Articles by Ben

A Conversation with Jamie O’Neal

April 18, 2014

0647Jamie O’Neal’s time in the mainstream country spotlight was short, but memorable. She kicked off her career with back-to-back number one hits “There Is No Arizona” and “When I Think About Angels,” which powered her 2000 debut album Shiver to gold certification. However, subsequent single releases stalled at radio and her planned follow-up album was shelved, eventually leading to the end of her deal with Mercury Records. A tenure at Capitol produced the 2005 album Brave and another pair of hits with “Trying to Find Atlantis” and “Somebody’s Hero,” but history eventually repeated itself with further unsuccessful singles and never-released albums.

Now Jamie O’Neal is embarking on a new chapter as the head of her own Momentum record label, free of major label constraints and of the need to depend on radio play. Her fans’ wait for new music is finally over as she preps to release her first new album in nearly a decade with Eternal, due out May 27, on which she covers a selection of classic tunes that helped shape her into the artist she eventually became.  I recently had the chance to sit down with Jamie O’Neal to talk about these exciting new career developments.

You’re about to release your first new album in a few years. You must be very excited.

I am, definitely. I’m excited to have something new out there, but it’s actually old because the songs are traditional. But I think for a lot of people who haven’t heard them before, it’s going to kind of bring those songs to new ears and new fans hopefully.

What made you feel this was the right time for your first covers project?

You know, I’d never done one before, and I’d always sung a couple of these songs in my show. And my mom used to sing “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” which is kind of what started the whole thing – the old Sammi Smith song written by Kris Kristofferson, one of my favorites. It started out just with my husband and I talking about the songs that we loved, and he said “You know, you’ve been singing these and the fans love them. You should record an album.” These kinds of classics, some of them went to number one and Top 5, they’ll hopefully live on forever. Like “The Sweetest Thing,” Juice Newton, is one of those songs that was a pop hit, number one, and a country hit a few years apart, which is really unique. So I thought that was really cool. One of the first songs I wanted to do was “The Sweetest Thing.”

That was one thing that really stood out to me, that you have some less-expected cover choices. It’s not just songs culled from Classic Country for Dummies, if you know what I mean. There’s some good variety.

[Laughs] Exactly! Like “Born to Run,” Emmylou Harris, might not be a very well-known song, but for me that’s how I felt when I first got to Nashville. I’m hungry. No one’s going to stop me. I’ve got someplace to be. I’m going to make it. I was born to run. I just love what the song says and the message and everything.

There’s definitely no shortage of great songs to choose from in the Emmylou Harris songbook.

Oh, I know. I could have done a thirty song CD really.

It seems that for a lot of people a covers album is the kind of thing that can go very right or very wrong. What qualities do you think are essential for a really great covers album?

That’s a good question. I think staying true to the songs and not changing the tracks too much is important. It was important to me. And I think adding your own element to it is really important so it doesn’t just sound like you’re a karaoke singer. I call myself a soulful country singer, so I wanted to keep that soul in there and sing songs that I love to belt out because I do love big ballads. For me, I’d recorded and written so many mid-tempos, so it was cool to be able to put quite a few ballads on there.

What are your favorite covers albums, country or otherwise?

Well, I love Martina’s album. She did some really cool different choices on there, I thought, and I’ve always loved her voice. I love Seal’s album, and I love Micheal McDonald’s Motown album. That would probably be my favorite.

Can you give me some insight into how you went about choosing songs for this project?

Well, I really picked my favorites, and my husband brought in a couple and said ‘What about this one? What about that one?’ One song that I love is the Bruce Coburn song, my favorite on the album, called “One Day I Walk.” It’s kind of got that bluegrassy feel to it – something different for me. And I did a bunch of backgrounds on there. It’s one of my favorites.

And you have Andy Griggs playing the George to your Tammy on “Golden Ring.”

Well, he came last night and sang with me, and he’s just as great as ever. We’ve been touring together for the past couple years, doing gigs. We just did a country cruise together, and we just really enjoy doing show and singing together. I love his voice.

What the story behind the album’s only non-cover, your original “Wide Awake”?

My husband keeping me wide awake every night with his snoring. I’ve got it figured out now. I have a sound machine on in between us on the rain and thunder and beach sound and another sound machine with the white noise, and I pretty much drown him out. I’ve had a couple people, actually a couple PDs, said “Send that to me and I’ll start playing it.” So I feel really fortunate about that, because I think a lot of people can relate – a lot of women.

