Country Perspective’s 2016 Group/Duo of the Year – Blackberry Smoke

You’re probably wondering where the nominees list was for Country Perspective’s Group/Duo of the Year. Well in my mind this award has been decided since October. While this category was highly competitive last year, this year it was essentially a two-group race for most of the year until the fall when one group came along and released an album that easily bested every other group’s release for the year. This was a slam dunk, no-brainer. So it gives me great pleasure to announce that Country Perspective’s 2016 Group/Duo of the Year award goes to Blackberry Smoke.

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This comes after they were nominated for this award in 2015, going against talented groups/duos like Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen and Turnpike Troubadours. But even if they had faced tough competition again this year I doubt they would have topped Blackberry Smoke’s efforts in 2016. In 2015 they released a pretty damn good album in Holding All The Roses. And much to my amazement and awe they managed to top it with the release of Like An Arrow. From beginning to the end this album blew me away and was easily one of my favorites of the year.

Keep in mind this is a group that has consistently churned out high quality music since their beginning. Every album of theirs has been good and they manage to add some sort of new wrinkle that impresses me. With this all of this in mind, I think I can say that Like An Arrow is arguably their best album yet. The group has always been grounded in that southern rock sound, sort of perfectly teetering between country and rock that’s appealing to both genre’s fans. That’s never been an issue with them. But on their last album I found the group didn’t quite have the edge I would have like to have heard, even though I still enjoyed the record. On top of that I was wanting to hear some new influences. Well they bring that edge with Like An Arrow and not only that there’s a palpably more soulful influence that helps the songs stand out even more.

I think one thing that you can definitely attribute this to is Blackberry Smoke electing to produce this album themselves, the first time in their career they’ve done this. As front man Charlie Starr said in an interview, this album was basically a “happy accident.” They just started making the songs and practicing them. Next thing they knew they had a new album. However they didn’t know who to tab for producer. But they did know what they wanted the music to sound like and therefore ultimately decided to do it themselves. This was a pretty excellent decision, albeit also a risk considering this is the first time they ever did it. But the best music usually gets made when risks are taken. While a super producer like Dave Cobb is great for most artists, some just know who they are and what they need to do. Blackberry Smoke is most certainly the latter, as their intuition and ideas work perfectly on this album.

Starr helped write every song on the album, with nine of them being solely written by him. That’s something I think that often gets overlooked by many with Blackberry Smoke. The writing has always been great from this group and it’s always mainly consisted from the group, with the talented Travis Meadows being the most oft outside co-writer. This has become more uncommon of artists nowadays, with many relying on songwriting committees, especially the biggest names on Music Row. Blackberry Smoke is the exact opposite. It speaks volumes how much craft they put into their songs. That’s why they’re one of the best in both country and rock today. While some wish in one hand and shit in the other, this band uses their hands to work and make great music.

Blackberry Smoke is really a shining example of what all bands should aspire to be. They’re self-made, independent, put on fantastic live shows around the world and have one of the most passionately dedicated fan bases you’ll find. They’ve never been close to being accepted as mainstream by the country or rock industry nor do they get significant airplay, yet Like An Arrow went #1 on the country albums chart, #1 on the folk albums chart and #3 on the rock albums chart. They’re a success because they have always done and continue to do things their own way. They said to hell with the system and have succeeded despite it. Like An Arrow encompasses all of these traits and attitude, which is why Blackberry Smoke is Country Perspective’s 2016 Group/Duo of the Year.

Album Review – Blackberry Smoke’s ‘Like An Arrow’

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A fool once said in 2016, “There are no cool rock bands anymore.” This makes sense to someone like Jason Aldean, who puts out bad pop music parading to be country. It also makes sense to anyone who just follows mainstream music because rock has been dead in the mainstream for a while. But bands like Blackberry Smoke can assure that rock is not only alive, but it’s still kicking ass. It’s just not on the radio. It’s out there in the independent scene and at concerts across the world, its natural environment far away from corporations and suits who wouldn’t know rock if it bit them in the ass. Blackberry Smoke is one of those bands that occupies a unique space, somewhere between country and rock, or put more simply southern rock. They probably don’t get the respect they deserve from either genre because they have a foot in each. But they should because they’re one of the best bands in music today.

