Articles by Ben

Single Review: Darius Rucker, “Radio”

January 16, 2014

220px-RadioDariusRuckerDarius Rucker celebrates the radio with his current hit, simply titled “Radio.”

It’s tolerable enough, more tastefully produced than your average country radio hit, but it never quite overcomes the fact that its territory is one that other artists have covered much better in the past. (Exhibits A, B, C) The lyrics fail to rise above rote scenes of a nameless, faceless narrator driving down the highway with his nameless, faceless friends, and parking his truck beneath the stars to get cozy with his nameless, faceless girlfriend. The whole of the song is weighed down by a general sense of non-distinction, reflected in its generic one-word title.

Unfortunately, the dynamics aren’t strong enough to compensate. The melody is dull and lifeless, and Rucker’s performance is forgettable. The end result is a song that might not be bad enough to be an immediate station-changer, but nor is there anything here that would inspire me to ‘turn it up, turn it up to 10…’

Written by Darius Rucker, Luke Laird and Ashley Gorley

Grade: C+

Single Review: Jamie Lynn Spears, “How Could I Want More”

January 7, 2014

Jamie-Lynn-Spears-How-Could-I-Want-MoreSo… this is coming from pop idol Britney Spears’ 22-year-old younger sister who starred in a teen sitcom on Nickelodeon, and who became a tabloid favorite thanks to a controversial teen pregnancy. By all immediate expectations, her debut country single should be a disaster, and I should be making a stale pun out of the song’s title, right?

Only it isn’t a disaster. It’s well written, competently sung, and backed by a confident, un-fussy production that unmistakably identifies it as a country record. No disastrous attempts at power notes, no wall of thrashing guitars – just simple, gimmick-free, no-frills storytelling with generous amounts of country instrumentation. A pleasant surprise coming from a figure who could easily coast along on name recognition.

It’s unfortunate that “How Could I Want More” is hindered by a few clichés (“Treats me like a princess,” “Let’s me have it my way,” etc.), but the gaps are filled in with a fully realized melody and a tastefully restrained vocal. One might even hear shades of Deana Carter in Spears’ vocal stylings – poised, subtle, sincere, and with a hint of twang.

We’ll have to wait and see if Spears’ full-length debut country album, due out later this year, will bring her any closer to the potential suggested by this single. But if “How Could I Want More” is a sign of an artist taking her cues from country’s finest storytellers of the nineties, I will gladly welcome the younger Spears sibling into the country fold with open arms.

Written by Jamie Lynn Spears and Rivers Rutherford

Grade: B+

Single Review: Brett Eldredge, “Beat of the Music”

November 26, 2013

Brett Eldredge Beat of the MusicBrett Eldredge caught the critics’ attention with 2010’s heartstring-tugging ballad “Raymond,” and caught radio’s and fans’ attention with his gold-selling number-one single “Don’t Ya,” while a coveted opening slot on Taylor Swift’s Red Tour certainly didn’t hurt. He aims to pull off a successful one-two punch with his latest radio bid, “Beat of the Music,” currently in the Top 40 and climbing.

As suggested by its title, “Beat of the Music” is a light-hearted up-tempo that goes down smooth and easy, with Eldredge’s narrator “falling in love to the beat of the music” and the beaches of Mexico serving as a backdrop. Such may be well-traveled territory for today’s country hits, but “Beat of the Music” transcends its rudimentary lyrical content by creating just the right musical atmosphere. The track begins with a sparse arrangement which builds toward the song’s exuberant chorus. A hand clap section and an inviting melody ensure that toes are quickly set tapping.

In spite of needless digital effect during the chorus, the single also proves an effective showcase of the vocal talents one of country radio’s most distinctive and dynamic male newcomers. Eldredge’s rich baritone bends the notes just night, rendering the song with a flair that makes “Beat of the Music” an effortlessly entertaining listen. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but as a bit of feel-good pop-country fun, “Beat of the Music” gets it right.

Written by Brett Eldredge, Ross Copperman and Heather Morgan

Grade: B

Single Review: Thompson Square, “Everything I Shouldn’t Be Thinking About”

October 29, 2013

Thompson Square Everything I Shouldn't Be Thinking AboutThompson Square opts for form over content with their new single “Everything I Shouldn’t Be Thinking About.” The song’s verses function only as a vehicle to get to the earworm chorus, with the lyrical concept never quite reaching the third dimension.

If one is to enjoy “Everything I Shouldn’t Be Thinking About,” one must accept it for what it is – pure ear candy. And unlike the typically dull and tasteless radio fodder of today, “Everything” is sweetly flavored with an infectious beat, catchy guitar hook, hand clap section, and sing-along-friendly melody.

