Album Review — Daniel Donato’s ‘A Young Man’s Country’

Cosmic Country is certainly a name that catches the eye. It’s not something that is common in country music and as someone who spent a fair amount of time diving into the various sub genres of country music, the little bit of cosmic country I did find I found to be…well not very good. It also doesn’t help for artists wanting to explore this sound that the bar was set quite high by Sturgill Simpson with Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, one of the best albums of the past decade.

Sometimes though there’s exceptions to the norm and Daniel Donato’s A Young Man’s Country is certainly in this vein. This is by far the best cosmic country album I’ve heard since Metamodern. Even more impressive that this is the debut album of Donato. Combining obvious Grateful Dead influences and sounds with old school country, Donato delivers an album that captivates my attention from beginning to end.

There are a couple of things that immediately stand out about this album. First, is the approach, as Donato and producer Robben Ford lay out the songs like a live album despite it being a studio album. Most of the songs are stretched to their max with extended guitar solos that one is accustom to hearing at rock concerts. I absolutely love this this, as it gives the songs personality and also shows off the impressive guitar skills of Daniel Donato.

That leads to the other immediate impression: Donato is a kick ass guitar player. He absolutely shreds throughout this album. Whether it’s quieter, more melodic strumming or trippy solos, the guitar playing is the absolute hero of this album. In terms of magnetic and mesmerizing production, this album reminds me so much Tame Impala’s The Slow Rush. And just like that album it can kind of overshadow the other aspects of A Young Man’s Country.

The other aspects of this album though are by no means weak, just weaker looking in comparison to the absolute strength of the guitar playing. The songwriting is actually quite solid, albeit most of it centers around love and touring on the open road. While it would nice to have some more variety in terms of theme, these limited themes suit the feeling this album is going for, which is one of a traveller on the search for happiness and love as he explores the western landscape.

Opening songs “Justice” and “Always Been a Lover” show the yearning for a love that’s true with the appropriate amount of aching and hooks that catch the ear. But it’s the songs that deal with loneliness that shine the brightest like “Meet Me in Dallas” and “Broke Down.” The former hints at optimism, as someone waits for a lover to meet them and embraces the feeling of being alone. Not to mention it features a mind-blowing guitar outro. The latter is quite dark, going into vivid detail of how broken down the narrator feels. If Donato can continue to deliver songs with excellent details like these ones, combined with his excellent guitar skills, then the sky is the limit for him.

I would be remise if I didn’t also commend Donato for his absolute bold choice of cover songs. He does the Grateful Dead proud with “Fire on the Mountain” and his soulful rendition of the late great John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” is both respectful of the original’s message while being decidedly original and fresh to the ears. Rodney Crowell’s “Ain’t Living Long Like This” is a great choice to close the album, as it allows Donato to go off both vocally and on the guitar to put an exciting exclamation point on the album.

Daniel Donato delivers quite an impressive debut with A Young Man’s Country. It’s not too often an artist of his caliber on guitar comes along, as his style and skill reminds me of a cross between Marty Stuart and Charlie Starr of Blackberry Smoke. It evokes a lot of emotion and color, giving Donato’s music a cinematic-like quality that draws the listener in. Needless to say I look forward to hearing more from Donato.

Grade: 9/10

Side note: When putting tags for this review, I noticed that Daniel Donato has actually been mentioned on Country Perspective before. Turns out he was a guitarist on The Black Lillies’ album Hard to Please, which Derek covered five years ago. I found that to be quite interesting, so I thought I would pass that on to you the reader too. 

Album Review – Blackie and the Rodeo Kings Bring Together Best Americana Male Artists on ‘Kings and Kings’

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What began as a tribute to Canadian songwriter Willie P. Bennett, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings have spent the past 20 years growing into one of Canada’s best roots music bands. Colin Linden, Stephen Fearing, and Tom Wilson, all with their own solo musical careers, have together developed Blackie and the Rodeo Kings into more than just a one-off tribute group. In 2011, the group collaborated with many of Americana and country’s finest female artists like Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, and Pam Tillis in Kings and Queens. Now five and a half years later, the group returns with Kings and Kings, a collaboration album with country and Americana’s best male singers, including Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell, Jason Isbell, Eric Church and many others.

