Jag

I’m on a bit of a Tim McGraw jag at the moment. I don’t know why. Those smooth sounds, maybe, that vocal sound, which is not so much autotuned as excitered into the fifth dimension.

His recent album Damn Country Music is much of a muchness with his other output of late, and no particular song jumps out at me right now, but it’s the sheer consistency that gets you in the end. Alan Jackson dependably puts out a decent album every year, as does Brad Paisley. That’s one of the joys of country music: its slow-changing nature, and the high quality of the top acts. If you like it, you go on liking it, more or less.

Thing with McGraw, he doesn’t write for himself, so is dependent on the roster of songwriters who supply him with material. Now, this is where a career can slide. Both Jackson and Paisley co-write a lot of their own songs. Tim McGraw stays on top by staying on top. As long as he’s on top, he gets the cream of the crop. All the songwriters make more money that way. Garth Brooks used to ‘do an Elvis’ by having his name attached to songs brought to him by others (I guess he may have contributed a line or two?). Other artists fall by the wayside, and stop getting first pick of the best songs from the song pluggers. And life is getting harder for songwriters, I think, because of the recent rise of singer-songwriter artists, which didn’t use to be so much of a thing.

Songwriting has long been associated with pairs of writers, but I’ve noticed a trend in recent years for the traditional two-way co-writes to become three- or even four-ways. In an industry that claims to be suffering from the rise of streaming and the loss of physical sales, it seems that the sure-thing income from artists like Tim McGraw is being spread ever-more thinly. One name you’ll see all over Damn Country Music and other recent McGraw albums is Rodney Clawson, who gets a co-writing credit on no less than five of the 14 songs on the Deluxe edition. It’s interesting to see the roster of artists that Clawson has written for – the likes of Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Lady A, Blake Shelton, FGL, and so on, all of whom are country chart-topping and award-winning acts. But very few of their fans would be aware of the behind-the-scenes contribution of Clawson.

Meanwhile, a writer like Chris Stapleton, who wrote hits for many of the same artists (including ‘Whiskey and You’ for Tim McGraw) has taken his ball home, in a sense, because he’s now a solo recording artist. The breakthrough success of his album means that he’ll likely be reserving his songs for his next outing.

I think the remarkable thing about Tim McGraw is that, since he established his mature sound about 14 years ago (with his …and the Dancehall Doctors album), his records really go on improving with age. I still love ‘She’s My Kind of Rain’ from that album, among others, and still have several favourites from each subsequent record in my playlist.

liked his 2014 album Sundown Heaven Town when it came out, but 18 months on, I truly love it. You don’t get this from standard album reviews: everyone is in a rush to get the review online, but it’s rare for anybody to come back a year and a half later and tell you that it’s not only good, but gets better with age.

‘City Lights’, ‘Shotgun Rider’, ‘Sick of Me’, ‘Portland, Maine,’ ‘Diamond Rings and Old Barstools’ – all superb. I even like ‘Keep On Truckin’, which I ought to hate but don’t.

Anyway, this all means that his latest, Damn Country Music, will probably hit me hard sometime in late 2017. Meanwhile, I’ve got a 4-hour 48-minute McGraw playlist.

 

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Sing about death much, Tim?

“If I died today, who’d turn off my coffee pot?”

“I guess I really should have seen it coming, I’ll always died by my own hand.”

“And he said someday I hope you get the chance, to live like you were dying’.”

“This is not some kind of cry for help, Just good bye I wish you well… Because I love you, I’m gonna kill myself.”

Song Crush

A number of songs are on heavy rotation in my head at the moment. In no particular order:

Setting aside the album, which I’m still not 100% sold on, the standout track on Little Big Town’s Pain Killer is “Girl Crush”, which is the best Karen Fairchild vocal since “Shut Up Train.”

