Blake Shelton Has Chance at Redemption in 2016

Blake Shelton Wikimedia
Photo Credit: Kevin W. Kelly, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, no changes

Celebrity. Judge on The Voice. Spokesperson for Gildan. Cross-over artist. Miranda’s now former husband. These are the most common monikers I’ve seen thrown at Blake Shelton over the past few years. His stature has risen to new heights and continues to grow his fan base. Along with Adam Levine, he’s the face of The Voice. Over the course of 2015 it was all about his big divorce with Miranda Lambert. It was all about the fallout afterwards and his dating of fellow judge on The Voice and pop artist Gwen Stefani. I’m sure you’ve seen his underwear commercial at some point. All of these different monikers and yet the most important is notably missing. What happened to Blake Shelton, country artist?

It’s pretty easy to sit back and take pot shots at this notion. His head got too big. Ever since he has joined The Voice it’s easy to point to the fact that his music has gone down hill and taken a more pop turn. Perhaps more pressure to look cool? He sold out to popular trends with terrible songs like “Boys ‘Round Here” and “Sure Be Cool If You Did.” He had guest appearances on albums by Christina Aguilera and Shakira. Who can forget his “old farts and jackasses” quote? It was disrespectful and over the line and he knew it as soon as he said it. And of course he attempted to cover an iconic song like “Footloose.” To put it politely, it was laughably bad.

All of this has made Blake Shelton forget what he is at his core and that’s a country artist. Once upon time Blake was only just a country artist who focused on putting out country music. Not just country music, but pretty good country music. It all started with “Austin,” his debut single that went on to achieve Platinum status. Then there’s “‘Ol Red,” considered the traditional song of Blake’s catalog. I always laugh at this because up until about 2009/2010 Shelton consistently put out sensible and country rooted singles. Go check out songs like “Goodbye Time” (a Conway Twitty cover), “Nobody but Me” and “She Wouldn’t Be Gone.” You never heard a song from him and wondered if it should qualify as country. The next couple of years got increasingly pop country, but it wasn’t until 2013 when Blake started “crossing over” into other genres with aforementioned sellout songs above.

For the majority of his career, Blake Shelton has put out passable music. Of course it’s all about what you’ve done lately and it doesn’t exactly put the best taste in your mouth. Shelton hasn’t been near the worst offenders in the genre as of late, as the likes of Sam Hunt and Old Dominion are hell-bent on taking it to new lows never seen before. But he has clearly not been up to full potential. His last album, the 2014 release Bringing Back The Sunshine, felt like it never got off the ground. It was mediocre and came off as safe. This is arguably worse than putting out a terrible album because at least people remember those. The only thing people will remember from Bringing Back The Sunshine is Shelton’s decent duet with the talented Ashley Monroe, “Lonely Tonight.” Preceding it was “Neon Light,” a song that was pulled out of the oven ten minutes before it was ready. The third single “Sangria” was the definition of toothless and “Gonna” was forgettable pop music. This has all added up to paltry album sales for Bringing Back The Sunshine, which as of this moment has only sold 437,100 units. His 2013 album Based On A True Story has sold 1.46 million units and his 2011 album Red River Blue has sold 1.24 million units.

Throw in all of the tabloids chasing him down constantly and things have never been more chaotic for Blake. He has no critical buzz, sales are down and his divorce took a hit on his image. It’s why now more than ever Shelton needs to focus on his music because in my mind it all sets up for redemption. The country artist in Blake should be able to harness the emotions from all of this and create compelling music. More than anything it should be a return to his roots to demonstrate maturity and respect. Blake Shelton is a 39-year-old man. He should not be chasing trends with the Sam Hunts of the world. He should be putting out some of the best music of his career and becoming the elder statesman of a genre that badly needs one in the mainstream realm. And it’s not like he would lose any radio appeal. Tim McGraw has been proving that with his single choices in recent years. There’s no reason Blake Shelton can’t follow his lead.

One encouraging sign of this possibly happening is apparently Shelton was quite eager to get the lead single out from his new upcoming album. According to 92.5 WBEE assistant program director Billy Kidd, he wanted to release it right now, but his label ultimately pushed it back to March. I haven’t seen this type of enthusiasm out of Shelton in a while in regards to releasing new music. Even more encouraging is what he told Country Countdown USA:

“I found some people in my life that have changed my life forever. Some has been bad and some that’s been pretty good. I’m doing what I’m supposed to do, and that’s put all I’ve gone through and put it into music, and I never felt more connected to a record before. When people hear this record, they may not know what happened to me, but they’re gonna know how I felt about it. And that’s exciting for me, to just lay it out there for people.”