Kings and Kings takes the best of each member and guest, which makes for an eclectic sound throughout. Written by all three members of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, and joined by the great Rodney Crowell, “Live by the Song” details the life of the band on the road and playing music. Fearing and Crowell split the vocals, and Crowell’s seasoned voice shines through; a perfect collaboration choice given the song’s content. Not all songs are vocal collaborations, with guest Nick Lowe taking full lead on “Secret of a Long Lasting Love” while the band harmonizes behind him. With Bruce Cockburn, Linden (who has produced many of Cockburn’s albums) not only splits verses with him on the tender “A Woman Gets More Beautiful,” but the pair move between English and French lyrics, adding a layer of romance onto the ballad.

Many guests bring their native band’s flair to their collaborations with the Canadian trio. Buddy Miller, who’s played guitar for many Country and American stalwarts, joins in on the rollicking “Playing By Heart.” Raul Malo brings a taste of The Mavericks’ signature Latin-inspired sound on Fearing’s “High Wire.” Jason Isbell (on “Land of the Living [Hamilton Ontario 2016]”) and Eric Church (on “Bury My Heart”) stay true to each of their respective rock oriented sounds, while the Willie P. Burnett penned “This Lonesome Feeling” sounds like a classic country standard, which is appropriate given the inclusion of Vince Gill on vocals. Keb Mo duets with Fearing on “Long Walk to Freedom”, a track that reminds the listener of a gospel song. The haunting “Bitter and Low” is benefited from a great vocals from Oakland’s Fantastic Negrito, while Dallas Green of City and Colour turns in a memorable performance on “Beautiful Scars.” Kings and Kings comes to a close with the men of the show Nashville on “Where the River Rolls.”

Overall, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings make the most of their talented guests, playing to each of their respective strengths and sounds, to create an authentic sounding roots album. Kings and Kings is the perfect example of why Americana is such a tough genre to define because a variety of sounds and styles all work under that umbrella. Blackie and the Rodeo Kings provide music fans with an album that epitomizes the genre, with great collaborations from the most respected singers of country and Americana music.

Grade: 9/10

Recommend? – Absolutely!

Album Highlights: Playing By Heart (feat. Buddy Miller), Long Walk to Freedom (feat. Keb Mo), This Lonesome Feeling (feat. Vince Gill), Bury My Heart (feat. Eric Church)

Bad Songs: None

Wallpaper: None

The Past Pulse Of Mainstream Country Music [April 1989]

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This is the Past Pulse Of Mainstream Country Music. Each week, I take a look at the Billboard Country  Airplay Chart from years ago and grade the top 30 songs. Each week will be a different year. The grading format I use each week is every song will receive one of the following scores: +5, +4, +3, +2, +1, 0, -1, -2, -3, -4, -5. These will then be tallied up for an overall score, or pulse of the past top 30 songs, with the highest possible score being a +150 and the lowest possible score being a -150. The grade I would give it determines its Pulse score. The grading key: 10 [+5], 9[+4], 8[+3], 7[+2], 6[+1], 5[0], 4[-1], 3[-2], 2[-3], 1[-4], 0[-5].

The goal of this exercise is to evaluate the past pulse of mainstream country music and determine if it was better or worse compared to now. To see the full list of the top 30 country airplay songs for this week, click here. This week I will take a look at the top 30 songs of the Billboard Country Airplay Chart from April 8, 1989. Since this chart came before 1990, I only have access to the top 25 songs. This means that the highest possible score for this week is a +125 and the lowest possible score is a -125. Once again, I am still wading through a ton of chart requests so this week’s chart is dedicated to reader Scotty J!