Tim McGraw’s most recent album Sundown Heaven Town is only slowly impinging on my awareness, as tracks from it occasionally come on in the car. This one struck me immediately, though. In terms of musical arrangement, it’s standard Tim McGraw fare, but I like the lyric, about a ‘small town guy’ who gets his chance with a girl he knows he can never keep, one destined for bigger and brighter things. There’s a trend for these types of songs at the moment (Keith Urban’s “Cop Car” is another), in which a man sits back in hopeless admiration for a woman who is going places.

She’s like a broken heart you can’t wait to have

A shooting star that falls too fast

Try holding on it’s already gone

Great song. Don’t like his trousers though.

Like many others, I was watching an episode of Forever, and this (obscure? excuse ignorance) one was on the soundtrack. “Search Your Heart” by Rudolph Taylor, a Memphis artist who only appears to have ever released one single (not this one). One has to commend the music researchers for that particular TV programme.

I’ve also been listening to music I’ve had in my life for a long time, including this cut from The Band’s Last Waltz, featuring Van Morrison singing “Caravan”. In his own live shows, Morrison tended to do this one longer, with a slower tempo and more improvisation. Not a bad thing, but it often turned into the “introduce the band” song, which often spoils a classic. In this Last Waltz version, the tempo is high (but not too high). Director Scorsese seems only to have had film in two cameras, so all the angles aren’t there, so you don’t see Garth or Levon. I love Robbie’s guitar tone on this. Morrison doesn’t get to control The Band in quite the same way as he does on his own live shows. I think he really checked his ego at the door. Anyway, turn up your raddio.

Mystic Pinball came out in 2012, and this particular number, “I Just Don’t Know What to Say” is John Hiatt at his best: melodic, relaxed, groovy, heartbreaking. Top track.

Finally, can’t finish a post about music I’m currently listening to without these two. Larkin Poe’s ‘social media rabbit hole’ can keep you occupied for hours. The regular postings on their YouTube channel are an absolute treat. Here’s their cover of what we all know as a Nancy Sinatra track. I remember it from its first go around, but younger readers may know it from the soundtrack of Kill Bill. ‘Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).’

My Top 30 Music Downloads of 2013

The album is dead, so let’s not pretend we can save it by making end-of-year lists.

Here’s a list of my favourite tracks from the various downloads I’ve perpetrated this year. I’ve gone for a top 30. I came up with the list by creating a smart play list with the Year set to 2013 and the rating set to 5 stars. Five stars is the rating reserved for tracks that make it onto my iPhone, as opposed to the 4- and 5-star tracks that get onto the iPod.

I’ve listed them as follows: Track Title – Artist – Album (or single). I’ll add more links when I have time. (All links lead to YouTube, unless otherwise stated)

Irritating Country Songs: Truck No

Austin (song)

Nice mullet, Blake (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Older readers will be aware that I love country music, but every now and then an artist I like will include a song that is truly irritating, horrible, and even nasty.

Step forward Blake Shelton, who panders to the kind of right-wing ignoramus who dismisses environmental concerns whilst spouting the kind of self-delusional twaddle exemplified by the song “Green” on his album Startin’ Fires.

Sheets on the clothes line drying
Red Tail hawks a flying
A couple of deer on the timber line
And I know a lot more about cane pole fishing
then I ever will know about carbon emission
And my little corner of the world is doing just fine

I’ve got a hundred acre farm
I’ve got a john deere in my barn
I’ve got a garden in my yard, full of corn, peas and beans
I’ve got a guitar I play unplugged
I’ve got a home-grown girl I love,
And when the summer time hits, we skinny dip in the stream
I was green before green was a thing

The line that really grates (apart from the refrain, to which the response is, no, you’re not green, you twat), is the “my little corner of the world is doing just fine,” which causes the red mist to descend. Yeah, so people are getting flooded out all over, and starving in famine zones and spring doesn’t seem to exist any more, but I’m doing all right.

Fuck off.

