The Hodgepodge: My Favorite Hidden and Forgotten Country Gems

Country music is full of great artists and songs that carry out the rich tradition of country music. Most of these artists don’t get their deserved spotlight or recognition for whatever reason. Below I’ve listed some of my favorite artists and songs that we haven’t really covered here on Country Perspective. And I’ve also tossed in a deep cut from a mainstream artist for good measure. As always, the goal of this is just throw out some names and songs you may not be familiar in an effort to introduce you to some good music you may have missed along the way.

Levi Lowrey – “Wherever We Break Down”

Levi Lowrey is a collaborator with the Zac Brown Band, but has three rather good albums of his own. I think Lowrey is a great songwriter and has a wonderful voice. “Wherever We Break Down” is one of my favorite songs from Lowrey. It’s a love song about a couple trying to make ends meet.

Michaela Anne – “Lift Me Up”

I first heard this song while standing in line at Starbucks and it immediately caught my attention. One of the few times I ever used the app Shazam was with this song and thus I discovered Michaela Anne. A great callback country sound and a budding Americana star with an album due out later this year, Michaela Anne is a name you should familiarize yourself with if you haven’t yet.

Chris Young – “The Dashboard”

Back before he was singing bro country or boring heartbreak songs, Chris Young sang true, traditional story country songs. His first two albums are gems themselves. This song revolves around a pickup truck, but the story is nostalgic trip through time between the narrator and his military brother.

Keeley Valentino – “Hosea”

Keeley Valentino’s most recent EP got high praise from me, and I think she is one of the best vocalists I’ve heard. Off her second album, Three Cities, this song deals with the central characters trying to overcome a tough life at home. She wrote this with Randey Foster, and showcases great storytelling and delivery.

The Wood Brothers – “The Muse”

Zac Brown Band covered this song on their Grohl Sessions Vol. 1 EP, but The Wood Brothers’ original recording is one to listen to. Much more stripped back with a sound akin to Mumford & Sons, The Wood Brothers have 10 years worth of music to dive into.

Judson Cole Band – “Poor Widow’s Fate”

This Texas band released their debut album late in 2014, an album which I reviewed. It’s still a rather new song, but I song I wanted to highlight again because the more I listen to it, the better I like it. A slick, rowdy southern rock song dealing with an outlaw cowboy. The chorus is catchy and the song’s writing is sharp.

I’d love to hear some of your favorite lesser known country acts, albums, or deep cuts from more well-known artists.

Upcoming and Recent Country Releases

  • Robbie Fulks Upland Stories will be released Friday, April 1st.
  • Elephant Revival will release Petals on April 1st.
  • Granger Smith’s newest single will be “If The Boot Fits.” We’ll have a review for that song soon.
  • On The ACM’s, Carrie Underwood will sing “Church Bells” her next radio single.
  • Keith Urban’s new single is called “Wasted Time.”

Throwback Thursday Songs

In honor of the newest inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame, I’m going to have two Throwback Thursday Songs, one from Charlie Daniels and one from Randy Travis. Producer Fred Foster was the third inductee this year. Foster’s career highlights include producing some of Ray Orbison’s biggest hits like “Oh, Pretty Woman.” Foster also helped jump-start Dolly Parton’s career as well as Kris Kristofferson, with whom Foster co-wrote “Me and Bobby McGee.”

“Devil Went Down to Georgia” Charlie Daniels Band

 

“Forever And Ever Amen” Randy Travis

 

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week

“Only Love Can Break Your Heart” by Neil Young. This song inspired a novel of the same written by Ed Tarkington. I recently finished the novel and went on a little Neil Young kick afterwards, as classic rock shows up quite a bit throughout the novel. This was recorded on Young’s After The Gold Rush in 1970, and became his first top-40 single.

Tweet of the Week

In a rare public appearance since his stroke, Randy Travis made his way to the podium and said “Thank You” in response to learning of his induction to the Country Music HOF.

A Great iTunes Review

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From Kane Brown’s EP, this review highlights some great points for making good country music by quoting the chorus from David Allan Coe’s “The Ride.”

