Ryan Culwell – The Last American

6EQ UJ5

is anybody out there alive

can you hear me

can you hear me

out on the highway

on the dark side of the moon

I got my wheels spinnin’

can you hear me

bang real loud and get down low

make a little love on the radio

dial it in boys and let it ride

send a little call out to heaven tonight

can you hear me

can you hear me?

I’ve waited a bit to review this in hopes of gaining some perspective, but after three months the lead track still haunts my mind. It keeps unpacking itself, more like a movie than a song, and the album is something like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, a series of short films about broken and disappointed people. Culwell gives voice to a series of characters, in varying states of hurt, defiance and confusion in a world which is both timeless and timely. A documentary about both the America that is lost and the America that is.

The opening line of “Can You Hear Me” refers to the “wow” signal picked up by a radio telescope in 1977, a moment of clarity in the background noise of the universe, which came from the direction of Sagittarius. That’s how the song begins. It sounds like electronic noise, a falling note. Then you pick up what sounds like a Springsteen song you’ve never heard. “Bang real loud and get down low / Make a little love on the radio”. This places the song immediately in my wheelhouse, making me remember the many nights I spent shifting the dial of my AM radio under the bedclothes, listening to the drifting signals refracting off the ionosphere, the KGB signal jamming, Radio Moscow, Radio Luxembourg, Radio Caroline and the World Service.

Culwell writes a scene from an unfilmed 70s sequel to American Graffiti. Our narrator is on the road, speaking in CB Radio jargon, being followed by a motorcycle cop, but also thinking about the murder of Eric Garner, who kept saying “I can’t breathe” while being choked to death by cops:

“When Eric Garner was murdered I started pacing around the house repeating, ‘I can’t breathe,’ but the words had nowhere to land so I just kept repeating them for weeks. My wife probably thought I was losing my mind,” Culwell tells Rolling Stone. “It’s not the kind of song you write in a day. My only regret is that I run out of air after singing ‘I can’t breathe’ 10 times while Eric Garner found the strength to say it 11 times. You can’t love your neighbor as yourself if you’re not even listening to him.”

Like a drifting radio signal, the song shifts from being a Springsteen banger to a protest song, and drifts back again, finally fading away with the message, “I’m at threes and eights”, which (I believe) is CB code for best wishes, or indicating that a channel will now be clear.

So goes the album, a camera eye that dips into people’s lives and out again, sometimes coming through clear, sometimes drifting off into the static, or the “old, weird America” of the basement tapes. Culwell’s voice can sound like he’s a mad old bluesman or hillbilly screaming from the bottom of a well (on “Dig a Hole”, for example) or sitting at a piano in a church, or strumming on his back porch. In “Tie My Pillow to a Tree”, when he sings, “Make some room for me”, his voice breaks with polite uncertainty.

I smell like rosin

I taste like leaves

would you scoot on over

make some room for me

books I have read

lovers I have known

when they forget me

oh where will I go

I set sail on seven oceans

there ain’t no country with my name

I wrapped myself in pleasure

and I kissed myself with pain

And if you have this record on in the background, you hear some really pretty songs, that kind of folky, polite Americana. And then you check what song it is you’re listening to, and you realise, for example, that it’s called “Dog’s Ass”.

The title track comes over as an interview with a political pollster, as the subject proclaims, “I am the last American / On this earth / I’d like to quit this talkin’ / Get back to work”.

guess I’ll vote the ticket

like i always do

if I can figure out

who to stick it to

you can keep asking your questions

if you think it’s going to help

do I believe in God

mr you go straight to hell

I got my old man’s heart

and a broke down Chevrolet

The Last American is a powerful, uncomfortable record, not the kind of thing you can have on as background, but the kind of music that compels you to listen, to pay attention to the words. I can’t think of the last time I was driven to look up the lyrics of an album like this. I’d put it on the level of Darkness on the Edge of Town. It’s an immense achievement.

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A few album reviews

There have been a few big releases in 2018, and more to come. I wish Sugarland would drop their comeback already, instead of drip-drip-dripping pre-release tracks (four so far). The biggest surprise for me so far is that I didn’t prefer Ashley Monroe’s Sparrow to Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour.

Ms Musgraves and Ms Monroe have been on the same release cycle since their debuts in 2013. So far, I’ve preferred Monroe’s releases: prefer her voice, her songs, her production – especially on The Blade, released in 2015, and which sounds terrific.