It’s unfortunate that the single is tainted by the influence of country radio’s incessant loudness war. It would be even better if the flavor were not diluted by the generic wall-of-sound Nashville production that surfaces in the chorus. Fortunately, Kiefer and Shawna Thompson manage to cut through the clutter with their confident yet playful performances.

Though Thompson Square has yet to release a truly great single, they’ve often been at their best when performing lighthearted fare that allows them to showcase personality. In that regard, “Everything I Shouldn’t Be Thinking About” succeeds by capitalizing on the duo’s strengths.

In a market dominated by forgettable frivolity, “Everything I Shouldn’t Be Thinking About” manages to separate itself from the pack by demonstrating perceptible effort to engage and arrest listener attention. Sure, you’ll get tired of the song eventually, but it’s a fun toe-tapper that’s interesting and enjoyable enough to garner replays, and that’s a compliment that precious few of today’s hits seem to warrant.

Written by Kiefer Thompson, Shawna Thompson, Brett James and David Lee Murphy

Grade: B

Single Review: Little Big Town, “Sober”

October 24, 2013

Little Big Town SoberThe “Pontoon” phenomenon may have been responsible for putting Little Big Town back on the map in such a big way, but it’s their new single “Sober” that deserves to be a career hit for the talented country quartet.

Though recent years have seen Karen Fairchild often tapped as the group’s go-to lead vocalist for single releases, “Sober” finally gives country radio listeners a chance to hear the distinctive vocal force that is Kimberly Schlapman. She interprets the song with poise and subtlety, bringing a sense of genuineness and humanity even to a line as simple as “I love being in love,” while her bandmates join in with their signature heavenly harmonies when the song comes to its chorus.

While today’s country radio all too often finds capable voices saddled with poor material, it’s a joy to hear these four gifted voices poured into such a worthy song. The writing team of Hillary Lindsey, Liz Rose and Lori McKenna build the ballad around an effective, accessible metaphor, elevated by a gorgeous piercing melody that lingers after the song’s end

“Sober” is one of those rare mainstream country releases in which everyone involved brings their A-game. Lindsey, Rose and McKenna write a gorgeous song, and Little Big Town proves to be the ideal act to bring it to full realization. Likewise, Jay Joyce’s elegantly restrained mandolin-driven production impresses in creativity, taste, and in overall effectiveness in supporting the song and performance without getting in the way.

Here’s hoping that country radio can still find a place for such a delicately polished gem as this. It’s a high-water mark for an act whose catalog is already more than respectable. Little Big Town has rarely if ever sounded better.

Written by Hillary Lindsey, Liz Rose and Lori McKenna

Grade: A

Listen: Sober

Round Table Album Review: Brandy Clark, 12 Stories

October 22, 2013

Brandy-Clark-12-stories

Brandy Clark
12 Stories

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Our Brandy Clark coverage continues with a round table review of her hotly anticipated debut album, which is out today.

She teased us earlier this year with “Stripes,” which I proudly awarded an A in my review of the song, calling it “a clever and original, not to mention humorous, twist on a tried-and-true country music theme.” It was more than enough to whet our appetites for the album to follow, which ended up going so far as to supersede expectations.

A foremost theme on the aptly-titled 12 Stories is the near-universal desire to escape from something, whether it’s an unhappy marriage, a dead-end job or the everyday stresses of life – even if the respite is only momentary. The stories are laced with striking first-person attention to detail, while often using surprisingly plainspoken language to tap into deep wells of emotion. Though Clark’s songwriting gifts are already well documented – see Kevin’s recent feature – it’s a special treat to finally get to hear what a strong singer she is, her songs beautifully realized through moving, expressive performances.

While the entire album warrants a recommendation, we at Country Universe are pleased to share some favorite tracks from one of our favorite releases of the year.

“Pray to Jesus”

So many of the hired-gun songwriters in Nashville today have adopted a “write what you know” ethos and have then shown a perverse kind of pride in proving that they know absolutely nothing of real value. In stark contrast, “Pray to Jesus,” the first of Clark’s 12 Stories, packs enough into its scant running time and plainspoken, salt-of-the-earth imagery that it probably merits a good 3000 words to delve into what, exactly, Clark knows. Shattering any lingering illusions of upward social mobility in modern America, she delivers a withering cultural commentary that’s noteworthy not for its irony or class condescension but for its empathy and bleak but still good-natured humor. - Jonathan Keefe

Written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally

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“What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven”

Ultimately, the factor that makes Clark’s album so accessible is the realistic nature of each song. The stories are raw, real and relatable in one way or another–whether it’s being able to personally relate, knowing somebody who can, or at least being able to imagine the predicament. While it may not be about contemplating cheating, we can all relate to a black and white situation that still feels grey somehow. If not that, Clark’s portrayal of such a scenario manages to invoke sympathy for the song’s focal character, even as you’re mentally willing her not to carry out the act.

