For years Jennifer Nettles was most famously known as one half of the popular country duo Sugarland. Nettles and the other half of Sugarland Kristian Bush racked up several hits and generally experienced a lot of success. But now they’ve decided to each pursue solo careers that has resulted in varying degrees of success. Bush’s debut solo single reached the top 25 on the country airplay charts and received favorable reviews on his debut solo album Southern Gravity. It’s been more up and down for Nettles. Her debut solo single “That Girl” only just peaked inside the top 40 of the country airplay charts, but her debut solo album of the same name hit #1.
It’s been more down since this though, as her followup single from that album, “Me Without You,” did even worse on the charts. Last summer she released a new song called “Sugar” that was arguably the worst song she ever recorded. It was never officially released as a single though, as her label Mercury Nashville dropped her. Looking back now this appears to be a blessing in disguise. Nettles was almost immediately picked up by Big Machine Records, a label that generally allows older, veteran artists to have more creative say in their music and image. Most importantly “Sugar” never saw the light of day again once she joined Big Machine. She’s now back with a new single, her debut music with Big Machine, “Unlove You.” And its way better than “Sugar.”
Jennifer Nettles has always been at her best when she’s allowed to let her big voice be the front and center of song. That’s exactly what “Unlove You” allows Nettles to do. The gentle play of an acoustic guitar starts the song off. Nettles then begins to sing about something that she can’t get off her mind and that is the love she felt towards a man who was in her life. She’s tried everything she can to shake the deep feelings of love she felt for him, but she’s finally realized this impossible. She knows that she can never stop loving him, even though she knows he will probably never feel the same. The amount of aching and pain in not only the lyrics, but Nettles’ voice really conveys the emotional stress that many listeners will be able to connect with. It’s a desperate kind of love that you don’t want, but will never break.
Needless to say the songwriting on this song is absolutely top-notch. It’s not a big surprise when you see who wrote it: Nettles and Brandy Clark. These two have been touring together extensively over the last year, so it was only natural these two have been writing together. The instrumentation is mostly good, although the drum loops and pop effects added in parts of the chorus throughout the song is unnecessary. Thankfully it doesn’t drag the song down. It would have really been best to just stick with the acoustic guitar throughout the entire song, instead of just the beginning and end parts. Nettles’ vocals are at their best and as I said above can be great when allowed to shine like they were on this song.
“Unlove You” is the exact song Jennifer Nettles needed to reinvigorate her solo career. It elevates all of her strengths and suits her perfectly. People are responding too, as it was one of the most added songs at country radio recently. It appears poised to continue to rise up the airplay charts and may be the biggest hit of her solo career yet. Cam proved last year that stirring love ballads can be accepted by mainstream country crowds and Nettles follows this lead with “Unlove You.” This is definitely one of the better mainstream country singles you’ll hear in 2016.
What a month of country music! April was full of fantastic music from start to finish. A couple of album of the year contenders emerged, there were some pleasant surprises and one big disappointment. It was an eventful month for sure and now it’s time to look back at the very best that was released in the month of April. Putting together the top ten list for this month was a little difficult being that there were so many contenders. Looking ahead to the month of May I don’t see quite as much competition, but I know for a fact there will be one album of the year contender. We’ll get to that later. For now let’s look at what I considered the top ten country songs of April 2015.
Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen – “Standards” – There were plenty of great songs this month, but when I heard “Standards” I knew it would be #1 for this month. It may even be #1 for the whole year, as I consider it a top contender for song of the year. It’s probably the most polite country protest song I’ve heard, but that makes it even more endearing. The hook of the song, “I’ve got standards,” is perfect and easy to remember. Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen absolutely nailed this song. This was the highlight of the fantastic album Hold My Beer, Vol. 1.
Will Hoge – “Guitar or a Gun” – Any other month this is easily the #1 song, but it had the misfortune of going against one of the other strongest songs of the year. Regardless this song is pretty damn cool. Originally it had 12 verses, but was obviously significantly trimmed down. That credit goes to Hoge, who wrote the song with Gary Allan and Dylan Altman. They helped convince him to trim the song down and in the process created a neat story leaving the listener to decide what happens. Hoge’s great new album Small Town Dreams had a lot of good songs, but this was the best in my mind.
