The Hodgepodge: Dear Music Row, Call a Spade a Spade and Start Labeling Your Music Pop

This is probably a recycled thought/topic for this feature, but non-country “country” music has been on my mind all week. It all started with Maren Morris’ HERO. Another recent pop release wrapped up in the label of country music include Keith Urban’s RipcordLittle Big Town is stepping into true pop music with their upcoming project with Pharrell, Wanderlust. This is the direction mainstream country music appears to be taking if last night’s CMT awards are any indication. Little Big Town and Pharrell performed a pop song from Wanderlust. Cam performed with pop group Fifth Harmony, and Cassadee Pope sang backup to Pitbull. Over the years, we’ve seen pop acts like Justin Timberlake, Ariana Grande, Meghan Trainor, Nick Jonas, and Katy Perry all make appearances at “country music” award shows. And for good measure, country music sites like Taste of Country still haven’t let go of Taylor Swift, who officially moved to pop almost two years ago.

I’m not going to sit here and rehash complaints about how Nashville is killing country’s tradition. It’s dead, and I’ve accepted it. The Murder on Music Row has become a full-fledged massacre, despite Chris Stapleton’s best efforts. My plea today is for Music Row to stop calling this music country. Sam Hunt still isn’t country. Ripcord and HERO are not country albums by any stretch of the imagination. With all of their experiment’s with pop music, they’re starting to get it to sound good. Maren Morris and producer busbee have a good pop album on their hands with HERO. She delivers the songs well, with confidence and authenticity from Morris as a singer. And I’ll admit that I enjoy “80’s Mercedes” as a song. It’s a catchy, fun pop song. But let’s stop pretending this is country music; it’s not.

For the last few years, the only reason they defended it as country was due to the fact that the songs sucked, and wouldn’t stand a chance on pop radio. But if future albums follow HERO and turn out to be well-produced pop albums with good pop songs, then call it pop! There’d me no more shame! Everyone, including Thomas Rhett, knows “Vacation” is a joke and wouldn’t stand a chance on any respectable pop radio station, but country radio will play it because that’s where the spotlight hits the bottom of the barrel. Music Row has done everything it could to make country music a joke and piss on the graves of Hank, Cash, Waylon, and now Merle. But now it looks like they’re ready to put forth effort on the pop front. Maybe.

We’re still being treated to half-assed adult contemporary albums like Black, I’m Coming Over, If I’m Honest, and whatever Florida Georgia Line will do. “H.O.L.Y.” certainly paints a picture of an A/C album coming from the duo. I’d call that music closer to pop than country, but it certainly isn’t good. These are albums where no one included seems to care about the music being released. But it seems like their albums are serving as a stepping stone toward moving more in the pop direction.

So, Music Row, start moving your pop music away from the country music landscape so artists like Maddie & Tae, Jon Pardi, Chris Stapleton, and Kacey Musgraves can clean up the mess you’ve made. You’re way past the point of no return, and no one will take any of your b and c level pop singers (aka top “country” singers) seriously if they turn back to country. You’ve completely alienated many of the fans you’ve had at the cost of chasing after a different demographic – a demographic only interested in the hot trend and not the history of a beautiful genre of music. Stop giving this genre a bad name. By putting this music on national TV and calling it country, you’re letting these faces and songs represent the entire genre. Meanwhile, there are several artists like Whitey Morgan, Turnpike Troubadours, Margo Price, and Michaela Anne, to name a few, who are carrying the rich tradition of country music in their music. Let artists like that represent the name “country music” while you and your singers continue to do your pop music under a different name.

So call a spade a spade and, Music Row, start calling your music pop.

Upcoming/Recent Country and Americana Releases

  • Tomorrow, Brandy Clark‘s Big Day in a Small Town will be released.
  • Frankie Ballard‘s El Rio will also be released tomorrow.
  • Jon Pardi‘s California Sunrise will be released next week on June 17th.
  • Luke Bell‘s self-titled album will be released on the 17th.
  • Scott Low‘s The New Vintage will also be released on the 17th.
  • Hey everybody! Josh here with some album news I wanted to pass along to you. I saw Brandi Carlile a couple of nights back (excellent show by the way) and she revealed that they’re going to do a re-release of her most well-known album The Story next year, marking the 10th anniversary of the album. All of the proceeds for the album will be going to the Looking Out Foundation, which helps children who’s lives have been torn apart by wars. Carlile said she and the band won’t be performing the songs on the re-release, but rather a list of guests and friends. She also mentioned one of her idols will be performing the title track.

