Author Archives: Tara Seetharam

CU10 Flashback: Carrie Underwood, Shania Twain and Gender in Country Music

Shania Twain Carrie UnderwoodIn 2008, I was finishing up my degree in journalism and trying to understand what it meant to be a professional writer. I wanted to write about music, but the divide between fan and critic felt, at times, insurmountable.

That fall, I stumbled onto Country Universe through this post, and it changed my perspective. As both a writer and leader, Kevin was thoughtful, rational and personally invested in the country music genre. He showed a deep respect for the genre’s history, but wrote about new artists with tolerance and curiosity. Best of all, he held readers and writers alike to the highest standards of decency.

It’s for that reason that this post shines. Kevin’s ability to take a stand while cultivating constructive dialogue is unmatched. He cut through the divisive hype around Carrie Underwood –an artist who is as special to me now as she was back then—and underlined the real issue at hand: country music’s staggering, frustrating gender bias. Six years and a truckload of interchangeable male artists later, it’s more imperative than ever that we continue this discussion.  – Tara Seetharam

Discussion: Carrie Underwood, Shania Twain and Gender in Country Music

by Kevin John Coyne

August 29, 2008

I fear this post won’t quite live up to its ambitious title, and I realize that I’m stirring the tempest pot a bit by putting those two artists in the same sentence. But the tone that surfaces whenever Carrie Underwood is discussed here is something that I find increasingly frustrating, so I’m going to talk about it. Hopefully, I’ll get a meaningful conversation going along the way.

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Filed under Alison Krauss, CU10, Discussion, Flashback, Miranda Lambert, Women of Country on Women in Country

2014 ACM Awards: Staff Picks & Predictions

And they’re back: The 2014 ACM Awards air live on Sunday at 7 p.m. CST, hosted by Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan. They’re sure to be enraging or amusing, depending on your bro-country meter. In the meantime, we’ve picked and predicted the awards below – chime in with your thoughts!

Entertainer of the Year

Luke Bryan

Should Win

  • Luke Bryan 
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Blake Shelton
  • George Strait - KJC, TS, BF
  • Taylor Swift

Will Win

  • Luke Bryan - KJC, TS, BF, JK
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Blake Shelton
  • George Strait
  • Taylor Swift

Ben: No, Strait didn’t have the biggest year, but he’s still the only nominee whom I can truly endorse as the face of country music in 2014. At this point the Carrie Underwood snubs have ceased to surprise me.

Jonathan: If his fans’ votes were enough to give him the surprise win last year, there’s no reason to think Bryan won’t repeat, given that his profile only seems to have grown throughout 2013. All five of the nominees are equally sort-of deserving of a win based on relative metrics of commercial stats and quality of their output, while the most obvious, most deserving winner of this award was yet again left off the ballot.

Tara: Strait’s putting on a heck of a farewell tour, and I appreciate the CMA voters for recognizing that last year. I’m doubtful he’ll have that effect on the ACM voter demographic, though; this one’s Bryan’s to lose … but really, truly, belongs to Underwood.

Kevin: Strait’s victory at last year’s CMA Awards was the highlight of the night. But I agree with the consensus. Fan votes have this thing locked up for Bryan.

Male Vocalist of the YearBlake Shelton2

Should Win

  • Jason Aldean – TS
  • Lee Brice
  • Luke Bryan – KJC
  • Blake Shelton
  • Keith Urban

Will Win

  • Jason Aldean
  • Lee Brice
  • Luke Bryan – KJC, TS, BF, JK
  • Blake Shelton
  • Keith Urban

Ben: Bryan seems to have had the biggest year, but I’m not personally invested in any of these choices.

Jonathan: I’d be more excited about seeing new blood in this line-up if I were in any way impressed with Brice. Just looking at mainstream stars who had hits during the eligibility period, a superior slate of nominees could be culled from Gary Allan, Dierks Bentley, Eric Church, Easton Corbin, Brad Paisley, Darius Rucker, and Chris Young.

Tara: I’ll be damned if Aldean hasn’t grown on me over the past few years. His material is still too uneven for me to get behind, but I’ve come to begrudgingly respect his appeal. My guess is his crown will go to Bryan, though.

Kevin: I like the fact that after the endless streak from Paisley, we’ve gotten different winners in the past two years. The only two who haven’t won yet are Brice and Bryan. The latter is the only one at the level to warrant a win at this time.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Kacey Musgraves

Should Win

  • Sheryl Crow
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Kacey Musgraves – KJC, BF
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood – TS

Will Win

  • Sheryl Crow
  • Miranda Lambert – TS, BF, JK
  • Kacey Musgraves – KJC
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood

Ben: Lambert’s status as one of this year’s leading nominees indicates that voters still have the hots for her. Her reign will end eventually, but I won’t bet on it happening this time around.

Jonathan: Brandy Clark LeAnn Rimes Ashley Monroe Kellie Pickler Julie Roberts Holly Williams No? On the brightside, Crow managed to snag the fifth slot instead of either of Blake Shelton’s overpraised “The Voice” winners, but that’s really where the good news ends. It seems premature for Musgraves to win this award, and I’m honestly still not all that enamored of her beyond “Follow Your Arrow.” I’ve been pulling for Underwood of late, but both she and Swift ended this eligibility period with two of their worst singles, so I’d have reservations about seeing either of them win. Lambert seems poised to repeat based on her haul of nominations; as fun as “Mama’s Broken Heart” is, I’d feel better about this streak of hers had it spanned her far superior Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Revolution eras.

Tara: I’m sticking with Underwood for one more cycle, mostly because Musgraves’ charming “Follow Your Arrow” didn’t really make its (relatively small) impact until after the eligibility period. It’s hard to swallow how many of these awards Lambert is racking up between the ACM’s and the CMA’s, but I suspect the trend will continue.

Kevin: Go big or go home. Musgraves is the ACM’s opportunity to definitively position itself as the more substantive country awards show, a status they’ve been flirting with as the CMA’s have moved in the opposite direction. I think she’ll pull it off, and I’ll be happy to see her do it.

Vocal Duo of the YearFGL

Should Win

  • Big & Rich
  • Dan + Shay
  • Florida Georgia Line - KJC
  • Love and Theft
  • Thompson Square – TS, JK

Will Win

  • Big & Rich
  • Dan + Shay
  • Florida Georgia Line – KJC, TS, BF, JK
  • Love and Theft
  • Thompson Square

Ben: This category remains lame and pointless as ever, but at least I can give credit for the fact that they finally stopped shoehorning in Sugarland.

Jonathan: Thompson Square is the only one of these five acts who released a single that I didn’t absolutely hate during the past year. While that’s an accomplishment of sorts, it’s hardly one that should keep this category from being combined with the Vocal Group race.

Tara: I don’t mind Thompson Square. That’s the best thing I can say about this line-up.

Kevin: I’m not really a fan of any of these acts, so again, I’ll root for variety. Thompson Square has two wins already. Florida Georgia Line had a great year. Give them their due, and then perhaps we can forget they ever happened.

Vocal Group of the YearLittle Big Town

Should Win

  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Little Big Town – TS, JK
  • The Band Perry
  • Zac Brown Band – KJC

Will Win

  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Little Big Town
  • The Band Perry – KJC, TS, JK, BJF
  • Zac Brown Band

Jonathan: I couldn’t vote against Little Big Town during a year when they released “Sober,” but Zac Brown Band continues to release solid material and remains overdue for recognition. The Band Perry have a run of huge hit singles– the first two of which were as clever and progressive as anything country radio has touched in a minute– to their credit during the eligibility period. Momentum seems to be on their side at the moment, and I think they’ll score the night’s only real upset.

Tara: The Band Perry are walking a skillful line between commercial and creative, and I think they’ll be rewarded. As for me, I’m clinging to Little Big Town at least until the exquisite “Sober” becomes old news.

Kevin: I think that The Band Perry is best positioned to win, but Zac Brown Band is the most overdue.

Ben: I’m torn between picking The Band Perry for having had such a strong year, and picking Little Big Town for releasing one of my favorite singles of 2013. But despite Little Big Town’s recent hot streak, I expect The Band Perry’s commercial stats will net them their first win in this category.

New Artist of the Year2012 CMT Music Awards Rehearsals - Day 1

Should Win

  • Brett Eldredge
  • Justin Moore
  • Kip Moore – KJC, TS, BF

Will Win

  • Brett Eldredge
  • Justin Moore – TS, JK, BF
  • Kip Moore

Jonathan: Of these three, Justin Moore has been building his fanbase for the longest period of time, so it seems logical that he’ll win based on the fan vote.

Tara: I’ve been in Kip Moore’s corner for a few years now, but doubt he’ll take this. True story: Sometimes I think Justin Moore and Brice are the same person.

Album of the Year

Same Trailer

Should Win

  • Blake Shelton, Based on a True Story…
  • Luke Bryan, Crash My Party
  • Florida Georgia Line, Here’s to the Good Times
  • Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park – KJC, TS, BF, JK
  • Tim McGraw, Two Lanes of Freedom

Will Win

  • Blake Shelton, Based on a True Story… JK
  • Luke Bryan, Crash My Party
  • Florida Georgia Line, Here’s to the Good Times
  • Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park – TS, KJC, BF
  • Tim McGraw, Two Lanes of Freedom

Ben: Musgraves is the only one deserving of a nomination, let alone a win.

