Tag Archives: Eric Church

CMA Awards 2014: Staff Predictions and Picks

Despite the Grammys and even the ACM’s demonstrating more consistent taste over the past few years, the CMA’s remain the most significant industry awards that honor country music.  This year’s slate of nominees gives the organization an opportunity to build on the credibility of last year’s George Strait victory.  His win for Entertainer saved a dismal show in its closing minutes.

Here’s our take on this year’s contenders:

George Strait ACMEntertainer of the Year

Should Win:

  • Luke Bryan
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Blake Shelton
  • George Strait – Kevin, Jonathan, Tara, Ben
  • Keith Urban

Will Win:

  • Luke Bryan
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Blake Shelton
  • George Strait – Jonathan, Kevin, Tara, Ben
  • Keith Urban

Kevin:  I’d settle for a Miranda Lambert victory, as she had an amazing year.  But my first choice is George Strait, who deserves a fourth trophy for that record-breaking final concert.   The rest of these nominees have either won before or still seem to have their best days ahead of them.  There will never be another George Strait again.

Jonathan: The appalling sense of entitlement Jason Aldean has shown in his seemingly endless campaign of adult temper-tantrums disguised as interviews since these nominees were announced makes it all the more satisfying that the voters didn’t exclusively consider commercial and touring stats when voting for this award. I think that will likely continue with the final ballots, giving Strait the win here as a final send-off– a win that, as Kevin said, Strait’s last concert fully justifies based on even Aldean’s logic.

Tara: I have a feeling I’ll be pulling for Lambert next year, but 20 months after seeing it, I’m still high on Strait’s phenomenal farewell show. He deserves this.

Ben: Why not? Miranda will have plenty more shots at it, but this could be our last chance to see George Strait accept a CMA Entertainer of the Year trophy. Let the cowboy ride away in style.

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2014 CMA Nominations

This year’s CMA nominees are the best in years, with multiple nominations for Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, and Brandy Clark.  Country radio may still be shunning women, but their embrace by CMA voters suggests that the industry knows who is really leading the way in the genre these days.

George Strait ACMEntertainer of the Year

  • Luke Bryan
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Blake Shelton
  • George Strait
  • Keith Urban

Who’s In:  Miranda Lambert, Keith Urban

Who’s Out: Jason Aldean, Taylor Swift

George Strait, a surprise winner last year, is nominated again in a year that includes his record-shattering final concert.   Miranda Lambert’s domination of this year’s nominations extends to the big category, where she competes for the first time since 2010.

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Single Review: Eric Church, “Cold One”

Eric Church Cold OneSneaky, clever guy, that Eric Church.

Way to totally upend expectations lyrically and musically.  The song is set up to be one of those “drinkin’ in the sun anthems,” with a paint-by-numbers kinda country production to boot.  Then a few lines in, the guy gets dumped by the cold one who left him “one beer short of  a 12-pack.”

Then the band lets loose, in an odd and refreshing way that is going to make purists frustrated.   But those of us who feel that if you’re going to integrate rock sounds, you might as well do it with a bit of innovation, we’re gonna enjoy every second of it.

Don’t look now, but Eric Church might be our strongest mainstream artist.  The kind that you can’t help wonder how he got in the mainstream in the first place.

Written by Eric Church, Luke Hutton, and Jeff Hyde

Grade: A

Listen:  Cold One

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Eric Chuch and Luke Laird

Grade: A-

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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: Eric Church, “The Outsiders”

Eric Church OutsidersA fun and catchy anthem for rebels who aren’t rebelling against anything in particular.

If Eric Church is anyone’s successor these days, it’s probably Hank Williams, Jr.   There’s no specific ideology or established enemy in Church’s latest single, but it’s such a barn raiser that it’s very easy to side with him anyway.   “The Outsiders” taps into that quintessentially American desire to champion for the underdog, and it does it quite well.

I don’t think Church has ever sounded more confident and alive on record, and the guitar work is fresh and creative, especially when the bass takes the lead in the middle.  And the breakdown during the end?   The most interesting thing I’ve heard on a country song since I can remember.

All in all, it’s remarkably well done.  If his upcoming album is half as interesting and out by Christmas, then we may need to save a slot on our  Best of 2013 lists.