Their last album Holding All The Roses was one of the best of 2015 and served as my personal introduction to the band. I’ve since dug deep into their library and from beginning to present they’ve consistently put out some of the best southern rock in the modern era. They started out with Zac Brown’s label Southern Ground before moving onto being independent and partnering with Thirty Tigers, which suits the band just fine. Their music and attitude has a very independent spirit about it. They also have one of the most passionate and dedicated fan bases in both country and rock. Their new album Like an Arrow debuts at Billboard at #1 on the country chart (second in a row), #1 on the Americana chart and #3 on the rock chart. Needless to say this is an album I was anxiously ready to dive into and give a listen. I can confidently say that once again Blackberry Smoke delivers excellence.

This album kicks ass from the moment you hit play on “Waiting for the Thunder.” The impressive roaring guitars hit you in the face like a ton of bricks. The lyrics scathingly take down powerful institutions that put down the men and women who bust their ass to get by. It’s a tornado of a song that just sort of leaves you in awe after hearing it. This may be one of the band’s best songs ever. “Let It Burn” can be interpreted as a dig at Music Row and it’s bullshit (something the band addressed on their last album) or any old small town across the country where people are fed up with the way things are run. Either way the lyrics hit hard and the guitars hit harder.

One of the more sentimental moments on the album is “The Good Life.” It’s about a father passing onto his son the advice his own father gave him when he was young. It’s a song that promotes the values of family, hard work and tradition. The heart behind the lyrics could bring a tear to your eyes. This is probably one of the most well written songs I’ve ever heard from Blackberry Smoke. “Running Through Time” is one of those songs that band makes look and sound so easy. I love the soulful touches added in throughout the song, with an organ sneakily playing in the background. That soulful influence shows up again on “Believe You Me,” a song about you controlling your own destiny. Again the guitar work blows me away and combined with the soulful touches it just makes the band’s sound even better.

There are some songs on this album where you just have to sit back and admire the instrumentation work, like on “What Comes Naturally” and “Ought to Know.” The latter especially has a memorable riff in the bridge. The album’s title track is about life and how sometimes we go high and sometimes we go low, just like an arrow. The guitar work on this song is extremely impressive and you’ll find yourself jamming along to this song with ease. Both the lyrics and instrumentation are so damn infectious and catchy. The same can be said about “Workin’ for a Workin’ Man.” Starr and the band sing about the grievances and pains of the workingman under the man. It’s a battle cry for everyone who feels short-changed at their jobs and at life. I mean look at lyrics like, “This bait and switch is a son of a bitch, it ain’t workin’ for a workin’ man, I got to shuck and jive just to even survive.” I find it impossible not to be hooked by lyrics like this because it’s not only catchy, but it can have real anger and power behind it.

One song that sort of sneaks up on you is “Sunrise in Texas.” On the first listen it may not stand out as much as other songs on the album do, but with more listens it just gets better and better. Charlie Starr delivers one of his best vocal performances here, just belting the lyrics with conviction and fire. Then you have the crunchy guitars in the bridge and you just have to marvel at this song. “Ain’t Gonna Wait” leans more country than rock and shows this band could go straight country if they wanted to and sound just as great. But why choose one genre when you can nail two at once? Gregg Allman of the iconic Allman Brothers joins Blackberry Smoke on the album’s final song, “Free On The Wing.” This song is about finding your way in life and saying goodbye to old stories to say hello to new ones. It’s appropriate to see Allman do a song with the band because Blackberry Smoke is the modern-day successor to the Allman Brothers.

Hands down Like an Arrow is one of the best albums of 2016. Blackberry Smoke continue to demonstrate why they’re amongst the best in both country and rock. What’s amazing is how flawless they make it look. But I probably shouldn’t be surprised. Blackberry Smoke isn’t your ordinary band that goes through slumps and bad albums. They consistently churn out some of the best music you’ll hear today. You can chalk up Like an Arrow as another fantastic album from Blackberry Smoke.

