Author Archives: Sam Gazdziak

Country Universe Talks with James House

James HouseEngland swings, or at least it did back in Roger Miller’s day. Nowadays, England is more likely to line dance, which helped an album from one of Nashville’s top singer-songwriters become a hit – almost 20 years after it was released.

To back up a bit: in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, country music was in a creative boom era, and James House was one of the reasons. His two albums on MCA Records (James House, Hard Times for An Honest Man) and one for Epic (Days Gone By) are all top-quality affairs that featured his distinctive voice and excellent songwriting chops. While he only had one Top 10 hit — “This Is Me Missing You” — he garnered airplay with several singles. House’s real success, though, came as a songwriter, as he penned hits for the likes of Dwight Yoakam, Martina McBride and other artists.

Those three albums really deserved a wider audience, and even today, they are well worth acquiring should you ever stumble across a copy. Days Gone By, though, ended up enjoying a renaissance in England last year, where it spawned three hit singles and coaxed House back into the recording studio for a new album and an overseas tour. Not bad for an album that was released in 1995.

“The way this all got started is that country line dance and line dancing in general is generated by the choreographers,” House says. “A choreographer there by the name of Yvonne Anderson had my records for a long, long time. She said that something happened in her life, and she was listening to “This Is Me Missing You,” and something struck her to make a line dance for it.”

The dance and the song took off, and it was soon followed by“Little by Little” and “A Good Way to Wind Up Lonesome,” also from the Days Gone By album. By July 2013, House was a major hitmaker in England. He didn’t find out about it until November.

“A fan said, ‘Do you realize that “This Is Me Missing You” is #1 on the Country Dance charts?’” he recalls. “My immediate reaction was, ‘Great, who cut it?’ and the e-mail came back that said, ‘No, it’s your actual record.’”

House had toured England as an opening act for Randy Travis in the early ‘90s, and that was his only substantial time there as a country singer. After doing a little research and talking to the magazine that ran the charts, he began putting feelers out for a trip overseas for a promotional tour. That quickly snowballed into a full-fledged tour of England, with 19 shows in July and August that are sold out or are quickly approaching that level.

House also decided to put together a new album. Broken Glass Twisted Steel, released April 29, is his first solo release on his own record label, Victor House Records. Earlier this year, he released a blues-rock record for the Troubador Kings, a side project where he sings and plays lead guitar.

Broken Glass makes for a pretty comprehensive James House primer. Three of the 11 tracks are his versions of #1 hits he wrote: “In a Week or Two” by Diamond Rio, “Ain’t That Lonely Yet” by Yoakam, and “A Broken Wing” by McBride.

“Then there was a song, “Here’s to You,” that I cut in 1990, and I never felt like I nailed it,” he adds. “So I recut that and was really happy with how that came out. The rest is new stuff.”

“King of Nothing” was something that he had written with the Warren Brothers in the late ‘90s and sang live for years. He recorded that song on the advice of his wife. The rest of the album came together after pouring through his catalog for songs he liked. The first single, “Every Time It Rains,” was rediscovered in the process.

“I wrote it about six or eight months ago with Michael Bradford, who played bass and co-produced the record with me. I had forgotten all about it,” House says. “I had never turned it into my publisher for some reason. I probably just demoed it and stuck it in a drawer somewhere. When we recorded it, it just had that feel that it might want to be played over and over. Hopefully everybody will feel the same about it.”

Despite the 20-year gap in House’s recording career (he has recorded new music periodically), Broken Glass fits in quite nicely with his previous work. His earlier albums never tried to keep up with the production trends of the era, which is probably why don’t sound dated today. Broken Glass is unmistakably country, albeit with a rock edge, and House’s new songs aren’t limited to the typical topics found in today’s country music.

“I was thinking about the album and how there are no trucks on it,” House says. “Love songs to me are timeless, and there are people doing pickup truck songs so much better than me.

Besides, “I like muscle cars, so if I’m going to write about a car, it’s going to be a Chevy Malibu or something,” he adds.