Written by Casey Beathard and Eric Church

Grade: A

Listen: The Outsiders

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Freakin' "Accidental Racist," Y'all

Accidentally Racist HandshakeIn case you spent yesterday outdoors and missed it, Brad Paisley released his eyebrow-raising new collaboration with rapper LL Cool J, “Accidental Racist,” and the Internet’s eyebrows shot up into outer space.

Summarizing this song and all it entails feels, frankly, beyond me. It has to be experienced firsthand. Listen to it

if you can find a clip that hasn’t been taken down, or download it on iTunes. But here are the lyrics:

To the man who waited on me
At the Starbucks down on Main
I hope you understand
When I put on that T-shirt
The only thing I meant to say
Is I’m a Skynyrd fan

The red flag on my chest is somehow like the elephant
In the corner of the South
And I just walked him right into the room

Just a proud rebel son
With an old can of worms
Looking like I’ve got a lot to learn
But from my point of view

I’m just a white man
Coming to you from the Southland
Trying to understand what it’s like not to be
I’m proud of where I’m from
But not everything we’ve done
And it ain’t like you and me can rewrite history
Our generation didn’t start this nation
We’re still picking up the pieces
Walking over eggshells
Fighting over yesterday
And caught between Southern pride
And Southern blame

They called it Reconstruction
Fixed the buildings, dried some tears
We’re still sifting through the rubble
After 150 years
I’ll try to put myself in your shoes
And that’s a good place to begin
It ain’t like I can walk a mile
In someone else’s skin

‘Cause I’m just a white man
Living in the Southland
Just like you, I’m more than what you see
I’m proud of where I’m from
And not everything we’ve done
And it ain’t like you and me can rewrite history
Our generation didn’t start this nation
And we’re still paying for the mistakes
Than a bunch of folks made
Long before we came
Caught somewhere between Southern pride
And Southern blame

[LL Cool J]
Dear Mr. White Man, I wish you understood
What the world is really like when you’re living in the hood
Just because my pants are saggin’ doesn’t mean I’m up to no good
You should try to get to know me, I really wish you would
Now my chains are gold, but I’m still misunderstood
I wasn’t there when Sherman’s March turned the South into firewood
I want you to get paid, but be a slave I never could
Feel like a newfangled Django dogging invisible white hoods
So when I see that white cowboy hat, I’m thinking it’s not all good
I guess we’re both guilty of judging the cover, not the book
I’d love to buy you a beer, conversate and clear the air
But I see that red flag and I think you wish I wasn’t here

I’m just a white man
(If you don’t judge my do-rag)
Coming to you from the Southland
(I won’t judge your red flag)
Trying to understand what it’s like not to be
I’m proud of where I’m from
(If you forget my gold chains)
But not everything we’ve done
(I’ll forget the iron chains)
It ain’t like you and me can rewrite history
(Can’t rewrite history, baby)
Oh, Dixieland
(The relationship between the Mason-Dixon needs some fixin’)
I hope you understand what this is all about
(Quite frankly, I’m a black Yankee, but I’ve been thinking about this lately)
I’m a son of the New South
(The past is the past, you feel me)
And I just want to make things right
(Let bygones be bygones)
Where all that’s left is Southern pride
(RIP Robert E. Lee, but I’ve gotta thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me, know what I mean)

Oof.

So, where to even begin reacting? The reading assignments have already piled up. There’s the Tennessean article by the reliably moderate, incisive Peter Cooper. There’s the quippy Twitter snark, dutifully logged at the snark-centric Witstream. There are no shortage of fiery deconstructions at sites like Jezebel. And because this is the Internet age, there’s already quite a bit of word from Paisley himself.

Of course, to longtime surveyors of country music, it may come as no surprise that Brad Paisley has released an objectionable song. Writers and readers at Country Universe, at least, have often found Paisley’s work to land with some accidental clunk, whether the subject is a woman he loves (who’s most charming when she’s screwing things up!), the music genre he records in (which could totally beat up your genre!), a societal trend he finds interesting (total losers impersonating successful guys like Brad Paisley on MySpace!), or even his entire gender (the acceptable members of which would never do something feminine like highlight their hair or, say, maintain a perfectly shaped goatee and flawless skin at all times and wear cute little modern-cowboy ensembles that hug all the right places). So really, perhaps “Accidental Racist” is just the next logical item in Paisley’s trunk o’ clunk – another sign that he just doesn’t quite see beyond his inherent privilege as a successful, talented, conventionally handsome, heterosexual, Christian, Southern white male.

