The Endless Music Odyssey, Vol. 1: Hot Country Knights, Wade Bowen & Randy Rogers, and more

The Hot Country Knights deliver even more than I expected with their debut album The K is Silent. You can spend a lot of time analyzing all of the puns and hilarious references (some time will be spent on this of course). But in my opinion the best thing to sum up about this album can be found in the music video for the lead single of this album, “Pick Her Up.” In this clear parody of bro country (as well as 90s country too), the video opens with the modern country male concert goer in his flannel shirt and vest. It’s a little detail, but it struck me because of it’s accuracy because this is literally how the vast majority of guys I see at concerts dress. At The Cadillac Three concert I attended back in February (what will highly likely be my one and only show in 2020), pretty much every dude at show looked like the guy in the music video.

Now to why I point this out and to me it’s symbolism for modern country. Every thing looks and sounds the same just like the listeners who consume it. I don’t mean this as a shot at these listeners or anybody at all, nor did Dierks Bentley and his band mean to make this some sort of symbolism. But for myself I couldn’t help but make the connection. I just found it fascinating how so much of popular modern music makes things so cookie cutter to the point even the listener is a cardboard cutout. It shows the cascading effect art and culture can have on people. As the saying goes, you are what you eat.

Back to the Hot Country Knights and the video, they give the guy a 90s makeover (or 80s?) and set him up with a souped up truck to impress his date. It’s completely corny, out of style and yet brimming so much with the personality that lacks in country music today. It doesn’t feel like calculated marketing and it’s just being itself, which easier said than done in today’s world. Yes, this album goes on to point out how even 90s country was formulaic in it’s approach and relied on copy and paste imagery for songs. But it was fun and didn’t take itself so seriously, yet it could also find balance with serious songs occasionally too. It felt natural and had an accessibility about it that could resonate with the average person because it didn’t try so hard to be cool or appeal to certain demographics. Of course I will fully admit too that nostalgia makes me see things slightly through rose-colored glasses. But it’s the fun-loving spirit of this album that resonates mostly with me and how it’s not afraid to go “out there” and be a little weird and kooky.

The features on this album are perfect with Travis Tritt and Terri Clark each shining brightly in their roles. “Asphalt” is non-stop chuckles with it’s non-stop ass-based references (and another hilarious music video). “Moose Knuckle Shuffle” actually makes me want to dance and do the Moose Knuckle Shuffle while also doing a perfect parody of the line-dancing phase of the 90s. The highlight of the album for me though has to be “Then It Rained.” At first I was like wait a minute this is familiar and then I realized it was a dead-on take of Garth Brooks’ “The Thunder Rolls” and I absolutely lost it. It’s quite “Seinfeldian” as my friend Zack at The Musical Divide perfectly puts it, with it’s take on the average boring moment followed by rain. This type of humor is right up my alley. The best line is “I ordered up a hot dog and a glass of chardonnay/Somewhere I thought I heard George Strait/And then it rained.” It’s just so randomly hilarious!

The album’s title track rhymes whiskey with whiskey, which feels like the ultimate meta reference to how asinine modern country songwriting can be at times while also referencing how critics like myself can never help ourselves in pointing things like this out in reviews. “Mull It Over” is both funny and manages to incorporate a mullet reference right under your nose (while lines throughout reference the hair style too). “You Make It Hard” is the ultimate dick joke song. Finally you have “The USA Begins with US,” which casually and flawlessly mocks the absurdity that is so many patriotic country songs and how some artists inauthentically pander so hard with the USA stuff in their music (think songs like “Chicken Fried”).

While this was just a “casual” side project for Dierks Bentley and his band, you can tell a lot of love and work went into this fun idea. And I hope this isn’t the last we’ve heard of the Hot Country Knights, as the cornier, fun side of country music is something we need again. Speaking of more fun country music, Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers returned with another collaboration album, Hold My Beer, Vol. 2. The first addition got high praise from yours truly and I flipped when I saw the news that they were coming back with another edition in May.

While I really enjoyed this album for the most part, I unfortunately have to point the huge flaw in this project before getting to what I enjoy. And I have to point it out first because I was enjoying it so much upon initial listens and then I finally did my “deep” listen of it. The huge flaw I discovered was “Her.” Now I know I pointed out above that music today should have a more casual nature about it and not be so overthought. But it’s hard not to come away from “Her” as anything but disappointing. A song about a guy getting his friend drunk and stealing his girl away is just not something I can get behind, no matter how “fun-loving” it tries to come off. This song is no different than the horrible Old Dominion song “Break Up with Him.” It’s just in bad taste all-around and unlike Ashley McBryde’s new album Never Will, this song doesn’t try to view the flawed characters as neutral or bad actors, but rather quite the opposite.

