Country Perspective’s Best Country & Americana Albums So Far in 2016

We’ve reached the mid-point of 2016, so it’s time to look back at the year so far for country music and Americana. Up first we take a look back at the best country and Americana albums of 2016 so far. There have been a lot of fantastic albums already this year and sonically there’s a lot of variety. It’s quite clear Americana is gaining a bigger influence, while in the Nashville pop scene they’re still completely bastardizing country music to the point of no return making the appearance of major label artists on this list shorter than last year. Another story that has helped define this list is artists experimenting with different sounds in the independent and Americana scenes, straying from their original sound. While some may think this indicates they don’t know what they want, I think it’s just the opposite, as artists clearly are tired of genre lines and being put into boxes.

The first albums listed are considered candidates for Country Perspective’s 2016 Album of the Year. Remember for an album to be considered for Album of the Year, it must receive a 10/10 score. Those won’t be the only ones listed below though, as all the highly rated albums so far will be highlighted. Remember too that it’s impossible for us to keep up with every single release and we do our best to cover the most albums possible. So please don’t be that person in the comments section that says something along the lines of: “This list is irrelevant because (insert album) isn’t on it” or “This list sucks.” Agree or disagree all you want, just be respectful about it. Not everyone has the same opinion, so keep this in mind.

So without further ado, the best country and Americana albums so far in 2016….

(Click on the album name to see the full review)

Album of the Year Candidates

Dave Cobb Super Compilation – Southern Family

Dave-Cobb-Southern-Family

After listening to Southern Family, you come away with a better understand and feeling of southern culture and lifestyle. It’s very easy to point out the problems that existed in southern culture in the past and the stigma this caused for the south is something that will remain with the culture for years to come. But it’s important to remember the redeeming qualities of the southern culture: family, friends, love, spirituality, home. All of these things southerners should rightly be proud of and point to as their defining qualities that make them great. This album celebrates southern pride with dignity and genuineness that should make any southerner smile. Cobb bringing together all of these artists who clearly understand southern culture, from both mainstream and independent realms, is not only a unifying moment for southern people, but country music in general. That’s something we can all appreciate.

Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth 

Sturgill Simpson A Sailor's Guide To Earth

There’s nothing else to say except Sturgill Simpson did it again. A Sailor’s Guide To Earth is another masterpiece from Simpson. If you’re looking for another copy of High Top Mountain or Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, don’t bother listening. If you’re a fan of music and you trust Simpson, strap in and listen to this album because you won’t be disappointed. You will however be surprised, as Simpson once again takes a different approach in the sound department. There are multiple outright country songs and every song has country elements in them. But there’s also Memphis soul and the Muscle Shoals sound that deeply influence the album. Not to mention there’s lots of string production and horns in many songs. Is it a country record? Well I can tell you Sturgill Simpson wrote, produced and performed an album of phenomenal music. I can say this is Simpson’s most cohesive and tight-knit album yet. Perhaps the best answer to this comes from the late great Merle Haggard: “Good. If it’s what they’re calling country, you don’t want to go near that shit.” And Simpson did exactly that. Simpson gave us something we never expected and yet exactly what we wanted and that’s art straight from the heart.

Chris King AnimalChris King – Animal

Chris King delivers a storytelling masterpiece with Animal. Looking at each song individually on this album, you have some pretty good songs. Put them all together and they all connect for one long, spectacular journey. It’s the journey of a man exploring love, discovery, overcoming mistakes, the unknown and ultimately what we’re all looking for in this crazy thing we call life. Most albums are just a collection of songs, not really all connecting with each other. Sure you’ll find a lot of albums with similar themes and tones throughout, but very rarely do you come across albums that connect from start to finish like Animal does. It should also be pointed out that production on this album is just as flawless as King’s songwriting. Producer John Ross Silva really nails the tone and sound on this album, as it properly reflects the changes in attitude of the main story told throughout. Everything on this album works together perfectly. Chris King shows us all what a true album sounds like.Animal is one of the best albums you’ll hear all year.

Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter

Margo Price Midwest Farmer's Daughter

Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is a callback to country’s honky tonk heydays mixed with some blues and rock n’ roll, creating a dynamic record, with each song grounded in country music. Overall I think Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is an excellent country album. Price’s vocals are great as she captures the solemness of the slower tracks, but has the appropriate bite and attitude on the rowdier songs. Margo Price has played on several of the late shows and performed on SNL on April 9. It’s still too early to tell, but given the recent success of Chris Stapleton, this could be a big album for country music. Margo Price’s Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is one of my favorite albums so far this year.

Dori FreemanDori Freeman – Self-Titled

I’ll be surprised if there’s another debuting country or Americana artist in 2016 that shows more promise than Dori Freeman. This debut album from Freeman blew me away upon the very first listen. In fact I had to play it several times over because only hearing it once wasn’t enough. Freeman’s vocals are crisp, pure and undeniably Appalachian. She was born to sing and very few possess her talent. The songwriting is top-notch and I couldn’t pick out a flaw in the instrumentation and production choices. This album excels and thrives in every area. You can pretty much call it flawless. It’s an album that every true country and Americana fan needs to hear. Dori Freeman is a name you need to know. This is one of the best albums I’ve had the privilege to write about on Country Perspective.

Aubrie Sellers – New City BluesAubrie Sellers New City Blues

The debut album New City Blues from Aubrie Sellers proves that she is a very talented artist who is poised to make a lot of great music for years to come. Never before have I heard a debut album from an artist take so many creative risks. Sellers mixes country, bluegrass, Americana and rock like she’s been doing this for decades. There’s nothing safe about this album, from the lyrics to the production. While Sellers may sound just like her mother Lee Ann Womack, she proves to have her own style and more than enough talent to step out of this shadow and make her own name. New City Blues can feel like a bit of a slog to get through at 14 songs and many songs will take multiple listens to fully grasp. But I assure you it’s well worth your time to sit down and listen to this album over and over.

More Highly Recommended Albums

Flatland Cavalry – Humble Folks

Parker Millsap – The Very Last Day

Robert Ellis – Robert Ellis

Darrell Scott – Couchville Sessions

The Honeycutters – On The Ropes 

Randy Rogers Band – Nothing Shines Like Neon 

Loretta Lynn – Full Circle 

Carter Sampson – Wilder Side 

Sierra Hull – Weighted Mind 

Caleb Caudle – Carolina Ghost 

Addison Johnson – I’m Just A Song

The Cactus Blossoms – You’re Dreaming

William Michael Morgan – William Michael Morgan EP

Wheeler Walker Jr. – Redneck Shit 

Ryan Beaver – Rx 

The Lumineers – Cleopatra

Sunny Ozell – Take It With Me 

Robbie Fulks – Upland Stories 

Speedbuggy USA – South of Bakersfield 

Harvest Thieves – Rival 

Waco Brothers – Going Down in History 

Album Review – Sierra Hull’s ‘Weighted Mind’ is a Beautiful Coming of Age Album

Sierra Hull was a child prodigy in bluegrass music. At age 11, Hull joined Alison Krauss on the Grand Ole Opry stage and soon thereafter signed with Rounder Records. Sierra Hull’s mandolin playing has earned her high praise and respect in the music world. Krauss even said of Hull, “Talent like hers is so rare, and I don’t think it stops.” Banjo master Bela Fleck says, “She plays the mandolin with a degree of refined elegance and freedom that few have achieved.” Sierra Hull released her first album at 16, and now, 8 years later, has released her 3rd full length album with Fleck serving as the producer. Hull’s Weighted Mind shows how her own songwriting has taken a step forward to match the maturity in her musicianship.

As suggested by the cover art and album title, Weighted Mind is Hull’s own, cluttered mind, weighing her down and she tries to make sense of her life. Like most people in their early 20s, Hull too was struggling to find her identity while transitioning into full-blown adulthood. The result is an intimate album with a simple production. Per Fleck’s recommendation, the songs were recorded without much of a backing band – only Hull’s mandolin along with Fleck’s banjo and Ethan Jodziewicz on the bass. No percussions, just a quiet production of strings allowing Hull’s voice to shine and lyrics to be heard.