Every element of “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven”, including Clark’s intimate performance and a sympathetic production, works  perfectly together to create  the vulnerability  imperative for a believable cheating song. Vince Gill’s always winning background support is just the icing on the cake. - Leeann Ward

Written by Brandy Clark and Mark Stephen Jones

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“Hold My Hand”

12 Stories is a snapshot of life –dirty, messy, redeeming life—taken by a woman with a keen appreciation for its grey areas. Against that backdrop, “Hold My Hand” feels like the exception, a quiet moment of ex-girlfriend-fueled insecurity that isn’t all that complicated. But it’s no less observant: Clark brings to the song a visceral understanding of the female psyche, gently giving weight to the smallest of gestures. Her request for reassurance is a vulnerable one, of course, but leave it to her to make it with such purpose. - Tara Seetharam

Written by Brandy Clark and Mark Stephen Jones

Listen

“Take a Little Pill”

Nashville has become pretty flippant about recreational drug use in recent years, but Clark’s take on self-medicating is much more harrowing. It’s a delicate topic if you try to approach it seriously, but she deftly shows sympathy for people trapped in a spiral of addiction while offering some barbs toward a society that encourages pill-popping as a solution for any problem. - Sam Gazdziak

Written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Mark D. Sanders

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“Hungover”

There’s a thread of hope and optimism in this song that makes you root for the woman who is slowly taking control of her life, in spite of the love she still has for the man she is slowly leaving behind.  The triumph of her just buying a ticket and going to her sister’s feels like an “Independence Day”- level climax, simply because the character was drawn so perfectly from the beginning. - Kevin John Coyne

Written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Jessie Jo Dillon

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“The Day She Got Divorced”

This song feels like the lazy choice off Clark’s album, since, hey, even “Turn on the Radio”/”If I Were a Boy”-era Reba couldn’t ignore its greatness. Still, out of all the colorful women sketched on 12 Stories, I keep coming back to the one drinking extra-strong coffee, shrugging off household cleaning, and humoring an empty fling with her married boss. Perhaps it’s because of how impressively the song marries simple craft to complex feeling, arranging its crisp, little details into a vivid picture of mid-life disillusionment. Or maybe it’s all the fun quirks that mark a writing team in confident control of their powers: “dirty dinner dishes,” “wudn’t that sorry, wudn’t that sad,” and of course, the delicious, dramatic title phrase. I guess it’s all of the above, though. “The Day She Got Divorced” is like if a primetime soap like Nashville were written with the precision of a Mad Men and the personality of a Buffy. It’s the best. - Dan Milliken

Written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Mark D. Sanders

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“Just Like Him”

For all the bold, in-your-face fun of “Stripes” and “Crazy Women,” Clark’s characters are often disarmingly vulnerable. With “Just Like Him,” Clark gives voice to a woman who has grown up with a neglectful, overbearing alcoholic father, only to find her adult self in a relationship with the same sort of man. Arguably, the song’s most potent moment is when Clark heaves a heavy sigh and concludes “I can’t do this again” – a credit to her abilities as an interpretive singer.

The tale is beautifully augmented by a fully realized melody and by David Brainard’s near flawless production job, with strains of harmonica, piano and cello echoing the narrator’s hurt and disappointment. It’s a testament to the fact that the right melody, vocal reading, and production possess a power to elevate something already great into something truly unforgettable. - Ben Foster

Written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Jessie Jo Dillon

Listen

Win a Signed Copy of Alan Jackson’s The Bluegrass Album

September 24, 2013

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UPDATE: Contest closed. Congratulations to our winner, the second of the two commenters named John.

Do you love bluegrass music? Do you love Alan Jackson? Or do you just love great music? We sure do here at Country Universe, so it’s our great pleasure to thank you for your support of our site by giving away a copy of Alan Jackson’s fantastic new release The Bluegrass Album - signed by our favorite singer of simple songs himself, no less!

Leave a comment below to enter. You can tell us about your favorite bluegrass artists, albums or songs, or tell us about your favorite Alan Jackson albums or songs. Or you can just say hello – that will put your name in the drawing as well.

All eligible comments must be submitted by 11:59 p.m. CST on Friday, September 27. A winner will be chosen via random number generator and informed via email, so be sure to include a valid email address along with your comment. One entry per IP address is allowed.