Next exhibit, “Real Man” by Kristina Cornell, from her album It’s a Girl Thing

I ain’t looking for no one night stand
A bar fly slipping his ring off his hand
A metrosexual
Intellectual
Sensitive new aged guy

I’m looking for a real man
Looking for a rock
I can hold on to
Someone with a strong hand
And I ain’t gonna stop
‘Til I find him

Yeah, thanks for setting back the 100-year struggle for women’s equality, and the notion that men should be anything other than lumbering hairy troglodytes. Intellectual men not required? Fuck you.

Now we turn to a hideous glorification of pointless binge drinking in Lee Bryce’s “Parking Lot Party”, on his album Hard 2 Love, which also features a hideous titling substitution of the number 2 for the word to, which is indeed hard to love.

At the parking lot party
A tailgate buzz just a sipping’ on suds
Ain’t never too early
To light one up, fill up your cup
Cause there ain’t no party like the pre-party
and after the party is the after-party
At the parking lot party

First of all, just imagine the scene. You’re in a fucking car park with a crowd of sports fans or something, and you’re getting drunk before you go in, so you can get more drunk inside and then even more drunk afterwards. And then drive home? Since most human beings don’t need more than an hour to get completely shit-faced, I just can’t imagine the horror that would ensue from this level of bingeing. Vomit-strewn parking bays and a really bad headache are a certainty, but misery for anyone within earshot is also probable. Jesus wept.

There are more, but the final entry for today has to be Tim McGraw‘s “Truck Yeah”, from his recent release Two Lanes of Freedom.

Let me hear you say, Truck Yeah
Wanna get it jacked up yeah
Let’s crank it on up yeah
With a little bit of luck I can find me a girl with a Truck Yeah
We can love it on up yeah
‘Til the sun comes up yeah
And if you think this life I love is a little too country
Truck Yeah

For fuck’s sake. First of all, the notion of a truck: fuck off with that. Nobody needs one of those who isn’t an actual farmer with actual livestock. Nobody wants to hear your music either, so turn it down. And it appears to me that we’re either at a monster truck rally or at some kind of sporting event where we are, once again, drinking too much and making a nuisance of ourselves.

See, people found Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist” offensive for some reason, but this is the kind of stuff that gives me the rage.

Tim McGraw’s Two Lanes of Freedom and Brad Paisley’s Wheelhouse: what’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?

Two-Lanes-of-FreedomTwo Lanes of Freedom

Tim McGraw‘s first album was released 20 years ago. It was 30 minutes long and didn’t trouble the charts, either here or in the USA.

What a difference a year (and a hit single) makes: in 1994, his second album, Not a Moment Too Soon was 32 minutes long and featured the monster hit “Indian Outlaw”. While this song seemed to have the novelty value of something like “Achy Breaky Heart” from 1992, McGraw himself was no novelty act. He released #1 albums in 1995, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2007, 2009, 2012, and now this. Ironically, one of his best albums, Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors, released in 2002, languished at #2 in the charts.

While Two Lanes of Freedom continues this run of success, it is nevertheless an incredible contrast to that first #1 in 1994. The iTunes Deluxe version is one hour and three minutes long, with five more tracks than was typical of a country album in the 1980s and 1990s. Is this a good thing? Some people measure the quality, others the width. Personally, I’ll always filter out the likes of “Truck Yeah“, a Southern boogie that appeals to the same constituency as Lee Brice’s “Beer” and “Parking Lot Party”. I’m probably in a minority of McGraw fans in that, however. It has already been a hit single and seemed to go down well with the British public at his recent O2 show.

What does McGraw bring? Great melodies, a smooth voice with a bit of bite, and a modern production sensibility that includes hints of vocal excitation (even actual autotune?) and lots of collaborations with hip hop artists and others on the pop side of pop. I’ve always felt McGraw’s brand of country was closely related to Southern Rock, and there’s very little not to like for fans of melody and good songwriting. He builds his albums to a formula: party songs, leavin’ songs, dyin’ songs, songs about family, songs about music.

