Posts Tagged ‘Little Big Town’

A Conversation with Katie Cook

Friday, August 21st, 2009

KCookKatie Cook has been a staple on Country Music Television since 2002, hosting various series and specials such as CMT Most Wanted Live, the MWL concert series, MWL Star, MWL Stacked and the popular weekly entertainment magazine show, CMT Insider.

But her experience with country music is actually three-fold: along with being embedded in the industry as a television host and interviewer, she’s also the daughter of Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Roger Cook, and she’s both a singer and songwriter herself – she released an album in 2000 as part of a band called Reno and continues to hone her songwriting skills. Cook took some time to share with Country Universe her opinions on the state of country music, the evolution of CMT and her recent White House visit, among other topics.

Seetharam: You’ve grown up around different cultures and lifestyles, having lived overseas in London. How has that shaped your perspective on country music?

Cook: That’s a good question. I honestly think when I was younger living in Nashville, I didn’t fully understand the appeal of country music until I moved back to England after high school. And then I moved back again in my mid 20s to work on music and I found myself missing Nashville so much, and when I really tried to become a songwriter myself, I realized how difficult it was to write a great, melodic, catchy, hooky, 3-minute song that tells a story, that can wrap an entire interesting story up and make a point in 3 minutes. It’s extraordinarily difficult and it’s something that country is known for, and I don’t feel it exists in such a powerful way in any other musical genre I’ve experienced anywhere else in the world.

I think I had to get away from Nashville and the country music scene to really look back and realize how strong the writers are here, and how incredible the players are. Because very often as a younger person in Nashville, I would listen to stuff from elsewhere. You know, I’d listen to more alternative music coming out of England and stuff, but when I really got into the music scene over there, I was like, “No one plays like they do in Nashville.” The pickers, you know, you don’t get that kind of quality anywhere in the world, I don’t think, so again I think being part of these different cultures helped me look back on Nashville and appreciate it that much more.

I have to ask about your father because he’s really a fantastic songwriter. Between him working with such high profile artists and you interviewing such high profile artists, what kind of conversations do you two have?

You know, we never talk about music. In fact, we’ve tried to write so many songs together, and I suppose we’ve completed a few, but you know, when he and I get together, it seems to turn to any other subject but music. I think because we’re so close and there’s so many other things going on in the family and with friends and stuff that the conversation always leads elsewhere.

We’re both really opinionated, and we don’t necessarily agree on everything musically either. He’ll say, “Oh, I heard this song on the radio the other day by such and such. I couldn’t stand it. I thought it was awful,” and I’m like, “Really? That’s my new favorite song.” So, we just have such different opinions that we’ve just kind of learned to keep our musical lives separate. But that’s not to say he’s not completely supportive, and he watches the shows I do, and I try to listen to all of his new songs. But for the most part, we’re just dad and daughter.

You mentioned you liked some alternative music when you were younger – it seems like your musical taste stretches across many genres, not just country music. What do you think of the current country music that’s infused with other sounds, like rock or pop?

Well, you know, there’s two sides of the argument. Some people say, “Well country’s got to move forward,” and other people would say, “Why is it changing? Keep it traditional.” I really see both sides of it. I probably prefer it when somebody has a real appreciation of traditional country and then mixes it in with things you don’t expect them to. And that can even be an artist like Beck – that doesn’t necessarily even have to be a country artist. I kind of probably lean more to liking that type of thing more than someone who’s just trying to sell me a rock song as a country song. I think that’s just…I don’t know. That’s not my favorite style. It’s almost like bad 80s rock being regurgitated and labeled country music. So you know, I don’t typically have a music collection that reflects that kind of modern country.

But I have absolutely no boundaries as an artist, as a writer, as a music lover. I mean, nothing frightens me at all about loving country music and mixing it with other things or driving it forward, in even bizarre ways. I’m like, “Bring it on!” I love music, period. I personally do really love country music because I think the playing is magnificent. I think the story telling is magnificent. I think there’s just something so romantic about unfortunately an almost lost way of life in America, and I think I’m very drawn to do that, but I wouldn’t necessarily call myself one of those people that would be guarding country against change. I don’t think I’m that person at all. In fact, I think the more people that can discover it, the better.

Absolutely. That’s my philosophy as well. What about all these female artists who are breaking barriers in country music? You’re a female musician yourself – what’s your take on them?

I think it’s fantastic. I really, really love that there are so many young females out there now that play all different kinds of instruments. You know, you’ve always had a few of those in the past, but when I was younger, you had like Sheila E. You had Joan Jett. You definitely had a few artists that played. And of course, you had Barbara Mandrell, who played everything. And she was just a hero because she literally played every instrument: drums, saxophone, keyboard, everything.

But I think more likely now, a young girl’s going to grow up and be like, “Yeah it’s just no big deal to pick up the guitar and learn how to play and write a song. Taylor Swift does it.” It’s just obviously such a more common sight now, and I just think that’s a wonderful thing. Because too often in the past a woman was just supposed to stand at the mic and look pretty. And there’s nothing wrong with that but women take to playing just as easily as men, and I think they’re going to be more encouraged now because of this young crop of lovely ladies that play and sing and write. It’s fantastic.

Let’s talk CMT a bit. Earlier in the decade, CMT played an important role in popularizing roots music, with artists like Alison Krauss and Nickel Creek. What drove that, and why do you think there’s been a shift away from that now?

Yeah. I think everything’s cyclical. Obviously at one point, that kind of sound would be all you would have heard, practically, on the Grand Ole Opry and WSM years ago. And country’s always going to shift in and out of different things. It’ll all come back around. Right now it is kind of more of a maybe rock-edged type of thing. Look at how big Gretchen Wilson was, and now, if anything, Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood kind of slid into her position, and they’re more slick in their production. It’ll come back around. You know, it always does.

One thing that I thought was so interesting – the first time I interviewed Loretta Lynn was backstage at the Opry. And we weren’t on camera, and we were just kind of chatting, and I said, “I want to know what your take is on country and where it’s going.” And she said, “Oh you know, it’s always going to be going somewhere different and that’s fine. Back in the day, everyone gave Patsy Cline so much grief for going pop.” And it was so interesting to hear her say that because I would not have labeled her a pop artist, but when I think about it, at the time, what she was doing was very pop for most country ears. And yet now we would look back and consider her such a traditional artist, and anyone who sounds like Patsy Cline now would be considered hard-core, country traditional. It’s just interesting, isn’t it? To get that different perspective.