The Hodgepodge: The Band Perry Has Officially Split from Big Machine Label Group

After a couple of weeks of speculation, The Band Perry and Big Machine Label Group have officially parted ways, as announced on Tuesday March 1st. All this is in light of a failed rebranding process for the band, trying to become a pop anthem powerhouse. After balancing pop and country throughout their first two albums, including some great country songs in “If I Die Young” and the Glen Campbell cover “Gentle on My Mind,” The Band Perry released “Live Forever” as the jump-start for their pop move. “Live Forever” charted poorly, barely scratching the surface of the top 30 before stalling and dropping out.

Reactions to “Live Forever” were mostly negative, and the band’s upcoming album Heart + Beat was delayed, apparently to schedule a collaboration with Nikki Minaj, though that was only a rumor. The band then revealed another song from their new pop arsenal, the hilariously pop/hip-hop anthem “Put Me In The Game Coach.” That song sounded like a forgotten song from Disney’s High School Musical. Saving Country Music dutifully documented the head scratching saga of The Band Perry’s failed move into pop. As the band’s videos disappeared from the internet for 24 hours, then reappeared, many began to wonder if The Band Perry and BMLG were done with one another. And now we know they are.

The group’s turn to pop was doomed to fail from the get-go. It seems either they didn’t know what made good pop music, or the producers didn’t know what to do with them. Either way, the idea of turning from country to pop with a feel-good motivational anthem was the wrong choice. Grady Smith said it best back in December:

Aside from the fact that the songs were terrible, there’s a few of reasons why this turn to pop with the help of a major label has failed. The first could simply be that The Band Perry just isn’t an attractive pop sell. The reason why Taylor Swift’s move to pop has worked is because Taylor Swift developed a fan base who will buy anything she records, even 8 seconds of white noise. Taylor Swift fans idolize Taylor Swift because she’s more than just a singer and songwriter. She was a pillar of strength and comfort for young, teenage girls struggling through high school, and as that initial fan base has grown, so has Taylor’s music. The Band Perry doesn’t have any kind of core fan base, nor are they anything more than just a singing group to those fans.

Secondly, The Band Perry tried too much too soon. The group was just coming off a Grammy award for their recording of the folk country “Gentle on My Mind.” From a business standpoint, how do you not try to capitalize off that? And I’m not saying that every song they recorded needed to sound like “If I Die Young” or be a folky style of country. However, if you want to move to pop and have never really had a true pop song, wouldn’t it make more sense to test the waters with a pop song as an album cut/future single?

As opposed to having “Live Forever” has the lead off single for the third album, maybe they should have had something along the pop-country lines of Kelsea Ballerini as a lead off single, then drop “Live Forever” as a second single after the album is released to first gauge reactions to the song. I understand that releasing the song ahead of the album does gauge reactions and help the label predict the album’s success, just as they did. But if you went with my devil’s advocate scenario, I would think it would make the transition easier, and it would almost guarantee an album release by having a radio pleasing pop country single to rally behind before moving into 100% pop territory. That’s exactly what the Zac Brown Band did with “Homegrown” before eventually sending “Beautiful Drug” to radio.

We don’t know who spearheaded this whole move. Did The Band Perry want to be a pop group selling out arenas with generic anthems, or did the decision makers at Big Machine Label Group want another crossover artist under their belt? From what we know about how these major labels work, I think it’s more likely than not that the latter was the case, and the group was contractually obligated to play along. That’s just a theory and I could be 100% wrong.

Regardless of who was the driving force behind the move, the fact is that the move didn’t work. It was poorly planned, poorly executed, and a majority of people didn’t latch onto the idea. What’s next for The Band Perry is anyone’s guess. The group members remain in high hopes for their future. A release from the label’s chains should allow for them to make the music they want to make. Hopefully that music is the more country stylings the band has brought us over two albums. If that music is the pop direction they were headed, then at least The Band Perry should be able to release that music to their fans who want to hear it. For right now though, the soap opera of The Band Perry has appeared to reach its conclusion while we wait to see what the future holds for this country trio.

Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases

  • Loretta Lynn will release a new album called Full Circle tomorrow.
  • Texas Country singer turned mainstream Granger Smith will release his newest album Remington tomorrow.
  • Chris King’s Animal was pushed back to a release date on March 11.
  • Randy Houser’s newest album, Fired Up, will be released on March 11 as well.
  • On March 18, the Dave Cobb produced Southern Family will be released.
  • Jake Owen’s newest single will be called “American Country Love Song.”
  • Wade Bowen has announced a new album called Then Sings My Soul. The album will be available for pre order starting tomorrow and released on March 18th.
  • Kelsea Ballerini’s newest single will be “Peter Pan.”

