A Toast to John Prine

The world has lost a true giant in John Prine. An extraordinary singer-songwriter and an even more incredible person, Prine touched the hearts, minds and souls of so many people with his music, wisdom and kindness. His influence extends across all genres of music and to any artist who ever wanted to take songwriting seriously. In his “prime” he was never a big star in the conventional sense, but his music still shined brighter than many. The music of Prine has endured with fans and artists of all ages. Whether it be legends like Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson or modern day artists like Jason Isbell and Kacey Musgraves, his influence shines in all of their work.

While it’s never easy to say goodbye, it’s comforting to know that he got the proper recognition and spotlight he deserved in his final years. The Americana Awards showered him with numerous accolades and his final album The Tree of Forgiveness, which is absolutely incredible, was one of his biggest commercial successes and critical too. And then of course the Grammys honored him with a lifetime achievement award earlier this year. It was all long overdue for one of the truly great American songwriters.

But Prine of course was never one about awards and attention. It was always about the songs, hence why he’s often called the songwriter’s songwriter. He could have easily stuck it out with his major label Atlantic Records and had much more commercial success. But he instead chose artistic independence, starting his own label Oh Boy Records in the 80s. Nowadays being an independent artist is pretty common and encouraged in many circles. But this was much less common during this time. Many would consider it detrimental to building a career, as the only way to get attention and build a fanbase was through radio and TV and the way to do that was on a major label.

Prine beat the odds though of course, as he did so many times throughout his life. He constantly proved people wrong and he did it with the most humility and grace one can possess. And in the process, by being himself, he carved out an incredibly rich legacy and cultivated a deeply loyal fanbase. He did this all by not following the expected blueprint of success. He created a unique path of his own, perhaps the greatest achievement of his career.

That’s what I’m going to remember about John Prine: a pioneer who blazed a trail for generations to come and he did it all by just being himself. Prine did this through not just his music, but through his actions and attitude towards those around him. Whether it be his fellow artists or those of us listening on our headphones, we all came away feeling like we didn’t just listen to an artist sing a song, but an old friend who always has an important message for any moment in our lives. John Prine will never be gone, as his empathetic, jovial spirit, and the evergreen wisdom and charming wit of his lyrics will forever keep him alive.

Rest in paradise, Mr. Prine. And enjoy smoking that cigarette that’s nine miles long.

Album Review — Sturgill Simpson’s ‘SOUND & FURY’

For an artist that tries his damndest to avoid the public eye, Sturgill Simpson certainly generates a lot of discussion and opinions when he does show his face. Coming into his fourth album SOUND & FURY, it was to be expected after a long wait and his announcing that it wouldn’t be a country album. And this comes after he’s been living under a rock the last two and a half years.  A polarizing artist in a polarizing society causing reactions on both extremes of the spectrum. A real shocker, huh? With this review I hope to bring a different view of why I think this album is brilliant, but also try to make sense of the mischaracterizations being put forth too.

“Ronin” opens with the sounds of a speeding car and Joe Rogan doing a spot-on Alex Jones impersonation over the radio. This gives way to the cinematic and grooving sounds of Simpson on lead guitar and Chuck Bartels shredding on the bass (Bartels really breaks out on this record). It all sets the tone and lets you know you’re in for a rock and roll album. This segues right into “Remember to Breathe,” which intimately details an assassin getting ready to make a kill and then doing so. It’s one of the more sinister and dark songs from Simpson and the excellent drum play of Miles Miller provides that ominous, rumbling feel with Bobby Emmert on the synth giving it that “samurai showdown” feel.

Lead single “Sing Along” is probably the most “accessible” song, as it’s about a man watching the woman in his life walk away and leaving him feeling helpless. This features one of the most badass sounding lines I’ve heard from Simpson: “Tell em’ to carve my name in the barstool baby/You know I’m going to be here a while.” The imagery of this line and the way Simpson delivers it gives it a real jolt and makes for a memorable moment.

