The Endless Music Odyssey, Vol. 2: Sara Evans and Mike & The Moonpies Cover Classics, Plus More!

When an artist covers a song or an album, it’s either feast or famine. It’s often the latter because the artist too often falls into the trap of recording a straight-ahead, exact replica of the original. And this quite frankly is boring. Why would I want to hear a cover of, let’s say Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks”, if you’re just going to do it exactly how they did it? I’ll just listen to the original instead.

No, the best covers are when an artist takes and reinterprets the songs, giving them a fresh coat of paint and reinvigorating them in the minds of the listeners. So while Sara Evans is an artist that I rarely listen to at times, her Copy That album that covers songs from multiple genres across multiple eras intrigued me when I came across it. I say she’s an artist I rarely listen to because of all the boring, vanilla radio singles that a lot of people seem to like. But they put me to sleep and I would much rather listen to her early career material, which better showcases her talent. Not to mention I didn’t forget her great performance on the country tribute album to The Doobie Brothers.

Evans picks the perfect opener in “If I Can’t Have You,” the disco hit made famous by the Bee Gees and Yvonne Elliman. Evans brings a ton of passion and energy to her vocal performance, feeling right at home on this yearning love ballad. “Come On Eileen” is one of those one-hit 80s rock songs that has always got on my nerves due to radio overplay and the cheesy nature of the delivery. But I just can’t get enough of Evans’ interpretation, as the hints of fiddle and Evans’ clearer take on the song makes it a catchy ear worm. I also enjoy how the bridge speeds up and crashes, giving the song an infectious frenetic feel.

Poco’s rock-country hit “Crazy Love” is a gem I didn’t know about and again fits Evans like a glove, as she keeps enough of the original’s feel while making it feel modern. Evans and Little Big Town’s Phillip Sweet beautifully harmonize on Kenny Loggins’ “Whenever I Call You “Friend”” and I would say like their version more than the original, has less of a soupy feel about it. Evans’ best vocal performances on this album are arguably her cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Monday Morning” and John Mayer’s “All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye,” as she absolutely belts it on each track.

Old Crow Medicine Show appropriately joins her on Hank Williams’ “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry” and this is a combination I didn’t think I would enjoy so much, as their discographies are so contrasting. But they surprisingly work well. Finally, Evans once again wins me over on a classic rock song that gets overplayed on radio, The Knacks’ “My Sharona.” The blaring guitars being in front and center with Evans impassioned performance hooks me immediately and I would argue she once again surpasses the original of one of her covers.

If this album slipped through the cracks for you I would suggest checking out, especially if you’re like me and listen to multiple genres of music. It’s just a really fun album that you can tell Evans and her band enjoyed making and this is undoubtedly felt by the listener as they sing along to these familiar tracks.

Sara Evans though wasn’t the only band to recently make a great covers album, as Mike and the Moonpies dropped a surprise album of Gary Stewart songs. But Touch of You: The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart isn’t just Stewart songs, but previously unheard songs from the underrated country star. Being a fan of Stewart and Mike and the Moonpies coming off what I considered the best country album of 2019, I was eager to sink my teeth into this one.

It doesn’t disappoint, as Mike Harmeir and his band certainly do justice to the King of Honkytonks’ tunes. It doesn’t necessarily start off the strongest with “Bottom of the Pile,” as I would consider it one of the lesser songs on the album due to it’s repetitiveness. But second track “Smooth Shot of Whiskey” is an immediate favorite of mine. Harmeir is joined on vocals surprisingly by Midland frontman Mark Wystrach and they sound so good together. I say surprisingly because Texas country music doesn’t exactly like Midland due to their “lack of authenticity” and regularly like to compare the Moonpies and Midland. But if you pay attention on social media these bands have always been chummy with each other and they should because each fall into the same style of country music.

The album’s title track might be my most favorite on the record, as Harmeir stretches his vocal range to great effect. It adds the emotion that is much needed on this heartbreak drinking song, not to mention Harmeir’s higher notes are unforgettably good. It’s slightly disappointing there aren’t more country rockers on this album, as that’s what Stewart is most well-known for in his career. But it’s not surprising either, as these songs mostly come from Stewart’s 80s material, which is decidedly more mellow. But we do get one great rocker with “Dance with Barbara,” a rowdy honky tonker about wanting to hit the dance floor with the woman of everyone’s eye in the bar.

