Tag Archives: Gary Allan

The Steeldrivers, The Steeldrivers

The SteelDrivers
The SteelDrivers

With their eponymous debut, The Steeldrivers have delivered a stirring symphony of haunting rhythms and clever stories that are classified as bluegrass.  But the five-piece band, a collection of veteran musicians based in Nashville, isn’t constricted by that genre’s time-tested strategies. In the spirit of bluegrass legend, Bill Monroe, their work transcends labels, borrowing liberally from Americana, blues and country in an mix that alters the direction of contemporary bluegrass.

The band’s central figure is Chris Stapleton, one of Music Row’s finest songwriters and a gripping vocal talent.  He’s an imposing figure on record with a bluesy howl that uncovers the brilliance in every murder ballad and forlorn love song that it meets. Joined with these stringband stylings, his voice is free to roam. The Steeldrivers is filled with pessimism, drenched in the rich, resonant harmonies of Stapleton and his bandmates.

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Discussion: Giving Thanks

On the eve of Thanksgiving, it’s a good time to say what we’re thankful for.  Keeping the focus on country music, here are some things that are inspiring gratitude on my part:

New Channels of Distribution

The days of wandering around in the wilderness after you’re dropped from a major label are long gone.  Today, even superstars like Toby Keith and icons like Dolly Parton are selling their music directly to the people.   The great talents don’t need middlemen.

Great Singers on the Radio

Carrie Underwood.  Toby Keith. Jennifer Nettles.  Gary Allan.   They’re plain great singers, making even ordinary material sound better than it is.   Thankfully, they’re often working with excellent material, with powerful results.

DVR

There’s simply no way to navigate CMT and GAC anymore without having your mute button handy.   The good shows can be recorded automatically (I’m looking at you, GAC’s Master Series) and the bad ones dodged.   I’d make a snarky comment about CMT’s lack of music programming, but the reality is that I’ll take Nanny 911 and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition over Crossroads: Def Leppard/Taylor Swift any day.

What are some country music miscellanea that you’re thankful for this year?

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Discussion: Key Albums of the ’00s (So Far)

Since Dan has clearly tapped into a burning nostalgia for the first decade of this century, I’ll ask the logical follow-up question:  What are the key albums of the decade, so far?

For me, the top one’s a no-brainer.  Home, the Dixie Chicks masterpiece.   Nothing else even comes close in my mind. But I’d add a few others to the short list, especially Gary Allan’s Tough All Over and Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Came From.

One thing’s for sure.  You can strike this year’s CMA Album nominees from serious contention.

What do you think are the key albums of the decade, so far?

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CMA Flashback: Horizon Award (New Artist)

For a look back at the other major categories, visit our CMA Awards page.

2010

  • Luke Bryan
  • Easton Corbin
  • Jerrod Neimann
  • Chris Young
  • Zac Brown Band

Usually there isn’t this much turnover in this race unless most of last year’s nominees are ineligible.  This year, only one of the four eligible nominees from last year – Zac Brown Band – earns a nomination.  With their massive success and their multiple nominations, they’ve got an excellent shot at winning. Then again, Easton Corbin is elsewhere on the ballot, too. It could be a horse race.
2009

  • Randy Houser
  • Jamey Johnson
  • Jake Owen
  • Darius Rucker
  • Zac Brown Band

Thirteen years after winning the Best New Artist Grammy as part of Hootie & The Blowfish, Darius Rucker won the country music equivalent, adding an exclamation point to the most successful pop-to-country crossover in a generation.

lady-antebellum2008

  • Jason Aldean
  • Rodney Atkins
  • Lady Antebellum
  • James Otto
  • Kellie Pickler

The industry favorites Lady Antebellum became the fourth band in history to win this award, following Rascal Flatts, Dixie Chicks and Sawyer Brown.

2007

  • Jason Aldean
  • Rodney Atkins
  • Little Big Town
  • Kellie Pickler
  • Taylor Swift

In the year since winning the Horizon Award, Swift has solidified her position as the genre’s most successful rising star.  While her debut album hasn’t reached the sales heights of the first discs by previous winners Carire Underwood and Gretchen Wilson, Swift is still one of the genre’s only significant sellers.