I think it’ll all come back around. If you get too much of any one thing, you’re going to crave the other. The grass is always greener. Things are a little less acoustic right now but it’ll all come back.

That’s an interesting perspective both you and Loretta have, and I think many people would agree. But it does seem like CMT as a channel has evolved over the years into something different. There’s a little more pop culture on there now, more television shows and movies, and a little less music. Do you think it’s moving in a positive direction?

Well, yes and no. I love some of the programming, but I’m just a music person, so I’m always going to wish that there was more music. It’s very interesting what people watch, what they tune into. Because we can run music programs and get very low ratings, and then run a rerun of Nanny 911 and get massive ratings.

So, although I personally would rather see music and videos all day, I can understand some of the programming decisions because like any business, we want to stay on the air, and we want to be able to afford to do these big award shows and great big music programs like CMT Giants, that honor Alan Jackson and Reba [McEntire] and all these wonderful artists. And you can’t pay for those unless you’ve got people tuning in, and for some strange reason, people will tune in sometimes in very large numbers to programming that’s not always music-related. So, it’s a catch-22. I can see the business side of it, but I personally tune in more to the actual music programs because that’s what I’m interested in.

What’s your favorite music video of the decade? Or do you have one?

Wow. Hmm, there are so many to choose from. I tend to live very much in the moment, so usually what’s on my mind is something that I saw very recently. I can tell you one of my favorite songs of the past decade was probably Little Big Town’s “Boondocks.”

I love that song.

And I thought it was a video that perfectly matched the song. I loved the extras that they had in it. I loved the way it was cut together, the editing. I loved the scenery. I loved how cool the band looked in it. That was a favorite. Gosh, what was that other…why am I going blank…it’s because I’ve just been staining my floor and I’m probably high from the chemicals. That first really big Jason Aldean song. “Hicktown!” Jason Aldean’s “Hicktown” – that’s the one I’m thinking of. It’s kind of similar to the “Boondocks,” Little Big Town kind of vibe. I just thought they were both really fresh videos and those were probably a couple of my favorites.

Is there a single quality that you look for in a good music video?

I think because I’ve been doing TV for awhile now I really look at editing, and I look at how things time out. You know, how a cut or a certain dance moves really times out with the beat of a song. “Pickin’ Wildflowers” by Keith Anderson – that was probably one of my favorite videos of the last decade. I know I’m giving you a few instead of picking just one. I just thought it was really sexy and the way the dancers again moved with the beat. I think you can be a great video director, but a really great music video director to me needs to have a great sense of the music. They need to be really passionate about the song and really feel the beat of it and edit accordingly. That’s just something I personally really like in a song.

When you’re interviewing these artists on the red carpet or on any of the shows you host, you’re essentially a musician interviewing a musician. Does that affect the way you interview? Do you ever wish you could give advice?

Well, I wouldn’t dream of giving advice, but I do think it affects the way I interview people. If anything, it probably – I don’t know, in some way it helps. But I think it probably hinders me more because I know sometimes a question that they might not really want to answer, or something that I know they’ve probably been asked a million times, and you know, I always try to come at it with an understanding of how they might answer something. But sometimes a question just needs to be asked because it makes good television and it’s what the viewers at home want to know. But I might inside be squirming a little bit.

I can’t really think of a perfect example right now. But even something as simple as, “When you did that duet with so and so, what was it like being in the studio with them?” I know there’s a really good chance they weren’t in the studio together. Because when you live in Nashville and you work around music yourself, you have a good understanding of how these things work, and you know that schedule-wise, it’s very rare that duets even happen in the same room with people. But you know, it’s important to ask that because it’s what people at home might be wondering. So, I don’t know, I think sometimes I do see an interview slightly differently.

And I understand Dolly Parton is your favorite artist?

Oh I love her. She’s just my favorite – not just musically, but just…

Your favorite person.

Yes, favorite person to interview, definitely.

Do you have a Dolly interview or quote that stands out for you?

You know, well, yeah, I’ve got a lot. It seems like every single time I’m with her I’m like, “OK, that tops the last one.” She always says something that tops the last one.

She’s just fabulous. And hilarious.

The funniest interview, honestly, was, the very first time I ever met her. I did like a whole half-hour, sit-down live show with her called [CMT] Most Wanted Live, and before we went out, we were comparing outfits. And of course she had on a to-die-for, fabulous outfit. Oh, it was pink and yellow and princess-like and just made her look amazing. And I was kind of joking that my outfit wasn’t very interesting compared to hers, and I must have made some comment like, you know, “Maybe I need to put more of a push-up bra on. I’m going to look like a child sitting next to you.” And she laughed and she said, “Your boobs look great!”

Well later on we were sitting there in front of the audience, the whole crowd, and I think I took like an audience question about, does she ever feel sorry for flat-chested women because she’s so well-endowed or whatever. And she laughed and she said, “No we’re all beautiful,” and then she said to the audience, “Look! Look at her boobs! Don’t you think they’re great?” – pointing to me. “Don’t you think she has lovely boobs?” And you know I just absolutely went bright red.

That’s priceless.

Oh I was fanning myself. I broke a sweat. I was laughing so hard. I could not believe I was on camera with Dolly Parton and she’s commenting on my boobs. It was just one of the funniest moments in my life. I’m not sure anything’s ever going to top Dolly Parton complimenting me on my chest (laughs).

Dolly is clearly a hold-nothing-back kind of person, but have you ever interviewed an artist who you think is misunderstood by the public? Maybe you got a different perspective when you met him or her in person?

Yeah. There are certain artists that I can tell are a little bit shy. I mean, obviously Alan Jackson, Billy Currington – some of the guys are really, painfully shy, and they get on camera and they’re just quiet and, you know, they seem very unsure of themselves. And then the minute the camera goes off, you can have the most normal conversation with them. And I always think, “Oh why can’t you do that when the little red light comes on?” So yeah, there’s definitely artists that seem very different off camera, and I wonder if their real personality comes across, but you know what? They’re doing well and they have fans, so evidently people do understand them. But yeah, some of those shy guys are the ones that really wear me out. I’m like, “Come on, loosen up!”

