Hunter Hayes just scored a decently big pop hit with “Wanted”, which was initially his first big country hit. Perhaps that’s why he’s taking a cue from the pop market, and re-releasing his first album in an expanded edition called (Encore) this summer.
That set will include a guest appearance from Jason Mraz, so it’s easy to think that musically, he might start taking his cues from the pop scene as well. But “I Want Crazy”, the lead single from the expanded set, indicates that there’s no need to jump to that conclusion so far.
If anything, “I Want Crazy” is insanely derivative of Golden Road-era Keith Urban, full of ridiculously catchy banjo riffs and melodies so light and breezy they practically float away. Not surprisingly, his lyrics haven’t matured much, so even this new song’s charm is mostly adolescent, a fact all the more remarkable given it is co-written by Lori McKenna.
But as I’ve written before, he’s got the chops. If he keeps his feet firmly grounded in country music and keeps developing his songwriting craft, he could develop into quite the artist. For now, we have to settle for some radio filler that’s worth cranking up the volume for.
Written by Hunter Hayes, Lori McKenna and Troy Verges
It’s hard not to root for Chris Young. He can really sing and his music would sound identifiably country if it was released twenty years ago, making it sound like Hank Williams in comparison to what’s passing for it these days.
But he’s got to pay the bills, I guess. “Aw Naw” is a typical 2013 country party song that is easier to tolerate than most of the others because it’s sung really well and at least sounds like it’s been written and performed by people of legal drinking age.
Now, even the greatest country artists pandered to the trends of the times. Check out the hillbilly humor tracks that even Alan Jackson and Pam Tillis recorded in the nineties, or the string-drenched crossover pap that even George Jones and Loretta Lynn succumbed to when Nashville went uptown in the seventies and eighties.
Those songs don’t make their way to the essential collections that surface when a great act’s radio days are done. Hopefully, this one won’t make it to Chris Young’s when his time comes.
Written by Chris DeStefano, Ashley Gorley and Chris Young
In the early eighties, a new kind of country band surfaced, structured like the rock bands that came before them, but deeply grounded in country instrumentation. Alabama were the pioneers of the field, and they reached a level of superstardom beyond most bands of any genre during their peak.
Three of the four members of Alabama are cousins from the band’s namesake state, though Jeff Cook, Teddy Gentry, and Randy Owen first began performing as Young Country in 1969. The band went through a series of day jobs and a series of drummers while honing their sound on the local music circuit in Alabama and neighboring states. After switching to Wildcountry in 1972, and settling on Rick Scott as their drummer in 1974, they finally took the name Alabama in 1977.
A series of minor hits on an independent label led to a contract with RCA, after a final lineup change replaced Scott with Mark Herndon. When the band broke in 1980 with the top twenty hit “My Home’s in Alabama”, what followed set a new bar for commercial success in country music. The band scored a record consecutive 21 #1 hits, became the first act to win CMA Entertainer of the Year three times in a row, and released several multi-platinum albums, including the five million-selling Mountain Music in 1982.
Their success opened the floodgates for other country bands, eventually replacing vocal groups as the dominant non-solo sound in the genre. Though they didn’t receive much critical acclaim for their work, their relevance on the
commercial front was undeniable. Even as a wave of new acts in the nineties again raised the bar for what country acts could achieve, Alabama remained successful, consistently selling gold and platinum while radio continued to play their hits.
At the turn of the century, the band slowed down, even doing a farewell tour. They still released music, however, scoring their first #1 country album in 17 years with Songs of Inspiration in 2006. They also returned to the penthouse of the singles chart in 2011, scoring their 34th #1 single in support of Brad Paisley’s “Old Alabama.”
They are currently recording and performing as a trio, with Herndon departing the group after a rift over royalties that led to a lawsuit. They were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005, and returned to the stage in 2013 for a fortieth anniversary tour.
Gentleman Jim Reeves started off as a hardcore country singer, but his smooth crossover stylings would become synonymous with the Nashville Sound, combining with tragedy to grant him country music immortality only a dozen years into his career.
Growing up in Texas, Reeves picked up the guitar at an early age, mimicking the Jimmie Rodgers records that he discovered through his older brother. A prodigious talent, Reeves was already singing on local radio shows before he entered his teens.
He was also a great athlete, and he played in a semi-professional league, followed by three years in the big leagues with the Saint Louis Cardinals. But an ankle injury sidelined him, and he returned his attention to music.
He worked in radio while recording independent singles, eventually raising his profile with a series of hits on Abbott Records. After three years of scoring big hits with them, he once again joined the big leagues, this time in the form of major record label RCA Victor.
Reeves was a consistent hitmaker throughout the fifties, but didn’t truly break through to superstardom until he softened his country sound with the pop stylings of the time. “He’ll Have to Go”, released in 1959, became his signature hit, reaching the pop top ten while it topped the country charts for fourteen weeks.
country and pop from that point on, though he was far more successful in his home format. Tragedy struck when Reeves died in a plane crash in 1964, but much like Patsy Cline before him, his notoriety only grew in the shadow of his untimely death.
