The Hodgepodge: RIAA Certification, Streaming, and the Changing Face of Music Consumption

On Monday February 1, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) changed how the organization will certify albums and singles. The change reflects digital streams of songs and albums for an artist in addition to sales. Prior to the change, an album or song was certified Gold when 500,000 copies were sold, Platinum at 1,000,000, and Diamond at 10,000,000. With the change, the RIAA will take into account both video and audio streaming, and have decided that 1,500 streams is equal to 10 song sales or one album sale. Simple math then tells us that 750 million streams alone will earn an artist a Gold certification.

With the adjusted certification process, 17 albums achieved Gold or Platinum status on February 1. Three of the 17 albums were country albums: Brett Eldredge’s Bring You Back (Gold), Miranda Lambert’s Platinum (Platinum), and Sam Hunt’s Montevallo (2x Multi-Platinum).

From a business standpoint for the RIAA, this is a good move to keep with the changing tide of how consumers are listening to their music. Streaming is only growing and it’s important for music groups like the RIAA and Billboard to stay relevant with their reporting. However, reactions to the change have been mixed. Country artists are loving the news. One big challenger of the new rules is Top Dawg Entertainment’s, CEO Anthony Tiffith. TDE is the label for Kendrick Lamar, whose critically acclaimed album To Pimp a Butterfly has now been certified Platinum due to the inclusion of streaming. Tiffith tweeted that he won’t acknowledge the certification until old school album sales earn the album its Platinum rating.

One theory I have for the push back could be due to the low streaming payouts to artists/labels vs physical/digital album sales. Last April, The Guardian published an article with an infographic breaking down artist payouts among various streaming services in comparison to standard album sales. The infographic is organized to show how many units must be sold or streamed in order to achieve a monthly minimum wage income.

For instance (based on the numbers on the linked infographic), for an artist signed to a label to earn a monthly minimum wage from Spotify with a $0.0011/stream payout, there would need to be 1,117,021 streams for a monthly wage. At that rate, $1,228.72 is earned each month. And looking at RIAA’s rule of 1,500 streams per album sale, a streaming total of 1,117,021 is equal to about 744 albums sold (rounding down). By comparison, 744 albums sold per month via iTunes will earn a signed artist $1,711.20. And 744 albums per month sold physically in a retail store will be $2,053.44 for a signed artist.

Now these aren’t concrete numbers as to how streaming services directly compare to actual sales. Keep in mind that the numbers on the graphic are 10 months old, and the math I applied based on RIAA criteria may not be direct snapshots of how a company like Spotify may pay out an artist. Some of the numbers gathered from the article were assumed or generalized numbers based on typical business practices between labels and artists.

What this does give us, however, is a small baseline in which to judge a service like Spotify, arguably the most popular streaming service, in regards to actual album sales. I can understand a label CEO being against the inclusion of streaming in regards to albums sales when payouts from streaming are lower than album sales.

With the RIAA accepting streaming, it further solidifies the consumption mode of music, giving more importance to the notion of fair payouts. Streaming services are not going away, and as more and more music associations and organizations restructure themselves to include streaming, streaming needs to continue to fine tune itself to be accepted across the board. Streaming has a lot of push back from the music industry because they see the technology as a threat. But even cassettes scared the music industry back in the day.

For those against streaming, one bright spot is the resurgence of vinyl records. The growth of vinyl is nearly double than the growth in streaming subscriptions. Vinyl’s growth, aside from the novelty aspect, shows that consumers want physical copies of their music along with digital files. Never before have there been this many outlets to consume music. CDs, vinyl, digital downloads, radio, and streaming. Streaming’s skyrocketing popularity cannot be overlooked.

Like it or not, on-demand streaming has immersed itself into our musical culture. The impact streaming can have for an independent or budding artist is crucial. However manufactured his rise was, Kane Brown’s internet popularity earned him a deal with Sony. Maren Morris’ EP was an online only release, now she’s also signed with Sony and is getting the iHeartMedia On The Verge treatment.