Shifting gears a little, you were recently at the White House for “An Evening of Country Music.” That must have been an amazing experience. What was it like?

Yeah! It was incredible. It was really exciting to see an entire day at the White House devoted to country music. Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss and Charley Pride were there – all great ambassadors for country music. To actually be in that ballroom and see the President get up and give a wonderful introduction to these country artists and talk about country, and how it’s such an important part of American culture was, you know – I really got the chills. It was a wonderful moment. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to go back to the White House, so I really was kind of absorbing it all.

We got to see the press room, which was tiny. And it’s so interesting because, you know, you see something on television and then you see it in person, how different it is. And we were at the back of the room, so when the show was over, we were actually the first to walk out, and they led us down a hallway and then just kind of left us on our own to find our way out. And I was like, “We’ve been let loose in the White House!”

That’s not something you can say every day!

It was incredible. We weren’t really let loose, of course. It was all under very controlled supervision, but it felt like we were running goofy and loose in the White House, and that was very exciting. But yeah, it was a very proud moment for country.

Did you get to interact at all with the President?

I didn’t get to hang out with Obama and Michelle and the girls, but I did get to see the First Dog. One of the White House workers, I guess — I don’t know what the right term would be– but somebody was walking the dog, and he’s beautiful. He’s big. For some reason I thought he was still a little puppy. But he’s quite large and he’s a good-looking dog. He’s got quite a yard to roam around in.

I hear you’re an expert tweeter – or rather, I see you’re an expert tweeter. What do you enjoy about twitter?

Well I’m actually fairly new to it. I like getting to know people. I like getting very kind of down-to-earth questions from people, and I think what I find refreshing is that I assume the only reason anybody would want to talk to me or hear from me is to get like country music gossip, and that actually doesn’t seem to be the case. A lot of people are like, “Where do you like to eat? How old’s your kid now? Do you like being a mother?”

More personal questions.

Yeah. It seems like people just are more curious about who you really are as a person, and I find that really refreshing. I go to work and put on the false eyelashes and do my hair all fancy and put on the nice outfits and everything, but when I come home, I’m just like anybody else. I’m sitting around in my Old Navy sweats and eating something I shouldn’t be eating and prying my eyeballs on the computer. And we’re all kind of the same when we just get into that mode, and I just like connecting with people on that really normal level. That’s a lot of fun for me.

Do you tweet at other artists? Or mostly fans?

You know, I don’t know who all these people are that read it. I just kind of get on there and send a message out and wonder where it goes. It goes into cyberspace and I don’t really know who’s reading it but people keep signing on, so I guess I’m doing something right.

When you’re not tweeting, what are some of the projects you’re working on that you’re excited about?

Well I have a children’s book called “Little Big Benny,” and that has recently been edited. I kind of have it out with a lot of kids right now. A lot of kids are reading it and giving me their feedback. I’m trying to really nail down exactly what age group it’s for. I’m really hoping by the end of the year to be shopping that around to publishers. So that’s taking up a lot of free time.

I’m a mother and that’s an ongoing project right there. She’s going to be three in a couple of weeks. And we decided to do our kitchen. We just ripped our whole kitchen from the 40s out, which was actually kind of cool looking but had absolutely no storage or work space. So we just completely gutted the middle of our house and decided to pretty much do it ourselves so that we could save money, and at this point I think I maybe would rather just be in debt (laughs).

That sounds extremely chaotic.

It’s been really chaotic. I’ve been making meals in a toaster oven for almost six months. But you know, there are some people in the world who don’t even have a toaster oven, so I’m not going to complain.

But there’s always other stuff going on. I’m always writing. I’m always working on creative stuff. I’m hoping to launch a T-shirt campaign –I’m not going to say anymore about it– but I’m hoping to have something really fun available in the next month. Very creative T-shirt thing. So yeah I’m kind of – I consider myself a creative person. I’m not happy unless I’m working on something. So I never really have a day off, but that’s just the way I like it.

Miranda Lambert, “White Liar”

Friday, August 7th, 2009

miranda whiteI think someone’s in a little songwriting funk. The #37-stalled “Dead Flowers” had intriguing lyrics but a generally bland sound; this one has the inverse problem. The melody and production are reminiscent of Little Big Town’s best rustic country-rock, and there’s a much more commanding hook here than “Dead Flowers” had, but the effort is compromised by throwaway lines like the chorus’ closing “And I don’t know why, white liar.” Don’t know why what, MirLam?

If her word sense is a little rusty, though, her storytelling bone is strong as ever. She keeps finding interesting new ways to frame her standby “vengeful woman” character, and here she imbues a rather ordinary song conceit (calling out a lyin’ man) with a good dose of dry attitude, plus a twist that invites a whole different layer of psychology to the party. The shortage of lyrical meat gives the song an “undeveloped storyboard” kind of feel, but the overall energy of the execution goes a long way toward making up for it.

Grade: B

Listen: White Liar

Picking the CMA Nominees: Album of the Year

Friday, July 31st, 2009

This year’s eligibility period runs from July 1, 2008 to June 30, 2009. In those twelve months, there have been some solid albums released, and while there isn’t a wealth of treasures to choose from, there are enough good albums to round out this category.

Here are the five albums that I would nominate for Album of the Year:

Joey + Rory, The Life of a Song

The past twenty years have brought several excellent breakthrough albums by groups, especially those by Sugarland, Little Big Town, Brooks & Dunn, Diamond Rio, and Big & Rich. This set by Joey + Rory is better than all of them, and is selling quite well despite limited airplay.

Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song

It’s been nominated for ACM’s trophy and for the Best Country Album Grammy, but Johnson’s best shot at winning has always been with the traditional-leaning CMA voter membership. If both Sugarland and Taylor Swift secure a nod, he’s a shoo-in.

Patty Loveless, Sleepless Nights

We’re knee-deep in cover albums by veteran artists, but this is one of the best. Voters may be more likely to cite Lee Ann Womack’s latest, if they’re planning on nominating a traditional female at all, but this is the better album.

Brad Paisley, American Saturday Night

If Paisley were to win this, it would be deserved, as it’s possibly the best album of his career. His penchant for releasing albums in June might work against him, but hopefully voters will have a chance to live with this album before they fill out their ballots.

