Tag Archives: Luke Laird

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: Kenny Chesney, “American Kids”

Kenny Chesney American KidsIf you’re going to keep revisiting the same themes, you might as well take some risks with your delivery.

Kenny Chesney’s new single sounds fresher and more engaging than anything he’s done in a very long time.  It’s easy to miss that he’s singing about what he always sings about: nostalgia for growing up in the country with American rock as the soundtrack.

 

What makes “American Kids” work more than a lot his attempts with this theme is that sounds like he learned something listening to those Mellencamp and Springsteen records.  This record oozes charm and mature authority, like he’s finally lived long enough to look back and say, “Hey. We were kinda crazy back then.  But we all turned out alright in the end.”

Written by Rodney Clawson, Luke Laird, and Shane McAnally

Grade: B+

 

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Single Review: Thompson Square, “Testing the Water”

thompson_square_3_0There are at least three things we can always count on:  death, taxes, and the inevitable swamp of summer songs that overwhelm country radio annually beginning around this time of the year.

There’s nothing wrong with a good summer song, and one would think that a duo with as much natural charisma as Thompson Square would certainly be capable of delivering one of the better ones. As it turns out, “Testing the Water” is the type of song that lives or dies based on what the performer brings to it. The hook comes off as a weak attempt at clever wordplay and generally contributes nothing to the song as a whole. The lyrics that are consistently dull as a brick right down to the predictable rhyming of “water” with “hotter” – unmistakably identifying the song as the product of a three-head Nashville songwriting committee.

Equally unfortunate is the fact that the Thompsons’ efforts to sell the song are mired by tin-eared production and tastelessly processed vocals, offering little redemptive value for the disposable song material and contributing to an overall grating listening experience. Verdict:  a definite station-changer.

Written by Luke Laird, Shane McAnally, and Hillary Lindsey

Grade: C-

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Single Review: Kacey Musgraves, “Keep it to Yourself”

Kacey Musgraves Keep-It-to-YourselfThe conflict of whether or not to reconnect with an ex-lover can be the perfect fodder for a great country song. Just ask Lee Ann Womack.

Musgraves’ narrator faces such a choice on her stellar new single “Keep it to Yourself,” but in this instance she sticks with her better judgment. Should her ex find those old feelings returning, she offers the advice found in the song’s title:  “Keep it to yourself.” The hook is simple and direct, yet disarmingly effective.

Much has already been written about Kacey Musgraves’ gifts as a lyricist, and while such are definitely evident on “Keep it to Yourself,” the song is particularly noteworthy as a display of her power over a melody. The low, somber notes convey a weary, angst-ridden feeling in the opening verse before rising to the gentle plea of the chorus.

Even more impressive is the way the melody and performance manage to convey the intangible, allowing the listener read between the lyrics. The pleading tone in Musgraves voice suggests that she is begging her ex not to call her perhaps because she’s afraid that she just might not be able to muster the strength to say no the next time.

“Keep it to Yourself” is fresh in its approach, yet classic in theme and delivery. It comes across as moving and sincere, but not cloying or contrived. The gentle arrangement and strains of steel guitar enhance the story without interrupting it, while Musgraves’ vocal conveys deep vulnerability without veering into melodrama.

“Keep it to Yourself” is top-notch country storytelling through and through – an understated gem of a performance that represents much of what we wish mainstream country music could still be in 2014.

Written by Kacey Musgraves, Shane McAnally, and Luke Laird

Grade: A

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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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Single Review: Lucy Hale, “You Sound Good to Me”

Lucy_Hale_-_You_Sound_Good_to_MePretty Little Liars actress turned country newcomer Lucy Hale cites Shania Twain and Martina McBride as major musical influences, and to a degree it’s perceptible on her debut single “You Sound Good to Me.” The track begins with a light, airy fiddle hook, and segues into an effervescent uptempo pop-country love song with an atypically sparse production arrangement by country radio standards (murky background vocals aside).