So after making this discovery it felt like I had just eaten a piece of delicious chocolate cake only for the chef to come up to me afterwards and whisper in my ear that there was a fly baked into it. Nevertheless, the rest of this album is the kind of fun traditional country I can get behind and put on repeat. While there are no true highlights that resonate with me like on the first volume, there was still several fun moments. “Rodeo Clown” is an hilarious song about a guy being left by his woman for a rodeo clown. While it’s an embarrassing and sad thing for the guy, it’s quite a funny image from the outside looking in. While at first “Rhinestoned” and “Speak to Me Jukebox” felt a bit on the nose, I’ve ultimately come to really enjoy these little homages to country music and previous standards that so many country listeners enjoy.

“Am/Fm” is admittedly a bit too close to the very songs these two mocked with “Standards,” but damn if it isn’t admittedly catchy too. So I can understand anybody who decidedly falls on either side of the fence with this song. “Let Merle Be Merle” can kind of come off a bit tone deaf upon first listen of the chorus, but I realized upon more listens the message is really about letting people be what they are. Particularly with country music the song is saying to let the past be the past, don’t try to be the next Haggard. And these are messages I can get behind. “Ode to Ben Dorcy” surprised me as I was greeted by the welcoming voice of Waylon Jennings. And I found the song to be even more cool when I read about the origins of it, as it pays tribute to the long-time roady who supported so many artists.

“Mi Amigo”, even with the nice feature of Asleep at the Wheel, is a bit generic and forgettable. “Warm Beer” is a bit cliché, but I’ll admit I can enjoy it too for it’s easy-going nature. “Hold My Beer” is definitely better and is the kind of song that encapsulates the entertaining, buddy-buddy personalities of Bowen and Rogers. I wish “Her” could have been replaced with another song like this one. Or another song like “This Ain’t My Town,” which I would have to pick as the best on the record. It’s a poignant commentary on the gentrification of towns like Austin and Nashville, stripping away the soul and characteristics that made the places once resonate with the city’s original residents who now feel like strangers. It’s a nice balance also with the fun moments on this album, much like how “El Dorado” served on the first volume.

Hold My Beer, Vol. 2 is a really solid album that shines for the most part, despite the flaws. Although I would be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity to make an observation of this album and The K is Silent. Each album shares multiple writers (Jon Randall, the Beavers brothers), despite the fact that some Texas Country supporters will insist that Wade and Randy’s album is much more authentic and country. But I would make the argument that these albums are essentially the same, as each have the same fun attitude and themes throughout.

The only difference is packaging and marketing. One is trying to be “serious” and the other is a “parody.” But you could argue both for well both. The point I’m ultimately trying to make here is how hung up in perceptions us listeners can have when it comes to music and the perception we think we give by listening to a certain type of music. Really at the end of the day it’s just a matter of how it makes you feel and if you enjoy it. The other stuff is just noise artists, labels and industry people trying to suck you into this fake us vs them plot to sell more music and tickets. And unfortunately this fuels the divides that exist in music too. In the words of the Doobie Brothers, just listen to the music and you can’t go wrong.