One big thing that you’ve had happen recently is that you’ve added “label owner” to your resumé. How would you describe the challenges and rewards of recording on your own label as opposed to a major label?

Definitely less of a budget – I’ll tell you that! You know the days when you used to get a stylist out in Los Angeles or New York and they would fly you there and you’d pick clothes and spend $10,000 on outfits and a $1,000 on a stylist to do your hair and makeup. It’s really difficult these days because even the majors have had to really tighten the budget, and the independents really do as well. So you have to figure out a way to do things for yourself a lot of the time. In the past, everyone was doing everything for me, from my website to everything, marketing and all that stuff. So now I’ve really had to learn, which I feel like I have from some of the best in the business. Capitol Records and Mercury, some of the staff that I’ve worked with, I’ve learned so much from that I feel like, hey, this is cool. I can kind of look at things from a different angle.

You have Rachele Lynae as the Momentum flagship artist. How did you come to work with her?

Her family was friends with my dad back in Bellingham, Washington, because that was where my dad lived, and they lived in Linden, Washington. They kind of met in the recording studio, and she was like a teenager at that point. And then she moved to Nashville to go to Belmont, kept in contact with my dad, and when she made an EP, she met with him and played it for him, and he brought it to me. And it’s funny because my daughter was one of the first people to hear it because my dad was putting it in his CD player, and so my daughter was coming up singing these songs and saying ‘You need to hear Rachele. She’s really good, Mom!’ I was like ‘Really?’ Because I listen to her. She has good taste in music. And I figure kids are the ones that, if they don’t like something, you know it’s probably not trending.

Do you feel like you have a signature song?

Probably “Arizona” because it’s so unique and different. It seems to me that I’ve been mistaken for Deana Carter or Carolyn Dawn Johnson a lot, and Carolyn said that she used to get Deana Carter as well. That’s the thing – getting your face out there and not just your name and your songs, but usually when you say “Arizona,” that song is pretty well known.

What’s next for you? Do you have anything coming up that you would like to let people know about?

Well, I’m going to be doing a video for “Wide Awake.” The album is coming out May 27. I’m gonna be touring doing different dates here and there out of town on the road, so be looking for me out there, and the music will be on iTunes!

Single Review: Kacey Musgraves, “Keep it to Yourself”

April 10, 2014

Kacey Musgraves Keep-It-to-YourselfThe conflict of whether or not to reconnect with an ex-lover can be the perfect fodder for a great country song. Just ask Lee Ann Womack.

Musgraves’ narrator faces such a choice on her stellar new single “Keep it to Yourself,” but in this instance she sticks with her better judgment. Should her ex find those old feelings returning, she offers the advice found in the song’s title:  “Keep it to yourself.” The hook is simple and direct, yet disarmingly effective.

Much has already been written about Kacey Musgraves’ gifts as a lyricist, and while such are definitely evident on “Keep it to Yourself,” the song is particularly noteworthy as a display of her power over a melody. The low, somber notes convey a weary, angst-ridden feeling in the opening verse before rising to the gentle plea of the chorus.

Even more impressive is the way the melody and performance manage to convey the intangible, allowing the listener read between the lyrics. The pleading tone in Musgraves voice suggests that she is begging her ex not to call her perhaps because she’s afraid that she just might not be able to muster the strength to say no the next time.

“Keep it to Yourself” is fresh in its approach, yet classic in theme and delivery. It comes across as moving and sincere, but not cloying or contrived. The gentle arrangement and strains of steel guitar enhance the story without interrupting it, while Musgraves’ vocal conveys deep vulnerability without veering into melodrama.

“Keep it to Yourself” is top-notch country storytelling through and through – an understated gem of a performance that represents much of what we wish mainstream country music could still be in 2014.

Written by Kacey Musgraves, Shane McAnally, and Luke Laird

Grade: A

Single Review: Dan + Shay, “19 You + Me”

April 7, 2014

Dan + Shay 19YouandMeCurrently ticking the “Summer Romance Nostalgia” box at country radio is this almost-Top 10 debut single by new duo Dan + Shay.

Good news – the first forty seconds are actually listenable!  The melody has an organic quality to it, and duo members Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney deliver the opening verse with likable harmonies against the gentle pluck of mandolin strings.