Grade: 9/10

 

Recommend? – YES

Album Highlights: Waiting for the Thunder, The Good Life, Running Through Time, Like an Arrow, Sunrise in Texas, Workin’ For A Workin’ Man, Let It Burn

Bad Songs: Nope!

Wallpaper: Nope!


Album Review – Whiskey Myers’ ‘MUD’

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The rise of Americana and alt-country in prominence the last few years has left an impact I don’t think many fans realize. Ten years ago you wouldn’t hear as much about these independent, non-mainstream acts because they weren’t on the radio or on a major label. Nowadays with the prevalence of the Internet, any act can standout if they play great music. Whiskey Myers is an undoubtedly a group that has benefitted, as this Red Dirt/southern rock outfit from Palestine, Texas is one of the most beloved country rock bands today. Made up of Cody Cannon (lead vocals, guitar), Cody Tate (lead guitar, vocals, rhythm guitar), John Jeffers (rhythm & lead guitar/vocals), Gary Brown (bass) and Jeff Hogg (drums), this band came onto a lot of people’s radars with their last album Early Morning Shakes in 2014. It was a great album that perfectly timed with the rise of alt-country and made them a lot of fans (this is also another album I wish I reviewed in 2014). Not to mention Dave Cobb produced it, who has absolutely exploded and is the most beloved producer amongst traditional/alt-country/Americana fans. Cobb returns with this new album too. So their new album MUD was certainly an anticipated one for a variety of reasons amongst Red Dirt fans and after listening to it thoroughly I think many fans are going to be quite happy with it.

The sounds of fiddles play in “On The River.” It’s the perfect upbeat, country rock tune to kick off the album. This is pretty much what you’ve come to expect from Whiskey Myers: just a fun song with Cannon just absolutely belting it on lead vocals. It definitely fires you up for the rest of the album. The album’s title track features some rollicking guitar licks. It’s about living the country life on the family land and carrying traditions on from previous generations. It’s life born and lived throughout in the mud. There’s a tinge of gospel influence on this song too, as the organ fades in and out. “Lightning Bugs and Rain” was one of the songs released before the album came out and I imagine many fans of Whiskey Myers were surprised when they heard horns on it. This isn’t common in their music, but it works really well surprisingly. The song itself doesn’t have much to say, as it’s about a couple spending time together in the mountains. But the great instrumentation helps cover up for the somewhat shallow lyrics.

The only song I didn’t like on MUD at first was “Deep Down in The South.” As you can figure out from the title, the song is about southern pride and living. If you’re from the south, I’m sure you’ll immediately enjoy. For me it took a few listens to appreciate it more than the average southern pride songs we hear churned out from mainstream country. But this is still the weakest track on the album. The next song is “Stone.” It’s a piano-driven ballad and one of my favorites on the album. The song is about a heartbroken man drinking his sorrows away and knowing his heart will probably break again and again. It’s just the life he lives. Everything in this song just sort of works perfectly together and shows Whiskey Myers at their best.

“Trailer We Call Home” leans more country than rock and it’s a nice look at the lighter side of the band. In fact there’s mostly just acoustic guitar. The song is about the everyday family and a man who has to work his tail off everyday to make ends meet for them. He wishes he could do more for them, but at the end of the day they’re proud of what they have and the humble trailer park where they live. For a group that’s known for their hard-hitting southern rock, they’re excellent with this sad country song. This is followed by “Some of Your Love.” It’s a solid love song with a catchy hook and some stellar electric guitar play. The instrumentation might be at it’s strongest on “Frogman,” as the electric guitar licks are just so infectious and inviting. The song is about a former military man who’s much happier spending his time fishing than dodging gunfire. But he reminds us he’s still not someone you should mess with. This is just southern rock at it’s finest, as I find myself enjoying it more each time I hear it.