Hot Country Knights – The K is Silent – Strong 8/10

Wade Bowen & Randy Rogers – Hold My Beer, Vol. 2 – Light 8/10


And more…

  • After enjoying the Hot Country Knights album, it actually prompted me to re-listen to Dierks Bentley’s The Mountain. And I’m glad I did. Originally I was in the very small minority of not enjoying the album. But now you can count me in the camp of liking it. I’m not sure why I originally didn’t enjoy it, and while I wouldn’t put it as one of Bentley’s best (such as Modern Day Drifter, Riser, Up on the Ridge), it’s a really solid album full of great messages that deal with overcoming fears, anxiety and finding love. “Burning Man” is the perfect opener and the Brothers Osborne are the ideal feature for this type of song. The album’s title track feels like a good summation of this album, “You Can’t Bring Me Down” is an uplifting anthem and “Son of the Sun” is where you can really tells Dierks lets his inspiration from Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives’ Way Out West shine through. And his collaboration with Brandi Carlile on “Travelin’ Light” is so enjoyable. I’m not sure I’ll ever warm up to Black, but The Mountain is an album worthy of recommendation from yours truly now.
  • Run the Jewels is dropping RTJ4 on June 5 and I am pumped! All three albums they’ve released have been great (RTJ2 in particular is one of the best albums of the past decade), so I’m quite confident that this will be another can’t miss record from the dynamic duo of El-P and Killer Mike. I got even more excited when I saw the all-star features list for the album, including the likes of 2 Chainz, Zack De La Rocha, Pharrell Williams and Mavis Staples. I’ve only listened to small snippets and plan to not listen to any of the full songs before the album to go in completely blind. Needless to say this is an album that on paper has a great shot of making my top albums of the year list.
  • I just reposted my review of Kenny Chesney’s great Songs of the Saints album. But unfortunately his new album is right back to the generic garbage I’ve come to hate from him. I didn’t even make it halfway through before shutting it off. It’s a shame how his mediocre stuff is what always ends up as hits while his better material never seems to resonate with listeners as much. Then again when you condition your audience into coming to concerts to get blackout drunk and trash venues up, it’s not really that surprising I guess.
  • I recently started to explore the discography of the Carpenters and I wish I would have done so sooner. Their melodies are gorgeous and Karen Carpenter has to be one of the most underrated artists of all-time. It’s a shame her life was cut so short. Close To You is the standard recommendation with this duo and for good reason, as I enjoy it front to back. The love songs like “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “They Long To Be Close To You” easily standout thanks to the beautiful voice of Karen and their different take on the cover of “Help” holds up right next to The Beatles.
  • I gotta say I’m not a fan of the COVID-19-inspired songs being released. It’s bad enough to be profiting off a deadly virus, but then the songs themselves are so boring and uninspiring. I don’t really think anybody needs another reminder of it either. Country music in particular seems to be releasing the most songs about the topic and it reminds me so much of immediate post-9/11 country music. Luke Combs has the most popular song with “Six Feet Apart.” It’s just decent and for me it’s starting feel like all of his songs have the same cadence and feel about him. They just sort of blend together, so I hope he plans for more variety in future songs. Brad Paisley though has released the worst with “No I in Beer.” It’s so lazy, the pandering is tacked on at the end and it feels like a watered down conglomeration of his past songs. Please start doing better, Brad.
  • I don’t really pay a lot of attention to country radio nowadays, but I glanced through the chart the other day and I was happy to see LOCASH’s “One Big Country Song” is rising up the charts and becoming a hit. I’ve never been a big fan of the duo, but this song really caught my ear when I heard it last year. While the topic of the song is quite overused in country music, LOCASH manages to pull it off thanks to the fun, singalong nature and the catchy guitar licks.

Thanks for reading the first edition of The Endless Music Odyssey! This will be not necessarily a weekly feature, but a regular feature for sure. I will still do regular reviews when I have a ton to say about the album, but otherwise my thoughts will be in this feature. Josh’s Jukebox Journal will still be a feature and I plan to reveal at least one more feature very soon. I hope you enjoy my new approach to writing as much as I do! As always be sure to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments below!

The Hodgepodge: The Decline of Country Festivals

With the rise of bro-country from virtually every male artist in country music came the rise of country festivals across the nation to capitalize on the hot trend. The goal was to put Florida Georgia Line or Luke Bryan on stage in a field surrounded by beer tents where hundreds of college students and recent graduates will congregate and get drunk while crappy, corporate country music blasted through the speakers encouraging the concert goers to continue getting drunk. These country festivals are basically a glorified frat party.

As quickly as the bro-country trend sky rocketed, it’s free-falling at the same rate. This year, over 20 country music festivals have cancelled shows due to a lack of interest and ticket sales. The Bayou Country Superfest saw a drop in ticket sales for the block of shows last weekend. The most likely case for these plummeting attendance numbers could be due to the fact that there’s simply way too many shows and festivals out there.