2006

  • Miranda Lambert
  • Little Big Town
  • Sugarland
  • Josh Turner
  • Carrie Underwood

I had a sneaking suspicion that Josh Turner was going to take this home, but as I’ve said before, Carrie’s got the best pipes since Trisha Yearwood. That she’ was acknowledged for that at such an early stage of her career is pretty amazing. Somehow I think the thrill of winning Horizon was short-lived, as winning Female Vocalist the same night left that memory in the dust.

2005

  • Dierks Bentley
  • Big & Rich
  • Miranda Lambert
  • Julie Roberts
  • Sugarland

Four of these five were nominees again the following year, and all in categories besides just Horizon, though Lambert got another shot at that as well. I think Big & Rich and Sugarland are making the most interesting music, and they’re moving more units than Bentley, though he’s no slouch himself. The CMA showed good judgment this year.

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The Jealous Heart

Relationships are tricky business. I’ve got to think country music knows that better than any other art form. Here in the real world, we tend to talk about our relationships with others in simple terms: friendly, intimate, casual, committed, short-term, long-term, stable, messy. Boring. Fun. Weird. Like each one can be reduced to a basic theme. A bite-sized blurb for your next cocktail party conversation.

But no relationship ever really has just one card in play. Human interaction is built on any number of individual and shared characteristics, many of which typically go unspoken. We have our obvious dispositions, of course – we’re sweet, or sarcastic, or reserved, or blunt – but then you throw in all the stuff that doesn’t make it into small talk, that we usually don’t identify in ourselves until long after the crap has hit the fan: we can’t empathize, we crave validation, we’re wary from past hurts, we feel we deserve everything, or perhaps nothing. And we’re proud. Very proud.

And pride’s the most interesting vice to me, because it’s the enabler for so many others. Pride is the central reactor when relationships go awry and one of the typical reasons they remain so. Think about it. Cheating isn’t just offensive because it violates trust; it’s offensive because it’s humiliating, because it shatters someone’s pride. Conceding the opposing point an argument isn’t undesirable because it has any real tangible consequences; it just makes someone worry they won’t be taken seriously. It’s an affront to pride.

That oft-mentioned concept of a “wounded” pride is especially evident, I think, in jealousy. Nothing is more humbling – or dangerously frustrating – than having no control over the object of one’s desires.

And like I said, what art form is more well-versed in that sort of thing than country music? Jealousy has been one of the thrusts of the genre since back when it was it was still called “hillbilly music.” Country’s first superstar, Jimmie Rodgers, had an iconic hit with “Blue Yodel #1,” a song that found him cooing,

I’m gonna buy me a shotgun with a great long shiny barrel
I’m gonna shoot that rounder that stole away my gal

…and of course,

I’d rather drink muddy water and sleep in a hollow log
Than to be in Atlanta, treated like a dirty dog

Now, if that’s not jealousy and wounded pride, I’ll slap a sad kitten. That straightforward, cathartic approach to emotional reporting is part of what drew me to country music in the first place, and a big part of why I continue to identify with it (not that I fantasize about shooting people, but you know what I mean). Country music just gets jealousy. It understands why jealousy happens, and the different ways different people act on it. That’s why we can have “Before He Cheats” and “More Like Her” in the same genre and have them both make perfect sense. It’s not that the genre endorses the emotion; it just acknowledges that it happens, that it makes its own kind of sense. And that it does have consequences. And people need to hear those things sometimes.

For my money, there’s no better exploration of jealousy than the title track of my first-ever Gary Allan purchase, See If I Care. Dark, brooding, and emotionally frank, the song finds its narrator obsessing over the the very specific pains of seeing his old flame waltz around with another man. It’s sad as hell, which of course means Allan knocks it out of the park. I’ve revisited it a few times myself when it’s seemed especially pertinent. Um. Yeah.