DbP9MieW4AEqehsBut now comes Sparrow, and I’m shocked to say, I don’t think I like it. I just relegated the opening track, “Orphan” from my phone’s playlist, and I never do that so early in an album’s life. But it sounds awful to me. Her voice sounds off key and whiny to my ears. I felt the same about the pre-released “Hands on You”. It sounds like someone struggling with their voice, struggling to hit those notes. Sounds like she has a cold, or is too tired. The same problem crops up throughout, on the chorus to “Mother’s Daughter”, for example. “Wild Love” starts off more promisingly, with some nice tremolo guitar, but then the strings kick in, and instead of the strong voice such production requires, you get this shaky, tentative, thin voice. In terms of music, the album sounds less soulful than The Blade, and there are more strings in the background. Maybe it will grow on me, but so far I’m disappointed.

Golden hour Kacey MusgravesMeanwhile, Kacey Musgraves has a solid hit in Golden Hour. Ironically, my criticism of her sound has always centred on her voice, which I think weak and limited for a country singer. But I think it actually sounds stronger this time around, and certainly doesn’t suffer from the problems afflicting Sparrow. There’s certainly an attempt here to take her across to the pop charts, but that’s merely to consolidate her popularity outside country circles. She’s broken through sufficiently in the UK to penetrate the obstinately retro UK iTunes country chart, which is usually wall-to-wall Dolly and Johnny with recycled compilation albums. Musgraves’ sharp witticisms are poignards thrust into modern relationships. Even now, weeks after its release, Golden Hour sits at number four.

And let’s not forget that Ms Musgraves’ (and Ms Monroe’s) breakthroughs are taking place in an industry where female artists still don’t get played on US country radio.

Golden Hour has a bright, modern sound, and of course Ms Musgraves’ voice is clear and pure, perfectly pitched for the songs she writes herself. And there’s nothing here to frighten the horses, a basic backing of drums and guitars with some modern keys. Yes, there’s pedal steel guitar, she’s not leaving the genre behind like Taylor Swift. But then there is “High Horse”, which marries her witty lyrics with dance beats and techno sounds. It’s a new Modern Sounds in Country Music, and a clear progression from her last release. Getting better.

AshleymcbrydeBut Ms Musgraves doesn’t win the prize for best country album of 2018 so far. That goes to Girl Going Nowhere by Ashley McBride, which kicks off with a simple song about being written off by friends and family, which when she performed this title track at the Opry a while ago brought the house down.

Elsewhere, Ms McBride trades in heartland rock, on the likes of “Radioland” and “El Dorado” – to the point that I wonder if Mr Springsteen has heard the latter, which reminds me of nothing so much as “Dancing in the Dark”.

Meanwhile there are more country sounding songs, such as “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega”, “Home Sweet Highway”, and instant classic “Tired of Being Happy”, all of which foreground the witty, self-deprecating lyrics that make country great.

black-berry-smoke-2018Finally, I was prompted to check out Blackberry Smoke by their collaboration with Amanda Shires on the track “Let Me Down Easy” on their new album Find a Light. With their classic guitars-drums-keys line-up, they’re classified under Rock, but if iTunes had a category for Southern Rock, this would be it. Lead vocalist Charlie Starr sounds like a slightly improved Ronnie Van Zandt, and the sound sits somewhere between Skynyrd (with fewer extended solos) and the Allmans (with few extended solos). “Flesh and Bone” isn’t the strongest album opening, but the next track, “Run Away from It All” kicks off the record properly, with driving guitars and heavy hits on the drums. Occasionally, as on “Medicate My Mind” and the aforementioned “Let Me Down Easy”, they pull out the acoustic guitars and sound more like Country Rock. They’re not reinventing the wheel, but sound like what they are: a road-hardened, hard working rock band. And given that I recently filled my Phone’s playlist with the first five Lynyrd Skynyrd albums, Blackberry Smoke certainly fit fit right into my life at the moment.

 

CMA Awards: state of the union

simpsons-milestones

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Finally got a chance to watch the highlights of this year’s CMA Awards, which took place about a month ago, a few days before The Cataclysm. Although the 90-minute edit I watched was mainly of performances, it’s still a good opportunity to read the chicken entrails of the music industry, as is traditional on this blog.

I’ve been watching the CMAs for 25 years now, so for about half it’s 50-year run. This year was the meaningless milestone featuring a 5 and a 0, so there was a deal more wallowing in nostalgia than usual — which is saying something, where country music is concerned.

