“Just Gettin’ Started”
Written by Rhett Akins, Chris DeStefano, and Ashley Gorley
Competently performed. Creatively stagnant. Completely unnecessary.
“I See You”
Written by Luke Bryan, Ashley Gorley, and Luke Laird
This is the sound of an artist that’s struggling against the confines of the niche he’s been assigned, but not being willing to give up enough of the trappings to completely break free.
Not much more to say than that, other than “songs about songs” are one of my favorite categories of songs, but this isn’t one of the better ones. There are a lot of great ones, but that’s another post.
Written by Dallas Davidson and Ashley Gorley.
Pretty Little Liars actress turned country newcomer Lucy Hale cites Shania Twain and Martina McBride as major musical influences, and to a degree it’s perceptible on her debut single “You Sound Good to Me.” The track begins with a light, airy fiddle hook, and segues into an effervescent uptempo pop-country love song with an atypically sparse production arrangement by country radio standards (murky background vocals aside).
Unfortunately, things go very wrong in one important area – the vocal. Hale’s performance sound constantly strained and often pitch-challenged as she struggles to reach high notes and keep up with the brisk tempo. Worse yet, Hale’s voice rings generic and faceless, lacking any hint of distinctive personality or flair and instead sounding like that of any random karaoke bar patron.
It doesn’t help that the song itself is hardly anything special – standard Music Row radio filler courtesy of three of the industry’s current favorite hired-gun songwriters. There’s none of the distinctive cleverness, spunk or massive pop hooks that marked the best work of Hale’s role models. If such a song is going to work on any level at all, it needs a strong vocal performance to carry it. Without that crucial element, “You Sound Good to Me” quickly sinks like a stone.
Written by Ashley Gorley, Luke Laird and Hillary Lindsey
But it’s better than “re-fall” and “re-fly”, the uses of which nearly derail in the bridge what has been a satisfactory journey so far. The concept might be old school, but the Rascal Flatts boys are still very much in the present, turning in a nice variation on their trademark harmonies that allow Gary LeVox to let loose a little bit. He’s not as nasal as he’s been in the past, and when he goes for the power vocals toward the end, he sounds a lot more raw than I can ever remember hearing him.
There’s something slightly melancholy about Rascal Flatts these days. A major commercial act that was never known for its artistry has begun to fade. Their relevance is on shaky ground, almost sadly dependent on the whims of radio and consumer interests. I don’t know why their sound slowly went out of style, any more than I can tell you why they were moving four million units an album at their peak.
But against today’s landscape, there’s something comforting about the way that they’re still doing things. They may not be at the top of the game, but at least they’re still playing.
Written by Chris DeStefano, Ashley Gorley, and Eric Paslay
It’s tolerable enough, more tastefully produced than your average country radio hit, but it never quite overcomes the fact that its territory is one that other artists have covered much better in the past. (Exhibits A, B, C) The lyrics fail to rise above rote scenes of a nameless, faceless narrator driving down the highway with his nameless, faceless friends, and parking his truck beneath the stars to get cozy with his nameless, faceless girlfriend. The whole of the song is weighed down by a general sense of non-distinction, reflected in its generic one-word title.
Unfortunately, the dynamics aren’t strong enough to compensate. The melody is dull and lifeless, and Rucker’s performance is forgettable. The end result is a song that might not be bad enough to be an immediate station-changer, but nor is there anything here that would inspire me to ‘turn it up, turn it up to 10…’
Written by Darius Rucker, Luke Laird and Ashley Gorley
The CMA Awards are upon us again, and I must say that this is the most underwhelming lineup I’ve ever seen, and I started watching the show back in 1991. We’ll be back to live blog the festivities on Wednesday night. In the meantime, enjoy our personal picks in each category, along with who we think will actually win.
Kevin: Much like the field finally cleared for him in the Male Vocalist race two years ago, I expect that this is Paisley’s year to win with his sixth nomination. I think Taylor Swift deserves to win, though. There’s no getting around the fact that she’s the biggest thing out there right now.
Leeann: I won’t be shocked (or really even disappointed) if Taylor Swift picks it up, but I really feel it’s finally Brad’s year.
Dan: Swift is the face of the genre right now, and she’s putting out better-written material than many of the veterans in this category. It looks like a race between her and Paisley, and I think she may actually get it.
Tara: It wouldn’t be inappropriate for Swift to take this award, and I would much (understatement) prefer her to win this over the vocalist award. But to me, Paisley is the all-around entertainer, and I think it’s his year to be recognized.