Sugarland, Love on the Inside

One of the best mainstream country albums of the decade, in my humble opinion.  It’s certainly the first album since Home that I can listen to from start to finish and is wholeheartedly embraced by country radio. Okay, maybe since Live Like You Were Dying or Fireflies.  But gosh, have there been few albums this decade that fit both descriptions.

What five albums do you think should be nominated this year?

Picking the CMA Nominees: Vocal Duo and Vocal Group

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

It’s often argued that Vocal Duo and Vocal Group should be combined into one category, but this is one of those rare years where the two categories have more than five worthy nominees between them.

My picks for Vocal Duo:

The only real filler in this category is Big & Rich, who have been largely dormant this past year.

As for Vocal Group, all five of my picks have been very active these past twelve months:

  • Eli Young Band
  • Lady Antebellum
  • Little Big Town
  • Rascal Flatts
  • Zac Brown Band

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It’s often argued that Vocal Duo and Vocal Group should be combined into one category, but this is one of those rare years where the two categories have more than five worthy nominees between them.
My picks for Vocal Duo:
Big & Rich
Brooks & Dunn
Joey + Rory
Montgomery Gentry
Sugarland
The only real filler in this category is Big & Rich, who have been largely dormant this past year.
As for Vocal Group, all five of my picks have been very active these past twelve months:
Eli Young Band
Lady Antebellum
Little Big Town
Rascal Flatts
Zac Brown Band
What are your picks for Vocal Duo and Vocal Group?
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CMA Music Festival 2009: Memory Grab Bag

Saturday, June 20th, 2009

dsc000011I have to start with a disclaimer: I attended my first CMA Music Festival in Nashville, Tennessee, as a fan –a crazy, passionate, kid-in-a-candy-store fan– and nothing more. So rather than offer you a full review of the festival, which I don’t think I can adequately do, I instead present you with a narrow but meaningful sampling of my favorite memories from the week.

Dierks Bentley and Brad Paisley rock rain-soaked stadium until 2 a.m.

After a three-hour rain delay at LP Field Thursday night, Darius Rucker, Dierks Bentley and Brad Paisley played well into the morning to make up for the lost time. Despite the delay being somewhat poorly handled by management, an impressively large crowd of dedicated fans,  draped in ponchos and drenched in humidity, waited around until after midnight for the concert to resume.

It was well worth the wait, as Bentley and Paisley delivered outstanding, high-energy performances and reminded me once again that there is legitimate, authentic talent in mainstream country music. In a fitting closing, Bentley joined Paisley on an extended version of his novelty hit “Alcohol,” during which the tourmates played on each other’s good-natured wit and kept the crowd on its feet until the last note.

Carrie Underwood soars on “Stand By Your Man”

In 2006, Carrie Underwood performed Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” on the Grand Ole Opry stage, surprising Idol skeptics with her spot-on rendition. Three years later, she reprised her performance for the first time at her 2009 fan club party, as requested by her fans. She sang it brilliantly, with graceful conviction and emphasis on the natural “cry” in her voice, reminiscent of the female country greats.

The icing on the cake was Underwood’s admission that she’d love to record “Stand By Your Man” on a country classics album one day, along with an earlier admission that she’d been thinking about recording an album of hymns – two items high on most fans’ wish lists. Considering the other songs on her fan club party set list ranged from a rousing, acoustic “Sweet Child O’ Mine” to an impeccable “How Great Thou Art,” I think there are few limits to Underwood’s potential and depth as an artist, and I could not be more thrilled for her future in country music.

Tara falls in love with the Grand Ole Opry

I know, I know; it’s irrelevant to the festival, but the Opry was such an acutely special part of my Nashville experience that I just had to include it. I caught the Tuesday night show, featuring a wonderful mishmash of traditional and contemporary performances by artists such as the Charlie Daniels Band, Trace Adkins, Ricky Skaggs and Little Big Town.

But it was the entirety of the experience that really got to me: I was surprised to find that the Opry House itself, as a venue, is epic and intimate all at once, leaving you feeling like you’re experiencing something very grand that was crafted just for you. That personable quality, along with the Opry’s palpable energy and richly spiritual atmosphere, struck a particular chord inside me. Of all the live music venues I’ve been to, the Opry takes the cake.

The Judds reunion ends with an emotional “Love Can Build a Bridge”

I knew the rare mother-daughter reunion was going to be good when Naomi Judd joined Wynonna Judd on the LP Field stage sporting a hot pink, rhinestone-encrusted dress suit, and Wynonna turned to the audience, smirked and said: “some things never change.” And she was right, as the two masterfully charmed their way through a string of their 80s hits, ending with a poignant performance of “Love Can Build a Bridge.”

It’s a simple and incredibly sappy song, but it has timeless meaning, one that certainly wasn’t lost on the stadium crowd. The high point of the performance was the chilling chorus the entire audience sang a cappella, prompting Naomi to shed a few tears. You know ABC will never show a performance like that –one with social relevance but no 2009 pop culture relevance– on its three-hour special in August, but maybe that’s the kind of moment that isn’t meant to be broadcasted in living rooms across America.

The fans steal the show

Finally, for all its star power and talent, the CMA Music Festival really is fundamentally about the fans – the most passionate, tireless, supportive, ridiculously devoted people I’ve ever encountered, who blew me away with their spirit and unity. I’ve spent most of my life emotionally connecting to music and artists in ways that people around me don’t quite understand, so to be among thousands of fans who shared my exact sentiments was completely, overwhelmingly moving, and without a doubt the highlight of my week.

I met fans from all over the world, from Scotland to Canada to Australia, drawn to Nashville by good music and a chance to hang out with their favorite artists. To the CMA’s credit, the festival does an amazing job of fostering these reciprocal interactions between the fans and artists. I was skeptical about the festival actually feeling like a “thank you” to the fans, rather than a giant marketing effort, but I was quickly proven wrong by the genuine and even organic acts of the artists themselves.

The artists don’t have to participate in the charity events, much less sign autographs at them for hours, and they don’t have to hold fan club parties tailored to their fans’ interests. They don’t have to hug their fans or strike up conversations when they meet them at the convention center. Country artists don’t have to sincerely care about you in order to have successful careers (isn’t that evidenced by much of the entertainment industry?), but it seems most do.

