Label Review – The Major Country Labels of Nashville

I’ve reviewed all kinds of artists from all across the world of country music and Americana. From all corners of the United States, to Canada, Europe, Australia and everywhere in-between I’ve listened and reviewed music here on Country Perspective. But today we’re going to do something a little different. Today I’m going to review the major country labels of Nashville. This is an idea I’ve had for a while and quite frankly is overdue. While it’s easy to bash the likes of Luke Bryan and Sam Hunt, we have to also remember they have a label behind the scenes pulling a lot of strings and really causing a lot of the problems in the genre today. They deserve a lot of blame for why there’s so much bad music because at the end of the day they don’t care about quality. All they care about is money and they will do anything to get you the consumer to fork over your hard-earned dollars. This includes pushing artists who have no business in the genre and are only here for a quick cash grab. So let’s take a look at the major country labels and grade them for their rosters they put out.

Sony Music Nashville

Good

  • Dolly Parton
  • Carrie Underwood
  • Brad Paisley
  • Cam
  • Miranda Lambert

In-Between

  • Maren Morris
  • Chris Young

Bad

  • Dee Jay Silver
  • Old Dominion
  • Lanco
  • Jake Owen
  • Chase Rice
  • Kane Brown
  • Tyler Farr
  • Kenny Chesney

Unknown/Irrelevant

  • Kix Brooks
  • Luke Combs
  • Seth Ennis

Analysis: Well looking at the good, it’s pretty much the ladies club with Paisley as a plus one. In fact all of the women except one on the roster fall under good, which is no surprise. You have a legend in Dolly, two stalwarts in Lambert and Underwood and promising young talent in Cam. Paisley appears to be on the right track again with his music. Young and Morris land on the in-between space because Young has turned into the country Daughtry (h/t to reader Nadia) and Morris is only country sometimes. The bad has some absolute doozies. Old Dominion are the poster boys for douche bands everywhere, Kane Brown thinks he can be the country Bieber, Lanco sounds like a bus stop and Chase Rice was a semi-finalist in our worst country artist tournament earlier this year. The bad ultimately outweighs the good, so I can’t give Sony Music Nashville a positive grade. But the good artists are good enough to save it from a failing grade. Grade: C-

Big Machine Records

Good

  • Tim McGraw
  • Jennifer Nettles
  • Maddie & Tae
  • Drake White
  • Reba McEntire

In-Between

  • Zac Brown Band
  • A Thousand Horses
  • Ronnie Dunn
  • Martina McBride

Bad

  • Danielle Bradbery
  • The Cadillac Three
  • Rascal Flatts
  • Eli Young Band
  • Brantley Gilbert
  • Justin Moore
  • Thomas Rhett
  • Florida Georgia Line
  • Cassadee Pope
  • Brett Young
  • Tucker Beathard
  • Aaron Lewis
  • Steven Tyler
  • Hank Williams Jr.

Unknown

  • Breaking Southwest
  • Trent Harmon
  • Lauren Jenkins
  • Midland
  • The Church Sisters
  • Tara Thompson
  • Ryan Follese
  • Kalie Shorr

Analysis: Big Machine is a large roster mostly full of crap. Of the handful of good artists they have, they’re pretty good and a mix of different styles. McGraw has become one of the leading proprietors of great music on the radio, Reba is a living legend, Nettles is one of the most underrated vocalists of the genre, Maddie & Tae have unlimited potential and Drake White impressed me with his debut album. Zac Brown Band will be back in good graces once they follow through on their promise for the next album. Dunn has left a sour taste in my mouth with the music he’s set to release, including an Ariana Grande cover (why?!). The bad is pretty self-explanatory with some of the worst pop chasers in the genre here to represent. I know people will disagree with Lewis and Hank Jr. under bad, but I will firmly stand by it. Lewis is a panderer and Hank Jr. put out a horrible album earlier this year (he isn’t trying anymore). There’s just so much terrible on this roster that is completely overtakes the good. Grade: D

Warner Music Nashville

Good

  • Ashley Monroe
  • Aubrie Sellers
  • Charlie Worsham
  • William Michael Morgan

In-Between

  • Frankie Ballard
  • Chris Janson

Bad

  • Blake Shelton
  • Big Smo
  • Brett Eldredge
  • Cole Swindell
  • Dan + Shay
  • High Valley
  • Hunter Hayes
  • Jana Kramer
  • Michael Ray
  • RaeLynn