“Several shows have been downsized, canceled or just decided to skip this year. We may have reached the saturation point given the current talent pool,” – Pollstar’s editor-in-chief, Gary Bongiovanni

“There is an oversaturation in the market. … You’ve got a festival on every corner,”– Nash FM and Classic Hits 103.3 DJ Scott Innes

Another theory Innes states for the sudden evaporation of the festivals is that artists aren’t making money. “The only one that’s making money is the artist. … It’s a cross-your-fingers deal (for promoters to turn a profit).” Innes points out that top acts at these festivals could walk away with upwards of $1 million per show. A majority of these festivals have tickets that are purchased as an all day pass or gate admission for the whole day. So a $40 admission fee grants you access to see every show scheduled that day, and many festivals will have a bundle discount option for multiple days. That’s unlike a show at an arena or stadium where $60 buys your nosebleed seat for an opener or two plus the headliner.

So why are artists demanding so much money? Because concerts and live shows are what bring the majority of profit. We’ve detailed several times how streaming’s payouts are ridiculously low for artists and songwriters. However, as streaming continues to grow and modern radio continues to decline, artists and labels need to find other ways to bring in money. The concert and tour therefore become the focal point for the artist or band. That’s why albums are built with a high number of ready-made singles. Producers and labels want an album with five or six singles to sustain a long tour. They want more money for these shows because it’s essentially all they have for profit. But at festivals with multiple days and headliners, no one gets paid if fans aren’t there to buy drinks and merchandise.

One reason why I think attendance numbers are lower this year is due to the fact that bro-country is virtually dead. Many of the biggest names in bro-country have moved on with songs about heartbreak or spiritual inspired love song. Florida Georgia Line has “H.O.L.Y.”, Blake Shelton has “She’s Got a Way With Words”, Luke Bryan has “Huntin’ Fishin’….” which reverts back to his country checklist lifestyle and not a bro party. The point is, for many of these artists, the party has ended for now.

How many fans of bro-country were fans of the actual artist vs. simply fans of the trend and songs? I can’t tell you how many of my own friends despised country music until bro-country took off, then they became big fans of Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line. Boston is a city that traditionally didn’t value country music, but once bro-country became popular, Boston became a hot spot for mainstream country concerts. I’d be willing to bet that a good chunk of bro-country fans were only fans of bro-country, and don’t care for “Confession” or “H.O.L.Y.”

How will the Adult Contemporary influence on so many recent mainstream releases bring a big change to concert culture? The songs don’t ignite the party like bro-country did. And probably a better question for the concert goer, is how will the lack of extra profit from the festivals effect ticket prices for normal tour shows? Several artists like Eric Church and Kip Moore have tried to fight off scalpers, so that their fans wanting to attend shows are ripped off with ticket prices. There are singers out there who understand that for some fans, a concert ticket may be a tall order for some of the fans in attendance. This all ties back to streaming’s payouts. If streaming services can’t pay artists, songwriters, et. al. in a fair amount as the number of users grow, artists and managers will make money other ways, at the cost of the fans who only want to see their favorite band live in concert.

Upcoming/Recent Country and Americana Releases

  • Due out tomorrow:
    • Maren Morris’ debut album Hero.
    • Robert Ellis’ self titled album.
    • Jackson Taylor’s Which Way Is Up.
    • Wade Bowen & Randy Rogers’ live acoustic album Watch This.
  • On June 10th, Brandy Clark will release her second album, Big Day in a Small Town.
  • Frankie Ballard will release his newest album, El Rio, on June 10th.
  • Luke Bell will release his self titled album on June 17th.
  • Also on June 17th, Jon Pardi will release his newest album, California Sunrise.

Throwback Thursday Song

Josh Turner “Long Black Train” Ten years ago yesterday, this song was certified Gold by the RIAA. With the religious-themed lyrics and Turner’s baritone, “Long Black Train” epitomizes country music as much as cheating and drinking songs do. This is one of the best songs released in the first decade of the 2000s, in my opinion.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week

Eric Johnson “Cliffs of Dover.” A throwback as well, but my friend and I were sharing some of our favorite guitar solos with one another this weekend, and he sent me this song. I had never heard of Eric Johnson before then, and will accept any hate that admission warrants. Johnson is a hell of a guitarist, and this solo is awesome.

Tweet of the Week

A promotional photo used for the televised CMA Fest as they announce that Brett Eldredge and Thomas Rhett will host the ABC special. Hooray for short jokes (or any kind of joke for that matter) against Thomas Rhett!

Two iTunes Reviews for Old Dominion

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Below isn’t a direct response to the dumb review above, but it works.