Throwback Thursday Song

“Colder Weather” by Zac Brown Band – This 2011 single from Zac Brown Band is easily my favorite song from the group. I would even make the argument that “Colder Weather” is one of the best mainstream singles from the past decade. And if you haven’t heard it, the song’s cowriter, Levi Lowrey, performs the song with a third verse that didn’t make it into the Zac Brown Band recording.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week

“Waves” by Miguel feat. Kacey Musgraves – “Waves” is a song off Miguel’s third album, Wildheart. Miguel released a 5 song EP with various remixes of his original song, including this one where Kacey Musgraves provides vocals. I like this remix, and Kacey sounds great singing R&B.

Tweet of the Week

Am I allowed to write in candidates when I vote in November? A Willie Nelson presidency would seem to bring promises of better country music!

Two Maren Morris iTunes Reviews

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I don’t get the critique of the first one. Hippie? That’s your only complaint? That’s a stupid reason to hate an EP. The second review though is one I agree with. Maren Morris has a unique vibe to her music that I’m on board with.

Zac Brown Band’s New Strategic Partnership for Southern Ground

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On September 19th at the iHeartRadio Music Festival, Zac Brown announced a partnership of his own music label, Southern Ground, with some of music’s biggest label groups and brand masters. Big Machine Records (Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw), Republic Records (The Band Perry, Eli Young Band) and John Varvatos Records are the three labels lined up with Brown’s Southern Ground Artists, who was previously signed with Atlantic Records, in this strategic partnership.

Back in February of this year, renowned fashion designer John Varvatos began a partnership with Republic Records launching John Varvatos Records. From Universal Music’s website, Varvatos’ role in this Republic partnership is to focus on “spearheading the signing of new acts and the release of high-profile reissues and compilations. The imprint’s focus is genuine music in the spirit of legends.” Musical campaigns launched since this agreement included legendary artists like Willie Nelson, Robert Plant, ZZ Top (a Republic Record’s artist) and Dave Matthews.

For Brown and Southern Ground, this is certainly a positive move in respect toward the young music label. For Zac Brown alone, however, this is a curious move. Zac Brown famously criticized Luke Bryan (and subsequently Dallas Davidson) about his song “That’s My Kinda Night” calling that song “The worst song I’ve ever heard.” Alongside those comments was further commentary about how the same guys were writing the same songs in different arrangements.

Furthermore, Scott Borchetta, Big Machine Records’ CEO, has ruffled quite a few feathers among country music purists due to the control he has over his artists and the way he markets them. Republic Nashville, who also includes Florida Georgia Line, is a branch of Big Machine Label Group. Essentially, Scott Borchetta’s label features two of country music’s most successful crossover artists in Taylor Swift and Florida Georgia Line. From a musical standpoint, Brown’s decision to partner up here is a bit of a head scratcher. However, as much as he is a lead singer of a band, he’s also the mastermind behind Southern Ground Artists and this partnership provides several advantages to Southern Ground Artists. While the main motivation for this move revolves around more exposure and growth for the Southern Ground brand, we may see some other musical benefits as well.

Exposure for Southern Ground’s lesser-known artists – Alongside country’s big names on Big Machine, Southern Ground Artists may find more exposure from this partnership. Southern rockers Blackberry Smoke, singer-songwriters Niko Moon and Levi Lowery, and Americana, blues band The Wood Brothers already have a deep collaboration history with the Zac Brown Band. Many of these acts have toured with the band and have great musical catalogs of their own. The exposure that this partnership could provide may elevate these musical careers to a higher, well-deserved level. Not to mention, young acts like the AJ Ghent Band, Dugas and Little Feather may see a quicker rise in popularity as well. Also this exposure should help these artists, along with the Zac Brown Band to get increased radio play and maybe more award show appearances. If these award shows are as political as some claim, then a partnership with Big Machine can only help Zac and his band get some more votes on their side to win more well-deserved hardware.

