The slightly perceptible shift to more traditional-sounding music on mainstream country radio carries on with Craig Campbell’s debut self-titled album, which was produced by the venerable Keith Stegall. Campbell may not be a household name just yet, but his album’s lead single is being warmly received so far and will likely continue to be at least for the near future.
The promising debut album from which the domestic “Family Man” comes is rife with very strong elements, but still suffers from some weaker moments that keep it from being a full on success.
With fiddle and steel guitar aplenty, Craig Campbell embraces a crisp neo-traditional sound that is refreshing to hear on an album marketed as country. Moreover, Campbell’s voice is strong and nicely melds with Stegall’s pleasant productions.
The combination of Stegall’s spot-on arrangements, Campbell’s commanding baritone, and the songs’ sing-able melodies provides a very fulfilling sonic experience for the listener who longs to hear unapologetic country music in the mainstream again. In fact, the brightest spot on the album is a severe, though sincere, indictment on the current state of country music that simply concludes, “If you gotta tell me how country you are, you prob’ly ain’t.”
Fortunately, while Campbell sings songs that celebrate innate country-ness (“Makes Me Wanna Sang”, “That’s Music to Me”), he largely avoids hypocrisy by using more subtle imagery instead of pulling out the stops with empty in-your-face proclamations. Furthermore, he does some name-dropping in “That’s Music to Me” as well, but does it respectfully with appropriate instrumentation to support it.
As to be expected from a country record, Campbell ably covers the common themes of love, lost love, family, and rural living. Among the most interesting of the themes, however, is when he touches on barely getting by. In “When I Get It”, Campbell matter-of-factly tells his bill collectors (including ex-wife), “When I Get it, you’ll get it / Times are tough / Get in line and wait / When I get it, you’ll get it / That’s all you’re getting’ today.” Similarly “Family Man” begins with “I’ve been working as a temp at the local factory / I hope they hire me on full time / I’ve got shoes to buy and mouths to feed.”
Despite all of its notable strengths, however, the album as a whole is weighed down by lyrical and content deficiencies that cannot fairly be overlooked. In many places, the lyrics are simple and often border on rudimentary, including “na na nas” (“When I Get It”) and humming (“Makes You Want to Sang”). The biggest pitfall, however, is the album’s tendency to attempt cleverness, which wouldn’t even be worth mentioning if it happened only once or twice. Unfortunately, cutesy wordplay is employed enough times on an 11-track album that it becomes a glaring distraction, which might too easily result in an album that is too gimmicky to enjoy longevity.
For instance, “I Bought It” runs through the times that he bought his woman things she wanted just because she showed interest in them, to buying her line about needing space to figure things out, to finally revealing that the tables were turned when she bought that he was excited that she’d decided to come home. Additionally, The more obvious attempts at clever wordplay can be found in “Fish” and (groan!) “Chillaxin.” “Chillaxin” needs no explanation, but the word “Fish,” let’s just say, shouldn’t rhyme with words like “truck,” “up,” “enough,” “love” and “luck,” which all precede it with added dramatic pauses for good measure.
In spite of this criticism, Craig Campbell is an album that shows tremendous potential for an artist who will hopefully mature with time and experience. It would be a shame to see such a talented artist either fall off our radar or ride on such mediocre lyrics for an entire career, because he’s clearly better than either scenario.
In a surprising twist to 2011, it seems that certain songs are hearkening back to country music’s glory days of the nineties. Newcomer Bradley Gaskin’s “Mr. Bartender” is one such example.
There’s no telling how this song could play on current mainstream country radio alongside the pop and rock country being played there, but it’s an unapologetic throwback to the neo-traditional sound of the nineties. Furthermore, Gaskin sounds uncannily similar to one of the decade’s superstars, Travis Tritt. In fact, his soulful voice coupled with a hardcore production, not to mention theme, could easily be mistaken as an unreleased album track of Tritt’s. However, as appealing as that comparison may seem, the song itself sounds more like good filler rather than a strong single that can stand on its own, therefore, rendering it almost all but forgettable.
The barroom weeper possesses many of the elements that make a great, pure country song, but the package as a whole comes off as more of a calculated imitation rather than a fresh take on one of country music’s most prosperous decades.