Unknown

  • The Last Bandoleros
  • Ryan Kinder
  • The Railers

Analysis: Only having four good artists is pretty pathetic. But they are pretty good of the four. Monroe and Sellers are two of the best on a major label, Morgan is a traditionalist that has a lot of people excited and Charlie Worsham is an artist more people need to know (listen to his debut album). I would like to put Janson in the good, but I don’t know if he won’t fall back into the bad songs trap. Ballard is the type of artist that never wows you, but has decent enough music. The bad on Warner’s roster is pretty horrific, led by racist tweeter and the King of Petty Shit Mountain himself Blake Shelton. By the way if you say anything bad about Warner’s golden boy you won’t get the promised early copy of William Michael Morgan’s new album from them because Warner is run by assholes. Trust me I know. The rest of the bad artists aren’t even worth getting that angry about because they’re boringly bad and barely worth discussing. This is definitely a label in need of more substance for sure. Grade: D-

Broken Bow Records

Good

  • Craig Campbell
  • Kristian Bush

In-Between

  • Thompson Square
  • Trace Adkins

Bad

  • Jason Aldean
  • Dustin Lynch
  • Jordan Rager
  • Adam Craig
  • Lindsay Ell
  • Randy Houser
  • Parmalee
  • Chase Bryant
  • Joe Nichols
  • Granger Smith

Unknown 

  • Kristy Lee Cook
  • Jackie Lee
  • James Wesley
  • Brooke Eden
  • Runaway June (their first single is pretty good, but I want to hear more before putting them in good)
  • Walker McGuire

Analysis: Geez we’re getting worse with each label. Only two good artists on this label in Campbell, a traditionalist, and Bush, a singer-songwriter type who put out a solid debut album. Thompson Square and Adkins are pretty inoffensive and basically irrelevant. The bad artists don’t seem so bad until you really think about it. A majority of the bad artists need radio gerrymandering to even get airplay, which gives you a pretty good idea of how bad they are. At the same time they aren’t the absolute worst, so they have something going for them. Aldean is their only major artist and while his music has been inoffensive as of late, you can’t forget his past singles either. Grade: D-

Universal Music Group Nashville 

Good

  • Jon Pardi
  • Eric Church
  • Brothers Osborne
  • Alan Jackson
  • Vince Gill
  • Kip Moore
  • David Nail
  • George Strait
  • Kacey Musgraves
  • Chris Stapleton
  • Josh Turner

In-Between

  • Dierks Bentley (before his latest album he was easily in the good)
  • Mickey Guyton (her latest single makes me question her)
  • Charles Kelley
  • Little Big Town
  • Darius Rucker
  • Gary Allan
  • Eric Paslay
  • Hillary Scott
  • Lauren Alaina
  • Billy Currington
  • Shania Twain

Bad

  • Luke Bryan
  • Keith Urban
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Haley Georgia
  • Clare Dunn
  • Sam Hunt
  • The Band Perry
  • Easton Corbin
  • Canaan Smith

Analysis: Here’s the perfect example of a label that plays it safe, while also hedging their bets. There’s a lot of great artists on this label, probably the best group of good artists out of all the labels reviewed here. But there’s about an equal group of bad artists and in-between artists. UMG Nashville could easily get over the hump if a few of the in-between artists put out better music, but could easily tank if they go the opposite. The great (Church, Musgraves, Stapleton, etc.) ultimately cancels the horrible (Bryan, Urban, Hunt, etc.) out. Grade: C+

Curb Records

Good

  • Mo Pitney
  • Wynonna & The Big Noise

In-Between

  • Lee Brice
  • Ruthie Collins (despite her EDM version of a Hank song, she’s quite talented)
  • Rodney Atkins
  • Love & Theft

Bad

  • Jerrod Niemann
  • Dylan Scott

Analysis: First off Curb’s artists section on its website is an absolute joke. So if I missed any of their artists, please let me know. Mo Pitney is a hands down the best artist on this label and it’s unfortunate how much they’ve mishandled him up to this point. Wynonna is a great veteran artist to have on any label. The in-between artists are an interesting bunch. When Brice tries he can be good, but he’s put out his fair share of crap. Collins is another one they’re mishandling. Atkins has been MIA for a while. The bad is pretty easy to breakdown: Niemann’s career peaked with his EDM-influenced country and will never reach those heights again. He’s a has-been, while Scott is a never-was and a never-will be. Why this guy is pushed so hard by Curb I will never understand. Scott couldn’t even properly cash-in on the bro country trend because he failed to garner a hit in the bro era. Remember when Curb had Tim McGraw? Grade: D+

 

So that’s my thoughts on the major country labels and their rosters. Let me know what you think of each of the labels and if I missed any artist please let me know.