Jonathan: 2013 was an extraordinary year for country music, and that is in no way reflected in this appalling slate of nominees. Musgraves’ album is the only one that belongs in any conversation about the best of contemporary country. But there seems to be some growing consensus that Shelton is owed something more than his own celebrity status, so he’s the most likely winner.

Tara: A  part of me thinks the voters will ride the 2013 Musgraves fan train and use this as an opportunity to show some relevance. But that’s a gamble of a guess, considering the atrocious other nominees.

Kevin: They’ve been more supportive of good art in this category than the CMA’s lately, so I’m thinking Musgraves has this wrapped up, and the ACM will be the tiebreaker between the Grammys and the CMA’s.

Single Record of the YearMama's Broken Heart

Should Win

  • Florida Georgia Line, “Cruise”
  • Tim McGraw featuring Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
  • Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart” – KJC, BF, TS, JK
  • Darius Rucker featuring Lady Antebellum, “Wagon Wheel”

Will Win

  • Florida Georgia Line, “Cruise” – TS, BF, JK
  • Tim McGraw featuring Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care” – KJC
  • Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
  • Darius Rucker featuring Lady Antebellum, “Wagon Wheel”

Jonathan: A case could be made for any of these five singles actually winning, but I’ll let my pessimism about the overall nominations carry the most weight here and say that “Cruise” will win. “Mama’s Broken Heart” is only Lambert’s fifth-or-sixth-best single, but it’s easily the class of this field.

Tara: “Cruise” is too big for the voters to ignore, and that’s both depressing and funny. I wouldn’t be disappointed if the Rucker or Brice singles won, but Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” is clearly a cut above the rest with its sharp songwriting and spitting, bullet of a performance.

Kevin: Love the Lambert track, but the star power of McGraw/Swift/Urban seems hard to deny.

Song of the Year

WagonWheel

Should Win

  • “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)” – Gary Allan, Hillary Lindsey, Matthew Warren
  • “I Drive Your Truck” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Jimmy Yeary
  • “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves – KJC, TS, BF
  • “Mine Would Be You” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Deric Ruttan
  • “Wagon Wheel” – Bob Dylan, Ketch Secor – JK

Will Win

  • “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)” – Gary Allan, Hillary Lindsey, Matthew Warren
  • “I Drive Your Truck” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Jimmy Yeary – TS, JK
  • “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves – KJC, BF
  • “Mine Would Be You” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Deric Ruttan
  • “Wagon Wheel” – Bob Dylan, Ketch Secor

Jonathan: “Wagon Wheel” has become as close to a standard as any song in recent memory, and that generally doesn’t happen just by accident. This is one of the few times when Brandy Clark would be my second choice for a winner. The success of “I Drive Your Truck” propelled Brice to a surprising haul of nominations this year, though, and it’s clear that the song has resonated with a sizable bloc of voters.

Tara: This isn’t an awful line-up. I personally get the most kicks out of “Mama’s Broken Heart,” but I could make a case for all five songs, even the somewhat underrated “Mine Would Be You.” I have a gut feeling “I Drive Your Truck” will win on emotional heft, though.

Kevin: Perhaps it’s overly wishful thinking, but with “Merry Go Round” not in the running, voters have a clear path to rewarding both Musgraves and Clark, along with sending some more hardware Lambert’s way.

Video of the YearTwo Black Cadillacs

Should Win

  • The Band Perry, “Better Dig Two”
  • Kacey Musgraves, “Blowin’ Smoke”
  • Tim McGraw featuring Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
  • Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
  • Carrie Underwood, “Two Black Cadillacs” – KJC, TS, BF, JK

Will Win

  • The Band Perry, “Better Dig Two”
  • Kacey Musgraves, “Blowin’ Smoke”
  • Tim McGraw featuring Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care” – BF
  • Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart” – JK, TS
  • Carrie Underwood, “Two Black Cadillacs” – KJC

Jonathan: The video for “Blowin’ Smoke” looks like a reel of B-roll footage from Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, which was an interesting aesthetic choice but was still nowhere near as fun as the Christine homage in “Two Black Cadillacs.”

Tara: I dig the tongue-in-cheek realism of Musgraves’ video and the whimsy of Lambert’s, but Underwood makes the most unexpected, imaginative choice.

Kevin: They’ve got to give Underwood something, right?  I’m not a huge fan of the video, really. The song is awfully suggestive, but doesn’t come right out and say that the two ladies killed the guy. So the video takes that opening and decides, “The car did it!” But at least it’s a video. The others are just YouTube fodder.

Vocal Event of the YearHighway Don't Care

Should Win

  • Blake Shelton featuring Pistol Annies and Friends, “Boys ‘Round Here”
  • Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly, “Cruise” (Remix)
  • Tim McGraw featuring Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care” – KJC, JK, BF
  • Darius Rucker featuring Lady Antebellum, “Wagon Wheel” – TS
  • Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert, “We Were Us

Will Win

  • Blake Shelton featuring Pistol Annies and Friends, “Boys ‘Round Here”
  • Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly, “Cruise” (Remix)
  • Tim McGraw featuring Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care” – KJC, BF
  • Darius Rucker featuring Lady Antebellum, “Wagon Wheel”
  • Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert, “We Were Us – TS, JK

Jonathan: Hillary Scott’s shrill attempts at singing harmony are the worst part of Rucker’s cover of “Wagon Wheel,” and hopefully the two hip-hop-circa-2003-inspired singles will split votes. “We Were Us” is the worst sounding track of the five– which is really saying something about how we’ve forever lost the Loudness War– but it seems like Lambert is going to have a big night.

Tara: I’ll go with “Wagon Wheel” by default, though its collaboration does it absolutely no favors, as Jonathan said. Even still, it’s far above these other middling to obnoxious (so loud!) singles.

Kevin: Fair warning. If Florida Georgia Line/Nelly win, I’m out. Done. No live blog for me after that!

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Filed under ACM Awards

2014 Grammy Awards: Staff Picks & Predictions

The Country Universe staff has picked and predicted the 2014 Grammy Awards below, strange bunch that they are. Chime in with your thoughts, and catch the show on Sunday at 7 p.m. CST.

daftpunk-randomaccess-vinyl_grande-1.jpg?v=1368726630Album of the Year

Should Win:

  • Sara Bareilles, The Blessed Unrest
  • Daft Punk, Random Access Memories  - Kevin
  • Kendrick Lamar, good kid m.A.A.d. cityJonathan
  • Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, The Heist
  • Taylor Swift, Red

Will Win:

  • Sara Bareilles, The Blessed Unrest
  • Daft Punk, Random Access Memories  - Kevin, Jonathan
  • Kendrick Lamar, good kid m.A.A.d. city
  • Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, The Heist
  • Taylor Swift, Red

Kevin: With electronic music so mainstream now, it would be wise and timely for NARAS to acknowledge the excellent comeback of one of its pioneers, especially as the year’s best country albums (Brandy Clark, Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe, etc.) and the year’s best rap album (Kanye West) didn’t score nominations in the top category.

Jonathan: Lamar and Daft Punk would both be worthy winners of an award that rarely seems to go to one. Hip-hop and R&B have notoriously struggled in the general field in recent years, so Daft Punk’s cachet with the rock contingent should give them the edge over Swift, who didn’t score the across-the-board support many were expecting from her this year. If the voters are feeling especially timid, though, watch out for “Brave” yelper Bareilles as a spoiler.

Bruno-Mars-LockedOutOfHeavenRecord of the Year

Should Win:

  • “Blurred Lines” – Robin Thicke featuring T.I. and Pharrell Williams
  • “Get Lucky” – Daft Punk featuring Pharrell Williams – Kevin, Jonathan, Tara
  • “Locked Out of Heaven” – Bruno Mars
  • “Radioactive” – Imagine Dragons
  • “Royals” – Lorde – Dan

Will Win:

  • “Blurred Lines” – Robin Thicke featuring T.I. and Pharrell Williams – Tara
  • “Get Lucky” – Daft Punk featuring Pharrell Williams
  • “Locked Out of Heaven” – Bruno Mars – Kevin, Jonathan, Ben
  • “Radioactive” – Imagine Dragons
  • “Royals” – Lorde - Dan

Kevin:  “Get Lucky” was retro and modern at the same time, featuring the charismatic Williams.  That guy makes everything better.  I’m guessing Mars will get it because he’s the most established and arguably is overdue for a big win.

Dan: “Royals” was the most refreshing to me. Winner feels like a real toss-up, though.

Jonathan: Prevailing logic as to why hip-hop tracks have fared so poorly in this category is that NARAS voters are still hell-bent on rewarding live instrumentation, so it’s hard to imagine something as spare as “Royals” winning, even if it’s the most distinctive choice. “Get Lucky” would get my vote, but look for Bruno Mars to head off to his Super Bowl Halftime gig with some new hardware in hand to reward his Police homage.