House’s upcoming tour through England appears to be just the start of a busy time for him. He’s working on a U.S. tour now, and he recently made his debut on the Grand Ole Opry.

“I’m looking forward to it,” he says of his touring plans. “I’m getting e-mails all the time from the promoter saying that shows have sold out. It’s a blessing to have this much excitement about it. And at this stage to have it happen, I’m grateful.”

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Single Review: Eric Church, “Give Me Back My Hometown”

Eric Church Give Me Back My Hometown“The Outsiders,” the title track and lead single from Eric Church’s new album, may have strayed too much into the realm of metal for its own good, but it served as a strong mission statement. Like him or not, Church is one of the few male country singers today who are willing to stray from the country-party-dude template, and even his songs that don’t quite hit the mark are more interesting than most singles currently on the radio.

His new song, “Give Me Back My Hometown,” is much more melodic than the first single, though it too stretches the boundaries of country in its own way. “Hometown” starts off simple enough, but it builds up steadily in both volume and drama in a way that’s reminiscent, if anything, of U2’s “With or WithoutYou.”

The song, written by Church and Luke Laird, is well-written and nuanced, as Church laments that the memories of a small town that have been tainted by the absence of a loved one. It also gives Church a chance to stretch his vocals to the top end of his range, and while that may not necessarily be one of his strong suits, it’s encouraging to hear someone acknowledge that small-town living isn’t for everyone.

With songs like “The Outsiders,” “Drink in My Hand” and that unfortunate collaboration with Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean that will not be named here, Church has carved out a reputation as a hell-raising outlaw. While he sings those anthems well enough, he really separates himself from the competition by his willingness to dive into mature, serious topics as well. It’s a nice change of pace to hear something other than a perpetually partying, small-town man-child every now and again.

Written by Eric Chuch and Luke Laird

Grade: A-

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Single Review: Tyler Farr, “Whiskey in My Water”

Tyler Farr Whiskey in My WaterTyler Farr’s debut single, “Redneck Crazy,” became a hit in spite of the fact that it was about a good ol’ country boy stalking his ex-girlfriend, along with public drunkenness, loitering and probably half a dozen other punishable offenses. As good ol’ country boys do when they get dumped.

Based on that performance, it’s understandable to come to Farr’s second single, “Whiskey in My Water,” with lowered expectations. However, not only does the song not include any felonies, but it also happens to be a pretty strong mid-tempo love song.

Farr has a gritty, somewhat limited vocal range, and when he’s given a set of lyrics that references trucks and dirt roads within the first 20 seconds of the song, it’s easy to dismiss the song. “Whiskey,” written by Farr, Philip Larue and John Ozier takes the limited toolbox that country songwriters are using now and puts a few sweet lines together.

“Every day I pray I thank God I got her/She’s the moon in my shine, the whiskey in my water,” he sings. While it may be a clichéd lyric, it indicates a level of emotional attachment to the woman in question that goes beyond the mere lust that most male country stars sing about these days.

Farr’s debut album was a hit-or-miss affair and very much in keeping with the country-rap, frat boy atmosphere that is all too pervasive. However, many of the better songs, including this one, featured Farr as a co-writer. That may be a sign than there’s more to his music than chicks, trucks and beer.

Written by Tyler Farr, Philip Larue, and John Ozier

Grade: B

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A Tale of Two Tributes: Alabama

Alabama-Friends

Various Artists
Alabama & Friends

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To recognize the impact that Alabama has had on modern country music, you could consider their millions of albums sold, their hundreds of awards, their many #1 songs or their induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005. You could also look at how the boys from Fort Payne, Ala. have the distinction of bringing something entirely new into country music.

Prior to Alabama, country music was predominantly a land of solo acts, with the occasional superstar duos (Conway & Loretta, George & Tammy) or backing bands (The Strangers, The Buckaroos) thrown in for good measure. Sure, there were plenty of vocal groups (Statler Brothers, Oak Ridge Boys), but actual bands, who played their own instruments, were few and far between in country music. It took Alabama to break down that particular barrier, and they paved the way for groups like Zac Brown Band, Diamond Rio, Eli Young Band and others.