Album Review – William Michael Morgan’s ‘Vinyl’

william-michael-morgan-vinyl

A traditional revival in mainstream/radio country is something that many fans have been craving for quite a while. Of course traditional country has never really died in the broader sense for anyone who expands their listening beyond the radio, but that’s a topic for a different day. For those who limit themselves to what country radio and the major labels churn out, there’s definitely been a lack of traditional country in the last five years. When Chris Stapleton had his breakout night at the 2015 CMA Awards and the subsequent skyrocketing of his popularity afterwards, it prompted a lot of labels to re-examine themselves and prioritize putting out their own traditional country artists. After all “the industry propagates things it stands to benefit from.” Enter Warner Nashville artist William Michael Morgan. The traditional country artist from Vicksburg, Mississippi has been one of the breakout stars of the genre this year with his single “I Met A Girl.” His breakout has made a lot of traditional country fans excited about his potential and possibilities, especially since his music is being heard on the radio. To say his debut album Vinyl has been highly anticipated by these fans is an understatement. I myself have been looking forward to it too. So I dove headfirst into this album and one thing for certain from the very first listen is there’s definitely a palpable sound of traditional country throughout it.

Vinyl kicks off with “People Like Me,” an upbeat tune about the working man. It’s about the person who doesn’t go to college, doesn’t have a filter on their mouth and bust their backs working nine to five everyday. While the sentiment of the song is in the right place, the whole song paints an us vs them theme that kind of rubs me the wrong way. Not to mention it’s a tired trope I’ve heard numerous times and done better. It’s just hard to get much out of a generic theme like this. The instrumentation is nice though, decidedly in that 90s country vein of rowdy and catchy that fans grew to love. Some pedal steel guitar plays in the album’s title track “Vinyl.” As you can guess from the title, the song revolves around vinyl, as the man compares his love for his woman to music on vinyl. Just like vinyl, he says his woman is the “old fashioned” type that you don’t see too many of anymore. This analogy works well enough and with vinyl’s popularity continuing to surge, it smartly appeals to a lot of people. It’s most likely the second single from the album, as it’s been getting a lot of airplay on Sirius XM’s The Highway for months.

“Missing” is undoubtedly one of the best tracks on the album. The song is about just going missing for a while, off to a place where the world can’t annoy you and getting away from the noise of everyday life. It’s a feeling we all experience. It’s just a simple theme, yet resonates so deeply because it’s a song rooted in real feelings that real people experience. The fiddles and steel guitar heard throughout are like a hot knife cutting through butter. The lead single of the album and Morgan’s first hit I’m sure of many, “I Met A Girl,” is next. The song is about a man meeting a girl (you could figure this out from the title) and the ways this girl make him feel. He’s obviously struck by her. That being said there isn’t a lot of meat to this song either. Then again with a first single you can’t expect something too deep and really this goes deeper than most debut singles. As many have heard already, Nashville pop artist Sam Hunt helped write it and I’m sure that will make your head spin if I just broke the news to you.

Following this is “Spend It All on You,” a song with a sort of lingering tone. It’s about a man wanting save up all of his time to spend it with the love of his life. Again just like “People Like Me,” this song just doesn’t do much for me. When I say it has a lingering tone, I don’t just refer to the production and instrumentation. The lyrics are pretty generic and the song feels like it drags on too long, even though it clocks in just over three and a half minutes. For a romantic love song, I think it tries too hard to convey this feeling. “Beer Drinker” is what you would call one of the most “radio friendly” songs on Vinyl. The song is about shouting out all of the hard-working people out there who bust their ass and finish it off with cold beers at the end of the week. It’s an ode to the working man. But while the lyrics err on the side of radio friendly, the instrumentation is still decidedly country. Think of this as a better, more country version of Lee Brice’s “Drinking Class.”

