Author Archives: Ben Foster

A Conversation with Zane Williams

Zane WilliamsCountry music singer-songwriter Zane Williams had his first taste of mainstream success in 2006 when Jason Michael Carroll took his song “Hurry Home” into the Top 20. Having already made inroads in the regional country market of his home state of Texas, the Abilene native is currently attempting to break through to a national audience with his fourth album Overnight Success. Amid preparations to embark on his first nationwide radio tour (in an RV with his wife and two children along for the ride), Williams found the time to call Country Universe to chat about his current single and album.

Ben Foster:  What can you tell us about the creative process behind your single “Overnight Success”?

Zane Williams:  Well, that was a pretty easy one to write because it’s so autobiographical. Once I got the idea, I had a lot of subject material to pull from – just from my own life, and from all the other musicians I know. It was a little tricky to get it sort of figured out. I wanted it to be a ten-step process. Pretty much all those things that I talk about in the song I’ve actually lived out in my own life. I didn’t borrow ten grand from my uncle to make my first CD, but I borrowed $17,000 from my grandparents to make my first CD. All the stuff that the song talks about.

Does the album have any central unifying themes?

I don’t think the songs do really. I think the main theme that sort of ties it all together is just the fact that I wrote all the songs, and so I think each one of them sort of shows a different side of my personality, and I kind of think of each one as being kind of its own mini-movie, and they’re all pretty different from each other.

Like an exploration of who Zane Williams is, basically?

Yeah, basically. Just all the different sides of my writing and just how I hear country music. You got your honky-tonk song, and then you got your kind of rocking country song like “Hands of a Working Man,” and you got your acoustic-y bluegrass sittin’ on a front porch type song with “The Simple Things,” love song with “Kissin’.” You hear all those types of song on the radio. You don’t always hear that kind of variety from just one artist, but as a writer, I like to write all those different styles.

Do you have any favorite songs or lyrics on this album, or does that feel like choosing between your children?

I think maybe “On a Good Day,” especially the first verse, the one about “steam rising from my coffee cup like a prayer going up.” I was really feeling the mojo that day. I think I put some good imagery in that song. Metaphors and similes and imagery and stuff, you know. I was feeling sort of poetic that day, so I’m kind of proud of that one, and then “While I Was Away” is real personal for me because it’s written for my boy, and I think that one’s got some mojo on it too. But yeah, I like ‘em all, though.  That’s true.

Who are your favorite songwriters?

Man, there are so many.

Living or dead, past or present.

I think Garth Brooks wrote some killer songs. Of course, not all of his hits did he write, but he did write some of those hits. He wrote some really, really good ones. I still feel like Garth Brook’s greatest hits is just like the pinnacle for me. They’re just all so iconic. Like I said, he didn’t write ‘em all, but he picked them.

He knows how to write ‘em, and he knows how to pick ‘em.

Yeah, exactly. Alan Jackson is somebody who I really have a lot of respect for as a writer because he’d just keep it simple and keep it country and classic, and yet still not be too cliché and still be personal and original. He’s just a good’n. He showed that sweet spot. Of Nashville writers, Dennis Linde is one of my favorites. He passed away not too long ago. He wrote a lot of songs. He was kind of a recluse that lived off by himself and wrote by himself. His songs always had a lot of character to them, like “Bubba Shot the Jukebox” and [sings] “Made her the queen of my double wide trailer.” He wrote “Goodbye Earl” for the Dixie Chicks. All the hit songs just were fun. And then he wrote [sings] “In John Deere green, on a hot summer night…” So he was one of my favorite writers that wrote a lot of stuff back in the nineties. And then you got the guys like Radney Foster or Guy Clark, kind of singer-songwritery, little bit more folksy-type.

Yeah, Guy Clark’s new album is killer.

Yeah, they’re so varied, so good in their own way.

As a Texan, what are your thoughts on the current Texas country music scene, and what Texan artists do you enjoy listening to?

