The Hodgepodge: Country Music Will Always Have Defenders

Lindi Ortega

Not too long ago, a beloved frontman of a mainstream country act started a firestorm after speaking his mind about the current state of country music. Now this man has pretty much become a hypocrite due to the musical selections of the band’s latest album/single. Zac Brown’s criticism of Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kinda Night” caused an uproar in the country world. Luke Bryan apologists chimed in, including Jason Aldean. And those who dislike the direction of mainstream country music applauded Brown for his willingness to speak out. Zac Brown had never been shy about the fact that his band not necessarily being country, but he always seemed to be respectful to the country roots.

During the Luke Bryan critique, Brown said “There’s songs out there on the radio right now that make me be ashamed to be even in the same format as some other artists.” After the release of Jekyll + Hyde included a couple EDM inspired songs, and now the announcement that one of the said EDM inspired songs, “Beautiful Drug” will be released as a single intended to be a crossover hit, Zac Brown seems to going back on his comments. With those original comments, Zac Brown became an unofficial defender of country music, whether intended or not. Now whether or not Zac Brown has grown greedy and aims for total musical domination, or simply is experimenting in the most misguided way, the release of “Beautiful Drug” puts his band in the same light as all the other country acts who chase trends to have commercial success. His comments in defense of true country music no longer carry weight. But as country radio and Nashville executives continue to work through this identity crisis, real country music will always have defenders willing to speak out to keep the soul of country music alive.

Lindi Ortega has been outspoken against the current country music culture. Her opinion piece on Saving Country Music against Keith Hill’s tomato comment was one of the most well-written rebuttals I’ve read on the matter. In a recent interview, Lindi spoke candidly about her opinions on the current country music culture:

I think it’s great if all these people are creating music that inspires them and feel like it can inspire other people and it’s coming from a place of honesty, passion and love for music. If it crosses over from them, that’s great. I think it’s a whole different thing if all you’re chasing is a hit and fame. I think it takes a bit of the soul out of it.

She went on to say, “I think the reason they’re being defensive is it’s because people are speaking up, because people do want to see it change… I think speaking up about it helps. I think if we don’t say anything, we could risk ruining this beautiful genre.” I couldn’t agree more with Lindi Ortega. Country Music was built on the honesty, passion, and love for music she mentions. If those who have the ability to speak out against the change don’t speak out, then the decision makers of the genre have no reason to change their direction.

While the change in direction doesn’t seem evident, we may be on the brink of changing tides. The recent broadcast of the CMA Festival resulted in a great ratings drop of 37% viewership. With the explosion of mainstream country’s popularity, the CMA Fest, iHeartCountry Fest, and the numerous arbitrary award shows on TV helped cash in on the demand. If the CMA Fest is any indication, the demand may be dropping. While this won’t deter ticket purchases from the actual events, large spectacles and events for a worthless television special could continue to lose viewership.

This is probably an over optimistic view, but it seems like the pieces might be in place. While the hot buzz over Nashville churning out mediocre pop music may be subsiding, I don’t think this means we’ll be seeing a full, true country album from a mainstream artist anytime soon. Nashville will continue to degrade the name “country music” by making music that’s everything but country until they implode. And as long as Nashville continues to degrade the name of country, there will always be artists speaking out in defense of the soul of country music. There will always be artists preserving the soul of country music.

I’m happy that Lindi Ortega is willing to speak out for what she believes in with country music. I’m happy that there are artists who devote their lives to making great music and sharing that music with the fans who want to hear it. Radio and pop culture may not latch onto these artists because the business and politics say they aren’t marketable or whatever other reasons they might conjure. Even as one comment may now exist in vain, new comments and defenders will always emerge for true country music. It’s taken time, but I think we may be seeing years of defenses and backlash against Nashville’s country music finally coming to fruition.

Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases

  • Alt-Country singer songwriter Jonathan Tyler released an album last Friday called Holy Smokes. You’ll be seeing a review of that album soon.
  • Texas Country artist Pat Green will release his new album, Home, tomorrow. His current single, “While I Was Away” currently sits in the top three of the Texas Music Charts.
  • Kip Moore’s sophomore album will see its release next week.
  • Maddie & Tae’s long-awaited debut album will hit the shelves at the end of the month.
  • Australian singer-songwriter, Kasey Chambers, recently released her 9th studio album called Bittersweet.
  • Chris Young announced his 5th studio albumI’m Comin Over, will be released later this year.

Today in Country Music History

  • Hank Williams has the number one song on Billboard with “Hey Good Lookin” in 1951.
  • In 1970, Governor Lester Maddox declares Johnny Cash Day in Georgia, as Cash performs for 700 prisoners being released early for good behavior.
  • In 1988, Willie Nelson becomes the first artist ever to have an album spend 10 years on the Billboard country chart as “Stardust” logs its 520th week.

Today in Country Music History items pulled from RolandNote and This Day in Country Music.