Slowly we are seeing the industry adapt to streaming’s popularity. RIAA’s move to include streaming in album and single certifications is just another step in the long road ahead. I don’t think RIAA’s current rules are an absolution (nor do I think they’re perfect), and we may see them further adjusted to improve how the organization looks at streaming. Labels and radio are slowly looking into streaming and internet trends to capitalize on what’s popular with consumers. This is only the beginning of the music industry’s adaptation to streaming, and we may in fact be on the brink of a year in which we see major shifts in response to streaming’s popularity. There’s quite a bit to still work out on both ends of the spectrum, but I think major changes are on the horizon.

Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases

  • The following albums are all being released tomorrow:
    • Dori Freeman‘s self-titled album
    • Lucinda Williams’ The Ghosts of Highway 20
    • Charles Kelley’s The Driver
    • Freakwater’s Scheherazade
    • The Infamous Stringdusters’ Ladies and Gentlemen
  • Addison Johnson‘s I’m Just a Song EP will be released on February 9th.
  • Cole Swindell announced his second album, You Should Be Here, will be released on May 6th.
  • Dreamer: A Tribute to Kent Finlay will be released on March 2nd, exactly one year after Finlay’s death. Finlay was a songwriter in Texas and owner of the Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos. He is credited with jump-starting the careers of George Strait, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Randy Rogers. Rogers will duet with Sunny Sweeney on the album, along with James McMurtry, William Clark Green, and many others covering Finlay-written songs in his honor.

Throwback Thursday Song

“Luckenbach, Texas” Waylon Jennings. Is there a better opening lyric than “The only two things in life that make it worth livin’ is guitars that tune good and firm feelin’ women”?

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week

“Bullet with Butterfly Wings” Smashing Pumpkins. The Smashing Pumpkins just announced a new tour this week. A friend in high school made me a mix CD of her favorite Smashing Pumpkins songs and still listen to that mix quite a bit. I love this song.

Tweet of the Week

Stout’s record, Dust & Wind, was self recorded and released last September. You can listen and purchase to the album on Bandcamp.

YouTube Comment of the Week

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 10.57.21 AM

This was commented on the video of Jason Isbell’s performance of “Flagship” at the Grand Ole Opry. I completely agree with this! Isbell performed the song with his wife, Amanda Shires, playing her violin and providing great harmonies. Click on the link for the video of the performance.

New Country & Americana Music Albums Set to Be Released & Expected in 2016

Time for another year of new music ahead! Last year I did a special post outlining some of the upcoming album releases in country and Americana and it was a very popular post that I knew I had to bring back again in 2016. There has already been a number of announced projects with release dates and a few that are certainly eye-catching when looking at the details of them. There are also a lot of projects that we can expect to see in 2016, but nothing is confirmed. And then of course there are a lot of rumors and stuff up in the air. This post covers it all. Will this cover everything? Probably not. So don’t go into the comments and immediately point out what is missing. Instead add anything not in the post to help out us and your fellow readers. Complaining gets you nowhere except pissing me off. Most importantly have fun speculating and discussing all of the new music that lies ahead.

Officially Announced & Set for Release

Randy Rogers Band Nothing Shines Like Neon

January 15

Randy Rogers Band – Nothing Shines Like Neon

The Texas-based country band is set to release their first album of new music in three years and their first independently in 11 years. Randy Rogers Band had released their last four albums on major labels Mercury and MCA Nashville. But like many Texas country artist who try their hand on Music Row, they got tired of the bullshit and politics and being forced to make music that appeases record executives. They’re now going back to their roots. Rogers is coming off a fantastic year in which he and fellow Texas country artist Wade Bowen put out one of the best country records of the year, good enough to earn Country Perspective’s Song of the Year and Duo of the Year. This causes enough excitement on its own, but the guests set to join on this new record put up even higher. The guests are Alison Krauss, Jerry Jeff Walker and Jamey Johnson. Needless to say I can’t wait to hear this one. Well known country producer Buddy Cannon will be producing this new record.