If you can’t wait until the contest closes on Friday, then by all means click here to go ahead and download the album from iTunes.

Happy commenting, and thanks to all for being a part of the Country Universe family.

Single Review: Florida Georgia Line, “Round Here”

September 21, 2013

RoundHere_Florida Georgia LineI smell a holding pattern.

Yes, I get it. The boys of Florida Georgia Line have got to make their $$$, and the way to do that these days is to give radio what they want. But if you’re going to serve up radio filler, you could at least serve up a different variety of radio filler than what you’ve previously been putting out.

Case in point:  “Round Here” is the third consecutive rural party anthem that Florida Georgia Line has released, and of those three, “Cruise” is the only one that has been any good at all.

Yes, I still believe the hook and melody of “Cruise” had something great going for it – even though the song’s place in country music history is being blown grossly out of proportion by Billboard’s nutty new chart rules. But the same cannot be said for “Round Here,” which grasps at a trite, overused phrase for its title, and burrows down into the usual formulas. Bloated production and affected vocals only make things worse.

The bottom line:  Kiss some radio butt if you must, but don’t make a one-trick pony out of yourself. Remember Gretchen Wilson?

Written by Rodney Clawson, Thomas Rhett and Chris Tompkins

Grade: C-

Single Review: Luke Bryan, “That’s My Kind of Night”

September 19, 2013

ThatsMyKindofNight_ Luke BryanLet’s start with the positives.

It has a banjo. I like banjo.

It has hand claps. I like hand claps.

It has an energetic vocal performance. I like that.

Unfortunately, it also has unabashedly dumb, mind-numbing lyrics that insult the history of the country genre and the intelligence of its fans, shamelessly recycling cliché after cliché right from the opening verse – as if the rest of the world should care about the narrator’s ice cold beer, jacked-up truck, hot country girlfriend, and his musical-whiplash-inducing country-hip-hop mix tape. Feeding on yesterday’s leftovers that were never any good to begin with is something that I do not like at all.

Sorry, Luke, but Zac Brown was right. Thanks for the dignified genre representation, Entertainer of the Year.

Written by Dallas Davidson, Chris DeStefano and Ashley Gorley

Grade: D-

A Conversation with Lynn Anderson

September 12, 2013

lynn-andersonLynn Anderson was born the daughter of songwriters Casey and Liz Anderson, and went on to become one of country music’s brightest stars in the 60′s and 70′s. Over the course of sixteen years, she amassed an impressive string of eighteen Top 10 country hits including chart-toppers such as “You’re My Man,” “How Can I Unlove You,” “Keep Me In Mind,” “What a Man My Man Is,” and most notably the Grammy-winning platinum-selling crossover smash “Rose Garden.”

Anderson continues busily touring and recording to this day. Most recently, she’s lent her talents to a new collaborative album called Betty Swain Project. The album pays tribute to a gifted songwriter named Betty Swain who was unsuccessful in finding individuals to orchestrate and perform her original songs for most of her life, only to have her longtime dream finally realized a few short weeks before her death thanks to a low-budget demo CD and concert organized by singer-songwriter Jim Paul. Lynn Anderson renders two Betty Swain compositions for this new Center Sound Records release, which also includes contributions from Siobhan Magnus, Brittini Black, Loni Rose, Nikki Nelson, Kim Parent, Devin Belle, Taylor Watson, and Marissa Begin. Country Universe was recently able to reach Lynn Anderson out in New Mexico by phone for an interview in which she enthusiastically discusses both her current projects and past career accolades.

Ben Foster:  How did you come to be a part of Betty Swain Project, and what made you want to participate?

Lynn Anderson:  My friend and my steel guitar player Robin Ruddy (who also plays with Rod Stewart) called me and told me about the project, and asked if I might be interested in it, and I said “Sure” when I heard the history of it. Are you familiar with that?

Yes, it’s a beautiful story.

It really is. It’s very interesting. It’s kind of heartwarming. This lady was finally able to hear her music played before she passed away, and she had such great friends and such great family. It’s kind of amazing that sometimes words and music are timeless and sometimes it’s kind of a time machine. If you put them in a box and bury them under the cornerstone of a building, it’s amazing when that building is torn down and you come up with that time capsule, it’s amazing what you might find there. Some things take you back to an older time, and sometimes that’s good and sometimes you’ve forgotten that. I think Betty’s music takes us back to an easier time – kind of a time of Patsy Cline and that basic country music. So I think it’s amazing. I think it’s incredible to be a part of the project. I think that occasionally if you get a chance it’s kind of a wake-up call that reminds you that people have been writing this music for a long time, and though this lady didn’t get recognized in her prime, it’s a wonderful thing that she was able to hear her music played and know that it would be recorded before she passed away.

