Author Archives: Ben Foster

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

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

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2014 ACM Nominations

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

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

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-

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Album Review: Rhonda Vincent, Only Me

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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Single Review: Darius Rucker, “Radio”

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+

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

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+

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

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

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

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

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Single Review: Little Big Town, “Sober”

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

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Round Table Album Review: Brandy Clark, 12 Stories

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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

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“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

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