Gaskin’s got the powerhouse pipes and admirable traditional sensibilities, including being the sole writer of the song. So, all he needs now is to develop his own identity, which will make him more memorable in his own right instead of seeming like a very talented clone of somebody else.
Ultimately though, “Mr. Bartender” and its singer are a welcome diversion and, hopefully, a sign of country music becoming more recognizable as such again.
The 11th Annual Country Music Critics’ Poll has just been published by Nashville Scene. It covers the 2010 year of country music. The participants of the poll consists of country music critics who spend their time listening to and analyzing stacks of music throughout the year in order to knowledgeably write about it for the purpose of either promoting excellent music or warning against the not so good stuff. Kevin, Dan and Tara are among these prestigious critics.
Each year, invited critics submit their ballots with their favorite music and artists in the appropriate categories. The poll includes the best albums, singles, male and female artists, reissues, live acts, duos and groups, songwriters, new acts, and the over all artists of the year. While the results include the usual suspects, they are mixed with some surprises or names that aren’t commonly associated with mainstream country.
Some of my favorite results include Raul Malo tied at #8 with Gary Allan for top males and Elizabeth Cook at #2 for top females, not to mention Sunny Sweeney’s “From A Table Away” landing at the #3 spot for singles. The most amusing result, however, is Jamey Johnson and Taylor Swift in the top two spots for songwriters.
What’s most fascinating about this process is that the critics have the opportunity to include comments with their ballots. These comments serve to clarify choices and pontificate on the state of country music and its various aspects. There are some insightful comments from both Dan and Tara, along with other critics that you might recognize from our blog roll.
Here are some of the cream of the crop comments that display a satisfyingly diverse array of perspectives:
“Lost amidst the rush to proclaim Jamey Johnson as the man to reclaim country music from pop acts like Taylor Swift is the fact that Johnson and Swift are cut from the precisely same cloth. Johnson is most often championed for the supposed authenticity of his songwriting, but is it really any more believable that he’s been “takin’ dee-pression pills in the Hollywood hills” than it is that Swift regrets not calling an ex when his birthday passed? Both Johnson and Swift have developed public personae and voices as songwriters that trade in the same suspension of disbelief. Swift’s music may not scan as “country” to the extent that Johnson’s does, but that isn’t because she’s any less authentic than Johnson. They both act like they’re “Playing the Part,” and they both do so awfully well.” —Jonathan Keefe, Slant Magazine
“Thank goodness the Internet and satellite radio are around to pick up FM’s slack, because brilliant would-be singles continue popping up on independent releases that Clear Channel won’t touch. My favorite two this year were Elizabeth Cook’s “El Camino” and Chely Wright’s “Notes to the Coroner.” The former: a hilarious country-rap about a creepy, mulleted lothario. The latter: a frank diary introduction from a recently deceased woman. Both: utterly unique and unshakably catchy.” —Dan Milliken, Country Universe
“In 2010, Grandpa told us about the good old days again. The most conspicuous presence on country radio in recent years has been this kindly old gentleman, lugging his aching bones out of bed to share some worldly wisdom. After years of hard labor and heartache, he’s now embarked on a second career as life coach for his hillbilly kin on recent singles from Lee Brice, Billy Currington, Craig Morgan and Alan Jackson (the matured mentor on Zac Brown’s “As She’s Walking Away”). Of course, country radio won’t fool with women over 40 except for Reba, so you never really get to hear Grandma’s side of things.” —Blake Boldt, The 9513
“Despite their two weak singles this year, “Our Kind of Love” and “Hello World,” I remain in Lady Antebellum’s corner. What hooks me is the way they’re able to inject gritty, tangible emotion into the glossiest of production and the vaguest of lyrics. That’s what elevates “Need You Now” to an aching confession, and that’s how, on a song that compares innocence to a condiment, Hillary Scott’s vocal performance alone manages to tell an evocative story.” —Tara Seetharam, Country Universe