We won’t know of course if this record is truly good until we hear it (which might come out as soon as May). But Blake appears pretty focused and excited about it. It’s a sign that he still cares about his music and that’s something you never want to see an artist lack. Everything is setting up perfectly for Blake Shelton to make 2016 his year of redemption. Despite all of the ill will you might hold towards the man, at the end of the day he’s still got a lot of talent. All it can take is one good record to wipe past woes and blues away. Ultimately an artist is judged by his art. And if he focuses on his art again, people will stop thinking of Blake Shelton as a celebrity or a television judge. They’ll think of him as a country artist.

Review – Jake Worthington’s Debut EP Proves He’s The Real Deal

Jake Worthington EP

When it has come to music competition shows like The Voice and American Idol, I’ve found myself becoming more jaded each year about them. The golden age in terms of success for these shows was in the days of Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, two of the biggest names to emerge from the music competition shows. Ever since there hasn’t been this level of star to emerge from the shows. Many of the winners and “big names” from the shows haven’t impressed me and have quite frankly been overrated. Then along came traditional country artist Jake Worthington in season six of The Voice in 2014. He went deep into the show and finished runner-up, all while singing songs from the likes of Waylon Jennings and Keith Whitley. I was intrigued and impressed by his performances, even some of the newer songs he sang (which didn’t seem to be entirely his choice). Worthington’s heart seemed to be with the traditional country though. I could sense it, so I was hopeful this would shine through whenever he would release his first original music. Now we find out with this self-titled debut EP. I can say without a doubt his traditional side shines through loud and clear in this EP.

The EP begins with Worthington singing of a honkytonk woman on “Don’t Let The Redneck (Fool Ya).” This woman is well versed on all of the tactics of prowling single men at the bar and isn’t easily taken off her feet. It’s an interesting song to hear coming from Worthington. It reminds me of something Brooks & Dunn would have recorded in the early 2000s with its rock country production. “Friends” is the type of song that suits Worthington very well. The song is about the value of friendships and how big of an impact they can make on your life. The song is very well written and most importantly comes off as sincere instead of corny, which can be a problem with a theme like this one. The production and instrumentation go great with Worthington’s vocals.

Love ballads are something that will suit Worthington well throughout his career and “That’s When” is a perfect example of why. The main hook of the song is how Worthington sings about how rivers running dry and clouds disappearing from the sky will be the day he stops loving his woman, which will be never of course. Worthington conveys the emotion of the song well and once again displays great sincerity in his performance. If he were looking to release a single to radio, this would be the first song I would send. “This Damn Memory” is the best song on the EP. The song is about how a man can’t shake the memory of the night he broke up with the woman he loved and how the silence now is just eating him up inside. This heartbreak ballad has everything you want in a country song from the sharp lyrics to the thick pedal steel guitar play. I can’t wait to hear more songs like this from Worthington. The EP closes with “Just Keep Falling In Love.” It’s a breezy, up beat love song that I’m sure many couples listening to it will enjoy and connect with. Once again it’s a solidly traditional country song that is arranged very well.

This EP demonstrates that Jake Worthington is sticking with a traditional sound and it’s a great sign to see. Worthington sounds like he came straight out of the neo-traditional era of country in the 80s with his Randy Travis-like voice. He’s a true country artist who understands what country music should sound like. This EP is a great starting point for his career and I look forward to hearing the first full-length album from him. Worthington is an artist country radio needs and with his very young age, he has the potential to have a long and meaningful career. Keep an eye on Jake Worthington.

Grade: 8.5/10

 

Review – Danielle Bradbery’s “Friend Zone” Is A New Level of Suck

Danielle Bradbery Friend Zone

Mainstream country music in 2015 continues to amaze me. And not in a good way. Throughout this year we’ve had a variety of terrible new songs from mainstream country artists and there appears to be no end in sight. The newest monstrosity to rear its ugly head is the new single from Danielle Bradbery, “Friend Zone.” Bradbery of course won season four of The Voice, a show that promises to make new stars. What the show really does is boost sales for its most popular judges Blake Shelton and Adam Levine, while also creating a bunch of forgettable C-list and D-list country artists. These artists are simply filling space and time for labels and radio stations. Bradbery is one of these filler artists. Is she a bad singer? No, she’s actually good. The problem is her music is forgettable and disposable in the whole spectrum of things. I had no plans to review Bradberry’s new single, but then I heard how awful it was and you know how I can’t resist providing commentary on a train wreck.