Invented by radio, featuring something that was – even in the 1920s – characterised as ‘old time’ music, country has always-already been a nostalgic genre, its history peppered with emblematic crises. As early as the 1950s, the so-called Nashville Sound was an attempt to protect the genre by providing slick, commercialised competition for the burgeoning pop and rock genres. In the 1970s, the Outlaws provided a more ‘authentic’ alternative to the slick Countrypolitan sound. In the 1980s, the ‘Neotraditionalists’ claimed their own version of the elusive ‘authenticity’ for a new generation. And so it goes, into the alt.country era, and the Americana movement.

What the CMA Awards show represents, every year, is a compass pointing in the direction the industry is heading. Around 2013 and 2014, I almost gave up on the genre, because there were too many mullets and baseball caps, driven by the Bro Country movement, and too many songs about blue jeans, beer, and pickup trucks on dirt roads. In the background, women were struggling to get airplay on the radio, which meant they were struggling to get marketing push, and the UK iTunes store was a stagnant swamp of cardboard cutouts catering to a lowest common denominator of drunken galoots in football stadia.

Last year’s show, with the astonishing performances of Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake, and the shock board-sweeping win for Stapleton and his album Traveller was the break we needed. Stapleton had received virtually zero airplay or record company support, and yet the buzz around the album was such that, by November, the night was his. Stapleton himself, with his mountain man beard, his bulky frame, and crushed-looking hat, is the antidote to the baseball capped pretty boys.

So to 2016, the year America elected a fascist. What gives in country music? The 50th anniversary show featured a high number of medleys, and as well as the nostalgia, tributes to the likes of Merle Haggard, who has departed this world, and Dolly Parton, who has not.

What interested me this year was a feeling of pulling up the drawbridge and bringing into the fold exemplified by the presence of artists who are rarely (if ever) seen at this most Establishment of award ceremonies. Garth Brooks, for example, was front and centre (and won Entertainer of the Year) in a way that I’ve never seen – even in his heyday. When he was breaking all the records for album sales back in the 90s, he was too big for the CMAs. Later on, he was too retired. Now he’s back, along with Trisha Yearwood, who has also rarely been seen at the show. One of the medleys featured Dwight Yoakam, who has never been a Nashville guy; and Clint Black, who was a staple of the show in the early 90s, but hasn’t been seen in the Brad Paisley/Carrie Underwood era. Even Randy Travis, who was big in the 80s and 90s, but whose career (and health) nosedived, was back on the stage, still evidently recovering from his stroke, but able to sing the single word, ‘Amen.’ And then out came none other than Taylor Swift…

But the enfolding of the outcasts and outlaws was nowhere more evident than in the performance of the Dixie Chicks (with Beyoncé). The Dixie Chicks were banned from most country radio and ostracised by many of their peers after they dared to express dissent about George W Bush. It has been over 10 years, but they seem to be back in favour and back on tour. (I’m still bitter, however, that they haven’t put out any new music since 2006.)

The Chicks and Beyoncé was supposed to be this year’s Stapleton/Tiberlake, but it didn’t quite work for me – largely because they still haven’t got anything new to sing, but also because it seemed over-rehearsed and backy tracky. The beauty of last year’s S/T pairing was the improvisational musicianship and the glorious spontaneity. Still, it was probably the most controversial part of the show, due to the inevitable outpouring of hate on social media.

Apart from that enfolding atmosphere, the semiotics of this year’s show were fascinating. I didn’t see a single baseball cap (loud cheers), but there were lots of cowboy hats. Luke Bryan still got a look-in, but appeared capless and extremely lightweight compared to just about every performance on the night. Eric Church was also capless, though still insisted on wearing his mirrored sunglasses – so I will not be buying his album. Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood took on a medley of costumes from across the eras (Paisley included at least one hilarious mullet wig), and there were fewer people exiled to performing on little stages at the back of the crowd.

My favourite moment, for sheer class, was when Garth Brooks was announced as the winner of Entertainer of the Year. He went to hug each of the other nominees in turn before taking the stage in what seemed to be a genuine show of love and respect. As far as performances went, the best this year was Keith Urban, who performed ‘Blue Ain’t Your Colour’, a nice follow-up to last year’s ‘John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16’.

So the trend is back to the hats, and Don’t Mention The Apocalypse.

12 Downloads for this summer

cover400x400Ahead of the epic car journeys of the summer, I like to stock up on new music. For recommendations, I turn to the Rolling Stone Country account and their regular lists of artists to check out.

That’s not the only way I find new music, but it’s a fairly reliable barometer in the absence of the UK iTunes store doing anything to update itself. Anyway, here are my recent adds.