The opening track of “Stranded” showcases the instrumental skills of Sierra Hull. The introductory track moves from a quiet calmness, gradually becoming a bit more chaotic and darker as Hull sings “dear 22, I’m stranded here” before transitioning right into “Compass.” Building off the lyric of feeling stranded, she sings of readying herself for a journey of self discovery. Feeling lost and sure, she throws away her old self, trusting that what is meant to be will be. “Choices And Changes” continues on the theme of this mental and emotional journey. “If you won’t go where I’m going, then I’ll have to go alone,” Hull sings with acceptance and confidence. There’s more urgency in her mandolin play, complimenting the lyrics of needing to move forward because the changes are necessary.

“Wings Of The Dawn” reads as if it’s a prayer for guidance. It’s a hopeful realization that she won’t feel lost forever. Hull’s higher vocals and mandolin picking are beautifully complimented with the lower bass and violin. With the extended solo in the song’s middle, the complex instrumentation takes a front seat on the song, showcasing Hull’s skills more, as well as Fleck’s production skills. “Wings Of The Dawn” is nicely layered with vocal harmonies on the chorus as well. One of the best tracks on Weighted Mind, in my opinion, is “Birthday.” Here Hull sings to what seems to be a former lover. She remembers that its his birthday, but after the break-up, he’s left angry and heartbroken. Hull still cares for him, and accepts that he would rather remain angry at her and ignore her because there’s nothing she can say to change the situation. Beautiful lyrics combined with Hull’s soothing vocals help “Birthday” shine.

Sierra Hull shows off more of her mandolin brilliance on the album’s title track. It’s the only instrument found on the track, and her solo toward the song’s end is executed perfectly, a way in which only a veteran player could. The lyrics feel like a commentary and explanation of the album as a whole. Hull steps away from herself for a song. On “Fallen Man” she sings from the point of view of a dying man. This is a man’s final thoughts as he drifts away into the afterlife; they’re his final thoughts about his process of dying. A quick song with simple strums, but beautifully sung by Hull. “The In-Between” again finds Sierra Hull commenting on her situation in life and finding motivation. “Life is a hanging sharp edge sword,” she sings in the second verse. Life may throw curve balls, but if you don’t let it get the best of you, then you’ll be bound to come out on the good side of the in-between. At 5 minutes long, “The In-Between” features another extended solo where Sierra Hull wows with her mandolin skills with the bass layered behind her to create a dynamic instrumental break before the song ends with one final chorus.

“Lullaby” finds Hull singing to her mother, pleading for love and comfort. Hull sings that she’ll never be too old to cry to her mom when she’s feeling down and dejected. The lyrics are reflective, honest, and perhaps the most vulnerable of the whole album. This is a song which she wrote by herself, which adds more authenticity to her heartfelt delivery. “Lullaby” is another one of Weighted Minds’ strongest songs. “Queen of Hearts/Royal Tea” is a song dealing with love and heartbreak. Lyrically, it’s a bit more traditional than “Birthday” in the sense that if her love leaves her, she’ll feel lost because “young men are plenty, but sweethearts few.” The song features several instrumental breaks where Bela Fleck joins in on the banjo alongside Hull’s mandolin and Jodziewicz’s bass.

Love has ended again in “I’ll Be Fine.” Sierra Hull sings to a man who has wronged her one too many times. She ends the relationship and tells him she’ll be fine in time. It’s a song of hope because this storm of heartbreak will blow over. The instrumentation shifts as the song progresses moving from a smoother, hopeful sound to more harsh picking in the middle, and returning to the hopeful, smooth mandolin strum as the song concludes. Hull’s dynamic vocal delivery on “I’ll Be Fine” is one of the best on the album. Weighted Mind concludes with “Black River.” On this emotional journey, Hull hasn’t quite found her way, but it’s hopeful that she will. As Hull sings in the chorus, “A thousand years is but a day, they say. And maybe in a thousand more, I will find my way.” A complex, but brilliant lyric portraying both doubt and hope. While not as instrumentally rich as other songs, “Black River” does have an excellent multi-vocal harmony in the final chorus, with Alison Krauss lending her vocals to the mix behind Hull’s. “Black River” is a confident end to the album.