Unfortunately, things go very wrong in one important area – the vocal. Hale’s performance sound constantly strained and often pitch-challenged as she struggles to reach high notes and keep up with the brisk tempo. Worse yet, Hale’s voice rings generic and faceless, lacking any hint of distinctive personality or flair and instead sounding like that of any random karaoke bar patron.

It doesn’t help that the song itself is hardly anything special – standard Music Row radio filler courtesy of three of the industry’s current favorite hired-gun songwriters. There’s none of the distinctive cleverness, spunk or massive pop hooks that marked the best work of Hale’s role models. If such a song is going to work on any level at all, it needs a strong vocal performance to carry it. Without that crucial element, “You Sound Good to Me” quickly sinks like a stone.

Written by Ashley Gorley, Luke Laird and Hillary Lindsey

Grade: C-

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Single Review: Darius Rucker, “Radio”

220px-RadioDariusRuckerDarius Rucker celebrates the radio with his current hit, simply titled “Radio.”

It’s tolerable enough, more tastefully produced than your average country radio hit, but it never quite overcomes the fact that its territory is one that other artists have covered much better in the past. (Exhibits A, B, C) The lyrics fail to rise above rote scenes of a nameless, faceless narrator driving down the highway with his nameless, faceless friends, and parking his truck beneath the stars to get cozy with his nameless, faceless girlfriend. The whole of the song is weighed down by a general sense of non-distinction, reflected in its generic one-word title.

Unfortunately, the dynamics aren’t strong enough to compensate. The melody is dull and lifeless, and Rucker’s performance is forgettable. The end result is a song that might not be bad enough to be an immediate station-changer, but nor is there anything here that would inspire me to ‘turn it up, turn it up to 10…’

Written by Darius Rucker, Luke Laird and Ashley Gorley

Grade: C+

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Getting to Know Brandy Clark

Brandy ClarkAs a general rule, you can scan the credits of any new country album and assume that if Brandy Clark is a writer on one of the songs, it’s the best song on the album.  As Clark readies the release of 12 Stories, her debut album as an artist, it’s a great time for fans of that remarkable set to get caught up on Clark’s work to date.

Believe the hype.  Clark really is as good as everyone is saying she is.  Possibly even better, as these twenty tracks suggest.  Scroll down to the bottom, and you can listen to snippets from all of them as you read along.

The Singles

Even if you’re only a casual fan of country radio, you’ve probably already heard Clark’s distinctive brand of songwriting.  She’s penned huge hits for the Band Perry and Miranda Lambert in the past year, along with a should’ve-been hit for LeAnn Rimes and the upcoming release from frequent collaborator Kacey Musgraves.

Here’s a rundown of her radio releases so far.

The Band Perry Pioneer

“Better Dig Two”

written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Trevor Rosen

from The Band Perry album, Pioneer

The production nearly overwhelms the sharpness of the lyric here, but after a few listens, it’s easier to get past the clutter and enjoy the wicked wordplay.

Leann Rimes Lady & Gentlemen

“Crazy Women”

written by Brandy Clark, Jessie Jo Dillon, and Shane McAnally

from the LeAnn Rimes album, Lady & Gentlemen

That Aqua Net reference at the beginning was flagged by us upon release as “the best opening line in recent memory.”   It still holds up well today, sounding just as fresh and clever on Clark’s debut album.

Kacey-Musgraves-Same-Trailer-Different-Park

“Follow Your Arrow”

written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves

from the Kacey Musgraves album, Same Trailer Different Park

Arguably the strongest song on Musgraves’ remarkable debut set, “Follow Your Arrow” is a remarkably progressive anthem of tolerance and individual expression.  It is slated to be the third single and in a perfect world, Musgraves will use that as a reason to perform it on the CMA Awards next month.