Well, I think like any scene it’s got its good music and bad music, and it’s got good music that’s not popular and you wonder why, and it’s got bad music that is popular and you wonder why. But it’s also got a lot of great stuff too. I think the main thing I like about it is just that you don’t have to be on a major label. There’s fewer gatekeepers. You don’t have to get permission to work with somebody. You pretty much just get your band together and sort of band together and go play shows and just work hard. So I’m thankful for the Texas community. If it weren’t for that, I don’t think I’d have a career right now because I’m always a little bit of a square peg in a round hole in Nashville. I’ve never had any luck getting a major label deal or whatever, and in Nashville you either get that major label deal or you’re just waiting tables. Or you get a publishing deal, but I did that, and I wasn’t happy just being that because I’m more than just a songwriter. I want to be an artist and I want to perform. Down here in Texas I’ve got a scene that enables me to do that.

I’d say some of my favorites on the Texas scene would be the Randy Rogers Band. They’re just cool, man. They’re really good. I like the Turnpike Troubadours. Singer-songwriters, I like Sean McConnell a lot. Those are some of my favorites. I guess one of my favorites is the new guy up-and-comer William Clark Green.

So what’s next for you?

Well, a lot of stuff, man. We’re basically kicking it into fifth gear, you know. I’m leaving the day after tomorrow and I’m taking my family, and we’re going in an RV that we borrowed from a friend, and we’re going on a twelve-day radio tour. On this twelve-day radio tour we’ll be going through Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi up to Nashville, and then spending a few days in Nashville, and then we’ll go through Bowling Green up to Lexington we’re I’ve got some family, and then we’ll be coming back down hitting a bunch of stations in Tennessee, and then going home by way of Arkansas and Oklahoma, hitting stations as we go. So anyway, it’s my first nationwide radio tour. “Overnight Success” is my first nationwide radio single. We’ve got a video for “Overnight Success” that’s coming out. We’ve been working it to the Texas charts for a couple months now. It’s in the Top 10 on the Texas charts. And that’s just the first single, man. Everybody that’s on my team and my record label – management, publicists, and radio promoters and all those people – we feel like there’s a lot more than just one single on our album. There’s two, five or six, so many to choose from.

So the next year or two is just gonna basically be the busiest I’ve ever been, just working my tail off playing shows every weekend and visiting as many radio stations as I can during the week and just really kicking it in into a higher gear than I’ve ever been in. I’ve never really had a good team behind me. It’s really the first time I’ve ever had the help of good publicists and radio promoters and everybody setting up a bunch of interviews for me and just helping to get the word out. We’re hoping to basically make Overnight Success a reality. I’d like this to be my breakout album, and I’m gonna do anything and everything in my power to get the word out about it.

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Single Review: Sara Evans, “Slow Me Down”

Sara Evans Slow Me DownSara Evans launches her seventh studio album with the Marv Green-penned “Slow Me Down,” in which a relationship is on the rocks, and Evans’ narrator is just about ready to walk out – but she looks back in hopes that her man will give her one good reason to stay. (Lorrie Morgan’s 1990 chart-topper “Five Minutes,” written by Beth Nielsen Chapman, is probably one of the song’s closest lyrical relatives.)

The single sets the appropriate mood with a distinctively ominous string intro (which will likely make it stand out on the radio if radio plays it) as well as an evocative melody that lingers after the song ends.  Melodic rises and dips convey angst-ridden indecision as Evans sings “Wheels are turnin’ in my mind… Don’t wanna leave, but I might this time,” and a dramatic crescendo exudes mounting desperation as the song launches into its chorus.  Evans gives the song all she’s got, delivering a forceful performance of the chorus while rendering the song’s title phrase with a plaintive trill.