Tara: Lots of atmospheric tunes here. “Get Lucky” seems like the one that will feel no less groovy in ten years time. I wouldn’t put any money on it, but I could see the voters ignoring controversy and rewarding the biggest hit of the year.

macklemore-samelove-1Song of the Year

Should Win:

  • “Just Give Me a Reason”  – Jeff Bhasker, P!nk, and Nate Reuss – Kevin, Ben
  • “Locked out of Heaven” – Phillip Lawrence, Ari Levine, and Bruno Mars
  • “Roar” – Lukasz Gottwald, Max Martin, Bonnie McKee, Katy Perry, and Henry Walter
  • “Royals” – Joel Little and Lorde – Jonathan
  • “Same Love” – Ben Haggerty, Mary Lambert, Ryan Lewis, and Curtis Mayfield – Dan, Tara

Will Win:

  • “Just Give Me a Reason”  – Jeff Bhasker, P!nk, and Nate Reuss - Kevin, Ben, Dan
  • “Locked out of Heaven” – Phillip Lawrence, Ari Levine, and Bruno Mars
  • “Roar” – Lukasz Gottwald, Max Martin, Bonnie McKee, Katy Perry, and Henry Walter
  • “Royals” – Joel Little and Lorde 
  • “Same Love” – Ben Haggerty, Mary Lambert, Ryan Lewis, and Curtis Mayfield - Jonathan, Tara

Kevin: P!nk is long overdue for a top tier award, and her co-write with previous winner Nate Reuss was, in my opinion, the best duet in a year chock full of ‘em.

Dan: The Macklemore & Ryan Lewis composition is somehow the most personal of the group even as it makes the biggest, broadest statement. And the climactic third verse still gives me chills.

Jonathan: I don’t care that Kacey Musgraves is a fan of hers: Perry’s nomination is indefensible, with four adults credited on a song that rhymes “zero” with “hero” and that allows pop music’s least-capable vocalist to scream a series of self-help cliches. The broad, even-in-the-flyover-states popularity of “Same Love,” though, gives the voters a safe opportunity to make a political statement and to recognize one of the year’s breakthrough acts.

Tara: It’s a toss-up between “Royals” and “Same Love” for me in terms of substance and purposeful songwriting, but I can’t ignore the chills I also get listening to the latter. I agree with Jonathan that this is a win-win way for the voters to make a statement.

Kacey+Musgraves+KACEY++PNGBest New Artist

Should Win:

  • James Blake
  • Kendrick Lamar – Jonathan
  • Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – Dan
  • Kacey Musgraves – Kevin, Ben, Tara
  • Ed Sheeran

Will Win:

  • James Blake
  • Kendrick Lamar 
  • Macklemore & Ryan Lewis - Dan, Kevin, Tara
  • Kacey Musgraves - Jonathan, Ben
  • Ed Sheeran

Kevin: Gotta root for the home team.  I think Macklemore & Lewis  will win, though.

Dan: For once, this category is hot across the board; you could make a great argument for any of these folks. Personally, I find Macklemore & Ryan Lewis to be the most exciting.

Ben:  I don’t always gravitate toward the country-affiliated New Artist nominee, but then again it’s rare for me to be so invested in a country newcomer’s artistry as I am with Musgraves. To see her win would make my heart happy.

Jonathan: Lamar is making the most compelling music of this lot, but this category’s history dictates that it’s Musgraves’ award to lose. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis pose a real threat, but being the only woman nominated plays in Musgraves’ favor.

Tara: It’s hard to tell if Musgraves’ profile outside of the country sphere is big enough to nab her this one, but I’d be happy if it did. I hope she keeps the face in check if it doesn’t, though.

REdBest Country Album

Should Win:

  • Jason Aldean, Night Train
  • Tim McGraw, Two Lanes of Freedom
  • Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different ParkDan, Kevin, Ben, Jonathan, Sam, Tara
  • Blake Shelton, Based on a True Story
  • Taylor Swift, Red

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean, Night Train
  • Tim McGraw, Two Lanes of Freedom
  • Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park
  • Blake Shelton, Based on a True Story – Sam
  • Taylor Swift, Red - Kevin, Ben, Jonathan, Tara

Kevin:  Don’t see how Taylor doesn’t win, though Musgraves made the best album by a decent margin, regardless of how country any of ‘em are.

Dan: Here’s the most logical place to reward Musgraves, though I guess Red’s nomination in the general Album of the Year field makes it the frontrunner in this category. And that’s fine; whatever. I’ve been hoping for Swift’s albums to be grouped under “Pop” at the Grammys since Fearless. It ain’t gonna happen.

Ben:  Should Win – easy choice. Will Win – also an easy choice.

Sam: Just to be contrary, I think Shelton’s built up enough recognition with his “The Voice” gig that he has name recognition from voters who know next to nothing about country music. The fact that it was a terrible, terrible album doesn’t really matter.

Jonathan: No, Red shouldn’t be nominated in the Country field, so I wouldn’t vote for it on principle, even though its best tracks are far and away the strongest material in this line-up. NARAS has no qualms about rewarding pop crossover albums here, so it would be a huge upset were Swift to lose. When we were all prepping our ballots for our year-end countdowns, I had Musgraves’ album at #38. It’s good and I certainly understand why it has as many fans as it does, but I’m just not as bullish on it as others seem to be. Still, it would be my personal choice from this paltry line-up, since Aldean’s, McGraw’s, and Shelton’s albums ranged from pedestrian to downright unlistenable.

Tara: Seems like an easy Swift win, but I get where Sam’s head is at re: Shelton. There’s no question Musgraves made the best music, though, and what a shame she’s not surrounded by her peers who made even better music.

Miranda-Lambert-Mamas-Broken-Heart-2013Best Country Solo Performance

Should Win:

  • Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”
  • Hunter Hayes, “I Want Crazy”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Dan, Kevin, Ben, Jonathan, Sam, Tara
  • Darius Rucker, “Wagon Wheel”
  • Blake Shelton, “Mine Would Be You”

Will Win:

  • Lee Brice, “I Drive Your Truck”
  • Hunter Hayes, “I Want Crazy”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart” - Dan, Kevin, Ben, Jonathan, Sam, Tara
  • Darius Rucker, “Wagon Wheel”
  • Blake Shelton, “Mine Would Be You”

Kevin:  Lambert is the only female and the only previous winner.  I’d be shocked if she lost.

Ben:  To me, Lambert’s performance alone claims the distinction of making an already-great song even better.

Sam: This could be one of those rare occasions where the best nominee actually wins a Grammy. I think Hunter Hayes is a long shot, as most Grammy voters are not teenaged girls.

Jonathan: What Kevin said. Also, he’s a talented instrumentalist, but the Grammy voters’ fascination with Hunter Hayes is baffling.

Tara: Lambert’s is the most distinct and impactful performance here, but I’ll throw in my defense of Hayes’ “I Want Crazy,” a song and vocal that’s as breathlessly exuberant as Keith Urban’s best work.

5448-thumbBest Country Duo/Group Performance

Should Win:

  • The Civil Wars, “From This Valley”
  • Kelly Clarkson featuring Vince Gill, “Don’t Rush”
  • Little Big Town, “Your Side of the Bed” – Jonathan
  • Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
  • Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, “You Can’t Make Old Friends” – Kevin, Ben, Tara

Will Win:

  • The Civil Wars, “From This Valley”
  • Kelly Clarkson featuring Vince Gill, “Don’t Rush”
  • Little Big Town, “Your Side of the Bed” 
  • Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care” - Kevin, Ben, Tara
  • Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, “You Can’t Make Old Friends” - Jonathan, Sam

Kevin: The high octane collaboration of McGraw/Swift/Urban has been unstoppable thus far.  Kudos to NARAS for noticing Rogers & Parton’s beautiful work, their best together since “Islands in the Stream.”

Ben: “You Can’t Make Old Friends” is enough to give many a longtime country music lover warm fuzzies, but the commercial clout of “Highway Don’t Care” may be too much to beat.

Sam: If you’re a Grammy voter and have to decide on a zillion categories, do you take the time to sit and listen to each nominee, or do you skim over the names and pick the ones you’re most familiar with? Kenny and Dolly for the win.

Jonathan: One of the strongest sets of nominees anywhere on the Grammy ballot this year. Little Big Town would get my vote so that they have a win for something besides “Pontoon” to their credit, but I think NARAS’ older voters will be swayed by the effortless charm of the Rogers and Parton duet.

Tara: I don’t love any of these except for the Rogers and Parton collaboration, as much as I wanted to embrace “Don’t Rush” (Kelly Clarkson! Vince Gill!). I think the middle-of-the-road McGraw / Swift / Urban song will win out, but here’s to hoping the voters act on warm fuzzies.

Merry_go_'roundBest Country Song

Should Win:

  • “Begin Again” – Taylor Swift
  • “I Drive Your Truck” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, and Jimmy Yeary
  • “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves – Kevin, Jonathan, Sam, Tara
  • “Merry Go ‘Round” – Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves, and Josh Osborne - Ben
  • “Mine Would Be You” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Deric Ruttan

Will Win:

  • “Begin Again” – Taylor Swift – Jonathan, Sam
  • “I Drive Your Truck” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, and Jimmy Yeary
  • “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves - Kevin, Tara
  • “Merry Go ‘Round” – Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves, and Josh Osborne - Ben
  • “Mine Would Be You” – Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Deric Ruttan

Kevin:  Gotta root for the Brandy Clark co-write, which is conveniently the best composition anyway.  Still, I think  voters will use this category to acknowledge Musgraves for writing her own hit instead of Miranda’s.