“A Good Look” is a funky and rocking tune where Simpson cautions other artists to stop worry about looking good and worry more about crafting a good hook. Simpson solely wrote every song on the album, except for this one, which he wrote with John Prine. As soon as I found this out, I tried to figure out which parts Prine wrote and in my opinion I think he wrote the opening biblical verse, along with the chorus. It just screams Prine. Not to mention, this is the first song Simpson has made you can actually dance to. But it’s still packed with the classic imagery and depth Simpson brings with his lyrics, from the descriptive second verse to him delivering the dismissive lines I imagine are from someone at the label said to him at some point (“How you gonna eat when you’re bitin’ the hand?”). It’s a really fun song that I imagine will be a big hit live.

“Make Art Not Friends” is one of the most revealing moments on this album. Simpson appears to be drawing inspiration from his exhaustion and anger on the road touring in 2017. Now a lot of people are focusing on the lyrics in this song slamming the industry and I can see how some view this as him being kind of ungrateful. But I see this more as Simpson showing regret in his actions, as the chorus details his ragged state. He sings “Never again, rather be alone,” which I interpret as him realizing the mistake he made in saying yes to touring in 2017 after he said he wouldn’t do so. Shortly after this he sings “I love saying no to all the yes men,” which seems to refer to his state post-2017 and coming to the realization that in his compromise to “play the game” with the music industry, he ultimately was the one who lost and now he’s swearing it off completely.

Simpson is conveying that he just wants to focus on music and not the people in the industry who think they have his best interests. It’s a fascinating look into his psyche after the Grammys and how it changed him. I think this song is more about growth and realization, not the “taking it to the man” anthem nor the grumpy asshole complaining about success many are interpreting it to be. Not to mention I really enjoy the timing and placement of the synths in this song, as they come in at just the right moments to add some gravity and emotion to the lyrics.

“Best Clockmaker on Mars” is one of the hardest rockers on the album and also Simpson’s obligatory love ode to his wife that he’s had on every album. It’s also a fun singalong with head-banging guitar licks throughout, but don’t overlook one of the most heartfelt verses: “Some days I hate everything I am/But your love holds a mirror to me/Show me a love I can understand/Make sense of the world I see.” I really enjoy the sci-fi synths, as it feels appropriate on a song with Mars in the title.

The next song “All Said and Done” is another glimpse into Simpson’s mind in 2017. Again I see this as Simpson accepting blame for the anger and sense of resignation he has towards the world and his career. This is about a battle playing out in his own head, yet he doesn’t even know why and acknowledges that he’s willfully letting his career slip through his own actions. It’s funny how this is the second time Simpson has said an album will destroy his career (he said the same thing with Metamodern), yet I think much to his chagrin this is only going to make him more popular. Simpson said this album is “going to hell” (step four of the five steps of the journey of the soul in Christian mysticism) and this feels like his lowest point during this span.

“Last Man Standing” sees Simpson beating his chest and proclaiming himself to be the last one standing, even though his hermit mentality seems to suggest otherwise. Now this song has prompted what I believe to be an unjustified criticism of this song and Simpson’s vocals on this album: people blaming the production for not being able to understand what Simpson is singing. And here’s my counterpoint: Was it easy to understand him on his other albums? I say no.

I had trouble understanding him on every single album upon initial listens and this one is no different, which shows to me that blaming production is misplaced. The production was clear as day on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, yet it took me longer to figure out all the lyrics on that one compared to this album. When Simpson sings sometimes he turns into a mumbling marble mouth with an even thicker accent. To quote an old Skyrim meme: It’s a feature, not a bug. In other words, it’s completely fair to criticize not being able to understand the lyrics, but I don’t think it’s fair to say the production is to blame for it.

“Mercury in Retrograde” is the grand slam on this album: Simpson’s songwriting at it’s best and the sound at it’s most fun and catchy. It also reminds me of something that would have fit in perfectly on Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, with it’s disco-influenced sound, the dour observation in the chorus and the biting honesty. At first I jumped to the conclusion that Simpson was taking shots other artists on this song, but I realized that’s never been his thing. Many seem to also think he’s taking aim at fans on not just this song, but other moments on this album. But again this is not consistent with his history. So I don’t know why some are interpreting the lyrics as such. No, instead it’s a boring answer: suits at labels and award shows, which George Strait to AC/DC have taken their shots at. It just ultimately makes for scathingly fun lyrics you want to jam out along with.