Then the song ticks past the forty second mark, and all subtlety and restraint are abruptly thrown out the window. A storm of production noise rolls in. Dan + Shay’s vocals are smothered in gaudy reverb effects as they scream their way through the cacophonous chorus.

And just like that, the summery ballad devolves into one big hot mess.

Written by Dan Smyers, Shay Mooney, and Danny Orton

Grade: C

Single Review: Maggie Rose, “Looking Back Now”

March 18, 2014

Looking-Back-Now-Maggie-RoseI want to like Maggie Rose’s music more than I do. She has a good voice. She sings good songs. And her music actually sounds country. Should be a simple enough recipe, right?

But the problem I keep having is that I don’t quite feel her as a storyteller. “I Ain’t Your Mama” called for a little more bite in the performance, while “Better” could have used a little more lived-in angst to really hit home.

Her current single, “Looking Back Now,” is a striking story-song involving a female narrator who puts a couple of no-good men in the ground when they get a little too fresh. But in listening to Rose’s performance, I don’t get the feeling that I’m listening to a true story. It’s a little too obvious that she hasn’t lived it. And yet, when I hear the song performed by writer Lisa Carver, I’m with her every step of the way. I believe every word.

Rose will likely develop her interpretive abilities further over time, and I hope she does, because she could be a potentially cool artist. As it is, we’re left with records like this – records that are good and enjoyable enough, but that could have been even better.

Written by Lisa Carver

Grade: B

Book Giveaway: Gerry House’s Country Music Broke My Brain: A Behind-the-Microphone Peek at Nashville’s Famous & Fabulous Stars

March 10, 2014

Country Music Broke My Brain

UPDATE: Contest closed. Congratulations to winner John!

Three of my all-time favorite things: books, country music, and books about country music. If you’re anything like me, we have the perfect giveaway for you.

In Gerry House’s new book Country Music Broke My Brain: A Behind-the-Microphone Peek at Nashville’s Famous & Fabulous Stars, one of country music’s most beloved radio personalities shares a collection of never-aired and never-before-published conversations with a variety of country music superstars and legends, including Johnny Cash, Reba McEntire, Brad Paisley, and many others.

Country Universe is pleased to offer a copy of this book to give away to one of our readers. To enter, leave a comment below before 12:00 p.m. CST on Saturday March 15. A winner will be chosen via random number generator and notified via email, so be sure to include a valid email address. One entry is allowed per IP address.

Win a Signed Copy of Dierks Bentley’s Riser

February 28, 2014

Dierks Bentley Riser

UPDATE: Contest closed. Congratulations to winner Jonathan Pappalardo!

Country Universe favorite Dierks Bentley has just released his seventh Capitol studio set Riser, and we’re pleased to offer an autographed copy to give away to one of our readers.

To enter, leave a comment telling us about your favorite song(s) Bentley has recorded. A winner will be chosen via random number generator and notified via email, so be sure to include a valid email address. One entry is allowed per IP address. Eligible comments must be submitted by 12:00 p.m. CST on Wednesday, March 5. If that’s too long to wait, click here to purchase the album via iTunes.

Single Review: Mandy Barnett featuring Alison Krauss, “Blue Blue Day”

February 21, 2014

Mandy BarnettThe awesomeness of this release has a definite air of inevitability. If Don Gibson wrote it, and Mandy Barnett and Alison Krauss sing it, it’s pretty hard to imagine it not being great.

Though Gibson’s 1958 hit version of the song belied the melancholy lyric with a brisk tempo and toe-tapping arrangement, Barnett recasts the song as gentle, brooding ballad. It’s a move that succeeds as a creative exercise as well as an effective treatment of a beautifully written song. Barnett puts a distinctly personal spin on the classic tune, making it a beautiful centerpiece to her must-have new album I Can’t Stop Loving You: Songs of Don Gibson.

The sparse, vintage-style arrangement is an ideal setting to showcase Barnett’s depth, control, and inimitable sense of presence as a vocalist. Alison Krauss’s background vocal imbues an added layer of longing to the performance, reaffirming her status as one of Nashville’s most reliable harmony singers.

An absolutely exquisite record.

Written by Don Gibson

Grade: A

2014 ACM Nominations

January 29, 2014

Blake Shelton Luke Bryan ACMHaving had just enough time to catch our breath after the Grammys, we now find ourselves gearing up for ACM season. This year’s Academy of Country Music Award nominees have just been announced today. Not surprisingly, this year’s nominees are wildly uneven, with “bro country” scoring ample representation. Miranda Lambert and Tim McGraw lead with seven nominations each.

