One probably thought they knew what to expect from Jessica Simpson on her latest single, “Pray Out Loud,” simply by reading the title: The big-voiced former Christian pop singer was going to put forth her best Martina McBride imitation and sing for the rafters. It was going to be over-the-top, joyous, cheesy, uplifting and worthy of its name and oft-repeated chorus “pray out loud.” One may even, like me, have been planning on giving her permission to do so because if ever a song – and a time – was asking for it, it is this one. But, umm … no. On this single, Simpson shows … restraint. And a great deal of it. It’s completely baffling.
Simpson has never been a stellar interpreter of song, but the sheer lack of joy, enthusiasm and spirituality in her vocal is surprising. Simpson was more convincing inviting us to “come on over” than she is imploring us to “pray out loud.” Unfortunately, because the song is blessed with lyrics as original as “When you’re down / Don’t be afraid to pray out loud / Just close your eyes and let it out / Take all you fears and doubts / He’s listening right now / Don’t be afraid to pray out loud,” this severe lack of emotion is all that much more glaringly obvious.
It is likely that Simpson viewed this song as a means to connect with the same country demographic that propelled Carrie Underwood into stardom following the release of “Jesus Take the Wheel.” However, I’d be shocked if this single achieved a fraction of its predecessor’s success.
Songwriters: Jessica Simpson, Brett James, John Shanks
The most recent edition of Rolling Stone features precocious teenage country superstar Taylor Swift on its cover, and also contains a eight-page spread covering her “very pink, very perfect life.” As we have come to expect from Swift, the interview is wonderfully candid and refreshingly young and honest. However, (perhaps given Kenny Chesney’s recent Playboy interview) one thing stood out: Swift’s desire to maintain, and in fact, reinforce, her goody-goody image.
According to the interview, Swift is constantly worried about saying something that could be construed as offense to her fans. In defending her stance on not getting caught up in the shenanigans of young Hollywood, she goes so far as to say: “When you lose someone’s trust, it’s lost, and there are a lot of people out there who are counting on me right now.” That’s a lot to carry on her slender shoulders: the expectations of all of her young fans. But I have to wonder, is it necessary?
Unlike nearly any other public forum, music has always been a bastion of rebellion. What would my teenage years have been without Ani DiFranco, Nirvana, Green Day and Eminem? Where’s a suburban white girl going to rebel, if not in her music? I never looked to musicians to be role models. Music, for me, has always been a refuge of honest emotion. If sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll come along with it, so be it. Can you imagine what music would be like if musicians were expected to be role models? No Madonna. No Rolling Stones. No Steve Earle. Etc. Etc.
Do you want/expect your country artists to be role models?
Blake Shelton has the kind of natural talent and charisma that most performers in Nashville can only dream of. His voice is smooth and strong, sexy yet comforting. It is neither too feminine nor too masculine, thereby making it easily vulnerable enough for the Rascal Flatts crowd, yet tough enough for the Toby Keith crowd. Shelton also stands out as a country traditionalist with pop sensibilities, equally as comfortable with a hootenanny as he is with the torch ballad. And unlike most other artists in recent memory, this natural talent has enabled Shelton to reach the top of the country charts five times, including with his last two singles (“Home” and “She Wouldn’t Be Gone”), without being a household name.
However, despite Shelton’s immense likability and natural talent, when a talented artist appears to be headed on the wrong direction, his fans should stand up and give notice. The second single from Shelton’s recent album, Startin’ Fires, “I’ll Just Hold On,” clearly implicates one of those times. Shelton is infinitely better than this banal single about a girl with a gypsy soul who hangs around just long enough to play with an Oklahoma boy’s heart before moving on. He has tenfold the personality and talent that this prosaic song and standard Nashville country-pop production would have us believe.
As a fan, Shelton’s tendency in recent releases to pander too much to today’s radio audience and make his releases as bland as possible, both musically and lyrically, is worrying. For a consummate stage performer with raunchy charm and a magnetic presence, one must wonder what is happening in the studio. Blake Shelton, the person and performer, is not presently being translated onto his albums. Hopefully, the real Blake Shelton shows up with better material – and puts more of himself into the material – next time around.
Songwriters: Ben Hayslip, Troy Olsen, Bryant Simpson
Kathy Mattea’s brilliant album released last year, Coal, reminded me of how much I love themed albums. There is something unique and special about an album that addresses a single topic from varied angles or transports the listener on a purposeful ride. It’s not just a random collection of singles with little to coalesce them together. Rather, like great movies, themed albums demand that you listen from the first note to the last, lest you miss something important in between.
Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger is one of the most famous themed albums in country music history. The entire album is based on the conceptual story of a preacher who shoots his cheating wife and her lover before going on the run. However, the theme doesn’t have to be as concrete as the one in Red Headed Stranger or as narrow as the one in Coal, which endeavors to shine a light on the coal-mining industry, to be included in this category. It can be as amorphous as “love” or “heartache.”
Just for fun, I culled through my musical catalog (and all 5 million or so country songs about love, heartache and partying on Friday night) and put together my own themed album very loosely titled: America 2009:
Filthy Rich (Big Kenny, John Rich, Bill McDavid, Freddy Powers, Sonny Thockmorton)
Workingman’s Blues #2 (Bob Dylan)
If We Make It Through December (Merle Haggard)
Dirt (Chris Knight)
What’s A Simple Man To Do? (Steve Earle)
The Ballad of Salvador & Isabelle (Dave Quanbury)
If You Don’t Love Jesus (Billy Joe Shaver)
Ellis Unit One (Steve Earle)
Dress Blues (Jason Isbell)
It’s a Different World Now (Rodney Crowell)
Everybody Knows (Gary Louris, Martie Maguire, Natalie Maines, Emily Robison)
Up to the Mountain (Patty Griffin)
Reason to Believe (Bruce Springsteen)
If you were to create your own themed album, what would it look like?
As soon as tonight’s awesome Country Universe Live Blog finished, I had the opportunity to watch the Grammy Awards (which were recorded on my DVR – the best and only way to really watch an awards show) out here on the West Coast. Since I couldn’t comment on the country performances earlier, here are a few random musings:
Carrie Underwood (“Last Name”): Thanks to the song and the outfit, I’ve read it a lot in the last few hours: What happened to little miss “Jesus Take The Wheel?” The answer to that question is front and center in the primer on how to turn an American Idol into a country music star, so I’ll just leave you with a tip: If you’ve ever wondered what the Underwood concert experience is like, take her ’09 Grammy Awards performance, multiply it by 14 (or however many songs she sings, minus the first verse of JTTW) and you have it in a nutshell. Loud and rockin’, with tiny nearly non-existent flourishes of country, a powerful overwrought vocal straining, but ultimately failing, to overcome the band, and virtually incomprehensible lyrics.
Taylor Swift/Miley Cyrus (“Fifteen”): I must say that Taylor Swift’s best performances occur when she is seated. Anyone else notice that? Truthfully, I don’t have the heart to trash her vocal tonight (I’d reserve that for Miley if she were a country singer. My ears are still bleeding!). But, if you are over a certain age, you know what I’m talking about. My only question is: Will that ever change? Probably not. Therefore, when her audience grows up, and her songwriting grows up, what is going to happen to Swift? Will her audience stick with her and continue not to care about her horrible vocals? Or, like my generation, will they graduate to classic acts and more talented newcomers?
Kenny Chesney (“Better As A Memory”): Sweet intro by Morgan Freeman. I’m neither here nor there about Kenny Chesney’s performance. Nicely understated. Solid vocals for Chesney. However, the song does nothing for me, and I’m not sure it did anything for those seated in the audience or those watching from home either.
Sugarland (“Stay”): Jennifer Nettles can S I N G. The facial gestures and the accent aside, she knocked it out of the park. Unlike Chesney, there are more than a few people in the audience and at home wondering why they don’t own a Sugarland album. That’s how you earn a Grammy and how you sell albums and concert tickets. And that’s from someone who doesn’t even like this song … or Sugarland, to be honest.
Alison Krauss and Robert Plant (Medley): When I get the volume on my television fixed, I’ll get back to you on this performance. Both artists sounded like they were singing underwater. Maybe I’m just going deaf, but I could barely hear them. However, I did enjoy this superficial observation from EW’s live Grammys blog: “I like that Krauss has her own gentle-wind machine, which fails to rustle nary a curl on Plant.” So true.
What did you think of the country performances on tonight’s Grammy Awards?
In case you missed the latest in a long line of increasingly bizarre marketing attempts by country stars, Keith is planning on introducing his own clothing line into the marketplace. The “part rocker, part biker” themed clothing line will have a wide selection of options, including Keith’s trademark sleeveless shirts and leather wrist straps. Overall, the line is aiming for a “country sexy” aesthetic. (Somehow, that managed to put a smile on my face for an entire day.)