The closing song “Fastest Horse in Town” is that blazing, get the fuck out of town anthem to perfectly cap off SOUND & FURY. It’s Simpson’s fiery proclamation that he’s no longer going to neglect the things that matter most to him: his family and his craft. On top of that he throws in that Eminem influence he hinted at before the album, declaring himself as not the “next someone,” but the “first something.” It doesn’t touch any of the braggadocios lines on Eminem’s Kamikaze, but it’s an appropriate closing statement that recaps the hell Simpson went through to reach the conclusion he’s arrived at and who he wants to be moving forward.

SOUND & FURY from start to finish feels like one long song, as it’s both cohesive in sound and lyrics, telling several stories that tie into overarching theme of Simpson being angry at a lot of things in the world, but when it comes down to it he’s most angry at himself and what he let himself become. Each track explores the flawed thoughts and actions of a flawed man. I see a lot of people constantly saying it reminds them of ZZ Top or 80s rock, but I don’t hear this. Instead I think this sounds closer to early to mid 70s music and sounds like the eccentric, frenetic sounds of Jeff Lyne and Electric Light Orchestra meets the in-your-face, sneering lyrics of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Love or hate this album, love or hate Simpson, it’s undeniable that a lot of thought and emotions went into this album. The amount of care and detail given to every aspect makes this one of the best albums you’ll hear in 2019 and yet another excellent album from Sturgill Simpson.

Grade: 10/10

The Hodgepodge: What Song Defines Country Music to You?

willie-merle

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

luke-bryan-rehashed-bullshit

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: Five Ways I Would Fix Country Radio

Alan Jackson

I don’t think it’s much of a secret how I feel about country radio. Anyone who has followed Country Perspective and The Current Pulse of Mainstream Country Music in particular know my distaste and at times outright anger towards country radio. At times they can get it right, only to screw up again. But one thing I have come to accept compared to when I first started to track country airplay charts is that I don’t entirely represent their target audience. As much as I want to hear Jon Pardi, Maddie & Tae and Eric Church get played on country radio, the person down the street simply prefers Luke Bryan and Sam Hunt. We all have different tastes and country radio doesn’t always deliberately play the worst music being released. Some people choose to listen to this music and I respect this choice, even if don’t understand it or agree with it.

But I think something all country fans can agree on, especially in light of what has happened so far in 2016, is there’s a clear lack of direction at radio and several other problems accompanying it. There’s a lack of traditional country music still, even if there has been some notable accomplishments by traditional artists on the airwaves this year. Most female artists continue to be ignored and older artists are still shunted aside. Not to mention there seems to be this never-ending chart clog, as every label desperately tries to push their new act so they can become established. That’s a lot of issues and it got me thinking of how exactly I would go about fixing this issues. And by fixing that doesn’t mean removing every artist from the airwaves I don’t like, as much as I would love to ban Sam Hunt from country radio. So after doing some thinking, I came up with what I believe to be five sensible solutions that would go a long way in helping fix country radio and turning it into something that can appeal to both traditional and modern fans.

  • Ban the On The Verge Program

iHeart’s On The Verge program looked like it could be a useful program at first for country radio. It seemed to promise to help up and coming, new artists at radio and give them a chance to make a successful career. Well after a couple of years of observing this program, I would call it an absolute failure. The only two acts to actually benefit from it and help them launch successful careers is Sam Hunt and Old Dominion. The rest of the artists chosen for the program haven’t really done much since being chosen. Even a quality artist like Cam has failed to produce a hit since “Burning House” was chosen for the program. Maren Morris is struggling right now at radio with “80s Mercedes” after “My Church” was chosen for On The Verge and she’s probably been one of the biggest breakouts recently in country music. It reminds me similarly of A Thousand Horses with “(This Ain’t No) Drunk Dial” stalling out after “Smoke” landed them a #1 hit. The latest On The Verge pick though has really exposed this sham of a program, Lauren Alaina’s “Road Less Traveled.” She isn’t a new artist by any stretch and has had plenty of time to establish a career. Alaina is undoubtedly a talented artist, but this is not the way you build her career up because I don’t see the followup to this netting her another hit and establishing her as a star.