And that’s why country music fans willingly continue to be the heart and soul of the industry. They request songs, buy albums, create street teams, spread positive messages, attend concerts, stream music videos, write to critics, rally around causes, camp out overnight on sidewalks, make T-shirts, support charities, vote for awards, write letters of encouragement…and the list goes on. They deserve respect and gratitude, and that, at its essence, is what the CMA Music Festival offers, in a way no other genre of music does.

Stagecoach Music Festival: Day One

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

stagecoach-poster-2009Live and learn. I did a lot of living and learning during my first day (ever) at the Stagecoach Country Music Festival in Indio, California.

First lesson: Don’t rely on MapQuest. I didn’t take the large black freeways on the map to the beautiful but bizarre desert retirement slash resort community that hosts Stagecoach. Or the smaller blue lines, or even the teensy red ones. I took the non-existent purple ones through the backcountry past unusual rock formations and the odd farmhouse. It was just me and the random tanker truck going mach negativo.

Second lesson: Show up early. The tanker truck and purple lines aside, I didn’t plan well. And any plans I did have were shot to h*** as soon as I arrived at the polo fields and, well, circled the fields at a crawl (which is a generous term) for nigh two hours before entering the parking lot. So, as I slowly watched the thermometer inch up towards 100 degrees on my dashboard, I kissed goodbye my plans for The Infamous Stringdusters and Lynn Anderson. I’m sorry, guys.

Third lesson: Don’t presume anything about country music fans. While I was very slowly making my way into the parking lot, I took notice of the cars around me. There was a BMW in front of me, a Porsche on my left and a Mercedes behind me. Hmmm…didn’t they hear that polo was cancelled this weekend? But no, the fancy cars were full of college kids, a large family and an old couple…all dressed in cowboy boots and hats and headed to the festival. I’d say welcome to country music, Southern California style: cowboy boots and Gucci purses, but that would cheapen the genuine spirit of those who attended the festival. While not precisely diverse, I doubt you will find a more overall wholesome group of people anywhere. You can only have organized chaos in a group this large with people like this.

Fourth lesson: Bring a chair. Who knew? As the only person not schlepping a chair around, I might as well have had “Stagecoach virgin” stamped on my forehead. The chair guarantees you a position among the sea of people somewhere in the proximate vicinity of the stage. Proximity to the stage being relevant, of course; as long as you can see the big screens, you’re fine.

Fifth lesson: Sit near a speaker. Darius Rucker and Little Big Town both suffered from poor sound (as compared to Brad Paisley, whom you could hear clearly from the parking lot). They come off as incredibly sweet people, but if they’re not going to sing or talk any louder, you definitely need a large speaker nearby. This was particularly tragic during Little Big Town’s set. While large venues may help this band garner new fans, they are a band made for intimate venues. The intricacies of their harmonies get lost in stadium sound.

Sixth lesson: Try to forget lessons one through five and just enjoy.

Darius Rucker was on stage as I arrived. He has a pleasant voice and a laid-back stage presence that goes down easy, even if neither is particularly spectacular. He comes off as a quasi-country Jack Johnson, although slightly more interesting. Like LBT, he might be worth checking out in a smaller venue. His biggest moment, ironically, came when he sang Hank William Jr.’s “Family Tradition.” He had everyone in line at the hamburger stand about a mile away from the stage singing along. I heard later on that Brad Paisley joined him on stage for that particular number. The crowd ate it up.

free traffic boom

ize-full wp-image-905″ title=”little-big-town-fl” src=”http://www.countryuniverse.net/wp-content/uploads/2008/07/little-big-town-fl.jpg” alt=”little-big-town-fl” width=”108″ height=”98″ />LBT took the stage singing “Good as Gone.” I was incredibly excited to see this group for the first time. Unfortunately, I feel as if I still haven’t heard them; properly, at least. However, I did hear enough to know that this isn’t the venue to fully appreciate them as a band. Despite having songs in their repertoire that rock, like “Good Lord Willing,” this isn’t a country-rock band built for conquering tens of thousands of people. And despite being beautiful singers, their harmonies don’t stand up well in the face of a brisk wind in an open setting. Still, what I did catch of their set, which included “Fine Line,” “I’m With the Band” and “A Little More You,” left me wanting more, even as I wondered during their closer, “Boondocks,” if they’re ever going to reach those heights again.

Reba McEntire took to the stage as the sun set over the desert, and as if rising for a queen, the sea of people took to their feet. Suddenly, it felt like I was at a concert, and a country one at that. With a killer band, vocals and stage presence, I have to admit that by the time Reba launched into “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” I had forgiven Mapquest and forgotten the parking situation. The best and worst part about a Reba show, is that she has so many hits, that you are inevitably going to hear some of your favorites, and miss out on others. Perhaps recognizing this, part way through her set McEntire launched into a medley of hits, including “Somebody” and “Love Revival.”  Reba also played her new single, “Strange,” which didn’t sound out of place among her older material, including “Ring On Her Finger,” “I’m a Survivor” and “Fancy,” but didn’t rise to the same level either.

The thing about Reba, and to a certain extent Brad Paisley, the evening’s final performer, is that even if you knew nothing about country music, you would know they were among the genre’s stars. They both have that intangible “it” factor. What Reba has, that Paisley doesn’t have quite yet, however, is an extensive catalog. Therefore, if you’ve been to a Paisley concert in the past couple of years, you had already seen the show he put on at Stagecoach.  A Paisley concert is an extravaganza built for the mainstream radio consumer. With high-tech screens in the background, it’s chalk full of radio friendly sing-a-longs, from the cutesy “Online,” “Alcohol,” “Ticks” and “Celebrity,” to the heartfelt “Letter to Me” and “Waitin’ on a Woman.” With his guitar flung over his shoulder, Paisley throws himself into both styles with equal aplomb, but I came to the realization last night that I much prefer Paisley in heartfelt mode. He’s fun on the ditties, but truly shines when he slows it down.

As it was the last stop on Paisley’s recent “Paisley Party” tour, Paisley promised at the beginning of his set to break all the rules and play until the sun rose. Being not entirely sure if he was going to follow through on that promise, and recalling how long it took to get into the parking area, I left a little early. It truly didn’t matter. I heard the rest of the concert as I spent 45 minutes looking for my car and another hour or so exiting the parking facility. Like I said earlier, Paisley had excellent sound.