But it’s also hard to throw the guy completely under the bus. He’s demonstrated that he’s at least more thematically ambitious than many of his country contemporaries, and I don’t think anyone would question his or LL’s good intent here. If nothing else, this incredibly clumsy, awkward track may inspire some productive discourse in communities that are, frankly, still hurting for it. The comparison of judging Confederate flags to judging do-rags may hurt your brain on every level, but hey, maybe we’ll wind up with fewer songs where baggy pants are used as shorthand for a life of crime?

What say you? Is there anything good to be gained from “Accidental Racist”? Is it not as bad as all that, or every bit as bad? Will LL Cool J host next year’s ACMs, or will he simply get two full performance slots? (And given that we’re wading in sensitive territory here, please do keep your remarks civil and in line with our Comment Policy.)

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CU's Top Singles of 2012

2012Something you probably already know about us here at Country Universe:  We love country music.  A lot.  While truly great country music has become scarce on country radio, we are fortunate to live in an age in which modern technology has made great music more accessible than ever, regardless of whether Top 40 radio dares touch it.

At the close of each year we separate the grain from the chaff, and share the music we discovered over the past year that made us glad that we stuck with our genre of choice.  We at Country Universe have put our heads together to create the following lists of favorite singles and albums of 2012.

Seven writers – Kevin Coyne, Leeann Ward, Dan Milliken, Tara Seetharam, Jonathan Keefe, Sam Gazdziak, and myself –  individually listed our twenty favorite albums and singles of 2012, and used a points system to combine our individual lists into collective lists.  Our Best of 2012 feature will include countdowns of forty albums and forty singles.  Today we reveal our Top 40 Singles, with our Top 40 Albums countdown to follow shortly thereafter.  Enjoy, and please be sure to share your own favorites in the comments section.  Thank you to all for being a part of the Country Universe family in 2012.  We look forward to sharing more great music in 2013.

 

#40
“Southern Comfort Zone”
Brad Paisley

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #13;  Leeann – #20

Brad Paisley has never been one for subtlety, and “Southern Comfort Zone,” with its tacky gospel-choir-singing-“Dixie” coda and Kings of Leon arena-rock chorus, is perhaps his most graceless and didactic effort.  But sometimes it takes the subtlety and precision of a sledgehammer to get one’s point across, especially when your point is a thoughtful and sincere charge to consider how unfamiliar experiences can both reinforce and challenge your core beliefs (a point Paisley makes, it’s worth mentioning, while straying significantly from his trademark aesthetic), and when that point has to be made while trying to shout over a bunch of Ed Hardy-dressed hacks whose entire “artistry” hinges on perpetuating ugly rural-versus-urban class conflicts over music that sounds like a Metallica cover band.  No, it isn’t a single I particularly like listening to, but it’s one I fundamentally respect for challenging what became country’s status quo in 2012. - Jonathan Keefe


#39
“Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)”
Gary Allan

Individual rankings:  Sam – #8

The title is a little trite and sounds like something that Dr. Phil might say, but Allan’s vocal performance and a moody arrangement make this song a winner. - Sam Gazdziak

#38
Goodbye In Her Eyes”
Zac Brown Band

Individual rankings:  Sam – #14;  Leeann – #18

“Goodbye in Her Eyes” is, hands down, the coolest-sounding sad song on the radio in 2012. – Leeann Ward

#37
“In Between Jobs”
Todd Snider

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #6

An update of “Working Man’s Blues” for the modern economic crisis, Todd Snider’s “In Between Jobs” glides along the sleaziest of blues riffs and slowly reveals his frustrated, unemployed narrator’s intentions. Spoiler alert: He doesn’t plan on staging a “We Are the 99%” protest outside the home of the wealthy man he’s addressing. - Jonathan Keefe

#36
“You Go Your Way”
Alan Jackson

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #13;  Sam – #18

“You go your way, and I’ll go crazy,” Jackson sings.  It’s too bad that Jackson has fallen out of radio’s good graces, because this beautiful heartbreaker deserved to be another of his #1 singles. - Sam Gazdziak