Zac Brown Band – “Bittersweet” – As I’ve said I was pretty disappointed with their new album Jekyll + Hyde, but I give them credit for a few good songs on it. The best in my mind was “Bittersweet,” which told the tragic tale of a man losing his wife. It’s a heartbreaking and beautiful song, easily the best song they wrote on the album. It’s a shame they didn’t write more songs like this one on Jekyll + Hyde.
Reba – “Just Like Them Horses” – For some reason I didn’t expect much at all from Reba’s new album. Perhaps it was the cynic in me or it was because I hated the lead single from it. Regardless she proved me wrong, as it was a surprisingly great album. Like “Bittersweet,” “Just Like Them Horses” is another heart-wrenching song about losing a loved one. Reba’s vocals are fantastic on this song and the production is perfect. This is definitely one of the best songs I’ve heard from a mainstream artist this year.
Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen – “El Dorado” – Bowen and Rogers’ second song on the list rounds out the top five. “El Dorado” is a song that grows on me the more I listen to it. At first the song doesn’t really grab you. But as you listen to it more you realize what a great story is being told in this song. On the surface it seems like a song about an old western town, but it’s really a song about life. The instrumentation is top-notch and the harmony in the chorus is icing on the cake.
Dwight Yoakam – “Man of Constant Sorrow” – Dwight Yoakam quietly released one of the best albums in country music this year when he released Second Hand Heart last month. It’s a rocking album that will grab your attention from start to finish. The most rocking song though is “Man of Constant Sorrow.” It’s a song that will easily get you to tap your feet along to the beat. Yoakam’s vocals are as great as ever too. This is really a song you need to hear for yourself, as it can’t properly be described.
Will Hoge – “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To” – Another appearance by Hoge in the top ten with the heartfelt “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To.” Hoge sings about how much his dad meant to him and how they don’t make people like his dad like they used to. You can tell this is a personal song for Hoge, adding more emotion to it. A really fine song off a fine album.
Reba – “Love Land” – Reba lands on the list again with another emotion song in “Love Land.” For parents this song will cut to the bone even harder. It’s sung from the point of view of a mother watching her daughter grow up and marry, concerned every step of the way. But of course she realizes her daughter knows best and that she’ll always be there for her. The latter part of the song is even more emotional as it’s about her daughter having her grandson, but the doctors say he isn’t going to make it at first before trying again and saving the baby’s life. It tells a great story and Reba is Reba.
Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen – “‘Til It Does” – Is it really a surprise that these two have a third song on my top ten list? That whole album was just so great from start to finish and I recommend giving it a listen if you haven’t yet. It’s refreshingly traditional and honest. This song is no different, as it brilliantly explains the pain of going through heartbreak. Bowen takes the lead on this song, but don’t discount Rogers either. The harmonies are great and Rogers closes the song out perfectly.
Dwight Yoakam – “Off Your Mind” – Rounding out my top ten is Yoakam’s “Off Your Mind.” Like the previous song, it deals with heartbreak. Except this song has an underlying bitterness and anger that really helps you connect with the song. The man in the song has moved on, but he acknowledges the contempt he has towards his ex. He’s now alone, right off her mind where she left him. Great storytelling by the iconic Yoakam.
Kristian Bush – “Giving It Up” & “Sweet Love” – In a stacked month of releases, Bush kind of got left out. Still his debut solo album was quite decent and worth a listen.
George Strait – “Let It Go” – This light song didn’t stand a chance against so many heavy hitting songs. But at least it’ll be one of the few good songs on the radio this summer.
Will Hoge – “Desperate Times” & “The Last Thing I Need”
Dwight Yoakam – “Vs of Birds” & “Liar”
Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen – “Good Luck With That”
Zac Brown Band – “Dress Blues” – You’re probably surprised I didn’t put this in the top ten. It’s a great song, but it’s a cover and I didn’t want to put a cover over so many good original songs.
