad “Slow Down” is another song that instantly won me over. The soft pedal steel guitar, strings and piano give it such a soothing and peaceful feeling that’s easy to get lost in, much like the love being described in the song.
“All We’re Really Looking For” is perhaps the best written song of the album, as Anderson’s storytelling is absolutely wonderful. The song begins with stories of his youth, from his mom making him feel better after a scrape to getting his first car, he relates it all back to love and the importance it plays in one’s pursuits in life. The material possessions we chase, the statuses we covet and the secure feeling we seek all just boil down to love. It’s an inspiring and impactful message that truly touches the heart. “Chasing Down a Dream” contemplates how man can be so driven to chase down a dream. It’s a really good song asking an important question, although I wish it would have went a bit deeper (admittedly a little nitpicking, but a tiny criticism nonetheless).
The album closes with the sad and dark “You’re Nearly Nothing.” It explores the cold lonely feeling of not feeling love, applying to several situations, whether it be because you’re single and can’t find love or if you’re getting up in age and not as many people coming around to visit you. It’s a sobering and real look at loneliness and the effect it can play on one’s mind. This is one instance though where I don’t like Auerbach’s production being so grandiose, as this song needed to be more stripped back to give it even more effect. Still the lyrics and Anderson’s vocal performance pack a powerful punch.
There have been many near death/mortality albums done throughout country music history, calling to my mind Johnny Cash’s famous American Recordings series, Wille Nelson’s hauntingly great Spirit (and various other sharp takes on the subject), and the late great John Prine’s final album The Tree of Forgiveness grinning in the face of mortality. John Anderson’s Years is without a doubt worthy of standing right next to these pieces of work. The songwriting on this is incredibly strong, with Anderson impressively having a hand in writing every track. Auerbach and Ferguson also deliver production that shines for the most part and continues their streak of quality projects. Years shows John Anderson is not only still hanging on, but he’s thriving and smiling.
This is the past pulse of mainstream country music. Each week, I take a look at the Billboard Country Airplay Chart (or, “Hot Country Songs” as it used to be called) from years ago and grade the top 30 songs. Each week will be a different year. The grading format I use each week is every song will receive one of the following scores: +5, +4, +3, +2, +1, 0, -1, -2, -3, -4, -5. These will then be tallied up for an overall score, or pulse of the past top thirty country songs, with the highest possible score being a +150 and the lowest possible score being a -150. The grade I would give it determines its Pulse score. The grading key: 10 [+5], 9 [+4], 8 [+3], 7 [+2], 6 [+1], 5 , 4 [-1], 3 [-2], 2 [-3], 1 [-4], 0 [-5].
The goal of this exercise is to evaluate the past state of mainstream country music and determine if it was better or worse compared to now. To see the full list of the top 30 country airplay songs for this week, click here. This week I will take a look at the top 30 songs of the Billboard Hot Country Songs from December 26, 1992. In honor of my ongoing chart request archive, this week’s chart goes out to commenter jmartin103. Thanks for reading jmartin103!
Vince Gill – “Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away” +3
Alan Jackson – “She’s Got The Rhythm (And I Got The Blues)” +3
Garth Brooks – “Somewhere Other Than The Night” 0 (Since I don’t have the CD with this song on it, I have no clue what to grade this song. Of course it isn’t anywhere on the Internet and I haven’t heard it before so it’s not going to help or hurt the Pulse)
Hal Ketchum – “Sure Love” +1 [Least Good Song] (It’s just more “meh” than outright bad)
Clint Black – “Burn One Down” +4
George Strait – “I Cross My Heart” +2
Trisha Yearwood – “Walkaway Joe” +4
Brooks & Dunn – “Lost & Found” +3 (One of the few B&D songs featuring Kix on lead vocals. I haven’t checked, does Kix still have more solo songs than Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line? Dead serious)
Restless Heart – “When She Cries’” +3 (Probably too pop for 1992 but still a good song)
Tracy Lawrence – “Somebody Paints The Wall” +3 (The George Jones version is obviously highly recommended as well)
Randy Travis – “Look Heart, No Hands” +3
Lee Roy Parnell – “Love Without Mercy” +2
Reba McEntire – “Take It Back” +3 (Probably being a little gracious, but it is certainly fun)
Sammy Kershaw – “Anywhere But Here” +3
John Michael Montgomery Gentry – “Life’s A Dance” +4[Best Song]
Ricky Van Shelton – “Wild Man” +3
Doug Stone – “Too Busy Being In Love” +1
Tanya Tucker – “Two Sparrows In A Hurricane” +3
Alabama – “I’m In A Hurry (And Don’t Know Why)” +4 (It’s a damn fun song with a good message. We CAN make them!)