Live and learn. At some point near midnight as I was crawling out of the parking lot, tired, a little cranky, wishing I had brought a chair and had one of the RVs parked in the adjoining lot to crash in, I wondered if the entire day had been worth it. My immediate answer: Reba had been worth every second, and Paisley was icing on the cake.

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ACM Awards: Predicted Winners

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

As we gear up for the 2009 Academy of Country Music Awards, the writing staff of Country Universe have prepared our predicted winners among this year’s nominees. Check out our Personal Picks as well, and share your own predictions in the comments. As always, we’ll be live-blogging the festivities this Sunday, starting at 8 EST.

ACM 2009: Country Universe Predicts the Winners

Entertainer of the Year

  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley
  • George Strait
  • Carrie Underwood – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Lynn
  • Keith Urban

Kevin: For as much as the industry favors male acts, it’s the female acts who really post the big numbers.  I think that the fans having a say will put Underwood over the top, though the industry is certainly behind her, too.  The depth and breadth of her appeal warrants the win.

Leeann: I know how zealous Carrie Underwood fans are.  So, I’d be shocked if she doesn’t win it.  I like the way Lynn said it though.

Dan: You know, I really have no idea. It’s not going to be George Strait, and I probably wouldn’t anticipate a win for Keith Urban this year. At first I was going with Chesney by default, but the arguments for Underwood’s win are too good to ignore, so I’m changing to her.

Lynn: If the fans are truly allowed to have their say…Ms. Underwood, please watch your step on the way up to receive your first Entertainer of the Year award.

Top Male Vocalist

  • Kenny Chesney
  • Toby Keith
  • Brad Paisley – Leeann, Dan, Lynn, Kevin
  • George Strait
  • Keith Urban

Leeann: I can’t decide between Chesney or Paisley.  If I had to choose, I’d guess Paisley, since he’s gotten used to winning this one.

Dan: Tough call. I’ll put it between Paisley and Chesney, and I’ll give Paisley the edge.

Lynn: Paisley by default. Yes, his last album was an instrumental, but he was easily the most visible of these artists over the past year.

Kevin: I could see Strait sneaking in there, but I don’t see how things have shifted in a meaningful enough way to end Paisley’s run.

Top Female Vocalist

  • Miranda Lambert
  • Heidi Newfield
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood – Dan, Lynn, Kevin, Leeann
  • Lee Ann Womack

Dan: There’s always that chance of a Miranda or Taylor upset, but I think Carrie’s still got this.

Lynn: Given a choice among these ladies over the course of the past year, I can’t imagine this award not going to Underwood.

Kevin: It’s a race between Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood, and it’s hard for me to imagine Underwood losing a vocalist race to Swift.

Leeann: I’d be an idiot to predict anyone other than Underwood.

Top Vocal Group

  • Lady Antebellum – Lynn, Kevin
  • Little Big Town
  • Rascal Flatts – Leeann, Dan
  • Randy Rogers Band
  • The Lost Trailers

Lynn: With previous ACM and CMA wins under their belts, and a big Grammy nod earlier this year, I wouldn’t bet against Lady A for the win. I could be wrong, but I think Nashville is dying to hand this award to a band other than Rascal Flatts, and Lady A is visible, popular and photogenic.

Kevin:
I think that voters have finally found an alternative to Rascal Flatts, who have dominated this race for so many years.

Leeann: Lady A could take this one.  However, if I want to be safe, I should just predict Rascal Flatts.

Dan: If Lady A hadn’t released such a sluggish second single, they could be posing a serious threat by now. They’ve definitely got a shot, but I’d guess the Flatts still have it.

Top Vocal Duo

  • Big & Rich
  • Brooks & Dunn
  • Joey + Rory
  • Montgomery Gentry
  • Sugarland – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Lynn


Kevin:
This must finally be the year that Brooks & Dunn loses, right? Sugarland is long overdue.

Leeann: Sugarland.  They’re clearly the hottest duo right now.

Dan: Sugarland, although Brooks & Dunn could still keep it.

Lynn: Sugarland has the momentum.

Top New Artist

  • Julianne Hough- Leeann, Lynn, Kevin
  • Jake Owen
  • Zac Brown Band - Dan

Leeann: Hough will get this one, because I have a feeling she’s got the strongest and most organized fan base, thanks to a popular television show.

Dan: Fan voting = I have no idea. But just for the sake of having a bet, I’ll say Zac Brown Band. They’re well-liked by audiences; maybe their grassroots support will push them over.

Lynn: Fan voting = Julianne Hough (= Dancing With the Stars = 20 million viewers per week = Lots of Free Publicity).

Kevin: I also think Hough will win because of the nature of her fan base.

Album of the Year

  • Back When I Knew It All – Montgomery Gentry
  • Carnival Ride – Carrie Underwood
  • Fearless – Taylor Swift – Leeann
  • That Lonesome Song – Jamey Johnson
  • Troubadour – George Strait  – Dan, Lynn, Kevin
Dan: I can kind of see anyone but Montgomery Gentry winning here, but at the end of the day, Strait is probably the best all-around bet.

Lynn: Ditto Dan.

Kevin:
The Single/Album races just seem to be going Strait’s way lately.

Leeann:
I’ll go out on a limb and predict Taylor Swift.  I’m sure the industry wants to give her an award and this is the most plausible way to do it.

Single Record of the Year

  • “Gunpowder & Lead” – Miranda Lambert
  • “In Color” – Jamey Johnson
  • “Johnny And June” – Heidi Newfield
  • “Waitin’ On A Woman” – Brad Paisley – Dan
  • “You’re Gonna Miss This” – Trace Adkins – Lynn, Kevin, Leeann

Lynn: I might have to go with Trace Adkins’ “You’re Gonna Miss This.” Admittedly, I have a poor track record when it comes to predicting country music awards shows, but I’d be willing to wager at least…nope, can’t do it, I really am bad at this. Second choice is “Gunpowder & Lead” (although it came out 1 single and a year ago!)

Kevin: I’m torn between Paisley and Adkins. The ACM likes to go with the biggest hit, and I guess that’s “You’re Gonna Miss This.”

