Articles by Ben

Retro Single Reviews: Shania Twain, 2004-2012

April 15, 2013

After the enormous success of the Up! project, Shania Twain released a top-selling Greatest Hits album in 2004, which spawned three singles.  She then embarked on an extended hiatus before returning in 2011 with a new single and a reality series on The Oprah Winfrey Network.  In this set of retro single reviews, we'll take a look at Twain's six most recent single releases to date.

220px-Party_for_Two_shania_twain

“Party for Two” (with Billy Currington or Mark McGrath)
2004
Peak:  #7

The first single from Twain's Greatest Hits package was her last Top 10 country hit to date, but only the second Top 10 hit for her then-up-and-coming duet partner Billy Currington.  The premise is shamelessly silly, as are the spoken word intro and the “You'll be sexy in your socks” line, but Twain and Currington sell it with flair.  Twain delivers her verses with a flirty, playful performance, while Currington renders his with the same laid-back smolder that would become his calling card at country radio.

In the tradition of the Up! album, “Party for Two” was released in both a country and pop mix, with Sugar Ray's Mark McGrath appearing as Twain's duet partner on the latter.  Unfortunately, McGrath's performance lacks the character needed to sell a song of this ilk, and the gaudy pop arrangement has aged poorly in comparison to the country mix, demonstrating that Twain was often at her best when keeping a toe in country waters.

Written by Shania Twain and Robert John “Mutt” Lange

Grade (Currington version):  B+

Listen:  Party for Two (with Billy Currington)

Grade (McGrath version): B-

Listen:  Party for Two (with Mark McMcGrath)

220px-Don't-shania-twain

“Don't!”
2005
Peak:  #24

The soft, dobro-driven arrangement is the perfect fit for this angst-filled ballad.  Twain performs the song in an emotive almost-whisper of a delivery, while the evocative melody conveys regret and desperation with a tinge of hope.

Written by Shania Twain and Robert John “Mutt” Lange

Grade:  A-

Listen:  Don't!

Shania_Twain_I_Aint_No_Quitter

“I Ain't No Quitter”
2005
Peak:  #45

The third and final single from Twain's Greatest Hits fizzled due to lack of promotion.  Quite possibly Twain's countriest single since “No One Needs to Know,” “I Ain't No Quitter” lacks the lyrical cleverness of Twain's best work, but she elevates the song through her fun, laid-back performance.  Likewise, the bouncy, fiddle and steel drenched arrangement is a delight.

Written by Shania Twain and Robert John “Mutt” Lange

Grade:  B

Listen:  I Ain't No Quitter

Shania_Twain_Shoes

“Shoes”
2005
Peak:  #29

A rare instance in which Twain worked with a team of co-writers in addition to her then-husband, “Shoes” was written for inclusion on a Desperate Housewives companion album, but the boot-stomping fiddle-laden arrangement would have not have sounded out of place on The Woman In Me.

The lyric draws on a series of humorous double-entendres comparing men to footwear. (“Some make you feel ten feet tall, some make you feel so small, and some you want to leave out in the hall or make you feel like kickin' the wall”)  The concept is pure novelty, but Twain pulls it off brilliantly with a catchy everywoman-sing-along chorus and an in-on-the-joke vocal performance.

Written by Shania Twain, Robert Johnn “Mutt” Lange, Tammy Hyler, Joie Scott, and Kim Tribble

Grade:  B+

Listen:  Shoes

Shania Twain Today is Your Day

“Today Is Your Day”
2011
Peak:  #36

In the wake of Twain and Lange's divorce, “Today Is Your Day” was the first Twain single since the days of her debut album not to be produced by Lange.  Unfortunately, David Foster's production lacks the freshness and restraint of Lange's work, with a clutter of instruments distracting from Twain's performance instead of spotlighting it.

Twain's vocal exudes sincerity, vulnerability, and age-earned wisdom, but struggles to overcome the fact that the lyrics amount to little more than a string of inspirational clichés.  Add some unnecessary vocal processing on top of that, and Twain's comeback single falls greatly short of the event that it should have been.

Written by Shania Twain

Grade:  C+

Listen:  Today Is Your Day

220px-Lionel_Richie_&_Shania_Twain_-_Endless_Love

“Endless Love” (with Lionel Richie)
2012
Peak:  #12 (U.S. Adult Contemporary)

A remake of Richie's classic 1981 hit duet with Diana Ross, from his country duets project Tuskegee.  It starts out on a pleasant note, but gradually devolves into an overwrought shouting match that seems to go on forever as Richie and Twain attempt to force emotion into the song.