  1. Keith Whitley – “I’m No Stranger To The Rain” +4 [Best Song]
  2. George Strait – “Baby’s Gotten Good At Goodbye” +3
  3. Vern Gosdin – “Who You Gonna Blame It On This Time” +3
  4. Shenandoah – “The Church on Cumberland Road” +3
  5. Don Williams – “Old Coyote Town” +4
  6. Billy Joe Royal – “Tell It Like It Is” -1 [Worst Song] (His voice and the overall feel of this just don’t work for me)
  7. Hank Williams Jr. & Sr. – “There’s A Tear In My Beer” +4 (As an actual song it’s a +3, but considering the magic that went into this I have to give it its due.)
  8. K.T. Oslin – “Hey Bobby” 0 (Sorry, way too sleepy in the production and that “do you want to huh, huh” line just annoyed the crap out of me)
  9. Foster – “Fairshake” +2
  10. Roy Orbison – “You Got It” 0 (+2 for Pop though)
  11. Michael Martin Murphey – “From The Word Go” +3
  12. Patty Loveless – “Don’t Toss Us Away” +3 (Interesting production on this track)
  13. Lacy J. Dalton – “The Heart” +3
  14. Highway 101 – “Setting Me Up” +2
  15. The Judds – “Young Love (Strong Love)” +2
  16. Lee Greenwood – “I’ll Be Lovin’ You” +1 (Holy crap! A Lee Greenwood song that isn’t “God Bless The U.S.A!”)
  17. Baillie and the Boys – “She Deserves You” +3
  18. Randy Travis – “Is It Still Over?”+3
  19. Restless Heart – “Big Dreams In A Small Town” +2 (I wish the accordion was a little more prominent in the mix but still solid)
  20. Rodney Crowell – “After All This Time” +3
  21. Alabama – “If I Had You” +1
  22. The Bellamy Brothers – “Big Love” +1
  23. Barbara Mandrell – “My Train Of Thought” +3
  24. Reba McEntire – “New Fool At An Old Game” +2
  25. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – “Down That Road Tonight” +2

The Past Pulse Of Mainstream Country Music: +56

This is certainly a good week, but I have to be honest that there’s more generic songs here compared to other past weeks. Nothing inherently bad mind you, just not really all that special. Of course, Keith Whitley was riding the top of the charts so what can I say?

As always, if you have any questions as to why I gave a song a certain grade feel free to ask me. Also, let me know what you guys think of the chart in the comments!

Album Review – Michaela Anne’s ‘Bright Lights and the Fame’

After releasing her second album, Americana singer and songwriter Michaela Anne moved from her home in Brooklyn, New York to Nashville. From the people she met, like Dave Brainard (producer for Brandy Clark, and co-writer of a couple of songs on the album) and Rodney Clawson, to the musical atmosphere of the large number of songwriters performing around the city, Anne’s move to Nashville influenced her writing for her third album, Bright Lights and the Fame. Even though Nashville is home to Music Row and the trend chasing mainstream labels, Bright Lights and the Fame doesn’t waver from the musical foundation Michaela Anne has built with her first two albums. Michaela Anne is firm with her neo-traditional country-style, and balances the album nicely with upbeat, dancing songs and slower, more introspective songs.

A guitar riff capped with a ring from the steel guitar kick of the mid-tempo “Living Without You.” Michaela Anne sings about trying to move on by herself after the end of a relationship. While nothing special, “Living Without You” sets the tone nicely for the album, immediately grabbing your interest with the production, and Anne’s excellent vocal delivery. The theme of a break up continues with “If Only.” It’s a quieter song in both the melody and vocals. Anne takes her time allowing the lyrics to breathe and story build steadily, making “If Only” the longest song on the album at nearly six minutes. The tempo jumps back up with the album’s title track. Here, Anne sings from the point of view of a wife married to a music man whose first love will always be the bright lights and the fame. The song is without a doubt a country two-stepper with the steel guitar present throughout the melody. “Everything I Couldn’t Be” finds Michaela Anne reminiscing about a past relationship when she learns that her ex is about to get married. The ballad begins slow with an acoustic guitar and faint steel guitar ring. But as she continues to sing and remember, the melody grows and soars behind Anne’s higher register.

Michaela Anne writes and sings more personally with the quick number “Won’t Go Down.” The song deals with the moral and ethical lines that she won’t cross when it comes to relationships, or life in general. Coming from a military household, Anne says the song is more autobiographical as she recalls the times she walked that line growing up. “Worrying Mind” deals with anxious thoughts and second (sometimes third) guessing decisions. The verses are balanced nicely between Anne’s vocals and the musical production, but the chorus seems to be hindered by a loud, overproduced melody while Anne’s vocals remain at the same level throughout the song.

“Easier Than Leaving” is another ballad where Anne sings from the point of view from the woman in a bad relationship. Even with everything wrong in this relationship, this woman can’t get herself to leave and start fresh. The lighter, acoustic production is well done on this song, as Michaela Anne’s vocals inflect nicely, reaching the highest note she can comfortably sing. Americana star Rodney Crowell provides vocal harmonies on “Luisa.” Together, they sing about a hitchhiker out west who’s looking to get back to Sacramento. To be honest, if the title didn’t mention “(featuring Rodney Crowell)” it’d be hard to know it was his vocals on the track, and it would have been nice to hear him take a verse. The melody of “Luisa” is excellent country music with a great solo in the middle of the song.