First four tracks here are excellent: title track, “One of These Nights”, “Friend of a Friend”, and “Southern Girl”, which features a bit of vocoder. Then there’s the horrible “Truck Yeah” (which also appears, live, as an extra track), and “Nashville Without You”, which is about country music in the same way as Brad Paisley‘s “This is Country Music” a year or so back – name-checking a lot of the same songs.

One of the best songs on the album is “Book of John” which is about looking through someone’s stuff after they have died – tailor made for McGraw, who has a penchant for confronting death in his music (“Live Like You Were Dying”, “I Kill Myself” etc.). The sentimentality continues with “Annie I Owe You a Dance” (an extra on the Deluxe which recalls the tone of “Everywhere” from a few years ago), an then we get a couple of drinkin’ songs.

“Mexicoma” is yet another in a long line of country songs about going to Mexico to drink too much and forget (see McGraw’s earlier “That’s Why God Invented Mexico”, Brad Paisley’s “Don’t Drink the Water” and Blake Shelton’s “Playboys of the Southwestern World”), but is followed by the cautionary tale of “Number 37405” which is about what happens when you drink and drive.

The mood lifts again for “It’s Your World”  and then McGraw sounds like himself 10 years ago on “Tinted Windows”, which is the second extra on the Deluxe edition (interesting that both extras so far have sounded like they come from an earlier era).

Final track proper brings out the big guns: Keith Urban and Taylor Swift, who started her career with a single called “Tim McGraw”. It’s an event song, ideal for performance on television award shows, it has a great groove but unfortunately Urban’s contribution on guitar isn’t very inspiring, and the coda is a bit of a noisy mush.

Passing swiftly over the extra “Truck Yeah”, we finish with the soulful “Let Me Love it Out of You” which is lovely, and features a gorgeous interlude on Hammond organ and a great guitar solo on the outro.

Brad PaisleyWheelhouse

I almost feel there’s a conversation going on here between McGraw and Brad Paisley, whose first album, Who Needs Pictures was a #13 and 47 minutes long in 1999. Paisley’s first #1 was Mud on the Tires in 2003, and subsequent releases have hit #1 in 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2011.

Whereas McGraw is quite aggressively promoting Southern redneck culture with “Truck Yeah”, Paisley’s approach is more questioning, and is (as of the time of writing) landing him in hot water. In the first single released from Wheelhouse, “Southern Comfort Zone,” Paisley sings, “Not everybody drives a truck, not everybody drinks sweet tea, not everybody owns a gun and wears a ball cap, boots, and jeans…”

Of course, the real conversation Paisley is having (or trying to have) is with the Red State heartland of Country music, which have been more or less apoplectic since the selection of Barack Obama as Democratic Presidential candidate in 2008. Paisley is more “country” than McGraw but has also more of a track record in looking beyond the shores of the USA for his audience. He has always openly discussed gender issues (sometimes for laughs, sometimes in a more serious way), and in “Welcome to the Future” on American Saturday Night, he actually dared to celebrate the election of a black President.

Paisley’s albums are always full of light and shade: proper sentimentality about home, family, childhood etc. side by side with traditional country hoots and songs about goin’ fishin’, drinkin’ and fightin’ and comedy numbers featuring a line-up of special guests which have in the past included William Shatner and here include Eric Idle. All of this is accompanied by Paisley’s quite incredible guitar playing. He’s also got a taste for the sneaky clever song, such as one about taking out fire insurance for a box of expensive cigars and (on Wheelhouse) for getting out of a marriage on the grounds of having technically died for five minutes.

I suspect that he’s been wondering if his core audience even noticed this light and shade and his slightly Hollywood-liberal tendency, because he is being much more explicit on Wheelhouse, duetting with LL Cool J on the controversial “Accidental Racist”, in which he apologises for giving offence by wearing a t-shirt bearing the Confederate flag, explaining that it’s because he’s a Skynyrd fan.