Ben:  I seem to be in the minority here, but I actually consider “Merry Go ‘Round” to be the finer of the two Musgraves co-writes – which is not to say that I don’t adore “Mama’s Broken Heart” or that I wouldn’t be thrilled to see Brandy Clark also gain a mantle decoration. This would seem a comfortable place for voters to acknowledge Musgraves – as well as a likely consolation prize should she lose Best New Artist – and like Kevin, I expect it will be for the hit she performed as well as wrote.

Sam: I’d just like to point out that this is an incredibly strong group of nominees and shows there is some substance to country music once you weed out all the tailgate songs.

Jonathan: Things could play out here in a similar fashion to the CMAs, with vote-splitting among the multiple nominations for Musgraves, McAnally, Alexander, and Harrington. That worked to the latter pair’s advantage at the CMAs, where “I Drive Your Truck” pulled off a surprise win, but Shelton’s powerballad could siphon votes from Brice’s hit this time. As much as I love the idea of Brandy Clark as a Grammy winner, I think the various vote-splits will allow one of Swift’s best-written songs to win.

Tara: As strong as Lambert’s spitfire performance is, I’d argue that the bones of “Mama’s Broken Heart” are even stronger. I’ve never been able to connect with “Merry Go Round” the way others have, but agree this is likely where the voters will single Musgraves out.

Build+Me+Up+From+Bones+Sarah+JaroszBest American Roots Song

Should Win:

  • “Build Me Up From Bones” – Sarah Jarosz – Jonathan
  • “Invisible” – Steve Earle
  • “Keep Your Dirty Lights On” – Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott – Kevin
  • “Love Has Come From You” – Edie Brickell and Steve Martin
  • “Shrimp Po-Boy, Dressed” – Allen Touissant

Will Win:

  • “Build Me Up From Bones” – Sarah Jarosz 
  • “Invisible” – Steve Earle
  • “Keep Your Dirty Lights On” – Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott
  • “Love Has Come From You” – Edie Brickell and Steve Martin- Kevin, Jonathan
  • “Shrimp Po-Boy, Dressed” – Allen Touissant

Kevin:  Can voters resist Steve Martin? If they do, I hope it’s to acknowledge again the unique talents of Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott.  They are so good together.

Jonathan: Jarosz draws favorable comparisons to Alison Krauss, and, if ever there were a surefire way to appeal to Grammy voters, that would be it. She’d get my vote for the exceptional title track from her third album, though, like Kevin, I’m a big fan of O’Brien’s and Scott’s work together. Martin’s charm and name recognition are likely to give his duet with erstwhile New Bohemian Brickell the edge here.

harris-crowell-old-yellow-moonBest Americana Album

Should Win:

  • Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Old Yellow MoonKevin, Jonathan, Sam
  • Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Love Has Come For You
  • Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, Buddy and Jim
  • Mavis Staples, One True Vine
  • Allen Touissant, Songbook

Will Win:

  • Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Old Yellow Moon - Kevin, Ben
  • Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Love Has Come For You - Jonathan
  • Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, Buddy and Jim
  • Mavis Staples, One True Vine
  • Allen Touissant, Songbook - Sam

Kevin:  Martin & Brickell might be the most logical choice, but in a category stacked with veterans, Harris & Crowell must be tempting to voters who are long time fans of both.

Sam: The fact that Jason Isbell wasn’t nominated here shows that Americana music has a long way to go before Grammy voters stop using it at the place where all veteran singer/songwriters end up. As for this year, Allen Touissant is older and has past Grammy love, so my money is on him.

Jonathan: The strongest, most vital year for Americana music in a decade is rewarded with a staid slate of nominees. Old Yellow Moon is the obvious standout and could very well win, but I think Martin’s well-received album with Brickell has the edge based on Martin’s celebrity.

0011661914124Best Bluegrass Album

Should Win:

  • The Boxcars, It’s Just a Road
  • Dailey & Vincent, Brothers of the HighwayJonathan
  • Della Mae, This World Oft Can Be
  • James King, Three Chords and the Truth
  • Del McCoury Band, The Streets of Baltimore

Will Win:

  • The Boxcars, It’s Just a Road
  • Dailey & Vincent, Brothers of the Highway
  • Della Mae, This World Oft Can Be
  • James King, Three Chords and the Truth
  • Del McCoury Band, The Streets of Baltimore - Kevin, Jonathan, Ben

Kevin: Haven’t heard these albums enough to have a personal favorite, but I think the Del McCoury Band’s name recognition will power it to a win.

Jonathan: Both the Del McCoury Band and Dailey & Vincent are nominated for some of their very best work, and either would be a richly deserving winner. Della Mae have a fairly vocal fanbase, but it isn’t clear if that fanbase overlaps with the Grammy voter bloc enough to unseat one of the two bigger-name acts.

GuyClarkMFPOYCoverSenorMcGuireBest Folk Album

Should Win:

  • Guy Clark, My Favorite Picture of YouKevin, Ben
  • The Greencards, Sweetheart of the Sun
  • Sarah Jarosz, Build Me Up From BonesJonathan
  • The Milk Carton Kids, The Ash & Clay
  • Various Artists, They all Played for Us: Arhoolie Records 50th Anniversary Celebration

Will Win:

  • Guy Clark, My Favorite Picture of You - Kevin, Ben, Jonathan
  • The Greencards, Sweetheart of the Sun
  • Sarah Jarosz, Build Me Up From Bones
  • The Milk Carton Kids, The Ash & Clay
  • Various Artists, They all Played for Us: Arhoolie Records 50th Anniversary Celebration

Kevin: Sentimental favorite who also put out a great album? How can they deny Guy Clark?

Jonathan: I’m tempted to pick the Arhoolie Records without having heard it, simply because it just seems like something the idiosyncratic Grammys would go for. Clark is a safer bet for his beautifully observed album, while the ascendant Jarosz would get my vote for her career-best work.

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2013 CMA Awards: Staff Picks & Predictions

CU

They’re as hope-dangling and ridiculous as they’ve ever been, those Country Music Association voters, and the CU staff has picked and predicted their 2013 awards below. Let us know what you think, and check back for our live blog on Wednesday at 7 p.m. CST!

Entertainer of the Year

Should Win:

  • Jason Aldean
  • Luke Bryan
  • Blake Shelton
  • George Strait
  • Taylor Swift

Will Win:

  • Jason Aldean
  • Luke Bryan
  • Blake Shelton – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • George Strait
  • Taylor Swift

Dan: Sadly, it’s become hard to care about the night’s biggest prize. Swift and Strait are the two I can stomach right now, and neither of them actually had much to do with the country scene this past year—the former because she was flexing her pop muscles, the latter because he’s winding down.

Ben: I want to care, but I really don’t. There’s only one artist whom I could have supported unequivocally, and she didn’t get a nomination.

Jonathan: The CMAs have a tendency to lag a few years behind peak commercial trends, so I think Bryan will have to wait another year or two before he takes this award. While Bryan, Aldean, and Shelton could split votes among the bro contingent (presumably, to the benefit of Strait), I think Shelton’s visibility will be enough to earn him another win here.

Tara: This was Carrie Underwood’s year. I’m angry, unsurprised and completely apathetic about the rest of these contenders.

Kevin: Shelton won last year and if anything, his star has only shone brighter this year.  That being said, if I was a CMA voter, I’d leave this category blank.  Carrie Underwood was this year’s Entertainer of the Year.

churchMale Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Jason Aldean
  • Luke Bryan – Kevin
  • Eric Church – Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Dan
  • Blake Shelton
  • Keith Urban

Will Win:

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

Dan: Again, pretty indifferent here.

Ben: Church was between albums this year, but he’s the one whom I feel has represented country music the best. With Urban being past his commercial peak, I’m going to give the edge to Luke Bryan for his current red-hot momentum, but I honestly couldn’t care less which of the three dudebros gets it.

Jonathan: I’d replace four-fifths of this lineup with Gary Allan, Dierks Bentley, Darius Rucker, and Chris Young. If Bryan won’t win Entertainer of the Year, this will be his consolation prize.

Tara: I feel a little guilty rewarding Church’s residual awesomeness from Chief over Aldean’s admittedly solid year, but I’m still one redeeming single away from getting over “She’s Country.” Like Jonathan said, though, I think this is where the voters will reward Bryan.

Kevin: I’d give it to Bryan simply because he’s had a good year and has a good voice.  Another Shelton win seems inevitable to me.

KMFemale Vocalist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Kelly Clarkson
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Kacey Musgraves
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin

Will Win:

  • Kelly Clarkson
  • Miranda Lambert – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Kevin
  • Kacey Musgraves – Tara
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood

Dan: Who knows? Voters could give Lambert a record-tying (with Reba McEntire) four-peat, or maybe give Underwood her fourth trophy instead, or maybe give Swift a second one just to be zany, or dismiss the stats entirely and make a surprise investment in Musgraves. I can imagine any of those scenarios playing out.

Ben: I’ll probably be 100% Team Kacey at next year’s ACMs, but right now I want to see Underwood recognized for her incredible Blown Away era. As Dan noted above, this category is difficult to predict this year. I’m going to play it safe and bet on Lambert, but Kelly Clarkson is the only one without a shot.

Jonathan: Since there are far stronger albums than Blown Away in contention for Album of the Year, this is where I’d prefer to see Underwood recognized for the artistic gains she’s made during her current era. Lambert basically told voters to do just that during her acceptance speech for Female Vocalist of the Year during the ACMs a few months back, but it seems doubtful that they will. She seems poised to repeat, even though she’s coming off the most poorly received and lowest selling run of her career. Based on the quality of what was released during the eligibility period, I would have preferred to see Brandy Clark, Ashley Monroe, Kellie Pickler, and LeAnn Rimes squaring off against Underwood.