“So if country music is doing so well artistically, why is it that whenever I turned on the radio in 2010, I heard mostly pop or rock songs with a token steel guitar thrown into the mix? I’ve long since given up hope of Americana artists ever getting picked up by mainstream radio, and I’ve pretty much come to terms with the fact that Jamey Johnson won’t be getting many (if any) hit songs no matter how good they are. But would it kill them to play some non-hyphenated country music a little more? I know that country-pop and country-rock are the flavors of the month, but where does that leave more traditional artists? I know I’d be more willing to tolerate Jason Aldean rapping or Jennifer Nettles singing with her stupid fake Jamaican accent if “Draw Me a Map” or “Will I Always Be This Way” was next on the playlist.” —Sam Gazdziak, The 9513
“In an August interview with Spinner, Ryan Bingham rejected the notion that he makes country music. Two weeks later, Bingham was named the Americana Music Association’s “Artist of the Year,” thanks in large part to his Academy Award-winning song “The Weary Kind,” a song he wrote for a movie about a country singer. In September, when asked about the state of country music today, rising star Justin Townes Earle told The Wall Street Journal that he’s embarrassed to be from Nashville because of the “shit songwriting, shit records and shit singers who are making a million dollars.” Even mainstream country stalwart Zac Brown distanced himself from the genre, telling American Songwriter in September, “The songs that I write are Southern, but I wouldn’t necessarily call them country.” It’s a shame — and an enormous loss for the genre — that the term “country music” has come to describe something so narrow that bright young artists like these choose not to identify themselves as country. Thank God for Jamey Johnson, who wears the mantle proudly.” —Jim Malec, American Twang
Much credit has been and should be given to The Band Perry for resisting the popular urge to rock out with their country music. As a result of their more laid back hybrid of folksy country instrumentation, this young group has received well-deserved critical praise. Where they falter, however, is with their lyrics.
Just focusing on their single releases so far, inferior lyrics seems to be their chief weakness. Their first single, “Hip to My Heart” sounded catchy and fun enough, but the lyrics were embarrassingly inane. Similarly, “If I Die Young”, single number two, sounded both catchy and pretty, but the lyrics left room for heavy interpretation thanks to the last verse that threw people for a confused loop. So, disappointingly, the same basic critique must be applied to their newest single as well.
As with the others, it all sounds great until you focus on the lyrics, which is where the song completely breaks down. Firstly, a juvenile page is taken out of the Taylor Swift playbook by threatening to sic her father on the jilting lover: “I oughta kill you right now and do the whole wide world a service/ Well my daddy’s gonna straighten you out like a piece of wire.”
The most obvious and glaring flaw, however, is that the use of the word “lie” is misused throughout the song. In an effort to illustrate what a liar the subject of the song is, Perry sings, “You lie like a priceless Persian rug on a rich man’s floor/ You lie like a coon dog basking in the sunshine on my porch/ You lie like a penny in the parking lot at the grocery store/ It just comes natural to you/ The way you lie.”
Perhaps my sense of humor just doesn’t stretch far enough, but the sloppy writing makes it sound like the man is extremely lazy rather than a rotten liar.
Written by Aaron Henningsen,Brian Henningsen and Clara Henningsen
This year, instead of writing about this year’s crop of Christmas projects individually, I’ve decided to round them up in one post in an effort to make sure I acknowledge all of them. Unless I’ve overlooked one, the only album that will be omitted from this roundup is Shelby Lynne’s Christmas album, which is super good/compelling and funky, so it deserves its own review and it will come as soon as I figure out how to write about it.
Let the fun begin!
Carter’s Chord, Christmas
As Toby Keith’s best discovery so far, Carter’s Chord is a talented sister duo that hasn’t yet gotten the success that they deserve. With only one digitally released studio album that has received criminally little attention, they’ve still managed to deliver a delightful 4-song EP that would be well worth adding to your Christmas collection.
All of the songs are well produced, with very tasteful country arrangements, but the standout track is the warm and bluesy “Snowed In.” Surprisingly, the lead vocal on “Up on the Housetop” could easily be mistaken for a Miranda Lambert performance.
Lady Antebellum, A Merry Little Christmas
Yes, since I typically don’t shop at Target, I made a special trip to purchase this exclusive 6-song EP. It was at least one-third worth the effort. Literally. “Their versions of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, “Blue Christmas” and “Let it Snow” are given nice, if not unremarkable, country leaning treatments while “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and “On This Winter’s Night” lean more toward R&B. “Silver Bells”, however, suffers from the generic pop production that Lady Antebellum all too often utilizes for their regular music.