#35
“Born to Be Blue”
The Mavericks

Individual rankings:  Ben – #17;  Dan – #18;  Tara – #20

A slice of throwback 50’s pop that reminds us how blissfully therapeutic it feels to pair heartache with a sweet, simple melody. - Tara Seetharam

#34
“Closer”
Mindy Smith

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #12;  Dan – #14

Much like Alison Krauss, to whom Mindy Smith is often compared, you’ll rarely hear Smith’s pretty voice singing upbeat, frivolous songs.  Instead, she tends toward the introspective and even melancholy.  The Swampy “Closer” showcases both tones, but it’s blended with some hopeful optimism as well. - Leeann Ward

#33
“Drunk On You”
Luke Bryan

Individual rankings:  Dan – #12;  Kevin – #14

In reality, I don’t think any woman could take a guy seriously if he told her that “you make my speakers go boom-boom.”  Funny how the best country music is far more forgiving than reality. - Kevin John Coyne

#32
“Cruise”
Florida Georgia Line

Individual rankings:  Dan – #3

Sorry, people with taste; there’s (I mean – there’z) a reason this abomination is riding high. It’s the catchiest country sing-along since “Wagon Wheel.” - Dan Milliken

#31
“When I’m Gone”
Joey + Rory

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #12;  Ben – #12

A pensive meditation on the process of grief, delivered through one of Joey Martin Feek’s most deeply moving performances on record.  While it obviously had no chance at country radio, “When I’m Gone” is nonetheless a standout career achievement for this exceptionally talented husband-and-wife duo.  - Ben Foster

#30
“Postcard from Paris”
The Band Perry

Individual rankings:  Ben – #11;  Sam – #13

In spite of their occasional misfires, “Postcard from Paris” is a moment in which the Perry siblings are able to effectively marry their lovably quirky nature to a lyrical concept that actually works – and works beautifully, with a titular analogy that’s both clever and effective, and a refrain that bites subtly but sharply (“The meanest thing you ever did is come around…and now I’m ruined”).  Finish it off with an arrangement that sounds like something off of the Dixie Chicks’ Fly, and everybody wins.  - Ben Foster

#29
“When It Pleases You”
Sara Watkins

Individual rankings:  Dan – #10;  Leeann – #17

With slow, seething ire, Watkins faces the truth that she’s giving her whole heart to a relationship and getting jack back.  “I call you when I want to hear –,” she sighs, “– my voice whisper…in your voicemail’s ear.” - Dan Milliken

#28
“Live and Die”

The Avett Brothers

Individual rankings:  Sam – #2

The lead single from The Avetts Brothers’ new album was the perfect middle ground between their charmingly rough-around-the-edges independent albums and their more polished I and Love and You release from 2010.  There is something about the Avetts singing sentimental, romantic lyrics over the strumming of a banjo that’s just so right- Sam Gazdziak

#27
“Is It Already Time?”
Wade Hayes

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #10;  Dan – #15

A to-the-point account of getting a diagnosis out of nowhere and suddenly having to stare down one’s own mortality. - Dan Milliken

#26
“Safe & Sound”
Taylor Swift featuring The Civil Wars

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #10;  Jonathan – #14

The soft production and gentle melody of “Safe & Sound” compliment Taylor Swift’s wispy voice rather than competing against it, as is prone to happen in many of Swift’s recordings.  The addition of The Civil Wars’ sublime vocal support greatly elevates a recording that would have been pretty good without them, but turns out to be even better with them. - Leeann Ward

#25
“I Like Girls That Drink Beer”
Toby Keith

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #9;  Leeann – #16

Keith revisits the classic uptown girl/downtown boy pairing that’s resulted in so many great country records in years gone by. - Kevin John Coyne

#24
“Plant White Roses”
Kelly Hogan

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #1

Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields is one of pop music’s most sardonic, morose songwriters, prone to declarations like, “Plant white roses, and plan to cry/If I can’t spend my life with you, I want to die.” But Kelly

Hogan, best known for her work singing back-up with Neko Case, is a such a gifted interpretive singer that she’s able to find the humanity in Merritt’s sad-sack narrators, and it’s her multifaceted, nuanced reading of “Plant White Roses” that ropes the song into the country genre. - Jonathan Keefe