Alabama is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a reunion tour and a couple of well-deserved tribute albums. The tributes are quite different, with one being done under the direction of the band, and the other a completely independent effort.

Alabama & Friends, featuring many of today’s leading country stars, comes off as less of a tribute album and more of an Alabama-themed celebrity karaoke night. Many of the songs have very similar arrangements to the originals, and even include Randy Owen, Jeff Cook and Teddy Gentry on lead and harmony vocals.

Many of the memorable elements from the original songs are still present. The fiddle breakdown in “Tennessee River” (with Jason Aldean), the tempo changes in “My Home’s in Alabama” (with Jamey Johnson) – they’re all present and accounted for. The songs that stick close to the originals aren’t necessarily bad. Luke Bryan, for instance, has plenty of flaws as a country singer, but his vocal abilities are not in question, so his version of “Love in the First Degree” is solid. The same could be said of Jason Aldean’s take on “Tennessee River” and Toby Keith’s “She and I.” There’s nothing wrong with them, but fans who love the Alabama originals might think the new ones are a bit too by-the-book.

There are a few instances where the guest singers step outside the box and add more of their own personality to the recording. Trisha Yearwood, the only female voice on the project, does a lovely job on “Forever’s as Far as I’ll Go,” and “Lady Down on Love” by Kenny Chesney stands among his best vocal performances. The same can’t be said of Florida Georgia Line, who takes “I’m in a Hurry (and Don’t Know Why),” adds their usual amount of noise and clutter to the mix, and makes it sound like every other Florida Georgia Line song ever recorded. While it’s a rare opportunity to hear both Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley sing lead vocals, it raises the issue of whether or not they’ve already run out of original ideas.

Alabama recorded two songs for the first time in 11 years, but they’re the weakest songs on the album. For a band that was one of the first to successfully blend country music with amped-up Southern rock, “That’s How I Was Raised” and “All American” are low-energy, generic rah-rah country disappointments.

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Various Artists
High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama

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High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama, is available from Lightning Rod Records and has a collection of Americana/Red Dirt/indie all-stars doing their takes on Alabama hits. There is some overlap with the Alabama & Friends, but these versions have a bit more of an original feel. “Why Lady Why” gets transformed into a smoldering soul tune by JD McPherson, while Jason Isbell and John Paul White of The Civil Wars completely reinvent “Old Flame.” The Turnpike Troubadours and Shonna Tucker provide a spark with “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)” and “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler),” respectively. While neither version is light years from the original, they add energy to a project that leans heavily toward slow and reflective songs.

Two of Alabama’s love songs are recast as duets. While it’s startling to hear Todd Snider as a romantic balladeer instead of a smart-ass hippie folk singer, his voice never quite meshes with Elizabeth Cook on “Feels So Right.” Wade Bowen and Brandy Clark’s duet on “Love in the First Degree” is excellent, however, and raises the anticipation level for Clark’s debut album.

Not every experiment is a success. Once again, “I’m in a Hurry” gets short shrift, as Jessica Lea Mayfield turns it into a funereal dirge. “Lady Down on Love” just does not work as a bluegrass/spoken word ballad, as evidenced by Bob Schneider & The Texas Bluegrass Massacre with Ray Benson. Jason Boland & The Stragglers’ take on “Mountain Music” is fine, but the insistence of aping the original, from the spoken-word intro to the guest vocals from a couple of the Stragglers à la Cook and Gentry is a little cheesy.

It’s a testament to Alabama’s far-reaching appeal that artists as different as Jason Isbell and Jason Aldean would want to sing their songs. Whether it’s a note-for-note recreation or a completely new interpretation of their hit songs, there is something in these two albums to please any Alabama fan.