Crossover Appeal – Blackberry Smoke is a southern rock band. AJ Ghent Band are self-described as “southern soul” with a blend of funk, blues, soul and rock. Dugas have a pop, rock sound. Simply put, Southern Ground Artists do not feature only country music. This label covers a wide range of genres, and Republic Records has the crossover capability to further this exposure. Lorde, Drake, Pearl Jam, Ariana Grande, Jack Johnson and Colbie Caillat are all signed under Republic. These artists from Southern Ground can potentially find a new audience for their music. And it’s not like they’re struggling for a fan base, but Zac Brown Band could also find success in this way too. Their newest EP, The Grohl Sessions Vol. 1 is more rock than any other genre. If these guys continue moving toward rock, then a label featuring ZZ Top, Pearl Jam and Godsmack can’t be a bad partner to have.

Possibility for more mainstream lyrical quality – This is my own opinion, but I don’t believe you’ll find a better group of songwriters than those in Southern Ground. Levi Lowrey’s two records feature great songs like “Wherever We Breakdown,” “Urge for Leaving” and “The Problem with Freedom.” Lowrey is also a credited co-writer on “Colder Weather,” which is arguably one of Zac Brown Band’s best songs. Niko Moon (formerly Nic Cowan) has songs like “Reno” and “Sun Dress” on his studio album, and has co-written Brown songs like “Keep Me In Mind,” “Lance’s Song” and “Day That I Die.” With a writing team like that including Brown himself, frequent co-writer Wyatt Durette, the men from Blackberry Smoke and The Woods Brothers, there’s a chance we could see these names on songs cut by other country artists like Eli Young Band, The Cadillac Three, or even Florida Georgia Line (we can dream, right?) And if there’s one thing we can all agree on, Zac Brown Band has released some great, quality songs to country radio.

More Musical Collaborations – Zac Brown Band and the fairly well-established Blackberry Smoke have collaborated with some of music’s best. It’s no secret Zac Brown enjoys playing and singing alongside his heroes. His band has performed with the likes of Jimmy Buffet, Gregg Allman, Dave Grohl and Dave Matthews just to name a few. And Blackberry Smoke has recorded a version of “Yesterday’s Wine” with the late, great George Jones and Jamey Johnson. With Varvatos’ work with musical legends, we may be treated to more collaborations between Southern Ground Artists and some of music’s best.

Arguably the most important potential benefit here is branding. Southern Ground is more than an independent record label; Southern Ground is a brand of life. Zac Brown has built the Southern Ground Music Festival, Camp Southern Ground, and Southern Grind, a metal and knife shop, just to name a few. Zac Brown commented on John Varvatos’ clothing line and the success of his brand since 2000. Varvatos’ branding skills and marketability should certainly assist in molding the Southern Ground brand Zac Brown has already worked to build.

Admittedly, there is one aspect to be weary of with this partnership. Much like how we may see writers from Southern Ground getting songs cut by Republic and Big Machine artists, we may also see writers from those two labels getting songs cut by Southern Ground Artists. Scott Borchetta has a lot of power in country music. While I don’t think he’ll have the same level of control over Southern Ground Artists like he does his own, it’s possible he may find ways to influence Zac or other Southern Ground groups to record a Republic or Big Machine written song or two for future albums. And recently there has been some questionable songs coming out of these two labels, think “God Made Girls,” “Lookin’ For That Girl,” or “This is How We Roll.” Now, I have faith that Zac Brown won’t compromise his vision for the band or his label by recording songs like that, but it’s one thing to keep an eye on.

From the beginning the Zac Brown Band has done it their way and I don’t expect that to change with this partnership. Overall this strategic partnership is for the Southern Ground brand. This brand is Zac Brown’s baby and as a leader for this brand he made a business move that should positively impact Southern Ground. Zac Brown has a grander vision than simply making music and this partnership is indicative of his efforts to take that vision to the next level. Time will only tell if this will lead to the additional musical benefits listed above. The first big release from this joint-venture will be the newest Zac Brown Band album, which is due out in the early half of 2015. And for that band, at least we’ll get a good idea of what the future will hold with Southern Ground, Big Machine, Republic and Varvatos coming together. Zac Brown is a man who surrounds himself with individuals whose talent moves his vision forward. When the band released “Chicken Fried” there were only five official members in the Zac Brown Band. That number has jumped to eight this year, due to Zac wanting to add more instrumentation and harmonies to the band’s music. Through adding more avenues for his brand and label to grow, it’s obvious Zac Brown expects big things to happen as a result. And if his band’s growth is any indication, I bet this business move will be successful in its efforts to improve everything enveloped in Southern Ground.