It should be said too for those unfamiliar with Gary Stewart’s work that many of his songs center around debauchery, drinking and the darkness that can accompany it, as these themes were very much part of his life. So in a way it can make listening to this album a bit repetitive to listen to at times. But if you’re in the mood for these type of songs, it has this in spades. “The Gold Barstool” and “Finished Product” are darkly humorous takes on over-drinking. But Stewart wasn’t a one-trick pony either, as “I’m Guilty” is a really enjoyable bluesy, soulful love song. While Harmeir delivers a great vocal performance here, I can’t help but wonder what Stewart would have sounded like on it with his trademark vibrato.

The most heartfelt song on this album is saved for last. “Heart a Home” is a devastating and haunting heartbreak song about a man yearning for an ex that’s unexpectedly walked out on him. I would love to know why Stewart never cut this song, as it’s so damn good. The lyrics painstakingly paint a vivid picture of heartbreak and Harmeir delivers a vocal performance that’s worthy of the lyrics.

Mike and the Moonpies continue to prove why many are quickly considering them one of the best acts in country music right now, as they’ve now released two great, back-to-back surprise releases. Not to mention the respect they pay towards Stewart is classy and a true homage to the late country star. If you’re a country music fan and not familiar with Stewart, I hope this urges you to dig into it because it’s a real joy. Also I recommend checking out my friend Zack’s recent piece on Stewart at The Musical Divide to get even more context on the career and life of Stewart.

While many acts struggle to release a good cover song, Sara Evans and Mike and the Moonpies both manage to release great cover albums. Check them out!

Sara Evans – Copy That – Solid 8/10

Mike and the Moonpies – Touch of You: The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart – Strong 8/10

And more…

  • The Last Bandoleros finally released an album available for listeners in the United States, a live album titled Live from Texas. It’s a solid mix of pop country and Tex Mex. But I still remain puzzled by how this act is marketed and positioned.
  • Another album released weeks ago I want to highlight is Thundercats’ It Is What It Is. This is my favorite release from him yet, mainly due to the fact it’s his most concise and tightest album yet (clocks in at 37 minutes). While I enjoyed his previous album Drunk, it’s admittedly a bit of a taxing listen. As Thundercat always does though, he delivers silky smooth beats and dark humor that elicits chuckles. “Dragonball Durag” in particular always makes me laugh when I hear it (you’ll know the line when you hear it that makes me laugh the hardest). But Thundercat also balances this album out with more sober, melancholy songs too, as he spends multiple songs addressing race issues in America and mourning the loss of his friend/rapper Mac Miller.
  • Grady Smith brought to my attention a surprising remix of Barbara Mandrell’s “Sleeping Single In a Double Bed” and even more surprisingly I really enjoy it. This new dance remix take by Dave Audé makes this classic song dancy, fun and decidedly modern. While it’s understandable that this is annoying and ruffles the feathers of some country listeners, this electronification of country music is only going to continue. And I know this may sound naïve, but I believe that this can help bring in more younger listeners to the genre and entice them to check out older country music. It happened with the country station on Grand Theft Auto V, so why not with this?
  • Cam has dropped yet another enjoyable song in “Redwood Tree.” This song is about reflecting on the passage of time and learning that you don’t truly appreciate things until you lose them. I cannot wait to hear another full album from her, as her debut album showed so much potential.
  • One last thing: I’m taking a break from the blog to spend time with my family and friends. I didn’t get to see or spend a lot of time with them during the quarantine, so now I want to focus on spending time with them. Thanks for understanding!

As always thanks for reading and be sure to weigh in with your thoughts in the comments below!

Album Review – Aaron Watson’s ‘The Underdog’

Aaron Watson The Underdog

What’s an underdog? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, underdog is defined as the following:

a person, team, etc., that is expected to lose a contest or battle

a less powerful person or thing that struggles against a more powerful person or thing (such as a corporation)

Aaron Watson has been making music for over 15 years and has now released a dozen albums. He’s beloved in the Texas/Red Dirt scene and is known quite well in those parts. How is Watson an underdog? Well in the world of country music Watson is absolutely an underdog. He’s an independent, Texas/Red Dirt country artist who doesn’t have a single mainstream hit and yet probably should have several by now. By all accounts and judging by his interactions on social, he’s a very nice person and a good family man. Watson has the country look and the country sounding music that people like. Has the total package, right? But take a look at the second line of the definition of underdog. Aaron Watson is the personification of it. The corporation is Nashville/Music Row.

Aaron Watson’s new album The Underdog is his stand and really the stand for underdog country artists everywhere. Fans have noticed too, as each week leading up this album release a new song from the album was released to iTunes and it immediately shot to the top of the country chart. To say the intrigue and anticipation for this album was high is an understatement. So does The Underdog match the hype? Well if you love the honky-tonk, 90s style country sound you’ll definitely want to keep reading.