It’s easy to see why Sierra Hull is held in such high regard as both a mandolin musician and a singer-songwriter. The vulnerability and honesty embedded in the lyrics show maturity in Hull that seems beyond what you’d expect from your average 24-year-old, but Sierra Hull is anything but average. Her skills and delivery on Weighted Mind are proof that she’s earned every bit of praise that’s come her way. Rich and complex, Weighted Mind is album for the listener. It’s not easy to pick up on the masterful intricacies at first, but that’s the beauty of the album. The closer you listen to the music and to Hull’s words, the more beauty you’ll find.

Grade: 9/10

Weighted Mind can be purchased through Amazon and iTunes.

Country Perspective’s Best of Country & Americana Music – January 2016

January 2016

Welcome to the revamped and improved monthly best of lists from Country Perspective. Last year Derek and myself would each pick the top ten songs of each month and then write something about each of them. By the end of the year I felt like the feature was getting stale. With the addition of Zack this year, I realize putting out three different playlists would be overkill. Not to mention there’s so much good music that can be released each month that it can be hard to choose just ten songs. So I went to the drawing board and came up with some tweaks to make it better. Now each month we will have one post where all three of us share our thoughts on the music that was released and some of our favorites. Below that will be a Spotify playlist of all the songs we enjoyed. If you’re a fan of Spotify and use it, we have good news as we now have a Country Perspective Spotify page. You can check it out and subscribe here. So let’s talk about the month of January!

Josh

There was certainly plenty of music to enjoy this month. Many people think January is a dead month for new music, but I learned last year that this stereotype is wrong. Once again this is proven to be true. One of the most anticipated releases of the month was Randy Rogers Band’s Nothing Shines Like Neon and it certainly lived up to my expectations. I think this group has found their perfect niche and that’s an early 90s, neo-traditional sound along the lines of Strait and Jackson. A softer sound suits them over trying to rock hard like some of their fellows Texas country artists. “Old Moon New” and “Neon Blues” were the songs that really stood out to me on this album. Aubrie Sellers delivered big with her debut album New City Blues. It’s getting near universal praise for its garage country sound that is diverse and engaging. It’s an album you need to hear if you haven’t yet. I find it hard to pick a favorite from it, but if I had to choose one it would be the “Dreaming In The Day” with its spacey production.

Outside of these two big releases, there were some really enjoyable singles put out by both mainstream and independent artists. Jennifer Nettles’ “Unlove You” is very much in the same vein of Cam’s “Burning House.” Mary Fletcher’s “I Called Him Dad” showed how to properly write a memorial song for a deceased loved one. Andrew Pope impressed me with his new single “Stormchaser.” Brothers Osborne put out a decent debut album in Pawn Shop that featured enough solid tunes that keep me optimistic about their future. And The Cactus Blossoms dazzled me with their throwback sound on their new album.

Derek

I’d say that January has been a strong start to country music this year. Nothing Shines Like Neon not only brought Randy Rogers Band back to their truest form, but gave fans some great country songs from the album. From the heartbreak song of “Neon Blues” to reinvigorating love in “Old Moon New,” Randy Rogers Band put a fresh spin on old stories. The Brothers Osborne’s debut album was rather average, but a song like “Heart Shaped Locket” showcased the duo’s full potential as a musical act. Aubrie Sellers’ New City Blues introduced us to an impressive garage country style of music with an album of many great, well written songs. “Losing Ground” was the song that stood out to me the most from New City Blues.

Established artists released some well-written songs detailing their struggles of moving on. Jennifer Nettles’ soaring “Unlove You” and Will Hoge’s subdued, quiet “Through Missing You” took different approaches to heartbreak, but both singers carry the story with confidence. Sierra Hull’s bluegrass album Weighted Mind featured song after song of beautiful vocals and impressive instrumentation, but the heartbreaking “Birthday” finds Hull having difficulty getting over a failed relationship.

