Album Review: Brad Paisley, Moonshine in the Trunk

Brad Paisley Moonshine in the Trunk

Brad Paisley
Moonshine in the Trunk

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Paisley’s last four albums have established a pattern of something slightly progressive or challenging (American Saturday Night, Wheelhouse) followed by a course-correction back toward baseline (This is Country Music, Moonshine in the Trunk).

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Single Review: Little Big Town, “Girl Crush”

Little Big Town Girl Crush

“Girl Crush”
Little Big Town

Written by Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna, and Liz Rose

Beyond their lush four-part harmonies and their incorporation of Fleetwood Mac’s influence into the country idiom, perhaps Little Big Town’s greatest talent is choosing singles that completely sabotage their momentum at radio. They’ve followed up a top 10 hit with another top 10 exactly twice in thirteen years, and it’s almost unfathomable that “Girl Crush,” the second single from Pain Killer, will receive a warm reception in the current radio climate.

That’s a shame, really, since it’s one of the band’s strongest efforts.

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Single Review: Miranda Lambert, “Little Red Wagon”

Miranda Lambert Little Red Wagon

“Little Red Wagon”
Miranda Lambert

Written by Audra Mae and Joe Ginsburg

The bizarre handling of the singles from Miranda Lambert’s Platinum continues unabated with the arrival of “Little Red Wagon.” After leading off with far-and-away the two worst tracks on the album—the aesthetically and politically regressive “Automatic” and the empty bombast of “Somethin’ Bad”—then tagging “Smokin’ and Drinkin’,” an understated collaboration with Little Big Town, as the set’s next single before abruptly pulling the plug without explanation, Lambert’s team have declared “Little Red Wagon” as Lambert’s official third single. It’s been a long, strange ride thus far— one that smacks of the kind of nonsense typically reserved for veteran artists signed to Curb Records or to Sara Evans, rather than to an artist who is actively being pushed as one of the format’s superstars.

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Artist Spotlight: Ronnie Fauss

USA - PORTRAIT - Ronnie Fauss If you were listening to New West Records’ An Americana Christmas sampler over the holidays, you would have heard tracks from the likes of Dylan, Cash, Emmylou and other Americana legends. Tucked in alongside those songs was a catchy little number called “Everyone Deserves a Merry Christmas.” With wry lyrics about a jailhouse celebration and a chorus that begs for a sing-along (“Everybody deserves a Merry Christmas/It don’t matter what stupid things you’ve done…”), it’s an excellent introduction to Ronnie Fauss, if you’ve not had the pleasure of listening to this Texas singer already.

For those in the know, Fauss has been worth following for several years now. After several EPs, he released his full-length debut, I Am the Man You Know I’m Not, in 2012 on Normaltown Records, a New West imprint. Mouthful of a title and all, it was one of the year’s best debuts and showed off his songwriting skills and his penchant for grin- and tear-inducing songs.

Fauss released his follow-up, Built to Break, late last year, with no trace of a sophomore slump in sight. If anything, Break is a more ambitious and diverse-sounding record than its predecessor and has turned up on more than a few year-end best-of lists.

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In Memoriam: Little Jimmy Dickens (1920-2015)

Little Jimmy Dickens2015 is off to a sad start for country music as a whole, and the Grand Ole Opry in particular.

From the Tennessean:

Country Music Hall of Famer Jimmy Dickens, the Grand Ole Opry’s most beloved and diminutive ambassador, died Friday at a Nashville area hospital. He was 94.

Mr. Dickens starred for decades on the “Opry,” where he was a vital part of the scene both onstage and backstage. His dressing room was an essential stop for performers on the show, and it was there that he held court for a variety of artists, some of whom came to the Opry more than a half century after Mr. Dickens’ 1948 debut.

He remained a vital performer throughout his life, last playing the “Opry” on Dec. 20, a day after his 94th birthday and five days before he would be admitted to the hospital after suffering a stroke on Christmas Day. He died of cardiac arrest on Friday.

When the spotlight shone on him, Mr. Dickens would make fun of his size (“I’m Little Jimmy Dickens, or Willie Nelson after taxes”), his rhinestone-studded outfits (“There goes Mighty Mouse in his pajamas”) and his old-timer status (He would often introduce his “latest hit,” from 1965).

“The Grand Ole Opry did not have a better friend than Little Jimmy Dickens,” Opry vice president and general manager Pete Fisher said in a statement Friday. “He loved the audience and his Opry family, and all of us loved him back. He was a one-of-kind entertainer and a great soul whose spirit will live on for years to come.”

In the final decades of his career, Mr. Dickens’ kindness, affability and hospitality were his calling cards. Where others would say “goodnight,” Mr. Dickens would shake hands and offer, “We appreciate you.” But some of those who laughed with him and sang along to the songs he regularly performed on the “Opry” were unaware of what a potent, even groundbreaking performer he was in the 1950s.