“Friend Zone” is just all-around terrible and quite frankly offensive. The first offense is the most token banjo ever being thrown in at the very start. In fact this token banjo play is looped throughout the song, brainwashing gullible mainstream country fans into thinking this song is country when it’s anything but country. The song is really a pop rock anthem that panders to country radio, in a desperate attempt to make Bradbery relevant. The theme of the song is about a girl lecturing a boy on not pursuing a girl properly and as a result he’s going to be stuck in the “friend zone.” While this is meant to come off as witty and playful, to my ears it comes off as bitchy, preachy and annoying. How is this song meant to be enjoyable? But the absolute worst part of this song is the chorus:

Let me break it down to the facts
You will never get a girl like that
You gotta step up to the plate with a bat
That’s all I gotta say about that

There are multiple problems with this part of the song. Bradbery’s delivery of the lyrics is done in a Iggy Azalea-like fashion because you know country has to rip off old pop music to be “cool” and “hip.” Seriously I thought there was going to be an interlude of “Fancy” at some point in the song. So they completely misuse a talented singer like Bradbery by making her stoop down to Azalea’s level. Then there’s the line about stepping up to the plate with a bat. At best this is a clunky attempt at pandering to male listeners because it’s a sports reference. At worst this is a faux pas that shouldn’t be uttered in a song about trying to date a girl because the idea of a male with a bat and trying to get a girl’s attention leads to domestic assault like imagery. On top of that the song appears to be going for a trap like sound with the guitar play in the chorus.

I think you get the picture with “Friend Zone.” It’s a terrible song that stinks in any format you put it in. The more I listened to it, the more I got angry. Keep in mind, Bradbery is part of Big Machine Label Group, who appear to be the most egregious offenders of mainstream country music this year. Bradbery is just another artist along for the ride. I’m sure some people will defend Bradbery for this song and say she needed to make it so she could stay with the label and make her own music later, but I’m not going along with this anymore. These artists have a voice and if they’re uncomfortable with it, they need to say so. Going along with it means you’re fine with it and that opens you to criticism from reviewers like me. You can add “Friend Zone” to Country Perspective’s Zero Zone, making it another candidate for Country Perspective’s Worst Song of the Year.

Grade: 0/10

Review – Craig Wayne Boyd’s “I’m Still Here”

CWB I'm Still Here

The start of 2015 for Craig Wayne Boyd looked bright and promising. He kicked off the year with his debut major label single, “My Baby’s Got A Smile On Her Face,” which went #1 on the Hot Country songs chart on Billboard. Boyd was signed to Dot Records/Big Machine Label Group and everything looked just right for him. As I said in my review of that single though, it just didn’t sound like Boyd and I found the single to be completely forgettable. Radio felt the same, as the song was sent for adds and no radio stations were interested in it. It just felt off. Then throughout the spring there was no word on Boyd releasing another single nor an album release date. Many speculated he was kicked off the label, but nobody knew for sure. Then last week on The Voice Boyd performed his new single, “I’m Still Here.” After show it was put on iTunes and under the single information it said it was released under independent label, Long Haul Records.

This confirmed that Boyd was no longer with Dot Records. But did he leave on his own or was he kicked off the label? Boyd clarified this on Twitter with a fan, saying he “ask[ed] off of the label.” So it was a mutual decision between both parties. Deb Bose, aka Windmills Country, has a great writeup on Boyd’s situation over at MJ’s Big Blog that I highly recommend reading if you haven’t read it yet. She found a great quote from Scott Borchetta, who heads up Big Machine Label Group and Dot Records, from a few months back where he seems to be referring to Boyd in a radio interview. You can listen to the interview here. Around the 3:45 mark Borchetta says some artists are “unteachable, that they’re not going to get it, and you have to terminate the relationship, which is very hard to do.” It sounds like Boyd and Borchetta didn’t see eye-to-eye, which doesn’t surprise me at all. Boyd seems like a pretty genuine guy who wants to make actual country music, while Borchetta only cares about the almighty dollar. Borchetta probably pitched him some songs about dirt roads and tailgates and Boyd said no because he has standards (see why I love that song so much from Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers?).