The album kicks off with “The Prayer,” where Watson prays to God. The Christian influence is palpable in this song, as Watson professes that he can’t be the “king of me.” The instrumentation is really well done and is a precursor to the rest of the album. The next song, “Wildfire,” takes a more fun approach. This song was actually originally performed by John Mayer and also previously covered by Rascal Flatts. I can definitely say this is the best version of the three. The clapping in the chorus of this song makes it quite catchy and provides a great hook. While the lyrics mirror bro country, I wouldn’t necessarily classify it as such. It’s not as forced and there’s no creepy misogyny behind it.

The energy stays high with “Freight Train.” The banjo drives the rhythm of this song and gives it the element many 90s country songs had: it makes people want to dance. And no Watson is not rapping like the bro country artists have attempted in recent years. He’s doing spoken word, which is a lost art in country music (or butchered in a few cases in 2014). Some may even call it an auctioneer style. This is a fun country song that belongs on the radio. Yes, bro country and metro-politan fans real country music can be fun.

While “That Look” is a little too checklist-y to me at times, it really reminds me of 90s country. From the instrument arrangement to the lyrics, this song could have easily played on the radio in the 90s. One cheesy line that does make me cringe a little is when Watson sings, “that girl is off the hook.” I could have done without that line and so could the song. “Getaway Truck” is another song that just relies too much on clichés. In fact this is one of the closest songs to bro country on the album. The instrumentation is good though, especially the fiddles.

One of the best songs on The Underdog is “Bluebonnets (Julia’s Song).” It’s essentially a song about life and how short it can be, so you should enjoy it for all you can. He compares life to bluebonnets in the spring. This song is easy to like because it appeals to your heart, not your mind. You can also tell it comes from Watson’s heart. This makes it easy for listeners to connect. Watson goes to the cowboy cliché well in “That’s Why God Loves Cowboys.” It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s all stuff we’ve heard before. And hey I’ll take cowboy songs over the mainstream country songs about going to the club. This sounds country and is thematically country at least.

“That’s Gonna Leave a Mark” is another fun song from Watson that could have easily passed for 90s country. It’s catchy, simple and Watson’s self-deprecation gives it a humorous edge too. This is the kind of song I think would be perfect for radio today because it’s really a good compromise between traditional country fans’ wants and Music Row’s wants. The album’s title track is about life. I think more than anything it’s about Watson’s life, as he self-reflects on it. This is especially evident when he sings about his wife to his kids. This song is really an embodiment of what Aaron Watson is all about. It’s a family friendly song that I think many listeners will be able to connect with too.

Another song with too many checklist elements is “Blame It on Those Baby Blues.” I think this one tries too hard to appeal to radio like “Getaway Truck.” But like that song I can appreciate the fact that this song isn’t offensive and it has a good sound. Watson sings about romance in “One of Your Nights,” a song about a man after a long day needing his woman to be there for him that night. Think of it more as a husband-wife dynamic and not a boyfriend-girlfriend dynamic. For those married, you probably understand the angle of this song best. The piano also makes for a nice touch, especially to close the song.

“Family Tree” is about the strength and importance of family. It also has a strong Christian tone, as it mentions the importance of God alongside family. While the lyrics feel a little campy, it comes from Watson’s heart and it isn’t hyperbole. This is another song with instrumentation that sounds like it came straight out of the 90s. The penultimate song on the album is “Rodeo Queen,” a song about a rodeo clown falling in love with a rodeo queen. It’s a love song with a funny twist and I applaud Watson for the creative spin on the average country love song. We also get to hear Watson’s falsetto, which isn’t too shabby. This is a fun little song.

The final song on the album is “Fence Post” and it’s one hell of a way to conclude The Underdog. It’s a country music protest song that hits the nail right on the head. “Fence Post” is brutally honest and paints a brilliant picture of country music today. I’m not going to describe this one because this is one you just need to hear for yourself. I’ll say one thing: I’ll be keeping this in mind for Country Perspective’s 2015 Song of the Year award.

Is The Underdog the best country album of the year? No. But it could be one of the most important country albums of the year. Why? It could be one of the most important because it’s the perfect example of something that would please both traditional country fans and the suits in Nashville. It has commercial appeal (just as “Fence Post” says!), yet has substance. More importantly it sounds like country music. I’ve seen many people aptly compare this album to the material Brad Paisley, Clay Walker and Tim McGraw were churning out around the late 90s to the early 2000s. Everyone loves and roots for the underdog. Country music fans need to root for this underdog, Aaron Watson, as I definitely recommend checking this album out. The Underdog deserves to “blow up” and it’s the kind of album that could fix mainstream country music.

Grade: 8/10