Leeann: I have no doubt that Paisley will win again, as he has had a strong year and the CMAs tend to prefer him for this award. While I think Urban is technically a very worthy opponent, the combination of Paisley’s warm voice and stronger album makes me continue to root for him. I’d also be just as happy if Strait won, however, and feel that his and Paisley’s albums were the strongest of the year.
Dan: Looks like an easy Paisley win, but I’ll give Strait the nod for all-around strength this past year.
Tara: I don’t anticipate that Paisley’s winning streak will be broken. I’m pulling for him on the strength of his material, but wouldn’t mind one bit if Urban took the award. Just please, CMAs, don’t give it to Rucker!
Kevin: Paisley’s poised to pick up his third trophy, with his only real competition being five-time winner George Strait. I’d give a fourth trophy to previous winner Keith Urban over the rest of the field. He really sang rings around the rest of ‘em when comparing their latest albums.
Dan: I tend to find Underwood boring, but I do think she released some of her better singles this past year. Swift just isn’t a strong enough vocalist to merit this prize, and I’d rather see Lambert win in a year where she has more momentum going, which could well be next year.
Tara: It will no doubt spark controversy when Underwood takes her fourth trophy and joins the ranks of Reba McEntire and Martina McBride, and that’s another discussion all together – but looking at the nominees for this year, it’s clear she deserves to win. In terms of sheer vocal talent, few artists in the genre come close to her. I’d love to see Lambert take this award (and Underwood would too!), but like Dan, I don’t think it’s her time just yet.
Kevin: I won’t believe a different winner in this race until I see it. I was underwhelmed by the latest albums from Lambert, McBride, McEntire, and Swift, and quite frankly, Underwood is the only lady of the five to put out more than one single this year that I actually really liked (“Just a Dream”, “I Told You So.”) I remain in her corner.
Leeann: Carrie will deserve to win this award when she wins it this year. I, however, still prefer Lambert’s voice and feel that her output (album) is the most interesting of the nominees.
Vocal Duo of the Year
Tara: Sugarland continues to excite me, and I think they deserve this award again.
Kevin: I love Joey + Rory, but Sugarland have really been blowing me away lately. I’d pick them for Entertainer if they’d been nominated.
Leeann: I’d technically love for Joey + Rory to win, but I know full well that Sugarland is the duo that truly deserves to win based upon their impact this year.
Dan: Sugarland. But I want to talk to whoever is picking their singles.
Vocal Group of the Year
Kevin: I find Zac Brown Band more interesting, and I think they have a real shot at winning this. I suspect Lady Antebellum has a bit more industry support, though, so I’ll give them the edge.
Leeann: Lady A will win because they’ve got more industry support and popularity with radio, but the Zac Brown Band has certainly put out more interesting music and have a refreshingly unique sound that deserves to be rewarded.
Dan: Pretty much what Kevin and Leeann said. “Chicken Fried” notwithstanding.
Tara: It’s definitely a race between Zac Brown Band and Lady Antebellum, and I can understand why my co-bloggers are rooting for the former. But even if Lady Antebellum’s talent needs a little cultivating, their music strikes a very personal chord with me, and I’ll be thrilled when they take this award. Can you believe Rascal Flatts might actually walk away from an awards show empty-handed?
Kevin: A weak lineup that speaks volumes about why country music is where it is today. I think Zac Brown Band should win. They’ve really been the real breakthrough act of the five. But I suspect in this battle of “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” co-writers, Jamey Johnson will emerge victorious.
Leeann: While I’m tempted to root for Jamey Johnson, I think Zac Brown Band has a chance of keeping me intrigued over the next few years (even if they fall out of the mainstream), though I don’t think they’ve reached their potential just yet. I predict that Darius Rucker will actually win, however, as he’s been the most successful in the last year.
Dan: Time will tell whether Johnson is able to remain a strong artistic force, but I’d say he has as good a chance as any of these five if he can keep from getting self-important. Rucker is the biggest star on the ballot, though, and I suspect he’ll squeak the win over Johnson and Zac Brown Band.
Tara: Johnson and Zac Brown Band are both deserving recipients of this award, but I personally prefer the band’s music. With the commercial success Rucker’s seen in the past year, though, I think it’s his award to lose. Not too sure how I feel about that.
Album of the Year
Leeann: While Johnson’s album hasn’t really stuck with me over the past year or so, I still think it’s the best album out of the bunch. I think Swift will win, however, due to the volume of sales and hit singles.