Throwback Thursday Song

“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams. You can never go wrong with Hank Williams. Despite what Music Row sells, there will always be someone out there respecting the music Hank made.

Non-Country Suggestion

“Hurricane Love” L.A. Woman. How many of you have heard of Cymbal? It’s a music social media app where you simply share a song with your followers, and you can play samples of the songs that are posted directly through the app. It’s a cool concept for an app, but I think it’s still rather new and used mostly on the indie circuit. This is a song I discovered through Cymbal.

Tweets of the Week: CMT Awards Edition

There was no reason to watch the CMT Awards after Chris Stapleton performed “Parachute.” And there was no reason to watch before Chris Stapleton performed “Parachute.”

iTunes Review

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This was left under Jon Pardi’s newest album. California Sunrise has the potential to be the best mainstream album released this year, and if the few songs pre-released are indication, then it could be in a conversation with this year’s best.

Note: The Hodgepodge will return in two weeks, as we will be featuring our mid-year best and worst posts next week.

Album Review – Maren Morris’ ‘HERO’

Maren Morris HERO

Remember my pop album review of Keith Urban’s Ripcord a few weeks back? If you haven’t read it, I would recommend you at least read the point at the end. To give you the short version of it, I’ve pretty much come to conclusion now that there’s no such thing as bad country, good pop. There’s only good music and bad music. It’s important to say this up front as I discuss Maren Morris’ new album HERO. This is probably one of the most anticipated albums in country music this year as Morris’ single “My Church” has been a big hit and really helped her rise in popularity. Morris has really caught a lot of eyes and with this album it would determine just how high she can go in the immediate future. After hearing her self-titled EP released late last year, I knew coming in that there would undeniably be a pop influence on this album. And I was right. By right I mean more than I would ever realize because HERO is not a country record and calling it as such would be an outright lie. This is a pop soul record with a couple of country songs and a country influence in spots. However I’m not going to spend an entire review shouting it’s not country because that would be a waste of time and foolish. No, I’m going to review HERO for what it is because this album is too enjoyable at times not to talk about.

Some heavy acoustic guitar plays in “Sugar.” This lingers throughout the song in combination with an upbeat pop production as the song revolves around a crush Morris has on a guy. This includes a few too many comparisons to how this crush makes her feel. In comparison to the rest of the album, this is one of the more forgettable songs due to the lyrics being a little clumsy and the production being a bit too overdone. It can get annoying after a while. “Rich” is where you get a good indication of where this album is willing to go. The song is about Morris saying if she had a dollar for every time she swore her ex off and every time he made her feel pain, she would be pretty rich. And she paints a pretty vivid picture of just how rich she would be in the chorus. These chorus lines work for the most part, although I find the line about diamonds and P Diddy to be cheesy and outdated. I imagine this is where the staunch country fan stopped listening.

The lead single and the song I imagine many thought would indicate the direction of this entire album, “My Church,” follows. This anthemic, gospel-inspired tune is about how Maren’s church is country music (although the rest of the album says otherwise). When she turns on her favorite country music (Hank and Johnny Cash, as mentioned in the song), it feels like a spiritual experience to her. She genuinely loves country music. Part country, part rock and part gospel, this song is catchy and fun as hell. I’ve listened to this song a lot and it just doesn’t get old. One of the most mature songs on HERO is “I Could Use a Love Song.” In a world dominated by the hook-up culture and dating apps, Morris speaks for many young adults who have a negative outlook on finding love and feeling disheartened about capturing that feeling. It’s really kind of melancholy, yet in a way kind of hopeful too. It’s definitely one of my favorites on the album.

This is followed by “80s Mercedes,” an upbeat song about a woman and her 80s Mercedes-Benz. When she’s driving it she feels confident and beautiful, clearly holding some strong sentimental value to her. This is a pop country song, with a heavy dosage on the former. Despite the heavy pop influence that would normally annoy me, there’s just something about this song that is infectious and likable that I can’t knock it. It’s something I can’t explain, I just know I enjoy hearing it and I have no problem admitting it. It’s been announced as the second single from the album and I think this could be a big summer hit. Morris shows off her humorous side on “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry.” The song is about a woman telling her friend to leave her boyfriend after cheating on her yet again. As the woman tells her friend, this is the third time he’s been caught, so it’s past time for another chance and time to kick him to the curb. She tells her though that he’s a really nice guy, but then her friend retorts back, “That’s like saying drunk girls don’t cry.” It’s a sassy, honest and funny take on the classic breakup song upon first listen. However after hearing it multiple times, it can become skippable and best left as an album cut.