Tara: Just going out on a limb here with Musgraves; it feels like this category is due for a change. Or maybe that change will be a throwback to Underwood? One can hope.

Kevin:  I think Lambert will win out of force of habit, with bonus votes for having the good taste to cover Musgraves and Clark before they both became breakout artists this year. Underwood made the best music and, as always, sang it better than the rest.

lbtVocal Group of the Year

Should Win:

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

Will Win:

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

Dan: I suppose that Little Big Town will repeat—but with “Your Side of the Bed” having doused their white-hot momentum, it’s hard to say for sure. Perhaps voters will finally throw Zac Brown Band the bone, if Brown’s Luke Bryan comments didn’t ruffle too many feathers. [Update: And ditto what Kevin says below.]

Ben: Little Big Town may have lost some steam with “Your Side of the Bed,” but they’re still going into the ring with a platinum album and two big hit singles, and they’re one of the only groups with multiple nominations this year. The trophy is theirs to lose.

Jonathan: Had The Band Perry scored more across-the-board support, I’d say they might have been able to pull off the upset here, but this remains Little Big Town’s to lose. Hopefully, a repeat victory will lend “Sober,” one of the year’s finest singles and arguably a new career-best for LBT, greater momentum at radio.

Tara: Cheers to that, Jonathan. Agreed.

Kevin: The Band Perry had a new album this year that was well-received.  My personal pick is Zac Brown Band, only because I want last year’s Little Big Town win to start a new era in this category of acknowledging the overdue.  Having the Dixie Chicks rack up four wins in five years is one thing.  Rascal Flatts and Lady Antebellum dominating in the same way robbed the award of its luster.  Last year, it got a little back. Let’s keep it going.

tcwVocal Duo of the Year

Should Win:

  • Big & Rich
  • The Civil Wars – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • Florida Georgia Line
  • Love and Theft
  • Sugarland
  • Thompson Square

Will Win:

  • Big & Rich
  • The Civil Wars
  • Florida Georgia Line – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • Love and Theft
  • Sugarland
  • Thompson Square

Dan: After years of sluggish Sugarland and shruggish Thompson Square, at least this year’s winning duo will have clear commercial heft behind them. Too bad I’m talking about Florida Georgia Line and not the also-quite-successful Civil Wars.

Ben: Whatever.

Jonathan: Same as it ever was: This category is years overdue to merge with Vocal Group. And the nomination for Sugarland is absurd.

Tara: I can’t decide what’s more amusing: Sugarland’s nomination or Florida Georgia Line’s inevitable win. (Although it does kind of feel like Sugarland is still haunting country radio with that new Band Perry single, no?)

Kevin:  The Civil Wars.  I swear they’re only nominating them so we can feel extra bad when they lose to Florida Georgia Line. (See: Rascal Flatts over Alison Krauss & Union Station, Martina McBride over Dolly Parton and Patty Loveless…)

2013 CMA Music Festival - Day 3New Artist of the Year

Should Win:

  • Lee Brice
  • Brett Eldredge
  • Florida Georgia Line
  • Kacey Musgraves – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • Kip Moore

Will Win:

  • Lee Brice
  • Brett Eldredge
  • Florida Georgia Line – Dan, Ben
  • Kacey Musgraves – Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • Kip Moore

Dan: Musgraves is class valedictorian, and Moore’s a solid B+ student, but expect the boys of Florida Georgia Line to cruise in on baseball scholarship and come out on top.

Ben: Musgraves has a chance, but I don’t know if her critical clout will be enough to compete with the “Cruise” phenomenon.

Jonathan: That Musgraves is the night’s leading nominee gives me hope that she can overcome Florida Georgia Line’s commercial heft. That she had the balls to push “Follow Your Arrow” as a proper single puts me firmly in her corner.

Tara: Moore is my personal favorite here, but Musgraves outclasses them all. I’ll throw my optimism in with Jonathan and Kevin.

Kevin:  This is a defining moment for the CMA’s.  Musgraves will help restore their credibility. Florida Georgia Line will destroy what’s left of it.  FWIW, Ricky Skaggs beat Lee Greenwood and Mark Chesnutt beat John Michael Montgomery.  Then again, Rascal Flatts beat Nickel Creek and Terri Gibbs beat Rosanne Cash…

bsalbumAlbum of the Year

Should Win:

  • Little Big Town, TornadoJonathan
  • Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different ParkDan, Ben
  • Blake Shelton, Based On a True Story…
  • Taylor Swift, Red
  • Carrie Underwood, Blown AwayTara, Kevin

Will Win:

  • Little Big Town, Tornado – Ben, Tara
  • Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park – Jonathan
  • Blake Shelton, Based On a True Story…Dan
  • Taylor Swift, Red
  • Carrie Underwood, Blown Away –  Kevin

Dan: Tough call. In recent years, the CMA has coalesced around the album with the most “story” value, whether that story was total domination (Fearless, My Kinda Party) or a respected artist finally hitting pay dirt (Revolution, Chief). Tornado seems like a fit for that second grouping, except that Little Big Town’s pay dirt was already last year. So the field seems open.

Ben: Of the four albums that have any real business being nominated for country awards, I consider the Musgraves set to be the strongest, but my gut says that it’s going to come down to either Shelton or Little Big Town. I’m going to be optimistic and predict an LBT victory.

Jonathan: I’m not nearly as bullish on Musgraves’ album as many others are, but it seems like this is safest place for voters to recognize her distinctive, critically acclaimed work. Tornado is my pick for the most consistently excellent set of this line-up; Red hits some glorious highs, but it’s also wildly uneven and has little business being recognized as a country album.

Tara: Tornado has some really fantastic production, and Blown Away is a stand-out showcase of Underwood’s interpretive abilities. Personal investment puts me in Underwood’s camp, but based on momentum and the fact that Musgraves is new, I think Little Big Town will take this.

Kevin: Musgraves has the most critical support, but Underwood made a much better album, in my opinion. I’m going out on a limb here and saying Underwood will win.  My logic is that she had an incredible year and this is the best category to acknowledge that in.  Also, a debut album has never won this award. There’s always a first time, but Musgraves has a lot of history up against her here.

MirandaMamasBrokenHeartSingle of the Year

Should Win:

  • Florida Georgia Line, “Cruise”
  • Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart” – Jonathan, Tara, Kevin
  • Kacey Musgraves, “Merry Go ‘Round” – Dan, Ben
  • Darius Rucker, “Wagon Wheel”

Will Win:

  • Florida Georgia Line, “Cruise” – Dan, Jonathan, Ben
  • Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
  • Kacey Musgraves, “Merry Go ‘Round”
  • Darius Rucker, “Wagon Wheel” – Tara, Kevin

Dan: “Cruise” is the behemoth here, and behemoths tend to win Single.

Ben: Dan said it.

Jonathan: I’d like to think that a record-setting run atop Billboard’s ridiculous mongrel chart would be its own reward, but it probably won’t be.

Kevin:  There have been some goofy winners in the past.  “Elvira.” “Achy Breaky Heart.” “Bop.”  But there aren’t any in the recent past.  I think that “Wagon Wheel” allows the CMA to pick a big mainstream hit that has a bit of alt-country cred, should they decide against a Musgraves sweep.

Tara: I agree with Kevin that “Wagon Wheel” seems like a nice compromise for the voters. I’d be cool with any of the latter three winning, but to me, “Mama’s Broken Heart” has the most momentum from start to finish.

wwSong of the Year

Should Win:

  • “I Drive Your Truck” (Lee Brice) - Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Jimmy Yeary
  • “Mama’s Broken Heart” (Miranda Lambert) – Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Kacey Musgraves – Kevin
  • “Merry Go ‘Round” (Kacey Musgraves) – Kacey Musgraves, Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne – Dan, Ben, Tara
  • “Pontoon” (Little Big Town) - Barry Dean, Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird
  • “Wagon Wheel” (Darius Rucker) - Bob Dylan and Ketch Secor – Dan, Jonathan

Will Win:

  • “I Drive Your Truck” (Lee Brice) - Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Jimmy Yeary - Dan, Jonathan
  • “Mama’s Broken Heart” (Miranda Lambert) – Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Kacey Musgraves
  • “Merry Go ‘Round” (Kacey Musgraves) – Kacey Musgraves, Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne – Ben, Tara, Kevin
  • “Pontoon” (Little Big Town) - Barry Dean, Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird
  • “Wagon Wheel” (Darius Rucker) - Bob Dylan and Ketch Secor 

Dan: “Wagon Wheel” is a proven standard, but voters will probably want to go with something newer, and I guess I do, too. There’s a decent chance that Musgraves will get acknowledged here with “Merry Go ‘Round,” but with two co-writes in the pool, her danger is vote-splitting—and if that does happen, I defer to Jonathan’s logic below. Plus, frankly, CMA voters love songs about deceased loved ones.

Ben: It’s definitely possible that vote-splitting may be turn out to be Musgraves’ undoing in this category, but my guess is that “Merry Go ‘Round” will ultimately overshadow “Mama’s Broken Heart,” and that this will be where she gets her trip to the podium.