So now Craig Wayne Boyd is a free man who can make the music he wants to make. Is his new single “I’m Still Here” better than “My Baby’s Got A Smile On Her Face”? 100% yes. This is a complete 180 from the first single he released back in January. The song is about basically what just happened to him, as his recent departure from Dot absolutely influenced this song. He sings about how he’ll never stop performing and won’t ever give up. The hook of the song, “I’m still here,” could be viewed as some shade thrown towards Music Row, especially in light of the comment earlier this from former Sony Nashville CEO Gary Overton, where he said if you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist. Boyd clearly exists and isn’t going anywhere. Performing this on The Voice in front of a national audience was a smart move on Boyd’s part, as it gains him more sympathy and you can tell he sang this song from his heart. The production is a little too polished and the theme is slightly broad, but it works well in this situation.

This new single from Boyd confirms that his previous single was a complete concoction from his label. Good on Boyd for getting out of Dot Records and making the music he wants to make. It’s further proof of what I’ve said before and that’s some country artists would be better off independent than on a major label. Sure by doing this you’re guaranteed not to be played on mainstream radio, but do you really want to be played on today’s mainstream country radio? In the long run fans will remember integrity over sales and radio play. “I’m Still Here” is a very good song that I recommend checking out and I’m definitely looking forward to hearing a new album from Boyd. Now that he’s free from being shackled creatively, Boyd is an artist to keep an eye on.

Grade: 8/10

 

The Hodgepodge: Dear Close-Minded Independent Country Fans…

Hipster_Dylan
Credit: Bananarepublicof9gag Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

You weren’t expecting this, were you? Well take a seat and listen. As an independent country fan, you’re well aware of the likes of Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, American Aquarium, Wade Bowen and Rosanne Cash. But I’m not addressing all independent country fans. No, I’m addressing the close-minded part of that fan base. Who are the close-minded? The ones I see online everyday refusing to listen to anything offered from mainstream country music. No matter how good that mainstream country music is, they refuse to even give it a chance. Their attitude is: “If it’s mainstream, it’s bad.” In other words, you’re essentially a hipster. You refuse to give something a chance if it’s popular. You have to be different and listen to something that’s obscured. Well let me get this out right up front: you’re hurting country music as much as bro country fans and metro-politan fans are hurting the genre.

Yep. You read that correctly. You’re just as big of a problem as the very people you mock. You’re no different from the Sam Hunt fan who refuses to listen to Sturgill Simpson. You’re the Randy Rogers fan who refuses to listen to Tim McGraw, not because you think McGraw’s music isn’t good, but simply because he’s mainstream. You’re the same person who hated Sturgill Simpson for signing with Atlantic Records, all because you wanted to keep him in your own realm for your own selfish reasons. God forbid Simpson tries to make a better life for himself and his family with this great opportunity. You’re too worried that you can’t see him play in dinky little dive bars anymore for pennies, while Simpson makes pennies from it. See what I mean about you hurting country music?

What prompted me to write this letter is the announcement of “Dress Blues” being featured on Zac Brown Band’s new upcoming album Jekyll + Hyde. That song of course is a Jason Isbell song that was featured on Isbell’s first solo album. It’s a beautiful song with raw emotion about the cold reality of fighting wars. The song is patriotic without the clichés and cheesiness you’ll see in Toby Keith’s ‘Murica pride songs. Simply put this is a song that everyone needs to hear. This discussion about “Dress Blues” started months ago when the Zac Brown Band played this song in a pre-show for the College Football National Championship game. Many started to speculate that this would be covered on the band’s new album and sure enough it is.

Zac Brown Band covering “Dress Blues” does two big things. One it introduces more substance to the mainstream country scene that badly needs it. Second of all it provides more exposure to a phenomenally talented artist like Jason Isbell and at the same time Isbell makes some money off the sales of it. This is a win-win situation. Isbell himself has endorsed Zac Brown Band covering it and shared a link to pre-order it on social media channels. He’s totally on-board with this, but what do a lot of his fans do? They bitch and moan about it. They refuse to even listen to it because Zac Brown Band is mainstream and everything mainstream sucks in their mind. Here’s a small snippets of comments from Isbell’s Facebook post on the news:

Idiot Fans

Now granted there are some people congratulating him on this and leaving nice comments too. Many are saying they listened to Brown’s version and say they prefer Isbell’s version, which is fine. They were open-minded and gave the cover a chance at least. But just look at these comments above. No wonder Isbell never looks at his Facebook page (I know I try to avoid Facebook). His Twitter page doesn’t seem to have these kind of comments, so maybe this is just Facebook people being Facebook people.