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Looking Back at The Top 20 Albums of 2015

Country Perspective's 2015 Most Essential Albums

Lately I decided to go back and take a look at all of the album grades I handed out last year. When it comes to grading albums, it can be very polarizing to say the very least and I know there are times when you flat out disagree with me. Other times we’re in complete agreement. One of the toughest aspects of grading is deciding what album is worthy of a 10/10. What constitutes a 10/10 can vary amongst people and I’ve found context is one of the biggest determining factors. Some view a 10/10 in a historical context, some view it in a yearly context, some in a genre context, etc. When it comes to a 10/10 to me, at its core it all comes to a feel for me. I can usually sense a 10/10 from my first listen and I know it’s the mark of a truly great album.

Another important thing I keep in mind when grading is not putting too much weight on the artist’s past material. It should be considered for in terms of comparison for their average sound and whether they deviate from it or not. But in my mind you shouldn’t knock a current album’s grade just because it isn’t as good as the last one in your mind. For example, it baffled me how so many people knocked their grade for Jason Isbell’s 2015 album Something More Than Free because it wasn’t as good in their mind as his previous album Southeastern, so therefore it can’t be a 10/10 if they gave Southeastern a 10/10 in their mind. I also consider it unfair to hold an album in a historical light right upon its release. In my opinion it takes years to determine how well it holds up historically, all-time. Finally I believe there’s no such thing as a perfect album. Every album has its little flaws and has areas where it could be a little better. So I think giving a 10/10 only in the case of it being “perfect” is a little absurd. But as they say it’s all subjective and I just wanted to clarify how I look at albums.

Without further ado I wanted to give you my thoughts on what I would grade albums I gave a 10/10 last year at this current time after having more time to digest and listen to them. Some have held up and some have not. Like I said at the beginning of the year when I announced we were approaching 10/10 grades differently this year, I gave way too many last year. So now I give you what I believe the true 10/10 grades, as well as what I believe didn’t hold up as 10/10. There probably won’t be another post like this next year because I’m being more focused on the grading this year and don’t have any regrets like last year. So here you go:

10/10

Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free

Whitey Morgan – Sonic Ranch 

Chris Stapleton – Traveller 

Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen – Hold My Beer 

Don Henley – Cass County

Turnpike Troubadours – Self-Titled

Houndmouth – Little Neon Limelight

Whitney Rose – Heartbreaker of the Year

Thoughts: Of course our album of the year choice is still a 10/10. I also still stand by my point that Something More Than Free is a better album than Southeastern, even though I’m aware this is unpopular. The key word here is album. If you asked me to pick the best three songs amongst the two albums, I’m probably picking them from Southeastern. But looking at both as whole albums, Something More Than Free is better because it flows better as a whole, thematically and sonically. I know people will disagree.

Of the others that hold up to a 10/10, I know there’s only three of them that some people would disagree. While Traveller being at 14 songs is not ideal and detracted from it in people’s minds, it ultimately doesn’t hurt the album’s overall quality in my opinion. Houndmouth may never put out a better album than Little Neon Limelight again, especially in light of the news of Katie Toupin departing from the band earlier this year. Her vocals were a big reason why I loved that album. As for Whitney Rose’s Heartbreaker of the Year, it just does such a great job of standing out and taking risks while remaining rooted in country. It’s why she won our Female Artist of the Year award.

9/9

Tami Neilson – Don’t Be Afraid 

Sam Outlaw – Angeleno 

The Malpass Brothers – Self-Titled

The Lone Bellow – Then Came The Morning 

Thoughts: So now we get to the albums where they didn’t hold up. Don’t Be Afraid ultimately doesn’t hold up for me because it just doesn’t follow the emotional punch of its title song all the way through the album. Angeleno was a big favorite in a lot of circles, but I just don’t get the same feeling as I did when I first listened to it. It just doesn’t sound as good hearing it back now, but it’s still a great album. The Malpass Brothers are an act I really enjoy, but giving 10/10 to an album mostly full of cover songs wasn’t the right choice. Then we have one of the big surprises for me of 2015 and that’s The Lone Bellow’s Then Came The Morning. A lot of people missed this one because it was a January release. It’s still a really really good album, but it just doesn’t make the cut in my mind for a 10/10, although it’s close.