Brothers Osborne – Pawn Shop

The debut album from Brothers Osborne was expected early last year and even made last year’s list, but it never came out and got pushed back to now. It’s looked like the best choice, as their current single “Stay A Little Longer” will at least be a top five hit and provide buzz for their long-awaited debut album. Their debut EP I reviewed back in 2014 was solid, but the newest song they just released off the album has me more excited. It’s called “Loving Me Back” and they’re joined on it by LeeAnn Womack. If this song is an indication of the whole album, I think this could be one of the better mainstream country albums we hear in 2016.

Hank Williams Jr. – It’s About Time

This will be Hank Jr.’s first album released under the NASH Icon label. The first single off it was a new recording of “Are You Ready For The Country” where Williams was joined by special guest Eric Church. Other guests on the album include Brantley Gilbert, Brad Paisley and Justin Moore.

January 22

The Cactus Blossoms – You’re Dreaming

Will be released via Red House Records and produced by JD McPherson.

January 29

Sierra Hull – Weighted Mind

Will be released via Rounder Records.

Aubrie Sellers – New City Blues

Many critics and music insiders are buzzing about this release. For those who aren’t familiar with Aubrie Sellers, she’s the daughter of LeeAnn Womack. I bet you’re interested now. Sellers is poised to be one of the early breakouts in country and Americana in 2016. The album will be released via Carnival Records and Thirty Tigers.

February 5

Lucinda Williams – The Ghosts of Highway 20

The Americana icon returns with her first new album in two years via Thirty Tigers.

Freakwater – Scheherazade February 5 

Will be released via Bloodshot Records.

Charles Kelley – The Driver February 5

The frontman of Lady Antebellum has set out on his own solo career at the moment and his first single, the very name of his debut album, has been nominated for a Grammy. But with the single struggling at radio at the moment and Kelley being forced to cancel a lot of 2016 tour dates, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this release get pushed back. But when it does come out I’ll be interested in its sound.

Vince Gill – Down To My Last Bad Habit February 12

You know how much of a sucker I am for Vince Gill. Being released via MCA Nashville, it’s the first album of new music from Gill in five years. It’s Vince freaking Gill and you will want to hear it.

Wynonna & The Big Noise – Self-Titled – February 12

Wynonna Judd will be releasing his first album under her and her band’s name via Curb Records. Jason Isbell will be making a guest appearance on it.

Lorrie Morgan – Letting Go…Slow – February 12

Her first new album in five years will be released via Shanachie Entertainment.

Lake Street Dive – Side Pony February 19 

Not a lot of details, other than Dave Cobb is producing it. That should be enough to warrant your attention.

Waco Brothers – Going Down in History February 26 

This will be the first new record from this group in over ten years. Will be released via Bloodshot Records.

Loretta Lynn – Full Circle – March 4

The country music legend will be covering old classics, collaborating with legends and releasing a few new tunes on this record.

Dave-Cobb-Southern-Family

Various Artists – Southern Family – March 18

There’s no other project in country and Americana circles right now that has people more excited than this album. Let’s run down the details:

  • Dave Cobb is producing it and will be released via Cobb’s Elektra Records
  • The inspiration for it comes from the classic White Mansions album that included Waylon Jennings and Eric Clapton
  • The artists on this record are staggering and impressive. The list of artists on this record include: Chris & Morgane Stapleton, Miranda Lambert, Holly Williams, Jamey Johnson, Shooter Jennings, Rich Robinson, Anderson East, Zac Brown, John Paul White, Jason Isbell, Brandy Clark and Brent Cobb.

I could very easily see this end up being one of the best records of the year in all of music. It could also end up being one of the most important albums of the year and maybe in country music history, as this album unites the brightest names of country and Americana. All of this talent working together under the guidance of Dave Cobb has me giddy in anticipation to hear it. It could be what unites mainstream country, independent country and Americana together. Can March 18 get here?

Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter – March 26

Brandy Clark – Big Day In A Small Town – April 1

This will be the sophomore album from the accomplished singer-songwriter. I expect this to be even better than 12 Stories, which means I think this has the potential to be an album of the year candidate.

Hayes Carll – (Yet To Be Named) – April 8

Will be released via Thirty Tigers.

Expected in 2016, But No Official Release Date

Keith Urban – Ripchord

We know the name, but no release date.

The Band Perry – Heart + Beat

There were rumors of them collaborating on a song with Nicki Minaj, which supposedly forced the release date back. But really it was because “Live Forever” bombed at radio and commercially. They would be better off just scrapping this album.

Karen Jonas – Country Songs (?)

Back in November Jonas said on Twitter she was working on her record. We could be seeing it sometime as early as spring 2016. Whenever it comes out I’m anxious to hear it, as her 2014 debut album Oklahoma Lottery netted her our 2014 Female Artist of the Year award and was an album of the year finalist.

Reckless Kelly

Matt Woods

Would be the followup to Country Perspective 2014 Album of the Year finalist With Love From Brushy Mountain.

Holly Williams 

Working with Dave Cobb on a new record.

Jack Ingram – Midnight Motel (?)

Ingram supposedly has enough music recorded for several records.

Natalie Stovall & The Drive – Heartbreak

Rumors & Speculation

Sturgill

Sturgill Simpson’s Third Album

You have to think Simpson will be releasing his third album this year and his first under major label Atlantic Records. His first two albums were released less than a year apart. Last year Sturgill didn’t release any new music and didn’t need to as more people continued to buy Metamodern Sounds in Country Music and pack his concerts full. The little bit we know about this third album is that Dave Cobb is producing it again, it’s already been recorded last year and there’s plenty of material that could be considered for it based off a 2014 interview Dave Cobb had with Rolling Stone. Cobb also said in the same interview regarding Sturgill’s next record: “We’re already doing something totally different and it will probably make a lot of people mad.” So the intrigue for this album should be varied and high when it’s announced.

Garth Brooks

When he released his comeback album in 2014, he also said there would be another album to follow it. But nothing has been said and Garth has ceased releasing singles to radio. It’s hard to tell with Garth, but a new album from him could come in 2016.

Jamey Johnson

Jamey Johnson did a lot of cool collaborations in 2015 (George Strait, Don Henley) and yet he didn’t release a new album. What gives Jamey? He promised at the beginning of last year we would see multiple releases from him throughout the year and he only released two singles. Last year I guaranteed we would see a new album from him. This year I’m just going to say we’ll see it eventually.

Miranda Lambert

It wasn’t a good 2015 for Miranda Lambert, personally or professionally. She divorced fellow country music superstar Blake Shelton and was practically non-existent at country radio and awards shows. It was a down year in every way for Lambert. But 2016 could be a huge year for her, as it’s been two years since her last album, so she’s poised to released a new record. You have to think this past year will fuel many of the songs on the record and make for some interesting music.

Dixie Chicks

They’re embarking on their first North American tour in several years. You have to think a new album may come out too. And if they release an album I’ll be highly intrigued to see the reception and reaction of the country music industry.

Pistol Annies

I haven’t seen any clue for a new album from this supergroup, but I have a hunch that it’s possible. What makes me think this is after the year women had in country music in 2015, Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley all want to make a statement. What better way than release another Pistol Annies album?

Florida Georgia Line

In an interview with Billboard, the duo said they will “probably” release a new album in spring 2016. With bro country dead, Florida Georgia Line will be forced to take a new direction. Their last big was the best song they’ve ever released, “Dirt.” It was also their most serious song. So maybe they might take a more serious approach. I could also easily see them donning three-piece suits and ripping off Bruno Mars. I think it’s best to keep expectations low with these two and then be pleasantly surprised later if they release something good.