Jonathan: I’m all-in for the idea of recognizing brilliant songs that should have been hits a decade ago. Next year, can we get Drive-By Truckers’ “Outfit” or Neko Case’s “Deep Red Bells,” please? This year, I just can’t see the CMA giving an award to Bob Dylan, and, as much as I’d love to see Brandy Clark win, I think the Musgraves co-writes will split votes. Which leaves a frivolous holdover from last year to face off against the only “truck” song in years that’s worth even half a damn. I think the latter pulls off the night’s only real upset.

Tara: Lots of solid choices here; even “Pontoon” has a melody worth respecting. “Merry Go ‘Round” just edges out “Mama’s Broken Heart” for me, but I think the voters will be more pointed with their choice and reward Musgraves for her breakout song.

Kevin: “Merry Go ‘Round” fits in well with previous female writer wins. Distinct point of view, attention to details, and some quiet feminist commentary. My pick is “Mama’s Broken Heart”, which I think is just brilliant. “Line your lips and keep them closed.”  Wow.

blownawayMusic Video of the Year

Should Win:

  • Carrie Underwood, “Blown Away” – Ben, Kevin, Tara
  • Blake Shelton featuring Pistol Annies, “Boys ‘Round Here”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Downtown”
  • Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
  • Little Big Town, “Tornado” – Dan, Jonathan

Will Win:

  • Carrie Underwood, “Blown Away” – Dan, Ben, Jonathan, Kevin, Tara
  • Blake Shelton featuring Pistol Annies, “Boys ‘Round Here”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Downtown”
  • Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”
  • Miranda Lambert, “Mama’s Broken Heart”
  • Little Big Town, “Tornado” 

Dan: The Underwood clip was made to win this award, but I find it silly. Why does she have lie around all sexily on that bed in the tornado shelter?

Ben: Little Big Town’s “Tornado” is also a worthy contender, but Underwood’s “Blown Away” video is an absolute tour de force.

Jonathan: The idea that this could be how the Pistol Annies win a CMA award just makes my teeth hurt. As big a fan of hers as I may be, Miranda’s mugging in the video for “Mama’s Broken Heart” makes her laughable acting gig on Law & Order: Perverts Unit seem measured and subtle by comparison.

Kevin:  Because why shouldn’t there be two winners in this category that give homage to Oz?

Tara: Tornadoes scares the crap out of me.

highwaydon'tcareMusical Event of the Year

Should Win:

  • Blake Shelton featuring Pistol Annies, “Boys ‘Round Here”
  • Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly, “Cruise” (Remix)
  • Kelly Clarkson featuring Vince Gill, “Don’t Rush” – Jonathan, Ben, Tara
  • Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care” – Dan, Kevin
  • Jason Aldean with Luke Bryan and Eric Church, “The Only Way I Know”

Will Win:

  • Blake Shelton featuring Pistol Annies, “Boys ‘Round Here”
  • Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly, “Cruise”
  • Kelly Clarkson featuring Vince Gill, “Don’t Rush”
  • Tim McGraw with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care” – Jonathan, Ben, Dan, Kevin, Tara
  • Jason Aldean with Luke Bryan and Eric Church, “The Only Way I Know” 

Ben: Clarkson and Gill made the best record of the lot, but it doesn’t have the commercial muscle to pull off a victory, so I’m giving the edge to McGraw and Company.

Jonathan: Cosigning Ben’s comment, word for word.

Dan: “Highway Don’t Care” is kinda weird and meh, but it’s not “Boys ‘Round Here” and “The Only Way I Know”. For this, I am grateful.

Tara: I swear I’m not throwing this to Clarkson and Gill just because they’re Clarkson and Gill – I can stomach not one of these other songs. Part of me thinks Aldean and co. might take this, but McGraw and co. seems more likely.

Kevin:  “Highway Don’t Care” made me enjoy both McGraw and Swift as singers, not just song pickers/songwriters.  For that alone, the win.

Musician of the Year

Should Win:

  • Sam Bush (Mandolin) – Jonathan, Ben
  • Paul Franklin (Steel Guitar) – Kevin
  • Dann Huff (Guitar)
  • Brent Mason (Guitar)
  • Mac McAnally (Guitar)

Will Win:

  • Sam Bush (Mandolin)
  • Paul Franklin (Steel Guitar) – Jonathan, Ben, Kevin
  • Dann Huff (Guitar)
  • Brent Mason (Guitar)
  • Mac McAnally (Guitar)

Ben: I’ll be all for Paul Franklin next year thanks to Bakersfield, but this year I would like to see Sam Bush get his due.

Jonathan: Bush may not have a MacArthur fellowship like Chris Thile, but his progressive mandolin work is certainly overdue for recognition. Hard to begrudge Franklin, though, as Bakersfield is one of the year’s best albums.

Kevin: Until he wins. I will pick him until he wins. 

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Single Review: Chris Stapleton, “What Are You Listening To?”

chrisstapletonBest known as the former frontman of The SteelDrivers and a prolific songwriter, Chris Stapleton is carving out an impressive niche on country radio, far from the band’s bluegrass sound. His first single blends blues and soul, nodding to the record era with Tony Brown’s subdued, crackling production.

Songs about songs are common these days, but this one twists the formula. While music serves as catharsis for both characters, it mostly helps materialize Stapleton’s desperation over that painful distance – figuratively and literally – between him and the emotions of someone who’s no longer his. It’s a clever way to convey heartbreak, and an impassioned one in his hands. With his voice alone, he spins the bridge’s simple question of whether his ex is on an outbound plane or a sunny interstate into striking anguish.

That’s Stapleton’s real offering to country radio: a reminder that the power of a vocal performance can’t be underestimated, even in a genre whose heart and soul is so closely tied to narrative. Hum the base melody of “What Are You Listening To?” and it’s as mild as a children’s lullaby. Hear it with Stapleton’s embellishments, and it’s as crushing as his pain – dipping and breaking and pulling and surging until you’re right there inside his circling thoughts.

Stapleton isn’t the first to bring vocal heft to modern country radio – see: Zac Brown, Chris Young and Randy Houser - but his attempt feels more honest and less tainted by the parameters of his audience, especially in the acoustic performance below. In a year lacking smart, thoughtful releases by male artists, that authenticity makes “What Are You Listening To?” all the more remarkable.

Written by Lee Thomas Miller and Chris Stapleton  

Grade: A-

Listen: What Are You Listening To?

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Single Reviews Round-Up: Rascal Flatts, Toby Keith, Tim McGraw ft. Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, & Kip Moore

images

Rascal Flatts, “Changed”

Like “I Won’t Let Go” a few years back, “Changed” is built on a sweeping sentiment, rousing melody and very little else. That’s not an inherently bad thing; despite an ounce of detail about the confessor, “Changed” feels like a confession –it pleads and swells and submits. Add in an earnest and relatively restrained performance, and the song has legs.

Written by Gary LeVox, Wendell Mobley & Neil Thrasher

Grade: B

Listen

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Toby Keith, “Hope on the Rocks”

There’s something slightly jarring about the patrons’ terribly depressing hardships when the only payoff in the song is alcohol-infused hope. Maybe that’s the point, or maybe the bartender’s storyline is just a pinch undercooked. Regardless, it’s hard to knock the lovely, retro-Keith vocals and arrangement.

Written by Toby Keith

Grade: B

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Tim McGraw ft. Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, “Highway Don’t Care”

In theory, this is a cool track: Swift’s removed, floating performance makes sense in a song about loneliness, and Urban’s vigorous guitar work could mirror the discord in any relationship. But the melody just isn’t as driving as the three artists think it is, and the pairing of McGraw and Swift doesn’t have much grit, sonically or romantically. There’s little to grab onto past the second or third listen.

Written by Mark Irwin, Josh Kear, & Brad and Brett Warren

Grade: C+

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Kip Moore, “Hey Pretty Girl”

No, love isn’t always as simple as the six-step journey that’s traced here, but the bittersweet melody and Moore’s naturally urgent delivery give the

story subtle dimension. Best of all is the jolt that comes from one ever-relevant line in the chorus, smartly directed at the listener: “Happiness don’t drag its feet” is as sage a piece of advice as any given by our favorite ’90s storytellers.

Written by Dan Couch & Kip Moore

Grade: A-

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Concert Review: George Strait and Martina McBride

GeorgeStraitConcertPicThis review of George Strait’s final Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo concert was originally published on CultureMap Houston.

It was 30 years ago that the Texas rancher and country music newcomer received a last-minute call to make his Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo debut, replacing the ill Eddie Rabbitt. Since then, George Strait has become part of the RodeoHouson fabric: He’s played a total of 21 shows, including the Astrodome’s closing concert in 2002 — its highest-attended event — and the Reliant Stadium’s debut concert in 2003.

And Sunday night, he made one last piece of history with a terrific RodeoHouston appearance, a stop on his “The Cowboy Rides Away Tour.” Along with Martina McBride and the Randy Rogers Band, Strait’s concert-only performance amassed a record-breaking crowd of 80,020.

History aside, it’s fitting that Strait chose RodeoHouston for his final Houston tour stop. The annual event, in its 81st year, embodies the same blend of rugged charm and modern energy that’s kept the 60-year-old singer relevant well into the 21st century. Strait’s sold-out concert appeared almost mystical in its generation-bridging force — its ability to elicit the same level of awestruck respect from young and old.