The whole situation with On The Verge is very forced and inorganic. It represents a problem that has been plaguing country radio, which is why I would end it effective immediately. It’s not creating stars and it no longer serves a purpose. Why continue to run something that is ineffective and only strokes the egos of label executives? It’s just causing problems and getting the hopes of young artists and their fans. You can’t force radio and people to like a song, no matter how hard you push it down their throats. Speaking of which…

  • A Song Can Only Be On The Airplay Charts for 25 Weeks at Max

This solution is 100% directed at labels pushing the likes of Chase Bryant and Canaan Smith down our throats when nobody cares about them and their music. Just look at the chart right now and you can find songs that have been on it for over 30 weeks. As glad as I was to see Jon Pardi hit #1 with “Head Over Boots,” I cringe when I see it took over 45 weeks to reach this achievement (ironically it took exactly 11 months). Chase Rice infamously pushed a song for over a year to reach the top ten. This kind of gerrymandering bullshit needs to end and that’s why I would cap the limit for charting at 25 weeks. This gives labels just over six months to push their single at radio. After 25 weeks it must leave the chart and go recurrent. I think this is a good balance between giving labels enough time to push songs, as well as account for slower growing songs. It’s more than enough time to determine the true peak of the song. If this type of rule were to ever be implemented I could just see labels crying this is unfair because they can’t push their newest project for 40 weeks. And to them I say this: Perhaps this demonstrates how you shouldn’t waste time and money on artists that simply don’t connect (looking at you Curb Records).

  • The Top 30 on Both Mediabase & Billboard Airplay Charts Must Contain At Least 10 Songs with Female Artists

Now this solution and the next one are bound to be controversial, especially since I just said that you shouldn’t force music on the charts. But hear me out. Tomato Gate did absolutely nothing to improve the standing of women being played on country radio. A bunch of words and think-pieces have been churned out, yet no viable solution has been put on the table. Having the same three female artists in the top 30 is not enough progress. So in my opinion the only way you reverse the discrimination of country radio against women is to implement a rule like this one. Radio programmers aren’t going to willingly change their ways, so you have to force feed it down their throats so they will comply. Women deserve a fair chance and this is the only way I can think of them getting it. Notice I say it doesn’t have to be songs by solo female acts, but it simply must have a female artist on the song. The reason I word it like this is because major labels aren’t equipped at the moment to have ten female solo artists on the radio. They simply aren’t enough to be pushed, but by implementing this rule it would force them to sign more female talent and more importantly push them to radio when they’re guaranteed to have a chance. Now I realize not all of these pushed female acts would connect with audiences and if they don’t, they simply fall out of the top 30 in favor of a new one. Nothing would be forced.

  • The Top 30 on Both Mediabase & Billboard Airplay Charts Must Contain At Least 2 Songs by Artists 45+ Years Old

While women have been the victims of sexism and misogyny at country radio, the other big problem country radio has always had is ageism. As soon as an artist gets older, they casted aside and ignored by country radio. This is bullshit. Alan Jackson, Reba and George Strait are all still making music and want to be played on country radio. There’s plenty of people who still want to hear them on country radio. I say they should still be getting played and this rule would force radio to continue to consider these senior acts. Why should Chris Lane be getting played over George Strait when Strait can outsell and outperform him in his sleep?

  • The Implementation of a Quality Assurance Panel

This last one is pretty self-explanatory, but might also be the most important. I would establish a Quality Assurance Panel for country radio. It would consist of ten people whose job would be to vote on whether or not a single should qualify for country radio. In other words, is the single country enough for country radio? This would eliminate pop carpetbagging and outsiders hijacking the format. It would also still allow for pop country songs, which many people enjoy and wouldn’t be taken off the airwaves. A strict checklist would have to be met for the song to get passed by the panel (instrumentation, lyrics, etc.). So while I’m not banning Sam Hunt off the airwaves, a quality panel would force him to either start making country leaning songs or get the hell out and go to pop radio. Kelsea Ballerini would be forced to incorporate more country elements into her music too if she wants to stay on country radio.