  1. Donovan Woods – Hard Settle, Ain’t Troubled. Got this because of his song “Portland, Maine”, covered by Tim McGraw. He’s a great songwriter with a voice that doesn’t match his face. Sounds are Americana-standard, acoustic in the main.
  2. Amanda Shires – Carrying Lightning. Discovering new music on iTunes is hard, partly because of the problem of categories. They have a Country section (not regularly updated) and a Singer/Songwriter section, but there is no Americana (or alt-country) and no Folk or Folk-Rock. There is plenty of music that would fit in either of these categories. Anyway, Amanda Shires Isbell (married to the similarly hard-to-discover Jason Isbell) kind of sways between Country-Americana and Singer-Songwriter. Pretty good.
  3. Keith Urban – Ripcord. Keith Urban has  made a reappearance on UK iTunes after a gap where several albums weren’t even given a UK release. This one is fairly standard: rock-pop/country with some decent guitar. His voice is limited: with the right song, it’s perfectly fine, but when he strains for those emotions he sometimes seems, well, strained. The standout track on this is “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” which is a hooky little number on which Urban plays lead bass.* I can’t stop playing it
  4. William Bell – This is Where I Live. This was a Twitter recommendation. A radio producer I follow got an early listen of this (it’s not properly out yet) and named it the album of the year. You can get three tracks now, and the rest should drop by the end of the week. It’s a soul record in the classic style, a throwback to 60s song values with 2016 production values. This is the one I’d be slipping into playlists and mixtapes if I still did that sort of thing, ahem.
  5. Brandy Clark – Big Day in a Small Town. The best songwriter of the “class of 2013”, Brandy Clark’s follow up to 12 Stories is bigger in every way. This new outing features some powerful songs, including the jaw-dropping “Daughter”, which basically wishes a daughter upon a cheating, lying male in the name of karma: so he can watch her get her heart broken by men like him. You think you’ve heard it all, and then this. Essential listening.
  6. Imogen Clark – Love and Lovely Lies. Another hard-to-discover artist. This one I came across when she guested on a podcast (My Favourite Album). At just 8 tracks and 35 minutes, this album is a proper throwback to the golden age of albums, when they were almost all about this long. Another artist with a strong voice and punch-packing songs, don’t be fooled by her appearance into thinking this is going to be some kind of folky background muzak.
  7. Larkin Poe – Reskinned. The Lovell sisters seem determined to leave their folk-country roots behind them. So much so, that they’ve remixed and revamped their album Kin, changing some of the tracks and giving the whole thing a harder, rock-stomping edge. If you follow them on Twitter or Facebook you’ll know that they’re both shredding like mad these days and Rebecca has started playing a Strat through a Big Muff distortion pedal. Talk about trying to reposition yourself in the market: unfortunately, these brilliant 20-something musicians will still find themselves staring at an audience of grizzled, balding 50-somethings, because those are the people who go to (non-festival/arena) gigs.
  8. Frankie Ballard – El Rio. Frankie Ballard’s latest is a real step up in quality from his previous release (2014’s Sunshine and Whiskey). The songwriting is better, and his gravelly but versatile voice is the one Keith Urban wishes he had. You can hear the influence of Bob Seger on the whole record (plus there’s a cover of “You’ll Accompn’y Me”). This is a really enjoyable album packed full of decent songs, like “El Camino”, “L.A. Woman” and “It All Started With a Beer”. Great for a road trip.
  9. Smithfield – Smithfield. This is on Rolling Stone’s July list. Another 8-tracker, these guys are like the new Sugarland or something, which, in the absence of Sugarland, will do.
  10. Anthony D’Amato – Cold Snap. Another one from the RS list, I’ve only played this through once but like it a lot. (Almost) like Frankie Ballard, this is country rock via the Jersey Shore. Where Ballard takes his influence from Detroit (Seger), you can hear Springsteen here, but also Ryan Adams, and Tom Petty references, if you like that sort of thing – and who doesn’t?
  11. Sarah Shook and the Disarmers – Sidelong. Another RS recommendation, this feels more like a punt for me. I’m thinking this is cowpunk, in the vein of Lone Justice. With songs titled “Dwight Yoakam” and “Fuck Up,” this can’t be wrong, can it?
  12. Lucie Silvas – Letters to Ghosts. Finally, this is a British-born, New Zealand-raised country artist who has (for whatever reason) waited years between album releases. Again, I’ve barely listened to this, but the title track is excellent, and it finishes with a spooky cover of Roy Orbison’s “You Got It”, which shows good taste, if nothing else.