Written by Lionel Richie

Grade:  B-

Listen:  Endless Love (with Lionel Richie)

Previous:  It Only Hurts When I'm Breathing

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Country Music Hall of Fame Welcomes Cowboy Jack Clement, Bobby Bare, and Kenny Rogers

April 10, 2013

Kenny Rogers

This year’s inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame have just been announced from Nashville by Bill Anderson.  The 2013 inductees are Cowboy Jack Clement (Non-Performer), Bobby Bare (Veterans Era), and Kenny Rogers (Modern Era).

Songwriter and producer Jack Clement, a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame since 1973, claims writer’s credit for some of country music’s most beloved classics.  He supplied Johnny Cash with multiple hits, including the standard “Ballad of a Teenage Queen,” and has also had his songs recorded by the likes of Charley Pride, Dolly Parton, Jim Reeves, Hank Snow, and Ray Charles, among many other legendary artists.

Bobby Bare enjoyed a run of country hits throughout the sixties and seventies, including genre classics such as “Detroit City,” “500 Miles Away from Home,” “Four Strong Winds,” and “Marie Lavaux.”  He hosted the program Bobby Bare and Friends on The Nashville Network from 1983 t0 1988, and in the late nineties, enjoyed a strong second act as a member of the country music supergroup Old Dogs with friends and fellow legends Jerry Reed, Mel Tillis, and Waylon Jennings.

Kenny Rogers is widely known for his beloved 1978 classic “The Gambler” – a Grammy and CMA-winning crossover smash that spawned a TV serial adaptation in which Rogers starred.  His multifaceted career has also included success with his band The First Edition, as well as crossover success lasting on through the 1980s and hit duets with stars such as Kim Carnes, Sheena Easton, Dottie West, and Dolly Parton.

Congratulations to the 2013 Country Music Hall of Fame inductees from the Country Universe community.  What’s your take on this year’s inductees, and who would you like to see follow them into the Hall in 2014?

2013 ACM Awards: Staff Picks and Predictions

April 6, 2013

acm_awards_2013

The stars are converging on Las Vegas this weekend as the industry gears up for this year’s ACM Awards.  We at Country Universe have been busily poring over this year’s list of nominees, picking and predicting the winners while getting ready for all the live-blogging madness Sunday night.

This year Luke Bryan replaces Reba McEntire as Blake Shelton’s co-host, and we have a roster of live performers that includes everyone from Eric Church and Hunter Hayes to Kelly Clarkson and Jewel.  On top of that, Shania Twain will return to present at the ACM Awards for the first time in a decade, and we look forward to a historic collaboration between George Strait and Garth Brooks as the two modern genre legends pay tribute to the late ACM executive producer Dick Clark.

Who would you most like to see emerge victorious at this year’s ACM Awards?  Share your picks and predictions in the comments section below.  Tune in to the live telecast tomorrow night at 8:00 p.m. Eastern/ 7:00 Central on CBS, and be sure to drop by Country Universe for our live blog.  Meanwhile, our friends at Engine 145 will be hosting a live blog of their own, so feel free to pay them a visit as well.

Entertainer of the Yeartaylor-swift-2012-acm-awards-press-room-01

Should Win:

  • Jason Aldean - Kevin
  • Luke Bryan
  • Miranda Lambert - Tara
  • Blake Shelton - Dan
  • Taylor Swift - Jonathan, Ben, Leeann

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean - Tara, Kevin
  • Luke Bryan
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Blake Shelton - Leeann
  • Taylor Swift - Jonathan, Ben, Dan

Leeann:  As far as I know, Taylor Swift had the highest tickets sales in 2012, so she remains a force to be reckoned with.  I, however, wouldn’t be surprised to if Blake Shelton won based on his high profile due to The Voice.  Then again, I also wouldn’t be too surprised to see Jason Aldean win based on the fact that he sold out Madison Square Garden in under 10 minutes.  I can’t imagine.

Kevin:  I’m going out on a bit of limb here by picking Aldean as the likely winner, but seeing him sell out Madison Square Garden in ten minutes indicates to me that his fan base is quite motivated.  I really think that Swift is going to suffer among the industry voters for going blatantly pop, and I suspect it will be enough to push them into Aldean’s camp.  Carrie Underwood, of course, is the real Entertainer of the Year. She’s just not nominated.

Jonathan:  It’s impossible, really, to envision Swift, the biggest star in this line-up by several orders of magnitude, losing an award that’s partially fan-voted.  And, even though I don’t think her Red era scans as country as any meaningful way, she’d get my vote, too, as the most compelling entertainer of the lot.  Though it’s worth mentioning that, had she been nominated, Carrie Underwood would’ve been my pick.