Strait was preceded by two opening acts, the Texas-bred Randy Rogers Band and tour mate Martina McBride. The former’s material was uneven (thumbs down for “Fuzzy,” a honky tonk spin on Jason Aldean’s party anthems), but its newer offerings, like the raucous “Trouble Knows My Name,” were on-point.

McBride proved a force per usual, her crystalline voice searing through her bread and butter of inspirational ballads with precision and poise. Hits like “A Broken Wing” and “Independence Day” carried as much weight as they did 10 years ago, and the under-appreciated “Love’s The Only House” rang with renewed urgency.

But make no mistake: this was Strait’s house, and McBride knew it. “I’m the luckiest girl in the world. You know why? Cause I get to tour with George freaking Strait,” she yelled.

If McBride’s set was a polished collection of career highlights, Strait’s felt more like a laidback jam session that just happened to be peppered with No. 1 hits. Wearing

his signature Wranglers and a simple black cowboy hat, Strait burned through a deep, career-spanning set of 31 songs, never once losing the crowd’s attention.

“I can’t tell you how happy we are to be here tonight,” he said while taking in the packed stadium, and that earnest joy quickly became the theme of the night.

He had the crowd on its feet with opener “Here for a Good Time,” a beer-raising ode to living like you’re dying, and he followed it with familiar hits “Ocean Front Property” and “Check Yes or No.” Even when he slowed the pace with a one-two punch of the saccharine “I Saw God Today” and somber “Drinkin’ Man,” the energy in the stadium didn’t seem to waver.

Perhaps because Strait promised upfront that he had a few tricks up his sleeve — and indeed he did. Eight songs in, he brought McBride back out for a pair of classic duets, Johnny and June Cash’s “Jackson” and George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s “Golden Ring,” which the duo shuffled through with fresh chemistry. It was a moment, among many in the concert, that transcended the confines of time.

Strait then dove into the meat of his show, a career-tracing journey through story and song. He laughed as he recounted his first trip to Nashville in 1981, cutting his first handful of songs and nabbing his breakthrough record deal. He paid tribute to old friends and writers Darryl Staedtler and Dean Dillon while performing early hits “Blame it on Mexico” and “Her Goodbye Hit Me in the Heart” from his debut album Strait Country.

“Are y’all still liking the old stuff?” he asked, before continuing through the 80s with songs like “Honky Tonk Crazy” and the jaunty “80 Proof Bottle of Tear Stopper,” which had the audience clapping along.

The first emotional jolt of the night came from Strait’s 1982 hit “Marina del Rey,” a song that, over the years, he’s learned to inject with the melancholy weariness it deserves. The crowd sang along audibly while brave couples took to the floor to dance.

The 90s followed with songs from a “little ole movie called ‘Pure Country,’” including “The King of Broken Hearts” and the fast-paced toe-tapper “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” But just like the decade before, it was the slow two-step of “The Chair” that mesmerized the audience, bringing it to a standing ovation that lasted for a good 20 seconds.

When he barreled through to recent years, “Give it Away” punched things up with country-style angst, and “How ‘Bout Them Cowgirls” turned into an endearing sing-along. He brought his catalogue full circle with 1983’s “Amarillo by Morning,” a song he re-recorded on his 2003 album For the Last Time: Live from the Astrodome, capping it off with a gorgeous fiddle solo.

Throughout the show, Strait gave longtime friends Ace in the Hole plenty of room to shine. The band’s craftsmanship was so sharp that it was able to pump much-needed energy into recent sleeper “Rolling on the River of Love” and tepid chart-climber “Give it All We Got Tonight.” In the context of Strait’s superb catalogue, the latter fell undeniably flat – but again, the crowd couldn’t be bothered.

And what a crowd. One scan of the 80,000 plus-filled stadium was overwhelming, a visual reminder of the kind of scale most artists only dream of reaching.

Strait understood that. “I’m really going to miss this,” he said, as he launched into a sentimental performance of “I’ll Always Remember You” off of his past album, Here for a Good Time. His plain-speak ‘thank you’ to fans was achingly sincere –“But you kept calling me back to the stage / And I finally found my place in each and every face,” he sang — but not particularly unique. The better send-off came with Strait’s honest confession, “Troubadour,” which paints a more telling portrait of his career.

Strait appeared to close the show with his very first hit “Unwound,” but was cheered back in for a four-song encore. He hopped from “Same Kind of Crazy” to the crowd-favorite “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” to a solid, foot-stomping cover of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” Finally, he rode out with “The Cowboy Rides Away,” a potentially cheesy retirement song, but not in his hands.

In an era where singing straight from the heart (pun intended) is heavily sacrificed for bravado and wit, Strait’s presence as a live entertainer — as a cowboy in the least superficial sense of the word —will be simply irreplaceable.

George Strait’s set list:

“Here for a Good Time”
“Ocean Front Property”
“Check Yes or No”
“I Saw God Today”
“Drinkin’ Man”
“Love’s Gonna Make it Alright”
“Arkansas Dave”
“Jackson”
“Golden Ring”
“Blame it on Mexico”
“Her Goodbye Hit Me in the Heart”
“80 Proof Bottle of Tear Stopper”
“Honky Tonk Crazy”
“Marina del Rey”
“A Fire I Can’t Put Out”
“The King of Broken Hearts”
“Where the Sidewalk Ends”
“The Chair”
“Rolling on the River of Love”
“How ‘Bout Them Cowgirls”
“Give it Away”
“Middle Age Crazy”
“Amarillo by Morning”
“Give it All We Got Tonight”
“I’ll Always Remember You”
“Troubadour”
“Unwound”

Encore:
“Same Kind of Crazy”
“All My Ex’s Live in Texas”
“Folsom Prison Blues”
“The Cowboy Rides Away”

 

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A Conversation with Katie Armiger

KatieArmigerIn 2007, Katie Armiger released her first album at just 15-years-old after winning a local singing competition in Texas. Since then, she’s had quiet but solid success in the industry, earning four Billboard-charting singles and touring with major artists such as Brad Paisley, Little Big Town, Jason Aldean and Ronnie Dunn. 

Last year, Country Weekly’s readers voted 21-year-old Armiger the “Hottest Bachelorette” for the second consecutive year, just before she appeared on ABC’s dubious reality television show, “The Bachelor Pad.” Ironic events, considering the fellow Sugar Land native has built her image on independence and  empowerment, themes she captures pithily on her first Top 40 hit, “Better in a Black Dress.”

Armiger’s latest album with Cold River Records, Fall Into Me, drops today - but don’t expect a collection of love stories. Its 14 songs depict the highs and lows of love with equal weight,  backed by strong, melodic hooks and Armiger’s character-filled voice. Last month, she took some time to chat with Country Universe about the blend of styles on her new album, being a woman in a male-dominated genre, and the inspiration for her ode to single girls.

Seetharam: Country music has long struggled with a gender bias that’s only now starting to melt. What’s your experience been like as a young female artist in the industry?

Armiger: Oh, I agree. It’s honestly gotten a lot easier as I’ve gotten older. Maybe it just comes with age, but I do feel like the industry has changed. When I first started, it was so male-dominated. Now the doors for females are opening up, and it’s a lot easier as a female artist to get your music out there.

How do you differentiate yourself from the other young female artists that are out there?

That’s a good question. I think everyone has their own style, and I am a singer-songwriter. Everything that I write is very personal – sometimes I wish it wasn’t as personal as it is. And my music is a blend. I tend to write everything. There are so many different types of country music– there’s more traditional, more modern – that you can sing, which is so neat. I try to do a really good blend of that.

I think that’s the constant debate – there are so many influences in country music these days. How do you define country music, or can you?

The thing about country music, regardless of what the sound is like, is that the songs all tell stories. You can listen to any country song, and it tells a story, whether it’s happy or sad. It’s not a song that’s sung without purpose. And that’s what I really love.

Are there any new artists that you find particularly interesting or inspiring?

I’m a really big Hunter Hayes fan. I love his stuff. He’s so talented. I’ve met him, and he’s so friendly. I really think we’re going to see great things from him.

He seems to be rising very quickly. Who are your idols in the industry, or the artists whose careers you admire?

I listened to a lot of Martina McBride growing up, a lot of Patsy Cline, Linda Ronstadt. A lot of very strong female country singers. I definitely try to emulate that. I want to portray strength in my music, and all of those women are very, very strong, dominant personalities. They knew what they wanted, and that’s always what I try to go for.

Speaking of different generations, have you had the chance to catch the show “Nashville”? Does it align with how you perceive the industry, and the way the veterans and newcomers interact?

I haven’t caught everything, but I’ve watched a few episodes. I honestly think it blurs the line. Some of the stuff is a little true – like you watch it and you’re like “OK, I can see that.” There’s definitely drama in the music industry, but not quite to that extent.

I’ve never seen anyone quite like Juliette in country music. Have you come across that kind of attitude?

No. That’s what’s funny. One of the things I love most about country music is that it is such a family thing. Everybody’s friends. Everybody’s super nice. It’s not cutthroat like other industries, and [“Nashville”] makes it seem super cutthroat.

What was is it like to play the Opry for the first time back in 2011?

It was one of the most indescribable things. It’s such an honor to be there, and when you’re singing, you’re just sitting there going, “I’m standing in this spot where all of these people –all of these legends who made country what it is– stood years ago.” It’s surreal.