Unfortunately, Evans’ and Mark Bright’s production is where things go wrong.  During the chorus, Evans’ distinctive alto is needlessly marred by sea of pounding guitars.  And, considering that Evans’ voice has always sounded best in a pure country setting, it is somewhat disheartening that little about “Slow Me Down” feels country.  Though Evans’ style has shifted further toward the pop side of the pop-country spectrum in recent years, it has remained rare for her to release a single that features not so much as a trace of country instrumentation, as is the case here.

“Slow Me Down” is a good song. It’s just unfortunate that it’s held back from being what it could have been.

Written by Marv Green

Grade:  B

Listen:  Slow Me Down

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Single Review: Laura Bell Bundy, “Two Step”

Laura-Bell-Bundy-Two-Step-2013-1200x1200Laura Bell Bundy made a distinctly memorable impression when she blew into Nashville fresh off Broadway four years ago.  Of all the major label country albums released in 2009, few were more polarizing than Bundy’s genre-bending Mercury Nashville release Achin’ and Shakin’.  Maybe you thought it was brilliant.  Maybe you thought it was atrocious.  But there was one thing that it definitely wasn’t – boring.

“Two Step” is boring.

It’s dull, repetitive, tasteless, and utterly forgettable.

The problem isn’t that it’s a pop song masquerading as a country song.  The problem is that nothing about the lyrics, construction, melody, or production feels clever or interesting in any way.  The song leans far too heavily on mundane repetitions of its unremarkable title, and with “Two Step” already floundering, a Colt Ford hick-rap bridge is not going to be the thing to save it.

I know she can do better than this because she has before.  Let’s just hope that Bundy’s future releases on her new Big Machine label home will focus a little less on choreography and a little more on content.

Written by Laura Bell Bundy, Andy Davis, Lance Kotara, Adam McInnis, and Bryan Ray

Grade:  D+

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In Memoriam: Cowboy Jack Clement, 1931-2013

Cowboy Jack ClementThe long list of country music greats lost in 2013 continues with the passing of Cowboy Jack Clement, who succumbed to liver cancer yesterday morning at the age of 82.

Few have done so much to shape country music from behind the scenes as this legendary songwriter and producer.  In addition to writing some of the genre’s best-loved songs, he produced classic records such as “Ring of Fire” and “Dreaming My Dreams with You,” as well as Bobby Bare’s concept album A Bird Named Yesterday.  He also played an instrumental role in launching the careers of icons such a Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis, while helping the now-legendary Charley Pride become one of the first major African-American country stars.  He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1973 and is one of this year’s inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Be sure to check out this fine in-depth tribute by the always reliable Peter Cooper, as well as some personal remembrances by his good friends Kris Kristofferson and Marty Stuart.

Finally, enjoy the following performances of some of Clement’s most beloved compositions.  We at Country Universe are saddened to hear of Clement’s passing, and we extend our condolences to his family, friends, and fans.

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Album Review: Pam Tillis & Lorrie Morgan, Dos Divas

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Pam Tillis & Lorrie Morgan
Dos Divas

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If you have a soft spot for the great country artists of the nineties – particularly the generation of mature, articulate women who ruled the genre for much of the decade – the announcement of a duets album between Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan was likely a tremendous cause for excitement.  With both ladies being second-generation country stars, Opry members, touring partners, and great friends, a studio collaboration would seem a natural progression, and the lofty potential is obvious.

There’s a palpable joy in the proceedings as the two gal pals pair up in the studio for the first time, and there’s a sense of good-natured fun evident throughout, with song selections often skewing toward the humorous.  Tillis has a ball with “Old Enough to Be Your Lover” in which her narrator giddily flaunts a romance with a much younger man, a chuckle in her performance as she sings about her young lover not knowing who Richard Nixon was. (I imagine K.T. Oslin would be proud) On the delightfully snarky “Ain’t Enough Roses,” Tillis scoffs that there “ain’t enough roses on God’s green earth” to make her take back her no-good ex.  The line “I hope you saved your sales receipt so you can take ‘em back” is particularly delicious, and Tillis’ sassy delivery milks the song’s humor for all it’s worth.