Tara:  Let’s try a little positivity – here’s what I still love: “Fly Over States,” the Pistol Annies, and Swift’s drive.  But frankly, I’m not comfortable with any of these artists – based on their current output and presence – representing our industry as EOTY, and that’s quite frustrating.

Ben:  Carrie Underwood would have been my choice without reservation had she been nominated.  But with her out of running, I’d have to shrug it over to either Aldean or Swift, and while neither of them are making music that feels country to me, Swift’s material has generally been more interesting.  Sadly, I still have to second Tara’s closing sentence, as I can’t wholeheartedly endorse any one of these five artists as the face of country music in 2013.

Dan:  So let’s see:  Swift is in full Top 40 mode, Lambert released her three weakest singles back-to-back (pre-“Mama’s Broken Heart”), Aldean and Bryan have totally burrowed into their respective formulae, and Blake Shelton’s best contribution is TV goofery.  I guess I’d be least put off by the goofery being rewarded, but yeah.

Male Vocalist of the YearEric Church

Should Win:

  • Jason Aldean
  • Luke Bryan
  • Eric Church - Jonathan, Tara, Ben, Dan, Kevin
  • Toby Keith - Leeann
  • Blake Shelton

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean
  • Luke Bryan
  • Eric Church
  • Toby Keith
  • Blake Shelton - Jonathan, Tara, Ben, Leeann, Dan, Kevin

Jonathan:  Take a Mulligan on this one, ACMs:  Gary Allan, Dierks Bentley, Eric Church, Darius Rucker, Chris Young.  There, now was that really so hard?

Leeann:  Toby Keith has the best voice of these men, but I have no doubt that Blake Shelton will win it, since this is his time.

Kevin:  I don’t see a way around a Shelton win, though I think Church would have a shot if he wasn’t also nominated for Album, giving voters an easy way to honor both Church and Shelton on the same ballot.

Ben:  Everyone here has a shot except Toby Keith.  From a critic’s perspective, Eric Church is a shoo-in per usual, but I expect the ACM will continue handing unearned trophies to the musically underachieving Blake Shelton.

Dan:  Church please, but I’d be fine if this category ended up rewarding Aldean or Bryan for their success. Just want to see some mix-up.

Tara:  Same ole.

Female Vocalist of the YearCarrie-Underwood-Blown-Away-Tour

Should Win:

  • Miranda Lambert
  • Martina McBride
  • Kacey Musgraves
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood - Jonathan, Tara, Ben, Leeann, Dan, Kevin

Will Win:

  • Miranda Lambert - Tara, Ben, Leeann, Dan
  • Martina McBride
  • Kacey Musgraves
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood - Jonathan, Kevin

Kevin:  Sheer power of wishful thinking?  Perhaps.  But to ignore Carrie Underwood’s stellar year artistically and commercially would be a sin.

Ben:  If there were ever a year in which Carrie Underwood deserved the Female Vocalist trophy, this would be it.  Unfortunately, Underwood’s lack of nominations

in the Entertainer and Single categories suggest that Miranda Lambert remains the current favorite.

Jonathan:  Even if I’ve been slightly disappointed by Underwood’s choices of singles during the eligibility period, I stand by what I said in our CMA picks and predictions last fall:  Whatever substantial limitations she may still have as an artist, Underwood is currently doing what is far and away her career-best work, and I’d like to see her rewarded for that.

Dan:  Or, to ape Jonathan’s mathematical approach from a few award shows back:  “Blown Away” + “Two Black Cadillacs” > “Over You” + “Fastest Girl in Town.”

Tara:  Based on vision, creativity and voice, this is a no-brainer.  I have a hard time picturing anyone dethroning the Lamberts, though.

Leeann:  I honestly won’t be upset if Miranda Lambert wins, because she’s got my favorite voice of the group, but I think Carrie Underwood actually deserves the award.  I’ve been liking her voice more these days and she’s just about always on target for live performances.

 Vocal Duo of the Yearflorida georgia line

Should Win:

  • Big & Rich
  • Florida Georgia Line - Ben? Dan?
  • Love and Theft
  • Sugarland
  • Thompson Square - Tara?

Will Win:

  • Big & Rich
  • Florida Georgia Line - Jonathan, Tara, Ben, Dan
  • Love and Theft
  • Sugarland
  • Thompson Square - Leeann, Kevin

Kevin:  Since they won the CMA’s, I’m assuming Thompson Square will follow up with an ACM.  My preference would be completely eliminating the category.

Leeann:  Sugarland hasn’t done anything in the last year and I have absolutely no interest in the others in this category, so my random guess leans toward Thompson Square.