This of course has opened a real can of worms, not least because Skynyrd themselves were often accused of racism, but also because people on the interwebs have decided that Paisley has no right to be saying stuff like this. He’s just now feeling the growing storm and must be wondering if the Twitter mob bearing their pitchforks are going to tar and feather him. It’s a wonder of the Twitter that freedom of speech seems to be such a problem for some people.

I’m pretty sure part of the rage is the same rage that has been directed at Obama since 2008, at the Dixie Chicks since 2003, a simply irrational hatred of anybody who dares to suggest that America might have a problem. As to the song, well, I’m never keen on rap on a country song, whoever is doing it, but I do think that Paisley not only has a right to start this conversation but that his heart is completely in the right place.

Light and shade, as I said, and I think this album needs to be taken as a whole, not isolated down to one track. The Deluxe version is 1.2 hours long and features 21 tracks, including short interludes like the funny Eric Idle piece. There’s a lot going on here, from traditional love songs, to a trendy duet with Mat Kearney (“Pressing on a Bruise”) and a song about an abused woman who fights back. There’s a funny song about a friend getting married, delivered like a eulogy, and as well as “Accidental Racist” there’s a song (“Those Crazy Christians”) which attempts to give a perspective on Christianity to non-believers. If you ask me, I’m more surprised that this one hasn’t caused more of a furore – especially from those who don’t understand irony. Paisley’s very zeitgeisty, too, and includes a song – full of heart – called “Facebook Friends”, which is in the tradition of his songs, “Celebrity” and “Online”.

The fundamental thing about Brad Paisley is that he has no hate inside him. He’s not pounding on the redneck button and trying to appeal to a lowest common denominator. He genuinely wants to reach out to people and spread a little peace, love, and understanding. And what’s wrong with that?

My highlight video of the Country 2 Country Festival

I only thought to film a little bit of the concert once Little Big Town took to the stage, hence the photo sequence for Kristian Bush. I only grabbed about 30 seconds at a time, so this little highlights video is only about 2 1/2 minutes.

Looking at the footage, I wish I’d filmed more. Both picture and sound quality are better than I was expecting from my little Panasonic with its 16X zoom.

Then again, sitting there filming everything is not as much fun as just watching it.

Tim McGraw, Vince Gill, Little Big Town, Kristian Bush: the Country 2 Country Festival at the London O2 Arena

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As we sat waiting for the Country2Country Festival at the O2 Arena to begin, I mentally totted up the country music artists I’ve managed to get to see over the years, on their all-too-infrequent visits to the UK.

Back in the halcyon days of “New Country”, there was a bit of a buzz about the genre – even on this side of the Atlantic. I saw Dwight Yoakam at the Town and Country Club in the mid-1980s, and later saw Steve Earle playing Nottingham’s Rock City. I’ve seen Mary Chapin Carpenter and Trisha Yearwood at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, and Tift Merritt at a variety of places (my last attempt thwarted by an age restriction so we couldn’t take the kids inside the venue). I’ve seen Gretchen Peters, Suzy Bogguss, and Matraca Berg at the Stables in Milton Keynes. Last Year, things got big with Brad Paisley‘s excellent show at the O2, and now we come to The Big One.

Tim McGraw is on a par with Brad Paisley, and as the headline act he was clearly the reason why most of the capacity crowd at the O2 were there. This was a bit of a shame, because it meant that the atmosphere (always a problem at UK country gigs) was a bit subdued for opening act Kristian Bush. Better known as one half of Sugarland, Bush is a superb songwriter who has released a string of hit albums with his Sugarland partner Jennifer Nettles. Taking advantage of Nettles’ absence on maternity leave, Bush was playing his first solo show with a backup band that included sisters Megan and Rebecca Lovell of Larkin Poe.