Josh Turner & Gary Allan

I put both of these artists together because both are in the same exact situation. Both released singles in 2015 and neither lived up to their usual expectations. Turner released a solid love song in “Lay Low” and ended up peaking just inside the top 30, which was unfortunate. Allan catered to trends with “Hangover Tonight” and it bombed in every way. This caused both of their labels to put albums that were expected to come out in 2015 on an indefinite hiatus. It’s a shame because I think both will be good albums. I heard some of Allan’s new songs in-person and they were very good. Turner always delivers. Let’s hope we hear both albums in 2016.

Others Highly Likely/On Track To Release New Albums This Year:

  • Brantley Gilbert
  • Cole Swindell
  • Granger Smith
  • Jason Aldean
  • First Aid Kit
  • Shovels & Rope
  • Old Crow Medicine Show
  • Dierks Bentley
  • Sunny Sweeney
  • Wade Bowen 
  • Lee Ann Womack
  • Blake Shelton
  • Jon Pardi
  • Mo Pitney
  • Eric Paslay
  • Brad Paisley
  • Kenny Chesney 
  • Little Big Town
  • Sam Hunt

The Hodgepodge: Mainstream Country Artists Need To Put Up or Shut Up

Joe Nichols (public domain)
Maybe a little less talk and a lot more action, Joe?

A couple of weeks back Grady Smith at The Guardian wrote an interesting piece that centered around mainstream country artists and how they don’t like the records they make. First off kudos to Grady for this piece, as it brings to light an interesting subject that needs to be discussed. For many years I have heard fans of mainstream country artists defend the bad music their favorite artists put out because they were forced to do it by their label. Well as I’ve learned ever since I’ve started this blog, this argument is a load of crap. And the quotes from mainstream country artists in this piece further back it up.

Joe Nichols is the main focus of the piece, who is the perfect artist when it comes to this argument. Any country fan knows that Nichols is capable of churning out great traditional country music, as early on his career he did this regularly. His deep, baritone voice is capable of belting almost any country song. Then he decided to sell out to bro country with songs like “Yeah” and “Sunny and 75.” Lately he hasn’t had quite the success. So now he’s crowing about he would just love to make a traditional country record. From Grady’s piece:

“If I could just make the record I wanted to make, I’d hire the country-est guys in Nashville. Kenny Sears, Opry members, the Time Jumpers, maybe Vince Gill to come sing. And we’d make a country record that probably wouldn’t get sold at all.” Nichols claimed that he’d love to record music with “lots of twin fiddles, steel guitars, country shuffles and western swing … But I’m not that rich.”

First off this argument from Nichols isn’t nothing new. He said something similar months ago. What makes this quote in particular more ridiculous is how far he takes it. He says that this kind of record wouldn’t “get sold at all.” Just this year there are countless examples that prove this wrong. Aaron Watson and Jason Isbell both had #1 country records making albums that are very country and have received praise from fans and critics alike. As pointed out by Saving Country Music, Sturgill Simpson’s 2014 album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music has sold over 100,000 albums. This is nothing to sneeze at, considering this beats out many B and C-list mainstream country artists’ album sales. Not to mention this led to Simpson getting a deal with Atlantic Records. So the idea that traditional country records don’t sell is absolutely false. And Nichols using the defense that he isn’t that rich is laughable too. Many notable independent country artists make a good living, so I find it hard to believe that an artist on a major label like himself is struggling for money. He’s also had five #1 country songs. Excuse me while I go play the world’s smallest fiddle for Mr. Nichols.

Later in the piece Smith brings up Jake Owen saying something similar in an interview. Here’s what Owen had to say:

“It’s never strictly about music,” Owen said, “because it can’t be that way. There are too many people invested in my career.” He continued, “I’ve got management and labels, radio guys, promoters looking to do a tour. You can’t start a tour if you don’t have the right songs to support it. There’s money that’s being spent. I got guys in a crew and I feel responsible for their lifestyles, their families and their livelihood. I can’t afford to be selfish, nor do I want to be.”