Chime in with your thoughts below. Country Universe’s Staff Picks and Predictions will be unveiled the week of the show. Tune into the live broadcast on Sunday, April 6 at 8:00 p.m. EST to see who will emerge victorious this year.

Entertainer of the Year

  • Luke Bryan
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Blake Shelton
  • George Strait
  • Taylor Swift

Male Vocalist of the Year

  • Jason Aldean
  • Lee Brice
  • Luke Bryan
  • Blake Shelton
  • Keith Urban

Female Vocalist of the Year

  • Sheryl Crow
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Kacey Musgraves
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood

Vocal Duo of the Year

  • Big & Rich
  • Dan + Shay
  • Florida Georgia Line
  • Love and Theft
  • Thompson Square

Vocal Group of the Year

  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Little Big Town
  • The Band Perry
  • Zac Brown Band

New Artist of the Year

  • Lee Brice
  • Brett Eldredge
  • Tyler Farr
  • Justin Moore
  • Kip Moore
  • Kacey Musgraves
  • Parmalee

Album of the Year

  • Blake Shelton, Based on a True Story…
  • Luke Bryan, Crash My Party
  • Florida Georgia Line, Here’s to the Good Times
  • Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park
  • Tim McGraw, Two Lanes of Freedom

Single Record of the Year

  • Florida Georgia Line, “Cruise”
  • Tim McGraw featuring Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
  • Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
  • Darius Rucker featuring Lady Antebellum, “Wagon Wheel”

Song of the Year

  • “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)” – Gary Allan, Hillary Lindsey, Matthew Warren
  • “I Drive Your Truck” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Jimmy Yeary
  • “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves
  • “Mine Would Be You” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Deric Ruttan
  • “Wagon Wheel” – Bob Dylan, Ketch Secor

Video of the Year

  • The Band Perry, “Better Dig Two”
  • Kacey Musgraves, “Blowin’ Smoke”
  • Tim McGraw featuring Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
  • Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
  • Carrie Underwood, “Two Black Cadillacs”

Vocal Event of the Year

  • Blake Shelton featuring Pistol Annies and Friends, “Boys ‘Round Here”
  • Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly, “Cruise” (Remix)
  • Tim McGraw featuring Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
  • Darius Rucker featuring Lady Antebellum, “Wagon Wheel”
  • Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert, “We Were Us”

Songwriter of the Year

  • Rhett Akins
  • Rodney Clawson
  • Ashley Gorley
  • Luke Laird
  • Shane McAnally

Producer of the Year

  • Mark Bright
  • Dann Huff
  • Michael Knox
  • Frank Liddell
  • Paul Worley

Bass Player of the Year

  • Mike Brignardello
  • Kevin “Swine” Grantt
  • Mark Hill
  • Michael Rhodes
  • Glenn Worf

Drummer of the Year

  • Chad Cromwell
  • Fred Eltringham
  • Shannon Forrest
  • Greg Morrow
  • Lonnie Wilson

Guitar Player of the Year

  • Jeff King
  • Troy Lancaster
  • Brent Mason
  • Rob McNelley
  • Jerry McPherson

Piano/Keyboards Player of the Year

  • Tony Harrell
  • John Jarvis
  • Charlie Judge
  • Tim Lauer
  • Gordon Mote

Specialty Instrument Player of the Year

  • Glen Duncan
  • Larry Franklin
  • Jim Hoke
  • Danny Radar
  • Bryan Sutton

Steel Guitar Player of the Year

  • Dan Dugmore
  • Paul Franklin
  • Steve Hinson
  • Russ Pahl
  • Scotty Sanders

Single Review: Lucy Hale, “You Sound Good to Me”

January 29, 2014

Lucy_Hale_-_You_Sound_Good_to_MePretty Little Liars actress turned country newcomer Lucy Hale cites Shania Twain and Martina McBride as major musical influences, and to a degree it’s perceptible on her debut single “You Sound Good to Me.” The track begins with a light, airy fiddle hook, and segues into an effervescent uptempo pop-country love song with an atypically sparse production arrangement by country radio standards (murky background vocals aside).

Unfortunately, things go very wrong in one important area – the vocal. Hale’s performance sound constantly strained and often pitch-challenged as she struggles to reach high notes and keep up with the brisk tempo. Worse yet, Hale’s voice rings generic and faceless, lacking any hint of distinctive personality or flair and instead sounding like that of any random karaoke bar patron.