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 So the venue only appeared to be about half-full when Bush took to the stage. He performed a short set, the highlight of which was his cover of Springsteen’s “Atlantic City”, accompanied throughout by some excellent slide guitar playing from Rebecca Lovell. His new song Love or Money was also great, and has been made available as a free download for festival goers. He struggled to engage the crowd, however, which was a shame. There was plenty of warmth there but in a half-empty venue, you weren’t going to get people on their feet.

Ah, the crowd. I’m beyond expecting anything different, but it truly amazes me that people will spend a fortune on concert tickets and then not turn up until the headline act takes to the stage. Furthermore, like infants, they seem to need to have a drink with them at all times. This is a wider problem of arrested development, I feel, but it seems that some people either have to be carrying around a cardboard cup of coffee or a plastic cup of beer, like a toddler who needs a beaker. For the record, beer was £4.90 for a plastic cup of Beck’s Vier, which strikes me as being just a little bit steep. With such price gouging, not to mention the outrageous booking fees on top of the extortionate ticket prices, it seems to me that people should vote with their wallets and refuse to pay – even if it means going a few hours without a drink in their hands. Water was £2.30 a bottle, and they wouldn’t let you have the lid.

Next up were Little Big Town, an excellent band whose close harmonies are even more astonishing live than they are on record. I’ve really been enjoying their recent album Tornado, and they performed a few from that, including my favourite “Leavin’ in Your Eyes”. Another highlight was another cover version, this time a perfect rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.” They finished their set by proving that any decent pop song can be countrified: a bluegrass version of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”.

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After a short break came the act I’d really come to see: Vince Gill, whose 30-year career has produced multiple hit albums and many, many awards. Described by MC of the occasion, Bob Harris as “one of the best guitar players on the planet” (I don’t disagree), Gill played a brilliant set with a low-key but highly competent backing band. When he introduced them, he laughed self-deprecatingly and said, “We’re experienced!”

He played highlights from his career, including the title track of his most recent album, “Guitar Slinger” and the gospel song he wrote for his dead brother, “Go Rest High on that Mountain.” His soulful voice was in good form, and he shared lead guitar duties with a slide player and another on pedal steel. Through the set, he played about half a dozen of the best solos I’ve ever heard, including a sweet and melodic extended solo on “Pretty Little Adrianna” that finished with some neat quotations from the Allman Brothers’ “Blue Sky” and “Jessica”.

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Gill’s playing and singing was superb, but most of the crowd were there for Tim McGraw, who arrived on stage (on time, fact fans) and immediately raised the roof with “Felt Good on My Lips“. His band were loud, and rocked hard throughout, and McGraw’s energy was impressive. Like many other country artists who visit the UK, I think McGraw was taken aback that the crowd knew all the songs, and the words to the songs, even the older ones. We’ve been waiting 20 years for a visit: hopefully it won’t be another 20 till he returns.

There were many highlights to his set, but the finale, “Live Like You Were Dying” was just absolutely perfect – a passionate blast through one of my favourite songs. The sound mix throughout was a tad on the muddy side compared to the clean sounds Gill had achieved, but that’s a minor quibble. There were a lot of musicians on the stage and at first the fiddle (the only one seen at the entire Saturday Festival) was inaudible. The drummer was behind a soundproof screen, probably so he could hear himself play, and the WHOOMPH! sound at the climax of “Live Like You Were Dying” was something to behold.

It was a great night. Sunday sees Carrie Underwood, Darius Rucker, Leanne Rimes and Brantley Gilbert, but I think I got the best night: four artists I really admire. The O2 has tried to make an event of it, with “Town Square” gigs by British roots artists, plus a market place selling yee-haw clothes and food from the Americas. Shame it was so cold, but it means it is worth being there for the start.

Lots of cowboy hats in evidence in the crowd, though not many of them were very authentic (most were Australian Bush hats). I recommend Hatshopping.com if you absolutely insist on wearing one.

UPDATED to include information about the free Kristian Bush download, “Love or Money”.

I’ve posted a Flickr set of the best photos I took at the gig, which you can view here.