Once again another pathetic excuse. So releasing terrible music is all an effort to feed all of your underlings on your team? Please. I highly doubt Owen is thinking about them as he sits in his nice house or when he’s in the studio making music. This is the equivalent of corporations using kids in ads to shield themselves from criticism. And let’s hypothetically go along with this argument for a second. This essentially means these artists don’t believe in the music they’re putting out and doing it strictly for the bottom line. That sounds less like an artist and more like a businessman to me. Why should fans care about the music if the artist doesn’t care?

Grady goes on to make a lot of great points himself and if you haven’t read the piece yet you need to do it. I just want to add a few more to them. First selling out is not guaranteed to pay off. Jake Owen’s “Real Life” didn’t get above the top 15 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart and is already recurrent. His previous single “What We Ain’t Got” actually went higher, last longer and was considered by critics to be his best single yet. It also can alienate your fan base. Ask Jerrod Niemann. While “Drink To That All Night” was his biggest hit, it only proved to be a short-term burst in stature. His follow-up single “Donkey” was a complete flop because he took things too far. It’s highly doubtful he’ll ever reach the highest of heights in country music again. Lastly, this is a slap in the face to independent artists everywhere who bust their ass and put their blood, sweat and tears into their songs. Independent country artist Chris King says it best in multiple tweets:

https://twitter.com/ArtificialChris/status/655065080682250240

https://twitter.com/ArtificialChris/status/655065779465924608

https://twitter.com/ArtificialChris/status/655066197986152448

https://twitter.com/ArtificialChris/status/655066537582170112

https://twitter.com/ArtificialChris/status/655068270479872001

Bottom line: Mainstream country artists need to stop whining about wanting to make the music they want to make and just make it. Actions speak louder than words. Saying you’ll do something means nothing. You’re simply procrastinating and making an excuse. Mainstream country artists need to either put up or shut up because the talking has gone past the point of tiring. It doesn’t matter what you think, it matters what you do.

(And if Nichols wants to make that album with a lot of fiddle, he just needs to ask Dierks Bentley. Up On The Ridge, anybody?)

Upcoming/Recent Country & Americana Releases

  • Chris Janson will release his new album Buy Me A Boat tomorrow.
  • The Yawpers’ new album American Man will come out tomorrow. If you missed my review of it yesterday, click here.
  • Tim McGraw is releasing his new album Damn Country Music next Friday.
  • Josh Abbott Band will release their new album Front Row Seat next Friday.
  • Jeff Crosby and The Refugees will release a new album next Friday titled Waking Days.
  • Steve Martin and Edie Brickell are releasing a folk album on Friday called So Familiar. Yes, it’s the actor. I’m definitely reviewing this one out of sheer curiosity.
  • Ashley Campbell is officially sending “Remembering” to country radio for adds on November 9. If you missed my review of it, check it out here.
  • Brothers Osborne officially announced they will release their debut album on January 15, 2016 and it’s titled Pawn Shop. Click here for their official announcement and the album cover.
  • Lucinda Williams has announced she will release a new album titled The Ghosts of Highway 20 and it’ll be released on February 5, 2016 via Thirty Tigers.

Great Music Currently at Country Radio

The very best of country radio right here in a nice playlist. In order for a song to be added to the list, it must currently be in the top 60 of the Billboard Country Airplay chart, so this will be updated weekly.

Throwback Thursday Song

George Strait – “Check Yes or No” – Here’s a classic 90s song from King George himself. I grew up hearing this song all the time on the radio and grew to be one of my favorites from Strait.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week

I’ve said before on this blog how much I respect and enjoy Adele’s music. Well after waiting much longer than many anticipated, we finally get new music from her. This is her new single “Hello,” which is a heartfelt ballad that proves she is just as great as ever. As of this writing it already has 93 million views on YouTube. Crazy! Her new album comes out on November 20 and like her previous albums she helped write every song on it. No Chris Stapleton co-writes this time though.

Tweet of the Week

Grady Smith with the subtweet of the year! I think you’ll figure out who he is referring to…

iTunes Review That Rocks

Thomas Bieber

This week in Thomas Rhett Sucks he gets compared to a mix of Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber. That sounds about right, except Sheeran has some talent. The Bieber comparison works though.