Ben:  Of all these nominees’ recent output, “Cruise” seems to be the hit with the most staying power, so I imagine Florida Georgia Line will be this year’s stand-in while Sugarland remains MIA. Our vocal duos seriously need to step it up.

Jonathan:  I just can’t with this.

Dan:  I love “Cruise,” and even I’m going to be kind of depressed when this happens.

Tara:  Have we ever needed new Sugarland music more?

Vocal Group of the Yearlittle big town tornado

Should Win:

  •  The Band Perry
  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Little Big Town - Tara, Ben, Leeann, Dan, Kevin
  • Zac Brown Band - Jonathan

Will Win:

  • The Band Perry
  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Little Big Town - Jonathan, Tara, Ben, Leeann, Dan, Kevin
  • Zac Brown Band

Jonathan:  So, how’s about we just reallocate the obviously superfluous Vocal Duo trophy to recognize two of the acts nominated in this category?  I am honestly fine with four of the five possible outcomes, but LBT is on a years-overdue roll that looks to continue here.

Leeann:  I think Little Big Town finally has a chance of winning this.

Ben:  I believe Little Big Town has this one in the bag, and I’m perfectly happy with that.  They already won Vocal Group at last November’s CMAs, and with a top-selling album and a number-one hit falling within the current eligibility period, the case is much stronger for an LBT victory at the ACMs.  I don’t see how they can lose.

Tara:  I’m with Jonathan – there are four possible deserved victories here. But Little Big Town stole my heart with Tornado, and I’m digging their time in the spotlight, even if it’s ridiculously overdue.

Dan:  Being real:  Their CMA victory for “Pontoon” and “Pontoon” alone was a little silly.  This one will be based on “Pontoon” plus another #1 hit plus an almost-Platinum album, and that’s delicious.

Kevin:  Now we’re all just going to predict Little Big Town after being burned for not doing so at the CMAs and the Grammys!

New Artist of the YearBrantley Gilbert

Should Win:

  • Florida Georgia Line - Dan
  • Brantley Gilbert
  • Jana Kramer - Ben, Leeann

Will Win:

  • Florida Georgia Line
  • Brantley Gilbert - Jonathan, Tara, Ben, Dan, Kevin
  • Jana Kramer

Kevin:  Brantley Gilbert seems popular.  None of them seem award-worthy. Sorry to cop out again, but if I was a voter, I’d leave this category blank, too.

Leeann:  I have no idea who will win, but Jana Kramer is the only one I can remotely stand.

Ben:  All three nominees had solid successes this past year, but Kramer is the one I see as having the most potential.  But fan-voted categories are not based on potential, so Gilbert’s strong internet fan base will likely power-vote him to victory.

Jonathan:  Kramer is the Death Is Not An Option choice, I guess, but I am not at all invested in any of these three acts.

Dan:  FGL are the only ones here who have done anything I actually enjoy, so I’ll gamble on them despite their unbearable first album.

Tara:  Dude, where’s Kip Moore?

Album of the YearChief

Should Win:

  • Carrie Underwood, Blown Away Tara, Ben, Kevin
  • Eric Church, ChiefLeeann, Dan
  • Taylor Swift, Red
  • Luke Bryan, Tailgates & Tanlines
  • Little Big Town, Tornado - Jonathan

Will Win:

  • Carrie Underwood, Blown Away - Ben
  • Eric Church, Chief - Jonathan, Leeann, Dan, Kevin
  • Taylor Swift, Red
  • Luke Bryan, Tailgates & Tanlines
  • Little Big Town, Tornado - Tara

Leeann:  Eric Church is no longer the underdog and Chief is my favorite nominated album.

Kevin:  With Miranda Lambert not nominated, I’m guessing Eric Church will fill their “honor the cool one in the Album slot” criteria.  Underwood made the best album.

Ben:  Bryan’s album is too uneven, and I don’t feel Swift’s album has any business being nominated at a country awards show.  Any one of the remaining three would make a worthy winner, but I’m hoping and tentatively (read: stubbornly) predicting that voters will recognize Underwood’s recent artistic growth with her second win in this category.

Tara:  I’m going out on a limb with both of these choices.  Blown Away isn’t technically a better album than Chief, but I’d really like to see it get some love, if only to continue to pump creativity and ambition into the Underwood team.  I think there’s a chance that Little Big Town’s heightened profile will give them some legs in this category, though, and I’m cool with that.