Zack

The month of January definitely brought about a fine start to 2016. With new releases from Randy Rogers Band, Brothers Osborne, Aoife O’Donovan, and Aubrie Sellers, I certainly think the bar has been set for this year. Here’s my favorite music from this month.

My favorite album this month was the debut effort from Aubrie Sellers, and honestly it wasn’t even close. The combination of edgy rockers like “Paper Doll” combined with softer tracks such “Like The Rain” fuse to make one hell of a debut effort. You can waste time saying how much she sounds like her mother, but with her “garage country” sound, we have an artist who isn’t afraid to be herself and show the world who she is. Another album that I thoroughly enjoyed was Aoife O’Donovan’s “In The Magic Hour. I still want to review this album, and it may come soon, but for now I’ll tell you that Aoife’s divine, almost ghostly voice fits the melancholy vibe of these tracks like a glove. If you don’t believe me, then just check out “Stanley Park,” “Hornets,” and “The King Of All Birds.” Another album that I thought was seriously underrated was Randy Rogers Band’s “Nothing Shines Like Neon.” The major complaint I saw with this album was that it didn’t go “deep” enough. With tracks such as “Old Moon New”, and “Look Out Yonder” combined with nice mature love songs such as “Rain and The Radio” and “Meet Me Tonight” I thought there was certainly a lot to enjoy here.

The Hodgepodge: Kacey Musgraves and The Country & Western Rhinestone Revue

IMG_3897
Kacey Musgraves at The Diamond Ballroom, Oklahoma City. January 22, 2016.

Last Saturday I was able to get down to the Diamond Ballroom in Oklahoma City to see Kacey Musgraves live in concert. The tickets were a Christmas gift for my wife and I, so we’ve been eagerly awaiting the show for about a month. We arrived at the venue right as doors were supposed to open, but ended up spending about 15 minutes waiting in line out in the cold due to an unknown delay. Kudos to the people at the front of the line who clearly braved the cold for hours, but all worth it for being near the stage in a general admission, standing room only venue!

IMG_3881
Andrew Combs

Opening act Andrew Combs took the stage at 7:30 for his half hour set. Combs is a Nashville based singer-songwriter who grew up in Dallas, Texas. I hadn’t heard Combs’ music before tonight, but right from the first song, I was impressed with his sound and musical stylings. Country combined with rock and some bluesy influence in the melodies, and he’s a soulful singer with a great voice. I definitely recommend looking him up if you haven’t heard him before. As an opening act, however, Combs wasn’t able to captivate most of the audience. I’d bet that most of the attendees also hadn’t heard of him before, so they simply talked and ignored the music while waiting for Kacey’s time to come. Combs’ five song set was also full of slower, ballad songs which seemed to suck the crowd energy out of the room. But with only two albums under his belt, Andrew Combs is still early in his musical career. I imagine he and his band will be great to catch in a smaller, more intimate venue.

IMG_3886

Bring out the stagehands to decorate the stage with Kacey’s LED speckled stars and get the gear in place, including Kacey’s silver bedazzled mic stand. The background was pink streamers which I can only assume is the same background from the Pageant Material album cover. At about 8:40, Kacey’s five-piece backing band took the stage dressed to the nines in matching pink suits with LEDs lining the lapels and the outer seams of the pants. The band jammed for about a minute getting the crowd excited with anticipation. Then, in sticking with the theme of an old-school country and western show, the bass player welcomed the crowd to The Country & Western Rhinestone Revue, and then welcomed the star of the revue, Kacey Musgraves.

IMG_3888You wouldn’t expect Kacey Musgraves to have push back on the radio like she has, because last Saturday at the sold out Diamond Ballroom, Kacey Musgraves was an absolute superstar. She walked onto the stage to deafening cheers and to a crowd that sang along with her during every song of the show. She kicked off her set with “Pageant Material” which transitioned seamlessly into “Biscuits” where she stepped away from the mic and allowed the crowd to sing the song’s bridge back to her. Kacey effortlessly captivated the crowd with her music and crowd banter. I could still hear some disrespectful people talking toward the back during her slower songs, but Kacey had full command of the front half of the crowd for the whole night.