“Hank” is basically an ode to the importance of music on your life. As Cannon sings in the opening lyrics, his first record was Hank Jr.’s The Pressure Is On and it’s an album he turns to when he’s singing the blues. Once again Whiskey Myers just knows how to do southern rock, as the fiddles and electric guitars are equally impressive on this song. MUD comes to a close with “Good Ole Days,” where Brent Cobb joins Whiskey Myers. It’s a good old, down home country tune about ignoring the bad news being spewed by those around us everyday and telling us the good old days are gone. Cobb and Whiskey Myers tell us we’re still living the good old days because we still have many of the great simple things in life to enjoy. It’s positive without being preachy and sappy. It’s the kind of feel good song we could all use when having a bad day, as you can’t help but smile after hearing it.

There are many Red Dirt and southern rock acts out there today, but Whiskey Myers reminds us they’re one of the best with their new album MUD. While I don’t think this is quite as good as Early Morning Shakes, it was going to be difficult to top that album. MUD is a really solid album full of fun southern rock jams and some well-composed heartfelt tracks that capture the thoughts and feelings of the everyday man. I think it’s definitely worth your time, especially if you enjoy some rock and roll with your country. If there’s one thing this album does near flawlessly, it captures both the spirit of country and rock music. That’s a credit to both Whiskey Myers and Dave Cobb, who once again delivers as a producer. MUD is certainly no dud and is another really good album from Whiskey Myers.

Grade: 8/10

Album Review – Dolly Shine’s ‘Walkabout’

When it came to producing their second full-length album, Dolly Shine took a different approach to the pre-production by having all their band members together for arranging and preparing Walkabout. Lead singer Zack McGinn says, “Walkabout is really like a spiritual realization and it’s about finding yourself. We’ve done a lot of traveling together as a group… and we’ve done a lot of growing together and a lot of learning.” When it came to Walkabout, the goal of the album was to highlight Dolly Shine as a collective unit – to highlight the band being a band. Joining McGinn are fiddler and co-founder Wesley Hall, drummer Johnny Goodson, guitarist Jerrod Flusche, and bassist Ben Hussey.

Walkabout kicks off with the southern rock guitar lick on “Blackbird.” This rowdy rocker tells the story of a young illegal trader over the Mexican border. This outlaw has avoided his capture and now serves as an urban legend throughout the area. The production doesn’t change too much save for a fiddle solo toward the song’s end. “Come Out Swinging” is a more natural country tune with acoustic guitars and fiddles providing the song’s melody. The song tells a story about a former couple who run into each other at a bar, and their anger and resentment toward one another have yet to subside. He knows it’s inevitable that old arguments and passion will flair up between them. A female voice pops in to provide some vocal harmonies during the chorus, which is a nice touch given the song’s content. Sour relationships are further explored in “Closing Time.” Hall’s fiddle shines on this track as McGinn sings about a relationship coming to an end, mainly because his woman never leaves the bar alone at closing time.

“Rattlesnake” chronicles the life of a drifter moving from town to town. The song has a darker production led by an acoustic guitar strum and fiddle notes that create a sound not too different from the sound of a train chugging along the tracks. Using the metaphor of a drifter, it’s not too farfetched to think that “Rattlesnake” is more autobiographical for the touring band. “Twist the Knife” is a mid-tempo break-up song. McGinn sings of a man who’s taking the end of the relationship poorly and having trouble moving on. “Anywhere Close to Fine” continues on this theme. The first verse paints a picture of man who never really felt love’s sting until she walked out on him. “Anywhere Close to Fine” mixes country and rock nicely with heavy drums and a prominent fiddle in the mix.

Dolly Shine tell the tragic story of a meth dealer in “Snakeskin Boots.” Sung from the first person point of view, McGinn sings of how he and his cousin cooked the drugs on their grandparent’s land, then his cousin left to sell it around the state, only to never come back. The dark song features a darker production and a great guitar solo to close out the track. Tales of the drifter life continue with the heavy rocker “Hitchhikin’.” This hitchhiker is running from the law throughout the south, trying to remain uncaught. The hard rocking production sounds good on this track, but the chorus of simply saying “Hitchinkin'” over and over gets old really fast. Walkabout comes to a close with “Old Flame.” A softer, acoustic driven song filled with nostalgia, and trying to extinguish the old flame of a past love.