#23
“Good Girl”
Carrie Underwood

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #6;  Dan – #16

A rockin’ little record that exudes Underwood’s growing confidence as a singer and a songwriter.  A much-needed shot of adrenaline into the arm of country radio. - Kevin John Coyne

#22
“Hello Cruel World”
Gretchen Peters

Individual rankings:  Ben – #8;  Sam – #12

An insightful, slyly self-deprecating take on middle age and mortality, with the narrator musing “I’m not dead, but I’m damaged goods, and it’s getting late.”  A clever pun of a title hook reflects the narrator’s resolve to make peace with the past, and to keep moving forward.  - Ben Foster

#21
“Dig Gravedigger Dig”
Corb Lund

Individual rankings:  Sam – #4;  Jonathan – #18

Lund gives a little love to the gravedigging profession with this bluesy stomper.  It’s perhaps a little twisted, but more country songs could stand to reference rigor mortis these days. - Sam Gazdziak

#20
“I’m a Mess”
Rodney Crowell

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #4;  Kevin – #16

From his collaborative project with Mary Karr that includes many esteemed guest artists, this Rodney Crowell-performed cut emerges as one of the strongest.  With a production that would neatly fit on one of his albums of the 2000’s, the lyric suits the chaos that its title suggests. - Leeann Ward

#19
“Fly Over States”
Jason Aldean

Individual rankings:  Tara – #7;  Dan – #9

Aldean relaxes his badass-hicktown-pride muscles for a moment and reveals the beating heart beneath.  It’s like a heartland-rock “Colors of the Wind” – and what could be more badass than that- Dan Milliken

#18
“Even If It Breaks Your Heart”
Eli Young Band

Individual rankings:  Sam – #5;  Tara – #16;  Jonathan – #16;  Dan – #20

The song was written by Will Hoge and Eric Paslay, but the Eli Young Band made this tale about preservation and hope their own.  Given the ups and downs and should’ve-been-hits that the Texas group has seen in its career, they’ve lived this song. - Sam Gazdziak

#17
“Two Black Cadillacs”
Carrie Underwood

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #4;  Tara – #4;  Ben – #18

A haunting Southern Gothic tale of revenge, heavy on the catharsis and light on the narrative.  Underwood fills in the gaps with a spot-on performance – imbuing it with chilling fury, sinister joy, and just enough poise to suggest she knows tantalizingly more than we do. - Tara Seetharam

#16
“Beer Money”
Kip Moore

Individual rankings:  Dan – #8;  Tara – #9;  Kevin – #11  Ben – #19

The year’s finest blue-collar drinkin’ song, crackling with desperation and sexual friction. - Dan Milliken

#15
“Better Dig Two”
The Band Perry

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #7;  Leeann – #9;  Dan – #11;  Tara – #19

The second most surprising moment in country music in 2012 was that The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” finds producer Dann Huff, known for his heavy hand at the mixing board and his affinity for maudlin arrangements, doing an on-point impression of Rick Rubin.  But the most surprising moment in country music in 2012 has to be the casual reference to crystal meth in the single’s second verse.  Artists like Drive-By Truckers and Hank III have addressed rural America’s drug of choice for years now, but who would’ve ever expected that the exceedingly polite, ridiculously coiffed Perry siblings – and not, say, Eric Church in full “outlaw” drag – would’ve been the ones to bring a parallel between one of the nastiest, most damaging of vices and the addictive powers of love to country radio?  Or that they’d pull off such a thing with the kind of authority and conviction that make “Better Dig Two” so searing?  This isn’t a wistful fantasy about what happens if the narrator dies young; it’s an open threat of how things very likely will end. – Jonathan Keefe

#14
“I Just Come Here for the Music”
Don Williams featuring Alison Krauss

Individual rankings:  Ben – #6;  Sam – #7;  Dan – #17;  Kevin – #20

Don Williams’ return from retirement was a nice surprise in and of itself.  And So It Goes found Williams still at the top of his game, and this duet with Krauss is one of the many highlights.  His deep baritone and her angelic harmonies blend beautifully. - Sam Gazdziak