Miranda Lambert Four the Record

“Mama’s Broken Heart”

written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves

from the Miranda Lambert album, Four the Record

Easily the best thing Lambert’s done in years, “Mama’s Broken Heart” is a whole lotta crazy without feeling even a little bit forced.  It manages to slip in some sly feminist commentary, too.

Mica Roberts Days You Live For

“Things a Mama Don’t Know” (with Toby Keith)

written by Brandy Clark, Mark Narmore, and Liz Rose

from the Mica Roberts EP, Days You Live For

The debut single from Mica Roberts featured her Show Dog label head, Toby Keith.  It’s a potent song about a woman who follows the wrong man across the country and doesn’t want to let her mother know how much she’s suffering as a result of this poor choice.  It’s always nice to hear Keith’s voice, but his presence gets in the way of the lyric, making for an odd switch between third and first person during the second verse.

The Album Cuts

Many of Clark’s best songs have never been sent to radio.  Here are some of her lesser-known tracks.

Sarah Darling Angels & Devils

“The Boy Never Stays”

written by Brandy Clark, Sarah Darling, and Josh Osborne

from the Sarah Darling album, Angels & Devils

Clark’s songs reel you in early, usually with an opening line that immediately grabs your attention.  “He’s the first taste of something you shouldn’t have.  He’s the first lie you tell to your mom and dad.”  Her masterful use of pathos is what sets Clark apart from most of her peers.

Nashville Boys and Buses

“Boys and Buses”

written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Josh Osborne

digital download track from Season One of Nashville

There’s an incredible irony to the fact that Hayden Panettiere’s character on Nashville is supposed to be a flashy pop singer making disposable music for tweens.  The songs she actually sings on the show are often top-notch, better than much of what’s on the radio today.  “Boys and Buses” may have a chorus that would make Julie Roberts swoon, but it’s chock full of clever details and turns of phrase that are Clark’s hallmarks.

Kacey-Musgraves-Same-Trailer-Different-Park

“Dandelion”

written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves

from the Kacey Musgraves album, Same Trailer Different Park

A sweetly mournful song about love gone wrong, built around the false hope of wishing on a weed.

Reba McEntire All the Women I Am

“The Day She Got Divorced”

written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Mark D. Sanders

from the Reba McEntire album, All the Women I Am

When we reviewed this album three years ago, this track was noted as among the strongest.  We called it “vivid and real, with lyrical imagery that would make Jeannie C. Riley proud.”   One of the few great McEntire performances this century, it’s especially impressive that Clark’s own reading on her debut album is even better than McEntire’s reading of this dark and dreary divorce number.

Gretchen Wilson Right on Time

“Get Outta My Yard”

written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves

from the Gretchen Wilson album, Right on Time

Wilson’s latest album opens with this cut.  It practically screams for a more aggressive performance, the latest reminder what Wilson’s outlaw image never really shows up at the mic.  If Lambert’s looking for another rave-up, she might want to anchor her next set with this one.

Kacey-Musgraves-Same-Trailer-Different-Park

“It is What it is”

written by Brandy Clark, Luke Laird, and Kacey Musgraves

from the Kacey Musgraves album, Same Trailer Different Park

The late night phone call concept has been done well before, but never quite this emotion-free.  She doesn’t need him now and isn’t likely to hate herself in the morning for loving him tonight.  “Maybe I love you,” she wonders, or “maybe I’m just kinda bored.”   This is the best track on Musgraves’ album that hasn’t been flagged as a single yet.

Pam-Tillis-Lorrie-Morgan-2013-Cover

“Last Night’s Make Up”

written by Brandy Clark, Jessie Jo Dillon, and Shane McAnally

from the Lorrie Morgan and Pam Tillis album, Dos Divas

You know that a writer is capturing universal truth when a song can be as convincing by a voice weathered by time as it would be if sung by someone as young as the writer herself.  This tale of morning after regret is one of Morgan’s finest moments, on par with her signature ballads from the nineties.