The deepest and best song on the album is hands down “I Know Who He Is.” Written by Casey Beathard, the song is about a man seeing his father suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and forgetting who he is. But the son reminds us that he remembers who he is and how important his father has been to him throughout his life. The song is a real tear-jerker having to listen to a son watching his father slowly fade away. Alzheimer’s disease is probably one of the scariest diseases someone has to watch their loved one suffer through and this song perfectly captures that feeling. This is followed up by another well-written love ballad, “Cheap Cologne.” Or I should say heartbreak ballad, as the song is about a man having a sneaking suspicion his woman is cheating on him. He can smell “the honky tonk in her hair” in the form of cigarettes and cheap cologne. Of course he doesn’t smoke nor wear cheap cologne. It’s pretty obvious she’s cheating, although it’s never clearly answered. This is another song I think would make a great choice to release as a single, as it’s not only strongly country, but the lyrics are catchy too.

“Somethin’ to Drink About” is another generic drinking song. That may be hard for some to admit, but it’s true. If you gave this song a more rock sound, it wouldn’t be out of place on a Jason Aldean album. There’s just nothing to remember about this song, as it comes off as filler. Fortunately this is followed by one of the best tracks on the album, “Lonesomeville.” If you’re looking at the title and instantly thinking of Joe Nichols’ #1 hit “Brokenheartsville,” well you’re going to think of it more when you hear the song. Just like that hit, this is your classic heartbreak, drinking country song. The man’s love has left and now he’s left alone to pick up the pieces of his broken heart. The songwriting is sharp and can really hit an emotional spot to some listeners. This is a great credit to the writers of the song: Morgan, Trent Tomlinson, Mark Sherill and Ash Underwood. The album concludes with “Back Seat Driver,” a song about a father dealing with his son growing up and moving out. The main focus is around the father giving pointers to his son on driving and making sure he’s prepared for anything. Of course this is beyond driving and about life in general, as he tells his son that he can’t be his back seat driver anymore (in life or in the car). While this theme will come off as saccharine to some, I think it will resonate with many younger listeners and connect with them in a big way. Overall it’s another pretty solid song from Morgan and a great way to close the album.

I have to be honest with you: William Michael Morgan’s Vinyl was kind of disappointing. While yes this album is without a doubt traditional country and features pedal steel and fiddle throughout, the lyrics are pretty lukewarm at multiple times. It’s what ultimately drags this album down for me, which is a shame because there are some truly great songs on it like “I Know Who He Is” and “Lonesomeville.” I think that’s something many tend to forget when it comes to major label artists and that is there’s still a great chance of major label writing, which can get derivative and monotonous. When I can point out multiple songs on this album that fit this description, that isn’t good. Despite this album’s flaws though I think it’s still a good album and a nice start for Morgan’s career. Vinyl does more things right than wrong and Morgan’s heart is certainly in the right place. The instrumentation is definitely one of the standout aspects of the album. Hopefully the lyrics can match it on the next one.

Grade: 7/10

*parts of this review originally appeared in my review of Morgan’s self-titled EP*

Review – The Last Bandoleros’ “Where Do You Go?”

The Last Bandoleros Where Do You Go

Tejano music, or more commonly referred to as Tex-Mex music, has a long and rich history stretching all the way back to the turn of the 20th century. Of course it has also made an impact on the history of country music, where it really started to influence the genre starting in the 1950s and 1960s. This was back when it was still called country and western. It was Texas where it primarily influenced country artists, as the dancing for country and western in Texas has the same style as the polka and waltzes that originated from Europe that ultimately helped shape Tex-Mex music.

Fast forward to today and Tex-Mex is gone from popular country music in both Nashville and Texas. Really the only notable groups to have a Tex-Mex influence on their music in country and Americana are The Mavericks, Los Lobos and Calexico. That is until Warner Music Nashville recently signed a new band called The Last Bandoleros, a Tex-Mex band out of San Antonio. The group is made up of Diego Navaira (vocals & bass), Jerry Fuentes (vocals & guitar) and Derek James (guitar & vocals). They’re also joined by a button accordionist. They self-describe their music as one part Tex-Mex, one part Brit-Pop and two parts country and rock. Navaira himself comes from a musical family, as his father is the late great Tejano artist Emilio Navaira (who was a great influence in helping connect Tejano music and country music). They’ve just released their debut single for Warner to country radio titled “Where Do You Go?” and I have to say I’m immediately intrigued on what they can bring to the table.