Point of Grace, Home for the Holidays
For the last couple of years, Contemporary Christian group, Point of Grace, has attempted to make gains in the country market. They haven’t been successful, but they continue to try with the release of their fourth Christmas album (the third being a collection of their first two), Home for the Holidays. Their smooth harmonies are sweet but vibrant enough to stay out of the syrupy territory. The original “Candy Cane Lane” is laced with fiddle and steel guitar and, incidentally, is one of the stand out tracks on the album, along with the gorgeous “Emanuel.” Standards such as “Silver Bells”, “Little Drummer Boy”, and “Holly Jolly Christmas” are also treated to decidedly country arrangements and ably performed on the whole.
Mandy Barnett, Winter Wonderland
Mandy Barnett’s Cracker Barrel exclusive Christmas album is an unapologetic throwback to the Nashville sound of Yesteryear both in production and notable reverb affects. At this point, it’s unoriginal to compare her voice to Patsy Cline, but the similarity is pretty much irrefutable, so it’s no wonder that Barnett aptly capitalizes on the comparison and we, in turn, continue to make the connection. Ultimately, it’s a pleasant album, but more for background than intrigue.
Jason Michael Carroll, Christmas on the Farm
With Jason Michael Carroll’s chart success being somewhat spotty, it’s easy to forget that he possesses one of the top voices among the current country crop as he slips under the radar much of the time. Therefore, it’s the surprise of the season that his Christmas EP is one of the best Christmas projects of 2010. His talent gorgeously shines through most especially on the gently and beautifully sung arranged “Auld Lang Syne”, but on “Silent Night and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” as well. “Joy to the World” is a rousing back porch pickin’-type affair that is ridiculously infectious. The title track is also upbeat, but is the lone contemporary produced song on the set. It wouldn’t sound like a typical Christmas song if not for the setting, but it’s fun, if not superfluous, nonetheless. If this EP is representative of Jason Michael Carroll at Christmas Time, more please!
I am not one who typically embraces extremes, but I must make an exception for Johnny Cash’s recording of “Ring of Fire.” It’s the definitive version; it’s an untouchable. Sure, some people have made valiant attempts, even changing things up so as not to try to mimic Cash, but make it their own, and I even like some of these other versions. None of these other efforts, however, has surpassed or even come close to touching Cash.
So, I implore, why even try when any other version will only be runners up at best, especially when recording it for a tribute album isn’t the excuse? Although only in my head, I’ve asked this question of excellent artists such as Pam Tillis, Dwight Yoakam, Ray Charles, along with odder choices like Social Distortion and Blondie. Alas, now, I must ask the same of Alan Jackson and his somewhat superfluous (meaning she doesn’t add to or detract from the recording) accomplice, Lee Ann Womack.
While Alan Jackson’s version is technically easy on the ears, therein lies the major problem with the recording. It’s too mellow, devoid of passion. Instead of the imperative fiery recording that Cash seamlessly gave us, his is frustratingly lackadaisical, even amidst a bouncy, though uninspired, production. Ultimately, he seems to miss the point of the song altogether, which is a shame because it’s the only previously unreleased song on his 34 Number Ones Hits package that is supposed to hold us over until his next studio album.
It’s hard to believe, but we’re dangerously close to the end of 2010!
For record labels, this means that most of the major albums have been released for the year. Therefore, for Country Universe, this means that we’re preparing to begin the daunting process of compiling our Best of the Year lists, which includes best singles and albums of the year.
Being aware of all of the year’s single releases is a fairly simple task, however, as you might imagine, catching all of the albums for the year is much more of a challenge.
We greatly value, not to mention learn a lot from your input and recommendations. So, we would love to know some of your favorite albums of the year, as we still have time for consideration and deliberation.
So, what are some of your favorite albums of 2010? Any suggestions, as long as they’re somewhere in the country music tent (or universe), are welcome, but we’d especially love to hear about albums that may have flown under our radars.
The good folks at Show Dog-Universal have given us an autographed copy of Toby Keith’s new album, Bullets in the Gun to give away to one lucky Country Universe winner.
This is my favorite Toby Keith album since 2006’s White Trash with Money. As was the case with that album, Keith seems loose and mostly good-natured, which results in a friendlier more relaxed album than we’re accustomed to hearing from him.
To enter the drawing, leave a comment to tell us your favorite Toby Keith album. If you’re feeling ambitious, go ahead and let us know the best songs from your favorite Keith album too.