“What Good Is Water” is a darker song with a heavier production compared to the rest of the album. The song deals with a woman whose life appears to be in shambles at the moment, but she promises she’ll turn it around. The lyrics use imagery like a cactus dying and leaky faucet to paint the run-down picture, and Anne’s vocals stretch beyond her apparent comfort zone, but it’s done well. For many good reasons, “What Good Is Water” stands out on the album. Michaela Anne admitted that she wanted a fun, two-stepping song on the album, and so she wrote “Liquor Up.” The quick number is full of steel guitar and fiddle, and it certainly is a song ready for dance floor. Bright Lights and the Fame comes to a close with “Stars.” The song’s melody is quiet and subdued as Anne sings of a loved one’s death. She doesn’t sing of a specific person, but looks at the death in a positive way, remembering the good times, seeing that person in the stars, and always carrying their memory with her. “Stars” is a good song to end the album with as it is well written and well sung.

Overall, Bright Lights and the Fame is a good album from Michaela Anne. Admittedly, I think the first half of the album gets repetitive with several of the songs dealing with broken relationships and broken hearts. Those songs don’t offer much that’s new or original to topic, no matter how well produced some of them may be. The second half of the album is much better, showcasing a good variety from Michaela Anne’s songwriting and vocals. I think Michaela Anne is a singer and songwriter who is worth listening to, and should benefit from the growth of Americana music. Bright Lights and the Fame shows her potential and proves that she’s dedicated to growing and improving.

Grade: 7/10

 

Predictions for Country & American Roots Categories at the 2016 Grammy Awards

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On Monday we celebrate the biggest music awards show of the years. I’m of course referring to the 58th Grammy Awards, set to air Monday night at 8 pm ET on CBS. With it being a holiday and football season being over, it should pull even more eyes than usual. It’s an even bigger deal for country and Americana acts this year, as many deserving names are up for the top awards in both. Not only this, but Chris Stapleton is set up to have another huge awards night. This could be another big step forward in mainstream country improving its quality of music and Americana continuing to rise in stature. Now let’s get to the predictions! Keep in mind I’m not the best at this prediction game, but I feel like I do a little better each year. The award shows can be unpredictable. And be sure to make your own predictions in the comments.

Album of the Year

  • Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color
  • Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
  • Chris Stapleton – Traveller
  • Taylor Swift – 1989
  • The Weeknd – Beauty Behind The Madness 

What I Would Pick To Win: Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly or Chris Stapleton’s Traveller

What I Predict Will Win: Chris Stapleton’s Traveller – After the 2015 CMA Awards I learned something important: do not bet against Chris Stapleton. This man will prove you wrong. He continues to have monster sales in the fallout of that impressive night. There will be enough vote splitting amongst Lamar and Swift to open it right up for Stapleton to pull off the “upset.” Alabama Shakes have almost no chance and The Weeknd had a breakout 2015, but I don’t think they have enough momentum to win. Beck shocked the world winning this award last year and Stapleton will do it this year.

Song of the Year 

  • Kendrick Lamar – “Alright”
  • Taylor Swift – “Blank Space”
  • Little Big Town – “Girl Crush”
  • Wiz Khalifa & Charlie Puth – “See You Again”
  • Ed Sheeran – “Thinking Out Loud”

What I Would Pick To Win: Kendrick Lamar – “Alright”

What I Predict Will Win: Wiz Khalifa & Charlie Puth’s “See You Again” – This song was one of the biggest emotional hit songs of 2015 and had a monster run on the charts. I give “Alright” and “Blank Space” decent shots at winning. Little Big Town had one of the biggest hits in country music in 2015 with “Girl Crush,” but they stand no chance against these huge names.

Best New Artist

  • Courtney Barnett
  • James Bay
  • Sam Hunt
  • Tori Kelly
  • Meghan Trainor

Who I Would Pick To Win: Courtney Barnett

Who I Predict Will Win: Meghan Trainor – Trainor should win this in an absolute walk. She’s the biggest name of the five by far. Sam Hunt is shockingly the only other artist I could see winning here, but he just doesn’t compare to Trainor’s stardom and impact. For once I’m glad to see Trainor’s name, as it will block Hunt from winning something at an actual awards show.