#13
“The Dreaming Fields”
Matraca Berg

Individual rankings:  Ben – #2;  Leeann – #6;  Jonathan – #10

In one of the finest songs by one of country music’s finest songwriters, Matraca Berg lays bare her feelings of wistfulness over the loss of a family farm embodying scores of memories.  “The Dreaming Fields” boasts a deeply compelling melody, a chillingly effective arrangement, and a gut-wrenching vocal performance.  I may not know the first thing about farming, but one thing I do understand is the meaning of a memory.  This song rips my heart out. - Ben Foster

#12
“Springsteen”
Eric Church

Individual rankings:  Dan – #6;  Tara – #6;  Leeann – #15;  Jonathan – #17;  Ben – #20

The song was a pretty piece of nostalgia to begin with. But Jay Joyce’s hypnotic groove lifts the record to a higher ground, giving it the same sort of spiritual beauty often attributed to its namesake’s best work. - Dan Milliken

#11
“Blown Away”
Carrie Underwood

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #2;  Dan – #7;  Tara – #14;  Ben – #15

An epic single with both a theme and a production big enough to contain the overwhelming vocal powerhouse that is Carrie Underwood.  Give her points for being courageous enough to tackle this topic on record, but get down on your knees and offer praise and gratitude for being talented enough to pull it off. - Kevin John Coyne

#10
“The Wind”

Zac Brown Band

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #2;  Tara – #11;  Leeann – #13;  Ben – #14;  Sam – #19

With an impressive string of Top 2 hits and a couple of platinum-plus albums to their credit, Zac Brown Band had earned the opportunity to take a risk leading up to the release of their third studio album.  While Uncaged had no shortage of obvious radio hits, the band, who have always been more of a “Southern” band than a proper “country” outfit, chose to prove their genre bona fides by releasing “The Wind.”  A fast-picking, freewheeling romp, “The Wind” sets the ideal stage for a “hoedown” vs. “hootenanny” debate. The song’s breakneck speed and clever turns-of-phrase may have proved too much for radio, where it became the band’s first single to miss the Top 10, but it’s a single that highlighted the real breadth of Zac Brown Band’s range. - Jonathan Keefe

#9
“The Sound of a Million Dreams”
David Nail

Individual rankings:  Tara – #1;  Kevin – #8;  Ben – #9;  Dan – #19

With an arrangement as rich as its sentiment, “The Sound of a Million Dreams” is an elegant tribute to songs, punctuated by a searing second verse.  Billy Joel could have mastered this piano ballad, but he wouldn’t have delivered it with such painfully earnest hope.  And in an era where too many artists have the audacity to present us with career-low music, Nail’s unapologetic faith in the power of his craft is deeply, depressingly refreshing. - Tara Seetharam

#8
“Creepin'”
Eric Church

Individual rankings:  Sam – #1;  Dan – #2;  Leeann – #8;  Tara – #15

With an ominous vibe and distorted vocals, Church manages to come up with a unique song in an increasingly cookie-cutter genre.  From the opening “bom bom bom bah-dom” to its searing guitar solos, “Creepin’” is one of the year’s most distinctive singles in any genre.  When all to many “country-rock” songs are really just rock songs about country things, “Creepin’” really does manage to blend the two elements into something new and exciting. - Sam Gazdziak

#7
“Neon”
Chris Young

Individual rankings:  Tara – #3;  Dan – #5;  Leeann – #7;  Jonathan – #8;  Ben – #13

Young’s ode to a bar gracefully treads the line between vintage and current, packed with clever imagery and backed by a sturdy neotraditional arrangement.  But don’t pity the patron a la “Neon Moon” – Young trades Ronnie Dunn’s loneliness for sweet, boozy contentment.  Note by note, he melts the entire song into a sublime pool of resignation, a near-perfect encapsulation of those hazy, memory-drowning nights. - Tara Seetharam

#6
“Takin’ Pills”
Pistol Annies

Individual rankings:  Jonathan – #3;  Leeann – #5;  Sam – #9;  Tara – #10;  Ben – #10

Miranda Lambert’s critical clout took a considerable hit in 2012 as a result of back-to-back career-worst singles, but the second proper single from the Pistol Annies was plenty strong enough to keep Lambert associated with some of the smartest, most self-aware songwriting in modern country.  “Takin’ Pills” finds the Annies having an absolute ball in playing dress-up, and the song is all the better because they give their audience credit for knowing exactly what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.  During a year when so many acts were preoccupied with misguided notions of authenticity, to hear the Annies flaunt their artifice so brazenly made for a welcome change of pace.  It’s a shame — albeit an unsurprising one — that country radio still won’t give them the time of day. - Jonathan Keefe