Ever since the illness and death of Porter Wagoner,  Dickens had become the single most visible ambassador for, and the living legacy of, the Grand Ole Opry.   Yes, there were all those cameos and appearances with Brad Paisley, which were his primary introduction to more recent country fans.   But the Opry was his home and he was the star there, not the sidekick.

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The Best Albums of 2014

2014 was a banner year for country music albums.   In addition to the predictably solid entries from the Americana, folk, and bluegrass scenes, some excellent albums also surfaced from the unlikeliest of sources: mainstream, radio-friendly contemporary country artists!

Here are our twenty favorite albums from 2014.   Fingers crossed that 2015 is as good or better than this year has been.

Jennifer Nettles That Girl

#20
Jennifer Nettles
That Girl

KJC #8 | LW #16

A confident, intelligent solo project that washes away all of the bitter taste left by Sugarland’s preceding studio album, The Incredible Machine.  Nettles manages to remind us what was so appealing about the trio-turned-duo in the first place, while also staking out her own musical territory that has room for independence anthems alongside wry, humorous commentary on society and, of course, palpably vulnerable heartbreak numbers.  – Kevin John Coyne

Recommended Tracks: “Me Without You”, “Know You Wanna Know”, “Jealousy”

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The Best Singles of 2014, Part 2: #20-#1

The countdown concludes with our top twenty singles of 2014.   Check out the first twenty entries here, and look for our countdown of the year’s twenty best albums tomorrow.

Shovels & Rope Swimmin' Time

#20
“The Devil is All Around”
Shovels & Rope

LW #5 | JK #13

The soulful husband-wife duo that comprises Shovels and Rope delivers a no holes barred analysis of trials and temptations, which boils down to the idea that the devil is all around, which means that one must do what he can to push against such a devastating force. – Leeann Ward

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The Best Singles of 2014, Part 1: #40-#21

fiddle3.jpgDoes failure to reach a consensus indicate a year that lacked quality, or a year that had enough interesting singles that subjective taste is enough to prevent a consensus?

This was the dilemma faced by the Country Universe staff as we compiled our Best Singles of 2014 feature.   We followed our usual routine.  Each writer submitted their list of the twenty best singles of the year, and our numbers guru Jonathan Keefe used his time-test algorithm to produce a collective ranking.

But this year, there was only one single that appeared on four out of five lists.  The rest: three or less.  Rather than shorten the list to showcase only those songs chosen by multiple writers, we decided to stick to the usual forty slots, and let quite a few songs embraced only by one writer to have their place in the sun.

The result is probably the most diverse singles list we’ve ever published, and provides a great counterpoint to our upcoming albums list, which showed far more consensus than any previous albums list has.

Today, we start with the lower half of our top forty singles.  Look for the upper half tomorrow, and our albums list on Wednesday.

Parker Millsap Parker Millsap

#40
“Truck Stop Gospel”
Parker Millsap

JK #12

Raspy-voiced newcomer Parker Millsap takes it to church on one of the year’s best-drawn character sketches, adopting the persona of a truck driver whose cab doubles as his pulpit. – Jonathan Keefe

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CU10 Flashback: Single Review/Shameless Rant: Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me”

Miranda Lambert - The House That Built MeI discovered Country Universe in the spring of 2010 and quickly became a regular reader. At the time, Dan’s review of Miranda Lambert’s much-lauded release “The House That Built Me” was a recent post.

Besides making me wish that my own ‘shameless rants’ could come out sounding half as smart and classy as Dan’s, the article raises a series of points that remain valid nearly half a decade later. “The House That Built Me” is a great record, but should it really have stood out so dramatically as such? Dan discussed the single in a way that turned the mirror back on us. Have we developed a tendency to praise or over-praise music, not on its own merits, but in comparison to the weaker material surrounding it?

Perhaps it was my recent participation in Country Universe’s Best of 1994 feature which moved me to revisit this article and topic. I think about the great difficulty I had in narrowing down my personal list of favorite singles from that incredible year, and then I look at the singles I’ve reviewed favorably in the recent past. How many of those singles would have had a prayer of making that list if they had been released in 1994? At a time when great music is becoming harder and harder to find, Dan’s review remains a potent reminder of the need to maintain a wider perspective in evaluating the music of today. – Ben Foster

Single Review/Shameless Rant: Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me”
by Dan Milliken
April 1, 2010

Let’s be real: to most core readers of this blog, it’s probably old news that Miranda Lambert is releasing this unusually good song to radio. And it’s probably old opinion for me to proclaim that she’s playing a more sophisticated game than just about any mainstream artist out there. You know: “she’s real, everyone else is a phony!” Is there some amount of truth in that? Sure. But you don’t need another country music Caulfield to tell you. You just have to listen to the song. The difference between this record and most of the others at radio can be felt within seconds.

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Best of 2014: The Ballot

2014Country Universe has finalized its year-end lists for 2014, and we’re getting ready to roll it out to our readers.  This year, we considered 125 albums and  342 singles for our annual list, narrowing our favorites down to just twenty albums and forty singles.

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