Darius Rucker True Believer

“Love Without You” (featuring Sheryl Cr0w)

written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally

from the Darius Rucker album, True Believers

The Crow backing vocal is easy to miss until she starts singing some of the lines in the end, but Rucker hasn’t had his own talent showcased this well too often, so it helps that she stays out of the way for most of the track.  The subtlety of the lyric and the quiet production allow him to shine as an interpreter.

Guy Penrod Breathe Deep

“The Maker of Them All”

written by Brandy Clark and Billy Montana

from the Guy Penrod album, Breathe Deep

A stunning and uplifting celebration of how all of us are creations of God, using sharp contrasts to make the point of how many diverse and seemingly contradictory things are part of a greater plan designed by one maker.  “The hands that have to fight.  The hands that pray for peace at night. The Lord is the maker of them all.”

Jill King Rain on Fire

“Something Worth Stealing”

written by Brandy Clark and Jill King

from the Jill King album, Rain on Fire

“There’s love,” King sings, “and then there’s runaway desire.”   There are a lot of songs about the actual cheating, but they usually document the heat of the moment.  This indiscretion is coldly calculated, no matter how hot the flames of passion underlying it might be.

David Nail the sound of a million dreams

“That’s How I’ll Remember You”

written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Madeleine Slate

from the David Nail album, The Sound of a Million Dreams

“Summertime in Brooklyn, mustard on your lip. I knew I loved you by the bottom of the fifth.”   Not too many country songs capture moments that perfectly detailed, and this has got to be the only one where the moment takes place at a Brooklyn Cyclones game.

Ashton Shepherd Where Country Grows

“Tryin’ to Go to Church”

written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Ashton Shepherd

from the Ashton Shepherd album, Where Country Grows

One of the most charming tracks from Shepherd’s second set, she rattles off the reasons she can’t quite make it to church in her exaggerated twang.  My personal favorite: “Here comes that husband-stealin’ heifer and I reckon I’m gonna have to fight.”

Buffy Lawson I'm Leaving You For Me

“Waitin’ on a Train”

written by Brandy Clark, Jessie Jo Dillon, and Shane McAnally

from the Buffy Lawson album, I’m Leaving You For Me

The debut solo album from former Bomshel Buffy Lawson features this gem that compares waiting for a man to love her in return to “standing in an airport, waiting on a train.”

Trent Jeffcoat When I Find Me That Mountain

“When I Find Me That Mountain”

written by Brandy Clark and Trent Jeffcoat

from the Trent Jeffcoat album, When I Find Me That Mountain

Clark doesn’t engage her faith much on her debut album, but if this and “The Maker of Them All” are any indication, she’s got a great country gospel album waiting inside of her.

Craig Campbell Never Regret

“You Can Come Over”

written by Brandy Clark, Jessie Jo Dillon, and Mark Narmore

from the Craig Campbell album, Never Regret

A true hidden gem, this one tells the heartbreaker in question, “You can come over but you can’t come in.”  A talk on the front porch, a ride in the truck.  Those are just fine.  But walking through his front door will just lead to her leaving again.

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Single Review: Kacey Musgraves, “Blowin’ Smoke”

Kacey Musgraves Blowin' SmokeOne of my longest running criticisms of contemporary country music is the disappearance of the working poor.  It’s a segment of the population that has been growing exponentially, but the genre that has historically been associated with chronicling their experiences has instead chosen to lionize and romanticize small town partying and country living.   Lots of songs about Sunday mornings and Saturday nights, but almost none about those tiring days in between.

This necessary documentation has found some mainstream success through Kacey Musgraves, who has a keen writer’s eye for capturing the specific realities of the daily existence of working class folks.  “Blowin’ Smoke” is one of the most effective examples of her talent in this area, crafting an entire song around a smoke break for exhausted waitresses with limited options and dwindling hope for the future.   They talk a big game about getting away someday, but they know that opportunities are as impossible to grab as  the smoke departing from their cigarettes.