One-half of the popular country duo Sugarland and now current solo artist Kristian Bush has made a bigger impact that I thought he would as a solo artist. His lead single from his new album, “Trailer Hitch,” he released last summer did quite well on country radio. It peaked at #21 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart, much higher than I expected it to. After all it went against the grain of the current popular flavor of country radio with its good message and acoustic instrumentation. Bush’s brand of pop country is a breath of fresh air compared to the other crap on the airwaves today. This approach and style largely carries over to his debut solo album Southern Gravity too.
Southern Gravity begins with “Make Another Memory,” a song about a couple spending time together and making memories. It has an up-tempo beat with some slick guitar instrumentation. The theme of the song is a little sappy, but it’s a pretty decent song. The next song, “Light Me Up,” has nice instrumentation, but the lyrics are too cliché for me. It just feels too “paint by the numbers” and formulaic to really enjoy. The title is also repeated too much and can get annoying after repeated listens. The third song is “Trailer Hitch,” which I covered last July when it came out. From my review: “The song is about how everyone in the world is obsessed with money and material possessions (spot on). And yet as Busch points out you can’t take any of this with you when you die. As he says, you’ve never seen a hearse with a trailer hitch. It’s a great message in a corrupt and greedy world.”
The album’s title track is about southern lifestyle and way of life. While the sentiment and feel of this song means well, “Southern Gravity” just feels like a lot of clichés thrown together about the south. I wish the songwriting was better because I enjoy the instrumentation and Bush’s vocals. “Flip Flops” is a funny song about a drunk guy wandering around the streets near a beach trying to make it back home. He’s so drunk that he’s just trying to stay in his flip-flops all the while people point and laugh, taking bets on if he’s going to “bust his ass.” The is the kind of light-hearted, drinking at the beach song I can get behind because it doesn’t take itself seriously and the instrumentation is actually quite pleasant.
I just want to take a moment to point out too how much I appreciate Bush incorporating good messages throughout his music in this album without getting too sappy or preachy. And the next song, “Giving It Up,” is a perfect example. It’s about giving up addictions, demons and other negative influences for the love in your life. By doing this you finally experience life to the fullest without those demons plaguing your life. This is a great song with a great message. Bush sings about his love for California in “Feeling Fine California.” At least that’s what it seems like at first. As the song progresses you realize that maybe he isn’t so fine in California, as he reveals that a breakup with a woman he loved back in Tennessee drove him to go west. So instead of this song being a love letter to California, it’s more of a song about coping with heartbreak and ignoring your pain. I think this song would have been better if the message wasn’t so subtle.
While the cliché chorus may throw you off at first, the message of “Waiting on an Angel” ultimately proves to triumph past it. The song is about a man waiting on an angel, a woman he can call his true love. He feels like he will never find her, but by the end of the song he finally finds her. It’s a little sappy, but it means well. This is far from my favorite track, but it isn’t as bad as I thought it was on my first listen. “Walk Tall” is about standing up and pushing forward not just when it’s “daylight,” but also when it’s “moonlight.” This song has a good theme, but the lyric choices are pretty questionable at best and dumb at worst. For example, choosing daylight and moonlight to highlight good and bad times is just uncreative. Also the line in the chorus about being a man and rebel is just annoyingly stupid. I wanted to like this song more, but the songwriting really hurt it. The following song, “Sending You a Sunset,” is the most boring track on the album. It’s a beach love song that just completely loses my interest from the beginning until the end. There’s just nothing for me to sink my teeth into or really connect with. This feels like a filler song.
Thankfully Bush gets back to a more interesting song in “Sweet Love” next. It’s a heartbreak ballad about a guy still loving a woman after she gave up on their relationship. The light, acoustic production of this song gives it an easy-going tempo, which suits Bush’s voice well. This is definitely one of the better songs on Southern Gravity. The final song on the album is “House on a Beach” and unfortunately it’s the worst song on the album. All the song is about is buying a house on the beach and living a fantasy life. Of course we would all love to live this life, but what’s the point in making song about it? Bush co-wrote this song with Canaan Smith, which helps explain why this song is what it is. It’s completely forgettable and would have been better off left on the cutting room floor.