Throwback Thursday Song

“Baby’s Gotten Good at Goodbye” by George Strait – You can never go wrong with The King of Country Music. This heartbreak song from 1988 finds Strait’s vocals at their best. The 80s were a good decade for country music, and George Strait certainly had a lot to do with that.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week

N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton. N.W.A. made quite the splash in 1988 with the release of Straight Outta Compton. From the explicit lyrics, to the violent images painted in the songs, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, MC Ren, The D.O.C. Arabian Prince and DJ Yella shook the music world and created some worry with parents and media about the influence this music might have. I am looking forward to seeing Straight Outta Compton, the N.W.A. biopic being released tomorrow.

Tweet of the Week

More divorce news in country music land as Jake Owen and his wife, Lacey Buchanan, have officially split. I’m inclined to agree with Trigger on the divorce announcement I’m eagerly waiting for as well.

iTunes Reviews That Will Drive You Crazy

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Both of these reviews were left under Michael Ray’s self titled debut album. I would not define “Kiss You In Morning”, “Another Girl”, “Look Like This”, “Real Men Love Jesus”, “Think a Little Less” or “Drivin’ All Night” as genuine country music with lyrical depth. And that’s half the songs on the album. I will say this, the album was better than I expected, but still far from good in my opinion. That’s about the best compliment I can give it.

Video: Irish Country Artist Megan O’Neill’s “Coming Home”

Megan O'Neill
Photo Credit: Connor Clinch, Whitney Dean & Steve Schwartz

I’ve said on the site numerous times that great country music can come from anywhere in the world. Time and time again I come across artists from places you don’t expect and once again that is the case. Meet Megan O’Neill. She is originally from County Kildare, Ireland (her current home is London) and has been featured on ABC’s hit show Nashville. Her song “Don’t You” was featured on the season finale of Nashville. O’Neill is a longtime singer-songwriter who has been honing her craft for years and was previously a University College Dublin Choral Scholar. In early 2014 she signed with Milestone Management and earlier this year released her debut EP in May, titled Coming Home. She just recently released a music video for the EP’s title track. It’s a mid-tempo track that really does a great job featuring O’Neill’s big voice. Be sure to check it out and weigh in about it in the comments below.

Album Review – Striking Matches’ Nothing But The Silence is an Energetic, Entertaining Debut

Watch out Florida Georgia Line. Why don’t you boys take a step aside and watch a brand new mainstream country duo do what you guys have never done, which is making worthy, entertaining music. Now, I know Striking Matches aren’t quite brand new; their self-titled EP back in 2012 was praised by outlets like NPR and the BBC. Not to mention the number of songs they’ve had recorded on the hit TV show Nashville. But their first full-length album, Nothing But the Silence, has now been released to the masses, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. With a radio market unwilling to play well written slow songs because they’re “tempo killers,” Nothing But the Silence offers 11 great, well-written tracks, many of which won’t kill the tempo of country radio’s constant party atmosphere. The duo, Sarah Zimmerman and Justin Davis, also act like a real musical duo. They trade the lead vocals on songs, verses, even lines within verses, and harmonize together at almost every moment. Together, their voices shine and deliver on this album.

Nothing But the Silence kicks off the rocking duet “Trouble Is As Trouble Does.” It’s a new relationship for the two of them, but he’s the bad seed that influences her to rebel a bit out of her well-behaved lifestyle. Yet, she can’t stay away from trouble. This up-tempo rocker is led by both Zimmerman and Davis’ acoustic guitar licks. Yes, acoustic guitars on this rocking, fast paced song. It’s a great track that shows what Striking Matches are capable of in both vocals and musicianship. Davis leads the way on “Make A Liar Out Of Me.” He’s been burned by love and vowed to never love again. Her love however is tempting enough where he encourages her to make him a liar; he wants her love. With a bluesy guitar in the forefront creating an infectious rhythm and a fantastic guitar solo on the song’s outro, “Make A Liar Out Of Me” stands out as one of the better tracks here.

The pair slow it down for the title track. Their relationship has fallen to a point where they aren’t speaking to one another. Davis leads the vocals here again, and pleads for communication to happen. “There’s nothing but the silence in between us that hasn’t already been broken…can we break it tonight?” Sarah Zimmerman’s harmonies on this track are a perfect fit behind Davis. Though the lyrics can get repetitive here, “Nothing But The Silence” still tells a great story. “Hanging On A Lie” is another one of the top tracks on this album. Zimmerman takes the lead on this song about calling out her man on his lies. She knows it’s over; she knows he’s a liar, and she simply wants him to spit out the truth before she leaves. The production on this song is fantastic: a grooving beat behind Zimmerman’s wonderful vocals creates a beautiful melody on this country rock tune.

“Never Gonna Love Again” is a solid mid-tempo track. A noteworthy percussion beat drives this song where Zimmerman sings of catching her man cheating on her. This breaks her spirit to the point where she believes she’ll never love again. Again, this a song that features a bit of repetition with the lyrics, but Zimmerman’s vocals are nearly flawless here. She sells the pain and anger of the situation presented on this song. And after an intense heartbreak song, Striking Matches brings forth one the best love songs I’ve heard in a while. “When The Right One Comes Along” was a tune featured on Nashville, but reproduced a bit on this album. A soft electric guitar and a simple drum beat behind Sarah’s beautiful vocals. The song discusses how you’ll know in your heart when you meet the one. “There’s no music, no confetti. Crowds don’t cheer and bells won’t ring. But you’ll know it, I can guarantee, when the right one comes along.” It’s a love song that tells a beautiful story without tired, clichéd bits from almost every other love song in existence.