Kacey’s set included most of her radio singles, many album cuts from Pageant Material and Same Trailer, Different Park, and several covers including Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” (a song which Musgraves co-wrote), and a surprising yet impressive country rendition of Gnarls’ Barkley’s “Crazy.” The setlist was stacked nicely with ballads spread out among her more upbeat tunes. Kacey also provided a few background stories to how some of her songs were born. For instance, the phrase “Dime Store Cowgirl” has been with her since she was 11. While getting ready to sing at local country show, young Kacey Musgraves donning a cowboy hat, was told by another singer’s mom, “oh, honey, you’re going to look like a dime store cowgirl wearing that hat.” Clearly, Kacey embraced the notion, proud of her small town roots.

IMG_3902
Folding a balloon into an animal (second from the left)

During the middle of show, Kacey introduced her backing band during the “talent portion of the pageant” and let the boys show off some of their non-musical talents. The crowd was treated to the juggling guitarist, the balloon animal creating steel guitarist, and a drummer who does an eerily accurate impersonation of a small, high-pitched dog bark. I enjoyed this part of the show simply because it was different and showed a different side of a tight-knit group of musicians, and it didn’t take away from the concert at all.

My favorite part of the whole show was when the backing band took a break leaving Kacey alone on stage. The result was a beautiful, intimate rendition of her debut single, “Merry Go Round.” Again, Kacey stepped away from the microphone while the crowd sang the last chorus while she strummed along on her acoustic guitar. This is one of those great moments with a singer and audience connecting in a way you only can at a concert. Right before singing the song, she also gave a most sincere thank you to the crowd and the fans who have continued to support her from the beginning.

As the show came to an end, the crowd was treated to the sweet, loving “Late to the Party” which was a crowd pleaser for sure. The group rocked the crowd with an extended musical outro in “Die Fun” with heavy bass lines off-setting the steel guitar solos and guitar licks before closing the first set with her biggest single, “Follow Your Arrow.” A short break with constant “Kacey! Kacey!” chants from the crowd before she took the stage again for an encore. It was a quick, but entertaining encore with a cover of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin.'” Kacey worked the stage with a microphone in one hand and a tambourine in the other during the show stopping number.

IMG_3912Overall, The Country & Western Rhinestone Revue was excellent! Kacey Musgraves puts on an awesome show, and the chemistry she has with her band is great. Kacey was also deliberate to remind the crowd several times that she was keeping it country. Not that we needed reminders, with the ever-present ring of the steel guitar in every song, but I can only imagine they were subtle digs at the not so country music made by her mainstream counterparts. There was a curious omission of “Blowin’ Smoke” from the setlist, but that’s only a minor complaint as the setlist was fantastic just as it was. As I said earlier, Kacey Musgraves is a superstar in the eyes of her fans. She may not get the success she deserves on radio, but she certainly has an audience and fan base eager to see her on the road. The Diamond Ballroom is not a small venue, and Kacey performed to a sold out crowd! Go see her in concert if you’re able to. You will not be disappointed. If anything, the concert proved to me that Kacey Musgraves is poised for the long haul, and could very well be the next generation’s own Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn.

Setlist: (I recalled this from memory, so I may have the order mixed up a bit)

  1. Pageant Material
  2. Biscuits
  3. Silver Lining
  4. This Town
  5. Mama’s Broken Heart (Miranda Lambert cover)
  6. Fine
  7. Dime Store Cowgirl
  8. Family Is Family
  9. Crazy (Gnarls Barkley cover)
  10. Spoonful of Sugar (from Mary Poppins)
  11. It Is What It Is
  12. Good Ol’ Boy’s Club
  13. Merry Go Round
  14. High Time
  15. Step Off
  16. Late to the Party
  17. Die Fun
  18. Follow Your Arrow
    -Encore-
  19. These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ (Nancy Sinatra cover)

Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases

  • Aubrie Sellers will release her debut album New City Blues tomorrow.
  • Bluegrass and Americana artist Sierra Hull will release her new album, Weighted Mind tomorrow also.
  • Cam has officially announced “Mayday” will be her next radio single.
  • Brandy Clark has released her newest single “Girl Next Door.” We will have a review for the song soon.
  • Mark Wills says his upcoming album will be a traditional sounding country album. No word on name details or release information, but Wills has been in the studio and will release the album independently.
  • Chuck Wicks will release his newest album, Turning Point, on February 26.
  • Green River Ordinance has released their newest album, Fifteen.
  • Will Hoge wrote and recorded two songs based on Ed Tarkington’s new novel, Only Love Can Break Your Heart. Both songs, “Through Missing You” and “Some Things You Just Can’t Throw Away,” will be released tomorrow.

Throwback Thursday Song

“Jolene” by Dolly Parton. This song came on the radio one day while driving home from work this past week, and Dolly recently celebrated her birthday, so we celebrate her here with this 1974 hit!

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week


Hinds Leave Me Alone – Hinds is a female indie garage rock/pop quartet hailing from Spain. Leave Me Alone is a unique album with layered vocals, abrupt tempo changes, and some great instrumentation. I’ve recently started exploring more punk and garage rock music, so I’ve found this album to be enjoyable.

Tweet of the Week

One of life’s great mysteries…

This WEEK in Country Music History

Instead of a day, I have a few noteworthy accomplishments in Country Music history from the past week, just to change it up.

January 26, 1947 Hank Williams writes his hit gospel tune “I Saw The Light.”

January 27, 1967 Waylon Jennings appears on the Grand Ole Opry for the first time.

January 28, 1995 – Alan Jackson has the number one song on Billboard’s country charts with “Gone Country.”

The Hodgepodge: Artistic Expression vs. Profit

Moneymusic

When it comes to singers and bands, there seems to be a general consensus of either making songs that are radio hits, or album cuts that are more rich in artistic expression. I think you can make the argument for any genre with a radio outlet that there are songs written and recorded for the sheer purpose of making money without any regard for the content of the song. If it’ll sell, it’ll be made. This has been the idea in country music for years from the Nashville sound of the 60s and 70s to bro-country and metro country today, producers and labels cater to the hot trend and nothing else. In the minds of the label executives and producers, making music for profit and making music on the basis of artistic expression seem to be mutually exclusive values.

Dierks Bentley’s new song, “Somewhere On a Beach,” hits all the checklist points of a cater-to-the-radio-trend single. After announcing an album that promises to be a personal one about relationships, a screw-you single is a release way out of left field. It’s not hard to imagine that this Dierks Bentley playing give and take with his label and producers. Dierks wants to release an album with heart and soul. His label says yes, but you must record this song so we can have a guaranteed radio hit from the album. Dierks comprises. Riser was an album full of heart written in the wake of Bentley’s father passing on. Singles like “I Hold On” and “Bourbon in Kentucky” and album cuts like “Here on Earth” were responses to that tragedy. Dierks also had balled singles from “Say You Do” and “Riser” while party songs like “Back Porch” and “Pretty Girls” were left on as mere album fillers. If anything, Riser proved that an album in this decade and era of country music could be filled with soulful radio singles and remain mildly successful, even if “Bourbon in Kentucky” and “Riser” didn’t make the desired chart impact.

Did every country fan in 2013 really want to listen to 15 remakes of “Cruise”? Were producers naive to think that they, too, could have a country/rap crossover hit? Or did label executives see an ignorant fan base and take advantage of the listeners’ blind acceptance of music on the radio? Whatever the reason for the sudden rise of bro-country and its lingering effects, artistic expression in mainstream country music was a victim.

The approach to country music for the past couple of years has been radio hits. That’s why we get albums with 90% radio ready hits: some bro country, some slow jam inspired ballads, club-like jams, etc. They’re not albums in the artistic sense; they’re collections of songs. Committees are brought into the music lab to write, mold, listen, create, and conjure up the perfect song for radio to go on the perfect album. This album will sustain the artist through a long tour with at least four singles ready for whatever radio trend they predicted to arise.