What qualities do you think made Betty Swain a compelling songwriter?

I think she was very real. I think she was true to her time, which was much more basic, much more down-to-earth, much more one-and-one with your basic emotions. She wasn’t confused or distracted by the cell phones, the computers and all that stuff that we have now. She basically was just a lady who sat and used her music as her means to communicate with other people, and we’ve kind of forgotten about what we call the good old days. We rely so much on social data, social networking that we’ve kind of forgotten actually how to write a letter, how to write down a poem, how to actually sit down and write a letter to another person, and I think that’s what Betty captures. She kind of brings back into your face the fact that people sat down and wrote down their ideas and their thoughts, and that was how they entertained themselves, and that’s how they entertained their families and their neighbors. It was a softer, gentler time.

What can you tell us about the songs you recorded for the album, “Sweet Memories” and “Prove You Care”?

I love “Sweet Memories.” Since Betty Swain’s song, there were other songs written called “Sweet Memories,” but hers seems to have been the first. So it seems that a good idea never dies. There were, as I said, other songs that I know of in the past twenty or thirty years, but hers seems to have been the first, so I thought it was a really nifty chance to get to capture that songs in its first personification. And it may have been written a hundred years ago. Someone may have sat in a cabin in Kentucky and written a song called “Sweet Memories,” but that’s the first one that’s come to my mind, that’s come to my attention. I just think it’s an incredible opportunity to get to see and feel not only how much the same people’s ideas and words were fifty years ago, but how much different they are. It’s a real looking glass. It’s a chance to look back into history and then place us here in the future

I just thought ["Prove You Care"] was a nifty fun song. She seems to have been a forerunner to Loretta Lynn – somebody with the same down-home moral qualities that Loretta Lynn became famous for years later. She was very down-to-earth, and I think that song says a lot of that.

I couldn’t do an interview with you without taking a little time to talk about your signature song. You’ve had a great run of country hits, but “Rose Garden” stands out as the Lynn Anderson song that virtually everybody knows. How would you describe what that song has meant to your career and to your fans?

Well, that was just a little bit of magic. That’s just one of those things that, if you’re lucky, happens once in a lifetime. It had been recorded seven times before I did it, and it wasn’t a hit, but it just simply took off and went out of my hands when we recorded it. We were planning on recording it in several different languages, and before we could do it, it became a hit worldwide. It became a hit in Mexico and Spain and France and Germany and Japan and so on before I had an opportunity to sing it in those languages. So to me it says how much music is a universal language – how much a really great piece of music speaks over languages barriers and over different barriers that seem to rise up between people.  A great song can break them all down.

It’s amazing how things sometime just come together like that.

Yeah, it is. I feel so lucky too that my song “Rocky Top” has become the state theme song of Tennessee. Actually we have two. There’s “The Tennessee Waltz,” but whenever the University of Tennessee makes a touchdown, they have to play “Rocky Top”! Do you know “Rocky Top”?

Oh yes, that’ s actually one of my favorite songs you’ve done.

Wherever we go all around the world, I usually close my show with “Rocky Top.” Everywhere in the world people like the music. It’s a very American song. It’s a banjo and all that. People clap their hands and stop their feet and go “Yee haw” and stuff like that. It’s a very happy, up-tempo very, very American song, so I love “Rocky Top” as much as I love “Rose Garden.”

Looking back on all of your impressive career accomplishments, what do you consider to be your proudest moments?

I think that the idea that “Rose Garden” was named the unofficial theme song for the United States Marine Corps was an amazing moment. When the soldiers came back from Vietnam, we were in a stadium with a lot of soldiers. The U.S. Navy was on the left side – about ten thousand of them – and the army was in the front – about ten thousand of those, and the navy was behind them. On the right, there were about ten thousand United States Marines. When I sang “Rose Garden,” all of them stood on signal at attention and saluted when I sang that song because it was the theme song for the United States Marines! And that’s an amazing thing. I cried. It was an amazing moment having a song that’s the theme song for the men and woman who are defending the United States. It’s an amazing thing.

So what’s next for Lynn Anderson? Is there anything upcoming that you’d like to let folks know about?

I’ve got a gospel project that we just finished. It’s not out yet, but it will be in a couple of months. I’m very excited about it. This is the first time I’ve ever done a gospel project, and we’ve got a song in it that the Oak Ridge Boys came and sang with me, and of course they’re in the Gospel Hall of Fame! It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and to have the Oaks come in and sing with me is a wonderful thing. Those guys are just great! I can’t wait to get that out and see what happens with that.

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