“What A Broken Heart Feels Like” bring back the duets of Sarah and Justin. The two trade lines and harmonize well and talk about the aftermath of a breakup. Reminders from photographs and support from friends can’t change the immediate pain one feels after a relationship ends. On “Miss Me More” the relationship ends on a bit of bitter note. He ends it and tries to move on, and she calls him out on how much he’ll miss her afterwards. She doesn’t want him to crawl back to her though. This song features a great harmonies (have I mentioned that already?) on top of a simple, rocking upbeat production. Yet, the relationship on “Like Lovers,” while still ending, wishes to end of strong note. It’s a slow tempo ballad where the couple wants to walk away like lovers.

Up next is “Missing You Tonight.” As Josh wrote in his review of the song, “it’s a tad repetitive and I was really waiting for the climax of this song to blow me away. Instead it was kind of whimper. I could say the same of the instrumentation. They simply didn’t reach the full potential of this song.” There’s not a bad song on this album, but I’d say “Missing You Tonight” is the weakest of the bunch. The song, in it’s production and vocal performances, seems much more subdued than the rest of the album, especially compared to the first two tracks. The album ends on a slow note with “God And You.” It’s another love song, this time led by Justin Davis. He sings how he carries a hard heart and stubborn personality. Yet the only two who have been able to successfully challenge his personality and bring out his venerable side are God and his love. It’s another unique love song with great lyrics.

Overall, Nothing But The Silence shines as a great debut album. Producer T Bone Burnett brings out his signature style for Striking Matches. At times, the songs can find themselves to be repetitive. Lyrics are repeated over and over again, and the similar themes can find themselves a bit tiring. However, there’s a unique production among the songs; and the music is truly unlike what you hear on country radio. There’s an energy and life within this album, especially on the mid tempo and upbeat tracks. Striking Matches have a reputation for energetic performances, and it’s easy to see why after hearing this album. If country radio latches onto Striking Matches, than we’re in for a treat. They are one of the best country duos out there; miles better than the aforementioned Florida Georgia Line, Dan + Shay, and Thompson Square. Nothing But The Silence comes highly recommended: well-written songs and stories with a fresh, entertaining production.

Grade: 8/10


Review – Jamey Johnson Makes His Return With New Single, “Alabama Pines”

Finally! While Jamey Johnson made his official return with new music on his Christmas EP in December, to me this is his official return. Fans having been waiting years for new original music from the Alabama singer and it’s finally here. Jamey Johnson posted on social media channels a letter explaining his new song, “Alabama Pines”:

Jamey Johnson Letter to Fans

As Johnson says in the letter, this song is a callback to his early days of starting his music career in Nashville. Sounds like the appropriate song to reintroduce himself to the country music world. And I couldn’t think of a better review to kick off the 2015 year in country music.

“Alabama Pines” is a tender, nostalgia ballad. I love the choice of starting the song off with at first subtle, yet ear-catching later acoustic guitar play combined with a “dream” effect sound. I listened to this beginning part over and over because it’s such a great introduction. The rest of the song sticks with a decidedly traditional sound, which is literally music to my ears. You can always rely on Johnson to deliver a great, classic country sound. I also love the incorporation of the piano in the song, which is more present in the second half of the song.

As for the lyrics, Johnson reflects back to his early days of starting his music career and heading to Nashville. He specifically mentions how he remembers driving down a dusty road (you know because he actually has, unlike most “country” artists) hearing the music on radio and how he “pined” to move to Nashville. When he got there he then realized he would “still be living with the Alabama pines.” In other words, he realized he didn’t really belong in Nashville and belonged in Alabama instead. I would love to know how many artists went to Nashville to make country music only to realize they didn’t need it to make country music. That’s obviously the realization Jamey has made, as he left the Mercury Nashville label and has started his own independent label, Big Gassed Records.

I’ll reiterate what I said above. This is the perfect comeback song for Jamey Johnson. It’s beautifully simple and traditional with a feel good message. It will also create a sense of nostalgia in many listeners I think too, something many mainstream country songs tried to do in 2014 and failed at doing so. The song reflects on simpler times when your younger and didn’t realize what you truly wanted in life. It’s after your experiences you truly realize what you want.

“Alabama Pines” is a pretty good song. It’s not great like “In Color” or “Lonesome Song,” but still pretty dang good nonetheless. Johnson hasn’t said if this is the first song off a new album. In fact he hasn’t officially announced a new album, as I said in my 2015 albums post yesterday. Whether this is just a one-off song like Wade Bowen’s “Songs About Trucks” or is the first single off a new album, it’s so satisfying to hear new Jamey Johnson music. This is the way I wanted to start off 2015 in country music. And Johnson not only made this great song, but is offering it for free currently on his website. I highly recommend getting it and telling all your country music friends that Jamey Johnson is back and just as good as ever.

Grade: 9/10

To download “Alabama Pines” for free, click here.