*For non-religionists, like me, I looked it up. This verse is the one that basically summarises the new testament in a line: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

 

Downloads of the Year, 2015 – music edition

300x300It has been a decent year for music, if not a vintage year. My one ongoing bugbear has been the lack of new product from many of my favourite female artists. It was an ‘off’ year for those still working, like Tift Merritt, Sara Evans, Martina McBride, Taylor Swift, Larkin Poe; and there was still no sign of anything from Faith Hill, the Dixie Chicks – and Trisha Yearwood has hidden her stuff away behind an ‘alternative’ non-iTunes service, and I just can’t be bothered to seek it out. As ever, I’m reluctant to sign up for yet another retailer who will bombard me with emails for my special valentine or dead relatives.

So it’s a male-heavy list you’re about to see, but not through any choice of mine. If there’s a story to this year it was the appearance of good music from people you’d long since have written off as retired or semi-retired. As with other years, it’s also the case that not everything I downloaded in 2015 dated from then. I recently discovered the Lo-Fi album, for example, which came out last year; and Jason Isbell’s earlier Southeastern came out in 2013.

10. Angels and Alcohol – Alan Jackson

Although this is not particularly memorable, and vied for 10th place alongside the not particularly memorable new one from Tim McGraw, I don’t think Alan Jackson can be faulted. His is a calculated sameness: each releases slotting in alongside the others, with similar production values, similar musicianship. A year down the line, you’ll be hard pushed to remember which album a particular track came from. His records still sound quieter than everyone else’s because he refuses to play the loudness game. Ten songs, a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Nothing to make you jump out of your car seat, but it sounds good. Three to download: You Can Always Come Home, Gone Before You Met Me, Angels and Alcohol.

darlene-love---introducing-darlene-love-cover-art_sq-9372c2dbe6e8d67cf27d39408a50d23597c2d8f1-s300-c859. Introducing Darlene Love – Darlene Love

I reviewed this not long ago. Produced by Steven Van Zandt, with songs by him, Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, and others, this is a throwback in more ways than one. It’s a throwback to the Wall of Sound and Love’s belting vocals; it’s a throwback to the 70s, when Springsteen was a songwriter whose prolific writing was too much for his own needs, and so his songs would turn up performed by Robert Gordon, The Pointer Sisters, Southside Johnny, Patti Smith. This is a Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes album with guest vocals from the criminally overlooked Darlene Love, in the spotlight at last. Three to download: Forbidden Nights; Night Closing In; Just Another Lonely Mile.

1035x1035-ryanadams19898. 1989 – Ryan Adams

The bold stroke of recording the entirety of Taylor Swift’s recent 1989 garnered lots of column inches, but once the furore died down, was this album any good? Yes. Swift is a great songwriter, and while Adams is a limited performer in terms of his range and the speed at which he works (you can’t help thinking there might be some more creative arrangements here, given more time and a good producer), this is still one of the albums of the year. Three Four to download: Welcome to New York; Blank Space; Style; Out of the Woods.

7. Southern Gravity – Kristian Bush

How long before an ‘hiatus’ becomes a permanent split? Thinking of the recent events in Paris at the Bataclan, you can imagine how traumatic events might take their toll. When several ‘VIP’ fans were killed at a Sugarland concert in 2011, it probably didn’t occur to many (concerned as they would have been with the victims and their families) to consider the toll on the band themselves. To feel any sort of responsibility for those tragic deaths must be hard. Maybe it is better for them to record apart? I thought at first that Jennifer Nettles’ baby and solo album would be it, matched with this outing from the prolific Kristian Bush. But now Nettles is in the release cycle of another solo set (first single just out). Just as the Courtyard Hounds once seemed to be a side project from the Dixie Chicks, it seems the Sugarlanders are now solo artists. This is a fine set, and certainly had a good summer vibe in the middle of the year. Bush is a good egg, too, and you can feel that through all these tracks. A Decent record from a decent human being. Three to download: House on a Beach; Giving it Up; Southern Gravity.

kacey-musgraves-pageant-material-2015-billboard-650x6506. Pageant Material – Kacey Musgraves