#5
“Like a Rose”
Ashley Monroe

Individual rankings:  Leeann – #1;  Ben – #5;  Jonathan – #9;  Sam – #10;  Tara – #13

Hearing a new country song from Ashley Monroe, as a solo artist, has been a long time coming.  While the wait has been tough, the payoff has certainly been worth it.  “Like A Rose”, the first song that the public has been able to hear from her upcoming 2013 album, is a crisply produced, sharply written and exquisitely sung gem.  High praise for a song that may unfortunately ultimately slip under the radar, but such praise is easily warranted here. - Leeann Ward

#4
“Drinkin’ Man”
George Strait

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #3;  Ben – #3;  Tara – #5;  Jonathan – #5;  Leeann – #11

There are few bright spots that come with the knowledge that Strait is in the twilight of his career, with retirement seeming more likely with each passing year.  One particularly shiny one is that Strait’s become something of a vanguard in these final years.  “Drinkin’ Man” is challenging, compelling, and subtly powerful, not adjectives typically associated with his remarkable thirty years of hits.  He’s always been good, but he’s rarely been this interesting. - Kevin John Coyne

#3
“What Have I Done”
LeAnn Rimes

Individual rankings:  Tara – #2;  Leeann – #3;  Dan – #4;  Ben – #4;  Kevin – #5

Music’s finest quality is its ability to express the intangible – the smallest trace of thought, the slightest nuance of emotion.  “What Have I Done” is a striking example of this, a quiet shuffle of pain, regret and reflection that, if only for a few minutes, elevates a well-known story to a three-dimensional reality.  The lyrics are sharp and unadorned, but the song’s soul is Rimes’ layered performance, easily the most compelling of the year. - Tara Seetharam

#2
“So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore”
Alan Jackson

Individual rankings:  Kevin – #1;  Ben – #1;  Jonathan – #4;  Tara – #8;  Sam – #11

Had it been released fifteen or twenty years ago, “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore” would stand a much greater chance at being remembered as the classic it is.  Shameful #25 chart peak aside, this is an achingly beautiful, finely detailed story of a man who is willing to let his reputation fall into ruins for the sake of allowing his former lover to move on without him, resigning himself to a despondent, heartbroken existence in which nothing matters to him at all except the happiness of the one he loves.  A steel guitar, a nakedly sincere vocal, and the dark, bitter, aching truth – It’s everything a great country record should be.  A timeless career highlight from a true country music legend. - Ben Foster

#1
“Merry Go ‘Round”
Kacey Musgraves

Individual rankings:  Dan – #1;  Leeann – #2;  Sam – #3;  Kevin – #7;  Ben – #7;  Tara – #12

In a single masterful stroke, Musgraves cuts to the fearful, defeated heart of countless small-towners – countless any-towners, really.  The nursery-rhyme chorus is country poetry of the highest order, illustrating in a few simple lines how we compromise ourselves rather than face the unknown, turning to one distraction or another until we almost don’t notice the years rolling by, our dreams collecting dust.

It would have been a standout single in most any era of country music.  That it’s managed to go Top 20 in this era – in which the mainstream anxiously evades things that are smart, challenging, new, and female – feels like a small miracle, and speaks to the timeless power of great music to transcend meaningless boundaries.  It’s the most impressive debut country single in recent memory, and an enticing challenge to an ever-reductive Music Row:  Truth and creativity can still win out in 2012. - Dan Milliken

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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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The Day the Music (Chart) Died

“300” height=”80″ />So, Billboard decided to completely change its chart methodology today:

Billboard unveils new methodology today for the long-standing Hot Country Songs, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and Hot Latin Songs charts. Each receive a major consumer-influenced face-lift, as digital download sales (tracked by Nielsen SoundScan) and streaming data (tracked by Nielsen BDS from such services as Spotify, Muve, Slacker, Rhapsody, Rdio and Xbox Music, among others) will now be factored into the 50-position rankings, along with existing radio airplay data monitored by Nielsen BDS. The makeovers will enable these charts to match the methodology applied to Billboard’s signature all-genre songs ranking, the Billboard Hot 100.