In fact, Reeves would have his most significant run of hits in the years after his death, having an astonishing sixteen top ten singles over the course of seventeen years. Some of those hits, like “Distant Drums” and “Blue Side of Lonesome”, are as beloved as the biggest ones released while he was still alive.
Reeves was one of the earliest inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame, joining those hallowed ranks in 1967. “He’ll Have to Go” cemented its classic status with its induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame. To this day, unreleased recordings continue to surface, and he remains one of the top-selling country artists of the Nashville Sound era.
“Hearts don’t fly, but they can run like hell when they have to.”
Lori McKenna’s greatest gift as a writer is her ability to weave brilliantly constructed metaphors together with remarkably specific and often mundane details of small town, working class life.
“Salt”, the lead single from her upcoming album Massachusetts, perfectly showcases this talent of hers. There are so many vivid details that place the listener into the story of one particular breakup, and she slips them in so naturally that it sounds like it must be autobiography.
The best example of this comes in the second verse, where while recounting how she has nothing to show for the time given to this tortured relationship: “Six years of crying, that’s all that you gave me. Not one more thing. Not even a baby. We were close one time…”
It’s those vividly true details that ground her writing in reality, which in this particular song is a harsh reality. But the line this review opens with is in there as well. On its own, it would be little more than a beautiful turn of phrase, a set of words that lingers with you and you might quote in casual conversation to sound more insightful than you really are.
But when metaphors that beautiful are tied into the life stories of the most ordinary people, McKenna is able to achieve something so special and unique.
She finds the poetry and beauty hidden in the stories of people whose stories aren’t usually considered important enough to share in the first place.
There are a lot of good writers out there, many of whom are writing big hits for themselves and for others. But I can’t shake this feeling that Lori McKenna is the best out of all of them. Her gift is to get us to pay attention to people, places, and truths that are so easy to overlook. I hope more people start to do the same with her music.
It’s been thirty years since the world was introduced to the voice of Wynonna Judd, a simple guitar strum being nothing close to enough preparation for the otherworldly voice that opened the debut Judds single, “Had a Dream (For the Heart)”:
Thirty years later, after about a decade of Judds music and another two decades of solo work, that voice is still that voice. Wynonna has the ability to harness a true force of nature, having incredible depth and soul that remains under her complete control.
Less under control is her firebrand personality, an increasingly dramatic public image that has been overshadowing her music in recent years, but that’s mostly because she hasn’t been making nearly enough music. Really, once she sings two or three notes, who really cares about her public image?
But what happens when that image starts to dictate the music? What happens when producers convince themselves that they have to be
just as loud and dazzling as the lady behind the mic?
“Something You Can’t Live Without” is what happens.
You’ve got Wynonna singing a great song that clearly means a lot to her. She turns in a ferocious performance. All the musicians need to do is give her a bit of support while mostly staying out of her way.
Instead, not only is the backing music way too loud, there is a cardinal sin committed that is simply unforgivable. They actually put a digital effect on her voice.
You do that for bad singers. You do that for mediocre singers. Sometimes, you even do that for good singers. But to do it to one of the strongest vocalists popular music has ever seen is an insult.
I really like this record overall, simply because I can hear all that great Wynonna underneath the muck. But much like those synthesizer-drenched Dolly Parton songs from the eighties, it’s just bewildering that the muck is there in the first place.
Such natural, God-given talent needs organic music to back her up. I don’t care if it’s Memphis blues instead of Nashville country. Just let her surroundings be as real as she is, and save all the artifice for the reality show circuit.
As the nineties began, George Strait was the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year, a title noted on the belt buckle he wore on the cover of Livin’ it Up.
Around this time, Billboard switched to monitoring radio stations in real time, revealing just how often songs were really being played. So while all of his eighties #1 singles spent only a week at the top, all four of the #1 singles listed here spent multiple weeks in the penthouse, including two five-week runs at the top.
One of Strait’s most enduring hits, “Love Without End, Amen” foreshadowed the understated religiousness of future hits like “I Saw God Today.” A classic three act story song, it makes its point subtly and endearingly.
A minor hit for Cal Smith in 1968, Strait continues his tradition of reviving the country songs that inspired his style. It’s easy to see how this flew over the heads of many listeners when Smith first released it, but Strait’s smooth delivery helped get it some wider exposure 22 years later.
Nervy, nervous and a little unnerving, there’s a tension present here that is a bit jarring from the genre’s Sinatra. Sometimes bitter is just better, making this one of Strait’s most compelling singles to date.
Ever imagine what K.T. Oslin’s “Hold Me” would’ve sounded like if it had the same theme with a traditional song structure? Here’s your answer. It still sounds great today, though a bit more punch in the production would’ve helped a bit.
Western swing and wily wit, Strait shines on this comedic number. He plays it just straight enough to keep it on the right side of the line between good humor and silliness, never losing the self-awareness necessary to make it work.
As exciting as the prospect of George Strait singing a Gretchen Peters song might seem, she was definitely still honing her craft on this single that was co-written by Green Daniel. The concept is solid, and the imagery is vivid, but the parallels between the changing of the seasons and the impending changing of lovers aren’t drawn sharply enough.