For the fun of it, I decided to apply my hypothetical solutions to the current chart. Here’s what the top 30 would look like after removing all songs that would fail to be on the current chart and applying my rules:

  1. Dierks Bentley & Elle King – “Different For Girls”
  2. Cole Swindell – “Middle of a Memory”
  3. Jason Aldean – “A Little More Summertime”
  4. Zac Brown Band – “Castaway”
  5. Miranda Lambert – “Vice”
  6. Tim McGraw – “How I’ll Always Be”
  7. Old Dominion – “Song For Another Time”
  8. Florida Georgia Line (feat. Tim McGraw) – “May We All”
  9. Brett Eldredge – “Wanna Be That Song”
  10. Chris Stapleton – “Parachute”
  11. Jerrod Niemann & Lee Brice – “A Little More Love”
  12. Chris Young (feat. Vince Gill) – “Sober Saturday Night”
  13. Carrie Underwood – “Dirty Laundry”
  14. Chris Janson – “Holdin’ Her”
  15. Josh Turner – “Hometown Girl”
  16. Michael Ray – “Think A Little Less”
  17. Trent Harmon – “There’s A Girl”
  18. Craig Campbell – “Outskirts of Heaven”
  19. Eric Church (feat. Rhiannon Giddens) – “Kill a Word”
  20. Eli Young Band – “Saltwater Gospel”
  21. Runaway June – “Lipstick”
  22. Mickey Guyton – “Why Baby Why” (“Heartbreak Song” is not country)
  23. Easton Corbin – “Are You With Me”
  24. Darius Rucker – “If I Told You”
  25. RaeLynn – “Love Triangle”
  26. Ashley Monroe – “Dixie”
  27. Toby Keith – “A Few More Cowboys”
  28. George Strait – “Goin’ Goin’ Gone”
  29. Maddie & Tae – “Sierra”
  30. Margo Price – “Hurtin’ On The Bottle”

Let me know in the comments what you think. These are all hypothetical solutions and are closer to fantasy than reality. If you have any ideas you would like to add I would be glad to hear them.

Upcoming/Recent Country & Americana Releases

  • Tomorrow the following albums will be released:
    • Dwight YoakamSwimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars…
    • Reckless KellySunset Motel
  • Next week the legendary John Prine will release his duets album For Better, or Worse
  • William Michael Morgan will release his debut album Vinyl next week too
  • Wayne Hancock will be releasing a new album titled Slingin’ Rhythm on October 28

In Memory of Windmills Country

Country writer Grady Smith brought to us the unfortunate news this past week that beloved country writer, chart analyst and all-around wonderful person Windmills Country (real name Devarati Ghosh) has passed away. Her loss will be greatly felt throughout the country music insider community, as her kindness and insight was second to none. I know she influenced several of my best posts on this blog and inspired me to take on many challenging topics. While I never met her in real life, her advice and presence will be forever felt. May she rest in peace.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week

Creedence Clearwater Revival – “Born on the Bayou” – I’ve been digging into CCR’s catalog lately and they’re probably one of the most unsung acts of the 60s and 70s in my book. The way they blend soul, R&B and that swampy rock sound is infectious and memorable. You really can’t go wrong with any of their music.

Tweet of the Week

Yep! Also ties into last week’s Hodgepodge.

A Spot-On Review of the New Jason Aldean Album

all-of-aldeans-songs-sound-the-same

I’m still unable to listen to the new Aldean album, but I don’t have any plans to do so when I can anyway. According to people I trust on country music opinions, they all echo this above review: every song sounds the same. Based on what I’ve heard on the previews and Aldean’s track record, I’m not surprised. After all you don’t want to get too “songwriter-y.” Aldean is such a meat head.

The Hodgepodge: Five Thoughts on Country & Americana Music Right Now

Thumbs Down

Derek is busy dealing with some stuff this week (don’t worry there’s nothing wrong, he’s just a little too busy to write), so I’m stepping in this week to write the Hodgepodge. It was good timing too, as I have multiple things on my mind I would like to discuss at the moment regarding the current states of country and Americana music. There was no way I could pick just one topic, so I’ve decided to do a little state of the genre type address on some topics I feel are pressing and need addressed. So enough pleasantries and let’s get to the talking points, starting with the most prevalent on my mind…