And you have a dog named “Opry,” right? What’s the story behind that?

My dog at home gave birth, and she was one of the puppies. My stepmom called and was like, “You have to take her!” She was born when they made the announcement in my hometown that I was going to be playing the Opry. At the time, I thought there’s no way that I can keep the dog. I’m too busy – this is not going to work. But as soon as I got home and I saw her, I said, “Well, I don’t really care. I’m taking her with me.”

Let’s talk about your new music. You landed your first Top 40 hit with “Better in a Black Dress.” I think it’s fantastic – it’s empowering in a way that you can’t really find on country radio.

Thank you. It’s funny you say that because that’s definitely the thing I love the most about it. I think a lot of women are scared to sing songs like that because they think guys are going to judge them more. Guys can sing songs like that all the time, but if a girl sings something like that, it’s totally different. A guy can sing a song about taking a girl home and having fun, but a girl can’t.

What inspired this song?

It’s funny. It was kind of inspired by winning the [Country Weekly] “Hottest Bachelorette” contest. I had a lot of people try to set me up. You hit 20 and people are like, “So do you have a boyfriend? Are you going to settle down? When do you think you’re going to have kids? What’s your five-year plan? Tell me.”

I went into this with that thought in mind, and I wrote the song with my friend Blair. When I sat down, I told her, “I’m not ready for any of that. I don’t need the white picket fence. I don’t need to get married right now. Someday – just not now.” We wrote that song as the answer to all of these people saying that settling down is what you should do right now.

I love that story. Is the new album similar in theme to that song? How is it different from your previous albums?

It is very different from my past album. A lot of it is very progressive and percussion-driven, and there’s a lot of acoustic guitar. There’s definitely a theme, and that would be love. A lot of songs, whether they’re happy or sad, use the word ‘fall’ as in you’re falling in or falling out of something. And I thought it would be really cool to name the album after that concept, because whether you’re falling in love or falling out of love, that feeling of the fall you always remember.

That’s an interesting way to weave together songs that are happy, sad and in between. You co-wrote or wrote all songs on this album – what was that writing process like?

It was definitely challenging. I set out with the goal in mind to write everything. That’s what I had set out to do on all the other albums, but I heard songs that I just loved along the way and cut those as well. But on this one, I really set my mind to it. I was touring a ton in the last two years, and I’d be home for two days a month and would just try to write as much as possible when I was home. Sometimes I had to force myself get in the zone, even if I wasn’t there.

You’ve said it’s a deeply personal album. Are there specific people that these songs are about?

There definitely are. I won’t ever name names or anything like that, but honestly, some of them are about me, and some of them are about friends and their relationships. It’s a little bit of everything – it’s not just about me.

Do you have a favorite song or lyric on the album?

I cannot pick a favorite on this album. I have a few that I really, really love. There’s one I wrote with Mallary Hope, and it’s just this really sweet, really pretty, stripped-down love song (“Safe”). It’s actually the last track on the album. That’s definitely one that sticks out for me.

It’s about that feeling when you’re in a relationship – the happiest moment in a relationship. I think every person, whether you’re a girl or a guy, wants to feel safe. And when you feel safe with somebody, when you can tell them anything and be yourself with them, that’s the best feeling,

at least for me. That’s what the song is about.

What was it like working with Chad Carlson? Was there a specific sound that you two were trying to create?

I worked with him a little bit on the last album, and we really wanted to change from the last album. We wanted to have cool moments in every song, and I wanted to be able to hear the acoustic guitar on songs. I wanted there to be a lot of percussion and a lot of movement so that when you’re listening, you can tap your hand – whether it’s a slow song or a happy song. It’s definitely a bit different than the previous records, so hopefully people like it and can relate to it.

I love every single aspect of country music. I’ve written every single type of country song, and on this album, everything was definitely put on there with a purpose and with intent. It wasn’t just putting some songs on there for the sake of doing so.

Over the past few years, you’ve toured with a lot of different major country artists. Were there any elements of their tours or music that you took away and were able to channel into your new album?

I don’t know if I put any of the elements into my new album, but I definitely took all of the things that were in the back of my mind for future touring. Just different things like watching how their crew interacts and how they interact with their crew. It’s tiny things like that that you put in the back of your mind and say, “Wow, I never want to overlook that.”

Who do you think you’ve learned the most from, touring or otherwise?

I did one show with Brad Paisley this last year, and I was like, “This is why he is where he is.” He has it completely together. Every single thing. It must take such a long time for those people [on his tour]. It’s a very big crew to put a show on, but everybody’s so gracious and so humble and it doesn’t matter how big he is. He’s nice and friendly to everyone. That’s so important.

Why do you think people like Brad and Reba McEntire and those types of artists have had such staying power in the industry?

I think it’s a combination of having really good music, having a really great personality and having that drive. You have to have that. You’re out on the road so often, you’re not home a lot, and you have to just be OK with that. You always have to be on and be positive, and I think that [artists who've had staying power] are always great at that. It’s very hard to do sometimes.

Where do you see yourself 20 years from now? Where do you want to be?

I still want to be touring. I mean, who can say where they’ll be, but I just want to be singing and making records. I want to be putting music out there – and having people love the music and hopefully relate to it.

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Single Reviews Round-Up: Katie Armiger, Brett Eldredge, Justin Moore, Kelly Clarkson ft. Vince Gill, Miss Willie Brown, & Jason Aldean ft. Luke Bryan and Eric Church

Katie Armiger, “Better in a Black Dress”

Written by Katie Armiger and Blair Daly

An ode to being a chains-free, red wine-drinking hot mess could be tacky and unnecessarily snarky. In Armiger’s hands, it’s tasteful, swampy and empowering. Grade: B+

Brett Eldredge, “Don’t Ya” 

It’s been awhile since we’ve heard a voice as soulful as Eldredge’s massage a melody as enticing as this one. “Just Got Started Loving You” this song is not, but with its sly lyrics and irresistible chorus, it comes close. Grade: B+

Justin Moore, “Til My Last Day” 

Written by Brian Dean Maher, Justin Moore & Jeremy Stover

This year, country radio’s dark horse is the deceptively solid, slightly retro, mid-tempo song – think “Hard to Love,” “Time is Love,” “Beer Money” and “Lovin’ You is Fun.” Moore’s latest trails the pack, an earworm whose earnestness boosts it from bland to charming. Grade: B

Kelly Clarkson ft. Vince Gill, “Don’t Rush” 

Written by  Lindsay Chapman, Natalie Hemby & Blu Sanders

You can’t blend two of the greatest voices of our generation without a decent result. Unfortunately, that’s all this is – a pleasant, sweetly sung sleeper that doesn’t do much to elevate either of these enormous talents. Grade: B-

Miss Willie Brown, “You’re All That Matters to Me” 

Written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange

A manic, over-the-top love letter that’s simply not wacky enough to be the self-parody that its music video suggests. Grade: C

Jason Aldean ft. Luke Bryan and Eric Church, “The Only Way I Know” 

Written by Ben Hayslip and David Lee Murphy

Three of the fastest-rising male artists in country music are also three of the most distinct male artists in country music, each having built his fanbase on a unique persona and brand of swagger. Oddly, this collaboration seems to meld their personalities together into one that’s less interesting than all three.

But that’s not the bigger issue at hand. The song sinks because of its empty lyrics, its jarring theme of “humble pride” against a needlessly aggressive arrangement, and its subtle implication that a work ethic cut from a different cloth than the narrators’ is a lesser one.

Grade: D

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Call to Action: Supplies and donations needed in the Rockaways

One of our favorite people, Juli Thanki over at Engine 145, is rallying the troops to help those in need in the Rockaways, where our own Kevin Coyne lives and once taught at a school seriously impacted by the storm.  He is now the principal of another school where many students and staff were impacted by the hurricane as well. We’re so grateful to her for taking this initiative, though we’re not surprised by her act of kindness.

Her Facebook post is below, which outlines the various supplies that are needed and how you can drop them off. If you’re not in the D.C. / Northern Virginia area and would still like to help, you can e-mail Leeann at leeann@countryuniverse.net for the PayPal account information. We sincerely appreciate anything you can do to help Kevin’s community. Thank you, as always, for being a part of the Country Universe family.

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One of the best country music blogs out there is Country Universe, helmed by Kevin Coyne. In non-Internet

life, Kevin’s a school principal who lives in the Rockaways. Many of his teachers and students were severely affected by Hurricane Sandy. These folks are going to need a lot of help. That’s where we come in. Here’s a list of things they currently need:

Winter Clothes
Cleaning Supplies
Diapers/Pull Ups
Canned Food/Dry Food
Blankets
Hygiene Products/Hand Sanitizer/Wipes
Phone Cards/Metrocards
Pens/Pencils/Notebooks/Crayons/Colored Pencils
Early Childhood Toys/Furniture/Games/Puzzles
Children’s Books
Construction Paper/Folders

If you’re in the DC/Northern Virginia area and have goods to donate, I’ll come pick them up; just send me a message. We’re working on dropoff locations in other parts of the country, as well as setting up a PayPal fund. Obviously, rebuilding efforts are going to take a lot of time and money. But let’s do what we can to pitch in and help some people regain even the tiniest bit of normalcy to their lives. Thanks, everyone.

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