But the album’s serious moments yield rewards their own.  The writing trio of Shane McAnally, Jessie Jo Dillon, and Country Universe favorite Brandy Clark supplies one of the set’s best-written song’s with “Last Night’s Make Up,” a regretful morning-after ballad in which Morgan’s narrator laments, “If I could wash you off like last night’s make up, looking in the mirror wouldn’t be so hard.”  It’s also one of Morgan’s best vocal turns on the album, demonstrating the level of nuance that she has retained even as her vocal power has noticeably declined.

And while Tillis’ powerhouse vocals have aged with remarkable grace, there are times when the signs of wear and tear on Morgan’s voice prove to be a hindrance.  She stays within her limitations for most of the album, but she occasionally sounds strained when tackling the high notes on the title track, or the rapid-fire verses of honky tonk throwdown “I Know What You Did Last Night.”

In terms of song content, there is a small amount of fat that could have been trimmed.  “That’s So Cool” presents what could have been an interesting account of a middle-aged woman rekindling an old high school romance, but the song is hindered by a lifeless melody and too much time wasted repeating its forgettable title (and if you didn’t like Reba singing about texting and Twitter, you won’t like Lorrie singing about Google and Facebook either).  While one likely wouldn’t doubt the sincerity behind “Another Chance To,” a meditation on the uncertainty of life, it’s unfortunate that the song is clogged up with throwaway lines such as “Every day is a gift” and “I’ve never loved the way I love you.”  Tillis makes the best of a fairly rote love song with “Even the Stars,” but the song still could have been left off with no great loss to the project as a whole.

But there are times when even the lesser songs are elevated by some inspired production choices.   The title track is spiced up with horn-infused Tex-Mex stylings, “That’s So Cool” boasts a delightful banjo line, and a bluesy piano and harmonica-driven arrangement perfectly underscores the quiet vindictiveness of “Ain’t Enough Roses.”  It’s particularly enjoyable to hear Tillis and Morgan sing over a pure traditional country arrangement as they lovingly cover “I’m Tired,” a 1958 Webb Pierce hit co-written by Pam’s legendary dad Mel.  The only glaring production misstep is the audacious, bass-heavy arrangement of “Old Enough to Be Your Love,” weighed down by too much clutter in the mix.

Enjoyable as the album is, it’s hard not to wish that Dos Divas contained a few more full-fledged duets with fewer solos.  The album opens with four duets, and then serves up eight solo tracks with Tillis and Morgan alternating lead vocals before closing with two final duets.  There’s nothing wrong with a duets album including a few solos for variety’s sake, but there’s a point at which it begins to feel like a missed opportunity.  Seeing as we already have plenty of solo material by both ladies, the real treat is hearing them sing together, whether playfully pointing fingers at each other’s rowdy tendencies in “I Know What You Did Last Night” or musing on gossipy small-town Southern culture in “Bless Their Hearts.”  The self-deprecating “What Was I Thinkin'” closes the album on a high note, drawing on Tillis and Morgan’s perspective as women who have done some living, as they look back with amusement on choices large and small that were later regretted.  A tongue-in-cheek conversational tone actively engages the listener while lines of spoken dialogue hint at the song being semi-autobiographical for the two artists.

Ultimately, it all adds up to a very good album, albeit one that could have been even better.  At its best, the album contains moments of pure brilliance, while Tillis and Morgan’s unshakable chemistry is enough to make one hope that this studio collaboration does not turn out to be a one-off.  It’s a fun, entertaining effort by two of country music’s brightest talents of the past twenty years, made all the more enjoyable by the fact that they clearly understand the need to not take themselves too seriously.