Dan: All of these albums have strengths, but That Lonesome Song is the only one that makes me optimistic about country music’s future. I expect it to triumph, though Swift’s has a great shot, too.
Tara: Paisley’s album, to me, strikes that sweet balance of traditional and contemporary. I think it’s a strong, interesting and relevant album that epitomizes why Paisley is so deservingly successful. But Johnson will deserve this award when he takes it, and I recognize and appreciate his positive influence on mainstream country music.
Kevin: I expected more nods overall for Jamey Johnson. I think that the eligibility period hurt him, with the project less fresh in voters’ minds. But the CMA values traditional country more than any other awards organization, so I expect him to win this. I enjoy the Sugarland album far more than any of the other four, so I’m rooting for that one.
Single of the Year
Dan: I’ve just got a bad feeling about that Currington single. “I Run To You” does have some smokin’ production, but “In Color” is the only one of the five I can still stand.
Tara: Ouch. I’m pleased that “I Run to You” is nominated as it’s a personal favorite, but I don’t think any song other than “In Color” is deserving of this award. Again…ouch.
Kevin: This is the weakest lineup in the history of this category.
Leeann: Johnson’s song feels old to me now, but it’s the best song in this underwhelming category, though I’m sure David Letterman disagrees. While I like the production on “People Are Crazy” the best in this line-up, the hook (not to mention the frustratingly weak story development) is just lame.
Tara: I would absolutely love to see Travis take this award; Underwood’s success with the song proves that the best-written country songs are timeless. I think “In Color” has more pull, though.
Kevin: I think Johnson will win, but kudos to Carrie Underwood for recognizing the value of the Randy Travis-penned gem and making it a hit all over again.
Leeann: This is not one of my favorite Randy Travis songs, but for nostalgia’s sake, I’m rooting for him to win this one. I even think it has a chance of winning, since it was a hit song for one of today’s country music’s most popular artists. I think the Paisley composition is, by far, the weakest though.
Dan: I like probable-winner “In Color” marginally more than “I Told You So.” Any of the other three winning would hurt me way down deep.
Musical Event of the Year
Kevin: Will the CMA really pass up the chance to give a trophy to Randy Travis for the first time in 21 years? I hope not.
Leeann: Paisley’s and Urban’s collaboration was originally accidentally left off the ballot, but the superstar pairing is the most likely to win. Conversely, I suspect that the inclusion of the collaboration with Ricky Skaggs and Ashley Monroe was likely an accident, but I’d still love to see this dark horse nomination win. It’s certainly the most interesting song of the category. I might have gone for the Underwood/Travis pairing if Travis’ inclusion didn’t seem so random. I liked Underwood’s original version better, as Vince Gill’s harmony seemed more natural.
Dan: It’s totally between “I Told You So” and “Start A Band”, but I’m pulling for the underdog Raconteurs record, too. I like my collaborations a little spontaneous like that, and it’s always great to see outsiders included in the CMA fold.
Tara: While I have a particular soft spot for “Down the Road,” which I thought was one of the best singles of 2008, it should come as no surprise that I’m pulling for the beautiful, rough-and-pure “I Told You So.” I think it will easily win.
Dan: I enjoy the Strait video most, but Swift’s is the flashiest, and that tends to win out.
Tara: Strait’s video is poignant and tastefully done. I never understood the appeal of Swift’s Shakespearean video, but apparently a whole generation of country music fans does. My money’s on Swift.
Kevin: I think the Swift fairytale will get the most votes, but the Strait clip hypnotizes me every time it’s on. Who knew a simple slide show could be so powerful and such a perfect fit for a song?
Dan: I should really start paying more attention to this kind of thing. But I know Paul Franklin’s been doing steel for everyone from Lyle Lovett to Rascal Flatts in the past year. Respek!
Tara: Franklin’s the one I’m most familiar with, and I agree with Kevin and Dan that he deserves it. I’ll admit I’m not entirely sure how to gauge who’ll win this year, but I suppose I’d go with McAnally again.
Kevin: I guess that McAnally will repeat his victory from last year. The other previous winners won quite a bit of time ago – Dann Huff in 2001 and 2004, Brent Mason in 1997 and 1998. My sympathy goes to Eddie Bayers, who is nominated for the tenth time and has yet to win. I have no choice but to pull for Paul Frankin, though, who has lost this award sixteen times. Here’s hoping that seventeen’s a charm!
Leeann: Please don’t let it be Dann Huff! That’s all I ask. Of course, I’m partial to the steel guitar, not to mention that it’s a shame that a steel guitar player has to work so hard to win a country music award.