“Where Do You Go?” is an upbeat tune you’ll instantly be tapping your toes along with as you listen to it. The song itself is a simple heartbreak song about a man who goes out on the town with his woman who leaves him after he’s had enough to drink to not realize she’s left him. While the songwriting doesn’t have a lot of meat to it, it’s not supposed to because this song relies on its catchy instrumentation to be the meat of the song. And this really works well. The aforementioned accordion is there throughout the song and has some really nice solo parts in the bridge to give the song a decidedly different feel from anything else you’ve heard on country radio recently. When was the last time you can say you heard an accordion at country radio? I would guess The Mavericks in the 90s. The group also does a great job harmonizing, another element that has been missing from group songs at country radio.

I think The Last Bandoleros are a group worth watching after hearing “Where Do You Go?” I think it would be pretty cool to have a Tex-Mex based group have a regular presence at country radio if they would catch on. A lot of people aren’t familiar with Tex-Mex, but I think would enjoy it if they gave it a chance. It’s not only usually upbeat and fun, but a call back to the earlier days of country music. Anyone that is a fan of The Mavericks I think would enjoy The Last Bandoleros. Think of this group as a younger version of The Mavericks. Of course they have a way to go before they can put themselves in the same league as an iconic band like The Mavericks. “Where Do You Go?” is a solid start for this upstart band and I’m intrigued to hear more from them.

Grade: 7/10

Written by: Jerry Fuentes, Emilio Navaira, Derek James and Diego Navaira

Album Review – William Michael Morgan Shines on Self-Titled EP

William Michael Morgan EP

You look at country radio the last few years and you just want to shake your head at all of the nonsense that has dominated it. From rap country to bro country to metro bro, there’s been absolute garbage populating the airwaves. People like to ask where’s the country gone? Well it’s been largely ignored by the labels on Music Row. The traditional country artists that have been pushed like Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe have been rejected by radio. But I think the times are slowly changing now. Quietly labels on Music Row are loading their rosters with more traditionally inclined artists. One of those artists is William Michael Morgan, who is signed to Warner Music Nashville. The 22-year-old artist from Vicksburg, Mississippi is starting to emerge onto more people’s radars and 2016 is looking to be a breakout year for him. This was already the case when he had just released his debut single “I Met A Girl.” He’s now released his self-titled debut EP and I guarantee he’s turning even more heads after they hear it.

Some pedal steel guitar plays in “Vinyl.” As you can guess from the title, the song revolves around vinyl, as the man compares his love for his woman to music on vinyl. Just like vinyl, he says his woman is the “old fashioned” type that you don’t see too many of anymore. This analogy works well enough and with vinyl’s popularity continuing to surge, it smartly appeals to most people. Although more jaded listeners will find it to be a little corny. “Beer Drinker” is what you would call the most “radio friendly” song on the EP. The song is about shouting out all of the hard-working people out there who bust their ass and finish it off with cold beers at the end of the week. It’s an ode to the workingman. But while the lyrics err on the side of radio friendly, the instrumentation is still decidedly country. Think of this as a better, more country version of Lee Brice’s “Drinking Class.”

Morgan’s lead and current single “I Met A Girl” is next. I reviewed this last year and I have to say I’m encouraged to see it rising up the airplay charts and getting ready to enter the top 30. Warner is really getting behind him and I’m glad they see the importance of pushing this first single. From my original review: The song is about a man meeting a girl (you could figure this out from the title) and the ways this girl make him feel. He’s obviously struck by her and thankfully there’s no mentioning of her sugar shaker or her “Dixie Cup” being the reason behind it. That being said there isn’t a lot of meat to this song either. It could have went deeper and went more detailed into the theme of the song. Then again with a first single you can’t expect something too deep and really this goes deeper than most debut singles.