I’ll say what I said before: I really like Kacey Musgraves. I like her vibe, her approach to music, and even tolerate her taste for kitsch and the Nudie-suited side of country music. She is a rhinestone cowgirl, through and through, with her own line in boots. After her well received debut, this is another solid set, though it doesn’t advance much in terms of sound or sophistication. But I can hardly criticise her for that when I praised Alan Jackson for taking the same approach. If you liked her first record, you’ll like this. Or start here, go backwards. She’s a Radio 2-friendly, globally oriented country artist who works hard and is reaping the rewards. (Some country artists don’t translate because their redneck anthems about trucks, beer, and girls, conceals a basic bigot.) Three to download: High Time; Pageant Material; Good Ol’ Boys Club

f9h3_CCcoversmall_15. Cass County – Don Henley

Again, I reviewed this recently. I was completely unprepared to like this as much as I did. I’m a lukewarm Eagles listener at best. Never particularly liked their dry production sound or their 96-part harmonies (joke), but the occasional track breaks through: usually one with Henley on lead vocals. This is a great country album: feeling as effortless as you’d expect from a consummate artist like Henley, and with a surprisingly hip selection of songs, including a Tift Merritt track: and I do hope she’s making shedloads of money off the back of it. Three to download: Bramble Rose; No, Thank You; Take a Picture of This.

4. Second Hand Heart – Dwight Yoakam

This feels like a blast from the past: but it was only released in April. Recorded in LA, using the legendary Capitol Records echo chambers for reverb, this set sounds both contemporary and retro. Yoakam sounds ageless, still doing his thing and doing it well. Like Alan Jackson, he knows his sound and he knows his audience. All of which adds up, I think, to timeless music – which is precisely what Alan Jackson and Dwight Yoakam are aiming for. It’s that sense of timelessness that makes great country music great. He went through a few years in the doldrums, but looking back, I’d say his most recent releases are better in almost every way than even his early Pete Anderson-produced albums. He’s a better songwriter, a better guitarist, and a better producer. Three to download: V’s of Birds; Dreams of Clay; Second Hand Heart.

jason-isbell-something-more-than-free-560x560-560x5603. Something More Than Free – Jason Isbell

Isbell is one of the artists who is breaking through in spite of being completely ignored by US radio. He’s been on telly, though, and it’s odd to think that you’re more likely to catch good music on a mainstream talk show than on a specialist radio station. His brand of country-folk-rock is low key but appealing to a broad audience. Thoughtful, if gloomy, lyrics, good production, and a vocal that wanders between plaintive and indifferent, in tune with contemporary attitudes. A Ryan Adams who takes a bit longer between records, who takes more time over production? Maybe that’s it. Three to download: If It Takes a Lifetime; 24 Frames; Something More Than Free.

chris_stapleton_cover_sq-c95dfdd7b91189234fb82aeac25260ccfc908efb-s300-c852. Traveller – Chris Stapleton

Yes, it’s here. Many column inches and stroked chins after his triumphant night at the CMA awards, but before that? Flying so low under the radar he was basically underground, Stapleton’s album garnered good reviews and zero airplay. The ‘tastemakers’ in radio, like Jon Snow, know nothing. Why not? Because they’re not tastemakers but corporate shills, playing what the conglomerates want them to play. Payola never really went away, did it? And the conglomerate behind Stapleton’s radio decided that he wasn’t pretty enough for radio? Or something. It’s hard to get your head around the logic. Established songwriter with an incredible singing voice; record company gives him a deal, records and releases an album, and then – nothing. It’s as if they wanted it to fail, so they could all agree that scruffy-looking male vocalists with beards just don’t belong in the modern music industry. Anyway, here it is, the almost-album-of-the-year. Three Four to download: Tennessee Whiskey; Traveller; Fire Away; When the Stars Come Out

On To Something Good – Ashley Monroe

Inevitable, I suppose, given how much I played this both before and after it came out, that this would be my pick of the year. Another Vince Gill-produced mini masterpiece. The slickness of this production may not appeal to everyone (especially those who come to country for ‘authenticity’), but this sounded so good to my ears that it became my go-to album for testing out wireless speakers in shops (something of an obsession). Because of the beautiful sound mix and the smooth, rolling rhythm section on the title track in particular, I just love hearing this played through a decent set of speakers. Since my oldest was a toddler I’ve actually not had anything resembling a hi-fi in my house, and as she approaches that time when she’ll actually be leaving home, I’m becoming more and more obsessed with having something to play music on. This summer, you could find me in Fnac, trying out rows of Bluetooth speakers at various sizes and price points*, playing the title track from this. This album in particular fuelled that obsession. I want to play it, and because it sounds so good it feels wrong to play it on a shitty speaker, or even through headphones. Three Four to download: On To Something Good; Weight of the Load; If Love Was Fair; The Blade.

  • The best? I think probably the Marshall Action comes a close second to the Nad Viso. But that may be because I’ve got a soft spot for the Nad brand, it having been my late lamented hi-fi, semi-destroyed by my daughter and sold on.