1. Country & Americana Music are Down in Quality in 2016

This seems to be the consensus amongst not only you the readers, but the industry as a whole. I agree with this sentiment, to an extent. There hasn’t been as much quality music being churned out this year compared to recent years. This is true not only for mainstream/popular country, but in the independent and Americana scenes too. But I see people talking like there’s a complete lack of quality and this just isn’t true. I think the issue people are getting mixed up here is genre qualifications and quality standards. No two albums exemplify this more than Sturgill Simpsons’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth and Robert Ellis’ self-titled album. Here you have two artists that have been consistently identified as country artists by the fans and are pretty popular too. They then both release albums that are sonically different from all of their previous releases. It’s a departure from their usual sound and as you know music fans don’t always react well to change. People are calling these albums bad because they’re not fitting their standards of genre qualifications. It’s not evaluating the actual quality of the music for what it is, but rather arbitrarily dismissing them for not meeting their sonic standards. This is flat-out lazy on the part of listeners and reviewers employing this train of thought. I will never dismiss quality music just because it doesn’t fit what I wanted. If its quality, it’s quality. I don’t give a shit if it doesn’t fit the genre I wanted it to fit. Of course I’ve already laid out this thought process on my review of Keith Urban’s Ripcord.

With this point aside, I think the better way to describe country and Americana music in 2016 is that there hasn’t been enough quality music that reflects the roots and sounds of the genre. There’s a lot of different sounds and influences being experimented with right now. I think mainly it’s a lot of artists trying to find a way to stand out while also trying to satisfy their own creative itches. I also stand by my point that a lot of artists are tired of being put in genre boxes. As Robert Ellis sings on “Elephant,” how can you call it art when you’re sticking to a dotted line? I have faith that things are about to improve, especially in the month of August where there are several potential album releases that could be album of the year contenders.

I think there’s a bigger problem though facing artists that is rearing its head in 2016. Both in mainstream and independent scenes the competition for eye balls has never been greater, which makes these problems so concerning…

2. Too Many Independent Country & Americana Acts are Failing to Stand Out/Get Their Name Out There

Many up and coming acts love to look at the likes of Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton as inspirations for their own path to success in music. They love to think they too can replicate the paths they took and be household names just like them. I get a lot of pitches every single week of starry-eyed, hungry and ambitious artists looking to have their music featured here right on the blog in the hopes that they can get enough promotion to stand out and be “discovered.” But here’s the problem I see: they don’t do enough to stand out. It’ll be good music, but it does absolutely nothing to stand out and be different from the crowd. Keep in mind I get pitches from all over the world, not just in the United States. As an independent artist you have to remember you’re going against thousands of other acts in the same position as you. If you want to be recognized and featured on blogs like mine, you have to do everything you can to be unique while also producing genuinely great music. It’s easier said than done. I may be coming off sounding like a pompous ass, but that’s not my point. If I featured and reviewed everything pitched to me, I would never get any sleep. Readers would be driven away by the lack of quality standout music. It’s my job to feature the very best not only to keep my sanity and keep readers’ attentions, but because somebody has to be a gatekeeper for quality. This means I have to turn down upwards of 90% of what is pitched to me.

Then of course there are artists out there who do make great enough music to standout and get featured on my blog, but they simply don’t do enough to grow their fan base and stand out even more. This could be due to lack of a web presence, social media presence and/or touring presence. It’s maddening to watch talented artists who have a chance to really break out squander opportunities before their very eyes and be stuck in the same position for years. Just being featured and getting critical acclaim on blogs like mine isn’t the end all be all to get your name out there. It’s 1% of the things you need to do to grow.

Of course on the flip-side…

3. Major Labels Have Become Too Reliant on Radio to Break Out New Artists

This comes after I had a lengthy and constructive conversation with Christopher Baggs the other day on Twitter. For those unaware, Baggs is a country music chart tracker and industry insider who is very knowledgeable when it comes to these subjects. I highly recommend following him if you don’t already. Anyway our conversation begins after he pointed out how this week on the aircheck chart that 30 of the top 70 songs did not move up or lower in position from the week before with their bullet along with no recurrent. On top of that there’s a very crowded release schedule. This is obviously a big problem. To see the full conversation between us, start at this tweet (click on the date to see the full conversation):