The best track of the EP is without a doubt “Lonesomeville.” If you’re looking at the title and instantly thinking of Joe Nichols’ #1 hit “Brokenheartsville,” well you’re going to think of it more when you hear the song. Just like that hit, this is your classic heartbreak, drinking country song. The man’s love has left and now he’s left alone to pick up the pieces of his broken heart. The songwriting is sharp and can really hit an emotional spot to some listeners. If I’m Morgan, this is the next single that gets released. If country radio is deciding to be more receptive to traditional country, then this will be an instant hit. This is followed up by another well-written love ballad, “Cheap Cologne.” Or I should say heartbreak ballad, as the song is about a man having a sneaking suspicion his woman is cheating on him. He can smell “the honkytonk in her hair” in the form of cigarettes and cheap cologne. Of course he doesn’t smoke nor wear cheap cologne. It’s pretty obvious she’s cheating, although it’s never clearly answered. This is another song I think would make a great choice to release as a single, as it’s not only strongly country, but the lyrics are catchy too.

The EP concludes with “Back Seat Driver,” a song about a father dealing with his son growing up and moving out. The main focus is around the father giving pointers to his son on driving and making sure he’s prepared for anything. Of course this is beyond driving and about life in general, as he tells his son that he can’t be his back seat driver anymore (in life or in the car). While this theme will come off as saccharine to some, I think it will resonate with many younger listeners and connect with them in a big way. Overall it’s another pretty solid song from Morgan.

This EP confirms my initial thoughts on William Michael Morgan: He’s the real deal. Morgan is showing that he’s committed to the traditional country sound and I’m glad he’s being allowed to showcase it. His approach and styles reminds me a lot of George Strait, as like Strait he fits country music like a glove and comes off flawless when he sings. In other words, Morgan gets country music and understands how to connect with the listener. While I know some people come away expecting a little more in the lyrics and theme department, I would remind you that Morgan is only 22. Just like I said in my review of Maddie & Tae’s debut album last year, I think it’s fair to cut younger artists some slack in this regard. Remember they’re writing and singing about what they know, which isn’t going to connect with older listeners as well as the younger listeners. Morgan will only get better with time. This is a great start for Morgan and if he continues down his current path and is allowed to make the music he wants to make, you could be looking at a star for years to come.

Grade: 8/10

 

Review – Frankie Ballard’s “It All Started With A Beer”

Frankie Ballard It All Started With A Beer

I feel like we haven’t heard from Frankie Ballard in ages. It probably has to do with the fact that’s he has been pretty quiet throughout 2015. The only single he’s released this year has been “Young & Crazy.” As Derek said in his review of the song, it does more right than wrong and it was a pretty decent song. It’s certainly better than a lot of singles at country radio. It performed well on the airplay chart, as it reached #1 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart. So despite being under-the-radar, Ballard has done well. But he’s now back with a new single, “It All Started With A Beer.” Hints started dropping about it weeks back in Country Aircheck Weekly and now it’s starting to go for airplay at radio. And once again Ballard gives us something more than the rest in mainstream country music.

Right away an acoustic guitar sets the tone of the song. It’s mid-tempo and has a hazy feeling, but in a good feeling. This fits the theme well, as the song is about a man recalling how he met his wife in a bar. He remembers exactly what they were drinking and how he picked up the tab, as a girl like her made him want to do this despite not having much money. Their relationship all started with a beer and now they’ve been together for years, going through all kinds of highs and lows together. This song depends a lot on the nostalgia factor when it comes to the listener. For some they will immediately connect with it, while others may find the song a little bit lacking. I was kind of hoping the lyrics would go just a little deeper (song written by Jaren Johnston, Neil Mason and Jeremy Stover), but as is they’re good enough and grow on you a little bit as you listen to it more. The instrumentation is well done, as a combination of steel guitar and acoustic guitar make for a great and decidedly country sound.

While I thought “Young & Crazy” was decent, I think “It All Started With A Beer” is a little better even. Love ballads suit Frankie Ballard well and I think this single shows he should do more. Really it’s a glimpse that perhaps he can go deeper overall with his music. This is the first single off of his new, upcoming album and I have to say this is a pretty solid start. I’m assuming it’s going to come out sometime in 2016, but so far there has been no official word from him or Warner Music Nashville. I think “It All Started With A Beer” will do great at radio and many listeners will be able to connect with it, ensuring it will reach #1 most likely. I give it a light recommendation to check it out. Frankie Ballard continues to head in the right direction with this single.

Grade: 7/10