Top Tracks:  “Last Night’s Make Up,” “Ain’t Enough Roses,” “What Was I Thinkin'”

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Single Review: Danielle Bradbery, “The Heart of Dixie”

Danielle-Bradbery-The-Heart-of-DixieThe debut single from The Voice Season 4 winner Danielle Bradbery has one of best productions you’re likely to hear on terrestrial country radio, heavy on the sweet sounds of fiddle and mandolin.  “The Heart of Dixie” also boasts an effective melody which rises and dips in a manner most fitting for a story about a woman leaving an unsatisfying life and finding newfound freedom on the open road.  And while the interpretive abilities of an artist still in her teens are often limited (see early LeAnn Rimes as an example), Bradbery at least sounds genuinely engaged in the story she’s telling.

That said, it’s hard not to wish that the story itself were a bit more compelling.  The protagonist “Dixie” doesn’t feel real as a character, and it doesn’t help that she’s named Dixie merely for the sake of a titular pun.  You can tell a bit too easily that she’s the brainchild of three hired-gun Nashville songwriters, and her story begs to be fleshed out with greater dimension and detail.  It’s the kind of story that’s definitely worth telling, but also one that’s been told better and more interestingly in the past.

The single has enough strong points to generate interest in the artist and her future efforts, but as it is, we’re left with a single that is an enjoyable listen, but uninspiring overall.

Written by Brett James, Caitlyn Smith and Troy Verges

Grade:  B-

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Single Review: Lee Brice, “Parking Lot Party”

Parking_Lot_Party_Lee_BriceIt’s fun to imagine the songwriting meeting that produced this.  It sounds like somebody just said, “So let’s write a song about a parking lot party before a concert”… so they did.

In theory, a song attempting to encapsulate that pre-show warm-up experience is not a bad idea.  The problem is that “Parking Lot Party” is all volume and no content – all packaging and no product.  There seems to be little idea behind the song other than the fact that parking lot parties are a thing, and repeating the phrase “parking lot party” over and over again.

Part of the problem is simply that the song tries too hard to make you like it, shamelessly laying on every gimmick under the sun, including an spoken intro by Nashville DJs Big D and Bubba, crowd sound effects, and a canned singalong chorus at the end.  There’s hardly a hook or clever line to validate the song’s existence, and the record as a whole is made so cheesy that it’s hard to listen to.

The song reminds me in some ways of Little Big Town’s “Pontoon” in that both songs portray scenes of summery recreation in a mostly literal and one-dimensional manner.  The difference is that “Pontoon” is catchy – this isn’t.

There’s nothing wrong with ear candy, but you’ve got to remember to add the flavor.

Written by Lee Brice, Rhett Akins, Thomas Rhett, and Luke Laird

Grade:  D

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Single Review: Danielle Car, “Turn You On”

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The Motor City might not exactly be known as a hotbed of country music talent, but it happens to be the home of one talented country voice by the name of Danielle Car.  She has yet to ink a record deal, but has been actively making the rounds and building a fan following with her independent efforts.

Car has continually cited California country legend Dwight Yoakam as a favorite artist as well as a primary musical influence, but you don’t have to read her bio to guess that – it’s clear from one listen of her current single “Turn You On.”  A driving Bakersfield-via-Detroit-style production puts the listener right in the middle of the dim lights, thick smoke, and loud, loud music as Car’s narrator attempts to drown her blues in liquor, only to stumble into a new romance quite accidentally.

But while the sonic stylings may be an open nod to the legends of California country, the fun, flirtatious melody and the irresistible energy in Car’s performance are anything but derivative.  What impresses most about “Turn You On” is the fact that Car honors her influences while still bringing plenty of herself to the project.  The Yoakam influence in particular is unmistakable, but “Turn You On” remains first and foremost a Danielle Car record.

Far from displaying the complacency that weighs down far too much of today’s country music, Car delivers a blast of spirited country fun that begs to be replayed over and over again.  The country radio listening experience would be a lot more engaging if today’s hits showed half as much personality.