Leeann: I guess I predict Trace Adkins.  It’s the dullest song of the choices, but the one that seems to tug the hardest on the heartstrings of the assumed average country music listener.

Dan: Paisley’s sentimental hit seems like the strongest bet to me, although I feel a little sheepish with everyone else pulling for Adkins.

Song of the Year

  • I Saw God Today – Leeann, Dan, Lynn
    George Strait
    Composers:  Rodney Clawson, Monty Criswell, Wade Kirby
  • In Color – Kevin
    Jamey Johnson
    Composers:  Jamey Johnson, Lee Thomas Miller, James Otto
  • Johnny And June
    Heidi Newfield
    Composers:  Deanna Bryant, Heidi Newfield, Stephony Smith
  • Waitin’ On A Woman
    Brad Paisley
    Composers:  Don Sampson, Wynn Varble
  • You’re Gonna Miss This
    Trace Adkins
    Composers:  Ashley Gorley and Lee Thomas Miller

Kevin: I’m guessing “In Color” or “I Saw God Today.” It doesn’t help that when Strait won this award, he shared it with Johnson for “Give it Away.” I’ll say “In Color”, though it might result in my defeat in the final tally.

Leeann:
I can’t see why “I Saw God Today” won’t win, even if it makes me cringe a little.

Dan: If I had to guess, it’s a race between “Waitin’ on a Woman” and “I Saw God Today,” with “In Color” playing dark horse. I guess I’ll say “I Saw God Today.”

Lynn: I think Strait will pick up an ACM trophy to go with his CMA one for “I Saw God Today.”

ACM Awards: Personal Picks

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

As we gear up for the 2009 Academy of Country Music Awards, the writing staff of Country Universe have prepared our personal picks among this year’s nominees. Check out our Predicted Winners as well, and share your own personal picks in the comments. As always, we’ll be live-blogging the festivities this Sunday, starting at 8 EST.

ACM 2009: Country Universe’s Personal Picks

Entertainer of the Year

  • Kenny Chesney
  • Brad Paisley – Leeann
  • George Strait – Lynn
  • Carrie Underwood – Kevin, Dan
  • Keith Urban

Kevin: I haven’t been as happy with the standard-bearing superstar of country music since the heyday of the Dixie Chicks, so I’m definitely pulling for Carrie Underwood. She strikes the perfect balance of contemporary relevance and reverence for tradition.

Leeann: I’m always pulling for Paisley to win an Entertainer award, but I’d be happy to see a female win it as well, especially since Underwood’s not undeserving at this point.

Dan: None of these artists has impressed me recently from an artistic standpoint, although Strait has been less grating than the rest. But I think I’m going to say Carrie Underwood, simply because it’d be cool to see a woman win, and I think it might give her the freedom to take more artistic risks (if she chooses).

Lynn: I’m pulling for Strait to win this year. The ACMs put out a promo the other day that was essentially a glamour magazine photo shoot with three cute blonde singers. I’ll be honest…I didn’t want to watch the show after seeing that. Maybe I’m the odd one out, but I’d be more interested in watching the show if the promo had Strait sitting in a chair singing one of his classic tunes. I’m tired of the promotion of style over substance. Paisley, Underwood and Urban aren’t necessarily guilty of this, but I hope Strait wins just to remind everyone to keep it real.

Top Male Vocalist

  • Kenny Chesney
  • Toby Keith
  • Brad Paisley – Leeann
  • George Strait – Dan, Lynn, Kevin
  • Keith Urban

Leeann: This is a tough one.  I have not been impressed with any of these artists in the last year.  So, I’m going to have to choose by voice alone, which gives Paisley the slight edge over the others as far as my taste runs.

Dan: The big-hitters have had a lame year. Strait was the only one who didn’t let me down too bad, although I can’t say I’m a big fan of “River of Love”, either.

Lynn: I noted in a discussion the other day that Strait’s album is no longer on my iPod. But…it at least made it to my iPod. Which is more than I can say for Urban, Paisley, Keith and Chesney’s most recent outings.

Kevin: There’s a cyclical process I go through that includes taking George Strait for granted and then suddenly realizing just how good he is again. I’m in the latter part of the cycle again.

Top Female Vocalist

  • Miranda Lambert – Dan, Lynn, Leeann
  • Heidi Newfield
  • Taylor Swift
  • Carrie Underwood
  • Lee Ann Womack – Kevin

Dan: Miranda Lambert released arguably the two riskiest singles of the past year (“Gunpowder & Lead” and “More Like Her”), and she somehow got radio to play them both. There isn’t a more inspiring mainstream artist out there right now, at least for my money.

Lynn: M I R A N D A   L A M B E R T ! ! (Was that subtle enough? :P )

Kevin: I’d be happy to see Underwood or Lambert win, but since Womack has never won before, she’s my personal pick this year.

Leeann: I hate to be so predictable, but Miranda Lambert is my clear pick.  I choose her with Lynn’s exuberance and Dan’s reasoning.

Top Vocal Group

  • Lady Antebellum
  • Little Big Town – Lynn, Dan
  • Rascal Flatts
  • Randy Rogers Band- Kevin, Leeann
  • The Lost Trailers

Lynn: If those are my only choices, I’m pulling for Little Big Town. It’s too bad we can’t write-in nominations…

Kevin:
I’m with Leeann on this one.

Leeann: My personal vote goes to the Randy Rogers Band.  I love Rogers’ voice and dig their music in general.

Dan: I love me some Randy Rogers Band and am thrilled to see them nominated, but I like Little Big Town’s current album better than theirs, so I’ll side with LBT.

Top Vocal Duo

  • Big & Rich
  • Brooks & Dunn
  • Joey + Rory – Leeann, Lynn
  • Montgomery Gentry
  • Sugarland – Kevin, Dan


Kevin:
I don’t understand why Sugarland isn’t all over this ballot. They’re one of the best acts in country music today.

Leeann: Out of all of the nominations in all of the categories for the ACMs, I’m rooting for Joey + Rory most enthusiastically this year.

Dan: Sugarland is injecting pop-country with some much-needed personality, plus they don’t concern themselves with trivial things like “postmodern Appalachia,” right, Kristian Bush? :) On a side note, it’s great to see Joey + Rory here. They’re a bit too new for me to pick them right now, but I hope they become regular contenders for this award.