“How It’s Done” is one of those songs you can either take or leave. The song is about a relationship going to the next level, which is sex. Now many popular country artists do a terrible job at describing sex in songs because the lyrics suck, are immature or are just clumsy. Morris does a better job than most of them, but it’s one of those songs that can wear thin after a while. The production kind of reminds of an album cut off The Weeknd’s latest album. Overall it’s a decent song I guess. Morris sings about regret on “Just Another Thing.” From late-night calls to an ex to drinking and smoking, she knows it’s just a list of things she shouldn’t do and yet she keeps indulging them. The song has a bluesy, soulful sound with pop sensibilities. Combined with the witty lyrics, it’s subtly one of the better tracks on the album.

“I Wish I Was” is a more traditional country song with some blues added in. It’s about a woman who is in a relationship and makes the realization that it isn’t going to work. The man thinks it’s true love and he’s found the one, but she breaks it to him that it isn’t true love. She wishes however it was true love and that she was the “hero” in the story who got all of the glory of being in love. Personally I find this to be one of the best tracks on the album because once again Morris takes a mature approach to relationships and describes it so well. It’s arguably the best vocal performance from Morris too. I think it would be a mistake to not release this as a single, although I have a feeling the more pop sounding songs would take precedence over it.

The inspirational-themed “Second Wind” is next. One of the songs I immediately thought of in comparison with it is Maddie & Tae’s “Fly.” Both really don’t have a concrete them and are just centered around the tropes of “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” and “never give up.” Although I would say “Fly” is better because of the production and instrumentation. This isn’t a bad song and has a nice sound, but it’s one of the more forgettable on HERO. The album closes with “Once,” a waltzing pop song on love. Specifically it’s after both sides of the relationship have called it quits, but thoughts of once was still lingering. Morris acknowledges from her point of view while she still can’t shake it completely and knows it’s over; she still wants him to remember that he loved her once and that’s something that will never disappear. The swell in the chorus really gives this song a punch and really ends the album on a good note.

HERO will probably be the most polarizing album of 2016. Undoubtedly the biggest sin this album commits is it being called a country album. It shouldn’t have any business charting on the country albums chart too. If you’re angry about this and this prevents you from enjoying it, I don’t blame you because it would get a zero as a country record. But once you get past this, you find yourself listening to a really enjoyable pop album. Morris does such a great job at times looking at relationships and feelings from a mature point of view. When her and the songwriters on this album (busbee, Natalie Hemby, Laura Veltz, Jimmy Robbins, Jessie Jo Dillon, Luke Laird amongst them) get it right, the songs really shine. Everything that comes out of Morris’ mouth comes off as genuine, honest and sincere. Her career though may not be in country music and more suited for pop. But as a music fan I can’t help but appreciate HERO as a pop album (key descriptor). I think this album will primarily appeal to younger listeners and fans of pop music/people open to pop over older listeners and staunch country fans. Not everyone is going to like this album. But for those who do, you’ll really find some enjoyable songs.

Grade: 7/10

*parts of this review are taken from my review of Morris’ self-titled EP last year


You can listen to the entire album on Morris’ YouTube page here.

Review – Brandy Clark’s “Girl Next Door”

Brandy Clark hit the country music scene like a train crashing through a wall at full speed. Her 2013 debut album, 12 Stories, was released to critical acclaim and considered one of the best albums of the year. Clark’s traditional approach to the songs’ production was noteworthy and her no-nonsense writing set her apart from most other country songwriters. Brandy Clark has been a critical darling since 12 Stories‘ release, and it’s fair to say that her eventual next album has been highly anticipated. While most details for the album remain hush-hush, we finally have a taste of what’s to come with her first single from the new album, “Girl Next Door.”

“Girl Next Door” is a big shift for Brandy Clark because the song abandons any semblance of country music in exchange for a dance beat melody and pop anthem production. The opening chords of an electric guitar combined with a percussion beat that sounds like it came out of a computer program set the stage in the first 10 seconds of the song. That beat holds throughout the verse and then gets cranked to eleven for the chorus. “Girl Next Door” is an over produced pop dance song produced by the one and only Jay Joyce. The production drowns the rest of the song. Clark’s voice is almost unrecognizable as she screams over the music of the chorus.

