6. Frankie Ballard – Sunshine & Whiskey
If it seems like I’m purposefully redressing the sexist gender imbalance in country music coverage, I probably am. But it’s also the case that I have always preferred the female vocal side of country, and there are very few exceptions to my preference. I’m not sure if I’d buy a second Frankie Ballard record, but I’d approach it with an open mind on the strength of this. As with David Nail, you’d be forgiven for thinking, based on the title track, that Ballard fits in with the current trucks, blue jeans, and drinking trend, and he probably does. What sets him apart is his Urban-like ability on the guitar, and his gruffly pleasant singing voice. Seeing him perform a Bob Seger cover on YouTube (‘Night Moves’), I warmed to him even more than I had on first listen. I’m fond of a couple of tracks on this: ‘Tip Jar’, ‘Tell Me You Get Lonely’
7. Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’
With just 5 albums since 1999 (plus the inevitable Christmas album, see Brad Paisley entry below), and a six-year gap between this and her previous studio outing, Call Me Crazy, Lee Ann Womack’s career is emblematic of the problems women face in the country music industry. It’s not as if she doesn’t have talent: a pure voice that is the closest you can get to a modern Dolly Parton, she is the quintessential country singer. It’s also not as if she doesn’t shift units. Call Me Crazy was a top 5 country album, as were her previous three. The problem for her is that she, along with countless other talented women, doesn’t get airplay on country radio. It has been heartening to see, over the past few months, that there has been some institutional push for female artists. The recent CMA awards was dominated by women (Miranda Lambert in particular), and the just-announced 2014 Grammy nominations have equal representation, with three out of the five “Best Country Album” nominees from female artists, including this one. After all that, is this album any good? Absolutely, it is. We may have Vince Gill to thank for the fact that Womack didn’t succumb to the temptation to change her style in an attempt to pander to the radio industry. He said in a Rolling Stone interview a while ago,
[L]ook at the history that women have provided this music. It’s every bit as important as anything the men have done. It’s grossly unfair, and grossly one-sided. But there still have been periods of time in country music’s history where it was very one-sided. You go back to the Fifties and Kitty Wells was a lone ranger. And then along comes Dolly and Loretta and Patsy Cline and it blows up a little more…. I think it’s a double-edged sword. I had a really great conversation with Lee Ann Womack one time. She was trying so hard to do the music that really wasn’t her. She’s such a brilliant country singer. She said, “Well, I can’t get on the radio if I don’t.” I said, “Well, you might get on the radio a little bit, but you’re getting on the radio with something that is certainly not your heart. Go be what makes you great.”
So after a six-year gap, thank goodness, Womack is back with a strong set including the lead single and title song, ‘When I Come Around’, the Kelly Willis number ‘Not Forgotten You’, ‘Out on the Weekend’ and ‘Send it on Down’.
8. Brad Paisley – Moonshine in the Trunk
Just as writers such as Michael Connelly are capable of knocking out great books in a series, year after year, Brad Paisley seems to have been on a hot streak of late. He’s released 10 studio albums (11 if you count the Christmas album) since 1999, which in today’s music business is going some. The quality is consistently good, with the occasional flash of brilliance. Paisley is a country singer in the tradition, with a fine voice and a wicked sense of humour. He writes songs about all aspects of life, which means he can feel like a breath of fresh air in the current country landscape, which is a wasteland of redneck fuckwittery, littered with pickup trucks and empty beer cans. (The prolific Tim McGraw has released 9 albums in the same period. Fellow guitar slinger Keith Urban has popped out a mere 7 in that time.) Moonshine in the Trunk follows hot on the heels of last year’s Wheelhouse. There’s nothing here that strikes me as having enduring classic status, but there is fun in the virtual grooves, and some great guitar. Ironically, having said all that, I have to point out that the opening number Crushin’ It starts with the sound of a beer can being crushed – but also some wonderful acoustic guitar riffing. River Bank will always take you back to the summer, while Perfect Storm has what Paisley has called his favourite ever guitar solo. The title track is Paisley’s obligatory excuse to play really fast, trading riffs with his band.
9. Sunny Sweeney – Provoked
Funded by Kickstarter and imbued with a true spirit of independence, Sunny Sweeney’s Provoked is full of smart songs with snappy lyrics. I particularly like Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass, Backhanded Compliment, Uninvited, Second Guessing Bad Girl Phase, and You Don’t Know Your Husband. My daughter complains that Ms Sweeney’s voice is too nasal, but I think you could say the same of Miranda Lambert, and I don’t hear the same complaints about her. I think the main difference is that Provoked sounds harder-edged, with less commercial sheen. At times it reminds me of Lone Justice, a throwback to that 80s cowpunk sound. (Yes, that’s cowpunk, autocorrect, not cowpony) This is worth a listen, and it’s always worth supporting truly independent artists.
10. David Nail – I’m a Fire
In a current scene dominated by dreadful, repetitive drivel about trucks and beer and girls in tight blue jeans, David Nail manages to stand out among a sea of clones for a couple of reasons. True, lead single ‘Whatever She’s Got’ falls into the country cliché bear pit with lines about blue jeans painted on tight and something something Saturday night, but it has a strong melody and Nail has a pleasant singing voice, which is far easier on the ear than tuneless rednecks like Florida Georgia Line. There’s more to the album than the lead single. There’s more melody (Broke My Heart, Burnin’ Bed), better songs (I’m a Fire, Kiss You Tonight, Easy Love), and a really nice version of Galveston, sung with Lee Ann Womack. A true test of a half-decent record is when something unfamiliar comes on in the car and you have to push buttons to see who it is. I do that all the time with tracks from this record.