Thanks for reading and be sure to weigh in below! 

Album Review – Don Henley’s ‘Cass County’

Don Henley Cass County

Country music has seen a lot of outsiders come into gene and try their hand at making country music. The majority of course are doing it for a quick cash grab because their own careers are flailing and they see a financial opportunity with the current popularity of country music. In other words, no artistic thought is put into the music. But the big exception amongst these outsiders is Don Henley. The former frontman of the Eagles, who has had a successful solo career too, demonstrated up front that he was serious about his new album Cass County. He brought in top-notch country talent like Vince Gill, Jamey Johnson, Alison Krauss, Ashley Monroe, Lucinda Williams, Trisha Yearwood and a host of others. He also had this to say in an interview with Rolling Stone:

“I can truthfully say that I enjoyed making this record more than any record I’ve made in my career. And a lot of the reason is because of the people who participated. There’s some amazing musicians here and the best thing about it is, most of them are funny. So it was a real pleasure.”

These are encouraging words to hear about an album from any artist. So with this in mind I dug into Cass County expecting a good album. But it’s not a good album. It’s a fantastic album that surprised me with the amount of depth and artistry that is present throughout it.

Cass County opens up with “Bramble Rose,” where Miranda Lambert and Mick Jagger join Henley. It may sound like an odd trio on paper, but once you hear the song they work together quite well actually (Jagger sounds surprisingly great). The arrangement and instrumentation are spot on and really lets all of the artists shine. It should be also be mentioned this song was originally performed and written by alternative country artist Tift Merritt, so credit to Henley for picking this great song out to feature on his album. On “Cost of Living” Henley collaborates with the legendary Merle Haggard. The song is about how we all have to pay the cost of living eventually in life and dealing with getting older in age. It’s perfectly appropriate to have two old souls like Henley and Haggard perform this song, as these two know this lesson as good as anyone. (By the way notice how Henley teams up with Haggard and Jaggar to make great music, instead of just carelessly namedropping them)

“Take A Picture Of This” is about a couple reflecting back on the memories they’ve had together. But by the end of the song the man feels like he doesn’t know his wife anymore and decides to leave her, as he realizes he has been living in the past. It tells a good story and the swerve at the end of the song is a nice touch. The hook of the song is catchy and easy to remember too. Henley shows off his storytelling chops once more with “Waiting Tables.” The story of the song is about a young girl who grew up in a small town, got married to a “reckless fool” at too young of an age and ended up a single mother at 23 years old. Now she’s stuck waiting tables and biding her time, waiting to move on to bigger things. She thinks she might have found it when a “handsome man” comes along, but it just turns out to be a one-night stand and she’s left to waiting tables once more. The story told here is raw, real and brilliantly put together. More than anything the song is a lesson about how tough life is and having that everlasting hope that things will get better. This is undoubtedly a highlight of Cass County.

The rocking and catchy “No, Thank You” follows. It’s about not falling for the everyday bullshit thrown your way and how the world is constantly trying to get you to fall for the next big thing. As Henley succinctly puts at the beginning of the song, we have “space age machinery, stone age emotions.” It reminds me a lot of something Dwight Yoakam would cut on one of his albums. The pedal steel guitar heavy “Praying For Rain” is about farmers dealing with drought and hoping for rain soon. It’s a real throwback song in every way and Henley just hits it out of the park. The smooth, easy-going tone of the song combined with the simple storytelling of the lyrics makes for one great song.

“Words Can Break Your Heart” is one of the slower and more emotion songs of the album. It’s about how words can be so cutting and mean and can tear a person apart. Henley really captures how verbal abuse can hurt you and your relationship with someone. This is probably one of the less memorable songs on the album, but it’s still quite good. The lead single from Cass County, “That Old Flame,” is next. I reviewed this song when it first came out and my thoughts have remained largely unchanged, although I think I like it even more now. From my review:

The song is about a man who receives a message from an old friend who wanted to get back in touch. The man wonders what this woman wants after losing touch for so many years. He seems to think she wants to rekindle a lost flame, but he knows there is danger of getting burned in doing this. She knows this too and only wanted to reach out to let him know that she’s doing fine and to just reconnect with an old friend. Both wonder whether they miss each other or just their lost days of youth. It’s a well-written song that does a good job telling the story of long-lost friends and their days of romance long behind them. He’s joined on the song by Martina McBride, who always has and always will have a great voice. 