Best Country Solo Performance 

  • Cam – “Burning House”
  • Chris Stapleton – “Traveller”
  • Carrie Underwood – “Little Toy Guns”
  • Keith Urban – “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16”
  • Lee Ann Womack – “Chances Are”

What I Would Pick To Win: Chris Stapleton – “Traveller” (Anything but Urban’s song)

What I Predict Will Win: Chris Stapleton’s “Traveller” – Remember: Do not bet against Stapleton. Nice to see Cam getting some attention and Carrie continuing to get noticed by the Grammys, unlike the CMA and ACM Award shows. It’s really cool to see LeeAnn Womack’s name here too.

Best Country Duo/Group Performance

  • Brothers Osborne – “Stay A Little Longer”
  • Joey + Rory – “If I Needed You”
  • Charles Kelley, Dierks Bentley & Eric Paslay – “The Driver”
  • Little Big Town – “Girl Crush”
  • Blake Shelton & Ashley Monroe – “Lonely Tonight”

 

What I Would Pick To Win: Joey + Rory – “If I Needed You” (Really I would be fine with any of these)

What I Predict Will Win: Joey + Rory’s “If I Needed You” – I believe this will undoubtedly get the sympathy vote, just like Glen Campbell in the Best Country Song category last year. It would be a great sight to see such a loving and talented couple like Joey and Rory to get this honor.

Best Country Song

  • Lee Ann Womack – “Chances Are”
  • Tim McGraw – “Diamond Rings & Old Barstools”
  • Little Big Town – “Girl Crush”
  • Brandy Clark – “Hold My Hand”
  • Chris Stapleton – “Traveller”

What I Would Pick To Win: Brandy Clark – “Hold My Hand” (But again I would be fine with any of these)

What I Predict Will Win: Chris Stapleton’s “Traveller” – Once again I believe Stapleton will have another huge night. The Grammys did a really great job with this category and all five are certainly deserving. Tim McGraw continues to get nominations for the Grammys, but shut out from country awards shows like Carrie. Brandy Clark is set up to have a bigger year at the Grammys next year, but it’s nice to see a quality song like “Hold My Hand” get recognized.

Best Country Album

  • Sam Hunt – Montevallo
  • Little Big Town – Pain Killer 
  • Ashley Monroe – The Blade
  • Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material
  • Chris Stapleton – Traveller

What I Would Pick To Win: Pageant Material or Traveller

What I Predict Will Win: Chris Stapleton’s Traveller – Need I say it again? Also it’s an absolute joke to see Hunt’s name here.

Best American Roots Performance 

  • Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn – “And Am I Born To Die”
  • Buddy Guy – “Born To Play Guitar”
  • The Milk Carton Kids – “City of Our Lady”
  • Punch Brothers – “Julep”
  • Mavis Staples – “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”

What I Would Pick To Win: Punch Brothers – “Julep”

What I Predict Will Win: Punch Brothers – “Julep” – The Grammys seem to really love this group, so I’ll go with it.

Best American Roots Song

  • The Mavericks – “All Night Long”
  • Don Henley & Merle Haggard – “The Cost of Living”
  • Punch Brothers – “Julep”
  • Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – “The Traveling Kind”
  • Jason Isbell – “24 Frames”

What I Would Pick To Win: Only one? But they’re all fantastic!

What I Predict Will Win: Jason Isbell – “24 Frames” – After getting screwed over by the Grammys a few years ago, they finally make amends. With the #1 album in country, folk, rock and Americana, Isbell by far had the biggest 2015. But then again I could conceivably see Henley and Haggard get the nod, along with The Mavericks who seem to do well when nominated for something on the awards circuit. But really what a class of songs to choose from!

Best Americana Album

  • Brandi Carlile – The Firewatcher’s Daughter
  • Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – The Traveling Kind
  • Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free
  • The Mavericks – Mono
  • Punch Brothers – The Phosphorescent Blues

What I Would Pick To Win: Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free (Because why would I pick against our own 2015 Album of the Year winner?)

What I Predict Will Win: Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free – See the reasons I cited above. I have to say it’s great to see Brandi Carlile’s name here, as she is an underrated artist more people need to know about.