The single biggest obstacle between a critic and a critical review of Old Yellow Moon is the reverence demanded by a collaboration of such artistic and historical significance. So why don’t we get that part out of the way first?
Nearly forty years ago, Emmylou Harris emerged from the shadows of the late Gram Parsons to forge her own solo career. By her side was a hungry young songwriter, Rodney Crowell. Supplying her with startlingly good material, Harris assembled a series of seminal albums that balanced his bold and original songs with both country and rock classics and other songs by marginalized writers.
In the years that have since elapsed, both have become legends, with Harris maintaining commercial success in mainstream country music and Crowell scoring hits as a singer as well as a songwriter. When radio was done with both of them, they had glorious second acts in the bourgeoning Americana scene, each of them producing albums that ranked among their best personal work.
Now the two legends have come together for their first collaborative album as peers, a project that now seems inevitable but until now seemed impossible, given how far the two have wandered from their shared starting point four decades ago. It sounds like the decision they made was to go completely back to their roots, so there are no Crowell polemics or self-penned Harris tunes.
Old Yellow Moon is a simple collection of country songs, most of which have been recorded before, sometimes by Crowell or Harris themselves. It’s worth noting that it’s a country album, too. It will be labeled Americana, but only because of AARP eligibility of the performers and the self-imposed limitations of terrestrial radio. Throughout the entire project, Crowell and Harris play it straight, a choice that produces some wonderful rewards but also holds the proceedings back at some crucial moments.
Let’s talk about the good stuff first. The album opens and closes with Hank DeVito tunes, and the opening “Hanging Up My Heart” finds Harris in fine voice, backed with a country beat that harkens back to her run of hits in the early seventies. The duo turns in a solid
cover of Roger Miller’s “Invitation to the Blues”, one of several songs that even relatively recent connoisseurs of traditional country will know well.
The challenge of familiarity hangs over the proceedings, and the artists find creative ways to counter expectations in some instances. “Dreaming’ My Dreams” has been covered to death, but their decision to alternate lead vocals between the verses and chorus adds a layer of shared regret that won’t be found in any of the excellent solo recordings of it in recent years. “Bluebird Wine” opened Emmylou’s first Reprise album, but having Crowell take the lead instead, with his haggard voice weathered by time, gives a new sense of redemption to the story of a drifter taken “in off of the highway.”
“Open Season of My Heart” was a wry highlight of Tim McGraw’s Live Like You Were Dying set, but Crowell’s delivery changes it completely. Where it was once dripping with irony and self-deprecation, it is now heartbreakingly despondent. A smart lyrical change that leaves off the original final line makes the transformation work.
The album includes a cover of Matraca Berg’s “Back When We Were Beautiful”, and it’s powerful to hear the lyrics sung by an aging voice. If Harris had gone the extra step and delivered the lyrics in the first person, it would have reached transcendence. That’s a disappointing missed opportunity, as good as the finished product still is.
Actually, that description is apt for a good deal of the project, which never dips below the level of pure, polished goodness but plays it a bit too safe to elevate it into the ranks of either artist’s best work. “Black Caffeine” is a cool song, but it begs for a more emphatic production, something along the lines of “Fate’s Right Hand” or “Deeper Well.”
“Spanish Dancer” is beautiful, but Harris doesn’t compensate her increasingly bewildering poor enunciation with enough vocal flourishes to paper over how hard it is to follow the storyline because you can’t quite understand what she’s singing.
“Bull Rider” does a decent job at mimicking the rhythm of Johnny Cash’s original recording, but you can actually hear that Crowell wrote it for Cash. He did so well at writing it for the Man in Black that his own take on it sounds like a demo recording in comparison, despite some cool harmonies from Harris along the way.
But complaining about the flaws feels a bit like complaining about some smudges on the window after returning home for the first time in years. The homecoming itself is its own reward, and while Old Yellow Moon isn’t among the greatest efforts from either Harris or Crowell, it’s a wonderful listen in its own right, and a welcome return for both artists to the simple pleasures of well-written and lovingly performed good old country music.
Many moons ago, when Big & Rich seemed like the most promising and interesting duo to hit the genre in eons, they put out a song called “Holy Water.”
It was a powerful song with empathetic feminism, the sort of solidarity with women that you usually don’t hear from men in cowboy hats. It cut through their cartoonish persona and showed that they could be incisively insightful. This was no small feat given it was the follow-up to “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)”, which had established that persona in the first place.
The best thing that I can say about “Cheat on You” is that it’s a startling reminder of that initial promise. The scenario is as believable as their empathy is palpable, and it lends a sincerity to the proceedings that’s gone all but missing in their post-Horse of a Different Color work.
Now, the second verse is a bit too predictable, and their harmonies rarely get out of first gear, so it’s hardly a perfect record. But it’s good enough to revisit for repeated listens, and what’s the last Big & Rich single that could be said about?
More importantly, it provides the boys a clear path, a way out of the larger-than-life, over-the-top caricatures that are as restrictive as they are annoying. But hey, Sawyer Brown triumphed over worse, and ended up making some of the best country music of the nineties. Maybe there’s hope yet for B&R to do the same.
Written by Kasey Buckley, John Rich, and Amanda Watkins