Written by Danielle Car

Grade:  A

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Single Review: Brandy Clark, “Stripes”

Brandy-ClarkBrandy Clark has many times shown that she’s one heck of a songwriter.  Recently, her writing talents have been heard on respectable cuts such as Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” and The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two,”  while her name appears all over the co-writer credits on Kacey Musgraves’ excellent Mercury Records debut Same Trailer Different Park.  Now we get to hear the woman get behind the mic herself with her recently released Brandy Clark EP and her debut single and video “Stripes” – a brash up-tempo number that wouldn’t sound out-of-place on a Miranda Lambert album.

The song begins with a bang, opening line “You were lying in there with nothin’ on but a goofy little grin and a platinum blonde” reeling the listener in quickly.  Next thing we know, the narrator is cocking a pistol, and we’re beginning to wonder if we’re in for a murder ballad.

But she stops short of doing the deed – not in a display of mercy or conscience, but because our fashion-conscious narrator bristles at the thought of having to don a prison uniform, with Clark singing “I hate stripes and orange ain’t my color, and if I squeeze that trigger tonight I’ll be wearin’ one or the other.”  It’s a clever and original, not to mention humorous, twist on a tried-and-true country music theme as Clark entertainingly captures the moment of catching one’s partner in the act.

Fortunately, “Stripes” doesn’t go so far as to fall into novelty territory, thanks in part to Clark’s fierce, simmering vocal rendering.  The fresh, engaging David Brainard-helmed production is a delight, with a jaunty drumbeat and honky-tonk piano lending added grit and punch to the song’s tale.

As the first radio bid from an exceptionally talented singer-songwriter, “Stripes” does not disappoint.  It’s an ambitious, energetic debut single that makes the prospect of a full-length Brandy Clark album (to be released later this year) even more enticing.

Grade:  A

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Single Review: Toby Keith, “Drinks After Work”

Toby-Keith-Drinks-After-Work

Looking at recent single releases “Red Solo Cup,” “Beers Ago,” “I Like Girls That Drink Beer,” and “Hope On the Rocks,” it would appear that Toby Keith is definitely in the zone for drinking songs right now.  His chart success, however, has not been quite so consistent lately.  He scored the first double-platinum hit of his career with the ubiquitous sing-along and viral video hit “Red Solo Cup” only to miss the Top 15 with both of the singles from last year’s Hope On the Rocks album.

The first single from Keith’s upcoming seventeenth studio album doesn’t exactly sound like another career hit for the two-time ACM Entertainer of the Year, who now seems to have reached the back side of his commercial peak.  But it what it does sound like is a tasteful, competent, not overly self-serious chill-out jam that will no doubt hit the spot at the end of a long, hard work day.

Today’s country radio is hardly short on feel-good fare, but it’s not always as solidly produced as “Drinks After Work,” which is smartly held together by a catchy guitar hook and some sweet mandolin picking.  Better yet, “Drinks After Work” actually manages to convey why its narrator seeks the respite of a few good beers as he mutters about his, “long day, no break,” straining to be optimistic in noting that “We made it to the middle of the week.”  Keith’s delivery makes the narrator sound every bit as fried as the lyrics suggest.  Bonus points to the writers for steering clear of goofy Blake Shelton-esque pick-up lines as the narrator casually and unpretentiously invites a lady friend to join him for his night on the town.

It certainly doesn’t hurt the proceedings that we have one of contemporary country music’s strongest male vocalists behind the mic, or that the writers thankfully bothered to give the song a melody with a little life to it.  The only major knock against the song is that it lacks a strong lyrical hook.  “It’s just drinks after work” is a bit on the shallow side as a listener payoff.  But even when allowing for that deficiency, there are still many far less enjoyable drinking tunes currently populating country radio.

It sure is good to hear a drinking song with a little heart and character to it, and if it re-gains a little commercial steam for Toby Keith, then all the better.  Bottoms up!

Written by Barry Dean, Natalie Hemby, and Luke Laird

Grade:  B

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