Nevertheless it just pisses me off when independent country fans can’t be happy for their favorite artist to be covered in the mainstream or join the mainstream. Choosing to be close-minded on top of this is just infuriating. I listen to all types of music now. I remember when I was close-minded and pretty much just went with whatever was popular. As a result I missed a lot of good music from several genres. I’m a much happier music listener now that I pretty much explore any kind of music that peaks my interest. I have so much music to listen to anymore that I can hardly keep up. It’s a good problem to have. This is all because I opened my mind up to new music. Sure I’ve come across music I hate, but you don’t have to like everything you try.

All I’m saying to you close-minded independent country fans or any close-minded music listener is this: just give it a chance. When you come across something new or a mainstream artist is covering a less known artist’s song, just give it a chance. I won’t kill you to listen. And if you don’t like it? Just move on. And more than anything be happy when the Jason Isbells and Sturgill Simpsons of the world get these great opportunities. Be a real fan, don’t be a hipster douche.

Now if you’ll excuse me I have some music to listen to…

Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases

  • Kacey Musgraves’ lead single from hear sophomore album, “Biscuits” will officially be released next week. I’ll have a review on it early in the week.
  • Lindi Ortega has released a new single, “Tell It Like It Is,” the lead single off of her new upcoming album. I’m not going to wait until the review to tell you what I think of it either: it’s really good and you need to listen to it. It makes me even more excited to hear this new album from her.
  • George Strait will not only be performing at the 50th ACM Awards, but will be debuting new music. No other information on the new music has been said, other than the fact this is new music from Strait. Considering the situation mainstream country is in right now, we could use some music from Strait. Save us King George!
  • Ronnie Reno will release a new album titled Lessons Learned next Tuesday. For those unfamiliar with Reno, he’s know as “Bluegrass Music’s Youngest Old-Timer.” Ronnie at one point was joined up with the Osborne brothers and the trio won CMA Group of the Year in 1971. After that Merle Haggard hired him away, which allowed him to sing alongside Haggard and his wife Bonnie Owens on songs such as “If We Make It Through December” and “Ramblin’ Fever.” He also wrote Conway Twitty’s #1 hit “Boogie Grass Band.” I’ll have a review on Reno’s new album next week.
  • Allison Moorer will also release a new album next week titled Down To Believing. She’s the former wife of alt-country artist Steve Earle for those unfamiliar with her and this will be her first new album in several years. The lead single she released for the album last November sounded pretty promising, so I’m looking forward to hearing the album.
  • RaeLynn just released a new single called “For A Boy.” This is in fact not off of her terrible Me EP she released back in January. So I guess I should prepare myself to review this one. I’m not going to make Derek review more RaeLynn material because that would be cruel.

Throwback Thursday Song

Sammy Kershaw – “National Working Woman’s Holiday” – Last summer I decided to explore Sammy Kershaw’s catalog of music and my only regret is that I had not done it sooner. To me he doesn’t get near enough credit that he deserves for his great library of music. He kind of got overlooked in the 90s because of the superstardom of Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, Brooks & Dunn, Alan Jackson and George Strait. If you haven’t heard any of his music I highly suggest going back through his catalog (start with his greatest hits album and go from there).

Non-Country Song of the Week

Chris Mann – “Roads” – Back when I was a regular watcher of the show The Voice I wasn’t really impressed by a lot of singers. At least not enough for me to become a fan. There were a few however that did impress me enough to make me a fan. One of those artists was Chris Mann, a classical and opera singer. Now I listen to all genre, but this isn’t usually my cup of tea. But Mann absolutely blew me away with his dynamic vocals. Fun fact: RaeLynn and Gwen Sebastian were also contestants the same season as Mann. He’s only released one album so far and I’m looking forward to his sophomore release.

Tweet of the Week 

How could anyone not like ice cream? Or Sturgill for that matter?

An iTunes Review That Will Make You Face Palm

Another Dumb Hunt Fan

You know I’m just shocked Hunt fans are aware of Hank Williams. And why aren’t they listening to Hank instead?

That’s it for the Hodgepodge this week! Be sure to sound off in the comments!