(I have a set of Wharfdale Diamond speakers in the loft, bought a good ten years ago and only ever used for a few months when I was first experimenting with music technology/recording and my current plan is to get a bluetooth-equipped amp to pair with them, but the cost would be the same as for the Marshall or the Nad, so no diff.)

Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake at the CMAs

I bought the Chris Stapleton album in the summer, after reading Grady Smith’s column in the Guardian. (Grady Smith is a far better source for news about good new music than the pathetic iTunes Country section.)

It is a great album, well-deserving of its Album of the Year prize, and veteran songwriter Stapleton must feel some irony at being awarded the New Artist prize in addition to the well-deserved Male Vocalist prize. He fairly swept the board this year, which I think is a hopeful sign, given the terrible trend towards what has come to be called Bro Country in the past couple of years.

Here comes the backlash, as Nashville’s love of great songs reasserts itself. Not only did Little Big Town win Song/Single of the year for “Girl Crush” (a clear signal to country radio programmers that they’re getting things wrong), but Chris Stapleton has won three prestigious awards based on zero airplay on country radio. Zero. At this point, nobody is thinking radio programmers are doing a good job.

In a stroke of co-marketing genius, Stapleton performed two songs with Justin Timberlake at this week’s CMA Awards. Whereas other guest appearances by pop/R&B artists have fallen very flat in the past, the multi-syllabic Timberlake/Stapleton pairing was a true musical event. I know almost nothing about Mr Timberlake, aside from the fact that the guy’s a decent actor as well as a musician. I know enough not to muddle him up with that other Justin.

Timberlake’s from Memphis, and Chris Stapleton’s album edges more towards Blues than country, especially given his gruff-but-flexible voice. As you can see from the video above, both artists can sing, both can control their melisma and both were thoroughly enjoying themselves. I’ve watched it several times now, and I still think it’s the most exciting performance I’ve seen in a really long time. I think you can tell that everybody on the stage and everybody in the audience was aware that everything was falling perfectly into place. It’s not often that something that’s kind of hyped in advance can live up to expectations, but I think this performance exceeds all expectations. I don’t think anybody could have believed it would be this good.

As impressed as I was by their performance, you could tell how special it was by seeing the reaction of the old pros in the audience. Look at the expression on Keith Urban’s face as he records some of the performance on his smartphone. Look at the other artists who are not only digging it, but clearly wishing they could be on the stage. There’s even a shot of what looks like a Music Row executive (?) with a diabolical fixed grin on his face. You could almost see the $ signs revolving in his eyes.

The full 8-minutes has received over 3.5 million views on the official ABC channel (notwithstanding ropy over-compressed audio – the two separate videos I’ve posted here have better sound), and Stapleton has hit #1 in the iTunes chart: again, with zero support from country radio.

Traveller isn’t my personal favourite album of the year, but it’s wonderful that the shaggy-beared scruffy songwriter is up there taking the spotlight away from the bros. And as for a putative “country” outing from Mr Timberlake, I think I might give it a listen.

Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material // Ashley Monroe – The Blade

kacey-musgraves-pageant-material-2015-billboard-650x650I’m not entirely sure, but I can’t help thinking Kacey Musgraves has gone a  bit Lynyrd Skynyrd. Not in terms of sound – that’s simply an evolution of what it was before – but in terms of what she sings about.

You know the story of Lynyrd Skynyrd: excellent first album (Pronounced), including the jukebox favourite ‘Freebird’ as well as instant classics such as ‘Tuesday’s Gone’ and ‘Gimme Three Steps’. And they kept releasing and touring and touring until the only things in their lives were the record label and the never-ending tour. So eventually all of their songs seemed to be about the record label and being on the road. And then half of them died in a plane crash.

This is Kacey Musgraves’ second album, but already I’m getting a strong impression that the things she’s got to write about these days include standing or sitting around at awards ceremonies – an indication, perhaps, of what a whirlwind of success (and near-misses) she has been swept along by over the past year.

So how good was that first album? I think it was pretty good. My daughter liked it more than me. I thought the stripped back sound was fairly pleasant, but a whole album’s worth of it wore a bit thin. The hit single ‘Follow Your Arrow’ was very good, but got a little over-exposed, in much the same way that Little Big Town’s ‘Girl Crush’ has.

At the time, I was listening a lot to both to Same Trailer, Different Park, and Ashley Monroe’s Like a Rose, which I preferred. You don’t have to either/or this, of course, you can have and like both, and I did. But I did think that some of the attention lavished on Kacey Musgraves might have also been directed towards Ms Monroe. Not to take anything away from Kacey Musgraves, but Monroe songs like ‘Weed Instead of Roses’ and ‘She’s Driving Me Out of Your Mind’ deserved the kind of attention that ‘Follow Your Arrow’ was getting.