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Album Review: Blake Shelton, Based On a True Story…

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Blake Shelton
Based On a True Story…

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Bear in mind that Blake Shelton isn’t just another country singer.  He is the reigning Male Vocalist of the Year for both the ACM and CMA Awards, as well as the CMA Entertainer of the Year.  Due to his position as a judge on “The Voice,” he is one of the most recognizable country stars around.  Therefore, his new album Based on a True Story… isn’t just another album release.  It’s an event.  It’s a highly anticipated occasion.  So how does Shelton kick off this record?

Backwoods, legit, don’t take no s***
Chew tobacco, chew tobacco, chew tobacco, spit.

Those words of wisdom come from “Boys ‘Round Here,” the opening track and one of the worst country songs of recent memory, even by the relative low standards of country-rap.  Sexist, crude and jam-packed with country stereotypes, it’s an embarrassment to everyone involved, including Shelton, the songwriters (Rhett Akins, Dallas Davidson and Craig Wiseman) the Pistol Annies who sing background vocals and even the guy who says “red red red red red red red red redneck.”

That’s the low-water mark for the album, though it’s certainly a harbinger for what comes after.  For all the references to country songs and country living scattered throughout, it’s largely pop music, with some R&B and adult contemporary elements thrown in the mix.  In other words, it’s an ideal country album for people who like Shelton as a famous personality but don’t really care for country music.  The two most traditional-sounding songs (as well as two of the best songs) are available in the download- only deluxe version, so anyone who wants to avoid anything sounding like actual country music can easily do so.

There are plenty of other country singers who are employing pop sounds to reach a wider audience, so Shelton isn’t alone in that regard.  The problem with True Story is that the songs are so pedestrian and unmemorable. “Sure Be Cool if You Did” and “My Eyes” are essentially the same song about picking up a woman, though at least the cheesy pickup lines are different. “Small Town Big Time” is essentially the same song as half of Jason Aldean’s back catalog – the bad half – with some Auto-Tuned verses thrown in for

good measure.

“Country on the Radio” deserves special mention because it attempts to justify all of the hokey, redneck-centric songs that have clogged up the country charts for the last few years.  Why are they all about dirt roads, pretty girls on tailgates and homemade wine?  Because that’s how country folks roll, of course.  That’s not exactly a compliment – country songs are so simplistic and shallow because country people really are that simplistic and shallow.

“I Still Got a Finger” is one of the few instances where the feisty Blake Shelton of old – before he became famous outside of country music circles – makes an appearance.  Still, it has the feel of being forced, as if it was made to highlight Shelton’s smartass, uncensored Twitter personality without being too rude for a large audience.

“Grandaddy’s Gun,” written by Atkins, Davidson, and Bobby Pinson, is one of the highlights of True Story.  Without pushing one side of the gun control debate like an Aaron Lewis or Charlie Daniels would do, Shelton sings about the sentimental value of an old battered shotgun and demonstrates that he is still an outstanding country singer when he wants to be.  He does the same on “Mine Would Be You” from the dependable Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Deric Ruttan.

Shelton infamously said in his “old farts and jackasses” interview that kids don’t want to listen to their grandpa’s music and that country music has to evolve in order to survive.  If that’s true, then this is the evolution of country music. It’s slick and mainstream-friendly, with Top 40 appeal.  It features pop songs about how wonderful country living is. It’s occasionally raucous, but not enough to offend a focus group. It has some traditional country elements, but those are on album tracks that can easily be skipped over or not downloaded. If you happen to remember the great Blake Shelton songs like “Ol’ Red” and “Austin,” you’re clearly too old for this new country music.

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Album Review: Corb Lund, Cabin Fever

 

With all the excellent releases that have come out this fall, it would be a shame to have one of the year’s best albums get overlooked.

Tell the current crop of current country music hitmakers to come up with a song based on the title “Gettin’ Down on the Mountain,” and you’d probably end up with a bunch of party anthems about kicking back on the weekend with your girl, your pickup truck and a 12-pack. Give the same title to Corb Lund, and he comes up with a retreat into self-reliance and solitude while an oil shortage leads to gridlock, the devaluation of paper currency, widespread hunger and an eventual and total breakdown of society itself. And with a catchy chorus, too.