Jonathan:  The Church and Little Big Town sets have the best balance between ambition and actual quality of these five albums, and either would be a richly deserving winner.  The bloated Red can be whittled-down to a flat-out brilliant 7-song EP, but even then it’s still a pop record that probably shouldn’t be nominated here on principle.  Church’s CMA win and his overall nomination tally make him the presumptive front-runner, but there isn’t an outcome here that I’d find surprising.

Single Record of the Year

Should Win:LBT pontoon

  • Eli Young Band, “Even If It Breaks Your Heart”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Over You”
  • Little Big Town, “Pontoon” - Kevin
  • Eric Church, “Springsteen” - Tara, Ben, Leeann, Jonathan, Dan
  • Hunter Hayes, “Wanted”

Will Win:

  • Eli Young Band, “Even If It Breaks Your Heart”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Over You” - Leeann
  • Little Big Town, “Pontoon” - Jonathan, Tara, Ben, Kevin
  • Eric Church, “Springsteen”
  • Hunter Hayes, “Wanted” - Dan

Leeann:  The CMAs make me hesitate to bet against the Miranda Lambert single, but I vote for “Springsteen.”

Jonathan:  It’s great that he can play so many instruments and all, but Hayes is being grossly over-recognized during the current awards cycle:  I prefer rewarding actual merit to rewarding the potential for merit at some point in the future.  “Springsteen” is the best-produced track here, though the production is also the best attribute of “Pontoon,” which seems like the more likely winner.

Ben:  Quality lyrics with a cool Jay Joyce production gives “Springsteen” an edge in my opinion, but this award could go to any of the five.  My gut prediction is Little Big Town’s “Pontoon” (which incidentally also boasts a cool Jay Joyce production).

Tara:  I could see a surprise win for “Over You” or even for the better (think about that one for a sec) “Wanted,” but my guess is that “Pontoon” will get one last hoorah.

Dan:  It’s going to come down to “Pontoon” and “Wanted,” and just to be different, I’ll guess that the ACM go for the more recent of the two big hits.

Kevin:  “Pontoon” and “Wanted” are career records.   The former was also a career-reviving record, so I give it the edge.

Song of the Yeareli young band even if it breaks your heart

Should Win:

  • “A Woman Like You” – Phil Barton, Johnny Bulford, & Jon Stone (Performed by Lee Brice)
  • “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” – Will Hoge & Eric Paslay (Performed by Eli Young Band) - Jonathan, Tara, Dan, Kevin
  • “Over You” – Miranda Lambert & Blake Shelton (Performed by Miranda Lambert)
  • “Springsteen” – Eric Church, Jeff Hynde, & Ryan Tyndell (Performed by Eric Church) - Ben, Leeann
  • “Wanted” – Hunter Hayes & Troy Vergas (Performed by Hunter Hayes)

Will Win:

  • “A Woman Like You” – Phil Barton, Johnny Bulford, & Jon Stone (Performed by Lee Brice)
  • “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” – Will Hoge & Eric Paslay (Performed by Eli Young Band)
  • “Over You” – Miranda Lambert & Blake Shelton (Performed by Miranda Lambert) – Jonathan, Tara, Ben, Leeann, Dan, Kevin
  • “Springsteen” – Eric Church, Jeff Hynde, & Ryan Tyndell (Performed by Eric Church)

Jonathan:  “Springsteen” and “Even if It Breaks Your Heart” have been relegated to the status of also-rans throughout the past year’s worth of country awards.  There’s no reason to expect that to change here even though they are, yet again, the best songs nominated.  Thankfully, this is the last major songwriting award Lambert and Shelton will receive for what is far and away the worst-written song in either of their respective catalogues.

Ben:  “Springsteen” and “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” are the only two worthy nominees in this field, the former of which has my heart.  But who am I kidding?  “Over You” will win, and I will be bracing myself for one final round of fan-gloating on my review of the song.

Kevin:  My preference is “Even if it Breaks Your Heart,” if only because it works as well as a song as it does as a t-shirt.  “Over You” has the star power, but again, the title sums up my feelings about both stars and their strangely popular song.

Leeann:  Again, I won’t bet against “Over You,” but I think “Springsteen” or “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” are the best of these choices.

Tara:  I hope I’m wrong.

Dan:  :-/

Songwriter of the YearAlready presented off-camera; Dallas Davidson wonDallasDavidson

Should Win:

  • Rodney Clawson
  • Dallas Davidson
  • Josh Kear
  • Luke Laird
  • Shane McAnally - Ben, Leeann, Dan

Will Win:  

  • Rodney Clawson
  • Dallas Davidson - Ben, Leeann, Dan
  • Josh Kear
  • Luke Laird
  • Shane McAnally

Leeann:  Since Dallas Davidson is part of The Peach Pickers machine, I expect him to win, but I like Shane McAnally’s work with Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe, Lady Antebellum, Chris Young, etc.