Unfortunately, the monotony of their experiences is replicated a bit too faithfully in the song’s production and melody, which both plod along without any sign of a hook.   I get that they were trying to be faithful to the theme of the song, but if Musgraves is going to become the modern day Merle Haggard that we need, she must keep in mind that as vivid as Hag’s classic songs were in their depiction of the struggling underclass, they were also quite catchy and had memorable vocals and guitar work, too.

Written by Luke Laird, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves

Grade: B

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Album Review: Kacey Musgraves, <i>Same Trailer Different Park</i>

Kacey-Musgraves-Same-Trailer-Different-Park

Kacey Musgraves
Same Trailer Different Park

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In just over half a decade, the now-24-year-old Texan Kacey Musgraves has gone from placing seventh on the 2007 season of Nashville Star and releasing a trio of independent albums to finally being granted some well-deserved mainstream exposure.  It was beyond a pleasant surprise when her beautifully written, critically lauded debut single “Merry Go ‘Round” became an honest-to-goodness Top 10 hit at country radio – a format not known for being friendly to intelligent, honest women.  Whether the industry will continue to support her remains to be seen, but Kacey Musgraves’ major label debut effort positions her as a ray of hope for country music at a time when such are very few – an artist who, if given the platform, just might have the potential to change country music for the better.

Appearing as a co-writer on every track along with a co-writer pool that consists of Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, and Luke Laird, Musgraves displays a songwriting voice characterized by clear-eyed insight and a tone of simple, plainspoken honesty.  She neither preaches nor judges; she simply observes.  “Merry Go ‘Round” foreshadowed this trait quite accurately.  On her debut hit, Musgraves mused on the human tendency to try to escape heartache through a variety of vices such as drug use or illicit sex, but noting that ultimately that “same hurt in every heart” still remains – each distraction is like a medicine that covers up the symptoms, but doesn’t cure the cold.  On “Follow Your Arrow,” she  sneers at small-town gossip while laying bare the futility of living to please others, noting that “You’re damned if you do; you’re damned if you don’t.”  On the witty upcoming single “Blowin’ Smoke,” she takes on the voice of a working class woman who chats with her co-workers on a smoke break about plans to leave her current line of work in pursuit of bigger dreams, but admits that “We’re just blowin’ smoke.”  The set is ripe with a strong sense of self-awareness that country radio has been sorely lacking for years now.

Musgraves clearly understands the value of escapism in country music, as evidenced by songs like opening track “Silver Lining,” in which she makes creative use of familiar metaphors to illustrate the point that if one wants good things to happen, one must accept the bad things that come along with it.  “My House” is a delightful ode to life on a house with four wheels, and to having someone with which to share it.  “Any place beside you is the place that I call home,” Musgraves sings, backed by a charming harmonica-laced arrangement.  Every bit as enjoyable is the witty “Step Off,” which plays like a Jason Mraz song with a banjo.

But oh, how rewarding it is when Musgraves channels pure vulnerability – a gift that finds its fullest expression in the pleading ballad “Keep It to Yourself,” in which Musgraves begs a former lover to let her move on, the lyric anchored by a melody that pierces deeply.  And while “It Is What It Is” has been nicknamed The Slut Song, such a moniker says nothing of the raw desperation that Musgraves conveys through her quivering performance.

Same Trailer Different Park sets itself apart from the pack by honoring genre traditions while slyly subverting modern conventions.  For a genre that takes pride in being the realm of “real” music, Kacey Musgraves is

one of precious few mainstream country artists to actually live up to that ideal, and for country radio programmers to let her slip through their fingers now would be an awful shame.  To call Same Trailer Different Park one of the year’s best mainstream country albums would not do it justice – it’s one of the year’s best albums period.

Top Tracks:  “Merry Go ‘Round,” “Keep It to Yourself,” “Follow Your Arrow”

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