While Keith’s clothing line may be a little more about raking in the dough (and maintaining his spot on Forbes) than about selling albums, with the economy as it is and albums sales at an all time low, most country stars are resorting to almost anything to sell an album these days. But, what works? Does an appearance on a talk show (Letterman, Leno, Ellen, Today) pique your interest and convince you to buy? Do online blogs such as this one? Do online performances through Yahoo or AOL or videos posted on YouTube? Does intense fan devotion on MySpace or Facebook? Does promising backstage passes? A great bargain on Amazon? An exclusive with Walmart? Commercials? Radio play? Giving your music away a la Radiohead or Prince?
Or does the promise of an awesome concert sell albums? I applauded Kenny Chesney this week for announcing that Lady Antebellum and Miranda Lambert would join him on his upcoming summer tour. Those were genius choices. One leaning pop, the other country rock. Both are younger, with rising fan bases and great word of mouth. They should both help Chesney inspire people to come out for his annual summer tour based upon a lackluster album. My question this week is therefore the following:
If you were managing a new group, based on your own experiences, how would you go about marketing them? What works for you?
Alex Woodard and Sara Watkins continue the recent trend of rock/pop leaning artists dueting with country artists. For those who don’t know, Watkins was a member of the stellar Southern California-bred progressive bluegrass/acoustic trio, Nickel Creek. And Woodard, a Southern California surfer boy, is an independent roots rocker who released his self-titled album in August 2008.
This cut, which is found on Woodard’s album, showcases beautiful vocals by both artists – Woodard’s smooth voice is imbued with depth and confidence, and Watkins lovely voice is tinged with the right amount of wistful emotion. Unfortunately, neither the song - a ballad contemplating the end of a relationship - nor the production, do the artists justice. It is a surprise because Woodard is an excellent songwriter and Watkins an accomplished fiddler/violinist. However, in this instance, the lyrics are rather forgettable, and instead of coloring the song with genuine emotion, the violin-backed production comes off as slightly schmaltzy and pedestrian.
As both are talented, with different material, I look forward to hearing more from them – separately or together – in the future.
Blake’s recent review of Carrie Underwood’s single, “I Told You So” touched on a simmering issue for me. Underwood clearly has a stellar voice, an appreciation for country music and has acquitted herself very well in the public eye, but (yes, the big BUT) … I truly believe she has not yet tapped into her true potential. I believe it’s there. And as Blake noted, she has shown recent signs of getting there. But it would truly be a shame if she never quite reached the Mt. Everest sized peaks she is capable of attaining.
Dierks Bentley is another one of those artists for me. His rock-country voice has a cool edge and his songs are usually some of the best fare on radio. He also has an undeniable ear for music, a flair for making entertaining videos and a clear appreciation for country music’s history. More than most, I’m always interested to see who he is working with. On his upcoming album, his contributors include Patty Griffin, Rodney Crowell and Ronnie McCoury – all extremely talented artists outside of the mainstream. BUT … I believe he also has a lot of untapped potential. I like Bentley’s music, but I don’t LOVE it. There’s nothing compelling in his catalog that I listen to on repeat or will even be listening to years from now. Although I believe he can be, he’s not yet a great artist or even a particularly memorable one.
As an aside, I won’t be surprised if neither artist reaches their full potential until their radio ride ends, which, selfishly, I hope happens sooner rather than later. The quality of the material from artists who no longer cater to country radio is stunning. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Which country music star do you feel has the most untapped potential?
Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson cleaned up at the 37th CMAA Country Music Awards of Australia this past week. The couple acquired five Golden Guitar trophies, winning Album of the Year (Rattlin’ Bones), APRA Song of the Year, Video Clip of the Year, Single of the Year (“Rattlin’ Bones”) and Top Selling Album of the Year.
Other winners include Melinda Schneider & Paul Kelly for Vocal Collaboration of the Year (“Still Here”), the sisterly trio The McClymonts for Group or Duo of the Year, Adam Brand for Male Vocalist of the Year and Catherine Britt for Female Vocalist of the Year.
One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2009 was to get back into shape. I’ve been working non-stop the last couple of years and it was definitely time. Of course, I thought getting back into shape would entail joining the local gym and carving out a little bit of time in my week. But, no. I allowed a friend to convince me to sign up to run the local 26.2 mile rock ‘n roll marathon in May. God help me. I’m now on a strict running schedule … and it’s killing me. I played varsity soccer in college and graduate school, but running for the sake of running is … let’s face it … deathly boring. So, this week, if you wouldn’t mind, please recommend a high energy track that gets you moving!