Diamond Rio – “In A Week Or Two” +3
Little Texas – “What Were You Thinking” +3
Travis Tritt – “Can I Trust You With My Heart” +2
Chris LeDoux – “Cadillac Ranch” +3 (There’s a lot of big names that came from the 90’s, but ironically enough Chris was one of the first artists from before 2000 I ever listened to)
John Anderson – “Let Go Of The Stone” +3 (The one, two, three punch of Tritt, LeDoux, and Anderson is just awesome)
Wynonna – “My Strongest Weakness” +2
Confederate Railroad – “Queen Of Memphis” +2
Mark Collie – “Even The Man In The Moon Is Cryin’” +3
Billy Dean – “If There Hadn’t Been You” +3 (Borderline +3. The production is a little too sleepy for my tastes)
Suzy Bogguss – “Drive South” +3
Wynonna – “No One Else On Earth” +4 (A.K.A, the better Wynonna song here)
The Past Pulse of Mainstream Country Music: +77
It’s getting a little cliché at this point, but there’s really not much else to say other than this is another great chart! A little bit of a step up from last week even if there still wasn’t a song here that outright blew me away. Even still, when you have artists like Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Clint Black, George Strait, Trisha Yearwood, Randy Travis, Reba, Sammy Kershaw, John Anderson, Chris LeDoux, Wynonna and SO many more cranking out at least great songs, there’s not much to complain about.
As an additional note, I have to say that the 90’s charts are always my favorite ones to listen to and rank. Sure, it’s not perfect, but nothing really is. These charts are always highly enjoyable and bring tons of great songs that are a better representation of country music than a lot of the stuff we have today.
Chaotic. Anarchy. Uncontrollable. Those are the words I would use to describe mainstream country music and country radio right now. It’s a wild west of cacophony. Sam Hunt and Kelsea Ballerini continue to churn out his straight pop music. Thomas Rhett is pushing disco country with his new single “Crash and Burn.” Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean are still making bro-country/checklist country music. Zac Brown Band has no idea what genre they’re in. Steven Tyler and Bret Michaels just released country singles. Music Row Payola On The Verge continues to push terrible music. You get the picture? Country music is a damn mess. As the saying goes, the inmates are running the asylum. A genre this divided cannot stand forever.
As I spelled out a few weeks ago, country music is on a path to destruction. If changes aren’t made soon, the mainstream bubble is going to burst without a doubt. One of the most important changes that needs to be made is a voice of reason to step up and give country music guidance. Country music needs a leader. It needs someone who can remind everyone what country music is and what it should sound like. This person needs to be respected in some way, shape or form. They need to be able to lead by example whether through their music, writing or actions. Being a success is another key aspect, as people listen to winners. This person can step up and not lose their career over their actions. In other words, they really have nothing to lose and everything to gain. I’ve been thinking over the past few weeks who fits this description and I’ve come up with a list of possible candidates. Here’s who I think could step up and fill the leadership void in Nashville:
Why I Think He Could Be Country Music’s Leader: As I laid out in the The Hodgepodge last week, Garth’s comeback has been a disappointment. One of the points I didn’t get a chance to touch on was his lack of leadership since coming back. I think this has been one of my biggest disappointments with Garth, as I really expected him to come back and have a positive impact on the currents artists in the genre. Garth was the biggest names in country music in the 90s. Hell he was one of the biggest names in all of music during this time and took country music to new heights with his style of music. Love him or hate him he’s had a massive amount of success. There are people who hate country music, but love Garth. Current country artists are well aware of him and respect him. If Garth were to step up and call for a return to roots in country music, he wouldn’t be hurt by backlash or his standing in music. In fact if his voice were to fall on listening ears, it could aid him in getting back on radio again.
Why I Don’t Think He Could Be Country Music’s Leader: Garth has never been one to speak up and rock the boat before and I don’t know if that’s changed. Garth at one point was the bane of traditionalists like Florida Georgia Line and Sam Hunt are now. In a way he might sympathize with them (this is just speculation). In his prime days, Garth loved the spotlight and being the center of attention. Now he seems content with selling out every venue and doing things his way, damn the consequences on his sales and popularity. He can continue to make the music he wants, as what’s happening on the radio doesn’t affect him or his fans in any way.