Lynn: Joey + Rory are my favorites to win here simply because they stepped into the Nashville limelight with class and character, bringing a certain genuine spirit, candor and down home realness along with good music.

Top New Artist

  • Julianne Hough
  • Jake Owen
  • Zac Brown Band – Leeann, Dan, Lynn, Kevin

Leeann: Zac Brown Band has a cool vibe about them that is hard to ignore.  While I’m not personally sold on them yet, they are clearly the most unique act out of the nominees here.

Dan: I still don’t care for “Chicken Fried,” but Zac Brown Band is one of the freshest acts to break at radio in recent memory. They’ve been playing around forever (it shows), have a number of solid songs on their current album, and seem like genuinely nice guys, too. Mainstream country needs more acts like them.

Lynn: I’m at a loss here. I listened to Zac Brown Band’s album for the first time the other day. It was part hokey and part cool. I truly didn’t know what to make of it, but I am curious to see where they head next, and that has to be worth something.

Kevin: I was going to go with Jake Owen, but then I realized I had him confused with Luke Bryan, who made the “Country Boy” video I like so much. So I’ll go with Zac Brown Band instead.

Album of the Year

  • Back When I Knew It All – Montgomery Gentry
  • Carnival Ride – Carrie Underwood
  • Fearless – Taylor Swift
  • That Lonesome Song – Jamey Johnson  – Dan, Lynn, Leeann
  • Troubadour – George Strait – Kevin
Dan: As it happens, I really like both Johnson’s and Swift’s. Despite their vast differences, both albums are fully-realized artistic expressions that convey a believable sense of who their creators are and how they view the world, even if we as listeners can’t always relate to the particular subject matter (hard drugs, divorce, Joe Jonas, etc.). That said, I think Music Row needs more Johnson than Swift right now. So I’m pulling for That Lonesome Song.
.
Lynn: Ditto Dan (although I’m not quite as enamored with Swift’s album).
.
Kevin: Underwood’s album has grown on me with time, but the only album of these five that I really enjoy from start to finish is George Strait’s Troubadour.
.
Leeann: Jamey Johnson clearly has the most interesting album here, though I’ll give Swift some credit too.  It’s odd that any of us would put Johnson and Swift in the same category, but one thing I can say about their efforts as opposed to the others is that it’s obvious that their albums were labors of love for them while the other albums seemed more thrown together.

Single Record of the Year

  • “Gunpowder & Lead” – Miranda Lambert – Lynn, Kevin, Leeann, Dan
  • “In Color” – Jamey Johnson
  • “Johnny And June” – Heidi Newfield
  • “Waitin’ On A Woman” – Brad Paisley
  • “You’re Gonna Miss This” – Trace Adkins

Lynn: I was impressed with “In Color,” but this is an easy call: “Gunpowder & Lead” kicked arse!

Kevin: I’m splitting my vote between Single and Song, with the edge going to Miranda Lambert here.

Leeann: I just enjoy “Gunpowder And Lead” the most out of these choices.  I like “In Color”, but the appeal really hasn’t stuck with me over time. I still crank “Gunpowder And Lead” when given the chance, however.

Dan: Catch me on another day and I might say “In Color,” but I think “Gunpowder & Lead” is destined to become a classic, even if it’s more southern rock than country.

Song of the Year

  • I Saw God Today
    George Strait
    Composers:  Rodney Clawson, Monty Criswell, Wade Kirby
  • In Color – Leeann, Dan, Lynn
    Jamey Johnson
    Composers:  Jamey Johnson, Lee Thomas Miller, James Otto
  • Johnny And June
    Heidi Newfield
    Composers:  Deanna Bryant, Heidi Newfield, Stephony Smith
  • Waitin’ On A Woman – Kevin
    Brad Paisley
    Composers:  Don Sampson, Wynn Varble
  • You’re Gonna Miss This
    Trace Adkins
    Composers:  Ashley Gorley and Lee Thomas Miller

Kevin: The final verse of “Waitin’ on a Woman” gets me every time. It’s easily my favorite Paisley song since “Whiskey Lullaby.”

Leeann:
“In Color” is the best and most intricately written song out of the bunch.

Dan: “In Color” is the only one of the bunch that really engrossed me the first time I heard it, which is kind of my litmus test for song quality.

Lynn: “In Color” is the most interesting song of the group (with “Johnny and June” actually being one of my least favorite big singles in recent years).

Gloriana, “Wild at Heart”

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

gloriana-1Do I need to point out the obvious? A two-guy, two-girl harmony group who play rustically instrumented music that sounds heavily influenced by late 70′s/early 80′s pop-rock? I mean, I’m sorry, but is it this easy to rip off another act’s entire spiel without anyone at your label noticing or caring? It’s not like Little Big Town have a patent on their sound or something, butcome on, kids. Play nice.

That rant aside, I have to admit that this is some pretty serious ear candy. The lyrics about teenage romance are predictably lame, but the production is fresh and the pre-chorus builds so perfectly that you can practically feel it give you a hormone surge, which I guess is probably the point (I mean, they are opening for Taylor Swift). The final product is a lush sonic party which might not have sounded out of place on the FernGully soundtrack – all that’s missing is a few well-timed “na na na”s.

Anyway, given the difficulty that Little Big Town seem to have faced in getting their new output played at radio – including their own feel-good single, “Good Lord Willing” – one wonders whether Gloriana could be well-poised to displace them on the charts. I’ve always liked Little Big Town, so I hope that doesn’t happen, but I can’t deny that this is pretty enjoyable stuff, too. Can we maybe just make room for both of them and boot out…some other vocal group?

Grade: B

Listen: Wild at Heart

Buy:


Little Big Town, “Good Lord Willing”

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

The new Little Big Town single is a hook-laden treat that combines a rustic acoustic sound with the loudest country-rock guitars this side of Jason Aldean. It’s the kind of performance that you’d expect from the Dixie Chicks today if they stayed in their “Some Days You Gotta Dance” groove.

Little Big Town’s harmonies are always intriguing but quite often they don’t go anywhere interesting over the course of the song. Here, they’re used for supporting the lead vocalist instead of being used to carry the whole song. It’s a more effective approach, in my opinion.

Grade: B+

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Buy:


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