But country music was built on artistic expression. Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Waylon, Cash, Yoakam, all our country music heroes are icons because these are the artists who dug deep, allowed themselves to be vulnerable, and put their hearts and souls into the music. These guys have the reputation of fighting the establishment because they’re not just singers, they’re artists. They have a voice, a purpose, and story to tell. Most singers on the radio today are just that: singers. They’re not artists with a story to tell. They are merely singers whose sole purpose is to make money.

Every now and then, these producers realize that they need to remind these radio listeners that country singers are artists. They try to convey a facade of artistry with a committee written ballad. The result of which are contrived songs like “Confession” and “You Should Be Here.” These songs are labels trying to convince fans that Florida Georgia Line and Cole Swindell aren’t just party animals, but also “deep” artists. This is the problem though, when you create a persona through several singles than try to backtrack and reset the image. They want these singers to seem deep, but they can’t compromise any chance of losing traction on radio in the process. So throwaway lines about cold ones and cold beers are thrown in to remind the fans that it’s still a party.

The artistic expression of mainstream country is lost. Maybe it wasn’t the best option for Bentley to go back-to-back with ballads as singles, but was “Riser” such a bomb that Bentley’s label had to back track to a generic, soulless song? Or are label executives just afraid to let their singers dig deep and actually be artists? And the real victim of it all is the general radio fan of country music. These are fans who probably don’t know that there are singers like Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, and Tami Neilson out there making some of the best music today. Instead, these fans are subjected to party anthems, classless revenge sex songs, and half-assed ballads. And because of this, songs like “You Should Be Here” and “Die a Happy Man” are praised as deep, thoughtful, expressive ballads. And that’s exactly what will happen when you put three people in a room to conjure up a hit ballad. However, true artistic songs are ignored. Songs which are true expressions of the artists’ heart. Song which required the writer to be vulnerable and dig deep within him or herself, sometimes in the most painful places, to find the words. Those are the real, powerful songs country music needs. You don’t get a song like “Cover Me Up” from a committee writing session.

Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases

  • Aubrie Sellers, daughter of Lee Ann Womack, will release her debut album New City Blues on January 29. Sellers recently released the music video of her single “Sit Here and Cry.”
  • Tomorrow, The Cactus Blossoms, will release their album You’re Dreaming. 
  • Bluegrass and Americana artist Sierra Hull will release her new album, Weighted Mind, on January 29. 
  • “Humble and Kind” is officially Tim McGraw‘s next single.
  • Another 90s rock act has gone country. Sister Hazel will release a country album called Lighter in the Dark on February 19.

Throwback Thursday Song

“Reno” by Nic Cowan. Nic Cowan (now officially named Niko Moon) is a Georgia based singer/songwriter who has collaborated with Zac Brown on many songs for the band’s albums. The narrator meets a singer and a painter and is mesmerized by their creative passion. In light of today’s post on artistic expression, this song seemed appropriate. “What is it that drives you to create? She said ‘I never had a choice to make. It chose me long before I wrote a song. It’s what I feel, boy.'” That first chorus says it all.

Non-Country Suggestion of the Week


Daughter Not To Disappear. This English indie folk trio released their second album last week. Lead singer Elena Tonra’s voice is quiet, yet haunting as she sings her songs of loneliness, love gone wrong, and even a mother dealing with Alzheimer’s. The album is hindered by a production monotony among several of the songs, but poignancy of the music and lyrics are worth giving this album a listen.

Tweet of the Week

I certainly hope that “if” becomes a “when” because an Isbell – Simpson collaborative album would be incredible!

Two Simple, But Great iTunes Reviews 

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The effective review of “absolute garbage” was left on Drew Baldridge’s EP. If you don’t know who Drew Baldridge, he’s a pop/dance/disco singer being passed off as country. Do your ears a favor and take this reviewer’s for it.

The eloquent “pure unadulterated garbage” was left under The Raging Idiots’ kids’ music EP (The Raging Kidiots). It’s children’s music so it’s meant to be goofy, but the EP popped up in the country section in iTunes, so why not put it here. Who would want to pass up a chance to make fun of Bobby Bones?