Why I Think He Could Be Country Music’s Leader: Over the span of the last few years, Sturgill Simpson went from obscurity to indie critical darling to major label artist. His meteoric rise has captured the hearts and minds of critics and fans across the country. Simpson has also caught the attention and earned respect from the likes of Keith Urban, Jake Owen and John Mayer. His latest album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music was a top ten album without any label push or mainstream radio play. Clearly Simpson’s music speaks to all walks of life and his third upcoming album will probably reach #1 on the country chart. And what’s brilliant about this is he did it all his own way. He’s truly a special case in the world of country music. In the late 80s there was another influential Kentuckian by the name of Keith Whitley who helped shape country music back towards its roots. Maybe in 2015 another Kentuckian can get lightning to strike twice.
Why I Don’t Think He Could Be Country Music’s Leader: Simpson has made it perfectly clear he wants to stay away from the political mainstream scene. Radio has no interest in him and Simpson has no interest in radio. It would be a cold day in hell when a Cumulus radio would play a song like “Turtles All The Way Down.” Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush,” a harmless song, was considered risky. “Turtles All The Way Down” would be deemed “satanic” by the PC crowd. Simpson, like Garth, is perfectly content to keep making his own music and singing in front of packed venues of people who love him. So the odds are long for Simpson to be the voice of reason for the genre.
Why I Think She Could Be Country Music’s Leader: Commenter Noah pointed out to me that Adele’s next album is expected to have noticeable country influences. This isn’t a huge surprise considering all of the gospel influences on her 21 album. Speaking of that album it was praised by critics and fans everywhere. It helped shoot her into superstardom and become one of the most respected artists in music over the last decade. Her voice is one of the best and her songwriting is fantastic. Adele has never had a problem speaking up on issues she cares about or needs to address. Country music is borrowing a lot from pop music right now, so why couldn’t a pop artist lead the genre? When Adele speaks or sings, people listen.
Why I Don’t Think She Could Be Country Music’s Leader: I’m honestly convinced she’s the best choice to lead the genre out of its current anarchy. There are only two issues I see and I honestly think they’re easily to overcome. The first issue is some fans would be taken aback by a pop artist, an outsider of the genre, taking charge. But I think it would be a small minority, probably the same group that saw “Girl Crush” as offensive. So I’m not that concerned about a vocal few. The other issue I can see is that she’s a female artist. As everyone is well aware, female artists have struggled mightily in country music in recent years. The male artists have drowned them out. Adele would be taking on not just an army of “bros,” but also the male leadership in Nashville. There could obviously be some resistance. But again I think Adele could overcome this because she’s bigger than any name in Nashville. She’s even bigger than the fearless leader of Big Machine Records, which speaking of him…
Why I Think He Could Be Country Music’s Leader: Scott Borchetta is an evil and greedy man, but he undoubtedly is one of the most powerful people in country music. His Big Machine Label is home to the biggest artist in music right now, Taylor Swift. Borchetta helped make Swift into the most influential and popular artist in the world. Not only that, but he’s also the mastermind behind Florida Georgia Line, arguably the most popular act in country music today. Borchetta houses commercial successes, as well as critical as The Mavericks are on his Valory label. He covers all bases in country music. Borchetta gained even more sway when he became a mentor on American Idol. He’s no longer just a name country music insiders know. If Borchetta wanted to shift the genre back to its roots he could do it…
Why I Don’t Think He Could Be Country Music’s Leader: …But there’s no chance in hell of this happening. Borchetta is raking in money and living life well. Why would he bother to make any changes? He even hinted in past interviews that he wanted to shift back to the roots of country music, but it was nothing but window dressing. Borchetta does what’s best for Borchetta.
George Strait – Remember “Murder on Music Row”? Strait has no issues calling out country music for its bullshit. King George is loved and respected by all in the genre. But now that’s he retired from major touring there’s really no reason for him to speak out. Strait can do whatever he wants while the genre burns to the ground.
Alan Jackson – See Strait comments above, minus the retirement from major touring.
Sam Hunt – Hahahahahahahaha!
The Ghost of Hank Williams – I can get behind a ghost leader, if you’re willing.
Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases
Mickey Guyton is releasing a self-titled EP next Tuesday. Oh how I wish it was a full album! Still I’ll take new music from Guyton any time. You can see the EP cover art and the track listing for the EP right here. We’ll have a review on this one.
Country music veteran John Anderson is releasing a new album titled Goldmine next week. I’m curious to give this one a listen.
Luke Bryan’s new album will be called Kill The Lights and come out on August 7. Oh freaking joy.
A new duo I just came across has me excited to give their new album a listen. Their name is the Malpass Brothers. It’s made up of Christopher and Taylor Malpass, brothers who love country music. And by country music I mean the real country music. Just look at this quote on their site right here. How does that not excite you to hear their music?
For those who missed it, Kacey Musgravesrevealed the cover art and track listing for her new album Pageant Material. Originally it was slated to come out in the beginning of June, but it’s now set to be released on June 23.
Josh Turner in a recent interview with the Journal Star told them that his new album is “pretty much finished.” But there’s no album name or release date set. So new music is coming from Turner, but it sounds like he has no idea when (hopefully soon).
Throwback Thursday Song
Old Crow Medicine Show – “Wagon Wheel” – Because you’ve heard enough of Rucker’s version and you need to listen to the real deal.
Non-Country Song of the Week
Run the Jewels – “Early” – One of my favorite albums of 2015 was Run The Jewels’ sophomore album RTJ2. They just released a stunning new music video for “Early,” from the album and it’s something you need to watch for yourself.
Tweet of the Week
Idea: An awards show in which only acoustic performances were allowed.
This was left under Kelsea Ballerini’s new album. And I completely agree. She is hurting the genre just as much as Sam Hunt with her brand of pop music. Kudos to the reviewer for calling this the teen pop it is.
One More Thing…
I’m looking to sell two tickets to a Jason Isbell concert next Wednesday, May 27 at the House of Blues in Cleveland, Ohio. I won’t be able to go due to a conflict in my schedule. I’m selling them for less than face value, as I don’t want them to go to waste. If you’re interested in them or you know someone who would, reach out to me by email: email@example.com.
That’s it for the Hodgepodge this week! Be sure to sound off in the comments!
Over the past year, one artist has stood out amongst the rest in mainstream country music: Sam Hunt. Ever since “Leave The Night On” got its artificial push onto radio via On The Verge last summer, Hunt has dominated the airwaves, charts and headlines. His Montevallo album has been dominating sales, as well as receive praise from critics (a few I even respect). In fact the main subject matter of this week’s Billboard Country Update was how Sam Hunt dominated the first quarter of 2015. The aforementioned Montevallo album was the top-selling country album, with a total of 199,000 copies sold. The next highest selling album was Luke Bryan’s Spring Break…Checkin’ Out, which sold 137,000 copies. That’s a gap of 62,000 albums between Hunt and Bryan. However it should be noted the highest selling album in the first quarter of 2014, Eric Church’s The Outsiders, had a total of 491,000 copies sold.
It wasn’t just the album sales Hunt topped either. His hit single “Take Your Time” was the highest selling country digital song of the first quarter of 2015 too. A total of 619,000 copies were sold. The second-highest was Zac Brown Band’s “Homegrown,” which had a total of 381,000 sales. So Hunt sold 238,000 more copies of “Take Your Time” than Zac Brown Band’s “Homegrown.” For reference, the highest selling digital country song of the first quarter of 2014 was Brantley Gilbert’s “Bottoms Up,” which sold 682,000 copies. Just looking at the charts from last year and comparing them to this year’s chart, you can tell country music is taking a hit in the sales department (courtesy Billboard):
While sales are down across the board for everyone else, Sam Hunt is the only one putting up noticeable numbers. You see where I’m going with this? A monster has been created and when something gets big in country music, everyone else tries to replicate it. With Hunt being the clear cash cow and popular flavor at the moment, that means we’re going to get a lot more Sam Hunt shoved down our throats.
That leads me to this week’s announcement in the weekly Country Aircheck issue. As you all know this year is the 50th Annual ACM Awards and the ACM association is going all out for it. In addition to the bigger production of the awards show itself, they’re also taping a special titled ACM Presents: Superstar Duets, which will air on May 19. The announced duets were as follows: Miranda Lambert with Patty Loveless, Keith Urban with John Anderson, The Band Perry with Deana Carter and Sam Hunt with Dwight Yoakam. Wait…what? Those first three pairings I have absolutely no problem with. That last one however sticks out like a giant sore thumb and not in a good way.