8/8

Maddie & Tae – Start Here

Jonathan Tyler – Holy Smokes

Dwight Yoakam – Second Hand Heart

The Mavericks – Mono

Banditos – Self-Titled

Thoughts: This is where I know I’m ruffling feathers and people won’t like my downgrading. But I remind you this is just my opinion and not the end all be all. We’ll start with the elephant in the room: Maddie & Tae’s Start Here. I’m a big fan of this duo and that’s one of the things that ultimately clouded my final grade. There’s arguably no other act in mainstream country I want to see succeed more than these two. So I gave Start Here a grade it shouldn’t have received. There’s a lot of really good moments on the album, but it doesn’t follow that through on all of it’s songs. “Your Side of Town” is one song that brings it down, as well as “Right Here, Right Now” and “No Place Like You” for just not being memorable songs. I still say their best album will come when they finally get fed up of the games you have to play on a major label and leave to make their own records on Thirty Tigers.

My fandom also clouded my judgement on Second Hand Heart and Mono. Dwight Yoakam is a living legend and The Mavericks are perhaps one of the most underrated acts in music. Both delivered really good albums with some fun songs, but they’re just not 10/10 albums. Both needed more serious songs on the album to merit it. I enjoy Jonathan Tyler’s Holy Smokes and even bought it on vinyl, but I don’t know what I was thinking giving it 10/10. Maybe it was the summer heat? Ditto for Banditos’ self-titled album. Just a case of me going overboard.

Oh and one last thing. I wanted to give you what I considered a ranking of the top 20 albums of 2015. I think this will also serve useful to those who have just found the site and are looking for great music. These are albums you can’t go wrong with and you can’t go wrong with any of the ones I mentioned above too. My top 20 ranking is all albums reviewed, not just what I reviewed. If you have any questions about this, feel free to ask below.

  1. Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free
  2. Whitey Morgan – Sonic Ranch
  3. Chris Stapleton – Traveller 
  4. Turnpike Troubadours – Self-Titled (This one has gotten even better for me upon more listens)
  5. Wade Bowen & Randy Rogers – Hold My Beer
  6. Don Henley – Cass County (Still can’t believe the drummer for the Eagles made a top ten country album of the year)
  7. John Moreland – High on Tulsa Heat (This one has really grown on me)
  8. Blackberry Smoke – Holding All The Roses
  9. Houndmouth – Little Neon Limelight 
  10. Whitney Rose – Heartbreaker of the Year
  11. Eric Church – Mr. Misunderstood (Still not giving this a 10/10, Church fans. So don’t ask)
  12. The Lone Bellow – Then Came The Morning
  13. Sam Outlaw – Angeleno (This placing will get more complaints than you realize)
  14. Brandi Carlile – The Firewatcher’s Daughter (I hate myself for giving out 9.5/10 grades at one point)
  15. Cody Jinks – Adobe Sessions (Most under-the-radar debut of 2015)
  16. Gretchen Peters – Blackbirds
  17. Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material (Deserves a lot more credit than it received)
  18. Corb Lund – Things That Can’t Be Undone (Also deserved more credit)
  19. Tami Neilson – Don’t Be Afraid
  20. Will Hoge – Small Town Dreams (I always forget about this one, which is dumb)

Just missed the cut: James McMurtry’s Complicated Game, Tony Furtado’s The Bell, Justin Townes Earle’s Absent Fathers and Jami Lin Wilson’s Holidays and Wedding Rings.

The Hodgepodge: Why I Put So Much Stock into Songwriting

Will Hoge solo at ACM @UCO Performance Lab, Oklahoma City, OK. December 4, 2015
Will Hoge solo at ACM @UCO Performance Lab, Oklahoma City, OK. December 4, 2015

After finally listening to Sturgill Simpson’s interview with Marc Maron on the WTF Podcast and listening to Guy Clark for the past day or more, I’ve been thinking a lot about song lyrics and songwriting as a whole. Clark was a masterful songwriter. It’s a shame to hear about his passing as he joins a long list of music legends lost in 2016. Do yourself a favor and explore Clark’s catalog if you haven’t yet.

As a music fan, lyrics are what draw me into a song (which is why I catch myself focusing on the song’s content more than anything when reviewing music). I’ve always enjoyed reading poetry, and love dissecting songs with abstract lyrics. I also enjoy writing stories on my own time. And while it’s been over a year since I’ve worked on a screenplay, I’m still constantly crafting stories in my head. I say all this to show how I’ve essentially conditioned myself over the years to look at the stories and words used to communicate the messages of songs.