In other words, don’t expect a lot of songs about girls dancing on tailgates on Lund’s albums. Outlaws, cowboys (the real ones), goth chicks and cows are much more likely to make an appearance on his latest album, Cabin Fever. Where so many current country songs fail to sound the least bit original (or country, for that matter), it’s refreshing to have someone like Lund come around and blatantly ignore any self-imposed restraints currently infecting the genre.

Lund and his band, the Hurtin’ Albertans, keep things sounding country for the most part. “Cows Around” is a lively Western swing tune that can double as an introductory course to the bovine family, and “Drink It Like You Mean It” is a similarly fun honky-tonker. Elsewhere, the band veers off into rockabilly (the campy “Gothest Girl I Can”), blues (“Dig Gravedigger Dig”) or surf rock (“Mein Deutsches Motorrad”).

Some of Lund’s songs can be so out in left field that when he delivers a sincere lyric, it can be almost disconcerting. “September” is a heartbreaking plea from one about to be left behind in a relationship, based on the fact that the simple country life doesn’t hold enough excitement for everyone. “One Left in the Chamber” goes down an even darker path, where a lifetime of regrets finally boils over. They serve as a reminder that while Lund can create some truly absurd characters and situations in his lyrics, he can’t be written off as a comedic lightweight.

As actual country music becomes harder and harder to find through mainstream sources, fans will have to turn increasingly to left-field sources for their fix. Fortunately, discovering Corb Lund is a trip worth taking.

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Single Review: Carrie Underwood, “Blown Away”

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t/uploads/2012/07/Carrie-Underwood-Blown-Away-Single-150×150.png” alt=”” width=”150″ height=”150″ />Four albums into her career, Carrie Underwood’s career growth has been fairly stunning.

It’s hard to imagine that the talent-show winner who sang “Jesus Take the Wheel” would morph into a fully fledged pop superstar with speaker-rattling pop-rock songs like “Good Girl” and “Blown Away.”

While the evolution has been fascinating to watch, the problem is that someone who was thought of as the next female country superstar has effectively left country music behind and moved on to bigger things, and it’s a loss for the genre.

“Blown Away,” Underwood’s new single, has some of the most interesting lyrics she’s had to work with in some time, courtesy of writers Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins. It borrows a little from the Miranda Lambert songbook, where an abusive father is made to account for his sins with death by tornado. While it’s a bit more passive than a Lambert song (she would have shot the SOB a few times before letting the twister carry him away), there is a satisfying sense of Old Testament-style vengeance to it.

Many of the main story elements are absent – the age of the narrator, exactly what the father did that was so awful – but there’s still plenty create some vivid imagery. Much like Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” never reveals the actual fate of the mother, “Blown Away” lets listeners fill in their own details.

As noted though, this is not being sung by Carrie Underwood, Country Singer. Instead, this is Carrie Underwood, International Pop Diva, and the song is glitzed up and glossed over to make it pop radio-ready. It’s been so thoroughly produced and sanitized that there isn’t a trace of a country song left in “Blown Away.” There have been “country” remixes of Kelly Clarkson singles that sound more traditional than this one.

The frustrating thing is that the gloss is so uncalled for. The altered vocals, the bombastic instrumentation, those things just take away from the vocals. It’s all well and good if the singer is Katy Perry or Ke$ha, as they need all the help they can get. But Carrie Underwood? Aside from a few impressive and effortless high notes that serve as a reminder of her capabilities, her vocal abilities are effectively buried.

Pop music today is very restrictive – possibly more so than country music – and a certain type of sound is needed to get significant airplay. So if the idea behind the song was to make Underwood sound like every other pop singer out there, then it’s a success. The downside, though, is that everything that made her special in the first place is getting lost in the process.

Written by Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins

Grade: B-

Listen: Blown Away

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