Ben:  I’d love to support Josh Kear for having written “Blown Away,” but Shane McAnally’s fantastic work with Kacey Musgraves puts him over the edge.  Still, I’m expecting that the Peach Picker will pull of a repeat victory in this category.

Video of the YearM_LittleBigTownTornadoVid630_103112

Should Win:

  • Eric Church, “Creepin’” - Ben
  • Kacey Musgraves – “Merry Go ‘Round”
  • Little Big Town, “Tornado” - Jonathan, Dan
  • Hunter Hayes, “Wanted”
  • Taylor Swift, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” - Kevin
  • Zac Brown Band, “The Wind”

Will Win:

  • Eric Church, “Creepin’”
  • Kacey Musgraves, “Merry Go ‘Round”
  • Little Big Town, “Tornado” - Dan, Kevin
  • Hunter Hayes, “Wanted” - Jonathan
  • Taylor Swift, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” - Ben
  • Zac Brown Band, “The Wind”

Kevin:  Little Big Town’s clip seems the most “artsy,” but I do have to say that the Swift clip wins in my book.  It’s almost like she’s conceding how ridiculous the song and her entire public persona are.

Jonathan:  Hayes is being promoted so heavily that he’s going to have to win something, and this award is always the safest place for voters to recognize an artist that they feel obligated to vote for.  As much as I love the idea of Mike Judge winning, the animation and the music from the video for “The Wind” just don’t work together.  The stylish and not overly literal video for “Tornado” would get my vote, though I do like the videos for “Creepin’” and “Merry Go ‘Round” too.

Ben:  Church’s “Creepin’” video has a lot of energy and character to it, much like the song itself, but I’m smelling a Swift victory here.

Dan:  No clue, but isn’t it cool when Kim and Phil flash those death glares at the innocent townspeople?


 

Vocal Event of the Yearkelly-clarkson-dont-rush-400x400

Should Win:

  • Kelly Clarkson featuring Vince Gill, “Don’t Rush” - Jonathan, Tara, Ben, Leeann, Dan, Kevin
  • Rascal Flatts featuring Natasha Bedingfield, “Easy”
  • Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw, “Feel Like a Rock Star”
  • David Nail featuring Sarah Buxton, “Let It Rain”
  • Jason Aldean featuring Luke Bryan and Eric Church, “The Only Way I Know”

Will Win:

  • Kelly Clarkson featuring Vince Gill, “Don’t Rush” - Jonathan, Tara, Ben
  • Rascal Flatts featuring Natasha Bedingfield, “Easy”
  • Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw,” Feel Like a Rock Star” - Leeann, Kevin
  • David Nail featuring Sarah Buxton, “Let It Rain”
  • Jason Aldean featuring Luke Bryan and Eric Church, “The Only Way I Know” – Dan

Dan:  “Easy” was released in June 2011, off an album from November 2010.  Lol.

Jonathan:  So… Kelly Clarkson is about to have more ACM Awards than Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, and Pam Tillis.  I adore her, but that’s all kinds of wrong.

Kevin:  Because Vince Gill.

Ben:  I rarely support nominees that are not proper duets, but “Don’t Rush” is easily the class of the field.  Plus it’s always nice to see our old friend Vince get a new mantle decoration.

Tara:  Easy choice – just wish it had ended up being a more memorable collaboration.

Single Review: Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”

April 1, 2013

IDriveYourTruck_lee_briceLee Brice’s current hit is quite possibly the best song he’s yet sent to radio – a  compelling meditation on the process of dealing with grief over the loss of a loved one in death.

The point of the song is that each person has his or her own way of dealing with loss.  In the case of our bereaved narrator – who the lyric implies has lost a brother in army combat – he deals with it through driving his brother’s truck.  The song is filled with little details that add color to the story, from the half-empty bottle of Gatorade on the floor to his brother’s favorite country station playing on the radio.  Though specific in nature, the scenario is relatable for any of us who have dealt with grief by surrounding ourselves with things that remind us of the one lost.  A simple but delicately crafted story that draws out one of Brice’s most evocative vocal performances on record.

I hate to have to poke a stick at a single’s production for what feels like the hundredth time, but this song would have an even greater impact if given a more restrained arrangement.  It’s a fine performance of a solid song, but the bass-heavy production in the chorus acts as an unfortunate distraction.

But in the end, the power of a great song prevails.  Without a doubt, “I Drive Your Truck” is Lee Brice’s finest single to date.