There are a lot of fantastic songs on this album, but none are greater than “When I Stop Dreaming.” Henley teams up with the iconic Dolly Parton to deliver an amazing song. Both bring out the absolute best in each other. Dolly’s vocals are goose-bump inducing and this isn’t hyperbole. This is one you just need to sit down and hear for yourself because I can’t do it justice. “A Younger Man” is about a young woman falling for an older man and believing she’s in love with him. But the older man assures her that he is not what she is looking for and that she’s looking for a younger man. The line that sums it up best is when Henley sings “You’re an angel from the future/I’m an old devil from the past.” This is just an example of the top-notch songwriting on this song and really the whole album.

One of the running themes of the album is looking back to the past and looking forward to the future, which is what “Train In The Distance” is all about. Henley reflects back on the simpler days of his childhood and now as an adult faces responsibilities, obligations and taking care of his family. But Henley reminds himself that there’s always that train coming in the distance. This is one of those songs makes you reflect on yourself and creates this mixture of nostalgia and hope. Cass County comes to a close with “Where I Am Now.” It’s definitely the most rock-influenced song of the album, but still maintains a country sound giving us a sort of Bakersfield vibe. The song itself is about Henley reflecting on his life and liking where he is in life right now compared to where he was. All of his experiences and places he has been have shaped him into the person he’s wanted to be. It’s a nice way to end the album.

Cass County excels in pretty much every area a country album needs to excel in. Henley’s voice is excellent, the songwriting is strong, the instrumentation even stronger and each of the guests on the album contribute something meaningful. It’s 2015 and Don Henley has delivered one of the best country albums of the year. Can you believe it? There have been a lot of pleasant surprises in country music in 2015, but this may be the biggest. Each time I listen to this album it gets better, which I think will allow this album to age well. It’s something you can play a couple of years from now and still sound just as good. This is undoubtedly an album of the year contender and a must-listen. If Henley wants to stick around and make another country album, that would be just great. I think country music suits Don Henley just fine.

Grade: 10/10

 

 

Sturgill Simpson Wins Song of the Year & Artist of the Year at 2015 Americana Awards

Sturgill

The 2015 Americana Awards show was absolutely fantastic. There were many great performances throughout the night and if you follow me on Twitter you got to see all my thoughts on them. If you missed this, go scroll through my timeline on the side of the blog. The big winner of the night in terms of awards was Sturgill Simpson. He won the 2015 Americana Song of the Year award for “Turtles All The Way Down” and won the 2015 American Artist of the Year award. Simpson just missed out on sweeping the big three awards, as Lucinda Williams won the 2015 Americana Album of the Year award. Simpson was not at the show, as he was playing a concert in Virginia. Dave Cobb accepted the awards on his behalf, as Cobb was the producer of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.

Other awards handed out:

  • 2015 Americana Emerging Artist of the Year – Shakey Graves
  • 2015 Americana Duo/Group of the Year – The Mavericks
  • 2015 Americana Instrumentalist of the Year – John Leventhal

Noteworthy Moments:

  • Keb Mo delivered a beautiful tribute to the legend B.B. King
  • Rhiannon Giddens delivered the performance of the night
  • Raul Malo said “Holy shit…we won something” when The Mavericks won
  • Houndmouth and The Lone Bellow delivered great performances
  • MC Jim Lauderdale was fantastic and entertaining
  • Too many awesome moments to count!

Be sure to weigh in with your thoughts on the show and performances below.

Update:

Sturgill left a message on his Facebook page regarding his thoughts on winning Song of the Year and Artist of the Year and why he wasn’t able to attend the show. A classy post!