Southern Gravity does a lot of things right throughout the album. Bush’s vocals are solid and the “less is more” approach to instrumentation serves the songs well. It’s the songwriting on this album where I feel like it’s a mix bag. There are good songs on this album like “Trailer Hitch” and “Giving It Up.” Yet there isn’t a single great song that blows me away. Then there are songs that are just there and really don’t do anything (“Sending You A Sunset” and “Light Me Up”). The only bad song is “House on a Beach,” which kind of sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the rest of the album. Bush is preaching simplicity and kindness in “Trailer Hitch” and then in “House on a Beach” is talking about a dream house on the beach. It just doesn’t make sense thematically. By the way it should be noted Busch co-wrote every track on this album, which I applaud him on. But next time he needs to find better people to collaborate with, as this album doesn’t represent what he can fully do. Southern Gravity is a good album that I give a light recommendation, but ultimately I was left wanting and expecting a little more.
Yesterday in this week’s current pulse of mainstream country music, I was pretty frustrated and exasperated with country radio. The reasons being of course is that nothing new is being tried by country radio and the songs with substance are getting harder to find. They’re simply rehashing the same old crap. Case in point: Jason Aldean’s new single “Tonight Looks Good On You” is surging and will undoubtedly reach #1 on the chart. It’s just another version of Aldean’s 2014 hit “Burnin’ It Down.” On top of that it’s a Dallas Davidson song. I mean come on! I thought country radio had moved passed Davidson’s bullshit, but apparently not.
So as I normally do when I get frustrated with terrible music, I go listen to music I enjoy. As I sat and listened to Hozier’s excellent 2014 debut album, an idea came to me for this week’s Hodgepodge. Why not take a look at pop radio and compare it to country radio? It’s a perfect time to do so when many country stations across the nation are playing blatant pop music. When Kanye West and Ed Sheeran are getting airplay on country radio, you know shit has hit the fan and country stations have run out of answers. So to conduct this comparison, we’ll take a look at the top 20 on the Billboard Top Pop Songs chart from last week and compare it to the top 20 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart from last week. The same exact rules will apply to this as the current pulse that runs every week.
The -3 score on last week’s pulse will not be used, since it’s the cumulative score of the top 30. Only the pulse of the top 20 will be used. By taking away the bottom ten songs, the pulse of the top 20 is 0. That will be the score we use to compare to the pop chart. Today you will get to see the very rare occurrence of yours truly evaluating pop music. See what you’ve done to me country radio? So without further ado let’s take a look at the Top Pop Chart:
Taylor Swift – “Style” 0
Maroon 5 – “Sugar” 0
Ed Sheeran – “Thinking Out Loud” +1 (Sheeran is awesome)
Bruno Mars & Mark Ronson – “Uptown Funk” +1 (This song is great, despite being overplayed)
Pitbull & Ne-Yo – “Time of Our Lives” -1 (Pitbull sucks no matter what genre he is in)
Ellie Goulding – “Love Me Like You Do” -1 (A terrible Fifty Shades of Grey song)
Kanye West, Rihanna & Paul McCartney – “FourFiveSeconds” 0
Natalie La Rose & Jeremih – “Somebody” -1
Calvin Harris & Ellie Goulding – “Outside” 0
Ariana Grande – “One Last Time” -1
Nick Jonas – “Chains” +1 (I’m surprised I liked this)
Zedd & Selena Gomez – “I Want You To Know” +1
Taylor Swift – “Blank Space” -1
One Direction – “Night Changes” -1
Lillywood & Robin Schulz – “Prayer In C” 0
Flo Rida, Sage The Gemini & Lookas – “G.D.F.R.” -1 (Flo Rida is the Toby Keith of pop music. He just keeps hanging on.)