Walkabout tells the tales and lessons learned of a drifter’s life. Not necessarily a clear, straightforward concept, but a more broad stroke story about reckless actions and the consequences of those actions. Dolly Shine jump between rock and country without missing a beat. The raw production of Walkabout fits with the heavier content of outlaw drifters and heartbreak. Dolly Shine set out to make an album that exemplifies the band’s sound as a whole, and that cohesiveness is evident as you listen to Walkabout.

Grade: 7/10

Album Review – Mudcrutch’s ‘2’

Before there was The Heartbreakers, Tom Petty had Mudcrutch, a southern rock/alt country band. Mudcrutch initially formed in 1970, but after fives year with no musical traction, the band split and Petty went on to do great things with The Heartbreakers. Over the last eight years though, Tom Petty has brought Mudcrutch back together for some short tours and a few album releases, including released in May. As mainstream country grew in popularity due to bro-country, Tom Petty turned heads with his comments on the music, calling it “bad rock with a fiddle.” While Mudcrutch falls into Americana with 2 rising up the Americana Airplay Chart, the album has a couple good offerings of country and rockabilly songs mixed in with Petty’s style of rock.

The album opens with a harmonica playing over a simple drum beat and guitar strum on “Trailer.” The song details a man who, upon graduating high-school, got himself a mobile home to start his own life with the girl he loves. “Trailer” highlights the ups and downs of their life together. “Dreams of Flying” sounds like a vintage Tom Petty rock song, with longer guitar solos accompanied by a faint organ sound. The lyrics hint at the attraction of the rock and roll lifestyle, with an itch to get out and explore the world and fly.

Mudcrutch slows it down with love song “Beautiful Blue.” The spacey, rock ballad production feature piano and organ keys along with another extended solo in the middle of the song, and a nice piano solo toward the song’s end. “Beautiful Blue” certainly has a callback sound to 70s classic rock. “Beautiful World” touches on love again, in a more anthemic, mid-tempo rock song. The song touches on mystery and uncertainties in life, but the love shared between the man and woman in the song make those uncertainties worth it. “I Forgive It All” takes a different approach to dealing with life’s curveballs. The acoustic ballad finds the narrator down on his luck with little money, but he keeps pushing along and forgiving the downs of life.

“The Other Side of the Mountain” takes a turn into country music with a prominent banjo setting the beat in the production. The “mountain” in the song separates two lovers who long to be with one another, but can’t figure out how to navigate around the mountain. “Hope” is another song with a classic rock production. The guitar lick in the middle of the song actually reminds me a bit of Eric Clapton and Cream’s “White Room.” The song is a thank you to a friend, or even a prayer to a religious figure, for providing hope and a more joyous outlook in life.

The rockabilly side of Mudcrutch comes out with “Welcome to Hell.” The piano beat and simple, repetitive drum beats make the song sound like a remastered 50s hit, a sound that suits the band well. “Welcome to Hell” details the fall of a relationship and marriage. The emotional nature of the lyrics is lost in contrast to the upbeat production, but the song works well as it’s produced. Failed relationships and the country sound continue in “Save Your Water.” The woman of this relationship is playing games, and he’s tired of playing along, so he finally burns bridges and breaks the ties. “Save Your Water” is ultimately forgettable.

The quick southern rock tune “Victim of Circumstance” is an upbeat driving song. In this relationship, the man is taking a long journey back to California, hoping his woman will welcome him with one more chance. Mudcrutch closes out 2 with the six-minute “Hungry No More.” The song tells the story of a man who’s been beaten down by life, yet he’s still determined to fight back and make the best out of the situation. “Hungry No More” is a slow burning track with a mid-tempo beat, but the songs packs a bunch in the final two minutes with a roaring guitar solo.

Mudcrutch’s second album showcases a good musical variety for Tom Petty and his bandmates. Mike Campbell (guitarist) and Benmont Tench (keyboards) are also members of The Heartbreakers. Drummer Randall Marsh and singer/guitarist Tom Leadon round out Mudcrutch. The five-piece band are experienced musicians and producers, and that experience helps this album work. The balance between country and rock and the way the two genres blend help shine. It’s the sort of album you come to expect from a group of musicians at this point in their career: solid, well-produced songs.

Grade: 8/10