It doesn’t help that the song itself is hardly anything special – standard Music Row radio filler courtesy of three of the industry’s current favorite hired-gun songwriters. There’s none of the distinctive cleverness, spunk or massive pop hooks that marked the best work of Hale’s role models. If such a song is going to work on any level at all, it needs a strong vocal performance to carry it. Without that crucial element, “You Sound Good to Me” quickly sinks like a stone.

Written by Ashley Gorley, Luke Laird and Hillary Lindsey

Grade: C-

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent, Only Me

January 28, 2014

Rhonda Vincent-only_me

Rhonda Vincent
Only Me

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Modern bluegrass legend Rhonda Vincent shows off two sides of her musical repertoire with her delightful new album Only Me, which is split across two six-track discs. The first disc is a collection of bluegrass songs, while the second showcases Vincent’s prowess in performing traditional country music.

On the bluegrass side, Vincent is joined by her longtime backing band The Rage, which includes Hunter Berry on fiddle, Brent Burke on resophonic guitar, Mickey Harris on upright bass, Aaron McDaris on banjo, and Josh Williams on acoustic guitar, while Vincent herself performs on the mandolin. The entire band proves to be in top-notch form right from the fast-picking opening up-tempo “Busy City,” which segues into the album’s fantastic lead-single, the angst-ridden Larry Cordle ballad “I’d Rather Hear I Don’t Love You (Than Nothing At All).”

Vincent is joined by two special guests on the bluegrass disc. The iconic Willie Nelson contributes duet vocals as well as guitar work to the title track – a love song which combines bluegrass instruments with Spanish guitar in a genre-blending album highlight. Vincent recasts George Jones and Melba Montgomery’s 1963 duet hit “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds” as a bluegrass song on which Daryle Singletary supplies the male vocals – with glorious results.

Longtime fans know that the country disc is hardly the first foray into this genre for Rhonda Vincent, who even took an unsuccessful stab at become a mainstream country star in the nineties. Vincent’s work in the country field was highlighted by 2011’s Your Money and My Good Looks – a stellar duets project with country genre luminary Gene Watson. The country side of Only Me follows in the tradition of that excellent set, and is likewise dominated by cover material. This disc features a luscious take on the Dallas Frazier song “Beneath Still Waters,” a minor 1970 hit for Diana Trask which Emmylou Harris later took to the top of the charts in 1980, as well as a loving tribute to the late George Jones with a tear-jerking take on “When the Grass Grows Over Me.” As an extra treat, Vincent includes an original song that she wrote at the tender age of sixteen with “Teardrops Over You,” a country heartbreaker that sounds like it could very well have been recorded by any of the legends whose work Vincent here covers.

A particular highlight is Vincent’s take on Connie Smith’s Bill Anderson-penned 1964 breakthrough hit “Once a Day” – the first chart-topping debut single by a female country artist, and the longest running number-one single by a female country artist (until the latter record was broken in 2012 by… ahem… Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”). Vincent here turns the classic song into a gentle barroom shuffle. As one of very few women who are anywhere close to Smith’s league as a vocalist, she reminds us that the bluegrass queen can still deliver a honky-tonk wail like few others.

Vincent offers a pleasant mood-breaker with her gender-flipped take on Bill Anderson’s “Bright Lights and Country Music” – a song to which any longtime Opry listener will react with warm recognition. As the set closes, Vincent relishes her narrator’s boozy, brokenhearted misery on the 1946 Ernest Tubb hit “Drivin’ Nails” – a song Vincent previously recorded in a bluegrass setting, but here turns into a Western-swing-tinged fiddle jam with all the energy of a great live performance.

The press material for Only Me explains that the album is meant to provide an answer to the question of whether Vincent’s voice is bluegrass or country by confirming “it’s in the perception of the listener,” while showing that “either way, country or bluegrass, it’s Rhonda!” However, the project not only showcases how outstandingly adept Vincent is at performing both styles, but it also demonstrates how similar in spirit the two are – both built on accessible, sincere storytelling. Though the banjos and mandolins are swapped out for pedal steel halfway through, the project doesn’t feel like two different albums shoved into one – both halves feel like they belong together, making Only Me beautiful realization of the album as an art form. Better yet, it’s a welcome reminder that, regardless of genre placement, great music is universal.

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