Album Review — Wade Bowen’s ‘Twelve Twenty-Five’

Every year modern artists will release their interpretations of classic Christmas songs, whether via singles or even an entire album. And maybe they’ll even sprinkle in a few originals if you’re lucky. But the problem is most of them don’t stand out in any way. You’ll listen to it once, say “that’s neat” and then go right back to listening to the same old songs you always listen to around the holidays. Occasionally though someone will actually release something worthy of earning a spot in your Christmas songs rotation and this year that’s Wade Bowen’s new Christmas album Twelve Twenty-Five. I had a great feeling about the Texas country artist’s first Christmas album when it was announced, and it went beyond even my own expectations.

Bowen opens with his rendition of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and he knocks his performance out of the park. It’s infectious, fun and gets the Christmas energy on this album kicked off perfectly. And I’m happy the production doesn’t go over the top like it usually does when other artists cover this song. “O Holy Night” is next and this is admittedly one of my favorite religious Christmas songs. That’s because I feel it truly captures the joy and meaning of Christmas through the Christian lens and Bowen’s performance truly does justice to it, which isn’t surprise considering he released a great gospel album.

“Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is next and I can tell that Bruce Springsteen’s version of the song influences Bowen’s own version. It’s got a more rocking feeling rather than the classical approach many take and even banters in the song like Springsteen. But Bowen pulls it off so much better than Bruce because he doesn’t over sing it (stay tuned for further elaboration on why I hate the Boss’s take on the song), and the guitars and pianos don’t blast the listener. Less can be more. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” showcases why I enjoy Bowen in more stripped-down songs. His voice just fits these piano ballads and the song also properly captures the feeling I look for in the covering of this song: mostly somber, but with bits of optimism and hope.

Bowen’s son Brock joins him on “Holly Jolly Christmas” and I must admit I usually hate children singing. But I actually enjoy this performance because it’s endearing, and Bowen goes full dad in the bridge of the song. It’s hilarious while also avoiding being corny and feeling forced. It feels real and as the listener I can appreciate and enjoy this. When I think of “Please Come Home for Christmas” the first version I think of is The Eagles’ version, as I believe it to be the best. And while I don’t think Bowen’s version tops it, it’s still pretty damn good, as he captures the yearning and wanting needed in his vocal performance.

Bowen is joined by another one of his sons, Bruce, on the Irving Berlin classic “White Christmas.” This performance is much different than the other one, as both take this song more seriously and Bruce sounds pretty good. Their harmonies sound great too. You can tell the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, as he may one day follow his father’s footsteps. It’s a heartfelt and enjoyable performance from the father and son duo.

I have to say I was surprised to see Wade Bowen cover the Mariah Carey classic “What I Want for Christmas is You,” as the song’s high popularity and sterling reputation amongst critics and listeners alike makes it a challenging song for other artists to tackle. Not to mention it requires some serious pipes to pull off. But he does a fantastic job! It’s a different take that I think is worthy of being in anybody’s Christmas playlist. Again, if you’re like me and you get sick of Christmas songs going a little too far with production at times these more minimally produced Christmas songs are a fresh change of pace. If you don’t want to spend time with this whole album, this is one of a few songs that should absolutely be heard.

“Til The Season Comes Round Again” is great to hear covered, as this song is a classic that often gets overlooked. It’s a warm blanket next to the fire type song that Bowen along with the soulful feature of Sean McConnell cover really well. The addition of McConnell harmonizing with Bowen is really the cherry on top to make it a memorable performance. Dolly Parton’s “Once Upon a Christmas” is covered next and I will never complain about a Dolly song showing up. While this is one of the my less favorite takes on the album (it has the unenviable task of living up to Dolly and Kenny Rogers), it’s still solid and I like the Texas influences that are incorporated into the song.

The great Cody Canada joins Bowen for a rendition of Merle Haggard’s brilliant “If We Make It Through December.” I remember growing up I found this song to be kind of depressing and it is, but it’s also important that this unpleasant and for some people, really real look at the other side of Christmas be presented. It shows that Christmas doesn’t always go like it does in the movies and that reality and what you want don’t always align. In other words, why we love country music: it’s real.

Bowen goes to the other end of the spectrum with his cover of Wham!’s “Last Christmas.” And for some this might be sacrilegious to say, but I find Bowen’s cover to be better than the original by George Michael. The reason is 1) I hate the excessive synth on the original and 2) Bowen’s more stripped-down version allows the great lyrics to shine. Both these points play into each other, as the synths and overall cheesy feeling of the original really takes away from the quality of the lyrics that tell the complicated story of love lost around the holidays. This was easily an immediate standout on this album. Appropriate, the album closes with “Silent Night.” It’s just a natural closing song for a Christmas album and Bowen delivers a stirring and soulful rendition of this Christmas staple.