Written by Lee Brice, Kyle Jacobs, and Matt McClure

Grade:  A-

Single Review: Sheryl Crow, "Easy"

March 28, 2013

EasySherylCrowIt’s not very country, nor does it sound far removed from the music

she’s been making for two decades now, but the lead single from Sheryl Crow’s first full-fledged country album gets several things right.

“Easy” is a laid-back summer song that’s meant to go down… well… easy.  Its aim is not to offer a deep compelling set of lyrics, but rather it’s mainly about creating the right feeling – channeling the ideal escapist vibe through the right set of hooks and melodies.

Crow herself describes “Easy” as “a song about ‘staycation’ — about staying home when you can’t afford to go to the Caribbean or wherever or on your yacht.  And making your home feel like you’re getting away.”  To that end, the smooth, lazy melody and tasteful production are a perfect fit.  Crow’s delivery of the chorus conveys a subtle sense of excitement that quietly pulls the listener in, lending an organic feel to the track as a whole.

Unfortunately, Crow’s limited vocal range begins working against her as the song near its end, and her performance becomes shaky and strained as she reaches for notes that seem somewhat beyond her capabilities.  It’s not quite enough to sink the record entirely, but it does give a rough, choppy ending to what is mostly smooth sailing up to that point.

Written by Sheryl Crow, Chris DuBois, and Jeff Trott

Grade:  B

Listen:  Easy

Single Review: Kristen Kelly, "He Loves to Make Me Cry"

March 26, 2013

He-Loves-to-Make-Me-Cry-Kristen-KellyMore noteworthy as a vocal showcase than as a lyrical composition.

“Ex-Old Man” singer Kirsten Kelly’s new single “He Loves to Make Me Cry” flies in the face of the country radio status quo with its smooth, bluesy arrangement.  I genuinely have to give Kelly credit for stepping outside the box, and it is interesting to hear her show a bit more of her range and vocal texture than she did on her debut single.

But a great production alone does not a great record make.  The lyrical concept of “He Loves to Make Me Cry” hinges its impact on the fact that tears can be a sign of joy and contentment instead of heartache, but fails to express that truth in a way that feels novel or revelatory.  The fact that the lyrics aren’t sufficiently engaging causes Kelly’s belted-out delivery to come across as unnecessary and almost self-indulgent.  Such a performance works only if the lyrical content warrants it, which in this case it doesn’t.   After a while, her stretching out one-syllable words into three syllables just feels grating.

The single is, however, enough to keep me interested in Kelly’s music, as it demonstrates a willingness to be different which will

undoubtedly serve her well in the future.  But that will only be the case if she can channel that spirit into a more compelling song than this one.

Written by Kristen Kelly, Paul Overstreet, and Even Stevens

Grade:  B-

Album Review: Kacey Musgraves, <i>Same Trailer Different Park</i>

March 22, 2013

Kacey-Musgraves-Same-Trailer-Different-Park

Kacey Musgraves
Same Trailer Different Park

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In just over half a decade, the now-24-year-old Texan Kacey Musgraves has gone from placing seventh on the 2007 season of Nashville Star and releasing a trio of independent albums to finally being granted some well-deserved mainstream exposure.  It was beyond a pleasant surprise when her beautifully written, critically lauded debut single “Merry Go ‘Round” became an honest-to-goodness Top 10 hit at country radio – a format not known for being friendly to intelligent, honest women.  Whether the industry will continue to support her remains to be seen, but Kacey Musgraves’ major label debut effort positions her as a ray of hope for country music at a time when such are very few – an artist who, if given the platform, just might have the potential to change country music for the better.

Appearing as a co-writer on every track along with a co-writer pool that consists of Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, and Luke Laird, Musgraves displays a songwriting voice characterized by clear-eyed insight and a tone of simple, plainspoken honesty.  She neither preaches nor judges; she simply observes.  “Merry Go ‘Round” foreshadowed this trait quite accurately.  On her debut hit, Musgraves mused on the human tendency to try to escape heartache through a variety of vices such as drug use or illicit sex, but noting that ultimately that “same hurt in every heart” still remains – each distraction is like a medicine that covers up the symptoms, but doesn’t cure the cold.  On “Follow Your Arrow,” she  sneers at small-town gossip while laying bare the futility of living to please others, noting that “You’re damned if you do; you’re damned if you don’t.”  On the witty upcoming single “Blowin’ Smoke,” she takes on the voice of a working class woman who chats with her co-workers on a smoke break about plans to leave her current line of work in pursuit of bigger dreams, but admits that “We’re just blowin’ smoke.”  The set is ripe with a strong sense of self-awareness that country radio has been sorely lacking for years now.