On the surface, this seems like a good idea. After all, the country singles chart included both sales and airplay data for decades, until

switching to airplay-only in 1989. Declining availability of retail singles made this change necessary.

Since the digital market emerged, I’ve been an advocate for bringing sales data back into the mix. There have been a few songs that were very popular with country audiences that radio didn’t embrace, like “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow”, “Hurt”, and “Not Ready to Make Nice”, but were mainstays on country video outlets and sold plenty of digital downloads alongside impressive album sales. The digital singles market also indicated the budding popularity of acts like Miranda Lambert and Eric Church, who have since become core radio acts.

So what’s the problem with the change? This:

The immediate beneficiaries of this week’s methodology change are Taylor Swift, Rihanna and Mumford & Sons.

Swift, who holds down the top two slots on Hot Country Songs with “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “Red.” Her new country radio single “Begin Again” jumps 37-10. The pop-crossover No. 1 title ranks at No. 36 on Country Airplay (but also gets points associated with its pop-crossover play) and No. 1 on Country Digital Songs, while “Red” is absent from the Country Airplay list, but ranks No. 2 on Country Digital Songs. “Begin Again” appears at No. 29 on Country Airplay and No. 3 on Country Digital Songs.

There are so many problems here. First, and probably worst, pop airplay is now counting for the country genre chart. This week’s “#1 country song” would’ve been #36 if the methodology hadn’t changed. A song that was most notable for being the first song that country radio refused to play by Taylor Swift, because it had no business being on country radio in the first place. It is not a country hit that crossed over to pop. It’s a pop hit that failed to cross over to country.

#2 isn’t even a country single. It’s an advance download track previewing Swift’s new album. It will drop like a stone next week, much like it will on the Hot 100, where it enters at #6. But the Hot 100’s breadth is able to absorb tracks like this more easily, and it is almost impossible to get that high without at least some radio support. The #2 country single of the week wasn’t played on country radio this week.

Billboard says it’s modeling the new genre charts after the Hot 100, much like the way the genre album charts mirror the Billboard 200:

The move to the Hot 100-based formula will ensure that the top-ranked country, R&B/hip-hop, Latin and rock titles each week will be the top titles listed on each genre’s songs ranking. This will be in line with how the Billboard 200 albums chart aligns with the albums charts for each corresponding genre. Because of the switch to new methodology, the week-to-week movements on the charts for some songs (in either direction) could be quite dramatic.

Until now, only country stations contributed to the Hot Country Songs chart, or R&B/hip-hop stations to Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs; the same held true for Latin and rock. The new methodology, which will utilize the Hot 100’s formula of incorporating airplay from more than 1,200 stations of all genres monitored by BDS, will reward crossover titles receiving airplay on a multitude of formats. With digital download sales and streaming data measuring popularity on the most inclusive scale possible, it is only just the radio portion of Billboard chart calculations that includes airplay from the entire spectrum of monitored formats.

Big mistake. Albums sales are album sales. If x sells more than y, it’s higher on the album chart. Apples to apples. Each genre singles chart has its own idiosyncrasies, reflecting the different ways that music is received by the audience.

Despite all the new methods of delivery, country music’s primary method of distribution remains the radio. It may be the only thing left that is identifiably “country” in mainstream music. The vast majority of country artists do not pursue the pop market in lieu of the country market. At most, they pursue pop as well as country, but usually wait until the song’s a hit at their home format first.

The big crossover hits of years past – “Need You Now”, “You’re Still the One”, “Before He Cheats” – would’ve done very well under this new format, but would likely have spent more time at #1 when they were dominating top forty radio and the song was already a recurrent at country stations. Instead, they went #1 on the country chart when country radio was playing them, then flew up the pop charts a few weeks later, while a new single was hitting the country market.

This new chart methodology is bad enough as it is now. But what will happen when the labels realize the only way to have a #1 country hit is to get your song to be a pop hit, too?

There are so many other problems with this, including the increased challenges of breaking new country acts and the likelihood that digital single releases will now become more strategic than ever. (Remixes! Acoustic versions! Buy them separately so they each count as their own sale!)

I guess I just don’t see the point of having a country chart at all if it isn’t going to measure just the country market.

 

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