Twelve Twenty-Five is a modern Christmas album done right and I applaud Wade Bowen for accomplishing something that surprisingly so many modern artists screw up. Bowen takes classic songs and instead of trying to add some “twist” to make it stand out, instead just delivers them through his own voice with a country flavor while respecting the original takes on them. And don’t dismiss this as just a great country Christmas album. This is a great Christmas album against any genre.

Grade: 9 candy canes out of 10

Album Review – Dale Watson and Ray Benson’s ‘Dale & Ray’

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Long-time readers know one of the things I’ve constantly harped for more in country music is duo collaboration albums. So it warmed my heart to see two old legends get together and release a new album to kick off the New Year. I’m of course referring to Ameripolitan artist Dale Watson and Asleep At The Wheel frontman Ray Benson. The longtime friends and icons have been apparently plotting an album together for over 10 years, but it just kept getting put off. Well it hasn’t put off anymore, as they’ve released their new record Dale & Ray. And thank goodness they didn’t put it off anymore because this album is pure country goodness from start to finish.

The old friends open with the introductory “The Ballad of Dale and Ray.” They sing of what they love, like pot, drinking and especially great country music. I specifically love the part where they sing of loving Hank Williams accompanied by an empathic “senior.” The iconic duo pays respect to the late great Merle Haggard on “Feelin’ Haggard.” They sum up how most of us felt the moment we heard we lost Haggard last year. In addition they pay respect to his impact and mention several of his best songs. It’s quite fitting and a great song to boot. They pay tribute to another great in Buck Owens on “Cryin’ to Cryin’ Time Again.” It’s a reference of course to Owens’ classic “Crying Time.” They hit it out of the park on their cover of The Louvin Brothers’ “I Wish You Knew.” The catchy instrumentation is what made me love it on the very first listen, as the twangy fiddles and steel guitar make it instantly infectious. It isn’t the only cover, as they also tackle Willie Nelson’s “Write Your Own Songs.” The song famously takes a no-prisoners aim at the record labels and the executives behind them, as it basically says they’re all lazy assholes. This is definitely a message I can appreciate.

“Bus’ Breakdown” is the duo at their most fun, as this bluegrass ditty recalls a business deal they made where Benson sold Watson a broke down old bus. Watson and Benson offer a message of hope on “Forget About Tomorrow Today.” At one point they reference the divisive nature of the recent election, arguing politicians don’t care about us and it’s best just to focus on what’s in front of us today. “A Hangover Ago” is your classic country drinking song, complete with the thick steel guitar throughout. “Nobody’s Ever Down in Texas” has a decidedly Western Swing sound and of course pays obligatory homage to the duo’s home state. The album closes with the waltzing love song “Sittin’ and Thinkin’ About You.” The light and breezy production really gives the song a carefree feeling, at the same time harkening back to the golden days of country music.

Dale & Ray is an album I instantly grew to love. Both Dale Watson and Ray Benson sound as great as ever, showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon. It’s no surprise these two deliver such a thoroughly great country album, as it’s what they’ve been doing their whole careers. This is also further proof of why we need more collaboration albums like this one because when you put together two highly talented artists like Watson and Benson you get something you’ll certainly remember. Dale & Ray is a really fun album and something any country fan should love and appreciate.

Grade: 8/10

 

Recommend ? – Yes

Album Highlights: Write Your Own Songs, Forget About Tomorrow Today, The Ballad of Dale and Ray, Feelin’ Haggard, Bus’ Breakdown

Bad Songs: None

Wallpaper: None


The Hodgepodge: What Song Defines Country Music to You?

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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

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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: Country Radio’s 15 Minutes of Fame Strategy

This week’s opening will be short. I just started a new job this week so I haven’t had a ton of time to thoroughly think through this topic, but it’s something I want to dive into and would love to see readers’ thoughts on this.

Mainstream country labels seems to aim more and more for just one hit single. For all the radio hype Chris Lane got for “Fix,” his album sales tell a different story. Girl Problems hasn’t sold well out of the gate, debuting at #8 on Billboard last week and falling off the charts this week. Outselling Lane last week was Texas Country star Cody Johnson, who still remains on the charts this week. And Cody Jinks, who debuted at #4 this week with I’m Not the Devil sold more than Girl Problems did.

It’s not really breaking news that independent country stars have strong album sales, as we saw last year with Aaron Watson, Jason Isbell, Blackberry Smoke, and Turnpike Troubadours all reaching number one on the album charts. A main reason for this could be the fact that independent fan bases seem more willing to purchase an album to support their favorite artist. But being able to sell an album well, especially at the heels of a hit radio song, could signify the longevity for an artist. Yes, Cody Johnson and Cody Jinks have established careers and released multiple albums prior to Gotta Be Me and I’m Not the Devil, but strong album sales only cement their place with their fans and in the music industry.

