Author Archives: Leeann Ward

Single Review: Billy Currington, “Love Done Gone”

Rarely has a breakup song sounded quite as cheery as Billy Currington’s new single, “Love Done Gone.”

Rather than lamenting a relationship that has fizzled out for no apparent reason beyond things simply changing, all typical dramatics are discarded for acceptance and even celebration.

He compares their dissolved love to the vivid imagery of “snow flakes when the weather warms up”, “Leaves on the trees when autumn comes”, “dogwood blossoms in a late spring rain”, “disappearing bubbles in a glass of champagne”, and a “red kite lost in a blue sky wind.”

The most engaging aspect of the song, however, is the jubilant background vocals that simultaneously imitate the loose Dixieland-like horns. It could all be considered gimmicky, and perhaps it is, but it’s so delightfully executed that one can’t help but be entertained rather than bemused. This coupled with Currington’s signature smiling vocals makes for a fresh take on a sure fire summer hit.

Now, we can only hope that the other party involved in this relationship feels as nonchalant about its dissolution as Currington does.

Written by Shawn Camp & Marv Green

Grade: A-

Listen: Love Done Gone

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Single Review: Randy Houser, “In God’s Time”

Self-sufficient-life.com 150.jpg” alt=”” width=”150″ height=”150″ />I think I can officially call myself a Randy Houser fan now. After feeling lukewarm to apathetic about his glossy debut album, I was much more enthusiastic about his more organic, but vibrant, sophomore project, They Call Me Cadillac.

Even though that album was only released in October, it produced no hits for Houser. As a result, the album seems to have been abandoned in order to release the inspirational “In God’s Time”, the lead single for an undetermined third album.

The song conveys that the timing of the trajectory of our lives is not always in our control, but instead, the orchestration of God’s timing. The theme of the song is what one might automatically assume it to be by its straightforward title. In fact, its overt nature could easily cross the line to heavy handedness, as so many songs of its ilk tend to do.

Fortunately though, Houser interprets this song with a humble conviction that can only be reliably conveyed by a person who must viscerally know the message to be true.

To accompany Houser’s impassioned, yet graceful performance, the instrumentation for this track is wonderfully restrained. It begins with gentle acoustic guitar strums and manages to subtly build without the obvious swells of an annoying orchestra, but rather, a sweet steel guitar solo instead.

There are similarities to Brooks & Dunn’s “Believe”, but I don’t mind going out on a limb to suggest that, despite Houser’s smaller status, it is a stronger performance and composition when all factors are considered. I can’t predict how “In God’s Time” will do on country radio, but I can venture a guess that it will be a serious contender for 2011 end-of-the year lists.

Written by Randy Houser, David Lee Murphy & Shane Minor

Grade: A

Listen: In God’s Time

 

More: Self-sufficient-life.com

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The 30 Day Song Challenge: Day 6

Today’s category is…

A Song That Reminds You of Somewhere.

Here are the staff picks:

Leeann Ward: “American Pie” – Don McLean

This song and the album from which it comes reminds me of my childhood living room. My dad was almost as much of a music fan as me, but my mom was much more limited in the music that she could tolerate without considering it needless noise. Perhaps having so many children does that to a mother.

However, she never complained when this album was played, even at reasonable maximum volume. So, whenever I hear this song, I associate it with my childhood home, as part of its soundtrack.

Tara Seetharam: “As Long as You Love Me” – Backstreet Boys

I lived in Scotland when I was 12 for about a year, during which I may or may not have been mildly obsessed with the Backstreet Boys. This song –a favorite at my very first set of school dances– reminds me of the treasure trove of experiences I had that year.

Kevin Coyne: “Silent House” – Dixie Chicks

I associate Taking the Long Way with all the major life changes of my late twenties, as that album had so many songs that I was able to relate to because of the upheavals around me.  “Silent House” will always be associated with my childhood home, and how it moved from being a place where memories were created to a place that they were left behind.

 

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The 30 Day Song Challenge: Day 1

Inspired by a recent trend on Facebook, the staff of Country Universe is launching our tweaked version of The 30 Day Song Challenge.

Every day, the staff will share our picks in a different category.  We hope that all of our readers will do the same in the comments!

We’re not limiting ourselves to the country genre. All of us are primarily country fans, but our tastes run wider and deeper than that.

The category for Day 1 is…

Your Favorite Song

Staff Picks

Leeann Ward: “One More Year” – Kacey Chambers & Shane Nicholson

It’s nearly impossible to choose a definitive favorite song, but I can pretty reasonably settle on “One More Year” as one that I haven’t tired of in three years despite my husband’s penchant for playing certain songs repeatedly until I can hardly stand even a great song after a certain saturation point. Such is not the case with “One More Year.” I’m still impressed by its understated devastation every time I hear it.

Dan Milliken: “Days Go By” – Keith Urban

The first time I heard it, on a fuzzy radio station in the background, it sounded like “Who Wouldn’t Wanna Be Me” redux. Within my first proper listens, it had me dancing around my dining room. “Days Go By” takes a sad truth – that time is constantly slipping away from us – and twists it into a joyous, mandolin-clanging celebration of life and the time we do have. Carpe some diem, y’all.

Tara Seetharam: “Bless the Broken Road” – Carrie Underwood

It’s hard to find words that speak to the personal connection I’ve formed with this song, so I’ll let my favorite line sum up its lyrical poignancy: “Now I’m just rolling home into my lover’s arms” is as best a description of the ease of true love as I’ve ever heard. As I said in my very first Country Universe post, I’ll take this song in any form by any artist (literally – I have over ten versions on my iPod), but if I had to choose, the conviction in Underwood’s acoustic version is second to none.

Kevin John Coyne: “Hung Up” - Madonna

No matter how much I like a song, I always go through periods where I’m tired of hearing it, and will skip it from time to time when it pops up on shuffle. That’s true about every song I love except this one, which I never tire of. I don’t know if it’s the way the ABBA-borrowed hook fades in and out, or if it’s the insanely catchy chorus that she sings nine times and it’s still not enough.  It’s the perfect pop song by the perfect pop artist and nothing else sounds as good in comparison, even from her own deep catalog of ear candy hits.

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Album Review: Craig Campbell, Craig Campbell

Craig Campbell
Craig Campbell


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.

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Single Review: Bradley Gaskin, “Mr. Bartender”

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.

Written by Bradley Gaskin

Grade: B+

Listen: Mr. Bartender

 

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Nashville Scene: 11th Annual Country Music Critics’ Poll

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

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Single Review: The Band Perry, “You Lie”

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

Grade: C

Listen: You Lie

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2010 Christmas Albums Extravaganza

Yay! Christmas time is here again!

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!

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Single Review: Alan Jackson featuring Lee Ann Womack, “Ring of Fire”

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.

Written by June Carter & Merle Kilgore

Grade: C

Listen: Ring of Fire

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