One of your first reactions might be is why would Yoakam agree to do this? One of the following two things I’m guessing is the reason Yoakam is doing this: Yoakam has no real clue who Hunt is and agreed to do it out of principle or his label forced him to do it. Remember he is on the Warner Nashville label and he has a new album coming out. This is no indication that Yoakam is endorsing Hunt nor is he changing his sound to Hunt’s sound. So put to rest the hearsay that Yoakam is selling out. No, I’ll tell you the exact reason this collaboration is happening. This is Hunt’s team and Music Row’s attempt to get us “haters” to like and endorse Hunt.
They truly believe that throwing Hunt together with Yoakam will get Hunt doubters to like him. “Oh he’s singing with Yoakam. That means he’s one of us! That makes him country.” Hell no! How stupid and gullible do you think I am? You’re just making me hate Hunt even more. What you’re giving me with this pairing is trying to make me eat dog shit laced with bacon. But guess what? It still tastes like shit. Just give me the bacon and put the dog shit where it belongs. This is a collaboration that absolutely nobody was clamoring for. Traditionalists hate Hunt and Hunt fans have no idea who Yoakam is. Just wait for the tweets on Farce The Music’s Twitterfails of May. There will be plenty of tweets wondering who Yoakam is. I can also imagine that many Hunt fans who heard Yoakam’s music would call it old and boring.
The Hunt defenders and Music Row can kick and scream until they’re blue in the face about how “country” Hunt is and how he’s evolving the genre. They can try to pitch me on every angle on how Hunt is great and why I should like him. But you need to save your breath. Stop trying to make me like Hunt because it isn’t going to happen. His music is straight pop being sold as country music. He looks like a Euro disc jockey. Everything about him is a disgrace to country music and its history. If he was doing all of this while in the pop genre, I would have no problem with Hunt. But he’s not. Hunt is lying straight to my face with his music and his look by calling it country. It’s insulting on every level. I give Taylor Swift major props for finally moving to pop because she realized she was hurting her own brand by continuing to lie about her music. My advice to Hunt is to follow her lead and go to pop where he belongs. Don’t take your time like Swift did either.
Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases
Reba McEntire will be coming out with her new album Love Somebody next Tuesday. You can currently stream it on iTunes Radio if you’re subscribed to the service. It’ll be interesting to see how much pop influences are present throughout the album.
Dwight Yoakam is also coming out with his new album next Tuesday, Second Hand Heart. You can stream that album on NPR at this link here. I’ve been really looking forward to giving this one a listen, Yoakam’s last album 3 Pears certainly impressed me. I’ll have a review on this soon.
Texas country artist Zane Williams will be coming out with a new album titled Texas Like That on Tuesday too. For those unfamiliar with Williams, he’s certainly one you need to check out. I came across him in 2013 when I heard his single “Overnight Success,” a great single about the life of a musician. While everyone will be paying attention to high-profile releases from Reba and Dwight, this album may be better than both of theirs.
George Strait’s new single will be called “Let It Go.” No, it’s not the Frozen song. Although Strait would maybe be able to make that work. Anyway we’ll get our first listen of it at the ACM Awards and it’s going for adds at radio on April 20.
Cole Swindell is coming out with a new single titled “Let Me See Ya Girl” and it’s also going for adds on April 20. This one is as bad as it sounds. Trust me. Just wait for my review…
Toby Keith is back with a new single, “35 MPH Town.” It’s bad enough I have to deal with a new Swindell single and now there’s a Keith single on top of it. Sigh.
Throwback Thursday Song
Reba McEntire & Vince Gill – “The Heart Won’t Lie” – I’ve been listening to this song a lot ever since last week’s past pulse of mainstream country music. It’s Reba in her prime and Vince. How could you not like this song?
Non-Country Song of the Week
Ludacris – “Ocean Skies” – It’s 2015 and Ludacris put out a good song. In fact his entire new album Ludaversal was shockingly good. I never thought I would enjoy Ludacris music in 2015. Then again rap music, unlike country music, in 2015 has been great. Shoutout to Mark Grondin at Spectrum Pulse for his review of the album convincing me to give it a listen.
Tweet of the Week
First "Don't" and now "Don't it". Anxiously awaiting the exciting conclusion to Billy Currington's song trilogy