Musgraves clearly understands the value of escapism in country music, as evidenced by songs like opening track “Silver Lining,” in which she makes creative use of familiar metaphors to illustrate the point that if one wants good things to happen, one must accept the bad things that come along with it.  “My House” is a delightful ode to life on a house with four wheels, and to having someone with which to share it.  “Any place beside you is the place that I call home,” Musgraves sings, backed by a charming harmonica-laced arrangement.  Every bit as enjoyable is the witty “Step Off,” which plays like a Jason Mraz song with a banjo.

But oh, how rewarding it is when Musgraves channels pure vulnerability – a gift that finds its fullest expression in the pleading ballad “Keep It to Yourself,” in which Musgraves begs a former lover to let her move on, the lyric anchored by a melody that pierces deeply.  And while “It Is What It Is” has been nicknamed The Slut Song, such a moniker says nothing of the raw desperation that Musgraves conveys through her quivering performance.

Same Trailer Different Park sets itself apart from the pack by honoring genre traditions while slyly subverting modern conventions.  For a genre that takes pride in being the realm of “real” music, Kacey Musgraves is

one of precious few mainstream country artists to actually live up to that ideal, and for country radio programmers to let her slip through their fingers now would be an awful shame.  To call Same Trailer Different Park one of the year’s best mainstream country albums would not do it justice – it’s one of the year’s best albums period.

Top Tracks:  “Merry Go ‘Round,” “Keep It to Yourself,” “Follow Your Arrow”

Single Review: Pistol Annies, "Hush Hush"

March 21, 2013

Pistol-Annies-hush-hushOn first listen, the Pistol Annies’ new single “Hush Hush” immediately stands out as being their hardest rocking release to date.  It sounds more like something one might expect to hear on one of Miranda Lambert’s solo albums than the Annies’ traditional-leaning debut.  It seems the Annies are getting a harder radio push this time around – definitely a good thing since country radio has been largely in want of a good girl group for the past ten years.

The production may be a bit more polished, but the song’s sentiment is anything but glossed-over.  “Hush Hush” offers a darkly comic look at the volatile holiday gatherings of a dysfunctional family, while also slyly winking at every family’s need to sweep dirty secrets under the rug and put their best foot forward.  “Hide your tattoo, put on your Sunday best, pretend you’re not a mess, be the happy family in the front pew,” the three Annies sing during the song’s closing bridge.

Though something of a sonic departure for the Pistol Annies, “Hush Hush” does not get away from the characteristics that made them an outstanding group in the first place,

nor does it forsake its identity as a country record with an arrangement that simultaneously rocks and twangs.  “Hush Hush” is smart, self-aware, packed with personality, and best of all, it turns widely-relatable frustrations into a reason to chuckle.  At a time in which many country hits take place in an imaginary backwoods utopia, the Pistol Annies here serve up another welcome slice of reality.

Written by Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley

Grade:  A-

Listen:  Hush Hush

Single Review: Billy Currington, "Hey Girl"

March 20, 2013

Billy-Currington-hey-girlThere’s certainly no false advertising going on here, though it would still be easy to guess what we were getting even if the song title didn’t make it so plainly obvious.

I almost wonder if each new Currington single release is determined by the flip of a coin.  Heads – release a beer drinking song; tails – release a sexy come-on love song.  Apparently this time it landed on tails.

“Hey Girl” has some infectious guitar work going for it, but it’s not enough to elevate the song beyond what it is – regular dime-a-dozen radio filler with a total lack of a lyrical hook.

For all that vocal

talent, it’s a shame Currington’s output has become so frustratingly predictable.  I guess I’ll just keep listening to “Love Done Gone” until he bucks the trend once more.

Written by Rhett Akins, Ashley Gorley, and Chris DeStefano

Grade:  C

Listen:  Hey Girl

In Memoriam: Jack Greene, 1930-2013

March 14, 2013

Jack GreeneCountry music lost one of its legendary talents today with the passing of Jack Greene, who succumbed to complications from Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 83.

Affectionately nicknamed the “Jolly Green Giant” for his lofty stature, Jack Greene was one of country music’s biggest stars in the late sixties and early seventies, remembered for his classic hits such as “There Goes My Everything” and “Statue of a Fool.”  At the very first CMA Awards ceremony in 1967, Jack Greene was one of the biggest winners of the night, winning Male Vocalist of the Year, Single of the Year for “There Goes My Everything,” and Album of the Year for his LP of the same name.  He had been a member of the Grand Ole Opry since 1967, and was a regular presence on the show up until his retirement in 2011.

In many ways, Jack Greene’s death

feels like the end of an era – truly a huge loss for country music.  May the Jolly Green Giant rest in peace.

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