All comments through Friday, October 15, will be entered into the random drawing.
In a male-dominated industry, it’s often difficult to hear distinction in the plethora of male voices on mainstream country radio. We do not have such a challenge with Randy Houser, however. Instead, Houser has a voice that rivals the soul and strength of Brooks and Dunn’s Ronnie Dunn. Regrettably, his debut album mainly suffered from production that detracted from his distinctive voice by placing heavy emphasis on the trending bombast of the times.
Houser’s promise was not completely absent, however, as demonstrated on strong songs like “Anything Goes”, “Something Real” and “How Many Times”, along with the playful “Lie”. Unfortunately, those moments were overshadowed by the larger raucous tone of the album, which, ultimately, made the disc uneven. So, in one of the small positive twists of 2010, Houser’s new album, They Call Me Cadillac, is a pleasant divergence from his previous effort.
Along with the jaunty title track that, apparently, refers to Houser’s nickname, “Out Here in the Country”, and “I’m All about It” help to fill the uptempo quota that is inarguably needed for a mainstream release. These songs are catchy with a certain level of cheeky charm to keep them enjoyable. Additionally, “A Man Like Me” is a pleasing throwback to a Waylon Jennings sound with a refreshing modern twist to it. On the mellower end of things, the slow burning “Addicted” and the pretty waltz, “If I Could Buy Me Some Time”, help to serve as a good counterbalance.
There are a couple of missteps on the album, however. “Whistlin’ Dixie”, the album’s lead single, is simply an intolerable wall of noise full of insufferable clichés for the express purpose of conjuring up southern imagery. The other notable stumble on the album is sonically pleasing, but lyrically troubling. “Will I Always Be This Way” is a self-indulgent lament of a man who doesn’t know if he can ever settle down. While the sentiment is a continual trope of country songs, it’s expressed especially distastefully in this one, as Houser asks, “Will I ever be the kind of guy / Who’s running home every night / To the little house / And doing right by the little wife?”
Luckily, the album is rarely interrupted by such inferior material. Instead, it’s largely comprised of solid songs with some standout gems, particularly the bone-chillingly spare “Lead Me Home”, a bluesy gospel song that Houser vocally nails with just the right mix of soul and restraint. Similarly, “Somewhere South of Memphis” is also impressively soulful, as its title rightfully suggests.
Randy Houser is now on the Toby Keith-owned label, Show Dog Universal. Interestingly, it seems that despite Keith’s reputation for in-your-face songs and productions, Houser has still been granted the freedom to dial back the loud that pervaded his freshman album to embrace a less cluttered, more organic sound for his sophomore project. Rather than the screaming guitars and pulsating rhythms that largely drove Anything Goes, this album manages to find a way to retain the energy from the first album while sounding relaxed and allowing Houser to seem more comfortable with his songs. Electric guitars and hooky drum beats are still a part of the equation, but fiddles, acoustic and steel guitars are just as present, which mercifully allows the two styles to positively coexist.
There’s no denying Keith Urban’s immense talent, which was brightly showcased on his first three major label albums, particularly Golden Road and Be Here. The music sounded articulate and fresh while being extremely accessible.
Urban’s last couple of albums, however, have been heavily influenced by electronic production where electric keyboards and drum machines largely filled the spaces instead of his prior muscular, yet more organic, production choices. Of course, this isn’t to say that there still weren’t some really good moments on both of those albums, as should only be expected by such a talented force, but they just seemed to lack the heart that was displayed on the previous two records.
Keith Urban’s new single, “Put You in a Song”, is the lead single from his yet to be released album, Get Closer, and it seems that brighter sounds are here again. While it’s not exactly one of his strongest songs, it’s a big step back in the right direction. It’s clever, sprightly, and above all, devoid of any electronic instrumentation to muddy it up.
It’s true that Urban has never really been known for being a traditionally oriented country artist, but he can be counted among the best of the pop country artists with some terrific pieces of pop country ear candy to show for it. Therefore, “Put You in a Song” is not anything more than a fun pop country ditty, but it is pop country done well.
Best of all, “Put You in a Song” sounds more like it would fit on Be Here rather than Love, Pain and the Whole Crazy Thing or Defying Gravity, which is hopeful for the upcoming album that will be released on November 16.
Written by Keith Urban, Jedd Hughes & Sarah Buxton