The real shame of the production is that it distracts from Clark’s signature, no bullshit sass in her lyrics. “When you took me home, you knew who you were taking. Not some Debbie Debutante standing in an apron, frying up your bacon. My house and my mouth and my mind get kind of trashy. I’ve never been to jail but hell I wouldn’t put it past me.” That is 100% Brandy Clark. As the song continues, she tells this man to accept that she isn’t the girl next door, or to leave for good and go next door. She’s not Marcia Brady and she’s not sorry about it, so take your pick. “Girl Next Door” is a well written song, but you can’t catch the lyrics right away because of the overproduced mess.

I’m not quite sure what to expect with Clark’s upcoming album, but “Girl Next Door” doesn’t get me excited for it. I wasn’t a fan to read that Jay Joyce was her producer, and this song confirms some of my worry for the album. Go listen to “Stripes” and hear how a sassy song like this can be upbeat and country. This “edgy” production doesn’t suit Clark’s voice. She’s really at her best with a simple production behind her, best exemplified in “Hold My Hand.” I hope the rest of her album isn’t like “Girl Next Door” and features some actual country music, but at least Clark didn’t abandon all her roots for this song. “Girl Next Door’s” lyrics are a saving grace; the only good thing about this song.

Grade: 5/10

Review – Brett Eldredge’s “Drunk On Your Love”

One of the lyrical trends in pop country this year that really draws my ire is songs where males compare their affection to females with being high/drunk. It’s not an interesting way to describe your infatuation, and it’s certainly an overused trope ever since Ke$ha’s “Your Love is my Drug.” Brett Eldredge’s new single is aptly titled “Drunk On Your Love,” and I’m sure you can connect the dots of where this is heading. We opted not to do a full review of Illinois because the album was rather bland and uninteresting, but reviewing the singles released from the album will suffice.

“Drunk On Your Love” doesn’t even try to be original or different. Eldredge co-wrote the song with Ross Copperman and right away the clichés begin pouring out. “The second she walked through the door, I caught a buzz. One taste from your lips knocked me out just like a drug.” All Brett Eldredge wants to do is continue to feel this high from her touch and her love. There’s no attempt to bring any sort of natural story to this song. It’s like a teenager who just discovered the effects of drugs and alcohol and lost his virginity all in the same night. Then he decided to write a song about it. Simply put, the lyrics are stupid, simple, and childish.

Perhaps the most obnoxious thing about “Drunk On Your Love” is the constant repetition of words in the chorus. “Now I know why, why I’m feelin’ so high, high ’cause I’m still drunk, drunk on your love, on your love.” Nearly every other word gets echoed because the hook is terrible and there needed to be some inflection or effect added so it could stand out to listeners. There’s a unique, yet intriguing production to the song, though. A percussion sound of hand drums mixed behind a sort of accordion sounding ring certainly helps the song stand out among the hip hop influences of most songs. However, on top of that intrigue are random pops and sound effects that still turn “Drunk On Your Love” into an overproduced, non-country mess. This unique pop production was chosen because something in this song needed to stand out among the crowd for it to be a radio single contender.

I liked Brett Eldredge’s debut album. “Raymond” is a wonderful country song, and I’m quite fond of “Beat of the Music.” Bring You Back had just enough quality to instill some hope that Brett would carve his own path. Only now do I realize how naive I was to think that. Illinois as a whole is a sophomore slump in album quality with “Drunk On Your Love” joining “Lose My Mind” as a leading example of that slump. Here’s just another stupid, boring song to add to mainstream country’s over saturated pot of crappy pop songs.

Grade: 1/10

The Hodgepodge: Country Artists Covering Real Pop Songs

Left to right: Bruno Mars, Thomas Rhett, Thomas Rhett

Today’s Hodgepodge is inspired by this tweet from Josh the other day:

Covering other songs isn’t anything new in music and when done right, can be an awesome experience for the listener, especially in concerts. Some bands have go-to covers that are concert staples alongside their big number 1 hit. One cover song from a band that immediately comes to mind is the Zac Brown Band covering Charlie Daniels’ “Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Other artists have famous songs which are covers from another artist. Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” is a Bob Dylan cover that surpasses the original.