We both agree that right now the labels are on a very dangerous path that could potentially hurt all parties involved. Anyone who follows the Current Pulse of Mainstream Country Music knows that there are a lot of songs being pushed way too long on the chart and overstaying their welcome. Chase Rice’s “Gonna Wanna Tonight” spent over a year on the chart! Major labels are taking a boom or bust approach to breaking new and lower level acts via radio and this in turn is delaying new albums from these artists. The Cadillac Three have spent several years on Big Machine and are just now releasing their first album under the label in August. This is all because labels are hell-bent on making singles work and this is just short-sighted. With all of the technology and resources at their disposal there’s no reason why they can’t find other ways to break these artists out and get their names out. I don’t understand why these labels just can’t accept that sometimes a song is not a hit and move on. If a song spends 20 weeks in the 30s to 40s on the chart without hitting the top 30, that should be a sign that this song is just not going to work. But every label has seemed to adopt this boom or bust attitude, so now we’re about to find out what happens when you try to put 100 gallons of water into a 20 gallon bucket (it’s not going to be pretty),

4. Female Artists Still Aren’t Given a Fair Shake 

I’ll keep this one short and simple. It’s over one year after Tomato Gate and not a damn thing has changed in regards to female artists at radio. The only female acts that can get consistently played at radio are Carrie Underwood (an established star) and Kelsea Ballerini (a pop artist that has a label behind her willing to throw obscene amounts of money into marketing because her boyfriend’s dad runs it). Jennifer Nettles will be gone from the chart soon. Miranda Lambert will get a nice initial run with “Vice,” but I highly doubt this song reaches the top of the chart. Maddie & Tae have appeared to be Musgrave’d by programmers. All the while labels continue to pigeonhole their new female acts into two categories: straight pop or throwback country. Of course things aren’t exactly great for female artists in independent scene either. Just like in popular country, male artists get far and away more attention than female artists at festivals. It doesn’t help also when critics like myself stick our feet in our mouth and call them great female artist when we should just say great artist like we do for male artists (I saw an artist point this out and it made me realize I’m guilty of this on occasion). Just overall we could do better on giving female artists a fairer shake and opportunities.

5. Despite all of these issues, I think fans are becoming more informed than ever.

I think slowly but surely more and more country fans are realizing they can’t rely on mainstream media and radio to get their country music fix. They’re taking to the Internet and discovering great artists on their own and through blogs like this one. It may not be that noticeable, but I can truly sense that people are no longer accepting the status quo that has been presented to them. If enough fans become informed and call the bullshit out, that’s when real change and progress gets made. Support your favorite artists and tell your friends too.

Upcoming/Recent Country & Americana Releases

  • As far as I’m aware there are no major releases on our radar this week. But next week the following albums will be released
    • Lori McKennaThe Bird & The Rifle
    • Hillary Scott – Love Remains
  • In two weeks Alan Jackson will release the box-set Genuine: The Alan Jackson Story digitally. It was released last year exclusively in a physical format at Walmart. As someone who owns it, I highly recommend it if you’re an Alan Jackson fan.
  • Also on August 5 Cody Johnson will release his new album Gotta Be Me.
  • Dolly Parton will be releasing a new album on August 19 titled Pure & Simple.
  • Amanda Shires announced she will be releasing a new album titled My Piece of Land on September 16.
  • On September 30 the legendary John Prine will be releasing a new duets album called For Better, or Worse. The female talent featured on the album will be staggering and expansive, including the likes of Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves.

Throwback Thursday Song

“Help Me Make It Through The Night” by The Highwaymen – Country’s greatest supergroup performs the classic Kris Kristofferson tune together. Just hit play and enjoy.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week

“Let The Storm Descend Upon You” by Avantasia – I’m not usually a big metal listener, but I instantly loved symphonic metal group Avantasia upon first listen. Their entire new album Ghostlights is highly recommended from yours truly, but my favorite on it is hands down this song. It’s a whopping 12 minute epic! But I assure it’s fantastic. This is probably one of my favorite songs of 2016.

Tweet of the Week

This is in reference to a recent interview Granger Smith had with The Boot, calling Texas the minor leagues. And this tweet is pretty damn funny (funnier than anything Earl Dibbles Jr. has ever done).

The Perfect Steven Tyler Album Review

Steven Tyler Sucks

There’s no chance in hell we’re reviewing the new Steven Tyler album because it is all kinds of awful. This iTunes review here sums it up pretty well (although I’m not sure if I agree on the Run DMC version of “Walk This Way” being bad). Tyler is nothing but a trend chaser desperately trying to cling to the spotlight.