However, with Chris Lane selling poorly after “Fix” hit number one just screams one-hit wonder. So many times, we see artists, particularly trend-chasing B/C-level artists, only perform well at radio with a song or two. Most albums seem to get delayed, or they simply just sell like crap. How do Chris Lane or Big Loud Records expect to see any follow-up success? Not that I want to hear another full-fledged pop song from Lane, but why wasn’t Girl Problems given the same type of promotion as “Fix”? I just don’t understand why they chose to play the short game for 15 minutes of fame. Chris Lane isn’t the first, and he won’t be the last. This is just one of many, many problems with mainstream country radio.

Country radio is in the pits, and these hot, one-hit wonder type songs is a short-sighted attempt to gain listeners and revenue. Labels and radio execs aren’t thinking of the long game to improve and crawl out of its self-dug hole. I don’t claim to be a programming expert, but this type of strategy screams short-term thinking. It’s treading on water without looking for a boat to help stay afloat. And as long as radio continues this thought process, we’ll be continually treated to trendy singles followed by poor albums. Artists and labels who think solely about the one single and not the album are not building a sustainable music career.

Upcoming/Recent Country and Americana Releases

  • Jack Ingram‘s Midnight Motel will be released tomorrow.
  • Whiskey Myers’ newest album, Mud will be released September 9.
  • Also coming out on the 9th is St. Paul & The Broken Bones‘ Sea of Noise.
  • Amanda Shires will release her new album My Piece of Land on September 16.
  • Erik Dylan‘s Heart of a Flatland Boy will be released on October 21.
  • Mack McKenzie is releasing his sophomore album A Million Miles on October 22.

Throwback Thursday Song

Merle Haggard’s “My Favorite Memory” This single from Haggard was released on this day in 1981, and would go on to become Merle’s 25th number one single.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week

Frank Ocean Blonde In an act of defiance against the major labels and streaming, Frank Ocean left his label and self-released his highly anticipated sophomore album exclusively through Apple. With labels/streaming services/artists all at odds, this kind of move is big and could lead to more artists acting in the same fashion.

Tweet of the Week

It’s been a big week for Erik Dylan, who performed at this Guy Clark tribute with the likes of Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, and others. Dylan’s upcoming album was also made available for pre-order.

iTunes Review for Florida Georgia Line

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This was left under Florida Georgia Line’s Dig Your Roots, which is due out tomorrow. I’ve only heard “H.O.L.Y.” and “God, Your Mama, and Me,” but I haven’t been crazy about either song. This review says it all!

Album Review – Mark Chesnutt’s ‘Tradition Lives’

Mark Chesnutt Tradition Lives

When it comes to music I’ve realized there are two groups of artists: those who make the music they want to and those who make what everyone else wants. In other words, who does and doesn’t compromise their artistic integrity. If you turn on country radio today, you’ll hear a lot of compromising. So obviously you won’t be hearing the music of Mark Chesnutt. Throughout the 90s you would hear Chenutt all the time until he was faced with the same dreaded compromise forced by a major label. This came in the form of his cover of Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing,” which he just revealed recently that he didn’t feel comfortable doing (his mentor and friend George Jones was angry about the cover too):

“As luck would have it, it ended up going to No. 1 hit for four damn weeks!” he says, bursting out laughing. But he maintains, “It didn’t sell anything. So I asked to leave the label, ’cause when it was time to go back in the studio, there was another pop hit they wanted me to cover. I said no, absolutely not. That made everyone at the label mad at me, and I got the reputation in town of being hard to work with. And once you get that label, then you’re pretty much done.”

Ever since then Chesnutt has been out on his own making music with smaller labels and playing lots of shows every year. Of course after an artist leaves a major label, it leaves the impression on casual fans that the artist has retired and faded into the sunset. That’s far from the case for Chesnutt as he returns with his first new album in eight years, Tradition Lives. It’s the culmination of years of writing and work that Chesnutt is quite proud of releasing to the public. And I have to say he should be beaming with pride, as this album is a true example of why artists should stick to their guns and make the music they want to make.

Chesnutt takes us back to early 90s country radio from the get go with “I’ve Got a Quarter In My Pocket.” It’s one of many heartbreak songs on the album, as Chesnutt schools us on the lost of art of country heartbreak tunes. The lamenting “Is It Still Cheating” tackles the complications of cheating partners. Written by Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser and Jerrod Niemann, the song begins with a husband listening to his wife leave yet another message on the answering machine saying she’ll be home late. He knows of course that she’s out cheating, but this is fine to him because he’s at home cheating on her. Both sides are lying and cheating, but the husband ponders if it’s really cheating. It’s a complex conundrum that leaves it up to the listener to decide. Either way I find it to be an intriguingly great song and one of the best on Tradition Lives.