Jason DeRulo – “Want To Want Me” -1
The Weeknd – “Earned It” -1 (Another terrible Fifty Shades of Grey song)
Usher & Juicy J – “I Dont Mind” -1
Tori Kelly – “Nobody Love” 0
So the total current pulse of pop music is -8. Wow! It’s even worse than country radio! Yet country radio is borrowing from it. It shouldn’t be borrowing period from pop music, whether it’s better or worse. Still country radio is borrowing from a genre that is even worse. There are genre lines for a reason. The only common denominator between both groups of songs is the club theme. You can thank Sam Hunt for bringing this into country music. Music about going to the club is just plain dumb and it’s why people laugh at artists like Pitbull and Flo Rida. I will say though I would take pop’s club music over country’s club music.
After this not very surprising revelation, I think I can safely say that all of radio is nothing but a vast wasteland of garbage songs. Country radio isn’t the only one lacking substance. However it’s imperative if I point out the big different between both. Country radio and pop radio historically have been viewed completely different by listeners. Pop radio is a mix of several different genres all in one place for casual listeners to hear. Upbeat, fun, party songs are the norm for pop and everyone pretty much knows this. You don’t hear a lot of songs that you would consider classics get on pop radio today, save for the likes of Adele and Hozier maybe. In years past you had icons like Michael Jackson dominating pop, but I don’t see any singers like Jackson on the horizon.
Country radio on the other hand was always viewed by people as a place to go for songs about life, love and other themes that explore deeper meaning. It was the genre of substance. You could hear a song like Vince Gill’s “Go Rest High On That Mountain” and be brought to tears. George Strait’s “Give It Away” or Garth Brooks’ “The Dance” connected with anyone out there whoever had their heart-broken. Go back a little over ten years and you could hear a song on country radio like Josh Turner’s “Long Black Train” that had a great message to anyone of any age. These are the kind of songs that made country music what it was. It was what made you and me fans of country music.
Now an entire generation views country music as a laughing-stock full of songs about drinking, debauchery and partying. That respect country music once held in popular culture has eroded away. People turn on country radio and don’t even recognize the genre. Some people don’t even turn on the radio. Sure there is plenty of great independent country music out there and sites like this help spread the word of it. But why would people seek it out? After what they hear on country radio, it makes them run away from the genre. They’ve got such a sour taste from country radio that they won’t even try the good country music. Country music fans need something to believe in and hear to reaffirm their faith in the genre. Will we get that before it’s too late? For the sake of country music, I hope so.
Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases
Will Hoge will come out with his new album Small Town Dreams next Tuesday. A couple of months ago we got a taste of what’s to come on the album and based on that I’m expecting this to be a good one. Derek will be reviewing this one, as Hoge is one of his favorites.
Kristian Bush’s debut solo album Southern Gravity will also be released next Tuesday. The lead single “Trailer Hitch” was a surprisingly good song, so it’ll be interesting to hear what the rest of the album sounds like and whether the sound of Sugarland is evident at all.
The third notable release next week and the biggest in the independent realm is Pokey LaFarge’sSomething In The Water. This could quietly be one of the best releases in April.
On Monday, Jason Isbell tweeted: “New new album is done and mastered.” So maybe we’ll get this sooner than July? I certainly hope so. We should at least hear the first single from it very soon.
Throwback Thursday Song
George Jones – “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?” – You know how I was saying up above about how country music was the genre about life and connecting with everyday people? This song articulates that point perfectly. And it’s a song many country fans wonder today.
Non-Country Song of the Week
AC/DC – “Shoot To Thrill” – This is one of my all-time favorite AC/DC songs. The high notes blow me away every time.
Tweet of the Week
Bobby Bones thinks he started the discussion about "Girl Crush." God complex much?
Anti-Bobby Bones tweets are always great. He’s another problem hurting country music, but that’s another post for another day.
Two iTunes Reviews That Will Make You Face Palm
I’ve been sitting on these gems for a couple of weeks. These were under Eli Young Band’s new EP Turn It On. The first one justifies this terrible EP by saying everyone’s going pop in country, so it’s fine. The other says it’s fine because they wrote all four songs. Here’s an easy way to determine whether or not a song or group of songs suck: people having to list reasons to justify why it’s good. People making excuses for it. A great song speaks volumes on its own merit and doesn’t need to be explained why it’s good.
That’s it for the Hodgepodge this week! Be sure to sound off in the comments!