And here we are again, a couple of years later, and once again the release dates are somewhat clashing.

First up and already out is the new one From Ms Musgraves, Pageant Material, which is a 14 song collection that moves us along slightly in terms of sound, and a little bit in terms of song quality. It’s unfortunate that the lead single ‘Biscuits’ was so similar to ‘Arrow’ (Chuck Dauphin called it ‘Follow Your Arrow Pt 2’) – not because it means Musgraves is a limited songwriter but because it’s a clear indication that the record label are putting their heavy, sweaty, interfering hands all over her. You can just imagine the Nashville-like scenes, as she presents them with an excellent selection of original songs and some suit demands to know where the single is. And by single, he (or she) means, where’s that song that’s exactly the same as that other song you had?

(All of this done in the vacuum of a record label that seemingly doesn’t know that there’s very little fucking chance that a country radio station would play a single by a female artist in the first place.)

To be fair to ‘Biscuits’, it’s a decent song, and has a more interesting structure than ‘Arrow’, particularly in the breakdown/middle 8, which takes the song in a completely different direction. But another song here that perhaps sounds too familiar is ‘Family’, which if you told me it was a cut held over the first record, I’d believe you.

The opener, though, sounds like it might be from the soundtrack of one of those Summer of Love ‘Head’ movies. Lush strings and a song about getting high, which is sort of KM’s stock-in-trade by now. ‘Dime Store Cowgirl’ is her summing up her image and acknowledging she’ll never be properly showbiz. This is kinda what I was talking about with the Lynyrd Skynyrd thing. The title track, too, hints at the idea that she doesn’t feel equipped for being nominated and having to make speeches at awards ceremonies. Again, it has an interesting structure, and she uses the melody to play with the lyrics in a creative way. I really like the title track, in fact.

If you took this album’s attitude back 15 or 20 years, and swapped genders, a lot of this could have come from some kind of new-wave ‘outlaw’ like Travis Tritt. While Tritt wouldn’t have sung about pageants, there’s a similar outlook here, a kicking-against-the-pricks attitude. Of course, in the case of the modern country music industry, the pricks she’s kicking against are the good ol’ boys who dominate the charts at the moment with their songs about trucks and beer – all of them owing a debt to Travis Tritt and other country new-wavers. ‘I don’t want to be part of / Your good ol’ boy’s club’, sings Musgraves, displaying a confident middle finger to the mainstream country media, which has collectively decided to try to ignore women.

If you liked or loved the first album, you’ll surely like this, and if you appreciate good songwriting you should too. The songs can sound deceptively straightforward, but she hits you between the eyes sometimes with extraordinary lyrical flights that remind me of that other clever songwriter, Taylor Swift. Lacey Musgraves is far removed from Ms Swift in terms of genre, but has a similar intellect.

Which brings me onto The Blade, Ashley Monroe’s forthcoming follow-up to Like A Rose. This isn’t out till July(?), but because of the modern way of releasing music, I’ve already got four tracks, which is enough for me to declare a judgement. Monroe’s sound is less stripped-back than KM’s, and her voice (objectively) has a better tone and more range. This album, like her previous, is co-produced by Vince Gill, who sees her as a natural successor to Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn.

The opening track and lead single, ‘On To Something Good’ is a rolling country-soul instant classic. Go ahead, play the video above. I’ll wait. It has the kind of instant appeal of ‘Take Hold of My Hand’, the opening cut on Dwight Yoakam’s 3 Pears. It really is a fabulous sounding track.

There’s also a version of a song previously recorded by Matraca Berg: ‘I Buried Your Love Alive’, which gives that song the more powerful impact it deserves.

The title track, on the other hand, has a completely different feel: a slow ballad with pedal steel guitar it’s an emotionally intense break-up song.

I let your love in, I have the scar

I felt the razor against my heart

I thought we were both in all the way

But you caught it by the handle

And I caught it by the blade.

Lyrics like this are why I love country music.

The Blade sounds like (it’s going to be) a more mainstream country offering than Pageant Material, which is why Kacey Musgraves has a better chance of appealing to a cross-over audience than Ashley Monroe does. But there should be no such thing as an if you only buy one country album this year… Get both.

(I might update when I get hold of the rest of The Blade – but it’s worth pre-ordering on the strength of the first four tracks alone.)