That’s not all that goes into a song obviously, but lyrics are the first thing I notice, and the part of the song I typically hold in a higher regard. The beauty with songs, and poetry in general, is the typical sort nature of the format requires skill to convey details in a short amount of time. This is why the laundry-list type songs work in popular country. Bonfire, moonlight, beer, and trucks set the scene. It’s enough generic detail for the mindless listener to easily fill in the blanks to his or her own party. But in well-written songs, one line or one specific word can convey emotion or provide detail that a different, lesser word or line could not. The example at the front of my brain is “The Funeral” by Turnpike Troubadours. The entire song deals with a rebel son, Jimmy, returning home after a while for his father’ funeral. It’s clear he’s the black sheep of the family and there’s quite a bit of tension in the song’s subtext. In the final verse, there’s a line that says “he knew his daddy’s .38 was in that trunk buried deep, and it’d find its rightful owner once his mama was asleep.” To me, the word “rightful” hammers home the narcissism and selfishness the rest of song builds up about Jimmy.

The main problem with Music Row is how desperate these songs seem to stay relevant with the younger demographic. Building whole songs off pop-culture phrases like snapbacks and “said no one ever” or maintaining buzzwords to add a self-imposed legitimacy to a song. As evidenced by a majority of the singles from the past five years mainly, it’s become monotonous with the same kinds of songs, settings, actions being sung and written.

The CMA has a songwriters’ series where the songwriters from the major labels get their chance to sing the songs they wrote for singers like Tim McGraw, Jason Aldean, Kenny Chesney, and more. It’s a chance for these songwriters to share their stories as to how they come up with the songs. Yet with so many songs of the same nature, you get boring stories of how three guys in a room manufacture a hit. For instance, Luke Laird shares the same kind of story for how “American Kids” was written and how “Take a Back Road” was written. Essentially it’s a song that came out of how they all grew up. While it’s great for the songwriter to have the spotlight for a moment, it’s also a little disappointing when it’s a mediocre song with no special story.

Compare that to hearing Wendell Mobley sing “There Goes My Life.” While he doesn’t share the story of the song at the show, the story of the song makes his soulful performance that much more powerful. Mobley fathered a daughter while only in high school, and that daughter passed away at just one year old. Outside of the back story, “There Goes My Life” is still a great, well-written song. And I’m not saying every songwriter needs to sing the song they wrote about one of their worst moments in life, but I think it’s disappointing to hear something like “this is how me and some other guys grew up, so we just put random phrases together that rhymed.”

It appears that we’re on the brink of some more meat in songs produced on Music Row. Going back to the level of maturity from 10/15 years ago will take some time. The labels won’t go from 0 to 60 right away, but it seems that they’re slowly making the move toward maturity…or so they say. Even with a deeply personal, religious song on If I’m Honest, Blake Shelton has still recorded an immature revenge song in light of his divorce from Miranda. The leaked lyrics for “She’s Got a Way with Words” are mean-spirited, but what else can you expect from Blake?

At the end of the day, it’s been the constant immaturity from the songs that’s continued to turn me off from mainstream country and helped me further appreciate Americana, Red Dirt, select Texas Country, and independent singer/songwriters. For the most part, the songs are written from a place of honesty and vulnerability that I have the utmost respect for. As a music fan, there’s honestly nothing better than sitting in a listening room with a great songwriter on stage, aided only by an acoustic guitar (or piano), and pouring his/her heart out while singing their songs. I know that’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s something I think every music fan should experience. With the rate that Nashville has gone for the past decade, it’s an experience you’re more likely to find outside of the mainstream realm of country music.

Upcoming/Recent Country & Americana Releases

  • The Honeycutters’ On The Ropes will be released tomorrow.
  • Dierks Bentley’s Black will be released on May 27th.
  • Also released on the 27th is Yarn’s This Is The Year.
  • Maren Morris’ highly anticipated debut, Hero, will be released in two weeks on June 3rd.
  • First we had Hold My Beer Vol. 1, now we get Watch This! Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers will release a live acoustic album from their Hold My Beer and Watch This tour. Watch This will be released June 3rd.
  • Lori McKenna will release The Bird & the Rifle on July 29.

Throwback Thursday Songs

I don’t have a non-country suggestion this week, so I’ll include some extra Guy Clark songs here. Seriously, go listen to him.

Tweet of the Week

It’s starting to seem that way.

A Nightmare iTunes Review

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A review praising Cole Swindell’s new album and hoping that he attains Luke Bryan’s superstar status. Cole Swindell is already basically Luke 2.0, but I hope that doesn’t evolve any further.

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

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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.