But as mainstream country further alienates itself from real country music, the bands and acts who seem more interested in crossing over continue to add more non-country songs to their set lists. Both The Band Perry and Thomas Rhett have added a cover of “Uptown Funk” to recent concert set lists. The Band Perry’s new single, “Live Forever” proves they want a pop crossover hit, and they even recently did some hip hop covers for iHeartRadio. Also, it’s no secret that Thomas Rhett basically wants to be Bruno Mars to the point that Rhett has essentially reset his musical goals to copy Mars. Thomas Rhett even has single recording of Bruno Mars’ “When I Was Your Man.”

If you happen to find yourself at a Luke Bryan show for the Kick the Dust Up tour, you’ll hear a cover of Maroon 5’s “Sugar.” And a recent Florida Georgia Line crowd was treated to an encore set that included four back to back covers of Garth Brooks, Dr. Dre, Alan Jackson, and Wiz Khalifa in that order. And who could forget the opening train wreck at the 2014 CMT Awards where Jason DeRulo joined Bryan and FGL on stage for a short performance of “Talk Dirty”? And on top of all this, we have the Eli Young Band’s current new song, the “country” remix of Andy Grammar’s “Honey I’m Good.”

These are just a few examples of some of mainstream “country’s” biggest acts devoting time to music that is far from country. In my opinion, you shouldn’t go to a country concert and hear a Dr. Dre song from the act on the stage. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, but most cover songs are not better than the original. Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan is one of the few cases where the cover song is the better version. Thomas Rhett covering Bruno Mars is not good. As Josh said in the tweet, it’s bad enough they’re ruining country music, but now they’re ruining pop songs too.

Last year I reviewed the Nashville Outlaws’ Motley Crue tribute album. I said the following in my review about cover songs:

When an artist approaches a cover song with creative liberty and creates an original composition to the lyrics, and executes that liberty well, it is one of my favorite things.

From that album, The Mavericks cover of Dr. Feelgood is an excellent example of taking creative liberty with a cover and executing it well. The Band Perry even do a cover of Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” that, to me, sounds good because they put the song right in their musical wheelhouse. (And, you know, it actually sounds a bit country, too).

As Josh tweeted out, this is yet another example of these acts trying to be “‘cool and popular.’ Because country isn’t cool to them.” These acts who call themselves country try so hard not to be country, and that’s why fans latch onto them. “Country Music” became cool because it’s party music and bad pop music that wouldn’t stand a chance on real pop radio. Covering these “cool” pop songs further drives this home. God forbid Florida Georgia actually cover Hank or Haggard, the music they supposedly listen to while they roll or have a laid back party on Sunday.

Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases

  • Brantley Gilbert has announced the title of his next single, “Stone Cold Sober.”
  • Kip Moore’s second album The Wild Ones will be released tomorrow.
  • Candian Country singer Whitney Rose will release her second album tomorrow. Heartbreaker of the Year was produced by Raul Malo of The Mavericks.
  • Carrie Underwood is poised to make an announcement this evening which will likely be the reveal of her next album or at least a lead single for the next album.
  • Hall of Fame songwriter Mac McAnally will release a solo album called A.K.A. Nobody on September 18.

Today in Country Music History

  • Country Music Hall of Fame member Jim Reeves was born on this day in 1923.
  • In 1974, David Allen Coe records “You Never Even Call Me By My Name.” Within the song itself, Coe calls it “the perfect country and western song.”
  • In 2008, songwriter Will Hoge was in a scooter accident while driving home from a recording session of what would become the 2009 album called The Wreckage.

Today’s Country Music history facts come courtesy of RolandNote.

Throwback Thursday Song

“Little Sister” by Dwight Yoakam. In sticking with today’s discussion on cover songs, here’s a great country cover from Dwight Yoakam singing Elvis’s “Little Sister”! This is his performance of the song on Letterman in 1987.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week

Grace Potter Midnight. Grace Potter, frequent collaborator with Kenny Chesney has released a new solo album, without her longtime backing band The Nocturnals. The album was produced by Eric Valentine, and carries much more pop rock anthem type songs than what you may have come to expect from Potter.

Tweet of the Week

I think I had the same reaction when I first heard the song too.

An Negative iTunes Review That Makes Me Mad

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This was left under Cam’s This is Cam Country EP. This review is extremely sexist and this reviewer obviously has no respect for country music, seeing as they can’t even spell McEntire.