This would normally be the part where I asked you to chime in with your favorite song on the given subject. But of course, I realize this particular topic is not the most flattering one to have a discussion about. Who wants to own up to having a certain song they turn to when they’re at their most scathing, self-pitying, and generally not-commendable? But you know what? I’m just gonna tell you straight up: we are running out of things to talk about for these discussions. And it’s late, and I worked pretty hard on this one. So I want to see some answers, darn it!

Whining aside, what are some of your favorite songs based around or prominently featuring jealousy? It doesn’t have to be one you personally relate to; if you find the song interesting, that’s good enough!

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Gary Allan, “She’s So California”

One of the most criminally overlooked staples of country music in the last decade, Gary Allan continues the course of his album Living Hard with the release of its third single, “She’s So California.”

No one would expect that Allan could reach the emotional depths of Tough All Over, his heartbreaking collection from 2005, but Living Hard made compromises that were not so evident on the last album. The uptempo numbers were a welcome relief from the raw, despairing tone of Tough All Over, but “She’s So California” is little more than album filler designed to fit comfortably between the other country radio standards of today.

Allan’s gravelly vocal will always elevate even the most inane material, and thankfully he’s recorded very little of it since his debut in 1996. But the passion and precision on his best tracks isn’t apparent here. The production is modest enough, but it’s a bit sterile. And Allan, as artistically aware as most any country artist, can’t quite capture the desire necessary to carry this song above Nashville’s assembly line of cookie-cutter country songs. It’s quite listenable, Allan’s singing is terrific once again, but “She’s So California” is a throwaway song from a true talent.

Grade: B-

Written by Gary Allan, Jamie Hanna & Jon Randall

Listen: She’s So California

Buy: She’s So California

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Gary Allan, “Learning How To Bend”

Gary Allan’s raw and powerful delivery on his second single, from his Living Hard album, is a great reason to turn on your radio! “Learning How To Bend” is a realistic, honest love song that is elevated by Allan’s gritty vocal performance that holds nothing back.

“I’m still learning how to pray/Trying hard not to stray/Try to see things your way/I’m still learning how to pray/I’m still learning how to trust/It’s so hard to open up/And I’d do anything for us/I’m still learning how to trust.” These are the words of a man who is desperately trying to negotiate his broken heart to embrace a new relationship. In addition to the things that he is trying to do in order to make this relationship work, he acknowledges the presence of a higher power that he feels is ultimately in control: “I’m just trying to understand/It’s all in someone else’s hands/There’s always been a bigger plan/But I don’t need to understand.”

The song’s intensity is supported by Allan’s strong vocal interpretation, not to mention his ability to sustain an impressive falsetto note, along with an interesting production that positively emphasizes the depth of the song’s emotion.

Written by Gary Allan, Matt Warren & James LeBlanc

Grade: A

Listen: Learning How to Bend

Buy:  Learning How to Bend

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Gary Allan, Living Hard

Gary Allan
Living Hard

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Country music is long on love song singers but short on philosophers. Too many albums released feature interchangeable romances and ruminations, tales of love gone wrong, love gone right and everything in between. How refreshing it is to hear one of the genre’s strongest voices, the inimitable Gary Allan, focus on the lessons learned along the way instead.

Living Hard is Allan’s first studio album since 2005’s Tough All Over, a modern classic recorded in the wake of harrowing experiences in his personal life. Two years later, the raw ache of that record’s emotions has faded, and Allan is beginning to put things into perspective. On the album’s strongest tracks, he’s passing on his hard-earned wisdom to anyone wise enough to listen.

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Gary Allan, “Watching Airplanes”

Gary Allan, “Watching Airplanes”

Surprisingly boring and uneventful. I wouldn’t expect his new stuff to match the emotional intensity of Tough All Over, but he’s just phoning it in here. That said, Gary Allan phoning it in sounds better than most guys trying their best. He has such nuance to his voice that he could sing any mediocre song and sell it. This record proves just how true that is.

Grade: B-

Listen: Watching Airplanes

Buy: Watching Airplanes

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