The upbeat “Lonely Ain’t the Only Game In Town” puts me in mind of the dance halls down in Texas. The steel guitar and fiddle driven tune is about a woman feeling lonely, so she heads to where the neon shines bright and goes for a night on the town. In a perfect world, this song would be playing on country radio because I think it could have been a hit in the 90s (although there are several songs I could say that about on this album). “Oughta Miss Me by Now” sees a man wishing and hoping for his ex to realize she made a mistake ending their relationship. Keep in mind this isn’t from a vindictive point of view like many mainstream country artists would frame this type of song, but rather from a person who is heartbroken and having trouble moving on. It’s desperate hoping that he probably knows deep down isn’t going to happen. Chesnutt comes from the point of view of experience in relationships on “Neither Did I.” It sees an older gentleman bestowing advice to younger men on what happens in relationships and what to expect when it can hit the rocks. It’s not a bad song, but one of the more forgettable tracks on the album. I will say though I enjoy the instrumentation, as there’s plenty of fiddle and steel guitar throughout the song.

There are a lot of great songs on this album, but the best to my ears is “So You Can’t Hurt Me Anymore.” An always-present steel guitar throughout gives the song a reflective feel, as a man realizes he needs to break up with his woman so she can’t hurt him anymore. It’s not an easy decision after all they’ve been through, but he realizes he has to move on for his own sake. I should point out that the writers of this song are producer Jimmy Ritchey, Roger Springer and William Michael Morgan. It’s cool to see the latter’s name associated with this song, proving once again Morgan wants to carry on what artists like Chesnutt did before him. This is also the type of song that shows why Mark Chesnutt is far from being done in his career.

“You Moved up in Your World” is about a man reuniting with a woman who had left his hometown and made a life outside while he’s been living there the whole time. To the rest of the world she’s kind of a celebrity, while he still sees her as the woman he grew up and fell in love with. It’s a very bittersweet song, as you can tell the man never really expressed how he felt to her. Contrasting lives are put on display on “Look at Me Now.” A man sits in a hotel room in the dark and flipping through channels on TV while he listens to a new couple making love next door. He realizes what a mess he has become and is haunted by his past decisions that led to this situation. It’s a solid tune, where once again the traditional instrumentation really shines and hooks the listener in.

Another standout on Tradition Lives is “Losing You All Over Again.” Chesnutt once again delivers a classically great heartbreak song, with plenty of steel guitar. After listening to this album multiple times, it still doesn’t sink in how great Chesnutt is when it comes to these types of songs. It’s like secondhand nature to him and makes it look so easy. Today’s country artists would be wise to take note. Chesnutt lets his thoughts on the country music industry be known on “Never Been to Texas.” It’s not necessarily a protest song, but he pointedly calls out Music Row for saying people aren’t interested in drinking and cheating songs anymore. He refutes their claims by pointing to Texas as an example of real country songs being made. He also sings about how the steel guitar won’t ever die in country songs despite Music Row’s attempts to minimize it. It’s a fun song, both lyrically and instrumentation-wise. It also avoids the pitfalls of how cliché protest songs have become.

“What I Heard” welcomes the listeners with a warm melody that harkens back to better days in country music. The song is about a woman telling goodbye to her man with tears rolling from her eyes. To the man, what he heard was more than just goodbye. Rather he thinks that this is just temporary and that she’ll come back someday. He’s clearly in denial over the breakup. It’s refreshing to hear this type of song because so many male artists today come off as trying to look cool coming off a breakup (in other words trying to win it), whereas Chesnutt shows the more true feelings someone goes through (denial and false hope). The laid back “Hot” is one of the less serious songs on the album. Chesnutt sings about how hot it is outside, which at this time of the year in the United States is quite accurate (especially for folks down in the southern portion of the country). Just like “Neither Did I,” this song isn’t bad, but there’s not much to it. Tradition Lives closes with the subdued “There Won’t Be Another Now.” Chesnutt superbly covers the 1985 Merle Haggard song, as there’s a lot of heart behind his vocals. Chesnutt did it to honor not only the late legend Haggard, but also the writer of the song Red Lane who passed away. It’s another example of the deep respect he has for all the artists that paved the way for him. I would suggest listening to both Haggard and Chesnutt’s versions. It’s a fantastic and classy way to conclude the album.

Mark Chesnutt really impresses me with Tradition Lives and reminded me of why I was such a fan of his music growing up as a kid. I have to admit I was unsure of how good this album would be, as I’ve been disappointed by some recent releases by veteran artists. But Chesnutt clearly still has his “fastball” and sounds just as great as he did when radio played him. For some fans, this will be their favorite album of the year and I don’t blame them. This album is full of wonderful heartbreak songs, as well as some fun tunes too. If you loved 90s country or are just someone who appreciates traditional country, you need to check this out. Tradition Lives without a doubt lives up to its name, reminding us all that traditional country will never fade away.

Grade: 8/10